Saturday, May 30, 2009

They Grow Up So Fast

Let me start out by saying that, in all honesty, I never expected the Magic to get this far, this fast. If you look back thru this blog, it's obvious how much I followed this team thru the year, and how much I liked following their games and their progress. I copped tickets to games when the Magic came to town verses both the Knicks and the Nets, and watched them on NBA League Pass whenever I could. Simply stated, I truly love this collection of talent that GM Otis Smith has put together.

They started with a bit of luck, getting the ping-pong balls to bounce right in their favour 5 years ago. After grabbing the prize of that 2004 draft, they slowly but surely put together a complimentary, talented bunch of likable players. Every year they put more and more pieces to the puzzle, first with guys like Hedo, then to the no-longer-criticized Rashard Lewis signing (though they probably still did overpay him), to this year getting Pietrus, Courtney Lee, and others. Some time ago in this blog, I predicted that the Eastern Conference better take note, because with such a monster being surrounded by such quality talent, it was only a matter of time before the other teams would be rendered to also-ran status.

But, again honestly, never did I think it would happen this quickly. More than likely aided by the Kevin Garnett injury, the young Magic made it thru to the Eastern Conference finals; again, I actually picked against them in the series with the Celtics. I admittedly thought they'd find a way to let the series slip away, much like they did in Game 5, allowing the Celtics to hang around long enough for Big Baby Davis to hit that memorable game-winner. At that point, the Magic were down 3-2, had a playoff run littered with a number of blown leads and missed opportunities, and were set up to fade into the summer with a good amount of post-season experience to lead them to grow into the future as a team.

But a funny thing happened: their growth took an exponential jump between games 5 and 6. They didn't follow the script of the young up-and-coming upstart team running into a more veteran, tested team along the way of their growth into a conference powerhouse. In hindsight, perhaps that playoff-experience-gaining run actually happened last year? Who knows, but however it happened, these young guns grew up, and grew up quickly. They ran thru the last 2 games against the Celtics with a newfound confidence, and then dispatched of another team they were fully qualified to beat. Naturally, they found ways to make it more difficult than it should have been, like getting off to sluggish starts in all 3 road games, and again allowing their opponent to stick around long enough to become the sidebar in the most over-celebrated shot in NBA history. But they finished the job, and did so in fairly-impressive fashion.

Now they'll gear up to take another step in their growth: playing on the highest of stages, against the best of the Western Conference. Congrats to my favourite young team. From Superman to the Jordan of Turkey, from Shard (owner of the 2nd-prettiest jumper in history) to a Caribbean-brother MP, from young gun Courtney to chissled-veteran Battie, I enjoyed watching you guys play and grow this year. I predicted that you had this success in your future; I just never knew you'd find it within you this quickly! Congratulations and good work.

And condolences to the rest of the Eastern Conference. Barring injury, I'm sure a year from now we'll be looking at a Celtics/Magic Conference finals; after that? Age kicks in, and nothing but a shrinking salary-cap or the 2010 free-agent sweepstakes is going to save the Conference from a long run of looking up at the Magic. Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade, and LeBron better switch home addresses if they hope to pose any kind of challenge to this young core.

Assuming GM Smith can continue to work his "magic" in keeping this team together thru the future free agencies of Turkoglu, Gortat, and others, we may be looking at the start of something special.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Best Team? Or Best *Record*?

In the past couple of days, I've heard the phrase "best team" being bandied about, naturally in reference to this year's Cleveland Cavaliers. I however have a question, and some NBA history, to impart upon that: since when did regular season records determine who the best team of the year was? Is the team that finishes with the best record ever really the best team?

They say that those who don't know their history are doomed to repeat it. A corollary to that saying could well be: those who don't know history are doomed to be confused by current events and make bad predictions and shaky statements.

Of the past 10 teams that finished the regular season with the best overall record, precisely two of them went on to grab the NBA championship: the 2008 Celtics, and the 2003 Spurs. If recent history is much of an indicator, it should be at least another 2-5 years before we witness the perfect storm of a tremendous regular season followed by an impeccable post-season run. In the past 20 years, only nine of the best-record teams captured the NBA title -- and four of those nine were based in the windy city and captained by a certain NBA legend.

