By Britt Robson
April 27, 2012

Welcome to the Playoff Power Rankings, my chance to analyze postseason matchups and evaluate every title hopeful.

In this context, "power" refers to championship viability: Who has the best chance of holding the Larry O'Brien trophy about two months from now? The Spurs, the top seed in the Western Conference, lead my list. No team comes into this postseason better coached, more rested and with more depth than San Antonio, which also boasts three stars with rich experience, playoff savvy and something to prove after a 61-win season ended in a first-round loss to the Grizzlies last year.

Here's how all 16 playoff teams stack up.

NBA Playoff Power Rankings
1 San Antonio Spurs
Seed: West No. 1
The Spurs won their season series against every West team in the playoffs except for a 2-2 split with Dallas, a seventh seed that wouldn't face them before the conference finals. San Antonio beat first-round opponent Utah three out of four, with the only loss being a road game that the Spurs led in the fourth quarter even though coach Gregg Popovich rested Tony Parker, Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili. The Spurs went 4-0 against their most likely second-round opponent, fourth-seeded Memphis, and they won two of three against the Clippers, Lakers, Thunder and Nuggets. Unlike last season, they are peaking late instead of early, averaging 108.6 points and shooting 50.1 percent from the field since the All-Star break (a 26-6 stretch), while lifting their defense into the top 10 in points allowed per possession. The road to Duncan's fifth ring is full of challenges, among them the fact that he turned 36 on Wednesday, and that the Spurs have at least the psychological disadvantage of having lost their only encounters with the East elite, Miami and Chicago. (The Feb. 29 loss to the Bulls, at a time when San Antonio had been rolling, is the more significant.) But Parker, a former Finals MVP, is at the top of his game. Ginobili, finally healthy, is one of the great clutch players. Center Tiago Splitter is much improved, and two role players who have shined in the playoffs before and since fallen on hard times, late-season pickups Stephen Jackson and Boris Diaw, have rounded out a strong rotation. If any team is the one to beat in this packed, unpredictable season, it is San Antonio.
2 Chicago Bulls
Seed: East No. 1
Chicago Bulls (50-16)
Chicago finished second in field-goal defense and points allowed per possession. So, naturally, the biggest questions facing the team revolve around the offense and the person who runs it, reigning MVP Derrick Rose. Is Rose healthy enough to return to his vintage, kamikaze style? If so, how much do the Bulls abandon the positive habits they developed without Rose, and once again simply follow his lead? One of the unrealized goals for this season was developing other options so Rose wouldn't have to play so much "hero ball" in crunch time. Shooting guard Rip Hamilton was a crucial acquisition toward that strategy, but the staggered timing of injuries to Rose and Hamilton limited them to just 396 minutes on the court together, and both were more effective when the other one sat. The Bulls should be able to overcome the Sixers in the first round while taking stock of Rose's health, approach and capabilities. But if the seedings hold, they will get the Celtics and their dynamic defensive backcourt of Avery Bradley and Rajon Rondo, and then the Heat, who were able to take away some of the things a then-healthy Rose likes to do during last year's playoffs. In going 18-9 without Rose, Chicago showed that it is a deep, gritty team with a great coach in Tom Thibodeau. But to win it all, the Bulls need to have Rose strike a balance between hero and facilitator, while the defense remains stingy.
3 Miami Heat
Seed: East No. 2
Miami Heat (46-20)
I'll talk about what should be a wildly entertaining first-round matchup between Miami and New York in the Knicks' section below. But as has been the case ever since LeBron James decided to team up with Dwyane Wade, the Heat's biggest postseason obstacle isn't the caliber of their opponents so much as their internal drama. Put bluntly, in the hubris of The Decision revelry, James spoke of winning multiple championships, but LeBron has a history of going mysteriously passive and foggy at crucial points in the postseason, and -- first in Cleveland, and now in Miami -- it has cost his team. In last year's Playoff Power Rankings, I wrote: "Let's not mince words: There is an enormous amount of pressure on LeBron James right now." And that was before his disappearing act during portions of the last three games of the 2011 Finals against Dallas. Also, while LeBron has put together the best season of his incredible career -- he is the MVP favorite and strong contender for Defensive Player of the Year -- Wade has been beset by injuries (the latest a dislocated finger that isn't expected to keep him out in the playoffs), and, more significant, the supporting cast is struggling to space the floor by hitting three-pointers. The Heat's scoring average has dropped every month this season and in April they made only 31 percent from long range. That adds even more pressure, regardless of whether Miami is playing the Knicks, Pacers, Bulls or Spurs. If the Heat do win it all this year, LeBron James will have earned his ring.
