Cleveland vs. Boston
Cleveland in 5 games.
This is the last stand for the Celtics’ Big Three and I believe they will begin re-tooling immediately after the Cavs spank them in 5 games. The Cavs match up exceptionally well with Boston, especially since Kevin Garnett can no longer produce a series averaging 30 points and 15 rebounds a game. Even if KG manages to play Antawn Jamison to a draw, the Celtics only have a strong advantage at one position, point guard. And unfortunately for Rajon Rondo, the Cavs big men have lots of fouls to use discouraging forays to the basket since they won’t have to worry about Boston interior scoring. Again, this is just a great matchup for Cleveland and they’ll head into their rematch with Orlando with lots of rest.
Orlando vs. Atlanta
Orlando in 6 games.
Even though I think the Hawks have the potential to knock off the Magic, both teams will head into this series expecting Orlando to win. Dwight Howard will dominate Al Horford and Zaza Pachulia (who will play big minutes because Horford will be in foul trouble all series long) down low and I expect Vince Carter to have a stellar series against fellow Tar Heel Marvin Williams. Orlando just has too many weapons for the Hawks to deal with. Much like the Celtics in the parallel Eastern series, I anticipate this being the swan song for this group of Hawks with Joe Johnson and Mike Woodson both leaving for greener pastures in the summer. Much greener than Atlanta ownership wants to provide.
Los Angeles vs. Utah
LA in 7 games.
I think the second round of the Western conference playoffs may be among the best two weeks of basketball we’ve seen for awhile. Utah and LA have strong frontlines with great depth and talent. Those groups will be close to a draw with health perhaps determining the advantage. The contrasts between the Jazz strength at point guard with Deron Williams and the Lakers dominant shooting guard, Kobe Bryant, are fascinating and may decide the series in the last minute of a few games. At the end of games, Kobe can slow D-Will down but the Jazz strong defenders will be called for fouls by violating Kobe’s arms, legs, wrist, left hand or aura. The Utah faithful will pay close attention to which referees are assigned to the games, particularly if there’s a game 7 in Staples Center. In the end, the dream of a Kobe-LeBron Finals will continue at least one more round.
Dallas vs. Phoenix
Dallas in 7 games.
I anticipate this being another classic series although I would guess there to be at least a couple blowouts and giant momentum shifts in this matchup. While the stars will almost certainly perform at high levels, I expect this series to be decided by role players. It will take big games by Leandro Barbosa, Jared Dudley, Brendan Haywood and Shawn Marion to tip the balance. Phoenix’ second tier players just aren’t as good as Dallas’. As much as I’d love to go against chalk here, I think Dallas is just enough better to put the Suns away.
Cleveland vs. Orlando
Orlando in 6 games.
Everyone thinks that the Cavs are bound for the Finals but I still think Orlando will knock them off. LeBron is the best player in the world and he has strongest supporting cast yet but I don’t think they’re strong enough to outplay the Magic. At virtually every position (besides King James of course) the Magic has an advantage. If the Cavs could send Shaq and Antawn Jamison into a time machine to 2005 things would be different but in 2010 those two simply can’t play with Dwight Howard and Rashard Lewis for a series. Although I love Shaq and appreciate the shape he’s worked himself into during his thumb injury, I expect this series to put the silly Superman debate to rest. Howard may have a couple 35-18-7 games like the ones Shaq threw up ten years ago. Combine the positional advantages with the coaching dichotomy between Mike Brown and Stan Van Gundy and I anticipate the Magic putting a dispiriting end to the LeBron era in Cleveland. (Whoops, that slipped out.)
Los Angeles vs. Dallas
Dallas in 6 games.
Dallas will defeat the Lakers largely because they have a strong team concept and can win close games. Even though Dallas does not have current team experience going deep in the playoffs, many of their individual players do. Dirk, J-Kidd, ‘The Jet’, Erick Dampier and ‘The Matrix’ all have been to the conference finals before and will expect to win this year. Rick Carlisle is one of the few coaches with zero fear of the Zen Master and Dallas won’t be rattled by bad calls or brief Kobe explosions. The Lakers, meanwhile, will be running on fumes after an intense, physical series with the Jazz. Unlike last year, when the Lakers were able to win close games against the Nuggets because of Rocky Mountain meltdowns, they’ll have to take games from the Mavericks because Dallas won’t give them any easy opportunities or second chances. Dallas will also keep Kobe from embarrassing them as he has so many times in the past. Caron Butler and Shawn Marion just won’t allow it.
Orlando vs. Dallas
Orlando in 5 games.
Yes, the Orlando Magic win their first championship after 2 previous trips to the Finals.
I think Orlando poses a horrible series of matchup problems for the Mavericks. To have any chance at all, Dallas will have to win one of the first two games in Orlando. If they manage that, the Finals may be competitive but I anticipate Orlando taking out its last year frustrations our on the Mavs. The Magic have many of the strengths that the Mavs do but with younger, more athletic players doing the same things. One of the secret Jedi mind tricks Stan Van Gundy has played very well this season is inserting a hot guy into the lineup and riding him. That means guys like Mikael Pietrus, Ryan Anderson, Marcin Gortat, Matt Barnes and JJ Redick all expect that they’ll have a chance to contribute if they play well. Rick Carlisle does not have that kind of trust in his players and the pressure on the Mavs will be horrific. This may be the last best chance for Dirk Nowitzki and Jason Kidd, two all time greats but Finals losers, to get a ring. I don’t think Brendan Haywood, JJ Barea and Roddy Beaubois will perform up to their capabilities, especially if the Magic take an early series lead.
For Dwight Howard, Vince Carter and Jameer Nelson this will be a great time to elevate their careers. Howard as a potential MVP candidate, VC as a sure fire Hall of Famer and Jameer as a legitimate All-Star player. Consider also that SVG was given the boot just before Dwyane Wade won a title for the Heat (through no fault of his own) and was embarrassed in last year’s Finals by Phil Jackson and I think the Magic will be playing their very best basketball of the year at precisely the right time.
For the second consecutive year, the Finals loser will follow up by winning the title. I don’t think that’s happened since 1988 but that’s what I’m predicting. Now let’s see where the next two months take us.