NBA playoff predictions and the TrueHoop ESPN Stat Geek Smackdown

LOS ANGELES, CA - APRIL 13: JaVale McGee #34 of the Denver Nuggets shoots over Andrew Bynum #17 and Metta World Peace #15 of the Los Angeles Lakers at Staples Center on April 13, 2012 in Los Angeles, California. The Lakers won 103-97. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)

Matt and I are back in the ESPN TrueHoop Stat Geek Smackdown again this year. From the article:

Also returning this year is Matthew Stahlhut. Two years ago, he e-mailed me round by round with picks before each series started and before everybody else's picks were published. In a very professional way, he even talked a little trash. And, even though he wasn't really in the contest, he "won" it. He uses sophisticated models that he created (with the help of others) as a consultant for a gambling group. Last year, his first in the contest, he finished third.

We're first and foremost Nuggets fans and wanted to give you guys a little bit of insite and commentary into our first round picks. This piece is similar to last year's piece in that I provided Eastern Conference commentary and Matt provided the Western Conference insight.

Eastern Conference

Philadelphia 76ers at Chicago Bulls (Bulls in 5)

From a statistical profile, the Bulls and 76ers are two teams cut from the same cloth. They are both elite defensive teams for different reasons - the 76ers because of Andre Iguodala's elite individual defense and the Bulls because of Thibodeau's defensive scheme. On offense, both teams struggle with both getting good looks and shooting efficiently on offense. The Bulls make up for this deficiency by leading the league in offensive rebounding while the 76ers make up for this deficiency by turning the ball over at a historically low rate.

Net-net both teams end up being pretty good because they're able to outscore opponents by scoring enough points on offense to create positive point differentials when combined with their elite defense.

The 76ers are way better than most experts have given them credit for and have significantly underperformed in the win-loss column given their point differential (43-23 expected and 35-31 actual). One of the main reasons for underperforming is their inability to get good looks and just how frequently a possession ends with a fading, contested long jumpshot.

Here are the numbers:

CHI in 4: 10.8%

CHI in 5: 22.9%

CHI in 6: 17.2%

CHI in 7: 20.9%

PHI in 4 2.7%

PHI in 5 5.4%

PHI in 6 11.9%

PHI in 7 9.4%

New York Knicks at Miami Heat (Miami in 5)

The Heat have been absolutely dominant at times this season. In one particular stretch, they blew out the Hawks, the Bucks and the Pacers by 15 or more points a game while in the midst of a 6 game road trip where the Pacers game was a back-to-back-to-back. Since then, the schedule, lack-of depth, and reliance on the big 3 have made them look somewhat mortal.

If the Heat have one weakness, it's their reliance on the big 3 and just how bad the rest of the roster is. We have LeBron using ~24% of the Heat's plays, Wade using ~16%, and Bosh using ~15%. The next closest player is Chalmers at 9% and his offensive game depends almost entirely on wide-open 3 point looks created by James or Wade. If you weren't convinced all you had to do is look at how bad the Heat played when they rested their 3 stars at the end of the season and were blown out against Washington and lost to the Celtics without Garnett, Rondo or Allen.

The Knicks have quietly become a good defense team. Tyson Chandler has done a good job of shoring up their interior and help defense, which has allowed their perimeter defense to be a little bit stouter. Additionally, they're much better in transition, which is largely a byproduct of effort.

Don't be fooled - this series won't be very close. Miami is better on both offense and defense and Miami will have a clear advantage getting to the line and limiting the Knicks from getting to the line. The Knicks will have to hope for injuries - both to A'mare and to one of the big 3.

Here are the numbers:

MIA in 4 16.0% NYK in 4 1.5%

MIA in 5 27.9% NYK in 5 3.1%

MIA in 6 18.7% NYK in 6 7.9%

MIA in 7 18.2% NYK in 7 6.7%

Boston Celtics at Atlanta Hawks (Boston in 6)

The Celtics have been tough to predict in the last few years because of Doc Rivers' tendency to rest his stars in the second half of the season and come up with new wrinkles and schemes for the playoffs. The Celtics are a pretty average team on offense but do a great job of doing things that matter on defense - limiting offensive looks, contesting shots and also creating turnovers. They have physical limitations on the boards, understand this, and make a conscious effort to get back on defense instead of going for offensive rebounds while doing a good job of boxing out to limit 2nd chance opportunities on defense.

