2010-11 Playoff PredictionsThe L.A. Lakers are trying to make a fourth straight trip to the NBA Finals, something that has not been accomplished by any team since the 1984-87 Boston Celtics, who won championships in 1984 and 1986; the Lakers are seeking their third title in a row, which has not been done since the 2000-2002 Lakers "three-peated"--and no team has won three titles while making four straight Finals appearances since the 1959-66 Boston Celtics, winners of a record eight consecutive NBA championships (the 1985-88 Lakers captured the 1985, 1987 and 1988 championships but did not make it to the 1986 Finals).
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 Chicago (62-20) vs. #8 Indiana (37-45)
Season series: Chicago, 3-1
Indiana can win if...the Pacers can contain Derrick Rose, avoid getting obliterated in the paint by the Bulls' bigs and consistently score more than 100 ppg versus Chicago's staunch defense.
Chicago will win because...Derrick Rose will be the best player on the court, the Bulls' bigs will outplay Indiana's inexperienced frontcourt and the Pacers will struggle to consistently score more than 90 ppg.
Other things to consider: The Pacers are a young, improving team and they could possibly win one home game in this series but if the Bulls are focused and injury-free they should be able to sweep.
#2 Miami (58-24) vs. #7 Philadelphia (41-41)
Season series: Miami, 3-0
Philadelphia can win if...Coach Doug Collins finds a time machine and inserts the 1983 versions of Julius Erving and Moses Malone into his starting lineup.
Miami will win because...the Heat have the three best players in the series--LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh; the Heat play the same style that the 76ers do but have much better personnel, which makes this a very bad matchup for Philadelphia.
Other things to consider: The Heat should sweep this series; they tend to feast on inferior teams and they have several distinct matchup advantages to exploit. However, the Heat have had some strange lapses during the season and Collins is an excellent coach, so perhaps the 76ers will extend the series by winning a home game.
#3 Boston (56-26) vs. #6 New York (42-40)
Season series: Boston, 4-0
New York can win if...Carmelo Anthony and Amare Stoudemire each average more than 25 ppg while shooting a high FG% (over .480 for Anthony and over .520 for Stoudemire) and if the Knicks devote a fraction of the energy and effort they put forth on offense to actually offering some kind of defensive resistance.
Boston will win because...the Celtics are a veteran-laden, championship quality club anchored by multiple future Hall of Famers. The Celtics have some frontcourt health issues but that is not a weakness that the Knicks will likely be able to fully exploit.
Other things to consider: Most of the teams that have given the Celtics trouble in the playoffs in recent seasons are athletic teams that push the pace; the Knicks are a high scoring team but with Chauncey Billups running the point they are not a super athletic, push the pace kind of team. The Knicks may hit the Celtics with a flurry of three pointers during a quarter or even for an entire game but over the course of a series the Celtics will force the Knicks to shoot a low percentage from behind the arc.
Has there ever been a more overhyped team than this year's New York Knicks? Yes, the Heat received too much hype but they eventually earned the second seed in the East and they are legitimate championship contenders. The Knicks have been terrible for the better part of the decade and they seemingly tanked the past couple seasons in order to free up enough cap space to sign LeBron James--who I don't believe ever had the slightest intention of going to New York--but instead they ended up with Amare Stoudemire, who teamed up down the stretch with Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups to...drum roll please...lead the Knicks to 42 wins and the sixth seed in a weak Eastern Conference in which two of the playoff teams don't even have winning records. It is mindboggling that Knicks' fans are still grousing about Isiah Thomas while acting as if the current regime has somehow performed a great miracle.
#4 Orlando (52-30) vs. #5 Atlanta (44-38)
Season series: Atlanta, 3-1
Atlanta can win if...the Hawks can single cover Dwight Howard effectively enough to enable their perimeter players to stay at home on Orlando's three point shooters.
Orlando will win because...it is difficult to believe that the undersized Hawks can effectively single cover Howard for the duration of a playoff series.
