Just before the start of the playoffs I submitted my annual playoff predictions, in which I see the Celtics beating the Lakers in a classic Finals series. I still hold firm to that earlier prediction, but clearly some of my other first round picks were significantly off the mark.
For starters, I thought Dallas's veterans and playoff experience would trump the young New Orleans Hornets, but as I write this the Hornets are up 2-0 in the series, with two convincing wins and two monster games from Chris Paul. And then, in the Eastern Conference, I thought the Wizards would prevail over the Cavs, but things are looking bleak with the Wiz down two games in the series and LeBron looking as hungry and playing as well as ever. Lesson learned - do not bet against King James. It reminds me of Jordan in his prime. Only a fool would bet against a Jordan team losing a series or a must-win game. MJ just wouldn't allow it. He had a force of will, a talent level, and - let's be honest - more than his fair share of foul calls in his favor. In the 1990s, MJ-led teams participated in 26 playoff series and lost only 1 (the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals against the Orlando Magic in the 1994/1995 season, and that shouldn't really count against Jordan seeing as he didn't start start that season until after the mid-way point). One day we may very well think of LeBron in the same way.
I also predicted that the Pistons would quickly dispatch of the 76ers: "A lot of people knock Detroit for being overconfident. From past
years, it seems that Detroit has believed that it can "Turn it on" when
it needs to, and win pivotal games. For that reason, and because of
Philly's strong play in the latter half of this season (vaulting
themselves from the lottery to the #7 spot), they assume Detroit will
have trouble with this team. I disagree. I think Detroit will come into
this series with a renewed sense of focus and will dispatch of the
76ers in 5." Whoops. What can I say? The Pistons came out flat and unenergetic against a young team with nothing to lose, and gave up the first game of the series while at home. I still think the Pistons will win the series, but their lackluster effort, while expected, is disappointing and does not bode well for them when they have to face the Celtics in the Conference Finals.
The Lakers looked good against the Nuggets on Sunday. Neither team played any defense and the result was a layup drill. Early in the first half the Lakers had a big lead, but let the Nuggets charge back and recapture the lead going into half time. But thanks to a third quarter collapse, the Lakers prevailed, and won big. The Lakers abject lack of defense is worrying, and I think it will come to haunt them in future rounds, especially when they have to face the Spurs in the Conference Finals. But for now, I'll just enjoy the high scoring, fast flying three remaining games of this first round against Denver.
Each year I post my (insanely inaccurate) playoff predictions prior to the start of the postseason. I some rare circumstances my picks are spot on, but most of the time I take a gamble or two and end up blowing the whole postseason (like last year, I picked the Dallas Mavericks to beat the Detroit Pistons in the Finals). This year I didn't have as much time to pontificate on my playoff picks because the Western Conference seedings weren't finalized until the last day of the regular season. The Denver Nuggets - the eight seed - have won 50 games this year. That would have netted them the four seed in the East.
Let's get started with this year's picks! I've put the winning team name from each series in bold.
(1) Boston beats (8) Atlanta - I don't think the Hawks have much of a chance this postseason. They are facing, arguably, the best team in the entire NBA. Moreover, the Hawks have been playing poorly the last part of this season, they have very little playoff experience, and were swept by the Celtics during the regular season. Boston in 4.
(4) Cleveland loses to (5) Washington - The Cavs have had a disappointing year, culminating with a multi-player, mid-season trade that was, at best, a lateral move; at worst it was a step back. The Wizards, on the other hand, have gelled nicely as the season wound down, and Gilbert Arenas is back in the lineup, now giving his team a boost off the bench. The only thing the Cavs have going for them is the fact that LeBron is a beast and he can, single-handedly, win games, as was evinced in last year's Conference Finals. This series should be enticing because this is the third consecutive year these two teams have met in the first round of the playoffs, with the Cavs winning the first two meetings. This time I predict the Wizards will win in 6.
(3) Orlando beats (6) Toronto - Toronto has had a disappointing season, while Orlando has done better than expected, especially with the emergence of Hedo Terkoglu. Along with Detroit and Boston, the Magic are the only 50+ win team in the East. I think this will be Dwight Howard's year to shine in the playoffs. Orlando in 5.
(2) Detroit over (7) Philly - A lot of people knock Detroit for being overconfident. From past years, it seems that Detroit has believed that it can "Turn it on" when it needs to, and win pivotal games. For that reason, and because of Philly's strong play in the latter half of this season (vaulting themselves from the lottery to the #7 spot), they assume Detroit will have trouble with this team. I disagree. I think Detroit will come into this series with a renewed sense of focus and will dispatch of the 76ers in 5.
(1) Boston beats (5) Washington - The Celtics are a much better team than the Wizards, which will be plainly evident by the end of this series. Boston in 5.
(2) Detroit beats (3) Orlando - While the Magic are clearly the third best team in the East, there's a fairly substantial divide between them and the Pistons. Orlando will win a game or two this series, and may be competitive in all of them, but I'm picking the Pistons in 6. Which sets up the Eastern Conference Final everyone's been waiting for...
