The NBA playoffs tip off tomorrow afternoon, and I couldn’t be more excited. For the next two and a half months, the best that the basketball world has to offer takes center stage. From TNT’s 40 games in 40 nights to ABC’s Sunday afternoon showcase games, there’s no reason not to catch a game—or, if you’re like me—it’s really tough to miss any one game.
Please, do me a favor and put your petty gripes aside. The players will be playing hard. Defense does matter. And believe it or not, the first three quarters are as important as the final three minutes. There’s so many storylines to follow in this year’s playoffs, headlined by the seemingly destined Finals showdown between Kobe’s Lakers and LeBron’s Cavs. But 14 other teams have a little something to say about that.
So, without further ado, here are 16 reasons (one for each team) why I’m watching as much of the 2009 NBA playoffs as I possibly can.
- The return of Andrew Bynum
Lakers fans (like myself) are elated to have a healthy roster heading into the postseason. Last year, without Bynum, they came two wins shy of winning the NBA championship. With the young center back in the lineup, Los Angeles becomes most experts’ pick as the team to beat, but question marks remain about Bynum’s long-term stability and the Lakers’ toughness.
Still, like the Yankees, the Lakers are a polarizing force that is good for the sport. They are one of the most popular franchises in the league and also the most hated. If you’re not a Lakers fan, it’s fun to root against them, and fans will likely get the chance to do that well into June again this season.
- Mr. Big Shot in the wild, wild West
No one knows who is the biggest threat to the Lakers in the West, but it might be the second-seeded Denver Nuggets, the same team L.A. swept in round one last year. This year’s Nuggets team has a decidedly different feel thanks to the early season trade for Chauncey Billups. The former Finals MVP (against the Lakers in 2004, for what it’s worth) has provided the veteran leadership that this team has needed, and they are hopeful that his presence will help them escape the first round for the first time in the George Karl era.
- What’s left in Tim’s tank?
If the pattern holds, the Spurs will win the title this year. They won in 2007, 2005 and 2003, but the odds are not in their favor in 2009. The big reason why is that Manu Ginobli will miss the playoffs with an injury. So, that raises the question about San Antonio’s rock, Tim Duncan. Can the Big Fundamental rise to the occasion and carry San Antonio back to the Finals? His numbers have dipped a bit, but betting against Duncan and the Spurs in the postseason is like betting against heat in the desert.
- The future is now in Portland.
For the past year of two, many in the media have touted the Blazers as the team of the future. With the youngest roster in the league, featuring 2006-07 Rookie of the Year Brandon Roy and 2007 number one overall pick Greg Oden among others, the Blazers were pegged as the team to contend with the Lakers down the road.
Now It looks like that road may lead to Hollywood as early as May. Having earned home court in round one, the Blazers now look to advance in the playoffs for the first time since 2000 when Blazers fans will remember, they lost a heartbreaking Game 7 in the Western Conference Finals against, who else but the Lakers.
- Houston, we have a problem.
No one had a more disappointing tax day in the NBA than the Rockets. They went into their April 15 game against Dallas with the possibility of moving up to number two in the West. But their loss, coupled with wins by San Antonio and Portland dropped them to fifth, which means they’ll start the playoffs on the road. Rockets fans who were hoping this would be the year they get out of the first round (0-6 in playoff series since 1998) also have to be worried about the way they lost against Dallas, faltering down the stretch.
Without the injured Tracy McGrady, Houston is left without a crunch-time identity. Does the last shot go to Yao or Ron Artest? The time to answer that question is not in Game 1 of a playoff series, and that could spell trouble for the Rockets unless Daryl Morey can stat-geek his way out of that quandary as well.
- Mark Cuban has a lot of money and little patience.
It’s now or never in Dallas, and quite frankly, now is more like two years ago. Remember 2006, Mavs fans? Your team was two wins away from the NBA title when, down 0-2 in the Finals, the Miami Heat’s Dwayne Wade (and, depending on your point of view, the refs) made a historic comeback. After a stunning loss at the hands of the eighth-seeded Warriors in ’07 and a 4-1 series round-one beatdown from the Hornets last year, Dallas is now an afterthought when it comes to NBA title talks.
For what it’s worth, they still have one of the game’s best players in Dirk Nowitski, and the most explosive bench scorer in the league in Jason Terry. But if they don’t overachieve this year, expect owner Mark Cuban to blow this thing up and start with a new plan of action in Big D.
- Can Chris Paul steal a playoff series?
He led the league in thievery (that would be steals) for the second straight year, so it’s certainly in his nature. And last year’s playoffs was a real coming out party for Chris Paul as he led the Hornets to the Western Conference Semifinals before falling in seven games to the Spurs.
This year, however, the Hornets have underperformed expectations, especially after adding former-Celtic James Posey in the offseason. But CP3 is the most dangerous player in the West not named Kobe Bryant, and the Hornets are certainly a frisky first round matchup for the Nuggets. I expect this to be the best first-round matchup in the West.
