The first round of the NBA playoffs feels like it has lasted for a year, but it's finally time to move on to the second round. There are some really intriguing matchups that will test some of the stronger teams in both conferences. Without further ado, here are my picks for the second round...
Celtics vs. Magic:
The Boston Celtics have just come off one of the greatest first round series' ever played against the Chicago Bulls. Seven games and overtimes later, the biggest concern for the Celtics is fatigue, especially with some of the veterans such as Paul Pierce and Ray Allen. The Orlando Magic have just played a six game series against a surprising Philadelphia 76ers team that exposed some of the Magic's team flaws.
The key to this series for the Celtics is to contain Dwight Howard down low and force the Magic to become a jump shooting team. The Magic roster is made up of players such as Hedo Turkoglu, Rashard Lewis, and Rafer Alston who live and die by perimeter and 3-point shooting. Jump shooting teams can only go so far in the playoffs because if they hit a cold streak, they need to focus on driving to the paint and feeding the ball to their low post players. Kendrick Perkins will have his hands full with Howard, but he has had a great playoff run so far and will be successful if he keeps Howard to a low double-double average a game.
The Magic will need to be aggressive and force the Celtics' big men into foul trouble if they have any chance of winning this series. Behind Perkins and Big Baby Davis, the Celtics' bench is very thin without Kevin Garnett in the lineup. Also, containing Rondo is a big factor for the Magic. They need to keep Rondo from driving to the paint and creating open shots for Pierce and Allen in order to slow down the Celtics' offense.
I see this series going six games with the Celtics coming out on top. After their series with the Bulls, the C's might be tired, but are running on pure adrenaline. Their superior defense will shut down Howard and force his teammates to win the series, which I don't see happening.
Cavaliers vs. Hawks:
Atlanta has come off a seven game series against the Miami Heat that tested the young Hawks. Players like Josh Smith and Joe Johnson have showed flashes of brilliance. But their biggest test yet in this young post season will come against Lebron James and the Cavs, who steamrolled the Detroit Pistons by a double digit margin in every game of their series.
The only chance the Hawks have of winning this series is to contain James to under 30 points a game. Also, they need to make sure that he doesn't get any of the other players involved like Mo Williams, who can be deadly from beyond the arc when he's on. Josh Smith needs to patrol the paint to cut down on James driving into the lane and Mike Bibby will need to show his veteran leadership and keep the younger players calm at all times. If the Hawks panic and start rushing poor shots, this series will be over before it begins.
The Cavs need to play the way they've been playing all season. They need James to step up big and everyone else needs to make open shots and play their respective roles. Also, the Cavs have the best home court advantage in the league, to the point where the Cavs seem like two separate teams depending on whether they're home or on the road. I really don't see the Hawks challenging the Cavs at all and I believe that this will be another sweep for the Cavs.
Mavericks vs. Nuggets:
This series is probably the most evenly matched of the second round. The Denver Nuggets are playing great basketball and completely dismantled the Hornets. The mid season arrival of Chauncey Billups has completely turned this team around and transformed them into an elite team in the Western Conference. Billups kept Chris Paul in check the first round and has emerged as a true leader and ball distributor, unlike Allen Iverson who was a shoot first guard. Carmelo Anthony is finally starting to live up to his potential, averaging 24 points and 6 rebounds in the first round. The Nuggets are also getting big bench help from the likes of J.R. Smith and Chris Anderson, who can score and defend well respectively.
The Mavericks seem like they are finally starting to click with Jason Kidd running the point. Kidd doesn't have the ability to take over a game like he used to and his defense is very suspect. However, he is creating great scoring opportunities for the likes of Dirk Nowitzki and Josh Howard. Also, the Mavs have Jason Terry coming off the bench, this year's Sixth Man award winner, who can score three's in bunches. Jose Juan Barea has emerged as a player who sets the tempo for the Mavs off the bench. When he's on, it seems as if the rest of the team comes alive and becomes energized by his scoring ability. The injury depleted Spurs couldn't contain them, but I feel that this round will provide a true challenge for this team and how far they can potentially go in these playoffs.
This series will go the full seven games with the Nuggets coming out on top. The only reason being that the Nuggets top two of Billups and Anthony will outplay the Mavs' Kidd and Nowitzki. Also, the Nuggets' home court advantage will be the deciding factor because I feel each team will defend their home courts. This should be a real fun series to watch with two of the best veteran point guards at the helm going at it.
Rockets vs. Lakers:
The Rockets finally advanced past the first round for the first time in 12 years. They beat a young Blazers team with solid defense and great play from the likes of Yao Ming, Ron Artest, Luis Scola, and Aaron Brooks. However, they're going up against the Lakers, who are the heavy favorite to run the table in the West.
The Rockets need to play as perfect basketball as possible to have a chance at beating the Lakers. The one person who will determine how this series goes is Ron Artest. There's no question that the Rockets' defensive stopper will be given the unenviable task of guarding Kobe Bryant. Artest will need to pressure Bryant every second that he is on the floor, physically and mentally. Artest is one of the best players in the league when it comes to trash talking and frustrating the opponent. He will need to do this to Bryant in the hopes that Bryant will become frustrated and throw up bad shots, as well as create crucial turnovers.
Yao Ming will need to come up big as well and stop the tandem of Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol, the other major threat on the Lakers. Yao Ming played very well against the Blazers front court in the first round, but that was mostly due to playoff inexperience on the Blazer's end. The Lakers are very strong down low, but if Ming can create early foul trouble for Bynum and Gasol, the Rockets will force the Lakers' shaky bench to come up big.
Even if the Rockets play perfect basketball, it will still be incredibly difficult beating the Lakers. Bryant is playing on another level right now, and you can see he is stopping at nothing less than another NBA title. Players like Lamar Odom and Trevor Ariza are stepping up big for the Lakers in the playoffs so far, and I don't see that changing. The only question mark for the Lakers is how well the guard tandem of Derek Fisher and Jordan Farmar will play in this round, but I feel that Bryant's play will hide that weakness. I see the Lakers taking this series in six.