Saturday, April 16, 2011

NBA Playoffs: First Round Preview, Sizable Questions, and Predictions

It's NBA playoff time, baby.  It’s the pro’s version of March Madness as teams get to scrutinize matchup issues and weaknesses of the opposition in a best-of-seven series. 

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Unfortunately, the 2011 playoffs will go on sans a couple of classic, shouldn't-need-to-miss features:  Tracy McGrady's team won't be kicked out of the first round, Steve Nash won't get to demonstrably prove that his style of offense works in the playoffs despite what his detractors say, and NBA audiences won't be listening to analysts comment about how great the Houston Rockets are doing without an injured Yao Ming.  If you can't live in a world where consumption of the information I just spoke of is available to you during most NBA telecasts, then stop reading this article and turn on the NHL playoffs.  If you can make it through and be satisfied with a half-historic/half-experimental playoffs, then follow me!  Don't feel forced though- hopefully my McGrady joke caught your comedic eye enough and you think they'll be more hilarity in the coming paragraphs…a risky proposition. 

Eastern Conference Preview
  In the Eastern Conference, everything is pretty straightforward.  All of the bottom-four teams are competitive squads, but none of them will make the top-four quaver.  Despite what happened in the regular season (ATL taking three out of four), Orlando owns Atlanta to a greater extent than Matthew Mcconaughey owned his lead role in The Lincoln Lawyer (Seriously, watch that movie.  Excellent performance my Matty Mac).  Joe Johnson may be a very rich man, but the constant flow of dollars and sense into his bank account isn't proportional to the offensive consistency and sense that he provides the team he's supposed to lead.  This is the series I see ending in a sweep.  Dwight Howard's prudent concern should be limiting his technical fouls and using his anger at getting hit across the face to run harder, make moves faster, and play defense better than ever.  He's by far the best player in this series, but he's got to remain disciplined. 

A very wise professor (Not making this up and not saying he's wise to play up my narrative regarding a basketball player whom I don't know personally) recently told me that if a person wants real freedom, they need to have discipline.  Howard's ability to control his emotions, even if he needs to use self-deception - pretending that literally every time a call goes against him, it physically boosts his energy- will be the key to not only Howard's success, but Orlando's success.  Orlando is my dark horse pick to win the NBA championship.  But it starts with Howard not picking up technicals in the first round of the playoffs against an easy opponent.  Normally, this series wouldn’t matter.  I think it matters mentally for Orlando, and Dwight in particular.  They’ll obviously win, but it’s the mental aspect that the Magic must capture. 

Mr. MVP Derrick Rose is going to lead his team past Indiana in five games.  Indy is a solid team, but they will simply be overmatched here.  Luol Deng should limit Danny Granger, and Roy Hibbert has neither the game nor the experience to play well against Chicago's tough interior defense.  Darren Collison will have a hard time driving into Chicago Head Coach Tom Thibodeau's playoff defense, a defense which-  when Thibs was in Boston- looked to suffocate perimeter-oriented creators by keying on them and denying them their most effective spots.    

Boston versus New York looks good better on paper.  And I think it will be a good, entertaining series.  The Knicks can legitimately call this a small, nascent rivalry now, regardless of what Paul Pierce thinks.  In professional wrestling (the one with the metamorphic stone who asks people if they can detect the odor of his cooking, the one that Boston's Shaquille O'Neal appeared on in the past...the one you used to watch!  Yeah, admit it!), a rivalry is born when two wrestlers start a feud and produce an emotional reaction in the audience, good or bad.  Knicks against Celtics isn't Yankees against Red Sox yet- that'll only happen when Rajon Rondo throws Walt "Clyde" Frazier to the baseline of MSG during a brawl- but it has some potential.

Both teams have high-end talent, but Boston is the team with an identity and a build.  New York is just figuring it out, and although Amar'e, Melo and Chauncey are an excellent offensive trio, the Knicks will have a hard time slowing down Boston, which shot a league-best 48.6 percent from the field this year.  Now, Boston was below average offensively in terms of offensive rating, which can be attributed to poor offensive rebounds and turnovers (Boston was terrible in these two categories).  However, New York is less than outstanding when it comes to boxing out and defensive rebounding, and the Knicks aren't exactly a bunch of ballhawks out there.  Boston should be fine offensively, and since defense is their team constant, they'll beat New York.

Can Iggy slow Lebron enough?
The South Beach Experiment starts as well.  Philly actually matches up pretty well against Miami, as Andre Iguodala is arguably the best perimeter defender in the NBA.  Having Iggy on Lebron or Wade will slow Miami's offense down.  Elton Brand matches up well against Chris Bosh, who isn't exactly Stone Cold Steve Austin when it comes to being physical.  (Would you look at that?  My memories of wrestling are infiltrating my post.  Maybe after the playoff games are done for the day, a little Wrestlemania XXI via YouTube is in order.)

