Saturday, April 30, 2011

NBA Conference Semifinal Predictions

With Memphis's stunning series win over the Spurs last night, the 4 conference semifinal matchups are now set. Let's take a look at how they each break down:

(8) Memphis Grizzlies vs (4) Oklahoma City Thunder

Memphis won the regular season series between these two teams 3 games to 1 with both teams scoring over 100 points in all four matchups. You can't put too much stock into those results though as three of those games before the NBA trade deadline. Since then the Thunder got bigger picking up Nazr Mohammed and Kendrick Perkins while the Grizzlies brought back Shane Battier. Battier and Mohammed both played in their March matchup (won by Memphis), but Perkins was out with an injury. The Thunder made quick work of the Nuggets in Round 1 defeating them in 5 games with the bulk of the damage done by all-stars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. The two combined for 56.2 points per game in the series while Serge Ibaka averaged a double double with 10.2 points and 11.0 rebounds a game. Memphis meanwhile dispatched the top seeded Spurs in 6 games for the first playoff series win in their franchise's history. Zach Randolph (21.5 ppg, 9.2 rpg), Marc Gasol (14.2 ppg, 12.3 rpg) and Mike Conley Jr (14.3 ppg, 6.2 apg) starred for Memphis in the opening round. While both teams certainly have their stars, one of the big strengths for both sides is depth. Oklahoma City comes at you with size off the bench in Nick Collison and Nazr Mohammed, but also scoring in James Harden and quickness in Eric Maynor. Memphis counters with depth of their own off the bench with a scorer in O.J Mayo, the versatile Darrell Arthur and a lock-down defender in Shane Battier.

So how's this whole thing going to play out? Replacing Nenad Krstic with Perkins and Mohammed tremendously upgrades OKC's toughness and interior defense, something they were lacking early in the season. Memphis is big inside with Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph, and Randolph put up big numbers in their regular season matchups against the Thunder (26.5 ppg, 13.0 rpg). The Grizzlies will not have Rudy Gay as he continues his recovery from shoulder surgery, but Memphis has shown they are more than capable of winning games without him. For me, the series comes down to Kevin Durant. The Thunder have him, the Grizzlies don't. Durant's numbers against Memphis this year have been solid (30.5 ppg, 8.3 rpg) and the league's leading scorer has been equally productive in the postseason (32.4 ppg). If he puts up close to that in this series, and Russell Westbrook outplays Mike Conley Jr., which he should, the Thunder should win. Memphis got huge performances from Tony Allen in all three of their wins against the Thunder this year: 19 points, 27 points, 20 points. But Allen averaged just 8.8 points per game on the season. I don't see Tony Allen making an impact as an offensive player in this series, and I see the Thunder's depth in their front court and their ability to make the outside shot being the difference. The Grizzlies cinderella run ends here, Thunder in Six.

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(3) Boston Celtics vs (2) Miami Heat

Perhaps the most anticipated matchup of the postseason. The Celtics won the East in 2008 and 2010 led by veterans Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett. Despite trading away Kendrick Perkins, the Celtics still came out and produced the only sweep of the first round taking all four games from the Knicks. Miami made waves this offseason by bringing in Chris Bosh and LeBron James to team up with Dwyane Wade in what was supposed to be a recipe for instant championships. Miami did what they needed to do in the first round taking out the 76ers in 5 games setting up their first real test of the playoffs. Boston won the first three regular season meetings between these two teams creating doubt in a lot of people's minds if they even belonged in the same category as the defending Eastern Conference. But Miami gained a huge boost of confidence with their 100-77 route of the Celtics 3 weeks ago. Will that be enough to carry them through the series? Personally, I don't think so.

Boston has the advantage of having been through all of this before. They know how to handle expectations, how to step up in big games, and they've won a title with the core of this group. Yes Kendrick Perkins is gone, but the C's still have their big 3, Rondo and Glen Davis from the 2008 squad that knocked off the Lakers. Miami is going to be feeling all kinds of pressure. The consequences of Miami not winning are a lot greater than if Boston doesn't win. LeBron's "legacy" is at stake so to speak. And so is Chris Bosh's to a point. Dwyane Wade has already won a title for Miami so he's off the hook, but if things don't go well for Miami out of the gates, it will be interesting to see how they respond. Adding to Miami's challenge is the fact that they will likely be without Mike Miller and will continue to be without Udonis Haslem putting a lot more pressure on their bench. The fate of the series may rest in the hands of James Jones, Mario Chalmers and Joel Anthony. That's a scary thought for Miami fans. That aside, for me this series comes down to two matchups. Chris Bosh versus Kevin Garnett, and Rajon Rondo versus the tandem of Mike Bibby and Mario Chalmers. Bosh's toughness has been questioned all year. We'll find out if it was warranted when he plays against one of the league's toughest players in Garnett. And then as Rondo goes, so does Boston. Rondo had a monster opening series posting a 10 point 9 rebound 9 assist game, a 30 point game, a triple double (with 20 assists) and a double double (21 and 12) in that order. Bibby and Chalmers will not be able to keep up with Rondo if he's playing at that level, and will decide the series, Boston in 6, clinching at home.

