NBA Playoffs: The Conference Finals 2009

by Phil Kehres

As the conference finals begin in the National Basketball Association (NBA), it's time to reflect on why the Boston Celtics won't be repeat champions. After barely escaping the Chicago Bulls in the first round of the NBA playoffs, the Celtics fell in another seven-game series to the Orlando Magic. The loss of superstar forward Kevin Garnett to injury proved to be too much to overcome, even for the defending champs. However, though they failed to reach the Eastern Conference Finals, the Celtics further proved themselves as a deep and talented team that will likely contend for years.

The absence of Garnett, part of Boston’s Big Three (which also includes forward Paul Pierce and guard Ray Allen), ultimately led to the demise of the Celtics. But without him, several others stepped up and helped the Celtics go deeper than many expected. Guard Rajon Rondo emerged as a legitimate star and a nightly triple-double threat. Forward Glen “Big Baby” Davis hit several big shots, including an astounding buzzer-beater to give the Celtics a 3-2 lead in the series. Even back-up center Kendrick Perkins got in the game, holding Orlando’s monster center Dwight Howard to a fairly quiet series. The Celtics may be going home early, but they won’t be left without hope for next year. A healthy Garnett back in the starting lineup could see this team deep in the playoffs for years to come.

Before we look too far into the future, though, let’s take a look at the four other teams that are still in the dance. After beating Boston, Orlando gets the right to play the East’s number one seed — the Cleveland Cavaliers. The Cavaliers have been the best team in the playoffs so far, going 8-0 in the earlier rounds to earn themselves a spot in the Eastern Conference Finals. (Orlando handed Cleveland its first playoff loss on Wednesday, May 20 in the opening game of the conference finals.) Orlando will be the best team the Cavaliers have faced so far, however, and this series is far from pre-determined. Orlando’s sharpshooting forwards Rashard Lewis and Hedo Turkoglu can shoot the lights out on a good night, and they help spread the defense to allow Dwight Howard easy shots on the inside. For Cleveland to advance, they’ll need someone other than forward LeBron James to step up and keep the Magic’s three-point game at bay.

In the wild, wild Western Conference, favorites the Los Angeles Lakers will face their toughest challenge yet in the Denver Nuggets. The Nuggets are playing the best basketball they’ve played all season, with superstar forward Carmelo Anthony playing out of his mind and veteran guard Chauncey Billups, nicknamed Mr. Bigshot, at the ready. Like the Magic, the Lakers are coming off a seven-game series that had no business going seven games. L.A. defeated Houston, which was without star center Yao Ming after Game Three. The Nuggets are a much better team than Houston, and, despite L.A.’s home court advantage, expect a dogfight. (The Lakers won Game 1 of the series on Tuesday, May 19, with Kobe Bryant leading the way with 40 points for the Lakers. The second game tips off tonight, May 21.)

LeBron vs. Kobe doesn’t seem like as much of an inevitability as it once did, but you can bank on two stellar Conference Finals series to carry us into the summer.

(Phil Kehres also is the co-author of Excuse Me, Is This Your Blog? He also contributes to Fear the Sword, a blog about the Cleveland Cavaliers of the Sports Blog Nation.)

(To see the schedule of NBA playoff games on various cable TV networks, please go here. To see a powerful dunk from Dwight Howard of the Orlando Magic in the team's Game 1 victory, please check below.)

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