Eastern Conference: No. 1 Cleveland Cavaliers vs. No. 8 Chicago Bulls
It will truly be the King’s Court Saturday at the Quicken Loans Arena. As LeBron James’s frustration mounts with each passing day he hasn’t won a championship, he gets angrier, more desirous. And the Cavaliers’ Game 1 against the Bulls Saturday afternoon marks the the first step in securing the NBA Title that LeBron has longed for since his entry into the league.
There’s a palpable sense of urgency this year, too: A team that has failed year in and year out to win it all is making a big push to make waves this season. After all, next year the roster will be another year older (Shaquille O’Neal, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, and Anthony Parker are in the twilight eras of their careers, and Antawn Jamison isn’t far behind), and who knows where No. 23 is going to end up? Don’t expect them to bend lightly, though.
That said, they face an equally fierce opponent in the Bulls. This is a Chicago team that came within inches of besting a much more competent Celtics team in last year’s postseason, and Derrick Rose is only another year mature. He — along with Kirk Hinrich, Luol Deng, and Joakim Noah, among others — knows the effort necessary to take down a favorite in tight situation.
The Bulls have taken two from the Cavaliers this season. One, a week ago, was a throwaway game by Cleveland. In the first, however, Chicago defeated Cleveland in an 86-85 defensive masterpiece, as both teams shot below 41 percent. The Cavaliers didn’t have Jamison then, but Chicago knows it is capable of knocking off the best.
So who knows? Will the young, spry Chicago scrappers outplay the more established talents of LeBron, Mo Williams, Anderson Varejao, etc.? Probably not. But if this series can compare even slightly to last year’s Boston-Chicago showdown, it’s one worth tuning in to.
Cleveland wins the series in five games, 4-1.
Western Conference: No. 2 Dallas Mavericks vs. No. 7 San Antonio Spurs
There’s a fast-spreading murmur around the league about the danger that the low-seeded San Antonio Spurs pose to opposing teams in this year’s playoffs, and it’s no surprise to me. Yes, they’re only the No. 7 seed. But the Spurs are so incredibly committed, and they play the game correctly with sound fundamentals. It’s a key reason the team hasn’t won fewer than 50 games in a season since 1996-1997 (excepting the lockout-shortened 1998-1999 season, in which they went 37-13 and won the championship). Not coincidentally, that was Gregg Popovich’s first full year at the helm.
Still: Dallas has played fantastic ball this season. Thanks to the routinely dominant performance of Dirk Nowitzki, timely contributions from the Jason duo, and the midseason acquisition of Brendan Haywood and Caron Butler, they hold the second-best record in the highly competitive Western Conference. They can score at will, and they can shut you down on the defensive end just as well. But I can’t help thinking there’s an upset brewing.
I can’t shake from my memory Dallas’s first-round shellacking at the hands of the Golden State Warriors in 2007. But more than that, the Spurs are playing the kind of basketball of late that earned them rings in 1999, 2003, 2005, and 2007. Tim Duncan is the same, and that’s always scary. But Manu Ginobili has been white hot since the beginning of March (the majority of which the team played without Tony Parker), and Richard Jefferson is starting to fit well with this team. Add on an inspired bench performance on the year from George Hill and DeJuan Blair’s ready-to-pounce beastliness (he posted 27 points and 23 boards in the Spurs’ season finale last night), and it is quite an intimidating squad. Would Dallas have been better off losing last night, leaving the Suns to deal with their nemeses (that’s the first-round series I wanted to see, anyway)?
This is not to say it will be a sweep in San Antonio’s favor. After all, Dallas took three out of four from their Texas compadres during the regular season. But don’t sleep on them to emerge victorious from this spate of games.
San Antonio wins the series in seven games, 4-3.