1. It’s Over Johnny: Count me in the crowd that thinks there isn’t much reason to watch Cleveland-Detroit, Los Angeles-Utah, or Denver-New Orleans. Still, let’s take a look at what’s happened so far to see if there is anything to learn about these series:
-Cleveland/Detroit: This is playing out like your typical one-eight series. Cleveland has pretty much controlled both games behind LeBron James and the rest of the cast has been perfectly fine. What seems noteworthy is how much Detroit has struggled to score. Rodney Stuckey is leading the team in scoring at 17 ppg but is an ugly 12-36 from the field (0-6 from three) and Rip Hamilton has 16 ppg on also weak 13-30 from the field. A lot of this is a tribute to the great Cleveland defense but the Pistons regressed notably on offense this year (21st from 6th in 2007-08). Losing Chauncey Billups obviously hurts but this team is both aging and not particularly hungry. There is no great adjustment to be made here. Detroit must hit shots to avoid a sweep, which seems unlikely given their talent level and their inertia. Expect the Pistons to lean even more on Will Bynum, who has played so well this last month. It’s a shot in the dark but that’s all Detroit has right now.
-Lakers/Jazz: The Jazz have been scoring very well. The only problem is that the Lakers haven’t really missed any shots. It’s not clear how much of this is the Lakers and how much is the Jazz’s lack of defense. One thing’s clear, Utah has to stop someone. Either triple team Kobe Bryant or stick with the supporting case. Somehow, both Kobe and all the role players are all scoring a ton (the Lakers have five players in the series with PERs over 22). Utah will do a little better at home but they still have no answer for Kobe or Pau Gasol.
-Nuggets/Hornets: I had expected that the Hornets would struggle staying with a big guard like Billups but he’s been as good as any player in the playoffs so far. Chris Paul was too small to guard him and the Hornets’ scores of mediocre two guards/small forwards are just not good enough to guard him either. Still, the Hornets have a bit more hope than the Pistons and Jazz. The Nuggets aren’t a great road team and New Orleans is very good home team. Assuming their spirit has been broken by the blowouts, New Orleans should be able to win Game 3 and maybe even hold serve. Ultimately, I don’t think New Orleans can win a game in Denver but this could a little more respectable than it seems so far.
2. Close Series: The rest of the series are a bit less predictable. Here’s a quick review:
-Magic/Sixers: I have no idea how Orlando blew that huge lead in Game One. Actually I do know…Donyell Marshall came out of deep freeze and hit a bunch of shots, tallying 11 points in 11 minutes on 4-5 shooting (3-4 from downtown). Marshall is 36 and played only 25 games this year and scored 3.8 ppg on 7.6 mpg and hit .455% from three. While D-Marsh’s scoring wasn’t expected this outburst isn’t totally surprising. During the season, he had six similarly games where Marshall came off the bench and got really hot, mostly but hitting all his threes. So, Marshall has been pretty hot 20-25% of the time the Sixers took him out of deep freeze.
Going forward, it’s pretty unlikely you’ll get two such games from Marshall. Nor will the Sixers shoot well enough to steal another game in Orlando. The key will be holding serve in Philly. The Sixers were a reasonably good home team during (24-17) though not as good as Orlando was on the road (27-14). Without another crazy shooting exhibition Philly will return to Orlando tied at 2-2 and that’d be bad news for the Sixers.
-Celtics/Bulls: What a weird series. After barely winning Game 2 in Boston, the Celts came into Chicago and crushed the Bulls. The Celts shot really well (48%) and got its first good game from Stephon Marbury in while (13 points), who outscored Derrick Rose (9 points). Can we read something bigger about the fortunes of these teams from one game or do the Bulls get a mulligan? While Boston’s hot shooting may be an anomaly, such a spanking on the road is a bad indicator for the Bulls. Moreover, it’s going to be very hard for Chicago to win yet another game in Boston. This series is probably going seven games but I don’t believe Chicago will win unless Ben Gordon and Derrick Rose play out of their minds again, which is possible but not probable.
