by user David J. Cohen

With the playoffs rolling around its time to figure out who will lose to the Pistons in the NBA finals.

(8) Sacramento v. (1) San Antonio

The Kings come in a different team from the first half of the year, changing for the better with the acquisition of F Ron Artest from the Pacers. They have three really good players in Artest, C Brad Miller, and G Mike Bibby. F Shareef Abdul-Rahim has played solid for them as well. Outside of this group the Kings are inexperienced and weak as a unit. They don’t have much of a bench, with F Kenny Thomas being the only significant contributor. They have young players that can be good in the future but not in this series.

The Spurs are in position to make another title run. They have G Tony Parker, G Emanuel Ginobili, F Bruce Bowen, and F Tim Duncan in the starting lineup. Off the bench the Spurs can go to G Michael Finley, G Nick Van Exel, F Brent Barry, and Mr. Clutch - F Robert Horry. They are incredibly deep and only suffer a weakness at the center position when C Nazr Mohammed isn’t in the lineup. They are highly experienced and well coached. They can beat you in many different ways and don’t need everyone to be on every night to win games.

It’s obvious the Kings don’t have a chance in this series. They have no bench and Artest has been inconsistent offensively. The Spurs are so deep and the Kings bench is so weak that it is impossible for the Kings to generate enough offensively to beat the Spurs 4 times. The Spurs defense is stellar and is second in the NBA in points allowed at 88.8 a game. The Kings allow 97 a game and are an average defensive team. Sacramento could be a dangerous team next year, but this series serves just to get their young guys some playoff experience. The Spurs cruise through.

PREDICTION: Spurs 4-0. Their bench could start and come out with the series.

(7) L.A. Lakers v. (2) Phoenix

The Lakers surprisingly make the playoffs in the 1st year of Phil Jackson Part 2. It’s no secret that this team revolves around Kobe (or Ko-me) Bryant. He averages 35 a game and 43 in 4 meetings against the Suns this year. The problem with this team is everyone else around Kobe, as every player is surrounded by questions. F Lamar Odom shows promise at times and has played better later in the year, but still disappears. F Kwame Brown has played terrific of late but will it continue. Uncertainty marks the rest of the team’s role players: G Smush Parker, G Sasha Vujacic, C Chris Mihm, F Luke Walton, F Brian Cook, F Devean George, and F Jim Jackson. No one knows which of these players (if any) will step it up for the playoffs. It’s the missing piece of the triangle offense if Odom is playing up to par. For me the wildcard could be George, who has playoff experience from the title runs and seems to step up in the playoffs. The Lakers are going to need someone other than Kobe to contribute heavily in order to do anything.

Phoenix is also a surprise as far as where they ended up after losing G Joe Johnson to Atlanta and F Amare Stoudemire for the season. Led by G Steve Nash and F Shawn Marion, the Suns play the NBA’s version of the Run and Gun offense. They just run up and down and shoot. They can tire teams out with their pace and score in bunches. The biggest surprise has been C (by technicality) Boris Diaw, who has made leaps and bounds since leaving Atlanta and changing positions. G Raja Bell has complemented his man-on-man defense with scoring of his own. They also have F Tim Thomas, who was just recently brought in, as the last starter. They hope F Kurt Thomas will be able to play in the playoffs. G Leandro Barbosa and G Eddie House are virtually their bench. House has shown the ability to catch fire and ignite the Suns when they are in a drought and could be a key player to their playoff success. The other problem with the Suns, of course, is that they don’t play defense.

Statistically the Lakers are in the middle defensively while the Suns are at the bottom, only ahead of Toronto and Seattle in points allowed. The Suns like to run and outscore you. The Lakers just don’t have the depth and offensive weapons to hang with the Suns in a long series. But the Lakers do have Kobe. And he might average 50 in this series. And if he really gets hot, he could hit 70 in a game. If Kobe can average 50 it means the rest of the team needs to come up with 55-60 points a game. I just don’t see it happening.

PREDICTION: Suns 4-2. Kobe wins 2 games in crunch time but can’t do it alone.

