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TrueHoop's Stat Geek Smackdown: 2008 Playoffs

6/22/2008

Go to:    Scoreboard      Predictions      Bios

It's Year 2 of the TrueHoop Stat Geek Smackdown, won in 2007 by Justin Kubatko of Basketball-Reference.com.

The rules are simple: Based on stats, hunches and anything else, each person predicts the outcome of each series, round by round. Each correctly picked series is worth five points. Correctly predicting the number of games is worth two additional points. Winner take all.

As a little something to raise the stakes, I'm also challenging these stat experts to go head to head against ... my mom. She watched a lot of Blazer basketball in the 1990s. Fear her.

On to the contest ...

SCOREBOARD


SERIES PREDICTIONS

Finals
Lakers-Celtics

Conference finals
Pistons-Celtics | Spurs-Lakers

Conference semifinals
Cavs-Celtics | Magic-Pistons | Jazz-Lakers | Spurs-Hornets

First-round matchups
ATL-BOS | PHI-DET | TOR-ORL | WAS-CLE | DEN-LAL | DAL-NO | PHX-SA | HOU-UTH

SMACKDOWN BREAKDOWN

Boy oh boy. These Finals are not easy to pick.

And here's why: For the most part, the most successful pickers in this contest have stuck with what the numbers have said over the long haul -- a bigger sample size is a more useful predictive tool than a small one. But the Lakers have been, in many ways, a different team with Pau Gasol.

So the essential dilemma is: When you calculate how strong the Lakers are, do you consider the big picture of the Lakers all season long, or the smaller picture of the Lakers with Gasol?

In this series, by most measures, that crucial little question determines which team you think will win.

Reigning champ and current leader (by a whisper) Justin Kubatko talks through his decision-making process:

"As you know, this series is huge for Steve [Ilardi] and me. There are three things that can happen: 1) Stephen and I pick the same winner in the same number of games. If that happens, I win the contest. 2) Stephen and I pick the same winner, but in a different number of games. In that case, Stephen would have to get the 2-point bonus in order to tie me. 3) Stephen and I pick different winners. This scenario results in winner takes all.

"This series provides an interesting dilemma, as a case can be made for picking either team. The Celtics were hands-down the best team during the regular season, and they have the home-court edge in the Finals. The Lakers, on the other hand, have been the best team in the NBA since the Gasol acquisition, and their playoff competition has been stronger than the Celtics'. In the end, I decided to go with the numbers post-Gasol, and I will pick the Lakers in six games."

Mike Kurylo, on the other hand, is picking the Celtics:

"My gut," he writes, "is telling me that Gasol has given Los Angeles a Rasheed Wallace-like increase in performance. And that's nearly cemented in my right brain by the Lakers' breeze through the playoffs. However, my left brain keeps telling me that Boston has the edge. Not only do they own the home-court advantage, but they had the superior 2008 season. Even including the playoffs, the Celtics' record is still superior to the Lakers. Additionally, the Lakers haven't been much better since the Gasol trade. They won 69.2 percent of their games before acquiring Gasol, and 69.8 percent after the deal. So I'm sticking with my promise and going with the numbers. I'll be taking the Celtics in 6, and crossing my fingers."

Kevin Pelton wrestled with the pick for a long time:

"The more I look at this series, the better I feel about the Celtics' chances. On paper, given the way both teams have played in the postseason, the Lakers should be the clear favorites. However, Boston matches up well with the Lakers. In some sense, you could consider the Celtics a more talented, deeper version of the San Antonio squad the Lakers faced in the Western Conference finals. While that series went just five games, two of them (Games 1 and 4) were essentially toss-ups, both won by the Lakers. Change the outcome of either of those games and the series easily could have gone the distance. The Lakers only had one convincing win, as many as the Spurs did.

"It's easy to see how Boston could win this series. With Pierce leading the Celtics' offense and scoring against weaker Lakers defenders and the Boston D doing enough to slow down Bryant and contain the other Los Angeles weapons, the Celtics could have the upper hand. Ultimately, two factors work against Boston.

