by user David J. Cohen

If all goes according to plan the Pistons will win it all. As for how the conference playoffs unfold…

(8) Milwaukee v. (1) Detroit

The Bucks are a young team that will gain some experience in this year’s playoffs. They have a nice core of players and should become a perennial playoff team. Their best player is G Michael Redd, perhaps the best pure shooter in the NBA. He averages 25 a night. F Bobby Simmons is a talented young player with a solid jumper, and is actually shooting better than Redd from the 3-point line this year at 42% (Redd is at 40%). G T.J. Ford is one of the quickest players in the league and has recovered nicely from a serious spinal injury last year. He is a true point guard and has terrific handles. Up front Milwaukee has F Jamaal Magloire and C Andrew Bogut, who can provide rebounds and inside production. The bench is deep. G Charlie Bell is a decent backup PG. G Maurice Williams is another adept shooter and provides 12 points a night off the bench. F Joe Smith is very productive when in the lineup and is a good complement to Bogut and Magloire. C Dan Gadzuric is a very good defensive presence because of his shot blocking ability. F Toni Kukoc rounds out the bench, and is the only player on the team with extensive playoff experience.

The Pistons are primed for another championship run. Their offense runs through their guards, G Richard Hamilton and G Chauncey Billups. Hamilton is the best player in the league at playing without the ball and might be the best conditioned player in the NBA. Billups is the floor general and is relied on in the clutch. He is averaging 19 points and 9 assists a game. F Rasheed Wallace has served as the x-factor of this team and, when playing well, can separate the Pistons from any other team in the league. F Tayshaun Prince is great on-ball defender with his length and has surprised many with his offensive skills. These four are responsible for 70% of the offense. The league’s best rebounder and perhaps best front court defender is C Ben Wallace. He is averaging 11 rebounds, 2 steals and 2 blocks a game. The Pistons bench is susceptible outside of F Antonio McDyess. McDyess provides another big body and gives quality minutes. He has played well, giving them 8 points and 5 rebounds a game while shooting 50% from the field. G Tony Delk is a pure shooter and could be an important part of this team in the playoffs as another scorer. G Lindsey Hunter is a good defender. G Maurice Evans and C Dale Davis can be used if necessary.

This should be a lock for the Pistons. However, the Bucks are a dangerous team that has enough talent and depth to create a few problems if Detroit takes them lightly. They are in the same division and have played 3 meaningful games against each other, which were all won by the Pistons: 85-75 in November, 106-102 in January, and 112-105 at the end of March. The Bucks haven’t been able to crack the Pistons this year and don’t have the defensive capability to do so.

PREDICTION: Pistons 4-1. The Pistons will outmatch them. The Bucks need a year to gain experience, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they make a big splash in free agency and become a force in the East next year.

(5) Washington v. (4) Cleveland

The Wizards are led by a trio of players. G Gilbert Arenas is the NBA’s 4th leading scored at 29 a game (and the NBA locker room poker champ). F Antawn Jamison is a great shooter for his position and a surprisingly good rebounder. G Caron Butler is the third man and has played extremely well wherever he has played. F Jared Jeffries is a decent player but has struggled offensively. C Brendan Haywood has been a disappointment inside and has not provided the inside presence the Wizard need. The Wizards have only two key players on their bench and pretty much go with a college sized 7 man rotation. F Etan Thomas provides good inside play and has good work-ethic. In my opinion he should be starting over Haywood. G Antonio Daniels has a lot of talent and could be the person that makes or breaks Washington in this series. He gives them 10 points a night but will have to become the 4th big player on this team for the Wizards to thrive.

