The "Other" Playoff MatchupsI have written in depth game recaps about the Cleveland-Washington, L.A.-Denver and San Antonio-Phoenix series and I touched briefly on how Tracy McGrady performed in the first two games of the Houston-Utah series but there are four other series going on as well. Let's look at what has happened so far in each of those matchups and update the status of the Houston-Utah series:
#1 Boston 2, #8 Atlanta 0:
The biggest single reason for the Celtics' remarkable turnaround this year is that the team plays stifling defense now. Kevin Garnett just received the Defensive Player of the Year award in recognition of the huge role he has played in turning Boston into a defensive powerhouse. Boston has held Atlanta to .382 field goal shooting while forcing the Hawks to commit 18.5 turnovers per game. None of the Celtics' Big Three--Garnett, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen--is averaging more than 18 ppg or shooting better than .450 from the field in this series but the Celtics are averaging 100 ppg versus the Hawks while giving up just 79 ppg.
#2 Detroit 1, #7 Philadelphia 1:
The team stats are skewed in this series because the 76ers won game one by four points and then got blown out in game two. The Pistons are a veteran team that wants to slow the game down and execute better than their opponents, while the 76ers are a young, athletic team that thrives in the open court. Although the Pistons are clearly superior overall to the 76ers, Magic Johnson rightly pointed out that Philadelphia matches up well with Detroit at certain positions; for instance, Chauncey Billups cannot post up or physically bully Andre Miller the way that he does against smaller guards on other teams.
The 76ers seized homecourt advantage with their surprise win but Detroit will most likely come back and win the series. The Pistons' game one lapse is symptomatic of a larger issue, though; for years the Pistons have been acting like they are entitled to call themselves the best team in the NBA but they have exactly one championship to show for their efforts. Granted, that is one more title than a lot of other teams have but if this era's Pistons only end up with one ring it could be argued that--relative to their talent level and their own expectations--they are one of the most underachieving teams ever.
#3 Orlando 2, #6 Toronto 1:
Most people agree on who the top four MVP candidates are: Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Chris Paul, Kevin Garnett. From what I've seen, though, there is some disagreement about who should finish fifth (and presumably grab the final spot on the All-NBA First Team). My choice is Dwight Howard, the most dominant low post force in the game today. This season he led the league in rebounding (14.2 rpg), ranked third in field goal percentage (.599) and ranked fifth in blocked shots (2.15 bpg). Howard had 25 points, 22 rebounds and five blocked shots in Orlando's game one victory and he followed that up with 29 points, 20 rebounds and three blocked shots as Orlando won game two. On one play in game two, all five Toronto defenders collapsed into the paint when Howard caught the ball; I'm guessing that not too many players in NBA history have faced a quintuple-team. The Raptors won game three in Toronto after holding Howard to 19 points, 12 rebounds, numbers that would still be good for almost any other big man in the league.
#2 New Orleans 2, #7 Dallas 0:
Referring to seedings out West is a little deceptive because the eight playoff teams are only separated by seven games in the standings. I picked the Mavericks to pull off the "upset"--New Orleans won 56 games compared to Dallas' 51 wins--but I also said that I would not be shocked if the Hornets win, with the key issue being who emerges as the dominant player in the series. Right now that has clearly been Chris Paul, who is averaging 33.5 ppg, 13.5 apg and 3.5 spg while shooting .641 from the field. Needless to say, those numbers are insanely good. The Mavericks cannot live with Paul scoring 30-plus points and also getting 13-plus assists. In game two they tried to trap Paul but he repeatedly made them look silly by splitting the traps, after which their whole defense fell apart. I think that the Mavs should try to guard Paul one on one, rotating different players on him the way that Utah tries to wear down Tracy McGrady; the other four defenders should stay at home, which will cut down on Paul's passing opportunities. Make Paul score 40-plus points and don't let his teammates get involved. If Paul gets 40 points but only 5-6 assists then the Mavericks should be able to outscore the Hornets.
# 5 Utah 2, #4 Houston 1:
The rugged Jazz wore down Tracy McGrady in the first two games of this series, throwing multiple defenders at him and winning both games in Houston. The Rockets seemed to be dead in the water but they kept their season alive with a 94-92 win in Utah on Thursday. Last year the Rockets went up 2-0 versus the Jazz only to lose in seven games, so Houston is trying to return the favor but that won't be easy to do with Yao Ming sidelined for the entire playoffs. Houston got a big boost in game three from point guard Rafer Alston, who missed the first two games of the series due to injury. As Kenny Smith said on TNT, having Alston enabled the Rockets to put players in their natural roles: McGrady did not have to do all of the ballhandling and Bobby Jackson once again came off the bench as a scorer. Smith also mentioned that since Houston could not beat Utah last year with Yao it is unreasonable to expect a better result for the Rockets this time around without their All-Star center.
posted by David Friedman @ 6:35 PM