My, how a few days can change everything.
One fight with a fire extinguisher, a few torn ACLs and a comeback for the ages later, the 2012 NBA playoff landscape has dramatically shifted. Suddenly, the West looks wide open, with five teams that could legitimately make their way to the NBA Finals.
Meanwhile, thanks to the torn ACLs of Derrick Rose from the Chicago Bulls and Iman Shumpert of the New York Knicks, the path to the finals appears wide open for LeBron James and the Miami Heat. Their fiercest rivals left, the Boston Celtics, are dealing with balky ankles, hip flexors and starting point guards getting suspended for shoving referees.
Here's how the championship favorites appear today, after a wild first few days of the playoffs.
The second Amar'e Stoudemire's fist connected with a fire extinguisher following the Knicks' Game 2 loss to Miami on Monday night, the Knicks immediately became the most helpless team left in the playoffs.
Fresh off a 33-point whooping and already down their best wing defender in Iman Shumpert (who tore his ACL in Game 1), the Knicks needed all the help they could get going into Monday night. The Knicks didn't get massacred again in Game 2 (progress!) and Carmelo Anthony dropped 30 points, but the Heat still left the impression that they wouldn't be significantly challenged this series.
And that was with Stoudemire.
Now, without him, the Knicks will turn into the Anthony show on offense, and pray that Tyson Chandler can shake his flu enough to fortify the Knicks defensively.
The only problem: They're now one man down in a Battle of Big Threes, which could very well lead to them being swept out of the playoffs this weekend.
The Knicks, without Stoudemire, Shumpert and Jeremy Lin, have zero chance of beating the Heat four times out of five and stealing the series. There's always next year, Knicks fans.
For the Jazz to have made the playoffs a year after trading franchise cornerstone Deron Williams, this appearance should be considered house money.
They'll get playoff experience for their young guys like Gordon Hayward, Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter, which can often speed along the development of players.
That's all well and good, because the San Antonio Spurs proved in Game 1 that they wouldn't be repeating last year's fate of losing as the No. 1 seed in the first round. They're here to stay in these playoffs, to the chagrin of the other Western Conference teams.
At the time of publishing, the Spurs are only up 1-0...so, at this rate, the Jazz could steal Game 2, even up the series and deserve a much higher ranking on this list. But at this rate, I can't fathom them stealing the series from the Spurs, and thus, their soon-to-be-coming first-round K.O. earns them this low ranking.
Just go pray the lottery gods curse the Golden State Warriors for tanking half the year, Jazz fans.
The Denver Nuggets got buried by a second quarter run in Game 1 that gave the Lakers a double-digit lead they'd never give up in the second half.
In the process, they may have given birth to a defensive monster known as Playoff Andrew Bynum. The Lakers' oft-maligned big man did something Kobe Bryant's never done in the playoffs, by registering a triple-double with 10 points, 13 rebounds and 10 blocks.
After the game, Lakers coach Mike Brown said of Bynum, "He can control a game without shooting a single shot." (Sounds similar to what Kentucky coach John Calipari said about his star center, Anthony Davis, doesn't it?)
The more Bynum understands his potential on defense, the better the Lakers become. In Game 1, with Bryant dropping 31 points and Pau Gasol getting a near-triple-double with a 13-8-8 line of his own, the Lakers looked like legitimate championship contenders. Game 2 wasn't much different, with the Lakers opening up a 19-point lead, although the Nuggets did put a late scare in Kobe and his crew.
As talented as the Nuggets may be, they won't have the firepower to outlast the Lakers in a seven-game series, barring a major injury.
If there were any questions about Orlando's head man Stan Van Gundy's coaching acumen heading into the playoffs, consider Game 1 your answer.
The Van Gundy-led Magic held the host Indiana Pacers to a 14-point fourth quarter, allowing them to steal the game and home-court advantage away.
The Pacers responded with the expected counter punch in their 93-78 Game 2 victory, but it's worth noting that the Magic actually held a two-point lead at halftime. Being on the wrong end of a 30-13 third quarter did Orlando in on Monday.
