What a first round we had in the 2011 NBA playoffs! Out of eight games, we had two upsets and a lot of close-ish games (although it would have been nice to see a Game 7 somewhere).
We had the Chicago Bulls struggling to put away a resilient and tough-skinned Indiana Pacers team late in games, despite the eventual 4-1 series win.
We had Boston ruthlessly dispose of the New York Knicks in four games, even though there was widespread belief that the Knicks, with all their star power, could potentially upset the defending Eastern Conference Champions.
In addition, we saw a first glimpse in the playoffs of the Miami Big 3 and co. as they impressed against a young and athletic Philadelphia 76'ers squad. The upset in the Eastern Conference came in the No. 4 vs No. 5 seed matchup, as the Atlanta Hawks got sweet redemption against the Orlando Magic (who swept them last year).
Out West, we had the Los Angeles Lakers coming up against a revitalized Chris Paul as they had a tough time putting New Orleans away. Also, the Dallas Mavericks wiped away any notion of maybe choking in the first round, as they defeated the Portland Trail Blazers in six.
The other upset came in this conference, and boy was it an upset. The San Antonio Spurs, who for so long were the best team in the regular season, came up against a grizzly, resolute and persistent Memphis side who upset them 4-2.
We also had the Oklahoma City Thunder playing great first-round basketball, as they defeated the Denver Nuggets in five games.
As the second round matches begin on Sunday, here's what's in store:
Eastern Conference Semifinals
(No. 1) Chicago Bulls vs. Atlanta Hawks (No. 5)
(No. 2) Miami Heat vs. Boston Celtics (No. 3)
Western Conference Semifinals
(No. 4) Oklahoma City Thunder vs. Memphis Grizzlies (No. 8)
(No. 2) Los Angeles Lakers vs. Dallas Mavericks (No. 3)
After upsetting the fourth-seed Orlando Magic, the Hawks are back in the second round of the playoffs. For the last few years, they have proven to be no match for the upper-echelon teams in the East. This round has been their ceiling so to speak, including last year, where they were swept by the same Magic team.
What a difference a year makes! With some huge bench production from Jamal Crawford, as well as balanced scoring from Josh Smith and Joe Johnson, Atlanta proved to be too much for the outstanding and dominant Dwight Howard and the rest of the team, who simply shot too poorly to really threaten the Hawks. Having managed to beat a team with one MVP-candidate, they will be looking to do the same with another.
Chicago have just come off a 4-1 series win against the Indiana Pacers, but do not let the series score fool you. Indiana's grit and determination through the first four games meant that every game went down to the wire.
In crunch time, the Pacers did not have anyone with the ability of superstar Derrick Rose, who made the right decision in each of the first three to cruise to a 3-0 lead.
After the Pacers pulled one back in Game 4, Chicago ruthlessly brushed them away to set up a second-round match with Atlanta. The worry for the Bulls was their inability to put a seemingly inferior team away more effectively. Will they step up when a more dangerous team comes to play?
Regular season series: Chicago Bulls won 2-1
Hawks keys to victory:
1) Play Derrick Rose as you did Dwight Howard
That does not necessarily mean letting Derrick Rose average 35 points per game, but the idea is to let him do all the scoring. As good as Rose is, he won't outscore the Hawks by himself. For the Hawks, it is better to resist double-teaming him up top, or over-sending help when he flies into the lane.
Let Rose get his 30 points, but stay home on the shooters. It worked a treat with Dwight Howard, who may have put up huge numbers, but look where he and his team are now.
Kirk Hinrich is good enough defensively to at least keep Rose to relatively moderate D-Rose numbers. There's no need to think about double-teaming him. The last thing they want is for Luol Deng or Kyle Korver to start making open shots.
When the Bulls are sharing the points on offense, making extra passes and getting good looks, they're very tough to beat, especially since they don't usually give up many points on the defensive end of the floor.
