Monday, April 20, 2009

Above the Rim: Playoff Preview

With three 62 win teams this season in the NBA, the Finals appear to be shaping up for an epic battle. We are either looking at a rematch of the 62 win Celtics and the 65 win Lakers or a showdown of LeBron and the 66 win Cavaliers and Kobe and the Lakers. The road to get to this showdown should be entertaining as well. In the West, all 8 seeds have won at least 48 games with six teams winning 50. While the East is not as deep and balanced, the field is stronger than past years with 7 (which is actually an improvement over past years) teams finishing .500 and two 60 win teams. The top three seeds, Cleveland, Boston, and Orlando, should give us round after round of titanic clashes to keep our interest high for the NBA’s grueling 40 games in 40 nights marathon.

Eastern Conference
Cavaliers (1) v. Pistons (8)
- Cavs win season series 3-1; series 1-0 Cavaliers
The Cavaliers are the front-runner coming out of the Eastern Conference. After enduring injuries to 3 starters this season, the team is finally 100% heading into the playoffs as Ben Wallace returned for Game 1 against the Pistons. The Cavs may be the deepest team in the East with starters LeBron James (28.4 points per game), Mo Williams (17.8 ppg), Zydrunas Ilgauskas (12.9 ppg), Delonte West (11.7 ppg), and Anderson Varejao (8.6 ppg) all contributing at both ends of the court. Off the bench, the Cavs add Daniel Gibson (7.8 ppg), Wally Szczerbiak (7 ppg), Joe Smith (6.5 ppg), and Sasha Pavlovic (4.6 ppg) to provide scoring and perimeter shooting as well as Ben Wallace and Darnell Jackson for rebounding and toughness. Put it all together and you get the best record in the NBA as well as the league’s best defense, finishing first in opponent’s points per game, first in opponent’s FG% and first in opponent’s 3-point %. By scoring 100.3 points per game on offense, the Cavs also have the league’s widest margin of victory. Finally, with a 39-2 record at home and home-court advantage throughout the playoffs, it will be difficult to knock the Cavs off.
Detroit is definitely not the team that can beat the Cavs. The Cavs have won the last 3 games between the two teams leading into the playoffs and held the Pistons to 80 points or less in all three games, which they managed to top with 84 in game 1. Although the Pistons have made the last 5 Conference Championship series, that streak will end this season. Richard Hamilton (18.3 ppg), Tayshaun Prince (14.2 ppg), and Rodney Stuckey (13.4 ppg) could score enough to steal a game in Detroit, but the aging Antonio McDyess and the volatile Rasheed Wallace will be ineffective in this series against the Cavs depth and versatility in the post. For Detroit, this series will give Stuckey and Bynum some experience that might help the Pistons rebound back to contention next season.
Prediction- Cavs in 5; the Pistons will win one game in Detroit, but this series will not be close. The most entertaining things to watch for in this series will be LeBron’s highlight reel and the countdown for a Rasheed Wallace technical (I’m predicting at least 2).

Celtics (2) v. Bulls (7)- Boston wins season 2-1; series 1-0 Bulls
The Bulls are a very dangerous team heading into the playoffs. They remade their entire team with some trades in February and the team has been pretty hot since then. The Bulls went 5-1 in April and then knocked off the Celtics in overtime to open their playoff series. Since the trade, the Bulls have become much deeper and are one of the better offensive teams in the Eastern Conference by averaging over 102 points per game. Shooting Guard Ben Gordon leads the way with 20.7 points per game. Acquisitions John Salmons (18.3 ppg) and Brad Miller (11.8 ppg) have blended well with holdovers like Gordon, Rookie of the Year candidate Derrick Rose (16.8 ppg), the much improved Tyrus Thomas (10.9) and back-up guard Kirk Hinrich (10.4 ppg). Big man Joakim Noah contributes 9.9 ppg and energetic play on defense and on the offensive boards.
The Bulls new found depth counters the Celtics shrinking roster. Kevin Garnett missing this series is going to hurt the Celtics a lot more than most people think. They needed his toughness, both physically and mentally, to compete with Miller, Thomas, and Noah down low. While Glen Davis is skilled, when things don’t go right, he can get frustrated very easily and get taken out of his game. The Celtics are going to need huge series from stars Paul Pierce (20.5 ppg) and Ray Allen (15.8 ppg) to hang with the Bulls. Other starters Rajon Rondo and Kendrick Perkins will need to step up their games to counter offensive output of the Bulls. Bench players Eddie House and Leon Powe will also be big in this series. House is the third guard in the Celtics rotation. If he plays well, the Celtics should be able to play with the Bulls dynamic backcourt. If House has a poor series, then Gordon, Rose, and Hinrich could really hurt the Celtics by outscoring Allen and Rondo. Powe will need to be big to make up for the loss of Garnett in the post. Despite the Celtics winning 62 games this season, this series is very dangerous for Boston. The Bulls beat Boston 127-121 the only time they played since the trade. Garnett also missed that game. This series looks exactly the same with the Bulls playing well with their new rotation and the Celtics thin with Garnett hurt.
Prediction- Bulls in 6; this will be the upset of the playoffs. The Bulls will take advantage of the absence of Garnett. In the second round, the Bulls will push the Cavs more than any team in the East before losing.

