In many years, the NBA playoffs provide exciting rivalries, and endless close games that could’ve gone either way. But this may be a year where the playoffs are a bit of a dry run until the two top face off in the Finals.
Certainly in the early going in the playoffs, there seem to be some series that are destined to go seven games. Houston and Portland are locked 1-1 in a steel-cage match that has every signs of a classic.
San Antonio and Dallas are also 1-1 as the series heads to Dallas. San Antonio is the more experienced, wiser, steadier team.
Dallas may well have more talent at this point, but they have never proven themselves able to get past the hump. Questions about Dirk Nowitzky’s toughness have lingered since Dallas’s 2006 collapse in the Finals against Miami.
Philadelphia surprised Orlando in game one, stealing the game on the Magic’s home floor. Orlando is a good bet to bounce back and win the series, but it may be much closer than anticipated.
And in perhaps the toughest series to call, the Boston Celtics have all they can handle in the Chicago Bulls. Boston eked out a win at the buzzer in game two, saving themselves from going down 0-2 as the series heads to Chicago.
The two teams have now taken a good measure of each other.
Chicago has shown that its athleticism and talent, particularly in its sparkling backcourt of Derrick Rose and Ben Gordon, may well overmatch Boston’s vaunted defense. Look for this series to go seven as well.
But for as many exciting rivalries and close games as the NBA provides, this is actually a year of juggernauts. Two teams are on a collision course for the Finals. Oddsmakers are setting the likelihood of a Cleveland-Los Angeles matchup as low as 6-5. In other words, the experts are telling us that the rest of the series are just a distraction – a sideshow until we get to the real thing.
Are they right? Can anyone stop the Cavaliers or the Lakers?
In the East, the Cavaliers are extremely well-positioned. First of all, they have home-court advantage over any team they play throughout the playoffs. They have the likely MVP in LeBron James. If anything, Cleveland is going to get better as the playoffs move along, because coach Mike Brown will be more willing to leave James in for longer minutes.
The regular-season mentality of trying to save the superstar’s legs is not as relevant in the postseason. There is more rest between games, especially for a team like Cleveland, which is likely to end each series early.
Cleveland isn’t just a one-man show anymore, either. The acquisition of Mo Williams has been very important for this team. The defense can no longer double- and triple-team James. He is just as likely to pass out of a double-team as he is to drive or pull up.
In their first two games against Detroit, Cleveland simply look dominant. Except for a late rally in the second game, Detroit has offered little resistance.
Cleveland is winning by an average margin of 15 points, and they don’t really look like they are struggling to do it. Assuming they get past Detroit, Cleveland will most likely see Atlanta in the next round. This is an underrated team that pushed the eventual champion Celtics to seven games in last year’s playoffs.
While no one has a player who can match up with James, Atlanta also offers some matchup challenges of its own. Joe Johnson is the rightful All-Star with the great shooting touch. Josh Smith is a beast down low, an athletic big man who can get up and down the floor and block shots. Cleveland’s big men, Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Anderson Varejao, will have a tough time with Smith. Nevertheless, don’t expect the Atlanta series to go more than five, possibly six games.
Cleveland would then face the survivor of the lower half of the bracket.
That is no longer as clear as it once was. The regular-season powerhouses of Boston and Orlando have looked shaky in the early going. Still, with Boston’s injuries, it’s safe to bet that Orlando will be there in the Conference Finals. Orlando does match up well against Cleveland. Varejao and Ilgauskas have a tough time with Dwight Howard, as does anyone.
Ben Wallace, if he’s healthy, could slow Howard down. But Wallace is a sluggish offensive performer, forcing the Cavaliers to choose between defense and offense. Still, Cleveland’s defense will put it over the top in this series, although it will probably go the full seven games.
Meanwhile, in the West, the Lakers are also cruising. After taking the first two games from the Jazz, the Lakers are in solid position to look ahead to the winner of the Portland-Houston series. That has been a real dog-fight, which only works to the Lakers advantage. Whoever they face will be exhausted.
The Lakers, and Kobe in particular, match up very well against Houston and have dominated them in the regular season.
Portland has given them some trouble in Portland, but is otherwise too young and outclassed.
As in the East, the second round may be the toughest one. The Lakers will likely go on to face Denver in the third round. Certainly this is a good team, and an improving one. But the odds are they will be just another bump in the road for the Lakers.
Which leaves the match-up everyone is anticipating: Cavaliers-Lakers. It would take a minor miracle not to end up with this match-up, but how it turns out is a tough prediction. Cleveland has home-court advantage and is playing terrific team defense. They have the best player in the game, too. But the Lakers are hardly far behind that, if at all. Kobe can lay claim to the title of best player in the game at times, and the Lakers are finally healthy.
They came within one game of leading the league in wins and they were without their starting center for half the year as Andrew Bynum recovered from injury. Now Bynum is back, the Lakers are deep and talented, and the waiting begins.