My pick to win the Western Conference is the Memphis Grizzlies.
Go ahead. Laugh. I'll wait.
*Looks at watch*
Good! I know you're probably thinking: "What? The Memphis Grizzlies? There's NO WAY they're making the Finals! Sure, they might give teams like the Thunder, Lakers, and Spurs a bit of trouble. They might pull off an upset. But Finals? No! Only the best teams make the Finals!"
I will admit, a little part of me is picking Memphis because they are the fun pick. However, aside from 2008, there has been at least one unexpected team to make the NBA Finals every year since 2006. Let's recap -
2007: Fueled by a remarkable game five performance by LeBron James, the Cleveland Cavaliers come back from a 2-0 deficit to defeat the top seeded Detroit Pistons.
2007: Wait, ANOTHER unexpected team? I know it's easy to forget that the Spurs were "underdogs" in 2007 considering, that it was their fourth and last championship, but Dallas Mavericks and Phoenix Suns were the two heavy favorites to win the NBA Championship. After Dallas lost the 2006 NBA Championship in heartbreaking fashion, they seemed poised for vengeance by winning 67 games. Meanwhile, the same Suns team that almost made the Finals in 2006 saw the return of All-Star forward Ama'r e Stoudemire . However, after the Mavs were upset by Golden State in round one, and after a couple of bad breaks and heartbreaking losses for Phoenix in round two, Tim Duncan and the Spurs picked up the pieces.
2009: After defeating a KG-less Celtics team, Dwight Howard and the Orlando Magic pull off an Eastern Conference Finals upset over a heavily favored Cleveland Caviliers team.
2010: Despite struggling late in the season, and earning just the four seed in the Eastern Conference, the Boston Celtics stun the Cleveland Cavaliers in round two, and go on to top the Magic to win the Eastern Conference Championship.
2011: Did everyone already forget about how a three seeded Dallas Mavericks unexpectedly won the NBA Championship?
See? Dark horses and underdogs unexpectedly make the NBA Finals rather often. But here are four reasons why I love the Memphis Grizzlies:
1) Defense: The top five teams in Opponent's Points Per Game are Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, Miami, and Memphis. I'm pretty sure that everyone outside of Phili agrees that the Sixers are the only team in that group that is not a title contender. Aside from that - Other contenders that everyone thinks are great defensive teams, like Oklahoma City and San Antonio, are ranked 16th and 17th in OPPG.
2) Matching up: I feel like Memphis can play into the weaknesses of most teams in the West. They have solid perimeter defenders in Tony Allen and Rudy Gay to throw at teams that like to shoot and penetrate - Notably San Antonio and Oklahoma City. Meanwhile, Marc Gasol can hold his own in the paint and can guard the pick-and-roll. And honestly, if their road after the Clippers is having to defend Blair/Duncan and Perkins/Ibaka, I'm not all that concerned. Now, if the Lakers make it to the Western Conference Finals, then it's time for Memphis fans to bite their nails.
3) Tempo: I feel like Memphis can do it all on both ends. With Gay, Mayo, Allen, and Conley, they can run, gun, shoot, and defend on both ends of the floor. With Gasol's passing abilities, he can draw defenders away from the basket (like say, Serge Ibaka), and look for cutters and open shooters. At the same token, with Randolph and Gasol, they won't have trouble scoring in the half-court either.
4) Coaching: I love Lionel Hollins. It's difficult to argue against his track record in Memphis thus far. Marc Gasol continues to improve under his watch. Zach Randolph plays his ass off (something he did sparingly in Portland, New York, and Los Angeles). He managed to stun San Antonio in round one and give Oklahoma City all they could handle in round two last without Rudy Gay - And also managed to keep the Grizzlies competitive most of this season without Z-Bo. Also worth mentioning is that he has managed to get the most out of OJ Mayo without Mayo completely killing the team's chemistry. Coaching is part of the reason why Chicago, Boston, San Antonio, and Dallas are considered contenders: Everyone knows that those teams will not fold tent and quit on their coaches. It's the same reason why some experts are concerned with the Lakers, Clippers, Heat, and to a lesser extent, the Thunder. Coaching is definitely not a concern with Memphis.
This is what the Memphis Grizzlies might look like in June
1. San Antonio Spurs vs 8. Utah Jazz
Utah's front court will give the Spurs a lot to handle for a couple games. But San Antonio's wings and backcourt will be too much for the Jazz in the long run. Spurs in six
2. Oklahoma City Thunder vs Dallas Mavericks
If I had to pick one first round upset, it would be Dallas over OKC. I know that this sounds asinine, considering that OKC is one of the favorites to win it all this season. I just hate this matchup for the Thunder. As we saw last season, Dallas can be a total bitch defensively against Oklahoma City. And a lot of people suggest that Dallas is worse defensively because they don't have Tyson Chandler anymore. On the contrary, Dallas is giving up only 94 points per game this season (whereas they gave up 96 ppg in 2011) and holds teams to 43% shooting this season (whereas it was 45% last season).
And I know that statistically, the Thunder's bigs are stellar on defense. After all, Serge Ibaka leads the entire league in blocks per game. I'm just not confident in Ibaka's and Perkin's ability to stop Dirk Nowitzki in crunch time. Anyone else remember when Dirk dropped 48 on OKC last season? This one won't be an easy W for OKC. Thunder in seven
3. Los Angeles Lakers vs 6. Denver Nuggets
I like the Denver Nuggets. I really do. But I think that Andre Bynum and Pau Gasol are gonna hand Javale McGee and Kenneth Faried their asses. However with Metta World Peace suspended, I expect at least one marvelous performance out of Danilo Galinari. Lakers in five
4. Memphis Grizzlies vs. Los Angeles Clippers
I count on Chris Paul giving the Clippers at least two big-time games. However, only one of them will be good enough for a victory. Grizzlies in five
Western Conference Finals:Memphis over Oklahoma City
Lakers aside, Memphis is going to be a total bitch for any team in the Western Conference. I know that San Antonio swept the regular season series against the Grizzlies. Not to knock Tim Duncan and Dejaun Blair, but I don't see them being able to handle Z-Bo and Marc Gasol in a seven game series. Furthermore, Tony Parker has struggled against Memphis all season. I don't expect that to change much if Memphis throws Tony Allen at Parker. San Antonio is a team to be reckoned with, but I see them falling to Memphis in round two.
