Another grueling regular season has ended in the NBA and now it is time for some much-needed playoff basketball. There are some very interesting stories for this year’s playoffs. The Western Conference is going to be a battle as all its contenders are winners of at least 50 games. The Los Angeles Lakers will have their hands full as they try to repeat as champions. In the Eastern Conference, the Cleveland Cavaliers, the league’s best team record wise, locked up the number one seed two weeks ago and seems to be on a repeat collision course, once again meeting the Orlando Magic in the Conference Finals. The Atlanta Hawks and the Boston Celtics might play a major part in derailing that reunion.

After a disappointing 2009 campaign, the Phoenix Suns worked their way to the third seed. How about the Oklahoma City Thunder? In 2008, the team left Seattle for Oklahoma and they were considered doomed. Two years later, the Thunder led by newly crowned scoring champ, Kevin Durant, is a 50 game winner and is playoff bound. With the playoffs just a day away, let’s go over the first round match ups starting with the Western Conference.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

No.1 Los Angeles Lakers vs No. 8 Oklahoma City Thunder

This is an intriguing match-up featuring the NBA’s best player over the last decade, in Kobe Bryant, sparring with an up and coming superstar in Kevin Durant. A true David versus Goliath contest. Although  Bryant and Durant will go at it on the court, Lakers head coach Phil Jackson started an off-court war with Durant when he made his concerns known about the fouls called in the young superstar’s favor. Durant wasn’t pleased with Jackson’s comments and deemed them disrespectful.

Durant’s strong post play allowed him to get to the line more than any other player in the conference. This could be a factor in this series as Durant is an excellent free throw shooter. With the front court presence of forwards Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom and Ron Artest as well as the return of center Andrew Bynum, look for LA to slow down Durant’s aggressiveness in the paint.

Although this will be a tough series for LA, look for Kobe Bryant to control the tempo of the games as he will ultimately be too much for the young Thunder squad that includes point guard Russell Westbrook, forward Jeff Green and center Nenad Krstic. Westbrook’s speed will give veteran point guard Derek Fisher fits so third year point guard Jordan Farmar better be ready to play a lot of minutes.

The Lakers have tons of playoff experience and that will get them through to the next round as I see the series going six games.

No 2. Dallas Mavericks vs No. 7 San Antonio Spurs

This is the battle for Texas as the aging  but consistent San Antonio Spurs take on the surging Dallas Mavericks. The Mavs got a major upgrade in acquiring swing man Caron Butler and center Brendan Haywood from the Washington Wizards. That trade catapulted Dallas as legitimate championship contenders.

Butler provides a certain toughness that Dallas lacked in the past. Haywood brings another inside presence to compliment Eric Dampier. Along with Dirk Nowitzki, Jason Kid,  Shawn “The Matrix” Marion and a slew of role players, the Mavs are going to be a force to reckon with.

But how impressive have the Spurs been? With all the injuries and the resurgence of Manu Ginobili as well as the play of point guard George Hill, the Spurs managed to remain solid.  This season may be head coach Gregg Popovich’s biggest challenge.

This will be an enjoyable series and the Spurs will present obstacles for their Texas rival but at the end of the day, Dallas is too deep for the Spurs and will win in six games.

No. 3 Phoenix Suns vs No. 6 Portland Trail Blazers

The Phoenix Suns is my surprise team of the 2010 NBA regular season. At the beginning  of the season, no one could have predicted that they would make the playoffs, let alone be a three seed! Who right now is playing better than Amare Stoudemire at the power forward position in the west? This guy is unstoppable in the paint, especially when you have a guy like Steve Nash feeding him the ball. The team has bought into head coach Alvin Gentry’s system that produced 54 wins this season.

The Portland Trail Blazers are a remarkable story as well. Key injuries to centers Greg Oden and Joel Przbilla has hurt the team but players like Marcus Camby and LaMarcus Aldridge stepped up to help compensate for those losses. Head coach Nate McMillan has done a phenomenal  job in juggling his lineup. However, the recent injury to team captain Brandon Roy, and the uncertainty of his return for the playoffs will be fatal.

With that said, I see the Suns sweeping Portland.

No. 4 Denver Nuggets vs No. 5 Utah Jazz

This series has the making of being the toughest of all the first round western matchups. Coming into the 2009-10 season, the Denver Nuggets were the team most likely to dethrone the Lakers and represent the West in the Finals. Carmelo Anthony’s game is almost flawless. His ability to make baskets at will makes him a premier scorer. Point guard Chauncey Billups is fearless on the court and his shooting range in endless. As the floor general, Billups’ knack of putting his teammates in great situations to score is second to none.

The leadership of Anthony and Billups helped the Nuggets reached the Western Conference Finals in 2009. Role players like sharp shooter J.R. Smith, Kenyon Martin, Chris “Birdman” Anderson and Nene Hilario provides instant offensive and defensive boosts. The addition of Ty Lawson and Arron Afflalo are perfect fits for this talented Nuggets team.

The Utah Jazz started off the season a bit shaky but finished the regular season pretty strong. Point guard Deron Williams will be difficult to guard. Through his strength, Williams will wreak havoc on Denver’s back court as his ability to go to the basket is a key part of his game. Power forward Carlos Boozer will force the Nuggets’ front line to pay close attention to him in the low post. Mehmet Okur and Paul Milsap will also be a handful down low. The Nuggets will also need to defend the perimeter with three-point specialist Kyle Kover lurking around. CJ Miles is one to watch as well.

