Sunday, May 18, 2014

Conference Finals Time

Miami and the Pacers are already playing Game 1, so I guess I better get on with this. My second round predictions mostly went right. I got three of the four series winners, at least. Thanks for nothing, Wizards. The Thunder (and the refs) made sure I even got the number of games in their series right, while the Spurs and Heat took care of business one game faster than I expected.

Miami vs. Indiana: The Pacers look like they're gradually rediscovering their form, but there's a big difference between the Wizards and the Heat. Granted, the Heat are the team Indiana seems constructed to beat, and while they've managed that with some success in the regular season, well this is the playoffs. I mentioned in the last post that the Nets couldn't feel too great about their regular season success against the Heat, because Miami plays at a different level in the post-season. Same thing applies here. The Pacers found that out last year, when they couldn't finish Miami in 6, then got their doors blown off in Game 7.

The issue I have is that, when both teams play their best, Miami is still better. If the Heat don't play at their best and Indiana does, the Pacers can triumph easily, and the Heat have been known to drop some stink bombs in the playoffs before. For the last 2 years though, they've come through when they needed to. Or Lebron has come through, may be more accurate. The Pacers seemed sure all year that if they got homecourt advantage, that'd be the difference against Miami. Time for them to prove. Personally, I'm not convinced. Heat in 6.

San Antonio vs. Oklahoma City: Before last night, I was prepared to hand this one to the Thunder. In the same way Memphis poses matchup problems for OKC, the Thunder seem to pose similar issues for the Spurs. I think it's all the length and athleticism, which seems to neutralize all the Spurs' scheming and ball movement (which they're using at least in part because they don't have as many insanely athletic players as the Thunder).

Now Serge Ibaka is apparently out for the remainder of the playoffs with a calf injury. The Thunder have other big men, but none of them are on Ibaka'a level in all facets of the game. Certainly none are the rim protecting presence he is, and I don't think any of them have his offensive ceiling, either. I'm not sure how much it matters, though. The Thunder still have Durant and Westbrook, which means they have the two best players in the series, and the team already proved it can survive for a while with no Westbrook. But what Ibaka brings to the team is different from Westbrook, and it's mostly things no one else can do. At least some of Westbrook's contributions can be duplicated by Durant, or maybe Reggie Jackson.

I'd like to think the Spurs' superior system and depth will prevail, but I'm not sure they can contain Durant and Westbrook. Kawhi Leonard can only guard one person at a time, you know, and I'm not sure who else they have that can handle it. Thunder in 7.


Friday, May 16, 2014

Cards At the Quarter Pole

The St. Louis Cardinals are 41 games into their season and they are. . . a mediocre team. 21-20, with a run differential that says that's really how good they are. It's the offense, mostly. The Cardinals are 11th in the NL in runs (though they're 8th if you remove pitchers from the equation, don't really understand that). And like last year, it's their power that's failing them. While only being 8th in batting average, they're a respectable 5th in OBP. But they're 13th in slugging, and dead last in home runs, with 23. And just in case you were, like me, hoping the arrival of Peter Bourjos and Kolten Wong would lead to more speed, they're 14th in stolen bases, with 13.

There's plenty of blame to go around. Wong wasn't hitting particularly well at the time he was sent down, with a .544 OPS, prompting Matheny to declare he needed to learn to push through adversity. One might wonder how he's supposed to learn that when Matheny benches him every time he struggles, and replaces him with people playing even worse. Mark Ellis has 74 plate appearances, to Wong's 76. Ellis has a .486 OPS. Descalso, who has 43 PAs, has a .464 OPS. Neither of them is the fielder he is. Greg Garcia has done all right in some extremely limited chances (14 PAs, .729 OPS). More than Shane Robinson or Randal Grichuk can say.

There are a few bright spots. Molina and Peralta are the two position players with an OPS over .800. Jon Jay, Holliday, and Matt Adams are all at least above average so far. And. . . that's about it. Bourjos and Craig's numbers are rising, and Bourjos' defense has been as spectacular as advertised, but their OBPs are both still under .300, which is not ideal. Matt Carpenters is at least getting on base (.356 OBP), but if the slugging doesn't come up (.319), that contract is going to look like a real bad decision on Mozeliak's part. On the upside, Wainwright's OPS is over .900. Maybe he got tired of a lack of run support.

