Thursday, April 19, 2007

Eastern Conference Playoff Preview

(1) Detroit Pistons v. (8) Orlando Magic- The epitome of a #1/#8 match-up. Consider the following: 1) The Pistons, clearly the top team in the Eastern Conference, have been on cruise control for six weeks; 2) The Magic, after starting the season 14-5, had to fight until the last week of the season to secure a playoff spot with a record of 40-42; 3) Detroit won all four regular season meetings, including April 11 (the only time Orlando broke 90 points vs. Detroit), a game that was vital to Orlando’s playoff push and meaningless to Detroit.

Here’s how they stack up:

Frontcourt: With Rasheed Wallace, Tayshun Prince, Chris Webber and Antonio McDyess, the Pistons’ frontcourt is the deepest and most talented in the NBA. It’s hard to see anybody matching up well, offensively or defensively, against Detroit up front. Despite his incredible physical tools, Dwight Howard’s offensive game is still very raw and he has yet to establish himself as a consistent and dominant offensive player. Beyond Howard, the Magic frontcourt, with Grant Hill, Hedo Turkoglu, Tony Battie and Darko Milicic, simply doesn’t have the size or athleticism to compete with the Pistons.

Backcourt: Not a contest. With all due respect to Jameer Nelson and Trevor Ariza, it’s impossible to see them as anything more than a slight nuisance to the Pistons’ starting guards, Chauncey Billups and Rip Hamilton. Detroit’s edge in the backcourt also extends to the bench. Comparing Detroit’s reserve guards (Carlos Defino, Flip Murray, Lindsay Hunter) to Orlando’s (Carlos Arroyo, Keith Bogans, Keyon Dooling, J.J. Redick), it’s unlikely that Orlando’s reserve guards will give Detroit any problems either.

Coaching: Not a lot to choose between Flip Saunders and Brian Hill- neither is terrible; neither is particularly great. Saunders has a decided edge in regular season winning percentage (.584 v. .486), but Hill’s 18-18 postseason record outpaces Saunders’ 27-38 mark, and each lost his only trip to the NBA Finals. Detroit gets the edge here as well, not so much because of Flip Saunders, but because of their maturity and because Chauncey Billups is like a coach on the floor.

Prediction: Pistons in 4. The over/under for the Magic is 2- not for wins, but games with 80 or more points. The playoffs are where the Pistons thrive. DEE-TROIT BAS-KET-BALL is built for this. This series is unlikely to be competitive.

(2) Cleveland Cavaliers v. (7) Washington Wizards- With the Wizards having lost two of their three best players, Gilbert Arenas and Caron Butler, to injury, LeBron James and the Cavaliers have the NBA equivalent of a first-round bye. With both teams at full strength, Washington’s Arenas-Butler-Jamison trio would probably be too much for the Cavs to handle, but such is the nature of late-season injuries. The teams split two early season meetings, with each winning at home, and Cleveland won on April 6 in D.C. against the depleted Wizards.

Frontcourt: Even without the injuries, James, Zydrunas Ilguaskas and the underrated Drew Gooden in the starting lineup, and Anderson Varejao and Donyell Marshall coming off the bench, give Cleveland the edge in the frontcourt. Antawn Jamison will get his points, but guarding LeBron or Gooden is more than he can handle. And without Butler, the Wizards’ best defensive player, slowing down James and Gooden becomes even less likely. However, even in Butler’s absence, Washington will be able to contain Ilgauskas with its big man combo of Etan Thomas and Brendan Haywood.

Backcourt: Gilbert Arenas, the NBA’s best pure scorer not named Kobe Bryant, would single-handedly have given Washington the best backcourt in this series. Even without Arenas, Cleveland only has a slight edge in guard play. The Cavs’ Eric Snow-Larry Hughes backcourt will produce similar numbers to Washington’s Antonio Daniel-DeShawn Stevenson combo, with Hughes’ defense giving Cleveland the edge. Guard play off the bench is where Cleveland has a decided advantage. Arenas’ injury forced Daniels into the starting five, leaving Washington with only Roger Mason and Jarvis Hayes for backcourt help. On the other hand, the Cavs can bring Daniel Gibson (their best point guard), Sasha Pavlovic and Damon Jones.

