Because I’m smack bang in the middle of preparing for the IR exam in June, I won’t be able to do as in-depth a preview of the NBA playoffs as I would like. So this is how this is going to work. I’ve going to write a few words about each series. This will be followed by three sets of predictions: mine, Nikhil’s and Zeyd’s. Each of us will receive 5 points for correctly predicting a series winner, and 3 further points for correctly predicting the number of games in the series. At the end of the first-round – and perhaps at the end of the playoffs, if we choose to carry forward this enterprise – we will have a winner, who will win a yet to be announced material reward and bragging rights. Understand? Good.
Without further ado:
1. L.A. Lakers vs. 8. Denver Nuggets
As a Nuggets (well, really, Allen Iverson) fan, there were only two teams that I absolutely, positively did not want to draw in the playoffs. The first were the Spurs. The second were the Lakers. This is because of my belief that if the talent levels of two teams are fairly equal, teams with a system will always beat teams without a system in a 7-game series. In the case of the Lakers, even the talent levels don’t really match up. Kobe’s playing the best ball of his career, they have the perfect second scorer for the triangle, a post-up guy who can hit the 18 footer for good measure, and the perfect cast of role-players, guys who can hit shots (Vujacic, Farmar), pass and generally make smart plays (Walton), hustle and bring the crowd into it (Fisher, Turiaf), and the ultimate enigma who’s perfect as the third best player on a team (Odom). Exacerbating all this is the fact that George Karl is not exactly a match for Phil Jackson, and I can’t really see the Nugs putting up much of a challenge in this series. I’m giving them two games, one in which AI and Melo carry them, and one in which Kobe tries to do too much in a close game, forgetting what got the Lakers to this point in the first place, and shoots them out of it.
Ahsan’s prediction: L.A. wins 4-2
Nikhil’s prediction: L.A. wins 4-1
Zeyd’s prediction: Denver wins 4-2
2. New Orleans Hornets vs. 7. Dallas Mavericks
I am completely torn about this series. There’re so many conflicting factors to consider. In New Orleans’ favor: they have the best player in the series, they have home-court, they’re younger, they’re hungrier, and they have a coach who, despite all his faults, went to the Finals twice going up against a coach whose team flamed out in the first round last year because he made bad decisions. In Dallas’ favor: they have the been-there-done-that feel, the pressure’s off them (hugely important for a team that folds under pressure), they’re playing a team which is extremely inexperienced at this level, they’ve finally figured out how to incorporate Kidd into their game, and their team defense sets are among the league’s best when playing a predictable half-court team like the Hornets. I think the longer this series goes, the more it’s going to favor New Orleans; my only fear for the Hornets is that the series won’t go long enough for them to get acclimated to the playoffs.
Ahsan’s prediction: Dallas wins 4-2
Nikhil’s prediction: Dallas wins 4-3
Zeyd’s prediction: New Orleans wins 4-3
3. San Antonio Spurs vs. 6. Phoenix Suns
My goodness, what have the basketball gods served up here? IR exam, Shy-R exam, I’m not missing a minute of this series. The history, the animosity, the star power, the prime-time factor: this series is the Leningrad/Moscow of this season’s Western playoffs – the cataclysmic struggle that only marks the beginning of a hellacious war.
So who’s going to take it? Well, if you’d asked me two months ago, I would have said San Antonio in a heartbeat. Watching the last game between these teams, however, has made me think differently. I know you should never put too much stock in one game, but Phoenix won a game they never would have pre-Shaq: a grind-it-out game, close in the fourth quarter, on the road. But they pulled it out, and did so in a methodical, almost-Spurs like manner. Furthermore, San Antonio has looked really old this year – all the big shots by guys like Finley and Horry that they’ve relied on for years past seemed to have dried up. The only reason I feel any trepidation is the fact that most of ESPN’s “experts” are picking the Suns too, and in a close series where there’s no favorite, going with what the “experts” say almost always leads to trouble. I’m going to have to take the leap, however, because (a) Phoenix wants it more, (b) Phoenix is pissed off from last year, and (c) the Spurs cannot stop Amare.
Ahsan’s prediction: Phoenix wins 4-2
Nikhil’s prediction: Phoenix wins 4-2
Zeyd’s prediction: San Antonio wins 4-3
4. Houston Rockets vs. 5. Utah Jazz
BORING! This was easily the most soporific series last year – despite going 7 games – and this year figures to be no different. It’s also the easiest to predict – I know of no sane, rational soul who’s picking Houston in this series, 22-win streak and all. Really, who’s going to guard Okur? Plus, Deron might conceivably average 25-13 in this series, playing three quarters. Utah is well-coached, well-led, have an incredibly efficient offense, and their troubles on the road – according to Nikhil anyway – are overplayed. Plus, it’s the playoffs, which means McGrady’s going to shoot 39% from the field and 31% from three, and then make everyone feel sorry for him in the summer by putting it all on himself. Well, whatever. There’s only so much sympathy I can have for someone of his stature who’s missed two legitimate chances to get to the second round, and blew it (against Dallas in ’05 when they won the first two on the road, and against Utah last year).
Ahsan’s prediction: Utah wins 4-1
Nikhil’s prediction: Utah wins 4-2
Zeyd’s prediction: Utah wins 4-2
1. Boston Celtics vs. 8. Atlanta Hawks
Not worth discussing.
Ahsan’s prediction: Boston wins 4-0
Nikhil’s prediction: Boston wins 4-0
Zeyd’s prediction: Boston wins 4-0
2. Detroit Pistons vs. 7. Philadelphia 76ers
I don’t think Detroit is losing this series, but I do think they’re in for a surprise. For one, they’re guaranteed to mail in at least a game, given their strange proclivity for overconfidence at every stage of the season (even the Finals…remember ’05?). For another, this Philly team was one of the league’s six or seven best over the last couple of months of the season, with some huge road wins. Plus Flip Saunders is a terrible coach, always good for one unnecessary loss per series. I say this goes six games.
Ahsan’s prediction: Detroit wins 4-2
Nikhil’s prediction: Detroit wins 4-1
Zeyd’s prediction: Detroit wins 4-1
3. Orlando Magic vs. 6. Toronto Raptors
Another tough series to figure out. On paper, Orlando should blow the Raptors away. But this is Dwight Howard’s first foray into the big time, and who knows how he’ll react? Toronto were in a hard-fought series against Jersey last year and I’m sure the experience helped them no end. At the end of the day, in a close series, you have to look at second-tier factors like home court and the coaching matchup, both of which favor Orlando. But this is a pick I am making with very low levels on confidence, let me tell you.
Ahsan’s prediction: Orlando wins 4-3
Nikhil’s prediction: Orlando wins 4-2
Zeyd’s prediction: Orlando wins 4-1
4. Cleveland Cavaliers vs. 5. Washington Wizards
This series will depend on one thing, and one thing only: Lebron’s back. If he’s healthy, I don’t care about the Wizards’ recent run, the Cavs’ being an average team after the trade, or Gilbert’s yapping: he’ll just take over in the 4th every game, and that will be that. But his injury makes it more of a toss-up. And the Wizards are better than they’ve been the last couple of years, when they were bounced by this Cleveland team. On the other hand, when you factor in the fact that Caron is only just returning from injury, and that Gilbert still could shake their chemistry with some ill-advised shots at bad times…I don’t know.
Ahsan’s prediction: Cleveland wins 4-3
Nikhil’s prediction: Washington wins 4-2
Zeyd’s prediction: Cleveland wins 4-2
Let the games begin.