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Friday, April 20, 2007

2006-2007 NBA Playoff Preview

Is it my imagination or has nearly everyone in the United States already written a playoff preview? You may wonder why you should read this one, so it is worth mentioning my recent record as a predictor: in my 2006-07 Eastern Conference Preview I correctly picked seven of the eight teams that made it to the playoffs. One of my misses was Toronto--I saw the Raptors coming but did not expect them to arrive until next season: "I actually like Toronto’s moves and think that the Raptors will be much improved. If everything breaks right the Raptors could grab the eighth playoff spot but I expect that Toronto’s breakthrough season will be in 2007-08." In my 2006-07 Western Conference Preview I went six for eight. I tapped Sacramento instead of Golden State for the West's eighth seed but wrote, "it would not be shocking to see Don Nelson guide this team to the last playoff spot, particularly if Baron Davis can stay healthy." I was really only way off with one choice: picking the Clippers instead of the Jazz. I expressed some misgivings about the Clippers ("The Clippers have no track record for sustaining greatness--or even viable playoff contending status") but went with them anyway. I honestly did not see Utah coming at all but the way they ended the season they may be going soon--as in, going home after being eliminated.

Last year, I correctly picked the outcome of 10 of the 15 playoff series; my main "nemesis" was the Miami Heat, who won three series that I expected them to lose.

Of course, as the saying goes, past performance is no guarantee of future results. I think that I have a pretty good handle on what is going to happen in the West (barring an injury to a key player)--but the East, other than two doormats, is pretty well packed together. Frankly, if Miami, Chicago or Cleveland made it to the Finals I would not be shocked. Even though Detroit is the number one seed, I would be surprised--not shocked, but surprised--if the Pistons make it, simply because I do not trust Flip Saunders or Chris Webber in big playoff games. Honestly, if your life was on the line based on the outcome of the playoffs, would you feel great if Flip Saunders was your coach and Chris Webber was your starting center?

Here is my take on the first round matchups, what I think will happen after that and who I predict to win it all.

Eastern Conference First Round

#1 Detroit (53-29) vs. #8 Orlando (40-42)

Season series: Detroit, 4-0

Orlando can win if...Shaquille O'Neal, Penny Hardaway and Lil' Penny sign ten day contracts. As I wrote last year when Milwaukee played Detroit in the first round, "the only other chance is that Detroit loses at least three starters to injuries, foul trouble or suspensions."

Detroit will win because...the Pistons are simply the superior team. Detroit sometimes drops a game even against inferior teams but this one really has sweep written all over it.

Other things to consider: Orlando has been fading for a while and basically backed into the playoffs merely because the Indiana Pacers and New York Knicks faded even more dramatically. Detroit has played very well since picking up Chris Webber without having to give up anybody.

#2 Cleveland (50-32) vs. #7 Washington (41-41)

Season series: Cleveland, 2-1

Washington can win if...Gilbert Arenas and Caron Butler go to Lourdes and get healed. Actually, even that won't help; the injuries to Arenas and Butler enable people to ignore the fact that Washington was dropping in the standings before they got hurt. I believe that the Wizards would have lost in the first round even if they were at full strength.

Cleveland will win because...the Cavaliers beat the Wizards in last year's playoffs when Washington had Arenas and Butler, so there is no reason to think that they will lose to them this year.

Other things to consider: It will be interesting to see Cleveland's mindset in this series. Washington is the type of overmatched opponent that a legitimate championship contender should sweep. Will the Cavaliers have enough focus and concentration to do that, thereby earning some extra rest between rounds?

#3 Toronto (47-35) vs. #6 New Jersey (41-41)

Season series: 2-2

Toronto can win if...if the team's young nucleus continues to play the way that it has throughout the season. That's the rub, of course: you never know how players will react to playoff pressure until they experience it firsthand.

New Jersey will win because...Jason Kidd, Vince Carter and Richard Jefferson all have a significant amount of playoff experience. This team beat the Heat in game one at Miami last year but Jefferson's ankle injury and Cliff Robinson's suspension contributed to Miami being able to win the next four games.

