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Stat Geek Smackdown 2012

6/22/2012

Stat geeks run NBA teams. Stat geeks make big dollars in Las Vegas. Stat geeks have multiple conferences, incredibly high rates of employment, prominent roles in government, Wall Street, health care and education.

But only right here do they get to pick NBA playoff winners in a contest against my mom.

Since its 2007 founding, the contest has featured some of the best in the business, as evidenced by the fact that they keep getting hired away by NBA teams.

The 2007 and 2008 champion, Basketball-Reference.com's Justin Kubatko, was removed from the mix thanks to the work he did for the Portland Trail Blazers. Basketball Prospectus' Kevin Pelton, a mainstay, works for the Indiana Pacers now and, as we're in the playoffs, is out of the Smackdown. Longtime Smackdown participant and Phoenix Suns analytical consultant Stephen Ilardi, who came in second last year, could only agree to join the contest after the Suns' postseason dreams died in that late-season game to the Utah Jazz.

The 2009 champion, author and professor David Berri is sitting this one out, although his associate, Arturo Galletti, is here to represent the Wages of Wins point of view. 2010 champion Jeff Ma -- who has consulted with NBA teams, wrote "The House Advantage," beat Vegas as a member of the MIT Blackjack team, and is now CEO of the firm tenXer -- is back once again, duking it out with the 2011 champ, the undefeated Benjamin Morris.

ESPN.com's John Hollinger has been making a habit of beating Las Vegas with his regular-season predictions; we'll see whether he can carry his regular-season success into the playoffs. In recent years he has been second and third, but the top spot on the podium has eluded him.

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.

The rules are the same as ever: Based on stats, hunches and anything else, each expert predicts the outcome of every playoff series as the rounds unfold. Each correctly picked series is worth five points. Correctly predicting the number of games is worth two additional points. The winner gets something bizarre and arbitrary to be determined later.

Scoreboard

TRUEHOOP'S STAT GEEK SMACKDOWN SCOREBOARD

TRUEHOOP'S STAT GEEK SMACKDOWN SCOREBOARD: FIRST ROUND


Series Predictions (click on the links below to see picks for each matchup)

NBA FINALS
MIA-OKC

CONFERENCE FINALS
BOS-MIA | OKC-SAS

CONFERENCE SEMIFINALS
IND-MIA | PHI-BOS | LAC-SAS | LAL-OKC

FIRST ROUND
PHI-CHI | NY-MIA | ORL-IND | ATL-BOS | UTA-SA | DAL-OKC | DEN-LAL | LAC-MEM

(2) MIAMI HEAT VS. (2) OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER

Smackdown Breakdown: Heat-Thunder

If the Heat win, and The Crowd were to pick the number of games perfectly, the Crowd could have won seven points to tie Matthew Stahlhut at the top of the leaderboard.

The Crowd, it turns out, is pretty good. (And the Crowd is also pretty bitter at the Memphis Grizzlies for falling to the Clippers -- the series that decided it.)

However, the Crowd and Stahlhut both picked the Thunder over the Heat in the NBA Finals, which means Stahlhut can't be beat and is already this year's winner.

And like everyone, he is excited for these NBA Finals. But with a caveat: "As much as I am excited to see this series, I'm afraid we are going to see a lot of free throws by both teams because the Heat and Thunder have been in the top four of the league in free throws per field goal attempt over the past two years."

Stahlhut's other thoughts on an NBA Finals he predicts will be extremely close:

"As we saw in the last series, having Chris Bosh back is very important to what the Heat do offensively. His ability to hit mid- to long-range 2-pointers really opens up the Heat's offense and his impact is apparent even in just examining raw on-court/off-court offensive efficiency numbers.

"The Heat's defense could potentially cause problems for the Thunder because they force a lot of turnovers, and the Thunder's primary weakness on offense happens to be committing turnovers.

