Sunday, May 18, 2014

NBA Conference Round Predictions: Let's Go Hate

It Gets Slanty Now
With a long history and repeat matchups at this level in the Finals, it's time for snarly games with hurt feelings, flagrant fouls, post-game quotes of full posture, and all of the other stuff that makes non-NBA fans pay attention. I'm still pining for Round One, of course, but it's the hoop we have, so let's have at it.

Miami at Indiana: Heat In Six

The case for Miami: Defending champions. Have looked better this playoff year, and for the most part, the last two months. Have the best player on the planet, which usually means that you win. Can turn it up on defense in ways that no other team can. Effective three-point shooters who have been here before, and generally do not freak out in crunch time. Surprisingly good home court advantage for a wildly spoiled fan base. Have no fear of the Pacers, and are simply capable of playing at a higher level. Solid coaching, and maybe even underrated.

The case against Miami: Incredibly thin for a Final Four contender, with almost no one of note on the bench, assuming you don't count quasi-starter Ray Allen. Do not have home court. Might be taking the Pacers too lightly, especially since the Heat have very few good answers for guarding David West and Roy Hibbert. Haven't really been very good for a while, and have rolled two incredibly weak teams for a playoff run.

The case for Indiana: Playing better recently, with more consistent play from Hibbert. Strong size and balance. More than a little playoff experience, with good defensive coaching. Might finally play free and clear basketball now that they haven't lost two straight series to lowly regarded opponents. Have a star in Paul George who might be ready to make the step up to the next level.

The case against Indiana: Hibbert has been useless on a near-historic level for an All-Star; if he disappears again in this series, they can't win. Play tight in the stretch, with lots of iso sets from guys that generally can't get it done. Turnover prone and can give up big runs. Have flat out quit on many games in this playoff season, which is usually a death knell for a team.

The pick: Miami in six. To me, this series is going to come down to two things: Indy's big men, and Miami's ability to get offense from turnovers. At the core of it, I don't believe that a team that relies on George Hill and Lance Stephenson can avoid turnovers, and that West and Hibbert can punish them consistently.

So Miami will steal a game in Indy, and win all of their home games, and not look really good doing it. It's what they do.

Oklahoma City at San Antonio: Spurs in seven

The case for OKC: Breakthrough talent at two positions, with the MVP in full effect. Spectacular athleticism from nearly every player they put on the floor, especially on defense. Deadly in the open court. Very good at hitting free throws, which comes into big effect in late and close situations. Useful bench players that are prone to coming up big in unexpected circumstances. One of the better home court advantages in the Association. A growing sense of urgency from the fact that they haven't been able to get over the hump, and Durant might not be here forever. Swept the Spurs in the regular season, and have beat them in the playoffs before.

The case against OKC: Playing against a near-perfect marriage of talent and coaching. Borderline terrible in half court, with dribble hero ball bailout shots seeming to be their whole arsenal in close and late situations. Russell Westbrook can shoot and turn them out of games in ways that stagger the imagination. Will miss Serge Ibaka, out with an injury, terribly. A little lucky to be here, following two tough and long series that never seemed all that safe. Questionable coaching, with odd infatuations for players like Kendrick Perkins and Thabo Sefalosha.

The case for San Antonio: Best blend of effective, team-oriented offense, and stifling, credible defense at every level. Balanced scoring with great advantages at the bench level. Rarely, if ever, beat themselves. Very effective behind the arc, which can cause runs to become blowouts. Best coach in NBA history (yes, I'm serious, Gregg Popovich has never had the horses of other guys, and still has a fistful of rings), and they can score in a wide number of ways, which means that runs against them don't tend to go deep. Have players who can execute in crunch time, while still not "needing" any single player to do well to win.

The case against San Antonio: If Kawhi Leonard is not special, they don't have the extra gear to beat a team that is playing their best. When it goes south for them, and they aren't hitting their threes, they look weak. Rim protection can be a little threadbare, and they are so prone to helps and switches on defense that breakdowns on the dribble can happen. If their threes aren't dropping, and OKC is fairly good at stopping those, they can be had.

The pick: Spurs in seven, with equal parts credit to San Antonio for finding enough shooters to get it done, and equal demerits to Westbrook and Durant, who are spectacular talents with obvious flaws... going into a game against, well, a team that's very good at playing against your obvious flaws. It will go back and forth, and both teams will win on the other team's half court, but in the final analysis, I just can't see OKC winning without Ibaka. Or, even if he were around, a team with Westbrook at the helm beating a team with Tony Parker. (Assuming, of course, that Parker stays healthy.)

Second round: 3-1

This year: 9-3

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