With the Atlanta Hawks finally knocking out the Milwaukee Bucks in Game 7 yesterday, the first round of the NBA Playoffs has finally come to an end.
The Cavs-Celtics officially brought us into the second round on Saturday, and the NBA has now reached its version of the Elite Eight. With a few exceptions, we have eight teams remaining that we all expected to be there.
The second round brings a lot of intriguing match-ups, what will it take for each team to move on to the Conference Finals and who will ultimately get out of the second round? Let’s break it down.
(2) Orlando Magic vs. (3) Atlanta Hawks
In the first of two great second-round series in the East, the second-seeded Magic face the third-seeded Hawks. This series matches two teams with completely opposite first round experiences. The Magic took care of business like everyone thought they would, sweeping the Bobcats out of the first round and getting as much rest as possible on their march towards another Finals berth.
The Hawks spent their first-round allowing the Milwaukee Bucks to extend a series that should have been done in five to a series they almost lost in seven. Atlanta lost a critical game five at home to fall behind three games to two before pulling it together and winning the last two games of the series to advance. Allowing the Bucks to drag that series out showed that maybe the Hawks aren’t ready to make the next step in becoming an elite team.
How Atlanta Wins:
Tempo, tempo, tempo. If the Hawks want to win this series they need to control how the game is played – they want to run as much as possible and lull the Magic into trying to keep up with them. This enables the Hawks to do a few key things. First, it allows them to get their athletes going; with guys like Josh Smith and Marvin Williams running the break, the Hawks can electrify their crowd and silence the Magic fans with a few thunderous dunks. Once the Hawks get to running, the floor opens up for their shooters and scorers to take over. Jamal Crawford gets more open threes, Joe Johnson gets more one-on-one opportunities, and Al Horford is allowed to crash the boards while defenses focus on his teammates.
The biggest reason for pushing the tempo, however, is to offset the presence of Dwight Howard. While on offense, the Hawks will have a difficult time scoring inside against Howard, and that is a huge key to their offensive success. Scoring inside opens up shots for Crawford, Johnson, Williams and Mike Bibby outside, it’s as simple as that. If the Hawks can run and get fastbreak points, then the odds are they will get buckets before Howard can get back. Defensively, the more running involved, the less scoring opportunities Howard gets, and when he has less shots he becomes frustrated which causes him to commit ticky-tack fouls, which in turn get Howard out of the game. All of this is started by the Hawks being able to run, which they have to do if they want to win this series.
How Orlando Wins:
For the Magic to win, they have to establish an inside presence with Howard. I know what you’re all thinking, “Well yeah, obviously they do,” but there are multiple reasons for which that is the most important thing for the Magic to accomplish this series. Offensively, the Magic are a team of shooters. They were able to survive the last round with Howard missing a lot of minutes due to foul trouble because they had match-up advantages everywhere against the Bobcats. That won’t be the case against Atlanta and the Magic know this. Once the ball goes into Howard, the Magic have a decided advantage over the Hawks inside. Despite the fact that the Hawks have All-Star Al Horford, the fact is he’s 6’9 and will be overmatched against Howard. If “Superman” as he has been dubbed is able to consistently score inside, then the Hawks have no option but to double-team him, which leaves the perimeter open for his sharp-shooting squad outside.
Another reason to go to Howard inside is because it helps the Magic defensively as well. If Orlando can’t establish an inside presence, they will be firing threes at an absurd rate, and as the saying goes, long shots mean long rebounds. Those long rebounds are exactly what will lead to fastbreak opportunities for the Hawks that will neutralize Howard. The Magic want to play a halfcourt game when Howard is in, and that’s on both ends of the court. That is when Orlando has a huge advantage, because the Hawks will have a difficult time trying to get anything inside. However, if the Hawks are able to run they will either get easy baskets or cheap fouls against Howard that will take him out of the game. This is the series where the Magic have to realize their best chance of winning is by establishing Dwight Howard as their best player; otherwise, they might be done sooner than expected.
Whichever team is able to control the tempo will control the series, it’s as simple as that. While the Hawks are talented enough to advance, the Magic are just too deep and too big to allow Atlanta to steal this series.
