Well NBA fans, it's that time of year again. It's time to put aside all the taunting, all the smack talk, all the posturing and preening before the cameras. It's time to leave the regular season behind...
And begin the playoffs.
Despite the fact that the majority of teams in the NBA make it to the playoffs (16 playoff teams, 14 lottery teams), the postseason always has some juicy storylines and upset bids.
The talent levels in both conferences are so high, most pairings are pretty much dead-even in terms of player skill. It will take the indeterminable qualities, qualities that make a champion, to sort out who walks away with that heavy-looking hunk of gold.
I've sorted the match-ups, along with stats, analysis and predictions, in seeding order (1-8, then 4-5, etc.). I'll start with the Western Conference, then do the Eastern Conference.
1 Los Angeles vs. 8 Utah
Lakers Starters: PG Derek Fisher (9.9 PPG, 3.2 APG), SG Kobe Bryant (26.8 PPG, 5.2 RPG, 4.4 APG), SF Luke Walton (5 PPG, 2.8 RPG), PF Pau Gasol (18.9 PPG, 9.6 RPG), C Andrew Bynum (14.3 PPG, 8 RPG) Key Bench Players: Lamar Odom, Jordan Farmar, Trevor Ariza
Jazz Starters: PG Deron Williams (19.4 PPG, 10.7 APG), SG Ronnie Brewer (13.7 PPG, 3.7 RPG), SF C.J. Miles (9.1 PPG, 2.3 RPG), PF Carlos Boozer (16.2 PPG, 10.4 RPG), C Mehmet Okur (17 PPG, 7.7 RPG) Key Bench Players: Paul Millsap, Andrei Kirilenko, Kyle Korver
The Skinny: At the start of the season, many pundits around the NBA were hailing the Jazz as a top team in the West, a team easily capable of being a top-three team. A slew of key injuries, a late-season losing streak, and the insurgence of the Denver Nuggets and the Portland Trail Blazers all combined to drop Utah into the dreaded 8-spot, and a date with Los Angeles.
The Lakers have Andrew Bynum back, which means that unless another key person gets hurt, they have no excuse should they fail to get to the Finals. His injury last year was the reason the Lakers gave for their lackluster performance against Boston last year. Now, it's finally time to put that theory to the test.
Prediction: Utah is too good to suffer a sweep. I think they'll steal one in Salt Lake City, but the Lake Show will roll on in five.
4 Portland vs. 5 Houston
Trail Blazers Starters: PG Steve Blake (11 PPG, 5 APG), SG Brandon Roy (22.6 PPG, 4.7 RPG, 5.1 APG), SF Nicolas Batum (5.4 PPG, 2.8 RPG), PF LaMarcus Aldridge (18.1 PPG, 7.5 RPG), C Joel Pryzbilla (5.5 PPG, 8.7 RPG) Key Bench Players: Travis Outlaw, Rudy Fernandez, Greg Oden
Rockets Starters: PG Aaron Brooks (11.2 PPG, 3 APG), SG Shane Battier (7.3 PPG, 4.8 RPG), SF Ron Artest (17.1 PPG, 5.2 RPG), PF Luis Scola (12.7 PPG, 8.8 RPG), C Yao Ming (19.7 PPG, 9.9 PPG, 1.95 BPG) Key Bench Players: Carl Landry, Kyle Lowry, Von Wafer
The Skinny: The games these teams played during the season were decided by the benches. A casual observer would think that Houston would be at a disadvantage, but they used their hustle and defensive pressure to frustrate not only Portland's deadly bench scorers, but even Roy. Yao also tore into the Blazers with impunity.
If the Rockets can out-hustle the Blazers, they will win the series. If the Blazers can knock down open shots and limit Yao's scoring, Portland will take it down. Either way, it will be very close.
Prediction: This series is too close to call, honestly, but I'll have to try, won't I? Home-court advantage could be huge for the Blazers, winners of 34 contests in the Rose Garden. It's why they'll beat Houston in seven games.
Spurs Starters: PG Tony Parker (22 PPG, 6.9 APG), SG Roger Mason (11.8 PPG, 3.1 RPG), SF Michael Finley (9.7 PPG, 3.3 RPG), PF Tim Duncan (19.3 PPG, 10.7 RPG), C Matt Bonner (8.2 PPG, 4.8 RPG) Key Bench Players: George Hill, Kurt Thomas, Bruce Bowen
Mavericks Starters: PG Jason Kidd (9 PPG, 6.2 RPG, 8.7 APG), SG Josh Howard (18 PPG, 5.1 RPG), SF Antoine Wright (7.3 PPG, 2.1 RPG), PF Dirk Nowitzki (25.9 PPG, 8.4 RPG), C Erick Dampier (5.7 PPG, 7.1 RPG) Key Bench Players: Jason Terry, JJ Barea, Brandon Bass
The Skinny: If you look at the last few weeks, Dallas clearly has more momentum. They were able to fight out of the Eighth Seed of Death, capitalizing on (and contributing to) the fall of the Hornets and Jazz, and they seized the sixth seed yesterday by coming from behind and beating Houston.