Other things to consider: Although the Hawks won the 2011 regular season series with the Magic, the Magic swept the Hawks convincingly in the 2010 playoffs. Both teams have made some roster moves since that playoff series but the Hawks still have an undersized frontcourt that Howard should be able to dominate. I am far from completely sold on the Magic and when they made their two big midseason trades I wrote that those moves did not increase their chances to win a title--but the inconsistent, mercurial Hawks hardly inspire much confidence, either. It would not shock me if the Hawks win this series--I can picture a "Hack a Howard" strategy being used or perhaps a game in which Gilbert Arenas shoots 2-14 from the field--but ultimately the Magic have three significant tangible advantages: they have the best player, they have game seven at home if necessary and they have the best coach. I am not saying that Larry Drew is a bad coach but the Hawks won nine fewer games this season with essentially the same roster that Mike Woodson had in 2009-10--and Stan Van Gundy is a top level coach, perhaps just below the cream of the crop (Phil Jackson and Gregg Popovich).
Western Conference First Round
#1 San Antonio Spurs (61-21) vs. #8 Memphis Grizzlies (46-36)
Season series: Tied, 2-2
Memphis can win if...Zach Randolph outplays Tim Duncan, the Grizzlies contain the Spurs' three point shooters without exposing themselves to backdoor cuts and the Grizzlies play intelligently and unselfishly at both ends of the court.
San Antonio will win because...they are more talented and deeper than the Grizzlies. The Spurs have a nice blend of championship experience and youthful energy.
Other things to consider: The Spurs may be the most overlooked 60-plus win team ever, particularly considering that their core players have won three championships together since 2003. The Grizzlies apparently wanted this matchup--or at least preferred it to the "option" of playing the Lakers--because they made little effort to win the final few games of the season and move up to the seventh seed. I understand why the Grizzlies did not relish the prospect of facing the two-time defending champions but the old cliche about being careful what you wish for comes to mind. Manu Ginobili's arm injury could be a major X factor later on in the playoffs but the Spurs have enough talent and depth to defeat the Grizzlies even if Ginobili misses some games or performs below par.
#2 L.A. Lakers (57-25) vs. #7 New Orleans (46-36)
Season series: L.A., 4-0
New Orleans can win if...a micro black hole envelops Los Angeles and sucks Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol into a parallel universe.
L.A. will win because...the Hornets have no one who can cover Bryant or Gasol.
Other things to consider: TNT's Kenny Smith says that the Lakers disrespect the NBA and their opponents because of their cockiness and their apparent belief that they can simply flip a switch to instantly be dominant but that is an oversimplification; the Lakers may be cocky or complacent--Lamar Odom publicly said that they are--but people seem to be blithely dismissing how difficult it is to reach the NBA Finals year after year and then finish another season as a top two seed. Kobe Bryant's age/nagging injuries have forced Coach Phil Jackson to limit Bryant's regular season minutes and it should be obvious that five minutes per game less of Bryant explains at least a few of the Lakers' "questionable" losses--not to mention the fact that Bryant hardly practices full speed anymore, which inevitably leads to a lack of sharpness for the team collectively (Bryant used to be a hard driving practice player in all senses of that phrase). Bryant's minutes will increase during the postseason and I suspect that the extra days off will enable him to practice more frequently; those two factors should make the Lakers a more effective, more focused team.
#3 Dallas (57-25) vs. #6 Portland (48-34)
Season series: Tied, 2-2
Portland can win if...the Blazers' wave of versatile defenders is able to slow down Dirk Nowitzki and force him to shoot a low field goal percentage. LaMarcus Aldridge and Gerald Wallace both need to perform at an All-Star level. It would also help if the Blazers can win the battle of AARP point guards (Andre Miller versus Jason Kidd).
Dallas will win because...Nowitzki is the best player in the series and an underrated playoff performer. Tyson Chandler has made the Mavericks a better defensive team and a more physical unit than they used to be. Jason Terry must shoot a good percentage, particularly in the fourth quarters of close games.
