Now that the college madness is over, the real basketball begins
The playoffs are once again upon us, the culmination of six months of games, controversies, trades and record-breaking feats. This year's ensemble of playoff teams includes some familiar faces as well as some names that we haven't seen in a while (Clippers? Bucks?). Expect exciting play from the league's best players, a few surprises and plenty of highlights.
Washington Wizards vs. Cleveland Cavaliers
Keys for Washington: The Washington Wizards will have one of the toughest defensive assignments in the first round: containing 21 year-old phenom LeBron James. The 6-8 forward averages 31 points per game and nearly 7 assists per game, generating almost half of his team's offense. James is deadly off the dribble so Washington should force him to take long jumpers rather than getting to the lane, where he will almost always score, get fouled or worse, do both. The momentous task of guarding James will most likely fall to Wizard's forwards Jared Jeffries and Caron Butler. The duo helped limit LeBron's output to an average of only 20 points in the previous three meetings between the teams, all of which were Washington wins.
Cavaliers Keys: Wizards point guard Gilbert Arenas can be just as dangerous as LeBron James and though he has gotten less publicity thsn the high-flying, human highlight reel, he is capable of quietly taking over a game, hence the self-imposed nickname "the silent assassin." Eric Snow, Larry Hughes and Damon Jones will be covering Arenas for the majority of the series, but they'll also have to bolster up their defense on the rest of the "big three." Comprised of Caron Butler, Arenas and Antwan Jamison, the "big three" combine to score 67 points per game, tops in the NBA. For the Cavs, the key to the game will be to limit Gilbert Arenas' trips to the free-throw line (he averages over ten trips to the line per game) and to slow the game down, forcing the Wizards to abandon their run-and-gun offense.
X factor: The Wizards' X Factor is Jared Jeffries, the man who the Wiz will rely on to guard James. Jeffries has consistently been Washington's best defender and often guards opposing teams' best player, ranging from guard to center. If Jeffries disrupts James and doesn't get into foul trouble, the Wizards will cruise through the first round.
X factor: For the Cavs, the X factor is not particularly any one player, but rather whether or not their lack of playoff experience will show in their play.
Final Word: The Wizards have been the unsung team in the Eastern Conference, and Gilber Arenas has been their unsung hero. The Wizards also have two other players capable of dropping 30 points on any given night, which is an attribute not many other teams can boast. The Wizards depth, and cohesion at the end of an inconsistent season will win games for the Wizards in this first-round match up. Bottom line: Wiz in six.
Chicago vs. Miami
Keys for the Heat: The real key for the Heat, as in most of their series, is to keep Shaquille O'Neal involved. Even though he doesn't possess quite the mobility he did in his Lakers days, he still will be the best big man on the floor. If he takes 20-30 touches inside every game, this series will be over in four.
Keys for the Bulls: Contain Dwayne Wade, if at all possible, and slow down Shaq. The two players make or break the Heat. If the Bulls can force the rest of the team to take the majority of the shots, they'll have a chance. If not, they'll have an early exit for the second straight year.
X-factors: Miami will need to keep Shaq appeased but the game will really swing on Dwayne Wade's ability to get to the rim, getting the Bulls into foul trouble and scoring easy points in the paint.
Chicago's chances ride on the consistency of their young star, Ben Gordon. After leading the team in scoring, his real test will be his ability to get buckets in key situations. For the Bulls to pull out any last-second victories, he will be the key.
Prediction: Heat overwhelm the "Baby Bulls" with superior talent and advance in four games. Heat in four.
Detroit vs. Milwaukee
Keys for the Pistons: The Pistons remain the team to beat in the East. They have been here before and know what they need to do. The one way to beat Detroit is by forcing them into a one-dimensional shooting offense. If they keep putting up points in the paint they'll march through the first round.
Keys for the Bucks: Crash the boards! To keep up with the Pistons, the Bucks are going to have to prevent them from getting easy second chance points. Every time the ball fly towards the basket Milwaukee must account for Ben Wallace and Tayshaun Prince and if they neglect this duty, this series may already be over.
X factors: T.J. Ford isn't the best player on his team, but he might be the most valuable. His ability to control the offense and find the open man will make or break the Bucks chance at a series win.
Through the Pistons strength lies in their balance, they still depend on Chauncey Billups to shoot the three and maintain the tempo. His long range shooting may put this series out of reach.
Final Word: Pistons will dominate Milwaukee from start to finish and with superior shooting and teamwork will send the Bucks home with their tails between their legs. Pistons in four.
Nets vs. Pacers
Keys for the Nets: Drain the threes. The Nets roared into the playoffs as one of the hottest teams in the league winning 17 of their last 20. Over this stretch they have out rebounded and controlled the paint against the majority of their opponents, but their ability to consistently score from downtown will determine their playoff performance.
Keys for the Pacers: Contain Vince Carter. The Pacers have the presence inside, the balance on offense, and the intensity to get far into the tournament, but the one thing they are truly lacking is a defensive stopper. Stojakovic has been a real presence on the Pacers, but he isn't the defensive minded player Ron Artest used to be. To fill this void the rest of the team needs to step up and play strong defense to stop this prolific scorer.
