Can the Lakers hold off another potent point guard?
Today marks the first day that the second round begins in earnest. All but one series has been locked in entirely and will be decided tomorrow afternoon. In the Least three of the four opening round series were wrapped up within five games. Boring, right? Last night the Hawks were able to hold off a late push by the Bucks in the Bradley Center to extend the series to a game seven. At least this series has made the East first round watchable. Out in the Wild West there have been two “upsets” (seriously, the West is so stacked that nothing can legitimately be called an upset), and one big sigh of relief from a paper tiger. It has been wild indeed. So, with the first second round series tipping off at 7 pm (CDT) now is as good a time as ever to give you the Kobe Beef’s second round NBA playoff predictions.
1. Cleveland Cavaliers vs. 4. Boston Celtics
Cleveland handily took to task the undersized Bulls in the first round in a quick five game series in which we found out that Joakim Noah does not think that Cleveland rocks. Noah and Derrick Rose played brilliantly for the outmatched Bulls but their efforts were not enough. Shaquille O’Neal returned to action for the first round series and quickly reestablished himself as the inside force that he is known to be. In fact, he came back in better shape than when he went out with a thumb injury. It showed early on that the “Big Witness Protection” was channeling the Shaq of years past with the way he dominated the paint.
The Cavaliers have another player on their team that performed well in the first round. You may have heard of him. LeBron James is on a mission. It would take a force of nature bigger than the Haiti earthquake, volcanic eruption in Iceland, Hurricane Katrina, and the great tsunami combined to slow him down. (Please note that I mean only to refer to the scope of sheer awesome natural power that is behind these events and do not in any way intend to make light of the situations of people affected by these natural disasters.) LeBron had himself a little business trip in the first round, looks like he sealed the deal.
Boston used its entire arsenal to douse the Miami Heat. Their frontcourt completely outplayed their counterparts in black jerseys. Miami was hot coming into the playoffs but reverted back to their old selves once the series began. It seemed as though the four other players who were on the floor with Dwyane Wade were just there for the show. Wade certainly put on a show. Boston could not stop him; they did not need to though. They shut down every other player that Miami had. The Celtic’s defense looked like it was the caliber of their recent championship team. Defenses have a tendency to look good when playing against a sputtering offense.
So, these two bitter Eastern Conference rivals meet again in the playoffs. How do they match up? Both teams’ frontcourts are deep. (How deep? Deeper than Sage Francis.) Boston has four players that they can rotate in and out of the four and five spots while the Cavs have five. As of right now, however, the edge must go to Cleveland. Kevin Garnett will more than likely neutralize any of the fours he guards and this is especially true of Antawn Jamison. However, Shaq’s presence in the middle and the tenacity and hustle wrapped up beneath floppy curls that are Anderson Varejao give Cleveland the advantage.
In the backcourt is where Boston has the advantage. Rajon Rondo will not be slowed down by any of the Cavaliers’ guards. He is likely to penetrate and dish at will. Finishing at the rim may be a problem for him in this series, however. Whoever the Cavaliers play at the two guard will need to stick to Jesus Shuttlesworth like glue. He does not move or rotate with the ability that he once could but he is deadly on curls off screens and you had better not think about leaving him standing outside the arc unless you like NBA Jam commentary playing in your head. Tony Allen will also play a factor in this series; if Mo Williams starts to heat up expect Doc Rivers to send in Allen to be the cooler.
What this series will ultimately come down to is a matchup between two men. (I am six months older than one of these men.) Paul Pierce and LeBron James will draw the assignments of guarding one another. In the past, Pierce has been a serviceable LeBron stopper. Well, “stopper” might not be the appropriate term, more like Pierce is able to slow LeBron for a moment at times. The fates of both these teams rest in the abilities of these two players. It will come down to who wants it more. Pierce and the Celtics have what James wants, they are in his way. LeBron is hungry but the Celtics will not go quietly into the night. Oh, and do not for one second believe that this phantom elbow injury that James sustained will slow him down.
The Cavaliers will win in seven games.
2. Orlando Magic vs. 3. Atlanta Hawks/6. Milwaukee Bucks
Orlando’s opponent will be known after the Hawks and Bucks meet Sunday afternoon for a game seven. A seven game series only gives the Magic more time to rest. As has been seen in the past, this could either be a good thing or a bad thing as the players might get stiff or out of rhythm. However, Orlando is by no means a seasoned or old team so the effects of down time should not be too adverse.
