Chicago Bulls versus Atlanta Hawks (Bulls in four)
Interestingly, these two teams did not face each other until March of 2011, and the Bulls were fully healthy for two of those three games, so there is a pretty useful sample group of games to draw on when considering this series. That said, all the sample really says is that Atlanta basically doesn't have a chance in this series against the Bulls. While Atlanta won their first matchup by three back on March 2nd, the Bulls steamrolled Atlanta by an AVERAGE of 25.5 ppg in their next two meetings. More worrisome for Atlanta? Chicago won their March 11th contest by 18 without Carlos Boozer playing (relevant because he may have to miss games with the turf toe injury he suffered in round one). Yet even more worrisome for Atlanta? They'll be without starting point guard Kirk Hinrich for at least the first handful of games in this series, meaning Atlanta's best defensive weapon against Derrick Rose has been neutralized before Game 1 is even played. Put all of that together and things look pretty bleak for the boys from Georgia.
It's also worth noting that Atlanta shot a paltry 42.5 per cent in their first round series against Orlando, and they did not have to go up against the NBA's strongest defensive outfit like they will against Chicago. The Bulls held Indiana to just 40.9 per cent shooting in their first round series, and only the Lakers have a better rebounding percentage in the playoffs so far. What does that mean? It means that Atlanta is going to have a hard time putting points on the board against Chicago's smothering defense that also won't give up second-chance points off of missed shots. Their only real shot in this series is Joe Johnson going bananas shooting the ball to match Rose point-for-point, but considering Johnson is putting on his annual post-season choke job (18.0 ppg on 39.6 per cent shooting), it doesn't look like he'll be coming to save the day against Chicago in round two. In fact, it looks like for a third straight year that Atlanta is going to get swept out of the second round against a vastly superior opponent.
Miami Heat versus Boston Celtics (Miami in seven)
Despite all of the hoopla and hype that is surrounding this series, the only thing that really matters is that one team is going home a lot earlier than they anticipated. The Celtics started the season on a quest to prove that the 2010 title was theirs, had it not been for a freak injury to Kendrick Perkins. The Heat started the season as the media darling slated to win it all after LeBron James and Chris Bosh joined Dwyane Wade in South Beach. However, because of Chicago's ascent to the top of the East in the regular season, these two super-clubs are forced to throw down in round two, and only one of them is going continue playing when this series is over.
As is being bandied about all over the media since this matchup was assured, Paul Pierce has been a highly effective defender when it comes to slowing down LeBron James. As has also been bandied about in the media, the Heat have no obvious counter-punch to Rajon Rondo's seemingly unstoppable post-season attack. As also has been bandied about in the media, the Garnett-led Celtics have so thoroughly flummoxed Chris Bosh (he's only ever beat them once) that they've come to stand as a personal demon for Bosh in his never-ending quest for league-wide recognition. There are dozens of reasons to expect one or the other to walk away with a series victory when all is said and done, so why choose Miami over the more cohesive and experienced Celtics? One word: need.
Despite all of the advanced statistics being put into place to structure the narratives of this series, none exemplify the true thrust of this series like need does. Miami NEEDS to win this series. Even if they don't ultimately win the title or even make it to the Finals, they NEED to beat Boston this spring. Doing so legitimizes them, it makes them a real threat and not just a sideshow after a summer spending binge. Boston doesn't need to win this series in the same way. This group has a title together, and they went to the Finals last season. Everyone knows that it was Danny Ainge that screwed the pooch on their title hopes this year when he swapped Perkins for Jeff Green, and so the pressure was taken off of the coaching staff and the roster to go all the way this season in that trade's aftermath. The Heat, though, have to prove that their remarkable free agent coup from last summer can translate into winning basketball. LeBron needs to prove that joining up with superstars rather than beating them was in fact a savvy move that will elicit wins rather than just an admission of defeat after not winning any titles in his first seven years in the NBA. Boston will want to win this series, but with a collection of sure-fire Hall-of-Famers dotting their roster, the need to win may not be there. Miami and its players are still writing their stories, and to have that story unfold the way they want it to they NEED to win this series, and that will ultimately put them over the top in a highly competitive matchup over the next two weeks.
