Four Days ago, I wrote that the NBA Playoffs have been amazing this spring. Since that was written, we have had four games, won by four different teams. These conference finals are enough to make you forget about most everything else.
And as we ponder the events of the last 7 glorious days of NBA basketball and look ahead to the next 7 that will determine who will be in the NBA Finals, here are some quick thoughts on each team that is still very much in the hunt:
What you have to like:If you are the Nuggets, you have to love a few things about the way this series is headed. First, the idea that the physical nature of the game seems to be working against most of the Lakers. They may not be withering quite to the extent that New Orleans or Dallas did, but the fact seems to be that the Lakers do not appreciate this overly-physical mid-90's Knicks/Heat basketball. But, if you think about it, the Nuggets likely could not win any other way. They have been in prime position to win all 4 games of this series, and although they have given home-court advantage back to the Lakers, there is a chance that this is a series where being at home doesn't matter too much. The combination of Nene, Kenyon, and Birdman seem to be wearing down the Lakers. If this continues, the Nuggets have a great chance to represent the West. By the way, you also have to love that there are no extra days off for Kobe. Games Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday with travel each day in between the rest of the way will not replenish the energy supplies of a guy who is a) carrying his team and b) starting to look gassed.
What you have to hate:Carmelo Anthony has played a lot of games this year and is not used to that. While Kobe's body expects 100+ games a year, Carmelo is usually doing whatever Carmelo does in the off-season by this time of year. Carmelo played a big role in the Olympics and then a full season. Now, he is in his 3rd round of the playoffs, and his last 3 games are not a positive trend. After a monster series against Dallas and an equally huge effort against LA in game 1, Carmelo has shot 19-58 (32%) in the last 3 games. You might say, "But, Bob, the Nuggets are winning those games." True. But we have seen a distinct difference in the final 3 minutes in this series because the Lakers have Kobe. For the Nuggets to get out of this series, Carmelo is going to have to "out-Kobe" Kobe in the Staples Center during crunch time...again.
LOS ANGELES LAKERS
What you have to like: There are a few things to like if you are Phil Jackson and the Lakers - not the least of which is that it appears Pau Gasol has really grown up in these playoffs. It does seem that he is ready to go right at the Nuggets, no matter how many hard fouls are given. Gasol is joining Kobe in those two games in Denver, and that is surely a good thing. A bigger positive is that they had to win at least one game in Denver to get home court advantage back, and had that in the bag on Saturday. You can certainly make the case that in Game 4, the Lakers did not play with near the urgency, and that showed on the glass where they were embarrassed. The bottom line is that they have 2 games left at the Staples Center with a very determined Kobe Bryant at the helm. If they win them both, they are back in the NBA Finals, but I do wonder what they will have left when they get there.
What you have to hate: 2 words: Lamar Odom. Seriously. What does this guy do? Because he hasn't helped the Lakers at all in this series aside from his legendary guarding of the inbounds play - which should not be undersold. Otherwise, as the anchor of the Lakers bench, he has failed badly. He averages 15 points a game over his career, and over 11 ppg this season. But, in this series, he is scoring just 7.5, and if anyone looks intimidated by the Nuggets front line, it is Odom. I don't get what has happened to him, but this free-agent-to-be is not having a very good contract year. If he doesn't step it up soon, the Lakers are going to get beat. They could also use some help from the perimeter, but Odom is the key.
What you have to like:This one is pretty obvious. If it wasn't for from of the biggest shots in recent NBA history going in, the Orlando Magic could and should be ahead 3 games to 0 against a team that one week ago most of the NBA thought may not lose a game before the NBA Finals. The Magic have received big efforts at different times from all 3 of its "star" players; Dwight Howard, Rashard Lewis, and Hedo Turkoglu. Honestly, all 3 are pretty new to this stage for different reasons, but the big shots that Lewis hit and the all-around play of Turkoglu is off the charts. As a team, they have done a fabulous job of making LeBron work and at times made him feel like he was out there by himself. Mission accomplished on that front as the Cavs look pretty clueless on offense right now. Even with the LeBron miracle, the Magic have beaten the Cavs in 10 of the last 14. And, they don't seem to be taken with being on the same court as Cleveland.
What you have to hate: That Lebron has scored 125 in the first 3 games of this series, and he doesn't appear about to slow down. Beating the man on the mission twice is a nice trick, but it don't mean a thing unless you beat him 4 times. Other than that? How much can you really hate if you are the Magic? You have a chance to go up 3-1 tonight. I would caution Stan Van Gundy to stop obsessing about the calls that LeBron is getting. That can take your team's focus to the refs as opposed to locking down the Cavs supporting cast. The reality that is being revealed is that the Cavs may have the better player, but the Magic may have the better team.
What you have to like: Well, I suppose the easy answer is that the most unstoppable force in the universe right now is wearing your jersey. He seems pretty determined himself, and the Cavaliers are a win tonight away from being back in the driver's seat in this series. They did not win 66 games by accident, and the fact is that this team has not seen adversity very much so a 2-1 deficit is traumatic to Cleveland right now, but it isn't that big of a deal really if they take care of their business moving forward.
What you have to hate:That besides Delonte West, LeBron is not being helped much. Mo Williams and Zydrunas Ilgauskas both have scoring declines in these playoffs and there are times where LeBron looks like he is playing by himself. The bench looks positively helpless, and Daniel Gibson ($3.7M), Wally Szczerbiak ($13M), and Big Ben Wallace ($14.5M) are combining for 7 points per game in the playoffs while making nearly $31 million. You also have to hate that it appears that when it is time to stop Hedo, the Cavs defense is having a hard time closing him down without surrendering a wide-open 3 from Lewis or another teammate.
Before the series began, I had the Cavs in 5 and the Lakers in 7. If I had it to choose all over again, I think I will still take the two favorites, but at this point, all 4 teams have a great reason to believe they will be playing into mid June. If you would have told me 3 months ago that the conference finals would include Denver and Orlando, you would have had a hard time selling me on the excitement level. But, this has delivered in a huge way.
Can't wait for tonight.