Tuesday, 30 April 2013

NBA Playoff Power Rankings

With the playoffs well underway it’s time to see how each team is tracking on a big picture scale – which teams are looking like real contenders? Basically, which team is playing the Heat in the Finals? Time to pull out some NBA Playoff Power Rankings.

1: Miami Heat

The question is no longer whether the Heat will win the Championship, it’s how many games will they lose along the way. Their destruction of the Bucks was a joy to behold, seeing Brandon Jennings struggle in every single game after picking a Bucks six-game series win was just hugely satisfying.

How soul-crushingly dominant were they? Dwyane Wade turned up to play Game Four, participated in warmups, and then Erik Spoelstra decided to rest him. THEY’RE RESTING PEOPLE IN PLAYOFF GAMES!?!? C’mon guys, don’t rub it in.

To be honest, the Bucks actually played some good ball at times, yet never took a lead of more than five or six points all series such was the Heat’s dominance. It’s likely to be a series against the Bulls next up for the Heat, and while the Jimmy Butler/Luol Deng combo may prove to be pesky for LeBron James and co, it should be a five game series.

2: San Antonio Spurs

If the Heat’s sweep was a joy to behold, then the Spurs’ complete crushing of the Lakers was the funniest thing of all time. Sadly, it wasn’t just deluded Laker fans who thought they had a chance; many respected basketball writers were picking the series to go to six or seven games.

Thankfully, the Lakers got crushed, only leading the series for a measly six minutes (less than the Bucks), while their backcourt disintegrated around them. There was something amusing about watching Darius Morris, Andrew Goudelock and Chris Duhon playing massive playoff minutes, and Dwight Howard’s meltdown means that the ever-present Laker drama will continue into the offseason. As for the Spurs, they get a ton of rest before their next series against either my Golden State Warriors or the Denver Nuggets. In a big picture regard it really doesn’t matter who goes through, because the Spurs are going to kill either side, and be the favourites going into the Western Conference Finals.

3: Oklahoma City Thunder

The Thunder still deserve to be the third favourites for the title in my book. They have a super star, a good supporting top 30 player, and a bunch of effective role players. Sounds like the Clippers and the Knicks right?

While Russell Westbrook (oh the irony of his injury) is a big loss, and will prevent them from being a legitimate title threat, Durant is definitely capable of still taking the team to the Finals, depending on who they face in the next round. I think the Grizzlies would be a tougher opponent than the Clippers for the Thunder to face, although either could realistically beat them, but having more touches for one of the most efficient players of all time is no bad thing. In my book, they’re still odds on to make the Western Conference Finals, and get drubbed by the Spurs.

4: Los Angeles Clippers
5: Memphis Grizzlies

Yes, I’m placing both of these teams ahead of the Knicks and Pacers. Why? Because the East stinks. It really does. Unfortunately, due to the Heat’s dominance we won’t be able to confirm this hypothesis, but I do reckon that both the Clippers and the Grizzlies could, and would, beat the Knicks or Pacers in a seven game series. Also, they have a much easier run of making the Finals, as they, you know, don’t have to play one of the best teams of all time.

Before I delve into the East, let’s just run through this series quickly. The Clippers went up 2-0 on the back of some Grizzly foul trouble and great Chris Paul play, but it seems the Grizzlies have found a blueprint to beat the Clippers, winning their two home games extremely comfortably despite not shooting superbly.

As I pointed out in my preview of this series, the Clippers have three very dodgy starters, shown when they scored a combined two points in Game Four. While they do win the battle of the bench depth, it’s often outweighed by the awful starters they trot out. This one could really be a case of whoever has home advantage wins it, so that’s why the Clippers get the nod, but if Chris Paul keeps getting hounded by Allen and Conley then this one could be over in six, and providing a very tricky match-up for the Thunder in Round Two.

6: New York Knicks
7: Indiana Pacers

This series is going to happen, and it’s going to be fascinating. The Knicks have coasted through their first round series with the Celtics, claiming three games on the back of the Celtics being awful offensively, and losing the fourth when the Celtics finally got something out of their old man trio. I haven’t been sold all season on the Knicks, and I’m still not, their offence consists of two streaky scorers, one dunker and then a bunch of role players relying on Jason Kidd and Ray Felton getting them the ball. Against the stingy defence of the Pacers there’s going to be some problems.

I think the Pacers are the better team here, but I have to rank them below the Knicks just because of this damn Atlanta hoodoo. For some reason, they just can’t win in Atlanta, which could easily result in a seven game series. Game Three highlighted what happens when their big men can’t start going, as they put up a bizzaro-Warriors performance (nobody shooting above 50%). All things equal, I would back the Pacers, but home advantage and rest could mean the Knicks get the edge.

