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- » Our NBA awards at the break
- More from Mike McGraw
Last summer, a local NBA columnist wrote about how Boston Celtics boss Danny Ainge should be thrust into consideration for the worst general manager of the past 20 years.
Now, of course, Ainge is a certified genius after orchestrating the largest single-season improvement in league history.
As the 2008 NBA playoffs get under way, the Celtics will try to become the first team to capture a championship after winning as few as 24 games the previous season.
In fairness to the writer, last year's column was written after Ainge traded the No. 5 pick in the draft for Seattle's Ray Allen, which happened on the one-year anniversary of an inspired swap of the No. 7 pick for Sebastian Telfair.
At the time, I had no reason -- make that, the author had no reason -- to suspect a Kevin Garnett trade was coming, since the Celtics had just given up one of their best assets, the fifth draft pick, for a player who had just spent two dismal seasons in Seattle chucking shots and playing no defense.
As it turned out, I underestimated Minnesota GM Kevin McHale's willingness to make a questionable deal. Still, few people thought Garnett, Allen and Paul Pierce would click as quickly as they did.
The Celtics were smoking right from the start and piled up a league-best 66-16 record. They even went 25-5 against the West.
The three stars shed their egos and shared the ball. The Celtics played the NBA's best defense. Point guard Rajon Rondo became a borderline star. Free-agent addition James Posey let go of his urge to commit flagrant fouls.
What else is there to say?
Ainge is a true visionary. The NBA and all its fans are fortunate to have watched him work his magic.
That said, here are predictions for this year's playoffs:
Boston vs. Atlanta
When the Bulls were in Atlanta a few weeks ago, one of the Hawks was quoted as saying the team didn't want to just make the playoffs, but be this year's Warriors and spring a first-round shocker. (pause for laughter) If the Hawks come within 10 points in any single game, it will be an upset. Pick: Celtics 4-0.
Cleveland vs. Washington
Is it tough to beat a team three years in a row in the playoffs, as Gilbert Arenas claimed? How often has it even happened? Arenas' return will probably just mess up the Wizards' chemistry, which seemed to improve this season without him. Pick: Cavs 4-2.
Detroit vs. Philadelphia
The Sixers cooled off late in the season, but this could be an interesting matchup with Philadelphia's speed pitted against Detroit's 30-something lineup. The Sixers need to win the fastbreak points by a wide margin, then knock down a 3-pointer once in a while to have a chance. Pick: Pistons 4-2.
Orlando vs. Toronto
If Aaron Gray could deliver 19 points and 22 rebounds against Raptors centers Rasho Nesterovic and Primoz Brezec, what will Dwight Howard do? It's tough to say, because the defensively-challenged Brezec might play only if Nesterovic and Chris Bosh both foul out. Pick: Magic 4-1.
Boston vs. Cleveland
With a playoff game on the line, who do you want guarding Kevin Garnett? The much-shorter Ben Wallace? Anderson Varejao? Joe Smith? LeBron can't do everything by himself. Pick: Celtics 4-1.
Pistons vs. Magic
Detroit has faded in the playoffs for three straight years, so containing Howard won't be easy. At the same time, the Pistons hold an overwhelming edge in the guard matchup. Pick: Pistons 4-3.
Celtics vs. Pistons
Boston has been too solid all year to slow down here. Pick: Celtics 4-2.
L.A. Lakers vs. Denver
Did anyone else find it suspicious that Sacramento's Ron Artest scored 22 points in a victory that knocked New Orleans out of the driver's seat for the top seed, then did not play when the Kings had a chance to return the favor against the Lakers a few days later, even though Artest reportedly was willing to play through a thumb injury?
The point is, everyone is talking about how much the NBA and ABC want a Lakers-Celtics finals. The playoff should be entertaining in any event. If the Lakers win, fine. But let's see if the league can avoid accusations of suspicious officiating this time, OK?
Anyway, this series could be more dangerous than some people believe. The Lakers have some flaws and the Nuggets can score 160 points if they get hot. Pick: Lakers 4-3.
Utah vs. Houston
This matchup went seven games last year. Even without Yao Ming, the Rockets could be ready to turn the tables, since Yao couldn't guard the quicker Carlos Boozer. Pick: Rockets 4-3.
New Orleans vs. Dallas
Sure, the Mavericks have the playoff experience, but 35-year-old Jason Kidd figures to be gasping for breath after chasing Chris Paul around for a few games. Pick: Hornets 4-1.
San Antonio vs. Phoenix
There will be some very old men running the court in this series. With Shaquille O'Neal around to get in Tim Duncan's way, Amare Stoudemire should be ready to explode. Pick: Suns 4-2.
L.A. Lakers vs. Houston
This is another tricky series for the Lakers. Shane Battier can make things tougher for Kobe Bryant and the Lakers could have problems guarding Tracy McGrady is he's on his game. Pick: Lakers 4-3
New Orleans vs. Phoenix
After facing Kidd in the first round, Paul gets another aging point guard, Steve Nash, who was never known as a good defender. Paul averaged 29 points against the Suns during the regular season, so look for more of the same. Pick: Hornets 4-2.
L.A. Lakers vs. New Orleans
Outside of Tyson Chandler, the Hornets are small inside. So dealing with both Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom won't be easy and it's conceivable center Andrew Bynum could return later in the playoffs. This should come down to a great dual between the league's two best players this season, Paul and Bryant. Pick: Lakers 4-3.
Boston vs. L.A. Lakers
With an easier path through the East and a lineup that has revealed few cracks, the Celtics will roll. Doc Rivers will coach the clinching game wearing a Larry Bird jersey. Pick: Celtics 4-2.