We can look backward, but we can't see forward. And that's sometimes the problem when it comes to projecting the playoffs -- we're looking for the teams that are peaking in April, because that's what we've just seen, when what is far more important is who will be peaking in May and June.
The 2011 Mavs, 2010 Celtics and 2009 Magic should have driven that point home by now. None of them covered themselves in glory during the final month of the season -- in fact, all three were much better earlier the season -- but each started clicking in late April and made a push to become surprise contestants in the NBA Finals.
Lest we think this is common, one should also remember that those three surprise contestants in a row were essentially our first since the Knicks crashed the party in 1999. Every other conference champion this century either had one of the two best records in the conference or, in the case of the 2007 Spurs, an extremely strong case on other grounds that they were the league's best team.
I say this as a reminder that strange things can and do happen in the playoffs. Somewhere there's a DeShawn Stevenson or a Rafer Alston lurking, ready to make shots he's been missing his entire career. Somewhere, perhaps, there's a team ready to jell in May and shock everybody.
Or, alternatively, maybe the Spurs will just thrash everybody and everything will go completely to form.
We don't know, and that's the beauty of it. But while we can't say what will happen, we can absolutely make some educated guesses about what is likely to happen. Speaking of which, you'll notice I've picked a lot of these series to end in five games. That's no disrespect to the underdogs; it's just that with three of the first five on the favorites' court, the most likely outcome is home-court team in five.
Along with each pairing I've included the season series, the Power Ranking and, just for kicks, how Accuscore's Playoff Predictor sees it:
The historical rule of thumb for first-round series is very important: If you don't have home-court advantage and you didn't at least split your season series, you can pretty much forget about advancing. In the last 53 instances of this, the home-court team is 51-2.
The two exceptions this century were in bizarre circumstances: In 2009, an injury-riddled (and basically coachless) Denver team lost to a Utah team that finished with the same record and a superior point differential, and a San Antonio team that had a major point differential advantage (plus-5.1 to plus-2.7) but finished five games worse than Dallas knocked off the Mavs.
That's the list. The big recent first-round upsets -- Memphis and Golden State winning as No. 8 seeds, for instance -- have all come in series where the road team split or won the season series.
The implications, obviously, are that Boston, Orlando and the Clippers have a much better shot of advancing than the other five clubs without home-court advantage. And while this isn't the only factor, I'm not inclined to bet against a trend that's 51-2 without a darned good reason.
(1) Bulls vs. (8) Sixers
Season: 2-1 Bulls
Power Rankings: Bulls 107.1, Sixers 102.9
Accuscore: Bulls 80%, Sixers 20%
Let's start with some low-hanging fruit. The Sixers can't score and the Bulls are impossible to score on. Any questions?
In all seriousness, Philly could make this somewhat interesting. They hammered the Bulls earlier this year and their fast-break game is the perfect antidote for Chicago's penchant for crashing the offensive boards. Additionally, the Sixers appear to have finally figured out that Evan Turner can only play with Lou Williams; he has a negative point differential in two-man combinations with Andre Iguodala, Jrue Holiday and Jodie Meeks but is plus-6.9 points per 48 minutes with Williams, according to NBA.com's advanced stats tool.
Nonetheless, the Bulls have shown that they can beat top-notch teams even with Derrick Rose injured or limited. This is a perfect series for him to play himself back into shape, with the key for Chicago being to wrap things up quickly and get Rose and Deng some rest before the real battles start.
Pick: Bulls in 5
(4) Celtics vs. (5) Hawks
Season: Celtics 2-1
Power Rankings: Celtics 104.5 Hawks 103.0
Accuscore: Celtics 65%, Hawks 35%
Again, for posterity: Although the Celtics are the No. 4 seed, Atlanta has home-court advantage by virtue of having a better record. The Hawks also won't lack for bulletin board material; Kevin Garnett called Jeff Teague "a nobody" earlier this year and the Celtics basically tanked a game in Atlanta last week based on the arrogant logic that they didn't need home-court advantage to beat the Hawks.