This is easier said than done. The Hawks are the second worst team in the NBA in rebounding, and unfortunately for them, they come up against the best NBA team at rebounding. Considering that Atlanta aren't the best team at putting up points on the board, they need to ensure that they limit the number of possessions that Chicago get offensively.
This includes keeping players like Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer off the offensive boards. Easy points for the Bulls makes it tougher for the Hawks to match their offensive production.
3) Get Al Horford more involved
The Hawks All-Star center averaged a mediocre 12 points and 10 rebounds a game in the six-game series against the Magic. He also shot a poor percentage but that is most probably due to him matching up against the best defensive player in the league in Howard.
Now he has an undoubtedly easier battle with Joakim Noah, who is around the same size. If Horford can get going offensively, it will give the Bulls one more player to worry about. Horford is a talented player, and he should be assertive and aggressive against his undersized counterpart.
Horford averaged 17.0 points and 8.7 rebounds per game against the Bulls, while shooting 63 percent from the field. If he can put up similar numbers in this playoff series, then the Bulls' bigs could be in for a long day.
Bulls keys to victory:
1) Carlos Boozer must step up to the plate
Boozer has been a disappointment for the Chicago Bulls. After looking like he was a suitable sidekick to Derrick Rose, Boozer is arguably now Chicago's third option offensively.
Against the Pacers, Boozer averaged an unimpressive 10 points and 10 rebounds a game, while shooting a dismal 36 percent from the field. Boozer has to be more insistent against Atlanta, as he is often labelled as a "soft" player. Tyler Hansbrough of the Pacers managed to keep Boozer in check, and if Josh Smith plays physically and in-your-face defense, Boozer may continue to put up the unimposing numbers that could hinder the Bulls' progress.
2) Bench play
The Bulls' remarkable bench play throughout the regular season has given them a considerable advantage over many teams. Notwithstanding their inadequate production against the Indiana Pacers in Round 1, Chicago's bench unit are known to be outstanding defensively and efficient offensively. For Atlanta, after Jamal Crawford, there are no real threats off the bench, with Jeff Teague playing well in spurts.
The Bulls' bench lineup of Watson-Brewer-Korver-Gibson-Asik only give up 0.94 points per possession allowed. Offensively however, this lineup fails to put up a sufficient point total (0.96 points per possession), and this was magnified in the playoffs against Indiana, where the bench failed to perform.
If they can get some valuable rest for the starters and play like they have been during the season, then they would have a substantial advantage over the Hawks in that department.
3) Limit turnovers
Chicago were unable to take care of the ball against Indiana, and it could have proven costly in the series. If they beat Atlanta, they would face either Boston or Miami; and then they can ill afford to turn the ball over at such a frequent rate against a team of such quality.
Luckily for the Bulls, the Hawks' opponent's turnover percentage is 12 percent, which is only 0.4 percent higher than league's worst New Jersey. However, the better Chicago take care of the ball, the more possessions they get and the more pressure it takes off their defense.
- Derrick Rose gives more headaches to Kirk Hinrich defensively than vice-versa. Hinrich shoots 67 percent with Rose on the bench, compared to 39 percent when Rose is on the floor.
- Josh Smith's FG percentage in the paint is 67 percent against the Bulls; that is 30 percent higher than his overall FG percentage in the paint.
- The Hawks five of Johnson-Horford-Smith-Teague-Williams have a higher Net Rating (+35.77) than any other Bulls or Hawks possible combination of lineups.
Chicago were not at their best against the Pacers, and for that reason, some people have predicted the Hawks to possibly upset the Bulls to march on to the Eastern Conference Finals. However, I believe that the Bulls will step it up in the next round and their suffocating defense will keep the offensively challenged Hawks grounded.
BULLS in 6
For those who doubted the Boston Celtics time and time again, either by deeming them too old, or by claiming that losing Kendrick Perkins has drastically affected them for the worse, ask the New York Knicks just how ready this team is to make a serious run at yet another NBA title.
