It’s Go Time!
Breaking down the NBA Playoffs
By Adam Hoff
It has been a bizarre NBA season. The Brawl. A horrible defensive player becoming the ultimate bandwagon MVP candidate. The T-Wolves imploding and Sprewell’s children starving. The Bulls starting 0-9 and grabbing the fourth seed in the East and the Jazz starting 8-0 and finishing at the bottom of the heap in the West. Denver surging thanks to new coach George Karl and the Cavs plummeting thanks to new owner Dan Gilbert. Shaq’s Heat dominating and Kobe’s Lakers struggling. Oh wait, that last one isn’t bizarre – it makes perfect sense. Nevertheless, it has been a wild year. And because I can’t turn away the opportunity to make some stupid predictions, here are my best guesses at how these playoffs will go. We’ll do this “Apprentice” style and list the teams in the order that they will be fired.
1. Memphis Grizzlies. I’m already hearing the “this is a tough matchup for the Suns” talk. Why? Memphis tries to play a smaller lineup when possible, they like to run, and they don’t have an explosive point guard that can expose Nash late in the game. It sounds to me like they play right into Phoenix’s hands. Beyond that, the Grizzlies have matchup nightmares here. If Gasol plays center and they run a smaller lineup, Amare will dunk on his head about eight times per game. If Memphis goes bigger and plays Lorenzen Wright at the five, Gasol will be chasing Marion all over the court. The best Memphis can hope for is to play Swift and Gasol together as much as possible and hope that Battier and Miller outplay Joe Johnson and Q on the wings. If Memphis wins even two games in this series it means that Earl Watson is getting big minutes at point guard.
The Pick: Suns over Grizzlies 4-1.
The Impact Player: Amare Stoudemire will go for 35 and 10 per night in this series.
Watch for: Joe Johnson – an underrated defender – to lock up the redhot Miller.
Subplot: The Suns will be under more pressure than any other team in the first round, trying to prove all the haters wrong that their style can win come playoff time.
2. Denver Nuggets. Everybody is jumping on the Nuggets’ bandwagon (renamed the Nashwagon) because of their scorching finish, but I just can’t see them winning a series against San Antonio. The Spurs are playing possum right now, but once they roll out Duncan-Manu-Parker and the rest of the machine, they will expose all of Denver’s flaws. Boykins won’t be able to dart all over the court with Parker on him, Carmelo will get frustrated by Bowen’s cheating, I mean defense, and K-Mart is about to get abused down low. The only hope for Denver is that Andre Miller turns the tables on Parker and uses his strength and savvy to get the Frenchman in foul trouble and keep him frustrated while Marcus Camby alters shots on the defensive end.
The Pick: Spurs over Nuggets 4-2.
The Impact Player: Shooting guard is a huge weakness for the Nugs; it’s not for the Spurs. Ginobili will torch Denver.
Watch for: Bowen’s attempt to shut down yet another big time scorer; but this time it will be down on the block.
Subplot: We get to watch the new Big Dog (Melo) take on the original version now that Glen Robinson has inexplicably been added to the Spurs roster.
The Pick: Pacers over Celtics 4-2.
The Impact Player: Boston has no answer for Jermaine O’Neal; even if he only uses that surprisingly good left handed hook all series.
Watch for: Reggie Miller to get all the calls in his final go-round.
Subplot: Pacers and C’s meet for third straight year; some bad blood is sure to develop (I’ve got Stephen “I Make Love to Pressure” Jackson and Paul Pierce in my Fisticuffs Pool).
4. New Jersey. This team has all the luck right now. They stole Vince Carter from Toronto (the one guy in the NBA who absolutely does not deserve to play in the postseason this year – what he did to Toronto fans is just as bad as charging the stands; he should be suspended indefinitely), got the Wizards to roll over on Tuesday, and then topped it off by narrowly avoiding a choke against Boston’s JV Squad. Doc Rivers couldn’t just put his starters back in for a three-point game with under two minutes to play? They were playing the Nets – a team that has owned them the past three seasons – and they couldn’t muster up the will to kick an arch rival to the curb? Despicable. Now the Nets’ luck continues as Shaq looks gimpy for the playoffs. They will still lose.
The Pick: Heat over Nets 4-2.
The Impact Player: Once Shaq comes back, it’s all over.
Watch for: Vince Carter to fake an injury as soon as D-Wade gets up in his grill.
Subplot: Mourning plays against the team that traded him after he started complaining, and Richard Jefferson tries to complete a stirring comeback.
