(1) LA Lakers over (8) Denver (5 games)
This could be a tougher series than many pundits think, but the Lakers just haven't had that much trouble with Denver in recent years. This is the best possible first-round matchup for LA, of all the West playoff teams, and I think LA comes out ready to take care of business.
(4) Utah over (5) Houston (6 games)
Utah is scary good, even though they can't win on the road. Houston looks terrible on paper, but they are much more impressive as a unit because their players all know their roles and play them well. In the end, though, T-Mac isn't going to get out of the first round again - he's just running into a superior, tougher opponent, and T-Mac just isn't tough enough himself.
(6) Phoenix over (3) San Antonio (7 games)
Fact - Shaq has held Duncan to 15-40 shooting in their last two match-ups (though, to be fair, one was without Manu). Grueling series for both teams, but San Antonio is just too old right now. If Manu comes back and is at full-strength, the Spurs stand a chance, but if he's still hurt at all, then they're going to go down in flames. Can Phoenix win on the road in Game 7? That's the real question - and I'm going to say yes, because the Shaq trade was made essentially to allow the Suns to beat the Spurs.
(7) Dallas over (2) New Orleans (6 games)
Either the Hornets win in 7, or the Mavs win in 6 - I can't see these Mavs taking a game 7 on the road. They're just too soft. I'm going to go with the Mavs, because they've been playing much better recently and because Dirk's mojo seems to be back. Even though he doesn't seem to understand the concept of popping his jersey (Dirk, the point is to emphasize the team name on the front, not the fact that you can untuck your shirt), the Big German has been more herky-jerky than ever since coming back from his injury. The more odd his moves look, the more effective his game.
Also, New Orleans just looks exhausted. Did they fight too hard to try to win the West? They've also been blessed with near perfect health, and are one of the shallowest West teams. If they have any injury to their rotation, they're toast. Too fragile for me.
By the way, if the Lakers had gotten the Mavs in the first round, the Mavs could have trotted out a lineup of Kidd, Howard, Brendan Bass, Dirk, and Dampier. Terrifying lineup - bigger than the Lakers at every spot, capability to pound on the offensive glass, extremely athletic up and down. I think the Lakers would have had a ton of trouble matching up there. Of course, Avery would play Jason Terry and Stackhouse instead, micro-manage, and eventually his head would explode while Phil sat back and laughed at him.
Western Conference - Second Round
(1) LA Lakers over (4) Utah (7 games)
Tough, tough series for both teams. As I mentioned, Utah terrifies me. Ultimately, if the Jazz had home-court advantage, I think I go with Utah. Because the Lakers do, I'll take them and pray that Bynum can make it back early for this series. His size is sorely missed. Then again, who am I kidding? Bynum back early? Not with the Lakers medical staff...it's been what, 14 weeks already? For an 8 week recovery? I'll be happy if he plays next year.
(6) Phoenix over (7) Dallas (6 games)
Battle of the panicky short-sighted mid-season trades that came together faster than anyone expected. The Suns are better because Shaq has really freed Amare up to do his thing; the Mavs are better because Kidd has lit a fire under Dirk. In the end, I think the Suns take this one. Again, if the Mavs would play Bass more and Stackhouse less, they'd have a shot, but Avery seems to be incapable of deviating from his system at all.
Western Conference Finals
(1) Lakers over (6) Phoenix (6 games)
What a tough road to the finals, and what a phenomenal matchup. I am basing this pick assuming Bynum can make it back for this series, and play 15-20 min a game of solid rebounding and defense. If he is not back, then Phoenix may take it in 6 or 7. The key to this series is rebounding - if the Lakers control the glass, they control the tempo and will pick apart the Suns defense. If the Suns dominate the offensive boards, then they get easy put-back points and the Lakers won't be able to score enough to win.
Eastern Conference - First Round
(1) Boston over (8) Atlanta (4 games)
Not much to say here...welcome to the playoffs, Mr. Childress.
(4) Cleveland over (5) Washington (7 games)
Toughest pick of the first round. Washington has the better team; Cleveland has the best player. In the end, I'm going to just assume that Lebron isn't going to let his team lose this series. His game 7 line might be 64-29-21-5-4. And it probably has to be for his team to win.
Also, I am picking the Cavs so Rakesh does not murder me in my sleep. That seems like a good reason.
