#8 Utah Jazz (48-34) vs #1 Los Angeles Lakers (65-17)
Season series: Lakers lead 2-1
Far and away the favorites to win the Western Conference, the Lakers get a tough first round draw in Utah. The Jazz are a veteran, playoff-tested team that should give the Lakers a run for their money. However, we've seen how this series plays out. The Lakers and Jazz met in the 2nd round of the playoffs last year and LA won in 6. The Jazz have a shot in virtually any series because they are such a dominant home team, but without home court advantage, it's hard to see them beating out the Lakers, who beat them last year without Andrew Bynum and Trevor Ariza.
X-factor: Andrew Bynum
Bynum is not far removed from an injury, so it's hard to know how effective he can be in this series. If he is rusty and Utah can take advantage, they can make a series out of this. However, if he plays as well as he did early in the season, the Lakers could be in position to blow through the Western Conference.
Prediction: Lakers in 6
#7 New Orleans Hornets (49-33) vs #2 Denver Nuggets (54-28)
Season series: tied 2-2
This is a tough series to read these teams have not played each other at full strength. In each game, at least one significant player has been missing. The closest they came was in the first two meetings (which they split) in which Denver was at full strength, but New Orleans was missing Tyson Chandler. Considering Chandler is far and away their best defensive big man, this is very significant. And yet, with Hilton Armstrong at center, the Hornets won one game and lost by just five in the other. With Chandler back, their chances significantly increase. It will also be interesting to see how the stars match up with one another. Chris Paul and Chauncey Billups should be able to exploit each other offensively, with Paul's quickness and Billups' size. Meanwhile Carmelo Anthony and David West could each be limited as their opponents have a number of strong defensive players to throw their way. James Posey, Rasual Butler, and Julian Wright could all spend time guarding Anthony, and Kenyon Martin, Nene, and Chris Anderson will have turns defending West.
X-factor: Chris Anderson
Birdman has had a resurgent season off the bench for Denver and now gets the chance to take on his former team. The biggest advantage Denver has over New Orleans is their depth at the size positions and if Anderson can help press that advantage, the Hornets could be in trouble.
Prediction: Hornets in 7
#6 Dallas Mavericks (50-32) vs #3 San Antonio Spurs (54-28)
Season series: tied 2-2
This a very tough draw for the veteran Spurs, who will be without Manu Ginobili. In addition, Dallas can match up pretty well, putting Erick Dampier (a big body and occasionally effective) on Tim Duncan, while offensively Dirk Nowitzki should be able to torch Matt Bonner or the aging Duncan. However, the Mavs have no answer for Tony Parker, who has decimated Dallas this season. He is averaging 31.3 PPG and 8.0 APG in 4 games against Dallas this season. Dallas simply has no one with the quickness to contain him. Ginobili will be missed, but the Spurs ought to have enough to get by Dallas, behind a dominant performance from Parker.
X-factor: Roger Mason
Mason will be filling in for Ginobili, starting at shooting guard. While he's not nearly as good a scorer as Manu, he's shown that he can knock down open shots, including ones in the clutch, and has been a major asset for San Antonio this season. He'll need to pick up even more of the slack with Ginobili gone.
Prediction: Spurs in 6
#5 Houston Rockets (53-39) vs #4 Portland Trailblazers (54-28)
Season series: Rockets lead 2-1
This should be one of the best series of the 1st round, as the two teams appear fairly evenly matched. The up-and-coming Blazers have been very fun to watch this year, with a balanced attack and the emergence of Brandon Roy as a star. Meanwhile, Houston has looked great in the second half of the season, despite (or perhaps because of) the absence of Tracy McGrady. On paper these teams appear evenly matched, but it's a bit hard to see Portland winning this one. While the Blazers have the size to body up on Yao Ming, Houston has enough perimeter defenders to put a damper on Roy's productivity. Roy averaged 21.0 PPG against Houston in 3 games, just 1.6 points off his overall average, but he did so on 39.3% shooting. This no doubt had a lot to do with the play of Ron Artest and Shane Battier on the defensive end. LaMarcus Aldridge will also have his work cut out for him, going against Luis Scola and Chuck Hayes.
X-factor: Greg Oden
Oden has had a fairly disappointing "rookie" year. He has struggled to stay healthy and has been inconsistent when he has been able to play. Oden only played in one game against Houston this year and he was a non-factor. He played only 11 minutes due to foul trouble and he did not manage a single rebound. However, if he can get his act together, at least on the defensive end, he has the physical ability to make life difficult for Yao. It's a long shot, but Oden has the ability to get the Blazers out of the first round.