But this series won't be won on the bulletin board. If the Hawks had two centers, I would pick them to win. If they had one center, I would think very hard about it. But with zero? Yah, that's gonna be a problem. Al Horford is a no-go for this series, and Zaza Pachulia is questionable with a sprained foot, leaving the Hawks likely starting Jason Collins token minutes at the 5 and going long stretches with Josh Smith in the middle.
Against a Boston team that doesn't bother contesting offensive rebounds (the Celtics set the record for the worst offensive rebound rate in history) that may not be as big a problem as it is against other opponents, but it's equally important that it subtracts two incredibly useful players from Atlanta's rotation. Josh Smith-Ivan Johnson has actually been a very effective frontcourt (plus-53 in 379 minutes) and we'll probably see a lot of it in this series, but extended daylight exposes Johnson's proclivity for fouls and turnovers.
The Hawks have had a lot of success playing Joe Johnson at 3 and Kirk Hinrich at 2, and Hinrich does a great job chasing Ray Allen through screens. Nonetheless, the overwhelming stat here is on Boston's side: when Kevin Garnett plays, the Celtics are really good. Boston outscores opponents by 10.71 points per 100 possessions with KG on the court, according to basketballvalue.com; this trend is consistent across nearly all their lineup combinations.
Overall, I expect an extremely ugly, defensive series much like the two regular-season games they played with their starters (Boston won both, 79-76 in regulation and 88-86 in overtime). It will be closer than you might think, but Boston will prevail in any scenario where Garnett stays on the court all series.
Pick: Celtics in 6
(2) Heat vs. (7) Knicks
Season: Heat 3-0
Power Rankings: Heat 104.6, Knicks 104.0
Accuscore: Heat 83%, Knicks 17%
The marquee series of the first round gives us our first-ever pairing of LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony, not to mention four of the top five picks in the star-studded 2003 draft. (Darko Milicic will be watching from somewhere in St. Paul, presumably.)
New York has a few items in its favor in this matchup -- the Knicks' 3-point heavy offense pairs well against the Heat's inability to guard the long ball, they have enough wing defenders to handle the Wade-LeBron combo, and you don't need a backup center against Miami (or even a starter, really).
Unfortunately, New York's stubborn commitment to making the Melo-Amare Stoudemire combo work in the frontcourt will be their undoing. New York has been outscored this season when Anthony, Stoudemire and Tyson Chandler play together; with Anthony at the 4, on the other hand, they've been brilliant. Start Anthony at the 4, bring Stoudemire off the bench, and New York might really have a shot at this.
The Knicks are a better team than their win-loss indicates and they finished the year strong. But with their conventional lineup, the Knicks will need to shoot ridiculously well on 3s to win the series. I see them having two lights-out games from deep to extend the series, but that's as far as I can ride them.
Pick: Heat in 6
(3) Pacers vs. (6) Magic
Season: Magic 3-1
Power Rankings: Pacers 102.8, Magic 99.5
Accuscore: Pacers 80%, Magic 20%
Let's not waste a ton of time here. If Dwight Howard were healthy this would be a great series; without him it's a mismatch. Indy is healthy and its starting five has been extremely effective as a unit. Orlando counters with a wounded Glen Davis, no stars, and virtually no bench. If the Magic win this one, Stan Van Gundy should be allowed to fire Howard.
(1) Spurs vs. (8) Jazz
Season: Spurs 3-1
Power Rankings: Spurs 109.2, Jazz 101.9
Accuscore: Spurs 93% Jazz 7%
Could Utah make this interesting? Perhaps. Size gives San Antonio some problems, and the monstrous Millsap-Jefferson-Favors frontcourt the Jazz have rolled out of late has been incredibly effective. Additionally, Utah stinks against zones, and the Spurs hardly ever play zone.
Nonetheless, I just don't see how the Jazz will get any stops. Utah is by and large awful against the pick-and-roll, and the Spurs have been carving up teams with that play all season. The Jazz's defense at the point of attack would have to dramatically improve to give them much of a chance against this Spurs juggernaut.
