Other than the Atlanta-Milwaukee series, the first round of the playoffs are in, and we’ve seen two upsets, although I’m not sure if either can be considered an upset. If the Bucks somehow pull off a game 7 win, now that will be an upset. But three of four second round series are in place and about to begin.
1. Los Angeles Lakers vs Utah Jazz
Did the Jazz win that last series or did the Nuggets lose it? I’m thinking it’s more of the latter. Utah, especially if Deron Williams is cranking, can win a game or two against the Lakers, but they simply don’t have enough to get this done. Still, if Kobe pulls another act like game four against OKC, anything’s possible. L.A. is fortunate that Denver imploded as Utah is a much better matchup for them. The only question is how long will it take? The Lakers unfortunate tendency of allowing series to extend, playing more games than they have to, will rear itself again. Lakes in 6.
2. Phoenix Suns vs San Antonio Spurs
I thought there were seven teams with a real chance to win a title this year and two of them were Dallas and San Antonio. If Richard Jefferson stays motivated and the big three stay on the floor, they can. The Spurs handled Dallas much easier than I had thought possible, and Dallas is much better than the Suns. The only possible wild card will be if/when Robin Lopez plays again for Phoenix, and how much interior aggression he can bring. If it’s enough, this could be a seven game series and Phoenix could actually win. If not, San Antonio gets this one about as easily as they handled Dallas. Spurs in 6.
3. Cleveland Cavaliers vs Boston Celtics
Ah, the gold standard for second round playoff series. The other series may be good, but this one is going to be great. The aged Celtics are warriors, and they will scrap, fight, bang and claw for everything they can get. And for the first time in his career, there is a serious question about the health of Lebron. How bad is his elbow? If he’s not 100%, will the other Cavs like Antawn Jamison or Mo Williams who haven’t exactly been super-clutch players in their careers to this point, be able to pick up the slack? I’ll admit it, after the first round, I’ve found myself actually rooting for a Boston-San Antonio final. Going out on a limb here, even if Lebron’s elbow is good to go. Boston in 7.
4. Orlando Magic vs Hawks/Bucks
Does it really matter who the Magic face here? Milwaukee may be spunky, but Orlando is not Atlanta, and the lack of a center will kill them handily. The Hawks, on the other hand, are a frustrating bunch. I would expect that they will get enough together to win at home in game 7. If they don’t, don’t be surprised if coach Mike Woodson is fired, and some roster changes occur, namely Joe Johnson gets replaced with a bigger name. Atlanta has the talent to give Orlando trouble. But they don’t play defense well enough to beat them in a long series, but they could win a game or two. Either way, it’s all Magic to the conference finals. Magic in 4 against Milwaukee; Magic in 5 against Atlanta.
Of the seven teams I thought had a chance to win, two of them went home after the first round, with Dallas and Denver both going belly up. Denver is by far the most disappointing. They really have no excuse for losing so easily to an undermanned Utah team, even if they were all healthy. Where’s the heart? Dallas, I feel for, simply because the seeding draw basically screwed them. The Spurs are playing like the team I thought they’d be when they made the trade for Jefferson, not the one who struggled at times this season. This team would have beaten at least 13 of the other 15 playoff teams, and you could make a case that they were the most impressive team so far, as Orlando, Boston and Cleveland all struggled a bit despite relatively easy wins over vastly inferior teams. All the Spurs did was dominate one of the top three or four teams in the league.
That leaves five teams that I think could still pull it out, and like in the first round, two of them are playing one another, Boston and Cleveland. If Lebron’s elbow turns out to be a major problem and the Cavs lose the series, can James justify walking away after everything the city and the organization has done to accommodate him only to have his health be the reason they lose? If he does, then he’s just another mercenary. That’s not to say mercenaries can’t be fun to watch, Shaq is one, for instance, but he’ll miss a golden opportunity. Fighting against fate to turn one of the most hard-luck franchises, and sports cities, for that matter, into champions will do far more for his legacy than winning a handful of titles in a bigger market. Win or lose, I don’t think he’s going anywhere.
What does Dwayne Wade do? If he stays, he will have a totally new roster next year. If he goes, he will have a totally new roster next year. Either way, the experience of being a one-man band with a third rate supporting cast is over. I expect some team, possibly New Jersey, to land more than one big name, fill in with solid role-playing vets, possibly nab a big-time coach (Phil Jackson, anyone?) and pull a Boston this off-season. That team could be Miami, as well (Do you think Pat Riley wouldn’t be back on the sideline if the Heat were suddenly star-laden and serious contenders?) Erik Spoelstra can only hope he’ll be as fortunate as Stan Van Gundy was after Pat squeezed him out with the title in sight. But jobs like Orlando with a young, dominant big man, don’t come along every day.
What does Dirk Nowitzki do? Does he opt out of a contract set to pay him $21 million next season and join the free agent bonanza? If he really wants to win a title before his skills deteriorate, I think he may well leave a few million on the table and suit up elsewhere next season. In fact, I’m betting he does just that. The league is really going to be turned upside down next season. There’s going to be at least three or four of the prime contenders this year falling by the wayside, replaced by three or four rebuilt clubs.
Which brings me to the Lakers. L.A. is not deep, and they are not young. Plus Kobe has been showing signs of career wear and tear in increasing frequency. With so much talent available this off-season, will L.A. try to retool after this year, win or lose? And can they? They have over $70 million in salary tied up in five players for at least the next two years (Kobe, Gasol, Artest, Odom and Bynum) all of whom will be over 30 at the start of next season except Bynum, who has already shown a propensity for constant injury. Other than those guys, this roster has nothing on it with any significant upside. They don’t have money to pay full price for legit free agents, and their only hope is to be able to get creative in the trade market, but outside of Pau Gasol, is there any one of those guys that they could get a useful return for? Phil Jackson can read the handwriting on the wall, too. He will be coaching elsewhere next season, for whichever team adds a couple superstars to a roster that already has some talent. The Lakers window is closed after this run, and if Phil isn’t in town to keep Kobe in check, the Lakers implode next season.