From what we saw in Round 1, the Celtics are doing just fine without Perkins. Even I must admit I thought there was a potential upset in this series, because the Celtics were in disarray, while the Knicks were playing great basketball to end the regular season, and they had made a return to the playoffs for the first time since 2004.
While the Knicks stars Stoudemire and Anthony gave everything they had in Games 1 and 2 respectively, the Celtics had an answer each time, and a deflated Knicks side headed back to Madison Square Garden, only to be finished off by the deadliest predators in the NBA.
The Heat did what they had to do. It took Miami five games to beat the 76'ers, who just had a bad matchup with an overwhelmingly superior team. Miami could have swept the series, but for a late game collapse in Game 4, the only blemish on what was an impressive overall performance.
Probably the biggest plus for the Heat was seeing Chris Bosh average almost 20 points a game to go along with nine rebounds. Not bad for a third option. James and Wade (and Bosh for that matter) have yet to put together a truly stunning playoff performance. A string of those may be required against the men in green. In my opinion, the winner of this series will progress to the NBA Finals.
Regular season series: Boston Celtics won 3-1
Celtics keys to victory:
1) Create plays and open shots for Ray Allen
Yes, this may seem glaringly obvious, but in this case, it could prove to be a real difference-maker and a strong indicator of who will progress to the next round. Ray Allen is set to match up with Dwyane Wade at the shooting-guard position. While Wade may be an excellent defender, he's better suited off the defending someone like a Kobe Bryant or a Brandon Roy. When it comes to defending pure shooters who move like mad without the ball, it becomes an entirely different issue.
Wade may be an excellent on-the-ball defender, but he tends to be a step slow when it comes to running around screens and chasing Ray Allen. Allen performed very well in the regular season series against the Heat, he shot 57.1 percent from three-point range; it's no surprise to see why that was the case. If Allen can shoot at a blistering pace (as he's done against the Heat this year and against the Knicks in Round 1), then he could cause Miami all sorts of fits.
2) Play a slower game in half-court sets
With Dwyane Wade and LeBron James in the ranks, it's no surprise that Miami are one of the best fast-break teams in the NBA. The quicker the game is, the better the chance the Heat have of winning.
The Boston Celtics have the luxury of being able to thrive in half-court as well as in transition. They have the ability to play different styles against different teams. Against Miami, the Celtics need to resort to a half-court game with a slower tempo. They must limit fast-break opportunities on the defensive end of the floor, because once they've set up, they normally make teams take the toughest shots outside the paint, and neither James nor Wade are excellent shooters.
3) Bench play
Seven of out the 10 players in the combined Miami Heat and Boston Celtics starting lineups were named to the 2011 All-Star Game in Los Angeles earlier this year (James, Wade, Bosh, Allen, Pierce, Garnett and Rondo).
There will be many occasions where the two teams simply cancel each other out, and this is where the bench comes into play. The Celtics have the likes of Delonte West, Jeff Green and Glen Davis off the bench compared to Miami who have James Jones, Mario Chalmers and Joel Anthony.
Boston unquestionably has the stronger bench with more offensive fire power. The bench did not perform against the Knicks though, and they must take advantage of the less productive Heat bench in order to take pressure off the starting lineup. In games like these where there is so little between the teams, the bench could be the key to victory.
Heat keys to victory:
1) Dwyane Wade must heat up vs C's
Dwyane Wade had an unbelievable regular season, but if there are four games he would like to forget; they would be the ones against the Celtics. In the first game of the year, Wade had just come back from injury which caused him to miss all of preseason training. Understandable. However, even in the other three games, Wade has been forced to take poor shots, and has consequently shot at a very low percentage.
Wade has averaged 12.8 points per game against Boston (25.5 for the season), while shooting 18 percent from three (31 percent for the season), and 28 percent overall from the field (50 percent for the season).
He's also had less of an impact defensively, registering less blocks and steals than usual and turning the ball over more. Wade must improve against Boston, and there's not a better chance to prove himself.
2) Clutch play
The Heat have been anything but hot in the clutch. Statistically speaking, they're an awful 1-19 from the field with 10 or less seconds remaining in the game, when they have a chance to take the lead or tie the game.
