Best-of-seven series in the NBA can drag on a long time and take a lot of twists and turns. They force teams that want to win to control momentum, steal a few wins on the road, and to dominate match-up disparities they should dominate. Only two teams have come out and looking like championship material, showing that they can do all of these things in the early part of the playoffs: the Orlando Magic and San Antonio Spurs.
Don’t extrapolate what I’m saying too far. I’m not about to put any money on these two when the league and its advertisers have been bombarding us with LeBron vs. Kobe, Cleveland vs. Los Angeles plot lines for two solid years. It’s not 1979 anymore; I’ve come to expect the sexy teams to win.
That being said, here are the tremendous post-season resumes of Orlando and San Antonio through the first round, plus some notes on what the other contenders have lacked up to this point.
For starters, they’re the only team to sweep their first-round series, which has to count for something. That means they won two in Charlotte, where the Bobcats were 31-10 during the regular season. Game Three was particularly telling in this series after the Magic had won both home games by carrying double-digit leads through most of the two second halves.
Charlotte lead by five at the half in the third game, and were holding even going into the fourth quarter before succumbing 90-86. The key reason Orlando had to grind out a tough final period to effectively end the series was that their customary trifectas weren’t falling. They hit only 9 of 30 deep balls (30%) in the contest, so they turned to plan B, which was dominant rebounding (43-33) and stellar defense (holding Charlotte to 42% FG and 22% 3FG). Even with their main offensive calling card neutralized, they had enough counter-punches to get the win.
Orlando re-found their downtown touch in Game Four (13-33 from three, 39%), controlling the second half on the way to a series-ending 99-90 win, making them one of only two teams to win two road games in the first round (The other? Phoenix). The Magic have shown that if they have at least one of their three strengths working for them in any given contest—three-point shooting, defensive rebounding, and team defense—they can win the tough games. Sound familiar, Cleveland fans?
San Antonio Spurs
The Spurs were the only underdog to win in the first round (a 53-29 Jazz squad beating a 53-29 Nuggets squad doesn’t count). It came against a 55-win Dallas team that was sporting some new talent, Caron Butler and Brendan Haywood, and fresh off an 8-2 finish down the stretch. The Mavericks looked to have the West’s best chance of knocking off the loaded Lakers, and their prospects appeared to be decent against an aging Spurs team. Especially one with the recently re-activated Tony Parker coming off the bench and their big free agent grab, Richard Jefferson, contributing his worst scoring and three-point shooting numbers since he was a rookie (12 points per, 32% 3FG).
Dallas threw around its muscle in Game One, outrebounding Duncan and Co. 45-37 and getting to the line 20 more times than SA (34-14). The result was a barely gratifying 100-94 victory. The Spurs know what to do in the playoffs, though, and they came through with one exploited match-up after another, shooting 48% over the next three games while holding most of Dallas’ talent in check; Nowitzki was the only Mav to both score and shoot well for the series (27 points per, 55% FG). The Spurs took all three, came out with a rest-the-starters stinker in Game Five (Duncan, 24 minutes; Ginobili, 18; McDyess, 14; Jefferson, 24; Hill, 29) without relinquishing momentum. They went home with a 3-2 lead and nearly put it to bed by the end of the first quarter (22-8) in Game Six. They rode out a run-and-gun fourth to a 97-87 win, clinching the series.
The Spurs would like to remind everyone that they always turn it on in the playoffs, regularly get big performances out of secondary guys (over the last four games, George Hill scored 20 per, shot 55%, and hit 7 of 15 bombs), are the most intelligent team by a mile, played without Parker for 26 games and without the way underrated Matt Bonner for 17, went 18-8 to finish the season, and just dismantled one of the NBA’s four best teams.
Sizing up the rest of the field, after the jump …
Contenders Who’ve Looked Plenty Beatable
Los Angeles Lakers: Here are some quick comparisons between the Lakers and their first round opponent, the Thunder. Four LA starters make as much money as the entire Oklahoma City team, and those aren’t even the four highest-paid Lakers. They have infinitely more playoff and championship experience than the Thunder. When healthy, their PF-C combo of Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum is probably the best in the league, while 90% of fans can’t name both Thunder starters at these positions. LA are the defending champs, and OKC hasn’t been in the playoffs since 2005 when they were the Supersonics.
Sounds like an easy series to predict. Instead, the Lakers barely squeaked by Games One and Two at home, Kobe shot 41%, the Thunder ceased all the momentum by the end of Game Four, and LA was one great Gasol play at the buzzer away from going to Game Seven against the youngest team in the league. So far in Round Two, they needed a furious fourth-quarter rally at home to get by a depleted Utah team for a 1-0 lead. At this time, the Lakers are not displaying championship material.
Cleveland Cavaliers: Sure they beat the Bulls 4-1, but they have no excuse for losing any games to a team with 20 less wins during the regular season (61 to 41 – in case you missed it, Chicago did not have a winning record). Not only that, the Cavaliers didn’t play a complete contest until Game Four. Then they eked out a flip-floppy Game Five to an uninspiring home victory by two. They really should have dominated this series, and they didn’t.
Game One against Boston in Round Two can’t make Cleveland fans feel any better; it took one heck of a job by the refs to pull out the close win. If you didn’t see it, here’s what you need to know. Boston was called for 25 fouls, Cleveland for 17. Cleveland shot 10 more free throws than Boston, one of the top regular-season clubs at getting to the line. All Celtics not named Rajon Rondo combined for 7 free throw attempts. Eddie Rush, the lead official in the game, has worked 6 playoff games, and the home team is 6-0 in them (during the regular season, home teams won 59% of his games). Jason Phillips was on his crew even though he only worked 2 games during the entire season; somehow he’s been in 4 playoff games, all home wins. Bill Spooner was the third ref, working his first playoff game of the year; during the regular season, home teams won 64% of the time he suited up.
Atlanta Hawks: It took them seven games to beat a team without its best player on both ends (Andrew Bogut). They’ll be lucky to take Orlando to six.
Utah Jazz: They have two injured starters (Andrei Kirilenko and Mehmet Okur), not a good combination in the West – just ask the Trail Blazers.
Phoenix Suns: There’s no way a team that plays so little defense and who lost Game One to a Brandon Roy-less Portland club is winning a banner.
Boston Celtics: They’ve actually looked alright, but I don’t see them getting past Cleveland and Orlando.
Zachariah Blott cannot recommend Rick Telander’s “Heaven Is A Playground” enough.