Picking the Semis

A Daily Babble Production

With Sunday afternoon's double-header featuring the Hawks shellacking the Heat and the Nuggets putting down the Mavericks, the 2009 NBA Playoffs officially made their transition from round one to two.  This, of course, means we're due for another round of misguided predictions (though six for eight in the first round actually topped last year's five correct guesses).  To the conference semifinal matchups we go...

Western Conference

(2) Denver Nuggets vs. (6) Dallas Mavericks

Both of these squads come off decisive first-round victories.  The Mavs took out a depleted Spurs team that could never seem to get more than two guys playing well at once, and the Nuggets annihilated a Hornets squad that appeared to quit midway through the series. 

There has been some talk about Denver being a good match-up for the Mavs because Chauncey Billups plays a physical style that won't prove as poisonous to the Dallas defense as matching up with speedier guards did during the season.  While Jason Kidd did plenty of good work for the Mavs this season, his advancing age and declining body played a role in the fact that fleet-footed penetrating guards such as Chris Paul, Tony Parker, Rajon Rondo and Devin Harris shredded the Mavs this year.  Conventional wisdom says that Billups's reliance on strength, his post-up game and savvy play on the perimeter should offer Kidd a better chance to defend him simply by returning the physicality and thus avoiding a track meet.

Here's the problem with this line of thinking: Billups isn't just playing his style well right now; he's running the point as effectively as any guard in the league.  He torched the Hornets for 65.5 percent shooting from beyond the arc and a bonkers 73.6 percent true shooting mark en route to 22 points and more than seven assists per game.  While the Mavs kept him in check on Sunday (2-for-8 shooting, six assists, four turnovers), that's more likely to be the exception than the rule.  Billups still has enough speed to get in the lane and be effective there, and if he remains hot from the outside, the Mavs won't be able to afford giving him any space on the perimeter.

On the flip side, Billups has the advantage of playing with the man at the center of one of the developing unsung stories of the playoffs: Dahntay Jones.  Jones' stout defensive play allowed the Nuggets to cross-match throughout the New Orleans series to prevent Billups from having to spend energy chasing Chris Paul around.  That option will likely be available to Denver again if George Karl wants to keep Billups off Kidd. 

The rest of these two teams' lineups create several equally compelling match-ups: Having a healthy Josh Howard made a huge difference for the Mavs in round one, as he posted a 62 percent true shooting while averaging nearly 19 points per game.  He is also one of the few players in the league with the physique to offer Carmelo Anthony significant trouble, but Melo blew up at the end of Game 1 with 14 fourth-quarter points.  Howard is the better defender of the two, but the guess here is that Melo's elite-level offensive game is too much.

We'll see an interesting clash of finesse and brute force as Dirk Nowitzki battles Kenyon Martin at the four, and both teams have conscience-free bench bombers in Jason Terry and J.R. Smith.

With all the firepower involved on both sides, this is going to come down to which team makes the stronger commitment to the defensive end.  The Nuggets have done it all year, finishing eighth in defensive efficiency (Dallas was 17th), and Billups' leadership along with the emergence of Nene and Jones, increased effort from Anthony and the addition of reserve Chris Andersen have all played big roles in that department.  The Nuggets took all four games from Dallas this season and strangled New Orleans in round one, and I've got little reason to believe they won't take care of business again this time around.

The pick: Nuggets in six

(1) Los Angeles Lakers vs. (5) Houston Rockets

The Rockets have three things going for them coming into this series: Aaron Brooks's quickness, the presence on the roster of two guys capable of making Kobe Bryant work for his points and the general confusion surrounding Andrew Bynum.

Brooks moves like lightning, and Derek Fisher has nowhere near the foot-speed required to stay with him.  If Brooks resists settling for jumpers and attacks the paint, he should be able to force the Lakers to collapse on him, creating open looks for the Rockets on the perimeter. 

