Monthly Archives: April 2010

Fear the Deer

Surprise!

Everybody knew it was over before it began. There was simply no hope of advancing especially when pitted against such a seasoned and well rounded group with contender aspirations. They had been here before and gone toe to toe with the elite. This year they even added a new threat to bolster an already potent roster. In the Eastern Conference, where three of the series have already concluded, one continues on, to the surprise of many. This series is like the Land of the Lost in the East as somehow it has fallen into a dimensional portal where legitimate competition still exists. (Imagine, if you will, a giant hawk and deer chasing sports writers through a prehistoric land while constantly battling each other.) Unlike the other series’ where the losing team won a total of two combined games, the series pitting two animalistic forces against one another has yet to be decided. What everybody was so certain of before the series began has only proven to show how little anyone actually knew.

When Andrew Bogut went down towards the end of the regular season the Milwaukee Bucks lost their best defensive player. At the time they were poised to face the Boston Celtics in the first round in what many considered to be a rather favorable draw considering how poorly the Celtics were playing at that time. (Boston clearly drank its prune juice just before the playoffs began as they look like a completely different team after making quick work of the Miami Heat.) Instead the Bucks dropped a seed and were paired with Atlanta to open the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs. The writing was on the wall. Atlanta is making their third consecutive playoff appearance and is looking to improve on last season’s playoff run where they lost to the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern semifinals. It was assumed that they would be the aggressor wanting to capitalize on the opportunity to solidify themselves as an elite team in the East. Milwaukee, on the other hand, had not even reached the postseason since 2006 and has not won a playoff series since losing in the Eastern Conference finals in 2001.

After the first two games the Hawks looked to have a commanding stranglehold on the series. In the first two games the Hawks won by ten points each time. Paced by their regular season scoring leaders, Joe Johnson and Sixth Man of the Year, Jamal Crawford, Atlanta seemed to be firing on all cylinders. Johnson scored a total of 49 points in the two wins while Crawford scored 17 in the first game but had a low scoring game two. However, when Crawford went cold the slack was quickly picked up by others. Al Horford and the human highlight reel that is Josh Smith more than made up for Crawford’s off game with superb performances of their own. Smith totaled 21 points, cleaned the glass for 14 rebounds, and dished out nine dimes while Horford had 20 points and ten rebounds. With Bogut out these two were more than eager to dominate all aspects of the painted area on both sides of the floor. Who could stop them? Yet, not all is what it seems in the two games that Atlanta was able to notch in their belt.

During the first encounter between the teams the Hawks were able to build a 20 point lead in the first quarter and were able to sustain that lead which grew to 22 point at halftime. One half, just one half of basketball is how much the Hawks actually played in that game. It was enough in the end but was telling of what the future had in store. All season long the Atlanta Hawks have had trouble closing out games and if it were not for such a big lead they might have very well found themselves on the wrong side of the win/loss column. Game two was a much more even affair with Milwaukee hanging around much to the chagrin of the Hawks.  The third quarter was when Atlanta finally was able to pull away outscoring the Bucks 24-16. One good quarter of play, that is all it took but this is a team that was supposed to dismantle Milwaukee with their star player out for the playoffs. Nonetheless the Hawks won the first two games on their home court but in the wins another story was lurking just below the surface.

Brandon Jennings, who will likely come in second or third in the ROY voting today after Tyreke Evans is announced the winner, carried the Bucks in game one. In fact, he essentially was the Bucks in the first game. Atlanta had no answer for him. He scored 34 points and connecting on four of six shots from behind the arc. Over all he was 14-25 shooting for the game. These numbers could have been higher for Jennings, however, as he had five of his shots blocked. It would be wise to note again that the Bucks only lost by ten points. In the second game the Hawks gave Joe Johnson the task of guarding Jennings for much of the game. This had the desired result for Atlanta as it slowed down Jennings but the side effect to slowing the production of Jennings was that it awoke the powers of Sampson that John Salmons stores in his beard.

Since being acquired from the Bulls (who looked as though they still needed his scoring might in their series with the Cavs) Salmons has been a major factor on both sides of the ball for the Bucks contributing heavily to their success. He shouldered Milwaukee’s scoring attack for the second and third games of the series scoring 21 and 22 points respectively. It would take more than the effort than one player to get the Bucks back into the series however, and they would get it once they returned to the Bradley Center. Milwaukee pounced on the Hawks quickly in game three scoring 39 points in the first quarter on route to an eighteen point rout of the Hawks. Their attack was finally balanced, despite Brandon Jennings sitting out after a fall, with Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, Luke Ridnour, Ersan Ilyasova, and Jerry Stackhouse all scoring in double figures to go along with Jennings’ 13 points and Salmons’ scoring output. Jerry Stackhouse has had a sort of resurgence during this series as he has been one of Milwaukee’s best bench players.  A series was beginning to take shape.

In game four it was more of the same for the Bucks in terms of scoring distribution as it was spread among several players again. Carlos Delfino was key for Milwaukee scoring 22 points with 18 of those points coming from downtown. Jennings returned to form scoring 23 points and Salmons contributed 22 as the Bucks won 111-104. The Bradley Center completely rejuvenated the Bucks and they are playing like the team that made the successful run after the All Star break to solidify a playoff spot. In the absence of Andrew Bogut, Kurt Thomas and Dan Gadzuric have performed stoutly in the middle. So each team has won on their home floor. This is the point of home court advantage and the series was now tied at two games apiece. Atlanta’s early swagger had all but vanished since their early success, not only could not finish games strong, they were not even in a position to win the games late as Milwaukee paraded to the foul line late in game four allowing them to hold off a push by the Hawks.

Last night in Atlanta the Hawks looked to regain their lost confidence as they took the court at Philips Arena where they had won fourteen straight games. The Hawks scored consistently in the first three quarters totaling 23 points in each and went into the fourth quarter with a 69-61 lead. With 4:10 left in the game the Hawks led 82-73 and appeared in control in front of their home crowd. However, the Bucks went on an 18-5 run to close the game and give them a 91-87 win stamping out the high flying Hawks and their aspirations of victory. With the win, Milwaukee now holds a three games to two series lead. Again, the Bucks’ usual suspects paced the team. Jennings scored 25 points and Salmons pitched in 19 in the win.

Atlanta has no answer for Milwaukee’s two main scoring threats and has blown each opportunity they have had to regain some semblance of their former selves. Joe Johnson has been the only constant for the Hawks as his teammates have not played consistently each game. Jamal Crawford, Al Horford, and Josh Smith have all been crucial at times but their efforts are not coming when the Hawks need it most. Unless they can solve the problem that Jennings and Salmons have created defensively Atlanta can only hope to survive their next game in the Bradley Center. Major adjustments must be made for force a game seven. The once lauded Hawks are in trouble, can they stop the Bucks’ stampede? Atlanta’s missteps have, however, given the otherwise uneventful Eastern Conference first round a series worth watching. No one doubted that this was their series to win.

What everyone knew turned out be nothing at all. Without Bogut each player for Milwaukee has elevated their play to get the Bucks into the position they are in. Instead of succumbing to Atlanta’s buckshot, they have clipped the wings of the Hawks. Playing in front of their hometown fans, with chants of “fear the deer” reigning down, will give the Bucks extra motivation to win game six and advance to meet the rested Magic in the semifinals. Atlanta’s singular task is to force a game seven but if their two previous games in the Bradley Center are any indication of their performance the outlook is dim. It would not be ludicrous to assume that the Hawks could be the outcast when the Orlando Magic resume play for the second round.

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Thunder Struck

The decline and fall of an empire?

What has transpired is nothing short of shocking to those who believe that empires never crumble. A new power is emerging where a once mighty dynasty crumbles. Of course this dynasty will do everything in its power to stay aloft for as long as it can but the writing has been on the wall for some years. Occasionally they have looked like the once impregnable power that they were but now mere pricks in their armor have become gaping holes revealing wounds that have yet to heal. To mask the wounds an elaborate spectacle is put on as to distract those on the outside looking in. It is a spectacle filled with non sequiturs and Zen-like witticisms among other dribble and banter. The spectators eat it up; they drink all of the milkshake, chuckle to themselves and then report that all is well in the kingdom blindly glossing over the visible wounds because all they see is gold. However, the wounds are prominently on display now. The current incarnation of the former dynasty, which reclaimed glory its lost glory the previous year, is now returning to their kingdom, wounds agape, after a disastrous expedition to the plains.

What has transpired over the course of the last two games has been eye opening to say the least. The Los Angeles Lakers traveled to Oklahoma City with a two game to nothing lead in the series as they prepared to face off with the Thunder in the Ford Center. Everything looked right in Lakerland, but that could not have been farther from the truth. Kobe Bryant erupted in game two scoring 39 points in the Lakers’ win. Pundits were quick to shower down praise of Bryant’s performance, it was a great one, but they sugar coated the failings of the rest of the team. Bryant’s 39 point outburst should have meant that the Lakers had easily beaten the Thunder. The final score was 95-92, a mere three point victory. Kobama was forced to dial up yet another bailout. Pau Gasol tallied 25 points and 12 rebounds but the rest of the Lakers failed to make any meaningful impact on the game. Curious as to who the next highest scoring Laker was? It was a tie: Andrew Bynum and the overhype machine that is Shannon Brown each had six points. Yes, that is right, six points. Championship quality isn’t it? In game two the writing on the wall became embossed.

A change in scenery was all it took for the true focus and determination of the Lakers and Thunder to emerge. There are many who are still bitter, and rightly so, that Oklahoma City has a professional basketball team due to the circumstances surrounding the relocation. However, the people of Oklahoma City have fully embraced them. There is little more than a Greyhound station, Toby Keith’s mega restaurant, and an art museum that is slightly bigger than a well off gallery in Oklahoma City so realistically citizens there have limited entertainment options but their love and support of the Thunder is sincere. The support of the home crowd fueled the play of the young Thunder team in game three. Kevin Durant, with the raucous crowd behind him, took to task the duties of Bryant after his scoring out bust in game two. It worked wonderfully. Bryant scored 24 points on 10-29 shooting. The Lakers’ starting five had a much more balanced attack but yet again, as has been written about countless time here on the Beef, the Lakers’ bench was nonexistent, their stint as a barren wasteland of non talent continues. Lamar Odom is generally excused from this grouping but he has been a non factor this series so he is included. Durant, to go along with his outstanding defense, scored 29 points and pulled down 19 rebounds to pace the Thunder to a 101-96 victory. The Thunder now had life.

