2013 NBA Finals Roundtable: Nerves, Tics, and Switches Flipped

Posted on Thu 06 June 2013 in 2012 Playoff Coverage by Aaron McGuire

2013 finals cover

Hey, Dewey! It's Aaron, talking from omnipresent bold text. How's life? Here's where we'll start -- how nervous are you about this series? I feel like I'm going to get fired by game 2. I'm ridiculously amped up, but at the same time, ridiculously nervous and skittish. Damnit, sports.

Dewey: Honestly, I'm so amped up it's hard to feel nervous. It's one of those series where the Spurs would be ridiculously disappointed if they lost, but I can't help but feel like they've already slightly overachieved from this season and in doing so answered all the doubts caused by the Thunder loss. I feel like they're playing with found money, so to speak. And so all I can feel is hyped up. This is slightly ironic, because if I ever actually found myself in this situation, I would resent the "just happy to be here" mentality at its core. I mean, I do. But God, as a fan, I'm happy to be here. I was expecting disappointment after disappointment after the ludicrously poor finish the Spurs made to the regular season. So it's just a dream to me, honestly, the impact of a possible loss hasn't crystallized for me, it's just the thrill of knowing your team is facing the best in the East and hoping you have a shot.

McGuire: See... ever since the Kobe/Pau Lakers, I've had trouble putting a whole lot of faith in late-season schnids. At every step of San Antonio's playoff run, I felt like they had the potential to lose. I felt like the threat was very real, simply because it was possible that late-season team persisted. But there was also a crystallized grain of hope. Early this season, I distinctly recall noting that this Spurs team had the potential to be a uniquely special team. They could synthesize the best offensive runs of the 2012 edition with the throwback defense of the 2008 edition. (No, not quite Bowen's prime, but back when the defense was the calling card.) And as they got deeper, that grain of hope embedded in the clamshell of my heart became a lovely expanding pearl. And now the damn thing is big enough to be a tumor. If the Spurs lose -- whether it's a close series or not -- I'll feel like I've once again let the hope grow too close to the vest, as a fan. And that depresses me on a deeply personal level, even if I agree that to some extent the Spurs are playing with found money. (Also, alright, I'll be clear -- I despise the Miami Heat.)

Dewey: Well, yeah, and I think both of us thought they had at least a punter's chance from the outset. I was extremely and immediately skeptical of Kevin Martin replacing James Harden (and still am, even ignoring Harden's breakout season and Martin's, uh, relative fizzle against Memphis), and only an utterly dominant Thunder team really served to quell this skepticisim. Honestly, the Spurs have completely dominated the regular season the last three years, to the extent where I honestly felt like they could win 66 games if they really wanted to the last few years and had a few breaks... but, obviously, they didn't actively want that Like, the Spurs against the Kings or Bucks is not lopsided in terms of the matchups, but in practice the Spurs at full attention are a total force on both ends, a totally coherent, well-spaced, horizontal-coverage machine. The regular season was genuinely practice for the Spurs whenever Tony and Tim have been healthy. Yes, even with Richard Jefferson. yes, even with Manu injured. Yes, even with no one else stepping up. It didn't mean they'd always win, but they'd always put in a possible win.

• • •

All true, although... well... that late season swoon was a HECK of a swoon. Did you expect this kind of a playoff switch, or did the late season swoon make you think it was out of the question?

Dewey: What concerned me about the late-season swoon is that they stopped winning those games, and they even lost games that were unconscionable for a fully-armed, fully-engaged roster to lose. It struck me that Tony had lost a step, and 2011 was coming back in full force, despite Parker's legitimate case as a top-3 player for the first several months of the season. And when Tony loses a step, and you put a rangy defender on him? Game over. We had every right to think this, and every indication, despite how well he might play someone like Westbrook or Paul, despite how every shot seemed to be going in, despite the video game totals. We had every right to think that the run was over before it had begun. Even in San Antonio, "the switch" can only mean so much, right? Apparently not.

McGuire: One of the underrated things about this run is that -- much like the late dynasty Lakers -- these Spurs are putting up one of the most compelling arguments in recent memory against regular season performance in predicting playoff success. It's been droned into our heads ad infinitum over the past several years: The Spurs are a Regular Season Team. Sure, they'll rack up sixty wins and blow out fluff teams -- but when the elite teams come around, the Spurs can't hash it anymore. Well, about that... The Spurs team we saw in the last few months of the season -- for all intents and purposes -- doesn't exist anymore. It's gone. They did great things the first few months of the season, then just completely stopped playing coherent basketball for about two awful months of toilet-cellar play.

Dewey: Dude... what the hell's a toilet-cellar?

McGuire__:__Now, out of nowhere, they flipped a switch the second the L.A. series flipped to Los Angeles and they've been virtually unstoppable since, bested only by a few completely incredible performances by a humming-beyond-logic Warriors team. Ethan Sherwood Strauss (among others) said before the playoffs that it would be hilarious if the Lakers made a title run from the eight seed, proving once and for all that the regular season means next to nothing. It's in a bit of a lower key, but the Spurs are proving that barroom hypothesis out nearly as emphatically.

Dewey: No, really, I know you have a fancy new house or something, but what the hell's a toilet-cellar?

McGuire: ... I don't know. In my defense, you've written WAY more confusing constructions than that and asked me to edit them.


• • •

A lot has been written about what's similar between the Heat and the Spurs, this year's cream-of-the-crop. All that stands on its own. But what, to you, is the most inherently different aspect about these two teams that you can't seem to wrench from your craw?

Dewey: Okay, so the obvious difference to me (besides the related point that the Spurs have far more balanced production) is that the Spurs' role players play multiple roles for the most part and the Heat's role players tend to play only a couple . Norris Cole, Udonis Haslem, Joel Anthony, Birdman? Shane Battier (who can't buy a shot) is quite a versatile player, but he can't create offense. He's a fundamentally limited player whose limitations he wears on his sleeve, and on the Heat he looks like Prime Gerald Wallace by comparison. Even Bosh has never been exactly transcendent in the Big Three Era. Even Wade's seemed to have a pretty simplistic game when he's not 100% or getting a lot of fouls drawn. I like the Heat's players, but they tend to do one thing exceptionally well and little else, and it helps if they can space the floor or play smart, solid defense.

McGuire: That's a hilarious answer to me.

Dewey: Now, don't get me wrong, as a whole they tend to be quite versatile because of LeBron's ethereal fluidity and Wade's crafty style. But as individual players they aren't, and this limits and structures their game. When LeBron was playing in the Olympics you couldn't help but notice how perfectly he fit into a team of All-Stars, especially all-star wings. And again, don't get me wrong, it's not like Danny Green is uh... Prime Gerald Wallace (again). I mean, these are players that know their roles and stick to them. It's just that... I mean, reducing what Danny Green does to defense and corner threes is actually really misleading. He is so crafty on both ends, does so much, and understands the game and how to use lateral motion incredibly well. He's quite a versatile player. Boris Diaw, Tiago Splitter, Tim Duncan.... all these guys can pass it well, can set screens, can be in the right place on defense and make the extra rotations. It's not like Pop is doing anything magic - these are incredibly savvy, aware, intuitive players that can grasp what they need to do immediately, and they're versatile enough to capitalize on it. Granted, they're nothing without Tony's offense and Tim's defense, and the role players tend towards inconsistency (no, Kawhi doesn't count). But, aside from little used.Gary Neal, Aron Baynes, and Matt Bonner, the Spurs have a lot of players that grasp how to run a situation on offense, not just knowing where to be. This absolutely could be bias speaking, and the fact that I've seen far more of the Spurs than the Heat, but I just see the Heat 's role playersas being a full tier or two below the Spurs here in individual versatility. Danny Green is doing much of what Shane Battier is doing, but it's relatively common on the Spurs and relatively rare on the Heat.

