Thus far, the 2011 NBA Playoffs have gotten off to a tremendous start. There have been upsets (New Orleans winning Game 1 versus the Lakers), thrilling comeback wins (the Bulls in Game 1) and signs that certain teams could be in for a shorter postseason run than at first predicted (Denver Nuggets). The stars have truly come to play in the playoffs.
The playoffs have not gone according to the plan surmised by many playoff experts and that is what fans truly appreciate.
But which teams are looking the strongest early on?
I breakdown the 16 playoff teams and offer my assessment of which teams have gotten off to the best postseason start.
The 76ers are currently staring at a 3-0 deficit in their first round series against the Miami Heat and are hoping for a win on Sunday to avoid an embarrassing first round sweep. The 76ers have done many things right in the two close game of the series. Both Game 1 and 3 showed the team getting off to fast starts in the first quarter where their decisive offense and aggressive defense appeared to have the Heat back on its heals in both games. Yet despite holding double-digit leads early in both games, the Heat's defense and various offensive options just overwhelmed Philly in the second half.
The 76ers deserve credit for hanging tough. A lot of people wonder whether they would even show up in Game 3 after getting blasted by the Heat 94-73 in the previous game. But the 76ers played well despite their lack of clear advantages at any position.
It also hasn't helped that the 76ers have gotten very little from Andre Iguadala, who is only averaging six points and seven rebounds in the series. When the 76ers best player in averaging the same number of rebounds and fewer points than the Heat's starting center (Z is averaging 8 ppg) , it is very hard to pull out a win.
The 76ers can only hope for a Miami Heat team caught thinking ahead to Boston on Sunday in order to stay alive.
Every single Game in the series has followed the same pattern for the Pacers: They play tough, have the Bulls back on their heals, look poised to complete the upset win, before the Bulls led by MVP in waiting Derrick Rose, turns them away at the threshold of victory.
How frustrating must it be to feels as though you have outplayed a team for the vast majority of the series, but still see that effort amount to nothing regarding postseason wins?
The most obvious problems for the Pacers is just the inability to execute when the Game is on the line. When the defense is cranked up in the final minutes, the Pacers just have not had a player step up and make meaningful plays. This was put on display by the Bulls' 16-1 run to end Game 1 and clutch shooting in Game 3.
Not to take anything away from the Bulls' game winning shots in the first 3 contests, but you would have thought by now the Pacers would have found some type of answer to that play the Bulls run in the final seconds when Rose drives to the hoop and kicks out for and open Kyle Korver 3-pointer.
Is there nothing the Pacers can do to prevent this play? Why not make someone else take that shot? Wouldn't you rather see Deng take that 3 than Korver, the only pure shooter for the Bulls in the Game?
I just can't understand how a team can constantly be beaten by the same play.
Nevertheless, after Saturday the Pacers will have an entire off-season to contemplate stopping Kyle Korver.
On the one hand, the New York Knicks can claim a la the Pacers, that despite trailing the series 2-0 they have managed to hang tough with the Boston Celtics on the road despite injuries to their key players Chauncey Billups and Amare Stoudemire.
Yet, given the fact that the Celtics have not played a strong "defending Eastern Conference Champs" type of game yet (the fairly undersized Knicks outrebounded Boston 53-37 in Game 3) both losses for the Knicks really feel like gifts to the Celtics, brought about by the team's lack of fourth quarter execution on defense and offense.
A lot was made of Rajon Rondo's great 30-point night in Game 2, but when you watched that Games, most of those points came from layups. Rondo was simply driving right to the basket and laying it in the basket like he's in practice during a layup drill. That was just embarrassing defense.
I feel that that had more to do with sealing the Knicks fate than the shot by KG which would never have been necessary to decide the game had the Knicks not given up 8 layups to Rondo.
Carmelo Anthony had a brilliant Game 2 with 42 points and 17 rebounds. But It's amazing that he couldn't have at least gotten to the free throw line on the last possession.
Nevertheless, the Knicks are hoping that they get a bit of home cooking back in New York to get back in the series on Friday. But with Amare and Billups still hampered and the Celtics motivated to finish this series to not allow the Heat more opportunity to rest, look for the Celtics to put the series away in no more than five games.
While the other, "well, we hung with them even though we lost" teams like New York and Indiana at least have "something" they can hang their hat on from the previous game to give them soem hope. Other than the fact that the next two games are in Denver, the Nuggets couldn't take many positive signs from the Game 2 beatdown at the hands of the Thunder. The final score 106-89 was really not indicative of how thoroughly dominated they were by the Thunder.
