2008-09 Playoff PredictionsTaking a brief look backward before moving forward with my predictions, in my 2008-09 Eastern Conference Preview I correctly picked six of the eight playoff teams, while I went seven for eight in my 2008-09 Western Conference Preview; my only blemish in the West was picking Phoenix over Denver, while in the East I chose Toronto and Washington over Atlanta and Chicago. The Suns have chronically underachieved ever since losing game one of last year's playoffs, while the Nuggets--simply by maintaining roughly the same overall strength after losing Allen Iverson and Marcus Camby but bringing in Chauncey Billups and Chris Andersen--slid past several Western powers who have been beset by injuries to key All-Star players (San Antonio, Houston, Utah, New Orleans). There is no way that the Raptors should have been this bad--they are essentially the Suns of the East in terms of underachievement--while injuries cost the Wizards not only Gilbert Arenas for longer than expected but also Brendan Haywood, Antonio Daniels (before he was traded) and Caron Butler. In my preview I called the Bulls "the East's 'mystery guest'" and said that in the best case scenario they could win as many as 45 games; that best case scenario came pretty close to happening. One pick that I just flat out got wrong was saying that the Hawks would fall short of making the playoffs; I thought that the East would improve overall (in terms of the record required to nab the eighth spot), so that the Hawks could possibly win more games than they did in 2008 and still miss the playoffs. What actually happened is that the Hawks improved from 37-45 to 47-35, while the win total of the eighth place team only increased by two.
Last season, I correctly picked five of the eight East playoff teams and seven of the eight West playoff teams; in 2006-07, I went seven for eight in the East and six for eight in the West.
In 2007-08, I correctly picked the outcome of 12 of the 15 playoff series and I correctly chose a Finals matchup of the Celtics versus the Lakers, but I wrongly predicted that the Lakers would win the championship. In 2006-07, I also correctly picked the outcome of 12 of the 15 playoff series and that year 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 four years of posting online series by series predictions I have a 43-17 record and have correctly picked both Finals participants before the playoffs began three times.
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 Cleveland (66-16) vs. #8 Detroit (39-43)
Season series: Cleveland, 3-1
Detroit can win if...their big men dominate the paint defensively and on the glass, if the Pistons keep LeBron James out of the paint by forcing him to shoot contested midrange jump shots and if the point guard combination of Rodney Stuckey-Will Bynum makes good decisions down the stretch.
Cleveland will win because...the Cavaliers are a more focused team that is better than the Pistons offensively and--most importantly--defensively. Also, LeBron James is the best player on either team by a wide margin and he figures to be the dominant force in the series. Cleveland's big man rotation of Zydrunas Ilgauskas-Anderson Varejao-Ben Wallace matches up well with Detroit's frontcourt, though Wallace's health status is a concern. If Wallace cannot play, though, the Cavs have an able veteran replacement in Joe Smith plus a youthful, energetic J.J. Hickson can also provide some quality minutes.
Other things to consider: Just three short years ago, the Pistons were the beast of the East and the young Cavs were trying to prove themselves against Detroit in the crucible of playoff competition. Detroit won in 2006, the Cavs beat the Pistons in a tough series the following year but this time around it should be a sweep for the Cavs. I offer a more detailed take on the recent Cleveland-Detroit rivalry in general and this series in particular in my newest CavsNews.com article.
#2 Boston (62-20) vs. #7 Chicago (41-41)
Season series: Boston, 2-1
Chicago can win if...the Bulls defend and rebound well enough to get out and run, enabling them to score points in transition as opposed to having to face Boston's half court defense.
Boston will win because...the defending champions are a playoff tested team that is tougher than Chicago mentally and physically.
Other things to consider: The latest word out of Boston is that Kevin Garnett will miss the entire playoffs; there was an unintentional, dark humor quality to the juxtaposition of the headlines about Garnett's injury and Boston GM Danny Ainge's heart attack: fortunately, Ainge is expected to make a complete recovery. Clearly, losing Garnett is a devastating blow to Boston's chances of repeating. However, in the past two seasons the Celtics showed--at least during the regular season--that they could win a high percentage of games without Garnett, even against good teams. Although there is some validity to the comparison of this athletic Chicago team with the athletic Atlanta team that gave Boston fits in the first round of the playoffs last season, the Bulls do not have anyone who is as good as Joe Johnson. In the absolute worst case scenario for the Celtics, they will rely on home court advantage to advance by winning game seven but I really don't expect this series to be nearly as competitive as some pundits apparently think that it will be. I look forward to seeing Derrick Rose get his first taste of the playoffs.