Now, the series heads back to Orlando, where, if the Magic can defend home court successfully, they'll put a heap of pressure on the Indiana Pacers in Game 5 (and Game 6, if necessary).
Even if they make it past the Pacers, they'll run into the buzzsaw that is the Miami Heat in the next round, which is where their playoff journey would end, regardless.
When Derrick Rose went down at the end of Game 1 with a torn ACL, the entire complexion of the Eastern Conference playoffs (much less this series) changed in the blink of an eye.
The No. 1 key to the Sixers-Bulls series was Rose's health, with the reigning MVP already having missed 27 regular-season games due to an assortment of injuries.
With Rose, the Sixers stood no chance against the Bulls, but without Rose, the door for the Sixers has opened wider.
That said, it's not like the Bulls turned into the Charlotte Bobcats when they lacked Rose's services this season. In the 27 games without him, they recorded a more-than-respectable 18-9 record, which would still have them in the conversation among the East's elite.
With Sixers coach Doug Collins playing starting lineup roulette on a game-by-game basis, the Bulls still have enough talent to subdue the Sixers in this first-round series, despite their Game 2 shellacking on Tuesday night. The Sixers aren't shooting 60 percent every game, folks.
Despite losing Tyson Chandler in free agency to the Knicks, the Mavericks' defense remained surprisingly stout this year. If anything would cause their demise this postseason, offensive woes would likely be to blame.
In the first two games against Oklahoma City, especially Game 2 on Monday night, that fear came to fruition, as Jean-Jacques Taylor of ESPNDallas.com noted.
Dallas held a seven-point lead with 2:31 left in Game 1 and couldn't hold on. They held a 97-96 lead with just over two minutes left in Game 2, and again, the Thunder went on a run the Mavs couldn't match.
The fact that Dallas put that much of a scare in the Thunder in both road games bodes well for their chances in Game 3, but hardly any teams in NBA playoff history have come back from 2-0 series deficits. History is against this year's iteration of the Mavs.
Heading into the playoffs, the Pacers were considered one of the dark horse picks in the East, one of the few teams that could challenge the once-preordained Chicago-Miami matchup in the Eastern Conference finals.
After losing Game 1 of their playoff series to an Orlando Magic team that was without Dwight Howard, the Pacers suddenly went from hot sleeper pick to hot upset pick.
The Pacers evened the series with their 93-78 victory in Game 2, turning a once-close game at halftime into a rout. In the process, they may have found a temporary solution to Glen "Big Baby" Davis, who's been a nuisance in the series to this point.
In the two games thus far, the Magic still haven't cracked 81 points, and it's difficult to see them winning a seven-game series with such an anemic offense. Despite losing home court advantage, the Pacers should still be favored to win the series at this point.
Barring injuries, they'll stand little chance against Miami in the next round, though.
One knee injury to Josh Smith and one heroic performance from Paul Pierce was all it took to flip this Boston-Atlanta series on its head.
The Celtics, who looked to be on life support going into Game 2 without their star point guard Rajon Rondo (who was suspended for bumping into a ref late in Game 1), stole home court advantage away from the Hawks with a 36-14-4 night from Pierce.
Meanwhile, on the other end, the Hawks' most productive player, Smith, sprained his left knee late in the game and left for good with 4:20 remaining. When Smith left, the Celtics were up 74-72. They finished the game on a 15-8 run.
The Celtics get Rondo back for Game 3, while Smith's availability appears in doubt, making the Celtics now the clear favorites. Still, if Smith's injury isn't serious and he can return by Game 4, this series has only just begun, with the Celtics' Ray Allen sidelined.
If the Hawks do find a way to beat the Celtics, they'd face either a weakened Bulls team or the eighth-seeded Sixers in Round 2, with a chance of adding a healthy Al Horford back to their frontcourt.
