Friday, April 29, 2011

Eastern Conference Previews/Predictions: Semifinals

While the Western contingent are still nutting out the details (you know, whether the Grizzlies will pull off the elusive upset of a number on seed, that little thing), the East is ready to go, and we've had a few surprises already.

I'm pleased to say I was bang on with the Celtics series and Bulls series, but I expected more of a fight from Philly, and of course, I was wrong entirely with Atlanta. In my defence, I've been calling for Horford to play more PF and Smith more SF for years now, who'd have thought they'd finally make the move and that it would work so well?

But, what's past is past, so on to the next round!

#1 Chicago Bulls vs #5 Atlanta Hawks:
Who'd have thought we'd see this matchup? Nobody gave it much thought because most of us agreed with Jameer Nelson that he'd see Rose in the second round (boy, does he know a thing or two about having egg on his face, he should ask Lebron for tips on how to deal). But, expected or not, the series is here, and should be arguably a better one than a Bulls-Magic series might have been. While Rose and the Bulls are a throwback to the old superstar model of the 90s, the Hawks are built around a number of solid (if not spectacular) players who know their roles and share the load. Denver was another team who had this mindset, but it didn't go so well against a team with legitimate star-power in the Thunder. However, the Hawks have been together a lot longer than that hastily cobbled together Frankestein of a team in the Mile High City, so should weather the storm a little better. Let's see why...
  • Key matchups: Rose vs Crawford is going to be huge. They are both killers in the clutch, excel in isolation and have been know to will their team to victory. However, while Rose showed some aggression on the defensive end against the Pacers, neither is well known for being lock-down defenders, so it will be a battle of offensive firepower, which I think the soon to be MVP has covered. That said, if it comes down to needing a 3 to win it, I wouldn't be surprised if Crawford one-ups Rose. Another worthy mention is Horford vs Boozer; Boozer has been underperforming in the post-season thus far, and with Horford finally in his natural 4, he might just have his way with Boozer's terrible defensive efforts and carry the Hawks to a few victories.
  • X Factor: Joe Johnson; Johnson seems to have shaken his playoff blues from last season, but Deng will have to guard Josh Smith, which leaves Johnson free to run amok against Korver and Bogans, against whom he has a size, strength and skill advantage. It'll be up to Ronnie Brewer to put the clamps on Johnson, and it could be that he will hold the fate of the Bulls in his hands, because the Hawks might have overpaid to get him, but Johnson is still an extremely high calibre player when he gets hot.
  • Most interesting sub-plot: Florida reunion; having spent those seasons together winning titles in Florida, Horford and Noah know each other pretty well, and while they will be playing different positions this series, Thibs is smart enough to switch the longer Noah onto Horford for much of the games, as Boozer will get eaten alive. The pitting of a defensive specialist against an offensive hustler who were also college teammates? Yeah, I'd call that good watching.
While the Hawks pulled an upset against the Magic, we've known all along that Orlando was a spent force and wouldn't make much noise in the post-season this year. That's why I'm saying Bulls in 7, because Atlanta is gaining momentum at home, and the Bulls were playing from behind against Indiana, I imagine the third-round starved Hawks will do a better job holding onto those leads. Expect more Herculean efforts from Rose to pull the Bulls through this series, but suddenly they don't seem so invincible.