(3) Orlando over (6) Toronto (6 games)
I like Toronto; they have good guards, and Bosh is a versatile player. But they're a cute team, not a playoff team. Where is the toughness going to come from? Who's going to stop Howard? Who will match up with Turkoglu? The Magic are too tough for the Raptors, and TJ Ford might die on the court at any time trying to fight through a Dwight Howard pick.
(2) Detroit over (7) Philadelphia (5 games)
Detroit goes up 2-0, winning by a combined 30 points, gets bored and drops game 3, then finishes off Philly.
Eastern Conference - Second Round
(1) Boston over (4) Cleveland (5 games)
LeBron is amazing, but Boston is just going to absorb his 40 ppg and laugh at the 30 points that the rest of the team put up. Much as I'd love an upset of Boston, the only team capable of challenging them in the East is Detroit. The more interesting question is whether Ben Wallace has more points or more fouls in this series. I think it'll be close.
(2) Detroit over (3) Orlando (6 games)
Assuming the Pistons come to play, they should take this pretty easily. The key, as always, is Rasheed Wallace. I still have flashbacks to playoff games in the Garden, against Portland, as Sheed got the ball in the post against Robert Horry on the first play of every game, as the crowd exploded: "Sheeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeed!"
And yes, I am still terrified of Mr. Wallace. He needs to post up more and shoot fewer threes.
Eastern Conference Finals
(1) Boston over (2) Detroit (7 games)
Really looking forward to this one, but Boston is the better team. I really hope KG's head explodes in a blowout win, as he screams at Kendrick Perkins for not diving after a meaningless loose ball with 10 seconds left.
(1) Boston over (1) Lakers (6 games)
Sadly, I just don't think the Lakers will beat Boston in a 7-game series this year. In both head-to-head matchups, the Celtics destroyed the Lakers. Also, the Lakers simply won't be at full strength. If LA had Bynum and Ariza healthy and integrated into the offense, then I'd take LA in 7 - the Lakers would simply be too big for Boston, with Gasol, Bynum, and Odom up front. This year, with both players out, the Lakers don't have the firepower.
Prove me wrong, Lakers.
MVP: Kobe Bryant
I wouldn't be upset if any of the other front-runners won either. In the end, Kobe edges out Lebron because of toughness and leadership - Kobe played through a torn tendon that should have required surgery, while Lebron sat out too many games with a sprained finger. He beats Paul because Paul's team was healthier the whole season, so CP3 did not have to change his game to accommodate a shifting roster. Paul also seemed to run out of gas at the end.
Garnett did transform a franchise, but his individual numbers were worse than the other candidates, and this was not his best individual year. In fact, I thought Pierce was the most important player on that team most nights. The "turned a franchise around" argument is compelling, but I wonder where the line is when a star has a down year in stats. What if team X signed some veteran leader, a Derek Fisher type, and that veteran unquestionably turned the team around? He changed the defensive intensity. He reached out to the star player and got him to play harder. He nurtured the young guys. If that guy averaged 10 points and 9 rebounds, is he the MVP if he changed the franchise? I say no. KG obviously has better numbers than that, but where is the line?
Giving the MVP to Steve Nash two years running, when he wasn't even the best player on his own team, basically ruined the MVP debate. If Kobe had won as he should have in 2006, then this year we could give the award to Paul or LBJ. Instead, we're stuck with a situation where Paul is a better PG than Nash was in either of his MVP seasons, and Kobe turned in a performance that was statistically very similar to his performance the last few years. Plus, we now have the awkward precedent of giving the MVP to someone who can't play defense. If you read recent MVP articles, writers are coming up with convoluted defenses of why Nash could win those years, but this year the criteria are totally different. Marc Stein sounded like a Supreme Court justice trying to draw some artificial distinction between nad law that he had made a few years earlier and the facts before him now. Simmons (who never supported Nash for MVP) argued that Kobe shouldn't win this year because his stats were worse than 2006, and he didn't win then. Fellas, the system is broken. Y'all gave the MVP to some nice, clean-cut Canadian kid who was good at passing the ball to All-Star teammates, not just once but twice, when all the statistics showed that that was ludicrous. Now you have to live with the choice, but it's still impossible to justify
Kobe will win this year, simply because the MVP voters screwed up in 2006. Better late than never, I guess, but it doesn't feel entirely satisfying.