The stage was set for game four and the crowd and Thunder players were ready as they looked to even the series at two games apiece. “A lot of people didn’t expect us to be here and once we got here, people were saying we were going to get swept,” Durant said. He was spot on with that statement, read any blogs and message boards and hardly anyone gave the Thunder a chance. Here at the Beef we projected them to win two games. They have done that. However, it would not be inconceivable for them to win another. The rout was on early as the Thunder never trailed after the opening five minutes. Oklahoma City led by as many as 29 points at one point. Embarrassing is the only word that can describe the performance of the Lakers, no that is not true. There are others: outmatched, lazy, slow, lacking focus, and overrated are just a few. The Thunder poured it on from the floor and also from the line and when the wind stopped sweeping through the plains the Lakers were left on the wrong side of 110-89 margin.

“Who knew?” Those were the two words spoken by Stuart Scott about the one constant over the four games played so far in this series. Stuart Scott must not read the Kobe Beef. (Hey, Stu, we’re what’s good.) Russell Westbrook has torched the Lakers in each of the four games and there is no solution that the Zen Master can come up with that can stop him. Los Angeles does not have the personnel. In Oklahoma City the tandem of Westbrook and Durant clicked together like it had all season. In Los Angeles the play of Durant was subpar but Westbrook was superb. In game one Westbrook scored 23 points and dished out eight dimes, he had 19 points in game two. At home he was even better totaling 27 points and eight rebounds in game three and 18 points, eight rebounds, and six assists in game four. Can the Lakers stop him going forward in this series? Short answer: no, long answer: not a chance.

The Lakers may yet win the series as the hold the home court advantage but another misguided venture into the plains is the last thing that L.A. wants to think about but it is in their heads. It is yet another open wound that has been revealed as the armor and gold has been chipped away. Only a championship run could restore the fading nostalgia of dynasties gone by. Yet, the more the writing on the kingdom walls grows more prevalent as it spreads from the back alleys to Main Street. A young and vicious opponent is knocking at the gate and the kingdom is threatened. No longer can one turn a blind eye to the troubling state of affairs within the once idolized standard of glamour and success. Hole in the armor have given way to no armor at all. They have become impotent at the hands of a younger aggressor. Championship aspirations should be cast to the wind as the glory of the past has no place and cannot be replicated in the present. The kingdom is crumbling.

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They got 99 problems and making the playoffs is only one

Here at the Beef, we are in full-blown playoff mode.  Sixteen teams are jockeying for the ultimate goal: the NBA Championship.  However, there are 14 teams that are looking past the championship and towards next season.  These lottery-bound teams all have their own problems and even nightmares to work out in order to improve.  The Kobe Beef has a little bit of advice for these general managers.

First, let’s start out East and take a trip to Canada to visit our ailing Raptors.  Toronto had a run for the playoffs at the end of the season but without Chris Bosh, what did we really expect them to do against the Cavs?  Bringing in Hedo Turkoglu was a pretty big mistake.  He was working out in Orlando but that was under an offense that allowed him and other three-point shooters to flourish.  Alongside Dwight Howard, he was what we call an x-factor.  You can’t trade an x-man and expect the same numbers.  His rebounding and shooting were their worst in years.  The Raptors had two promising players in Anthony Parker and Jamario Moon but they are in the playoffs with the Cleveland Cavaliers. Jose Calderon’s numbers have been down as well and I still really don’t understand why bringing in Reggie Evans ever sounded like a good idea.  This team has been affiliated with several questionable trades and short-lived Canadian NBA careers (Shawn Marion and Jermaine O’Neal instantly come to mind). DeMar DeRozan will hopefully get better adding to the front court but there might be a big hole at the forward position come this summer’s free agency.  Chris Bosh is going somewhere.  Where? We don’t know yet.

It has been speculated that general manager Bryan Colangelo has made moves to help convince Bosh to stay in town but bringing in Amir Johnson and Sonny Weems doesn’t seem like enough.  In fact, nothing seems like enough for these Raptors.  The team needs to make several moves.  Bosh’s place will need to be filled.  It’s not going to be easy since he has turned into both an All-Star and leader on this team.  In addition, a better bench will need to be built.  This team really screwed itself by turning into the revolving door that it has been for the past few years.  The problems are too numerous and complex to list out and Toronto had no business even being in the playoff chase.

Next, let’s take a look to the Midwest at a team that is obviously at a mid-point in it’s development.  The Pacers have come a long way from the Malice at the Palace.  Larry Bird has come in and really cleaned this team up by shipping off Ron Artest, Al Harrington and Stephen Jackson.  Indiana brought in a lot of good players with Mike Dunleavy, T.J. Ford, Troy Murphy and Earl Watson.  They have built an amazing player in Danny Granger and even though I can’t help but hate him, Tyler Hansbrough might turn into something.

Despite the upsides and potential signs of life coming out of Indiana, they are on the outside looking in.  Jeff Foster only played in 18 games all season and underwent season-ending surgery on his lower back in February.  When playing, he didn’t score in double digits all season.  Roy Hibbert will be a great center one day but it’s a little soon for this rookie to step up completely.  In addition, the division was a very difficult one this season with the emergence of the Milwaukee Bucks and the dominating Cavaliers.

The Pacers ended the season fairly well winning 10 of 14 and they put together a few good winning streaks over the course of the season.  They managed to sweep the Pistons for the first time in five years and the Nets for the first time in 20 years.  It’s nothing impressive but at least it’s something.  If the Pacers stay healthy, keep their core together and build at the guard position, they might be competing past mid April.

Only one name even comes close to resembling the silver lining in New York.  David Lee had one of the most underrated and least talked about seasons.  This Florida alum averaged a double-double with just over 20 points and 10 rebounds a game.  Over the past two regular seasons, Lee has proven his consistency and should be considered a solid building block in the Big Apple along with Danilo Gallinari and rookie Toney Douglas.  Outside of those three, the team is pretty much a bunch of has-beens and wash-ups.  Tracy McGrady looked good for the first game before fading into obscurity.  Al Harrington hasn’t been a high-caliber player since Indiana and very rarely shows his former talent or emotion.  Eddie House is old and Eddy Curry is Eddy Curry.

It used to be tradition for the Knicks to be a dominating, powerhouse team.  As of late, it seems to be the opposite.  From Isiah Thomas to Stephon Marbury, New York just can’t be taken seriously.  Mike D’Antoni isn’t the man for rebuilding especially with such a sad group of apathetic trash.  The Knicks have a ton of problems and it may be time to clean house completely and start from scratch.  Don’t hold your breath this offseason.  LeBron is NOT going to the Knicks.  He is trying to win a ring and not rebuild a team that hasn’t made the playoffs in seven years.

What can’t be said about the Pistons that hasn’t already been said about the city of Detroit itself.  It’s desolate, empty and dead.  It too, like the city, was full of life and flourished.  Now, the talent is gone and the names that do remain are rarely mentioned.  However, Rodney Stuckey and Will Bynum will hopefully serve as a bailout for this team.  Richard Hamilton’s three pointer doesn’t seem so deadly anymore and Teyshaun Prince really is that lazy.  Ben Gordon would have been a great pick up a few years ago but his game is too marred by inconsistency.  They also have what could be considered the worst duo of fives with Kwame Brown and Ben (yes, I almost retired) WallaceCharlie Villanueva had a decent season but he too was inconsistent and isn’t the player he was last season in Milwaukee.

Detroit has some problems but with their nice set of young guards they have something to build on.  It’s time to clean house though and let Ben Wallace go on and retire.  Hopefully Villanueva will get back into a rhythm next season and give them something to work with in the frontcourt.  They need new fours and new fives but the same can be said for nearly every lottery team.  It’s going to take a lot to get the bad-boy swagger back in Detroit.  Again, don’t hold your breath.  Unless this team tests the market (no matter how small it might be) for Prince and Hamilton, don’t expect any significant changes to this squad.

Sending Andre Miller to Portland is looking pretty stupid right now for Philadelphia.  Jrue Holiday does show promise but Miller is lighting it up for a team that actually did make the playoffs. Elton Brand is looking like a huge bust seeing as he has only played in 37 games over the last two seasons.  This shouldn’t have been a surprise to ANYONE that actually follows basketball.  If you are an injury prone player, you don’t loose the habit as you get older.  The 31-year-old is not getting any stronger and I’m sure that contract is really starting bug general manager Ed Stafanski.  Firing Mo Cheeks was certainly a blessing for him since he is thoroughly enjoying his position with the Thunder.  Bringing in Allen Iverson was the single-most pathetic moment of the entire NBA season.  No question.  Samual Dalembert’s rebounds were enough to make sure I didn’t make fun of him too much but his season was still nothing to brag about.

Positives? Marreese Speights is shaping out to maybe be a pretty good center.  Andre Iguodala had a down year but it will hopefully turn around and Lou Williams had a decent year despite injury.  The team experienced a 12-game losing streak from late November to December without him.  With only two impressive wins on the season (Mavericks 92-81 on January 22 and Atlanta 105-98 on March 26), Phili has a lot to work on.  They are pretty young outside of Brand and Iverson.  They also are pretty thin in their frontcourt.  With another solid scorer at the four position, the 76ers might be poised for a less-embarrassing season next year.

Washington.  Bad break.  Where do I start?  We all know the story.  Guns, trades and subsequent loosing all defined this team’s forgettable season.  With new coach Flip Saunders, Washington was expected to compete.  The Core of Gilbert Arenas, Antawn Jamison, Caron Butler and Brendon Haywood was suppose to finally click this season.  Instead, none of them even played for the lowly Wiz after the All Star break.  I like the acquisitions of Mike Miller and Randy FoyeAndray Blatche has done a good job at stepping up and we called JaVale McGee pretty dead on seeing how his game is becoming more and more consistent.