"The first is the matchup on the sidelines. While Doc Rivers did a better job in the Eastern Conference finals, his maddeningly inconsistent rotations have been troublesome throughout this postseason. Twelve Celtics have seen action in at least 12 games, while just 10 Lakers have seen more than 10 minutes of game time in the entire postseason. Phil Jackson has the clear advantage in terms of experience on this stage and has done a masterful job in getting the Lakers to this point.

"The other factor is the outcome of close games. More likely than not, any games that come down to a possession or two in this series will be decided by the bounce of the ball. Still, if these teams played 100 such games, we'd expect the Lakers to come out on top the majority of the time. Boston's difficulty generating offense down the stretch has been well-documented. Meanwhile, in Bryant the Lakers have the game's ultimate closer. That might not end up being a factor at all, but along with the coaching it's enough to reaffirm my pick: Lakers in six."

What about poor Steve Ilardi? The picks are, of course, made in secret, so Ilardi had no way of knowing that he had sealed his own second-place fate, by picking the same as almost everybody else.

"The Lakers have a 1.5-point advantage in postseason adjusted plus-minus analyses (based on playing-time allocation in the playoffs), which should be just enough to offset the Celtics' home-court edge in the series," Ilardi writes. "However, the two teams are closely matched, so it could go either way; for example, any key injury to the other side would likely be decisive. And, while much has been written about Kobe stepping up his game in the playoffs, his adjusted plus-minus has remained essentially unchanged from the regular season; in contrast, KG's rating has gone up by roughly +2 points per game, placing him in a virtual 3-way tie at the top of the league with Kobe and LeBron."

Any remaining battling will not be for first place. The only movement left in these standings will come from Kurylo and Ma. But Ilardi has found another field where the competition rolls on: the Stat Geeks vs. ESPN's experts. And here the Stat Geeks hope to close out a strong postseason.

At the moment, Kubatko has 73 points, Ilardi has 71, Kurylo has 65, and Hollinger has 61.

By the same rules, the ESPN.com experts are as follows:

1. Chad Ford -- 68
2. Chris Sheridan -- 63
3. Tim Legler -- 62
4. J.A. Adande -- 59
5. Chris Broussard -- 57
6. Henry Abbott -- 55
7. David Thorpe -- 53
8. Marc Stein -- 51
9. Jalen Rose -- 50

Finals
Lakers-Celtics

Conference finals
Pistons-Celtics | Spurs-Lakers

Conference semifinals
Cavs-Celtics | Magic-Pistons | Jazz-Lakers | Spurs-Hornets

First-round matchups
ATL-BOS | PHI-DET | TOR-ORL | WAS-CLE | DEN-LAL | DAL-NO | PHX-SA | HOU-UTH

SMACKDOWN BREAKDOWN

Jeffrey Ma is well behind in the standings at this point, but he has a cunning plan to get back in the race. He guessed that a lot of stats would show the Pistons to be favorites here, and guessed that the Celtics would give him a chance to gain some ground on the field. Then, to be extra different, he picked the Celtics to win the whole thing on the road, which would give him a crack at two points no one else is likely to get.

The only downside is that almost everybody ahead of Ma picked the Celtics too.

Stephen Ilardi explains why he picked Boston: Adjusted plus-minus analyses based on postseason minutes distribution have the Celtics favored at +4.5 points per game. However, the home-court advantage in the playoffs has been astronomical thus far, worth a staggering 9 points per game across the four series involving Boston and Detroit. Unless that trend changes, the home team would be favored to win each game of this series.

Kevin Pelton sees merit in the Pistons: "In some ways, picking the Pistons goes against what I usually stand for in terms of paying more attention to the larger sample of the regular season compared to the more recent playoff results. Even as the Celtics were going 66-16, however, there was plenty to recommend Detroit. Given that, I think Boston's poor postseason is enough to tip the scales in favor of the Pistons. The starters are very close, and Game 7 aside, the Pistons reserves are playing better basketball."

