Even though the Atlanta Hawks and Boston Celtics have yet to decide their first-round series, the conference semifinals round of the NBA playoffs tips off tonight when the New Orleans Hornets host the San Antonio Spurs and the Orlando Magic visits the Detroit Pistons. BP's Association experts look ahead and share some thoughts and predictions on these series.
Kevin Pelton: Let's start with the Pistons and the Magic. I don't know about you, but I hate predicting series involving Detroit. You never seem to know what kind of Pistons team is going to show up. That goes beyond Detroit simply taking a night or two off against an inferior opponent like Philadelphia. Despite the brilliant series from LeBron James, the Pistons were the better team in last year's Eastern Conference Finals. You just wouldn't know it from the way the action transpired on the court. You've been following the East closely, Brad. Will we get Dr. Jekyll or Mr. Hyde in this series?
Bradford Doolittle: Not only were the Pistons better than the Cavs last year, they were better than the Heat the year before. I don't know whether we'll get good Pistons or bad Pistons, but I do know that Detroit was dominant over the last 10 quarters of their first-round series against the Sixers. They seem pretty focused to me. I suspect that the Magic will get their best shot.
At first blush, the most interesting thing about this matchup is the contrast it presents for Detroit. They just knocked off a poor shooting team, but now face arguably the best-shooting team in the league. The Pistons play great help defense but Orlando can really spread things out, opening things up for Dwight Howard in the middle. Tempo will be crucial in this one, I should think.
KP: You've made the comment that the Magic is a four-man team, but this is an awfully good four-man team--especially when the other guys are hitting their threes. Orlando wasn't even great from downtown in the Toronto series, shooting 32.4% from three-point range while making nearly 10 a game, and still ended up dispatching of the Raptors handily.
To me, the big matchup in this series is going to be at the point. Chauncey Billups struggled a bit in the early going against Philadelphia but was outstanding in Games Five and Six. Jameer Nelson was a big key for the Magic in beating Toronto--it was really more of a big three in the regular season--but faces a much more challenging defender in Billups in this series. If Nelson comes close to playing Billups even, Orlando has a chance.
BD: The reference to Orlando being a four-man team is really about the steep drop-off from the Big Four to the rest of the roster, something that could be a factor in this series. Frankly, though, the further we get into the playoffs, the less of a factor that probably is. Detroit's bench is better, but Flip Saunders rode his starters pretty hard in the first round and I doubt that will change against Orlando. Orlando will also play its four stars for heavy minutes. Barring foul trouble, the benches might not be much of a factor.
As for Nelson, I was just checking his splits against Detroit for the last couple of seasons. He missed two of the four games against the Pistons this year and didn't fare too well last year. I agree that he's going to have to hold his own against Billups for the Magic to have a shot. Another interesting matchup is Rashard Lewis against whoever the Pistons put up against him. He hit 41% from downtown in four games against Detroit in the regular season. On the defensive end, he'll find himself matched up with Jason Maxiell or Antonio McDyess.
Lest we forget the Pistons versus Dwight Howard, Detroit has four quality interior defenders--and 24 fouls--to throw at Howard. He'll get his numbers, but he'll have to work awful hard for them. On the other end, the Pistons will attempt to use either Rasheed Wallace or McDyess to draw him out of lane, I'd guess. You can also post up Rasheed and try to get Howard in foul trouble. The Magic has to keep Howard on the floor for the 40 minutes he averaged against Detroit in the regular season.
OK, brass tacks time. To me, Howard is the best player in the series, but the Pistons have enough quality big men to keep him from posting Wilt Chamberlain numbers. The Pistons can control the tempo, force Orlando into a halfcourt game and then pinch the Magic's outside shooters (the Pistons are the second-best team in the NBA vs. threes). Meanwhile, Tayshaun Prince can erase whoever he guards, likely Hedo Turkoglu. Orlando has to force Detroit to miss in the halfcourt set and hope Howard can dominate the defensive boards and trigger the break. A fast-paced game will be the only way Orlando's three-point shooters can get off. I'll take Detroit in five. And you, Mr. Pelton?
