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.

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Prognostirank, 2013: The Second-Round Sepulchre, #10 to #6

Posted on Mon 22 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 #10 to #5 -- or, the last two first round exits and the first three second round exits. See part one for first round ousters.

• • •

TEAM #10: GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS____ (Western 6th seed: 47-35, SRS of 1.32)

  • Series prediction: Warriors LOSE in the first round. ( • • • )
  • Three most likely end results: 3-4 ( • • • • ), 7-6; 4-2 then 3-4 ( • • • ), 5-6; 4-2 then 1-4 ( • • )

I struggled with this one quite a lot. Probably more than I should've. All things considered, the Nuggets should pulverize the Warriors. They're faster, better, smarter, stronger. They're deeper, and they've got ample personnel to take care of Golden State's biggest weakness; that is to say, an at-rim sieve by the name of David Lee, who's consistently a step slow and weak to contest. With Lee in the game for 35-40 minutes, it's hard for me to really visualize how the Warriors intend to stop the Nuggets from scoring 70 points in the paint per game. And if the Nuggets get that done, it's hard to see how the Warriors keep them off the line enough to guarantee the win. If there's one thing that kills the Warriors, it's that -- their interior defense is simply not up to par when facing off against a team like the Nuggets that drives the ball straight into their heart. Simply not.

That said? The Warriors have a few advantages of their own, mainly centered around Stephen Curry. While Ty Lawson ended the year balky and injured -- as did Tony Parker, Steve Nash, and virtually every point guard in the West's playoff picture not named "Russell Westbrook" -- Stephen Curry ended the year on a crazy hot streak. Curry shot 51% from three over his final 4 regular season games, and he's been doing it on vastly increased shot volume. Broadening the sample size... over the final month of the regular season (17 games), Curry shot an average of TEN THREES A GAME. That isn't a typo. The man shot 47% over those 17 games on ten threes a night. That's incredible. To put it in perspective... the 2003 Minnesota Timberwolves, the Garnett-led team that won 51 games and finished with the 4th seed in the West, shot 10 threes a game. As a team. Stephen Curry, by himself, shot as many threes per game over the past month as everyone on the 2003 Minnesota Timberwolves combined. And he made 47% on them. The man is insane.

Outside of Andre Iguodala's defensive masterwork, the Nuggets are a relatively poor team when you get out to the perimeter -- whether shooting it or defending it. The key to the series, for the Nuggets, is simply going to be keeping the ball out of Stephen Curry's hands. If they want to make this a short series, they'll need to force Curry pass out of traps coming up the floor and to shut down all passing lanes to the Golden State superstar. He'll get his points regardless, but they need to keep his three point shooting under wraps. If Curry is allowed to shoot 10-12 threes a night, the Warriors have an excellent shot of winning the series outright -- Curry shot over 60% on threes against Denver this season despite Iguodala's defense, mostly because Iguodala's more important as a roaming defensive presence than as a lock-in guy in the Denver scheme. If Curry's presence forces Iguodala to function more as a shut-down player than he has in Denver's system traditionally, that could give the Warriors an opening for the upset. More likely, their porous interior defense dooms them in the end -- but I still feel like they'll give Denver a hell of a push.

DEWEY'S TAKE: One game over .500 this calendar year (26-25), a negative point differential against the Western Conference, and the best single season a three-point shooter has ever had. Deep bench, towel waves, bronze icons in the golden light of Oracle Arena, the Warriors are middling (occasionally stagnant) on offense and middling on defense over the course of the season, and don't have a center. On any given night two or three offensive savants plus a rookie or veteran stepping up. Effortful, relatively futile defense, pull-up jumpers in transition. Their coach is a minister and a showman and a legendary floor general. They also have Richard Jefferson as a comically irrelevant player and veteran presence. They send their tiniest player through a golden gate of big men to get some space to shoot an insensibly high-arcing 3 from the top of the key. One of the most fun and watchable teams ever when they're on.