Finals
Lakers-Celtics

Conference finals
Pistons-Celtics | Spurs-Lakers

Conference semifinals
Cavs-Celtics | Magic-Pistons | Jazz-Lakers | Spurs-Hornets

First-round matchups
ATL-BOS | PHI-DET | TOR-ORL | WAS-CLE | DEN-LAL | DAL-NO | PHX-SA | HOU-UTH

SMACKDOWN BREAKDOWN

At the moment of this writing, Jeffrey Ma does not yet know that he's the only guy who picked the Spurs. But he has to be loving it. After being an also-ran through the first two rounds, now he only needs a series win by the defending champions to get back in this thing. He could potentially gain seven points on the field in one series, which would put a lot of pressure on the leaders in the Finals.

"Here's my picture of how the Spurs win," he explains. "Bruce Bowen checks Kobe Bryant and frustrates him into dumb shots. Tim Duncan completely dominates Pau Gasol and even gets him into foul trouble. Tony Parker is too quick for Derek Fisher and creates havoc in the lane. And Sasha Vujacic actually misses some jumpers this series. Could it happen? I hope so. Spurs will slow this thing way down and the Lakers are much better against teams which average 93 or more possessions (31-9 against the spread this season). The Spurs averaged 91 possessions this season and my guess is they will average far fewer in this series, understanding the value of pace."

On other hand, all the other experts see the Lakers as the superior team. Stephen Ilardi's assessment: "The Lakers have a slight edge of +0.7 points per game based upon aggregate adjusted plus-minus analyses (weighted by each player's postseason minutes allocation), and they also have the homecourt advantage. Although my gut tells me never to pick against the Spurs -- Justin Kubatko and I have both been burned picking against them in previous Smackdown rounds (the only incorrect series predictions either of us has made in the competition thus far) -- my head tells me the Spurs have finally met their match in Kobe, Phil, Pau, et al."

Kevin Pelton's view: "The Spurs have shown the ability to cover their all-too-real flaws with game planning and terrific defense. Still, the Lakers' depth will be difficult to overcome. As compared to New Orleans, the Lakers are more talented, deeper, and have a veteran coach who will negate much of Gregg Popovich's ability to make adjustments. The defending champs have proven time and again they won't go down without a fight, but eventually their time will run out."

Mike Kurylo explains: "I have the Lakers as the second-rated team for the season, but that only includes a quarter season from Gasol. I suspect they're much better than they were in the regular season. So far in the playoffs they've been pretty impressive, which strengthens that notion."

Finals
Lakers-Celtics

Conference finals
Pistons-Celtics | Spurs-Lakers

Conference semifinals
Cavs-Celtics | Magic-Pistons | Jazz-Lakers | Spurs-Hornets

First-round matchups
ATL-BOS | PHI-DET | TOR-ORL | WAS-CLE | DEN-LAL | DAL-NO | PHX-SA | HOU-UTH

SMACKDOWN BREAKDOWN

Oh man oh man, this here is a series where my mom has a chance to put a little scare into some stat geeks. And it's never bad to have LeBron James on your side.

Justin Kubatko, nursing a decent lead in the standings, does not seem nervous: "The Celtics were the best road team in the NBA this season, so I expect them to revert to form and put this series away rather quickly."

John Hollinger points out that just because the Celtics' first-round series went to a seventh game doesn't mean it was all that close. Boston outscored Atlanta like crazy. "Boston's first-round pairing with Atlanta was the most lopsided seven-game series in NBA history. LeBron has enough juice to steal a game in Cleveland, but that's about all I see for the Cavs."

Jeffrey Ma says he's "still not convinced that Cleveland is that good of a team." Kevin Pelton says Cleveland has to hope for close games: "When a game comes down to the final possessions in this series, you have to like Cleveland's chances with LeBron James as a go-to player and Boston's unorganized offense down the stretch in the first round. I think that's enough to push this series to six games, but not enough for the Cavaliers to pull the upset."

Stephen Ilardi lays some numbers on "the LeBron James effect": "The Celtics are roughly 3.5 points per game better than the Cavaliers in adjusted plus-minus analyses based on each team's postseason playing time allocation to each player, roughly enough to offset the +3.6 ppg home-court advantage the Cavs will have for games 3, 4, and (if necessary) 6. Thus, going strictly by the numbers it should be Celtics in 5. However, as I mentioned in the Cavs-Wiz writeup, LeBron turns it up a notch in the playoffs (a phenomenon measurable in terms of a playoff-related increase in his adjusted plus-minus), leading me to conclude the series may extend to 7 games."

