The Los Angeles Lakers not only clinched their playoff berth on the last day of the regular season but also managed to leapfrog over the Houston Rockets to take the 7th seed by virtue of winning the season series. The San Antonio Spurs, in contrast, have had their playoff qualifications on ice for about as long as anyone can remember although key injuries to Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili led to them losing the top seed in the Western Conference to the Oklahoma City Thunder. The Lakers won in a hotly contested overtime affair yesterday for the right to play San Antonio. Let’s see why.
After a typically age-defying season in San Antonio, the Spurs have been cold down the stretch. Part of it was obviously injury, but part of it may have just been to coast through to the playoffs. The Spurs have dropped 7 of their last 10 games, starting with the two point loss to the Heat (which I believe was a Chris Bosh buzzer-beater). That said, they were dealing with injuries to key players leading up to the playoffs and probably wanted to prevent any further harm. Tim Duncan has been monstrous this season, one of his most efficient seasons in the league. The “greatest power forward of all time” has averaged nearly 18 points, 10 boards and 3 blocks a game in 30 minutes a night. That is insane. He should be fresh in the playoffs.
The Lakers have been dealing with injury issues of their own and unfortunately none of those injury situations will be resolved come playoff time. After losing Kobe Bryant to an Achilles’ injury last week, the Lakers regrouped very well to qualify to the playoffs and grab the 7th seed. Mike D’Antoni has finally realized that Pau Gasol is a superior player to Earl Clark and he is getting the minutes once again. The offense can again run through Dwight Howard–something he is a lot more comfortable with. If Steve Nash can get back into the mix quickly, this Lakers team may actually become more of a threat than the ball-hogging Kobe version.
That said, the Lakers’ biggest Achilles’ heel (sorry, Kobe) is their defense. Although they were able to stifle Houston yesterday, that was more a case of the Rockets taking a bunch of stupid three-point shots (8-33 from the field…). The Spurs offense is much more refined and actually has a low-post presence that can effectively spread the floor. Duncan and Splitter will match up well with Howard and Gasol. Tony Parker will ruin Steve Blake. If Ginobili is back in the fold, there is no one on the Lakers who can stop him, either. Basically, the Lakers will have to outscore San Antonio, something that I wouldn’t be envious of being able to do when your best players are 4’s and 5’s and like the ball in the post.
The Spurs won the regularly season series 2-1, with all three games being pretty tight. I think they’ll drop a couple in Los Angeles thanks to David Stern, but I expect them to take care of business, here.
PREDICTION: Spurs win in 6 (4-2)
I hate giving credit to the New York Knicks but they’ve been playing pretty superb basketball this season. With Amar’e Stoudemire injured and no other singular offensive threat in the starting lineup, it looks like Carmelo Anthony has finally got a core of players around him who don’t mind just passing the ball into him and watching him shoot. And luckily, for him, he has done this with stunning accuracy over the last few weeks en route to an improbable scoring championship, beating out Durant, the leader for most of the season.
The difference this year is two-ingredient cocktail: 1 part J.R. Smith and 1 part dead-eye three-point shooters. Smith is the leading candidate for sixth man of the year and helped New York stay relevant when they were battling injuries mid-season. They’ve got a plethora of shooters on their roster, most of whom don’t really want anything to do with the ball other than catch and shoot it when open. Raymond Felton finally looks like he hasn’t retired early to open a donut store.
Much credit must be given to the Celtics who managed to fight their way to a playoff spot in the consistently paltry Eastern Conference despite losing Rajon Rondo midway through the season. Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett have had good (but not great) seasons and Jeff Green has provided some much needed offense. They’ve also got a couple of dead-eye shooters in Jason Terry and Courtney Lee but both these guys haven’t had the chance to break free from the slow-pace Celtics offense. Avery Bradley has also been fantastic defensively and will probably spend some time guarding the likes of J.R. Smith if he gets hot.
The Knicks should win this one easily on paper, having taken the season series 3-1, but it’s foolish to take the Celtics for granted come postseason. Defense wins championships, after all. I think they’ll hang on for a victory in 5 or 6 games, but the series will be a lot closer than the final scoreline will suggest.
PREDICTION: Knicks win in 6 (4-2)