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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

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Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Carr and Lanier Article Links

A link to my Austin Carr article has been posted at Notre Dame's Official Athletic Site:

Carr's Records Stand the Test of Time

A link to my Bob Lanier article has been posted at the Official Web Site of St. Bonaventure Athletics:

Lanier's Impact Felt on and off the Court

posted by David Friedman @ 2:06 AM

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Cleveland Defeats Boston 93-88: No LeBron or Pierce--but a lot of Cousy!

Larry Hughes (21 points, six assists, five rebounds, five steals) led the Cavaliers to a 93-88 victory over the Celtics in Boston on Monday night. The Cavaliers rested LeBron James for the playoffs and Paul Pierce did not play for the Celtics--but NBA TV viewers received a real treat, as Celtics legend Bob Cousy filled the analyst role (subbing for an under the weather Tom Heinsohn) alongside play by play man Mike Gorman. Cousy made a number of interesting comments and observations during the course of the game, providing insights that have significance beyond this particular contest. Here are some key points that he mentioned:

1) Cousy stressed that players must place a great value on the ball and not commit careless turnovers. Boston outshot Cleveland 51.4% to 43.8% but this advantage was blunted in part because the Celtics had 21 turnovers compared to 15 for the Cavaliers.

2) Cousy said that he thinks that LeBron James will not duplicate his regular season averages in the postseason due to the increased intensity level of the playoffs.

3) Cousy stated that Stephon Marbury is a potential Hall of Fame candidate; at first I thought that he was sarcastically mocking Marbury's declaration that he is the best point guard in the NBA but Cousy seemed to be serious. Cousy added that Marbury is not a 1 but that he is a very good 2, explaining that when a 1 crosses midcourt he is thinking about "creating something wonderful for his teammates" and only shoots if he can't do that, while a 2 crosses midcourt thinking about creating a shot for himself and only passes if that is not possible.

4) Cousy believes that Delonte West has the skills and mindset to be a good 1 but needs more confidence.

5) A fascinating glimpse at Cousy's court vision happened when a Tony Allen drive resulted in two foul shots for Allen. Cousy immediately exclaimed that Allen should have passed the ball and during the replay Cousy pointed out that if Allen had made the right pass at the right time it would have resulted in a likely three point play. Instead, Allen missed both free throws and the Celtics had an empty possession as a result.

6) After a flurry of Celtics turnovers in the third quarter fueled a 19-0 Cavaliers run that swelled Cleveland's lead to 75-55, Cousy said that the Celtics were running "desperation offense as opposed to offense by design" and noted that committing a lot of turnovers is just as bad as shooting a low percentage.

7) Cousy noted that one of a point guard's responsibilities is to know his personnel, adding that on a fast break it is better to pass to a good jump shooter than to hit a cutter in the lane who is a poor finisher at the basket. This reminded me of something that K C Jones, a former teammate of Cousy's, told me once: the Celtics would not pass the ball to a non-shooter or to a player who was not in position to shoot a shot within his range, even if that player was wide open. Some might call this "old school" but I would call it simply "championship level play."

8) After Larry Hughes drained a top of the key three pointer with the shot clock winding down, Cousy commented that the top of the key shot is the easiest shot--particularly for a good shooter--and that the defender must make every effort to contest that shot, even if the shot clock is winding down and the shooter seems to be off balance. Cousy explained that the corner shot is more difficult because the shooter cannot use the backboard as a reference point to "frame" the shot.

9) The Celtics did manage a late flurry to make the score close at the end but Cousy lamented Boston's lack of a transition game. He explained that when a team has a good transition game it is able to score layups and create three point play opportunities. Without that capability, a team is forced to rely on hitting a lot of perimeter shots. Of course, Cousy's Celtics were legendary for their fastbreak execution--Bill Russell controlled the glass, Cousy made impeccable decisions with the ball and the rest of the players filled the lane.