Still, Miami's defense wins out as Philly doesn't have the offense capable of exposing Miami's weaknesses.  I expect this to go to six games as Miami attempts to find its playoff self while fending off a tough foe coached by the meritorious Doug Collins.  This series is analogous to Boston's 2008 first-round matchup against Atlanta.  Not saying Miami finds itself enough to run through the league to a title, but you get the idea.

Western Conference Preview

Phil, Kobe, and Fisher are looking for their second three-peat together.  They will be tested more this year than either of the previous two years, as the top of the West is stronger than before.  However, they won't need to flip their usual lazy switch just yet.  The Hornets are a solid team with a point guard who is arguably better than the point guard about to win MVP.  The Lakers are terrible at defending point guards, so Paul will get his numbers, but with David West injured, I don't see how New Orleans summons enough firepower to take the Lakers down.  L.A. should rest center Andrew Bynum by using him sparingly and letting the bone bruise in his knee heal up.  They haven't had a healthy Bynum in either of their playoff runs the past two years, yet they've won nonetheless.  That won't happen this year though.  They need a healthy Bynum.  Not for this series, but for future ones.

Perkins gives the Thunder some power.
Oklahoma City is taking on Denver.  This is similar to the South Beach-meets-Liberty Bell series.  Denver's chemistry and a few favorable matchups will make this one of the most exciting series in the first round, and the Nuggets will give the superior talent of the Thunder a rumble they will take with them in future exploits.  With their genius mid-season trade to acquire center Kendrick Perkins, the Thunder have the capability of playing dominant playoff defense.  They have the chemistry and the personnel to do it, while Denver does not.  Kevin Durant was stopped offensively by Ron Artest and L.A.'s supreme length in his first shot at the playoffs, but now he has experience and the luxury of not facing Ron-Ron con defensive Megatron.

In theory, Dallas should dominate Portland.  The Blazers don't have a quick point guard capable of penetrating at will versus the Dallas D, Lamarcus Aldridge is facing a strong interior defense led by Tyson Chandler, and Brandon Roy isn't really Brandon Roy right now.  And yet...I believe this series will be amazing.  Portland, forged out of the Gerald Wallace trade and Aldridge's inspired play after becoming a first-option, is not a team where dissecting matchups makes a whole ton of sense.  I suspect Aldridge scores a ton despite Dallas defending him properly.  All Portland needs is one or two hot nights from one of their peripheral players to win games against Dallas.  I guess I'll take Dallas overall because I feel they are the third best team in the conference after the Lakers and Thunder, but man......I feel like we're all missing something as this series begins.  We need to watch this one closely.

San Antonio is going to lose in their first round series, ending many myths about the Spurs.

Myth 1:  Tim Duncan can still elevate his post-season play.

No, no he cannot.  He hasn't since 2007, and he hasn't consistently been able to on-call since 2006.  Tim Duncan is no longer a playoff offensive constant, and he is only a true co-anchor on defense.  Unfortunately, San Antonio has nobody in their frontcourt backing him up defensively, and their wings aren't great either.  The Spurs cannot expect Tim Duncan to carry them.            

Myth 2:  The Spurs will still be able to play enough defense to win now that they have a strong offense. 

Related to myth one.  Where is the anchor?  San Antonio didn't show signs of playing consistently excellent defense in the regular season, and this particular team hasn't shown an ability to turn a switch on that side of the floor.  There are a lot of new faces since the last time the Spurs relied on dominant defense to get far in April and May. 

Can Duncan still elevate his game?
Myth 3:  Playing the stars at decreased minutes was only to preserve them, and the egalitarian nature of the team's scoring distribution is not a weakness.           

The team has no true offensive constant either.  This is especially true if Ginobili is not playing at his best as a result of the elbow injury he suffered at the end of the season.  If San Antonio is going to be carried by their offense this year in the playoffs, then it won't go far, because their offense won't look like it did in the regular season.  You need to be able to bank on somebody's offense this time of the year, and the Spurs can't.

I'm calling it.  The Grizzlies will take down the Spurs.  Memphis has the ability to punish the Spurs on the offensive glass and make the Spurs walk the ball up, and they have an above average defense that could give a less-than 100 percent healthy Spurs offense trouble.

I'll be back with analysis of Shaq's importance to Boston going forward and of how well built the Thunder may be now with Perkins.  Enjoy the playoffs.  Make sure to watch Portland and Dallas.  And remember to come back and comment on how insane I was for taking Memphis to beat San Antonio- or on how astounding and ballsy a pick I made.   

1 comment:

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