McGuire: That's one of the funniest answers I've ever really seen in one of our roundtables, because I really didn't expect that at all. My answer is the same, but in the exact opposite direction. While their roles may be semi-predefined, my main point is that when you get down to the general rotation structure and the core pillars of their schemes, the Spurs are much more traditional in the way their players operate than the Miami Heat. LeBron is a phantasm that can occupy any of the five size-varied Russian dolls that make up positions. Wade is a scoring guard that can distribute as a point guard and defend players larger than he is with relative success. Bosh acts as a stretch wing in some capacities, but other times he acts as the central big man in Miami's offense and defense. And around them? Battier guards three to four positions depending on his knees, Chalmers constantly gets matched on random players and guards them with relative aplomb, and offensively Miami's transition game requires each of their players to have some versatile command of transition offense and movement principles. Spolestra uses such a ridiculous variety of utilization frameworks around his players that the Heat's offense and defense strike me more as a Rubiks cube whose shape is constantly changing than a set framework of defined roleplayers.

Dewey: Okay, yeah, that'd be hard to solve.

McGuire: Conversely, San Antonio is a lot more traditional. Sure, their players have a touch more skill-depth than you see in Miami's roleplayers, but Pop doesn't engage in massive feats of lineup versatility -- he tries a few interesting tweaks, but Pop's sophistication is in the general offense design, not the configurations in which he uses it. On a broad scale, the Spurs are: an unfairly talented center, a semi-traditional scoring point guard, shooters, and a versatile defensive stalwart at the large wing. That's a tried-and-true configuration, and with the exception of Pop's occasional sojourns with small-ball, he sticks to it. Pop's nontraditional elements are added in the form of plays, not the form of broader position-bending. That's my basic take -- both teams are unerringly creative, but the Heat bend the natural positions on the court and roles while the Spurs bend plays and broader system design in order to achieve their respective levels of elite play.

Dewey: Interesting. Huh.

McGuire: That said, your argument strikes me as a bit strange, because you're looking at the barren ends of miami's rotation while totally brushing aside "little used" players in San Antonio's scheme. For instance... Joel Anthony played six minutes in last year's finals. The entire finals. Miami has MORE depth this year. Who cares if he doesn't have a massive depth of skills? He's far less important to Miami than, say, Neal or Bonner... both of whom have barely any skill depth.

Dewey: Other than Joel Anthony, I listed four of the top nine in Miami's playoff minutes played this season. They are as follows:

  1. LeBron James; 659 (Jeeeeeeeeeeeez)
  2. Dwyane Wade; 527
  3. Chris Bosh; 511
  4. Mario Chalmers; 428
  5. Ray Allen; 381
  6. Norris Cole; 336
  7. Shane Battier; 305
  8. Udonis Haslem; 294
  9. Chris Andersen; 232

McGuire: While fair, I don't think you're totally familiar with San Antonio's playoff rotation if you're convinced Neal and Bonner are tertiary players compared to those folks. San Antonio's top nine minutes distribution to date is:

  1. Kawhi Leonard; 520
  2. Tony Parker; 518
  3. Tim Duncan; 481
  4. Danny Green; 421
  5. Manu Ginobili; 361
  6. Tiago Splitter; 280
  7. Matt Bonner; 231
  8. Gary Neal; 220
  9. Boris Diaw; 178


McGuire: No, but that would've been a good Mother's Day present for Momma Bonner. Anyway. How about LeBron, huh? He's averaging 41 MPG and doing virtually everything for Miami. Cripes. I hope Pop has been coaching Kawhi on the Marion/Kidd style exhaustion defense Carlisle used to great result in the 2011 finals, because there's an outside chance LeBron starts experiencing at least some degree of fatigue in this series.

Dewey: Probably not, but... I mean, it isn't out of the question. That Indiana series was PHYSICAL. Heh... Pop should just get the entire Western Conference together for a symposium. Just to teach Kawhi. Get the gang all together. Marion, Carlisle, Sefolosha... everybody. Get... oh my gosh, get George Hill and Roy Hibbert to consult. Oh my gosh. Aaron. This has to be real.

McGuire: Awesome. You know what'd be great? If Hibbert didn't leave Miami, and just bought courtside seats for the finals. Just was dapping Tim all game long and yelling out confusing heckling while Miami's on the court.

Dewey: Oh man, Bosh would be jealous. I see it playing out kind of like...

"Sorry, Bosh, too slow."
"Damn it, Roy."
"Too slow, once again. You get no daps."
"Haha, you're such a joker Roy."
"Too slow, again."

Then, by game 4:

bird tho

McGuire: Awesome. Holy crap.

Dewey: I'm picturing George Hill running a consultancy right now and it's really hard to shake this image. "Hey George. Heard you're running a consultancy George. Nice suit George. Gonna teach us the way to defend him george. For a reasonable fee, of course, George. Hey George. Missing u george."

McGuire: Imagine George Hill in a suit. A Pacers colored suit... with a small bolo tie.

Dewey: WELP. I was going to say "welcome to the last twenty minutes of my mind", but then you said "Pacers colored suit" and I was like "I guess you could say the same to me."

• • •

So, Aaron. Miami... you obviously have an odd relationship with them and their principal LeBron. Recently people have made reference to Cleveland LeBron making a return with the swoons of his supporting cast. But he's also gone through innumerable challenges and accomplishments since them. So, I'll ask you, finally: Does LeBron still evoke the scars and highs of Cleveland, almost 3 years removed from the Decision?

McGuire: I wrote in the player capsule series that I'd generally gotten over my LeBron dislike, and I wasn't being untruthful. The raw fury of my post-decision hate has faded. I can watch regular season LeBron without getting pissed off at him, at least. But every bit of ill will you eradicate leaves a mark or two, and in the case of LeBron, every feeling has its echos. In this case, the way this season has ended is especially evocative for me. The MIA/IND series reminded me so clearly of CLE/ORL, to the point of ever-disturbing deja vu. LeBron's "Cleveland mode" comments only helped to reinforce that. The fact that Miami actually won the series, primarily due to a few missteps by Indiana that Orlando didn't make in 2009? That's brutal. If the Heat win the title, the pain of 2009 will persist even longer -- the idea that the 2009 Cavaliers could have been this Miami team, overcoming a brutal ECF matchup to make the final step into history, will haunt me. Perhaps that's part of why I'm so nervous and itchy about this series. If the Heat win, the screams of those demons evolve from a murmuring titter to a belching roar. And I thought I'd figured it out, too!

Dewey: Haha, yeah. Honestly if the Spurs lose convincingly in this series, conversely, it will eradicate plenty of ghosts itself... namely, that the Spurs had a ghost of a chance in 2012. Hahaha. Hahahahaha. Ha. [bites a light bulb, continues to laugh maniacally] Which is kind of just as bad, but at least is more palatable in its certainty, to know that they genuinely would not have won in all likelihood.