Denver is a perfect example of why a team with depth and no star rarely wins in the postseason. When those role players struggle, you have to have a star player who can carry the team through their lulls, like Kobe can with the Lakers or Wade can for the Heat. Consequently, unless the Nuggets get their "solid players" to play like All-Stars, they simply cannot match the firepower of OKC who came with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook who combined for 72 points.
Nene has played well in both game. He had 22 points and 8 rebounds in Game 1 but and 16 points and 9 rebounds in Game 2 but he hasn't gotten much consistent help as Kenyon Martin and Wilson Chandler have barely showed up in the series.
If the Nuggets can't find an answer for Durant and Westbrook, the series could be over by Monday.
The Portland Trailblazers got back in their series with the Dallas Mavericks with a spirited Game 3 win by the final score of 97-92.
The Blazers got a huge game from Wesley Matthews, who put up 25 points and 3 assists in the game. Matthews averaged only 7.5 points in the first two games so that was huge.
Ironically, the win was actually the Blazers' worst defensive effort of the series as the Mavericks shot over 50 percent for the game for the first time in the series. But with the Mavs missing 10 free throws in a game that was decided by five points, you can see what they will be working on today in practice.
I still feel as though the Mavericks are in control of this series and are probably thinking that they only need to win Game 4 on Saturday to really put the Blazers against the wall.
The Blazers need a better defense effort in Game 4 as they can't count on the Mavs missing that many foul shots again. Matthews must once again step up and provide the type of lift he did in Game 3 and Gerald Wallace must provide a stronger presence in the paint against Tyson Chandler and Brendan Haywood.
Memphis stole Game 1 courtesy of Shane Battier's game-winning shot and nearly stole Game 2 as well making the Spurs sweat until the finals seconds to pull the game out.
The Spurs have had problems Zach Randolph, who after a strong outing in the Game 1 win with 25 points and 14 rebounds, struggled in Game 2 with only 11 points and 5 rebounds, and the Grizzlies athleticism and limiting of the Spurs running game has really caused the Spurs a lot of problems.
Nevertheless, the Grizzlies are going to have to get a strong game out of Randolph to retake the series lead and Marc Gasol (who really sparkled in the Game 1 win) must continue to pound the Spurs in the paint where they lack much depth.
For anyone still laboring under the belief that one great player can win a series without a legitimate second option, I would like to focus you attention on this series.
I don't think that Dwight Howard can do much more than he is right now. He's averaging 39.5 points and 19 rebounds in the series. Those numbers are simply amazing. But his team just has not provided much help, either defensively or offensively.
Hedo Turkoglu has been a huge disappointment so far in the postseason. Despite the Game 2 win for the Magic, Hedo shot onlt 4-16, scoring 10 and adding 5 assists. He has simply lacked the confidence he displayed in the team's great 2009 postseason run to the finals. Gilbert Arenas has been even worst scoring a combined 8 points in both games and not playing a lick of defense.
The Magic were a team constructed to provide more offensive options to surround Howard so that the offense would not just disappear if teams failed to double-team Howard in the paint. However, since the majority of the Magic shooters are not great defenders like J.J. Redick and Arenas, they are of no use to the team if they are not making shots.
The Magic can only hope that their shooters can find a rhythm soon.
Many pundits felt that the Hawks had a chance to beat the Magic in their first round series because of their strong outing against them in the regular season. While I feel as though using regular season matchups to gauge a team's ability to beat another team in the playoffs is overused and not very reliable (Lakers-Hornets anyone?), I do feel as though the Hawks can beat this Magic team.
The reason why is because, outside of Howard the Magic are lacking in any real wing defenders to handle Josh Smith and Joe Johnson. The Magic is an assembly of streaky shooters. If they are making their shots, they are dangerous. If they are not, they are very beatable.
Consequently, the Hawks have managed to hurt the Magic from a variety of sources. Jamal crawford has especially been the Magic tormetor averaging 24 ppg in the series.
The Hawks are hoping to ride their momentum to a 2-1 series lead in Game 3 on Friday.
I still have my doubts about this Hawks team down the road though. If they survive the Magic and take on the Bulls in the next round, their lack of size could hamper them in that series. But right now, they are where they want to be.
