Thursday, May 20, 2010

Playoff Predictions: Conference Finals

I had actually written this post during the weekend, but didn't have time to publish it online it until now. As you can see, my predictions have been a bit off. This postseason hasn't gone as I expected.

Orlando (2) vs. Boston (4)

Orlando sweeps Atlanta in the previous round in dominating fashion. It was the most lopsided 4-game sweetp in NBA history, as Orlando won each game by an average of 25.3 points. I thought the Hawks would put up a better fight. But I suppose there were plenty of warning signs when the Hawks struggled to put away a Milwaukee team without it's best 2 players. Dwight Howard was a force in the series; and they also got solid contributions from Nelson (their leading scorer), Vinsanity, Lewis, and Pietrus. They look very impressive in the playoffs so far compiling an 8-0 record. But I have some concerns that the long layoff between the end of the second round and the start of the next round makes them vulnerable for a game 1 upset against Boston. Time will tell.

Boston pulls off the impressive upset against Cleveland. The team is finally healthy, and they are playing fantastic defense in the postseason. They have picked the right time to peak. KG is returning to form, which is bad news for the rest of the league. Rondo has been the best player on their squad. And you can't forget about Pierce and Allen. Their role players are stepping up their games too. They've gotten nice production from Rasheed Wallace, Tony Allen and Glenn Davis. The Celtics struggled coming into the postseason, but are now playing their best basketball of the year. They will be a dangerous team. And while some experts see this team as old, I see them as experienced and crafty. I think the champions will come from the Eastern Conference this year. Sorry Lakers.

Boston has plenty of length and size to combat Superman. And they play great team defense. Rasheed Wallace was signed specifically to match up with Howard. Wallace can defend him one-on-one, and his outside shot can drawn Dwight away from the basket. That is key; as much of Orlando's offense comes from double-teams drawn on Dwight Howard. Kendrick Perkins is also an excellent post defender; and KG will take some turns defending Dwight. I think the key for them is stopping Nelson, who has perhaps been the best player for Orlando this postseason. Also if they can limit the # of 3pt baskets made, they will be in great shape. Pierce and Tony Allen will need to slow down Vince Carter. Rondo and KG will be tough matchups for Orlando. Lewis is similar to Jamison, who KG feasted on in the last series. For Orlando, they need to be hitting their outside shots to stand a shot. They are still a jump shooting team. Vince Carter will be the key. He and Nelson are the only players who can really create their own shot consistently. Dwight will need to stay out of foul trouble and be productive. I like their depth, with Redick, Pietrus, Anderson, Jason Williams off of the bench. They can score points in a hurry. It's their defense that needs to be sharp. It's important for SVG to make the proper adjustments from game to game, and use their depth to their advantage. He needs to keep the team motivated and make sure they don't come up flat in Game 1. They have home court advantage, which could be the difference-maker. Boston has not played well at home also, so I think Orlando wins in 7. They were my preseason pick.

L.A. Lakers (1) vs. Phoenix (3)

The returning champs beat down Utah in a 4 game sweep. They weren't particularly dominating, but they managed to squeeze out the wins with some great play in the clutch. They got excellent production from Kobe and Gasol. Kobe scored over 30 points in all 4 games against Utah. The extra rest between the series should help Kobe also. The injury to Bynum is a bit worrisome however. They don't have a lot of depth on their bench, so they will be hurting in the frontcourt if Bynum is hobbled. They haven't gotten much production from their bench excluding Lamar Odom. Phil Jackson remains among the best coaches so he will make sure that his team is prepared. They have homecourt advantage and will be anxious to avenge their defeat from a few years ago.

Phoenix has been one of the hottest teams in the postseason. They swept a very touch Spurs team. I did not see that coming. They managed to elevate their game in the clutch. They got some defensive stops when they needed, and were relentless on the offensive end. J-Rich has played great so far in the postseason. Amare and Nash have been unstoppable with their pick-n-roll and are providing an excellent inside and outside game. Grant Hill has evolved into an effective defensive stopper. But the X-factor for the postseason, has been their bench. Frye, Dragic, Barbosa, Amundson and Dudley have been great. They've provided tons of energy and hustle, and have been the difference-makers. They have plenty of scoring, and just need to keep up the tempo and put pressure on the Lakers. They can't stop the Lakers frontcourt.

