*EDIT* - sorry about the stupid lack of paragraphs. This website is trash.
You might not know this about me, but I'm a pretty huge NBA fan. I follow the NFL more closely, but the NBA still holds a special place in my heart. Obviously I'm more excited when the Pistons aren't a useless pile of crap, but nonetheless, this has quietly been one of the best regular seasons since the early 90s. We have likable superstars, at least 3 great teams, at least 7 really good teams, and a super-villain that everyone can cheer against. The playoffs (*EDIT - which start tomorrow!) haven't been officially seeded yet, but we know that Chicago and San Antonio have number one seeds and we know the Conference Finals are going to be memorable. We know who the field of 16 is, and we feel terrible for Steve Nash, who will be watching from home for the first time in since 2003. Let's take a look at the presumed match ups, the predictions, and some thoughts on a great season.
East: 1 vs. 8
Indiana @ Chicago
It's pretty amazing to me that Chicago clinched the #1 seed with four games to play, ESPECIALLY when you consider that they were the only playoff team in the East to be hit with major injuries. Both Noah and Boozer missed about a month, and yet the Bulls kept on winning just enough to beat out the Heat and Celtics. For that reason, and not merely because we all hate LeBron James, Derrick Rose should be the 2011 MVP. And he will be.
This series won't be riveting, unless the Bulls struggle from over-confidence and let Indy win one of the first two games. Shouldn't happen. The greatest strength of this Chicago team isn't actually Rose's dominant athleticism or hyper-competitiveness or prudent unselfishness (though those things certainly help), but the greatest strength is the defensive-minded beastliness of the bench. It's similar to the 2004 Pistons,who brought Lindsey Hunter and Darvin Ham and Mike James off the bench just to pester and irritate and create timely turnovers and pump up the crowd. They were expert 'hustle defenders,' and Chicago has very similar players in Taj Gibson and Corey Brewer. Plus, both teams featured a 7-foot Turk, so that counts for something.
The Pacers are just lucky to make the postseason with a measly 37 (they'll finish with 38 or 39) wins. They still don't have much of an identity except 'Danny Granger and the Flying Whities.' Bulls in 4.
West 1 vs. 8
Memphis @ San Antonio
Technically, the Hornets could lose their remaining games to wind up in the 8th spot, but let's say it's Memphis for argument's sake. This isn't as easy as it seems. The Spurs are currently in their worst stretch of the season (lost 6 of 10) while Duncan battles injuries and the starters play limited minutes. Coach Poppovich won't let them lose this series, but the Grizz won't roll over and die either. Memphis plays a fierce brand of defense, especially on the perimeter. If they had drawn a different matchup (say Oklahoma City) they might be able to cause some problems. But the Spurs are smart, sophisticated, and ruthlessly experienced. They will not get caught up in the boredom of a 1 vs. 8 matchup. San Antonio in 5.
East: 2 vs. 7 and East 3 vs. 6
This is where it gets dicey. The Heat and Celtics are tied for the 2 and 3 seeds, while New York is tied with Philadelphia for spots 6 and 7. I'd love to see a LeBron-Carmelo first round, but unfortunately I think Miami will end up facing Philly in the 2-7 matchup. (Note: Miami just blasted Boston tonight by 23 points to practically clinch the 2 seed). But despite the massive mismatch in talent, Miami-Philly won't be a series of four straight blowouts. At least I hope not.
Miami's glaring weakness all season has been an intangible one: an utter lack of on-court chemistry which stems from having two alpha dogs and one awkward dinosaur-looking big man who used to be miscast as an alpha dog, while being coached by a 23 year old Asian dude who might not even be able to dribble a basketball and makes roughly one-tenth of the yearly salary of his star players, and a supporting cast that wouldn't even make the JV squad at Duke. LeBron and Wade have proven that they don't know how to share the ball, and aren't really interested in learning. If 79 games wasn't enough for them to figure it out, why would 3 more make a difference? They've relied on sheer athletic freakishness to win 50+ games, and they'll use the same strategy in the postseason and see how far it takes them. It should be enough to defeat the Sixers in a tough-fought 6 game series.
Why tough-fought? Because Philly has freakish athletes too. Not like LeBron or Wade, but close. Andre Iguodala can defend either Wade or LeBron as well as anyone in the NBA, and should be considered the runner-up for defensive MVP (behind Dwight Howard of course), and young Thadeus Young is a very solid defender as well. Down low, Elton Brand has been much consistently better than Bosh all year, especially defensively. For Miami to dominate this series, their superstar guards are going to need to be flying around in the paint collecting rebounds while Bosh hides nervously near the free-throw line. They'll win the series, but they'll expend a lot of energy doing so. And as we learned from the great Michael Jordan, a big part of winning the postseason is conserving energy and then unleashing a wave of hyper-dominant fury when the game is on the line. Miami doesn't have a closer. That's going to be their downfall. More on that later I guess.