The pitching has been somewhat stronger. Their ERA is a mediocre 8th, though it seems crazy to me a 3.44 ERA would only be that good. They're 7th in walks and 5th in strikeouts, which kind of sums up the staffs problem. They strike dudes out, but some of them are walking entirely too many people. Shelby Miller and Trevor Rosenthal in particular. Miller's been pitching poorly and getting away with it so far, but like Westbrook last year, you can't walk that many guys, or give up 1.6 HRs per 9 innings and succeed. Joe Kelly was doing OK for 3 starts, then he got hurt. Tyler Lyons took the spot and pitched badly. Now he's hurt. Other than that, the rotation is fine. Wainwright and Wacha have nearly identical FIPs, though Waino has an extra 10 innings, and a much better ERA (2.11 to 2.82). Lynn is pitching fairly well, though as usual, his results are not as good as his peripherals suggest they should be. Which I guess makes Lynn the current generation's version of Jose DeLeon.

As for the bullpen, Rosenthal, Carlos Martinez, and Kevin Siegrist all have ERAs over 4, which is hardly what you want from your top 3 relievers. Their peripherals suggest they, too, should have better results than they do. Pat Neshek and Seth Maness are doing well, though Maness is giving up a lot of hits. Choate's numbers also say he should be doing better than he is. Take from that what you will. The defense is crap, the pitchers are making stupid pitches, they've gotten bad bounces so far. I don't know which it is, but I'm not as encouraged by it like I suppose I should be.

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Sunday, May 04, 2014

The Playoffs Continue!

Round 1 kind of ended with a thud, but Round 2 is set to start tomorrow, so it's all good!

What? Look, yes, most of the series were very competitive, but most of them ended weakly. The Mavs got blown out, the Hawks reverted to playing like a sub-.500 team (or the Pacers finally stopped playing like one), the Grizzlies got blown out thanks to Mike Conley's bad hammy and Steven Adams being an instigating little shit. Seriously, Doc Rivers ought to take whoever is the last guy off his bench, probably Jared Dudley at this point, and tell him to do whatever it takes to put Adams out of commission. Just so Adams doesn't trick Blake Griffin or DeAndre Jordan into retaliating and getting suspended. The penalty won't be that bad, because the NBA would never believe someone intentionally targeted a waste of space like Adams.

OK, the Clippers/Warriors series ended well, even if it wasn't ideal, what with the Donald Sterling distraction and no Bogut to make things more even. The Nets/Raptors went down to the wire. The Blazers/Rockets series was won on a buzzer-beater, that was certainly cool, though someone needs to remind James Harden to play defense occasionally. The Thunder/Grizz series was good except there at the end, and ditto the Mavs/Spurs. And maybe the Pacers will keep playing like the belong in the playoffs now. Roy Hibbert was actually useful in that Game 7 and everything!

Indiana/Washington: My Pacers prediction was almost right, only off by one game. I should have expected they'd need to fall down 3-2 to finally get their act together. At 2-1 there was still wiggle room. Kind of disappointed they won, though, considering how much they derped around for the last 3 months. Meanwhile, the Wizards flipped my prediction entirely, winning in 5 rather than losing. To be fair, Wizards players, it was your own fans who convinced that late in close games, you would do stupid things that would hand the Bulls victories. Blame them.

So the Pacers like to play with two conventional big men, usually Hibbert and West. The Hawks were a problem, despite their lack of playable big men, because the ones they do have can all shoot from beyond the arc. Which drags Hibbert away from the rim, where's he's less useful as a defender. The Wizards use Gortat and Nene a lot, who can both shoot, but not that far out. Which in theory plays into Indiana's hands. The questions are twofold: One, are the Pacers too discombobulated to play their way even when the situation encourages it? Two, even if they are back to normal, are Gortat/Nene too much for them?

I hate to give the Wizards short shrift here, but I feel that if the Pacers play as they did the first half of the season, they'll win. That Indiana team is better than the Wiz. If the last two games against Atlanta were an aberration, or a reflection of the poor team they were up against, then the Wiz will cruise. They have to be brimming with confidence. They just played a team with some talented big men that plays good defense but struggles to score, and it was one with at least as good a playoff resume as Indiana. The Pacers were better overall on both ends than the Bulls this year, but not by that much in either case, and there's no guarantee they can play at that level consistently. And until they demonstrate they can, I'm not giving them much trust. Wizards in 6.

Miami/Brooklyn: The Heat dusted Charlotte even faster than I expected, while the Nets played much better than I expected, since picked them to lose in 6. I'm a little terrified of Miami. In the past, hey might have sleepwalked through a game and let the series drag out, but they took care of business. And the best chance the East (and maybe the NBA in general) has against the Heat is for them to wear down over the course of the playoffs. Wade reaggravates one of his injuries and misses a couple games. Lebron wears down under the heavy load he's been carrying, really, his entire career, but this season especially. Instead they got to sit back and watch the rest of the playoff teams (except the Wizards) beat each others brains out.

