*Note: Sixers tickets were widely available on StubHub for as low as $7.00 this year, so I’m not promising much.
This Playoff Preview will also serve as a substitute for a review of the regular season for those of you who missed out on a fantastic year. I’ll make sure to touch on all the major themes: The Blogosphere Battle: Who was the MVP? Who’s hot entering the Playoffs? Will Miami ever make a Decision about its crunch-time offense?
I’ll also give my first-round predictions with each pairing.
5 Hawks @ 4 Magic
Few will give the Hawks much of a chance in this one. They rode a four-game losing streak into Monday’s match-up against Miami before resting their starters in two more losses to close the season; Josh Smith is banged up; and the only statistic in which Joe Johnson cracks the top 20 list is field goal attempts. (Salary isn’t a statistic.)
In the other corner, the only reason Magic players miss games involves technical fouls. Dwight Howard’s defense, eFG%, Wins Produced, Value Over Replacement Dwight Howard, and other advanced-stats dominance won’t be enough to woo the MVP voters, but it will woo their picks for this series over the fallen star Johnson. I myself won’t go so far as declaring Howard the MVP (or Kevin Love), but his defensive prowess and rebounding domination are great arguments that lots of people will make for him.
Howard has also been at the center of the NBA’s new point of emphasis on “respect for the game” technical fouls. Prior to the season, the NBA announced that it would be granting its expert officials even more power to arbitrarily hand free throws and possessions to one team or another. Sensing the oncoming disaster, I sent an over-the-top email to the league office, but alas, no retraction of the technical foul policy was issued. Soon, almost exactly as I predicted, Stan Van Gundy was comparing David Stern to Middle Eastern Dictators, Dwight Howard was getting technicals at a Rasheed Wallace rate, and now this Playoffs will feature at least one game sans The Guy Who Stole One Of Shaq’s Nicknames.
I’m going chalk here, even though it’s not March Madness, and even though chalk didn’t do so hot at the NCAA’s this year.
Magic in 5.
5 Nuggets @ 4 Thunder
The Nuggets have been blazing after unloading their superstar for Knicks castoffs. Many have attempted to blame the pre-trade and post-trade performance on Carmelo, the Knicks players, the Nuggets players, and all sorts of other things. I think of course those are all the main sources, but Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov described the season-long Carmelo trade saga best: “It has been played out in public and it certainly has taken a toll on the players and I believe that it has cost us several games.” Maybe he was right.
The Thunder of course added Celtics big man Kendrick “The Scowl” Perkins. His scowl will only be meaner now that he’s been dumped for spare change.
But is Perkins enough to move the Thunder past the first round?
I don’t think he is. The Nuggets’ well-balanced offense is banged up but if healthy it is beautiful to watch. Their defense will struggle against the relentless two-man assault by Westbrook and Kevin “I Was the Preseason MVP, Now I’m Just The NBA’s Leading Scorer” Durant, but I don’t see the Thunder having enough defense in enough places to hold off the Nuggets.
Nuggets in 6.
6 Trailblazers @ 3 Mavericks
The popular upset pick of the Playoffs; I’m going the other way. I don’t see the attraction to the Portland style of play and I don’t love their chances against a Mavs team that still has decent depth even with the loss of Caron Butler.
Mavericks in 5.
8 Pacers @ 1 Bulls
The Bulls are charging into the playoffs on the back of Rose’s scoring and the team’s suffocating defense. The Pacers are charging into a possible sweep. So let’s break down what exactly happened to Derrick Rose’s MVP Candidacy. Why did the media crown him so unanimously? Because he’s the best player, and the highest scorer, on a team at the top of the standings, of course. Why did the Blogosphere react so negatively? I will take a shot at entering their mindset. By generalizing. Here goes:
- Conventional Wisdom. If these bloggers felt that being told what to think in unison from everyone in the media was satisfactory, they probably wouldn’t have bothered to start a blog.
- Advanced Stats. Adjusted Plus/Minus, PER, and Wins Produced Per 48 Minutes still feel much more at home on the screen than in newsprint, and most of them point towards players other than Rose. Hence the split.
- Reaction Against The Reaction. When traditional media members caught wind of the growing anti-Rose sentiment, the “You just have to watch him play” arguments grew even more stringent. After a particularly high scoring game a writer would take the air to tweet that Rose had proven his case. Small sample sizes are unconvincing to advanced statisticians.
Can we reach a middle ground? I don’t think the MVP is Rose, but if he wins it’s not the end of the NBA. (This summer’s lockout is the end of the NBA. I hope you like hockey.)
Bulls in 4.
6 Knicks @ 3 Celtics
The Celtics breathtaking collapse from the No. 1 seed all the way to No. 3 landed them a matchup with the new-look New York Knicks in a competition for the 2011 Worst Trade Award. We can analyze this trade from the perspective of contracts, but that seems silly given that there will soon be a lockout and a new CBA. We can analyze this trade with statistics and/or advanced statistics, but let’s change it up from the above and go with style.