#2 Miami Heat vs #3 Boston Celtics:
It would have been nice if this could have happened in the ECF, but the Celtics always did prefer to take out their biggest threat when they are fresher, as they did against the Cavaliers last year, and after having swept the Knicks, the Celtics are going to be fresh. The Heat on the other hand, had a more draining series than their 4-1 win suggests; for much of the time they were playing from behind, and had to really expend energy defensively to win those games. With Bosh, Wade and James all playing big minutes in the series (39.8, 38.0, and 42.2 respectively), the Sixers did their job as road-bump by giving the Celtics that one extra game's worth of rest. The Celtics' veteran mentality should prove the edge, as the Heat could easily crumble under the pressure of their own expectations when faced by a real challenger.
  • Key matchups:
    • Wade vs Allen: Allen is underrated defensively, and one of the best conditioned athletes in the NBA should be up to the task of slowing down Wade with his efforts on both ends, because everyone knows playing against Ray Allen doesn't just mean trying to overcome his veteran D, it means chasing him through all those screens and trying to stop him getting a tiny bit of air. Wade is notorious for roaming on D and gambling, so if Rondo can find Allen open, he could be the difference between victory and defeat for the Celtics.
    • Lebron vs Pierce: Pierce defends Lebron well. This we know. However, the reverse is also true. Many called Pierce a spent force after his disappointing performance against Lebron offensively last season, but he's looked good against Melo, and seems locked in defensively too. However, if Lebron can get hot with his jumper, there's little Pierce can do to stop him at this stage of his career.
    • Bosh vs Garnett: This is the key matchup. We know what Wade and Lebron bring to the table, but Bosh has had a very hot and cold season. Going up against the last Defensive Player of the Year not named Dwight Howard, he'd better find some consistency on those jumpers, because I don't see him being very effective in the paint. Garnett has been champing at the bit to go at the Heat all season, and I can see him taking it at Bosh every time he gets the chance, because he's healthier than he was last year, and knows the end is coming. When an already intense KG has nothing to lose by going all-out, you'd hate to be Chris Bosh.
  • The X Factor: Rajon Rondo. Plain and simple, if Rondo is doing his thang and can hit the jumpers he will invariably be given, the Celtics win handily. The Heat simply have no one who is even close to his level on either end. However, Rondo can get trigger happy in big games, and he needs to pick his moments to be aggressive for the Celtics to win.
  • Most interesting sub-plot: Shaquille O'Neal denies the "King" a ring. Shaq is pretty old even by the standards of the regular population, nearing 40 and breaking down every time he strains himself. However, he was able to rest the whole of the Knicks series, and is expected to be healthy for at least some of the Heat series. Now, why is Shaq so important? Well, even though he's old, the Heat are still weak inside, and Shaq will eat Joel Anthony alive, even if only in small portions. Plus, he's probably the only player in the NBA who can confidently step in front of Lebron going full-steam and put him on the floor with just his body. We saw Jermaine O'Neal try it, and that didn't go so well for him, but Shaq is a different kettle of fish. He's got his rings, and being set to retire, he's got no problem pissing off Lebron with hard fouls, because while some scoring would be nice, putting the fear of God into the minds of Miami's slashers is better. Shaq still has a little Diesel left in the tank, don't be surprised if he emerges as a key contributor in this series.
I've gone over a few reasons why the Celtics will win, and I haven't even mentioned their bench depth, superb coaching and Miami's woes in close games. Suffice to say, the Celtics have every reason to win this series, and I'm going out on a limb to say this is a shorter series than people expect, and win it in 5 games. Celtics get it 4-1.

When we know the result of the Grizz-Spurs series, I'll throw up a Western conference edition. Until then, keep enjoying the NBA, because with a lockout looming, it might be the last you get of it in a long, long while.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Western Conference Previews/Predictions

Back to back posting days, takes me back to last year when I first started this thing up (has it been that long already? Damn!).

So here we go with the playoff matchups with a bit of a different format.

#1 Spurs vs #8 Grizzlies
Spurs surprised a lot of people with their depth, energy and change of pace. However, I think they've faltered somewhat, with key members breaking down, and if Manu does indeed miss even one game that could be the difference. The Grizzlies are young, hungry, and like the Thunder last year, don't know that they shouldn't have a shot here, if Rudy Gay were healthy I'd give the Grizzlies the series already given the closing ability he demonstrated this year, but he's not, so we'll have to break it down the old fashioned way... with bullet points!
  • Key matchups: Z-Bo and Gasol vs Duncan, Blair, McDyess, Splitter. The war of the frontline should be crucial, if Z-Bo can get hot and put the Spurs bigs in foul trouble there's no telling what could happen. Conley against Parker is another big one, because despite his breakout year, Parker is a proven playoff performer and isn't coming off a long layoff like he was last season.
  • X Factor: Manu. Or more importantly, his health. He's having the best season amongst the San Antonio Three this year, and what he brings to the table will be vital.
  • Most interesting sub-plot: Redemption, thy name is OJ. With Gay out and the scoring frontline facing formidable foes, the stage is set for Mayo to take over. If he can be that guy for the Grizzlies, all the backwards steps he's taken this season will be erased in one giant leap forward.
I'll actually call the upset here, because I think the Spurs are fragile and the Grizzlies will simply want it more. Memphis takes home-court with Manu out and grinds out a 4-3 win.

