Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Win or go home: Eastern Conference

(Originally written on 4/18/08 for FSU's The Bottom Line)

The NBA Playoffs are underway after what may have been the most entertaining and interesting NBA regular season in quite some time. The Boston Celtics (66-16) and Detroit Pistons (59-23) appear to be the clear favorites heading into the playoffs in the East, but things don’t appear to be so clear-cut in the West, where only seven games separate the number one seed, the L.A. Lakers (57-25), from the number eight seed, the Denver Nuggets (50-32). But even though the East as a whole can’t stack up against the West, the first round still offers some very intriguing matchups for both conferences.

No. 1 Boston Celtics face the No. 8 Atlanta Hawks (37-45). During the regular season, the Celtics won all three games over the Hawks. With Mike Bibby, Joe Johnson, Marvin Williams, Josh Smith, and Al Horford, the Hawks present a strong and athletic starting lineup; however, the Hawks only have one formidable player on their bench -- Josh Childress. Their starters play heavy minutes, and in a series against a defensive-minded team like the Celtics, the Hawks are going to need some extra help. Unfortunately, they just don’t have that extra gear, but the Celtics, with Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Ray Allen, do. Garnett and the rest of the Celtics shouldn’t have a problem containing the Hawks.

Key matchup: Rajon Rondo vs. Mike Bibby. Acquired in a trade with the Kings, Bibby has given the Hawks a steady point guard and three-point shooter. Rondo has improved tremendously for the Celtics this year, and he may be the best defensive point guard in the East. If the Hawks are going to have any chance to beat the Celtics, they will all have to shoot well, especially Bibby. If Rondo can keep him in check, don’t look for any repeat of Golden State and Dallas from last season.

Prediction: Celtics in 4

No. 2 Detroit Pistons face the No. 7 Philadelphia 76ers (40-42). The Sixers completely turned their season around in the second half of the season and were one of the hottest teams over that stretch. Their season series against the Pistons serves as a perfect example: the Pistons beat the Sixers twice in the first half, but the Sixers won both games over the Pistons in the second half to even the season series. The Sixers have the talent on the bench to support their starters, and those young players, Jason Smith, Thaddeus Young, and Louis Williams, may help the Sixers steal a game or two. The Pistons, though, play defense and have a veteran starting lineup: Chauncey Billups, Rip Hamilton, Tayshaun Prince, Rasheed Wallace, and Antonio McDyess. They also have an athletic big man, Jason Maxiell, coming off the bench.

Key matchup: Tayshaun Prince vs. Andre Iguodala. Prince, with his long arms and quick hands, is one of the best defenders in the league. Iguodala is the best scorer and athlete on the Sixers. If Prince can bother Iguodala and shut him down, the Pistons should be on their way to the second round.

Prediction: Pistons in 5

No. 3 Orlando Magic (52-30) face the No. 6 Toronto Raptors (41-41). The Raptors will play Orlando after completing an average second half. Their star player, Chris Bosh, appears to be close to 100 percent, though he did miss 15 games this season with a few injuries, primarily a sore knee. The Magic, on the other hand, completed a very strong season, led by Dwight Howard (20.7 points, 14.2 rebounds) and Hedo Turkoglu (19.5 points, 5.7 rebounds, 5.0 assists). This series may turn out closer than expected because both teams play the same style of basketball; they both have one outstanding post player in Bosh and Howard, and both teams shoot and make lots of threes.

Key matchup: Chris Bosh vs. Rashard Lewis. Since Howard is more of a center, he probably won’t be guarding Bosh one-on-one. Lewis is a decent defensive player, but Bosh may be able to score at will in the post if the Magic don’t choose to double-team him. On offense, Lewis (18.2 points) will need to hit open shots and keep Bosh away from the basket to open up the floor for Howard and Turkoglu.

Prediction: Magic in 6

No. 4 Cleveland Cavaliers (45-37) face the No. 5 Washington Wizards (43-39). Without a doubt, this series is the most intriguing first round matchup in the East as the two teams meet in the first round for the third consecutive year. The Cavs have knocked the Wizards out of the playoffs the last two seasons, but the Wizards appear to be healthy and are tired of being pushed around. A little after the halfway point of the season, Wizards guard DeShawn Stevenson called LeBron James “overrated” after a win. Was that a smart move? Probably not. But while the quote may have given the Cavs and James some bulletin board material heading into the series, the Wizards don’t seem to care and are ready to play. Caron Butler won’t be 100 percent, but he will play, enabling the Wizards to have the big three, Gilbert Arenas, Butler, and Antawn Jamison, which is something they didn’t have in the postseason last year. Arenas will come off the bench as the sixth man, which could cause some problems for the Cavs, who will already be without forward Sasha Pavlovic, who has a sprained left ankle. But with a superstar like LeBron James, the Cavs have a chance against anyone, no matter what.

Key matchup: Antawn Jamison vs. Ben Wallace. Some people believe the Cavs’ trade that sent Larry Hughes and Drew Gooden away and brought Ben Wallace, Delonte West, and Wally Szczerbiak in made the team better, but many believe the trade didn’t help at all. The final say should be given in this series since Wallace is sure to be tested. Wallace is really an undersized center, but the Cavs already have a center -- Zydrunas Ilgauskas. Ilgauskas will guard Brendan Haywood, which forces Wallace to play power forward to guard Jamison. Jamison, the Wizards’ power forward, doesn’t play like a typical four. He has an array of unorthodox post moves, hook shots, and flip shots, but he can also shoot threes and score from the perimeter. If Wallace has to chase Jamison all over the floor, Arenas and Butler may be able to drive to the bucket and score points in the paint.

Prediction: Wizards in 7

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