In case you missed it:
1 Los Angeles Lakers vs. 5 Chicago Bulls.
I realize recent trends are completely irrelevant in a tournament like this, but I can’t help the feeling that I might have overestimated this Lakers team. I picked them over the Spurs (ugh, don’t remind me) because it was a one-game series, they were at home and Ramon Sessions would sufficiently alleviate them of the below-average Steve Blake-Derek Fisher platoon. Their depth, which was their definitive disadvantage, is the reason why they have two players (Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol) who are in the top 10 in minutes per game. Bryant and Gasol are the only players 30 or older that manage to make this list. Injury prone, and exceptionally gifted, big man Andrew Bynum checks in at 36.0 minutes per game, a number that is still astronomical given his faulty legs. Sessions, more than anything, might be here to just quell the damage as much as possible before the inevitable happens — the exorbitant amount of minutes allocated to a few players rather than a collective bunch — and the Lakers implode (like last year).
Chicago won’t have that problem and, it just so happens, they are a more complete basketball team. They have versatile, intelligent wings like Ronnie Brewer, Luol Deng and Kyle Korver. Brewer frees himself because of his timing and perseverance, Deng is a legitimate All-Star and Korver is deadly when he’s coming off screens on the perimeter. Joakim Noah provides one of the most unique skill sets in basketball at the center position. He’s an adept passer, excellent in pick-and-rolls, good shot blocker and rebounder and capable of knocking down the 16-foot jumper. Carlos Boozer has increased his efficiency and the Bulls are creating a lot of extra possessions. They don’t have to consistently rely on Derrick Rose’s unparalleled finishing ability to produce offense, but that option is always available. They won’t lose to LA. Bulls win, 97-92.
2 Oklahoma City Thunder vs. 3 Philadelphia 76ers.
Interesting matchup here. OKC owns the No. 1 offense while Philly owns the No. 1 defense. OKC wins with superior athleticism, their incredible one-two punch of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook and tenacity. Philly wins with superfluous depth, adherence to sound defense and infallible decision making offensively. I, for one, enjoy their refreshing brand of basketball but, in this matchup, I think they’ll be heavily overmatched.
While I like Philly’s propensity to maximize their possessions, OKC is a team that can win consistently despite being inherently flawed. They don’t have a particularly diverse offensive system and, when Westbrook feels compelled to come off pick-and-rolls shooting 17-footers, that can be a severe detriment to their team. They become predictable and rather easy to defend. They are, however, a completely different beast to handle when OKC is running complex sets that incorporate their bevy of weapons — namely James Harden, Serge Ibaka and the aforementioned Durant and Westbrook — in beneficial ways. If they really wanted to, they could consistently put the defense into tough spots through ball movement and timely pick-and-rolls. You can’t help on Westbrook’s impetuous forays to the rim and risk leaving Harden (38 percent from 3-point land) or Durant open. Plus, Nick Collison and Ibaka are more than capable of finding space and knocking down the long 2-pointer consistently. The only offensive albatross would be Kendrick Perkins and if he’s used correctly and in moderation, he, too, can be effective. As the Spurs showed last week, the Sixers lockdown defense is indeed penetrable. OKC has more than enough weapons to exploit their defense. OKC wins, 102-92.