Every year in the playoffs the road to the Championship is different from the year before. Although the NBA’s desire is to have the rounds become increasingly more competitive as the playoffs go on, we know that this is not always the case (although it would not hurt the NBA to catch up with the times and re seed, like every other sport does).
Going back to the beginning of this decade, the Lakers that dominated the NBA had their greatest challenges previous to the actual Championship. During their three peat run, they ousted the Pacers in six, the Sixers in five and the Nets in four respectively. The greater challenges they faced came in the dogfight series against the Spurs and Kings.
However, this year shapes up to be much different.
Although Utah was clearly outclassed by Los Angeles, they were a tough eighth seed. Although the Rockets have proven themselves to be problematic for some teams, the Lakers have more or less played down to the them, allowing them to make an unnecessarily tough series out of a contest that should have been over in four or five games.
When the Lakers end their season tonight (yes, I said it) they will face their first true test of the post-season, being pitted against the Denver Nuggets.
Thus far, the Lakers have been able to get away with their lackluster effort due to the vast talent discrepancy between themselves and their opponents.
That will not be the case in the next two rounds.
Chris Paul may be the most statistically phenomenal point guard the league has ever seen, but Chauncey Billups is the league’s best. Period. If not, maybe there is another reason why every team Chauncey Billups has led has made the Conference Finals the last seven years straight…. Do you have one? No? Didn't think so.
The man is a natural born leader. He is a phenom; and all this was true before he increased his already deadly shooting ability. In the post-season so far, he has shot a ridiculous 54 percent from beyond the arc, 49 percent from the floor overall, and has dished out an average of seven assists to compliment his 22 ppg.
The last time the Nuggets advanced to the Conference Finals at all was 1985, when they faced the Lakers (ironically enough). The Lakers went on to defeat the Nuggets and then ousted the Boston Celtics in six games, becoming the NBA World Champions.
History has a funny way of repeating itself.
This brings me to my next point; do not book Cleveland for the NBA Finals just yet. After Kevin Garnett went down, I was among the first to count out the Celtics. I picked the Bulls to oust them in six, then I picked the Magic to oust them in five.
This of course, was previous to the reemergence of Stephon Marbury, and the increased fortitude of Kendrick Perkins.
I will be the first to admit it, I am not sold on Cleveland.
Anytime one man is your best scorer, your best defender, your best rebounder and your best passer, you don’t have much depth. The Cavaliers are still anemic on the inside, and although the Celtics may not be able to exploit that weakness as much as they would like to without KG, they are still very capable of getting the job done with bruisers like Perkins and Big Baby Davis.
I have said it a million times before and I will say it again: ALL you need to do to beat the Cavaliers is beat (or at least limit) LeBron James and no Small Forward in the game is more equipped to do that than Paul Pierce.
I am picking the Celtics to win the East.
All that said, none of the remaining games will be easy for the Lakers, including tonight. Scrappy teams that are short on talent, but big on grit tend to linger like a bad odor. Fortunately, the Lakers may have finally gotten their act together, and just in time.
After tonight, the next two matchups will not be nearly as friendly as the first.