Tuesday, May 31, 2011

NBA Playoffs: The Finals

#2 Miami Heat vs. #3 Dallas Mavericks

Miami and Dallas, carrying identical 12-3 playoff records into the championship series, have been playing their best basketball of the season these past few weeks. The Heat have been downright incredible, getting by each Philadelphia, Boston, and Chicago in only five games. The Mavericks, meanwhile, have been riding the Dirk Nowitzki train to defeat Portland, the Lakers, and Oklahoma City. Both of these squads are very deserving of reaching the finals, but now it is time to see which one will emerge as champion. Let's look at some key factors in play.

Miami

1. The Big Three

The production of LeBron, D-Wade, and CB will be critical to Miami's championship success. One thing is for certain...if The Big Three continues to play at their established playoff level, it is going to be very hard for Dallas to win this series. It all starts (and ends) with LeBron James. After struggling mightily during the regular season in late-game situations, LBJ has been absolutely masterful when the stakes have been at their highest. Single-handedly closing out games, LeBron has left no doubt that he is the best all-around player in the game today. In addition to LeBron's unbelievable performances, Chris Bosh has stepped up his play when it has mattered most. CB totally dominated the Bulls and appears to feel more comfortable every day in the Miami scheme. His play in this series will be of particular importance because he is likely to be matched up with Dirk Nowitzki a good portion of the time. And let us not forget about D-Wade. Although his game has been sub-par from an individual standpoint thus far, he is extremely dangerous and capable of erupting at any point in time. In any case, The Big Three's success, or lack thereof, may be the biggest determining factor in the outcome of this series.

2. Management of Personnel

Coach Erik Spoelstra has many difficult decisions to make. Who will start guarding Dirk? Who will be switched on to Dirk? At what times will LeBron be in charge of covering Dirk? How will the pick-and-roll be guarded? How will the rotation be handled? Will LBJ and D-Wade rest at alternate times? Or perhaps they won't get any rest at all? These questions all need to be answered the right way for Miami to have its best chance at winning the championship. Dirk Nowitzki has been unstoppable in these playoffs and how Miami chooses to match up with him will be of the utmost importance. They have four candidates to guard him: Chris Bosh, Joel Anthony, Udonis Haslem, and LBJ. While the three power forwards will bang on Dirk throughout most of the contest, look for LeBron to guard him in crucial situations. LeBron not only loves challenges but he also has the size, strength, and mobility to potentially make things difficult for the 7-foot German. Furthermore, Spoelstra will have to pick the right times to give his studs some rest. Dallas has an incredibly talented bench and this series could ultimately hinge on Spoeltra's substitution decisions.

3. No Second Shots

In order to win the series, the Heat will have to shore up the defensive glass and impede Dallas from getting multiple looks at the basket. The Mavericks have significant offensive rebounding threats - Tyson Chandler, Brendan Haywood, Dirk Nowitzki, Shawn Marion, and Jason Kidd first come to mind- and, due to the bevy of shooters on their roster, are extremely dangerous when given second chances. Miami's big men will have their work cut out for them but they will also need to receive help from the smalls to get the job done. Heat defenders must make an effort to stay in proper defensive position, make the right rotations, and get a body on the offensive player for which they are responsible. Not only will this prevent Dallas from having more scoring opportunities, but it will also allow the Heat to get out in transition and take advantage of the brilliant open-court players they have on their roster. If Miami does indeed win the battle of the boards, it bodes well for them and their chances to become the 2011 NBA champs.

Dallas

1. Dirk Nowitzki

The fortunes of the Mavericks ride on the broad shoulders of Dirk Nowitzki. Dirk's post-season play thus far has been matched by few in the entire history of the league. His outside shooting touch is the best of any 7-foot player ever, and his ability to knock down free throws is unparalleled (24-24 in game one against OKC!). Nate McMillan, Phil Jackson, and Scott Brooks all tried to find ways to limit Dirk's production - none of them had any sort of success at all. As the Mavericks have advanced to play better competition, things should have been getting tougher and tougher for Dirk but that has simply not been the case. After torturing both the Trailblazers and Lakers, Dirk was absolutely out of this world against the Thunder (who seemingly had the best personnel to deal with him). Much like OKC, Miami has multiple bodies to throw at him and will try to wear him down. They will attack him, trap him, and do whatever they have to do to get the ball out of his hands. But will any of it matter? After all, Dirk has shown great patience, a willingness to share the ball, and unbelievable shot-making ability. The one thing that will matter is Dirk playing in his accustomed manner, because if he does not Dallas has no shot against the uber-talented Heat.

2. The Bench

Jason Terry, J.J. Barea, Peja Stojakovic, and Brendan Haywood have been a fundamental part of Dallas' playoff success. While Terry and Stojakovic provide scoring from the exterior, Haywood gives the Mavericks a physical presence down low. That brings us to Barea. The diminutive point guard's ability to beat defenses via dribble penetration has enabled him to completely take over games. Despite Barea's incredibly small stature, not one player has found a way to stay in front of him or even contest his shots throughout these playoffs. Although he has been the most heralded bench player for the Mavericks, Jason Terry will prove to be the most important in this series. Terry is just one of two Mavs (Dirk is the other) to remain from the 2006 Finals' run, and The Jet is more motivated than ever to get it done this time. He, too, possesses the ability to take over ball games. Terry is an adept scorer that can not only light it up from beyond the arc but also from mid-range. If The Jet is able to get on one of his streaks, it could mean lights out for Miami.