#3 Orlando (59-23) vs. #6 Philadelphia (41-41)
Season series: Orlando, 3-0
Philadelphia can win if...the Sixers can single cover Dwight Howard, stay at home on the three point shooters and run for layups in the transition game after forcing misses.
Orlando will win because...even though the Sixers did a decent job versus Howard in the regular season (holding him to 15.7 ppg) the Magic still swept the season series; that is a pretty strong sign that even if the 76ers play as well as they can play they still are not likely to beat Orlando four times in seven games. The Magic are more playoff tested than the Sixers and that experience will come in handy down the stretch.
Other things to consider: Every year we hear about lower seeded teams that higher seeded teams supposedly "don't want to see." ESPN's Avery Johnson has already gone on record predicting that the Sixers will beat the Magic. While there have been some famous upsets in that vein (notably Denver over Seattle in 1994 and Golden State over Johnson's Dallas team in 2007), most of the time there are very good reasons that one team is at or below .500 while the other team won 50-plus games and enjoys home court advantage. It would be interesting if someone researched the history of teams that other teams supposedly "don't want to see" and figured out what the playoff winning percentages of those teams turned out to be; this cliche is used every year and usually turns out to be completely off target.
#4 Atlanta (47-35) vs. #5 Miami (43-39)
Season series: Atlanta, 3-1
Miami can win if...Dwyane Wade scores well over 30 ppg with a good shooting percentage and low turnover rate, Jermaine O'Neal provides a presence in the paint and rookies Michael Beasley and Mario Chalmers offer solid contributions.
Atlanta will win because...even though the Heat like to get in the open court and run the Hawks are actually better equipped to play that way than the Heat are.
Other things to consider: This should be a fun series to watch as both teams push the ball up and down the court, with high flyers like Wade, Jamario Moon and Josh Smith providing numerous dunks from all angles. Due to Wade you have to give the Heat a puncher's chance to win a game in Atlanta but over the course of the entire series I expect Atlanta's overall depth and playoff experience to prevail. This series could easily go six or seven games, though, particularly if Miami's rookies Beasley and Chalmers are productive.
Western Conference First Round
#1 L.A. Lakers (65-17) vs. #8 Utah (48-34)
Season series: L.A., 2-1
Utah can win if...they find a way to match up with the Lakers' bigs in the paint, don't allow Kobe Bryant to completely get loose and figure out how to win at least one game on the road (unfortunately for Jazz fans, none of those three things seem likely to happen).
L.A. will win because...the Lakers are a bigger, deeper and more versatile team, Kobe Bryant is easily the best player on either team and the Lakers enjoy home court advantage, a big factor considering Utah's terrible struggles away from home not just this season but for the past couple years.
Other things to consider: The Jazz are a strange team because they are very physical offensively--setting screens and banging people around in the paint--but they are not particularly tough defensively or on the glass. Those two weaknesses are the source of Utah's road difficulties and are why this figures to be a short--yet competitive--series; by that I mean that I expect the Lakers to win in five games but that several of the games will probably be close. The likely scenario is that the Lakers will win one game in L.A. fairly comfortably and one game by a close margin, split the two games in Utah and then close out the series back in L.A. in game five.
#2 Denver (54-28) vs. #7 New Orleans (49-33)
Season series: Tied, 2-2
Denver can win if...the series goes seven games, because home court advantage is most significant in that deciding game. Overall, the most important things for the Nuggets to do are to stay focused defensively on a consistent basis, design/implement an effective plan to try to contain Chris Paul and make sure that Carmelo Anthony and J.R. Smith do not take too many bad shots.
New Orleans will win because...Chauncey Billups will struggle to stay in front of Chris Paul and no other Nugget will be able to deal with Paul either. I expect Paul to have a really big series. I think that the best strategy against him is to guard him one on one, stay at home on the shooters (and on Tyson Chandler rolling to the hoop for lob passes) and dare Paul to consistently score 30-35 points or more but I don't think that the Nuggets will be disciplined enough to effectively carry out such a plan.
