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Sizing Up the Semis

A Daily Babble Production

Yeah, we've heard: We're the proverbial day late and dollar short (not to mention a game behind) on our predictions for the second round of the 2008 NBA playoffs.  But without any prior closure to for the beloved C's, there could be no thought of the second round entering our minds until the final odds and ends of those pesky Hawks were dealt with yesterday in Beantown.

With that jubilant blowout taken care of, we can now turn our attentions to the rest of this unpredictably predictable  postseason.  This was, of course, the playoff tournament -- particularly out West -- that was supposed to be predictably unpredictable.  Nothing out West would be considered an upset in the first round.  Seven-game series would be occurring galore.  You get the idea.

But the folks involved with these games certainly didn't.  Only one first-round series was expected to be a complete non-contest, and that series turned out to be the only one that went the distance -- all the while nearly succeeding in giving every member of this interactive community multiple heart attacks.  In the supposedly hyper-competitive West, only one series made it as far as six games.  At the outset of the second round, we've still got the top four seeds standing in each conference.  Shows what we know.

But hey, that doesn't meant it hasn't been plenty of fun thus far.  Unpredictably predictable or predictably unpredictable -- there's some measure of the unexpected involved either way. The Celtics are still playing.  So there's plenty to love about these '08 playoffs.  Without further ado, here are the picks -- again, our (my) apologies for the lateness on the first three series -- for the conference semis.

Western Conference

(1) LA Lakers vs. (4) Utah

There has been plenty of talk about how dangerous this Utah team is, and for the most part, we're with the masses on that account.  The Jazz are extremely well-prepared (Jerry Sloan is routinely one of the best coaches in the league), and they play decent defense (12th in efficiency) and do an excellent job of scoring the basketball (second in the league this season in efficiency).  Deron Williams has done an incredible job commanding that offense all season.  Carlos Boozer has become one of the league's premier power forwards, and a supporting cast featuring the likes of Memo Okur, Andrei Kirilenko, Kyle Korver (was I wrong about this guy or what?), Paul Millsap, Ronnie Brewer and Matt Harpring is far from shabby.  This team loves to run and is plenty tough to boot.  The Jazz gained some valuable playoff experience from last year's trip to the conference finals, and they love to play as a team.

That all sounds pretty grand, and it really is in general.

Except for one problem: The Jazz are up against a team that is simply better than they are.

These Los Angeles Lakers are no fluke.  They wiped out the Denver Nuggets in the first round, and they have an answer for just about everything the Jazz will have to throw at them.  As well as Utah was ranked at both end of floor, the Lakers were just half a point behind in offensive efficiency, and they sat sixth in the league on the defensive end this season.  Utah has a great coach in Jerry Sloan.  The Lakers have nine-time champion Phil Jackson.  Utah has a big-time frontcourt presence in Carlos Boozer.  The Lakers have Pau Gasol.  The Jazz have all-purpose forward Andrei Kirilenko.  The Lakers have the bigger and possibly more versatile Lamar Odom, who is having one of the best seasons of his career.  Utah has Kyle Korver to come in and fill it up off the bench.  The Lakers have Sasha Vujacic.

The Lakers were the only team to win a regular season game in Utah in 2008.  They know they can win in Salt Lake City, and they know that the Jazz -- who have long had a problem defending two-guards -- won't have an answer for Kobe Bryant.  The reported MVP went off for 38 points in Game 1, and there are no indications that Utah will be able to slow this guy down over the course of the series.  In four regular season games against Utah, KB24 scored 29.8 points per on an absurd 56 percent shooting from the field to go with 55.6 percent shooting from deep.

The Jazz are an excellent team, but barring a set of absolutely otherworldly performances from point guard Deron Williams -- Utah's major positional edge in the series -- they aren't going to have the wherewithal to hang with the Lakers long enough to win four games.

The pick: Lakers in 6

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(2) New Orleans vs. (3) San Antonio

So we were dopey enough to do the unthinkable in the first round: pick against Tim Duncan and the Spurs.  Been regretting it since Duncan's improbable three hit the bottom of the twine to send Game 1 against the Suns into double overtime.

What this means is that while the initial showing between these two teams on Saturday night might have sucked some original Hornets doubters in, count me out.  As was detailed in yesterday's Daily Babble, yes, the Hornets won convincingly when all was said and done.  But it's worth noting that the Spurs were in this game through three and a half quarters, and they played absolutely horrible basketball throughout.  Meanwhile, the Hornets played a near-perfect fourth quarter.  Tim Duncan isn't over the hill and won't be going 1-for-9 again anytime soon.  While the Spurs will continue to have trouble dealing with the quickness of Chris Paul, they won't be allowing too many more 50 percent shooting nights from the Hornets either.

