Welcome to Part Two of SportsChump’s NBA Playoff preview.
5 – Will the Nuggets finally strike gold?
The Denver Nuggets have been schizophrenic all season long. At times, they’ve looked like potential NBA champions. At others, they’ve looked like the same old, underachieving Nuggets
They got a harsh dose of reality when their head coach George Karl was sidelined to throat cancer treatment. Adrian Dantley has taken over head coach duties in the interim. It is still unclear if or when Karl will return. Obviously his health is this team’s top priority, but from a pure basketball standpoint, Denver has the talent to win a title if they play up to their potential.
The Nuggets actually fared well against the better Western Conference teams, going 8-3 against Los Angeles, Utah and San Antonio. They have one of the best players in the game in Carmelo Anthony and a veteran point guard in Chauncey Billups who is known for elevating his game in the post-season. They have one of the game’s nastiest leapers in JR Smith and Kenyon Martin who doesn’t take kindly to pranks that involve popcorn.
They have the best defensive bench player in the league in Chris Anderson, a solid center in Nene Hilario and a rookie in Ty Lawson who would love nothing more than to follow up his North Carolina national championship last year with an NBA title.
But Denver has yet to make the most of its talent and that’s why so many pundits think they’re a paper tiger. Karl’s healthy return to the sidelines would likely infuse this team with the spirit they need to make a title run but until then, the Nuggets haven’t given us much of a reason to think they’ll be hoisting the O’Brien Trophy in June.
4 – How wilted is Boston’s three-leaf clover?
The Celtics have had their share of trials and tribulations this season. They still feature the Big Three, Version Two but they have had difficulty against younger, more athletic squads.
As much as it pains me to say this, Kevin Garnett is no longer the KG of old. In fact, he’s just old. He’s second only to Jason Kidd in minutes played for active players and it’s starting to show. Apparently, anything is no longer possible. Or is it?
Garnett is averaging a career low 14 points per game but he’s not the only Celtic acting his age. Paul Pierce is averaging a career low 18 ppg. Ray Allen is averaging a career low 16 ppg. Even Rasheed Wallace’s numbers are down, except of course for his technical fouls, where he once again leads the league. Who would have ever guessed that a 170 lb. kid from Louisville, Kentucky who makes one-tenth their salary would be Boston’s best player? Young teams need veteran leadership but sometimes older teams need a little youth. Fortunately for the Celtics, they have that in Rajon Rondo.
Despite changes in Boston’s supporting cast, its core is still intact. Kendrick Perkins has been a solid post presence and will be called upon when the Celtics play Eastern Conference teams with overpowering centers. They picked up Michael Finley, a move which actually raised the median age of this team. He has yet to provide any consistent scoring. They lost Eddie House but added Nate Robinson. We’ll see how that move comes into play when they need a clutch three pointer.
All this might not be enough to win the East, never mind make it to the Finals. That being said, nobody wants to play Boston in the playoffs. Pierce, Garnett and Allen aren’t future Hall of Famers for nothing. They will likely be playing as if their backs are against the wall.
That’s because they are. An early out this post-season might mean the disbanding of this team in 2011.
3 – Can Vince Carter perform Magic?
Make no mistake, Orlando is dangerous. The Magic may be this season’s most consistent team. They lead the league in point differential at +7.5 points per game. They beat good teams and bad. They win on the road and at home. They’re the fourth best defensive team in the league, meaning Stan Van Gundy’s message has finally sunk in. Defense wins championships.
Many thought trading for Vince Carter and giving up on young talent like Courtney Lee and a veteran like Hedo Turkoglu was a gamble. For a while, it looked like those skeptics were right. Carter started off the season shooting horribly but has finally found his stroke, averaging over 50 FG% in February and March. A sharp-shooting Vinsanity makes Orlando very difficult to beat. More than ever, this is Carter’s time to shine. We’ll see if he takes advantage of it.
Then there’s the best center in the game. His performance in last year’s Finals was abysmal but after Orlando’s loss to Los Angeles, Dwight Howard vowed to return. He sat on the bench after Game Five and watched the Lakers celebrate on his own floor, knowing victory would be that much sweeter when he finally experienced it. An inspired Dwight Howard is a scary thought but he’ll have to take better shots and turn the ball over less than last year.
