2012-13 Playoff Preview

This season flew by like a flash and we are once again faced with the playoff season.  As usual, we’ll go through the match ups and make are somewhat fearless but equivocating predictions.  Before we really dig in, we should acknowledge the non-shocking revelation that we are headed to a rematch of last year’s Finals.  Miami and OKC are the leaders in SRS rating and OKC actually rates a good deal higher than the Heat (9.15 to 7.03).   In the East, Miami does not look like it will be tested much, while OKC will have to run a gauntlet to get to the Finals.

In fact, the Knicks, as the two seed in the East have nearly an identical SRS rating (3.73) to the West’s eight seed Rockets (3.69).  That stat is a beat of a cheat because the six seed Warriors (1.32) and seven seed Lakers (1.49) have worse point differentials than Houston.  Still, no one would seriously contest that the Rockets, Lakers, and possibly the Warriors could beat any East team not named the Heat in a seven game series.  Nevertheless, Heat’s lack of competition is not necessarily a bad thing for their competitive juices.  In fact, the Lakers spent most of the 1980s blowing away Western playoff pretenders before battling with the Celtics or 76ers in the Finals and it did not affect them Lakers adversely.   With all that said, let’s take a look at the NBA match ups and see how we will get to the Finals most people expect.  As always, we also will look at each series from an historical perspective and review the most recent playoff match up between each franchise.  

Eastern Conference

1. Heat v. Bucks: The Bucks will make a nice facsimile of a speed bump in the first round for the Heat.  Though the Bucks actually beat the Heat one time this year, they have no one to guard LeBron (Larry Sanders?) and the Bucks play at a fast pace, which allows Miami those spurts that just destroy most opponents.   Worthy of note, J.J. Redick has not blended well in Milwaukee and has only shot .318% from three so far, despite being 39% for his career.  Expect a sweep.  Miami wins 4-0.

Last time they met in the playoffs: Milwaukee and Miami have never met in the playoffs before.

2. Knicks v. Celtics: In theory, the Celts vet team is scary.  The Knicks’ success this year as a decent defensive team that shoots very well seems fragile and Boston’s defensive ability combined with its ability to turn it on in the playoffs indicate that they could give the Knicks a run.  The game plan would be to knock Carmelo Anthony off his game (Honey Nut Cheerios style?) and score just enough to take the series.  Kevin Garnett, however, does not look healthy and there really is no other second scorer behind Paul Pierce.  When good teams get old, it tends to happen quite quickly (see, e.g., Pistons of 1980s, Rockets of 1990s, etc.).  It was a remarkable run in Boston and it lasted several years longer than I thought it would but I think it is finally over.  Knicks win 4-1.

Last time they met in the playoffs: Tables turn quickly in the NBA.  In 2010-11, the Celts were the three seed and the Knicks were 42-40 and barely in the playoffs.  New York played hard but lost the first two games in Boston by a total of five points.  Back in New York, Chauncey Billups hurt his knee during Game Three and Boston proceeded to blow away New York and sweep the series.

3.  Pacers v. Hawks: Did you know that Pacers were first in the NBA in defense?  I knew they were good but this team really jumped to the next level this season.  Unfortunately, they have no go to scorer right now.  David West kind of fills the role but the Hawks have precisely the players who can guard him in Josh Smith and Al Horford.  Yet, the Hawks have their own problems (very little scoring and almost no depth without Louis Williams).  The Hawks have some pieces to give Indiana problems but, ultimately, Atlanta will have too much trouble scoring on the Pacers to win this series.  Indiana wins 4-2.

Last time they met in the playoffs: You have to go back all the way to 1995-96 to find their last match up.  It was a very similar series to this one, as Indiana was the three seed and Atlanta the six seed then too.  The Hawks were a decent team (Steve Smith, Christian Laettner, and Mookie Blaylock) with no bench at all and the Pacers were a quasi-contender with Reggie Miller, Rik Smits, and the Davis Brothers.  Reggie Miller had fractured his eye socket and missed the first four games of the series, which the teams split.  Miller came back for the deciding Game 5 and scored 29 points (he shot only 7-17 but was 13-15 from the line) but lost 89-87 to a balanced Hawks team.

