Despite the fact that there were no Game 7’s in the first round of the 2011 NBA Playoffs (the first time that’s happened since the first round went to best-of-7 in 2003), you could make a case that, based on the quality of play and plethora of close games, that, collectively, this was the best first round in NBA history.
For just the fourth time ever, an 8-seed beat a 1-seed. The Celtics were the only team to sweep, yet even their series against the Knicks was worth watching, as the first two games in Boston were each decided in the final seconds. Chris Paul staked his claim as the best point guard in the game by single-handedly willing the Hornets to two victories over the Lakers. Every series had multiple close games, including the amazing OKC-Denver series, in which four of the five games were decided by four points or less. What do the playoffs have in store for an encore? Let’s find out.
#1 Chicago Bulls (62-20) vs. #5 Atlanta Hawks (44-38)
Season series: 2-1, Chicago
Is this Atlanta team fated to perpetually lose in the second round of the playoffs? For the third year in a row, the Hawks have won their first-round series. 2011 may represent their best chance yet to reach their first Conference Finals since 1970 (they were swept in 2009 and 2010; I don’t see that happening this year). I’m not sure what to make of Atlanta’s upset of Orlando, though. The Magic are a team that isn’t successful when their jumpers aren’t falling, and they shot just 41% from the field in their six-game loss to the Hawks (only the swept Knicks were worse), as well an atrocious 26% from three-point range, the worst of any first-round series. The Hawks deserve credit for getting out and contesting shots, but I don’t think they’ll enjoy the same success against the top-seeded Bulls. That said, the potential for an upset, something unfathomable to a lot of fans two weeks ago, is a distinct possibility in this series.
Chicago looked shaky despite dispatching the Pacers in five games. Their first three wins were by five, six, and four points respectively, the first two of which came on their home floor. You don’t get style points in the NBA playoffs, but anyone who watched those games should be worried about the Bulls’ chances to win it all this spring. They rely too much on Derrick Rose on offense, a flaw which will become more and more evident as the playoffs progress. Rose is devastating, but good teams can handle one outstanding offensive player (just look at LeBron’s Cavs). Al Horford can bang with the Bulls’ bigs inside, and Jamal Crawford looked terrific in posting 21 PPG off the bench, including 47% shooting from deep.
Unfortunately for Atlanta, Chicago will actually try and contest shots, unlike defensively-indifferent Orlando. For the Bulls to win, they just have to make sure their secondary scorers, Carlos Boozer, and Luol Deng, don’t implode. That, and their stifling defense should be enough to prevent the upset, though I think this series will be closer than people are expecting.
#2 Miami (58-24) vs. #3 Boston (56-26)
Season series: 3-1, Boston
This series has a chance to be one of the greats, pitting two teams that don’t particularly like one another. LeBron has had problems with Boston in the past, as his teams are 0-2 against them in playoff series and just 2-7 against the Celtics over the past nine games. Miami should be the favorites in this series, but they still face one MAJOR problem, namely that they are the least-clutch team in NBA history. In situations where they are tied or trailing by three or fewer in the last ten seconds, Miami has attempted 19 shots. They have missed 18 of those shots. While no team wins more blowouts than the Heat (they ranked first in the NBA in point differential, despite losing four more games than the second-place Bulls), their struggles are not promising against a Boston team that won Games 1 and 2 of their first-round series on game-winning shots in the final 20 seconds. The Celtics, meanwhile, have had issues closing out games this season (they let a 23-point fourth quarter lead dwindle to just four in Game 4 against NY), an issue against a Miami team that excels by scoring baskets in bunches.
