Monday, May 23, 2005

The NBA Final Four

Before going into my NBA Final Four predictions, just wanted to post the hopeful schedule for this week. I'm hoping to get 3 entries up this week at least. This NBA Playoff talk as one, a special guest post before Wednesday, and a small chat with Beer Leaguer's Jason Weitzel discussing the Phillies and Fantasy Baseball. The chat was something I have been planning for a week or so but haven't had the time to get it done. Hopefully posting about it here will force me to find the time. As for the special guest posting, I don't want to spoil anything but it's something I'm greatly looking forward to. So there's the schedule, now on with the show.

The Final Four...

Well, despite what anyone was thinking or hoping for, the NBA Playoffs have actually held true to form. Only one "upset" thus far (and seeing as how that was the Pacers over the Celtics, it may not have been much of a upset) and we are down to the top 2 teams in each division battling it out over a trip to the finals. If someone would have told me at the beginning of the playoffs it would have held true to form like this, I may have expressed displeasure, but seeing as how these 4 teams were obviously the best in the NBA all year, I realized I would rather have them playing here than see some underdog have snuck this far.

Eastern Conference - Miami Heat vs. Detroit Pistons

(Author's note - I do not currently have access to statistics. Therefore, this will be done from memory. If there are any mistakes because of this, do not hesistate to post in the comments and corrections will be made. This will only hold if I need to reference statistics or head to head results.)

Maybe I'm the only person in the world who thinks so, but for some reason I just don't believe in the Pistons. Every round I see them as being infinitely beatable and yet, every round they seemingly destroy their opponents and advance. But after watching them 2 rounds, perhaps I've started to see the light. They have the best starting 5 in the NBA. They have 4 starting players who, if need be, can take over a game offensively (Rip, Chauncey, Tayshaun, and Rasheed), with Chauncey Billups haven proven time and time again that he can take and make any big shot. They have a frontline that, if you consider Tayshaun's wingspan, might as well be starting three 7 footers. The team excels at both man-to-man and help defenses; and even though Ben Wallace won Defensive Player of the Year, either Rasheed or Tayshaun could also have laid claim to the award as well. The most important part of this starting 5 is the sense of continuity - they're the same players that won the NBA Championship last year. The only problem with this team is their bench. No longer do they have multiple players to count on to contribute, the only one that Larry Brown trusts is Antonio McDyess and the only other one that would scare people is Carlos Arroyo. No matter what, this is a hungry team that still feels they don't get the respect they deserve for the championship they won last year. They play with a chip on their shoulder and most will be quick to point out that they did beat Shaq's Lakers last year in the Finals.

That said, this year's Heat team is not the same as last year's Lakers. Dywane Wade is not Kobe Bryant. Wade is more adept at getting his teammates involved and will gladly differ when the situation calls for it. Shaq, if healthy, is still the most dominant player in the game and no matter what the final result was last year, the Pistons did not shut down Shaq. The true key for the Heat in this series will be the play of their role players. The other three starters (Damon and Eddie Jones and Udonis Haslem) must continue to perform at a high level. Eddie Jones seems to have turned back the clock so far this playoffs and has played exceptionally well on offense and defense. He needs to hit his shots and limit the touches of whichever Piston he ends up guarding (most likely Tayshaun Prince). Damon Jones has continued to run hot and cold in the playoffs just like he had in the regular season. Just as liable to make 5 3's a game as miss 10, one thing you cannot say about Jones is that he will be afraid to shoot. They don't need any 30 point performances from him, but the team does need him to make 1/3 of his 3 pointers and if he can remotely contain Chauncey he'll be able to consider it a success. Haslem is going to have it much tougher. Offensively his role will be unchanged - get loose rebounds, occupy space, make an open jumper; on defense, while Shaq guards Ben Wallace, Rasheed Wallace will actively challenge Haslem. Sheed can post up, step outside the arc, and moves exceptionally well without the ball. The Heat bench will be equally important. Keeyon Dooling has been on fire this playoffs and needs to keep making his shots. Alonzo Mourning is playing in what could be his final season and it shows in his heart and effort. I would expect to see him on the floor with Shaq a lot as Mourning is a much better defender than Haslem. Miami isn't exceptionally deep either, but certainly have more people on the bench who can play the proper roles than Detroit.

So what happens? Well, I do think I finally see the light. Despite having the best 1-2 punch in the NBA, I just don't see how the Heat can take 4 games from Detroit. This is Wade's first foray this deep in the playoffs and to me he still seems 1 year away. Especially with the health of Shaq in question, it is really hard to pick against Detroit. Miami puts up a valiant effort, but comes up just short.
Prediction - Detroit 4, Miami 3.

Western Conference Finals - San Antonio Spurs vs. Phoenix Suns

I think the way I feel about the Pistons now is the same way I felt about the Spurs a few years ago. But in the case of the Spurs, I have already learned my lesson. This team is just that good. Their backcourt may feature two of the fastest players in the NBA. Tony Parker and Manu Ginobli have been able to do whatever they want. They get into the lane at will and have almost proven unguardable. This is obviously helped by having one of the top players in the NBA in clogging up the middle and occupying double teams. Tim Duncan may be softspoken on the court, but his presence is constantly felt in how he helps his teammates on the floor. The most impressive part about the Spurs is that everyone seems to know their role. Everyone does exactly what is asked of them, and if they don't, Coach Pop just brings in someone else who will. This is a team that runs like a well oiled machine. They play amazing team defense and can excel no matter what pace they play. They can get out in the open court and run or slow it down and execute in the half court. And everyone plays defense. Truly, San Antonio might be a perfect basketball team.

And it's a shame about that because Phoenix is a lot of fun to watch. They have been credited with bringing scoring and fast paced basketball to the NBA. They have shooters all over and perhaps the best low post offensive presence in Amare Stoudemire. Steve Nash won the MVP this year by pushing the ball and trusting his teammates. What has even differentiated this team from other fast break teams is that Nash pushes the ball so much, they don't need top create turnovers to keep the pace up. Both Shawn Marion and Amare Stoudemire run the floor better than any other PF/C combo in the league and that can get them easy dunks and layups whether the other team just scored or not. This team is going to run and shoot 3 pointers and score a ton of points. It just won't be enough.

Now, I know the last time I did predictions for the playoffs and was "aided" by games having already been played I made some very big mistakes. However, the first game of this series could be the perfect microcosm with which to predict the rest. Phoenix ran and scored. They put up over 110 points. They played their game at their pace. And still lost. San Antonio is just that good. Can Phoenix win this series? Certainly. Will they? Not likely.
Prediction - San Antonio 4, Phoenix 1


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