Sunday, April 29, 2012

2012 NBA Playoffs Preview: So Far, So Good


Michael Rand of the Star Tribune (people continue to write that the newspaper is the Minneapolis Star Tribune.  Why do they do that?  It’s not officially called that; the “Strib” does not have the city officially in its title anywhere.  I’ve usually referred to it in stories as the “Star Tribune of Minneapolis”, which makes me look stupid) commented Friday, the day before the NBA playoffs started over the weekend that Chicago, Miami and Oklahoma City have half the good players in the league.  That seems harsh, so off the top of my hand let’s see if he’s right:

Chicago: Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah, Carlos Boozer (I won’t count Luol Deng)

Miami: LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh

Oklahoma City: Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and because he’s a burgeoning star and he got elbowed in the face by Metta World Peace, James Harden

The other 13 teams: Kobe Bryant, Dirk Nowitzki, Tony Parker, Blake Griffin, Carmelo Anthony, Paul Pierce, Josh Smith, Pau Gasol, Chris Paul, Amar’e Stoudemire (if he’s healthy enough to play), Kevin Garnett, Manu Ginobili, Ray Allen (if he’s healthy enough to play), World Peace (if the Lakers survive long enough for him to serve out his suspension), Tim Duncan, Tyson Chandler. …

So, no, what Rand says is very misleading, if not outright false … wait, that was hyperbole?  Oh. …

Herewith the 2012 SportsAlert NBA Playoffs Preview.  I’ll give you a hint: This is the NBA, so the two teams I predicted would be in the NBA Finals when the season began are in the postseason, so the prediction’s going to be the same.

Western Conference Quarterfinals

San Antonio Spurs (1) vs. Utah Jazz (8): Gregg Popovich is so attuned to the needs of his San Antonio Spurs that I don’t know if he can ever coach any other team as effectively as he is here.  These guys are older than dirt and yet he still got them to the 1-seed.  And yet I still think they’re as vulnerable to getting upset against Utah as they were when Memphis escorted them to the offseason last year.  The same problem will crop up: Tim Duncan’s wing man (overmatched DeJuan Blair, offense-only Matt Bonner, Boris Diaw or Tiago Splitter) can’t complement the big man as the Jazz try to pound the ball on the down-low.  I’ll say that Popovich and Duncan snare this one in the end, but I won’t be surprised if the end of one of the steadiest coach-superstar combos comes with a second consecutive first-round fall from grace.  Spurs in 7.

Oklahoma City Thunder (2) vs. Dallas Mavericks (7): Missing Tyson Chandler will make all the difference.  Despite rounding into form after telling Lamar Odom to stay away, this is still a matchup between old talent and up-and-coming talent.  Look for Serge Ibaka to take a commanding role in the paint as the Thunder avenge their 2011 Western Conference Finals loss with authority and depose the defending world champs quickly.  Thunder in 5.

Los Angeles Lakers (3) vs. Denver Nuggets (6): When the season began I kind of thought the seeds would be reversed.  In fact, I thought the Nugz would be the second-best team in the West and the Lakers would be conducive to just missing the playoffs of this lockout-shortened season.  But the Lake Show is hurting in a major way, with World Peace out for virtually the whole series and the organization paying for making the head case that is Andrew Bynum a big part of their game plans.  I want to attribute Denver’s slide from their promising early play as a consequence of not defining roles.  But this looks like a case where the younger, faster team runs circles around the lions in winter.  Bryant remains the deadliest clutch player in the Association, but he can do only so much.  Nuggets in 6.

Memphis Grizzlies (4) vs. Los Angeles Clippers (5): When I lived out in Los Angeles in the mid-‘90’s, you felt like you’d see Halley’s Comet twice before you’d see the Clippers host a playoff home game.  They boast a much better squad now, but they face a Grizzlies squad that follows up their eighth-seeded surprise with a top-four edition.  This will be the best series of the first round, but that’s only half the time, when the Clippers have the ball.  Chris Paul trying to maintain possession while being pestered by Tony Allen may be the one-on-one matchup of the first round.  Meanwhile, Memphis is creaky defensively, but the Clip Show seems to dedicate more of their practice time to lobbing balls than stealing them back.  Fascinating series, especially for sabermetric-heads, but I’ll just go with the team that has been here before.  Grizzlies in 7.

