For the three teams that have already punched their tickets to the conference finals, the semifinals were quite anticlimactic.
The Lakers, with their backs to the wall in the first round against the Thunder and needing a tip-in from Pau Gasol to survive, overpowered the undermanned Jazz.
The Magic took the foibles and idiosyncrasies of the dysfunctional Hawks and routed them by an average of over 25 points per game.
And the Suns exorcised the playoff demon that was the Spurs in remarkable fashion, closing out the series in San Antonio after Goran Dragic's 23-point fourth quarter in Game Three and Steve Nash's one-eyed heroics in the clincher.
Only one semifinal matchup didn't end in a sweep—the Celtics lead the Cavs 3-2 in their series, but don't let the game tally fool you. Only one game was decided by single-digits (an eight point Cleveland win in Game One), and the average margin of victory has been 19.4 points.
Quite simply, we need the conference finals to begin. Pronto. Because if we don't start to see some competitive basketball soon, people are going to start turning on American Idol and Glee...and we really don't need that.
With Phoenix-L.A. set in stone for Monday night, and a possible Orlando-Boston soiree kicking off Sunday afternoon, there are some fascinating and intriguing matchups to look at.
In both conferences, there's somewhat of a changing of the guard at stake. In the West, the Suns get a chance at another big, bad bully that's dominated them for years. It's a polar opposite contrast of styles, with each side seemingly having the perfect x-factor to exploit the other side's primary weakness.
In the East, the Magic could get a chance to eliminate the Celtics for the second consecutive season and establish themselves as the new class of the conference. And with the nucleus of Dwight Howard, Rashard Lewis, and Jameer Nelson locked up for the foreseeable future, there's no reason to believe the Magic won't be the preliminary favorites next year either.
While I'm sure the die-hard contingencies in L.A. and Boston would love to see their teams meet in the Finals for the 4,913th time, I'm here to tell you it won't happen. So don't get too excited, Commissioner Stern.
No, this is the year that the little guys, the two teams that were constantly overlooked all year long, will break the barrier.
An Orlando-Phoenix Finals doesn't sound sexy to the average viewer, but trust me, in terms of player matchups, contrasting styles, and a battle of two very underrated coaches, it would be one of the best deciding series that we've seen in the last 10 years.
That being said, here are 10 reasons why you can feel confident telling your bookie that you've got Phoenix and Orlando in the Finals. Take those 6-to-1 winnings and thank me later.
As usual, we'll start with No. 10...
In today's world, with access to so much information at our fingertips at any time of day from any location, it's easy for your brain to become overwhelmed.
You're going to read hundreds of Phoenix-L.A. previews. Same goes for Boston-Orlando. You'll wind up analyzing every single matchup to death, agonizing over every little trend you come across...it's a lot to take in and absorb.
Having something like a week or 10 days before the conference finals start won't help either.
That's why I miss the old days a little, just for situations like this. In the old days, your mind wouldn't be burdened with useless facts like "J.J. Redick's plus/minus in home games in the playoffs against teams with 50-plus wins is off the charts...that means Orlando's bench will dominate!" or "Amar'e Stoudemire's career PER in the conference finals is the best of any power forward remaining in the playoffs."
Instead of trying to make sense out of all of that, you'd just look at some basic facts. Like these about the Magic:
They have the strongest, most dynamic, and most influential big man of any of the final four teams.
They have the most versatile power forward.
They're the best three-point shooting team.
They have not one, but two lengthy, athletic defenders that have proven to be serious pests to wing players that dominate the ball.
They're the only team that is comfortable either getting out on the break and playing an up-and-down, frenetic pace, or slowing it down, pounding the ball repeatedly into the post, and keeping the game in a half-court set.
They have three adept one-on-one scorers that are capable of taking over in the fourth quarter.
Sometimes, you just need to keep things simple. Orlando is the best team left, hence, they'll be around in June.
Kudos to Alvin Gentry—he had a plan all year with his reserves. He did a masterful job of slowly bringing them along, knowing that if the team was going to be successful in the postseason, he'd have to rely on guys other than Amar'e and Nash to occasionally carry the load.
The bench had a significant impact in two games in the San Antonio series. In Game Two, it was Jared Dudley and Louis Amundson that sparked the Suns with their relentless attack of the offensive glass and kept Phoenix hanging around in a game that the Spurs were dominating.