• • •

TEAM #9: MEMPHIS GRIZZLIES (Western 5th seed: 56-36, SRS of 4.33)

  • Series prediction: Grizzlies LOSE in the first round. ( • • )
  • Three most likely end results: 3-4 ( • • • ), 3-4 after 4-3 ( • • ), 2-4 ( • )

I oscillate back and forth on how competitive I view this series. On one hand, Memphis is the far superior defensive team, and they're good enough to make a legitimate title run. They really are. If you'd given me Memphis against anyone in the Western Conference -- yes, even OKC -- I'd pick Memphis in a hot second. Frank Vogel described Indiana's style of play as "smashmouth basketball" -- cute, Frank, but we all know you're jacking the Grizzlies' swagger. The Grizzlies kill you with screens, they kill you with reaches, and they muck your game up until you're screaming for help. They're incredible. But the Grizzlies have three massive problems heading into this series against the Clippers, and exactly none of the three involves the man once known as Udy-Ray.

  1. Marc Gasol's abs. Yeah, yeah. I'm sure they're rippling, man, that's not the point. Marc Gasol suffered an abdominal tear on March 23rd, about one month ago today. I'm not entirely sure it's going to be a problem, but I can't be sure it won't be. If his mobility is compromised, the Grizzlies are a markedly more beatable team.
  2. Zach Randolph's everything. This is another big problem for the Grizzlies. Randolph is a great player, but he's older than you think -- the man's just about 32 years old and he's been suffering injuries and setbacks for virtually the entire season. Randolph averaged a career low in points per possession this season, and posted his least efficient performance from the field since his stint with the disastrous 2008 New York Knicks. A big man who spends much of the game operating on the block simply shouldn't be shooting 46% from the floor. That's not good. Worse yet, he's been slumping even more as of late -- Randolph averaged 14-10 on 41% shooting over his last 15 games. When Marc Gasol's mobility is a bit lessened and the Grizzlies are more and more dependent on Randolph's production, that's not going to beat the Grizzlies.
  3. They lack HCA. This is big. In last year's series, the Grizzlies very nearly pulled it out -- their loss in game one was an aberration of the highest degree, but of the 7 games in that series, there were only three blowout-tier games -- game one (which, again, the Grizzlies lost due to a Nick Young hot stretch), game five (which the Grizzlies dominated), and game seven (which... OK, yeah, the Clippers beat the Grizzlies at home to close out the series, the world's confusing sometimes.) The Grizzlies and the Clippers ended the season with identical home/away records -- both teams were 32-9 at home and 24-17 on the road. In the obvious absence of a health advantage, it'd behoove Memphis to have every tertiary advantage possible. Unfortunately, home court advantage won't be one of those.

Aren't those kind of a big deal? Compound that against the fact that they're facing the Clippers -- a team that matches up well with Memphis in the playoffs and a team that stars Chris Paul -- and I just have trouble seeing how they pull it out in seven. I'm picking the Clippers, and although I'm picking them to bow out in seven, I wouldn't be altogether shocked if they ended up bowing out a bit earlier. (And, that said -- if they make it to the second round, I imagine they'll be exactly as strong a challenge to OKC as LA would/will be.)

DEWEY'S TAKE: Grindhouse. Memphis. Beale Street. Barbecue. Stax Records. Big men. Z-Bo eating a dozen ribs and then wiping the sauce on an opponent's jersey - for ever. Tony Allen. Mike Conley Jr., born in 1987, evokes a man 10 years his older, and from the early 70s, such is his beard. Lionel Hollins. Echoes of the 77 Blazers through and through, up to and including no three point shot. Bill Walton loves this team I bet. Ethereally possessed of "the right stuff," team's jersey should have a chip on its shoulder, and in basketball terms, they hold more than danger - they hold coherency and a superiority of aspect - to every team that they face. The team you'd least like to be in a fight with.

• • •

TEAM #8: BROOKLYN NETS____ (Eastern 4th seed: 49-33, SRS of 1.25)

  • Series prediction: If Nets WIN the first round, they LOSE in the second round. ( • • • • • )
  • Three most likely end results: 1-4 after 4-3 ( • • • • ), 2-4 after 4-3 ( • • • ), 0-4 after 4-3 ( )

If this were a true ranking, where the prognostication wasn't feeding into the cardinality of my rankings, I'd probably put the Nets below the Grizzlies, the Warriors, the Lakers and the Rockets. This isn't to say that I don't respect what the Nets have done this season -- they're a really solid team, no doubt, and Brook Lopez has been everything everyone ever wanted him to be. With Deron Williams rounding into form to finish the year, they've finally taken on the shades of eternal bridesmaid swagger we expected going into the season. Not really good enough to seriously challenge for a title, but good enough to beat up bad teams. (NOTE: Without a healthy Noah or Rose, Chicago is a bad team. Sorry, Chicago.) I imagine this will come to a screeching, blood-curdling halt in the second round when the Nets face off against Miami. Just an educated guess.