It was a tremendous relief for the Spurs when they finally got their team MVP Manu Ginobili back in Game 2 against the Spurs. Probably not surprisingly, they won the Game down the stretch and Manu's 17 points seven rebounds provided a lift to the team.
But the Spurs are facing questions despite the win: Can they handle the size of Gasol and Randolph on the Grizzlies? Will they become just the fourth number eight seed to lose the first round of the playoffs? Will Antonio McDyess contribute more than five points and five rebounds from the center position? And can they score consistently enough in a slower tempo style that does not play to the team's strengths?
The Spurs, despite having plenty of championship experience on its roster, is facing the type of doubt that one rarely sees with veteran teams and few have them making the finals even though they are the West's top seed.
It will interesting to see whether the Spurs playoff experience or the Grizzlies inexperience will be a bigger factor in the two games in Memphis.
But if the Spurs do survive the Grizzlies series, they will have a problem contending with the Thunder (assuming OKC gets there) if they don't get more production in the paint.
If he is going to lose the award for Coach of the Year, can we at least give Hornets head coach Monte Williams the award for Salesman of the Year?
After weeks of listening to how his team were going to be an easy four-game sweep for the defending champions, he got his team fired up and ready to play despite an season-ending injury to their second best player in David West.
The Hornets played with passion and emotion surprising the Lakers 109-100 in Game 1 of the series. The Lakers bounced back in Game 2 87-78 despite a rough shooting game for Kobe Bryant, but I think that the Lakers will certainly take the Hornets a lot more seriously for the remainder of the series.
Chris Paul had a brilliant 33 point, 14-assists effort in Game 1. But in Game 2, the Lakers defense held him to 20 points and nine assists. Paul absolutely must dominate his matchup at the point guard position against Derrick Fisher in order to have a chance at the upset. The Hornets really have no other matchup advantages against the Lakers on the floor.
The Hornets will, in all likelihood, fall to LA in this series, but they are certainly giving the world champs a strong series and will have something to build on for next year.
The Thunder appear to be well on its way to winning its first playoff series in franchise history after taking a 2-0 series lead over the Denver Nuggets.
There appeared to be reason to worry about this team's defensive intensity after giving up 103 points in Game 1, but the Thunder really rebounded in Game 2 and their defense held the Nuggets to only 89 points and 39 percent shooting.
The Thunder will be looking to take a insurmountable 3-0 lead in Game 3 on Saturday.
Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook have played inspired basketball thus far in the postseason and their new acquisition Kendrick Perkins has motivated them to raise their level of intensity on the defensive end.
The Thunder appear to have a real shot and advancing to the NBA Finals this season.
The Lakers look old.
They were expected to simply flip a switch and suddenly become the championship favorites again once the postseason began, but after a humbling defeat at the hands of the Hornets in a game where Pau Gasol looked totally unaggressive and Chris Paul seemed to drive through their interior size at will, the team got back on track with a 87-78 win over the Hornets.
The win certainly will not quite the endless analysis about this team's struggles, but it is certainly not a good sign seeing Gasol look unagressive against Aaron Gray and Emeka Okafor.
Gasol is averaging only 8 ppg and 5.5 rpg in the series. Fortunately, Andrew Bynum is taking up the slack for the Lakers as he is putting up solid numbers (15 ppg and 10 rpg in the series). But if the Lakers want to 3-Peat they must get Gasol going. He just seems to lack confidence right now. Perhaps he is battling an injury that he is not talking about. It's hard to tell. But seeing him try to stay with Paul on the perimeter in Game 1 was one of the most unintentionally funny moments of the postseason so far.
The Lakers are still the team to beat in the West and certainly winning four of seven games against them will be a tall order for any opponent in the conference. But I feel that there is genuine reason to believe that this may be the last stand for the Lakers in their run of championships for this current squad.
The Mavericks were firmly in position to put to rest any thoughts of them losing the first round series to the Trailblazers with a Game 3 victory to basically put the series away.
Then they went and shot 13-23 from the free throw line and lost the game 97-92 leading to doubts resurfacing once again.
However, they are holding a 2-1 lead in the series and have another solid opportunity to put the Trailblazers' backs against the wall in Game 4 on Saturday.
Dirk Nowitzki and Jason Terry combined for 54 points but they did not get much help as the rest of the team combined for just 38 points. Tyson Chandler was particularly disappointing as he fouled out with only two points and four rebounds.
