It's that time again, time for the "real" NBA season to start. Looks like it's Cleveland's year to get back to the Finals, it's hard to imagine a scenario where any teams in the Eastern Conference can take four games from the Ohio LeBronaliers. The Western Conference is a bit muddier given how horrible the Lakers have looked, how good the Suns look at times, and how deceptively solid the Mavericks team can be (while at other times, faltering).
Basically, nothing is going to get in the way of an Orlando-Cleveland Eastern Conference rematch. Out west, despite the problems they've had, I think the Lakers do have that extra gear they can kick it into, and they won't have any series of more than five games as they return to the Finals for the third year in a row.
So, that sets up David Stern's (and Nike's) wet dream finals of the LA Kobes versus the CLE LeBrons. It'd be easy to pick against the Lakers, given how poorly they've performed against Cleveland this season, and given that they just aren't playing with that much hunger. Once a title gets in grasp, though, I think their veterans, and especially their coaching, will give the Lakers the tools to defeat the better team.
So here are my predictions:
Western Conference, 1st Round:
LAL over OKC in 5 games.
The Lakers will split the first two games, winning Sunday, losing Tuesday, then sweep the rest of the series. OKC has depth, and skill, but they're too young to get it done, and will get frustrated and not perform up to their ability.
DAL over SAS in 4 games.
Despite how well Ginobli has been playing, the Spurs are too old, too creaky, and with Duncan's defensive decline, they have nobody to contain Nowitzki, who will go wild in this series sweep.
PHO over POR in 5 games.
Phoenix has too much offense, and Portland with the latest injury to Roy, just don't have enough healthy bodies to hold off Phoenix, they best they can hope for is to win one on their home floor.
UTA over DEN in 4 games.
Despite falling to the 5 seed, and completely forgetting to show up in a home game to end the season that made the difference between a 3 seed and a 5 seed, they will dominate against a Nuggets team that has too many knuckleheads on their team to be able to succeed down the stretch in a playoff game (despite last year's success with mostly the same group of knuckleheads, this year without their knuckleheaded coach to guide them, they'll be even more knuckleheaded than usual).
Western Conference Semis:
LAL over UTA in 6 games
Utah without Kirilenko don't match up with the Lakers all that well, especially if Farmar finds a way to play a little bit of defense, and Artest shows up in this series. Should be a bunch of close games, but in the end I think the Champs will prevail.
PHO over DAL in 5 games
These will be some high scoring contests. While Dallas would prefer not to run with Phoenix, they won't be able to help themselves, and in an up and down fastbreaking game, then Nowitzki becomes a liability against Stoudemire rather than an asset. If the Suns are able to dictate the style of play in this series, they'll dominate, and I think they will.
Western Conference Finals:
LAL over PHO in 5 games
This'll be a fun one. By the time this series rolls around, Bynum should be healthy(ish), and without Robin Lopez in the middle, both Bynum and Gasol should put up big numbers. The Suns are the only 50+ win squad that the Lakers have been able to consistently beat this season, and I think that will continue in the playoffs.
Eastern Conference 1st Round, 2nd round, Finals:
The Eastern Conference is going to be pretty predictable, and come down to CLE-ORL, so I'll skip the detailed write-ups.
CLE over CHI 5 games (Bulls can pull off one home win, that's it)
ORL over CHA 6 games (Superior coaching will give the Bobcats two wins, but that's it)
ATL over MIL 4 games (With Bogut out, the Bucks have no chance)
MIA over BOS 5 games (The Cs, suck, period)
CLE over MIA 5 games (No contest, 4 easy wins, with one close loss for the Cavs)
ORL over ATL 7 games (The Hawks will push Orlando to the limit, but the Magic will prevail)
CLE over ORL 4 games (Cavs will dominate, and destroy the Magic, revenge for 09)
Now, for the sexy, NBA FINALS:
Defending Champion Los Angeles Lakers will upset the regular season's best Cleveland Cavaliers in 6 games (3 of which will be exciting)
Game 1 CLE by +15 points. The champs will come out flat, and get embarrassed on the road.
Game 2 LAL by less than 5. The Lakers will win a close one on the road, putting the pressure on Cleveland to win at least one in LA to stay alive.
Game 3 CLE by +20 points. The Lakers will open at Staples flatter than month old champagne
Game 4 LAL by 2. A last minute shot, by someone other than Kobe, will even the series
Game 5 LAL by +10. The Lakers will have their first easy victory of the series.
Game 6 LAL by less than 3. With two games left in Cleveland, and only needing one victory, the Lakers will pull off the upset and win a close, ugly, foul-marred game where neither team breaks 90, and neither team leads by more than five at any point in the contest.
Sorry, Cleveland, despite the talent edge, despite having the world's greatest basketball player, despite those advantages, the Lakers will find a way to win in the finals and give Phil his 11th ring, and Kobe his 5th, and the Lakers their 16th title. It will suck for y'all even more when LeBron bolts from Cleveland this summer.