Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Conference Finals previews

No one would have given the Nuggets much of a chance against the Lakers when the playoffs began. The clubs have since taken divergent paths, with Denver cruising to easy five-game victories over New Orleans and Dallas while L.A. looked out of sorts in seven games against Houston following a first-round dismissal of Utah. The point guard matchup, perhaps more so than any other, inspires confidence in those who are now calling for a Denver upset. Chauncey Billups has been magnificent, averaging 22.1 points, 7.3 assists and a startling 54 percent on three-point attempts in the playoffs. The Lakers have meanwhile struggled to find the right mix from their trio of Derek Fisher, Jordan Farmar and Shannon Brown. That's hardly true at the other guard spot, where Kobe is averaging 27 points, five rebounds and 4.5 assists in 12 postseason games. He scored 40 in Game 2 against Houston but just 14 in Game 7 as he focused his attention on getting his teammates involved, a key assignment for him moving forward. Dahntay Jones has the unenviable task of trying to slow Kobe, though any success in that endeavor will go far to cement Jones' reputation as a premier perimeter defender. The same goes for Trevor Ariza. His job will be guarding Carmelo Anthony, whose playoff averages of 27 points, 6.4 rebounds and 4.3 assists compare favorably to Kobe's. The Lakers are likely to go with Pau Gasol at power forward and Andrew Bynum starting at center, meaning Denver's Kenyon Martin, known for his athleticism and interior defense, will have his hands full against the long, agile Gasol. Bynum struggled mightily against Utah, losing his starting job, but he regained it when Lamar Odom sustained a back injury against Houston, and is coming off his best performance of the playoffs in Game 7. Bynum is an X-factor, but so is Nene, who was known primarily for injuries and inconsistency until this season, continuing his evolution in the playoffs with six double-figure scoring games. Odom and the Nuggets' Chris Andersen give each team energy off the bench, and while the Birdman is hot, Odom is more experienced and a better all-around threat. The greatest difference maker in reserve for Denver is J.R. Smith, who has averaged 16.3 points a game of instant offense. The Lakers don't have anyone of Smith's caliber on their bench, but they have plenty of bodies, including the efficient Luke Walton, streak shooting Sasha Vujacic, and whichever two point guards don't start. Steady Anthony Carter is the backup point guard for Denver, which really goes only eight deep, though Linas Kleiza makes an occasional cameo to provide the team with an additional shooter. The Lakers play 10 men, with Josh Powell able to step into the post if needed. Both benches are among the game's best, though L.A. can only lay that claim if Odom isn't starting. Denver has the more consistent rotation, and it's clear the entire team is in rhythm. They can defend and score, but so can the Lakers, who, for all their troubles, still have the more talented team. They've got homecourt advantage, too, and they're going to need it, given Denver's newfound enthusiasm for their team, which hasn't lost at home in more than two months. It will be a lot more competitive than anyone might have thought when the playoffs began, but Kobe, the best player on either team, will not be denied a shot at another title. Prediction: Lakers in 7.

Schedule (all times Eastern)
Game 1 - Tue May 19 Denver at L.A. Lakers 9 p.m. ESPN
Game 2 - Thu May 21 Denver at L.A. Lakers 9 p.m. ESPN
Game 3 - Sat May 23 L.A. Lakers at Denver 8:30 p.m. ABC
Game 4 - Mon May 25 L.A. Lakers at Denver 9 p.m. ESPN
Game 5 * Wed May 27 Denver at L.A. Lakers 9 p.m. ESPN
Game 6 * Fri May 29 L.A. Lakers at Houston 9 p.m. ESPN
Game 7 * Sun May 31 Houston at L.A. Lakers 8:30 p.m. ABC

Los Angeles Lakers
PG Derek Fisher
SG Kobe Bryant
SF Trevor Ariza
PF Pau Gasol
C Andrew Bynum
F Lamar Odom
PG Jordan Farmar
G Sasha Vujacic
G Shannon Brown
SF Luke Walton
PF Josh Powell
C D.J. Mbenga

Denver Nuggets
PG Chauncey Billups
SG Dahntay Jones
SF Carmelo Anthony
PF Kenyon Martin
C Nene
SG J.R. Smith
F Linas Kleiza
PG Anthony Carter
PF Chris Andersen
C/F Johan Petro
F Renaldo Balkman
PG Jason Hart