"Although the Thunder have an average defense, they are an exceptional shooting defense because they defend the rim and the 3-point line very well due to their athleticism. This will be key to stopping Miami's offense. In addition, if the Thunder can use their athleticism to force Miami to turn the ball over they can both bog down the Heat's offense and get out in transition where they are very effective. This will require them to play the passing lanes more often and pressure the ball (similar to what the Celtics did in the last series). They can do this initially with limited risk because the Heat don't move well without the ball and their spacing is often questionable.

"This matchup is relatively even, so the fact that the Thunder have home-court advantage gives them the nod in seven."

2011 champion Benjamin Morris is also picking the Thunder, making this the second straight round he has picked the Heat to lose:

"In the last round, I picked the heavy-underdog Celtics largely because I thought there was a good chance the Heat would succumb to a well-designed veteran squad with championship experience. Following their victory over the Celtics, I still think that Miami is a poorly designed team, but with LeBron always being the best player on the floor -- and possibly the player with the most impact ever -- the consequence is that they're only very, very good.

"This series seems to be more evenly matched, as both teams feature a transcendent star player with an imperfect supporting cast. The Thunder have had the more impressive playoff run, dropping only three games against three former champions. But the playoffs are a strange beast, and only one game separated them in the regular season (of course, that game was enough to give the Thunder home court). The Thunder had the stronger start of the season, which has often been predictive in the past, but may have been less reliable this year. And if we really want to grasp at straws, the Thunder also scored more points in their two-game split.

"The Thunder really buck the trend of typical NBA championship contenders in that they are neither a former NBA champion, nor were they cobbled together out of pre-existing All-NBA players, nor are they coming completely out of left field: They seem to have grown into this position organically. The last team to do so very effectively was the '91 Chicago Bulls, which also featured a young multi-time NBA scoring champion. Of course, Jordan was already the best player in the game at that point, while Durant may not even be the best small forward on the floor.

"Ultimately, while I think the series isn't a mismatch by any stretch, the Thunder seem to edge the Heat in most categories other than 'LeBron James is due,' and six games is the most likely outcome for a home team in a 2-3-2 format."

Arturo Galletti says that, in an effort to win the contest, he made a long-shot pick of the Celtics in the last round. But this time, he's playing it straight, and he's picking the Heat.

"When I first look at all the playoff teams I like to look at a series of factors that I've found that all NBA champions (at least since the merger) have in common to identify those teams that are truly in it and those that are fatally flawed.

"Both the Thunder and Heat, weirdly enough, came up flawed when compared against past champions. OKC is too young. They lack the veteran star which every champion has. They are exactly a year short. OKC in 2013 will have those vets in Durant and Harden.

"Miami failed the big-man test. They lacked that dominant big [man] that controls the paint that is a hallmark of every [championship] team.

"So a choice between Miami and OKC is a choice between too young and too small, right?

"Not so fast. By necessity, Miami discovered that the dominant big man they needed was already on the roster. LeBron James has stepped up in dramatic fashion to fulfill that role for Miami. LeBron was an unstoppable force of nature in the last two series. Combine that with the fact that Miami shows up as a better team on a neutral floor no matter how I slice it and I have to think that history will reward the vets and disappoint the first timers once again. Given the 2-3-2 format the pick is Heat in five."

NBA FINALS
MIA-OKC

CONFERENCE FINALS
BOS-MIA | OKC-SAS

CONFERENCE SEMIFINALS
IND-MIA | PHI-BOS | LAC-SAS | LAL-OKC

FIRST ROUND
PHI-CHI | NY-MIA | ORL-IND | ATL-BOS | UTA-SA | DAL-OKC | DEN-LAL | LAC-MEM

(4) BOSTON CELTICS VS. (2) MIAMI HEAT

Smackdown Breakdown: Celtics-Heat

"Chris Bosh means a lot more to the Heat than I think a lot of people want to give him credit for," says current leader Matthew Stahlhut. "Over the past two seasons, the Heat have only outscored their opponents by 10 points in over 2,200 minutes (about 46 games) without Bosh in the lineup. Ten points! Now, there are about a million problems with using pure plus/minus numbers like that to predict how the Heat will perform without Bosh. But it at least gives us some indication that they are not the same team without him.

