The time has come... for the NBA Playoffs! There's a lot more excitement in the Western Conference (at least early on) than in the Eastern Conference. So... let's start out there:
1-Lakers vs. 8-Thunder - The Thundercats were my sleeper team before the season began... and I hit the jackpot! Hooray for being right once in a while! The one thing I was wrong about before this season was that Nenad Kristic was still effective. He's not. Luckily for the Thunder, they've been playing more Serge Ibaka and less Kristic. Ibaka's been going nuts in the 2nd half and he's actually a rookie but he will have to be relied on heavily for the Thunder to win any games. One of the more interesting matchups in this series will be Russell Westbrook against Derek Fisher. Westbrook is probably the most inconsistent player in the NBA this season. He's had multiple games with 14 assists and 1 turnover. Then other nights he has 3 assists and 5 turnovers. He also is a horrible shooter (42% FG% and 22% 3pointers). It's kind of frightening, because he's lightning quick (Fisher has no chance against his speed). Despite all of these great underrated aspects of the Thunder... aside from the marquee matchup of Kobe vs. Durant, the Thunder are doomed to lose in 5 because they don't have enough to handle Gasol and Odom. If Bynum plays? Forget about it!
Pick: Lakers in 5
4-Denver vs. 5-Utah - This is a really crazy series. Kenyon Martin supposedly has knee tendinitis and has hardly played of late. Carlos Boozer has a "strained right oblique." Kirilenko has a strained left calf. Honestly? It's impossible to know how severe either of these injuries are because teams don't like to give that away. At least we know that Chauncey Billups will be going head-to-head against Deron Williams. Interestingly, Williams led the Jazz w/ 22 pts, 9 assists, 3 TOs, 44% FG% to a win on 2/6 but BILLUPS & CARMELO MISSED THE GAME ; to a loss on 1/17 but with 23 pts, 13 assists, 44% FG% (but Billups had 29 pts and Carmelo 37 pts) ; a loss on 1/2 but w/ 16 pts, 6 assists, 60% FG% but BILLUPS & Carmelo MISSED THE GAME, and a loss on 10/28 with 28 pts, 13 assists, 60% FG% (but Billups had 25 pts and Carmelo 30 pts). So... I think Billups has the edge unbelievably. I also have no idea who's guarding Carmelo for the Jazz, or rather, if anyone on the Jazz can guard him.
Pick: Denver in 6
3-Phoenix vs. 6-Portland - I can't believe Phoenix somehow drew the Blazers w/o Roy and Oden. Eesh. Portland does have Marcus Camby... and the Suns have just RULED OUT THEIR CENTER, ROBIN LOPEZ for the 1st round! This is going to be a wild, crazy series as the Suns will probably try to push it even more than normal I'd imagine. But there's no way I'm picking Portland.
Pick: Phoenix in 5
2-Mavs vs. 7-Spurs - Okay, here was the scene going into Wednesday (the last day)... the Mavs were playing the Spurs. If the Mavs won, they'd get a 2-seed. If the Spurs won, they could rise up from a 7-seed (but only if Portland lost in the nightcap to Golden State, which ended up happening). Instead, the Spurs decided to rest everyone... they got trounced, so now they draw their rivals in the playoffs. Some have even suggested that the Spurs WANTED to play the Mavs (which makes no sense to me whatsoever). Anyways... this much is clear: the Spurs and Mavs are the only teams with real shots to take out the Lakers out West. Interestingly, last year the Spurs were a higher 3-seed and the Mavs were a 6-seed... and the Mavs pulled the "upset." Granted, the Mavs only finished 4 games back. This year? It's just a 5 game difference. Since the trade deadline, I've been touting the additions of Caron Butler and Haywood for the Mavs. However, we only have limited data and it seems like a work-in-progress. I tend to believe these additions will result in the playoff victory... especially because backup JJ Barea proved effective at slowing down Tony Parker last year. Granted, this year Parker has a healthy Ginobili and healthier Duncan. This will still be a slugfest.
Pick: Dallas in 7
1-Cavs vs. 8-Chicago - Yes the Cavs have been resting and nursing injuries and will be rusty. It's going to get a bit chippy!
