NBA Playoffs: Round 1
The third week of April usually equates to the stretch run of spring football around here but in my house it also signifies the start of the NBA playoffs.
I know, I know. There are a lot of people out there who claim not to care about the Association, but even a large percentage of those naysayers often admit that they do become interested come playoff time.
Normally lukewarm basketball fans in Ohio especially have been won over as Cleveland goes into the postseason with the most unstoppable player – Buckeye-born LeBron James – the best record in the league and possibly the city’s most legitimate chance at a major sports championship in at least 40 years.
The Cavs are deep, hungry and better equipped for the long road with Shaquille O’Neal in the pivot and Antawn Jamison at forward. They also have a Duke-like draw on their side of the bracket as the Boston Celtics are aging, the brash Atlanta Hawks aren’t quite there yet and last year’s stumbling block, the Orlando Magic, appear to be a bit more reluctant to share the ball than a year ago.
Meanwhile, the Western Conference is loaded as usual but the franchise that has won the most playoff games in NBA history, the Lakers, still appears to be the odds-on favorite to emerge. Los Angeles has homecourt advantage throughout the conference playoffs and still has a guy named Kobe Bryant to stave off fourth-quarter charges.
While ABC and ESPN executives drool over the possibility of No. 24 clashing with No. 23 in Hollywood and C-Town, the Cavs still have to earn it and the Lakers are no lock to make it that far. Dallas steamrolled through the second half of the season and Denver, despite falling into the 4-hole and being without its coach for the moment, is the definition of dangerous.
And there are others – teams that may not have enough steam to win the 2010 championship but enough talent to make waves in the rounds leading up to the Finals.
Therefore, I peer into my crystal ball and give you an idea of what to expect from all eight first-round series, which have a best-of-seven format. Here goes:
No. 1 Cleveland Cavaliers vs. No. 8 Chicago Bulls – The Cavs have been anything but a mistake by the lake. James has been spectacular all season and he’s getting the necessary help. In fact, when shooters like Mo Williams, Delonte West, Anthony Parker and Jamario Moon are on the mark this team looks just about unbeatable. Cleveland is old inside with O’Neal and Zydrunas Ilgauskas but the Cavs still are effective enough offensively and create a size problem in this series.
The Bulls scared the beejeezus out of Boston last season but are missing a key ingredient with Ben Gordon off to the Detroit Pistons. Plus, Joakim Noah, while long and energetic, is going to get beat up in this series. Chicago has a very thin bench after big man Brad Miller and doesn’t have a reliable second scorer for point guard Derrick Rose with the possible exception of Luol Deng. Guard Kirk Hinrich still pulls a disappearing act at times.
Rose might put on a cape and pull the Bulls through a home game but I don’t even foresee that happening. Cleveland is too good, too deep, too big and too focused.
Cavs in 4
No. 2 Orlando Magic vs. No. 7 Charlotte Bobcats – Charlotte is maybe the least known team in the playoffs. Hell, I needed help naming some of the Bobcats’ starters. However, Stephen Jackson will be fearless in the playoffs and Raymond Felton quietly is developing into a very solid NBA point guard. With a front line of Boris Diaw, Gerald Wallace and Theo Ratliff – and with guys like Tyson Chandler and Nazr Mohammed coming off the bench – the ’Cats have a lot of big bodies and very sturdy interior defense but also lots of offensive limitations.
Orlando, meanwhile, can display some Vinsanity – explosive guard Vince Carter – as well as deadly long-range shooting from the likes of Rashard Lewis, Mickael Pietrus and J.J. Redick. If point guard Jameer Nelson can just offset Felton then you can put the check mark down for Orlando because of Dwight Howard. They don’t call this guy Superman for nothing. He is a load inside and is maybe the one center in the league who can single-handedly overcome Charlotte’s army of defenders in the paint.
We all know Larry Brown can pull a rabbit out of a hat but he might not even be the better coach in this series. Stan Van Gundy may look like Ron Jeremy undergoing a vasectomy on the sidelines and his team is frustrating at times, but the guy gets results. And he’s got the clearly better team here.
Magic in 5
No. 3 Atlanta Hawks vs. No. 6 Milwaukee Bucks – This just has the look of a mismatch. The Hawks aren’t super deep and they aren’t the most mature team by any means but they have enough to overwhelm a Milwaukee squad that somehow made the playoffs without injured guard Michael Redd. Dynamic point guard Brandon Jennings has had a bust-out season, Andrew Bogut has become a top-five center (seriously) and picking up wing John Salmons has proved to be a wise move. After that, though, scour the roster and find anyone who would even play more than five minutes for the Lakers or Cavs. How the hell did this team make the playoffs?
Atlanta, meanwhile, now has veteran point guard Mike Bibby to take some of the backcourt load off of star two-guard Joe Johnson. The front line is young and athletic with Josh Smith and former college stars Marvin Williams and Al Horford. Those guys block shots, run the floor, finish plays and ignite the Hawks, especially at home.
And I have to ask again – how the hell did Milwaukee make the playoffs?
Hawks in 5
No. 4 Boston Celtics vs. No. 5 Miami Heat – Well, isn’t this interesting. Aging veterans Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Rasheed Wallace, grumbly center Kendrick Perkins, thuggish forward Glen Davis and coach Doc Rivers seem to be testier than ever and possibly in denial that the window is shutting quickly on the 2008 champs. On the plus side, Ray Allen simply continues to quietly go about his business and still knows how to hit big shots in the playoffs. Also, Rajon Rondo is now a legitimate star. The flashy point guard still isn’t much of a shooter but he can push and distribute with the best of them and he is an absolute thief (2.3 steals per game) on defense.
