Watching the weekend’s playoff games, there was one that told a more telling story than the other seven series openers.
When the Boston Celtics took the court for warmups against the Chicago Bulls Saturday, something was missing.
I sat in front of my TV, purely watching the body language of the two teams as they went through their pregame routine.
Chicago seemed loose. Unlike the Atlanta Hawks from 2008, they were calm. Chicago can credit their cool demeanor to rookie floor general Derrick Rose, who never seemed to let the moment get the best of him.
On the other side, it looked like the Celtics wanted to believe that everything was going to be OK, and in an inspiring moment, we saw Kevin Garnett on the sidelines talking to teammates before the tip-off, getting his crew fired up.
As the game went on, though, that something that was missing became much clearer.
The Celtics are a talented team, even without Kevin Garnett. However, the swagger that Boston had last year during the playoffs, and even at times this season, was gone.
Many fans forget that as dominant as Boston was during the regular season last year, they needed seven games to get out of the first and second rounds. Ray Allen had an awful start of the 2008 Playoffs, and the defensive presence of Garnett and sheer will to lead his teammates was the X-factor.
Fast-forward to this year. Boston is clearly not as good as last year, regardless of an impressive 62-20 regular season mark. The Bulls are deeper, more experienced, and better than last year's Hawks.
Chicago’s post players will have a field day on Glen Davis and Leon Powe this entire series, as Brad Miller and Tyrus Thomas can hit the mid-range jumper, and Joakim Noah is more active on the glass than his Celtic counterparts.
If Rajon Rondo is able to remain playing at the high level he is to offset Derrick Rose, the entire series will fall on the shoulders of the Celtics' two All-Stars—Ray Allen and Paul Pierce.
Pierce is willing and able to step up when the game is on the line. Though he missed a critical free throw that would have all but won the game for Boston Saturday, if you put him in that situation again this series, he will make the shot.
Allen, on the other hand, traditionally does not play as well on the road in the playoffs as he does in Boston. That is why Game Two for Boston is more than just a must win—it is a gut check.
They say playoff series don’t really begin until the home team loses a game, so this one is well underway.
The defending champs have two ways to look at it. They could, like some champions of the past (Miami Heat in 2007), get knocked down and fail to get back up.
I don’t see this team doing that, though. Doc Rivers knows that if his team wins Game Two, then the series becomes a best three out of five. He would take his chances on that.
Meanwhile, Vinny Del Negro knows that Chicago has accomplished what they set out to do, which is get a split in Boston. Can they do the unthinkable and win both games in Boston?
Other things we learned this weekend:
1. Chauncey Billups is the MVP of the Nuggets, not Carmelo Anthony
Billups, who Denver picked up for Allen Iverson in November, not only paid off huge dividends in the regular season, but also set the tone for the young Nuggets in Game One against New Orleans, draining 36 points in an impressive victory.
2. The road team has a shot in this round
I can’t remember a year when the road team won so many opening games of the postseason as we saw this weekend. Normally the home team wins 77 percent of first-round games, but that was not to be in Boston, Orlando, Portland, or San Antonio.
3. Don’t get too excited if you are a Bulls or Sixers fan yet
Fans in Chicago and Philly pulled off mild upsets in their victories this weekend and now are playing with house money in Game Two. However, the second game of this series will be more important for them than the first.
Momentum is a crazy thing in the playoffs, and if the favorites (Boston, Orlando) are able to get their sea legs and even up their series, it now becomes a best three out of five. Though they don’t have home court anymore, I still would favor the Celtics or Magic in a situation like that.
4. Josh Howard could be the X-factor of the West Playoffs
Remember when Josh Howard was selected as a NBA All-Star? The Mavericks thought Howard, Dirk, and Jason Terry would lead them to many playoff victories and NBA Finals appearances after their first one together in 2006.
Things haven’t worked out quite like that so far, and Howard’s game has been inconsistent as well. He is showing signs of his old self, though, and he could give the Spurs serious matchup issues if he comes to play each night this series.