This will be an exciting series. The Lakers seem to have the advantage though with their length and size in the inside, plus having the best closer in the game in Kobe. But if Bynum is limping, that will definitely make this series more interesting. Lopez is scheduled to return for Phoenix, which provides another big body to defend against Bynum and Gasol. Hill will be assigned to Kobe, and asked to slow him down. Nash will murder Fisher. I wonder if the Lakers will elect to put Kobe on Nash. I think Artest will defend Richardson, and will slow him down. Amare vs Gasol should be a fun matchup. Amare has the power and athleticism advantage, Gasol being a more finese and skilled player. The Suns will need to push the tempo and try to outscore the Lakers. They'll need their bench to continue to play well. They have the edge there over the Lakers. Dragic and Barbosa could be keys to this series, with their quickness and ability to score. Frye's outside shooting; along with Dudley will be big off of the bench too. For the Lakers, Bynum, Gasol and Odom will need to dominate the post. They'll need to play good defense. Artest and Fisher will need to step up and hit some buckets for them. Any production they can get from their bench will be a bonus. I always say that defense wins championships, so I predict the Lakers will win in 6, maybe less.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Playoff Predictions: 2nd Round

LA Lakers (1) vs. Utah (5)

Oklahoma City gave the Lakers a bit of a scare in the first round; but this happens just about every year. It's become an annual thing for the Lakers to be pushed to 6 or 7 games in a series against a lesser opponent. Who can forget the classic Houston series from last year. As long as Kobe and Gasol are healthy, this team will be in contention for the championship. Bynum's knee is a bit worrisome; but the Lakers managed to win it all last year without getting much contributions from him. So it can be done. Artest/Fisher/Odom will need to step up their games for the Lakers to repeat. Phil Jackson is one of the all-time great coaches.

Apparently, I underestimated the Utah Jazz. Even losing Okur in Game 1, they were able to knock off Denver in 6 games. Okur will miss the rest of the postseason, which is a huge blow for their chances. This does mean more minutes for Millsap, however. Kirilenko should be back sometime during the next series, which will help them defend against Kobe. Deron Williams and Boozer were brilliant against Denver. But the difference-makers in the series were the play of Matthews and Miles. They'll need to continue to play well for the Jazz to stand any shot at advancing to the Western Conference Finals. Also they will need to prove that they can win on the road, where they have struggle all year.

The Lakers had trouble stopping Westbrook in the 1st round, and now they have to face a toucher PG in Deron Williams. Fisher stands no shot at stopping him. I expect Kobe and Artest to take turns defending him. Once again, they have a huge edge in the frontcourt with Bynum/Gasol/Odom. Their length will cause havoc in the passing lanes. Also whoever is matched up against Fesenko will have a big edge. The Lakers will need Artest and Odom to contribute more on the offensive end. They didn't get much production from their role players in the first round. For Utah, Boozer and Millsap will need to continue to play big in the middle. Crash the glass and pound the ball inside. Wiliams and Boozer will get theirs; but the key will be the play of Matthews and Miles. If they can continue to play as well as they did in the first round, they'll stand a shot; albeit a slim one, to knock out the Lakers. If they can get Kirilenko back soon, that would also help their chances. Both Sloan and Jackson are great coaches, so it should be a fun matchup. But I still see [Lakers in 6]

San Antonio (7) vs. Phoenix (3)

I'm not surprised that the Spurs won, but I was impressed by their play. They were the tougher team, and they got solid contributions from their role players: Hill, McDyess, Blair and Jefferson. It's a scary thought when the Spurs can win a game with their Big 3 struggling. Interestingly, they were the first #7 seed to win a first round 7-game series. The key was the play of Hill, and Parker's willingness to come off of the bench. Both were questionable with injuries, but came up big in the Dallas series. Manu is a warrior and played well despite a broken nose. Duncan continues to show signs of decline, but is still a major contributor.

It took Phoenix a little longer than expected to take out Portland, but they ended up winning in 6 games. Assigning Grant Hill to defend Andre Miller was a key move. They won 4 out of 5 games after that decision. J-Rich was the X-Factor. In all games that he played well, the Suns won. Amare scored at a nice clip, but did not rebound or defend particularly well. Nash continues to do his thing at an advanced age. But it's the supporting cast of the team that was superb. Frye, Hill, Barbosa, Dudley, Dragic, Amundson... they provided this team with the necessary energy and depth to pull out the wins. Their defense is better than in previous years, but still not great. They are going to be a tough out this year.

These teams have a lot of history between them. The Spurs always seem to prevail against them. And I think this year won't be any different. I would not be surprised to see this series go the distance however. I expect Amare to have a huge series once again. But if the Spurs are able to slow down Nash and limit the # of 3pt baskets, they'll stand a great chance at winning. They are the better defensive team; and will be able to come up with key stops down the stretch of games. The Spurs will also need to pay special attention to J-Rich. As mentioned above, when he struggles, the whole team struggles. They'll need Hill/Parker to be aggressive and force Nash to work on the defensive end. The Phoenix bench could be a deciding factor in this series as well. They play with great energy and hustle, and have a number of deadly outside shooters. For the Suns, a key matchup will be Hill vs. Manu. If he can slowdown Manu like he did with Miller in the first series, that will be a great help for the Suns. Also history dictates that if they can shutdown the Spurs role players, they'll have an excellent shot at winning. The Big 3 can't win the series by themselves. I give Popovich the coaching edge. He'll know what adjustments to make to help the Spurs pull out a tough win against Phoenix. [Spurs in 7]

