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Sunny With a Chance of Slam Dunks: Looking Ahead in the NBA Playoffs

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Sunny With a Chance of Slam Dunks: Looking Ahead in the NBA Playoffs
Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

As the buzzer sounded at Philips Arena in Atlanta and ABC announcer Mike Tirico announced assurantily that the Atlanta Hawks had taken the series with a Game Seven win over the surging Bucks, the first round of the NBA Playoffs officially came to an end.

It seemed like nothing came easy in a wild first round, with the exception of a routine sweep of the Charlotte Bobcats by the Orlando Magic.

In the West, the seventh-seeded San Antonio Spurs took down Dallas in six games. Fourth seed Denver was toppled by Deron Williams and Utah. Oklahoma City rose to the occasion multiple times, scaring the defending champion Lakers and almost forcing a seventh game if it weren't for a Pau Gasol tip-in with 0.5 seconds left.

In the East, the Cavs, Magic, and Celtics had no problems with their first round opponents, toppling Chicago and Charlotte, respectively. While they cruised, Atlanta struggled to overcome the over-achieving Milwaukee Bucks. Coining the chant, "Fear the Deer!", the Bucks and their fans took three straight games to take a 3-2 series lead, but Atlanta won the final two and advanced.

With the first round over, here is a look at each of the remaining eight teams' futures in the NBA Playoffs.

1 Los Angeles Lakers

For this experienced bunch, they expect the second round to be just a part of the beginning. But after playing a sub-par Game Three and an abysmal Game Four in Oklahoma City, it looks like they will have struggles on the road. That's never a good thing in the Playoffs, especially when your second round opponent is Utah. The Jazz's home, EnergySolutions Arena, is a madhouse full of screaming fanatics. If Utah can take one of the first two in LA, an upset is very tangible.

But the Lakers still have the clutchest player in the game in Kobe Bryant. With the game on the line in Game Six, he repeatedly silenced the Thunder fans with clutch trays. Andrew Bynum was dominant in their series and will be a factor against Utah, which is playing without big man Mehmet Okur.

The Lakers should take this series, but an upset is a possibility. Next round, however, they could be toppled by the Suns or Spurs. Los Angeles still has a shot at the title, but other teams are playing better basketball when it counts.

Despite how their review and outlook may sound, they still are the No. 1 seed from the West and the favorites to reach the Finals.

X Factor: Andrew Bynum

5 Utah Jazz

After playing a good game in a loss to Los Angeles in Game One, the outlook is still bright for the Jazz.

Carlos Boozer had six double-doubles in the first round against Denver. Deron Williams lived up to the claim that he is "the best point guard in the game." If he thinks this and goes and dominates the opponent, they have a chance at the Finals. We saw Russell Westbrook repeatedly school the aging Derek Fisher, and Williams is superior to Westbrook in all facets, so that a rare advantage they have over LA.

But don't get ahead of yourselves.

Former Marquette star and rookie Wes Matthews played above and beyond in the first round with stellar defense on his assigned player, whether it was Carmelo or J.R. Smith. It is doubtful he does so if they make it that far. But if they do, he will be a major reason why.

Los Angeles is clearly more talented and better, but all it takes is a 4-3 record over them to win. And if they do, look out. I would favor them over either Phoenix or San Antonio.

X Factor: Wes Matthews

3 Phoenix Suns

The Spurs are a tough draw for Phoenix, as they match the Suns in all categories. In some ways, the veteran Suns would have preferred the Mavericks in the second round, but the Spurs are a seven seed for a reason. For Steve Nash, the Spurs have Tony Parker. Manu Ginobili presents problems off the bench or as a starter. Tim Duncan will match up against either Amare Stoudamire or Channing Frye and DeJaun Blair will take the other.

These two teams definitely don't think of each other as friends. Since 2003, they have faced each other five times in the Playoffs! Phoenix has bounced San Antonio four of those times. The most memorable image is a bloodied Steve Nash after a collision in the Western Conference Finals in 2007.

For Phoenix to go farther, they must rely on fast breaks. The Suns can all join the running party and have the best fast break point guard in the NBA in Steve Nash. A 3-on-2 for Phoenix is more like a 3-on-1. Backup PG Goran Dragic also knows how to use transition offense effectively.

Frye will create problems for any team in the West. He is able to play on the perimeter and make any Western Conference big man feel out of his zone. If Phoenix uses him correctly and he is hot, the Suns will be also.

X Factor: Because there is more than one, Channing Frye and Robin Lopez

7 San Antonio Spurs

Been there, done that, is San Antonio's idea going into the second round. Duncan, Parker, and Ginobili have all been the core of championship-winning teams. They have faced Phoenix five times in eight years in the Playoffs. Nothing is new to these guys, but for others, it is.

Rookie DeJuan Blair has not played in the postseason before. Malik Hairston and George Hill have also had limited Playoff experience. Despite this, Hill was huge in their series win over Dallas. He averaged nearly 35 minutes a game and 15 points and shot 50 percent from the field and on three's.

Richard Jefferson was a disappointment in the regular season with all the hype he garnered after a trade with the Bucks. He needs to score more than 9 points a game (his first round total) for the Spurs to make a run.

