The playoffs are now upon us. Without Kevin Garnett, experts say it makes the outcome a lot more predictable (Cavaliers v Lakers in the finals). Still, let’s not get carried away and look too far ahead! Here’s a look at the first round match-ups. This is a breakdown of the series which start on Saturday.
(1) Cleveland Cavaliers v (8) Detroit Pistons
These two Central Division teams have had some great battles in past post-seasons (2006 & 2007) and on those occasions the Pistons were the overwhelming favourites. Now the script has been flipped and I don’t see the Pistons upsetting LeBron & Co. The Cavaliers just have too much of everything…too much LBJ23, arguably one of the best team chemistries and the best home crowd. The Pistons still have experienced veterans Richard Hamilton, Tayshaun Prince and Rasheed Wallace and Rodney Stuckey complements Rip nicely in the backcourt. But no one can stop Cleveland this year. Verdict: Cavaliers in 5.
(2) Boston Celtics v (7) Chicago Bulls
With Garnett being sidelined for at least the first round of the playoffs (let’s not rule him out altogether just yet!), this series looks a bit more promising for the Bulls. Thanks to leading Rookie-of-the-Year candidate Derrick Rose, Ben Gordon and John Salmons, Chicago can run and gun. Still, the Celtics have experience on their side and can rely on the clutch play of Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Rajon Rondo. It also doesn’t hurt that they have the valuable home court advantage. While they may be without KG, Leon Powe and Glen ‘Big Baby’ Davis have stepped up in the Big Ticket’s absence and should prove good enough to power them past the Bulls. Verdict: Celtics in 6.
(3) San Antonio Spurs v (6) Dallas Mavericks
A Texan rivalry has been renewed…well, sort of. The Spurs and Mavericks meet in the playoffs for the first time since 2006. Back then, Dirk Nowitzki led his Mavs past the defending champions for a place in the NBA finals (where they would eventually lose to Dwyane Wade and the Miami Heat). Manu Ginobili is out for the Spurs with a stress fracture while Josh Howard’s troublesome ankle is of concern for the Mavericks, it’s hard to know what to expect this time around. The Spurs still have Tim Duncan and Tony Parker while Nowitzki is well assisted by Jason Kidd and Sixth Man of the Year candidate Jason Terry. As we saw last year though, Ginobili truly is the X factor for the Spurs. As he goes, the team goes. Without him, they have fewer options offensively. When he and Parker are healthy, teams have to ask themselves what’s “least worse” – letting Manu or Parker get into the paint? Now the Spurs’ opponents don’t have to worry as much. Verdict: Mavericks in 6
(4) Portland Trailblazers v (5) Houston Rockets
In my mind this is probably the most exciting first-round match-up. There are bad streaks both teams will be keen to put an end to. The Blazers make their first playoff appearance since 2003 and have failed to get past the first round since back-to-back conference finals appearances in 1999 and 2000 (the latter must be memorable for all the wrong reasons as they saw a 15-point advantage over the Lakers evaporate in the final quarter of Game 7…at Staples Center). The Rockets meanwhile have yet to win a playoff series in the ‘Yao era’. In fact you have to go all the way back to the 1997 and the first season of their so-called “Big Three” (Hakeem Olajuwon-Clyde Drexler-Charles Barkley) for their last extended post-season run…one which ended on John Stockton’s buzzer beating three-pointer in Game 6 of the Conference finals. Of course things have changed drastically for both teams since. The Blazers have shaken off their Jailblazers image and actually look pretty squeaky clean these days (that will happen when you change the face of your franchise from Rasheed Wallace to Brandon Roy). The Rockets tried the one-two punch of Yao Ming and Steve Francis for just two years before bringing Tracy McGrady in place of Francis. But health has been an issue for the Rockets and so it came as no surprise again this year when T-Mac packed it in for the season, opting for knee surgery. Well actually it came as a surprise to his coach Rick Adelman who only found out about it from reporters! Now for the series itself: The Rockets have thrived in McGrady’s absence, with Ron Artest becoming a more integral part of the offense and unknown players such as Von Wafer and Aaron Brooks making the most of their opportunities. Yao has been a model of consistency averaging 20 points and 10 rebounds. For the Blazers, it’s all about Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge, but they also have an outstanding supporting cast with Travis Outlaw, the underrated Steve Blake, Spanish rookie sensation (and fan favourite) Rudy Fernandez, Frenchman Nicolas Batum and the inside duo of Joel Przybilla and 2007 No 1 draft pick Greg Oden. Most experts see this series going to seven games with the Blazers losing because of their lack of experience to which I have to ask: Hold on! Artest and Dikembe Mutombo are the only Rockets players to have played past the first round of the post-season and in both their cases it was a few years ago. I would expect that Yao and Shane Battier have learned a thing or two from the Game 7s they’ve been involved in. However, I’m going to go with the Blazers because they have shown they can keep their poise and composure against the best teams in the league (see Lakers) and coach Nate McMillan has made sure each player knows his role. Verdict: Blazers in 7.