Spurs looked tired and slow in the NBA playoffs

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Despite several scares, form largely held in the NBA playoffs with six of the eight higher seeded teams advancing.

Two lower seeds pulled upsets – one a 5-seed (Atlanta) eliminating No. 4 Orlando and the major shocker out West where 8-seed Memphis rather easily defeated top seeded San Antonio. The Spurs had posted the best record in the league for almost the entire season before being edged by Chicago.

San Antonio looked tired and slow. The Grizzlies were athletic and energized. They had confidence that they were not just the better team, but clearly superior.

Memphis’ upset of the Spurs was only the fourth time since the playoffs expanded to 16 teams nearly three decades ago that an 8-seed defeated a 1-seed. And it was only the second time the feat was accomplished in a best of seven series. Four seasons ago Golden State beat top-seeded Dallas, a season after Dallas had lost in the NBA Finals.

The win by Memphis was not just the first time the Grizzlies had won a series in the playoffs but also included the first time the franchise had even won a single postseason game! Previously Memphis had been 0-12.

Not content to simply advance to the second round the Grizzlies fully expect to challenge to make the Western Conference Finals. This past Sunday, in Game 1 of their second series at Oklahoma City, Memphis led virtually wire to wire and defeated the favored Thunder 114-101 to take an early lead in that series and control the home court as a result.

Though not nearly as well known as players on more high profile teams, the tandem of Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol combined with the backcourt play of Mike Conley give the Grizzlies the requisite multiple options required for playoff success. In a sense they are fortunate in drawing Oklahoma City as this round’s foe as the Thunder do not have a huge edge in experience.

In wagering throughout this series game two becomes critical. Should Oklahoma City bounce back and win Tuesday night they would then become playable in Game 3 in Memphis if made the underdog. But should Memphis return home up 2-0 in the series the Game 3 situation would be the Grizzlies.

Confidence is a tricky factor to handicap. It goes very much hand in hand with momentum. To the extent there is any pressure in this series it it is on Oklahoma City – the team expected to show improvement over last season’s first round loss to the Lakers and the team considered by many veteran observers to be the main threat to the Lakers.

Memphis is playing loose with very little expectation. But they are playing with confidence and their win in Game 1 sets the stage for what should be a compelling series. Ultimately the forecast is for Oklahoma City to advance but this could easily be a seven game series.

Memphis did win three of four regular season meetings with Oklahoma City with all four games decided by single digits in which the points never came into play.

The much anticipated Boston versus Miami series also got underway this past Sunday and Miami sent a message to the Celtics that this will be a very physical series. Boston seemed surprised by Miami’s physical play in the Heat’s wire to wire 99-90 victory that saw the Heat lead by significant double digits most of the way. Expect a better effort from Boston in Tuesday’s Game 2 and the C’s are worth playing as a five point underdog, the same line by which Miami was favored in Game 1.

The call is for Boston to ultimately defeat Miami in six games. Just as Miami has their All Star trio of Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and Chris Bosh so too have the Celtics in Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce. Though more aged than the Miami trio the Celtics’ trio have the experience of having won one title, playing for another and having several playoff seasons together as a unit.

Regardless of the results of game two Boston would be playable at home in Game 3, down 0-2 or tied 1-1.

In the regular season Boston took the first three meetings with Miami routing the Celtics in their fourth and final meeting, 100-77, played just a few days before the regular season ended but after both teams’ playoff seeds had been determined.

The other two conference semifinal series got underway Monday night with Chicago hosting Atlanta and the Lakers hosting Dallas.

Chicago is nearly an 8-1 favorite to get by the Hawks whereas the Lakers are slightly under 4-1 favorites to get by Dallas.

Chicago took two of three regular season meetings against Atlanta, winning by 18 and 33 points after the Hawks won the initial contest. All three meetings took place within a three week period in March.

Chicago did struggle more than expected in getting by Indiana in the opening round as the Pacers played surprisingly tough, covering in three of the five games. But the Bulls did enough to win and advance and made a statement their game five clincher, winning at home by 27 points.

The Bulls were very inconsistent on offense but their defense played to a similar level as they did throughout the regular season. Atlanta showed that their 3-1 edge in the regular season against Orlando was no fluke and indeed a precursor of what was to come in the playoffs.

The Hawks controlled the flow of the series and ousted the Magic in six. But the task gets tougher as they now face the NBA’s top overall seed.

Chicago is clearly the more talented team and should win this series, perhaps in as few as five. Atlanta has shown enough to earn a win back home in either Game 3 or 4 but Chicago should have a relatively easy time in getting past a flawed Hawks team.

Chicago has too much depth, size and balance for Atlanta. The Hawks are just 3-15 both straight up and ATS against “elite” teams this season, losing by an average of 11.6 points per game. The Bulls are 10-5 against elite teams this season (11-3-1 ATS) and Atlanta does not meet the definition of an elite team.

This handicaps as a low scoring series. The Total for Monday’s Game 1 is 179 which is fair for this matchup. Atlanta raised its level of defense in the series against Orlando and we should see more games stay UNDER by the time this series ends. Their three regular season meetings produced total points of 163, 170 and 195 with the latter occurring in Chicago’s 114-81 blowout in their most recent meeting in late March.

Chicago wins with defense more than offense so this series is more likely to be played at a fairly deliberate pace.

The Lakers won two of three meetings with Dallas with each taking place after January. Los Angeles followed a similar pattern to last season in getting out of the first round, splitting its first four games with New Orleans before winning Games 5 and 6. The last two wins over the Hornets were by 16 and 18 points as the Lakers played to their potential.

Dallas similarly needed six games to get by Portland but did show trouble holding onto huge leads, blowing a 23 point lead in its Game 4 loss and then seeing large leads shrink in both Games 5 and 6, although Dallas did win those final games by 11 and seven points.

Dallas has enough talent to win at least one and perhaps two games in this series. The strategy will be to play Dallas in Wednesday’s Game 3 if the Mavs lost Monday night’s opening game, especially if the line is close to the Game 1 of +6. The Lakers would be the play in Game 3 provided they are not up 2-0 in the series.

If the Lakers do sweep both home games to start the series the Mavericks would make for a nice play in Game 3 provided they are not favored by more than a bucket as should be the case.

Should Dallas be in position to be swept in four, the Mavericks would only be playable if getting at least 3 points. Should there be a Game 5 back in Los Angeles the Lakers would be the play if laying 6 or less to either wrap up the series or to take a 3-2 lead.

About the Author

Andy Iskoe

Owner and author of “The Logical Approach,” Andy Iskoe has been a long time GT columnist, contributing weekly in-season columns on baseball, pro basketball and pro football.

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