So what's with all this best-team talk? Aren't we supposed to wait until the champion is crowned before anointing one team with such a title? In fact, it quite appears that the team with the best overall record is quite a safe answer if the question is "who won't win the title this year?"

Surely, to some, this is all just statistics and nerd-speak; surely, dominating the regular season must translate into post-season success. Yet no one outside of Dallas batted an eye 2 years ago when the Mavs were bounced out in the first round by the one team who had their number. That team won all of 66 games, as compared to this year's Cavs' 67 games. Is there anyone willing to raise their hand to say the 2007 Dallas Mavericks were the best team in the league? Anyone? Anyone? No one considers the '06 Detroit Pistons the 'best' team; that's reserved for the Wade/Shaq ring-bearing squad. There is no shortage of people who will criticize the supposed mirage that was the regular-season domination of the Phoenix Suns of 4 years ago. And the list goes on and on. So why are we being subjected to this ridiculous diatribe with the Cavaliers?

Just why have the best regular-season records not translated into postseason success? It likely boils down to one phrase I used earlier: the perfect storm. So many things have to go right over the 6-month marathon for a team to keep winning so consistently: no major injuries, or minor ones for that matter, a high sustained level of consistency, a good number of weak teams, a middling division, a fair amount of luck, etc.

The good teams that deal with one or more of these and other setbacks, unfortunately, both don't get the best record, and usually gear up to have a perfect storm for the next 6-7 weeks. It's a lot easier to be good and fortunate over the span of 6 weeks than it is over the span of 8 months. The last 2 San Antonio championship teams are a testament to that. They deal with their share of injuries to Duncan, Ginobili, and others, go thru stretches of poor play, and at some point pull back on the reigns of trying to push out the best record. They refocus on getting healthy, getting rested, and gearing up to play their best ball near the end of the season.

And how about the 2009 Boston Celtics? Anybody remember them? Remember that 17-game win streak they reeled off in December? They were rolling thru the season early, and everyone thought they had a chance to break the record for regular-season wins. Then, the Lakers came to town, the losses started to pile up, and there went any thought of a record run. Aftwerwards, they righted the ship, and started powering up towards another postseason run, until -- disaster struck, in the form of a Kevin Garnett knee injury.

But what if they started the season slowly? What if KG hurts that knee before Christmas, has surgery right away, and comes back healthy -- and rested -- in mid-March? What if, from that point on, they started playing that December-quality ball? Simply put, the 2008 Celtics run went against normal NBA-season rules; it was, to an extent, to be expected that the perfect storm of health, quality play, and luck wouldn't fall into place for another 8 straight months. In fact, one could make the case that the '08 Celtics run wasn't all that perfect, considering their struggles in beating the Hawks and Cavaliers in grueling 7-game series.

So what do we make of this best-record, best-team talk? Very little. Does beating a depleted Washington squad in mid-January have any bearing on winning a title? How could it? There are some regular-season records that do matter, records aside from the overall wins tally. How you perform against +.500 teams. How you perform against the other playoff teams. And most importantly, how you perform against the other top-tier teams in the league. If you dominate the best of the best -- something the Cavaliers did not come close to doing this year -- then you are certainly in line for a championship. If you amass a reasonable .500 record against the rest of the league's best, then you've got a pretty good shot at a title, given a little luck and quality play. Remember, once the playoffs start, you've only got to win 57% of the time to win a title. That 57% translates into a 46-win season, a far cry from the 60+ win seasons that the top teams amass. However, if you are a middling sub-.500 against the best teams in the league, a distinction held by the 2009 Cavaliers, it is evidence that trouble is amiss.

Basketball, as with other sports, is a game of matchups. Beating 28 other teams repeatedly really has no bearing on how you'll perform against that 29th team. History has shown this time and time again. Just ask the 2007 Dallas Mavericks and their arch-nemisis, the Oaktown Warriors. Best team? Or best record? The facts say that we wait for the playoffs to end before crowning anyone with the former.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The Magic vs. The Mirage

Just got thru watching a segment on ESPN's Mike-&-Mike Show with Tim Legler, after watching the ESPN Roundtable with Magic Johnson, Stewart Scott, et. al. The slight majority, when asked who they thought would prevail in tonight's pivotal Eastern Conference Finals game 4, thought that the Cavaliers would finally show their championship mettle, and revert to the great team that we saw during the regular season. Now, I could be disrespectful and ask "have they been watching the first three games?", but I won't do that; rather, I'll ask the better question: "are the Cavs actually a great team?"

