The Wizards' first dribble to the hoops trophy... hopefully
Rejoice, Washington area basketball fans! For the first time in eons, the playoffs are coming to town. Of course, the playoff thirst isn't going to be quenched until the Wizards win the championship, but it's definitely a step. Hey, if a few dominoes fall our way, we could even win it this year. Here's a peek at the first round of the playoffs, plotting out the course for what will hopefully be a good stab at the championship.
Washington vs. Chicago
The series no one foresaw in the beginning of the season has actually come into a reality in the National Basketball Association (NBA) Eastern Conference. The Chicago "Baby" Bulls lost their first nine games of the season and most everyone thought that this year would continue the trend of their last few abysmal seasons. Meanwhile, the Wizards have always been destined to lose. While the Bulls were dominant during the 1990s, the Wizards have not won an NBA championship since 1978 and further have not made the playoffs since the 1997-1998 season, eight years ago.
The similarity between these two squads is their young age, thus giving the management the opportunity to keep the cores intact. The Baby Bulls are built on surprising young talent. One of the leading candidates for Rookie of the Year Ben Gordon has come in and transformed this team. Gordon has given them the energy, scoring and whatever the team lacks. Another first year player, Luol Deng from Duke, has given Chicago nearly 12 points of scoring a night. Second year point guard Kirk Hinrich has been a team player, averaging 6.4 assists a game, improving the rest of the team. Supposed phenom, Eddie Curry, who has somewhat evolved into what he was supposed to, averages 16 points and 5.4 rebounds a game.
Unfortunately for the Bulls, injuries have come at a costly time. The losses of Curry and Deng against the Wizards will hurt the Bulls' inside presence, causing them to lose nearly 30 points and ten rebounds from their starting outputs. On the other hand, Washington has been injury plagued during the regular season but their roster has come together before the postseason.
Larry Hughes and Antawn Jamison, who have both missed stretches, are now at 100 percent. Gilbert Arenas, Hughes, and Jamison make the best trio in the entire league because each can elevate their game to a new level. The three are averaging a combined 67 points, 18.5 rebounds and 12 assists. The oldest of these players is Jamison at merely 28, which gives the Wizards more time with this core. The rest of the bunch has talented role players such as former Maryland stars Juan Dixon and Steve Blake, big man Brendan Haywood and Jared Jeffries. Kwame Brown, the former first overall pick from high school, has become revitalized towards the end of the season with more playing time.
The Wizards hold the edge in the season series, two games to one, the most recent coming on April 13th where the Wizards dominated winning 92-82. The home court edge goes out to the Bulls because of their better regular season record but the Wizards will fight on the road. My prediction is for the Wizards to win in six because of their playoff tested coach, Eddie Jordan, who was the assistant coach with the New Jersey Nets during their Eastern Conference Championship runs. Their trio will persevere and lead them to success, at least in the first round.
Miami vs. New Jersey
At the beginning of the season, with Jason Kidd hurt and Kenyon Martin traded, the New Jersey Nets were given the presumed title of "cellar dwellers." When Jason Kidd returned and Richard Jefferson went out for the season, the gloom surrounding the team simply increased. It seemed that Kidd was simply playing to audition for other teams in the hopes of being traded. And then Vince Carter came. Ever since the Nets traded for VC, they have been on a tear and have scrambled back into the playoffs. Title hopes are unrealistic, but it is a step towards returning to being a contender. Unfortunately for them, they face the Miami Heat, who, with the addition of Shaq and the emergence of Dwyane Wade, are gunning for the top and only the top. The Miami Heat will win in four. When playing against Shaq, every team needs an inside presence, even if it's just to slow him down a bit or get a hand somewhere nearby, maybe to distract him. Unfortunately for the Nets, they have no semblance of an inside presence, and a team that got steamrolled by the Lakers with the trio of Kidd, Martin and Jefferson will have to take on the task with just Kidd and Carter instead. Particularly because the Heat will be hoping to buy some resting time for stud guard Dwyane Wade and Shaq, both of whom are still saddled by nagging injuries, the Heat will be looking to end it as soon as possible. It will be difficult for the Nets' duo to keep up with the Heats' duo as well as the sweet-shooting role players that surround them (Eddie Jones, Udonis Haslem and Rasual Butler). Even if Richard Jefferson somehow makes it back, it will be quite a feat for the Nets to take even one game.
