Checking Up on the NBA Playoffs

Alright, the games are set, the teams are revved up, it’s time to break down our conference finals match-ups.  Here we go:

I’m sorry, I’m being told that we don’t have our four conference finals teams yet.

Apparently Cleveland missed the memo on the whole ,”the favorite sweeps the underdog,” plan.

What’s going on with Cleveland?  Why aren’t they living up to their “top overall seed,” title?  Why on Earth did they blow two games at home against an opponent that won eleven fewer games than they did?

It’s simple:  they’ve got nothing but LeBron.  And there is something wrong with LeBron.

There are conflicting theories about what’s happening with James.  One of these theories says that he’s tanking his way out of the playoffs so he can have an excuse to ditch Cleveland.  That’s ridiculous.  LeBron doesn’t have some contract clause that says he can only leave Cleveland if they don’t win a title/make the conference finals/maintain their sense of dignity.  I simply do not buy that LeBron James would tank a series so that he can skip town.  If he wants to leave he will leave.  End of story.

Honestly I think it’s his injury.  I bet his elbow is killing him.  He worked like hell trying to carry the Cavs offensively in the first four games, and he succeeded brilliantly in games one and three.  But in two and four, he played decently, his teammates couldn’t pick up the slack and Rajon Rondo stole the show with gusto.  LeBron couldn’t do it anymore in game five.  He took about five shots in the first half and missed them all.  But he had to keep trying.  Cleveland has nothing else, and they won’t win this series if James can’t muster two terrific performances in games six and seven.

I doubt LeBron is defeated, but I wouldn’t blame him if he felt that way.  He’s carrying his team, he’s playing with an injury that’s probably much worse than he lets on, and even got booed by his own fans.  Let the record show that LeBron may have played his final home game as a Cavalier, and the Cleveland fans booed him.  I know Cavs fans are desperate for a title but don’t boo your golden boy because he can’t move mountains. You’re only gonna push him away.  If he stops caring, by all means, boo him all you want.  But he’s not giving up on his team, so you don’t have to give up on him.

I don’t know who will win this series.  If Rondo puts together another terrific game like Boston will likely win game six at home.  I think they will advance.  I don’t know for certain though.

But I’m here to say that it may not even matter.  I predict the Orlando Magic will win the East.  They’re playing better than anybody, they match up better against Boston than Cleveland does, and the Cavs will not beat Orlando four times if LeBron is hurt.  It’s not because the Magic have won eight straight.  It’s because, unlike Cleveland, they can win with or without a marquee performance from their star.  It’s because nobody in the East has figured out how to consistently stop their lethal inside-outside assault.  I’m not saying they’ll win the title, in fact I don’t think they will.  I’m saying whoever wins the West (more on that in a second), will have to prepare to face the Orlando in the finals.  They are the best in the East.

Ok now that that’s over, let’s look at the Pacific Coast.

1) Los Angeles Lakers vs 3) Phoenix Suns

I’m excited for this one.  I’m excited that the Suns finally beat the Spurs, I think they were simply due.  I’m excited that the Lakers’ brief spat with the Thunder renewed their championship spirit.  I’m excited that Ron Artest is still around to do something crazy.

But enough of that.  This series is interesting from multiple angles.  This is about Steve Nash going for a critical championship.  This is about Kobe Bryant pushing for a second consecutive title, which would give him five total and keep him shooting up the “Best Player Ever Ranking Board.”  This is about Amar’e Stoudamire fighting to earn even more money when he’s a free agent this Summer.  There is probably a little bit of residual bad blood between these two teams after facing off in back to back playoffs a couple years ago.  This is going to be fun.

But as complicated as this series looks, it’s fairly simple from a basketball perspective.  Phoenix is confident after their sweep of their arch rivals San Antonio, they spread the ball well and will put up more of a fight against LA than the Jazz did.  But the Lakers have an obvious size advantage, and Kobe Bryant should toast whoever Phoenix throws at him.  Those two advantages top anything in Phoenix’s favor.  Thus, I have to give the edge to the Lake Show.  After falling to Phoenix in consecutive years in ’06 and ’07, this time the Lakers are holding all the cards.

Verdict:  Lakers in 6

And I’ll go further.  When I wrote my first NBA playoffs column, I predicted the Cavs would win it all.  In case you missed my perhaps too negative LeBron article last week as well as the first half of this column, I’ll go on the record and say that I’m changing my prognosis.  It’s time to re-evaluate.

I already said that the Magic would win the East.  Now I’m saying that LA will win the West.  That’s a finals rematch that will be even more interesting this year, now that the Lakers are less hungry and the Magic have a completely healthy Jameer Nelson.  Back in my playoff preview, I said the the Lakers’ only weakness was a pronounced lack of motivation.  But clearly they have their champion swagger back.  So here’s my prediction:   the Lakers are going back to back.  It’s only fitting that the first team to repeat since the 2002 Lakers will be the 2010 Lakers.  Kobe knows what a second title sans Shaq will mean to his legacy.  It will put him ahead of Shaq and Duncan as the winningest star of his generation.  He know this, and he’s gonna go out and get what he wants.

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