10) Talking about the Celtics' options in the draft, Cousy emphasized that a team should always take the best available player regardless of position. Cousy argued that talent is at a premium and, as long as the General Manager's assessments are correct, it will always be possible to make a deal later. In other words, if you end up with six really talented guards, you will be able to trade some of them in exchange for quality players at other positions. Of course, if your talent evaluations are wrong, then you end up with a bunch of mediocre players who play the same position and it will not be easy to trade them.

On the surface, the game between Cleveland and Boston was "meaningless," but for a true basketball fan it provided quite an opportunity to look at basketball through the eyes of one of the all-time greats of the game.

posted by David Friedman @ 1:35 AM

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Monday, April 17, 2006

The Playoffs are Coming

All 16 invitations to the NBA's postseason party have now been issued, but the seating arrangements (seeds) will be determined in the next few days as the regular season concludes. The Eastern Conference playoff teams are division winners Detroit, Miami and New Jersey, followed by Cleveland, Washington, Indiana, Milwaukee and Chicago; the Western Conference playoff teams are division winners San Antonio, Phoenix and Denver, followed by Dallas, Memphis, L.A. (Clippers), L.A (Lakers) and Sacramento. I will post my playoff predictions as soon as all of the matchups are finalized. Meanwhile, now is a good time to look back at my predictions for this season, which can be found to the right of this post in the four articles listed under the title "2005-06 Regular Season Predictions."

My 2005-06 predictions can be divided into three categories with self-explanatory titles: "hits," "misses" and "partial credit."

HITS

1) Successfully identifying 12 of the 16 playoff teams

I did not list the teams in the order of seedings but rather by how highly I rated their chances to win the NBA title. Still, I correctly listed division winners Miami, New Jersey, San Antonio, Phoenix and Denver ahead of everyone in their divisions (I discuss the Central Division in "misses"). How does this compare to other predictors? In the 2005-06 Sporting News Pro Basketball Preview, Sean Deveney was correct about six of eight Eastern Conference playoff teams (including two of three division champions) and four of eight Western Conference playoff teams (including all three division champions); the 2005-06 edition of Athlon Sports Pro Basketball was correct about seven of eight Eastern Conference playoff teams (including two of three division champions) and five of eight Western Conference playoff teams (including all three division champions); Street and Smith's 2005-06 Pro Basketball Yearbook was right about five of the six division champions, six of eight Eastern Conference playoff teams and six of eight Western Conference playoff teams; Lindy's Pro Basketball 2005-06 (for which I wrote the Denver Nuggets preview) correctly picked all six division winners. Lindy's top six Western Conference teams made the playoffs, as did their top four Eastern Conference teams (Lindy's picked the Knicks to be fifth in the East). After that, matters become a little murky, because the magazine assigned a point value to each team, resulting in a five way tie for 6-10 in the East and a five way tie for 7-11 in the West.

2) Picking the Lakers to return to the playoffs

None of the magazines listed above picked the Lakers to be a playoff team but I expected Kobe Bryant and company to win at least 45 games, which will happen if they win their final regular season game.

3) Picking the Bucks to make the playoffs

I wrote that Andrew Bogut, T. J. Ford and Bobby Simmons would be worth the 10-15 additional wins that Milwaukee would need to move into the top eight in the East; Milwaukee has won nine more games than last season with two games left.

4) Picking the Suns to be a legitimate contender even after Amare Stoudemire had knee surgery

I wrote my season preview articles after Stoudemire had microfracture knee surgery. At that point, a lot of people doubted that Phoenix could be successful with him out of the lineup for an extended period. The consensus seemed to be that Phoenix would struggle to be above .500. I acknowledged that Stoudemire's injury was a "devastating blow" to Phoenix but still picked the Suns to have the best record in the Pacific and ranked them as one of the top five contenders in the West.

5) Picking New Jersey to be the second best team in the East

I wrote that if Jason Kidd stayed healthy and the Nets received any production from Jason Collins and Nenad Krstic that they could "terrify opposing teams" with their fast break attack of Kidd, Vince Carter and Richard Jefferson. I picked the Nets to win at least 50 games; they are 49-31 with two games to go.