8: Golden State Warriors

Well I didn’t see that coming. After a pretty gloomy post about our chances once David Lee went down, my Dubs have proven me totally wrong with some awe-inspiring performances which have made me proud to say I’m a Warriors fan. The small-ball lineups we’ve trotted out have been hell for George Karl to deal with, and everybody has stepped up in the squad – Harrison Barnes and Klay Thompson early, then Andrew Bogut and Jarrett Jack recently, providing a great complement to the Greatest Shooter Who Ever Lived. Heck, even Draymond Green has been hitting threes. What a ride.
Denver are probably going to win Game Five on the short turnaround, but with three chances to win the series I’m one happy writer as this point in time.

(Lets not mention what’ll happen if we face the Spurs)

9: Chicago Bulls

Another team who are likely to win in six games, this has been my best prediction so far. While everyone was talking themselves into a mediocre Nets lineup, I jumped on the Bulls to win the series (paying $2.70, in case you wondering), and it’s looking great even after a Game Five loss earlier today.
The madness which unfolded in Game Four was crazy to watch, with Nate Robinson hilariously nearly breaking several of Michael Jordan’s records, and if Kirk Hinrich is healthy they should take Game Six at home and make me look smart (Not easy to do).

10: Denver Nuggets

Hellllooooo Denver. Well, you weren’t expecting this, were you? Seems like you just can’t handle small ball. What’s happened to Kenneth Faried? Why does Andre Igoudala only seem to play in the first half? What happened to being the best home in the league? Why am I only scared of Ty Lawson?

(Lets stop before I jinx the whole Warriors squad.)

11: Brooklyn Nets

When I said that Joe Johnson and Deron Williams would struggle against the perimeter defence of the Bulls, I meant Jimmy Butler and Luol Deng, not Kirk Freaking Hinrich. Somehow, Captain Kirk has turned into the untalked about X-Factor, shutting down D-Will until his injury in Game Four.

The win in Game Five has given them hope, but if Hinrich is back and Noah’s series-turning play continues then it could be goodbye to the Nets before they could record that elusive playoff series victory.

12: Atlanta Hawks


The Hawks have bounced back with two wins against the Pacers thanks to the supremely odd Highlight Factory hoodoo. In doing so, they've found a way which could work in Indiana too, playing Johan Petro and Ivan Johnson extended minutes while sticking Josh Smith on Paul George, instead of the out-of-his-league Kyle Korver.

If the Pacers' record in Atlanta is anything to go by, and by now it's more than bad luck, then we will be seeing a GAME SEVEN BABY! GAME SEVEEEEEEEEN!!!!

13: Boston Celtics

As you can probably tell from some of the stuff you've read on the blog, I am a MASSIVE basketball fan. Massive. During the regular season I streamed the Bobcats play the Pistons, because I can watch almost anything.

That almost? It's the Celtics.

The Celtics are as close to unwatchable as it gets for me with a basketball team. The Hawks v Pacers series nobody has been watching? I'm transfixed by it. The slow-it-down Grizzlies and Bulls? Love em. But the Celtics, with all their 19 foot jumpshots and half court sets just don't do it for me.

Thankfully, they'll be vanquished in Game Five. Good riddance.

14: Houston Rockets

The Rockets avoided the gentleman’s sweep thanks to not having to play Jeremy Lin, but they won’t win Game Five in OKC. Game Four was a mere bone thrown to the Houston crowd, but a delicious bone after some crazy antics - Francisco Garcia being a KD stopper was almost as illogical as Carlos Delfino dunking on Durant's head.

Despite their inevitable first round exit, their style of play is likely to be the style the league adapts to, with plenty of threes and very few mid-range shots, and their trade for Thomas Robinson didn’t end up hurting their potential playoff run, so a nice job all round by Daryl Morey and co: Expect to see the Rockets return to the playoffs next season.

See you next year (maybe): Los Angeles Lakers, Milwaukee Bucks.

Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Messed Up Geography: This Week's Golf Tips

Just because it's NBA Playoffs time doesn't mean that we are slacking off here at From The Carpark. Not in the slightest. That's why we've managed to squeeze in some golf tips for the faithful followers, for the tournaments in South Korea (I'll repeat: Does the European Tour actually play in Europe?) and the Zurich Classic. Lets start in Korea, the good portion.

After playing this tournament (the Ballantines Championship) at Pinx GC for three years, it has since moved to Blackstone for two years, not exactly a big sample size to determine horses for courses. Strangely enough however, this list of people playing well on Blackstone overlaps with those who played well at Pinx, meaning it is possible that some players simply play well in South Korea.

All the players who have done well here in the past are guys we like to tip out regularly. Bernd Weisberger, Marcus Fraser, Richie Ramsay, Felipe Aguilar, Alexander Noren, Jaime Donalson, and so on. While it means that we could strike gold, it also means that our faves are likely to be shorter than expected on this course.

