By Michael Wilbon
Saturday, April 17, 2010; D01
Every now and then something truly shocking happens in the NBA playoffs, such as Golden State tossing top-seeded Dallas in the very first round three years ago. But a looming threat of the great surprise isn't what drives professional basketball's second season. It isn't like the Stanley Cup playoffs, where one goaltender, perhaps even one best described as pretty good, can beat what everyone agrees is a better team. It isn't like October baseball, where one starting pitcher can determine the course of a series. And it isn't like playoff football, which revels in the randomness of any given Sunday.
Mostly, the NBA postseason is like the theater. You understand, by and large, what is going to happen, but the artistry compels you anyway. We want to see if what we suspect is true. The NBA, because of the global star power of its best players, has the only postseason that can truly be ruined by an upset.
Basketball fans may love the upstart Oklahoma City Thunder . . . but not to the degree that they want to see them dump Kobe Bryant from the playoffs.
The postseason where the best teams most often win opens play this weekend, and it would take something fairly unforeseen over the next eight weeks to prevent Kobe Bryant and LeBron James from meeting in the NBA Finals.
The question for now is who, if anybody in the playoff field, can stop either the Lakers and/or the Cavaliers from winning four out of seven games in three straight series.
There is only one threat to LeBron and Cleveland: defending Eastern Conference champion Orlando, slightly retooled from last spring but just as formidable. The Celtics, champions once removed, are too old and feeble now. Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen and Paul Pierce were assembled for a short run and the run is over; the mileage has simply overwhelmed their considerable basketball know-how.
The Atlanta Hawks, physically capable of challenging anybody, haven't yet exhibited the acumen or the poise, and these things simply never reveal themselves for the first time in the playoffs.
If the Cavaliers are as motivated to win as they claim to be, they'll take out the Chicago Bulls (tougher than nails but not talented enough yet) in no more than four games, then Miami (which will upset the Celtics) in five, and get ready to visit revenge on Orlando.
The defending champion Lakers, however, will have challengers spying from everywhere. While Cleveland could play C-plus basketball for a series and beat everybody except Orlando in the Eastern Conference, the Lakers had better relocate their championship form. But it certainly does help Los Angeles that Oklahoma City is too young to put up a sustained challenge and the second-round opponent will likely be absent a head coach (Denver's George Karl) or a fully healthy all-star (Utah's Carlos Boozer).
Still, the Lakers haven't played like a champ in weeks. Kobe is trying to get past hand, ankle and knee injuries. Big Andrew Bynum, injured again, is just returning to the lineup, and who knows how this will affect Phil Jackson's rotation and the Lakers bench. We'll find out rather quickly if the Lakers were, as we suspect, simply bored and ready to start the playoffs or in some kind of meaningful downswing. As one Western Conference all-star told me last week, "Something very funky is going on with the Lakers. The Ron Artest [for Trevor Ariza] thing hasn't worked as they want it to. . . . Are they as good as they were last year? No."
Likely, the Lakers' biggest test is going to come from an unlikely source: the Phoenix Suns, who are better than they were last year, or the year before that or the year before that. They play better defense than at any time during the Mike D'Antoni era. Alvin Gentry, a D'Antoni lieutenant, has developed a bench, and the Suns have a mental toughness and chemistry they've lacked in recent years. "Maybe," Grant Hill told me the other night, "it's time to change our goals from what they were early in the season or midway through the season."
As predictable as the results usually are in the NBA playoffs, only three series are dead-lock certainties, and only one in the West. The Lakers will beat Oklahoma City, probably in five. Cleveland will sweep or take Chicago in five. Orlando will sweep or take Charlotte in five. Everything else could, perhaps even should, be competitive.
San Antonio has showed enough lately to make us think Spurs-Mavericks, even though Dallas dominated this series last spring, will go at least six. (Dallas wins.)
The Suns will beat Portland in five because the Trail Blazers will so desperately miss Brandon Roy, who will miss most if not all of the first round after minor knee surgery.
And of all the teams that would miss their coach the most, the Denver Nuggets are right up there at the top of the list with the Lakers (Jackson), Bobcats (Larry Brown) and Spurs (Gregg Popovich). Utah, if Boozer and Andre Kirilenko are close to their usual form, should beat the Nuggets. It's simply asking too much for them to win without Karl at the whip. Anybody dumb enough to think coaching doesn't matter in the NBA only has to look at Denver, where Washingtonian Adrian Dantley, Karl's interim replacement, has the toughest job of any coach entering the playoffs.
Back in the East, if there's one upset to be had, it's Miami beating Boston. Dwyane Wade somehow found a way to pull a rather ordinary cast along with him, and Miami caught fire at the end of the season. That Boston defense that was so great two years ago is simply too old to now guard Wade and Michael Beasley.
If Milwaukee hadn't lost Andrew Bogut with that unsightly wrist injury, I could see the Bucks beating Atlanta. But the Hawks' advantage around the basket is too great now; not even Scott Skiles, who should be the NBA's coach of the year, can figure out a way to negate that.
So what we've got in the West is the Lakers beating Utah in the second round and Phoenix beating Dallas, in the most entertaining old-man point-guard matchup imaginable. AAU basketball should be halted during the playing of that series so that coaches would be able to show their players what happens when you pass the basketball as well as Jason Kidd and Steve Nash.
In the East, Cleveland will overwhelm Miami and Orlando will continue its ownership of Atlanta, giving us a pair of pretty sweet conference final matchups: Suns-Lakers, Cleveland-Orlando.
Perhaps I'm underrating Orlando again but I'll take Cleveland in five games because Cleveland is the best team. Shaq was brought aboard for the specific purpose of handling Dwight Howard, and Antawn Jamison was brought aboard to give Cleveland that Orlando-like dimension, where a power forward can spread the floor and score on his own. His presence takes the pressure to score all the points off LeBron and moves Mo Williams back to a more comfortable No. 3 scorer. It's Cleveland's time. Whatever their weaknesses -- like foul shooting -- they make up for with great defense and the best leadership in the game, from LeBron.
While the Lakers are in for a dogfight with either Dallas or Phoenix, they'll ultimately make it to the NBA Finals where they'll try to defend their championship against a Cleveland team that's no better in terms of talent, but deeper and fresher and -- in the case of LeBron James -- hellishly determined to take his place for the first time, but not the last, in the winner's circle.
Nothing about that scenario would be a surprise; it will still contain more than a few elements of drama.