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The regular season is over, and the pressure is on. While we’ve known who the playoff teams were going to be for a few weeks now, the pairings and seeding were being juggled until the final day of the season. What is cool about the playoffs this year is that the conferences have very different compositions. The East has The Big Three (Cleveland, Boston, and Orlando) and Everyone Else, while the Western Conference has the Lakers and then seven teams of about equal quality, which should make for an unpredictable set of series out West. In an act of almost shocking egomania, I’m going to try to predict all eight matchups, including the ones in the unpredictable West. Since I’m an east coast guy (as a Jersey native, I get to spend my time objectively analyzing the playoffs, since I rarely have a personal investment thanks to the current state of the Nets), I’ll start with the Eastern Conference.
Cleveland (66-16) vs. Detroit (39-43)—Cleveland won season series 3-1
For Cleveland to win: They simply have to execute their game. LeBron and the Cavs bounced the Pistons in the Eastern Conference Finals two years ago, and that was with a much weaker Cavs team squaring off against a much better version of Detroit. Since Tayshaun Prince is a capable one-on-one defender, I would expect LeBron to take more of a facilitator role, finding open teammates who can go after Detroit’s less talented defenders. Defensively, their toughest assignment is containing Detroit’s backcourt. Both Rodney Stuckey and Rip Hamilton are tough covers and move well without the ball, and no one in Cleveland’s backcourt is someone I would call a lock-down defender. Not that Stuckey and Hamilton can do it by themselves, but if Cleveland is confused while trying to find Hamilton coming off screens or slow in their rotations, it can open up things for the rest of Detroit’s players.
For Detroit to Win: It’s probably more reasonable to phrase this “For Detroit to have a shot.” For starters, Tayshaun Prince has to muster a once-in-a-lifetime performance guarding LeBron James. Not that anyone can possibly guard him one-on-one for a whole series, but Detroit can’t win double teaming him the whole way. LeBron is too willing of a passer and is surrounded by too many shooters to double team an entire series. A possible X-factor could be Rasheed Wallace. Cleveland’s bigs aren’t exceptional screen-roll defenders and like to play close to the basket as much as possible. If Wallace can get hot from the outside, it could drag Ilgauskus, Varejao, etc. away from the basket, where they are far less effective.
Prediction: This is not the rivalry of years past anymore. Cleveland is a complete team with a real supporting cast around the best player in the conference, and possibly the whole league. Detroit is a shell of its former self, having traded away their best player earlier in the year. Age is starting to catch up to their core. It’s not clear they have a real point guard, and their bench is thin and inexperienced. I expect the Palace to be half-full of Cavs fans. In short, I would be shocked if Detroit won a game this series, much less made a real fight out of it. Cleveland in 4
Boston (62-20) vs. Chicago (41-41)—Boston won season series 2-1
For Boston to win: Before the news about KG, I would have said, “not much.” Now, they’re probably in for a real fight without their emotional and defensive leader. Rajon Rondo needs to put the clamps on Derrick Rose. A lot of the Bulls’ offense is predicated on Rose creating havoc off the dribble, and I think Chicago will struggle in the half-court if Rondo can contain his penetration. Leon Powe and Big Baby Davis will handle the lion’s share of Garnett’s minutes, and they have to be very active on the boards. The Bulls frontcourt of Tyrus Thomas and Joakim Noah is athletic and bouncy, and the Bulls could make a series out of it if those two are able to generate a lot of offensive rebounds. The offense should be able to take care of itself even in the absence of Garnett; Leon Powe is actually not that big of a drop-off in terms of offensive efficiency.
For Chicago to win: Derrick Rose has got to find a way to make something happen against the league’s top defensive point guard. Even without Garnett, Boston is an elite defensive team in the half court, and if Rose can’t get by Rondo, then Chicago will really struggle to score. Although not much of a fast break team, the Bulls need to look to push the ball to avoid getting slogged down in a slow-paced game. John Salmons has to do some kind of LeBron James impersonation in forcing Paul Pierce to work on both ends of the floor. Salmons is actually a capable defender and a gifted scorer, and Pierce will be forced to do a lot of the heavy lifting on offense. If Salmons can somehow make that matchup a wash, or at least force Pierce to work really hard, it would go a long way in allowing Chicago to make a run at this.
