The NBA’s version of the Final Four has been determined and while the Western Conference Finals have already gotten underway as we go to press, it’s the Eastern Conference Finals that appear to be more intriguing.
Eastern Conference: The Philadelphia 76ers host the Milwaukee Bucks Tuesday in Game 1 of the East finals after both teams survived rugged seven-game series versus Toronto and Charlotte respectively.
Philadelphia has the best offensive player on the court in league MVP Allen Iverson and also the best defensive presence on the court in Dikembe Mutombo.
But the 76ers are also a banged up team with a pair of key contributors, Matt Geiger and George Lynch, out of action and Eric Snow bothered by nagging injuries. Even Iverson has shown the wear and tear of challenging players who outweigh him by 100 pounds throughout the season.
Milwaukee is a well-balanced team on offense with three main options; guards Ray Allen, Sam Cassell, and forward Glen Robinson.
Milwaukee’s weakness is its defense, which is Philadelphia’s strength. It’s an old adage, when it comes to championship competition, a good defense will defeat a good offense, and that will be tested in this series.
Philadelphia was outplayed badly in several of its losses to Toronto in the last series as Iverson and Toronto’s Vince Carter exchanged explosive outputs. Milwaukee doesn’t have such a potent scorer, but any of their three options is capable of putting 30 points on the board in any game. When two of the three are hitting, the Bucks are tough to beat.
The teams split four games this season, each winning once at home and once on the road. The last three games between the teams went well under the total by a minimum of 10 points and an average of 20 points per game. All four games were played since the middle of February. The last two games were played during the final month of the regular season and both were played in the mid 160’s.
The early plays in this series should be toward the underdog and the under, which means taking the points with Milwaukee in the first two games which will be played in Philadelphia.
If Milwaukee wins one of the two in Philly, it should also be looked at to win at least one of the games back at home, where the Bucks have been tough all season. If Milwaukee is down 0-2 returning home for Games 3 and 4, the better play might be towards the over, as it would be more likely to force an up-tempo pace while playing with great need.
Several weeks ago, the thought was expressed that the winner of the Charlotte vs. Milwaukee series would advance to the NBA Finals representing the East. That remains the forecast as the series gets underway with Milwaukee the pick to win the series in six games.
Western Conference: The Los Angeles Lakers have already gone up 1-0 against the San Antonio Spurs as we go to press with Game 2 having been played Monday night.
Los Angeles has won 16 straight games overall, including all eight playoff games. No team has ever gone through the playoffs without losing a single game, and that fact appears to be a huge motivator for the Lakers.
Being the first team to accomplish such a feat, combined with becoming one of only a handful of teams to win back-to-back titles, would place the Lakers in an elite class in NBA history.
Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant have blended their talents nicely and the other players have filled their roles well. Derek Fisher, Rick Fox, Robert Horry and others, have given the Lakers balance and enough points to enable Shaq and Kobe to flourish. Once again Coach Phil Jackson has done a masterful job in handling huge egos and getting his team to focus on the big picture.
San Antonio is a good team, having compiled the best record in the league during the regular season. But until the Lakers lose a game in the playoffs, it will be tough to go against them. Thus, the play is either on the Lakers, or no play at all.
However, should the Lakers finally lose a playoff game, it would set up a good play against the Lakers in the next game. Bursting the Lakers’ bubble for a perfect run through the playoffs quite likely would have a carryover effect, and would also give the opponents added confidence. The Lakers would again become a play in the following game regardless of the result of the game following their first loss.
By the time you read this column, the Lakers will either be up 2-0 as they return home, or this will have become a best of five series with the Spurs having the momentum.
A 2-0 lead for the Lakers might well lead to a four game sweep. But a 1-1 series suggests this series would go six games with the Lakers ultimately prevailing.