And -- much like the Knicks -- we're looking at the best Brooklyn team we can expect to see in the forseeable future. Hence the eternal bridesmaid swagger; not really good enough to contend for a title, not bad enough to be an abomination to the game of basketball. Don't get me wrong, though. This is a step forward for the Nets. Over the past 4-5 seasons, the Nets have been legitimately unwatchable. They've been atrocious, and the fans have noticed. Cannibalizing Atlanta's eternal bridesmaid in an effort to relocate their eternal bridesmaid to Brooklyn may seem silly, but for a franchise that hasn't really done much of anything since Jason Kidd was around these parts, it's a decent step forward into respectability.

As for how they match up with the Heat? Badly, straight up. Chalmers and Wade (when both are locked in) do a reasonably good job cutting off Deron's lanes and keeping the Nets out of rhythm. LeBron James is just the sort of athletic freak of nature that Lopez and Wallace have trouble covering, and LeBron's knack for rebounding is going to give Miami extra offensive possessions when Brook Lopez is too busy boxing out Udonis Haslem and Chris Andersen to get the board. Their rebounding issues are going to necessitate playing Reggie Evans big playoff minutes, which is going to slash their offensive potential in order to barely stay even on the glass with the Heat. Problems! Compound all that with the fact that Joe Johnson's defense has fallen off a cliff this year? I don't really see how the Nets stop Miami. At all. In any way. I think they take a game, because sweeping teams is tough. But let's just say I wouldn't be wholly shocked if Miami entered the Eastern Conference Finals with an 8-0 playoff record, either.

DEWEY'S TAKE: I haven't watched them much, why are they eighth? They remind me of the Joe Johnson Hawks, and I can't figure out why. Maybe it's the slew of inexplicably underwhelming point guards. Maybe it's that they play big 1 to 4. Maybe it's the interchangeably gritty bigs with poor shot selection or the literal inability to hit shots (*cough* Gerald Wallace). Maybe it's the sense that they're a mediocre team with a lot of big names and nothing obviously fundamentally wrong on paper but a sense that a team that goes 13-17 against the West doesn't much belong in the playoffs. No, wait, I figured it out: They actually have Joe Johnson.

• • •

TEAM #7: DENVER NUGGETS____ (Western 3rd seed: 57-25, SRS of 5.37)

  • Series prediction: If Nuggets WIN in the first round, they LOSE in the first round. ( • • • )
  • Three most likely end results: 3-4 after 4-3 ( • • • • ), 1-4 after 4-3 ( • • • ), 3-4 after 4-3 & 4-3 ( • • )

I grappled with this one a while. Let's be clear -- the Spurs have been playing absolutely abysmal basketball to finish their Regular Season. They shot 31% from three in their final 10-15 games and allowed teams to pulverize them, both in the paint and on the perimeter. San Antonio's contests became sluggish, their rotations befuddling, their demeanor lifeless. They looked like a team that would get blown out in the first round, regardless of who they faced. That said, there were some mitigating factors. Diaw was injured and playing scant minutes. Tony Parker was in and out of the lineup with an ankle problem that Pop refused to let him play through. Kawhi Leonard was dealing with a bum elbow, and Tim Duncan showed the sort of on-again off-again focus you'd expect from a 37-year-old big man in the last stretch of a virtually meaningless regular season. If THAT Spurs team shows up to play in the second round, Denver sweeps the series. I'm not kidding around.

But you know what? I'm not letting the Spurs fool me. I don't know how much faith I have in this squad to win the title. At their best, this San Antonio team is a unit that can play with any other team in the league. The Clippers, the Thunder, the Heat all included. The Spurs aren't likely to be at their absolute best against the Nuggets in round two, given that Diaw (a surprisingly important part to San Antonio's strategy) will return to action in game two of the series and will require a game or two to get back into his trailblazing new definition of "game shape." But Manu Ginobili looked somewhat healthy in practice footage and in-game play to close the regular season, Tony Parker has an entire series against a paper-soft L.A. perimeter defense to get his mojo back, and Tim Duncan at his worst is still worlds better than any big man that Denver puts on the floor in this series.

