(A note first - even here, an hour outside of Blacksburg, grief and loss is tangible. Even at a school of almost 30,000 students, the loss of 33 people has a way of affecting everyone with any sort of connection to the university in a very personal and real way. It's been a very unique and difficult week to be here, as a pastor and as a human being, and this is one that will stay with you. Please continue to keep all involved and touched by the Virginia Tech incident in your prayers as everyone tries to move forward back in the real world...)
Saturday, the 07 NBA Playoffs commence, and we'll spend the next two months moving towards the Finals and answering some questions along the way. Those questions begin with, can anyone other than Dallas/Phoenix/San Antonio actually even think about winning this thing? Can anyone from the East be game enough to test whoever comes out of the West? Can a team like Houston seriously think upset in the loaded Western Conference? Can LeBron James take Cleveland to the next level, which would be the Eastern Conference Finals? Can Miami make it even that far? Can Kobe Bryant beat Phoenix all by himself - a feat he tried to pull off last year - and are there any upsets at all in the entire field this year? And, of course, will the Celtics pull out the magic ping pong ball? While we'll get the answer to that all important question on May 22, here are some thoughts and predictions on the opening round of the playoffs that'll be answered along the way...
1 Detroit vs. 8 Orlando
The Pistons are again the best option in the East, easily the most balanced and most talented team on this side of the bracket. Even without Ben Wallace in 07, Detroit won 53 games and still runs Chauncey Billups, Richard Hamilton, Rasheed Wallace, Antonio McDyess, Tayshaun Prince, and 07 acquisition Chris Webber onto the floor. This group knows how to win in the playoffs, and lest we forget, have gone World Champs, losers in seven in the Finals, losers in seven in the conference finals the last three seasons. Detroit has been right there at the top, and is right there again this year. And then there's Orlando. And speaking of the Pistons, here comes a healthy Grant Hill in the playoffs for the first time since he was wearing Detroit colors (actually, back then the Pistons were wearing that teal stuff before ultimately wising up and going back to the classic red white and blue). Orlando has a strong future when you factor in the man child Dwight Howard, but it's hard for me to see them being any sort of challenge to the Pistons here.
Will's Pick: Pistons in 4
4 Miami vs. 5 Chicago
Bulls have home court advantage due to better record...Quite possibly the most interesting first round matchup, and a rematch from last year. The '07 version showcases a much improved Chicago team, and a banged up version of the defending champs. Chicago has a lineup - Kirk Hinrich, Ben Gordon, Luol Deng, Ben Wallace - that looks dangerous, and will get more dangerous the longer they stay together. But the defending champs played their best basketball in playoff time last year - and that mantra has held true for Shaquille O'Neal, who stepped up big time to keep the Heat in the thick of it when Dwyane Wade went out. In a firecely competitive series, I give the slight nod to Miami because of the experience factor. But this should be entertaining basketball.
Will's Pick: Heat in 7
3 Toronto vs. 6 New Jersey
While the Raptors are the division champions from the mighty Atlantic, almost no one seems to be giving them a chance against division foes New Jersey, again based largely on playoff experience. The Raptors are young and raw, and Chris Bosh carries a considerable amount of the load. The Nets are much more balanced and ooze playoff experience in the Kidd-Carter-Jefferson trio. Toronto wants to get out there and run, which used to be NJ's favorite thing to do when Kidd was a few years younger and Kenyon Martin was on the receiving end of many an alley-oop. Now, the Nets will focus on slowing everything down and making Toronto play at their pace. These teams haven't played since Valentine's Day, but in that last meeting, Toronto got the up tempo game they wanted and scored 120 points. They need more of that. I am openly biased because I'm still quite familiar with New Jersey bouncing Boston from the 2002 Eastern Conference Finals, plus Toronto is simply much more exciting to watch. And I can't shake the idea that Toronto - six games better than New Jersey in the regular season - won this division for a reason. And we all like offense, don't we?