- Jerry Sloan is singing the blues.
The veteran coach of the Jazz has all but conceded his team’s first-round series against the Lakers. I’m not buying it. This is essentially the same team that tested the Lakers in a well-played six-game series last year. Sure, they’ve struggled down the stretch, but L.A. has no answer for Deron Williams, and Utah has a variety of lengthy perimeter defenders to throw at Kobe. No, I don’t think the Lakers will lose the series, but I think talk of a sweep is a bit premature. This team’s talent is much better than that of an eight seed.
- LeBron James
Remember this game from two years ago? Well, the starring figure in that montage is still playing basketball, and in case you haven’t heard, he’s gotten even better. Soon to be named 2009 NBA MVP, James leads the Cavs into the playoffs with the best record in the league, including a 39-2 mark at home. There’s no telling what King James has in store for the postseason, but he’s got at least two or three guaranteed WOW plays in him every time he steps out on the court.
- The defending underdogs
The Lakers were the popular pick in the Finals last year even though the Celtics were the best team all season long. Now, as defending champions, the Celtics find themselves in familiar territory. After learning that they will likely play the entire postseason without Kevin Garnett, the Celtics not only would be underdogs in a Finals rematch against the Lakers, they would be underdogs against Cleveland in the Eastern Conference Finals and might even be underdogs against Orlando in the second round.
You just know that coach Doc Rivers loves the opportunity to fly under the radar with the confidence of a team that found a way to get it done last year. This is undeniably the team best-equipped to derail what appears to be Kobe and LeBron’s date with destiny.
- The wild card
For most of the season, Orlando was talked about as the fourth member of the elite top tier (along with the Lakers, Cavs and Celtics). But after a 116-87 throttling of the Cavs on April 3, Orlando closed the season 3-4, failed to reach the 60-win mark, and dropped behind Boston into the three seed in the East. Dwight Howard is a beast, but he needs to prove he can carry a team deep in the playoffs. Now’s the time for this team to prove the doubters (like me) wrong and prove they belong in the same conversation as the aforementioned big three.
- No, seriously, watch the Hawks.
One of the most entertaining playoff series of last season featured the Atlanta Hawks, a team that had a losing record. They took the eventual champion Celtics to seven games. And guess what? The Hawks are back and better this year. They have home court advantage in round one, and that’s big because they were 3-0 at home, 0-4 on the road in that series against Boston. Joe Johnson is the playoffs’ best kept secret, and Josh Smith is a freak of nature when it comes to swatting shots away. Look for Atlanta to be part of one of the most entertaining first-round series again.
- Dwayne Wade takes on the Hawks.
OK, technically it’s the Miami Heat heading to Atlanta, but Dwayne Wade is the NBA’s best one-man show. After Miami traded away Shawn Marion midseason, it became even clearer that this team was only going to go as far as Wade would take them. Is that into Cleveland for a second-round showdown with LeBron and company? Can Wade really beat the Hawks on his own? Wade’s done it before (see: Mavericks, Dallas; 2006 NBA Finals). We’ll see if he can repeat that performance soon enough.
- Is AI the man in Philly?
No, not Iverson. I’m talking about Andre Iguodala. Many predicted the 76ers would be in the playoffs again this year, but they expected Elton Brand to lead the charges. Instead, he’s another big name out with injury, and this Philly team is much like the one that gave Detroit a first-round scare before bowing out in six games. Iguodala leads the team in scoring and minutes played, but he’s yet to show that he’s a guy worthy of being a team’s alpha dog. If he can spearhead a first-round upset, that’d be huge, but my thinking is that he’s got to be your second or third option if you’re going to win a title.
- A Rose blooms in Chicago
Rookie Derrick Rose had a great first year in the NBA, and it’ll be fun to see him make his playoff debut against the defending champions and arguably the league’s best defensive point guard, Rajon Rondo. Rose has this Bulls team surging at the right point of the year, but they dropped a key game to close the season and fall from sixth to seventh in the East. No one’s expecting them to win the series, but it’ll be fun to see how much of a scare Rose and company can give a KG-less Boston squad.
- The end of an era
It started with the departure of Ben Wallace a few years ago, but it wasn’t really until Joe Dumars pulled the trigger on the trade that sent Chauncey Billups to Denver for Allen Iverson, that this Pistons era—the one that saw Detroit play in six straight conference finals and two NBA Finals—officially came to a close. Iverson will not be a part of this Detroit playoff team (adding him to the list of injured stars that includes Garnett, McGrady, Ginobli and Brand).
But it doesn’t really matter. With or without the Answer, this Pistons team doesn’t have the answers to solve all the questions posed by Cleveland in round one. Veterans Rip Hamilton, Tayshaun Prince, Rasheed Wallace and Antonio McDyess will certainly be game, but effort can only take them so far, and in their case, it won’t be far at all this year, especially by recent Detroit Pistons standards.
There you have it. So many reasons to watch. I can’t wait. Let the games begin.
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