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NBA Playoff Time: Contenders and Pretenders

   by Scott Spreitzer - 04/16/2010

There was a fly in the ointment a year ago in the NBA playoffs: The Orlando Magic. They were a good young team that surprised the basketball world by upsetting the Cleveland Cavaliers. Actually, they really dominated the series, punishing the Cavaliers in the low post, which was the reason the Cavs went out and added Shaq and Antawn Jamison.

That surprise prevented the NBA world from a titanic matchup with Kobe Bryant battling LeBron James, a TV ratings bonanza. Well, cheer up television executives, because it may have only preempted the Kobe/LeBron show 12 months. And what ratings and drama we might be looking at, with not only Kobe and LeBron battling it out, but Shaq facing his old rival/teammate. I smell fireworks!

But first, they have to get there. Cleveland is positively loaded for a big playoff run. Shaq is expected back after finger surgery, Jamison is a monster late season addition improving an already great frontcourt, and they were able to reacquire Zydrunas Ilgauskas for nothing after trading him for Jamison. Talk about the rich getting richer! (Actually, no one should be ripping Cleveland, a sports city that has been tortured for decades. Uttering the name "Jose Mesa" in a downtown Cleveland bar will still elicit fist fights).

So look at this frontcourt: 7-foot-1 (Shaq), 7-foot-3 (The Big Z) and 6-foot-9 (Jamison). And that doesn't even take into account LeBron, a 6-foot-8, 250-pound man-child who could play whatever position he wanted and play it great. There really are no excuses for the Cavs.

So who could get in their way? Boston? The Celtics are looking old, vulnerable to young athletic teams and prone to meltdowns. They beat the Cavs last week, but blew a 22-point lead. Then they lost to the Knicks and Wizards, plus have a home defeat to the Nets.

The roster is impressive, but there has been something missing since January. I think of the comment Rajon Rondo made back then about clubhouse issues, which doesn't give me much confidence in the postseason Cleveland whipped the Celtics 108-88 in February and 104-93 in March, before scoring 113 in that loss where they came back from 22 down. That's a lot of points allowed by a Boston team that won the title in 2008 with a dominant defense that is not even close to that level.

Atlanta? Too young and a losing record on the road. Orlando? There's the team that the Cavaliers might worry about facing again. The Cavs brought in Shaq to put some muscle in the post against Dwight Howard, but let's face it: the 24-year old Howard is too fast and explosive for Shaq to stay with. With newcomer Vince Carter, Rashard Lewis and Jameer Nelson, this is a talented Magic team. And confidence won't be lacking, after pushing the Cavaliers around last spring. What should also concern Cleveland the most is that Orlando is fourth in the NBA in points allowed and tops in field goal shooting allowed, just 43%.

Out West, all season it was assumed the defending champs would roll to another NBA Finals, which would be their third straight. However, the Lakers come limping down the stretch with all kinds of question marks. Kobe will sit out the last two games because of broken index finger and a sore knee. Center Andrew Bynum hopes to return for Lakers' playoff opener, only beginning to run again this week. Bryant had another poor shooting game, missing 15 of his 23 shots his last game, a home loss to Portland. He is 21 for 70 (30%) shooting from the field in his last three games.

Of greater concern is a bench that was supposed to be a big plus, but has just been awful the second half of the season and seems to be getting worse. They've been unable to hold big leads, which taxes the starters, and have been outscored by a wide margin by opposing benches of late. At least their defense has been very good, and sports bettors should note the Lakers are on a 21-8 run under the total.

Who can give them a playoff fight? Portland, the team that just won at LA? No. Three-time All-Star Brandon Roy has a tear in his knee. Roy is the Blazers' leading scorer with 21.5 points per game. He injured his knee on Sunday, 11 minutes into the Blazers' 91-88 victory at the Lakers. Thirteen different Blazers have missed a combined 305 games because of injuries this season, second in the league only to the Warriors and the most of any playoff-bound team.

But there are a whole string of interesting teams out West. Oklahoma City has been a great story, playing tough defense all season leading to a winning record on the road, very impressive for a young team. Utah and Phoenix play that wild, uptempo attack like Golden State in 2005, when they shocked No. 1 seed Dallas.

San Antonio has the defense and playoff experience to give anyone a hard time. Denver is a wild card, with injuries, a coaching absence and a big late season slump. But Dallas is a group that can play any style. The Mavericks got much after the mid-season trade that brought Caron Butler, and they are 2-1 SU/ATS against the Lakers this season.

The last meeting with LA, Dallas won 91-86 in February and they were short-handed, as Butler couldn't play. Dirk Nowitzki scored 31 points, Jason Terry added 30 and the Mavs shot 48%. At the time, Kobe praised the trade during the All-Star break, saying it made the Mavericks a legitimate threat in the Western Conference. Guess what: He was right. All of which will make the NBA playoffs exciting in BOTH conferences.

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