May 19, 2015

2015 NBA Playoffs - Expert's Bracket Challenge - Conference Finals

Even as the weather gets hotter, this is the time of the year that I usually like to have some hair on my face.

Let me explain. Over the last few years, I've adopted the tradition of growing a playoff beard every time my favourite NBA team - the forever hexed New York Knicks - make the NBA Playoffs. I refuse to shave and let the beard grow for as long as the Knicks survive, which is usually not very long. Still, in about a month and a half, I can get halfway to looking like Nikola Mirotic. Since the Knicks are terrible and have only made the playoffs three times in the last decade, my opportunities to challenge Niko or James Harden in the only way I possibly can have been scarce. This year, as my Knicks finished bottom of the Eastern Conference, any hopes of voluminous facial hair growth were shaved away months ago.

Fortunately, there are other ways to unleash my inner child for the playoffs, and involve some of my more sensible friends, too.

Welcome to the 2015 NBA Playoffs Expert's Bracket Challenge. Before the playoffs, I joined ranks with fellow fans and experts of the NBA in India - Akshay Manwani (@AkshayManwani) and Kaushik Lakshman (@_kaushik7) - to turn this season's playoffs into our own mini competition, and in the process, give the fans of the game some hoops food for thought. Akshay suggested the idea and the rules before the playoffs begin, and after two rounds, we are still in fierce competition. Beard or no beard.

Here are the rules again: Each of us will get +2 for getting the series result correct. Additionally, if we get the scoreline right, we get a bonus of +1. You can find our First Round predictions here. Below, we move on to the tally on the scorecard and then make our predictions for the Second Round. Keep yourselves updated and feel free to give us your own predictions in the comments section at the end of this post.

After getting all his winners' predictions rights in the First Round, Akshay held a commanding lead over Kaushik and I. Matters got a little more interesting after our Second Round predictions: While all of us predicted that the Warriors would beat the Grizzlies, we shared the spoils with wrong calls on some of the other three series.

  • Akshay Manwani: 26
  • Kaushik Lakshman: 21
  • Karan Madhok: 16
Akshay is still holding on to a healthy lead as Kaushik tries to catch up and I continue to get my butt kicked. How will the scorecard look after our Conference Finals predictions? Let's get right into it!

Eastern Conference Finals: Atlanta (1) vs. Cleveland (2)

Akshay’s pick: The Hawks managed to finally put it past a tenacious Washington team. That series may have had a different result had John Wall played all six games for the Wizards. Even so, it’s a terrific result for an Atlanta franchise that is the only team left in the postseason now without a true superstar talent. All the three other teams have at least two other marquee names.

But this is where Atlanta’s lack of superstar talent should catch up with them. LeBron James has already shown that even the absence of Kevin Love, a half-fit Kyrie Irving and a suspended J.R. Smith didn’t matter in their series against the Bulls. James played big for the Cavs in that series and when he gets going, there is hardly a player in this league that can stop him. If Irving is in a better place in terms of his health than against Chicago and the likes of Matthew Dellavedova, Smith, Timofey Mozgov, Iman Shumpert and Tristan Thompson can give James good support, it won’t matter that the Hawks won the regular season series 3-1. Cavaliers win 4-2.

Karan's pick: Despite losing Kevin Love at the end of the first round and having their other stars hobbled in the Second, the Cavaliers have marched in the Conference Finals, mostly riding the back of their star player LeBron James, who also backs up as the single-most determining factor in bringing some post-season cojones to the Cavaliers. Without him, the Cavs would be inexperienced and motorless. But with him, they have one of the league’s best players and most experienced winners who has been to the NBA Finals four years in a row. This stuff matters.

