I’m a big fantasy football guy. Two of the leagues I participate in, I’ve been involved with for over 20 years. One league, in particular, I do with my best friends from college. I refer to it as my A league. 8 of the 12 guys have been in from the beginning. One guy who’s been there from the beginning drafts the exact same way each year. He always takes the safe pick. He’s comfortably predictable. He’s the easiest guy on the planet to draft in the spot next to him because you always know where he’s going. He’s taking the chalk. We’ve dubbed him affectionately, Chalky McChalkchalk.
As I preview the 2016 NBA playoffs, I feel a little like Chalky McChalkchalk. I see a clear delineation in ability to win in the playoffs from the top four teams in each conference to the bottom four teams in each conference. The format of the 7 game series will normally favor the higher seed for obvious reasons but there’s a reason they play the games.
(1) Cleveland vs (8) Detroit
Detroit is going to be a pain in the Cavs rump. Even though the Cavs have generally maintained a slower pace in spite of head coach Tyronn Lue’s even though shooting a high volume of threes. There are two problems with that strategy vs Detroit. The first is that Detroit is quite comfortable playing slow. The second, and maybe most significant is that Detroit defended the three pointer better than any other team in the NBA this past season. The Cavs will be tested early on their willingness and commitment to use Kevin Love and Lebron James in the low post. The Pistons aren’t ready for an upset of this magnitude but they’ll wake up the Cavs a bit. Cleveland in 6.
(2) Toronto vs (7) Indiana
The Pacers had made a concerted effort this season to play a faster tempo. They retooled their roster with that thought in mind. Although they were able to keep up their great defense, the faster pace did nothing to help their offensive efficiency. Also, the Pacers defense and running game thrives off turnovers and the Raptors take care of the ball well. The Raptors are also a team that shoots well from behind the arc and is adept at controlling tempo. This is a tough spot for the Pacers. It’s not a great Pacers team. The Raptors are deeper and much better. Raptors in 5.
(3) Miami vs (6) Charlotte
This is a brutal matchup for the Heat as a 3 seed. Both of these teams are good at taking care of the ball, although Charlotte is a little better. The Hornets played a little faster and shoot a lot of threes. The Heat are all about two’s and play slow although they’ve increased their tempo since the All Star break. These two teams are incredibly even, which makes sense since they both had the same record. The difference will be Miami’s experience and home court even though the Hornets, in the words of Nuke Laloosh, will announce their presence with authority. Miami in 7.
(4) Atlanta vs (5) Boston
A lot of this series is going to depend upon the Celtics willingness to be disciplined about taking the ball to the basket. The Hawks were the 2nd ranked defensive team in the NBA and defend the three well. Boston likes to shoot the three but their Achilles heel as a unit is that they’re not a wonderful three point shooting team. Atlanta is a team that punts offensive rebounding in the name of transition defense. As good as Boston can be defensively, this is a matchup where they play too fast for their own good. I don’t anticipate this being difficult for the Hawks. Atlanta in 5.
(1) Golden State vs (8) Houston
Are the Rockets very talented? Yes. Did they grossly underachieve this season? Yes. Are the Warriors due for a little bit of a letdown/hangover? Absolutely. On the Rockets best defensive day, do they have a chance to make life difficult for the Warriors offense? Not in this life. This will be a fitting end to an embarrassing season for the Rockets. This will not be difficult for the Warriors. Golden State in 4.
(2) San Antonio vs (7) Memphis
This is going to be the closest thing the Spurs could ever have to a bye in the first round. The Grizzlies are without Mike Conley and Pau Gasol, which make it impossible for them to give the Spurs any kind of challenge whatsoever. An easy first round is something that will help San Antonio tremendously later. This is a brutal spot for Memphis coach Dave Joerger who has done an amazing job getting this walking triage unit in the playoffs. Spurs in 5.
(3) Oklahoma City vs (6) Dallas
Speaking of great coaching jobs, Rick Carlisle has dragged this Dallas team with a 37 year old Dirk Nowitzki at its core and a bunch if mismatched castoffs to a six seed in the Western Conference. This Herculean effort will, unfortunately for the Mavs, end here. The Thunder will overwhelm Dallas with superior athleticism. Dallas wont be able to keep up with the Thunder’s speed. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are going to have a party against the Mavs. Thunder in 5.
(4) L.A. Clippers vs (5) Portland
This matchup underscores the Grand Canyon sized gap between the top 4 seeds in the West and the bottom four teams. Portland is a great story. They lost e starters to free agency and traded a fourth. With Damian Lillard as their only holdover, they remade this team on the fly and are back in the same exact playoff seed they were last year. Unfortunately for them, there is no way their guards are going to be able to deal with Chris Paul and J.J. Redick. The Blazers are too young and not deep enough. The Clippers playoff troubles aren’t going to come from an inexperienced inferior opponent. They’ll struggle later when a better team put them onto the mat and they can’t get up. Clippers in 5.
Cleveland over Atlanta in 4. Same story as last year for these two teams. If DeMarre Carroll couldn’t make life tough for Lebron in last year’s series between these two teams, there’s no reason to believe that Kent Bazemore can do it.
Miami over Toronto in 6. This is another even matchup for the Heat. The Raptors are one of the more accurate three point shooting teams in the league. They also play slower this year than they have in year’s past. Miami’s new found fast tempo and smaller lineup will give them an advantage against the Raptors. They’re also more experienced and the Raptors recent history of folding like a cheap suit in the playoffs, Miami should be able to finish them.
Golden State over L.A. Clippers in 5. This used to be a rivalry, but not anymore. The Clips will play smaller to try and matchup but they play too fast to slow the Warriors down. Tough draw for the Clips who can’t get out of the 2nd round, but they don’t have anywhere close to what it takes to beat the best regular season team in the history of the sport.
San Antonio over Oklahoma City in 5. This will be a good warm up for the Spurs. They’ll have to deal with some of the same tempo issues they’ll run into with the Warriors except the Thunder don’t shoot threes in transition even close to as well, allowing the Spurs more margin for error. The Spurs will successfully slow the Thunder down.
Cleveland over Miami in 7. The Heat will give the Cavs everything they can handle, but in the end the wear and tear on Miami from the two prior series will slow the Heat down just enough that the Cavs will advance to their 2nd straight finals and Lebron James’ 6th straight.
San Antonio over Golden State in 7. The Spurs winning a game 7 at Oracle seems like sheer insanity, but a full strength Spurs team will have the discipline to make this a slow tempo series. The Warriors can be a great slow tempo team because of their outstanding defense. The Spurs will attack the Warriors behind the three point arc and force them to take more twos. This will have a modicum of effectiveness but where the Spurs will make big changes will be offensively. They need Tony Parker to be a threat off the dribble and a threat coming off the screens. Parker in the paint will create space for the Spurs three point shooters. The Warriors will do their thing but not enough in transition and their turnover issue will hurt them over a long series. Spurs in 7 by the slimmest of margins.
Spurs over Cavs in 5. This will looks somewhat similar to the 2014 NBA Finals. The Cavs will be outplayed, out-coached, and outclassed from the jump. And if by some chance the 73 win Warriors land here instead of the Spurs, they’ll make mince meat of the Cavs in a systematic fashion as well. Different weapons will yield the same result. In the end, look for lots of chalk with a twist.