2013-14 Playoff PredictionsThe Miami Heat have flown under the radar about as much as any two-time defending championship team can; mainstream media attention has focused on the upstart Indiana Pacers, the streaking San Antonio Spurs, the surprising Phoenix Suns, the sinking Philadelphia 76ers and many other storylines, while largely ignoring the fact that the Heat have a chance to place themselves in a rare group of teams that have reached the NBA Finals four straight years. That feat has only been accomplished by three legendary dynasties: 1957-66 Boston Celtics, 1982-85 L.A. Lakers, 1984-87 Boston Celtics. Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen led the Chicago Bulls to a pair of three-peats (1991-1993, 1996-98) but Jordan's first two retirements prevented the Bulls from potentially reaching the Finals four consecutive times.
This season, the Heat posted their worst winning percentage of the "Big Three" era but the same thing was true for the Jordan/Pippen teams in the third year of their two three-peats; sustaining a high level of excellence exacts a mental and physical toll but no one should expect that it will be easy to beat the Heat four times in seven games. The 1993 Bulls looked weary during the regular season and they faced a 2-0 deficit against the number one seeded New York Knicks in the Eastern Conference Finals but then the Bulls ripped off four straight wins against the Knicks before defeating the Phoenix Suns in the NBA Finals.
The San Antonio Spurs are rightfully considered to be the best team in the NBA, the Indiana Pacers are hungry--though flawed and vulnerable--challengers to Miami's Eastern Conference supremacy and the Oklahoma City can beat anyone if Russell Westbrook stays healthy but the Heat are chasing history while being led by a historically great player and it would be foolish to count them out. The Heat made it through the regular season with a good record while staying as healthy as could reasonably be expected and they will elevate their game in the playoffs. I expect them to join the Russell Celtics, Magic Lakers and Bird Celtics by making a fourth straight trip to the NBA Finals.
Here is my take on the first round matchups, followed by some thoughts about the 2014 NBA Finals.
Eastern Conference First Round
#1 Indiana (56-26) vs. #8 Atlanta (38-44)
Season series: Tied, 2-2
Atlanta can win if...their perimeter players get hot from three point range and if the Pacers fail to exploit their inside strength at the other end of the court; the Hawks ranked second in three point field goals attempted but just 13th in three point field goal percentage, so their best chance for an upset is to hope that enough of their long range bombs hit the target.
Indiana will win because...the Pacers are an elite defensive team, while the Hawks are mediocre at both ends of the court, as demonstrated by their sub-.500 record.
Other things to consider: Much has been made of the Pacers' struggles in the second half of the season but an 82 game marathon inevitably contains some ups and downs; the bottom line is that they maintained the number one record in the Eastern Conference for most of the campaign and, despite some embarrassing recent performances, they achieved their goal of earning homecourt advantage throughout the Eastern Conference playoffs. The Pacers have some obvious weaknesses (including half court offensive execution, chemistry issues and Lance Stephenson's volatility) but the Hawks are not a good enough team to exploit those weaknesses.
#2 Miami (54-28) vs. #7 Charlotte (43-39)
Season series: Miami, 4-0
Charlotte can win if...team owner Michael Jordan enters a time machine, emerges two decades younger and signs himself to a pair of ten day contracts.
Miami will win because...this is the kind of series that has always brought out the best in LeBron James; even before he learned how to consistently excel in playoff series against elite teams he always demonstrated the capacity to put up huge numbers against inferior teams in early playoff rounds. All season long, James' critics have accused him of coasting and that storyline will probably cost James the MVP award but he will take out those frustrations in this series; look for him to post at least one 40 point game.
Other things to consider: Charlotte's rise to respectability has been remarkable; rookie Coach Steve Clifford deserves a lot of credit for improving the team's defense and overall mindset, while Al Jefferson provided leadership and great post presence. Dwyane Wade's inexorable physical decline could be a problem for Miami during the postseason but it will not be a major factor in this series.
#3 Toronto (48-34) vs. #6 Brooklyn (44-38)
Season series: Tied, 2-2
Toronto can win if...the Raptors' youthful enthusiasm trumps the Nets' veteran savvy.
Brooklyn will win because...this veteran-laden team was put together to peak in the postseason; they are getting healthy and figuring out how to play together at just the right time.
Other things to consider: Many NBA fans have probably never heard of Masai Ujiri but when he ran the Nuggets he fleeced the Knicks out of several good players in exchange for an overrated Carmelo Anthony; it is not a coincidence that after he moved to Canada the Nuggets got worse while the Raptors instantly transformed into one of the top teams in the East. The Raptors posted the best record in franchise history and seem poised to make the playoffs for years to come but this is not a good playoff matchup for them.