4 Oklahoma City Thunder
Seed: West No. 2
It didn't help the Thunder's playoff cause that Russell Westbrook went cold in the final month of the season, converting just 38.9 percent from the field and 27.3 percent from three-point range in April as Oklahoma City went 8-7 and lost its battle with San Antonio for the top seed. Westbrook had put to rest any lingering worries from last year's playoffs about ball domination and poor shot selection by playing some of the best ball of his career in late February through March. The confidence that fuels his greatness also compels him to stubbornly keep clanking when his shot is off. If the pattern continues into the postseason, 37-year-old Derek Fisher likely won't be as effective as Eric Maynor was in the 2011 playoffs spelling Westbrook. It probably won't be a factor either way in the first round -- Westbrook shot below 40 percent and had more turnovers than assists against Dallas this season and OKC still won three of four -- but the Thunder will need the full measure of their point guard, and James Harden free of concussion effects, against stiffer competition in the later rounds.
5 Los Angeles Lakers
Seed: West No. 3
As I've noted before, this has been a turbulent season for the Lakers: swapping Mike Brown in for Phil Jackson; losing Lamar Odom; watching Andrew Bynum blossom and yet act out; sifting through the credibility of the Pau Gasol trade rumors; watching Kobe Bryant play hurt while shooting too much, then play well, then sit with an injury while his team thrives with the help of newly acquired Ramon Sessions; and having Metta World Peace suspended for seven games on the eve of the playoffs and in the midst of his best month of the season. It all adds up to create a jumble of potential scenarios as the Lakers go up against a wildly inconsistent Nuggets team equally capable of upsetting them or getting swept. In other words, very few things would be surprising in this first-round matchup because anything could happen. The key for L.A. is pecking order. Kobe is the alpha dog who needs to know how and when to give Bynum, Gasol and Sessions their opportunities to flourish. Pace will also be crucial. Denver loves to run and gun, and the Lakers should dominate in the half-court game. I'm guessing there will be blowouts, nail-biters and seven games.
6 Memphis Grizzlies
Seed: West No. 4
This Grizzlies team is different from the one that beat San Antonio and took Oklahoma City to seven games in last year's playoffs. Defenses won't be mobilizing down low to try to contain Zach Randolph, because the Memphis power forward still isn't 100 percent after sustaining a torn knee ligament on Jan. 1. But the Grizzlies still engage in "playoff basketball" throughout the season. They like to pound and maul their opponents, yet are also deceptively quick and adept thieves, leading the NBA in points generated from turnovers. They also benefit from the presence of Rudy Gay, who missed most of the season and all of the playoffs last year. Gay finished third in minutes this season, bridging a rotation that includes first-time All-Star Marc Gasol and a strong bench that includes Randolph and O.J. Mayo as a high-scoring sixth man. It is a formidable, well-rounded team that knows its strengths and its roles after another superb coaching job by Lionel Hollins. But the Grizzlies won't sneak up on anybody this postseason, especially San Antonio in the second round, if Memphis gets past the Clippers and the Spurs defeat Utah.
7 Los Angeles Clippers
Seed: West No. 5
Just a week ago, the Clippers seemed to be in a much stronger position to advance. They had won 13 of 15 and were vying with the Lakers for the third seed. But then they lost three of their final four games, missed out on home-court advantage and fell to fifth, behind Memphis. That's a notable slippage, given that both the Clippers and the Grizzlies have losing road records. Worse, Chris Paul missed the regular-season finale with a groin strain, a loss to the Knicks that had coach Vinny Del Negro (who is once again being described as "embattled") castigating his team's effort. Now a dinged-up Paul will have to contend with two capable and differently styled perimeter defenders in stopper Tony Allen and point guard Mike Conley. The Grizzlies also have the frontcourt personnel to bang around Blake Griffin. (Don't be surprised if a scrap involving the Clippers' self-appointed enforcer, Kenyon Martin, occurs at some point in the series.) No player in the postseason is more integral to his team than Paul -- the Clippers had the NBA's largest boost in winning percentage this season after he came over in a trade -- and if he can overcome his injury and Randy Foye, Mo Williams and Nick Young are making their three-pointers, L.A. could advance. But health and home court favor Memphis.