In Game Three, it was Goran Dragic's 23-point fourth quarter that signified the beginning of the end for San Antonio's dominance over Phoenix.
Through 10 playoff games, Phoenix has five bench players averaging over 12 minutes a game, and three with more than 15 per game. Combined, the Suns get nearly 35 points and 15 rebounds from their key reserves.
They all bring a different dynamic, whether it's Frye with his three-point shooting, Amundson with his rebounding, Dudley with his defense and hustle plays, or Dragic buying time for Nash.
On the flip side, the Lakers bench is one of their two biggest weaknesses. Guys like Jordan Farmar and Luke Walton can be given good minutes, but they're too inconsistent to constantly rely on.
Lamar Odom has played notoriously well against the Suns, and he'll probably be indicative of how much contribution the Lakers are getting. Still, he's only cracked double-digit rebounding in two games so far this postseason, and when the Lakers lose, he's usually M.I.A.
Remember the '08 Celtics and what they got from the bench? James Posey was a lock-down defender.
Leon Powe and Glen Davis changed the game with their constant activity inside.
Eddie House hit every open three-pointer he came across.
Phoenix gets the same contribution from their reserves, and it'll be a real difference-maker against the Lakers.
Before Lakers fans start flying off the handle and screaming that Kobe can't be stopped with one defender, please realize that's not what I'm saying at all.
What I am saying is that the Suns have the best personnel to throw at 2010 Kobe Bryant.
Kobe's not burning people off the dribble with his freakish athleticism like he did early in the decade. His game is much more comparable to Michael Jordan's in his later days—a solid post-up game that relies on a lot of head and ball fakes and constant movement (in a one-on-one sense, not in a Ray Allen-like sense) to keep the opposition off-balance.
Grant Hill is a 15-year veteran. He's been around the block. He's seen all of the tricks Kobe will throw at him. He's covered Bryant before and knows (as best as anyone can know) what will be effective and what won't.
And (I forget where I read this, but it's a great point), he might get the benefit of the doubt from the guys in stripes, which is always favorable.
As for Jared Dudley, he's a great change-of-pace player that will be tougher to post up.
And here's the biggest caveat of this series: Kobe should be able to still get his points against the Suns. But it's in his team's best interest to pound the ball inside to Gasol and Bynum, where the Lakers have a substantial advantage.
Will Kobe defer, or will his incredibly intense desire to be the alpha dog push him to take more shots than he should? Will the ball movement stop once it gets in Kobe's hands?
Bryant's highest shot and point total against Phoenix this year was 26 and 34, respectively, in a game the Suns won. If he's "ball-dominating Kobe" and not "facilitating Kobe," then it plays right into Phoenix's hands.
Let's start this slide by stating the obvious: He's the most intimidating physical presence in the paint in the NBA.
He's the best weak-side defender since Dikembe Mutombo.
He's one of two players that can impose his will on a game without scoring a point (the other being Rajon Rondo).
Kendrick Perkins might seem like one of the few formidable centers that could challenge him. He's got the size to guard Howard one-on-one and not consistently rely on help.
But Perk has been foul-prone against the aging Shaquille O'Neal. It seems unlikely that he'll be able to stay on the floor for 35-40 minutes against Howard.
The Celtics offense relies on Rondo getting dribble penetration. But I think you'll see Jameer Nelson really be aggressive on Rondo because he has a 7'0" eraser standing under the hoop. And since Perkins isn't a reliable low-post threat, there will plenty of room for Howard to roam around on defense and cause havoc for the 6'1" Rondo.
Without Rondo consistently attacking the paint, the Celtics are primarily a jump-shooting team. We saw how bad that can turn out in the Atlanta series.
Boston is tougher, more experienced, and just overall a better team than Atlanta, but a similar style to the Hawks will mean similar results.
Not to be full of cliches or anything, but the Magic really are a "pick your poison" team.
If you don't have the size underneath, they'll pound and pound and pound and pound the ball some more inside with a healthy dose of Dwight Howard.
If you have a weak defensive point guard, Jameer Nelson is capable of getting to the paint at will. He's also going to knock down outside shots, which can be said about pretty much all of the Magic.
There's also Rashard Lewis, who is one of the most difficult covers in the Association. You might think of him as primarily a three-point shooter, but he's got a sneaky good back-to-the-basket turn-around jumper as well.
