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NBA Basketball | The Sports Report Girl - Part 2

Lakers Play Role of Bullies in Game One

Remember when Kevin Arnold used to get punked by older brother Wayne in “The Wonder Years”? Eventually, Kevin got older — and bigger — than his older bro and that dominance was gone.

The Los Angeles Lakers grew up like Kevin and hammered the Boston Celtics in game one. No longer was Wayne able to headlock Kevin at will or tease him about girlfriends while on the phone. The scoreboard didn’t reflect the beatdown the Celtics received. But the points in the paint, rebounding and second-chance points did.

The Lakers scored 48 points in the paint while the Celtics had 30. Boston was also outrebounded by the Lakers, 42-31. Of those rebounds Los Angeles grabbed 12 offensive boards and the Celtics were held to eight.

Those are not staggering stats, but this next one is: the Lakers had 16 second-chance points. The Celtics had none. No accidental tip-ins. No offensive rebounds for dunks. No long rebounds that led to three pointers. Every Celtics possession that ended in a missed shot meant no points. At all. Usually someone gets a garbage bucket at least. No trash delivery in game one.

Boston, which prides itself on its toughness, was out-toughed. The game was actually played at the Celtics’ tempo. Slow, a lot of foul calls (54 whistles between both teams), no real rhythm to the contest. Boston actually shot more free throws than Los Angeles, 36 to the Lakers’ 31.

“Well, it wasn’t the prettiest basketball game I’ve ever watched in my life,” Lakers coach Phil Jackson said.

All the muscle in game one was flexed by the Lakers’ starting frontline. Pau Gasol led the way with 23 points, 14 rebounds and three blocks. Gasol’s 14 rebounds equaled the rebounding effort of Boston’s bigs. Kevin Garnett, Kendrick Perkins, Rasheed Wallace and Glen Davis snatched 14 rebounds combined.

“On Kevin’s part, he’s also lost some explosiveness,” Gasol said. “He’s more of a jump shooter now you could say, comes off the lane. Before he had a really, really quick first step and was getting to the lane and he was more aggressive then. Time passes and we all suffer it one way or another, but he’s still a terrific player, a terrific competitor, and he’s going to bring everything he’s got. You can count on that.”

Center Andrew Bynum, who didn’t play in the 2008 NBA finals, chipped in with 10 points and six rebounds, not spectacular numbers by any means. But he doesn’t have to put up huge numbers. Bynum’s size clogs the lane for the Celtics and provides the Lakers with the luxury of bringing Lamar Odom off the bench.

Finally, there was Ron Artest, Thug No. 1, the guy you want on your team, but you don’t want to play against. How tough was he? Only 27 seconds into the game he got into a wrestling match that Stone Cold Steve Austin would have been proud of with Paul Pierce. Both players went to the ground and were called for double technical fouls.

Although the Lakers played Godzilla to the Celtics’ King Kong, Boston should have a better effort in game two. After suffering their own smackdown they are almost certain to come out more aggressive in the next game. Ray Allen didn’t play many minutes because of foul trouble and Rajon Rondo got stuffed every time he ventured near the basket.

Boston hit one three pointer. If some more of those go down, it will be a close game.

The Celtics may feel like Wayne Arnold, overshadowed at his sudden inability to punk little bro, but they must flex their own muscle if they want to make this a series. It’s no secret that the Lakers have star players at almost every position, but it was the Celtics rugged defense that got them back to the finals.

Wayne Arnold must stand up to the challenge of Kevin Arnold. Kevin may be bigger now. So what, Wayne must say. Wayne, er, Celtics, show that you’re tough too.

2010 NBA Finals

June 3, 2010 by Gabe Zaldivar  
Filed under Basketball, NBA Basketball, SRG's Blog

ESPN re-aired Game 1 of the 2008 NBA Finals. Being a Laker fan, I appreciated this memorial as much as remembering when I shit my pants in kindergarten…OK, first grade.

I came to a revelation. The Lakers were grossly over matched in 2008. I just didn’t see it then. Let’s start with Paul Pierce in the first game. If you recall he broke his knee. So much so that he had to be carted off with a look of despair and pain. He grimaced like he had been shot in the leg. But then as if a brilliant ploy, of which I am sure there was none, he comes out of the locker room skipping. Pierce basically came out like Daniel Laruso in Karate Kid. Although please recall Laruso was limping after. Pierce was not. So the Lakers lose the match up between athletic trainer Gary Vitti and whatever magical potions and/or small Japanese janitors they have behind their locker rooms in Boston.

