Monday, May 4, 2009

Above the Rim: Playoff Update

The first round of the NBA playoffs gave us some blowouts (Cavs-Pistons, Nuggets-Hornets) and a classic (Bulls-Celtics). Overall, there was only one real upset, the Mavericks knocking off the shorthanded Spurs. With the second round kicking off yesterday, here is a look at the next round.

First round results:
Eastern Conference

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

Eastern Conference
Cavaliers (1) vs. Hawks (4); regular season- Cavs 2-1
Prediction- Cavaliers in 5
The Cavs have not played since April 26th, but this is not a team to get lazy and by unprepared, despite the long layoff. The veterans on this team (Joe Smith and Zydrunas Ilgauskas for example), along with LeBron James, will not let this team suffer a letdown. I expect the Cavs to come out fired up on Tuesday for game 1 and pick up where they left off against the Pistons. With the first two games in Cleveland where the Cavs are 41-2, including the playoffs, this year, the Hawks could be in for a couple of long games. After a bruising seven game series against the Heat that left Al Horford and Marvin Williams battered, the Hawks will not be 100% for this series. The Hawks are an improvement over Detroit and should be competitive in two games in Atlanta where I expect them to give the Cavs their first loss of the playoffs, but Cleveland will end this series in game 5 back in Cleveland.
The Hawks do have a younger, more athletic team than the Pistons, but Josh Smith, Joe Johnson, and Mike Bibby will not be able to give the Cavs a serious test in round 2. The Cavs have too much talent and depth. With Delonte West and Mo Williams having rough opening series against Detroit, LeBron James played like a monster, but had solid support from Ilgauskas and Smith. Joe Smith (aka Joe Beast on his new rap album) showed why the Cavs picked him up after the Thunder bought him out. Smith was arguably the Cavs second best player in the series.
Look for Williams and West to bounce back in this series and LeBron to continue his dominance; he is playing like a man possessed right now. Smith, Bibby, and Johnson should make the series more competitive than the Pistons in round 1, but the Cavs are by far the superior team and are well rested. The chance of a sweep in this series is better than the Hawks chance at an upset.

Celtics (2) vs. Magic (3); regular season- 2-2 (Magic won the last two)
Prediction- Magic in 6
The Celtics were banged up going into the playoffs with Kevin Garnett, then they lost Leon Powe in their first round series with the Bulls. Stephon Marbury has not been effective since the Celtics picked him up. Point guard Rajon Rondo’s ankle may not be 100% either. On top of all this, the Celtics are coming off of a brutal seven game series with the Bulls that featured 4 overtime games and 7 overtime periods. The Magic are looking good after beating the Sixers in 6 games, including game 6 without Dwight Howard who was suspended. If the Magic can get their shooters (Hedo Turkoglu, Rashard Lewis, Rafer Alston) hot, they will be very tough to beat in the playoffs. Courtney Lee should be back from his fractured sinus and J.J. Reddick (15 points on 5-7 shooting from 3-point range) played well in game 6 when he replaced him in the starting lineup.
The Celtics will be tough in this series, but the extra time and hits from this series will wear on them as this series goes longer.
The most important match-up in this series is Kendrick Perkins against Dwight Howard. Perkins needs to stay out of foul trouble for the Celtics to win this series. Against the Bulls, the Celtics struggled without Perkins in the game because there was no interior defender to intimidate the Bulls. If Perkins misses time with foul trouble, Dwight Howard will have a monster series. If Perkins can play 40-45 minutes a game, the Celtics may have a chance to pull this series out. Any production offensively from Perkins would be nice, but if he can neutralize Howard’s impact in the paint and on the boards while picking up some rebounds and discouraging the rest of the Magic from driving, he could help the Celtics win this series. Without Perkins, the Celtics will have to get outstanding shooting from Ray Allen, Paul Pierce, and Eddie House to pull this one out. Even with good series from those shooters, the Celtics will have to contain the Magic’s stable of shooters as well. Expect a good series, but the Celtics will get worn down and lose the last few games to get eliminated.

