NBA Playoffs again bring out best

May 1, 2012 3:02 AM

The NBA regular season was rather lackluster. TV ratings were mediocre at best and there was a legitimate absence of compelling story lines to draw casual fans into the fray.

And frankly, the condensed, lockout shortened season left a lot to be desired from a visual perspective – there was no shortage of ugly basketball games between Christmas and the last week of April.

But the opening weekend of the playoffs was an absolute masterpiece of compelling story lines and intense basketball. All eight Game 1’s gave us something to think about, write about and consider as playoff action heats up this week.

The weekend started with a blowout as Chicago thrashed Philly, leading by 20 in the fourth quarter before a late Sixers rally cut the final margin of victory to 12. The Bulls simply overwhelmed the 76ers for most of the game, dominating the low post defensively while breaking down Philadelphia’s defense, creating high percentage shot attempts on the other end of the floor.

 But the entire complexion of the series – and the playoffs as a whole – changed rather dramatically late in the fourth when Chicago’s star point guard Derrick Rose went down with a season ending ACL injury.

When the star player on a team that was expected to challenge for a title goes down with a season ending injury in the very first game of the playoffs, it’s obviously a headline maker, and one that merits some discussion. My email box filled up within hours of the Rose injury – inquiring minds wanted to know how many points Rose was worth to the point spread and whether the Bulls had any chance of playoff success without him.

Let’s not forget that the Bulls were 18-9 SU without Rose during the regular season, earning the best record in the NBA despite their projected starting five being available for just 15 of their 66 regular season games.

 Both CJ Watson and John Lucas have filled in effectively for Rose throughout this injury plagued season. Chicago’s greatest strength – their defensive mindset – doesn’t take a major hit without Rose on the floor. Their first round opponent, Philadelphia, has struggled all season long creating offense against the better teams that they’ve faced.

Initially, we saw about a three point power rating adjustment from the betting markets for Rose’s injury, with the Bulls closing – 8.5 in Game 1 and opening – 5.5 in Game 2. The early money has come on the favorite – bettors think that Chicago will be just fine without their best player, at least initially.

When we look down the road at a potential second round series against Boston or Atlanta, and a potential Eastern Conference Finals rematch against Miami, Rose’s injury is likely to have an enormous impact – he’s the one guy on Chicago’s roster that can break down opponents off the dribble, creating scoring opportunities for himself and his teammates. Against the stellar defenses that await them down the road, his absence is probably insurmountable.

The Heat-Knicks Game 1 battle wasn’t particularly entertaining. With less than seven minutes remaining in the second quarter, the Knicks trailed by one, 30-29. By halftime, they were down 54-31 and they trailed by 30+ for most of the second half; suffering a complete breakdown on both ends of the court.

Carmelo Anthony couldn’t get untracked against Miami’s stout defense, shooting just 3-15 from the floor. Amare Stoudamire was a non-factor, just nine points and five boards. Tyson Chandler had a nasty case of the flu; Baron Davis was forced to the bench with a balky back and the Knicks 24 turnovers led to numerous fast break buckets the other way.

The Game 1 blowout loss was certainly an ugly one for a Knicks team that is one defeat away from matching the all-time NBA playoff losing streak of 12 in a row. But the bigger blow might well be the injury loss of guard Iman Shumpert; the Knicks premier perimeter defender throughout the course of his rookie season.

 Shumpert is absolutely irreplaceable for New York – this is every bit the impact injury that Rose’s ACL is. Any chance of a first round series upset probably ended with Shumpert crumpled on the floor. Without their defensive stopper, Dwyane Wade is poised to take control of the series. Even a hot shooting game (or two) from ‘Melo, JR Smith or any of the other key Knicks scorers is not likely to make up for the loss on the defensive end of the court.

Orlando entered the postseason in the midst of a 5-11 SU run to close out the regular season. Three of those five wins came against lottery teams (Charlotte, Detroit and Cleveland); while the other two came against Philly when the Sixers were in the midst of a nasty slump of their own.