Finals
Lakers-Celtics

Conference finals
Pistons-Celtics | Spurs-Lakers

Conference semifinals
Cavs-Celtics | Magic-Pistons | Jazz-Lakers | Spurs-Hornets

First-round matchups
ATL-BOS | PHI-DET | TOR-ORL | WAS-CLE | DEN-LAL | DAL-NO | PHX-SA | HOU-UTH

SMACKDOWN BREAKDOWN

Remember when Chris Webber said that the Detroit locker room is chaotic? That sure squared with what happened against the Sixers -- sometimes every Piston is clearly on the same page, and other times not even in the same book. I'm figuring that reality could be worth a game or two for the Magic. And you have to pencil in Dwight Howard for one or two more, don't you?

Alas, I'm no stat geek. Because to the keepers of the numbers, all of them, this is Detroit's series.

Mike Kurylo explains: "In statistics, all else being equal, you always take the bigger sample over the smaller one. Hence for 82 games Detroit was far superior to Orlando (as opposed to the last five or six games in the playoffs) and that's where my money is going. OTTER thought Detroit was the league's third best team during the regular season, and Orlando ranks a much lower tenth. Dwight Howard has been a beast, but Detroit is not short on quality big men with Rasheed, Maxiell, McDyess and Ratliff. Even if Detroit loses the battle at center (which they likely will), they are close enough in the frontcourt and superior in the other spots. Billups vs. Nelson, Hamilton vs. Evans/Bogans, Prince vs. Turkoglu all favor the Pistons. And that should tip the edge in favor of Detroit."

Kevin Pelton says: "Ultimately, I see this series coming down to two things. First, Orlando's success is largely dependent on hitting the 3 (though the Magic didn't shoot them very accurately at Toronto, the team did make nearly 10 per game). Second, the Jameer Nelson vs. Chauncey Billups matchup. Orlando needs Nelson to at least come close to matching Billups' production."

Jeffrey Ma thinks Orlando will manage three wins thanks to some special factors: "I see Detroit being able to defend Orlando because of lack of stellar point guard. Detroit will lose a game at home, because Orlando has been good on the road all season. And what Webber said about the Pistons' locker room couldn't have borne out more."

Finals
Lakers-Celtics

Conference finals
Pistons-Celtics | Spurs-Lakers

Conference semifinals
Cavs-Celtics | Magic-Pistons | Jazz-Lakers | Spurs-Hornets

First-round matchups
ATL-BOS | PHI-DET | TOR-ORL | WAS-CLE | DEN-LAL | DAL-NO | PHX-SA | HOU-UTH

SMACKDOWN BREAKDOWN

A nice split! That means this'll be a must-watch, seven-game series, just like Phoenix vs. San Antonio. Oops.

John Hollinger is an international authority on basketball statistics. He justifies his pick this way: "New Orleans was the slightly better team in the regular season and again in the first round, and they have home court ... But what do I know -- I'm losing to Henry's Mom." (They were when he wrote this, but are now actually tied.)

Stephen Ilardi points to a conundrum: the Spurs are better than their regular season record suggests. "Based on simple team regressions alone, it should be Hornets in seven, since New Orleans has been about +0.8 points per game better this year, and has the home court advantage for this series. But San Antonio has improved considerably in the post-season from an adjusted plus-minus standpoint, mostly by giving Kurt Thomas (+3.49) more minutes than Fabricio Oberto (-5.57), and by dramatically reducing the playing time of Jacque Vaughn (-5.45) and Damon Stoudamire (-7.21). I have the Spurs roughly four points per game better than the Hornets based on postseason playing time distribution, just enough to offset the +3.6 points per game home court advantage."

Jeffrey Ma says: "Both teams were impressive in the first round but you have to think San Antonio will have much better team defense than the Mavericks and will not let Chris Paul dominate. Bowen will likely check Paul and will certainly do a better job than Kidd, and you have to think the experience of the Spurs will be enough to get them through."

