The opening weekend of the NBA postseason has come and gone, and surprisingly, there were no real surprises. Save the Portland Trailblazers going into Phoenix and taking Game 1 from the Suns, every higher seed won their opening game. There were plenty of highlights, lowlights, and players stealing the limelight this weekend. From Andrew Bynum posterizing Nenad Krstic, to KG elbowing Quentin Richardson (twice), to Brandon Jennings/Carmelo Anthony/Dirk Nowitzki putting on scoring exhibitions, there was more than enough to whet any basketball fans appetite. With one game down, and much more playoff action to come, let’s take a look at what we learned from each series this weekend.
But the flipside of that is the fact that LeBron James only had 24 points, 5 dimes and 6 boards, and the Cavs for the most part won that game with ease. While that only was a bit sarcastic, the fact of the matter is this Cavs team is healthy and deeper than they have been all season when it matters most. Take a look at the numbers LeBron’s supporting cast put up in Game 1:
Antawn Jamison: 15 points, 10 rebounds
Mo Williams: 19 points, 10 assists
Shaquille O’Neal: 12 points, 5 rebounds, 4 assists
Those are numbers that LeBron has never had teammates put up in the same playoff game. Add that to the fact that most people will agree the Cavs didn’t really even play that great of a game, jumping out to a big lead and allowing the Bulls to cut it down to as little as seven with a couple of minutes left before putting it away. If/when the Cavs actually get it all clicking for 48 minutes, they are going to be a very difficult team to knock out of the playoffs.
2. Brandon Jennings could average 35 points a game against the Hawks, and it still won’t make a difference.
What a debut by Jennings, who shot 14-25, including 4-6 from downtown, en route to 34 points in his first career playoff game. The rest of the Bucks, not so impressive. John Salmons had 16 points (on 18 shots) and Ersan Ilyasova had 11; other than that, not one Buck scored in double figures. The Hawks, meanwhile, had 6 players score between 12 and 22 points; balanced scoring that allowed them to build a 20 point lead and, save a couple of close minutes, cruise to a 102-92 win in the playoff opener.
The Hawks dominated inside against the depleted Bucks and should control the entire series because of their depth. The fact of that matter is that even if Jennings puts up a 40- point game, he’s gonna need some help if the Bucks want to take a game in the series.
3. Despite losing Game 1, the Miami Heat are favorites against the Celtics. Kevin Garnett is a dirty player — and Paul Pierce is a horrible actor.
Okay, so that was a couple of things, but Game 1 of the Celtics-Heat game brought a lot of controversy and discussion. First things first, Dwyane Wade is good enough to win some games by himself this series, and if his teammates hadn’t fallen apart they would have won Game 1. For the Celtics, they are going to have to all play well and cohesively to knock off a more-than-game Miami team.
Okay, moving on to the good stuff. Kevin Garnett will be suspended for Game 2 after elbowing Heat forward Quentin Richardson in the face during a scuffle that started for no real reason. Celtics forward Paul Pierce put on another horrible acting job, dropping to the floor and reacting as if he had gotten shot after he was fouled. Richardson had seen this episode before and wanted to get the ball for the in-bounds instead of wasting time. Richardon said, “I said to Jermaine, ‘He (Pierce) is OK,’ because I knew nobody touched him.” Needless to say, the one series that we can probably expect some suspense from in the East took a big shove into the limelight after the scuffle.
4. The most important player in the Magic/Bobcats series is the smallest guy on the court, Jameer Nelson.
Coming into this series, the clear-cut advantage for the Magic was Dwight Howard inside, and he showed that in the first quarter, swatting 6 shots away en route to 9 blocks for the game. But Howard only ended up with 5 points and 7 rebounds to go along with those blocks. If you told the Bobcats that stat line before Game 1, they would have been thinking they were guaranteed at least a split in Orlando; but the Magic ended up winning Game 1 rather easily, so how exactly did that happen? Jameer Nelson is how. The Magic point guard turned in a magical performance (you see what I did there, that’s called a pun kids) in the first half, pouring in 24 of his game-high 32 points en route to the win.
While Nelson dominated the Bobcats guards, there were a couple of other developments that we should pay attention to. First, Bobcats forward Gerald Wallace is the real deal and could help the Cats make this series much closer than expected. The All-Star forward had 25 points and almost doubled Howard’s rebounding total with 17 boards. However if Charlotte is going to push Orlando they need more contributions from his teammates – and a healthy Stephen Jackson. Captain Jack hurt his leg at the end of the first half and was clearly affected by it in the second, sitting out most of the fourth quarter. Jackson needs to recover quickly if the Bobcats want to make a series out of it.
5. The lower seed most counted out (Portland) is the one who might steal their series.
While it’s debatable which lower seed (Blazers or Thunder) was the most likely to be knocked out, it was clear the Blazers were the one hurting the most. As if losing Greg Oden and Joel Pryzbilla wasn’t enough, the Blazers lost All-Star guard Brandon Roy to a torn meniscus the weekend before the playoffs began. Their opponent the Suns meanwhile, were possibly the hottest team in the league heading into the playoffs, dominating the Jazz in the season finale in Utah to clinch the three-seed.