Los Angeles Lakers versus Dallas Mavericks (Lakers in six)
The Lakers and Mavericks are two fairly comparable teams. They are both loaded up with proven veteran talent, they both employ two of the greatest players of their generation and they both have lived at the top of the Western Conference for the last 10 years. There is one thing that separates them, of course: the Lakers have won five titles since 2000, and the Mavs have won zero.
The big matchup in this series is not Kobe and Nowitzki, though, the two players who have defined their franchises for the last ten years. Those guys are going to get their points, carry their team's for long stretches and be relatively unstoppable when their team's need them to take over a game. The real matchup of interest is Andrew Bynum, the stellar first-round performer, against Tyson Chandler, the man credited for igniting Dallas' newfound commitment to defense. If Chandler can slow down Bynum, a 15-and-10 big man who shot 55.6 per cent against New Orleans, he could put a serious crimp in what made L.A. so effective in their first round series. This season, though, Bynum shot 59 per cent against Chandler and averaged 13.7 points per 36 minutes against him. His size (Bynum is fifty pounds heavier than Chandler) simply allows him to bully Chandler around the basket, allowing him to get deep position and to create space as needed to finish around the basket. While Chandler is a strong defender when it comes to rotating, protecting the rim and covering pick-and-rolls, as a one-man option against Bynum he simply doesn't have the stopping power required to slow him down. Don't expect Chandler's backup to be any stronger against him, either, as Bynum shot 90 per cent against Brendan Haywood this year.
In just about every other area the Lakers and Mavericks matchup fairly evenly, but Andrew Bynum has been on a trajectory towards stardom since the All-Star break and he'll likely be the difference against the Mavs.
Oklahoma City Thunder versus Memphis Grizzlies (Thunder in six)
The Thunder have been one of the most frightening teams in these playoffs so far. Their ability to disrupt everything that Denver wanted to for long stretches was inspired, and their ability to score seemingly every time they needed a basket was scary (especially for any team that has to go against them). If any team is going to feel up to the challenge of slowing them down, though, it's the underdog darling Memphis Grizzlies.
The Grizzlies are a team that is basically defined by their ability to disrupt what you want to do. Their stable of accomplished defenders never allowed San Antonio to execute the way that they wanted for long stretches of a game, and they are going to look to be equally disruptive against the Thunder. They are going to send Tony Allen, Sam Young and Shane Battier at Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook all series, they are going to chase the team off of the three-point line and try to bait Westbrook into doing too much while suffocating Durant. They are going to battle OKC's bigs in the paint and on the glass and they are going to make the Thunder earn everything that they get in this series.
Unfortunately for Memphis, though, the Thunder will still earn enough to win the series. Unlike against San Antonio, Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph are going to face a far superior post-defense force, headlined by Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka. They, combined with Nick Collison and Nazr Mohammed, are going to clog up the paint, they are going to hold their ground and not yield space and they are going to use their length as well as their size to disrupt shots. Also, while Memphis' perimeter defenders were great at slowing down Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, Durant and Westbrook are simply in a different class. First of all, Westbrook is himself a stellar defender (which will hinder Mike Conley offensively), he's got terrifying athleticism and strength that Parker can't match and containing him will take more than one active defender. Durant, unlike the Spurs scorers, has size on his side. He's a legit 6-foot-10, and unlike Ginobili can simply rise over defenders that are hounding him on the perimeter. While both will have to work a lot harder against Memphis than they did against Denver, both will ultimately prove that they are too good to be contained by Memphis' stellar defense. At the end of the day, OKC is just a stronger opponent than San Antonio was, and so Memphis should feel no shame in falling to them after a thrilling first-round series.