2012 NBA Playoffs: Conference Semifinal Predictions

Eddie PryceCorrespondent IMay 16, 2012

2012 NBA Playoffs: Conference Semifinal Predictions

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    So far the NBA Playoffs have been entertaining as usual, mixed in with an element of surprise.  Often the reasoning for teams winning or losing in unexpected fashion has been the result of injury, which seems to be the theme in this strike-shortened season of 2012. 

    The favorites going into the playoffs for the most part have gotten through fine, but it seems that all of the evenly-matched series have been entertaining and lengthy. 

    The Boston/Atlanta series was thrilling. There was an absolute slugfest between the Clippers and Grizzlies that went seven games. The Nuggets gave the Lakers all that they could handle unexpectedly and forced a Game 7. And the ugly, but defensive branded Bulls/Sixers series had several close games as well.

    You cannot ask for much more.

    In the conference semifinals, it is hard to tell if we will have an encore of such closely contested battles.  Based on the matchups, the series could go either way.  We could either have a couple series that go the distance and swing either way with uncertainty, or we could possibly have four quick and rather uninteresting series pass us by. 

    Either way, I think this makes it hard to predict winners because there are so many different variables that could effect the outcome.  After each series has opened up their respective series and played Game 1, this is how I see each matchup playing out.

Pacers vs. Heat

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    The Heat, as expected, have turned up their game and are primed for a championship run. After borderline “dogging it” at times in the regular season and being almost satisfied with losing games they should win, it was fairly evident in the much anticipated New York Knicks series that they are now serious.

    2012 MVP LeBron James has stepped up his game and seems to be laser-focused.  He has made it hard for any team to beat the Heat with his in-game offensive explosions at various points in the game.  While he may not be classified as a clutch player, he has managed to put together multiple double-digit efforts in the fourth quarter of closely contested games to help seal the opposing team’s fate.

    James, as he did last year for the most part, seems to be entirely focused on reaching the elusive first championship that it seems all the greats must have.  Sure several all-time greats have not won championships, but with LeBron having his type of talent and the statistical resume that he had developed thus far, there is really no precedence for a player of his caliber not winning a championship.  He knows that he needs to have one.

    Dwyane Wade, is not as pressed to cement his legacy, because he has his championship and he did not have to go anywhere to form the “Superfriends”, but there is some pressure on him as part of the group that forged this talent imbalance in Miami.

    The Pacers are a very good team that has flown under the radar for the most part this year.  I think most basketball fans are aware that they are “good”, but I do not know if people know how good.  They were not the three seed in the East by accident.  They went 42-24 this season, which means they won 63.6 percent of their games, which is a very good percentage in any year.  Due to the fact that the season was shortened, and we can compare apples to apples, this would have been equal to a 52-win season if the season were full. 

    Fifty wins is always a sign of a very good campaign.  They were 4th in the NBA and 2nd in the conference with their 19-14 road record and they ended the season winning eight of their last 10 games.  This Indiana team is very well coached by young Frank Vogel, who impressed many at the end of last season helping the Pacers get into the playoffs and challenge the number one seed Bulls in the first round showing no fear of Derrick Rose and their highly successful division rivals just to the North. 

    This Pacer team has talent as well.  They are led by all-star caliber player Danny Granger who can put the ball in the basket and usually create his own shot, which is important.  They have all-star center Roy Hibbert, who most probably defined as a stiff ever since his years at Georgetown leading into his early years in Indiana, but he has quietly had a very solid season this year and put up some respectable stats.  He put up just under 13 points a game and averaged just about nine rebounds and exactly two blocks a game.  He gives them what many teams do not have: an inside presence on both ends of the floor.

    If you throw in multiple time all-star David West, who came over from the Hornets, productive point guard Darren Collison, and long and athletic upstart wing players Paul George and George Hill and speedster/scoring-machine Leandro Barbosa, the Pacers are not short on talent at all.  Those guys lead the way and are supplied depth by Tyler Hansbrough and Lou Admunson, should they need minutes and fouls from the bench.  This is a team that is not to be taken lightly.

    However, it is very easy to take them lightly given they have had limited national TV exposure this year and the Pacers are not known as a front-running team since Reggie Miller and company left.  They also are playing a Miami Heat team that is not only more talented than everyone else, but they are on a mission to fulfill the goal that they set out to accomplish the minute they were formed.  It probably does not make sense to consider them losing in the 2nd round when they are under a “championship or bust” quota.

