2007-08 Playoff PreviewBefore we look forward to this year's playoffs, let's briefly review my preseason predictions. I take responsibility for everything I write but I am granting myself two mulligans: no one could have foreseen how woeful the Bulls and Heat would become. Even though I definitely identified Miami as a declining team--and wrote, "I honestly would not be shocked if Miami misses the playoffs altogether"--I had far too much respect for Pat Riley, Dwyane Wade and Shaquille O'Neal to believe that this team would become the laughingstock of the league. Before the season began it would have sounded crazy to suggest that not only would the Heat be this bad but that O'Neal would be traded to Phoenix; some things are just impossible to foresee. Some analysts were not quite as high on the Bulls as I was but I can't recall anyone saying that they would be so bad and so dysfunctional that Coach Scott Skiles would be fired before the All-Star break. Overall, in my 2007-08 Eastern Conference Preview I correctly picked five of the eight teams that made it to the playoffs. My third miss besides Chicago and Miami was New Jersey.
I ask for--and grant--no mulligans in the West, even though the conference was almost completely transformed by a slew of midseason deals; those transactions altered the finishing order but did not necessarily bring anyone new into the playoffs or knock out a team that would have otherwise made it. In my 2007-08 Western Conference Preview I correctly picked seven of the eight playoff teams; I thought that Golden State would make the cut and that New Orleans would fall just short. As I mentioned recently, the Paul-West-Chandler-Stojakovic nucleus only played together for seven games in 2006-07, so there was not a lot of evidence to go on in terms of how good that group could potentially be.
Last year, I correctly picked the outcome of 12 of the 15 playoff series and I correctly predicted before the playoffs began that the Spurs would beat the Cavs in the NBA Finals. In 2005-06, I went 10-5 but did not correctly identify either Finalist before the playoffs began. In 2004-05, I went 9-6 and correctly picked both Finalists before the playoffs began but incorrectly chose the Pistons to beat the Spurs. So, in three years of posting online series by series predictions I have a 31-14 record and have correctly picked both Finals participants before the playoffs began two times. I don't know how that ranks compared to other predictors but I think that I have done pretty well.
Here is my take on the first round matchups, what I think will happen after that and who I predict will win it all.
Eastern Conference First Round
#1 Boston (66-16) vs. #8 Atlanta (37-45)
Season series: Boston, 3-0
Atlanta can win if...Bob Pettit, Cliff Hagan and Dominique Wilkins emerge from a time machine.
Boston will win because...the Celtics are more talented, more disciplined and they play better defense.
Other things to consider: The main question about this series is whether or not Atlanta will be swept. An interesting early measure of Boston's mindset will be whether or not the Celtics win four straight and earn themselves some extra rest between rounds.
#2 Detroit (59-23) vs. #7 Philadelphia (40-42)
Season series: Tied, 2-2
Philadelphia can win if...the Sixers are able to use their athleticism to speed up the tempo of the game and then force turnovers that can be converted into easy points in the transition game.
Detroit will win because...the Pistons will not let the Sixers do those things four times in seven games.
Other things to consider: The last time the Pistons did not advance past the first round of the playoffs is 2000-01, when they did not qualify for postseason play.
#3 Orlando (52-30) vs. #6 Toronto (41-41)
Season series: Orlando, 2-1
Toronto can win if...the Raptors show toughness on the glass and at the defensive end of the court.
Orlando will win because...Dwight Howard will wear out Toronto's bigs in the paint.
Other things to consider: Hedo Turkoglu has emerged this season as one of the best fourth quarter players in the NBA--not that he is too shabby in the first three quarters.
#4 Cleveland (45-37) vs. #5 Washington (43-39)
Season series: Tied, 2-2
Washington can win if...the Wizards play team ball on offense and work hard defensively to keep LeBron James near his season averages; in other words, there cannot be too many "Gilbert being Gilbert" moments at either end of the court.
Cleveland will win because...LeBron James is the best player on either team and he will have the ball in his hands at the end of every close game. Also, when push comes to shove the Cavs will prove to be better defensively and on the glass.
Other things to consider: Here is a more detailed look at this series: Will Third Time Be The Charm for Wizards?
Western Conference First Round
#1 L.A Lakers (57-25) vs. #8 Denver (50-32)
Season series: L.A., 3-0
Denver can win if...Allen Iverson and Carmelo Anthony both get hot in the same game and/or the Lakers suffer an injury to Kobe Bryant or Pau Gasol.
L.A. will win because...the Nuggets are an atrocious defensive team that has little chance of either containing Bryant or effectively countering the Lakers' Triangle Offense.
Other things to consider: Other than Bryant and Derek Fisher, there is not a lot of playoff experience on the Lakers' roster, so it will be interesting to see how the younger players respond to playing on the road in the postseason.
#2 New Orleans (56-26) vs. #7 Dallas Mavericks (51-31)
Season series: Tied, 2-2
New Orleans can win if...Chris Paul, David West and company perform at the same level that they did during most of the regular season.
Dallas will win because...the Mavericks are loaded with playoff veterans who keenly understand the difference between the regular season and the playoffs.
Other things to consider: I would not be shocked if New Orleans wins but a bad sign for the Hornets is that in the final game of the regular season both teams really went after it and Dallas prevailed. It will be interesting to see who emerges as the dominant player in this series--will it be Dirk Nowitzki, Chris Paul, Jason Kidd or someone else?
#3 San Antonio (56-26) vs. #6 Phoenix (55-27)
Season series: Phoenix, 3-1
San Antonio can win if...the Spurs get Shaquille O'Neal and/or Amare Stoudemire in foul trouble, thus weakening the Suns inside. Tim Duncan must have a huge series in the paint and not settle for jumpers.
