Round One is under way and here are quick thoughts on the series so far:
-Cavs/Bulls: This series is basically over after LeBeron James tossed around the Bulls to take a 3-1 lead. Even still, from the Bulls’ perspective, the series hasn’t been too bad. Sure they have no shot of winning but they have played respectably for the most part and have gotten the one token win to build on for next year. It appears that Vinny Del Negro is going to be fired because of internal issues (questions on his play calling and, more importantly, clashes with John Paxson). It’s hard to make judgments on internal issues we are not privy to but based purely on his record on the court, he has been a solid enough coach.
–Magic/Bobcats: Like the Bulls, the Bobcats have been relatively competitive in their series against the heavily favored opponents. Unlike the Bulls, they haven’t gotten a win yet. Charlotte has been so good at home, they should be able to at least avoid the sweep. The only reason this might not happen is because of the Bobcats’ main weakness (scoring) coincides nicely (or not so nicely depending upon your rooting interest) with Orlando’s strength (tough defense). In the three games so far this series, Charlotte has an anemic 84 ppg and has not broken 90 points in a game yet (notably, Boris Diaw is averaging 40 mpg and has only 5.7 ppg).
–Celtics/Heat: The Celts get a lot of credit for absolutely suffocating the non-D-Wade options in Miami. While Wade is averaging over 30 ppg, the rest of the crew has been awful on offense. Couple that with Boston’s nice hot streak in Game 2 and Boston is looking like it will get to Round 2 with surprising ease. The Heat rebounded to win Game 4 behind Wade’s 46 but the is still quite an uphill battle. It’s also nice to see Ray Allen turn up his play to pre-2009-10 levels for this series (he shot 68% the first three games of the series). Obviously, he cannot keep this pace up for long but Allen and Glen Davis have made a potentially tough series much easier than expected. I now expect Boston to win this series in five.
–Hawks/Bucks: The Bucks shocked me with a blowout win in Game 3, after being handled so easily by Atlanta the first two games of the series. Without Bogut, the guards have shot a lot more than usual and are looking good doing it. John Salmons and Brandon Jennings are basically sharing the shots (103 between them in three games). In addition, Jerry Stackhouse has looked pretty solid. He still can’t shoot (38%) but is getting to the line and avoiding turnovers. The Bucks would love to get this series to 2-2 but I can’t see Jennings continuing to shoot so well (43%) on such a high volume, particularly when he has taken 17 shots from the field but gotten to the line only twice per game.
–Lakers/Thunder: This has been the most fun series of the first round. OKC played the Lakers pretty tough in Los Angeles, though I never believed they were actually going to beat the Lakers in either game. In OKC, however, the Thunder have looked like the better team and pretty easily taken the series to 2-2. The Lakers have done a good job on Kevin Durant but Russell Westbrook is absolutely destroying them (21.8 ppg, 6.5 rpg, 5.3 apg). It doesn’t help that Westbrook has torched them while the Laker point guards have been puke bad. Derek Fisher and Jordan Farmar have been awful offensively, forcing Phil Jackson to rely on Shannon Brown, whose minutes should expand the rest of the series.
On top of that, Ron Artest’s tough defense on Kevin Durant has taken its toll on Artest offensively. In 38 mpg, Artest is shooting 30% (12-40 from the field). It hasn’t helped that Artest hasn’t been shy from three, where he is 3-23 (13%). Yes, Artest needs to be on the floor but he must be told that he can’t shoot threes if he’s going to clank everything. The Lakers should win this series, particularly since Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum have been so tough on the Thunder (Kobe Bryant has actually been pretty mediocre by his own standards), but winning a game in Oklahoma seems unlikely. This should be a seven game war.
Assuming they end beating the Thunder, is the fact that the Lakers are in for a war against an eight seed a bad indicator for their success in the playoffs? We all know of the few times the eight seed has knocked off a one seed but what about times the one seed struggled but survived? I thought we could take a quick look at all the eight seeds that forced deciding games (or at least took the one seed to six games) and how this turned out for the one seed (note that the first round was best-of-five until 2002-03, when it went to best-of-seven):
–2007-08: The Celtics were taken seven games by an athletic young Hawks team, mainly because Boston could not win in Atlanta. Of course, Atlanta had no shot of winning any games in Boston either. This didn’t hurt Boston too much, as they went on to win the title.
–2005-06: The Spurs were taken six games by a declining but still dangerous Sacramento team (Bonzi Wells, Mike Bibby, and Ron Artest were the core). The Spurs ended up losing to the Mavs in the next round in a brutal but memorable seven-game series. But the Dallas-San Antonio series was just a tough classic and the Spurs’ quasi-struggles with Sacramento had no bearing on the loss.
