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2011 NBA Playoffs – Conference Semifinals

The first round of the NBA playoffs served as a confirmation of much of what we already knew: the East still isn’t particularly deep (seeds No. 6, 7 and 8 combined for two wins), the West certainly is (Grizzlies’ upset, plus spirited efforts from New Orleans and Portland) and we are living in the age of the young point guard (Derrick Rose, Rajon Rondo, Russell Westbrook and Chris Paul all shone).

Now come the unknowns, headlined by a much-anticipated Boston-Miami tilt that will define both teams, but also featuring the rising Bulls’ first true test, the possible last stand of the Mavs and more Memphis mania.

Eastern Conference

No. 1 Chicago vs. No. 5 Atlanta

What could have been a fascinating point guard battle between mentor – Kirk Hinrich – and protege – Derrick Rose – now could prove disastrous for Hawks. Hinrich, who would likely struggle against his more dynamic former teammate anyway, is out for Game 1 and a significant question mark the rest of the way for Atlanta, who will rely on rookie Jeff Teague and the defensively liable Jamal Crawford to stop the likely soon-to-be league MVP.

As for the rest, the frontcourt battle will be one to watch, as Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer challenge Josh Smith and Al Horford in the paint. This series will go a long way in establishing whether Atlanta’s first round upset of Orlando should be credited to their exceptional play, or moreso an utterly disappointing showing by Dwight Howard and co.

Prediction: Chicago wins 4-0

No. 2 Miami vs. No. 3 Boston

You can read my extended take on the marquee series here, but the main takeaway from the piece should be that while most media coverage will have you believe that this is the battle of two star-studded juggernauts, it is in fact a clash between two fractured – albeit talented – clubs.

Miami will have to finally settle on an identity so that both LeBron James and Dwyane Wade are on the same page come crunch time and will hold out hope for the return of Mike Miller and Udonis Haslem at some point in the series.

Boston, meanwhile, will quickly find out how successful their much-maligned Kendrick Perkins deadline deal was, as Jeff Green is asked to play a bigger defensive role and Jermaine and the injured Shaquille O’Neal will use whatever they have left in the tank in trying to compensate for the loss of Perkins up front.

Prediction: Boston wins 4-2

Western Conference

No. 2 Los Angeles vs. No. 3 Dallas

The elimination and questions surrounding the future of the Spurs had to offer a sobering reminder to their in-state rival Mavericks that success can be fleeting in the NBA, especially when you have seven guys in your nine-man rotation on the wrong side of 30 (as is the case in Big ‘D’).

Meanwhile, on the other side of the court, the Lakers are hardly young pups, but showed some flashes of that trademark springtime edge in the first round, with Andrew Bynum offering quality minutes, Pau Gasol displaying signs of life and Kobe Bryant even serving up a posterizing dunk of Emeka Okafor.

For the Mavs, pushing the defending champs to the brink will mean execution from secondary scoring options like Jason Terry and Peja Stojakovic, stellar defense on Bryant from Cory Brewer and DeShawn Stevenson and Tyson Chandler providing a formidable post presence.

Prediction: Los Angeles wins 4-3

No. 4 Oklahoma City vs. No. 8 Memphis

I’ve already read one rag proclaiming this to be the official coronation of Westbrook, Kevin Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder into the pantheon of contenders, as though the Grizz are simply a flukey afterthought.

Not so fast, I say.

It wasn’t as though the Spurs lay down and handed the series to Memphis, as Zach ‘Z-Bo’ Randolph came up huge and Lionel Hollins did the unthinkable in outcoaching Gregg Popovich. Now, upending a younger, more energetic and possibly more talented Thunder squad would be a whole other feat, but Shane Battier and Tony Allen could frustrate Durant while Randolph and Marc Gasol will give Perkins and Serge Ibaka a fight in the low post.

I see the Thunder emerging, but it won’t be a cakewalk.

Prediction: Oklahoma City wins 4-3

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