It’s no question; this year’s NBA Playoffs have been one of the most exciting post-season’s in recent memory. The parity in the league is evident, and perhaps we are finally seeing a changing of the guard with the younger, more athletic teams outplaying the more experienced, veteran squads… and we’re only one round deep.
GRIZZLIES VS SPURS
The top headline of the first round undoubtedly was the unforeseen emergence of the mighty Memphis Grizzlies. Who would’ve thought coming into round one that a team missing their premier shooter, and a combined playoff record of 0-12, would eliminate the top seeded San Antonio Spurs, a team which hasn’t missed the playoffs in 14 seasons, and are owners of 1/3rd of the NBA championships over the last 12 years?
What was really astounding wasn’t the fact that the Grizzlies won, but it was the manner in which they did it. Memphis asked for them, and even tanked the last couple of games of the season to play against the Spurs. They must’ve known what they were talking about, as they completely dominated San Antonio. The Grizzlies completely exploited the older, undersized Spurs, dominating them with their young, fresh legs and strong interior frontline led by Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol. San Antonio simply had no answer for the two big men in the paint, and was stifled by the Memphis defense throughout the series. Tim Duncan, perhaps the best power forward over the last decade, and one of the greatest of all-time, was reduced to a mere mortal, and played like a 35-year-old who is well past his primetime days of Spurs championship teams of the past.
Overpowered and overwhelmed by a hungrier, more athletic team in the Grizzlies, perhaps this may have been the final stand of this San Antonio dynasty, and maybe the end of an era of one of the most exciting and paramount trio’s in NBA history. For Memphis though, there next opponent, Oklahoma City, match up much better against them than the Spurs. If they play with the aggressiveness and heart they did against San Antonio though, that series might go the distance as well.
HAWKS VS MAGIC
Sticking with the theme of first round upsets, the Atlanta Hawks played like a team with a chip on their shoulder against the Orlando Magic. It was only a year ago that this Hawks team fell victim to the most one-sided and embarrassing first round sweep in playoff history against the Magic. They made sure it wasn’t going to happen again this year.
Lead by Joe Johnson, who signed with Atlanta for $123 million this offseason, the Hawks came out right off the bat and took control of the series with an impressive victory in Game 1 on the road against Orlando. The game plan was simple, play Howard one-on-one and don’t allow the Magic’s perimeter shooters to get any easy shots. It worked to perfection. While Dwight Howard got his numbers, the Atlanta defense stayed home on their assignments and forced Orlando to take contested shots. Offensively, the stellar play from Jamal Crawford off the bench really propelled this team and created a matchup nightmare for anybody who tried covering him.
The Hawks new philosophy on defense, which first year head coach Larry Drew has instilled into this team, might have been the remedy this young, yet experienced Atlanta team needed in order to make people change their perception of them being a soft opponent in the playoffs. While they may have lost their best defender in the final game of the series in Kirk Hinrich, this team still has enough athleticism and talent to match up against the Chicago Bulls in the second round.
BULLS VS PACERS
While the Grizzlies and Hawks stunned their opponents in the first round, the team with the best record in the NBA matched up against what was considered by many to be the weakest team coming into the playoffs in the Indiana Pacers. Led by the presumed MVP Derrick Rose, the Chicago Bulls were expected by many (myself included) to roll over the Pacers in a dominating fashion like they had done to most of their opponents the 2nd half of the season. The Pacers on the other hand, much like the Grizzlies, felt this was a matchup in which they had a good chance of winning.
Danny Granger said, “Chicago, they go as Derrick Rose goes. If you make a concerted effort to stop Derrick Rose, you have a better chance of beating them,” Well, that’s easier said than done.
To the Pacers credit, they did do a solid job in trapping Rose and forcing him into turnovers. They also took advantage of the Bulls undersized front court by attacking Chicago in the paint with their 7’2” center Roy Hibbert and the quicker and more athletic Tyler Hansbrough. The Pacers set the tone with being the tougher, more aggressive team, and could have easily won any of the first four games of the series. The difference was that guy again, Derrick Rose, who completely took over the games when it came down to crunch time. His stellar play and determination to win the game no matter what showed why he’s the MVP. Indiana had all the elements to beat the Bulls, except that one guy who could take over at the end of the game.
