Posted May 4 2010 3:02PM
The second round is upon us. And with close to three weeks in the books, it's time to take stock of what happened in the first round and try to predict how things will shake out in the semis ...
Before the playoffs began, Sekou Smith and I taped eight separate preview episodes of our Hang Time podcast (which you can subscribe to here, for FREE) for each series and I predicted we'd see a new Boston. Why? Because the Boston we saw during the second half of the season was a bored Boston. Once you get to that squad's collective age -- a crew of 13, 14 and 15-year vets, many with rings -- that 82-game grind can feel like sitting through some local rapper's set before The Roots come on. Once the playoffs got here, I figured the Cs would wake up with June finally in sight. The Celtics actually believe they can win a championship. You may not think they're still capable, but they definitely do. You might not think they can knock off the Cavs, but Boston definitely does. Exhibit A was Monday's double digit win over Cleveland, at the Q. They flipped the switch and Boston is on, now.
Meanwhile, speaking of motivation, you have a hungry LeBron James. He was very stoic accepting his MVP award prior to Game 2. You could say he seems consumed with getting his first ring. His teammates? I'm sure they want it, but you wonder if their collective desire can match Boston's. I don't think so.
Boston in 6.
The "No Bougut," "No Playoff Experience" Bucks strolled into Atlanta -- after pretty much waxing the Hawks in Games 3 and 4 in Milwaukee -- and snatched Game 5, putting the 53-win, "Jekyll & Hyde" Hawks on the brink of elimination. The Hawks squandered a double-digit lead in the fourth quarter to help with that loss. It was the most disappointing performance by any team in these playoffs, including the Lakers blowout loss in Oklahoma City. It was the way Atlanta played such a poor brand of basketball for three straight games. No passion. No sense of purpose. And that offense. Good gawd. Stagnant, disjointed ... brutal.
So, of course, they were done, right? There's no way this team, that has made a habit of getting rocked on the road in the past few playoffs, was going to go get a road-win at the buck-wild Bradley Center, right? Wrong. And then they came back and closed it out easily in Game 7. But they only proved what we already knew: The Hawks were just flat out better than Milwaukee. When they play committed basketball, Atlanta has a chance to beat any squad -- Orlando included. It's just that, you never know which Hawks you're going to get.
One thing I do know is that Dwight Howard will have to actually play in this series for the Magic to advance. After all the hoopla over Charlotte's darkhorse chances in the first round, the Magic took out the broom even though Howard was on the bench as much as Patrick Ewing. Jameer Nelson has been Orlando's MVP and the Hawks struggle against quick, potent point guards. I see a couple 30-point games in his future. Atlanta might not get swept out of these playoffs like last season, but the semifinals looks like it's this squad's glass ceiling.
Orlando in 6.
Is this going to be the season when Phoenix finally avenges a string of playoff exits to the Spurs? No. That was easy.
Nobody had a tougher out than the Spurs in Round 1. It's not like the Dallas Mavericks played terrible basketball. Both of those teams looked like they were capable of winning the championship. They gave us conference finals-caliber hoops in April. That's what can happen when every Western playoff squad is a 50-winner. The Suns, on the other hand, needed six games to dispatch a severely undermanned Portland squad, who just straight-up out-gritted them in Games 1 and 4. Predicting this series, for me, comes down to a respect factor. On one side you have a familiar quartet of champions -- Greg Popovich, Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker. On the other side you have a crew of players that haven't won anything.
San Antonio in 6.
The Lakers are not the Nuggets. The Lakers are not without their coach, not a bickering, rudderless squad meandering its way through the postseason. But even with Denver splintering and crumbling before our eyes, it was impressive to watch the Jazz -- without two of their four best players -- dispatch a contender. Now, however, they're facing what might be the best squad in the league. Don't let the OKC series fool you. The Thunder presented some unique challenges to the Lakers that, as Kobe Bryant admitted, they won't see for the rest of the playoffs. OKC might have been smaller and less experienced, but they were infinitely more athletic and explosive than the Lakers. Even a young, bit-player like Serge Ibaka came in and changed the complexion of games. Utah's squad is more traditional. Carlos Boozer and Paul Millsap aren't balancing their lack of size with pogo-hops. They have Deron Williams, but Utah doesn't have a Kevin Durant, which has allowed L.A. to experiment with using Ron Artest to defend Williams. Ron-Ron didn't shut him down in Game 1, but if left to Derek Fisher and Jordan Farmar, Williams might have had a 35-15 game, instead of his more moderate 24-8.
L.A.'s more well documented problem and concern is that the Lakers are, for the most part, just six deep -- rarely getting even pedestrian production from Farmar, Shannon Brown or Luke Walton (formerly known as the Bench Mob). So don't play 'em. It's May. Roll with what wins.
L.A. in 5.
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