It’s that time of year again. The NBA’s second season, where the hibernating beast also known as good defense awakens and you’d swear you were watching a different league with different players. My love for the regular season has waxed and waned over the years, but I follow the NBA playoffs as close as I do any other sporting tournament. To get things kicked off I came up with a “burning question” for each team. These questions probably don’t burn quite as bad as the sensation some frat boy has when he urinates after a semester forgetting that he gave his word to stop at third, but they burn nonetheless. I’ll start out with the Western Conference then switch it up to the East.
Los Angeles Lakers: Who will be this year’s Trevor Ariza?
If you watched the playoffs last year, you’d know how big Trevor Ariza was during the Lakers championship run. He shot the lights out from 3 and came up with big play after big play, particularly on defense. It’s pretty rare to hear the term “clutch steal”, and Ariza had two of them in the playoffs (probably more that I’m forgetting about, but here is clutch steal 1 and clutch steal 2). There’s a decent chance that without those steals, Denver makes the Finals last year. Now with no Ariza, who is going to fill that role? Kobe’s performance is down from last year, so someone else is going to have to step up to help out on both ends of the court. The thought was that Ron Artest would fill it and then some, but this is 2010 Ron Artest, not 2007 Ron Artest. Derek Fischer, inexplicably, seems like he could come out and hit some big shots despite the fact he qualifies for Social Security. While I don’t know who is going to be Ariza this year, I can tell you that Kobe will be less than pleased if his teammates don’t step up and we’ll be in for some of his trademark sulking and whining.
Dallas Mavericks: Will Dirk be Dirk?
There’s no denying that when he’s on, Dirk Nowitzki is virtually unstoppable on offense. A 7-footer who can nail a jumper from anywhere? Good luck with that. That being said, for all the regular season success Dirk and the Mavericks have had over the years, their playoff performances have been less than desirable for the most part. Dallas has a fairly deep roster and Jason Kidd is apparently ageless and playing great right now. If Dirk can play like everyone knows he’s capable of, I could definitely see Dallas making a legit run at the Finals. With the glory that comes with being the star of a team comes the criticism and Dirk will be receiving one of these once the playoffs are said and done.
Phoenix Suns: Can the Suns make offense trump defense?
It hasn’t worked in the past for the Suns, and historically teams that play the style of basketball that the Suns do results in a lot of points, a game that’s fun to watch, and a lack of rings at the end of the season. The Suns averaged over 110 points per game this year, the highest in the league. Tempo will be everything for Phoenix. Can they make other teams speed things up or will other teams force a slower tempo on them? Steve Nash is the only NBA MVP to never have played in the Finals and I can’t imagine he’ll have a lot more chances to do so after this season.
Denver Nuggets: Will distractions get in the way of winning?
Obviously the biggest distraction here, and one much more important than any game, is George Karl’s ongoing battle with throat cancer. It looks like the Nuggets will be without him for at least the first round series. The distractions don’t end there, unfortunately. I see a lot of potential internal distractions, such as technical fouls, players losing their cool, and playing below expectations due to overconfidence. On paper, this team looks great and I was convinced going into the Western Conference Finals last year that the Lakers didn’t have the man power to stop them. But the Nuggets made some awful plays down the stretch (see: clutch steals above) and let their tempers get the best of them. I know their nickname is the “Thugetts”, but someone needs to remind them they don’t have to live up to it. If guys like Nene and Kenyon Martin can stay composed, the Nuggets will be a tough out once again.
Utah Jazz: Can they survive the first round without Andrei Kirilenko?
While the Nuggets face some problems of their own, their first round opponent, the Utah Jazz, have a problem themselves. Not only will the pure awesomeness of his nickname be missed, but AK47 brings a unique skill set to the table and creates a lot of matchup problems. From the sounds of it, if the Jazz make it to round two, Andrei will be back. That’s well and good, but they have to get to round two first. Deron Williams is arguable the league’s best point guard, and he’ll have to carry some extra weight on his shoulders to help get the Jazz get past the Nuggets.
