Well it's about damned time. After six months of regular-season strife, the NBA Playoffs are finally here, starting on Saturday and lasting all the way into hot, muggy June. Let's take a look at all eight first-round match-ups, East and West, and I'll give you my, um, "expert" predictions on who advances to the conference semifinals, and who goes fishin'. We'll start out West.
Jim Morrison wasn't talking basketball, but when he said, "The West is the Best" it could have applied to the conference imbalance that had prevailed ever since the breakup of the Dynastic Bulls. But now the sun is setting out West- the Eastern Conference boasts the defending NBA Champion, won the inter-conference series for the first time in a decade, and many of the powers that made the West superior- San Antonio, Dallas, Phoenix- are on the wane. Not to mention the bottom of the conference is a festering swamp of awful, awful basketball teams.
Still, the great middle as yet leans westward, and that's where most of the first-round drama will spring from. Three of the series, aside from Lakers-Jazz, are almost complete toss-ups that either team could win without much of a surprise. And those series will make for entertaining viewing, even knowing that at the end of the day the contestants are vying only for the honor of an execution colored in Forum Blue & Gold (except maybe for Portland.)
#1: Los Angeles Lakers (65-17)
#8: Utah Jazz (48-34)
Season Series: Lakers lead 2-1
Memorable Past Series- 1988 Western Conference Semifinals: It was the coming-out party for John Stockton and Karl Malone, as the two young, heretofore little-known stars- with big help from massive Mark Eaton- gave Magic, Kareem and the Showtime Lakers everything they could handle before falling in seven games.
Capsule: It's been a while since the Jazz played a stretch of quality basketball. They're 7-11 since winning twelve in a row back in February and March, falling all the way to the bottom of the West playoff bracket. L.A. meanwhile has been on cruise control, and now they've got Andrew Bynum back on the floor. Utah won't be a total pushover- Deron Williams is too good, the Jazz are too tough at home, and no Jerry Sloan team will ever roll over for anyone. Problem- among others- is that L.A. has home-court, and the Jazz are 1-20 on the road against teams with winning records.
Prediction: Lakers in five
#4: Portland Trail Blazers (54-28)
#5: Houston Rockets (53-29)
Season Series: Houston leads 2-1
Memorable Past Series- 1994 Western Conference First Round: Thanks to a demolition job by Hakeem Olajuwon (34 points, 11 rebounds, 4.8 assists, 3.8 blocks, 2.2 steals per game) the Rockets got their first title run off to a good start with a four-game triumph over the Blazers.
Capsule: Portland is the new flavor, and for good reason. The Blazers are big, deep, athletic, can shoot, and they're peaking, at 19-6 since February 22, with a six-game winning streak going into the Playoffs. Houston blew its chance at home-court with a loss at Dallas in the season finale and now faces the prospect of opening in one of the league's toughest road venues. The Rockets have the defense to hamper the Blazer attack, and they've played well against Portland this year, but the energy of the Rose Garden will carry the Blazers home. Expect a low-scoring series- neither team averages 100 nor gives up more than 95 points per game.
Prediction: Blazers in seven
#2: Denver Nuggets (54-28)
#7: New Orleans Hornets (49-33)
Season Series: Tied 2-2
Memorable Past Series: These teams have never met in the Playoffs.
Capsule: Thanks in no small part to the swapping out of Allen Iverson for Chauncey Billups, the Nuggets put together their best record since 1987-88 and enjoy home-court in the Playoffs for the first time since that same season. The Hornets have had a tumultuous, injury-plagued season and really scuffled down the stretch, losing six of their last eight. New Orleans has the best point guard on the planet in Chris Paul, but the Nuggets have a huge edge in athleticism and overall scoring punch. This is Carmelo Anthony's best chance to get out of the first round since he came into the league: he'll need to have a big series.
Prediction: Nuggets in six
#3: San Antonio Spurs (54-28)
#6: Dallas Mavericks (50-32)
Memorable Past Series- 2006 Western Conference Semifinals: One of the all-time Playoff struggles, this in-state grudge match featured a two-point game, a one-point game, and a pair decided in overtime. Dallas took a 3-1 series lead but the Spurs fought back to tie it and send the affair home to San Antonio for the series finale. The Mavericks blew a twenty-point lead in Game Seven but tied it late on Dirk Nowitski's three-point play, eventually winning it, and the series, in OT.
Capsule: Despite losing Manu Ginobili for the remainder of the season and Playoffs, the battered Spurs still managed to win their last four and secure home-court in the first round. Once a virtual shoo-in for the eighth spot and a match-up from hell with the Lake Show, the Mavericks rallied down the stretch to jump Utah and New Orleans and land in a not-so-unfavorable spot, against a Spurs team they've played very well. Each team has won on the other's home court this season, and each is capable of doing it again. But Dallas is a healthier team right now, and beating their hated rivals from down I-35 would practically make their season.