5. Seattle Supersonics. I anticipated the Sonics being a popular upset pick, but as soon as Houston moved in front of Sacramento, people started taking Seattle in the first round. I still don’t see them advancing. Not to be rude, but the Sonics seem to be just about the worst #3 seed of all time. Well, accept for the Celtics. In fact, this new divisional alignment has created riveting 3-6 matchups, because the third seed is not even close to the third best team in each conference. Here, a dinged up Seattle team gets a beyond-dinged up Sacramento team, so anything is possible. There will be a ton of jumpers and some pretty poor defense, meaning it will be fun to watch. I think the return of Bobby Jackson is more than enough to get the Kings over the top, as he negates the impact of Antonio Daniels off the Seattle bench. If the Sonics had Lewis at full strength (he’s not even close) and Radmonovich available, I’d be more inclined to take them here.
The Pick: Kings over Sonics 4-2.
The Impact Player: Cuttino Mobley breaks out his slump in a huge way, outscoring Ray Allen in several games.
Watch for: The health of everyone from Daniels to Rashard Lewis to Brad Miller to Peja Stojakovich to Brian Skinner to … well, you get the idea.
Subplot: Kenny Thomas and Darius Songaila are underrated rebounders and will have their work cut out against Reggie Evans, Nick Collison, and Danny Fortson.
6. Dallas Mavericks. People are all over the Mavs right now, which is ironic, because it’s the same people who are begging for Nash to win MVP. If the Mavs are a team with more than 50 wins and a hot sleeper pick to win the West, how could they possibly be doing this after losing the Most Valuable Player in the entire league? It makes no sense. Regardless, the Mavs do have a team that is better constructed for the playoffs and I was all set to make them my playoff darling … until they drew the Rockets. In fact, I picked the Mavs to reach the Western Conference Finals in my preseason picks. So it’s not that I’m hating on Dallas. I love Dirk’s all-around game, Josh Howard’s athleticism, Jason Terry’s shooting and defense, Jerry Stackhouse’s ability to get to the line – it’s all very nice. Unfortunately, the Kings played like crap down the stretch and fell out of the fifth spot. The Rockets and Mavs both deserve to be playing in the second round and neither the Kings or the Sonics do, so it’s a huge injustice that the first round matchups fell this way. It is what it is though, and I’ve got to take the Rockets here. For all Dallas’ versatility and improved defense, Houston is the sleeping giant in this year’s postseason.
The Pick: Rockets over Mavericks 4-2.
The Impact Player: Dallas has no answer for Tracy McGrady; he will get their best wing player, Howard, in foul trouble every night.
Watch for: The battle of the bench. Dallas gets a lot of pub for guys like Stackhouse, Daniels, and Van Horn, but they also play the likes of Shawn Bradley and rookie Devin Harris. The Rockets have vets like Jon Barry, Mike James, and Mutombo to bolster the starters.
Subplot: In a battle for some Texas bragging rights, Dirk and T-Mac will wage a personal scoring duel every night. This is the first round series to watch in regard to entertainment value.
7. Washington Wizards. Nobody is giving the Bulls a chance, but I think the Wizards will fall apart in the clincher. Chicago is a team that never gives an inch and won’t beat themselves, whereas the Wizards are up and down and erratic. Arenas could go 4-for-20 on any given night, the big guys are soft, and the bench is horrible. The Bulls are deep and tough and have plenty of guys that can find a way to score if Hinrich and Gordon are off the mark. Washington’s superior talent (the Hughes-Arenas backcourt is incredible) will take this the distance, but home court advantage and superior toughness will lift the Bulls into the second round.
The Pick: Bulls 4-3.
The Impact Player: Tyson Chandler is one of the five best rebounders in the game already and he will dominate the Wizards on the backboards.
Watch for: Hughes’ D against Gordon’s O in the fourth quarter.
Subplot: Two of the turnaround teams go head-to-head. Who would have thought that we’d be assured of either the Wizards or Bulls reaching the second round?
8. Philadelphia 76ers. I almost picked the Sixers, I really did. They are being overlooked just because they drew the defending champs in round one. However, if anybody saw that Sixers-Pistons game a few weeks ago, you know that Philly presents some matchup problems. Igoudala gives them their own version of Tayshaun Prince, Mark Jackson hits the 15-foot jumper and will pull the Wallaces out of the lane, Samuel Dalembert is athletic and rangy, and Kyle Korver can stretch defenses. And of course there’s AI. He’s been so good down the stretch that I’m changing my MVP vote (see my blog at http://wisinsider.blogspot.com). The Pistons are a great playoff team and its doubtful that they would allow anyone to knock them out in the first round, but this is not the done deal that some people think it is. Before they gave up against Charlotte on the final night, Detroit won 17 of their final 21 games. One of those losses was a 101-84 shellacking at the hands of this Philadelphia team. I’m telling you, this one is going to be wild.