Miami, of course, goes to the beat of Dwyane Wade, who is still the third-best player in this league. Off-guard Quentin Richardson has been deadly from the outside, which essentially has put former Buckeye Daequan Cook out of a job. The front line is not very bulky but Jermaine O’Neal and Michael Beasley are nimble and creative around the lane. The problem is the Heat haven’t developed any reliability from the bench after forward Udonis Haslem and as a result go into prolonged scoring funks.
Miami hasn’t beaten Boston this year and doesn’t have enough to win four games in this series even though the Celtics are vulnerable.
Celtics in 6
No. 1 Los Angeles Lakers vs. No. 8 Oklahoma City Thunder – First, let’s point out the Lakers clearly have some warts despite their best record in the West and the mantle of defending NBA champions. Phil Jackson somnambulated in a Zen state during the final quarter of the season as the Lakers played .500 basketball. The L.A. bench has been lackluster this season in comparison to recent years but still has a standout in Lamar Odom and receives some backcourt energy from Shannon Brown. Derek Fisher has looked his age (35) for much of the season but always seems to shine in the postseason. And Bryant shouldn’t have to carry the day in this series as the Lakers have way to much inside with Andrew Bynum back healthy and paired with Pau Gasol.
OKC boasts the league’s new scoring king in forward Kevin Durant, who popped for 30.1 point per game in the regular season. Durant seems to score at will and as effortlessly as George “Iceman” Gervin and Alex English did decades ago. He’ll draw plenty of attention in this series, which could open up the lane even more for Russell Westbrook, a blur of a point guard. The other starters, including Jeff Green, are still role players at this point, as is top bench performer Nick Collison. Rookie guard James Harden likely isn’t ready for this stage yet and could have his minutes reduced by head coach Scott Brooks.
If Ron Artest does a remotely effective job in slowing down Durant then the Lakers shouldn’t encounter any real danger in this opening-round matchup. Still, Westbrook will be a series-long headache.
Lakers in 5
No. 2 Dallas Mavericks vs. No. 7 San Antonio Spurs – There seems to be a rather large bandwagon with a Spurs logo on the side of it these days. Still, I’m not jumping on it. Dallas is getting cohesion from its starting five of Jason Kidd, Caron Butler, Shawn Marion, Dirk Nowitzki and Erick Dampier and the Mavericks have one of the best sixth men in the NBA in guard Jason Terry. This team can get out in transition and do major damage in key spurts. But can it play well enough on must-have possessions? Well, Nowitzki is always a good start.
The Spurs, like Boston, still have the savvy and talent to beat anybody in the league but holding up through a lengthy series will prove challenging. Manu Ginobli and Tony Parker are stunt men who can make all kinds of plays on the move but also are susceptible to getting hurt. Plus, Richard Jefferson has been a major disappointment and simply has not fit into the San Antonio system. Tim Duncan is still a crutch for this team and the power forward spot is deep with Antonio McDyess, Matt Bonner and rookie DeJaun Blair able to help on the boards.
Still, the Spurs appear to be a team in transition while the Mavericks are on the rise.
Mavs in 6
No. 3 Phoenix Suns vs. No. 6 Portland Trail Blazers – This could turn out to be the most entertaining first-round series even though there doesn’t seem to be much anticipation. Portland is going to have to soldier on without star guard Brandon Roy, who was hurt in the final week of the season in a game with the Lakers, and already is without starting center Greg Oden, who has not been healthy enough to prove his worth since being taken first overall in the 2007 draft. Still, LaMarcus Aldridge is ready to take over and the Blazers are getting steady play at the point from Andre Miller. Youngsters Rudy Fernandez and Jerryd Bayless are going to have to come through for coach Nate McMillan.
On the other side, Phoenix, as usual, goes into the postseason as a mysterious team. We know what All-Stars Steve Nash and Amare Stoudemire can do but will Jason Richardson falter and Grant Hill look his age? The Suns do have some tasty options off the bench, though, in forwards Channing Frye and Leandro Barbosa, who thrive as secondary-break shooters. Frye is a major threat, in fact, from the three-point arc. Still, Nash often is left to do it all at the end of close games and he tends to get knocked around in the playoffs.
I suppose I’ve got to pull the trigger on one upset and this one looks as possible as any to me.
Blazers in 7
No. 4 Denver Nuggets vs. No. 5 Utah Jazz – I will tell anyone who asks me that I believe the Nuggets, top to bottom of the roster, are the most talented team in the NBA. Carmelo Anthony, Chauncey Billups and Kenyon Martin as options Nos. 1-2-3 and then Chris Andersen, Ty Lawson and J.R. Smith off the bench – wow. Aaron Afflalo has become a willing defender and always has been blessed with a nice stroke from deep. Nene is a brute inside and even runs the floor. He also picks up silly fouls, however, and we all know this isn’t the most intelligent team in the NBA (if only tattoos equated to smarts).
Utah, meanwhile, is gritty and knows how to play. The Jazz run lots of two-man plays with point guard Deron Williams and forward Carlos Boozer and they also manage to get open looks for shooters like Kyle Korver and C.J. Miles. Paul Milsap is an underrated post player off the bench and could make a difference in this series. Too bad former Buckeye Kosta Koufos doesn’t provide any real relief inside for center Mehmet Okur.
The Nuggets still don’t have coach George Karl on the bench as he deals with cancer treatments and they are capable of going right in the tank. Still, Utah is without forward Andrei Kirilenko and doesn’t quite match up here despite its moxie.
Nuggets in 7