5-on-5: Who will shine in the playoffs?
There's more than a championship on the line in the 2011 postseason. Some players' legacies will be affected forever, while others hope to make names for themselves.
Which players and teams will produce the biggest storylines of the playoffs? Our five writers debate five burning questions:
1. What's the most surprising thing that will happen in the East playoffs?
Kyle Weidie, Truth About It: Miami will handle Boston with relative ease in the second round -- we're talking sweep or a 4-1 series win. Sure, the Celtics were 3-1 versus the SuperFriends during the regular season, but two of those wins came within Miami's first nine games and the third came with Kendrick Perkins still a Celtic. Perhaps more surprising is that Boston won't be as affected by wear-and-tear old tires, but rather by the inability to produce points.
J.M. Poulard, Warriors World: If the top East seeds advance, Chicago and Orlando will duke it out in a battle of the MVP winner versus the MVP runner-up. Although the playoffs have no bearing on the Maurice Podoloff trophy, the player who may finish second will have a chance to prove that he was more deserving of the award.
Chris Palmer, ESPN The Magazine: The Knicks will stretch the Celtics to six, possibly seven games. Nobody's giving the Knicks a snowball's chance, but the sports world tends to get all weird when Boston and New York are involved. Two of the three games they've played have been decided by four points or fewer, and I'm counting on Melo and Amare's pride to at least protect home court.
James Ham, Cowbell Kingdom: I'm not so sure there will be any surprises in the East. Chicago and Miami should make it to the conference finals with relative ease. Orlando isn't deep enough in the post and the Celtics woke up and realized they were old. I guess the question is whether the Celtics or Knicks make it to Round 2.
Dan Feldman, PistonPowered: Derrick Rose will struggle after the first round. Considering he'll have to face strong defensive teams like Orlando, Miami or Boston, that might not seem so surprising right now. But after Rose annihilates the Pacers in the first round, expectations for the already-anointed MVP will grow even higher --much higher than he'll reach.
2. What's the most surprising thing that will happen in the West playoffs?
Kyle Weidie, Truth About It: It won't be surprising when each of the top four seeds in the West move into the second round with relative ease. Nor will it be surprising when the conference semifinals and finals all get pushed to seven games. What will be surprising is when the Dallas Mavericks come out on top in the West and Mark Cuban holds a party for all his friends in the media.
J.M. Poulard, Warriors World: Kobe Bryant's ability and willingness to carry the load might end up being fool's gold for once. During the playoffs, Kobe usually fits within the team structure and becomes aggressive when his teammates are out of sync. March and April are usually indicative of his playoff performances, and since March 1, Kobe is shooting just 42.3 percent from the field.
Chris Palmer, ESPN The Magazine: The Denver Nuggets will upset the darlings of the Western Conference, the Oklahoma City Thunder, in seven games. Since the Melo trade, the Nuggets have had one of the top records in the league thanks to a versatile offense that shares the wealth and one of the league's deepest benches. They're an extremely well-coached defense with the league's most underrated defender (Wilson Chandler), who'll give Kevin Durant fits.
James Ham, Cowbell Kingdom: The Spurs will look every bit as good as their record. Paper champs? No way, that is one finely oiled, playoff-tested machine. I like coach Scotty Brooks and his Thunder team, but they would need to get through George Karl, Gregg Popovich and probably Phil Jackson to make it to the promised land. Good luck with that.
Dan Feldman, PistonPowered: At least two lower seeds will win three first-round games, and at least one of them will win its series. That would be a pretty fine showing for the underdogs, considering a full five games separate the No. 4 and No. 5 seeds. The Nuggets, Trail Blazers and Grizzlies are peaking at the right time and are very dangerous.
3. Who will be the breakout star of the 2011 postseason?
Kyle Weidie, Truth About It: A FIBA championship in Turkey last summer has only fueled Russell Westbrook's fire this season. An All-Star for the first time this season, Westbrook is clearly making a name for himself, but this year's playoffs will propel him to nationwide recognition. Last season, he upped his effective field goal percentage from .452 in the regular season to .500 in his first playoff appearance. This time, opponents won't know who to prepare for more, Westbrook or Kevin Durant.
J.M. Poulard, Warriors World: Big men who score on the block and from midrange are precious commodities. If they rebound and defend, too, we're usually talking about a star player. LaMarcus Aldridge gets some recognition, but clearly not enough to be selected to the All-Star team. This year's postseason will probably change things going forward.
