2011-12 Playoff PredictionsIt should not surprise anyone that the truncated yet overstuffed 66 game post-lockout schedule resulted in a surplus of injuries, a lot of ugly, inefficient basketball and a huge amount of variance: a team could get blown out one night and then win in a blowout the next night (particularly if the opposing team was resting exhausted and/or injured starters). It is understandable why San Antonio Coach Gregg Popovich rested his stars on several occasions--and no one can argue with the results, as his team is healthy, rested and the proud owners of the West's top seed--but if you only had the time and/or money to go to one NBA game this season and it happened to be one of the games in which the Spurs' stars did not play then you paid full price for a subpar product.
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 (50-16) vs. #8 Philadelphia (35-31)
Season series: Chicago, 2-1
Philadelphia can win if...the 76ers limit their turnovers (something that they did quite well during the regular season), shoot a high percentage from the field against Chicago's staunch defense and contain Derrick Rose's dribble penetration.
Chicago will win because...the Bulls are a deeper, more talented and more physical team.
Other things to consider: It is far from clear that Rose will be 100% healthy during this series but the Bulls should be able to prevail even if he does not play at his highest level.
#2 Miami (46-20) vs. #7 New York (36-30)
Season series: Miami, 3-0
New York can win if...Carmelo Anthony goes nuts (averaging 30-plus ppg while shooting better than .500 from the field), Amare Stoudemire provides solid play (roughly 18 ppg and 9 rpg), Tyson Chandler deters Miami's perimeter players from driving into the paint and the Knicks get excellent play from J.R. Smith, Iman Shumpert and Steve Novak.
Miami will win because...the Heat have a more talented team and the Heat are more consistent defensively. This kind of first round mismatch is the type of series in which LeBron James excels.
Other things to consider: The Knicks went through various different incarnations this season but in the end they are exactly who I predicted that they would be: a low seeded team that is being touted by some so-called experts as the proverbial "team no one wants to face." Why wouldn't Miami (or Chicago) want to face an inconsistent team that does not always play hard? Some of the individual games in this series may be close but the ultimate outcome of the series will never be in doubt.
#3 Indiana (42-24) vs. #6 Orlando (37-29)
Season series: Orlando, 3-1
Orlando can win if...the Magic's three point shooters set every conceivable NBA playoff record for long distance proficiency and Coach Stan Van Gundy magically turns a bunch of subpar defenders into a cohesive defensive unit.
Indiana will win because...the Pacers are deep, talented and focused. Their perimeter defenders will shut down Orlando's three point shooters, while Roy Hibbert and the other Pacer bigs will dominate the paint.
Other things to consider: The bottom line for this series is "No Howard, no hope." If Orlando had a healthy Dwight Howard then the Magic would have at least a puncher's chance but without Howard this series looks like it could be the only first round sweep.
#4 Boston (39-27) vs. #5 Atlanta (40-26)
Season series: Boston, 2-1
Atlanta can win if...the Hawks play focused, disciplined half court basketball: attack the paint on offense instead of settling for jump shots and force the Celtics to take contested two point jump shots.
Boston will win because...the Celtics rested their key players down the stretch of the regular season in order to try to make one last deep playoff run. I don't think that they will quite pull that off but I also don't think that they will bow out in the first round.
Other things to consider: This looks like the strangest and most competitive first round matchup. It is strange because the Celtics are nominally the fourth seed by virtue of being the Atlantic Division champions but the Hawks have home court advantage because they posted the better won/loss record; I expect it to be competitive because the teams are very evenly matched and the Hawks proved capable of challenging the Celtics even back when Boston's Big Three were playing championship caliber basketball. Rajon Rondo's all-around game, Paul Pierce's clutch late game shooting and Kevin Garnett's defense/rebounding should be just enough to enable the Celtics to prevail in what could turn out to be a classic seven game slugfest.
Western Conference First Round
#1 San Antonio (50-16) vs. #8 Utah (36-30)
Season series: San Antonio, 3-1
Utah can win if...the Jazz punish the Spurs in the paint with their young, physical frontcourt.
San Antonio will win because...the Spurs seemingly coasted through the regular season and still posted a dominant record, which means that the Spurs are far more talented and far deeper than most people realized.
Other things to consider: Tim Duncan's per game averages have declined over the past several years as his mpg averages have gradually been trimmed from 40-plus to the high 20s but his per minute production has been remarkably consistent, which suggests that a healthy and rested Duncan is capable of providing 20-10 production if necessary; he may not be able to do that every night but a few such eruptions per series could be a decisive advantage for the Spurs.
#2 Oklahoma City (47-19) vs. #7 Dallas (36-30)
Season series: Oklahoma City, 3-1
Dallas can win if...Dirk Nowitzki has a flashback to the 2011 NBA Finals and proves to be the best player in the series and if the Mavericks force Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook to shoot well below their regular season field goal percentages.
Oklahoma City will win because...the younger, more energetic Thunder will come at the Mavericks in waves and the Mavericks will not be able to keep up.
Other things to consider: An important X factor for this series is James Harden's health. Yes, he has been cleared to play in the wake of the concussion-inducing Metta World Peace elbow but there is no way to predict how effective Harden will be; the aftereffects of a concussion can linger for quite some time. Also, the Thunder fell into a weird funk near the end of the season and coughed up the number one seed to the Spurs even though the Spurs were resting players and hardly seemed to be chasing the top spot. The Mavericks have looked like a one and done team--at best--all season long but it is not out of the realm of possibility that they could peak just as the Thunder are descending. I don't expect that to happen but I am not quite as confident about the Thunder now as I was a month or so ago.