Although Indiana didn’t end up winning the series, they definitely showcased themselves to the rest of the NBA, and perhaps revealed the blueprint to beating Chicago. The Pacers have a very solid core of young players, and if they add another star to play alongside Danny Granger, this will be one of the top 5 teams in the East in the very near future.
Chicago will definitely have to step up their game in Round 2 if they expect to beat the Atlanta Hawks. Derrick Rose alone will not be enough to defeat a more experience opponent like Atlanta in a seven game series. Luol Deng and more importantly, Carlos Boozer will have to raise their game in order for Chicago to advance, especially if Rose’s ankle injury inhibits him in any way.
CELTICS VS KNICKS
What was supposed to be the most exciting series in the Eastern Conference between the Boston Celtics and New York Knicks, turned out to be the most one-sided. The Celtics, probably the most scrutinized team coming into the playoffs, were expected to be in line for a long series against the high-potent offense Knicks, led by Amare Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony. The series definitely popped off looking as if this was going to be the case, with New York taking the Celtics down to the wire in the first two games of the series, losing by a combined margin of five points.
The turning point of the series in my opinion was the injury to Chauncey Billups, which caused him to miss the end of Game 1 and the rest of the series. Who knows how this series would’ve turned out if it was him taking the ball up court instead of Tony Douglas at the end of those first two games in Boston? Billups is known as “Mr. Big Shot” for a reason, and although Douglas did fill in admirably during his absence, that experience at the end of games cannot be taught.
The Celtics, as they’ve done for years found a way to finish off the games, which is what veteran leadership and poise do. Rajon Rondo’s elevated play and the clutch shooting from Ray Allen really sealed the deal for the Celtics. After taking control in two close games to start off the series, they did what you’re supposed to do in the playoffs, and kept their foot on the Knicks throat and didn’t let them get up or gain any confidence. The defending Eastern Conference champions may be older and dinged up, but one thing that’s certain is that they know how to win games. They will have to if they want to beat the “Big 3” and the Miami Heat who are on fire right now.
HEAT VS 76ERS
The Miami Heat and Philadelphia 76ers series turned out to be pretty much what everyone expected. While the Sixers put up a good fight against Miami, losing only one game by double digits, the Heat just had too much fire power for Philly to go up against.
Philadelphia’s lack of consistent offense was the biggest fault they had against the Heat. Miami’s defense against Andre Iguodala made him a non-factor on the offensive end, and forced the Sixers to turn to their other options for scoring. Their young guards had the most success against the Heat, using their speed and quickness to get passed Chalmers and Bibby to score, but the lack of consistency from game to game killed the Sixers. Anytime they would find any success on the offensive end, Miami would clamp down with their vaunted zone defense, which has become a trademark of this team.
Miami’s “Big 3” lived up to their name, especially the stellar play of Lebron James and Dwyane Wade. Both players attacked Philadelphia at will, and flirted with triple-doubles in nearly every game. Chris Bosh silenced critics about his “soft” play, hovering around 20 points and 9 rebounds per game.
My MVP for the series was Joel Anthony. With the absence of Udonis Haslem, Anthony has stepped up and brought that toughness and grit Miami seemed to be missing during parts of the regular season. He comes into every game and takes care of the dirty work, and for being an undersized center, he has played above and beyond expectations. Miami will need him to continue his blue-collar play against the Celtics for them to advance in the East. Boston will be no easy task, but the Heat most certainly has the talent and athleticism to defeat this older Boston squad.
THUNDER VS NUGGETS
The Denver Nuggets came into the playoffs as one of the hottest teams after the All-Star break, something that most people didn’t expect to happen after they traded away their franchise player Carmelo Anthony. Oklahoma was already one of the best teams in the West and only got better with the acquisition of Kendrick Perkins. The matchup was supposed to be one of the more exciting ones in round one, and I must admit, both teams lived up to expectations.
