NBA Playoff Preview

By Alex Leichenger (Sports Editor, Columnist) [?]

Published: April 20, 2009 and Updated: May 21, 2009
Original LA News Desk Content

In this article, I'll answer 5 important questions about the playoffs and then make my playoff predictions.

Five Key Questions Entering the Playoffs:

  1. How crucial is the Celticsí reported loss of Kevin Garnett for the entire postseason?
  2. Rumors that Garnett will indeed miss all of the playoffs are ambiguous at best so far. Head Coach Doc Rivers has implied that Garnett is unlikely to suit up again this season, but there is still wide uncertainty as to whether Riversí assertions are true. In any case, it would be a devastating blow to Bostonís repeat hopes should Garnett be unable to play again this year.

    Garnett is the heart and soul of the Celtics, a glue guy and a superstar at the same time. Boston wins with their defense, and Garnett is the quarterback of the defense. He spreads the floor on offense with his excellent midrange jumper, and is clearly an upgrade over Leon Powe, Mikki Moore, or Glen ďBig BabyĒ Davis in that regard.

    But above all, Garnett is the spiritual leader of the team. If Boston had halted their offseason activity after acquiring Ray Allen from Seattle last year, they could still be on the outside of the playoff picture looking in. Yet when they swapped Al Jefferson and four role players for Garnett, they became champions. Although Jefferson has put up better numbers in Minnesota than Garnett has in Boston, Garnett is a battle-tested veteran who has the ability to elevate a team of more veterans. And the guy can still play a little too. The Celtics can only beat both the Magic and the Cavaliers if they have a healthy Garnett back in the rotation, ready to contribute for 30 minutes by playing, and ready to contribute for 48 minutes with his presence alone.

  3. Is there any challenger for the Lakers in the West?
  4. Now that the Spurs have lost Manu Ginobili for the year, the Lakers appear to be a lock to advance to the Finals for a second consecutive year. After all, they essentially clinched the number one seed in the Western Conference within one month of the season starting. But the ease with which L.A. coasted to the top spot could turn out to be their kiss of death.

    The Lakers are a young team, and one that has struggled with complacency already. Late in the season they blew big leads in games against San Antonio, Dallas, Golden State, Philadelphia, and even against their lowly hallway rivals, the Clippers. The matchup against Philly aside, the Lakers ended up recovering to win each contest, but not without some concerns brought to the surface. The bench has been maddeningly inconsistent, with Sasha Vujacic and Jordan Farmar returning to the D-League form they exhibited before breakout 2007-2008 campaigns.

    Since Andrew Bynum returned for the final four games of the regular season, the bench situation has been somewhat rectified. Lamar Odom has returned to provide some stability and veteran leadership, Vujacic has stepped up his game, and Shannon Brown has emerged as a possible replacement for Farmar in the rotation.

    The Lakers are still the overwhelming favorites to win the Western Conference, but it might take more games than they expect. The team they will play in the first round, the Utah Jazz, took them to six games in the second round last year. They have essentially the same roster as last year, and are still formidable at home (33-8). The Lakers have also had a miserable time in Portland over the last few years. If the Blazers get past the Rockets in the first round, the Lakers could run into a seven-game second-round roadblock. New Orleans is also a potential threat to the Lakersí Western Conference sovereignty, but ultimately Kobe and Co. should emerge relatively unscathed.

  5. Are the Magic a legitimate title contender?
  6. Otis Smith has done an incredible job assembling talent in Orlando and Stan Van Gundy has done an incredible job cultivating it into a 59-win team. With superman Dwight Howard and a strong nucleus of shooters surrounding him, the Magic could be title contenders for years to come. But right now, they are simply too streaky and too inexperienced to make the leap from regular season juggernaut to NBA champion.

    The Magicís starting lineup consists of four great shooters in Rafer Alston, Hedo Turkoglu, Rashard Lewis, and Mickael Pietrus, and an absolute beast in the low post in Howard. When their outside shots are falling, the Magic are nearly unstoppable. However, when their shooters go cold, they must rely heavily on Howard. And as good as he is already, Howard is not yet a go-to scorer. He was only 64th in the league in field goal attempts per game, averaging 12.4. He benefited from getting many high-percentage looks and having the option to kick it out to one of his teammates when he did not have a great shot available. In the playoffs, the luxury of being able to pick and choose shots will disappear.

