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Friday, April 21, 2006

Win or Go Home: Predictions for the 2006 NBA Playoffs

Eastern Conference First Round

#1 Detroit (64-18) vs. #8 Milwaukee (40-42)

Milwaukee can win if… the 1970-71 NBA Champion Milwaukee Bucks emerge from a time machine and take the place of the current team. Milwaukee’s only other chance is that Detroit loses at least three starters to injuries, foul trouble or suspensions.

Detroit will win because…the Pistons are the vastly superior team and have a ton of playoff experience. Detroit has lost at least one first round game in each of the past four seasons, so don’t be shocked if Milwaukee wins one game—feel free to be shocked if Milwaukee wins more than one game, however.

Other things to consider: I really like this Bucks team and I wrote before the season began that Milwaukee would qualify for the playoffs. The future is very bright for this franchise. It could be said that it is unfortunate to have to face a juggernaut like Detroit in the first round, but this series will be a valuable experience for Milwaukee’s young players.

#2 Miami (52-30) vs. #7 Chicago (41-41)

Chicago can win if…Kirk Hinrich can force Dwyane Wade to shoot a low percentage while the Bulls’ big men prevent Shaquille O’Neal from dominating inside and the Bulls’ perimeter players stop the Heat’s perimeter players from shooting a good percentage from three point range. Trust me, it’s a lot easier to write that sentence than it is to make all of those things happen on the court in real life.

Miami will win because…the Heat have the two best individual players in the series—Dwyane Wade and Shaquillle O’Neal—a coach who has won four championships and a lot of playoff tested veterans.

Other things to consider: Hinrich has done a good defensive job against Wade in their regular season encounters this year and O’Neal has been less than dominant due to age, injuries and conditioning. The Bulls seemed to be dead in the water three weeks ago but rallied to win 10 of their last 11 games to qualify for the playoffs. Some analysts suggest that this scrappy Chicago team poses a serious threat to Miami; the other way to look at it is that Chicago had to exert a tremendous effort just to get to .500 and would not even be in the playoffs if the whole bottom of the Eastern Conference had not sunk into quicksand. The bottom line is this Chicago team is too small and not talented enough to win a series against Miami. This is the part of the season that the Heat—O’Neal in particular—have been waiting for so expect to see Miami play better than it has at any time this season. Miami will win in five games.

#3 New Jersey (49-33) vs. #6 Indiana (41-41)

Indiana can win if…Jermaine O’Neal returns to the All-NBA form that he displayed in previous seasons, Peja Stojakovic averages 22-plus ppg while shooting a good percentage on three pointers and Stephen Jackson averages 17-plus ppg.

New Jersey will win because…the Pacers have no answer for the Nets’ perimeter trio of Jason Kidd, Vince Carter and Richard Jefferson. Young center Nenad Krstic has played well for the Nets.

Other things to consider: Indiana has proven to be a tough out in the playoffs the past several seasons but this team is not nearly as talented or as tough as those squads, which had Reggie Miller and Ron Artest. It is tempting to pick the Nets to win in a sweep but I suspect that Indiana will win at least one game at home.

#4 Cleveland (50-32) vs. #5 Washington (42-40)

Washington will win if…each of the Wizards’ “Big Three”—Gilbert Arenas, Antawn Jamison and Caron Butler—has a big offensive series and if the Wizards find a defensive recipe to contain LeBron James’ productivity enough to place pressure on the other Cavaliers to make shots.

Cleveland will win because…LeBron James will have a spectacular series and ex-Wizard Larry Hughes will be a significant presence offensively and defensively.

Other things to consider: One factor in Washington’s favor is that their team has a lot more playoff experience than the Cavaliers do. Expect the Cavaliers to show some playoff jitters early in the series, which may very well be tied 2-2 after four games. In that case, James will produce a big game at home in the always pivotal fifth game and the Cavs will win a close game six in Washington to advance to the second round.

Western Conference First Round

#1 San Antonio (63-19) vs. #8 Sacramento (44-38)

Sacramento can win if…Ron Artest shuts down Manu Ginobili, Mike Bibby averages 20-plus points and injuries limit Tim Duncan’s effectiveness.

