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Playoff Basketball: Youth Must Be Served

   by Al McMordie - 05/01/2011

The enemy of youth is time, as time turns youth into old age. A byproduct of this is experience, though it's not always an even tradeoff. Experience (adding Shaq and Antoine Walker) helped the veteran Miami Heat roll to a title in 2006 against the young Mavericks. The veteran Celtics won in 2008 and the young Orlando Magic looked lost in the 2009 NBA Finals to a more experienced Laker squad.

For the 2011 playoffs, the theme is already clear: Youth against the Veterans! Thus far, the kids have shocked the world, with the top-seeded Spurs getting upset by the No. 8 seed Memphis Grizzlies and the young athletic Atlanta Hawks taking down the favored Orlando Magic in six games.

That’s one reason the Boston/Miami series is going to be so fascinating to watch. You have the aging, veteran Celtics with Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, Paul Pierce, Jermaine O’Neal and Shaq (if he ever recovers) against the talented troika in their twenties from Miami: Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and LeBron.

The veteran Celtics won the first three meetings this season, 3-0 Su/ATS, before the Heat flexed their muscles in a late season showdown, a 100-77 thumping of the Green. The Celtics are 8-3 ATS in their last 11 playoff games as an underdog and 5-11 ATS in their last 16 after scoring 100 points or more in their previous game.

Both teams have ample star power and both have key players who are hurting and likely out. Shaq O’Neal has been sidelined since Feb. 1 with a strained right calf. His only action was five minutes April 3 against Detroit. He has been working to return, but hasn’t practiced with the team. Doc Rivers said he hasn’t ruled him out of either of the first two games of the series, but GM Danny Ainge late last week hinted that Shaq would only be able to go around 5 minutes per game, if at all. Miami’s Udonis Haslem returned to practice, shot around Wednesday, but Coach Eric Spoelstra isn’t ready to say Haslem will return for this series.

Miami is 5-11 ATS in their last 16 games as a home favorite of 5.0-10.5, 2-5 ATS in their last 7 home games and 8-20 ATS in their last 28 games playing on 3 or more days rest. It will be interesting to see if Dwyane Wade shoots well. Wade said nothing should be read into his poor shooting against Boston this season (28.1 percent, 12.8 points per game). It’s the same Celtics team he blistered during last year’s playoffs (56.4 percent shooting, 33.2 average). Wade’s 4-for-16 shooting in the season opener against Boston could largely be attributed to rust from missing most of preseason. But it’s more difficult to explain the 2-for-12, 6-for-17 and 4-for-12 shooting in the next three games. One factor: The Celtics have done good work defending him off screens, increasing the difficulty of shots he often makes.

In the 141 minutes when Wade and Ray Allen have been on the floor at the same time, Wade shot just 8 for 27 in the paint (29.6 percent). He made 59.5 percent of his shots in the paint overall this season. And Wade shot 1 for 11 on three-pointers when he and Allen were on the floor at the same time. Allen shot a remarkable 16 for 27!

And then there’s the Rajon Rondo factor, who tore up the NY Knicks because they had no one to harass him. Spoelstra said 33-year old Mike Bibby will start, but Rondo should eat him alive, so Mario Chalmers will likely play a lot. In the 27 minutes when Chalmers and Rondo were on the floor at the same time this season, Chalmers shot 2 for 10, and Rondo got his teammates good shots (10 assists). In last year’s playoff series, Chalmers came off the bench and had 13 assists and 12 turnovers in the five games. Rondo had 51 assists and 15 turnovers and averaged 14.8 points.

The other factor to keep in mind is defense, as these are two of the top defensive teams in the NBA. The Celtics are 20-6-1 under the total vs. the Eastern Conference, the under is 19-6-1 in Celtics last 26 overall and the under is 11-4 in Celtics last 15 games as an underdog. Celtics are 9-3 ATS in the last 12 meetings in Miami and the under is 4-1 the last 5 meetings overall.

They are wild in Atlanta as the Hawks upset Orlando in six games. It was a series of mismatches, with the younger Hawks holding all the key edges. The Magic had no one to contain Jamaal Crawford, and their use of J.J. Redick trying to guard Joe Johnson was a disaster. So was the play of veteran Hedo Turkoglu, brought back in midseason to recapture the magic of 2009 when he helped lead them to the NBA Finals, but he was useless this postseason. Keep in mind the Hawks have a first year coach in Larry Drew and he helped improve their defense a lot, ninth in the NBA in points allowed. That has already paid big dividends.
Now they face a Chicago Bulls team that has been sensational all season defensively under first-year coach Tom Thibedeau. The Under is 5-0 in the Hawks’ last 5 playoff games as an underdog, 13-3 in their last 16 games overall and 46-19 under the total in the Hawks last 65 contests vs. the Eastern Conference. However, in the last 11 meetings between the Bulls and Hawks, the over is 8-3.
Out West, the veteran Mavericks and Lakers meet, with a battle of young teams as Oklahoma City takes on the upstart Memphis Grizzlies, so that means the Western Conference Finals will be a battle of Youth vs. Experience. Memphis played remarkably well, led by workhorse Zach Randolph up front. They played like a team that badly wanted to prove something. And don’t forget Marc Gasol, 7-1, 265 pounds at age 26, who had the height, weight and strength advantage over the 35-year-old 6-11 Tim Duncan. For the series, Gasol averaged 14.2 points and 11.8 rebounds to Duncan’s 12.6 and 10.5.

The Grizzlies are 26-7-2 ATS in their last 35 games as an underdog and 40-12-2 ATS in their last 54 vs. the Western Conference! In a statistical oddity, the Thunder is 7-23 ATS in their last 30 Sunday games. The home team is 4-1 ATS in the last 5 meetings between the Thunder and Grizzlies, and the Grizzlies are 6-13 ATS in the last 19 meetings in Oklahoma City. By the way, these teams are 13-3 over the total in the last 16 meetings in Oklahoma City.

A few years ago the young up and coming Bulls got smacked around by the Pistons, a veteran team that had been to the NBA Finals in 2004, 2005 and in the Eastern Conference Finals in 2006. This group won the NBA title in 2004, as well.

A veteran Utah Jazz team knocked the Spurs out of the playoffs three times in a five-year span between 1994-98, winning 11 of the 15 games in those series. Coach Gregg Popovich used the Jazz as his blueprint to build the Spurs into the championship contenders, seeking tough-minded players willing to embrace his defense-first philosophy while winning 4 NBA titles.

Teamwork is something that veteran teams can understand and lean on in postseason games. In Game 2 against Orlando last year, Paul Pierce led the Celtics with 24 points, but took only 8 shots! In Game 3, the Celtics had incredibly balanced scoring, with Glen Davis off the bench leading the Green in scoring with 17. The byproduct of teamwork is winning. Like those champion San Antonio teams, all the Celtics care about is feeding the ball to whoever had the hot hand and getting a W.

"Being an older group, it's probably easier for me to get their focus in the playoffs," Doc Rivers said.

It's clear the Lakers and Celtics have edges with confidence, experience and defense, but young teams can rise up and take over if the older teams aren’t careful. Just ask the Spurs and Magic. Good luck, as always...Al McMordie.

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