    The intensity and preparation for each game is ratcheted up several notches, which is why streaky teams like Orlando tend to go cold, rather than hot, in a seven-game series. In the past 40 years, the only team to win a championship despite lacking a player who took at least 15 shots-per-game during the regular season was last yearís Celtics. However, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, and Kevin Garnett all averaged over 16 shots-per-game and over 20 points-per-game before joining up in Boston in 2007. The Celtics were able to win the title because their leaders were three veterans who had already established themselves as go-to-guys. Orlando does not have a proven go-to optionóLewis led the team with merely 13.8 field-goal-attempts-per-gameóseverely weakening their hopes of raising the first championship banner in Amway Arena.

  7. Will LeBronís supporting cast step up under the spotlight?
  8. The Cavs have played outstanding basketball this season, and at a higher level than most people expected. With drastically improved defensive play and steady improvement in several other facets of his game, LeBron James has officially surpassed Kobe Bryant as the best player in the NBA. The play of All-Star point guard Mo Williams, who was acquired from the Bucks in an offseason trade, has finally elevated LeBronís team to the elite realm of the league. And veterans Wally Szczerbiak, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, and Ben Wallace, alongside young role players Delonte West and Anderson Varejao, have lent a helping hand.

    Nonetheless, it was a big mistake not to package the expiring contract of Szczerbiak in a trade for a big man like the Wizardsí Antawn Jamison. The Cavs did not want to upset their team chemistry, but chemistry only gets a team so far in place of talent. Besides, Jamison may have the best attitude of any star in the league. He canít shoot three-pointers as well as Szczerbiak, but among power forwards, he is one of the best perimeter shooters. Plus, he has a much more diverse offensive skill set, and grabs over double the rebounds that Szczerbiak does. He also plays better defense than the unathletic Szczerbiak, which is the paramount skill needed for a team coached by Mike Brown.

    Cleveland has LeBron to match up with Kobe and Mo Williams to match up with Pau Gasol in terms of first and second options on offense, but they do not have the third option that the Lakers have with either Andrew Bynum or Lamar Odom. The Cavaliers had the chance to put themselves over the hump, but instead, they hiked back down the mountain.

  9. How important is having homecourt advantage in the Finals?
  10. For young teams like the Lakers, Cavaliers, and Magic, the security of a home arena is crucial. For veteran squads like the Celtics and Spurs, it is inconsequential. At 29-12, the Lakers are the leagueís best road team, but they have already shown their tendency to crack under pressure away from home. In three games at Bostonís TD Banknorth Garden in the 2008 Finals, L.A. was outscored by an average of 18 points and swept. Conversely, at the Staples Center, they held a 2-1 advantage over the Celtics.

    Ultimately, reserves play better basketball at home, and the team as a whole has an advantage because the fans are more raucous than ever in June. The Celtics, although they were clearly better at home than on the road in last yearís championship, can nonetheless withstand the challenges of an away game better than most teams because they are more experienced. Bostonís core players had never reached the final round of the postseason before last year, so they were accompanied by some road jitters too. But this year, they are older, much more prepared, and ready to be road warriors.

    Similarly, the Spurs have been there and done that before, several times. If they are somehow able to reach the Finals without Ginobili, it will make no difference that they do not have homecourt advantage. Only the absence of Ginobili and the presence of their incumbent flaws will hinder them.

    For the Cavs, it is a different story. The Cavs posted a 39-2 record at home, the second-best mark of all-time, but lost 14 games on the road. With LeBron James counting on inexperienced players such as Mo Williams, Delonte West, and Anderson Varejao to produce, the Cavs are very fortunate that they have secured homecourt advantage throughout the playoffs.

    The Magic have the least Finals experience by far of any team contention. Only one player on their roster has ever reached the championship round in his career. And that player, guard Tyronn Lue of the 1999-2000 and 2000-2001 Read more stories in Basketball

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