How are my predictions holding up? Pretty good, even though some of my teams have started unevenly. However, I feel Chicago and Oklahoma City have figured things out internally and will finish their respective series strong. Why do I think so? Read on.
Atlanta has done a genius job this postseason devising defense schemes in realistically taking away opponents' strengths. Against Orlando, they realized that outside of Howard, the Magic's biggest strength is outside shooting, with a lineup of Arenas, Anderson, Redick, Richardson, Turkoglu, etc. So their scheme was to let Dwight score and limit the rest, hoping that on offense, they could make a few jumpers of their own. Shutting down Dwight was unrealistic; shutting down the rest of the lineup was doable. Against Chicago, they have realized that Rose will get in the lane, and realistically, there's nothing they can do (outside of pray for turned ankles) about that. But they have funneled him where they want, challenged him with shot blocking, and most importantly, jammed the interior passing lanes. That's part of the reason Boozer has been so ineffective and Rose has a bevy of turnovers. They are playing terrific team defense in the paint, daring the Bulls' shooters (Boozer, who is injured, Taj, Deng, and Korver) to convert one on one.
The bad news for the Hawks is that Jamaal Crawford is trying to win the series like he did the Orlando one. I think over seven games, the Bulls superior defensive scheme will force him to have several bad games. The real shocker in game two was that Joe Johnson only had 15 shots. If the Hawks want to win, Joe has to be their leader. After a terrific game one, Joe disappeared. I don't care how well the Bulls are defending him; he had a bad game six against the Magic, forced the issue several times, and the Hawks still one. He is their offensive leader, the one player that can get good shots by himself. They have to use him more creatively.
As for the Bulls, I see them winning a couple games in Atlanta and closing the series in six. I think Rose will continue to adapt and get better as the series goes on. I know people have criticized his three-point shooting, and in some cases they're right, but he has to be a shooting threat for some distance, even if it's a longer two. And I think he will do a better job of drawing fouls when he gets into the paint. This will result in more shots blocked, but fewer turnovers and more free throws. I think that Boozer will get healthier with playoff rest (though having "Boozer" and "healthier" in the same sentence makes me raise my eyebrows), and Deng will continue to be an efficient scorer. Finally, I think Korver will again start having good shooting stretches to at least keep the second unit close against the Crawford-led Hawks bench. I wish the Bulls had another guard (like JJ Barea--more on him later) to spell Rose, but I think his youth will help with his lack of rest. Bulls in six.
Down in South Beach, I have witnessed something I didn't quite expect. The Miami Heat are bringing it to the Celtics, and the Celtics are folding. It's not that the Celtics don't want to be mean anymore. It just looks like the can't. Garnett doesn't look like he wants to start a fight every time he steps on the court. Pierce doesn't look like he wants to rise in big moments, offensively or defensively, as he has in the past. Allen has played good, but not as good as Wade, who has mysteriously found another gear (he has a knack for this, doesn't he?). Someone needs to tell Glen Davis that the playoffs have started (he's turned into the Rashard Lewis of yesteryear). Jeff Green is all right, but how are they going to get him, Davis, and Garnett all minutes? These are huge question marks for Boston heading into game three.
So the bench is an issue, but nothing is bigger than what's wrong with Garnett and Pierce. The surprising thing is who is doing the intimidating. It's not just that the Heat are dictating the terms of engagement. Instead of making Lebron and Bosh go toe to toe against the Celtics vets, the Heat have thrown Joel Anthony and James Jones at them, to resounding success. James Jones has somehow gotten into Pierce's head for two straight games. KG's offense looked flummoxed in game one, and then in game two, he decided to sink his defense down with it. And because of it, Chris Bosh has looked like a hero compared to the regular season version. These Heat, from starters to bench, have shown themselves to be mentally tougher than their opponent.
We all knew that they were athletically superior. But mentally tougher? When did this happen? I look to the Perkins trade. Even having Perkins in a suit (he had injury problems throughout the year) would be bigger for the Celtics than having Green in a uniform. They don't really need Green to perform; what they need is for Davis to step up. In my mind, Green is not going to make the difference for them in any playoff series. But Perkins could. When the Celtics are cracking, when the Heat are bodying them up, Perkins would have made a difference. He would have had Pierce and Garnett's back. He would have been with them in the huddle. He would have a steadying influence on Rondo, who has played like a roller coaster. He would have bought into Doc's philosophy. That players-only meeting Durant held before the Thunder came out big in game two? That could have been the Celtics. That's what Perkins brings to a team, and that's why the Celtics needed him. Am I right? You make the call.
See the Western Conference after the break.