The Pick: Pistons over Sixers 4-3.
The Impact Player: Iverson plays huge, but Rip Hamilton’s D and mid range offense is the difference in Game 7.
Watch for: Samuel Dalembert to make a lot of money in this series; he will show off his athleticism and see his price tag go way up.
Subplot: Can AI find a way to stick it to his crotchety old former coach?
9. Chicago Bulls. I’ll go ahead and list the Bulls as the first team to go down in the second round for a couple of reasons: 1) D-Wade owns Hinrich. 2) There’s a pretty good chance they won’t even be in the second round, so it makes sense to boot them early. 3) The absence of Eddy Curry finally hits home, as they lose their big body to bang with Shaq. It will go down as a tremendous season for the Bulls, but it ends here.
The Pick: Heat over Bulls 4-1.
The Impact Player: This will be Dwyane Wade’s biggest series.
Watch for: Skiles to shorten the bench and rid the rotation of guys like Adrian Griffin.
Subplot: Shaq’s most significant injury this season occurred in Chicago; he’ll be casting a wary eye in Othella Harrington’s direction.
10. San Antonio Spurs. I know I’m going to regret this one. The Spurs are one of the heavy favorites to win it all, so there is very little chance they will be out by the second round. However, I am feeling a resurgence by Sac-Town. They seem like the overlooked team that catches a lucky break in regard to seeding, gets healthy at the right time, and makes a run. Bibby is always good for two wins, no matter what. Cuttino Mobley is an enormous upgrade over Doug Christie at the two. Brad Miller should by back in action by the second round. Kenny Thomas and Brian Skinner give them great activity and depth in the frontcourt. Bobby Jackson is back in the mix. Peja should be fine. Honestly, I can already see the ESPN headline of “Return of the Kings” after they topple the Spurs and advance to the Western Conference Finals. I really believe this could happen. If Duncan was at full strength and Ginobili played 40 minutes a night, I might stick with San Antonio, but this has been feeling like a lost season for them for about a month now. Plus, I think the officials are finally going to start calling Bruce Bowen for fouls. That’s why the Kings are my big, bold pick of 2005.
The Pick: Kings over Spurs 4-2.
The Impact Player: Bobby Jackson plays big minutes and carves up the Spurs’ reserve guards.
Watch for: Mike Bibby to show Tony Parker what being a big time point guard is all about.
Subplot: Ginobili has the chance to bury Peja in the ongoing “best foreign perimeter player” competition.
11. Detroit Pistons. My drugs must be kicking in, because I’m ousting both the Pistons and the Spurs in the second round. Here’s my rational. I’m not picking these teams to win it all anyway, so why not have some fun and make some bold picks? It’s certainly better than throwing out a Miami-Detroit-San Antonio-Phoenix final four like everybody else. Besides, what better way for the Pacers to send Reggie Miller off and atone for the brawl than by beating Detroit? Sure, they might not make it out of The Palace alive should they win a Game 7, but it would still be a story for the ages. And in all seriousness, Indiana can get this done. (I’m loving the “get it done” variations, by the way. Whenever I can’t come up with a creative way to say “win the game” I just go into Digger Phelps mode. Thanks, Digger.) Jermaine O’Neal looked awesome in the second half against the Bulls the other day, Reggie Miller is twice the player he was last year, Dale Davis is a big upgrade at center, Stephen “I Make Love to Pressure” really does make big shots and provides toughness and athleticism on the wing (and a healthy dose of insanity), and Anthony Johnson has really flourished. I wasn’t a Johnson believer, but he’s been hitting big shots and playing great defense. Throw in a deep bench that features Fred and James Jones, Pollard, Foster, Croshere, and will add Jamaal Tinsley, and I think Indiana can make a run through the East. As for the Pistons, their defense, their pride, and Tayshaun Prince will carry them to three wins and might just get them to the conference finals, but they are not the same team this year. Ben Wallace has been strong as of late, but compare his numbers to last year – it’s not even close. Rip Hamilton is off his game. Rasheed Wallace has had a down year. Larry Brown has missed games and threatened to leave this summer and started ridiculous rumors. The bench is way down from a year ago. Only Billups and Prince look as good or better than last year. I know Detroit was hot down the stretch, but they just don’t look ready to defend this thing. Indiana wants it more.
The Pick: Pacers over Pistons 4-3.
The Impact Player: Stephen Jackson isn’t Artest, but he gives Indiana a similar (read: crazy) edge this time around.
Watch for: Rasheed Wallace’s shot selection. If his hammy is 100% and he’s scoring on the block, Detroit is probably fine. If he’s casting threes and leaving all the low post scoring to Prince, the door is open for the Pacers.