Mike Kurylo says: "Picking between these two teams is like picking between heads or tails on a flipped coin. They both finished with 56 wins, and both had comparable point differential. They split the regular season head to head matchup 2-2. San Antonio might get a slight edge because Parker and Ginobili missed a combined 20 games during the regular season, but that's negated by New Orleans' home court advantage. I could see these two teams playing a hundred games and ending up with 50 wins apiece. I would like to see the Hornets win because I think they'll make a better story line. But I promised this year to go with OTTER (my ranking system) which has the Spurs ranked fourth and the Hornets fifth by a slim margin. So I'm taking the Spurs."

Justin Kubatko, the reigning champ, is not daunted by recent fluctuations in numbers. "The numbers, he writes, "point to New Orleans, so that's my pick, New Orleans in 7. However, I really like the Spurs and would probably pick them if I were going with my gut. To make myself feel better I came up with three reasons (other than what my math is telling me) why the Hornets should win this series: 1) New Orleans has the home court advantage. 2) New Orleans split their season series with the Spurs, and the two wins were 24-point and 25-point blowouts. 3) Chris Paul was, by a fair margin, the best player in the NBA this season."

Kevin Pelton's rationale is similar. "After the first-round demolition of Phoenix, I'm fearful the Spurs snookered us in the regular season," he writes. "But had a couple of breaks gone differently in Games 1 and 5, we might not feel that way. I'm sticking with the weight of regular-season evidence. I'm sure some team has managed to win consistently in the playoffs with only three players averaging more than eight points per game, but I can't think of any. If the Hornets control one of the big three, they'll win this series."

Finals
Lakers-Celtics

Conference finals
Pistons-Celtics | Spurs-Lakers

Conference semifinals
Cavs-Celtics | Magic-Pistons | Jazz-Lakers | Spurs-Hornets

First-round matchups
ATL-BOS | PHI-DET | TOR-ORL | WAS-CLE | DEN-LAL | DAL-NO | PHX-SA | HOU-UTH

SMACKDOWN BREAKDOWN

Stephen Ilardi writes that, "In aggregate adjusted plus-minus analyses, the Lakers are better by +3.6 points per game (based on playing time allocation in playoffs), and they also have the home court advantage (worth approximately +3.7 points per game). The Lakers should thus be favored by 7.3 points for games played in LA; games played in Utah should be considered virtual tossups."

John Hollinger has become a Laker believer, too. "This contradicts my earlier Utah bandwagon ride, but the evidence in L.A.'s favor is getting overwhelming. With the sweep of Denver, they're now 26-4 with a +11.7 victory margin in 30 games with Gasol healthy."

Justin Kubatko says that home court advantage is the key: "I find these two teams to be very close in quality, and if Utah had the home court advantage I would be picking
them instead. This has the potential to be a great series."

Kevin Pelton says this could be the de facto conference championship: "There is a lot of statistical evidence to suggest that these are the best two teams in the Western Conference, but what is harder to find is evidence the Jazz is the better team. The Lakers have a slightly better differential, home-court advantage, and better past playoff performance by similar teams. From a matchup perspective, the frontcourts should both be able to find room to score but Kobe Bryant is a bigger advantage for the Lakers than Deron Williams for the Jazz in the backcourt. Bryant could swing a close game or two that makes the difference."

Jeffrey Ma, on the other hand, can't ignore the huge role that rebounding and physicality plays in basketball, and says that reality favors Utah. "The Jazz will be physical with the Lakers," he says, "and they will control the boards. Not to mention there will be a lot of flagrant fouls against Kobe Bryant."

Finals
Lakers-Celtics

Conference finals
Pistons-Celtics | Spurs-Lakers

Conference semifinals
Cavs-Celtics | Magic-Pistons | Jazz-Lakers | Spurs-Hornets

First-round matchups
ATL-BOS | PHI-DET | TOR-ORL | WAS-CLE | DEN-LAL | DAL-NO | PHX-SA | HOU-UTH

SMACKDOWN BREAKDOWN

This is TrueHoop Stat Geek Smackdown history being made right here. Never before has every single participant made the exact same prediction. There have been times all the predictions were very similar (for instance, everybody had the Mavericks handily over the Warriors last year).

