King Kaufman's Sports Daily

NBA playoff preview: Lakers and Celtics back atop the heap, but watch out for the Pistons in the East -- and everybody in the West.

By King Kaufman
Published April 18, 2008 2:00PM (UTC)
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The NBA playoffs start Saturday, and this is the year you don't have to listen to this column whining about how the first round is such a waste of time.

You know what I mean. In the 24 years since the NBA expanded the playoffs to eight teams per conference, No. 1 seeds have won 45 of 48 series against No. 8's, even after last year's Golden State Warriors upset of the Dallas Mavericks. Two-seeds are 44-4 against No. 7's. Harlem Globetrotters games are more competitive than half of the NBA bracket in the first round.

But this year, in the Western Conference anyway, the eight playoff teams are so evenly matched, with only seven games separating the No. 1 and No. 8 teams and two games separating No. 1 from No. 6, that the first round is legitimate competition.

I'm still going to complain about all those days off in the first round, though. There, that's better.

Western Conference

1. Los Angeles Lakers (57-25) vs. 8. Denver Nuggets (50-32)
Want to read something funny? Get a load of NBA commissioner David Stern trying not to admit on a conference call this week that having the Lakers and Boston Celtics atop the standings again is good for the league.

"I think it's great for the fans in those cities," he says at one point. "But you're not going to get from me what you want in response to that question. I apologize."

At another, he says, "There is no question that there is a level of enthusiasm and excitement in L.A. and in Boston, and amongst the media that I haven't seen for a while, and I understand what that's from. That's my story, and I'm sticking with it."

You do that, Dave. Out here in reality, we'll all acknowledge that when glamourpuss franchises in big cities are in the championship hunt, it's good for business. It would be nice if we lived in a world where the public lapped up Detroit vs. San Antonio Finals because of the quality of the basketball. It would also be nice if everybody ate their vegetables and shrunk their carbon footprint.

But really we just talk about how we're sick of the evil-empire teams, and also that we're eating better and going green. Mostly we watch the glitz babies, chow down on pork rinds and drive to the corner to mail a letter.

Still, it'd be delish to have an 8-over-1 upset in consecutive years, which has never happened before. And the Nuggets are a strong No. 8. They're five games better than the No. 4 in the East, Cleveland.

But the Lakers are hot, and, remote as this seemed in October, they're looking like a championship team. The Pau Gasol trade transformed the Western Conference, and not just because it started the chain reaction that resulted in Shaquille O'Neal going to Phoenix and Jason Kidd to Dallas.

The Lakers went 22-4 in games Gasol played in, not counting a loss in which he left with a sprained ankle in the third minute. That means that, as long as he, Kobe Bryant and Lamar Odom are healthy, it might be better to think of the Lakers as a 65-plus win team, like the Celtics, than as a 57-win club. Andrew Bynum returning from his knee injury and getting back up to speed at any point in the playoffs would just be a bonus.

The Nuggets are good enough to hang with them. Carmelo Anthony and Allen Iverson give them enough firepower, but Denver's had trouble being consistent, and 'Melo's recent DUI arrest doesn't bode well for the Nuggets' mental state.
Prediction: Lakers in six

2. New Orleans Hornets (56-26) vs. 7. Dallas Mavericks (51-31)
The Mavericks have got to be motivated after last year's first-round pratfall, but if they couldn't handle Baron Davis, how are they going to handle Chris Paul? They have Jason Kidd now, for one thing. I've been saying for years now that the Mavericks wouldn't win it all as long as Dirk Nowitzki -- great as he is -- had to be the go-to guy with the chips on the table. Kidd's that guy now, so while I don't think the Mavs will win it all, I'll give 'em this upset.
Prediction: Mavericks in six

3. San Antonio Spurs (56-26) vs. 6. Phoenix Suns (55-27)
A rematch of last year's second-round series that was so badly marred by Stern's suspensions of Boris Diaw and Amare Stoudemire. The Suns learned that it's damn near impossible to run and gun your way to an NBA title, as everyone who tries to do it learns, so they traded for Shaq to slow things down and to defend the paint for a change.

The Suns went 17-11 with O'Neal in the lineup, meaning they were better -- 38-16 -- without him. Of course, the playoffs are a little different, so we'll see if the trade serves its purpose, but I don't think so. This is dangerous to say, but I think the Spurs are there to be taken. They're older and not as deep, and while Tim Duncan and Tony Parker are still superb, Manu Ginobili has been banged up. Still, they went 24-7 down the stretch after their mid-year doldrums.

