Prognostirank, 2013: Conference Final Funerals, #5 to #3

Posted on Thu 25 April 2013 in Prognostirank 2013 by Aaron McGuire

prognostirank logo 2013

For a background of and explanation of Prognostirank's purpose, click here. In a nutshell? It's a reverse-order ranking of all teams left in the playoffs, prognosticating on their playoff prospects and ranking them from worst to best. We then rate -- on a scale of 1 to 5 bullets -- our confidence in each prediction. Five bullets indicate a "very confident" prediction, one bullet indicates a "substantially wavering" prediction. Today's post outlines teams #5 to #3 -- or, the last second round exit and the results of our projected conference finals. See part one for first round ousters and part two for second round ousters.

• • •

TEAM #5: LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS____ (Western 4th seed: 56-26, SRS of 6.43)

  • Series prediction: Clippers WIN in the first round, LOSE in the second round. ( • • )
  • Three most likely end results: 7-7; 4-3 then 3-4 ( • • ), 11-10; 4-3 then 4-3 then 3-4 ( • • ), 3-4 ( • • )

This Clippers team is better than you think it is. It really is. I was incredibly close to picking them to upset the Thunder -- I'm on the fence just enough that I went chalk instead, but the Clippers are a good team, and they're better than most people think. While Clipper fans and general league aficionados have made a habit of noting that the Clipper team that won 17 straight games early this season isn't the Clipper team that's come to play in April, there are two main mitigating factors that make me think that particular storyline is becoming overplayed.

  • Paul was injured early in 2013. He's been working his way back to health since, and in recent weeks, he's finally looked as healthy as he was during the streak. The Clippers' general performance has reflected this -- L.A. made a strong push for the three seed with a seven-game winning streak to end the year, and what's more, they haven't lost a game in regulation to a lottery team since March 19th. Yes, the Clippers looked pretty awful for a few months, and lost to lottery teams galore. But they certainly haven't lately.

  • The vast majority of L.A.'s trouble lies with the bench, not the starters -- I covered this in passing back in late March, and it's held true since. Their once-dominant bench lineups that led to an overestimation of the team's prospects have been absolutely abysmal in recent months. In the playoffs, a team's bench gets fewer minutes and the Clippers get to return to their starters, who are quite the effective bunch. So, yes -- L.A.'s bench was punching above their weight to start the season, then proceeded to punch well below their weight immediately thereafter. In the playoffs, it doesn't much matter WHERE the bench-as-a-whole punches -- on a team like this, the starters are going 40+.

Additionally, this could just be a gut feeling, but I get the sense that in a playoff scenario the Clippers would match up reasonably well against the Thunder. This may seem like an odd statement to make given that the Clippers were quite literally the only Western team the Thunder swept in the regular season -- the Thunder won 117-111 in OT in OKC and won by scores of 109-97 (no Chris Paul, and L.A. had it within single digits in the last minute) and 108-104 in L.A. And that's true. It IS a pretty weird statement to make, given that the Thunder are 4-9 against the other four best records in the league -- San Antonio, Memphis, Miami, and Denver. But 3-0 against the Clippers, and THAT'S their matchup disadvantage? "Sure, Aaron. Makes sense."

Really, though -- each of the games L.A. played OKC was a close contest, and that was despite the fact that L.A.'s bench was god-awful in every game. That bench won't be playing quite as much in a playoff situation. Chris Paul shot 2-14 in OKC's overtime win. I don't see that happening often in a playoff situation. And even with all those mitigating factors, OKC managed naught but a few close wins? Look -- the Clippers aren't unbeatable, and there's a reason I picked them to lose the series. But this isn't going to be some kind of evisceration. With a healthy Chris Paul and a healthy Blake Griffin, the Clippers run a non-systematic offense that thrives on transition buckets and a cobbled-together pick and roll with whatever parts and pieces Chris Paul can salvage from the refuse around him. The Clippers have a few individual pieces that thrive against the Thunder. Chris Paul traditionally does well against Westbrook, and Blake Griffin operates_ very_ well against Ibaka's block-happy ways when he goes up strong and makes it a point to finish. Jamal Crawford is markedly less efficient than Kevin Martin, but Kevin Martin relies on open shots in a Matt Bonner-esque way -- I don't think the gap between Martin and Crawford is going to be nearly as large in a playoff situation as it is in regular season production.