Prediction: Although I doubt the Celtics go any further, I still think they have enough firepower and experience to get past the Bulls. I just don’t see a rookie point guard, even one as gifted as Rose, orchestrating the offense well enough against Rondo and the rest of that defense. While the Bulls might resemble the Hawks team that gave Boston fits last year (young, athletic, good shot blockers), the Bulls don’t have a player like Joe Johnson who can consistently generate his own offense. When the game slows down, I just don’t see how they’re going to score. I don’t think this Celtics team can repeat without Garnett, but they should be able to handle the Bulls. Boston in 6
Orlando (59-23) vs. Philadelphia (41-41)—Orlando won season series 3-0
For Orlando to win: Minimize mistakes. The Sixers do not have a chance in a conventional, half court game. They were able to give the Pistons a run for their money last year by forcing turnovers and scoring in transition; they’ll need a similar formula against the Magic. I’m sure Dwight Howard will be facing a lot of double-teams as Philly tries to strip the ball or induce offensive fouls, so it’ll be important for him to not force the issue too much. The Sixers actually have a nice cast of tough, defensive bigs (Dalembert, Ratliff, Evans), so Howard should focus on pounding the glass, drawing doubles, and kicking out. As long as Orlando is patient in executing their offense, they should be able to score without too much difficulty. And as the best defensive team in the league (or at least, the best according to defensive efficiency), they should have little difficulty handling the Sixers as long as things don’t get too wild.
For Philadelphia to win: This team is basically the same as last year’s squad, so we’re looking at a tough, athletic unit that forces a lot of turnovers and doesn’t have a single reliable shooter on the roster. It’ll be even more difficult than usual for them to score in the half court; most of their baskets come from drives to the basket, and the Magic have the league’s best defensive player protecting their rim. As such, they are going to have to gamble a ton on defense to generate steals and easy baskets. That means we should be seeing a healthy array of traps, full court pressure, double teams and anything else to force the Magic into making mistakes. The Sixers are going to have to be especially sharp on their rotations, as the Magic are full of elite 3-point shooters (Rashard Lewis, Hedo Turkoglu, etc.) and they can’t fall asleep while sending double-teams at Howard.
Prediction: I actually think Philadelphia matches up horribly against Orlando, though not for the reasons you’d think. More than any other team in the East, I think Philly has the personnel to handle Dwight Howard, but I just don’t see them getting anything going in the half court. This is one reason the Magic got Rafer Alston once Jameer Nelson went down. With a steady hand guiding the ship, a team like the Sixers is going to struggle to force the mistakes necessary for them to have a chance. As long as the Magic stay patient and disciplined, they should have little difficulty dispatching the Sixers. Orlando in 5
Atlanta (47-35) vs Miami (43-39)—Atlanta won season series 3-1
For Atlanta to win: Priority A through Z is obviously containing Dwayne Wade. Fortunately, the Hawks have a solid cast of perimeter defenders. Both Joe Johnson and Marvin Williams are excellent one-on-one defenders, and Josh Smith is among the best weak-side help defenders in the NBA. They have the luxury of switching on every screen-roll because so many of their players can defend multiple positions. They’ve been grooming Mario West as a defensive ace in the mold of Bruce Bowen; I expect him to see considerable minutes off the bench hounding Wade as well. If the combined efforts of these players are enough to contain Wade to some extent, the Hawks will be in excellent shape. Offensively, they do most of their damage with Joe Johnson, but I expect Mike Bibby to have a more pronounced role, as he’ll be guarded by rookie Mario Chalmers. Josh Smith and Al Horford need to exploit the slower front court of the Heat—it’s unrealistic for the Hawks guards to do all the work on offense since they’ll be expending so much effort guarding Wade.
For the Heat to win: Wade will have to be brilliant, but that’s almost a given. What will decide the series is if he gets any help. The Heat have two rookies who could provide a big lift. Mario Chalmers will be defended by Mike Bibby, who is the one exploitable player in the Hawks defense. In addition, Michael Beasley has started to emerge as a legitimate scoring threat alongside Wade. If these two players force the Hawks to defend Wade semi-honestly, it should give Wade enough freedom to abuse Atlanta’s defense. Jermaine O’Neal has got to have something left in the tank. He hasn’t exactly provided what the Heat expected when they traded for him at the deadline. He doesn’t need to provide much on offense, but he has to rebound and defend well. The Heat just don’t have enough depth up front to handle the Hawks bigs if JO doesn’t step up.
Prediction: I think this will be, by far, the most entertaining series in the Eastern Conference. Atlanta has made huge strides since taking Boston to the limit last year, so what remains to be seen is if Wade can rub any of his championship pedigree on his inexperienced teammates. While you can never count out a team that has Dwayne Wade on it, I think the Hawks are a far more complete team and have the tools defensively to make life hard on Wade. Especially if Phillips Arena is as loud and rowdy as last year, I don’t see Miami, who is counting heavily on two rookies, having the collective chops to win a game in Atlanta. Atlanta in 7
L.A. Lakers (65-17) vs Utah (48-34)—Lakers won season series 2-1
For L.A. to win: With Andrew Bynum back and looking pretty healthy, the Lakers giant, talented front line should abuse the Jazz’s undersized forwards. Kobe should be incredible as always, but he should be careful about pushing too hard. Utah is actually equipped with an array of great wing defenders, from the athletic (Ronnie Brewer) to the long (Andrei Kirilenko) to the physical (Matt Harpring). If the Lakers work inside out, taking advantage of Gasol and Bynum’s huge advantages, Kobe won’t have to work nearly as hard to generate his offense. Containing Deron Williams is the clear defensive objective, but unless the Lakers are willing to have Kobe expend a bunch of energy guarding him, no one else is really capable of sticking him solo. Utah has a lot of excellent floor spacers, especially Mehmet Okur and Kyle Korver, so the Lakers help-and-recover defense has to be excellent on Deron’s drive-and-kicks. The Lakers also must keep their composure on the road. Normally this wouldn’t be a problem for a team with Finals experience, but the Jazz are a dominant home team, and their fans are especially noisy and hostile.