#4 Chicago (48-34) vs. #5 Washington (44-38)
Season series: Washington, 2-1
Washington can win if...their young, talented backcourt duo (John Wall/Bradley Beal) suddenly acquires the wisdom of the ages--the kind of wisdom that is generally obtained by losing playoff series against tough-minded, veteran teams.
Chicago will win because...the Bulls' defense will cause fits for the young, impatient Wizards.
Other things to consider: Tom Thibodeau is the coaching equivalent of MacGyver: no Derrick Rose, no Luol Deng, no problem: just give Thibodeau some duct tape (and a throat lozenge for his perpetually hoarse voice) and he'll work wonders. The Bulls do not have enough offensive firepower to make a deep playoff run but their defense and Thibodeau's strategic acumen will carry them into the second round.
Western Conference First Round
#1 San Antonio (62-20) vs. #8 Dallas (49-33)
Season series: San Antonio, 4-0
Dallas can win if...Dirk Nowitzki has a flashback and starts regularly posting 30 points/15 rebounds, if Monta Ellis goes off for about 25 ppg and if the Mavericks contain Tony Parker's dribble penetration without opening up opportunities for Tim Duncan inside and the Spurs' sharpshooters who camp out behind the three point line.
San Antonio will win because...the Spurs are not only the better team overall but they have shown that they match up particularly well with the Mavericks.
Other things to consider: Armchair psychologists said that the Spurs could not recover from their devastating loss in game six of the 2013 NBA Finals--but the Spurs refuted that idea by playing valiantly in game seven. Then the armchair psychologists asserted that it would be too much for the old Spurs to make yet another championship run but the Spurs have been the class of the league for the better part of the season. The Spurs do not match up well with the Oklahoma City Thunder because they have no one who can stay in front of Russell Westbrook but they have no reason to fear any other team in the league.
#2 Oklahoma City (59-23) vs. #7 Memphis (50-32)
Season series: Oklahoma City, 3-1
Memphis can win if...Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol dominate inside while the Grizzlies' wing players hit enough outside shots to prevent the Thunder's defense from clogging the paint.
Oklahoma City will win because...Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are the two best players in this series and two of the five best players in the league. They will spearhead an offensive attack that will overwhelm the Grizzlies.
Other things to consider: Here they are in all of their glory, the team nobody wants to face; the Grizzlies needed a late season flourish to sneak into the playoffs with six fewer wins than they had last year but the top teams are supposedly petrified of them. Here is a different theory: the Thunder know that they would have beaten the Grizzlies in last year's playoffs if Westbrook had been healthy and they are very eager to prove that point on the sport's biggest stage. Look for the Grizzlies to struggle to score 90 points per game and look for a lot of Durant/Westbrook highlights as the Thunder stun the "experts."
In other "expert"-related news, objective observers are still searching in vain for a shred of proof that letting James Harden walk in order to keep Serge Ibaka has in any way weakened the Thunder or hurt their chances to win an NBA title.
#3 L.A. Clippers (57-25) vs. #6 Golden State (51-31)
Season series: Tied, 2-2
Golden State can win if...Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson--aka the "Splash Brothers"--rain jumpers from all angles and if David Lee picks up the slack inside for the injured Andrew Bogut.
L.A. will win because...Doc Rivers has spent the season changing the team's mindset; the Clippers are now more focused on defense and on half court execution as opposed to making the highlight reels as "Lob City." Chris Paul's extended absence due to injury proved that he is not, in fact, the best player on the team; that title belongs to Blake Griffin.
Other things to consider: Vinny Del Negro did a solid job with the Clippers when the team had a lot of players who needed to mature and it is worth noting that in Rivers' first year the Clippers only increased their victory total by one--but the coaching change is still justifiable because it is reasonable to believe that the Clippers have a higher ceiling with Rivers on the bench than they did with Del Negro calling the shots.
#4 Houston (54-28) vs. #5 Portland (54-28)
Season series: Houston, 3-1
Houston can win if...Dwight Howard dominates in the paint at both ends of the court and if James Harden shows that he can be a productive and efficient scorer/playmaker in the postseason as his team's number one option (as opposed to doing so as the third option, which was his role when he played for the Oklahoma City Thunder).
Portland will win because...LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard will outplay Dwight Howard and James Harden.
Other things to consider: This is a "pick 'em" series; the teams have identical records, they are both talented offensively but flawed defensively and I cannot see either one making it past the second round unless their opponent suffers a serious injury to a star player. The deciding factor for me is that I trust Portland's style of play in the playoffs just a little more than I trust Houston's style of play.
