October 29th, 2007 found me laboring in front of my computer, trying to put the wraps onmy NBA season preview
. There was just one problem: No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t make heads or tails of the Western Conference. No one team stood out from the rest. Oh sure, there were plenty of talented clubs, but each seemed to be flawed in a way that would seriously sabotage its shot at the title. Finally, after banging my head against the wall for an hour, I settled on Dallas. Why not? The Mavs, as psychically screwed up as they were, seemed just as good a choice as any. Besides, it was only October, anyway. Surely the regular season would bring everything into focus.
Wrong, wrong, wrong.
171 days later, I still don’t have a freaking clue. If anything, the picture is even more muddled than before. I’ve gone back and forth so many times this season that my family gave me an abacus for my birthday just to help me keep count. Seriously, go down to the beach this weekend and I promise you won’t see as much flip-flopping as I’ve done this year with my Western Conference champion predictions. I’m a mess.
But what’s bad for my mental health (and credibility) is great for the fans. We’ve been treated to one of the best NBA seasons of all time, and the postseason is shaping up to be just as good, if not better. So let’s dive right in and break this bad boy down.
Oh, and one more thing: When it comes to the predictions, I have just one simple request: Consider the source. That should save us both a lot of venom and vitriol when my playoff bracket ends up looking eerily similar to the self portrait my two-year-old niece just created on her Etch-a-Sketch.
Western Conference Round One
Houston vs. Utah
Let’s see, the Rockets find themselves severely outclassed at point guard and in the size department. They’re a terrible free throw shooting club facing the most foul-happy team in the league. Then there’s the fact that during the final month of the season, Houston looked completely overmatched by playoff caliber competition, with last week’s win over Phoenix being the lone exception. Oh, and have I mentioned that Rafer Alston, Tracy McGrady, Shane Battier and Carl Landry are all nursing a variety of aches and pains? So what’s the bright side again?
Well, for starters, Houston does have home court advantage. But that will only take you so far. Much more important is the indefinable and at times inexplicable resiliency this Rockets team possesses. On paper, this is not a 55 win club. And yet, here they are, sporting a better record than star-laden teams like Dallas, Denver and, yes, Utah. Time and time again, the Rockets have been written off, doubted and downright dismissed. And time and time again, they’ve stood strong. You might not believe in these guys, but at this point, you simply have to respect them.
They’re to be admired, too. So much so, that I really want to be the lone voice in the wilderness, holding up their banner and saying, “I believe!” But I just can’t do it. Utah is too good, too deep, and too talented. But that’s okay. The Rockets don’t need me or anyone else waving their flag. They’ve done a fine job waving it on their own all year long.
Prediction: Jazz in 6
Denver vs. Los Angeles
If this were played back in the day when first round series were best-of-5, I might give Denver a puncher’s chance in this series. The Nuggets are certainly capable of winning a couple games and making L.A. squirm a little bit. But beating the Lakers four times? Forget about it.
Prediction: Lakers in 6
Dallas vs. New Orleans
I love Chris Paul. I hated the Jason Kidd trade. So I’ve got to take the Hornets here, right? I want to. In fact, I nearly did. But I can’t deny the fact Dallas has looked awfully frisky of late, while CP3 seems to be showing signs of fatigue. That, far more than Paul’s inexperience (which is a non-issue in my opinion), could turn out to be the deciding factor in this series. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but…
Prediction: Mavericks in 6
Phoenix vs. San Antonio
Good golly. How on earth can this be a first round match-up? It’s a tremendous treat for fans, but downright cruel for the loser, which will unfairly wear the “first round bust” label immediately upon its demise.
Full disclosure: I positively hated the Shaq trade, too. I still think Phoenix didn’t get enough for Shawn Marion, and that the Suns foolishly gambled their future by putting all their championship eggs in this postseason’s basket. But you know what? Even the most foolish of gambles pays off every once in awhile. And it looks like Phoenix may be a lot closer to hitting the jackpot than I ever could have imagined.
