Monday, April 23, 2007

Opening Weekend Reactions: NBA Playoffs

After finishing the opening weekend of the NBA Playoffs, there seemed to be less excitement than most fans might’ve anticipated. Yet, playoff intensity is starting to build, slowly but surely, as the near two-month exodus to the NBA Finals has finally begun.

While we are dealt seven-game series filled with attrition during the 1st-round, the NBA believes that more than ticket revenues benefit from lengthy opening-round series (such as protecting the top seeds perhaps and increased exposure to lower-seeded superstars)

Let’s take a brief look into the various Game 1 results, without too much definitive reactions, and see if there are any telling tales of the tape as a result of eight Game 1 showdowns…

~~Day One~~
Game #1: New Jersey wins at Toronto 96-91
Vince’s playoff return to
Toronto, under a near-deafening cloud of boos, was far less memorable than expected. Vinsanity was wretched from the field, shooting 5-19 (with only a few lay-ups sparking his otherwise weak performance). However, New Jersey cruised out to a lead of a dozen that they never totally squandered. Chris Bosh, in early foul trouble, missed a ton of minutes in the first half (odd to say the least was the handling of his star player’s 1st-half minutes by rookie-Playoff coach Sam Mitchell). Despite some deep threes from Anthony Parker and plenty of energy from Spaniard Jose Juan Calderon, the Raptors couldn’t make the big shot down the stretch (cough*Bosh*cough); which allowed the Nets to steal the first game of the series. A telling stat, especially off of the bench, was the confident play of rookie PG Marcus Williams and the clutch shooting from Bastian Nachbar (16 huge points) for New Jersey. No surprise: Jason Kidd had 8 assists in the 1st 10 minutes and well over 10 by the half.

Major Storylines Thus Far: Can Toronto rebound with the Nets? Whether starters or bench players, it didn’t matter in Game 1. New Jersey manhandled the Raptors on seemingly every key rebound and suffocated the paint – on offense and defense – throughout Game 1.

Game #2: Chicago holds serve at home against Miami 96-91
A game filled with questionable calls, especially surrounding the Diesel, was ultimately decided by the cool and calm play of 3rd-year Bull forward Loul Deng. His career-playoff high 33 paced the Bulls, who overcame an absolutely atrocious performance from PG Kirk Hinrich (2 pts and 4 turnovers in 19 mins.). D-Wade’s somewhat quiet outing was highlighted by somewhat speculative 7-16 shooting. Despite 20 from ‘Toine, the Bulls gained control late in the 2nd quarter and rode Deng’s superb play and timely scores from Gordon/Nocioni to take a 1-0 series lead.

Major Storylines Thus Far: Can Miami’s role players step up both on offense and defense enough? Nocioni, now coming off the bench, poses an incredibly tough match up for the Heat to overcome with a rather aged bench.

Game #3: Detroit dispatches of Orlando at home 100-92
After the 1st quarter in Motown, the Pistons led 28-16. That lead held up throughout the game as the Magic never recovered from that early deficit in their first playoff game in several seasons. Dwight Howard’s debut looked impressive with 13 points and 19 rebounds on the box score; yet, taking only 8 shots couldn’t have been in the game plan for the Magic. Rip Hamilton and Mr. Big Shot Chauncey Billups each tallied 22 points in an impressive team victory. Perhaps most disturbing to the Magic was a combined duo of statistics: losing despite shooting 58% from the field AND shooting 50% from the free throw line (18-36).

Major Storylines Thus Far: The Magic, who are the biggest victims to a seven-game series rather than five, lack the playoff experience and attitude the savvy Pistons seem to enjoy. Who will be the verbal and physical leader of this team when key shots and stops are needed down the stretch of close games for the Magic?

Game #4: Houston draws first blood defeating visiting Utah 84-75.
T-Mac’s box score had to be a little unnerving to Rocket fans after the 1st half: 1 point. Fortunately, 22 points followed in the second half for their superstar guard as the Rockets overcame a sluggish 2nd quarter (outscored 23-13) to completely suffocate the Jazz in the 3rd (26-11).
Yao’s 28, including a dozen free throws, also told a telling stat that may be a constant all series long: 26 free throw attempts for the Rockets compared to 17 from the Jazz. Despite a near triple-double from second-year PG Deron Williams (17, 9, and 9), the Jazz only mustered 75 points in their ’07 playoff debut. Yet another thing for the Jazz to overcome: 4-17 shooting from behind the arc. Fortunately for the Jazz, it was only Game #1.

Major Storylines Thus Far: What happened to the Jazz the past couple weeks of the season? Andre Kirilenko seems a forgotten man on this team and their chemistry is all out of whack. Despite the Rockets lacking a real #3-option, are the Jazz physically and, more importantly, mentally prepared for what could end up a grueling series?

~~Day Two~~
Game #5: Cleveland outruns and outguns Washington at home
Clearly the most predictable of outcomes this opening weekend,
Washington pestered Cleveland as long as they could before being outplayed by King James and co. Despite what seemed to be a minor ankle issue (I won’t even call it a minor-injury), LeBron (23, 9, & 7) and Larry Hughes (27 pts on 9-17 shooting) were too much for Antawn Jamison (28 & 14 on 10-27 shooting) and the Wizards. Imagine how dangerous the Cavs could be if they could have a consistent 20 points from Mr. Hughes this playoff campaign. Trying to run with the Cavs throughout the game, the Wizards shot an unimpressive 37% from the field. Missing their two All-Stars, PG Gilbert Arenas and SF Caron Butler, the Wizards never seemed to put much of a scare into the Cavaliers during the opening game of the series.

