May 16, 2011
2011 Conference Finals Predictions
I realise that, unlike my past prediction article, this one has a weird timing around it - after all, the Conference Finals have already technically begun, as the Bulls have destroyed the Heat in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals already. But you have to blame Oprah Winfrey for that one: between the last game of the 2nd round (Thunder vs Grizzlies Game 7) and the first game of the Conference Finals was a gap of only 2 hours.
Anyways, I don't think it needs to be reiterated that these have been some of the most unpredictable playoffs in recent years. The Hawks and the Grizzlies caused the big upsets as they entered the second round, and then the Mavs' demolition of the Lakers left a lot of predictors (including me) shell-shocked. Still, I got three of my four Conference-Finalists (Bulls, Heat, Thunder) right - now let's see where they go from here.
Before we delve into the Conference Finals, let's take a quick recap of the second round. The story of the round was definitely the Mavericks, who rode the hot hand and mental toughness of Dirk Nowitzki to sweep the two-time defending champions. I'll hand my unofficial player of the round award to Dirk - the numbers are great, not amazing, but Dirk's value to his team is unmatched. Gotta give some credit to Zach Randolph, who despite a loss left a large impression on the league, and to his opponent Kevin Durant, who had some big games in the round and stepped up in a crucial Game 7 with 39 and 9 to lead his team to the next round. In the East, Derrick Rose continued to do his thing and LeBron and Wade played at the peak of their powers to eliminate the dangerous Celtics' side.
While the great older powers of Boston, LA and Spurs fell, the youth has emerged in the form of Derrick Rose's Bulls and Durant-Westbrook Thunder. This will be the first NBA Finals in 13 years without either Shaq, Kobe, or Duncan participating. This will be only the second time in the last 13 years that the West won't be won by either the Lakers or the Spurs - the only other time was when the Mavs won it in 2006! The four conference-finalists this year all failed to make it past the first round last season!
So here we are, on the cusp of a new era. When it's all said and then, the championship this year will either be won by a talented player with regular season success but post-season disappointed (LeBron or Dirk) or by a young player taking a leap much quicker than anyone expected (Rose or Durant). Of course, there is also Dwyane Wade, the only remaining all star with a championship ring, who won it in 2006 beating Nowitzki's Mavs.
Eastern Conference Finals: (1) Bulls vs. (2) Heat
Despite all the upsets and surprises, the East Finals find themselves exactly where they should be, in a battle between the first and second best Eastern teams of the regular season. It has been a great season for Chicago, led by MVP Derrick Rose and Coach of the Year Tom Thibodeau. The Bulls had an uncertain start to the playoffs after an underwhelming performance against the Pacers and just-about-average series against Atlanta, but they have seemingly gotten better as the playoffs have progressed. Now, after blowing out Miami in Game 1, Chicago is showing its full potential, as a team where Derrick Rose scores at will and scores the big buckets, Luol Deng plays tough defense and scores important points, Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah command the paint, and the support crew make crucial contributions. The Bulls have been the league's best defensive team, and that defense is on fire right now. They have played their best game in Game 1 - now it's Miami's turn to retaliate. They were able to shut down both LeBron and Wade, but you can't keep such incredible talents down forever.
The Heat did get exposed for their lack of depth in Game 1, but no one (including the Bulls) is expecting the other games in this series to end the same way. Chris Bosh regained some confidence after a big game today, but really, this team wins if LeBron and Wade make big contributions, which I think they will. There is too much hunger in Miami to bow down so easily - and someone else from their bench, like Mike Bibby, James Jones, Mike Miller, or Udonis Haslem - will have to step up.
These two teams have so many undercurrent connections between them: during the Free Agent Class of 2010, when Dwyane Wade, LeBron James, and Chris Bosh were all free agents, Chicago, who had the money, tried to signed each of them at some point or the other and pair them up with Derrick Rose. It never happened, and the three ended up signing together in Miami, and played well enough to finish second in the East. The Bulls, meanwhile, picked up their pieces, brought in Carlos Boozer and Kyle Korver, brought in new coach Thibodeau, and saw Rose emerge into an MVP, and in the process, they finished with a better record than Miami! Additionally, Chicago is a homecoming of sorts for Dwyane Wade, who grew up there - this will be an interesting time for him since he has struggled at the United Center in the past.
When it's all said and then, I expect this to be a long, back and forth series, where perspectives will change after every game. In the end, I think the Bulls' depth and home-court advantage will help them make it to the NBA Finals after seven games. Chicago Bulls win 4-3
Western Conference Finals: (3) Mavericks vs. (4) Thunder
First off - my apology to the Mavs and the Mavs fans - I never had faith in this team. Not for their on-paper talent, because they have one of the deepest and most balanced rosters in the NBA. No, my doubts sprung from the Mavericks' shoddy track record. They never seemed to show enough mental strength and whenever a potential upset could happen with this side, a potential upset did happen! Not this year though. This year, I doubted them in the first round, and they beat the Blazers. I doubted them in the second round, and they swept the Lakers. No more doubts! Dallas is legit, physically and mentally now. I expect this team to play in a similar way against Thunder as they did against Lakers, and I expect Nowitzki to continue the hunger for his first ring. Plus Kidd, Terry, Barea, Marion, Chandler, Stevenson, Peja etc will continue making big contributions. The only negative against the Mavs currently is that this team may be slightly rusty after such a long break without games.
The Thunder, on the other hand, have been the model of inconsistency in the second round. The Grizzlies presented them with a mismatch because of their strong interior play, and OKC's troubles with finding their own identity caused this young team to stutter a few extra steps in the second round. Still, on the positive side, Kevin Durant emerged as one of the game's best closers and took the leap after the big Game 7 performance. Russell Westbrook showed the potential of this team if he played like a true point guard, and if all their other pieces play their role - Harden, Ibaka, Collisson, Perkins - this team can play well against the more finesse-minded Mavs.
Still though, the experience of the Mavs, coupled with the fact that OKC might be emotionally drained-out after the seven game series, will give the team from Dallas the advantage. The Mavericks will be better at executing the right plays, and barring a super-human effort from Durant-Westbrook, I say they will win this series in six games. Dallas Mavericks win 4-2.
So those are my predictions - A Bulls-Mavericks final - Tell me what you think will happen in this round?