All that said? I still can't pick against a team that won games by an average of 9 points per game, even against an underrated and underappreciated Clippers team that's come a long, long way since the Chris Paul trade.

DEWEY'S TAKE: In D&D alignment terms, this team is neutral-neutral tending towards neutral-evil. Did I get that right, Tim Duncan? I'm sorry, I just don't know the game that well. :sweats: I only bring up alignment because back in the day, Aaron and I came up with an alternative alignment chart for players of a certain position: Solid-neutral-scrappy axis, and a solid-neutral-sketchy axis. This is a quality-independent alignment. You're solid in the first axis if you're like the Spurs or Warriors, getting wins through solid, fundamental play. You're scrappy if you're the underdog getting inexplicable wins. You know, like the Mavs or Jazz (even the Lakers!). Sketch is self-explanatory. Operative example being: Did you ever get a win by whispering a swear in your young impressionable opposing point guard to psyche him out? Then you're sketchy. Why all of this, Alex? Why? Well, because the Clippers are the solid-sketchy team to end all solid-sketchy teams and Chris Paul is their king. Chauncey Billups, Caron Butler, DeAndre Jordan... it's like this team took the old, weird Clippers of 3-5 years ago and made them good without fixing any of their ugly, jaw-chomping weirdness. It's wicked sketchy. And can you possibly be any more solid-sketchy than Vinny Del Negro? His name literally translates to "Lawyer of darkness, comically played by Joe Pesci." That's the literal translation. I think this about says it all.

• • •

TEAM #4: INDIANA PACERS (Eastern 3rd seed: 49-32, SRS of 3.34)

  • Series prediction: Pacers WIN in the first & second rounds, LOSE in the ECF. ( • • • • )
  • Three most likely end results: 11-7; 4-1 then 4-2 then 3-4 ( • • • ), 9-7; 4-1 then 4-2 then 1-4 ( • • ), 7-5; 4-1 then 3-4 ( • )

I kind of used New York's Prognostirank capsule in the last post to discuss the many merits of the Indiana Pacers in a series against the New York Knicks. So it would be rather fitting to use this post to explain what I meant by the last line of my New York post, where I noted that the Knicks would be the stronger matchup against Miami, even if the Pacers are the better team with a significantly more elite defense. Essentially, it all boils down to their relative strengths. I discussed in the Rockets/Warriors posts why I felt the Rockets and the Warriors had a chance of throwing their first round matchups into possible upset scenarios despite being clearly inferior to the better teams they're facing. Essentially, it's the 2009 Magic theory -- take a ton of threes and barrel into the other team in an effort to force the refs to give you a lot of calls. The threes and the fouls add variance and throw the better team off their game -- it gives you a chance of closing the quality gap in 2 or 3 games of the series on variance alone -- you'll then have 4 chances to simply catch the better team on a bad night and hope you grind one out.

New York, Houston, Golden State -- they all do this. It makes all three of them susceptible to both sides of an upset. You can already see that happening in the NY/BOS series. If the Celtics had an even remotely functioning offense, they would've won game 1 and had a chance of snatching game two. They look weak. But look at the three point shooting -- if New York goes on one of their 45-55% three point shooting nights, they're completely unbeatable. They'd blow out the 1996 Bulls. That's where the variance helps in a series where a team is completely outmatched. Having a high leverage production point where one or two made baskets changes your overall game that much gives you an extra edge. If it can give you 2 or 3 "completely unbeatable" games in a single series, as it so often does? You're golden. You can get situations where the 2009 Magic beat the 2009 Cavaliers. Balky or not, that was an incredible upset and it came on the back of somewhat unsustainable three point shooting. The Knicks can do the exact same thing, every once in a while, and that's why they'd stand a shaky chance to make a series of it against Miami.

The Pacers? They're good. Don't get me wrong. And don't think I've completely given up on the idea that Indiana could upset Miami. There were only two teams in the league that won the season series with this year's Heat -- the Pacers and the Knicks. (Weird stat, huh?) They both have a shot at an upset, even if the Heat are a markedly better team. While the Knicks would try their luck by imposing high variance shot-making, the Pacers would try theirs by forcing low-percentage shot-taking. We often forget that the Pacers thoroughly dominated Miami in their first two contests this season -- the Heat continually lost Paul George off-ball and found themselves stymied by Roy Hibbert's dominance in the paint. In all of the matchups, Paul George did a very good job on LeBron and it made the Heat somewhat mortal. The Knicks could beat the Heat -- the Pacers could too. So... why not pick them instead of Miami?

