After two wild weeks of first-round madness, we have finally arrived at the second round of the NBA Playoffs. The Association’s version of the Sweet Sixteen provided us with plenty of highlights (Where’d the Grizz come from?) and lowlights (Sorry Spur and Knick fans), with much discussion in between.
But now we have come to the second round, where the playoff pretenders have generally been phased out and we are left with the strongest teams in the NBA. The East gives us two very interesting match-ups. The top-seeded Bulls face the Hawks in a series that about six people called before the season, while the Heat and Celtics face off in a series about six million people called last summer, even if it’s a round earlier than expected.
Out West you have an 8-seed looking to make it to the Conference Finals against a young and talented 4-seed with the Grizz and Thunder hooking up. In the other West match-up we (finally!) get two old Western powerhouses as the Lakers and Mavs hook up for what promises to be an awesome series.
So what’s gonna happen when it’s all said and done? Let’s take a look!
(1) Chicago Bulls vs. (5) Atlanta Hawks
Who knew? This second round series pits two teams against each other that are surprising for their own reasons. The Bulls enter the second round coming off a 4-1 win over the Pacers, but not necessarily dominating like a 1-seed should against an 8-seed. Derrick Rose was unbelievable in the first round, dominating in all of the Bulls wins and showing exactly why he is expected to be named the NBA MVP. Rose averaged 27 points, 6 assists and nearly 5 rebounds per game in the first round, willing his team to victories in a couple of close games.
If it wasn’t for the Grizzlies, the Hawks would easily be the most surprising team in the second round of the playoffs. Generally considered the fifth best team in a four team conference, Atlanta was able to dispose of Orlando rather easily. While the series tally says 4-2, it might as well have been a sweep. The Hawks exploited Orlando’s roster, allowing Dwight Howard to get his while shutting down pretty much everyone around him. Atlanta knows their roster is basically set without much room to sign anyone in the off-season, so they have to continue winning with what they have now before ownership blows up the team.
Chicago Bulls – Derrick Rose
It’s simple, really. The Hawks have nobody who can stay with Derrick Rose (who does?) now that Kirk Hinrich is out for Game 1 and will be dealing with the effects of a hamstring injury when he does come back. Rose will once again be expected to carry the load for a Bulls team without many dependable players. Now before I get cussed out for saying that, realize I mean dependable in the sense that his teammates haven’t exactly shown a history of big time performances come playoff time. Specifically Carlos Boozer, who tends to disappear come the second round (just ask Jazz fans who saw him do nothing against the Lakers three straight postseasons). If Rose can continue playing at this MVP-level the Bulls will have a great shot at moving on to the Conference Finals.
Atlanta Hawks – Expectations
Unlike the Bulls, the Hawks have zero expectations in this series. Most people expect them to be happy with beating Orlando and quietly exit from the second round yet again. That’s exactly what Atlanta should want people to think. The Hawks are quietly playing very well on offense, with Jamal Crawford scoring at an impressive clip off the bench, the Hawks have a group of guys that can score with anyone and can run the open court better than most. If the Bulls underestimate them this series will go a lot longer than Chicago wants.
Bulls 4, Hawks 2
Well, at least the Hawks won’t get swept again. Atlanta should give the Bulls a nice run for their money, but eventually Chicago will win out and move on to the Conference Finals.
(4) Oklahoma City Thunder vs. (8) Memphis Grizzlies
Quick, raise your hand if you picked the Grizz to beat the Spurs in the first round! (Looking around.) Yeah I didn’t think anyone did. What an upset by Memphis in taking out the top-seeded San Antonio squad in the first round. In just six games, the Grizzlies went from afterthought to dangerous. If Memphis can take out the Spurs then why not the Thunder or Lakers? Nobody in the playoffs is playing with as much confidence as Zach Randolph, (don’t worry I’ll get to his quotes in a little), and that was evident in the Grizzlies Game 1 win yesterday over the Thunder.
The Thunder have entered these playoffs in the unfamiliar role of favorite, and before losing yesterday afternoon, looked more than prepared to handle it in their first-round thrashing of a Nuggets squad that was expected to challenge them. Kevin Durant is doing what he does best, averaging over 32 points a game so far this postseason while getting great help from Russell Westbrook (minus Game 1) to show exactly why this Thunder squad is capable of making a Finals run. But how will a Game 1 loss affect them the rest of this series?
Oklahoma City Thunder – Russell Westbrook
When a team has Kevin Durant on its roster, you probably expect him to be there advantage over everyone else. But that’s just not the case against a Memphis team loaded with perimeter defenders. When the Grizz can throw Tony Allen and Shane Battier at Durant to make him work for every point, the most important player on the court becomes Westbrook. If he is playing at a high level than he can balance any off-night that Durant may be having and force the Grizzlies defense to pay attention to him too. But when Westbrook is missing 10 shots in the pant as he did yesterday afternoon, the Thunder are very much beatable.
Memphis Grizzlies – Depth
If I had written this before the yesterday’s game I would have said the Grizzlies biggest advantage is that they are still underdogs despite knocking off a number one seed in the last round. But after going in to OKC and pretty much dominating the Thunder, I don’t think anyone will call them underdogs anymore. The Grizzlies are one of the deepest teams in the NBA, and that’s even with their star Rudy Gay out for the rest of the season. Memphis has the size to compete with anyone down-low with Marc Gasol and Randolph patrolling the paint. They have a point-guard playing with a lot of confidence in Mike Conley and then the aforementioned plethora of wing players who they can plug in to score or play defense depending on what is needed.