3. Defense

The Mavericks, not too long ago, were referred to as Allas because there was no "D" in the big D. Although Coach Rick Carlisle, when hired, brought with him a defensive-first mentality, the Mavericks did not have the necessary personnel to carry out Carlisle's defensive missions right away. That changed this season when the Mavs acquired the 7'1" Chandler. "Big Ty" gives the Mavericks the length, agility, and determination that was needed on the interior. He is an outstanding defensive rebounder, tremendous shot blocker, and plays with a certain swagger that elevates the confidence of his teammates. His energy on the offensive end should not be discounted either; it is often his rebounds, put backs, and alley-oop dunks that begin game-changing runs made by the Mavericks. Chandler's contributions will be critical, but he will also need help from the rest of his gang. Carlisle will certainly implement the zone defense at times, but how effective will it be against the Heat? The bottom line is that LBJ, D-Wade, and Chris Bosh provide extraordinary challenges for Dallas' man-to-man and zone defenses. If the Mavericks can find ways to contain them, Mark Cuban and Company could very well be hoisting the championship trophy within two weeks time.

Things I am wondering:

Dallas has won their last five playoff road games while Miami was gone 8-0 at home this post-season. What will give in this series?

In the 2006 Finals Dwyane Wade lived at the foul line. In these playoffs, Dirk Nowitzki has done the same. What team will get to the foul line more often and what impact will it have on the outcome?

In their 9-man rotation, Dallas has a combined 103 years of playing experience but no championships. Will that lack of experience hurt them, help them, or play no role whatsoever?

Prediction:

Dallas and Miami are both playing at an exceptionally high level. Dirk's performances have been legendary, and LBJ's talents have totally set him apart from rest of the league. The Mavericks have the personnel and coaching to get it done....but so do the Heat. So what will happen? Given the way Miami has jelled over the last several weeks, I find it very hard for Dallas to beat the Heat in a seven-game series. Look for Miami's athleticism and superstar-power to win out in six marvelous games.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

NBA Playoffs: Western Conference Semifinals

#3 Dallas Mavericks vs. #4 Oklahoma City Thunder

The Mavericks played brilliant basketball in their sweep of the two-time champion Los Angeles Lakers. The Thunder, meanwhile, had to scrap and paw to eliminate the spirited Memphis Grizzlies in a thrilling seven-game series. Basketball fans are set to witness two of the most unique players to ever step foot on the court in this one. Dirk Nowitzki and Kevin Durant are long, mobile, and have the ability to score from anywhere on the court. They also have very talented supporting casts, making this a near even match up and one very difficult to predict. Whatever scenario unravels, it should be scintillating to watch. Here are some key factors for both squads.

Dallas

1. Dirk Nowitzki

The 7-foot German is the biggest piece of the puzzle for the Mavericks. They rely on him to carry the offensive load and always look to him in the most crucial moments. Dirk was absolutely tremendous against the Lakers in their semifinal series. Phil Jackson, the most successful coach in league history, could not even figure out ways to stop him. Nowitzki's ability to make outlandishly difficult shots makes him nearly impossible to cover. What kind of defensive looks, therefore, will the Thunder throw at him? Will Serge Ibaka and Nick Collison be able to get the job done on him or will Scott Brooks need to come up with some creative schemes to limit Dirk's production? Dirk was almost a non-factor during the three regular season meetings between these teams as he was injured in the second contest (12/27/10) and did not even play in the third (1/6/11). This gives the advantage to the Mavericks (who happened to win two of the three) simply because Oklahoma City has not seen a lot of him this year. Rest assured, Dirk is obligated to have at least four big games for Dallas to advance to the NBA Finals.

2. Defense

The Mavericks' defensive effort is of the utmost importance in this series as they will have to do something that has not been done thus far in the playoffs: find ways to slow down one of the most explosive offenses in the league. Oklahoma City presents Dallas with some very specific challenges. Does Shawn Marion have enough spry in his step to continuously chase Kevin Durant off screens? Does the 38-year old Jason Kidd be have enough foot speed to stay in front of the extremely quick Russell Westbrook? And what will they do with Westbrook in pick-and-roll situations? Rick Carlisle is known as a defensive guy and Dallas has finally shaken the reputation of being soft in this department (give the credit to Tyson Chandler for making that shift). Carlisle is going to have to make some very difficult decisions in regards to match ups and tactics, and the choices he makes will definitely have an impact on the outcome of the series.

3. Interior play

Dallas does not necessarily have to outscore OKC inside the paint - cancelling them out will be good enough - but they will definitely need to outrebound the Thunder to advance. This is where Tyson Chandler has to make his presence felt. His numbers have dipped from 9.4 rebounds per game to 8.7 thus far in the playoffs despite his minutes being increased. That said, he averaged a phenomenal 15.3 rebounds in the three contests against OKC this regular season. His rebounding production, along with Nowitzki's and Marion's, will be crucial. Dallas simply cannot afford the Thunder to get multiple shots at the basket (if you are unsure why, just watch OKC's game seven victory against Memphis). One big thing to look for is how well the Mavericks rebound when they implement their zone defense. It is much harder to box out when being assigned an area rather than a person, so look for Oklahoma City to crash the offensive boards even harder when Dallas goes zone. If Dallas does a good job of shoring up the glass, they will increase their chances of winning greatly.

