Monday, May 18, 2009

Above the Rim: Conference Finals Edition

Four questions heading into the Conference Finals:
Can anyone beat the Cavaliers?
Are the Lakers going to start playing to their potential?
Can Chauncey Billups and Carmelo Anthony lead the Nuggets to an upset?
Can the Magic hit enough threes to overcome LeBron and the Cavs?

Second Round Results:
Eastern Conference

Cavaliers v. Hawks- Cavs in 4 (my prediction- Cavs in 5)
Celtics v. Magic- Magic in 7 (me- Magic in 6)
Western Conference
Lakers v. Rockets- Lakers in 7 (me- Lakers in 6)
Nuggets v. Mavericks- Nuggets in 5 (me- Nuggets in 6)

Eastern Conference Finals
Cavaliers (1) v. Magic (3)- Magic win regular season 2-1 (home team won every game)
The Magic won the regular season matchup between these two teams, but a few things change in the playoffs. The Cavs will have 4 home games if the series goes to seven games, and the Magic did not win in Cleveland this year. Also, the Cavs have elevated their game to an entirely different level in the playoffs. Actually, since February 11, the Cavs are 35-4 (including 8-0 in the playoffs) and one of those losses was a season ending loss to the 76ers in which LeBron James, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, and Mo Williams didn’t play. Additionally, the Cavs lost two in a row only twice all season, meaning the Magic almost have to win game 1 to take the series.
If the Cavs continue to play at the level they have been at all playoffs, this will be a short series. The Cavs are only giving up 78.125 points per game in the playoffs with their opponents’ high being only 85 (by the Hawks in game 3). The opponent has scored over 80 points in only 4 of 8 games. The offense, on the other hand, has averaged 94.875 so far in the playoffs and scored under 90 only twice. One of the best signs for the Cavs is how well they have played as a team. LeBron and Delonte West have both increased their scoring averages in the playoffs, but Williams, Ilgauskas, and Anderson Varejao are well below their averages. The reason the Cavs have overcome this is because their team defense has absolutely throttled the opposition and because at least one Cavalier has stepped up in each game of the playoffs. West has scored over 20 points twice, Joe Smith played like a monster in the Pistons series, and Wally Szczerbiak scored 17 in game 2 against Atlanta. Also, while Williams has scored over 20 points in 3 games, he has been inconsistent thus far in the playoffs, averaging only 14.7 points per game. However, even when Mo is having an off game, he still hits big shots. For example, despite scoring only 12 points and turning the ball over 4 times in game 4 against Atlanta, he hit 4 of 7 three-pointers including a big three to seal the win. The Cavs team mentality has allowed them to win big despite not everyone playing well currently. Despite the decrease in scoring from some of their key players, this is by far the best any team has played all season long.
The Magic need everything to click to beat the Cavs in this series. Dwight Howard should be able to score 20 points per game against Ilguaskas, Varejao, Smith, and Ben Wallace, but with 4 post players, the Cavs have 24 fouls to use on Howard to force him to the free throw line. The Cavs will be focused more on containing the Magic’s stable of perimeter shooters. To overcome the Cavs suffocating defense, the Magic will need Hedo Turkoglu, Rashard Lewis, Rafer Alston, Mickael Pietrus, Courtney Lee, and J.J. Redick to consistently hit their shots from three point range. The Magic relied heavily on the 3 in the regular season, hitting 10 of 26 per game for just over 38%. In the playoffs, they are 7.3 of 22.6 for 32.5%. To beat Cleveland, they will need to shoot closer to 38% because the Cavs will stifle the Magic’s offense. If the Magic can shoot consistently from the perimeter, they have a chance to knock Cleveland off, but if they are around 33%, the Cavs will win this series.
Prediction- Cavs in 5