Magic (3) v. 76ers (6)- Orlando wins season 3-0; series 1-0 Sixers
This is one of the more lopsided matchups in the playoffs. The Magic, with Dwight Howard and awesome 3-point shooting, against the Sixers, whose best post player is Samuel Dalembert and one of the worst 3-point shooting teams in the league.
Even with PG Jameer Nelson out, the Magic still have Howard (20.6 points per game), Rashard Lewis (17.7 ppg and 39.7% from 3-point range), Hedo Turkoglu (16.8 ppg and 35.6% from three), and Rafer Alston (12 ppg and 31.7% from 3). After those four, role players Mickael Pietrus, Courtney Lee, JJ Redick, Keith Bogans, and Anthony Johnson all average between 4.8 and 9.4 ppg and shoot between 33.3% and 40.4% from three point range. That depth will give the 76ers fits in this series. With Howard’s rebounding and shot-blocking and the Magic averaging 101.1 points per game, the Magic are one of the more complete and dangerous teams in the playoffs.
On the other side, The Sixers shoot only 31.8% from three-point range as a team with veteran backup Donyell Marshall (45.5%) the only player shooting over 35%. Also, while Dalembert blocks 1.8 shots per game, his 6.4 points per game is not going to come close to matching Howard’s production and he will not be able to contain Howard defensively. The Sixers will rely on the shooting and penetration of Andre Iguodala (18.8 points per game), Andre Miller (16.3 ppg), Thaddeus Young (15.3 ppg) and Louis Williams (12.8 ppg). The good news for the Sixers is that all four of these players are capable of scoring consistently and that their versatility on the perimeter may contain the Magic’s abundance of shooters. Also, although the Magic won all three matchups this season, 2 in Philadelphia, the margins were 10, 6, and 2, so the Sixers were able to keep the games close. However, the Sixers lost 6 in a row in April before beating the Cavs’ 2nd and 3rd string in the season finale to back into the playoffs.
In this series, the Sixers need to contain the outside shooting of the Magic and get a lot of scoring from Miller, Iguodala, Young, and Williams to win. Howard is going to average at least 22 points, 14 rebounds, and a few blocks no matter how well Dalembert can guard him. The key will be to keep Howard from going for 35-15 on a consistent basis.
Prediction- Magic in 6; if the Sixers can keep games close and not rely on three pointers to get back in the game, they should be able to extend the series. (after writing this article, I saw that the Sixers took game 1, 100-98. The Sixers shot 58.3% from three-point range and overcame Howard scoring 31 points and getting 16 rebounds. Miller, Iguodala, Young, and Williams combined for 57 points.)