It was a season worth writing off completely and the amount of rebuilding needed is significant.  Luckily, they freed up quite a bit of cap space but it definitely came with a heavy price.  It’s time to replace all of the All Stars they lost and it wont be easy.  After all that happened this season, Washington isn’t really looking like a place that any top free agents would really be attracted to.  However, their plan is to utilize the draft as well but the rookie learning curve can be slow and I really don’t see winning big in the stars for Wiz anytime soon.

Speaking of seasons that need to be forgotten, let’s move on to New Jersey.  What else needs to be said about the lowly Nets?  It was a long time coming that this team would be this bad.  Over the last three seasons, the team has done nothing but dump its former All Stars in Jason Kidd, Vince Carter and Richard Jefferson.  We all knew rebuilding was in their cards but the LeBron talk really needs to stop (Again, it’s NOT going to happen).  Let’s get realistic and talk about what the Nets really need.

The only good news coming out of NJ is that all of their annual contracts are pretty low right now with only one player, Bobby Simmons, making more than $10 million last season.  Pretty big waste of money too since his last game was back at the beginning of January.  Being a point guard, Devin Harris is really only going to be as good as the players around him and without anyone to pass to, his development at the position could get hampered.  Brook Lopez offers another glimmer of hope for the Nets.  Yi Jianlian and Courtney Lee are the only other players on the team that averaged over 10 points a game.

New Jersey is a mix of obscure and super obscure players (if that’s even possible).  Some are young and some are old.  I don’t like building a team around centers but it may have to happen with the Nets and Lopez.  Yi has proven he is both inconsistent and injury prone while Lee is simply a role player and not a leader on the court.  He was an x-factor in Orlando last season and we have discussed how these types of players do not transfer well to other teams (look at Turkoglu).  His success in Orlando was also due to the sheer amount of scorers on the team and the mismatches he would attract.  That doesn’t seem to be the case in Jersey.  Chris-Douglas Roberts started the season off strong but faded.  Other than those few players, no one else on the team is worth mentioning.  This team needs to look at developing at the point guard position and transition Harris to shooting guard since that’s what he really is.   In addition, another scoring threat at the three or four needs to be brought in to help these Nets out offensively since they only average 92.5 points a game this season.  New Jersey needs to think of something very quickly.  We complain that Eastern Conference is weaker but we saw the emergence of a lot of former losers this year.  This means two things for the Nets: the conference is harder but it’s also possible to rebound a team quickly.  The Nets have money to spend and hopefully some fiscally-wise decisions will get the bags off of these fans’ heads.

Out West, we have even more problems so let’s start with the biggest one in Houston.  Last season seems like such a fluke for the Rockets.  Yao Ming only missed a few games and they actually won a playoff series without T Mac.  This season, Yao went on to miss the entire season just to add to his injury-riddled career.  All Ming has proven over the last five seasons is that A. the Houston Rockets might be the most patient organization in the league and B. that Chinese fans must the dumbest fans on the face of the planet.  However, for this season, the Rockets worked out a disabled player option under the NBA Salary Cap that allowed them to spend $5.7 million to acquire free agent Trevor Ariza.  Despite his numbers going up dramatically, we pretty much haven’t heard anything about Ariza this season and his scoring has been very inconsistent.  In addition, he is not the leader that this team needs.

The team made major strides by sending off Tracy McGrady and bringing in Kevin Martin.  It will take a while to get the offense situated around Martin but it will eventually work.  Loosing Carl Landry in the trade was unfortunate but nothing works out perfectly.  Aaron Brooks had an amazing year and got our pick for Most Improved Player.  Shane Battier’s shooting percentage fell dramatically but he is the type that needs to play around other stars in order to draw better mismatches.  This may seem like a weird concept but their misfortune this season can be attributed to not having Yao; however, they will only get better by getting rid of him.  Their rebounding was the same as last season and their overall points per game went up by nearly five points.  It’s not like his legs are getting any younger.  Houston, give up on the Yao experiment and go small at center.  This team has a lot of athletic players and while the defense did get worse this season (which can also be attributed to the loss of Ron Ron) it’s worth looking at.  The Spurs are doing it with Dejuan Blair and the Nuggets don’t have a definite, orthodox center.  Again, spending a majority of your team’s cash on a center is essentially a waste of money.  Yes, strong centers do help teams win championships but no team outside of the 90’s rockets has been successful by building around a five.  The NBA is getting faster and faster and the once great centers are fading while more athletic players are gaining the attention.

The West is getting harder and harder.  While the East has seven terrible teams that are not and should not be in the playoffs, the West only has four that I consider in the same position.  That eight and even seven seed in the West will be even harder to get.  Jesus, all eight teams that made the playoffs had 50 wins.  It was an off year for multiple teams but that wont repeat itself next year.  The conference is going to get better and the Rockets will get left out in the cold again.  It’s a scrappy team build around a 7 foot 4 inch freak.  It has not worked out for them yet and never will.  Get used to it and move on.  This needs to be Kevin Martin’s team.  Period.

Now that that’s out of my system let’s talk about a team that will be the reason that the eighth seed will be so hard to get.  The Memphis Grizzlies are no laughing matter and had a shot until Marc Gasol went out with an injury.  With both him and Ronnie Brewer out, this team barely had a chance but still went down swinging.  They played the final stretch with some actual pride and they are only going to get better.  Rudy Gay (Connecticut), O.J. Mayo (USC) and Mike Conley (OSU) all came from powerhouse programs and know how to deliver on a big stage.  They are all under 24-years-old.  Gasol is an example of an athletic center that can score and just barely missed averaging a double-double.  It has been speculated that Hasheem Thabeet might give him a run for that starting position but that’s not happening (read some of the previous articles).  Comically, Zach Randolph has turned into a veteran leader on this team and put up some crazy numbers.

The only thing hurting the Grizzlies is their youth.  Like I said earlier, the West is hard and a team doesn’t just turn into a winner overnight. Jamaal Tinsley was pretty invisible all season and Darrel Arthur’s injury didn’t help out at all.  Management needs to keep this core of players together and see what Ronnie Brewer can contribute in a full season.  They may want to work on bringing in another veteran for this team to learn from but the main thing they need is time to mature.  I’ve seen multiple games slip out of their grasp due to late game frustration and blown leads.  With wins against Cleveland, Dallas, Orlando, LA and Boston this season, Memphis should be convinced that they have the ability to win in the future.

The injury bug plagued New Orleans as well this season but not all hope is lost for the Hornets.  Chris Paul’s injury really hampered both this team and several fantasy basketball teams around the nation.  The Hornets severely missed him while he was out for 25 games with a busted knee.  The team went 8-17 with their starting point guard out but this time saw the emergence of both Marcus Thornton and Darren Collison.  Paul will return next season with his usual dominance and the Hornets now have an extremely heightened level of depth in the backcourt.

At the end of their disappointing postseason last year, the team had to make room on their payroll.  When free agency began last summer, the Hornets found themselves $7 million over the cap so something had to happen.  Tyson Chandler was shipped off to the Bobcats for Emeka Okafor who I like but had a down season.  They freed up even more payroll  by sending Devin Brown to Chicago and now find themselves $300,000 below the luxury tax threshold.  They also picked up several picks in the NBA Draft.  This team has enough shooting specialist with Peja Stojakovic and James Posey but a more consistent shooting threat needs to be put out on the court alongside David West.  It was a bad break for New Orleans this season but they really aren’t sitting in a bad position.  They need to figure out who will coach this team next season and start thinking about the draft.

I never liked Blake Griffin in college at Oklahoma.  If you are a power forward that only has size to dominate in a conference such as the Big Twelve, you will not succeed in the NBA where you wont have that advantage anymore.  Outside of Kansas, the conference lacks depth and sheer size.  Do that in the Big East or the ACC and we may have something to talk about.  I think he is an idiot and will never amount to anything in the NBA.  With that said, I really enjoyed watching the Clippers select him at the No. 1 pick in the 2009 Draft.

On October 23, Griffin apparently broke his kneecap during the team’s final exhibition game against the Hornets.  At first, the team just claimed that the rookie had a sore knee and was questionable for the season opener.  The injury ended up sidelining Griffin for six weeks.  It was later discovered that his knee wasn’t healing properly and that he needed season-ending surgery.  It really makes the Clips look that much dumber when we see what this rookie class has turned into with Tyreke Evans, Brandon Jennings, Stephen Curry, Marcus Thornton and Dejaun Blair.

Later, on February 4, head coach Mike Dunleavy resigned from his position as head coach.  He remained in a position in the team’s front offices but was later fired.  He received the news from the Internet and some friends that called him that day.  Dunleavy has now filed for arbitration since the Clippers cut off his salary even though his guaranteed contract doesn’t end until after the 2010-11 season.

For this season, the Clips brought in Baron Davis and Marcus Camby to bring a little veteran leadership to this team.  Camby was shipped off to Portland to help them with their injury woes for Steve Blake.  Davis has had a good season but the lack of national interest in this black hole out in LA has brought very little attention to his efforts.  Chris Kaman had a good season as well by averaging almost a double-double.  To be honest, it’s really hard to nail down what the Clips need to do to turn this program around.  Letting go of Elton Brand was a step in the right direction and Kaman only missed four games all season.  He missed more than half of last season and has only played 77 games in the previous two years.  Eric Gordon is a very promising young guard but his assists will be hampered by Davis’ presence.  His three-point shot is deadly and his shooting percentage is great.  Travis Oulaw’s defense and shooting have improved but it’s nothing to write home about.  There really isn’t anyone else worth talking about on this squad and we still have yet to see if Griffin works out.  It’s going to be a crazy free agency this summer and I can’t imagine the Clippers not getting involved.  However, there are more questions than answers for the other team that plays at Staples Center.  Hell, we don’t even know who their coach will be next season but hopefully Kim Hughes will find out he doesn’t have the job from the Clippers’ front offices and not the Kobe Beef.

Don Nelson surpassed Lenny Wilkins as the winningest coach in NBA history.  It’s kind of sad when you see that he has only won 55 games in the last two seasons as head coach of the Golden State Warriors.  The team they had two years ago is now looking more and more distant.  It was a fluke season of the right players (thugs) in the right place at the right time.  However, I do believe that the 2006-07 Warriors did help turn Monta Ellis into the player he is now.  I also believe that his late season injuries were not season ending but rather an attempt to rest this young guard from games that essentially didn’t matter.  Drafting Stephen Curry turned out to be good idea and his size doesn’t appear to be the issue that I initially believed it would be for this rookie out of Davidson.  He plays with a heightened level of confidence and knows how to take big shots.  In addition, he works very well alongside Ellis and gives Nelson the ability to play very small.

