Sunday, May 3, 2015

NBA Second Round Playoff Predictions: A Correction That Took Decades

Second Round MVP
Before we get into the nuts and bolts of who will win in the next round of what is shaping up to be the best NBA playoff season in years, as it's going to be the first that doesn't peak in the first round, here's too much to say about that fantastic Clippers vs. Spurs series that just finished tonight.

That series was medicinal grade hoop. Over seven games, the teams were only five points apart, and with the strong turd in the punch bowl that was intentional fouling, I can't remember a more watchable set of games. San Antonio had the better bench, the Clips had the better starters. All of the big players had big games when they were needed. Teams came back from deficits despite home court advantage. The officiating didn't ruin anything. There were no flagrant fouls or mouthing off, no coaches working the refs in the media, no rock throwing games as the defenses caught up to the offenses and/or players just ran out of gas. The best team won, and the best team was no more than a hair better. There was no ownership freakouts, no post-game punk behavior, nothing but great, great ball. I had no part of this series, allegiance wise, and I couldn't have been more entertained, or more into it. So, so, so good.

Why? Well, for all of the reasons above, but one thing more. I want to take you back 22 years to the Bulls-Suns Finals in 1993, the only time that Charles Barkley had a chance to win a championship, only to get turned back by Prime Michael Jordan. Those games were amazing, but they also essentially retarded the NBA's development as a wildly compelling league, and here's why...

Stars (Jordan and Scottie Pippen) beat Team (Barkley, Kevin Johnson, Dan Majerle, Richard Dumas and more). And the same thing happened soon after with Jordan taking care of Gary Payton, Shawn Kemp, Detlef Schrempf and the Sonics. And that more or less continued for the next 20 years, just with different guys (Shaquille O'Neal, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, mostly) taking the MJ role.

In football, there is a continuum of smart vs. physical, and while it's simplistic to see clubs as either one or the other, you can develop schemes that tip the scales in your favor. In baseball, physical gifts of power and speed can trump execution and strategy, but the best teams have both. And in hoop, you need stars to make big shots late, or to bail you out against outstanding defense... but if you are entirely star-dependent, you wind up burning those guys out, and being too easy to defend against top-tier clubs.

If you've got five guys that can beat you, rather than three guys that can do that and two guys that are just going to defend and set picks, that seems like it should win... but it hasn't, because playoff ball is always slower, and a long series gets to the point of scouting all of the scheme stuff out, especially when the rules allow for thuggery, as they did back in the bad old days of the '80s and '90s.

Now? Not so much.

You saw it in the Finals last year, especially, with the Spurs routing the Heat. You saw it in the first round with Atlanta eventually wiping the floor with the Nets (yes, I know, the Nets are horrible, but they have old-school slow-down playoff "stars"). And you saw star power still winning the day for Cleveland over Boston, and the Clippers barely outlasting the Spurs.

It makes for a wildly more entertaining consumer product. One guy can still overcome a team, but teams can overcome stars. And the best stars aren't the guys that just come up big in late and close; they are the ones that makes their teammates better in all of the time before it, and who got enough rest to be great late.

It's the best hoop of our lives, people. And it's only going to get better.

* * * * *

Washington vs. ATLANTA

The case for Washington: Played dramatically better ball than their last 30+ games in a 4-0 road series sweep of the Raptors. Bradley Beall might finally be healthy, which means that the East's best backcourt on paper might be that way on the floor, too. The frontcourt of Marcin Gortat, Nene Hilario and Paul Pierce is crazy experienced, physical, and plays both ways. They are getting more from their bench than expected, and are well-rested. They also have a hell of a story going on right now, which is that they were just waiting to flick the switch for the playoffs.

The case against: The bench could go back to bad at any moment, really. PG John Wall can go to Hero Ball too easily, especially when things aren't going the Wiz's way. Not great from the line, or in transition defense. Some coaching concerns, given how much they lost their way in the second half of the year. Might be a paper tiger, in that Toronto might have had home court just from playing in the worst division in NBA history. (Remember, the Atlantic has the Knicks, Sixers, Magic, Celtics and Raptors -- aka, three of the five worst teams in the league, and a Boston club that was only good in the final third of the season.)

The case for Atlanta: The best in the East by a wide margin this year, due to defense, cohesion and relentlessly good three-point shooting. PG Jeff Teague is a quiet star, and SG Kyle Korver might be the NBA's best from behind the arc. Bigs Al Horford and Paul Milsap share the ball beautifully for quality looks, and SF DeMarre Carroll might be the league's best 3-and-D guy. Bench is filled with guys that know their role and make shots, and the immolation they gave to the Nets in Game Six showed their true level. Have home court, which is surprisingly good for them, as the area has embraced this club.

The case against: As they showed in Games 3 and 4 against Brooklyn, the utter lack of a star here causes real issues in close and late. While they are great at team defense, they can be beat one on one at the 1 and 5, which is a real issue in playoff slowdown ball. Not filled with a lot of playoff experience, and might be susceptible to Pierce's old Jedi tricks.

The pick: I don't enjoy DC's brand of ball, but this will be as compelling a series as they can provide. Atlanta in seven.

CHICAGO vs. Cleveland

The case for Chicago: When healthy, an actually compelling choice for the best team in the NBA. Pau Gasol is the East's best scoring big man, and Jimmy Butler and Joakim Noah are two of the NBA's best on defense at their positions. Deep bench with useful shooters and energy guys. PG Derrick Rose looked great at times in the Milwaukee series, and if he can be his old self for even a small amount of time, it could give them actual margin for once. Coach Tom Thibodeau is experienced and puts teams in a position to succeed defensively.