In the other first-round matchup, we'll probably see Boston against the Knicks, which pits the NBA's best foursome against the NBA's best threesome. I say New York has the best threesome because Chauncey has something that Bosh and Noah don't have - playoff swagger. Chauncey has leadership, experience, and confidence in the postseason. Those are the kind of things that you want from your third wheel. However, Boston still clearly has the mismatch of talent due to New York's complete disinterest in playing defense. Amare Stoudemire should enjoy a nice series now that Boston lacks a formidable big man (thank you, Danny Ainge, for trading Kendrick Perkins away and getting nothing but bench minutes in return), and Carmelo will put on a show while being guarded by the very aged Paul Pierce. I expect Melo and Amare to both average 30+ in this series and the Knicks to have little trouble scoring points. But I also expect the Celtics to score an average of 115 per game and Rajon Rondo to set some kind of playoff record by averaging 18 assists per game in this series. Knicks make it thrilling, but Celtics win in 6 games.
West: 2 vs. 7
New Orleans @ Lakers
Like I said, this could end up being Memphis, and theoretically Portland could fall to the 7 seed too. But most probably it's Chris Paul and the ragtag gang against Kobe and the galactic superpower. Won't even be close. Lakers in 4. West: 3 vs. 6 Portland @ Dallas This is my upset special for round one. It's a perfect storm for Dallas: playing against a superior rebounding team with tons of elite defenders and a little bit of outside shooting. Dirk Nowitzki will have his hands full with Marcus Camby, Gerald Wallace, and LaMarcus Aldridge, three defensive-minded bigs who will challenge his shot and beat him to the glass. Expect Dirk to shoot lots of 7-25 games in this series with about 4 rebounds per game, and Dallas's offense to revert to 'Stand Still and Watch Dirk Shoot' mode. Offensively, Portland is probably the worst of the 16 playoff teams, but defensively they have tons of weapons. Portland wins the series in 6 low-scoring, ugly games.
East: 4 vs. 5
Atlanta @ Orlando
Last year these were the second and third seeds in the East. Now they're 4 and 5. Just goes to show how much better the East is this year, because neither of these teams got considerably worse. You might remember last year's playoffs, when these teams met in the second round and Orlando swept Atlanta while winning by margins of 43, 14, 30, and 14, and then Joe Johnson blaming his own fans for not inspiring the team enough. Then Atlanta rewarded him with a $120 million dollar contract, and he responded by playing his worst season in six years and having the lowest three-point percentage in the NBA. Nice.
This year, expect a difference series with the same outcome. Al Horford is twice the player he was a year ago, especially offensively. His jump shot has improved and he's become one of the best passing big men in the NBA. However, one thing that hasn't improved is his height. He's still 6'10", and that's like when Detroit said Ben Wallace was 6'9", even though if you saw him in person he was no taller than 6'5". Horford is probably more like 6'7". Which makes him five inches shorter (and 30 pounds lighter) than Dwight Howard. Also, I'm pretty sure Howard could pick up Horford and toss him into the upper deck like a javelin. For a 4 and 5 seed, these teams are both extremely good. But, both are fatally flawed and don't stand a chance in the second round. I'll give the advantage to Orlando since they clobbered the Hawks last year and own a serious mental advantage. Magic in 6.
West: 4 vs. 5
Denver @ Oklahoma City
There's this thing called the Ewing Theory that sportswriter Bill Simmons talks about. It basically says that when a team loses a star player (via trade, free agency, injury, retirement, or whatever), that team actually plays better instead of worse, at least for a while. They rally around the collective assumption that they are doomed without star player X, whom they didn't even like in the first place, and they use that resentment and underdog-spirit to fuel their playoff run. We saw the Giants do this after Tiki Barber retired, and the Volunteers in 1998 when Manning went pro, and there are countless examples. My favorite example was the 1999 NFL season, when Barry Sanders retired just days before training camp, and the hopeless Lions somehow rallied to an 8-4 start and led the NFC all the way into December. (Then lost 4 straight and got thwacked in the playoffs, and haven't been back since... shutup)
Anyway, one of the best modern examples of the Ewing Theory happened this year, when the inevitable Carmelo trade finally happened and Denver was doomed to the cellar by just about everybody. But one problem happened. They believed in themselves. That tends to happen when you have a Hall of Fame coach who is battling cancer. With a myriad of tattoos and thug attitudes, the superstar-less Nuggets actually player better without Carmelo than with his half-committed self. Just last week, emerging point guard Ty Lawson made 10 three pointers in a single game. In a row. Without a miss. The Nuggets are 17-6 without Melo (73.9% winning percentage) and were 32-26 with him (55.1% winning percentage). Without Carmelo, they are the third-best team in the NBA. Yeah.