#2 Lakers vs #7 Hornets
This is another series that has the makings of a sweep; a superstar valiantly carrying his mediocre, injury-plagued team to the playoffs through sheer heart up against the deep, talented defending champs. However, consider that stellar PG play always gives the Lakers fits and that the Hornets have some guy who's supposed to be pretty good. Also, take a look back at the last couple early-round matchups the Lakers have had; a seven game series against the Rockets sans Yao & McGrady, and a near seven game series against OKC last year. The Lakers are notorious for sleep-walking through the regular season, and it usually takes them a series or two to really flip that switch properly. Let's break it down...
  • Key matchups: Kobe vs Ariza. Now, technically Kobe is a SG and Ariza a SF, but the Lakers don't have the offensive firepower at the SF to warrant the attentions of a defensive stopper like Kobe, so it's easy to imagine the lanky Mr. Ariza sliding across to use those long arms to bother his former teammate. If Ariza can goad Bryant into putting the Lakers on his back, and consequently keeping the ball out of the hands of Gasol and Bynum, then Trevor will have done his job; slowing him down while he does so is just a bonus. Bynum/Gasol against Okafur is another one to watch, as Emeka's draftmate Dwight Howard learned the hard way just how good a healthy Bynum/Gasol tandem is. Okafur needs to play physically with the Laker bigs and force the play to be run through the perimeter players. A piece of cake, right?
  • X Factor: Marco Bellinelli. My Italian blood-brother is the key for the Hornets avoiding the broom. When he's shooting confidently and making shots, the Hornets are suddenly a lot more dangerous.
  • Most interesting sup-plot: Ron Artest. Surprised? Aside from his colourful personality, Ron hasn't heard too many calls of "that's Artestic!" during his time in L.A. But as he showed in Game 7 of the Finals, he can still deliver when called upon. Which Ron will we get? Who knows... but I can't wait to find out.
I'm calling a seven game series, with the Hornets taking advantage of a hampered Bynum (starting to see a pattern here?). Lakers will pull out the win 4-3, and it could be the wake-up sting they need to bring home another ring for Kobe.

#3 Dallas vs #6 Portland:
This one is going to be ugly. The gritty, grind-it-out Blazers are going to have to unite behind diamond-in-the-rough franchise player LaMarcus Aldridge to beat the Mavericks, who have been openly mocked around the League for their reputation as chokers in the playoffs. Well, this Portland team is rich with chemistry, stacked with talent, and pissed off about all the injuries they've suffered. Let's break down how and why they'll have their revenge.
  • Key matchups: LA vs Dirk. The two franchise PFs have both been accused of being soft, but Aldridge is on another level than Dirk defensively. If he can get Dirk in foul trouble, the Blazers can walk away with this one. Miller against Kidd is another key matchup, two veteran PGs going at it, don't be too surprised if Miller gets the best of the elderly Kidd.
  • X Factor: Gerald Wallace. Despite Batum's potential, Wallace is a massive upgrade now he knows the system, and his hustle, tenacity and toughness will give the Mavericks fits. He can spend some time bothering Dirk too, which only increases his capacity to turn this series on it's head. Of course, it would be remiss of me not to mention Jason Terry. If the game is close, he can still heat up in the 4th, although Blazers have plenty of stoppers who can frustrate him in Batum, Matthews and Wallace.
  • Most interesting sub-plot: The role of Brandon Roy. Roy may have once again made a hasty retreat, but I think he senses how deep this team is and chose to play through the pain. His role has been reduced, but he can still hit big shots, and even if he plays mostly in the 4th quarter, he could still be a hero. The shadow of Brandon Roy will only get stronger under the bright lights of the playoffs.
Dallas' reputation as an upset waiting to happen is well earned, despite Chandler's stellar year, the Blazers take this one 4-2.

