Friday, May 17, 2013
#2 San Antonio Spurs vs. #5 Memphis Grizzlies
This series will be a clash in styles and philosophy. The Spurs still have that tag of being boring but they are actually a fast-paced, high scoring team. The Grizzlies are a bruising, grind it out style of team. They win games by keeping their opponents in the 80s and low 90s. They dictated the series against the Thunder and Oklahoma City wasn't able to overcome the Grizzlies defensive toughness. The Spurs will have more reliable offensive weapons than the Thunder, who had to rely way too much on Kevin Durant. The Spurs get scoring from all of their key players, and when one guy struggles, like Manu Ginobli did in the Game 6 win against Golden State, other bench guys can pick up the slack, like a Gary Neal who had 12 points in 8 minutes last night. While the Spurs are much more offensive oriented than the Grizzlies, they do play good defense. They took control of the Warriors series as they eventually wore out Golden State's shooters.
There will be some great individual matchups in this series, highlighted by the Grizzlies Zach Randolph going against the Spurs Tim Duncan. Duncan has seemed rejuvenated this season, but might face his toughest challenge yet with the bruising Randolph. The other battle of the bigs will be between Marc Gasol and Tiago Splitter. This is where the Grizzlies have the biggest advantage to me. Gasol is such a complete player, and has more mental toughness than his brother Pau. He doesn't shy from the big moment, as evidenced by his series clinching shot in Game 5 against the Thunder. He is a much better offensive player than Splitter, and a better defensive player. Perhaps, Gregg Popovich will give DaJuan Blair some more minutes in this series to try to combat Randolph and Gasol.
The guard battle will be Tony Parker, Danny Green, and Manu Ginobli going against Mike Conley, Tony Allen, and Jerryd Bayless. Conley is playing the best basketball of his career in these playoffs and took the Thunder's Reggie Jackson to school in the Conference Semi-Finals. Allen made life miserable for Kevin Durant, and in this series he will be expected to stop Ginobli and Green from cashing in on the open three point looks they love so much. Bayless has been mostly steady coming off the bench for Memphis, which is important, since one of the Grizzlies weaknesses is their lack of depth.
Memphis is playing like a team that is more confident than ever and like they are destined to make that leap to the NBA Finals this season. Matchup wise they have the edge over the Spurs in different areas that I think will help push them past San Antonio. It will be a battle and should be a fun series to watch, but their leaders, Randolph and Gasol will prove to be the difference as the Grizzlies earn their first ever trip to the NBA Finals.
Prediction: Grizzlies over Spurs, 4-3
Monday, May 6, 2013
#1 Oklahoma City Thunder vs. #5 Memphis Grizzlies
The Grizzlies were up 9 going into the 4th quarter of yesterday's Game 1 and seemed poised to take early control of the series. But then Kevin Durant took over, showing why he is the second best player in the NBA at the moment, and the Thunder squeaked out a win. It had to feel like a missed opportunity for the Grizzlies, but it also had to give them supreme confidence that they can play with the Thunder, especially with no Westbrook.
The most surprising aspect of yesterday's game was Kevin Martin going off for the Thunder and Tony Allen of the Grizzlies struggles to stop him. Allen is considered one of the best defenders in the game, but Martin was able to slice him up for 25 points. It was pretty much Martin and Durant that carried the Thunder offensively and allowed them to sneak away with a win. Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins have basically disappeared since Westbrook went out. Their have been many calls for Thunder coach Scott Brooks to significantly decrease Perkins playing time. However, when you have guys like Hasheem Thabeet and Daniel Orton behind you, it is easy to see why Brooks would be hesitant to do that. A plus for the Thunder has been the steady play of point guard Reggie Jackson since he was thrust into the starting lineup after Westbrook's injury. I thought the trading of Eric Maynor would come back to really bite the Thunder at this point, but Jackson has played exactly as OKC has needed.
Tayshaun Prince will be mostly on Durant in this series and he will have to step up his game after Durant exploded for 35 points on 50% shooting yesterday. Of course slowing down Durant isn't easy but the Grizzlies should be capable as they were the best defensive team in the league this season. They have to continue to throw double teams at Durant and force other guys to beat them. That means Allen has to make Martin a non-factor for Memphis to be successful. The Grizzlies will also need to impose their will inside with Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol. Each of those guys had strong games yesterday but didn't do enough offensively or defensively in the fourth quarter to seal the win. Free throw shooting was also an issue yesterday for Memphis, as Quincy Pondexter and Gasol missed some key freebies. Other key players for Memphis are Mike Conley and Jerryd Bayless. Both are more talented than the Thunder's point guard combo of Jackson and Derek Fisher, and they need to exploit that matchup advantage.