8 Indiana Pacers
Seed: East No. 3
The momentum that helped propel Indiana to its best season in eight years actually began during the 2011 playoffs, when the Pacers were no worse than one point down after three quarters in every one of the first four games of their five-game series with the top-seeded Bulls. The front office has done an admirable job of creating team success by focusing on depth and specific, clear-cut roles for its players instead of relying on one or two stars. That said, the performance of Indiana's lone All-Star, Roy Hibbert, should be a major barometer of how the Pacers fare this postseason. Without Dwight Howard, the Magic don't have a viable matchup for the 7-2 Hibbert in the first round. A likely second-round matchup with the Heat is a different story. Though Miami doesn't have a good individual counter to someone of Hibbert's size and skill, it tied with the Sixers for fewest points in the paint allowed. The Heat also limited Hibbert to 10.5 points on just 41.9 percent shooting while beating Indiana three out of four. While Hibbert has had a breakout season, most notably his shooting percentage and ability to defend without fouling, he has tended to shrink under the microscope during his four seasons. That can't happen if the Pacers are going to outperform their seed.
9 Denver Nuggets
Seed: West No. 6
The nickname for rookie Kenneth Faried is "Manimal," and the 6-9 rookie forward will need a feral streak in his jousts with 7-footers Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol if the Nuggets are to prevent the Lakers from playing volleyball on the boards. Denver's remarkably deep roster includes three 7-footers, but Kosta Koufos and Timofey Mozgov lack the athleticism of the Lakers' big men, and JaVale McGee is most renowned for his bloopers. Coach George Karl will mix and match, and 6-9 Al Harrington will also be in the mix. Creating chaos, Karl's favorite ploy, will be the priority on defense, with Arron Afflalo the primary defender on Kobe and the gambling quickness of Ty Lawson and (in more measured doses) Corey Brewer emphasized whenever possible. After months of constantly churning personnel, the Nuggets finished up playing their best basketball, especially on defense. These two teams played four entertaining games this season, with the Lakers winning three and none of them decided by more than six points.
10 Boston Celtics
Seed: East No. 4
We are entering the twilight of the Paul Pierce-Kevin Garnett-Ray Allen era, and the Celtics figure to go out with neither a bang nor a whimper; just a slow, valiant, forced submission at some point of a gauntlet that shapes up as Atlanta, then Chicago, then Miami, then the West winner, without home-court advantage for any of them. Here's hoping that Allen goes off for 40 points or nails a game-winner at some point, so pundits can fete the one member of the Big Three who has been shuttled out of the starting lineup and is most likely not to return to Boston next season. As for the gauntlet, the Celtics won two of three from Atlanta, but all were tight, grinding games. Chicago is likely to be their burial ground, as the Bulls' depth and interior bulk, plus coach Tom Thibodeau's intimate knowledge of Boston's system and personnel, is likely to recreate the regular-season patterns in which the Celtics lost three of four. If the Celtics do manage to make it past the Bulls, however, and Miami awaits, they've beaten the Heat convincingly three of four and would enjoy avenging last year's playoff elimination.
11 New York Knicks
Seed: East No. 7
The Heat-Knicks series is not your typical No. 2-vs.-No. 7 cakewalk. Both teams went 20-13 in the second half of the season, and more than any other team, the Knicks have followed Miami's recent example of stockpiling as much star talent as possible, then figuring out how it fits together and who else they can afford to fill in the gaps. LeBron James and Dwyane Wade are better than New York's (and anyone else's) top two, but from Tyson Chandler vs. Chris Bosh on down, the Knicks may have the advantage in roster spots three through 12. The Knicks ranked fifth in points allowed per possession, and, led by Chandler and rookie guard Iman Shumpert, they should concentrate on limiting the scoring and passing rhythm of James and Wade and (to a slightly lesser extent) Bosh, and dare the supporting cast to beat them. Defense should be the priority; Carmelo Anthony has bought in to that reality in the last month or so, and the Knicks need Amar'e Stoudemire, J.R. Smith and Baron Davis to do the same consistently, or sit them down. If New York can ratchet up the pressure by winning one of the first two games in Miami, this could be a classic.
12 Atlanta Hawks
Seed: East No. 5
Atlanta Hawks (40-26)
The Hawks have been underestimated all season. If any playoff team can pull the "no-respect" card for a series, it is Atlanta, which has a better record and home-court advantage but is rated as an underdog against Boston. I reluctantly join the "Hawks haters" club, mostly because of the Josh Smith-Kevin Garnett matchup. The knock on Smith has always been that if you make him uncomfortable in the paint, he'll step out and jack it up from the perimeter. In the two games he's been guarded by Garnett this season (both low-scoring Hawks losses), Smith has shot a collective 1-for-5 at the rim, a great but probably unsustainable 10-for-21 from 16-23 feet and 1-for-7 from three-point territory. Last week, as KG and other Boston starters rested, Smith was 5-for-7 at the rim and Atlanta won 97-92. With Al Horford still out and Zaza Pachulia's status for the start of the playoffs in doubt because of a foot injury, the Hawks are left with unathletic, offensively challenged bangers Jason Collins and Ivan Johnson beside Smith in the frontcourt. And if Smith can't score in the paint, it puts tremendous pressure on Joe Johnson and the crew, including Smith, to make their outside jumpers. That's not a winning recipe.
