The jitters are gone, the Game 1 celebrations and recriminations are faded and filed away, and the matchup adjustments born of hours of film review have been meticulously plotted. It's the second dance of the first round of the playoffs, with four games on tap, from Beantown to Hollywood and down to the desert and peach tree territory. Let's survey the landscape.
Way too many brain cells were sacrificed scheming up mismatches that mostly backfired in the series opener, won by the Hawks 102-92. Already missing their 7-foot anchor Andrew Bogut for interior defense, the Bucks put 6-8 forward Luc Mbah a Moute out on the perimeter to cover Hawks's shooting guard Joe Johnson, which exposed his 6-6 small forward CarlosDelfino (and occasionally even combo guard Luke Ridnour) on Atlanta's leaper Josh Smith, who quite understandably dominated the paint in the first half.
Meanwhile, Hawks' coach Mike Woodson was using Johnson to try and contain Milwaukee's jitterbug point guard, 6-1 Brandon Jennings, which meant that Atlanta's 6-1 point Mike Bibby was left to guard the much-taller Delfino. The Bucks failed to exploit that mismatch -- Delfino attempted just four shots -- mostly because Jennings was roasting Johnson en route to a game-high 34 points. Both defenses arguably would have been better off simply matching up to guard their positional counterparts.
Tonight's assignments would seem to be pretty simple: Milwaukee has to move the ball and Atlanta has to play hard for 48 minutes. The athletic Hawks will be coming with traps and double-teams on Jennings, who shot a paltry 37 percent from the field during the regular season and isn't likely to duplicate his 14-of-25 shooting from Game 1. He and John Salmons both need to sling the rock as frequently as they did when Bogut was in the lineup -- unlike the first half of the opener, when Milwaukee had exactly two assists.
As for the Hawks, after dominating the Bucks early, they stopped attacking the paint on offense and stood around on defense long enough to allow Milwaukee to cut a 22-point lead down to seven. For a team that demands to be taken seriously as a legitimate contender, they are the opposite of gritty, and won't be genuinely respected until that changes.
This is an atonement game for many of the frontcourt players on both teams. Not Kevin Garnett, of course, who zipped an elbow to the noggin of QuentinRichardson and was suspended for this contest. (After hearing Q-Rich's post-game description of the incident, didn't you empathize just a little with K.G.'s temper tantrum?) No, for Boston, this is a chance for Rasheed Wallace to claw back a smidgen of goodwill from Celtics fans who saw him show up woefully out-of-shape this season and then be alternately unwilling and unable to muck it up successfully in the paint, making the aging Celts seem all the more geriatric. 'Sheed used to be a lockdown defender and rebounding force in the low block. If he can't elasticize the defense as well as even a one-legged K.G. out to the elbow and by the sidelines, he needs to at least deter penetration and grab some boards without landing in foul trouble.
For the Heat, a trio of bigs has to put the ball in the hole after Dwyane Wade hands it to them on a silver platter. Throughout the regular season, Jermaine O'Neal and especially Udonis Haslem have been reliable crunch-time allies of Wade's, shooting better than 50 percent with less than five minutes to play in the fourth quarter or overtime and Miami within five points of its opponent. In Game 1, the pair was a combined 0-for-9 from the floor in the second half. Michael Beasley, ostensibly the Heat's second-best scorer, was 1-for-3 in the final two periods with a pair of turnovers.
Overall, this frontcourt threesome finished 9-of-30 from the field with each held to a single-digit point total. If that doesn't dramatically improve against the Celtics without K.G., the Heat are toast.
No more writing off the Trail Blazers. Their 105-100 road victory over the Suns in the series opener was no fluke. Playoff-style basketball is in the Blazers' DNA. They pounce on turnovers, looking for fast-break points, but otherwise play at the league's slowest pace, in half-court sets that emphasize their length and intelligence. Their ownership has deep pockets and their front office is ahead of the curve on advanced statistics, which is how, and why, Portland made a deal at the All-Star break, grabbing Marcus Camby for Travis Outlaw and SteveBlake -- a move that rivals Dallas' heist of the Wizards for its impact on the team.
Camby -- like the injured Greg Oden and Joel Przybilla -- is a smart, dedicated defender who prioritizes protecting the rim. Andre Miller -- like the injured Brandon Roy -- is a floor general, equally adept at posting up in the low block, nailing the mid-range jumper, or, most often, finding the right teammate in both the half-court and the transition game.
They are Trail Blazers by nature, and both came into this series brimming with confidence that has been contagious throughout the roster.
For Phoenix, this is obviously a must-win. That means Amar'e Stoudemire, the NBA's most unstoppable force on offense after the All-Star break, needs to surmount the devastating defensive duo of Camby and Nicolas Batum and go to the rim without the expectation he'll draw the foul -- something he didn't do in Game 1. It means that if the Suns are going to commit Jason Richardson to guarding Miller, he's got to prevent Miller from living in the paint to the tune of 31 points. It means that Phoenix has to push the pace better than Game 1's 91.2 possessions. It means that the league's best pick-and-roll pairing, Steve Nash and Stoudemire, have to own the game on the defensive end --and, like the rest of us, stop seeing Portland as an injury-riddled team and understand that through all the turmoil and turnover in personnel, the Blazers won as many games as the Celtics (50) in a tougher conference.
Just as he was overly criticized as an imperfect fit in the Lakers' system during the regular season, Ron Artest was overly praised for the defensive job he did on NBA leading scorer Kevin Durant in the opener of this series. Sure, Artest hounded Durant and made simple half-court touches a more aerobic endeavor. But Durant also missed a bevy of jumpers he normally converts, and the culprit seemed to be nerves more than fatigue.
More than likely, Durant will improve his accuracy and thus his point total tonight, through no additional fault of Artest's. To maintain their dominance and sense of inevitability over this series, the Lakers have to do a better job of containing Russell Westbrook off the dribble (their focus on Durant allowed OKC's other star to flourish in Game 1) and center Andrew Bynum has to demonstrate that his body is ready to play two strong games in a row.
It should be an exciting end to a marathon evening of games that should satiate even the most die-hard hoops junkie.