Right now, this matchup with the Suns is a toss-up. Either team could go to the Finals, but Phoenix is more equipped for that run. But San Antonio has Gregg Popovich on the sideline, an advantage over Phoenix and Utah.

X Factor: George Hill

 

 1 Cleveland Cavaliers

LeBron tells us that we are witnesses. Sure, I'll go with that. But I know I'd like to witness a championship in what could be his last chance with Cleveland. Then he can call me a witness.

But we did witness a crushing of Chicago in round one of what Cleveland hopes is a four-round bout with a different opponent. It is known that no matter who faces the Cavs, LeBron James will sock it to them with his point totals, hustle, and rebounding. The 2010 MVP can beat a lowly team such as Minnesota by himself but not in the Playoffs.

Cleveland is well-equipped for the Playoffs. Antawn Jamison is the second big scorer they need, bumping point guard Mo Williams back to third scorer. Shaq looked more agile and effective against Joakim Noah in Chicago. They looked all-around positive. Their depth is unmatched by anyone, as they receive large contributions from players like Anderson Varejao, Daniel Gibson, and Zydrunas Ilgauskas.

Boston will be an opponent they can, and will beat. The trouble, however, lies in the Eastern Finals in Orlando, assuming the Magic beat Atlanta. If the Cavs win the Eastern Conference, they will be favored against any team and LeBron may win that elusive title.

X Factor: Whoever the fourth scorer is (Shaq?, Parker?, West?, Moon?)

4 Boston Celtics

They handled the Miami Heat fairly easily, but, then again, it was the Heat. Though Miami was a five seed, but largely because of an incredibly easy schedule to end the season. They relied on Dwyane Wade to do practically everything. Jermaine O'Neal was simply awful. But we're not focusing on the Heat.

Boston has talent, but not as much as Cleveland. Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, and Rajon Rondo are all very good in late-game situations, but they need to keep games close. When the bench is in, Boston loses too much. Nate Robinson only averages two points per game so far. Kendrick Perkins has been effective on the boards, but not as a scorer.

Their "Big Four" is definitely stellar, but they are over matched by Cleveland and LeBron James. The Celtics gave up 33 points a game to Wade, and expect them to do so with James, but the Cavs have much more talent outside of their star than the Heat do.

X Factor: Rajon Rondo

3 Atlanta Hawks

If you happen to hear a loud sigh of relief, don't be frightened. It's just Hawks fans after being given a legitimate scare in the form of the Milwaukee Bucks. It took a Game Seven to put away the Andrew Bogut and Michael Redd-less Bucks.

In the series, Atlanta won when it went to Al Horford and Josh Smith effectively. They won when they crashed the glass and 6th Man of the Year Jamal Crawford was dominant off the bench. The Hawks lost when Milwaukee out played them in the paint, despite having a large presence in there. They lost when they let Brandon Jennings and John Salmons score at will.

Against Orlando, they will face an All Star big man in Dwight Howard. Atlanta will no longer be more talented than their opponent. Orlando is on a roll after beating Charlotte and won't look back.

Joe Johnson will be a scorer no matter who guards him. His jumper was crisp during the series against Milwaukee and if they are to win, he will have to do the same.

Josh Smith was off-and-on in round one. Double-doubles from him and Horford could possibly lead to wins against the Magic.

There is too much that must happen in order for Atlanta to win over Orlando. They have the talent, but putting it into effect are different stories.

X Factor: Jamal Crawford

2 Orlando Magic

Though it is only a 2-3 matchup against Atlanta, the gap seems much larger between the teams. Orlando rolled right over Charlotte in a sweep, while Atlanta nearly was shocked by Milwaukee. Expect the Magic to easily win the series.

Seemingly, their only downfall was Dwight Howard's foul trouble. We saw him foul out in the series and was obviously upset over the calls on him. He didn't average a double-double, or even double digits in any category. This foul trouble will cost Orlando if he does so in the later rounds against elite teams such as Cleveland, Los Angeles, and possibly Phoenix.

The good news about this is that Orlando was still phenomenal without Howard. Jameer Nelson averaged 24 points, 4.5 assists, and 2.5 steals. Rashard Lewis shot 52 percent and scored just 16 per game. Vince Carter got his groove back in 2009-10 and it has transferred to the Playoffs. Bench players Matt Barnes and JJ Reddick were solid in their roles.

Assuming they face Cleveland in the Eastern Semifinals, their versatility and multiple weapons pose a threat to the team with the top record in the NBA. Dwight Howard finished fourth in MVP voting and is the best center in the NBA, posting 15 rebounds and 20 points on average nights. If he draws a crowd, he can kick the ball out to Lewis, Carter, Reddick, Nelson, or Mickael Pietrus for a tray. Jameer Nelson has been taking the ball to the rack with ease recently and creating plays on offense. Their defense is sweltering and suffocating.

Coach Stan Van Gundy inspires his team with his energy and fiery speeches. Last season, Orlando took Cleveland in the East Semis in six games. If they can advance to the Finals, they can beat anyone that the West imposes.

X Factor: Dwight Howard

 

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