    This series will be determined by how well the Heat stay focused.  If not for the Game 1 loss of Chris Bosh to an abdominal injury, I would be confident in saying that the Heat would win in 5.  I am not saying that that still will not happen, because in this series, as good as the Pacers are, and as tough and well coached as they are, I do feel that having two of the game’s best four or five players on the same team may be enough in this series to prevail. 

    LeBron is playing at a high level and has been able to either sustain full game dominance or turn it on to take over for quarters at a time that break the back of their opponent.  Assuming D-Wade contributes his normal 20-25 points or more, defensive brilliance off the ball and on the ball (when he wants to) and the team continues to play the great defense that they normally play, they should be able to prevail in this series.  The Heat length and great defense is not a good match-up for the sometimes offensively challenged Indiana team down the stretch. 

    The Pacers have candidates to close in Danny Granger and David West, but they cannot count on these guys night in night out to turn in clutch performances down the stretch.  As a result, if the Heat can get their supporting cast to get two to three players to step up and pick up the slack for the Heat, I see this series going 5 in favor of the Heat

    The Heat just tend to make quick work of inferior teams in the playoffs. They are laser-focused with bigger plans in mind.  LeBron James is playing the best ball of his career and Wade has always had success against the Pacers.  It is fair to assume they can step up and give the Heat enough to get into the East Finals.

Thunder vs. Lakers

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    This is probably the most intriguing and highly anticipated matchup of the round.  The Thunders are favored by many to make it out of the West and contend for a championship.  They are blessed with two top 10 NBA talents that can score the ball at will, and give defenses headaches to account for.  They have a nice diet of effective role players that can be counted on to do their job and contribute consistently.  It helps that they also have the best home court advantage in the league, with their college-like home crowd and a chip on their shoulder due to the Lakers being the big brothers on the block that they look up to and previously have been unable to shake.  The Ron Artest (aka Metta World Peace) controversy involving a free elbow to the head to 6th man extraordinaire James Harden did not help one bit.

    The Thunder have the talent to win a championship.  In fact, top to bottom, it can be argued they have the most talent in the league, especially if you are considering their rotation players.  Kevin Durant gives them the superstar, end of game scoring threat that every team needs in the playoffs; Russell Westbrook gives them the energy and explosiveness that makes him almost impossible to matchup with, no matter who you send his way; and they have the rebounding and toughness to compliment that star power in Serge Ibaka, Kendrick Perkins, and Nick Collison. 

    One of the biggest upgrades that the Thunder has experienced this year is the emergence of 6th man of the year James Harden.  Last year, he could easily be identified as a spark off of the bench that would bring energy off of the bench and thrive off of the home crowd with periodic explosive outputs in home playoff games.  When it came to road games however, it was very hit or miss with him, and you could not count on him the way that you can count on him this year.  This year, Harden has developed into every bit the playmaker that they hoped he would be when they drafted him out of Arizona State with the 3rd pick in 2009. 

    This was the 3rd of 3 franchise changing high lottery picks that the Thunder made in a row that have put them in position to be as good as they have become today.  Harden comes off the bench to provide consistent scoring, playmaking and a swagger that gives them an edge over many other teams when starters are on the bench resting.  He has no fear of the big shot and is a matchup problem for most that try to guard him due to his balanced game and his smooth drives to the hole.  He is very apt at  always being able to change pace and then explode exactly when he needs to when his dribble is alive.  This resulted in a very impressive 16.8 points per game off of the bench.

    This Thunder team won 47 games this year, which would have been equivalent to 58 wins any other year, so they were just on the cusp of greatness.  The problem is, they are playing a championship-tested Laker team that is led by the game’s most respected player in Kobe Bryant, and the best big man duo in the league in Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum.  Those three alone pose major problems for any team that matches up with them if they are all on.  The problem is can they be on for at least four or five of the games in this series? 

    The Lakers are best when Kobe does not have to dominate the ball and bail them out with explosive offensive outputs.  Can Bynum and Gasol consistently dominate down low and utilize their extreme length on the offensive and defensive end to make this the series that many anticipate?  Can Bynum grow up and show the maturity of a player that is considered at least the best big man in his conference, maybe the whole league?  Can he demand the ball and produce in the post as opposed to checking out mentally and psychologically if things do not go his way during this series?  Can Gasol bring efforts like he did in Game 7 of the Denver series (23 points, 17 rebounds, 5 assists) and so many times in the past instead of shrinking back when met by the physical imposing play of Perkins, Collison and Ibaka?  These are serious questions that must be answered for the Lakers to have a chance.

