Monday, May 16, 2011

2011 NBA Playoffs, Conference Finals Predictions

Here are my predictions, and the support for those predictions. I will use some stats, but I believe that in the playoffs, stats can sometimes be misleading for the following two reasons. First, regular season stats mean so little in the playoffs. Pace is different, quality of opponents is different, and the team is playing differently. Second, to use stats from the first two rounds is misleading because of the small sample size of only playing against two teams. So I will use stats as an explanation, but I think in the playoffs, you have to use the eye test. And here we are with predictions:

Bulls over Heat.
I know the Game 1 score, but didn't watch the highlights or look at the play-by-play/box score so I can write this somewhat objectively. But I think the Bulls will win in five or six games for a few reasons. Foremost is I believe the Heat will have a mental letdown after their huge win against Boston. That was a series in which the entire team was mentally locked, and it showed, especially in the fourth quarters. They showed tremendous poise and got a win that validated "The Decision." I think more than anything, this team was assembled to beat Boston. Sure, LeBron had setbacks against Detroit and Orlando, but if there was a team that he and Wade failed to produce against, it was Boston. I don't think that LeBron will have that killer instinct against the "lesser" Bulls, and I don't think Wade can do it alone, not with the quality of defender Chicago can throw at him. The Heat is Lebron's team, and it will only go as far as he is willing to take it.

I also think Chicago matches up well with the Heat athletically. Boston lost because they played too pretty: they lost their poise against physicality and didn't grind on defense. There were also other reasons: Rondo was very hurt, and that made a huge difference. He didn't destroy the Heat guards like many thought they would. But the core of the issue was that Boston couldn't match the Heat physicality, and coupled with their dwindling athleticism, made for a short series. This is where I thought Perkins was huge. Perkins protected Garnett and Davis in 2010 by clogging the lane and dishing fouls. Without that, I think both players were much more tentative defensively, and that killed the C's. Back to the Bulls. They will have no problem matching the Heat physicality. Noah, Gibson, and Asik, will bang. I don't see this team giving up a rebounding edge. And Derrick Rose will continue to get better all the way to the Finals. Here's the way I see this series breaking down: Rose will have one game in which he is unstoppable (Bulls 1-0). LeBron/Wade will each have a game where they are unstoppable, however, I think the Heat supporting cast will falter in one game where either superstar is going to have to play hero against a tested Bulls bench, and they will split these two games (Bulls 2-1). Bosh will have one great game, and one awful game (Bulls 3-2). The Bulls bench or secondary scorers will win a game (Bulls win 4-2). That's the way I see it, you make the call. On to the Western Conference!

Mavericks over Thunder.
Who is the most dangerous player left in the playoffs? Not LeBron James. He has proven he is not an every-night type of guy, and even though his fourth-quarter execution was good against an over-matched Celtics team, I don't buy it over the next two series. Not Dwayne Wade-the team belongs to LeBron. Not Derrick Rose. While he will continue to get better and has clearly proven himself as the league MVP, I think you can limit him and make him work really hard for position and shots. The Hawks had some good games against him, but could never put it together (that being said, if he can improve his shooting, watch out). Rose is my most dangerous player-alternate. Not Carlos Boozer: obviously. Not Russell Westbrook. He is dangerous when he thinks "drive and dish/shoot," but he needs to show Rose-like leadership and consistency. Not Kevin Durant. I can't forget that brutal Game 6, even with his delicious game 7.

No, the most dangerous player left in the playoffs is Dirk Nowitzki. Since the epic collapse against Golden State, Dirk has KILLED the playoffs. He is consistent unlike James and Westbrook. He is the team leader, unlike Wade. He is more than a shooter, and sees the floor better than Durant. He is a better pure scorer than Rose. Think about this: the Lakers matched up PERFECTLY with the Dirk, and could do NOTHING to slow him down. You can slow down Rose. He'll drop 30 on you, but you can slow him down. Ditto for LeBron, Durant, etc. No one has shown any ability to mark Nowitzki. Stick a smaller guy on him? He'll shoot over. Stick a big guy on him? He'll drive around (he killed Gasol on drive moves, including that insane lefty hook). Find a guy that is quick, has good instincts, has a specific task, and is long? In other words, a guy that is meant to defeat him? How about a guy like Lamar Odom? Dirk owned Odom. He pump fakes a bazillion times, twists his body awkwardly, throws up prayers while falling away, and makes them time after time after time after time. No one can guard this man. So the Lakers got more people involved, and then the rest of the Mavericks got hot. Don't tell me Collison, Ibaka, or Durant can guard Dirk. Please. To me, the argument is over. Of course, I could be proven wrong. But over the last three years, I've been right. Even in Dallas' playoff losses, Dirk has been magnificent.

But that is the thing. Dirk is always magnificent. We knew this. It's the Mavericks that are different. ESPN's Bill Simmons talked with Mark Stein about this. Every other player on the roster is different. Simmons and Stein talked specifically about the vocal leadership brought by Tyson Chandler. Chandler is another among the dozens of players that have been changed forever by Coach Mike Krzyzewski. Tyson was before an athletic guy who could play defense, but coughed up the ball a ton and was a marginal starter. After one summer with Coach K, he posts the highest Hollinger PER OF HIS LIFE. Can we all (Duke haters included) just agree that Coach K has been great for the game? Think of these last four teams. Dallas is led vocally by Chandler, who Coach K morphed into a help and iso defensive force (although have Jim Boeheim certainly helped). After Team USA, Westbrook's PER jumped by eight points, after only improving by two between his first two seasons. Derrick Rose became the league MVP after being on the fringe of the top-ten discussion. Coach K has had an indirect stamp all over these playoffs.

Anyway, were were talking about Chandler. He is just one of the Mavs roleplayers that has re-invented himself this year. In fact, the entire team has done that. Dirk has evolved into a inside the arc post-up beast (albeit still with three-point range). Jason Kidd has turned into a wise defender who can nail a three (all while still pushing the pace). Shawn Marion was a headcase for not wanting to play with Nash in Phoenix; here he has accepted his role as defensive stopper, given up shooting (wait, what?), and totally bought into his role of moving without the ball and getting it back while going to the rim. DeShawn Stevenson has done the best job anyone has against Durant all year (according to ESPN stats). Jason Terry has stopped dominating the ball, letting JJ Barea take care of it, and choosing to do what Terry does best: shoot. I always believed in Barea. Brendan Haywood has accepted his role as energy guy off the bench. I don't know where Peja Stojakovic came from, but he has been great. All these guys, some with egos, some who have been doing particular things for years, have all given up their individual stats, and come together as a well-oiled machine, giving Dallas the best bench left in the playoffs (Korver hasn't been consistent enough for the Bulls).

The LA series was a masterpiece of offensive and defensive domination, mental poise, and execution. Perhaps most telling was the fact that they won the first three games without the supporting cast (Terry in particular) shooting well. I thought Terry would be the difference. Turns out the whole team was. OKC is good. Durant will get his. They are young and will push it, which is something the Mavericks haven't seen in these playoffs. I don't know who will guard Westbrook. But I think these Mavs are too dangerous. And beyond that, I think they have the mentality of a champion. Mavs in six. Am I right? You make the call, and let's watch some basketball!

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