But after all that, you probably think I'm taking the Nuggets. Sorry I misled you. I'm not. I just love the Thunder. Denver doesn't have a defensive ace who can contain Kevin Durant in the slightest, and this matchup is terrible for them. Speed against speed, youth against youth; advantage goes to the team with two All Stars and the back-to-back scoring champion.
By the way, if you had told me Durant would average 27.8 ppg (2.4 ppg less than last season) and still win the scoring title by a full point, I would have said "no stinking way." How is it possible that no one else scored 28 per game, when the scoring leader has been 30+ in nine of the last ten years? Not since The Canswer in 1998 has a scoring title been so low. How did this happen? It's simple. Wade & LeBron, Carmelo & Amare, four of the best scorers are teammates. Kobe could have smashed Durant five years ago, but he only cares about real titles, not scoring titles, which is why he's still the best player in the NBA. Rose and Dirk are perennial 22+ guys, but 28 is a stretch. Durant could have and should have scored 32 ppg this year, but somehow won the scoring title with a mere 27.8. Amazing. Thunder in 7. On to the semifinals.
SECOND ROUND East: Orlando @ Chicago
And this is where the action gets good. The Magic shouldn't present a terribly difficult matchup for D-Rose and Co., but there's something to be said for playoff experience. Orlando can rely on Jameer Nelson's calming presence and slow-it-down mentality to keep them focused and competitive in each game, while forcing the Bulls to play mistake-free and smart. Guarding Howard will be tough for the undersized Noah and Boozer, but the Bulls have 48 year old Kurt Thomas for a reason. And the aforementioned Taj Gibson.
Chicago will win this series by sending Dwight to the free throw line 16 times per game, where he'll shoot 40%. It's a shame, because Dwight has the physical prowess to be an All Time great, but lacks the mental aspects of the game that are necessary to just say "Screw It, I'm Winning This Series Myself." You can't win an NBA Finals when your unquestioned best player shoots like Ben Wallace. Who does Orlando turn to in a one point game with 8 seconds left and the ball at halfcourt? Jason Richardson? Gilbert Arenas? Turkoglu? Yikes. I'll say Bulls win in 5, but at least 3 of them will be close.
West: Portland @ San Antonio
If Portland does indeed upset Dallas, the Spurs get a gift. If the first round is chalk, they'll face the race-around Thunder who will probably send Tim Duncan into a coma with their speed and energy. Portland is a much, much better matchup for them. So is Dallas for that matter. As a closet Thunder fan, I'm hoping Dallas takes down the Blazers so the Thunder have a better chance at upsetting the Spurs instead of the Lakers. But, alas, I'm picking Portland in round one. So this should be your typical San Antonio series: boring, physical, every shot is contested, and the Spurs win. 5 games should do it.
East: Boston @ Miami
Last night's shellacking might be the most important game of the regular season if these teams meet in a game 7. Both teams are stacked like its 1987, but both teams are majorly flawed. Miami thinks they won the title back in July, and Boston is still recovering from the Perkins trade, plus they have 3 star players who are ages 33, 34, and 35. Not to mention they are relying on Shaquille (39) and Jermaine (36 (32 plus a year for each knee surgery)) O'Neal to play significant minutes, and an awkward quartet of terrible international players (Carlos Arroyo, Nenad Krstic, Troy Murphy, Sasha Pavlovic). If you're not a basketball aficionado, you might not think those are real names, but they are, sadly. And yes, Krstic is spelled correctly.
But then there's Miami, who is counting on the frontcourt of Juwan Howard, Erick Dampier, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, and Udonis Haslem - average age 35 - and the equally dreadful backcourt of Mike Bibby, Mario Chalmers, and Mike Miller, who have combined to shoot 356 threes this year and made exactly 2 of them. Boston's strategy was: we got our Big 4, now let's bring in two washed up O'Neals and 4 weird white guys. Miami's was: okay, we got LeBron, now let's save some cash by letting washed up veterans come here and try to win a ring. Either way, this series is going to have more washed up creatures than a Lake Michigan seashore.
