Personally, I enjoy the NBA playoffs more than any other postseason event in American sports. The regular season is emphasized by the supremacy of home-court advantage within the sport while the 16 team format ensures that everyone has to work to earn a championship. The best of 7 format weeds out weaker teams, challenges the strong teams, and provides a tactical back-and-forth that is pretty compelling for those of us interested in the strategic elements of sport.
Additionally, I love how basketball emphasizes both the individual AND the team. A dominant athlete can dominate a basketball game in ways that are not possible in soccer, football, or baseball. At the same time, better team play will always trump individual athleticism and skill. I have no idea why the sport is so divisive amongst some sports fans, I'm sure the haters will appear in the comments section with their reasoning.
I'd prefer to discuss the remaining playoff teams and possibly draw Tjarks here to provide some matchup analysis. This is an exciting post season in the NBA in which rooting for whoever is playing the Lakers is likely to yield satisfying results. As it stands, I have favorable feelings towards the three teams most likely to bring home the trophy.
Let's start in the East:
A few parameters for how I typically evaluate teams: Over in the Wins Produced realm of statistical analysis (a school of thought I adhere to), they project winners based on the wins produced totals of the top 6 players on a team. As a general rule in playoff basketball, everyone on the bench after the 6th best have almost zero statistical impact in the playoffs. You can see a chart illustrating this point while also projecting the 2nd round here.
Wins produced numbers are calculated by adding up all of a player's statistical numbers and weighing them based on what numbers are expected to produce x number of wins. For instance, if you've seen "Moneyball" there is a part where Jonah Hill explains to Brad Pitt that they want to score x number of runs in order to expect to win x number of games that they anticipate will be necessary to reach the playoffs.
Wins produced stats are tested through regression analysis so that the calculations can accurately predict teams' records within 95%. In my opinion, it's the best tool we have for measuring who on the court is producing results that result in winning basketball games. Now the Eastern Conference:
While Chicago was certainly one of the best teams in the NBA, I think the injuries to Rose and Noah overshadowed the fact that this is a good Philly team. Andre Iquodala has been playing great basketball all year and the return of healthy Spencer Hawes could make a huge impact on these playoffs beyond their first round upset.
Additionally, everything about Rip Hamilton's addition on the Bulls was disastrous. He played heavy minutes that should have gone to the far superior Kyle Korver, failed to address any team needs, and of course is wasting cap space. Boozer has also been a huge disappointment, especially for the money they're paying him.
The Celtics are still chugging along mostly due to "the big 3" 's persistent quality and Rondo's star levels of play. In Wins Produced terms: .100 is an average player (1/5 win produced per 48 minutes) .200 is a star .300 is a superstar. Typically, championship teams have a .300 or 2 or more .200-level players. Of late, Garnett has shown flashes of the .300+ level production he used to generate in his prime. When he and Pierce play at this level with Rondo the Celtics become very good.
Most likely, they won't be able to sustain that level of play and they'll return to their .150 levels of play that were on display over the course of the entire season. Surrounding the big 4 is a pretty weak supporting cast and the under-utilized Stiemsa. Bradley may be a fierce defender but his production has been below-average so far and Brandon Bass's performances are decidedly uneven.
Philadelphia is a marginally better team that could emerge victorious if they weather this surge of Gatorade-era Garnett and get Hawes going. Pierce is somewhat hobbled by injury and the miles on this team are certain to break them before they reach the end.
Chris Bosh was the worst possible complement to the Wade-James power trio in Miami of the prominent Power Forwards in the game. Because they are so perimeter oriented, all they really need is a defender who can contest shots at the rim, attack the basket on pick'n'rolls, and crash the boards on both ends. Okay, maybe those guys aren't terribly common, but Bosh's lack of shotblocking or defensive rebounding presence makes his price tag pretty counterproductive for them. If they had Serge Ibaka or Tyson Chandler it would all be over.
Bosh's ability to space the floor on offense is very valuable and might be missed in the finals, but Anthony and Haslem can hold down the fort against overmatched Indiana.
Wins produced reveals the Pacers to be a collection of "not quite stars" that thrive mostly by virtue of having nobody terrible on the court. The Heat are a terrible matchup for them, as they are for most teams, because Miami has 3 of the better perimeter defenders in the league in Battier, Wade, and James. They suffocated Granger and George in game 1 and Indiana has little in the way of low-post scoring to punish the Heat's one glaring Bulls-esque weakness.