For Utah to win: The Lakers have an overwhelming advantage at four of the five positions, while the only place where the Jazz have a clear edge is at point guard. As such, Deron Williams will have to play at an extremely high level for Utah to be competitive. Utah will also need to regain its physical nature from previous years—for some reason this team has not shown the toughness of typical Jerry Sloan teams, especially on the road. Okur and Boozer will have to find some way to be effective rebounders, because if the Lakers kill the Jazz on the glass, they have no shot. On offense, their best bet is to screen-roll Derek Fisher and Andrew Bynum to death. If Bynum isn’t 100% healthy or a little out of synch the Jazz should be able to take advantage, especially with the precision that Williams has with Boozer and Okur on that play.
Prediction: This series actually reminds me a lot of Boston-Atlanta. I think the Jazz will play tough, inspired basketball in front of their home crowds but will struggle to make the games in Los Angeles competitive. The gulf in talent between the two teams at every non-point guard position is too much for Utah to overcome, especially when you factor in the matchup problems that Gasol and Bynum create. While I expect the Jazz to win both Games 3 and 4 in Utah, I don’t think they have what it takes to win a game at Staples. L.A. in 6
Denver (54-28) vs New Orleans (49-33)—Season series tied 2-2
For Denver to win: Chauncy Billups, J.R. Smith, and Carmelo Anthony have to abuse their counterparts on the Hornets on offense. Smith and Anthony especially should be able to dominate Rasual Butler and Peja Stojakovic. Chris Paul has had his difficulties against big, physical guards in the past, so Billups may look to take Paul down on the block and post him up. In the front court, a lot of what the Nuggets want to do will depend on the health and ability of Tyson Chandler. If he’s there and ready to go, the Nuggets will be best served attacking the New Orleans wings off the dribble and forcing him to step up and help. If not, the Nuggets can isolate Nene and Kenyon Martin on overmatched players like Hilton Armstrong and Melvin Ely. Most of all, Billups needs to assert himself as the driver of the car. Even with him at the helm, Denver still occasionally reverts to its 1-on-5 offense of the old days, and with the Nuggets having so many positive matchups on offense, there is little excuse for not finding a good shot each trip down the floor.
For New Orleans to win: Tyson Chandler has to be healthy, for starters. His shot blocking, shot altering, and rebounding are too important for New Orleans defensively, and I think they will struggle to contain Nene if Chandler isn’t ready to go. Paul will have to find a way to abuse Billups. That’s easier said than done, but if Paul doesn’t frequently draw a second defender, the rest of the Hornets will struggle to score. James Posey has to be the same elite defender on Anthony he was during the Cavs and Lakers series from last year. Most of all, New Orleans has got to get some unexpected production from their reserves. They’ve been woefully thin all year long, and I don’t think they have what it takes to win solely on the back of their starters, especially with so many question marks surrounding Chandler.
Prediction: If it sounds like I don’t like the Hornets’ chances, it’s because I don’t. I think the Nuggets have enough talented defensive forwards to make things rough on David West, and I don’t think Chris Paul can do it by himself. After that, I’m struggling to find someone on their roster to give them enough of a lift. Contrast that to Denver, who’s very talented and deep and has a former Finals MVP directing traffic. If Tyson Chandler is at 100% and if James Posey can be the impact player he was last year, New Orleans could pull off the upset, but those are two huge “ifs.” I expect Denver to win without much difficulty. Denver in 5
San Antonio (54-28) vs Dallas (50-32)—Season series tied 2-2
For San Antonio to win: Tony Parker has got to abuse Jason Kidd, Jason Terry, or anyone else the Mavericks try to put in front of him. Dallas has no one capable of containing Parker off the dribble, nor do they have any imposing shot blockers. Especially with Ginobili out of the lineup, Parker will be responsible for generating the offense and getting the Spurs’ various shooters open. Of course, Tim Duncan is there as usual, although it’s unclear exactly how banged up he is. He’ll get his usual share of post feeds and screen-roll action. So offensively, the plan is pretty simple—Parker and Duncan have to attract enough attention to get players like Roger Mason, Matt Bonner, and Michael Finley open 3s. On defense, San Antonio is poorly equipped to handle the dribble penetration of Dallas, so Tim Duncan is going to have to do an especially good job blocking shots and defending the basket. I’m not sure what their plan for Dirk is—either Duncan guards him, or they slide Matt Bonner over to Erick Dampier, exposing the offensive glass, or they play a lot more of Kurt Thomas. In any case, they’ll have to make some sort of adjustment, because Matt Bonner is completely incapable of guarding Dirk in any meaningful way.
