Saturday, April 22, 2006

The starting gate

Brace yourselves. This will be the first time I have blogged myself through a Cleveland playoff series. Expect emotion to take over. You will be there to watch my spectacular highs and heartbreaking lows. Probably as you're feeling them too, considering the bulk of my readers are likely Cleveland fans as well.
So, I'll set the stage with about five hours to go before today's 3 p.m. tipoff, the first Cavaliers playoff game since April 1998.

Cleveland Cavaliers
Fourth seed, 50-32
Home games: 1, 2, if necessary 5 and 7
Projected starters for Game 1: Eric Snow, Larry Hughes, LeBron James, Drew Gooden, Zydrunas Ilgauskas

Why the Cavs will win
LeBron will be the best player on the court, bar none. Snow and Hughes are a solid defensive backcourt when they put their minds to it. Hughes is especially motivated to play his old team. Z gives the Cavs a walking mismatch in the middle, which they should exploit early and often. Cleveland's bench is deeper and provides a good mix of shooters (Damon Jones, Donyell Marshall), slashers (Flip Murray) and rebounders (Anderson Varejao). Above all, they have the first two games at home along with the safety net of Game 7 on friendly turf.

Why the Cavs won't win
The Cavs showed an inability to stop Washington's big scorers during the regular season. They are a mediocre defensive team prone to lapses of concentration. They match up terribly with the Wizards. They are fighting an uphill battle against a team that reached the second round a year ago. Hughes' "bring it on" attitude could backfire by motivating the Wizards even more. And let's not forget the "OIC" factor. Cleveland teams in the playoffs have a long history of falling victim to dagger shots and terrible mistakes at the worst possible times.

Washington Wizards
Fifth seed, 42-40
Home games: 3 and 4, if necessary 6
Projected starters for Game 1: Gilbert Arenas, Jared Jeffries, Caron Butler, Antawn Jamison, Brendan Haywood

Why the Wizards will win
The Wizards have two rounds of playoff experience from last year. Arenas is a small combo guard who can shoot the lights out -- the exact type of player that has given the Cavs fits all season. The Wizards are loaded with shooters, and have never hurt for open looks against a slow-rotating Cleveland defense. Jamison is among the best-shooting big men in the league. Antonio Daniels is Jones and Murray rolled into one, quite possibly the best bench player for either team. Eddie Jordan will probably win the coaching battle against Cleveland's Mike Brown.

Why the Wizards won't win
Washington has been woefully inconsistent all year. They are better than their 42-40 record would indicate, but have never been able to rise above the middle of the pack. The Wizards' defense might actually be worse than the Cavs, certainly inside. LeBron, Hughes, Murray and Z should have a field day against Washington's marshmallow interior. Arenas and Daniels are their only real penetrators, meaning the Wizards can be forced into becoming a one-dimensional team from the perimeter. If that happens and the Wizards' outside shooting abandons them for long stretches, they are in trouble.

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