Thursday, April 26, 2012

The Puddles of Myself 2012 NBA Playoffs Predictions, Part 1

The condensed 2011-2012 NBA Season has been grueling for everyone, even Matt Domino. But now, the Puddles man himself breaks down the NBA Playoffs in a two-part feature.

The NBA Playoffs are upon us, my Puddlers. That’s right, we’ve come to that magical time of the year when the lights are brighter; when the air smells sweeter; when there are multiple exciting basketball games on television every night of the week; and when you can almost see the opening credits on opening night for a movie that may or may not be the prequel to the first Alien movie. For those of you saying, “Oh, what happened this season, Domino? What you hardly write about the regular season on the blog or on your crappy side-gig at SLAM Online and now when the Playoffs roll around suddenly you’re interested and looking to make a name for yourself in sports journalism again?” Well, for those of you asking prolonged, slightly sarcastic hypothetical questions about me, all I have to say to you is: Have you seen my Twitter feed?!

For those of you who haven’t seen my Twitter feed, you are lucky, because I am about to rise from the dead like Tupac and regain my place upon the Royal Throne of Basketball Writing. That’s right, I’ve been watching this entire NBA season with a close eye. I sat back for much of the season because our own Alex Theoharides was doing such a great job of capturing the zeitgeist in all of his Minnesota Timberwolves coverage that I felt I could help expand the Puddles brand—you know, like a regular Harrison Barnes. But, now I can’t help but give you all my two cents about what is about to unfold in the basketball world over the next two months.

It’s been an interesting season. At times you really saw the effect that the condensed schedule had on the players, but on other nights we were treated to a truly remarkable level of play all around the league. We’ve had the budding of some new rivalries between new teams as well as some fresh bad blood between emerging players (i.e. Demarcus Cousins challenging Blake Griffin to a fight in the tunnel of the Staples Center). We, of course, were helped to a daily dose of overreaction to whatever the Miami Heat or Lebron James did. We were witness to a resurrection—that being the resurrection of the Boston Celtics. The Spurs gave us another classic under the radar season while the Bulls gave us perhaps one of the defining overachieving seasons of all-time. And just this weekend Ron Artest shed the Metta World Peace persona and indulged in a vintage outburst of raw power and confused emotion.

The 2012 NBA Playoffs start on Saturday, April 28, so I am going to give you a team-by-team guide to what expect throughout the upcoming weeks. This guide will be perfect for the die-hard NBA fan as well as the unabashed and illogical NBA haters out there (Sorry, Ed, you’re still my man).

So just leave the rough stuff to Franklin and me and we’ll guide you through the 2012 NBA Playoffs in what I am now calling the “Puddle of Myself Playoff Prediction Extravaganza presented by Prometheus.”

First, the Western Conference:

The Western Conference

8. The Utah Jazz

The Jazz snuck into the Playoffs by holding off the late charging Phoenix Suns. One of the things we can thank the Jazz for is that by keeping Steve Nash out of the Playoffs this year, they may have guaranteed that Nash leaves the Suns this offseason and signs with a contender to get the NBA Title that he deserves. The Jazz will be matched up with the San Antonio Spurs in the first round and they will certainly not be able to challenge the Spurs like the Grizzlies were able to last year. However, when you look at this Jazz team, they really gelled and grew as the year went along and they have some fantastic pieces moving forward. Gordon Hayward remembered that he is actually a good basketball player and put together a very nice sophomore season. He emerged as a dynamic threat to score and “pass the basketball” as they say. Derrick Favors continued his evolution towards becoming the middle-class man’s Serge Ibaka (with room to grow to upper-middle class—this is all a long compliment by the way); Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap have both put up borderline All-Star numbers along the front line and increased their trade value for the Jazz to try and get more pieces to fill in around their other young players like Alec Burks and Enes Kanter. All in all, it was a surprisingly successful year for the Jazz and even though they won’t make it out of the first round, their young players should gain some valuable Playoff experience and the franchise looks to be in a great position for the next few years. That is unless their young players regress or meet lower ceilings than expected—then this will just be seen as a random fluke year after they traded away Deron Williams! Who knows?

Prediction: Losing to the Spurs 4-1 in the first round.

