With the Atlanta Hawks finally knocking out the Milwaukee Bucks in Game 7 Sunday, the first round of the NBA Playoffs has 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.
(3) Phoenix Suns vs. (7) San Antonio Spurs
Does this series look familiar? It should, because this is the sixth time in ten years these two teams meet in the playoffs and the tenth time in twenty years overall. Some bad news for Suns fans? They’re 1-4 this decade when taking on the Spurs, the lone series win coming in 2000 when the defending champion Spurs were missing a fellow by the name of Tim Duncan. Phoenix point guard Steve Nash is 0-6 in his career against the Spurs, including 0-4 as a member of the Suns. The Suns had an up-and-down first round against the Blazers, losing two games they probably should have won, yet having four blowout wins against Portland to advance. That type of rollercoaster play is what worries Suns fans heading into a series like this where they will have to play consistently well to have a chance.
The Spurs come into this round as the first seven-seed to ever win a best-of-seven series after knocking out the second-seeded Mavs in what turned out to be the biggest upset of the first round. Tony Parker has fit in well in his sixth man role, Manu Ginobili is soldiering on with his broken nose, and George Hill has stepped up big since the playoffs began. Most importantly for the Spurs, Tim Duncan is showing flashes of being his old self. Despite a bad game or two in the first round, Duncan had some consistently impressive games that lead directly to Spurs wins.
How San Antonio Wins:
If the Spurs want to win, they must slow the Suns down and play a halfcourt game. While San Antonio does have young guys such as Hill who can run with the Suns on fastbreaks, the fact of the matter is that Duncan and Spurs forward Antonio McDyess are too old to keep up with the run-and-gun Suns. Even back-up big Dejuan Blair, who is a young guy, doesn’t have the energy or speed to keep up. The Spurs have to make the Suns play a halfcourt game if they want to be able to keep the game close. While the Spurs have slipped a bit defensively, they still have guys that can close out on the Suns three-point shooters and force Phoenix to try and score inside.
Offensively, the Spurs need to make the Suns’ best players work. Tim Duncan has to go inside and pound Amar’e Stoudemire consistently, so that Stoudemire doesn’t have the energy to run down and hammer home a dunk on every fastbreak opportunity the Suns get. Secondly, the Spurs point guards have to be ready to attack Steve Nash whenever the opportunity presents itself. It’s no secret that Nash is a liability defensively, to the point that his teammates have to consistently step over and help when his man gets by. If the Spurs are able to penetrate and get into the paint, defenders will have to help off their man, which will lead to wide open shots for other Spurs because Parker and Hill are great passers. Forced outside shots will lead to long rebounds that are easy for the Suns to convert into fastbreaks. If they can keep this as a series strictly played in the halfcourt, they have a great chance.
How Phoenix Wins:
Run, run… and then run some more. The Suns’ chances of winning this series lay in their biggest advantage, the fastbreak. If Phoenix gets out and runs they become the overwhelming favorites to win this series, because the Spurs simply can’t keep up. Phoenix knows this series is a clash of styles, and for them to take it they will have to impose their will on the pace of each game. The Suns are a much smaller team than the Spurs, so they have to run as much as possible and attack the San Antonio bigs. More scoring opportunities inside leads to more fouls on Spurs bigs and evens out the match-up a little more for the Suns. The X-factor for Phoenix is Jason Richardson; if the Suns are able to get him going they have a great chance at winning, as evidenced by their 30-4 record when Richardson scores over 22 points in a game.
Defensively, the Suns have to be more active than the Spurs; they need to out-hustle them and attack the boards consistently. Simply put, they have to want it more than the bigger Spurs squad. With the only rebounding threat on the team being Stoudemire, who already rebounds badly for a center, the Suns have to crash the boards to keep San Antonio from getting second-chance opportunities. The more the Suns run, the more likely it is the Spurs will be lulled into trying to keep up and move away from their halfcourt offense. Needless to say, that definitely works in the Suns favor, and helps cancel out the Spurs’ size advantage inside. If the Suns run and spread the floor, they have a great chance at knocking off the Spurs.
