April 30, 2011

Playoffs... Round 2... FIGHT!

I don't know about you, but that was indeed a breathless and emotional first round, perhaps one of the more exciting ones in recent years (of course, barring that SUPER-EPIC Bulls-Celtics 1st Round series two years ago). This year was breathless because of some crucial big games and some crucial upsets, and emotional because my favourite team, the Knicks finally made the playoffs for the first time in seven years only to be shown the door in four depressing games.

Anyways, we are now in the second round, and in a few paragraphs, I will lay out my predictions for four more intriguing series. Before we get there though, let's take a quick recap of what's happened so far:

- His Hornets couldn't complete their incredible bid for an upset, but Chris Paul (22 ppg, 11.5 apg, 6.7 rpg, 1.8 spg) is my nominee for 1st Round MVP. Epic performances in Game 1 (33, 14, 7) and Game 4 (27, 15, 13) were especially impressive.
- Grizzlies created history by becoming just the fourth eighth seed ever to beat a top seed when they beat the Spurs. I'm still enjoying the afterglow of that victory. The West has indeed been pushed wide open.
- Goodbye to Dwight Howard, Carmelo Anthony, Amar'e Stoudemire, Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker, LaMarcus Aldridge, and Chris Paul - great players gone fishing.
- My first round predictions were a semi-disaster. With Hawks, Mavericks, and Grizzlies winning, I only scored 5/8. Let's see how these ones go...


(1) Bulls vs. (5) Hawks: Chicago struggled more than they should have against the Pacers, but they still managed to pull off a neat-looking 4-1 victory. They showed two things: 1) They still needed consistent offense from someone else but Derrick Rose to beat the better teams in the playoffs and 2) They showed poise to win games where they didn't play well, a sign of a great team. I think this team will be a lot more confident now that they have survived a first round.
The Hawks will go as far as the Bulls allow them to go. Yes, I don't discount their surprising domination of the Magic in the first round, but Chicago will be a whole another animal to deal with. Hawks will have trouble scoring over an elite Bulls defense, and everyone in that team will have trouble stopping Derrick Rose, especially since news is now coming that Kirk Hinrich may be seriously injured.
Chicago Bulls win 4-2

(2) Heat vs. (3) Celtics: Adrian Wojnarowski, on his Yahoo! Sports article, predicted that this could possibly be the biggest second round series ever. I am inclined to agree. This is a match-up fit for the finals, with enough storylines to keep one's mind well and truly boggled. Here's a quick rundown of the drama that will surround this incredible series:
1) Miami showed great vulnerability against Boston all season, losing their first three match-ups, before getting their revenge in the last one.
2) Miami, with its Big 3 of Wade, LeBron, and Bosh, are the league's most hyped team this year. Celtics have done it all before with their own Big 3 of Garnett, Pierce, and Allen, who won the championship in 2008. The question now is, who wins? Players in their prime in Miami but lacking the experience that the Celtics three had/have? Or the veterans, with more experience now, and with a much deeper bench?
3) LeBron James: A year ago, LeBron played for the Cavs against the Celtics at this exact stage. We all know how that ended. Celtics helped kill the LeBron era in Cleveland, helped push the brand of LeBron as a big-game choker, and the NBA's villain. Believe this: there is NO team in the world that LeBron wants to beat more than Boston. Read Wojnarowski's article linked above to know more.
4) Dwyane Wade: Before they beat LeBron, the Celtics beat Wade and Miami in the first round last year, but Wade didn't lose without having some big individual games. He has struggled against Boston this season, but now its his chance to show that he can beat them with the right squad around him.
5) Shaquille O'Neal: Will Shaq even play? A former teammate to both LeBron and Wade, I will be looking to see if the Big EVERYTHING can be a factor to end the dreams of his former teammates.
6) Delonte West: He's a Celtic now. He was a Cav last year. Ask LeBron's mum about the rest of the story.
7) The Matchups: Kevin Garnett vs. Chris Bosh, Paul Pierce vs. LeBron James, Ray Allen vs. Dwyane Wade will all be intriguing to watch... But who's gonna stop Rondo? And will Miami have an answer for Boston's deep bench?
My answer to that last question is yes, they will. Boston are deeper and more experienced, but they are also old and past their primes. I believe that Miami have begun to peak at just the right time in this series. It will be a back-and-forth battle where the equation and the momentum could shift after each game - I know it's tough to call, but I am going to side with the home-court advantage. I expect big things from LeBron and Wade here, and I expect seven unforgettably close games.
Miami Heat win 4-3


(2) Lakers vs. (3) Mavericks: With the Spurs out of the equation, the Lakers have to be feeling a lot more confident about completing their three-peat now. I know they showed some hesitancy in the first round against New Orleans, but from experience, I can say that this is a team that just gets better as the playoffs progress - remember last year, when they showed hesitancy against the Thunder in the first round and then went on to win a championship? Kobe is in Warrior-Mode, Gasol showed signs of recovery, and Bynum will be the key once again. Lakers are deep enough beyond these three, as consistent play by Artest and Odom will only improve.
Mavs, on the other hand, are running out of legitimate believers. Yes, they beat Portland, but it is how they perform against LA that will define them. Kidd and Nowitzki have been searching for that championship for all their careers, and this season could be their last best chance - fitting then, that their job is to remove the reigning champs off their perch. I say that they come up short.
LA Lakers win 4-2

(4) Thunder vs. (8) Grizzlies: If you're the Thunder, you have to be happy, right? Not only did you just cross the first round for the first time, beating a tricky Denver team 4-1, but your second round just got a whole lot easier. No disrespect to Memphis, but I'm sure Thunder had the Spurs and their experience in mind all throughout. Tony Allen contained Manu Ginobili - could he contain Kevin Durant? This could be the year that Durant begins to build his playoff legacy, and a big series against the Grizzlies could go a long way in securing it.
But can the team that just beat the West's best be so easily discounted? It took some amazing basketball by the Grizzlies to defeat the consistently unstoppable Spurs. And Memphis power-forward Zach Randolph has especially impressed me with elite-level play against perhaps the greatest power forward ever in Tim Duncan. Will Grizzlies be able to keep up the momentum in the second round, especially against another youthful team? I doubt it, but I doubted them before, too, and look what they did.
OKC Thunder win 4-1

So there we go - I say that the Conference Finals will be Bulls vs. Heat and Lakers vs. Thunder - what are your predictions?