Oklahoma City

1. Kevin Durant/Russell Westbrook

We have seen all season just how important these guys are to the success of their team. Durant is the best scorer in the league and when he gets his shots the Thunder are extremely difficult to beat. That said, KD's production depends largely on what type of game his playmaker decides to play. If Westbrook is forcing the issue too often, which has been the case frequently in these playoffs, it is not only to the detriment of Durant but also the Thunder as a whole. Although Westbrook is an incredibly gifted scorer, OKC is at their best when he looks to be a facilitator first (again, watch game 7 against Memphis if you are unsure why). Westbrook is going to be under an immense media microscope throughout the series and his decision making will be heavily scrutinized. He will have to recognize what Dallas' defense is giving him and pick his spots accordingly. The Thunder's success, or lack thereof, will largely be determined by the choices their 2nd team All-NBA player makes.

2. The bench

James Harden, Nick Collison, Nazr Mohammed, Daequan Cook, and Eric Maynor have delivered consistently throughout these playoffs. Rest assured, they will have to do it again to beat Dallas. Harden and Collison, above all, will have to continue to provide an immense spark off the bench. Harden is capable of taking over games at times due to his energy and shot making ability. He has always been able to run the court and finish in transition, but now he is showing an improved ability to knock down long-range jumpers off the bounce making him increasingly difficult to guard. Most importantly, the Thunder tend to win when he plays well. Collison, meanwhile, does his work on the glass and defensive end of the floor. Collison demonstrated just how valuable he can be in game 7 against Memphis. Through hustle and determination, he did a tremendous job of disrupting the flow of Grizzlies' star forward Zach Randolph. He will be called upon to do the same thing against Dirk Nowitzki in this series. Their play, along with the rest of their bench cohorts, will be critical to the success of OKC.

3. Playing with composure

The Thunder are in uncharted waters. They took a big step last year in making it to the playoffs, and now, all of a sudden, they find themselves just four wins away from playing for the whole enchilada. Will Scott Brooks be able to keep his young core players calm in the most heated of moments? Let us not forget that Durant and Westbrook are 22 years old (not to mention that Harden and Ibaka are only 21!). It is true that KD and RW have meaningful big-game experience from last year's World Championships. A much different dynamic was in effect, however, because they were surrounded by some of the best players America has to offer. Brooks will need his two studs to transmit an atmosphere of tranquility at all times. That is much easier said than done, especially when the stakes are at their highest. What if things go badly for OKC? Will they be able to re-group quickly? Dallas, who made it to the NBA Finals in 2006, has a veteran-laden team. Five years ago a few of OKC's players were trying to figure out who to take to prom. How the Thunder are able to deal with adversity may determine whether they ultimately proceed to play on basketball's largest stage.

Things I am wondering:

Will the 8-day layoff between games affect Dallas and will Oklahoma City be worn down at all from their series against Memphis?

How important will Jason Kidd, Jason Terry, and J.J. Barea turn out to be when it is all said and done?

Caron Butler has been out since being injured on January 2. If he is healthy enough to play will Carlisle elect to use him? If so, how effective will he be and what impact will he have on the team's chemistry? (Remember Orlando's precarious situation with Jameer Nelson in the NBA Finals in 2009?)

Prediction:

Dallas has hunger, depth, length, and veteran leadership. In addition, they have not lost since blowing a 23-point point second-half lead against Portland in the first round. The Mavericks, with their dismantling of the Lakers, appear to be a team that is poised to make a championship run. I look for their experience to prevail over the youthful Thunder in a fantastic seven-game series.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

NBA Playoffs: Eastern Conference Finals

#1 Chicago Bulls vs. #2 Miami Heat

While it took six games for Chicago to ouster Atlanta, Miami only needed five to dispose of Boston. Both teams looked better as their series progressed which makes this match up even more intriguing than it was projected to be. Highlighting it, of course, will be the enormous talents of Derrick Rose, Dwayne Wade, and LeBron James, arguably the top three all-around players in the league. Buckle up and get ready because it is going to be fascinating to watch. Let's look at some key factors at play for each team.

Chicago

1. Derrick Rose

After experiencing two very physical rounds of playoff basketball, will Rose's body be able to endure the incredible demand being placed on it? And if so, how successful will he be? For Chicago to beat Miami, Rose is going to have to deliver some amazing performances. The Bulls rely so much on the playmaker to create scoring opportunities for himself and others. Playing against such a dangerous transition team he will have to take great care of the ball and consistently make the right choices. Miami, like all teams, will have a very hard time matching up with Rose. Look for the Heat to throw myriad defenders at him in attempt to wear/slow him down. The Heat will also likely trap Rose in pick-and-roll situations to force him to pick up his dribble and relinquish possession of the ball. Whatever Miami's defense does, the league's MVP will have to figure out ways to combat and overcome their defensive tactics. Points will be at a premium in this series and Rose will have to get 30 for the Bulls to contend.