When the Heat went through that rough patch where they failed in late game situations, it was mostly LeBron James who was called upon to take the game-winning shot, usually in isolation plays. James' biggest flaw is his lack of "ice water in the veins" attitude to enable him to hit big-time shots. His inferior jump shot (compared to other aspects of his game) makes his play predictable in the clutch, and teams have adjusted to dealing with his driving ability.
For me, they need to have better schemes run in late-game situations. There's no point saying "Let Wade do it" or anything like that. The Heat have three All-Stars who are more than capable of hitting a shot. They just need the right shot. Doc Rivers and the Celtics are the best at creating plays with the game on the line. Miami need something similar up their sleeves.
3) Ball movement
As I've pointed out earlier, Boston must keep Miami playing in half-court sets. With that in mind, the Heat must react to that by moving around the ball on offense. If they rely on Wade/James isolations and stagnant offense, Boston will pick them apart.
Miami must us James and Wade to penetrate and kick out to open shooters, whether it's Bosh from mid-range, or James Jones and Mike Miller beyond the arc. The Celtics play very good strong-side defense, so Miami must move the ball around to open up space for exploitation, especially on the weak-side.
- Kevin Garnett has averaged only 15.3 points per game when Bosh is defending him. When Bosh is on the bench, KG averages 27.5 points per game.
- Per 48 minutes, Boston average 110 points per game with James on the bench. When he plays, they average 87.7 points per game.
- The Celtics have made 13 of 18 corner three-pointers against Miami, good for 72 percent.
While Boston won the regular season series 3-1, Miami really sent them a message in the last game. I believe this series will go right down to the wire, but I anticipate that Wade will come up big in this series as he usually does come playoff time.
HEAT in 7
The Memphis Grizzlies pulled off the seemingly impossible achievement: knocking out the team with the best record in the West (San Antonio Spurs). What's more impressive is that they did it without Rudy Gay, and they had to ride on the broad shoulders of Zach Randolph, who averaged 21.5 points per game to go along with 9.2 rebounds per game.
The Grizzlies now match up against a very similar team; a team that is young, athletic, quick and energetic. Do they have what it takes to knock off yet another higher seed? The regular season series say yes. What will happen in the playoff series?
The Oklahoma City Thunder rapidly did away with any rumours of an upset against the Denver Nuggets. Denver were always at a disadvantage against the Thunder simply due to matchup problems.
As George Karl rightly pointed out, it would have been more beneficial for the Nuggets to face the Dallas Mavericks in the first round. After beating Denver in five, in which Durant scored 41 points in two of the games, Oklahoma City look like an entirely different animal compared to last year. They've been recognized as potential Western Conference Champions, but for now, their focus must be on eliminating a Memphis team that has nothing to lose.
Regular season series: Memphis Grizzlies won 3-1
Grizzlies keys to victory:
1) Shane Battier's defense on Kevin Durant
No surprises here. Shane Battier is one of the best perimeter defenders in the league, and certainly the best defender in Memphis. On the other side of the ball, Durant is most definitely Oklahoma City's best offensive threat. Battier's job will be to nullify Durant's offensive prowess, at least trying to limit him to around 20 points or so. Shane Battier has had previous success against Kobe Bryant, so how will he fare against Kevin Durant?
When Battier has been defending Durant, KD has averaged 23.4 points per game, compared to a significantly higher 30.5 points per game when Battier is benched. The drop in production is further reflected in the field-goal percentage, where Durant shoots at 59 percent when Battier is not defending him, compared to 49 percent when he is.
2) Zach Randolph dominance
Randolph was downright superb against the Spurs and this time he'll be looking to bully his way around the Thunder big men. While Ibaka is a great defender, he'll stand little chance against the bulkier Randolph, who has a nice variation of offensive moves to score with relative ease.