We saw Rashard Lewis hit some big shots last post-season. There’s no reason to expect that won’t continue. They’ll also have a healthy Jameer Nelson who missed most of last year’s playoffs, disrupting their rhythm. Orlando has solid role players in Matt Barnes, JJ Redick, Mickael Pietrus and Ryan Anderson.
They have won 18 of their last 21 and are clicking at just the right time. They are definitely one year better and there’s no reason to think another Finals appearance is outside the realm of possibility.
2 – Is it still Showtime in Los Angeles?
After 82 games in a potent Western Conference, the Los Angeles Lakers proved they are once again the team to beat. The question remains whether they’re too beaten down in the process.
Kobe Bryant hasn’t been 100% all season. Andrew Bynum hasn’t played since Mid-March. The Lakers are 15-11 since the All-Star break and are only 23-17 on the road. Derek Fisher is the only guy to play in every game this season and he’s the oldest person on the team.
That being said, we all know the Lakers are able to flip the switch at any given moment. They definitely need a healthy Bynum, not necessarily for scoring or defense but because when he’s hurt, Lamar Odom and Pau Gasol are forced to play out of position. Gasol is much more effective at power forward than center and Lamar Odom is much more effective at small forward than power forward. When Bynum’s in the game, L.A. has three guys that are long and strong. When he’s not, the triangle is out of sync.
Then there’s Ron Artest. Debate has raged on all season as to whether L.A. did the right thing by trading Trevor Ariza to get Artest. Well, we’re about to find out. They acquired Artest to shut down the likes of Kevin Durant, Dirk Nowitzki, Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James if they get that far. Anything short of an NBA title would be disappointment.
Do the 2010 Lakers have enough left in the tank? Five rings would give Kobe one fewer than Michael. Don’t think that’s not motivation for a man who wants to be remembered as the best ever. At 31, he’s not getting any younger, considering he’s already been in the league 13 years.
Las Vegas might list the Lakers as favorites to win it all but the road to repeating will not be a walk in the park for last year’s champions.
1 – Will Cleveland finally become witnesses?
Mention the upcoming off-season to a Cavaliers fan and before he tells you that LeBron isn’t going anywhere (which he probably isn’t), he’ll still shudder with nervousness knowing it’s a distinct possibility. Now ask that fan the same question assuming the Cavs don’t win it all and he might just go into convulsions.
The bottom line is LeBron has to win a title for all of our sakes. Otherwise, we’ll be subjected to another summer of will he/won’t he and quite frankly, we’ve had enough of that with Brett Favre.
Once again, the Cavaliers enter the post-season with the league’s best record as well as its most frightening player. This time around, they have one more year of bitterness behind them. Last year, when Orlando eliminated Cleveland from the playoffs, LeBron left the court without shaking his opponents’ hands, a move he still hasn’t lived down. If it comes to pass, this year’s Cleveland-Orlando series will be one you will NOT want to miss.
To combat the man-child Dwight Howard, the Cavaliers landed the aging Shaquille O’Neal, who has missed the last two months due to thumb surgery. Shaq will be ready for the playoffs but his weight, conditioning and now finger are a concern.
In mid-February, the Cavs also landed Antawn Jamison to add another offensive post presence. They lost the first two games he played but then won 14 of their next 15. Jamison will definitely present match-up problems for Orlando, who lack a decent, defensive power forward.
Cleveland’s frontcourt still boasts Anderson Varejao, JJ Hickson, Jamario Moon and the second coming of Zydrunas Ilgauskas. Their backcourt is once again solid with Mo Williams, Delonte West, Anthony Parker and Daniel Gibson. Oh, and they also have Sebastian Telfair. It will be VERY interesting to see how many minutes Telfair will get in crunch time.
LeBron’s future status as a Cavalier isn’t the only thing on the line this post-season for Cleveland. There’s also Mike Brown’s job. It’s hard to imagine Brown keeping his job if Cleveland doesn’t win it all.
Picture if you will… Cleveland loses in the playoffs and fires Brown. Phil Jackson retires from Los Angeles after winning another title… then returns to the NBA one last time to coach LeBron James in Cleveland. I’m not one to start rumors but that scenario doesn’t sound all that preposterous, does it?