Leaving Staples Center last night Lakers fans all around me had the feeling that this was the last Lakers game they would see in the 2008-09 season. All that was left is the trophy, the parade and the ring ceremony. Put this series in the fridge as there's no way the Orlando Magic rally from those two games and makes this a series.... or do they???
Stan Van Gundy pulled out all the stops, made the right adjustments and came within a missed layup from putting a real scare in the Lakers. So who's to say he won't push the right buttons in Game 3 and direct the Magic toward their first W of the series? Well Stan, I'm gonna give you five tips/adjustments for the Magic to virtually guarantee a win tonight:
1 - Continue to go big: The rule of thumb for most NBA teams today is to go smaller and smaller, stretch the defense, create seams and space the floor for the drive and kick game... that is unless you face the Lakers. LA is long, tall and long (did I mention that they're long?). Going small works if you have a quality point guard that can consistently break through the Lakers defense... and really even then teams like Utah, New Orleans and Houston had those guards and STILL they came up on the wrong end of the scoreboard.
The Magic needs to go big! Play Gortat at the 4, move Lewis to the 3, Turkoglu to the 2 and rotate Alston, Nelson, Lee and Pietrus at the 1 depending on the situation. Gortat and Howard are too strong down low and their mere presence have held the Lakers low post game in check. SVG played Gortat more in Game 2 and the Lakers lost their low post rhythm. Gasol and Odom had trouble posting up Gortat and eventually gave up and stayed on the perimeter. Sure Orlando loses an outside shooter and clogs the lane a little on offense, but they'll still find points as long as Turk, 'Shard and Howard are on the floor.
2 - Defend Kobe with Turkoglu (especially in the 4th quarter): Kobe's biggest weakness is long and strong defenders. James Posey last year and Tayshaun Prince in 2004 were both long and strong defenders that held Kobe in check, basically shutting him down in the Finals. Turkoglu's size will counter Kobe's very effective post game and he's quick enough to stick with Kobe in the perimeter. Plus Kobe's competitiveness will cause him to scrap the Lakers offensive game plan just to prove to Turkoglu he can score on him all day. This especially happened in 2004 and we all know what happened. The risk is that the Magic's best 4th quarter option will be run ragged chasing Kobe but at this point it's worth the risk. And TRUST ME Turkoglu will get enough under Kobe's skin.
3 - Don't worry about NOT playing your PG's down the stretch: For some reason SVG caught flak for benching BOTH Alston and Nelson late in the 4th quarter in game 2. Why? They weren't doing a damn thing offensively and Turkoglu's very capable of bringing the ball up court like Scottie Pippen or Odom. Plus it's not like Fisher's an offensive threat to force Orlando to adjust defensively. In essence SVG went Phil Jackson by playing a small forward at the point and size at the two with Lee/Pietrus... and it almost worked. At home it WILL work.
4 - Bench J.J. Redick: This is not brain surgery, you got past Boston and Cleveland with Redick stuck in DNP-CD mode so why mess with success? Sure he hit a HUGE three late to tie Game 2, but the Lakers also doubled off him most of the time he was on the floor. Remember those key steals late by LA... all by guys leaving Redick wide open. Duke guys should do what they're best at doing, getting all the calls in the college game and having overrated NBA careers.
5 - What the hell am I doing? I'm a 10-year season ticket holder and I want another damn NBA title. No more free advice for Stan Van Gundy!
Game 2 really put a scare in all Lakers fans. Game 1 made us all think this was an easy sweep and the parade is just a week away. But give all the credit in the word to SVG, he made the right adjustments and all the Magic needed was just a tiny bit of production from the PG spot and this series is tied. Playing at the O-Rena (we will not use pyramid schemes here) will definately help the Magic's slumping outside shooting. But fare thee be warned, the Lakers are the best road team in the NBA and in each of the three previous series they were able to lock down mentally, play with extreme focus and resolve and get a clutch win. Hopefully the mere sent of a NBA title will draw out the same efforts that we saw in Game 4 against Utah, Game 3 against Houston and Game 3 against Denver... we shall see.
Will the Lakers pattern of huge road wins continue for Game 3?
Just a very brief prediction on the NBA Finals...
Lakers in 6.
But here are some other things I hope to see:
-The real hedgehog sitting courtside for the game. Just how cool would it be when the Lakers do that "Hollywood Nights" celeb montage and we see a split screen of Stan Van Gundy and Ron Jeremy!
