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Friday, April 18, 2008

2007-08 Playoff Preview

Before 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.

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posted by David Friedman @ 9:59 AM

8 comments

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8 Comments:

At Friday, April 18, 2008 1:03:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The whole 78% of game 1 winners win the series doesn't really say much. The hosts have more wins and play at home, they are quite possibly, the better team outright as evidenced by their higher win count. What would be more interesting is what happens when the road team wins game 1.

Playoff sideplots:
It's interesting that when Detroit and Dallas won a boatload of games in the regular season, they burned out in the playoffs. Do you think that the factors that affected those teams would also be affecting Boston? Fatigue is already starting to show in the Hornets.

The only compelling first round series in the east is Cavs vs Wiz. You made good points, but LeBron is hurt right now. Aside from Big Z, no one else on the Cavs can create their own shot, or create for others. Arenas off the bench is a great move since it will maintain the on court chemistry and balance, while adding firepower off the bench. Gilbert won't have to guard anybody! LeBron still owns this team though, and if he's anywhere close to healthy, they'll win.

As for the West, I think LA will beat the Nuggets, but it won't be as easy. I think they'd better do it as quick as possible. As bad as the Nuggets are defensively, they are still a very physical team. Having to guard Carmelo while having to deal with Najera on the other end sounds worse than checking Ginobili while being bruised by Bowen.
Kobe also has a nice pump fake that sends his defender crashing onto his shoulder...he already got hurt twice or thrice because of this... Kobe will walk out of Denver, but will he be in one piece? Oh and don't forget how tough Martin can be when there are no enforcers on the other team!

It will be interesting to see if Kidd outshoots Peja here. Dirk can cancel out West and then some. I think the Hornets are overmatched, even when completely healthy/not tired. Weird that if the 2 seed beats the 7th, it would be called an upset... Dallas should emerge ready and fresh, waiting for whoever limps away from the most anticipated first round matchup in recent memory.

I'm not quite sold on the Spurs getting kicked. All Popovich had to do was lose against Utah, and they'd be going through a waaaaaay easier path than the PHX->DAL->LAL gauntlet. Instead, it looked like they wanted to win that game. I don't know what to make of this.
Their bench may be old, but the Suns' bench, well you know.

Z

 
At Friday, April 18, 2008 3:42:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your comments about Kobe are appreciated. Among the basketball writers that i read, you are probably the one who likes Kobe most(or i should say the one who gives Kobe a fair treatment).

Second, after the Shaq trade, you wrote that this would increase the possibility of the Suns winning the championship. At that time, i disagreed with you because i thought that last season the Suns would have been the champs if those incidents had not happened. But now i see your point much better and i give the Suns a slight edge over the Spurs.

Here are my predictions:

Lakers - Nuggets : 4-2
Rockets - Jazz : 1-4
Spurs - Suns : 2-4
Hornets - Mavericks : 3-4

Celtics - Hawks : 4-0
Pistons - Sixers : 4-1
Magic - Raptors : 4-3
Cavaliers - Wizards : 2-4

As a side note, i laughed hard when i read your comment about how Hawks could qualify into the 2nd round. It was funny!

Engin

 
At Friday, April 18, 2008 3:58:00 PM, Blogger vednam said...

I agree with pretty much all the picks except for the Suns over the Spurs. Obviously, Shaq gives the Suns a much better chance to play winning basketball in the playoffs. Still, while Duncan will no longer be able to bully the Suns in the paint, it is worth noting that Duncan found a way to be effective enough against two previous Shaq-led teams (featuring a much better Shaq) to lead the Spurs to victory. It's true that the Spurs, especially Duncan, look a bit old and declining, but we've seen that once the playoffs roll around things are different for them. Two years ago, everyone was making a fuss over how much Duncan had slipped but he ended up having a monster performance in the playoffs. The Spurs are old, but so are the Suns, with Shaq, Nash, and Hill. I could just as easily see the Suns break down as I could the Spurs.

The Suns appeared to have the Spurs' number in the regular season after they acquired Shaq, but I believe that over the course of a 7-game series, Popovich and co. will find a way to identify and exploit the Suns' weaknesses. Duncan, Parker and Ginobili will have to have a huge series, but I believe that the Spurs will prevail in 6 or 7 games.

In any case, the Suns-Spurs match-up will be the most intriguing of the first round, and I'm very excited to see what happens.

 
At Friday, April 18, 2008 9:04:00 PM, Anonymous Hoffman said...

Great preview David.

I have Washington over Cleveland and San Antonio over Phoenix.

Should be a great postseason.

I can't wait!

 
At Friday, April 18, 2008 11:58:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Z:

Regardless of the reason why series winners usually win game one (home court, having more wins, etc.) the reality is that the game one result often foreshadows the outcome of the series; this is not something that I have often heard talked about because usually we hear about the "pivotal" game three or game five or whatever but I can't recall anyone talking about the pivotal game one.

I'm not sure if Detroit "burned out"; the Pistons have not made it back to the Finals since getting rid of Coach Brown and Ben Wallace. Coaching and interior defense have been issues for the team in the later rounds of the playoffs.

Dallas ran into a bad first round matchup and made some strategic errors to boot. I don't think fatigue was a big factor.

I also don't think that fatigue will be a problem for Boston.

I think that LeBron, like MJ, will be healthy enough once the lights come on.

I don't really consider the Nuggets a physical team. K-Mart commits flagrant fouls here and there but he is more bark than bite in terms of playing physically throughout the course of the game; he wants to catch lobs and dunk, not get 10 rpg. Nene and Najera are really their only two physical players.

I don't think that the Spurs are the kind of team that would tank a game to get a certain playoff matchup. I'm sure that they are confident that they can beat anybody. They may very well beat the Suns but I really think that the Shaq deal is just enough to put the Suns over the top--but the Suns need to win that first game in San Antonio.

 
At Saturday, April 19, 2008 12:02:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Engin:

I try to give Kobe--and everyone else--fair treatment. Kobe has been dogged by so many people for so long that when I write fairly about him some people think that I am going over the top in praising him. I don't understand why it should be controversial to say that the guy who is acknowledged to be the best all-around player should win the MVP--and that position really should not be controversial when his team finishes with the best record in the West.

Obviously, I disagree with you about Cavs-Wiz but we'll see what happens.

 
At Saturday, April 19, 2008 12:04:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Hoffman:

It would not surprise me if the Spurs win--I expect the series to be closely fought--but I really think that the Shaq deal will be the difference maker for Phx.

I will be surprised if the Wiz beat the Cavs.

 
At Saturday, April 19, 2008 12:17:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Vednam:

I've picked the Spurs to make the Finals the previous three seasons, so this prediction represents a change for me; I did not buy the idea in previous seasons that the Spurs were getting old but I really think that adding Shaq was the perfect move for Phx, shoring up areas that were previously weaknesses. That said, I fully realize that the Spurs are still capable of beating the Suns and I would not be surprised if they do so--but I expect the Suns to win the series.

It is worth highlighting the last couple points that you made regarding Pop making adjustments and Duncan, Parker and Ginobili needing to have big series. In previous years, the Suns were the team that had to make adjustments and had to rely on huge games from Nash and Amare--and usually that still was not enough. Now the shoe is on the other foot and the Spurs have to make adjustments based on what happened in the two losses to the Suns since Shaq arrived. The Spurs have homecourt advantage and that is nothing to sneeze at but the Suns have a lot of veteran players who are capable of winning on the road.

 

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