Cleveland (1) vs. Boston (4)

Cleveland beating Chicago was a foregone conclusion. Cavalier fans have to be concerned about Lebron James elbow injury though. The fact that he had to take a left-handed free throw at the end of Game 5 is worrisome. So much of Cleveland's offense is predicated on Lebron. And if he is playing tentative and not attacking the basket, that will have a drastic effect on the entire team. That's something to look out for. Also in the first round of action, they didn't get particularly strong contributions from their role players. Only Jamison and Mo Williams averaged double-digit scoring, for example. Lebron won't be able to win a title by himself, he'll need his supporting cast to step up and win some games. Shaq will get more minutes in the postseason going forward, and will need to show that he can carry this Cleveland team for short bursts of time. They will need his ability to draw double-teams, and score in the post.

Boston took out Miami more easily than I would have thought. I had picked Miami as one of the teams that had the best chance at an upset. But Wade didn't get much help from his teammates, and he could only carry his team so far. I think it's finally time to recognize Rondo as the best player in Boston. His defense, rebounding, passing and penetration are critical for this Boston team. He is the motor that makes this Celtics team go. We should refer to Boston as Rondo and the Other 3. Pierce proves that he can still be a major contributor to this team though with his last minute heroics. And Allen is still one of the league's elite shooters. KG is solid, but not the warrior he was in the past. And he lacks the explosion from his younger years. Despite this team's advanced age, they are still a factor in this postseason. Don't count them out. If their role players can step up their games, they will be tough to beat.

The key for Cleveland winning is stopping Rondo. I don't think Mo Williams has a shot at slowing down Rondo, so you might see West or Parker defend him for stretches of time. Pierce vs Lebron will be a marque matchup. As mentioned before, it will be interesting to see how the elbow affects Lebron's play. If he plays tentative, it will be absolutely crucial for Mo Williams, Jamison, Shaq and company to step up. I like the depth that Cleveland has. They can throw a bunch of different looks at the Boston team. Jamison was picked up for the exact reason to combat teams like Boston. His outside shooting will stretch the defense, and he gives Lebron another scoring option. They will need to use their energy and hustle to outplay the older Boston team. Hickson will be a solid contributor off of the bench. Boston will need to get strong contributions from their bench. Rasheed will need to wake up. Tony Allen could be called on to defend Lebron and be a pest on the defensive end. Perkins and Big Baby need to hustle and rebound. This is Cleveland's series to lose. [Cleveland wins in 6], but it could stretch out to 7 games.

Orlando (2) vs. Atlanta (3)

Orlando was the only team to sweep their opponent in the last series. And that was with Dwight Howard fighting foul trouble in each game. That's a scary thought. Nelson has been playing like a beast so far. Lewis has been scoring at a nice clip too. Carter has struggled with his shot so far, but Orlando hasn't needed him to score a ton of points to win. That may change in the next round, of course. But he has the potential to be a clutch performer for this team. They are getting solid contributions from their bench, which is a huge advantage. They have great depth, and can rely on their role players to hold and sometimes even increase leads. They look bound for the Eastern Conference Finals again.

Atlanta struggled to beat out a hard-working, tough-nosed Milwaukee team. That doesn't bode well for their chances in the next round. They were able to in game 6 and 7 in dominating fashion, however. But I still think that if Bogut was healthy, Milwaukee could have won that series. Crawford struggled for most of the series against Milwaukee, but came a live in the last few games. Johnson, Horford and Smith were sharp for most of the series. They will need to get better effort from Bibby and Marvin Williams to be competitive, however. Their bench isn't particularly strong, so their team will struggle if their starters are not playing well. They have a lot riding on this postseason, their success or lack thereof will determine if Woodson is brought back and whether Joe Johnson will resign with their team or sign with someone else.

Nelson and Dwight will be the keys for the Orlando team. They have favorable match-ups and will need to play at their best. Vince vs Johnson will be a fantasic matchup. Josh Smith and Lewis at the PF spot play very different styles. Lewis hits open 3pt shots and stretches the defense. While Smith plays tough defense, crashes the boards, and attacks the basket. I like Orlando's depth here though. Their bench is much better than Atlanta's. This will allow Van Gundy to keep his starters fresh. The longer this series goes on, the more it benefits Orlando. Dwight should be able to dominate an undersized Horford. He will need to stay out of foul trouble, though. They can't afford him to miss long stretches in each game like last series. Outside shooting could be a factor in this series also. Both teams hit 3's at a nice clip. Atlanta will need strong shooting efforts from both Crawford and Johnson. They have nice size at the wing positions, so they will need to crash the boards, defend well, and try to score easy buckets in transition. Overall, I think Orlando is just the more talented team. [Orlando wins in 6], maybe even 5 games.