I will preface this article by saying that I am going to pretend everything from days one and two of the NBA playoffs didn't happen. You can ignore Mehmet Okur's torn Achilles (destroying Utah's chances), Kevin Durant's stinker (potential for an Los Angeles sweep and huge momentum builder for the Lakers) and Garnett's suspension (more time for Rasheed Wallace, less winning). None of this happened. So without further ado, a brief look at the playoffs as I foresee them unfolding.
The Eastern Conference is very interesting this year. You have a clear favorite (Cleveland), a red-hot contender (Orlando), energetic up-and-comers (Atlanta, Charlotte , Milwaukee), teams carried by one star and not much else (Rose in Chicago and Wade in Miami) and a decrepit bunch of washed up has-beens (Boston, yes I think I might be a little bitter). As boring as it sounds, I see no reason why Cleveland, Orlando, Atlanta and Boston--the top four seeds--won't take care of their opponents in round one. The only potential upset is Miami over Boston. The Celtics have been extremely lackadaisical in their rebounding and team defense this season, two things that cannot happen in the playoffs. And who covers Dwyane Wade? This question may haunt my Celtics all summer.
Despite the frisky Hawks providing a challenge to the Magic in round two, it seems the inevitable conference finals matchup will be Cleveland and Orlando. The Cavs are going to steamroll the Bulls, then will do likewise to either the Celtics or Heat. LeBron has developed into a force of nature at this point, and in interviews leading up to Cleveland's first game he sounded unlike I have ever heard him before. He was deathly serious, which should terrify anyone who dares get in the way of his 6 foot, 9 inch, 270 pound body as he barrels down the lane. His dominance will carry the Cavs into the finals relatively easily, as I see them taking down Orlando in five games.
In the West, there is a lot more parity this year due to injury, age and some pleasant surprises. The Lakers have had a very spotty effort all year, the Mavericks have patched their holes through trades, Steve Nash has defied the aging process in Phoenix and resuscitated Amare Stoudemire's career, and a litany of star players have willed their teams into contention. When considering all of these factors, predictions of who will emerge to face Cleveland in the finals are a bit hazier. Ultimately, we have to go with what we know. We know that as much as we love Kevin Durant, he can't carry his Thunder all on his own over the Lakers. We know that Dallas is playing very well, and San Antonio looks old. We know that the Suns have finally figured it out on both ends of the floor, and Portland's best player is going to miss the series. We know that Deron Williams has been unstoppable this month, and Denver has suffered without having its regular head coach on the bench.
A Utah-LA series would be very interesting, as it matches contrasting styles of play (the slash and kick Jazz vs. the famous Triangle Offense of the Lakers) and opposite fan bases (Utah's passion vs. LA's apathy). Ultimately, the Lakers have just too much size and will emerge in a squeaker. Phoenix and Dallas are pretty even on paper, and in that situation you go with the team that has the best player who will make the biggest difference. Sorry, Dirk, but I still remember your choke against Golden State in 2007; the best player is Nash, and Phoenix advances in seven. And because I really hate the Lakers, I'm going with the amazing Nash and his Suns in the conference finals.
Ultimately, we will remember everything in these playoffs as a prelude to the coronation of LeBron James as the consensus greatest player on the planet. His Cavaliers will stomp Phoenix in the finals in five games because they can play any style, and LeBron's will to win can easily cover up any slipups. We will then get to spend our entire summer hearing LeBron-Jordan comparisons, along with the endless speculation about where he will play next year. It is truly his time, so prepare accordingly.