Sunday, May 27, 2012

Just In Time For The Conference Finals

The Celtics finally managed to finish of the 76ers last night, so the Final Four is set. I'd have thought the Celtics could have, would have finished it in six games. That they'd realize they need all the rest they can get to have a chance against the Heat, even without Chris Bosh. The last thing they should want is for Miami to have more time off than they do. But that's how it happened. I don't know if it was a lack of urgency, bad luck, or they were just too gassed.

I know that's giving short shrift to the Sixers, but I feel that what we saw in that series was that when Boston was fully engaged, playing their style of ball smartly and with energy, the Sixers couldn't compete. There's a reason why Boston was the division winner and 4 seed, while Philly was third place and #8. The Sixers did give it a good run though, so credit to them. Made my prediction miss by a game.

I did get all the series winner right, even got the number of games correct for Heat/Pacers. I think I underestimated the Spurs again, since I thought the Clippers could at least get on from young legs or Chris Paul having a crazy game. It's kind of strange for me to like the Spurs now, but their more offensively oriented than they were in the past, so it isn't surprising. I like times that score and play well as a team on offense. The Mavericks were like that last year, the Spurs are like that this year.

I definitely overestimated the Lakers. I thought the close call with Denver might wake them up, and that they were good enough they could challenge the Thunder for a full series, if not beat them. Nope, if not for that referee aided Game 3, they'd have been swept. Oh well, no skin off my nose. On to the new series.

Miami vs. Boston: I suppose Miami would rather have played Philly, since the Sixers are something like 1-11 in their last 12 games against the Heat, but I don't think it'll make much difference. If Paul Pierce and Ray Allen were close to 100%, and the Heat were missing Bosh, I'd think the Celtics had a real chance to win. At the least, it would take the Heat six tough games. But with Pierce's MCL, Allen's bone spurs, and no Avery Bradley, I don't think the Celtics have enough.

I suppose Rondo could be an issue, but I imagine if he starts lighting Chalmers up too badly, LeBron will switch on to him. We saw last year against the Bulls that LeBron is more than capable of making even highly gifted point guards' lives miserable. Pierce is dinged up badly enough that Battier could probably keep him in check for a while. Garnett could have a big series, since the Heat don't have anyone in the post that should command his full attention (I think Brandon Bass should be able to neutralize Haslem), so even if his jumper isn't falling, Garnett has a chance to really gum up the passing lanes.

But that's the problem. The Celtics are a better defensive team than the Heat. In theory, anyway (without Bradley and a hobbled Allen/Pierce, maybe not), but the Heat are still a top 10 defense. Meanwhile the Heat are a much better offensive team than Boston. Like Top 5 versus Bottom 5. So the Celtics defense may be better, but it also faces a much greater challenge, and given Boston's own offensive limitations, I'm not sure they can lock down the Heat enough to win. The Celtics need to keep the score in the 80s or lower. If the Heat get to 90, I think Boston is probably sunk. Heat in 5.

San Antonio vs. Oklahoma City: The Spurs have faced two young teams, one relying on interior muscle, the other on their point guard and leaping ability. The Spurs swept them both. The Thunder have played two old teams, one reliant on a tall, rangy shooter, the other that probably should have relied on interior muscle, but leaned on Kobe instead. The Thunder have only lost once. So now the Spurs face another young team, and the Thunder face another older team.

The Thunder have 3 top-notch scorers, and not a lot else offensively. I'm not sure who the Spurs have to limit Durant, but I think they can find ways to limit Harden and Westbrook to varying degrees. Which will put pressure on somebody else to pick up the scoring slack. Ibaka, probably. The Spurs have three top-notch players of their own, though Ginobli hasn't had a great postseason so far. Kendrick Perkins will make Duncan work for anything he gets, but the advantage the Spurs seem to have is a wealth of guys who can step up and carry the load for a game or two. So I don't think Duncan will have to force it, he can pass to the open man if it's the smart play, and trust them to get things done. I'm not certain how much experience counts for, but the Spurs have that. They have the depth across the board, and they seem to be really good at seeing what the other team wants to do on offense, and not letting them do it. I'm not sure they can manage that against the raw athleticism the Thunder have, but they managed all right against the Clippers. Maybe I'm underestimating the Spurs again, but San Antonio in 6.


Monday, May 21, 2012

The Baseball Season Is One Quarter Finished

The Cardinals started the season well, but that may be due to playing nothing but NL Central teams for the month of April. The NL Central stinks. On the occasions the Cards have played teams that are actually good, they've done terribly. Atlanta swept them, and so did the Dodgers. So 0-6 against not crap teams.