While Kobe Bryant had significant success against the Rockets this season - 53 percent shooting from both the field and the three-point line while averaging 28 points in four games - the Rockets not only have the rugged Ron Artest but the man who has previously given Bryant perhaps as much trouble as any defender in the league: Shane Battier.  Back in 2007-08, Bryant shot less than 40 percent from the field and just 25 percent from beyond the arc against the Rockets, due in no small part to Battier setting up base camp inside No. 24's jersey.  With two top-tier perimeter defenders to throw at Bryant, Rick Adelman may be able to lower the star scorer's efficiency.

The Lakers had little trouble surviving the first round in spite of Andrew Bynum's relative uselessness, especially against a Jazz team missing Mehmet Okur for most the series.  The presence of Yao Ming makes Bynum's ability (or lack thereof) to stay on the floor and make a contribution a more significant factor, particularly at the defensive end.

All that in mind, what the Lakers have going for them is...everything else.  Though he is liable to come up small in a big spot sooner or later, Lamar Odom dominated the Utah series and is playing some of the best basketball of his career.  His length and inside-outside game are going to give the Rockets fits.  Pau Gasol continued to do Pau Gasol things against Utah, and even without an up-to-par Bynum, the size of the Lakers' front line is going to be a major concern for a Houston team that relies on undersized bigs next to Yao in the frontcourt.

For all his past struggles against Battier, one might still count that Bryant fellow as something of an asset as well.  The fact that he no doubt heard Ron Artest make a point last week of calling Brandon Roy the best player he has ever defended has the potential to shorten this series by a game on its own.  I say that only partly in jest.

Trevor Ariza continues to give this team quality minutes and a lot of energy at the three.  While Jordan Farmar has experienced a meteoric fall out of the rotation, Shannon Brown took over his minutes off the bench and joined Ariza (75.1 percent true shooting) in shooting out of his mind (64.4 percent true shooting) in the first round against Utah.

This Rockets team made an impressive run in the second half of the season and played a fine series against Portland in the first round.  But the Lakers score more effectively (third in offensive efficiency this season to Houston's 14th) and defend nearly as well.  While they won't replicate their four-game regular-season sweep of the Rockets here, they will prove themselves the clearly superior team.

The pick: Lakers in six

Eastern Conference

(1) Cleveland Cavaliers vs. (4) Atlanta Hawks

As they did last year, the Hawks possess plenty of youthful energy and athleticism.  They are better, more experienced and more confident than they were a year ago.  Their home crowd at Philips Arena is fantastic.

But, see, here's the thing: These guys just took seven games to get past a Miami team that is utterly putrid outside Dwyane Wade, and the Hawks managed to get wiped off the floor three times in the process.

The Hawks are headed to meet a buzz saw.  The Cavs have been waiting a week and no doubt remember that Atlanta took one of their four meetings this season and played them close on two other occasions. 

Atlanta couldn't break 90 points per game against Miami and put up a miserable offensive efficiency of 101 points per 100 possessions for the series, good for 13th of the 16 teams that participated in the first round.  How the Hawks are going to function against a swarming Cavs defense that finished third in efficiency this season and held the Pistons to 89.5 points per 100 possessions last round, I have no idea.

They aren't stopping LeBron and his gang of offensive rebounders and three-point shooters at the other end either.

The Hawks may feed off the frenetic energy of the crowd at the Highlight Factory just enough to steal a game in this series.  But that will be all.

The pick: Cavs in five

(2) Boston Celtics vs. (3) Orlando Magic

Funny how things change: A few weeks ago, when the plan included having Kevin Garnett back for the playoffs, I considered obtaining the two-seed a bonus for the Celtics.  I maintained all season that I thought a healthy Celtics team was better than the Magic (no matter Jameer Nelson's status), anytime, anywhere.  Now, fighting Orlando without Garnett and with minimal competent frontcourt depth, getting to start this series at home and finish it there as well if it goes the distance seems nothing short of crucial.

