Second Round Preview: Boston Celtics Vs. Philadelphia 76ers

Even though the first round of the 2012 NBA Playoffs isn’t over yet, second round action begins tonight with the Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers! Here’s a quick look at the matchups to keep an eye on and my prediction for the series.

By virtue of a fortunate matchup with the injury-decimated Chicago Bulls, the Philadelphia 76ers have waltzed into the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals against a veteran Boston Celtics team. Boston, on the other hand, overcame a one-game suspension to their star point guard, Atlanta’s home court advantage, Al Horford’s inspiring return and some minor injuries to key players to advance past the Hawks in six games. Philadelphia is no Atlanta. As happy a moment as it was for Doug Collins and his team to win their first playoff series since 2003, the only reason they got out of the first round was that Derrick Rose didn’t play after Game 1, Joakim Noah didn’t play a few games and the Bulls completely collapsed in the final seconds of Game 6. And even then, they barely got by. If Chicago doesn’t fall apart in Philadelphia, the series would have gone back to Chicago in a near-impossible-to-win Game 7.

This is still the same Philadelphia 76ers team that can’t score. This is still the same Sixers team whose leading scorer comes off the bench. And even though the Sixers convincingly beat Boston two out of three times during the regular season, that stat isn’t as impressive as it sounds; the first win was at the beginning of March when the Celtics were just 20-18 and hadn’t started playing good basketball yet and the second was when Michael Pietrus’ scary moment snapped Boston’s concentration and directed their focus to the well-being of their teammate. Notice when the Celtics started playing like they have been for the last month, they blew the Sixers out.

Kevin Garnett has a big advantage over Spencer Hawes and the Sixers.

Paul Pierce is incredibly difficult to stop at home and Ray Allen is back and shooting well. Then there’s Boston’s vast advantage in the post; Kevin Garnett is coming off a huge Game 6 and should have no problem outplaying Spencer Hawes, who was only effective in Philly’s first round series with Noah off the floor. And although Avery Bradley has been underwhelming on the offensive end still playing with a dislocated shoulder, his incredible perimeter defense should be perfectly capable in aiding Boston to shut down the recently productive Jrue Holiday and Lou Williams. So unless Philadelphia gets lucky again and the banged up Celtics face serious injury problems, Boston should have an even easier series and convincingly advance to the Eastern Conference Finals.

The Sixers don’t have a truly elite scorer. In fact, they don’t even have a superstar (Andre Iguodala does not count as a star in my book. He’s definitely the heart and soul of this Philly team, but his numbers have been slipping each year since he entered the league). Boston has three players who can single-handedly take games over (Rajon Rondo, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett), a deadly sharpshooter off the bench (Ray Allen), and two developing young talents who are capable of outscoring anyone in Philly’s starting lineup on a given night (Avery Bradley and Brandon Bass). And as great of a coach as Doug Collins is, Doc Rivers deserved Coach of the Year considerations this year. You combine all of that with Boston’s experience and home court advantage and I wouldn’t be surprised to see a sweep here.

Prediction: Boston over Philadelphia in 5 games

If Andre Iguodala can’t completely shut Paul Pierce down, the Celtics will advance easily.

NBA Sunday Recap – 3/25/12

Oklahoma City Thunder 103, Miami Heat 87 – Kevin Durant made his case for the MVP award known loud and clear Sunday night, outplaying fellow MVP-frontrunner LeBron James in the Thunder’s dominant victory over the visiting Heat. Durant finished with 28 points, 9 rebounds and 8 assists in a matchup many predict to have been a preview of this year’s NBA Finals. James Harden, Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins had key contributions as well, especially during the Thunder’s second quarter run that established a lead OKC never relinquished. Despite 7 turnovers, Harden finished with 6 assists, and 19 points, 14 of which came in Oklahom City’s second quarter spurt. Perkins had a season-high 16 points while Ibaka had 19 points and 10 rebounds. Dwyane Wade led the Heat with 22 points and LeBron James pitched in 17, but the Heat never came close in the second half in a thorough win for the Thunder.

