NBA insiders dish on playoff favorites
The Bulls and Spurs have wrapped up the East and West, but the two-time defending champion Lakers and superstar-laden Heat are the teams to beat in June, according to a host of NBA insiders.
For most of the coaches, general managers, TV analysts and players interviewed for this column, the Lakers showed what they’re all about when they went 17-1 after the All-Star Game. In their minds, Andrew Bynum’s latest knee injury isn’t serious enough to derail another run to the title.
"I look at the Lakers the same way I used to look at the Bulls when they were on their championship run in the '90s," Nets GM Billy King said. “I don’t know if anyone can beat them four times in a seven-game series. They know playoff basketball. All of their guys have been deep in the playoffs. They’ve been to the Finals. There’s nothing new to them.
"I think that goes a long way, plus I look at Kobe Bryant the same way I used to look at Michael Jordan," King added.
"Kobe doesn’t want to lose. A lot of guys say they don’t want to lose, but you see it in his competitiveness. Kobe has that one focus every year that Michael had: winning the championship."
But the Lakers aren’t unanimous picks to send Phil Jackson off with his fourth “three-peat.”
"The Los Angeles Lakers are not going to win the NBA championship this year," said Charles Barkley at his TNT post the other night. "Father Time has caught up with them. Every time they’ve played well, they’ve run out of gas. I don’t think they are going to win this thing this year."
Barkley is high on the Heat, who will start their playoff run as heavy favorites against the starless Sixers. He called Miami “dangerous,’’ but the Heat are viewed as playing better now than Boston, which started the season as the favorite in many quarters, and even Chicago, which has been the most consistent team all season in the East.
"In a seven-game series, with their combination of great defense that no one talks about, along with LeBron and Wade, to say some team will beat them four times in a series, that’s going to be a very, very tough task," said former Knicks and Rockets coach Jeff Van Gundy, an ESPN analyst. "Their defense is very underrated. When people talk about great defensive teams in the league, they never talk about Miami. All people talk about with the Heat is who will take the last shot or what they’re missing. But that is a phenomenal defense."
The Heat, in fact, finished the season with the second-ranked defense in terms of opponent’s shooting. Miami held foes to only 43 percent shooting, with a league-best 7.5 point differential.
"When Miami turns up their defense, when they force turnovers and get off and running, they’re the most explosive team in the league, and when they’re attacking they’re really good,’" said Kevin McHale, the former Celtic great who analyzes games for NBA-TV.
"And yet, there are games when they’re settling for jumpers and all of a sudden, they look very beatable. It’s like, which team is going to show up? I wonder what happens if they get a team that doesn’t turn it over, packs it in the paint and says, 'beat us from the perimeter, because we’re not going to especially give LeBron and Dwyane layups.’ That could be tough for them. So I wouldn’t be shocked if they came out of the East, and I wouldn’t be shocked if they didn’t."
But the Heat’s run could well hinge on whether James, Wade and Chris Bosh can perform at a high level in every playoff game, because their supporting cast — including Mike Bibby, Mario Chalmers, Mike Miller, James Jones, Zydrunas Ilaguaskas and Erick Dampier — has not been impressive, in the least, even as the Heat finished winning 15 of its last 18 games.
Asked whether he thought the Heat had the supporting cast necessary to win the title, former Charlotte shooter Dell Curry didn’t hesistate.
"No," said Curry, now an analyst on Bobcats TV games. "I think it will take another year or two to get the supporting cast they need. They’re lacking on the bench. I don’t see where guys are comfortable out there. They’re putting too much pressure on themselves to make shots. And the pressure on those guys — like Miller and Bibby — is going to be ramped up even more in the playoffs. I don’t know if they’ll deliver."
Still, the Heat are seen as a better pick to come out of the East than Boston, which will go into the playoffs on a down note. Since trading Kendrick Perkins to Oklahoma City, the Celtics’ interior defense has suffered, while several veterans still are not happy that Danny Ainge broke up a group that had gone to the Finals twice in the past three seasons and won it all in 2008. Boston went only 15-12 after the Perkins trade, which brought back Jeff Green and Nenad Krstic.
"It’s not just that they don’t have the defense or the rebounding at the center position that they once did, which could be a very difficult problem for them," said Charlotte coach Paul Silas. "But I wonder about the mindset of their guys. They thought they should have kept Perkins. They still believe that. I’m not sure that they have the right mindset now to deal with that. As players, you’ve got to let that go."
But the Celtics are still seen by some insiders as a team that can get its focus back and make another long run, starting with what could be a difficult series against the Knicks and their three stars, Carmelo Anthony, Amar’e Stoudemire and Chauncey Billups. This is the first time the Knicks are in the playoffs since 2004 and the first time with their three stars, who were only 14-14 after the Anthony trade.
