The past year has been pretty good to me. My Mavericks finally broke through and won a ring for our beloved German, and in the most memorable and satisfying way imaginable. My Patriots made it all the way to the Superbowl, and although the game ended in heartbreak for me, it was great to see Tommy boy on the big stage once more.
Hell even Arsenal won a trophy (fuck). On top of all that, I got into law school, I started this blog, and the immortal Andrew Mulligan follows me on twitter (along with 1600 others but still). But there is still one thing that still eludes me – the love of a good woman. 60% of the writers here at Double Technicals are in loving long terms relationships, and as a passive aggressive way to show how jealous I am of them, I have ranked the playoff teams in tiers, according to how steady a relationship they have with the Larry O’Brien trophy. I know it sounds a little convoluted but I promise it’ll make sense as you read on. Being full time students, none of us could do the preview by ourselves, so we decided to split the preview up between three of us. To do this we did a “fantasy draft” of teams we would write about, and went in turns to pick the teams in order of most likely to winning the title this year.
Here we go.
The favourite: *ENGAGED*
1. Jason takes: the Miami Heat
They have to be considered the favourite, and as long as nothing crazy happens, the wedding will go on as planned and LeBron will finally get his ring.
LeBron has been so consistently great throughout his career that 27-8-6 with 1.8 steals and 0.8 blocks per game on 53% shooting is considered a ho-hum year for him, but that is just ridiculous. Sure he’s cooled down from the start of the season when he was shooting over 55% from the floor and on pace for the highest Player Efficiency Rating ever recorded, but his play this year is still nothing to sneeze at. As it is, he is on pace to record the 10th highest PER in league history. The only players above him? Wilt Chamberlain, Michael Jordan, and… Lebron James. On top of that, LeBron continues to be the most destructive defensive force on the perimeter since perhaps Scottie Pippen. Statistically, LeBron has maintained a defensive rating of 98 this year (how many points he gives up per 100 possessions), and when opponents isolate him he becomes even stingier, allowing just 57 points per 100 possessions. And this is before we even get into his terrific help defense, which, along with Dwyane Wade’s similarly underrated D, makes Miami one of the stingiest clubs in the league.
“]Miami have the best player in the game today, and an excellent defensive backbone to fall back on as well. But of course there is one way they could let it slip and not win it all. We all know what it is. The elephant in the room: LeBron’s clutch prowess.
It’s been analysed to death by now. People complain that LeBron doesn’t step up when his team needs him most – but some of his best work this year has come when Wade or Bosh or both have been sidelined. Without Wade (but with LeBron) this season the Heat have gone 13-1 and LeBron has averaged 30 points on 54% shooting with 6 assists and 7 rebounds, 2 steals and a block per contest. There was also the game against the Nets where LeBron scored the last 17 points of the game to win it. And other games such as the Philly game where he made 6 fourth quarter baskets to put them away and round out a 41 point performance.
And this is before we even get to his past playoff performances, which include the 48 point game against Detroit in the 2007 ECF (where he scored his team’s final 25 and 29 of its final 30 points), or the 2009 postseason where he averaged a 35-9-8 with 1.6 steals and 0.9 blocks a game – which amounted to a mind-boggling 37.4 (!!!!) Player Efficiency Rating: the second highest playoff PER of ALL TIME (second only to Hakeem’s 39 PER in the 1988 playoffs). That’s right – MJ,Kobe, Bird, Magic, Duncan, Shaq, Wilt, NONE of them has had a postseason as good as LeBron’s in 2009 (at least statistically). The only reason the Cavs didn’t go any further was because his second best player was Mo Williams, and he shot 40% from the floor throughout the playoffs. Their best bench scorer was Boobie Gibson, who averaged a whopping 3 points a game on 33% shooting.
Despite the criticisms regarding his supposed inability to assert himself in crunchtime, Lebron has shot 5/12 from the floor on last shots to win/tie in the postseason. In the last minute to win or tie he shoots 10/20. In the last five minutes of close games (within 5 points) he shoots 46% from the floor and 35% from 3. Just for comparison’s sake,Kobe is 6 for 21 on the last possession, 10 of 31 in the last minute, and is 40% from the floor and 27% from 3 in clutch situations. D-Wade? 2 of 5 on the last possession, 3 of 10 in the final minute, and 38%/27% in clutch situations.