-Kobe winning the first "Bill Russell Memorial" Finals MVP award and temporarily silencing his critics with an NBA title. I say temporarily because, let's be honest, media members outside of LA can't wait to start the LeBron era and will continue to belittle Kobe's efforts (6 NBA Finals appearance, 4 NBA Titles, 3 All Star MVP's, one league MVP.... etc, etc, etc). Yet somehow despite all those accolades, we kept hearing how LeBron has bypassed Kobe like somehow Kobe has turned into Washington Wizards Jordan. Kobe's gonna be around for awhile folks. He's too smart and too much in tune with his body to see the type of production drop-off as we've seen with Duncan and Garnett.
And by the way, can we stop naming NBA awards after dead Boston Celtics players? Not for nothing but I believe there are 29 other teams in the league.
-Phil Jackson passing angry Red Auerbach in NBA titles. Red has said that Phil never built a team from the ground up, but Red never had to compete for NBA titles with 29 other teams. Red never had to deal with the NBA draft. Red never had to deal with salary caps, player entourages, media scrutiny.... basically the modern NBA. Can a Red Auerbach deal with the likes of Dennis Rodman or the Kobe/Shaq feud and get a combined 6 NBA titles out of them? Phil getting his 10th NBA title ends all of that discussion.
-The beginning of the Dwight Howard era! I know he's been around for awhile but I'm giddy about him taking his game to the next level for the next 10 years. People gasp as the prospect of LeBron's peak years, well Dwight hasn't even started his near peak years. This guy will DOMINATE the east for a long time, and we'll start to see teams adjust their rosters to counter him much like the NBA did when Shaq was at his peak.
Game 5, LeBron's last chance to save his MVP season... will he do it? Will Cleveland save their season? Will Mike Brown over annunciate every word during timeouts and show us that he's worth of coach of the year? Will LeBron prove what everyone at ESPN is praying for... that he's better than Kobe? Man, the drama is really intense!
Ummmm, not really.
Cleveland wins this game easily. So here's a quick message to all media members and fans begging to anoint LeBron "the greatest ever... ever... ever... (echo.... echo... echo)"... please spare us the 10,000 word love poems. The Cavs are the top seeded team in the NBA, playing at home, with the 2008-09 NBA coach of the year and the 2008-09 MVP... they're supposed to win!
Save all the "gritty effort, heart of a champion, Jordan-esque" and any other cliches you can think of... they're supposed to win!
The Cavs start two All-Stars and allegedly the greatest player in the next 25 years.... they're supposed to win!
Nike and especially ABC/ESPN have a lot writing on Cleveland advancing to the NBA Finals... they're supposed to win!
So spare us all!!!! Because Cleveland easily wins Game 5!
Put him to sleep, wish him to the cornfield, call in Dr. Kevorkian, have him kiss someone with Swine Flu, push him into traffic, spike his water with female hormones so he can fail a drug test... Whatever keeps Derek Fisher from playing for the Lakers do it now! How many more games will Fisher cost the Lakers before Phil Jackson wakes up from reading Jeanie Buss's tweets and benches his ass? Three points, two turnovers, one of nine from the field and ZERO defense, Fisher needs to meet the bench NOW!
Reverse of Game 1: The Lakers thoroughly dominated Denver for the first 22 minutes. The Nuggets looked lost and disinterested... basically the knuckle headed Denver Nuggets that most people expected showed up at the start of this game. Yet somehow the Lakers didn't take hold of the game and the Nuggets (behind a very impressive effort from Carmelo Anthony) got back in it, eventually stealing game 2.
Props to Phil Jackson: For benching
BOTH Bynum and especially Vujacic. Elden Campbell’s ghost took over Bynum’s
body at halftime. Inexplicably Bynum had zero energy early in the 3rd quarter and PJ just didn't have the patience to wait for Bynum shit. Vujacic shot selection was absolute gash, earning dirty looks from everyone in Staples Center not wearing powder blue. He needs to be destroyed like a horse with a broken
The WORST thing to happen in a
game: Chauncey Billups and Carmelo Anthony had balanced scoring in game 2. The Lakers are better off if one
or the other explodes, but if both get 22-30 each then the Lakers are in serious
trouble. It gives the Nuggets two go to guys down the stretch compared to the Lakers one with Kobe. And tonight, Chauncey's veteran moxie took over as he drew several key fouls.
