2008 NBA Playoff Preview
Eastern Conference Preview
Here’s my preview of each first-round match-up in the Eastern Conference, or as I like to call it, the Boston Celtics Invitational. The Eastern Conference should feature very few surprises this postseason as the top teams in the conference are just that much better than their underdog brethren.
(1) Boston Celtics (66-16)
(8) Atlanta Hawks (37-45)
Season Series: The Celtics won all 3 games by at least 10 points.
Analysis: I don’t have proof of this, but I heard that there has never been a playoff matchup with as great of a disparity in team records, thus you could call the Hawks the biggest underdog in NBA history. Of course, you don’t need to know that fact to determine that; if you’ve watched a decent amount of NBA action this year, you know that the Hawks are the biggest underdog in NBA history. Some might try to surmise that the pressure is on the Celtics, but when these two teams hooked up last weekend, the Celtics played their reserves in the fourth quarter of a tightly contested game and still won. But the most important fact is that the Hawks simply have no answer for Kevin Garnett. In 3 games this year against the Hawks, KG averaged 23.7 points and 13.7 rebounds. Throw in the fact that the Celtics are the team to beat, incredibly motivated, focused & rested and this series should be a first-class drubbing. KG, Paul Pierce & Ray Allen have been in the playoffs before, but never have they been in position to win a ring, so Atlanta has the unfortunate position of being the first-round fodder.
Prediction: Celtics in 4.
(2) Detroit Pistons (59-23)
(7) Philadelphia 76ers (40-42)
Season Series: They split the season series, each winning two games.
Analysis: This is an intriguing match-up for the Pistons. The Sixers were 18-30 on February 4th and looked like they were headed to another year in the draft lottery. Then they reeled off 22 wins over their next 30 games to get to 40-38 before a slight stumble right before the season ended. But they’ve been playing great basketball behind their two Andres, Iguodala & Miller, and getting Thaddeus Young & Lou Williams more involved has been key in their resurgence. While the Sixers have been an inspiring and nice story, they’re running into an experienced bunch in the Pistons. Detroit's been on cruise control of late, taking some nights off here and there, but they will get their energy back for the playoffs. They are so well rounded it’s tough to figure out how to stop them, as they will beat you from every position, and they’ve been getting more minutes lately from their bench, so the starters should be fresh. This ain’t the first rodeo for Rip Hamilton, Chauncey Billups, Rasheed Wallace & Tayshaun Prince, and while I think the Sixers could give them some problems, the Pistons will still advance.
Prediction: Pistons in 5.
(3) Orlando Magic (52-30)
(6) Toronto Raptors (41-41)
Season Series: The Magic took 2 out of 3 against the Raptors.
Analysis: This will be the finesse, Euro-styled matchup of the East, as both teams like to chuck it from international waters, but it is going to come down to Dwight Howard & Chris Bosh and how well they play to determine who advances. Howard went for 24.3 points and 12.7 rebounds against the Raptors, but Bosh went for 33 points and 7.5 rebounds against the Magic this year. Raptors’ point guard Jose Calderon has been playing out of his mind lately – in the last 10 games, he has dished out 77 assists against a mere 2 turnovers! He’ll need to continue that sort of ball control in the playoffs if the Raptors are to advance. The presence of the big men lead to the other players on each team throwing up as many 3-pointers as possible, so it could come down to if Rashard Lewis and Hedo Turkoglu are hitting their shots for the Magic or if Carlos Delfino, Jason Kapano and Anthony Parker are hitting their shots for the Raptors. But unfortunately for the Raptors, they have not played well of late (only 9 wins in their last 26 games – although Bosh missed a handful of those games), and they are matched up against a team that is essentially an improved version of themselves, and that version has been playing well.
Prediction: Magic in 6.
(4) Cleveland Cavilers (45-37)
(5) Washington Wizards (43-39)
Season Series: They split the season series, each winning two games.