His performance in the 2011 Finals was inexcusable, yes. And his Game 5 against the Celtics in 2010 was incredibly puzzling. But that’s just 2 bad series he’s had in his career. Two. In the summer of 1984, Magic Johnson was labelled as a choke artist because of his performance down the stretch in the Finals against Boston.
This is despite the fact that, like Lebron, he had displayed in the past excellence on the big stage (the 1980 Finals where he won MVP honours after taking over for Kareem at center and slapped together a 42-15-7 in the deciding game). Of course, Magic used this as fuel and won 3 more championships, taking the reins from Kareem as the clear best player on the team.
LeBron burst onto the scene as an 18 year old and immediately slapped together a 20-5-5 and never looked back. But as a result we forget he’s still just 27 years old. The average age of Finals MVPs in the last 20 years is 29.5 years old. Playoff success is reserved for veterans, and what LeBron’s been going through is not that unusual. The only exceptions are Tim Duncan (who won it when he was 23, but he had a 33 year old David Robinson, who still averaged 16 and 10 with 2.5 blocks 1.5 steals and a 25 PER and 88 defensive rating), Magic Johnson (who had Kareem), and Dwyane Wade (who had Bennett Salvatore and Danny Crawford. Yeah I’m still mad).
This is where LeBron finds himself today. He has 2 All-Star worthy teammates. He has a somewhat-competent coach (depending on who you ask) who has built a swarming defensive outfit, and he has the athletes around him to convert stops into baskets in a cocaine heartbeat. His supporting cast may not be the best, but outside of the “Big 3” they still have 3 other guys who you can go to war with in Mario Chalmers (a sneakily ballsy player who plays without fear and hits big 3’s), Shane Battier (not the player he used to be, but he’s a ‘been there done that’ guy who won’t be fazed by the moment and find ways to contribute), and the ever-reliable Udonis Haslem.
He dumped his hometown sweetheart in a callous and narcissistic way in front of the entire world to give himself this exact opportunity. He’s got his supporting cast, he’s had time to gel with them, and he’s in the absolute prime of his career. The ring is there for his taking. He just has to do it.
Tier 2: the contenders – *IN A RELATIONSHIP*
These teams are in steady relationships – the question is whether they have to balls to propose to their loved one. They are fully capable of taking out the title, but they possess some glaring flaws and something significant needs to happen for them to be able to overcome them
2. Dan takes: the San Antonio Spurs
In 1997 the Spurs selected Tim Duncan out of Wake Forest with their first overall pick. Simultaneously, coach Gregg Popovich was set to begin his first full season calling the shots. With this dynamic duo, the Spurs have excelled consistently but it seems that with each passing year, fewer people outside the city seem to care. Granted, the Spurs espouse a brand of basketball which is not quite as exciting as other teams (think the Thunder or the Heat) but you cannot ignore their productivity and success in recent years. Throughout the Duncan-Popovich era, the team has never finished lower than 7th place in the Western Conference and have lifted the Larry O’Brien Trophy four times. It’s amazing how quick people are to forget and it’s high-time for the franchise to get the level of respect and recognition it so deserves.
Once again San Antonio is the 1st seed in the West and, despite early exits from the playoffs in recent years, the Spurs are primed for a long postseason run this time around. Their big three (Duncan, Parker, Ginobili) are all healthy heading into the playoffs for the first time in a long time. Yes, you cannot deny that these three are aging (36, 29, 34, respectively) but they are not tasked with carrying the team alone; the roster is one of great depth and has many supporting players who can offer valuable contributions.
The Spurs have 12 players that averaged over 6 points a game this season. This is head-and-shoulders above the rest of the league as the average of all playoff teams this year is 8.25. For more perspective, the two teams seeded just below the Spurs in the West – the Thunder and the Lakers – have just 4 and 7 players in this category, respectively. Having many players who can provide consistent scoring contributed to the team having a points differential of +7.23 this regular season, the best in the league. Moreover, having productive young talent like Danny Green and Patty Mills (aged 25 and 24, respectively) mitigates the age factor and ensures that the Spurs have a good blend of youth and experience.
