Thursday, April 14, 2011

The Frequently Asked Questions: Sixers Playoff Preview

That definitely didn't end well. From what seemed like it would be a season that could end with 45+ wins as recently as three weeks ago, the Sixers limped to the finish and ended with the definition of mediocrity, 41-41. Part of that had to do with the mounting injuries (Andre Iguodala’s knee and Lou Williams’ hamstring) and part if it had to do with bad basketball, especially on the defensive end (in the first quarter against Orlando Monday night, the defense was so bad the Magic could have intentionally attempted to get contested shots and ended up with a wide-open three).

But a shaky finish does nothing to diminish what was a fantastic rebirth. The Sixers got back to playing basketball, not the horrid permutation they displayed when Eddie Jordan was coaching. It was the true epitome of team play, with no single player averaging more than 15.1 ppg. They raised their play on defense, centered around Iguodala’s growth into a top-3 perimeter defender, to become a top-10 defensive team. The team recovered from a dreadful 2009-10 to become a fun and enjoyable team to watch this season.

But the warm and fuzzy feelings go out the door when the playoffs roll around, especially when the most overhyped 58 win team in history (they had a whole website, with three quality writers, following their every move. And they don’t even have fans who care about the team! The injustices of the world) waiting for you in the second round. And, of course, there’s nothing better for looking back on a good season and prepare you for the intensity of the playoffs than my favorite gimmick, the Frequently Asked Questions.

Was it a mistake for the Sixers to make the playoffs?
Thaddeus Young is the most important Sixers player in
the series against Miami.
Conventional NBA wisdom states that a team like the Sixers, without an established star and in a bad cap situation, can’t get stuck in the cycle of mediocrity: continuing to make the playoffs as a lower seed, taking a beating in the first round, getting a middling draft pick that only helps to maintain the current mediocrity instead of improve it, leaving you to repeat the same cycle all over again. What you need to do, convention holds, is completely bottom out, hope for a top-3 draft pick, and hope that the draft has the franchise savior in it (the Howard, Rose, Durant type). Otherwise, you’ll never make it to a level where you can compete for championships, because you’ll never have a superstar and without a superstar, you don’t stand a chance in the NBA’s star-driven system.

That ‘wisdom’ is directed at teams exactly like the Sixers: they have no star, they have no cap space and they have no chance of winning the championship this year. By that standard, making the playoffs really isn’t going to help the team in the long run, right?

But what that wisdom doesn’t account for is the experience that being in the playoffs brings. Do you think Derrick Rose benefited from battling Boston and LeBron’s Cavs in two consecutive first rounds? Locking heads with great teams is the best way to get the players you have playing better. They experience real NBA basketball, contrary to what you believe happens in the regular season. In the playoffs, the intensity rises, the pressure grows and players fight and claw for everything. Nothing is easy.

You don’t think Jrue Holiday could benefit from that experience? You don’t think Thad Young could benefit from playing in a game with the highest stakes, where everything matters?

The NBA playoffs are the ultimate proving ground, the ultimate meritocracy (unless its game 6 of the 2002 Western Conference Finals), where players can take themselves from one level and catapult themselves into a different stratosphere. If you want to see Holiday and the rest of the young guys get better, then this is where they need to be, playing against the best.

Who was the Sixers MVP this season?
Even though he signed a cap killing deal, that along with Iguodala’s albatross contract will prevent us from making a failed run at Dwight Howard at the end of next season, the Sixers would be nothing without Elton Brand.

He’s the only consistent contributor on the team (other than Iguodala’s stifling defense for the latter two-thirds of the season), the steadying veteran presence. From start to finish, you knew what you were getting from him, which is not something you could say for the rest of the team, given how young they were.

The numbers aren’t spectacular (15.1 ppg, 8.4 reb) but he led the team in both categories and gave the team its first true post presence since I’ve been watching Sixers basketball.