    Artest (World Peace) will play a big part in this series as well. He comes in as the most hated man in Oklahoma City for his free elbow to James Harden’s head, but if he can limit or wear down Kevin Durant at all, and make some timely shots on offense for the Lakers, he could be the difference as well. 

    Ramon Sessions has to be a difference-maker as well. He cannot allow Westbrook to dominate the point guard matchup. He has to get penetration, knock down big shots and make contributions on the offensive end to supplement the big three as well.

    With all of that taken into consideration, I was originally leaning towards the Lakers winning this series, but after giving the matchups more thought and then seeing how Game 1 played out, I am leaning towards Thunder in 6

    I am not sure that the Lakers can slow down Westbrook and Harden enough, even though Kobe will likely be guarding Westbrook a good amount and I do think that the Thunder’s bigs will limit the consistent high outputs out of Gasol and Bynum.  That is key.  If those two cannot bring high-level performances night in, night out, the Lakers are just not good enough to overcome such a talented and motivated team in the Thunder.  The Lakers do have their Mike Brown branded defense and Kobe Bryant’s excellence to hang their hat on, but I’m not sure it will be enough to win this series.

Celtics vs. 76ers

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    It almost seems unfair to preview this series after the first two games are done, but given it is 1-1, I think we pretty much have a clean slate.  Most probably have given the eight seeded 76ers no chance in this series given how ugly their last series was with the severely wounded Chicago Bulls, for which they can take a lot of responsibility for. 

    They had several games where they shot below 40 percent, on two occasions scored less than 80 points, and in their Game 5 loss to the Bulls, they had 69 pointsThe Celtics are not exactly an offensive juggernaut either, but it is hard to imagine them beating the Celtics with that type of offensive impotence.

    With that said, the Sixers need to be respected.  Sure, they barely beat a Bulls team that seemed to be shell-shocked without their two best players and other setbacks as well, but it is no accident that they have held teams to anemic scoring outputs thus far.  They went 13-4 in December and early in the season they held the lead in the Atlantic Division over the Celtics for much of the year.  They also had wins against the Bulls, Lakers, Indiana, Utah, Atlanta and won 2 of 3 from the Celtics during the year.  Although they did not finish the season strong the last couple months, this is a team that was once the No. 3 seed in the East.  They have shown the ability to play at a high level, especially if you let them get out and run. 

    They defend as well as any team in the league, giving up the 3rd least amount of points in the league behind Chicago and Boston (89.4) and third in defensive field goal percentage behind Chicago and Boston (42.7 percent).  It is no accident that their games have looked ugly.  They have length, athleticism and they are well coached by Doug Collins.  I wondered whether Coach Collins was still reaching them this year, after their nose dive in the standings to the No. 8 seed after being a pretty dangerous team last year and at the beginning of this year, but there is no doubt that he has coached his butt off in the playoffs and gotten them to buy into what he is saying. 

    It started with the fortune of the Bulls losing Derrick Rose in Game 1 and has not ended with the help of questionable, but correct calls at the end of Game 2 that have helped them steal home court advantage in the Eastern Conference Semifinals.

    The problem is, that the Sixers do not shoot the ball well consistently.  They can hit big shots in the clutch if you let them hang around and they can have spurts where they hit shots in bulk like they did in Game 1 of this series and in multiple games during the Bulls series, but they are never able to sustain those efforts. 

    This leads to them struggling to score in the half court and sustaining leads.  This is dangerous basketball to be quite frank.  They have the defense to keep them in games when they play like this, but against Boston and the teams they could play in the East Finals, it is very risky to play so close to the edge. 

    Fortunately for them, the Celtics play the same way.  They defend with the best of them, and despite their star power, their offense has a tendency to run away and hide at times.  This is different than the Sixers because they do have shooters and guys that can hit shots, but for some reason they just seem to feel the need to hibernate from time-to-time over the course of a season and even during games. 

    This series may not be as easy as many anticipated, but in the end Boston should win the series in the 5 games I originally picked them to win in. Their struggles with the Sixers is concerning and makes me want to say it will go 6, but I’m going to stick to my guns. 

    If Boston can get Paul Pierce and Ray Allen going to compliment solid performances from Rondo and the supporting cast thus far, they should be able to close out this series.  The key for the Celtics has been the fountain of youth play from Kevin Garnett.  He is not exactly KG from Minnesota, but he certainly is starting to look more like the KG from 2007-09 before his injury bug hit him in Boston.  He has been great on the boards, been knocking down his elbow jumper and been pretty effective in the post despite the fact that they have been defending him well. 

