Saturday, April 18, 2009

Playoff Time!

It’s playoff time! We’ve known for a while the 16 teams who would be participating in 2009 NBA Playoffs, but had to wait until the last night of the regular season to finalize the Round 1 match-ups. This weekend is what I consider to be the NBA equivalent of March Madness, and on Saturday afternoon, the Celtics and the Bulls tip off the NBA Playoffs in Boston, following by the Pistons’ trip to Cleveland, the Mavericks visiting the Spurs in San Antonio, and the young Portland Trailblazers hosting the Houston Rockets. And if you don’t overdose on playoff hoops on Saturday, Sunday menu is also jam-packed, with the Lakers taking on the Jazz in L.A., the Sixers visiting Orlando, D-Wade and the Heat going to the ATL, and the West’s #2 seed, the Denver Nuggets, hosting Chris Paul and the Hornets. Good times! And against this backdrop, it’s time for the official Hardwood Hype NBA Playoff (or, more appropriately, Round 1) Preview!


Let’s take a look at the 8 first-round matchups, starting with the West, which, with all due respect to LeBron and his 66-win Cavaliers and the defending champion Boston Celtics, is the better of the conferences, top-to-bottom. Plus, I feel like someone should be out there, trying to perpetuate the West Coast bias, a mantle I’m more than happy to assume.


Lakers-Jazz


Given the Utah’s depth, talent and fantastic home-court advantage, this team should perennially occupy a spot in the West’s top-tier. However, thanks to their absolutely terrible play on the road (15-26 overall; 1 road win against another West playoff team), instability in the frontcourt and subpar transition D, the Jazz have had to settle for sneaking into the playoffs as a #8 seed.


After coming back from an injury that cost him three months, Carlos Boozer is definitely not at his best. In addition to not having his A-game, Boozer’s return to the floor (and his automatic spot in the starting lineup), has really stunted Paul Millsap’s development. The Jazz played their best basketball of the season with Millsap starting up front and putting up double-doubles on a nightly basis.


With Andrew Bynum back, healthy and regaining his feel on the floor, the Lakers’ core is now all together, with Kobe, Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom all in sync and playing some fantastic ball. One potential concern for the Lakers will be the matchup at the point guard spot, where neither Derek Fisher nor Jordan Farmar have the size or speed to match up with Deron Williams- look for Trevor Ariza to log some minutes trying to slow down D-Will.


With that said, this series should be over in 5 games. It could go 6 if Lakers’ focus waivers, but the Jazz road woes and defensive issues seem to be too much for Utah to overcome this season. The Lakers are a good bet to take one game (Game 3 or 4) in Utah, but this not at all the case with the Jazz in Los Angeles. Prediction: Lakers in 5


Nuggets-Hornets


With their acquisition of Chauncey Billups, a true leader with a championship pedigree, the Denver Nuggets turned in a fantastic regular season. This, however, is not going to stop Chris Paul from shredding their perimeter defenders, whether he’s matched up with Chauncy, Anthony Carter, J.R. Smith, or anyone else on the Nuggets’ roster. It’s probably not unreasonable to expect averages of 35-14 from CP3 in this series. Given the Nuggets’ lack of D, not to mention their collection of volatile personalities, it’s very temping to pick Hornets here, but they’re going to have to receive contributions from more than two players on offense, as Paul and David West have accounted for roughly 60% of the team’s offense of late. To that end, the Hornets will be welcoming Tyson Chandler back to the lineup, and if Chandler’s ankle holds up, his work on the offensive glass and on the receiving of CP3’s alley-oop passes could be a big boost to the Hornets. However, if the Hornets are going to advance to Round 2, they must, MUST get more production from Peja Stojakovic, who’s only been good for 10 ppg in April, while shooting about 35% from the field and from 3-point range.


To be fair to the Denver Nuggets, there is actually quite a bit to like about this team, not the least of which is their interior defense, with the length an athleticism of the Birdman, Chris Andersen, Kenyon Martin and Nene, which could create some trouble for West and Paul, not to mention making Chandler’s job on the boards a lot tougher. Most importantly, we can’t overlook the fact that this is one of the NBA’s most explosive offensive teams, led by Carmelo Anthony and J.R. Smith, and supported by Billups, Martin and Nene.


There’s little doubt in my mind that this will be the most entertaining series, and probably the longest, first round series. I really do like this Nuggets team, and the home court advantage will certainly help, but I almost certainly see this series going seven games and, despite their injuries woes and the shortcomings of his supporting cast, I simply refuse to pick against Paul in a Game 7. Prediction: Hornets in 7


Spurs-Mavs


Manu’s out, both of Tim Duncan’s knees are banged up… this has to be the year, right? This is the year that the Spurs just don’t have a playoff run in them, right? In years past, many observers, myself included, have declared that age, injury, or some combination of the two, will do the San Antonio Spurs in. Unlike in years past, the two of the Spurs’ three stars are ailing, and they just don’t have enough firepower to win four out of seven games against a Mavericks teams that is playing very well.


