Saturday, April 16, 2011

NBA playoffs preview: Enjoy the high-level basketball while it lasts


In many ways, NBA fans will tell you, the Association has never been better off. Television ratings are soaring through the roof. There are several star-studded teams. And we are about to begin what could be one of the most entertaining playoffs ever.

However, the league is also in big trouble. According to NBA Commissioner David Stern, it's losing money each year. Just eight franchises are pulling in profits. And there's no competitive balance — teams in appealing, big-market cities get all the big names (sorry Cleveland, Detroit, Indiana).

NBA owners says a change must be made. The current system of players taking 57 percent of the revenue pool has to be adjusted. The collective bargaining agreement expires June 31, which doesn't give the sides much time to come to a new deal before the NBA joins the NFL in lockout city.

Many people, myself included, think it's highly possible that a lockout will continue into next season and maybe, even, wipe out the entire 2011-12 season. That, of course, would bring to a screeching halt all the progress the league has made with the booming TV ratings and increased attendance for the seventh consecutive year.

All this talk, however, can't overshadow what begins today. A NBA playoffs that couldn't be more hyped.

A stacked Eastern Conference with four legitimate Finals contenders. A wild, open Western Conference with a shaky No. 1 seed. And a first-round matchup that Stern and company must be salivating about.

So let's leave the lockout talk behind for a minute, take a seat on the couch, and enjoy what is sure to be a highly entertaining two months of playoff hoops:


First Round
1 Chicago def. 8 Indiana (4 games): Sorry, Pacers, but this one's already over. No team is hotter than the Bulls and likely MVP Derrick Rose.
2 Miami def. 7 Philadelphia (5 games): Has the Heat completely found its chemistry? Nope, not yet. Which is why the overwhelmed 76ers will steal a game.
3 Boston def. 6 New York (7 games): Oh, what a series this will be. The (aging) Big Three + Rondo vs. A'mare, Carmelo & Chauncey. The Garden vs. The Garden. Of course it will come down to Game 7 in Boston. Edge goes to the more experienced, defensive team.
4 Orlando def. 5 Atlanta (5 games): Is there a less inspiring team than the Hawks? All the talent, but minimal effort. No one's talking about the Magic, which makes it more dangerous.

Second Round
1 Chicago def. 4 Orlando (6 games): The (somewhat) young Bulls' first real test will be passed, as Rose, only 22, runs circle around Jameer Nelson, and Joakim Noah & Co. handle Dwight Howard.
3 Boston def. 2 Miami (6 games): Listen, we all know the Heat is younger and probably has more talent. But until it finds that balance, especially late in games, it's not ready to take down an opponent like the Celtics in a grind-it-out series.

Conference Finals
1 Chicago def. 3 Boston (7 games): This will be another incredible series, which, ultimately, will be decided by role players. Everyone talks about Rose, but the Bulls' wings will step up and hit big shots and shut down Paul Pierce. And with the final game on the line, Rose will rise to the occasion.


First Round
1 San Antonio def. 8 Memphis (6 games): This will be far from a walk on the hardwood for the Spurs, especially minus Manu Ginobili for at least the first game. But their experience won't let them go down yet.
2 L.A. Lakers def. 7 New Orleans (4 games) The Hornets have really overachieved to get in the playoffs with David West out for the season. They have no size to deal with the Lakers' bigs, though. And Kobe will go into playoff mode.
3 Dallas def. 6 Portland (6 games): The Mavericks know the truth: This could be their last go-around with the current roster; with Dirk holding the reins. That will be enough to get 'em past the pesky Blazers.
4 Oklahoma City def. 5 Denver (5 games): I love what the Nuggets have become post-'Melo. Without a superstar, they're one of the best "teams" in the league. However, it still helps to have a Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. They'll be too much for the Nuggets to handle.

Second Round
4 Oklahoma City def. 1 San Antonio (6 games): This, to me, isn't an upset. Prior to the season, I had the Thunder as the second best team in the West. I still believe that's the case. The Spurs have overachieved. Kendrick Perkins will handle Duncan, and Westbrook will neutralize Tony Parker.
2 L.A. def. 3 Dallas (6 games): Name a position where the Mavs have a real advantage? They'll make this a series with a pair of wins, but the Lakers' size will wear them down and Kobe and Derek Fisher will provide the finishing touches.

Conference Finals
1 L.A. def. 4 Oklahoma City (7 games): Oh, baby! This is what I'm waiting for out west. Remember last year when these teams met in the first round? The Thunder made it a series despite being newbies to the postseason. This time around every game will be competitive. The Lakers, though, will have a wee bit more urgency. They know this is probably their last good chance at a title

NBA Finals
L.A. Lakers def. Chicago Bulls (6 games): Since the season began — and through the losing streaks — I've never doubted that L.A. will win this championship. I still believe it'll happen. For one, Phil Jackson only wins titles in sets of three, right? Secondly, as mentioned, the Lakers know that their current group isn't getting any younger and it would be a very tough task to win without Phil after this year. As brilliant as the Bulls have been on the big stage all year and, I predict, through three rounds in the playoffs, their role players will struggle — especially on the road. Toss in some clutch Derek Fisher 3s, a wild Ron Artest junk shot, and the usual brilliance of Kobe and Pau Gasol ... and you've got a third straight title for the Lakers.

Enjoy the hoops while it lasts.

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