San Antonio Spurs vs. Memphis Grizzlies (split 1-1)
1) Memphis might be the toughest 8th seed out of all time. Sure 46-36 isn’t the best record ever for an 8th seed (last year’s Thunder were 50-32, for example) and they’re likely going down to the Spurs eventually, but they’re not a gimmicky club like the Warriors in 2007, and they have to win 4 unlike the Knicks in ’99 and Nuggets in ’94. They have two legit interior scorers/rebounders in Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph, and a trio of defensive-minded hustle guys who can guard a variety of positions plus do some scoring in Tony Allen, Shane Battier, and Sam Young. Mike Conley and O.J. Mayo aren’t what I’d call the smartest players, but they’re plenty athletic enough to create problems for opposing defenses. They took Game 1, barely lost Game 2 in the fourth, and are giving the 61-win Spurs one heck of a series.
2) The Spurs have a ton of players who can bring it, but it’s still the same three guys who run this team. With Ginobili out in Game One, Duncan and Parker were relied upon to put up 29 shots with no other starter attempting more than 7. The pair lead the team in scoring, Parker lead in assists, and Duncan lead in rebounds and blocks. With Manu back, Duncan and Parker still combined for 26 shots, but Ginobili added 13, leading the balanced squad in scoring with 17 points, plus he had 7 rebounds, 4 assists, and 4 steals while still looking a little rusty (missed 8 shots, had 5 turnovers). Everyone else is generally having a SA-like contribution, but we’re again seeing this trio take firm grip of the reigns come the post-season.
Los Angeles Lakers vs. New Orleans Hornets (split 1-1)
1) Because this needs to be reiterated every time everyone gets on some other trendy-PG-of-the-year’s bandwagon (Nash, Rondo, Williams, Rose, etc.), Chris Paul is the best point guard on the planet. With a ragtag group of talent that’s missing David West and frankly has no business hanging with the Lakers, Paul has 53 points, 23 assists (vs. only 3 turnovers), 4 steals, 10 rebounds, is shooting 55% overall and 57% from deep, and has been to the line 24 times. Against the two-time defending champs with the highest payroll that includes an MVP, a Defensive Player of the Year, 6th Man of the Year, the clutchest playoff PG ever, three legit double-double big men, and a coach with 11 rings, the Hornets somehow split a pair of road games without getting blown out in their loss. They’ll likely lose the series, but CP3 is reminding fans and pundits what he's capable of on his own.
2) With the massive amount of talent the Lakers have accrued, there are still athleticism/age-based questions surrounding how this team can contain athletic perimeter players like Paul and close out fourth quarters. In two tight games against a team most predicted would be swept out of the playoffs, the Lakers have looked tired in the fourth quarters. Down only 1 to start the final period of Game One, the Lakers couldn’t stop the Hornets from driving on them relentlessly. Still within 4 points with three minutes left, it was all missed jumpers and NO aggression the rest of the way to a 9-point L. LA entered the final period of Game Two with a 7-point lead that the reserves pushed up to 13. The Hornets’ lack of relative talent was evident in the period, but LA’s starters still only hit a grand total of three baskets in the entire fourth quarter. Overall the Lakers barely outscored the Hornets 24-22 over the final 12 minutes. Closing out games, especially against younger, more athletic teams, was an issue for LA during the year; could this cost them in the playoffs?
Dallas Mavericks vs. Portland Trail Blazers (Dallas leads 2-0)
1) Dirk Nowitzki is getting to the line at will, which Dallas fans are calling aggression and Portland fans are calling star treatment. He certainly is playing hard and earning lots of calls, but there certainly are plenty of BS calls getting him easy free throws. In Game One, Dirk shot 13 free throws, as many as the entire Portland team. In Game Two, he shot 17, more than any two Blazers combined (Aldridge and Wallace each shot 8). No way these calls get made in Round Two against the Lakers if that’s where these series lead us.
2) Portland is getting sidetracked trying to figure out how to use Brandon Roy and what to do in the fourth quarter. In Game One, Roy played 26 minutes off the bench including the entire fourth quarter, a move that seems odd considering his new knees make him a vague shadow of his old self. He shot 1-for-7 for 2 points and had difficulty on defense. Fans were upset and coach Nate McMillan reacted by playing him eight minutes total in Game Two, including just over two in the entire second half. Aldridge is supposed to be their go-to guy, but good luck figuring out what the team’s MO has been down the stretch, a bad sign this late in the year when end-game experimentation is not supposed to be happening.
Oklahoma City Thunder vs. Denver Nuggets (OKC leads 2-0)
1) There are star-driven teams, but the Thunder are taking it to the next level. Game One was all Durant and Westbrook, who combined to score 72 of OKC’s 107 points. The other three starters totaled 9, and only reserve Eric Maynor reached double-digits with 12. In a dominating Game Two win with plenty of minutes to go around, Durant and Westbrook again paced the Thunder with 44 points, and Serge Ibaka’s 12 were the only double-digit contribution from a starter. Reserves James Harden and Nick Collison got tons of playing time and finished with 18 and 10 points, respectively. Although it’s fun to watch these two go off against the Nuggets whose interior defense is significantly weakened from two years ago, you gotta think this type of limited offense will play right into the Spurs’ hands in Round Two if both teams make it (during the season, the Thunder were 0-3 vs SA, averaging 94 ppg on 39% shooting).
2) Don’t buy the “Denver is down 2-0 because they need a #1 scorer like Carmelo” talk. A) Melo has gotten to the second round of the playoffs once ever. B) He’s a career 42% playoff shooter with bad post-season impact stats. C) Denver was screwed out of the lead with one minute to go in Game One, which they certainly would have had a good chance to win otherwise (remember that the emotional Kenyon Martin airballed the Nuggets’ next possession – wave off Perkins’ basket with 1:05, and that ain’t happening). That one obvious bad call is quite possibly all that stands between the Nuggets’ current predicament and stealing home court advantage.