Today the Lakers played and beat the San Antonio Spurs. The Spurs were missing Manu Ginobili, the first MVP candidate I've ever seen coming off the bench (and it was ridiculous he didn't make the All-Star team this year -- he's also the only player I can recall getting MVP talk who wasn't an All-Star. Doubtless it was the fact he comes off the bench behind Michael Finley that cheated Ginobili of an All-Star appearance, but it was still a ridiculous oversite.) So the Spurs were without Ginobili, who's been their best player this year -- but a win's a win. And this win, plus the Houston loss, plus the Hornets loss -- puts the Lakers into the 1 seed, with one game to go in the tightest playoff race in NBA history.
With Pau Gasol in the lineup, the Lakers have won 21 of 25 games -- an 84% winning percentage. Better than the Celtics season 80% regular season record, which is the likely matchup for the Lakers should they get out of the West.
If the playoffs started today, it would go:
1. L.A. Lakers vs 8. Denver
2. New Orleans vs. 7. Dallas
3. San Antonio vs. 6 Phoenix
4. Utah vs. 5 Houston
That's an amazing collection of teams. The worst of them, the Nuggets, will probably finish with 50 wins. There's never been a Conference where every playoff team had 50 wins, but it's likely to happen this year.
How good is the West overall? The Golden State Warriors, who are most likely going to miss the playoffs in the West, are better than all but three teams in the East by record -- and really probably better than all but two teams in the East; I'm not a believer in the Orlando Magic, who've won 50 games in the East, but are two games under .500 against the West. By contrast, the Celtics, who I do believe in, actually have a better record against the West than against the East. This is a team that raised its play when it faced competition, this year.
In the East, it's currently:
1. Boston vs. 8. Atlanta
2. Detroit vs. 7. Philadelphia
3. Orlando vs. 6. Toronto
4. Cleveland vs. 5. Washington
One of these conferences is not like the other ... the East champ, Boston, is 27 wins better than the 8 seed. In the West, the Lakers are a mere 7 games better than the Denver Nuggets. Without looking it up, I'm quite sure there's never been a smaller spread between the 1 and 8 seeds in NBA history.
Some of these standings can shift in the next couple of days, particularly in the laser close West, but taking this as a starting point --
In the West (and all of this is a crapshoot; any West team can beat any other West team, including the 8 beating the 1) ... there will be no sweeps and no five-game series, barring injuries to critical players. I like the Lakers over the Nuggets in six, Dallas over New Orleans in six, the Suns over the Spurs in six (I hope), and Utah over Houston in seven. In the second round, the Lakers over the Jazz in seven, and the Suns over the Mavericks in seven. In the third round, the Lakers over the Suns ... Shaq and Kobe, Suns and Lakers, two franchises that hate each other and two players that hate each other, in a Western Conference Finals for the ages. The Lakers win at Staples Center in overtime of Game 7, when Kobe dunks on Shaq with four tenths of a second left in the game to give the Lakers a one point lead. The Suns throw the ball at the rim on the inbounds, Shaq catches it and is fouled ... and misses both free throws. And the Lakers advance to the Finals ...
In the East, the four top seeds will beat the four bottom seeds. Celtics, Pistons, Magic and Cavaliers advance. (If anyone gets upset, it's the Cavs; the Wizards with an (amazingly enough) healthy Arenas, and two more All-Stars in Caron Butler and Antawn Jamison, have a good shot there.) In the second round the Celtics get Lebron and the Cavs, and despite splitting the season series 2-2, in the playoffs they finish up in five, winning three games at home and taking one in Cleveland. The Pistons get the Magic and finish up in 6 ... and the Pistons and Celtics go 7, with the Celtics winning.
In the Finals the Lakers and Celtics go 7 games ... and the Celtics win, in Game 7 in Boston, and a new generation of Los Angeleans learns to hate the green.
Making predictions, to quote I think Robert Heinlein, is a chump's business. The only thing I'm really sure of is that the Celts won't lose in the first two rounds. There's no single Western playoff series where the lower-seeded team won't have a great chance at taking the higher-seeded team, and seeing the Pistons upset before they reach the Celtics wouldn't be a shocker. The only Eastern Conference teams with even a fantasy shot at knocking off the Celtics are the Pistons and the Cavaliers -- Lebron James gives any team a puncher's chance.
It's been 21 years since the Lakers and Celtics last appeared in a Finals together. The Lakers, the most successful franchise in professional sports by most measures, have appeared in nearly half of all Finals since the franchise came into existence; they've been in the Finals 28 times, in their 59 seasons prior to this one; if they make it to the Finals this year, they'll be 29 for 60.
The only franchise that can realistically be set up against them is the Celtics. The Celtics have made the Finals 19 times -- and won it 16, giving them a 16-14 lead on the Lakers for actual championships. The Lakers, the NBA's all-time leader in wins, home wins, road wins, winning percentage, home winning percentage, and road winning percentage -- are only .500 in the actual Finals. With 28 appearances, they're 14 and 14 -- with most of those losses coming at the hands of the
If the Lakers and Celtics meet this year, I'm afraid the Lakers will lose ... barring something remarkable with the return of Andrew Bynum. Bynum went out with an "eight week" injury ... three months ago. He failed his last physical. If he plays at all in the postseason, the Lakers shot at getting to the Finals, and actually beating the Celtics, takes a big step out of fantasy land. A healthy Bynum in the post will bother Garnett -- the Lakers can swarm Garnett with a front line that goes 7'0, 7'0, and 6'10, with all three big men being excellent passers. But the betting in the Moran household, as of today, is that Bynum plays no more than spot minutes, if he's back in the playoffs at all, and the Kobe-Gasol-Odom Lakers fail against either the Suns, the Spurs, or the Celtics.