Just like almost every other team on this list, injuries ruined this team’s season.  They had more injuries than any other team this season with 13 players going on the DL.  The second was the Knicks with seven.  At one point, Nelson had less than 10 players to work with.

Despite these injuries, we did see several young players emerge on this roster. Kelenna Azubuike was averaging over 13 points a game until he went out with a bad knee in November.  C.J. Watson and Anthony Morrow were having promising but inconsistent seasons until they both went out with injuries in late April. Andris Biedrins had a terrible season and went out with a groin injury in March.  I expect this young center to return to form next season.  Even Correy Maggette had a great season and played in 70 games.  This is another case of a team that is pretty hard to figure out.  It’s hard to decipher what the problems are when most of the team is on the disabled list.  The Warriors are very young and hopefully this season will help some of these players build on their inconsistency.  Defense is an issue for this team but that’s true for any squad that Nelson coaches.  Several stars had very high scoring games against the Warriors including rookie Brandon Jennings’ 55 early in the season.  It may be time to teach a little bit of defense out there in Oakland but it’s hard to teach an old dog like Don new tricks.

Just to show you how bad this team is at covering the elite scorers in the NBA, here is a list of every occasion someone scored 28 points or more against the Warriors.

Rudy gay- 29 pts. (Nov. 4)

Danny Granger- 31 pts. (Nov. 11)

Brandon Jennings- 55 pts. (Nov. 14)

LeBron James– 31 pts. (Nov. 17)

Dirk Nowitzki– 28 pts. (Nov. 24)

Tony Parker– 32 pts. (Nov. 25)

Kevin Durant– 28 pts (Dec. 7)

Rodney Stuckey- 29 pts. (Dec. 12)

Caron Butler- 28 pts. (Dec. 18)

Zach Randolph- 33 pts. (Dec. 22)

Steve Nash– 36 pts. (Dec. 26)

Rajon Rondo– 30 pts. (Dec. 28)

Kobe Bryant– 44 pts. (Dec. 29)

Brandon Roy– 37 pts. (Jan. 2)

LeBron James- 37 pts. (Jan. 11)

Dwyane Wade– 35 pts. (Jan. 13)

Chauncey Billups– 37 pts (Jan. 20)

Chris Paul- 38 pts (Jan. 27)

Gerald Wallace– 30 pts. (Jan. 29)

Stephen Jackson- 30 pts. (Jan. 29)

Kevin Durant- 45 pts. (Jan. 31)

­Russell Westbrook– 28 pts. (Jan. 28)

Kevin Durant- 29 pts. (Feb. 6)

Jason Terry– 36 pts. (Feb. 8 )

Carlos Boozer– 30 pts. (Feb. 19)

Joe Johnson– 31 pts. (Feb. 21)

Chauncey Billups- 37 pts. (Feb. 25)

Dwyane Wade- 35 pts. (Mar. 2)

Dwight Howard– 28 pts. (Mar. 3)

Josh Smith– 29 pts. (Mar. 5)

Marcus Thornton- 28 pts. (Mar. 8 )

David West- 28 pts. (Mar. 8 )

Bradon Roy- 41 pts. (Mar. 11)

Kobe Bryant- 29 pts. (Mar. 15)

David West- 36 pts. (Mar. 17)

Rodrigue Beaubois– 40 pts (Mar. 27)

David Lee- 37 pts. (April 2)

Danilo Gallinari-29 pts. (April 2)

Chris Bosh- 42 pts. (April 4)

Nick Young– 29 pts. (April 6)

Kevin Durant- 40 pts. (April 11)

Staying in California, let’s talk about a team that didn’t goof up with their draft pick.  On March 31, 2009, Tyreke Evans declared himself eligible for the 2009 Draft.  It has turned into a decision that both he and the Sacramento Kings wont be regretting anytime soon.  This young guard out of Memphis will be leading the charge of rebuilding this decimated franchise.  Last season, we were saying it was Kevin Martin that would be putting this franchise on his shoulders but after coming back from injury and not fitting in, the Kings decided to take a different route.  Martin is now in Houston and Carl Landry should be a good fit alongside Evans.  Some have argued that Evans may need to make the move to shooting guard but his jump shot and free throws aren’t good for the switch quite yet.

In addition, rookie Omri Casspi has shown signs that he could be this teams answer in the front court.  The team is very young and has already shown that it’s rebuilding time with pickups of Jason Thompson, Spencer Hawes and Francisco Garcia.  However, all three still have a lot of developing to do in various aspects of their games.  Garcia is considered a sleeper that is waiting to bud.  However, he is 29-years-old and was injured for a great deal of the season.  Hawes has a good three pointer and he has a knack for getting rebounds due to the softness of the rest of the team’s frontcourt.  Thompson has a habit of getting into shooting jump shots and doesn’t take it to the basket nearly enough.  His energy level on the court has been criticized too.

The good news is that they have shown that it is time to rebuild in Sacramento and they aren’t doing it by bringing in older, washed up players that can be signed for cheap.  It’s a good mix of young players but it takes time to win in the West.  It’s going to be a while before the Kings are competing and like I said earlier, those lower seeds in the West are going to be harder and harder to get in the coming years.

Now to a team that had maybe one of the most confusing drafts of 2009.  The Timberwolves walked into the draft with four picks in the first round.  Subsequently, it sounded like a good idea to management to draft three point guards: Ricky Rubio, Johnny Flynn and Ty Lawson.  Ricky Rubio and his parents had planned on getting picked by New York.  The young Spaniard couldn’t contemplate playing out on the frozen tundra so he headed back to Spain.  Minnesota couldn’t work out a deal with DKV Joventut for a buyout of Rubio so he is still in Europe and the Timberwolves still maintain his draft rights.  Ty Lawson was later traded to the Denver Nuggets.  Johnny Flynn remained in Minnesota but was overshadowed by the impressive seasons of the rest of this year’s rookie class.  He started the year on the ROY radar but slowly fell out of the spotlight when his stats lowered.  Flynn experienced severe growing pains during his transition to the NBA and was bitten by the turnover bug with nearly three a game.

Center Al Jefferson led the charge for the Timberwolves with nearly a double-double a game and did surprisingly well for a player coming off of ACL surgery.  Kevin Love continues to grow at the forward position and accepted his role coming off the bench.  He proved critics wrong by coming back strong from a broken hand and really manhandles other teams on the glass.  He will be moving to a starting position due to the sheer lack of depth on Minnesota.  Corey Brewer is starting to look more and more like a bust as he isn’t living up to the hype that was set for his perimeter defense.  He doesn’t shoot a lot of threes and his shooting all around isn’t very impressive.  Wayne Ellington didn’t had a good season for a rookie transitioning into the pro game and could give Brewer a run for that shooting guard position if his development continues.  Rammon Sessions had a down season but he is still adjusting to coming off of the bench.

The Wolves are essentially looking for a piece to fit into their frontcourt.  With five centers, this team is still pretty shallow at the four and three positions.  Ryan Gomes‘ shooting percentage went up a little bit it isn’t going to be enough for this team that only racked up 98 points and less than 20 steals a game.  Essentially, Kurt Rambis has a lot to work on with such a young team in the West.

This season we have seen several teams turn into playoff contenders.  Good decisions in Oklahoma City, Charlotte and Milwaukee have actually turned these teams around and gotten them into the playoffs.  How they do there is another story but we will get to that later.  However, because of smart draft picks and trades, these teams have made the postseason, which is a first for both the Thunder and the Bobcats.  It shows that building and rebuilding is hard but not impossible.  For some teams, it’s time to give up on the past and move on.  For others, it’s a matter of building the right teams with the right chemistry to handle an 82-game season.  Injuries are unfortunate but they are a natural part of the game.   I’m not saying that these teams will make the necessary changes and be competing in the playoffs.  However, it is possible to fix a team.

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Who Let the Dogs Out?

Good boy

“You think dogs will not be in heaven? I tell you, they will be there long before any of us.”

– Robert Louis Stevenson

Before last night’s game, All Dogs Go to Heaven would have been the favorite movie for the San Antonio Spurs based on their age and the comments of Coach Greg Popovich after game one. (Where frogs go after they die is anybody’s guess.) Popovich’s dog comment must have ignited a fire in some of his mutts. Maybe a threat of a trip to spend the off season with Michael Vick (sorry, I could not resist) if they continued to play this way but that is doubtful. All the Spurs needed to do was watch the film of their game one defeat to motivate themselves to play better and get out of the doghouse. In last night’s rout of the Dallas Mavericks they played hungry, as if they were promised a Milk-Bone or Snausages if they fixed their mistakes. San Antonio looked more like the scrappy team of dogs in Oliver & Company (This makes Tony Parker the poodle and Manu Ginobili the Chihuahua I guess.), who used team work to out hustle the Mavs, instead of a group destined for the great big dog park in the sky.

Richard Jefferson, who the casual observer might have thought had retired or was out with an injury all season because of his poor play, was the lead hound in the first half of the game. Jefferson was pivotal for the Spurs as they raced out early and never looked back. He scored 19 points on the night with 17 of them coming in the first half. For Jefferson, this is a great leap in production from his usual 10-12 points a game in the regular season and a giant leap from the four point effort that lost him his place at the foot of the bed in game one. In the second half of the game he all but faded into obscurity.

Jefferson was not reliable enough to be counted on down the stretch by his master. Dick Cheney would not have even relied on him to retrieve the face of his hunting buddy. No, in the second half with the Mavericks making a concerted effort to fill the hole that San Antonio dug in their backyard, Popovich turned to his oldest and most trustworthy blood hound. (Duncan is certainly a hound dog with all the crying he does, especially towards the referees.) The saying goes, “you cannot teach an old dog new tricks,” well, in this case who would want to try? Tim Duncan quickly picked up the scent of victory when he entered the game during the Mavericks’ push late in the third and into the fourth quarters. He scored 17 of his 25 in the second half. Duncan would not let up the scent until he found what he was looking for.