Chris Palmer, ESPN The Magazine: Denver's Danilo Gallinari fears no man. At 6-foot-10, with exceptional athletic ability and the swagger to match, Gallo is an absolute matchup nightmare for just about anyone. He can stretch defenses, put it on the deck and finish strong in transition. When he gets on a roll, I don' t see many teams who have an answer for him.
James Ham, Cowbell Kingdom: Russell Westbrook. While Durant will make it all look so easy, Westbrook will eat Lawson and Felton for lunch. I know, I just bet against the Thunder, but look for Westbrook to make his name in a hard-fought series against Tony Parker. They'll lose, but they'll do it with style.
Dan Feldman, PistonPowered: Russell Westbrook. Kevin Durant has always overshadowed him, mostly deservedly, because Durant is one of the game's top young stars. With several potential matchups against teams, most notably the Lakers, ill-equipped to defend a big and fast point guard, Westbrook should show the world he's better than a typical sidekick.
4. Which star will have his legacy harmed most by the 2011 postseason?
Kyle Weidie, Truth About It: Not that he has much of a playoff legacy in the first place, but Carmelo Anthony certainly won't be making any lasting moments in this year's postseason. Easily frustrated Knicks fans will just have to deal with their fate: Boston's defense will lead to selfish offense from Anthony, and their team will bounced in the first round.
J.M. Poulard, Warriors World: Although Carmelo Anthony's Denver Nuggets made it to the 2009 Western Conference finals, his six other postseason appearances have resulted in first-round eliminations. He could be headed that way once again; except this time he will have to answer to the New York media. Oh, and imagine if the Nuggets win a playoff series.
Chris Palmer, ESPN The Magazine: LeBron James is in a tight spot. The only way he can come out of this postseason with his rep intact is to win a title. His customary near triple-doubles won't mean much if Miami suffers a 4-2 exit from the Eastern Conference finals. Just won't cut it. From this point forward, LeBron will be judged by whether he wins the big one or not.
James Ham, Cowbell Kingdom: Joe Johnson. Does he have a legacy? I'm not sure, but he just got paid and I don't see any way the Hawks are around to see Round 2. Atlanta still has a lot of talent (more than 44-win talent) and the leader of a disappointing team always takes the hit.
Dan Feldman, PistonPowered: Carmelo Anthony. Paul Pierce and the Celtics should make Anthony work for his shots and lower Melo's efficiency in the process. The Knicks have been overrated since trading for Melo. Anthony probably won't play any worse than should reasonably be expected, but since when are expectations reasonable?
5. Which star will have his legacy enhanced most by the 2011 postseason?
Kyle Weidie, Truth About It: The health of Andrew Bynum won't affect Dirk Nowitzki's hunger, but Nowitzki's stomach did just growl. One could argue that Dirk's legacy has the deepest hole from which to climb. Since blowing a 2-0 series lead on Miami in the 2006 Finals, the Mavericks have been bounced in the first round of the playoffs in three of the past four seasons. A championship isn't wholly necessary to repair Dirk's playoff legacy, but if Dallas fails to make the Finals, he may have to live with the label of a regular-season MVP who can't come through in the postseason.
J.M. Poulard, Warriors World: In case you thought Derrick Rose's already-impressive season couldn't get any better, wait until Chicago faces Indiana. Although the votes will have already been collected, Rose's first-round performance against a subpar opponent will make those who doubted his MVP credentials look silly. He will use that momentum to shine for the remainder of the postseason.
Chris Palmer, ESPN The Magazine: Kobe Bryant has quite a bit at stake. If he wins a third consecutive title (giving him a whopping six) the discussion of the greatest player ever begins with him. He'll have matched Michael Jordan's ring collection and solidified himself in the top three all-time, at the very least. He's staring history in the face. No pressure.
James Ham, Cowbell Kingdom: Manu Ginobili will be a dominant force in this year's playoffs. He may not be a conventional star, but he is a star nonetheless, and who is going to stop him? After Kobe and D-Wade, there is not a better shooting guard in the NBA.
Dan Feldman, PistonPowered: Kobe Bryant. I'm taking a safe pick here. Even if the Lakers lose, I can't see Kobe's legacy suffering significantly. But if the Lakers win the championship, Kobe would equal Michael Jordan's six titles. Jordan is the pinnacle of NBA greatness, and in at least one more area, Kobe would become his peer.
Chris Palmer writes for ESPN The Magazine. Kyle Weidie, J.M. Poulard, James Ham and Dan Feldman write for the TrueHoop Network.