Magic in 6
(1) Cleveland Cavaliers vs. (4) Boston Celtics
This is a series that has all the makings of an instant classic. The old guard in Boston is trying for one last chance at a title before possibly breaking up the Big Three this summer. The Cavs are trying for what might be one last chance at a title before possibly losing Mr. MVP this summer to free agency. The Cavs’ first round was a pretty simple one, they knocked out the Bulls in five games, and even though some games were closer than expected, they took care of business. That series did, however, show a potential glaring weakness for the Cavs, and that is at the point guard position. While Mo Williams is a scorer who can put up big numbers, Derrick Rose toyed with him at times en route to a dominating performance in their individual match-up. With Rajon Rondo this round and possibly Jameer Nelson next, that could be a huge issue for Cleveland as the playoffs wear on.
The Celtics were one of the more surprising teams of the first round. While a lot of “analysts” (i.e. idiots like me) were picking the Heat to upset them in the first round, Boston went out and dominated their series. Despite losing Kevin Garnett to a suspension for a game and not getting the best performances from Ray Allen and Paul Pierce, the Celts were able to advance with relative ease.
How Boston Wins:
The most important thing for the Celtics in this series is team-play. Whether it’s on offense or defense, if Boston doesn’t play together they have no chance in this series. None. Offensively, the Celtics need to get everyone involved and not just depend on the Big Three and Rondo. Guys like Tony Allen (no, I’m serious), Kendrick Perkins, Big Baby/Ticket Stub/Resident Moron Glen Davis, Rasheed “I’m Too Old For This Ish” Wallace, and even little used Nate Robinson when he gets the chance, need to provide some scoring if the Celtics want to win. The Cavs are too good defensively for a team to rely on one or two guys to carry the scoring load, as we witnessed in Game 1 when Boston used team play to jump to a lead, only to watch it fall apart when their role players couldn’t step up.
Team play carries over to defense as well. The Celtics are a team that have had trouble scoring at times, and they used to be able to rely on defense to shut a team down during those times. This season has been different, as defensively they’ve fallen off and allowed guys to take over games in ways they never would have allowed last year (just ask D-Wade and his 46 points in Game 4 last round). Clearly, against a team with LeBron James, that is going to be a problem. For the Celtics to get stops they need to play solid team defense, and they need to force anyone but LeBron to beat them. If they play together as a cohesive unit, offensively and defensively, they can pull an upset and win this series, but ONLY if they play hard and as a team. Otherwise, they don’t stand a chance.
How Cleveland Wins:
Well, to start things off, giving the ball to LeBron James is a good option. But this is the playoffs, and one guy is not enough to win a late-round series. The Cavs will win or lose a championship this season because of Mo Williams, Antawn Jamison, Shaquille O’Neal, Andersen Varejao, and the rest of the guys surrounding James. That group of players holds the key to Cleveland’s chances of winning a title and ultimately of keeping LeBron around. Williams has to be able to be a viable third scoring option, while Jamison has to prove he can be a solid number two man as the playoffs wear on. If Jamison can’t play Pippen to Bron’s Jordan, the Cavs are going to struggle. The main focus comes down to the guys who are going to be playing when James is off the court, because that is when leads can shrink, deficits can grow and games can be won or lost, in those few minutes that LeBron takes a breather. That’s why teams win and lose as a unit in the playoffs, because you have to be able to perform when your best player is off the court. If the other Cavs can’t do that, then Cleveland has a long summer in front of it.
Defensively, the Cavs’ main focus has to be to stop Rajon Rondo from penetrating and opening things up for his teammates. Williams was the lone sore spot for the Cavs in round one because of his defensive struggles against the quicker Rose, and will have more trouble this series against Rondo if he can’t step it up. If the Cavs’ defense has to center their focus around the young point guard and his driving ability, all that will do is open up the three-point line for Ray Allen to fire away, and the mid-range for Garnett to hit his patented jumper. And it will open up the floor for Paul Pierce to fake more injuries – okay, that was a little overdone, but you get the point. The key to the Cavs’ defensive success is Mo Williams being able to slow down Rondo and force the other Celtics to create their own scoring opportunities.
The Celtics realize this could be their last chance as a collective to regain that 2008 championship form, and should give the Cavs all they can handle. At the end of the day though, Cleveland has a deeper, bigger squad than Boston, and they also have this fellow by the name of LeBron James to lean on in tough times.
Cavs in 6
Coming tomorrow: Western Conference Predictions
Belal Abdelfattah is BSO’s newest writer and comes from a long background in sports writing at the Sports Authority Blog and The Block Radio. You can follow Belal on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/belal_a