Czar’s Playoff Preview: NBA Sunday First-Round Matchups

Memphis Grizzlies (8) at San Antonio Spurs (1)

Game 1: Sunday, April 17th at 1:00 PM ET on TNT

Game 2: Wednesday April 20th at 8:30 PM ET on NBA TV

This won’t be a traditional No. 1 seed vs. No. 8 seed first-round playoff series. It’s going to be a dogfight. Just as Atlanta surprised a lot of people when they upset Orlando yesterday, the Memphis Grizzlies could shock the San Antonio Spurs in today’s opener in Alamo country. A few prognosticators believe that Memphis slowed down at the end of the season so as not to meet either the Lakers or the Mavericks in the first round. The Grizzlies, owners of a 46-36 regular season record, finished eighth in the tough Western Conference and split with the Spurs in this year’s season series. They’ve never won a playoff game and haven’t competed in the postseason since the Mavericks swept them out of Round 1 in 2006. However, this gritty Griz squad has a strong, physical front line that can score. And they are quick in transition. Memphis may be too young, too fast and too athletic for the aging San Antonio Spurs.

Pop’s Spurs will no doubt be fired up to face the Grizzlies based on some players’ comments about Memphis wanting to take on the veteran roster of the Silver & Black. San Antonio is playing a new brand of basketball this season. Their uncharacteristically up-tempo style propelled them to the 61-win mark for the best record in the West. San Antonio led the NBA with the best overall record up until the last week, when injuries took their toll, allowing Chicago to edge past them at the finish line. Though they dominated for most of the regular season, the Spurs are vulnerable as a key member of their ‘Big-3’, ninth-year All-Star guard Manu Ginobili, will sit out the opening match after spraining his right elbow in game 82 last week. The Spurs live and die by the 3-point shot, and ultimately they must take and make a lot of threes in order to succeed in this series. Without their crafty closer Ginobili firing from the arc, we’ll see if four-time Champ Tim Duncan can raise his game up to the level that is necessary in order for his team to protect their turf and move on. The Grizzlies are hungry to make franchise history with playoff wins. But I predict San Antonio will take this series 4-3.

New Orleans Hornets (7) at Los Angeles Lakers (2)E

Game 1: Sunday, April 17th at 3:30 PM ET on ABC

Game 2: Wednesday April 20th at 10:30 PM ET on TNT

With the New Orleans Hornets’ top scorer David West out for the remainder of the season after tearing his ACL on March 25th, this is probably the best draw that the Los Angeles Lakers could ask for in the first round. The Hornets have done an excellent job of moving past the injury to secure a playoff berth. Coach Monty Williams’ players have upped their defensive profile this year and are playing the aggressive team defense that they prided themselves on when they got off to a terrific early season start. Any time the Hornets’ elite All-World PG Chris Paul is on the court he can control the game on both ends with his passing and help D. He was fourth in the league in assists this year and led the NBA in steals.

The Lake Show has been mildly inconsistent this year and lost five games in a row in April after going 17-1 post-All-Star break. But ultimately LA’s front line will be too dominant for New Orleans to handle. The two-time defending NBA Champion Lakers played the Hornets four times this regular season and swept the series, averaging an 11-point margin of victory. Kobe Bryant is on a quest for his sixth ring (Jordan has six, right?). I expect the Hornets to put up a good fight. But without eighth-year, two-time All-Star, bruising David West, the Hornets are short inside and 11x NBA Champion coach Phil Jackson will utilize his monstrous front line of Bynum, Gasol and Odom to overwhelm NOLA in the paint. The Lakers have too much fire-power and too much size and should win this series 4-1.

