The first round of the NBA playoffs did little to dispel the notion that the Los Angeles Lakers and the Cleveland Cavaliers are fated to meet in the NBA finals next month. But if you missed the games of the last two weeks, you might not be a big fan after all. The drama and intensity of the Boston Celtics-Chicago Bulls seven-game epic may have led the NBA news during the last fortnight, but there were other significant stories.
The Denver Nuggets made such short and easy work of the New Orleans Hornets that they might be considered a legitimate threat to the Lakers’ finals bid. The Dallas Mavericks dispatched the San Antonio Spurs with such ease that it’s worth remembering that they only had their lineup in tact for a little more than half the season. The Houston Rockets finally got out of the first round and did so by stopping the Portland Trail Blazers, one of the league’s best offenses. In other words, sleep on the second round at your own risk.
The NBA conference semifinals kick into high gear this week, and each of the four series is a different set of delights. The premiere matchup will feature the Celtics versus the Orlando Magic. Both teams were supposed to easily vanquish their first-round opponents, but it didn’t work out that way. The Celtics were pushed to the brink by the feisty young Bulls, a team that didn’t seem to understand that they were supposed to wilt under the pressure of close games in the playoffs. The Magic were extended to six games by a Philadelphia 76er team that suddenly discovered their long-range marksmanship after struggling with three-point shooting during the regular season.
The smart money is on Orlando in this series as Boston figures to be tired after their tumultuous series with Chicago. I agree with the conclusion, but not with the evidence. Last season, Boston was extended to seven tough games by Cleveland in the conference semifinals and by Atlanta in the first round. Yet, the Celtics had enough in the tank to dispatch the Lakers and the Detroit Pistons, the second- and third-best teams in the league in six games apiece. Boston will fall because without Kevin Garnett (who could return from his injury in later rounds if the Celtics get that far) and Leon Powe (who is done for the season), the Celtics aren’t as good as the Magic. The Celtics without Garnett outscored their opponents by an average of 2.8 points per game during the regular season. The Magic are also missing a key player, point guard Jameer Nelson, who was injured in January; without him, they are outscoring opponents by 4.4 points per contest.
The Magic have beaten the Celtics in both of their meetings since Nelson’s injury. Orlando is a more conventional team than Chicago, and this may enable assistant coach Tom Thibodeau to draw up better defensive schemes. As far as I can see, that will make the series close and hard fought, but it won’t change the outcome.
The other Eastern conference series, the Cleveland Cavaliers versus the Atlanta Hawks, should, barring key injury, border on a walkover for the Cavs. Cleveland won 66 games this season; Atlanta won 47 and enters this series with two key players, forwards Marvin Williams and Al Horford, nursing injuries. Even if Atlanta was at full strength, this isn’t a fair fight. So far in the playoffs, the Cavaliers have given up an average of 89.5 points per 100 possessions and scored 110.5. The Hawks gave up an average 106.4 points per 100 possessions and scored 101. Four-game sweeps aren’t that common in the second round, but this series has all the hallmarks of a quick one.
Unless Rockets swingman Ron Artest turns into one of the greatest defensive players ever and shuts down Kobe Bryant, then the Houston Rockets may also be in for a quick exit from the second round. The Lakers won all four of their regular-season games with the Rockets, and their ability to vary the tempo and play a small quick lineup puts Houston’s best player, center Yao Ming, at a disadvantage defensively. The Utah Jazz was good enough to win a game against the Lakers in their first-round matchup. If Houston, 53-29 in the regular season, plays at its absolute best, they may win two from the 65-17 Lakers.
The Denver Nuggets used their first conference semifinals game in 15 years Sunday afternoon as a showcase of their strengths in a 109-95 win over the Dallas Mavericks. The Nuggets use a nine-man rotation to great effect. The reserves play at a faster tempo and with greater defensive intensity than the regulars. Coach George Karl uses both units in the first half, and he does a fine job of creating a lineup that deploys the best players from each unit in the second half. So far, the Nuggets are playing the best ball of any team in the playoffs. They will need to maintain that level to beat the Mavericks, who have a similar but lesser set of strengths.
And while some folks are cooling their heels awaiting a Cavs-Lakers series in June; I’m eagerly awaiting a Lakers-Nuggets conference finals later this month.
Martin Johnson is a regular contributor to The Root.