Friday, April 16, 2010

NBA Playoffs: Round 1 Preview

Its spring time! The NBA regular season just ended and all the playoff match ups are locked up. Unlike most sports, the NBA playoff system is very generous to the teams vying to make the post-season. More than 50% (16 of 30 teams) of the teams in the league that play the regular season will make it to the playoffs. Although it seems relatively easy to get into the NBA playoffs, the 2 month long playoff schedule will be brutal for the teams that go the distance.

The Tale of Two Conferences

The last few years, it has been harder for teams in the Western conference to make the playoffs than for the teams in the East. The main reason being that the relative quality of teams in the West has been undoubtedly superior.

In the 2007-08 season, the Golden State Warriors (48-34) in the Western Conference had to sit out the playoffs after a 48 win season, while in the Eastern Conference, the Atlanta Hawks (37-45) made it with a losing season. The Warriors who missed the cut would have been a 4th seed in the Eastern Conference that year.

Last season (2008-09), the Phoenix Suns (46-36) missed the playoffs win 46 regular season wins in the Western Conference. While, in the Eastern Conference, the Detroit Pistons (39-43) made it through to the post season with a paltry 39 wins (again, a losing regular season). The Suns would have nabbed the 5th seed if they played in the Eastern Conference that year.

Even this year, the Eastern Conference had a close battle between the Chicago Bulls (41-41) and the Toronto Raptors (40-42) for the 8th playoff spot. While in the Western Conference all 8 playoff teams have 50 or more wins. Oklahoma City Thunder with an impressive 50-32 regular season record this year, would have had the 4th seed if they were in the Eastern Conference. But they had to settle for the 8th seed in the West.

Apart from the disparity in difficulty level of making the playoffs, battling tougher teams in the regular season, the Western Conference teams also have a tougher road in the Playoffs. This season, the No.1 seed in the East, the Cleveland Cavaliers have a first round slate against the No.8 seed Bulls who not only struggled till the last day of the regular season to make the playoffs, but they are only a .500 team. This should be a walk in the park for the Cavs compared to the West, where the No.1 seed Los Angeles  Lakers have to battle Kevin "the Durantula" Durant and the Thunder who are a 50 win team. Imagine the beating and effort required by a team to go deep into the playoffs through the Western Conference bracket, compared to teams in the Eastern Conference.

On to the first round match ups.....

The Eastern Conference

No. 1 Cleveland Cavaliers Vs No. 8 Chicago Bulls

The Cavs are entering the playoffs in cruise mode. In fact, their last few regular season games, they played without LeBron James and fared pretty well. The Bulls will not offer much of a fight in the first round. The Cavs should be able to ease in Shaq, who is returning from his injury, as well as Big Z, who joined the team after a few weeks off the team due to a trade. By the time this series is done, the Cavs should be in full fledged playoff mode, with their full strength roster ready to play and go deep into the post season.

The Bulls on the other hand had an up and down season. This was supposed to be the year when the young Bulls team was going to take the next leap. It was supposed to be the coming out party for Derrick Rose, pushing the Bulls to an elite level team. But mid-season, the Bulls management decided to break up the team and prepare for the off-season free agency sweepstakes. They traded John Salmons, who turned out to have an excellent stint with the Bucks, who also made the playoffs. The Bulls finally had to scrape through to the playoffs, managing to hold off the Chris Bosh-less Raptors, fighting till the last day of the regular season.

My Call: Cavaliers in 5 games

No. 2 Orlando Magic Vs No. 7 Charlotte Bobcats

In spite of their rather slow start, the Magic have gelled together through the season very well and are a legit force to reckon with for the Championship. Vince Carter is playing with a purpose right now. So much so that the Magic are not missing Hedo Torgkolu at all. With Dwight "Superman" Howard in the middle, they will have a dominant defensive presence against any type of offense, let alone the Bobcats.

The Bobcats are making their first ever playoff appearance in franchise history. How fitting it is happening the year when Micheal Jordon became an owner of the team. Although they are a young team, they have some veteran presence and leadership, with Stephen "Captain Jack" Jackson in thick of things. It is one thing to beat good teams in one-off games, but its a whole different story in a 7 game series.

My Call: Magic in 6 games

No. 3 Atlanta Hawks Vs No. 6 Milwaukee Bucks

The Atlanta Hawks started this season where they left off last year. With the addition of Jamal Crawford last off season, they got even better, with more depth at the guard position. The heart of the team though is the duo of Joe Johnson and Josh Smith. And the team will go as far as they will take them.

