With Wednesday night's wrapup of the regular season, the playoff matchups are set. There are eight conference quarterfinal contests, and the whole shebang kicks off this tomorrow.
Because we feel that no one understands the NBA more like the way we wish we understood the NBA than the gang at Free Darko, we've asked them to write up previews of every playoff series throughout the postseason. It will help us understand what's at stake in each series, what matters, what it means for the individuals involved, their fanbases and their history. And there will also be funny, bizarre, non-linear photographs.
After the jump, our final playoff preview of the day (with two more tomorrow), the series between the Utah Jazz and the Houston Rockets. It's the all-Illini first-round matchup: Luther Head, Deron Williams, Dee Brown ... and, oh yeah, that McGrady guy. If you want to hop in with your predictions in the comments, please do. Because we type about sports, and people expect it, our prediction is Jazz in 7.
And now, Brown Recluse, Esq., from Free Darko, after the jump. Enjoy.
Fuck what you heard. Nice guys don't finish last, they finish right smack dab in the middle of the pack. All year long, the chatter in the West has been Suns and Mavs, and only a fool would overlook the San Antonio Spurs, so if you're looking for a "sleeper pick" who has a legitimate chance to win the whole thing, look to this 4/5 match up. Both the Rockets and the Jazz feature venerable coaches, well-rounded offense and disciplined defense. There's so much clean cut youth and ersatz militarism, it's like a rumble behind the dining hall at Boy Scout Camp. Seriously, the only guy on either team you might not let date your sister is former playground legend Rafer Alston, and even he's a family man these days!
Yet, despite the wholesomeness of both squads, this showdown might end up being the gulliest one of them all. Matchups are always important in playoff basketball, and the battle at the power forward position could decide the series. Carlos Boozer has been an absolute beast this season, averaging better than a double double, and the Jazz are also able to throw rugged rookie Paul Millsap and Jarron Collins into the mix. The Rockets' four men aren't quite as formidable, but Juwan Howard can still do a little damage. An awful lot could be resting on Chuck Hayes' broad shoulders.
Of course, no one on the Jazz can stop a determined and healthy Yao Ming, but they do have the luxury of being able to sick the tentacled Kirilenko on McGrady. However, since they start two point guards in the backcourt, that means either Williams or Fisher has to guard Battier, who can shoot over a shorter defender or take him down in the post. Remarkably, the Rockets have one of the best post up guards in the league on their roster, and they told him to stay home. A star of the 2006 NBA Playoffs for Sacramento, Bonzi Wells averaged 23 points and 12 boards on 60 percent shooting from the field, a performance so dominant that teammate Ron Artest said he would kill Bonzi if he didn't re-sign with the Kings (he ended up signing a two-year deal with the Rockets and while he played sparingly, he is presumably still alive). But, Bonzi was too real for this straight-laced squad, and while it's an agonizing waste of talent, the Rockets' chemistry no doubt benefits from his departure.
The Rockets are something like a middle child, respected and liked well enough, but get way less attention than their Texan siblings. It's hard to believe that a team with arguably the best post and perimeter players in the League could be so underrated, but injuries and a shaky playoff history have H-Town running a distant fourth in the postseason popularity contest. And it's not like the rest of the team are scrubs. Alston and Battier provide a compelling ebony and ivory (I'm talking about game) perimeter look, both able to hit 3's in bunches and cause problems on the defensive end. The Rockets should have a "No Diving!" sign in the locker room, their bench has been so shallow, but this year, Yao and T-Mac finally some have some reinforcements.
The main reason these games will be fought in the trenches is because of the generals stalking the sidelines. Basketball-wise, Jerry Sloan and Jeff Van Gundy are so conservative they make Gregg Popovich look like Trotsky and Avery Johnson like Malcolm X. After three years spent wandering in the desert of the draft lottery, The Protestant Work Ethic in the Flesh has found in Deron Williams and Boozer another point guard/power forward tandem to pick and roll into the playoffs. The rest of the team is made of similar stuff with only the Turkish Elvis bringing any unorthodoxy to the table. Even Okur fits into Sloan's rigid master plan, as he has always liked to have a big man who can open up things on the inside.
Much is always made of playoff experience, and the Fisher King, He of the Three Rings, has it in scads. Still, I'm going to gamble on the heretofore 0-fer-the-first-round Yao and T-Mac to finally make it out this time around. The team with the two superstars in a series rarely loses. Rockets in 6.