I was hoping that I could find Alex Noren at a reasonable price, instead he is second favourite at $17. As you can guess, the depth in this tournament is confounding, there are plenty of unknown Asians playing who are bound to contend. All the players at $100 or over are just terrible - the likes of Lee Slattery, SH Baek, Prom Meesawat, so I'm stuck on my usual longshots.

Here's who I like this week:

Ballantines Championship Tips:

David Howell $36
Marcus Fraser $40
Felipe Aguilar $41
Jeev Milkha Singh $72
Jbe Kruger $102

Why these five? Well, Fraser and Aguilar are guys I always take, Aguilar is in form while Fraser loves playing in Asia. Howell is in form too, and Singh and Kruger are the only players I can find who offer any semblance of value at long odds.

Skinny Dynamite:

Richie Ramsay $25
Bernd Weisberger $30
Marcus Fraser $40
Thongchai Jaidee $50
Romain Wattel $100
Thaworn Wiratchant $100

All 1 ew

While I passed up Ramsay and Weisberger as too short, it looks like Skinny has no problems with backing them at that price. He also added some tips for first round leader:

Prom Meesawat $90
Anirban Lahiri $100
Gareth Maybin $100
Adison Da Silva $125
Matteo Delpodio $150

Onto the Zurich Classic (so the PGA Tour are clearly playing in Switzerland), a much bigger tournament as players look to build up for the Players Championship  With players like Justin Rose, Jason Dufner, Bubba Watson and Keegan Bradley all playing there's definitely some long-shot value for me to attempt (stress: attempt) to exploit again.

Zurich Classic Tips:

Jeff Overton $53
Nicolas Colsaerts $83
Greg Chalmers $94

1 ew

Brian Davis $130
Josh Teater $140
David Lynn $150
Charlie Wi $150

1/2 ew

Surprise surprise, some familiar names there once again. Jeff Overton has to perform at some stage, while I feel Colsaerts' talent is being somehwat undervalued. Davis, Teater, Chalmers and Wi have done well on this course before, and at some stage my man David Lynn has to get respect. Hopefully he tears up the course this week.

Skinny Dynamite:

Rickie Fowler $22
Nick Watney $28
Charles Howell II $45
Ernie Els $45
Ryan Palmer $70
Boo Weekley $70
John Rollins $80

1 ew

Matt Jones $110
Richard Lee $200
Justin Hicks $200

1/2 ew

Good lord, he's taken the whole field. Back the tips you like, and we'll be back next week.

Go Warriors!

Tuesday, 23 April 2013

Down in the Dumps: Depressed Musings about David Lee

Devastated. Dispirited. Despondent. Dejected. Downcast. Depressed. Distressed.

Pick a word, and you’ve found a suitable adjective which sums up how Warrior fans are feeling after David Lee went down with a hip injury two days ago. Confirmed yesterday as a torn hip flexor, D-Lee is gone for the series, pretty much ending any realistic scenario in which Golden State could topple Denver in their playoff series.

To be honest, it’s taken me a while to write about this just because I’ve been so (pick a D word) for the past 48 hours. What could have been a mammoth upset, rolling over the Nuggets and their 23 game home winning streak, turned into the most devastating loss possible, with old man Andre Miller teaching the young Warriors a few things about playoff basketball.

What made things worse was the realisation that Lee, in his first playoff game, wasn’t going to be coming back to play more. Some may point to his terrible defence and give hope for a Ewing Theory type turnaround, but when his replacement (Carl Landry) is just as poor on defence as Lee, without possessing a passing game, then that’s very unlikely.

It was all going so well too. The Warriors had overcome a shooting slump from Stephen Curry to wrestle control of the encounter, thanks to some superb play from Klay Thompson and Andrew Bogut. Then, Andre Miller (and to some extent Corey Brewer) took over, putting the deficit at nine with only a few minutes remaining.

Yet somehow, we pulled it back. Curry found his touch, Jack dropped precision passes, Bogut was playing the best I’ve seen him play in a Warriors outfit. When Curry splashed home a three, I had hope for overtime. Surely Draymond Green, in the league for his defence, could stay in front of a 37 year old, right??

Wrong. I don’t know how, but Miller burst past Green, putting it home and making it 24 straight home wins. And with the after-game news of the extent of Lee’s injury, my hope for the series was dashed.

With Bogut defending like a man possessed at the rim, and combining superbly with Lee in a passing big-man duo, it looked like we had something which we could use to attack Koufos, Chandler and Faried in later games, while retaining our crop of three-point gunners to spread the floor.

Now, that element is gone. I’m still confident in our chances of winning a home game, but in my eyes, all hopes of winning the series, no matter how slim, are now gone.