Coaching: Both Mike Brown and Eddie Jordan are decent young coaches, but nothing special. Brown’s Cavs, though talented, were plagued by inconsistent and indifferent play all season. That they won 50 games says less about Brown’s coaching prowess than it does about the level of play in the East.

The Wizards ran out to a 31-21 start and were headed for a high playoff seed until the wheels came off in February. Terrible play on defense, along with season-ending injuries to Arenas and Butler, caused Washington to go 10-20 in its final 30 games.

In a close race, the edge here goes to Brown, who made the decision to take the shackles off LeBron and the offense in the final weeks of the season and gets his players to play much more consistent defense than Eddie Jordan does.

Prediction: Cavaliers in 5. In their current state, the Washington Wizards are not a playoff team. Had the season been a week longer, the Wiz would have fallen out of the playoffs. That said, professional pride and occasional lapses in intensity from the Cavs will allow Washington to steal one game.

(3) Toronto Raptors v. (6) New Jersey Nets- How did the injury-plagued, underachieving (even considering injuries) Nets go from struggling to simply make the playoffs to jumping all way to the #6 seed? And how exactly did those same Nets suddenly become the sexy pick to pull a first round upset? Of their top four players, one (Nenad Krstic) is recovering from season-ending knee surgery, another (Jason Kidd) will age 10 years before our eyes chasing T.J. Ford around, a third (Richard Jefferson) has been plagued by injuries (7 or fewer games in 4 different months this season) and isn’t close to his form from the past 2 seasons, and the fourth, (Vince Carter), by far the team’s best player, will face such intense hatred and vitriol from Raptors’ fans (stemming from his admitted half-hearted play that led to his trade to New Jersey) that Toronto will have the greatest home court advantage of any team in Round 1.

Frontcourt: Toronto gets the edge in the frontcourt, not only because of superior talent, but also because of greater depth. The Raptors, led by Chris Bosh, who this season went from being a very good, young player to the best big man in the East. Bosh has plenty of support up front: rookies Andrea Bargnini and Jorge Garbajosa will create match-up problems and open up the lane with their outside shooting and Rasho Nesterovic, who’s much better than he gets credit for, is running unopposed for the title of “#1 center” in the series

Because of Krtic’s injury, the Nets best frontcourt scoring option after Carter is Bostjan Nachbar, who is a nice player, but that’s quite a drop-off! The Nets’ big men (Mikki Moore, Jason Collins and Josh Boone) will have their hands full trying to 1) avoid foul trouble guarding Chris Bosh and 2) control the offensive glass so the Raptors don’t run all over them.

Backcourt: The backcourt match-up dramatically favors the Raptors. T.J. Ford ended the season playing the best basketball of his NBA career, and it’s no gimme that Jason Kidd will be the series’ best point guard. To compound matters, Ford is a match-up nightmare because he’s so small (6’, 165 lbs.) and lightening quick. As great as Kidd is, defense has never been his calling card. This series will be among the toughest of his career, and his offensive game will suffer as a result. Sadly, Kidd can expect little-to-no defensive help from back-ups Eddie House and Marcus Williams. Richard Jefferson, the Nets’ best perimeter defender, is not only too big to stay with Ford, but has been battling an ankle injury all season- which is not good sine he’ll need to rely on his quickness. In addition to Ford, the wildly underrated Jose Calderon, and shooters Anthony Parker (underrated!), Juan Dixon, and Morris Peterson will have the Nets’ backcourt looking overmatched.

Coaching: Consider that Sam Mitchell entered the season as a lame-duck coach, that the Raptors stumbled to a 3-9 start and that his top rookie (#1 pick Bargnani) was universally considered to be a project. Now consider that Mitchell never lost his players’ respect, Toronto put an end to the “Titanic Division” jokes by going 44-26 after that rough start, including an 18-11 record after the All-Star Break, and that Bargnani justified his draft status and looks poised to develop into a star. Can you say Coach of the Year?

