Playoff Breakdown: Assessing the Underdogs' Chances

Fans of  four NBA teams with high seeds want to know how their favored squads lost the first game of the  playoffs, on their home courts, giving confidence to the underdogs.

To those fans we say, this is the NBA playoffs and one bad night does not doom a team. The question these disgruntled fans should be asking is: "Is this the last hoorah for my favorite team's championship ambitions?"

Let’s analyze four series' from the opening round:

The Boston Celtics (lost to Chicago Bulls): Short-term problems can be easliy solved. Ray Allen is not going to hit just one of eight uncontested jumpers again. He is too good for that. And if Ray Allen is shooting like Ray Allen, the Celtics win that game Saturday. Also, Paul Pierce can play two good halves. Look for the Celtics to even the series Monday., but watch for a struggle with this upstart Chicago squad. 

Derrick Rose is having his coming out party and is unflappable under pressure. Rajon Rondo has no answers without an intimidator in the paint behind him. Tyrus Thomas suddenly feels comfortable shooting. And the Celtics, without Kevin Garnett, are just not the same defensive team that shut down everyone last year. The Celtics have a crisis of confidence, while the Bulls are believing more and more in themselves every day. Still, we’ve been down this road — Boston went seven with Atlanta in the first round last year then turned it on when it mattered and won the title. Without KG, can they really do that this again?

The Orlando Magic (lost to Philadelphia 76ers): Orlando led this game by 18 in the third quarter and were cruising. People across the country were tuning out. Then Orlando joined all those people and tuned out, turned off the intensity switch. The next thing you know the 76ers are back and the Magic get beat by an  impressive last-second shot by Andre Iguodala.

Credit the Sixers for fighting back. But the first three quarters — Orlando was up 14 with 12 minutes left — were more indicative of the future. Dwight Howard had 31 points and 16 rebounds because Philadelphia does not begin to have an answer for him. Also, the 76ers are the worst team at defending the three and the Magic are the best at shooting it. Learning to win in the playoffs is a process, about keeping the foot on the gas because teams do not roll over (notice the Lakers and Cavaliers this weekend). The Magic have learned that lesson, and that is bad news for the 76ers.

Portland (lost to Houston):
The Trailblazers have a big problem. A 7' 6" problem. They have no answer for Yao Ming, that giant who dominated them in the paint the other night. Their only options for dealing with him involve leaving open other shooters or encouraging thier players to take some kind of rapid growth hormone .

Portland will play better next game — they and their fans get more enthusiastic for a regular season game against the Lakers than they did for the Houston series opener. Like Orlando, they learned a painful lesson about intensity and focus in the playoffs, they will not make that mistake again. But that doesn’t solve the matchup issues. They need to wear Yao down by making him run a lot, but that's not what Portland does. Also, Portland is a jump shooting team and Houston has more good defenders on the wings than the Trailblazers are used to (Shane Battier, Ron Artest) and that means contested, not open, jumpers. Portland will play better, but they're still in bad shape.

San Antonio (lost to Dallas):
The Spurs did what they have done for a decade for the first 12 minutes, they played fantastic defense and took Dirk Nowitzki and Jason Terry largely out of the flow. And San Antonio led. But then those “other guys” started making shots for Dallas. The Mavericks got big games from J.J. Barea, Erick Dampier and Brandon Bass.

The Spurs should get a better game from Tony Parker next time around, and anyone who expects Dampier to be a consistent contributor must have just returned from a six year stay on Jupiter. Still, this was  the kind of game the Spurs used to win every time, and they have no Manu Ginobili to bail them out now. They should be concerned. 

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