Pre-post Editor’s Note: After doing more Jazz research and watching their win against Phoenix on Tuesday night, I am starting to think the Jazz might give the Spurs more of a scare then I thought. I still stand by my pick, but the front line of Derrick Favors, Paul Millsap and Al Jefferson could actually give San Antonio very “Memphisesque” problems. Do not be surprised if this series goes six games and if it is tougher for the Spurs to pull away than it originally seemed.

7. The Dallas Mavericks

Heavy is the head that wears the crown. However, in Dirk Nowitzki’s case this past season, heavy are the legs of the man who didn’t play basketball during the lockout and who ate rich German food most of the time. The Defending Champion Dallas Mavericks have had a disappointing season that can be best exemplified by the disastrous Lamar Odom experiment, though I suppose the silver lining was that Khloe Kardashian really enjoyed her time in the Lone Star State. Dallas enters the postseason with a creaky, veteran team that isn’t exactly hitting their stride the same way they were last year. I mean, they have Vince Carter. Is it even possible to “hit your stride” with Vince on your roster? However, the fact remains that they are the reigning champs, so you can’t totally count them out. But when they are matched up with the younger, hungrier and much deeper Oklahoma City Thunder in the first round, you can easily see them leaving the postseason early. They’ll have a slight psychological edge after beating the Thunder in the Western Conference Finals last year, but the Mavericks will not make it out of the first round this year. They’ll start the offseason early and start working out a deal with Deron Williams as well as try to find another defensive piece or two to anchor their front line. Losing Kidd, gaining Deron, having a motivated Dirk for an entire season and adding a few other depth pieces (to go along with their surprise of this season, Brandan Wright) should be enough to put the Mavs back in the title picture in 2012-2013.

Prediction: Losing to the Thunder 4-1 in the first round.

6. The Denver Nuggets

The Nuggets fought off injuries all season as well as traded away their best low-post player for the always-erratic JaVale McGee, but they look dangerous heading into the Playoffs. They are without a doubt one of the deepest teams in the league and have even gotten surprisingly solid contributions across the board from JaVale since he was traded to the Mile High City. Lawson has emerged as their go-to player over the course of the season and they have an experienced and highly skilled defensive backcourt between Lawson, Miller, Afflalo and Brewer. The Nuggets are also getting 10 points and 7 rebounds a night (as well as extra dreadlock credibility) from their physical and athletic rookie power forward, Kenneth Faried and Danilo Gallinari has bounced back nicely from his injury and is slowly getting sharper with each game. The Nuggets are matched up with the Lakers in the first round and the Lakers will be vulnerable after the Artest Peace Elbow (aka Stuck Between a Rock and a Harden Place), but I still see Kobe, Bynum and Gasol prevailing over George Karl’s feisty squad. The Nuggets will test the Lakers’ legs, though, but I still see this one going six games in favor of the Lakers. The Nuggets will face an offseason where they, like a lot of other good, but not great, deep teams have to address their abundance of depth and lack of star power.

Prediction: Losing to the Lakers 4-2 in the first round.

5. The Los Angeles Clippers

It has been an up and down season for the Los Angeles Clippers even though they are the number four seed in the West and have basically evened the balance of basketball power in the city of Los Angeles for the first time ever. They started off the season as media darlings thanks to the “Lob City” moniker and the energy and excitement that Chris Paul brought to the team. Their preseason alley-oops did nothing to suppress the hype, but their slow start did. However, just as the Clips started hitting their stride, with Paul throwing countless lobs to DeAndre Jordan, and Blake Mozgoving everyone in sight, Chauncey Billups went out for the season with injury. They slumped badly after the All-Star break and nearly forced Vinny del Negro out as coach, but over the past month, things have turned around and they are heading into the Playoffs looking fairly formidable. They have tried to add some depth pieces to the roster in the form Nick Young and “Kenyon Martin”, but they haven’t been overwhelming additions. Losing in the first round may seem like a failed season considering all the hype, but the Grizzlies are just much deeper and much more skilled and efficient in the front court. Over this season, the Clippers gained a level of legitimacy behind Chris Paul’s competitive fire and they can build on that next year as they decide what to do with Chauncey, their frontcourt depth and Vinny del Negro’s status as head coach.

Prediction: Losing to the Grizzlies 4-3 in the first round.