The Mavericks are still in control of the series (right now they are in a better position than the two other top seeds in the West) and can put a stranglehold on the series with a win in Game 3.
Should I just marvel at the amazing clutch ability of the Boston Celtics in this series as they have won each of the first two game with game winning shots? Or should I ask the obvious question: Why is it that the Celtics, playing against a Knicks team with little experience playing together, no real defensive identity and two of its big three stars missing for huge portions of the first two games, have had such a hard time putting this team away in games?
The Knicks even gave Rondo seven straight layups and allowing him to score 30 points and the Celtics still couldn't rest their starters in the fourth quarter. If this is what the Celtics look like when they "flip the playoff switch" they may want to change the bulb.
Jermaine O'Neal had a strong outing in Game 1 of the series with 12 points, 4 blocks and 4 rebounds, but neither he nor Glen Davis have done much to keep the Knicks off the boards. The Celtics have been outrebounded 87-81 in the series. This is a Knicks team with very little size which was without its leading rebounder throughout most of Game 2 yet still crushed the Celtics on the boards. That's inexcusable.
The Celtics are also not getting much from the bench either. Nenad Krstic has been a non factor, Jeff Green still looks lost, Delonte West has yet to provide much of a spark and Glen Davis simply has not had the impact he had earlier in the season.
Nevertheless, the Celtics are still 2-0 in the series right now and want to put the Knicks away as soon as possible to preserve their energy for the Heat in the next round.
After two games in which Derrick Rose scored over 35 points he had a much quieter Game 3 as he went for 23 points this time out. Nevertheless, the Bulls won 88-84 as they continued to outexecute the Indiana Pacers down the stretch of games.
Many poeple are arguing that the Bulls have not looked like a championship team and that their close wins are a harbinger of potential problems that could impact the team once they face a stronger opponent. I have always rejected the idea that all title team plays a certain way and that you can assess how a team will play later in the playoffs by their play early. I think that the Bulls deserve credit for having the ability to win games down the stretch as that is a key element to postseason success.
However, like the Celtics, it's hard to ignore the obvious problems this team is facing that it must correct if it wants to contend for a title. The most insistent one is the fact that they must awaken Carlos Boozer from his postseason slumber. He is only averaging just 11 ppg, 11 rpg and 4 fouls a game in the series, Boozer has not been much of a factor on the defensive end in the series as all. And his offensive numbers are very disappointing considering the fact that he's not exactly playing against any of the elite power forwards in the league.
He must get it going for the Bulls to contend.
But a 3-0 series lead is a 3-0 series lead and the Bulls will be looking to finish the Pacers off on Saturday.
Several critics have nitpicked the Miami Heat over its play in the first three games of the series against the Philadelphia 76ers arguing that they have played "inconsistently." While I wouldn't necessarily disagree with this (I'll just say thay've played in spurts perhaps to pace themselves), I still find it curious how they can be accused of inconsistent play while the Celtics and Bulls have had each of their games thus far decided by game-winners.
Each of the games the Heat have played so far, have been over in the final minutes. Nevertheless, the team will continue to face scrutiny until they beat "a real contender" in the playoffs. That could occur soon when they play the Boston Celtics in the next round.
The Heat have gotten strong play from each of the Big 3. LeBron James is averaging 24.6 ppg, 12 rpg, and 5.6 apg in the series. Wade, after a rough first few outings, had an amazing 32-point, 10 rebound, 8 assists effort in Game 3. And Bosh, who many said was the "unproven commodity" in the series as he has yet to play in the playoffs second round has averaged 21.6 ppg and 9.6 rpg, both up from his season averages.
Miami Heat have won their three playoff games by an average margin of 11.6 ppg, which is the best margin of any team in the playoffs this year despite their "struggles." The Heat have had its problems though. They still aren't getting enough out of the point guard position and with Bibby and Chalmers combining for 1-8 shooting in Game 3 coach Spoelstra elected to go to a lineup without a point guard in Game 3 and had success. But Bibby and Chalmers must step up if this team wants to reach its potential.
One surprising thing though is that the Heat are getting solid play from the frontcourt players, who have been maligned all season. Zydrunas Ilgauskas is averaging 8.3 ppg and 6.6 rpg. Joel Anthony has also been huge for the Heat as well. His tenacity on defense and rebounding have given the Heat a spark in relief of Z.
Right now, the Heat are the best team of the postseason.