Let’s hope, for David’s sake, that we get back into the playoffs next year. Because he deserves a shot to show us all what he can do on the biggest stage.

Friday, 19 April 2013

NBA Playoff Preview: Round 1: Western Conference

Yesterday, I covered my Eastern Conference picks for the first round of the playoffs. Today, it's time for the exciting conference, the West.

(1) Oklahoma City Thunder v (8) Houston Rockets

Probable starting lineups:

Thunder                                 Rockets

Russell Westbrook                  Jeremy Lin
Thabo Sefolosha                     James Harden
Kevin Durant                          Chandler Parsons
Serge Ibaka                            Donatas Motiejunas
Kendrick Perkins                      Omer Asik

While the main storyline focussed on in this series is the James Harden returning to OKC aspect, I’m here to give you another one: Kevin Durant’s struggles against Chandler Parsons. I know this sounds ridiculous and it likely to be very minor in the grand scheme of things, but hear me out.

We all know what KD is like – a 50/40/90 player who is one of the best scorers of all time already, despite being only 24. Against Parsons however, this changes. In six games (not a totally insignificant sample size), KD shoots 45%, with only 34% of his threes connecting. Sure, it’s still very nice numbers, but for a Rockets team who will take any edge they can get, it is a benefit.

Further hope for Houston comes in the form of the aforementioned Harden. A legitimate top five MVP candidate, he has been predictably superb this season (on offence, at least), and he will definitely be motivated to prove Sam Presti wrong. While his 46 point outburst early in the season is unlikely to be repeated, I could easily see him toss up 35 at some point in this series. From there though, it’s slim pickings, with not many Rockets having playoff experience on their side.

Harden will likely only delay the inevitable, as even if Parsons does an OK job containing Durant, name a Rocket who will be able to stop Russell Westbrook on the perimeter. While the gripes of him shooting more than Durant are entirely justified, this series could be one where Westbrook’s attacking nature will be a huge plus for the Thunder (Just no 20 foot transition pull-ups please).

An interesting note in this series will be the amount of minutes that Kendrick Perkins gets, with Asik not being an offensive-minded player then we should see more of Nick Collison or Kevin Durant playing at the four spot. Perk has his uses, but he can’t be played too much last like season if the Thunder want to go far.

Even still, this should be a relatively easy progression for the Zombie Sonics.

Pick: Thunder in five

(2) San Antonio Spurs v (7) Los Angeles Lakers

Probable starting lineups:

Spurs                                    Lakers

Tony Parker                          Steve Nash
Danny Green                        Jodie Meeks
Kawhi Leonard                      Metta World Peace
Tim Duncan                          Pau Gasol
Tiago Splitter                        Dwight Howard

I’m looking forward to the moment when idiot Laker fans (If you’re a Laker fan and reading this – you’re not an idiot, so save the hate mail) claim that they could have gone all the way with Kobe in the lineup. But let’s put the Laker hating me away for a moment, and do some unbiased analysis.

The Lakers are lucky they avoided the Thunder, where they would have precisely no chance of progressing, and probably wouldn’t win a game. Against the Spurs, their chances are better, but not by much.

Steve Nash’s health is the big question mark for the Laker side, but I’m not sure even Nash at his best would be able to get the Lakers team past a Spurs outfit which is again fundamentally superb in all aspects of the game. Their superb wing defenders - Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard – aren’t really required anymore with Kobe out, but Tony Parker should have a field day running around Nash and Jodie Meeks, while the bench depth could not be more different.

One shining light at the end of the Laker tunnel is the recent play of Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard. Howard is rounding into the dominant player he used to be, while Pau is showing what he can still do when used properly. While Tim Duncan (aging like a fine wine) can take care of one of them, Tiago Splitter will have to step up defensively to ensure the Spurs progress without too much of a hassle. It wouldn’t totally surprise me if the Lakers managed to conjure up some Ewing Theory and take this series into six games, but it’s just too much of a reach.

Pick: Spurs in five

(3) Denver Nuggets v (6) Golden State Warriors

Probable starting lineups:

Nuggets                                    Warriors

Ty Lawson                                Steph Curry
Andre Igoudala                         Klay Thompson
Wilson Chandler                       Harrison Barnes
Kenneth Faried                         David Lee
Kosta Koufos                           Andrew Bogut

For the past few days I’ve been trying to talk myself into a triumphant Warriors team tipping over Denver and moving on to the second round.
Hasn’t worked.

While the insane seasons that Steph Curry and David Lee have had are huge causes for optimism, I just can’t shake the Nuggets absolutely incredible home record (38-3). How on earth are we expected to beat them at home?
Hope comes in reasonably competitive games between the two teams this season, with Denver winning the season series 3-1, with one game being choked away horrendously by the Dubs in circumstances which will not occur again.

