No one, and I mean no one, was under the radar and crushed by experts like the Celtics and Spurs. They’re too old. They can’t run with the young guys. They’re done. But after respective five and six game first round routes, these two teams looks like they can take down the giants in these playoffs. So what is the difference between the Spurs and Celtics of the regular season and the newer versions? Health.
In the playoffs, the cream rises to the top (Paul Pierce and Tim Duncan) while the B Class players (Jermaine O’Neal and Caron Butler) can’t come through. When people start to play tough defense and referees swallow their whistles in the playoffs, you need top-flight players, or at least former All-Stars. Oh yeah, and health.
During the regular season, the Celtics and Spurs were overcome with injuries. Between Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Ray Allen’s injuries, Boston only played 59 games with a fully healthy starting lineup. Add on the fact that Big Baby missed six weeks because of surgery and Rasheed Wallace had to play over 22 minutes per game, it’s a wonder they won 41 of those games. The biggest problem for the Celtics during the regular season was age, which consequently led to injuries. Now that Boston is healthy, they are the same, deep team that won it all in 2008. Especially when you consider the fact that there will be nine off days between seven games, Boston looks like they have a great shot to take down LeBron and crew.
As for the Spurs, they have had their share of injuries, too. Tony Parker had a pair of bad knees before he broke a bone in his hand six weeks before the playoffs. This could actually prove to be a great thing, however, because he will now be at full strength when he has to run with Steve Nash and the Suns.
And now, for my Conference Semifinals predictions:
Boston Celtics (4) over Cleveland Cavaliers (1) in 7
Before the year, I picked the Celtics, Magic, Lakers, and Spurs to reach the conference finals, so why back out of my picks now? The Celtics are back to full health, so there’s no reason the Big 4 (yes, I went there) can’t make this a series. LeBron has an injured elbow, which will only make Paul Pierce’s life easier on defense and offense. You can make an argument that after LBJ, the Celtics have the next four best players on the court. And while neither team has a stellar coach, the Cavs clearly have the worst of the two. I can imagine what a conversation in a Cavs’ timeout probably sounds like…
Mike Brown: “Bron, I want you to drive to the rim then dish it out to Delonte or Mo on the wing for a three.
LeBron: “Nah, coach, I’m straight. I’m gonna take this one.”
Mike Brown: “Oh. Alright then.”
Not quite the confidence booster. Add on the fact that one team has been there and done that while the other was a miracle shot away from being swept in the Conference Finals. I’ll take the Celtics to sneak out of the series, silencing their doubters. Also, expect Skip Bayless to erupt in at least 20,000 “I told ya so”s and Peyton Manning comparisons.
Orlando Magic (2) over Atlanta Hawks (3) in 5
Okay, I’ll admit I was a little off picking the Bobcats over the Magic – but that was assuming Stephen Jackson would shoot more then 35.8% and more ridiculous barrage of three-pointers wouldn’t fall on Charlotte. Anyways, people are overlooking the reigning Eastern Conference champions. They have the most dominant big man in the league and a plethora of outside threats.
Atlanta, on the other hand is one of the most inconsistent teams in the league. They have plenty of star power between Joe Johnson, Josh Smith, and Al Horford, but have looked terrible at times. They let the Bucks take them to seven games, even though Milwaukee was missing its best player, and they are 1-3 against the Magic and Cavaliers. Their leaders aren’t clutch down the stretch (see Johnson, Joe) and their coach is not too dependable.
In the end, the Hawks are 20-24 on the road and the Magic is 36-7 at home. The Hawks need to steal one game in Orlando to win this series, and they just can’t do it. Orlando, while they can be shaky, absolutely ran over a tough opponent in the Bobcats. This series won’t be as close as many make it out to be.
Los Angeles Lakers (1) over Utah Jazz (5) in 6
The Lakers are clearly the most talented team in the Western Conference, but the question is if and when they will turn on their A Game. Pau Gasol is too relaxed, Andrew Bynum can’t stay on the floor, Kobe Bryant and Ron Artest are too aggressive, Lamar Odom is waiting for a candy high, and Derek Fisher can’t guard anyone. That said, they have a clear coaching advantage and more depth then the Jazz.
At full strength, the Jazz would have a great chance to take down to take down LA. Unfortunately, they will be without Andrei Kirilenko for most of the series and Mehmet Okur for its entirety. This forces the Jazz to start Kyrylo Fesenko and Wesley Matthews, two players who really shouldn’t be getting even 20 minutes per game. Deron Williams should be a force this series, but Utah’s lack of size will ultimately prove too costly against Los Angeles’ two seven footers and Odom.
Going into the series, the Jazz had lost the last 14 matchups in the Staples Center – 6 of which are in the playoffs. The Jazz need to win at least one on the road, and that stat does not bode well for the men from Salt Lake City.
San Antonio Spurs (7) over Phoenix Suns (3) in 6
Old rivals meet again, but this time a different team is favored. San Antonio and Phoenix have had a history of bad blood against each other over the past decade, and this time there are new faces. The Spurs have the same core of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobli, but they also added frontcourt depth in Antonio McDyess and DeJuan Blair along with George Hill and Richard Jefferson on the wings. The Spurs have better depth, experience, and are frankly better then the new Suns.
The Suns have gone into the playoffs nearly every year with high hopes – only to get shot down by San Antonio. Whether they have Joe Johnson, Boris Diaw, Shawn Marion, Shaq, or Jason Richardson, they fall in five, six, and five games. The Suns are back to their Run n’ Gun style, but they don’t have Johnson, Diaw, Marion, or Raja Bell anymore. Those All-Stars are replaced with Robin Lopez (who is still injured), Richardson, and 37-year old Grant Hill. The Suns haven’t been able to down the Spurs before, so I don’t see a different outcome.
San Antonio my pick to meet Boston in the finals, and I am going to stick with that pick; they have the bets combination of talent and motivation among all of the teams remaining (yes, that’s knocking you, Los Angeles). Clutch players come through down the stretch, and you need star power to win. Give me the Spurs and give me the Celtics, we’ll talk in the next round.