Since the series between the Hawks and Bucks has yet to be decided the focus here will be on the Orlando Magic. Hey, do you remember Jameer Nelson? I bet you do now. Nelson exploded during the series sweep of the Bobcats. Poor Raymond Felton had no chance of containing Nelson. He dropped 32, 13, 32, and 18 respectively in games one through four. If Mark Jackson was writing this piece he would surely follow those numbers up with the over used phrase, “Mama, there goes that man.” Nelson had seemed to disappear, this season, in Orlando’s offensive scheme but he has come storming back with vengeance. He paced the team in scoring in the first round and is surely looking forward to continuing his production in the second round.
Defensive stopper and defensive liability, Dwight Howard will continue to be plagued by foul trouble no matter the opponent the Magic face in the second round. (He brings the fouls on himself, it is not a vast referee conspiracy against him he just does not have good defensive positioning. He never has. If you want likely true referee conspiracies talk to a Mavericks fan about Dan Crawford.) The leagues wallet will likely become fatter because Howard will get slapped with at least one more $35,000 fine for criticizing the officials either publicly or on his blog. Emperor Stern does not like when people say mean things about his refs. The biggest challenge to Howard would be if the Hawks were to win their series. Al Horford, Josh Smith, and at times Zaza Pachulia battling Howard for boards is likely to get him into foul trouble early and often.
The Magic will continue to live and die by the three-pointer. It’s Stan Van Gundy’s way. If they keep connecting from downtown and their team defense remains as stifling as it has been there will be little threat to their aspirations of moving on in the playoffs. Expect a high scoring affair in the second round for the Magic as the Bobcats were ranked number one or two in virtually every defensive category.
Whoever their opponent ends up being, the Orlando Magic will win in six games.
1. Los Angeles Lakers vs. 5. Utah Jazz
Whew! If you are a Lakers fan you sure are glad to finally be rid of those pesky kids from Oklahoma City aren’t you? You bet. Any notions of the invincibility of the Lakers should be gone by now too. Who said they would sweep the Thunder? Not us here at the Beef. OK, Lakers fans, take a deep breath, exhale. Feel better? Well, you shouldn’t.
The Lakers have advanced to the second round of the playoffs after witnessing the birth of a future power house. (I wonder if they played Tribe’s “Jazz (We’ve Got)” when Utah knocked out Denver.) Los Angeles survived but was certainly given the shock of its life. Good news for the Lakers is that they will not have to see the likes of Russell Westbrook until next season. Kobe Bryant is happy he does not have to guard him anymore having told both Kevin Durant and Westbrook after the game, “You all are two bad motherfuckers and I’m glad to be done with you.” In all reality it is hard to guard a player when you are two to four steps behind them. Do not look now, Kobe, but just as you get done with Westbrook, who torched the Lakers all series, you get to play against Deron Williams.
This post season is turning into the domain of the point guard. Williams just may be the best point guard of the bunch in the playoffs. In game one against Denver he scored 26 point and dished 11 dimes, game two: 33 points 14 assists, game three: 24 points 10 assists, game four: 24 points 13 assists, game five: 34 points 10 assists, game six: 14 points 10 assists. What that translates to is that Williams averaged 25.8 points and 11.3 assists per game. The kid from The Colony is doin’ it, and doin’ it, and doin’ it well. If Derek Fisher could not keep up with Westbrook well then he…well, the English language has no word to describe what Fisher is about to experience. Basically it will appear as if Fisher is a ghost, invisible and with no mass. A vaporous apparition if you will. Williams will start his drive and all you will see is an odd hazy purple and yellow cloud where a defender once stood. Kobe will have to try and stop Williams, if Deron can be stopped.
Another area of concern for the Lakers will be the play of the frontcourt. Unlike the Thunder, the Jazz have size and strength in the post. Oh, but Pau Gasol and Carlos Boozer will cancel each other out, right? In what universe have you been watching basketball? Boozer is a superior defender and has a larger offensive repertoire than Gasol. One on one in the post Boozer will win the majority of the time. If the Jazz are on offense and Boozer gets the ball with Gasol guarding him Boozer will score or go to the line. Gasol is in for a long series, his defense or lack thereof is in for a serious test. The Lakers frontcourt depth is in for a rude awakening. Coming off the bench for the Jazz is one Paul Milsap. Pitted against the Lakers’ second unit, Milsap will dominate the game. Denver’s bigs off the bench could not contain him and Denver has quality players coming off the bench. The Lakers have Lamar Odom and that is it. Expect Andrew Bynum to be a non factor outside of the first quarter in each game.
