First up for the #1 seeded Cavaliers is a bout with their arch-nemesis, the Detroit Pistons. My, it’s truly incredible how far the Pistons have fallen in just a season. After spending six straight post-seasons in the Eastern Conference Finals, Detroit decided to swap Chauncey Billups for Allen Iverson, and it quickly became clear that Billups was the glue holding the entire team together. After being a mainstay near the top of the East standings, the Pistons dropped to the #8 seed and 4 games below .500 on the season. The Cavs won the season series 3-1.
Despite all of the classic battles that have been waged between these two teams in the LeBron-era, this match up does not really concern me as a Cavs fan. The Pistons are clearly a shell of their former great rosters, and the Cavs are much better on both the offensive and defensive ends of the floor. I believe the key to this series will be the bench play from both teams. The Cavs have arguably the deepest bench in the Eastern Conference, as having the likes of Wally, Boobie Gibson, Sasha Pavlovic and Joe Smith will prove to be too much for the Pistons’ bench to maintain. The Cavs are also helpful that Ben Wallace will be able to suit up for game 1 Saturday afternoon, and this will only add to the team’s depth and defensive presence. Will Bynum and Aaron Afflalo, Detroit will have problems sustaining energy and the effort level that Cleveland will bring. Simply put, LeBron and Co. will be able to simply impose their will during crunch time, as this Detroit team has a habit of folding under adversity when things begin to turn against them.
Still, despite all their shortcomings, Detroit is a savvy, veteran bunch. I feel that the Cavs will smack them around pretty good in games 1 and 2, and then I will be slightly concerned about game 3 at the Palace. I don’t have much doubt about the Cavs winning, but won’t be surprised to see them come up just short in one of the games at Detroit.
Prediction: Cavs in 5
The news today that Kevin Garnett’s knee injury is much more serious than originally thought certainly sent shock waves around the league. Hell, it even gave Danny Ainge a heart attack! But Danny should take it easy, as I still feel that Pierce and Allen will be too much for the inconsistent Bulls. Having seen them play many times this season, Chicago lacks the consistent inside play, and would need a monster series from Tyrus Thomas and Joakim Noah to pull off the upset, even despite KG’s absence. Still, Chicago will be a difficult out.
Prediction: Celtics in 6
On paper, this series certainly seems like a complete mismatch. The off-season signing of Elton Brand didn’t pay off at all for Philly, and the Magic can flat out stroke it from anywhere on the court. But when you try to take that part of their game away, they feed it inside to Dwight Howard (which they should do more often). Orlando is nursing a couple injuries to Lewis and Turkoglu, but when healthy they are very, very good. Tough not to like the Magic here.
Prediction: Magic in 5
This might end up being the most hotly-contested and closest first-round match up in the East. Atlanta has been laying in the weeds all season by virtue of being behind the East’s top 3, but they are underrated. For Miami, D-Wade is phenomenal. When he’s on the court and healthy, no team is going to enjoy seeing Miami on the other side of the court. I see this almost as a coin-flip, with the nod going to the Hawks and home-court advantage.
Prediction: Hawks in 7
Switching over to the Western Conference, we begin with Kobe and the dominant Lakers. They’ll be squaring off with Utah, where Deron Williams will try to keep Utah afloat. While I don’t see the Lakers having nearly the easy path to the finals as some experts, I don’t think they will do much fooling around in the first round.
Prediction: Lakers in 5
I’m really looking forward to Chauncey and Chris Paul dueling it out in what promises to be a high-scoring, entertaining series. Denver has been one of the hottest teams in the NBA over the last several weeks, and that enabled them to climb into the #2 seed behind L.A. Can Carmelo finally have some meaningful games in the playoffs? This certainly is his best chance yet.
Prediction: Nuggets in 6
Trying to pick a winner in this series pretty tough. The Spurs really seem to be on their last legs, and age is certainly starting to affect them greatly. However, their slow tempo really is made for the post-season, and they clearly have the track record of being able to thrive under the bright lights of the playoffs. Dallas, on the other hand, probably feels like they have a great chance to pull off the first round upset. Dirk Nowitzki can still score with the best of ’em, Jason Kidd is still a triple-double threat, and Jason Terry might win the NBA sixth man of the year award. This sure seems like it has game 7 written all over it. And with that, I’ll take the team that’s been there before, and who also has the home court in that game. I’ve got this one penciled as the best series of the first round.
Prediction: Spurs in 7
Trail Blazers vs. Rockets
I’ve been telling anyone who would listen over the last month or two that these are the two teams that have the best chance to deter the Lakers on their path to the NBA Finals. Unfortunately, they couldn’t get away from each other, and will face off in the West’s 4-5 match up. Houston’s size with Yao in the middle is tough for any team to handle, and having Ron Artest to match up with the opposing teams’ best player is also a nice asset. For Portland, Brandon Roy is incredible. They are also extremely tough to beat at the Rose Garden, where the home court happens to reside. Another tough call, but Portland has been simply too hot down the stretch, and I think the momentum will carry over in the playoffs.
Prediction: Trail Blazers in 7