Detroit vs. Philadelphia
The defending champions started off sluggish in the regular season, but certainly ended with on a high note with a bang. Of course, that's before Rip Hamilton and Rasheed Wallace went down. They're slated to be back for the playoffs, which should mean good things for this team. Philadelphia is going to try to attack with the one-and-a-half-headed beast of Allen Iverson and Chris Webber, but it would not be surprising to see Webber pummeled by the two Wallaces. The burden will fall upon Allen Iverson once again, but it is difficult to imagine him being able to outplay the combination of Rip Hamilton and Chauncey Billups, even with his newfound penchance to rack up assists. The Sixers have a chance, if Webber and Dalembert can control a chunk of the paint (they don't even need to try to dominate, they just need to pull Tayshaun Prince down), because the Sixers have a fairly good ranged attack in AI and Kyle Korver. Unfortunately for them, it's hard to imagine a hobbled Webber and a foul-prone Dalembert being able to challenge one of the toughest inside rotations in the league (the Wallaces are backed up by Antonio McDyess, Elden Campbell and a slowly maturing Darko Milicic). The defending champs in five, as the Sixers will manage to steal one away when Kyle Korver becomes red hot.
Indiana vs. Boston
Anthony Johnson vs. The Glove. So what if Gary Payton's lost a step or two over the years, there's no reason to believe that he won't be able to take Johnson to school.
This is a bad match up. Miller has been almost single-handedly keeping the Pacers alive after the brawl in Detroit and he's really having a great season to end his career, averaging around 15 points per game, while Tony Allen is pretty much a role-player.
The forwards are the strength of both of these teams and this really will be the key to the series. If Jermaine O'Neal, Austin Croshere and Stephen Jackson can outplay Antoine Walker, Paul Pierce and Al Jefferson by keeping them from scoring too many buckets and limiting their second chance opportunities, Indianapolis stand a good chance of stealing a game or two away from the Celtics. Otherwise, it'll be a quick and very painful death for Miller and the Pacers
Really, there's no competition at center; Raef LaFrentz and Mark Blount should be able to bull their way past Dale Davis and Jeff Foster. They'll also play off their men a bit and help out against O'Neal.
Both teams have good, deep benches that can give some quality minutes their respective teams, but the fact is that Jamaal Tinsley and Ron Artest, two of the Pacers best players, are unavailable. Rick Carlisle is a great coach, but ultimately there's only so much he can do to make his team better.
This is going to be pretty much a cakewalk for Boston. I expect Miller to pull a game out of thin air, but this'll really come down to whoever can get more support out of the team, and while Reggie is one of the all-time greats, he can't overcome Boston's firepower alone.
Boston in five.
Memphis vs. Phoenix
The Memphis Grizzlies backed into the playoffs in a major way, sliding down the Western Conference standings by losing their final four games by a combined 60 points. Luckily for them Minnesota lost to the Hawks near the end and the Grizz finished one game ahead to earn the final spot in the West and the right to get blown out by the Phoenix Suns. Those Suns finished 62-20, the best record in the NBA this season, and they have a very real chance to win the NBA Title. Phoenix averaged over 109 points per game this year and Memphis' only chance to pull an upset in this series will be if they slow down the Suns' attack. While the Grizzlies allowed only 91.9 points per game this season, they scored 16 points per game less than the Suns did this year. Steve Nash, the NBA leader in assists, should break through the Memphis D by getting the ball into Shawn Marion and Amare Stoudemire, players for which the Grizzlies have no defensive match. Memphis' burden will be on point guard Jason Williams to match Nash, and feed into Lorenzen Wright, Pau Gasol and Mike Miller, and on coach Mike Fratello to utilize his deep bench and wear out the Suns. The Grizz are the only NBA franchise never to win a playoff game, and while they will get at least one win in the series, Phoenix will win in five games over Memphis.
Denver vs. San Antonio
The first round of the NBA playoffs are here, and they open with a bang as Carmelo Anthony and the resurgent Nuggets take on Tim Duncan's Spurs.