Both these teams looked good in the first round, though Boston’s sweep comes with a few question marks as Chauncey Billups and Amar’e Stoudemire both missed significant time. Boston’s bench also struggled against the Knicks for most of the series, despite facing one of the weakest opposing second units in the league. Glen Davis looked out of sorts, and Jeff Green didn’t score off the bench (6 PPG, 33% FG%), the ostensible reason for his acquisition at midseason. If Boston doesn’t take advantage of Miami’s weak bench, and their starters are forced to outscore the Heat’s starters, they will face problems in this series. Looking at this series, it should come down to the wire, but I picked Miami to win two weeks ago, and I stand by that judgment now. [Check out the extended series preview from Friday]
#2 Los Angeles Lakers (57-25) vs. #3 Dallas Mavericks (57-25)
Season series: 2-1, Los Angeles
Despite a combined 25 playoff appearances, this is the first time Dirk Nowitzki and Kobe Bryant have met in a playoff series. Along with Tim Duncan, Nowitzki and Bryant have dominated the Western Conference for much of the past decade. While this matchup may have been more appealing five years ago (both players are now 32), it will nonetheless be exciting to watch, though Nowitzki has a lot more at stake than Bryant. The Mavs haven’t won fewer than 50 games since 1999-00, averaging 56 wins per season during that span, but they’ve been to just two Western Conference Finals during that span.
While no one is talking about Dallas as a legitimate title threat, it would be an insult to Dirk’s play this season to just hand the series to the Lakers. That said, this particular incarnation has looked a little unsure of itself behind Dirk, though Tyson Chandler has enjoyed success as the Mavs’ defensive enforcer in the paint. Jason Kidd looked good in the first round against Portland, though he’s another player that has yet to take the final step and win a championship. In fact, despite a veteran roster that includes nine players with nine or more years’ experience, no Dallas player owns a championship ring, a huge mental advantage for the playoff-tested Lakers. LA will be rightfully favored in this series, and with home-court advantage, I see little reason to expect an upset, especially if they get a chance to close out the series at Staples Center, as LA has won seven straight closeout games (games in which they could clinch a series).
Dallas doesn’t have the bodies to compete with the Lakers front line, especially if Andrew Bynum gets rolling, as he did in the first round. Bynum averaged 15 points and 10 boards per game on 56% shooting in the Lakers’ six-game victory over New Orleans, but most importantly he stayed on the court, averaging over 30 minutes per game. Dallas’ main chance at success in this series will be to out-gun the Lakers from the perimeter, but Kobe Bryant and Ron Artest are still capable perimeter defenders, even if they may have slipped a little over the past few seasons. It would be nice to see Dirk & Co. spring the upset, and a victory over the Lakers might be enough to finally erase some of the mental demons that have plagued the Mavericks in the postseason. But I don’t see it happening. LA is just too good and too experienced to lose this early.
#4 Oklahoma City Thunder (55-27) vs. #8 Memphis Grizzlies (46-36)
Season series: 3-1, Memphis
Ten years ago, this would have been a nice rivalry between two great cities in the Pacific Northwest. Neither the Seattle Sonics nor the Vancouver Grizzlies are around anymore, and this series now pits two upstart teams that are coming off their first playoff series wins in their respective cities. The Thunder managed to do it just two years after a disastrous 23-59 first season in OKC, while it’s been a long, painful 16 seasons for the Grizzlies franchise. After failing to win more than 23 games in their six seasons in Vancouver, the Grizzlies have been to the playoffs four times since moving to Memphis, but prior to 2011 had an 0-12 record in playoff games. That changed with an upset of the top-seeded Spurs, a huge accomplishment especially considering that the Grizz managed to pull it off without the services of Rudy Gay.
Now they face a Thunder team led by the unstoppable Kevin Durant, who’s playing the best basketball of his career. The 6-foot-9 forward is averaging a playoff-high 32 PPG, including a 41-point masterpiece to close out the Nuggets in Game 5. He’s shooting 43% from beyond the arc, and Memphis’ primary objective in this series will be to limit Durant the two-time defending scoring champ, something no team has been able to do this season. Memphis will look to force the ball inside to Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol, but the Thunder will offer stiffer opposition in the paint than the Spurs did in Round One. Kendrick Perkins is solid and Serge Ibaka continued his rapid improvement in the Nuggets series, averaging 4.8 blocks per game, including 9 in OKC’s 100-97 Game 5 win. Memphis’ best approach may be to try and shut down OKC’s secondary scoring options, such as Ibaka and James Harden, forcing Durant and Russell Westbrook to beat them on their own.
Memphis has the defenders to make this happen, and if they can do this while making Durant work for his points (hint: not fouling Durant, an 88% FT shooter would help), they could make this series interesting. I liked what I saw from the Grizzlies, but while each team’s strengths balance each other out pretty well in this series, I think OKC is the stronger team.