Thursday, February 12, 2009

NBA Playoff Predictions: Back to the Future

It’s All-Star break time and that means it’s time to make some predictions. I haven’t watched as much NBA as I would like this year but I’ve seen enough to know what’s up. The following is my final four:

LA Lakers, San Antonio Spurs, Cleveland Cavs, Boston Celtics.

Ok, so no surprises there. One could argue that Orlando will be in the mix but I don’t like their lack of experience and that Jameer Nelson is injured. I think they come up short again.

Now, onto the good stuff.

Why the Lakers won’t win the NBA Championship:

The Lakers are everybody’s favorite. They have the “best player” (not really, but they say it), they have the best record, and they have been virtually unstoppable. But at some level, the Lakers play an emotionally violent style of basketball that is not only aesthetically displeasing from time to time but also leads to a lack of emotional stability in times of crisis.

Last night is a good example. On the road, in Utah, and tired after a long road trip. These are the moments when potential NBA champions are tested. By all measures, the Lakers failed miserably. When the game started to get away from them in the 3rd quarter, their offense collapsed and Kobe started chucking up junk from everywhere to no avail. If Kobe’s on, maybe nobody notices. But he wasn’t on last night and this is not the first time that this team has resorted to the “chuck and duck” strategy when the going gets tough. As we saw in last year’s Finals, Kobe ain’t Jordan and when he tries to be his teammates lay around doing very little. This will hurt them again before it’s all said and done.

(Aside, I loved Okur’s little girly dance after he hit that big 3 pointer. I’m wondering if he was mocking Kobe’s attempt to steal Sam Cassell’s “Big Balls” dance or if Okur naturally dances like a little girl.)

The Lakers also have structural troubles. Their best offensive point guard (Jordan Farmer, who led the 3rd quarter comeback) is a disaster on the defensive end, like most of the 2nd unit. Farmer’s not good enough to put in the starting rotation and Derek Fisher, point guard by default, isn’t really a point guard (more a small shooting guard). Case in point: Fisher averages less than 4 assists a game. This will hurt them before it’s all said and done.

Further, the Pau Gasol addition isn’t going to put them over the top. Gasol is what he is – a skinny, tall guy, with great basketball IQ, a penchant for Soccer style whining, and a feathery touch. That all makes the Lakers better. But there’s no world in which Gasol strikes fear in the Spurs, Celtics, Cavs, or Magic. And when push comes to shove, Gasol gets frozen out of the offense more times than not because Kobe knows this. He knows that Gasol ain’t Shak. He can’t enforce his will on a game, they can’t ride him in the post when they need easy buckets to stop another team’s run, and against big, strong guys, he’s virtually useless in the post. Kobe is smart enough to know this.

Really though, all things being even, the Lakers have been the best team this year. So why won’t the best team so far win the championship? Two reasons: Schedule and Fatigue. Seventeen of their thirty remaining games are on the road. Seventeen of the remaining thirty are against teams with a winning record. And they’ve got a 7 game road trip at the end of March that will be brutal.

This shouldn’t matter, right? Good, professional teams are accustomed to tough schedules. Champions win, right? Maybe in any other year yes. But let’s not forget that the Lakers played a brutal schedule last season, going all the way to the Finals, and then their two key pieces, Gasol and Kobe, went on to play in the Olympics before having about a two month break and starting this NBA season. That’s 111 intense games for two of their most important players. The simple fact is, these guys are tired and are only going to get increasingly tired as the season drags on. That’s why Odom’s insertion into the starting lineup has been so good for them. He’s the only good player they have who is well rested and eager to impact the game.

Perhaps Odom is the one who can carry the load down the stretch, you say. Perhaps. But let’s not forget that Odom is a basketcase with a penchant for marijuana smoking and/or erratic behavior. In other words, I wouldn’t bet on Odom in any situation other than, “Most likely to get caught on Hollywood Boulevard with a half smoked blunt”. Plus, Kobe is an egomaniac who can’t stand it when others on his team have a bigger impact than he does and at the end of the day, he’s taking those shots for better or worse. I, for one, think things end in disappointment for Lakers fans this year.

Why the Celtics won’t win the Championship this year:

The Celtics have played great basketball for about three-quarters of the season and really average basketball for the other part. Normally average is good enough. But this team just reminds me of the Pistons team that, after winning the 2004 championship, thought they could turn it into high gear and ended up coming up short. Like that team, the Celtics lost at least one key bench player in the offseason. And, like that team, the Celts got a bit arrogant to start the season (Pierce: I am the best player in the NBA). This doesn’t mean they won’t make the finals. But something tells me they’re short a piece or two to repeat. Plus, it’s just damn hard to repeat. The competition is too good and the Celtics big 3 isn’t getting any younger.

Why the Cavs won’t win the Championship this year:

Basketball, perhaps more than any other sport, is about matchups. If it’s a Lakers-Cavs Finals, I like the Cavs for a number of reasons (LeBron is a better player than Kobe but Kobe will spend all his energy trying to prove he is the man and that will torpedo team play). But if it’s a Spurs-Cavs Finals, I can’t see the Cavs winning. I won’t go into it in any more detail than the following: We’ve seen this movie and it turned out badly for the Cavs.

Why the Spurs will win the Championship this year:

The Spurs are rested, healthy, experienced, and have Tim Duncan. Need there be any more reason? Oh, and Duncan wins Championships in odd years in the Double-aughts (1999, 2003, 2005, 2007).

Beyond that though, Duncan is playing as well as he ever has, Parker is playing better than ever, and Manu is, well, Manu. Plus they’re getting extremely healthy contributions from Roger Mason (45% on 3 pointers) and dare I say Matt Bonner (49% on 3 pointers). While they don’t play defense as well as they did in the past, I still think this year is their last championship, but I think they get there.

Finals Prediction: Spurs over Cavs in 6



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