All night it seemed as if the Spurs mistook the basketball for a Kong or tennis ball because they chased it all over the court with the sole intent of fetching it. They out rebounded the Mavericks, 51-42. Of the 51 rebounds they collected 16 were offensive which led to 23 second chance points. This pack of mutts certainly knew how to get the ball last night, never wanting their game of fetch to end. Despite their top dog mentality, however, the Spurs could not hold off the Mavericks forever. Dallas kept making little pushes and runs to eat into the lead. Yet, with 1:48 left in the fourth quarter the Argentine Dogo nailed a three-pointer to seal the victory.

Popovich’s prize poodle came off the bench again and had 16 points to go along with eight assists which leads one to wonder why when starting point guard, George Hill continues to play like he is a puppy that has not opened his eyes yet. It is probably because there is no scoring bite coming off the bench unless Parker comes off of it. (That is exactly why.) Nonetheless, the Spurs were rewarded for their efforts in Dallas on Wednesday night and surely dined on the finest Kibbles ‘n Bits and Alpo that money can afford to celebrate. Hopefully all their barking did not wake the neighbors.

Perhaps the Mavericks should have heeded the advice of Geoffrey Chaucer who said, “It is nought good a sleeping hound wake.” San Antonio has a slight bit of history on their side, since 2003 they have gone 5-2 in series where they have lost the first game. However, last year in the first round when these two teams met the series had the exact outcome after two games with the Mavs winning the first and the Spurs winning the second. We know the outcome. The San Antonio Spurs are certainly not the Mavericks or Mark Cuban’s best friend. Nothing will change that. What will change is the scenery. San Antonio will now get to run and play in their own backyard, complete with a flowing sewage heap called a river, for the next two games. It will be up to the Mavericks to dig holes throughout it. Every dog has his day and Richard Jefferson and the Spurs hope it has not already come and gone.

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Weekend Wrapup: KG, Blazers, Young Breakouts, Injuries, Sonicsgate, and No Hope

Opening Salvos

Each game in out of all the opening round game ones was decided by thirteen points or fewer. However, only one team successfully pulled an upset out of their opening game hats. Seven of the eight home teams held pat and won on their court. There is a reason that the NBA changed the opening round from a five game series to a seven game series (increased revenue stream from advertisers) because of the level of competition and parity that has begun to take place in the top half of the league. In a seven game series anything can play out. One weekend of playoff basketball is in the books and the series look to grow more heated as they continue. Here are some of the highlights of early postseason play.

The big story is the Portland Trailblazers’ victory over the Phoenix Suns. (Garnett will come later.) Portland held on late, despite atrocious free throw shooting in crunch time, to take a one game series lead. Andre Miller led the charge with 31 points and eight assists, 15 of his 31 came in the fourth quarter. This cannot be considered surprising, Miller is one of two players this year to have a 50+ point game, the other being Milwaukee’s Brandon Jennings. In the absence of Brandon Roy, Miller knew that he must be the one who carries the team offensively. He did just that. With Steve Nash’s focus on the defensive side of the ball Miller will continue to lead the scoring attack.

Former Defensive Player of the Year, Marcus Camby, played like he still was the DPOY. He completely dominated the boards with 17 and shut down Amare Stoudemire, who has had a resurgent season, holding him to 18 points on 8-19 shooting. Led by Camby’s defensive presence the Blazers held the high scoring Suns to 41.8 percent shooting and only four fast break points.

The Suns performance brings to mind comments made by a former Arizona resident. “They are who we thought they were,” Dennis Greene famously said in a press conference and Coors Light commercial. Has the injury to Robin Lopez really hurt this team more than they wanted to admit? They played well without him at the end of the regular season but are these really still just D’Antoni’s Suns, completely stifled and out of sync when they cannot run? They shot 32 three pointers during the game and connected on eleven. Obviously they still choose to live die by the three. No, despite the Suns push since the All Star break they are still who we thought they were. A run and gun team that is not built for a deep playoff run. They may yet win the series but it is unlikely that they go much further.

Ah, Kevin Garnett, what was he thinking? Garnett has been suspended for game two of the Celtics’ series with the Miami Heat for elbowing Quentin Richardson in the face in the closing minutes of game one. Close inspection of the tape shows that Richardson was not directly involved in the following fracas but was still levied a fine of $25 thousand. Garnett reportedly said that he was merely stepping up to defend his teammate, Paul Pierce, because Richardson was talking trash to him. Whoa, hold on, KG was mad that someone was talking trash? Garnett is known throughout the league for his expletive laced and derogatory smack talk to opposing players during games. He can give it but cannot take it, a nice double standard. Joakim Noah even chimed in on the matter saying that Garnett was a dirty player. What the league cannot take are anymore hot headed players in front of a global audience. KG will be in time out until game three.

For the Utah Jazz tragedy stuck as another player went down because of injury. Mehmet Okur, the Jazz’s center who has the ability to stretch defenses with the long ball, went down with a torn Achilles. Utah came into this series banged up with Andrei Kirilenko just returning from a prolonged injury and Boozer nursing sore ribs but the injury to Okur potentially derails all that Utah hoped to accomplish. The injury requires almost immediate surgery and will sideline Okur anywhere from three to six months. This time table for recovery means that he could potentially miss the star of next season as well. Utah was in for a dogfight with Denver and now they must compete down a key member of their rotation.

Staying with the injury theme, Stephen Jackson also sustained an injury in the Bobcats game against Orlando. He suffered a hyper extended knee; luckily for the Bobcats the X-Rays he received in the locker room came back negative. Jackson will undergo an MRI today to see how serious the injury is. The Bobcats will need Captain Jack in the lineup to have a chance a beating the Magic who looked vulnerable in the second half of game one but were able to hang on for the win. Jackson will play in game two, he said so himself.

Andrew Bynum returned for the Lakers and played quite well in his first game back. He did everything the Lakers needed him to do: clog the lane and score sometimes. The Lakers, with Bynum in the middle again limited the Thunder’s dribble penetration and inside scoring. Ron Artest also locked down Kevin Durant frustrating him, though Durant does not show emotion (except for once), and his shot continually. However, there were two other storylines that stood out much more than anything the Lakers did or Kevin Durant did not do. This game was Russell Westbrook’s inauguration as a household name. He simply torched the Lakers’ point guards. Derek Fisher rarely does anything on the floor that gives away his age (he simply patrols the three point line on both sides of the court) but Westbrook made him look old, Fisher was about six steps behind him, it seemed, whenever he wanted to create. Kobe Bryant was even tasked with guarding him a couple of times and if it was not for some help and trapping defense, Westbrook would have reached the lane easily. Jeff Van Gundy was actually speechless (for .028 seconds) because of what Westbrook was doing.

The other story line in this game, that the NBA does not want me taking about, is all the fans in Seattle Supersonics jerseys sitting behind the Thunder’s bench. They are members of a group called Sonicsgate (www.sonicsgate.org) that has recently been popping up behind the Thunder’s bench everywhere they go. One of the members was holding up a sign saying “Seattle Drafted Durant.” They certainly did. I have the basketball cards to prove it. The playoffs must be a double edged sword for Clay Bennett now. On the one hand he has a good young team getting national exposure despite coming from a small market. On the other hand groups like Sonicsgate do not have short memories like much of America and will not let people forget how he lied, cheated, weaseled, and schemed to tear away a team from a great basketball fan base and city and how Emperor David Stern let it happen. Good for them, we here at the Kobe Beef lament for their loss and support them. (Hopefully the city of Indianapolis will not suffer the same fate as Seattle.) It is my hope that Sonicsgate has seats behind the Thunder bench in Oklahoma City.

Shaquille O’Neal also returned from injury (returning from injury seems to be a theme for the playoffs this year) for the Cavaliers opening series with the Bulls. Derrick Rose looked unstoppable as he tallied 28 points leading all scorers. But the Cavaliers could not be slowed down. The Bulls simply had no answer for the size and physicality of Cleveland’s frontcourt. They did make it interesting though.

Spurs fans and the media’s belief that this is still the 2003 San Antonio Spurs never cease to confuse us here at the Kobe Beef. The fans have a passionate hope about them. That is a quality that is lacking in many today so it is actually quite admirable. Game one between the Mavericks and Spurs was what people have come to expect from a meeting between these two Texas rivals. It was close throughout but one never really got the sense that it was ever out of the Mavericks control. The Mavericks out played the Spurs at their own game. It was a slow half court match that traditionally would have favored the Spurs but this was not the case. Dirk Nowitzki reminded the league why he was the MVP a few seasons ago by scoring 36 points on 12 of 14 shooting and being perfect in twelve attempts from the charity stripe. He was simply unstoppable. The Spurs came into the series touring the play of George Hill who is the hope for the future and Manu Ginobili. Ginobili had a good game but was noticeably vacant from the scorecard in the second halves of the final two quarters. If George Hill is hope then hope scored zero points. Misplaced optimism is more like it.

Brandon Jennings dropped 34 points on the Hawks on Saturday. He was a one man scoring machine. Ballots have already been turned in for Rookie of the Year but his performance in his first ever playoff game definitely would earned him an extra vote or two. What is disheartening about is performance for both him and his team is that he had five of his shots blocked. The Bucks lost by ten. Oh, what might have been. Hopefully that will not become the phrase most associated with the Bucks this post season.

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Eastern Conference Round One Predictions

Start your engines

They did it. In the East, every team in the playoffs has at least a .500 record. You cannot say that often. Good for them. However, simply having all eight teams at .500 or better does not make the conference as strong as its counterpart where all eight teams have at least 50 wins. Nonetheless, a team from the East has just as much of a chance at winning the NBA Championship as one from the West. Everybody is equal for now, on Saturday this will change.

1. Cleveland Cavaliers vs. 8. Chicago Bulls

I wrote some time ago that the Bulls would make the playoffs because Toronto was not good enough to win the games they needed down the stretch to make it. What was not foreseen was the injury sustained by Chris Bosh sidelining him for the remainder of the regular season. The Raptors did not prove me wrong and sputtered to a finish. C’est la vie, Toronto. Chicago put the fate of their playoff lives in the hands of Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah. Noah stoked the flames when he returned from injury and was a catalyst to get the Bulls into the playoffs. They are in now and they face the team that Rose referred to as simply “LeBron” when he said the Bulls would make the playoffs. It would be improper, despite the other quality players surrounding the Cavaliers’ central figure, to correct Rose’s notion of who the Bulls face.