And the Suns would need Shaq to be something like his old dominant self, and as the playoff pounding starts to take its toll, even in the ponderous first round, that doesn't look likely. Stoudemire and Steve Nash playing out of their minds might do the trick if Shaq's not up to it.
Prediction: Spurs in seven

4. Utah Jazz (54-28) vs. 5. Houston Rockets (55-27)
The Rockets were one of the great stories of the regular season, shaking off Yao Ming's season-ending injury to continue on their way to a 22-game winning streak, the second longest in league history -- and still 11 games shy of the longest. We call that daylight second around here.

But they're about to run into Deron Williams, who's right behind Paul as the best young point guard in the game, plus Carlos Boozer and Mehmet Okur, and they're going to be leaning heavily on the fragile Tracy McGrady. It was a nice story while it lasted. The Jazz went 38-12 in the New Year. They're a dark horse.
Prediction: Jazz in five

Eastern Conference

1. Boston Celtics (66-16) vs. 8. Atlanta Hawks (37-45)
Hey, how about those Hawks, building through the draft and making the playoffs for the first time this century. The last time the Hawks were in the postseason Dikembe Mutombo, who was their center, was in his 30s! Steve Smith was their leading scorer. And no, kids, not one of the 12 Steve Smiths who play wide receiver in the NFL. This was a different one.

Why am I talking so much about the Hawks? Because I'm hoping you won't bring up the way I kept saying I wasn't quite buying the Celtics as legitimate title threats. And I'm really hoping you won't bring up my preseason prediction to win the Eastern Conference, the Chicago Bulls.

Chicago's record: 33-49. Now, why'd you have to bring that up.

The Celtics are absolutely a legitimate title threat, with Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen, the so-called Boston Three Party. I think they're going to have trouble with the Detroit Five Party known as the Pistons, but I don't think they're going to lose a game to the Hawks.
Prediction: Celtics in four

2. Detroit Pistons (59-23) vs. 7. Philadelphia 76ers (40-42)
Another long-lost playoff team, the 76ers, who last appeared in 2005. They've turned things around quicker than anybody thought they would, but they're still a sub-.500 team running into the Detroit Pistons, who are still the Detroit Pistons.

Detroit's been to five straight Eastern Conference finals, and it says here they're going to make it six straight. They've still got that great starting five, and their bench is back to being top-notch.
Prediction: Pistons in five

3. Orlando Magic (52-30) vs. 6. Toronto Raptors (41-41)
This is the best series in the East, with Chris Bosh giving the less talented Raptors a puncher's chance against a team that I thought, back in the fall -- when I was thinking the Celts would come back down to earth, again you bring that up -- would really be special this year. The Magic aren't necessarily special, and they're a pretty clear No. 3. But they're intriguing.

Dwight Howard is a beast inside, and if Rashard Lewis' shots are falling the Magic can give the big two some trouble. Then again, they can also get dropped by the Raptors.
Prediction: Magic in seven

4. Cleveland Cavaliers (45-37) vs. Washington Wizards (43-39)
This is a rematch of a first-round series from last year. It was a 2-vs.-7 then and the Cavaliers swept the Wiz on their way to the NBA Finals. The Cavs also eliminated Washington two years ago.

The Cavs are no No. 2 this time around. The February trade that was supposed to transform them from playoff team to real title contender instead left them as just another field horse. Beset by injuries -- Sasha Pavlovic's sprained ankle is the current one -- the Cavs staggered to a 14-13 record once they got all those new guys on board. The Cavs are basically LeBron James, Zydrunas Ilgauskas and a lot of blah. And James and Ilgauskas are both a little beat up.

Still, just LeBron James and some blah should be enough in the first round. The Wiz, led by Gilbert Arenas, don't think so, and they've been talking trash about James and the Cavs. This has led Charles Barkley to say, "I think the Washington Wizards have to be the dumbest team in the history of civilization." I don't think talking trash is going to do the Wizards in by motivating LeBron. But I do think the Cavs will win this series.
Prediction: Cavaliers in six

Subsequent rounds

Conference semis: Lakers over Jazz, Spurs over Mavs, Celtics over Cavs, Pistons over Magic
Conference finals: Lakers over Spurs, Pistons over Celtics
NBA finals: Lakers over Pistons

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    King Kaufman is a senior writer for Salon. You can e-mail him at king at salon dot com. Facebook / Twitter / Tumblr

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