(6) L.A. Clippers v. (3) Denver Nuggets

The Clippers make the playoffs for the first time since 1997. Now they hope to win their first series since 1976. They are led by G Sam Cassell, who has taken this team under his wing and provided strong leadership. Their best player and the best C in the NBA right now, is Elton Brand, who is averaging 25 points and 10 rebounds a game. F Corey Maggette has played well when healthy and provides another consistent scorer. G Cuttino Mobley has quietly provided quality production. Rounding out the starting lineup is F Chris Kaman, who has progressed nicely and is playing surprisingly well. (Technically Kaman is listed as a C and Brand as a F, but Brand is used as the C and usually guards the opponents’ biggest player. He acts like a center, so I am calling him one in the starting lineup). The Clippers are one of the best starting units in the NBA production-wise. Maggette gets 18 points and 5 rebounds, Cassell gets 17 points, 4 rebounds, and 6 assists, Mobley gets 15 points, 4 rebounds, and 3 assists, and Kaman also averages a double-double at 12 points and 10 rebounds. This heavy production by the starters also reflects a short bench. They are an 8 man team, but the 3 bench players they use are all solid players. F Vladimir Radmanovic is a solid shooter and has averaged 11 points and 6 rebounds since joining the Clippers. G Quentin Ross might be the best young defensive guard in the NBA. G Shaun Livingston has shown flashes of brilliance but is still young. He has an inconsistent shot. The starters will produce for the Clippers. It’s these three bench players that will decide how far the Clippers advance.

The Nuggets are one of the more talented teams in the league from top to bottom, but haven’t maximized that ability up to this point. They are the 3 seed but have the same record as the Lakers in a division that includes Portland and Minnesota. A bright spot for them has been the play of star G Carmelo Anthony, who has taken the next step on way to being one of the game’s elite players. G Andre Miller has struggled at times running the point, but is a solid offensive player. F Ruben Patterson has played well overall since his arrival and is a defensive presence (he was the “Kobe-Stopper.”) F Kenyon Martin has been disappointing. C Marcus Camby has played well when healthy. The bench for the Nuggets is also talented and deep. G Earl Boykins is a scoring machine and will be healthy for the playoffs. G Greg Buckner is a great defensive player and can provide points at times. F Reggie Evans provides a dominant rebounding presence. F Eduardo Najera brings toughness and energy. C Francisco Elson has been surprisingly good when used, and has shown the ability to take over at times. This team should, on paper, be able to hang with anyone in the league.

Both teams have loaded starting lineups. Clearly the bench favors the Nuggets. Statistically the Clippers are in the upper half of the league in both offense and defense. The Nuggets are near the top offensively but towards the bottom 3rd of the league on defense. The Nuggets have the edge in playoff experience. The match-ups in this series are interesting. The Nuggets have no one to play Brand one-on-one but have two solid defenders to use on him in Camby and Elson. Maggette against Carmelo will be a critical match-up. Miller has a physical advantage over Cassell but Sam can still use his basketball I.Q. to win that match-up. The x-factor could be Kaman, who will have plenty of opportunities alongside Brand to make plays. If he can be a factor, that could open things up for the Clippers. As far as the benches, Ross will have to play solid defense when he is on the floor and Radmanovic will need to make his shots for the Clippers to be successful. For the Nuggets to be successful, Boykins needs to score in double-digits, Evans needs to find a way to rebound over Brand and Kaman and Buckner needs to knock down the 3-point shot.

This series is a tough call. The Clippers don’t usually blow teams out offensively, which counters the inability for the Nuggets to come back from large deficits because of their shooting struggles, especially from behind the arc, where they rank last in the league. The Clippers are 6th in FG% offensively and 4th in FG % defense. There ability to be consistent could be the deciding factor. Both teams have been average road teams but strong on their home floor. The Clippers have the home court and to me, that tilts the tide in their favor.

PREDICTION: Clippers 4-3. The Nuggets haven’t capitalized on their group of talent, and they haven’t meshed as a group all year. The Clippers have.

