2012-13 Playoff PredictionsThe defending champion Miami Heat got off to a relatively slow start before authoring an incredible winning streak--their 27 straight victories rank second only to the 1972 L.A. Lakers' 33 game winning streak--and finishing with a 66-16 record. The Heat are just the 14th professional basketball team to win at least 66 games during the regular season; nine of the previous 13 such squads won the championship:
1966-67 Philadelphia 76ers 68-13 Won Championship
1970-71 Milwaukee Bucks 66-16 Won Championship
1971-72 L.A. Lakers 69-13 Won Championship
1971-72 Kentucky Colonels (ABA) 68-16 Lost in Eastern Division Semifinals
1972-73 Boston Celtics 68-14 Lost in Eastern Conference Finals
1985-86 Boston Celtics 67-15 Won Championship
1991-92 Chicago Bulls 67-15 Won Championship
1995-96 Chicago Bulls 72-10 Won Championship
1996-97 Chicago Bulls 69-13 Won Championship
1999-00 L.A. Lakers 67-15 Won Championship
2006-07 Dallas Mavericks 67-15 Lost in First Round
2007-08 Boston Celtics 66-16 Won Championship
2008-09 Cleveland Cavaliers 66-16 Lost in Eastern Conference Finals
The 1972 Colonels fell in six games to the New York Nets in one of the biggest upsets in pro basketball history. John Havlicek's shoulder injury doomed the 1973 Celtics against a powerful New York team that had won the 1970 title and that won the 1973 title after defeating the Celtics. In 2007, Don Nelson outcoached Avery Johnson as Nelson's Golden State Warriors upset Nelson's former team, the Dallas Mavericks. A dominant Dwight Howard surrounded by several great three point shooters took out LeBron James and the 2009 Cavaliers.
What does this little history lesson mean? Unless the Heat suffer a serious injury to a key player or LeBron James reverts to his puzzling 2010/2011 playoff form, the Heat will follow in the footsteps of most other 66 win teams and they will capture the NBA championship.
Here is my take on the first round matchups, followed by some thoughts about the 2013 NBA Finals.
Eastern Conference First Round
#1 Miami (66-16) vs. #8 Milwaukee (38-44)
Season series: Miami, 3-1
Milwaukee can win if...their guards break the Heat down for layups and kickout passes to three point shooters and if Larry Sanders deters LeBron James and Dwyane Wade from attacking the hoop--nah, even if all of that happens it probably will only be enough to prevent a sweep. Milwaukee's only real chance is if LeBron James gets hurt and/or the Heat are completely unfocused.
Miami will win because...the Heat have the vastly superior team. What more needs to be said?
Other things to consider: LeBron James established himself as the best regular season player in the NBA in 2009 but he still had weaknesses in his skill set, problems that were repeatedly exposed during postseason play against elite teams: his shot selection was questionable, his outside shot was erratic, he did not post up as well or as often as he should and he inexplicably quit versus Boston in the 2010 Eastern Conference semifinals and against Dallas in the 2011 NBA Finals against Dallas. Now, James does not have problems--he is a problem, at least for opposing teams. His shot selection has vastly improved, his outside shot is no longer a weakness, he has become a willing and efficient post player and he delivered numerous clutch performances in the 2012 NBA playoffs, culminating with his masterful effort against Oklahoma City in the 2012 NBA Finals.
#2 New York (54-28) vs. #7 Boston (41-40)
Season series: New York, 3-1
Boston can win if...Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Jason Terry are rejuvenated by the Hot Tub Time Machine. The Celtics must slow the game down, attack the Knicks in the paint both to score and to create foul trouble and then defensively the Celtics must contain the Knicks' three point shooters without permitting Carmelo Anthony to explode for 35-40 points.
New York will win because...the Celtics are neither fearsome enough defensively nor dynamic enough offensively to beat the Knicks in a seven game series.
Other things to consider: New York Coach Mike Woodson has used an interesting formula to lift his squad above every team in the East except Miami: low turnover rate plus prolific three point shooting plus isolation scoring delivered by Carmelo Anthony and J.R. Smith plus strong defense/heady leadership supplied by Tyson Chandler and Jason Kidd. The Celtics must find a way to disrupt several of those elements but that will be a tall task for an aging, injury-depleted team.
