Saturday, April 30, 2011

Sizing Up The Madness: NBA Playoffs Round 2 Preview

I'm feeling intensely conflicted about today's basketball-lessness. (Shut up, it's a word.) On one hand, any day without hoops loses significant points in the fun-and-exciting department. On the other, I may need a towel, a cold shower, and a good rest after round one. I'm struggling and failing to recall a time when so much lunacy and so many theatrics have unfolded in so brief a period of time. A quick recap:

*Chris Paul exploded for one of the great playoff performances we've ever witnessed.
27-15-13. Uh ... a point guard grabbed 13 boards while doing all of that, too? What?!?!?!?!?

*Brandon Roy hopped in a Delorean and tossed us a throwback gem.

*Kevin Durant made Denver look silly. A lot.

*The Hawks gained revenge for last year's humiliation by eliminating the Magic.

*A young Memphis squad went from fringe afterthought to "Holy %#%$!!!!" in record time. (Also, we may have seen a heroic last stand for the boys from the Alamo.)

*Derrick Rose was, well, himself.

*The Heat put it together on the postseason stage. Against Philly, but still.

*The Celtics got their mojo back, especially Rajon Rondo.

*The Mavs thumbed their collective noses at all the "soft" talk of playoffs past.

*Oh yeah, and Kobe posterized dudes on a bum ankle. Twice.

Round one was a whirlwind of breathtaking performances, unlikely heroics, and the first real sign, as exemplified by the Grizzlies/Spurs series, of a monumental (and generational) changing of the NBA guard that is either arriving as I type or is just over the horizon. The best part: starting now, we get to find out which it is.

Without further ado, the round two preview:

Eastern Conference Semis.

Boston Celtics/Miami Heat. This almost feels like a battle for the soul of basketball philosophy. Two diametrically opposed teams are putting their methodologies and assets to the test. Veterans vs. (relative) Youth. Homegrown Chemistry vs. Manufactured Excellence. In the battle of the whiteboards, Boston has a definitive edge. I haven't seen anything from Erik Spoelstra all year that would make me think he's in Doc Rivers' class in terms of adjustments, drawing plays up out of timeouts, or anything else. The Celtics also have a demonstrable (read: HYPER-MASSIVE) advantage at point guard. If he's on his game, Rajon Rondo will eat Mike Bibby alive. However, Boston's post-Perkins-weakened interior is a concern. Joel Anthony may not exactly be D12, but he's no slouch, and KG will be too busy with Chris Bosh to give Anthony much thought in the paint, leaving the task to Jermaine O'Neal, Nenad Kristic, or, if he's actually healthy, Shaq. None of those options are particularly appealing. The real fun, of course, is who guards who when LBJ and Dwayne Wade square off against Paul Pierce and Ray Allen. Throughout his career, Pierce has done reasonably well defending James one-on-one, and Rondo had a brief but successful defensive outing against him earlier this year, but Allen simply can't keep up with Wade. Like, at all. The C's have some of the best help defense in the league, and they'll need every ounce to try and contain Miami's duel threats. This is going to be hard-fought, tooth-and-nail hoops wire to wire, but I believe Boston has enough left in the tank, thanks to a nice rest after sweeping the Knicks, to prevail. Celtics in 7.

Atlanta Hawks/Chicago Bulls. The Hawks got here by eliminating an unbalanced and unlucky Magic squad who simply couldn't give Dwight Howard enough help. It's rare if ever that a bench player determines a team's destiny, but if we learned anything from round one, it's this: as Jamal Crawford goes, so go the Hawks. When Crawford is contributing meaningfully off the bench, as he did in all four Atlanta victories, the Hawks take on an added dimension. Of course, no matter how great their sixth man is playing, ATL still has to hope Joe Johnson can play consistently, and that Josh Smith can curb some of his more undesirable tendencies and focus only on what he can do well on the floor. The Bulls took out the lowly Pacers to advance, but they have to be concerned about how much trouble Indy gave them. Coach Thibs' vaunted defense was extremely patchy in stretches, and the Bulls held actual leads for only a small fraction of total game clock in the series, though it was the fraction that mattered most. Regardless of the condition of Carlos Boozer's injured toe, Al Horford is going to destroy him in the post, so that's one advantage for the Hawks. But of course, they have to try and contain Derrick Rose, and they may have lost their best hope of doing that if Kirk Hinrich misses a significant part of the series due to an injury he suffered in Atlanta's clinching victory over Orlando. No matter how badly his ankle is feeling, Rose should be able to carve up Atlanta's lackluster defense at will, and that will be the difference. Bulls in 5. (Bonus prediction: Number of altercations between Joakim Noah and Zaza Pachulia in this series: at least 10.)