And honestly? I won't let Denver fool me, either. Denver has had a wonderful season. With Gallo healthy, I could see an outside chance of them making a run. But let's be straight for a moment. Without Danilo Gallinari, the Nuggets lose their primary perimeter threat and one of their best defenders. The Nuggets are a team with enviable depth, but "enviable depth" and "completely replaceable stars" simply aren't one in the same. They lack perimeter threats that are going to kill you if you pack the paint, and their defense is predicated on Andre Iguodala legitimately doing it all over a seven game stretch. Ty Lawson's defense has taken a step back with his injured season, and George Karl has yet to find a rotation of bigs that really challenges elite teams defensively.

Furthermore, although the Nuggets have one of the better home court advantages in the league, I'm not sure I buy the idea that their home court dominance can be cleanly translated to the playoffs. In a playoff situation, teams get 2-3 days of relaxing and preparing in the city to adjust for the altitude and the general idiosyncrasies of the Colorado climate. Heck, think of it this way -- when Golden State plays game two of their first round series against the Nuggets, the Warriors will have spent a full six days in Denver, preparing and practicing. Whatever advantage the Nuggets get from the altitude-related hangups fade when the team's rest time is completely equivalent. This bears true over the last few years of Denver playoff games, too -- the Nuggets were 2-1 at home in 2012 (6 seed), 1-1 at home in 2011 (5 seed), 2-1 at home in 2010 (5 seed), and 8-2 in 2009 (2 seed).

Small sample size, but the general point remains; the Nuggets aren't an unbeatable home team in the playoffs, and given that this incarnation is such a poor road team, I find it hard to see how they pull out a close series against another Western elite. Of course, if the Spurs play like they've been playing lately, they aren't a Western elite. And the Nuggets can book their trip to the Western Conference Finals. I just don't see it. Not with the Nuggets missing Gallo, not with the Spurs getting all their players back right as the series starts, not with Denver's home court advantage being a mite bit more shaky when they aren't facing garbage teams every other night with rest advantages and less than 24 hours to adjust to the air. The Nuggets are a wonderful team, and they're a credit to Masai Ujiri's teambuilding and George Karl's incredible coaching. But I still think their run is going to end tantalizingly short of their second Western Conference Finals berth.

DEWEY'S TAKE: If you were Andre Miller you could see the universe from the top, could see all of time in a single unbroken line, you would find flowers from Big Bang to star fuel to lava to soil to seed to bloom and then to decomposition of the aforementioned in reverse order. You would find that you had planted many flowers in the form of basketball plays, and you would know mercy. And, knowing eternity, you, Andre Miller, would be placid, whatever comes of this series. Because you have set dunks in motion, you have sent missives to a cutter saying "Just in Time". You are irreducible. If a lock of hair falls out during a game, another immediately replaces it. And you know that this Nuggets team is not really as good as +11 at home, nor as bad as +0 on the road. You will know balance. You see the unbroken flowering from JaVale McGee to the NBA Finals.

• • •

TEAM #6: NEW YORK KNICKS____ (Eastern 2nd seed: 54-28, SRS of 3.73)

  • Series prediction: Knicks WIN in the first round, LOSE in the second round. ( • • • )
  • Three most likely end results: 3-4 after 4-1 ( • • • ), 4-3 after 4-1 ( • • • ), 1-4 after 4-1 ( • • )

While the Knicks aren't a great team, predicting them to bow out to the Indiana Pacers would represent a slightly strange result for the league. After all, Carmelo Anthony is an MVP candidate that seems assured to get a top-5 spot in the voting. Mike Woodson is a coach of the year candidate with the greatest goatee in the history of the craft. Tyson Chandler is the reigning defensive player of the year. The Knicks won 5 more games in the regular season and enter the series with home court advantage. The Knicks are one of the best offenses in the league, and the Pacers defense has been collapsing over the season's final stretch. The Pacers offense is putrid. All of those things are true, at least in part, but they miss a few key caveats to each point that change the game.

First, yes, Carmelo Anthony IS an MVP candidate. He was virtually unguardable for a month to start the season and a month to finish the season. He was also eminently easy to guard for several months of the season while he was working through injury and keyed on by good defenses. Those aren't mutually exclusive, and it points to the difference between the LeBron/Durant/Paul tier of MVP candidates and the lesser lights below them. Those three are legitimately impossible to consistently guard. They don't have any particular tells. You can't goad them into taking bad shots. You can't force them to a place of discomfort. Traditionally, when you slow the game down into a halfcourt contest? You can do that with Melo. You can goad him into bad shots, and you can keep him in check. He's an MVP candidate because he's having his best season -- he's not an MVP candidate because he's an impossible-to-guard force of nature with a chip on his shoulder. There's a difference. It's important.

