First, some accountability on my first round predictions. Right now I’m technically five out of seven with the Celts-Hawks still incredibly yet to be determined, but I’d rather not be that simplistic–the devil (and angel) is in the details. For example, if the Celtics do prevail, I’ll have been "right" in my pick of Boston, but like most everyone else I was apparently foolish (and wrong) to automatically discount Atlanta and call for just a five game series. Ditto Detroit and Philadelphia: I called a Pistons sweep, and although the Sixers didn’t really elevate their play in the postseason, Detroit’s overconfidence and lethargy gave a couple away.
Where else was I wrong? Well, I had the Wizards over the Cavs in 6 and the Rockets over the Jazz in 7. The first one was flat-out bad prognostication, although I did correctly point out that the injection of Gilbert Arenas into the mix would ultimately hurt Washington at least as much as it would help them. The Utah-Houston series, as I’ve said before, was a sentimental pick for the Yao-less Rockets, with an acknowledgment that Utah was capable of taking it in 5 (they won in 6). I enjoyed cheering on Houston, and don’t mind the inaccuracy here. But inaccurate it was, and you bet I would have strutted if the Rockets had prevailed.
On the plus side, I was right to be baffled by the pundits mostly going for Dallas and Phoenix despite their lack of home court advantage and, not coincidentally, their ill-advised trades for stars long past their primes. I gave Steve Nash and Phoenix too much credit–and, despite being a huge fan of their grit when it counts, too little credit to the Spurs–in predicting a full 7-game set. But of all the series, I had the Hornets-Mavs sussed perfectly, nailing the length and tenor of the 5-game blowout. That leaves Orlando-Toronto and LA-Denver, two series I mostly had right, calling the victor and being just a little opmistic about how many tilts the loser would take.
Things get a lot tougher to call here in the second round, especially after the desultory showings by the Celts and Pistons and the better-than-expected peformances by the Magic and Cavs. There’s really only one series I am pretty confident about, and even that one may go 6 or 7 games. And that’s where we’ll begin.
Utah (5) vs. L.A. Lakers (1)
Pivotal Points: Has Ronnie Brewer progressed enough during the season to be even halfway able to deter Kobe? Mehmet Okur and Andrei Kirilenko both played way over the heads vs. Houston–Okur on the boards, AK-47 via shooting. These three members of Utah’s starting five are crucial, because the Lakers won three of four during the season–including a March win at Utah without either Gasol or Bynum–by letting Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer essentially get theirs on offense but outscoring the Jazz anyway. How chippy will these games get: Utah fouls more (and perhaps harder) than any team in the league and the Lakers move the ball so well that we’re apt to see some nasty collisions. How will the Lakers–especially Lamar Odom–fare under pressure, something they never really faced vs. Denver?
My guesses: Williams and Kobe are going to have huge series, as there’s nobody to stop them on the opposing side. Kobe’s presence really hurts Utah’s ability to use Kyle Korver, a huge minus for the Jazz. In their own way, this is the Lakers’ reprise of Showtime and Utah needs to muck it up with Harpring, Milsapp and their other bruisers, then hope Williams can carry them in the clutch. An uptempo pace favors LA and the forwards are vital: Gasol and Odom are suspected for being soft and a bit of a choker, respectively. If they can hold their own in the paint at both ends, Utah is in serious trouble. It will be interesting to see how Phil Jackson guards Okur: If he’s still on a roll, I’d think about Odom, or even Luke Walton, guarding him outside to deter the trey and to react with alacrity on the pick and rolls. Bringing Gasol out plays into Utah’s hands.
My pick: A lot of people are on the Jazz bandwagon but I just can’t see it, especially against this large, quick, Lakers team. LA in 5 or 6.
Orlando (3) vs. Detroit (2)
Pivotal Points: Can Rasheed Wallace keep his cool enough to help neutralize Dwight Howard? Will he work in the paint and eschew the trey enough to perhaps get Howard in foul trouble? Will we see hack-a-Howard near the end of quarters in close games? Did Chauncey Billups just go through a bad patch vs. Philly or is he past his peak? Can the Pistons keep their focus through a semi-tough series? How much will Flip Saunders utilize his depth?