For Dallas to win: Josh Howard needs to have a huge series. With Bruce Bowen at the end of the road, the Spurs lack the stopper they used to have to contain elite wings. He’s been inconsistent and injured for much of the year, but this series provides him a great chance to get back on track. The Mavericks have to play flawless screen-roll defense; I think it starts with going underneath until Parker proves he can hit his jumper. If Tony is unable to consistently knock down his jumper (his one historic weakness), the Spurs will struggle to get good looks for their shooters. Dampier is going to have to be at least adequate defending Duncan one-on-one, as in previous years they leaned heavily on DeSagana Diop to defend Duncan, and he’s no longer with the team. The only other actual center on the Mavs is little-used Ryan Hollins, and if Damp gets into foul trouble, the Mavs don’t have a great plan for defending Duncan. On offense, the Mavs should have little difficulty getting what they want, because the Spurs lack a good answer for Dirk Nowitzki. The only player who can competently defend him is Tim Duncan, and the Spurs would prefer to avoid that because it drags Duncan away from the basket, where they need him to stop penetration and grab rebounds.
Prediction: Unfortunately for the Spurs, the untimely injury to Ginobili sinks whatever chance they had of making a deep post-season run. In addition, they have to face off against a healthy Mavericks team that really looked dominant down the home stretch of the season. I think it’s too much to ask for Tony Parker to create the entire offense out of whole cloth, which is what I think will have to happen for the Spurs to score. With Ginobili, this is a much different series, but without him I think the Spurs lack the overall talent to hang with Mavs. Dallas in 6
Portland (54-28) vs Houston (53-29)—Houston won season series 2-1
For Portland to win: Brandon Roy is going to have to be a leader in his first playoff series; his team is very young and lacks much meaningful post-season experience. To do that, he’ll have to find a way to be productive against top defenders Shane Battier and Ron Artest. While Portland is actually among the slowest-paced teams in the league, it might benefit them to get out and run more often than they do. Yao Ming often struggles with fatigue, which is more pronounced in fast-paced games. Joel Przybilla and Greg Oden will have to defend Yao while staying out of foul trouble; this is especially an issue for Oden, who has struggled with foul difficulty the entire season. I’ll be interested to see what Portland does with its rotation. Usually, teams tighten up their rotations and minutes, but Portland plays much deeper into their bench than any other playoff team. Does coach McMillan stick with his regular season plans, or does he follow the standard post-season logic? I think they need to dance with the girl that brought them, but if the moment proves too big for Portland’s younger reserves, they’ll have to go to a 7 or 8 man rotations, which might be outside of their comfort zone.
For Houston to win: Yao Ming needs to stay out of foul trouble and get some amount of rest throughout the game so he can play the entire 4th quarter. Houston has a lot of trouble generating quality shots when Yao isn’t in the game. While the subtraction of Tracy McGrady has clearly improved the Rockets, it has also left them without someone who can reliably generate his own offense. As such, they’ll need Yao to draw doubles and find open shooters. The Rockets need to minimize their bad shots. Often their perimeter players, especially Von Wafer and Ron Artest, take awful, rushed 3-pointers when they would be better off attacking the basket. Yao would be best served going right at Greg Oden, who hasn’t demonstrated he can guard and rebound without fouling. If Oden can’t stay in the game for 20 minutes, it puts a lot of pressure of Przybilla to defend Yao while staying in the game. Defensively, they have to make someone other than Roy beat them. This is true for any team with a singular star, but especially so in this case because the cast surrounding him is so young and inexperienced.
Prediction: While I think Portland is the superior team overall, I think Houston has the better match up. Houston is so aggressive defensively, and I don’t know if a young team can keep its composure when things are tough or shots aren’t falling. Since the officials in the playoffs often allow more contact, it favors any team that has Ron Artest on it. Basically, I think the young Blazers are a year away from making serious noise in the playoffs. This year will be more of a learning experience. Rockets in 6
I’m going to be enjoying my annual hibernation to watch every last playoff game, though I’ll probably come out of the woodwork to do this again once we have the semifinal matchups. That is, of course, if I don’t embarrass myself too badly with the predictions I laid out here. If Philly and Chicago are battling it out for a trip to the Eastern finals, I’m probably going to lay low for a while. Otherwise, come on back in a few weeks to check out my thoughts on the opening round, plus predictions for the conference semis.