A Substitute for War

Basketball philosophy

NBA Playoff Preview – The Biggest Questions

with 5 comments

Twas the night before the playoffs and all through the house, not a soul was stirring, not even Eddie House…

Rajon Rondo, the 21st pick of the Boston Celtics

Is Rajon Rondo the playoffs biggest X-factor?

Matt won’t be back till next week, so you’re stuck with me for A Substitute for War’s lack of playoff preview wisdom:

First, here are my opening round predictions:

East: Chicago over Indiana in 5, Miami over Philadelphia in 6, Boston over New York in 6, Orlando over Atlanta in 5.

West: San Antonio over Memphis in 5, LA over New Orleans in 5, Portland over Dallas in 6, Oklahoma City over Denver in 5.

Since that’s over, instead of spending a couple thousand words telling you why Chicago is better than Indiana or LA is better than New Orleans, I’ll spend some time dissecting the favorites and what they need to prove to win the title:

Eastern Conference

Chicago Bulls

Biggest questions: Do they have the offense? Did they overperform in the regular season by playing harder than anyone else?

The Bulls secret to success is fairly simple. The best defense and rebounding in the league + Derrick Rose carries the offense to score enough to win. Defense and rebounding wins titles and the Bulls have a fighting warrior mentality that is perfect for a playoff run. They carry themselves like a champion. Still, I wonder if they’ll need more scorers. The more predictable an offense is, the easier it is to guard. If a team takes a “Rose isn’t beating us” strategy and throws everything defensively at him, what happens? A few more 3pt shooters for him to find would help thwart those doubles and triples. I wish they had a SG or SF another ballhandler who can create when Rose is covered.

Secondly, the problem with relying on winning by defense alone is sometimes you can’t stop a team from scoring. The shots are falling, a star is stepping it up. This could particularly be apparant against the Heat if Lebron or Wade gets a head of steam. My question is whether the Bulls have a “alright, we’ll just have to outscore you” gear. If the Heat are going to score 104 points in a series deciding game, can the Bulls score 105? Having this gear could be the difference between an Eastern Conference Finals loss and a title. Fittingly, I believe the missing piece to a title run may be a Ben Gordon type 6th man who can get hot and carry them offensively.

Still, neither the Heat are Celtics are flawless teams so the Bulls may come out of the East in spite of flaws.

Miami Heat

Biggest questions: Can great defenses pack the lane and shut down LeBron James and Dwyane Wade’s drives? Will Chris Bosh show up in the playoffs? Is their great defensive stats reliable without real interior defensive presence? Do they have champion unity and intensity?

The Heat looked so dominant down the stretch that I almost turned to the dark side and made them my title pick. Their offense got rolling again after a midseason cold stretch with more motion in the offense and less isolations. Blowing out the Celtics late in the season should help their confidence against good teams. My biggest question is whether their offense will hold up against great defenses. Early in the season teams like Boston and Dallas figured out how to pack the lane and easily block Lebron and Wade isolations. With extra motion and screens from Lebron to go along with Mike Bibby’s presence, this might not be as big an issue. My second question is Chris Bosh. We’ve all heard it – Crying in post game press conferences, not showing up in the big games. The guy is soft. If there’s an all-star people are picking to just disappear in the playoffs, it’s him – and I think the Heat need his offense to win the title without much depth. They also need him to fight for rebounds and play defense inside, of course. My third question is their defense. Their DRTG is very good thanks to Lebron and Wade’s explosive rotations on the outside and freed up energy for role players by playing with stars – But the playoffs is a more matchup based game. Carlos Boozer/Joakim Noah, Tim Duncan, Pau Gasol/Lamar Odom/Andrew Bynum will all present power inside it’ll be hard for the Heat to defend. When you can’t guard the post you have to help defensively which opens up offense for everyone else. I don’t think the Heat’s defense is a great fit for the playoffs. To beat those teams the Heat will have to score a lot – Which again depends on whether their offensive play lately is for real.

My final concern is that there’s a line in the sand between the way the Heat approach the game and teams like the Bulls and Celtics do. There is an emotion and intensity the latter two teams carry themselves with that the Heat seem to lack. It’s also an intensity I believe was missing in Lebron’s last two Cavaliers teams. Do the Heat want the title more than anyone else? LeBron James and Dwyane Wade might, but if the other 3 other players on the court don’t, it will hurt.

Boston Celtics

Biggest questions: What do we make of their dead fish effort down the stretch? Can Rajon Rondo get his swag back? Will Shaquille O’Neal and Jermaine O’Neal contribute?

The Kendrick Perkins trade sent the Celtics on a spiral worse than anyone expected. It felt like their hearts weren’t in it down the stretch. Rondo in particular played awful after the trade of his best friend. The Celtics played well the first half of the season without Perk, but Shaq in the lineup helped. He’ll be an X factor.