This series is basically a pick em and had the Grizzlies held on yesterday I might be picking them. I expect this series to go seven, with KD carrying Oklahoma City past Memphis in the decisive game on to their third straight trip to the Western Conference Finals.
Prediction: Thunder over Grizzlies, 4-3
#2 San Antonio Spurs vs. #6 Golden State Warriors
Like the Heat, the Spurs have been on an extended vacation since sweeping the Lakers. They will have to snap back into things quickly though as the Warriors will run them up and down the court if they are caught napping.
The Spurs bigs, mainly Tim Duncan, DaJuan Blair, and Tiago Splitter will have their work cut out for them against a Warriors team that was third in the league in rebounding. One of the Warriors major strengths is their ability to grab offensive boards, and then kick it out to their excellent jump shooters, Curry and Klay Thompson. This series is pretty simple, if the Warriors dominate in rebounding and are hot shooting wise, they will pull off the upset. If they are deficient in either one of those areas, then the Spurs will move on as most expect.
Now there is no question that Curry will likely get his on offense, but his defense is a liability at times and Tony Parker could have a field day against him. The Warriors will probably try to shift having both Curry and Jarrett Jack on Parker. It will also be interesting to see who the Warriors put on Duncan. They might throw Andrew Bogut on him at times, and Carl Landry will have to cover Duncan at times too. While David Lee is not known for his defensive prowess, it would be much better for the Warriors if they had him as an option to body up Duncan as well. On paper it appears that Duncan could have a huge series, as he continues his steroid fueled (just kidding!) resurgence at age 37.
Harrison Barnes and Draymond Green are two rookies that looked ready for the playoff spotlight against the Nuggets. It probably helped that they played in high pressure games at North Carolina and Michigan State respectively. How effective they will be matching up with Kawhi Leonard remains to be seen. Leonard is an incredibly athletic and active player and much more of a matchup nightmare than Denver could throw at those guys.
It is imperative for Golden State that they win either Games 1 or 2 in San Antonio. That may seem like an obvious thing, but what makes it more imperative is the fact that they haven't won as a franchise in San Antonio for so long. That question will be front and center until they actually win there, so the quicker they can get that out of the way the better. I thought the Warriors relative inexperience would cost them against Denver. It turned out not to matter, but against such a well coached team like the Spurs, I believe Gregg Popovich will find ways to frustrate a young Warriors team. Golden State will make it a battle, but the Spurs advance.
Prediction: Spurs over Warriors, 4-2
#1 Miami Heat vs. #5 Chicago Bulls
When the series tips off tonight the Heat will be playing their first game in eight days. The Bulls just finished off their First Round series two nights ago and flew straight to Miami after defeating the Nets. Needless to say, the Heat will be much more rested than Chicago. That would already serve as quite the advantage but when you add in the injuries that the Bulls are facing with Luol Deng and Kirk Hinrich, it makes that advantage even greater.
The Heat are mostly a juggernaut without weakness, except for their lack of size and rebounding. However, as I have documented many times their talent seems to overcome that and make it irrelevant. In this series against Chicago that won't even really be an issue as the Bulls aren't an overwhelmingly large team, outside of Joakim Noah. What may give the Heat some issue is the Bulls defense, which is one of the best in the league. That defense showed signs of being worn down, and tired though as they had to play a lot of guys who aren't part of their regular rotation. To have any shot of making this a series, the Bulls will have to get Deng and Hinrich back at some point. Otherwise, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and company will have their way. I think Noah can limit Chris Bosh's effectiveness but as long as James and Wade play well, that won't matter. The Bulls will also have to make sure they don't leave Ray Allen alone on the perimeter, as he can still do plenty of damage from downtown.
Chicago will have to play perfect this entire series and that means that Nate Robinson, Marco Bellinelli, and Noah will have to continue to play over their heads. Even guys like Jimmy Butler and Nazr Mohammed made huge contributions in the series win against Brooklyn. Perhaps the most key player for Chicago is Carlos Boozer. Boozer had trouble getting in a rhythm against Brooklyn as their bigs constantly had him in foul trouble. This will be a different series for him as Miami doesn't have as much height, but they have much more athleticism, so Boozer will have to play top notch defense. Anyone talking about the possibility of Derrick Rose returning for this series, just please stop. He isn't playing this year, and the Bulls stopped counting on him coming back long ago.
I see a lot of people predicting a sweep, which to me completely discounts the coaching edge Chicago has with Tom Thibodeau going against Miami's Erik Spoelstra. Not saying that Spoelstra is a bad coach, just that Thibodeau is a great coach and would have an advantage against almost everyone. This Bulls team plays with a ton of passion and adding having a chip on their shoulder makes them dangerous. I definitely believe they can make Miami sweat and steal a game or two, but I'd be crazy to pick against the Heat.
Prediction: Heat over Bulls, 4-2
#2 New York Knicks vs. #3 Indiana Pacers
This series tipped off yesterday and to the surprise of many, the Pacers raced to a relatively easy win at the Garden. Most people were surprised because they haven't bothered watching or paying attention to the Pacers all season. The Pacers are a very physical team, and for a team so reliant on jump shooting like the Knicks, that will pose some problems. The Pacers play tough defense and rebound well.
A key battle in this series will be the battle of the big men between the Pacers Roy Hibbert and the Knicks Tyson Chandler. Yesterday, Hibbert dominated Chandler on the glass and offensively. The Knicks will be beaten rather easily if Carmelo Anthony continues to struggle. He played poorly to end the Boston series and that carried over yesterday, with a 10-28 shooting performance. The Knicks other important shooter, J.R. Smith was just 4-15 yesterday. If the Knicks don't find a way to get those guys going or find some better looks, this series will be over quickly. The Knicks best player on the court yesterday was Raymond Felton. Felton shot the ball well and also played very good defense on Pacers point guard George Hill. The Pacers best player, Paul George struggled with his shot but as all good players do, found other ways to score, and for him that was by getting to the line.
The Pacers second best player, David West played very well yesterday and the Knicks will have to hope that Kenyon Martin can give them some quality minutes and play West tight on defense. For the Knicks to be successful, their perimeter guys will have to get going, which can open some things up for Chandler inside. If the Pacers dominate the paint like they did yesterday, it won't matter how well Anthony or Smith shoot. The Pacers also received a huge boost from their bench yesterday with some great play by D.J. Augustin.
I think that the Knicks can turn things around in this series, even after yesterday's dispirited performance. This is a series where I expect to see the road teams steal a few, ultimately forcing a Game 7 at the Garden, which would be electric. But in a surprise twist, I like this Pacers team to win that Game 7 and move on to the Eastern Conference Finals. They are the definition of team, and can hit you from all over. In other words, a very dangerous, playoff ready team.
Prediction: Pacers over Knicks, 4-3
Friday, April 19, 2013
#1 Oklahoma City Thunder (60-22) vs. #8 Houston Rockets (45-37)
The Thunder traded away James Harden and seemingly got better. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook continue to be two of the best players in the game, while new acquisition Kevin Martin seemed to transition to the team seamlessly. Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins remain beasts inside, giving the Thunder one of the most fearsome inside, outside combinations in the NBA. Thabo Sefolosha isn't a flashy player like his fellow teammates, but a good glue guy to have.
The Rockets were the second highest scoring team in the NBA, with James Harden savoring the role of being the alpha male. Jeremy Lin may never recapture Linsanity but he is a solid point guard, albeit one that is still too careless with the ball. That is the Rockets biggest detriment, is sloppiness when it comes to possessions on offense. Chandler Parsons showed tremendous strides in his second season and is the Rockets number two option on offense. Even Omer Asik, a free agent whom I thought they paid way too much for, showed that with some real minutes he could be a solid big man.
This will be an entertaining series and you know Harden will be jazzed up to try to oust his former team. The Rockets have a nice collection of decent players, but they don't have anywhere near the talent that the Thunder have. Their lack of defense and penchant for turnovers will be their undoing and the reason I think the Thunder can dispose of them in five games.
