By Chris Le
The first round of the playoffs has concluded, and with the exception of the Mavericks-Warriors and perhaps the Jazz-Rockets series, this postseason’s opening stanza has been fairly uneventful with three sweeps and two match-ups lasting a meager five games. But now it is onto the second round, which promises for some tense action with series being more evenly matched. Here is a ranking of the hottest (not best) teams that are advancing, based on their first-round performances.
- Chicago Bulls – No team has been more impressive than the Bulls during their dethroning of the defending champions in only four games. Everyone knew about their defense (second in the league in opponent field goal percentage at .435 during the regular season), but now it appears that opponents must contend with a potent offense — Chicago averaged 100 points for the series. This is in large part due to the emergence of Luol Deng and Ben Gordon, who appeared to be unguardable.
- Golden State Warriors – Coming off their historic upset of the Dallas Mavericks, no team is more pumped up than the Warriors (how could they not be with a home crowd like that?). Baron Davis was the MVP of the entire first round, attacking the rim with abandon and success, and Stephen Jackson is nailing three-pointers like he’s playing a video game. In fact, the whole team is performing well from Jason Richardson to Andris Biedrins. What was most impressive, though, was their killer instinct and poise (other than a few ejections and technical fouls). Golden State never folded, even when down by more than 20 in Game 5. They don’t look like a squad playing in its first playoffs in 13 years.
- Phoenix Suns – Easily dispatched the Los Angeles Lakers in five and will test their formidable offense against the Spurs. Unsurprisingly, Steve Nash has maintained his MVP-caliber play, but what has been scary is that the rest of the Suns have picked up their games. In the first round, Amare Stoudemire upped his scoring (20.4 to 24.2) and rebounding (9.6 to 13.6), as well as Shawn Marion (18.4 points and 9.8 rebounds to 18.4 and 10.2), and oh yeah, there’s Leandro Barbosa who dropped 21.2 points a night coming off the bench.
- San Antonio Spurs – An opening-game scare against the Denver Nuggets served as a wake-up call for Gregg Popovich and his team, and the Spurs proceeded to win the next four games with championship-level defense. San Antonio is playing the best all-around basketball, offense and defense, of any team in the playoffs. Tim Duncan has been Mr. Everything, Tony Parker is penetrating at will, and more importantly, the Spurs’ bench has stepped up, with Michael Finley shooting lights-out from the three-point line and Robert Horry playing like he always does in the playoffs. Nevertheless, Manu Ginobili must improve upon his 13.4 points and .339 field goal percentage if San Antonio wants to defeat Phoenix.
- Detroit Pistons – As expected, they swept the Orlando Magic, but not all of the games were as decisive as anticipated. Still, that’s just nitpicking. With possibly the most solid starting five in the playoffs, the Pistons exhibited good team basketball and their customary stout defense. It was business as usual for Detroit.
- Cleveland Cavaliers – Swept a Washington Wizards team that didn’t have Gilbert Arenas or Caron Butler. Not much to brag about. But on top of that LeBron James suffered a sprained ankle in Game 1 but brushed it off to average 27.8 points, 8.5 rebounds and 7.5 assists for the series. Production for the Cavs has improved all-around, but a depleted Wizards squad isn’t a good gauge for playoff success. The Nets should be a tougher test.
- New Jersey Nets – Despite being the lower seed against the Toronto Raptors, the Nets beat their younger opponents with precise execution and coaching (what happened to Sam Mitchell, the alleged Coach of the Year?). I suppose such a feat isn’t hard with a floor general like Jason Kidd, who averaged a triple-double for the series (13.2 points, 10.4 rebounds, 12.8 assists). It can be argued that he has been the best point guard so far in the playoffs, and that’s saying something when you have Nash and Davis playing the way they are. Vince Carter has been his spectacularly flashy self and Richard Jefferson has surfaced as being particularly clutch.
- Utah Jazz – Granted, they were in the most evenly matched series playing against the dangerous Houston Rockets, but the Jazz weren’t able to win an away game until Game 7. Utah will need players to rise to the occasion if they want to advance further in these playoffs. However, the resurgence of Andrei Kirilenko as an insane stat-machine late in the series is a good sign. If he continues to play like his old self and Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer sustain their on-court excellence, they’ll advance to the next round.