We also lacked depth. Ronny Turiaff was in the game with the Lakers down six in the fourth quarter in game 1. That is my only argument.

I also realized that the finals are quite over before they even start. To prove this all one has to do is witness the glory and splendor that is NBA officiating. Its the only sport that it’s audience brazenly declares that you get “calls” at home. Where in any sport is this so prevalent. A foul is a foul and it is only less of a foul if you are a home team in the NBA. The Lakers have four games at home this series.

So who wins? With questions on one side about injuries and the other about age, this series will come down to who has to go deep into their bench early and often. If Brian Scalabrine gets more minutes in the series than Adam Morrison then the Lakers are looking good. Here is to hoping Morrison keeps on those warm-ups.

A Hardcore Lakers Fan Wish Comes True

June 3, 2010 by Mike Cervantes  
Filed under Basketball, NBA Basketball, SRG's Blog

For the last two years I have been haunted by the Boston Celtics. It was bad enough that the Celtics captured championship No. 17. But it happened against the Lakers — in embarrassing fashion.

June 17, 2008, final score, Celtics 131, Lakers 92. Not even the Memorial Day Massacre in 1985 was this bad — at least the Lakers won that series against Big. No, that disgusting 2008 score solidified Boston’s completion of a defensive masterpiece, a return to glory and another black eye for their West Coast rivals.

In that series two years ago the Lakers were on the verge of tying the series. They had an 18-point halftime lead (at home) and led by as many as 24 points. The Celtics, however, clamped down on defense, holding the Lakers to only 33 points in the second half.

That was the series. Los Angeles won a meaningless game five, but it was only a matter of time until Boston closed it out.

Since that victory I have dreamed of this rematch. When the Lakers won the title last year I wasn’t satisfied. Who cares about beating Dwight Howard and a bunch of also-ran NBA players? The only way for a championship run to be complete would be to defeat the Celtics in the NBA finals.

It didn’t seem as if the Celtics had the hunger to make it back to the championship round. Some experts had them losing in the first round. But they hit the switch and D’d up in the playoffs.

I say good. Bring it, Boston. I knew with a healthy Andrew Bynum the Lakers could match the Celtics’ physicality. It was no coincidence the Lakers vs. Celtics game on Christmas 2008 was one of the most hotly contested regular season games in recent years. With a healthy lineup the Lakers won, snapping the Celtics’ franchise-record 19-game winning streak.

Now that these teams are finally matched up I am relieved. I don’t take the Celtics lightly. They are a veteran team that will muck up the scoreboard and keep games close with their defense. I am relieved because the Lakers have the chance to defeat these guys in the finals.

Beating Cleveland or Orlando just wouldn’t matter.

For the Lakers, this will be about redemption. Very few times do teams get a chance such as this. As a hardcore Lakers fan I cherish championships and mourn missed opportunities.

Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal, Gary Payton and Karl Malone won’t have a chance to play the Detroit Pistons, a team I think was the worst to ever win the championship.

The 1998 team with its four All-Stars of Shaq, Kobe, Eddie Jones and Nick Van Exel can’t play the Utah Jazz with the John Stockton-to-Malone connection.

Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West and Elgin Baylor, sorry guys, you don’t get a do-over for game seven at home against the Celtics. That loss hurt badly; it was the only time the Lakers have lost a seven-game series when holding a 2-0 lead. The Lakers’ owner, Jack Kent Cooke, was so confident his team would win the 1969 finals he planned an elaborate postgame celebration with thousands of balloons in the rafters and even a marching band.

The Celtics won that game, the only time a road team has won game seven in the NBA finals. Had I been alive for that loss I might have been borderline suicidal.

For two years I have told anyone who would listen the only way to make a Lakers’ championship complete would be to defeat Boston in the finals. I never thought it would happen. Sure, the Lakers would take care of business, but the Celtics … this was very unlikely. Now that it’s here I’m giddy.

I hope this is a tough series. Although a four-game sweep would please me, I know it is unlikely. No, the best revenge would be one in which the Celtics think they have a shot then they get their hearts ripped out by a Kobe jumpshot or a series of Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum dunks.

Boston, to quote Ric Flair, to be the man, you gotta beat the man. Right now the Lakers are that man, they have the championship belt that you guys covet so much. This year, I don’t see the Larry O’Brien Trophy shipping off to Boston.