I love what Iguodala did, especially on the defensive end. I love how Lou had a magical ability to change games the instant he came in. I love how Jrue grew and looks like he could blossom into an excellent point guard. I loved versatility of Young. But none of that happens without Brand.

Are the Heat a good matchup?
I’m going to answer this question with Rebecca Black-level obviousness: no.

Since the Sixers started to look like they were going to be in the playoffs in January, I hoped and prayed that they got any of the top teams besides Miami. For whatever reason, when the Sixers play the Bulls, Celtics or Magic, I feel like they have a chance against those teams. They are great defensive teams for sure, but they don’t have a second offensive gear and since the Sixers don’t have a second offensive gear, it allows them to hang around. That’s why the Sixers were able to beat those three teams in the regular season: when the other team can’t score and let you hang around, you’re bound to get a couple breaks here and there that will let you steal a few games.

However, the Heat don’t have that problem. They have two of the five best players in the world and when they hit a second gear, which they do often, it’s like pulling alongside a Ferrari, stupidly thinking you can hang in your Altima, staying with them for five seconds before they tickle the gas pedal and leave you in a cloud of dust and self-loathing.

Their situations at point guard (watching Mike Bibby play defense is like listening to this) and center (the combination of Joel Anthony, Erick Dampier and Zydrunas Ilgauskas makes Andris Biedrins feel good about himself) are atrocious, so even though Spencer Hawes isn’t very good, he’s still better than all three of them combined.

But as big as our advantage is at point guard (the Holiday, Williams combo should eviscerate Bibby every time he is in front of them) their advantage at shooting guard is the size of the hole where Tyler Perry’s talent is supposed be. Every time I try to convince myself that the Sixers have a fighting chance, given the right breaks and some old-fashioned NBA conspiracy officiating to punish the Heatles for how they came together, I have nightmares of Wade making baseline drive after baseline drive with a dumbfounded Jodie Meeks five steps behind him staring down another vicious slam on Hawes. Needless to say, the matchup would be better for the Sixers if Evan Turner hadn’t been kidnapped in February.

Who’s the most important Sixer in the series?
Without a doubt, it’s Jason Kapono. His unique ability to sit on the bench and do absolutely nothing positive on the basketball court while making $6.6 million could make all the difference. Everyone should look forward to bench shots following positive Sixers plays with a cheering Turner and Marreese Speights as Kapono worthlessly sulks at the end of the bench while asking a disinterested ball-boy to add him on Xbox Live. I’m glad Ed Stefanski traded for him.

But in all seriousness, it’s Young. His ability to create matchup problems all season has gotten him some serious buzz for 6th man of the year from the stat-heads and the Heat are a team he can exploit. If the Sixers play him with Brand in crunch-time, it gives one or the other a favorable matchup. If the Heat put their center on Brand, that gives Young the chance to work in the half-court against the highly accomplished matador Chris Bosh; if the Heat put Bosh on Brand, he gets the same opportunities, while Young gets to work against whoever they play with Bosh up front. I’d hope Erik Spoelstra is smart enough not to put a center on him but that means putting Mike Miller or James Jones on him which also isn’t smart, which means you have to put LeBron on him, which would obviously work but that could create opportunities for Iguodala, that he hopefully could take advantage of? And you wonder why Young’s versatility makes him the most important guy the Sixers have in this series.

Who will win the series?
If Young and the Holiday/Williams point guard combo (we still aren’t completely sure how healthy Lou will be for the series. I’m working under the assumption that he’ll play but be something less than 100%) have massive series’, Bosh wilts under the playoff pressure considering he’s never really experienced it, D-Wade doesn’t absolutely obliterate whoever plays shooting guard for the Sixers, LeBron’s mom gets hit on by Mario Chalmers, the Miami fans forget to ‘fan up’ and stroll in during the second half, the Philly fans give a throwback Iverson-era First Union Center performance, Spoelstra does his best Mike Brown impression and David Stern gets his personal ref cronies (the crew headed by Dick Bavetta) to exact a collusion punishment on the Big 3 since he couldn’t formally prove, then the Sixers will win the series. If one of those things doesn’t happen, well it’ll probably go five games in favor of Miami.