13 Dallas Mavericks
Seed: West No. 7
If it makes Dallas fans feel any better, I had the Mavs 10th in last year's Playoff Power Rankings and we know how that turned out. It might help that they draw Oklahoma City, which they beat in last year's conference finals on the strength of Dirk Nowitzki's magnificent shooting display, and which they mostly played close this season despite losing three of four. Though one might think this year's decline was due to advancing age and declining foot speed, the Mavs' most chronic problem, especially in their lackluster second half of the season, was an overreliance on mid-range jumpers at the expense of drives to the basket and offensive rebounds. Yes, the team's accuracy on those jumpers was better than most teams', but well below what Nowitzki, Jason Terry, Vince Carter and Delonte West usually convert. Maybe Dirk can rekindle fond memories and regain last year's playoff stroke. But it probably does matter that the starters for Dallas are, on average, about 10 years older than those for OKC.
14 Utah Jazz
Seed: West No. 8
Utah Jazz (36-30)
At first blush, the Jazz aren't so different from last year's eighth-seeded Memphis team that toppled San Antonio; Utah pounds the ball inside to its big men and, happy just to make the playoffs, can play with the carefree abandon of a team with nothing to lose. But whereas Memphis gave the Spurs a succession of tough games last year, Utah was clearly overmatched against San Antonio at full strength, lacking the defensive quickness to close off the Spurs' expert spacing and contest jumpers or come up with steals. Al Jefferson is a load who will try to wear down Tim Duncan and shoot over DeJuan Blair, but the ever-improving Gordon Hayward and the still-recuperating Josh Howard will have their hands full with Manu Ginobili, and Tony Parker should win his matchup with Devin Harris. When Utah unveils its huge lineup, with Paul Millsap at small forward beside Jefferson and Derrick Favors while the 6-8 Hayward moves to the backcourt, San Antonio can counter with the likes of Stephen Jackson and Boris Diaw at the swing positions. The referees could have an impact in this series. San Antonio is the smartest team in knowing when to foul or not foul, but if Utah's beef can get Duncan and Tiago Splitter in foul trouble, the Jazz can make it interesting.
15 Philadelphia 76ers
Seed: East No. 8
Well, at least the Sixers don't have to play the Heat, who have beaten them 11 out of 12 the last two seasons, including the playoffs, and it often wasn't close. By contrast, Philadelphia has split six games with the Bulls during that time, when Chicago has put up the best regular-season record in the NBA. In particular, the Sixers' athletic wings, Andre Iguodala and Thaddeus Young, have been sharp. They have helped Philadelphia outrebound the Bulls two out of three games this season, though Chicago holds a 2-1 edge. The other thing favoring a Sixers surprise is Chicago's inability to establish rhythm in its rotations because of injuries to Derrick Rose and Richard Hamilton, a factor that will be most pronounced in its opening series. All that said, the Sixers have faltered badly for most of the second half of the season and figure to be pounded in the paint against Chicago's deep, rugged front line. Of course, if they do manage to spring a monstrous upset, and then win the second round against one of two teams (Boston and Atlanta) with whom they match up well, there is still their nemesis, the Heat, likely waiting in the conference finals.
16 Orlando Magic
Seed: East No. 6
Orlando Magic (37-29)
Coach Stan Van Gundy, and perhaps some of the Magic players, would like nothing better than to not only engineer a first-round upset of the Pacers, but to accomplish it without their wishy-washy superstar and Van Gundy antagonist, Dwight Howard. But it will soon be time for Orlando to lick its self-inflicted wounds and rearrange the pieces from this broken season in preparation for next year. More immediately, with Howard sidelined after back surgery, there is no one on the roster who can adequately defend Roy Hibbert, and a big reason why Orlando beat the Pacers three out of four this season was its Howard-led ability to keep Indiana off the free-throw line. Their slim hope for an upset rests with the Pacers' merely average defense against the three-pointer. Of course, beating Indiana would get Orlando a likely matchup with Miami, then Chicago, then the West champ.

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