Twenty minutes until my favorite sporting event of the year kicks off, so I had best hurry up and get my NBA playoff picks in order. Even the dismal news about McDyess’s third knee surgery can’t ruin this day’s excitement. (On a side note, did anyone else find it fitting that our final image of Michael Jordan was at the free throw line? Back in his heyday, he basically lived there, with the refs sending him to the line every time another player dared to breathe wrong on His Airness.) At any rate, here goes:
The (L)East – First Round: In previous seasons, I’ve gotten annoyed by people hating on the caliber of the East. But this year I have to admit, all the real action is in the West. That being said…
Detroit Pistons v. Orlando Magic: Despite their stellar D anchored by Big Ben Wallace, I really don’t think the Pistons have the offense to go all the way to the Finals. That being said, I’m pretty sure they’ll get past the Magic, despite what is sure to be crazy numbers by Tracy McGrady, the scoring leader this year. With a little luck, T-Mac could’ve carried Orlando through in a five-game series. But now that the league has gone back to seven games in the first round, there’s less room for upsets. Pistons in five.
New Jersey Nets vs. Milwaukee Bucks: Probably the most exciting matchup in the East. Two up-tempo, no-D-playing squads led by the two best point guards in the league, Gary Payton and Jason Kidd. I could see this one going either way, but I’ll give it to New Jersey – the Bucks just haven’t been playing that well since acquiring the Glove, and in any type of playoff situation, the safe bet is always against George Karl. Nets in six.
Indiana Pacers vs. Boston Celtics: Ho-hum. With the loss of Rodney Rogers and Kenny A and the pickup of Vin Baker (a trade that was Knicks-like in its wrongheadedness), this Celtic unit is worse than the 2002 version. But the young Pacers make a lot of bad decisions, and I haven’t seen them play to their potential in months. I have a feeling this’ll be an ugly series (turnover, ‘Toine jacks a 3, turnover, Pierce jacks a 3, etc.), but Indiana’s inside game trumps Boston’s threeball assault. Pacers in six.
Philadelphia 76ers vs. New Orleans Hornets: I’ve become an Allan Iverson believer ever since catching the Kings-Sixers game earlier this month – in a game filled with talent (at least on the Kings side), AI was the speediest, most dominant player on the floor. With the occasional exception of Keith Van Horn, the rest of the 76′ers are scrubs, but I think AI will get his team through the first round, particularly as Jamal Mashburn has a history of fading in the clutch. Sixers in five.
The West – First Round: Now here’s where the real excitement is, with the top 5-6 teams in the league all vying for the same spot in the Finals…
San Antonio Spurs vs. Phoenix Suns: Even though the Suns won the season series, I just don’t see Phoenix having much of a chance if Tim Duncan is on the floor for the Spurs. And, while he’s definitely better than Tony Parker, I’m still not sold on Stephon Marbury being much of a floor leader. It’ll be fun to see rookie Amare Stoudamire do his thing in the playoffs, but, frankly, experience wins championships. Spurs in five.
Sacramento Kings vs. Utah Jazz: Stockton-to-Malone might’ve worked against the Timberwolves, but even then I doubt it. While the Lakers have the dynasty mojo working for them, the Kings are the most unselfish, talented, and exciting team in the league, and I for one think they’re going all the way this year. While Stockton and Malone’s durability is undeniably impressive, I have a feeling they’re going to look their age this series. Kings in four.
Dallas Mavericks vs. Portland Trailblazers: As I said before, the seven-game first round is going to cut down greatly on the freak upsets. That being said, I think this one is a tossup. Whatever their record, Dallas has proven time and time again that, despite their enormous reservoir of talent, they’re a choke-artist team. Only Nick Van Exel can be said to be truly clutch, and only he, Eduardo Najera, and Michael Finley have the ability to shut down their man. And given the media circus surrounding the “Jailblazers,” I think Portland’s going to come out with something to prove, particularly as they’ve finally drawn somebody else other than the Lakers in the first round. (LA has owned them ever since that Game 7 fourth quarter meltdown in 2000…the one where Shaq brutalized Steve Smith in the lane while the refs sucked on their whistles, but I digress.) Portland in seven.
Minnesota Timberwolves vs. Los Angeles Lakers. It’s the Minnesota Bowl as the Lake Show returns to their former home. Everyone thinks the T-Wolves are already dead in the water against the three-time champions, but I think they’ll hang tougher than anyone suspects. Sure, Shaq and Kobe present match-up problems, but so does KG, who deserves MVP for the way he’s put this team on his back this year. In fact, I’d almost like to pick Minnesota to get past the Lakers, but Shaq is still the most unstoppable player in the league, and – much to everyone else’s dismay – he gets better every year. (As for Kobe, I think the only difference between Kobe and a player like Ray Allen is that Kobe plays on Shaq’s team. I’d make a lot of shots too if I had that kind of force in the paint erasing my mistakes. But I know most people disagree with me on this front.) At any rate, the world is waiting for the Sacramento-LA rematch. LA in seven.
The Rest of the Story:
Detroit vs. Philadelphia: This is where Detroit’s suspect offense starts getting them in trouble. Sure, Ben Wallace is a force in the paint, but the Answer is quick and wily enough to cause him trouble. Philly in six.
New Jersey vs. Indiana: As I said before, the Pacers are talented enough, but they’re also young and uneven. Reggie will come up big in at least one game, as is his wont, but in the end Captain Kidd will lead his team safely through the straits of peril. New Jersey in seven.
San Antonio vs. Los Angeles: I for one think the Spurs are a boring team to watch, and they’ve been folding against the Lakers ever since they swept them in their 1999 title run (against the, sigh, Knicks). So, having dodged the Minnesota bullet, I say the Lakers get past San Antonio relatively easily. Besides, the league wants Sacramento-LA, and will be calling the games accordingly. Lakers in six.
Sacramento vs. Portland: It’ll be an exciting series, but Portland has already overachieved and shut up the naysayers. As I noted earlier, Portland has their own LA demons to exorcise, but the Kings not only are a better team, they want it more. Sacramento in five.
East Finals: Philly vs. New Jersey. AI will battle mightily, but the rest of his team are going to drag him down. New Jersey in six.
West Finals: Sacramento vs. Los Angeles. It’s the main event. The Kings have been building to this point for awhile, and they already went to a Game 7 OT against the Lakers last year. (In fact, take away either Horry’s miracle shot in Game 4 or the suspect officiating in Game 6 and the Kings already have a ring.) The Lakers won’t give up the title easily, but it’s the Kings’ hour. Sacramento in seven.
Finals: Sacramento vs. New Jersey. As usual, the NBA finals will be an anticlimax. And, now that the Kings have gone through rather the Lakers, the Mutombo trade will have proven to be an absolute bust for New Jersey. The Kings took the Nets apart during the regular season, and the same thing will happen here. Unlike last year, the Nets will win a game…but that’s about it. Kings in five.
To sum up, Sacramento wins it all. So there you have it. Let’s see how wrong I can be. Right now, the Nets are up 21 on the Bucks. (54-33) Good to see George Karl living down to expectations.