#3 Indiana (49-32) vs. #6 Atlanta (44-38)
Season series: Tied, 2-2
Atlanta can win if...the Hawks make a concerted effort to intelligently and aggressively attack Indiana's suffocating defense.
Indiana will win because...the Pacers are bigger, stronger, tougher and more focused.
Other things to consider: The Hawks have been stuck in NBA no-man's land for several years; they are good enough to consistently make the playoffs but they lack the talent/focus to be a legit contender.
#4 Brooklyn (49-33) vs. #5 Chicago (45-37)
Season series: Chicago, 3-1
Brooklyn can win if...Brook Lopez dominates the paint while Deron Williams and Joe Johnson control the perimeter. Unless Derrick Rose comes back and plays at an MVP level, the Nets have more talent than the Bulls.
Chicago will win because...the Bulls' defense will hold Williams and Johnson to low field goal percentages without allowing Lopez to pick up the slack.
Other things to consider: This series features a huge coaching mismatch. TNT's Kenny Smith says that if a team loses by more than five points then blame the players but if it loses by less than five points blame the coach; the games in this series figure to be low scoring and close and I trust Chicago's Tom Thibodeau much more than I trust Brooklyn's P. J. Carlesimo; this is not just about in-game adjustments but also about elements of preparation that give one team an edge over another.
Western Conference First Round
#1 Oklahoma City (60-22) vs. #8 Houston (45-37)
Season series: Oklahoma City, 2-1
Houston can win if...the Rockets shoot an extremely high three point percentage and are able to generate a large number of fast break points by forcing turnovers.
Oklahoma City will win because...the Thunder have two of the league's top five players, a deep, well-balanced roster and an excellent system implemented by an outstanding coach.
Other things to consider: The Rockets paid max money to lure James Harden away from the Thunder but the Thunder improved their winning percentage almost as much as the Rockets improved theirs. Harden's modus operandi primarily consists of either jacking up long jumpers or else barreling into the paint and throwing his body into defenders to draw a foul call; when he is hitting his jumper and/or getting a favorable whistle he can put up huge numbers but when his jumper is off and he meets resistance in the paint his scoring plummets and his turnovers soar. Harden does not post up often, nor does he do much from the midrange area, so the correct defensive philosophy against him is to run him off of the three point line and then meet him in the paint with either shot blockers and/or players who are willing to take charges. Last year, Harden's productivity and efficiency progressively dropped off in each round of the playoffs and that pattern is likely to repeat itself in this series, with Harden failing to match his regular season numbers; Harden may erupt for one big game but overall he is likely to shoot a low percentage and commit a high number of turnovers against the Thunder if they execute the defensive game plan described above.
#2 San Antonio (58-24) vs. #7 L.A. Lakers (45-37)
Season series: San Antonio, 2-1
L.A. can win if...Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol dominate the paint. The Lakers lack depth, perimeter shooting and a wing player who can create shots for himself/other players so they must rely on their Twin Towers to be very productive at both ends of the court.
San Antonio will win because...the Spurs are deeper, more consistent and better coached than the Lakers. The Spurs will not beat themselves with silly turnovers or by giving up a parade of uncontested layups.
Other things to consider: I am going to channel Yoda here: "For a long time these Lakers I have watched. Always their minds are on their contracts or their past or their future--never on where they are now, on who they are playing. A true champion does not think of such things. A champion must have the most serious mind and the highest level of dedication. They are careless. They lack focus."
I don't trust the Lakers. I don't trust Coach D'Antoni's no-defense philosophy, I don't trust the bench players, I don't trust Pau Gasol's ability to be the number one offensive option with Kobe Bryant out of the lineup and I don't completely trust Dwight Howard's health, though Howard has looked much better since the All-Star break. I absolutely do not trust the Lakers to play intelligently in the waning moments of a close game.
The Lakers literally ran Kobe Bryant into the ground in order to barely qualify for the playoffs--congratulations, guys, on winning two games in a row without Bryant after he wrecked his body in order to turn around a season nearly derailed by what ESPN's Jeff Van Gundy rightly called the "deplorable" lack of effort displayed by Howard and Gasol in the first 40 games or so.