San Antonio will win because…Tim Duncan will play better than he has all season because he will not have to deal with back to back games, the Kings will have no answer for Tony Parker’s dribble penetration and the Spurs have a bench full of talented veterans—Robert Horry, Michael Finley, Nick Van Exel—who have been pacing themselves all season in preparation for making a major contribution toward a championship run in the playoffs.

Other things to consider: Sacramento is this year’s “team nobody wants to play.” This cliché is annually applied to a team that goes on a late season surge and/or makes a midseason acquisition that upgrades the roster. The Kings did both, climbing into playoff contention after acquiring Ron Artest. I wonder what the overall record is historically for each “team nobody wants to play.” Last year, the Denver Nuggets were the "team nobody wants to play" because of their tremendous post All-Star Game record in the wake of the midseason hiring of Coach George Karl. The Nuggets seemed to confirm their "team nobody wants to play" status by beating the Spurs in San Antonio in game one of the first round--but the Spurs responded by slapping the Nuggets back to reality 104-76 in game two and then defeated Denver in the next two games as well. Expect a similarly lopsided result in this series, regardless of when the Kings obtain their lone win.

#2 Phoenix (54-28) vs. #7 Los Angeles Lakers (45-37)

Phoenix can win if…the Suns control the paint and defensive boards enough to keep their running game in high gear and if the solid contributions of their ensemble cast are able to outweigh the production of Kobe Bryant.

Los Angeles will win because…Kobe Bryant will average at least 40 ppg no matter what Phoenix does defensively and the Lakers will be able to attack Phoenix in the paint not only with Bryant’s drives but also Lamar Odom and Kwame Brown’s post up game. Game one in Phoenix is critical and a win in that contest would be a tremendous boost for L.A. It becomes more difficult to win on the road as a series progresses, particularly as an underdog, so game one is L.A.’s best chance to steal home court advantage.

Other things to consider: This figures to be the most interesting first round matchup in either conference. Steve Nash and Kobe Bryant may well finish 1-2 in MVP voting but they play completely different games. Phoenix is not a physical team and does not have a lot of shotblocking, so Bryant can attack the paint at will, scoring easy baskets and making a lot of trips to the free throw line. That will get Phoenix in foul trouble and the Lakers in the bonus early, providing more scoring opportunities for Kobe’s teammates. The games figure to be high scoring and close. L.A. Coach Phil Jackson has never lost a first round series. If the games are close at the end, look for Bryant to be switched on to Nash defensively to disrupt his rhythm and make it more difficult for him to advance the ball up the court and see the passing angles; this is a favorite Jackson tactic dating back to putting Michael Jordan or Scottie Pippen on smaller guards such as Mark Price, Mark Jackson and John Stockton during the playoffs. The biggest problem for L.A. is their propensity this season to mess up close games at the end with mental errors or soft play. If the Lakers lose it will be because of a poorly thrown inbounds pass, a lob to Kwame Brown that should be a dunk but becomes a turnover or a mental lapse on defense that allows a cutter to score an easy basket. After the Lakers lost in Cleveland in this fashion, Bryant said, “Maybe we’re slow learners” but insisted that the team would learn from its mistakes. Now is a golden opportunity for the Lakers to prove that they have done just that.

#3 Denver (44-38) vs. #6 Los Angeles Clippers (47-35)

Denver can win if…Marcus Camby has a monster series—meaning 10-plus rpg and 3 or 4 blocks per game—Carmelo Anthony averages at least 26 ppg, the Nuggets get high energy play from Kenyon Martin, Ruben Patterson and Reggie Evans and Sam Cassell is rendered ineffective due to injuries or foul trouble.

Los Angeles will win because…Sam Cassell is a clutch playoff performer who will have the ball in his hands down the stretch of close games, Elton Brand will be a difficult matchup for Denver’s frontcourt players because they are better at weakside shotblocking than they are at guarding strong postup players one on one and, if the series goes the distance, L.A. has home court advantage and will play game seven at Staples Center.

Other things to consider: Thanks to the NBA’s bizarre playoff format this is the strangest first round series. Denver is a division champion and the Western Conference’s third seed but L.A. has home court advantage because the Clippers won more games than Denver did. Sam Cassell is the X-factor. If he is healthy he will be effective and if he is effective than the one-two punch that he and Brand provide will be more than Denver can handle.

#4 Dallas (60-22) vs. #5 Memphis (49-33)

Memphis can win if…Pau Gasol has a big series and the Grizzlies contain Dirk Nowitzki.

