Western Playoff Stampede

San Antonio, Utah, and New Orleans have a chance to end the most lopsided Western Conference playoff round in recent memory. Bad enough the lower seeds have only won three games, six of the 12 games have been decided by double figures – three happen to be in the Utah-Houston series. So much for the anyone can win the conference claim.

Denver never gave Los Angeles a match. The Nuggets self-destructed, losing every aspect of the game except technical fouls. Combined with the Laker discipline and execution, with Denver’s selfish play, lack of discipline and lack of ball movement, it adds up to a sweep. Carmelo Anthony was right – his team, top to bottom, quit.

Dallas traded the farm for 7.3 points, 6.3 assists, and a nice view of the Chris Paul show. Oh yeah, forgot that ejection. That sums up Jason Kidd’s performance in this series. Paul makes Kidd look old, totally dominating him on both ends of the court at will. Less prominent, though as imposing, Dallas has no equal for David West either. Josh Howard disappeared into a cloud of smoke that only thickened after his untimely comments. The coach is on the hot seat, the star point guard doesn’t belong on the same court as his counterpart, the Small Forward lacks any judgment, throw in two superstars on the other team, adds up to New Orleans coasting in five tonight.

Forever the playoff goat, Tracy McGrady unfairly shouldered the blame for his teams inability to win a playoff series prior to this year. However, he earned that blame against Utah, scoring 1 point in the combined fourth quarters of Games 1 and 2. Yes, the Rockets are banged up . Yes, Utah has a solid team up and down the roster. But if they hang in the game until the final minute, McGrady has to close it out. More and more it looks like he’ll never live down that comment about the Pistons, up three games to one in 2003 while with Orlando. If Houston extends the series, Utah will not lose at home twice.

The mother of all first round series, San Antonio and Phoenix. Last week I wrote about a scintillating Game One that the Spurs pulled out in double overtime, best game of the year. Phoenix responded with a strong start in Game Two, then went on vacation for six quarters. Always consistent, ready to pounce on the opponent, San Antonio erased a a double-digit deficit in Game Two to win easily, before blowing the doors of the arena early in Game Three. Nash and company recovered in Game Four, but beating San Antonio four straight in the playoffs, without home court is daunting.  Unable to stop the penetration of Parker and Ginobili, the Suns become susceptible to easy shots, and kick outs for three. The defending champs took Sunday off, expect them to rebound tonight. Shaq has played pedestrian this series, failing to make a significant contribution on either side of the floor. No longer an offensive threat, too slow to play consistent defense. Losing Grant Hill, forever injured, hurts Phoenix tremendously on defense, its best answer to the younger, quicker Parker. Prior to Sunday, the Suns role players – Barbosa and Diow – failed to show up, players they need in order to win. Of any team trailing 3 games to 1, this team has the best chance to at least extend the series. They need a full team effort, and someone needs to control the perimeter on defense to slow down the Spurs attack.

Round Two is shaping up with two intriguing matchups, then again, we thought Round One was too.

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.

Better Than Advertised

Never has an entire conference playoff slate, first round through the conference finals, been more anticipated than this year’s Western playoffs. Consider the regular season brought the most tightly contested conference playoff race in NBA history, seven games separating the eight Western Conference playoff teams, all who finished with 50 or more wins. Throw in the defending champs, the top two MVP candidates, a 22-game win streak, surprise teams, mid-season acquisitions trying to justify themselves, the West has it all. Could the actual games can match the hype.

How about a 2-OT thriller, three game tying shots with under 20 seconds left in the respective stanzas, and a game winner with 1.2 seconds remaining to whet the appetite. Phoenix-San Antonio was billed as the series of the first round, and Game One was a heavyweight battle. Manu Ginobili capped off an 8 point outburst in the double overtime period with a driving layup over Shaq to grab a 117-115 Spurs win.

