By Britt Robson
April 15, 2011

Welcome to the Playoff Power Rankings, a sneaky way for me to make predictions about the postseason without directly picking anybody.

In this context, "power" refers mostly to championship viability: Who has the best chance of holding the Larry O'Brien trophy seven or eight weeks from now? For example, in the last few regular-season Power Rankings, I had the Lakers ahead of the Bulls. But I've flipped those teams here because Los Angeles is looking at more challenging matchups than Chicago in the first two rounds and faces the prospect of having to win on the road in the final two rounds. Advantage, Chicago.

Here's how all 16 playoff teams stack up.

NBA Playoff Power Rankings
1 Chicago Bulls
Seed: East No. 1
Chicago Bulls (62-20)
The Bulls open against the only playoff qualifier with a losing record in Indiana. Next, they would meet one of two disappointing teams in Orlando or Atlanta. The last step in the East likely would be a Heat team they swept 3-0 or a Celtics team they thumped earlier this week -- and either would be exhausted from playing against each other in the second round. In other words, no team has an easier path to the Finals than the East's top seed. I don't see the Bulls' relative lack of postseason experience being a problem. Nerves affect shooters more than defenders and the guys Chicago really needs hitting baskets seem preternaturally self-composed (Derrick Rose, Luol Deng) and have been in plenty of tough playoff games (Carlos Boozer, Kyle Korver). Plus, rookie coach Tom Thibodeau was in the middle of several deep playoff runs as the Celtics' top assistant coach. There's something about the Bulls that makes it seem like they might be able to skip the apprenticeship step and head right for the championship.
2 Los Angeles Lakers
Seed: West No. 2
The Lakers caught a break matching up with New Orleans' undersized front line instead of Memphis' strong inside duo of Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol. The difference should give them the leeway to take their time with Andrew Bynum's knee, and perhaps even make it a quick series while the other three in the West live up to their more competitive billing. Having home-court advantage in the second round would matter more against Portland (18-23 on the road) than Dallas (tied with Miami with an NBA-best 28-13). As much as people talk about the championship window closing in Boston and San Antonio, the pending retirement of coach Phil Jackson and the state of L.A.'s core -- aside from Bynum, the top six players are either at or past their peak -- creates urgency for these Lakers, too. As if any more motivation is necessary, Michael Jordan sent Jackson out as a winner the first time he retired; but only Kobe's crew can truly send the Zen Master out with a flourish.
3 Oklahoma City Thunder
Seed: West No. 4
The deadline deals that brought in Kendrick Perkins and Nazr Mohammed while Nenad Krstic and Jeff Green departed made so much sense that you could almost hear the pieces of the rotation lock into place. What the Thunder lacked was both the will and the way to lock down offenses in the paint. With his Celtics pedigree and relentless attention to that aspect of the game, Perkins answered that need. Perkins also enabled shot-blocker Serge Ibaka to shift to power forward, where he can roam like a budding Kevin Garnett, secure in the knowledge that the center has his back. Nick Collison and Mohammed are superb reserves. Their presence has inspired the glamorous scorers, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, to increase their commitment to defense, and Thabo Sefolosha is already there. Add in potent sixth man James Harden, and this team is a very tough out in the playoffs. The Thunder must get past a difficult first-round opponent in Denver, but they have home-court advantage and are coming off two victories this month against the Nuggets. Next in line for the Thunder likely would be San Antonio, which retains its magical trio of stars but would need to figure out how to contain Durant and hold its own in the paint ... after first playing a rugged opening-round series against Memphis.
4 Miami Heat
Seed: East No. 2
Miami Heat (58-24)
Let's not mince words: LeBron James is facing an enormous amount of pressure. He walked away from the hometown team that tried to cater to his every wish, assembling a complementary cast with whom he won 66 and 61 games his final two years. Now, after joining up with another superstar and a perennial All-Star for a record of 58-24, he is the overdog who so far has underachieved in the playoffs, losing the last two seasons to opponents with inferior records and going mysteriously passive and foggy at crucial moments. James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh probably need to at least reach the Finals, if not win the championship, to justify the preseason hubris as they strutted their partnership before the public. But the Heat have been a streaky, careening team, capable of explosive domination at both ends of the court, but also prone to bouts of dysfunction and even inertia. If they hit one of those troughs in the playoffs and suddenly find themselves in trouble, that's when the saga of LeBron hits another crossroads and the grand experiment in Miami begins to chalk up meaningful markers, one way or the other.