"The Heat have had trouble against Boston over the past two regular seasons, most notably in a 19-point blowout in Boston in April. However, the first rule of being a stat geek is to not be fooled by small sample sizes, which is one of the many reasons I don't put much stock in regular season head-to-head performances when predicting playoff outcomes. Boston's principle problem is that its offense is downright terrible at times (the worst of any playoff team). And Miami's defense is too good with or without Bosh to allow Boston to score enough to win this series. I think Miami pulls this out and does it in five."

Arturo Galletti, meanwhile, sees things almost entirely differently. "Two weeks ago, I was locked in on my pick for this series. A lot has changed in that time," he says. "Some changes really don't matter that much (the Bosh injury). Some really do (the Avery Bradley injury is a killer for the C's, as he's their designated Wade stopper; ditto for Pierce's MCL and LeBron James). Both of these teams have all the prerequisites to reach the Finals. For the season, Miami is the better team, but after the trade deadline and head-to-head matchups the Celtics are clearly better. The Celtics went 3-1 against Miami in the regular season and beat the Heat by about eight points on average. I need to go all-in at some point if I want to win. I think the Big Four have one more Finals in them."

NBA FINALS
MIA-OKC

CONFERENCE FINALS
BOS-MIA | OKC-SAS

CONFERENCE SEMIFINALS
IND-MIA | PHI-BOS | LAC-SAS | LAL-OKC

FIRST ROUND
PHI-CHI | NY-MIA | ORL-IND | ATL-BOS | UTA-SA | DAL-OKC | DEN-LAL | LAC-MEM

(2) OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER VS. (1) SAN ANTONIO SPURS

Smackdown Breakdown: Thunder-Spurs

With the Heat injured, the Bulls out and the Spurs unfashionable, the Thunder might win a popular vote as the team most likely to win this year's title.

But they have no shot against San Antonio, according to the field in the 2012 TrueHoop Stat Geek Smackdown. The only question is how soon they'll bow out.

"The Thunder are a good, young team on the rise coming off what are perceived to be two big-time victories," Arturo Galletti says of the team's dispensing of former champions in the Mavericks and Lakers. "But perception is a very tricky thing. The Mavericks were not as good as they were last year, and neither were the Lakers. The level of difficulty is about to pick up significantly."

"As a basketball fan, I am very excited for this series," says Matthew Stahlhut, the Smackdown's current leader. "We can expect some fairly high-scoring games, as these are the two best offenses in the NBA and both teams' defenses are in the middle of the pack. Their offenses are similar in some respects: They both shoot well at the rim, although they aren't particularly adept at getting these types of shots; they both rely on penetration to create open shots; and they both avoid shooting dreaded long 2-pointers.

"But they are different in many other respects, such as the the Thunder's much greater ability to draw fouls and San Antonio's much better turnover numbers. Defensively, both teams are pretty average despite the Thunder's ability to defend shots at the rim and 3s very well and the Spurs' superior defensive rebounding. Expect high scoring relative to this year's playoffs, and even though I think it's possible the Spurs could make this a quick series, I predict it will go the full seven games."

John Hollinger, meanwhile, thinks the Spurs won't even break a sweat (Insider): "The Spurs not only have 18 straight wins, but they are 32-3 in their past 35 games. The most amazing stat is that they're 24-3 in their past 27 road games, with two of three defeats coming when they decided to rest their starters. That's the scarier part; when you take out games the Spurs tanked, their record really starts looking good. In the last 47 games Tony Parker played, for instance, they're 43-4.
Did you hear me? FORTY-THREE AND FOUR! If it took them 47 games to lose four times with Parker, I'm guessing it will take more than seven for them to lose four more. That's why I keep saying nobody is beating this San Antonio team."