Going into Game 2 against the Philadelphia 76ers on Tuesday night, collective wisdom dictated that the Bulls should have enough firepower to overcome reigning MVP Derrick Rose tearing his ACL in Game 1 and win the first round series.
Now, after the Sixers turned a close game into a rout with a 36-14 third quarter, stealing home court advantage from the Bulls, there's legitimate reason to worry about the Bulls surviving the first round.
It's only one game, sure, but in the Bulls' first game since Rose's injury, they allowed the Sixers to shoot the highest percentage of any team, regular or postseason, in the Tom Thibodeau era, according to ESPN.
For Thibodeau, who prides himself on defense, that statistic will provide all kinds of motivational material between now and Game 3 on Friday. It's highly unlikely that the Sixers will shoot nearly 60 percent again this series.
Still, the Bulls' mortality sans-Rose was on full display Tuesday night, and it's difficult, at this point, to see them surviving long past this series.
Paul Pierce earned the right to "Tebow" at center court late in Game 2, as he capped off a vintage 36-point, 14-rebound performance to help the Celtics stay afloat against the Hawks without Rajon Rondo.
Now, the C's head back to Boston tied 1-1 and having stolen home court advantage, armed with Rondo's return in Game 3. Meanwhile, the Hawks' best player, Josh Smith, sprained his left knee late in Game 2 and may be out for Game 3 and/or longer.
In other words, the road to the second round just got that much easier for the Celtics after Game 2.
Assuming they survive, the C's main concern should be the return of sharpshooter Ray Allen, who's been sidelined with an injured right ankle. The Celtics should be able to hold off a weakened Bulls team or youthful-but-inexperienced Sixers squad in Round 2, assuming they beat the Hawks this round, but they'd stand no chance against Miami sans Allen.
At this point, Allen's health appears to be all that stands between the Miami Heat and a repeat appearance in the NBA Finals.
Through three quarters of Game 1 in the Grizzlies-Clippers series, a casual observer would likely peg the Grizzlies as NBA championship favorites while wondering how in God's name the Clippers made it to the playoffs.
One historic Chris Paul-led fourth-quarter comeback later, the Clippers are in the driver's seat, having stolen home court advantage and rattling the Grizzlies' confidence in the process.
As ESPN's Kevin Arnovitz noted, however, there were some silver linings for the Grizz in Game 1, most notably, the play of Marc Gasol. The younger Gasol already had 14 points and four assists at halftime, but the Grizzlies fell in love with their three-point shooting (who could blame them when they shot 69 percent for the game?) and largely ignored the post after halftime.
Assuming the Grizzlies get back to their identity as a pound-it-low, grind-it-out defensive team, I'd still pick them to win this series over the Clippers.
But, having witnessed the Clippers' historic comeback, I can't put Memphis over the Clippers, who have the NBA's deadliest fourth-quarter weapon in Paul. (No offense, Carmelo.)
What more can you say about an NBA All-Star who begs his coach to be put into a game when his team is down 21 points at the end of three quarters?
Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro was getting ready to throw the white flag in Game 1 after the Grizzlies routed his team for three quarters, but Chris Paul convinced his coach to give them one more chance.
Twelve basketball minutes later, the Clippers completed one of the all-time great comebacks, though at the expense of small forward Caron Butler, who broke his left hand during the third quarter.
Butler leaving the rotation opened more time for Eric Bledsoe, Reggie Evans and the conscienceless Nick Young, who keyed the comeback alongside Paul. All three finished the game with a plus-23 or above.
Armed with Paul in the fourth quarter, these Clippers may very well be for real in these playoffs, despite every preconceived notion about the Clippers franchise telling you otherwise.
Three games into Metta World Peace's suspension, the Lakers have opened a 2-0 lead against the Denver Nuggets, relying on two 30-point performances from the ageless Kobe Bryant and some beast-like post play from center Andrew Bynum.
In what can only be an encouraging sign for Lakers fans, their supporting cast has stepped up in force behind Bryant and Bynum.
