After an exciting and historical first round of playoffs, with the Memphis Grizzlies upsetting the 61-21 San Antonio Spurs in the West while the Atlanta Hawks gained retribution by knocking out the Orlando Magic, we are down to eight teams left. Two of these remaining eight teams will soon face off for the coveted Larry O’Brien Trophy. But first, let’s take a look at the Semi-final match-ups starting in the East.
(1) Chicago Bulls (4-1 playoff record) v (5) Atlanta Hawks (4-2) Season series: Bulls won 2-1 Not the match-up everyone expected, but here we are. After accounting for a very lackluster Magic team in the opening round, the Atlanta Hawks, who did nothing to inspire confidence in them making a deep playoff run, look overmatched in this one. The Hawks have no clear-cut advantage over the Bulls. Where Atlanta is middle-of-the-table in defending the paint, the Bulls’ perimeter players of Luol Deng and Derrick Rose can break down defenses as well as anyone in the league. While former Bull Kirk Hinrich is an above-average defender, his athleticism is nowhere near Rose’s, which can and will spell doom for Atlanta. While they can counter Rose’s production with Joe Johnson, the match-up of Johnson and Deng will keep the Hawks’ franchise player busy, allowing Rose to wreak havoc from Game 1, despite only shooting 37% from the field. For the Hawks, they’d better hope the Bulls are off their game defensively. Ranked 21st in offensive efficiency, the lowest of the eight teams left, the Hawks’ lack of firepower will be evident in a match-up with the league’s most efficient defense. The front court duo of Al Horford and Josh Smith will be huge in this series as they match up nicely against Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer. For the Hawks to be a chance, they must target the weaker of the Bulls’ front court who, defensively, is Boozer. Horford and J-Smoove must take advantage of Boozer’s suspect defense when he has to roam around by running smooth pick-and-pops, taking Carlos away from the rim and hitting jumpers. For the Bulls, they must simply do what they do, and get Carlos Boozer back to shooting the ball well, coming off a bad offensive series against the Pacers. Offensively, the Hawks won’t scare the Bulls. At all. So let’s move on. Offensively, the Bulls will rely on Derrick Rose getting to the rim, opening up the perimeter for shooters Deng and Kyle Korver, who shot above .500 from behind the arc against the Pacers. If the Hawks can somehow defend the perimeter against Deng, Korver and to a lesser degree, CJ Watson (they can’t), the Bulls will rely on Rose forcing his way to the line the way he did against the Pacers, averaging an astounding 12 free throw atempts per game and converting nearly 87% of them. Key to the series: As you can see above, there are many factors that will decide this one, but none are more important than the play of Derrick Rose. Poised to be named the MVP in Game 1 at the United Center, Rose was dynamite against the Hawks this season, scoring at a rate of 25.3 PPG while dishing 27 assists in three games. If Rose can continue to get to the rim the way he has all season, forcing free throws and poor perimeter defense, the Bulls shouldn’t have any problems reaching the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time since 1998. Prediction: Chicago wins 4-1
(2) Miami Heat (4-1) v (3) Boston Celtics (4-0) Season series: Celtics won 3-1 This is the series everyone wanted. The original Big Three vs. The New Breed. The Celtics are doing it again so far in the playoffs. After another poor finish to the regular season, the Big Three wiped the floor with the unbalanced New York Knicks, combining for 60 PPG and over 20 rebounds a contest. But even with the Big Three playing like they’re 25 again, the biggest advantage the Celtics received from the first round was the return to form of Rajon Rondo. Suffering a form slump in the last month of the regular season, Rondo exploded against the defensively-challenged Knicks. Against an injury depleted New York back court, Rondo posted 12 assists per game while also shooting a career playoff-high of .500 from the field. Against the duo of Mike Bibby and Mario Chalmers, two of the worst back court defenders in the NBA, the Celtics’ floor general could have a day out, creating open looks for his Hall-of-Fame teammates and using his athleticism to get off his own, currently-reliable jumpshot. As for the Heat, their Big Three was well and truly in sync against Philadelphia. Although