Then there's the Thunder, who I expect to make the Western Conference Finals. This would setup a rematch of their classic second round series last season (best series of the playoffs in 2011). Although the Grizzlies are without Shane Battier (he played Durant well last season), they will have Rudy Gay this time around, who will not only give Durant trouble, but will also force Durant to expend some energy on defense. Ibaka and Perkins will find it difficult to help off-ball with Gasol and Z-Bo up front. Memphis will shock the NBA this season by upsetting Oklahoma City.
1. Chicago Bulls vs 8. Philadelphia 76ers
The Bulls are about to spank the Sixers. Why do I say this? Because the Sixers are 15-22 since February 13th, and most of their wins since have come from beating up on lesser teams. Bulls in four
2. Miami Heat vs 8. New York Knicks
I know a lot of people want to have fun and think that the Knicks will give Miami trouble in round one. We do know that Tyson Chandler was huge against Miami in the Finals last season, that MSG has some of the loudest fans, and that Carmelo Anthony can be a total nightmare when he's hot. But even when Anthony dropped 42 on El Heat in New York earlier this month, Miami still prevailed. Heat in five
3. Indiana Pacers vs 6. Orlando Magic
Forget the fact that losing Dwight Howard is a blow to the team's morale, will probably hinder any crown energy in Orlando, and any mental implications surrounding the whole Howard-SVG soap opera - Without DH12, I cannot see Orlando rebounding the ball much against a tough Pacers squad, who are the fifth best rebounding team in the league. Pacers in four
4. Boston Celtics vs 5. Atlanta Hawks
This should be an interesting series. These are both teams that some would say overachieved and exceeded expectations this season. Atlanta has played most of the season without Al Horford, while Boston has had various injury and chemistry issues of their own. Both teams have played very well down the stretch. On one hand, I want to pick the Hawks, because if Joe Johnson and Josh Smith can combine for four or more quality scoring games (which is not out of the question), the Hawks will roll. On the other hand, I like Boston's ability to control the tempo and get stops. Celtics in six
Eastern Conference Finals: Heat over Celtics
Wait, why not the Bulls?
I like how Boston matches up with Chicago in round two. Boston has played some stellar defense as of late, and with Rondo's ability to lock down opposing guards, the Celtics will give Derrick Rose a lot of trouble. It's a very tough call, and I would not be surprised one bit if the Bulls beat Boston to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals.
Regardless, I don't think that the opponent matters. Miami will beat either Chicago or Boston. Miami hasstruggled late in the season, and lost some big games down the stretch to Chicago and Boston. However, the Heat have had a much tougher schedule this season. After all, they sellout every road game they go to. Every team is always fired up to play them, and wants to beat them. The same can not be said about the other Chicago, Boston (how many road games were the Celtics selling out?), or any of the other tile contenders. I went to the Pistons game where they played the Lakers. The Palace was sold out, and half of the fans in attendance were rooting for the Lakers. Similar for when Chicago came to town: Casual NBA fans love Derrick Rose and generally do not boo him. These things generally do not happen when Dwyane Wade and El Heat come to down.
Also, people seem to forget this fact every season: Dwyane Wade is a killer in the playoffs. Straight up assassin. Aside from Dirk, I have not seen any other current player (in their prime, sorry Tim Duncan and Paul Pierce) kick it into such a higher gear when it comes playoff time than Wade. I have yet to see Rose kick it into that extra gear. Who knows? Maybe Rose will do it this season. I'm just betting on what I know, and I believe in Wade more than Rose right now.
Could it be 2004 all over again? A team full of pretty good players that play well together, can play various styles of basketball, and can matchup well with anyone, trumps a heavily favored team full of stars?
Here is what we know -
Miami struggled to guard Dirk in the post last season in the NBA Finals. They'll have similar problems stopping Z-Bo and Marc Gasol.
Gasol is a pretty solid off-ball defender. In fact, he blocked more shots per game than Tyson Chandler did last season and this season.
The Grizzlies have solid perimeter defenders in Gay and Allen. Conley is not a slouch either.
Miami will have home court advantage.
Miami has loads more playoff experience than Memphis. Memphis does not have the playoff chops that Dallas did last season.
Both teams are in the top five Opponent's Points Per Game, and are amongst the best defensively.
Miami has two reliable finishers in LeBron and Wade. Memphis has three good finishers in Z-Bo, Gasol, and Gay.
It's a tough call. I think if Memphis can steal one of the first two games in Miami, they will prevail in six. There's no way they lose two out of three on their home court. But who knows? This year's playoffs are pretty wide open at the moment, especially in the Western Conference. I would not be surprised if neither of these teams made the Finals. But this is my blog and I'm going to have fun, and I am picking the Memphis Grizzlies to beat El Heat in the 2012 NBA Finals.
Most Valuable Player: LeBron James
Coach of the Year: Gregg Popovich
Defensive player of the Year: Tyson Chandler
Rookie of the Year: Kyrie Irving
Sixth Man of the Year: James Harden
Most Improved Player: Ryan Anderson