The first round of the 2012 NBA playoffs has separated the pretenders from the contenders and the second round is firmly in place to separate the boys from the men.
With those road blocks positioned behind us all, it’s time to look at the second round and determine which series fans will gravitate towards and which ones will be considered formalities.
From the bottom to the top, here are the most compelling second-round series, as well as what it will take for each franchise to win their respective matchup.
The Boston Celtics and the Philadelphia 76ers flew under the radar this season. Well, as far under the radar as the Celtics can fly with floor general, Rajon Rondo, and an aging Big Three.
By their own hand, the 76ers are also underrated. It seems as if they doubt themselves when it comes to sustaining a viable reputation in the league.
This series is widely predicted to end with Boston advancing to the Eastern Conference Finals because they are a deeper and more-skilled franchise than the Sixers. Garnett is playing like the clock on his career was rewound and Rondo is playing as he has throughout the regular season—taking huge gambles and coming up big.
There is no true mystery to how this series would end. It will just be interesting to see how the Celtics continue to obtain their victories after a close Game 1 win at home.
Another mildly interesting thing to watch in this series will be how Andre Iguodala responds to the added pressure.
The Sixers are going up against strong-willed Boston squad and they are going to need their designated front man to show up in every game. Scoring a series-low five points is going to be unacceptable. Waiting until Game 6 to break 20 points is going to be unacceptable.
These are not the Derrick Rose-less Chicago Bulls.
These are the Boston Celtics and the Sixers have no room for error if they even want to appear like contenders.
76ers win if…
Andre Iguodala matches his intangibles with solid offensive contributions. Iguodala has been the heart of the Philadelphia 76ers and rightfully so.
His defense on the perimeter is unmatched by anyone in his franchise, he is more powerful than each of his teammates and he is a veteran with an unmatched basketball I.Q. in the locker room.
With that being said, Iguodala is not making the strides offensively to keep the Sixers in contention. Sure, Evan Turner came out as a standout in Game 1 in the series against Boston, but the run-and-gun game that Philly needs to leans toward to exploit a large fraction of Boston’s game would be kick-started by Andre Iguodala.
Think about how a lot of transition points are scored: by long rebounds.
Those long rebounds are usually the product of a rushed perimeter shot or a botched dunk attempt. Iguodala is Philly’s most efficient perimeter defender and can put enough pressure on Boston’s shooters to force those bad looks from the outside and give Philadelphia the long rebound to give them a running start down the court for easy buckets.
It is an oversimplified formula of course, but turnovers are created by stingy defense and Iguodala is the stingiest defender Philadelphia has to offer. Pushing the ball down the court is the easy part.
Loosening the ball from the hands of a bunch of determined Boston players is where the true task lies.
Celtics win if…
Rajon Rondo continues to keep Kevin Garnett on the up-and-up.
The resurgence of Garnett has not been solely on his accord. Rondo has had an immense influence on how Garnett has played throughout the postseason.
Rondo is the floor general that is athletic and agile enough to push the ball up the court and has menacing court vision to draw the defense away from his teammates in order to get them into their hot spots for clean, open looks.
Boston’s star point is the most important player on the floor for the Celtics and shows that with his efforts in rebounding, offensive facilitation and even being more apt in his mid-range game.
The San Antonio Spurs have shape-shifted into some form of mythical Goliath in this year’s playoffs, even in the regular season.
Not only have they managed to demolish franchises with their starting unit, but the Spurs have shown, in the first round against the No. 8 seeded Utah Jazz for instance, that they can stomp teams out with their reserves. Then again, it should be remembered that San Antonio has the likes of Manu Ginobili as a reserve.
No one but the Oklahoma City Thunder has a bench player as talented as Ginobili.
Head over to the Los Angeles Clippers franchise, who have also sported strong bench play in the first round, and you will find a team less than ready for what they are about to face in the second round of the playoffs.
The Clippers dropped two games that should have been won after getting off to a 3-1 start in the series against the Memphis Grizzlies. They eventually walked away with the win and the ticket to a series against the No. 1 San Antonio Spurs, but there were a lot of errors exposed during their collapses.
The most intriguing matchup that we will see from this series is going to be Chris Paul vs. Tony Parker.
