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NBA Playoffs: it's in the Match-Ups

   by Al McMordie - 04/22/2010

The opening day of the NBA playoffs, last Saturday, had a pair of overs and a pair of unders, the kind of balance oddsmakers like. Even less surprising was that the game featuring the uptempo teams (Utah, Denver) sailed over the total, while defensive-oriented teams like the Heat, Celtics and Cavaliers sailed under.

What was most surprising is that all four favorites covered. The Cavaliers got out to a 14 point first quarter lead against Chicago and pretty much kept it there the rest of the game, winning by 13. It's all about matchups in that series, as the Cavs have so much size up front with Shaq, Antawn Jamison, the Big Z and the 6-8 LeBron James, who can play wherever he wants.

The Cavaliers dominated the glass with a 50-38 rebounding edge. Cleveland won its 10th straight game in the first two rounds of the NBA playoffs (and its 11th this past Monday). The most interesting part of the Saturday game was Shaq. He hadn't played in weeks while recovering from thumb surgery, but looked active and sharp. He dropped 20 pounds while he was sidelined by watching his diet and swimming. A motivated 7-foot-1 O'Neal will be a huge asset to the Cavs, as if they needed any more edges.

"We," James said, "have the look of a champion."

The Bulls are the first team since Toronto (2001-02) to reach the playoffs despite a 10-game losing streak during the season. There will be no upset in that series. So when will the dogs start barking?

Miami looked like it might pull the upset in Game 1, but the Boston defense decided to show up in an impressive 85-76 Celtic win. Miami struck for 29 first quarter points and led by 14 in the second half. However, the Celtics clamped down on their defense and allowed 15, 22 and 10 points in each of the final three quarters.

Miami finished with 22 turnovers that resulted in 38 Boston points and shot 39%. What stood out was not the Boston starters but the bench. Substitute guard Tony Allen shadowed Dwyane Wade and the Heat star scored 26 points after averaging 33.7 in three regular-season games against Boston. Plus, inconsistent Glen Davis came out with fire and was a force at both ends of the court.

"Tony and Big Baby Davis I thought, defensively, changed the game for us," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. Great, but can they do that on the road?

The Celtics still got outrebounded for the game, 40-37. The Celtics were last in offensive rebounds in the NBA. That will be a matchup problem for Boston at some point in the playoffs, possibly even when the teams head to Miami this week. But Boston will take a 2-0 series lead, so it is in great shape. Moreover, Boston went 2-0 SU/ATS in Miami during the season, shooting over 52%. In fact, Boston has won 13 of the past 14 games against the Heat. Besides the two Playoff wins, Boston won all three regular-season meetings, including two in which the Heat led late in the fourth.

If you want to see the importance of matchups in the postseason, the Bucks/Hawks series is text book. The Hawks scored 34 points in the first quarter, sprinting to a 22-point halftime lead on the way to a 102-92 victory in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference first-round playoff series.

The Bucks were exploited in the paint as Hawks forward Josh Smith posted up effectively against Carlos Delfino and center Al Horford went up against Kurt Thomas and Ersan Ilyasova. Atlanta won the battle of the boards and shot 53%. They have a tall athletic frontcourt, a big advantage over the shorter Bucks who lost Andrew Bogut late in the year. Game 2 was similar, as Milwaukee fell once again by 10 points.

Before the series started one Milwaukee commented about the Atlanta height advantage, "They are so long."

"Not having Andrew Bogut, I have to go back to playing the way I was at the beginning of the season," Milwaukee rookie Brandon Jennings admitted. "I have to be more aggressive if we're going to have any chance to win." That makes it even easier for the Hawks: Focus on Jennings.

Out West, health is going to be the focus of the Denver/Utah series. The Jazz went into the fourth quarter of Game 1 trailing by just two points, yet were overwhelmed 38-27 in the final period. Andrei Kirilenko was lost to yet another calf strain and Mehmet Okur exited in the second quarter after feeling a pop in his ailing Achilles tendon, then the Jazz were blown away in the fourth quarter of their 126-113 loss at Pepsi Center.

Carlos Boozer had 19 points in a return to Utah's lineup, but he has been battling a rib problem. All of which are huge matchup concerns for the Jazz, getting outrebounded 42-31 in Game 1. And Kenyon Martin pulled down 12 rebounds in 34 minutes for Denver.

However, kudos to Jerry Sloan's troops, as they rebounded to upset Denver in Game 2, and even the series at 1 game apiece.

All that focus the last month on playoff seeding doesn't mean as much as expected, especially if the match-up on the court isn't favorable. Now what comes into play are adjustments, coaching moves, and whether a team with an early advantage can go for the knockout punch - or let the edge slip away. Good luck, as always...Al McMordie.


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