The Hawks are a better defensive team, are better coached, and are in much-better sync with each other. And yet, they lost their regular season momentum by the time April rolled around and struggled to defeat Brooklyn and Washington in the first two rounds of the playoffs. The Hawks haven’t been offensively elite for the last two months, while the Cavs – with or without Love – have continued to march on. Atlanta’s 3-1 regular season advantage over the Cavaliers isn’t going to matter much now. Cleveland’s offensive consistency and the gift of LeBron James will take them through to the NBA Finals. Cavaliers win 4-2

Kaushik's pick: The Cavaliers hobbled but found a way past the uninspiring and inconsistent Bulls. The main reason for that of course is LeBron James (said to the tune of that kid from the viral vine) and for as long as anyone has this guy on their team, odds have to be in the said team’s favour. Kyrie is injured, Love is out, and we don’t know whether the suddenly consistent threat of Shumpert, Dellavedova, JR Smith etc will continue. At the same time, the Hawks still seem off from their dominant midseason selves.

On paper though, Hawks seem like a great team to beat the Cavs. They have the shooting, they have the ball movement, and they have the defensive capability to limit the very predictable LeBron-centric Cavs offense. But they’re not playing to that potential and that’s why I am picking the Cavaliers to go through. Even though all the teams remaining are not very ‘playoff experienced’ I think LeBron does and he will give the entire team that edge. Apart from that, the series will be won on small things like Tristan Thompson’s rebounding advantage and that’s why I will put my money on Cleveland. Cavaliers win 4-2.

Eastern Conference Finals: Golden State (1) vs. Houston (2)

Akshay’s pick: The Rockets made an epic comeback after an epic meltdown against the Los Angeles Clippers. What that result against the Clippers must have done for the Rockets is that they would now back themselves against any opponent irrespective of the odds.

But the Rockets are also 0-4 against Golden State from the regular season. Yes, a couple of those games were played before Josh Smith, Corey Brewer and Pablo Prigioni came to Houston, but then the Rockets had Patrick Beverley and Donatas Motiejunas playing for them at that time. Not only does Golden State have the offensive weapons to score, but they play at a great pace and have a terrific defense. I would also expect Andre Iguodala being called upon to play significant minutes against James Harden. Marreese Speights situation is not yet known, but even without him, the Warriors have a deep bench. In a battle between the league’s MVP and the runner-up in the MVP race, I expect Stephen Curry and his Warriors to come up trumps. Warriors win 4-2.

Karan's pick: In my Conference Finals preview for SporstKeeda yesterday, I ranked each NBA team in the playoffs in a ‘trump card’-like fashion in their attributes against each other, based on advanced stats and some of my own analysis. The Warriors ended up being ranked top four in six of my seven categories in the playoffs: defense, offense, star player (MVP Stephen Curry), team chemistry, coach, and depth! The only problem is that there are very few players experienced with post-season success in the team. The ability to stay measured in grueling playoff situations is a major attribute in the NBA.

The Houston Rockets, surprisingly, have that ability. Harden and Howard, their two stars, have both been to the NBA Finals. Jason Terry, Corey Brewer, and Trevor Ariza have each won a championship, and Coach McHale has won many. Houston showed great heart in their comeback win over the Clippers. But against the uber-talented, heart is all they can have. Warriors are better in every department, and unlike the Grizzlies in Round 2, they will have an opponent in the Conference Finals who will allow them to play their preferred style. Warriors win 4-1.

Kaushik's pick: Old School NBA fans won’t like this series. It will be low on defense and high on pace, three-pointers, and just many things unfamiliar to the playoff basketball universe. The Warriors were shocked a little by Memphis’ grit and grind style, but they showed great character in coming back and proving to everyone what made them such a good team in the regular season. Houston shocked everybody by coming back from 3-1 down in the series and are extremely high on confidence. They have really progressed as a team from the start of the series. They have purposeful ball movement, high performing role players and are riding on their stars being stars in Howard and Harden.

The Rockets will wish they had Beverley fit to harass Curry, but they will be giving up big time in the back-court but it is almost the opposite in the front court. They haven’t faced an intriguing playmaking-finishing combo like Smith & Howard. To add to that there will also be an amazing Curry – Harden MVP race narrative. However, I think Golden State is playing with the swagger of a champion team and are in an over simplified way, a better, more consistent version of what the Houston Rockets aspire to be. Warriors win 4-1.

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