CONFERENCE FINALS - The Conference Finals are upon us and both the East and the West feature compelling match ups of young up and coming teams versus experienced playoff veterans. LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers take on the Detroit Pistons in the playoffs for the second year in a row, and the ever consistent Spurs take on the Utah Jazz.
Sometimes the theories don't quite pan out. When told by some happy little band wagoners that Chicago would beat the Pistons after their not so surprising defeat of Miami in the first round, I dropped some hoops logic on them. A teams' growth, their advancement, is a gradual process, and seldom does it occur in leaps and bounds. The Bulls were a young team last season that made the playoffs, good for them. Another year under their belt, and they come back with not only enough to return to the post season, but even win a series. But win two? I don't think so. That takes time. Maybe next year they advance even further and into the conference finals.
I look at Cleveland and I see my theory making sense. LeBron and the Cavs stumbled in the second round of the last year's playoffs. A more solid regular season placed them higher in the standings, and making handy work of the Wizards and the Nets put them a round deeper into the playoffs, now facing Detroit again for the chance to go to the NBA Finals. All is well with my theory, or so it seems.
Because then I take a look at Utah. Jerry Sloan has obviously been around a while as the longest tenured active NBA coach. But his team is comprised of mostly young players, with little or no previous post season experience. And yet, after narrowly edging out Houston, and making relatively quick (but not easy) work of the Golden State Warriors, it seems they are the exception to my theory. Which makes you wonder just how far can they go.
Detroit Pistons(1) vs. Cleveland Cavaliers(2)
Winner: Detroit Pistons
Thoughts: Remember that theory? Same thing. Cleveland has done a fine job this post season, quiet honestly impressing me. In the same way they did last year, they just seem to be doing a little more than I expected. Perhaps it's only because out east there isn't a whole lot of competition for them, but they've gone out made themselves look like a team that could really contend for something. That being said, they are playing Detroit.
Detroit is a caliber of team that the Cavaliers have yet to face this post season, and like last year, I think Detroit ends their season. Last season's match up was inches close right up until the end, and for that one may think an improved Cleveland team can make it past these Pistons. But this Pistons team is not the one from a season ago. Gone is the seemingly complacent lackluster play that plagued Detroit throughout most of the 2006 playoffs. Detroit's defense is back into the form reminiscent of their '04 championship run, their offense is flowing better with Chris Webber, and Chauncey Billups and Richard Hamilton are looking like they're in top form.
The individual match ups in this series could prove most interesting, in particular the point guard match up between Chauncey Billups and Larry Hughes. In most instances, Billups has a distinct height and size advantage over other point guards, but Larry Hughes, being a bigger guard with good length who normally plays the two guard, could have some success dealing with Billups, especially in the post. Billups is what makes Detroit go, and when Larry Hughes is on his game and providing adequate support for LeBron, the Cavs are usually in a good position to win, so this match up of the lead guards could prover pivotal in this series.
Cleveland is so promising, and already done enough to pleasantly surprise me, there's some part of me that wants to
pick them in this series. Nevertheless, I've seen all too well and all too often just how good Detroit is, how high a level they play at, and the consistency with which they maintain that high level. Cleveland is good, and they have their moments, but ultimately they cannot play on an elite level game in and game out. Detroit wins in seven.
San Antonio Spurs(3) vs. Utah Jazz(4)
Winner: San Antonio Spurs
Thoughts: Remember that theory? Not the same thing. In fact, it's a bit in jeopardy.
Utah has been a team underestimated from the start the season. Even when they began the regular season in dominating fashion, quickly climbing to the top of the early season standings in the west, they were met with skepticism. It's the kind of thing that had most people going, "Utah? Really? Are Malone and Stockton still playing?" Yes, Utah. And no, the Mailman and Stockton era this is not. But make no mistake about it, this is Jerry Sloan team through and through. The ingredients are slightly different, but some how Sloan uses the same recipe and gets damn near the same results - a finely tuned, fundamentally sound, consistent basketball team that knows how to compete night in and night out and knows how to win.
While there are some out there who are predicting an easy series for the Spurs, I can assure you that won't be the case. Throughout the regular season my only knock on Utah was that they lacked a true go-to option that could carry a load and take over a game offensively, with the bold and unmistakable arrival of Carlos Boozer in the playoffs, that excuse goes out the window. The Utah Jazz are a legit championship contending team.
I'm not picking the Spurs due to any short comings by the Jazz. While with other teams it's usually fairly easy to point out the issues that could cost them the series, I can't go pointing out this, this, and that about the Jazz, because they have few true weaknesses. I pick the Spurs because they have the same type of well balanced and consistent approach, only on a higher level. Thus I'm not picking the Jazz to lose because they do anything wrong, but because the Spurs do less wrong and do it less often.
I can't say enough about Utah, and in all honesty I like they're chances of beating the Spurs even more than I did the Suns, but even so, I think the Spurs have a more experienced team and a more potent group of lead players who can make big shots and take over games down the stretch, and in a close series that will be the difference. Spurs win in seven.
Jordan's Playoff Series Predictions:
10/12 - 83%