the 76ers were able to create big leads during the series, the Heat’s ability to lock down defensively during the latter stages of games helped them control the series. That, and a combined 46 points and over 11 assists from Wade and James. For all the flak Heat forward Chris Bosh received during the season, he stood up to the challenge against the 76ers, chipping in with an excellent 19 PPG and had a big enough impact for teammate Dwyane Wade to quip that he is the key to Miami’s championship dreams. Unfortunately Dwyane, Philadelphia’s front court wasn’t the most intimidating team for the easily shaken Bosh. Even more unfortunate, though, is the fact that waiting for Chris in this series is the NBA’s meanest player in Kevin Garnett. The same Kevin Garnett who, in four meetings this year, held Bosh to only 13.8 points whenever he was on the court, 4.7 points below his season average. Defensively speaking, the Celtics and the Heat can barely be split. Both sides rank in the top 5 in four major defensive categories, with Boston being ranked first or second in all four. The advantage for Miami in this one is their offensive efficiency, but the Celtics are no slouches offensively either, leading the league in team shooting percentage this season. While Paul Pierce and LeBron James will be locked into an epic battle and Kevin Garnett will own Chris Bosh, whose points, rebounds and assists all plummet against the Big Ticket, the Heat have an advantage at the 2-guard spot. Ray Allen is a sharpshooter and was instrumental against the Knicks, but is no match athletically for Dwyane Wade and will need a ton of help from KG, Jermaine O’Neal and Shaquille O’Neal (if he is ever healthy) to keep Wade off the rim. Key to the series: Rajon Rondo is, without a doubt, the key to this series. With tantalising match-up at every positon (except Center), if Miami head coach Erik Spoelstra guards Rondo with a combination of Bibby and Chalmers, he will embarrass them in every facet of the game. Spoelstra has the ability to guard Rondo with Wade, but putting that amount of defensive pressure on an offensive tone-setter will not be a wise choice. Firstly, it could limit Wade offensively while also creating a mismatch between Bibby/Chalmers and Ray Allen, who is a master at running off screens and getting open looks. Prediction (which in this case, can only be categorised as a guess): Boston wins 4-2
(2) Los Angeles Lakers (4-2) v (3) Dallas Mavericks (4-2) Season series: Lakers won 2-1 Another massive series here in this one, with the very public (and highly entertaining) Phil Jackson-Mark Cuban verbal sparring match a mere side-note to a great on-court matchup. Like the Heat-Celtics match-up, it’s hard to split these two teams. Where LA ranks 7th in points per possession, Dallas is 8th. Defensively, the Lakers ranked 6th, only one place higher than the Mavericks’ 7th in the league defensively for points per possession. They even match up well, with each team having one do-it-all superstar and excellent front court size. For the Mavericks, it’s all about Dirk. Averaging 27.3 PPG, the 2nd-highest in 11 postseason trips, the big German was the deciding factor in the Mavs‘ first-round victory over the Trail Blazers. Like Rose, Dirk’s ability to get to the free-throw line has been impressive so far in the playoffs and, like the first round, looks to be a major factor for the outcome of this series. With the Lakers, everybody knows this is Kobe’s team. Kobe’s town. Even hobbled by an ankle injury, the 31-year-old still averaged over 22 points a contest, and exploded in Game 5 with a left-handed throw down dunk that resembled his days as the high-flying No. 8 Black Mamba. An important battle in this series will be the front courts of both teams, who boast two of the biggest in the NBA. After a slow start, the Lakers’ Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol formed a great partnership in overmatching the smaller Hornets in the first round, but will face a much stiffer task here. Opposed by defensive stalwart Tyson Chandler, Bynum will have to work a lot harder in the post and keep a very close eye on Ty when the Mavericks have the ball, limiting his effective offensive rebounding skills. Another great match-up here will be Dirk vs. Lamar Odom. Dirk has played very well in three games against the Lakers this year, averaging 10.1 RPG when matched against Pau Gasol and will not be intimidated by the Spaniard. Conversely, Lamar is a much more physical player who has the