The King finally has a worthy challenger to his throne. LeBron and the Cavs have cruised to eight consecutive double-digit victories to begin the playoffs against clearly inferior competition. The Magic, who won 59 games in the regular season, represent a clear step up, but whether they'll be able to get any closer to knocking off Cleveland than the Pistons or Hawks did is another matter. The Magic will no doubt be using an array of defenders on LeBron, who is the leading scorer in the playoffs with 32.9 points per game, to go along with 9.8 rebounds and 6.8 assists. Hedo Turkoglu, Rashard Lewis, J.J. Redick, Mickael Pietrus and Courtney Lee are all liable to wind up on King James before the series is through. That leaves plenty of open shots for guards Mo Williams and Delonte West if the Magic choose to double-team, and that could widen the advantages Cleveland already has at the guard positions. Williams, at 14.8 points and 4.5 assists per game for the playoffs, is another tough matchup for Orlando's Rafer Alston, who just got done dealing with the toughness and savvy of Andre Miller and the speed and skill of Rajon Rondo. Williams is a much better shooter than those two, so it's yet another defensive adjustment. West has thrived this season after being switched to shooting guard, and is coming off a 21-point performance in Game 4 against Atlanta. He has a clear advantage over Redick, if Orlando coach Stan Van Gundy stays with the shooter, and would likely hold an edge over Lee or Pietrus if there's a change in the Magic's starting lineup. Orlando's meal ticket is in the paint, where Rashard Lewis will be a tough cover for Anderson Varejao, who isn't used to playing on the outside as much as Lewis likes, and at center, where Dwight Howard has, despite his up-and-down involvement on offense, averaged 16.6 rebounds a game. Zydrunas Ilgauskas isn't the kind of player Howard is, but he's still one of the better centers in the league, and has the size and offensive skill set to at least make the matchup competitive. The Magic's bench could keep the series interesting as well, particularly if Redick can hold onto the starting two-guard spot and the hot-shooting Pietrus can remain with the second unit. Lee is a multi-dimensional scorer who can provide punch off the bench as well. Anthony Johnson is a solid, experienced backup point guard, while reserve power forward Tony Battie is a competent scorer in the post and Marcin Gortat is shooting 71 percent as Howard's backup center. Cleveland's bench has struggled, particularly away from home, nearly coughing up a big lead to Detroit in Game 3 and following with combined totals of 13, seven and eight points in the next three road games. Power forward Joe Smith and swingman Wally Szczerbiak have been the best of a motley bunch, though it's unfair to count center Ben Wallace's production by offensive numbers. Daniel Gibson's shooting has been missing, and Sasha Pavlovic has done little to recall his days as a starter. This trend will have to continue for Orlando to prevail, as will the resurgent play of Hedo Turkoglu, who's coming off of 25 points and 12 assists in Game 7. Otherwise, the Magic have no shot. Prediction: Cavs in 5.

Game 1 - Wed May 20 Orlando at Cleveland 8:30 p.m. TNT
Game 2 - Fri May 22 Orlando at Cleveland 8:30 p.m. TNT
Game 3 - Sun May 24 Cleveland at Orlando 8:30 p.m. TNT
Game 4 - Tue May 26 Cleveland at Orlando 8:30 p.m. TNT
Game 5 * Thu May 28 Orlando at Cleveland 8:30 TNT
Game 6 * Sat May 30 Cleveland at Orlando 8:30 TNT
Game 7 * Mon June 1 Orlando at Cleveland 8:30 TNT

Cleveland Cavaliers
PG Mo Williams
SG Delonte West
SF LeBron James
PF Anderson Varejao
C Zydrunas Ilgauskas
F/C Joe Smith
G/F Wally Szczerbiak
F/C Ben Wallace
G Daniel Gibson
F/C Darnell Jackson
SG Sasha Pavlovic
SG Tarence Kinsey
PF J.J. Hickson (back, out indefinitely)

Orlando Magic
PG Rafer Alston
SG J.J. Redick
SF Hedo Turkoglu
PF Rashard Lewis
C Dwight Howard
G/F Mickael Pietrus
SG Courtney Lee
PG Anthony Johnson
C Marcin Gortat
F/C Tony Battie
PG Tyronn Lue
C Adonal Foyle
SG Jeremy Richardson
PG Jameer Nelson (separated shoulder, out)

No comments: