Thursday, April 15, 2010

2010 NBA Playoffs - Chicago Bulls

Eastern Conference First Round

#1 Cleveland Cavaliers (61-21) vs. #8 Chicago Bulls (41-41)

The Chicago Bulls waited until the last night of the regular season to finally assure themselves a playoff berth. Their reward? The best team in basketball this season, the Cleveland Cavaliers. The Cavaliers are of course led by the best player in basketball, LeBron James.

The Bulls have dealt with injuries, General Manager John Paxson and Coach Vinny Del Negro fighting each other, the fact that Vinny Del Negro is their coach, and still made the playoffs. It helps that they play in the decidedly weak Eastern Conference but hopefully when they get the right coach in place next season they can finally make some noise.

The Bulls are led by stud PG Derrick Rose, who led the team in scoring and assists. Much to my surprise C Joakim Noah has become a force. When he was out injured the Bulls lost 10 straight, once he returned is when they were able to right the ship and sneak into the playoffs. SF Luol Deng is the Bulls only other real offensive threat besides Rose.

The Cavaliers are James and then some other pieces. Sure those pieces aren't bad but without James the Cavs would not be nearly as dangerous. He is the reason the Bulls have almost no chance of winning this series. One aspect that will be interesting to watch is how smoothly C Shaquille O'Neal is able to get back into the lineup after missing two months. The Cavs didn't really seem to miss him and almost looked better offensively without him. This isn't anything that should affect them against a .500 team like the Bulls, but against the Magic, who many expect them to face in the Conference Finals, it could be a problem. The Cavs addition of PF Antawn Jamison seems to have been a success so far, while watching PG Mo Williams and Rose square off will be fun.

The Bulls surprised many by giving the Celtics a ton of trouble in the First Round last season. However, that Bulls team was better than this one, and that Celtics team was considerably worse than this Cavs team. I think the Cavs sweep the Bulls with relative ease, and the Bulls kick Vinny Del Negro to the curb.

Prediction: Cavaliers over Bulls, 4-0

Below are my complete predictions for the First Round of the NBA Playoffs.

Eastern Conference

#1 Cleveland over #8 Chicago, 4-0

#4 Boston over #5 Miami, 4-3

#3 Atlanta over #6 Milwaukee, 4-1

#2 Orlando over #7 Charlotte, 4-1

Western Conference

#1 Los Angeles over #8 Oklahoma City, 4-1

#4 Denver over #5 Utah, 4-2

#3 Phoenix over #6 Portland, 4-3

#2 Dallas over #7 San Antonio, 4-2

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

2010 NBA Playoffs - Los Angeles Lakers

Western Conference First Round

#1 Los Angeles Lakers (57-25) vs. #8 Oklahoma City Thunder (50-32)

The Lakers come limping into the playoffs and get to face the upstart Thunder in the First Round. The Lakers have been a slightly above .500 basketball team since the All-Star Break and star Kobe Bryant has been dealing with a myriad of injuries. They have also been without C Andrew Bynum who got his yearly injury. It is expected Bynum will return for the series, but his effectiveness remains questionable.

The Thunder are tied with the Milwaukee Bucks as the most surprising team in the NBA this season. After an awful 23-59 season a year ago, the Thunder improved by 27 wins this season. SF Kevin Durant has become the best scorer in the league and one of the most exciting players. But he isn't the only young superstar the Thunder have. PG Russell Westbrook, F Jeff Green, G James Harden, and backup PG Eric Maynor, along with Durant are all 23 or younger. This is a team that has a tremendous upside and will be championship contenders in about a year or two.

Although they won't be matched up on each other often all eyes will be on the battle between Bryant and Durant. This series has the potential to be the most exciting series in the First Round. The Thunder will definitely be competitive with the Lakers, but the experience factor is heavily in the Lakers corner. The Lakers will miss Bynum's presence if he isn't effective, but Pau Gasol can more than make up for it against a Thunder team that has an injured Nenad Kristic as their best big man. The Thunder definitely have the edge at point guard with Westbrook being much better than Derek Fisher. However, just about every point guard is better than Fisher at this point in his career and that hasn't slowed the Lakers down before.

Lakers SF Ron Artest will have the tough task of defending Durant. While Artest won't be expected to completely stop Durant, he will have to make life difficult for him. Lakers PF Lamar Odom could have a huge series for the Lakers and has always been the X factor for them. When he plays to his capabilities the Lakers are nearly unbeatable.

The Thunder should definitely make Lakers fans nervous but they still have a ways to go before they can legitimately have a chance of knocking off the champions. I expect most of the games to be close, and the Thunder to steal a game at home, but the Lakers will march on.

Prediction: Lakers over Thunder, 4-1

Monday, April 5, 2010

NCAA Championship Game - Indianapolis, Indiana

#5 Butler (33-4) vs. #1 Duke (34-5)

It is the championship game no one expected, the Butler Bulldogs, just 6 miles from their campus, taking on the mighty Duke Blue Devils.

Butler got by Michigan State 52-50 on Saturday, to earn their first trip to an NCAA Championship game. Somehow they won despite having one of their best players, Shelvin Mack on the bench for most of the second half, and also while shooting just 30%. It was an ugly game and an ugly win, but none of that matters now.

On the other side was Duke, which completely manhandled West Virginia 78-57. Duke's big three of Jon Scheyer, Kyle Singler, and Nolan Smith combined for 63 of the Blue Devils 78 points. Duke shot lights out and completely decimated what had been a fantastic West Virginia defense.

Butler might be without F Matt Howard on Monday after he suffered a mild concussion in the game on Saturday. That would make what is already a tall task even harder. However, one area the Bulldogs can match up with Duke, where most teams can't, is there guard play. Gordon Hayward and Mack will need to play well and go toe to toe with Scheyer and Smith. Butler F Willie Veasley will have to play tough defense and try to frustrate Singler.