The Lakers front line needs to not
be intimidated by Denver’s shorter front line. Two games into
the series and the Odom, Bynum & Gasol triumvirate have 62 points compared to 61 from Martin,
Nene & Anderson. The Lakers
“advantage” is supposed to be their front line yet they lead 62-61 after two
HOME games…. This is a VERY disturbing stat from LA's perspective.
Melo has REALLY impressed me. Late
in the 2nd quarter, the Lakers were on the brink of blowing the game
wide open… well Melo wouldn’t have it and he alone carried the Nuggets on his
shoulder and kept the game close…. aided by Vujacic’s TERRIBLE shot
Outlook for Game 3: The Lakers need to get points from
everyone not named Kobe on the road to get back
into this series… and I’m not sure how they’ll do it at Denver. Mix in that
out of gas, how are they going to win at altitude? And based on the first two games, I'm not sure they can expect their bigs to rally. So where will Kobe get the scoring help? Things look really good for Denver!
Lakers vs. Nuggets... which wins out, the streaking team or the team with the better match-ups? The Nuggets come in as the hottest team in the playoffs, running through the first two rounds and with a growing bandwagon loaded with all the "experts" labeling them the dark horse team du jour. The Lakers roll in, bruised and battered after a very unexpected 7-game series against the thoroughly undermanned yet prideful Houston Rockets. They no longer look like a lock for the NBA Finals.
Here's a brief rundown on the series...
It's 1992 all over again: This series reminds me of the 1992 Eastern Conference Finals between Cleveland and Chicago. The Bulls just finished a very grueling 7-game series against the the New York Knicks. Before the series, people expected the Bulls to run through New York in 5 or 6 games, but they were caught off guard and somewhat intimidated by the Knicks physical presence (Xavier McDaniel alone had Pippen in a fetal position the entire series). Eventually Jordan pulled Chicago through in Game 7, matching the Knicks effort on both ends of the floor. Phil Jackson even used video of Jordan blocking X-Man from behind as motivation for the Lakers in a film session earlier this week.
Anyway, the Bulls went from playing a slug-it-out possession-by-possession series into a more offensive-oriented game against Cleveland and easily dispatched them in 6. This series plays out the exact same way. Denver just doesn't have the right mind-set to play the brute-physical style of the Rockets. Don't get me wrong, they'll bring it physically, but not with the same kind of defensive control like the 1992 Knicks or 2009 Rockets.
Lakers weakness: Quite simply, the Lakers can't defend small and quick guards and they're weak on the defensive glass. Chauncey Billups is a lot bigger than Aaron Brooks and is more of a pull-up jump shooter than the driving/slashing Billups that killed the Lakers back in 2004. However, the Nuggets will get theirs on the offensive glass with K-Mart and Nene.
The other VERY glaring weakness is the Lakers effort... which is VERY disturbing that the Lakers have saved their playoff efforts until they have to.
Nuggets weakness: Shhhhh... nobody realizes this but the Nuggets front line is kinda small. Nene is 6-11, Anderson is 6-10 and K-Mart is 6-9 (but really he's 6-7)... they got away with being small against an even smaller New Orleans squad that game up on the coach and very slow Dallas team, but the Lakers throw out Pau Gasol at 7-0, Andrew Bynum at 7-0 and Lamar Odom at 6-11. They'll have to be even quicker against LA to have a chance.
Their other weakness that we have yet to see in the playoff is that they're loaded with knuckleheads from the head coach on down to the team trainer. Winning cures everything and beating far inferior opponents makes it seam as though the Nuggets are cured of all the past indiscretions. Let's see how they react when they're down a game or two in the series.
Coaching match-up: Phil Jackson is 11-1 in the Conference Finals with an 11 series winning streak. George Karl has lost in the first round of the postseason 10 out of 18 postseason appearances. One thing the Rockets series taught me is that the 63-year old version of Phil Jackson is not the same version as the three peat era. Clearly he's lost his fastball but he's still one of the top 5 coaches in the NBA. With Karl, I almost feel like he's winning with Denver solely because of Chaucey Billups and his job is to just get out of the way. Has there even been a more miss-match of coaches in the playoffs? (Well at least until Jackson takes on Mike Brown.)
