LeBron James hit a half-court bank shot at the halftime buzzer on his way to a 38/8/7 performance in his first game. Kobe Bryant’s Game 1 didn’t include the same type of videogame statistics, but his thunderous dunk over Paul Millsap in the fourth quarter punctuated a Lakers win that was no less dominant than Cleveland’s over the Pistons.
The rest of the NBA’s playoff participants have to feel like recreational runners who just entered a marathon against two Kenyans who got a half-mile head start. After an off-season and the early part of the 2008/09 regular season, it seemed as if a Lakers/Celtics Finals rematch was a foregone conclusion, and now that seems half right. Is there a team in either conference with a chance to derail David Stern and ESPN’s wet-dream matchup of Kobe vs. LeBron? Only one way to find out — let’s separate the teams into arbitrary categories that may or may not be proven wrong over the next month and a half!
No chance in Hell
Detroit Pistons: This team has been trying to win without a transcendent superstar for years, and actually succeeded in 2004, defeating the Lakers in the Finals in five games. Fast forward five years later, and even though Allen Iverson has been banished and Rasheed Wallace looks about a year or two away from retirement, the Pistons’ starting lineup isn’t awful. However, the 2004 team’s bench included Mehmet Okur, Lindsey Hunter and Corliss Williamson, while this year’s first three players off the bench include Aaron Afflalo, Kwame Brown and Will Bynum. Joe Dumars has a TON of work to do to bring this team back to prominence, starrting in less than a week.
Miami Heat: Dwyane Wade was allowed to run roughshod over the league during the regular season, but the stakes are too high now. With the only other prominent veteran (Jermaine O’Neal) no longer dominant or even reliable on most nights, the Heat are completely ill-equipped to face any team smart enough to double- or triple-team Wade on every possession. Mario Chalmers and Michael Beasley might be effective playoff performers someday, but there way over their heads right now. There’s a reason why Wade was given so much credit for pushing Miami all the way to a No. 5 seed — they aren’t really any good.
Orlando Magic: Looks like Shaq wasn’t too far off when he ripped Stan Van Gundy a few weeks ago:
“The nature of our coach, he panics very often during games,” the Magic’s Marcin Gortat told a Polish newspaper recently. “He’s got some behavior which is not good for us. With his gestures he makes us nervous on the floor.”
The Magic aren’t going to get past the conference finals (and even making it past the second round would be a long shot), but something needs to be done about SVG. Maybe a little Xanex, a nice hot-stone massage, something to get the Hedgehog to relax a little. I’ve never heard the word “panic” as often as we have recently about SVG, it’s like he’s the equivalent of Chris Jim Everett facing a blitz.
(One semi-related note directed towards all the Euros in the NBA: just because you aren’t speaking English when talking to a reporter doesn’t mean the message won’t get back to everyone around here. Marco Belinelli learned this early in the season when complaining about his lack of playing time, and now a backup center who went off in Orlando’s Game 1 loss for 0 points and 2 rebounds in 10 minutes is putting his coach on blast worldwide. Smart.)
A snowball’s chance, but not much else
Chicago Bulls: They came this close to taking a 2-0 lead over Boston, but it’s tough to trust this team after they were so lame during the regular season. It’s clear that Joakim Noah has arrived and changed the complexion of the team, that Derrick Rose is going to go waaaaaayyyy too high in fantasy drafts next year and that Ben Gordon can score as well as anyone. What’s questionable is how a team that went 41-41 can possibly march through the playoffs without home court advantage. KG and co. made the Hawks look like world beaters last year in the first round too, it’s what they do.
Philadelphia 76ers: Man, this team is awfully Bulls-like. Same record, dealing with an injury to a “key player” from Duke who might not be all that valuable after all (Elton Brand, who actually played less and worse than Luol Deng). Andre Iguodala performed better as a leader than as a second-banana, but it’s tough to shake the feeling that the 76ers are going to lose by 20 tomorrow and end up losing their series to Orlando in six or seven games. One wildcard in the mix is Andre Miller, who has a chance to make about $25M extra if the Sixers somehow pull off the upset, and ruin the Warriors’ chances of completing a sign-and-trade with Philadelphia to get him. Of course, unless the Fighting Rowells were willing to give up Monta or Tony Randolph they won’t be pulling off any trades anyway this summer. Sigh.
Boston Celtics: I wanted to come up with another category to show they have a better chance to upset the Cavs than the Bulls and the Sixers, but my brain wouldn’t allow me to. Let’s run through the Celtics’ recent problems: their team leader and defensive catalyst has missed the first two playoff games after missing 22 of the last 26 regular season games with a knee injury that clearly will require some sort of surgery later; Leon Powe is out for the season with yet another devastating knee injury, meaning he’s now suffered ACL tears in high school, college and the pros; Danny Ainge, last year’s executive of the year, suffered a heart attack; In two playoff games Stephon Marbury and Mikki Moore have combined for 6 points, 9 rebounds and 4 assists. Worst of all, the team that sees themselves as the toughest in the league has given up 220 points to the Bulls in two home games. Barring a miraculous KG comeback and an injury to LeBron, the Celtics’ chances of making it to the Finals for a second consecutive year look bleak.
