This is going to be good.
Usually, the first round of the NBA playoffs is just a light appetizers — one or two interesting series as the favorites win out and get to the more interesting courses to come.
Not this year. In a year of parity (outside the top couple of teams) there are a lot of very interesting series coming up in the first round. And while in the end it may well be Cleveland and Los Angeles in the Finals, the road to get there is going to be a thrill ride.
Check out the first round matchups:
Cavaliers vs. Pistons: Okay, this one is not going to be that exciting. This series may have been decided months ago, when the Pistons decided to rebuild early and made a salary-based trade that brought Allen Iverson and his big expiring contract to town. The Pistons did take one of four from the Cavaliers in the regular season, they will be lucky to do that in this series against a Cleveland team that is peaking.
Celtics vs. Bulls: Could the defending world champions fall in the first round? Ask any Celtics fan and they will tell you they are a little worried, Chicago was the one team they had hoped to avoid to open the playoffs.
Chicago is the kind of young, athletic team that can counter the Celtics (remember the Hawks series last year?). Tyrus Thomas has the athleticism to hang with a hobbled Kevin Garnett. Derrick Rose can counter and best Rajon Rondo. Mike Miller and John Salmons have provided some real professionalism and midrange jumpers to the Bulls. Plus, despite an ugly loss in Toronto Wednesday, the Bulls come in as one of the hottest teams in the East while the Celtics come in banged up
That’s not to say the Celtics are not the favorites or that they are not ready to defend their title. However Celtics haven’t won back-to-back titles since the 60s, so somebody is going to knock them off — might as well be the Bulls. This could well be a series that goes seven games.
Magic vs. Sixers: This was the matchup Orlando most wanted. The reason is the Sixers is have a tough time defending good centers and Dwight Howard is the best center in the East and maybe on the planet. That’s why the Magic won all three from the Sixers this season. That’s why this will be a short series, despite some quality athletes and a crafty point guard for Philly. They just don’t have the firepower in the paint.
Hawks vs. Heat: This one is a great matchup. The Hawks took three of four from Miami this season because they did a better job than most at slowing Dwyane Wade (he scored five points below his season average against them). But lately, nobody has been able to slow Wade, in the last couple months he may have been the best player in the league, and he is going to steal at least two games in this series. Will that be enough?
Lakers vs. Jazz: The Lakers dismantled the Jazz two nights ago with Kobe barely involved, and he averaged 31 points per game against Utah this season. But all you really need to know about this series comes from a Jerry Sloan quote after that loss:
“…knowing that we're going to have to play them again, it looks pretty bleak. Hate to say that, but it's one of those things.”
Maybe the worst motivational speech ever.
Nuggets vs. Hornets: Denver has lost in the first round five straight years, but this year they are the two seed they should cruise right? Wrong. First, nobody cruises past a team with Chris Paul. Second, the Nuggets have not matched up all that well with the Hornets — the two teams split the season series, and New Orleans did not even have Tyson Chandler for those game to protect the paint and grab rebounds. If Denver is going to advance they are going to have to earn it, and that means big series from Chauncey and Melo.
Spurs vs. Mavericks: Dallas comes in hot, while the Spurs come in banged up and without Manu Ginobili. To Mark Cuban’s delight, the Mavericks have a chance — if Jason Kidd can defend Tony Parker. That’s a big if.
Spurs won five of the last seven meetings between these two. The Spurs just execute better in crunch time. If Dallas is going to get the series, they will need Jason Terry to prove he deserves to be Sixth Man of the year, and somebody is going to have to defend Duncan (who was moving pretty well in a win over the Hornets Wednesday).
Blazers vs. Rockets: Maybe the best of the first-round series. Portland is very tough to beat at the Rose Garden and they have home-court advantage. Plus the Blazers come in hot behind the play of Brandon Roy, but he is going to get a steady diet of Shane Battier and Ron Artest trying to slow him. On the other end, can Greg Oden and Joel Przybilla keep Yao Ming in check, or will the Blazers other defenders have to collapse, leaving shooters open. These are also two of the deepest benches in the league and they will be crucial. Talk about a series we all want to go seven games.