Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Eastern and Western Conference NBA Predictions: The 3-Way Dance For Best Player Alive

Fight, Fight, Fight
As much as I'd like to put together some Grand Statement of What It All Means that four 3-and-D teams that believe in math are left standing in what should be some of the best playoff basketball ever... well, all of that pales beyond the pure appreciation of Hoop. I don't need to be right, and meatheads to be wrong, to just savor the final 12 to 21 games, all of which will have LeBron James, Stephen Curry and James Harden, AKA the three best players on the planet. Oh, and each of those guys gets declared Best Player Alive if his team wins. No pressure, guys. Let's get into it.

GOLDEN STATE vs. Houston

The case for Golden State: The best team in the Association this year, and playing at their best level in the past couple of games. Fully healthy, with home-court advantage, and the best home court in the league. More rested, and deeper. Can go small with killing efficiency, and have a greater margin for error than any other team, thanks to their ability to hit 3s at historic levels. Have the MVP in Curry, and one of the best benches in recent memory. HC Steve Kerr has been a revelation as both a tactician and a motivator. In Andre Iguodala and Draymond Green, have two of the better ideas for guarding Harden. Kerr isn't likely to intentionally foul C Dwight Howard, because the Dubs win on pace, which means the offense isn't going to get bogged down for tactics and poor morale.

The case against: Some possibility of paper tiger here, as they have had the easiest road to to the final four, due to opponent inexperience and injury, especially at PG. Some weak FT shooters among their better defensive line ups. C Andrew Bogut was erratic against Memphis, and G Klay Thompson hasn't been nearly as good as the regular season.  Have a tendency to take their foot off the gas with a lead, and could react poorly in a close game, as they have to be considered the favorite... and their fan base hasn't been here in any of their likely lifetimes. When they play nervous, they turn the ball over, and they can fall behind quickly, especially if the other team is hitting from distance. Houston, as the last series showed, can put together some runs.

The case for Houston: Rescued their year with three great games against the Clippers. Harden was the MVP of the second round, and could continue his Jedi ways of wearing out a path to the free throw line. Golden State doesn't have a FT magnet for them to succumb to base instincts, rather than try on defense. Might be the only team in the league that wants to push the tempo as much as the Dubs, and have enough run and gun types on the bench to make it work. After that Houdini act against the Clips, are absolutely playing with house money / a sense of destiny.

The case against: Howard and F Josh Smith are just as likely to go back to bad as to stay good, especially against this kind of defensive pressure. G Jason Terry will be lucky to stay in the frame with Curry. Have played more games, and had to try harder in them, for possible fatigue issues. Started the playoffs down two starters. Don't have a good matchup, at all, for Curry. Might be content to just have gotten this far, since a beatdown from the Clips might have broken up the team. Howard and Harden have come up small in playoffs before, and anyone who can predict what they'll get from Smith is smarter than me.

The pick: Golden State in seven. I see the Dubs struggling with Harden and taking some time to adapt to the different series, and Smith and Howard having a good game or two. The Rockets are just hitting on all cylinders right now. But at the crux of this, there's just going to be more big shots going down for Curry and Thompson than Harden and Smith. Not in every game, but often enough to put Game Seven in Oakland, and the Rockets aren't winning that game.

Atlanta vs. CLEVELAND

The case for Atlanta: Home court due to the best record in the East. Balanced attack with good ball movement has been the only way anyone has beaten a LeBron James team in the playoffs; pure star power hasn't done it. Better defensively than given credit for, especially when they start blocking shots. Good coaching and home court, even though you've never heard of either of them. PG Dennis Schroder has given them a crunch-time small ball option with starter Jeff Teague that has led to more open looks for the bigs. SF DeMarre Carroll isn't a bad choice to try to check LeBron, and the bench is deep enough to try to wear him out.

The case against Atlanta: Unless SG Kyle Korver is making shots, margin for error is a lot less than it was in the regular season, and it's not looking great for that to just come back online, given how much playoff teams close out on shooters. Were victimized by the Wiz bigs, especially for offensive rebounds, and that's what Cleveland does best, other than employing LeBron.

The case for Cleveland: James is the best player of his generation, and one of the best five in NBA history. He's healthy, rested, focused, relentless and when the jumper is dropping, utterly indefensible, even in playoff halfcourt sets. He's also able to eliminate the other team's top option on offense, and if they don't have one, will just be a free safety / blocks and steals machine, which keys one of the most efficient transition games in the history of the Association. Better on defense with Kevin Love out, with C Timothy Mozgov and PF Tristan Thompson in particular coming up big. Wing defense is also better than advertised, with SF Iman Shumpert and SG JR Smith bringing much more game then they did in their Knick days. PG Kyrie Irving can make difficult shots and take pressure off James. PG Matthew Delevedova has hit a lot of open looks recently. Might have already beaten a better team in Chicago, though Chicago's injuries and coaching weirdness makes that an open question.

The case against: Basically operating without a coach, as James showed in the audible to end the Bulls in Game Five, and the near-disaster timeout call from HC Puppet David Blatt. Injuries to Irving don't help, and Love would give them a distance option against a Hawks team that might make some threes. Bench is historically shaky, though they haven't looked that way in the playoffs. If you can somehow get James off the floor, either with injury or a festival of flopping for foul trouble, this team is exceptionally beatable.

The pick: I've learned my lesson, and I'm not picking against James, so long as he's in the lEast. Cleveland's on the ball defense has gotten good enough to make Atlanta unsettled, and Irving's return to health means that James won't have to tire himself out chasing PGs. It'll be fun to watch, and go fairly long, but the blueprint to beat Atlanta has been well publicized in the last month. Cleveland in six.

Year to date: 10-2

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