Cleveland has a lot of quality players and can be a balanced team. They are led by the league’s best young player in G LeBron James, who averages 31 points, 7 rebounds, 7 assists, and 2 steals a game. He is one of only a handful of players in NBA history to average 30+ points, 7 rebounds, and 7 assists. G Larry Hughes has just now recovered from injury and his play could determine the series. G Eric Snow is a good defender but is slowly fading away from this lineup. F Drew Gooden can have great games but is very inconsistent. C Zydrunas Ilgauskas is a critical player for this team, possessing size down low and perhaps the best touch of any C in the league. The Cavs bench is deep and versatile, allowing the Cavs to adjust to many types of lineups. G Damon Jones is a good spot up 3-point shooter but hasn’t been as sharp as he was in Miami. G Ronald “Flip” Murray is a solid scorer and has become an important part of this team since coming over from Seattle. He has started in the absence of Hughes and may start at the beginning of the playoffs as Hughes gets conditioned back into the rotation. F Donyell Marshall is a quality big man on the boards and has a deceptive 3-point shot. F Anderson Varejao is another big guy who gives the Cavs energy and rebounding (and he looks like the wrestler Carlito from the WWE). F Ira Newble and F Alan Henderson can provide added relief off the bench.

This is an interesting series. The Wizards have won 2 out of the 3 meaningful games this year but seem to be breaking down as the season comes to a close. The Cavs seem to be getting better as the pieces gel together. LeBron should have a field day in this series in the assist column as other guys will be open early and often. The Wizards don’t play good defense and the Cavs have shot it slightly better from the floor this year then have the Wizards. The Cavs will dominate inside with Z, Gooden, and the variety of big guys coming in off the bench. They also have more offensive weapons with Hughes healthy, Murray, Jones, Marshall, and Z. They should “out-Washington” the Wizards. The Cavs bench will be pivotal in this series and will ultimately make the difference.

PREDICTION: Cavs 4-2. They are more balanced and will dominate the glass. The clincher is the Wizards inability to win on the road: a 15-26 record including 4 games against Atlanta and Charlotte, coupled with the Cavs dominance at home, where they are 32-10 including 8 games against Detroit, Chicago, Indiana, and Milwaukee.

(7) Chicago v. (2) Miami

Chicago is young team with a year of playoff experience. Their best player is G Ben Gordon, who is currently slated as a starter but has been more productive off the bench. He is their go-to guy in crunch time and has hit countless big shots for this team. G Kirk Hinrich is a good PG and has a great shot. F Luol Deng is a solid player inside with a midrange jumper. He can play bigger than his size. C Tyson Chandler is a good defender and great shot blocker with rebounding ability but is plush pillow soft. F Othello Harrington rounds out the lineup at the PF position, by far the weakest on the team. The bench has a couple of high quality players who start sometimes but not a lot afterwards. G Chris Duhon is one of the best bench PGs in the NBA and can setup the offense. F Andres Nocioni is a solid contributor and enjoys physical contact. He gives the Bulls 13 points and 6 rebounds a game. He can shoot it well at times. F Mike Sweetney has contributed good production to a weak position. The Bulls do not have much else on the bench, but could go to the Clippers all-time greatest 3-point shooter G Eric Piatkowski if necessary.

Miami is looking to deliver a championship to its fans this year. Their best player is G Dwyane Wade, who provides 27 points, 6 rebounds, 7 assists, and 2 steals per game. He is outstanding at driving to the hole and creating plays. C Shaquille O’Neal is a beast inside and commands attention at all times. He has now averaged at least 20 points a game for 14 straight seasons. He is also 1st in the league in FG % at 60%. G Jason Williams is quick and can score in bunches. F James Posey is a solid defender but has been a disappointment offensively. F Udonis Haslem is a workhorse on the glass and is one of the most underrated players in the league. The bench has some high profile players that haven’t necessarily meshed together. F Antoine Walker has played well for the Heat offensively this year since going to the bench. He gives them 12 points and 5 rebounds a game. G Gary Payton provides experience and great on-ball defense. He occasionally explodes offensively. C Alonzo Mourning has been a great player off their bench but will need to bounce back from a torn calf muscle in the playoffs. He has been an excellent defensive presence and has scored his share of points. He averages 8 points, 6 rebounds, and 3 blocks a game. He also ignites this team with his energy. G Derek Anderson can be another offensive option but hasn’t found his way in Miami. F Shandon Anderson provides another solid defender. F Wayne Simien has played well in limited playing time at the end of the year and may end up as part of the rotation in the playoffs. He can provide rebounding and a good midrange shot.