- The Celtics, a defensive team, the premier chemistry team in the NBA, built around three aging superstars past their prime grasping at their last chances at rings and a young mercurial guard struggling to find his fit, the team of Doc Rivers’ Ubuntu philosophy, the team of four players running to pick up the one who has fallen on the ground, trade away their fifth starter in exchange for… Jeff Green and Nenad Krstic. They soon fell to the third seed in the Eastern Conference. The Thunder immediately improved.
- The Knicks, a Mike D’Antoni team, a seven-seconds-or-less team, traded for Carmelo Anthony, an isolation scorer, raising questions as to how he would fit into the seven-seconds-or-less style. The Nuggets immediately went on a winning streak; the Knicks did not.
The Celtics have to be the “loser” here. They were a game away last year and losing inside defense is not the way to get over the hump. I love watching the 7SOL style, but D’Antoni will have to “make do” with Carmelo and Stoudamire. Deal with it, alright?
Celtics in 6.
8 Grizzlies @ 1 Spurs
The Spurs jumped out to a gigantic lead on the rest of the field, but have “fallen” back to the pack towards the end of the season. Few coaches get his players to push the Playoffs button better than Greg Popovich, but he may not have his full artillery at his disposal if Ginobili’s injuries hold him out. Ginobili, Parker, and Duncan all help the team in different ways, and the Spurs’ brand of the “Big Three” has become more balanced this year. But is that a good thing? Is Tim Duncan in decline, or has he just reclined this season, and is ready to spring into action come playoff time?
The Grizzlies are no also-ran. This feisty team features players that will fight for rebounds, loose balls, and apparently, card games. According to Truehoop, they feature one of the scrappiest players in the league, Tony Allen. Combined with low post powerhouse Zach Randolph, 7 assists and 2 steals/game from Mike Conley (16th and 6th in the league), this team can put up a fight against the aging Spurs.
But I still believe that the Spurs have been playing possum and will somehow turn it on. I just think it will take a few games to shake the rust off.
Spurs in 7.
7 Sixers @ 2 Heat
A young 76ers team, after a 3-13 start, have found their way to a winning record and the seventh seed. A quiet close to the season has them smashing into the scorching Heat, who torched Boston just this past weekend to all-but clinch the second seed.
The seeding seems incredibly unfortunate for the 76ers, as their young, versatile roster could have allowed them to play the matchup game against the fading Celtics. But who has a better smallball lineup than the Heat? LeBron can play 1 through 4, with Bosh at the 5, against teams like the Sixers that lack a dominant inside presence.
In my opinion, the Heat should come into the matchup wanting to run the Sixers off the court with swarming defense and demoralizing fast breaks. They want to give this young team no hope, no chance to consider the possibility of winning. Tons of minutes go to players 23 and under: Hawes (22), Young (22) , Holiday (20!), Turner (22), Meeks (23), so an early advantage may turn into a sense of inevitability and the feeling that “We’re happy to be here.”
The Heat need to be conscientious about relentlessly attacking the paint. Coach Spoelstra knows that settling for inefficient jump shots is a terrible use of the talents his team has taken to South Beach, and that will be even more true against the Sixers’ excellent perimeter defense. Defensive Player of the Year candidate Andre Iguodala is nursing an knee tendinitis and the Heat will want to make him work on defense to limit his energy in his role as point-forward.
I cannot possibly review the Heat’s season in this space, but you’ve probably read enough about it by this point. The Decision, The Start, The Coach Not Being Fired, The Crying, The Winning. So let’s talk instead about why LeBron is the MVP of the 2011 NBA Season.
I could go through the stats, but you already know that virtually every statistical measure favors LeBron’s individual performance over the consensus MVP Derrick Rose’s season stats. I know Derrick Rose can score. LeBron scores more, on many less shots. He is also a better defender and rebounder, and, averages nearly as many assists per game as Rose, the purported point guard of this comparison. In short, LeBron’s greatness extends to more areas of the game. I just wish LeBron played for Cleveland, but withholding my fictional MVP vote will not banish him back to the Cavaliers. Fortunately, it won’t banish my TV to Cavs games, either.
But how many Sixers games will my TV see before the Heat advance? I think the Playoffs will begin anew the early- and mid-season angst from the Heat’s scorers over who is running the offense in high-leverage situations. Will Coach Spoelstra step in with a solution with the urgency the Playoffs demand? If not, and if the Sixers can keep a couple games close, the Heat may fumble away a few games or revert back into the “OK, it’s your turn” offense. But just as they figured it out over the course of the regular season, the Heat will settle down during the Playoffs and begin to scratch their potential.
Heat in 6; Heat to win the Eastern Conference.
7 Hornets @ 2 Lakers
Is Chris Paul healthy enough? It’s been hard to watch the league’s best point guard hobble around on a squeaky wheel this year. He has David West to help and not a whole lot else.
The Phil Jackson Farewell Tour won’t be in New Orleans for long. But how long will the Tour be in the Playoffs? I say they figure out their problems. Their hot second half, their coach, their big men, their bench, their defense, and their scorer: I’m sold.
Lakers in 4; Lakers to win the Championship.