Lakers and Cavaliers Tower Over NBA Playoffs

By Michael Wilbon
Friday, April 17, 2009

It would be great if the NBA didn't follow March Madness into complete predictability over the next eight weeks, if the NBA stuffed its postseason, which begins this weekend, with one surprise outcome after another. It would cause quite a stir if appealing young teams like the Portland Trail Blazers or Chicago Bulls disrupted the playoffs, but they're still too unripe. It would make for a nice story if Yao Ming or Dwight Howard was the last man standing but it's pure fiction.

Come the first week of June, the Los Angeles Lakers are going to play the Cleveland Cavaliers for the league's championship. The thrill will come in the adventure, in seeing who if anybody can scare the Lakers and Cavaliers along the way. And one of those teams, the defending champion Boston Celtics, won't be nearly as scary as fans of great basketball would hope because the great Kevin Garnett is lost for the playoffs with a knee injury.

The Lakers and Cavaliers begin the playoffs glaring down at everybody else, Los Angeles still stinging over a loss in the NBA Finals a year ago and Cleveland supremely confident because it has LeBron James, the best end-to-end, four-quarter player and team leader since Michael Jordan was with the Bulls.

Who could even give the Lakers and Cavaliers trouble? Who could take a two-games-to-one lead in a series against Cleveland? Who, in the preliminary rounds, could wipe that look of certainty off Kobe Bryant's face? Who could make Phil Jackson stand up and call a timeout?

Oh, the first couple of rounds should be a lot of fun for the simple reason that it's so difficult to separate the combatants, especially in the Western Conference, where Denver, San Antonio, Portland, Houston, Dallas and New Orleans are so completely indistinguishable.

The only thing we can know for sure in the West is that the Lakers will beat Utah, maybe even in a sweep. As much as everybody loves to praise Jazz Coach Jerry Sloan, justifiably at that, the fact is his team has given him nothing the last three weeks.

Everything else in the West is up for debate. There's not one matchup among Nuggets-Hornets, Spurs-Mavericks, Trail Blazers-Rockets that I can pick with any degree of confidence. But out of that group of six teams the one that could give the Lakers the willies is . . . Portland. I know, I know, I know, the Spurs still have Tim Duncan and Tony Parker, and they've shown a million times that they're the most resourceful team of the decade, the only one with four championships the past 10 seasons. But it doesn't make any sense that they can keep on keeping on without their best all-court player, Manu GinĂ³bili.

But the Trail Blazers are absolutely stacked. They've got the bigs (Greg Oden, Joel Przybilla, LaMarcus Aldridge, Channing Frye) to battle Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom and Andrew Bynum; a star in Brandon Roy who can hold his own (at least in terms of scoring) with Bryant; and more usable depth than any team in the NBA. Truth is, the Lakers need to win the championship now because the Blazers are coming, and after they get some playoff seasoning it's going to be difficult for anybody, even the Lakers, to beat them.

Problem now is, the Blazers, after they get past poor Houston, will get the Lakers in the second round. The first-round series between Denver and New Orleans should be tasty, what with Chris Paul and Chauncey Billups going head-to-head, as well as Carmelo Anthony and David West.

Denver, though, has too many weapons, too much athleticism, and a star who's tired of being left out of the big praise in Anthony. Denver should not only beat the Hornets, who are a bit of a disappointment this year, but also the Spurs to get to the conference finals . . . before losing to the Lakers. Denver just doesn't have enough size or play enough defense to truly scare Los Angeles.

The Eastern Conference is a lot easier to decipher. Cleveland will shut out Detroit in the first round, then do the same to Atlanta in the second round.

There was the real possibility of an upset in the first round, but the Bulls didn't show up for a home game with the third-worst team in the conference, Toronto, on Wednesday night and let the No. 6 seed slip away. Orlando, the No. 3 seed, is just waiting to be taken. The Magic seems to have very recently tuned out its coach, Stan Van Gundy, and could be well on the road to postseason disarray. And that doesn't even account for a style of offense -- abandon Dwight Howard after halftime and chuck the three-pointer -- which is ill-suited for postseason play.

The 76ers have more playoff experience than Chicago, but they don't figure to win more than a game or two against Orlando this time around. As fabulous a season as Dwyane Wade had for Miami, he doesn't have enough help to successfully fight off Atlanta, which should advance to the second round. Boston, even without Garnett, will sweep the Bulls.

When the defending champs are healthy, it's difficult to pick against them. But they're not. As great as Paul Pierce and Ray Allen are, and even though Rajon Rondo, Big Baby Davis and Kendrick Perkins are all much better players than they were a year ago, Garnett is too important to the Celtics' success to discount his absence.

The Celtics are good enough to get rid of the Bulls quickly, good enough to slip past Orlando or Philadelphia in the second round, but not up to the task of beating Cleveland to reach the Finals. With Garnett the Celtics would have struggled against the Cavaliers in the conference finals. Without him, Pierce and Allen can push Cleveland, but not past six games, even if Allen is successfully able to turn back to the clock to, say, 2000 or 2002 and score at will, to the tune of 25-30 points a game.

As always is the case, one man's misfortune is someone else's good news, even if regrettably. And this is the case for the Cavaliers, for the league's MVP, James (over D-Wade and Kobe), and coach of the year, Mike Brown (over George Karl and Nate McMillan). The loss of KG for the entire postseason is dreadful news for the playoffs in general, since already missing are headliners Shaq, Amare Stoudemire, Steve Nash and Tracy McGrady.

That's been a big story all season, injuries dooming players and teams.

But it's difficult to make the case that it's bad news for basketball fans, should they survive the first six weeks of the interminable NBA postseason, to arrive at a point where they can watch two final weeks of Bryant vs. James, exactly the kind of personal matchup of basketball gods that makes some of us wait patiently until the end of June in the first place, that allows the two best teams in the league to decide, rightfully, the 2009 champion.

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