The NBA begins its last two remaining weeks of the regular season tonight after taking the night off yesterday for the NCAA Men’s Finals (the officiating was rather reminiscent of the 2006 NBA Finals in its quality, don’t you think). In all reality, little is actually decided when it comes seeding in either conference as game play starts anew. These races have mere days to play out with playoff implications, matchups, and potential upsets, especially in the West, abundant. Now that real professional basketball has retaken the round-ball stage (we at the Beef love opening day in baseball but that’s not what we are here to write about) let us take a look at the standings and potential first round matchups.
In the Leastern conference the top four seeds are decided with the only position jockeying going on between the Atlanta Hawks (who have just lost Joe Johnson for at least two games with a sprained right thumb) and the geriatric Boston Celtics, who looked ready to call it day on Easter and give in to the Boy King because they had reservations at Luby’s, for the third and fourth seeds. The bottom four seeds (which have been discussed here) are the interesting stories of the East. Much has to be revised about what I previously wrote due to the injury sustained to Milwaukee Bucks’ center Andrew Bogut. He has undergone successful surgery and is expected to miss six weeks for recovery. This is a shame because the Bucks were playing at the highest level that they have in years and were poised to scare any team they faced in the first round. The phrase “fear the dear” that has been prevalent over the past few weeks no longer carries the same resonance. Without Bogut they do not pack the same punch as they once did. A completely healthy, sans Michael Redd of course, Milwaukee team would have, if matched up against the aforementioned Luby’s loving, fiber consuming Celtics, posed quite a threat and possibly, no, more than likely, advance to the second round. The Bucks have dropped to sixth in the east just a half game back of the Heat.
The Miami Heat have been the most surprising team in the East over the past month. They started the month of March in the ninth seed in the East and are, tonight, sitting comfortably in the fifth seed. With the injury to Andrew Bogut in Milwaukee, expect the Heat to comfortably hold onto this spot as it is unlikely that the undermanned Bucks and especially the Charlotte Bobcats, Toronto Raptors, or Chicago Bulls should catch them. I must revise my Eastern conference playoff projections from last week accounting for Bogut’s untimely injury:
- Cleveland Cavaliers
- Orlando Magic
- Atlanta Hawks
- Boston Celtics
- Miami Heat
- Charlotte Bobcats
- Milwaukee Bucks
- Chicago Bulls
Yes, I still consider the Raptors a non playoff team. They have been playing better of late but the loss to Golden State has really hurt their chances especially entering the tough stretch of games that they are and with their showdown with Chicago looming on Sunday. Unfortunately this means that the matchups in the east are not as desirable as they could be.
The Bobcats and the Hawks matchup rather favorably in the first round. In all reality this series, as hypothetically depicted here, will depend on the play of the Bobcats, and more specifically that of Stephen Jackson and Gerald Wallace. These two players are the catalyst that propel and drive the ambitions of the team. However, this is just the first step of many that the Bobcats. Atlanta has been to the playoffs and will more than likely go farther this year as the addition of Jamal Crawford, our Sixth Man recipient, has given them the extra firepower that they need, as well as the improved and outstanding play of Josh Smith, for a deep playoff run.
Miami and Boston may have been a good series several years ago, but alas, it simply is not to be this year. 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. Rajon Rondo is too small and lacks the strength to guard Wade; Jesus Shuttlesworth 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 I expect will make mincemeat of the Celtics lethargic frontcourt. Eventually the Celtics will win the series.
Outside of these two series there will be little to get worked up for. The Cavaliers will easily sweep the Bulls (or Raptors, yes I am counting them out but on the off chance they make the playoffs they will be just as easily brushed aside) and the Magic will defeat the Bucks in five, closer than comfortable, games. So that is just one of many hypothetical scenarios the Eastern conference faces. What about the West? Is anything actually decided in the most Wild West? (The Western conference has, over the past several years, seen its parity reach remarkable status.) This season it looks as though all eight teams that reach the playoffs will have 50 or more wins. 50 or more! Think about that for a second. When was the last time a conference sent eight 50 win teams into the playoffs? I honestly do not know it that has ever happened (if someone does know please comment on this post). The West promises a dogfight each round with each team having the same chance as the other. Oh, but isn’t that exactly what the playoffs stand for? Anything can happen, right? Hey, look at the East and tell me the Cavs will lose in the first round, do it. You’d be wise not to. (All references and comments concerning to my 2007 Mavericks should be forwarded to Avery Johnson and Don Nelson personally. This writer is still bitter and does not want to hear it.) What does the West look like today? It will look different tomorrow.
- Los Angeles Lakers
- Dallas Mavericks
- Denver Nuggets
- Utah Jazz
- Phoenix Suns
- Oklahoma City Thunder
- San Antonio Spurs
- Portland Trailblazers
Compare these teams to those of the East. That’s right, you cannot. This lineup is insane in the overall talent of the teams. The Mavericks, Nuggets, Jazz, and Suns each have 50-27 records which should lead to quite a spectacular finish to the regular season. If the Mavericks, Nuggets, and Jazz all end the season with the same record the Jazz would hold the overall tiebreaker over the other two teams. What makes the West even wilder are the fates of the other teams. The Lakers continue to look absolutely incompetent against quality opponents down the stretch while the Spurs seem to think they are currently on their annual rodeo road trip only a couple months later than it actually occurred. Portland and Oklahoma City are the true enigmas in the West. But we shall discuss Phoenix first.