Clearly, scoring is not a problem. Nor is their shot selection and execution as San Antonio posted the league’s highest field-goal percentage this year (47.9%), as well as the best percentage from beyond the arc (39.5%). However, what may prove to be going an issue going forward is the Spurs’ inside play. Duncan has been his usual self but he needs both Matt Bonner and Tiago Splitter to step up their scoring and especially their rebounding. Andrew Bynum pulled down 30 rebounds on April 11 (the first player to do so in over two years) and made the weakness in the rebounding department clear. The boards must be crashed with ferocity.
With his career in its twilight years, this may be Duncan’s best (or his last, depending on what he decides to when his contract expires in the summer) chance at securing a fifth championship. Although he is a lock for the Hall of Fame, his methodic, supposedly “boring” style of play often gets overlooked in a league populated with superstars deemed to be more marketable. As mentioned earlier, his and the Spurs’ achievements are quickly forgotten and it seems that few people acknowledge Duncan for the player that he is. With five rings, will Duncan finally start to get the love he deserves? Will a triumph in June be the ultimate climax to what has been one of the most successful careers of all time?
3. David picks: the Los Angeles Lakers
For the first time in Kobe Bryant’s career since his Rookie year, Kobe has become the X-factor for the Lakers. After 16 seasons there’s still no doubting his motivation, his work ethic, his hunger or his competitiveness. But as he gets up there in age, his efficiency has been slowly declining (his ego as always though, remains unchanged). I’m a Lakers fan and a Kobe fan, but I can’t deny the painful fact that he needs to start fully utilizing those two 7 footers. The Lakers go as far as Kobe’s willingness to play inside out. As long as Kobe gives Bynum and Gasol their touches, I really believe they can win the title this year.
The biggest advantage the Lakers have is something no team in the League has. TWO All Star caliber 7 footers, teamed up with arguably a top 10 player of all time? How the fuck does this team not have a record of 60-6 this season? This kills me to say, but part of it has been Kobe Bryant’s fault. Not so much that his skills are deteriorating, but because he can’t let go of his tremendous ego. That supreme confidence is what makes him so great. But in order to be successful this year, Kobe has to put aside even just 1/10th of that ego and pound the ball inside. In this guard heavy era where centers are a dying breed, Andrew Bynum’s become an offensively dominant big man, and Gasol is still playing at a high level and even extended his shooting range to the 3 point line. If Kobe’s willing to play to the Laker’s strength, it will force the defense to double team Bynum inside, leaving Kobe space to operate from the perimeter.
The Lakers really became a contender when they acquired Ramon Sessions. Would Sessions ever have thought he would be the key acquisition to winning a championship with the second most successful franchise in basketball? Obviously not, but the truth was Derek Fisher had to go. Sure he’s a Laker legend and all the rest, but let’s be honest, with the way he plays now he probably shouldn’t be in the League. And for those people who say “HE CAN STILL HIT A BIG SHOT! NEVER COUNT HIM OUT!” that may be true, but for 46 minutes of the game he’s terrible. With the acquisition of Sessions, the Lakers finally have a legit point guard who can penetrate and pass. Remember, Sessions once had a 24 assist game, and he gives the Lakers some needed speed and athleticism.
The Lakers’ biggest weakness during the regular season was their inability to score in transition. They were ranked 29th in the League in fast break points, but fortunately for them, in the playoffs the game slows down and most possessions are played in the half court set. This works right to the Lakers’ strength, as they can just feed the ball inside. Sessions will also help the Lakers score a few transition baskets as he plays well in the open court. But once again, I have to stress that the Lakers will only take advantage of the slowed down tempo if Kobe feeds it inside instead of jacking up perimeter shots over 2 defenders.
Defensively, the Lakers aren’t great nor are they slack. The big weakness defensively is at the point guard spot. Both Sessions and Steve Blake can be exposed on defense, especially against uber athletic point guards like Russell Westbrook and Tony Parker. The good thing is the Lakers still have Bynum and Gasol bothering the opponent’s shot inside, so this will somewhat make up for their lackluster point guard defense. Of course, Metta will provide tough defense, and Matt Barnes will do his best to irritate the fuck out of anyone he’s matched up against. When motivated, Kobe can still play great defense, as evident in the double overtime win against the Thunder when he bothered Westbrook all night long. The question is will he be spent if so much is required from him both offensively and defensively? Since we are talking about the Black Mamba, my guess is he’s too motivated to let fatigue hamper his performance.