Dallas will win because…the Mavericks have more firepower top to bottom than the Grizzlies do and are a playoff tested team.

Other things to consider: Usually the matchup between the fourth and fifth seeds would be expected to be pretty even but because of the NBA’s wild and wacky playoff format Dallas, the second best team in the conference, was bumped down to the fourth seed. Memphis is a pretty good team for a fifth seed but simply is not good enough to beat a legitimate title contender like Dallas in a seven game series.

If these series go as I have predicted, we will see second round matchups of Detroit-Cleveland, Miami-New Jersey, San Antonio-Dallas and L.A. Clippers-L.A. Lakers. Assuming that the key players on all of these teams are healthy by that point, I expect Detroit, New Jersey, San Antonio and the L.A. Lakers to win. Detroit has been the best team in the league all year but if New Jersey can stay healthy through the playoffs the Nets are capable of upsetting the Pistons. The Nets have been flying underneath the radar all year, as the Pistons’ quick start, Kobe’s 81 point game, LeBron’s tremendous season and other stories grabbed the headlines--but Jason Kidd has been as good as any point guard in the league since the All-Star break, Vince Carter and Richard Jefferson have played well all year and Nenad Krstic provides New Jersey with a postup game. San Antonio will beat the Lakers in the West and I expect the Spurs to repeat as champions by defeating the Nets in a reprise of the 2003 NBA Finals.

posted by David Friedman @ 3:43 AM

6 comments

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6 Comments:

At Friday, April 21, 2006 12:38:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

David,
Great site, great writing, awesome playoff preview blog.

I have to disagree with you and say that the Lakers won't get by the Suns, even though we'd love for the Clippers to beat them face to face once and for all in the second round. There is a growing shift in fan support out in LA these days.......

I found this great intro to the "new look" Clippers on theheptagon.com:

http://www.theheptagon.com/freddo/current.html

 
At Sunday, April 30, 2006 8:32:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

David,

Who has home court advantage when the Lakers face the Clippers in Round 2?

 
At Monday, May 01, 2006 4:54:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

This question reminds me of when Tracy McGrady talked about how good it was to finally reach the second round of the playoffs after his Magic took a 3-1 lead over Detroit in 2003--except the Pistons came back to win the series and McGrady still hasn't seen the second round. I predicted a Lakers-Clippers showdown and nothing that I've seen so far has changed my mind, but we haven't officially reached what Billy Crystal is referring to as the "hallway series." Technically, the Clippers would have homecourt advantage based on their better won-loss record, so Staples Center would be done up in Clippers regalia for games one, two, five and seven.

 
At Friday, May 05, 2006 7:35:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Elton Brand will go off on Kwame Brown
and Cassell will be on fire. Also the Clippers have a better bench than the Lakers with Livingston, Ross, Radmononvic and Maggette. Lets go CLIPPERS!!!!!!

 
At Saturday, May 06, 2006 3:46:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

As I said in my original reply here, before we consider things like who has homecourt advantage or what the matchups look like versus the Clippers, the Lakers still have to actually advance to the second round. The Lakers blew a golden opportunity in game six and face a supreme challenge now in game seven. I picked the Lakers in six but home teams historically have a big edge in game seven, so I guess no matter what happens now I will be partially right (if the Lakers win, but in the "wrong" number of games) and partially wrong (if the Suns successfully use homecourt advantage to eliminate a Lakers team that I picked to advance).

 
At Thursday, May 11, 2006 3:27:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Before the Suns-Lakers series, I wrote:

"If the Lakers lose it will be because of a poorly thrown inbounds pass, a lob to Kwame Brown that should be a dunk but becomes a turnover or a mental lapse on defense that allows a cutter to score an easy basket. After the Lakers lost in Cleveland in this fashion, Bryant said, “Maybe we’re slow learners” but insisted that the team would learn from its mistakes. Now is a golden opportunity for the Lakers to prove that they have done just that."

Odom's failure to box out Marion at the end of game six and Brown's fly-by past Tim Thomas allowing the game tying three pointer are exactly the kinds of plays to which I was referring. Kobe had just hit a spectacular three pointer and a tough driving layup to give the Lakers a three point lead. All they needed was one more defensive rebound (and perhaps one made free throw after a Phoenix foul) to secure the victory.

 

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