Win or Go Home!

Win or Go Home!

The NBA All-Star break is upon us and it’s a break for even us fans that go through the yearly rollercoaster ride that is fandom: from watching every game of our favorite team, the emotional ups and downs after big wins or embarrassing losses, to the reading of every article, tweet, and discussion board topic that mentions our favorite team on the internet.  While the All-Star weekend is a break for the players to let loose and have some fun, I believe it’s the same for the fans.

There’s nothing more exciting for NBA fans than to play hypotheticals such as Michael Jordan vs. Kobe or LeBron, or the ’96 Bulls versus other historically great teams from another era, or maybe the countless different rumors and possibilities regarding trades (the ESPN Trade Machine has been working overtime lately) before the fast approaching trade deadline.  “What if” scenarios are fun unless of course your last name is Winklevoss.  But this is the fun type of “what if’s”, where one gets to speculate on possible NBA playoff match ups and the likely 1st round results when it’s only February.

As of the All-Star break, the unofficial half way point of the season, the current standings are as follows:

EASTERN CONFERENCE (Wins-Losses)

  1. Miami Heat (36-14)                        
  2. New York Knicks (32-18)                   
  3. Indiana Pacers (32-21)                    
  4. Brooklyn Nets (31-22)                   
  5. Chicago Bulls (30-22)                       
  6. Atlanta Hawks (29-22)                     
  7. Boston Celtics (28-24)                     
  8. Milwaukee Bucks (26-25)                 

WESTERN CONFERENCE (Wins-Losses)

  1. San Antonio Spurs (42-12)                   
  2. Oklahoma City Thunder (39-14)           
  3. LA Clippers (39-17)                            
  4. Memphis Grizzlies (33-18)                   
  5. Denver Nuggets (33-21)                     
  6. Golden State Warriors (30-22)            
  7. Utah Jazz (30-24)                              
  8. Houston Rockets (29-26)                   

My analysis of these match ups are based on these current standings, however I’m taking these standings and fast forwarding to April.  It’s a “what if” scenario in April if the current standings hold.   Therefore I’m doing some predicting on how various players’ health maybe holding up by then as well.

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2012-13 NBA Match Ups:

Eastern_Conference_(NBA)_logo

 

Miami Heat (1) vs. Milwaukee Bucks(8)

HeatLet me just get this out of the way, Miami wins this series.  However the games will be competitive.  Notice, I said the games will be competitive not the series itself.  Even though this series won’t be a long one, I predict most of the games will be competitive.

Both teams play above average defense.  Very similar statistically on defense.  Both with a defensive efficiency rating of approximately 101, points allowed at around 97-98ppg, and an opponents field goal percentage of 44%.

However, games are not played on paper and the Bucks just don’t have the defensive personnel on the perimeter to somewhat “contain” James or Wade, to make them earn every point and exert energy.  Yes, defense is a team concept and the Bucks will play good team defense most of the time (thus keeping games interesting), however there will be plenty of scenarios where either James or Wade will have their defenders on an island in the perimeter.  Players like Brandon Jennings, Monte Ellis, and Marquis Daniels aren’t names that strike fear in James’ or Wade’s heart.  Strictly team defense to slow James or Wade down wont be enough, mainly due to the fact that “helping” on defense means you have to leave other guys open and if you have to count on that too much then statistically you are going to get burned because players like Bosh, Haslem, Miller, Chalmers, and Allen can all consistently knock down perimeter shots.

On the offensive end for the Heat it is pretty simple, James and Wade just need to be James and Wade.  Nothing fancy, just play their game.  Them being the offensive threats that they are will lead to the “help” defense that I mentioned above and open shots for everyone else, while taking over late in games when needed.  For the Bucks, they will need to attack the paint.  The Heat’s lack of size and shot blocking is their only real weak spot.  Jennings and Ellis are definitely quick and athletic enough to take advantage of this and drive to the basket as much as they can, but late in games LeBron, as usual, will guard which ever guard has the hot hand.

If the Bucks still had an All-Star caliber center (Andrew Bogut) they would give the Heat a lot more trouble and maybe make this a long series due to the Heat’s lack of size and interior defense, but that is not the case.  Even though I expect most of these games to be competitive and not necessarily blowouts the combination of the Heat’s offensive superiority, coupled with the fact the Bucks wont be able to maximize attacking the Heat’s weaknesses, in the end the better team will just win these games and the series.

Heat in 4 (Sweep).