Perhaps the only weakness in the playoffs for the Lakers is their lack of depth. But I don’t think this is going to be much of a problem. As much as they are criticized, I believe the Lakers’ bench is a little underrated. We already know what we’ll get from the only true Big 3 the league has (Kobe, Bynum, Gasol). Jordan Hill and Devin Ebanks have proven they can come in and give 10 minutes each and grab a few rebounds and make hustle plays. Matt Barnes is an extremely good cutter and plays 100% all game. He can occasionally knock down the three and I’ve already mentioned how irritating he can be on defense. World Peace has played better as of late. His suspension may knock him out of his recent groove (pun unintended), but expect him to contribute 10-15 points a game. In my opinion, Steve Blake is absolutely trash and all he can really do is shoot wide open 3s, and he even struggles at that (33.5%). However, to be fair, Blake is a decent backup point guard who does his best to feed the post the ball, and if he can just play his hardest on defense and knock down 1 or 2 threes, that’ll be a bonus for the Lakers. I pray that Troy Murphy could shoot like he did when he was with the Warriors, this would be greatly beneficial as the Lakers have no pure shooters on the team to space the floor. Sadly, this is about as likely as me making the NBA. Though the Lakers have no pure shooters, Kobe, Sessions (a superb 44% from three this year), Barnes, Blake and even Gasol are all capable of knocking down the three. And with the advantage the Lakers have in the paint, their game plan won’t be focused on the perimeter.
I think my careful, well thought out totally unbiased analysis of the Lakers, I’ve established that the mighty Lakeshow will go on to win their 18th championship. At the very least, they’re a team you should be scared of.
4. David picks: the Boston Celtics
As much as I hate this team, I wouldn’t mind at all if we had round three of Lakers-Celtics this year. The last one was an instant classic, and nothing’s better than seeing the purple and gold drowning in celebratory champagne while the Celtics walk off the court heads down, with Kevin Garnett attempting to break the record for “most curses per minute.” As unlikely as many people may think this matchup will be, I believe the Celtics have a great chance to advance to the finals, and it all starts with Kevin Garnett.
KG is playing the best basketball he’s played in 3 years. Moving him to the center position has made Doc Rivers look like a genius. Garnett can take slower centers off the dribble with his re-found speed, and stretch defenders who are usually hesitant to defend on the perimeter out on the perimeter as far as 18-20 feet. If Rondo and Garnett just ran high picks all game long, the Celtics would be hard to stop. As always with the Celtics though, Garnett’s health will be a huge question. He seems healthy and looks to be 100%, but with his recent injury history, it won’t be surprising if his knee starts to bother him again. The one thing (and the only thing) I like about this Celtics team is that everyone seems to genuinely love each other and are willing to sacrifice their personal accolades for the team. I truly believe Garnett is the reason for this. He ranks right at the top in terms of leadership in professional sport. Combine this with Doc Rivers and every member of the Celtics has bought in to the whole team thing. Fuck I hate the Celtics.
At times, the Celtics have struggled to score, but they still have one of the best defenses in the League. And the cliche “defense wins championships” couldn’t be any more correct with these Celtics. With Garnett as the anchor, the Celtics’ defense looks beautiful. It’s almost as if they are all connected by strings and rotate fluidly. It really is a joy to watch. Avery Bradley is already one of the best perimeter defenders in the league, and Rondo has always been one of the best defenders at the point guard position. Brandon Bass is probably their biggest liability, but they found an absolute GEM in Greg Stiemsma. He averages 4 blocks per 36 minutes. Yes, this is where amazing happens.
Despite the jokes about the Celtics’ age, a little change in the starting lineup has all of a sudden changed this. Doc Rivers deserves some serious coach of the year considerations for convincing Ray Allen to come off the bench for a second year player who’s only started playing meaningful minutes halfway throughout this season. This led to a red hot run by the Celtics after the All Star break, and their starting lineup isn’t that old after all. Rondo, Bradley and Bass are all below 28 years old. In addition to Bradley’s defense, he’s also proven he can knock down the three (44.7% 3pt). Brandon Bass is a great midrange shooter, and he plays hard every minute on the floor. Obviously they have one of the top 5 point guards in Rondo, but his free throw shooting is still a concern and could affect the team in the 4th quarter. Pierce and Garnett may be on the wrong end of their thirties, but their experience and motivation are crucial. They’ve increased their production dramatically in the month of April and they suddenly look rejuvenated. How that happened, I do not know, but I do not like it.