#4 OKC vs #5 Nuggets
When I saw this matchup forming I thought it would be very interesting to watch and felt that Denver could potentially beat anybody in the playoffs with all that depth. That was until I saw KD and the gang dismantle the Nuggets twice in the last weeks of the regular season. With their mid-season trade the Thunder because legitimate contenders from the #4 seed. They tested their mettle against the Lakers last season and were so very close to pulling off the second best upset in years. While the Nuggets are deep as all hell, the Thunder also have great depth, and don't have that Artestic defender to bother Durant physically on the perimeter. But let's take a closer look.
  • Key matchups: Westbrook vs Felton/Lawson. Denver's bulldog twins are fighting a cross between a grey-hound and a pit bull in Westbrook. His speed and strength make him tough to stop, but the best PG rotation in the League has the advantage of outnumbering their opponent. If these two can put Russ in foul trouble, or goad him into forcing shots then Denver can steal a few games from OKC.
  • X Factor: Denver bench; this is where Denver has the advantage, there is so much talent in this ten-deep squad that even the relatively deep Thunder can't compete. If Harrington, Chandler and the other bench players can get hot, this might become a series worth watching yet.
  • Most interesting sub-plot: J.R. Smith. Why do I have this morbid fascination with this guy? Maybe it's because I've seen him do some amazing things, and never understood why he hasn't been given a chance as first option yet. In the last year of his deal, J.R. has nothing to lose, everything to gain. Let's face it, the Nuggets as they are constructed aren't feasible in the long-term. Sometime soon Ujiri will have to decide who will stay and go. If J.R. can put the team on his back, and win, he might just fill that void and finally get a chance to be the face of the franchise.
Despite the potential for a good series, I'm bringing out the broom here, Thunder win it 4-0 and get plenty of rest for their matchup against the Grizz or Spurs.

So there are my takes on the series in the first round, I'll try and do this for Conference Semifinals, Conference Finals and of course, the Finals. I'll likely stick with the new format for at least the semis, as it's relatively concise and get's my points across.


Thursday, April 14, 2011

Eastern Conference Previews/Predictions: First Round

Hey all, finally finished a big assignment I had due for university and decided to take a few minutes to post my playoff predictions and give a general preview of what I think will happen first round in the East. I'll go as far as predicting actual games won, but that'll be for fun, the only thing I'm confident about is who wins what and why. For each series I'll try to give something work looking out for, as we all know, the subplot can sometimes be more interesting than the result.

#1 Bulls vs #8 Pacers:
I figured I'd start off with an easy one. Bulls win it. Rose will be too much for Collison, who hasn't played with that same reckless abandon he had last year with the NOH. It's almost a Bulls advantage at every position though. Hansborough/McRoberts is a decent rotation, but Boozer/Gibson is on another level, clear advantage to the Bulls. Dunleavy, George and Rush are actually one of the better rotations at the 2, except they are missing that reliable starter; the depth is good, the quality isn't, I'll give the nod to Brewer, Bogans and Korver here.

That said, Granger vs Deng is going to be very interesting to watch. If Granger can't hold Deng down defensively and punish him on the other end then the Pacers might have to start looking elsewhere for a franchise player. Now, Deng has had a great year, but Granger is the All-Star, is a very talented offensive player and needs to dominate his own matchup at both to prove he can be a leader in the playoffs, even if the Pacers get swept. The Pacers aren't deep like the Nuggets, so they really need Danny to step up and rediscover that intensity he had the year he made the All-Star team.

Another thing to watch if you're a Pacers fan is the play of Roy Hibbert; if he can find the form he had early in the season, where people were talking about him as a potential MIP winner, he could be the difference. Noah is known to frustrate finesse big men like Hibbert, but if Hibbert can somehow throw off the shackles they might be able to pull out a win.

Overall, Bulls win the series 4-1; the loss will do them good so they don't fall victim to the same fate as Lebron's 08-09 Cavaliers who swept their first two rounds only to be upset by the Magic.

