Welcome back to the “Puddles of Myself Playoff Prediction Extravaganza presented by Prometheus”, my Puddlers. There will be no preamble today; we’ll just jump right into the Eastern Conference Playoffs.
In case you missed yesterday’s post, you can read it right here.
We established that the Oklahoma City Thunder will come out of the Western Conference. Now, let’s see who will emerge from the East.
8. The Philadelphia 76ers
Oh, poor 76ers fans! The Sixers pulled a classic “Philadelphia” move by starting the season off hot and using their young, deep team as well as a weak schedule in order to look like one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference. However, as the season went on, it became clear that the Sixers were not one of the best teams in the Eastern Conference and that, like last year, they needed to trade one of their redundant parts away for other pieces. When you look at the 76ers depth chart, they have the look of a good team, but they lack a dominant scorer who can create his own shot. Now, they believe that Evan Turner can be that player. Turner has shown flashes of greatness in his second year, but I still don’t believe he will get to that level. They should trade him and Brand as part of a package in the offseason, keep Iguodala as their defensive stopper, trust that Jrue Holiday will bounce back next year, keep Hawes as their anchor in the middle, and then try to land a “go-to” low post scorer and another two-guard to add to their backcourt depth. Then, you start Holiday as your slashing point guard with a shot, Meeks as your stretch shooter, Iguodala as your poor-man’s Pippen, Elite low-post scorer X, and Hawes as your “hey, he’s not a bad center in a league with three very good centers and one great center.” It seems like that is the way they need to take this team. You still have Thad Young, Sam Young and Lou Williams off the bench, which makes a pretty solid eight-man rotation. And at least there is some kind of identity by using the inside-outside game with Elie low-post scorer X, instead of their current identity which is "we have a lot of players who look the same and who are about the same size." In any case, they will lose to the Bulls in the first round and I think that Doug Collins will step down as coach.
Prediction: Lose to the Bulls 4-0 in the first round.
7. The New York Knicks
It’s America’s Team! The 2011-2012 New York Knicks might be the first professional sports team to go through five different identities in the course of one season. I’d have to look it up, but I feel pretty confident in that assessment. First we entered the season with the “Finals Contender” Knicks and their anticipated dominant front line of Tyson Chandler, Amar’e Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony. That identity quickly shifted to the “What’s Wrong Knicks” after about one week. Then, the clouds opened and we were given “Linsanity” and what a ride that was. However, it soon gave way to the “Carmelo! Pass the ball!” Knicks aka the “Carmelo Can’t Do Anything Right” Knicks aka “Post-Linsanity.” Once Lin went down for the season with his knee injury and Mike D’Antoni resigned (*cough* Carmelo forced him out and forced the team to quit on him *cough*), we seem to have settled on the current, stable, version of the Knicks known as the “This is Carmelo’s Team. We’re quirky, shoot the three, and play good defense. Don’t fuck it up Amar’e!” Knicks. This fifth identity seems to be the scariest one yet as on any given night Carmelo is a threat to score 30 and while he is slashing and using his offensive repertoire, either Novak or J.R. Smith can potentially catch fire from behind the arc. Then you have Chandler anchoring the whole defense from the paint and leading vocally, while Shumpert causes complete chaos out on the perimeter. When you throw in any extra scoring that Amar’e or Fields can give them and any slight bit of vintage guidance that Baron can provide from the point, well, you have the makings of a scary dark horse. Unfortunately, they will be playing the Heat in the first round and the Heat actually match up well against the Knicks. The Heat have an advantage at point guard that they don’t usually have, plus the Knicks can’t stop Lebron and Wade and Bosh has the upper hand on Amar’e at this point in their careers. Even though the Heat weren’t the best at defending the three-point line during the regular season, something tells me that they will ratchet up the defense in the Playoffs and that Miller, Lebron and Battier will be closing off on those three point shooters faster than they were earlier in the year. The Knicks will put up a fight, but I still see the Heat emerging victorious.
Editor's Note: I'll be at Game 4 of this series at Madison Square Garden and will be sure to provide a full and complete update of the atmosphere. I also just wanted to make anyone who reads this piece as jealous as possible.