Eastern Conference Quarterfinals

Chicago Bulls (1) vs. Philadelphia 76ers (8): This is one of the great things about rolling out a playoff previews column after they start: You can account for postseason-changing injuries.  In case you haven’t heard, Derrick Rose is out for the playoffs (and I think a good chunk of the next season) with a torn ACL.  (That he got injured on his own, without another player hitting him or something, is a very, very bad sign that he will always have some level of brittleness to his body.  I can see the arc of his promising career bend downward.)  This basically ruins the Bulls’ championship hopes, but I don’t think it’ll make a lick of difference against a Sixers team that is looking mighty shaky this time of the year.  This seems to be the time in the tenure of Doug Collins’s stewardship of a team where the players tune him out.  Bulls in 5.

Miami Heat (2) vs. New York Knicks (7): Man, do you remember those literal knock-down, drag-out fights these two teams had back in the day?  I think Knicks-Heat is the last great rivalry in the Association.  We won’t have that this time around.  Instead, we’ll see a relationship more akin to a hammer and a nail.  Mike D’Antoni continues to either kowtow to Anthony’s wishes or show he doesn’t know how to handle a rotation with two go-to guys – and that’s with the other ball hog, Stoudemire, not at 100%.  The Heat will use this series to get all their guys to 100%.  Heat in 4.

Indiana Pacers (3) vs. Orlando Magic (6): Color me surprised that the Magic ripped off the last 11 points to take Game 1 in Indiana.  I don’t know how in the hell the Pacers managed to get the third-best record in the East, but Frank Vogel should get a lot of Coach of the Year attention for it.  And I still think they’ll come back and beat the Mags.  Game 1 could be an indication that the remaining players are rallying around Stan Van Gundy after Dwight Howard shut himself down for the rest of the year.  But his presence, mostly in the paint where he would have taken Roy Hibbert to school, will vex this team as it’s ushered out of the playoffs after this series.  I think.  Pacers in 6.

Boston Celtics (4) vs. Atlanta Hawks (5): There is no team with more pride than the C’s, and that means a lot.  But there are two things they don’t have: A healthy Ray Allen (bone spurs in his ankle) and youth.  That establishes a “grizzled veterans making one last score before retiring” storyline, but on paper this is a stark contrast between young (albeit inconsistent) legs and players whose minds are willing but whose bodies are weak.  They can make a hellacious stand on the defensive end, but I still can’t see them outscoring Atlanta four times.  Hawks in 7.

Western Conference Semifinals

San Antonio (1) vs. Memphis (4): Even with Duncan playing only half a season, the conditions generating the Grizzlies’ upset of the Spurs last year are still around this year.  Zach Randolph still hasn’t found his place in the rotation, but Rudy Gay has.  Tony Allen will pester his way around the perimeter and Memphis will once again pound the ball inside and have their second straight series win over San Antone.  Grizzlies in 6.

Oklahoma City (2) vs. Denver (6): The Thunder has more of what the Lakers needed to beat the Nuggets: Bigger bodies and more scorers.  OKC will show Denver how far you can go when you know who your #1, #2, #3 and #4 guys are.  Thunder in 5.

Eastern Conference Semifinals

Chicago (1) vs. Atlanta (5): The loss of Rose makes the all-important point guard matchup a draw, although Jeff Teague blew up in last year’s playoffs.  But it always seems that the second round is the Hawks’ plateau, and they did not add any new players or switch roles this year.  Even with the reigning MVP gone, Chicago should still have enough talent, especially on D, to coast to the last four.  Bulls in 6.