Phoenix will win because...the Spurs can no longer play "bully ball" against them. The Suns now are able to not only run and gun but also slow the game down and get some points out of the low post. Look for the games to be close at halftime and for the Suns to wear the Spurs down after the break by slowing the game down and posting up O'Neal.
Other things to consider: You have to love the West--these teams are seeded as though this is a mismatch in San Antonio's favor but they are only separated by one game in the standings. The Suns acquired O'Neal primarily to increase their ability to control the paint at both ends of the court and to be able to match up better with Tim Duncan and other premier low post players. The Suns went 2-0 versus the Spurs since making the O'Neal trade. These teams have the best, most well rounded playoff rosters in the West and they should be meeting in the Conference Finals; this will be the most intriguing first round playoff series because of the rivalry between the teams, the personalities involved and the historical legacies at stake among former MVPs Duncan, O'Neal and Steve Nash (not to mention a possible future MVP in Amare Stoudemire).
#4 Utah (54-28) vs. #5 Houston (55-27)
Season series: Utah, 2-1
Houston can win if...the Rockets are able to play the suffocating defense they played during their 22 game winning streak, thereby keeping the score close enough for Tracy McGrady to take over in the fourth quarter.
Utah will win because...the Jazz match up well with the Rockets and are definitely capable of winning in Houston during the playoffs, as they proved last season.
Other things to consider: Houston won more games and thus gets homecourt advantage but the Jazz are classified as the fourth seed because they won their division. The addition of sharpshooter Kyle Korver has really opened up the court for Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer.
During the playoffs you will probably hear things like "A series does not start until the home team loses" and "A series does not begin until one team faces elimination." The reality is that the game one winner in an NBA best of seven series has gone on to win the series 78.5% of the time. With that in mind, the most important game of this year's playoffs may be game one in the San Antonio-Phoenix series because it could play a major role in deciding which of those teams eventually makes it to the Western Conference Finals and which one suffers a devastating first round elimination.
If these series go as I have predicted, we will see second round matchups of Boston-Cleveland, Detroit-Orlando, L.A.-Utah and Phoenix-Dallas. Game one in the Boston-Cleveland series will be an opportunity for LeBron James to add to his already impressive legacy by having a big game and helping his team to swipe away homecourt advantage. I liked the Cavs' overall cohesion much better prior to their big midseason trade but if everyone stays healthy they do have a puncher's chance to beat Boston. However, although I can visualize a perfect scenario in which that happens, I think that Boston will prevail over Cleveland in six tough games. I expect Detroit to likewise defeat Orlando in six games. The Celtics have refuted all concerns about the point guard position, their bench and their ability to commit wholeheartedly to playing great defense on a consistent basis. In October I would never have imagined making this pick, but I think that Boston will beat Detroit and advance to the NBA Finals.
In the West, I expect the Lakers to beat the Jazz in a hard fought six or seven game series. The ironic thing about Dallas is that the Mavs acquired Jason Kidd to help deal with guys like Baron Davis and Tony Parker but they may not face either of those guys after all--and one of the players they sent away in that trade, DeSagana Diop, could have helped guard Shaquille O'Neal. I wonder a little bit if elder statesmen O'Neal, Steve Nash and Grant Hill might break down physically in the playoffs but if that does not happen then they will beat the Mavs. The Lakers do not match up particularly well with the Suns. In fact, the Suns have an advantage at every starting position other than shooting guard and they also have the best bench player on either team (Leandro Barbosa). Although these factors point to a Phoenix triumph, there is an X-factor in L.A.'s favor: Kobe Bryant is so close to his fourth championship now he can taste it and he is capable of shifting the balance of a series by going off for 50 points in a game or 25 points in a quarter. During NBA TV's Western Conference playoff preview show they ran a clip of Kobe Bryant walking in the bowels of an arena recently, apparently right after a win. Bryant declared to no one in particular, "It's a new ballgame now. I've got guns now. I ain't going into a shootout with butter knives no more. I got guns now. Now we're going to see what's up." Bryant put off having surgery on his mangled right pinkie finger because he really believes that the Lakers can win the championship. This may sound strange but even though I don't think that they are the favorites--because the Suns have more overall talent--I do think that the Lakers will beat the Suns if Bryant is the dominant force in the series, which means averaging more than 30 ppg and/or taking control in key late game stretches.
Yes, this means that I am buying into the TV networks' dream, a Boston-L.A. Finals (though I think that a Kobe-LeBron Finals showdown would be at least as compelling). The Celtics have more stars than the Lakers do and they are a better defensive team but if the Lakers make it that far then they will be playing good enough defense to keep the games close--and in close games I'm taking Kobe over KG any time. This could truly be a history making year for the NBA. Shaquille O'Neal or Tim Duncan could win a fifth championship ring. Kevin Garnett could wipe away all the memories of his numerous first round exits by winning his first NBA title, in the process returning the NBA's most storied franchise to the pinnacle. However, it looks more and more like this is Kobe's year. He and the Lakers have faced plenty of adversity from start to finish and yet they finished in first place in the West, in the process landing in the side of the bracket that ensures that they won't have to face both the Spurs and the Suns. The one knock on Bryant is that he has not won a championship without Shaquille O'Neal. The Lakers are not as good overall as many people seem to think but, like Bryant said, he is no longer going into battle with "butter knives." I have long felt that Bryant could win a championship with less help than a lot of other stars would need to do so and this year's playoffs will be an interesting test for that theory. I predict that the Lakers will beat the Celtics in six games in the NBA Finals.
posted by David Friedman @ 9:59 AM