Sunday, May 19, 2013

NBA Conference Finals Picks: False Theory Choice

Roll Again
For years now, the NBA has legislated and plotted to be about Going Small. Three point shooting and statistical analysis has made the corner three the most desired shot on the floor. Long jumpers from inside the arc, even in the hands of a capable shooter with a clean look, have been derided. Transition scoring has become more important, since the world's best athletes from six continents play this game, and they all close out to shooters like mad. So it's about the small man virtues (avoid turnovers and making your threes) and less about the big man attributes (shooting a high percentage, controlling the boards, and getting your opponent's starters in foul trouble).

In the second round, that all changed back with a vengeance. Memphis, with its retro-cool under the rim big man pairing of Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol, is the new chic pick, having just ended the seasons of two of the best five players in the NBA. Indiana kicked past a New York team that was all about turnovers and threes, mostly because Roy Hibbert utterly destroyed Tyson Chandler.

So we're all clear here now, right? The Big Man has come back with a vengeance, as we all knew he would, and we need to start looking at series under the age-old adage of Good And Big Beats Good And Small. Right?

Well, not so fast. There were other factors at work in Memphis taking out the Clippers and Thunder -- mainly, that both teams were dealing with crushing injuries and/or rock-headedness from their coaches and bench players. Indiana caught a Knick team that was spent from age and injuries as well, and I can't help shake the feeling that Chandler played that series while hurt. In all of the games, you still had the corner three, turnover issues and transition scoring. The games aren't simple to predict now, and there is no New Old Wave at work where everyone is going to try to make their team look like the Grizz, any more than everyone tried to make their team look like the Thunder a year ago, or Miami and Boston the years before that.

There are many paths to greatness now in the NBA, beyond Have The Best Player. But all things being equal, I'm taking that one.

And with that... on to the picks!

Indiana vs. MIAMI

The case for Indy: Defensive stoppers all over the floor. Solid coaching. Ravenous fan base. Familiar with the Heat, and have had success against them this year. Can defend inside and at the arc in the half court game. Comfortable at any pace, though better at slow. Can win grind it out playoff games, which seems to be the only kind that Miami plays now.

The case against: This is the last team in the world that you want to have turnover issues against. If Hibbert gets in foul trouble, they have serious problems inside. David West seems to come up second-best at this stage a lot in his career. The guard play is erratic. Possible injury issues with George Hill's concussion. The bench doesn't tend to show up on the road.

The case for Miami: Defending champions with the best record and home court. Have the best player, potentially ever. Will defend at every position and can blow teams out when the connect from distance. Battle-tested with a bailout margin that no other team that's still in the playoffs has. Can go into defensive fugue states where the opponent never seems to score. Does not panic when down, and capable of making soul-draining comebacks.

The case against: Surprisingly indifferent for much of games; this is a team that allowed the Bucks to have leads, and for a Bulls team with a borderline overseas backcout to win Game One. Could have rust issues all the way into Game Two, given the NBA's absurd schedule and their own ability to close out series quickly. Home court does not intimidate, as their crowd is Lakers East in terms of cosmopolitan cool. If Dwyane Wade remains hurt, loses a lot of margin. They are getting a lot out of Chris Bosh and Chris Anderson, and both guys are mercurial. May be facing their first actually good team of the playoffs now, and may be a paper tiger.

The call: It would not shock me, though it would shock the world, if the Pacers win this. They are the only team in the East capable of giving the Heat a run for their money, and if they didn't have turnover issues, I'd be seriously tempted to take a stab at them. But they do, and when this series gets late and the Heat decide to just go to the rack and win it at the line, they are going to get those calls.

The pick: Heat in seven.

San Antonio at MEMPHIS

The case for San Antonio: Have the best coach in the business. Actually have quality front court depth, a first for a Grizzly opponent in this playoff. PG Tony Parker is capable of winning his matchup against Mike Conley, a must if a team is to advance against the Grizz. Home court helps, as does the best coach working in the NBA today. In Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard, have quality young players that can provide closeouts and help down low on the Grizz big men. The bench is useful and capable of providing surprise contributions from little-used guys (Boris Diaw, DaJuan Blair, Patty Mills, Kris Joseph). Have been at this level before and really do not panic when behind in a series.

The case against: Aging stars (Manu Ginobili especially, though also Tim Duncan) have not looked good late in games. Will need Tiago Splitter, who has been hurt, to play the series of his life. Got wrecked by a younger and worse version of this Grizz team as a high seed a couple of years ago. Might be running on fumes at this point, especially after a very taxing series against the Warriors. No matter how well he manages the minutes, Gregg Popovich is having to get more and more out of guys who are not capable of it.

The case for Memphis: Best defensive team, one through five, on the planet. Lockdown in halfcourt and good in transition. Perhaps the best defensive small in Tony Allen, and the best defensive big in Marc Gasol. Gets bailout shots from mid-range, which is unique at this point in the NBA, and prone to volleyball-style offensive board rallies that sap the will and drain the legs of their opponents. Might be playing their "easiest" opponent to date, in that there is no game-changing superstar around to steal early games. Have those good memories of bouncing the Spurs before. No auto-hack candidates for Popovich to take advantage of with intentional fouls.

The case against: Prone to dumb fouls and ref baiting. Not great from the arc; not explosive because they are not great from the arc. Coaching is pedestrian at best. Have never gotten this far, and might find the air a little thin. If you make Conley a shooter, and he's not hitting, can be relatively easy to defend, since the boards are going to go long. I'm not a big fan of their bench, especially in road games.

The pick: If the Spurs win this, we can pretty much revoke George Karl's coach of the year trophy and send it to Popovich with all apologies. They just might, given how smart and tough they are, and if this becomes a whistle-fest, the odds go up. But there's a reason they've won their series with more ease than the Spurs have won theirs, and it's because they've got a defense that turns their opponents into hamburger. The Spurs don't have the means to compete against that, and there's only so much that coaching smoke and mirrors can do to compensate.

The pick: Grizzlies in six

Year to date: 10-2

Enjoy the games, everyone.

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