Keep an eye on the Jazz because in another year or two they're going to be handful, but they can't handle this big a step up in class just yet. Even when the Spurs sat their three stars in Salt Lake City, the Jazz barely beat them.
Pick: Spurs in 5
(4) Grizzlies vs. (5) Clippers
Season: Clippers 2-1
Power Rankings: Clippers 103.4, Grizzlies 102.5
Accuscore: Grizzlies 62%, Clippers 38%
These two foes have a lot in common. Both relied heavily on their starting units and showed signs of running out of gas down the stretch. Both have worrisome minor injuries to key players -- Chris Paul's groin, Marc Gasol's knee. And both racked up a lot of wins in the final month against dubious schedule quality.
The fact that the Clippers won the season series puts this one "in play" based on my guidelines above; nonetheless, I'm going with Memphis. The Clippers' best lineups this season all featured Chauncey Billups, who won't be participating. With Chris Paul and Blake Griffin on the court together the Clippers were plus-7.7 points per 48 minutes, according to NBA.com's advanced stats tool, which is good but not overwhelming.
Memphis, meanwhile, was plus-7.4 with Marc Gasol, Rudy Gay, Mike Conley and Tony Allen together, but that figure soared into double digits once Zach Randolph joined the fray. I'm still not sure how close to last year's Z-Bo he is, but the good news for Memphis is he probably doesn't need to be quite that good for the Griz to advance.
Finally, there's the little matter of the sideline matchup. Lionel Hollins coaches by feel and doesn't always feel what the math says, but he's developed a fairly strong sixth sense for which buttons to push with this group. Vinny Del Negro is a pleasant enough guy who mostly got this team to play hard for him, but he's not exactly the Bobby Fischer of the clipboard.
This is going to be a fascinating series thanks to some killer matchups -- Tony Allen guarding Chris Paul, Z-Bo on Blake Griffin, Memphis' swarming hands against the Clippers' precision offense -- but my Grizz Fever is starting to burn up again.
Pick: Grizzlies in 7
(2) Thunder vs. (7) Mavericks
Season: Thunder 3-1
Power Rankings: Thunder 106.9, Mavs 101.6
Accuscore: Thunder 73%, Mavs 27%
This is not a great matchup for Oklahoma City, as we saw in last year's Western Conference finals and again in this year's regular season. Despite the way Dallas stumbled and staggered through the regular season, it gave the Thunder all they could handle in the four meetings and it took a miracle shot by Kevin Durant to avoid a split of the four games.
Dallas will make the Thunder uncomfortable again in this one, with its heavy use of zone defenses. The Thunder were only 16th in points per play against zones, according to Synergy Sports, and the Mavs used that defense more than any other team except Golden State.
Additionally, we don't know how James Harden is going to come back from his concussion -- setbacks aren't uncommon with this injury -- and the Thunder don't have the depth to easily withstand his loss.
Ultimately, however, Dallas' offensive woes will allow Oklahoma City to survive. The Mavs won the title last year playing offense, scoring at a blistering 110.2 points per 100 possessions that was by far the best mark of the 2011 postseason, but that attack has been AWOL all season: Dallas finished just 20th in offensive efficiency.
The Mavs also have something of a Jason Terry conundrum lineup-wise -- their two-man game with Terry and Dirk Nowitzki is superb, but their defense suffers mightily with Terry on the court. Dallas gave up 7.5 points per 100 possessions more with Jet out there, and for some reason the Terry-Shawn Marion combo has been a particularly awful look for Dallas.
The Mavs have wobbled along like a one-and-done team all season -- no big shocker in light of the decision not re-sign Tyson Chandler -- and while they'll make the Thunder look ragged and impatient at times, I just don't think they can score enough to win more than once or twice.
Pick: Thunder in 5
(3) Lakers vs. (6) Nuggets
Season: Lakers 3-1
Power Rankings: Nuggets 103.7, Lakers 101.2
Accuscore: Lakers 60%, Nuggets 40%
If there's a series that's tempting me to bet against 51-2, this is the one. This could absolutely, positively be the first-round upset that very few see coming.