It would be ridiculous to say that Duncan won’t be a factor in the series, but it’s not unreasonable to assume that he’ll have a tough time putting together consecutive big games. We can probably expect one or two 20-15 games from Duncan, but the bulk of the offensive load will fall to Tony Parker, who can be expected to (and will probably have to) chip in 25-30 points a game, but it’s tough to see anyone else on this roster who is going to carry much of the scoring load. Michael Finley? Matt Bonner? Kurt Thomas? Ime Udoka? The firepower’s just not there. Drew Gooden might hit for 20 once or twice in the series, but is not really a threat to dominate and win you a playoff game.


The Mavs, on the other hand, seem like they’re really in nice groove, winning 7 of their last 10 regular season games to close out the year, and having fought late into the year just to secure a playoff berth. Dirk Nowitzki, who averaged 26 points and more than 8 rebounds to quietly have a fantastic season, has raised his game recently, averaging 30-9 in April, while shooting 55% from the field. And finally, we have Jason Terry, who really should be considered a top-flight 2-guard, although he continues to fly under the radar. JET is a legitimate 20-point scorer and a fantastic all-around weapon, not to mention the Mavs’ top late-game assassin. It’s really tough to see the Spurs holding him under 22-25 a game.


With both teams at full strength, it’s easy to see the Spurs taking this series in anywhere from five to seven games. However, with no Manu, and if Duncan is at all hobbled, Spurs are really thin up front, and lacking the offensive weapons to exploit Dallas’ suspect D. Prediction: Mavericks in 6


Rockets-Blazers


On the surface, looks like a great series, but I’m not so sure. In examining this series, the Portland Trailblazers have what looks to be a clear edge in variety of areas- depth, athleticism, firepower, a top-5 closer in Roy, best home crowd in the NBA. The one area on the floor where the Rockets are likely to have Portland’s number is in the paint, where Yao Ming and Luis Scola are likely to put up some impressive numbers (I’d look for Yao to average high 20’s, with 12-13 rebounds per game). However, if the combination of Joel Przybilla and Greg Oden can combine for 15 points and 10 rebounds, equaling roughly 60% of Yao’s production, the Blazers should be in good shape.


Looking at the other end of the floor, despite all the talk surrounding the defensive prowess of Shane Battier and Ron Artest, it’s really tough to figure out which member of the Rockets will guard Brondon Roy. Ok, what about LaMarcus Aldridge? Rudy Fernandez, anyone?


On the offensive end, this is type of series, against an opponent like the Blazers, where Rockets will miss Tracy McGrady. When healthy, T-Mac’s explosiveness on the break and his ability to create on off the dribble in halfcourt sets would give the Rockets some much-needed versatility that they just don’t have. At the 2-3 spots, not only are Shane Battier and Ron Artest not athletic enough to consistently score on Nicolas Batum, they will have lots of trouble getting easy buckets on the break or by getting into the lane.


With a rabid home crowd that’s absolutely starved for playoff basketball, Portland is NOT losing a game at home, and with their edge in athleticism, and a late-game hammer like Brandon Roy, they could conceivably stealing one in Houston, whose experience (much has been made of this) consists of a chronic inability to escape the first round)- not necessarily a good thing. Prediction: Blazers in 5


Cavs-Pistons


I cannot state this point emphatically enough- the Detroit Pistons have absolutely NO chance in Round 1 against the Cleveland Cavaliers, and no better than an outside shot at taking a single game. LeBron James dominated this team when they were still legitimate title contenders; there’s NO reason to believe this declining version of the Pistons is in store for anything different.


Rip Hamilton might be able to get you 30 a game (he probably won’t, but he could), Rodney Stuckey, while talented, is still totally unproven as a playoff threat, and Tayshaun Prince doesn’t really look like anything more than an occasional 20-point threat, especially against LeBron. And at the defensive end, it’s almost impossible to see Prince giving LeBron even a minute’s concern. And then we have Rasheed Wallace who, at 34 years old, has slipped significantly at both ends, especially on offense, where he’s running almost entirely on reputation now, hitting just 42% of his field goal attmepts, nearly half of which are now coming from 3-point range.


This series isn’t going to be very competitive. If these games stay close enough to keep LeBron on the floor, look for him to flirt with averaging a triple-double. Not much more to say on this. Prediction: Cavs in 4


Celtics-Bulls


Even if Kevin Garnett had returned to the Celtics at even 60% of his full strength, this series would likely have been more competitive than predicted. Without KG, without his length and ability on defense, with his intensity, this series may now be the most compelling of all the Round 1- and it’s gonna get downright dicey for the Celtics. Even though his stats are clearly slipping, with KG out for the postseason, the Celtics no longer have the interior D to be a legitimate title contender.


