We still have over a week to go until the beginning of the 2011 NBA Playoffs, but barring a miracle, we already know which teams will make the postseason. We also know which teams will be favored and which teams will be the underdogs. The only thing left to determine are the actual playoff matchups.
It's often said that the NBA Playoffs are all about "matchups." This is true, in a most basic sense. Every team has certain strengths and weaknesses that can be exploited more easily against certain opponents. But at the end of the day, the best team almost always win a seven-game series in this league. Give two teams the chance to scout each other exclusively and days off to make in-series adjustments, and the better team, top to bottom, players to coaches, tends to come out on top.
That is to say that the eight lower playoff seeds will have their hands full if they want to win one of these playoff series. It will require elite coaching and players playing at their highest level possible, and yeah, it'll require a good matchup. No longer will these teams have the benefit of catching the top teams on the second night of a back-to-back or with a trap game in the middle of the regular season. It's a tall order indeed.
So which underdog has the best chance of pulling off an upset? We rank them 1-8 below.
What they have going for them: Nobody's pushing around that frontcourt.
What they don't: Everything else.
Swing player: Paul George has slowly worked his way into the regular rotation, and while he's not much of a shooter, he runs the floor well, attacks the rim with straight-line drives and is developing his floor game. Maybe he bothers Derrick Rose for a game, a half or even a key possession in an upset win.
Ideal matchup: Miami.
Worst matchup: Boston.
Might as well get the Pacers out of the way first. There's absolutely nothing remarkable about them and their playoff stay will be short.
The guards and wings on this team are pretty overrated. Two years ago, Danny Granger was a rising star. Now, he has lost a lot of explosiveness and struggles to create good shots for himself. His per-game averages still look decent, but his efficiency is down, even though he has better big men screening for him. Darren Collison, meanwhile, has taken a step back after a promising rookie season. Last year, as a rookie with the Hornets, he was one of the trickier pick and roll players in the league. This year, teams have scouted him, and as a result, he's gotten fewer open jumpers than before. His shooting percentage on 16-23 foot jumpers, his strength last year, is down six percentage points.
The bigs are decent. Roy Hibbert has good offensive games and bad offensive games, but you can always rely on him to rebound, defend and provide high-post passing. Tyler Hansbrough has really developed into a reliable player, with strong moves around the rim and a solid perimeter shot. Josh McRoberts has a weird game, but he provides a lot of hustle plays, and Jeff Foster is always reliable whether he plays five minutes or 25.
But still, their playoff stay will be short-lived. I don't expect a sweep, because they're tough to prepare for with their idiosyncratic fast-paced style, but I do expect five boring games against Chicago.
What they have going for them: Chris Paul can still dominate when he feels like it, and they defend the heck out of you.
What they don't: Can anyone on that roster score?
Swing player: Trevor Ariza is just horrible offensively, but he's the kind of player whose defensive skills really shine in the playoffs.
Ideal matchup: Oklahoma City.
Worst matchup: L.A. Lakers.
The Hornets have one way of winning: keep defending, hope you lose your offensive composure and get just enough offense to get by. This was true with David West healthy, and it's true with him sidelined due to injury. The Hornets have plugged newcomer Carl Landry into West's spot and haven't really lost much. West's injury will be a big deal in crunch time, when he was their default late-game option with Paul being in a season-long funk (more on this in a minute), but otherwise, they won't miss him much. They won games with their defense and a cringe-worthy offense before; they'll have to do the same if they want to win in April.
And I suspect Chris Paul won't do enough to change that. I don't know whether it's injury, terrible teammates or him tuning out due to his teams' situation, but Paul isn't the same player he once was. Oh sure, his numbers are still phenomenal, but he takes way more possessions off, and worse, he can't get into the lane like he once did. Watching him against Houston the other night, a game where he quite literally willed his team to victory, was actually kind of frustrating. Why wasn't he doing that in all those February game the Hornets dropped? I just don't think Hornets fans can expect Paul to raise his game much in the playoffs.
What they have going for them: Great defense, youngsters that don't know any better, old reliable Elton Brand.
What they don't: Any ability to score against playoff defenses in the halfcourt.
Swing player: Lou Williams' health changes a lot here. If he can return healthy and be the same player he was all season, the 76ers may be able to manufacture enough points to scare somebody.
Ideal matchup: I still think it's Boston, despite Tuesday's loss. Maybe Chicago.
Worst matchup: Miami.
The 76ers are a great story. Doug Collins has been a much happier and more effective coach than anywhere before, nurturing and getting the most out of his young talent. Elton Brand and Andre Iguodala have had bounce-back years. Jrue Holiday, Thaddeus Young, Jodie Meeks and Spencer Hawes (average age: 21.75) have grown into their roles beautifully. They change ends faster than anyone in the league not named the Thunder, they space the floor well and there's never a moment when they run your sets and you think someone is giving less than maximum effort.