Kenneth Faried’s health has been in question recently, and a hobbled Faried could expose a few weaknesses inside for Denver, but their tempo and phenomenal bench depth should easily cover for any losses in Faried’s performances, as it has for the absence of Danilo Gallinari, with Wilson Chandler being a more than capable replacement, who actually offers more on defence without being too much of an offensive liability. He should easily deal with Harrison Barnes, who by my calculation is the only rookie starting in these playoffs.

I am confident, however, that the Warriors can win their home games – Denver are 19-22 on the road - and I think our squad is strong enough to eek out a few victories. Because of that, I’ll take the optimistic route, and say we extend the series to at least a game six.

Pick: Denver in six

(4) Los Angeles Clippers v (5) Memphis Grizzlies

Probable starting lineups:

Clippers                                        Grizzlies

Chris Paul                                     Mike Conley
Chauncey Billups                           Tony Allen
Caron Butler                                 Tayshaun Prince
Blake Griffin                                 Zach Randolph
DeAndre Jordan                             Marc Gasol

For the second year in a row, the Clippers are playing the Grizzlies in round one of the Western Conference playoffs. This year could be even closer than last time out.

Like with the Knicks, you stare at this Clippers starting unit and question their playoff abilities – Chauncey Billips, Caron Butler and DeAndre Jordan all starting makes for an uninspiring trio. And that’s why Chris Paul is third on my MVP ballot, the Clippers are a race car and he’s the only one with the keys. Having another superb Chris Paul playoff performance is of upmost importance for LAC, as without him at his best the fantastic Mike Conley will be a menace and could very easily outplay him.

On paper, the Grizzlies look the goods. The best all-around centre in Marc Gasol, a terrific rebounder in Zach Randolph, and three well above-average defenders on the perimeter, they have everything except three point shooting and bench depth. The Clippers are fortunate to have one of the league’s best benches, and that’s a big plus in their favour.

The big question mark on this Grizzlies team at this point in time is the recent play of Zach Randolph. As Zach Lowe pointed out on Grantland, Z-Bo has not been himself recently, and the Grizz need him firing to out-play Blake Griffin (because he sure won’t be stopping him).

Home advantage could be the swinging factor in this fascinating series, last year four games were decided by less than four points, so any slight advantage the Clippers can find will be of help. But you know what? I’m going for the Grizzlies – I think this is their best team yet, and finally they might do some damage in the West.

Pick: Grizzlies in seven

Thursday, 18 April 2013

NBA Playoff Previews: Round 1: Eastern Conference

The regular season has flown by, and it's just about time for the NBA playoffs to begin. Of course, I have to commemorate this with a special bumper NBA post, including my analysis for each series (and each round of the playoffs) while also putting my non-existent reputation on the line with picks for each series.

The Western Conference playoff preview will come in one or two days time, but first, here's the Eastern Conference. 

(1) Miami Heat v (8) Milwaukee Bucks

Probable starting lineups:

Heat                                           Bucks  
Mario Chalmers                            Brandon Jennings                    
Dwyane Wade                              Monta Ellis                                
LeBron James                               Marquis Daniels                       
Shane Battier                               Ersan Ilyasova                            
Chris Bosh                                   Larry Sanders   

I haven’t looked, but I’m guessing the odds of the Bucks winning this series are the highest of all time for a playoff series. And really, at what price would you begin to consider them? 20-1? 40-1? 70-1?

The Bucks actually are as close to a bogey team as you can find for the Heat, winning four out of the last eight encounters between the two sides, and losing two more in overtime. They possess slightly favourable matchups at two positions, while giving up huge advantages at the other three, with poor Jim Boylan having a roster filled with either renowned defensive stoppers (Luc Mbah a Moute, Larry Sanders, Marquis Daniels) or absolutely horrendous defenders (Brandon Jennings, Monta Ellis, JJ Redick, Mike Dunleavy). One option which could be a possibility for Boylan is moving Ersan Ilyasova to the small forward spot, and starting highly promising rookie John Henson at the four, creating a very tough interior defence in the goal to stop Miami from finishing at the rim.

My distaste for Brandon Jennings is well documented, but he is one of several streaky players who the Bucks will have to hope catch on fire for a game, the key man being Monta Ellis, who could easily drop 35, at least until Spoelstra decides enough is enough and sticks LeBron on him. That potential one fire-in-a-bottle game is all they can hope to get out of this series, and even with that possibility, I still can’t predict it happening, not with the ball movement, role players and the total LeBron-ness that the Heat possess.

Pick: Heat in four

(2) New York Knicks v (7) Boston Celtics

Probable starting lineups:

Knicks                                           Celtics

Raymond Felton                              Avery Bradley
Pablo Prigioni                                 Paul Pierce
Iman Shumpert                               Jeff Green
Carmelo Anthony                             Brandon Bass
Tyson Chandler                               Kevin Garnett

This is a super fascinating match-up, and one in which I think there is a good possibility that a real boilover could occur.