Lakers Seek Revenge Over Celtics

2010 NBA FinalsWestern conference champions Los Angeles Lakers vs. Eastern conference champions Boston Celtics

Lakers regular season record: 57-25
Celtics regular season record: 50-32

Season series tied 1-1
Jan. 31 Lakers 90, Celtics 89
Feb. 18 Celtics 87, Lakers 86

Road to the Finals

Quarterfinals
Lakers defeat Oklahoma City Thunder, 4-2
Celtics defeat Miami Heat, 4-1

Semifinals
Lakers defeat Utah Jazz, 4-0
Celtics defeat Cleveland Cavaliers, 4-2

Conference finals
Lakers defeat Phoenix Suns, 4-2
Celtics defeat Orlando Magic, 4-2

The Los Angeles Lakers and the Boston Celtics renew their rivalry as the NBA finals tip off on Thursday. These teams have won the last two NBA titles with the Celtics hoisting the trophy in 2008 while the Lakers are the defending champions.

Although the Lakers are the team to beat they have a lot to prove after dropping the 2008 series. Their toughness was questioned, but they rallied to win the title. But it didn’t come through Boston, the Lakers’ nemesis who has denied them championship glory so many times.

This will be the 12th time the Lakers and Celtics play for the title; Boston has won nine times.

Why should it be any different this year?

Los Angeles has too much championship experience. This is its third straight appearance in the finals. Boston is on its last leg. The Celtics were a little long in the tooth when they won in 2008. Now, they are two years older and a slight step slower.

But the overwhelming difference will be Kobe Bryant. If he wasn’t considered an all-time great before this year, a fifth championship should solidify a spot.

Bryant torched the Suns in the Western conference finals. He should do the same to the Celtics, who don’t have the athletic James Posey to guard him.

Of course, Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom and Derek Fisher will help. Ron Artest will harass Paul Pierce as best as he can.

The Celtics will try to win with defense, rebounding and nastiness in the paint. They banged the Lakers around in 2008 and have bullied their way past the other East contenders this year.

Kevin Garnett, Kendrick Perkins, Glen Davis and Rasheed Wallace will be the big men who will try to impose their will against the Lakers’ frontcourt.

Rajon Rondo will run the show for Boston. He’s no longer just another guy on the team. Rondo has matured into the type of player who can dominate games, filling up the stat sheet with rebounds and assists. His scoring has improved, but his outside shooting can still be suspect.

Ray Allen must knock down jumpers to give the Celtics a chance. Pierce must do the same. His effort in the 2008 finals earned him MVP of the series.

This time, however, the Lakers will counter with more muscle. Andrew Bynum sat out the entire playoffs when the Celtics won. Los Angeles probably could have used a 7 foot starting center against the physical Celtics.

And Artest is too strong a defensive player to let Pierce have his way. Pierce will still get his, but he’ll work hard to score.

The Lakers added toughness and the determination of Bryant will be the difference in this series. Expect dirty, low scoring games with Bryant finishing off games in the clutch.

Lakers in six games.

Where Will Lebron Land?

May 25, 2010 by SRG  
Filed under Basketball, NBA Basketball, SRG's Blog

Ever since the Cavaliers were eliminated from the playoffs, ESPN and their talking heads have been chiming away non stop as to where they think King James will play ball next season. For several years the Knicks have been preparing for this opportunity, but a dark horse has emerged as the leading contender to win the Lebron Sweepstakes the Chicago Bulls. Will the Annointd One be able to live in the shadow of Michael Jordan? Or will he be the one to step out of that shadow and lead the Bulls back to the Promised Land?

We’re Halfway To The NBA’s Dream Finals

Lakers vs. Celtics. It’s the matchup these teams want, it’s the matchup the fans want and it’s the matchup that should have the NBA big wigs in the front offices salivating.

It seemed unlikely about a month ago. Boston struggled to win 50 games during the regular season and Los Angeles went through the motions to earn the No. 1 seed. The Celtics didn’t look strong and the Lakers seemed primed for an upset.

Dwyane Wade and the underwhelming Miami Heat appeared to be capable of beating Boston while the Lakers were pushed to the limit by the strikingly athletic Oklahoma City Thunder who had virtually no playoff experience.

These teams would be on the brink of the NBA finals? Not Cleveland, who crushed the NBA during the regular season? Or Orlando, who sported a mighty 8-0 record in the playoffs? What about Dallas, wasn’t this supposed to be its year?

During the second round the Lakers and Celtics beefed up their game. Los Angeles pounded undermanned Utah in four games while the Celtics pulled off the upset against Cleveland.

