Round 1 of the 2011 NBA Playoffs reminded me of the first two days of the NCAA Tournament; the tops seeds, heavy favorites (for the most part), squaring off against the lower seeds, feisty underdogs. In the end, two upsets emerged in the Grizzlies and Hawks; taking down the number one ranked Spurs in the West and number four ranked Magic in the East, respectively.
Now that the first round fat has been trimmed, the NBA Playoffs heads into a Round 2 of epic proportions. It would be foolish to discount any team, even the surprising squads from Memphis and Atlanta. The Grizzlies became only the second team in the league’s current seven-game format to knock off a top seed in Round 1, while the Hawks beat a Magic team that swept them in Round 2 just a year ago.
Both of these teams are balanced, with deep, versatile benches. They also employ end-game assassins – Zach Randolph for Memphis and Jamal Crawford for Atlanta – that my Knicks got rid of in 2008 to clear cap space for LeBron James. So excuse me while I swallow that very bitter pill.
I digress, but for all the true hoops fans out there (which eliminates all the bandwagon Knicks’ fans that bought Carmelo jerseys in droves), these four upcoming series’ should be an absolute joy to watch. Here’s my best attempt at breaking down the matchups.
Oklahoma City Thunder v. Memphis Grizzlies
The two smallest market teams remaining in the playoffs (not to mention least experienced) square off. To me, this should be a battle of Kevin Durant v. Zach Randolph, two players that were unstoppable offensively, especially in the deciding games of Round 1.
The Grizzlies are a pesky defensive team, known for generating a lot of turnovers, and will probably throw some combination of Tony Allen and Shane Battier at Durant. That won’t work. Durant is simply too long for Memphis’ smaller perimeter defenders, and will continue to have his way.
As for stopping Z-Bo (Randolph), the Thunder have the very tough Serge Ibaka at power forward, and while it sounds like a hard matchup for Randolph, he averaged 26 and 13 in the regular season against the Thunder. Memphis actually won the season series 3-1, and riding their first round upset of the Spurs, seem primed for another one in Round 2.
Still, I like the Thunder. Durant will continue to rise above every player on the floor, and Russell Westbrook, who struggled towards the end of the Nuggets series, should have his way with the undersized Mike Conley. When you factor in home-court, it will take a lot for the Grizzlies to overcome a Thunder team that won despite Westbrook’s putrid late series shooting. Thunder in six, possibly five.
Miami Heat v. Boston Celtics
And now things get very interesting. Save the actual Finals; this series should be the most exciting and passionate matchup of this year’s playoffs. Despite finishing the regular season with the league’s third best record, the Heat are still looked at somewhat as underachievers, and this is the series that will determine how good their three-headed-monster really is. Or two-and-a-half-headed-monster, if that feels more just.
It’ probably best to throw out the teams’ regular season series – the Celtics won 3-1, but the Heat blew them out in the game that mattered most, at Miami on April 10, ultimately leading to the number two seed in the East. In the game, it was competitive at the start, but Miami unleashed its superior athleticism in the second half, imposing its will on the older and slower Celtics. It’s a side the Heat finally started to show in the latter part of the season, and when LeBron and Dwyane Wade are running up and down the floor (and finishing) they are hard to beat.
My guy tells me this series won’t be as competitive as people think if a) LeBron and Wade control the tempo of the game (ie: up-tempo) and b) Ray Allen and Paul Pierce don’t knock down shots as consistently as they did against the Knicks.
That Boston swept New York in Round 1 is very misleading, considering they easily could have lost games 1 and 2 at home. Now they will open on the road, against a much better defensive team, with a better (and healthier) All-Star duo to defend. I don’t want to dismiss Rajon Rondo, how good he is, and how good he’ll likely be in this series, but it won’t be enough. Heat in six.
Chicago Bulls v. Atlanta Hawks
The worst thing the Bulls can do right now is underestimate the Hawks, which the Magic clearly did. Or maybe Orlando just wasn’t that good. The fact remains, very much like the Grizzlies, the Hawks are a team filled with talent on both sides of the floor. Will it be enough to contend with the league’s soon-to-be MVP and a staggering all-around defense? Probably not, but let’s break it down nonetheless.
The Bulls won the season series 2-1, but more importantly, they outscored the Hawks by an average of 16 points, and blew a 19-point, fourth quarter lead in their one loss. So basically, it could have been three Chicago blowouts.
Worse news for the Hawks, Kirk Hinrich, one of the league’s best defensive point guards, is battling a hamstring injury. This is good news for Derrick Rose, who didn’t have a very impressive series against Indiana (dealing with his own minor injury), and will look to bounce back big-time against Atlanta.
Atlanta will have to adjust in playing a team with a totally different style than Orlando, running its offense through the point guard rather than the center. Offensively, there isn’t much to gain on from their season series vs. Chicago; as no player managed to crack 20 points in a game, other than a 31 point outburst from Al Horford in their lone win. I don’t think Atlanta will get swept (like they did in Round 2 of both past seasons), but I do expect this series to be the least competitive. Bulls in five.
Los Angeles Lakers v. Dallas Mavericks
How huge a role will home-court advantage play for the two-time defending champs? The Lakers and Mavericks finished with identical records in the regular season, but Los Angeles grabbed the two seed due to its 2-1 series advantage against Dallas. The Lakers were tied for the second best home record in the league, albeit with four other teams. It’s not a huge factor, but definitely something that could have swayed in Dallas’ favor, if they finished one game better to end the season.
Still, while they were seeded third, the Mavs had a lot of doubters in the first round, playing against a rejuvenated, post trade deadline, Blazers team. They won the series in six, and could have done it in one game less, if it wasn’t for a bad Game 4 meltdown in Portland. It was still a competitive series, ultimately won by Dirk Nowitzki, the best player in Round 1 of the playoffs not named Kevin Durant.
The big question is; will Dallas be able to handle the best frontcourt in the league, after dealing with very able bigs on Portland. Pau Gasol, Andrew, Bynum and Lamar Odom, all shined in the regular season against the Mavs, and scored a combined 56 points in a win on March 31 in Los Angeles, with huge playoffs implications.
When you add that Kobe Bryant dropped 28 in that game (and even Ron Artest chipped in 13), it’s just hard to believe Dallas can stop the Lakers. I liken that game to Miami’s blowout win of Boston on April 10, as a key indicator of how things will go this time around. Still, I think Dirk will put up the fight of his life, and I haven’t picked one series yet to go the distance. Lakers in seven.