Durant's near triple double sent a message to the Miami Heat and the rest of the league

Atlanta Hawks 139, Utah Jazz 133 (4OT) – Utah’s impressive six-game win streak came to an end in a hard fought quadruple overtime game in Atlanta, the first quadruple overtime in the NBA since 1997. The Jazz fell short and were outlasted in the fourth overtime, wasting opportunities to close out the Hawks after having possession on the last play of regulation and each of the first three overtimes. Paul Millsap missed a floater in the lane in regulation. Devin Harris missed a fall-away 3-pointer in overtime. Then Harris’s shot barely rimmed out in double overtime. Finally, Millsap missed a tough 18-footer to close triple overtime. Joe Johnson led the Hawks with 37 points and 8 rebounds and hit a big three to tie the game at 113 with 7 seconds left in double overtime. Josh Smith fouled out with 22 points and 10 rebounds while Zaza Pachulia had 15 points and 20 rebounds. Al Jefferson led the Jazz with 28 points and 17 rebounds while Millsap finished with 25 points and 13 boards. Both fouled out in the final overtime. Utah still holds on to the seventh spot in the West thanks to their prior win streak, holding a tiebreaker over Houston and Denver, who also have a 26-23 record. The Hawks moved ahead of the Pacers into the fifth spot in the East and have won four straight.

Joe Johnson hit big time shots in the clutch for the Hawks

Minnesota Timberwolves 117, Denver Nuggets 100 – Kevin Love followed up his 51-point game against the Thunder with a 30-point, 21-rebound effort in the Timberwolves’ blowout victory of the visiting Denver Nuggets. Minnesota, despite losing Ricky Rubio for the season and playing once again without Nikola Pekovic, is only 2 and a half games out of the eight spot in the West thanks to the recent colossal play from Love. Luke Ridnour added 25 points in the rout of a Nuggets team that is currently in the 9th spot 10 and a half games back and has lost two straight. The Nuggets played without Danilo Gallinari once again, as well as Arron Afflalo who was suspended by the league for one game for throwing an elbow at Gordon Hayward in Friday’s blowout loss to the Jazz. Denver needs to regroup if it wants to make the postseason and doesn’t look anything like the impressive squad we saw at the beginning of the year.

San Antonio Spurs 93, Philadelphia 76ers 76- Philadelphia’s lead in the Atlantic division seems to be slipping away after being routed in San Antonio. Because of Boston’s big win over the Wizards, the Sixers are only a half game ahead of the Celtics and 3 games ahead of the Knicks. The Spurs played without Tim Duncan (rest) and Gary Neal (foot sprain), while the Sixers went without Andre Iguodala (left patella tendinitis). Tony Parker led the Spurs with 21 points and 7 assists. No one from the Sixers had more than 14 points and Philadelphia only scored 27 points in the second half. The Sixers have only hit triple digits 14 times in 49 games this season.

Los Angeles Lakers 96, Memphis Grizzlies 102 – The Grizzlies got a much-needed road win in LA against the newly revamped Lakers thanks to Rudy Gay’s 18 and OJ Mayo’s 16, including a one-man 7-0 run in the fourth quarter to stretch the lead to 13. Andrew Bynum led the Lakers with 30 points and Ramon Sessions added 18, but Kobe Bryant’s slow start prevented LA from building momentum or shortening Memphis’ lead. In fact, Lakers coach Mike Brown benched Kobe for four minutes while being down 10 in the fourth quarter, drawing boos and  “Ko-be!” chants from the crowd. Brown finally obliged, but not before the game was out of reach.

Kobe struggled to find a rhythm and was benched in the fourth quarter for a stretch of time by Mike Brown

Cleveland Cavaliers 83, Phoenix Suns 108 – The Suns are only one game out of the eight spot in the West after throttling the Cavs on the road. Marcin Gortat finished with 22 points and 8 rebounds while Markieff Morris had 22 points of his own off the bench. Phoenix jumped out to a 59-38 lead at the half and never looked back. Cleveland’s Antawn Jamison was injured with a bruised left leg and ankle in the first quarter and left the game. He returned later in the game but was completely ineffective and finished with only 2 points. The Suns have now won six of their last eight.

Boston Celtics 88, Washington Wizards 76 – Avery Bradley’s offensive outburst of 23 points led the Celtics to a needed win over the Wizards, bringing them within a half game of the Sixers in the Atlantic division. Boston played without Michael Pietrus, who sustained a head injury against the Sixers. Ray Allen also sat out with a sore right ankle, while the Wizards went without Nene (back spasms).