Yes, as Legler pointed out, the Cavs marched out to a top-notch 66-16 regular season record. But as was pointed out to me some time ago, the Cavs were a paltry 4-7 against the best of the league -- the Lakers (0-2), Celtics (2-2), Rockets (1-1), and Magic (1-2). They were blown out in Houston by 19 points, destroyed in their last game in Orlando by 29 points. They simply didn't play a championship-calibre game against the best teams all year. So now that we are down to the time of the year where only best of the league remain, why should we expect any different?

I think the problem with this team is the level of talent surrounding the Chosen One. First, let's point out that LeBron this year has elevated his all-around game, rightfully coming close to winning a defensive player of the year award, to go along with his otherworldly offensive talents. But what of the guys around him? Where are the other complete players? I think this question is key to the deficiencies of the Cavaliers.

Has anyone ever mistaken Mo Williams, Delonte West, Sasha Pavlovic, or "Boobie" Gibson as great individual defenders? Where's the other great wing defender on this 'team'? Any team with a big or strong backcourt can post these guys up all day long. On any given night that they're not making shots, how are they useful as basketball players? In the same light, Uncle Wally is hardly known as much of a defender either.

Offensively, how are "Floppy" Varejao or Ben Wallace of any use other than on putbacks and broken plays? Did anyone see the play on Sunday where Wallace had the ball 12 feet from the bucket in the paint and was completely disregarded by the defense; and he obliged them by turning away from the rim and passed the ball? How is Big Z going to body up with a center like, ohh, Dwight Howard, to be able to keep Superman from posting up, getting to the rim, and keeping him off the boards?

The only other player on this team that isn't nearly one-dimensional is Joe Smith, with both his defense and length contributing on one end, and his mid-range jumper making him a quantity on offense. One writer recently pointed out that the Boston Celtics clearly got the short end of the Joe Smith-Mikki Moore sweepstakes.

With the athleticism and abilities of the athletes in the league these days, can a collection of one-dimensional players really get it done on the biggest stage? Every time you plug a player into the game, you're making a sacrifice. Either you're hoping this guy will shoot well enough to offset the points he gives up on defense, or you're hoping this other guy will make enough stops and grab enough boards to make up for the other team completely ignoring him as an offensive threat. And yet, we're left to wonder why such a team would run up into matchup problems?

Now let's flip the scorecard over and look at the Magic's role-players. Mikael Pietrus was brought to Orlando moreso for his defensive prowess, and people are heaping praise on him for doing a decent job against LeBron James (what more can you do against the guy?). Yet how many big plays has he made on the offensive end? How many big shots and drives to the bucket have we seen? Courtney Lee has simply had an impressive rookie season, and had games where he's shined on the offensive end. Yet, in the Boston series, this youngster stuck to Eddie House like glue, and completely, completely took him out of at least 3 games, if not the series in general. Tony Battie is certainly a defensive player, yet he has a very capable mid-range jumper, much like Joe Smith. The same goes for Marcin Gortat. Rafer Alston and Anthony Johnson aren't known for their defense, but you can always insert a wing defender in Lee or Pietrus next to them to solidify the backcourt.

Hedo Turk had a game the other night where he shot 1-11, yet he had 10 assists, got to the free-throw line, and repeatedly put the Cavs' defense out-of-wack by running an effecient pick-and-roll. He also isn't known as the best defender, but he does have size and length to bother certain players on the court. The same goes for Rashard Lewis; he definitely uses his length on the defensive end, and we needn't even waste time discussing his talent on offense. If Turk or Lewis can be exploited on defense, who besides LeChosen One can do the exploiting?

In any case, the Magic certainly have more than their share of two-way, multi-talented players. When Coach Van Panicky inserts these players, he doesn't have to worry about them contributing in one and only facet; he merely has to require that they play good basketball on both ends of the court. Coach Brown? He's got to mix and match, and honestly, just hope for the best.