The Hawks look similar to the Celtics on offense except for on the offensive boards. They don't do anything on defense at an elite level but they have a very good defense because they're above average at contesting shots, creating turnovers, limiting second chance opportunities, and not fouling.

If Al Horford returns from injury and is healthy, expect him to make a big difference in this series and swing it in Atlanta's favor. He's a quality player who can be another quality option on offense, help space the floor, and play solid defense. Also, Boston's performance in the 2nd half as their offense has had a tendency to disappear in the 2nd half of games.

The Celtics should have an advantage on offense due to the fact that Rondo is able to create good looks for his teammates while the Hawks have relied on isolation plays all season. This series should come down to how the Hawks' rebounding advantage matches up with the Celtics' advantage on defense. If the Celtics are able to limit second chance opportunities, they should have a clear advantage in this series. If not, expect it to be a close.

Here are the numbers:

ATL in 4 3.5% BOS in 4 9.1%

ATL in 5 10.3% BOS in 5 14.2%

ATL in 6 10.1% BOS in 6 22.0%

ATL in 7 16.5% BOS in 7 14.2%

Orlando Magic at Indiana Pacers (Indiana in 5)

This series can be summed up with one stat - effective field goal percentage given up to opponents or DeFG%. If you look at the Magic's percentage for the whole season their DeFG% is 48.8%. In April, without Howard it was 53.3%. Just for comparison, the Charlotte Bobcats gave up a DeFG% of 51.2%. They went from top 3rd in the league to significantly the worst team in the league on defense. Of course, as Nuggets fans we know this - JaVale McGee seemed to throw down dunks at will when we played them.

The Pacers, like the Bulls and 76ers, are bad on offense and good at defense. They're worse than the both the Bulls and 76ers at offense but do a good job of getting to the line and creating extra opportunities with offensive rebounds.

The Magic need to hope that Ryan Anderson becomes an NBA Jam character, hits 3 in a row, and starts lighting nets on fire from behind the arc to have any chance.

The numbers:

IND in 4 13.3% ORL in 4 2.0%

IND in 5 25.5% ORL in 5 4.1%

IND in 6 18.1% ORL in 6 9.7%

IND in 7 19.3% ORL in 7 8.0%

Western Conference

San Antonio Spurs at Utah Jazz (Spurs in 5)

Over the past two years, the Spurs have developed a superior offense because they have surrounded the traditional Big Three with a combination of good perimeter shooters, and versatile offensive players with high basketball IQs. The top ten players in minutes played on the Spurs roster all shot above league average in terms of eFG%. Every. Single. One. Typically, shooting percentages are subject to a large degree of variance, but there is reason to believe that the Spurs' shooting success is sustainable. First of all, their offense is designed to get a large number of shots from the most efficient spots in the floor. They are in the top ten league-wide in percentage of shots taken both at the rim and from behind the three-point line. So as long as they continue to generate these good looks, they will continue to shoot well in terms of eFG% with the added bonus that shots taken at the rim generate the most free throws (another hallmark of an efficient offense).

Utah's offense is actually pretty good. They get to the line, they get offensive rebounds, and they don't turn the ball over too much. Unfortunately, their offensive rebounding may be largely mitigated by the fact that the Spurs are an excellent defensive rebounding team. Their defense is below average, and one of the main culprits for this is their propensity to foul a lot. As much as I love Paul Millsap, fouling is one of his major weaknesses. He seems to be out of position constantly, which is fatal against an offense like San Antonio's.

Overall, there is nothing I can find that would lead me to believe that this series will be close. I have approximate percentages as below:

SAS in 4 18.9% UTA in 4 1.1%

SAS in 5 30.3% UTA in 5 2.4%

SAS in 6 18.8% UTA in 6 6.2%

SAS in 7 16.9% UTA in 7 5.5%

Oklahoma City Thunder at Dallas Mavericks (Thunder in 5)

Benjamin Morris (from the Smackdown) mentioned something very interesting about this series. He said that defending champions largely outperform their record in the playoffs. There's lots of evidence to support this point. However, few of those teams lost their second most productive player as the Mavericks did when they didn't re-sign Tyson Chandler (notice how the Knicks are suddenly good at defense this year?). Additionally, our research shows that the largest drops in shooting ability come each year after a player turns 32. Well, Dallas's top five players in terms of minutes played are all over 32. So perhaps it's no surprise that Dallas suffered such a huge drop in shooting this year. They have the advantage in coaching in this series (which is massively underrated as far as playoff performance goes), but they just don't have enough talent to hang with Oklahoma City in this series.