Ginobili’s double OT outburst was made possible by a game-tying 3-pointer with 3 seconds left in the first OT by an unlikely source, Tim Duncan, his first of the season. Duncan scored the final nine points in the first OT, in route to a game-high 40 points and 15 rebounds. The Big Fundamental simply would not let San Antonio lose, scoring seven down the stretch to erase a nine-point fourth quarter deficit, his eyes filled with focus and desire. Duncan truly becomes a different player in the post-season, elevating his game after coasting at times during the regular season. Critics wondered if this might be the year San Antonio shows its age, or vulnerabilities, in Game One Duncan would have none of it. Scoring almost at will inside, stepping out to can jumpers, even burying the clutch three.

Meanwhile, Ginobili answered any questions about his hamstring, chipping in with 24 off the bench, along with a clutch defensive play in overtime, tipping a pass away, leading to an Amare Stoudemire foul to prevent the steal. Tony Parker added 26 and buried a few clutch shots down the stretch, but none as big as Michael Finley, who nailed a three with 16 seconds left in regulation to send it to OT. Finley finished with 13 points.

Stoudemire carried Phoenix, continuing his torrid second half with 33 points and 7 rebounds before fouling in the first overtime. Losing Stoudemire may have been the difference. Without his partner in crime, the Spurs were able to pressure Nash on pick and rolls, forcing the rest of the team to beat them. With Stoudemire on the court, particularly in the fourth and first OT, the Spurs struggled to defend pick and roll, allowing Nash to use the screens for open jumpers, or to easy penetration. When San Antonio went after Nash, Stoudemire got one on one looks in the paint, almost automatic.

One year after a physical series marred with the infamous fight, the first half had its share of tough play. Both teams griped with the referees over almost every foul call, constantly flopping for charges. But things settled down in the second half, the intensity picked up to levels usually reserved for conference or NBA finals, and the stars stepped up – Nash, Stoudemire, Ginobili, Duncan, and Parker.

Kurt Thomas provided solid defense and rebounding off the Spurs bench, drawing the charge that sent Stoudemire to the bench for good, to go with 10 big rebounds. Relegated to the bench with foul trouble in the first, O’Neal was a non-factor on the offensive end in crunch time, instead focusing on defending Duncan. However, after picking up his fifth foul in double OT, Shaq became passive in the paint. Using Duncan primarily for screens, the Spurs turned to Ginobili, who attacked Shaq play after play with drives to the basket, knowing the big man did not want to pick up his sixth foul, especially with Stoudemire already gone.

If this is any indication, we may have the best first round series in NBA history. Buckle up, its going to be a doozy, round two set for Tuesday night in San Antonio. After what appears to be a grueling series ahead, will either of these teams have enough left in the tank to conquer the rest of the playoffs. The NBA’s playoff schedule, resembling a retiree’s work schedule, might be their only saving grace.

NBA Trade Deadline Winners

What a difference a year makes. 2008 proved anything but quiet at the deadline with a flurry of past and future All-Stars, a hall-0f-famer, big contracts, and championship contenders all involved. Needless to say it impacted the playoff landscape. With the phones silenced for now, time to assess the damage. We’ll focus on the teams that made the big moves – apologies to New Orleans, Portland, Denver, Detroit, and Toronto, I don’t see the impact.

