Thursday, April 14, 2011

Playoff Predictions

The 2011 playoffs begin this weekend, so here are our quick thoughts:

Other than the Trail Blazers of 1977, no team has ever won the championship if its core players had not even won a single playoff series in prior years. (One could point to the 1980 champion Los Angeles Lakers featuring rookie Magic Johnson, but its other top players including Jamaal Wilkes, Michael Cooper, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar had won a first-round series against Denver in '79. One could also look at the Celtics of 2008, who turned the previous season's 24 wins into a championship. But Pierce, Garnett, and Allen had all made it to the conference finals with different prior teams.) This is not a random correlation; beating the same opponent over and over, even as the opponent comes to know your strengths and weaknesses, is a learned skill. For that reason, I have a hard time seeing the Chicago Bulls or Oklahoma City Thunder winning the 2011 title. (The Bulls boast Boozer and the Thunder play Perkins, both of whom have seen playoff success before, but each of those guys is not among the respective team's top three players.) That is not to say that Chicago and Oklahoma cannot make the NBA Finals, but they will likely not win the big prize.

That leaves San Antonio, Los Angeles, Dallas, Miami, Boston, and Orlando as possible champs. Keep that in mind in reading the following predictions:


  • San Antonio over Memphis in six. The Grizzlies play difficult defense, but have no one big and strong enough to stop Tim Duncan. Look for Duncan to explode offensively, despite his relatively quiet season.

  • Los Angeles over New Orleans in five. Derek Fisher has a very difficult time defending speedy point guards like Russell Westbrook or Derrick Rose, but the Hornets' Chris Paul would be better termed "crafty" or "agile" rather than speedy. Paul's effectiveness depends on his ability to deliver the ball to finishers in the right place. The Lakers' set of big men should dominate the Hornets.

  • Dallas over Portland in five. Brandon Roy is a non-factor and Marcus Camby is perpetually injured. Even without Caron Butler, Dallas is far deeper than the Blazers.

  • Oklahoma City over Denver in five. Note that the Thunder are fully healthy, while Denver players Gallinari, Lawson, Afflalo, and Andersen are all recovering from injuries. Ty Lawson is too small and Danilo Gallinari too slow to deal with Westbrook and Durant.

  • Chicago over Indiana in four. The Pacers' starting unit features a rookie, Paul George, and two second-year players — Collison and Hansbrough. They will be smacked.

  • Miami over Philadelphia in four. Andre Iguodala might be able to adequately defend Dwyane Wade or LeBron James, but not both. And who will defend Chris Bosh? Not Elton Brand or Spencer Hawes. Philadelphia does not have the personnel to exploit Miami's weaknesses.

  • Boston over New York in five. If Shaquille O'Neal is healthy, he can play 20 minutes of dominant offensive basketball each game; no one on New York has the heft to defend him. Meanwhile, Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Rajon Rondo should have the agility and know-how to defend the Knicks' three stars of Anthony, Stoudemire, Billups.

  • Orlando over Atlanta in six. The Magic's bench is weak: J.J. Redick is recovering from a groin injury, Gilbert Arenas is significantly slower than his old self, and their backup center is Earl Clark. Luckily for the Magic, Atlanta's bench is no better, even at full strength. If the Hawks play their centers (Jason Collins and Zaza Pachulia), they may have a chance against Orlando; if they play a guard-heavy (or Marvin-heavy) lineup with Al Horford at center, Dwight Howard should crush them.


  • Oklahoma City over San Antonio in six. Oklahoma's big men — Ibaka, Perkins, Collison, and Mohammed — are credible threats at either end against Duncan, McDyess, Bonner, Splitter, Blair. The Thunder have a wing stopper (Sefolosha) and two wing scorers (Durant, Harden) to throw at Jefferson and Ginobili. Meanwhile, Russell Westbrook should control his matchup with Tony Parker and George Hill. The Thunder could grab Game 1 in the SBC Center and then quickly seize a 3-1 series lead.

  • Los Angeles over Dallas in six. Dallas simply cannot contain the Lakers' stars defensively. Corey Brewer is too lithe and Jason Kidd too old to defend Kobe Bryant. Dirk Nowitzki is too weak and Tyson Chandler too slim to defend the Odom/Gasol/Bynum trio. I expect low-scoring games, mostly won by the gold team.

  • Orlando over Chicago in six. Joakim Noah is a very good player, but Dwight Howard is bigger and better. Ryan Anderson scored 28 points in an April 10th game against Chicago; he and Brandon Bass should put up numbers against Carlos Boozer. Without evidence, I believe Gilbert Arenas will explode in this series, exposing Derrick Rose's defensive limitations. Chicago has dominated in the United Center all year, so Orlando's best hope is probably to steal Game 5, then close things in a sixth game down south.

  • Miami over Boston in five. See my analysis of the Boston-NYK series above? Stopping James, Wade, and Bosh is a mite tougher than stopping Anthony, Billups, Stoudemire. Further, Erick Dampier and Joel Anthony should be able to quell the burbling fury of Shaquille O'Neal.


  • Oklahoma City over Los Angeles in seven. I did say that no team without a prior season's playoff series win can attain the championship, but the Thunder certainly can make the Finals. Oklahoma's superior depth (their eleventh man is Nate Robinson, while the Lakers' eleventh man is Devin Ebanks) should carry them through a difficult and long series, even without home-court advantage.

  • Miami over Orlando in six. Howard would dominate offensively, but Miami should be able to stifle the rest of Orlando's team on the offensive side, and when Miami gets the ball, no Magic perimeter defender can really stop them. In fact, the Magic don't have a perimeter defender.


  • Miami over Oklahoma City in six. Miami would have home-court advantage in this putative matchup. Dwyane Wade could pick up Russell Westbrook's dashing forays to the hoop, and LeBron James could stay with Kevin Durant's quick releases around the perimeter. Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka might neutralize Chris Bosh's offensive efforts, but Sefolosha is a bit too slight to do anything real against James and Wade when the latter guys get the ball. If Russell Westbrook is forced to help defensively against Dwyane Wade, then Bibby, Miller, or Chalmers could rain in three-pointers. This would be an awesome series, but I like the Heat to win the first of what could be many championships.
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