Sunday, May 27, 2012

ECF: Heat vs. Celtics

It's The Big Three vs. The Big Three 2, Round Two. Miami slayed the beast of the East in last year's five-game semifinal series. Now they reconvene in the Eastern Conference Finals with a bevy of intriguing matchups and variables.

Miami Heat (2) vs. Boston Celtics (4)

Chris Bosh needs to at least occupy Kevin Garnett.
The only reason Miami is even here is because Dwyane Wade and LeBron James went all Shaq & Kobe on the Indiana Pacers last series. Over the final three games against Indy, James averaged 32.7 points, 11.3 rebounds, and 8 assists per game on 61.3 percent True Shooting and Wade averaged 33 points, 7.3 rebounds, and 3.7 assists per game on 64.4 percent True Shooting. Ridiculous.

But that isn't sustainable against Boston. Kevin Garnett can roam around since Miami doesn't have a big man to attack with. Remember how Roy Hibbert was supposed to do that in the Indiana series but didn't because he's an overrated, plodding, soft big man who didn't deserve to be an All-Star this year? Well, KG can get it done. Boston's playoff-leading defense (94.2 defensive rating) should stifle their new opponent.

Miami's stingy defense should do the same against Boston's anemic offense. With Avery Bradley hurt and Rajon Rondo being a poor shooter - save for the final five minutes of game seven against Philly (Poor Doug Collins)- Miami's playoff-leading ability to force turnovers will provide them with easy transition buckets. LeBron James has shut down Carmelo Anthony and Danny Granger this postseason and has shut down a healthy Paul Pierce in the playoffs before; handling a hobbled Pierce won't be a problem. And for all the talk of Boston's success from behind the arc against Miami this season, the Heat's playoff opponents have shot below 30 percent from 3-point land in the playoffs. Miami is paying attention to closeouts in the playoffs.

Kevin Garnett will get his; he's the matchup advantage Boston has to milk. Rondo is smart enough to get him the ball.

The big variable here is the health of Chris Bosh. Does he play? If he plays, can he give 60-70 percent of his average performance? They need him to at least be a presence, at least pull a Willis Reed by occupying the other team's frontcourt despite an injury. KG has historically owned Bosh, but if he can simply be enough of an offensive threat to deflect attention from Wade and James, they can take care of the rest.

Miami is the superior basketball team, and if both teams were fully healthy, it'd be an easy call. The Bosh injury plays, however. After watching him cry last year following the NBA Finals loss, one must believe he'll fight through pain and try to help his team. Two-and-a-half solid games from him is really all Miami needs.

Pick: Heat in 6

WCF Preview: Thunder vs. Spurs

When Kevin Durant was asked if he could envision his young Thunder team following a similar life arc as the San Antonio Spurs- perennial rulers of the NBA for the past 15 years- he said that yes, that's the team's desired path.

They've got everything in place.  Durant is their quiet, no glitz-all guile superstar, their Tim Duncan. Both teams have rabid fans in relatively small markets.  Most importantly, they share a cultural structure that molds players into whatever is needed- to hell with one's ego.

The Spurs hid Sam Presti for a while, but now that he's out, he might have created a team that can take out the Spurs this year and reproduce what they've done over the last decade plus.

Tim Duncan and Kevin Durant.
San Antonio Spurs (1) vs. Oklahoma City Thunder (2)

The Spurs are playing the perfect brand of basketball this postseason.  Swing passes lead to the open man getting a high-percentage look on nearly every play; it makes sense then that the Spurs are shooting 54.8% eFG, including nearly 43 percent from 3-point range.

But that was against mediocre defensive teams with poor closeout defenders.  The Thunder understand that a defense's answers for swing passes are closeouts that see five play as one, each defender covering for his teammate. OKC's youth breeds mistakes, but their incredible length helps.

The defensive trio of Durant, Russell Westbrook, and Thabo Sefolosha force the opposition to think quickly.  The Lakers had a decent size advantage against the Thunder, but OKC combatted L.A.'s physicality by being physical themselves and collapsing on Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol with lengthy double teams.  The Thunder rotate quickly without getting burned.  It is this interaction with San Antonio's controlled chaos on offense that looks like a thrilling matchup.