Carmelo Anthony has shot .422 or worse from the field in four of his five career playoff series (all first round losses, none lasting more than five games), including .364 or worse in three of those series, and if his offense goes south again the Nuggets will not be able to score enough points to win this series.
Other things to consider: Other than perhaps Atlanta-Miami, this is the most intriguing first round series. Although the respective seedings of these teams whisper "mismatch" the reality is that Denver only won five more games than New Orleans and the Hornets were without the services of Peja Stojakovic and Tyson Chandler for significant portions of the season. When those two players were in the fold last season, the Hornets won 56 games and were the second seeded team in the West. Chandler just returned to action, while Stojakovic is trying to shake off the rust after being in and out of the lineup throughout the season. Neither player is likely to be 100% effective during this series but if they can make some kind of positive contribution that should be enough to push New Orleans over the top assuming that All-Stars Chris Paul and David West perform at a high level. I am not sold on the idea that Denver is an elite team, even though the Nuggets finished with the second best record in the West; I still think that their seeding is an artifact of how banged up most of the other top West teams were.
An interesting thing to watch in this series could be KHF: knucklehead factor. The Nuggets have three guys who are prone to losing control of their emotions and making bad plays at the most inopportune times: Carmelo Anthony, J.R. Smith and Kenyon Martin. One or more of those guys could cost the Nuggets a game by taking poor shots, getting a technical foul, committing a flagrant foul and/or acting the fool in some other fashion.
Game one in this series is HUGE. If the Hornets can stroll into Denver and strip the Nuggets of the home court advantage that the Nuggets worked all season to get then it will be most interesting to see how Coach George Karl and the KHF crew respond. The team that wins game one wins NBA playoff series roughly 80% of the time and if the Hornets take a 1-0 lead I think that they can close out the series in six games. If the series lasts seven games then I expect that the Nuggets will ride the emotion of their home crowd and advance but I'm taking New Orleans in six.
#3 San Antonio (54-28) vs. #6 Dallas (50-32)
Season series: Tied, 2-2
Dallas can win if...Dirk Nowitzki has an MVP flashback and averages something like 30 ppg and 12 rpg, Jason Kidd plays Tony Parker to a standstill (or reasonably close to it) and Jason Terry has a big series.
San Antonio will win because...Tony Parker will run circles around whoever checks him and the Spurs will find a way to get more key defensive stops and rebounds than the Mavericks do.
Other things to consider: The Spurs will obviously miss Manu Ginobili during this postseason but assuming that Tim Duncan's creaky knees don't give out San Antonio has enough to get by Dallas.
#4 Portland (54-28) vs. #5 Houston (53-29)
Season series: Houston, 2-1
Houston can win if...the Rockets are able to keep the pace slow and establish Yao Ming as the dominant player in the series. Ron Artest and Shane Battier must contain Brandon Roy.
Portland will win because...the young Trail Blazers are a well balanced team, with a roster containing quality bigs, good shooters, good playmakers and good slashers. Portland's defense will force the Rockets away from their strengths and the Trail Blazers will score enough in transition--at least at home--to prevent Houston from clamping down defensively in the half court set.
Other things to consider: On the final day of the season, the Rockets still had a chance to finish second in the West but they blew a double digit lead versus Dallas and after all of the other dominoes fell into place they had plummeted to the fifth seed. No matter what anyone says, that is psychologically devastating. There has been a lot of talk about how good the Rockets have been since Tracy McGrady was shut down for the season but what has actually happened is that the Rockets replaced a hobbled McGrady with a healthy Ron Artest. The Rockets gained a lot defensively in that "transaction" but they lost ballhandling, playmaking and clutch shooting. ESPN's Jamal Mashburn rightly noted that a big part of the reason for the collapse versus Dallas was that the Rockets missed McGrady's scoring and playmaking; they had no one who could either feed Yao Ming in the post or else create a good shot and instead they had Artest jacking up poor shots from all angles.
This looks like a series that could go seven games and the Blazers enjoy the trump card of playing that seventh game in Portland. I am a little leery about picking such a young team to win but the flip side of that is that the veteran Rockets have yet to prove that they can get out of the first round, either.