NBA FINALS
MIA-OKC

CONFERENCE FINALS
BOS-MIA | OKC-SAS

CONFERENCE SEMIFINALS
IND-MIA | PHI-BOS | LAC-SAS | LAL-OKC

FIRST ROUND
PHI-CHI | NY-MIA | ORL-IND | ATL-BOS | UTA-SA | DAL-OKC | DEN-LAL | LAC-MEM

(3) INDIANA PACERS VS. (2) MIAMI HEAT

Smackdown Breakdown: Pacers-Heat

Miami over Indiana was the overwhelming choice, even if stat geeks have plenty of respect for the Pacers.

"It's not that Indiana is bad," says Matthew Stahlhut. "It's that the Pacers don't match up well against the Heat. For instance, they are a poor shooting team, not because they don't shoot the 3 well, but because they are atrocious at finishing at the rim (only one team was worse this season). This difficulty will only be exacerbated by Miami's excellent at-rim defense. Indiana also doesn't turn the ball over, but Miami's defensive scheme thrives at turning opponents over. Actually, I can't think of a single scenario where Indiana makes this series close."

"Indiana is better than people think," says Arturo Galletti. "But so is Miami now that it has its full complement of players. The Heat have some structural issues at the 4 and 5 but those will not derail them here. Miami has the best player and homecourt advantage and will be expected to get the calls."

Stephen Ilardi feels the Heat are better than their record, saying, "On paper, Indiana has the potential to challenge Miami in this series, as the Heat should only be about a 3.5-point favorite on a neutral court. But look for the Heat to turn it up a few notches on a Pacers team that may suddenly start looking overmatched."

NBA FINALS
MIA-OKC

CONFERENCE FINALS
BOS-MIA | OKC-SAS

CONFERENCE SEMIFINALS
IND-MIA | PHI-BOS | LAC-SAS | LAL-OKC

FIRST ROUND
PHI-CHI | NY-MIA | ORL-IND | ATL-BOS | UTA-SA | DAL-OKC | DEN-LAL | LAC-MEM

(8) PHILADELPHIA 76ERS VS. (4) BOSTON CELTICS

Smackdown Breakdown: 76ers-Celtics

A seven-game series was a popular choice. So in a way, this is projected to be close. On the other hand, few picked the 76ers.

That's where Stephen Ilardi comes in. He says "the short rest between series -- less than 48 hours -- helps Philadelphia against an aging Celtics squad with whom it already matches up well. The series outcome may hinge on the key matchup of Spencer Hawes and Kevin Garnett, Boston's de facto center in the postseason."

"I really wish," says Arturo Galletti ruefully of the first round, "I'd gone with the model insisting that Derrick Rose couldn't stay on the court. I expect this to be the closest and hardest fought of all the semifinals. The Sixers are completely and totally healthy at the right time. The Celtics are banged up and they really like to make it hard on themselves. However, homecourt for Boston will be pivotal when it gets around to Game 7. It's going to feel like the '80s again. Expect physical play, lots of technicals and low scoring games coming down to the last possessions."

NBA FINALS
MIA-OKC

CONFERENCE FINALS
BOS-MIA | OKC-SAS

CONFERENCE SEMIFINALS
IND-MIA | PHI-BOS | LAC-SAS | LAL-OKC

FIRST ROUND
PHI-CHI | NY-MIA | ORL-IND | ATL-BOS | UTA-SA | DAL-OKC | DEN-LAL | LAC-MEM

(5) LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS VS. (1) SAN ANTONIO SPURS

Smackdown Breakdown: Clippers-Spurs

Stahlhut had picked the Clippers against the Grizzlies, and is thrilled they won, but says he feels lucky after watching. "It appeared abundantly clear," he explains, "that the Grizzlies were the better team."

Which does not bode well for the Clippers against the mighty Spurs, in a series where every geek agrees the Spurs are heavy favorites.