Other things to consider: I've been touting the Nets for over a year now and they have never failed to fall short of my expectations. Naturally, when I finally picked against them, writing that they would lose to Chicago, they played one of their best games of the year and defeated the Bulls in the final game of the regular season, rearranging the Eastern Conference playoff seedings. This Nets team can be very dangerous and despite this being a #3-#6 matchup Toronto only won six more games than New Jersey during the regular season.

#4 Miami (44-38) vs. #5 Chicago (49-33)

Season series: Chicago, 3-1

Miami can win if...Shaquille O'Neal plays the way he did down the stretch of the season, Dwyane Wade is healthy enough to be a late game closer and the Heat's role players make the open shots that become available because of the extra defensive attention that is slanted toward O'Neal and Wade.

Chicago will win because...the Bulls fought hard against Miami last year even without having Ben Wallace. The addition of Wallace plus Wade's shoulder injury should be enough to help the Bulls to prevail.

Other things to consider: This is, by far, the toughest first round series to pick. It reminds me of last year, when I wrote that San Antonio is thismuch better than Dallas--and then Dallas won game seven in overtime. I have maintained for quite some time that Wallace provides the element that Chicago has been missing--interior defense--so I almost feel duty bound to pick the Bulls but their loss to New Jersey in the last game of the regular season almost made me change my mind; in essence, that was a road playoff game, with the second seed at stake, and the Bulls did not respond well. Still, sooner or later the Bulls would have had to knock off Miami or Detroit and I think that they have the capability to put the New Jersey loss behind them and perform well in the playoffs.

Western Conference First Round

#1 Dallas (67-15) vs. #8 Golden State (42-40)

Season series: Golden State, 3-0

Golden State can win if...Coach Don Nelson continues to keep the Mavericks off balance by pushing the ball and creating mismatches based on using a small lineup.

Dallas will win because...the Mavericks are on a mission to return to the Finals and finish the job that they did not complete last year. Despite the fact that Golden State swept the regular season series I do not think that Dallas will struggle as much in this series as some people seem to think.

Other things to consider: Over 82 games, the Warriors were little more than a .500 team. Granted, they have been coming on strong in the closing portion of the season but, other than a slow first week, Dallas has been a juggernaut for several months.

#2 Phoenix (61-21) vs. #6 Los Angeles Lakers (42-40)

Season series: Phoenix, 3-1

Los Angeles can win if...the Lakers stick with the game plan of pounding the ball inside on offense and slowing down the Suns' transition game on defense. Kobe Bryant will provide whatever his team needs on a game to game basis--whether that is 40-plus points and/or crisp passing out of double-teams--but the Lakers will rise or fall based on the production of their centers and point guards, who simply have to play better than they did for most of the season.

Phoenix will win because...the Suns are a better team than the Lakers and are more consistent at doing the things that they do well than the Lakers are at doing the things that they do well. If the Lakers did not have Kobe Bryant, they would not have even come close to making the playoffs.

Other things to consider: The Lakers blew a golden opportunity against the Suns last year but, unfortunately for them, they cannot simply press a button and go back to when they had a 3-1 lead. L.A. has faded badly down the stretch, while Phoenix is healthy and has Amare Stoudemire, who did not play in last year's playoffs.

#3 San Antonio (58-24) vs. Denver (45-37)

Season series: San Antonio, 2-1

Denver can win if...the Nuggets make a consistent effort to play good defense, Marcus Camby has a dominant performance at that end of the court and both Carmelo Anthony and Allen Iverson not only score 25-plus ppg each but also create open shots for their teammates.

San Antonio will win because...the Spurs spend all season getting ready for this time of year. They play suffocating defense and Tim Duncan has proven his greatness as a playoff performer, leading the Spurs to three titles and winning three Finals MVPs.

Other things to consider: For the third straight year Denver is the proverbial "team that nobody wants to face." I have noted previously that such teams generally exit meekly in the first round and that is what Denver did on both of those occasions. Don't expect to see anything different this time around, either.

#4 Utah (51-31) vs. #5 Houston (52-30)

Season series: Utah, 3-1

Utah can win if...the Jazz play the way that they did early in the season; the Jazz have collapsed in the latter part of the season, losing six of their last nine games--and one of the wins came against a Houston team that rested both Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady.