Hawks (4) v. Heat (5)- Atlanta wins season 3-1; series 1-0 Hawks
The Hawks gained invaluable experience in their 7 game series with the Celtics last year. This season, it showed as they improved to 47 wins and the #4 seed in the East. Home court advantage will be big in this series as the Hawks won both games in Atlanta between these teams this season and split two games in Miami. Guards Joe Johnson (21.4 points per game), Mike Bibby (14.9 ppg), and Flip Murray (12.2 ppg) can all create their own shot on offense and post players Josh Smith (14.9 ppg), Marvin Williams (13.9 ppg), and Al Horford (11.5 ppg) can all score around the basket. The Hawks biggest weakness is the drop off in production after those six players. Maurice Evans (7.2 ppg) and Zaza Pachulia (6.3 ppg) are the only other players that average more than 3 points per game. Defensively, Horford and Smith combine for 3 blocks per game and can affect numerous shots with their athleticism.
The Heat, as Charles Barkley claims, are Michael Jackson and a bunch of Titos. They need Dwayne Wade to absolutely dominate this series to have any chance to win. The Heat do have some adequate scoring behind Wade, but their team goes as he goes. Michael Beasley (13.9 ppg), Jermaine O’Neal (13 ppg), Udonis Haslem (10.6 ppg), Mario Chalmers (10 ppg), and 6th Man Daequan Cook (9.2 ppg) will need to play well for the Heat to hang with the Hawks. Even if Wade scores 30 points per game, the Heat will need a big series from at least one or two of these other players to win the series. Defensively, Wade and O’Neal should be able to match the Hawks athletic front court with about 3 blocks per game.
During the regular season, Atlanta won 3 of 4 against Miami, including one in Miami (the home team won the other three. The margin was within 8 points in all 4 games. However, the Heat did not make the playoffs last season and their young roster does not have the postseason experience that the Hawks boast after last season’s playoffs.
Prediction- Hawks in 5; Wade gets the Heat one victory, but he can’t carry the Heat to an upset in the series.

Eastern Conference Finals
Cavaliers v. Magic- Cavs in 6
The Magic and the Cavs have played each other well this season, but the Magic were not able to defeat the Cavs in Cleveland. LeBron takes his game to the next level in the playoffs and the Cavs are finally healthy for the first time since the first few months of the season. Orlando won the season series 2-1 with the home team winning all three games. However, the Cavs were banged up in both losses. With a healthy team smelling the postseason, the Cavs will take their game to the next level and knock off the Magic.

Western Conference
Lakers (1) v. Jazz (8)
- LA wins season 2-1; series 1-0 Lakers
The Jazz have only won 2 road games against teams that finished the regular season with a .500 record (at Philadelphia in November and at New Orleans in April). Overall Utah is just 15-26 on the road. That isn’t a good sign for a team that will need to win at least one game in Los Angeles where the Lakers were 36-5 this season. The matchup isn’t good for the Jazz either. While Deron Williams will be able to play his game and control Derek Fisher, Utah has no answer for Kobe. Ronnie Brewer will have to play the series of his life to contain Bryant and hold him under 25 points per game and even if he does, Utah will still need its quintet of post players to prevent Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum, and Lamar Odom from scoring easy buckets around the hoop. While Mehmet Okur (17 points per game), Carlos Boozer (16.2 ppg in 37 games), Paul Millsap (13.5 ppg), and Andrei Kirilenko (11.6 ppg) all scored in double figures this year and Matt Harpring (4.4 ppg) provided energy and toughness down low as well, these players don’t have the size to stop the Lakers down low and Kirilenko may be the only one agile enough to stay with Trevor Ariza.
On the other hand, the Lakers have been playing extremely well in the second half of the season and are welcoming Andrew Bynum back into the lineup after he missed a sizeable part of the season with a knee injury. After rehabbing with some Playboy bunnies, Bynum looks to be ready to contribute in the playoffs and return to his 14.3 point, 8 rebound, and 1.8 block performances. Add that level of contribution to Kobe (26.8 ppg), Gasol (18.9 ppg), Odom (11.4 ppg), Fisher (9.9 ppg), and Ariza (8.9 ppg), and the Lakers look to be one of the more dynamic offenses in the West, averaging 106.9 points per game this season, good for third in the NBA and first among playoff teams. Couple that with the Jazz surrendering 100.9 points per game, one of only 3 playoff teams to give up over 100 (Chicago and Denver), and this could be a quick, ugly series.
For the Jazz to win this series, they need Boozer to quickly return to all-star form, which has not happened yet this season. Maybe the motivation of free agency will entice Boozer again, as it has in the past. Additionally, the Jazz need big series on offense from Williams and defense from Brewer. If Brewer can contain Kobe and cause him to force bad shots (which Kobe does fall into from time to time) the Jazz might be able to stay close in this series. Finally, if Andrew Bynum is not effective coming back from his injury, that could also close the gap. Even if all of these “ifs” happen, it will still be an uphill battle for the Jazz to win this series. The Lakers have home court and an unbelievable amount of depth.
Prediction- Lakers in 5, the Jazz will win one in Salt Lake City, but most of the losses will be by double-digits.

