I called it. Sure, some of my teams had early bumps in the road, and one (OKC) was bumped to the edge, but all hung on and made it through to the Conference finals. How did it happen, and what will come next?
Bulls over Hawks. I didn't think the Hawks had the heart, focus, or mental toughness to beat Chicago. Turns out that they had a couple good games in them, which mixed with a Carlos Boozer injury, contributed to a couple wins for the underdogs. But I never took these Hawks for real contenders, and I was proven right. Individually, some of them were fine. Teague had a few good games, which overshadowed a huge problem for Atlanta: Joe Johnson was terrible. You can't win in the playoffs with your lead player, the guy you gave a max extension to, taking around 15 shots a game. Chicago shut him down, Horford was atrocious, and Jamaal Crawford reverted back to the old player who jacks shots whether or not he's hot (or open). The Bulls on the other hand, have shown championship mental mettle. Rose took some earlier criticism remarkably well for a player his age (especially when the criticism comes in the middle of a playoff series), and had some great games (44 points? This dude is for real). If Boozer can be a double-double guy every night, they will be a tough out for anybody.
Heat over Celtics. The Heat successfully did what the Cavaliers of 2010 should have done: go small and overwhelm the older Celtics with athleticism and high-percentage plays. The Celtics offense is beautiful because it gets the ball to guys within, and sometimes at the edge, of their comfort zone. From there, they either take a relatively open shot, or drive to the rim. Their offense is predicated on the first option, and it is deadly efficient. They know that the Big 3 can't get to the rim all the time anymore, so they've adjusted. This works against undisciplined teams, and teams that you can match up well with. The problems come, when you play a finesse, jump-shooting offense against a team that gets to the line, fast-breaks, and drives aggressively, all with discipline and poise. And that's what the Heat brought. LeBron has had better playoff series, but his poise in this one was great. The same was true for Dwayne Wade, Chris Bosh, and all the Heat players. Bosh was particularly effective, outside one horrendous outing. If the Heat can continue to build their team solidarity and add to their collective poise, they will be a title-winner.
Mavericks over Lakers. Speaking of poise, the Mavericks had plenty of it. Traditionally, this isn't a team known for unity, not with Cuban's endless tinkering. Even this year, they added and subtracted like a lottery team, but for some reason, it was different. Bill Simmons of ESPN on his podcast explored with Mark Stein how Tyson Chandler really became a great vocal leader, carving a niche for himself on this team and making sure everyone had theirs'. And that's what makes this team remarkable. Each player has a niche, plays it well, and doesn't overstep his bounds. They beat LA in a myriad of different ways, and did it with poise, overcoming deficits and out-executing the Lakers in the clutch. Usually, coaches shorten the bench in the playoffs because execution is so critical. Yet Rick Carlisle has kept his the same, trusting his team's discipline, and that proved to be too much for the shallow team Phil Jackson had at his disposal. It was amazing to see Kobe Bryant have a great series, completely play within his limitations, and lose. This will be a mark against him on his resume, but it really wasn't his fault. He and Andrew Bynum had the only decent series; Walton never played, Blake and Fisher were terrorized on defense, Odom was hellishly inconsistent, Artest got thrown out, and Gasol never showed up. On the flip side was Dirk Nowitzki. He has quietly become the single most unguardable player in the league. He killed Odom, Gasol, and Artest at will. The man is a playoff beast, and if the Mavs can win a title, we will be forced to wonder forever the question: what if they had re-signed Nash. And win the title they will, if the supporting cast can continue to play well and give Dirk the help he needs.
Thunder over Grizzlies. This was a war of attrition. It reminded me of the Celtics/Hawks battle in the Celtics' title year. The Thunder really grew up in this series. They realized that they cannot win in the playoffs by taking and missing jumpers. In the triple overtime win, the difference in the game wasn't Kevin Durant, but was Russell Westbrook and James Harden taking the ball to the rim again and again and again and again. After his heinous Game 6, Durant learned that same lesson. I think it was good for them to play such a long series against the Grizzlies; even if they don't win this year, they know now how to beat a team that is physically superior. They know the importance of defense, as evidenced by Kevin Durant's three blocks (along with 39 points) in the series finale. They know the importance of getting everyone involved, from Harden to Nick Collison, who's defense on Zach Randolph was absolutely terrific. Collison re-invented himself from a bad starter to an energy guy off the bench, and neutralized Randolph just enough with his constant activity for the Thunder to eke out four wins. As for the Grizzlies, they had a great year. I firmly believe that with Rudy Gay back in the lineup, they will be terrific next year. They should re-sign March Gasol. I never thought it, but they are a title-contender if they can exhibit the same poise and confidence. But the Thunder advanced, and if they can continue to employ their youthful energy, they may wear down teams all the way to the title.
Who will win the 2011 NBA Championship? You make the calls, but I'll make predictions after the break!