Expanded First Round Explanations (Version 2.0)
A simple rule: Never trust your editor. As you may have noticed on the front page recently, somewhere between a million and billion new “articles” popped up where almost every writer on the site delivered extremely brief playoff predictions. This happened in large part because it was mandated from the top that we all keep it brief so that these picks could be integrated into a larger article compiling everyone’s picks together. That plan was ultimately abandoned as the resulting product was long enough to be the holy text for many of the world’s major religions. Of course, had Captain Jack’s Headband known this would have been the inevitable result in advance I would have simply published this article in advance rather than having it go on my permanent record that I will now have independently published two different picks columns for the same off-season. How embarrassing. Not even Peter Vescey recycles column ideas so blatantly. At least I’m going to keep it consistent and remain the sole HoopsVibe columnist to refuse to crown Boston as the inevitable Eastern Conference champion, and you can back-check those picks here.
(1) Boston Celtics v. (8) Atlanta Hawks: Boston in Five
Here’s the thing about this Celtics team: They had some legitimate talent last season but they were young, couldn’t gel together, and the coach made decisions that absolutely killed them in close games down the stretch. In order to fix this situation, the team flushed out nearly all their young talent (with a couple of exceptions) for two huge stars and Scot Pollard’s ponytail, made sure one of the players involved was the super-intense Kevin Garnett, and … kept the same coach.
Now a lot of people have acted like Doc Rivers is somehow doing a better job this season than he was before and that this is somehow responsible for Boston’s turnaround, but an honest look at the record shows this guy is just in the right place at the right time. In all honesty, are you telling me that someone whose only experience with basketball was playing NBA Live couldn’t have figured out to play his three best guys as much as possible? Furthermore in watching Boston at the end of close games it often appears that those same three veterans are essentially self-coaching at the end of games: deciding who will take the big shots, getting a rough idea of some type of play to run, etc. etc. This works great during the regular season, especially in the Eastern Conference, but somewhere down the line some team is going to figure out some crack in the Celtics’ game-plan and it’s going to get exploited over and over and over again by a good team that’s well coached in a series. In that situation the Celtics will inevitably have to rely on Doc Rivers to come up with a solution.
Frankly, I’m just not willing to put my faith in that guy and as a result I think this team will go home unhappy once again. All of this is essentially a long-winded way of saying that the Celtics HAVE to blow the doors off of the Hawks given the quality difference between these two teams but that you’re going to start seeing the cracks in the Boston armor here and you’ll feel very differently about this team in May than you do in April.
(2) Detroit Pistons v. (7) Philadelphia 76ers: Detroit in Six
No one is seriously contending that the Sixers can pull this one out against the team with infinitely more experience and a better record. In fact, if anything the fact that this particular Sixers team has captured the hearts and minds (I know Republican readers are cringing over that use of the phrase, sorry) of the city may lead management to make some of the same mistakes that led to the previous iteration of the Sixers imploding over the course of several seasons. To Sixers GM Ed Stefanski I say this: Do not, DO NOT, give Andre Iguodala a max contract. If you decide that he’s your best player for the foreseeable future you’ve pretty much decided you’ll always be mediocre in a mediocre conference.
Do not get fooled into thinking that Andre Miller is worth a long extension on the basis that he suddenly improved markedly at the age of 31. You know who else did that? Mike James. We all know how that’s working out for his last three teams. As a result if I’m a Philly fan I’m holding my breath for the entire series. It might even be best if Andre Miller blows out a knee and all the role players come down with a terminal case of death. Anything to avoid the same temptations that led Billy King to pay out more money to guys like Aaron McKie than Shawn Kemp owes in back child support payments.
(3) Orlando Magic v. (6) Toronto Raptors: Toronto in Seven
I already explained this about as much as I have to in the group version of this column, suffice it to say that the most overlooked aspect of the Magic’s season has been the way they live or die on the three-point shot. Anyone smart will do their damnedest to take that away from them and I suspect that Toronto will have the ability to do that. It doesn’t hurt that Rasho Nesterovic is really playing well over the course of the last month and will actually make Dwight Howard work on the defensive end rather than leaving to roam and block T.J. Ford floaters. And I know I’m likely to get spammed with hate comments by the Puerto Rican community after saying that I don’t believe in the Magic; they take their Carlos Arroyo a little too seriously.