Prediction: Thunder over Rockets, 4-1
#4 Los Angeles Clippers (56-26) vs. #5 Memphis (56-26)
Lob City rolled their way to their first ever division title and most wins in franchise history. The Clippers backcourt is electrifying with the scoring and passing of Chris Paul, and the never afraid to shoot Jamal Crawford. Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan give the Clips an imposing inside presence and Griffin remains a beast on the glass and on the offensive end. Caron Butler isn't what he once was but he still good for about 10 points a night. Chauncey Billups, Eric Bledsoe, and Lamar Odom give the Clippers some bench options.
The Grizzlies traded away their leading scorer in the middle of the year, and seemingly got better. They officially became Zach Randolph's team, with Marc Gasol and Mike Conley also providing major contributions. The Grizzlies are the best defensive team on basketball with Randolph, Gasol, and Tony Allen making things a nightmare for opposing offenses. Case in point would be the final game of the season, where the Utah Jazz could only muster 70 points in a must win against Memphis.
This series is a rematch from last year's first round, which memorably went 7 games. The Grizzlies can't score with the Clippers so their defense will be what keeps them in this series. The battles between Randolph and Gasol versus Griffin and Jordan will be physical and bruising. I think the Clippers advantage at the guard positions, especially offensively will be the difference. You can only stop someone like Chris Paul so much.
Prediction: Clippers over Grizzlies, 4-2
#2 San Antonio Spurs (58-24) vs. #7 Los Angeles Lakers (45-37)
It seems like for years people have been saying that the Spurs were too old to compete and each year they just go out and win 50+ games. They overcame injuries at different points in the year to Tony Parker and Manu Ginobli, while Tim Duncan played with a renewed energy. Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green, Tiago Splitter and Gary Neal have been the youthful contributors for the team, giving San Antonio a perfect mix of veterans and youth.
The Lakers season was a soap opera. The lineup they thought they would have of Steve Nash, Kobe Bryant, Metta World Peace, Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard hardly ever materialized. They all went down with injuries and missed games at some point, and now Bryant is out for the playoffs. Nash is still hurting but is hoping to return for the playoffs, although who knows how much he will add. The Lakers are going to go as far as Gasol and Howard take them. It will also help if guys like Steve Blake and Jodie Meeks step up like they did in the Lakers final two regular season games without Bryant. Antawn Jamison is another guy that can provide some scoring off the bench.
For the Lakers to pull off the upset Howard will have to be the beast he was in Orlando, and the Lakers will have to continue to play the type of defense that carried them into the playoffs. The Spurs are exactly they type of matchup they wanted, as teams like the Thunder and Nuggets would just run their old veterans off the court. The Spurs have some youth but are old in key positions. However, I just can't pick the Lakers. They are 28-12 in their last 40 games, but I don't trust their defense, and I don't trust them to sweep the Spurs at home and steal a game on the road. I do think they can take the Spurs seven games, and make Gregg Popovich and company sweat.
Prediction: Spurs over Lakers, 4-3
#3 Denver Nuggets (57-25) vs. #6 Golden State Warriors (47-35)
If you are all about basketball that is offense and very little defense, then this is the series for you. Both teams averaged over 100 points per game and both gave up over 100 points per game. The injury bug has hit Denver at the wrong time. First, they lost Danilo Gallinari for the season, and then Kenneth Faried was injured. On the bright side, Faried should play in this series, although it is not yet known if he will be available for Game 1. The Nuggets are Ty Lawson's team, as he led them in scoring and assists. Wilson Chandler has stepped up in a major way since Gallinari went down. Andre Iguodala is also playing his best basketball of the season and seems to be finding his scoring touch. Andre Miller, JaVale McGee and Corey Brewer are some of the reliable substitutions that George Karl has at his disposal.
Steph Curry truly arrived this season and carried the Warriors to the playoffs. Curry set a record for most made three pointers in a season and shot an absurd 45% from three point range. David Lee finally remained healthy and combined with rookie Harrison Barnes to give the Warriors stability at the forward position. The middle has been a different story, with Andrew Bogut battling injuries, thrusting rookie Festus Ezeli into a prominent role. Jarrett Jack and Carl Landry see the most time for the Warriors out of their bench players.
I would be shocked if any game between these teams finishes with at least one team scoring under 100. This will be some fun basketball to watch and almost a throwback to the 80s. I think the biggest difference in this series will be experience. This will be new to a lot of the Warriors players and that could lead to some nerves and feelings of being overwhelmed. Many of the Nuggets have been through this and will know what to expect. The Warriors just strike me as a team of the future and not a team ready to make a run just yet.