Prediction: Suns in 7
Eastern Conference Round One
Atlanta vs. Boston
Prediction: Celtics in 4
Philadelphia vs. Detroit
Prediction: Pistons in 5
Toronto vs. Orlando
Two months ago, this was Toronto’s dream first round pairing. Then T.J. Ford returned—two days after the Raptors had annihilated Orlando, coincidently enough—and Toronto has been searching for its mojo ever since. It’s not fair to blame it all on Ford—the injury to Chris Bosh was far more destructive—but that hasn’t stopped Torontonians from bashing the Houston-product every chance they get. This is his shot at redemption. Can the Raps flip the switch in time? I say no.
Prediction: Magic in 7
Washington vs. Cleveland
To the millions of basketball fans who just mindlessly go along with the oft-stated premise that Kobe Bryant is the best player in the game, please do me one favor: Watch LeBron James in this series (and beyond). I mean really watch him. Open your minds to the possibility of someone greater than #24. If you’re still not convinced, I can accept that (while disagreeing, of course). Just don’t fall for the party line simply because it’s repeated ad nauseum by the game’s talking heads. Make up your own mind. That’s all I ask.
Prediction: Cavaliers in 7
Western Conference Second Round
Utah vs. Los Angeles
If you think I’ve got the Kobe lovers riled up now, just wait until they see this…
Prediction: Jazz in 6
Dallas vs. Phoenix
Of course, with L.A. out of the picture, that also eliminates the possibility of seeing the Shaq-Kobe grudge match everyone is dying to see in the conference finals. Perhaps I should reconsider. David Stern and company would never let a marketing bonanza like that slip through their fingers, would they? Wait a second, who am I? Bill Simmons? What’s with all the conspiracy, match-fixing talk? Everyone knows that never happens in the NBA, right?
Prediction: Suns in 7
Eastern Conference Second Round
Cleveland vs. Boston
As much as I love LeBron, everyone knows the first two rounds of the Eastern Conference playoffs are just a prelude to the Boston-Detroit main event.
Prediction: Celtics in 6
Orlando vs. Detroit
Prediction: Pistons in 6
Western Conference Finals
Phoenix vs. Utah
It’s not Kobe-Shaq, but still, it’s hard to quibble with Nash-Williams and Stoudemire-Boozer. In the end, I’m taking the Phoenix firepower over Utah’s brute strength. I have to be honest here, I feel a tad foolish hitching my ride to a Suns team I repeatedly bashed two months ago; especially when San Antonio could knock them out in round one. But at the end of the day, I don’t think I would feel comfortable picking any one team to come out of the West. It’s just that wild this year.
Prediction: Suns in 6
Eastern Conference Finals
Detroit vs. Boston
Now here’s a prediction I feel good about, despite the fact Detroit was my pick to emerge from the East for the better part of the year. I can’t explain it, but something shifted within my basketball soul when I saw the Celtics in person. They do so many things well, but more than anything, they epitomize T-E-A-M. I’ve already conjured Bill Simmons once, so I’ll save you the obligatory fawning over the Celts. Just know that when I’m trying to decide between two evenly-matched, tremendously talented teams, I’ll take the club who brings all-out effort every night over the group whose intensity comes complete with its own on/off switch every time.
And if you don’t trust me, then take Daryl Morey’s word for it.
Prediction: Celtics in 7
Phoenix vs. Boston
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An NBA Finals match made in heaven. Forget Boston-L.A. Give me Celtics-Suns. Then make it Best-of-13. But no matter the length of the series, Boston will prevail. Rajon Rondo can control Steve Nash (to the extent he can be controlled, at least), and Kevin Garnett is probably the only person on the planet right now who can make Amare Stoudemire seem somewhat human. It took awhile, but KG and company have made me a believer.
Prediction: Celtics in 7
- Jason Friedman