Playoff Basketball. It is as much about winning as it is about not losing. It is as much about doing the right things as it is about not doing the wrong ones. As much about defeating the challenge as it is about simply surviving it. By the time the first round of the playoffs officially concluded late on Sunday night, 16 teams had been cut to eight, and many of the last eight did just about enough to ensure it was them – and not their opponents – who proceeded to the second round.
Two of the first round series – Lakers vs. Nuggets and Clippers vs. Grizzlies – came down to a nail-biting seventh game, a winner-takes-all match-up which can make or break a team's and a player's legacies forever.
Now, the final eight survivors are the 76ers, Celtics, Clippers, Heat, Lakers, Pacers, Spurs, and Thunder. In a post-season maligned by injury, the team that eventually rises to the pedestal as NBA Champions next month will have to be the one that avoids serious injury and suspension, avoids silly turnovers and missing its defensive assignments. Avoid giving the opposition second-chance points and avoid missing free throws. It will be the team that finds a way to get back up no matter how often it’s knocked down. It will be the team that survives last.
Since I last checked into this column, the OKC Thunder had already unseated the NBA throne by sweeping the Dallas Mavericks. Here’s how the rest of the first-round series concluded:
Bulls (1) vs. 76ers (8) The Philadelphia 76ers achieved for few teams had achieved before: they became only the fifth-ever eighth-seeded side to upset a Number 1 seed in the first round of the Playoffs by defeating the Chicago Bulls 4-2. Losing point guard Derrick Rose in Game 1 and center Joakim Noah in Games 3-5 all but ended Chicago’s bid to title for an NBA Championship this season. Philadelphia used several different weapons on both ends of the floor – from the scoring ability of Jrue Holiday to the defensive work of Andre Iguodala – to win the series. The Bulls made a comeback bid after being 3-1 down, winning Game 5 at home and going down the wire into Game 6, but the 76ers managed to survive after Omer Asik missed two free throws and Andre Iguodala drained two on the other end to give his team a series victory.
Heat (2) vs. Knicks (7) New York finally broke out of years of playoff disappointment and won their first post-season game in 11 years. But it was only a minor blip in Miami’s way. LeBron James dominated with 29 points, eight rebounds, and seven assists, and the Heat’s Big Three were too much for the Knicks to stop, as Miami won Game 5 and ended the series 4-1 to move into the next round for a matchup against the Pacers.
Pacers (3) vs. Magic (6) The Indiana Pacers won their first playoff series in seven years after defeating the hobbled but determined Orlando Magic 4-1. Orlando fought for three quarters in the close-out Game 5 of the series, but the Pacers finally broke free in the final period to win 105-87, led by Danny Granger’s 25 points.
Celtics (4) vs. Hawks (5) Down 3-1, the Hawks received some good news as their long gone forward/center Al Horford finally returned to the lineup, and made an instant difference in helping his side win Game 5. But back home for Game 6 in Boston, it was another big man – Kevin Garnett – who turned back the clock to give a vintage performance, scoring 28 points with 14 rebounds and hitting the go-ahead shot in the final minute to give his side the 83-80 win. Garnett and the Celtics moved into the second round to face the 76ers.
Spurs (1) vs. Jazz (8) Leading the series 3-0, the Spurs made no mistake in closing out to sweep the Jazz 4-0 in Utah’s home court. Behind Al Jefferson, the Jazz made a strong comeback in Game 4, but it was too little, too late. The Spurs enjoy a rest for almost a week before they figured out whom they will face in Round 2: the Clippers.
Lakers (3) vs. Nuggets (6) A week ago, I wrote that the Nuggets, down 3-1 at the time, know the secret to beat the Lakers; they just need to turn theory into work. They did just that over the next two games, outrunning the Lakers in the transition and using their depth and tenacity to tie the series at 3-3. Ty Lawson was virtually unstoppable, leading his team in minutes and points, and stepping up in the Nuggets’ wins. LA also had a tough time stopping Andre Miller and JaVale McGee. Finally, the Lakers responded in the do-or-die Game 7 which featured an aggressive effort by Pau Gasol and the rest of the team, inspired by the return of the suspended Metta World Peace into the lineup. The Lakers survived in the fourth quarter of Game 7 to fix a date with the Thunder.
Grizzlies (4) vs. Clippers The other LA team found itself in a similar situation: up 3-1, and then squandering the advantage by losing in Games 5 and 6. The Grizzlies and the Clippers left little to choose between them. On one side, Chris Paul was putting up a superhuman leadership effort, leading his team to epic comebacks and taking over to win close games. On the other end, Grizzlies bigs – Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph – were leading the charge to keep their team alive for as long as possible. Game 7 was a slugfest in Memphis, with both teams struggling to score. With Paul and Blake Griffin being slowed by injuries, the Clippers’ bench did just about enough in the second half to upset Memphis and move into the second round.
Second Round: The second round matchups are: Celtics vs. 76ers, Heat vs. Pacers, Spurs vs. Grizzlies, and Thunder vs. Lakers. Game 1s for the former two series have already been played at time of writing, with the Celtics and Heat winning thanks to heroic efforts by Rajon Rondo, Kevin Garnett, LeBron James, and Dwyane Wade.
The O’Brien Files: A little taste of Playoff history - The Clippers reached the Second Round of the Playoffs for just the second time in 1976 and the first time since 2006. Eternally cursed, especially since their move to Los Angeles, the LA Clippers have yet to reach into the Conference Finals. If they are able to pull an upset over the Spurs, they will definitely be remembered as the greatest Clipper team of all time.