When the 2009 NBA Playoffs tip off at noon on Saturday, we'll witness all of the best the NBA has to offer. From it's marquee stars and tantalizing rookies, to battle-tested teams and developing powers, the NBA's finest will be on display.
It's hard to recall a postseason with so many powerful story-lines. The next two months will yield answers to our most pressing questions:
How will the litany of injuries impact the playoffs? Each of these teams has a major injury concern: Boston (Garnett's knee), LA (Bynum's knee), Orlando (Lewis' knee, Turkoglu's ankle), Cleveland (Wallace's knee), New Orleans (Chandler's ankle), San Antonio (Ginobili is out, Duncan is banged up).
How far can the Pierce carry Boston? How far can Wade carry Miami?
Will the NBA's exciting young point guards be able to carry their teams into the second round? Chris Paul, Deron Williams, Derrik Rose, and Rajon Rondo all face difficult first round match-ups. At least one will be left standing when the dust clears after round one (Rose and Rondo face each other).
Who can challenge the Lakers in the West?
Can Boston or Orlando give the Lebron's a run for their money?
So many questions, so little time. Without further ado, onto the picks.
Round One—Eastern Conference
1) Cleveland vs. 8) Detroit
Rasheed and company are full of confidence heading into the series. Cleveland will not make the mistake of overlooking 'Sheed, Rip, and Tayshaun. But this Pistons team is standing on the tracks as the train's coming through. After dropping an early season game in Detroit, Cleveland rattled off three straight wins by an average of 16 points.
Cleveland in four
2) Boston vs. 7) Chicago
How will Boston respond to the first round (at least) without Kevin Garnett? Will young big men Kendrick Perkins, Leon Powe, and Glen Davis be able to match Chicago's varied arsenal of Joakim Noah, Tyrus Thomas, Brad Miller, and Aaron Gray? Can John Salmons keep Paul Pierce in check? How will Ben Gordon and Kirk Hinrich handle Ray Allen, Stephon Marbury, and Eddie House?
But no match-up is more anticipated than Rookie of the Year Derrick Rose against Rajon Rondo. And I think Rose wins.
Chicago finished the season hot, and have gelled as a team under first year coach Vinny Del Negro. New additions John Salmons and Brad Miller have had a huge impact. Miller gives them added toughness and playoff experience.
An overlooked stat in Chicago's favor is their free throw percentage. On the season, the Bulls were seventh in the league, shooting 79.6 percent from the charity stripe. Boston finished 18th, at 76.5 percent.
Much has been made about Boston's record without Garnett (18-8). But of those 18 wins, only seven came against playoff teams (one against Philadelphia). Ultimately, without Kevin Garnett, the Celtics can be beat. Chicago is tough at home, and I think they can steal one in Boston.
Chicago in six
3) Orlando vs. 6) Philadelphia
Who would have thought that Elton Brand would only play 29 games, average 13 points, and the 76ers would make the playoffs? The Andre's (Iguodala and Miller), along with Thaddeus Young, have carried an overachieving Philadelphia team as far as they can. Dwight Howard will be too much inside, and unless Orlando forgets how to shoot, this one will be over quickly.
Orlando in five
4) Miami vs. 5) Atlanta
The Hawks very quietly had an excellent year, building on the success they had against Boston in the first round last year. Mike Bibby is a gamer and always shows up for the playoffs. Joe Johnson could be the most under-publicized player in the NBA.
Dwayne Wade is no slouch in big games. However, his supporting cast is young (rookie point guard Mario Chalmers and rookie forward Michael Beasley have had up and down seasons). Jermaine O'Neal is a shell of his former self. Ultimately, the Heat go as Wade goes.
Atlanta is a less-than ideal matchup for Wade. In three games this season, Wade averaged 4.3 points per game less than his season average. He also averaged a mere six free throws per game (compared to his season average of 9.8). Credit goes to Josh Smith and Al Horford, who have been shot blocking forces all season.
Ultimately, Miami cannot keep up with the balanced Atlanta attack. Mike Bibby systematically disassembles Mario Chalmers while Johnson, Smith, Horford and Marvin Williams win round one, and give Atlanta the right to step in front of the Lebron Express in round two.