On paper the Heat should run away with the series, but they won’t cruise into the 2nd round. Chicago plays great defense, allowing their opponents to shoot only 42.6%, 1st in the NBA. They are also 5th in the NBA in 3-point shooting. These could be the Bulls calling cards to hang around in this series. Miami does rank 8th in FG % defense at 44% and the Bulls do not shoot the ball great overall. However, Miami struggles from behind the arc, which could come back to haunt them later in the playoffs. Chicago is outmatched in this series inside and will be hurt immensely by their lack of depth on the bench. But they’re a pesky team and Miami’s inconsistency this year could keep the Bulls in this series.

PREDICTION: Heat 4-2. The Heat has too many good players to lose this series, but with the Bulls balance at the top of the roster and Ben Gordon in the 4th quarter they may take Miami off guard early in the series.

(6) Indiana v. (3) New Jersey

The Pacers have overcome trials and tribulations to reach the postseason. They had to deal with the conclusion of the Artest saga and played without F Jermaine O’Neal for 31 games, some of which were after Artest left Indiana. They are led by O’Neal, who is the heart and soul of the team. He is athletic and a great rebounder, which complements his scoring ability. G Stephen Jackson is a pure scorer. G Jamaal Tinsley is a good PG and a deceptive scorer. C Jeff Foster is an excellent rebounder and sometimes shows solid offensive ability. F Peja Stojakovic is an excellent spot up shooter who is shooting much better since getting used to the flow of the Indiana offense. He is averaging 20 points a game as a Pacer and has been surprisingly effective on the glass, grabbing 6 boards a game. He will be one of the deciding factors in this series. The Pacers bench might be the deepest in the league and is certainly the most balanced. G Anthony Johnson is a great backup PG off the bench and is a good shooter. He will take on an additional role at the start of the series as Tinsley is still not recovered from injury. F Austin Croshere gives the Pacers another good shooter and rebounder. If Croshere could develop some consistently in the NBA he would get more minutes. C David Harrison is a good player and will be a solid player in the NBA for a long time. F Danny Granger provides toughness and rebounding and has a good offensive repertoire for a young player. He has improved as the season has gone on. He is also a great defender for a young player. G Fred Jones is another good scorer. G Sarunas Jasikevicius can be a good shooter in the offense but has struggle to transition from the European game. F Scott Pollard gives the Pacers energy and effort. This is an 11 man rotation for Indiana.

The Nets come into the playoffs red hot. They are 21-8 in games since the break where they did not rest key players. They are led by a trio of all-star caliber players. G Vince Carter has revived his career since leaving Toronto and is the Nets best offensive player. He is averaging 24 points, 6 rebounds, and 4 assists a game. F Richard Jefferson is another versatile offensive weapon, and is averaging 20 points, 7 rebounds, and 4 assists a game. G Jason Kidd remains one of the NBA’s best defenders and is still among the best passers in the game. He averages 8 assists and 2 steals a game. He is also one of the best rebounding Gs in the game, averaging 7 a game. F Jason Collins provides size and rebounding. C Nenad Kristic has been a pleasant surprise since the 2nd half of last year and is the 4th option the Nets will need to go deep into the playoffs. He is a solid rebounder and has great touch for a big man. The Nets bench couldn’t be more different from the Pacers. It might be the worst in the league. When your best bench player was drafted in 1989, there’s a problem. F Clifford Robinson is still around, and can provide scoring. F Scott Padgett can provide a shooter when he is focused and relaxed. F Zoran Planinic can be a productive guy off the bench, but is used sparingly. G Jacque Vaughn provides relief whenever Kidd has to come out of the game.

This is the best first round match-up in the East. Both are half-court defensive minded teams. Both only allow 92 points a game. Indiana allows its opponents to shoot 43.5%; the Nets allow its opponents to shoot 43.9%. The Nets are a bad 3-point shooting team and rely on big plays from the big three for their offense. Indiana has players that can shoot the 3, but hasn’t maximized their ability. There are individual match-ups that favor both teams. Kidd should take Tinsley to school, but O’Neal shouldn’t have much problem on the inside against Collins, Kristic, and whoever else gets thrown at him. A key factor in the series could be who the Nets decide to put on Stojakovic. If they put Jefferson, one of the more underrated defenders in the league, on him to get through screens and disrupt Peja, it leaves Jackson in a favorable match-up against Carter. If Jefferson is on Jackson, Peja could be open for the 3’s. Also, how the Nets play O’Neal could be critical. If they double O’Neal it will leave the other Pacers open to knock down shots. And as odd as it sounds, the Foster/Harrington v. Kristic match-up might be the most important in the series. If Kristic is shut down as the 4th option and Kidd isn’t shooting well (which isn’t a reach) the Nets could be in trouble. The deep, talented bench for the Pacers could play a huge role in a grind-it-out style of play if it is a long series. Granger’s play on Jefferson when he is in could also be a pivotal match-up. Jefferson on Peja is a huge mismatch in Jefferson’s favor. Jackson on Carter will be fun to watch and isn’t a huge advantage for Carter.