And going forward past 2009, where's the future for this team? Zydrunas is certainly on the downside of his career, and his lack of athleticism is starting to be exposed. As bigger and stronger centers start coming in, how much further back will he slip? How many years (or months?) before New Jersey's Brook Lopez passes him by? Ben Wallace -- how many more useful years does he have? How far down the depth chart has he already slipped? Wally Z? Sasha Pavlovic? Boobie Gibson? Does this Cleveland team really have much of a long-term future? We will certainly find out in a year or two.

But of more immediate importance: does this collection of one-dimensional role players really have what it takes to be truly considered a great team? Where is Batman's Robin? Where is Superman's Amazing Friends, the Scottie Pippens, the (young) Bruce Bowen's, the Robert Horry types, guys that can contribute all over the court? I simply don't see it.

There's an old sports adage that says: you're never as good as you look when you win, and never as bad as you look when you lose. Just some food for thought.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Nice Try Mike; Nice Try Refs

When a Coach-of-the-Year isn't quite so much the best coach

Colour me suprised. Many people have brought up, with increasing regularity, the Cavs' 1-2 record verses the Magic in the regular season (along with the longer-term losing record against Orlando, something to the tune of 9 loses in their last 11 games). Naturally, we can't make too much of the games prior to the start of this season, as both the Magic and the Cavs underwent significant roster improvements last summer. The more the wheels begin to fall off the Cav bandwagon, the more analysts and reporters seem to refer to this stat. Well, better late than never people.

In reply, Mike Brown and other Cleveland defenders have pointed out that Cleveland had equally-poor records verses the Pistons and Wizards in previous years, only to dispatch of said teams once the playoffs started. On the face of things, this one seemed like quite the plausible defense, throwing a monkey wrench into our stat-loving rantings.

But let's look a bit closer at said defense, shall we? Last year, Cleveland split their 4 regular-season meetings with Washington, before beating them in the playoffs in 6 games. Two of the regular-season games were decided by 1 and 2 points; Cleveland won a 3rd game by 36 points, and in the 4th, a Wizard win, LeBron James didn't play. What exactly does Coach Brown think was so different about the playoffs? What's he trying to sell us?

Two years ago, Detroit took 3 of 4 from the Cavs, then lost in 6 games in the playoffs. There's nothing on the face that seems to deviate here from what Coach Brown claimed, so score one for him there. Definitely strange turn of events between the regular season and the playoffs. I'm sure there may be some clues in the individual games -- you'd figure there have to be -- but to look would be overkill.

On the other side, that same year, Cleveland took 3 of 4 from the Wizards in the regular season, before sweeping the series in the playoffs. Score one for the regular season.

So, in general, we can say the coach has somewhat of a point -- that it is possible that regular season difficulties will not translate into the playoffs -- but it's probably much more accurate to say that this is a rare occurence. Nothing wrong with playing the percentages, especially when they're overwhelming.

Nice Try Refs

As far as the officiating in tonight's Game 3, what can you say? Horrible? Slanted? Inconsistent? Blatently-biased? A flagrant foul when a guy is going up for a shot? How many out-of-bounds play calls did they get wrong? How many charges did they mis-call? It felt like Kings/Lakers Game 7 all over again.

Kudos to the Magic for overcoming a very curiously called basketball game to take the 2-1 lead.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Halftime of the Lakers/Nuggets...

Commentators Missing the Ball

We're at half-time of the Laker/Nugget game, where Denver ended on a flurry to trim a 13-pt deficit down to a single point. All the commentators talked about "energy", "effort", and a bunch of generalities and platitudes when discussing their opinion of what went wrong for the Lakers during the run.

They all completely missed the obvious. Andrew Bynum went to the bench, after playing well and having all the announcers praise his play. Lamar Odom came in. in the first half, Bynum was +8, Lamar was -5. Linus Kleiza from of the Nuggets also hit 3 shots from beyond the arc and had a +10 during his time on the court. All the other big-minute players were essentially even.

It's not rocket science people. Can we point out the obvious? And try to give Bynum a little bit of credit? Lord knows we've heaped criticism and/or repeatedly pointed out when he hasn't played near his best.

