I thought the East was going to improve substantially this year. I pegged Milwaukee as a better than .500 team because it seemed that with TJ Ford back, Bogut and Magloire added to the front line, and Bobby Simmons brought in as a jack of all trades to replace the Master of the dunk, Dr. Desmond, they had the makings of a good team. Plus I thought for a little while Artest was going to fly straight and help make Indy into the contender everyone keeps predicting before the season. And I thought Larry Brown might make something positive happen in New York. Wrong, wrong, wrong. That's neither here nor there, and at least I predicted that every Central Division team would be in the playoffs. I just didn't see them being this bad.
Detroit vs. Milwaukee - Good experience for Milwaukee, but really a waste of Detroits time. The only way any of these games are even close is if Detroit plays flat and not full out. I think Ben Wallace was making sure that didn't happen when he sat out of a game a few weeks ago. Detroit 4-0.
Cleveland vs. Washington - I think the Wiz made due nicely considering they lost Larry Hughes. They replaced him well with Caron Butler. Arenas and Jamison continue to score but a strong post presence is missing from this team, both defensively and offensively. And for my money Arenas is just too selfish with the ball to get his team very far. On the flip side, Lebron is coming into his own rapidly. And the addition of Flip Murray has been a good one. He's not afraid to take tough shots, and he's hitting them. Something that wasn't happening before. But Cleveland lacks a perimeter defender who can handle arenas, and that's a problem. And granted, Cleveland has no playoff experience, but then Washington barely has any. I think Cleveland takes this in a sloppy and not entertaining series (I expect to see lots of iso and missed shots, not 100+point games). Cavs, 4-1.
New Jersey vs. Indianna - The Nets have quitely become one of the better teams in the East. And it's all because of Jason Kidd. Sure, Vince has decided to play for pay again, but it's because he's in the mix with a great playmaker and totally unselfish superstar who takes the heat and doesn't get a ton of the limelight or credit. Now Vince gets to pose and preen after acrobatic dunks that are superbly set up by Kidd. Jefferson is back strong after his injury too. And Kristic is proving to be a passable center, with Collins providing adequate relief. Indiana has been a mess all year. Artest. Then O'Neal's injury. And the foreign guard they signed Jaskuaoulkj;lkj, hasn't exactly panned out. Peja has played well since coming over, but we all know how he responds in the playoffs. I don't feel like Indy has the confidence to get it done, and New Jersey is just playing so well right now. Nets, 4-0.
Miami vs. Chicago - Chi-town limped into the playoffs with a sub .500 record and Philly sinking like a lead balloon. The loss of Eddy Curry proved to be very large for this team. Granted, he wasn't the main man, but he provided interior scoring that is completely absent now. And they also lost Antonio Davis. Sure he was aging, but he set a solid example on the court and played hard nosed basketball that Skiles loves. Now the Bulls have Chandler and Luke Schenshur (rookie out of wake) for a front line. The Diesel is going to pick his teeth with these two. And Wade is just going to be too much. This series could be a good tune up for Miami and boost their confidence for the showdown with New Jersey. Heat 4-0.
Round 2 -
Cleveland vs. Detroit - You know what Cleveland can't do? They cannot beat Detroit. The Pistons are a team, the Cavs are a sembelance of a team. The Pistons rotate and switch on defense better than any other team and force you into sets and shots you don't want to take. The Cavs have had difficulty running offense against teams that aren't that talented defensively. This is where Lebron learns a hard lesson about winning in the NBA. Pistons 4-0.
New Jersey vs. Miami - This has all the makings of a great series. We know Shaq can absolutely kill Jersey inside. The question is, will Miami get him the ball, and will he tire of taking all the shots? It's hard to say if Jefferson or Vince can stay with Wade. Vince is definitely not known for defense, but RJ has some skill and maybe his size could bother wade a little bit. But what I like about New Jersey is their break. Shaq is slow, and some of the other guys on the team like Antoine, Jason Williams, and James Posey don't transition well. This is where New Jersey is going to have to get their scores. But unlike those other Jersey teams that made the finals, this team can do somethings in the half court. Vince and Jefferson can create, and they won't have Martin clanging shots off the back of the iron anymore. And Kidd always seems to find a way to score when it counts. That said, Shaq and Wade are the two best players in this series. Riles is the best coach. I like Miami's chances here. Heat 4-2.
Conference Finals -
Miami vs. Detroit - This is what we've been expecting since last year. The Heat were minutes away from beating Detroit at home in game 7, but Wade's bruised ribs and Shaqs injuries were just too much. Shaq is leaner this year which bodes well for him staying healthy for this series. And Wade is healthy too, but he's so gung-ho when he plays, he's a risk to get injured on a constant basis. While many people have criticized Reilly for breaking up last years team, I think people overlook that an important core is still intact. Wade, Shaq, and Haslem form a nice nucleus. And Jason Williams is an upgrade over Damon Jones at the point, plus Jones routine was getting old fast. I'm not sure Antoine has worked out well for them, and everytime I see them, he can't even hit a three pointer when he's wide open. He must be shooting around 20% from three. But that core is still there. The big question is Alonzo Mourning. When Shaq was out, he was a beast. Blocking around 5 shots a game, ripping rebounds, and all that. If they get that Mourning, I think Miami can prevail. But that's a big if. This Detroit team plays freerer on the offensive end, and I think that's made them better. Not many defending conference champs come out and improve their W-L record substantially. Larry was suffocating these guys a little bit, and distracting them too. With that gone, Detroit seems focused on the prize. Detroit 4-3 (in what should be a great series. Close games, tight finishes).