In the Eastern Conference Finals, Bosh's likely absence could come into play in trying to deal with Hawes in the low post or if Garnett hasn't pooped out from overcoming the 76er's. In addition to the fact that the Heat lack a scoring threat in the low post, they tend to be vulnerable to teams that have athletic bigs who can protect the rim.
Wade, and Lebron moreso, thrive on attacking the rim and out-athleting people once they get there. James has been brought down in the past by teams with athletic bigs like Tyson Chandler, Dwight Howard, Tim Duncan, or Kevin Garnett. When James is met at the rim by the likes of Chandler it takes away a healthy chunk of what makes him so dominant.
Now obviously most teams struggle against athletic big men who can defend the rim, but with the Heat that's virtually their only weakness. Teams keyed by penetration and guard-play will have to account for the possibility of LeBron James on their no. 1 playmaker with Battier or Wade on option no. 2. Even for a team loaded on the perimeter like the Thunder that's a pretty rough situation to create offense in.
Given Boston's age and and mounting injuries, I foresee them gritting out a victory over the 76er's and forcing Miami into an uncomfortable 6-7 game series sans Bosh. However, ultimately no one here is going to overcome James and Wade playing with home court advantage.
Oklahoma City Thunder vs. Los Angeles Lakers:
All the difficulties that Denver gave LA with pace and penetration are going to be maintained by the Thunder backcourt. Harden in particular is a player the Lakers have no answer for and the Ibaka-led frontcourt should be able to stave off the under-utilized LA bigs.
When Kobe defers more to Pau and Bynum the Lakers are a really difficult matchup for everyone. Most teams can't handle one 7-foot scorer, defending 2 of them when 1 can play the high post is nightmarish for most defenses. Fortunately for us Laker-haters, Kobe Bryant often takes 25 shots per game while shooting 43% and lets defenses off the hook.
The Thunder can throw Sefolosha on Bryant at times to bother him, survive the beating down low with Perkins/Collison's bodies and Ibaka's improving D, and then run through the Lakers with whomever of Durant, Westbrook, or Harden is most hot on a given night. The addition of Sessions did improve the Lakers drastically over Fisher, but it hasn't solved their difficulties in defending quick point guards. From here on out, that's all they are likely to see.
Reggie Evans elevates this Clippers team a notch with his methodical rebounding and solid interior defense and enabled them to survive their battle with the physical Grizzlies. Gay helped a lot as well.
Chris Paul is the best player in the Western Conference, but with Griffin injured or healthy they don't have many offensive options other than Paul's brilliance and this Spurs team can and will absolutely make life difficult for CP3 and force other players to make plays. It's not your 00's Spurs defense since Timmy has lost a few steps, Robinson is a spectator, and Leonard/Jackson are not Bowen. But their pick'n'roll offense is dazzling and they have 2 guys in Ginobili and Parker who operate it at a very high level.
Duncan is mostly around for defense and rebounding but he is still capable of a classic 20-10 now and then, particularly against a poor defender.
One particularly fascinating element to the Spurs is their bench, which defies the above playoff wisdom. They legimately go about 9 deep, and they can allocate minutes to whichever of those players their strategy and matchups dictate as necessary. Another trait of this team is their abundance of 3 pt. shooters. Green, Manu, Bonner and Neal all shot 40% or better from 3 this season and Jackson's percentage has increased since he is getting much better shots in San Antonio. The highly underrated Kawhi Leonard is shooting 37% as well.
That makes their floor spacing in the pick'n'roll exceptional and their ball movement echoes back to what we saw carry the Mavs to the title last year. The Clippers are totally outclassed here, even if Paul manages to maintain his status as the best player in this series. The Spurs have too many answers, too much leadership, and too many scoring threats.
I expect a Thunder vs. Spurs WCF with the Spurs getting a slight edge from their experience and the Popovich vs. Brooks matchup. Talent wise they are a wash with the Thunder's big 4 somewhat negated by Perkins' mediocrity and Westbrook's penchant for taking over games with turnovers and poor shooting.
The series will probably be determined by Westbrook's ability to make good decisions in the face of classic Spurs defensive gameplanning...advantage San Antonio.
As for the Finals, I would have granted the Heat the championship this year but the loss of Bosh and the potential of Duncan, Splitter, Bonner, and Blair going against Anthony, Haslem, Turiaf, and Sexy Dexy doesn't speak well for the Heat's chances. If the Heat have to draw in too many resources to protect the rim the Spurs will rain open 3's on them until they capitulate.
Ultimately James' quest for that rep-freeing ring will depend on the conditioning and remaining fire in Kevin Garnett and Tim Duncan. Should be fascinating.