Miami (2) vs. Indiana (3): If there are still late-game doubts about the Heat, if there are still demons in LBJ’s head that he can’t carry the team when it counts, this will be the series where its character comes out.  This is a sneaky team who has a sorry recent record, which is the perfect foil to freak out Heat Nation when they win one of the first two games in South Beach.  They are one of the most efficient teams on both sides of the ball, and Vogel will use the Heat’s choke rep against him when he calls time out.  I still say Miami survives, but they get pushed to the edge by the Pacers.  If they’re lucky, this is the close call that propels them to the championship the Big 3 guaranteed a couple years ago.  Heat in 7.

Western Conference Finals

Oklahoma City (2) vs. Memphis (4): A rematch of a Western Conference Semifinals.  Should be the same result: Durantula, Westbrook, Harden and Ibaka are too good not to be able to score against an excellent Grizzlies defense.  Thunder in 6.

Eastern Conference Finals

Chicago (1) vs. Miami (2): A repeat of last year’s Eastern Conference Finals.  And the same result will happen here, even moreso now that Rose is gone.  Treading familiar territory, James should be able to feast on the point guard matchup (the backups are C.J. Watson, Mike James and John Lucas – yeah, no problem).  A cakewalk which the Heat will try to use as a mental boost as they return to the NBA Finals and try to win the championship they promised.  Heat in 5.

NBA Finals

Oklahoma City (2) vs. Miami (2): But still … as good as the Heat continues to be, the bugaboos persist.  They didn’t capture the top seed in the East despite all that talent, which falls on Erik Spoelstra for not wringing all he can out of his men.  And James continues to defer way too much when Bosh is clearly a cut below him and Wade is still bothered by a litany of owies.  Those problems will not stop the Heat – till the Finals.

Like I said in my preview at Christmas, one major way the Heat beat the Thunder is Westbrook.  He continues to be the Brett Favre of the NBA, a reckless gunslinger who will not stop shooting from deep when the growing frequency of clangs would be a deafening hint for more reasonable folks.  Maybe James will assume a defense-only role (assuming Wade is healthy enough to carry the bulk of the offense), locking down Westbrook or helping Shane Battier double Durant.  Either approach could frustrate OKC’s primary point handler, disrupting coach Scotty Brooks’s plans and forcing him to install backup Derek Fisher, a savvy veteran whose legs will not keep up with Miami when they have the ball, no matter who runs the point for the Heat.

But it all comes back to James, which is how he wanted it, isn’t it?  Why wouldn’t he just disappear again when Miami needs him the most?  Personally I’m rooting for the Heat because Oklahoma City stole the SuperSonics from Seattle.  But that is a damn good team with young talent that has only begun to peak.  The Heat, meanwhile, seem to have started on the downside of their peak.  They don’t have too many years to collect those rings, and they won’t start in 2012.  Thunder in 6.

Posted by WilliamSou at 9:27 PM

Comments:

WilliamSou said: SportsBLOG comment spacer

Oh, so did they win the title?

Anonymous said: SportsBLOG comment spacer

sucked in mr pro writter you know fuck all and have no faith in the veterans boston all the way sp crew

Anonymous said: SportsBLOG comment spacer

told ya dick head boston was always goin to beat atlanta

Anonymous said: SportsBLOG comment spacer

the fact that you doubt boston to outscore atlanta in 4 games when we have rondo the assist champ and pierce shooting great is just a laugh. Boston will make an apperiance in the semis against the bulls and it will be a slug out 50/50 game.

Anonymous said: SportsBLOG comment spacer

the fact that you doubt boston to outscore atlanta in 4 games when we have rondo the assist champ and pierce shooting great is just a laugh. Boston will make an apperiance in the semis against the bulls and it will be a slug out 50/50 game.

Anonymous said: SportsBLOG comment spacer

the fact that you doubt boston to outscore atlanta in 4 games when we have rondo the assist champ and pierce shooting great is just a laugh. Boston will make an apperiance in the semis against the bulls and it will be a slug out 50/50 game.

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