Mickael Pietrus, J.J. Redick, Ryan Anderson, and Jason Williams all shot over 37 percent from behind the arc during the season.
But above all, I'm envious of watching the Magic play because of their ball movement.
When they get a few stops, it really picks up their offense—watch them swing the ball from side-to-side. They do it quickly and with purpose. They don't care who gets the shot, as long as it's an open look. It's what sets them apart from teams like the Cavaliers and Celtics.
Notice I didn't even mention Vince Carter?
This goes for both sides. Let's start with Orlando first.
They led the league in three-point makes and attempts. Really, their game plan and philosophy is simple: rotate athleticism and shooting around Dwight Howard. That's it. Easy enough, right?
The ball movement that I talked about in the last slide only adds to their dynamic. Howard will get double-teamed, or Nelson will get in the lane. When that happens and a defense is on their heels, goodnight nurse.
Three guys (Pietrus, Nelson, Lewis) are shooting over 40 percent from deep. Even a guy like Matt Barnes is a solid shooter when he gets wide-open looks.
And when they knock down one, it seemingly opens the floodgates. They turn that one three-pointer into three in the blink of an eye, and suddenly a five point game goes to 15 before you know it. They're one of the best teams at using the three-ball to change the game's momentum.
The other team that specializes in that category? You guessed it, the Suns!
Phoenix led the league in three-point percentage during the regular season, hitting an extraordinary 41.2 percent. They were second in the Western Conference with 1,770 attempts, and first in makes with 730.
They get their looks a little differently than the Magic—with Phoenix, it's mostly thanks to the pick-and-roll game of Nash and Stoudemire.
So much attention is given to those two when they monopolize the center of the floor, and Nash is the best passer in the league at getting the ball to shooters in the exact spot they need to catch-and-shoot.
Jason Richardson has been lights out in the playoffs, hitting 51.5 percent from behind the line. His three-point percentage is higher than his field goal percentage!
Channing Frye, much like Rashard Lewis, is a difficult cover because of his size. Most bigs don't like chasing people out on the perimeter, and Frye's made a living out there this year.
Guys like Dudley, Dragic, and Barbosa are all opportunistic shooters as well.
Both teams use the three-point line better than the rest of the league. They get their looks in different ways, but make defenses pay nonetheless.
Derek Fisher is a phenomenal representative of not only himself, but his franchise, and the rest of the NBA as well. He still has the capability of hitting big shots, like his game-winning three-pointer in Game Three vs. Utah.
His four championship rings only add to his pedigree. He's one of those indefensible role players that no championship team could endure without.
That being said, his defensive prowess, well, it's, how do I put this nicely...it's not quite the same as it once was.
For four games in the opening round, he was beaten so bad by Russell Westbrook that he needed a shoehorn to put his hat on (thank you, Muhammad Ali!).
It didn't get much better against Deron Williams.
And now, Fish has gone from guarding one of the best under-23 point guards, to guarding maybe the best point guard in the league, to guarding the ageless wonder that is Steve Nash, who, at age 36, is still one of the best point guards alive.
I mentioned earlier that the poor play of the bench was one of Los Angeles' two biggest weaknesses.
The other? Point guard play.
In this series though, they won't be able to hide Derek Fisher on a non-offensive threat like Thabo Sefolosha or a young, unproven player like Wes Matthews. He's going to have to guard Nash all series.
Fisher isn't a great pick-and-roll defender; Nash thrives in the pick-and-roll.
Fisher isn't good at keeping quick, explosive guards in front of him; Nash has made a career of getting into the paint to set up teammates.
Fisher isn't solid at closing out on the three-point line; Nash is shooting over 46 percent from deep so far in the playoffs.
Everything about this screams that Nash is going to dominate this matchup. And the Lakers don't have very many alternatives...maybe Shannon Brown? Jordan Farmar?
Now is as good of a time as any for Nash to finally get over the hump and get to the Finals. This is the matchup to exploit to get there.
A few defensive stats (and ranks) from the Magic during the regular season:
Opp. points per game: 95.3 (T3)
Opp. FG percentage: 43.8 (1)
Opp. FTA: 22.3 (T3)
Opp. points per possession: 1.16 (T1)
And now some playoff stats...