But the biggest X factor and perhaps in the whole playoffs to me is Rajon Rondo. We saw him dominate the playoffs last year and his drop in production has led to the Celtics’. I don’t have any concerns about Pierce, Allen and Garnett showing up for the playoffs. Once they get under those lights again, the old feeling will come back and the heart and pride of a champion will reveal itself in those 3 players. But they need Rondo approaching his play a year ago and the first half of this season and my trust in him mentally is far less than his Hall of Fame teammates.

I’m going to say he gets it back and the Celtics find themselves like last year. On paper I believe they hav the most complete team in the East. They have more offensive weapons than the Bulls and can reach a level of defense the Heat can’t match. The Celtics are my pick to win the Eastern Conference.

Orlando Magic

Biggest questions: Can Dwight Howard guarantee defensive excellence alone? Does this team have the heart to make a run?

Orlando is my sleeper in the 2010-2011 playoffs. They didn’t have the regular season many favorites did, but they weren’t far off with 52 Ws instead of the 57 or 58 it’d take to make them a player. I don’t think they’ll win the title but I do think they can shock the Bulls in Round 2. The reason I say so is defending the Magic’s gimmicky offense is so different than 95% of the league’s, that I’m not sure regular season DRTGs matter as much as rosters. The last handful of years, beating the Magic has come down to how well Dwight Howard is played. If he can be guarded in the post one on one like Boston did last year with Perkins, defenses can stay on the perimeter players and effectively shut down the offense. If he attracts constant help on his back downs, the perimeter opens up and the offense can become unstoppable if the 3pt shots fall. The skinnier Joakim Noah is a poor fit to guard Howard, as is the slow footed Kurt Thomas. Omar Asik is also likely to be overpowered by Howard. The other thing about Orlando is they have perimeter players in Jameer Nelson, Jason Richardson, Gilbert Arenas and Hedo Turkoglu who are the very least will not be afraid of shooting open 3s. Most of these guys have been here, as have Howard and Stan Van Gundy of course. Many of the Bulls players haven’t. Finally as John Hollinger pointed out in his article this morning, the Magic are also an excellent fit against Chicago’s defense. Where Chicago excels is guarding the pick and roll and trapping perimeter scorers. Since most of Orlando’s perimeter scorers just stand on the outside and take 3s, Chicago’s phenomenal rotational defense against perimeter players will be rendered less useful. Once again, I ask whether Chicago’s league best DRTG – which is why they’re great – is applicable when the Magic are such a weird team to guard.

This leads me to my official No Guts No Glory prediction of the 2010-2011 playoffs: If Orlando meets Chicago in the 2nd round, Orlando will advance to the Eastern Conference Finals. Yes, you may call me a contrarian dick now. (I will say though, I hope I’m wrong. If I had to pick one series to see out of all possibilites in these playoffs, it’s a Chicago vs Boston Eastern Conference Finals. That series would be overflowing with raw emotion and storyline)

2nd round:

Boston over Miami in 6

Orlando over Chicago in 6

Eastern Conference Finals:

Boston over Orlando in 7

Western Conference

Los Angeles Lakers

Biggest questions: Has Kobe Bryant lost a step and does he realize it? Will they need Ron Artest to step up in a game? Can a team make 4 straight Finals before exhaustion beats them?

By far the favorites in the Western Conference until they are dethroned. I don’t have much to say about the Lakers because most of us know what they’ll bring between Kobe, the awesome Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum and Lamar Odom frontcourt, and the confidence a Phil Jackson coached team brings. Still, Artest has provided practically nothing this season and Kobe has been shooting too much despite more and more tired legs.

But my biggest concern is whether they’ll have the mental and physical gas left after 3 straight Finals trips. We once saw the Pistons in 91 get swept by the Bulls, with Chuck Daly later admitted the team’s exhaustion after 3 straight Finals trips. The similarities between a potential Thunder-Lakers conference Finals and that Bulls-Pistons matchup is hard to ignore. (more on that below)

So that’s about it for this section. Kobe, Pau, Odom, Gasol, Bynum size and two way play, blah blah. I will say one reason for their success is they do have multiple gears, harking back to the Bulls section. This is a team who can win by looking unstoppable offensively and by crunching down like in Game 7 of the Finals last year.

Oklahoma City Thunder

Biggest questions: Can Kevin Durant play better in the postseason than last year? Will they need green players like James Harden and Serge Ibaka to show up? Are they too young?

Despite the Spurs conference leading record, it’s the Thunder who’ve emerged as the popular choice to meet the Lakers in a conference record. And perhaps for good reason. I can’t think of many weaknesses for this team with Perkins giving them the C they needed, Serge Ibaka taking over as defensive PF and James Harden’s play the 2nd half of the season giving a dependable 3rd scorer, to go along with their superstars Durant and Russell Westbrook. Stars, defense and depth – they have it. The question is whether it’s their year right now, or whether they need to lose once in the playoffs as a semi favorite before they can go all the way. If they play the Lakers in the Finals, I feel the early Jordan-Pippen Bulls and against the more grizzled Bad Boy Pistons is the comparison. Like the Bulls, the Thunder have two mega young talents, one perhaps a generational star – and a roster full of defenders fitting them. Like the Pistons, the Lakers have reeled off 2 titles and 3 straight conference titles. I just don’t know if this will be the ’91 series where the Bulls emphatically swept Detroit to end their era and start tehir own, or the ’90 series where Detroit beat Chicago in the Conference Finals in 7 in the Bulls first real run at a title – Chicago needed one loss before they could take over. Likewise I could very well see a Thunder loss here followed by a 60 W #1 seed next year as they begin to roll their conference.

