Friday, April 17, 2009

Two months, 16 teams, one trophy ... and 10 big questions

David Liam Kyle/NBAE via Getty Images

The 82-game marathon is over. Here's a look at some questions for the two-month, 16-team NBA tournament known as the Playoffs as it begins this weekend:

1. Are the Cavaliers really the favorite to win it all?

Judging by their record and the season LeBron James has put together, you'd have to think so. Mo Williams has fit in perfectly and the supporting cast knows its role. Something, though, just doesn't feel right. Despite one of the best regular seasons ever, Cleveland may be a year away, as crazy as that sounds, from bringing a trophy to title-starved Cleveland. While the Cavs appear destined to get out of the Eastern Conference for the second time in three years, expect the heavily motivated Lakers to be there waiting. More on that later.

2. Can anyone give the Lakers a challenge out West?

Doubtful. The Jazz, on paper, may have been the team most equipped to put a scare into L.A., but they've fallen apart down the stretch and don't figure to pose much of a threat in the first round. From there the candidates are muddled and flawed. Playoff newcomer Portland gave the Lakers the most trouble during the season, but the Blazers may be out before getting a shot at Kobe Bryant and Co. The Nuggets -- bursting with athletes, plus the steady hand of Chauncey Billups -- could put a scare into L.A. if they keep their heads on straight. The Rockets are a possibility with defenders to hassle Kobe in Ron Artest and Shane Battier, plus Yao Ming in the middle. But the Spurs and Hornets are just too banged up, and the Lakers own the Mavericks.

3. Which of these big guys -- Kevin Garnett or Andrew Bynum -- figures to be healthy enough to contribute to a long playoff run?

Garnett's status has to be considered iffy. He sat out the last nine regular-season games and 16 of the final 20. The knee strain suffered back on Feb. 19 continues to be a concern, no matter the positive spin. Boston has the luxury of a relatively stress-free first-round matchup (against the Bulls) to give KG more time to work his way back into the mix. But the C's need a healthy Garnett to anchor their defense in the conference semis and beyond. Watching how he ended the season, the Lakers' Bynum looks to be on track to take a bigger role as the postseason progresses. The 7-footer is finishing at the basket and running without pain. His defensive timing still isn't there and his stamina needs to improve, but the Lakers can continue to bring Bynum along at a steady pace.

4. Out of the Big Four (Cavaliers, Lakers, Celtics and Magic), which team is the most vulnerable?

Book the Cavs and Lakers for the conference finals, so they're out of this discussion. That leaves Boston and Orlando. Assuming the Celtics are healthy -- and that's a big assumption -- the defending champs have the talent, experience and depth to make another title run. The Magic rely too much on the 3-point shot to be seriously considered a title contender. Dwight Howard is amazing, but don't expect Superman to carry Orlando past the semis.

5. Is this the year Houston finally gets out of the first round?

For a franchise that hasn't advanced past the opening round since 1997, this could be the streak buster. The Rockets are stout defensively and possess a high basketball IQ -- two qualities that will serve them well in the Playoffs. Yao and Artest never had a chance to get it going with Tracy McGrady, but Houston has come together around a group of hard-working role players led by Battier, Luis Scola and Carl Landry.

6. Why are the Pistons so cocky?

Yes, they've won it before. And it wasn't that long ago when Detroit was a staple in the East finals. But these Pistons are a shell of their former contending selves. Billups is in Denver. Coaches Larry Brown and Flip Saunders have long since left. Detroit had a losing record this season, Allen Iverson is on the shelf, and LeBron and the Cavs are a freight train. Sorry 'Sheed, we expect only one team to play hard. Just try and keep the towels on the bench.

7. Can Dwyane Wade beat the Hawks by himself?

Wade did a fair imitation of the one-man act in 2006, but that Heat team had considerably more talent than this one. The Hawks parlayed last year's surprising first-round seven-game series with Boston into the East's No. 4 seed and the home-court edge over Miami. Atlanta has the defenders to throw at D-Wade, starting with Josh Smith and Joe Johnson, plus superior depth. Wade alone is enough to steal a couple of games in this series, but his postseason won't last past seven games.

8. Which of the Spurs is most likely to step up in place of Manu Ginobili?

The obvious answer is nobody if you're not counting Tim Duncan or Tony Parker. No doubt the other two cogs of the Spurs' celebrated trio have taken their games to another level at times, but finding another gear for the Playoffs may be a stretch. Duncan, after all, has been plagued by sore knees since the All-Star break. As for the rest of the roster, look to Roger Mason Jr., Michael Finley and Ime Udoka trying to squeeze into Ginobili's irreplaceable sneakers. Each brings something to the table -- Mason (late-game heroics), Finley (veteran know how) and Udoka (much-needed athleticism).

9. What lower-seeded team is most likely to pull a first-round upset?

Since we're scratched Miami off the list in Question 7, expect the East to play out according to plan. That brings us to the West. The Jazz, no chance. The Rockets, Mavericks and Hornets aren't going in intimated by their respective matchups. Stealing one on the road in Games 1 or 2 would swing home-court advantage and set up a possible six-game upset. Of the three, Dallas has the most momentum on its side and is quite familiar with the Spurs.

10. Is there a better potential Finals matchup out there than Lakers-Cavs?

Can you think of one? If this June is the beginning of a Magic-Bird run for years to come for Kobe and LeBron, the NBA and its fans are in for something special.

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