#3 L.A. Lakers (41-25) vs. #6 Denver (38-28)
Season series: L.A., 3-1
Denver can win if...the Nuggets use a small lineup to exploit the Lakers in transition and in pick and roll sets (in the halfcourt), taking their cue from the way that the Mavericks dismantled the Lakers in last year's playoffs.
L.A. will win because...Kobe Bryant essentially gave up the scoring title to be fully rested for this series. The Lakers need for Bryant to score 28-30 ppg while shooting .450-plus from the field; I don't think that he can sustain that pace for a long playoff run at this stage of his career but he should be able to do this for at least one round. If Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol run the floor and post up aggressively then they should be able to obtain high percentage shots; it will also be vitally important for the Lakers that both big men are very engaged and active defensively.
Other things to consider: The seeding suggests mismatch but a glance at the standings shows only a three game difference between these teams--and the Nuggets actually have the better point differential, 2.9 to 1.4. The Nuggets are deeper, younger and more athletic than the Lakers, so this matchup has more than a slight whiff of upset in the air. If Bryant is not able to score a lot of points efficiently then the Lakers will be very vulnerable. The Lakers need for Ramon Sessions to create high percentage shots for himself and his teammates while also providing a defensive presence so that Bryant does not have to expend energy chasing around the Nuggets' point guards. The suspension-induced absence of Metta World Peace will increase Bryant's workload at both ends of the court because I suspect that Coach Mike Brown will elevate Bryant's minutes (by using Bryant at small forward in some lineups) in lieu of expanding his rotation to include young, untested players.
#4 Memphis (41-25) vs. #5 L.A.Clippers (40-26)
Season series: L.A. Clippers, 2-1
L.A. can win if...Chris Paul and Blake Griffin are the two best players on the court and the Clippers play defense with the same kind of exuberance they display after a "Lob City" dunk.
Memphis will win because...the Grizzlies are a physical, tough team that is well built for the playoffs; they can score in the half court but they are also capable of forcing turnovers and scoring in transition.
Other things to consider: I generally scoff at the "team that nobody wants to face" cliche but Memphis is one team about which this is probably true; the Grizzlies worked their way up to the fourth seed despite losing Zach Randolph for more than half the season due to injury and thus should really be looked at as a third seed caliber team or possibly even a second seed caliber team.
In contrast, the Clippers are an overhyped team, much like the New York Knicks; the Clippers went 14-6 with Chauncey Billups in the lineup but they were just 26-20 in the games he missed (and Billups will not return to action this season due to a ruptured Achilles tendon). I had my doubts about the Clippers even with Billups because I did not believe that a team could be a legitimate contender with a starting backcourt measuring 6-0 and 6-3; I expected that Billups would become worn down from having to play against 6-6/6-7 shooting guards on a nightly basis (and perhaps that wear and tear contributed, at least in a small way, to his injury) but without Billups on the court the team lost a lot of leadership and focus. Paul likes to have the ball in his hands all of the time but this physical Memphis team will likely wear him down over the course of the series; look for Paul to have one or two big games early but to be pretty spent by the end of the series when the Grizzlies finally close out the Clippers.
I expect the second round matchups to be Chicago-Boston, Miami-Indiana, San Antonio-Memphis and Oklahoma City-L.A. The Celtics will expend a lot of energy to get past the Hawks and will not have enough left in the tank to deal with the Bulls. The Pacers could pose some interesting challenges for the Heat because they have several tough wing defenders to match up with LeBron James and Dwyane Wade but the Heat will ultimately prevail in that matchup. The Spurs will no doubt enjoy the opportunity to have a rematch against the team that beat them in the first round of the 2011 playoffs; if the Spurs remain healthy then I expect them to get their revenge. It will take all that Kobe Bryant has to push, pull and drag the Lakers past the Nuggets and I don't expect the Lakers to be able to offer much resistance against the Thunder.
Derrick Rose's health will be key in the Eastern Conference Finals. The Bulls are deeper and more experienced than they were last year, so if Rose is anywhere close to 100% then I expect Chicago to beat Miami. All season long I thought that Oklahoma City would win the West but now I think that the Spurs--with game seven at home in their back pockets if necessary--will take out the Thunder.
If Michael Jordan had not retired in 1999 then we may have seen a Chicago-San Antonio NBA Finals after that lockout-shortened season, with the experienced Jordan going against a young Tim Duncan. I expect that the lockout shortened 2012 season will conclude with an older Tim Duncan claiming his fifth championship by defeating young Derrick Rose and the Chicago Bulls in a seven game NBA Finals; the Derrick Rose-Tony Parker matchup could turn out to be a draw (or close to it) and the difference could well be a turn back the clock performance by Duncan, who may use the energy he conserved during the regular season to post a few vintage 20-10 games and seize his fourth Finals MVP.
Here is a summary of the results of my previous predictions both for playoff qualifiers and for the outcomes of playoff series:
In my 2011-2012 Eastern Conference Preview I correctly picked all eight of this season's playoff teams and I went seven for eight in my 2011-2012 Western Conference Preview. Here are my statistics for previous seasons:
2011: East 5/8, West 5/8
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 43/56 in the East and 45/56 in the West for an overall accuracy rate of .786.
Here is my record in terms of picking the results of playoff series:
Total: 73/105 (.695)
At the end of each of my playoff previews I predict which teams will make it to the NBA Finals; in the past seven years I have correctly picked eight of the 14 NBA Finals participants (I missed both teams in 2011, I missed Boston in 2010 and Orlando in 2009 and I missed both Miami and Dallas in 2006). In three of those seven 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.
posted by David Friedman @ 8:22 AM