But that's just the 8-10 minutes of bench play. Most of this series is going to be unbelievable, like a miniature All Star game. There will be at least 5 Hall of Famers playing heavy minutes, and possibly 7 if Rondo and Bosh have productive careers for the next 10 years, and at least 1 more sitting on the bench (Shaq). 8 potential Hall of Famers in a single series. That has to be close to a modern day record right? This might be reminiscient of the 2004 Pistons who ran past unsuspecting opponents because they didn't realize the massive mismatch at the point guard position. Miami will probably try to defend Rondo with Wade, but even that's not going to work. If they put Chalmers/Bibby on him, forget about it. The best strategy for Miami is to not even play a point guard. Just let LeBron take the ball up the court, have Wade guard Rondo, and play three big guys for rebounds and defense. Why waste a spot on Chalmers? Hopefully, Erik Spoelstra doesn't read my blog, otherwise the Heat just might sweep their way through the playoffs.
These games are obviously going to be very watchable and entertaining and will dominate sports coverage during the month of May. All of America will be watching, rooting against Miami, rooting for Boston. If LeBron goes down, it will be a moment of national euphoria, like when Michael Phelps won 8 gold medals. It will be a victory for the little guy, for the ones who played it fair, for the guys who didn't hold a national press conference under the guise of charity to announce that they are stabbing their home town in the back and taking the easy way out. It will be a victory for MJ and Kobe's legacies, for basketball, for sports. It will be one big giant "FU LeBron" and it will be the first championship the city of Cleveland has ever experienced. This series is going 7 games, and it will be 7 awesome games. Unless Boston wins their remaining two games and Miami loses at least one of their last two, this game will be in Miami. You know what would be awesome? If game 7 could be played in Cleveland. Now THAT I would pay to watch.
West: Thunder @ Lakers
Holy crap. Is this still really just the second round? Does one of these teams really have to lose before the Conference Finals? Unlike the mega-competitive East, these are really the only two teams in the West who I think could win the Finals or even deserve to play in the Finals. No disrespect to San Antonio, they played their butts off to secure the #1 seed, but they're just a few years too old. The winner of this series is going to thump the Spurs, and unfortunately I think it has to be the Lakers. My hope all season was for the Lakers to run into a tough second round matchup and lose, allowing the Thunder to sneak past them and roll into the Finals where they would meet the Bulls, thus I would like whichever team wins it all. Sadly, the Thunder have run into a brick wall here. How are they seriously supposed to stop the Gasol/Bynum/Odom trifecta? Ron Artest was put on this earth for one reason and one reason only: to defend Kevin Durant. And there's still the minor issue of Kobe having small traces of Michael Jordan in his blood.
It's just an utter fiasco for Oklahoma City. Sure, they'll probably win 2 or 3 games, and they'll probably take advantage of Phil Jackson's overconfidence, and LA has no answer for Russell Westbrook who will average a 28-12-8 in this series and cement himself as an actual, no longer supposed, but an actual NBA superstar. But there's just no stopping LA without some big guys. Kendrick Perkins was a wonderful acquisition, but it's not enough. Serge Ibaka is too raw, Nick Collison is too white, and Nazr Mohammed is too much Nazr Mohammed. People don't realize how good Pau Gasol is. Lakers in 6.
East: Conference Finals
Oh, I guess I have to pick a winner of the Boston-Miami series first huh? Shoot ... Well, I guess I'll go with Miami, just because of homecourt in game 7, and because I'm not completely convinced that LeBron wasn't just coasting through the regular season waiting to unleash some kind of super-human monstrosity on the country who now hates him. So, Miami @ Chicago.
Sub-plots in this series: How about the fact that LeBron AND Wade AND Bosh ALL almost went to Chicago this offseason, and all of them turned it down to instead play together, and STILL without any of them Derrick Rose led the Bulls to the #1 seed, while Miami became the most hated team in America since the 1980 Russians? That should work right?
How badly do the Heatles wish they could travel back to May and play with Rose instead of each other? If Miami survives the Boston series, it will be solely on the shoulders of LeBron and Wade playing 47 minutes a night. Now they're running into the hyper-defensive Bulls who contest every shot, every dribble, and don't allow easy layups. The Heat lead the NBA in fast-break points (LeBron is #1 in the league, Wade is #2), but they also lead the NBA in missed jump shots with 15 seconds left on the shot clock because they think they are too awesome to miss, but they don't realize that the defense is practically BEGGING them to shoot jump shots, because someone in LeBron's posse forgot to inform him that he's not actually a very good jump shooter.
And Wade is worse. Wade shot 30% from three point land, while LeBron shot 32%. Together, they averaged about 7 attempts per game, and made about 2.2. That's not very smart considering that 116 NBA players shot a better percentage than LeBron and Wade. And it's not just threes. They both stink at 18 footers. They just don't have that Kobe/MJ aspect of their games. Heck, even at the free throw line they both struggle.
