Win or go home! 40 games in 40 nights! It’s about friggin’ time I say! The NBA Playoffs seem to have been looming off in the distance forever, especially considering the multitude of teams bunched together in an ultra competitive Western Conference where the eight playoff teams finished within a remarkable seven games of each other. Unlike most seasons, this one forced most teams in both conferences to play out the regular season string completely before most first round match-ups were decided. The competition has been terrific all season long giving rise to the expectation that this 2008 Playoffs just might compensate for the let down that was the 2007 Playoffs. Thankfully enough- It all starts now!
The Eastern Conference was led by the new look old powerhouse Boston Celtics who were among the few teams who got to rest key players such as Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Ray Allen, thanks to their impressive 66-16 regular season record. They ran away with their division (by 25 games), conference (by seven games), and had the best record in the NBA overall. Even more telling, their 25-5 record against mighty Western Conference foes shows that they are worthy competitors to win it all in what has traditionally been a weaker Eastern Conference. Of all the other teams there, only the second place Detroit Pistons (59-23) who were 22-8 and the Cleveland Cavaliers (45-37) who were 17-13 shared winning records. The Orlando Magic (52-30) had a great season as it looks to make a good showing and it seems that the Washington Wizards (43-39)
have become a popular choice to surprise thanks to the return of Gilbert Arenas.
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Though many teams in the East look great against their own, this is still the same ole, same ole for the most part. At the top of the East, however, there is indeed improvement as the Celtics and Pistons are as good as any out West. The two should combine to meet in the conference finals if all goes the way it should. Until then, the East won’t provide much more than a weak front end to most playoff double-headers. Head to head, the Celtics won and covered two of three games against the Pistons while also playing two of the three regular season games at home on their familiar parquet- an advantage they would also have in any seven game series. Although it looks like an easy Celtic road to the Finals, the Pistons have more experience in the playoffs and are my pick to represent the East.
In the West, the Los Angeles Lakers (57-25) and Pau Gasol got healthy just in time to finish with the number one seed and home court advantage throughout the playoffs. With talk of Kobe Bryant winning the MVP and championship hopes running rampant, there’s a newfound excitement in and around Staples Center- something that’s been missing there for about a decade. Although the road will be a difficult one since their second round foe will be the winner of the Suns/Spurs series, if healthy, they should surely go far.
A major surprise all season long have been the New Orleans Hornets (56-26) as they remained in the running for the number one seed until a day or two before the season ended. Guard Chris Paul has been outstanding and many have him designated as an MVP
candidate himself. Though the story is nice, playoff experience is thin. On the brighter side, they won’t have to face LA, the Phoenix Suns, or San Antonio Spurs, until what would be the Western Conference Finals.
Holding the number three seed are the Utah Jazz (54-28) who’ve been practically unbeatable at home but have struggled on the road. This shouldn’t be a problem for them in the first round, however, the second round just might be. Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer lead them much like John Stockton and Karl Malone before them. If the Hornets get tripped up, the Jazz are in good position to sail to the conference finals.
The Phoenix Suns (55-27) enter this post season with something they’ve really never had- a real time NBA center in Shaquille O’neal a.k.a. the Big Cactus. Because they’ve played so well together after initially struggling, these Suns have a chance to prove something other Suns teams couldn’t- they can win and go deep into the playoffs. Unfortunately for them, they open at San Antonio (56-26) in what will be a very unusually interesting first round series. Perhaps they won’t get cheated by disqualifications again this year and Shaq will pay dividends against Tim Duncan. If they get by the Spurs they will face the number one seeded Lakers next. Not an easy road but this is the west afterall!
The defending Champion San Antonio Spurs look to regain the playoff magic that they usually find this time of year. Did they take the regular season lightly to be more ready at money time? Are they lying in the weeds ready to take the NBA by surprise?
Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, and Tony Parker, have thrived in the playoffs and, more importantly, know how to play shut down defense- a must in playoff basketball. They have been very good for quite sometime but have also paid for it in the total number of extra games played that came from going so deep so often in the playoffs. Starting with Phoenix then playing the Lakers if they advance will be a quick wake up call for them if they intend to defend their title.
Though the West could go any which way, the Lakers will play and beat the Utah Jazz in the conference finals in six games. What’s unfortunate is that as good as the conference is, the best teams seem to be lumped into the Lakers bracket- which really benefits the Jazz. Other teams in the bracket include the Dallas Mavericks (51-31) who could barely beat a team with a winning record all season, the Houston Rockets (55-27) who can’t win a playoff series, and the New Orleans Hornets who haven’t been in the playoffs.
Ultimately, the Pistons and Lakers meet in what will be a repeat of the 89 (Magic Johnson/James Worthy vs. Isiah Thomas/Joe Dumars, Detroit won series 4-0) or 04 Finals (Kobe/Shaq vs Rip Hamilton/Chauncey Billups, Detroit won series 4-1). Although it wasn’t exactly the series many had hoped for (yes, the Celtics are missing!) this series will be much more competitive than the others have been as it takes all seven games to decide things this time around. In a hard fought and dramatic battle, the Lakers prevail in seven winning with- surprise - a memorable performance by Kobe Bryant.
No matter what the end result, few seasons can match the parity and the buildup that this one has offered. Somewhere - and most likely it will be in front of cameras - David Stern will be smiling the whole time. Now it’s all up to the teams to live up to the inevitable hype and pressure that comes with their success. After all, isn’t this where ‘amazing happens’?