The Spurs, meanwhile, haven't looked so hot. Being embarrassed by Portland on their home floor was nothing compared to the loss of Manu Ginobili, and Tim Duncan's sore knee has limited his effectiveness.
If it weren't for their improbable comeback from a five-point deficit with 45 seconds to go against New Orleans, San Antonio wouldn't be playing at home this weekend.
Prediction: Unfortunately for Dallas, I look long-term. Though the point guard and coach are different, the core of the Maverick squad is still the same as it was in the past few years.
This is a team that makes mistakes when the chips are down...and Timmy and Gregg Popovich have made Hall of Fame careers out of capitalizing on such mistakes. Spurs in six.
2 Denver vs. 7 New Orleans
Nuggets Starters: PG Chauncey Billups (17.9 PPG, 6.4 APG), SG Dahntay Jones (5.4 PPG, 2.1 RPG), SF Carmelo Anthony (22.8 PPG, 6.8 RPG), PF Kenyon Martin (11.7 PPG, 6 RPG), C Nene (14.6 PPG, 7.8 RPG) Key Bench Players: J.R. Smith, Linas Kleiza, Chris Andersen
Hornets Starters: PG Chris Paul (22.8 PPG, 5.5 RPG, 11 APG, 2.77 SPG), SG Rasual Butler (11.2 PPG, 3.3 RPG), SF Peja Stojakovic (13.3 PPG, 4.3 RPG), PF David West (21 PPG, 8.5 RPG), C Tyson Chandler (8.8 PPG, 8.7 RPG) Key Bench Players: James Posey, Hilton Armstrong, Julian Wright
The Skinny: The Nuggets are a hard team to figure out because they are chock-full of streak shooters and weird characters. Smith lights up a bad team in Sacramento for 45, then goes to Portland and throws up brick after brick. Anthony shoots 18% (!!!) last night in the face of heavy defensive pressure.
Andersen (aptly named the "Birdman") stuffs a shot attempt and takes the time to sneer at the Blazer bench...while his team plays shorthanded on offense, turns the ball over, and he proceeds to look idiotic when Sergio Rodriguez pump-fakes him into the first row.
New Orleans, meanwhile, is easier to get a handle on. Chris Paul's stellar play, David West's 21 and 8 a night, and the solid supporting cast make them a definite threat. Momentum isn't on the Hornets' side, but Denver hasn't been good against playoff teams either.
Prediction: Billups has been an enormous help for Denver, but Paul is better than him, and Chauncey's mates can't be relied upon to deliver for four games. While my head tells me to say Rich Creamies in six, my gut says to take the Hornets in six instead. I'll go with my gut.
All you Denver fans may now proceed to douse me with Haterade.
Cavaliers Starters: PG Mo Williams (17.8 PPG, 4.1 APG), SG Delonte West (11.7 PPG, 3.2 RPG), SF LeBron James (28.4 PPG, 7.6 RPG, 7.2 APG), PF Anderson Varejao (8.6 PPG, 7.2 RPG), C Zydrunas Ilgauskas (12.9 PPG, 7.5 PPG) Key Bench Players: Daniel Gibson, Ben Wallace, Wally Szczerbiak
Pistons Starters: PG Rodney Stuckey (13.4 PPG, 4.9 APG), SG Richard Hamilton (18.3 PPG, 4.4 APG), SF Tayshaun Prince (14.2 PPG, 5.8 RPG), PF Rasheed Wallace (12 PPG, 7.4 RPG), C Antonio McDyess (9.6 PPG, 9.8 RPG) Key Bench Players: Will Bynum, Jason Maxiell, Arron Afflalo
The Skinny: Question: how many guys lead their team in scoring, rebounding, and assists? If you said one, you'd be correct. If you said LeBron James, you'd also be correct.
His insane set of skills mesh with the rugged front line, dead-eye shooters on the wing, and the shotgun-riding Williams to create a juggernaut that's lost only twice all year at home...and they have home-court throughout the entire playoffs.
The Pistons are in the process of tearing the team down and starting over. Joe Dumars may deny it, but it's written all over this team. Since they traded away the soul of the Pistons (Chauncey Billups), it's been practically preordained that Detroit is in blow-up mode. Here's hoping they draft well and get some good pieces to go along with their other young talent.
Prediction: We'll keep it short and sweet. Cavs sweep.