Prediction: Lose to the Heat 4-2 in the first round.
6. The Orlando Magic
What a mess. What else can you say about the 2011-2012 Orlando Magic besides, what a mess? After Dwight Howard and Stan Van Gundy had one of the most awkward interactions in the history of the human race, Dwight opted to have back surgery and essentially gave up on the season. Now, I’m sure his injury is legitimate, but it seems pretty coincidental. I mean, he just signed an extension with the Magic after a prolonged period of speculation that he wanted to be traded and then was involved with rumors that he asked upper management to fire his coach—wouldn’t you want to maybe fight through injury to prove that you really care about the franchise and that you aren’t a complete asshole? Maybe that’s just me. In any case the Magic have still been grinding along with Dwight in the lineup, but when they play the Pacers in a seven game series in the first round, having Glen Davis as your starting center just isn’t going to cut it. The Pacers have the athletes to defend the Magic’s three point shooting and the Pacers are tough. Not as tough as everyone is making them out to be, but they are definitely tougher than the current “tough” standard in the NBA. The Magic will bow out in the first round of the Playoffs for the second straight year and will put this mess of a season behind them. Stan Van Gundy will quit or get fired and Dwight will come back motivated next season with Stan gone and also to try and get another deal out of Orlando when his extension runs out in 2013. God, I hate Dwight Howard.
Prediction: Lose to the Pacers 4-1 in the first round.
5. The Atlanta Hawks
Call me crazy, but I actually like this year’s version of the Hawks for some reason. Ever since Al Horford went down, the Hawks have been playing like underdogs and Josh Smith has finally started playing up to expectations. Joe Johnson is also having a bounce back year, though one would have hoped he would after he was signed to one of the most expensive/worst contracts of all time before last season and then underperformed. Sure, the Hawks still have those vintage “Hawks” nights when it looks like no one on the team cares that they are a professional basketball team with a pretty decent collection of talent; but it just doesn’t seem as egregious as it had been in years past. Maybe when Horford went down, the Hawks looked around and said something along the lines of, “Man, the one guy on our team that people knew cared and who played up to his talent all the time went down. Now people are all really going to notice how much we don’t care. Let’s try this playing up to our worth thing.” And, hell it’s sort of worked. Either that or Larry Drew suddenly became a better than average coach. I think the first option is more likely. I really don’t know where to go with this Hawks team. They need to package Marvin Williams with some other pieces and get him out of there. Maybe they package Williams and Smith for some kind of mega deal, but I just don’t see the parties involved. And, after the season Smith’s had (even if it does prove to be an aberration), I would be hesitant to try and move him. Why am I already looking ahead to their off season moves? Well because they are drawing the hottest (though they have cooled slightly) team in the Eastern Conference in the Boston Celtics. The Hawks will steal one game at home, but I think the Celtics take care of business especially with Horford out. Hopefully we get to see more than one awkward Garnett and Zaza Pachulia interaction. I’ll cross my fingers.
Prediction: Lose to the Boston Celtics 4-1 in the first round.
4. The Boston Celtics
Earlier this season, I wrote about how this season might be the year that Rajon Rondo finally lived up to his substantial potential; and besides a little mid-season, trade-rumor-fueled slump, Rondo did come closer to putting his entire game together. He averaged 11.9 points, 11.7 assists, 4.8 rebounds and 1.8 steals. Rondo will never be Chris Paul—his skill set and physical gifts are too unique and his personality is too idiosyncratic. However, he can take on that Chris Paul “attitude”, that Chris Paul stance that tells his teammates not to worry because he is the leader and he is going to guide them to the finish line. In the second half of the season, as Paul Pierce rounded himself into shape, Ray Allen begrudgingly accepted a role as a much-needed bench scorer and second unit presence and Kevin Garnett found his ninth life as a makeshift center and dominant pick and roll defender which somehow translated to increases in scoring and rebounding, Rondo was the one leading and orchestrating the team. “Orchestrating” is the best word because Rondo has been nothing short of a maestro on the court for the past two months. Just consider that the last time Rondo had a game with single-digit assists, the NCAA Tournament hadn’t even started yet! That date was March 9, 2012. From that date to April 26th, Rondo had double digit assists in every game he played in, which was 24 games total. In that stretch he tossed up classic Rondo lines like a 10-10-20, a 16-11-14, a 20-6-16, a 13-6-13, and a 12-16-5. Who else does that for you? No one. Throw in the fact that, even though his field goal percentage is down from last year, that Rondo is now confident to take the open jumper—even if it is a three—and is making them, which makes defenses play him more honestly and in turns allow him to better dissect opposing teams. I don’t know if there is a stat for this, but even though Rondo is not a great shooter, he has increased his percentage of making important shots. Maybe there isn’t a stat for that, but anyone watching him over the past two months knows what they have been seeing. It is unique, compelling and otherworldly. And now, those attributes, which are usually used to describe Romantic poets, are being channeled into a basketball leadership role. Basically, the Celtics are extremely dangerous and Rondo is one of the main reasons why.