Another benefit for bringing Ray Allen off the bench is that the second unit’s offense will actually be competitive. By starting Allen off the bench, he gets the ultimate green light to shoot whenever he wants, and we all know what happens when Ray Allen gets into a rhythm. Mickael Pietrus is an outstanding defender and although he’s only shooting 33.5% from three, he has proven in the past he hits huge shots and can perform in the playoffs.
The more I think about this team, the more I can see a legitimate chance of the Celtics advancing to the Finals. They always seem to find their rhythm and momentum at just the right time. Why does this fucking Celtics team always have a chance. Their biggest weakness is that too much depends on Garnett’s health. He has too much impact not just on the court, but also in the locker room. He’s been so brittle and hurt the past years I can’t help but see him suffer some type of injury and slow down in the playoffs. I would never be one to wish injury on a player, but let’s just say if he had to sit out with something like the flu, I would not complain one bit.
5. Daniel picks: the Oklahoma City Thunder
It’s amazing how quickly the Thunder have set-up shop in Oklahoma City. The casual NBA fan probably would not even realize that the Thunder were once the Seattle SuperSonics and that the franchised moved south following the 2007-08 season. But you cannot fault such indifference.
Why? Well, with a great fanbase (the Thunder sold out every home game this season and the Chesapeake Energy Arena is one of the most hostile venues in all of basketball) and many household names, the Thunder have the distinct feel of a franchise that has been around for a lot longer than it has. Despite a lethargic first season in OKC, the Thunder have enjoyed great success in their past two seasons. Kevin Durant has established himself as being a top-five player in the league and is fresh off of his third scoring title (other than KD, only George Gervin, Michael Jordan and Allen Iverson have won three).
With another great regular season culminating in the team securing the 2nd seed in the West, the Thunder looked primed for another attempt at the title. First up for the club is a rematch of last year’s West finals with Dallas. After being dismissed in five games last year by Dirk and the Mavericks, the media was quick to attribute the loss to a lack of maturity and inexperience. Maybe so, but a year has passed and in addition to maturing, the Thunder have developed as a cohesive unit.
Kendrick Perkins performed admirably in his first full regular season with the team and he brings invaluable championship experience (Boston’08) to the table. Serge Ibaka has asserted himself this year, leading the league in blocks with 3.65 per game and he may well end Dwight Howard’s run of three straight Defensive Player of the Year awards. Needless to say, Durant is having another career year, improving his shooting percentages, as well as his rebound and assist counts. Thabo Sefolosha, while only playing in 42 games this year, has seen his performance and his numbers dip on the whole but he has proved himself to be a legitimate threat from beyond the arc. Russell Westbrook has also had a season to remember, besting his previous scoring totals and becoming a second option that takes some of the heat off Durant. Not a bad starting five if you ask me.
With significant contributions from the likes of James Harden (assuming he will be ready for the start of the playoffs after World Peace’s not-so-peaceful blow), Derek Fisher and Daequan Cook, the Thunder have all the makings of a championship squad.
However, what may prevent the Thunder from going all the way this season is their guard play. As mentioned earlier, Westbrook has been excellent at getting to the basket this season but his distribution has slumped. Whereas in 2010-11 he averaged 8.2 assists a game, this year he only managed 5.5. Westbrook must prioritize his role of playmaker above scoring. As we learnt this season, his shot is not always falling and he cannot always rely on it. Particularly telling were his performances against the Grizzlies in December and the Lakers last week in which he shot 0 for 13 and 3 for 22, respectively.
Simply put, Westbrook must pass more and shoot less. If not, then we may well be stuck with Mark Cuban for at least another week.
If the Thunder can get all the pieces to fit and win it all this year, we are perhaps looking at the NBA’s next dynasty. Just 23 years old, both Durant and Westbrook aren’t going anywhere anytime soon and the future of OKC basketball looks bright, regardless of a title this year.
6. Jason picks: the Dallas Mavericks
“That was our dress rehearsal” – Jason Kidd
Come on now, 6 picks and no one’s taken the defending champs?