The Fight Over Superman

OK, this has gone on long enough. Spurned out by the increasingly-curmudgeonly Shaq O'Neil, people (read: ESPN's knuckleheads like Stewart Scott) is going out of their way to bring up the Shaq/Howard Superman co-claim. Having been knocked out of the playoffs over 5 weeks ago, Shaq's relevance to the current NBA final four is completely nil. Yet Stewie felt the need to remind us for the umpteenth time that there was a Superman prior to Dwight's current incarnation.

People, give me a break. Did George Reeves sit around dissing Christopher Reeve to the media in 1978? Did the Daily Bugle print stories about Christopher being an also-ran? Did Dean Cain have to defend himself against barbs from Reeve and Reeves? Do interviewers ask Brandon Routh if he thinks he's the real Superman?

Naturally, no. Shaq, no disrespect boss, but you are yesterday, Dwight is today. That is the beauty of the Superman moniker, because it's following the same history of the Superman character we've already seen. One Superman has his day and then makes his way for an update. Every bit like how George Reeves had to make way for Christopher.

And being that I am the same age as Shaq, I feel fully qualified to point out that he needs to make way for the young fella. And since we're on the subject -- since you like to point out that Dwight isn't doing anything you haven't already done -- would you mind telling the world exactly when you donned a cape and flew thru the air in a dunk contest? Or could you point out the year you won the Defensive POY award? I must've missed that while watching cartoons or something.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The Blind Critizing The Blind

So, I see that after the Magic fourth-quarter meltdown, Dwight Howard, as respectfully as possible, criticized his coach for his substitution patterns and the lack of offensive touches for Dwight in the game. Unfortunately, while Dwight was right to criticize Van Gundy's offensive game-calling, begging for Van Gundy to call his number on offense is just as clueless.

Dwight says his coach needed to go with what's working -- naturally -- but when did feeding him in the post ever work? The Celtics were playing him straight up with Perkins or Davis, so he wasn't commanding a double-team to free up any shooters or get the defense moving. And he wasn't scoring. On top of that, he's taking hooks running away from the basket, so they can't even get boards. What about feeding Dwight was a good idea?

Dwight was right about the need to feed someone, but he got the wrong person. They should've been feeding Rashard or Hedo. If you go back and watch the game, you'd see it, feeding them never failed. The Celtics (w/o Garnett) have no one that can dream of holding Rashard on the box or out on the wing. Dwight is just as wrong as his coach to not realize this.

Getting the ball to a post player is definitely the answer, instead of those repeated screen-rolls they ran. I see analysts like Tim Legler and Adrian Whatshisface agreeing to that. Problem is, I don't know why no one can see that Dwight is not the player they need to be posting. Perhaps someone like Hollinger with his barrage of statistics might see the light, cause right now I feel like I'm shouting in an empty forest.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Another Offensively-Clueless Van Gundy

Is "Van Gundy" Dutch for "I will repeatedly run the same play on offense whether it works or not"? Watching the Magic-Celtics tonight was a nightmarish deja-vu of the late-2nd-millenia New York Knicks. From early in the game I was mystified: why does this team keep running post-ups for Dwight Howard? Give Kendrick Perkins and Glen Davis credit: they continually push Superman further away from the basket than he wants to go, making him settle for somewhat-rushed running hookshots in the lane. Dwight is eventually going to be a post-up offensive juggernaut (let's try to remember, the kid is still only 23, and you can see the slow but sure development of a set of post moves). He needs to slow down, put repeated moves, switch directions more than once, and get closer to the rim. However, the 4th quarter of game 5 of the playoff semifinals is not a time to see if he can figure things out.

In any case, the 4 or 5 times that Rashard Lewis or Hedo Turkoglu posted up on the blocks, back to basket, with a clearout, resulted in the Magic getting positive production. A layup, a foul, a shot in close range. About the only time that happened multiple times, to the best of my memory, was in the 2nd quarter. Watching Dwight fail to convert any of his postups time and time again was painful enough; watching the Magic call his number after every successive failure was mind-boggling.

