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NBA Postseason Preview (04/19)

April 19, 2008
Back and Forth
The NBA Playoffs

by Bradford Doolittle and Kevin Pelton

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Bradford Doolittle: Good day, Mr. Pelton. Before we kick off our playoff Back and Forth, let me share a little anecdote.

Wednesday night, as the last game of the 2007-08 NBA regular season was playing out, someone dropped off a stack of early editions in the sports department of The Kansas City Star, the setting of my nightly toil. These are the copies of the paper that get shipped out to the far-flung edges of our circulation area. We mine them for errors that can be fixed in the later edition that goes out to the majority of our readers.

Down at the bottom of the sports front, we have a little trinket we call "Conventional Wisdom," where we put in clever little witticisms related to whatever might be in the daily news. On this night, one of my colleagues had typed:

"The NBA preseason is finally over."

Well, I offered some mock indignation, we chuckled and moved on. I realized, though, that his crack was grounded in a common mindset. There are many casual NBA fans who believe there is no reason to follow the league until the playoffs.

I can't justifiably be chagrined over such attitudes because, after all, that is basically my approach for following college hoops prior to March Madness. Still, I think these casual fans are missing out on a lot--this season, more than ever.

The regular season means something in the NBA. It means a great deal, in fact. Seeds matter. Home court matters. Because of this, and because of the hotly contested Western Conference this season, we hardcore fans were treated to some of the best regular-season action in recent memory. Night after night, you could find games as compelling and hotly contested as you'll find anywhere in the hoops universe. Even the games that might have looked like clunkers in the box score, such as Utah's 77-66 win at New Orleans last week, were invigorating. That game was low scoring and full of turnovers, but man, it was intense. The players were going at it full tilt, playing unselfishly, and despite the paucity of scoring, it was a joy to watch.

Of course, now the clock is reset at :24. It's a whole new ballgame. If the teams that survived the grinding 1,230 games of regular-season basketball can up the intensity even more, we should be treated to some genuinely memorable hoops over the next two months. I, for one, am pumped. Let's get things started with the first round in the East. The pundits are saying that in the West, no first round result could really be considered much of an upset. I tend to agree. In the East, it would be pretty shocking if any of the top three seeds were to be upset in the opening round.

At the top of the "shock" list would be if Atlanta knocked off Boston. The Celtics won an amazing 66 games, including 11 of 12 down the stretch when they were spotting their regulars. The Hawks limped into the postseason at 37-45. The 29-game difference seems like a lot, and it is, but it's not a record. Here are the biggest gaps between one and eight seeds since the NBA went to the 16-team format in 1983-84:

YEAR NO1 NO8 GAP
1986 BOS CHI  37
1988 LAL SAS  31
1996 CHI MIA  30
2008 BOS ATL  29
1992 CHI MIA  29
1987 LAL DEN  28
1997 UTA LAC  28

What is really unusual is that as a group, the young Hawks have as much playoff experience as this edition of the Celtics: zero. Of course, the individuals on Boston have seen considerably more postseason action than Atlanta, just not together. For me this series is about Boston sharpening its playoff fangs while the Hawks get a taste of the action as they continue their upward arc. Can the Hawks steal a game in this set, or is a sweep inevitable?

Kevin Pelton: Well, Hawks fans probably don't agree with that "preseason" sentiment. It's hard to believe the regular season doesn't matter when you haven't tasted the postseason since 1999.

An interesting note on your list of lopsided first-round matchups: The biggest mismatch of all time may have produced a predictable 3-0 Boston sweep, but is also responsible for one of the most memorable performances of all time--a young Michael Jordan announcing his arrival at the Boston Garden.

I'm not anticipating Al Horford going for 63 points in Boston in this series. There also wasn't a whole lot in the season series to suggest this series will be more competitive than the records would indicate. The best thing the Hawks have going for them is the hometown-happy scorers at Philips Arena. This looks like a sweep.

Philly and Detroit aren't much closer on paper, but do the 76ers have a chance to make some noise after surging into the playoffs in the second half of the season?

Brad: In case I wasn't explicit enough: I also think Boston will sweep.

The Sixers really had a prolonged stretch of excellent basketball. After hitting their low-water mark of 16-28, they went on a 21-7 run. From there, Philly dropped seven of their last 10 to finish under .500. One of those three late wins was against the Pistons, though, and the Sixers split the season series. Still, Andre Iguodala shot just 34 percent over the long arms of Tayshaun Prince in four games, and Andre Miller really struggles against Chauncey Billups. Philly has to make things as ugly as possible and hope Iguodala or Lou Williams goes off and that they get a healthy energy boost from Thaddeus Young. I suspect the Sixers can steal a home game but I don't expect them to win more than that.