Let’s not shy away from the Blake Griffin vs. Tim Duncan matchup, either.
Duncan may be up there in age, but with age comes refined experience and the knowledge of what limits his body has; Griffin just doesn’t have that yet. "The Big Fundamental" has renewed his physical self while staying amazingly strong mentally and will test Griffin for everything he is worth as he gives Blake a taste of true post moves, a nice hook shot and a solid 15- to 18-foot jumper.
Spurs win if…
They can limit Chris Paul. Watching Chris Paul and Tony Parker is going to be the true sign of which franchise is going to come away victorious.
Paul struggled against Memphis after suffering hip flexor and finger injuries during the series. He was not 100 percent and it showed in the remaining games.
Paul’s burst was not available and the Clippers had to work more off of the perimeter than just giving him the ball and letting the defense have at him in the low post. The bench had to become a much more reliable and cohesive unit with Paul playing at 80 percent and Mike Conley’s defense keeping him mildly limited, especially in the fourth quarter.
Forcing the Clippers to depend on their bench and work on Paul’s nerves to get him into foul trouble or frustrate him by refusing that easy mid-range shot will definitely put the Spurs in a better position to win.
Clippers win if…
CP3 can keep up with Parker. Paul is going to be of extreme importance when it comes to keeping the pace with Parker, whose burst and agility is unquestionable since the first series.
Parker had an MVP-like season and continues to be influential over the Spurs in the postseason. Parker has become the pass-first facilitator that the Spurs needed, while also injecting scoring when necessary.
His game consists of plays that draw defenders to the hoop in his dust and dishing the ball out to an open man for a three beyond the arc or a long two-pointer. Before defenses know what hit, they are sitting under the basket and defending a ball-less Parker.
Chris Paul will need to stay out front of Parker and deny him those lanes that make him destructive as an elite passer and post scorer.
The OKC Thunder and the Los Angeles Lakers match up well, on the surface.
There is Andrew Bynum and Kendrick Perkins matched up at the center position. Perkins is still listed day-to-day by Oklahoma City after straining his right hip muscle in Game 4 of the series against the Dallas Mavericks. Still, the timetable is steadily improving and the franchise is optimistically looking forward to starting Perkins in Game 1 against the Lakers.
At the power forward position, Serge Ibaka and Pau Gasol match up. Similar build, with one player being more offensively based and the other serving as his team’s one-man block party.
The small forward positions match up with Kevin Durant and Ron Artest. Artest is enough of a defensive presence to attempt to slow Durant down, but a lot of his energy was exerted on guarding James Harden in the Game 1 bout.
Now, this is where things get a little more intense. When you mention Kobe Bryant for the Lakers and how dangerous he is, you have to mention Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook as viable offensive options for Oklahoma City.
Durant is one of the most efficient and prolific scorers in the league and will undoubtedly keep the Lakers on their toes as they attempt to cut him off on his way to the basket or even shut down his fluid jumper.
Ibaka, Perkins, Bynum and Gasol will give a show around the rim, but that is not where the game will be won or lost.
Lakers win if…
Kobe Bryant plays like he did against the Denver Nuggets, but also as a supreme facilitator.
The Lakers have Ramon Sessions at the point, but it is common knowledge that when Bryant is at his best, with some help, the Lakers are their best both offensively and defensively.
Bryant was not able to show off his knack for passing the rock because of the fact that he was not in a situation where he could trust his teammates. Bynum and Gasol were mentally absent for stretches of time during Games 5 and 6, which forced Los Angeles into a Game 7 death match against Denver at the Staples Center.
If both Bynum and Gasol had played consistently, Bryant would not have felt the need to shoulder the load alone and score hoards of meaningless points (43 in Game 5 and 31 in Game 6) as the Lakers were dealt two huge blows in the first series.
Thunder win if…
Russell Westbrook can control the pace. The Los Angeles Lakers have an obvious problem when it comes to quick, athletic point guards that can score and push the ball hard in transition. Westbrook mirrors his blueprint off of those exact characteristics.
If Russell is able to push the pace of the game in Oklahoma City’s favor consistently, the Lakers will be gassed.
