(1) Detroit Pistons v. (8) Orlando Magic- The epitome of a #1/#8 match-up. Consider the following: 1) The Pistons, clearly the top team in the Eastern Conference, have been on cruise control for six weeks; 2) The Magic, after starting the season 14-5, had to fight until the last week of the season to secure a playoff spot with a record of 40-42; 3) Detroit won all four regular season meetings, including April 11 (the only time Orlando broke 90 points vs. Detroit), a game that was vital to Orlando’s playoff push and meaningless to Detroit.
Here’s how they stack up:
Frontcourt: With Rasheed Wallace, Tayshun Prince, Chris Webber and Antonio McDyess, the Pistons’ frontcourt is the deepest and most talented in the NBA. It’s hard to see anybody matching up well, offensively or defensively, against
Backcourt: Not a contest. With all due respect to Jameer Nelson and Trevor Ariza, it’s impossible to see them as anything more than a slight nuisance to the Pistons’ starting guards, Chauncey Billups and Rip Hamilton.
Coaching: Not a lot to choose between Flip Saunders and Brian Hill- neither is terrible; neither is particularly great. Saunders has a decided edge in regular season winning percentage (.584 v. .486), but Hill’s 18-18 postseason record outpaces Saunders’ 27-38 mark, and each lost his only trip to the NBA Finals.
Prediction: Pistons in 4. The over/under for the Magic is 2- not for wins, but games with 80 or more points. The playoffs are where the Pistons thrive. DEE-TROIT BAS-KET-BALL is built for this. This series is unlikely to be competitive.
(2) Cleveland Cavaliers v. (7) Washington Wizards- With the Wizards having lost two of their three best players, Gilbert Arenas and Caron Butler, to injury, LeBron James and the Cavaliers have the NBA equivalent of a first-round bye. With both teams at full strength,
Frontcourt: Even without the injuries, James, Zydrunas Ilguaskas and the underrated Drew Gooden in the starting lineup, and Anderson Varejao and Donyell Marshall coming off the bench, give Cleveland the edge in the frontcourt. Antawn Jamison will get his points, but guarding LeBron or Gooden is more than he can handle. And without
Backcourt: Gilbert Arenas, the NBA’s best pure scorer not named Kobe Bryant, would single-handedly have given
Coaching: Both Mike Brown and Eddie Jordan are decent young coaches, but nothing special. Brown’s Cavs, though talented, were plagued by inconsistent and indifferent play all season. That they won 50 games says less about Brown’s coaching prowess than it does about the level of play in the East.
The Wizards ran out to a 31-21 start and were headed for a high playoff seed until the wheels came off in February. Terrible play on defense, along with season-ending injuries to Arenas and
In a close race, the edge here goes to Brown, who made the decision to take the shackles off LeBron and the offense in the final weeks of the season and gets his players to play much more consistent defense than Eddie Jordan does.
Prediction: Cavaliers in 5. In their current state, the Washington Wizards are not a playoff team. Had the season been a week longer, the Wiz would have fallen out of the playoffs. That said, professional pride and occasional lapses in intensity from the Cavs will allow
(3) Toronto Raptors v. (6) New Jersey Nets- How did the injury-plagued, underachieving (even considering injuries) Nets go from struggling to simply make the playoffs to jumping all way to the #6 seed? And how exactly did those same Nets suddenly become the sexy pick to pull a first round upset? Of their top four players, one (Nenad Krstic) is recovering from season-ending knee surgery, another (Jason Kidd) will age 10 years before our eyes chasing T.J. Ford around, a third (Richard Jefferson) has been plagued by injuries (7 or fewer games in 4 different months this season) and isn’t close to his form from the past 2 seasons, and the fourth, (Vince Carter), by far the team’s best player, will face such intense hatred and vitriol from Raptors’ fans (stemming from his admitted half-hearted play that led to his trade to New Jersey) that Toronto will have the greatest home court advantage of any team in Round 1.
Because of Krtic’s injury, the Nets best frontcourt scoring option after Carter is Bostjan Nachbar, who is a nice player, but that’s quite a drop-off! The Nets’ big men (Mikki Moore, Jason Collins and Josh Boone) will have their hands full trying to 1) avoid foul trouble guarding Chris Bosh and 2) control the offensive glass so the Raptors don’t run all over them.
Backcourt: The backcourt match-up dramatically favors the Raptors. T.J. Ford ended the season playing the best basketball of his NBA career, and it’s no gimme that Jason Kidd will be the series’ best point guard. To compound matters, Ford is a match-up nightmare because he’s so small (6’, 165 lbs.) and lightening quick. As great as Kidd is, defense has never been his calling card. This series will be among the toughest of his career, and his offensive game will suffer as a result. Sadly, Kidd can expect little-to-no defensive help from back-ups Eddie House and Marcus Williams. Richard Jefferson, the Nets’ best perimeter defender, is not only too big to stay with Ford, but has been battling an ankle injury all season- which is not good sine he’ll need to rely on his quickness. In addition to Ford, the wildly underrated Jose Calderon, and shooters Anthony Parker (underrated!), Juan Dixon, and Morris Peterson will have the Nets’ backcourt looking overmatched.
Coaching: Consider that Sam Mitchell entered the season as a lame-duck coach, that the Raptors stumbled to a 3-9 start and that his top rookie (#1 pick Bargnani) was universally considered to be a project. Now consider that Mitchell never lost his players’ respect,
Conversely, we have the Lawrence Frank era in
Prediction: Raptors in 6.
(4) Miami Heat v. (5)
Frontcourt: The Bulls have the edge in the frontcourt. Even without a dominant low post scorer,
If Wade’s shoulder is 100%, the series is up in the air; if he gets re-injured, the Heat have no chance. Considering he’s at his best when he’s slashing through the lane and playing with reckless abandon, it is likely that he will take a few hard shots on his bum shoulder. With Jason Kapono,
Coaching: With Pat Riley coaching the team,
Prediction: Bulls in 5. As valuable as championship experience is, the teams that are the healthiest and have the greatest depth are generally the most successful in the playoffs. With both teams at full strength, this could be a classic 7-game battle, but