(4) Cleveland Cavaliers v. (5) Washington Wizards: Cleveland in Six
This Washington Wizards team has the feel of “too little too late” to me. They’re clearly talented but their top three guys essentially haven’t played together all season and now they’re trying to make it all work together at the last minute. While great ensemble casts can be fun (see the movie “Ocean’s Eleven”) they can also be disastrous (see the movie “Ocean’s Twelve”). In this case I suspect that LeBron will take this team out single-handed and Gilbert Arenas will end up purchasing approximately $300,000 in colon cleanser during the course of the off-season.
(1) Los Angeles Lakers v. (8) Denver Nuggets: Lakers in Seven
Frankly this match-up has to scare the bejeezus out of the Lakers. Kenyon Martin and Marcus Camby provide two fantastic defenders to throw at Pau Gasol, who struggles with players as big and as strong as he is, and Allen Iverson and Carmelo Anthony are like those Arena Football quarterbacks who are just good enough to keep their team in any game through sheer offensive firepower. Plus you can’t discount the idea that Carmelo (more on him in the next column, let’s just say that his current situation reminds me of one of Tennessee Williams most famous characters) is going to show Kobe some great nightspots in the Denver area as part of a “Team USA chemistry-building exercise”; although it’s questionable if bars will even serve Kobe given his local reputation.
Make no mistake about it, guys like Linas Kleiza are going to burn the Lakers at least once during the course of the playoffs and Lamar Odom will find a way to disappear, because, well, he’s Lamar Odom. In order for the Lakers to win this series they’re going to have to count on Kobe being a defensive beast against Iverson and simultaneously torching him on the other end. Any other scenario and an impartial observer has to say that the Nuggets look competitive on paper.
Like all good fantasy novels and movies, summoning up enough magic to get anything worthwhile done will require substantial sacrifice and have adverse results at a later date. That cost is going to come not in this round but later when small nagging injuries, a lack of rest, and rough half-court play will cost them a series against a less-talented team. A look at the bracket reveals that the Lakers are going to get the hardest possible playoff schedule this season between having to play this Nuggets squad, the inevitable Utah match-up in the second round, and then facing whichever team emerges from the Dallas/San Antonio/Phoenix/New Orleans group. Given the make-up of this team that seems just a little too imposing; one gets the impression they’re one year and a healthy Andrew Bynum away.
The most fascinating subplot of the Lakers’ playoff run is Pau Gasol’s abysmal playoff history. If the Lakers flop early, and especially if Pau fails to win a series AGAIN, one will have to wonder what he’s done in this lifetime in order to have such awful karma. Did he take a lead pipe to the back of his brother’s knees in order to make sure he’d always win in one-on-one as a kid? Did he force Mike Miller to do his hair that way at gunpoint? Did he introduce Whitney Houston to drugs? I’ll simply have to know.
On the flip-side if the Lakers make the finals, as all my fellow writers who unimaginatively picked the number one seeds from each conference to meet in the championship round predicted, Pau Gasol’s career will be more rejuvenated than Feliberto Carrasco. It’s a big year for him.
(2) New Orleans Hornets v. (7) Dallas Mavericks: Hornets in Six
I’m just not buying into the Dallas hysteria. These teams have played twice since the infamous Jason Kidd trade with each team emerging victorious once. A look at those games indicates two very different results arising primarily as a result of the way the Jason Kidd-Chris Paul match-up played out. In the first game Chris Paul dominated the opposition by scoring 31 points, dishing 11 assists, and grabbing 5 rebounds while Jason Kidd had an anemic 8 points, 6 rebounds, and 5 assists. Those are Anthony Johnson numbers.
