Quote of the week

“To be a great champion you must believe you are the best. If you're not, pretend you are.” – Muhammad Ali

Saturday, April 20, 2013

NBA Playoffs: The Preview

It’s that time of the year: the NBA Playoffs! Here’s a look at all the first round match-ups. Enjoy.

(Seeds in brackets)

The West

One on One
KD and The Beard
(1) Oklahoma City Thunder v (8) Houston Rockets

The Thunder are suddenly flying a bit under the radar.

The Heat are talk of the town, thanks to their recent streaking exploits. The Nuggets are performing miracles, Stephen Curry is breaking records, the Lakers are doing a pretty good Cinderella rendition, and the Spurs, apparently, are floundering. All these headlines have slightly overshadowed what an exceptional team this Thunder squad is.

The Thunder rank in the top four in both defensive and offensive rating and at their disposal have arguably the greatest scorer the game has ever seen – Kevin Durant. More impressively, Durant has improved his game adding to his all-round threat by becoming a first-class facilitator.

Next to him is Russell Westbrook who according to some is the heir to Kobe Bryant. It’s high but warranted praise. Westbrook is an insatiable winner and, athletically, is a freak of nature. And, in short, that’s what the Thunder are all about. Not only are they supreme athletes, but they are also intelligent with a tremendous will to win.

The Thunder are a complete team with good bigs in Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins, willing perimeter defender such as Thabo Sefolosha and the experience of big occasions.

And, as unlikely as it seemed, they have improved since trading James Harden to the Rockets at the season’s start.

Harden, nevertheless, will be eager to prove a point and he’ll be the catalyst for what should be an explosive match-up between two high-powered offences.

Unfortunately for Harden and co, Houston are the Thunder-Lite. More worrying still, their staple offensive production has stalled in recent weeks, partly due to players holding onto the ball too much, while Harden and Jeremy Lin’s inconsistent defence will be called into question more sternly.

It’s difficult to envisage anything other than a Thunder series victory.

Prediction: Thunder 4-1 Rockets

(2) San Antonio Spurs v (7) Los Angeles Lakers

The Los Angles Lakers have only ever missed the playoffs twice. That’s insane. And that pedigree is why they always have a chance.

Furthermore, the Spurs represent a good match-up for the Lakers.

The Spurs are certainly less explosive and you, more or less, know what to expect.

Yes, stopping their brilliant play-designs and methodical offence is easier said than done, but this is a better match-up for the Lakers than the Thunder – or Nuggets – who would have simply run LA off the court.

Will the real Dwight Howard please stand up...
Dwight Howard and Tim Duncan is the big battle but because Kobe Bryant is out it will not be decisive. For the Lakers more depends on how their role players perform and if they can score. Certainly, Howard will relish his clash with Duncan and could quite possibly establish an upper hand, but offensively the Lakers will struggle without Bryant. Yes, LA move the ball better but they lack a reliable scorer, except perhaps Pau Gasol.

Still, the Lakers will put up a good fight. Their defence, led by Howard, has been resolute in the last two games and fuelled by Bryant’s injury the Lakers are playing with a renewed commitment and passion; both to honour their fallen leader and prove they measure up in their own right. Crucially, Gasol has found form posting two triple-doubles in his last three outings.

The Spurs on the other hand end the regular season in a bit of a slump characterized by injury concerns as has now become the regular case for the ageing champion squad at this time of the year. They come into the playoffs on a poor run having lost their last six against Western Conference playoff opponents. It’s a similar run to 2011 when San Antonio lost eight of the last 12 before being shocked by Memphis in the first round as the first seed.

Nonetheless, the Spurs are favourites in this tie. The signing of veteran scorer Tracy McGrady could provide a boost of some sort but, more importantly, if Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili are fit the Spurs should, over seven games, have a bit too much for the Lakers.