Prediction: Defeat the Atlanta Hawks in 4-2 in the first round; Defeat the Chicago Bulls 4-3 in the Eastern Conference Semifinals; Lose to the Miami Heat 4-2 in the Eastern Conference Finals.
3. The Indiana Pacers
The “toughest” team not named the Chicago Bulls in the 2012 NBA Playoffs. Now, don’t get me wrong, I like the Indiana Pacers a lot. I have been following them all year and picked them as one of my dark horse teams to make a deep run in the Playoffs when I talked with their center, Roy Hibbert, before the season. I like Roy Hibbert (who was an All-Star this year) a lot. I like David West. I love Tyler Hansbrough (UNC bias). And I really like the explosive Paul George. And the Pacers do play a “tough” brand of basketball behind the steady, intense hand of their great, young head coach Frank Vogel. However, let’s not get carried away by calling them one of the “toughest” teams in basketball. It's a nice thing to say, but I think their “toughness” is getting slightly overrated. However, what they are is a young, disciplined team that went through a rough patch in the middle of the year but who are now playing their best basketball. They are deep and they are definitely dangerous. However, when it comes to the Playoffs, the depth of your team doesn’t matter as much as it does in a compacted regular season, when sometimes just having legs will carry you to a win. In the Playoffs, you have to balance a set rotation, where the dip in quality is not that noticeable, with star-power; and the knock against the Pacers all season has been their lack of a “go-to” guy. Danny Granger is a fine player, who will give you 18 points a game, but he really likes jump shots and he isn’t a superstar. Roy Hibbert is a solid center, but he isn’t scaring you inside. It’s nice to see Amundson and Hansbrough and Dahntay Jones making hustle plays, but can they help stop Lebron James or Dwyane Wade when they are playing extended minutes with the second unit in the Eastern Conference Semifinals. The answer is no. The Pacers are a nice team, but they will not beat the Heat in the Eastern Conference Semifinals.
Prediction: Defeat the Orlando Magic 4-1 in the first round; Lose to the Miami Heat 4-2 in the Eastern Conference Semifinals.
2. The Miami Heat
The 2011-2012 Miami Heat had perhaps one of the strangest regular seasons of all-time. The visceral hatred that surrounded the 2010-2011 season had worn off and turned into a begrudging popular acceptance of the “Heat as villains”—no one liked them, they were annoying to the general populous, but you didn’t feel that same venom. With that general feeling towards the team as the baseline, the media then approached them by simultaneously overreacting to every little misstep they had and underreacting to anything positive that happened. “Oh, Lebron is throwing up 30, 7 and 7 on average. Finally. He should have been doing that all along.” Look, Lebron was doing things this year that only Michael Jordan really approached; and Lebron is absolutely, nor will he ever be, Michael Jordan. He deserves credit for the season he had. Instead, Lebron was criticized every time he passed the ball in crunch time even if it was the right move. Instead, one of the lasting memories from this season was Lebron passing up the winning shot in the All-Star Game and having Kobe chide him for it. And Kobe was right to do that. Basically, everything the Miami Heat have done from December 25, 2011 up until now does not matter one bit. The 2011-2012 Miami Heat season starts right now, which I don't believe has ever happened to another team in NBA history (OK, maybe the 1990-1991 Chicago Bulls). And when you look at the Heat, Bosh, Wade and Lebron are all rested and healthy; Haslem and Miller are at 100% whereas they were both at about 52% during the Playoffs last year; Battier gives them quality minutes off the bench and even if he isn’t an elite defender anymore, he can still spell Lebron or Wade on the other team’s best option; Chalmers is better than he was a year ago; and Spoelestra has more or less figured out the extent of his rotation: you start Chalmers, Wade, Lebron, Haslem and Bosh; bring Joel Anthony off the bench for energy, then spell Wade with Jones and Battier, sub Bosh with Ronny Turiaf; then sub Miller for Chalmers, keep Lebron out at the point and then you still have the option of Norris Cole for an instant change of pace when you need it. That is the identity of the Miami Heat as of April 27, 2012 and will be on the morning of April 28, 2012 when the NBA Playoffs start. Nothing that has happened so far matters. All that matters is what is to come. And something about that should be extremely refreshing for the most heavily scrutinized team in history.