When you see the Knicks line-up, there are obviously a few players who their hopes ride on. Tyson Chandler is always going to give you superb defence, so the X-Factor’s come in the form of JR Smith, Raymond Felton, and Carmelo Anthony.

If the late-season Melo and JR turn up, then the Celtics have no chance of staying with this side. If those two scorers continue to be prone to inefficiency, then they will find the going tough against a strong defensive trio of Bradley, Green and Garnett. Unfortunately for the aging Celtics, they are unlikely to be able to exploit the weak spots of the Knicks team, which is their perimeter defence. The likes of Smith, Jason Kidd and Prigioni are all minus defenders, but the Celtics lack a quick guard who can blow by their defender, unless vintage Paul Pierce returns for a flashback to his former self (By no means impossible).

What gives the Knicks the advantage is their superb ball movement, as with few players who can create off the dribble, ball movement becomes hugely important for their bunch of three-point shooters, with Felton the key man in this offensive scheme. The Knicks still have strong tendencies to live and die by the three, if they go cold for one or two games then that could be crucial – as could be the potential return of Kenyon Martin and possibly even the controversial Amare Stoudemire, with the Knicks big-man depth looking as dodgy as Solomon Jones’ jumper.

The Knicks and Celtics have played four times this season, with the Knicks winning three of them, and that’s one of the main reasons why I tip this in their favour. While Boston will be hard to steal a game from at home, their road record is cover-your-eyes awful (14-27), and I’m just not sure that they have the offence to steal this one. If they get some offence from the likes of Pierce, Courtney Lee, and maybe even some old-school throwbacks from Jason Terry, then they are a chance., but there’s just too many if’s and but’s with this Celtics’ unit for me to back them.

Pick: Knicks in six

(3) Indiana Pacers v (6) Atlanta Hawks

Probable starting lineups:

Pacers                                    Hawks

George Hill                           Jeff Teague
Lance Stephenson                 Devin Harris
Paul George                          Kyle Korver
David West                           Josh Smith
Roy Hibbert                           Al Horford

This series has been derided by many people as hellishly boring and not deserving of a national TV slot, but as someone who A) has watched several Bobcats games this season and B) loves watching the Hawks, I’m intrigued by what could be on offer in this series.

It’s clear that the Pacers are big favourites in this seven game series, and I for one think they are the second-best team in the East, but unlike the Heat's series this battle will by no means be a pushover for Indiana. What does help them is their very good home record (30-11), but as a team who has troubles scoring at times, a Hawks team which has everything (albeit it in small doses) could prove to be annoying opponents for Frank Vogel’s men, who will be keen to end this series as quickly as possible before a likely second-round battle with New York.

I see this match-up being won inside – the David West and Roy Hibbert combo is very strong, but lacks the X-Factor that the Josh Smith-Al Horford duo provides. Horford is a steady presence on both ends of the court, but if Larry Drew can get the best out of J-Smoove, combined with some three-point bombs from Kyle Korver and steady play from the underrated Jeff Teague then the Hawks could very easily rip a few games away from the Pacers.

While the Hawks only have two defensive stoppers, fortunately for the Pacers they have three in their wing positions alone. George Hill, Lance Stephenson and Paul George are a defensive trio with no peers, and should easily be able to contain the likes of Teague, Devin Harris and John Jenkins (Oh, how they miss Lou Williams…) on the perimeter. With the Hawks not having a great deal of playoff experience on their bench, this should be where the Pacers run away with this series.

Pick: Pacers in five

(4) Brooklyn Nets v (5) Chicago Bulls

Probable starting lineups:

Nets                                     Bulls

Deron Williams                      Kirk Hinrich
Joe Johnson                          Jimmy Butler
Gerald Wallace                      Luol Deng
Reggie Evans                        Carlos Boozer
Brook Lopez                          Joakim Noah  

It probably goes without saying that the four versus five matchup is always the most competitive in the NBA playoffs, but in this scenario it is even more relevant as two teams who are tough to pick apart clash.

Chicago have a number of ways in which they can counter the Nets’ strengths. Firstly, they have two elite perimeter defenders to stop Deron Williams and Joe Johnson – Jimmy Butler and Luol Deng. With Deng and Butler hounding the Nets duo, while presumably Kirk Hinrich goes to hide by guarding the hopeless Gerald Wallace, the Bulls have a good shot at stopping one of the best backcourts in the league.

Secondly, the dominance of Brook Lopez inside should be negated by Defensive Player of the Year candidate (second on my awards ballot) Joakim Noah. Like Williams and Johnson, it will be a big test for Lopez in the paint, and there’s no chance in hell that Reggie Evans will pick up the scoring slack.