5 San Antonio Spurs
Seed: West No. 1
Tim Duncan owns four rings because the Spurs have reliably protected the rim and executed tough, tight-knit defense through his remarkable career in San Antonio. But this season, the Spurs amassed the NBA's second-best record mostly because of their high-flying offense. On defense, they allowed more points per 100 possessions than at any time in the Duncan era, and are widely seen as lacking depth, size and brawn in the frontcourt. That's why Memphis maneuvered its way into a matchup with the Spurs instead of the Lakers in the first round. The Grizzlies are the first in a gauntlet of talented, deep front lines to challenge the Spurs, who, if seedings hold, also would face the Thunder, Lakers and Bulls. To keep winning, the Spurs will need Duncan -- who will turn 35 on April 25 -- to turn back the clock and play at an All-Star level on offense and defense while significantly boosting his regular-season average of 28.4 minutes.
6 Boston Celtics
Seed: East No. 3
Shaquille O'Neal's health and Rajon Rondo's funk are deservedly getting the most attention, but the Celtics also need enduring excellence from Paul Pierce to continue ascending on what could be a daunting journey through the Knicks, Heat, Bulls and Lakers -- the last three without home-court advantage. Pierce's defensive improvement since Kevin Garnett's arrival has been a fairly unsung virtue for the Celtics. Now, Pierce is looking at matchups with Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James in the first two rounds, without Tony Allen (now with the Grizzlies) to keep the pressure on as he rests. As the Celtic most capable of getting his own shot and/or drawing the foul, his offensive role grows in stature if Rondo isn't showering assists, Shaq can't provide low-post points for more than very short stretches and Ray Allen's jumper continues to be AWOL. That's a lot to ask of a 33-year-old small forward who logged 262 more regular-season minutes than he did a year ago.
7 Portland Trail Blazers
Seed: West No. 6
Portland has not advanced past the first round since its infamous fourth-quarter collapse against the Lakers in the 2000 conference finals. But this season the Blazers have a compelling chance to upset higher-seeded Dallas and continue their more recent history of playing the Lakers tough (Portland and L.A. could meet in the second round). The Blazers' strengths are the NBA's most versatile frontcourt (which includes LaMarcus Aldridge, Marcus Camby, Gerald Wallace and Nicolas Batum); savvy backcourt technicians (Andre Miller and Brandon Roy) who can operate coach Nate McMillan's deliberate pace and pounce in transition; and a rugged wing defender and solid three-point shooter in Wes Matthews. Wallace is the kind of defender who gives Dirk Nowitzki fits, but McMillan can also go large and have Camby and Aldridge in some configuration on Dirk and Tyson Chandler. If I'm McMillan, I'd see if Matthews can stay with Jason Terry on defense and then force Terry to guard the larger swingman at the other end. Portland is hardly a lock here, and perhaps not even the favorite. But McMillan's matchup flexibility can really pay off in this series.
8 Memphis Grizzlies
Seed: West No. 8
The Spurs-Grizzlies series is a far cry from your typical cakewalk for the top seed. The teams split four games during the regular season and the two won by San Antonio (in mid-December and late February) were among the most competitive and entertaining battles I saw all year. The huge contrast in styles adds spice: The Grizzlies live and die pounding the ball into the paint and ranked last in three-point attempts, while the Spurs led the NBA in three-point percentage and were seventh in attempts. No one forces more turnovers than Memphis, while San Antonio doesn't create or commit a lot of them. The grit-and-guile matchup between Tony Allen and Manu Ginobili (who is listed as doubtful for Game 1 with a sprained elbow) is worth the price of admission alone, and the strategies devised by San Antonio's Gregg Popovich to contain Zach Randolph should be fascinating.