"This series might be a complete disaster for the Clippers," Stahlhut says, "as the Spurs are excellent at creating wide open 3-point shots and few teams are better than the Clippers at giving up wide open 3-pointers. The other blatant mismatch in this series is between the two coaches. Everyone knows that Gregg Popovich is one of the great coaches of all time and while I think that Vinny Del Negro receives undue criticism at times, he seems slow to adjust in-game to strategic challenges and his lineup selection can leave something to be desired."

"San Antonio still has not shown their full hand in demolishing their first-round opponent," says Galletti. "The Clippers are young, exciting and in capable hands with Chris Paul. However, they're also a traveling trauma ward. The only real drama for the Spurs will be if it takes them four or five games. My model likes four."

NBA FINALS
MIA-OKC

CONFERENCE FINALS
BOS-MIA | OKC-SAS

CONFERENCE SEMIFINALS
IND-MIA | PHI-BOS | LAC-SAS | LAL-OKC

FIRST ROUND
PHI-CHI | NY-MIA | ORL-IND | ATL-BOS | UTA-SA | DAL-OKC | DEN-LAL | LAC-MEM

(3) LOS ANGELES LAKERS VS. (2) OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER

Smackdown Breakdown: Lakers-Thunder

All of the stat geeks feel that in meeting the Thunder, the Lakers have met the end of the line.

Arturo Galletti has some surprising news: It was better for the Thunder that the Lakers won, instead of the Nuggets. "OKC matches up well against the Lakers and barring any injuries during accidental celebrations I'd expect Oklahoma to cruise. (A rematch with Denver would have been a completely different beast. It's very close, particularly with the lineup that the Nuggets have discovered late in their first-round series.) In layman's terms, OKC gets the calls and rides their young studs Harden and Durant back to the Western Conference finals."

"Although Mr. Bryant may prove me wrong, I cannot consider the Lakers legitimate championship contenders this season for a lot the reasons we saw in the Nuggets series," says Stahlhut. "They have a middling offense because they turn the ball over too much and can't shoot the 3. It doesn't help that Bynum still doesn't seem to know how to pass out of a double team. And their defense is average because they don't create turnovers. In fact, no team since the 2000-01 season has had a lower defensive turnover rate than this year's Lakers. They are a good, but not great, team. The Thunder's one weakness on offense is their propensity to turn the ball over. It's likely that the Lakers will not take advantage of this and they don't have the personnel to guard the Thunder's three best players, so I think this will be over in five."

NBA FINALS
MIA-OKC

CONFERENCE FINALS
BOS-MIA | OKC-SAS

CONFERENCE SEMIFINALS
IND-MIA | PHI-BOS | LAC-SAS | LAL-OKC

FIRST ROUND
PHI-CHI | NY-MIA | ORL-IND | ATL-BOS | UTA-SA | DAL-OKC | DEN-LAL | LAC-MEM

(8) PHILADELPHIA 76ERS VS. (1) CHICAGO BULLS

Smackdown Breakdown: 76ers-Bulls

Galletti says, "This series will surprise people. Very, very close. It'll really come down to coaching and minute allocation. Biggest question is who plays at guard. I really wanted to pick the upset but I think Rose plays heavy minutes and the Bulls prevail in 7."

Ilardi concurs that it's close. "Philadelphia is a much tougher out than the typical 8 seed," he explains, "with the fifth-best adjusted net efficiency in the NBA this season. The Sixers are capable of giving Chicago a scare before the Bulls' superior talent finally proves decisive."

Stahlhut explains why everyone still chose the Bulls: "This is a pretty bad matchup for Philly. The Sixers' offense is saved from being an absolute atrocity on the basis of not turning the ball over. Unfortunately, everything else they do plays right into Chicago's capable defensive hands. Our simulations have Chicago's No. 1-ranked defense being slightly worsened by increased minutes for Derrick Rose (as compared to the regular season in which he missed a number of games). But the Bulls' offensive weapons far outperform Philadelphia's."