(1) Boston beats (2) Detroit - These two teams had some memorable regular season matchups, so this ought to be an exciting and hard-fought series. The Pistons clearly have the experience, having been to the ECF for several straight years now, but the Celtics are clearly the best team in the League this year. Granted, Garnett and company lack Finals experience, whereas the Pistons have been there twice in the last four years, and the Pistons enjoy a team chemistry that comes from years of playing together, whereas the nucleus of Garnett, Pierce, and Allen is not even one year old. Still, I like the Celtics and see them winning in 7.
(1) Los Angeles beats (8) Denver - Denver is a team that, on paper, should be better than an eight seed, but this team has chemistry problems and consistency problems. Earlier this year Denver had won game where they scored more than 120 and then, the next night, gave up for than 120 in a loss. And they've exhibited little to no defense all season. This plays into the Laker's strength as they have a fast and furious offense. The Lakers main problem, in my opinion, is their lack of focus on defense. They've had a number of games the second half of this season where they had a large lead only to let it evaporate (like the 30 point lead they held against the Hornets only to end up winning the game by a solitary point. But with the Nuggets playing D-less ball, too, I can't see the Lakers blowing big leads, which I think they will have plenty of. The Lakers superior bench will separate them against most teams this postseason. Lakers in 5.
(4) Utah beats (5) Houston - Poor Tracy MacGrady has never been out of the first round in the playoffs and I can't see him and the Rockets getting past the Jazz this year, especially considering that the Jazz have home court advantage. Jazz in 5.
(3) San Antonio beats (6) Phoenix - This series is, by far, the most exciting first-round series I've ever witnessed. These two teams beat one another up in the Conference Semi-Finals last year; in response to their loss, the Suns waent big this season, trading Marrion for Shaq in February to better match up with the West's big men, like Tim Duncan. It took some time for the Suns and Shaq to mesh, but things are looking up. As long as the Big Fella can stay out of foul trouble, he should be able to dampen Duncan's scoring and rebounds. Additionally, the Spurs aren't getting any younger and aren't at their healthiest as the postseason draws near (with Manu and Barry having some health issues). But they have the experience, having gone deep in the playoffs every year since 1999. Given that, the Suns thin bench, and home court advantage, I have to pick the Spurs over the Suns in this series. But regardless of the final outcome, this series promises to be dramatic and exciting. Spurs in 7.
(2) New Orleans loses to (7) Dallas - The Hornets had a miraculous season, with Chris Paul playing lights out and in serious contention for League MVP. But they are too dependent on Paul. Take him out of the game and they fall apart. I think we'll see the Mavs trapping Paul with the ball, getting the rock out of his hands. What then? Yes, the Mavs have their playoff demons, and the Kidd trade has, so far, been an expensive wash, but I like the Mavs in this one. I think this is the worst matchup for the Hornets. They would have fared better against the Rockets or Nuggets. Mavs in 6.
(1) Los Angeles beats (4) Utah - This should be a great matchup. Two great teams; two great coaches. The Jazz have a strong nucleus that has gotten deep into the playoffs the last two years. However, I think the Lakers have the edge here, assuming everyone stays healthy. Plus, I don't think the Jazz can win reliably on the road, and the Lakers have home court advantage. I see the Lakers winning the first two, the Jazz the next two, then the Lakers the two after that, to close it out in 6 on the road.
(3) San Antonio beats (7) Dallas - This Texas clash should be a great series, just like the Conference Finals two years back. I wouldn't be surprised to see this game go to the limit, with the Spurs winning the pivotal Game 7 in San Antonio.
(1) Los Angeles beat (3) San Antonio - The Lakers are too fast and too deep. I think they'll blow past the Spurs, who will be exhausted from their back-to-back seven games series against the Suns and Mavs. Lakers in 6.
(1) Boston beats (1) Los Angeles - Ah, a Celtics/Lakers Finals series - pure nostalgia! Boston had the best record and was, without doubt, the best team in the League this year. Granted, they played in the Leastern Conference, but they had winning records against elite West teams and Garnett, Allen, and Pierce will outmatch the Lakers. Allen and Pierce are far better than Odom and Gasol. And although the Lakers have a much deeper bench, I see a rested Celtics outplaying the boys in Purple and Gold. Celtics in 6.
With a 112-108 win against the Dallas Mavericks on Friday, the Lakers clinched a coveted playoff spot in the highly competitive Western Conference. (Also, Friday's game was Pau Gasol's first game back since tweaking his ankle a couple weeks back.) Only two West teams - the Lakers and New Orleans Hornets - have clinched playoff berths, even with only a couple of weeks left in the regular season. Currently the Hornets lead the Lakers and Spurs by a game and a half, but their position on the top is by no means secure. Even the San Antonio Spurs, who are tied for second with the Lakers, aren't mathematically guaranteed a playoff spot (although they'd have to seriously implode not to notch one of the eight spots).
The Western Conference playoff race has been boiled down to nine teams, with the Denver Nuggets and Golden State Warriors battling it out for the 8 spot. But no one (save the Lakers and Hornets) is safe. Only six games separate the #2 spot and the #8 spot. As this season winds down we could have nine 50+ win teams in the Western Conference. Amazing.
The Lakers remaining schedule is pretty easy. They are on the road for the next two games against the Kings, Blazers, and then "on the road" again against the Clippers. They then finish the regular season with three home games: one against the red hot Hornets, one against the Spurs (on ABC), and the season finale against the Kings. Plenty of time to get Gasol worked back into the rotation. And with any luck the young Mr. Bynum will make a cameo or two.