— The 2009 NBA Playoffs are only six days old as of Friday, but there’s been no shortage of intrigue heading into the second weekend of action. Of the eight first-round series, only one — the No. 1-seeded Cavaliers versus the No. 8-seeded Pistons — appears to be a foregone conclusion.
Aside from that lopsided matchup, every other series is tied at 1-1 or sits at 2-1, except for the Nuggets-Hornets series (2-0 Nuggets), which figures to become more competitive as the setting shifts from Denver to New Orleans.
With so many competitive series to follow, here is a look at all the matchups for the weekend:
Cavs at Pistons, Game 3 (Cleveland leads 2-0): Detroit showed something resembling a pulse in making Game 2 close down the stretch (thanks in part to 13 points in 18 minutes from absurdly quick reserve Will Bynum), but it appears that the Pistons could be on their way to offseason vacations before the weekend is out. Cleveland is determined to reach the Finals and Detroit doesn’t have the cohesion or the firepower to keep up.
Magic at Sixers, Game 3 (tied 1-1): Forget that No. 3 seed Orlando had a .720 winning percentage (59-23) to No. 6 seed Philadelphia’s .500 record during the regular season. The Sixers are a decidedly dangerous No. 6 seed, and with Andre Iguodala’s floor game operating at full tilt (he has averaged 20.5 points, 8.0 rebounds and 7.5 assists in the first two games, including a decisive jumper in Game 1), Philly has a legitimate chance to complete the upset.
Trail Blazers at Rockets Game 3 (tied 1-1): For Houston, the objective is clear: contain Brandon Roy. In Game 1 (a 108-81 Portland loss), Roy had a relatively quiet 21 points and two assists. In Game 2, he unleashed 42 points as Portland won 107-103.
The Rockets have no shortage of swingman-stifling defenders with Ron Artest and Shane Battier, so there will be nothing cheap about every point Roy earns. And if the Blazers expect to win, they need the productive incarnation of LaMarcus Aldridge to show up at the arena every night (Aldridge had seven points in the Game 1 loss, and 27 points in the Game 2 win).
Nuggets at Hornets, Game 3 (Denver leads 2-0): Chris Paul is the best point guard in the NBA, but the best point guard (or player, for that matter) in this series has been Chauncey Billups. Mr. Big Shot has become hyper-aggressive at the outset of the playoffs and has hit a slew of big shots in the first two games. He’s averaging 33.5 points, 6.0 assists and 6.0 3-pointers per game (including a career-best eight 3s in Game 1).
One thing to keep in mind: The opposing point guard happens to be somewhat competitive, and you can bet that after averaging a relatively quiet 17.5 points (and 12.0 assists) in the first two games, Paul, who averaged 28.3 ppg in April, will come out looking to dominate on his home court. Despite the Nuggets’ early lead, expect the balance of the series to tilt back toward even during two games in New Orleans.
Spurs at Mavericks, Game 4 (Dallas leads 2-1): Notice a trend about No. 6 seeds making noise in this year’s playoffs? The Mavs have two convincing wins in the first three games of the series (including an 88-67 blowout in Game 3), but observers should not be convinced that this series is definitively heading Dallas’ way.
Why have any doubt about Dallas after the decisive Game 3? Because though the Spurs aren’t the same team without Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker, Tim Duncan and the motivational ability of Gregg Popovich give San Antonio a legitimate chance. And after sitting out almost the entire second half of Thursday night’s blowout, there’s no question that Parker and Duncan should come out looking extremely motivated Saturday night in Dallas.
Hawks at Heat, Game 3 (tied 1-1): In Game 1, the Hawks held Dwyane Wade to 19 points (with eight turnovers) and limited Miami to 4-of-23 3-point shooting in a 90-64 win. In Game 2, Wade went off for 33 points and the Heat got obscenely hot from 3-point range (15-of-26) en route to a series-tying 108-93 win.
Memo to Hawks coach Mike Woodson: Wake up and make it the central aspect of your defensive strategy to contest the Miami 3s. You’re not going to shut down Wade every game, but Miami shot an insulting 57.7 percent from behind the arc largely because so many looks were uncontested (that absurd, late Wade fade-away off the glass notwithstanding). If the Hawks had done a better job of challenging the Heat 3s, they’d have a commanding 2-0 lead rather than a heated matchup heading into Game 3 in Miami.
Lakers at Jazz, Game 4 (Los Angeles leads 2-1): Prior to Game 3, it looked like this series was going the way of Cavs-Pistons, but Utah reinvigorated itself with a timely intake of Booz. Carlos Boozer’s 23 points and 22 rebounds (along with Deron Williams’ late jumper) sealed a Game 3 win for the Jazz, which remains overmatched in this series but has a chance to put a scare into L.A. in Game 4 Saturday night.
Celtics at Bulls, Game 4 (Boston leads 2-1): Of course, in some instances there is no such thing as home-court advantage. After looking completely unintimidated while splitting two close games in front of a hostile Boston backdrop, the No. 7-seeded Bulls lost virtually all momentum while getting shellacked on their home floor Thursday night. It’s still too soon to call this series in favor of Boston, but they established more than just a 2-1 series lead on Thursday. They also established that even without Kevin Garnett, a core of Ray Allen, Paul Pierce and Rajon Rondo can still be a threat in the East.
Cavs at Pistons, Game 4: Unless something stunning happens in Game 3 on Friday or in Game 4 Sunday, the Pistons can begin making their way toward their respective RVs, airplanes or yachts. Vacation has officially begun. The Cavs, meanwhile, should move one step closer to what could be an unabated run to the Finals.
Magic at Sixers, Game 4: With these two squads looking evenly matched, it won’t be remotely surprising if they leave Philadelphia with the series tied 2-2. To repeat: If the Sixers win, it should not be a major upset. This team started out 13-20, but went 28-21 since early January.
Trail Blazers at Rockets, Game 4: The Rockets went a formidable 33-8 at home this season (tied for the fifth-best mark in the NBA), so Roy & Co. will have work to do if they hope to leave Houston avoiding a potentially insurmountable 3-1 deficit. Of course, if there’s anything remotely contagious about how the early days of the 2009 Playoffs have unfolded, this series will be headed back to Portland in a 2-2 tie.