The Winners
Lakers – LA made out like bandits, landing Pau Gasol for a point guard unlikely to realize his potential in LA, and a bag of balls. Gasol and Kobe clicked immediately, forming a dynamic inside out offensive duo. With Phil Jackson at the helm, two top notch scorers, the best player in the world, the right mix of veteran and young role players, a dynamic athlete now playing under the radar in Lamar Odom, the Lakers have formed the perfect storm to ride to the top. Not to mention 7 feet of potential lingering on the bench for a return. Forget a healthy Bynum, LA is the best team in the league right now, Bynum makes them scary.
Miami – Jettison a $20 million albatross for a dynamic offensive and defensive player. Criticize Pat Riley all you want for the coaching job, but consider he removed Shaq, Ricky Davis, and Antoine Walker – three bad contracts – from the salary cap, expediting the rebuilding process. A one year trial for Marion to find out if they want to team him with Wade for the long-term, or use the cap space on another star in 2009 or 2010.
New Jersey – A young point guard with nice upside locked up until 2013 at a reasonable price, expiring contracts, and draft picks for a disgruntled, highly paid superstar that publicly requested a trade. Consider how difficult it is to get equal value for star caliber players, Thorn made out nice, opening the door for NJ to re-tool and still compete in the watered-down Eastern Conference.
San Antonio – Subtle, yet important. Like the team itself, quiet assassins, San Antonio grabbed a veteran inside defensive presence to counteract the Gasol and Shaq deals, providing Duncan with help inside. Kurt Thomas can knock down the 15-foot jumper, another offensive weapon to go alongside Horry come playoff time. Don’t underestimate his toughness in a playoff series.
Atlanta – A scary collection of athletic talent, Bibby provides the veteran presence on and off the court the young team needs. A playmaker to create shots for Marvin Williams, Josh Smith, Al Horford, Joe Johnson, et al., Bibby improves the Hawks outside shooting and fits right into the transition game they excel in. Atlanta is close to becoming a force.
Seattle – Seattle moves into full-fledge rebuilding mode, dumping any and all veteran possible to stock up on draft picks and less expensive contracts. Since winning is not the objective, Seattle accomplished its mission.

Could Have Done Better
Cleveland – With LeBron quietly pressuring the team to make a move, Ferry made a splash with a trade involving a full roster of players. On the surface, Cleveland improves, acquiring shooting help with Sczerbiak and West, inside scoring with Joe Smith, having a solid season with over 17 ppg in Chicago, and the former defensive player of the year and rebounding monster Ben Wallace. A clear upgrade over Hughes, Gooden, Simmons, Brown, and Newble, though Gooden is much better than he’s played this season, the question remains if Wallace can rediscover his former self. Losing out on Bibby, who the Cavs could have snatched with Gooden in the package, along with the uncertainty of Wallace may leave Cavs fans – and a certain superstar – wondering what if come May.
Phoenix – Wrote about this previously, high risk, high reward trade by Steve Kerr. The type of move that can cost Kerr his job, or elevate him to genius. Phoenix was not winning the title with the team as it was, credit him for his boldness, not settling for another good regular season and tough playoff loss. On the upside, Shaq provides the toughness, rebounding, and interior defense the Suns lacked in the half-court game, liberating Amare on both ends of the court, leading Phoenix to the title. The downside, Shaq continues his downward trend, Suns fall in the first or second round again, get saddled with a bad contract for 2-3 years marking the downfall of this group. The reality lies somewhere in between, expect a rejuvenated Shaq to play well, help Phoenix develop a half court game for the playoffs, but the Suns still fall short in May and June
Sacremento – Mission half accomplished, moved Bibby, hung onto Artest. The bad boy had suitors, the Kings should have taken advantage of the opportunity.
Losers
Memphis – Can you say Fire Sale?
Dallas – Similar to Phoenix, the Mavs had to change things up to have a chance to take the next step. Kidd brings leadership and a grittiness to a team that clearly lacks the veteran presence. Dallas needs Kidd to find his former self after a sub-par season for an underachieving Nets team. His presence will benefit Dirk, Howard, and Terry offensively, but does nothing to shield Dallas from the Duncan’s, Shaq’s, Stoudemire’s, and Gasol’s of the newly West. At 35, though still playing at high level, you can make a strong case Kidd ranks behind Williams, Paul, and Nash at point in the West, all in the same Western Conference scrum as Dallas. If that proves true, Dallas loses out big time. They lose a young potential star with a good contract, become the oldest team in the NBA, tie up the salary cap with a big number for the next few years, assuming a Kidd extension, all for a player on the downside who does not solve their biggest weaknesses and does not put them over the top. The move reeks of desperation. However, give them credit for taking a chance, not settling for 55 wins and a playoff exit.
Chicago – Involved with every major trade rumor the past year – Kobe, KG, Gasol – the Bulls held their assets, watched Gordon, Deng, and Hinrich plummet in value for arguably the biggest disappointment in the NBA this season. In the end, they hold all three, acquiring the likes of Gooden and Hughes. What’s the plan in Chi-town? Yes, they end the failed Ben Wallace experiment, cutting losses. Is Chicago rebuilding, trying to make a run, planning to hold Gordon, Deng, Hinrich, Duhon, et al.? Why Hughes, who plays the same position? Will Gooden take playing time from Tyrus Thomas and Joakhim Noah, who both stood to benefit without Wallace. Too many questions.
Boston, Orlando, Houston You may ask why. All three teams need point guard help – Boston a veteran to split time with Rondo, Houston and Orlando a playmaker to setup their scorers. Houston tried by acquiring Bobby Jackson, but that does not put them over the top or out of the first round in the West – a waste of Yao and McGrady. Boston will play in the playoffs. Who do you want in a big spot, Billups or Rondo? Down in Florida, Nelson has disappointed, and Arroyo is nothing more than a backup. Still young with good upside, Orlando waits until next year without a point guard.

