Dallas Mavericks (leading POR 3-2)
Good: shooting well from everywhere, have had seemingly everyone on fire at some point in the series so overall confidence is high, defense has looked aggressive and stifling inside for large chunks of the series, great job on the defensive glass
Bad: absolutely fell apart in Game Four, haven’t remained as aggressive as you’d like to see from a title contender, have certainly benefitted from some staggeringly one-sided free throw counts in a couple wins
Expectations: Dallas hasn’t won in Portland in the regular season or post-season this year, so a jacked-up Game Six could send this series to a decisive seventh game, which is basically a coin flip. That could be trouble. That being said, the Mavericks should win this series and should face the Lakers if they do so. In that case, Dallas’ inside D could force LA to shoot a lot from distance, which works great for the Mavs, but we all know the Lakers would probably win that series.
Denver Nuggets (trailing OKC 1-3)
Good: are able to dictate their usual fast pace, playing aggressively enough to get to the line a lot, getting scoring contributions from everyone, are literally just a couple plays away from being up 3-1 right now (especially if the refs didn’t screw up the end of Game One)
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Bad: giving up too many good shots and way too many free throws, are a bit shallow with Arron Afflalo and Raymond Felton shooting like crap and Chris Andersen still not really healthy, being terribly outrebounded (190-152)
Expectations: It’s a shame what happened with the Perkins’ basket back in Game One, but it did and now the Nuggets are in a bad hole. They’re likely done before Game Six; they have plenty of money to spend in the off-season and retain almost all of their important role players, so look for a continuation of a clear gap between themselves and Melo’s Knicks.
Los Angeles Lakers (tied with NOH 2-2)
Good: Ron Artest is on in a big time way, clearly have the dominant frontcourt, Andrew Bynum is looking good when he’s not in foul trouble, Phil Jackson
Bad: will be headed to a sixth game even with vastly superior talent and the perfect draw, ball is not going inside enough on offense for their biggest advantage (frontline) to get in rhythm, Bynum’s foul trouble, perimeter defense is too slow to stop Chris Paul from carving them up, continue to look weak at the end of close contests
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Expectation: At some point Phil Jackson will get through to Kobe and he’ll actually pass the ball to the big guys with much higher shooting percentages who stand near the rim. The Lakers will win and continue with their easy draw by facing the Mavericks who David Stern would never let beat the Lakers in the playoffs. This aging team has had trouble late in games all year, and that ultimately could be their downfall later in the playoffs. Or Pau Gasol could turn into the player he’s been in the last few post-seasons and the Lakers win again.
Memphis Grizzlies (lead SAS 3-1)
Good: Lionel Hollins really has them believing, they have a great collection of bigs and versatile perimeter defenders, getting it done on defense with lots of help and aggression
Bad: overall team rebounding is atrocious, have lots of guys getting in foul trouble while putting the Spurs on the free throw line, hard for a team of hard workers with a relatively low amount of individual talent to advance far in the playoffs
Expectations: I still wouldn’t be shocked to see the Spurs come back and advance, but the odds are looking pretty slim at this point. It looks like Memphis’ end-of-season tanking paid off, and they’ll move on to get the Thunder. Although they’ve beaten OKC in 3 of their 4 regular season meetings, all the contests were very close. The Grizzlies could potentially win that series if they don’t all foul out trying to guard Durant and Westbrook. It should be mentioned that Hollins deserves a ton of credit for how this team has progressed over the past few years; he has them playing hard and believing, which is as much as you can expect from this group right now.
New Orleans Hornets (tied with LAL 2-2)
Good: Chris Paul has this offense looking amazing against a very good defense, are getting to the free throw line, showing far more hustle and want than the Lakers, plenty of supporting guys have had big games and are believing they can do it (Trevor Ariza, Carl Landry, Aaron Gray, etc.)
Bad: don’t have the depth to win a 7-game series with LA, giving up way too high a shooting percentage to the Lakers’ frontline which is likely to see more of the ball as the series moves on, Paul has to rest at times
Expectations: All the top seeds wanted to face the Hornets since they only have one player who scares anyone, and the Lakers got ‘em. Unfortunately, that one player is insanely good and underrated and can’t be stopped by whatever supposed great defenders the Lakers throw at him. The team’s heart and gumption and all that is truly the story of the First Round even if the Spurs fall, but we know this ride will end soon. Then it will be time for GM Dell Demps to do everything he can to keep Paul in town past 2012.
Oklahoma City Thunder (leading DEN 3-1)
Good: great offensive rebounding, getting to the line a ton, shooting pretty well overall, very good team rebounding, Durant and Westbrook both have looked unstoppable for most of this series
Bad: this series is much closer than it appears (remember Kendrick Perkins’ basket in Game One?), there’s been foul trouble aplenty for the Thunder, not forcing turnovers due to long stretches of playing too passive
Expectations: Behind the scoring heroics of Durant and Westbrook, strong bench play, and some dominating rebounding anchored by sophomore Serge Ibaka, the Thunder will move on to face…Memphis? The two have played four tough, tight games this year, so don’t jump on the Thunder-in-the-conference-title-game bandwagon just yet. If their inside play stays strong and they don’t start fouling out against Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol, OKC should win Round Two. Unless the Spurs come back, in which case they’ll be fired up and the Thunder would be in some serious trouble.
Portland Trail Blazers (trailing DAL 2-3)
Good: turned in legendary performance in Game Four (largest second-half comeback in playoffs history), have been shooting well overall, have enough big performances from enough players to believe they can win two more in a row
Bad: team rebounding is terrible, LaMarcus Aldridge has been outmuscled for most of the series, giving up tons of 3’s and mid-range shots, not as consistently aggressive as the Mavericks
Expectations: The Blazers are a once-in-a-generation comeback away from being done right now, which further illustrates how on-off they’ve been this whole series. They should have the Rose Garden rocking for Game 6, which makes a trip back to Dallas almost look likely. Unfortunately they haven’t won in Dallas at any point this series, and with the Mavs’ shooting and interior aggression, it’s hard to imagine Portland pulling out two in a row with only one contest left at home. If they do advance, they could actually have a chance with LA if they turn up the aggression and play a transition game. Unlikely, but possible.
San Antonio Spurs (trailing MEM 1-3)
Good: are getting to the free throw line and controlling the defensive boards, we all know they can pull this off
Bad: not matching the Grizzlies’ desire to win, Parker and Ginobili are not taking care of the ball, perimeter defense is breaking down, Pops has had DeJuan Blair in the doghouse for the last third of the season and is needlessly missing what he offers (hustle, rebounding, smiles)
Expectations: The Spurs really could end up exiting the First Round for the second time in three years. They’re not meeting Memphis’ level of desperation and effort, and outside of a few guys are shooting very poorly. SanAn has the horses and guns to win three in a row and make everyone forget this scare ever happened, but it looks like they’ll be out shortly. The whole team is back next year, but they’re also older next year, so what will the Spurs do in 2011-12 to improve after winning the West this year? At this point, I don’t think we’d be shocked by anything outside of a total collapse.