But I just don't see anything different stylistically with this team than the 2008 and 2009 clubs that pushed their first-round opponents to six games before their half-court offensive limitations showed. Most of those transition buckets they get will evaporate as the tempo slows. Just look at the way the Celtics dropped everyone back on this play after a baseline jumper by Jermaine O'Neal on Tuesday.
The corner baseline jumper is a prime running opportunity, and Boston didn't even bother to go for the rebound to prevent that transition game from kicking into high gear. The Sixers will see a lot of that in the playoffs.
That means they need to score in the halfcourt, and while I love Holiday's potential, I don't trust him, at 20 in his first NBA playoffs series, to be able to make the right decisions consistently enough. When the 76ers needed a good possession down two to the Knicks with under two minutes left, Holiday tried to score on two defenders and had his shot blocked, all while Brand was wide open underneath the hoop.
He's 20; these things happen. But if I'm Collins, I'm giving Iguodala the ball as the offensive initiator more often than ever. That's their only chance, and it's not a good one.
What they have going for them: Size, length and lineup flexibility that no other team other than Denver possesses.
What they don't: They're a jump-shooting team.
Swing player: Will Brandon Roy be an asset or liability? I'm leaning liability, but you never know.
Ideal matchup: Dallas.
Worst matchup: Oklahoma City.
Portland looks like a scary team, but a lot of it that is misleading. The Blazers have a pretty great eight-man rotation on paper. Andre Miller and Brandon Roy provide enough playmaking. Wes Matthews, Nicolas Batum and Rudy Fernandez provide deep shooting. Gerald Wallace, Batum and Matthews provide excellent perimeter defense. LaMarcus Aldridge provides the post scoring, Marcus Camby provides the defensive glue and Wallace gives them an athletic spark they haven't had in the past.
The problem is that Portland is an extreme jump-shooting team, prone to go cold at any moment. It happened on Tuesday in an embarrassing loss to Golden State, and as Blazers Edge pointed out afterwards, it has happened a lot all season. Only one playoff team (Atlanta) has a lower free-throw rate than the Blazers do, and that's a problem because it means they have to bomb away from three-point range whether the shots are going down or not.
There's also the reality that, as good a coach as Nate McMillan has been in the regular season, he's struggled to make in-series adjustments in each of the last two years. A good defensive team -- like, say, Dallas, the Lakers or San Antonio -- can take away Aldridge's post-ups and Wallace's transition opportunities. That means Portland's offense turns into one of two things: Andre Miller trying to make something out of nothing (which he can't do like he used to) or a series of three-pointers. A lot of these issues would be fixed if Roy was healthy, because he used to be able to put his head down and get to the free-throw line. Sadly, that Roy went extinct a year and a half ago.
Portland's length won't make life easy for whoever they face, and they do match up particularly well with Dallas, but I can't see them winning a playoff series in this state.
What they don't: Their offense is awful, especially when Joe Johnson dribbles a lot.
Swing player: The Hawks got Kirk Hinrich for these games. He needs to deliver.
Ideal matchup: Orlando.
Worst matchup: Miami.
Everyone kind of wants the Hawks to go away, including many Hawks fans, as it were. We've seen this story before in the last two playoffs, and it's not pretty. This year's team may be the worst good team ever, given the discrepancy between their record and their ghastly point differential.
Ironically, though, Atlanta catches a break with its first-round matchup. The Hawks are locked into a first-round series with Orlando, and they've played Orlando really well this year. Last year, of course, Orlando destroyed the Hawks in one of the most lopsided playoff series ever, but this year, the Hawks are 3-1 against the Magic, and have held Dwight Howard to 43 percent shooting. Jason Collins almost never does anything against any other team, but he frustrates Howard better than anyone in the East now that Kendrick Perkins is in Oklahoma City. With Howard neutralized to some degree, Atlanta has been able to win ugly, using its advantage at every other position.
I don't know if that happens for them in the playoffs, mostly because I have no idea how they'll be able to score against Orlando's defense. But whereas the Hawks would have no chance against Boston or Miami, they have some chance against this year's Orlando team.
What they have going for them: Elite perimeter defense, elite interior defense.
What they don't: Playoff experience, perimeter scoring.
Ideal matchup: San Antonio.
Worst matchup: Memphis is a combined 10-6 against the West's top four, so no matchup is truly bad. But if I had to pick one, I'd pick the Lakers, with their size.
If I'm San Antonio, Dallas or Oklahoma City, this is the last team I want to see. The Grizzlies have been a remarkable story this year, given their success after Rudy Gay went down with a season-ending injury in February, but they're also going to be a really tough out come playoff time. That 10-6 record against the West's top four spoke volumes to me, as did their 4-1 record since Gay went down.