Western Conference Finals
Lakers (1) v. Nuggets (2)- Lakers win regular season 3-1
In the regular season, there was a wide gap between the #1 seed Lakers and the rest of the West. In the playoffs, the gap has appeared to close considerably as the #5 seed Rockets took the Lakers to seven games, winning two games after Yao Ming went down with a broken foot. The Nuggets have stepped up their game winning eight of ten in the first two rounds, absolutely dominating the Hornets in round 1 and losing just a close game to the Mavericks in round 2. In the playoffs, the Nuggets are the only team to avoid a letdown game other than the Cavaliers. The Lakers, on the other hand, repeatedly have had letdown games, blowing a 17 point lead to the Jazz in round 1 for their only loss of the series and then dropping game 1 in LA to the Rockets. After Yao went down, the Rockets still won 2 of 4 games. The Lakers inconsistency shows the most in games 5, 6, and 7. In game 5, they won by 40 and were winning by 31 late in game 7, but in game 6, the Rockets dominated from start to finish to stretch the series. The Lakers are (should be) the best team in the West, but the best team is not supposed to play with such inconsistency and should have easily put away a Rockets team that was playing without its only two centers with Yao and Dikembe Mutumbo out. I was very disappointed with the Lakers in this series. While the Rockets matched up with the Lakers well, the way the Lakers lost some of those games was very disappointing. If the Lakers play this way against the Nuggets, they will lose this series before game 7.
In this series, the Nuggets could give the Lakers some matchup problems. Carmelo Anthony should be able to have his way with Luke Walton, but may have some difficulty when Trevor Ariza matches up with him. Chauncey Billups should also be able to have a good series with Derek Fisher matching up against him. Billups is better than Aaron Brooks who just finished dominating Fisher. In the post, the Lakers have Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum, and Lamar Odom, and while all three have played well in the last few games, the Nuggets possess better interior defenders than the depleted Rockets. Nene, Kenyon Martin, and Chris Anderson supply a complementary package of energy, agility, and toughness. Nene will provide scoring and efficiency on the offensive end and contribute rebounds as well as over a steal and a block per game on the defensive end. Martin, of Mark Cuban’s comments aside, will provide physicality inside that Gasol and Bynum will not like. As skilled as the Lakers big men are, none are considered tough physical players. Martin will be able to take them out of their offensive games and will use his strength to score inside and grab some rebounds. Anderson is going to give the Lakers fits when they try to drive. He averaged 2.5 blocks per game in only 20 minutes and will not only match up well with any of the Lakers’ bigs, but will also make Kobe and the Lakers think twice about driving when he is waiting to swat their shot. J.R. Smith and Linas Kleiza join Anderson off the bench to create a much more formidable bench then the Rockets had. Both Smith and Kleiza can shoot the lights out when they get going, and Smith can match anyone in the league in athleticism. The weak link for the Nuggets is Dahntay Jones who will draw Kobe Bryant defensively. At 6’6”, Jones has the size to play with Kobe, and he showed his defensive quickness by containing Chris Paul in the first round, but Kobe is a different breed of scorer. If Jones can prevent Kobe from going for 30, the Nuggets should win, but if Kobe gets going, the Nuggets will be in trouble. The key for the Nuggets will be to shut down the post players. If Nene, Martin, and Anderson can harass Gasol, Bynum, and Odom, Kobe may have to average 40 a game for the Lakers to win. Don’t underestimate the importance of this matchup because the Nuggets have a legitimate chance of beating the Lakers if they can contain the post.
The Lakers, more than anything else in this series, need Bynum to show up. When they won big against Houston, Bynum had a productive game and stayed out of foul trouble. The games in which they struggled, Bynum didn’t play much with foul trouble. When the Lakers play to their potential, they are as good as anyone in the NBA, but they haven’t showed the ability to maintain that level of play. Championship teams have that killer instinct where they can put teams away quickly. The Lakers didn’t show that when Yao went down. The Lakers should have reeled off two straight to put that series away. Instead, the Rockets managed to split 4 games. If the Lakers can find their rhythm, they will win this series, but if the bench and Bynum continue to play inconsistently, Fisher continues to struggle, and even Kobe continues to have some letdown games, the Lakers will be sent home early and avoid a dream matchup with the Cavs.
Prediction- Nuggets in 7

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