None of the experts have anything at all nice to say about Atlanta's chances. Ilardi, who is a professor at Kansas, says "I think my beloved (Jay)Hawks might stand a better chance than these Hawks of stealing one from the Celtics." Pelton points out that this is, in terms of records, one of the most lopsided series in NBA history. Kurylo's calculations give the Hawks only a 41 percent chance of stealing one home game.

Something about all the unanimity makes me suspicious, however. Don't you get the feeling something will happen to prove everybody wrong?

Finals
Lakers-Celtics

Conference finals
Pistons-Celtics | Spurs-Lakers

Conference semifinals
Cavs-Celtics | Magic-Pistons | Jazz-Lakers | Spurs-Hornets

First-round matchups
ATL-BOS | PHI-DET | TOR-ORL | WAS-CLE | DEN-LAL | DAL-NO | PHX-SA | HOU-UTH

SMACKDOWN BREAKDOWN

Jeffrey Ma, would you care to reconsider? We were this close to seven identical predictions.

Kurylo says his ranking system has the Pistons third overall, and the Sixers 17th, making this a lopsided matchup.

Pelton says "Thaddeus Young deserves a lot of credit for Philadelphia's second-half resurgence. The 76ers were 11.4 points better per 100 possessions with Young on the floor, which is amazing for a rookie. Philadelphia did beat a Richard Hamilton-less Pistons squad on April 9, but I don't think Detroit should have much trouble in this series unless the Pistons are unfocused (which would not be the first time)."

Ma says this series reminds him a lot of when the Pistons faced Chicago last year. "Lots of people were worried about the athleticism. Philly is playing well and is very athletic," he says, "but Detroit has the players and experience."

Ilardi says that in team regressions, the Pistons are hefty seven-point favorites, which would argue for a sweep. But like everyone else, he is aware that the Pistons have occasionally lost focus in the past.

Finals
Lakers-Celtics

Conference finals
Pistons-Celtics | Spurs-Lakers

Conference semifinals
Cavs-Celtics | Magic-Pistons | Jazz-Lakers | Spurs-Hornets

First-round matchups
ATL-BOS | PHI-DET | TOR-ORL | WAS-CLE | DEN-LAL | DAL-NO | PHX-SA | HOU-UTH

SMACKDOWN BREAKDOWN

Can you imagine being Chris Bosh and reading this? So ... all these experts got together, and the only thing they can't agree on is whether we're going to lose in five games or six?

Ma points out that Orlando plays well on the road. Kurylo says the Raptors have the fourth-best point differential in the East, which is not bad, but it's not enough to overcome poor rankings in the other parts of his system, called OTTER. "OTTER isn't impressed with the NBA's sole Canadian team," he writes, "ranking them 16th. Unlike last year, I'm sticking with my brain."

Pelton says Toronto's strong point differential is off-set by the Magic's stellar numbers. "The Magic might be the most underrated team going into the playoffs," he writes. "Did you know Orlando had the league's fifth-best point differential (+5.5)? The Raptors also have a surprisingly strong differential (+2.9), but that's partially inflated by some blowout wins and Toronto has slumped in the second half. I think the Raptors' pick-and-roll can give the Magic some problems, but Orlando should emerge."

Finals
Lakers-Celtics

Conference finals
Pistons-Celtics | Spurs-Lakers

Conference semifinals
Cavs-Celtics | Magic-Pistons | Jazz-Lakers | Spurs-Hornets

First-round matchups
ATL-BOS | PHI-DET | TOR-ORL | WAS-CLE | DEN-LAL | DAL-NO | PHX-SA | HOU-UTH

SMACKDOWN BREAKDOWN

Here my mom departs from the pack. She has seen something in that LeBron James kid ...

Ilardi also picked Cleveland and the power of LeBron James: "On paper (e.g., team regressions, plus recent addition of Arenas), it should be Washington in 6 or 7, but LeBron seems to have another gear for the playoffs. He's the only player in the NBA who can single-handedly win a playoff series for his team."

Kurylo turned off his numbers for a second to pick James, too: "According to the statistical measures I'm using, this is the most even series of the first round, so I'm allowing myself to go with my heart on this one. After watching King James' theatrics last year it's hard to root against him. That and the home court advantage gives Cleveland the edge."