#2 Miami vs #7 Philadelphia:
On paper, this looks like a runaway victory for the Heat, but then, that's been the case for almost every game the Heat have played this season. And like in the regular season it doesn't always work out the way it does on paper. I actually think of all the teams capable of an upset, the Sixers are the most likely for a number of reasons;
  • Iguodala is an All-World defender, and will frustrate Lebron immensely over the course of a seven game series; he's just as strong, athletic and quick as Lebron, and expends a lot less energy than LBJ on offence, unless he's running the break. Throw in Thaddeus Young, another oversized, hyper-athletic SF/PF to slow down Lebron and all of a sudden it's a series.
  • Elton Brand's resurrection is going to be a big factor in the Sixers' chances in the playoffs. If he can abuse Bosh and get him in foul trouble, the already shallow depth of the Heat will suffer even more.
  • Pace. As I just mentioned, the shallow Heat bench is going to be a problem in the playoffs; yes, Lebron and Wade love the break, but the Sixers are athletic from top-to-bottom, are always running at you, and for a team which requires Herculean efforts from it's stars night-in-night-out to win games, Philadelphia's style can wear you down.
  • Depth. The Miami bench is well, a joke. The Sixers on the other hand, have one of the best benches in the League. Take a look; Evan Turner, Thaddeus Young, Lou Williams are matched up with James Jones, Mario Chalmers and the ghost of Mike Miller.
  • Coaching. Collins has been there, done that a million times already, and this heady vet has done wonders to forge these Sixers into a real team, not dominated by one star, but just an all-around talented team, that actually plays like one in a game dominated by go-to guys. Spoelstra on the other hand has had a roller-coaster season, going from safe, to on the brink of being canned. When the going get's tough (and sooner or later it will) I'm not sure Spoelstra has enough control over his stars to get them across the line.
To sum up, if Iguodala can guard Lebron without the referees unduly punishing him, and the Sixers second unit can take advantage of the weak Miami bench whilst playing at their own pace this could be a far cry from the runaway win for Miami people are predicting. That said, I'll call the Sixers to put the scare into the Heat with an unexpected seven game series they will ultimately lose, it'll be a 4-3 Miami win.

#3 Celtics vs #6 Knicks:
Nobody is more upset than me that we didn't get to see Carmelo's Knicks whale on Wade's Heat for a series this year, but it will be more interesting when both teams are more settled in and the Knicks find that third piece in either free agency or an off-season move. For now, I'll have to settle for my Celtics playing them.

Celtics will win it handily, maybe dropping a game due to Melo heroics, but never the series. Yes, Melo has been playing out of his mind, but the Celtics are notorious for shutting down great individual scorers; weren't you watching what they did to Wade and Lebron last year? I know, I know, I'm forgetting some guy who wears number one, but given how the Knicks have flourished while he's been playing a lesser role, I don't think it likely Melo and Amare somehow develop chemistry to withstand the playoffs.

If the Celtics are rested after sitting their veterans the past two games (and still beating the Knicks incidentally), then it's a no contest. A veteran, tough team up against a hastily cobbled together pair of superstars... what's that saying about a champion team and a team of champions...

It comes down to Shaq whether they sweep the series or not. If Shaq is healthy and can put Amare in foul trouble early then the Celtics can cruise through this series. If not, they might drop a game or two. I'll call it 4-2 at most, but more likely a 4-0 sweep. Didn't anyone tell New York you can't buy chemistry?

#4 Orlando vs #5 Atlanta:
Oddly enough, the Hawks have the most reason to believe they can pull an upset given their 3-1 record against the Magic in the regular season. But in all honesty, who really cares? Both of these teams have seen better days, and still failed to win a championship. Plus, they'll be up against the Bulls in the next round. Atlanta is limping into the playoffs, and Orlando just seems harmless for some reason. Sure, they have Dwight, but unless he starts shooting FTs like Yao, I don't think anybody is afraid of him in a close game, which there are going to be in the playoffs.

That said, for all the futility of these teams' post-season campaigns, it's actually quite hard to pick a winner. If Nelson can get hot, then the Magic reverse the regular season trend and bully the Hawks into submission, but if Orlando can't find that shooting touch, they'll be in a whole world of trouble. That said, Orlando win it 4-1, and Dwight averages at least 20-10.

So there you have it, my picks for the Eastern Conference first round. If you're a Magic/Hawks fan, sorry if that seemed harsh, but it's after midnight over here and I need some sleep.

Thanks for reading.