Prediction: Spurs 4-3 Lakers

(3) Denver Nuggets v (6) Golden State Warriors

The Denver Nuggets are going great guns. They’ve just posted franchise records galore during the regular season: best season (57-25), longest winning streak (15), best home record (38-3), longest home winning streak (23); and they don’t look like stopping.

What’s most impressive about the Nuggets, though, is their team-ethic and depth. They have the deepest squad in the NBA – anyone can come in and still they will roll on.

Star scorer Danilo Gallinari was ruled out for the season last month, but the Nuggets have been able to compensate for his absence just as they did when Ty Lawson was injured.

They are also tremendously energetic at both ends of the floor, just another reason why they finished the season on a 23-3 run.

The Warriors are also a good team, one you can’t help but have a soft spot for. From the unique tale of their coach coming in from being a television analyst and transforming the club, to the team’s homely feel, their togetherness and, of course, their lovable star Stephen Curry – the Warriors are a fairytale team, with substance.

Curry is the best shooter in the league, and along with Klay Thompson forms a formidable threat for the opposition (they combined for a record 478 three-pointers over the season). David Lee is a true All-Star centre and Jarrett Jack has been an excellent contributor off the bench, so much so he’s a viable candidate for sixth man of the year.

Still, the fact Nuggets have home advantage in this series is the ultimate tie-breaker. The Nuggets would expect to win the opening two games (both at home) therefore putting massive pressure on the Warriors in their pair of home ties.

The Nuggets could pinch one in Oakland then finish it off in Game 5 at home where they look invincible at the moment.

Prediction: Nuggets 4-1 Warriors

(4) LA Clippers v (5) Memphis Grizzlies

Is it a bird? Is it a plane?
No! It's the Clippers v the Grizzlies...
This series went to seven games last year. Expect the same again. The Grizzlies and Clippers are two contrasting but well-matched sides.

Chris Paul is the man for the Clippers. The NBA’s best point guard, he directs the game better than anyone. But the question is: will his support cast step up to the plate?

Memphis, since trading Rudy Gay to Toronto in late January, have fortified their team identity. There are no question marks around their approach. They pound the ball and Randolph is undoubtedly the man. In Marc Gasol and Tony Allen the Grizzlies have two of the finest all-round defenders in the league and as a team are a disciplined unit, high on confidence.

The pressing questions lie with the Clippers. Can DeAndre Jordan step up to the elite level required? Can he and Blake Griffin be genuine go to options in the playoffs? Can they handle the Grizzlies’ bruising bigs? And will they shoot their free-throws?

The joker in the card is Memphis’ Mike Conley. He’s enjoyed a breakout year becoming one of the most effective point guards. He’s in tune with his teammates and they trust him. He trusts himself too, as evidenced by his recent game-winning plays. Conley could be a breakout player in these playoffs.

Although the Clippers have Paul and home advantage, expect the Grizzlies to avenge last year’s heartbreaking seven-game loss.

Prediction: Grizzlies 4-3 Clippers

The East

The Three Kings
Can anyone stop the Heat?
(1) Miami Heat v (8) Milwaukee Bucks

This normally wouldn’t be such a straightforward match-up to call. However, the Bucks have been terrible lately (losing seven of the last nine) amid talk of player unrest and Brandon Jennings’ reported problems with his coach. That’s not the ideal build-up when coming to face a primed and confident Miami Heat team.

The Bucks have insane weapons and talent. Monta Ellis is a crazy scorer that can catch fire and win a game on his own. The same goes for Jennings; one of the league’s most gifted talents. They also have Larry Sanders – a big rebounding presence that can exploit Miami’s only real weakness which is on the boards.
But the Bucks are not a united unit and they don’t have a prayer of stopping a focused Miami Heat side. This one could be over very fast.

Prediction: Miami 4-0 Bucks

(2) New York Knicks v (7) Boston Celtics

New York! New York! Is this their time, finally?

It’s been 40 years since the Knicks won an NBA title, too long for such a storied franchise. The late season form of scoring champion Carmelo Anthony, however, has seen hopes of ending the drought go through the roof.