(5) Memphis v. (4) Dallas

The Grizzlies have played well this year and are beginning to develop as a perennial playoff contender in the West. They are led by F Pau Gasol, who has become one of the best players at his position in the NBA. F Shane Battier provides solid contributions and plays great defense. The rest of the starting unit is questionable as far as what they will do in the playoffs. G Chucky Atkins has played brilliantly since being picked up and has mirrored the production of G Damon Stoudamire since his injury. G Eddie Jones continues to play good basketball but is getting up there in age. The C position is their weak position. Their bench is a short one but has talented players. G Bobby Jackson has put up numbers but isn’t the same guy as the Bobby Jackson in Sacramento. F Hakim Warrick is athletic, but physically weak and raw. The biggest bright spot on this team and the spark plug of the team is F Mike Miller, who is their second leading scorer coming off the bench. He is the Ben Gordon of the West. This team is young overall as far as playoff competition goes, with only Jones and Atkins providing deep playoff experience. The Grizzlies rely on defense to win. They are #1 in points allowed. They can’t beat overly offensive talented teams.

The Mavs have the 3rd best record in the NBA yet are a 4 seed in the West. This is more like the NCAA tournament. They are led by MVP candidate F Dirk Nowitzki, who is one of the top 10 players in the NBA. G Jason Terry is also a terrific scorer. F Josh Howard is one of the best young players in the league. G Jerry Stackhouse can still get it done. The starting C, DeSagana Diop, plays great defense but has no offensive ability. The Mavs also can go to the deepest bench in the league. G Devin Harris is maturing into a nice point guard behind Terry and is very composed for a young player. G Darrell Armstrong seems to play well wherever he goes and never gets tired. G Marquis Daniels is a good scorer. F Josh Powell is a good defender and rebounder. C Erick Dampier has talent but rarely uses it on both ends of the floor. G Adrian Griffin and F Keith Van Horn can also provide positive contributions. Dallas can score plenty on offense and has worked on its defense. This has led to the 3rd best point differential, behind the Pistons and Spurs.

The Mavs have won the last 3 meetings this season against Memphis: 90-83 in December in Memphis, 81-80 in early February at Memphis, and 97-87 in late February at home. The Mavs defense has shown itself in these games. The fact that the Grizzlies are not a good offensive team has hurt them against a Mavs team that can score when needed. The Mavs are also road warriors, going 26-15 on the road, which is 3rd behind the Pistons and Spurs. The Grizzlies are an average road team. The match-ups also favor the Mavs. Nowitzki has played well against Memphis. Terry has a big mismatch in his favor. Stackhouse is also in a favorable situation. Add to it the use of the bench against a limited team and the Mavs seem destined to advance.

PREDICTION: Mavs 4-1. They will overpower the Grizzlies.

This brings us to the 2nd round.

(4) Dallas v. (1) San Antonio

This could be the series defining this year’s playoffs. Most will consider it the Western Conference finals. It’s the two deepest teams going against one another. These two have played 4 times and split. Both have won on the other’s home floor. It’s a coin flip.

Statistically there is a slight edge for the Spurs. They are shooting 1% better this year (47.3%) and allowing opponents to shoot 1% worse (43.3 %) then the Mavs. They allow 89 points a game, which is 2nd in the league. They also have the 2nd best point differential. The Mavs are 7th in points allowed and 3rd in point differential. Experience favors the Spurs also as they have the same core of players trying to repeat. Not to mention the coaches. Coach Pop is one of the league’s best; Coach Johnson is one of the league’s youngest. He was mentored in part by Popovich, so it’s student v. teacher.

If you look at the players and match-ups I would give the edge to Dallas. Jason Terry has great ball control and can contain Tony Parker’s penetration. Terry can also have his way driving to the hoop. Josh Howard is skilled enough to battle with Bruce Bowen. Nowitzki will be the dominant force in the series if he mixes it up, especially considering Duncan’s persisting injury. That injury could tilt the series in favor of the Mavs. If Dampier can play like he has near the end of the season he can become a critical factor as the Spurs have no one to match-up with him. Now the Spurs have favorable match-ups as well. Ginobili will be able to get free and create plays. The Spurs bench is better than the Mavs. Finley and Horry, if shooting well, can cause fits for the Mavs. Van Exel could be a big offensive contributor in the series. Finley (and maybe even Van Exel) will have a revenge factor as well after being cast away from Dallas. And Horry is the definition of clutch in the playoffs. Nazr Mohammad can be a solid contributor if he plays up to his potential. But when it’s all set and done Dallas has more advantageous situations.