Hawks Starters: PG Mike Bibby (14.9 PPG, 5 APG), SG Marvin Williams (13.9 PPG, 6.3 RPG), SF Joe Johnson (21.4 PPG, 4.4 RPG, 5.8 APG), PF Josh Smith (15,6 PPG, 7.2 RPG), C Al Horford (11.5 PPG, 9.3 RPG) Key Bench Players: Ronald Murray, Maurice Evans, Zaza Pachulia
Heat Starters: PG Mario Chalmers (10 PPG, 4.9 APG), SG Dwyane Wade (30.2 PPG, 5 RPG, 7.5 APG), SF Jamario Moon (7.1 PPG, 4.5 RPG), PF Udonis Haslem (10.6 PPG, 8.2 RPG), C Jermaine O'Neal (13 PPG, 5.4 RPG, 2 BPG) Key Bench Players: Michael Beasley, Daequan Cook, Luther Head
The Skinny: This is one series to watch closely. Atlanta made themselves known to basketball fans everywhere by taking the vaunted Celtics to seven last season, despite being a 35-win team that year. They have youth, athleticism, and a big-time player in Joe Johnson.
The Heat have these things too, except in different ways. Beasley has come off the bench recently, and imagining him at the forefront of the Miami second unit is slightly intimidating. They've been flying under the radar this season, masked by the Cleveland-Boston-Orlando hubbub. Coach Erik Spolstra should use this to his advantage, and fire up his squad.
He'll need to, because Atlanta's proven to be an excellent playoff home team, and they have advantage.
Prediction: I like the Hawks. I really do. It's just unfortunate they're facing a highly skilled, highly motivated, and extremely angry Dwyane Wade. He'll prove that he's the worthy MVP by plowing his way through the Atlanta defense. I take Miami in six games.
3 Orlando vs. 6 Philadelphia
Magic Starters: PG Rafer Alston (12 PPG, 5.1 APG), SG Courtney Lee (8.4 PPG, 2.3 RPG), SF Hedo Turkoglu (16.8 PPG, 5.3 RPG, 4.9 APG), PF Rashard Lewis (17.7 PPG, 5.7 RPG), C Dwight Howard (20.6 PPG, 13.8 RPG, 2.92 BPG) Key Bench Players: Mickael Pietrus, Anthony Johnson, Tony Battie
Sixers Starters: PG Andre Miller (16.3 PPG, 4.5 RPG, 6.5 APG), SG Willie Green (8.5 PPG, 1.6 RPG), SF Andre Iguodala (18.8 PPG, 5.7 RPG, 5.3 APG), PF Thaddeus Young (15.3 PPG, 5 RPG), C Samuel Dalembert (6.4 PPG, 8.5 RPG) Key Bench Players: Lou Williams, Marreese Speights, Reggie Evans
The Skinny: Orlando has to feel disappointed that despite the fact that Kevin Garnett hadn't played significant minutes in some time, they were unable to secure the second seed. They've been able to survive the Jameer Nelson injury by acquiring Alston, a cagey veteran capable of leading a playoff team.
Offensively, they are a tough cover for any team, let alone a small team like Philadelphia.
The Sixers are a team filled with athletes and active bodies. They are a team that forces many turnovers, and relies on those turnovers and transition baskets to provide its points. They also are a team without a good shooter, and in the absence of Elton Brand, they've had to get creative to find ways to win.
Prediction: The Sixers have no one that comes close to matching Howard's size, and he'll eat Dalembert alive. Coupled with a barrage of outside shooting, it will be enough to carry Orlando to a series sweep of Philly.
2 Boston vs. 7 Chicago
Celtics Starters: PG Rajon Rondo (11.9 PPG, 5.2 RPG, 8.2 APG), SG Ray Allen (18.2 PPG, 3.5 RPG), SF Paul Pierce (20.5 PPG, 5.6 RPG), PF Kevin Garnett (15.8 PPG, 8.5 RPG), C Kendrick Perkins (8.5 PPG, 8.1 RPG, 1.97 BPG) Key Bench Players: Eddie House, Tony Allen, Glen Davis
Bulls Starters: PG Derrick Rose (16.8 PPG, 6.3 APG), SG Ben Gordon (20.7 PPG, 3.5 RPG), SF John Salmons (18.3 PPG, 4.3 RPG), PF Tyrus Thomas (10.8 PPG, 6.4 RPG, 1.91 BPG), C Joakim Noah (6.7 PPG, 7.6 RPG) Key Bench Players: Brad Miller, Kirk Hinrich, Luol Deng
The Skinny: The Garnett Knee Saga has been running nonstop in Boston since he got hurt playing at Utah. While there's no doubt that the Celtics' chances for a repeat depend on him, the other parts of the Big Three, Pierce and Ray Allen, have been carrying the load. This has allowed Boston to secure the second seed and give Garnett the rest he needed.
Unfortunately, Chicago is the sort of team that can give them trouble. A trade had brought in John Salmons, an underrated scorer at the 3 position, and Brad Miller from Sacramento a couple months ago, and coupled with the play of Derrick Rose, it has lifted the Bulls to the playoffs.
Rose is explosive and adept at both creating for his teammates and for himself, and Chicago will need the rookie to step up big-time if they want to win this series...a prospect that isn't so far-fetched.
Prediction: I'm not saying that the Bulls will win, but if Garnett isn't producing at his normal levels, they'll push the C's to seven. If Garnett somehow comes back good as new, I'll make it Celtics in five.
Seven seems the safer bet, since he hasn't played much in so long.