Prediction: Mavericks in six
Unlike the West- wild early, predictable later- the East figures to be predictable early, wild later. Three of the first-round series feature prohibitive favorites, with only one- the four-five match-up between Atlanta and Miami- looking like a pick ‘em proposition. Cleveland has a 27-game gap on Detroit in the regular-season standings; Boston has a 21-game gap on Chicago; Orlando has an 18-game gap on Philadelphia. In the history of the NBA Playoffs, only two series between teams as far apart as 18 games or more have ended in victory for the underdog- Denver's toppling of Seattle in 1994, and Golden State's shocker over Dallas in 2007. In other words, it would take an upset of historic proportions for anything but the chalk to prevail in this first round.
#1: Cleveland Cavaliers (66-16)
#8: Detroit Pistons (39-43)
Season Series: Cavaliers lead 3-1
Memorable Past Series- 2007 Eastern Conference Finals: The Cavaliers joined an exclusive group of teams that won four straight after dropping the first two games of a series. After a pair of heartbreaking losses in Auburn Hills, Cleveland tied the series 2-2 in front of a rollicking crowd at the Q. LeBron had his Game of Games in Game Five, stunning the Pistons with 48 points in a double-overtime thriller. Then Daniel Gibson applied the coup de grace, and the Cavaliers were off to the NBA Finals for the first time ever.
Capsule: Let's make one thing clear- the Pistons, for all their championship lineage and household name appeal, are a 39-win team for a reason. They don't have a go-to guy, aren't well-coached, no longer have the steadying presence of Chauncey Billups- or any real point guard, for that matter- and defensively are not what they used to be. Their only real hope in this series, other than catastrophic injuries, is for the Cavaliers to not take them seriously- and there's precious little chance of that happening. If you want to beat Cleveland, you need to be able to run, you need to be able to score more than 100 points consistently, and/or you need to be dominant in the low post. Detroit has none of this. The Cavaliers are rested, relatively healthy, and peaking at the right time. This thing will be over quickly.
Prediction: Cavaliers in five
#4: Atlanta Hawks (47-35)
#5: Miami Heat (43-39)
Season Series: Atlanta leads 3-1
Memorable Past Series- 1994 Eastern Conference First Round: In the same year West top seed Seattle was decapitated in the first round by Denver, the Hawks, the East's top seed, nearly met the same fate at the hands of the eighth-seeded Heat. Trailing 2-1 in the best-of-five series, Atlanta rallied to take Game Four in Miami, than finished off the Heat with a 102-91 Game Five victory.
Capsule: It's a classic basketball question- can a one-man team beat a five-man team? Atlanta boasts inside-outside balance, the veteran experience of Mike Bibby, and a legitimate go-to guy in Joe Johnson. For Miami, it's been all about Dwayne Wade carrying a roster with two rookies in the rotation and a rookie coach on the sidelines to a 28-game improvement over the fiasco that was the 2007-08 season. Wade can win a game or two all by his lonesome but in the end it will be Atlanta's athleticism and seasoning that will prevail. This might be the best of all the first-round series, East or West.
Prediction: Hawks in seven
#2: Boston Celtics (62-20)
#7: Chicago Bulls (41-41)
Season Series: Celtics lead 2-1
Memorable Past Series- 1986 Eastern Conference First Round: Thanks to Michael Jordan, the 30-win Bulls nearly became the second team to hand the 67-win Celtics a loss in Boston Garden. MJ poured in 63 points in Game Two, but the Celtics survived in double-overtime and then finished off the three-game sweep in Chicago two nights later.
Capsule: The raging Bulls are 12-4 in the last month, a streak that includes a 127-121 victory over Boston back in March. The Celtics, meanwhile, may not have the services of Kevin Garnett for this series, or for the rest of the Playoffs. That's bad news against a Chicago team that has broken the 100-point barrier in 17 of its last 23 games. Then again, Boston still has Paul Pierce, the home-court advantage, and the swag of a defending champion. Match-up to watch: Derrick Rose against Rajon Rondo.
Prediction: Celtics in six
#3: Orlando Magic (59-23)
#6: Philadelphia 76ers (41-41)
Season Series: Orlando leads 3-0
Memorable Past Series- 1999 Eastern Conference First Round: Orlando came into the best-of-five series with home-court advantage, but the 76ers stole Game One in the O-Rena and after dropping Game Two, finished off the Magic with a pair of victories in Philadelphia. Allen Iverson scored 37 points in the Game Four clincher, and Eric Snow poured in 20, including 6-of-6 from the free-throw line and- get ready- a pair of three-pointers.
Capsule: The Magic couldn't have hoped for a better first-round scenario. Instead of red-hot Chicago or nemesis Detroit, they get a fading 76ers team that lost six in a row down the stretch and barely beat Cleveland's B-team in the season finale. Orlando's strengths- post play and outside shooting- are the areas in which Philadelphia is weakest. Even with Hedu Turkoglu and Rashard Lewis not in peak physical form, this series should not be a problem for Stan Van Jeremy and the boys from Disneyland.
Prediction: Magic in five