With all of these issues facing them, all the Blazers did was go into Phoenix and steal Game 1 (and home-court advantage) away from the Suns. With a young roster facing adversity, it was only fitting that the two seasoned veterans in the starting line-up dictated the game. Marcus Camby dominated the boards to the tune of 17 rebounds inside, while aging point guard Andre Miller took advantage of Steve Nash and Leandro Barbosa with 31 points and 8 assists, hitting some big time shots in the fourth to lead the Blazers to a comeback win. Despite all the injuries facing them, the Blazers have a great shot at the upset and winning this series; if the Suns don’t get it together they could be the first high-seed to be shown the door.
6. The Utah Jazz’ season will probably end in the first round, and lack of talent has nothing to do with it.
The Jazz have perhaps the second worst luck of any playoff team when it comes to injuries. Right before the playoffs started Carlos Boozer was injured when he hurt a pectoral muscle, then it was announced that Andrei Kirilenko was going to miss at least the first round of the playoffs. To add to that, things got even worse when starting center Mehmet Okur ruptured his achilles tendon and was announced out for the playoffs. And while they still have star guard Deron Williams and a deep roster, the Jazz drew an opponent (Denver) who will not allow an injury-riddled squad to knock them out.
Utah just does not have the size or defense to keep up with the Nuggets right now. Carmelo Anthony emphasized that point in Game 1, dropping a playoff-career high 42 points and scoring at will against Utah’s depleted roster. While the Jazz will definitely put up a fight at home and maybe even extend this series to six games, they are just too weakened by injuries to key players to take this series without a miracle.
7. The best series is definitely going to be between a 2- and a 7-seed in Texas.
Has there ever been a more even 2-7 match-up? The Spurs are easily the most dangerous 7-seed of all time, and the Western Conference is so stacked that the 2-seed Mavs are not that much better (if at all better) than San Antonio. As evidenced by Game 1, both of these teams can win and do it in different ways. The Spurs had 11 turnovers in the first half, and trailed by only five points because they shot 57% from the field. The flipside of that is that Dallas shot only 41% in the first half and were able to take a lead into the locker room because of aggressive defense that caused the Spurs problems.
Another thing that we saw in the opener is that the stars will decide this series. For the Spurs, Tim Duncan (27), Manu Ginobili (26), and Tony Parker (18), combined to score 71 of their teams 94 points. The thing that hurt them the most? George Hill looked very uncomfortable dealing with his freshly injured leg, going scoreless in only 18 minutes of action. Dallas meanwhile rode an unreal shooting night from Dirk Nowitzki (36 points, 12-14 shooting, 12-12 fts) and a strong scoring/defensive night from Caron Butler (22 points) to take the series lead. For this night at least, Dallas stars shined brighter and they took home the win. In what should be a long, hard-fought series, whichever stars step up the most will lead their team to advance.
8. The Lakers demise was greatly over-exaggerated.
The biggest story heading into the playoffs was what exactly is wrong with the Lakers? Were the defending champs destined for a playoff flame-out or would they be able to flip the switch come playoff time? Well in the first 17 minutes of Game 1, the Lakers emphatically put away any questions about their playoff readiness, jumping out to a 38-21 lead and never allowing the Thunder to get closer than six in a wire-to-wire win. Big man Andrew Bynum returned from injury and looked great, posterizing Nenad Krstic and being an enforcer on the defensive end. Ron Artest showed his playoff worth – for a game, at least – by shutting down Thunder leading scorer Kevin Durant (24 points on 7-24 shooting).
Working under the assumption that the Lakers are going to advance to the second round, this game showed us some strengths and weaknesses the Lakers will have to deal with as the playoffs wear on. As far as strengths go, the Lakers have a size advantage inside against anyone they will face with Bynum and Gasol, have a defensive stopper who can slow down any scorer in Artest, and have experience that is very valuable this time of the year. All that is before we mention Kobe Bryant, the unquestioned leader of the Lakers who had an off game in the opener, but will eventually get it going as he always does and play his best ball when it matters most.
That being said, there are a few weaknesses facing the Lakers that could prevent them from a title defense. The Laker bench has been struggling lately, getting 16 points yesterday, and they have been so unstable that there’s no way to know what to expect from them from game to game. Artest, meanwhile, is a question mark on the offensive end; while his defense has been stellar his outside shooting touch has abandoned him, as witnessed with his 1-8 showing from 3-point land yesterday. Finally, the biggest weakness of all is defensively against point guards. In his playoff debut, Thunder guard Russell Westbrook dictated the tempo with 23 points and 8 assists on an efficient 10-16 from the field. As the teams and point guards get better in a loaded West, this is a match-up problem that will definitely be exploited. It’s on Derek Fisher and Jordan Farmar to step up their defense, because unless they do, they could be the problem that cuts short the Lakers title defense.