Eastern Conference X-Factors
Five guys to swing the first round and beyond.
by Colin Powers
The Eastern Conference offers an assortment of diverse teams and styles along with some intriguing potential matchups. Every squad as holes, even King James’ band of merry men, despite their overwhelming regular season achievements. Is Antawn Jamison really the difference maker?…I’m not so sure.
As it has been since its birth, basketball is a team game that demands the efficiency and congruence of all five parts on the floor. Yes, the game also provides the platform for individuals to excel and assert their will on the proceedings, but nobody can win alone. In the next couple months, we can accurately project within a reasonable margin of error how the stars will perform. Who else will step up in the East to define these Playoffs? Who else will seize the moment and transcend like Camby during the Knickerbockers ’99 run?
TYSON CHANDLER: This series will undoubtedly be amongst the least aesthetically pleasing we will encounter in the first round. Two defensive coaches. Two talented defensive teams. No truly, dynamic offensive player. We could be in for a ‘classic’ late 90’s contest of brute and discipline along the lines of Knicks-Heat. If Charlotte can find a little rhythm offensively, whether through the playmaking swag of Captain Jack, the Boris Diaw conundrum or Ray Felton/DJ Augustin’s ability to break down the D, they certainly have the bodies to defend Orlando’s perimeter threats and win some ball games. With Gerald Wallace, Ty Thomas, Jax, Diaw, Graham, and co., the Bobcats have a roster of long, athletic, tough-minded defensive players aptly suited for the Magic attack. The question is, do they have anyone to keep Dwight from having a decisively monster series? Ratliff and Ajinca are useful enough for the 12 combined fouls they can offer, but it may come down to Tyson and his health. He cannot match Howard in sheer power, but he does have the speed, quickness, and leaping ability to keep the Magic big man from easy transition buckets and follow-ups. If he can take away those cheap 2’s, I could see Orlando growing very stale on offense. Keep it tight and shorten the games, that’s always the strategy for the underdog. If successful in that, Charlotte might be in position to steal a couple purely on the resolve of Stephen Jackson.
MIKE BEASLEY: We’ve already heard how important Beasley’s production will be for Miami from Dwyane Wade, how the young fella will be the focus of KG’s barking and mind games, how the precocious PF could swing the series. I’m in total agreement with Flash’s assessment. I fully expect Wade to go off, his play of the last few months a return to the vitality of the ’08 summer with Team USA and his individual destruction of the League last year. With that much a given, I think the Celtics also present a favorable match-up for the former K-Stater. There is no one in Doc’s stable who can truly handle the full compliment of Beasley’s gifts. KG isn’t quite quick enough to chase him out on the perimeter and the Truth and Marquis Daniels don’t quite have the size to handle him inside. If Mike keeps his head and trusts his ability, we could witness his long-awaited arrival as a force in the League.
RAJON RONDO: Rondo has been the Celtics best player this season, hands down. The 4th quarter offense will still run through PP, but Rondo could be the real difference-maker in the series. He’ll be in the lane for the entirety, providing a big plus for the C’s at the PG position. When endgame manifests and the Miami defenders back off of the Kentucky product, daring him to shoot, will he shrink and defer or continue to establish his will on the game? My money is on a big showing from Rajon, who nonsensically continues to be neglected by the media as the 4th guy on this team. That’s just not reality anymore.
JAMAL CRAWFORD: At long last, the shot-making talisman of crunch time gets his moment in the Playoffs. Jamal has put together a terrific season, providing exactly what ATL needed of him, partnering with Silent Joe in the 4th quarter to deliver gut punches all year long. Though at times in the recent past he has been infuriating with his meandering drives, over-dribbling, and proclivity for long-range jump-shot, Crawford has matured and found a place with the Hawks that aptly suits his unique abilities. When he gets it going, defensive strategies become irrelevant; he can get the look he wants regardless of any intentions the opposition might have. That’s just the nature of his game. Atlanta should handle Milwaukee without facing an exigency that demands the full compliments of Crawford’s skills. Moving forward, though, the Hawks do not have a consistently creative individual scorer on the roster beyond JJ (Smoove is getting there). They will need a couple 30+ point games as well as 4th quarter wizardry from Craw if they have ambitions of becoming real contenders this season. I think he’s got it in him…after all, there are rumors that MJ refers to Crawford as the best 2-on-2 partner he ever played with, finishing their career together undefeated (apparently they played a lot together when Jamal was a young fella with the Bulls and MJ was still living in Chicago).
MO WILLIAMS: After all the tireless hustle of GM Danny Ferry to surround the King with the talent necessary to combat Orlando’s Stretch 4’s/Dwight and LA’s interior length and playmaking, I still think it will come down to Mo. We may see something historic from LeBron in the coming months, but if his kick-outs aren’t consistently resulting in a +3 for the Cavs on the scoreboard, we may witness the return of the 1 v. 5, back-it-out and charge stagnation that has poisoned Cleveland’s offense the last two post-seasons. If they devolve into that kind of approach, they are very beatable.
A lot of this will hinge on Mo. There are games when he looks spectacular, getting into the lane, finding passing angles, banging open shots, genuinely holding himself as an elite player in the League (he was brilliant against Chicago last week with LeBron sitting in what absolutely should not be referred to as ‘street clothes’). Then there are games when he loses that confidence, turns things completely over to LeBron, stands on the perimeter and hopes the 3s will drop as they leave his hand. Last year was his baptism of fire in post-season basketball. There are no more excuses this time around. If he plays big, Cleveland wins the chip. Period.