To congratulate the Bulls the man who is responsible for Chicago’s six championships personally paid them a visit after the Bulls defeated the Charlotte Bobcats to get the last playoff spot. Michael Jordan was in the Bulls locker room after the game giving the team his well wishes. It is not every day that His Airness personally expresses a message of luck to a team that just beat his. This should serve to boost and motivate the moral of an already fired up group.

During the regular season the Bulls beat the Cavaliers twice. This scrappy team knows how to play them. The Bulls also have history on their side going into this matchup as they have never lost a postseason series to the Cavaliers. Will history repeat itself? Noah has stated that he wants “to try to shock the world” and beat the Cavaliers in the first round. If the Bulls were to accomplish this it would be the biggest upset since the Golden State Warriors defeated the Dallas Mavericks in the 2007 playoffs. Waiting for the Bulls, however, is a “different monster” who will stop at nothing until his post season dream is realized. For the Bulls, it will be an uphill battle.

Chicago’s backcourt matches up favorably with their counterparts in Cleveland. Rose and Kirk Hinrich are a good combo set with Rose exhibiting the flash and get to the cup quickness and Hinrich being able to hit from all points on the floor as well as create off the dribble. Luol Deng has the potential to score at will from the three spot and at 6’9” can shoot over Cleveland’s guards, but it is unlikely that he will get that mismatch often. Chicago’s best players are Rose and Noah. They rely on them to fight and scrap. Noah is especially talented with his ability to score and rebound in buckets. However, he, along with the other Bulls centers, is going to have his hands full.

Shaquille O’Neal is returning from his thumb injury for the playoffs. His size and physical presence will likely disrupt every play that comes near the paint for the Bulls. Brad Miller, Taj Gibson, and Noah will have to alternate shifts against the big Aristotle and avoid foul trouble. Shaq, however, is not the top concern for the Bulls. Their main concern is to try and contain a force of nature. LeBron James presents matchup problems across the board. Committee defense and switching on screens may be the Bulls only option if they hope to slow him down. A healthy Hakim Warrick would also serve the Bulls well in their defense of James. Warrick’s size and length are enough to hamper James’ abilities but probably not enough to stop them all together. If Warrick is not healthy, duties will fall to Deng who is one of the Bulls best defenders. It will be interesting to see what strategy Vinny Del Negro employs to stop the Cavaliers attack, either try and stop James or let James run free and shut down the rest of the Cavaliers.

Series Prediction: For some reason this series has an eerie feel about it. On one side you have the team that prognosticators and analysts have fawned over all season and on the other you have a tough never say die team that took matters into their own hands and won when they need to most. Do not be surprised if this series plays itself out over the course of seven games; conversely do not be surprised if it lasts a mere four. Could Lebron’s rest become an issue? Doubtful. Will any of Cleveland’s guards slowdown Derrick Rose? Probably not. To be safe, Cleveland wins in five too close for comfort games.

2. Orlando Magic vs. 7. Charlotte Bobcats

Nobody expected the Bobcats to make the playoffs this season. Yet, here they are. Snagging Stephen Jackson this season was a steal for them as he almost instantly clicked with his new squad and propelled them toward the playoffs. The Bobcats also have a new face higher up in the team ranks. Well, in all reality his face is not so new to the team but his position is. Michael Jordan became the majority owner of the NBA’s second youngest franchise this year. This will be the Bobcats’ first trip to the NBA’s second season and greeting them are the defending Eastern Conference Champions. Roll out the welcome mat.

(Much of the following has been taken from a previous article I wrote to save time and my fingers.) The matchup of the Bobcats and Magic has the potential to be the lowest scoring series in the modern playoff era as these teams rank number one and two in team defense and defensive efficiency with Charlotte being first in team defense and Orlando being first in efficiency.  Orlando has been the league’s best team since the All Star break and looks to continue this trend into the Playoffs. Maybe the Bobcats have been planning this matchup all season because they five players listed as centers on their roster and that does not even include Tyrus Thomas who is listed as a power forward. Larry Brown will of course have to shrink his roster down for the playoffs but it can be taken for granted that he will have plenty of bodies to throw at Dwight Howard throughout the series. Having many bodies to wear down Howard is a key to this series for the Bobcats. If they can get Howard into foul trouble or simply get him fatigued and force him to the bench it will open up lanes that Charlotte can use to get high percentage shots and not run the risk of seeing the ball in the third row. Honestly, teams must get really annoyed when Howard gives them the ball right back.

Simply put, Orlando is good, real good. (I cannot believe I admitted it but circumstances forced my hand.) They will be heavy favorites to return to the Eastern Conference Finals coming into the playoff but they should not get that far ahead of themselves just yet. Charlotte stands in their way. Orlando does not match up well against the likes of Stephen Jackson and Gerald Wallace. Vince Carter is not a noted defender and will have his hands full with Jackson. It is possible that Matt Barnes, Jackson’s former teammate in Golden State, will be called upon by Stan Van Gundy to guard him but then this likely gives either Carter or Rashard Lewis defensive duties against Wallace. Mickael Pietrus factors to play a large role in the series with his efficiency and the defensive end of the court and his ability to stretch the floor on the offensive end with the three-point shot.

What should be the biggest factor in this series is the Magic’s penchant to fire up the long ball. This season they set the NBA record for made three-pointers with 841. The previous record was 837 set by the seven seconds or less Suns during the 2005-06 season. It is rather astounding that a team considering that this season’s Magic team is the complete antonym to D’Antoni’s doctrine in Phoenix when the Suns set the previous record. Orlando does, however, live and die by the three. If it is not falling they have little hope of winning a game. Jameer Nelson will be key in this regard. He has been heating up of late and if this trend continues he could propel the Magic forward with his outside shooting. J.J. Redick has also been playing well this season displaying that he is no longer just the face up jump shooter he was at Duke. He now has the ability to put the ball on the floor and get to the lane. (Kid has also beefed up like crazy.) It will be a tall order to stop the Magic’s outside shooting but it should be the number one priority of the Bobcats.

Series Prediction: Charlotte has brought in playoff veterans to help guide the team to where it wants to be in players, their head coach, and their owner. This wealth playoff knowledge should serve the Bobcats well as they enter their first ever test of the postseason. Stephen Jackson, Larry Brown, and Michael Jordan all have rings which is more than anyone in the Magic’s organization can say (except White Chocolate). These rings will undoubtedly be on display around the Bobcats’ locker room to motivate the team. Motivating Orlando is their sense of failure and an unfinished business from last season. Charlotte will surprise many in this series, but a surprise is only just that. It does not translate to the second round. The Magic will win the series in six games.

3. Atlanta Hawks vs. 6. Milwaukee Bucks

This would have been a great series. It could have gone seven games and been a knockdown, drag out, slugfest. Sadly it will not be. The loss of Andrew Bogut has completely curtailed any belief that the Bucks could pull off a first round upset. It is rather unfortunate that this had to happen too. Milwaukee was hitting stride and clicking on all cylinders after the acquisition of John Salmons from the Bulls. They were poised to be the dark horse, err…deer rather, in the Eastern playoff picture. With Bogut anchoring a stingy Skiles coached defense and a proven offensive attack even with Michael Redd out for the season (again) they were scary. “Fear the Deer” the saying went. But then Bogut came crashing down. Since the injury to Bogut the Bucks are 6-7 after going 40-29 with him in the lineup. This does not bode well for a team looking for its playoff series win since losing in the Eastern Conference finals in 2001.

Atlanta has played with the big boys in the playoffs before and they expect to do better this year than they did last after going home in the second round. They have added fire power to their lineup this season with the addition of (the Kobe Beef’s sixth man award winner) Jamal Crawford and have watched as Josh Smith (our DPOY runner up) has grown into a statistical monster who eats up boards, hounds the ball, and swats shots like flies. Offensively the Hawks have the second most efficient attack in the league with a rating of 111.9. Their offense will be tested by the Bucks defense but without Bogut clogging the middle they pose little threat to Atlanta.

Expect Joe Johnson to put on a display worthy of saying, “Hi, I’m Joe Johnson and this summer I become an unrestricted free agent. Here is what I am good at. Wouldn’t you like me on your team?” The Hawks would certainly like to keep Johnson right where he is. Johnson is the main weapon in the Hawks arsenal and will pace the team throughout their playoff run. Any potential wild cards that may appear this season for Atlanta does not seem like a likely occurrence as each player knows their role and performs it to a T.

Series Prediction: The “if only’s” abound for Milwaukee but without Bogut their playoff aspirations have become mere dust in the wind. Atlanta will win the series in five games.

4. Boston Celtics vs. 5. Miami Heat

On paper the Boston Celtics should run away with this series. On paper the Boston Celtics have a stingy defense that shuts down opponents with ease. On paper this is a team that was built for the playoffs. On paper this is a team of champions who know how to win. On paper I can draw a picture of myself with hair like Aaron Eckhart surrounded by Scarlett Johansson, Alicia Keyes, Hillary Duff, Mandy Moore, Rachel McAdams, and Beyonce in a harem on my own tropical island. What the hell, let me pencil in Megan Fox too as a cheap gimmick. Oh, and while I’m at it lets throw in Salma Hayek and Carmen Electra. What a lovely drawing. Ah, the joys of paper potential. Boston has stumbled into the playoffs tripping over their own feet. This is not the same team that people said could challenge the Cavaliers for the Eastern crown at the start of the season. Their last good defensive performance came against the Mavericks on 20 March and their defense has looked anemic since. In their last meeting with Cleveland the Celtics blew a 22 point lead which would have cost them the game if LeBron James could have made a few more free throws down the stretch and not taken an ill advised three on a fastbreak. This month the Celtics have lost to Houston, New York, and Washington. Last time anyone checked none of these teams were postseason bound. They are playing for lottery positions. FDR once said that they only thing we have to fear is fear itself. In the Celtics case they need to fear themselves, their ineptitude on the court, their age, and a certain player who will face them in the first round.

