After an exciting first weekend of NBA playoff basketball, one thing was clear: the Lakers and Celtics were not a lock to get back to the Finals as almost everyone predicted before the season started.
L.A. was getting all they could handle through two games with New Orleans and the Celtics needed two last second baskets at home to take a 2-0 series lead against the New York Knicks who, were virtually without Chauncey Billups and Amar’e Stoudamire in Game 2. After the first round both Boston and L.A. have moved on after flipping the proverbial switch (or twisting the ankle in Kobe’s case).
The Miami Heat and Oklahoma City Thunder both looked impressive in their series and Atlanta shocked the world by dispatching of Orlando as easily as they did. Up 3-0 on Indiana, the Bulls struggled againsnst the #8 seed. Derrick Rose has been all world in the series, but Chicago will need more production out of everyone else going forward. The Bulls have won the NBA title in every season in which the team won 60 games or more. The 2010-11 Bulls won 62 games. No pressure. As round 2 begins today here are my updated predictions.
#1 Chicago Bulls vs #5 Atlanta Hawks
I had Orlando winning this round, but unfortunately Orlando center Dwight Howard was the only player that got off the bus in the series against the Hawks. I was encouraged to see Atlanta adjust their gameplan against Superman, refusing to double team and staying home on the 3-point shooters of the Magic. Jamal Crawford, the leading bench scorer in the playoffs, worked his magic (no pun intended) throwing in dagger 3′s with regularity. Joe Johnson showed the urgency and intensity necessary in the closeout game 5 and Al Horford was a man amongst boys down low. All of that being said, the Bulls are overjoyed that Atlanta took care of Orlando because they have owned the Hawks in the regular season (a blown double-digit lead in ATL notwithstanding). I expect this to continue as Joakim Noah will cancel out Al Horford’s energy. The Hawks will be hurt by the loss of Kirk Hinrich, who pulled his hamstring in Game 5 of the previous series, as he would have been key in containing Derrick Rose defensively. Rose can do his usual damage on offense and get by Atlanta but Carlos Boozer has to come out of the witness protection program and give him some help or Atlanta will make it a tough series.
Prediction: Bulls run wild and win 4-2
#2 Miami Heat vs #3 Boston Celtics
This is the series everyone has been waiting to see. LeBron has already been asked about his alleged quitting against Boston last season and he is saying he takes this series personal (whatever that means). This series is why Pat Riley flashed the rings at LeBron last July. This series is what the Miami Heat team as we know it had been training at military bases for. The Celtics limped into the playoffs as they did last year and looked old in the first two games against the Knicks that had everyone in New York talking upset. Boston showed up to Madison Square Garden and turned back the clock to 2009 becoming the first team to make it to the second round this year in the process. Jermaine O’Neal (not the O’Neal I expected to contribute) must have thought he was back in Indiana the way he held down the middle for Boston on both sides of the ball. They will need him to show up again in this series if Shaquille O’Neal can’t go. These aren’t the Knicks, however. The Heat play defense, and Mario Chalmers will not be on skates and jumping out of the way of Rajon Rondo in the paint (hello, Toney Douglas?). History is on Boston’s side as 8 of the last 9 teams to sweep an opening round series have gone on to win the conference semifinals. Ray Allen has torched the Heat to a tune of 57% shooting. Wade will need to step up offensively and score more than 12 points a game for the Heat to win. This is the Heat’s Detroit Pistons of 1991, the Piston’s Boston Celtics of 1989 (the Jordan-led Bulls had to overcome Isiah Thomas’ Bad Boys and Thomas had to get by Bird’s Celtics to get to the proverbial “next level”).
Prediction: LeBron James and Dwyane Wade have never beat the Boston Celtics in a playoff series. That ends this year. I am sticking with my upset pick. Heat burn Celtics in 7, 4-3.
#2 Los Angeles Lakers vs #3 Dallas Mavericks
The Lakers struggledwith the upstart Hornets without David West. They cannot afford to take a game off in this series. Jason Kidd is not as fast as Chris Paul, but you can’t call him”Ason” anymore. Kidd has hit some clutch 3′s all year and he can still get his teammates the ball in the right places. Although Kobe brought out the ’97 dunk contest hops in game 5 against Emeka Okafor, it is highly unlikely he will repeat that against the likes of Tyson Chandler and Brendan Heywood. The Mavericks are 15-0 this season when Dirk Nowitzki attempts 10 or more freethrows in a game, but with the Lakers bigs inside Dirk may forget to drive to the basket and settle for jumpshots, not necessarily a bad thing if the shots are falling. Andrew Bynum showed last round why the Lakers refused to entertain including him in Carmelo Anthony trade talks as he was the most consistent player for L.A. against New Orleans.
Prediction: the Lakers will get by the Mavericks 4-2.
#4 Oklahoma City Thunder vs #8 Memphis Grizzlies
I’ll admit the Grizzlies know more than I did going into the playoffs. They asked for San Antonio and made sure they got ‘em. In the process they made Tim Duncan look like a shell of himself and kept Richard Jefferson out of the series entirely (did he even play?). They dominated the series so thoroughly that it took two miracle shots by Manu Ginobli and Gary Neal in Game 5 just to force overtime or the series would have ended earlier. Zach Randolph has come a long way from his “jailblazer” (with Portland) and “black hole” (with New York) ways of the past. He has remained a big-game scorer and rebounder, but has passed effectively averaging over 5 assists in the SanAntonio series. While the Grizzlies handled the Thunder in the regular season winning 3 out of 4 games, Kevin Durant is on a mission. I thought he would be derailed by a veteran SanAntonio squad, but Memphis has opened the door for him to have a deep post-season run. The key matchup is Tony Allen against the unstoppable Durant. Allen has become the heart and soul of the team since Rudy Gay went out with his shoulder injury and that playoff experience and toughness gained from his time with Boston will take the Grizzlies far in this series.
Prediction: I will give the Grizzlies a little more credit as they showed me something against SanAntonio. OKC has the bigs to withstand Marc Gasol and Randolph and the five inch height advantage Durant has on Allen will be the difference. Oklahoma wins the series 4-3 in 7 hard fought games to set up a rematch with the Lakers for a chance to go to the Finals.
Check back after Round 2 for my updated predictions of who will make the NBA Finals.