Of course, injuries play a role. McClellan just went on the DL, for all that matters. Wainwright's still pitching poorly, Carpenter still hasn't pitched at all. Berkman went on the Dl early in the year, came back, then went on the DL again. Allen Craig came back from his knee surgery, hit 5 HRs and 5 doubles in less than 60 plate appearances, then injured his hamstring. Carlos Beltran's having knee problems. Jon Jay separated his shoulder, came back, then went on the DL again. Oh, and they released J.C. Romero for being terrible.

It's too bad, because most of those injured guys were playing really well, or at least hitting really well. It does highlight the risk the Cards took. For all that they have add some good players through their farm system, they were still counting on a lot of production from Carp, Berk, Beltran, and Furcal. All those guys are at least 34, and all of them have considerable injury history. The team had to know what they were potentially setting themselves up for. The lineup clearly isn't as strong, but it's the pitching more than anything that's been letting them down lately. Starters getting hammered as Lynn, Lohse, and Westbrook regress to the mean, while Wagonmaker scuffles. Then the bullpen screws the pooch on the rare occasions (like last night) that the team actually manages a lead.

On a positive note, Freese is still hitting well (though still not drawing any walks), Molina's picked up where he left off offensively last year, and Tyler Greene is getting regular playing time at second base. It helps that Jay and Beltran's injuries have forced Schumaker into more outfield duty, which is not really  a fair trade, but at least it's keeping Skip away from second base. And the Cards are still on pace for an 86 to 88 win season, which might get them in the playoffs, depending on whether the Reds are still heating up, or if they're essentially no better than St. Louis.


Sunday, May 20, 2012

Partway Thru Round 2

All 4 series are at least 3 games in, so let's see where we're at. Looking back at my predictions for Round 1, I got six of the eight winners right (and how was I to know Derrick Rose would blow out his ACL?), but didn't get any of the series lengths right. One game off on a lot of them, though.

Question: Why are they giving the Boston/Philly series 2 days off between games 4 and 5? Especially while the both series in Los Angeles are going on back-to-back days. I know some of the latter is probably owed to having to accommodate two series, plus a hockey playoff series, but that doesn't explain the extra day for Celts/Sixers. I'd imagine it can only help Boston, who could use all the rest they can get. I mean, they were leading by what, 15 at the half in Game 4 and lost by 10? I know blowing big leads seems to be the hip thing to do this postseason, but jeez, get it together Boston. Garnett did not have a good Game 4, which makes me wonder if he was feeling a little gassed. There's only so much he can do, the other guys have to step up the nights he isn't feeling it.

Anyway, at this point it's down to best of 3. Boston has homecourt, though Philly's already proven they can win there, but then Boston's proven they can beat the 76ers on the road too. My prediction of Boston is 6 is still in play, though. Not much seems to have changed from when the series started. The Sixers are still younger, healthier, and possibly deeper. The question is whether Boston's best players can maintain the energy needed to play at their highest levels and overcome all that (I think Boston's best players, at their best, are better than Philly's).

You know, I've taken my fair share of shots at Chris Bosh, mostly because his track record didn't compare to LeBron or Wade's, so I felt the question of whether it was really a Big Three was valid. Say what you will, but at least Pierce, Garnett, and Ray Allen had all reached Conference Finals separately before they joined forces. Bosh had never been out of the first round. That being said, we see now what Bosh brings to the table by his absence. The Heat have no big men left who demand any respect from the Pacers' defense. Wade's struggling badly, and lashing out at his coach in full view of the world, and LeBron's looking a little gassed having to play power forward.

The Pacers, meanwhile, are getting contributions from everyone, taking advantage of the edge Hibbert gives them down low, and showing no fear of Miami. Kudos to Indiana. I think they see a path to the Finals if they can beat the Heat, and they want to take it. I'd be perfectly OK with that, but it's only 2-1 right now. Wade could still get on track. Battier, Mike Miller, or Udonis Haslem could remember how to shoot (Mario Chalmers seems to have remembered, but we'll see if that was a one-game aberration). Or LeBron could revert to Cleveland era LeBron, the guy who put mediocre teams on his back and won playoff series like this one. Of course, he didn't usually have to assume a major portion of the rebounding and interior defense load to go along with all the scoring he did.

The Thunder are up 3-1 on the Lakers, hooray. L.A. has had chances to win each of the last three games, but only managed it once. And that was only by going +14 on free throw attempts. The NBA: where one team shooting more free throws is always suspect! Anyway, L.A. had a 13 point lead a third of the way through the 4th quarter yesterday, and wound up losing by 3. If not for their roomies, that would have been pretty embarrassing. It looks like it was a sloppy game for one where both teams managed to reach 100 points. People slipping, or making dumb passes, clanking free throws. Westbrook and Durant both had a big game, Pau Gasol did not, and got called out by Kobe for it after. Of course he did. Never mind he shot 12 of 28, which is not that great a percentage. I understand Perkins was fronting Bynum in the 4th quarter, but surely there's some way to get the ball inside, anyway. The guy was lighting it up in the first quarter.