NBA FINALS
MIA-OKC

CONFERENCE FINALS
BOS-MIA | OKC-SAS

CONFERENCE SEMIFINALS
IND-MIA | PHI-BOS | LAC-SAS | LAL-OKC

FIRST ROUND
PHI-CHI | NY-MIA | ORL-IND | ATL-BOS | UTA-SA | DAL-OKC | DEN-LAL | LAC-MEM

(7) NEW YORK KNICKS VS. (2) MIAMI HEAT

Smackdown Breakdown: Knicks-Heat

It's hard to find anybody who thinks the Heat will be challenged.

"Melo and Amare really are better without the other," writes Arturo Galletti. "Nevermind the fact that Miami is just way too good."

Matthew Stahlhut says, "I don't expect that this series will be particularly close. The Knicks' only hope may be to send Amare off for a Lamar Odom-style vacation (and I say that only half-kidding). The startling development this season was the introduction of the Knicks as a good defensive team both before and after the coaching change. Adding Tyson Chandler and Iman Shumpert certainly helped in that respect, but it may be totally mitigated by Amare."

NBA FINALS
MIA-OKC

CONFERENCE FINALS
BOS-MIA | OKC-SAS

CONFERENCE SEMIFINALS
IND-MIA | PHI-BOS | LAC-SAS | LAL-OKC

FIRST ROUND
PHI-CHI | NY-MIA | ORL-IND | ATL-BOS | UTA-SA | DAL-OKC | DEN-LAL | LAC-MEM

(6) ORLANDO MAGIC VS. (3) INDIANA PACERS

Smackdown Breakdown: Magic-Pacers

The key issue here is the absence of Dwight Howard. The picks are badly lopsided in favor of the Pacers, but last year's champion, Ben Morris, speaks for many when he says he "would have picked Orlando if Dwight were playing."

Matthew Stahlhut points out that "we have very little evidence for how Orlando performs when he doesn't play for full games. However, I believe that our program does a very good job of estimating sustained performance using these smaller samples and the news is not good for Orlando (to the surprise of no one). In reality, Indiana has the fortune of playing a team in this series that would only project to win between 40 and 45 percent of its games through a full season."

Stephen Ilardi says the toughest thing to predict is how hard the Magic will try: "Even without D12 in the lineup, Orlando has enough remaining talent to pull out one or two wins. But the Pacers can sweep if the Magic continue to tune out Stan Van Gundy and opt instead to mail this series in."

Arturo Galletti says he "would pick every team in the playoffs and very possibly the San Antonio bench over the version of the Magic that's showing up."

NBA FINALS
MIA-OKC

CONFERENCE FINALS
BOS-MIA | OKC-SAS

CONFERENCE SEMIFINALS
IND-MIA | PHI-BOS | LAC-SAS | LAL-OKC

FIRST ROUND
PHI-CHI | NY-MIA | ORL-IND | ATL-BOS | UTA-SA | DAL-OKC | DEN-LAL | LAC-MEM

(5) ATLANTA HAWKS VS. (4) BOSTON CELTICS

Smackdown Breakdown: Hawks-Celtics

"This was definitely the most difficult choice on the board for me," says Benjamin Morris. "While the Clippers/Grizzlies series grades out a bit closer, all the variables are at least straightforward. Atlanta has a (slightly) better record, a (slightly) better MOV, went just as far in the playoffs as Boston last year, and has home court. My generic model gives them a 56 percent chance of winning, but I've got to go against it. I think broader history favors Boston, I've spent a lot of time researching how broader history matters more in the NBA than in other sports."

"If you told me at the beginning of the season," explains Matthew Stahlhut, "that I would do a playoff preview for Boston and the first player I would mention is Avery Bradley, I would have told you that you were crazy. The interesting thing about this series is not that because Boston is playing on road, I would expect a close series. The most interesting thing is that the tipping point for our program is that we expect Bradley's minutes to more closely mirror his end-of-season contribution, rather than the limited minutes he played at the beginning. Taking this into account, I would expect that the most likely result is Boston in six."

"With a healthy Al Horford," says Stephen Ilardi, "the Hawks would be clear favorites. Even without him, the teams look fairly even on paper, and the Hawks have the homecourt advantage. But Boston has played at a considerably higher level over the second half of the season."