2. Defense

Coach Tom Thibodeau, true to his coaching philosophy, has done and excellent job of instilling a defensive mindset in all of his players. In addition to relying on Rose to create their offense, the Bulls also count heavily on their ferocious, ball-hawking defense to produce scoring chances. Chicago has answered the challenge all season long, but will they be able to stop the Heat when it matters most? That question looms large, especially given the recent success of the Miami's offense against Boston. Look for the Bulls to pack it in, attempt to cut off all penetration angles, and force the Heat to take perimeter jumpers. Transition defense will be of particular importance as Miami has two of the best open-court players in the game. Chicago can help their own cause by limiting turnovers, selecting good shots, and rotating when penetration occurs to ensure having somebody back on the defensive end. Luol Deng, Keith Bogans, and the reserve wing players will no doubt have their hands full with LeBron and D-Wade. The Bulls' ability/inability to prevent the two superstars from getting easy looks will be a determining factor in the outcome of this series.

3. Interior play

Quite simply, Chicago's bigs are going to have to outplay Miami's bigs. The best way for the Bulls big men to make an impact is through their work on the offensive glass. Chicago is a team known for its hustle, and they will have to continue to work diligently to give themselves as many second chance scoring opportunities as possible. The Bulls offensive rebounding will not only make the Heat expend more energy on the defensive end of the floor, but it will also prevent Miami from getting out in the open court where they are most dangerous. Carlos Boozer's importance in this series cannot be overemphasized. Although Boozer had an exceptional 23 point, 10 rebound, 5 assist performance in game six against Atlanta, he has struggled throughout these playoffs. It is imperative for him to be more productive than Chris Bosh. That will not, however, be enough for the Bulls to claim victory. Boozer must receive help from the bench core and his counterpart in the starting lineup, Joakim Noah, will have to be an absolute monster on both ends for the Bulls to come out on top.

Miami

1. Team chemistry

The chemistry issue has been at the forefront of Miami Heat conversations all season long. Suddenly, after one five-game series against the almighty Boston Celtics, it appears as though Erik Spoelstra and his squad have finally figured things out....or have they? It is true that LeBron, D-Wade, and CB look more comfortable than ever in their roles. It is also true that Miami is getting timely contributions from bench players. But will these things continue? The question begs to be asked not only because Chicago is such a formidable defensive team, but also because the Bulls can challenge the Heat in ways that Boston could not (namely with youth, length, athleticism, and the insatiable hunger of a want-to-be-champion). To win, LeBron and D-Wade will have to keep choosing the right moments to 1) assert themselves, 2) defer to the other, and 3) get somebody else involved. Chris Bosh will, furthermore, have to cancel out Carlos Boozer on both ends of the floor. And the supporting casting cast will have to to step up and deliver when Spoelstra calls upon them to do so. If the Heat can just maintain their newly found on-court harmony, look for them to represent the East in the NBA Finals.

2. Getting to the foul line

Miami actually attempted and converted more free throws than Chicago in all three of their regular season games yet the Heat managed to lose all three. If that is the case, one wonders, then why on earth would this statistic matter now? First and foremost, it matters because the playoffs have nothing to do with the regular season. The three previous contests are of no relevance because the Heat, after having gone through so many tribulations, are a much different (and better) team now. Secondly, it matters because basketball is a game that favors the aggressor and the number of free throws Miami attempts will be indicative of their offensive mindset. The Heat are at their best when they attack the hoop. By constantly putting pressure on the Chicago defense, things will open up for Mike Bibby, James Jones, and Mike Miller on the exterior. Miami will then have multiple scoring options, thus making it extremely difficult for them to be stopped.

3. Rebounding

Nearly everyone agrees that defense and rebounding are the keys to winning championships. That being said, Miami will have to win the battle of the boards to beat the Bulls. Chicago's work on the offensive glass is one of the biggest reasons for their success. Miami can greatly hinder the Bulls' ability to score by not allowing them to get offensive rebounds. Noah and Boozer, in particular, work relentlessly and feast off getting easy second chance points. Chris Bosh and Joel Anthony must keep these two off the glass while LeBron and D-Wade use their quickness and athleticism to swoop in and put an end to Chicago's possessions. Excellent positioning and effort are an absolute must. Look for Erik Spoelstra to emphasize the importance of this aspect throughout the series as it could very well determine which team advances.

Things I am wondering:

Who will step up for Chicago in crunch time when Miami forces the ball out of Derrick Rose's hands?

Will LeBron and D-Wade play off each other as well as they did against Boston?

What kind of adjustments will be implemented by Thibodeau and Spoelstra as the series progresses?

Prediction:

Chicago is so reliant on Rose that it is going to be difficult for them to overcome Miami's talent. That said, the Bulls could win if they get to the foul line more and get more second chance points. I just don't see that happening four out of seven games. Miami advances in six.


Sunday, May 1, 2011

NBA Playoffs: Western Conference Semifinals

#2 Los Angeles Lakers vs. #3 Dallas Mavericks

The Lakers had to battle New Orleans in the first round while Dallas managed to put away a Portland team in six games. The two-time defending champions, despite their struggles with consistency, are still the favorite to come out of the Western Conference. Here are some key things to look for in this series for each franchise.