Phoenix will likely remain in the fifth seed, for the time being, but with Robin Lopez out for the foreseeable future Amare Stoudemire will not be as productive as he has been this season as his minutes at the center position will undoubtedly spike. They just picked up Dwayne Jones, the top rebounder from the D-League to replace Lopez. Jones was scouted several times this year by other teams but eventually passed on because his scoring mostly comes because of offensive rebound put backs and not based on his own shot creation. Until Lopez’s return the shorthanded rotation (which is quite shallow from the bench already) will have its hands full. In the fifth position the Suns could be matched up against either Dallas, Denver, or Utah. Not a desirable draw for any team as it would seem. What is least desirable for the Suns are their remaining five regular season games. They host San Antonio, play at Oklahoma City, then host both Houston and Denver, and finish the regular season in Salt Lake City. Everything I previously wrote about staying in the fifth seed should be completely tossed aside. The Suns will have to muster every available ounce of will they possess to win more than two of these games. This should be a fine test of Phoenix’s mettle heading into the playoffs and will likely show the team’s true character and whether they can actually contend in the NBA’s second season.
Back to the enigmas. What are the Portland Trailblazers and Oklahoma City Thunder capable of in the playoffs? I hesitate to even speculate because anything I can write will quickly be proved as folly once these two teams set foot onto the floor of big stage with its bright lights. What do we know then? The Blazers scare everyone, everyone that is except the Utah Jazz and Denver Nuggets. These are the only two Western conference playoff teams that have winning records against the Blazers. They have swept the season series with Dallas making the Mavericks hopeful that they do not encounter this Blazer team in the post season. At this point, however, it seems unlikely that they will meet as Portland cannot find a way to move up from the eighth seed with the Spurs surging like they are. The Lakers and Blazers meet on Sunday in LA for what is a potential first round matchup. How will the Lakers fair, sans young Bynum, against a deep, lengthy, and tall team with the ability to switch on every pick and roll and not be at a disadvantage? If their play of late is any indication, the Lakers shall falter yet again and the paper tiger shall whimper as its paw has been pricked once again. This could likely become the story we are faced with if these two teams were to meet in the first round. The Blazers are not an advantageous draw.
Toby Keith has a restaurant just down the street from the Ford Center in downtown Oklahoma City that takes up an entire city block, if not more. This used to be the biggest attraction in town which is why I rather enjoyed passing it while scoffing on the highway riding a Greyhound out of there to return to Texas my Texas. If this is all they have, well then, good riddance. As a Texan I cannot help but despise everything about the Indian Territory north of the Red River. This will never change. The transplanted Supersonics, however, are trying to make me eat some of my words, they never will though. In no way does this mean that the Thunder are not an exciting team to watch. Seeing a young team make the playoffs for the first time in their franchise’s history (yes, Seattle made the playoffs multiple times and has a championship title to its credit but the two must be severed at the hip) is always rewarding because maybe someday that team will help to break up the homogeneity that is the NBA Championship since the 1980s. Their core is young, very young. In fact it is disturbing how young they actually are. Do not let their youth and playoff inexperience lull your senses. They have been playing at a high level all season. Like the Blazers, they will not be an easy out especially if matched up against the Dallas Mavericks. The two teams split the season series at two games apiece and the Thunder seem to have the Mavericks number and matchup well with them up and down their roster. Will the playoff immaturity of the Thunder be their Achilles heel in the playoffs or will the team continue to surprise and overachieve as it has already done to get this far? Only the Thunder and their young cast of players will be able to honestly answer that question.
What about projections for the embattled West then? It seems only fair that I do so despite my inclination to the contrary. The West is too good and my personal bias for it leads me to not want to attempt to predict it. I judge the East with contempt so it is not hard to make estimated projections as to where teams will be seeded. It is easy because there is only one serious contender in the East (as there has been for my entire life) and it will take a feat of the purest will to overcome that team. In the West it is different, the paper tiger leads the pack but its pursuers are around every corner, nipping at its heels as it grows tired and weak from a long season. Here they are:
- Los Angeles Lakers (Yes, they barely hold on due to the weak quality of opponents they face to close out the regular season.)
- Utah Jazz
- Dallas Mavericks
- Denver Nuggets
- San Antonio Spurs
- Phoenix Suns
- Oklahoma City Thunder
- Portland Trailblazers
These projections are based on nothing but assumption. The West is unpredictable. What is predictable is that 1) there will be more predictions before the season’s end and 2) the first round of the Western conference playoffs should be the most memorable in recent history. I honestly expect each series to go a minimum of six games. In the East, the same cannot be said. Hopefully the lights of the playoffs will inspire the lower seeded teams to perform at a higher level than they did all season to keep the Leastern conference first round from being the lackluster sideshow of the West’s main attraction. Whatever the case, the playoffs are less than two weeks away and the real spectacle is about to begin once more.