It was only a few weeks ago when we were claiming the Lakers as unrivaled Western Champions, the Nuggets seemingly filling up the #2 spot by default because everyone else was playing more crap than they were. How things have changed. Not only have the Lakers come off an extremely shaky looking series against a team with no center, but the Nuggets have transformed into a truly awe-inspiring playoff juggernaut. Few teams have stormed through the first two rounds so convincingly against quality sides (so you can discount Cleveland) over the past decade. I’ve made enough bad cooking analogies about Denver having all the ingredients to win a championship – I’ve nothing more to say about that, I still think they’ve got what it takes. The question is, do the Lakers have even more?

Before I answer that, walk with me back down memory lane. Leading up to last year’s finals you may remember how awesome the Lakers looked while Boston was stuck grinding out 7-game affairs against inferior teams. Looking at the form guide, the Lakers were an irresistible pick to get past Boston in the Finals. They had just obliterated the Nuggets (sweep), the Jazz (in six, and I still maintain that Jazz team was the second best team out West last playoffs) and then the Spurs (in five). Kind of a reverse mirror to the Lakers/Nuggets situations this year – Nuggets cruise, look awesome, Lakers struggle against lesser teams. So what’s the lesson here? That no matter how good a team might have become in three weeks of playoff basketball, NEVER underestimate the team that has been better for 44 weeks.

On to bubble theory. A bubble bursts in playoff basketball when a team that has been enjoying a glorious and care-free ride suddenly encounters a pointy situation. BANG. The momentum is gone, the fun is gone, and things get shitty. They may only be shitty for a day or two, after which the team collectively regroups and moves forth as if nothing happened (see Lakers after Game 1 of 2001 Finals). But more than likely it will take a little time to deal with the fact you’ve been brought back down to earth, and that you’ve lost that bubble for good. Last year the Lakers bubble popped in the Finals, in that deflating Game 4 loss. Twenty minutes before that loss they were looking like the Harlem Globetrotters – “this is the Lakers team I was expecting!” I said to my housemate halfway through that game. Then the bubble burst, things got shitty, and they couldn’t recover in time. This year the Lakers bubble popped in Game 4 against Houston, a humiliating defeat that spawned a barrage of Laker-doubting across the universe. They’ve already been brought back down to earth, and they didn’t have to lose a playoff series in the process. Denver on the other hand has a giant virgin playoff bubble. You just know the Lakers are going to pop it at some point – the question is, how do Denver respond? No one knows. This team has not had to respond to anything more than a two-point loss so far these playoffs. What happens when they really get beaten?

Quick word on Kobe. What Kobe did in Game 6 and 7 against Houston surprised me. In potentially series-clinching games, he failed to dominate – not only that, he appeared to choose not to. This is significant. It means either Kobe is struggling whether due to physical or mental reasons and cannot close out games like he wants to… OR… Kobe is deferring and trusting his teammates on a never before seen level. The Kobe of old would have never taken the risk of allowing a teammate to carry the team in a Game 7 – no way, too risky. Maybe this is the further maturation of the Mamba?

I’m torn in this series for several reason, between the Lakers incredible potential to dominate, between the Nuggets irresistible form, and my own Pistons-love for Chauncey. An hour I ago I had my mind set that I would write Denver in six in this blog, but now it’s changed. Chauncey is better than Aaron Brooks but Derek Fisher is way more equipped to handle him. Dahntay Jones is a great energy guy but he is woefully out of his league if Coach Karl goes with single-coverage on Kobe (and anything less than Battier/Artest will seem like thin air to Kobe now). Melo is in career-best form but never plays well against the Lakers, Ariza is a perfect defender for him, Odom provides variety, and Kobe can handle him too. The Denver bigs have strength in numbers and will make Gasol and Bynum work, but you also have to remember the Lakers interior defense is not going to let Nene score 22 points every second game like Dallas did. I love Denver’s bench, but LA’s bench is better, and Shannon Brown is a pretty good answer for JR Smith. Add to that the bubble theory and Kobe the wiser, and you have a team that should be able to take all the bullets Denver can fire at them while crawling over the line. Just. Lakers in 7.

Cavs v Magic intrigues me less, but could be a better series. The Magic have a very good record against the Cavs – really, only the Lakers can boast to have more of Cleveland’s measure. They throttled them by 29 points in April, and two weeks earlier in Cleveland they lost by only four points (they also beat them by 11 in January). It’s not hard to see why. Dwight Howard gets to play against Zydrunas Ilgauskas. Really, that is like Dwight Howard playing against your dad. Mark my words, there will be a ten minute stretch at one point in this series where Z starts hitting 18-footers and making Dwight look stupid and commentators will be using words like “cagey” and “wily”, but for the rest of the time I expect this to be Dwight’s coming out party. Cleveland have not had to play against a real center yet these playoffs, and now they’re about to face the best one in the league.

Having said that, look at the Magic’s next two best rebounders after Dwight – Lewis and Turkoglu, combining for 11.0 rebounds per game. Compare that to Varejao and Lebron who are pulling down 14.8 rebounds per game and you can start to see how Cleveland might even things out on the inside. Quite simply, the buck stops with Dwight. If he can’t control the boards and keep Lebron off them, then the Cavs are hard to stop because so many Lebron rebounds normally end in Lebron points or Lebron assists.

I can’t see the Cavs losing at home, and for that reason I can’t see them losing the series. But I said the same about Boston, and it resulted in only my second incorrect tip of these playoffs so far. What about the bubble theory, does that not apply to Cleveland? It most certainly does. They’ve been riding so high these playoffs it’s almost been annoying. I’m not sure if a team is supposed to have this much fun during the business end of the season. I think the Magic’s grueling road to this point has made them more battle-hardened, and like I said a few days back, I scoff at Lebron when he says his team has faced adversity. The problem is, Lebron is so damn good and seems to instill so much believe in his teammates, that I really doubt a loss – even at home – would shake them. Lebron has a PER of 525.2 or whatever it is so far these playoffs, but what happens when he faces a good team and he needs to actually try? I shudder.

So I’m left predicting the Cavs in 6. I’m hoping the Magic can stir the pot and knock Cleveland out of their orbit. I’m expecting Dwight to take it to another level and posterize Ilgausaks every seven minutes. I’m eagerly waiting to see whether Lebron can really stop an offensive weapon like Hedo – would earn him serious defensive brownie points in my book. I want to see the Magic live by the three for at least two games. But ultimately, I know Lebron will steamroll everything in his path and turn this whole thing into another commercial. He’s even had a whole week to plan it.

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