Los Angeles

1. Andrew Bynum

Will the big guy be able to stay healthy? This is a huge question not only because he has proven repeatedly to be a fragile commodity, but also because the Lakers are so much better with him than they are without him. After coming back from injury this season, Bynum has undergone somewhat of a metamorphosis. Due in large part to the adjustment of his attitude, the Lakers went on to win 17 of 18 games after the All-Star break. Simply put, his value to the organization increased dramatically once he committed himself to being a defender and rebounder. As evidenced by his play, Bynum's size, length, and athleticism can cause all kinds of problems for opposing teams, and Dallas will be no exception. The tremendous advantage that Bynum gives the Lakers on the inside could come crashing down, however, with something as small as one misstep on the playing surface.

2. Kobe Bryant

Kobe's desire to win is matched by none. He has a competitive fire that burns higher than any of his colleagues or peers. That said, sometimes a person's biggest strength is their biggest weakness. This is certainly the case for Kobe Bean Bryant. What will Kobe do if his teammates are not performing up to his high standards? Yes, he has matured and become a much better leader as he has aged, but is he still capable to "break off" from the group, go rogue, and navigate turbulent waters by himself. What kind of effect will that have on everybody, especially now that it is harder for Kobe to accomplish things by his lonesome? I am not doubting Kobe's capacity to win games as he is still the best closer out there. That said, there is always a fine line when determining to either play through teammates or take the game over individually. It is up to Kobe to decide when those times are....and it will be interesting to see what choices he makes.

3. Playing with a sense of urgency

The Lakers always seem to sputter this time of year, but yet they always manage to find a way to win in the end. Their margin of error will be much thinner for this series than it was in the first round with New Orleans, last year with Oklahoma City, or two years ago with Houston. Dallas has talent, size, and depth that none of these other squads had. In addition, they have an incredible offensive threat and one of the best shooters of all time in Dirk Nowitzki. L.A. could make it a lot easier on themselves if they jump on the Mavericks right away (Dallas' recent playoff history indicates a tendency to fold). Unlike past years, a game one loss at Staples Center may prove to be too much for L.A. to overcome. It is very important that the Lakers set the tone from the outset by immediately playing with a sense of urgency.

Dallas

1. Teamwork/Execution

The Mavericks will have to be functioning on all cylinders as a group to have a chance at the upset. Each individual will have to excel at whatever their specialty may be. Dirk Nowitzki, Jason Terry, Jason Kidd, and Peja Stojakovic need to knock down perimeter shots. Tyson Chandler and Brendan Haywood will have to clog up the middle, rebound, and make Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum work really hard for everything they get. Shawn Marion and DeShawn Stevenson will have to lock up Kobe on the defensive end as well as score when those opportunities emerge. And J.J. Barea will have to be the wildcard that he has proven himself to be. Barea could be a game-changing force due to his ability to break down the defense through dribble penetration (something that the Lakers have struggled with all year). If the stars align and nearly everybody plays well in their respective roles, the Mavericks could win this series.

2. Late game situations (and end of shot clock situations)

The Mavericks can experience problems when the clock is running down and they need to get a basket. When these situations arise, they nearly always isolate Dirk Nowitzki above the free throw line and put the ball in his hands to make something happen. Over time this has gotten to be far too predictable and therefore much too easy to defend. It is up to Coach Rick Carlisle to come up with something more creative that will keep the Lakers off balance. The Mavericks may be better served to put Jason Terry in pick-and-roll or pick-and-pop situation. Another possible solution is to use misdirection, get Nowitzki's defender running, and have Dirk come off baseline screens so he can operate from a different area of the floor. Whatever Carlisle decides to do (or doesn't decide to do), these types of situations will have to be productive for the Mavericks if they are to come out on top.

3. Playing smart basketball

Anytime you are the underdog, you must play at or above your potential to have a chance of beating your opponent. One huge thing the Mavs could do to help increase their odds of winning is to play the game intelligently. For starters, they need to treat every possession like it is gold. This means no sloppy passes, bad shots, or careless turnovers. Jason Kidd's decision making will be of utmost importance as the ball is in his hands most of the time. Dirk Nowitzi will have to recognize the Lakers' defensive schemes and adjust accordingly. Rick Carlisle will have to choose the right times to implement their zone defense and change things up. And perhaps most importantly, Dallas' big men will have to play intense, physical basketball without crossing the threshold of being dirty. The Mavericks can beat L.A. if they keep their emotions in check, consistently make the right plays, and knock down their three-point looks.

Things I am wondering:

What kind of impact will Laker role players Shannon Brown, Matt Barnes, and Steve Blake have?

Will Dallas be able to hold its own on the glass?

How will the Lakers match up with Dirk Nowitzki?

Prediction:

The Lakers, until beaten, are the team to beat. They have too much firepower in their arsenal for the Mavericks to overcome. Lakers advance in 5.

NBA Playoffs: Eastern Conference Semifinals

#1 Chicago Bulls vs. #5 Atlanta Hawks

Virtually nobody expected the Hawks to get by Orlando, but now Atlanta has the incredible opportunity to play the team that compiled the NBA's best record this season. Some awesome talent will be on display, and if the Hawks play at a high level they have a legitimate shot of getting the job done. Here are some key factors for both squads.

