Wednesday, April 16, 2008

NBA Eastern Conference Playoff Preview


Celtics V Hawks

The Boston Celtics endured an ugly 2006-2007 season and GM Danny Ainge sort to erase that from everyone’s memory as quickly as possible. After landing smooth shooting Ray Allen in a draft day deal, Ainges’ biggest move was yet to come, but when it did, it changed the entire landscape of the Eastern Conference. When Kevin Garnett arrived in Massachusetts, Boston was almost immediately installed as favorite to win the NBA title for 2008. As always there were doubters and snipers….could 3 guys who have always been ‘the man’ on their teams co-exist, or would ego and reputation get in the way?
The regular season went more or less to plan, and after Boston raced out to 8 straight wins, they have been in cruise control ever since. But the 07-08 regular season is now as much a memory as the 06-07 season for the Celtics and it is only what happens between now and late June to see if this marriage by Ainge is made in heaven, or a Las Vegas style elope.
The Hawks meanwhile are back in the playoffs after a 9 year absence. They are young and exciting and the addition of veteran Mike Bibby has given them an experienced leader to take some of the heat off of All-Star guard Joe Johnson. Those two combined with Josh Smith and Rookie of the year candidate Al Horford suggests that it won’t be another 9 year wait for the Hawks to make the playoffs again after this season, but unfortunately for Atlanta’s long suffering fans, this first return will only last 4 games, maybe 5.

Pistons V 76ers

Ho Hum and it’s another 50+ wins for the Detroit Pistons. They are the closest thing the East has to the San Antonio Spurs - strong, stable, professional and always, always hard to beat. While not having as much ultimate success as the Spurs, Detroit has been to last 5 Eastern Conference Finals. The only question mark regards the coach, Flip Saunders. He’s shown to be decent enough at the job during the regular season, but only so-so in the playoffs.
Detroit comes up against the surprising Philadelphia 76ers. Early on in the season it looked like the Sixers were lottery bound but behind strong play from the two Andre’s – Miller and Iguodola and quicker than you could say bye bye Billy King, Philly were back in the thick of the Eastern Conference playoff hunt. Add to that, that the season series was split 2-2, with Philadelphia winning the last two games and all of a sudden, this shapes up to be an intriguing match up.
The last two years have shown that for all Detroit’s defensive prowess, they can run into problems when faced with an outstanding individual athlete, namely Dwayne Wade or Lebron James. Andre Iguodola isn’t quite in the same class as those two just yet, but he has shown signs this season that he is ready to elevate his game. This would be the perfect platform for him to emphasize that.
I think this one will go a bit further than expected, but the Pistons will prevail in 6.

Magic V Raptors

Dwight Howard dropped the child and became just the Man this year. He has been a beast at both ends of the floor and he has had more dunks himself on the season, than some teams have had in total. The obvious comparisons in power and dominance to Shaq are there, but so too is the poor free-throw shooting and propensity to pick up early fouls. Until he can improve in these two areas, opposing teams will always have a chance against the Magic.
It is in those areas where the Raptors and Chris Bosh must focus on and attack.
After a breakthrough season in 2006-07, big things were expected in Toronto for 07-08, but after a good start, the Raptors lost their way and they now stumble into the playoffs, rather than charge in as they did a year ago. This year Toronto are a little unsure of their identity. Andrea Bargnani took a step backwards after a strong rookie campaign and TJ Ford seemed to upset one of Toronto’s strongest assets – team chemistry – when he failed to grasp his new role as back up point guard to Jose Calderon, when he returned from a nasty injury suffered in December.
Orlando however, is by no means a one man team. Hedo Turkoglu had his finest season as a pro this year and big money signing Rashard Lewis gave the Magic another veteran offensive threat. The weakness for Orlando is the inconsistency of their PG tandem in Jameer Nelson and Carlos Arroyo. When Nelson isn’t visiting Stan Van Gundy’s dog house, he is capable of running the offense well and as he matures, his visits there should be less frequent, but for now there remains a question mark on whether or not he is the long term solution for the starting PG role of this team.
If Toronto is to win this series, they will need contributions from everyone & their bench is deep. They have the offensive weapons – no doubt, but Toronto is soft defensively and allows teams too many open looks and easy points in the paint. The heart wants to say the Raptors will win, but the head overrules and says Orlando in 6.

Cleveland V Washington

These two teams face each other for the third time in 3 years, with Cleveland winning both previous meetings. Last year Washington was missing both Gilbert Arenas and Caron Butler and Cleveland swept by them easily in 4 games. This year promises to be different however, as Washington are back and this time, they are healthy.
Arenas returned to the Wizards’ lineup a couple of weeks ago after missing most of the season with the same injury which kept him out of last years series. He has shown that his ego is operating at full strength already even if his knee isn’t just yet. In Caron Butler & Antawn Jamison, Washington has two reliable veterans which will provide match up problems for the Cavs, and Brendan Haywood is also coming off a career year.
Cleveland made its biggest move of the season at the trade deadline, shipping out Drew Gooden and Larry Hughes and bringing in Delonte West, sharpshooter Wally Szczerbiak and Big Man Ben Wallace. The difference though has been negligible and Cleveland will live or die by Lebron James. James’ heroics in game 5 of last years Conference Finals game in Detroit showed that come playoff time, with the eyes of the basketball world watching, he can turn in Jordan-esq performances. This year, he’ll look to build further on his young legacy and he’ll get the Cavs past Washington in 6 games.

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