The NBA Conference Finals are upon us, and the match ups keep getting better and better. In the Western Conference, the Denver Nuggets have stormed into the NBA’s Final Four looking like a team that no one wants to play. Their focus, athleticism, and (gasp!) improvements on the defensive end of the floor are paying quality dividends. They find themselves matched up against the Lakers, a team that everyone had picked to get to this point, but who almost saw its Championship aspirations go up in smoke to the injury riddled Houston Rockets. In the East, the Magic are full of confidence and riding high after their triumphant series win at the Garden to defeat the Celtics in seven games. Before this series, 32 teams had gone down 3-2 in a series against the Celtics, and all 32 of them got an early start on their summer vacations. Meanwhile, the Cavs once again haven’t played in what seems like weeks. After sweeping the over matched the Atlanta Hawks in the second round, they have now gone 8-0 this postseason, while extending their NBA playoff record of 8 consecutive wins by double digits. Now, let’s take a closer look at each individual Conference Finals match up.
While the Cavaliers have been playing incredible basketball for the last several months, their last lost with their regular starting lineup came via a 29 point pasting delivered by the Magic in Orlando. And if there is one team in the East that certainly will not be intimidated by playing at the Q in Cleveland, it is the Magic, who have gone 8-3 against the Cavs over the last three seasons. Orlando is a team that lives and dies by the 3 (they’re averaging 24 attempts per game this postseason), and this possesses a unique match up challenge for any team that plays them. When the shots are falling, they can beat any team in any arena; However, when their shots are off, they are closer to an average team, and this makes them susceptible to defeat even on their own home floor. Similarly, the Cavs are definitely going to have some match up problems on the perimeter, as the size of Rashard Lewis and Hedo Turkoglu makes it tough to distract shots simply because of their height. Basically, the game plan for the Cavs to start each game will be a pick-your-poison type scenario: focus on shutting down Dwight Howard in the paint and letting him kick it out to Orlando’s shooters, or focus on defending the perimeter. It’s an interesting dilemma for Cleveland, as their one true weakness is their interior defense. Depending on the Cavs‘ strategy, Superman could be licking his chops. Another thing to keep an eye on in this series is Orlando’s performance in Cleveland. As previously mentioned, their ability to hoist and knock down clutch outside shots means they can win anywhere, and this series could turn if they can steal a game on the road.
From the Cavs perspective, it’s finally time to get off the practice courts and get back to action. The biggest advantage for Cleveland is this series is their experience. Turkoglu and backup point guard Anthony Johnson are the only two Magic players to have even played in a Conference Finals game. And it became pretty clear that Orlando’s lack of deep playoff experience could come into play down the stretch of tight games, as they clearly lost focus during several games against Boston. Focus is the one true constant that the Cavs have shown all year, as they clearly are on a mission to play for the NBA Championship this year, and have been all season. Rust will once again be a worry going into game 1 Wednesday night, as even though it didn’t show in the Atlanta series, coming back after a long stretch off could prove to be a difficult task. However, the rest has probably been extremely beneficial for veterans like Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Ben Wallace. To this point in the playoffs, the Cavs have only played 8 games, where as Orlando has played 13.
This certainly is going to be a very entertaining series, and there are bound to be numerous exciting games and finishes. Orlando certainly will present a unique challenge to the Cavs with their match up complications, but I think that Mike Brown and his coaching staff are going to have some interesting game plans in order to counteract the Magic’s patented inside-out game. Whether you want to believe it a not, experience in the NBA playoffs is monumental. I just feel that the Cavs are on a different level right now than the Magic, and that if games are close down the stretch, Orlando will feel the weight of the world on their shoulders. The Magic win twice, but LeBron isn’t going to let this team lose before getting to the Finals.
Prediction: Cavs in 6
The Lakers just finished playing a scrappy Houston Rockets team that really had no business taking that series past 5 games. Without Tracy McGrady, Dikembe Mutombo, and Yao Ming after game 3, the Lakers let the Rockets hang around. However, Kobe and Co. avoided the monumental upset, and have advanced for a Western showdown vs. the Nuggets. The Lakers still possess probably the biggest collection of overall talent in this year’s playoffs, and are arguably the deepest team as well. The size advantages that Lamar Odom, Andrew Bynum span>, and Pau Gasol can create on the inside are mind-boggling. Up until this point, the Lakers biggest opponent has been themselves. They have clearly been the better team in the first 2 rounds, but they are about to face their sternest test yet.
The Denver Nuggets are riding high after dispatching the Dirk, Mark Cuban, and the Dallas Mavericks, and they are a team that is quickly becoming the pick of many experts to pull off the series upset. I can’t say enough about what a great player Chauncey Billups truly is, as his influence and leadership on this team from the point guard position has given Carmelo and Kenyon Martin the ability to finally get over their playoff hump. The Nuggets are aiming for their first trip to the Finals in franchise history, and while Billups has a boatload of playoff experience under his belt, the rest of the Nuggets do not. However, they are one the few teams who save enough size inside that they can really disrupt the interior game of the Lakers. Nene and Kenyon Martin will not back down from L.A., and the Birdman off the bench will need to be relied upon to bring a spark for Denver. I think that J.R. Smith will be a big X-factor in this series, as Denver will be counting on his outside shot to keep them afloat in some 4th quarters of this series.
The Nuggets have a very realistic chance of winning this series in 6 games. If the Lakers do not play with the focus they showed in games 5 and 7 against Houston, they will find themselves in a hole. However, I just can’t help but feel that the Lakers find a way to win this thing. The better team almost always wins in a 7 game series, and if this series reaches the decisive 7th game, it’s nearly impossible to bet against Kobe and the Lakers at home.
Prediction: Lakers in 7