Now that the first round of the NBA Playoffs is starting to wrap up and we pretty much know (for the most part) who will be advancing, it’s time to take a look at which squads are the most likely to make the NBA Finals and take home some rings.
Working under the assumption that the teams leading their series as of today (Lakers, Spurs, Jazz, Suns) and the favorites in the other series (Hawks) all advance, who would be the top five out of the final eight?
Three of the five teams below are squads everyone knew would be contenders for rings. They are joined by two old squads that most people counted out, who have used the first round to show they are still playoff savvy teams that can get it done when it matters most. Let’s take a look at which teams have separated themselves from the pack.
I know, I’m as shocked as most of you are to see the Celtics leading off this list. Before the playoffs started, everyone (including yours truly) was writing Boston off, even picking them to lose to Miami in the first round. So what did they do? They came out and dominated the Heat from Game 1, playing the physical defense we’re used to seeing and showing everyone they can still get it done in the postseason.
While Kevin Garnett has looked older this series and has not been able to dominate any single game, he’s still as physical as ever – just ask Quentin Richardson’s nose. Paul Pierce shook off a terrible acting job in Game 1 to knock down a buzzer-beater in Game 3 that all but put the series away, and he seems to quickly be rounding into playoff form. Their biggest question mark coming into the series was the bench, and so far they have been as good as the Celtics can ask. Glen Davis stepped in and delivered a great game when KG was suspended for Game 2 (although he should drop that Ticket Stub nickname, seriously you need to be at least a starter to talk about yourself in the third person), and guys like Tony Allen have stepped it up to make the Celtics team deeper than they’ve been all season.
How likely is it that the Celtics win the title this year? Probably not very likely at all, especially with a second-round pairing with the Cavs looming, but the experienced and grizzled Celts could push LeBron and Co. further than anyone imagined. While their ceiling may be only the second round due to the match-up, I don’t think many people would be surprised to see them make a surprise drive to the Finals.
San Antonio Spurs:
When was the last time you saw a seven-seed that was a title contender? That’s how deep the West is this year and the Spurs are showing that, especially this postseason, seedings mean nothing. Counted out by most all season long as an aging, paper-thin roster, the Spurs have started the playoffs with a vengeance, jumping out to a 3-2 series lead on the Mavs and looking pretty dominant along the way.
There were plenty of question marks coming into the playoffs, the biggest of them being whether or not Richard Jefferson would ever mesh with his teammates this season. After scoring just four points in a Game 1 loss, Jefferson finally started playing like the guy the Spurs thought would put them back into the Finals. In the two biggest games of the series so far, Games 2 and 4, Jefferson has scored 19 and 15 to provide the Spurs big three with some much-needed support. Tony Parker has embraced Manu Ginobili’s old sixth man role and has flourished, coming into games and taking over against the Mavs second unit. Lastly, despite a couple of off games, Tim Duncan still looks like he can get the job done, especially if he gets going like he did in dominating Game 2.
While the Spurs are probably not good enough to get past the Lakers in the West, they have a great opportunity at making it back to the Conference Finals for the eighth time in twelve years, an absolutely insane number to think about. If they finish off the Mavs, the Spurs move on to likely face the Suns, a team they know very well and who they would have a great chance of getting past. While a title may be a bit of a reach for the Spurs this year, they have pried open the window for at least one more postseason.
The defending Eastern Conference champions have been overlooked all season while fans and media alike were focused on what LeBron James and the Cavs were doing in the East. But once the playoffs started, the Magic were the team that jumped out the most. They swept the Bobcats while getting minimal support out of Dwight Howard, who spent most of the series battling foul trouble. The dominance they displayed even without Howard playing much showed just how deep this roster is.
Jameer Nelson looks like he is back to playing in All-Star form, dominating Game 1 from the beginning to set the tone for the series, and providing the scoring punch that Howard was unable to deliver this round. Vince Carter, Mikael Pietrus, Rashard Lewis and Matt Barnes also all had big games this series, further emphasizing the point that they are a much deeper squad than the Cavs or anyone else in the East. Despite not being able to score very often because of his free-throw woes, Howard was still dominant on defense. He came out in Game 1 and had eight blocks by halftime. His patrolling of the paint and just his inside presence alone changes the game for any team trying to scheme against the Magic and almost immediately eliminates any idea of scoring inside, which is huge come playoff time.