 

New York Knicks(2) vs. Boston Celtics(7)

KnicksThis is going to be a closer series than the seeding suggest, more resembling a 4-5 match up than a 2-7.  The Celtics have been on a roll lately, ironically it’s without Rajon Rondo (out the remainder of the season with an ACL injury) and I predict the Celtics will play more like the above .500 team that we’ve been seeing lately, the rest of the season.  However, if the seedings “hold up” and the Celtics remain the 7th seed it will probably have more to do with the fact that the other seeds above them continuing to play well thus the Celtics never gaining enough ground to move up in the seeding.  It maybe difficult for the Celtics to make up for the mediocre first half of the season (especially without Rondo).

Boston’s lack of size and interior defense will hurt them.  I personally don’t know what Celtics general manager Danny Ainge was thinking when he got rid of both Glen Davis and Kendrick Perkins without some what adequately replacing them.  New York’s big three of Carmelo Anthony, Amare Stoudemire, and Tyson Chandler should be able to exploit this advantage and I wont be surprised if they take less 3′s in this series than they normally average and get more points in the paint.  Speaking of which the Knicks are the 4th best three point shooting team in the league, shooting as a team at 38%.  With the Knicks being a younger more uptempo team I can see them firing away from three point land in transition before Boston’s half court defense can set up.

As for Boston, you use to be able to say their superior defense will give them the edge, but with no Rondo on the perimeter and the size they have given up over the last couple seasons you can’t quite take their defense to the bank.  The Celtics will make this a tough series due to the fact that they are a savvy veteran team with one of the best coaches in the league (Doc Rivers).  A team with high basketball IQ, great work ethic, and tons of pride can do a lot to make up for the fact that on paper they are less talented overall than their opponent and the Celtics definitely fit into this category.  Also on the offense end Paul Pierce should have a pretty good series.  Carmelo isn’t known for being All-NBA defensive player and I don’t know if Shumbert will be quite back to his old self as far as mobility after coming off the ACL injury to help on the perimeter defense against Pierce.  Doc Rivers will definitely play a ton of the pick and roll game with Pierce to try and exploit this match up, something he has done a lot lately as the Celtics have gone on this nice stretch of wins.

However, they say you live by the three, you die by the three, but because this is a first round series players still have some what fresh legs compared to when you find yourself deeper into the playoffs.  Knicks will live by the three in this series.  Oh and home court advantage never hurts either.

Knicks in 6.

 

Indiana Pacers(3) vs. Atlanta Hawks(6)

PacersThis should be a competitive series but I don’t believe it will be.  The Hawks have a talented enough roster to make this a competitive series and maybe even win the series.  Unfortunately, for the Hawks talent isn’t the issue.  They have several issues that are not talent related and that’s team discipline, chemistry, and basketball IQ.  I almost don’t even need to do an analysis on why the Pacers will win the series and just focus on all the reasons the Hawks will beat themselves.

The Atlanta Hawks are notorious for taking ill-advised shots, giving up on effort when things get tough in a game (lack of discipline and poise) and are inconsistent (the biggest offender being Josh Smith).  No Josh Smith you are not a “max” contract player, good luck finding that contract next season.  Unfortunately, for the Hawks this culture of basketball hasn’t changed this season.  I can go into the reasons why this culture exist for this team but that’s a whole other article all together.

So after that, do I even need to explain why the Pacers will win?  Yeah, I guess so.  It would be irresponsible for me not to do so.  The Pacers have the number one defense (statistically) in the league.  It’s suffocating and disciplined defense.  Danny Granger will be back and should be an impactful player by then after coming off his injury.  But it’s not even about talent.  I don’t even need to pull out fancy numbers to make the point.  The Pacers will just simply out work the Hawks, out coach the Hawks, and stayed poised during crunch time (if there ever is crunch time).

I give the Hawks one victory at home.

Pacers in 5.

 

Brooklyn Nets(4) vs. Chicago Bulls(5)

Bulls1Normally having home court in a series is an advantage, but maybe not so much in this series.  The Bulls have been a better road team thus far this year at 15-10 (best in the eastern conference) but only a pedestrian 15-12 home record.  The Bulls play more with an edge on the road probably because they feel they have something to prove as underdogs without their super star player Derrick Rose (recovering from an ACL injury).  Also, the Bulls pride themselves on defense and are right there with the Pacers as the best defensive team in the NBA.  It also helps that they have the best defensive minded coach (Tom Thibodeau).  Unlike offense, defense always travels.  So even though role players are known to not perform as well on the road, if you have a strong culture of defense, defense will travel with you on away games, hence the good road record.

The player match ups are going to be interesting.  Both teams have bigs that can effectively play in the paint, both teams have/will have All-Star caliber point guards, and both teams have reliable players at the wings.  Both squads are pretty well rounded.