Memo to Stan Van Gundy: THE CELTICS HAVE NO ONE HEALTHY THAT CAN GUARD RASHARD LEWIS! How the &#$* does he not know this? Why is he not being featured? Rashard drives around Perkins, shoots over Davis, and just generally abuses Scalabrine, with incredible regularity and ease. If Kevin Garnett were healthy, this would be a considerably different situation. But guess what: GARNETT'S NOT PLAYING!

If you couldn't tell, I find Van Gundy's offensive play-calling maddening. There is an old sports adage that says you keep running the same play until a team proves they can stop it. In football, you run the ball down the throat of a team who's being manhandled by your offensive line and/or run over by your running back. In baseball, you pitch to a hitter's weak spot (e.g. up and in) until he proves he can hit it. In basketball, you maximize any and all mismatches on the court.

In the 1st-half, Lewis was 6-8, and on shots 13 feet and closer, was 6-7, an assortment of layups and short jumpers. In the 2nd-half, he was 1-2 at close range, and 1-7 on long jumpers and 3 pointers. Let's see; a certain type of play is 85% successful from the field in the first half, and you run it all of TWICE in the second? What the hell do they pay the coaches for? To yell at officials and call random timeouts?

I'm beating this horse dead, and I haven't even gotten to the worst part of the game: the 4th quarter. With 5 minutes to go in the game, the Magic had a ten-point lead and a collar on the game. The Celtics started defending the screen-and-roll much better, got stops on consecutive trips, and started hitting shots. The Magic continued to run the screen-roll. Couple more Celtic buckets, and Van Gundy calls a timeout. Out of the timeout, the Magic run -- yet another screen-roll. At what point does it sink into someone's thick skull that you need to do something different? Isn't this a lesson most of us learn as a toddler? Hand on stove, OUCH, I won't do that again.

But then again, that Howard post-up didn't work in the 1st half, not even once, yet Van Gundy kept calling for it. The meager 3 or 4 times Hedo or Rashard posted up, they got good looks. But hey, why go to something successful. Let's just keep posting Dwight, never mind that it hasn't worked with any success for 5 games.

In the end, the Magic didn't post up either of their forwards for the entire 4th quarter by my count. They never got the 1 or 2 buckets they needed to keep distance, and in the end, the lead slipped away. And with it, perhaps the series.

Good going Stan. This was your loss, make no mistake about that. Next time, try calling some plays that actually work!

Monday, May 11, 2009

Suggestion for Instant Reply: Goaltending Calls

During yesterday's Boston-Orlando Game 4, I counted at least 4 plays at the basket that were very difficult for the officials to make. Instant reply showed that at least 3 of them may have gone the wrong way. There was the obvious, like Rajon Rondo's goaltend of Mikael Pietrus' layup after the ball had clearly hit the glass; this play resulted in at least a 1 point change (two if you assume Pietrus to hit the resulting and-1 free-throw). There was the difficult, like Dwight Howard's grab of a Rajon Rondo teardrop that appeared to be well short of the rim. Then there was Pietrus' clean shotblock of Ray Allen near the end of the first quarter, a ball that was quite obviously still on the way up. Plays like these are just as bang-bang, and just as reviewable, as other plays that are now up for review on instant replay.

Think about it: much like the current instant-replay rules for 3-point shots, goaltending calls are merely about adjusting the score during the game. Much like the 3-point calls, the officials can mark plays to be reviewed at the next dead-ball timeout. Calls that are deemed incorrect can be adjusted accordingly.

In this game, we're talking about the questionable difference of 5-7 points in a game that was decided by 1 point. Certainly this is something for the rules committee to at least consider in the off-season. At least, that's the view from here on Mars.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Mars versus Earth

So, now that I went out on a limb in the first round to make predictions, how did I fare, particularly against the best of the best analysts? I checked out the predictions made by the analysts on Yahoo! Sports and ESPN, and am happy to report that I did quite, quite well. The Hawks' fourth and final dismantling of the Heat earned me a tie with ESPN's super-stat man Hollinger, Chris Sheridan, and Thorpe with 25-first-round points.

How did I score and rank these predictions, surely you'd have to ask. For each perfect prediction (series winner and number of games), you get 4 points. For each game a prediction is off by, you lose a point (e.g. if a series goes 5 games and you guessed 6, you'd earn 3 points; a 7-game series that you predicted would be sweep would earn you a single point). And naturally, predicting the wrong team to move on will garner no points.

