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Conference Finals

It was a longer wait than expected, especially where Los Angeles is concerned, but this year’s conference finals match ups are set. After almost choking away their chances — and their coach’s next season — the Orlando Magic righted themselves and dethroned the defending champions. The Magic hit their stride in their final two games against Boston, as well as their 3s, and look like an honest-to-goodness challenge for the LeBron Train, one that’s been chilling out since they dispatched the Atlanta Hawks in short order.

Aside: Orlando’s series-saving play has inspired some local journalists to issue apologies to Stan Van Gundy.

What can we expect from the Magic/Cavaliers series? The Magic have had success against Cleveland this season; well, regular season success, anyway (2-1). However, will any of that transfer over when the series begins on Wednesday? Considering both teams will have match up issues to deal with, Orlando/Cleveland could very well be more exciting than those expecting a continued coronation of LeBron would want.

The match up problems for both teams still exist:

For Cleveland, they could very well have their hands full with the Howard/Turkoglu/Lewis front line, while Orlando is going to have to find some way to keep LeBron from going crazy. Who, exactly, does Van Gundy have in mind when he’s developing his defensive strategies for James? Courtney Lee or J.J. Redick? No offense to either, but that doesn’t sound like the most confidence-inspiring selection.

For what it’s worth, Charles Barkley picked the Magic to derail LeBron and company.

Kiss of death or inspired picking?

Out West, we have the “bipolar” Lakers versus the upstart bullies from Denver. And the “bullies” description is a compliment. While the headlines will probably make this a Kobe/Carmelo series, the true test will be the Lakers front line (Gasol, Bynum, Odom and Ariza) against Denver’s group (Anthony, Martin, Nene, and Chris Anderson). If the Lakers fall back into their “soft” front line play, the Nuggets group will have no problem exploiting them.

In other words, if the Lakers forwards don’t match the intensity, and, well, nastiness of their Nuggets counterparts, Kobe’s play may not matter.

Granted, the Nuggets, for all their toughness, haven’t been the greatest defensive team in the playoffs. Yes, they’ve been physical, but that hasn’t translated to a team of defensive stoppers — at least against the Mavericks. In their last series against Dallas, the Nuggets allowed 106 points a game. Granted, this number was better in the previous series against New Orleans, but if the Nuggets allow the Lakers to score like the Mavericks, it’s doubtful they’ll be advancing.

Over at Hoopsworld, they have a position-by-position breakdown of Denver/LA, and for the most part, I agree with their message. My only disagreement is with the Gasol/Martin analysis. Yes, Gasol is the much better offensive player, but he didn’t seem to like being bodied by a shorter Chuck Hayes during the Rockets series — until Game 7, that is.

If Gasol allows himself to be bothered by Martin’s “Rick Mahorn” behavior, the edge in this match up shifts back to Denver. Unfortunately for Nuggets fans, however, they don’t have the one element that can make things like this moot: a player like Kobe Bryant. Carmelo is a great, great player and these two will probably go at it in the scoring stats, but Anthony is no Bryant — at least not in the “transcendent player” way Bryant is.

So with all that in mind, who ya got? For me, I’m going Cleveland in six and Los Angeles in seven.