Pick: Cavs in 5
4-Celtics vs 5-Miami - I haven't been able to take the Heat seriously all year... they just have Wade with a tiny bit of help from Beasley.
Pick: Celtics in 6
3-ATL vs. 6-Bucks - The Bucks are the team of the year, a consensus last-place finisher in the conference that ends up making the playoffs?!? Too bad Bogut is out, because they have no chance without him. Also, for the record, Tyreke Evans deserves to be rookie of the year because Brandon Jennings was so inconsistent down the stretch that he would get benched if things were going poorly.
Pick: ATL in 4
2-Orlando vs. 7- Bobcats - Let me get everyone excited about this... the Bobcats beat the Magic on 3/14 (w/ Tyrus Thomas chipping in 9 rebs to help get a 46 - 34 advantage) ; Lost on 1/23; (the other game was 11/16 when Flip Murray scored 31 pts... but he's no longer on the team). The Bobcats are capable of matching up very well against most teams despite having almost no bench. The reason? They have a super-fast defensive minded PG, they have FOUR defensive-minded centers (Ratliff is playing, and playing well, no joke; Tyson Chandler, Nazr Mohammed, and Desagna Diop), and... they have athletic wings in Gerald Wallace and Stephen Jackson. This team is going to be a nightmare to handle, and I'm so glad that the Magic have to deal with it. It's entirely possible the Bobcats go Golden State '07 on the Magic. I will go on the record and say that as a Cavs fan, the best scenario is the Bobcats beating the Magic, then the Hawks beating the Bobcats.
Pick: Orlando in 7
I have to keep predicting... there's no way around it. It's tradition for me to pick... and pick incorrectly!
1-Lakers vs. 4-Nuggets - Kenyon Martin's knee gives out; Derek Fisher plays dirty against Billups; and the Lakers cruise.
Pick: Lakers in 5
3-Suns vs. 2-Mavs - Dirk gets to meet Steve Nash again. Dirk's team advances again as Robin Lopez fails to come back and the Mavs own the glass.
Pick: Mavs in 5
1-Cavs vs 4-Celtics - In an extremely physical series, the Cavs are the more talented better team. The Cavs championship aspirations depend on surviving this series w/o major injuries. If Big Baby Davis takes out Shaq's thumb again I will absolutely lose it.
Pick: Cavs in 6
2-Magic vs. 3-Hawks - Sadly, the Magic own the Hawks.
Pick: Magic in 5
1-Lakers vs. 2-Mavs - This is Caron Butler's chance for revenge against the Lakers, but not Phil Jackson (because apparently this was the one year Jackson didn't coach the Lakers). Caron Butler was part of the Shaq trade (along w/ Odom) and Butler only played 1 year for the Lakers (2004-2005) before the Lakers traded him for... Kwame Brown. Butler had 15.5 ppg, 5.8 rebs. It was fine. But of course, he was still getting better... and I hope that he goes crazy against the Lakers... beucase that's the only chance the mavs have.
Pick: Lakers in 5
1-Cavs vs. 2-Magic - All year I've been dreading writing this conference preview. Anything can happen in this series. It's the real NBA Finals in my mind. I don't want to sound like a homer rooting for the Cavs so I will simply say this: in the 2009 playoffs Dwight Howard had his way with Ben Wallace and Varejao... Z kind of held his own. If Shaq gets Howard in foul trouble or at least plays even the Cavs will win this series. Last year, the Cavs lost by 1, won by 1, lost by 10, lost by 2, won by 10, and lost by 13. It means they only lost by 15 pts over the entire series. If Shaq just slows Howard down for 20 minutes, that should be all the Cavs need. No matter what happens in Shaq-Howard, this series will be extra special because both teams were in a virtual arms race to assemble rosters that could go big, small, etc. Which players will they use will be an exciting chess match to watch.
Pick: Cavs in 7 with 3 OTs in game 7.
1-Cavs over 1-Lakers. I'm just picking the Cavs. They will push the Lakers around, like they did during the regular season.
Pick: Cavs in 6