Atlanta in six
Round One—Western Conference
1) LA Lakers vs. 8) Utah Jazz
Utah limped into the playoffs, losing seven of their last 10. Meanwhile, LA was welcoming back Andrew Bynum, and getting him re-oriented in their rotation. Deron Williams is as exciting as they come but LA and Kobe will be too much to handle.
The Lakers were 40-10 with Andrew Bynum in the lineup. LA was 2-1 this season against Utah, with their one loss coming in Utah after a stretch of eight games in 12 days (seven on the road, including wins at Cleveland and at Boston).
LA in five
2) Denver vs 7) New Orleans
2009 was supposed to be the ascension of Chris Paul and the New Orleans Hornets. Now, Portland is everyone's darling, and the biggest story of the Hornets' season was the aborted trade of Tyson Chandler.
The Hornets are limping into the postseason. Since rattling off seven straight wins at the beginning of March, the Hornets have won just 10 of their final 21 games. Denver won 15 of their final 23 games, including 14 of their last 17.
The addition of Chauncey Billups makes this Denver team very dangerous. JR Smith has emerged as a legitimate second scoring option behind Carmelo, and he averages more than 21 points per game against the Hornets.
While Billups, Smith, and Carmelo Anthony matchup well with Paul, Rasual Butler, James Posey, and Peja Stojakovic, it's New Orleans' front court that will be their undoing. Without a healthy Chandler, the Hornets interior defense will have trouble containing Nene, Kenyon Martin, and the vastly improved Chris Anderson.
David West is a fabulous offensive player, but not a great defensive one. Denver finished the year 15th in total rebounding and second in blocked shots. New Orleans was 27th and 26th, respectively.
Paul and company have a bright future, but it will have to wait one more year.
Denver in six
3) San Antonio vs. 6) Dallas
Dallas, comes into this series red-hot. Winners of seven of their last nine games, Dirk Nowitzki has averaged better than 30 PPG in April. While Parker poses a matchup problem for Dallas, Nowitzki poses the same problem for San Antonio, averaging 26 PPG and 10 RPG against the Spurs this season. Jason Terry and Josh Howard both averaged more than 20 PPG against the Spurs as well.
No Manu Ginobili. Tim Duncan less than 100 percent. San Antonio is finished right?
Tony Parker & Co would disagree. Parker had a career year, averaging 22 points and seven assists per game. Mid-season pick up Drew Gooden has stepped up his scoring in Ginobili's absence (14.4 PPG in April). Roger Mason has averaged better than 12 PPG so far in April. But the key to the Spurs' success is Parker. In four games this year, Parker eviscerated Jason Kidd to the tune of 31 PPG.
Despite the improved play of Gooden, Mason, and Parker, San Antonio is 22-16 without Ginobili in the lineup (compared to 32-12 when he's in the lineup). These teams split their season series 2-2, each winning a game on the other's home court. This Dallas team is firing on all cylinders at the right time. Dallas will have trouble with Parker, but ultimately prevail in what could be the best first-round series.
Dallas in seven
4) Portland vs. 5) Houston
The Trail Blazers enter the postseason as the hottest team in the NBA. Winners of their last six games, 10 of their last 11, and 25 of 36 since the end of January, Portland has a balanced attack and a deep bench. This young Blazers roster is led by Brandon Roy, who is becoming one of the elite NBA stars.
Their front-line of LaMarcus Alderidge, Joel Pryzbilla, and Greg Oden average 32 points, 22 rebounds and three blocks per game. They're deep, with 10 players averaging more than 10 minutes per game and playing in at least 60 games.
Houston has played well down the stretch as well. Their story is a tale of two seasons: with Tracy McGrady, and without him.
Since McGrady went down in early February, Houston is 22-7. With Ron Artest and Shane Battier in the lineup together, Houston poses defensive matchup problems for teams. Both wings are big (6'7" and 6'8", respectively), and are both above average defenders. Point guard Aaron Brooks has averaged nearly 14 PPG as a starter (compared to less than 10 PPG coming off the bench).
This should be a hard-fought, knock down-drag out fist fight. Oden, Pryzbilla, Luis Scola, Carl Landry, and Artest are not scared of contact. Both teams have something to prove. Can Portland take the next step and become a threat to the Lakers? Can Houston finally get past the first round with Yao Ming (0-4 since Yao joined the team in 2002)?
In the end, Portland's depth, diversity, and home-court advantage prevail.
Portland in six