The Heat just have too many advantages: they have major advantages at shooting guard and small forward, even though Iguodala just had his finest season. As much as people like to crap on Bosh, he’s vastly more talented than Brand, Hawes, Young and Speights. They stink something truly awful at center but it’s not like Hawes is going to channel his inner Shaq when he was playing against Todd MacCulloch. The major advantages the Sixers have are point guard (totally exploitable, I mean, have you seen Mike Bibby recently) and the bench, but that becomes way less important because Miami’s Big 3 will play 42+ minutes in every remotely close game.

The saving grace for the Sixers is that the regular season games were played tight until the last eight minutes, meaning that if the Sixers can find something in crunch-time to compete, something good could happen.

The best Sixers lineup is Williams-Holiday-Iguodala-Young-Brand, where Iguodala is on the ball playing the point forward role, and the team runs its main offensive action for Williams, Young and Brand. Against big teams, in the backcourt and front court, it’s impossible to play it consistently because, as the team learned against Orlando, they won’t grab a defensive rebound. But that’s not a problem facing the Heat.

The bigger problems come with the fact that the Heat can combat the Sixers best lineup with Bibby/Chalmers-Wade-Miller-James-Bosh. James can absolutely lock down Young if he starts to get hot and Wade will switch on to whoever is playing better among Williams and Holiday, meaning whatever advantage we would have had almost evaporates. Brand has to take Bosh to the woodshed and Iguodala has to remake himself into an excellent offensive player in the half-court but we all know the latter isn’t going to happen.

Translation: this series may not even go five games. Miami should win their games by double-digits, with their only loss in the series maybe coming in a typical mental lapse game in Philadelphia. I searched for every possible advantage that the Sixers had, but the Heat have an answer for all of it. They look to be a team on a mission. The Big 3 got together in July, had a signing party and took all the criticism they did for this moment right here. LeBron probably wants nothing more than to finally get over the hump. They have a look about them, an us against the world swagger, that they didn’t have in January, February or early March when everyone was questioning what they did and LeBron’s ability to make plays late in games. I don’t care that players four through ten on the Sixers are probably better, because the Sixers couldn’t put together any group five players that are good enough to handle the immense amount of talent that those three guys possess. It’s a mismatch in every sense of the word.

So if the Sixers aren’t going to win the title, who will?
I think these playoffs are set up to be the best since I’ve really started paying attention to pro basketball (basically the years after Iverson was drafted).

The series will be great. In the East, that won’t happen until the second round when we get the heavyweight clashes of Bulls-Magic and Celtics-Heat, both of which should go at least six games and Celtics-Heat is definitely going 7.

In the West, upsets are brewing, especially with Dallas, who have perfected the art of losing in the first round to a team they should beat in five games, plus a potential playoff rematch between a much-improved Thunder team and the Lakers squad they pushed to the brink in last season’s playoffs, in the conference finals.

My playoff picks have changed drastically since the trading deadline, simply because the Celtics look like a different team without Kendrick Perkins (clarification: it has nothing to do with his impact on the court; he was an below average offensive player and replaceable in the Celtics defensive schemes, even though he’s excellent on defense, evidenced by their great start to the season without him and ability to play great defense since the trade, not to mention he never played in crunch-time when healthy anyway. Their drop-off has to do with their effect on chemistry, where the players feel betrayed that management would trade one of their family members. They really believed in that family idea [remember ubuntu?] and the loss of a guy that had been there since it all started just deflated the team, especially Rondo, and they haven’t been able to find it since. The result: a drastically worse offense and therefore, a worse team) and the Thunder, with the addition of Perkins, have fixed their major weakness; a lack of size and toughness inside to bang with bigger teams like the Lakers.