Nuggets (2) v. Hornets (7)- season tied 2-2; series 1-0 Nuggets
Homecourt advantage will not have as big an effect on this series as both teams were 21-20 on the road and were difficult to beat at home. The Nuggets only finished 5 games ahead of the Hornets in the regular season, so it is not a typical 2-7 matchup.
The Hornets are led by their pair of all-stars, Chris Paul and David West. Both players averaged over 20 points per game this season, but the matchups in this series may slow them down. Paul will be matched up against Mr. Big Shot Chauncey Billups who still has a few years left on his tires and brings a wealth of playoff experience. Billups is also a bigger guard which could be an effective defense to Paul’s speed. In the post, Chauncey will have a distinct advantage and should be able to play Paul fairly physical and bump him off his game a little bit. For West, he will run into a trio of defensive stalwarts in the post. Kenyon Martin will start out on West, but Chris Anderson and Renaldo Balkman off the bench are both outstanding defenders. Anderson is agile and has the length to block shots while Balkman has relentless energy and should harass and frustrate West throughout the series. The rest of the Hornets need to find their stride soon or this could be a quick series. Peja Stojakovic has not shot the ball well this season and finished with a shooting percentage under 40% for the year and Tyson Chandler has been banged up all season. Last year, the Hornets had four potential all-stars; this year just two. The addition of James Posey should help as he may guard 6th Man candidate and offensive powder keg J.R. Smith and Rasual Butler will hit some shots, but the Nuggets will have too much firepower in this series.
In addition to Billups and the post defense mentioned above, the Nuggets have another weapon known simply as ‘Melo. Carmelo Anthony averaged 22.8 points per game this season and will be matched up with either Butler or Stojakovic, neither of whom can guard Anthony. If Anthony and Billups need help on offense, Coach George Karl can bring Smith and his 15.2 ppg average off the bench. Smith has two 40 point games and two 30 point games this season, so he can light it up if either of those two players has an off game. Finally, at center the Nuggets have the efficient Nene Hilario. Nene shot over 60% from the field this year and averaged 14.6 ppg to go with over 7 rebounds. If Chandler is not 100%, Nene could be the X-factor in the post for the Nuggets, converting easy baskets to supplement the abundance of scoring talent on the wings.
Prediction- Nuggets in 5. The Hornets will win at least one game at home and could stretch this series to 6 games by stealing a second. To win the series, Chris Paul will have to be unstoppable, which he can be, but I don’t feel an upset is likely here.

Spurs (3) v. Mavericks (6)- season tied 2-2; series 1-0 Mavericks
The Mavericks have found their stride lately and could present a difficult matchup for the Spurs, especially with Ginobli out. The Spurs still have Tony Parker and Tim Duncan to carry the load, but the key to their past title runs was having all three of their stars healthy for a playoff run. Without Ginobli, the Spurs have to rely on role players Roger Mason (solid contributor but not Ginobli) and Michael Finley (about 4 seasons to late in his career to adequately replace Manu). Drew Gooden was a good pickup that can score and rebound in the post, but the Spurs look uncharacteristicly thin this playoff.
On the other hand, the Mavericks are hitting on all cylinders now, going 6-2 in April including a 140-116 win over Phoenix and a 130-101 win over Utah. Offensively, the Mavericks have Dirk Nowitzki scoring over 25 points per game, but the return of Josh Howard may be key. Howard returned to play 6 games in April, averaging over 18 points per game in 30 minutes after missing 30 games throughout the season due to injuries. After those two, the Mavericks then bring Jason Terry off the bench to average 19.6 ppg. While the Mavericks may not have a point guard to contain Parker’s quickness, Jason Kidd and Jose Juan Barea should be able to match his offensive production and possibly tire him out as the game progresses, making Parker less effective in crunch time. Role players Brandon Bass (8.5 ppg) and the much improved Gerald Green (5.2 ppg, but he could be developing into the Mavericks’ version of J.R. Smith) provide depth and offense off the bench.
For the Spurs to win this, their 2nd ranked scoring defense will have to contain the Mavericks 9th ranked scoring offense. It should be an interesting matchup, but I have to go against my instincts and go with the offense here. Like the Hornets-Nuggets series, home court will not be a huge factor in this series as each team won a game on the other teams’ home court and the series split 2-2. With the Spurs banged up, I like the Mavericks depth to overcome the Spurs defensive system in a long series.
Prediction- Mavericks in 7. This series will come down to the role players and I like Terry, Barea, Bass, and Green over Mason, Matt Bonner, Finley, and Gooden.

