PHILADELPHIA -- The long, winding road to the NBA postseason always ends around tax time and that always gets me reminiscing about Otis Birdsong, the former All-Star sharp-shooter for the Kansas City Kings and New Jersey Nets.
Birdsong once called the three certainties of life: "Death, taxes and my jump shot."
I'd like to add high-gas prices and the inevitability of an NBA lockout come this summer but let's keep it simple and just say the top teams in the league are all likely going to be left standing when the conference semifinals kick in.
With that in mind, let's take a closer look at this year's opening round matchups with the help of TNT's Charles Barkley and Kenny Smith along with current NBA TV analysts Kevin McHale and Greg Anthony...
(1) CHICAGO vs. (8) INDIANA
Usually a one-eight matchup isn't all that intriguing and this series doesn't figure to change that line of thinking. The Bulls top four of presumptive MVP Derrick Rose, Carlos Boozer, Luol Deng and Joakim Noah figures to be tough for anyone to deal with and expecting a team that didn't even finish .500 in the regular season to make any noise is folly. The Pacers shot just 38.0 percent against the Bulls during the season and things only figure to get tougher now as the intensity ratchets up. Chicago has been virtually unbeatable at the United Center this season and Indiana doesn't look like much of a hurdle.
"Derrick Rose will not let this team lose," Smith said. "In close games, this team will do whatever it takes defensively to win. Their chemistry is great."
BULLS in 5
(2) MIAMI vs. (7) PHILADELPHIA
For all the criticism Miami endured this season, if you look at the final standings, you will see 58 wins next to the Heat's name, a Southeast Division championship, the second seed in the Eastern Conference and a date with a banged-up, overmatched Philadelphia team in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals.
Sure, Miami struggled mightily in close games and Erik Spoelstra is never going to inspire the kind of swagger big time coaches often do, but if you are not afraid of this team, something is wrong. With all due respect to Rose, Dwight Howard and Kobe Bryant, LeBron James remains the best basketball player on the planet and Dwyane Wade is not far behind. The Heat are thin but when they do lose, they generally beat themselves. Meanwhile, two of the Sixers top players (Andre Iguodala and Lou Williams) are hurting badly. If the Heat are clicking early, all the Sixers will be able to do is hold on for dear life.
HEAT in 4
(3) BOSTON vs. (6) NEW YORK
If you are looking for an upset in the East this has to be it. Carmelo Anthony can take over any game when the jumper is falling and Stoudemire is as good a second option in the game, while Chauncey Billups' mettle come playoff time can't be questioned. Meanwhile, Boston is aging and Rajon Rondo is clearly not right.
All that said, New York is just far too thin to last in a seven-game set against a team that has been through so many wars. You can talk about all the tread that has been lost on the tires of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen but they have always showed up come playoff time.
"(The Knicks) don't play any defense," Barkley said. "They've got two dynamic offensive players (Anthony and Stoudemire) but they are not going to beat the Boston, I guarantee you that."
CELTICS in 6
(4) ORLANDO vs. (5) ATLANTA
Mike Woodson lost his job as Atlanta's head coach last season after Orlando destroyed the Hawks in the Eastern Conference semifinals. A 53-win team in the regular season, Woodson's Hawks were no match for Dwight Howard and Company. In fact, Orlando's dominance over Atlanta was both breathtaking and history- making. The Magic recorded the largest victory margin in a four-game sweep in NBA playoff history, winning the series by a total of 101 points. The Hawks lost all four contests in the set by an average of over 25 points per contest and the closest they ever came in the series was a 98-84 setback in Game 4.
The Magic remain the deeper team and are virtually impossible to beat when they stretch the floor and the threes are falling. Meanwhile, Atlanta has a history of falling flat in the postseason. You have to figure that the Hawks are far too talented to get blown out again like last year but it's tough to project them over Orlando in a seven-game series.
"I like the fact that with Dwight Howard in the backline, it will force Atlanta to shoot a lot of jump-shots," McHale said. "Watching the series last year in the second round, that really got into Atlanta's head and they quit attacking and Orlando swept them and looked good doing it."
MAGIC in 6
(1) SAN ANTONI0 vs. (8) MEMPHIS
The Spurs received bad news on Thursday when Manu Ginobili was listed as doubtful to play in the postseason opener against Memphis after spraining his right elbow in the team's regular season finale. Ginobili, of course, is the closer for the second most efficient offense in the league and if he's not right it will certainly hurt San Antonio down the line but a Grizzlies team that lacks playoff experience and is without Rudy Gay still doesn't figure to be much of a hurdle.
"I think the thing that differentiated San Antonio this year is their play from the bench," Anthony said. "They've been unbelievable when you think of the impact that [Gary] Neal, [George] Hill and DeJuan Blair has had for this basketball team. I think their bench is going to have to play well."
SPURS in 5
(2) LA LAKERS vs. (7) NEW ORLEANS
The Lakers got the best matchup possible as they embark on their quest for a three-peat. The Hornets' Chris Paul will give the reigning champs fits but the absence of David West makes a New Orleans upset virtually impossible.
"From New Orleans' standpoint, this is a series where Kobe [Bryant] can really get aggressive offensively," Anthony said. "[New Orleans] doesn't defend the two-guard position very well and I just don't see New Orleans having enough offense to contain the Lakers. Los Angeles is a team that doesn't turn it over a lot and I just don't know if they're going to have enough on that end to beat Los Angeles."
LAKERS in 5
(3) DALLAS vs. (6) PORTLAND
Everyone seems to be taking shots at the Mavs. Denver coach George Karl said he would rather face them than the Thunder in the first round, while Lakers forward Matt Barnes brought up the softness quotient that seems to be thrown around very freely when people think about Dallas. Meanwhile, the Blazers became a much tougher out since acquiring the hard-nosed Gerald Wallace from Charlotte. That said, Expect Dirk to get it done in a Game 7.
"I don't care how anybody wants to sugarcoat it, but the reality is that [the Mavericks] have had some significant failures in the postseason," Anthony said, "and I think they're going to matchup against a team in Portland that is going to have a lot of confidence in playing against them and has had some success."
MAVERICKS in 7
(4) OKLAHOMA CITY vs. (5) DENVER
The young Thunder were certainly the Lakers' biggest hurdle in last year's Western Conference playoffs and may prove to be again in the 2010-11 campaign. Kevin Durant is the NBA's best pure scorer and Russell Westbrook can get to the basket at will against just about everyone. Kendrick Perkins, meanwhile, brings toughness and interior defense to the middle, something that was lacking last year. Denver took off after dealing Carmelo Anthony, turning into a much more well-rounded team that is more defensive-minded and shares the basketball. That said, the Nuggets just don't have the horses to compete with OKC.
"Denver is one of those teams that is difficult to prepare for because they don't really have one guy you can focus on or that you want to take away," Anthony said. "Ordinarily, that would create problems for you but I think that when you look at it from Oklahoma City's standpoint, they're a team that likes to get out and run and I think the style they're going to play in this series is going to benefit them."
THUNDER in 6