6) Picking the Cavs to finish fourth in the East

A lot of people expected the Cavs to be better this season and to qualify for the playoffs but I felt very strongly that the Cavs would obtain homecourt advantage in the first round of the playoffs if they could keep LeBron James, Larry Hughes and Zydrunas Ilgauskas healthy. As it turned out, the Cavs held on to the fourth spot despite Hughes missing a lot of games, thanks largely to James' stellar play and the great midseason acquisition of Flip Murray.

7) Predicting a tight race for the last Eastern playoff spots

I picked Chicago to finish with 38-40 wins and said that the loss of Hughes would drop Washington into that range as well. I said that neither team would make the playoffs but that they would be in the mix until the end. As it turns out, they will finish in that win range but due to the weakness of the East that will be enough to make the playoffs. I said that Orlando would finish with 30-35 wins; the Magic are 36-44 with two games to go (if I had known that Steve Francis would be traded I would have moved that estimate up). I was right that Boston would drop out of the playoffs but stay within sight of the eighth spot, which they did until the last few games.

MISSES

1) Picking New York to make the playoffs

I'm not the only one who "drank the Kool Aid" on this one, but I really thought that Larry Brown would coax this team into the eighth playoff spot, particularly because I foresaw that the East would not be very deep. The Knicks won 33 games last year and I expected that Brown would be worth 8-10 more wins. I've never been a fan of Stephon Marbury and his tendency to overdribble but I thought that he would at least make an effort to play the right way after seeing the success that Allen Iverson and Chauncey Billups had under Brown's tutelage. If only Isiah Thomas could demote Marbury and Francis to the And 1 Tour and get their salaries off the books.

2) Picking Detroit to fall in the standings

I expected Detroit to fall in the standings after Flip Saunders replaced Larry Brown, but they won the Central Division and will finish with the best record in the NBA. The Pistons have a lot of strong personalities on their roster and Saunders' inability to keep the Minnesota Timberwolves going in the right direction after they tasted a little playoff success suggested to me that he might not be the right man to control Detroit's locker room. To this point he has proven me wrong, although recently there have been some discordant rumbles emanating from Detroit; Ben Wallace responded angrily when Saunders removed him from a recent game and refused to return to action when Saunders later asked him to go back in the game. This could be nothing or it could be the start of trouble. I would heartily endorse Saunders as Coach of the Year based on what the Pistons have done in the regular season but I am still skeptical that the Pistons will return to the Finals. Let's see how this team reacts when they face some adversity in the postseason. Meanwhile, I offer a hardy mea culpa and congratulations to the Pistons for their success during the regular season.

3) Leaving the Clippers and the Grizzlies out of the playoff picture

I thought that Sam Cassell had run out of gas but he proved that he still has something left in the tank. He means as much to the Clippers as the more celebrated Elton Brand does and if you don't believe that just wait and see what happens in the playoffs if Cassell gets in foul trouble or suffers an injury. I admitted in my preseason article that Memphis puzzled me; they made several moves and I wasn't sure if they got any better or not. Obviously, they remained good enough to earn a playoff spot.

PARTIAL CREDIT

A lot of observers were impressed by the performances of Chicago, Seattle and Golden State last year but I expected all three teams to regress this season. I had Chicago falling out of the playoffs, Seattle dropping to eighth in the West and Golden State not making the playoffs in spite of their high expectations. I was completely right about Golden State--the fashionable "sleeper pick" after running off a string of late season wins last year--but Seattle fell even more than I expected, dropping out of the playoffs, and the Bulls rallied recently to return to the playoffs after being on the outside looking in for most of the year. I had the right general idea about Chicago and Seattle, but the weakness of the East (particularly Philadelphia's collapse down the stretch) and the strength of the West (the eighth seed in the West will have a better record than the fifth seed in the East) enabled Chicago to sneak in and kept Seattle out of contention.

I had high expectations for Houston but I'm going to take a mulligan on that one. Injuries to Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming wrecked the Rockets, who played well on the rare occasions that McGrady and Yao were on the court at the same time. Yao had a breakout year and the Rockets could have been a monster in the second half of the season if McGrady would have been playing alongside him.

posted by David Friedman @ 12:19 AM

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