2009-10 Playoff PredictionsThe Cleveland Cavaliers are well positioned to make their second appearance in the NBA Finals in four years, while the Western Conference playoff race is more wide open than it has been in the past couple seasons because Kobe Bryant's injuries have made the L.A. Lakers much more vulnerable.
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 (61-21) vs. #8 Chicago (41-41)
Season series: Tied, 2-2
Chicago can win if...Derrick Rose is the most productive player on the court, Joakim Noah and the Bulls' bigs hold their own on the boards with Cleveland's bigs and the Bulls find a way to keep LeBron James reasonably in check without allowing Cleveland's three point shooters to fire at will.
Cleveland will win because...the Cavaliers are bigger, more talented and deeper. The Cavs not only have the best player in the series--LeBron James--but their second unit could give the Bulls' starters a run for their money. Cleveland's outstanding defense will suffocate Chicago's anemic offense.
Other things to consider: Shaquille O'Neal is expected to make his much anticipated return to action in game one. Look for the Cavs to feed him the ball in the post early in the game both to get him in the flow and also to force the Bulls to reveal their hand defensively; if O'Neal is single-covered then he will look to score but if the Bulls double-team him then Antawn Jamison and/or three point shooters Mo Williams and Anthony Parker should have a field day on the weak side.
I provide a more detailed analysis of this series at CavsNews.com.
#2 Orlando (59-23) vs. #7 Charlotte (44-38)
Season series: Orlando, 3-1
Charlotte can win if...Coach Larry Brown comes up with a game plan to contain Dwight Howard in the post without giving up open three point shots to Rashard Lewis, Vince Carter and Jameer Nelson.
Orlando will win because...the Magic are a very underrated defensive team that will hold Charlotte's key players--Stephen Jackson and Gerald Wallace--below their normal field goal percentages. The Magic's crisp ball movement will really put Charlotte's defense to the test.
Other things to consider: Orlando's first two wins against Charlotte came so early in the season that they can be disregarded in terms of foreshadowing what might happen in this series; the rotation that the Bobcats used down the stretch of the season proved quite capable of challenging the Magic, so this will not necessarily be a series in which the second seed will walk all over the seventh seed. Nevertheless, the Magic have both the best player in the series in Dwight Howard and a more talented team overall so they should prevail, probably in no more than six games.
#3 Atlanta (53-29) vs. #6 Milwaukee (46-36)
Season series: Atlanta, 2-1
Milwaukee can win if...the Hawks have poor shot selection and lose discipline defensively.
Atlanta will win because...the Hawks had the more talented and playoff-tested team even before Andrew Bogut suffered his season-ending injury; without Bogut the Bucks will have difficulty matching up in the paint at both ends of the court.
Other things to consider: If Bogut were available then this could have been a much more intriguing series but as things stand now the Hawks should be able to win this series in five games if they stay focused.
#4 Boston (50-32) vs. #5 Miami (47-35)
Season series: Boston, 3-0
Miami can win if...Dwyane Wade has a monster series and he receives adequate support from Jermaine O'Neal, Michael Beasley and Udonis Haslem.
Boston will win because...even though the Celtics look like they are running on fumes they have too much pride--and too much talent--to be eliminated in the first round.
Other things to consider: The Celtics have not been a great home team all season, so it should not surprise anyone if Wade leads the Heat to a split in the first two games in Boston--nor should it surprise anyone if the Celtics immediately counter by winning at least one game in Miami. The aging, inconsistent Celtics will likely drag out this series longer than it should take before finally putting the Heat away.
Western Conference First Round
#1 L.A. Lakers (57-25) vs. #8 Oklahoma City (50-32)
Season series: L.A., 3-1
Oklahoma City can win if...Kobe Bryant continues to be as limited as he has been recently and if the Thunder rediscover the defensive intensity that they had for most of this season. Naturally, the Thunder will also need for Kevin Durant to perform at a very high level.
L.A. will win because...Kobe Bryant likely used his recent time off to figure out what kind of adjustments he has to make to maintain his normal productivity and efficiency despite his various injuries. Pau Gasol should have an advantage in the post if he plays with the proper mindset and aggressiveness. The Lakers are obviously a much more experienced team and that savvy should make a difference in the playoffs when the importance of every possession is magnified.
Other things to consider: Bryant shot just .300 from the field in his three games in April and if he is not able to significantly improve that percentage then the Lakers will lose this series no matter what Gasol or anyone else does; Bryant averaged 30.1 ppg on .479 shooting in the 2008 playoffs and he scored 30.2 ppg on .457 shooting in the 2009 playoffs: without that efficient and productive scoring punch--which forces the opponent to double team Bryant and thus opens up scoring opportunities for Gasol and the other Lakers--the Lakers are in fact not as good as the Thunder. I am predicting a Lakers victory in this series based on the assumption that Bryant will figure out a way to average at least 26-28 ppg while shooting at least .450 from the field.
#2 Dallas (55-27) vs. #7 San Antonio (50-32)
Season series: Dallas, 3-1
San Antonio can win if...Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker all play at a high level at the same time. That has rarely been the case this season but Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich carefully managed the minutes of his three stars with the hope that they would be fresh and ready to go come playoff time.
Dallas will win because...the deep and talented Mavericks match up quite well with the Spurs. The Mavs can go big or small and they can play fast or slow.
Other things to consider: If the Spurs' stars are truly all at full strength then this could be a knockdown, drag out, seven game battle royale but the Spurs have just never seemed to be able to click on all cylinders this season: their defense is not as good as it was during their championship seasons and their offense gets bogged down at times. It would be entertaining to see these teams go the distance but I think that the Mavs will not need seven games to eliminate the Spurs.
