As the early spring months draw to a close, fans approach the “dead season”: no sports except baseball, with only the promise of future football action to keep them going.
Thanks to the NBA’s quirky playoff scheduling system, we fans have our salvation: two and a half months of playoff basketball.
This year’s playoffs feature some new teams and a lot of young talent hoping to be the future faces of the Association. With that in mind, this year’s playoffs contain some match-ups fans should look forward to for years to come.
As usual, the disparity between the top-tier and barrel-scrapers in the Eastern Conference is huge. The top four playoff teams in the East are legitimate title-contenders, and the bottom-four are wannabes who should contend in a couple of years. Don’t let the match-ups fool you, because there are some interesting storylines that make each game worth watching.
In the first match up the Detroit Pistons take on a young, extremely inexperienced Orlando Magic squad. This year Detroit expects to win it all. In the offseason, the Pistons’ front-office managed to unload defensive stopper Ben Wallace and upgraded with Chris Webber, giving the Pistons five legitimate all-stars on their starting roster. Webber’s story is unique because his return to Detroit plays out like the return of the prodigal son. In college, Webber played at the University of Michigan on one of the best teams of all-time, the “Fab Five.” In his college years, Webber failed to win a national championship, and was viewed as an underachiever. In fact, in one of the most memorable finishes of all time, Webber was trapped in a corner against University of North Carolina and called a timeout, even though the Wolverines didn’t have any timeouts remaining. That automatic technical foul gave two foul shots to UNC, who only bothered to shoot and make the first shot in the upset win. After college, Webber admitted to taking money for playing and as a result Michigan was placed on probation and lost its Final Four banner. In his triumphant return to Michigan, we can finally see if Webber will deliver on the promise he had so long ago. My prediction: Pistons win in five.
The Chicago Bulls and Miami Heat are facing each other in a rematch of last year’s first round. This year the Bulls hope that the defensive presence of Wallace can change their playoff fortunes. Fans are hoping for their first playoff series win since Jordan’s last with the franchise in 1998. Don’t be surprised if the defending champion Heat don’t make it past the first round. If Heat superstars Dwayne Wade and Shaquille O’Neal can stay healthy however, no one will be able to stop them from repeating. Chicago could win this series, but I think the Heat can rise above. Heat win the series in seven.
Another rematch of last year’s first round features the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Washington Wizards. Unfortunately, injuries have decimated the Wizards’ roster and their two all-stars, Gilbert Arenas (knee surgery) and Caron Butler (broken hand), are out until next season. Although fans are deprived of their star power, this is an excellent chance to get a look at the next Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant, 22-year-old LeBron James. James is undoubtedly the next face of the NBA, and his star power alone is reason enough to watch at least one game of this series. This match up is about as easy to call as they get. Cleveland in five.
In one of the most irrelevant playoff match-ups, the baby-faced Toronto Raptors are hoping to notch the franchise’s first playoff series win in quite some time against the geriatric New Jersey Nets. Neither team has a legitimate shot to contend for the NBA championship, but somebody had to make the playoffs. Jason Kidd is no longer the triple-double machine that he was six or seven years ago, but Vince Carter and Richard Jefferson can be dynamic. The Raptors are hoping all-star forward Chris Bosh will provide enough leadership for T.J. Ford and rookie Andrea Bargnani. I think the experience of New Jersey is too much for Toronto: Nets take it in seven.
Unlike the east, every team in the Western Conference bracket is capable of winning the title. However, what really separates the two conferences is the strength of their top-tier teams. The Dallas Mavericks, Phoenix Suns and San Antonio Spurs have the experience, depth, talent and attitude necessary to win it all. All three teams are loaded with all-stars, coaches and league MVP players who are starting to focus at the most important part of the year. There is major talent at the bottom level of the Western Conference playoff barrel, as the seventh-seeded Los Angeles Lakers have a legitimate MVP candidate in Kobe Bryant. Bryant, the league’s leading scorer, has topped 50 points in 10 games this season, putting him in second place behind Wilt Chamberlin for most 50 point games in a season. Chamberlain’s record is 35 50-point games in one season, a record which will probably never be broken. In the spirit of competition, here are the playoff match-ups and predictions.
Having earned the best regular season record and getting an inspired season from MVP candidate Dirk Nowitzki, you would think that the Dallas Mavericks would be happy to face the eighth-seeded Golden State Warriors. The Warriors, however, are the only team to sweep the Mavericks this season, and made the playoffs on the heels of winning 10 of their last 11 contests. A midseason trade with the Indiana Pacers that essentially saw both teams trade rosters gave the Warriors the boost they needed to make the playoffs for the first time since 1994. However, the awesome talent and defensive pressure of the Mavericks will be too much; they didn’t earn the best record in the NBA for no reason. Dallas gets by in six.
The best first-round playoff match should be between the Phoenix Suns and the Los Angeles Lakers. This rematch of last year’s first round features two-time defending league MVP Steve Nash taking on Bryant in an exhibition of floor leadership. Look for high-flying all-star Amare Stoudemire to have a big impact in the paint as the Lakers don’t have the personnel to match up with him. However, the Suns are facing the one team in the NBA that can actually win by throwing everything on one man’s shoulder. Look for Bryant to single-handedly keep the Lakers close. This series will go to the bitter end and will feature two or three games with both teams scoring in the triple-digits. Suns scrape it out in seven.
Many know the San Antonio Spurs as the most quiet, boring and underwhelming championship team ever. Despite winning the title in 2003 and 2005, almost everyone overlooks this group of characters. The Spurs win by having each player do their job, and nobody has a deeper cast of role-players than Greg Popovich’s guys in grey. They have the task of trying to sweep the Denver Nuggets who made the playoffs despite the Spurs’ best efforts. With the addition of gunner Allen Iverson to potent scorer Carmelo Anthony, the Nuggets should have been instant contenders. Instead, they dropped in the standings and went on a 10 game losing streak. Either way, there is no real threat to the Spurs dominance, not from the Nuggets at least. Spurs advance in five.
In the final match-up, another Texas team looks to compete for the championship. The Houston Rockets take on the Utah Jazz in a very peculiar match up. The Jazz, who few care to notice, face the Rockets, who are constantly overshadowed by two other Texas teams. Despite all of that, this could be a high-scoring series and I wouldn’t be surprised if the winner here went on to challenge for the NBA title. Rockets all-stars Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming want to deliver Houston’s first title since 1995. Ming, a product of China and undoubtedly the NBA’s biggest foreign draw, is hoping to deliver his first strong playoff performance. McGrady is trying to shake his rep as a playoff choke-artist. The Jazz are trying to make somebody, anybody, care that they still play in the NBA, let alone have made the playoffs. Anything short of an NBA title can’t deliver that, so the Jazz may have to rest in anonymity until then. Jazz advance in seven.