Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Playoff Predictions: NBA Finals

Let the conspiracy rumors run amok. The Lakers and the Celtics have returned to the NBA Finals. It's a battle of the two most celebrated franchises in the league that have a combined 30 championships (out of 61) between them. This match-up is a wet dream for David Stern. They should get huge TV ratings, and hopefully will make fans forget about all of the marijuana and ref scandals. On one side, you have Kobe, who finally reaches the promised land without Shaq. He is ready to hog the spotlight all for himself. And you have Phil Jackson going for win #12 (he has 2 as a player). On the flip side, Garnett leads a group of hungry vets, including hall-of-fame bound Ray Allen and Paul Pierce, who are looking to get their first ring. Who will prevail? Will these teams meet up in the Finals again next year? Before we get to that, let me give my comments on last round's action.

Commentary on Conference Finals action: The Spurs and Lakers series was much closer than the 4-1 record indicates; though the better team won. The Spurs were not able to put up a consistent effort. They look tired, old and weren't able to hit the big shots when they needed to. Spurs choked away 20 and 17 point leads on the road. And lost a close game at home due to a non-call. While I thought that Barry was fouled, you can't blame one play for your team's lose. And besides, if not for some favorable calls earlier, they would not have been in that situation to win. Duncan was a beast in this series and made Gasol his whipping boy. Parker scored at will also, but Manu was a non-factor for the entire series, except for Game 3. They did not get consistent effort from their bench to win. On the other side, the Lakers role players hit big shots, and played with great energy and hustle. And that was the difference in the series. Bowen played excellent defense on Kobe, who still averaged like 30 PPG. That's bonkers. I think the reports of the Spurs demise are greatly exaggerated. As long as the Spurs have the big 3 and Poppovich as the coach, they will still be contenders.

In the other conference, Detriot put up a pitiful effort in Game 6 to give Boston the series win. It's like they just bent over and let Boston have their way with them. Like I predicted earlier, Boston finally broke out of their road slump, and won 2 games in Detriot, including Game 6. Ray Allen showed some signs of life. If their Big 3 are hitting on all cylinders, they will be tough to beat. Stuckey played well for a gimpy Billups, but all of these reports of him being a superstar in the making seem a bit premature. Pending some blockbuster trade, I don't see him cracking the starting 5 anytime in the near future. Perkins and Rondo were streaky, but had some huge numbers when it counted. Like I've said all along, it'll be the play of the role players that decides the winner of the league championship. Where was Rasheed Wallace all series long? Besides a profanity laced tirade, I did not hear much or see much of him during the series. He was a non-factor. Hamilton seemed like the only consistent player on the team; along with Prince to a lesser extent. With 3 straight Eastern Conference Finals loses, it looks like the Pistons are due for some changes.

Predictions for the NBA Finals:

LA Lakers (1)

Boston Celtics (1)

Maybe its because of my bias against Kobe or maybe its because I like to root for the underdog, but I think the Celtics will pull out a win in this series. But it'll be close. And a much more entertaining Finals than last year's demolition of the Cavs by the Spurs. Ray Allen is starting to peak at just the right time, and I think their Big 3 is much better than the Lakers. Odom has a tendency to disappear in games, while Gasol is marshmallow soft. Kobe and Fisher are the only proven gamers. Pierce, Garnett and Allen are hungry for their first title. The Celtics are the top defensive team in the league, and they have a supporting cast that is better than advertised. Don't be surprised to see guys like Posey, Cassell and Brown hit big shots for the Celtics. Differing from the Spurs, the Celtics have the right mix of youth and veterans, and much more offensive firepower. They won't be blowing any 20 point leads to the Lakers. But they will have to prove that they can play consistently on the road to take the crown.

Phil Jackson is a superior coach to Doc Rivers, there is no question about that. So I can understand why most experts pick the Lakers to win. In a 7-game series, making offensive and defensive adjustments, exploiting match-ups are the keys to winning the series. A key deciding factor in this series will be how the Celtics elect to defend against Kobe. Do they play Kobe like the Spurs, and try to keep him off the free throw line and make him work for all of his points. Or do they decide to play like the Wizards, beat him up a bit and try to tire him out come the 4th quarters? Assuming that Paul Pierce takes on the task of guarding Kobe for most of the game, will he still have any energy left on the offensive end? Posey will no doubt play a big role in defending Kobe. On the flip side, let's assume that Pierce and Garnett get theirs no matter what. A key for the Lakers will be shutting down Ray Allen. Are Kobe and Vujacic up to the task? Two forgotten role players that could play a key role in the series, if they are healthy, are Ariza on the Lakers and Tony Allen on the Celtics. Both are young, quick, active defenders that can guard the other team's stars for short stretches of time.

It'll be interesting to see how Gasol matches up against Garnett. Two very good players that have a reputation of faltering in the clutch and being soft. The Celtics have to be aware of the outside shooting by the Lakers. Fisher, Bryant, Radmanovic, Vujacic, Farmar, Walton are all 3pt threats. Walton could be an X-factor for his team. He's a solid passer, provides hustle and just has a knack for making big plays when it matters. For the Celtics, it'll be interesting to see how their PG spot pends out. Rondo is lightning quick and is a difficult matchup for anyone. But if his jumper is faltering, don't be surprised to see House or Cassell step in. Though a bit inconsistent, Perkins can be a game changer. His Game 5 stats against the Pistons were ridiculous. The Celtics have homecourt advantage, which could be the deciding factor in this series, where the teams are pretty evenly matched. If it comes down to a game 7, which I'm hoping it does, you have to like the Celtics chances. The home team wins over 80% of the time. The Lakers with Bynum maybe the team of the future, but I like the Celtics chance this year. --- Celtics in 7