The Big Question: Really this series comes down to Denver's ability to play defense. Do they have the right mentality to defend Kobe like the Rockets and Celtics? *NO* And this is really what this series comes down to... defending the opponents best player. When motivated, the Lakers have shown the ability to contain players like Carmelo Anthony and the slower Chauncey Billups but Denver doesn't have the roster to contain Kobe. Sure they can try to intimidate Gasol and Odom out of the series and they will probably succeed in a few games, but over a seven game series you're asking a high-octane offense-first team to suddenly slow down and contain a front line of Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum and Lamar Odom with Kobe Bryant pulling the strings... not an easy thing to do...
The Prediction: The big if comes down to the Lakers effort. IF they play like they're supposed to (Games 3, 5 and 7 against Houston), the Lakers win this series in 5. But as we've seen, the Lakers have taken the occasional playoff game off... which Lakers squad shows up determines this series... either way, I'm sticking with the Lakers in 5.
Just 30 minutes left before I drive on out to Staples Center so let me get a very brief prediction on the Lakers-Rockets series:
Lakers win in 6... but it won't be easy... here's why:
-The Rockets defense will focus on shutting down Kobe with mixed coverage from Artest, Battier and probably a rotating guard giving D-Fish wide open jumpers... but since he officially expired on 04/01/09 and that Farmar's confidence is at UCLA football level... the Rockets will get away with rotating away from the Lakers 1-spot.
-Bynum/Gasol versus Yao/Scola in the front court is a wash. Scola's activity will confound the Lakers, who were exposed by Utah as weak on the defensive boards but Bynum's quickness will affect Yao in the post. Yao ain't facing the sluggish Blazers tandem of Oden-Pryzbilla this round.
-The Lakers will struggle early in the series. The Lakers will come off very rusty in Game 1but they'll eek out a W tonight. But they'll come in overconfident and lose Game 2 followed by a million "the playoff don;t start until the home team loses" cliches.
-The Rockets have the depth and hustle necessary to give the Lakers trouble but they don't have the offensive firepower. The only way they stand a chance is by slowing down the pace and making it a Jeff Van Gundy-type of series with the final scores in the 80's.
-This whole series comes down to one player:
The Rockets can defend Kobe with a Artest/Battie platoon but they don't have a player capaable of defending BOTH Kobe and LO. If Odom plays like he did against Utah, I can't see the Rockets stopping him. He's too long, agile, quick and smart enough for the Rockets to defend without letting Kobe get off.
Three weekends later and the first round is finally over.... finally!
Remember the times when the first round was 5 games and was over by April 25th? Remember when the second round started as soon as the opponents were set? Remember the excitement of 2 or 3 games a day no matter what with practically every game having some sort of meaning? Take away the ultra competitive Bulls - Celtics series and we were left with a bunch of yawners in the first round. I know the NBA will never reduce playoff games, but the first round looks more like a playoff preseason, even finishing behind the NHL in excitement. And the NBA should NEVER take a back seat to playoff hockey!!!
Anyway, let's take a quick look back at all eight series in the newly christened Playoff Preseason:
Cleveland beats Detroit 4-0: YAWN! (And that was from Piston fans who didn't sell their seats to Cavs fans.) If we're claiming the Bulls-Celtics series one of the greatest ever... ever...ever (echo-echo-echo) and making lists proclaiming it as such then let's to a list of the worst ever call this what it was: an abortion! Basically this was the worst playoff series since the Celtics-Pacers in 2004.
The Pistons gave up on the season way back in November when Joe Dumars hired Michael "I'm afraid to stand up to my veterans" Curry and shipped their leader, their heart and their soul in Chauncey Billups to Denver for Allen Iverson's expiring contract. You gotta hand it to Joe Dumars, he not only killed one of the most successful teams in professional sports but he also ripped the heart out of Iverson and offered it to Kali Ma like that dude in Temple of Doom. The end result is collision of a team on a mission against a team mailing it in. I'm guessing Stern didn't consider this when expanding the Playoff Preseason to 7 games.
Orlando beats Philadelphia 4-2: If these teams actually had fans this might have been a little more exciting. Instead the only entertainment factor was watching the TNT crew rip the Magic apart for their offense, their coach, their star players, their role players, their fans, their city... everything. When did the Orlando Magic become the Terrell Owens of the NBA? I get that their offense is bland and uninspiring and that Dwight Howard is not yet at the level of playoff superhero but take it easy fellas. The Magic CLEARLY aren't in the same category of the Lakers, Cavs or Celtics but just a level below with Denver (thanks to their GM Joe Dumars). I feel they're headed in the right direction. I just think Orlando like NOLA last year benefited playing the role of upstart team and stole a few W's here and there (hello Lakers!). We'll see what happens next year when they play all season with a HUGE target on their back.