Analysis: This should be an exciting series. The Wizards underperformed for much of the year and have had injuries to team leader and mouthpiece Gilbert Arenas (just 14 games played this year, but healthy now) and All-Star Caron Butler (missed 23 games, but also healthy now). Antawn Jamison has had a terrific year (21.4 ppg, 10.2 rpg) while playing almost every game and carrying the team for stretches. But they are playing their best basketball of late, winning 16 of their last 25, and they look like the team that no one wants to face, especially if they continue to use Arenas off the bench (which has been working great since he returned from injury). But alas, the Wizards are playing the Cavs, the one team that, no matter how bad they’ve looked at times, still have the biggest Ace in Hole in the league: LeBron James. Can you count out a team with LeBron, especially after watching him singlehandedly decimate Detroit last year in the conference finals? With all apologies to Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett & Chris Paul, this young man is the best overall player in the NBA (although he probably won’t win the MVP nor should he – this year). If any player can say, “Get on my back, boys,” it is the King. It is in the Wizards' best interest to strike first, strike hard and to get this series over before it reaches a Game 7. Because if it gets to a Game 7, well, buckle your seatbelts.
Prediction: Cavs in 7.
I’ll be back with more previews and predictions once we reach the 2nd round, but if this goes as planned, the Celtics would face the Cavs and the Pistons would face the Magic. And both the C’s and Pistons would win in 6 games, setting up a very memorable 7-game war between those two teams that have already had 3 battles in the regular season. The NBA & ABC would both appreciate another playoff chapter of Celtics-Pistons, not only getting the conference’s best two teams, but getting two franchises that had some memorable moments against each other in back in the ’80’s, so they would be able to roll out the old Bird & Isiah footage.
Western Conference Preview
This season is going to go down as one of the great regular seasons from the standpoint of competition in one conference. The Golden State Warriors went 48-33 and will miss the playoffs, a record that would have been good enough for 4th in the Eastern Conference. Not since the Suns going 49-33 in the 1971-72 season has a more deserving team missed the playoffs; and only 4 teams from each conference made the playoffs then. Any team can win this conference and whichever team does, they’re going to go through hell to get there.
(1) Los Angeles Lakers (57-25)
(8) Denver Nuggets (50-32)
Season Series: The Lakers swept all 3 games.
Analysis: The Lakers have finished strong, winning their last 4 games (including 2 HUGE wins over the Hornets and the Spurs) to clinch the top slot in the West. Kobe Bryant has been phenomenal this year and will probably take home his first MVP (although I don’t agree – the most valuable player to his team is clearly Kevin Garnett, but his numbers aren’t “sexy” enough). The Lakers really took off when they were given the biggest handout in NBA history when they got Pau Gasol from the Grizzlies and that pickup is huge, especially considering that Andrew Bynum is most likely not going to play at any point in the playoffs. The Lakers have a deep bench and that depth will be huge as the Western Conference playoffs will be grueling. While being the top seed will help the Lakers because they will have home-court advantage in any series, facing the 8th seed isn’t the cakewalk that it is in the East. The Denver Nuggets won 50 games, and they have Allen Iverson & Carmelo Anthony, the top scoring duo in the NBA. They showed their gall when they won in Golden State to essentially clinch a playoff berth. They’re not a streaky team, as their longest winning streak was six games (low for a playoff team) but their longest losing streak was three games, so they’re not the type of team that will pack it in if they lose the first two games either, and they are excellent playing at home (32-8). While the Lakers did win all three match-ups this year and even withstood a 51-point outburst from AI in one game, these teams haven’t met since January. However, the Lakers demolished the Nuggets in the two meetings in LA, Gasol was still with the Grizzlies and Bynum only played in the November match-up. I can’t see the Nuggets winning in LA, nor can I see them sweeping LA in Denver.
Prediction: Lakers in 5.
(2) New Orleans Hornets (56-26)
(7) Dallas Mavericks (51-31)
Season Series: They split the season series, each winning two games.
