By Jason Wojciechowski on May 20, 2008 at 4:14 AM
The conference finals kick off tomorrow, with Detroit at Boston (as everyone figured) and then continue Wednesday with San Antonio at Los Angeles. My thoughts, breakdown, predictions, etc., in a more or less random fashion.
First, the East. Detroit, as I've mentioned before, matches up with Boston better than anyone. They've got the offensive firepower to give the vaunted Boston defense fits, and the matchups in particular don't look favorable for Boston on Detroit's offensive end. I suppose Paul Pierce has to guard Tayshaun Prince, because I don't think he's quick enough to match up with Rip Hamilton. This is bad news for Prince, but the great thing about Detroit's offense is that it's equal opportunity. The fact that the Celtics' best perimeter defender will be busy keeping Prince down means that Rip Hamilton can run crazy on Ray Allen. Allen and Hamilton matched up with each other could be really fun: neither of them can keep up with the other running around screens and whatnot. Kevin Garnett should be watching Rasheed Wallace sometimes, and Wallace could get frustrated with the refs in those situations, because Garnett gets away with quite a bit on the defensive end -- not an exorbitant amount, and he is an excellent defender without the help, but he gets the benefit of the doubt here and there. If there's anything 'Sheed hates, it's the benefit of the doubt. That said, Wallace's penchant for hanging around the three-point line will pull one of the Boston bigs out, which will hurt their defense. I'd guess, though, that precisely because you have to watch Wallace on the perimeter, the Celtics won't want to sacrifice Garnett's defense and rebounding inside, so Perkins should spend the majority of the time on Wallace, which is problematic in itself because Perkins isn't quick enough to match up well. The other interesting matchup on this end is Rajon Rondo on Chauncey Billups. Billups could have his shot bothered by Rondo's length, and Rondo's strength, while not enough to neutralize Chauncey's post-up game, could at least slow it down more than smaller guards do. Given Wallace's ability to disappear for lengthy periods of time, the offense for the Pistons may come down to whether Hamilton can run Allen into the ground, and whether Rondo can bother Billups's ability to get Hamilton the ball in the right spots at the right times.
At the other end, Rondo might be too quick for Chauncey, but it's not like he's Chris Paul or anything, so that's not that big a deal. The Allen-Hamilton matchup should work the same way in reverse, except Allen has to prove that he's over his Cleveland shooting woes in order to be a factor. Tayshaun should be able to neutralize The Truth, which is a much bigger problem for Boston's offense than the reverse was for Detroit's offense. (Although Boston did win three out of six with LeBron keeping Pierce in check ...) The big-man matchup is similar on this end as it was on the other: Garnett will score from 20 feet, but you don't want to lose Rasheed's interior defense and rebounding, so maybe you put McDyess on him out there. Nobody can bother Garnett's jump-shot anyway, so it doesn't matter that you lose height and length that way. You want Rasheed on KG when Garnett is inside, though, because Rasheed can actually do some damage on Garnett's post moves (to the extent that Garnett has post moves, that is).
In terms of the starters' offense-defense matchups, then, I like Detroit. It more or less comes down to Rip Hamilton's relative youth, Ray Allen's recent struggles, and the fact that the Celtics need Paul Pierce's offense more than the Pistons need Tayshaun Prince's.
I think Boston's bench only avoided being exposed in these last two playoff rounds because Cleveland is basically one star and a bunch of bench players (i.e. they don't really have a defined bench so much as a bunch of guys that rotate in and out around LeBron) and Atlanta's lack of depth. Against Detroit, who sport quality reserve bigs in Jason Maxiell (who's actually played more minutes than MyDyess in the playoffs) and Theo Ratliff (a block per game in just 11.4 mpg) and backcourt guys in Rodney Stuckey and Lindsey Hunter, the Boston bench of Leon Powe, PJ Brown, Big Baby, et al., should have its weaknesses revealed. There's a reason nobody but James Posey is getting more than 15 minutes, and that's a combination of the fact that James Posey is one of just two good bench players and the fact that Doc Rivers didn't figure out until Game 7 of the Cleveland series that Eddie House needs to be playing over Sam Cassell. In any case, Leon Powe and PJ Brown can't slow down Maxiell, and they can't score against Ratliff. House is a good streak shooter, but he doesn't play defense, which will be necessary against any of Detroit's four guards (Hunter isn't really an offensive threat, but he will knock down a three, so you do have to watch him).