Both players shot exactly 649 free throws this season, or about 8 per game. Even more weirdly, both players made exactly 491 of them, or 75.7%. That's not a bad percentage, if you're a 7'2" center. But for a couple guys who score 27 per game and are supposed to be a super-dominant offensive machines, it's not very good. Kobe and Durant shot 82% and 88%, respectively. Jordan shot 83%, Bird was 89%, Magic was 85%. The fact is, LeBron and Wade aren't amazing shooters. If they get into a shooting match with the Bulls, they'll not only lose, they'll get demolished.
Remember LeBron's epic collapse against Boston in last year's semifinals? People thought maybe he was quitting on Cleveland, losing on purpose, mailing it in. How about the reality that he got exposed by a great defensive team as a superior athlete who doesn't have a superior jump shot? Remember when LeBron scored 28 straight points against the hapless Pistons in 2006? At the time I thought I was watching the next Michael Jordan. Now I realize what I was watching: the luckiest string of jump shots in LeBron's career. I'm not knocking LeBron the athlete. He's the most elite physical freak I've ever seen. He can dominate on both sides of the ball, and the combination of size, strength and power has literally never been equaled in any sport. He's literally like Magic mixed with Karl Malone. No qualms about his dominance or greatness. But LeBron's problem is that he believes he's a mix of Magic, Malone, and Ray Allen. He thinks he can knock down jumpers all day long. But he can't. And Chicago knows this, which is why they'll let him shoot, which is why the Bulls will win the series, in 5 games, and finally America, and Cleveland, will rejoice.
West: Conference Finals Lakers @ Spurs
How many times have we seen this? It's almost too predictable; maybe I should have gone with the Thunder after all. Or maybe we keep seeing these two teams because Kobe and Duncan play at a different level during the playoffs, and because Phil and Popp are two of the best coaches in the history of sports. I don't have much of a bias in this series. I don't like either team; I don't hate either team. For periods of time I've hated them both, but time and the Pistons suckiness have made me neutral. I'm cheering for the Spurs simply because I want Antonio McDyess to get a well-deserved ring.
When it comes to Kobe, I'm not a hater, I'm a realist. He's a top 8 All Time player with 5 rings, and I won't deny that. I'm also an appreciator, but not a fan, of what Duncan does and how he consistently wins. If Kobe wins this year's title, he moves into The Discussion. He doesn't surpass Michael Jordan, and I firmly don't believe anyone ever will. But a sixth championship puts Kobe in the Magic-Bird-Oscar-Russell-Wilt discussion for 'Who's the Second Best Player Ever?' It also elevates him far above Shaq and Duncan as the Best Player Since MJ. Conversely, if Duncan captures a fifth ring it lifts him above Shaq as the best modern day big man, and it probably unites him with Kobe in the top 10 conversation. This would be Timmy's most impressive title to date.
San Antonio's sole hope in this series is using homecourt advantage to the full and extending the series to 7 game. That's probably not going to happen. They just don't have enough defense. Who's going to guard Kobe? Richard Jefferson? Please. I'm going to take the Lakers in a four game sweep. Which leads us to...
NBA Finals Bulls @ Lakers
Ah yes, Phil Jackson against his old team, Kobe against the city of MJ, the best player in the league against the MVP, the past against the future. Noah guards Gasol in an epic battle for ugliness, Boozer matches perfectly with Odom as 6'7" guys who claim to be 6'10", and Kyle Korver and Luke Walton comb each other's hair. This will be fun. Both of these teams were really built for one another. Ron Artest will hound Rose, while the Bulls will send Deng and Brewer at Kobe. It's going to be physical, brutal, smart, technical.
This is going to be one heck of an NBA Finals. I think it will go 7 games, and that means it heads back to Chicago. With 20 seconds left in a 94-94 game, I think Derrick Rose makes the play that makes him a legend, and Chicago celebrates a completely unexpected championship, their first since MJ, and Phil Jackson immediately retires, only to coach the Knicks in 2012.
Then, in the 2011 NBA Draft in June, the Cleveland Cavaliers will take Arizona's Derrick Williams (6'9" power forward who is sort of a skinnier LeBron, though obviously not as good a ball handler) with the #1 pick, and the Pistons will completely waste the #6 pick on an outside shooting international big man (Donatas Motiejunas from Lithuania, perhaps), thanks to Joe Dumars's chronic stubborness that he has a capable frontcourt in Stuckey/Hamilton/Gordon, and eventually Dumars will be fired for wasting yet another first round pick, but it won't matter, because the NBA season is going to be locked out for several months in 2011, so you better enjoy this postseason.