As for the Nets, this is what they wanted. Remember, they had the chance to be the 5 seed and play Chicago, and more importantly, delay playing Miami as long as possible. Instead, the opted to drop to the 6 seed because they figured Toronto for easy pickings, even though it meant Miami in Round 2. Well Brooklyn, it took 7 games to beat the Raptors, and now you've got to play the two-time defending champs. Good luck with that. I know the Nets aren't scared of Miami. They beat them repeatedly this season. But these guys, especially Pierce and Garnett, ought to realize by now Miami has a gear they save for the postseason which is completely unlike anything you see from them during the regular season. The Heat don't give a shit about the regular season. If they wanted to, they could easily have been the 1 seed, but they preferred to rest, because it doesn't matter. Indiana is sure that with homecourt, they can beat Miami, but they Heat don't think it makes any difference. They're confident they'll trounce anyone, anywhere.

As far as the Nets are concerned, I'm inclined to agree with them. They have a variety of different guys they can throw at Lebron, and Wade, and Bosh, but I'm not sure how long any of those options can check them for long. Also, I'm a little surprised just how critical Joe Johnson was to their success on offense and defense against Toronto. I feel like if Joe Johnson is your key to success, you're in trouble. I'll expect the Nets to win a couple of games, just on effort and pride, but they aren't pushing Miami to 7. Heat in 6.

San Antonio/Portland: The Spurs started slow, and blew my prediction of them sweeping right to hell. Eventually they figured out the gaps in the cobbled together Mavericks' defense, and that pretty much ended things. As for the Blazers, they surprised me, seeing as I picked Houston in 7. I'm not sure whether I underestimated the Blazers, or overestimated the Rockets. Little of both I guess. The Rockets didn't dominate in the paint, McHale didn't make enough adjustments, and Aldridge and Lillard went incendiary at different times.

The thing about the Spurs is that they seem to struggle against the really athletic teams. All the movement and passing their offense does to generate open shots is because most of their guys can't do it themselves. It's one of the reasons the Thunder give them trouble, and the Heat, and this year, the Rockets, though I suspect the Rockets are more trouble to stop than to score against, given Harden's complete disinterest in defense. Question is, are the Blazers athletic enough to make the Spurs work, and keep it up for an entire series? The Mavs made it work for about 5 games, and Terry Stotts probably learned some things from Carlisle, but eventually the Spurs found the weak points.

On the other side of things, can Tony Parker keep Lillard from going off, or will Kawhi Leonard have to take over? I'm not sure any of the Spurs' other guards can keep pace. Though they might need Leonard for Wes Matthews. He's a pretty strong guy. Can Duncan handle Aldridge? Again, I can't see any of the other guys managing it. Diaw, Bonner, and Splitter feel like guys Aldridge can blow past whenever he wants. But the Spurs are a team defense, so maybe it's just about making Aldridge take the worst shots possible, and hope he can't hit them. At this point, like with Miami, I'll trust in the Spurs. Even if Portland confuses them early, I believe San Antonio will hang on until they find the chink in the armor. Spurs in 6.

Oklahoma City/Los Angeles: Well, the Thunder needed one more game than I thought to win, and they needed Conley to be hurt, and Z-Bo to absent to manage it. The Clippers needed two more games than I predicted. Is that a credit to the Warriors ability to score and cobble some minor amount of defense, or were the Clippers too distracted by the Sterling mess? Of course, the Warriors were weak up front, and the Clippers only really have two useful options there. Will that hurt them against the Thunder? I don't know, OKC has multiple big men, between Ibaka, Perkins, Adams, Collison, apparently even Hasheem Thabeet has proven useful lately, but I'm not sure how many of those guys pose any real concern. Perkins and Thabeet are going to make life easier for the Clippers' D, Adams and Collison are kind of limited. Ibaka's the real problem, and that's as much because he'll be guarding Blake as anything else.

The Thunder seem like the better defensive team, but I feel like Chris Paul ought to be able to pick Westbrook apart. Westbrook gambles so much, he seems like someone Paul can get completely spun around and out of position. But that's why you have Sefolosha, I guess. Let Westbrook guard J.J.

I don't have a lot to say about this one. I figure the Thunder will win. They just beat a much better defensive team than the one they're about to face, basically because they had the two best best players. I'm not sure they have the two best players in this series, but they definitely have the best one, and I don't see who on the Clippers can really stop him. Matt Barnes, maybe? Sometimes I think Westbrook and Brooks' lousy offense do a better job stopping Durant than the opposition. Thunder in 6.

Yeah, I picked every series to go 6 games. What the hey.