Thursday, April 17, 2008

The NBA Season Part II - Playoff Version

OK, so now that one of the most exciting NBA regular seasons in recent memory (or probably in my sports lifetime - the past 10 years or so) has now ended, we can get on to a potentially great NBA postseason, which begins this Saturday at 12:30 pm Eastern time (Wizards @ Cavs). Obviously, I've got to preview the playoffs:

East 1st Round:

#1 Boston Celtics VS #8 Atlanta Hawks

- There are so many storylines heading into this 2008 NBA playoffs and the Hawks making the playoffs after an NBA long 9 seasons has got to be one of the better ones in the 1st round. It's too bad that they have to match up against the premier team this season in the Boston Celtics. I never want to say a team has no chance against another one, but in this case it's pretty easy. The C's swept the Hawks 3-0 during the regular season and are on a mission after winning 66 games. Doc Rivers has this team rested after a long regular season that featured many blowouts and that will only continue in this series. I think this will be the least exciting of all the series because of the Celtics' dominance and Hawks' complete inexperience and youth. It will be a nice learning experience for the up-and-coming Atlanta Hawks, but this series is going 4-0 to Boston.

#2 Detroit Pistons VS #7 Philadelphia 76ers

- Who would of thought one season after trading AI that there would be another AI emerging in Philly? It's another great story in the East for an underdog team facing a perennial power. Detroit's always been a cruise-control regular season team and they have the veterans and experience to understand that. The thing different about this season's Piston team from last years, but similar to that championship squad is energy from the younger players and depth, both coming off the bench in guys who have emerged for them like Jarvis Hayes, Jason Maxiell and more recently, Rodney Stuckey. These guys will be the X-factor in how far the Pistons advance (either the Conference Finals or NBA Finals). I love how Andre Miller played through all the trade rumors all season and emerged as a near-top tier Point Guard. This team is still too young to win a series though, especially one against a team as good as the Pistons. I do see Detroit slipping up a game or two though. 4-1 to the Pistons.

#3 Orlando Magic VS #6 Toronto Raptors

- The Raptors probably got a better matchup here than if they would've played Lebron's Cavs. They've got the Point Guards in Jose Calderon and TJ Ford, which is a position that the Magic severely need to improve upon. I don't like but a handful of guys to match up with Dwight Howard in either conference, but Chris Bosh is an All-Star big man and Toronto's got a few big guys to throw at Howard to slow him down in a long series. There was no way the Raps could have matched up against Lebron (another one of their weaknesses - lack of a good/great defensive wing), but against Hedo Turkoglu and Rashard Lewis, I think they've got a chance. The Raptors are deeper than the Magic and play a more defined style of basketball. Most people are paying attention to that Cavs/Wizards series, which is getting all the hype because of the media paying attention to Lebron and Gil, but this series may very well be the best Eastern series under the radar. I see Toronto pulling out a tight series on the road in game 7. It'll be a tough task for them, but I think last year's playoff disappointment helped this team in terms of experience. 4-3 Raptors.

#4 Cleveland Cavaliers VS #5 Washington Wizards

- OK, this series has me a bit confused. The Wizards stand a chance against the Cavs HOW?? The Cavs have beaten the Wizards both the past two seasons in the playoffs. Sure last year Washington didn't have either Caron Butler or Gilbert Arenas, but that series wasn't close either way. It's not like the rest of that team showed up. The year before it was a fantastic 7 game series that was decided by gamewinners that were questionable calls or no-calls by the zebras. I get all that, BUT have we forgotten that Cleveland has a man named LEBRON JAMES? The man that singlehandedly beat the Pistons last season, the man who's better this season and looks more determined than he has in the past 2 playoffs. He got to the NBA finals last year and now you think that he's going to allow his team (no matter how bad the supporting cast is) to lose in the 1st round? Unbelievable. Here's what I think, Lebron's going to be Lebron and pull off his heroics as he has all season in the 4th quarter. This means that if the games are close (remember: Washington still doesn't play any defense) that Lebron's going to take over when it matters and win some of those games himself. The series might be exciting, but at the end of the day it'll be 4-1 Cleveland at home.

Tentative Eastern Conference Finals pick: Boston over Detroit in 7 at home.