The Nets hopes are likely to rest on Deron Williams continuing his recent form resurgence which has made him look like the Deron Williams of old. If he can get everybody involved while knocking down threes himself, then the Bulls’ weaknesses on offence could be quickly documented.

The Bulls also possess a huge X-Factor on offence – Nate Robinson. NateRob will presumably be kept on a very short leash by coach Tom Thibodeau, but with the Nets bench having not much in terms of production, the likes of Robinson and Taj Gibson could become very vital to Chicago’s success. Add in their good record on the road this season, and I’m picking the upset.

Pick: Bulls in seven  

Sunday, 14 April 2013

NBA Regular Season Wrap-Up and Awards

It's crunch-time in the NBA, and while the playoffs are just around the corner, first it's time to look back at the regular season. I'll be going through some of my predictions, as well as handing out the first annual From The Carpark Awards.

Our huge season previews on Portland and Golden State will be further scrutinised once the season is over, so first lets analyse the predictions I made early in the season, and how they coped.

Prediction: Even with the missing Nene and John Wall, the Wizards would not get near the playoffs, and should enjoy another nice lottery pick this year.

Outcome: Pretty accurate. Although there has been a lot of hype over the Wizards' record being over .500 in games John Wall has played, until he stays healthy for a full 82 game season nothing can be proven. But, in a weak Eastern Conference, maybe they get there next season - with thanks to that lottery pick.

Prediction: Miami have significantly improved their team.

Outcome: I was right, but that wasn't too hard to pick - Though I don't think anyone could have foreseen the 27 game winning streak. Let's just chalk that one up as shooting fish in a barrel, but at least I hit.

Prediction: Boston will earn a home playoff series

Outcome: Injuries! Injuries, I tell ya! This one is incomplete, who knows where Boston would have landed if Rondo was still around, they could have been second or still seventh, we'll never know.

Prediction: James Harden will finish in the top five in PPG

Outcome: Here's a shortened version of what I wrote at the beginning of the season:

"The internet is an idiotic place some times. I managed to get involved in a “Harden or Monta?” debate, a question so stupid it shouldn’t even have been a debate. Harden is the clear answer here. He has a full licence to shoot the ball, and has a competent point guard to give it to him. In a league with so little shooting guard depth, that’s easily enough to be top five in points per game, as well as potentially cementing a place within the league’s top three shooting guards."

Pretty on point if I may say so myself. Harden is probably the third best shooting guard in the league now, and could be pushing Kobe and Wade if his defence wasn't so lacklustre. He's a clear fifth in PPG, and is relishing being "The Man" in Houston. I'm looking forward to his playoff showings.

Prediction: Opposing point guards will kill the Lakers

Outcome: This one seems obvious now, but at the time (and still now) there were plenty of idiotic Laker fans who thought Kobe was still a star defensive player who could stop everything thrown at him. And now with him injured, they'll claim that they could have won the title. *Sigh*. Speaking of the Lakers...

Prediction: It was a colossal overreaction to fire Mike Brown

Outcome: Eighth place in the Western Conference.

Prediction: The Clippers are not title contenders

Outcome: Still to be determined. I'm pretty confident that they are the fifth best team in the Western Conference, but if things fall their way I guess they could still come out of the Western Conference. However, they have no hope of beating the Heat, so I'm confidently saying that this prediction was pretty good.

Prediction: Portland won't make the playoffs, and Dallas, Utah, and Minnesota will all have better records than the Trail Blazers.

Outcome: Three of four ain't bad. Portland predictably fell apart at the sight of a single injury to a starter, and are now at the point where four rookies are starting games for them. Utah and Dallas both managed to go past them in the standings, while Minnesota's injury-ravaged season ruined their hopes of putting anything decent together.

So overall, not a bad set of predictions, let's now quickly go over the award winners. While you will find more in-depth discussions from the likes of Zach Lowe on Grantland, I have some strong opinions which I will go over. First, the easiest decisions:

Most Valuable Player:

1st: LeBron James 
2nd: Kevin Durant
3rd: Chris Paul

These three will probably be the three you find on every ballot, but I feel it's worth defending Paul's position in third here, over the likes of Carmelo Anthony and Kobe Bryant.

James and Durant are the clear 1-2, and while it should be close to unanimous in favour of LeBron, I can see a few people giving KD a first-place vote for the phenomenal shooting splits this season. I've said enough already about LeBron's dominance, so let's get to CP3.

Paul is a clear-cut third for me, the best point guard in the game is the key to the whole Clippers team (see: Valuable), he can score, pass and place defence. Melo, well, he can only score, while anybody who gives a vote to Kobe is mad, considering his defence, record and team-mates.

