Historically competitive first round comes to an end

With a memorable first round in the books, Sam Smith of Bulls.com takes a look at the top ten moments of the NBA Playoffs so far and makes his predictions as to who will advance to the conference finals.

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So at the end of if not the greatest opening playoff round in NBA history, but likely the most competitive, there basically were no real upsets.

Sure, the No. 3 seeded Toronto Raptors in the Eastern Conference lost to the Brooklyn Nets. Though the Nets did a bit of a late season crossover move to get into the sixth spot and a potential second round matchup with Miami. They got it, though just barely with Sunday’s one-point Game 7 win over the Raptors.

The conference semifinals begin Monday in Oklahoma City and Indiana with the top three regular season teams in the West, the Spurs, Thunder and Clippers, and the top two in the East, the Pacers and Heat, moving on. The No. 5 seeds in each conference, the Wizards and Trail Blazers, each scored an “upset” of a sort, though four/five teams are generally viewed as even. Perhaps the upset would be Washington taking only five games to knock off the Bulls.

But before taking a look at the conference semifinals matchups below, here’s a top 10 list of the first round highlights.

1. Damian Lillard’s three-pointer at the buzzer trailing by two to win the series over the fourth-seeded Houston Rockets with Dwight Howard and James Harden. Lillard’s three was one of the great shots in playoff history given the circumstances, trailing by two with the inbounds with less than a second left to avoid a seventh game on the road for a franchise with the longest active streak of failing to win a playoff series. The Rockets had been picked by some to win the NBA title with the addition of Howard, so they become the biggest loser of the first round on an amazing shot.

2. Vince Carter’s buzzer-beater three to give the Mavs a one-point win after a Manu Ginobili shot with 1.7 seconds left appeared to win it for the Spurs. Carter’s unlikely left corner winner gave both eighth seeds a 2-1 lead over the No. 1 seed and helped force both series to seven games before the No. 1 seeds prevailed relatively easily in the Game 7s.

3. LaMarcus Aldridge’s 46 points in Game 1 for Portland in their Game 1 overtime win in Houston before Lillard closed it out with free throws to set the tone for the Portland series victory. Aldridge would follow that with 43 points in Game 2 for the top overall performance in the first round even though LeBron James was the leading scorer in the Miami sweep over Charlotte.

4. Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan making the big plays in the last two minutes as the Clippers prevailed in Game 7 over the Warriors in the most emotional series after the owner Donald Sterling controversy over his racial comments. The Clippers held off yet another remarkable Stephen Curry shooting performance amidst the backdrop of coach Mark Jackson perhaps being let go despite one of the five best seasons in franchise history. Memphis and Denver had such seasons last year and fired their coaches and were not as good. The same fate may await the Warriors, who competed relentlessly despite major injuries in a testament to Jackson as well. Chris Paul and Jamal Crawford also came up big for the Clippers and coach Doc Rivers, who was the team’s spokesman during the crisis, was outstanding.

5. Serge Ibaka’s putback a fraction too late as the Memphis Grizzlies win the fourth consecutive overtime game in their series with the Thunder. It was Kevin Durant’s shot missing and Ibaka too late after video review stunning the celebrating home crowd as the Grizzlies take a 3-2 lead in the series on the way to perhaps a major upset. It would only lead to a Game 7 Thunder win with Zach Randolph suspended after a punch in Game 6.

6. Paul Pierce’s block on Kyle Lowry’s drive with six seconds left to win Game 7 in Toronto. The Nets had controlled the game, but the Raptors rallied and a Terence Ross steal gave them a chance to steal the series in front of the most raucous community support the NBA may even have seen. The Nets had the play well defended and Pierce in the last line of defenders blocked the shot after a Lowry bobble.

7. Troy Daniels’ three with 11.9 seconds in overtime saves the Rockets season, albeit temporarily, as they were about to fall behind 3-0 to Portland. The undrafted Daniels was the most unlikely star in the playoffs, a season long D-Leaguer who had played five NBA games.

8. Kevin Durant’s amazing four-point play late in regulation, though it would be a Game 2 loss to Memphis. Durant made the fabulous degree of difficulty off balance fadeaway and was fouled by Marc Gasol after the Thunder trailed by five with less than 20 seconds left. A Kendrick Perkins put back sent the game into overtime at the buzzer. But the Grizzlies recovered to win the game in overtime.