Atlanta beats Miami 4-3: Again since we're now all about absolutes, is this the worst 7-game series ever? The closest game was 10 points! Even worse, those loud 4-letter bombs you hear are coming from the ABC and TNT offices after missing out on the ratings winfall of LeBron vs. Wade. How did David Stern let this pass? The 2006 Stern would give Wade 30 to 40 freethows, the 2006 Stern would have fouled out Mike Bibby AND Joe Johnson, the 2006 Stern would have had Joe Crawford give the Hawks three tech's... oh he did?... well it least he got that right. The 2006 Stern would have found a way to make LeBron vs. Wade happen.
Anyway, the only other thing I got from this series is Mike Woodson's "who just farted?" face. Call me crazy but if your coach looks confused, panicked and annoyed AT THE SAME TIME... well I'm not feeling too confident unless I have a ghost writer coach like Tom Thibodeau.
Boston beats Chicago 4-3: The greatest series ever! The greatest clutch-ness ever! The greatest fans ever! The greatest coaching ever! (SCREEECH-CRASH!!!)
Okay stop right there! This definitely was one of the most competitive series ever. Five of the seven games went down to the last possession with each team showing extreme cantaloupe-sized balls. But let's take a pause before rating this as the greatest ever. As the TNT crew said, this series was close because of parity. If Boston had KG this goes maybe 5 and we're all talking about how boring the 2009 Playoff Preseason was. If Chicago had a head coach they win in 5 (seriously, how many times will Ray Allen be single-guarded with the C's down three? And how many games did Del Negro lose because he ran out of TO's?). If Derrick Rose actually knew how to play defense the Bulls win in 6. If Paul Pierce wasn't so run down from carrying the Celtics to 60 wins, the Celtics win in 5. But none of that happened and instead we witnessed easily the most competitive in the Playoff Preseason since the league expanded to 7 games. But to call it the best playoff series ever is absolutely insane.
The best ever are filled with drama, with stars, with destiny and a feeling of importance. Take the 1981 Eastern Conference Finals between Celtics-76ers, you have the drama (five games decided by 2 or less), the stars (Dr. J near the end of his prime and Bird coming into his own) and you have the importance (playing for a Finals appearance). Remember last year's Suns-Spurs Game 1? At the time people were calling it the greatest playoff game ever, basically erasing 60 plus years of NBA history along the way. But in the end the series fizzled in 5 with neither team having any relevance in the NBA title hunt last year. Now Game 1 is just a 30 second commercial and nothing else.
Let's see how Boston does for the rest of the playoffs before we rank this series in history. If they somehow find a way to compete with Cleveland in the Eastern Conference Finals then we're talking a heroic effort along the likes of the 1987 Celtics, who fought tooth, nail and broken ankles through to the NBA Finals. BTW - one of my favorite teams in NBA history and a true lesson on how to properly defend a title (2006 Miami Heat I'm talking to you!). However, if they get bounced easily by Orlando, then the Bull-Celtics series will be easily replaced by whatever close 7-game series happens next year.
One final note about this series: Rondo was great, but not THAT great. What I'm sayin' is that he's put together some very impressive numbers against ZERO defense. The Bulls focused on shutting down Paul Pierce and sagged far away from Rondo, giving him a slew of WIDE OPEN jumpers. Also, early in the series Derrick Rose played matador defense and leaked out for fastbreak opportunities. We heard Doc Rivers pointing that out during a timeout and Rondo took advantage to the tune of a near triple-double average. Before we start comparing Rondo to Isiah Thomas, Magic Johnson or even Chris Paul let's see what he does with defenses actually focused on him. But WIDE OPEN is still WIDE OPEN and Rondo made the Bulls pay for not defending him one iota... so I guess he's got that going for him.
One more final note: Will Boston drop a banner and throw a parade for eliminating a 7-seed at home?