Portland TrailBlazers: Are they even a threat without Brandon Roy?
No. Portland will be going up against one of the hottest teams in the league in Phoenix in round one. They aren’t a deep team to begin with and with no Roy I’ll be shocked if this one isn’t done in four or five games.
San Antonio Spurs: Does Tim Duncan have enough in the tank to make a run?
Don’t get me wrong, Tim Duncan is still putting up good numbers especially considering his age, but his stats took a dip this year in basically all categories. I’m sure he could play typical Timmy D basketball for a series or two, but what happens if he has to play a few 7 game series back to back (assuming they get out of the first round)? Thankfully for the Spurs, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili have been playing well as of late. Richard Jefferson can help shoulder some of the scoring load, but at the end of the day, the Spurs have been defined by what Tim Duncan does, and they’ll need him to be at his best.
Oklahoma City Thunder: Can the Thunder avoid the deer in the headlights syndrome?
21, 25, 21, 23, and 26. Those are the ages of the Thunder’s starting 5. Many of these guys have no playoff experience and their first taste is going to be in the Staples Center against the defending champs and Kobe Bryant. Kevin Durant, who also has an awesome nickname in “Durantula”, is a scoring machine and there probably isn’t a defender or team in the league who could stop him from putting up points. He’s going to score. But so is Kobe Bryant. Even if Durant is able to outscore Kobe, the rest of the team will have their work cut out for them countering a more experienced Lakers team. Anything is possible, but if I were a Thunder fan I’d feel a lot more confident if this situation would come up next year after these guys get a notch on their playoff belts.
Cleveland Cavaliers: Can Mike Brown outcoach an inanimate object?
Seriously, I believe the Cavs have what it takes to win it all if Mike Brown can just make adequate, not even great, adjustments. While some people say he’s improved from last season, Mike needs to diversify the offensive play book a bit. Just because you have a guy in LeBron James who can put up video game numbers doesn’t mean you should run a video game offense. By that I mean one guy handles the ball at the top of the key, tries to beat his guy off the dribble and either pulls up for a jumper, drives to the rim, or kicks it out when the defense collapses. LeBron is a freak of nature physically, and unlike years past, he now truly has a jumper that you have to respect as a defender. The majority of the time the video game approach is going to work when you have a guy like LeBron, but why not make it easier on him and the rest of the team and set up some different looks. I believe the Cavs were just a few needed adjustments away last year in the Conference Finals against the Magic from making the Finals. Mike Brown literally had not counterpunch, no checkmate to Orlando’s check. Now that the Cavs have added Antawn Jamison and Shaq to an already talented squad, Mike Brown shouldn’t have to think too hard about what he can do to mix it up.
Orlando Magic: Will Dwight Howard claim supreme dictatorship over the paint on both ends?
Speaking of physical specimens, Dwight Howard has more muscle in his shoulders than some guys have in their entire body. He beasted his way through the Eastern Conference last year as no big man could hold a candle to him. He controlled the boards on both ends of the court, swatted shots into the stands, and made many a guard decide to take a pull up jumper instead of trying to get to the tin. Then came the Finals and for some reason, the dominance stopped. My guess is that it had to do more with Phil Jackson’s coaching and strategy than it did with Andrew Bynum’s play, but he looked like a different player. One thing in particular really stood out to me in the Finals last year: Dwight’s one and only post move got lonely for a companion. When you have a good thing going, it only makes sense to use it. But not having a changeup to your fastball will eventually catch up with you over time and against better competition. While Shaq is no kid anymore, he gave Dwight Howard plenty of trouble during the regular season and we could be in for a great battle come Eastern Conference Finals time for the right to the title of Superman. Sure, there are other questions like “can Vince come through when it counts”, but in my mind the play of Dwight Howard will determine how far the Magic go.