Thunder 4, Grizzlies 3
I was going to pick the Grizz, I really was, but then I read these quotes from Zach Randolph after being told Kevin Durant thinks he’s the best power forward in the NBA:
‘Oh, yeah, I got to agree with that. Thanks, KD. I appreciate it.’
‘I don’t get lot of respect that I deserve.’
‘Perk’s good, but all Perk can do is foul me. That’s the only thing he can do. The best thing about his defense on me is to foul me . . . He can’t stop me. He’s too slow. He’s a big body. He can foul. I don’t think nobody in the league can stop me. Not only Perk. I tell Perk to his face. I already told him before.’”
After reading those quotes, three things came to mind.
1. There’s the old Z-Bo, talking before he should.
2. More likely than not, Randolph has a hard foul coming in his near future.
3. If Durant is who I think he is, there’s no way he allows someone to trash his teammate, and what he’s about to do to the Grizzlies could be a classic.
(2) Miami Heat vs. (3) Boston Celtics
And now we arrive to what is easily the most anticipated match-up of the second round. Since Lebron announced his plans to take his talents to South Beach, the number one question has been can the Heat beat the Celtics? The NBA took advantage of this by giving us this marquee match-up on opening night, followed by three more heavyweight bouts between the two. Miami has said all season long that they measure themselves against Boston, and despite struggling in the first three meetings with the Celts, the Heat have taken the last two, including a 99-90 win in a chippy Game 1 yesterday.
The Celtics are a team looking to make one last run at a championship. With their key pieces getting older, the Celts know that they can’t keep this core much longer if they want to stay in contention. This could be the Big Three’s last shot at a second title and they know it. Despite losing Game 1, Boston played with an edge yesterday that makes you think they are going to make this series as physical as possible for a Miami team many think is soft (read: Bosh, Chris).
Miami Heat – Pick Your Poison
Miami has arguably two of the three best players in the NBA on their team in Lebron James and Dwyane Wade, which basically means opposing teams have to choose who they want to give shots to. Double Lebron and D-Wade can take over. Try trapping Wade and you leave the key open for Bron to attack the paint and do his thing. You’re only hope at beating Miami is either both players having an off game or throwing enough wing defenders at them both to make each work for their points.
Boston Celtics – Mental Edge
Boston has been there, done that. As a team that has been to two NBA Finals in the past three years, the Celts know what it takes to win in the second round. But that is not their biggest advantage. The most important thing going for the Celtics right now is that they seem to have a mental edge on the Heat, most specifically Lebron James. D-Wade proved last year he isn’t afraid to go at the Celts defense, dropping 46 in a memorable Game 4 win, but the same can’t be said for James. Many people still accuse Lebron of quitting on the Cavs against Boston last season, and until he beats the Celts, that will hang over him.
Celtics 4, Heat 3
It’s almost the end for the Celts and just the beginning for the Heat, and that should be enough motivation for Boston to push past Miami and into the Conference Finals. This will be an awesome series to watch, with an eye on physical play and how each team handles the bumps and bruises that will come along with it. In the end, the Celtics will prevail and send Miami home much earlier than they want or expect.
(2) Los Angeles Lakers vs. (3) Dallas Mavericks
If you were to name the three most dominant teams in the West over the past decade, the Lakers, Mavs and Spurs would be everyone’s quickest answer. Despite amazing series pitting the Spurs against the Lakers and Mavs, up until now, we haven’t been treated to a match-up between LA and Dallas. But finally, we have the match-up many have been waiting for. The Mavs come into this series with something to prove. Long thought to be the NBA’s most underachieving playoff team, Dallas looks to shed that label by taking out the back-to-back defending champs. With Tyson Chandler playing well, the Mavs finally have the length to compete with the Lakers inside.
The Lakers come into this series a bit of a disappointment, or at least as much of a disappointment as a team that just won a playoff series can be. While many (myself included) expected them to finish off the Hornets quickly, New Orleans gave the Lakers a run for their money before eventually bowing out in six. As was the case last year, the Lakers struggled to allow a lower seed to tie them at two games apiece before closing out their first round in six. Laker fans hope this is a repeat of last season when the Lakers then reeled off eight straight playoff wins after falling to 2-2.
Dallas Mavericks – Hunger
Despite being a team of playoff veterans, the Mavericks don’t have one player on their roster with a championship ring. And when you have a squad with aging players who know this could be their last shot, all bets are off. The Mavs will need their entire roster to step up and play at a high level if they want to knock off the Lakers, and all of their key players will need to go into each game as if it were a Game 7. Without a sense of urgency in every game, the Mavs won’t have much of a shot.
Los Angeles Lakers – Swagger
This is about the time in the playoffs where the Lakers usually start showing that championship form. If history is any type of indicator, this series will let us know how ready the Lakers are for another title push. Their first round match-up with the Hornets was definitely a wake-up call to the sleep walking Champs, who seemed to underestimate their opponents and allow a series that should have been over quickly to drag on longer than necessary. The Lakers can’t have that type of lazy approach to this series, otherwise the Mavs will make them pay.
Lakers 4, Mavs 1
While Dallas comes into this series with something to prove, the Lakers come into it with confidence and ready to start their push to a third straight title. While this series will provide plenty of off court fun (Phil Jackson sniping at Mark Cuban, Cuban reacting like a fourth-grader, Ron Artest having a tweet war with Cuban, etc.) The Lakers look ready to make quick work of Dallas and prepare for their fourth straight Conference Finals.