The team that imposes their style of play on the game is the team that will be heading to the Conference Finals, it’s as simple as that. Despite already being down 1-0, the Spurs still have the advantage in this series because they play defense better than the Suns and will be able to slow down the games enough to have a chance every night against the hit-or-miss Suns.
Spurs in 7
(1) Los Angeles Lakers vs. (5) Utah Jazz
Just like the Suns-Spurs series, this is one fans should be used to seeing as the Lakers and Jazz go head-to-head for the third consecutive postseason. The Lakers have been the team to eliminate the Jazz the last two years and look to head to their third straight Conference Finals by taking out the Jazz. After struggling through the first four games of their series with the Thunder, Los Angeles finally put it together, dominating Game 5 at home before closing the series out in OKC on a Pau Gasol tip-in with a half-second left in a one-point win. The defending Champions seem to finally be playing at the level we expect them to compete at.
The Jazz were another team that shocked many people in the first round when they knocked out the Nuggets in six games. The fact that the Jazz were missing two starters (Mehmet Okur and Andrei Kirilenko) and still handled Denver with ease is a testament to their depth and great coaching, as well as the Nuggets lack of maturity and/or brain power. Utah’s postseason is already a success no matter what happens in this second round, having exceeded everyone’s expectations and still advancing despite all the injury issues that faced them.
How Utah Wins:
If the Jazz want to have a shot in this series they need to dominate in two areas: fastbreak points and bench play. The Lakers have athletes and can run at times, but the Thunder exposed a weakness in the Lakers D when they ran all over them in the last series. Utah has a decided edge in point guard play and Deron Williams must impose his will on this series if they are going to stay in it. Williams dominated the first half with 17 points, but only had 7 in the second half and disappeared in the clutch when Kobe Bryant was taking the game over down the stretch. The most important area for the Jazz, however, is bench play. As evidenced in Game 1, their bench can change the entire complexion of the game while starters rest and give the Jazz a chance to win it. After trailing by eight to start the fourth quarter, Utah’s reserves sparked them on a 20-8 run that saw the Jazz take a four-point lead late. If the Jazz bench can outplay the Lakers bench, Utah will have a great chance in this series.
Defensively, the Jazz have to out-hustle the Lakers. If Los Angeles decides to throw the ball inside and let Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum go to work, the Jazz simply don’t have the size to keep up. Their only chance is to outwork the Lakers and not allow them to get second chance opportunities or good looks inside. Lakers shooters are shaky enough right now that you can live with them letting it fly. If the Jazz are able to at least contain the paint a little bit, they have a great chance at extending this series.
How Los Angeles Wins:
The Lakers have an undeniably clear advantage in the post, where their trio of 7-footers gives every team trouble, especially an injury-riddled team like Utah. The problem with the Lakers is that they sometimes seem to lose focus and forget that their biggest advantage is in the paint. If they come out and go to Gasol and Bynum to start a game it always opens things up for the rest of their scorers. All you need to do is look to Game 5 of the first-round series for proof. The Lakers came out and force-fed Gasol and Bynum, jumped out to a 16-1 lead and never looked back. Dominating inside also opens up things for a fellow named Kobe Bryant, who is much harder to double-team when his teammates are dominating inside.
It’s also no secret that guys like Bynum play better defense when they’re getting the ball on offense. Again, just look at Game 5 against the Thunder, where Bynum dominated the paint defensively after being given a few dunks at the beginning of the game. While it seems ridiculous that a professional basketball player needs the ball in his hands more to motivate him to play better defense, the fact of the matter is that’s where we stand with Bynum. Another defensive key for the Lakers is how well they rotate to help Derek Fisher when Williams gets by him and into the paint. Like Steve Nash, Fisher has become a defensive liability who you can’t rely on to stop other point guards from scoring. However, the Lakers are long enough and smart enough to rotate to help out without giving up an inordinate amount of open shots. If the Lakers are able to use their huge advantage inside to their benefit, they should advance quickly.
While the Jazz have a huge advantage at the point guard position, the Lakers have a huge advantage inside, where they are… well, huge. The Jazz are just too paper-thin up front to give the Lakers any issues, and if Los Angeles plays like they should they will advance quickly.
Lakers in 5
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