Chicago

1. Derrick Rose

Rose, the likely MVP of the league, has carried Chicago all year long. After taking a physical pounding against Indiana (and suffering an ankle sprain), will Rose have enough energy and strength left in his tank to be the dominant player that he has become? As we enter May, all of those bumps, hits, and hard falls from the course of the season take their toll. Will Rose continue to play with reckless abandon or will he think twice about coming down the lane to take a beating from Zaza Pachulia and Al Horford? Rose's aggressiveness will be critical to the Bulls' performance because they have grown to rely on him so much. His ability to create shots for himself and others off the dribble is the catalyst behind the Bulls' attack, and if Rose is limited in any way whatsoever their whole game plan may have to be thrown by the wayside....which could mean disaster.

2. Carlos Boozer

Boozer's struggles against Indiana in the first round were well documented. After averaging 17.5 points on 51% shooting during the regular season, Boozer put up just 10.2 points on 37% shooting against the Pacers. And if that was not bad enough, a turf-toe injury surfaced on his right foot during game 5 that puts both his availability and production in doubt against Atlanta. On the good side, Chicago played a bulk of the season without his services and were quite successful in those games. On the bad side, they have grown accustomed to having Boozer on the floor and run all of their interior plays through him. If he is unable to go, more pressure will be placed on Joakim Noah and Kurt Thomas to deliver on the inside. Despite Carlos' horrible regular season performances against the Hawks this year (2 games, 8.5 points, 5.0 rebounds, and 42% shooting), his low-post presence and production will be needed for the Bulls to advance.

3. Turnovers

One of the big reasons why Chicago had such difficulties beating the 37-win Pacers was because they did a poor job of taking care of the ball. The Bulls averaged over 16 turnovers per game in the 5-game series, and those turnovers led to an average of 21.2 points for the Pacers. If they do the same against Atlanta, they will be punished even more because the Hawks have better finishers in the open court. The Hawks, because of their athleticism, do a good job of covering the court and have the potential to complicate things for Chicago. The danger for Chicago is that sometimes Derrick Rose gets himself into trouble because he tries to do too much. Rose will need to determine what situations to avoid to prevent give-aways from happening that lead to easy scores on the other end. As long as the Bulls do not get turnover happy, they stand an excellence chance to win the series.

Atlanta

1. Finishing

The Hawks are facing a Bulls squad that allowed opponents to connect on a league-low 43.0% of their field goals. This means, quite simply, that Atlanta has to convert on easy scoring opportunities every time they get them. The Hawks can create these opportunities by making steals, blocking shots, grabbing long rebounds, and coming up with the 50-50 balls. The good news is that Larry Drew has a bunch of athletes on his roster that are capable of getting out in the open court and finishing at the hoop. How often these opportunities come around, however, will largely depend on Atlanta's commitment to the defensive end of the floor. This has proved to be a problematic area for the Hawks as they are known to suffer lapses of concentration in this department. In order to pose a threat this series, the Hawks will have to be focused on the task at hand and take full advantage of whatever Chicago gives them.

2. Joe Johnson

Just as Chicago counts on Derrick Rose, Atlanta counts on Joe Johnson. Johnson is one of the best all-around players in the league and he will be called upon to be the creative force behind the Atlanta attack, make plays for himself and others, and deliver in late game situations. This is a huge amount of responsibility for a player that has never fared well in the playoffs while being the go-to-guy. There is evidence to suggest that as Johnson goes, so go the Hawks. In two playoff losses against Orlando, Johnson averaged 9.5 points on 29% shooting. In their four playoff wins, he dropped 22.3 ppg on 43% shooting. This season in three contests against Chicago, he averaged just 13.7 ppg on 39% shooting. His production and efficiency will have to rise significantly for Atlanta to have a chance at knocking off Chicago.

3. Guard play

With Kirk Hinrich likely out for the series due to a strained hamstring, who is going to step up and answer the call for Coach Larry Drew? Will it be Jeff Teague? Jamal Crawford? And who is going to have the responsibilities of guarding Derrick Rose? These are huge question marks to have as the series approaches. Hinrich is known as a gritty defender. He works endlessly to confound the player he is guarding and set the tone for his squad's defense. Now that he is sidelined, that role will have to be embraced by someone else. It probably will not be Crawford as he flourishes in his sixth-man role. That leaves the little used and often forgotten about Jeff Teague. Teague is going to have the challenge of a lifetime, and how well or poorly he fares could have a huge impact on the outcome of this series.

Things I am wondering:

Will Luol Deng's outstanding play against the Hawks this season continue in the playoffs?

Who will have better bench play in the series? And more specifically, will Kyle Korver be called upon to take big 3's, and if so will he keep hitting them?

The Hawks did a great job of defending Orlando, but how well will Atlanta re-adjust their defense to deal with Chicago's attack?

Prediction:

The Bulls, barring injuries, are too much for Atlanta to handle. Chicago, having the first round under their belt and those jitters out of the way, will play better basketball than they did against Indiana. Chi-town wins in five.

