By Chris Le
I’ve been looking forward to the postseason for months now. Initially, my interest was in seeing which team would be left out in the West. That one was a big mystery ever since the All-Star break. Once Denver all but wrapped up the 8th seed by beating the Warriors a week or so ago, the intrigue moved to how all the seedings would pan out. It came down to the very last day of the regular season, but we finally got to see which teams would be facing who. And it didn’t disappoint.
Because of the parity and all the back stories, there are so many unanswered questions and unknowns in what may be the greatest playoffs in NBA history. Which of the millions of trades this year will ultimately be the one that wins a team the title? Can the defending champion Spurs get out of the first round, let alone win a second consecutive championship? Will the Lakers and Celtics resurrect the rivalry and meet in the Finals? Can LeBron once again carry his team to the promised land? Who will be this year’s Golden State and have a Cinderella run? Will there even be one? These are only a small morsel of curiosities of this year’s playoffs.
Here’s my take on the opening-round action:
(8) Atlanta Hawks vs. (1) Boston Celtics
Regular Season Series: Celtics 3-0
Outcome: Not much to explain here. Too much defense (the C’s are second in the league in points allowed and lead the NBA in opponent field goal percentage and opponent three-point percentage) for an Atlanta team that is probably content just being in the postseason. In the end, Boston has more weapons that Atlanta cannot answer than vice versa. Kevin Garnett and the Celtics easily brush aside the Hawks. Celtics in 4.
(7) Philadelphia 76ers vs. (2) Detroit Pistons
Regular Season Series: Tied 2-2
Outcome: Of all the lower seeds in the East, I think Philadelphia is the team most squads want to face the least. They’re athletic, decently-rounded and were on a tear after the All-Star break. Andre Miller continues to be one of the most underrated players in the NBA, Andre Iguodala is good—though not exceptional—in a multitude of areas and Samuel Dalembert is more than serviceable in the defensive paint. I think they’d give any team in the East—including the Celtics—a little trouble. However, the Pistons are nearly unflappable. Too many weapons all over the court with too much experience to lose to a very young Philadelphia 76ers. Pistons in 5.
(6) Toronto Raptors vs. (3) Orlando Magic
Regular Season Series: Magic 2-1
Outcome: The Raptors have no answer for Dwight Howard. Then again, I don’t see anyone on the Magic stopping Chris Bosh. The edge in this series will probably be in the form of Hedo Turkoglu and Rashard Lewis. If they shoot well, it’ll be a short series. If not, I think it could go the full seven. Either way, I don’t expect Orlando to lose because of superior overall talent and coaching. Magic in 6.
(5) Washington Wizards vs. (4) Cleveland Cavaliers
Regular Season Series: Tied 2-2
Outcome: The only first-round match up in the East with any intrigue at all. This pairing is growing into one of the better rivalries in recent years. Not only have the Cavs eliminated the Wizards from the playoffs the last two seasons, but you have to love Gilbert Arenas and DeShawn Stevenson of all people running their mouths, calling LeBron overrated among other things. The Wizards have a potent, three-headed monster in Arenas, Caron Butler and Antawn Jamison that trumps any three Cavalier players (pre-trade or otherwise). But I think they woke a sleeping giant with their trash talk. Even with a bad back, I fully expect LBJ to go off. More than anyone else in the game, LeBron is capable of single-handedly winning a series. Cavs in 7.
(8) Denver Nuggets vs. (1) Los Angeles Lakers
Regular Season Series: Lakers 3-0
Outcome: I honestly believe the Lakers are thanking their lucky stars that the Warriors didn’t make the playoffs. Golden State is a scary match up for them. But enough of my homer talk. This is the easiest first-round series to pick in the West. It really all boils down to Denver’s atrocious defense. Los Angeles averaged 118 points per game in their regular-season sweep of the Nuggets; I don’t expect that to change in the playoffs. The Lakers at least try on defense and have a chance of containing the Nuggets. The opposite can’t be said. Marcus Camby alone isn’t enough to nullify the Lakers’ fire power. Lakers in 5.
(7) Dallas Mavericks vs. (2) New Orleans Hornets
Regular Season Series: Hornets 2-1
Outcome: Going with the Mavs has been a trendy “upset” pick—if there is such a thing in this Western Conference. The biggest question mark for the Hornets is if they can perform under the pressure of being a high seed in the postseason. The Mavs have sputtered a little bit since their acquisition of Jason Kidd, but lately they’ve won some big games, including the regular season capper against New Orleans. My gut says to go with Dallas with Dirk Nowitzki coming up big (I can’t believe I wrote that). But my brain won’t let me pick against my regular season MVP in Chris Paul. This year has been Paul’s introduction as an elite player in this league, and I think he extends his coronation into the second round. Expect him to outplay Kidd, even if ever slightly, throughout the series and that being the deciding edge. So there it is—two consecutive first-round exits for the Mavs. Hornets in 7.
(6) Phoenix Suns vs. (3) San Antonio Spurs
Regular Season Series: Suns 3-1
Outcome: This is probably the best series of the opening round. There’s match up intrigue galore: Shaquille O’Neal on Tim Duncan, Bruce Bowen on Steve Nash, Raja Bell on Tony Parker/Manu Ginobili. There’s bad blood from the way last year’s series ended. And there’s more than pride and a championship on the line—Suns’ general manager Steve Kerr bet the house on Shaq, specifically acquisitioning him to counter Duncan. This move could decide his future in Phoenix. Not to mention, as two of the oldest teams in the league, this could be their last legitimate chance of winning a championship.
On paper and judging from their last two meetings, the edge seems to be in favor of Phoenix. But I can’t bear to pick against the defending champs. The return of Brent Barry will really bolster their offense, giving them more versatility and freedom, particularly down the stretch where the Spurs have suffered a lot this season. I feel that San Antonio, and this may be wishful thinking on my part, has been cruising in second or third gear all year long. As most veteran squads know, their season really begins in the postseason. Duncan and co. always play better in the playoffs. Against Phoenix, because of the gaping lanes they provide, it has traditionally been Parker and Ginobili that have been the difference makers. They’ll tear it up. On defense, the Spurs will let Amare run wild and put the clamps down on everyone else, which will be difficult because Phoenix has so many options. But it’s doable, since the Spurs are still the best rotating team in the West. Additionally, in their last two meetings, O’Neal and Stoudemire have been in foul trouble against San Antonio. I see this trend continuing to the Suns’ detriment. Spurs in 7.
(5) Houston Rockets vs. (4) Utah Jazz
Regular Season Series: Jazz 2-1
Outcome: Everyone knows that Utah is nearly unbeatable at home. But the interesting thing is, despite being the lower seed, Houston has the home-court advantage in this series by virtue of their better overall regular season record. Still won’t make a difference. Here, in the playoffs where post-play rules, the Rockets will miss Yao Ming more than ever. Accordingly, with the offenses slowing down and reverting into the half-court game, this is where Deron Williams thrives. He’ll dominate like he did last year. They’ll steal a game or two in Houston and of course, take care of business at home. Utah in 6.