McGuire: Sounds like you're wavering a bit. And stop biting light bulbs.

Dewey: ... You know, yeah. I started out thinking I didn't have much emotional baggage here, but that's a good point you're making. I have all the emotional baggage of the last four years stored in this game. I doubt it's accumulating except as photos in a picture book, but it is important -- I've watched (as a raw estimate) probably 250 games over the last 4 years that featured these San Antonio Spurs. These San Antonio Spurs with all of Duncan's brilliance (a term that he's starting to fade simply by being inadequate in description) and Manu's craft and Tony's elevation to a Hall of Fame guard. These San Antonio Spurs that have basically taught me the game of basketball, not as it was meant to be played (that's too normative; who doesn't like a great scorer taking over?) but a couple of ways, and ways they saw through to their furthest ability as individuals and an organization.

McGuire: What?

Dewey: So... I suppose LeBron has our vulnerable hearts in those giant pincer claws of his, once again. But, we don't know what to expect, once again, and sometimes we see that photo of Kawhi's hands and wonder if he can... uh... do the same thing to Miami that I was just semi-incoherently describing?

McGuire: Word.

• • •

Final predictions?

Dewey: Heat in seven. Sorry, heart. (I'm not sorry. Except that I am.)

McGuire: Head agrees. Heart says Spurs in six. I'll go heart, for once. Spurs in six. Let's get it, folks.


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The Boston Clinic: Free Throw Defense

Posted on Mon 04 June 2012 in 2012 Playoff Coverage by Aaron McGuire

After Friday's Celtics-Heat thriller, a lot of print was inked about the Celtics' offense. This was reasonable to me. After all, it was the 7th game the Celtics had played against the Heat this season, and the Celtics had done a remarkably good job on offense against the Heat. In seven games, the Celtics posted offensive ratings of 104, 101, 129, 86, 96, 119, and 116. For a team who averages an offensive rating of 100, that's above average for all but the last game of the regular season and the first game of the Eastern Conference Finals. Normally this wouldn't be all that weird -- after all, teams have irrationally good offensive performances against certain opponents all the time, right? True.

Except that the Heat are the 4th best defense in the league, and the Celtics the 27th worst offense. If the Celtics averaged what they average against the Heat -- again, the 4th best defense -- they'd average an offensive rating of 107 over the full season. That would be the 5th best offense in the league. And the sample size is now 8 games -- so small sample size is no longer a reasonable excuse. THAT'S absurd, and I understand why that was the story. However, as an avid reader of NBA Playbook and the like, I'd like to direct your attention to an unheralded factor in the Celtics’ Game 3 win last Friday: the absolute clinic the Celtics put on defending foul shots.

• • •

Here, we will start at the first free throw I noticed the Boston defense straight up shut down. We'll go frame by frame.

LeBron takes the free throw after a rushed, hurried dribble -- he throws his hands up, as if to say "Hark! Foul! Hark, I was fouled!" Why? Look behind him. Ray Allen, showing why he's still a force to be reckoned with on defense. Bone spurs or not, few in the league provide the threat of a chase down free throw block as well as Ray Allen (5.3% of attempted free throws while Allen is on the perimeter result in blocks, according to Synergy, second only to Mo Williams at 9.0%). Look at LeBron's right foot, separating ever so slightly from the ground. He hears the booming footsteps behind him. He's been there before. He knows what's coming -- Ray Allen, the free throw chase down specialist strikes again.

Unfortunately, Ray is unable to complete the block on this play. But as Bill Russell reminds us: "The idea is not to block every shot. The idea is to make your opponent believe that you might block every shot." Sure enough, LeBron's arc is distorted by Allen's phantom presence. In fact, Ray was relatively busy on this play, as we can hear from the baseline microphone.

"Heh, looks like I evaded your block, old man."

"Watch carefully. I slathered the rim with WD-40 while you weren't looking."

"But... wouldn't that mean it'd slide through like butter?"

"Aw, shucks."

"Heh, you have much to learn about free throw defense, LeChoke Shames."

The force of the raw, veteran savvy-laced insult throws LeBron off balance, almost as though there's a boxer's push. If it weren't for that unsightly (but heavy) beard LeBron's been growing, as you can clearly see in this freeze frame, LeBron would've not only missed the free throw but quite literally fallen over.

Ray Allen's clutch defensive play here deserves a ton of credit. Most work-a-day analysts think that your one-on-one defense ends when the shot is taken, but they're wrong. Real defenders know that your defense ends when the player goes to sleep at night sobbing because your insults and petty criticisms have rocked their self confidence to its core. Ray Allen knows this. And let's not dispute how thoroughly this changed the game. After this free throw, LeBron James went 0-4 on all four free throws he missed. Ray Allen: game changer.

Here's the play in real time.

• • •

We will move on now to a late game free throw, where the brilliance of the team free throw defense overwhelmed me.

Seems pretty average, right? Look to the right of Chalmers. There's Ray Allen, but he's not going to hog all the credit. Ray isn't rushing for the chase-down free throw block this time. It's up to his teammates to stifle this one with some expert team-ball defense. Let's see what they do.

Look at Paul Pierce's hand, where he signals the play, and KG's silent nod of approval. If they weren't communicating with each other telepathically (like a team, because teams do this), here's what they'd be saying:

"I've scouted his free throw form, Kevin. He's going to try a double three-sixty whoop-foul hang time feet set shot with a strong follow through and a smile for the camera. He learned that one at Kansas."

"Gotcha, Paul. I'll channel my anger into an invisible floating brick. It will float in the middle of the hoops on both ends of the court, for the sake of completion, and ensure his free throw bounces the HELL out of that hoop."

"Man, it's pretty cool being a team who knows Free Throw Defense."

"Yeah, and telepathy is pretty cool too."

"Is the brick engaged?"


"I can always count on you, Kevin."

We see that Doc Rivers has gotten his team to buy in to their team defensive schemes with a remarkable focus and tenacity. Ostensibly their team culture of "Ubuntu" -- a Swedish word for liver and onions -- saves the day once again. Mario bricks the free throw, Pierce gets the rebound, and the game is saved.

Here's the play in real time.

• • •

Using the powers of my spectra-phantasm screenscanning technology, I was able to achieve insight into how Doc Rivers defends free throws. Unbeknownst to us watching the national telecast, Doc Rivers hangs a gigantic obscuring set of large semi-transparent letters in front of players taking free throws. They say "Demo Mode" on them, which is really quite clever -- mode is an anagram of demo, which shows how the Celtics can challenge the free throw from either side of the court, right or left. Nice one, Doc. Though, call me a purist, but the practice of hanging giant floating semitransparent letters to block free throw shooters seems slightly illegal to me. Still substantially less illegal than poisoning the opposing locker room's water supply, though. So I suppose as an organization the Celtics are making some progress. By the year 2050, they'll be down to jaywalking!

It's also worth mentioning that this is -- realistically -- where Boston's defense makes its bread. Seriously. On missed free throws, Celtics opponents score 0.00 PPP, a number far and away better than any other sort of defense the Celtics (or anyone else in the league) can throw at a team. Indeed, in Game 4 we saw Miami completely going away from the free throw strategy to start the game.

