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.
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 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.
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.
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.
The first week of the NBA playoffs is complete. No series is over yet, but many individuals have stood out in these hard-fought games. The drama of the playoffs has been heightened by players, coaches and even an owner who have made headlines as heroes and villains in the NBA world.
Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder guard
The young Thunder is tied with the Los Angeles Lakers, the No. 1 seed in the West, and Westbrook had led the way. No Lakers guards have the ability to stop him, which leads to easy baskets for Westbrook’s teammates.
Westbrook gets to the basket with ease and has played with great poise for a youngster. In the Thunder’s blowout game four win he had 18 points, eight rebounds and six assists.
Tony Parker, San Antonio Spurs guard
Parker has been coming off the bench in the playoffs and his scoring lifted the Spurs in game three. His 23 points as a reserve was just one example of the incredible all-around effort San Antonio has received from its players.
Once again, the Mavericks are on the brink of elimination in the first round. The Spurs have a three-games-to-one lead. Dallas owner Mark Cuban isn’t thrilled. He voiced his displeasure for the Spurs before game three. His comments made him a villain in this year’s playoffs.
Brandon Roy, Portland Trail Blazers guard
What seemed like a lopsided series got interesting. The Phoenix Suns, one of the hottest teams to end the season, led two games to one. Before game four, Roy, only eight days removed from arthroscopic surgery on his right knee, asked to play.
And he did, scoring 10 points in 27 minutes, giving the ailing Blazers a much-needed boost. Just like Willis Reed did for the New York Knicks in the 1970 NBA finals, Roy returned, didn’t have a huge impact, but left his mark on the game, and perhaps, on the series.
LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers forward
Nobody puts up numbers like James and after the Chicago Bulls closed the gap, winning game three in dramatic fashion, Cleveland needed its star to step up.
So James did, tallying his fifth career triple double in game four. He scored 37 points, grabbed 12 rebounds and dished 11 assists in the game four route of Chicago. Cleveland can close out the series on Tuesday.
Paul Pierce, Boston Celtics forward
When the Celtics needed him the most Pierce answered the call. The Truth nailed a jumper as time expired to give the Celtics a 100-98 win in game three. Pierce scored 32 points to help Boston to a 3-0 series lead.
Although the Celtics lost game four, they are in command of a series that has been played tough. So tough, there was an incident in Boston in game one. Pierce was involved in the play, but it was his teammate, Kevin Garnett, and Miami Heat guard Quentin Richardson who got all the attention. Their actions made them villains for week one.
Phil Jackson, Los Angeles Lakers coach
Before the series even began Jackson started mind games with Thunder forward Kevin Durant, the NBA’s leading scorer. “As far as the calls that he gets on the floor, I think a lot of the referees are treating him like a superstar; he gets to the line easy and often,” Jackson said.
Obviously, Jackson wanted to get the attention of the officials and swing some calls his way. It seems as if his comments have had the opposite effect. The majority of calls have gone Oklahoma City’s way with a gigantic free throw disparity in game four. The Lakers were 17 of 28 at the line; the Thunder was 42 of 48. That’s a lot of foul calls on the purple and gold.
Ron Artest, Los Angeles Lakers forward
Artest has played decent defense on Durant, harassing the lanky scorer into tough shots and forcing him to shoot a low percentage from the field.
But Artest’s own field goal percentage has been absolutely atrocious. He is literally shooting his own team out of the playoffs. Artest is settling for three pointers and getting very poor results: three for 23 in four games. Pass that ball or dribble a few steps in, Ron.
Mark Cuban, Dallas Mavericks owner
“I hate the Spurs,” Cuban said. “I have a hard time being civil to (Spurs majority owner) Peter Holt at the Board of Governors meeting, and he has a hard time being civil to me, even though we like each other.”
Cuban said this before game three against San Antonio. He has a reason to be angry. His Mavericks were beat by the Spurs in the Western conference finals in 2003. These teams have met twice in the playoffs since. Dallas has zero championships to show for its efforts while the Spurs boast four. And now, the Mavericks are on the brink of elimination as they trail three games to one.
Kevin Garnett, Boston Celtics forward
At the end of game one against the Miami Heat, Garnett went to the aid of Pierce after a fall. Heat guard Quentin Richardson got involved, Garnett didn’t like that so the Celtic forward connected with an elbow near Richardson’s jaw.
That action led to a suspension for game two. The Celtics won anyway, but there is plenty of bad blood between these teams, especially after Richardson’s comments regarding Pierce and Garnett.
Quentin Richardson, Miami Heat guard
“I was trying to get over there to take the ball out of bounds, and he started talking to me, so I talked back. Nobody has no business talking to [Pierce]. He’s on the ground, crying. I don’t know what’s going on. Two actresses over there, that’s what they are.”
Richardson seemed to be the instigator during this incident. He didn’t receive any suspension or fine. Pierce may be known for his melodramatic playoff moment of the 2008 NBA finals when he may have exaggerated an injury, but he and Garnett being called actresses won’t help the Celtics and Heat players become chums during this series.
This kind of behavior promotes violence in the form of “hard playoff fouls.” Nothing too rough has happened, but then again, week two of the playoffs starts tonight.
Cleveland is the team to beat with probable league MVP LeBron James leading his squad. They will have home-court advantage throughout the playoffs. Orlando and Boston have the talent and playoff experience to topple the Cavaliers, but it’s unlikely either team will.
Although that’s probably what most people thought last year when the Magic upended the Cavaliers in last year’s Eastern finals.
A look at the first round for the East:
1. Cleveland Cavaliers vs. 8. Chicago Bulls
Anything other than a sweep would be shocking. Cleveland has too much talent when healthy and still has more talent when it isn’t. Chicago, led by Derrick Rose, last season’s rookie of the year, struggled to nab the last playoff spot.