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(5) Atlanta Hawks vs (1) Chicago Bulls
The Atlanta Hawks survived one tough task knocking out Dwight Howard in the Orlando Magic in the first round, but things don't get any easier for them as now they take on Derrick Rose and the top seeded Chicago Bulls. Atlanta won the first match between the two teams during the regular season, but Chicago blew them out  94-76 and 114-81 in the other two games. At the center of Chicago's success is Rose. The MVP candidate has taken his game to another level in the postseason averaging 27.6 points against the Pacers in Round 1. His outside shot was not on in the opening series (0/9 in Game 1, 1 for 9 in Game 4 - 8 for 37 overall - 21.6%), but he's still find a way to impact the game. He single handedly brought the Bulls back in Game 1, he hit the game winning shot in Game 3, he had 10 assists in Game 4 and he led all scorers with 25 points in the closeout victory in Game 5. Not to mention he's hitting 86.7% of his free throws in the postseason. 
Can Atlanta win this series? They've shown they can beat the Bulls, but it took a career high 31 points from Al Horford and Derrick Rose  hitting just 5 of 12 shots and turning the ball over 6 times to do it. Even with that, the Hawks had to erase an early 14-0 deficit. The Bulls are the better team and the odds are stacked against the Hawks even further due to Kirk Hinrich's hamstring injury suffered in Game 6 against the Magic. Without him, now Atlanta has a gap at the point guard position. Who will slow down Rose? Atlanta did not score more than 83 points in any game against the Bulls this season, and with the Bulls known for their defense, this series figures to offer more of the same. Jamal Crawford and Joe Johnson will get theirs, and Josh Smith and Al Horford will have their moments, but ultimately Atlanta is not in the same category as Chicago. I can see them winning one at home, but that's really it. Bulls in 5.
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(3) Dallas Mavericks vs (2) Los Angeles Lakers

Kobe Bryant and the Lakers meet Dirk Nowitzki and the Mavericks. For me this is one of the tougher matchups to predict in this round just because Dallas is so hard to predict. The Lakers took two out of three from the Mavs during the regular season, including a 110-82 win a month ago. The Lakers and Mavericks both had difficult round one matchups with Chris Paul and the Hornets giving the Lakers a lot more trouble than expected, and Dallas having to fight through a six game slugfest with the Blazers. 

Kobe Bryant (22.5 ppg in the opening round) and Dirk Nowitzki (27.3 ppg) are both playing at an extremely high level so far in the postseason. And while those two players are likely going to be the ones with the ball in their hands with the game on the line, it's going to be the other matchups in this series that decide who advances to the conference finals. Andrew Bynum is averaging over 15 points and 10 rebounds a game in the postseason making up for Pau Gasol's early playoff struggles (41.8%). Tyson Chandler had 14 points and 20 rebounds in Game 5 against Portland, but was otherwise not a HUGE factor. If Bynum has his way with Chandler down low, this is a huge edge for the Lakers. If Chandler and Brendan Haywood can lock him down and keep him and Gasol off the offensive glass, big edge for Dallas. Point Guard play will also be important. Each team features an established veteran presence at the point with Derek Fisher leading the Lakers and Jason Kidd the Mavs. Kidd's scoring and shooting are way up in the postseason, but his assists are down (just 6.5 a game). Kidd's ability to facilitate the offense will be key. His ability to knock down shots is also a big plus. And everyone saw last year in the finals what Fisher can bring to the table so you know how important he is to the Lakers. Then there's bench play. Dallas has Jason Terry, J.J. Barea, Peja Stojakovic and Haywood, and now there's talk that they may even get Caron Butler back. The Lakers have the 6th man of the year in Odom, Shannon Brown, Matt Barnes and Steve Blake. Obviously both sides depend on contributions from the bench. Will Butler be enough to swing the advantage to Dallas or will Odom's length and versatility keep the Lakers on top? As much as I hate to say it, I see the Lakers taking this one. Bynum appears to have elevated his level of play and I can't see Gasol continuing to struggle the way he did in Round 1. The more those two contribute, the more pressure it takes off Bryant to do it all which makes him that much more dangerous. I see the Mavericks definitely making L.A. work for it, but ultimately they'll come up just short. Lakers in 7.

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