Portland Trail Blazers 90, Golden State Warriors 87 – A close contest with the lowly Warriors proved to be a challenge for the Blazers until LaMarcus Aldridge stepped up in the game’s final minute. Raymond Felton lead Portland with 24 points and Aldridge finished with 18 points and 9 rebounds, including a go-ahead jumper with 39.9 seconds left and a pair of free throws to get his team a 3-point victory. Golden State rookie Charles Jenkins led the warriors with 27 points and David Lee added 16 points and 16 rebounds.

Injury Report – 3/24/12

Derrick Rose – Rose returned to practice but was limited and is unlikely to play tonight in the Bulls’ contest with the Raptors. Rose has missed the past five games for Chicago with a pulled groin but is still listed as day-to-day. Chicago has been successful without their star point guard on the court, but I’ve already written about how much D-Rose means to the Bulls and that sentiment grows with the playoffs looming.

Brook Lopez – Lopez’s ankle injury has been reevaluated and the New Jersey center will be out for at least another two weeks, putting his return date in mid-April. Because the Nets are not exactly contending for anything, they may consider just sidelining him for the rest of the year.

Kyle Lowry – Lowry’s bacterial infection that sent him to the hospital will keep him sidelined for an indefinite period of time. Lowry was initially projected to return in two to four weeks but The Houston Chronicle reports that his return could still be weeks away. This is a critical stretch for the Rockets, who currently hold on to the number eight seed in the West.

Kevin Martin – Martin’s MRI showed a tear in the labral of his right shoulder, an existing injury he aggravated February 2 and then became a major problem March 11 after running into a screen against the Cavs. Although he is listed as day-to-day, expect him to miss a more substantial amount of time now.

Michael Pietrus – Pietrus left Boston’s matchup with Philly yesterday on a stretcher in the first half. He was hospitalized and was diagnosed with a closed head injury after landing hard on his back in a collision with Lou Williams. The game was delayed for 10 minutes while medical trainers looked on. Fortunately, it was reported this morning that Pietrus was lucky enough to avoid a serious head injury, though he may have a concussion. Pietrus could return to the court sometime this season.

Pietrus was hospitalized after landing hard on his back. His neck seemed to whiplash.

Andrew Bogut – Despite reports that Bogut could make a late-season return, Golden State’s new center will not be making his debut for the Warriors this season. In fact, Bogut may not even be ready to play for Australia in the Summer Olympics.

Al Horford – Horford will not play for the remainder of the regular season, but could possibly return during the postseason. Atlanta’s skilled big man tore his pectoral muscle January 11 and has not played since.

Eric Gordon – Gordon is set to return to practice next week. Although the Hornets didn’t give an expected return date, this is a good sign for New Orleans’ injury-plagued guard.

Tony Parker – Parker missed the Spurs’ game yesterday with a mild hamstring strain he sustained in Wednesday’s victory over Minnesota. For now, consider him day-to-day.

Stephen Curry – Curry’s ankle is set to be reexamined by the Warriors’ medical staff this weekend. His status for next week and perhaps the rest of the season will depend on what the medical staff determines, as the Warriors have said they will not play Curry until he is 100 percent.

Anderson Varejao – Varejao is expected to return to practice in one or two weeks after sitting out since February 10 with a wrist injury. However, the Cavs are starting to slip away from playoff contention, which means they will not rush Varejao’s return.

Rodney Stuckey – Stuckey missed yesterday’s game with a strained toe injury. It was the second game he has missed for the Pistons, but he is still listed as day-to-day.

Danilo Gallinari – After suffering a fractured left thumb against the Mavericks, Gallinari could miss up to four weeks. This is a tough break for Denver’s talented small forward, who already missed considerable time earlier this season and was just getting back into rhythm. However, the Nuggets should be okay and do not need to rush his return thanks to Wilson Chandler and JaVale McGee.

Nikola Pekovic – Pekovic’s ankles, which have been a recurring problem over the past few weeks, might keep him sidelined for Sunday’s game against the Nuggets. Pekovic is hopeful to return for Minnesota’s matchup with Denver, but T-Wolves fans shouldn’t hold their breath until he has played (and stayed) on the court for an entire game.

What Went Wrong with the Phoenix Suns?

Before you say, “Everything!”, laugh, and leave the page, let me remind you of something. Just two years ago, the Phoenix Suns finished with a 54-28 record and were legitimate contenders in the Western Conference Finals. Two years ago, Alvin Gentry was putting an emphasis on defense that was actually effective when matched up with D’Antoni’s offensive run-and-gun style that was embedded in the team’s DNA. Two years ago, the Suns had a great starting lineup (Steve Nash, Amare Stoudemire, a younger Grant Hill, an athletic Jason Richardson and the up-and-coming Robin Lopez) and one of the best benches in the league in Goran Dragic, Jared Dudley, Lou Amundson and Leandro Barbosa. What happened? As an avid Suns fan through thick and thin, I have to put a little blame on Ron Artest (or Metta World Peace, now) and a lot of blame on poor management.