No chance in Hell
Utah Jazz: Why do I get the feeling that Andrei Kirilenko’s contract is going to be known as one of the worst max-deals ever given to a player who wasn’t injury-prone or Marbury? This team might be out of the playoffs next year if Carlos Boozer and/or Millsap flee after their impending elimination at the hands of the Lakers.
New Orleans Hornets: Whenever J.R. Smith goes 0-for-7 from beyond the arc and still scores 18 points in 24 minutes against you, you’re in trouble. Rarely can a two-man team advance very far in the playoffs, and when the second guy is David West it’s time to plan golf outings and trips to Turks and Caicos. The startling thing about their blowout loss to the Nuggets was how thoroughly Chauncey Billups outplayed Chris Paul. Don’t be surprised if the Hornets give up real soon (like Game 2).
Portland Trail Blazers: They’re young and awful on the road, but they’re sure to scare some teams at home, right? Um, well…one 108-81 loss to the Rockets at the Rose Garden later, and the Blazers just got a playoff reality check. I’d be shocked if Portland doesn’t turn things around in Game 2, but they won’t win a game in Houston. The damage has already been done. And before we start handing LaMarcus Aldridge a spot as a permanent All-Star, he should work on getting absolutely schooled by Luis Scola.
Dallas Mavericks: The Game 1 upset in San Antonio spoke more to the Spurs’ troubles than a possible Mavs resurgence. Don’t listen to Erick Dampier’s public threats to knock Tony Parker on his ass in Game 3, Dallas is still the softest team in the playoffs. After the Spurs edge the Mavericks in six or seven games, I have a hunch Mark Cuban is going to look to totally revamp the team — by trading Dirk Nowitzki.
San Antonio Spurs: No Manu, no Finals. On another note, can you believe Jacque Vaughn is still on this team? What does he provide? With Tim Duncan and Greg Popovich around it wouldn’t seem that veteran leadership would be too important, so unless bringing Vaughn in off the bench as a sort of changeup to Parker’s fastball is meant to confuse opposing point guards, I’m wondering why Vaughn still gets paid. Of course, Brevin Knight still has a job with the Jazz, which proves veteran point guards can alwaysÃ‚Â get jobs as long as they have a high ast/to ratio. This is all good news for Steve Blake, who’s pretty much guaranteed a job with San Antonio or Utah until he’s 41.
Snowball city, baby!
Denver Nuggets: The good news is they have home court through the first two rounds, several offensive weapons and the point guard with the biggest cojones since Sam Cassell. The bad news is they’re the Nuggets, a team that can never be trusted to focus defensively on the road and actively hates their coach. It’s a good thing for Denver that Carmelo Anthony and Smith aren’t from Europe, or they’d be trashing George Karl twice a week.
The No. 1 contender
Houston Rockets: At first glance the Rockets don’t look quite deep enough to topple the Lakers in Round 2, especially without home court or their leading scorer from last year. While that might end up being the case (except for the T-Mac thing, since losing him is one of the reasons why they have a shot do some damage), there are a few advantages the Rockets can take advantage of in a series against L.A.
1. Ron Artest and Kobe Bryant, while they respect each other, have slowly been building towards a rivalry this season that has been one of the more entertaining subplots to both teams’ regular seasons. When Artest is engaged he’s one of the top on-ball defenders in the league, and with Shane Battier to pick up the slack Kobe could have a tough series against the Rockets — especially if he takes his personal battle with Artest too personally and forgets he has teammates (very possible).
2. Yao Ming has been playing outstanding all season, and Andrew Bynum isn’t all the way back yet from his knee injury defensively. Offensively he’s close, especially off the court as he’s become Rhianna’s new boyfriend/bodyguard. But in his five games back Bynum’s only averaged 5 rebounds, 0.8 blocks and 4.4 fouls per game. Unless Pau Gasol suddenly gains the ability to guard Yao for the first time, Lamar Odom is going to have his hands full against the Rockets.
3. The Rockets’ weakness is also the Lakers’: point guard play. Jordan Farmar isn’t healthy, Sasha Vujacic had a terrible season and Derek Fisher looks about one more year away from coaching.
4. Phil Jackson has a hard task in keeping this team humble in their march towards the Finals. The Lakers are deep, they’re rolling right now and the rest of the West looks relatively weak in comparison to years past. However, this series (if it happens of course, but it’s pretty much a lock at this point) reminds me of 1986 when the Lakers met the Houston, led at the time by the “Twin Towers” of Akeem (no “H” yet for the Dream) Olajuwon and Ralph Sampson. According certain Celts fans the Lakers were simply afraid of taking their whupping from an overpowering Boston team and laid down against Houston to avoid embarrassment. I’m not sure that was true, it seemed more like the Lakers simply took it for granted they’d destroy the Rockets. After all, the Lakers were incredibly deep and playoff tested, while the Rockets were given little chance to derail a certain Lakers/Celtics Finals rematch. Sounds kind of familiar, doesn’t it?
Well, everything except a certain Lakers/Celtics Finals rematch, anyway. Not this year.