Tony Parker will work his way into the paint against Westbrook, and the usual chain reaction will ensue.  But unlike the Jazz and Clippers, the Thunder possess the perimeter quickness to slow down the 3-point shooting and secondary slashes of the Spurs.  Sefolosha vs. Manu Ginobili is a major matchup to watch.

Kendrick Perkins can contain Duncan in the post, but what about on the perimeter where Duncan spends a lot of time?  OKC may find it appealing to place Serge Ibaka on TD and simply treat him like Bynum when he posts.  Ibaka can switch and recover better than Perkins can, a useful trait against a springy Duncan.

Either way, The Big Fundamental is a matchup problem.  With him and Parker leading the way, the Spurs should have a strong offensive series, though it's doubtful they annihilate their opposition with their shooting as they have in previous rounds.

What will determine this series is how San Antonio defends OKC.  Will they cause enough turnovers and misses to generate their own fast-break opportunities? How do they match up against Westbrook, Durant, and James Harden?

If Westbrook continues to take care of the ball like he has throughout the playoffs, it's over.  The Spurs are below average at causing turnovers, and Tony Parker isn't good enough defensively to pressure RW.  If it's the case that Danny Green or Kawhi Leonard is put on Westbrook, Parker becomes what Steve Blake and Jason Terry were: mince meat for Harden. Green needs to be put on Durant anyway; KD is surging after torching Metta World Peace for 26 points per game on over 51 percent shooting.

Westbrook's poised play, Durant's consistent production, and Harden's matchup distortion will shock the Spurs in game one. Sweet chin music- hit them right in the mouth. The Thunder will roll into the NBA Finals from there, possibly with the torch in hand.

Pick: Thunder in 6 (Thunder take Game 1 as well)

Sunday, May 20, 2012

The Trailblazing 2012 Spurs

The '12 Spurs push basketball purists into a mania. Amidst LeBron James/Dwyane Wade and Kevin Durant/Russell Westbrook-led isolation-heavy teams, the Spurs understand the value of spacing and swing passes better than the rest. Team play at its best.

We've seen this type of attack before; the accompanying mania reveals itself all too well.

TNT knew what they were doing when they put these two together.
It was called Blazermania in 1977. In his one healthy prime season, Bill Walton was an all-timer when it came to helping teammates and stymying the opposition's game plan. The Blazers were quick to the attack, and it started with Walton's outlet passing. He didn't so much pass it to wing players like Lionel Hollins and Bob Gross as he did magically adjust each carom's momentum with his fingertips. It looked like he snapped at the ball and it landed in a wing player's hands, initiating a fast break.

In the half court, Blazermania was more evident. Without a 3-point line, the Blazers gained spacing by inverting their offense- Walton and Mo Lucas worked from the mid-post and high-post areas and either found cutters or set screens. The beautiful half-court offense picked defenses apart. These defenses were befuddled because they could not focus on a concentrated point of attack- i.e., a superstar scorer.

Thirty-five years later, the same brand of basketball is being played in San Antonio. The newly lithe Tim Duncan plays offense similarly to the fiery Walton, flicking outlet passes, knocking down jump shots, cutting to the basket to keep defenses honest, and providing necessary post scoring. Duncan has never been more effective from the perimeter. Even their raw stats are similar: Duncan averaged nearly 20 points and three assists per 36 minutes in the regular season on 49 percent shooting; Walton averaged nearly 19 points and four assists per 36 minutes in 1977 on 53 percent shooting.

Boris Diaw is a clear staircase below an underrated all-time great like Lucas, but like Lucas, he provides excellent passing and the ability to spread the floor. Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard score off-ball like Gross and Hollins. The Blazers lacked individual creators like Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, but Portland did have solid depth: six players averaged at least 10.9 points per game for the Blazers during the '77 playoffs. Portland head coach Dr. Jack Ramsay and Gregg Popovich are two of the best ever.

The major differences in the teams are that the Spurs get to use a 3-point line and the Blazers were better defensively. The same principles of synergy and team play apply.

The 1977 Blazers defeated a poorly constructed Laker team led by the best individual in the league, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, then won the title by defeating the Philadelphia 76ers, a talented group of individuals who were less than the sum of their parts. Looking at the teams left standing in San Antonio's way, there is a chance the Spurs repeat the narrative exactly.

