May 08, 2012

SO FAR....

Martin Soaries

For the most part, the first round of the NBA Playoffs has gone as most would expect. No first round shockers like last year's 8 seed beating out the 1 seed in the West. But we've had some interesting developments occur, here are some of the things I've come to learn from watching so far. See if you agree:

1. The Oklahoma City Thunder are who we thought they were.

Tommy picked OKC to win this series in six, and I agreed. I'm not sure too many people expected a clean sweep of the defending champs, but what a statement made by the Thunder going into the next round, likely to face the Lakers. Though Bryant and company will likely pose a greater threat to the young Thundercats, OKC has made clear they are ready for a title run. Their Westbrook/Harden/Durant combo is more dangerous than ever, basically because Harden looks like a superstar. We know he deserves 6th man of the year, we know he has been a crucial part of their team, but 15 of 29 points coming in the 4th quarter on 34 minutes of play in Game 4 on the road adds up to more than just your typical role player. We will see what these teams are really made of when we see Thunder/Lakers in the next round.

2. The Miami Heat might have a cake walk to the NBA Finals.

In an already top-heavy Eastern Conference, Miami seems to have an overwhelming advantage over anyone they should face on their road to the Finals. I was proven a fool to think the Knicks might challenge the Heat with a high-powered offensive effort. I thought the Heat-Knicks rivalry of old would spark an emotional first round series, but so far the Heat have only shown us the same playoff dominance we saw last year. But lets take a look at the Heat's pit stops to the Finals: Next round they will likely see Indiana, a team they've only lost to twice in the last two years since they acquired LeBron and Bosh. If Chicago were to somehow survive their first round nightmare in Philadelphia, they would pose zero threat to the Heat without their best player. The Sixers have only beaten the Heat once since LeBron James went to South Beach, beating them in a seven game series would likely require an Allen Iverson hologram at shooting guard. The Boston Celtics, probably the only team left in the East that isn't afraid of Miami, have the best chance of challenging the Heat. Ray Allen is slowly getting healthier, Pierce is playing at a high level again, Rondo is being Rondo, and Garnett has shown he still has some championship gas in the tank. These guys know what it takes to win, let alone beat Miami. Still, much easier said than done. Don't forget, Rondo dislocated his shoulder in Game 3 of their series against the Heat last year, when Miami advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals in six games.

3. The 76ers could be geared for a trip to the Eastern Conference Finals.

I'm trying not to get ahead of myself here, because Philly still needs to finish Chicago, and they won't go quietly. Still, it seems the Rose-less Bulls are at a loss with this young Sixer squad, who suddenly has become the more talented team in this series. The point guard match up has now swung drastically in Jrue Holiday's favor, and Spencer Hawes' big scoring games just might have something to do with Joakim Noah's absence. Overall, this depleted Bulls team no longer has the talent or the energy to keep up with the feisty Sixers for 48 minutes. Will the Celtics be a tougher team to beat? Absolutely. But with the confidence of making it out of the first round, Doug Collins' competence, and that omnipresent Philadelphia playoff spirit brewing, Boston will surely face resistance from Philadelphia before another slugfest with Miami.

4. Lob City means business.

It appears in my prediction on this series I put my money on the wrong superstar. I picked Memphis in 7 because of their toughness on both ends of the floor, playoff experience, and having that go-to guy in Rudy Gay this time around. Instead, Chris Paul has rallied Lob City to a commanding 3-1 lead, and suddenly the Clippers are one step closer to facing the San Antonio Spurs in the next round. The most inspiring part of the Clippers play has been their intensity on the defensive end. Ironically enough, the only game Memphis won was the only game they scored over 100 points. Even though the Clippers have the ability to score, they are showing great toughness on the defensive end. DeAndre Jordan, Kenyon Martin, and Reggie Evans are making things difficult for the Memphis bigs, and their stars are being stars. The Grizzlies don't seem to be able to neutralize Blake Griffin except on the glass, where he hasn't collected 10 rebounds in four games. But Blake's 30 points on 10-15 shooting in Game 4 was as efficient a game he's played thus far. So far the Clippers have had the two best players on the floor. Memphis seems almost too reliant on Rudy Gay (8-25) and don't appear as confident in the post-oriented basketball that got them one game away from the Western Conference Finals last year. (Randolph 5-11, Gasol 1-4 in Game 4) I'm not sure LA has the fortitude to put this team out of their misery, I trust Memphis to re-group at home and force a pivotal Game 6 back in Staples Center. But we have clearly learned thus far that the Clippers mean business.

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