The Magic: I think that this team should be great. But when you have the Celtics, Heat, and Bulls in your conference, it makes it difficult. The Magic are like the really good looking girl lost in a the group of supermodels. Stack her up against some better competition, and she’d be a 10. Orlando dumped Vince Carter and Rashard Lewis (great moves), and added Jason Richardson, Hedo Turkoglu, and Gilbert Arenas to a solid core of Howard, Jameer Nelson, Brandon Bass, Ryan Anderson, and J.J. Redick. When the Magic made the trades, I loved them and thought they would challenge for the Eastern Conference title. Now, I just don’t see it, but they will dominate the Hawks. No one is going to stop Dwight Howard from scoring or getting the rebounds, and I don’t see anyone on Atlanta’s roster being able to contain Jameer Nelson and Gilbert Arenas (assuming Arenas is healthy). The Magic shoot the ball well, and have the 4th best defensive FG%. Let’s see how they react in later rounds.
The Hawks: The Hawks chances just don’t look good. I’ve been impressed with this team’s ability the last few years after two decades of non-relevance, but they just haven’t been able to take that next step. Led by overpaid non-superstar Joe Johnson, the team was searching for an identity until the acquisition of Kirk Hinrich. He added a little feistiness to a team that needed it, but they stumbled into the playoffs losing the last six games. If forwards Josh Smith or Al Horford turns into kryptonite and shut down Superman (Dwight Howard), they could push the series deep. But here’s the two stats that jump out at me. The Hawks are 28th in the league in rebounding, and are 26th in the league in points per game. When you’re going up against the 4th best defense and 6th best rebounding team, it just doesn’t bode well for the team. Better luck next year.
Prediction: Magic in 6. I like the Hawks. I think they have a great core of young talent. But that core isn’t going to get it done against an experienced Magic team that is trying to recapture the magic (no pun intended) from the 2009 Finals run. Howard dominates, Nelson/Arenas controls the ball, and the Magic move on to fact the Bulls in round two.
(3) Dallas Mavericks v. (6) Portland Trail Blazers: This is going to be a good one. A series full of contrast. The Mavs: an older team led by one 7-foot forward superstar; backed up by veterans seeking their first rings; rely on offense and can’t really guard anyone unless they’re playing a zone defense. The Blazers: a younger team led by a young, injury-plagued guard; a balanced attack; leading, hardened veteran role players; rely on tenacious defense and pushing the pace on offense. This series can go either way.
Series Stud: Dirk Nowitzki. Can somebody tell me how Dallas won 57 games? Seriously. I mean, Dallas has a washed up cast of complementary players. Jason Terry, Caron Butler, Shawn Marion, Tyson Chandler, Peja Stojakovic, Jason Kidd. Five years ago, that team is winning championship after championship. So it makes you appreciate the job that Dirk did this season that much more. He shoots 51% from the field, astounding for a person who shoots a ton of 3’s, which he makes at 39%. With one of the prettiest offensive skill sets in the game, the surefire Hall of Famer deserves another star to complement his play. Nowitzki’s averaged 25 points and 10 rebounds throughout his career in the playoffs. That’s pretty damn good. Mark Cuban’s gotta make it happen before Dirk follows up Karl Malone, John Stockton, Charles Barkley, and Clyde Drexler on the list of “Great Players to Never Win a Title.”
The Mavs: The Mavs aren’t great at any one thing, but they don’t suck at anything either. That’s to me how I describe this team. They’re “Meh.” They’re not “nice,” they’re just “Meh.” Dirk is the catalyst, and Jason Kidd can still pass the ball with the best of them even though he basically is now a figurehead on the defensive end of the court. The midseason addition of Peja Stojakovic gives Dallas another 3-point threat to spread the floor, and the acquisition of Corey Brewer shores up the perimeter defense since Kidd can’t guard a scarecrow. There’s a lot of parts to this team that I really like. But like I said a minute ago, when I see this roster I can’t help but think I wanted to see it five years ago. I loved Shawn Marion. I loved Peja. Kidd was one of my favorite players growing up. Throw in Caron Butler, and I just see a roster of players on the downsides of their careers. Where’s the potential? Where’s the young guns? I want to see Dallas make some moves this offseason to give Dirk a playmate on the court. In the playoffs, teams are going to hone in on your best player. If no one else steps up, it’s game over.
The Blazers: I see a lot of similarities in the Mavs and the Blazers. But I see the youth, I see the fire in the vets, and I see the chemistry. They rely on each other. LaMarcus Aldridge has blossomed into one of the game’s best players this year. His All-Star snub was inexcusable, and he’s used that as motivation, posting 21.8 PPG and 8.8 RPG. He’s been able to take over games at times, which the team needed once Brandon Roy went down with an injury. Veteran Andre Miller has been the best teammate he’s been in his career, giving up shots and focusing on distributing the basketball. Fellow geezer Marcus Camby has been his usual defensive presence under the hoop, forcing people to alter their shots. Since his acquisition from Charlotte, Gerald Wallace has provided a shot in the arm on both sides of the floor. Throw in team leader Brandon Roy’s return from injury to the perimeter lineup of Wesley Matthews, Nicolas Batum, and sixth man Rudy Fernandez, and this is a team that no one wants to see in the playoffs. Too bad Greg Oden isn’t playing, because this would be a scary team. Then again, Oden seems to have been a distraction during his Portland tenure, both on (through injury after injury) and off (cough… naked pics… cough) the court. If the Blazers can break down the Dallas zone defense by knocking down some threes, Dallas is in trouble.
Prediction: Blazers in 6. The Blazers can shut down Nowitzki (and by shut down, I mean contain) on the perimeter with their depth, length and speed. Marcus Camby and Aldridge can contain Dirk down in the post. Who else is going to step up for the Mavs? No one. The balanced attack led by Andre Miller goes "Boom-shaka-laka" and takes down the Mavs in the most entertaining series we've seen in awhile.
Part 2 of the preview tomorrow, followed by by picks for the rest of the playoffs.