My guesses: The Magic has no good matchup for Billups–Jameer Nelson and Keyon Dooling lack size and grit and Carlos Arroyo barely played vs. Toronto–but something about Billups looks funky lately and I don’t think he’s ready to take full advantage. Keith Bogans had much better luck guarding Rip Hamilton in the regular season than did starter Maurice Evans, so expect a quick hook there by Stan Van Gundy. Rashard Lewis and Hedo Turkoglu both had great passing series vs. Toronto and could create open treys if Detroit (necessarily) gets too preoccupied with Howard down low. Saunders has got to use his bench, especially Maxiell and Ratliff to help on Howard, and go with Stuckey to spell Billups. The evidence is that Detroit was scared straight by the losses to Philly and are ready to reassert. If they win both games in Detroit to start the series they could indeed roll. I think they’re ripe for an upset, but a couple stats hold me back: Detroit was second in the NBA in opposing 3pt shooting %, negating an Orlando strength. And Orlando had more turnovers than assists this season–not a good sign against a Pistons defense that can plays well together when the going gets tough.
My Pick: Detroit in 7.
San Antonio (3) vs. New Orleans (2)
Pivotal Points: Will this fulfill its potential as one of the greatest second-round playoff series of all time? The refs are absolutely crucial because the Spurs pound the paint and the dropoff from Tyson Chandler to Hilton Armstrong is precipitous. If Chandler defends the rim without whistles it’s huge nod to the Hornets–and foul trouble for the big man means curtains for New Orleans. Can Jannero Pargo, a poor man’s Ginobili in the Dallas series, match up with Manu, because MoPete or Bonzie Wells ain’t gonna get it done. Can Bruce Bowen prevent Peja from getting open looks? How will Pops play West and Chandler with Duncan and Thomas/Oberto?
My guesses: Neither Chris Paul nor Tony Parker will be as dominant as in round one–but they’ll still put on a hell of a show. The Spurs’ Boy Who Cried Wolf foul protestations will slowly but surely start to penalize them with the refs, but Chandler will still get in foul trouble at least one or two games. I absolutely love the way both of these teams play and am rooting less for one or the other than for both to perform up to their potential. If that happens, I think it comes down to veteran poise and crunchtime experience–don’t be surprised if Finley/Horry/Barry stick a dagger in at some point during the proceedings. For all the talk about Jason Kidd and Shaq, the Kurt Thomas pickup is second only to Gasol among contenders this season, and his ability to keep Duncan fresh and on the court, plus my ongoing belief that you don’t bet against the Spurs until you see that stake through their hearts, has me leaning toward the Spurs. But forcing them to win it in a Game Seven in the Big not so Easy would be extra sweet.
My pick: San Antonio in 6 or 7.
Cleveland (4) vs. Boston (1) [or Atlanta (8)]
Pivotal Points: Is the luster off the Celtics’ confidence or
is getting the stodgy Cavs after the uber-athletic Hawks all the elixir they need to reassert their primacy over the East? Uh, who the hell guards Lebron James; Mr. Posey, it is time for your super-closeup. Now that Doc Rivers has totally screwed up his rotation by deep-sixing Eddie House and Tony Allen while elevating the aged Sam Cassell, can Sam I Am at least hit some of those shots he clanked and then stupidly eschewed in the Atlanta series (because House would have made them)? Is Kevin Garnett finally ready to put all those whispers to rest and go at a past-his-prime Ben Wallace, or will he continue to get 22-10-7 and hurt his team with selflessness in crunchtime? Last but not least, what has happened to Ray Allen?
My guesses: The Celtics will need to play really well–with much, much more poise and skill than vs. Atlanta–to pull this out in 6 or 7. LeBron is going to win at least one game all by himself and I think Z Ilgauskas, Wallace and Joe Smith in the paint plus Szczerbiak and Booby Gibson spotting up outside makes the Cavs dangerous on the offensive end and complements to the triple-teamed James. For the Celts to win, their erstwhile relentless D, led by KG and Rondo, need to create turnovers and transition baskets, plus Pierce and Allen need to compensate for their mediocre D (in Allen’s case make that horrible D) by proving they are indeed crunchtime stars. That will spread the floor enough for Garnett to work in the paint. But as a confirmed KG-lover I admit I’m rattled by what I’ve seen from this Beantown squad in the first round. It wouldn’t surprise me if both the Celts and the Pistons went down. I resisted the Pistons upset, but Detroit isn’t playing against the best player on the planet.
My Pick: Cleveland in 6 or 7.