Monday, May 18, 2009

NBA 2009 conference finals preview

By Rick Morris

The NBA moved one step closer to David Stern's mandate of a Lebron-Kobe championship round with the conclusion of the conference semifinals. In the last playoff round, I was 3-1 after starting out 8-0 in the first round.

As I predicted in Fantasy Hoops Draftology 2008 (page 31 to be exact), the Cavs, Magic and Lakers ended up in the league's final four. But just as New Orleans capped off a wondrous regular season last year and continued with a strong run to the conference finals that would have been hard to believe at the beginning of the season, the Nuggets replicated the feat to take home the remaining berth in this next round.

The final two rounds of this year's playoffs should be excellent, as it's hard to make a case for any of the league's 26 other franchises being worthy of still playing this deep into May. A great many subplots remain to be unfolded in the next month or so.

Los Angeles Lakers vs. Denver: The arrogant Lakers have thus far been able to show up for only certain games and still be able to advance this far, but those days are over. It will take complete commitment game in and game out to defeat the West's hottest playoff team.

Anything said at this point about Denver's outstanding acquisition of Chauncey Billups -- THE definitive move that put the team at this level -- would be repetitive, except perhaps to note that he has at least put himself on the fringe of Hall of Fame consideration with his awesome late-bloomer routine. Seven consecutive appearances in the conference finals? Incredible.

As such, these aren't the same pathetic, lesser-than-the-sum-of-their-parts No-Guts that used to be first round playoff cannon fodder. They now possess excellent team chemistry and have the kind of depth and length that could give the SoCal frontrunners serious fits.

However, LA matched up against Denver very well in the regular season and has thumped them in recent playoffs past. Plus, the Nugs have been fairly mediocre on the road, leading one to believe that they won't be a team likely to puncture the Lakers' excellent record at Staples.

While Carmelo Anthony still can't be mentioned in the same breath with Lebron James with a straight face, he has legitimately ascended to an elite level in the league this season. However, he's not likely to be the key player in this series; he'll get his pretty much regardless. It's Pau Gasol, one of the NBA's biggest matchup nightmares, who will loom even larger in this series. So too will Andrew Bynum, who could have a breakthrough moment in these games -- if only he could be bothered to care. In that sense, he's the perfect microcosm for his team, often disgraceful in their lack of heart.

Seeing how the Lakers have played in this postseason, as well as how the Nuggets have played, picking LA brings to mind the question, "Who do you trust, me or your lying eyes?" I'm going against my lying eyes. Los Angeles in six.

Orlando vs. Cleveland. The historic, unmatched start to these playoffs that the Cavaliers have built thus far will surely hit the first bump in the road against the young and game Magic.

Orlando's jump-shooting ethos is not really built for the playoffs, but they were fortunate in their draw against a completely gassed and surprisingly gutless Boston team. When Orlando is on, they're really on, and they proved this season that they're capable of whipping even the league's best defensive team, namely the Cavs.

While picking against the Cavs in the Eastern Finals is impossible based on how they're playing as close to perfect as possible [Side note: That is honestly my unbiased opinion as an observer, although I admit to smiling as I type this as a lifelong Cavs fan!], it is almost equally impossible to imagine the Magic allowing Cleveland's unbeaten postseason to linger much longer. Moreover, it's more likely than not that because Orlando is almost unstoppable on the occasions where they hit a great many jumpers (especially 3s), that they will absolutely boatrace the Cavs in the game(s?) that they win. This will provide an interesting test of loyalty for the many, many fair-weather fans and frontrunners in the Cleveland fanbase.

Ultimately, though, the Cavs take their biggest edge in this series because of their superior depth, an ironic notion given that the franchise has consisted overwhelmingly of Lebron's contributions through his years in town. Not this year -- and that's saying something because LBJ took his game to a new level as the consensus league MVP. But he now has his first legit sidekick in Mo Williams and a far, far better supporting cast than Michael Jordan ever had in Chicago. This team can go 10 or 11 deep with contributors who can collectively provide absolutely every element essential to victory. Orlando's crew ... not so much, but in fairness this team was not expected to go any further than this for the 2008-2009 campaign. They're a work in progress.

One more edge comes in the form of coaching as Mike Brown truly came into his own this year as one of the NBA's elite on his way to capturing Coach of the Year honors. Stan Van Gundy has had significant ups and downs this season and that won't be good enough when he goes up against the league's fastest-rising young gun.

While the other conference final seems like a real coin flip, the biggest challenge here is figuring out the length of the series. I concur with those who say that it feels like a "Cleveland in six" situation, but I do not see the Cavs losing a game at the "Q" and furthermore, it seems a stretch to imagine a team playing as well as they are (not just in the playoffs, but the entire second half of the season) losing back-to-back in Orlando. Plus, I underestimated the team in the second round by predicting Atlanta would stretch them to six games. I will not err on the side of underestimating this special squad again. Cleveland in five.

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