by Trevor Whenham - 4/21/2006
Trying to get a handle on the NBA postseason as it gets going? Having trouble finding the time to do in-depth analysis of the teams and their prospects? Luckily, it's really quite simple. Conventional wisdom is that we are headed on an inevitable march towards another San Antonio - Detroit final. For the sake of interesting basketball, we can hope that conventional wisdom is off. In order to see if something is going to happen out of the ordinary, all you have to do is keep an eye on six body parts. It's as simple as that.
Before we get into that, however, there are a couple of things to keep in mind. To start off, the first round for the Eastern Conference is essentially meaningless. It's an exhibition series for the real playoffs, which begin in round two. An upset is always possible, but a victory by any of the bottom three against Detroit, New Jersey, or Miami is as likely as Barry Bonds winning Humanitarian of the Year. Only Washington as a lower seed can measure up to its opponent from Cleveland, though the Cavs has this one guard who is pretty good and is playing well of late. The West is a bit more balanced. There are two series that could go either way and one more where an upset wouldn't be impossible. Now, to those body parts:
1) LeBron's ankle - The Cavs are probably at least a year away, but who knows what James will do in his first playoff appearance. I won't waste the effort coming up with words to explain how good this guy already is and how good he is going to be. He might not be at his best right now, though. He sprained his ankle on April 12 and missed 3 of 4 games since then. Everyone says he's fine, but it's the playoffs, so a guy could lose a leg and the team would say he was fine. My best guess is that Cleveland beats Washington and then falls valiantly when they run into Detroit in the second round. That will only happen, however, if LeBron is indeed fine. At his best anything can happen. If he's not healthy, Gilbert Arenas and the Wiz will walk all over Cleveland.
2) Shaq's, well, whole body - Either New Jersey or Miami can give Detroit a run for their money in the Eastern final, but they have to get there. For Miami to beat New Jersey in the second round, Shaq needs to play like only Shaq can. With Kidd, Carter, Jefferson and the surprisingly good Nenad Krstic all playing well and the Nets on fire, Dwyane Wade will need some serious help, and I don't mean Antoine Walker. Shaq has had his worst year by far this year, and his body has not been his friend. He's had ankle and knee problems and his weight has been more Twinkie than celery stick. He's says he's feeling good and that he's lost 15 pounds for the playoffs. If he can turn a switch, Miami has the most dominant playoff performer of my lifetime. We'll know soon enough if his body will let him do so. If it doesn't, the Nets suddenly look like a pretty easy pick.
3) Kobe's back - I'm not literally talking about his back, though he has had spasm problems from time to time. What we need to keep an eye on is whether Kobe's back is big enough to carry the rest of his team. It was for the regular season, so that could easily continue. They play Phoenix in the first round in a battle of a team with a superstar who passes brilliantly against a superstar who has no one to pass to. Though the Suns won three of the four games they played against the Lakers, they come into the playoffs having lost six of their last 10. The Lakers have the best player in the league and one of the best (though most bizarre and unlikable) coaches of all time, but they don't have much else. Lamar Odom is fine, but no more than that, and Smush Parker is a nice story, but there is no question that the Lakers will only win if Kobe carries the team to victory. He can do it, but he'll have to show us early on in the playoffs that he wants it badly enough. If he does his team can hang on for the ride.
4) Kenyon Martin's knee - Sometimes circumstance is as important as skill when it comes to making a deep playoff run. No one would argue that the Nuggets are among the elite. They have found themselves in a relatively soft position, though. They play the Clippers in the first round. L.A. had the better record -- but come on, they're the Clippers. They lost five of their last eight and have no history of success as a franchise. If the Nuggets can beat them they would avoid both Dallas and San Antonio (barring upsets) until the conference final. It's the best path they could have hoped for, but they can only follow it if Kenyon Martin plays well. He has playoff experience and he has performed well in the extra season. His knee is a problem, though. He had microfracture surgery earlier and is struggling with tendonitis now. He hasn't played more than 25 minutes in a game since the beginning of March and he has missed a bunch of games since then. Carmelo Anthony keeps getting better, but he needs Martin at his best to do any damage. If the knee is okay, Denver becomes a live longshot. If not, the Clippers could roll (I can't believe I just wrote that).
5) Tim Duncan's right foot and Manu Ginobili's leg - The Spurs are the class of the West. I am quite desperate, though, to find a reason that they could be beat. If they aren't, there isn't enough No-Doz in the world to keep me alert and interested in their effective but stunningly dull brand of ball. There are two reasons to think they could lose. First, Tim Duncan has been struggling with plantar fasciitis, which is a problem if you're a big guy who jumps a lot. He's been plagued by problems all year and his lackluster (for him) stats show the impact. Ginobili has missed games because of injuries to both legs this year. The Spurs are sickeningly deep, but the loss of either of these stars for extended periods of time would make them vulnerable. If you want to know if you can ride the Spurs deep into the playoffs, just focus below the waist as you watch their early games.
The opinions expressed in this article do not reflect the opinions of Doc's Sports NBA picks.