NBA Playoff Preview: Conference Semifinals

The first round of the NBA playoffs has finally wrapped up, and the Conference Semifinals are quickly set to get started on Sunday afternoon. Looking back at my first round picks, I was fairly pleased with the results. Houston’s size was clearly more of a problem for Portland than I realized, as they bounced the Trail Blazers despite not owning the home court advantage. The same can also be said about the San Antonio Spurs, whose collective age finally reached the point where they lost in the first round for the first time in the Tim Duncan-era to the Dallas Mavericks. This was also my pick for the best series of the first round. Brilliant. By now, we all just got done enjoying the greatest first round series in NBA history. Years from now, we’ll still be able to look back and talk about Boston vs. Chicago and just how great this series actually was. Outside of Boston’s rout in game 3, just about every game was an instant classic. Finally, the Cavs also took care of business in the first round in very impressive fashion against the sluggish Pistons, as they became just the 3rd team in NBA history to sweep an opponent,while winning each game by double digits. Now, let’s take a look at the second round…

CAVS/Hawks

As stated above, the Cavs were heavy favorites to beat the Detroit, and they did so in workman-like fashion. Their swarming defense completely suffocated the Pistons, and their offensive execution allowed them to stay one step ahead of Detroit throughout all four games. Their next opponent, the Atlanta Hawks, just finished one of the most bizarre series in NBA history. Their series against Miami went to the deciding seventh game, but each and every game was a blowout. The average margin of victory was over 20 points! Basically, whichever team jumped out to a lead in the 1st quarter was able to cruise to a relatively easy victory. The Cavs will come into this series very well rested, as they will be playing Tuesday night’s game 1 after having 8 full days off to rest their bodies and scout the Hawks. It will be interesting to see if the extra time off will cause any rust, as they will probably be a little sluggish in their first half back in action.

In this series, the Cavaliers will be dealing with a much more athletic team than the archaic Pistons that they were able to pick apart. Joe Johnson might be the most underrated all-star currently in the NBA, and Mike Bibby is a solid floor general who can still hit the outside shot. Al Horford is coming off an ankle injury, and while still not 100 percent, his presence was able to impact today’s game 7 in Atlanta. The very athletic, although immature, Josh Smith could also pose a threat if he is able to get into the open court. They certainly have a handful of players who can beat you on the offensive end of the floor. It is certainly going to take a strong team-oriented defensive effort by the Cavs to slow them down. But I think that on the opposite end of the floor is where the Cavs will make their noise in this series. Their offensive execution, with the lone exception of the 3rd quarter of game 3 vs. Detroit, was phenomenal. In that period, their ball movement slowed to a crawl, and it seemed to be a reminder of how they can get into trouble when that occurs.

Atlanta is playing in the second round for the first time in ten years, and even though they have several players, such as Bibby, who have tasted playoff success before, one has to wonder if their relative playoff inexperience will come into play. But they are still a very good team, and especially tough on their home court at Phillips Arena. They will certainly keep this series entertaining, but in the end, LeBron and Co. will impose their will and clamp down defensively late in close games. Atlanta will steal one at home, but the Cavs will move on. The Cavaliers won the season series, 3-1.

Prediction: Cavs in 5

Celtics/Magic

The Celtics come into this series having just outlasted the Bulls in an epic first round series. It will be interesting to see just how much they have left in the tank after essentially playing an 8 game series, when you factor in all the overtime periods. Orlando comes in after displacing Philadelphia in a series that was closer than most had predicted. Philly was up in the series 2-1, and engaged in a close battle at home in game 4 before Hedo Turkoglu’s clutch three-pointer evened the series, and eventually paved the way for Orlando to move on. They finished the series by convincingly winning game 6 in Philly without the suspended Dwight Howard and an injured Courtney Lee. Boston is also hurting, with Kevin Garnett allegedly set to miss another series (I’m skeptical), and big man Leon Powe out for the playoffs with a torn ACL. Boston has all the playoff savvy, with veterans and leadership in Paul Pierce that knows what it takes to win in the playoffs. Orlando has surrounded Howard with plenty of talented shooters. When Turkoglu and Rashard Lewis are making their 3’s, they are a very tough team to beat. Hopefully my prediction is better this time around, but I see this series going the distance, as this will be the best series of the Conference Semifinals. The season series was tied, 2-2.

Prediction: Boston in 7

Lakers/Rockets

The #1 seeded Lakers will get their first real test of the playoffs when they match up with the Houston Rockets in the second round. Los Angeles took care of business against the Utah Jazz, as Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol led a balanced attack in round 1. Houston surprised me a little in the first round. Hindsight is 20/20, but I should have known that when two evenly matched teams square off, a lot of times the winner is going to be the team that is hungrier and simply wants it more. After not being able to make it out of the first round for the last several seasons, Houston was able to put it together behind Yao Ming in the middle and Ron Artest’s terrorizing defense. I really think that Houston is going to give the Lakers a lot more trouble than most of the experts are predicting, as the Rockets might be the one team that is bigger than LA inside. It’s still tough to see the Lakers losing the series, but I feel that it will be highly contested. If they get there, game 6 in Houston could be a classic, and also could go either way. The Lakers swept the season series, 4-0.

Prediction: Lakers in 6

Nuggets/Mavericks

Denver made fairly short work of the New Orleans Hornets in the first round, headlined by a 58 point drubbing, in New Orleans, in game 4. Carmelo and Co. finally have made it out of the first round, and will now be taking on a Dallas squad that is playing their best basketball of the season. The Mavericks exposed just how old the Spurs have become, and really played well in the first round. Kenyon Martin is going to be given the chore of trying to knock Dirk Nowitzki off of his game. Despite their lack of success in the postseason in recent years, I really feel like Denver has the better team in this series. Dallas will definitely be in it the whole way, but I think Cauncey Billups, ‘Melo, and Martin down low will prove to be too much for Dallas. Denver swept the season series, 4-0.

Prediction: Nuggets in 6

Please feel free to comment/post about any of these predictions, or just in general about the games ahead. There are some great match ups forthcoming, as these NBA playoffs should be quite memorable.

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