Rookie of the Year:

1st: Damian Lillard
2nd: Anthony Davis
3rd: Bradley Beal

Nothing too controversial once again, but the race isn't as black and white as it has been made out to be, although Lillard has been one of the best offensive rookies of all time, his defence has been Jamal Crawford-like. Davis meanwhile, is averaging a very impressive 13 and 8 with two blocks per game, he will undoubtedly be a better player than Lillard, but for impact alone, Lillard gets the nod.

Coach of the Year:

1st: Erik Spoelstra
2nd: Gregg Popovich
3rd: George Karl

This is probably the hardest race of them all to pick, with up to 10 candidates being worthy of consideration. Popovich was my pick for a long long time, but with the recent injuries and/or tanking, the Spurs slipped far enough just to allow me to give Spoelstra some thought.

It's very easy to say that he was the best talent to work with, and that's why it's so hard to define the ability of coaches sometimes. However, the way he has devised a game-plan around LeBron has just been remarkable, with the instructions of shooting more corner threes and less isolations. The 27 game streak would not have been possible without Spoelstra's abilities to get the best out of his players for each and every game. 

Furthermore, I asked one of the most knowledgeable NBA viewers, Haralabos Voulgaris what he thought of the matter. His reply: Spo. I'm confident I've picked the right guy.

Karl gets third over the likes of Woodson, Vogel and Thibodeau just for the superb rotation and fitting together of his squad, he found the perfect tempo and bench players to fit into his system, and they have been a delight to watch this year.

Defensive Player of the Year:

1st: Marc Gasol
2nd: Joakim Noah
3rd: LeBron James

This is a hard one to pick too, having to quantify a big man defender against a wing defender, but I'm going Gasol, the linchpin of the Grizzlies defence - one which is better than the Bulls, a key factor into the award decision. While both the Bulls and Grizz are great defensive units, the drop-off when Gasol sits compared to Noah are significant.

Big men are slightly more important to wing defenders in my book, so poor LeBron probably still won't win this award, and there definitely shouldn't be many votes going the way of highlight-reel shot blockers like Serge Ibaka or Larry Sanders.

Most Improved Player:

1st: Jrue Holiday
2nd: Nikola Vucevic
3rd: Greivis Vasquez

The most annoying award every year, as the recipient is usually just a guy who receives more minutes and therefore improves his stats. That's why I'm going away from that as always, and going for Jrue Holiday. Although his shooting has slumped recently, he is averaging four more assists per game (in only five added minutes) despite having far worse team-mates, and a bigger scoring load.

On the surface, Vucevic looks like a guy who has just received increased minutes, so that's why I'm delving into numbers to back up this one. While Vucevic has been on the court a heck of a lot more, his offence has improved truckloads (45% FG to 52% FG), and he's improved at the line (53% to 68%). Most importantly, he has become a dominant rebounder.

In his time at Philly, he looked raw and very soft, and was definitely a throw-in in the Andrew Bynum trade. Now, he's a beast, averaging 11.5 rebounds a game, with his rebounding rate (percentage of available rebounds grabbed) increasing, as has his efficiency, making him one of the best young centres in the NBA.

Vasquez is a guy I've written about before, and have liked for a long time now, and he's turned an extra nine minutes per game into and extra four assists, a superb conversion, while also improving his shooting. It's a pity Anderson Varejao got injured, because he would be the obvious pick for this award.

Sixth Man of the Year:

1st: Jarrett Jack
2nd: JR Smith
3rd: Corey Brewer

Before I begin my rant, let me convince you on the merits of Jarrett Jack. 

Jack shoots 45% as the third guard on the Warriors, far higher percentages than most of the other leading candidates. He shoots 40% from three, compare that with Smith (36%) and Crawford (37%). He passes, averaging double the assists of any other candidate, and actually plays average defence, something that guys like Kevin Martin and (especially) Crawford do not possess. Considering defence is half the game, that's a big one.

The only player who could win the award without me losing all faith in the NBA voters is JR Smith. While there's all the usual caveats about his inefficiency and defence (improving), his second half of the season has been superb, getting to the rim far more often, with his new aggression helping his stats and his team. While I still would give Jack the nod for consistency over a full season, Smith is a very worthy candidate.

Finally, I would give Corey Brewer my third place vote, ahead of guys like Matt Barnes, Ryan Anderson, Vince Carter and Kevin Martin. (Note: Not Jamal Crawford). Brewer is just electric on defence, rushing out at shooters, and sets off many of the fast-breaks which make Denver dominate. While not being the best shooter in the world, his field goal percentage are similar to those of Smith and Crawford, who don't play defence. But since defence isn't as fun as being an inefficient volume shooter, I don't see Brewer ending up high on the ballot.

That's it for what was meant to be a short post (sorry about that), if you disagree or want to add anything post it below, otherwise come back in a couple of days where I'll be posting first round predictions and tips for the NBA playoffs.

Until then.