As a Nuggets fan, I really, REALLY hate Oklahoma City. Like, a lot. But they're good, and only getting better. Durant is unbelievable offensively and is starting to become a force on defense as well. Oklahoma City's two possible weaknesses that could lead to a Dallas upset are the coach and their willingness to utilize Westbrook over Harden, especially in late game situations. Scott Brooks isn't a bad coach, but his late game strategy in close games leaves something to be desired. Which leads to the second point. James Harden is the second best player on this team, but he is often disregarded in terms of usage in favor of Russell Westbrook, who is much less productive per possession used. Especially in close and late situations. Dallas designs its defense to take advantage of these tendencies, and you may see them funnel the ball to Westbrook in order to make him shoot much more to the detriment of the team.

Here are our estimates for this series:

OKC in 4 15.1% DAL in 4 1.6%

OKC in 5 27.2% DAL in 5 3.4%

OKC in 6 18.5% DAL in 6 8.4%

OKC in 7 18.6% DAL in 7 7.1%

Los Angeles Lakers v. Denver Nuggets (Lakers in 7)

Of all the teams that Denver could have faced in the top half of the Western Conference bracket, the Lakers present the best matchup. One of the reasons for this is the loss of Lamar Odom (remember when he used to be good? It was only last year.). Kobe is still an excellent player, but you can see evidence of significant decline, points-per-game notwithstanding. His biggest dropoff has come in terms of shooting, which is completely expected since he is 33 years old. However, this drop in shooting efficiency was not met with a corresponding drop in usage, and in fact, Kobe had the second highest usage of his career. This was done at the expense of Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol. This, plus the substitution of Mike Brown's offense for the triangle, has made LA's offense much more average.

One potential benefit for the Nuggets in this series is that the Lakers do not do a very good job of forcing turnovers. When the Nuggets have been bad this season, a large reason would be their propensity to commit turnovers. The Nuggets will benefit from the Lakers' loss of Metta World Peace, because although he's an albatross on offense, he's still an outstanding perimeter defender. That should work out well for the Nugs because the Lakers have no one else who can guard Gallinari. In order for the Nuggets to pull off the upset in this one, Gallinari has to play well. The Nuggets were SIGNIFICANTLY better with Gallo on the court this year. Unfortunately, he looks timid at times and has not shot the ball well. He needs to shoot more and shoot from three much more in order to make the Nuggets much harder to defend. But even when he shoots poorly, his ability to create, defend, and rebound makes him the Nuggets most valuable player.

Here are our estimates. This series projects to be very close and the difference is the loss of Nene (in fact, the most likely result is the Nuggets to win in six even though the Lakers are slightly favored to win the series). I ran the numbers with only our projected lineup from the beginning of the season (with everyone healthy) and the Nuggets grade out as the third best team in the Western Conference). In other words, the difference between Nene and JaVale McGee is massive.

LAL in 4 5.2% DEN in 4 6.4%

LAL in 5 13.8% DEN in 5 10.9%

LAL in 6 12.5% DEN in 6 19.2%

LAL in 7 18.7% DEN in 7 13.2%

Memphis Grizzlies at Los Angeles Clippers (Clippers in 6)

I am a huge Chris Paul fan because he makes great reads and has an excellent basketball IQ. He has converted what was a pretty dreadful Clippers offense to a top five unit. The Clippers shoot well and don't turn the ball over, which will always lead to a high efficiency offense. On defense, they are slightly below average and one of the main culprits for that is that their starting bigs get lost on defense a lot and end up fouling.

I think Memphis's run last year has everyone thinking that they are the playoff team from last year, so they ignore the 140 or so other games that this team has played over the past two years. Their offense is below average and they depend on forcing turnovers to have a good defense. Forcing turnovers against the Clippers will be difficult, because the way they run their offense reduces turnovers significantly. If I were Coach Hollins, I would put Tony Allen (one of the league's best wing defenders) on Chris Paul and hope for the best. A lot of smart people are picking Memphis in this series, but I just don't see it based on the evidence I have. I even ran numbers just using Memphis's second half performance, and it didn't improve their odds at all.

Here are our estimates:

MEM in 4 3.9% LAC in 4 8.3%

MEM in 5 11.2% LAC in 5 13.3%

MEM in 6 10.7% LAC in 6 21.5%

MEM in 7 17.3% LAC in 7 13.9%

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