–2002-03: The Pistons famously hang on to beat the Magic 4-3, despite falling behind 3-1 in the series. The Pistons impressively won the final three games by an average margin of 20 ppg. Detroit made it to the conference finals, where they were swept by the Nets. In the west, the Suns also took the Spurs to six games, even winning one game on a banked three-pointer by Stephon Marbury. The Spurs went on to beat the Nets for the title.
–2001-02: The Nets struggled against a young, talented Pacers team in round one, barely winning the deciding Game 5 in double overtime. The Nets then went on to the NBA Finals, before getting swept by the Lakers.
–1999-00: The Pacers were taken five games by the Bucks (Ray Allen, Sam Cassell, and Glenn Robinson) and Indiana barely beat Milwaukee in the deciding game. Indiana later made it to the NBA Finals where they lost to the Lakers, 4-2.
–1997-98: Utah had to contend with an aging and injury plagued but talented Rockets team (Charles Barkley, Clyde Drexler, and Hakeem Olajuwon). Houston went up 2-1 and were in the process of scaring Utah greatly when Barkley was knocked out for the series. Utah took the next two games and made it all the way to the NBA Finals before losing to the Bulls on Michael Jordan’s famous shot over Bryon Russell.
–1993-94: The Hawks were a surprise number one seed in Lenny Wilkens’ first year as coach. They met a young Miami Heat with some talent (Steve Smith, Glen Rice, Rony Seikaly) and fell behind 2-1. The Hawks rallied to win the series before losing to the Pacers in the next round.
-1992-93: In Barkley’s first year in Phoenix, they had a dynamic running team that took the NBA to storm but they shockingly fell behind a mediocre Lakers team (Sedale Threatt and aging James Worthy and Byron Scott) 2-0. Paul Westphal calmly guaranteed that they would win the next three games and he proved to be correct. The Suns then won the next two rounds before losing to the Bulls in the Finals.
-1990-91: The Blazers had the best record in the NBA but met a young talented Sonics team with Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp. Seattle was able to take Portland to a Game 5 before losing. Portland lost in the Western Conference Finals to the Lakers in what was considered an upset.
The above list should be comforting for Lakers fans. Most of the one seeds that had struggles in round one still had major runs. Of the ten teams listed above six made it to the NBA Finals. The one problem is that only two (Boston and San Antonio) actually won a title. I would venture that there is little correlation between a round one struggle and overall team weakness, as the 1993-94 Hawks were the only team that didn’t seem like a true contender coming into the playoffs.
-Mavs/Spurs: The general feeling of most stat-based analysts was that the Spurs were favorites in this series (based mainly on point differential). The Spurs have played like the better team behind their traditional stars. The key victory came in Game 2, when Manu Ginobili and Tim Duncan took turns torching the Mavs in the second half. The Mavs adjusted for Game 4 and did a good job of shutting down TD and Manu, only to let George Hill kill them with open shots. The Mavs have also gotten little from Caron Butler and Shawn Marion most of the series and playing the two together has allowed the Spurs to hurt them with smaller athletes. For the Mavs to have any shot going forward, they may have to go smaller at the small forward to make sure the Ginobili and Hill are kept in check.
–Suns/Blazers: A very weird series, with each team splitting games in the other’s home court. Moreover, the Blazers have rushed Brandon Roy back into action in hopes of stealing a winnable series. The Blazers indicate that there isn’t much risk to Roy’s quick return from surgery but I see much more risk than reward here. We don’t know Roy’s medicals but I can’t recall a player ever coming back so fast from a knee scope, even if it was minor. In addition, Portland is not winning a title even if they upset the Suns and are heavily invested in Roy going forward. Portland does have a shot of winning this series but Phoenix has already taken back home court and the odds of Portland winning are not great in any event. Between all the hullabaloo surrounding the front office controveries recently and the decision to bring back Roy, I have some questions as to whether Portland is making rational decisions.
–Nuggets/Jazz: Utah losses Andrei Kirilenko and now Mehmet Okur and is still looking quite good. The Utah front court is so deep offensively that the Jazz barely feel the injuries so far. Meanwhile, the Nuggets defense has been quite weak. Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer are torching Denver. It’s also apparent that Kenyon Martin is not quite right and his inability to slow down Boozer or Paul Millsap has been evident (In terms of +/-, Boozer was +11 and Millsap was +15 while Martin was a team worst -22 last night). For Denver, Carmelo Anthony looks like the best player in the series but it hasn’t been enough because Utah is running them off the court. The series is not over and Denver will probably get the series back to Utah for a Game 6 but unless they can keep Boozer and Williams from shooting so much and so efficiently, Denver will end the season with a bitter taste in its mouth.