By Jason Wojciechowski on May 18, 2009 at 7:04 PM
With the Lakers finally putting away the Rockets in a seven-game series that wasn't quite as uncompelling as Atlanta-Miami, but wasn't exactly a thrill-a-minute either (average margin of victory was in the 17-point range; even throwing out that Lakers' 40-point win in Game 5, there was only one single-digit win, and even that was eight points) and with Orlando shocking Boston with a blowout in Beantown, the Conference Finals pairings are set. Orlando, the three seed, will play Cleveland, the number one and clear favorite, while the Lakers will play host to the number-two Nuggets.
I'll take Cleveland in five games in the East. Orlando showed resiliency and talent in outlasting Boston, but they also showed that against a seriously undermanned team, they needed seven games to advance. Without Kevin Garnett and Leon Powe, Big Baby Davis had to be a hero, Brian Scalabrine had to play a key role, and Kendrick Perkins had to be The Man in the middle. All of these things happened for Boston, which I think says more about Orlando than it does about those players or about the Celtics in general. Nobody should be letting Kendrick Perkins dominate the paint defensively, and nobody should be letting Baby go off almost nightly. Cleveland, meanwhile, has shown no weaknesses this postseason, and I don't see any reason why they shouldn't roll over the Magic. Orlando will take Game 3 at home, and the average margin of victory for the Cavs will be about nine points.
The Lakers, meanwhile, showed every weakness in the book against Houston. They got outmuscled by a smaller team, outworked on the glass (how many offensive rebounds did they give up before finally dominating the glass in Game 7?), outshot from the perimeter, and just generally outplayed in three of the seven games. On the other hand, in the other four games, the Lakers completely destroyed Houston. A 40-point win in Game 5? Holding Houston to just 70 points in Game 7? That was dominant play by L.A. So who will show up for the Lakers?
I think the key insight from some of the Laker blogs I read is that L.A. is consistently inconsistent. In Free Darko-ish terms, L.A.'s essence is their utter inability to learn from their mistakes, to heed wakeup calls, to stop cruising. They have an arrogance that I'm not sure I've seen on many professional teams. Even those Lakers teams in the early part of this decade that would cruise through the regular season, confident they could flip the switch at will, had Rick Fox and Robert Horry and Derek Fisher and Lindsey Hunter and on and on. They had steadying influences. The last steadying influence on this team is Fisher, who has been marginalized this year by his loss of a step on defense and his loss of a consistent jump shot on the other end. The rest of the supporting cast is Vujacic, Farmar, Shannon Brown, Luke Walton, Andrew Bynum, Trevor Ariza, Lamar Odom ... just a slew of guys who thrive on energy, on manic play, on confrontation and intimidation. This means that when they're going good, you can see them going good -- Vujacic has never put up a quiet 12 points in his life. It also means that when they're going bad, you can see them going bad. They get deflated, they start looking over their shoulders at Phil Jackson, their jump shots get hesitant (well, not Sasha's -- the man will fire up a jumper at the drop of a hat. It's his blessing and his curse).
All of this is what makes this such a compelling matchup with Denver. The Nuggets epitomized energy and maddening inconsistency for years. It's practically in their DNA. Then they added Chauncey Billups, who has somehow modulated all of this into a cohesive unit. The Birdman still flies around doing things Josh Smith only dreams about, JR Smith fires up ill-advised jumpers from all over, Carmelo's still a ball-stopper, Kenyon Martin is whatever the hell he is ... except now it all works! It's not clear to me how it works, and I'm not sure it's clear to anyone, least of all George Karl, but the fact is that it does.
What this adds up to is a wild and crazy six-game win for the Lakers. There will be at least one suspension -- the potential for Birdman, Nene, Kenyon Martin, and/or JR Smith to piss off Kobe, Bynum, Vujacic, and/or Odom is simply too high, and the stakes are too high. There will be shoving matches, and there will be referee overreaction in response to shoving matches. It won't be mid-90's ugly, but it will give Jeff Van Gundy and Mark Jackson plenty to talk (and complain, justifiably) about.
Just as a by-the-way -- how about my pick of Orlando in seven, huh? Not bad! I managed to pick all the series winners, although the Lakers got pushed to seven (I called five), Cleveland swept (I called five), and Denver only needed five games (I called six). I can't pat myself on the back too much, since all of these teams were the higher seeds except Orlando, and that's a special situation, because Boston is clearly not the #2 team in the East without Garnett.