March Madness eat your heart out! One weekend down and there were several upsets, a few stinkers and a couple expected results. As much as I love the whole one and done March Madness thing, you don't get the physical play, the adjustments and strategy that a 7-game series offers. Here are a few thoughts with one game down in each series:
Boston vs. Chicago - Is there room on the Derrick Rose bandwagon? The Bulls were the one team I regret not seeing in person this year. Anyone with an eye for hoops can appreciate the full range this rookie brings to the Bulls but what I didn't notice until Saturday is Rose's quick and explosive LAST step. Most players have that quick first step to blow by defenders but Rose explodes right at the rim at his last step. Also, his extremely calm nature works well with the youthful Bulls. Game 1 against the defending champs and he has the heart rate of a librarian and it's contagious as the Bulls weren't phased at all. I still think Boston wins, but the Bulls should make Rose the GM, coach and owner and build around him for the next 12 years.
Cleveland vs. Detroit - Are we done yet? Are we done yet? Are we done yet? SWEEP!
San Antonio vs. Dallas - One quarter in, Duncan had springy legs and looked very 2007, I was on the brink of writing a "Mavs should have kept Maquis Daniels instead of Josh Howard" piece and Nowitzki was in foul trouble... basically it didn't look good for Dallas. I left home, went out thinking the Spurs would win easily and I caught the last few seconds at a bar as Dallas... PULLED AWAY FOR A W??? What the hell happened? Suddenly Dallas looks like a very legit Western Conference finalist and San Antonio looks old.
Portland vs. Houston - This really looks like a match-up problem for Portland more than anything else. Maybe their inexperience cost them a W as they didn't have that fifth gear or maybe they're just happy to be there. All I know is Yao played the best playoff game of his life and showed EVERYONE that the problem was always T-MAC.
Los Angeles vs. Utah - No Okur, no chance for Utah... it's just that simple. But the real story is the referees killing the entire second half of the game. It's no surprise that Joey Crawford was the lead ref in the worst called game of the weekend. Does the NBA pay him by the fouls? Does he really think the fans pay to see him ref? Is he out to single-handedly ruin professional hoops? There were SIXTEEN fouls in the 3rd quarter alone and a free-flowing game became a possession-by-possession freethrow festival. Terrible!
Orlando vs. Philadelphia - I've said this all year, Orlando doesn't have the go to guy necessary to make a deep run in the playoffs. C-Webb pretty much blew a gasket ripping on the Magic not riding Dwight Howard all game. But does Superman really want to be "that guy" with the Magic or is he content with monster numbers, monster dunks and showmanship? NBA Champions all have the definitive alpha dog and an understood chain of command. The Celtics heart lies with KG but crunchtime went Pierce first and Sugar Ray second. The early 00's Lakers had Shaq for 3 1/2 quarters with Kobe as the closer... what about Orlando?
Atlanta vs. Miami - The Hawks put together a Special Edition Double-DVD set of highlights on the Heat on Sunday. Instead of 2006 Kobe and the Lakers with their near upset of the #2 seeded Phoenix Suns, the Heat resembled the 2007 edition and the very one-sided 4-1 loss to Phoenix. But we'll see what kind of road playoff team Atlanta is in games 3 & 4.
Denver vs. New Orleans - Denver put together a sick 21-0 run late in the 3rd early in the 4th to put away what was a close and very physical game. Chauncey Billups went retro looking like a 2005 version going 8 of 9 from three on his way to 36 points. NOLA basically gave up at the end of the 3rd quarter so this blowout doesn't really mean the Nuggets will sweep. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if NOLA steals game 2. This really feels like a very bitter and very physical seven game series.
And now the NBA's Varsity Conference...a UEFA Champions League to the Eastern Conference's UEFA Cup if you will... a preview of the Western Conference.
Los Angeles (1) vs. Utah (8) - Maybe Jazz fans can weigh in, but I see the Jazz as a very dangerous 8-seed. The only difference between the previous two seasons and this year is that Utah got a TON of injuries (nobody played a full 82) and never seemed to get it going chemistry-wise. So what's to prevent the Jazz from coming out strong and making this a hard fought 6-game series like last season? Jerry Sloan can flat out motivate, they have one of the best floor leaders in D-Williams and have one of the best home-court advantages in the NBA. The downside is that Utah is terrible on the road and there's something "off" about this team (the Millsap/Boozer contract situation is the pink elephant in the room especially with cloudy future financially after Larry Miller died).