Prediction: Nuggets over Warriors, 4-1
Thursday, April 18, 2013
#1 Miami Heat (66-16) vs. #8 Milwaukee Bucks (38-44)
When the Heat added Ray Allen in the offseason it seemed to cement that they would be repeating as NBA champions. Nothing during the season has changed my opinion of that, and this first round matchup with the hapless Bucks should be a cakewalk. The Heat begin and end with their big three of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. Bosh especially seems more comfortable with his place in the big three and had a very productive year. Allen was exactly what the Heat hoped for, remaining one of the best pure shooters in basketball, despite being 37. Depth issues remain a concern but not nearly as much of one after last season when the Heat proved that it didn't really matter. Shane Battier, Mario Chalmers, and Norris Cole have all shown they can step up and contribute when need be.
The Bucks are just lucky to be here. They are well under .500 and quite frankly not really worthy of being a playoff team. Their best player is PG Monta Ellis, who appeared in every game and led the team in scoring and steals. Brandon Jennings is their second best weapon but he has been in and out of the doghouse this season. Larry Sanders and Samuel Dalembert give the Bucks a decent inside tandem, while Mike Dunleavy and J.J. Redick both are strong shooters. The Bucks are a strong rebounding team, but their weaknesses defensively has been their achilles heel this season.
I think the Bucks could potentially steal a game in Milwaukee if they shoot well and dominate the Heat on the boards like they are capable of. But otherwise, I expect James, Wade and Bosh to dominate and the Heat to breeze past Milwaukee.
Prediction: Heat over Bucks, 4-0
#4 Brooklyn Nets (49-33) vs. #5 Chicago Bulls (45-37)
The Nets were up and down the entire season. They got off to a hot start, then struggled and fired Avery Johnson. P.J. Carlesimo was inserted as the interim coach and the team responded, finishing 16 games over .500 and earning a four seed. One of the biggest and I mean biggest reasons for the Nets success was Brook Lopez. Lopez remained mostly healthy this season and led the Nets in scoring and blocks. He would have led the team in rebounding, but Reggie Evans earned that by being an absolute beast on the glass. The Nets have other big men with two infamous players, Kris Humphries and Andray Blatche. Humphries goes in and out of Carlesimo's doghouse so who know how much action he will see. As the Nets envisioned, Deron Williams and Joe Johnson have formed a pretty potent back court. Johnson remains a streaky shooter, but the Nets have seemed to find a way to share shots between him, Williams, and Lopez. The Nets don't have that great of a bench and that has hurt them at times. I mean when Jerry Stackhouse can still get minutes on your team, that's saying something and it isn't good.
The Bulls dealt with the will he or won't he question for most of the season about whether Derrick Rose would return to play. Turns out he hasn't and it looks like he won't. He hasn't been ruled out of the playoffs but I'd be shocked if he came back now. I don't really like how he has handled things, especially with him being medically cleared over a month ago. He basically has barely played two seasons in a row now, and is costing the Bulls a ton of money. The Bulls are clearly a team that takes on their coach's personality in Tom Thibodeau, as they ranked third in defense. Unfortunately, without Rose their offense has struggled, ranking 29th in the league. Luol Deng led the Bulls in scoring, barely edging out Carlos Boozer. Joakim Noah did just about everything, leading the Bulls in rebounds, blocks, and steals. Nate Robins and Kirk Hinrich have taken over at point guard for Rose. Robinson is very hit and miss as always. He can electrify and then he can leave you shaking your head with some of the decisions he makes. Shooting guard remains a weakness for the Bulls as Marco Belinelli is okay, but not anyone teams are afraid of.
For the Bulls to get past the nets Boozer, Deng, and Noah will have to play great in every single game. The Nets have a clear advantage at the guard position so the Bulls will have to win the rebounding battle and maximize their chances of scoring. They also have to play top notch defense and frustrate Williams and Johnson. This should be a good series, filled with close games. I expect it to go 7 and for the Bulls to prevail.