Let's run through the numbers. Denver had a better plus-minus on the season than the Lakers, even though it dealt with far more injuries; this was true even before the ridiculousness in Minnesota last night. L.A., in fact, finished with the worst Power Ranking of any Western playoff team; again, that was true even before last night.
Denver was a wide-open missed layup away from splitting the series and rendering that 51-2 stat irrelevant. Denver is 27-16 when Danilo Gallinari plays and its worst lineup combinations (according to NBA.com's stats tool) mostly involve Nene and Timofey Mozgov, neither of whom we'll be seeing much of in this series. (Nene has been traded to Washington.)
Contrast that with the Lakers, who won't have Metta World Peace for the first six games, and he's a player who figures heavily in most of the Lakers' best lineups this season. I normally would give the Lakers a big advantage in that they'll rely less on their awful bench in a playoff series, but this season I think that's more of a two-way street -- the same bench awfulness also caused them to put a ton of mileage on their starters. Kobe Bryant, for instance, hasn't been the same since the first month of the season, although his recent injury may be a blessing in disguise that regenerates his legs.
There's more. L.A.'s biggest weakness -- defending quick point guards -- is a major weakness against Ty Lawson and Andre Miller. Also, I'm not covering this series and thus won't be around to curse the Nuggets.
L.A. does have two big items in its favor. First, I'm not sure the Nuggets can handle the Lakers' size; this Al Harrington-at-the-5 stuff isn't going to fly against Andrew Bynum. Also, I think the additions of Ramon Sessions and Jordan Hill address major shortcomings on the L.A. side.
Ultimately I changed my pick six times in half an hour before settling on L.A. because, at the end of the day, I'm not sure my case for Denver is ironclad enough to bet against a trend that's 51-2. But everybody is sleeping on this series -- it should be a barnburner.
In the conference semis, none of that head-to-head stuff applies. Hey, I don't make the rules here, I'm just telling you that the trendline that is so overwhelming in the first round completely disappears afterward.
For example, last season the Lakers beat the Mavs 110-82 two weeks before the playoffs started to complete a 2-1 win of the season series, and they had home-court advantage against Dallas in the second round. Not much good it did 'em. Similarly, Chicago's season-series sweep over Miami last season was of little portent in the Eastern Conference finals.
(1) Bulls vs. (4) Celtics
Season: Bulls 3-1
Power Rankings: Bulls 107.1, Celtics 104.5
Accuscore: Bulls 62%, Celtics 38%
Three years ago Boston and Chicago gave us one of the most exhilarating first-round series in history. I'm wondering if we'll get something close to a repeat. These are two elite defensive teams playing basically the same defensive system with a manic intensity none of the other 28 teams comes close to matching. Chicago led the league in defensive efficiency, Boston was a close second, and nobody else was within a point of them per 100 possessions.
While the regular season might make you think a huge gap separates these teams, I'm not sure that's really true. Take away Boston's second unit and Chicago's second unit -- one among the league's worst, the other among its best -- and I'm not sure much separates these teams. With the benches likely to see much less action in a playoff series, that's an important distinction.
This won't be easy on the eyes at times because of all the defense, but the Bulls' ultimate advantage is at the other end. Boston just doesn't score all that much -- the Celtics finished 24th in offensive efficiency and dead last in field-goal attempts.
Pick: Bulls in 7
(2) Heat vs. (3) Pacers
Season: Heat 3-1
Power Rankings: Heat 104.6, Pacers 102.8
Accuscore: Heat 76%, Pacers 24%
Here's the other potential barnburner that nobody is talking about. Indy is better than you think -- the Pacers are tough defensively, they're basically completely healthy, and their size on the wings allows them to match up well against Miami. With George Hill at the point, the starting five outscores opponents by 15.1 points per 100 possessions, and regardless of who plays point, the other four starters are plus-10.0, according to NBA.com -- a number that nearly matches Miami's output with its three stars in the game.