Both teams will pretty much have the same defensive game plan and that is to stick on the two best players on the opposing team like white on rice and “make everyone else beat you”.  Both teams will put all their focus on slowing down the point guard (the Net’s Deron Williams and the Bull’s Derrick Rose) and to not let the wing players get open looks at the basket (the Net’s Joe Johnson and the Bull’s Loul Deng).  At the same time both teams do have other players that can adequately and reliably contribute and pick up the slack.  For the Nets it’s players like Brook Lopez and Gerald Wallace and for the Bulls it’s players like Carlos Boozer and Marco Belinelli.

This feels like a series where each team will strike a blow and the other will follow with one of their own.  For the Bulls, getting Derrick Rose back even at 75% is better than no Derrick Rose at all.  Knowing that Rose will probably only contribute half of what he use to makes me believe this series will go the distance.  Even if the Bulls find themselves down in the series (thus losing home court) I believe they are just too good of a defensive team and road team to not win crucial games in Brooklyn and bring this series back to Chicago.

Bulls in 7.

 

 

Western Conference

 

San Antonio Spurs(1) vs. Houston Rockets(8)

SpursThe San Antonio Spurs remind me of a non-offensively challenged Derrick Rose-less Chicago Bulls team (that was a mouthful).  A team well coached by a legitimate COY candidate year after year, plays defense on a string, and executes half court sets like a well oiled machine.  You can run a set beautifully but you have to hit the shot in the end.  The difference being the Spurs make more of their shots in those sets compared to the Bulls.  People call this brand of basketball “boring” and I’m not going to lie it is less “exciting” but I doubt Spurs fans care as long as they keep on winning.

Duncan is having one of his best productive years this year, than in the last 5 years.  Parker is still one of the top 5 point guards in the league today and Ginobli is the Swiss Army knife and doing a little bit everything, like he’s done his entire career.  This series is experienced versus inexperienced and I believe experience will win out.  Similar to my Pacers vs. Hawks synopsis, no need to flood this analysis with statistics.  The Spurs are both a better team on paper and on the court than the Rockets.  It is asking too much to expect this young, inexperienced, newly put together Rockets team to beat the best run team in the NBA in a seven game series.

There’s a saying that a star player can win one game by himself in a seven game series and I believe that is true.  However, I say James Harden will go nuts in two of those games (with maybe a sighting of Lin-Sanity) and get a couple of victories for the Rockets.

Spurs in 6.

 

Oklahoma City Thunder(2) vs. Utah Jazz(7)

Thunder 1Utah is a talented team with weapons and in my opinion have been under achieving.  I do not believe Tyrone Corbin is a good coach.  And when a team “under achieves” I believes that falls on the coach.  It’s the coach’s job to figure out how to get the most out their players and to motivate them and I don’t see that with the Utah Jazz.

Exhibit A: The starting Jazz small forward, Marvin Williams, is averaging about 4ppg less this year than his career average (12ppg vs 8ppg).  He is also averaging 7ppg less this year than his best offensive year in 2008 (15ppg vs 8ppg).  Yes, Williams is playing less minutes (35mpg vs 25mpg), but why?  If you have a starting small forward that has the potential to give the team 15ppg versus 8ppg, why isn’t he being utilized correctly to do so?  Exhibit B: The starting Jazz power forward, Paul Milsap, is averaging 3ppg less this year (17ppg vs 14ppg) than the year prior to coach Corbin taking over for a full season, all while playing the same amount of minutes per game.  Exhibit C: Jazz back up shooting guard Gordon Hayward is averaging an impressive 14ppg in only 26mpg.  If I had a player that could average 14 points in 26 minutes I’m giving that guy more minutes, especially if my starting shooting guard is only averaging 11ppg in the same amount of time.  These are just some examples of things a good coach can correct whether it’s re-evaluting his players or re-evaluating the system he runs to get the most out of his players.  As of now I don’t believe he is doing so.

I predict this series as not being too competitive.  The Jazz’s strength on the offensive end is their front line, but the Thunder have more than a counter for this on the defensive end with players like Serge Ibaka, Kendrick Perkins, and Nick Collison.  However, the Jazz have no defensive answer for the Thunders strengths on the perimeter (Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook), it’s pretty much that simple, not rocket science.  To take it even further the Jazz is just a below average team on defense in general.  The Jazz allow almost 100ppg (99ppg to be exact) and allows opponents to shoot nearly 40% from the three point line.

The Thunder have no post up game in their offense as Ibaka and Perkins are not back to the basket scorers.  They also are not great in half court sets and often (more to my liking) rely on isolation plays for Kevin Durant or Russell Westbrook.  Fortunately for the Thunder the Jazz are not a great defensive team so this shouldn’t be too much of a problem.  However, I can see the Thunder possibly having one bad shooting night thus the Jazz may be able to steal a game in Utah.

