#2 Orlando Magic vs. #4 Boston Celtics
The Magic have steamrolled through these playoffs so far, sweeping the Bobcats and Hawks in the first and second rounds, respectively. But neither of those teams boasts anywhere near the playoff experience or defensive prowess as the Celtics, and the Magic will have their hands full.
As Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce have aged, Rajon Rondo has come into his own as one of the premier point guards in the NBA. Of course, having Garnett and Pierce around him has certainly given Rondo a great opportunity to succeed, but not every player is able to take advantage of the talent around him (see Raymond Felton).
The Magic, meanwhile, run what essentially amounts a video game team: they send one huge body down low, and surround him with guys who can hit open shots. It's inexplicably worked against professional basketball players and coaches. So do we think that the Magic simply do it better than anyone has ever done it, or do we think that maybe the clock is ticking on this strategy?
My pick is that the clock is ticking. The Celtics must be able to decipher this tack, because we've all been told they're an elite defensive team. The Magic ranked 25th in the NBA in assists during the regular season. Just as notably, they ranked 29th during the regular season and are dead last in these playoffs in free throw percentage. So what you've got is a team that isn't very good at passing the ball, and doesn't convert on free throws. Dwight Howard is an excellent player, but I think if you can body up on him and hold him to, say, 30 points, and force the perimeter players to drive to the basket, you're putting them into low percentage situations. Boston's got the personnel to do that.
Pick: Celtics in six
#1 Los Angeles Lakers vs. #3 Phoenix Suns
It's been more than two weeks since either of these teams lost a game, and both teams swept pretty solid competition in the second round (Lakers over Jazz, Suns over Spurs). So you know the confidence is going to be high on both sides.
The Lakers are of course defending champions, and conventional wisdom says it's foolish to bet against them. Their roster is certainly stacked, with all-world player Kobe Bryant leading the charge. Perhaps most notable, though, is the fact that between Bryant and Ron Artest, they've got two of the better defensive players in the league. Granted, the Suns run a wide open offense, but I'd be pretty surprised if Bryant and Artest didn't put a sizable damper on the Suns' plans.
On the flip side, the one guy that the Lakers may not have an answer for is Steve Nash. Even at 36, Nash is one of the quickest, sharpest players in the league. He deserved both of the MVP trophies he was awarded, and despite every expectation that "this is the year he slows down," he's continued to lead Phoenix into the playoffs. Amar'e Stoudemire has benefited tremendously from Nash's skills and leadership, and any team looking at acquiring Stoudemire this offseason should think long and hard about whether or not they've got a point guard who can enable him to be as productive as he's been with Nash.
In the end, though, I expect the Lakers' talent to be too much for Phoenix to overcome. Having such frontcourt depth that you can have Lamar Odom come off the bench is remarkable, and between him, Andrew Bynum, and Pau Gasol, I have a hard time seeing the Suns being able to match up.
Pick: Lakers in five
So, yes, I'm predicting a rematch of two years ago when the Celtics beat the Lakers for the NBA title. That's the nature of the NBA. It cultivates dynasties. Best of luck to the Suns and Magic on trying to prove me wrong.
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