NBA officials, to a man, are unbelievably corrupt and furiously angry at Boston, consistently calling the Celtics for fouls that they could not have possibly been responsible for (Source: Tommy Heinsohn). But Boston's free throw defense completely neutralizes this disparity, and if the Boston Celtics can continue shutting down the Heat's unguarded foul shots, we'll have to add a new catchphrase to the well-worn list of basketball tropes. Defense wins championships, keep the ball moving, make the extra pass, and now... against these Celtics? "There's no such thing as a 'free' throw."

Goodnight everybody.

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On Heroes, Villains, and Durant's Time

Posted on Thu 17 May 2012 in 2012 Playoff Coverage by Jacob Harmon

Narratives are a powerful thing. For whatever reason, that seems to be a controversial statement, particularly in NBA blogging circles. Stats are king, you see. My kingdom for the purity of the game. Efficiency, ball-sharing, teamwork. But like it or not? The narrative -- lacking in substance though it may be -- is important. It’s the truth. Sports are entertainment, at least as a commodity. Professional athletes are for most of us as unknowable and inscrutable as a famous actor or politician. They’re caricatures, into which we plug the stories we’ve heard, the way they act on the court, and the individual components of their game. At times we project upon them our own personalities, our own flaws and sympathies, our own feelings on what’s important to the game, and in life.

• • •

But for the most part, willing consumers of mainstream sports narratives or not, we balk at the notion. Nobody likes to think they’ve been sold a false bill of goods or given the answers to the riddle; that anyone but themselves can play them for a fool when they’re wrong, or that anyone needed to tell them what’s what when they’re right. I’m admittedly one of the self-righteous; I laugh at preposterous headlines questioning LeBron’s mental toughness, or extolling the killer instinct of Kobe Bryant. I try to contextualize, to take what is valuable and make fun of the fluff. When I see Westbrook executing the offense for Oklahoma City, exploiting a consistent mismatch and lack of rotation adjustment for easy points like in Game 1, I don’t question why he isn’t giving up those looks to force the ball over to a tightly defended Kevin Durant. When I see LeBron pass in the final seconds to a wide-open Haslem, who misses a 10 foot jumper that is unquestionably his shot, I understand that this was the right basketball play, that clutch performances don’t have to come from heart-stopping isolation fadeaways.

Yet as I watched the Lakers pound the ball inside and finally exploit their frontcourt advantage, while the Thunder offense seemed to collapse in a way it hasn’t done in some time, I found myself cringing. No, I wasn’t cringing because my team was getting beat, I was cringing because I felt a growing urge to acknowledge how little Kevin Durant seemed to be doing about it. He had been quietly scoring in his usual fashion, if a little less so than usual, but time after time I watched him receive or create excellent looks for himself, only to pass off to an inferior offensive teammate for an equivalent look. This was a legitimate basketball complaint, this was my favorite player in the NBA not executing his greatest skill to the extent he could’ve in a game where he increasingly needed to. I’ve never been especially shy about critiquing or acknowledging legitimate points of concern with my favorite players and team. But this was different. In my gut it seemed wrong, and I felt a profound sense of disappointment in openly acknowledging to myself and no one in particular the ugly, made-for-TV truth: Durant needed to take more shots. He did. I even tweeted it, for God's sake. _I never use twitter!_ EVER!

... Anyway. Durant absolutely needed to shoot the ball more. He needed to use offensive possessions himself rather than creating positionally equivalent yet statistically inferior ones for teammates. And when he finally seemed to engage offensively in the final seconds of the game, securing yet another clutch Kevin Durant performance, it felt, if only for a brief second, hollow. By Game 3 it’s likely I will have forgotten this uncomfortable feeling, but there it is. Why though? It wasn’t because I felt the Thunder didn’t earn it. A win is a win however you get it. A gritty well-executed comeback is as impressive as holding onto a comfortable lead. No, this was about Durant, a player who by all statistical measures had an excellent night and a dominant crunch-time performance capped off by a commercial-worthy game-winning shot. So after being given all that, all those objective merits to extol and a Game 2 victory for my team, what reason could I possibly have to be disgruntled?

• • •

Because narratives are important, and it’s more apparent to me here than ever.

Narratives are powerful not only by virtue of the ways they shape our perceptions of athletes, but also in the ways we can balk at them. How many NBA fans have you met who’ve embraced the Miami Heat this season, because they feel sorry for LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, because they feel its unfair the pressure they were put under and the impossible expectations and criticisms ESPN headlines would level at them night after night? I know quite a few. You wouldn’t put “Miami Heat” and “underdog” in the same sentence, but that’s the contrarian narrative that has developed in many circles. Let’s get more intimate; how many people do you know that characterize Michael Jordan as an “asshole”, or a “reprehensible human being”, adding it almost as a mandatory footnote to concessions of his greatness? I’d put good odds on more than a couple. But I’m willing to put even better odds on the likelihood that none of those people have ever so much as met the man.

We're so willing to buy into narratives because they’re part of what makes following professional sports interesting. We develop our own if we find the commercialized ones distasteful, and we experience reactionary cognitive dissonance when our own narratives fall flat. I “know” Kevin Durant, insofar as I can. I know that he’s primarily a passive source of offensive efficiency, quietly plugging away for much of games, somehow ending the game with 30-35 points that you can’t seem to remember more than one or two of. I “know” that because of this he must always want to make the right play, and only rises to the occasion and takes “the big shot” reluctantly. It’s what makes those moments so satisfying in a way Kobe’s no longer are; an individual playing his game as well as he can for 4 quarters and yet is required by the basketball gods and a seemingly insurmountable opponent to make one final play, to cap it all off and secure his immortality. That’s the stuff that makes narratives, personal or commercial.

That’s why we find it hard to become excited about a recent Kobe game-winning shot when they are so often preceded by 30+ ppg, earned by an atrocious shooting night and unwillingness to adapt or distribute that borders on masochistic. As much as we know Kobe can be better, should be better, the moment feels unearned, consolatory. For the narrative, there is little glamor in good clean-up work. And it’s for this reason I felt so uncomfortable, as I watched Durant throughout Game 2, and even as I fist-pumped and cheered and reveled in his sudden dominance when it counted, as Kid Clutch emerged and another highlight was recorded in my mental checklist of Durant moments. Because my interpretation of Durant is not my interpretation of Kobe; they sit upon opposite ends of the spectrum, one defined by an individualized and personal perception of their personalities, motives, and games. Durant is the reluctant young hero who nevertheless will rise to the occasion, Kobe is the old guy who hasn’t noticed the world has moved on and he isn’t what he once was.

Neither of these characterizations necessarily have any basis in reality whatsoever. But even being cognizant of that, they affect how I watch the game, affect my feelings on its outcome and on those players’ performances. And we all have them, not just for athletes, but for nearly everyone we encounter, whether we acknowledge it or not. When I look back on my checklist of great Kevin Durant moments, I likely won’t remember that for large stretches of Game 2 the Thunder offense completely fell apart as he watched, stony and impassive. I’ll go back and look at the statline, and I won’t remember all the looks he passed on, passes which resulted in bricked Nazr Mohammed and Kendrick Perkins jumpers. I’ll remember the steal, the dunk, the game-winner, I’ll probably even remember the free-throw, and his sheepish admission that it was a “bone-head move,” an error that in light of the outcome and context adds a favorable touch of humanity. I’ll look at the statline and see the usual efficiency, and most importantly, I’ll see the W in the column and that will be the end of it.