The second game reversed fortunes for the Mavericks with Jason Kidd putting up a triple double with 9-14 shooting and 5-8 on shots from behind the three point line. Of course Chris Paul still had a very good game with 20 points, 10 assists, and 3 rebounds. THAT is the story of these two teams: Chris Paul was very good consistently and in order for the Mavericks to win Jason Kidd has to shoot the lights out. I don’t know about you, but I’m not expecting Kidd to continue shooting well over 50% against New Orleans’ defense when he’s been a 38% shooter over the course of the entire season. To pick the Mavericks in this series requires you to believe that the 9-14 Jason Kidd is the real player and the guy we saw the rest of the season was a fluke. I’m more willing to believe that Xenu massacred billions of people by dropping hydrogen bombs in volcanoes.
This also seems like a good place to mention that I will never trust any team that relies on Josh Howard and Jason Terry in crunch time. If I were ever to put together a “Captain Jack’s Headband ‘Where’s Waldo?’” team for players who disappear regularly in big games those guys would be starters. This is never a good thing when you’re trying to put together a deep playoff run.
Finally I fully anticipate Avery Johnson to give a postgame press conference in which his voice gets so high it will sound like a mudkip is coaching the Dallas Mavericks.
(3) San Antonio Spurs v. (6) Phoenix Suns: Suns in Six.
Jason Kelly has and will continue to write approximately 100,000 words about this series so I won’t clog up HoopsVibe’s bandwidth with excess verbiage about this particular match-up. Let’s just leave it with the idea that if the Suns win the title this season I will be the first person at the team hotel next season in a highly visible g-string knocking frantically on Shaq’s door making him promises that are unrepeatable on a family website.
(4) Utah Jazz v. (5) Houston Rockets: Jazz in Five.
I’ve yet to see anyone even suggest that Houston has a realistic chance to win the series given the status of Rafer Alston and Yao Ming and the playoff history between these two teams. As a result I’m going to use this space to talk about two things that are of import to these teams.
First of all, I have long believed that the real reason that Tracy McGrady can’t ever be taken seriously as a guy who can take a team to the next level is his lazy eye. The last person to achieve any level of real success while only keeping one eye on the job was Barbara Jordan, who coincidentally has won exactly as many playoff series as Tracy McGrady. In order to rectify the situation I’m calling on Ted Nugent to consent to an eye transplant with McGrady in order to defuse any and all future jokes about McGrady. I don’t think anyone would dare make fun of him if he could look at you with this kind of intensity:
Second of all, I’m really, really tired of hearing about how awful Utah is on the road. Taking a look a the schedule, it’s important to note that Utah played an incredibly front-loaded schedule with a large portion of their road games occurring in November and December before the Gordan Giricek trade. Since January 1st Utah has gone 11-11 on the road, which isn’t fantastic but listening to every commentator on television, radio, and the internet you’d think Utah hadn’t won a game on the road since Adlai Stevenson was a viable presidential candidate.
Furthermore the real trend with Utah on the road is that they tend to not focus against bad teams without the energy of the home crowd to motivate them. For that reason they lost road games this year against Minnesota (twice), New Jersey, Chicago, the Clippers, Sacramento (twice), Miami, Charlotte, Atlanta, and the Knicks. Against good teams, however, they tend to lock in and remain competitive. As an example they’ve beaten Detroit, Orlando, Houston, Phoenix, Boston, New Orleans, and Denver on those teams’ home floors. Here’s a dirty secret: All those bad teams aren’t going to be playing at this point in the season. If you’re discounting the Jazz solely because of their road record you’ll be in for a surprise.
Finally, of the 15 playoff teams besides the Jazz did you know that 7 of them have road records that are either substantially worse, the same, or only a single game better than Jazz road record? Did you know that includes teams currently being described as “dangerous” like Dallas, Denver, and Cleveland? Of course it’s Utah so no one actually watched their games and as a result you’re just going to hear Stephen A. Smith scream the five talking points contained in his pre-prepared media packet about the team over the course of the next month.