Will's Pick: Raptors in 7
2 Cleveland vs. 7 Washington
The Chicago Bulls will be shooting themselves in the foot in about two weeks, because they blew a shot and securing this seed and playing the most injured team in the field on the last day of the regular season. What's more, the two seed stays away from both Miami in the first round and Detroit in the second round. So LeBron James, here comes a golden opportunity to take your team and your legacy to the next level. There's pressure up front: anything less than a trip to the Eastern Conference Finals will be a severe disappointment. It starts here with the Wizards, who are without Agent Zero and Caron Butler...which is a real shame, because this first round series last year was incredibly fun to watch. On the whole, it's going to be tough for these playoffs to match up with what we saw last year across the board. No one on the planet is giving Washington a prayer...which is enough reason for me to give them one game, but nothing more.
Will's Pick: Cavs in 5
1 Dallas vs. 8 Golden State
Has it really been 13 years since the Warriors have been in the playoffs? Was it really 1994 when Run TMC was turning Golden State into the most exciting basketball team for all the kids to pull for? (I've got the Chris Webber jersey to prove it) Now, before you write this series off because Dallas went 67-15 in the regular season, note this: Golden State went 3-0 this season against Dallas. And then note this: in the last two contests, they won by 17 and 29 points. Now, you can write that last one off because Dallas didn't play any of their starters. And maybe all this works in the Mavs' favor because it'll make them hungry. But Don Nelson knows Dallas. So this series has the potential to get very interesting. If we're honest, though, it also has the potential to be a sweep, because Dallas is very, very strong. Jason Terry, Josh Howard, and Dirk Nowitzki will lead the charge as they've done all year. On the flip side, I've always been a big Baron Davis fan, and Jason Richardson makes this Golden State team fun to watch...but you can't pick against Dallas, not in the first round. It should be noted that only nine teams have lost in the NBA Finals one year and gone on to win the championship the next year, and it hasn't been done since the Bad Boys in 1988. But one thing at a time...
Will's Pick: Mavs in 5
4 Utah vs. 5 Houston
Rockets have home court advantage due to better record...Tracy McGrady, your time is now. He's never made it out of the first round of the playoffs, but he's also arguably never played on a better team. Yao Ming is continually becoming the dominant center everyone thought he would be, and Shane "Who's your daddy" Battier (anybody remember that from the Duke/UNC games when he was there?) just might be the missing piece for Houston...but remember, Memphis never made it out of the first round either, so no one on this lineup knows how to win in the playoffs yet. But these aren't your Sega Genesis Utah Jazz...and while Carlos Boozer, Mehmet Okur, and Deron Williams are solid players, they're similarly lacking in the playoff experience department. The health of Andrei Kirilenko will be in question, but he should be a factor. Utah won the season series 3-1...and I like Jerry Sloan in the playoffs. If this thing gets down to game six or seven, who will crack under the pressure? This thing is going to be very physical...but there's something about Utah that I like, and until I see it from McGrady and Yao in the playoffs, I can't commit.
Will's Pick: Jazz in 7
3 San Antonio vs. 6 Denver
As Allen Iverson knows full well, the real season begins now. So while Carmelo Anthony is still getting his playoff legs, here's a chance for Iverson to make a sudden impact. The problem is, since Shaq and Kobe broke up, the Spurs have become the best playoff team in basketball. This series should be exciting, but Denver hasn't won a playoff series since Dikembe Mutombo was laying on the floor clutching the basketball in the 8-1 upset of the Gary Payton/Shawn Kemp Sonics in 1994 (man, 94 was a good year for the playoffs). San Antonio is simply too clutch to go against them this early. I'll give Denver some credit for making it interesting, but Carmelo's got a ways to go before he catches up with LBJ and Dwyane in the playoff department.
Will's Pick: Spurs in 6
2 Phoenix vs. 7 LA Lakers
Last year, the Lakers went up 3-1 on the Suns...and lost the series in seven. This year, with Amare Stoudamire in the mix, don't bet on the Lakers. And don't bet on seven games. You can fall on two sides of the Kobe Bryant argument. One says that, because he can drop 50 on a whim, the Lakers will always have a shot. The other says that they needed him to score 50 all those times just to barely squeak into the playoffs. The most fun you'll have in this series should be Kobe vs. Raja Bell. But what's more likely than anything else is the Suns running right past LA, because the Lakers will never be overlooked as long as Bryant is wearing purple and gold. One win for the Lakers, but that's it, that's all.
Will's Pick: Suns in 5