I think they’re a contender. In fact for me the Thunder and Laker might be the two best teams in the league. So if it’s not their year, it’s because the Lakers are still a little better. I’m going with my gut and taking the Thunder. Young legs, hungry legs, and perhaps a more complete team.

San Antonio Spurs

Biggest questions: Do they have the athleticism and size? Will their offense translate to the playoffs? Is Manu Ginobili healthy?

The Spurs have to be one of the few #1 seeds who’ve been deemed merely a dark horse to win the conference. I don’t think it’s undeserved. The Spurs have won on experience, ball movement and the right play. I’m not sure they have the speed to match Oklahoma City’s athleticism or the size to match LA’s bigs.

Still, you can’t ignore a team who’s played this well when healthy. I suspect all our intuitions about the Spurs is correct, but a 65-67 W pace with Tim Duncan healthy is no joke. The Spurs certainly won’t beat themselves or back down and if they might have the best offense in the conference if they can translate that play to the postseason. But I’ll go with what I said a few months ago – 3s, fastbreak points and depth will usually lose to halfcourt play and size in the postseason and the Spurs won their titles with the latter. I expect the Spurs to look like they did in their last few exits. Good, not good enough.

2nd round:

LA Lakers over Portland in 7

Oklahoma City Thunder over San Antonio in 6

Western Conference Finals:

Oklahoma City over LA Lakers in 6

NBA Finals: Oklahoma City over Boston in 6

Finals MVP: Kevin Durant

What do I want to see? I want to see Chicago vs Boston in the Eastern Conference final and Oklahoma City vs LA in the West, with Boston and LA meeting one more time in the Finals. I can’t think of a more entertaining, emotional Final 4 or one more perfect for how I see these playoffs: As the crossroads between generations. The Bryant, Duncan, Garnett generation is about to pass and the Lebron, Durant, Rose one is itching to take over. Either the dam breaks this year and the new era starts now, or it holds on for one more. I don’t see a scenario where this year doesn’t matter historically. This is going to be good.

5 Responses

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  1. This may the first time I can remember that a bunch of teams have a legit shot to win the title (and a bunch of REALLY good teams they are).

    Even more interesting, is how each matchup is different. I’m with you that Boston is dangerous — perhaps the most dangerous team — in the East. Hard to see that group of guys not bringing it defensively (where they were basically No. 1 all year) and Rondo playing THIS bad when it matters much.

    But I don’t know if Boston can beat LA. Shaq and Rondo would be huge, but they’d basically have to win in Staples.

    But Miami can beat LA. They match up well with them. And while Miami can beat Chicago, they don’t match up quite as well. And even worse against Boston.

    Then Denver (surprised they weren’t discussed here but Orlando was) can beat anyone, even if they can’t ring together 3 or 4 great series. But OKC matches up well with LA if they advance. Yet I’m not sure if OKC matches up as well with San Antonio because they can’t necessarily nullify the Spurs strengths of drive-and-kick from Manu/Parker or attack Duncan inside.

    But then LA matches up REALLY well with San Antonio. It’s crazy.

    Yes, I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say this is the most interesting playoffs I can ever remember looking at. My hunch is we’ll see a big upset somewhere, so these picks are quite interesting (I’d go Bos > OKC in that pairing though)


    April 16, 2011 at 10:29 pm

  2. I’m feeling pretty bad about that Orl over Chic pick right now, haha. Looks like Orl’s perimeter is so bad at scoring on their own that you can play Dwight straight up and still win even if he has the biggest of games. We’ll see though.


    April 17, 2011 at 11:17 am

  3. Spurs aren’t going anywhere. They were overrated all season long. That’s why I predicted Memphis to beat them.

    Then I got lucky today, and the Grizz randomly have a shot now. 😉

    I don’t think your ORL vs. CHI prediction is off. Even with yesterday’s terrible performance by ORL’s peripheral players, I think they match up OK with the Bulls. ORL’s going to win that ATL series- let’s be real here. I don’t see how the Bulls effectively guard Howard. I think this guy has become an offensive playoff constant (at least as a scorer).

    That Finals series prediction is intriguing, especially after the trade between the two teams.


    April 17, 2011 at 5:25 pm

  4. Whoa, picking the Thunder to win it all. Bold. I still have to go with the Lakers.

    Out East I’m more torn. I do think Boston and Miami seem like the biggest threats to take the whole thing, but I also think don’t really believe in “built for the regular season” teams to anywhere near the same degree as often gets talked about. I do expect Chicago to be a tough out.

    Matt Johnson

    April 19, 2011 at 9:45 am

  5. […] NBA Playoff Preview – The Biggest Questions (asubstituteforwar.com) […]

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