Western Conference Semis.

Dallas Mavericks/Los Angeles Lakers. Finally, at long last, we get a Dirk vs. Kobe showdown in the postseason. It seems nigh-impossible that it hasn't happened before, but that's the NBA for you. Well, it's here now. I apparently had far too much faith in Portland and far too little in the Mavs when I predicted a Blazers win in round one, so consider my plate of crow respectfully eaten and washed down with a slice of humble pie. Leaving aside Kobe's formidable skills for a moment, let's focus on the battle in the paint. Tyson Chandler against Andrew Bynum seems like an almost criminally unfair matchup. Chandler averages about 60% of his normal production when facing the Lakers. Dirk Nowitzki against Pau Gasol is always an intriguing battle, even if Pau didn't look himself against the Hornets, but Dirk clearly has the advantage there. He'll be looking to disprove everyone who has made emphatic declarations about his "un-clutchness" in the past, and of course, he can score at will. In spite of that, L.A. has too much size, too much length, and too much physicality inside for the Mavs to handle, especially with Caron Butler out for the series. They should clean up on the glass, which might prove a sizable advantage. Dallas holds the edge in the Jason Kidd/Derek Fisher matchup at PG, but Ron Artest should give Shawn Marion, and anyone else Phil Jackson chooses to put him on defensively, fits. Look for him to spend a little time trying to slow Dirk down, as well. I still feel like Dallas has a slight edge on the bench, but that's not insurmountable. In the end, the series boils down to how lackadaisical the Lakers are feeling from game to game. If they get complacent, Dirk and co. will make them pay. Of course, L.A. also has that Kobe Bryant fellow, whom I understand is pretty good at basketball. If he's dialed in and doesn't go overboard with the do-it-all-myself approach, L.A. moves on to the Western Finals. Lakers in 6.

Memphis Grizzlies/Oklahoma City Thunder. Remember those old Warner Bros. cartoons where Wile E. Coyote would hatch some hair-brained scheme that involved strapping himself to a huge rocket and lighting the fuse? That's what watching this series should be like. I hope. (I had predicted similar fireworks for the OKC/Denver series and the darn thing fizzled, so I'm treading a little more lightly with the definitive statements this time around.) We can throw out the regular season head-to-heads as weather vanes here. Both teams are not what they were back then, literally and psychologically. OKC's new Perkins/Ibaka back court is certainly more daunting defensively than previous incarnations, but against Marc Gasol and the irrepressible Zach Randolph, the Thunder are going to lose the battle around the rim, mostly because Z-Bo and Gasol can actually generate potent offense inside. Memphis' Mike Conley actually fairs pretty well against wiz-kid PG Russell Westbrook, but when Russ is on his game, playing smart team basketball, and not suffering from the rare genetic disorder that makes him confuse himself intermittently with Michael Jordan, he's pretty much unstoppable. Thabo Sefolosha and Sam Young are a wash at the 2 offensively, as both are defensive guards at heart. Allen is a physical, savvy defender, but of course offensively he's no match for Kevin Durant. Speaking of KD, he's the wild card, or more accurately, how Lionel Hollins chooses to defend him is. Hollins will likely dial up some rotations in which bot Allen and Shane Battier are on the floor handling Durant and Westbrook, as both make smart switches on pick-and-rolls and fight through screens well, in addition to their one-on-one defensive skills. The benches here are pretty much even; OKC with a more set second unit, Memphis with a more disparate but more talented group. In the end, Durant and Westbrook are forces of nature for which the Griz don't have a real answer. Thunder in 7.

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