So what did I learn from this little exercise? Well, for at least one round of the playoffs, I was every bit as good as the most-known analysts at ESPN (a nice achievement) and Yahoo! Sports (nothing to hang your hat on really). Jalen Rose (13 points) should probably stop predicting altogether (Cavs in 6? Celtics and Magic in 4?) Perennial shameless man-hater Adrian Wojnarowski (15 points) should join him (Nuggets in 7? Blazers? Celtics and Magic in 5?)

In any case, the latter rounds are certainly harder to predict; I almost don't expect to do nearly as well the next time around. So I'll certainly savour this "I'm as good as the best" for as long as I can.

Playing With House Money

No, this post isn't going to detail Eddie's lights-out shooting last night (although that would've been a nice lead-in). Rather, I'm referring to my fairly-strong performance in handicapping the eight first-round series, in relation to the so-called experts (which I'll detail after the Heat-Hawks gave 7 is over). I am incidentally rooting for the Hawks, a win by whom would put me at the top of all the Yahoo Sports and ESPN analysts. Anyway, enough about the first round, let's try to predict the next round.

(6) Mavericks vs (2) Nuggets

Nuggets in 6? Dallas in 6?? Nuggets in 7???

I'm having a damn hard time handicapping this series. Denver might've gone 4-0 against Dallas this year, but each game was a tight win with Dallas missing players. I mean, Josh Howard and Jason Kidd out, Nene out and Denver only wins by 2 points?? Carmelo out, Howard out, and -- still a 2-pt Denver win?

It's anybody's guess who has the upper-hand here. Both teams have identically-mediocre, 22-22 records against plus-500 teams; then you factor in the fact that Dallas hasn't had their full lineup for the bulk of the year. I already severely underestimated the Mavs, both in the late-season stretch, and then again verses the Spurs. Can I bet against them again? Or is it midnight for Cinderella?

Ultimately, I think if it comes down to a game 7, the Nuggets would find a way to pull it out on their home court. I think. Ah to hell with it: Nuggets in 7.

(1) Cavaliers vs. (4) Hawks
It's halftime of the Hawks-Heat game 7, a game that is shaping up just like the other 6 games -- a blowout. So I'll just pencil the Hawks into this spot. Ultimately the outcome isn't going to hinge on the opponent; they'll both suffer the same quick fate.

Incidentally, a few days ago I read one analyst's first-round predictions; his "explanation" under the Cavs/Pistons matchup was simply "let's not waste anyone's time." If that wasn't humourous enough, his prediction was met with severe and abject hostility by one user in the comments section, who projected at least a 7-game series and a big surprise from the Pistons.

Then the rest of us got to see what actually happened.

In any case, for this matchup, look for the Hawks to keep throwing up stinkers in alternate games: Cavaliers in 5.

(1) Lakers vs. (4) Rockets
The Lakers' depth and star-power vs. Houston's defense and Great China Wall length. Hmm. This really comes down to how many games can Houston steal. And also how effective Andrew Bynum is, rebounding and blocking shots. I'll stretch my imagination and say 2 games: Lakers in 6.

(2) Celtics vs. (3) Magic
This is an interesting matchup, what with Boston losing players on a daily basis, and the Magic getting semi-healthy and putting together one of their better games (in the close-out verses Philadelphia) in weeks. I wish I would've had the time to blog previous to that game, because I wholly unsurprised to see Marcin Gortat fill in so nicely for Superman; and equally unsurprised to see the Sixers come out so unbelievably flat, on top of having middling players like Sam Dalembert embarrass themselves to think that they'd have some sort of automatic advantage over anyone on the Magic roster in Dwight Howard's absence. When has Dalembert ever in his career dominated a game? You have to wonder about the inflated opinions some players -- some people -- have of themselves sometimes.

In any case, the competitiveness of this series hinges solely on the Magic playing to their ability. They should be able to take out a Garnett-less Celtics team in 6 games; somewhere in the pits of my stomach I see them finding some way of playing below their potential. As much as I love this young team, I have been watching them all year. Celtics in 7.