Stretch Run Dime
While gearing up for an exciting finish, don’t miss these remaining games.
by Doobie Okon
Only the Cavaliers and Lakers have solidified their position as the top dog in their respective conferences. The rest of the squads are still jockeying for seeding and it’s a jumbled mess, but that’s great for the League. The NBA season is long enough, so it’s exciting that the teams will need to scratch and claw until the end. I have a feeling this year’s Playoffs will be a beaut, especially in the West where only 4.5 games currently separate the seven teams behind L.A. The stretch run is here, and all the following games are possible previews of the action to come in the postseason.
1 ) Cavaliers at Celtics: Sun, 4/4, 1:00 (ET), National TV: ABC
When they could meet: Second round. Boston is only a game behind Atlanta for third but I think the C’s remain the worst of the four best squads in the East.
This game means more to the Celtics than it does the Cavs so I expect Boston to win. The Celts are still an elite team in the East, but they are just too old for their own good sometimes. The defense is still staggering, but as Garnett, Pierce, Allen and Sheed fight age and injuries, the scoring often disappears. They have only topped triple digits 14 times in 2010 out of 43 games. Let’s face it: Boston’s window is fleeting.
On the other hand, the Cavs are clicking on all cylinders and have been all season. Even without Shaq, it seems the rest of the team has increased their level of play. Antawn Jamison has been ‘effectively serviceable’, averaging 16 and 8 since joining Cleveland. But he doesn’t need to be dominant as LeBron is running away with the MVP award and looks determined as ever to get a ring. The Cavs should handle Boston if they meet up in May.
Prediction: Boston wins a close one.
2 ) Spurs at Lakers: Sun, 4/4, 3:30 (ET), National TV: ABC
When they could meet: Who woulda thunk? As of right now, this is your one vs. eight first round matchup, folks. For most of the decade, Los Angeles and San Antonio have finished at or near the top of the standings together, but now a potential disaster could be facing the defending champs in the opening series. I’m not saying they’ll pull it off, but who better to play the role of 8th seeded spoiler than the experienced Spurs?
People are questioning the Lakers now that they’ve lost three of four, but is this really a sign of a team falling apart? Highly doubtful. Honestly, I think professional teams can get a little bored sometimes, and the Lakers are still sitting pretty with a four game lead for the top seed. My guess is they will finish out the season strong and feel confident getting Andrew Bynum back right before the postseason starts.
As for the Spurs, this game is key. If they do draw L.A. in the first round, a win like this could do wonders for their psyche against last year’s champions. I really don’t expect the Lakers to lose in the opening round, but San Antonio should cherish the opportunity to strike a little fear into Kobe and co. at the Staples Center a week before the postseason begins. The Spurs are 12-5 in March and have too much talent to be overlooked, especially with the emergence of George Hill as a serious scoring threat since taking over for Tony Parker. Hill has averaged 16.5 ppg in March including a 30 point outburst against the Rockets on Wednesday and could be an x-factor come Playoff time.
Prediction: Although the Spurs are hot, L.A. will get its act together just in time. Lakers by 7.
When they could meet: The other (and far less intriguing) possible first round match-up in the Eastern conference between the best and worst. Whereas the Spurs have a small chance, the Cavs will walk all over Toronto, especially in the first two games at Quicken Loans like this matchup.
Honestly, things just aren’t looking good in Canada. The Raptors showed flashes throughout the season of being a solid group, but like too many teams in the NBA, they can score without playing a lick of defense. Some people think Bosh would have stayed if Toronto showed serious signs of improvement, but they just remain a .500 squad, and their star will probably be headed for the border. Have fun in this one as well as the first round, Toronto.
Prediction: Cavs by double digits. And for that matter, first round sweepage.
4 ) Hawks at Bobcats: Tues, 4/6, 7:00 (ET)
When they could meet: It’s looking like first round or bust. Unless Charlotte overtakes Miami or Milwaukee (which is highly unlikely considering how well both teams are playing) and lands in 6th, it doesn’t seem likely the Bobcats will upset the Magic in the opening round to set up a series with Atlanta.
Having said that, let’s give it up for the Charlotte Bobcats. Barring a complete meltdown, the Bobcats will clinch their first postseason birth. It’s a first step for an expansion team who has done it the right way. They hired a coach in Larry Brown who can only garner respect at this point for turning a laughable team into the best defensive squad in the East. Combine defense, Larry Brown, loads of young talent and also a vastly underrated vet in Gerald Wallace who could flourish in the spotlight, and the Bobcats definitely have a shot at a series. The only catch is they need to move out of the bottom two seeds.
Atlanta has been one of my favorite teams all season and I can’t wait to see how they do in the postseason. I fully expect them to beat whomever they draw in the first round to set up a great division series with the Magic. Atlanta finally got that Orlando monkey off their back, beating the Magic 86-84 in the last matchup of their season series on March 24th. Should be interesting to see who, out of Atlanta’s best six players, really shines in showtime. My vote goes to Josh Smith although don’t discount Jamal Crawford since it’s his first trip to the Playoffs in nine seasons and you know he wants to do damage.