They were playing without their lone All Star, center Dwight Howard, out for the series with a bulging disk in his back. No team had lower expectations from the general public or the media as Indiana was bet up to as high as – 1500 to win the series prior to Game 1. Indiana, a team that hadn’t won a playoff series since a first round win over Boston back in 2005, was suddenly the second biggest Round 1 favorite on the board, behind only San Antonio.

So what happened? The dead Magic sprung back to life with a Game 1 victory sparked by hot three point shooting and a tremendous defensive effort. But more than anything, the Pacers choked this one away, held scoreless over the final four minutes as Orlando closed the game on an 11-0 run. Stan Van Gundy’s Magic are the NBA’s best soap opera and they certainly showed they won’t go down without a fight.

Saturday night’s finale was the best of the bunch, delivering a thrilling buzzer beater from Kevin Durant to win the game. Dallas played about as well as they could play on Saturday. Dirk Nowitzki was nearly unstoppable down the stretch, hitting big shots and free throws galore throughout the second half.

 Jason Terry was on fire from three point range. So was Shaun Marion. Vince Carter had a huge game off the bench. The Mavs won the rebounding battle on both ends of the court. They got to the free throw line more than OKC and made their free throws at an 80% clip once they got there.

 The Mavs played stifling defense on Kevin Durant. None of the Thunder’s role players had any impact on the offensive end of the court. And yet even with all of those advantages, the Mavericks still found a way to lose the game. That’s a bad omen moving forward for Rick Carlisle’s squad.

Sunday’s early action saw the favorites win and cover all three games. San Antonio was the only team favored by double digits in Game 1, and they proved worthy of the task at hand. Tony Parker carved up Utah’s interior defense for 28 points and eight assists, while role players Stephen Jackson and Matt Bonner both got hot from three point range.

 Utah got solid performances from their stellar low post trio ofAl Jefferson, Paul Millsap and Derrick Favors, but the rest of the team combined to shoot just 13-41 from the floor in the 15 point loss.

The Lakers comfortable 15 point win over Denver featured the emergence of center Andrew Bynum as a legitimate superstar – not a tradeable asset, as he’s been considered in recent seasons. Bynum was the difference maker throughout, tying an NBA playoff record with ten blocks in a triple double performance. Denver was forced to play at LA’s preferred slower pace, and they couldn’t generate any consistent offense out of their half court sets against the Lakers stifling ‘D’.

Atlanta seems to get overlooked at this time of the year every season, but the Hawks proved they are no pushovers with a dominant Game 1 defensive showing against Boston. The Celtics went 0-fer the game from three point range. They got only four combined points off their bench.

Paul Pierce was outplayed by underrated Hawks star Josh Smith. And Boston faces the probable suspension of their point guard, Rajon Rondo, following an ugly altercation with an official in the fourth quarter, leaving them potentially short-handed as the series continues.

The final game of the weekend might have been the best. The Grizzlies were in complete control of their game against the Clippers from the opening tip. Their shooters were on fire, with OJ Mayo and Mike Conley combining to hit 9-11 from beyond the arc.

 Zack Randolph, Marc Gasol and Marreese Speights were controlling the paint, forcing the Clippers to rely on perimeter jumpers for the bulk of their offense. Memphis led by 18 after one quarter, and the Clips never made any sort of a serious run, trailing 95-71 with eight minutes left in the fourth quarter. Then all hell broke loose.

The Clippers proceeded to go on a mind boggling 28-3 run to close out the game. Reggie Evans started gobbling up rebounds on both ends of the floor. Kenyon Martin shut down Randolph on the defensive end. Nick Young hit back-to-back-to-back three pointers. Blake Griffin hit clutch free throws, a rarity for the 52% shooter from the charity stripe.

Chris Paul made all the right moves with the ball in his hands during crunch time, just as he’s done all year. For a team with three starters playing their first ever playoff game; a team that lost a fourth starter, Caron Butler, to a broken left hand; this type of come-from-behind victory can only inspire more confidence moving forward.