Los Angeles does have one thing going for them: Kobe Bryant. Since the Jazz shipped off Ronnie Brewer in a money saving move at the trade deadline they have had no real perimeter defender. The absence of Brewer will be felt by the Jazz in this series. Rookie Wesley Matthews and C.J. Miles will likely draw the duty of defending Kobe. (Having not seen the Jazz play much recently I cannot make a projection as to which is a better defender.) Kobe is likely to transform into Kobama for the Lakers again as this will be another tough, and much more physical matchup. Is Kobama mad that Gasol won game six in Oklahoma City? Probably not, a bailout is a bailout.
This series will be a rematch between old rivals. Jerry Sloan has coached the Jazz since before time itself existed it seems and once more he will face a team coached by Phil Jackson. Their most epic show downs came in the late 1990s when Jackson coached the Chicago Bulls. They met in the finals for two consecutive years with Jackson coming out on top each time. Having Michael Jordan on his team certainly helped the Zen Master achieve victory. Now he has Kobe and the odds are still in his favor. The Jazz will not be able to escape their injury issues forever. The series will be close and at times ugly. More than one on court altercation with fines following it should be expected.
Battered and bruised, the Los Angeles Lakers will win the series in six games.
3. Phoenix Suns vs. 7. San Antonio Spurs
The Portland Trailblazers showed the greatest mettle and character of any team in the playoffs so far. Brandon Roy channeled the emotion and resolve of Willis Reed as he returned from surgery just eight days after it was performed. Alas, it was not enough as the Suns were able to bounce the Blazers from the playoffs in six games. To the surprise of many the injury to Robin Lopez has not tremendously hurt the Suns as Amare Stoudemire continues to be a force to be reckoned with. Alvin Gentry is even doing his best Mike D’Antoni impression as the seven seconds or less mantra is still very much alive and well in the valley of the sun.
San Antonio has time to rest the old legs of Tim Duncan as the series with Phoenix does not start until Monday. (If you wonder how and why the Mavericks lost read Team Hate and The Nelly Curse.) The Spurs defense looks better than it has in some time. It must have been Greg Popovich’s plan to play every team that downright hates the Spurs in the playoffs; first the Mavericks, now the Suns, and then possibly (if we go by our own prediction) the Lakers. This band of dogs must be masochistic. Generally the smart route is to get the easiest path to the top. I guess dogs are not smart.
Phoenix likes to run, San Antonio likes to walk. Let the battle for game pace begin. The Suns will have their way in at least two games of the series as no matter what is happening on the court they will simply not stop running. However, it would be wise to think that the Spurs will put backcourt pressure on Steve Nash, like they did to Jason Kidd, in an effort to force the ball out of his hands and thereby slow the pace of the game. Dallas never adjusted for it and they lost, Phoenix must adjust for it if they hope to even be in this series. San Antonio will also try and shut down all the three point shooters on Phoenix and chase them off the arc. Their attention to defending against the three will free up Amare to run wild in the middle. The Spurs have to suitable defender to stop him but they do have a lot of bodies to throw at him. Amare should have a monster series, which is what Popovich wants as long as everyone else on the Suns contributes little to nothing. Do not expect to see Duncan defending Amare one on one much; foul trouble does not suit Timmy well.
The biggest problem for Phoenix is the fact that they still do not play defense consistently. Sure they are better at it now, but it is still not in their nature. Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, and George Hill will eat the Suns backcourt alive. Each will undoubtedly end up on the floor after each drive because they think that basketball is soccer and dives make sense. Hill is less prone to do this as he is not foreign but is picking up on the bad habit. (Note to all foreign players: Offensive flopping is just as embarrassing as defensive flopping. Please stop. You are only giving Americans more reasons to feel superior to whatever country you are from.) Good thing for the Suns that Robert Horry is not around to cross check anyone this time.
San Antonio is on a roll. The Spurs will win in six games.