But for the moment, as I experienced the entertainment of basketball, as I watched it happen, I felt the very real tug of cognitive dissonance, the discomfort in my gut as I watched a quietly visible reminder that narratives, for as as deeply as they root themselves in our perceptions, are nothing more than constructs. They’re artificial meanings we embrace every day, that provide meaning and significance to what is, ultimately, just a game being played by exceptional human beings who most viewers and fans will never meet or know. And that’s okay. Because we love meaning, we love rooting for somebody, we love believing in stories, in heroes and villains, in the thrill of the comeback and the drama of the loss. We whoop and holler, curse and cheer, and yell our voices hoarse. Because even if it doesn’t mean anything in the grand scheme of things, it means an awful lot to us.

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Bosh Matters: Indiana can Beat the Heat

Posted on Mon 14 May 2012 in 2012 Playoff Coverage by Aaron McGuire

On Sunday afternoon, the Miami Heat lost Chris Bosh to a lower abdominal strain. He's almost certainly gone for the series, and most rumblings have it that he's gone until the finals. The problem with an abdominal strain, it's one of the rare injuries that sounds a lot worse than it is -- it's hard to play through, difficult to get past without serious rest, and ruins a player's rhythm. I'll cut to the chase. I think the Heat are in a relatively large amount of trouble right now, and while I'm not quite ready to_ assure_ a Pacers win, I certainly think the series has become -- at worst -- a 40-60 series for the Pacers. Like it or not, they have a huge shot at an upset right now. Despite the Heat's one game already on the ledger. I think Zach Lowe rather effectively summarizes most of the reasons why in his large-as-a-mansion "caveats" section of his Bosh injury rundown, but I think he underrates a few factors. After the jump, I delineate them.

• • •


As a fan who watched LeBron in Cleveland for years, I think most commentators underrate the level to which LeBron despises playing the "big forward" role on the court. He's not in love with playing the point, either -- he generally likes keeping to his natural small forward position and letting the chips fall where they may. But despite being a consistently effective lineup option, LeBron has ALWAYS loathed playing the big forward, starting early in his career when Mike Brown realized how effective it is. And don't front -- it's an extremely effective lineup option if you put the right players around LeBron, and always has been. In his last year in Cleveland, LeBron played almost 300 minutes of "big forward" LeBron. In 200 of those minutes, he shared the floor with Anderson Varejao -- those lineups posted an offensive rating of 120 and a defensive rating of 92, making that two-man pairing (no matter who the Cavs put up with them) arguably the greatest lineup that the LeBron Cavaliers ever put out on the court. Thoroughly dominant.

So... why does he hate it so much? If he's so dominant with it, why is he so reluctant to use it? Primarily his exhaustion level, I'd say. LeBron is an excellent defender, but part of what makes him so good is that he's massively oversized for his position and can simply use his size to smother the shots of smaller players. Against big men, LeBron doesn't quite hold that sort of an overwhelming advantage, and it leads to LeBron having to expend a lot more mental and physical heft trying to stick to his man. It also forces LeBron to -- generally -- get a larger percentage of his offense on post-up plays, something that can wear down a man's knees over time and can weaken a player not used to it. I've thought since watching the evolution of the "Power LeBron" lineup during Mike Brown's 2010 season that LeBron as power forward lineups are inherently doomed over the course of a full year, or prolonged minutes. The more it's used, the less engaged LeBron is using it. And as seasons go on, the lineup's effectiveness wanes until it finally peters to a screeching halt late in the playoffs.

Why? I haven't totally figured it out yet. Whether it's fatigue, distaste, or better scouting, the trend seems true year-in and year-out. I haven't a wealth of evidence to back intuition up, here, and given the current state of lineup examination data I don't know how you could. Last year, I seem to remember Spolestra trying it two or three times in the playoffs -- it had absolutely no impact, and in fact, LeBron tended to do worse using it. Every time Mike Brown broke out the "Power LeBron" lineup in the 2010 playoffs, it seemed to me to get destroyed by the Celtics and even performed poorly against the Vinny Del Negro Bulls. LeBron at the four works very well to start a season, and has sustainable success up until LeBron has played too many minutes at the position. Then the lineup's effectiveness begins to degrade. I'd assume it's from fatigue. I wish I had an easy way to query my database for this sort of thing, but alas -- I don't save lineup data, so I can't. This is the kind of thing I'd love to get confirmation either way on, though. Because the degrading effectiveness of a lineup over a full season seems like it would be an important thing to keep track of.

• • •


It's often said that the true impact of an injury is rarely measured by the 1st or 2nd backup being forced to play a big-league role -- generally, when given the opportunity, a sparsely scouted backup will do a relatively good job patching in over a short absence. The real problem that faces a team that loses one of their top players is when the backup's backup has to become the backup, and a team's depth is tested to its absolute core. The issue that faces Miami going forward, and one that Frank Vogel may be able to leverage to his advantage, is that they're faced with 96 minutes of frontcourt play per game (going against the best frontcourt in the playoffs, mind you) and a grand total of -- besides LeBron -- zero quality players to place in those roles. Udonis Haslem, Joel Anthony, Dexter Pittman, and Ronny Turiaf can patch in the remaining 50 minutes if LeBron and Bosh combine to play 46 of those minutes in a game. That isn't going to kill you.

But take out Bosh's 36-40 and you're left with a serious dearth of lineup options once you're stretching for the backups. Even if you play LeBron -- as Spolestra did in game one -- 20 minutes of large forward a night (which is already far too much, mind you), that leaves you with 76 minutes a game that you'll need to allot to three players haven't ever been called on to play minutes of quite this importance or heft. Effective in short bursts, sure, but they've never been purely scouted or game-planned for to the extent that Vogol will look to do. The Heat can handle replacing Bosh with Haslem. Can they handle replacing Haslem with Turiaf? Or Anthony with Pittman? That's the big question, and the reason that 3rd/4th man injuries can be so harmful on a team with lacking depth, like the Heat. One wonders how the Heat bench (which is already far too thin) will hold up. I'm not bullish.

• • •


More than either of these reasons though, there's this. What game 1 established to me was that the Pacers are a team whose margin of error is surprisingly high. The Pacers didn't do anything particularly unsustainable in yesterday's first half, to these eyes -- West and Hibbert did about what everyone was expecting them to do against the Heat's front line, and the Pacers defense did about as well as it did in the regular season. In fact, out of the myriad of factors that swung game one, I'd actually assess most of the luck-based ones in the Heat's favor. The Pacers aren't going to have that many players in foul trouble on a game-to-game basis. Simply aren't. The referees called a very tight game, and Indiana simply didn't adjust very well to that reality. In future games, I'd expect them to adjust a bit better. But the fact remains. Despite their insane foul trouble, the unprecedentedly abysmal showing from their wings, and an anemic bench performance? The Pacers were down to the heat by a single point with four minutes left to play, and down four with just two minutes remaining. Had they gotten the bogus charge call on Barbosa in the first half, they'd have added three to their total and been up until the very last seconds.