9 Denver Nuggets
Seed: West No. 5
Denver had been 9-0 at home since the Carmelo Anthony trade before falling to Oklahoma City 101-94 on April 5. That defeat came between impressive road victories against the Lakers and Mavericks, and was followed by a second loss to OKC, 104-89, last Friday. The Thunder held the league leader in field-goal percentage, Nene, to 3-of-10 shooting in the first game and harassed the Nuggets into 18 turnovers (versus 15 assists) in the rematch. That said, Denver has the components to hang with OKC. Arron Afflalo, if he can overcome his hamstring injury, is a worthy defender for Kevin Durant. Ty Lawson is that rare guard who is faster than Russell Westbrook (though the Thunder point guard will enjoy a size advantage). Nene should be able to get Kendrick Perkins in foul trouble. Attitude is crucial to the post-'Melo Nuggets, so if they can snatch a win in OKC and come home with the series tied at one apiece, it would set the stage for a long and spectacular seven-game tussle.
10 Dallas Mavericks
Seed: West No. 3
Dirk Nowitzki's shooting and Tyson Chandler's tone-setting defense have fueled the Mavs this season. But given Portland's frontcourt depth and methodical offense, foul trouble is a real concern for Chandler -- backup center Brendan Haywood may be earning that large contract with meaningful minutes this series. Offensively, the Mavs also have worries. The three-guard unit that coach Rick Carlisle preferred at crunch time during the middle of the season has been cut back because of greater inconsistency from J.J. Barea and Terry, and Jason Kidd hasn't shot well for most of the year. Even so, Portland doesn't have a lot of speed in its backcourt, making Barea a potential catalyst. (Ditto Roddy Beaubois, provided that he isn't sidelined after aggravating the same foot he broke in August during the season finale against New Orleans.) The pressure is on the Mavs after three first-round exits in four years, and a spate of late-season losses to Western Conference playoff teams hasn't improved their outlook. In short, like Boston in the East, Dallas was a clearly superior team back in January, and slippage in the tough West is usually fatal. The Mavs seem ripe for an upset, but even if they make it past Portland, the Lakers loom in the second round.
11 Orlando Magic
Seed: East No. 4
Orlando Magic (52-30)
A fast pace will be Orlando's friend in its matchup with Atlanta. The Hawks won three of four meetings during the regular season by bedeviling MVP candidate Dwight Howard with the irksome and shrewd positional defense of Jason Collins. The logical counter is for the Magic to run the floor and get the ball to Howard in the paint before the plodding Collins can set up. A rapid tempo might also trigger pleasant memories for Jason Richardson of his successful run to the Western Conference finals with Phoenix last year. Orlando, which is close to league average in pace, has generally thrived when it mixes open three-pointers in transition with feeds to Howard down low on the fast break. But the Magic's four games with Atlanta were all slower than their norm, and in line with the preferred speed of the Hawks, who ranked 27th in pace. So, if you see Hedo Turkoglu or Jameer Nelson pounding the air out of the ball at the top of the key, know that the Magic are cooperating in their own demise.
12 New York Knicks
Seed: East No. 6
How would the dynamic of the Celtics-Knicks series change if New York confounded expectations and made playing tough defense a top priority? The Celtics' chief vulnerability is a lack of confidence in their offense right now; why not try to exploit it? Carmelo Anthony's spirited defense on Kobe Bryant in the 2009 Western Conference finals proves he can exert himself on that end of the court if the stakes are high enough. At the very least, coach Mike D'Antoni should think about a heavy dose of Toney Douglas and even some Anthony Carter on Rajon Rondo, with the Knicks jumping his passing lanes, giving him the jumper and fouling him on penetration (the Boston point guard is a 57 percent free-throw shooter). Conversely, if the Knicks emphasize their typical run-and-gun game with these sleeping giants from Boston, that might jump-start the Celtics' offensive rhythm. I understand the defensive gambit isn't D'Antoni-style basketball. But if the Knicks can grind it out and keep it close enough for Anthony or Stoudemire to hit some clutch buckets in the fourth quarter in one of the first two games in Boston, that would be a tougher loss for the Celtics to absorb than a high-paced defeat in the 120s.