Western Conference Arms Race

Pau Gasol, Chris Webber, and now Shaquille O’Neal. In one week, the Western Conference leaders imported three potentially impact big men to make a run at the title. GM’s finally see the light, run and gun leads to regular season supremacy, not NBA rings. Outside of Detroit, each champion in the post-Bulls era had a dominant big man. Despite only the fifth best record in the West, the road to the Finals still goes through San Antonio and the Big Fundamental, these acquisitions prove the other teams finally figured that out.

Phoenix shocked the NBA, trading an intricate part of their run and gun style and leading rebounder for an aging, injured O’Neal, a mere shell of the player with four championships. Forget that O’Neal does not fit the uptempo style Phoenix thrives in and has been ineffective most of the past two seasons, the Suns have the best record in the West – why change now?

Last year’s playoffs, and the year before, and the year before, that’s why. GM Steve Kerr, who know a thing or two about title runs, clearly made a risky move, but his goal is not the Pacific Division or the most wins in the league, its to win it all. The Suns tried the fast pace style, it only took them so far. While trading Marion for Shaq may blow up in their face, after watching LA obtain another 7 footer in Gasol to go along with an improving Bynum, and knowing Duncan still looms, Phoenix decided if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. O’Neal is a playoff acquisition.

When O’Neal returns, Stoudemire slides over to his natural Power Forward spot, to go along with Boris Diaw and Grant Hill on the wing, matchup hell for opponents.  O’Neal adds a defensive presence in the middle, a big body to help grab the crucial rebound, a post player that attracts defensive attention freeing up Stoudemire, and opening the perimeter for open shots. Shaq can actually trigger fast breaks by controlling the defensive glass, allowing his teammates to run out for quick outlet passes. Come on, you did not expect me to say he would be filling the lane in transition.

The move can just as easily blow up in the desert. Marion led the team in rebounding, ranks among the best defenders in the league,  and is widely viewed as one of the Top 15 or 20 all-around players in the league. He wanted out after last season when the Suns did not reward him with a fat contract extension, but did Phoenix get enough in return for a big time player in his prime? Kerr broke all the rules of NBA trades, obtaining an star player past his prime with an albatross of a contract. The Suns must win the NBA title this season or face immense scrutiny for giving away Marion and burdening the salary cap for nothing. In the Sunshine state, despite criticism for the awful performance, Pat Riley is quietly rebuilding this team, ditching Antoine Walker’s contract and now Shaq, plus teaming Marion with Dwayne Wade, a potential dynamic duo.

Kerr rolled the dice. In May and June we find out if he rolled snake eyes or a big 7. With LA and Phoenix in position, will Dallas, San Antonio, New Orleans, Utah, or Denver respond? Is Jason Kidd next? Last week and the next two weeks will go a long way to deciding this years NBA champion. And don’t forget Boston in the East, in need of a veteran point guard.