Major Storylines Thus Far
: Can Jarvis Hayes finally step out of a rather disappointing NBA career and become a steady contributor, and perhaps leader, for his team when they need him the most? I think most of us already have a clear-cut answer in mind.

Game #6: Phoenix recovers late at home to defeat the Los Angeles.
Phoenix, seemingly on a mission not to repeat last year’s grueling series with the Lakers, came out rather flat in the 1st-half against the Lakers; even their MVP-candidate PG. Even more discouraging was the 28-point eruption from Kobe Bryant in the 1st half, shooting a lights out 11-17 from the field. Phil Jackson, inserting rookie guard Jordan Farmar in the starting lineup again – not a difficult choice considering how terrible Parker was in last year’s playoffs – to stick with Nash, seemed to push all the buttons as his Lakers took a 9-point lead into the half. Despite a shaky 3rd quarter, the Lakers seemed in control…at least until Leandro Barbosa nailed a deep three at the end of the 3rd, catapulting the Suns into a dominant 4th quarter and an eventual victory. Shooting 1-10 in the 4th quarter, Bryant seemed famished at times as the now futile Laker-offense couldn’t match the output of Barbosa and co. Phoenix all but stole this game, especially considering how poorly they shot the ball in the 1st half and from behind the arc for nearly 45 minutes.

Major Storylines Thus Far
: Kobe has the talent to almost single-handily defeat almost any team in the NBA on any given night. The question that remains in almost every playoff series for the Lakers is: can Kobe do it four nights out of seven? The question must be asked as Kobe clearly has zero confidence in his teammates and knows its useless trying to motivate Lamar Odom to play 1/10th as well as he did in his playoff run with the Miami Heat back in the day. After a loss like this, it seems even more obvious that the Lakers can’t keep up with this much deeper and much more disciplined Suns scoring attack.

Sixth-Man of the Year Barbosa was clearly the difference maker on Sunday afternoon.
Credit: Yahoo! Sports

Game #7: Denver’s dynamic duo sparks a 95-89 Nuggets road upset over San Antonio.
In 2005,
Denver stole the first game from San Antonio in their opening-round series. What happened next was a Game 2 massacre and four straight losses to the Spurs. While that could happen again, it isn’t very likely. AI’s 31, Melo’s 30, and Nene’s imposing post-presence were just enough for the Nuggets to outlast the Spurs. The Spur trio of Duncan/Parker/Ginobli struggled mightily throughout most of the game (only a late run allowed the Spurs to nearly steal the game back). While Denver is still inexperienced, at least when compared to the Spurs, George Karl’s team looked much more prepared to make this one of the better opening round series. TNT’s Doug Collins summed it up best when commenting: “Denver has three days to enjoy this victory. But will they enjoy it too much or be focused enough to get greedy and take a second game at San Antonio? Because you know San Antonio will win a game or two in Denver.” My sentiments exactly Mr. Collins.

Major Storylines Thus Far
: Their opponents being so experienced and so steady, how exactly can the Nuggets take four games from the heavily-favored Spurs? Is it more important to pound the Spurs on the inside or simply try and outshoot them? Is either honestly possible for the Nuggets? Perhaps it is, this year, thanks to AI, Nene, and a much more mature Melo.

Game #8: Golden State continued their recent dominance with an impressive 97-85 victory in Dallas.
Josh Howard definitely showed up for Game 1. As for the majority of the rest of the Mavericks, a decisive NO would answer any questions if
Dallas was ready to defend all of their regular-season glory. Don Nelson returned to Dallas, where the goatee-laden Mark Cuban gave him more than one evil eye, and his small-lineup outran and outshot the Mavs from beginning to end. Baron Davis was in MVP-form hitting big shot after big shot (which, memo to Vince Carter, is often a layup or getting to the foul line after a nice dribble-drive move). The Warriors role players – especially Matt Barnes (with an awful mohawk) -- were much more valuable down the stretch than those of the Mavs. While the Warriors clearly seem to have the Mavs number as of late, the maturity of this team will really be tested as they have a golden opportunity to strike real fear into the Mavs during the 1st half of Game 2.

Major Storylines Thus Far: The Mavericks have obviously forgotten the 3-0 regular season series. Or have they??? Dallas looked sluggish, unmotivated, and entirely dependent on Josh Howard. Dirk Nowitzki is searching for too many easy foul calls already. Are the Warriors ready to step up, as a team, and challenge the mighty-Mavericks the entire series? After tonight’s performance, all signs point to: as long as Baron Davis plays that intelligent and determined.

Until next time folks...


Anonymous said...

In the Cleveland/Washington series, the bigger storyline is the health of Larry Hughes and his ability to be that second big scorer alongside King James.

Chris Clement said...

I agree and disagree with your assessment. I believe the Cavs have this series with or without a consistent Larry Hughes. However, down the road, as in other series, you are EXACTLY correct.

"Imagine how dangerous the Cavs could be if they could have a consistent 20 points from Mr. Hughes this playoff campaign. "

As for now, the ONLY chance I see Washington having is Jarvis Hayes stepping up on offense and not simply living out of a Washington-based (solely in my opinion) defensive-stopper moniker.