    If Rondo can continue to lead the way and get everyone shots in places where they can be effective, this series should play out more like people expected it to before it began.

Spurs vs. Clippers

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    The Clippers are riding the momentum of their first playoff series win since 2006 and their 3rd in franchise history.  It was very impressive how they were able to endure a grueling, physical series in which they had to overcome a 27-point lead late in the second half in one game, and had to go into enemy territory to win a Game 7 against a team that plays pretty well at home.

    Chris Paul has meant so much to this team, not only in terms of his production, but also in the swagger and confidence that they play with on the court.  They believe and expect to win games and that is the sign of a quality playoff caliber team.  If only they had Chauncey Billups to add to the equation to give them championship pedigree and leadership on the floor.

    The support that the Clippers have had during this playoff run thus far from Caron Butler, Eric Bledsoe, Nick Young and Mo Williams have been vital to the often difficult playoff transition that Blake Griffin is enduring right now.  Blake Griffin has been productive, but not nearly on the level that he has been historically in the regular season.  After averaging 20.7 PPG and 10.7 rebounds, he has averaged 18 PPG and 6.4 rebounds.

    He is not the first star to be hit with playoff reality.  The key for the Clippers is that they have had enough production and help around him to buffer the transition of their star player and leading scorer and rebounder.  Fortunately there have been different stars to step up each game thus far.

    Chris Paul, while slowed by different nagging injuries has lived up to his billing as a prime-time playoff performer and consistently come through for the Clippers.  He has averaged 20.4 PPG and 7.1 assists per game.

    Going into this series however, this is a whole new ballgame.  The Clippers are faced with the task of trying to derail one of the most successful franchises of the last decade plus.  This is a team that boasts a guy with four rings (Tim Duncan), two guys with three rings (Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili) and a coach that has guided the team through this entire era of success. 

    They have not been as successful of late in terms of winning championships, but year in year out like the New England Patriots despite that fact, the Spurs have been a factor.  Since Tim Duncan was drafted in 1997 following a season-ending injury to David Robinson the Spurs have won 50 wins every single year since then.  The only year that they did not win 50, was their first championship season of 1999 when they won at a .740 clip, which in a non-strike shortened season would have gotten them 60 wins.  This year, despite playing in another strike-shortened season, they still managed to win 50, which tied them for the best record in the NBA with the Bulls.

    While the Spurs have not won a championship since 2007, this may be their best team since then.  They have the big three of (quiet) star power in Parker, Duncan, and Ginobili, but the key is that this year, they have a nice balance of youth, energy and athleticism to compliment them.  While their stars can be considered “old”, their supporting cast of Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green, Matt Bonner, Gary Neal, Boris Diaw, and even Stephen Jackson gives the team a nice jolt of youth, energy and athleticism.

    This is important because it has allowed the Spurs to rest up their stars throughout the season and not depend on them for heavy minutes even in the playoffs.  As a result, the Spurs are playing at an extremely high level and while formerly being known as a defensive juggernaut and ugly offensive team, the Spurs have responded late in the season to literally rip apart opponents. 

    Not only did they finish the season as hot as any team could possibly be going into the playoffs winning 10 in a row and 24 of their last 27 games, but they often lit up the scoreboard in the process. They were over 100 in all but three of their victories and over 110 in 16 of those games!  This just is not what you would expect from the Spurs normally.  The Spurs still managed to be in the top half of the league in defense giving up 96 points per game. 

    In Round 1, the Spurs made quick work of a pretty tough Jazz team, letting up only 87.4 points per game against the 102.3 they averaged on offense.  It is clear that the Spurs are on a mission. Most have started to at least acknowledge them as a contender, but still, the majority does not see them as the favorite.  This might change soon, starting with the Clippers.  The Clippers are a serious foe with Chris Paul being the clutch player he is, and the physical toughness and swagger that the team has up and down the roster, but in the end the Spurs are just too sound and too deep a team to allow a somewhat flawed team to win in this round. 

    The series will at least be competitive, especially in Los Angeles, but in the end, Coach Popovich seems to be pushing all the right buttons and most importantly the Spurs are injury-free and focused.  Expect the Spurs to win this series in 5, as it is very conceivable that the Clippers put on a magnificent display at home to take one of their two home games this weekend.