Analysis: Inexperience, Inex-smear-ience. That’s the only knock I’ve heard on the Hornets going into the playoffs, that they have very little experience in “playoff basketball.” Lots of players in NBA history have bursted onto the scene in their 1st playoff appearances, and I fully expect Chris Paul to do that this year. CP3 has been the best point guard in the NBA, leading the league in assists (11.6 per game) while scoring 21.1 points per game. And for someone who handles the ball as much as him, he rarely turns the ball over, as he has an astonishing 4.62 assist to turnover ratio (3rd in the NBA this year, but not since 2003-04 has a player had a ratio that high). David West has blossomed into an All-Star, Peja Stojakovic & Mo Peterson give them scoring from long-range and Tyson Chandler has also developed into a rebounding machine and he can alter shots in the lane. The Mavs have finally adjusted to playing with Jason Kidd and have been clicking, winning several huge games down the stretch. Dirk Nowitzki has been playing with some tremendous fire and aggression of late, especially since coming back from a sprained ankle (and even playing a few must-win games on that bum ankle). But the Mavericks seem to have the same problem that the Nuggets have – while they play excellent at home (34-7), they don’t play well on the road. Can they pull off what happened to them last year and pull the big upset? I’m skeptical because I don’t see them finding a way to stop CP3. And while they just beat the Hornets yesterday, the Mavericks were playing to avoid a first-round date with their nemesis Kobe Bryant and the Hornets had nothing to play for, as they had the No. 2 seed locked up.
Prediction: Hornets in 6.
(3) San Antonio Spurs (56-26)
(6) Phoenix Suns (55-27)
Season Series: The Suns took 3 out of 4 against the Spurs.
Analysis: The Spurs have looked tired, slow and aged at times this season and alarmingly, they’ve played that way down the stretch. The defending champs have played with a look that says, “We can turn it on when the real games start,” and they showed it last night when they demolished the Jazz right out of the gate. The Spurs have been the most up-and-down 56-win team ever; some nights they will run their opponent out of the gym; other nights they’ll never get it going. Of course, off all the teams to meet, they have drawn the Suns, whom they beat in the conference semifinals last year (and it was essentially the de-facto NBA Finals, since no other team was beating either one of them). It’s incredible that these two teams are meeting in the 1st round this year; look for the intensity to be turned WAY up after last year. When the Suns traded for O’Neal, my initial thought was that, if anything, adding Shaq moves Amare Stoudemire to the power forward slot and makes it impossible for any team to stop both of them. And I was dead right – Amare has been playing like a man possessed since Shaq came aboard. While they are on borrowed time with some of their aging superstars, the Suns have looked very good down the stretch and should be primed to make a move. And now they have the one of the two men who has been able to stop Tim Duncan.
Prediction: Suns in 7.
(4) Utah Jazz (54-28)
(5) Houston Rockets (55-27)
Season Series: The Jazz took 2 out of 3 against the Rockets.
Analysis: Utah really need a win on the road to end the season and couldn’t do it. So, despite their 4th seed they received for winning their division, they would only have home-court advantage against the Mavericks or Nuggets; and home-court advantage is more important to Utah than to any other playoff team - they went a blistering 37-4 at home this year! They apparently love home cooking. Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer play like the 2nd coming of Stockton & Malone – is there a law in Utah that mandates the Jazz have a top-notch pick-and-roll duo at all times? Although, one of those 4 losses at home came at the hands of the Rockets – it was their home opener. Now the Rockets had one of this season’s most memorable stories: Their incredible 22-game winning streak. Unfortunately for them, they also lost Yao Ming for the season during that streak, thus making them very vulnerable to good teams, which is all they are going to face in the post-season. Since losing to the Celtics in mid-March to end the streak, Houston has gone 9-7, but only 1-6 versus playoff teams. Looks like another year of a Tracy McGrady-led team getting bounced in the 1st round, as they do not match up well with Utah.
Prediction: Jazz in 6.
If this goes as planned, I see the Lakers edging the Jazz and the Suns beating the Hornets, both in a 7-game series. That would lead to an epic battle between the Lakers and Suns, another matchup that the NBA & ABC dreams about seeing, as they can hype up Kobe versus Shaq in the most meaningful of situations. And I, for one, hope that we can see that matchup too.