Other things to consider: Portland is a chic pick to win this series and the Blazers are this year's proverbial "team that nobody wants to face," a designation that is annually handed out informally to a lower seeded team that some national media members would like to hype up; someone should go through the archives and find out the winning percentages of such teams, because I suspect that most "teams nobody wanted to face" actually did not go particularly far in the postseason (I think that Carmelo Anthony's Nuggets received that title several of the years that they lost in the first round). The Blazers are a very good team and the addition of Gerald Wallace certainly helps them at both ends of the court but they are the sixth seed for good reason--they are not an elite team. The Mavericks have consistently been a better team than the Blazers all season long, they have the best individual player in this series plus home court advantage and I expect the Mavericks to win in six games at the most.
#4 Oklahoma City (55-27) vs. #5 Denver (50-32)
Season series: Oklahoma City, 3-1
Denver can win if...the Nuggets' new-found attention to detail defensively enables them to slow down Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. The frontcourt matchups will also be crucial; the Nuggets must neutralize the Thunder's revamped power forward-center rotation.
Oklahoma City will win because...Kevin Durant is the best player in the series (do you detect a theme in this article regarding playoff matchups?), plus the additions of Kendrick Perkins and Nazr Mohammed shored up the team's one weakness--a lack of interior size and strength.
Other things to consider: If there is really a team that other teams legitimately don't want to face (other than the obvious choices among the top two or three seeds in each conference) then the Thunder certainly qualify; they are young, athletic and now have enough size to match up with anyone. The only things that could hold them back (in later rounds) are their collective playoff inexperience and, perhaps, if Durant struggles to score efficiently against elite defenses.
It is interesting that after the Nuggets acquired Chauncey Billups the "stat gurus" and national media members agreed that Billups "changed the culture" in Denver (even though the Nuggets had been a 50 win team with Allen Iverson the previous season) but not much is being said about Billups' culture changing impact this season when his new team (the Knicks) has been a .500 squad since he arrived and his old team (the Nuggets) looks tougher, more cohesive and more dangerous than they ever did with Billups. This is yet another example of how similarly biased some "stat gurus" and some media members really are: both groups have axes to grind against Allen Iverson (for various reasons), so when the Pistons floundered and the Nuggets thrived in 2009 several "stat gurus" and various media members fell all over themselves praising Billups and trashing Iverson, completely ignoring the various other factors that contributed to the differing fortunes of those two teams. The nuanced reality--too complicated for a soundbite and not comprehensible to the "stat gurus"--is that Iverson played very well for Denver, Billups also played very well for Denver, the Pistons' collapse cannot be blamed on one player or one trade, the Nuggets became deeper and more defensive-minded after the Anthony trade and Billups' vaunted culture changing abilities cannot magically transform a New York team that has serious defensive liabilities.
I expect the second round matchups to be Chicago-Orlando, Miami-Boston, San Antonio-Oklahoma City and L.A.-Dallas. The Bulls will single cover Howard, smother Orlando's three point shooters and make short work of the Magic. Before the Kendrick Perkins trade I thought that the Celtics had the perfect roster to beat the Heat--Rajon Rondo could exploit the Heat at point guard, while Perkins and the other Celtic bigs could push around the Heat's center by committee. The Celtics have actually been able to get by defensively without Perkins but they miss his toughness and the solid (moving) screens that he set to free up Paul Pierce and Ray Allen. The Heat have homecourt advantage and they no doubt gained confidence by routing the Celtics late in the season after losing to them three straight times. Unless LeBron James inexplicably quits, the Heat will beat the Celtics.