However, it’s difficult to be 100 percent sold on this team, yet. At point guard they don’t have a world-class presence. Raymond Felton was superb at the start of the season but partly due to injuries he’s fallen off that elite level where he was the Knicks’ driving force. Despite his age Jason Kidd remains brilliantly cerebral but his game has not been consistent.

This point guard issue is a problem because it puts pressure on Anthony and the sometimes erratic JR Smith. Smith has been outstanding this season and will probably be the NBA Sixth Man of the Year, but he’s yet to produce in the high pressure stakes of the playoffs.

The Knicks rely a lot on the three-point shot as well. The Knicks averaged 28.9 three-point attempts per game this season, tied for the most in NBA history. Not only is this an uncertain option in the playoffs, but the Celtics have been the best defenders of the three-point shot since Avery Bradley’s return from injury in January.

The Knicks also have the lowest assists average in the league meaning an isolation-based offence, meaning the Celtics’ street-smart playoff defence can hone-in on New York’s scorers and frustrate their offence.

Knicks v Celtics
Tradition and passion...
Although the Celtics are undermanned, in the Kevin Garnet era “anything is possible”. Doc Rivers is a clever strategist, Paul Pierce remains a prodigious postseason scorer and the Celtics’ season, as usual, only starts now.

However, without Rajon Rondo it’s difficult to see the Celtics creating enough offence to beat the Knicks over seven games.

Prediction: Knicks 4-3 Celtics

(3) Indiana Pacers v (6) Atlanta Hawks

The Pacers had the best defence during the regular season giving up only 96.5 points per 100 possessions but they have slipped in April losing five of seven games and there’s no guarantee they’ll be able to turn the tap back on for the playoffs.

Atlanta have had a typical Hawks season in recent years, enough to get by (and into the playoffs) but no real spark or hope of much more.

Still, the Hawks have two of the most underrated players in the league. Firstly, Josh Smith is one of the top big-men in the league and a premier defender. On his day he can be a nightmare on both ends of the floor.

Then there is Al Horford. One of the most refined players in the league. He is an efficient scorer, averaging 17.4 points and 10.2 rebounds this season, and can hurt an opponent in a variety of ways.

In the playoffs, where consistency and efficiency are paramount, he can be a difference maker. The Hawks crowd isn’t always the greatest, but when their team is on a roll they can be as influential as any. Plus, these are the playoffs.

Still, you have to favour the Pacers on account of their stronger regular season and a two-year span that has been exceptional.

If the Pacers can re-find their pre-April form they should win out and make some real noise in these playoffs.

Prediction: Pacers 4-2 Hawks

(4) Brooklyn Nets v (5) Chicago Bulls

This is perhaps the hardest series to call because it’s difficult to know what to expect. This is mostly because of the Bulls. They’ve rarely had their proffered line-up together and have had their best player, Derrick Rose, out the whole season.

There is just so much uncertainty surrounding the Bulls.

The Nets' Deron Williams could be the X-Factor
The Nets are the complete opposite, personnel-wise at least. They are the most settled starting five. Deron Williams, Brook Lopez, Reggie Evans, Joe Johnson and Gerald Wallace will start.

The play of Nets star Williams will be vital. Since the All-Star break he’s played like an All-Star. Williams looks leaner and healthier and got his first dunk of the season earlier this month against the Cleveland Cavaliers. He is averaging 23.4 points (shooting 48.2 percent) and 8.1 assists per game since the mid-season break.

The Bulls have such heart that it’s never wise to write them off. Nate Robinson has been an underrated performer all year while Luol Deng remains a terrific defender and nightly example. But the Bulls are just so patched up. As it is, the status of lynchpin Joakim Noah remains unknown.

Yes, the Bulls’ typical defensive intensity remains (they rank sixth in defensive rating) but Chicago has struggled to score in Rose’s absence and this will only be amplified in the playoffs

All things considered, The Nets should advance.

Prediction: Nets 4-2 Bulls

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