The first round of the playoffs produced two upsets , one in each conference : Memphis upended San Antonio 4-2 and Atlanta beat Orlando by a like margin . To my mind, the latter is the bigger of the two upsets.Orlando had trounced Atlanta decisively during the regular season and no one gave the perennially under-achieving Hawks much of a chance .Here is my take on the first round :
Eastern Conference : Desperate to give Dwight Howard the supporting cast he craves , GM Otis Smith made two blockbuster multi-player trades in the past two seasons. The net result has been to destroy team chemistry , saddle the Magic with expensive long-term contracts and leave them worse off than before. A Orlando fan moans that the Magic roster now resembles the Cleveland Cavaliers of last year : one superstar and a bunch of mediocrities . Many fans blame coach Stan Van Gundy for Orlando’s early playoff exit but I think the fault lies with the GM . Whatever . It looks like Howard will be in a new uniform in 2012.
Atlanta didn’t look good during the regular season but they played well in this series with coach Larry Drew calling the shots . A big difference from last year when Mike Woodson was behind the bench . The Hawks played with purpose, holding Dwight Howard’s Magic team mates in check even as he went on a tear. If starting point guard Kirk Hinrich had not suffered a hamstring injury during the Magic series , I’d have given the Hawks a chance against their second round opponents , the Chicago Bulls . Without Hinrich, they will be hard put to defend Derrick Rose . The Bulls did not look all that great against the overmatched Indian Pacers and they will miss Carlos Boozer but I think they have more than enough to oust the Hawks .
The Celtics and the Heat both closed out their opponents quickly in order to set up their second round confrontation. This is the match-up everyone has been waiting for and it should be a doozy. The two teams don’t like each other and will be going at each other hard.
The Heat had the tougher time of the two as they faced stiff resistance from a young 76ers team that seemed to have come together under new coach Doug Collins. All the games were close, none of them a walk in the park. Miami seems to have improved a lot over the past month . LeBron and Dwayne Wade are playing as well as ever and Chris Bosh is good in spurts but the real difference is the improved play of Joel Anthony and Mario Chalmers. Anthony doesn’t score much – he doesn’t have to – but he provides some defense and shotblocking ; Chalmers adds some surprising offense and a steady hand in the backcourt.
It’s difficult to read too much into the Celtics whitewash of a seriously flawed Knicks team. They looked very good while beating New York but Miami provides a different level of challenge. The Celtics chances lie in slowing down the Heat and forcing them into a half court game . I think Rajon Rondo will be the key to the series . If he plays under control and at his absolute best , the Celtics may be able to overcome the loss of home court advantage . I hope they do because if there is one team I dislike more than the Celts , it’s the Heat.
Western Conference: Memphis defeating San Antonio was an upset , but not as big as many people make it out to be .Memphis has always given the Lakers fits and I was delighted that they drew the Spurs in the first round. San Antonio is aging and Tim Duncan, though great ,is not what he used to be . San Antonio also lacked size in the middle and had no answer for the duo of Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph. The latter played the game(s) of his life and was too much for the Spurs big men. Incidentally , I was surprised to hear Jalen Rose ‘s opinion that this is not the last hurrah for Duncan , Parker and Ginobili.It’s not just that Duncan will be 36 next year ; the other two have a lot of mileage on them and their style of play makes them injury prone . Popovich did a great job this year coaching the Spurs to the best regular season record in the NBA but I think it will be beyond even his powers to squeeze another championship out of this bunch . The Spurs will be among the better teams next year but the window for another championship has closed .
Lionel Hollins has really got the Grizzlies playing together and I expect them to provide some resistance to the Thunder . However , the Thunder with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook at the top of their game and the emergence of Serge Ibaka were unquestionably the most impressive of the first round victors . Thunder in 5. It doesn’t help that they will be opening against the Thunder early this afternoon less than 48 hours after closing out the Spurs.
If the best second round matchup in the East is the Celtics- Heat tussle , the marquee matchup in the West is the Lakers- Mavericks dustup. The two teams finished with identical records in the regular season and it should be a very close contest. The Mavericks have Dirk Nowitzki, Tyson Chandler and Brendan Haywood to match -up against the Laker bigs , a luxury they didn’t have previously . In the past , though , the Mavericks have lacked that certain something which takes a good team over the top. The Lakers have ” it”, the Celtics have it and the Spurs had it . The lack of that certain something causes the Mavericks to stumble when victory is almost in their grasp. It happened most notably when they were up 2-0 on the Heat in the 2006 finals and wound up losing the next 4 games in a row. I don’t think anything has changed . If Kobe Bryant is healthy and the Lakers keep their focus, I think the Lakers should be able to pull it out in 6 and never mind what Charles Barkley thinks . Whom are you going to trust ? Him or me ?
P.S I want to commend the Portland Trailbazers for their tenacity and fighting spirit. Year after year , they suffer devastating injuries and still manage to make the playoffs . Great coach, a good mix of players , great heart. If only they were healthy…
PPS: Well , obviously Charles was right and I was wrong , dead wrong . I didn’t think the Lakers would go all the way but I never thought they would lose to the Mavericks . And definitely not in four straight and in such disgraceful fashion … At least I was not the only one who was wrong . So were a lot of the experts .