The Lakers looked bored after their VERY impressive back-to-back road wins over Boston and Cleveland. People seem to forget just how impressive those wins were considering they lost Bynum one week earlier, but the Lakers and especially Lamar Odom rallied and showed the league they were the clear favorites... then they fell asleep, occasionally flipping the switch like the back-to-back road wins at Houston and San Antonio. The Lakers biggest weakness and a burgeoning red flag is the point guard spot. Derek Fisher officially expired on 04-01-09 and Jordan Farmar lost his biggest asset, his confidence. Phil Jackson has been forced to play Shannon Brown big minutes the last five regular season game looking for any consistent play at the one spot. This could be a major storyline as the playoffs move on... but the Lakers are too deep up front, are too long and most-importantly Utah doesn't have anyone to stop Kobe. Lakers win 4-1.
Denver (2) vs. New Orleans (7) - Do the Denver Nuggets have Joe Dumars on their payroll? Denver drafted Melo because of Joe D's man-crush on Darko and then earlier this year he traded them Mr. Big Shot, filling the Nuggets biggest weakness along the way. In the Melo-era the Nuggets were sorely lacking a team-leader and a quality point guard and with Chauncey Billups we were finally able to see the Nuggets true potential. Too bad the Nuggets are a Marcus Camby from being a serious contender and instead the best they can offer is a second round appearance (BTW - a first in the Geroge Karl's FIVE seasons in Denver). I still like the offensive skills of this team and this is clearly the best team Denver had since the Alex English and Kiki Vandeweghe era.
New Orleans is one season away from firing Byron Scott... unfortunately putting him as a top contender for the Lakers spot after Phil Jackson's retires in 2010... causing me to tell the Lakers to fuck off when I get my season ticket renewal form.
Okay so I'm ahead of myself, but Chris Paul is learning several fact this year: NOLA isn't that deep, NOLA is keen on cutting costs and Byron Scott is a terrible head coach (the guy runs one single solitary play on offense... ONE!!!). CP3's incredibly stellar play down the stretch couldn't prevent NOLA's slide down to a seven seed and with Tyson Chandler hurting I can't see them getting passed Denver. Their offense is keyed on the moving screen Chandler sets at the top of the key, giving CP3 an open 15-foot jumper, an alley oop to Chandler when the defense rotates over or a kick-out three by Stojakovic. This is why I never understood the Chandler trade in the first place. Dollar-wise it might have made sense, but basketball-wise and most importantly CP3's happiness-wise it was foolish. Anyway, this series comes down to Chandler's health... Denver wins 4-2.
San Antonio (3) vs. Dallas (6) - I really like this series! You have two older franchises at the ends of their runs going at it one last time. I give Dallas a lot of credit for rallying late and moving up to the six seed. It's hard to give a coach of a six seed props but Rick Carlisle kept this team focused though the weird Stackhouse situation and Josh Howard becoming Vince Carter west with all those random injuries and inconsistent play (yes I'm bitter as he sabotaged my fantasy team). Along the way Jason Terry because the team's closer, Dirk carried the offensive load the first 3 1/2 quarters and Jason Kidd blended in enough and tied Steve Nash as the worst on the ball defensive player in the NBA.
The Spurs are the Spurs... even with Manu out for the rest of the season you'll get excellent coaching, quality play out of Duncan and good defense (but not as great as the title years, but better than most teams). Tony Parker is the difference-maker in this series. How will Dallas stop him? They can't and they won't... San Antonio wins 4-1.
Portland (4) vs. Houston (5) - Before we go any further, the Portland Tralblazers held a huge championship parade-like celebration BEFORE the start of the playoff. Nothing says "we're just happy to be here" more than a championship parade BEFORE the playoffs. Three days ago I was giddy that my favorite victim, the Houston Rockets, sank to a 5-seed and their annual first round elimination. But this parade celebration might change everything.
Portland has the right mix of talent and size and they have a possession-by-possession clutch player in Brandon Roy that every contender needs in the playoffs. Nate McMillan's a damn good coach and LaMarcus Aldridge is the league's most underrated power forward... all ingredients for a long playoff run except for two things: playoff experience and a key veteran (like a James Posey).
The Rockets don't have playoff experience either, with T-Mac injured they lack the go to guy and Rick Adelman has made a career out of choking in the playoffs. But I'm sure Daryl Morey will put together a long list of stats to distract us from one fact: the Rockets have not advanced in the playoffs since 1997. BUT THEY DO HAVE SHANE BATTIER... whatever. Portland would have stumbled against San Antonio and even Utah, but they should be fine against Houston. Despite the pre-playoff celebration, Portland wins 4-3.