The case against: At their heart, a jump shooting team that's prone to just bricking their way out of games. Too dependent on three point shooting from guys that don't always get their makes. If they put Butler on LeBron James, Butler won't have the gas to do much on offense; if they don't, James will own them. Worst defensive position is at point guard, where Kyrie Irving could win games on his own. Don't have home court, and do have a history of eating James' exhaust.

The case for Cleveland: Might be (shh) better without Kevin Love, in that it gives more minutes to two-way and transition athletes like JR Smith and Ian Shumpert, and gets more touches in the half court for Timofey Mozgov and Tristan Thompson, who have been effective at offensive rebounding and converting easy chances from dribble penetration. They have two of the three best players in the series, and the player that has won more playoff games than anyone with minimal help. They've also been fairly great at home, and do not lack for confidence, since, well, James is James.

The case against Cleveland: Terrible defense in the backcourt with Irving and Smith puts real pressure on James, Mozgov and Shumpert. Might run into real foul trouble issues, especially when they have to go to spent benchies like James Jones, Matthew Dellavedova and (hurl) Kendrick Perkins. Love's not great, but he's a lot better than Jones or Shawn Marion, who might be getting minutes in his absence. Rookie coach David Blatt seems like little more than a figurehead.

The pick: This would have been Cleveland in seven with Love, and betting against James to go to the Finals in the East is rarely a good idea... but at some point, this seems like Spurs v. Heat to me. Chicago in six. 

Memphis vs. GOLDEN STATE

The case for Memphis: Can ugly up a game like no one else in the Association, with the big-man combo of Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph having their way inside. Strong at home, where bench shooters tend to do more. Well-coached, and well-rested after drawing a great matchup against the crippled Blazers in Round One. Have surprised against top seed favorites before.

The case against: PG Mike Conley is deeply hurt, in ways that might make him timid even in the event of a return. Conley was the least replaceable person on the team, especially against Stephen Curry. Did not have success against the Dubs in the regular season, and didn't end the season playing their best ball.

The case for Golden State: The best team in the league during the regular season, with the best player in Curry. SG Klay Thompson absolutely owned the Grizz during the regular season, basically because the Grizz only have one stopper (Tony Allen), which means it's a pick your poison moment against a team that's relentless about sharing the ball. Best in league defensive metrics when Bogut is on the floor, especially now that Draymond Green has become murderously good. Head coach Steve Kerr has been everything they could ask for, and the home crowd is the best in the Association.

The case against: Despite sweeping the Pelicans in round one, had real issues against Anthony Davis, and Gasol and Randolph have elements of Davis' game. Bench wasn't nearly as dominant in the sweep as they were in the regular season, and seem to tighten up when put to the test. If Curry doesn't play out of even his mind against the Pels in Game 3, and the Pels aren't too playoff noobs to foul when up 3 late, could have been a much longer series. Can have FT issues if they are playing their best defensive team, due to Bogut and Iguodala being weak there. And yes, this is all a deep reach.

The pick: If Conley had come into this at 100%, I think it would have been a tight five, with lots of anxious moments for the league's top seed. There are honest concerns that the Dubs have just won too easily, too often, to feel great about their chances when the games get super-tight. But the Grizz just aren't deep enough to overcome Conley's absence, and too many guys on this roster aren't going to be able to get enough makes down to trade with the Dubs. Warriors in four.

Los Angeles vs. HOUSTON

The case for Los Angeles: Just beat a better team. Have the game's best defensive center in DeAndre Jordan, and one of the more versatile PFs in Blake Griffin. (Lost in the Chris Paul heroics in Game 7? Griffin had a triple double.) SG JJ Redick is having his best year, and SF Matt Barnes is the kind of grit monster who can be very useful in a contentious series, and Houston has lots of guys who tend to self-combust against his style of hijinks. If Paul can shake off his hamstring issues from Game 7, he's got a huge advantage over guys like Jason Terry and Pablo Prigioni. They've got a clear coaching advantage with Doc Rivers, and SG Jamal Crawford has been a fourth quarter scoring machine.

The case against: It's very hard to imagine that Paul's going to be healthy after tonight's game. The Clipper bench was bad in the Spurs series, and it's worse now that Big Baby Davis appears to be done. The Clippers have a history in recent years of turtling up in later rounds when Griffin and Paul aren't 100%, and it's hard to see how that isn't happening here. If Paul can't go, might not win a game in this series, and if Davis is out, they'll need to get quality minutes from guys like Austin Davis, Hedo Turkoglu and Spencer Hawes. Yikes.

The case for Houston: Rested against a spent opponent, with home court, so they really shouldn't have too much trouble getting out to a 2-0 advantage and maybe ending this early. C Dwight Howard and PF Josh Smith are playing their best ball. SG James Harden is ready to emerge, and as rested as any prime star in the Association. Getting solid defense and transition work from Corey Brewer and Trevor Ariza. Aren't likely to get intentionally fouled to death, not with the Clips employing Jordan.

The case against: Would have lost to either the Spurs or Clips in the last round, when both teams were healthy and not totally spent. Have a genuinely hard time putting five guys who can shoot free throws on the floor. Turnover-prone, and just a club that seems to live and die on runs, as you might expect from a club that's dependent on threes and transition. When Smith isn't hitting from the floor, he lets it ruin the rest of his game. Club plays on emotion, which doesn't usually work out in the long run, and the bench is erratic.

The pick: If Paul was 100%, I'd like the Clips to get this done in seven on the road; I think they would fall behind early, but eventually find ways to get under the Rockets' skin. Rivers also has a knack in Game 7, and I just don't like Howard's game at all; he comes up small when it matters the most.

But if Paul isn't 100%, there's nowhere for him to hide with Harden being as smart as he is. Look for the Beard to put up triple double numbers. Rockets in six. 

First round record: 7-1

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