For the Record: NBA Playoff Picks

This year’s NBA playoffs has it all – except the Knicks. Los Angeles and Boston at the forefront, All-Stars galore, to go along with the most competitive conference in league history. Lakers-Celtics is the NBA’s dream matchup, David Stern TV ratings and dollar signs float through his head just thinking about it. Unfortunately for the Commissioner, I envision a repeat of 1988, not 1986. Enough hype, let’s get it on.

Eastern Conference

36 win teams do not belong in the playoffs. They don’t deserve to collect a playoff share, or even get the chance to pull an upset. Boston dominated the NBA – not just the East, proving it with a 22-5 mark vs. Western Conference foes. KG and company swept Atlanta in the season series, expect much of the same in round one – Celts in 4.

Rarely do 59-win teams fly under the radar, especially one with five consecutive Eastern Conference Finals appearances and a chip on their shoulder after losing to an inferior team last season. Welcome to the Detroit Pistons world. Ripe with a rare mix of veteran leadership, playoff experience, and young energy off the bench, this Pistons team goes deeper than years past, though questions remain on how youngsters Rodney Stuckey, Amir Johnson, Aaron Afflalo, and Jason Maxiell will handle the playoff intensity. Philadelphia had a phenomenal season, outliving expectations. But Mo Cheeks maximized what he could from this team, a few late season losses cost them the sixth seed. Detroit’s advantage in playoff experience, and lock down defense should make this a quick exit for the surprising 76er’s, not a series with the intensity to test those Piston youngsters – Detroit in 5.

Dwight Howard arrived this season. No longer the next big thing, Howard is an almost automatic double-double every time he steps foot on the court, yet the key to Orlando’s ascension to 50 wins was Hedo Turkoglu. A potential Most Improved Player Candidate, the 28-year old from Turkey increased his scoring by over 6 points, and both assists and rebounds by more than 1.5 per game. Off-season acquisition Rashard Lewis teams up with Howard and Turkoglu to form arguably the best frontcourt in the league, one that can beat you from inside and out. Point guard remains Orlando’s weakness, playing right into the strength of the disappointing Toronto Raptors, with a two-headed monster at point that most teams would kill for, TJ Ford and Jose Calderon. After emerging to win the Atlantic last season, Toronto regressed, falling apart when an injury forced Chris Bosh out of action. Bosh vs. Howard is a great matchup of contrasting styles, power and finesse, but the Raptors surrounding cast does not play tough and does not match up with Orlando – Magic in 6.

There are some things you don’t do, then just shake your head when someone does it. DeShawn Stevenson went there. He called out Lebron James. Mind you, this is not Kobe or Duncan making statements, championship rings to back them up, this is DeShawn Stevenson. Calling the NBA scoring champion who carried his team to the NBA finals overrated, a brainfreeze, calling the rest of the Cavs underachievers though, on the money. If Stevenson didn’t light the flame, Washington enters the series playing much better than Cleveland, and they add Gilbert Arenas to a team that learned to play without him. Now, the Wizards must beware of the King taking out his frustration and single-handedly winning this series. Before Stevenson, Washington in 6, now – Cavs in 7.

A two horse race all season, its only fitting the conference championship comes down to Detroit and Boston. The Celtics bring the star power – KG, Pierce, and Allen – with a surprisingly dominant defense and home court. After failing to reach the Finals each of the past two seasons Detroit is on a mission to get back. None of the Celts stars have played big in a big game yet, Detroit’s have. They want the big shot. Point guard is the difference, while Rajon Rondo exceeded expectations, he’s not Chauncey Billups. That matchup will be the difference in this classic series – Detroit in 7.

Western Conference

It happened last season, the eight seed knocking off the top seed in the West, this year only 6 wins separate the two, could it happen again? Not unless Denver suddenly learns how to play defense. Kobe has the running mate he begged for in Pau Gasol, a legit All-Star who fit right into the Lakers system like a glove. Hidden as a third option, don’t underestimate Lamar Odom, an immense talent that quietly averaged a double-double. Odom creates match-up problems for opponents, and can take over a game. The Lakers won’t need him to do that in Round One – LA in 5.

Rarely is the second-seed viewed as an underdog in the opening series, especially one that boasts an MVP candidate. Not quite the underdog in Vegas, a Hornets first round exit would still surprise few. The knock on them, never been there before. Well, Utah’s current cast never did it before last season, and ran to the conference finals. I’m not saying New Orleans won’t pay some playoff dues before contending for the title, but they deserve the second seed and will live up tot that expectation. Chris Paul dominated Jason Kidd all season, the only addition to a Dallas team that choked away the NBA Finals and a first-round series the previous two seasons. The Kidd trade did not provide the big lift a struggling Dallas team needed. Nowitzki injury aside, Dallas was inconsistent all season, with and without Kidd or Nowitzki. They have gaping holes on defense, in the post, and despite their mid-season acquisition, a mismatch at point guard in this series. Byron Scott would love to send Kidd crawling home four years after the outspoken point guard helped get Scott fired in New Jersey – NO in 6.

A heavyweight tussle made for the conference finals, not the first round. Forget the build up and hype, we all know the history between San Antonio and Phoenix by now, we know all the major players, buckle up for a classic. Amare Stoudemire played as good as anyone in the NBA after the Shaq acquisition freed him up on both ends of the court, the Spurs need to find a way to contain him off the pick and roll with Nash to slow down the Suns offensively. Duncan will play big, he always does in the playoffs, San Antonio needs a healthy Manu Ginobili. The lanky Argentine posted career numbers coming off the bench most of the season. A game changer on both ends of the floor, Ginobili makes the plays that win playoff games, a steal, a driving score in the fourth, he does it when it counts most. Expect a fierce battle, the stars will shine, Manu will rise – Spurs in 7.

Somehow, Houston managed to win 22 straight games, mostly without Yao Ming, surely earning Rick Adelman a few coach of the year votes. In this crazy season out West, Utah is seeded fourth, yet Houston holds home court, where they lost to Utah in a first round Game 7 last year. Despite averaging 28.5 ppg in the post-season, the inevitable question – Can Tracy McGrady win a playoff series – comes up, as if McGrady is the reason his team loses each year. Without Yao, McGrady showed signs of slowing down late in the season, hampered by a shoulder injury. Already missing point guard Rafer Alston for the first two games, Houston needs not only a healthy T-Mac, but possibly a herculean effort from McGrady to overcome a talented Jazz squad. Pencil in 3 almost automatic home wins for Utah, 37-4 in Salt Lake this year, Boozer and Williams will get at least one in Houston – Utah in 6.

After my don’t underestimate New Orleans speech, I give them little to no chance in the second round against San Antonio, to whom home court advantage makes little difference. LA and Utah has the makings of a classic, as do most series out West. When two teams are so closely matched, go with the best player on the court, in this case Kobe Bryant. On paper, you can argue the Spurs will lose each of these series, but they are the champs – five times to be exact – until beaten. Spurs in 6.

One question, will any team coming out of the West have enough in the tank when the Finals rolls around? The Spurs have an older team, having to go through Phoenix, New Orleans, and LA, in what expects to be three hard fought series may leave them out of gas in the finals. Detroit will have revenge on their mind, both on the critics who buried them after last season and on the Spurs who ended their chance to repeat in 2005. Lost in the Western Conference hype this season, nobody realizes how good Detroit and Boston actually are, the world will see in the finals – Detroit in 7.

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