After a month prelude that was at times compelling (Celtics-Bulls) and at times uninspired (Mavs-Spurs) the conference finals have finally begun. The Los Angeles Lakers, who won last night thanks to Kobe’s fourth quarter performance, play the Denver Nuggets for the Western Conference title and the Cleveland Cavs play the Orlando Magic for the Eastern Conference title.
I expect much from each series this postseason, a season that has lived up to its billing as the second season, a long season that really needs to end soon before it saps all the excitement out of the game (seriously, this game is supposed to be fast paced, instead the ending seems to be as prolonged as biopic getting the Oliver Stone treatment).
I have looked at each series after mourning my Bulls loss in the first round and decided that five things should happen in each series. Some of these things are based on facts, but most are based on quasi-objective observations and my imagination.
The Los Angeles Lakers versus the Denver Nuggets
1. Pump Up The Scoreboard
Despite the relative low scoring affair (Lakers 105- Nuggets 103) on Tuesday night I expect the series to be a high scoring affair. Critics will argue that the Lakers have been playing the third best defensive efficiency in the playoffs and the Nuggets have been fourth, but both defensive performances need to be presented with asterisks.
The Lakers played a second round series against a Rockets team without any Tracy McGrady and with Yao Ming lasting just three games before ending his season with an injury. That left offensive powerhouses Ron Artest (Mr. Good Shot Selection) and Aaron Brooks (who led the Rockets in scoring in two games with 14 and 13 points) to confound the Lakers and “challenge” the defense.
The Nuggets played a first round series against the Hornets, a team that gave up before the playoffs began, which had a profound on the numbers. I think the true series to gage Denver’s defensive ferocity is the Dallas series, in which Denver gave up 106.8 points per game. Of course the Nuggets also scored 114 per game to win it in five.
I expect this series to have both teams scoring around 110 points a game for the rest of the series. These are two squads that loved to score during the regular season (L.A.-106.9 PPG, Denver- 104.3 PPG) and only played defense because they were told they had to. I think each team will serve as an enabler for the other, allowing the Nuggets bench to put up uncontested jumpers with 20 seconds left on the shot clock and allowing the Lakers to put on an interior passing clinic.
2. The Birdman Will Arrive
Chris Anderson’s career was destined to fall well short of respectable not a year ago. He was known for taking a day and a half to complete a dunk at the 2005 Dunk Contest after uttering the phrase, “It’s time for the Birdman to fly.” He also was kicked out of the league for two years for smoking pot. Had he not appealed the life time ban he would never get a chance to shine again and would forever be known as another terrible token white guy in the NBA.
Now he has a shot to become America’s favorite role player. Despite the hilarity of watching him fail to throw an alley oop to himself (a feat Nate Robinson repeated the next year and won the contest because he is near midget status), the Birdman is an incredible leaper with a penchant for grabbing a lot of rebounds and blocking a lot of shots in very few minutes.
The Birdman will fly all series long, blocking Gasol and Bynum a couple of opportune times and spurring fans to ponder how his or her team can pry Anderson away from the Nuggets for their team to start at center.
3. Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups Will Shine
Carmelo Anthony has been playing the type of basketball that made him the best player on the USA Basketball Men’s team in 2006. He is averaging 28.1 points, 6.4 rebounds, and 4.3 assists a game in the postseason. A strong performance in this series should take him from reserve on the All Star team to unquestioned starter. This has been a long time coming for a guy that has largely been forgotten by the casual fan thanks to the exploits of LeBron James and Dwayne Wade (to other players drafted in 2003).
Chauncey Billups is averaging 21.7 points and 7.4 assists a game and, more importantly is being recognized as the key proponent in transforming the Denver Nuggets from a Rocky Mountain side show good enough for a series or two of high octane basketball to a suddenly serious contender for an NBA title. He will prove that his time and his numbers with the Pistons downplayed his greatness. He will finally get the respect he deserves and solidify his reputation as one of the best point guards in the NBA right now.
4. Kobe Will Dominate
The Lakers have failed to play to their potential this postseason (Really, it took seven games to beat Houston?). Their play has been lackluster at best. One player will find that fire again this series and he is, of course, Kobe Bryant.
Bryant already single handedly won Game 1 with 40 points and six clutch free throws in the final half a minute. I expect Kobe to continue taking over games, averaging near 40 points a game as the rest of the team fails to grasp that the Nuggets could actually beat them in a seven game series. Bryant’s competitive fire will not allow the Lakers to throw up such a dud in the series and eventually his passion will become contagious.
5. The Lakers Will Finally Wake Up
After Kobe dominates for the first five games the Lakers will find themselves down three games to two and finally Lamar Odom, Pau Gasol, and the host of role players will play like they actually want to win a title.
Shannon Brown and Derek Fisher will start hitting every three point shot they take even if they are falling out of bounds and cannot see the basket, the refs will make some questionable calls along the way that give the Lakers an obscene free throw advantage over the final two games, and analysts will say that the Nuggets were not robbed, but that they failed to finish the series in an effort to downplay the fact that a everybody really wanted to see LeBron take on Kobe in the Finals.
The Cleveland Cavaliers versus the Orlando Magic
1. Identities Will Be Revealed
After realizing that the only player he or she knows on the Cavs is LeBron, the average basketball fan will shocked to learn that the starting backcourt consists of Mo Williams and Delonte West, two players they have never heard of before. The fans will also be shocked to learn that these two players are the second and third leading scorer on the team and that they are actually quite good.
2. The Spelling Bee
Thousands of sports bloggers will learn to spell Zydrunas Ilgauskas without referencing ESPN. They will recount his name time and again as the Cavs fail to utilize his mid-range jumper and he serves as a perpetual poster child for Dwight Howard.
3. Turkoglu Will Collapse
Hedo Turkoglu will collapse on the court by Game 4. Turkoglu has served as the very poor man’s Magic Johnson for Orlando since last season, and the Magic’s postseason fate seems to depend on how much Turkoglu has left in the tank. The addition of Rafer Alston in midseason helped, but Turk still directs the half court offense.
He will also be matched up with LeBron James. Turk is not a naturally good defender, so he will have to put forth a great deal of effort to keep LeBron from completely embarrassing him and beating Orlando by himself. With such difficult demands on both ends of the court the 6 foot 10, 220 pound versatile forward will leave everything on the floor in the first four games and be hailed by the announcers for his incredible effort in the face of impossible circumstances.
4. Dwight Howard Will Outplay James For One Quarter
Dwight Howard will have one quarter where he unleashes his unique combination of freak athleticism and pure power on the Cavs in the paint. Nobody will be able to stop him as he takes a quick step and rises to dunk the ball over any defender. He will split double teams, grab every offensive rebound, and catch every impossible lob for a shattering throw down. He may even break a backboard or two or rock the hydraulics so hard that the basket collapses.
This will be a single quarter that peers into the future and reminds everyone that Howard is a future Hall of Fame player. He will be compared to Shaq while he was on the Magic when he won with pure power, quickness, and incredible skill (before the NBA officials gave him a license to play like a skill-less brute during the Lakers three peat).
5. LeBron Will Be Everywhere
I am not just talking about emphatic jump from behind blocks. LeBron will take his game to the next level and prove that he is more than just a capable defender, covering every position on the floor. He will smother point guard Rafer Alston while he brings the ball up the court and he will decimate Dwight Howard with stonewalling blocks on the block in the post.
With his performance this series he will put to the rest the old argument that he can do everything but defend and make a case that perhaps he, not Howard deserved the NBA Defensive Player of the Year award.