Let’s cover Artest first. Despite being undersized throughout the series against the Lakers’ big men, the Suns were one good box-out (nice going, J-Rich) and one Artest buzzer-beater away from taking a commanding 3-2 lead in the Western Conference Finals. Barring that miraculous shot from heaven (or hell, if you resent Artest as much as I do), the Suns had a chance at making the NBA Finals. They had a chance at keeping Amare interested in staying in Phoenix. But maybe most important of all, they had a chance to seize the moment and win a championship before old age started to take its toll.

Will Nash and Hill ever get a championship? No one can deny they deserve one, but it doesn't look like they'll ever get one

Most Suns fans know what happened from there: poor management. Keep in mind that this is the same organization that gave up Joe Johnson to Atlanta for Boris Diaw. This is the organization that notoriously traded draft picks year after year for cash considerations and future draft picks. What type of players, you ask? Oh, just players like Luol Deng (2004), Nate Robinson (2005), Rajon Rondo (2006) and Rudy Fernandez (2007). But after all of that, the Suns couldn’t possibly let Amare go without getting anything good in return, right?

Wrong. Amare leaves for New York. Grant Hill’s age starts to catch up with him and he can only kick in about 10 points a game while being the defensive stopper. Amundson is gone. Robin Lopez fails to develop into the quality center he showed signs of in the playoffs. But worst of all, Suns management makes a series of questionable moves to try and generate some excitement after losing Amare, rather than trying to find a replacement big man. So in comes Hakim Warrick. Josh Childress. Hedo Turkoglu. A trade soon after with Orlando that exchanged Turkoglu and one dunker past his prime (J-Rich) for another dunker WAY past his prime (Vince Carter, who admittedly is doing well with Dallas now), along with Michael Pietrus and Marcin Gortat. Then Dragic gets shipped off to Houston for Aaron Brooks.

Looking at that list, you might think, “Well that’s not so bad. Turkoglu does just fine in Orlando, Gortat is a great center now, Aaron Brooks is solid, and Vince Carter is making highlights again!” But unfortunately, these acquisitions did little for the Suns during their stay in Phoenix. Gortat saw limited time behind a weak Channing Frye and a disappointing Lopez, Turkoglu’s game was hit-or-miss before he was shipped off, Brooks wasn’t the elite backup to Nash he showed promise of being (leaving for China doesn’t help) and Vince Carter just looked downright bad at times. The team didn’t gel, and Alvin Gentry found that his team could no longer put up big points OR play defense.

The Suns have a mascot that can dunk a basketball through a ring of fire. Why can't they put a decent team on the court?

Fast forward to this year, after the Suns miss the playoffs and talks of trading Nash and Hill are at their strongest. Grant Hill is my personal favorite player of all time (other than MJ) and Nash has done so much for the franchise, so I blow these talks off as ridiculous. But now it seems those dissenting fans and analysts were right. Management’s version of making quality moves to improve the Suns’ weak areas included signing Shannon Brown to a team already overstocked on forwards along with has-been Sebastian Telfair. And while Markieff Morris was a good draft pick (finally), the Suns still find themselves as incompetent as ever. You can chalk it up to old age, inconsistent play from role players, and Gentry’s insufferable habit of changing of the lineup because of the inconsistency, but no matter what, the result is another year of weak Suns basketball.

Childress, Warrick, Telfair, Brown, Lopez and Michael Redd were all poor decisions involving players that either never lived up to their full potential or are past their prime. Channing Frye gets big minutes every game and continues to do little as a big man or as a shooter. Gortat is developing into quite the player and Dudley and Morris may be great in a few years, but by that time, Nash and Hill will be gone. As a Suns fan, I was extremely pleased not only with Nash and Hill’s tenure in Phoenix for so long, but also with their affirmations of their love for the city and the team. But at this point, I almost wish Hill had signed with the Bulls and that the Suns could get something good for Nash while he still has value. Because when Nash and Hill retire (and it will most likely be in Phoenix), Suns fans are in for some dark rebuilding years.

Will this logo always represent the depression Suns fans feel right now?