We’re about to be treated to a rematch of the 2008 NBA finals, which was a quick throwback to the Lakers-Celtics rivalry that has been going on for decades.

But wait, the rematch isn’t complete. Not yet.

After the Celtics took the first two games against the Magic in Orlando it would be difficult to imagine Boston not making it to the NBA finals. The Celtics need two more wins to advance and three of the next four games are in Boston.

Forward Paul Pierce has rediscovered his game. He’s averaging 25 points per contest. It helps that he doesn’t have to work as hard on the defensive end this series; trying to check LeBron James will wear anybody out. Pierce knows it’s important to maintain the homecourt advantage the Celtics took from the Magic. They can’t get complacent and he thinks the fans won’t let them either.

“Our fans aren’t going to let us relax,” Pierce said. “You all not going to let us relax. We’re going to try to close this out in two games. You all hear me? We’re coming home to close it out.”

Orlando is too good of a team to get swept. The Magic should split in Boston. Then again, they probably shouldn’t have lost the first two at home.

The Lakers, however, have toyed with the dwarfish Phoenix Suns. The Suns simply don’t have the size to stand up to the Lakers and it has showed in two games. Phoenix doesn’t play much defense, but giving up 128 and 124 points in the Western conference finals won’t win many playoff series.

In game one Kobe Bryant torched Phoenix for 40 points. So the Suns adjusted and tried to take the ball out of Bryant’s hands by double-teaming him. That didn’t work either as the Black Mamba dished 13 assists, equaling the most by a Laker in a playoff game since Magic Johnson in 1996.

Someone had to pick up the scoring in game two and that was power forward Pau Gasol who had 29. Gasol scored 14 points in the fourth quarter as the Lakers pulled away. Phoenix big man Amare Stoudemire is having a hard time scoring and rebounding against the Lakers’ bigs.

Stoudemire didn’t give credit to Lakers forward Lamar Odom who went for 19 points and 19 rebounds in game one. “I’m not giving him no hype right now; he had a lucky game in game one,” he said.

Odom lucked out again in game two with 17 points and a game-high 11 rebounds.

Maybe the rest of the Lakers frontline will keep getting lucky. Phoenix needs to win two straight to avoid elimination.

It’s an uphill climb for Orlando and Phoenix. If these two played in the finals it would be a fine series, but lack the earth-shaking force of Lakers vs. Celtics. Good thing we only have to wait about a week until that series is finalized.

Suns Lack Size To Topple Lakers

NBA Western Conference Playoffs

NBA Western Conference Playoffs

No. 1 Los Angeles Lakers vs. No. 3 Phoenix Suns

The Phoenix Suns survived two rounds of the playoffs playing small ball. That won’t happen in the Western conference finals against the Los Angeles Lakers.

During the regular season the Lakers won three out of four games against the Suns. They scored more than 100 points in every game and they’ll need to fill up the scoreboard in this series. The Suns have already proven they can score and win against defensive-oriented teams as they outclassed the Spurs in the second round.

But the Lakers are a different animal with trees clogging the paint in Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum. Not only are these two big, but they are skilled. San Antonio has skilled big men, but they were undersized (other than Tim Duncan the Spurs had Antonio McDyess and DeJuan Blair, who is generously listed as 6 foot 7).

Phoenix will need tremendous production from forward Amare Stoudemire and the returning Robin Lopez. They will be the primary players in the paint for the Suns as Channing Frye likes to launch threes.

Point guard Steve Nash leads the Suns’ prolific offense. He has talented players surrounding him in Jason Richardson, their leading scorer at 21.9 points per game, Grant Hill, Leandro Barbosa, Jared Dudley and Goran Dragic.

The Suns most effective lineup in the playoffs has been Nash, Stoudemire and the three perimeter players who have been the hottest. That won’t work against the Lakers who have the burly Ron Artest at small forward and super sub Lamar Odom ready to step in at power forward.

Oh, and there’s that guy for the Lakers, No. 24, who takes over games when his team is down and rescues them when they need a basket to win a game. Yeah, Kobe Bryant, last year’s NBA finals MVP and owner of four championship rings. Phoenix doesn’t have anyone to slow Bryant.

Nash and Stoudemire will try to pick and roll the Lakers to death, but their height and length will make it tough for Phoenix to score. The Suns can stay in the series if their guys hit threes and open jumpers. Those will be there often, but the Lakers should get higher percentage shots close to the basket. And of course, Bryant will be there when all else fails.

