Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Playoff Predictions: Eastern Conference Finals

Cleveland continues to surprise me with their dominance in the playoff this year, as they knocked out the Atlanta Hawks in 4 games. They've been undefeated through 2 series in the playoffs. That's an impressive feat, even considering the weak opposition they've been against. You could argue that they haven't been tested yet in the playoffs. But they have dominated teams that they were supposed to dominate; which is more than I can say for the Los Angeles Lakers. Even in games when they played poorly, they were able to will themselves to a win in a tight game. Cleveland looks like a team on a championship mission. On the flip side, the Orlando Magic were able to get it together for the last 2 games and pull off an impressive win against Boston, who were 32-0 in series that they led 3-2. I'll give them props for winning game 7 on the road in dominating fashion and being able to persevere through all of the off-court drama. Dwight Howard stepped up big and backed up his guarantee. I thought that Orlando could have won the series in 5 games, but Boston gave them all that they could handle. Heart and effort can only take you so far; and with the injury to KG, Boston didn't have the talent to match Orlando. It's a shame. Of note, Turkoglu had a monster game 7, and may finally be out of his slump.

Cleveland Cavaliers (1) Vs. Orlando Magic (3)

The key to this series will be the match-up between Dwight Howard and Lebron James. Shocker. Both teams rely heavily on their superstar. And the star that shines the brightest will be able to propel his team to victory. Dwight Howard has been dominant in the middle, averaging 19.6 points, 16.6 rebounds and 2.8 blocks per game. He's the anchor for this team on both the offensive and defensive end. On defense, he needs to keep Lebron out of the paint. If they can turn Lebron into a jump shooter, they will stand a great shot at winning this series. They need to keep the ball out of Lebron's hands and force his teammates to beat them. On offense, he needs to be aggressive and set the tone early. He's not a polished scorer, but his inside presence frees up their shooters in the outside. This is a team heavily dependent on the 3pt shot. Another key for Orlando will be the play of Turkoglu and Lewis. Turkoglu is the barometer for this team. When he plays well, this team plays well. And he's been inconsistent so far in the playoffs. Lewis, once again, will be a tough cover. He's an undersized PF, with nice quickness and a sweet outside shot. None of the teams that they've faced have had a dominant PF who can take advantage of this mismatch.

On the flip side, everything runs through Lebron James. In the playoffs, he leads this team in points (32.9), rebounds (9.8), assists (6.8), steals (2.0) per game. He has been getting to the free throw line a ridiculous 13 times per game. He's also been hitting 2 3's per game, and overall is shooting 53% from the field. Orlando does not have anyone who can defend Lebron James. He needs to put this team on his back and carry them to the Finals. He needs to set the defensive tone and get open shots for his teammates. Big Z and Mo Williams have been pretty quiet so far in the playoffs; I expect them to step up their game against Orlando. This is a well-balanced team that can hurt you in many ways. Everyone knows their role and they can execute brilliantly on both ends of the floor. I should note that Cleveland has been dominant on defense so far, holding teams to under 40% shooting and 78 points per game. Orlando smashed Cleveland in their last match-up (being ahead by as many as 40 points), and holds the season edge at 2 games to 1. But I still think this is Cleveland's series to lose. They have been playing on a whole another level the past few weeks, and like everyone says, the playoffs are a different beast from the regular season. The better team will win in the end, which I think is Cleveland. They have homecourt advantage, where they are nearly unbeatable.

Let's do a breakdown of the positional match-ups. The backcourts are similar, but I give the edge to Cleveland. They are better shooters. Delonte West and Mo Williams have been lights out thus far. And I like their depth with Boobie and Pavlovic off of the bench. They are going to get a lot of open shots with Lebron dominating the paint. Alston is not a championship calibur PG. He is prone to jacking up bad shots and making boneheaded plays in the clutch. Lee has been solid so far with his shooting and defending. He was an excellent draft pick by the Orlando Magic. Pietrus could be big off of the bench. He has a great 3pt shot and he gives the team another guy to throw at Lebron. Hopefully Anthony Johnson won't have to play too many minutes. That's all I have to say about that. Reddick matches up well with some of Cleveland's role players, so don't be surprised to see him get some burn in this series, assuming his shot is falling. It's interesting to note that none of the above players are really true PG. Both teams depend on their SF to do much of the ball handling and decision-making.

Lebron dominates the SF spot. He is just too strong and too quick for Turkoglu to defend. I think they'll play Pietrus against Lebron at times to mix things up. Lebron has struggled in past games against Orlando because of Dwight's defense. It will be interesting to see what kind of adjustments he will make. The great ones always find a way to win. Wally as the backup SF is competent. He is a solid scorer and a wiley veteran. Turkoglu has been inconsistent, but he is one of the key players for this Orlando team. Whenever he plays well, this team plays well. He's 6' 10", can hit the outside shot, and is a great ball handler. He is the primary ball-handler in the clutch, and has already hit a couple of game winners in this playoffs. If Lebron is able to slow down Turkoglu, this series could be over soon than later. This will be a key match-up. With regards to the coaching staff, I think it's a wash. Mike Brown did win coach of the year; but that's mainly because Lebron lead this team to the best record in the league. He makes any coach look better than they are. Stan Van Gundy, on the other hand, screams too much and looks like Ron Jeremy, but is a capable coach.

PF/C has some interesting mismatches. Rashard Lewis is too quick for Varejao to guard. He'll probably be the team's top scorer again. He has a great outside shot which will drawn his defender away from hoop, and he has the quickness to drive to the basket. Joe Smith is the best guard against Lewis. So we might see him get extended minutes. Varejao is a pest, who gets under player's skin and does all of the dirty work. Don't discount his impact on this series. Orlando also has the edge at the C spot with Superman. I expect Dwight to be dominant. Unlike Boston, Cleveland has a lot of bodies that they can throw at Dwight to keep him off-balanced. And they have a lot of fouls to give, which could come into play as Dwight is a horrible FT shooter. Wallace might be the best guard against Dwight, but he's a liability on the offensive end. Big Z's shooting will keep the defense honest. If Dwight doesn't come out to defend Big Z, he could have some big scoring games. Gortat is a solid reserve who can bang with this Cleveland squad. He's proven to be a solid fill-in for Dwight whenever he gets in foul trouble. Overall, I think Cleveland has a better squad. Defense wins championships. And I think Lebron will have a bigger impact than Dwight. Cleveland wins in 6

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