Kevin: Detroit in five sounds about right to me. Let's talk Orlando and Toronto. While the 76ers were rising, the Raptors were falling. After peaking at 32-24, Toronto was 9-17 over the last 26 games of the season, narrowly holding off Philadelphia for the sixth seed. The Raptors still have the fourth-best point differential in the East, but have been wildly inconsistent over the course of the season.

The return of T.J. Ford seems to have thrown Toronto out of whack. 19-12 with him sidelined by a neck injury, the Raptors are just 22-29 when Ford sees action this season. He hasn't seemed to fit in since coming back, but he's the starter with Jose Calderon having volunteered to move to the bench.

Unless Dwight Howard and company prove really vulnerable to Toronto's beloved pick-and-roll, this looks like the Magic's series to lose. Say Orlando in six?

Brad: To me, T.J. Ford is a better all-around player than Calderon is, but I think this may be a case when the latter is just a better fit for what Toronto is trying to do. A quick check: The Raps are +1.6 per 100 possessions when Calderon is on the floor vs. Ford's -4.4. (Hat tip to 82games.com) That may or may not mean something, but if I'm Sam Mitchell, I'd play Calderon over Ford as much as possible.

Toronto is pretty enigmatic. The power rating that NBAPET (my system) spits out, which I admittedly haven't put too much work into, has consistently slotted the Raptors around 10th in the league. They finished breakeven. Both teams are very perimeter oriented, Dwight Howard aside, and both finished in the top 10 in eFG% (the Magic were second.) But whereas the Magic were also top 10 in opposing eFG%, the Raptors were in the lower third. I really don't like the way Toronto is playing entering the postseason. I'm going with Orlando in five.

Now for what looks to be the one truly competitive series in the first round, the Cavs and Wizards, renewing what is becoming an annual playoff rivalry. Talk about teams whose chemistry really concerns me right now...I hated what I saw from Cleveland down the stretch. Those deadline deals Danny Ferry made haven't really created anything new as far as the key combinations Mike Brown uses. In fact, I sometimes get the feeling that Brown would just as soon ignore the new guys altogether, with the unfortunate exception of an overexposed Ben Wallace.

Kevin: Now wait, you said teams whose chemistry concerns you, then talked only about the Cavaliers. I take it you're not sure how long reserve duty will continue to suit the NBA's best superhero/blogger? The Wizards seem to be coming into the playoffs in decent shape, at relatively full health and with Gilbert Arenas as a potential X factor coming off the bench. Plus, they've been the better team over the course of the season by differential. I never feel comfortable picking against LeBron James, especially after DeShawn Stevenson called him overrated, but I like Washington to take this series in six games, with at minimum two great finishes.

Brad: Gilbert Arenas is a kind and gentle soul. He would never--never!--cause a chemistry issue. Your discomfort about picking against LeBron is understandable. I feel it as well. To me, the Cavs reached the finals last season a little before their time, taking advantage of a mediocre East field. Ferry first stood pat, then when it became apparent that that was a mistake, he made a random series of knee-jerk trades. The franchise needs to take a step back before they can move forward, I think. Not that they have much time; a James opt-out would cripple this franchise. Eddie Jordan coaches circles around Mike Brown--I'll also take the Wizards in six.

The top two teams in the East are as good as, or better than, any team in the West, but the top-to-bottom quality of teams is no contest. The West is best again and probably will be for the foreseeable future. While the overall conference was strong again, there was some upward mobility there as well, with the Lakers morphing into a top seed and the Hornets ending up number two. The Lakers/Nuggets matchup might be one vs. eight, but it's far from a typical opening round series. Remember my earlier chart? Here's one for the smallest gap between one and eight:

YEAR NO1 NO8 GAP
1999 MIA NYK   6
2008 LAL DEN   7
2003 DET ORL   8
2002 NJN IND  10
2001 SAS MIN  11
1999 SAS MIN  12
2007 DET ORL  13

The Miami/New York series in 1999 came after the infamous 50-game strike season so you can throw that one out. It's worth to note that those eighth-seeded Knicks became the only of their kind to reach the finals. I don't see that happening with Denver, though. Lakers in five.

Kevin: I struggle with what to say about this series. I know it's close in terms of wins, but it just seems like the Lakers are far and away the better team. I do think this is a bad matchup for Denver, because the Nuggets aren't a style mismatch for the Lakers.

Here's an interesting number. Denver is third in the league in percentage of opponent field goals off of assists (.632), which means you can beat the Nuggets' D by making the extra pass. Nobody in the NBA does that better than the Lakers. That is why Denver is in trouble--I'll take the Lakers in five as well.