If the Thunder put Perkins on Z-Bo, while Perk can contain him inside, Randolph's outside game will force him to defend further away from the basket, thus making Randolph a tougher cover. Either way, it's pick-your-poison for the Thunder big men when it comes to defending Zach Randolph.
3) Points in the paint
The Memphis Grizzlies are an excellent interior scoring team. They have the size advantage inside in Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph, as well as getting more points in the paint in the form of transition layups. They average 50.8 points per game in the paint, which is phenomenal to say the least. In fact, their points in the paint figure is best in the NBA.
Memphis will therefore need to take advantage of their size down low, therefore keeping the Oklahoma City Thunder defense hemmed in and under constant pressure.
Thunder keys to victory:
1) Russell Westbrook must rise to the occasion
Russell Westbrook played poorly in the last two games of the Denver series. He took way too many shots and took the wrong shots while over-forcing the issue at times. With a lot of concentration rightfully being placed on Durant, Westbrook has got to step up and play like he has been all year long, and especially as he has against the Grizzlies in four regular season games; where he's averaged 24.5 points per game along with 9.0 assists.
Westbrook has to ensure that he is more selective with the way he attacks and that he does not make any rash decisions that could harm the team like it did in the Thunder's sole loss to the Nuggets. The Thunder are very reliant on their two All-Stars for offensive production, and Robin will need to help Batman if Oklahoma City are to progress.
2) Get off to an electric start
Oklahoma City are normally very good a starting a ball game, and they could do with an energetic start to the first two playoff games in front of the home crowd especially. The Thunder are the third best offensive team in the first quarter of games, averaging 26.7 points per game. If they can put up points on the board, while keeping a distance between themselves and Memphis, it could be tougher for the Grizzlies to come back into games and make a challenge of each game.
3) Play some run-and-gun offense
Very similar to the concept of the electric start, Oklahoma City must plan on scoring on the fast break. Memphis are a solid interior defensive team and they have the size inside as well as great perimeter defenders to upset the Thunder offensively in a half-court game.
The Thunder rank sixth in fast break points per game, and the more pace they play with, the more likely they'll break down Memphis' defense. Interestingly enough, the Grizzlies are one of the worst teams in the NBA at defending fast-break opportunities, allowing 14.9 fast-break points per game.
- Even though Memphis have interior defensive presence, Westbrook has made 20-28 field goals in the restricted area, good for 71 percent.
- The Grizzlies playoff starting lineup have a Net Rating of 2.41, compared to 1.66 of the Thunder's lineup.
- The Thunder have a +/- rating of 35.6 per 48 minutes when Randolph on the bench, as opposed to -8.4 when he plays.
I look at both Memphis and Oklahoma City and I see two teams with bright futures. I see two teams that thrive off defensive stops and like to get going on offense. They're young and exciting, but the Thunder have what Memphis don't, and that's a legitimate superstar in Durant. In my mind, the Thunder are simply a better version of the Grizzlies, despite the regular season clashes dictating otherwise.
THUNDER in 6
The Mavericks must have feared for the worst when they were put up against a very talented Portland Trail Blazers squad in the first round. Dallas are known for their infamous losses against the eighth-seeded Warriors in the 2007 first-round playoff series as well as the 2006 NBA Finals to the Miami Heat.
The fear of choking again this year was perhaps on the mind of many. Six games later and Dallas are looking better than ever, beating Portland and now looking to beat the defending NBA Champions the Los Angeles Lakers.
The Lakers, meanwhile, are coming off a rather unimpressive 4-2 victory over the Hornets when many people predicted the Champions to win in a maximum of five games.
However, with some poor play from Gasol, an injury hit to star man Kobe Bryant, and some ridiculously inspired play by Chris Paul, the Lakers never had it easy going. However, in true title fashion, Los Angeles stepped it up when it mattered most, and delivered a crushing blow in the final game to send a message to all other title contenders.
The success of the Lakers in this series will very much depend on the health of Kobe, and when the Lakers are in full flow, they're awfully hard to stop.