New York Knicks (6) at Boston Celtics (3)

Game 1: Sunday, April 17th at 7:00 PM ET on TNT

Game 2: Tuesday April 19th at 7:00 PM ET on TNT

The Boston Celtics host the New York Knicks at the TD Garden (the junior Garden, according to MSG faithful) this evening in Game 1 of the 3-6 East series. These two storied franchises haven’t met in the post-season in 21 years. The C’s have won more titles (17) than any franchise in NBA history, while New York is undeniably the epicenter of the Basketball World. With this historical backdrop in addition to the 2010-11 plotlines that engulfed the second half of these Atlantic division foes’ seasons, this series should be interesting to say the least. Boston finished the year at 56-26 and led the NBA in points allowed per game at 91.1, even after trading away starting center and defensive stalwart Kendrick Perkins to the OKC Thunder on February 24th for C Nenad Krstic and F Jeff Green. However the Beantown Green went only 5-5 over their last 10 games and ended the year with questions swirling. In fact, since March 1st Coach Doc Rivers’ team is only 13-11. The biggest question mark for Boston will be the health and availability of their front line big men Shaquille O’Neal, Jermaine O’Neal and Nenad Krstic. 19th-year super-Center Shaq will miss this first game after sitting out almost all of the second half of the year with various injuries. So much hinges on Boston getting those frontcourt big men back healthy. Boston needs their size and depth to handle New York.

New York had no success beating Boston during the regular season. But this week begins a new season. And the Knicks are very different team. On February 22nd, after months and months of speculation, Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups joined Amar’e Stoudemire in Manhattan. All three are capable of scoring 25 points in a game or more. The Knicks finished the regular 82 at 42-40 for their first winning season in ten years. The Gotham Guys can put the ball in the basket – they were second overall in the league at 106.5 ppg. The Celtics are going to have to go back to basics: execution at the offensive end and team defensive at the other to stymie the Knicks’ high scoring trio. I’ve got Boston capturing the series 4-2.

Denver Nuggets (5) at Oklahoma City (4)

Game 1: Sunday, April 17th at 9:30 PM ET on TNT

Game 2: Wednesday April 20th at 8:00 PM ET on TNT

The Denver Nuggets take on two-time NBA scoring champ Kevin Durant (27.7ppg) and his Thunder tonight in Oklahoma City in Game 1 of what many are anticipating to be the most competitive first round series in the 2011 NBA Playoffs. The Nuggets led the NBA in scoring at 107.5, and the Thunder were fifth in the league at 104.8, so this may shape up to be a classic Western Conference run-and-gun set of high-intensity games. On February 24th, eighth-year C Kendrick Perkins joined the Thunder via trade and became a major factor in the Western Conference race to the Finals. With the playoff-tested and elite defender Perkins in the line-up, OKC went 13-4. His presence allowed the everywhere-all-at-once super-energetic 21-year-old Serge Ibaka to slide over and play the 4, a more natural fit for the third-year Congolese shot-blocker. With last season’s Coach of the Year Scott Brooks calling the shots and emerging star PG Russell Westbrook at the helm, the Thunder finished 55-27, five games ahead of the fifth-seeded Nuggets.

Denver also participated in a mid-season roster change – trading away All-Star Carmelo Anthony and Denver-native PG Chauncey Billups to the Knicks for Wilson Chandler, Danilo Galinari and PG Raymond Felton. The result is a well-balanced and very deep roster. The Nuggets often employ a double PG backcourt with two former Carolina point guards Ty Lawson (2009 NCAA Champ) and the veteran Ray Felton (2005 NCAA Champ). This new group has toughness, experience and an outstanding coach in George Karl, who has won over 1000 games in his illustrious career. Unfortunately the Nuggets have gotten banged up and as of this morning’s shootaround, Coach Karl was still uncertain as to which combination would start in tonight’s game. Denver is outstanding at home, but only 17-24 away from the Mile High City. Oklahoma has been extremely healthy throughout the entire season and suffered very few injuries, which is key for playoff success. They also have a significant home court advantage. Their fans are wild and it’s a tremendous atmosphere at the Oklahoma City Arena. I think the Thunder will come out on top in Game 7.

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