Ma, on the other hand, points out that Cleveland just has not been very good. "Gilbert Arenas said that Cleveland hasn't played well since the trade which is only partly true. The truth is they haven't played well all season. Simply put the Wiz are a better team and with Arenas back they have more offensive weapons."

Finals
Lakers-Celtics

Conference finals
Pistons-Celtics | Spurs-Lakers

Conference semifinals
Cavs-Celtics | Magic-Pistons | Jazz-Lakers | Spurs-Hornets

First-round matchups
ATL-BOS | PHI-DET | TOR-ORL | WAS-CLE | DEN-LAL | DAL-NO | PHX-SA | HOU-UTH

SMACKDOWN BREAKDOWN

Not a lot of disagreement here, as every expert believes in the mighty Lakers and Kobe Bryant, and no one seems to worried about the absence of Andrew Bynum.

Ma puts it bluntly: "One teams doesn't play defense, one team does and has Kobe to boot," he says. Remembering how Phil Jackson and the Lakers made things difficult for Allen Iverson in the 2001 NBA Finals, he adds: "Look for some 6-for-26 shooting games for Allen Iverson."

Pelton says: "I might be guilty of underrating the Nuggets, but the Lakers are better on offense, they're better on defense and they have the better superstar (though Denver does have two go-to scorers). If the Nuggets get hot from downtown, anything can happen, but more likely this one goes to form."

"Team regression models (e.g., Sagarin's 'Predictor' rating) have the Lakers favored by 7.5 points for games in LA and 0.5 points in Denver," says Ilardi, the lone expert expecting a sweep. "But the Lakers are even stronger than indicated by these models, which don't fully account for Gasol's impact since the trade. Also, the Nuggets may be somewhat distracted by the recent Carmelo DUI incident. It wouldn't be surprising to see this one go 5, but I have a hunch it may be a sweep."

Finals
Lakers-Celtics

Conference finals
Pistons-Celtics | Spurs-Lakers

Conference semifinals
Cavs-Celtics | Magic-Pistons | Jazz-Lakers | Spurs-Hornets

First-round matchups
ATL-BOS | PHI-DET | TOR-ORL | WAS-CLE | DEN-LAL | DAL-NO | PHX-SA | HOU-UTH

SMACKDOWN BREAKDOWN

Now this is a series. Everyone is calling for seven games except my mom and Mike Kurylo. (Here's where I need to think of some subtle and not mean way to point out that those two came in last and second-to-last last time around.)

Ilardi articulates the most common view -- that the Hornets ought to win a close matchup: "Adjusted plus-minus ratings suggest the Kidd trade actually hurt Dallas: Kidd-for-Devin Harris was essentially a wash (both players have ratings of roughly +7.4 this year), but the Mavs losing Diop (+0.52) has really hurt, since it means more minutes for Dampier (-8.84). New Orleans is overall +1.5 points per game better than Dallas, and that regression estimate doesn't fully factor in the deleterious impact of the Kidd/Harris/Diop trade."

Pelton says playoff experience has been shown to help, but not enough: "Something I never would have guessed before using similarity scores to compare playoff teams: the Hornets are very similar to the Mavericks -- a better offensive team than defensive squad, playing at a slow pace. New Orleans was simply better at that style this season. Playoff experience has helped teams historically and I think that makes this a close series, but doesn't put Dallas ahead."

If the Mavericks win, Jeffrey Ma -- the lone expert to pick Dallas -- is going to get a nice bump in the TrueHoop Stat Geek Smackdown standings. He says "playoff experience and a healthy Dirk add up to the biggest 'upset' in the first round."

Finals
Lakers-Celtics

Conference finals
Pistons-Celtics | Spurs-Lakers

Conference semifinals
Cavs-Celtics | Magic-Pistons | Jazz-Lakers | Spurs-Hornets

First-round matchups
ATL-BOS | PHI-DET | TOR-ORL | WAS-CLE | DEN-LAL | DAL-NO | PHX-SA | HOU-UTH

SMACKDOWN BREAKDOWN

Ooh, you have to love this series, don't you?