Like I said, the Lakers would probably be more embarrassed about their loss if not for the Clippers. The Clippers were leading 40-16 at one point in the second quarter. From then on, the Spurs outscored them 80-46. Holy crap. Up by 24, lost by 10? Can we just declare the series over at 3-0? It's done, alright, even if the Clippers win game 4. Which they might, we don't know how much the Spurs exhausted themselves making that comeback. Assuming the Clips have any fight left after that debacle. I'm sure Chris Paul does, though it isn't clear whether his body can do what his spirit commands Then again, the Spurs are possibly the deepest team left in the postseason, and they have the best coach. I could absolutely see them winning a game 4 against a desperate Clippers team, when Popovich has to lean heavily on his bench, because the Duncan/Parker/Ginobli troika are gassed after Game 3.

I guess we'll see. But it looks like I seriously underestimated the Thunder's ability to close out games, and possibly underestimated just how good the Spurs are (though it only takes one Clippers win for my prediction to come true).


Sunday, May 13, 2012

The Conference Semis Started Already?!

That's really unfair, starting the second round while the first is still going. Oh well, the first is over by the time I started typing this.

Boston vs. Philadelphia: This already started last night, with the Celtics narrowly winning, thanks to a triple-double by Rondo, and a 29 point, 11 board night from Garnett. This after KG went 28 and 14 with 5 blocks to close out the Hawks. As a fan of Garnett's going back to his early days teamed up with Marbury and Tom Gugliotta, I'm loving this. I know it's not his inclination to be the big scorer, he likes to save his energy for defense and score as the opportunity presents itself, but he's stepping up when they need him, with pretty much every important wing player besides Rondo at least a little banged up.

Which is what makes me think the Sixers have a chance. They're younger than Boston, healthier, and I feel like they're deeper. Not that Doc Rovers won't necessarily go deep into his bench, just that I'm not sure what he can count on from it. Sooner or later, though, somebody has to step up. Either Pierce or Ray Allen has to get healthy and start lighting it up, or someone off the bench has got to erupt (though with Igoudala guarding him, I expect Pierce will have a tough series, healthy or not). I know Garnett's going to give it all he's got, but I don't know how long he can continue to score at this pace and maintain the level of defense he brings. As for Philly, I don't who their guy is in crunch time. Maybe whoever happens to be hot, which I've read is not a good way to go, that you need that one guy who will be THE GUY in the clutch, but I would think against a really good defensive team like Boston, having multiple options might be appealing. They can't focus on one guy, so they can't play off anyone, either. Limits the help defense potential. All that said, I still think the Celtics have enough to squeak by in 6.

Miami vs. Indiana: This one's going as I type, with Indiana ahead 65-64 at last check. Far as I can tell, the Heat have 3 of the best 4 or 5 players, but the Pacers have probably 9 of the best 12. Which is more valuable? If anyone gets hurt, the Pacers are less likely to be hampered, because it's more likely they have someone they can plug in. Then again, Miami only has a few guys that really matter. The Pacers, like the Sixers are a team where I'm not sure who their go-to guy is. I think it's Danny Granger, but he'll probably be guarded by LeBron who is a heck of a defensive player when he's into it. Which is why it feels to me like Roy Hibbert has to have a big series. He's the big advantage the Pacers have, that Miami has no one who can match up with him in the middle. That won't matter much if LeBron and Wade drive and him and get him in foul trouble. Which means we have to worry about the refs. Will they be giving the big names stars all the calls? If so, Indy is doomed. If they actually call it fair down the middle, Indy has a chance. Unfortunately, there's no chance in hell of that happening for 7 consecutive games. Hope I'm wrong, but Miami in 6.

San Antonio vs. LAC: I can't imagine the Spurs are too sad to be missing Memphis. The Grizzlies didn't seem quite as dangerous down low as they were last year when they ousted the Spurs, but why take chances? I really don't see the Clippers posing a challenge. The Spurs are a clever team, that utilizes its strengths and covers its weaknesses. They move the ball around a lot on offense, and the Clippers are not that good a defensive team. I think their big men especially are going to get caught watching the ball a lot, only to find their man has slipped away and is wide open for an easy basket. And seriously, it's a coaching match-up between Vinny del Negro and Gregg Popovich. Maybe Pop should coach drunk to make the playing field level. Spurs in 5.

Oklahoma City vs. LAL: So the Lakers ended up getting interested long enough to hold off the Nuggets, huh? I'm not surprised - the cynical part of me figured there was no way the Nuggets could win a Game 7 against the Lakers in L.A., not with NBA refs - but it bugs me the Lakers can get away with this half-assed effort they bring. "We lost? We'll remember to try next time. Maybe. If we feel like it."