Brad: It's funny you throw that number out there. I've been working with the big data set I built for looking (fruitlessly) for a magic formula for identifying successful playoff teams. Opponents' A/FG% is one of the traits I looked at. I'd never given the stat any thought at all prior to yesterday. I noticed that the Spurs dominate in that category. It's a very telling descriptive stat.

Dallas and New Orleans. This is a tough one. All of the touchy-feely points have to go the Hornets' way. I can't shake the feeling that New Orleans overachieved by a fair amount. While Pythagoras is OK with New Orleans' record, the component stats beneath that mark don't seem to support their degree of success. So there is something intangible going on there that I don't trust. That said, I can't see Dallas taking this one, especially without homecourt advantage and, in particular, with Dirk Nowitzki not hitting on all cylinders health-wise. The Mavs don't have anybody that can man up with Chris Paul. This could be the series that makes Mark Cuban long for Devin Harris. It should be a good watch; I'll take N'awlins in seven.

Kevin: I think everyone has been waiting for the Hornets to fall off all year. I understand that feeling and I've had it too, but nobody thought that way about, say, Phoenix three years ago when they came out of nowhere almost as much as New Orleans did (both led by MVP-candidate point guards, no less). If it hasn't happened yet, I don't think it's going to happen in the playoffs. I think Dallas' experience turns this into a seven-game series, but New Orleans wins it anyway. (Man, we better start disagreeing at some point.)

Next up is what seems to me like far and away the best first-round series, a Phoenix/San Antonio matchup that not only is the third time these teams have met in the playoffs the last four years but is also a clash of heavyweights in the first round. I like this one to go the distance as well, and I like the Suns to eliminate the defending champs. Am I crazy?

Brad: You may be crazy. Let's face it--I don't know you that well. You may be one of those "adult babies" for all I know. But your NBA logic is generally impeccable and, you're right, we should disagree once in a while. Well, here's one we disagree on. I'll take the Spurs in six. San Antonio is really playing well and the difference will be perimeter defense, now that the Suns can finally match up with the Spurs in the paint--at least if Shaq can stay out of foul trouble. Manu Ginobili is the MVP of this series.

Last but not least is the one series with that weird "you get the higher seed but not homecourt" things, the Rockets and Jazz. Remind me again why the NBA bothers to break teams into divisions? Anyway, the Jazz have been the best team in the West in terms of their component stats and by most power rankings I've seen that employ objective methods. They really killed themselves with some bad road losses--two at Minnesota and one against the Clippers. Utah could easily have been the top seed, but they're not. The Jazz should take this one, but they have to avoid the defensive lapses that plagued them at times during the regular season. One wish: I love Dikembe Mutombo and he is without a doubt a first-class individual. Sometime, though, I'd like to see somebody take that finger and jam it up his nose. Maybe Jaron Collins can take care of that--he doesn't do much else. Jazz in seven.

Hey, since this is likely our last exchange o' the day, throw your finals pick at me. We both picked the Suns and Bulls before the season. I've been crunching numbers all morning and, at this point, I've decided to change my mind about the Bulls.

My finals pick: Boston over Utah in five.

Kevin: What, you didn't run out and buy your Utah "Northwest Division Champions" gear?

All the talk about the Jazz's poor road record might have obscured an equally interesting (and bizarre) trend in their performance. As you noted, Utah had some real bad losses down the stretch, but they also had some great wins. 82games breaks down how teams fared against the top 10 teams, the middle 10 and the worst 10. Utah won 68% of its games against the top 10, tied with Boston and trailing only Detroit and the Lakers (both 70%). While most of these teams beat up on the league's weak sisters, the Jazz were almost no better, winning 70% of their games against the bottom 10. I'm not sure how much that means, but it's interesting.

As for this series, I think Houston will miss Yao Ming less than they might have in other matchups, but the absence of Rafer Alston, at least early in the series, will be painful. Deron Williams could go nuts against two smaller defenders (Bobby Jackson and Aaron Brooks) not known for their defense. I like the Jazz to finish off the Rockets in six games.

For my finals pick, I'm going conventional--Boston over the Lakers. It seems like every indicator slightly favors the Lakers over Utah in what could be the de facto Western Conference Finals. The Jazz's differential is great...but the Lakers have a slightly better one. Utah did very well against the top teams...but the Lakers did slightly better and won the season series 3-1.

The winner of the West will face a much more grueling path to the Finals, and I think that would help Boston win the series in six games.

Bradford Doolittle is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Bradford by clicking here or click here to see Bradford's other articles.
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Kevin by clicking here or click here to see Kevin's other articles.

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<< Previous Article
The 2007-08 Awards (04/15)
<< Previous Column
Back and Forth (04/04)
Next Column >>
Back and Forth (05/03)
Next Article >>
NBA Postseason Preview (04/19)

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