The 2008 first round of the playoffs is the most compelling group of series I have ever seen in my life. With the possible exception of Cavs/Wizards, I want to watch every game of every series. I feel like a kid again. And I only have to wait one day!
Lakers v. Nuggets: This is probably the strangest matchup in the playoffs. Who would have thought at the beginning of the season that the term "enigmatic" would refer to the team playing against the Lakers, rather than the Lakers themselves?
LA has been covered pretty exhaustively and I'm not going to waste too much time with them. They have talent at every position except for point guard, and even there, Derek Fisher is a steady hand with a lot of playoff experience. The Lakers deserve to be heavy favorites.
However, in my view, LA has two potential problems: defense and setting up the offense. If the Nuggets are on their game, there's no reason they don't have the firepower to score with the Lakers, and I question whether the Lakers can stop them if they have to. The biggest difference between the teams is that the Nuggets have a much tougher cast of characters than the Lakers, from Iverson to Camby to J.R. Smith to Eduardo Najera. With the possible exception of Iverson, the entire lineup is defensively sound, comfortable banging, and surely down for whatever. Can one say that about a Lakers team with a babyfaced center who averages 7.5 rebounds a game, a Euro power forward, and a point guard who will be completely unable to stop Allen Iverson? My thought is no.
The Nuggets pose more matchup problems for the Lakers than any other team in the West (except for perhaps the Jazz). Their depth will allow them to foul, their top two scorers are All-NBA, and they have a glut of big men. The Nuggets have been blown out in spectacular fashion in two of the three regular season matches (and they lost the other one despite 51 points from Iverson) but I don't think that trend is going to hold because when I say the Nugs present matchup problems, I'm talking about the playoffs, not the eighth game of the season in which Sasha Vujacic takes over in the fourth quarter.
Despite a favorable matchup, I don't think the Nuggets have what it will take to prevail. Even though they have great offensive weapons, the reason they're an eight seed and the Lakers are a one seed is consistency. The Nuggets completely lack it, whereas between Kobe, Pau, Odom, Fisher, and Bynum, you know what you're going to get almost every night (a lot). Most importantly, the Nuggets don't show defensive consistency, which is troubling because they have great athletes who should be able to defend against any team in the NBA.
Lakers in Five. (My opinion - the Nuggets should fire George Karl and hire Jeff Van Gundy in the offseason. To quote JVG: "I love to teach offensive players to play defense, and hate to teach defensive players to play offense".)
Did you know?: Carmelo Anthony's rebounding numbers compare favorably with Andrew Bynum's, even on the offensive glass.
Jazz v. Rockets. This is a great matchup of good old boy coaches and will surely be a war. Adelman is every bit as talented at organizing an offensive unit as Jerry Sloan is at doing the same with defense, and both men have been putting on a coaching tour de force this year. It's sad that Jerry Sloan never gets consideration for coach of the year, because the consistency of the Jazz through a rise, fall, and rise again decade has been incredible. They have always been more than the sum of their parts, even when Ben Handlogten was a part of their rotation.
I was driving the Rockets bandwagon last year because I thought they had the perfect mix of role players and stars - a giant center, an unstoppable wingman, a great shooter who is a good defender (Luther Head), a good shooter who is a great defender (Battier) and an underrated point guard (the legendary Rafer Alston). I assumed Jeff Van Gundy was the right man to make a playoff team out of the mix.
Clearly, I was wrong, and I was surprised this year when the Rockets gave VG the boot and hired Rick Adelman. However, along with the addition of Luis Scola, the offseason changes have made the Rockets a more versatile offensive team that hasn't lost much on the defensive end.
This matchup of classic Western contenders brings me back to the time an aging Eddie Johnson, after being picked up for the last six weeks of the regular season by Houston, scored 31 points against Utah in game 3 of the Western Conference Finals and hit a game-winning three pointer in game 4. Houston fans will recall, unfortunately, that Johnson's heroics led to this in a memorable end to arguably the greatest conference finals ever:
Boy, what a game.
Anyway, I just think the Jazz are too good to lose to a Houston team with only one major scoring option. They play great defense and I think Sloan's team defense will beat Adelman's offense in a battle of equals. And these are not equals. Houston will have to deal with questions like:
-Who can defend Carlos Boozer? Anyone?
-What if Kirilenko slows down McGrady? This is not out of the question.