4. The Memphis Grizzlies

Ah, now we get to the good part. The Grizzlies are my dark horse choice to represent the West in the NBA Finals. The Grizzlies were poised to be one of the favorites in the West this season with Randolph and Gasol established as perhaps the most dominant and skilled frontline in the NBA after last year’s Playoffs. Rudy Gay was set to return from injury to provide his dynamic ability to create his own shot and fill up the stat sheet; Mike Conley had another year of experience leading the team from the point; O.J. Mayo was going to be dangerous off the bench as always; and the entire team had gained a level of confidence from their run last year that would carry them to the top of the standings. That all backfired. Important bench player and glue guy, Dorrell Arthur went down with an injury before the season, Battier signed with the Heat and then Randolph when down in the early part of the season. The Grizzlies were resilient though and they continued on, gaining chemistry and regaining their confidence as the year went along. They have slowly been reincorporating Randolph back into the offense and even though he isn’t yet up to the dominating standards he set last postseason, he could very well get there after one round of the Playoffs. The Grizzlies are going to need it though since they are going up against the Lob City Los Angeles Clippers in the first round.  That series will go seven, but for the Grizzlies, the more games they play the better. I think they beat the Clippers in seven, beat the Spurs in another seven game series before they face-off against the Oklahoma City Thunder in the Western Conference Finals, where they finally bow out. But, they could easily win and go to the Finals.

Prediction: Defeat the Clippers 4-3 in the first round; Defeat the Spurs 4-3 in the Western Conference Semifinals; Lose 4-2 to the Thunder in the Western Conference Finals.

3. The Los Angeles Lakers

The 2011-2012 Season has been a truly vintage year of Kobe Bean Bryant. In the offseason, Kobe went to Germany to have experimental blood platelet surgery performed on his knee (they call it the Herr A-Rod Special) and was supposedly going to be rejuvenated heading into the compressed season. And in many ways he was—basically he rejuvenated his ball-hogging antics from the mid-2000’s. With Odom leaving L.A. for murky reasons and Pau rattled by the failed Chris Paul trade, Kobe took the team in his own greedy, history-seeking hands and started jacking shots like only he knows how. The Lakers struggled under Mike Brown but always managed to stay near the top of the standings. They withstood a lack of depth, a lack of trust in Mike Brown, Kobe’s ball hogging, releasing Derek Fisher, Pau’s fragile psyche and Bynum’s tantrums and even managed to pull off the best trade-deadline deal when they landed Ramon Sessions from the Cleveland Cavaliers for basically nothing. Now, they have to withstand losing all of their pre-Playoff momentum after Ron Artest “inadvertantly” elbowed James Harden in the head last Sunday. Look, I love Ron Artest, he has had the kind of human pathos and tragedy in his life that I try to empathize with in any other person. And he is weird in such a deeply humanistic and quirky way that I can’t help but appreciate him and all of his attempts to try and be a better person. However, he obviously smacked James Harden in the head with his elbow and the look on Artest’s face afterward was primal and it was scary. Artest may miss much of the Lakers’ Playoff run depending on what the NBA’s ruling is and it may cost the Lakers the NBA title. However, if Kobe can pull off heroics like he did on Sunday—the kind of heroics when you just shake your head and have to say “he’s the best”—then the Lakers will always have a chance. But I think they bow out to the Thunder in the Western Conference Semifinals in seven games. And maybe they can trade Baby Bynum to Orlando for Baby Howard. Sorry, I couldn’t come up with a better name, but Howard is seriously just a big baby. I’m tired of him.

Prediction: Defeat Denver Nuggets 4-2 in the first round; Lose to the Thunder 4-3 in the Western Conference Semifinals.