Anyway, they made it to the second, so know we must all root for the Thunder to beat their asses and send them home. I have my concerns. Bynum and Gasol are a handful if they're actually involved (and Bynum isn't behaving petulantly). I'm unconvinced Kendrick Perkins can contain Bynum alone. I'm sure he'll try, and maybe he can piss Bynum off and get him to do something stupid, but I'll have to see it. The interesting thing is both teams are pretty reliant on three players to get their scoring. Durant, Westbrook, Harden versus Kobe, Bynum, Gasol. And neither teams' scorers seem like they'll have to work too hard on defense. Kobe will probably guard Sefalosha, Bynum's on Perkins, and Gasol gets Serge Ibaka. Maybe Kobe could get James Harden if he's on the court with Durant and Westbrook. Meanwhile, Bynum is Perkins' responsibility, Ibaka will deal with Gasol, and Thabo is probably the one guarding Kobe. Durant probably gets Artest, and Westbrook gets the Sessions/Steve Blake disaster platter.

I wanna think the Thunder can win, that they can run enough to wear the Lakers down, and stifle their big men. Or else trick Kobe into shooting too much and taking Bynum and Pau out of the offense himself. Not sure that'll happen if they're engaged in the series, though. After Kobe scored 43 that one loss to Denver, he admitted the Lakers couldn't win the championship with it all being reliant on him hitting tough shots, which was a confession that stunned me. I never expected Kobe to say his shooting and scoring a ton wasn't the answer. Terrifying. Anyway, let's OKC can get it done, and call it Thunder in 7.


Sunday, May 06, 2012

Let's Check In On The Playoffs

What the heck, it's been a week. One series is already over, and there are some other that probably will be soon. A lot of the series are turning into a bunch of blowouts, and even the ones that have close finishes seem to involve neither team being able to close out their opponent. Indiana's blown big leads, so has Boston, Dallas, Memphis, Chicago, Atlanta. Pretty much everybody, except maybe Utah, who I'm not has had a  lead at any point so far.

Over in the East, the Heat are probably going to dust the Knicks today. I know, the Knicks lost Shumpert in Game 1, Tyson Chandler's fighting the flu, Stoudemire busted his hand punching a fire extinguisher case like an idiot, but jeez, they can't even make these games close. It's not on the level of Orlando sweeping the Hawks by an average of about 25 points from a couple years ago, but it's not much of a showing. Clearly I made the mistake of buying into "Carmelo Anthony: Elite Scorer" too heavily. Or I underestimated LeBron James: Elite Defender. Six of one, half-dozen of another.

The Bulls lost Rose to an ACL tear, and now my description of them as 'the Sixers, but better' may no longer apply. If Joakim Noah actually fractured something in his foot, it definitely doesn't apply. The Hawks and Celtics are fighting hard, against each other and various outside forces. The Hawks have injured frontcourt guys all over the place, though they could get Josh Smith back for Game 4. The Celtics are fighting age, and injuries, though not as many as Atlanta. The Celtics have home court, but all it takes is one Hawks' win and that's gone.

Indiana's up 3-1 on Orlando, but they nearly blew a big lead in Game 4, after actually blowing a big lead in Game 1, to a team they should probably be dominating, given how Orlando was built around Dwight Howard's talents, and now Dwight isn't available. Assuming Indiana finishes the Magic off, it might be good for the Pacers to get better at consistently dominating the interior. The Heat aren't that much better off in terms of big men who could match up with Roy Hibbert, so that might be the one advantage the Pacers would have over Miami, if they can exploit it.

In the West, Dallas is out. Great title defense there, guys. I know the Lamar Odom thing kind of blew up in their faces, but how bad is this going to look if they don't land Deron Williams and/or Dwight Howard in the near future, or they do and it doesn't work? They said, "Ah, we don't need Tyson Chandler" because that was their plan, so it better work, don't you think? Anyway, the Thunder still have weaknesses, but they have time to work on them while waiting.

The Lakers are up 2-1 on Denver, as thus far, they've exploited their size advantage more effectively than Denver has exploited their/speed athleticism advantage. Denver did win in Game 3, even without playing terribly well, which doesn't seem to have concerned Laker fans. They're chalking the loss up to the pattern the Lakers have of just mailing in games periodically, and maybe they're right. If Denver can win game 4 though, they might have to reevaluate that perspective. The Clippers are also up 2-1 on Memphis, because Chris Paul, I guess. The Grizzlies either can't, or haven't, exploited their size advantage sufficiently yet, so might be time to do that.

Oh, and the Jazz are vying with the Knicks for "biggest playoff no-show" at this point, and I don't believe Utah has the injuries excuse the Knicks have either. Looks like I made a real mistake not picking any sweeps, but I figured everybody was capable of winning at least one game. Maybe not.