This series comes down to who can shoot the ball well. Neither team is a good shooting team by nature, but the Pacers have plenty of good shooting players. If Peja comes through the Pacers will likely advance. If Kristic can consistently be the 4th scorer the Nets will advance. There is a good possibility an “unlikely hero” emerges from this series. For the Pacers, it could be Foster if the Nets double-team O’Neal consistently. Granger could emerge as an offensive force to complement his defense. And if Jasikevicius can find his stroke he could show why the Pacers saw him as a starter earlier in the year. The Nets haven’t shot it well all year, and didn’t shoot it great during their 14 game winning streak. They only hit 100 points 4 times, and 3 of those were against Washington, Phoenix, and Charlotte. Included in the streak were 2 games against Atlanta and 1 against New Orleans/Oklahoma City, Houston, Portland, Charlotte, and Minnesota.

This leads me to another thing. The Nets were in the worst division in the NBA. They were in the only division with only 1 team with a winning record. The other 4 teams in their division: Philadelphia, Toronto, Boston, and New York, combined to go 121-207. The Pacers, on the other hand, were in the closest division in the league and a division that has all of its members in the playoffs. The combined record of the other teams in the Pacers division (Detroit, Cleveland, Chicago, Milwaukee): 195-133. That’s a big difference. It also shows the will of Indiana to fight their way into the playoffs in this division. The Pacers are conditioned for the playoffs. The divisions tie into another situation. Both of these teams are strong at home: the Nets are 29-12; the Pacers are 27-14. The Pacers have done it through several changes and injuries against better teams. The Nets are a .500 road team, which is acceptable in the NBA. The Pacers are 14-27. I think with the injuries and absence of O’Neal this is exaggerated. If they were healthy the whole year with the current roster they would probably be as good if not better than the Nets. If you hypothetically put the Pacers in the Nets division that’s 8 games against their division instead of the Pacers’ division. That would easily bring the Pacers road record up to the Nets road record. Indiana is a solid road team. The Nets might not be. In head-to-head meetings the Pacers are 2-1 this year and have won in New Jersey.

PREDICTION: Indiana 4-2. Indiana has too many things in their favor and is the better overall team. They are much better than their record would indicate.

This moves us onto the next round.

(4) Cleveland v. (1) Detroit

It might not be the finals, or even close to it, but this might be the most watched series of the playoffs. It’s LeBron v. the people’s pick to win it all. If LeBron can somehow put the team on his back and carry them past Detroit he will truly begin to rise toward Jordan status. The Cavs have the edge on the bench but that’s about it. The Pistons play solid defense and have favorable match-ups at 4 of 5 positions between the starting lineups. James will likely be guarded by Prince, whose long arms can create shot problems. Detroit will control the pace, control the boards, and control the series.

PREDICTION: Detroit 4-2. They are 3-1 against the Cavs this year and allowing an average of 80 points against them.

(6) Indiana v. (2) Miami

This has the potential to be the best series of the playoffs. Statistically the teams are very similar except for the fact that Miami scores more points. Indiana is a bit better defensively. The individual match-ups will be key in this series. Shaq should be fine inside but will have several big bodies thrown at him. Wade has an edge on Jackson. On the flip side can Haslem keep up with Jermaine O’Neal and control him? The edge certainly would have to go to Jermaine. Peja will have to get around Posey to get the three. Jackson will have to return baskets with Wade.