Given that I think Detroit's starters already have an advantage, and that I don't see anyone on Boston's bench who can slow down Detroit's starters, much less their bench players, this one should be a clear Detroit victory. Boston won't get blown out, but I think their home dominance will come to an end in Game 2, after which Detroit will hold its serve, Boston will win Game 5, and then Detroit will finish things out at home in Game 6.
On to the West. The beautiful thing about this Conference this year is that, regardless of which playoff team you're a fan of, every other team scares you in some way or another. I'm terrified that the Spurs' starting backcourt is going to run wild in this series and end up shocking the Lakers on their home floor, resulting ultimately in a series loss. I'm not sure that's rationally likely, but I'm terrified nonetheless.
Beginning with the Lakers on the offensive end, nobody can stop Kobe. Obviously. Bruce Bowen can bother him, because dominant 2-guards are who Bruce Bowen was built to defend, but Bowen has lost a step, and with this, I think he's lost some of his intimidation factor. He sat for long stretches of the New Orleans series even though Peja wasn't really going off because, as I mentioned before, if he can't switch off to the true threat, Chris Paul, he loses a lot of his value. Against the Lakers, though, this won't be true. He can play Kobe and only play Kobe and not have to worry about anything else. That said, a guy who can shut down explosive drives and get a hand in the face of a jump shooter won't bother Kobe as much as it used to, as he's developed a series of slithery moves to shed defenders inside and out, freeing himself for shot or passes. I really don't anticipate Kobe slowing down against the Spurs. At the point guard spot, Tony Parker just isn't going to bother Derek Fisher, mostly because Derek Fisher's offensive role is to hit jumpers, and he elevates so well and shoots the ball from so far behind his head and has such confidence in his shot that no point guard is going to worry him. If Bowen is on Kobe, this leaves Manu Ginobli on either Sasha Vujacic (late) or Vlad Radmanovic (early). Manu's not a big defensive presence anyway (he does have quick hands and is annoying, but still), and he wouldn't bother the kinds of games Sasha and Vlad play anyway: hit open jumpers. The Lakers really should make an effort to get Vlad some easy looks early on, probably by cutting to the basket. Manu likes to cheat for steals, so he could be beaten with ball fakes followed by bounce passes to a cutter, and Radmanovic is big enough to finish at the rim even if Ginobli is trying to recover from behind. Manu's also kind of a roamer on defense, so the ability of Vlad and Sasha to hit their open jumpers when Ginobli is caught elsewhere will be key. In the frontcourt, who can deal with Lamar Odom? Off the top of my head, I can think of two guys in the league I'd be comfortable putting on Lamar, and neither of them are Spurs. (For the record: Kirilenko and Josh Smith.) Odom's much too quick off the dribble for Tim Duncan and Fabricio Oberto, and his ability to pull them out from the middle of the lane will open things up for cutting teammates and Pau Gasol's post-ups. Gasol, though, I'm worried about. Oberto's a quick and nasty defender, and Tim Duncan has great feet in the defensive post. This is where I think the Lakers might miss Andrew Bynum most, because he could power his way through the defense. Gasol has to finesse his way in and scrap for offensive boards, and he'll be outfinessed by Duncan and outscrapped by Oberto. The key for Gasol will be accepting his more-limited role offensively, getting lobs when they're there and being a facilitator on offense more than a scorer. Most importantly, he can't force the issue and then get upset at the refs for not giving him calls.