KP: If you look at the similarity scores I used at the start of the playoffs, it's actually the Magic that has the slightly better playoff formula. That and Detroit's postseason unpredictability is nearly enough for me to pick Orlando, but I'm not willing to quite go out on that limb. Still, I see this series going seven games before home-court advantage holds for the Pistons.
All right, let's move on to the matchup in the Western Conference. That San Antonio beat Phoenix in the first round is not a surprise, but that the Spurs had such a relatively easy time of it was not something I saw coming. Is San Antonio a better team than their regular-season numbers would indicate?
BD: I think they're better than their regular-season numbers only in that they played without Tony Parker for a good stretch during the season and didn't have Kurt Thomas. So in that regard, I think they're better than the numbers but it's not a huge effect. Even the Spurs have to hit the downslope at some point. They are the oldest team in the league. Of course, playoff experience helps and they have a big advantage in that area over New Orleans. To me, the most fascinating part of this series is going to be how they defend Chris Paul. Bruce Bowen can't stay with Paul, can he?
KP: We didn't talk about it in the first round, but when we talk about the Spurs aging, Bowen is a big part of that. He played just 22 minutes per game in the series against Phoenix and was frequently on the pine in crunch time. It's hard to justify keeping even a defender as good as Bowen in there when he scores four points in 110 minutes (that's 1.5 per 40 minutes, for the record). The quickest guys are the toughest matchups for Bowen at this stage of his career, and Paul was awfully good in the regular season against the Spurs (22.0 points and 9.0 assists, shooting 53.4% from the field), so I'm going to say "no."
On the other side, the matchup I'm looking at is Manu Ginobili against the Hornets' shooting guards. Jannero Pargo played a lot alongside Paul in the series against Dallas, but I don't see how New Orleans can get away with that in this series. Pargo gives up too much size to Ginobili, and Peja Stojakovic doesn't have the quickness to defend him one-on-one. Julian Wright might be able to match up in limited minutes, but clearly the best option the Hornets have is Morris Peterson. That means Peterson needs to get some looks from downtown against the three-stingy Spurs--and he needs to knock them down.
BD: The Hornets definitely need to convert on the open looks when they get them. Each possession in this series is going to be magnified because in terms of tempo, these are two of the five slowest-paced teams in the league. We're looking at some 78-74 games in this one. To me, that plays into San Antonio's strength because you really don't want to let them get anchored into their halfcourt defense. A lot of the Hornets' success has come from taking care of the ball on offense and forcing turnovers on defense, two traits you can trace directly back to Paul. How do you see that aspect playing into things?
KP: One of the interesting aspects of the playoffs is that teams do get more cautious. In the regular season, 13.2% of possessions end in a turnover (ignoring offensive rebounds). Even playoff teams turned it over 12.9% of the time during the regular season. During the first round, teams committed turnovers on 11.8% of their possessions. So it's hard to rely on forcing turnovers in the postseason, and New Orleans really didn't against Dallas. They did take great care of the ball, coughing it up on but 7.5% of their first-round possessions, far and away the league's best mark. When you have the ball in Paul's hands that frequently, you're not going to get a lot of miscues.
I think that's part of the recipe for the Hornets to win this series. They're not going to shoot a great percentage against the Spurs--you just don't do that--but you can beat them on the offensive glass if you're getting shots up and not turning it over. Throw in some three-pointers--and the value of every three seems to be magnified dramatically in the kinds of 78-74 games you expect--and the Hornets win. I'm taking them in seven. You?
BD: I'm going with the Spurs in six. The big thing for me is San Antonio's offense. The Hornets' defense is too reliant on turnovers and the Spurs could hit 49-50 percent on the effective field goal chart. But this is tough call--and a great matchup.
Detroit vs. Orlando
Detroit wins series: 71% (overall)
- in 4: 11%
- in 5: 24%
- in 6: 18%
- in 7: 18%
Orlando wins series: 29% (overall)
- in 4: 3%
- in 5: 5%
- in 6: 12%
- in 7: 9%
New Orleans vs. San Antonio
New Orleans wins series: 54% (overall)
- in 4: 6%
- in 5: 16%
- in 6: 14%
- in 7: 18%
San Antonio win series: 46% (overall)
- in 4: 6%
- in 5: 10%
- in 6: 18%
- in 7: 13%
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.