Before all that happened, I felt the Celtics were head and shoulders above everyone else. They played with an angry swagger, probably generated out of the devastating loss in Game 7, and were out for revenge. I would have never believed this year’s Heat could beat that Celtics team. I would have never believed this year’s Lakers could beat that Celtics team. But because of the Perkins trade, that team no longer exists.

Without the Celtics as a real threat anymore, that sets up what I believe will be Lakers-Thunder and Bulls-Heat in the conference finals. I loved watching Derrick Rose this season, and even though he isn’t my MVP pick (I’m torn between Dwight Howard and Lebron) I have no issue with anyone who picks him. If you haven’t seen him in-person, you don’t love basketball enough. I got a chance to catch the Sixers-Bulls game in Chicago in late March, and he’s truly breathtaking to watch, going to the rim with Iversonian fearlessness, only he’s got the size, strength and freakish jumping ability Iverson could never bring to the battle with the big guys.

Unfortunately, he’s really their only option when games get tight. Luol Deng really can’t create his own shot consistently, especially if LeBron turns up the pressure defensively, the only offseason power forward who signed for big money that’s more overrated than Bosh is Carlos Boozer, and Joakim Noah’s jump shot is a crime against basketball. The Bulls are the best defensive team in the league and that, along with Rose’s magic, has allowed them to have the best record in the regular season. Still, when I watch that team, I feel like something is missing. I don’t feel that, when the games reach their highest intensity, that they are ready yet. That, in crunch-time, in Game 7, they don’t have enough firepower to make enough plays at the end. And even though there have been plenty of awkward moments between LeBron and Wade in those same situations through the season, I’d rather have them both than just Rose.

And as much as I want to pick a Thunder-Heat Finals, my sensibilities tell me not to pick against the Lakers playing a team making their first foray under the big lights is a bad idea. The Perkins addition allows them to matchup in the paint better than they did last year and it unleashes Serge Ibaka to be the weak side shot-blocking force he was always meant to be. Russell Westbrook has evolved into an upper-middle class version of Rose (the jumper and ability to glide around three people in mid air and finish is the difference) and Kevin Durant is still Kevin Durant. But the Thunder still don’t have anyone to match up with Lamar Odom and this is Kobe’s last gasp. His knees have given him one last run at it and there is no way it ends anywhere short of the Finals. The Thunder will get there, just not this year.

That sets up a colossal Finals matchup. The public finally gets the Kobe-LeBron tilt we’ve been thirsting for since the 2009 playoffs. This time, LeBron finally has players around him he can go to war with. Wade is better than Kobe and Ron Artest has no shot of guarding LeBron. Odom, Bynum and Pau Gasol are where the Lakers hold the advantage but Kobe will want it too much (translation: he’s going to shoot a lot) and that could be their downfall.

I picked the Heat to win the title before the season when I was still writing my never-read blog and though I wanted to jump off the bandwagon at many points, I’m sticking with it. LeBron and D-Wade are just too good. It looks like they’ve started to figure it out. They’ve gotten out of the spotlight recently, which gave them a chance really understand each other and learn to play off each other. They finally have an edge that they should have had coming into the season when pundits, analysts and fans used the whole summer to drop truckloads of feces on their idea to play together. They’ve finally developed that thick skin and the chip on their shoulder, the kind of mentality that can bring a team together. They have the attitude that makes everyone want to play for each other instead of the individual, the attitude that makes guys want to raise their games so they don’t disappoint everyone around them. They’ve gotten past the crying and finger pointing and who should get the ball in crunch-time problems. They trust each other. That’s what they were missing when they got off to their slow start and during their five-game losing streak. But because of those events, they were able to find it and you can’t win a title without something bringing the team together. The Miami Heat are my 2010-11 NBA Champions.

So there is a silver lining for the Sixers soon to be short-lived playoff run: at least they lost to the team (I think) will win it all. 

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