I feel like this is the one where the conventional wisdom is on both sides. On the one hand, how can you bet against Tim Duncan and the reigning champion San Antonio Spurs. On the other hand, the Suns aren't exactly a one-and-done team. They have two MVP candidates, and a big man who gives the Spurs fits.

The experts all think it will be a long series, and are wholly divided on who will win.

Kevin Pelton writes: "A clash of heavyweights in an undercard matchup. I'm not sure ultimately how much of a difference Shaquille O'Neal made for the Suns either way. 37-16 at the time of his debut, Phoenix went 18-11 but 15-5 after a slow start. The Suns' defense was pretty much about the same with and without O'Neal. We'll see about the playoffs. This San Antonio team has struggled to score unlike any recent Spurs squad, and while the return of Brent Barry might help, that will ultimately prove the Spurs' undoing."

Ilardi adds: "On adjusted plus-minus, Shaq (+4.44) is actually better than Marion (+2.43) this year, and he helps the Suns immensely against the Spurs. Ginobili (+10.65) has been the Spurs' best player this year, and he's not 100% for this series. Although the Spurs have a slight advantage on team regression numbers (+0.45) and home court advantage, the two aforementioned factors tip this series in favor of Suns."

Kurylo, meanwhile, says his ranking system prefers the Spurs. "OTTER really likes San Antonio, ranking them 4th overall. As for the Suns (7th OTTER), their offense improved by about half a point while their defense slipped nearly a point and a half (per 100 possessions) since the Shaq trade. So if Phoenix is a bit worse (or the same) since acquiring the Ol'Aristotle, are on the road, and were the worse team to begin with I have to go with the Spurs. I would have taken the Spurs in 6, except for Manu's late season injury."

Finals
Lakers-Celtics

Conference finals
Pistons-Celtics | Spurs-Lakers

Conference semifinals
Cavs-Celtics | Magic-Pistons | Jazz-Lakers | Spurs-Hornets

First-round matchups
ATL-BOS | PHI-DET | TOR-ORL | WAS-CLE | DEN-LAL | DAL-NO | PHX-SA | HOU-UTH

SMACKDOWN BREAKDOWN

A very close series, by these estimates. Except for one: Ilardi. He sees a sweep! To him the story is about Rafer Alston. "Utah has an edge of about +1.5 points in team regressions, but that advantage will be magnified with Rafer Alston out for the series' first two games in Houston. This one could easily go 6 games, but if Utah wins the first two in Houston with Alston out, I think a sweep is likely."

Pelton is also swayed by the Alston factor: "This is a series where playing without Yao Ming might not hurt the Rockets as much as you'd think, since the Jazz tortured Yao defensively a year ago. A smaller lineup will match up better with Carlos Boozer and Mehmet Okur. However, Utah is a better all-around team this year and Houston surely will miss Rafer Alston, so the ultimate outcome is the same."

Kurylo, on the other hand, is picking the Rockets: "Without Yao Ming, the Rockets' offense stayed about the same and their defense got the tiniest bit better (when compared to the league average). OTTER has Houston ranked 6th overall, and the Jazz 8th. It's a small margin between the teams, so I have to go with the home court advantage."


BIOS

John Hollinger writes for ESPN.com. He created the Player Efficiency Rating (PER) and several other statistical measures.

Justin Kubatko is Vice President of href="http://www.sports-reference.com">Sports Reference LLC. He
runs the web site href="http://www.basketball-reference.com">Basketball-Reference.com.

Jeff Ma is co-founder of Citizen Sports Network in 2004. He was the protagonist, under the name Kevin Lewis, in the bestseller "Bringing Down the House," the story of the MIT blackjack team, which is the basis of the movie "21."

Kevin Pelton is the interactive marketing coordinator for the Seattle SuperSonics and a writer for the team's site. He runs the APBRMetrics Forum for basketball analysis.

Mike Kurylo is a writer and founder of KnickerBlogger.Net. In 2006 he developed OTTER, a unique non-biased team ranking system.

Stephen Ilardi is a professor of clinical psychology at the University of Kansas, a former statistical consultant to the KU men's basketball team under Roy Williams, and an expert on adjusted plus/minus.

Abbott's mom: Henry's mom hasn't watched all that much NBA since "JeRomeo" Kersey retired.