As mentioned in the Denver-New Orleans preview, home court advantage in general and game one in particular are very important; the game one winner almost always wins an NBA playoff series, so that is the best opportunity for the underdog team to seize home court advantage. It gets progressively harder to win on the road during a series and game sevens on the road are generally automatic death unless the underdog team has a cast of grizzled veterans. Last year, the game one winner captured seven of the eight first round series and six of the seven subsequent series. These initial games on Saturday and Sunday are very, very important. Sometimes you hear underdog teams talk about finding a way to get a split in the first two road games but what they really need to do is win game one and put immediate pressure on the favorite.
If these first round series go as I have predicted, we will see second round matchups of Cleveland-Atlanta, Boston-Orlando, L.A.-Portland and San Antonio-New Orleans. The Hawks will not cause the Cavs nearly as many problems this season as they caused the Celtics last year. If Kevin Garnett were healthy then I'd take Boston over Orlando with no second thoughts. Even sans Garnett, the Celtics are good enough to beat the Magic if they use the right game plan and play together; the way to beat Orlando is to single cover Dwight Howard, stay at home on the three point shooters and dare Howard to produce 30-35 points or more (somewhat like the game plan to beat the Hornets involves daring Chris Paul to dominate by scoring). Celtics bigs like Kendrick Perkins and Leon Powe cannot stop Howard but they should be able to contain him enough so that the Celtic perimeter players do not have to leave the three point shooters open. One problem for the Celtics, particularly as they advance deeper in the playoffs, is that their bench is much weaker this year than it was last year (and Garnett's injury further depletes the bench by making one of the reserves become a starter). I am still not a fan of the Stephon Marbury acquisition and if he ends up having to play significant minutes his poor defense and/or erratic shooting and ballhandling could cost Boston a crucial game. Nevertheless, with game seven at home in their back pockets, I expect the Celtics to beat the Magic. However, without Garnett the Celtics have no chance to beat the Cleveland Cavaliers in a seven game series; in fact, I would have picked the Cavs this year even if Garnett were 100%.
Despite not being a playoff team for several years, the Trail Blazers have manufactured in their minds some kind of rivalry with the defending Western Conference Champion L.A. Lakers. The Blazers do very well against the Lakers in Portland but to beat them in the postseason the Blazers will have to win at least one game in L.A. I say "at least" because I suspect that Kobe Bryant takes L.A.'s Portland losing streak very personally and that he will see to it that it comes to an end, in which case the Blazers would then need two wins in L.A. in order to advance--and that is not going to happen.
Last year, I correctly picked the Spurs to beat the Hornets because I expected Manu Ginobili to be the X factor and that is exactly what happened as Ginobili scored a game-high 26 points in San Antonio's game seven victory. The Hornets then signed James Posey to be a "Ginobili stopper" but it now turns out that Ginobili is out of commission for the playoffs. Even though the Hornets have a much worse seed than they did last year, they are in a better bracket (in terms of matchups) and I expect them to face the Lakers in the Conference Finals--but that is where their dream postseason will end, as the Lakers will triumph in six games.
For quite some time we seemed to be heading toward a Cleveland-L.A. Finals showdown, a "clash of the generations" between LeBron James and Kobe Bryant. Last year, I wrote that it would be great to see a Finals matchup between the game's two best players and I think that is exactly what we will see this June. Bryant still has a more complete skill set than James does but James deserves much respect for the way that he has ruthlessly eliminated every weakness (free throw shooting, three point shooting, defense) from his game except for one (midrange jump shot). The Cavs are a better defensive team than the Lakers and in a pivotal March stretch the Cavs seized the overall home court advantage from the Lakers; that defensive edge and the home court advantage are the two reasons that I expect that the Cavs will beat the Lakers in the 2009 NBA Finals.
Whether James claims his first NBA title or Bryant shuts up his critics by winning a championship without Shaquille O'Neal, the sad thing is that the "loser" in the Finals matchup will likely be bombarded with a lot of unfair and inaccurate media criticism; if James and the Cavs fall short then James will be accused of lacking a killer instinct because he did not triumph even with home court advantage, while if Bryant and the Lakers are denied for the second year in a row then all of the old, stupid comparisons of Bryant with Michael Jordan and O'Neal will once again be revisited. The truth is that both the Cavs and the Lakers have had historically great seasons but they did it in the same year and there can only be one champion. Whatever happens, I will celebrate the accomplishment of whoever wins instead of casting aspersions on this year's runner up.
posted by David Friedman @ 3:48 AM