Thursday, April 7, 2011

Predicting the Seeding of the NBA Playoffs, Part 2

In yesterday's post, I predicted that, based on their remaining schedules, the 76ers would beat out the Knicks for the #6 seed in the Eastern Conference, and the Heat would edge the Celtics for the #2 seed. Now it's time to move to the Western Conference, where three teams are within a game of each other, all vying for the sixth spot in the playoffs.  As of this afternoon, the Hornets and Trailblazers are tied in sixth place, and the Grizzlies are lurking one game behind them in eighth.  With four games remaining for each team, any ordering of the three teams is still possible.  Reaching the #6 spot is crucial for teams hoping to pull an upset, because the #7 gets to face the surging Lakers, while the eighth seed has to go up against a Spurs unit that has been scorching hot since I predicted they would turn their losing streak around.  Though the third-seeded Mavericks will be anything but a cakewalk, they would still be significantly easier than Kobe or Duncan's squads.  Which team will rise to the coveted #6 by the season's end?  Let's break down the schedules and find out.

New Orleans Hornets (Predicted Game Result) 
4/8 vs. Phoenix (W)
4/10 @ Memphis (W)
4/11 vs. Jazz (W)
4/13 @ Dallas (W)

Portland Trailblazers
4/7 @ Utah (W)
4/8 vs. LA Lakers (L)
4/12 vs. Memphis (W)
4/13 @ Golden State (L)

Memphis Grizzlies
4/8 vs. Sacramento (W)
4/10 vs. New Orleans (L)
4/12 @ Portland (L)
4/13 @ LA Clippers (W)

Breaking down each schedule individually, we'll start with the Chris Paul (see right) and the Hornets, who are tied with the Trailblazers for 6th but currently own the head-to-head tiebreaker.  New Orleans will win home games against under-.500 squads Phoenix and Utah, as well as on the road against the slumping Mavericks (four-game losing streak), who will likely be resting many of their starters on the last day of the season.  The Trailblazers will win at Utah tonight, but they'll lose to the Lakers tomorrow as the Bynum-Gasol tandem proves too much on the second night of a back-to-back.  They'll also lose the last night of the season in Golden State because the Warriors, though 10-30 on the road, are actually 25-14 on their home floor.  Finally, the 8th place Grizzlies will win against Sacramento and at the Clippers, two bottom-feeders who have nothing to play for in this final week.  These results would put New Orleans in 6th, followed 1.5 games later by the Grizzlies, who would lead the Trailblazers by half a game.  Two all-important contests remain.

The Grizzlies will face off against both the Hornets and the Trailblazers in the final week of the season, and those results can determine the final seeding of these three teams.  In the first matchup, the Hornets will travel to Memphis to try to knock the Grizzlies out of contention for the #6 spot.  I predict they'll do so behind an impressive scoring night from Paul.  He scored at least 20 points in the Hornets' two wins over the Grizz, but Memphis limited him to only six points in the one Hornets loss.  Paul is averaging 16.2 points per game this season, and the Grizzlies will not be able to slow him down again, even with improved play from Mike Conley (see above).  Chris Paul is too good a player to be limited like that by the same opponent twice in a season, and he'll lead the Hornets to victory in Memphis.  Based on the other predictions, that locks up the #6 seed for New Orleans and drops Memphis into a tie with the Trailblazers for the #7 spot in the West.  The winner of that matchup takes the seventh seed.

The Trailblazers and the Grizzlies will square off on Tuesday night in Portland; the Grizzlies, coming off an emotional loss to the Hornets and facing a well-rested Trailblazers squad, will fall in another critical game and drop back down to the #8 seed.  The Grizzlies' renaissance the past couple years has been due largely to the acquisition of center Zach Randolph, who this year is averaging 20 points to go along with career-highs of 12.2 rebounds and 51% shooting from the field.  Randolph has been Memphis' leading scorer in five of their last six victories, but in four of their last five losses someone other than Randolph has led the way for the Grizzlies.  Clearly, as the big fella from Michigan State goes, so go the Grizzlies--and unfortunately for the Memphis faithful, the Trailblazers are built perfectly to handle Randolph's inside-outside game.  He will likely be matched up with power forward LaMarcus Aldridge (see above), who has come into his own in 2010-2011 to dominate Western Conference teams.  Aldridge put up 32 points against Oklahoma City's stud defender Serge Ibaka last week, and he grabbed 12 boards over the Warriors' rebounding specialist David Lee.  He's averaging career highs in points, rebounds, assists, and steals, while shooting 50% from the floor.  The Trailblazers also have veteran shot-blocker Marcus Camby and newly acquired, lanky small forward Gerald Wallace to clog the passing lanes and double-team on Aldridge.  The Trailblazers' long, athletic frontcourt will tie up Randolph all night, neutralizing the Grizzlies' biggest weapon and giving the victory--and the #7 seed--to Portland.

With this win, the Trailblazers will take the seventh seed by a game and the Grizzlies will drop to #8.  The former will have to face the battle-tested Lakers and the latter will need to deal with the league-best Spurs.  The real winners here will be the New Orleans Hornets, who will get to avoid these two titans and have a tiny sliver of a chance against Dirk Nowitzki and the Mavericks.

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