2. The Oklahoma City Thunder

During last year’s Playoffs I hadn’t watched any part of The Wire. Now, I am well versed in all of the mythology of that show and I can finally understand Bill Simmons’ constant Avon Barksdale/Stringer Bell and Kevin Durant/Russell Westbrook comparisons. Now, as much as I enjoy those comparisons, they are definitely forced. This season, in many ways, Durant and Westbrook were able to put even the notion of that kind of “Stringer/Avon” unrest to bed. Westbrook started off the season in a slump, but once he signed his new contract he unleashed his finest season thus far, averaging 23.5 points, 5.4 assists, 4.5 rebounds and 1.7 steals. But what separated this season from last season (which was pretty similar statistically) was the fact that he seemed more comfortable playing with and deferring to Durant than he had last year. When you have that kind of 1-2 punch playing in sync and then add, likely 6th Man of the Year, James Harden into the mix, you are clearly one of the best teams in the NBA. Yet in late March, right after they thrashed the Miami Heat in Oklahoma City on ABC’s NBA Sunday Showcase, and Durant had nearly snatched the MVP front-runner mantle from Lebron, the Thunder went into a slump. That slump has now cost them the top seed in the Western Conference, but it may be the best thing for them because they will avoid playing the Grizzlies in the second round. The Thunder will be able to sharpen up in the first round against the Mavericks, exorcise some demons, and reincorporate a post-Artest James Harden back into the lineup. Then, they’ll get to exact revenge against Artest and the Lakers in a hard fought Western Conference Semifinals before engaging in all out warfare with the tough and nearly as equally athletic Memphis Grizzlies in the Western Conference Finals. The key to that series will be Rudy Gay and Marreese Speights’ defense on Kevin Durant. With Randolph and Gasol able to help out with both scoring and defense on the low post, Gay should be able to use most of his energy to play aggressive man defense on Durant and hopefully slow him down. Gay has proven to be a good defender over the past two years and he is the key that can potentially thwart the Oklahoma City from going to the NBA Finals. However, I think the Thunder prevail in a tough, extremely close six game series. It’s Westbrook and Durant.

Prediction: Defeat the Dallas Mavericks 4-1 in the first round; Defeat the Los Angeles Lakers 4-3 in the Western Conference Semifinals; Defeat the Memphis Grizzlies 4-2 in the Western Conference Finals.

1. The San Antonio Spurs

I finally have to admit it: the San Antonio Spurs are amazing. I also have to admit that I love Greg Popovich—he is one of the greatest sports geniuses of all-time. When I look back on how he has managed this team, year after year, with such a confident, bordering-on-bristling when he has to, nonchalant intelligence, I am just dumbstruck (Plus when I watched this vintage footage of Pop, I realized his humble beginnings and how long he has actually been in my life. What? I’m sentimental!). You have to look no further than the masterful job he did with this year’s version of the Spurs. Last year, even though they were had the best record in the league and were one of the top offensive teams, the Spurs were bothered by the size and speed of the Grizzlies and were upset in the first round. Last year, the team still belonged in equal parts to Duncan, Ginobli and Parker. This year, Pop clearly turned the team over to Parker in a “Riley giving the 1987 Lakers to Magic” move. Duncan is still obviously the spiritual figurehead of the franchise (plus he can still have a throwback game or two from time to time), but now the Spurs give more minutes to Tiago Splitter in order to add size. Parker now runs the team with his speed and his endurance.  When he is on the break, young, role/rotation players like Gary Neal, Danny Green (one of my all-time favorite UNC alums) and Kawhi Leonard (he will be really good eventually—already a fantastic defender) can keep up with Tony and get to their spots on the floor. Then, just for depth, the Spurs added the diverse (and busty) Boris Diaw at the trade deadline as well as bringing back “the best teammate” anybody could ask for in “Captain Jack” Stephen Jackson. I watched the Spurs destroy the Lakers last week and was seriously impressed. I have been watching them for the past week and they look fantastic, but I am still seriously troubled by their matchup with Memphis. They won’t get pushed around as much as they did last year, but I still don’t see Blair, Duncan and Splitter matching up with Randolph and Gasol over the course of a long series, especially when the rotations are tighter. Plus, the Grizzlies have the backcourt youth and depth to match up with well with the Spurs. Conley can’t stop Parker alone, but he is quick enough to keep up and the Grizzlies can always switch Tony Allen on him when they need a stop. It will be another epic series, but I still don’t see the Spurs beating the Grizzlies after yet another great regular season.

Predication: Defeat the Utah Jazz 4-1 in the first round; Lose to Memphis 4-3 in the Western Conference Semifinals.

That wraps up the Western Conference. The Thunder will make it to their first NBA Finals in Oklahoma City (the Seattle Supersonics went to three other Finals) to face off against the winner of the Eastern Conference, who we will breakdown tomorrow in Part 2 of the Puddles of Myself Playoff Prediction Extravaganza presented by Prometheus!

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