“Never underestimate the heart of a champion” – Rudy Tomjanovich
After winning it all last year, getting the monkey off Dirk Nowitzki’s back (along with that of Jason Terry, Jason Kidd, Shawn Marion, and all the other veterans on the squad with their respective postseason heartbreaks) and vanquishing the villainous Miami Heat, the Mavs have been wildly inconsistent this season. What seems to be lacking is the type of mental toughness that led to the Mavs being one of the best teams in the league on the road and in the fourth quarter (this year they are 13-20 on the road, 4-26 when trailing after three quarters and 10-13 ingames decided by five points or less). There are a few theories for why this is so. The first and most obvious is the championship hangover. Another possible reason was the loss of the emotional leader of last year’s team Tyson Chandler to FA, along with bench sparkplug JJ Barea, Caron “Tough Juice” Butler and the legitimately insane Deshawn Stevenson. These were arguably the four toughest guys on the team last year and have been replaced in the lineup by Brendan Haywood, Vince Carter and Roddy Beaubois – none of whom are known for their toughness or intensity.
Many Mavericks fans have pointed to the 1995 Houston Rockets as a team that struggled the year after winning their title, before going on to win it all, but I think we have a more recent example of a team that the Mavericks should hope to emulate. The 2010 Boston Celtics were also a team full of older, veteran players. They finished the regular season on a 27-24 run and were written off as a serious contender by most pundits heading into the playoffs. They were too old, limped into the playoffs, and had not shown the form necessary to become a champion. We all know what happened in the playoffs – they upset LeBron’s Cavaliers and Dwight’s Magic behind resolute team defending and sharp execution on the offensive end by their veteran stars. They took the Lakers to a 7th game and almost won the damn thing if it wasn’t for Kendrick Perkins blowing out his knee in Game 6 and Ron Artest inexplicably hitting the biggest shot of the season.
Similarly, the Mavericks have shown spurts and flashes of being a legitimate contender. Namely, a dominant January where they went 13-5 and beat OKC, Utah, San Antonio, and Boston. Since then however, they have gone just 22-22. Are there reasons to believe the Mavs might be headed for a similarly surprising playoff run this year? Both teams are somewhat statistically similar. They’re both older teams who rely on stout defense and sharp offensive execution to get open jump shots. But like the Mavs this year, the Celtics in 2010 were a jump shooting team who weren’t very good at shooting jump shots (just 17th in the league in 3pt%). The thing is though, not every veteran team can be like the Spurs and finish with 60 wins while still limiting their stars’ minutes. Most veteran teams have to punt some games in the regular season, knowing that their squad needs rest and that they are capable of winning on the road so seeding is not as important.
In 2010 Paul Pierce averaged 36, 35 and 37 minutes a night in the first 3 months, then just 31, 30, and 34 minutes a game in the last 3 months. Ray Allen averaged 35, 37, 37 and 37 minutes in the first four months, then just 31 and 32 minutes a game in the last 2 months. KG had to have his minutes limited all year at around 31-32 minutes a game, but in the last 3 months of the season it was limited even further to below 30 minutes a night. This meant that their offensive execution would suffer, and as a result they didn’t get open looks which hurt their percentages. Likewise, the 2012 Mavericks have limited their stars’ minutes all year. Dirk’s scoring is the hub which the offense is built around, but he’s averaging the fewest minutes a night since his rookie year. Jason Kidd is the guy who makes the whole system go, but he’s had a strict 30 minute cap this year, on top of missing games to injury and rest. Kidd not only is the guy who dictates where the ball goes when Dirk kicks it out, but he’s also the guy responsible for getting Dirk the ball in the first place. In the 18 games without Kidd in the lineup, Dirk attempts 2 fewer shot attempts a game than when he’s in.
Come playoff time though, Kidd will be suiting up every night for 30-35 minutes a night and Dirk should be playing at or close to the 39 minutes a game he played in the playoffs last year. This will no doubt boost their offensive efficiency, and their defense has been pretty stout all year as well. Statistically, they have actually improved from last year despite the loss of Tyson Chandler. Indeed, when they’ve had everyone healthy, the Maverick’s starting lineup five has posted offensive and defensive numbers that would rank first in the league when they’re on the floor together. And despite being a year older, the team is ironically more athletic than last year’s squad as they receive key contributions from guys like Beaubois, Brandan Wright and Ian Mahinmi this year.