The Thunder have the right combination of youth, athleticism and size to cause the Spurs a world of trouble but if the Spurs stay healthy I think that their veteran savvy (plus home court advantage) will enable them to triumph in seven games. There is a perception that the Lakers had a bad/disappointing season but their 57 wins match their total from last year and also from 2008 when they made the first of their three straight trips to the NBA Finals. The Spurs sprinted out to a nearly insurmountable lead in the race for the West's top seed, but the Lakers did just enough after the All-Star break to secure the second seed and earn home court advantage in the second round. The Mavericks have generally had trouble defending Bryant, so--with game seven at home as a trump card if necessary--the Lakers will eliminate Dallas.
Both Conference Finals will be epic. In the East, the likely MVP award winner Derrick Rose and his well balanced, excellently coached Chicago Bulls will square off against Miami's power trio of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. The Bulls are an outstanding defensive team, while the Heat have had trouble executing offensively down the stretch in close games, as I described last month: "Henry Abbott's repeated attempts to 'prove' that Kobe Bryant is not a great clutch player look even more ridiculous after nearly a full season of watching LeBron James and Dwyane Wade team up to look like clowns piling out of a car at the circus every time the Heat are in a close game." The "clown car" offense that also transforms Chris Bosh from an All-NBA caliber player to a Horace Grant clone waiting for scraps on the weak side is not going to get the job done versus elite teams in the NBA playoffs; the Heat will not need to win close games in the first round and they have game seven at home versus Boston if necessary but I suspect that we will see the "clown car" offense reemerge at some point versus Chicago. I would have never imagined making this pick before the season began--I expected the Celtics or possibly even the (old look) Magic to knock off the Heat and I did not consider the Bulls a legit contender--but Chicago will delight fans in Cleveland (and many other cities) by defeating Miami.
The Lakers and Spurs have been the teams of the new millennium not just in the West but in the league overall, collectively claiming the 2000-03, 2005, 2007 and 2009-10 NBA championships. The Spurs own home court advantage and they have a deeper roster but the Lakers have Kobe Bryant, who has been a Spurs-killer in several playoff series. The Lakers will win one of the first two games on the road and close out the series in six games.
The NBA Finals will represent a full circle journey for Phil Jackson, who began winning championships two decades ago in Chicago; he will return to the Windy City trying to cap off his coaching career with an unprecedented fourth three-peat. The Bulls will pose many of the same challenges that the Celtics did in the 2010 NBA Finals but ultimately this series will come down to a battle between Kobe Bryant and Derrick Rose; Bryant will likely check Rose at least part of the time, while Rose is unlikely to guard Bryant, but both players will score 25-plus ppg while also creating shot opportunities for their teammates. The Lakers will split the first two games in Chicago, take two out of three in L.A. and then win the title in Jackson's old stomping grounds with a game six victory that probably will come down to the final possession. Coach Jackson will leave on top, Kobe Bryant will tie Michael Jordan by winning a sixth championship ring--one more than Magic Johnson but five fewer than Bill Russell--and, unless a lot of progress is made off of the court, this may be the last NBA game we watch for quite some time.
Here is a summary of the results of my previous predictions both for playoff qualifiers and for the outcomes of playoff series:
In my 2010-2011 Eastern Conference Preview I correctly picked five of this season's eight playoff teams and I also went five for eight in my 2010-2011 Western Conference Preview. Here are my statistics for previous seasons:
2010: East 6/8, West 7/8
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 35/48 in the East and 38/48 in the West for an overall accuracy rate of .760
Here is my record in terms of picking the results of playoff series:
Total: 63/90 (.700)
At the end of each of my playoff previews I predict which teams will make it to the NBA Finals; in six years I have correctly picked eight of the 12 NBA Finals participants (I missed Boston in 2010 and Orlando in 2009, plus I missed both Miami and Dallas in 2006). In three of those six years I got both teams right but only once did I get both teams right and predict the correct result (2007). I track these results 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 NBA Finals may differ from what I predicted in April--the most obvious example of this is the 2006 playoffs, when neither of my projected Finalists actually made it to the Finals!
posted by David Friedman @ 4:31 AM