The problem is actually the rest of the game. Indy's bench is secretly terrible; virtually every bench unit combination has been outscored this season, and a few combinations have endured savage beatings. (Lou Amundson-Dahntay Jones, for instance, is a minus-7.0 per 48 in 519 minutes, while Collison-Tyler Hansbrough is minus-5.2 in 555 minutes.) The Pacers' best bet is probably to use a six-man rotation as much as possible, with Danny Granger moving to a smallball 4 and David West getting some burn at center, but in a compressed series with a back-to-back in the middle that may prove extremely difficult in practice.
In the big picture, Indy is a good team on the upswing, but this is the part where they come oh so close, lose painfully, and gain from the experience.
(1) Spurs vs. (4) Grizzlies
Season: Spurs 4-0
Power Rankings: Spurs 109.2, Grizzlies 102.5
Accuscore: Spurs 80%, Grizzlies 20%
It's a rematch of last season's huge upset, in which No. 8 Memphis knocked off top-seeded San Antonio, and a few trends from a year ago remain. Memphis did an amazing job taking away San Antonio's 3-point game a year ago, and that will be Job 1 again this time around. The Grizzlies also have a matchup problem for the Spurs in the Randolph-Gasol frontcourt, and this time around they have Rudy Gay on the wing too.
Alas, San Antonio did not stand still. Manu Ginobili is healthy this time, and the supporting cast is much better. Boris Diaw and Tiago Splitter give the Spurs more options for defending Randolph, plus the Spurs aren't facing the Z-Bo of a year ago. Also, the second units are going to matter in a compressed series with a back-to-back in the middle, and the Spurs' bench is going to blow the Grizzlies' off the floor. Finally, there's the issue of accumulated rest. San Antonio is fresh as a daisy; the Grizzlies have been riding the starters all year and may very well be coming off a grueling seven-game slog with no rest.
For all those reasons, I think San Antonio avenges last season and emerges relatively easily as a conference finalist.
Pick: Spurs in 5
(2) Thunder vs. (3) Lakers
Season: Thunder 2-1
Power Rankings: Thunder 106.9, Lakers 101.2
Accuscore: Thunder 86%, Lakers 14%
It's our two favorite talented-but-frustrating hero-ball teams, in a heated rematch that sees Metta World Peace return to what will likely be an angry welcome in OKC. As long as James Harden is healthy, however, I'm not sure the Lakers have the firepower to hang with the Thunder. The big picture matchup says it's one Big 3 against the other, with the supporting casts on either side playing comparatively minor roles.
But look deeper. The home-court advantage and compressed schedule both will weigh heavily in the favor of the younger Thunder's legs, and their Big 3 also plays nice with each other much better than the Lakers' trio. Oklahoma City outscores opponents by 10.6 points per 48 minutes with their three stars on the floor, according to NBA.com's advanced stats tool; the comparable number for the Lakers is a mere 3.2. In fact, the Lakers don't have any three-man combos that played at least 150 minutes and outscored opponents by more than 10 points per 48 minutes.
The other variable is which team will do more to make us throw things at the end of games. Oklahoma City reliably ends up with Kevin Durant shooting a 28-foot contested 3s during crunch time; in the last three minutes of one-possession games, 31 of his 58 shots have been 3s and he has zero assists. This has also been Kobe's M.O. for the past few years, but of late he's shown a willingness to defer to the more effective option of Andrew Bynum.
A crunch-time snafu or two by the Thunder could allow the Lakers to extend this series. But I still have a hard time seeing them win it.
Sorry to be so chalky here, but the fact is four teams have dominated the entire regular season, so it would be a little bizarre to go off kilter and pick somebody else to show up at this point. Not saying it can't happen; just saying it's probably not the way to bet.
(1) Spurs vs. (2) Thunder
Season: Spurs 2-1
Power Rankings: Spurs 109.2, Thunder 106.9
Accuscore: Thunder 51%, Spurs 49%
The Thunder are really talented and nearly always play hard. They don't always play smart, however, and they're about to get a serious education in this series. I expect the Spurs' offensive precision to pick them apart, and while Durant and Westbrook will get some of those points back for the Thunder, I still have a hard time picking OKC when the Spurs basically used the regular season as a warm-up exercise and still outpaced them in the standings.