Finally, after a pre-pre season in October and a pre-season from November to mid- April it's go time as the real season starts this weekend... the 2009 NBA Playoffs. Let's start with the weaker Eastern Conference (yes, they may have three heavy weights in Orlando, Boston and Cleveland but CLEARLY the bottom 5 would be lottery bound in the west) and break down each series.
Cleveland (1) vs. Detroit (8) - My biggest question for Cleveland heading into the playoffs: do they have a fifth gear? Well looking at their path to the Finals, I'm not sure they even need a 4th gear. Detroit is rudderless, coachless, depthless (is that a word?) and... well they're merely a shell of the team that went to the ECF's six straight years. Kwame Brown started 30 games! Again, Joe Dumars, the GM that EVERYONE in the media loves signed Kwame Brown for 2-years at $8 mil. per, helped Denver become a 2-seed and killed Allen Iverson's will to play (no player played with more heart and soul than A.I. but hiring Michael Curry and then trading for A.I. did the unthinkable... it killed A.I.). The Pistons are headed straight for lottery land for years to come (seriously, will any free agent want to go to Detroit... ever?). Everyone, let's give Joe Dumars a huge standing ovation... (insert sarcastic clap here.)
Anyway, not much to say about this series. Detroit has no chance as Cleveland wins 4-0.
Boston(2) vs. Chicago (7) - First off, it's VERY disappointing to hear that KG may miss the rest of the season. The 2009 playoffs NEEDED Boston to properly defend their title. We needed to see Boston respond in a full 7-game series to the Cavs taunting from last weekend. And as a Lakers fan, I really wanted to win the NBA Championship against Boston with Kobe winning the Bull Russel Memorial MVP Trophy, Phil Jackson winning the Red Auerbach Memorial Coach of the Playoffs Trophy, have Sasha Vujacic winning the Danny Ainge Memorial All-Tears-All-Complaints Award in the playoffs and any other trophy that the NBA decides to name after Boston Celtics (hey commish, there's a lot more to the NBA's history than dead Celtics!!!!). Anyway, it's disappointing about the KG situation... but I did predict it last October with my very real Boston Icon Curse.
The defending champs have the experience, talent (Pierce is still one of the best playoff closers in the game) and coaching (Doc River's and his ghost writer coach Tom Thibodeau runs circles around Vinny the Black) to win this series. People will use the Bulls strong finish as a reason to make Chicago a threat in the series but I just don't see it. I think Chicago's goal after a horrendous start was to simply make the playoffs and they''ll carry a "just happy to be here" attitude as Boston wins 4-1.
Orlando (3) vs. Philadelphia (6) - Is Orlando ready for the next step this postseason? Will Turkoglu be healthy enough? Is there anything in Dwight Howard's sudden drop in play with Orlando playing for the #2 seed? Will Rafer Alston kill the Magic in the playoffs? Does Orlando have that go to guy necessary during playoff crunchtime? They really don't need to answer these questions against a pesky 76ers squad. Obviously the key in this series is for Orlando to control the pace and feed Dwight Howard constantly. If the Sixers were a futbol team, I'd call them the ultimate counter-attack squad. They love off turnovers and fast break points and Orland needs to just slow it down to win easily. I think Philadelphia rides their home crowd and makes this series a little more challenging but Orlando wins 4-2.
And by the way, that last question about a go to guy during crunchtime... the answer is a resounding no and THAT is why they wouldn't get by a healthy Boston or Cleveland... the key word being healthy.
Atlanta (4) vs. Miami (5) - Easily the most competitive series in the Eastern Conference. Will Wade ride his MVP-ish season past Atlanta to a potentially epic clash with LeBron? (BTW - he's a distant third to Kobe and LeBron only because his team is terrible and only made the playoffs because they're in a lesser conference... and you really can't give MVP awards to players on bad teams... I call it the Kobe in 2006 rule.) Everyone outside of Atlanta wants a LeBron-Wade matchup, ABC/TNT wants a LeBron-Wade matchup... I WANT A LEBRON-WADE MATCHUP!!! But unless the refs go 2006 NBA Finals on the series and give Wade 97 freethrows a game I think Atlanta will disappoint us because of home court advantage. Atlanta wins 4-3.
One last and very important thing... I am really concerned about the potential repeat of the 2006 NBA Finals with LeBron or Wade. Obvously they are the present and future of the NBA and with the economy down and season ticket renewalls lagging there's a need for superstars to shine this spring. I just hope the refs allow the players to step up without shooting 78 freethrows a game.