On the other end of the ledger, the Heat needed two insane performances from Wade and LeBron to win, as well as the foul trouble and the unexpected shooting slump from the entire Pacer team. Outside of their big three, Miami got 21 points on 21 shots -- including a never-to-happen-again nine points on 4-4 shooting from (of all people!) Joel Anthony. Before the series, most everyone expected a 5-6 game beatdown from the Heat. I admit, after the Knicks series, I did too. But the Heat barely edged past the Pacers at home in game one, even as virtually everything in the game rolled their way. The Pacers may not take game two, but if they can hold homecourt, game one tells me that they can take a game or two in Miami in this series. It won't be easy, and they'll need a few more things to go right than the things that went right on Sunday. But as I said -- their margin of error is far larger than I previously expected. If George Hill, Danny Granger, and Paul George ever combine for 6-of-25 again in this series, yes, they'll probably lose the game. But would you bet on that happening?

• • •

In all, I'm not sure I disagree with Lowe all that much. My initial thought was that I disagreed with him a lot, but that was mainly due to the hyper-confident start. His caveats touch on many of my key points, if only glancingly. The Heat should still be favored to win the series, though if they can, it's very important for them to end this series early. They need the rest, and every extra game this series goes is another chance for LeBron's energy level to fall off badly, as in last year's finals. Smart money would be on the Heat winning the series in a nail-biting 6 or 7. But fatigue, adjustments, and the unexpected strength the Pacers showed in game one has made me a believer. I think this Pacer team can win the series. If I had to assess the probability of various outcomes, I'd do it like so:

  • 20% chance the Heat win in 5.
  • 10% chance the Heat win in 6.
  • 25% chance the Heat win in 7.
  • 15% chance the Pacers win in 7.
  • 30% chance the Pacers win in 6.

Which, in the end? Makes the series a slightly Miami-leaning coin flip. In the interests of being a contrarian, though, I'll take the dive. Pacers in 6.

Prove me sane, Indiana.

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Prognosti-Ranking the 2012 Finals: Spurs vs Heat

Posted on Wed 02 May 2012 in 2012 Playoff Coverage by Aaron McGuire

Please see the parts I, II, and III of the Prognosti-Rank series for our picks through the first 3 rounds of the playoffs.

And so, it comes to this. The predicted finals matchup. I'm really not 100% confident about the Western team here, as you may have gathered by this whole exercise. I think if the Grizzlies win against the Spurs, they'll probably be good enough to beat the Thunder, but not necessarily. And I think the Thunder could -- if they steal game one and Durant has a breakout series going up against Kawhi Leonard or Tony Allen -- potentially oust either the Spurs or the Grizzlies. And honestly? I could see the Lakers in here as well, because if Bynum puts it together they're a team that can blow out any team in the league, four times in a row. Home, road, wherever. There are any number of combinations for the final western team standing that makes sense to me. One thing you would've had trouble convincing me of before the season, though, would've been that any of them stood a chance against the Heat (who I've had penciled in as the presumptive Eastern champion since opening night). In my season preview -- "A Lion in Autumn" -- I essentially gave the Heat the trophy. I didn't think any team in the west would have the firepower to beat them. At this point, though, given the vulnerabilities the Heat have shown this year? I'm officially not certain that any of them CAN'T beat the Heat in a series.

• • •

The key to the finals isn't any lazy narrative about LeBron, or a tedious joke about Chris Bosh. The key to Miami's title hopes, realistically, is going to be how Spolestra adjusts when teams key on his stars in the Finals. Last year, despite my general admiration for the job Spolestra did over the whole season, he flunked the final. Carlisle and Casey put their heads together and generated a fantastic scheme, one that kept Wade from record-breaking numbers and one that bottled LeBron up in the most embarrassing possible way. While I think the Heat make another finals, I don't think it's going to be a cakewalk, even in a depleted east -- I have both their series against Chicago and their series against Indiana going 6 or 7 games, as you may have noted. And despite the game one blowout, I'm not 100% positive the Knicks can't steal a game or two as well (though without Shumpert I'm less confident in that assessment).

The long and short of it is that as they enter the finals, I don't think the Heat are going to be quite as rested and coasting as they were last year. The gap between them and the rest of the East isn't as vast, and this year's Heat team is far more prime to random bouts of in-game coasting, much like the 2009-2011 Lakers. The reasons are several-fold, but primarily what separates all our highest expectations for the Heat from their reality lies in the supporting cast. Chris Bosh's awful year, the disappointing plummet of Norris Cole, and Udonis Haslem's incredible collapse as a contributing player. Wade's defense is as good as ever, but his offensive attack has been slightly less efficient and slightly more prone to the occasional "Wade can't jump tonight" games you see from aging athleticism-reliant superstars. The overall schema of this Heat team has become a relatively one-dimensional exhibition of the incredible might of LeBron James. It's more akin to LeBron's late 2000s Cavs teams than the talent-dripping death machine we thought we'd have, preseason. And to the Western champion, that's totally fine by them.

In terms of the Spurs, this is a better Spurs team than last year. Not because it's particularly different in composition, but because the red-hot worldbeating Spurs team that won 44 of its first 52 games in 2011 is the kind of team that's entering the playoffs rather than the team that ended the year on a 17-13 schneid. The only real difference is timing -- the team's three stars are all healthy, at the moment, and the depth behind them has finally developed into a concoction that fits Popovich's rotations. The Spurs feature more defensive firepower than they did last year in Kawhi Leonard, Stephen Jackson, Danny Green, and a healthy Tiago Splitter. (EDIT: nevermind that last one. But hey, we've got Boris "Oscar" Diaw, we're good.) They enter the playoffs having improved to a team closer to the top 5 in defense (as they were over the last month) than the bottom 15 -- something completely untrue about last year's unit entering the playoffs, whose defensive collapse as the year went on was evident to everyone watching. They Spurs are healthy, they're more talented than you think, and they have enough interchangable parts to adjust mid-series if something is going wrong. Not to mention the improvements of last year's standouts -- Matt Bonner worked on defense the entire offseason, and it shows in his now-passable individual defense. Tim Duncan is in the middle of his best month since the Spurs' last WCF season in 2008. Tony Parker just had his best year as a pro. And the Spurs did virtually everything they accomplished this year without Manu Ginobili, whose game has been at 75% or worse capacity since coming back from his first deadly injury. He's gotten better, though -- and, scarily enough, it's possible to conceive of Manu being back in full force by the Western Conference Finals.

And he's the Spurs best player, for crying out loud!

• • •

The actual matchup here -- Spurs vs Heat -- would be an instant classic. Neither team plays lock-down defense, though at their defensive peaks they're both reasonably solid. Both teams are capable of generationally dominant offense. The way that Pop would employ his defensive talent on LeBron and Wade could make-or-break the series, as could his adjustments as Spolestra tries different offensive strategies. Can Stephen Jackson make Wade's life a living hell in the same way he battered Richard Jefferson in 2003? Will LeBron average 30 a game, or will Pop figure out a way to bottle him just as Carlisle and Casey did before him? If the game is close, how does Spo figure out what Pop's going to call?