#3 Phoenix (54-28) vs. #6 Portland (50-32)
Season series: Portland, 2-1
Portland can win if...the shorthanded Blazers find enough smoke and mirrors to slow down the Suns' well oiled offensive machine.
Phoenix will win because...the Suns have been on fire (forgive the pun) down the stretch and the Blazers will neither be able to contain the Suns defensively nor score enough points offensively to keep up.
Other things to consider: It is impressive that the injury-depleted Blazers made it this far but Brandon Roy's knee injury is likely the death knell for their chances to advance past the first round.
#4 Denver (53-29) vs. #5 Utah (53-29)
Season series: Denver, 3-1
Utah can win if...Carlos Boozer is healthy enough to make a significant contribution, Deron Williams at least cancels out Chauncey Billups and the Jazz--who have not been a great road team in recent years, though they were better in that regard this season--find the necessary composure to win at least one game in Denver.
Denver will win because...Carmelo Anthony, Chauncey Billups and J.R. Smith will win their matchups.
Other things to consider: Denver's extra home game could prove to the difference in a series that may well go the distance. If these teams were movies then their soundtracks would be the beeping that a truck makes when it backs up, because both squads backed their way into their current seedings: the Jazz could have potentially finished as high as second in the West with a home victory over Phoenix in the final game of the season but instead they got blown out and plummeted to fifth, while Denver dropped from second to fifth in recent weeks before rallying to grab the fourth seed. Both teams are dealing with injury problems to key players (Carlos Boozer and Andrei Kirilenko for the Jazz, Chris Andersen and Kenyon Martin for the Nuggets), so if one team turns out to be markedly healthier than the other as the series progresses that could shift the balance of power but as things stand now the Nuggets look like the favorite.
If these first round series go as I have predicted, we will see second round matchups of Cleveland-Boston, Orlando-Atlanta, L.A.-Denver and Dallas-Phoenix. The Celtics at full strength could barely hold off the Cavs two years ago, so this time around the Cavs should not have much trouble advancing. The Hawks do not match up particularly well with the Magic, so it seems as if Cleveland and Orlando will face each other in the Eastern Conference Finals for the second year in a row. The Cavs remade their roster specifically with the goal of matching up better with the Magic. Even though the Magic also upgraded their roster I expect the Cavs to prevail.
The balance of power in the West depends largely on which Kobe Bryant we see during the postseason; if we see the Bryant who averages 30 ppg while shooting at least .450 from the field then the Lakers will make it to the NBA Finals for the third straight year but if Bryant is unable to perform at that level then the West is suddenly quite wide open. It is not beyond the realm of possibility that after all of their frustrations, roster moves and coaching changes the Suns could emerge as the Western Conference Champion. However, I am going to operate under the assumption that even if his injuries cause Bryant to be a bit less effective or consistent than usual he will still be the best player on the court for long enough to tip the balance in the Lakers' favor. Thus, I expect that the Lakers will beat the Nuggets in the second round. A Dallas-Phoenix second round matchup could be the most exciting and competitive playoff series of the year, with the Mavs needing homecourt advantage to prevail in seven games--and then it could very well take the Lakers seven games to move past the Mavs.
I have been saying for two years that I would like to see a Finals showdown featuring the game's two best players. I expected it to happen last year but the Cavs did not hold up their end of the bargain. Assuming that Bryant stays reasonably healthy we will probably at last get to see LeBron and Kobe go head to head with the championship on the line--but I fear that the matchup will not be quite as compelling as it could have been if it had happened last year when both players were healthy and at the top of their games. The Lakers have no depth, so even if Bryant manages to push, pull and drag them back to the Finals they will have their hands full with the Cavs and I expect that we will end up seeing the 2010 version of what Michael Jordan's 1991 Chicago Bulls did to Magic Johnson's L.A. Lakers. No matter how much LeBron James downplays the importance of who he might face in the NBA Finals, he certainly would love to win his first championship by defeating Kobe Bryant and the defending champion Lakers--and Shaquille O'Neal must be positively giddy at the prospect of one-upping his former teammate in head to head combat.
Usually I place the results of my earlier predictions at the top of my Playoff Preview but now that I have made several years' worth of predictions I decided to put this summary at the end of the post:
In my 2009-2010 Eastern Conference Preview I correctly picked six of this season's eight playoff teams, while I went seven for eight in my 2009-2010 Western Conference Preview. Here are my statistics for previous seasons:
2009: East 6/8, West 7/8
2008: East 5/8, West 7/8
2007: East 7/8, West 6/8
2006: East 6/8, West 6/8
That adds up to 30/40 in the East and 33/40 in the West for an overall accuracy rate of 63/80 (.788).
Here is my record in terms of picking the results of playoff series:
Total: 53/75 (.707)
At the end of each of my playoff previews I predict which teams will make it to the NBA Finals; in five years I have correctly picked seven of the 10 Finals participants (I missed Orlando last year and I missed both Miami and Dallas in 2006). In three of those five years I got both teams right but only once did I get both teams right and predict the correct result (2007). I count these records separately from the series by series predictions because a lot can change from the start of the playoffs to the NBA Finals, so my prediction right before the Finals may differ from what I predicted in April--and it definitely differed in 2006 when neither of my projected Finalists actually made it to the Finals!
Overall, I think that I have done a pretty solid and consistent job of predicting who will make the playoffs and who will win each playoff series.
posted by David Friedman @ 7:32 AM