There's plenty of love for CP3 here, but it was hard enough to hop off the Spurs' wagon the first time around -- and we saw how that turned out.  Paul might be a step too quick for Bruce Bowen, but Gregg Popovich will do plenty of finagling to find a way for the Spurs to help on Paul and David West and to force the Hornets to find another way to beat them.  This team hasn't been a perennial top defensive unit in basketball for most of this decade for nothing, and it would be no shock to see the Hack-a-Tyson make a full-time return in Game 2.

The years may be growing short for the Spurs, but the dominant performance against Phoenix was enough to convince me that this team hasn't had enough quite yet.

The pick: Spurs in 6

Eastern Conference

(2) Detroit Pistons vs. (3) Orlando Magic

Short and sweet here: We've said all season that the Magic's clamoring for respect has gone largely unanswered because they aren't as good as top two teams in the East (Boston and Detroit) or the team that has LeBron James.  That remains the case.

The Magic were fortunate in round one that Jameer Nelson stepped up and more significantly that Toronto's suddenly shaky point guard tandem of TJ Ford and Jose Calderon didn't kill them.  That won't be the case this round.  Chauncey Billups got it together over the final three games against Andre Miller and the Sixers, and he looks ready to play again.  With bruisers in Jason Maxiell, Theo Ratliff, Antonio McDyess and Rasheed Wallace, the Pistons are a much tougher team across the board than the Magic are, and for all their condescension, they are a more focused team as well.  Rip Hamilton may have taken Reggie Miller's torch as the best shooter off screens in the game, and the Magic don't have an answer for him.  The Pistons have the size, speed and length (see: Prince, Tayshaun and Wallace, Rasheed) to shut down Orlando's Rashard Lewis and Hedo Turkoglu, and Dwight Howard isn't going to be able to get the job done alone -- especially if he isn't at full strength, which may be the case after a finger injury sustained in Game 1.

Howard gets better and better each year, and this Magic team is on the road to serious contention.  But it isn't there yet.  The Pistons will cruise in this one.

The pick: Pistons in 5

(1) Boston Celtics vs. (4) Cleveland Cavaliers

In all the chatter about this James fellow, it seems that we may be missing the key plot of this series: The 2007-08 Boston Celtics are battling a team that has somehow decided it would be a wise course of action to start two individuals who played prominent roles for the 2006-07 Boston Celtics.  The Cavs might be able to fool the rest of the league, but they'll have a tougher time with those of us who actually had the pleasure of watching that 2006-07 team.

Of course, in spite of my jesting, it bears noting that Delonte West averaged 10 points and 5 dimes per game in the first round, shot 50 percent from deep and hit the game-winning trey in Game 4.  Meanwhile, Wally Szczerbiak went for 26 points in the series-clinching sixth game.  All that said, I'll stubbornly stand by the adage that you can take Wally and West away from the tanking Celtics, but you can't take the tanking Celtics team away from Wally and West.

On a far more serious note, the issues in this series will be simple enough: Keep Bron under reasonable control, score the basketball consistently, keep composure on the road, don't bother getting worked up with the refs.  We're going to need to see a lot of James Posey (the Celts' best individual defender) in this series in order for the green to be successful, and the Celtics will have to do an even better job than they have all season of rotating on the perimeter defensively.  No matter how good the Celts' individual defenders are, James is going to command multiple sets of attention at a time, and there will inevitably be Cavs left open.  Defending this team aside from James will come down to how quickly and fluidly the Celts can rotate in order to challenge three-pointers from shooters such as West, Szczerbiak, Daniel Gibson, Devin Brown and Damon Jones and to prevent open looks inside for center Zydrunas Ilgauskas.

The Celtics have been great all season defensively as a team, and if anybody can rotate well enough to stop James from killing the team with his passing ability, it's these C's.  With LeBron's exception, this Cavs team isn't anywhere near as athletic as the Hawks were, and they are less likely as a team to give the Celts troubles in the running game or quite as many problems with aggression on the interior as Atlanta caused.  He is going to get his points one way or the other, but if the Celtics can keep James from going Game-5-versus-Detroit on them, it will come down to preventing him from killing them with ball distribution.

One way or the other, this is probably going to come down to one great team against one unbelievable player with a mediocre team behind him.  In any individual game, anything can happen.  But in a series that requires four wins in seven tries, it sure seems as though the efforts of the balanced many should be able to overcome the superhuman undertakings of the one who has a supporting cast that can be dangerous but shouldn't be quite good enough this time around.

The pick: Celtics in 6

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