These teams are so evenly matched that it will come down to coaching . The absence of Denver’s head coach George Karl from the first round due to his treatment with throat cancer will be a key. Look for head coach Jerry Sloan to win this battle as his Utah Jazz will pull a mild upset and win in seven.

Here’s my prediction for the rest of the playoffs in the Western Conference:

Western Conference Semi Final

LA over Utah in 6; Dallas over Phoenix in 7

Western Conference Finals

LA over Dallas in 7

Now here’s a look at how I think the Eastern Conference Bracket will pan out:

 

 

 

 

 

 

No. 1 Cleveland Cavaliers vs No. 8 Chicago Bulls

Will this finally be Lebron’s year to win it all? That’s the question most fans and sports analysts wants to know. Having the best record in the league for the second consecutive season, adding Shaquille O’Neal in the off season, and acquiring an All-star forward in  Antawn Jamison from the Washington Wizards at the All Star break, one can only believe that a championship is just formality for the soon to be two time league MVP. Yes folks James will win it again this year!

At 61-21 the Cavaliers are much deeper than last year’s team that won a franchise record 66 games. They can kill you from the perimeter with the likes of Anthony Parker, Mo Williams and Delonte West. They have  low post threat of center Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Anderson Varejao, Jamison and Shaq. With all of that fire power plus “King James”,  it’s almost unfair for the rest of the teams playing in the East.

The Chicago Bulls have a young star in Derrick Rose who can change the outcome of a game all by himself. This team is full of young talent with Kirk Hinrich, Luol Deng, Joakim Noah, and first year player Taj Gibson. The problem with this team may lie internally as head coach Vinny Del Negro and team vice president John Paxson scrum amongst themselves. Obviously the two can’t get along and it’s a great chance that Chicago will have a new coach come November.

Although Chicago will play well, I find it hard to believe they will win a game in this series. Look for the Cavs to bring the broom sticks as they will sweep the Bulls.

No. 2 Orlando Magic vs No. 7 Charlotte Bobcats

Wow, the Charlotte Bobcats are in the playoffs and they’re not an 8th seed! This a feel good story for this young franchise and its fans but be careful of what you wish for. The Bobcats will have problems matching up with this Orlando Magic team. The Magic’s center, Dwight Howard is too powerful in the low post and will have a field day in the paint. If the Bobcats try to double team Howard, the Magic’s perimeter players which includes Rashard Lewis, Matt Barnes, Vince Carter and Mickael Pietrus will burn them. The Bobcats have great shooters as well. Stephen Jackson and Gerald Wallace are solid deep threats but they won’t be enough.

The Jameer Nelson/Raymond Felton matchup will be interesting but you have to give the edge to Nelson. All in all, the defending Eastern Conference champions is much deeper and too hungry for a Finals return to lose to a good Charlotte team. The Magic should wrap up the series in five.

No. 3 Atlanta Hawks vs No. 6 Milwaukee Bucks

If you don’t think that the Atlanta Hawks are for real, you better ask somebody. Atlanta’s starting lineup is as follows: Point guard Mike Bibby, who can distribute the ball at a productive rate through penetration or court vision and creates his own shot. Shooting guard Joe Johnson is incredible. He’s deadly from three-point land and will not hesitate to take you to the hole when it the opportunity presents itself. Marvin Williams, small forward, is a solid 10 points and 5 rebound per game player. Josh Smith is a stud at the power forward position. He is always around the basket collecting rebounds, altering shots with his athleticism and game changing dunks. Starting center Al Horford anchors the post and consistently provides 14 points and 10 rebounds per game. With guard Jamal Crawford coming off the bench with 18 points a game, this team runs deep offensively.

The Milwaukee Bucks can play with the best of them. Shooting guard John Salmons, rookie point guard Brandon Jennings, forward Carlos Delfino and center Andrew Bogut along with role players have guided this squad to a solid regular season finish.  The fact that they lost Bogut for the playoffs makes it almost impossible to defeat the more athletic Hawks team in a seven game series. The Hawks should sweep the Bucks.

No. 4 Boston Celtics vs No. 5 Miami Heat

The Boston Celtics has  limped their way into the postseason. The once “Team to Beat” is the most vulnerable team in this year’s playoffs. Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen and Paul Peirce are shells of the players that won the title in 2008. Injuries have taken a toll on the “Big Three” and it seems that their hunger is all but gone.

Point guard Rajon Rondo remains solid as well as center Kendrick Perkins. Bench players like power forward/ center Glen Davis, point guard Nate Robinson, shooting guard Michael Finley, center Rasheed Wallace and small forward Marquis Daniels will be key in determining Boston’s advancement throughout the playoffs.

Dwayne Wade and his Miami Heat packs a mean punch. Wade has the perfect complement of players in Carlos Arroyo at the point, small forward Quentin Richardson, second year power forward Michael Beasley and center Jermaine O’Neal.

This clearly is a match-up of youth versus age and all signs point to the Heat winning the series, but Boston has the heart of a champion and provided that they can stay healthy, I see the Celtics winning a hard-fought battle in seven.

Here’s my prediction for the rest of the playoffs in the Eastern Conference:

Eastern Conference Semi Final

Cleveland over Boston in 6; Orlando over Atlanta in 6

Eastern Conference Finals

Orlando over Cleveland in 6

 

 

NBA FINALS MATCH-UP:

Los Angeles over Orlando in 7

By Keith Madyun

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