The Bucks are another young team possibly ahead of schedule in the playoffs. Young Brandon Jennings has a confident swagger to his game. John Salmons is one of the most consistent scorers in the league. But without Andrew Bogut, they may have trouble defending and scoring in the inside. Do you still need to "fear the deer"?

My Call: Hawks in 6 games

No. 4 Boston Celtics Vs No. 5 Miami Heat

The Celtics are on a downwards spiral. The once mighty "big 3" are a shadow of what they were even a year ago. Kevin Garnett cannot seem to shake off his knee injury. Paul Pierce can no longer seem to carry the team on his shoulders with the game on the line. Ray Allen does not get into those "lights out" shooting zones any more. They depend more on Rondo and Perkins for success. Rasheed Wallace is probably the worst signing by any team this year based on his production (or lack of).

The Heat depend a lot on Dwayne Wade. And he is more than capable of doing that. He won them a ring with a past-prime Shaq as his sidekick. It might be hard to repeat that, but it is not so far fetched to imagine the more athletic and young Heat beating the Celtics.

My Call: Heat in 7 games

The Western Conference

No. 1 Los Angeles Lakers Vs No. 8 Oklahoma City Thunder

The defending champs Lakers started their season real strong, but since the all-star break, they have been inconsistent. All the injuries on the team did not help their cause either. They are now limping into the playoffs, hoping to have a healthy Bynum and an efficient Kobe. It doesn't help that they have to play the young Thunder in the first round.

The Thunder are a young team that is definitely ahead of schedule. They may be able to score with the big teams, but are very questionable on defense. Kevin Durant is the youngest ever player to win the league scoring title, and that to by 2 years. He is a superstar in the making, if he is not already one. The Kobe vs Durant battle will be must watch TV this series.

The Thunder played the Lakers close in 3 losses during the regular season. And they beat the Lakers by 16 the last time they met. Although the Thunder are catching the shaky Lakers at the right time, they have hardly any playoff experience on their team and may just fold when it is time to close out a playoff series. While the 'Black Mamba' will show no mercy, nor will the 'Zen Master' stop playing his mind games.

My Call: Lakers in 6 games

No. 2 Dallas Mavericks Vs No. 7 San Antonio Spurs

This is probably the most intriguing match up in the first round. The Mavericks are on a roll. But they are under immense pressure as their window to win a championship is fast closing. The Spurs are also at the tail end of their dynasty. Most people think their championship window is already shut. They were never healthy as a team the whole season and may just have the entire team ready to play when the 1st round starts.

Moreover both these teams know each other very well. The Mavs may have the better regular season record and may be loaded with a better roster. But the Spurs live for moments like this. They were never the best regular season team even in the middle of their multiple titles run. They always seem to raise the ante come playoff time. Will this time be any different?

My Call: Mavs in 6 games

No. 3 Phoenix Suns Vs. No. 6 Portland Blazers

This would have been a good match up had both teams been fully healthy. The Suns will not have their Center Robin Lopez. The Blazers may have no Brandon Roy who injured his leg with 2 games left in the regular season. The Suns love to score a lot. The Blazers will find it hard to keep up in scoring with the Suns with or without a healthy Roy. But the Blazers, especially after adding Camby to their team, are capable of putting out a clamp down defensive performance. They will need to do just that to keep the Suns in check.

But with Suns holding the home court advantage this series, the Blazers will have to wait another year to make a deep playoff run. I do not see the Blazers taking out the Steve Nash - Amare Stoudemire offensive onslaught without Roy.

My Call: Suns in 6 games

No. 4 Denver Nuggets Vs No. 5 Utah Jazz

This will be the most closely fought series of all first round games. Both these teams at one time this season, seemed set to challenge the Lakers for the first seed in the West. But, for different reasons, they both fell off the radar and ended up in the 4-5 match up in the first round.

The Nuggets have a really complete roster. They have two of the best clutch guys in the league today in Carmelo Anthony and 'Mr. Big Shot' Chauncy Billups. They also have guys like 'the Birdman' and JR Smith that can lift up the team with their energy even if it is going to be only in short spurts. Plus, they have home field advantage this round, which is real key against the Jazz. The Jazz have a good roster that is capable of making a deep run in the playoffs. But, they have a real bad record on the road this year. Moreover, they are going against a team that will be pumped up to stay alive in the playoffs at least till their coach, George Carl comes back after treatment for his cancer.

My Call: Nuggets in 7

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