Houston will win because...the Rockets have two legitimate MVP level players in Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming. Yao missed over 30 games and this team still posted the NBA's fifth best record, so the Rockets obviously have good depth, too.

Other things to consider: The teams look evenly matched on paper and played some very competitive games during the regular season but Houston closed the season on a good note, going 12-5, and both McGrady and Yao appear to be completely healthy.

If these series go as I have predicted, we will see second round matchups of Detroit-Chicago, Cleveland-New Jersey, Dallas-Houston and San Antonio-Phoenix. Each of those series could go six or seven games. I think that the conference finalists will be Chicago, Cleveland, Dallas and San Antonio. Those two matchups also look like they could last for six or seven games. The seeding fell into place perfectly for the Cavaliers: they will have home court advantage against anyone in the East but Detroit and will face weaker opposition while Chicago has to battle past both Miami and Detroit, which will take a toll. I think that LeBron James will lead Cleveland past Chicago and into the Finals. The Dallas-San Antonio showdown is something that basketball fans have been anticipating since the season began. In my regular season preview, I wrote, "It would not surprise me if the Mavericks won the 2007 NBA title but they were in a dead heat with the Spurs for most of last season and I think that the Spurs will beat them this year." Now that the regular season is over I still think the same way. Yes, Dallas won 67 games and certainly is capable of winning the championship, but there just is not that much separating these teams--it is almost like the early 1980s when Julius Erving's Philadelphia 76ers battled Larry Bird's Boston Celtics for Eastern Conference supremacy. They met in the Eastern Conference Finals four times in six years, with each team winning twice. Last year was Nowitzki's turn but this year Duncan will prevail. After that, I expect his Spurs to beat James' Cavs in six games in the Finals.

posted by David Friedman @ 7:51 AM



At Friday, April 20, 2007 8:35:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think that Miami, with Wade's helpers in the officiating team, are going to mess your bracket. As you said, the last game for the season was the chance for Chicago to show who they really are, and I don't think they're legit yet (due to Skiles mostly).

At Friday, April 20, 2007 12:32:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

db took the words out of my mouth.
Chicago simply does not have what it takes to win a tough series. They are way over-controlled by the hysteric scott skiles. They're a good team - in fact they are too good for their own good. nobody on the team is willing or able to get crazy, do surprising creative stuff, change the flow of the game, keep the other team off balance and so on.

They are fundamentally sound enough to get into the playoffs but not more than that.Miami in 5.
I'm not crazy about cleveland either.The nets can take them in the second round.

At Friday, April 20, 2007 4:54:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Well, Miami messed up at least part of my bracket last year, so you may be right. As I indicated in the post, I think that the Chicago-Miami series is the toughest to pick. My original feeling when the Bulls acquired Wallace is that this move would enable them to beat Miami, so I am sticking with that theory. Admittedly, I'd be more comfortable with it if the Bulls had not basically choked against New Jersey.

Honestly, to borrow Jerusalem Joe's words, I'm not "crazy" about any of the teams in the East; they all are flawed and their records are pretty closely bunched together. Detroit has been on a downward slide for several years, but this is masked in the popular mind because they won 64 games last year and got a boost by acquiring CWebb this year--but if you look at the playoffs, they have been going out earlier and earlier each year since winning the title. I'm not saying that they are a bad team, mind you--they did get the number one seed; I'm saying that they are a declining team that is not as well constructed for playoff success as they were when Brown was coaching and Ben Wallace was patrolling the paint.

If Miami were fully healthy, I'd go with them but the Heat are really banged up--and, even though this is not the path that the Bulls wanted to take, the Bulls match up well with Miami. Cleveland has LeBron, who did very well in last year's playoffs, but the Cavs obviously have weaknesses as well. The East playoffs will be interesting, if not always aesthetically pleasing.

At Sunday, April 29, 2007 3:43:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Chicago simply does not have what it takes to win a tough series"


At Monday, April 30, 2007 1:23:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

I picked the Bulls to win this series, but did not expect a sweep.


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