The Power (Conference Finals Preview)

These playoffs are all about power. Trying to get it, use it, hang onto it, take it, steal it, and find it when no one else can. We have one team trying to hang onto it (Lakers), we have another trying to taste it for the first time (Suns), we have one trying to get more than it had last year (Magic), and we have one trying to regain what it had only two years ago (Celtics). This years favorite (Cavs) lost it before they even had it and the dark horses (Mavs and Hawks) looked like they never even wanted it. These four teams all want the power for different reasons and only one can get it and no matter who wins it will affect how we remember the players on each team. Kobe can push himself into the top 6 or seven players of all time with another title. Nash immediately pushes himself above Stockton if he can add a championship and play at this level for a couple more years. Dwight Howard can prove to everyone that he isn’t just some kid who is happy to play with a cheshire cat smile but prove that he is happy to dominate like we’ve been waiting for him to. Rajon Rondo can try to win his first title as “the guy” and thrust himself into the conversation as one of the top point guards of this generation.

The Suns have been the one to root for. They’re fun to watch and Steve Nash is putting on a clinic on how to play point guard. If you have no rooting interest, this is the team to cheer for. They have chemistry and seeing Nash win a Finals would be the maple syrup on the proverbial pancakes (he’s Canadian). Technically the Suns are strongest where the Lakers are weakest and that would give the Suns a good chance. The Lakers cannot stop floor general type point guards who can get to their spots unless Kobe is defending them (see Exhibit A: Westbrook, Russell). They won’t be able to do that too much because Jason Richardson is a legit 2-guard who has the size, speed, and leaping ability to punish, repeat punish, Fisher, Brown, and the player formerly known as Jordan Farmar if they’re stuck guarding him. The Sun’s weakness, namely size and interior defense, play right into the Lakers hands. They still have a puncher’s chance though because they can shoot the lights out and they only need to do that four out of seven games.

As with any Lakers series, everything will hinge on Kobe and his ability/willingness to throw the ball into the paint. The Lakers have a distinct size advantage and then when you throw into Stoudemire’s allergies concerning defense and rebounding, Gasol’s numbers at the end of the series should look something like this: 30-16-5 on 65% shooting with one casualty (Stoudemire). The Phoenix district attorney should make a name for himself in the upcoming case Gasol v. Stoudemire’s New Contract. This only happens if Kobe wants it to though. If he tries to be the hero, which we’ve all seen him try to do with varying results, the Lakers could find themselves in a dog fight. If he pounds the ball inside and picks his spots when to take over, then the Lakers win in 5. Which Kobe will we get? The Kobe who wants the attention and glory for himself, from the Oklahoma City series, or the Kobe from the sweep of Utah who picks his spots and doesn’t try to take over games unless his team needs him to? The Suns are actually the perfect foil for these Lakers. The Joker to the Lakers Batman in the sense that they are not a match physically but they can match the Lakers mentally. If the Suns can jump out to a quick lead and make Kobe think he is in a track meet or shooting contest, that is only going to benefit Phoenix. Kobe wants to be the hero and win on his own terms. He wants a reel of signature shots like Jordan and Bird. He wants to be “the guy” even if that can sometimes be detrimental to his own team. In last year’s Finals, he did everything right. He did everything we always wanted from him. To be transcendently great, by picking his spots and making his teammates better. It was great to see him hit that level because he’s always had it in there, he just chose to ignore it. If he embraces the triangle fully, the Lakers win easily. If he indulges himself, the Lakers will still probably win but it will be tougher than it should be. It’s the same battle he’s been going through the last decade and the real test for it should come next round.

The formula for an unlikely Suns victory in this series goes like this: one win on a hot shooting night, one flukey sort of win where someone unexpected drops 25 (think Dudley or Dragic), one win where they gut one out even though the Lakers play terrible and then a combination of any the of the above. That’s the only way. The Lakers have too much talent and size and experience and the Suns need to catch lightning in a bottle to come out on top. I expect a Lakers win in five but wouldn’t be surprised by a Suns win in seven.

In the Eastern Conference, the Magic have cruised through the first two rounds, leaving basketballs and chalklines abound. They wet an NBA record by sweeping the Hawks by approximately 8,428 points and collectively destroyed the will of Atlanta by halftime of game 1. They got next to nothing from Dwight Howard due to foul trouble and are still a shimmering 8-0 in these playoffs. All this said, I like them to lose in six games to the Celtics. Here’s why:

1. Other than the benches and center, the Magic do not have an advantage at any position. The emergence of Rajon Rondo has been absolutely stunning as he’s gone from the little brother tagging along with his older brothers to the dominant sibling and the one who stirs the drink. He was the best player for the first 23 quarters for either team in the Cleveland series. There will be blood and he’s going to drink Jameer Nelson’s milkshake. Nelson hasn’t been guarded by anyone as good as Rondo these playoffs and he’s going to know it once he looks over and doesn’t see Mike Bibby or Raymond Felton’s corpse.

2. Howard can’t stay our of foul trouble against Al Horford and Theo Ratliff. Do you think he will be able to stay out of trouble with Perkins and Garnett clogging the middle and Rondo and Pierce crashing the lanes? Me neither.

3. Vince Carter is such a dog that I hear PETA officials will be attending all games just to make sure the Celtics don’t foul him too hard. He’s been excellent these playoffs because he’s been allowed to do what he wants. The second Garnett or Perkins clubs him he’s going to roll around like an Italian soccer player and never come within six feet of the paint again.

4. The Magic lost what gave them an advantage last year. No Hedo doesn’t give them any weird quirks or tough matchups for Boston. Vince Carter makes them conventional and conventional plays right into Boston’s hands. He doesn’t give them a distinct advantage. He doesn’t create for others and is not a proven crunch-time scorer like Hedo is. He’s better defensively but that’s only because Hedo is the worst defender in the league.

Counting the fact that Garnett has finally returned to near one hundred percent and that Paul Pierce is bound to get going now that the focus is shifting to Rondo. The Celtics know what it takes to win. The Magic aren’t quite there yet. We’ve seen it before. The ’93 Sonics, the ’87 Rockets. Teams that almost climbed the mountain and then never quite made it back. The Magic are going to face their sternest test yet in a fully healthy and fully hungry Celtics team. If they make the Finals for the second year in a row, they will fully deserve it. I just don’t think they have the power.

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