Call it Alamomania.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Western Conference Second Round Playoff Preview

The Western Conference is wide open this year. Out are the champion Dallas Mavericks and the darkhorse Memphis Grizzlies. Just two L.A. teams, an up-and-coming superpower, and the old guard remain.

San Antonio Spurs (1) vs. Los Angeles Clippers (5)

Two of the best ever from Wake Forest.
The Clippers have youth, size, and the best player on the floor in Chris Paul. In some ways, it appears the Clippers are the perfect team for the job of taking the number one seed out. San Antonio is older, slower, and smaller. Feast on the offensive glass and exceed Tony Parker's production with CP3's, and you have yourself an upset.

But it's not that simple. The Spurs have superior health, home-court advantage, and, to put it nicely, a significant edge at head coach. They also have 3-point shooting. San Antonio ranked first in the NBA in 3-point percentage this season and continued hitting from deep against Utah at a 40.7 percent clip. The Clippers, nearly last in the league at defending the 3-point line during the regular season, closed out on Memphis well, but Memphis's weakness is shooting 3's, whereas it's a strength for the Spurs. The Clippers don't have the size or the consistent smarts to defend San Antonio's spread-floor offense.

With that spacing, Parker and Manu Ginobili will carve San Antonio up. The only way the Clippers contend with that duo is if Eric Bledsoe plays like he did in game 7 against Memphis. Tim Duncan should also get his on the green DeAndre Jordan, who will likely be in foul trouble for much of the series.

The best thing L.A. has going is Blake Griffin will likely put up better numbers than the 18 points and 6.4 rebounds he did against Zach Randolph. His production and offensive rebounding, as well as Kenyon Martin's and Reggie Evans's ability to drag the Spurs to hell, will keep this series close. Chris Paul will dominate as per usual.

The series will be close, but the Spurs have too many built-in advantages going in.

Pick: Spurs in 6

Oklahoma City Thunder (2) vs. Los Angeles Lakers (3)

The Western Conference matchup everybody wanted to see. After the Thunder thrashed the team that trounced them a year ago, they get their revenge match against the Lakers, who bounced them from the playoffs two years ago.

Kobe Bryant and Kevin Durant are two of the league's best pure scorers.
Derek Fisher vs. Kobe Bryant. Metta World Peace vs. James Harden. Kendrick Perkins vs. Pau Gasol, whom he's had words with in the media, and Andrew Bynum, whom he battled in the 2010 NBA Finals. Oh, and there's Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, too.

World Peace locked down Durantula two years ago, but World Peace was Ron Artest and Durantula was a young scorer in his first playoff series. Durant is now a seasoned 3-time scoring champ with experience in the Western Conference Finals. He won't go off for 40 each game, but he'll be a consistent scoring presence.

Westbrook and Harden will determine the series for OKC. If they can effectively do what Ty Lawson and Danilo Gallinari could not- that is, initiate plays in the halfcourt and score efficiently with the clock winding down- then the Thunder offense will be lethal enough to win. Bryant has slowed Westbrook in the past, but not this version of Westbrook. How does L.A. defend OKC when they put Harden, Durant, and Westbrook on the court? That was Dallas's issue, and Jason Terry got torched. Can Ramon Sessions and Steve Blake do any better?

Gasol will likely dominate Serge Ibaka, who is a poor post defender. Bynum's offense is the bigger variable; L.A. is at its best when Bynum is scoring efficiently and the Lakers get to defend in the half-court. OKC will destroy them if they get in transition, so L.A. needs to create space for both 7-footers to go to work.

In the end, OKC's fast, tall perimeter double teams will likely make entry-passes too difficult, and Bryant will need to take a lot of shots. Bryant is an amazing player, but it's too much to ask to cover up all of his team's flaws at his age against a young Thunder team.

This series will end in five, but it won't feel easy. This will be a great matchup.

Pick: Thunder in 5

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Eastern Conference Second Round Playoff Preview

The first round of the Eastern Conference Playoffs had its share of casualties: Derrick Rose, Iman Shumpert, and any fan who had to watch the Indiana-Orlando series. The second round is here, and it comes with a preview:

Miami Heat (2) vs. Indiana Pacers (3)

Danny Granger will have his hands full with the MVP.
The Pacers now face a real playoff team- maybe too real.