Phoenix is more committed to defense this year and its offense is scary, but the Suns simply don’t have the personnel to match up with the Lakers.

Lakers in five.

Magic Should Advance But It Won’t Be Easy

NBA Eastern Conference Playoffs

NBA Eastern Conference Playoffs

No. 2 Orlando Magic vs. No. 4 Boston Celtics

One team was undefeated in the playoffs. The other team played the part of David against the Goliath-like Cleveland Cavaliers. And won.

The Orlando Magic played eight playoff games against inferior competition, but obliterated their opponents in all of them. The Celtics upset the heavily favored Cavaliers and once again, face long odds against a powerful Orlando team.

Magic center Dwight Howard should have his way in the paint unless he gets in foul trouble. It’s no secret Orlando wants its perimeter players to knock down threes and get easy scoring opportunities off players double-teaming Howard. But the Celtics’ stifling defense has returned during the postseason. They let LeBron James put up big numbers in their second-round series, but all of the other Cavs were neutralized.

Celtics guard Rajon Rondo dominated Cleveland, not so much in scoring, but rebounding (yes rebounding), getting other players involved and controlling the tempo of the games. Rondo’s counterpart, Magic guard Jameer Nelson, must play solid defense and not allow Rondo to impact games the way he did against Cleveland.

This should be a tough series for both teams. Marquee names are on both sides. For the Celtics, Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen need to score to keep their team close. Especially Pierce, who disappeared at times in the last series. For Orlando, Vince Carter and Rashard Lewis need to be effective and not always settle for jump shots and three-point attempts.

Boston will try to slow the game down and suffocate Orlando on the defensive end. The Magic will hope Howard beats up the Celtics’ big men and of course, live and die by the three pointer. The last two seasons they have lived; Orlando is looking for its second consecutive trip to the NBA finals.

The Celtics will look for their second finals trip in three years and perhaps, second title as well. They are longshots, but not too many people had them defeating Cleveland.

The Magic should win in seven games. But, if this gets to a seventh game don’t count the Celtics out. Even though the Magic is the defending Eastern conference champions, the Celtics have much more playoff experience. There just might be another rock for David to launch toward Goliath. So yeah, uh, Magic in seven.

Injuries Not a Factor in Playoffs … Yet

Is LeBron’s elbow all right? How about Kobe’s numerous injuries? Can Nash’s hip hold up? Did the Jazz really miss Mehmet Okur so much that they got swept?

Injuries are part of the game in the NBA, but during playoff time teams are usually at their healthiest. Injuries to star players usually spell doom and it has proven so more often than not.

The entire NBA world has focused on LeBron James of the Cleveland Cavaliers in the last week. How bad is that elbow that forced him to shoot a free throw left handed in the clinching game against the Chicago Bulls? The Cavaliers have an abundance of talent, but without the two-time MVP their championship hopes would be dashed.

In game five against the Celtics, James simply wasn’t himself. His poor performance… 15 points on three for 14 shooting… wasn’t King-like. Now the Cavaliers are on the brink of elimination.

In Los Angeles, the banged-up Lakers need all the rest they can get after sweeping the Utah Jazz in the second round. Kobe Bryant has finger, knee and ankle injuries that have bothered him all season. Injury-prone center Andrew Bynum has a right knee injury and hasn’t played with the same consistency he had this year.

Phoenix Suns guard Steve Nash has been slowed by a hip injury. Although backup Goran Dragic is a more-than-capable player, especially after scoring 26 points in game three against the Spurs, the Suns need Nash to guide their offense.

The Utah Jazz were able to dispose of the Denver Nuggets in the first round without Okur, but they could have used his size and offense against the Lakers. Okur isn’t a star player, and his presence wouldn’t have changed the outcome of the series, but he would have helped. Maybe the series wouldn’t have ended in a sweep.

Championship runs have been derailed numerous times because of injuries. Last season, the Boston Celtics’ title defense wasn’t quite the same without former league MVP Kevin Garnett. The anchor of their 2008 championship, Garnett was out of the lineup in the thrilling first-round series against the Chicago Bulls. The Celtics eventually succumbed to the eventual Eastern conference champions, the Orlando Magic.

The Lakers missed Bynum in the 2008 finals against the Celtics’ bruising frontline. Other Lakers championship runs have been ruined with Hall of Fame players unavailable. In 2004, power forward Karl Malone was injured in the second game of the finals. The Lakers lost in five games. In 1991, forward James Worthy and guard Byron Scott were injured during the finals against the Chicago Bulls. Again, the Lakers lost in five games.