In the end, somewhat unintuitively, I think the finals (no matter who makes it) will come down to health and rest after a season as brutal as this. I don't need to tell you Popovich has done a yeoman's job at making sure his guys are rested -- Spolestra, primarily through necessity, has had to ride his guys hard through the regular season. I discussed this before, but the 2013 Heat are going to look a great deal more like the 2009 Celtics than the young, hip team of the future. In that same sense, I'm not sure that LeBron's body is going to hold up through a long finals series. It won't be a choke, necessarily, but a gradual lessening in LeBron's powers wrought by his overall exhaustion from a too-long, too-tough season compounded by the knowledge that he's less than a month from having to report to a Team USA training camp where he'll be forced to do quite a bit more than he did in 2008.

I don't think the lack of home court advantage is going to sit well for this Miami team, one that -- in their only game in the last two years in San Antonio -- lost by 30 (and was down by even more before Pop explicitly allowed Spolestra to play LeBron and Wade on D-League talent). And in the end, in a winner-take-all game 7? I think Popovich will have a pretty good idea of Miami's playbook. I think he'll find a way to keep Miami as throttled as he can with the personnell he has. I didn't think so last year -- I thought they were 2nd round fodder at best. This isn't revisionist history -- entering last year's playoffs, I was cautiously optimistic that if everything went right the Spurs might make the Western Conference Finals. Once Manu went down to injury, I was pretty sure the Spurs would be out in the first or swept in the second, a la 2010. The Grizzlies were too good, and that Spurs team was completely out of a rhythm when the playoffs rolled around. But this time? With this year's Spurs team?

I'm a believer. It won't be easy, but the Spurs can be the 2012 champions. And in the end, despite some hesitancy... I think they will be.

• Spurs in 7 games •

• • •

We hope you've enjoyed this year's playoff preview. More playoff coverage tomorrow with another Outlet.

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Prognosti-Ranking the 2012 Playoffs: Part I

Posted on Sat 28 April 2012 in 2012 Playoff Coverage by Aaron McGuire

I wasn't entirely sure how we should do playoff previews here at the Gothic. I knew how they were going to start, with Thursday's piece about the New Orleans Hornets and how one of my fondest wishes was that there was one underdog in the 2012 playoffs that approached the contest with the dedication and grit with which the Hornets approached their doomed season. That's a start, but certainly not a finish -- I do have picks, after all, and opinions as well. I tried to think of original ways to present my picks, and settled upon this not-particularly-creative way to do it. Here's what I'll do. I'm going to prognosticate which teams will be the best in the playoffs, starting from the predicted worst first-round out to the team I think will raise the Larry O'Brien this year. So, a prognosticated ranking. A prognostirank. (I'm bad at words.) For each team, I'll do my interpretation of why they should be higher than they are, and why they should be lower than they are. Not particularly original, I realize, but it gave me a platform to share my oh-so-dear opinions, and hopefully, it'll be of interest to you guys. On with part one of our preview, from the 16th worst projected team to the 11th worst.

• • •

WHY THEY'LL DO BETTER: They aren't going to win a series, but Stan Van Gundy can be -- at times -- an absolute maestro at getting career performances out of neglected bench players. Look at their 2009 Finals run, for pete's sake, or the incredible job he did with the 2004 Heat. Van Gundy is a fantastic coach. I feel bad predicting that he'll be swept, because a coach of his caliber doesn't really deserve to be swept. Their best case scenario, alas, is winning one or two games against an excellent Pacers team. Even at their best, they'd still be one of the three worst teams in the entire playoff picture.

WHY THEY'LL DO WORSE: ... well, you can't actually do worse than getting swept, so we'll just discuss why they'll do this badly. Look. The Magic are a relatively flawed team, as they're currently constructed. They're Dwight Howard and a bunch of players that fit well around Dwight Howard. In last year's playoffs, Howard's supporting cast put in one of the most pathetic performances by a supporting cast of all time. It's rare that any NBA player deserves a Razzie, but the Magic's supporting cast would've swept the balloting for "worst supporting actor in a drama" if the world was just. Not one of Dwight's supporting rotation players shot over 40% from the field (against a relatively weak Atlanta defense), and the Magic's awful end-of-season spill without Howard doesn't help matters. Nor does it help that their current 2nd best player after Ryan Anderson -- Glen Davis -- is currently out injured. This is the closest thing to a first round bye the Pacers could possibly get.

• • •

WHY THEY'LL DO BETTER: While you need to reach a bit to come up with a scenario where the Sixers actually BEAT the Bulls in the first round, you don't need to reach to figure out how they might at least make it a competitive series. By point differential, they're one of the best eight-seed teams the East has seen since the 90s. Their anemic offense was going to be a problem no matter who they faced, but their defense -- among the best in the league -- is actually rather well tailored for stopping the Bulls attack. The Sixers make their bread off of eliminating the spot-up shot, with teams shooting 39.7% on the season against the Sixers in spot-up situations. Sebastian Pruiti went over it the phenomena in his excellent playoff preview -- if the Sixers make the series competitive, it'll be on the back of neutralizing the Bulls' spot-up attack and engineering the most offensively ugly first round series in the history of the human race.

WHY THEY'LL DO WORSE: ... On the other hand, have you seen the Sixers this month? They look about as bad as a team could possibly look. I realize they went on a tidy little 4 game winning streak to end the season, at least before the unmentionable blowout to the hands of the Detroit Pistons on closing day. The Sixers haven't won in regulation to a playoff team since March 31st, and since the all-star break the Sixers are 6-12 versus other playoff teams. Unless Collins pulls some magic fairy dust that turns the Bulls into a creampuff team the likes of which the Sixers feasted on to get their absurdly high point differential, they aren't going to outperform last year's Pacers. That means they're out in 5, and even that's kind of pushing it.

• • •

WHY THEY'LL DO BETTER: Now we start to get into some realistic scenarios. I'm a Spurs fan, and I don't think Utah is anywhere near as deadly as the Grizzlies were last year. However, this Jazz team isn't quite as soft as some have noted. While their defense is poor, the Jazz offense has been positively humming to close the season. They've been offensively brilliant using monstrously huge lineups that -- while not great at covering quick guards on defense -- have absolutely dominated on the offensive end of the floor. The recent Jazz experiment with using a super-big lineup of Devin Harris, Gordon Hayward, Paul Millsap, Derrick Favors, and Al Jefferson was the fifth most efficient lineup in the league per Basketball Value, sporting an offensive rating of 121 points per 100 possessions scored and a defensive rating of 80 points per 100 possessions allowed. Very good stuff. And to a Spurs team that was shocked by a monstrously large frontcourt a year ago, a bad thing to read about.

WHY THEY WON'T: ... unfortunately for the Jazz, other than that lineup, they don't have_ a single other lineup_ that's played more than 50 minutes together that rates as league average on defense. They're facing the best offense in the league, and a coach that excels at lineup adjustments to handle poor defensive teams. The Jazz relied on an excellent offense and some great play from young players to reach the playoffs -- they've got the talent and the ability to take a game or two from the Spurs, but this shouldn't be all that close of a series when all is said and done.

• • •

WHY THEY'LL DO BETTER: All things considered, the Mavs probably should be thankful they dropped into OKC's bracket. There's no other team in the west -- save the Jazz -- I'd consider taking the Mavs over in a series. The Mavericks are (as I noted earlier this season) impossibly old, extremely creaky, and lost the season series to the Thunder 3-1. But at least they played them close. If Dirk has a vintage, finals MVP-type series, it's possible the Mavs could push it to 7 and get close to an upset.