The obvious problem right off the bat is the smiling monster that is Dwight Howard.  While the Bulls tested Doc Rivers' rotational depth by going small and forcing him to either concede mismatches or use Stephon Marbury or Tony Allen, Howard's presence is sure to create a revolving door at the Celtics' big spots.  The green fellows are down to three trustworthy bigs in Kendrick Perkins, the Infuriated Infant and Brian Scalabrine.  While Perk and Glen Davis have proven that they can make Howard work inside, both are prone to bouts of foul trouble.  If they can't stay on the floor in this series, the Celtics are going to have major problems. 

As much of an asset as Brian Scalabrine has been at times, he's likely to be more of a help against Orlando's big swingmen in Rashard Lewis and Hedo Turkoglu.  With regard to Howard, he'll be another body with six hard fouls to offer, but I'm not sure we can expect much more in terms of efficacy there.  Similarly, much as this concept makes me queasy, Mikki Moore is going to be have to play a bigger role than he did against Chicago - again, simply because he offers a big body and six more fouls.

Howard is going to get his, but if the Celtics can make him take a lot of shots to do so and keep him from feasting on the offensive glass, it will be hard to complain. 

As for everyone else, it's hard not to feel good about the match-ups in the backcourt and at the swing spots.  Fun fact about Rajon Rondo: He is a lot better than Rafer Alston.  While Alston has exceeded my too-low expectations for him in Orlando (and played particularly well at the end of the Philadelphai series), he remains an inefficient shooter (49.4 percent true shooting for the season, 52.5 percent for the playoffs).  He doesn't have anywhere near the quickness that Rondo does, and he doesn't provide the threat to get in the lane that Derrick Rose did last round.  If Rondo can avoid getting gamble-happy at the defensive end, he can dominate this match-up.

Despite a rough opener against Chicago, Ray Allen made it clear in the quarterfinals that he has no intention of allowing the early portion of this season's playoffs to mirror his performance from this time last year.  He killed it from the outside, posting a 63.2 percent true shooting mark in the first round, and he gets a break by not having to go against Courtney Lee, at least early in the series.  The Magic's rookie off-guard played tough perimeter defense all season but is out with a fractured sinus and is no guarantee to return.  Allen should have a much easier time with J.J. Redick and Mickael Pietrus.

Hedo Turkoglu and Rashard Lewis will cause problems of their own, but Paul Pierce will wreak just as much havoc.  Turkoglu lacks the quickness of John Salmons or the defensive stoutness of Kirk Hinrich, and Pierce may find himself with a lot more freedom to operate than he had throughout much of the Chicago series.  One of these two may also have the task of guarding the Pugnacious Papoose, who must go inside and punish them with his extra strength.

At the other end, the Celtics will have to avoid the problem that plagued them in their visit to Orlando in March: shoddy perimeter defense.  The Magic took as many threes per game as anyone outside the Knicks this season and tied New York for the league lead with 10 makes per game.  Their 38 percent accuracy tied them for fourth.  When the Celtics lost to Orlando in Garnett's last appearance of the season, they did a horrific job of rotating out on the perimeter and contesting shots, and they were lucky the Magic missed several open looks to limit themselves to 40 percent three-point shooting, which is too high a figure to allow in the first place. 

I realize that it's no easy task to have to worry about both locking down Howard and jumping out to the perimeter.  The Magic move the ball well and are potent enough both on the inside and outside to cause problems in both areas.  The Celtics are going to have to summon their best impression of last season's championship defense (most recently seen in the second quarter of Game 7 against Chicago) and go hard on their rotations to attack Howard and at least contest the shooters outside. 

This series is not going to be easy by any stretch of the imagination, and Howard is likely to have a couple of gigantic performances before all is said and done.  But the Celtics have a major edge in the backcourt, and if their starting bigs can stay on the floor just long enough, they have the ability to slow Howard on occasion, if not stop him. 

The C's have homecourt advantage, and at the end of the day, in this space, they have an analyst who can't deny having a bit of a bias to boot.

The pick: Celtics in seven

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