NBA FINALS
MIA-OKC

CONFERENCE FINALS
BOS-MIA | OKC-SAS

CONFERENCE SEMIFINALS
IND-MIA | PHI-BOS | LAC-SAS | LAL-OKC

FIRST ROUND
PHI-CHI | NY-MIA | ORL-IND | ATL-BOS | UTA-SA | DAL-OKC | DEN-LAL | LAC-MEM

(8) UTAH JAZZ VS. (1) SAN ANTONIO SPURS

Smackdown Breakdown: Jazz-Spurs

Pay attention, people, to what defending champion Benjamin Morris has to tell you about the San Antonio Spurs: "I have a 'big pot' playoff model (no matchups, no simulations, just stats and history for each playoff team as input) that produces some quirky results that have historically out-predicted my more conventional models. It currently puts San Antonio above 50 percent. Not just against Utah, but against the field. Not saying I believe it, but there you go."

Stahlhut is also high on the Spurs: "San Antonio is being underrated going into the playoffs this year because of the first round upset last year. I suppose the most interesting thing about this series is how San Antonio's excellent defensive rebounding fares against Utah's excellent offensive rebounding. That should be the only real battle here."

Galletti points out that "the Spurs lost their best player (Ginobili) for a large part of the season. They took multiple nights off. Yet somehow the Spurs wound up with the best record in the NBA. I'm convinced that we have not seen their best yet. Be afraid, be very afraid."

NBA FINALS
MIA-OKC

CONFERENCE FINALS
BOS-MIA | OKC-SAS

CONFERENCE SEMIFINALS
IND-MIA | PHI-BOS | LAC-SAS | LAL-OKC

FIRST ROUND
PHI-CHI | NY-MIA | ORL-IND | ATL-BOS | UTA-SA | DAL-OKC | DEN-LAL | LAC-MEM

(7) DALLAS MAVERICKS VS. (2) OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER

Smackdown Breakdown: Mavericks-Thunder

John Hollinger was the first person who ever pointed this out to me: There are some teams that "turn it on" for the playoffs. And you know which teams do that the most? Teams that have won titles before. That could matter here.

"Throughout NBA history, defending champions have massively over-performed in the playoffs relative to their regular season records," says Benjamin Morris. "So I wouldn't count Dallas out. In fact, the spot Dallas finds itself in is quite similar to Houston's in 1995, and this season's short lead time and compressed schedule should make us particularly wary of the usual battery of predictive models. If I had to pick which of these teams is more likely to win the championship, I might take Dallas (or at least it would be a closer call). But that's a far different question from who is most likely to win this particular series."

Ilardi points out that Metta World Peace's elbow to James Harden's head looms: "Everything hinges on the health of Harden, who has one of the highest adjusted plus-minus impacts in the league. If Harden's at full strength, the Thunder should be able to take this series in five. If he's still suffering the ill effects of World Peace, all bets are off."

"Unfortunately for Dallas," says Matthew Stahlhut, "at some point its lack of offensive talent besides Dirk is going to hurt the team. The league had a significant overall drop in shooting this year, and few teams were as affected by this as Dallas."

Arturo Galletti says this rematch of the conference finals will have a different ending. "Sadly for Dallas, a year later means they're older in a bad way and missing some key pieces (Tyson Chandler). For OKC, older is better."

NBA FINALS
MIA-OKC

CONFERENCE FINALS
BOS-MIA | OKC-SAS

CONFERENCE SEMIFINALS
IND-MIA | PHI-BOS | LAC-SAS | LAL-OKC

FIRST ROUND
PHI-CHI | NY-MIA | ORL-IND | ATL-BOS | UTA-SA | DAL-OKC | DEN-LAL | LAC-MEM

(6) DENVER NUGGETS VS. (3) LOS ANGELES LAKERS

Smackdown Breakdown: Nuggets-Lakers

Stephen Ilardi calls this the most interesting matchup in the first round: "The Lakers clearly have a better starting unit, but they also have an extremely weak bench, especially now that Matt Barnes has to step into the starting 3 spot for World Peace."