Saturday, April 30, 2011

NBA Playoffs: Eastern Conference Semifinals

#2 Miami Heat vs. #3 Boston Celtics

What a treat for basketball fans around the globe! This will no doubt be the most watched conference semifinals match up of all time. It is quite possible that we will be seeing 7 future members of the Hall of Fame competing on the same court in this series. Here are some key factors at play for each team.

Miami

1. Ability to score in the half court and in late game situations

Miami has struggled in these two departments all year long....and now they get to play against the league's stingiest defense (Boston only gave up 91.1 points per game). How well is Miami going to be able to score if Boston does not allow them get out in transition? Coach Erik Spoelstra did not have to worry about this against Philadelphia, but he will against the Celtics. Team defense is a big reason why the C's have made it to two of the last three NBA Finals, and Miami has yet to show that they can beat good half-court defense on a regular basis. The Heat have also failed to get buckets when it matters most. In fact, no team was worse in the entire league at being able to deliver in crunch time. If the Heat cannot find ways to correct their offensive ineptness, they will have a hard time winning the series.

2. Chris Bosh

LeBron James and Dwayne Wade always seem to do what they do, but Chris Bosh is the guy that will have to consistently do what he is capable of doing for the Heat to move on. He is the Heat's one-and-only third scoring option. If he does not deliver, the results could be disastrous for Miami. What complicates matters is that he will have to produce against one of the best defenders in the history of the game, Kevin Garnett. KG is one of a handful that has enough length, strength, and speed to give Bosh nightmares. The way they can try to make Bosh more effective is by putting him in pick-and-pop situations. He will have to be knocking down his jump shot in order to be effective though. By doing that, Garnett will have to respect the shot fake which in turn will open up driving lanes and other scoring opportunities.

3. Defending Rajon Rondo

Rondo is the straw that stirs the drink for the Celtics. He does so many things well and can put pressure on the defense in a variety of ways. More than that, he is an unbelievably gifted playmaker and brilliant decision maker. Who will Spoelstra choose to put on him? Will the Heat lay off Rondo and dare him to shoot jumpers or will they crowd him to take away the passing angles? Rondo demonstrated how overwhelming he can be, torching the New York Knicks for 15 points, 20 assists, and 11 rebounds in game 3 of the series at Madison Square Garden. How much the Heat are able to limit Rondo's effectiveness will go a long way in determining the winner of this series. It will be fascinating to see if the Heat can implement a successful plan....

Boston

1. Taking care of the basketball

The Celtics will not, I repeat, will not win the series if they turn the ball over a lot against the Heat. There is no better team in the open court than Miami as they turn nearly every live ball turnover into two easy points on the other end. Boston can ill afford to take plays off or be complacent. Every possession will have to be treated of exceptional value. They just cannot allow any careless turnovers. This sounds like a simple concept, but it is absolutely the best way to prevent Miami from hurting you. Efficient offensive production will be a key factor for the Celtics to advance.

2. Bench play

The Boston role players are facing the undesirable challenge of trying to prevents run being made when they have to deal with the likes of LeBron James, Dwayne Wade, and Chris Bosh. How will Celtics' bench players Delonte West, Jeff Green, Glen Davis, and Nenad Kristic handle it? Or will Coach Doc Rivers be reluctant to give them much of a chance and thereby rely on his starters to play longer than usual minutes? The Celtics need their bench as much as anybody due to the extreme minutes logged throughout the careers of Garnett, Allen, and Pierce. Jeff Green is the most likely player to shine given the match up against the Heat. He is long, athletic, and could create significant problems for Miami on both ends of the floor. In any case, Boston will want to avoid foul trouble so they don't have to dip into the bench anymore than absolutely needed.

3. Avoiding injury

Anytime you have such a veteran team, injury has to be of concern. As long as Rondo, Garnett, Pierce, and Allen stay healthy, the Celtics have an excellent chance of moving on. They have better team chemistry and a better track record of winning meaningful games (and by meaningful I mean the only meaningful thing.....playoff games). Nothing against Erik Spoelstra, but Boston also has a big game coach. Doc Rivers has an amazing ability to get his players to produce in the most difficult of circumstances. And in late game situations there is nobody better at drawing up plays. The C's have been there, done that. Miami, meanwhile, has accomplished nothing of significance together.

Things I am wondering:

Dwayne Wade averaged just 12.8 points on 28% shooting during the 4 previous encounters this season (of which Boston won 3). Will the Celtics' defensive success continue on one of the league's top talents?

Will there be a fourth guy to step up for the Heat? If so, who will that X-factor be?

Will Ray Allen be allowed to get off shots in late-game situations? (The only reason I ask is because he seems to launch game-winners in every playoff series he plays.)

Prediction:

Seeing these teams play in the playoffs and being reminded of their strengths and weaknesses, I believe the Celtics will advance. They just have a game that is better suited for playoff basketball - not to mention championship experience. It is going to be a fun and exciting six game series. Bring it on!

NBA Playoffs: Western Conference Semifinals

#8 Memphis Grizzlies vs. #4 Oklahoma City Thunder

This is going to be an incredible series to witness. No one is playing more inspired basketball than the Grizzlies right now, and the Thunder are one of the most exciting teams in the league. Let's take a look at the important factors in the series for each squad.