Western Conference
Lakers (1) vs. Rockets (5);
regular season- Lakers 4-0
Prediction- Lakers in 6
I know the Lakers swept the season series against the Rockets, but this Houston team has just started playing well together. Aaron Brooks and Kyle Lowery have stepped up their games down the stretch after the Rockets traded Alston to the Magic, and the front line rotation of Shane Battier, Yao Ming, Luis Scola, and Ron Artest may be one of the strongest frontlines in the league. Those four players are what I think should scare the Lakers in this series. The Rockets just beat a very good Blazers team in just 5 games, and they will not be intimidated by the Lakers. The Rockets matchup with the Lakers very well defensively. Artest will make this series extremely frustrating for Kobe Bryant and if he needs a break, Battier is one of the best defensive players in the league. In the post, Yao’s length should bother Pau Gasol, and Luis Scola is tough and physical and should neutralize Andrew Bynum. That leaves Battier and Artest to guard Lamar Odom, another favorable matchup for the Rockets. Lakers point guard Derek Fisher should have an edge on Brooks and Lowery, and the Lakers bench of Sasha Vujacic, Jordan Farmar, Trevor Ariza, and Shannon Brown (and Luke Walton if he can play) should have their way with the Rockets bench of Von Wafer, Lowery, and Carl Landry.
For the Rockets to win this series, their veteran post players and Artest need to have big series both offensively and defensively. This team gets after it defensively, so the Rockets could make the series interesting, but overall, there isn’t enough firepower to knock off the Lakers. This will be the Lakers hardest series until the NBA finals though.
The Lakers will rely heavily on their stars, Kobe and Gasol, to pull them through the tough defense in this series. They have been here before and they want the burden of putting the team on their backs and leading them back to the finals. Fisher and Odom are also veterans that know what it takes to buckle down and do what it takes to get it done in the playoffs. But the key to this series will be how Kobe plays against Artest and how the Lakers bench plays against the Rockets. On paper, the Lakers should win these matchups and take the series, but Artest has played very well this season and could surprise everyone and play Kobe close to even. If that happens the Lakers will need their deep, but occasionally streaky bench to execute and give the Lakers the edge in this series. Don’t be surprised if this is a low scoring, physical series with a lot of close games. The Lakers should win, but if the Rockets get a couple of breaks early in the series, the Lakers could be in for a scare.

Nuggets (2) vs. Mavericks (6); regular season- 4-0 Nuggets; series currently 1-0 Denver
Prediction- Nuggets in 6
The Nuggets won the regular season matchup 4-0, but two of those games were decided by 2 points and a third by 3. The Mavericks were also banged up in the regular season, notably with Josh Howard battling injuries. The Mavs looked good in the opening round against the Spurs, winning in 5 games. Down the stretch and into the playoffs, the Mavericks started playing very well as they got healthy and are a dangerous 6 seed. However, the Mavs are only seven deep. They rely heavily on the scoring of Dirk Nowitzki, Josh Howard, and 6th man Jason Terry and the dual point guard play of Jason Kidd and Jose Juan Barea. Erick Dampier and Brandon Bass are also key contributors for this team with Dampier providing toughness and rebounding in the post and Bass contributing off the bench. Antoine Wright also contributes, but the Mavs don’t expect much from the rest of their squad.
The Nuggets, on the other hand, have a ton of depth. Starters Chauncey Billups, Dahntay Jones, Carmelo Anthony, Kenyon Martin, and Nene Hilario play together very well, and, with the exception of Jones, a defensive specialist, all are effective scorers. Off the bench, J.R. Smith matches Terry’s production, but the Nuggets add Linas Kleiza’s shooting, Anthony Carter’s ballhandling and penetrating ability, and Chris “Birdman” Anderson’s energy to the mix. The Mavericks have no answer for this trio of depth and versatility in skills. Anderson is the X-factor of this group as he can effectively shut down the lane when he is in the game. At 6’10” (without the mohawk) and a longer wingspan, Anderson controls the boards and has an affinity for blocking shots. While Kidd and Barea like to drive, they need to think twice with the Birdman waiting to swat their shots as soon as it leaves their hand. In game 1, Anderson picked up 11 points, but his 6 rebounds led the team and he also blocked 6 shots. With two point guards that like to penetrate, the Mavericks need to hope Anderson doesn’t do this every game or it could be a quick series. When you watch Anderson play, it appears that his favorite thing to do is block shots, which is probably why he picks up a few goaltending violations in many games, but that aggressiveness could win this series for the Nuggets.
Unless Nowitzki and Howard explode in this series, the Nuggets should continue to roll into a matchup with the Lakers, but they won’t average 20+ per victory over the Mavericks like they did against New Orleans. The Mavericks will keep the series competitive, but, like with the Lakers series, the bench will make the difference for the Nuggets leading to an intriguing matchup of deep teams in the Western Conference finals.

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Brian Doyle said...

The Celtics = Sisyphus. Their postseason is pretty much pointless.

The only thing that keeps anyone in Boston watching is the pipe dream that Garnett would somehow be okay for a Cleveland series.

Mike Colligan said...

Solid picks in the western conference last round and this round.