On Basketball: NBA Conference Finals predictions
Vail, CO Colorado
And then there were four. After two thrilling rounds of playoff basketball, the NBA Conference Finals are set. Denver and Cleveland have stormed their respective ways through their first two opponents, losing a combined two games by four points between them, while Los Angeles and Orlando each enter the third round just two days removed from Game 7 victories over feisty second round opponents. As we move closer to the NBA Finals, let’s take a closer look at these intriguing matchups that kick off with the Nuggets at the Lakers on Tuesday night.
Eastern Conference Finals ” Cleveland vs. Orlando
LeBron James and the Cavaliers have been virtually invincible through the first two rounds of the playoffs, sweeping the Pistons and Hawks while winning all eight games by at least 10 points. They continue to be phenomenal at home, now sporting a 43-2 record in Cleveland this year, with one of their two losses coming with all five starters resting on the bench. Conversely, Orlando has been somewhat erratic thus far in the playoffs, winning a tumultuous series with Philadelphia on the road in six games and subsequently knocking off the defending champion Celtics in Boston in seven games. The Magic have struggled mightily in games decided by five points or less, going 1-4, and have blown significant fourth quarter leads to lose both at home and on the road.
It’s difficult to see anybody slowing down James, or the Cavs for that matter, especially on their home floor. However, Orlando has a good chance to give Cleveland a run for their money if their three point shooters can find a rhythm. Thus far, the Magic have shot 4% worse in the playoffs than they did in the regular season, yet they have managed to eek out victories. One of the keys for Orlando will be Hedo Turkoglu having success against the newly energized defense of James. If Turkoglu cannot score consistently, the Magic will struggle to be successful on offense, particularly when Dwight Howard is resting and when the game is close in the fourth quarter.
Winning the season series 2-1 should give Orlando hope, especially because the Magic lost by just four in their only game in Cleveland. However, this Cavs team is playing with more confidence than anybody in the league and must be considered heavy favorites. It is imperative that Orlando wins Games 3 and 4 at home, or Cleveland would likely have a chance to take the series at home in five games. While I don’t see a lopsided series, I can’t see Orlando winning in Cleveland and holding serve at home. LeBron James and company should be headed back to the NBA Finals. Prediction: Cleveland in seven.
Western Conference Finals ” Los Angeles vs. Denver
After the Cavaliers, the Nuggets have been the most impressive team in the NBA Playoffs. Highlighted by a 58-point victory in New Orleans in Round 1 and Carmelo Anthony’s buzzer beating winner in Dallas in Round 2, Denver has gone 8-2 thus far, with the two losses coming on the road by a combined four points. Their 16 point per game differential through two rounds ranks among the best in NBA history and they have now won 16 straight home games.
The Lakers on the other hand have been likely the least consistent team in the playoffs. Despite stomping Utah in five games in Round 1, the Lakers lost at home in Game 1 to Houston, and got embarrassed by a Yao-less Rockets squad in Games 4 and 6. For all of their talent, LA’s struggles have been quite surprising, and it’s difficult to know what team we will see in this series.
Both teams should have more than enough motivation, as the two faced off last year in Round 1, where the Lakers swept the Nuggets en route to the NBA Finals. Denver’s Dahntay Jones will look to shake Kobe Bryant out of rhythm outside, while heated battles are sure to happen between forwards Pau Gasol of Los Angeles and Kenyon Martin of Denver down low. The matchup between the Lakers’ Andrew Bynum and the Nuggets’ Nene at center could be a major factor in the series, as each has shown both dominance and complacency through the playoffs’ first two rounds. Ultimately, this series could be decided by the team with the best bench. Both benches have proven to be elite at times this season, but it has been the Nuggets’ bench that has been most successful so far in the postseason.
Though Los Angeles won the season series 3-1, their lackadaisical play of late makes me question their will to win. Conversely, Denver’s killer instinct keyed by Chauncey Billups’ professionalism demonstrates a surefire championship desire.
Home court advantage will be vital. The Lakers will struggle to win in Denver, yet Denver might not be able to win a clinching game in Los Angeles. Denver’s best chances to win this series would be to steal Game 1 or 2 in LA, or take Game 5 on the road if the series reaches a 2-2 tie. If the Nuggets take the series, it will almost certainly be in Game 6 in front of their home crowd.
The Lakers on the other hand will look to take Game 3 or 4 in Denver and try to close in Game 5 at home, but I find it far more likely for them to take the series at home in Game 7. One way or another, this series should be a lengthy, hard-fought thriller. As talented as the Lakers are, Denver is playing better defense (yes you read that correctly), is more team oriented, and has demonstrated a greater drive to win. Denver should ride their newfound confidence to their first NBA Finals appearance. Prediction: Denver in six.
Davey DeChant is a senior at Battle Mountain High School.