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My Take on the Playoffs (as if you care)

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I haven't bothered to look this up, but it certainly seems like this has been the least competitive first round in NBA history.  Of eight first round series, three were sweeps (and two of those weren't really as close as 4-0 would indicate), two more ended 4-1, and the Warriors-Mavs that went to six games was very one-sided as well.  The Nets-Raptors is likely to end in six tonight, leaving Rockets-Jazz as the only series going to seven games in the first round.  By the way, that's a LOT of ticketing and TV money left on the table.  Out of a potential maximum of 56 games, only 43 or 44 will be played in the first round.  I wonder if TNT will have to change their ad campaign?  37 games in 40 nights doesn't really have the same ring, now does it.

As usual, the Eastern Conference has been particularly disappointing.  It's hard to fault the Wizards - they entered the playoffs going backwards simply because they are playing without their two best players.  Take two All-Stars off any team and see what happens.  But Cleveland is far from awe-inspiring.  Likewise with the Pistons-Magic series, whereas the Pistons are good, it's hard to tell how good, since Orlando simply didn't belong in the playoffs.  It goes without saying, but several Western Conference teams that didn't make the playoffs (arguably all of them except for Memphis) are better than Orlando.

Obviously, Chicago's sweep of Miami is one of the two huge stories of the first round.  Chicago looked good, I'll grant them that, but I remain skeptical.  I just don't see how a team can be considered a major threat with zero low post scoring, even in today's NBA.  I've been critical from the day it happened of the Ben Wallace signing, and I certainly don't view this series as vindication.  (Look at the season Tyson Chandler had, btw.)  They have a chance to make me eat my words - when some pundits were picking the Bulls to win the East (or even the NBA) during the pre-season, I said there was no way Ben Wallace would make a 23 game difference between the Pistons and the Bulls (Detroit won 64 games last year while Chicago won 41).  Well, in the regular season that disparity dropped to 53 versus 49.  If the Bulls can get past the Pistons in the second round, I'll admit I was wrong.  

It's interesting that nobody views the Nets series lead over the Raptors as an upset, despite the fact that Toronto won the Atlantic Division and had one of the best records in the NBA after New Year's Day, while the Nets were .500 on the season.  Certainly injuries played a part in New Jersey's lackluster regular season, and having Richard Jefferson at full strength is making a difference.  But Mikki Moore and Jason Collins are still starting for them.  I love Mikki, but c'mon.    Still, it's not hard to explain.  The injury to Garbajosa hurts the Raptors more than people realize, and most of the Raptors are playing in their first playoff games (unless you count Maccabi Tel Aviv and the EuroLeague Final Four).  It's more than a little cliche, but the experience of Jason Kidd (averaging a triple double in the series) and Vince Carter are more than enough to carry the Nets into the next round.  

In the West, two of the series that have concluded serve to illustrate a point, while the third one smashes the point to pieces.  Dallas, Phoenix and San Antonio have been the three best teams in the West since Shaq went to South Beach.  When the Clippers joined them in the semis last year, even the most optimistic projections couldn't imagine them breaking through into that top 3.  When Denver traded for Allen Iverson and teamed him with the league's second leading scorer, the Defensive Player of the Year and a Brazilian monster with one name, the assemblage of talent was remarkable.  When they finally put the pieces together and won 10 of their last 11, spirits were more than a mile high.  When they won game one in San Antonio, expectations reached similar elevations.  And then the Spurs won the next four.    For the fourth year in succession, the Nuggets have lost in the first round of the playoffs, winning a single game in each series.  Despite the expectations, despite the talent, despite the payroll, the results are the same: a first round playoff series against a top team, no home court advantage, an early exit, and a mediocre first round pick (actually no pick last year, and no pick this year).  It's just hard to break through.  Now the Nuggets have $77M committed to 10 players next season, an astounding $64.5M committed to 5 guys, and no point guard signed.  And the JR Smith experiment that looked so successful early in the season has ended with Smith sitting because he's uncoachable.  Now we know why Byron Scott and the Hornets gave him away.

Likewise, the Lakers could not break through against the Suns, though no one really thought they could.  The Western Conference haves look solid for years to come, while the outlook for the have nots is bleak.  Certainly some of that is self-fulfilling - the have-nots by definition lack something on their rosters, and need to address issues.  But the Lakers are looking at significant free agency losses (Luke Walton, Smush Parker) or lots of money (including potential luxury taxes) to avoid those losses.  Meanwhile, the prospects for filling their needs this summer (point guard is a cypher, other positions could use upgrades) are bleak with no money to spend.  On the other side, the Suns look great, have everyone signed, and have THREE first round draft picks, including a likely top 5 in a loaded draft.  This team will go deep in the playoffs every year until Steve Nash's back gives out, and probably after that with Leandro Barbosa at the helm.

The Suns-Spurs in the second round looks like the NBA Finals at this point.

The only series that is definitely going seven games has been difficult to watch.  The Rockets are shooting a brutal percentage and depending on Tracy McGrady to step up and win games for them - not a bad plan I guess.  But it's telling that in the waning moments of the Mavs-Warriors game six, the TNT announcers were discussing which team had a chance against the 8th seeded Warriors.  Excuse me?  Didn't these teams each win over 50 games this season?  Why are they the underdogs against the 42-40 Warriors?

The answer of course is because the Warriors are playing out of their heads right now.  If the Rockets win game 7 (which they should, playing at home in a series where no team has won a road game), you can put Golden State into the Western Conference Finals, and write it in ink.  Write it in blood.  The Rockets have two great players, and one of them will be completely useless against the Warriors - OK, maybe not completely useless, but more of a liability than an asset.  

What can I say about the Warriors that I haven't already said?  (Did I mention karma?)  Just that they did it.  They broke up the triopoly in the West.  It doesn't mean that the Warriors are there to stay, incidentally.  Stephen Jackson was available for a very specific reason - he's a talented basketball player, no one doubts that, but he's gotten into trouble everywhere he's been.  Whereas the trade is clearly a huge win for the Warriors as of now, you can't ignore that Jackson was traded away for a reason that has nothing to do with basketball.  Meanwhile Baron Davis has always been a monster when healthy - but he's rarely been healthy.  With Baron Davis and Stephen Jackson, this team is unstoppable, baby.  Without them?

But I'm still praying for a Warriors-Suns Western Conference Final.