Second, you have the coaching matchup -- Woodson IS a coach of the year candidate, but Indiana coach Frank Vogel's no chopped liver. He's shown himself to be an excellent tactician and a grade-A motivator. Woodson's proven that he's a decent coach, but the coaching matchup is a push at best. Tyson Chandler IS the reigning DPoY, but he's also had an incredibly disappointing season that's seen the New York defense take a furious nosedive into impotence and woe. Chandler's great, when he's healthy. He's not. He hasn't been all season, and New York's defense has essentially fallen apart in his absence. The Knicks DID win five more games, but that's a really misleading stat -- even after Indiana's late season slide and even considering their early season fog, the Pacers and Knicks have virtually identical overall efficiencies, and if you translate their efficiency differential to projected records, the Knicks would be projected a record of 53-29 and the Pacers would be projected a record of 52-29. They're simply not as far apart as the NBA standings would indicate. This is a wholly even matchup, star power be damned.

Finally, you have what I consider the most important part of my "Indiana beats New York" prediction. Yes, the New York offense is one of the best in the game, and the Indiana defense has looked a bit shaky lately. But if you watch the tape -- and I watched entirely too much to make this pick, let me tell you -- the Pacers defense simply isn't struggling as much as the numbers make it seem. It really isn't, and I think Frank Vogel understands that. Teams ended the season making an inordinate amount of tough shots against strong contests and strong rotations. Sure, the Pacers got a bit lazy -- and Vogel benched their best players a bit to freshen them up for the playoffs. But the fundamentals of Indiana's defense are absolutely still there, and their biggest fundamental strength (that is, the fact that everyone in their core rotation is monstrously huge and lengthy for their position) isn't going to evaporate just because a few opponents made tough shots to end the season.

More interesting, to me? Indiana's offense -- admittedly putrid for most of the year -- is finally starting to show some signs of life. All season, Indiana's had to run plays through David West and pray that things work out. Roy Hibbert has finally seen a return-to-form for his previously absent jump hook, Paul George has been getting open more successfully than he was in the early stretches of the season (although, to be fair, he's been missing a lot of open shots too), and the Pacers in a general sense look like a team whose play has been besieged by missed open shots on their end and made contested shots on the other end. Their struggles don't really resemble San Antonio's complete collapse in the last quarter of the season, at least not to me -- their struggles seem far easier to fix, and for that reason, I think the Pacers shock this Knicks team.

As for why things look grim on New York's end? They're a team that's reliant on Steve Novak getting the space to shoot in a playoff situation (Hey, look! It's Bonner 2.0!) against a stout defensive team, Melo/Cope/Shump shooting over 37% from three against the kind of length Indiana will show them on the perimeter, Jason Kidd shooting 35% from three against ANYONE, and their defense keeping West/Hibbert out of the paint and Paul George out of his comfortable spot-up shots. I just don't see it. (... Which is quite the shame, because New York going on a 2009 Magic-esque shooting streak is probably the only way the Heat bow out before the finals. But I'll get to that later.)

DEWEY'S TAKE: This is a team that seems to ebb and flow based purely on chance in the Melo Era. 2.5 years, and there is still no correlation between anything that happens. Linsanity happened, and then it didn't. Amar'e got injured and then he wasn't. Same with all the others. They'll probably at least make a solid case to go to the ECF and with all their 3-point shooting (and Miami's), they at least have variance on their side for a Finals Run. They have a knack for looking like the best team in the league for stretches and a middling faux-contender for stretches. I don't know. I don't really like their chances, and I could see them, like, going scoreless for entire quarters when Miami closes out on their shooters, I could also see them taking care of the ball, not allowing Miami to get into its deadly transition, and just flipping a coin ten times and having 9 of them come up heads.

• • •

A few end-matter notes -- I'll be putting up the next part of the prognostirank series (with the last second-round exit -- my pick for the loser of LAC/OKC, if you're counting -- and my conference finals predictions) on Wednesday. Note that every single one of my predictions are already chosen -- I will not be editing the picks to adjust for anything we see in the intervening playoff games. 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.

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