I think the Mavericks have much more depth than the Lakers. Say what you will about shortening rotations in the playoffs, but remember the Mavs won the title last year because their second unit would come on and overwhelm other teams’ second units and that was the difference in the game.
They’re more experienced than the Thunder – the Mavs top six players (starters and Terry) have a combined 544 games of playoff experience. The Thunder’s top 6 (starters and Harden) have a combined 209 games of experience, and have an average age a full 3 years younger than the Mavs. The fact that the Mavs are more experienced gives them an advantage in late-game half court execution, which will be pivotal in the playoffs. The Thunder have made improvements in this area but still struggle with the zone defense occasionally, and this is the Mavs’ calling card. Indeed, of the teams the Thunder has played more than once this season, the Mavs have held them to the lowest points scored (95.3) and 2nd lowest shooting percentage (43.8%).
The Spurs represent the greatest threat, but historically, weird things tend to happen when the Spurs and Mavericks meet up, due to the familiarity built up between the old rivals.
The Mavs have gone through a strange and frustrating regular season. But on paper, the ingredients are still there for them to make a 1995 Houston Rockets or 2010 Celtics-like repeat run in the playoffs. The question is, will they be able to find the switch, and if that will be enough to scale the mountain once more.
7. Jason picks: the Chicago Bulls
Last year they rode the best defense in the league and the offensive exploits of MVP Derrick Rose to 62 wins and the first seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs. At the time I was a firm believer that Chicago had the right blueprint for playoff success. That is – a stout defense and an all-world closer to finish off the opposition when it gets tight. What I didn’t realise was that the Bulls, and more specifically Rose, had maxed themselves out in the regular season. They didn’t have another gear to shift into once the playoffs arrived and everyone else ratcheted up their intensity and preparation. Miami came in and locked them down defensively, with LeBron taking on the responsibility to take Rose out of the game. LeBron turned in arguably one of the greatest 5 game defensive performances in league history, and the Bulls had nowhere else to turn to in crunchtime.
Rose is an all-world talent at point guard – easily one of the five best in the world at what he does. But with the way that team is constructed, he needs to be the one creating offense in the fourth quarter to pull away and win. Can he do that this year? Well what exactly, has changed from last year that would make us believe they can beat the Heat this year when LeBron comes over to take Rose out of the game? They haven’t made any significant additions besides Rip Hamilton, who has been in and out of the lineup all year and has yet to make a significant impact on the team. And even then, he’s not the type of guy who can lighten the load on Rose by creating for himself or for others, nor is he a long range catch and shoot threat there to help space the floor. That means the Bulls must rely on internal improvement from Deng and Boozer. But unlike a team like the Thunder who hope that a year of experience can help their young team get over the hump, the Bulls are already a pretty experienced team. They are who they are at this point.
That is, except for Rose.
In the 4th quarter of close games last year (3 points ahead or behind), Rose shot just 42% from the floor and 32% from 3. This year he has taken a slight step back from that, going 41% from the floor. It wouldn’t be accurate to blame it entirely on the fact that the opposing defense is focused solely on Rose either, if we compare his numbers to other point guards around the league with comparable supporting casts. Tony Parker shoots 49% from the floor in the same situation (fourth quarter, within 3 points). Chris Paul shoots 46%. Steve Nash shoots a blistering 63% from the floor and 67% from 3 in these situations, despite an even worse supporting cast to Rose. Hell, even rookie Kyrie Irving, with a supporting cast that includes the likes of Alonzo Gee, Anthony Parker and Omri Casspi, shot 48% from the floor and 44% from 3 in clutch situations. Rose simply needs to step his game up and create offense for the Bulls when the game gets tight, as it will, in the fourth quarter of playoff games. Has he improved enough, in one (shortened) season, to be able to do that? Is he tougher and steelier than the guy who was taken out of the game by LeBron James just last year? It took MJ 7 years to break through. It took Dirk over a decade. It took Shaq 7 years. After riding as second banana for his first 3 rings,Kobe had to wander in the wilderness for 4 years before he won one by himself, at age 30.
I happen to think he will get there, eventually. He plays without fear, works hard, and is super competitive. But I’m not so convinced that after just one (shortened) season, he is suddenly tougher and steelier to an extent where he can carry the team by himself.