(Some of what is included in this paragraph is reprinted from an earlier article.) Dwyane Wade is the Miami Heat. He has them playing at a high level and streaking at the right time. Miami is 18-4 since the start of March and has its eyes set on the second round. Wade will not let the frail and withered Celtics stop him. What this series will turn into is Dwyane Wade’s audition tape for free agency. Expect him to slice through Boston’s feeble and aging defenders, scoring frequently and at will. The only player the Celtics have on their roster that is capable of keeping up with Wade is Rajon Rondo. However, Rondo is too small and lacks the strength to guard Wade. Certainly guard duties will not fall to Jesus Shuttlesworth; he has never been known for his defensive capabilities and will likely see little time guarding him. The task of defending Wade will fall to Paul Pierce. Pierce has somehow molded himself into a serviceable defender since the acquisition of Kevin Garnett but will remain a step behind the slashing Wade who is expected will make mincemeat of the Celtics lethargic frontcourt when getting into the paint. If Kevin Garnett wants to complain about fouls he should have saved his breath for this series. Sources have just informed me that Dwyane Wade has just purchased a new condo on the foul line for this series and plans to make it his permanent residence. In every series that Wade plays in during the playoffs the spectral calls of 2006 follow him. This series should be no different.

Outside of Wade, the Heat matchup rather nicely with their aging blunder counterparts. Their frontcourt consists of Jermaine O’Neal, Udonis Haslem, and Michael Beasley. Expect this trio to out rebound the hapless Celtics in almost every game of the first round. But what the series will come down to essentially is the scoring duel between Wade and Pierce. Both players look to be their respective teams leading scorers each game and this will not change. Boston’s bench is a joke other than Tony Allen and Big Baby when it comes to actual contribution.

Series Prediction: The most anticipated part of this series will be how quickly Boston loses its cool. I’m going to guess either ‘Sheed or KG is assessed a technical foul around three minutes into the second quarter of game one. Boston and its management might want to reassess the win now policy that they enacted several years ago. Sure they won a title but in all reality what did it truly cost them. Their team is so old (how old are they?) that they have destroyed their future and may lose many of their players in free agency this summer. Miami might also lose its best player this summer too. Dwyane Wade sold his property in south Florida last month so the outlook is grim for the Heat. However, they do have the ability resign Wade, add a max player and another player at $9-10 million this off season with the cap room they will have available. As for now they will have one last hurrah with Wade firmly at the helm. Miami wins in seven.

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Western Conference Round One Playoff Predictions

The hunt begins

The playoffs are coming, the playoffs are coming! With the regular season coming to a close late last night, the first round pairings have been set. Finally, the West and all the jockeying that has gone on for position is over and the seeds are set. Here is a detailed breakdown of the Western Conference playoff picture as seen by me (Doyle Rader). Each series segment contains factors that could play out during the series and ends with a projected winner and the number of games it will take for a winner to emerge. Let’s dive right in.

1. Los Angeles Lakers vs. 8. Oklahoma City Thunder

This series can essentially be equated to the Roman Empire versus the Huns and Visigoths. If the Lakers lose this series the city of L.A. and the national media will surely think that civilization itself is falling. I have previously discussed this series this week but since that time new factors have come to light. In the month of April, Kobe Bryant is shooting 30 percent from the floor and he has not scored over 40 points in a victory since December. The 40 point plateau should not be a major concern, however, as it has been noted time and again that when he shoots less and scores less the Lakers, statistically, perform better giving the team a better chance of winning. What should be a concern is the 30 percent shooting which likely stems from a fractured finger and overall fatigue. (Bryant has played in the previous two NBA Finals and has played the previous two summers for Team USA.) How well does he expect to fare in playoffs? Oklahoma City is no cakewalk. They will bump, check, swipe, claw, knock down, hurry, and fluster Bryant every minute he is on the court. Thabo Sefolosha will be the primary stopper guarding Bryant and will do all of the above and then some to force Kobe out of his game and into low percentage shots. It will come down to the other Lakers’ starters and Lamar Odom to pick up the team.

Phil Jackson may have the moniker Zen Master but he could have just hurt the Zen of his team by disturbing the quiet nature of another. Earlier this week, Jackson began complaining about all the fouls called for Kevin Durant which end up sending him to the line. Maybe Jackson thought the series had started already or maybe he was channeling the aura of Kevin Garnett? “Yeah, by the calls he gets, he really gets to the line a lot, I’ll tell ya,” Jackson said of Durant. “There’s a couple of plays in the last game where I was pretty curious how he got there. He really has a reputation as one of the hot points in the league.” Could it be that Jackson was just trying to work the league and the referees over before the series because he is legitimately worried about the threat posed by the Thunder and the overall lackluster play of his own team? Is Jupiter the largest planet in the solar system? As can be imagined, mild mannered and humble Kevin Durant responded, “Ever since KG said something, everybody’s been questioning how I get to the line. If you watch our games, you wouldn’t question it. The NBA should put us on national TV more, I guess…it’s taking away from what I do. That’s part of my game, getting to the free throw line and being aggressive. If you say I get superstar calls or I get babied by the refs, that’s taking away from how I play. That’s disrespectful to me.” Uh-oh Phil, you have gone and poked a sleeping bear.

When a player uses the word respect, especially in terms of being disrespected, you know that someone pushed the buttons to get them hot. Jackson may have some kind of sly master plan up his sleeve but to disrespect Kevin Durant only goes to show the level of class that Jackson operates at now. Durant will do the only think he can to prove he should be respected; play his hardest and his best basketball. It is generally ill advised that a coach stoke the flames of his opponent and give them a marker board quote that they can rally around, but Jackson has done just that. It could be that he wants his Lakers to take a shot in the mouth by a young, hungry team to wake them from their daze and get them into playoff mode (as if they can really just turn it on). His plan will not be known until it plays out.

There are three other factors that will weigh heavily, outside of what has already transpired and been written about above, on this series and in good measure should determine the outcome. For the Lakers it will be the defense of Ron Artest against the offense of Kevin Durant. Artest is the Lakers best defender. (No, Kobe is not their best defender, plus if you were the Lakers would you have your best player expend all their efforts on the defensive end of the floor? Didn’t think so. They brought in Artest for this very reason.) He will have the most daunting task of all the Lakers. If he gets into foul trouble the Lakers would be in a serious bind. Switching Kobe to guard Durant would give the Thunder guards free range around the perimeter against the like of Derek Fisher, Jordan Farmar, and the Machine. Bringing in the over-hype factory that is Shannon Brown to guard Durant is laughable at best. Lamar Odom will play spot minutes guarding Durant as his primary duties are to bolster the Lakers’ frontcourt. It is up to Artest to slow down the NBA scoring champion.

The Lakers’ frontcourt is another issue of importance in this series. Will Andrew Bynum play and if he does how healthy is he? Bynum, although young, is the anchor to the frontcourt alongside Pau Gasol and Artest. He is also prone to get in foul trouble. This is the reason that Odom comes off the bench so that when Bynum is in trouble the Lakers have someone to turn to. If Bynum is not able to play, or at least not able to perform at a high level, the Lakers will have to lean heavily on Odom and possibly keep him in the starting lineup. No Bynum and having Odom start is catastrophic to the Lakers playoff success as the bench that the Lakers have is atrocious. Bench players never play a large as starters play much of the game in the playoffs but foul trouble is always an issue. Without Bynum the Lakers cannot hope to get very far.

Bench play is the final factor in the series. What will happen during the short stints in which starters rest? How will the opposing benches match up? Well, there is simply no comparison. The Lakers have Odom and after that it could be described as the last kids on the playground who you really do not want on your team but have to choose one or two just so everybody gets to play. Oklahoma City’s bench is much more accustomed to playing time. Spearheaded by James Harden they bring a range of young speed and veteran knowhow. Bench play will certainly favor the Thunder during the series and could be a deciding factor in a couple of games.

Series Prediction: The Lakers should win this series. Oklahoma City is too young and inexperienced to pose a serious threat to the Lake show, right? Experience has never replaced hunger and determination in the equation for success. It could be just these reasons that the Thunder shock many. If Durant’s quest for respect yields a first game victory for his team, all bets are off. Giant killers are not a thing of just fairy tales any more. Kobe Bryant, himself, just referred to the Lakers as underdogs in the series. (Mind games, oh mind games.) However, if the Lakers stand pat at home the series shall be theirs. It will be tough and each game should be close (there will be at least one blowout) but they will prevail. It will be the Lakers in six games. (I’m being generous towards the Thunder.)

2. Dallas Mavericks vs. 7. San Antonio Spurs

The final game of the regular season treated us to a preview to this first round matchup. Well, sort of. San Antonio sat both Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili for the game. These are the Spurs two best players. By doing this, the Spurs signaled that they wanted to play the Mavericks in the first round instead of the Suns, who won last night against the Jazz to secure the third seed. It was more likely an attempt to avoid the Jazz as the Spurs were swept by them in the regular season series. Greg Popovich probably prefers this matchup because of his and his team’s familiarity with the Mavericks. Popovich must have a short memory. This season the Mavericks won three out of the four meetings between the two clubs and the Mavericks have also ousted the Spurs the previous two times they have met in the playoffs. Last year they sent the Spurs packing in a quick five game series in the first round. They meet again in the first round this year but the teams are not the same as they were last year.

Essentially the core players are the same for the Spurs this year as they were last year. Duncan, Ginobili, and Mr. Eva Longoria are still the gears that make the Spurs machine move. To their cast of characters they added Richard Jefferson, Antonio McDyess, and DeJuan Blair (these are the players that matter). Out of these three it can be said that Blair is the most promising and could give the Mavericks fits during the playoffs as shown by his 27 point 23 rebound night in final game of the regular season. Blair will likely spell Duncan, while he rests, at the power forward and center positions but it will be interesting to see how much faith Popovich will put in a rookie in the playoffs. The Spurs will also rotate Matt Bonner and McDyess into these positions. Bonner will serve to stretch the Mavericks defense with his ability to stretch the floor with the three-ball. His slow release, however, means a defender has some extra time to close out on him and alter his shot.