The Rockets launch a lot of three pointers--leading the league in makes and attempts--but they only rank 16th in three point field goal percentage. If they get hot, they can put a scare into any team but this is not the NCAA Tournament, which means that they have to get hot for four out of seven games in order to advance.
The Blazers will try to establish Aldridge in the post, while also using Lillard's ballhanding ability and shooting touch to put pressure on Houston's suspect perimeter defenders. Harden will probably go off for 30-plus points in one of Houston's home games and he probably will have a couple 4-17 field goal shooting performances on the road. The series will be entertaining and closely contested but Portland will win in six or seven games.
I expect the second round matchups to be Indiana-Chicago, Miami-Brooklyn, San Antonio-Portland and Oklahoma City-L.A. The Pacers-Bulls series could make for some brutal TV watching, with both teams struggling to score 80-85 points against suffocating defenses, but in the end the Pacers will prevail. The Nets were built with the primary goal of matching up with the Heat and they did so quite nicely during the regular season, sweeping the series--but the playoffs are a different animal and the Nets' geezers will run out of gas trying to chase around the athletic Heat. The Trailblazers have had a surprisingly good season but they will fall to the Spurs in the second round. The Thunder and the Clippers are developing an intense rivalry; that series will probably go the distance but in game seven at home Durant and Westbrook will not be denied.
Indiana has all of the necessary tools to beat Miami: size, toughness, defensive intensity, homecourt advantage. After a season during which the Pacers vowed to beat the Heat in the playoffs if game seven would be played in Indianapolis, the Eastern Conference Finals will be put up or shut up time for the would-be champions. From a historical standpoint, part of me does not believe that LeBron James and the Heat are quite equipped to reach territory only inhabited by three of the most legendary squads in pro basketball history--but, focusing purely on what we have seen from the Pacers this season, I don't quite trust Indiana in the biggest moments. James will likely add another page to his legacy by authoring a classic game seven performance on the road as the Heat survive what figures to be a grueling series.
The San Antonio-Oklahoma City series will be high level basketball at its finest. Russell Westbrook is the key factor in the series, because the Spurs simply have no answer for him, much like the 1980s Boston Celtics had no answer for the Philadelphia 76ers' Andrew Toney. If Westbrook is healthy, the Thunder will win. Perhaps I should not count on Westbrook's health, considering his recent injury history, but I am picking the Thunder.
A rematch of the 2012 NBA Finals will be fun to watch. LeBron James is now older and wiser but so are Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. The James-Durant battle will be epic but the series could be decided by the battle between the health of Dwyane Wade's cranky old knees and Westbrook's cranky young right knee. The Thunder were not quite ready two years ago but they have learned their lessons and Westbrook's injuries have also helped them to understand that every trip to the NBA Finals is precious because you never know when--or if--you will return. James is the best player in the NBA but the Thunder will prove to be the best team. If the Thunder win the championship with the much-criticized Westbrook and without the much-praised Harden it will be interesting to hear what the "experts" say.
Here is a summary of the results of my previous predictions both for playoff qualifiers and for the outcomes of playoff series:
In my 2013-2014 Eastern Conference Preview I correctly picked six of this season's eight playoff teams and I also went six for eight in my 2013-2014 Western Conference Preview, including placing the top four in the correct order. Here are my statistics for previous seasons:
2013: East 7/8, West 6/8
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 56/72 in the East and 57/72 in the West for an overall accuracy rate of .785.
Here is my record in terms of picking the results of playoff series:
Total: 98/135 (.726)
At the end of each of my playoff previews I predict which teams will make it to the NBA Finals; in the past nine years I have correctly picked nine of the 18 NBA Finals participants. In three of those nine years I got both teams right but only once did I get both teams right and predict the correct result (2007). I correctly picked the NBA Champion before the playoffs began just twice: 2007 and 2013.
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.
This playoff preview article is, to some extent, a coda for 20 Second Timeout. I am beginning a two year law school journey that will limit the amount of time and energy I can devote to watching pro basketball, much less analyzing it at a high level--and then in late August I will become a first-time father, which obviously will be a life-changing experience in many ways. From my days at Basketball Digest through this website's nine year run, I have enjoyed sharing my knowledge about and passion for pro basketball with a dedicated group of loyal readers; I will miss being able to write extensive treatises about Julius Erving, Roger Brown, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and other great pro basketball players past and present but the new chapter in my life promises many new adventures and opportunities for personal growth. I will continue to post here as my schedule permits and I like to think that the archival material in the main page sidebar can serve as a great resource for anyone who is interested in learning about basketball history and basketball analysis.
posted by David Friedman @ 4:52 PM