The most damaging of all, however, was in 1989 when the Lakers, back-to-back champs, were slowed by hamstring injuries to their starting backcourt of then-league MVP Magic Johnson and Scott. That year the Detroit Pistons swept them in the finals.

Another glamour team lost its last finals appearance without a Hall of Fame player. The New York Knicks made a run to the championship in 1999 with center Patrick Ewing managing to play with an Achilles tendon injury. As a No. 8 seed it was an improbable run, but Ewing sat out the NBA finals because of the injury. They sure could have used Ewing against the mighty Spurs with their twin-tower lineup of David Robinson and then-up-and-comer Tim Duncan.

With one second-round series left to be decided in this year’s playoffs (Boston vs. Cleveland) there are big-time players with nagging injuries. If these nagging injuries turn out to be serious then their respective teams will likely suffer when it matters most. Stay healthy, LeBron, K.G., Kobe and Nash.

NBA’s Second-round Match-ups An Easy Call

Round one is over and in about two weeks the NBA will have conference finalists. But first, four second-round matchups must take place and the outcome should be obvious in all of them.

Western conference

No. 1 Los Angeles Lakers vs. No. 5 Utah Jazz

The Lakers lead this series, 1-0. Although the Jazz played the Lakers tough in the first game, losing 104-99, this is a series that should be lopsided. The Lakers struggled against the young, athletic Thunder, but won’t against the Jazz.

Only Utah point guard Deron Williams will be a tough cover for the Lakers. Power forward Carlos Boozer has a history of struggling against the Lakers’ mammoth frontline of Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum. Williams will control the game and be involved in scoring and dishing to his teammates, but don’t expect much more from anyone else.

In game 1 Kobe Bryant had easy looks at the basket en route to 31 points. Without youthful, pesky Thunder players to harass him, Bryant shot an efficient 12 for 19 from the field. Look for that to continue.

Lakers in five.

No. 3 Phoenix Suns vs. No. 7 San Antonio Spurs

Coming off an impressive first-round upset of the Dallas Mavericks, the Spurs should pull off another one against the Suns. San Antonio seemed long in the tooth, but its efficient play and sound defense got them past the talented Mavericks.

Phoenix is also more talented and has been hot toward the end of the season. The combination of Steve Nash and Amare Stoudemire overwhelms most teams, but the Spurs have seen this before. San Antonio is kryptonite for the Suns and Phoenix usually folds during playoff time.

If San Antonio doesn’t get great contributions from role players such as George Hill, Richard Jefferson and former NBA finals MVP Tony Parker, who’s now coming off the bench, it will be in trouble. It’s tough to imagine Phoenix, which has improved greatly on defense this year, being able to gut it out with methodical Spurs.

San Antonio in seven.

Eastern conference

No. 1 Cleveland Cavaliers vs. No. 4 Boston Celtics

The Cavaliers lead this series, 1-0. Cleveland is an absolute juggernaut and even if back-to-back MVP LeBron James has an off day, the rest of his team picks up the scoring.

Boston would have to play a perfect series to win. They are capable of it, with most of the core intact from the team that won it all in 2008. But they are two years older and don’t play nearly as tough defensively. The big three of Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen and Paul Pierce would have to maximize their games.

Garnett still seems bothered by a leg injury and just hasn’t looked the same this season. The Cavaliers lacked the toughness to grind it out with physical teams such as the Celtics last year. It was their downfall in the conference finals against Orlando. With Shaquille O’Neal in the paint that won’t happen.

Cavaliers in six.

No. 2 Orlando Magic vs. No. 3 Atlanta Hawks

Did the Magic at least get to go on vacation? Orlando swept Charlotte and has been waiting for the winner of Atlanta and Milwaukee. That series barely wrapped up on Sunday. Finally, the Magic has an opponent.

Magic center Dwight Howard should neutralize Atlanta’s athletic players — if he stays out of foul trouble. The defensive player of the year hardly played against the Bobcats, yet Orlando’s perimeter players were able to knock down plenty of shots during the four-game series.

Atlanta has nobody to contain Howard, which means Vince Carter, Rashard Lewis and Jameer Nelson will be able to spot up and hit those jumpers. The fact that the Hawks struggled against the Bucks, one of those just-happy-to-be-there teams, doesn’t bode well. The Magic is a different beast with a real-life monster in the middle in Howard.

Magic in five.

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