Prediction: While I await the Hawks-Magic series, Atlanta must not overlook a potential first round matchup against Charlotte. The Bobcats are an excited team and that could be dangerous. The Hawks would probably win that series, but Charlotte takes this game by 4.
5 ) Thunder at Jazz: Tues, 4/6, 9:00 (ET)
When they could meet: With the Thunder currently occupying the sixth seed and Utah holding onto the third, this is your first round matchup if the season ended today. But it doesn’t, and the West is far too close to predict yet.
But if this game should be an opening-round preview, it’d be quite the captivating series. Like the Bobcats, Oklahoma City deserves some major applause and respect. While they aren’t exactly an expansion team they should be looked at as one. Not only did they lose their two biggest stars in Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis in 2007, but the franchise had to deal with an emotional and nasty departure from Seattle. Let’s face it, the franchise was in turmoil and had to start from square one in Oklahoma City. And that’s exactly what they did. Through the draft, they got their superstar in Kevin Durant in their last year in Seattle, two great role players in Jeff Green and Russell Westbrook, and built around this core to reach the postseason far earlier than anyone thought. Durant is the X-factor of the Playoffs. He is Jordan-esque; he could lead any team to a victory by himself, let alone a pretty solid one in the Thunder. That’s all I’m saying.
Utah has just been downright on in 2010. Since the calendar turned, the Jazz are 32-12 but have not beaten the Thunder once this season. They’ll need to win this one so a season sweep isn’t on their mind heading into this potential first-round matchup, which I would love to see.
On another note, Deron-Boozer isn’t quite Stockton-Malone, but they ain’t far off either. Jerry Sloan’s gotta love his life.
Prediction: The Thunder get the sweep on the road. The Jazz better watch out if KD visits Salt Lake City in his first postseason trip.
6 ) Cavaliers at Bulls: Thurs, 4/8, 8:00 (ET), National TV: TNT
When they could meet: Ok, D-Rose. I like the confidence. But, if the Bulls’ star is right about Chicago facing Cleveland in the first round, they’ve got quite an uphill battle. The Bulls are already two games behind Toronto for the 8th seed, and six of their final eight games are against Playoff teams. Is it possible? Of course, but something tells me Chicago needs to win this game to earn the right to play the dominant Cavs again one week later when it matters.
The pesky Bulls remain the only NBA team currently out of the Playoffs who still have a shot. If they somehow manage to overcome that 10-game skid at the beginning of March to make the Playoffs, it’d be quite a feat. Derrick Rose is steadily improving as a player and a leader, putting up 22.4 points and 6.1 dimes in 2010. And he’s clearly being vocal about his team’s goals and it could speak volumes to the rest of the squad. But Chicago has nagging health concerns with Hinrich, Noah and Deng all being day-to-day and I think Bulls have to win at least six of their final eight to have a shot.
Prediction: No chance, Chi-town. At least not in this game. Cavs by 9.
7 ) Lakers at Nuggets: Thurs, 4/8, 10:30 (ET), National TV: TNT
When they could meet: Who the hell knows. Again, it’s way too early to figure out the West, and this is the perfect case in point. All season it seemed like we were destined to have a fantastic repeat of the Western Conference Finals between L.A. and Denver. But after playing months of consistent basketball, the Nuggets have lost five of six and are now in danger of losing out on home court for even the first round.
The Nuggs are in a tough spot. After struggling the last couple weeks, Denver finds itself lost in the cluster of the Western teams, as Kenyon Martin remains out, possibly for the season, and George Karl continues to recover until the Playoffs. I’ve loved Denver all year, but things aren’t looking up right now. That’s why Playoffs are special since only the true stars emerge in the trying times. So, is Carmelo ready to step up and lead his team back to the WCF, or will Denver just fade? First step for the Nuggs is to gain back home court, at least for the opening round.
Prediction: Lakers win by 3, but it doesn’t mean much as far as the Playoffs go. Denver is already 2-1 verse L.A. this season.
8 ) Suns at Thunder: Fri, 4/9, 8:00 (ET)
When they could meet: Either first or second round, but it seems like Phoenix will get the important home advantage over OKC if they should happen to cross paths in the postseason. The Suns are scorching hot as they’ve won nine straight and are gunning for Dallas and the second seed.
The more I write about the West, the more excited I get to watch it unfold. The Lakers do indeed have the advantage, but every squad is just as strong as the next and I wouldn’t be surprised if any of the eight team get to the Finals.
Take for instance, the Phoenix Suns. Phoenix started the year on a 14-3 blaze but slowly fell back to Earth. They dropped to 26-21 following a loss to Charlotte on January 26th and most people had the Suns written off in the middle of year, especially with huge trade rumors swirling around Amar’e Stoudemire.