"Any time a team like Boston has been through conflict together, that’s a positive,’’ Nets coach Avery Johnson said. "That’s playoff conflict, not regular-season conflict. I think that means something. It goes a long way, especially if their legs can hold up and they can still play at a high level. We’ve seen teams that have been put together and with new guys get hot and they’re capable of winning. But a team like Boston has to rely on their experience, and that’s what they have over a lot of teams."
That includes a host of teams, including contenders and teams that are going into the playoffs as underdogs. As much as the Nuggets have been praised for their 18-7 record after dealing Anthony, they will be taking the court together for the first time in the playoffs. And three of the four former Knicks who went to Denver in the deal — Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler and Timofey Mozgov — will be experiencing the playoffs for the first time.
But it’s not just a team like Denver that won’t be able to draw on its postseason experience. That also goes for the Bulls, who have several key new players for this postseason run, along with a first-time head coach in Tom Thibodeau.
"But I like them as my darkhorse, if you can make a No. 1 seed a darkhorse pick," Van Gundy said. "Going from 41 to 62 wins is an incredible feat, since they really didn’t change their team all that much by adding Boozer and some reserves, and they had a lot of injuries to contend with. Of course, Derrick Rose has been incredible, my pick for MVP, and a lot of that has to do with his leadership.
"Now people wonder if they’re capable of going to another level, and maybe they’re not. But the level they’re at right now gives them a great chance to get to the conference finals."
Another darkhorse is Oklahoma City, in its second playoff run with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. Oklahoma City will start off against the Nuggets, but this time the Thunder will have homecourt advantage, as opposed to going up against the Lakers last season and losing a tough six-game series.
"It helps that they went through last year and played the Lakers in their first playoffs," said Nets guard and former Laker Jordan Farmar. "That’s going to help them learn what the playoffs are all about. Then they’ve added Perkins, who is a big body they need to bang with Bynum and Tim Duncan and other bigs in the West. I think they can take it to the next level with the young nucleus they have in Durant and Westbrook."
The Bulls are expected to sweep the Pacers to get to the winner of the Orlando-Atlanta series. Although the Hawks have had a two-month swoon after being 15 games over. 500 after 51 games, they could give Orlando a difficult series. The Magic’s supporting cast for Dwight Howard is seen as its weakest in a number of years.
If the Hawks can guard Howard one-on-one with Jason Collins and other big men, their athletic wing players will be able to stay at home with three-point shooters Jameer Nelson, Jason Richardson, Hedo Turkoglu and Ryan Anderson. Richardson, Turkoglu and Gilbert Arenas are new to the Magic this season.
"From their first game, Orlando will be under pressure because this is still a new team off their blockbuster trades," said Greg Anthony, an analyst for NBA TV and a former playmaker for the Knicks. "If they don’t win that first game at home, you don’t know how all of these new players will respond. As much as anyone, Orlando has a lot of pressure to perform and get up in their series early. They don’t want to give Atlanta confidence because they’ve had success against them in the regular season."
While the Magic are seen by some as being ripe for an upset, Memphis and Portland are viewed as teams that could knock off a higher seeded Western opponent. Back in the playoffs for the first time since 2006 when they had Pau Gasol, the Grizzlies are a feisty, tough and confident team that has more than survived the loss of Rudy Gay to a season-ending shoulder surgery.
Lionel Hollins gets scoring from Zach Randolph, excellent floor play from Mike Conley Jr., and some of the top bench play in the league from Tony Allen, O.J. Mayo and Darrell Arthur. The Grizzlies have never won a postseason game, but they might have caught a break when the Spurs’ Manu Ginobili hyperextended his right (non-shooting arm) elbow in San Antonio’s final game at Phoenix.
Meanwhile, the Blazers have overcome injuries to Greg Oden and Brandon Roy to assemble a long, athletic, defensively oriented team that is expected to give the older, slower Mavs fits. LeMarcus Aldridge killed the Mavs during the regular season, averaging 27.8 ppg on 52 percent shooting. And the acquisition of Gerald Wallace has been underrated.
While the Anthony and Deron Williams trades dominated the post-trade deadline discussion, Wallace quietly averaged 15.8 ppg, 7.6 rebounds and two steals in 23 game for Nate McMillan’s team.
"Portland is going to upset whoever they play in the first round, especially if it’s the Dallas Mavericks," said former All-Star forward Chris Webber, now with TNT.
"They have too many looks and they are too resilient of a team. Portland is going to be a team that no one wants to play in the first round."
And by the time the playoffs end, the Lakers will be the team nobody wants to play, period.