While it seems a Cavs-Lakers Finals has been penciled in since the start of the season, Orlando has quietly been one of the best teams in the league. They finished with the second-best record in the NBA, ahead of the Lakers, and are even better than the squad that made it to the Finals last season. They have as good a shot as any team left to win it, and in my humble opinion should be the favorites to come out of the East. There, I said it.
The darlings of the NBA this season, the Cavs have had a great year while being lead by soon-to-be-two-time MVP LeBron James. After coming up short last year and being eliminated by the Magic, the Cavs went out and re-tooled, signing Shaquille O’Neal along with swingmen Anthony Parker and Jamario Moon to compete with the Lakers and Magic. The biggest trade of the season, however, was their pick-up of Antawn Jamison, who instantly became the best player LeBron James has ever played with. After putting away the pesky Bulls, the Cavs have their sights set on finally getting that first ring.
For the Cavs to win the title this year they need more than just LeBron James, and in that first round they didn’t really show much. LeBron nearly averaged a triple-double for the series, and the Cavs still struggled through three of the games in the series. Bron was far and away the best player on his team this series, leading them in scoring and assists in every game but one. Antawn Jamison had a solid series, including a 25-point effort in the clinching game last night. Mo Williams is playing better now that he is the third option behind James and Jamison; however, his defense this series was a cause for concern. Derrick Rose had some turnovers, which you expect from a young point guard, but he was able to basically get any shot he wanted against the Cavs this series, and that could come back to haunt Cleveland as the playoffs wear on.
While we are sure that LeBron could probably average a triple-double for the entire playoffs, nobody knows if that will be enough to get Cleveland into the Finals. The rest of the Cavs need to step up and deliver if the Cavs are going to get a title. In last year’s Eastern Conference Finals, James averaged a 40-8-8 and it still wasn’t enough. Guys like Jamison and Williams have to step up their games every single night if the Cavs are going to avoid becoming the first team to ever have the best record in the NBA in consecutive years and not win a title, especially if LeBron’s arm injury is more serious than anyone knows. If they don’t, LeBron could move on to win some rings in another city starting next year. (All of Cleveland just cringed.)
Los Angeles Lakers:
Last but certainly not least, the defending NBA Champion Lakers. This is easily the most frustrating team in the playoffs because you have no idea what to expect from them. After stumbling through the last month of the regular season (out of boredom?), the Lakers started off the playoffs with a 2-2 split against the young Thunder. People started saying things like Kobe is getting old, Artest was the wrong decision, Bynum is never going to develop, Fisher couldn’t guard a wall at this point. Then they come out and take a 16-1 lead in Game 5, go up by as many as 32, and dominate for 48 minutes to remind everyone that hey, they are still the defending Champs.
The most glaring thing in this first round has been the production, or lack thereof, from Kobe Bryant. While it is not the end of the world, finger and knee injuries seem to be hampering Bryant. Save a 39-point effort in Game 2, Kobe has not looked like his dominant self. Pau Gasol has not been getting the ball inside enough against the undersized Thunder. Gasol could and should easily average a 30-15 this series, but the touches just aren’t there. Andrew Bynum at times looks uninterested when he’s not getting shots, and Ron Artest has been shooting threes at what is now becoming an alarming rate. Despite all of this, the Lakers are still the most talented team in the NBA and showed in Game 5 that they can still turn it up when needed. It remains to be seen if they have fixed their postseason issues for good, but Los Angeles will be in every series just based on sheer talent alone.
If this were two years ago and Kobe was playing how he is, you would be able to instantly write off the Lakers, because there is no way they would win a title. But as this series wears on and the rest of the playoffs in the West play out, two things have become clear: the Lakers are much deeper than they’ve ever been offensively, and with the Mavs/Nuggets/Suns struggling in the first round, maybe the Thunder are the second best team in the West right now. The match-ups will only get better for the Lakers as the playoffs wear on, because they will not have to face an energetic squad like the Thunder again. While it is way too early to say the Lakers’ problems are fixed, Kobe doesn’t seem to be too worried about his guys, and maybe he knows something we don’t. If the Lakers don’t continue to play like they did last night they will be knocked out in the Finals by the Magic or Cavs. However, if the Lakers play the rest of the postseason like they did in Game 5, then L.A. will be having another parade come this June.
Belal Abdelfattah is BSO’s newest writer and comes from a long background in sports writing at the Sports Authority Blog and The Block Radio. You can follow Belal on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/belal_a