The Cavaliers were so far ahead in the standings they rested many of their players, including James. Center Shaquille O’Neal should return to the lineup (sprained right thumb). He hasn’t played since Feb. 25 against the Celtics.
Chicago might be competitive in all the games, but actually winning one might be too much to ask. Cleveland in four.
4. Boston Celtics vs. 5. Miami Heat
Boston got old quickly. Two years ago the Celtics won the NBA title with a veteran team that played stellar defense. They’re still a veteran team that plays stellar defense — sometimes. The addition of Rasheed Wallace didn’t lead to 70-plus wins as he predicted.
Miami, on the other hand, is a young team led by Dwyane Wade, one of the best players in the league. The Heat is also a recent NBA champ, winning in 2006, but that was with Shaq and a host of other veterans. This may be Wade’s last go with the Heat as he can opt for free agency during the summer.
The slight edge should go to Boston, but don’t be surprised if its inconsistent play leads to a Miami victory. Anyway, Boston in seven games.
2. Orlando Magic vs. 7. Charlotte Bobcats
The Orlando Magic is 23-5 since the All-Star break. They are the defending Eastern conference champs and center Dwight Howard beats up whoever he wants in the post. Although still limited offensively, Howard still Godzillas the opposition as he led the NBA in rebounding and blocks.
Orlando also led the league in three pointers made and has the perimeter players to stretch the floor and keep defenses from swarming Howard. Charlotte is a surprise as it has made the playoffs for the first time. Coach Larry Brown has pulled off another miracle, but he does have the horses to make the Magic sweat.
Stephen Jackson and Gerald Wallace are great perimeter players for the Bobcats, but in the end, Howard’s squad should overwhelm their inexperienced foes. Orlando in five games.
3. Atlanta Hawks vs. 6. Milwaukee Bucks
Atlanta’s “Iso-Joe” offense — letting guard Joe Johnson go one on one and jacking up shots — may work in the regular season, but in the playoffs, when possessions are precious and teams strategize to stop star players, this won’t work.
But it will be enough to get by the Milwaukee Bucks. The Hawks have plenty of athletic players (Josh Smith, Al Horford, Marvin Williams) and score a lot of points. The Milwaukee Bucks were gritty enough to make it to the playoffs, but this series will be a serious mismatch as two of their starters are out because of injuries (guard Michael Redd and center Andrew Bogut).
The Bucks are led by guard John Salmons (15 points per game). They acquired him at the trade deadline from the Chicago Bulls. But without Bogut’s 15 points and 10 rebounds a game, Milwaukee has no chance. Atlanta in five games.
The Lakers, last year’s top team, finished 11 games better than the No. 2 seed. This season, all eight playoff teams are jumbled together and the Lakers’ aura of invincibility has vanished.
A look at the first round match-ups:
1. Los Angeles Lakers vs. 8. Oklahoma City Thunder
The defending champs have underachieved all year long, but they still finished with the West’s top record and will have home court advantage in every series unless they play Cleveland or Orlando in the NBA finals. The Lakers have the most talent in the league, but that matters little to the upstart Thunder.
Led by scoring champion Kevin Durant (30.1 points per game), Oklahoma City won 27 more games than it did in 2009. The Thunder has very little playoff experience and their two best players, Durant and former UCLA guard Russell Westbrook, have none.
Oklahoma City will play the Lakers tough, but their lack of frontcourt depth and inexperience will doom them in the end. Even though the Lakers played poorly down the stretch, it shouldn’t matter to a team loaded with players at every position. Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and the rest of the champs should win in five or six games.
4. Denver Nuggets vs. 5. Utah Jazz
Both of these team showed flashes of brilliance this year, but when every Western conference playoff team wins 50 games or more, somebody has to take the dreaded No. 4 vs. No. 5 slots.
Denver has the frontcourt depth to be a West power and has fantastic skill players in Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups. The Nuggets held their own against the Lakers in last year’s Western conference finals, but with coach George Karl’s absence the past few weeks because of cancer treatment the team has faltered. They just don’t look as threatening as last year’s club.
Point guard Deron Williams, the most complete player in the league at that position, leads the Jazz. Power forward Carlos Boozer is a bruising player in the paint and coach Jerry Sloan’s teams always play tough. This is a difficult series to call, especially since both teams, at times, looked as if they could make a run at the conference finals. Utah in six games.
2. Dallas Mavericks vs. 7. San Antonio Spurs
Is this the last stand for the Spurs? They have gotten older and wiser, mostly older, but they eeked out a 50-win season. Age and injury have slowed them down while their opponents, the Dallas Mavericks, have upgraded.
This is Dirk Nowitzki’s best supporting cast, even better than the team that went to the 2006 finals. With Jason Kidd running the show and newcomers Caron Butler and Brendan Haywood stepping in at small forward and center, the Mavericks are poised to go deep in the playoffs.
San Antonio’s top players — Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobli — still carry the team, but not as often. Parker and Ginobli were injured often this year and Duncan isn’t the all-world player he used to be. The Spurs and all their playoff experience will push the Mavericks, but in the end, Dallas should prevail. Mavericks in six games.
3. Phoenix Suns vs. 6. Portland Trail Blazers
The Suns got hot at the end of the year and the Blazers had a spectacular season despite losing a ton of players to injury. But the series is a no-brainer since Portland’s star player, Brandon Roy, is out of the entire series because of a knee injury.
Phoenix would be a tough out for any team with Steve Nash and Amare Stoudemire playing their best ball at the end of the season. Portland won’t go without a fight, but without Roy to steady the team, Phoenix should win in five games.