Although the Thunder won the series in only five games, with the exception of Game 2, the margin of victory was no more than 4 points for either team. The Nuggets used their quickness and perimeter shooting of Ty Lawson and Danilo Gallinari, and tried to muscle their way in the paint with Nene Hilario to attack Oklahoma. Although they found some success doing this, OKC contained one element which the Nuggets lacked, and that was a superstar finisher like Kevin Durant. Durant played lights out in the first round, averaging 32.4 ppg and two 41 point performances, including an amazing clutch performance in Game 5, bringing the Thunder back from a nine point deficit with less than four minutes to go. While his scoring at the end of the game was very Jordan-esque, it was his block on J.R. Smith’s 3-point attempt to tie the game which was the real clutch moment, and secured their first playoff series victory since the franchise was still in Seattle.
Many expect the Thunder to be the team with the best shot to dethrone the two-time defending champion Lakers in the West, but they will have to be on top of their game against the Memphis Grizzlies, a team whose confidence is through the roof after defeating the number one seeded San Antonio Spurs in the first round.
MAVERICKS VS BLAZERS
This was one of the first round match-ups in which I expected an upset to occur. The Portland Trailblazers entered the playoffs against the Dallas Mavericks playing at a very high level. Ever since the acquisition of Gerald Wallace, the Blazers defense and overall team game improved, and it added another player who can create his own offense, which was lacking ever since the injuries to Brandon Roy caused him to miss a big chunk of the season. Dallas on the other hand, they entered the first round with the burden of being known as a team with a history of crumbling under pressure. After being ousted from the post-season in Round 1 over the passed three years, they proved to everyone, at least thus far, that they are no longer that team anymore.
Dirk Nowitzki and Jason Kidd carried the load for Dallas early on in the series, securing the home court and beating the Blazers convincingly in the first two games. When the series shifted out to Portland, it seemed as if history would repeat itself once again, as the Blazers evened it up at two games, thanks in part to the reemergence of Brandon Roy.
Unfortunately for Portland, Nowitzki and the strong bench play from Jason Terry shut out any doubts over how they would handle it when adversity came. The Mavs offense behind these two was too much to overcome for Portland in a seven game series. The Blazers were plagued with injuries nearly the entire season, and the fact that their best player Brandon Roy was no where near 100%, it was a remarkable feat to play like they did over the course of the year and even extend their post-season against a quality team like Dallas to six games.
Nevertheless, the Dallas Mavericks showed that they are still one of the best teams in the NBA when they are on, and they will have to be against the Lakers if they want to have a chance next round.
LAKERS VS HORNETS
Wrapping up the playoff recap for Round 1, the series between the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers and the New Orleans Hornets was one that not only answered questions about both teams, but also raised some as well.
The Hornets opened up the series without their All-Star power forward David West, and it was presumed the series would be somewhat of a cakewalk for the Lakers, who came in with arguably the strongest front court in the league and the Mamba himself, Kobe Bryant. Many people seemed to forget that the Hornets still possessed who might be the best pure point guard in the league in Chris Paul. I’m guilty of this presumption; I didn’t believe Chris Paul would play to the level that he did, especially after being injured a good portion of the season and appearing like he had lost his burst and quickness.
It didn’t take long to prove the doubters wrong. CP3 came out in Game 1 and put up one of the greatest stat-lines in NBA playoff history, finishing with 33 points, 14 assists, 7 rebounds, 4 steals, while shooting 61% from the field. He carved up Derek Fisher and the Lakers, hitting every big shot, threading every pass perfectly and shocking everyone with a victory in the first game of the series in L.A. The Lakers quickly bounced back though, winning the next two games to take control of the series, taking advantage of their size and versatility with Andrew Bynum and Lamar Odom. The question if the Hornets had anybody to cover the Lakers frontcourt was answered, as L.A. dominated on the boards and in the paint. New Orleans tied up the series after another unforgettable performance from Paul, which he finished off with a triple-double. But, as they’ve done for years now, the Lakers came through when they needed to the most, and finished off the series in dominating fashion, winning by an average of 17 points in the final two games.
The Lakers will face a familiar foe in Round 2 against the Mavericks. This year might be more of a challenge for them though than years past, especially with the additions of Tyson Chandler and Brendan Haywood, who were brought in to compete against the size of L.A. Dirk Nowitzki will be a mismatch for anybody guarding him because of his perimeter shooting and ability to attack the basket as well. The Lakers on the other hand still have Kobe Bryant and an All-Star supporting cast behind him which has won the last two NBA championships. This should be a great series, as both teams have great veteran players, and an MVP on their respective sides.