There is also an x-factor in this series: the Mavs Devin Harris. He gives Dallas 10 points a game and 3 assists off the bench. He is also quick and a very good on-the-ball defender, which means he has the ability to disturb Tony Parker. If he can win that battle it could affect the dynamic of this series, which promises to be a great one with close finishes throughout.

PREDICTION: Mavs 4-3. They are ready to take the next step. They are no longer a porous defensive team. And that injury to Duncan has made a difference not only in his play but in the play of the team as a whole. They look vulnerable for the first time in years.

(6) L.A. Clippers v. (2) Phoenix

This is an interesting series because these two teams play so different styles. Phoenix will run up and down the floor and outscore you while the Clippers are built to thrive in a half-court setting. Whichever team can dictate the tempo will win the series. The Clippers are a solid defensive team, while the Suns are the league’s best offensive club. They have played each other 4 times, with each team taking two. However, the paces of these games have all been favorable to the Suns. For the Clippers to last in this series, especially after their last one, they are going to have to force a half-court setting. If they try to run with Phoenix they will be scorched.

The individual match-ups greatly favor the Clippers. Nash is a great PG but Cassell might be the craftiest defender in the game. Marion is excellent, but he will be guarded by a better player in Brand, who can guard around the perimeter on big guys. Brand is quick for his size. There is no one to guard Brand in the low post or Kaman down low. The Suns starting center is 6’8”. Diaw can’t guard Kaman but by the same token he has several advantages offensively on any big guy the Clippers put on him. Then there’s the issue of who gets Corey Maggette. Tim Thomas is not good enough defensively. In this series the Suns desperately need a healthy Kurt Thomas to give them some rebounding presence while providing a big body on Kaman. Neither team has a big bench. The Suns have House, who will cause havoc if the game is played to the Suns pace. On the other hand, this could be the breakout of Shaun Livingston, the Clippers talented guard. Ross can come in and defend well, and Radmanovic fits in well in this series. If the games are played on paper the Clippers cruise.

But that’s not the case. Experience could play a critical role in this series. Can Sam Cassell’s leadership guide the Clippers into the Western Conference finals (who would’ve thought anyone could say that at the start of the year)? It could happen. We may even get a Jack Nicholson sighting for a Clippers game if that happens.

PREDICTION: Suns 4-2. As much as I want to take the Clippers and as much as they will be able to dominate inside and on the glass I think experience plays a key roll. Also, the Clippers are an average road team and are actually a couple of games under .500 on the road. The Suns are slightly better on the road and a stronger home team. To me the clincher is that the Suns have been able to play their way in the 4 games these two teams have played. If the Suns don’t hit a slump they should advance.

This leaves us with this quick series for the right to represent the West.

(4) Dallas v. (2) Phoenix

To me this is a no-brainer. By this point in the playoffs fatigue becomes a crucial factor. The lack of a bench for the Suns will greatly hurt them in this series. Dallas actually plays defense and has the firepower to play with the Suns. Terry, Stackhouse, and Howard can all be prolific scorers and put up 20 on the Suns. Harris, Armstrong, and Van Horn can all be big offensive threats in this series in their playing time. And if Dampier plays up to his potential he will be an unstoppable force in this series.

Nowitzki is a shoe-in for 30 a night in this series. The Suns continue to think it is a good idea to put Nash on Dirk. I think this is the moment where Nowitzki posts up the smaller man, opening up all kinds of options. And he can shoot it from wherever he wants. The Suns don’t have a huge advantage in any match-up in the series. They are simply outgunned. Coach Johnson could play and put up respectable numbers.

PREDICTION: Mavs 4-1. They have too much balance and too many good players for the Suns to handle. Remember that Dallas, by NBA rules, has the home-court with the better record. They will advance to their 1st NBA finals.

So I have the Mavs losing to the Pistons in the NBA finals. At least it’ll be an entertaining series.

To read my Eastern Conference Breakdown go here:
Eastern Conference Breakdown


Wed 04/19/06, 11:26 am EST

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