Thunder in 5.

 

Los Angeles Clippers (3) vs. Golden State Warriors (6)

ClippersThis is probably going to be the most exciting first round series and as a fan I want to see this series go to seven games.  I predict uptempo, high scoring games in this match up and not a defensive battle.

With Chauncey Billups back in the Clippers line up and looking like his old self thus far, the Clippers are now looking like legit title contenders.  Just personally I believe Billups’ veteran presense and leadership is huge for the Clippers.  If the Clippers come out of the west (and now I think there’s a very good chance) it will be because of Billups being back on the floor.  Also the Clippers are probably the deepest team in the league and I would not be surprised if they end up representing the western conference in the NBA Finals.  For such an exciting and much talked about team, they are a little underrated when it comes to how far they can go, which is understandable when you have teams like the Thunder and Spurs playing in the same conference, but I warn, don’t sleep on the Clippers.

For the Warriors, their head coach Mark Jackson has done a good job turning this franchise around the last two season, from making personnel changes, to trying to change the culture of the team that is so use to losing and making them believe they can be winners.

The Warriors do have a reasonable chance of winning this series but several things have to go their way.  Andrew Bogut who is coming back from injury (and has only played 10 games thus far this season) will have to be some what back to his old self, scoring around 12ppg, grabbing around 10rpg, and be that defensive presence down low and swatting away shots at 2bpg.  I believe the Warriors can ease him back in and get “this” Andrew Bogut back.  Also, the rest of the Warriors team will have to at least try and play defense, because similar to the Thunder, the Clippers are not at their best in half court sets and also have no back to the basket scorers.  The Warriors will have to make sure to get back on transition thus taking away the Clippers strength and make the Clippers play half court basketball.

I just don’t believe the Warriors can slow the Clippers down enough for four victories needed to advanced but at the same time the Warriors are no scrubs either.  The Warriors can put up points in bunches at 101ppg and 40% from three point land.  Once again this is why this will be the most exciting first round match up, offense, offense, offense.  I believe Mark Jackson will out coach the Clippers head coach Vinny Del Negro for the most part and the Warriors will probably muster out some decent defensive efforts so I predict the Clippers will have some slower tempo and less than stellar shooting nights and the Warriors can get a couple of victories in Oakland.  However, just the steady and veteran presence and plays from two of the best floor leaders in the game (Chris Paul and Chauncey Billups) is, in the end, enough for the Clippers.  Those two guys are not and will not, let this team lose in the first round on just sheer will (no matter how mediocre their coach is).

My heart says 7 but my brain says Clippers in 6.

 

Memphis Grizzlies(4) vs. Denver Nuggets (5)

NuggetsIf the Chicago Bulls are the “little engine that could” over achieving in the eastern conference without their superstar, then the Denver Nuggets are the “unknown outcasts that could” without any superstars.  This Nuggets team is a group of very solid players let go by other teams over the years that took refuge in Denver.  Nuggets’ Coach George Karl continues to play his role as the NBA foster parent like he has done over the past decade.  And as usual, coach Karl, being the great coach that he is, has taken this “rag-tag” bunch and polished them to be a formidable team.  Coach Karl is basically the same coach in all of the family sports movies ever made.

If you believe that team basketball can triumph over star basketball then you are rooting for the Nuggets.  I’ve used the “eye test” on this team and they are basically a superstar-less Clippers team.  They are a very fast, high tempo, high-flying team.  Some teams wear their opponents down by grueling physical defense but this team’s philosophy is wear their opponents down by out running them.  It reminds me of ancient hunters in Africa that use to methodically chase down their prey for hours until it just gave up and collapsed on the ground, that’s the Denver Nuggets.  This Nuggets team scores a ridiculous 105ppg with some of the fastest and most athletic players you never heard of in the league.

Now could a team like the Warriors or Clippers possibly out run and out score them?  Yes.  However, the Memphis Grizzlies do not have the personnel to do so.  The Grizzlies are a defensive team that only surrenders 90ppg game to their opponents however they struggle to score points at only 93ppg.  This is worse than the offensively anemic Derrick Rose-less Chicago Bulls team (94ppg).

I’ve seen this George Karl led Nuggets team play against good defensive teams before and what Karl does not let happen is for the game to slow down.  Good defensive teams make their opponents play their style of play and their style of game, but coach Karl has his team disciplined to not fall into that trap and keep running and keep the speed of the game up.  In the end I see the same outcome in this series and the Grizzlies just don’t have enough offensive fire power, especially after losing both O.J. Mayo and Rudy Gay.

Denver in 6.

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