My favorite stat: San Antonio's three stars -- Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Tim Duncan -- have only played 297 minutes together the entire season because Ginobili missed half the year and the Spurs have been so proactive about resting players. When they do play together? San Antonio outscores opponents by 17.8 points per 48 minutes. Again, that's not a typo: 17.8.
The good news for the Thunder is that the Spurs have a few ineffective lineups. The bad news is that most of them included Richard Jefferson, now with Golden State. San Antonio's bench won't be as much of a factor as it was in the regular season, but they'll still run the Thunder's subs off the floor when they're matched up. And that Big 3 that has played just four minutes per game together this season will get closer to 20 minutes of family time a night in this series.
Pick: Spurs in 5
(1) Bulls vs. (2) Heat
Season: Tied 2-2
Power Rankings: Bulls 107.1, Heat 104.6
Accuscore: Bulls 58%, Heat 42%
We haven't had two No. 1 seeds meet in the Finals since 2008, when the Lakers played Boston. Prior to that, believe it or not, it hadn't happened since 2000. And I'm guessing it won't happen this year either. Chicago actually has a tough road just to get to this point -- Boston won't be a pushover, especially given the Bulls' injuries -- and unfortunately the Heat may have too much star power for them.
I would like Chicago better, actually, if the Bulls would just go ahead and put Ronnie Brewer back in the starting lineup, use Kyle Korver as the lone wing off the bench, and tell Richard Hamilton it was great and all but they just want to be friends. Chicago's starting lineup has been significantly less effective with Hamilton on the floor this season, and he doesn't bring much defensively to a matchup against Dwyane Wade.
Here's the key stat for Miami: The Heat outscored opponents by 12.8 points per 48 minutes when their three stars play together, and by 7.4 when at least two of them play together. In all other situations they've been outscored.
Guess what? "All other situations" isn't happening in this series. Miami will nearly always have two of its three stars on the court, and in those situations Chicago's on-paper advantage evaporates. Throw in the ongoing health question marks with the Bulls, and the scales tilt slightly in Miami's favor.
Slightly. I won't be shocked at all if Chicago wins. It's just not how I would bet.
(2) Heat vs. (1) Spurs
Season: Heat 1-0
Power Rankings: Spurs 109.2, Heat 104.6
Accuscore: Spurs 53%, Heat 47%
If you haven't figured this out by now, I'm all-in on San Antonio. The Spurs' best players are in far better shape physically than anybody else's, their bench is kicking serious butt, they can match up any big, small or anything in between, and they've taken steps to address their biggest shortcoming, defending post-up 4s.
Statistically, the lineup data backs the Spurs, too. San Antonio's Big 3, when on the court together, has actually been even more effective than Miami's. The same applies when only two of the three stars share the floor.
And they're still gaining steam. The Spurs outscored opponents by over 15 points per game over the final 20; what stands out about that is that they were resting their best players heavily in that stretch and still destroyed all comers. They're 21-2 in their past 23 games; one of the two losses was a game against Utah in which they opted not to play their three stars. If New York or L.A. had a stretch like this it would break the Internet but because it's San Antonio hardly anyone is discussing it.
So, yes, I expect the Spurs to win it all. But let me offer solace for fans of the other 15 teams: It's been a while since I got this right. Strange stuff can and will happen during the next two months, and that's the best part of the playoffs.
Nonetheless, the odds say that we'll have fiesta No. 5 on the Riverwalk this June.
Pick: Spurs in 6
Personal Note: If this happened, I'd never watch the NBA again.
Only laker fans can call it hate when espn picks them to win.
LOL. He called it the biggest chance at an upset (even though Boston winning would be an upset) AND in his chat about an hour after the article was posted, he said he waffled on that series a lot and thinks he should have picked Denver.