Well, the Suns can thank their lucky stars they held onto their big man, as it seems the deadline passing has rejuvenated Amar’e. The Suns reeled off five straight victories after February 18th came and went, and Amare has averaged 26.7 points and 9.7 boards since then after putting up 21.2 and 8.6 before the all-star break. Amazing stuff.
So why not the Suns? A dominant big man and a quick, wide-eyed point guard can get you very far in this league. Not to mention the fact that Steve Nash is just lethal with his shot. Again, why not the Suns?
Prediction: Suns get the road win by 5. This would be an interesting series, though—the season series is split at 1-1 so far.
When they could meet: I guess the running theme of this article is the pointlessness of trying to predict the West’s final seedings. But this would be a first-round preview if the season ended today, and with the Blazers finally getting their act together in the final weeks of the season, the series would be just as entertaining as any other in the Wild.
I think everyone forgets the Blazers were picked by many to finish right behind the Lakers this year. Nate McMillan should get some recognition for Coach of the Year as his team lost both of their centers, Greg Oden and Joel Pryzbilla, to injuries but have come on strong the last couple of months to lock up a spot in the postseason. Portland has won nine of 10 and 16 of 21 while Lamarcus Aldridge is stepping up and their deadline acquisition, Marcus Camby, is doing what he was brought into to do – clean up on the glass. He is putting up over 10 boards a game for the Blazers.
But here are two thoughts about Portland: a) Like Charlotte, they are the best defensive squad in their conference but also put up the least amount of points. If both of these teams lose in the first round, maybe it is just further proof that the NBA is much more of an offensive game these days. No pun intended. But maybe Portland’s ‘D’ will carry them, that is if…b) Brandon Roy does his thing. Because the NBA is about offense, and Roy is the best option they’ve got by far. Andre Miller will provide much needed veteran presence during the postseason but in the end — as Roy goes the Blazers go.
What can I say about the Dallas Mavericks, though? Well, let’s do it like this:
Prediction: Mavs win by 8.
Bolder Prediction: Dallas Mavericks — Western Conference Champions.
Oh, I don’t know. Maybe it’s because they are 17-4 since acquiring Caron Butler and Brendan Haywood for Josh Howard (and others) right before the deadline. Along with everyone else who a clue, I knew this was a steal for the Mavs. Butler isn’t even fully healthy yet and Dallas is still dominating.
It is the same for the Mavs as it is for Portland though — as Nowitzki goes the Mavericks go. And Dirk is not slowing down whatsoever, always playing a big role in fourth quarters and consistently leading his team to victories. This is now Dallas’ tenth year in a row with at least 50 victories, and the majority of the credit should go to the big German. You heard it here, first. Dallas vs. Cleveland in the Finals. By the way, I’m not ignoring the fact that I predicted the Celtics to win the championship (http://www.slamonline.com/online/nba/2010/01/dimes-all-around/), back around New Years. But, yeah, don’t think that’s happening anymore.
10 ) Celtics at Bucks: Sat, 4/10, 8:30 (ET)
When they could meet: And yet another opening round sneak peek. Milwaukee has just been on fire since the all star break to everyone’s surprise, and if they could split in Boston, there’s no reason to think an upset over the aging C’s is impossible.
Back to my New Years prediction — sorry Celts. It’s not that I think Boston is incapable of getting to the Finals. It’s just LeBron is too strong. Orlando is too strong. And when I think Milwaukee has a serious chance to pull off the upset against Bean-town in the first round, I gotta start rethinking my impressions of Boston right before the Playoffs. Garnett’s “Michael F*cking Jordan” was pretty hilarious, by the way, but would you want to hear that from your star player if your team has serious Playoff aspirations? Boston just looks a little defeated.
Milwaukee, on the other hand, is trying to play this year’s Cinderella. I honestly don’t know where they came from. The Bucks are an astounding 23-8 since January 27th. Andrew Bogut has finally awoken and is playing like a beast. He’s a double-double machine and is delivering as he gets more touches this season with 13.2 shots per game, by far his career high. And Brandon Jennings has had an up and down year but has so much potential and can drop 30 any given night. Or five. You never know.
But the real key has been John Salmons. Of course…John Salmons. You know, it really annoys me sometimes how a player can go from being awful on a Philly team and flourishes for another franchise. Seems to happen way too often. Anyways…Salmons must be loving the cheese up there in Wisco, because he is straight carrying the Bucks. After averaging under 13 points for the Bulls this season, he has put up nearly 20 a night for Milwaukee since the trade. He’s also shot an amazing 87.6 percent from the stripe, way above his career high of 80.4 percent. Don’t sleep on these Bucks — everyone loves an underdog.
Prediction: The game means something to both teams as they are still jockeying for position, and the Bucks will win by 6. Let’s see if Milwaukee becomes the third team in a row to give the Celtics a difficult first-round series.