Pau Gasol's been no schlub, having nearly recorded a triple-double in Game 1, with 13 points, eight rebounds and eight assists, which he followed up in Game 2 with a 13-10-5 night. Starting point guard Ramon Sessions chipped in 14 points each game, continuing his hot play ever since becoming a Laker in mid-March.
Crucially, the Lakers haven't allowed World Peace's absence to radically affect them. Reserve Jordan Hill has chipped in two workmanlike performances off the bench (despite suddenly facing a felony charge),while Devin Ebanks has been able to slide into World Peace's role admirably.
If Bryant and Bynum continue dominating the way they have the first two games of the playoffs and can avoid the injury bug, the Lakers are the legitimate NBA championship contenders they say they are.
Kevin Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder were taken to the wire by the Dallas Mavericks in both Games 1 and 2, and in both games, the Thunder emerged victorious.
Credit late-game execution for the Thunder, clutch collapses for Dallas, or luck, as Shawn Marion would, but the reality is, Dallas heads home down 2-0, a playoff deficit few teams in NBA history have survived.
There's no reason to expect the Thunder to suddenly start blowing out Dallas, seeing as they trailed with three minutes remaining on their home floor in both games, but they should be able to still win two of the remaining five games, especially with home court advantage intact.
Next up would likely be a matchup with the L.A. Lakers, who the Thunder took to six games two years ago in the opening round before Pau Gasol broke their hearts in the waning seconds of Game 6.
The Thunder, with Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins down low, are one of the few teams that can counter the Lakers' twin 7-footers, and with World Peace suspended for four more games, the Thunder should be praying for a Lakers' sweep at this point. Durant could go wild for Games 1 and 2, if so.
This No. 2 ranking isn't fair. I know. On paper, there's no team I like better than the Spurs to win the NBA championship this year.
They've got their Big Three of Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker and Tim Duncan as healthy as they've been going into the playoffs, they won their first Game 1 in over half a decade, and they've infused some youth into their lineup without many hiccups.
Coach Gregg Popovich, named Coach of the Year this week, managed his older stars' minutes masterfully in this lockout-shortened season. The fact the Spurs secured the No. 1 seed for a second straight year while playing Duncan, Ginobili and Parker around 30 minutes a night speaks for itself.
Instead, this No. 2 ranking is more a reflection of the respective toughness of each conference's playoff bracket. In the West, I count five legitimate championship contenders at this point: the Spurs, the Thunder, the Lakers, the Clippers and the Grizzlies.
In the East, there's Miami and...thanks to a slew of freak injuries, that's about it.
If the Spurs make it to the NBA Finals, I'd have them favored over Miami. I'm just less confident in their chances of making it to the NBA Finals than I am of the Heat.
Let's put it this way: If the Miami Heat somehow don't make it to the NBA Finals this season, barring a catastrophic injury, Pat Riley will have no choice but to break the Big Three up.
The Bulls, the Heat's greatest threat in the East, have been neutralized by Derrick Rose's torn ACL. As if Iman Shumpert's torn ACL wasn't enough for the Knicks in Game 1, Amar'e Stoudemire punched a fire extinguisher while walking off the court of the Knicks' Game 2 loss, and now he's out for Game 3, if not beyond.
The Celtics can only pray that Ray Allen's balky right ankle heals up enough for him to give it a go in these playoffs, but, as ESPN's Jackie MacMullen revealed this week, Kevin Garnett's also been dealing with painful hip flexors that could keep him limited.
The Hawks may get Al Horford back in Round 2, but they just lost Josh Smith to a left knee sprain, which could make this a quick postseason trip for Atlanta. And no offense to the Pacers, but a team that loses Game 1 at home to a Dwight Howard-less Magic squad won't be beating Miami in these playoffs.
In short, the Heat's path to the NBA Finals looks easier than ever, five days into these playoffs. That's not to say they haven't been playing well; on the contrary, they've been on fire in the first two games.
But If LeBron, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh can stay healthy, they have no excuses from this point forward. Their time is this year.