4.  Nets v. Bulls: The Nets and Bulls are mirror images.  The Nets score well and defend sporadically, while the Bulls defend very well but score really poorly.  Assuming we won’t see Derrick Rose, this will be a very close series.  As an aside, I would not bring Rose back this late in the year anyway.  The Bulls aren’t likely to get past the Second Round with or without him anyway, so why risk an injury for nominal benefit?

The Bulls are 3-1 against the Nets this year, though three of the games were decided by less than three points.  In the battle of contrasts, the Nets have defended well enough but the Bulls’ defense has kept them at 90 points or under every single game.  For the Nets to win, they’ll need someone to really explode offensively (Deron Williams?).  If the Bulls could score at all, they would run away with the series.  Match ups aside, SRS likes the Nets (1.25) significantly better than the Bulls (-0.01).  In all, this series is a coin toss but I’ll go with the Nets’ star power as the difference.  Nets win 4-3.

Last time they met in the playoffs: It has been a while since a young John Calipari brought his up and coming eight seed Nets against Michael Jordan’s final Bulls team in 1997-98.   The Bulls needed overtime to win the first game.  The Nets had a bunch of young studs (Kerry Kittles, Sam Cassell, and Keith Van Horn) but they were led that game by Chris Gatling and Sherman Douglas before MJ scored 39 to pull it out.  Game 2 was also relatively close (96-91) before the Bulls came to Jersey and won easily to sweep the series.

Western Conference

1. Thunder v. Rockets: This will be a fun series on many levels.  First, of course, is James Harden playing his old team.  After that, it is also clear that the Rockets are better than their record and really should be a six seed but for a poorly timed slump at the end of the year.  Their expected win loss is 50-32 and they are first in pace and sixth in offense.  As for OKC, their pace is fast (10th) and they are the best offensive team in the NBA.  In the three games between these teams, the winning team topped 120 points each time.  Alas, the Thunder beat Houston by about 30 points in two of those games so I don’t expect Houston to put up too much of a fight.  Thunder win 4-1.

When they last met in the playoffs: The Rockets have never played the Thunder in the playoffs but have met them as the Sonics several memorable times.  Most recently, the vintage Clyde Drexler/Charles Barkley/Hakeem Olajuwon Rockets met the vintage Gary Payton/Shawn Kemp/Detlef Schrempf Sonics in the Second Round of the 1996-97 playoffs.  Seattle was down 3-1 before roaring back to force a Game 7 in Houston (both teams were 57-25 that year).  All of the usual suspects played well in Game 7 but the difference might have been Matt Maloney, the Rockets’ rookie starting point guard (his first year post-college he was undrafted and played in the CBA before hooking up with the Rockets in 1996-97), who scored 15 points and hit three three-pointers.  Maloney was outmatched by the Rockets the previous two games (he shot 2-12 and 1-10 from three in that losing stretch).  Maloney parlayed that decent season into a long term deal where he made over $17 million.  He was the starter for the Rockets for one more season before crashing with injuries and losing his job to Cuttino Mobley in 1998-99.  Maloney then bounced around as a role player for a few more years until 2001 (and a cameo in 2002-03).

2.  Spurs v. Lakers: A few weeks ago, this series could have been interesting.  Even as it stands, Tim Duncan v. Dwight Howard and Tony Parker v. Steve Nash sound worth watching.  Of course, Nash is hurt and he couldn’t guard Parker when he was healthy anyway.  More troubling, few of the Lakers play any defense.  Howard’s numbers are down but he is still the only formidable defender.   Contrast that with Duncan, who had reduced minutes but was excellent in those minutes (24.4 PER and a league leading defensive rating of 95).  If Howard can’t win the battle with Duncan, the Lakers have little chance of making up the ground elsewhere.  Spurs win 4-1.