Miami's better. That's all there is to it.

It's conceivable that the Indiana defense mucks up Miami enough that they can't blow out the Pacers, but it's tough to fathom how Indiana scores as easily as they did in the first two games of the season series over the course of the conference finals. Consider -- Indiana dropped the last game to Miami when they were in the midst of their run-for-the-ages win streak. The Heat found themselves thoroughly befuddled by Indiana's length defensive scheme in the first two games, unable to get good percentage looks up and unable to score when the game was on the line. But in that last win? Miami siphoned offense from an unfamiliar source -- the champs leaned on one of Mario Chalmers' best games ever and tried to feature Chris Bosh in a Toronto-esque Bosh-driven offense. And it worked. The Heat got up big to start the game and the Pacers offense could never quite get in gear enough chip away at the lead. Therein lies the little nugget that keeps me from picking Indiana to win the game -- the Heat are one of the better offenses we've seen in the last several years, and they STILL have wrinkles of versatility that defenses can't gameplan until it's too late. They have such a wide variety of different looks they can give you, and over the course of a series, I trust Spolestra to experiment and tinker each game until he finds a combination that works on that particular night. If Indiana gives Miami even a tiny bit of daylight, and lets them take a 10 point lead? I just don't see how Miami's improving defense lets Indiana's offense back into the game. The Pacers have a shot at the upset, but it's a shot at an upset -- they aren't the favorites, and I can't in good faith pick them to be.

DEWEY'S TAKE: In Hoosiers, there's a great scene where Gene Hackman wakes up in a restaurant, only to find that all the people there speak only in one word - "Malkovich." He has traveled through his own portal.... Wait, sorry, that was Being John Malkovich. Sorry. Anyway, yeah, the point is, that was a movie that took place in the same state as the Pacers now play. And just like Hackman's iconic "Coach Carter" from that film, Frank Vogel has inspired his Pacers to play a brand of defense that is as stifling as it is hip. Hip meaning "in style" and "how Roy Hibbert or David West checks you on a screen; that is, when they aren't outright shoving you". The Pacers are led by all-around savant Paul George, not to be confused with guard Hill George on the same team. The Pacers represent some sort of perfect combination between the Bob Knight and Ron Artest win-at-all-costs insanity on the one hand, and on the other, the total, relatively unimpeachable uprightness of the recent Pacers. They are the most Mike Brown team in the league, until (sources tell me) Mike Brown returns to slay them in the Conference Finals with the Cavs next season. Note: Information in this blurb was provided by many reliable sources, including, and limited to, Mike Brown.

• • •

TEAM #3: SAN ANTONIO SPURS____ (Eastern 2nd seed: 58-24, SRS of 6.67)

  • Series prediction: Spurs WIN in the first & second rounds, LOSE in the WCF. ( • • • )
  • Three most likely end results: 11-9; 4-2 then 4-3 then 3-4 ( • • • • ), 11-7; 4-2 then 4-1 then 3-4 ( • • • ), 7-6; 4-2 then 3-4 ( )

Again, Oklahoma City? Why do you have to keep doing this? Why do you hate me?

Alright, that's not quite fair. The 2013 Spurs are an interesting bunch. They're hard to handicap. During this long season, the Spurs have had several moments where they've looked unbelievably dominant -- they've had stretches where they look to combine the all-time great offensive execution of the 2012 Spurs and the Duncan-led defense of the 2007 Spurs, with Bowen replaced by Leonard and Green as the de facto perimeter stoppers. Possession after possession goes by with strong stop after strong stop, not a rotation out of place or an easy shot allowed... all while they whip the ball around at the other end and get wide open threes and at-rim layups. From time to time, the Spurs see fit to embody beautiful basketball. They have moments of unbeatable guile.