On the other end of the floor, Derek Fisher can't stay in front of Tony Parker. Everyone knows this. Fisher's success against Deron Williams, to the extent it exists, is due to the power vs. power matchup. When Williams went to his quickness moves, though, Fisher couldn't keep up. All Parker has, by contrast, are quickness moves. The Lakers have to rely on their shotblocking to bother Parker's shot, but Parker is incredibly skilled at avoiding shotblockers and getting them in foul trouble, so Pau and Ronny Turiaf will have to watch out. Parker, in short, could be trouble all series long. Manu Ginobli could be in for frustration if the Lakers are on their defensive games: Kobe is long, quick, and strong when he's dedicated, and Sasha plays that obnoxious, in-your-face, who-cares-if-I-foul defense that can get people frustrated. On the other hand, if Ginobli's jumper is falling, his drives are too quick for any Laker defender to deal with, so, like with Parker, there could be trouble. Bruce Bowen is dangerous to the extent Kobe roams off of him, as he's wont to do. If Radmanovic guards him, Vlad's job will be to stay awake. He does fall asleep, though, so for differing reasons, Bowen could find himself some open jumpers. He doesn't seem as automatic as he used to, but he's still quite dangerous out there. The front court is less bothersome to me: Duncan will be faced with defenders who aren't as good as Tyson Chandler, but they're quicker, so he, hopefully, should have to rely on his faceups and turnarounds more than getting to the rim. Oberto's not a threat to score, but whoever's defending him has to stay awake for the beautiful passes he makes from time to time. Hands, head, and feet up.
Other players: Kurt Thomas can't guard Lamar any better than anyone else can, but he could be part of the multi-headed beast frustrating Pau. If Michael Finley's shot is on, it doesn't matter who's guarding him. If his shot is off, L.A. will essentially be playing 5-on-4 because he just doesn't do much else. Udoka is another guy the Spurs might throw at Kobe, besides Bowen and Ginobli, but while he's big and strong and relatively quick, I'm not sure he's quick enough. His length could bother Bryant's ability to create, though. Ronny Turiaf seems to bring one huge swat per game -- sending a Manu or Parker drive into the second row always manages to create some energy in the Staples crowd. He'll be a body on Duncan, but he's more energy than skill, so he'll probably get five fouls per game. Luke Walton is interesting, because, except for Udoka, the Spurs don't have anyone to match up with him. Walton's most effective when he's able to work his post up game to create for other people and to cut to the rim for easy layups. Matt Harpring didn't let him do either of these things in the Utah series, but Walton might be able to get his game back against San Antonio. Jordan Farmar simply has to start shooting better. He's valueless on the defensive end against Tony Parker, or really against anybody, so if he's not making fearless drives to the bucket and hitting open threes, he's not pushing the Lakers to victories.
In the end, it's not clear that either of these teams can stop the other. The thing is, that makes me want to pick the Lakers in six, because the Spurs rely on stopping people. In three of the four games they won against New Orleans, the Hornets scored 80, 80, and 82 points. The Lakers were held under 90 just once all year, and have been held under 100 only once in the playoffs. That said, San Antonio did hold the Lakers to two of their lowest point totals all year, 92 and 91, both in San Antonio, and in the L.A. games, which the Lakers won, they "only" scored 102 and 106. The Spurs, then, do slow the Lakers down. It should be noted, though, that the Lakers starting centers in the two San Antonio games were Chris Mihm (Bynum wasn't yet the starter) and Kwame Brown (in between the Bynum injury and the Pau trade). The Lakers with Pau are just a different team, as they showed in beating San Antonio by 21 in the second-to-last game of the year (for L.A.). Of course, Ginobli didn't play in that game. And in the other L.A. game, Tony Parker and Tim Duncan were both out.
In short, these two teams, as currently configured, haven't played each other yet. All of the above notes about matchups are theoretical, purely "on paper" exercises. I honestly have no idea how this will work out. The only prediction I feel safe making is that the series will go at least six. I don't think the Spurs can win in six, but I think they can win in seven. I think the Lakers can win in six or seven. I just can't make a call, so I'll call Lakers in seven.