Prediction: Bulls over Nets, 4-3
#2 New York Knicks (54-28) vs. #7 Boston Celtics (41-40)
The Knicks won their first division title since 1994 and were able to overcome injuries to Amar'e Stoudemire, Carmelo Anthony, Tyson Chandler and the loss of Jeremy Lin to free agency. Now, the question is, how will they deal with being the favorites? Also, can they win their first playoff series since 1999? Anthony led the league in scoring and the Knicks will go however far he can take them. They also have a fantastic sixth man in J.R. Smith who was only behind Anthony in scoring for New York. The point guard combo of Raymond Felton and 100-year old Jason Kidd has been surprisingly effective, and recently added to that group has been Pablo Prigioni, who is questionable for game 1 due to a sprained ankle. The Knicks are hoping Stoudemire can return from injury for the playoffs, but even if he does how much he can contribute remains to be seen. Defensively, the Knicks improvement over the last few years, has been replacing Mike D'Antoni as coach, and also the presence of Tyson Chandler. Chandler in the middle makes it very difficult for teams to penetrate the lane and he is a weapon that can't be appreciated enough.
The Celtics have been mired in mediocrity for most of the season. They decided not to be sellers at the trade deadline and see if their group of vets could make one final run. Last year they struggled during the regular season, but then got hot in the playoffs and were just a game away from the NBA Finals. However, last year they had Ray Allen and Rajon Rondo and this year they do not. The Celtics started off hot when Rondo went down with his injury but have leveled off since then and clearly miss him. Avery Bradley is solid but he isn't a game changer like Rondo. The team still revolves around Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, while Jeff Green, Brandon Bass, and Courtney Lee are their other reliable players.
This should be a sexy series just based on name brands alone. Then you have the storyline of Carmelo vs. KG dating back to the regular season, whether the Knicks can finally get over the hump and win a series, and if the Celtics have one last run in them. I expect a hard fought, back and forth series that goes seven games. At that point, it comes down to who has the best player on the court and the Knicks will have that with Anthony, propelling them to the next round.
Prediction: Knicks over Celtics, 4-3
#3 Indiana Pacers (49-32) vs. #6 Atlanta Hawks (44-38)
Both of these teams come limping into the playoffs in what is easily the least interesting first round series. The Hawks are once again stuck in that 5-6 range they can't seem to get out of. The Hawks have talent but have never had that one player that is transcendent and that has prevented them from being serious contenders year after year. Josh Smith is good, but not great and is held back by his penchant for turning the ball over. The Hawks cause wasn't helped when they lost Lou Williams for the season. John Jenkins has played decently as his replacement at shooting guard but isn't consistent. Al Horford and Smith do the bulk of the rebounding for the Hawks because C Zaza Pachulia was also lost for the year with an injury. They have a pretty good point guard in Jeff Teague as he shoots the ball well and is good at finding the open man. He does make a few too many poor choices though and will try to force things. Kyle Korver has been a nice addition and continues doing what he does best, knock down threes.
The Pacers were without Danny Granger for the bulk of the year but otherwise mostly avoided the injury bug to their other key players. Paul George has turned into a star, leading the team in scoring, while Roy Hibbert has continued his ascension as one of the better big men in the league, working as a rebounding and shot blocking machine. Much like Teague, George Hill isn't a household name, but he is an effective point guard and is smart with the ball. David West continues to be reliable year after year and teams up with George to do the bulk of the Pacers scoring. Lance Stephenson rounds out the starting five, while consistent bench guys are Tyler Hansborough, D.J. Augustin, and Ian Mahinmi.
The Pacers aren't great offensively, but they are tough inside and were second in the league in points allowed per game. Their rugged style is going to wear down Atlanta, and frustrate Smith. I expect the series to go back and forth to start, before the Pacers take over and close out the Hawks in six, while America collectively yawns.
Prediction: Pacers over Hawks, 4-2
Monday, April 8, 2013
When the Final Four pairings were set last weekend, this matchup between Michigan and Louisville was clearly the sexiest. Both teams are filled with stars, and play a quick, exciting brand of basketball.
Michigan and Syracuse was predictably ugly at times, but the Wolverines got off to a hot start and were able to hold on to a win. As I predicted, they were able to defeat the Orange zone by doing what they do best, hitting their three pointers. In what was a theme for the evening, they also received contributions from unlikely places in Caris LeVert and Spike Albrecht.
Louisville was completely outplayed by Wichita State for the first 30 minutes of their game and trailed by as much as 12 points. Things were looking bleak, but then walk-on Tim Henderson, only playing because of the injury to Kevin Ware, hit two huge three pointers. Then, much maligned Cardinals player Luke Hancock took over the game, making plays on both the offensive and defensive ends, as the Louisville escaped with a victory.