As soon as Duke got done crushing West Virginia on Saturday night, my first thoughts were that there was no way they were going to beat Butler by less than 10. They have the size advantage, they are far better offensively, and Butler just got done somehow winning a game where they went without a basket for ten minutes. Then I started watching the Final Four post-game segments and everyone was picking Duke. One thing I have learned in my 20+ years of watching sports is that when the media is all on one side, the opposite has a tendency of happening. No one is giving Butler a chance in this game, but remember, no one gave Butler a chance against Syracuse, Kansas State, or Michigan State. I could be boring and pick Duke to win like everyone else, or I could be a renegade and call Butler to pull off the upset. I have no real logical reason for taking the Bulldogs, but I have been wrong before, who cares if I am wrong again?

Prediction: Butler 60, Duke 58

Thursday, April 1, 2010

The 2010 Final Four - Indianapolis, Indiana

For the second straight season the Final Four will feature
a true home team. The Butler Bulldogs will be playing just five minutes from their campus on Saturday. The only reason it is even remotely surprising that Butler has made it this far is because they are in the Horizon League. They have been a Top 20 team for virtually the entire season and have won 24 straight games. Michigan State is back in the Final Four for the sixth time in twelve seasons. West Virginia has reached the Final Four for the first time since 1959, and the Duke Blue Devils (booooooooooooooooooooo) are back after a six year drought.

#5 Michigan State (28-8) vs. #5 Butler (32-4)

Some will argue that the Spartans got a lucky road to the Final Four, but you can't argue with their success. Every game has been a nail-biter for the Spartans, starting in the First Round against New Mexico State, followed by the buzzer beater against Maryland in the Second Round. Against Northern Iowa in the Sweet 16, Michigan State came from behind to win, and then squeaked by Tennessee in the Elite 8.

Butler started off the tournament by whipping UTEP, and then coming from behind late to beat Murray State in the Second Round. No one gave them a chance in the Sweet 16 against Syracuse, but the Bulldogs dominated the game. They also dominated Kansas State for most of their Elite 8 game, and now find themselves in their first Final Four ever.

The Spartans have been battling injuries throughout the tournament, including missing leading scorer G Kalin Lucas. However, in his place G Durrell Summers came up huge against Northern Iowa and Tennessee, averaging 20 points per game. F Raymar Morgan needs to step his game up a bit as he has been wildly inconsistent, although that has pretty much always been the story with him. The Spartans biggest strength is that you never know who might step up and play big for them. Forward Draymond Green is capable of coming off the bench and providing a spark, as is guard Chris Allen.

G-F Gordon Hayward and G Shelvin Mack are the Bulldogs biggest threats. Hayward is a legitimate NBA prospect, while Mack has played fantastic in the tournament, scoring points, grabbing rebounds and dishing out assists. F Willie Veasley had a quiet game against Kansas State, and will be needed to pick up his scoring against the Spartans.

This game should be a great defensive battle. The Bulldogs haven't allowed more than 59 points in any tournament game. If that happens again Saturday their miracle run will continue. With that being said, I am finally learning that it is not wise to pick against Tom Izzo in March. Somehow, someway his teams find ways to win. There is no doubt he will have them prepared, and also ready to take on what will essentially be a road game. I think the Bulldogs might be a little distracted by the big atmosphere, and the pressure that will come with playing at home. The Spartans will be in the Championship game for a second straight year.

Prediction: Michigan State 65, Butler 58

#2 West Virginia (31-6) vs. #1 Duke (33-5)

Duke seemed destined to make the Final Four when the brackets were released a few weeks ago and sure enough they did. They crushed Arkansas Pine-Bluff in the First Round, and had little trouble with California in the Second Round. Purdue hung around for a bit in the Sweet 16 but then Duke cruised. Duke's toughest game came against Baylor in the Elite 8. Baylor's athleticism was almost too much for Duke to handle and definitely would have been last season. However, Duke got big rebounds when needed, played suffocating defense and squeaked out a win.

West Virginia's tournament run started inauspiciously, falling behind Morgan State 10-0 in their First Round game. However, since then the Mountaineers have been close to dominate. They came back to crush Morgan State, then controlled their Second Round game against Missouri. Washington gave them some trouble in the Sweet 16 but the Mountaineers still ended up winning by 13. Then in the Elite 8 the Mountaineers took down big, bad Kentucky by a final of 73-66, although the score makes the game seem much closer than it really was.

The Blue Devils success this year is pretty easy to understand. They are a great offensive team, with their three headed monster of Jon Scheyer, Nolan Smith and Kyle Singler. Plus, they are one of the best defensive teams in the country. Size had been the biggest problem for Duke over the last few years but now they can match up with anyone because of C Brian Zoubek's improved play, and the emergence of Miles and Mason Plumlee. Singler had an awful game against Baylor, shooting 0-10. A year ago Duke wouldn't have been able to overcome that, but now they have the number of weapons necessary to be a championship team.

The Mountaineers are led by forwards Da'Sean Butler, Devin Ebanks, and Kevin Jones. As I suspected the Mountaineers haven't missed G Darryl Bryant yet, because Joe Mazzulla has been able to step in and fill his shoes. I don't think the Mountaineers can count on another 17-point effort from Mazzulla, but they don't even really need that. As long as he provides a steadying presence, and dishes the ball to the forwards, those guys can handle the scoring load.

These teams met two years ago in the Second Round of the NCAA Tournament. Some of the players are the same, and it was a game that West Virginia took control of late. I am biased as hell against Duke but I think the Mountaineers are legit. I worry about their guards hanging with Scheyer and Smith but I just can't pick Duke to win.

Prediction: West Virginia 71, Duke 68