Memphis

1. Team defense

Lionel Hollins and his staff had a great game plan against the Spurs and the players executed it to near perfection. They played an aggressive and attacking style of defense which is ideal for their personnel. The Grizz managed to hold a San Antonio team that had averaged 103.7 points per game during the regular season to just 94.3 ppg. Memphis essentially rendered the Spurs' offense useless by effectively rotating, closing out on shooters, and contesting shots. Memphis also did a fantastic job - especially Tony Allen - of playing the passing lanes, getting steals, and disrupting the overall flow of San Antonio's offense by deflecting the ball repeatedly. Now they are faced with the challenge of defending two-time scoring champ Kevin Durant and explosive point guard Russell Westbrook. Their defense will have to make the same concerted effort to down the Thunder.

2. Zach Randolph

Z-Bo is a veritable superstar. He delivers in crunch time, makes his teammates better, and is more consistent than just about any player in the league (as evidenced by his four consecutive 20/10 seasons). There are a few keys to his success. Randolph understands positioning better than anybody, knows how to create space better than anybody, and is willing to do the work necessary to make it happen. He also has incredible hands, a deft touch, and wonderful creativity for someone that does not possess a lot of athleticism. His complete domination in the last few minutes against the Spurs in the deciding game 6 showed how special he is. Randolph has two excellent reasons to be inordinately confident right now. Not only is he coming off that exceptional first-round series, but he also averaged 26.5 points and 13 rebounds in the four meetings against Oklahoma City this season. This bodes extremely well for Memphis as Z-Bo will have to deliver at a very high level for the Grizz to move on.

3. Bench Play

Memphis has benefited from timely bench contributions:

Darrell Arthur's athleticism gave the Spurs all kinds of problems. He provided the Grizzlies with an emotional spark through his high-flying blocked shots and rim-rocking dunks. He also showed he has the capacity to take over a ball game.

O.J. Mayo can score in bunches and he hit several shots to stop the bleeding against San Antonio. Because of an in-flight incident earlier this season with Tony Allen - which was then a distraction - O.J. has matured at a much quicker rate. His acceptance of coming off the bench has made him a valuable commodity.

The fortunes of the Grizzlies changed dramatically once Shane Battier arrived in late February. Battier's approach to the game has been infectious. He has a blue-collar work ethic, does not make excuses, and is always willing to sacrifice for the benefit of the group. This team could not have found a better locker room mentor.

When starting point guard Mike Conley went out with two fouls early on in game six, Greivis Vasquez stepped in without missing a beat. He played like a season veteran by taking full advantage of what the defense gave him. His decision making was sound, defensive effort solid, and he took good care of the ball. This is exactly what they need him to do.

If the Grizzlies' bench continues to play like this, it could mean trouble for OKC.

Oklahoma City

1. Kevin Durant

KD can score like no other. The league's leading scorer for two consecutive seasons is also leading all playoff scorers. Not only that, but he had one of the most amazing playoff performances by lighting up Denver for 41 in the decisive game five Wednesday night. Trailing by 9 with 3:30 remaining, Durant scored 14 of the Thunder’s final 18 points (and their final 9 in the last 1:21!). The big question is will Durant continue to score at such a high rate (32.4 ppg) while shooting the ball so well from the floor (47% from 2, 43% from 3). The task is going to be much tougher with the bodies, athleticism, and desire that Memphis will throw at him, and without KD scoring 30+ Oklahoma City stands virtually no chance. His offensive production will be crucial, simply because the Thunder rely so heavily on it.

2. Russell Westbrook

Russell Westbrook's decision making will play a huge role in the outcome of this series. He was able to get away with several mistakes against the Nuggets, but he will not be afforded that same luxury playing against the team that led the league in steals and forced turnovers. He will have to do an excellent job of taking care of the ball, deciding when it is time to pass/shoot, and playing within himself. Westbrook was heavily criticized (and rightfully so) for his game 4 performance after he tried to win it himself rather than deferring to Durant. Will he grow from that experience or will he let it affect him as he moves forward? One thing is for certain, the Grizzlies defense will try to make him rush his decisions. How Westbrook deals with Memphis' pressure will be one of the critical factors in determining who comes out on top in this series.

3.
Control of the paint

The battle of the "bigs" is of utmost importance. Serge Ibaka, with his nine blocked shots in game 5 against Denver, has emerged as a game-changing force. He is incredibly athletic and may be able to create problems for Zach Randolph on his own. The Thunder obtained Kendrick Perkins and Nazr Mohammed at the trade deadline to address size issues, and due to their recent success against Nené and Kenyon Martin they are proving to be good acquisitions. It is imperative for the Thunder to push Randolph and Gasol off the block and not allow them to catch the ball where they want it. OKC also needs to win the rebounding battle. The Thunder can ill afford giving up second-chance scoring opportunities. The winner of the inside game will likely take the series.


Things I am wondering:

How will OKC match up with Memphis and how will Memphis match up with OKC? More specifically, will Conley be able to check Westbrook?

Will Oklahoma City be forced to double down on Randolph?

Can Memphis knock down jump shots if Oklahoma City succeeds in making the Grizzlies a jump shooting team?

Prediction:

I cannot bet against the Grizzlies right now. They look like a team that is playing with too much heart, passion, and desire to be denied. Memphis advances in 6.