In his absence, someone else on Celtics, more than likely Rajon Rondo will be asked to play a much bigger role on offense, which ordinarily wouldn’t be that big a deal, except for the fact that Rondo is the man primarily responsible for guarding Derrick Rose, one of the three toughest PG matchups in the NBA (with CP3 and Tony Parker), which is going to take a lot out of him. With Rondo expending all that energy on D and shouldering a greater offensive load, who do the Celtics turn to stop the Bulls on the perimeter? Rondo (and occasionally Stephon Marbury- yikes!) will have all they can handle with Rose, leaving the Allens, Ray and Tony, and Eddie House, none of whom are renowned for their defensive abilities, will have the task of stopping Ben Gordon and John Salmons, both of whom are consistent 18-20 ppg scorers capable of hitting for 30 on any given night.


As good as the Celtics have been in defense of their title, Derrick Rose will be the story here. His ridiculous speed and quickness, along with his maturity and ever-growing leadersip, will transform this series into his coming-out party- look for Rose to turn in a dominating, Chis Paul-like performance. This series is reminiscent of Kirk Hinrich & Ben Gordon’s 2006-07 “Baby Bulls”, who swept the defending champion Miami Heat after entered the playoffs without much fanfare. Prediction: Bulls in 6.


Magic-76ers


Not quite what we were building up to- the least relevant 1st round series, with the undersized, backed-into-the-playoffs (losing six of their last seven in the regular season) 76ers taking on the Magic, who’s injury issues, obviously headed by the loss of Jameer Nelson in early February, but also including dings to Rashard Lewis (knee) and Hedo Turkoglu (ankle), have caused them to slip from the ranks of the title contenders. I was a huge proponent of the Magic early in the season, and with Nelson healthy they are a title contender, but they look like they could have trouble every step of the way this postseason.


Not helping matter is the fact that Philly is potentially a very tough matchup for the Magic, with Andre Iguodala, Thaddeus Young and the underrated Lou Williams giving them plenty of speed and athleticism on the perimeter, which could be a big problem for Orlando, as the Courtney Lee is by far their best perimeter defender, with everyone else (Lewis, Hedo, Mickael Pietrus, J.J. Redick, Raefer Alston, etc) finishing in a mediocre pack behind him. Lee could have a great defensive series, switching onto whichever Sixer 2-3 player is hot, but unfortunately there is only one of him. If Philly is hot from the outside, and/or can get their break going with some frequency, their wing players could have a major impact.


The main factor in Philly not a major threat to Orlando in this series stems from the best player on the fllor, Dwight Howard, and the fact that the Sixers are simply too light up front (Samuel Dalembert, Marreese Speights, Reggie Evans), and really have no obvious method at their disposal for stopping Howard, who looks like a decent bet to have at least two, and very possibly three, 20-20 games.


With speed and athleticism, the Sixers will probably play the Magic pretty tough in every game of the series, and Iguodala (who I think will have a big series) will probably win them a game at home, but Philly’s lack of an inside presence to match-up with Dwight Howard (at either end) is going to be too much to overcome. Prediction: Magic in 5


Hawks-Heat


Every year, there’s one or two of these Round 1 matchups, where the prediction of an upset becomes the consensus. Despite finishing four games behind the Atlanta Hawks and sporting a sorry 15-26 regular season road record, the Miami Heat (well, Dwyane Wade, mostly) are the sexy upset pick here. While there may be something to that, it seems like the Hawks are not getting the respect they’ve earned during the regular season, managing a 10-win improvement on the heels of unexpectedly pushing the Celtics to a seventh in last year’s first round.


There’s little question that Dwyane Wade will (as always) be a nightmare matchup for the Hawks, and probably win two games (probably one in Atlanta) on his own. It’s not unreasonable to expect D-Wade to put up somewhere between 35 and 40 per game in the series, probably with a couple of runs at 50 mixed in, but I’m not convinced that the rest of the Heat will provide him with enough support to finish off the series.


When healthy, the Hawks’ starting lineup of Joe Johnson (very quietly one of the NBA’s top-10 players), Mike Bibby (playoff tested; late-game assassin), Josh Smith (a top-10 defender who could give Wade some problems), Al Horford (finding a consistent offensive game and could dominate this series) and Marvin Williams (great length and athleticism; return from injury is a big key) is among the NBA’s best. One problem the Hawks will ultimately face is that their second unit is somewhat light, boasting little more than a solid trio of Flip Murray, Maurice Evans and Zaza Pachulia, but there’s a good chance that this will be enough against Miami.


Michael Beasley will be a major X-factor in this series- after a somewhat frustrating rookie season, Beasley’s really raised his game of late, averaging almost 21 points in the month of April, while shooting 55% from the floor, 50% from behind the arc, and (finally!) consistently looking like he believes he’s the best player on the floor. If he can extend this run in the postseason and become consistent secondary option, Miami has a serious shot of advancing. At this point, it’s still difficult to buy into Beasley as a consistent 20-point guy in the playoffs, and the Heat don’t have enough otherwise to deal with the Hawks talented and athletic lineup. Prediction: Hawks in 7


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