Friday, May 20, 2005

NBA Conference Finals Preview

I know what's going to happen. I'm going to preview the best conference finals matchups the NBA has seen in 15 years, and Phoenix is going to blow their semifinal series with Dallas. Alas, I'm not planning on writing this weekend, so I'll preview both series right now.

First off, it's doesn't make a lot of sense that Miami is on the shelf for an extra day, while the West finals will start Sunday if Phoenix beats Dallas tonight. Why do Detroit and Miami get the extra day of rest, when one would think Phoenix and San Antonio probably should have an extra day or two off? Then again, if Joe Johnson isn't coming back (which he probably isn't unless the NBA lets him borrow a helmet from the Arizona Cardinals), it isn't really a big deal when the series starts.

With that in mind, it's time to look at the likely matchups (sorry, Dallas fans, but this isn't's laziness, combined with the fact that I won't be able to preview the West finals if they start Sunday).

--> East: Detroit vs. Miami

Everyone is crowding on board the Dwyane Wade bandwagon. But Wade isn't the key to this series for Miami. He's good for 30-7-5 pretty much every game this series, provided that he's shooting well. If Wade has a special night, which will probably happen at least once, because Detroit can't guard him one-on-one, he can carry this team. But Wade can't carry this team over a best-of-seven, even with a healthy Shaq. And Shaq's not healthy - a huge break for Detroit.

The Heat need Shaq at something that at least remotely resembles 100 percent. Without the big man, Wade will be slowed down by the tight Detroit defense, and there will be even more pressure on a shaky bench to contribute big minutes and big numbers. With him, Wade will have more space to maneuver in, and a healthy and motivated Shaq is a matchup nightmare for the Pistons.

The Pistons, however, are not a real favorite in this series. I don't care so much about home court, because Miami is 4-0 on the road so far in the playoffs. Also, Detroit has won some big games on the road, including two games at Indiana in the semifinals.

The most important players in the series are both named Jones. Damon and Eddie Jones of Miami need to come up big. When a team is limited in their offensive options, Detroit typically finds a way to shut them down. To beat the Pistons, Miami needs to be diversified. If the Joneses aren't a serious scoring threat, the Pistons will collapse the defense on Wade and O'Neal, and the Heat won't have a chance. Both Damon and Eddie Jones have hit some huge shots in this series, and it's foolish to assume that Detroit will automatically shut them both down.

Even if Shaq is hurt and/or the Heat bench struggles, Detroit is not a safe bet to win this series. The Pistons have looked less than motivated at times in these playoffs, and they are the thinnest team remaining. With the physical style they employ, it's not a good thing when all five starters log 40 or more minutes in most games. It's okay when the competition is questionable, but Miami is deep enough to challenge Detroit on every possession and wear them down.

I like Miami in this series. I've flip-flopped a bit, and I'm certain of a few things:

1. Miami won't win this series without Shaq at least 90-95 percent. They don't have enough offense, and they don't have enough of a post presence without the Diesel.

2. Miami can win without Dwyane Wade playing out of his mind. In fact, it would benefit Miami if all their key players were contributing, instead of having everything fall on Wade's and O'Neal's shoulders. The more balanced their offense is, the better they'll look against a sometimes-suffocating Detroit defense. Jones and Jones need to hit their open shots, because they'll have their chances.

3. Detroit has to give a consistent effort. They have looked at times like a team that won a championship last year, and that's not a good thing. However, they've also looked at times like the team that won a championship last year. That is definitely a good thing. It should also be noted here that it's a virtual guarantee that someone from Detroit will play the "We won it all last year, and now everyone's picking Miami" card.

To sum it up, I think Miami will win the series. It'll probably go seven, but they have better front-line talent, and their depth is better than people think. Stan Van Gundy has done a good job pushing the right buttons so far, and he understands what matchups work and what matchups don't. It's a better coaching matchup than it looks like on paper, and Van Gundy might actually have an advantage because of how motivated everyone on that team is, especially O'Neal.

--> West: San Antonio vs. Phoenix*

Amare Stoudemire will wring my neck if the Suns drop the rest of the Dallas series because I'm doing this, but I'll do it anyway.

Will anyone who isn't a San Antonio fan be rooting for San Antonio? If the fact that the Spurs have become a perennial championship contender isn't enough, they have one of the most unlikeable players remaining in the playoffs in Manu Ginobli. If you haven't caught this guy's act, sample Game One of this series. Ginobli was flopping around so much in the Seattle series that Peter Forsberg expressed embarrassment over the style of play Ginobli was employing. And he never got called on it.

The Spurs have the best power forward in the league in Tim Duncan. Phoenix won't be able to guard him, and anyone who thinks Steve Nash can slow down Tony Parker is smoking the stuff Onterrio Smith can't leave alone. Fortunately for Phoenix, they don't have to play great defense to win this series. They just have to play passable defense. The Spurs don't match up well defensively with Phoenix, especially if Jim Jackson can play well. Johnson is probably out with his broken face, so the Suns need Jackson to hit outside shots and keep the pressure off Nash and Amare Stoudemire.

The Spurs have the advantage in experience, and I couldn't care less. The Spurs are a great team, and their experience won't be what beats Phoenix. It'll be their defense. If San Antonio allows Phoenix to run and gun and take open jumpers, the Suns will win the series despite their lack of experience. As good as the Spurs are, there might not be much they can do about the Suns. They'll run whenever they feel like it, and they do a better job of forcing their tempo on their opponent than any team in the West.

Without Johnson, this series will be hard on Phoenix. But they have so many weapons that it's still hard to figure that they won't score their share of points. With that comes pressure on the Spurs to play a bit out of their element. They're not a run and gun team, and while San Antonio can get out and score points, they're better off trying to slow the game down. They'll rebound, they'll flop, and they'll hit big shots. Phoenix will match them shot for shot, and Stoudemire will average 30+ points per game over the series.

Look out for Jackson and Quentin Richardson. The Suns relied heavily on Johnson and Richardson during the season, and Jackson will be asked to step in and make jump shots. The veteran has come through before, but this is the biggest series of his career. Richardson has been the most underappreciated starter on this team.

In a battle of tempos, I'll take the run and gun team that doesn't play great defense. In other words, I have a gut feeling that Phoenix will in a seven-game classic. Either that, or I'm irrationally in love with the Suns' style of play and can't face reality. Oh, well. It's my blog.

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