Like I said, a lot can change. After being pushed to six games in the first round thanks to a string of transcendent performances by the Hornets’ Chris Paul, the Lakers dropped their first game in round two to the Dallas Mavericks. The Mavs are a dangerous team blessed with arguably the deepest bench amongst the remaining playoff teams, yet the Lakers inability to close them out in game one has Lakers fans worried.
And for good reason. For all of Kobe’s faults and strengths, during last year we saw the Lakers chances for success hinge on forward Pau Gasol, who was outshined by his counterpart, Dirk Nowitzki, on Monday night.
Should the Lakers manage to advance to the Conference Finals, Gasol may be outmatched once again, this time by the Memphis Grizzlies’ Zach Randolph, who has surprisingly become the single biggest story in the playoffs so far.
Whether toiling on the historically dysfunctional ‘Jail Blazers’ team or as part of a genuine playoff contender, you could always depend on twenty points, ten to twelve boards, and around 45% shooting from Z-Bo.
But over the course of his eleven year career Randolph has been anything but dependable. He famously sucker-punched teammate Ruben Patterson in Portland, eventually being shipped off to the New York Knicks in exchange for Channing Frye and a washed-up Steve Francis (where his turbulent stint will be best remembered for his role in the worst possession in basketball history) before being traded again, this time to the sad-sack Clippers as a move to dump salary in NYC.
Just two years ago, shortly after the Clips, Randolph was traded to the Memphis Grizzlies in exchange for Quentin Richardson, straight up. Now? “Zach Randolph” is trending on Twitter as he’s led the eight-seeded Grizzlies past the top-ranked San Antonio Spurs en route to their first conference semi-final in franchise history.
What’s even crazier is, based on how they handled the Oklahoma City Thunder in the first game of their second-round matchup, the Grizzlies (yes, the Memphis Grizzlies) are just getting warmed up. Unfortunately for them, OKC has been a juggernaut all season long, dispatching the Denver Nuggets in round one with relative ease.
With the league’s most lethal scorer in Kevin Durant, the meteoric rise of point guard Russell Westbrook into NBA stardom, and a staunch defense anchored by 21 year-old forward Serge Ibaka and newly-acquired centre Kendrick Perkins, the Thunder have all the makings of an NBA finalist. This series has Game 7 written all over it.
The Boston Celtics’ decision to trade Perkins to the Thunder at the risk of losing him to free agency has been under fire, but that’s merely the tip of the iceberg for the falling Celts (Perk is averaging a pedestrian 4.8 points and 6.5 rebounds in about 25 minutes per game in the playoffs).
Like their opponents, the Miami Heat, the Celtics simply lack the depth to go deep, having to rely on significant contributions from insignificant players. Relying on Jeff Green, Nenad Kristic, and whatever Shaq has to offer is basically the kiss of death for playoff success. Still, the Celtics should have a fighting chance against the surging Miami Heat, if for no other reason than because Rajon Rondo is 3,847,360 times better than Heat point guards Mike Bibby and Mario Chalmers.
Yet Rondo’s fear of jump shots and free-throws in crunch time is decidedly un-clutch. To make matters worse for Boston, the Heat have gotten it together just in time.
After an understandably rocky start to the season in which pundits were calling for coach Eric Spoelstra’s head, the NBA’s most hated team has simply devoured the competition. Depth or no depth, LeBron James and Dwayne Wade are arguably the most formidable pairing that the NBA has ever seen. Through the first few weeks of the playoffs LeBron has elevated his game to the tune of 24 points, 6 assists, 8 rebounds, a steal, and a block per game.
More importantly, he and Miami’s leading playoff scorer, Dwayne Wade, seem to be coexisting as effectively as ever. It took almost the entire season, but we’re finally seeing what we hoped would be the lone positive result from The Decision: the creation of a true NBA powerhouse.
The NBA’s youngest ever MVP winner, Derrick Rose (the official announcement went out today, confirming what we’ve known for months) and his Chicago Bulls suffered a setback in game one of their second round series with Josh Smith the Atlanta Hawks.
It’s worrisome for Bulls fans, considering it took the top-ranked team everything it had to barely get past the eighth-seeded Indiana Pacers in round one. Still, Rose has proven throughout his brief career that he will not go down without a fight, and there’s no reason to believe that Chicago won’t find a way to get past the Hawks. An anticipated Eastern Conference Finals matchup between Chicago and Miami should have basketball fans salivating. What’s more is that with all the uncertainty in the West, the winner of that match-up has a legitimate shot to win it all.
Las Vegas odds makers had the Heat as favourites to win the title when the 2010-2011 season first tipped off, and seven months later, it looks like they may have been right on the money.
Keep checking back to BALLnROLL throughout the playoffs for more coverage and analysis as the action unfolds.