Both Andre Miller and Tony Parker average around fourteen points a game. Miller has an edge on Parker in terms of assists and steals, but Parker always seems to play a bit better in the playoffs. With that in mind, I'll say that the PG matchup is pretty much even.
Is SG even a competition? There's no comparing Demarr Johnson to Manu Ginobili.
Denver's group of forwards is obviously more athletic than San Antonio's, but the Spurs have playoff experience and great defense to go along with their clutch shooting. Duncan isn't one hundred percent right now and the Nuggets might be able to capitalize on his injury by turning the game into a track meet. K-Mart and Melo have finally hit their strides and look dominant, but don't bet against the Big Fundamental and Bruce Bowen's stifling D.
With the Spurs Rasho Nesterovic injured, Nazr Mohammed and Tony Massenburg need to step up and slow down Marcus Camby. Massenburg and Mohammed outweigh Marcus Camby and Nene by a lot, so expect them to get physical with the Denver centers down beneath the rim.
Both teams have good, deep benches that can give some quality minutes to George Karl and Greg Popovich. Karl's bench has Earl Boykins and Voshon Lenard, the dangerous sharpshooter, coming back from the injured list. Popovich counters with Brent Barry and Glenn Robinson. The one advantage that Popvich's bench has is playoff experience, and against a young team like Denver, that can count for a lot.
This is going to be one heck of a series. Nobody really wants to play these teams, especially now that Denver has had such a great record since the All-Star Break. I expect the series to go to at least six games with San Antonio pulling out the W in the end.
San Antonio in six
Sacramento vs. Seattle
The Sonics came out of the gate strong, but they fizzled in April, going 3-8. Still, their lead was so big and the Northwest Division so big that they clinched the division title and the third seed in the West anyway. But they lucked out big time, because they will face a Sacramento lineup where Brad Miller, Peja Stojakovic and Bobby Jackson are suffering from injuries. They all will likely play much of the series, but if any of their injuries are serious, the Kings could have no shot at winning. Sacramento's MO will have to be defending Ray Allen, one of the best shooters in the league. When you toss in Rashard Lewis, Luke Ridnour and Vlad Radmanovic, and the Sonics have too much talent for Sacramento. If the Kings are to have a shot at winning this series, they'll need the aforementioned injured players to be healthy, and sharp shooting from Cuttino Mobley and Mike Bibby, who averaged over 33 points per game together in Sacramento. The shooting is critical because the Kings have nobody inside other than Miller, who can rebound. Bibby and Mobley playing strong is not out of the realm of possibility, but bet on the Sonics emerging in six games with the series win.
Houston vs. Dallas
As been the trend the last few years, all three Texas basketball teams are among the top eight teams in the Western Conference. At the end of this series, one of them is sure to be packing their bags. The Dallas Mavericks and Houston Rockets both won over 50 games, which would put them among the best teams in the Eastern Conference but instead own the fourth and fifth seeds in the West, respectively.
The Mavericks still fit the mold of their flashy offense but no defense even after the loss of Steve Nash. However with Don Nelson's coaching tenure with the Mavs over, Avery Johnson has brought some defensive principles to this team. Regardless, the team has the potential to score in bunches. Dirk Nowitzki is leading this team with 26.1 points a game along with 9.7 rebounds. Michael Finley's numbers have been declining for five years as he is posting 16 points and nearly five rebounds. However, there is no need for concern as Finley averages 19.2 points in the postseason. Jerry Stackhouse, Keith Van Horn and Jason Terry have been posting decent numbers to help the Mavs who won 58 games this season.
While the Mavericks having their scoring distributed over the entire team, the Houston Rockets have Tracy McGrady, one of the best, if not the best, scorer in the league. This is a man who once scored 13 points in 35 seconds. His numbers, 25.7 points, 6.2 boards and 5.7 assists, are not as high as they were during his stint with Orlando because of the strength of the rest of the Rockets. McGrady can utilize Houston's other stars, Yao Ming and David Wesley. However, if the Rockets need to score to keep pace with Dallas, the ball will be in the scorer's hands.
I will predict the upset in this competitive matchup with the Rockets winning in seven. The Rockets have the more experienced coach, Jeff Van Gundy, while the Mavericks are led by rookie coach Johnson. Van Gundy has experienced postseason success before and is likely to lead his Rockets past the first round.
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