And yet... they aren't unbeatable. At all. The biggest problem -- and the struggle that many Spurs fans are having this season -- lies in the disconnect between San Antonio's best moments and their worst moments. The Spurs are supposed to be a hallmark to consistency and dogged persistence. "Lock down every possession. Never take a bad shot. Move the ball." Et cetera, et cetera. This season, though, that hasn't been the case -- this Spurs team is prone to go on 5-6 minute stretches of lazy, uninterested, selfish play. For short stretches, they simply don't move the ball or rotate effectively. They complain to the refs and forget to get back on defense. They take tentative steps and they sulk as Popovich tears into the team with his customary fury. At its best moments San Antonio's defense looks like a title-winning throwback to the ones that won Duncan his rings -- at its worst, it looks like a yet more shoddy imitation of last year's flawed defense. At its best moments San Antonio's offense looks like another generation-defining tour de force in ball movement and brilliant playcalling -- at its worst, it's a ball-sticking offense with no creativity and a general air of disinterest.

The most frustrating part? The Spurs embody both on a game-by-game basis. In the last game of the regular season, San Antonio scored 23 points in six minutes of play against the Timberwolves, with strong defense and insane offense leading their run. They scored 72 points in the other 42 minutes of the game, shooting horribly and playing completely disinterested basketball in a blowout home loss to a terrible team. Same tale-of-two-teams story was true in their recent loss to the Nuggets -- they went a sterling 14-0 in 6 minutes to start the game, then proceeded to get destroyed 96-72 over the other 42 minutes. It's a Jekyll and Hyde thing. Early in the season, that pattern would reverse -- they'd have 42 interested minutes and 6 completely lazy minutes every game. I'd ask "which is the real Spurs team", but that's not right. They're both the "real" Spurs -- this year's Spurs team is an object in contrasts more than any other Spurs team in recent memory. They are a flawed team with a stratospheric ceiling and a subterranean floor, and a team that has an irritating habit of reaching both their ceiling and their floor in any particular game. No lead feels particularly safe -- as a fan -- when simply you don't know what Spurs team you're getting from quarter to quarter. It's a bit mortifying.

San Antonio's title shot hinges on the Spurs limiting their disinterested coasting as the playoffs go on. Their top-tier game is a game that can play with any team in the league. Their bottom-tier game is a game that can get beaten by anyone -- the Bobcats, the Kings, the Hawks without their 4 best players... anyone. For that reason, I just can't pick the Spurs to win the title. I wish I had faith -- I don't. If they play their best, and they play consistently, they can win it all. But because of their inconsistency and their inscrutable lows, I can't pick them to beat a team as good as the Thunder. I can't pick them to go on a hot streak and win the title. They could do it, certainly. They have the talent: in extended minutes, Duncan is the best center in the NBA and Tony Parker is a first-team All-NBA point guard, the 1b to Chris Paul's 1a. Kawhi Leonard is a budding all-star with all-defense potential, and I suspect Manu Ginobili may have one vintage playoff series left in the tank. That's a __killer four-man closing lineup, and it gives you a lot of versatility -- you can pair them with another perimeter stopper in Danny Green and play small, you can pair them with Tiago Splitter and play a modified two-towers, you can pair them with Gary Neal for instant-offense, and you can pair them with Matt Bonner if you want the internet to love you. But if they don't focus? If they coast?

They'll be out early, and their uncharacteristic foibles will be the only thing to blame.

DEWEY'S TAKE: What do I say about the Spurs that I haven't said about the Spurs? Take a thousand-yard view, Alex. The Spurs are a team that historically has combined the best of both worlds, of innocence and experience. Every title they've won has seen unfathomably young and inexperienced players stepping up... but also mentored heavily by unfathomably old and experienced players. Tim Duncan has gone from column A to column B, but he has maintained the best of both worlds himself, crafty worldliness and wiles on one hand, freakish athleticism and mental freshness on the other. A microcosm of the Spurs at large, Tim seems to be able to turn whatever he has on whenever the Spurs have needed him. The remarkable thing about the Thunder series wasn't that the younger team won, it was that the younger team won by elevating itself -- as if in an instant -- to the wisdom and experience of the Spurs. The Spurs' hopes largely hinge on young players such as Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green pulling a similar form of identity theft on the now-tested Thunder.

• • •

A few end-matter notes -- I'll be putting up the final part of the prognostirank series (with my run-down for the finals and my finals predictions) on Wednesday. Note that every single one of my predictions are already chosen -- I haven't been editing the picks to adjust for anything we see in the intervening playoff games, and I'm not gonna start now. I'd like to thank Hoopchalk for their excellent Playoff Preview Capsule series (used for some of the initial scouting here), as well as NBA League Pass and Basketball Reference for the game-watching experience and the stats to draw on when writing these.

Stay frosty, friends.