Miami vs. New York was anticlimactic after receiving momentous hype, with the Heat downing the Knicks in five games and outscoring them by nearly 15 points per game. LeBron James, recently named three-time MVP, did whatever he wanted and thoroughly outplayed Carmelo Anthony on both ends, even shutting down the scorer extraordinaire for long stretches.

The Indiana Pacers shot less than 45 percent against the Dwight Howard-less Magic. Indy found it difficult honing in on Orlando's weakness in the middle despite having All-Star center Roy Hibbert, who put up pedestrian numbers against Stan Van Gundy's makeshift defensive schemes. How is Indiana's multipolar offense going to put pressure on Miami's defense? Danny Granger is Indiana's best scorer, and he'll be guarded by James. Where is the scoring coming from?

Indiana's strength is defense; Granger's and Paul George's length may bother LeBron and Dwyane Wade at times, though the superstars will get their numbers. David West must win his matchup against Chris Bosh. Bosh may be too quick for the older West, however. Expect a big series from Bosh- something like what he did last year against Carlos Boozer.

Overall, Indiana isn't a threat to Miami. The maximum this series goes is five games.

Pick: Miami in 4

Boston Celtics (4) vs. Philadelphia 76ers (8)

It's not Larry Bird vs. Julius Erving, but it's still a great SF matchup.
The story here is similar to the Boston-Atlanta first round preview. Philadelphia brings toughness, a rebounding advantage, and a young, quick two-way point guard to combat Rajon Rondo.

Despite Al Horford's return midway through the series, the Hawks only grabbed one more rebound per game than the Celtics did. Boston held its own on the glass and shut down Atlanta's offense by plugging penetration lanes and forcing the ball back out. Atlanta was a much better 3-point shooting team than Philadelphia in the regular season, yet the Hawks managed to shoot just 31 percent against the Celtics. Philly's 3-point shooting was putrid against the Bulls.

Spencer Hawes needs to spread the floor and take Kevin Garnett away from the core of Boston's defense. Who trusts Hawes to do that? With KG able to roam, Philly's offense will run into the same problems Atlanta's did. Jrue Holiday and Andre Iguodala can't penetrate to the rim with KG meeting them 15 feet out.

The Sixers will take a game or two. Thaddeus Young presents problems for Boston, and the Sixers have the defense to slow down Rondo and Paul Pierce. They simply don't have enough weapons to capitalize.

Pick: Boston in 6

Friday, May 4, 2012

Linsanity Beware

Jeremy Lin needs to fight the urge to return. Pride and a desire to compete are common traits in most successful athletes, but in this case, pride and desire need to be tempered in favor of reality and caution.

The NBA can't afford to lose both of these young fellas.
The New York Knicks are down 3-0 in their series with the Miami Heat and have struggled to defend LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. With the roll that duo is on, there is no way the Knicks can take four in a row. Giving up is out of the question, but giving up Jeremy Lin to the whim of the injury gods can't happen either. It can't happen.

Especially with the recent Derrick Rose ACL tear. Although it can't be proven in this particular case, there is a chance that Rose's non-contact injury last week was partially caused by Rose returning from injury too soon. With his leg muscles weakened, the ligament may have had too much stress on it when Rose pushed off the floor.

Lin doesn't have Rose's vertical explosion- the two players have different styles and strengths- but Lin's bread-and-butter is using his surprisingly quick first step to get past the primary defender and then using his crafty ball-handling and quick change of direction to spear through the help defense and into the paint. There's a lot of planting and pushing off involved. Lin has only played big-time minutes this season, so extra caution is sensible.

It'd break millions of basketball hearts to see two 23-year-old point guards hurt their legs in the same postseason. You know David Stern doesn't want the health of an integral global basketball figure jeopardized. Amare Stoudemire would probably break his foot kicking a fire hydrant in disgust following a Lin injury.

It's not worth Lin's future. Game four is not worth it, and this series is no longer worth it. Mike Woodson should focus on getting the ball to Carmelo Anthony in favorable scoring positions, not figuring out if or when Lin will return this season. Cede Miami the conference this year and get ready to take it from them next year with Lin at the offensive helm. Any other decision is insanity.