length to defend Dirk and also the ability to defend him when he pushes out to the perimeter. Another intriguing match-up is Ron Artest and Shawn Marion. Both defensively sound players, they can also score when they are asked to, as Artest proved against the Hornets, averaging a career playoff-high .500 from the field. While Marion and Artest won’t take games over point wise, they must still keep a close eye on each other defensively rather than sagging off to help close down opposing stars like Dirk and Kobe, or they may cost their team a win. For the Lakers to win, they must defend the pick-and-roll, which killed Portland last series. Dirk’s great jumpshot strikes fear into all his opponents. In this series, the big men of Bynum, Gasol and Odom will need to stand tall in the paint while also being close enough to Dirk to shut down his lethal shooting. Key to the series: Pau Gasol. After a relatively poor showing in the first round, Pau must redeem himself here. In a series that is sure to be hot-headed and aggressive, Pau must not retreat into his shell, as he is prone to do, and take advantage of Dirk’s limited athleticism and defense. If Pau can be a consistent go-to player for the Lakers and attack the rim with force, it will open the game up for Andrew Bynum to have a big impact and, more importantly, take the scoring pressure off Kobe and his questionable left ankle. Prediction: Los Angeles wins 4-2
(4) Oklahoma City Thunder (4-1) vs. (8) Memphis Grizzlies (4-2) Season series: Grizzlies won 3-1 Finally, we get to the last match-up of the Semi-finals. After an historic run, the Memphis Grizzlies are finally winners of a playoff series. Their reward? Playing the deep and talented Oklahoma City Thunder. For Memphis, their biggest strength as a team may not be a great advantage against the Thunder. Boasting arguably the meanest front court in the NBA with Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph, who bullied San Antonio out of the playoffs by averaging a combined 35.7 PPG to go along with a monstrous 21.5 RPG, the Grizzlies beat the Thunder three times in the regular season. Yet, the Thunder now have Kendrick Perkins in their starting line-up. Combined with Nick Collison, Nazr Mohammed and shot-blocking maestro Serge Ibaka, the Thunder possess the size and defensive ability to control the Grizzlies beastly duo. Alternatively, the Thunder’s biggest asset comes in the shape of superstar Kevin Durant. After running rampant in the first round, Durant seems destined to do the same here. Averaging a whopping 30.5 PPG against the Grizzlies this season, there doesn’t seem to be any combination of Tony Allen or Shane Battier that can stop Durant from continuing to build his legacy. Furthermore, point guard Russell Westbrook shapes up as a potentially disastrous match-up for Mike Conley. Being a bigger, more athletic point guard than most, Westbrook, like Durant, has turned it on all season against Memphis, going for over 24 PPG and 9 assists when playing the Grizzlies. Although Conley played well against San Antonio’s Tony Parker in the first round, Parker’s speed helped him to break the shackles more consistently as the series progressed. Look for Westbrook to break those shackles from the first possession. Realistically, the Grizzlies played their Finals in the first round. After emotional wins at home and on the road in a series that saw the Grizzlies win their first ever postseason game, they will be emotionally exhausted. It’s too much to expect another performance like that one. They are a team that, paint points aside, aren’t elite in any major facet of the game. They are solid defensively and are above-average when it comes to scoring on the break, but they are still a year off truly contending for a championship. Key to the series: Oklahoma’s front court depth. The Thunder will clearly depend on Kevin Durant’s scoring and Russell Westbrook’s penetration to take this series. However, to prevent the Grizzlies from gaining momentum and starting to believe they have become some sort of metaphorical, basketball-version of David, the big men on the Thunder’s roster must force Memphis to play from the perimeter and not take control of the paint. In this instance the rotations of Kendrick Perkins, Nazr Mohammad, Nick Collison and Serge Ibaka, the latter of which is averaging an impressive double-double in the postseason to go along with an outstanding 4.8 BPG, seems to have Memphis’ biggest strength well covered. Prediction: Oklahoma City wins 4-1