Friday, April 22, 2005

Western Conference Playoffs Preview!

Let the games begin. This Saturday, the 2005 NBA Playoffs will kick off, and looking at this year’s playoffs we’ve got some very interesting matchups. For the second consecutive year, the playoffs will not include the Portland Trail Blazers. We'll have more on them once the playoffs get started. For now, clearly Phoenix and San Antonio – the league’s two class teams all season – have established themselves as the favorites in the West. Will it all come down to those two in the Conference Finals? Or can another team sneak in? Let’s take a closer look at the first round.

First, we’ll give a quick analysis of what we look at as the “big six” components that a team needs for playoff success: 1. Home court advantage, 2. Best star player, 3. Most playmakers, 4. Quality starting five, 5. Toughest defense, and 6. Playoff experience. Who has the advantage in each category? Next comes a quick breakdown. Without further ado:

#1 vs #8 – Phoenix vs Memphis
Home court: Phoenix
Best star: Phoenix (Nash over Gasol)
Most playmakers: Phoenix (Nash, Stoudamire, Marion over Gasol & Miller)
Starting 5: Phoenix
Toughest D: Memphis
Experience: (neither)

Probably the easiest series of the four to predict. Phoenix has been the best team in the league all season, has the best starting five in the NBA, and Memphis is sliding, big-time. The Grizz don’t have anything to stop – or even counteract – Amare Stoudamire in the middle or Steve Nash on the perimeter, as Stromile Swift has been a bit of a disappointment this season and Jason Williams doesn’t have the quicks on D to stop Nash. The one advantage Memphis may have is their dearth of perimeter guys … with Mike Miller, Bonzi Wells, and Jason Williams all able to J it up when they get hot, and Phoenix isn’t exactly a team of lock-down defenders. Don’t expect that to be enough to make the series close, though, as we haven’t even mentioned Quentin Richardson or Joe Johnson yet.

Prediction: Phoenix, 4-0.

#4 vs #5 – Dallas vs Houston
Home court: Dallas
Best star: Dallas (Dirk Nowitzki)
Most playmakers: Dallas (Nowitzki, Finley over McGrady, Ming)
Starting 5: Dallas
Toughest D: Houston
Experience: Dallas

Many prognosticators are expecting the Rockets to push Dallas to the brink … but I’ll be honest, I don’t see it. Tracy McGrady has looked fantastic in the second half of the season, but Dirk is showing the world that he can be THE man on the Mavs and is a top-3 candidate for the MVP this season. Yao Ming is developing a nice inside game and his feel for rebounding is getting better, but can he dominate Eric Dampier? We don’t think so. Jeff Van Gundy has the Rockets in the right direction, but they’re still a piece (or a Yao Ming mean streak) away. Between Dallas’ home court advantage, experience, and balanced offense, they should roll by Houston fairly easily.

Prediction: Dallas, 4-2.

#2 vs #7, San Antonio vs Denver
Home court: San Antonio
Best star: San Antonio (Duncan over Anthony)
Most playmakers: San Antonio (Duncan, Ginobili, Parker over Anthony, Martin, Miller)
Starting 5: Denver
Toughest D: San Antonio
Experience: San Antonio

Not as tough of a call as it would initially appear. Yes, Denver has been the league’s best team since the All-Star break, experiencing the biggest turnaround in one season that we’ve seen in a long time. Yes, Carmelo Anthony looks like an all-star again. But the Spurs have been on cruise control for the past month, Ginobili proved he’s a top-20 player in the NBA, and Duncan is finally healthy. As good as Marcus Camby has looked – arguably the most important reason along with Anthony’s willingness to give up ballhandling responsibilities for Denver’s turnaround – he can’t stop Tim Duncan and probably wont’ be 100% for the series. I expect San Antonio to avoid a seventh game with a big win in Denver in game 6.

Prediction: San Antonio, 4-2.

#3 vs #6, Seattle vs Sacramento
Home court: Seattle
Best star: Seattle (Allen over Stojakovic)
Most playmakers: Seattle (Allen, Lewis over Stojakovic, Bibby)
Starting 5: Sacramento
Toughest D: Sacramento
Experience: Sacramento

The only series that I see going to a potential seven games. Normally, you’d expect Sacramento to have the advantage in the paint with Brad Miller’s impressive post/passing combo game. However, Miller is hurt, and so is Stojakovic. Both will be playing, and starting, during the series, but neither will be 100% and I expect that to affect the Kings significantly. Sacramento’s got more balance and better depth, along with a ton of playoff experience, but ultimately I expect Seattle’s plethora of shooters (they’ve got more than anyone in the league … Allen, Ridnour, Radmanovic, Lewis, Murray) and home-court advantage to carry them through for the series win.

Prediction: Seattle, 4-3.

That’s it for now! We’ll be back after the first round with additional predictions for round two. What do you think? Feel free to critique these predictions via email here. The most interesting will get posted online.

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