Subplot: Obviously, The Brawl will be mentioned once or twice here.
12. Houston Rockets. Okay, time to ease off the upset picks. I believe Houston is good enough to win the West, but I don’t think they believe they are good enough. Does that make sense? Regardless, they will take the Suns to the wire in a series that features mismatches on both sides of the court. Amare will struggle with Yao, but Yao has no prayer of guarding Amare. Phoenix can’t stop T-Mac and the Sura/James point guard duo will bully Nash a little bit, but Houston has no answers for Marion or Joe Johnson. It should add up to some intense games and wild fourth quarters. In the end though, the Suns will advance. “Don’t say it, Mr. Trump!” Houston, you’re fired.
The Pick: Suns over Rockets 4-3.
The Impact Player: Shawn Marion will destroy Houston’s power forwards on one end and do some work on T-Mac on the other.
Watch for: The durability of the Phoenix starters. Marion and Johnson have played a ton of minutes, Q is injury prone, and Nash could go down at any minute ala Cassell in last year’s Western Conference Finals.
Subplot: Houston and San Antonio are the two Western Conference teams that can dictate tempo and frustrate Phoenix’s game plan. Whoever wins the style of play battle will win the war.
(Conference Finals/Round Three)
13. Indiana Pacers. It all comes to an end here. After the emotional Detroit series, the Pacers are subjected to merciless pounding at the hands of Shaq. If I remember correctly, Dale Davis tried to stop Shaq in the 2000 Finals. Yeah, that worked well. The Pacers’ best hope is to use all 18 fouls between Davis, Pollard, and Foster and make Shaq shoot 25 free throws every night. Not only do the Pacers have to contend with Shaq, they have no one to guard Wade, and the Heat have Haslem and Eddie Jones to defend Jermaine and Reggie. This is going to be fairly brutal, I’m afraid.
The Pick: Heat over Pacers 4-2.
The Impact Player: Udonis Haslem was in Jermaine’s dome a few nights ago and will be the key guy in bringing Indiana’s offense to a grinding halt.
Watch for: Damon Jones to hit all the back-breaking threes.
Subplot: Rematch of a wild second round matchup from last year.
14. Sacramento Kings. All good things must come to an end. I believe that the Kings could actually beat the Suns, but the likelihood of them making it to the NBA Finals is very slim, so I’m dropping them off here. Bibby will destroy Nash nightly and if Miller is healthy he will give the Suns’ frontline some problems, but Phoenix is so athletic and long on the wings with Q, Johnson, and Marion that I think they will really make it tough for Mobley and Peja to stroke threes. This would be a terribly exciting series regardless of the outcome.
The Pick: Suns over Kings 4-3.
The Impact Player: Joe Johnson will play a huge role in guarding Peja and creating on offense during crunch time. He’s their best perimeter athlete and one-on-one player.
Watch for: Barbosa getting big minutes off the bench to try to slow down Bibby’s offensive assault.
Subplot: The two highest scoring teams in basketball will put up a ton of points, but it will be the squad that can get defensive stops in crunch time that wins the series. I think Johnson and Marion are good enough individual defenders to rise to the occasion.
15. Phoenix Suns. Last year I took some late gambles and wound up missing both Finals picks. This year I made most of my upset picks in the earlier rounds with the hopes that one of my final two teams – Miami and Phoenix – will at least make it to the championship series. If it does turn out to be the Suns and Heat, we are in for a treat. Wade and Shaq against the highest scoring team of the decade. Size and strength against speed and athleticism. Most people don’t think the Suns can reach the Finals, but I believe that they will be better on D in the playoffs. Why stop people when you can score 130 points in the regular season? They’ve got some great athletes and a veteran off the bench in Jim Jackson, so I think they can and will win the West. However, if they run into Shaq in the Finals, they will give way. I think Shaq knows that the time is now. Prior to the season, the talk was about Miami being a legit threat to win it all in 2006 or later, but with Duncan dinged up and the Pistons misfiring here and there, the door has opened for the Heat to win earlier than expected. When you factor in the surprising seasons of guys like Haslem and Damon Jones and the veteran presence of Eddie Jones and Alonzo Mourning, they have more than enough around Shaq and Wade to run the table.
The Pick: Heat over Suns 4-2.
The Impact Player: Alonzo Mourning has had the chance to get back into the flow and he will absolutely kill Stephen Hunter when the bench comes into play, but the biggest impact player is Shaq, of course.
Watch for: Shaq’s health. Everything rides on him being on the floor.
Subplot: The two biggest offseason acquisitions go head to head.
16. Miami Heat. Miami, you’re hired.
Adam Hoff is a columnist for WhatifSports.com and a member of the Fantasy Sports Writers of America. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.