Three-point shooting has become a major part of the Spurs offense over the past couple of years. It will no doubt be a major focus of their offensive scheme in the playoffs as well. However, open looks will depend on the defensive rotation of the Mavericks and whether or not they choose to double team Tim Duncan in the post. The three-pointer could also prove to be the Achilles heel of the Spurs because of their dependence on it. If Bonner and Roger Mason Jr. are not connecting from downtown they become defensive liabilities. Bonner has no chance of defending Dirk Nowitzki. Without the three the Spurs will switch to the Duncan post up, Ginobili “creation” off the dribble, and slashing by Parker and George Hill. Hill, however just sprained his ankle in the regular season closer so his status is uncertain going into the series.

The Dallas Mavericks are a team designed to beat the Spurs. Rick Carlisle said it best, “They wanted us, they got us.” For basketball fans in the state of Texas, this what we all wanted, well except for Rockets fans. Like the Spurs, the Mavericks enter the series with some new faces. During the summer, Dallas brought in veteran swingman Shawn Marion to bolster their defense and improve inside and fastbreak scoring. Unlike the Spurs, who did all their moves in the off season, the Mavericks received many of their new players midway through the season. They did not stop there. In a trade with the Washington Wizards the Mavericks acquired Caron Butler, Brendan Haywood, and DeShawn Stevenson. These players will present problems for the Spurs. Popovich will do everything in his power, has he has always done when playing the Mavericks, to prevent Nowitzki and Jason Terry from getting open looks and any scoring opportunity for that matter. This strategy will force other Mavericks to step up and perform.

Butler looks to benefit the most from Popovich’s dogmatic defensive strategy. With Dirk facing every double team imaginable he will likely be the open man and will take advantage of these opportunities. Butler’s history of being a proven scorer and his ability to create off the dribble could prove devastating to the Spurs’ defense. He led the Mavericks in scoring against the Spurs, with 20 points, in the regular season closer. The matchup problems that the Mavericks pose for the Spurs are plentiful. Jason Kidd also has the ability to switch from facilitator to scorer when he needs to. This season he his shooting a career best .425 from beyond the arc. Marion and Jefferson will likely cancel each other out but Marion’s rebounding ability will prove to make him more of a factor throughout the series. What Rodrigue Beaubois will do in this series, well, nobody really knows. What we do know is that he has the potential to do just about anything especially disrupt the Spurs defense. Rick Carlisle will certainly play him but it is up to him when the situation dictates Beaubois’ presence on the court.

That’s enough about the minor actors in this play; the focus now turns to the main players: Tim Duncan and Dirk Nowitzki. In seasons past, the Mavericks had no answer for Duncan. In all reality no one in the league has an answer for his machine like efficiency. However, what the Mavericks do have is a two headed center. Erick Dampier and Haywood will split time defending Duncan during the series hampering his ability to be a dominant force in the series. (Ginobili will have to be the one that picks up Duncan’s slack.) This is the playoffs and there is no doubt that Duncan will continue to be an efficient, albeit rusty, double-double machine, yet, his point totals should not be near their previous playoff highs.

Dirk Nowitzki is hungry. He knows his time is running out. Over the last week and a half of the regular season, Dirk (and the team) has been clicking on all cylinders. San Antonio has never had a true answer for Nowitzki and Bruce Bowen is a distant memory. Expect the Spurs to throw everything (including the sludge filled, disease ridden River Walk) at him. It will be in vain. Dirk will drive, drain it from downtown, dish, and of course turn around and pop from the elbow off one leg. There is not a single defender on the Spurs that is five percent capable of stopping the breadth of his game.

Series Prediction: There is not much excitement surrounding series outside of Texas. Maybe this is because it has that been there done that feel to it. Only the casual observer who lives near the Pacific or Atlantic coasts could whittle this series down to such simple disregard. The Spurs have been one of the hottest teams entering the post season and some playoff prognosticators are projecting the Spurs as a dark horse. I am not one of those “coasters” who watch this series at a distance. Dallas is too deep and too talented this season. There is a reason they are the second seed in the Western Conference. At every position they match up well with the Spurs and they also have their number. The Dallas Mavericks, like last season, will beat the San Antonio Spurs in five games.

3. Phoenix Suns vs. 7. Portland Trailblazers

This is the series of what ifs. What if Robin Lopez was healthy? Hell, what if Po(o)rtland was healthy? The answers will likely never present themselves. If Brandon Roy does not play in this series, which he shouldn’t for health concerns, it would appear as though all is lost for a team that was once considered the ultimate first round threat. Murphy’s Law has done terrible things to the Blazers this season. It is actually quite astonishing that they are in the playoffs at all with the adversity they have faced this season. This is a testament to the coaching job that Nate McMillan has done this year. His name should be mentioned when Coach of the Year is discussed. With Roy out though, not even great coaching can change fate.

Portland gave almost every team in the Western Conference playoff picture fits this season. Their length and quickness stymied teams both offensively and defensively. On defense their length allowed them to switch on almost every pick and roll that a team could throw at them. This is a good attribute to have against the Suns who run the pick and roll regularly (that is an understatement) with Steve Nash and Amare Stoudemire. The addition of Marcus Camby has helped reestablish their defensive presence in the paint. He is a former Defensive Player of the Year and a threat to block every shot put up near him. Portland is going to need every ounce of effort the Camby Man can muster on the defensive end of the floor against the Suns’ high scoring attack.

Andre Miller will have to step up in the absence of Roy. He is a true scoring point guard and can easily break down defenses one on one but the great defensive stopper known as Nash will be pestering him the entire time. (You may chuckle to yourself now.) LaMarcus Aldridge must also perform at a high level to pick up the scoring slack. The Suns only player that somewhat favorably matches up well with Aldridge is Channing Frye but he is more known for his offence than defense. Over all, this is possibly the most glaringly obvious statement I will ever write, the entire Trailblazer team will have to step up to the challenge of the playoffs.

For the Suns the solution is simple: continue playing as they have done over the last couple of weeks. They did not stumble backwards into the playoffs, instead they steamrolled towards them. Nash and Stoudemire are having remarkable years and with Jason Richardson are clicking. Losing Robin Lopez was a blow to this team because of his ability to lockdown the five allowing Amare to play his natural position at the four. However, the Suns have performed at a level that no one expected with Lopez out showing that they do in fact have the toughness and skill to be a force in the playoffs.

Series Prediction: In a perfect healthy world this series would have the potential to go seven games. Unfortunately, we live in something very different from a perfect world and the NBA is no exception. One can feel nothing but sorry for the Trailblazers but they do not feel bad for themselves. They made the playoffs despite all the adversity but just making the making the playoffs was obviously not their goal. To advance is the goal that every team has in the playoffs and the Blazers do not have a realistic chance of moving on. The Suns will overpower the wounded Blazers in five games.

4. Denver Nuggets vs. 5. Utah jazz

Like the Suns and Blazers series the matchup between the Nuggets and Jazz looked to be one of the better series in the first round of the playoffs. Yet, the injury bug has struck deep into both of these teams. Carlos Boozer was sidelined by a muscle strain in the last game of the regular season against the Suns with both teams battling for third in the West. The game did not end with a favorable outcome for the Jazz. Boozer is the leading scorer and rebounder for the Jazz and his absence hurt the team. In Denver head Coach George Karl remains out undergoing cancer treatment. He is expected back in time for the second round of the playoffs. The Jazz will do everything they can to ensure that it is they who are in the second round and not Denver.

Boozer should play in the playoffs (that is opinion and not based on anything released by the team or other sources). Unless his strain gets seriously worse it should not hamper is ability to perform on the court for his team. Andrei Kirilenko is another member of the injured players that this team needs to get back if they are to be successful. He has been out for some time nursing the injury and resting with the team is hoping for his return for the playoffs. The Jazz need Kirilenko back because of his ability to defend Carmelo Anthony. On top of these two injuries, add to the pile Mehmet Okur who is suffering from an Achilles strain but played in the last game of the season. Aside from Deron Williams and Paul Milsap, these are the best players that Utah has to offer. Utah does not have a chance of competing in this series unless they are at full strength. Ronnie Brewer‘s value to the Jazz will be magnified during this series. Sending him away in a money saving trade to Memphis was a poor move by Utah’s front office. (Brewer did get hurt in Memphis and missed the rest of the season.)

For Denver, Kenyon Martin had been out for the past few weeks with a knee injury but returned to action in their last game against the Spurs but sat out the second half. He is expected to play against the Jazz in the first round. Getting Martin back is key for the bruising Nuggets who treat each game they play like a fist fight. (Wouldn’t you want Kenyon on your side in a fight?) He is their top post defender and will get the majority of the work covering Boozer. Nene could also find himself defending Boozer but it would be matchup that favors Boozer. Along the perimeter the battle will be between Chauncey Billups and Deron Williams. Every inclination that I have suggests that Billups will frustrate Williams to the ends of the Earth on both ends of the court forcing turnovers and poor shots.

Carmelo Anthony, without Kirilenko on the floor to guard him, will have a career series. He will move and score at will. C.J. Miles or anyone else that the Jazz can put on him will run free. The offense will flow through him. This will force Utah to double team him leaving shooters like Billups and J.R. Smith open along the three-point arc.  Getting Kirilenko back to guard Anthony should be a big help for the Jazz but it would not be an enviable task to be asked to perform coming off a lengthy injury. In short, the Nuggets present a nightmare matchup for the injured Jazz. They have faced the Jazz four times throughout the regular season and won that series three games to one. This is the same Jazz team that swept the regular season series with both the Spurs and Blazers. Like the Mavericks were built to beat the Spurs the Nuggets were built to beat the Jazz.

Series Prediction: Utah has been given fits by the Nuggets all season but in this series it will be Utah’s inability to come into the playoffs healthy that will hurt them. This is, of course, no fault of their own, these things happen over the course of an 82 game season. Denver, on the other hand, is getting a key member of their starting rotation back for the playoffs. They will also be playing for their coach. Nobody wants George Karl back on the sidelines more than his team does. The Nuggets physical style of play combined with an extra will to win for their coach will be the knockout blow for the Jazz. Denver wins the series in six games.

Eastern Conference predictions should be up tomorrow and probably will not be as long.

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