Conversely, we have the Lawrence Frank era in New Jersey. Since taking over the two-time Eastern Conference champions after Jason Kidd ran Byron Scott out of town, has won two playoff series in three seasons, compiling a combined 1-12 record in the three series he’s lost, and, despite adding Carter, now presides over an underachieving .500 team. Looks like once he retires, Kidd is on his way to an Isiah-esque GM career.

Prediction: Raptors in 6. New Jersey’s top players, while extremely talented, are injury-plagued, without the depth on the roster to fill the voids. The Raptors are healthy, talented and cohesive, and their key players are on the upswing of their careers. Also, the Raptors’ feature the depth than the Net’s don’t, which will have a major impact on the series.

(4) Miami Heat v. (5) Chicago Bulls- Potentially the hardest fought series of the Eastern Conference playoffs. Both teams have top-shelf talent and post-season experience. Miami’s supporting cast is playing its best basketball of the season, but if Dwayne Wade’s shoulder acts up and Shaquille O’Neal is unable to dominate an entire series like he’s done in the past, Miami won’t be a threat to the Bulls.

Frontcourt: The Bulls have the edge in the frontcourt. Even without a dominant low post scorer, Chicago’s biggest strength is its frontcourt, with a combination of youth and experience. Ben Wallace and Tyrus Thomas anchor Chicago’s defense in the paint, providing help defense, challenging shots and dominating the glass at both ends of the floor. At the other end of the floor, Chicago will give the Heat fit with some extremely difficult match-ups. With their size and versatility, Luol Deng and Andres Nocioni, who’s very similar to Mehmet Okur, will expose Miami’s lack of athleticism and depth on the front line.

For Miami, Shaquille O’Neal and Alonzo Mourning don’t have the stamina and athleticism that they’ve had in years past. Shaq is still a major factor in the low post, just not with the same consistency as in his prime with the Lakers. Although he doesn’t dominate like he once, Shaq is still a quality player with talent and experience. Mourning, still one of the NBA’s great warriors, will play his heart out and undoubtedly make some plays, but won’t be nearly enough to swing the series Miami’s way. This will place a lot of (too much) pressure on Udonis Haslem and James Posey on the boards and the on defensive end Offensively, unless Shaq becomes his old dominant self, the Heat will have to rely on Antoine Walker to carry the frontcourt scoring load. Walker wasn’t that type of a dominant offensive player in his prime, so it doesn’t seem reasonable to expect him to become one now.

Backcourt: Behind Detroit’s Billups-Hamilton duo, Chicago has the Eastern Conferences best starting backcourt. With Wade’s shoulder ailing, Ben Gordon is the most electric offensive player in the series. Gordon’s ability to catch fire and put up 20 points in quarter, combined with Kirk Hinrich’s ability to score as well as run an offense, may be the Bulls’ biggest advantage. Foul trouble is this duo’s fatal flaw, with each averaging more than 3 fouls per game in the regular season. If they’re not careful, this may cost them one or two games in a playoff series.

If Wade’s shoulder is 100%, the series is up in the air; if he gets re-injured, the Heat have no chance. Considering he’s at his best when he’s slashing through the lane and playing with reckless abandon, it is likely that he will take a few hard shots on his bum shoulder. With Jason Kapono, Miami’s #1 threat from the outside, also not 100% after returning from an ankle injury, the Heat are just too thin at the top of the depth chart to challenge the Bulls’ guards.

Coaching: With Pat Riley coaching the team, Miami has much more name recognition than the Bulls. While Riley’s motivational skills and championship experience give him the edge, Miami doesn’t have an overwhelming advantage on the bench. Scott Skiles has done a fantastic job of developing the “Baby Bulls” into a legitimate contender in the East. Dogged by trade rumors involving numerous players all season, Skiles’ didn’t let the Bulls lose their focus. While his body of work doesn’t compare to Riley’s, Skiles is the best coach in this series today.

Prediction: Bulls in 5. As valuable as championship experience is, the teams that are the healthiest and have the greatest depth are generally the most successful in the playoffs. With both teams at full strength, this could be a classic 7-game battle, but Miami is limping into the playoffs. The Bulls are deep and healthy, and look ready to peak at the right time of year.

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