-How is Alston going to get help defending Deron Williams (he'll need it, as he gives up size, age, and athletic ability) when there are two lights-out shooters on either wing and two dangerous scorers in the post? Who doubles in that situation, and how do you do it against the best passer on the team and one of the best in the NBA?
-Is Okur/Scola the most boring matchup of the playoffs?
Houston plays well with a lot of heart, but that's not enough for me.
Utah in 4.
Did you know: Utah is one of the two teams in the league Tracy McGrady averaged 30 points against.
Spurs v. Suns
This has been one of the only exciting playoff series in the past few years, with the Spurs prevailing each time in contests that were infamously officiated by the great Tim Donghay. I remember watching these games some restaurant in a complete furor because I was so angry at the refereeing. And I don't think Donghay was the problem entirely - referees love the San Antonio Spurs. They let themselves be intimidated by Greg Popovich, they let Tim Duncan whine more than any player in the league, and they are constantly fooled by Emmanuel Ginobili's flopping antics. Oh, and then there's Bruce Bowen, the dirtiest, most reckless, most untalented starter in the league. He can ruin a game and forces the referees to focus on him in loco parentis.
One thing that makes me happy about Shaq being traded to the Suns is that he's not going to take all of that bullshit from the Spurs. I'm worried that he's getting to the point in terms of diminished skills where it doesn't matter, but I think one problem with the Suns in recent year has been that although Steve Nash is a good leader, he can't be the kind of enforcer that a Jordan, Isiah Thomas, or Larry Bird was. The reason those guys were able to lay down the law when things got dirty or tough was partly their own willpower and courage - and I firmly believe that Nash has both of those ingredients. The other part, though, was "the big guy" in the background. Jordan had Bill Cartwright (later Horace Grant, later Dennis Rodman), Isiah had a team of thugs, and Larry Bird had Parish and McHale (who were, despite their thin physiques, definitely down for a little fun and games). Steve Nash has never had that, and although Amare is big, and Marion was a great athlete, and Grant Hill is a longtime veteran, when Steve Nash was getting slammed, the Spurs weren't afraid. Did the Suns get off the bench, ready to fight? Yes. Did the Spurs care? Absolutely not.
Shaq is no longer young, his feet are slower, and he can't play defense the way he used to. Still, you can bet if Bruce Bowen is trying to step under people's feet or Ginobili is flopping, Shaq will not be afraid to inform them of the rules they are breaking. He is a member of the law enforcement community, after all.
I don't even need to discuss the matchups beyond that. We've seen this many times before and know how it'll shake out - Spurs getting stops and scoring on the seat of their pants while the Suns try to make their offense work with varied success against one of the league's great defensive units.
I hope and pray that it'll go seven and that the evil Spurs will be vanquished.
Suns in 7.
Did you know: Bruce Bowen averages less than 10 points, 5 rebounds, 2 assists, 1.1 steals, and .5 blocks.......per 48 minutes.
Hornets v. Mavs. This series is the only series in the West that presents something different from what we've seen for the last half-decade, much like the Warriors/Mavs series last year. The Mavs have had an up and down season, and the Hornets are an unknown entity who have two players in the rotation with playoff experience (Peja and Bonzi Wells).
There are going to be some great matchups here. Paul/Kidd is presents an obvious "holding off a changing of the guard" scenario. West/Nowitzki and Stojakovic/Howard are fascinating contests between players who score in bunches in very different ways. Chandler and Dampier will face off to make the plays that win the possession battle.
I don't think Dallas has what it takes to win this series. They have too many defensive liabilities and New Orleans has too many scoring options. The only chance for Dallas to win is if Jason Kidd plays the series of his life, something he's shown a repeated inability to do in the past against lesser talent than Paul.
Yes, Dallas has the experience. But New Orleans has the youth and the talent. In the playoffs, the former matters more, but experience doesn't win playoff series by itself. Ask last year's Pistons.
New Orleans in 6.
Did you know: Jason Kidd's 3pt% for the Nets was 34%, about in line with his career average. Since being traded to Dallas, he has shot 46% from behind the arc, a better percentage than he has shot from the field or from behind the three point line in his entire career.
I'm going to do the East tomorrow, but I want to get my predictions down on the record for future embarrassment.
Celtics in 4.
Cavs in 6.
Raptors in 7.
Pistons in 5.
As always, e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org