Sure, you have Ramon Sessions and Kobe Bryant who can get up the court, but watching them against Ty Lawson, gave the impression that they cannot give a continuous strong effort defending a player that fast and athletic.
Westbrook draws the attention of the Lakers bigs to the paint and forces them to defend him.
With that type of attention comes a lack thereof for players like Ibaka and Perkins, who will undoubtedly be close by. You get easy around-the-rim buckets for those players or a strong finish around the rim for Westbrook and a drawn foul.
Westbrook’s speed and size will trouble the Lakers and he is a crucial option to tilt this series in Oklahoma City’s favor.
The Miami Heat and the Indiana Pacers are by far the most compelling series in the playoffs at this point. Why?
First things first, the Indiana Pacers have made the pot sweeter by jawing about Miami’s techniques before even stepping into the ring.
That is exactly what these two will endure in a possible seven-game series stationed in between both the AmericanAirlines Arena and Bankers Life Fieldhouse. It will be, as Erik Spoelstra stated, according to CBS Sports, a "cage fight."
At least he is ready for it.
Hopefully, the rest of the Miami Heat, the ones who will have to endure this cage fight physically, will be ready as well. The Pacers have already set the tone for a rival-like matchup by voicing their opinions on how the Heat were assembled and how they get to the foul line.
Things were made even more interesting as Chris Bosh went down with a lower abdominal strain and the Miami Heat announced that he would not return.
This pushed LeBron James into the power forward spot and the Heat outscored the Indiana Pacers by 15 points. This should have provided relief for coach Erik Spoelstra, but all it does it give him a huge decision to make.
Does he start LeBron at the 4 or does he start Shane Battier, Joel Anthony or another reserve?
The answer to this question is much simpler than analysts are making it. Why start James at the 4 and tire him out against the big body of David West, while still asking him to be an offensive giant for Miami, when you have a player like Joel Anthony, who is prepared for the starting job and has been there, done that?
Keeping LeBron in for about 45 minutes and expecting him to be fresh as the series trails on, after having a heightened defensive assignment in the low post defending West’s mid-range game, is not a smart move for Coach Spoelstra.
However, injecting Anthony into a lineup he is already comfortable in and keeping his responsibilities limited to defending the paint and catching lobs from the ball-handler, either James or Dwyane Wade, would be better in regulating James’ minutes and keeping balance.
James at the 4 should be a trick that Spoelstra pulls out in the third quarter of the game to keep the Pacers on their toes as far as defense is concerned.
Pacers win if…
Coach Frank Vogel can figure out a sufficient way to defend LeBron at the 4.
It may not seem like a huge adjustment, because fans have seen LeBron play every position, defensively, throughout the regular season and even for spurts through the first-round series against the New York Knicks.
In Game 1, with James as Miami’s power forward, although he guarded David West on one end of the floor, Vogel left the defending on the other end to Paul George or Danny Granger. Neither are physically built to stay in front of James for entire four quarters and in transition, it becomes much harder to decipher Miami’s offense because they move so fast up the court with either James or Wade controlling the pace.
Turnovers amplified Indiana’s mistakes against the Heat and with James at the 4, it becomes more difficult for George or Granger to locate their man in the melee of Miami’s flight towards the rim.
The Heat keep their defenders from settling and finding their footing in transition, which plays right into their hands. Vogel must find a way to counteract LeBron’s influence on how Indiana defends him.
Heat win if…
Miami can regulate how much time LeBron spends on the floor. James has been Miami’s driving force this season and continues to be in the postseason, even when he is not the leading scorer.
James is all over the floor, consistently guarding each position and paying meticulous attention to his teammates as well. He ensures that everyone else gets theirs if it puts Miami in the best position to win and he takes over offensively if that is what his opponent's defense calls for.
However, even James can be spread too thin. Coach Spoelstra needs to make sure he does not overplay James against David West so that he can use the threat of his offense to draw the big men out of the paint, or at least draw the double team to create offensive opportunities for his teammates.
James is a factor even when a play is not being run through him, but if Spoelstra runs him ragged, it will be obvious that the Pacers will not need to do much to dissipate his influence.
With LeBron at the height of his game, Miami has the best chance in the series to head to the Eastern Conference finals.