X-factors: Nenad Krstic's presence inside will determine the success of the Pacers. This young center will be primarily responsible for covering All-Star Jermaine O'Neil. If Kristic can shut him down, the Nets will have a clear advantage.
Peja Stojakovic's first playoff appearance with the Pace may be one of his most important. His scoring from three will be sorely needed to help make up for the lack of Jamal Tinsley.
Final Word: The Nets keep rolling on the hot hand of Carter and the defensive power of Krstic. Nets in five.
Sacramento Kings vs. San Antonio Spurs
Keys for Sacramento: Stop Tony Parker. If the Kings can strap up Tony Parker, they'll stop the Spurs attack at its prime. Without their most creative player producing and getting everyone involved the Kings will have a much better shot at taking out the defending champs.
Keys for San Antonio: Get Tim Duncan the ball. The Big Fundamental has been banged up and hasn't had the offensive statistics we're used to seeing out of him. If he can step up and have a big game, the Spurs will win.
X-Factor: Ron Artest. The man is an angry ball of rage liable to explode at any moment. Then again, he's also the key to the Kings' chances in this series. Artest, who has already predicted his team to beat the Spurs and win the NBA Championship, walks the fine line between a team-leading star player and a vicious, scary crybaby.
Final Word: The Spurs are too consistent and wear down the streaky Kings in five games. Spurs in five.
Denver Nuggets vs. LA Clippers
Keys for Denver: Contain Elton Brand. The Nuggets don't have a strong inside presence, but if they can wear Brand out and make him earn his points at the free throw line, they'll improve their chances. If the Nuggets can hold Brand under 20 points the Clippers won't have enough firepower to beat them.
Keys for Los Angeles: Get Cuttino Mobely involved. When Mobely is in the game and providing some points from behind the arc, the Clippers are a completely different team. With a deep threat complementing the inside and midrange games of Elton Brand and Sam Cassell, the Clippers can upset most defenses for open shots.
X-Factor: Sam Cassell. The Clippers point guard is the most experienced player in this series in terms of the playoffs, and Sammy has the tenacity, court vision and savvy to help L.A. past the Nuggets. But if Denver can get Cassell of his game and he starts the series off shooting poorly, the Clips can say goodbye to their hopes of a playoff run.
Final Word: The Clippers (yeah, the Clippers!) get the ultimate satisfaction of a playoff series win. Clippers in six.
LA Lakers vs. Phoenix Suns
Keys for Los Angeles: Kobe, Kobe, Kobe. The most important thing for the Lakers is to get the ball to their best player, and for him to deliver big. Kobe Bryant is that man, and with three-time championship experience, he will look to tear apart a Suns defense that may not have a player that can stop him one-on-one.
Keys for Phoenix: For the Suns to win this series, in each game they will have to win the rebounding battle, control the tempo of the game and knock down their shots from three-point land. Indeed, Shawn Marion may turn out to be the most influential player in this series — he can rebound, handle the ball and stroke the three.
X-Factor: Suns' defense. Phoenix's defense has been up-and-down this year, and with their run-and-gun style of play, they can give up upwards of 100 points in a game. It's all about questions for the Suns D: Can they stop Kobe? Can they contain the triangle offense? Can they beat Phil Jackson at his mind games? Can they control the tempo of the game?
Final Word: The Suns' experience — and a fella named Steve Nash — send the Kobester, Dr. Phil and their friends home early. Suns in six.
Memphis Grizzlies vs. Dallas Mavericks
Keys for Memphis: Get at Dirk. If the Grizzlies can put Nowitzki on the bench with foul trouble, the Mavericks will have trouble scoring points. The Grizzlies need to attack the paint and get the ball to their bigs, most importantly Pau Gasol. If he can sit Dirk down, the Grizzlies will win.
Keys for Dallas: Feed their star. Nowitzki didn't make himself into an MVP candidate this season by sitting in the background and handing the ball off on offense. He needs to touch the ball, especially since the Grizzlies don't have anyone that can match his combination of height and quickness.
X-Factor: Josh Howard. The Mavericks' glue is both their best defender and vocal leader. If Howard can inspire the rest of his team to play solid defense for 48 minutes, the Mavericks will breeze through the series. If Dallas plays their patented swiss-cheese defense, they turn into a very beatable team.
Final Word: Nowitzki carries the Mavs on offense and Howard leads them on defense into the second round. Mavericks in six.
Phillip Allen. Phillip Allen is a CAP junior who basically is a fascinating kid. Though he possesses little writing ability he was accepted to both the Communication Arts Program and now Silver Chips Online. He follows the Washington Redskins, Wizards and Nationals religiously. He plays soccer (for ... More »
Ethan Kuhnhenn. Ethan Kuhnhenn is a junior in the Communication Arts program and is entering his first year as a SCO staff member. When he's not fishing in his new bass boat, you can probably find him at Taco Bell chilling with his best friend, the cheesy ... More »
Josh Zipin. Josh Zipin has trouble paying attention for more than three seconds at a time... More »