13 Atlanta Hawks
Seed: East No. 5
Atlanta Hawks (44-38)
The Hawks must begin the postseason on the road against a team that embarrassed them in the second round last season. They lost their final six regular-season games to finish 10-17 after the All-Star break and end up with nine fewer victories than last season. Indeed, it is gut-check time. Last year, after a 53-win season was overshadowed by playoff humiliation, Atlanta fired coach Mike Woodson and promoted player favorite Larry Drew. During the free-agent bonanza, the player who walked away with the fattest contract was the Hawks' All-Star shooting guard, Joe Johnson. At the trade deadline, the Hawks sacrificed part of their future for an immediate upgrade at point guard when they dealt rookie first-round pick Jordan Crawford and their 2011 first-round pick to Washington for veteran Kirk Hinrich. It's all on the players now.
14 Philadelphia 76ers
Seed: East No. 7
A small lineup with Elton Brand at center and Thaddeus Young at power forward has been the 76ers' ace in the hole all season. So who does Philadelphia draw in the first round but a Heat team that loves to go small with LeBron James at power forward. The second unfortunate matchup glitch is that Andre Iguodala is as good as anyone in the NBA at defending athletic, high-scoring wing players, but he can't clone himself to guard both James and Dwyane Wade. To spring the upset, Philadelphia is going to need a fabulous, turnover-free series from 20-year-old point guard Jrue Holiday, who is too big for Mario Chalmers and too quick for Mike Bibby, and accurate mid-range shooting from Brand and center Spencer Hawes. The possible return of guard Lou Williams, who missed the last five games with a hamstring injury, could also be helpful. Above all, the Sixers have to continue to take care of the ball (they committed the second-fewest turnovers this season) and avoid Miami's devastating spurts: On March 25, in the only game the two teams have played since late November, the Heat used two runs totaling 44-5 over a combined 11 minutes to win 111-99.
15 New Orleans Hornets
Seed: West No. 7
Power forward Carl Landry has done an admirable job generating offense for New Orleans while filling in for leading scorer David West, who sustained a season-ending knee injury March 24. But as happened throughout his tenure in Sacramento, Landry has difficulty denying the man he's defending prime position in the paint and being aware of baseline cuts and screens that result in layups. In that sense, the Lakers' power forward combo of Pau Gasol (provided Andrew Bynum can go regular minutes at center) and Lamar Odom spells trouble for Landry regardless of which one of them takes the matchup. To overcome L.A's edge up front -- which helped produce a 4-0 season sweep, including three games with West in the lineup -- the Hornets will need Chris Paul to exploit the older and slower Derek Fisher with aggressive play. Paul's superiority at the point and Trevor Ariza's ability to make Kobe work for his points are two crucial ingredients in a still-unlikely Hornets upset.
16 Indiana Pacers
Seed: East No. 8
The Pacers finished 23rd in offensive efficiency and now must try to score enough to win four out of seven against the NBA's most efficient defense in Chicago. Leading scorer Danny Granger hit half of his three-pointers and averaged 20 points against the Bulls but shot 36.7 percent overall and would logically be the focus of coach Tom Thibodeau's defensive schemes. Center Roy Hibbert (31 percent) and point guard Darren Collison (34.5 percent) likewise shot poorly. But power forward Tyler Hansbrough, who played in only two of the four matchups, made 16-of-28 (57.1 percent) and averaged 20.5 points. Hansbrough also has perhaps the most favorable offensive matchup going against Carlos Boozer, and, although he's making his NBA playoffs debut, he obviously had a lot of big-game experience at North Carolina. Even if Hansbrough can't duplicate his regular-season marks, his aggressive style will help set a tone for a team that is frequently too passive and needs to play with a bit of an edge to have any chance of competing with the Bulls.

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