Blazers (4) v. Rockets (5)- Houston wins season 2-1; series 1-0 Rockets
This will be a low scoring series between the 4th ranked defense of the Blazers and the 6th ranked defense of the Rockets. Houston has won 5 of 6 to lead into the playoffs and the team has played better together as the season progressed. Heading into the playoffs, Ron Artest is fully acclimated to playing with the Rockets and the team has adjusted to replacing Rafer Alston with Aaron Brooks in the starting lineup after Alston was traded to the Magic.
This is the best first round matchup in the Western Conference with the young Blazers matching up with the physical and playoff tested (and disappointed) Rockets. The home team won all three regular season matchups, but two of those games were close with Portland winning by 2 at the Rose Garden and Houston winning by 4 in Houston. The most recent matchup was a 14 point Rockets victory. The individual matchups in this series should be interesting as well.
Artest should be matched up with Blazers star Brandon Roy, which could really hurt the Blazers. Artest is one of, if not the best perimeter defenders in the NBA and should be able to contain Roy and hold him below 20 points per game. On the year, Roy averaged 21 points against Houston, but shot below 40% against them, well below the 48% he shot on the year. That could be magnified as Roy plays under the bright lights of the playoffs for the first time in his career. If Artest needs a break or is ineffective, Shane Battier will be able to step in and guard Roy as well. Roy will have a good defender in his face at all times in this series which could severely affect his output. LaMarcus Aldridge played well against Houston, averaging 23.3 points per game, but I expect the defense of Battier, Artest, and Luis Scola to take him off of his game. The playoffs are usually more physical than the regular season, and the Rockets have multiple bodies to throw at Aldridge down low including Carl Landry and Chuck Hayes off the bench. The Blazers are young and inexperienced in the playoffs which will hurt them against a veteran team.
For the Rockets, Yao Ming should have a great series as no one on Portland can match up with him. If they double team, it will result in open looks for PF Scola, who shots over 53% from the floor. Brooks and Artest provide scoring from the wings and backups Kyle Lowry and Von Wafer can both shoot coming off the bench. The Blazers can counter with Travis Outlaw and Sergio Rodriguez off the bench which could lead to an interesting comparison of whose bench plays better. One of the big questions of this series is whether the Rockets can finally make it out of the first round.
In this series, defense will reign. The Rockets veteran savvy and improved play over the course of the season will push them over the hump in a competitive series. The Blazers may be one year away from making a run at the finals.
Prediction- Rockets in 6. This will be a close series and should be fun to watch, but the Rockets physical defense and experience will be the difference in this series.

Western Conference Finals
Lakers v. Rockets- Lakers in 6
The Rockets’ defense will carry them to this series where they will be the only team to challenge the Lakers until the Finals. With Artest guarding Kobe and Yao, Scola, and Battier containing the Lakers bigs in the post, this series could get interesting, but in the long run, the Lakers have too much firepower for the Rockets. Fisher should be able to outplay Brooks at the point in what will prove to be the key matchup as the Rockets will surprisingly play even with the Lakers at the other positions. Rockets Coach Rick Adelman will show why he deserves Coach of the Year with this run, but Houston will come up short as the Lakers march on to the Finals.

NBA Championship
Lakers v. Cavaliers- Cavs in 7
While the Lakers won both regular season games against the Cavs, Ilgauskas only played in one game, Delonte West missed both, and Joe Smith was not on the team yet. With these three players healthy, the Cavs become the better team. However, the Lakers are improved from the team that almost beat the Celtics in the championship last year, and they are the only team to win a game in Cleveland this season when the starters played. This should be an epic showdown that will return the NBA finals to the glory days of the 1980s with Larry Bird against Magic Johnson. As these teams move toward this showdown, don’t be surprised if whispers of the playoffs being fixed for a Cavs-Lakers showdown start swirling. While I usually go for these conspiracy theories, no teams in the NBA match up with either of these powers. This matchup will happen as long as these two teams can stay healthy. When they meet, LeBron and Kobe will put on a show. The Cavs will pull out a tough series with Ilgauskas neutralizing Gasol. The Cavs backcourt of West and Williams will outplay Fisher and Luke Walton giving them the edge. Kobe and LeBron should end up canceling each other out as they both live up their reputations.

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