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Monday, Nov. 24, 11:36 a.m.
Sports

LeBron, Heat have straight shot toward NBA Finals in June

The first half of the NBA season is over. With just about 30 games left to play, the playoffs are just around the corner.

There’s not a huge chase for Eastern Conference teams to get in the playoffs right now, but there is for seeding. The Heat are ahead of the Knicks by four games, there’s only about one game each between seeds two through seven.

The Knicks, Pacers, Nets, Bulls and Hawks are all about a game apart. The Celtics have the No. 7 seed right now and are a game and a half behind the Hawks. Lastly, the Bucks are in eighth place — not far behind, either.

Look at it this way, the Knicks only have six more wins than the Bucks. The East is so close that any one of these teams can grab seeds two through eight at this point. Regardless of how close the teams are in the East, I see things staying right where they are.

The Heat will inevitably grab the first seed with the Knicks right behind them. I do think the Pacers could end the season ahead of the Knicks, but they’ll both end at seeds two and three. The Nets will also stay at the four seed, I see changes after that.

The Celtics are hot as of late and could finish ahead of the Hawks, for the No. 6 seed, if they keep it up. They could even beat the Bulls out for the fifth seed, which would be ideal for them if they want to make a playoff run.

However, I think the season will end with the Bulls in seed No. 5, the Celtics in seed No. 6, the Hawks in seed No. 7 and the Bucks in seed No. 8.

The 76ers are the only team in the East right now that could battle with the Bucks for a No. 8 seed. They’re still four games behind Milwaukee right now, and I really don’t see them coming back unless they catch fire.

If this plays out as I’ve said, the playoff matchups will go as follows: Heat vs. Bucks, Knicks vs. Hawks, Pacers vs. Celtics and Nets vs. Bulls.

The Heat will beat the Bucks in four games, advancing to play either the Bulls or Nets. This is where things get tricky. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Bulls beat the Nets, but it will go six or seven games either way. I suspect the Nets will squeeze by.

The Celtics experience is an advantage over the Pacers, but after last year, I think Indiana will advance. If the Celtics makes quality changes in the next few days then maybe things will change. But as of right now the Pacers will win in seven. The other matchup has the Knicks playing the Hawks where I have the Knicks, winning 4-1.

The second round puts the Heat against the Nets and the Knicks against the Pacers. The Heat will beat the Nets, either 4-1 or 4-2, while the Pacers take the Knicks to seven games before losing. This puts the Heat against the Knicks in the Eastern Conference Finals.

This series goes six games, with too much LeBron for New York to handle. Carmelo will undoubtedly carry the Knicks and have a solid series, but it will not be enough to beat the Heat.

Over in the West, there’s a more significant differential between teams battling for playoff spots. The Spurs and Thunder will grab the first two seeds. Whether the Thunder will come back and beat the Spurs out for No. 1 is still up for grabs. I’ll leave the Spurs at No. 1 with the Thunder close behind.

The Clippers will stay where they are at No. 3, while the Grizzlies will slide from No. 4 to No. 5. The Nuggets will pass them and take the No. 4 seed. The Warriors will stay where they are at sixth seed, and the Jazz will maintain their spot at No. 7.

The Rockets have the last seed in the West. If the Lakers can go on another run, I think they can barely grab the No. 8 seed. Unless the Lakers come together, play through injuries and make some changes, the Rockets will make the playoffs.

This puts the Spurs vs. Rockets, Thunder vs. Jazz, Clippers vs. Warriors and Nuggets vs. Grizzlies.

The Spurs and Thunder will likely sweep their opponents, but Harden will probably have some solid games for the Rockets so they might snag one.

Although I like how the Clippers have performed this year, I think the Warriors could give them a run. The Clippers will still pull it out in six games though.

Lastly, the Nuggets play the Grizzlies. I think the Nuggets will pull it out in six or seven games. I originally had the Grizzlies surprising teams and going far, but getting rid of Rudy Gay was a mistake on their part.

The second round has the Spurs against the Nuggets and the Thunder against the Clippers. Because of the Spurs’ struggles in the playoffs over the past few years, I think the youth of the Nuggets could pose a problem for them. Denver could pull an upset in six games.

The other matchup arguably will be one of the best in the whole playoffs. Depending on what the Clippers do before the trade deadline, I predict the Thunder beating them in seven games.

This puts the Western Conference Finals game between the Thunder and the Nuggets. The Nuggets impressive run will stop in the conference finals with a 4-1 series loss, maybe they’ll grab two games. The Nuggets lack a true star, which will come back to haunt them unless they make a move before the trade deadline.

This makes the 2013 NBA Finals a repeat of last year between the Thunder and Heat. However, this year will be slightly different. As much as it pains me to say this — being a Celtics fan — I see the Heat repeating as champions. LeBron is playing on an entirely different level right now, arguably the best basketball he’s ever played.

Last year you could say that Durant was still right behind LeBron, making a case that they were both on a different level. But this year, LeBron is leaving everyone behind; Durant is no exception, despite him having another great year. And with a healthy Dwayne Wade, this adds more steals and transition buckets between the two.

The difference I see in this years finals is that the Thunder grab a game or two more than last year. It won’t be a 4-1 series this time. The Thunder definitely win two games, at least, maybe sending it to seven. However, LeBron and company will prove to be too much again this year and earn the hardware.