Prediction: Rockets in 6
Friday, April 17, 2009
#8 Utah Jazz (48-34) vs #1 Los Angeles Lakers (65-17)
Thursday, April 16, 2009
#8 Detroit Pistons (39-43) vs #1 Cleveland Cavaliers (66-16)
Season series: Cavs lead 3-1
While this has been a competitive rivalry in recent years, it's hard to imagine the 2009 edition living up to that hype. The Pistons are a veteran team with ample playoff experience and they will not go down easily. Expect close, physical, hard-fought games. Well at least in Detroit. But the Cavs just have too much. LeBron James cannot be stopped be wiry Tayshaun Prince (or anyone in the league, for that matter) and, with the Allen Iverson trade a bust, the Pistons simply do not have enough left in the tank to take this series deep.
X-factor: Kwame Brown
I know this sounds crazy, but Brown has actually shown signs of life in the last month and a half of the season, logging significant minutes for Detroit and playing reasonably well at times. He's certainly not going to dominate either side of the ball, but one of the Cavs' biggest advantages over Detroit is the superior play of their big men and a strong performance from Brown would close this gap a bit.
Prediction: Cavs in 5
#7 Chicago Bulls (41-41) vs #2 Boston Celtics (62-20)
Season series: Celtics lead 2-1
What at first looked like an easy series win for Boston could now be a tightly contested matchup between the defending champs and the up-and-coming Bulls, thanks to Kevin Garnett's uncertain status. It was reported today that Garnett could miss the entire playoffs so it's a safe bet he won't be playing in this series. That will make things quite difficult from the Celtics, who lost their most recent game against the Bulls 127-121. The Bulls match up very well with the Celtics, now that Garnett is out of the picture. Ben Gordon and John Salmons should be able to match Ray Allen and Paul Pierce point for point and Derrick Rose should be able to limit Rajon Rondo's production. This is a tough series to call but in the end it likely comes down to homecourt advantage. The Bulls are the worst road team in the playoffs (13-28) and the Celtics are one of the best home teams (35-6). This series should go much like Boston's first round series against Atlanta last year, where the home team won every game and that was the only reason Boston won the series.
X-factor: Brad Miller
Miller played brilliantly against the Celtics in the Bulls' March 17th win, putting up 21 pts, 14 reb, and 5 ast off the bench. Miller's shooting ability should allow him to draw shot-blockers like Kendrick Perkins away from the basket, opening up the lanes for Rose, Salmons, and Gordon. If he provides a spark on the glass as well, he could be a major asset for the Bulls.
Prediction: Celtics in 7
#6 Philadelphia 76ers (41-41) vs #3 Orlando Magic (59-23)
Season series: Magic lead 3-0
On paper, the Sixers actually match up reasonably well with the Magic. Athletic forwards Thaddeus Young and Andre Iguodala should be able to do a decent job containing Rashard Lewis and Hedo Turkoglu. In addition, the Sixers have an advantage at point guard, after another strong season from Andre Miller. However, the Magic have Dwight Howard and the Sixers have no way to stop him. Samuel Dalembert the size and athleticism to at least make Howard work a bit, but he has been so erratic this season that it's hard to know what the Dalembert will give them in the playoffs. Unless Dalembert can slow down Howard one-on-one, the Sixers will be forced to double team and the Magic will kill them with three-point shooting.
X-factor: Marresse Speights
Speights has shown flashes of brilliance all season long, but has not always gotten the minutes he's needed to really shine. This is largely because of his spotty defense and inconsistent rebounding effort, but if the Sixers are going to have any shot at the upset, they will need Speights to come up big.
Prediction: Magic in 5
#5 Miami Heat (43-39) vs #4 Atlanta Hawks (47-35)
Season series: Hawks lead 3-1
Last year the Hawks were one of the stories of the playoffs, bringing the Celtics to the brink of playoff extinction, before succumbing in Game 7. Now they get to enjoy home court advantage for a round against the Heat. The Hawks didn't have much trouble with the Heat in the regular season, but it's hard to pick against a team with Dwyane Wade on it. The Hawks boast one of the most athletic and high-flying teams in the NBA, with Josh Smith, Joe Johnson, Marvin Williams, and Al Horford, plus veteran Mike Bibby at the point. On paper, they are superior to the Heat, but the Heat will have the best player on the floor in Wade. However, Wade can't do it by himself. He will need help from the likes of Jermaine O'Neal and Michael Beasley.
X-factor: Michael Beasley
While on the whole Beasley has had an uninspiring rookie season, he has caught fire of late since replacing the injured Udonis Haslem in the starting lineup. He has averaged 24.2 PPG in the last 5 games; a good sign for the Heat who need Beasley to be a solid number two for Wade.
Prediction: Heat in 6