WHY THEY WON'T: I debated putting the Mavs under the Jazz, though the championship boost let them get a tad bit higher. Look. The Mavericks won an amazing title last year, and the 2011 Mavericks were a fantastic team. This year's edition, though? They're pretty damn bad. Offensively shiftless, with a defense that feasts on lower-tier teams and wilts against higher tier teams. Not only that, the Mavs have been gradually (and quietly) getting worse as the season rolled along, culminating in the team you see now -- one with very little identity and (frankly) a snowball's chance in hell of even putting up a competitive performance against the Thunder, let alone beat them. Dirk will win them a game, perhaps two, and (if he has an amazing 30-15 type series) maybe even 3. But no more than that, unless the Thunder beat themselves.

• • •

WHY THEY'LL DO BETTER: The Knicks aren't exactly a team that's going to take you by surprise at this point. They over-saturate sports media like the best New York teams all do, and they've got a roster with significant upside. And in drawing the Heat, whether Knicks fans realize it or not, they've probably gotten the most favorable draw they could've. Assuming they had to choose between the Bulls and the Heat (and yes, they did -- it took one legendary collapse from Philadelphia for them to even move up from 8th, chalking in another for Orlando defies all logic and reason), I like the Heat as a better matchup. The excellent rebounding the Bulls could throw at the Knicks would make it virtually impossible for them to get second shot opportunities, Noah could keep Chandler from getting the touches he needs to contribute on offense, and the Bulls' stout defensive rotations could easily revert the Knicks into an iso-Melo team for the ages. Against the Heat, there are a number of cogent advantages the Knicks could potentially point to.

  • Tyson Chandler essentially beat the Heat at their own game last year -- he knows their defense and offense front-to-back, and was the head of the defensive attack that neutralized them late in games in last year's finals. He's a Knick.

  • In Iman Shumpert, the Knicks have one of the best defensive rookies of the current class. Theoretically, he could keep a hobbled Dwyane Wade from doing much of his damage in a full series.

  • In his career, Carmelo Anthony has always played supernaturally well against LeBron James on both ends of the floor -- perhaps because their old friends, perhaps because he knows him too well. But he does. If that translates to the playoffs, that could swing a series.

Which would all lead me to pick the Knicks over the Heat...

WHY THEY WON'T: ... if it wasn't for the fact that, quite simply, this Heat team is just way better than this Knicks team. For the Knicks to win, they'll need LeBron James to have a series roughly as bad as last year's finals and for Chris Bosh to play awful basketball. Shumpert -- while a fantastic defensive talent -- is not going to be up to shutting Dwyane Wade down over a full series. Tyson Chandler is battling minor injuries and a bad flu. THE TEAM STARTS THE UNDEAD REANIMATION OF BARON DAVIS AT POINT GUARD (AND GIVES SIGNIFICANT MINUTES TO MIKE BIBBY). If this team beats the Heat, it's going to be a massive upset. And while their theoretical ceiling may be about as high as any of the teams I have pegged as first round outs (except for one), they're just as likely to get swept themselves as they are to beat the Heat in 6. And they'd need to. Other than Game 4 of the 2007 finals and Game 6 of the 2011 finals, neither LeBron nor Wade have ever lost a home elimination game in their lives. And those were the finals -- this is the first round we're talking about, here, and all the jitters that come from the Finals are essentially absent. I think the Knicks will win a game or two, and make the Heat sweat a time or two. But no matter how many advantages they theoretically have, I don't think they've got a legitimate shot at this series. I just don't. The Heat are too good.

• • •

WHY THEY'LL DO BETTER: The next three teams on this list are all teams where I could realistically see them winning their series. In some cases, I could realistically see them winning several. But the prognosis is much less dire for these three than it is for the teams above. Starting with, of course, your AtLAAAAANta Hawks! It may be a surprise to you that I actually think they've got a nearly 50-50 chance to win their series with the Celtics, primarily because the prevailing logic around the Celtics is that they're the far better team. I don't necessarily disagree. There are, however, a few factors that run quite to Atlanta's favor.

  • Over the Big Three era, the Celtics are 13-22 on the road in the playoffs. In order to win this series, they'll need to have either a winning record on the road or -- at worst -- a 1-3 record on the road. While we spin yarns about the Celtics' veteran prowess, we generally fail to note that in the last four years the Celtics have never had a winning record on the road over a whole playoff run. The best was 2010, where they were 6-6 on the road. They actually did terribly in their 2008 title year, going 3-9 on the road over the whole playoffs (including 0-6 in the first two rounds). The Big Three Celtics are -- in general -- front runners. They aren't particularly great at winning playoff road games, and ceding HCA in this series by punting the game in Atlanta may prove to be an awful mistake.

  • The Hawks have played a ridiculous number of games against the Celtics in the Big Three era. The Celtics are 15-9 against the Hawks in the last 5 years, but just 4-6 against them in the last 3. One of those wins was an overtime game. While the Hawks did rather terribly against the Celtics in the first two years of the Garnett-Pierce-Allen era, they've done pretty well for themselves over the last few years, and have begun to take the upper hand in the matchup -- at least in the regular season. Remains to be seen if they'll translate that to the playoffs, but it's a good trend for them.

  • While the Hawks have had some poor injury luck this season (for the first time in a few years), they'll enter the series as ostensibly the more healthy team. Greg Stiemsma (the Bill Simmons pick for the Dwight Howard replacement on Team USA -- and dear God, I wish I was kidding) is hobbling with plantar fasciitis in his right foot. Additionally, Pierce has a sprained toe, Kevin Garnett has sore hips, Rondo has a sore back, and Ray Allen still isn't quite right from his midseason injury. The Hawks are missing Horford, but their key pieces -- Josh Smith, Joe Johnson, and Jeff Teague -- all enter the series relatively healthy. In a close series, the more healthy team generally wins, if they combine that health with home court advantage and experience with their opponent.

WHY THEY WON'T: For the same reasons the prevailing sentiment is that they'll be outclassed in the series -- the Celtics are playing some truly special defense right now. The Hawks are a decent team, but not a great one. The Hawks this season have been much like the Hawks every season for the last three years: win a decent number of games, utilize a non-creative offensive attack (though Drew's offense is still more creative than Woodson's iso-Joe stylings), beat the teams they're supposed to beat, play teams that are nearly as good as they are close, and lose miserably to teams that are better than they are. The Hawks winning this series depends on the Celtics being -- instead of the team we saw in the last month or two -- the team that they were over the whole of the season. Which is a team that's not quite as marvelous on defense, shiftless on offense, and roughly at the Hawks level overall. I wanted to pick the Hawks to win the series, and I see it as a strong possibility. But I just can't pick the Hawks to beat a team that's better than they are. They haven't done it yet, and without Horford, I don't think this will be their year. Celtics break the Hawks' second round streak, and beat them in six.

• • •

Given the length, I'll cut this off here. We'll continue tomorrow with teams 10-5 (which will take us to our projected conference finalists), and Sunday with teams 4-1 (culminating in my prediction for this year's NBA title winner). Please note that all picks have already been made, and a draft of each post is done as well -- just because the last few teams will come up after a few games have been played doesn't mean I'm gaming the last few. Enjoy the playoffs, campers. I will.

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