Prediction: Defeat the New York Knicks 4-2 in the first round; Defeat the Indiana Pacers 4-2 in the Eastern Conference Semifinals; Defeat the Boston Celtics 4-2 in the Eastern Conference Finals.
1. The Chicago Bulls
Derrick Rose barely played, but the Bulls finished with the best record in the Eastern Conference. That is all you have to know about this Chicago Bulls team. Their best player went down, but they kept on plugging guys in, finding answers and praying on tired teams that didn’t care as much or who weren’t as deep during the most grueling NBA season of all time. See, the 2011-2012 season was perfectly made for Tom Thibodeau. Thibodeau is a great coach who has been rightly criticized for playing his best players too much. The fact that two of his best players are Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah and that they are both slaves to effort and basketball tunnel vision, and that his team represents the antithesis of the Miami Heat, has helped to obscure this coaching shortcoming. The Bulls care about everything, so of course in a season where teams were figuring out when to care and when not to care in order to prolong their season and preserve the health of their best players they were able to achieve the best record in their conference—they used their “best” trait to outshine other teams. That won’t work in the Playoffs just like it didn’t work last year. The Bulls are going to run into a “hot” team in the Boston Celtics during the Eastern Conference Semifinals. The Celtics now have a confident Avery Bradley to sic on Derrick Rose and the Celtics, still standing after all of the turmoil of their season, are as “tough” if not tougher than the Chicago Bulls. Taj Gibson, Omer Asik, Joakim Noah and, of course, Derrick Rose are all tenacious, smart and, especially in Rose’s case, talented players; but if you think that they are going to stand in the way of Rondo’s symphony as well as Pierce and Garnett’s last chance to stare down basketball immortality, then you have not been watching the past two months of the NBA.
Prediction: Defeat the Philadelphia 76ers 4-0 in the first round; Lose to the Boston Celtics 4-3 in the Eastern Conference Semifinals.
The 2012 NBA Finals
The Miami Heat vs. The Oklahoma City Thunder
What ESPN and all other sports media outlets will bill as “The Battle for the Next Five Years of the NBA,” will live up to the hype. The Thunder will come at the Heat; Westbrook will overwhelm Wade and then Wade will outsmart Westbrook in the post; Lebron and Durant will fail to contain and then succeed at containing each other; Bosh will shrink from the moment and then start nailing jumpers over Ibaka and have one or two startling slams over Perkins. Harden will prove to be the difference in at least one game and Chalmers will get hot and lead the Heat to one blowout win in the second or third game. The series will go to seven games and as much as I have loved Dwyane Wade, have loved the insane evolution of his fantastic shooting guard post game, and will continue to love him as my second favorite player of all time, history has its finger pointed straight at Lebron James. The crossroads is here and I think Lebron finally knows what he has to do.
Prediction: The Miami Heat defeat the Oklahoma City Thunder 4-2. Wade sets the tone early, while Lebron James scores the last 8 points for the Miami Heat and Shane Battier makes one key steal or block in the fourth quarter to stop an Oklahoma City comeback.