Matthew Stahlhut says the Nuggets blew this series by trading Nene. "Swapping Nene for JaVale McGee," he explains, "switched the result in this series from what would have been a likely Denver upset to a Lakers victory. The key for a potential Nuggets upset in this series could be Danilo Gallinari, who has shot below expectation all season and will not have to face Metta World Peace for up to six games. That said, the most likely result is for the Lakers to pull this one out."

Former champion Jeffrey Ma says he was "tempted to call for the upset here but I think that Kobe has one last run in him."

Benjamin Morris points out that one of the many factors favoring the Lakers is that the Nuggets play much faster, and fast teams have a history of underperfoming in the playoffs: "This series features the largest pace differential in this year's playoffs -- with the Lakers exchanging 3.6 fewer possessions per game."

Arturo Galletti says Metta World Peace will be missed. "Their rotation sans the former Artest is a mess. Kobe will play and that may not necessary help. On the other side, George Karl has all his roster finally available and the advantage of the thin air in Denver. Combine that with no Phil on the other side and the sky's the limit in Denver."

NBA FINALS
MIA-OKC

CONFERENCE FINALS
BOS-MIA | OKC-SAS

CONFERENCE SEMIFINALS
IND-MIA | PHI-BOS | LAC-SAS | LAL-OKC

FIRST ROUND
PHI-CHI | NY-MIA | ORL-IND | ATL-BOS | UTA-SA | DAL-OKC | DEN-LAL | LAC-MEM

(5) LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS VS. (4) MEMPHIS GRIZZLIES

Smackdown Breakdown: Clippers-Grizzlies

Matthew Stahlhut picks the Clippers because of one player. "How do you have an effective offense when few players on your team are very proficient? Trade for Chris Paul, of course! It's probably impossible to say something about him that hasn't already been said. He creates for himself and his teammates high percentage shots without turning the ball over, which is exactly what is needed at point guard. Memphis' defense is well above average almost exclusively because of their ability to force turnovers. This will bear watching."

Stephen Ilardi sees conflicting evidence. "The Clippers have a slightly higher adjusted net efficiency and they match up well against Memphis," he explains. "But the Grizzlies' home court advantage and greater playoff experience could be sufficient to tilt this close series their way."

Jeffrey Ma thinks it will be close, but chose the Grizzlies. "The Clippers have been up and down since Chauncey went down," he says, "and Memphis tasted success last year. I like them as a dark horse to get out of the West."

"As much as I see some real red flags with the Clippers and as much as I loved Memphis last year," says Arturo Galletti, "Chris Paul and a shorter Clippers rotation makes all the difference."


Bios

Arturo Galletti is the co-editor and director of analytics for the Wages of Wins Network. He is an electrical engineer in the lovely isle of Puerto Rico, where he keeps his production lines running by day and night (and weekends) and works on sport analysis in his free time.

John Hollinger writes for ESPN.com. He created the player efficiency rating (PER) and several other statistical measures.

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.

Jeff Ma is the author of "The House Advantage" and is currently the CEO of tenXer.

Benjamin Morris publishes original research and criticism on his blog Skeptical Sports Analysis. After graduating from Yale University with a double major in philosophy and English, he spent the better part of the past decade as a professional gambler.

Matthew Stahlhut, who graduated from St. Louis University School of Law in 2007, has been both an attorney and a statistical analyst for a group of sports gamblers. He also contributes to DenverStiffs.com.

My mom: She hasn't watched all that much NBA since "JeRomeo" Kersey retired.

The Crowd is a collection of 61 ESPN.com and TrueHoop Network writers. Similar collectives of ESPN experts have been very good at predicting regular-season W-L records -- this is the first-time we have included such a group in the Stat Geek Smackdown. For more on "the wisdom of the crowd," see this Wikipedia page.