Ah, the second round. The pretenders have been sent home, the contenders are starting to flex their championship muscle, and the officials are taking abuse from everyone and their mother. Who wouldn’t love it?
As I write, eight teams are still chasing the gold, and, two games in, only one series is tied, with the others looking as if they could easily go the full seven. In order to determine who’s most likely to make it to round three, we’ll be taking a look at each match-up in turn and assessing what each team needs to do to survive.
Let’s get right into it.
Detroit Pistons (1) vs. Cleveland Cavaliers (4)
The other second-round series are going to take a fair deal of considered analysis, but I’ll begin by getting an easy one out of the way. Unfortunately for LeBron and pals, so will Detroit. The Cavaliers may not be the pushovers they were last year, but it bodes very poorly for them that Washington took them the distance before bowing out. Detroit are simply too solid on defence and too drilled on offence to lose at this stage of the competition, so King James and his courtiers are just going to have to play for experience this time around.
What do the Cavaliers need to do to win?
In short, ask for a miracle. The refs could allow LeBron five steps on every drive and let Z play with a baseball bat, and Cleveland would still step on the court as the underdogs every night.
What do the Pistons need to do to win?
Miami Heat (2) vs. New Jersey Nets (3)
This one’s a little trickier to call than most would expect. Shaq’s obviously capable of doing major damage to the paper-thin New Jersey frontline, but that could easily be counterbalanced by R.J. and Vince’s abuse of Miami’s porous perimeter defence. While the Heat are essentially relying on their one-two punch to drive the team’s performance, New Jersey’s four-headed attack (don’t front on The ’Stic) gives them a better chance of winning if one or more of their big names go cold. Both teams are plagued by inconsistency at the best of times, so this may prove to be one of those series that’s lost rather than won.
What do the Heat need to do to win?
Find a way to keep Shaq out of foul trouble, limit New Jersey’s penetration, and cut their primary and secondary transition baskets down to an absolute minimum.
What do the Nets need to do to win?
Hack the crap out of Shaq, pack the middle so as to deny Dwyane the lane, and lure the Heat into launching threes rather than working it inside.
San Antonio Spurs (1) vs. Dallas Mavericks (4)
It’s rare you see a match-up between two championship-calibre teams midway through May, but that’s how things have panned out this year. Most of the Spurs already have at least one ring in their jewellery box, and they’re many people’s favourite to win it again this year. Dallas, however, aren’t the sort of squad to lie down and take it this time around, with Avery Johnson’s emphasis on defence finally having made them into a legitimate contender. The Mavericks are looking mighty strong after their first-round massacre of the Teddy Bears, while the Spurs were largely unimpressive at the same stage, requiring six games to put the Kings in their place. That said, their best is undoubtedly yet to come.
What do the Spurs need to do to win?
Remember that they were the best team in the world before they added Michael Finley, and that their only requirement to beat anyone is to play to their potential. If they can recognise that they don’t need to do anything stunning to overcome Dallas, they’ll run through them with the same clockwork regularity that took them all the way in 2005. It wouldn’t hurt if Tim and Manu settled into their games a little more as well.
What do the Mavericks need to do to win?
Play the best all-round defence we’ve seen from them in a long time. They’re facing up against one of the few teams on the planet capable of killing them from either the paint or the perimeter, and they’ll need to keep an eye on both if they’re to have any chance of making it to the conference finals. Offensively, they’ll need some more impressive performances from Howard, Harris and the other secondary options, along with the usual sharp shooting from Dirk.
Phoenix Suns (2) vs. Los Angeles Clippers (6)
I’m not quite sure why so many have confidently written off Phoenix’s chances of advancing after their marathon match-up with the Clippers’ arena buddies. Sure, it took them seven games to squash a seventh seed, but that was as much to do with the Lakers’ spectacular turnaround as anything else. L.A. may have performed better thus far in the NBA’s second season, but I feel a stabbing pain in the left side of my brain when I consider the possibility that the Clippers will make it to the conference finals. It simply goes against the natural order of basketball.
What do the Suns need to do to win?
Put the ball in Shawn Marion’s hands more often to ensure that he’s not the team’s sixth-leading scorer, as he was in their game two loss. They’ll also need to reconsider their defensive strategy, which has allowed the Clippers to shoot a shade under fifty-seven percent thus far in the series.
What do the Clippers need to do to win?
Ride Elton Brand as far as he can take them, focus on shutting down Phoenix’s interior passing, and continue to pound the boards, where they’re currently killing the Suns. If they can limit Marion and keep Diaw out of the paint and the headlines, this series is as good as theirs.