Friday, April 17, 2009

2009 NBA playoffs preview: It's the Lakers' turn


I know this will only feed the conspiracy theorists' appetites, but I think the Los Angeles Lakers will win the NBA title in June because, well, it's their turn.

Great reasoning, huh?

But, c'mon, do you really want another X's and O's breakdown, another mind-numbing analysis of the Triangle Offense, another "Lamar Odom is the X-factor" column?

Didn't think so.

Rather, before I delve into my picks for each playoff series, consider this: When was the last time that the team we all expected to win the title didn't?

Last year, the rejuvenated Celtics were the clear choice.

In 2007, we all knew the veteran Spurs were the class of a Western Conference that was about 187 times better than the East.

In 2006, it was a bit shocking to see the Heat come back to beat the West's Mavericks in six games. But there was no debating that Miami was the best the East had to offer, so there was only one upset involved.

The'05 Spurs were the class of the West and beat an equally good Pistons team in seven games.

And, finally, we are back to the Lakers. Everyone outside of the Motor City expected the '04 team to demolish an under-the-radar Pistons squad in the Finals. Of course, that was very far from the case as Detroit cruised in five games.

So what's different about this favored L.A. squad? Well, a lot. To be brief, it's not made up of a grumpy couple (Kobe and Shaq) and a pair of old stars (Karl Malone and Gary Payton) trying one last time to earn a ring.

More importantly, it's a team that's been together now for a couple years and is cohesive. Bryant has developed from a selfish player into a great team leader. And he's got plenty of help.

Next year, it'll be Cleveland's turn. But this time around, the Larry O'Brien trophy is headed back to the West Coast.


Eastern Conference
No. 1 Cleveland def. No. 8 Detroit (5 games): The Pistons are capable of beating Cleveland — maybe once or twice. Cleveland, on the other hand, has shown it's far from just "potential" this season.

No. 2 Boston def. No. 7 Chicago (6 games): The Celtics, most likely minus K.G., will have to rely on their championship grit against an up-and-coming Bulls unit.

No. 3 Orlando def. No. 6 Philadelphia (6 games): The Magic are still learning how to win tough games, which is why this series will take longer than it should.

No. 4 Atlanta def. No. 5 Miami (7 games): What a series this will be, but D-Wade won't be able to carry his Heat in a Game 7 away from South Beach.

Western Conference
No. 1 Los Angeles def. No. 8 Utah (5 games): The Jazz are too good at home to be swept, but the Lakers are too good — period — to give the Utah faithful much hope.

No. 7 New Orleans def. No. 2 Denver (6 games): Yes, Denver is a much better team with Chauncey Billups as opposed to Allen Iverson. But the best player in the series, Chris Paul, will ultimately be the difference.

No. 3 San Antonio def. No. 6 Dallas (7 games): I can't wait for this series. It will be the most dramatic of the first round, but experience and savvy will push the Spurs into the next round.

No. 4 Portland def. No. 5 Houston (6 games): Should be another competitive series. I love the Blazers, especially at home, with the waves of explosive players they can throw at an opponent.


Eastern Conference
No. 1 Cleveland def. No. 4 Atlanta (6 games): Winning in Atlanta, as the Celtics know, is like playing Guitar Hero blind — not easy. But having LeBron James helps Cleveland's cause, and Mo Williams will be a difference-maker.

No. 2 Boston def. No. 3 Orlando (7 games): I want to believe in the Magic, especially if the Celts don't have Garnett, but I'm just not to that point yet — not against the defending champions. Expect big things from Ray Allen and Paul Pierce.

Western Conference
No. 1 Los Angeles def. No. 4 Portland (6 games): The up-and-down, back-and-fourth action in this series will have ABC, ESPN and TNT execs salivating. The games will be high-scoring, the drama palpable! But only one team has Kobe Bryant.

No. 7 New Orleans def. No. 3 San Antonio: And so they meet again. As you may remember, a year ago the Spurs came back from the dead to shock the young, impressionable Hornets in seven games. This time New Orleans, with everybody on board, will prove to be more resilient.


Eastern Conference
No. 1 Cleveland def. No. 2 Boston (5 games): Sorry, Celtics, but your magic runs out here. They'll win Game 3 to make it 2-1, but James will have one of his special games in Game 4 to send the series back to Cleveland 3-1. And I think Boston fans are familiar with teams as dominant at home as the Cavs have been.

No. 1 Los Angeles def. No. 7 New Orleans (5 games): The Hornets' special, unpredictable playoff run ends here. The Lakers simply have too many big bodies for them to handle, and Bryant won't even have to score big for his team to get back to the Finals.


Los Angeles def. Cleveland (6 games): And we return to the conspiracy theorists. Because, c'mon, what casual fan — not to mention David Stern — isn't rooting for a Kobe-LeBron showdown on the NBA's biggest stage? But bottom line — these are the two best teams in the league.

And usually — not always, but most of the time — the best advance.

It'll be an entertaining series dominated by the homecourt teams, but after three straight wins in L.A., the Lakers will smell blood and find a way to finish off the Cavs on their home floor.

Bryant will be MVP, Pau Gasol will be Mr. Steady, Odom will make the hustle plays and Derek Fisher will hit the killer 3s.

Sounds kind of like last year, doesn't it? (Just insert Pierce, Garnett, Kendrick Perkins and James Posey).

Sure, the end result will be all too predictable.

But the long ride through the playoffs to the final ceremony will take plenty of unexpected turns.

Let the real NBA season commence.

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