Opp. points per game: 83.8 (1)
Opp. FGM: 30.4 (2)
Opp. FG percentage: 40.8 (1)
Opp. 3-pt percentage: 28.6 (1)
Opp. points per possession: 1.13 (1)
What's staggering is the sizable advantage they have over the second-place teams in these rankings. Boston is second in the postseason in opponents points per game...at 92.4. That's nearly nine less points a game allowed!
Granted, they played two of the weaker offensive teams in the league. I say Atlanta is weak because they were not built to beat a team like Orlando in the half-court. Come to think of it, they weren't really built to beat anyone.
But the stats say a lot. Teams don't shoot well against them and they don't get many shots because Orlando rebounds so well. If you don't shoot the three well against them, you're pretty much done—it's one shot and done.
Whoever they play in the next round will probably play mostly in the half-court. If Howard is on the floor, it changes the entire defense's mannerism.
Barnes and Pietrus are two undervalued defenders. They can defend multiple positions, but their best work is done on wing players like Paul Pierce or Kobe Bryant. Because those two rely more on post-up/physical play, the length of those two is challenging to get around.
Also, Boston (fine, fine, this goes for Cleveland too) is primarily a jump shooting team. Garnett has looked great so far in the playoffs, but Lewis is a guy who equals him in size, making that fade away jumper just a bit more difficult.
Going one-on-one and playing isolation basketball won't work against the Magic; they have too many skilled defenders. That puts a lot of pressure on Rajon Rondo to not only duplicate but perhaps build on his success against Cleveland.
And even if he does get in the lane, he's got that big road block to get around.
Oklahoma City laid down the groundwork to beat the Lakers. You can't compete with them trying to match their size and physical presence; they've got that game locked down.
Instead, you have to run at them with constant athleticism. You have to continually put pressure on Derek Fisher defensively. And you have to force Kobe Bryant to pound the ball inside instead of taking the game over himself.
The Suns have some advantages that OKC didn't have as well. First off, they have a viable option in the frontcourt with Amar'e Stoudemire. Neither Gasol or Bynum are quick enough to keep up with him and Nash when they do pick-and-roll or pick-and-pop. Also, Amar'e can face up and attack off the dribble to be effective.
As stated a few slides ago, Nash has a significant advantage going against Derek Fisher, and Goran Dragic has a chance to be equally as effective with the second unit. If Frye gets paired up against Gasol, it'll really spread the floor and I don't think the Laker bigs will feel comfortable stretching out to the three-point line.
The key (as it seemingly always is with Phoenix) will be Jason Richardson. Call me crazy, but I think he has a better chance of matching up with Ron Artest than Kevin Durant. Here's why:
Bill Simmons said it best: Artest was put on this planet to guard a guy like Durant, someone he can lean on, be physical with, push around, and eventually just wear down.
J-Rich is a much different player than Durant. Artest isn't going to have an advantage trying to body him up. He's going to have to chase Richardson off screens and always know where he is in transition.
Speaking of transition, the Suns are going to get out and run on every miss. They're going to get the ball up the court and get into their offense quickly.
Charles Barkley was right on with his assessment of the Lakers last week. He said that to beat them, you basically have to outscore them. You can't get caught up trying to beat them at their own game.
It's safe to say the Suns aren't going to do that. I don't think they'll be trotting out Jarron Collins and Dwayne Jones to match L.A. in the middle.
Once the game gets up in the 100s, it's exactly what Phoenix wants, and L.A. doesn't. Phoenix will game plan to make someone like Artest make a lot of jump shots, much like they did with Richard Jefferson against the Spurs.
It's too tough for the Laker role players to always hit open shots, especially knowing that a few misses down the stretch against Phoenix will be deadly.
Phoenix has both on their side at the right time.
They finally got rid of the Spurs, the team that's haunted them forever. They no longer have that baggage to carry around anymore. I mean, Nash lost in the playoffs to the Spurs six times in ten years; as a player, there's can't be a more vindicating feeling.
They're a team in every sense of the word. You could see it after the Dragic game and how they all embraced him afterward.
Maybe it's because my team (Cavs) is playing with such little emotion right now, but watching this Phoenix team is so entertaining, seeing all of their reactions and interactions. They have the best chemistry in the league and in recent memory.
And there's just something different about this Suns team. Doesn't it seem like they're more than a feel-good story? Doesn't it feel like if any team can topple the mighty Lakers, it's this one?
Can good karma and transcendent chemistry be the great equalizer for talent?
I say yes, why shouldn't it? And Phoenix, you're due.