West 1st Round:

#1 LA Lakers VS #8 Denver Nuggets

- This is where the real playoffs are, in the West. Only 7 games separate 1st place (LA) from 8th place (Denver) and although I think Denver would have gotten torched by New Orleans if they drew them, I think they've got a legit shot at making it a series with LA. We all know Denver doesn't play defense outside of Marcus Camby, but without Bynum for potentially a few playoff games, LA could be a bit vulnerable. Kenyon Martin could do a decent job on Pau Gasol, leaving Camby to do what he does best, which is help defense and blocking a ton of shots. Then there's obviously AI and Melo out on the perimeter doing their scoring bit and explosive guys like JR Smith and Linas Kleiza coming off the bench, but the thing about the Nuggets is that they're as streaky a playoff team as they come. I could easily see them beating the the Lakers in 6 games, streaking into the 2nd round if they shoot well enough and are focused enough after going up 3-1 in the 1st 4 games to win a 4th game at home, but am I sane enough to predict that... No, definitely not. When it comes down to it, Los Angeles has played some of the best basketball of any team this season. I would say only Boston has played more consistently and with more intensity. Kobe, since the Lakers acquired Pau Gasol, has had that look. He knows this team is good enough win a championship, especially if Bynum returns to form in these playoffs (big question mark now since he hasn't played in forever and who knows what kind of shape he's in). The team is still relatively young, but with as much talent and energy as they've got as a team, I can't see them losing to a schizophrenic Nuggets team after the great season they've had. I see a 5 game series ending in LA, where the Lakers advance to the 2nd round. Carmelo is going to have the TMac first round questions soon enough (and what used to be KG's trademark).

#2 New Orleans Hornets VS #7 Dallas Mavericks

- Even though there are so many close series in the West, this one might be the toughest for me. I love Chris Paul and his game and how he dominates the game from the Point Guard position (I think he has more so than even Nash because he plays the position at both ends, but he's not the best 2-way PG yet. I'll still give that honor to Chauncey Billups), but this Mavs team is obviously proven and have just as capable a leader in Dirk Nowitzki. I don't have a strong argument for picking the Hornets other than the fact that they've been great all season and Dirk might still be feeling a bit of that leg injury he suffered a few weeks ago, even though no one's talking about it. David West might be able to neutralize Dirk and if he can, Chris Paul can take over the series because at this point in his career, even Jason Kidd can't do the things Paul does, not can he stop him. I'll say this one goes seven and Mark Cuban will have to think about changes after a 2nd consecutive 1st round loss.

#3 San Antonio Spurs VS #6 Phoenix Suns

- If this series doesn't have to most and most controversial storylines, I don't know which one would. After the Spurs won questionable games in this series last season (the Steve Nash nose, the Phoenix suspensions, Tim Donaghy reffing a couple of the games, etc...), they obviously went on to win the NBA finals. Now the 2 rivals meet again, although I hesitate to call them rivals since the Suns have never beaten the Spurs in a playoff series, and this time in Round one. It almost seems unfair, but hell, how can we as fans honestly complain to have the privilege of watching these two square off? It's going to be a great series and perhaps the most intense of any other series in the 1st round. I honestly can't wait. I hope it goes seven games and that's why I'm predicting it does. Honestly, I don't know how I could possibly pick the defending champs to go down in round 1 in a 7th game at home so I'm going the conservative route and picking the Spurs. I'm sorry to the Suns' fans out there because your window is definitely closing, but it's the Spurs we're talking about here. 4-3 Spurs at home in game seven (By the way, if this actually happens 3-4 of these games will probably end up being instant classics).

#4 Utah Jazz VS #5 Houston Rockets

- This might be the most painful series for me to watch, if not for anything else, because of my sympathy for T-Mac's unbelievably painful 1st round losses in recent memory and if that must continue again this season, it'd just be too bad. Seeds really don't matter here. Houston had the better season record so even though they're the #5 seed and Utah's #4, the Rockets are actually the team with home court. I think for the Rockets to win this series, they have to win that game 7 at home that they lost last year against these same Utah Jazz. Personally, I've thought Utah has been relatively overrated all season. Don't get me wrong, they've got a ton of talent with a great PG-PF punch with Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer, and then there's Mehmet Okur who looks healthy now after his mid-season injury. They've got all the offensive weapons you could want, but defense is their issue. If AK-47 goes down in this series, which is definitely a possibility, they've got no one to guard T-Mac who, I would have to believe, has all the motivation in the world to win this series. He's already come out and said something to the extent of "it's not on me this time", but you think that means he doesn't want out of the 1st round? If anything, it's a psychological trick to try and get the Jazz to let their guard down a bit. Anyways, Ronnie Brewer gets steals, but he's not the 1-on-1 defender Kirilenko is and if AK goes down to injury, which he's accustomed to doing from time to time, the Rockets have a great shot at winning this series. With all that said, as painful as this is for me, I'm picking Utah in 6 games. I just think in the end, they've got too much talent and could easily pull out a game in Houston (where T-Mac plays worse than on the road) and 37-4 is pretty impressive to be at home (best in the NBA) to close out the series in game 6.

Tentative Western Conference Finals pick (this one is extremely difficult): Los Angeles Lakers over San Antonio Spurs in 6 games.

NOTE: I am hoping for that I'm wrong in round 1 and Phoenix makes a run and its LA/PHX in the WCF. That would make for one of the great NBA postseasons in a long time. A great rivalry series in the Conference Finals and a potential Laker/Celtic Finals. Got to love the NBA.

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