Louisville is the favorite going into this game but the Shockers showed that although the Cardinals have been hot the last few months, they are certainly beatable. Only four players really showed up for Louisville in that Final Four game. Russ Smith, basically just through sheer volume of shooting, led the team with 21 points, Chane Behanan added offense when needed most and played well defensively, and as mentioned above Henderson and Hancock made huge momentum swinging plays. Gorgui Deng, Wayne Blackshear and Peyton Siva might as well have been listed as missing on milk cartons as they did very little. Henderson and Hancock aren't guys that have been known for carrying the team this season, so Louisville has to hope that Deng and Siva round into form tonight and look more like the players we are used to seeing.
Player of the Year candidate Trey Burke did very little for the Wolverines in their win against Syracuse. The player of the game yet again was emerging freshman Mitch McGary. The big man even led the team in assists, dishing out six dimes. Tim Hardaway's shooting struggles continued, while Nick Stauskas didn't even hit a bucket. Some of that had to do with the Syracuse defense, but for Michigan to upset Louisville tonight, the offense has to be much sharper. Glenn Robinson III has been very consistent throughout the tournament, and his steady play was key in helping Michigan not to blow their lead against Syracuse.
Louisville's defense is all about pressure, so it will be up to the Michigan guards Burke and Hardaway Jr. to protect the ball and avoid making too many turnovers. Turnovers are what doomed the Shockers late in the Final Four game, and avoiding them is what got them out to a 12-point lead. It will be interesting to watch how Deng handles McGary inside. McGary would seem to be far too athletic for Deng to handle, so he could have a huge game. With that being said, I think the struggles of Hardaway Jr. will finally come back to bite Michigan. I think that Burke will have a tough time getting anything going, as will Stauskas. The lack of contribution from those guards will be too much for Michigan to overcome. I expect Siva to play much better this game, and Smith to not force as much and let the game come more to him. Michigan will hit some threes and the Cardinals have to accept that, but I don't think Louisville will allow them to catch fire. I expect to see some bad shots and jitters to start the game, but then the game to settle into a nice, exciting pace. I picked Louisville before the Tournament started and I see no reason to move away from that pick now. Rick Pitino will become the first coach to win a national championship with two different teams as the Cardinals cut down the nets tonight.
Prediction: Louisville 75, Michigan 69
Thursday, April 4, 2013
#9 Wichita State (30-8) vs. #1 Louisville (33-5)
Wichita State built on their upset of #1 seed Gonzaga, destroying fellow Cinderella LaSalle, and then knocking off #2 Ohio State. The Shockers dominated the Buckeyes throughout the game, then looked like they would choke it away, before hanging on.
The Shockers are a balanced offensive team with all five of their starters able to score and be the catalyst at different points. It could be argued that junior Cleanthony Early is the Shockers best player. His scoring dipped a bit in the Sweet Sixteen and Elite Eight but he continued to be a consistent rebounding threat, as he has 7 rebounds in each tournament game. Guard Malcom Armstead went on a shooting rampage against the Buckeyes, throwing up 21 shots, twice the amount anyone else on the team put up. He will have to reign that in a bit against Louisville and try to get his teammates more involved. Guard Fred VanVleet has been invaluable with his contributions off the bench and is the only real consistent bench player Wichita State has. Other guards in the Shockers arsenal are Tekele Cotton, who is selective with his shots but usually shoots pretty well and Ron Baker, who at times has been dangerous from three point land. Forward Carl Hall can be dominant at times, especially with shot blocking, as he swatted away six Buckeye shots last weekend. The Shockers play great defense and the biggest reason they beat Ohio State was that they held the Buckeyes to just 31% shooting.
Louisville had Oregon hang around a little longer than they anticipated but mostly controlled the game. They had a great back and forth battle with Duke in the first half going and then Ware's shocking injury happened. It is amazing how Louisville responded after seeing something so traumatic. They bulldozed Duke in the second half and cruised to an easy victory.