When they last met in the playoffs: It’s actually been quite a while since the rivals of the 00s have played.  Their last meeting was in 2007-08 when the Kobe/Pau Lakers beat them 4-1 to go to the NBA Finals.   This wasn’t a particularly memorable series, with the Lakers going up 3-1 to take away any real drama.  As for the Lakers/Spurs overall competition in the last few years, here is the breakdown of their playoff meetings:

2007-08:  Lakers beat Spurs 4-1 in the Conference Finals

-2003-04:  Lakers beat Spurs 4-2 in the Second Round

-2002-03:  Spurs beat Lakers 4-2 in the Second Round

-2001-02:  Lakers beat Spurs 4-1 in the Second Round

-2000-01:  Lakers beat Spurs 4-0 in the Conference Finals

-1998-99:  Spurs beat Lakers 4-0 in the Second Round

Six meetings in ten years and the Lakers controlled most of them.  Interestingly, the winner of this series made the NBA Finals every single time.  That probably won’t happen this year.

3.  Nuggets v. Warriors: The 2012-13 Nuggets have the most wins and best SRS rating of any Denver team since they came to the NBA.  Yet, there are some reasons to be concerned that they aren’t quite a title contender.  Denver has ridden superior depth in the regular season but that depth is less of a factor in the playoffs when rotations contract a bit.  In addition, Danilo Gallinari’s absence hurts.  They will need Wilson Chandler to shoot much more and take Gallo’s minutes.

Watching Denver play another fast paced team in the Warriors will also be a good series that few are talking about.   Denver took three out of the four in the regular season, with the Warriors only winning by one point in their victory.   The Warriors chance of winning revolves around Stephen Curry and their three-point shooting (.403%, best in the NBA).  I don’t see GSW having the athleticism to ultimately stop the Nuggets.  Denver wins 4-1.

When they last met in the playoffs: Surprisingly, the Nuggets and Warriors have never met in the playoffs before.

4.  Clippers v. Grizzlies: Do you realize that every single First Round out West is much more interesting than those in the East?  It’s not that the East games are terrible but they are all rather blah.  Nets/Bulls and Hawks/Pacers might be okay but would you really rather watch those than OKC/Houston or Lakers/Spurs?  But the best series of the First Round is Clipps and Grizz, two 56-win teams facing off with somewhat different styles.

The Grizz are the slowest team in the NBA and a great defensive team (2nd in the NBA).  The Clipps are much more balanced (4th on offense and 8th on defense).   On the surface, the Clipps have a more going for them: (1) they have a much better point differential than Memphis, (2) they beat Memphis 3-1 for the season, (3) they probably have the two best players in the series in Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, and (4) they beat the Grizz last year in the First Round.  Yes it is hard to discount Memphis when it can throw good players at every position and have some nice matchups (Marc Gasol v. DeAndre Jordan) and have players in Mike Conley and Zach Randolph who could complete with Paul and Griffin.  Still, the series will be tight but the factors seem to favor the Clipps.  Clippers win 4-3.

When they last met in the playoffs: We all remember last year’s seven game series won by the Clipps when the Grizz blew a huge lead in Game 1 and lost Game 7 at home.

Incidentally, the last time (and only other time) two 56-win teams met in the 4-5 series in the First round was 1997-98 when the Suns (Jason Kidd, Antonio McDyess, Penny Hardaway, and Danny Manning) played the Spurs with a rookie named Tim Duncan and his buddy David Robinson.   TD played quite well and the Spurs won the series rather easily (3-1).

Second Round

-Heat beat Nets, 4-1

-Knicks beat Pacers, 4-3

-Thunder beat Clippers, 4-1

-Spurs beat Nuggets, 4-1

Conference Finals

-Heat beat Knicks, 4-1

-Thunder beat Spurs, 4-1

NBA Finals

-Heat beat Thunder 4-2

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