With the Atlanta Hawks’ victory over the Milwaukee Bucks on Sunday, the semifinals of the NBA playoffs are officially set. Here’s the lowdown on what I think each team needs to do in their series to advance onwards.
Cleveland Cavaliers vs. Boston Celtics
Game One of this series was completed on Saturday, as the Cavs beat Boston to take a 1-0 series lead.
Cleveland’s game plan isn’t anything revolutionary. Get the ball to LeBron James and let him make the decisions. He’s the MVP of the league, and now is his time to shine. Anything less than a title will bring serious doubts about how committed James is to being a true champion.
This Cleveland squad, more than any other from years past, has the talent around King James to win a championship. Point guard Mo Williams needs to continue feeding the ball to Antawn Jamison and Shaquille O’Neal, because their presence inside takes a load of pressure off LeBron. Shaq’s clutch put-back bucket late in Game One only reinforces that idea.
From a defensive standpoint, the Cavs need to do a much better job containing Rajon Rondo. Coach Mike Brown should stick Delonte West on Rondo and try to slow the C’s young star down. He went off for 27 points and 12 assists in a hostile environment, and that can’t continue if Cleveland wants to win. If the Cavs backcourt continues to play porous defense, Boston can easily win two straight games at home.
Boston’s strategy revolves around keeping the “Big Four” (yes, Rondo is now included) involved in the offense at all times. Ray Allen is shooting the ball well so far in the playoffs, and could benefit from a few more set plays leading to him getting off some open three-pointers. Kevin Garnett is no longer the same player he once was, but his impact on the floor is still huge. If KG can find it in himself to let Rondo, Pierce, and Allen take more shots and instead focus on defense, the Celtics would have a much more balanced attack.
Boston’s bench play is a huge factor too. Rasheed Wallace isn’t even a shadow of his former self—he’s more like a corpse. He doesn’t hustle, takes bad shots, and whines to referees. He’d be better off on the bench, giving playing time to guys who want to make plays and know their roles like Glen Davis and Tony Allen.
At the end of the day, the Cavs have too many weapons and the best player in basketball. They will knock out the Celtics in six hard-fought games.
Orlando Magic vs. Atlanta Hawks
The first round went very differently for the Magic and the Hawks. Orlando absolutely dominated the Charlotte Bobcats, and were the only team in the playoffs to sweep their series. Meanwhile, it took Atlanta seven games to dispose of the undermanned Milwaukee Bucks, so questions remain as to how prepared they are for this playoff matchup.
Orlando’s extended break between rounds could actually hurt them early on. It’s always nice to have some downtime, but too much time off can make a player rusty or even get him thinking about his next matchup a little too much. Orlando’s psyche is already in question with their best player, Dwight Howard, complaining that the refs are out to get him. That’s something to keep in mind.
Assuming Howard gets his act together and stops committing silly fouls, the Magic appear to be in good shape. Jameer Nelson played like a guy making up for lost time, as he went on multiple scoring binges versus Charlotte after missing most of last year’s postseason with an injury. He can easily keep that production up against Mike Bibby and Jamal Crawford.
Vince Carter is the X-factor here. He’s known to be inconsistent in big games, but that can’t happen in this series. He has the potential to give Joe Johnson fits; it’s up to him whether he decides to act on that potential.
Atlanta has the talent to make this a long series. Joe Johnson has been wildly up and down scoring the ball, but is certainly capable of breaking out of his slump. Al Horford has been masterful thus far, and he can draw fouls on Dwight Howard fairly easily.
The only way Atlanta wins this series is if Joe Johnson, Jamal Crawford, and Josh Smith play above and beyond their performances in the series against Milwaukee. Don’t count on that happening. Still, Atlanta matches up well with Orlando on paper, and can extend this series to six games.
Los Angeles Lakers vs. Utah Jazz
Los Angeles stole a close Game One from Utah on Sunday to take a 1-0 lead in the series. They’re in the driver’s seat to advance out of the Western Conference, but the Jazz will give them a run for their money.
Utah lost Mehmet Okur and has been playing without Andrei Kirilenko, but flat-out overpowered the Denver Nuggets in Round One, and stayed close with Los Angeles in the first game of this series.
They have two stars, Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer, and a host of role players who know exactly what they need to do. Paul Millsap rebounds, C.J. Miles scores points, and Wesley Mathews plays tough defense. All a team needs to win is two guys who can control the game (which Utah has) and multiple others who won’t break rank. As long as Utah plays within those standards, they have a great chance to shock the world.
Los Angeles, just like Cleveland, needs to keep playing exactly as they have. Feed the ball to Kobe Bryant and Paul Gasol, and reap the rewards. Bryant had his best performance of the playoffs against the Jazz, and that’s a good sign for the Lakers.
The return of Ron Artest’s jump shot could be a series-changer, because he’s been left practically wide open on his threes and has been unable to convert. If Ron-Ron knocks a few down, suddenly Utah can’t double Kobe and allow others to shoot uncontested jumpers.
The key to stopping Utah is beating the Jazz on their home floor. That’s very tough to accomplish, but it’s critical. Utah is more than capable of stealing a game in Los Angeles, but it’s much tougher the other way around. I don’t expect Los Angeles to win games three or four.
The Jazz are a scrappy group that will send this series to a Game Seven, where the “Black Mamba” (Bryant) will end the underdog Jazz’s hope of advancing.
Phoenix Suns vs. San Antonio Spurs
This series more than any other has “seven game classic” written all over it. The bad blood between Phoenix and San Antonio is well known, and both squads have veterans nearing the end of their illustrious careers. What does that mean to you? Lots of aggressive, hard-nosed, emotional basketball.
Phoenix made a surprisingly smooth transition from fast-paced offensive juggernaut to a slower, more balanced squad. Steve Nash should have a productive series, but it’s going to be tough for him or Goran Dragic to stop the speedy Tony Parker and the emerging George Hill.
Phoenix, like San Antonio, has a plethora of options at shooting guard and small forward. Jason Richardson’s outstanding performance against Portland needs to be replicated to keep Manu Ginobili on his toes defensively.
Last series, Manu only had to match up with an injured Brandon Roy and a terrible Rudy Fernandez. Leandro Barbosa helps spread the floor, and coach Alvin Gentry should bump up his minutes for this series.
The X-factor here is Amare Stoudemire versus the San Antonio bigs. Amare’s offensive prowess is well documented, but against the Blazers, his defensive intensity was anything but stellar. As the team’s most talented player, Stoudemire needs to make an impact on both sides of the court.
San Antonio has a great chance in this series because of George Hill. He gives the Spurs an unprecedented third option out of the backcourt, and with Manu Ginobili’s improved play along with the return of Tony Parker, it’s going to be very tough for Phoenix to stop any guards.
Richard Jefferson finally played like the guy San Antonio paid so much money for this offseason against Portland. He needs to replicate that success.
As usual, it all comes down to Tim Duncan. Duncan is the heart and soul of this team. Expect him to have a monster series as long as Amare Stoudemire slacks off on defense.
This series will go back and forth, but just like in Round One, San Antonio will discard their home court disadvantage and move on. Watch out everyone, the Spurs might have one more trick up their sleeves.