By Chris Le
For the most highly competitive race in Western Conference history, the first round hasn’t exactly been one barn-burner after another. So far, we’ve gotten one sweep and two 5-game series, which included what was supposed to be the greatest opening round match up of all-time. And in the East, which appeared to be a two-team race between the Celtics and the Pistons, those top two-seeds were in tougher battles than they ever wanted, or expected.
So it’s fair to say the opening round wasn’t necessarily what some expected.
Will the next round be more of the same?
Will the West be tighter in the second round?
Will the power teams in the East finally wake up?
Here’s my take (subsequent match ups will be posted once their first round series are finished):
(3) Orlando Magic vs. (2) Detroit Pistons
Regular Season Series: Tied 2-2
Outcome: In their last two games against the 76ers, the Pistons appear to have regained their championship focus. This is bad news for the Magic. We all know about the 20-20 capabilities of Dwight Howard, who along with Hedo Turkoglu makes possibly the best frontcourt in the playoffs. But the Magic’s frontcourt advantage pales in comparison to the Pistons’ backcourt superiority. Richard Hamilton and Chauncey Billups will have a field day chewing up and spitting out any combination of Jameer Nelson, Carlos Arroyo, Keyon Dooling and Maurice Evans. And that’ll be the difference. Shot selection and taking care of the ball will be essential to Orlando’s success. So in other words, it’ll be their downfall. With a weak corps of guards and the turnover machine that is Dwight Howard, the Magic are dead last in turnover differential (plus-5) of all the playoff teams. This means more possessions for Detroit, who is shooting a postseason-leading .488 from the field. Pistons in 6.
(4) Utah Jazz vs. (1) Los Angeles Lakers
Regular Season Series: Lakers 3-1
So far in the playoffs, Utah has been incredibly stingy on defense, second-best in both points allowed (88.0) and opponent field-goal percentage (.409). They really clamped down on the Rockets, something they didn’t always do in the regular season. But they’re facing a different beast in the Lakers, who shot lights-out in the first round (114.8 points per game on .483 shooting), albeit against the defensively-challenged Denver Nuggets.
Looking at their regular season series however, the Jazz weren’t capable of stopping the Lakers from scoring in any of their four games. Jerry Sloan and his squad gave up an average of 111 points on .518 shooting—and this was before Los Angeles acquired Pau Gasol. With Gasol in the lineup, the Jazz have another viable scorer they’ll have trouble defending. The combination of Kobe Bryant, Gasol, the versatile Lamar Odom and an increasingly reliable bench is simply too much firepower to overcome. The Lakers possess the most balanced and unselfish offense of all the remaining teams. Utah simply can’t counter this. Deron Williams, no doubt, is capable of putting up a lot of points on the board, but he’ll have to be a scorer as well as a facilitator if Utah is to beat Los Angeles. Yet, the Lakers restricted him to a mere 6.5 assists per game in the regular season. I’d give the Jazz a shot if they could consistently get 13 to 15 points from Mehmet Okur and Andrei Kirilenko, but I wouldn’t trust those two; they’re notorious for being wildly unpredictable, disappearing for extended periods of time when they are most needed. Ultimately, I can’t envision a scenario where Utah shuts down or outscores the Lakers. Lakers in 6.
(3) San Antonio Spurs vs. (2) New Orleands Hornets
Regular Season Series: Tied 2-2
Outcome: My unabashed Spurs fanaticism aside, I’m a little worried for the defending champs against this young but extremely well-rounded Hornets team that matches up nicely with Tim Duncan and co. New Orleans proved in the regular season that they can beat the Spurs, doing so twice in blowout fashion with .564 shooting from the field and a 24.5 point average margin of victory, and it comes as no surprise that Chris Paul and his playmaking ability is the key to the Hornets’ success. In their two regular-season losses against the Spurs, his assists were held to under double-digits (7 and 4, respectively), while he averaged 14 dimes in their landslide victories.
That’s why the Spurs’ MVP in this series will have to be Bruce Bowen. It’s imperative that he pester Paul all night, put a hand in his face and budge him off balance—maybe even be a little dirty—because the Spurs will desperately attempt to block off the passing lanes, trying to make CP3 a scorer rather than a distributor. I honestly think the only reason why David West is an All-Star, why Tyson Chandler is averaging a double-double and why Peja Stojakovic is shooting .607 from three-point land in the playoffs is because Paul puts them in positions to thrive. Make Paul a scorer, and the rest of the Hornets are taken down a few notches. The games in which the Spurs are able to do this, they’ll win. And I believe they’ll do it more often than not. Spurs in 7.