Atlanta Hawks: Are they grown up and ready to make a run?
This team is scary big and athletic all around. They can fast-break and they have several players who can exploit mismatches as they arise. Just two years ago, they took the mighty Boston Celtics to seven games, and they are back with more experience and the 6th man of the year coming off the bench in Jamal Crawford. Questions of maturity and how they will handle close games and pressure situations will be big. I think the Hawks get overlooked in the East due to Orlando and Cleveland, but they are a force to be reckoned with. They get to take on the Andrew Bogut-less Bucks in the first round to get things started. Will they be able to build confidence and momentum in the first round and take it to the second round where they will likely face the Magic? Time will tell.
Boston Celtics: Enough experience, but not enough youth?
The ideal playoff storyline for Boston is pretty straightforward: win in as few of games as possible so the aging big three gets all the rest they can. Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, and Paul Pierce are obviously still dangerous, but they are nowhere near where they were just two years ago when they won the title. Rajon Rondo is a great young talent, but the Celtics decided to add help by acquiring Rasheed Wallace who certainly didn’t decrease the average age of the team. Experience is invaluable, but there’s something to be said for youth and athleticism. Looking at some of the other teams in the East, it makes you wonder if the Celtics have what it takes to make a deep run. While the focus and drive may be there, I don’t think the ability level is there anymore.
Miami Heat: Is Dwayne Wade and some loose change enough?
Let’s be honest. Dwayne Wade’s supporting cast is less than great. The playoff story for the Miami Heat will start and end with Dwayne Wade. I have seen a glimmer of hope among some Heat fans when their matchup with Boston was set. Boston is old, Boston is slow, etc. That may be true, but Boston is a better, more talented team regardless. Dwayne Wade is going to have to have a phenomenal series and then some to get Miami to the second round.
Milwaukee Bucks: Did their season die along with Andrew Bogut’s now deceased elbow?
If you haven’t seen it yet, check out the gruesome, unfortunate, and untimely injury that Bogut suffered. They would probably be a longshot with him, but without him I don’t see them standing much of a chance to push their first round series past five games. Brandon Jennings will score points and continue to impress us during his rookie campaign and John Salmons will continue to make the Bucks front office look like geniuses for picking him up mid-season, but that’s probably the most they can look forward too, at least for this year.
Charlotte Bobcats: Is just making the playoffs Charlotte’s title in itself?
I’m sure their goal is to win it all, but realistically the Bobcats just have to be happy (and probably surprised) that they actually made it to the playoffs. Stephen Jackson has been playing great and there is a lot to like about this team. Unfortunately they are running directly into a first round buzz saw in Orlando and I think Charlotte is going to have to use this as a learning experience and carry it over to next year. Who knows, maybe MJ will decide to suit up.
Chicago Bulls: Are they still the baby Bulls?
The Bulls have talent, especially at point guard with Derrick Rose. Last year they pushed Boston to an epic seven game series. But this year they drew the Cavs and I don’t see any game even being close enough for us to see some late game Rose heroics. The best matchup of this series just may be Joakim Noah’s spaz level versus Anderson Varejao’s spaz level. Is there some rule that says hyper-active, hustle crazy big men have to have crazy hair? The Bulls can consider this series a victory if they see a game six.
To follow up my burning questions, I’m going to list out my round by round predictions which I have changed roughly ten thousand times over the last few days.
-Lakers over Thunder in 5
-Denver over Utah in 7
-Phoenix over Portland in 4
-Dallas over San Antonio in 6
-Cavaliers over Bulls in 4
-Boston over Miami in 7
-Atlanta over Milwaukee in 5
-Orlando over Charlotte in 4
-Lakers over Denver in 7
-Dallas over Phoenix in 7
-Cleveland over Boston in 5
-Orlando over Atlanta in 6
-Dallas over Lakers in 6
-Cavaliers over Magic in 7
-Cavaliers over Dallas in 6