Guard Russ Smith has been the best player in the tournament. He is averaging 26 points per game and looks unstoppable. Peyton Siva has been the beneficiary of Smith's strong play and a perfect complement, especially in the win against the Blue Devils. It is impressive to see how much more confident Gorgui Dieng looks on the offensive end now, while still playing very active defense, blocking shots and creating turnovers. Chane Behanan seemed to snap out of his tournament funk against Duke, grabbing 8 boards. He is very close to Ware and I expect to see him going for every rebound with tremendous ferocity. My favorite Cardinal, Luke Hancock had some very impressive moments against Duke and has become a tremendous off the bench weapon for Louisville.
I don't think many people are giving Wichita State a shot and on paper it is pretty easy to see why. Louisville just appears to be peaking and playing so much better than anyone else right now. For Wichita State to win they will have to once again play amazing defense, and will have to shoot the ball extremely well. Getting off to a fast start like they did against Ohio State would be huge, as you could tell the Buckeyes started pressing the issue way too much and somewhat panicked. This Louisville team has shown they are mentally tougher than that. They would have already been playing with amazing passion but with the added element of Ware, I think that is too much for the Shockers to overcome. Their lack of depth and shortened rotation won't cut it against a team as talented as the Cardinals.
Prediction: Louisville 75, Wichita State 64
#4 Syracuse (30-9) vs. #4 Michigan (30-7)
It was unwatchable basketball but the defense the Orange played in DC in the Sweet Sixteen and Elite Eight is some of the best defense I have ever seen. Indiana and Marquette played like they were paralyzed against Syracuse's zone. Indiana was one of the best offensive teams in the country and the Orange held them to 50 points, 30 points below their season average. Their offense was nothing to write home about, and coach Jim Boeheim admitted that to beat Michigan that will have to improve.
The Orange starters log most of the minutes, with Boeheim shrinking his rotation to eight the last few games. As was the case during the regular season, F C.J. Fair and James Southerland have been the consistent scorers for Syracuse, but G Michael Carter-Williams has really stepped up his game, including dropping 24 on the Hoosiers. F Rakeem Christmas plays because of his size and length and if he gives the Cuse anything on offense, it is a bonus. Guard Brandon Triche can get a little sloppy with the ball at times, but in the tournament, except against Indiana, he has been smart and avoided turnovers. Baye Keita is the only bench player that has been getting any substantial minutes in the tournament and its mostly his job to play defense and draw fouls, so others don't.
The Wolverines had quite the Sweet Sixteen and Elite Eight. They trailed Kansas for most of their Sweet Sixteen game and looked dead in the water. Then they caught fire late, especially guard Trey Burke, who forced overtime with a loooooooooong three pointer. Eventually, the Wolverines would prevail in overtime. Then in the Elite Eight, they jumped ahead of Florida early and were unconscious from three point land, especially Nick Stauskas who hit all six of his attempted three pointers. The game was never in doubt and the Wolverines were back in the Final Four for the first time since the Fab Five era.
The Wolverines are especially dangerous on offense because of their ability to hit the three. Florida trailed by a ton early because of the Wolverines hitting almost anything from three point land. Stauskas shoots 45% from three point land, and against Florida broke out of a 2-12 slump he had been in prior to that in the tournament. As Burke goes, so do the Wolverines. He struggled early against Kansas, but once he caught fire it was a whole different game and Michigan team. Burke is a threat in almost every way and will be a tough matchup for the Cuse zone. Tim Hardaway Jr. found saw his shot abandon him a bit in the last two rounds and stubbornly kept throwing it up against Florida. He needs to do a better job of letting the game come to him, because forcing anything against Syracuse is a recipe for disaster. Glenn Robinson III was invisible against Florida, so he is someone to watch on Saturday. His disappearing act wasn't as noticeable as it normally would have been because Mitch McGary continued to dominate. McGary is averaging over 11 rebounds per game, almost double his season average. He is also averaging 17.5 points per game, 10 more than his season average. The Wolverines were a dangerous team without his high impact contributions, now they are one of the top two teams with his increased effectiveness.
I think the Wolverines will be somewhat slowed down by the Cuse zone but I think they will avoid the problems that plagued the other teams that have faced it. I think they have the shooters to not have to force everything inside, which will allow them to avoid the turnovers that the Cuse feast on. For Syracuse, I don't think their offense is capable of producing the points necessary to beat Michigan unless their defense remains on the insanely high level it has been on. It is somewhat hard to bet against the Cuse with the roll their defense has been on, but it's a testament to the confidence I have in the Wolverines offense that I believe they will win.
Prediction: Michigan 65, Syracuse 60