-Spurs/Mavericks: The Spurs were also spanked last night. The Mavericks shut down Tim Duncan (4 points) and the entire team as well. The Spurs big weaknesses is secondary scoring, which became apparent when only Tony Parker and Fabricio Oberto hit double figures. On the other side, Dirk Nowitzki schooled Drew Gooden. In light of their trouble scoring, San Antonio will need Parker to have few more huge games and one of them better be in Game 4 or Dallas will be up a commanding 3-1.
-Blazers/Rockets: Portland’s back was against the wall before the rallied to comeback and win Game 2. A huge effort from Brandon Roy basically saved the series. Going to Houston, however, will be tough. Portland will need the bench to step up a little more (Travis Outlaw has struggled). If there is a bright spot, it seems quite unlikely that Aaron Brooks will continue to shoot as well as he has (9-13 from three!). Finally, it’s a shame to see Dikembe Mutombo go out on a stretcher, though it’s eerily similar to the end of his friend and old college buddy Alonzo Mourning. I’ll examine this more later but I do see Mutombo as a marginal Hall of Famer.
-Hawks/Heat: Another odd series. Getting routed in Game 1 didn’t seem to disturb Miami in Game 2, where they took control. Secondary scoring will be key for the Heat as well. Jermaine O’Neal is very up-and-down at this point. Michael Beasley has shot a bunch, if not well (10-27 from the field and only two free throws). On the Hawks’ side, the hope is that their superior depth will allow them to be competitive in Miami. The main contributors have been good, though only Josh Smith has been great (20 ppg, 10 rpg, 2.5 apg). Some hot play by Joe Johnson or Flip Murray (whose been an awful 5-21 so far) could allow them to take back the home court.
3. Playoffs Droughts Historically: Just for fun, I thought I’d revisit some of the playoff droughts. We all remember that the Wiz and Warriors had really long playoff droughts until the mid 2000s. So, who has the longest playoff droughts since that time? In the West, the T-Wolves have the longest wait. Can you believe it’s been five years since their great 2003-04 run? It’s been pretty much straight downhill ever since. In the East, the Knicks have also been out of the postseason for five years. Just for a little reminder, five years ago the Knicks looked like a pretty good team behind a star named Stephon Marbury. Hasn’t been a great five years for Minny or New York.
Making the playoffs is fun but fans really want to see your team make an impact. So let’s see which teams currently have the longest droughts been series wins (excluding the expansion teams Memphis and Charlotte who have never won a series):
1. Denver, 1993-94: They haven’t won a series since the great upset of the Sonics with Mutombo in 1993-94. Fortunately, it looks like this is close to coming to an end.
2. Houston, 1996-97: Like Denver, Houston has had good teams but just haven’t been able to win a series since the 1990s. Back in 1996-97, the Rockets with Hakeem Olajuwon, Clyde Drexler, and Charles Barkley came within a game of the Finals. The stars aged and they’ve lost some tough series since. It’s a 50-50 shot that they break the streak this year.
3. Atlanta, 1998-99: Speaking of Mutombo, he was also on the last meaningful Hawks team, which beat Detroit in a tough 4-5 match up before getting smoked by the Knicks. After the loss, the Hawks panicked and traded Steve Smith, a good vet, for the potentially explosive J.R. Rider. This was a time when franchises were in a gambling after seeing Latrell Sprewell help get the Knicks to the NBA Finals. Of course, Sprewell was better than Rider and even less crazy. In addition, the Knicks had a lot of other great players and the Hawks did not. A perpetual rebuild followed until Josh Smith and the lottery picks started to blossom. They finally have a reasonable shot of advancing this year for the first time in a while.
4. Portland, 1999-00: They came within a quarter of beating the Lakers in the 2000 Western Conference Finals. Do you realize they haven’t won a series since? The Blazers slowly declined from there but had the bad luck of running into the Lakers in the first round in 2000-01 and 2001-02, partly because the Lakers underachieved in the regular season. Without that bad luck match up, Portland would’ve won another series sooner. Still, either the Blazers or Rockets will end their drought after their series.
4. New York, 1999-00: To find a good Knicks team, you have to go back to Jeff Van Gundy and Latrell Sprewell, which seems like a long time ago. The Knicks beat a tough Raptors (Vince Carter, Tracy McGrady, Doug Christie) team in Round 1 and the Heat (Alonzo Mourning’s last great season) in Round 2 before losing to the Pacers and Reggie Miller in the Eastern Finals.