Yes, the Spurs are a better matchup for the Lakers than the Thunder.
No, the Lakers do not have a realistic chance to win this series.
Unless Tim Duncan and Tony Parker are completely incapacitated by injuries, the Spurs will cruise past the Lakers even without Manu Ginobili.
#3 Denver (57-25) vs. #6 Golden State (47-35)
Season series: Denver, 3-1
Golden State can win if...the Warriors bury the Nuggets under a barrage of three pointers.
Denver will win because...the Nuggets are athletic and deep. Even without Danilo Gallinari (who suffered a season-ending knee injury), the Nuggets still come at their opponents in waves. The Nuggets play an uptempo game just like the Warriors do but the Nuggets run for dunks and layups while the Warriors run for three pointers.
Other things to consider: The Warriors have a puncher's chance because of their great shooting, David Lee's underrated impact and the Nuggets' injuries but ultimately Denver's athleticism and experience will prevail.
#4 L.A. Clippers (56-26) vs. #5 Memphis (56-26)
Season series: L.A. Clippers, 3-1
L.A. can win if...Chris Paul and Blake Griffin dominate in the half court set and the Clippers pay attention to detail defensively.
Memphis will win because...the Grizzlies will slow the game down and turn this series into a grind it out battle.
Other things to consider: The Grizzlies blew a huge lead at home versus the Clippers in game one of last season's playoffs, lost game three by one point and lost game four in overtime but still bounced back to force a seventh game at home; the Grizzlies led that contest by one after three quarters before being outscored by 11 points in the final stanza. The Grizzlies looked like the better team for significant portions of that series but still lost; this time around they are healthier and more experienced and they will beat the Clippers.
I expect the second round matchups to be Miami-Chicago, New York-Indiana, Oklahoma City-Memphis, and San Antonio-Denver. If the Bulls can get their whole roster on the court to face the Heat then this could be an intriguing series but with Derrick Rose out of action and other players battling nagging injuries Chicago does not have enough firepower to deal with Miami. The Pacers are more physical and more defensive-minded than the Knicks, two factors that are very important in the playoffs. Regardless of what many people have said, the deeper the Grizzlies advance in the playoffs the more they will miss Rudy Gay's scoring ability; the Grizzlies do not have enough scoring punch to beat the Thunder. Recently, the Spurs have had some great regular seasons only to prove vulnerable in the playoffs and if Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker are not fully healthy then that will be the case again this year versus Denver--but I expect the Spurs to win in seven games to advance to the Western Conference Finals.
Indiana has the size and toughness to challenge Miami but if the Pacers could not knock out a wounded Heat squad after taking a 2-1 lead last season then why should we believe that the Pacers are going to beat a healthy Heat team that now has championship confidence? The Spurs will be a tough, crafty opponent for the Thunder but the one-two punch of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook will once again overwhelm the Spurs.
The Finals rematch will be intriguing. The Thunder are hungry to win their first ring but the Heat are just as hungry to establish themselves as an all-time great team. The Thunder have the necessary parts to beat the Heat but do they have the right mindset? The Heat just seem to have the Thunder's number. The 2013 Finals will be more competitive than the 2012 Finals but LeBron James is on a mission and he will lead Miami to a second consecutive title.
Here is a summary of the results of my previous predictions both for playoff qualifiers and for the outcomes of playoff series:
In my 2012-2013 Eastern Conference Preview I correctly picked seven of this season's playoff teams and I went six for eight in my 2012-2013 Western Conference Preview. Here are my statistics for previous seasons:
2012: East 8/8, West 7/8
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 50/64 in the East and 51/64 in the West for an overall accuracy rate of .789.
Here is my record in terms of picking the results of playoff series:
Total: 84/120 (.700)
At the end of each of my playoff previews I predict which teams will make it to the NBA Finals; in the past eight years I have correctly picked eight of the 16 NBA Finals participants (I missed both teams in 2011 and 2012, I missed Boston in 2010 and Orlando in 2009 and I missed both Miami and Dallas in 2006). In three of those eight 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 @ 6:46 AM