From afar, it simply looks like Memphis was a young team that made natural, incremental improvements after a decent season in 2010, but that's not true at all. Last year's Grizzlies team was awful defensively. This year's team, though, is 10th in defensive efficiency and the leader in creating turnovers. The Grizzlies have excellent pick and roll coverage, tremendous perimeter defense fueled by the wacky Tony Allen (the modern-day Ron Artest, without the offense) and excellent defensive rebounding with Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph. They aren't great offensively, but Mike Conley has become a solid pick and roll player and Randolph can always be counted on to score and rebound in the post.
This is also the kind of defense that holds up come playoff time. Allen is the perfect man to throw on an opposing teams' top perimeter threat, as he's one of the few players in the league who can take that guy out of the game all by himself. Shane Battier, acquired in a midseason trade, is also there, ensuring that every perimeter shot is well-contested. Gasol's pick and roll coverage is excellent for a big man, and if the Grizzlies need more athleticism, they can put in Darrell Arthur to trap ballhandlers more effectively. This isn't a team that merely worked harder during the doldrums of the regular season than their opponents. This is a team with elite individual defenders and a sound commitment to their schemes.
They might not be able to score enough, but as long as that defense is in place, they'll be a handful. San Antonio, in particular, has to be praying the Grizzlies move up beyond the No. 8 seed.
What they have going for them: Carmelo Anthony and Amar'e Stoudemire. When the going gets tough offensively, those two are as good as any in the league in making something happen.
What they don't: Defense, size and depth.
Swing player: Toney Douglas is a bit trigger-happy, but he's also aggressive on both ends of the court. He could absolutely win the Knicks a game, especially at home with the Madison Square Garden crowd chanting his name.
Ideal matchup: Miami.
Worst matchup: Boston.
I don't care how uneven the Knicks' play has been. I don't care how awful they project to be defensively. As long as they have Anthony, Stoudemire and Billups, they are dangerous.
Guys like Anthony are so much more valuable in the playoffs, when tempo slows and bad shots aren't really bad shots anymore. The frustrating thing about Anthony is that he'll settle for the 18-foot contested pull-up jumper when better shots are available. But in the playoffs, many of those other shots aren't available because defenses take them away. When that happens, you need someone who can create something, and Anthony can do that better than almost anyone. Stoudemire, too, is a really tough cover, so long as the Knicks go to him more often than they have been going to him recently.
The other big thing to consider is the home court factor. I think it's safe to say that Game 3 at Madison Square Garden is going to have an electric atmosphere, given the Knicks' recent history. Anthony, Stoudemire and Billups are good enough to steal one of the first two games of a series on the road if they get hot, kind of like they did in this game against the Heat. If that happens, do you really want to be the higher seed coming to MSG for a Game 3 with that kind of atmosphere? That's pretty much a no-win situation. If you lose that game, suddenly, you're down 2-1, you don't have home court anymore and you have to beat a team with Anthony, Stoudemire and Billups three times in four games.
The Knicks have plenty of problems, but no other low seed has this kind of offensive firepower. No matter how good you are defensively, great offense can beat great defense, even in the playoffs.
What they have going for them: With all their depth, they're pretty much impossible to scout.
What they don't: A big-time offensive player to get tough hoops in tight games. In other words, a Carmelo Anthony.
Swing player: Danilo Gallinari, the best shooter Mike D'Antoni has ever seen, is shooting just 35 percent from three-point range this season. But he can get hot at any moment, and when he does, it'll be enough to carry Denver to a win.
Ideal matchup: Dallas.
Worst matchup: I still think it's the Lakers, with their size in the middle.
Denver's great run late is well-documented, and while I have misgivings about their style in the playoffs, you really can't put anyone else atop this list. The thing that makes Denver so tough is that they are such an extreme screen and roll team. They space the floor with shooters, and they have four guys (Ty Lawson, Raymond Felton, J.R. Smith and Gallinari) that can act as the ball-handler. This makes them tough to scout, because if you take away one man on a pick and roll, there are several others who can hurt you. They're also playing phenomenal defense, though I wonder how much that changes when teams try to exploit their lack of size in the playoffs.
I'd be very curious to see how teams defend Denver's screen and roll. Ty Lawson and Raymond Felton are both decent playmakers, but neither are great finishers around the basket. Meanwhile, Denver has gotten to the point where they rotate the ball so well that it's impossible to cover everyone. If I'm Dallas or Oklahoma City, I think long and hard about switching pick and rolls, even if it results in a big man covering Felton and Lawson. I'd rather Felton and Lawson beat me as scorers than as passers.
Denver has a good chance to beat Dallas, and despite Tuesday's loss, I give the Nuggets a decent chance to beat Oklahoma City too. Like Denver, Oklahoma City isn't a great execution team down the stretch, and they don't have the size to slow the game down. But a lot depends on the nature of the games. Denver is going to be incredibly tough to beat at home, but winning on the road requires a hot shooting performance that prevents the game from being close late. I'm not sure the Nuggets can get those kinds of performances consistently in hostile environments.