The benches for these teams are also critical. Whichever bench provides more could be the team advancing. Payton needs to play well when he is in the game. Mourning needs to be a presence on the inside to force the Pacers into shooting jumpers. Walker needs to hit his open shots. For Indiana Granger will have to emerge as a go-to guy in the series on both ends of the floor. He will have to guard Walker and possibly Wade and will need to provide scoring on the other end. And just like Payton can possibly be a factor Johnson can make his presence felt in the series. Whichever team gets quality production from the bench could win the series.

PREDICTION: Heat 4-2. The Pacers defensively thrive on their rebounding ability. Miami has the ability to diminish the Pacers edge on the glass, making the difference.

Now for the series we’ve been waiting for all season.

(2) Miami v. (1) Detroit

This has the star-power to be a great series. Billups on Wade, Ben Wallace on Shaq. The key to this series is everyone else. Hamilton, Rasheed Wallace, and Prince have to be able to contribute as usual offensively. Haslem would be on Rasheed and Posey on Prince. Rasheed will be given the midrange jumper and he will have to knock it down. If Posey can shut down Prince this get even more interesting. The Heat bench, which is better, can shift the entire series to Miami if their key players contribute. If Payton provides scoring and defense on Hamilton he could be a big help. If Walker can post Prince up inside and hit his jumper he could make a real difference. If Zo can play well offensively it would boost the Heat. For the Pistons, McDyess will need to be a solid rebounder.

The true x-factor in this series is Jason Williams. He is as fast and quick if not quicker than Hamilton. If he can keep up with Hamilton and not allow Hamilton to get the open jumpers it can set everything else up defensively. And if he has a big offensive series it could open a lot of things up for the core players.

Statistically the edge goes to the Heat. The Pistons only allow 90 points a game but allow their opponents to shoot 45.2%. The Heat average 96 points a game but hold their opponents to 44% shooting. This means that the Pistons have been great in execution during the year and that Miami hasn’t. By this time in the playoffs coaching becomes a big deal and this unit should be playing at their best by the time this series rolls around. The Pistons are shooting 45.5% from the field. Miami is shooting 47.8%. Miami leads the league in rebounding, averaging 43 a game. Detroit is 16th in the NBA in rebounding and actually gives up a fraction of a rebound more to its opponents per game. Again, this points at the fact that Detroit had near perfect execution to allow just 90 points a game while Miami could be doing better with their production. If Miami rebounds and executes, based on this, they go to the finals.

There is also a potential Achilles heel in this series for the Heat, and it’s their 3-point shooting. The Pistons shoot 38.4% from behind the arc, which is 3rd in the league; the Heat shoot 34.5%, which is 20th in the league. With these games promising to come down to the wire, something like this can help separate the Pistons from the Heat. The Pistons are 3-1 against the Heat this year and it’s this aspect that has allowed them to pull away from the Heat when needed.

We also saw during those games that the Pistons and Heat averaged out to their season averages on the glass, meaning that the Heat should have an edge on the boards in this series. It is also worth noting that neither of these teams shoots well from the line: Detroit shoots 72.7%, 8th worst in the league; Miami shoots 70%, 2nd worst behind Portland. The Pistons also had a strong edge during their meetings at the line, meaning that Shaq didn’t hit enough free throws. This series could very well come down to Shaq at the line. Shaq is shooting 46.9% at the line this season, the 2nd worst % in the league. It will be interesting to see if the Heat adopts a “Hack-a-Shaq” strategy on Ben Wallace if they fall into a similar situation. Ben is the only player in the league shooting worse than Shaq at the line, shooting 41.6%.

Before I did this I thought it was a lock that Pistons would face the Spurs in the finals. After looking closely at the teams in the West I took Dallas. This is a tough one to call.

PREDICTION: Pistons 4-3. This has to be a 7 game series. In the end the Pistons have the experience in the playoffs as a team and will find a way to get it done in the big game. But I’ll be honest: I’m rooting for the Heat.

That leaves a Pistons-Mavs series for the title. After this series (if it goes 7) the Mavs will be well rested. It will be another long series for the Pistons and perhaps an even tougher one then their foray with the Heat. If they win it all they certainly will have earned it.

To read my Western Conference Breakdown go here:
[Western Conference Breakdown]


Thu 04/20/06, 8:38 pm EST

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