Regular season series: Los Angeles Lakers won series 2-1
Mavericks keys to victory:
1) Pick-and-roll with Nowitzki
Dirk Nowitzki is one of the toughest covers in the NBA due to his ability to score from pretty much anywhere on the court. One of the biggest advantages the Mavs will have in this series is Dirk's ability to shoot from deep, meaning that either of Pau Gasol or Andrew Bynum will have to come out to contest his shots on the perimeter. Unfortunately for them, neither is comfortable defending too far away from the basket, and their insecurity then provides Nowitzki the option of driving to the basket.
It's no mystery as to who needs to play big for the Dallas Mavericks to stand a chance. For many years now, Nowitzki has been the undisputed leader of the team, and he must carry them when they need him most, especially in the clutch. In three meetings with Los Angeles in the regular season, Dirk has averaged 22.0 points per game, 10.3 rebounds as well as 3.7 assists. However, he has shot only 46 percent from the field, and an abysmal 14 percent from beyond the arc.
2) Secure defensive rebounds and protect the paint
Dallas are fortunate in that they are able to neutralize the Lakers' biggest advantage over almost all other teams in the NBA: size. Dallas have three seven-footers in Brendan Haywood, Dirk Nowitzki and Tyson Chandler to contend with the Laker giant trio of Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom and Andrew Bynum.
If they can get defensive rebounds and prevent easy second chance opportunities for Los Angeles, then it will become really tricky for the Lakers to find a distinct plus over the Mavericks.
3) Jason Terry-the best sixth man
This series could end up being determined on which sixth man shows up. The Mavericks will be hoping that Jason Terry steps up to the plate and hits some timely shots and provides a solid spark off the bench. Jason Terry was excellent in Round 1 against the Blazers, averaging 17.3 points per game and shooting just under 50 percent from the field. When he's hot, he's blazing hot, and Dallas will look for him in transition where he makes a lot of three pointers.
Lakers keys to victory:
1) Defending quick guards who penetrate
The Lakers have always had a problem defending guards who know how to pick apart a defense via penetration. Chris Paul was a perfect example of that in the first round, as he tore apart an injured Kobe Bryant as well as an ageing Derrick Fisher to provide easy chances for himself and his teammates.
Jason Kidd is no longer the guard with those capabilities, but Dallas can certainly call on exciting, young guard Roddy Beaubois to do some of the damage. The Lakers have to be careful not to switch on pick-and-rolls and they have to impose themselves in the paint to discourage guards from entering the lane.
2) Establish Kobe Bryant in the post
If you can't get the size advantage with either of the big men, utilise it to full effect at the 2-guard position. Kobe Bryant has a full range of post moves and has some size advantage over most of the Mavericks' guards. Jason Kidd? He's too small. Jason Terry? Likewise, and we saw how Portland tried to take advantage of his inability to defend bigger guards in the post position.
DeShawn Stevenson might be their best bet defensively as his tenacity will certainly fare better for the Mavs when defending Bryant. Nonetheless, can Dallas afford to give up so much offensive production for that cause? It will certainly be intriguing to see if they use Bryant in the post often.
3) Lamar Odom—the best sixth man
As a player, Odom can pretty much do everything. He can pass, shoot, drive, play down low, play on the perimeter and even run a fast break. He's very similar to LeBron James in that aspect (though talent levels are not quite equal). The reigning Sixth Man of the Year will be crucial to the Lakers' success, especially if the starters are struggling to gain advantages over one another.
- Bryant has only made 10 percent of his three-point attempts against Dallas, 22 percent less than his season average.
- Dirk has averaged 24.6 points per game when Gasol is defending him, but only 14.9 when Gasol is on the bench.
- The Lakers and the Mavs have made 62 and 61 percent of their corner threes respectively, and both percentages are more than 20 percent higher than their season averages
On paper, this appears to be a six- or seven-game series. Both teams are stacked with options and the regular season series proved to be tight. So far, I haven't predicted an upset, and I won't here. I will go for a shock result, however, because I think the Lakers will cruise to victory.
LAKERS in 5