9. Atlanta’s 13 of 16 shooting second quarter with five Mike Scott threes in Indianapolis on the way to a 10-point win, Atlanta’s second on the road against the No. 1 seed, and a 3-2 lead in the series and perhaps major upset. But the Hawks ended up blowing a late lead at home in Game 6 and were outplayed in Game 7 to lose the series.

10. Reggie Jackson’s 32 points to save the Thunder from falling behind 3-1 as the previously ignored Jackson had five straight points at the end of regulation and six overtime free throws to keep the Thunder from falling onto what would seem too deep a hole from which to recover.

Honorable mention to the Raptors going ahead 3-2 on Lowry’s 36 points as they held on and avoided what would have been the all-time biggest mistake when if not for the backcourt violation at the close, Jonas Valanciunas would have been called for unnecessarily goal tending a 65 foot shot falling short that would have won the game for Brooklyn. Also to Bradley Beal and Nene for the big comeback in Game 2 against the Bulls that with two straight home losses doomed the Bulls in their playoff series with Washington.

EASTERN CONFERENCE

1 Indiana Pacers (56-26) vs. 5 Washington Wizards (44-38)

The Pacers won two of three during the regular season and their story is this series suits them better as the Wizards have big men in Nene and Marcin Gortat and that will enable Roy Hibbert to play. Though it won’t make Hibbert more mobile or graceful. The Pacers have been the mystery of the season and the playoffs with some surprise discloses likely still to come. The question for the Wizards, who the Bulls saw have a balanced attack, is whether you can put pressure on them. The Bulls never did losing those first two at home since the Wizards have a history this season of cracking under pressure and with John Wall a curious decision maker. But they have a wing defender in Trevor Ariza to guard Paul George, who saved the Pacers against Atlanta. Plus, Nene is a tough matchup for David West.

Pick: Wizards in 6

2 Miami Heat (54-28) vs. 6 Brooklyn Nets (44-38)

Well, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, though just barely by a point in Toronto, got what they asked for, perhaps a last shot at LeBron James and Miami. The Nets beat the Heat all four this season, though three by a point and one in overtime. Plus, Garnett and Dwyane Wade missed two games each. The Heat sat around a week, which they said hurt them last year starting against the Bulls, while the Nets played a tough seven games. The Heat won‘t need Greg Oden yet, and it seems all their season experiments didn’t work out. They don’t have nearly as much shooting as in the championship seasons, though the Nets playing small aren’t generally the type of team to take advantage of the Heat playing small. Can LeBron carry them yet again?

Pick: Nets in 6

WESTERN CONFERENCE

1 San Antonio Spurs (62-20) vs. 5 Portland Trail Blazers (54-28)

After a tough series, the Spurs closed it out in style with a seventh game domination of the Mavericks. There’s a rivalry there that isn’t in this series. The Trail Blazers got some great stuff from Damian Lillard, though the Spurs are excellent at taking away your top options. Of course, LaMarcus Aldridge is one of those. Can Tim Duncan take that much? The Trailblazers thrive and survive on jump shooting, so the somewhat disorganized Rockets were a good matchup for them. Though the teams were 2-2 in the regular season, the Spurs’ discipline may be too much for Portland.

Pick: Spurs in 5

2 Oklahoma City Thunder (59-23) vs. 3 Los Angeles Clippers (57-25)

They split the season series 2-2 and last played in February. A lot has happened, especially for the Clippers, since then. But the emotion of the first round series controversy is past for now and it will be the Clippers interior guys against the Thunder’s perimeter stars. Can Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka hold off Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan so that Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook can succeed? Westbrook is going to be difficult for Paul, who had a hamstring problem in the first round. Though the biggest defensive issue for the Clippers all season has been defending the wing, and the Thunder has the soon-to-be-named MVP best wing player (West, anyway) in Durant. He’ll be a big problem to defend, though the Thunder makes themselves too easy to defend the way they run so little offense and Westbrook and Durant shoot so often. If they move the ball and get Durant better shots they’ll be difficult, though they never have done that. And they’re tough to guard, anyway. Maybe they prefer it closer.

Pick: Thunder in 7

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