As the playoffs begin this Saturday, April 17, I’ll be doing two series previews a day to have them all covered by the time the games start. To begin, I’ll look at the 1-vs.-8 West matchup and 2-vs.-7 East matchup today, as those are the only ones completely solidified in both conferences. Without further ado …
Eastern Conference: No. 2 Orlando Magic vs. No. 7 Charlotte Bobcats
The Bobcats do have a chance to tie with the Bucks for overall record tonight, but Milwaukee holds the tiebreaker, so Charlotte will be relegated to the seventh slot.
The Magic are playing fantastic ball, and they hold the league’s best post-break record at 22-5. They also hold the series advantage for the season over the Bobcats 3-1. Dwight Howard’s averages are slightly down against Charlotte at 16.5 points and 10.3 rebounds, but Larry Brown coaches one of the few centers who can hope to contain Superman in Tyson Chandler.
The Bobcats have been playing good ball this season, too, and they are an astounding 31-9 in their home floor. Their success can be attributed in large part to Gerald Wallace, who has been an integral contributor on the offensive and defensive end. Moreover, Stephen Jackson is providing the veteran leadership this team needs and is scoring to boot: At 20.7 points per game, he is 15th overall in the league.
After it’s all said and done, though, I have to imagine Orlando pulls this one out. They’ll play four games on their home court, where they best even the Bobcats at 33-7. Moreover, their stacked starting lineup and depth of rotation should be too much for Charlotte, which lacks enough bodies up front to contend with Howard, Rashard Lewis, Marcin Gortat, Brandon Bass, and Ryan Anderson.
Charlotte takes two of three at home, but Orlando wins the series 4-2 in six games.
Western Conference: No. 1 Los Angeles Lakers vs. No. 8 Oklahoma City Thunder
The Thunder surprised everyone by making the playoffs for the first time since the franchise relocated from Seattle. The postseason appearance would not have been possible without the emergence of Kevin Durant as an NBA star, Russell Westbrook’s marked improvement, and the quality leadership of coach Scott Brooks. That said, they have one hell of an opponent in the first round.
The Lakers, widely considered the favorites for the title at the beginning of the season, have struggled in the second half. Owing to injuries to center Andrew Bynum and forward Luke Walton, the rotation has been stripped thin, and they haven’t played up to standard. The defending champions are a mediocre (at least by their expectations) 15-11 since all-star weekend, and it has many starting to worry, especially after Oklahoma City put a hurting on the Lakers 91-76 March 26.
Nevertheless, The Thunder will have to play nearly flawless ball to oust Kobe and Co. from the postseason. Los Angeles will have home-court advantage in the first round, and they have been appreciably more dominant at the Staples Center. If Andrew Bynum is back for the entire series, it will be over in 5. Oklahoma City lacks the front-court talent to best Bynum and Pau Gasol, so they should have a field day in the paint.
That said, Bryant should have a tough time scoring on the Thunder as a result of his injuries and the matchups he’ll have. There will be almost no time during the series he won’t draw an assignment from Thabo Sefolosha or Durant, both of whom have the length and athleticism to bother No. 24. Furthermore, Westbrook’s ability to best Derek Fisher is well-documented, so that’s another circumstance in the underdog’s favor. If Bynum misses part or all of the series, it may very well go to seven games. Regardless, the Lakers move on.
Oklahoma City takes two of three at home, but Los Angeles wins the series 4-2 in six games.
Look back tomorrow for two more playoff previews.