As the second round of the NBA playoffs comes to an end, Kevin Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder have officially risen to the top of the Western Conference. They are playing as well as any playoff team in recent memory.
In this week's edition of "Who's Hot and Who's Not," the Thunder and the San Antonio Spurs put themselves in a class of their own. The two teams are set for a collision course where the winner will earn a trip to the NBA Finals. As for the Los Angeles Clippers and Lakers, their offseason has begun. It was a great season for the Clippers and an interesting one for the Lakers.
The Eastern Conference has lost some of its steam that was built up after the Indiana Pacers and the Philadelphia 76ers stole two games from the Miami Heat and the Boston Celtics. Dwyane Wade and LeBron James once again looked like superheroes. The Celtics once again looked like champions.
Here is this week's list of who's hot and who's not.
For being one of the best big men in the NBA, Pau Gasol sure knows how to make himself the scapegoat of every unfortunate Lakers game.
The loss in Game 4 to the Thunder was Gasol's "fault" because his costly turnover led to Durant's decisive three-pointer. Then in Game 5, with the season on the line, Gasol couldn't do enough to force the series to six games.
What you won't hear from the talking heads is how Andrew Bynum failed to show up in Game 5 as well. Somehow his 10 points and four rebound performance is getting pushed under the rug. Instead the blame is aimed directly toward Gasol, who finished Game 5 with 14 points and 16 rebounds.
It's clear that Gasol is no longer the player he was when the Lakers were winning NBA championships. None of the Lakers, other than Bynum, are as good as they were in their three-year stretch where they made the NBA Finals.
The Lakers were one of the best teams in the Western Conference this year, but did anyone actually expect them to get past the Thunder? The Thunder were hungrier, deeper, younger and faster. They forced matchup problems the Lakers could not overcome.
The worst part of losing to the Thunder is not the fact they lost, but how the loss affects the Lakers in the future. These playoffs did serious damage to Gasol's trade value. The Lakers need to retool, but they have no cap space or draft picks. Gasol, their most expendable asset, is no longer worth what he was during the midseason.
Looking back, it probably would have been a smart move for the Lakers to move Gasol at the deadline. They decided to keep him, holding onto their strength in size, and traded for Ramon Sessions, putting a band-aid on a serious wound at point guard.
The Lakers will likely once again look to move Gasol. The question is—what does trading Gasol get you?
The Lakers were bounced out of the postseason in five games. The Clippers went from "Lob City" to "Swept City."
The Staples Center hosted six different postseason games in four days. Four of them were NBA playoffs games. While the games were good for the Staples Center, the results were bad for the city of Los Angeles. The record for the Los Angeles hoops teams over the weekend: 1-3.
The Clippers were not ready for the Spurs. They were out-executed, outclassed and outplayed. Despite getting swept, the Clippers still had a successful season. They made the playoffs (something the Clippers never do) and won a playoff series (something the Clippers really never do). As the cliché saying goes, the Clippers can build on this.
As for the Lakers, they are riding on the opposite escalator from the Clippers. After losing the second game in Los Angeles to the Thunder, the Lakers returned to Oklahoma City to be put out of their misery. The Lakers measure the success of their seasons with championships. That's it. They are the New York Yankees of the NBA.
Losing two years in a row in the second round of the playoffs is unacceptable to them. Unlike the Clippers, the Lakers will need to make some changes going into next season. Maybe that means trading Bynum or Gasol, but the bottom line is this roster can no longer compete for an NBA championship as currently constructed.
It was impressive that both Los Angeles basketball teams made the second round. It was sad to see them both knocked out in a combined nine games.
Right when the 76ers begin to make things interesting, they throw their momentum in the trash.
By beating the Celtics in Game 4 after trailing by 18 points in the third quarter, the 76ers displayed resiliency and toughness that is admirable from any young playoff team. They grabbed some momentum away from the veteran Celtics. Just as quick as they stole it, they lost that momentum only two quarters of basketball later. Leading at halftime in Game 5, the 76ers were outscored 54-35 in the second half by the Celtics.
Now the 76ers are on the brink of elimination. The Celtics, who desperately want/need rest before the Eastern Conference Finals, will look to deliver a knock out blow to the 76ers in Game 6 in Philadelphia. Game 5 may have been the 76ers' death sentence. It's hard to imagine this team beating the Celtics two times in a row, especially with Game 7 being in Boston.
Like the Clippers, it was a nice playoff run for the 76ers. Nobody expected them to beat the Chicago Bulls in the first round, but they did (with a little help from the injury gods). In the offseason, the 76ers need to find an identity. They have two many of the same type of players, which hurts them because they can only play one style of basketball. They have trade pieces, so expect the 76ers to make some strong offseason moves.
Down at halftime in Game 5 to the 76ers 50-47, the Celtics exploded in the third quarter behind the best performance of Brandon Bass' career.
Bass, who the Celtics acquired in a trade from the Orlando Magic for Glen Davis before the start of the season, scored 27 points on 9-13 shooting. It was a career playoff-high. Eighteen of those points came in the third quarter alone, where he outscored the 76ers by himself. He was the key behind the Celtics' impressive victory.
If Bass and Kevin Garnett can combine for 47 points every night like they did in Game 5, they will be tough to beat. Of course, that's easier said than done. It's nice to see Bass do what Big Baby could not. Bass' production will continue to be the key to the Celtics' success.
Even without Chris Bosh, the Heat beat the Pacers 115-83 in Game 5. Miami shot 61 percent from the field for the game.
Wade and James were magnificent. The two combined for 58 points, 13 rebounds and 10 assists. More impressively, the two players shot 61 percent from the field. Wade was hot from the start, and James looked like the Most Valuable Player in the NBA.
As for Wade and James' teammates, they finally stood up for their two best players. The Pacers have been trying to punk the Heat all series. In an attempt to prove to the Heat that they aren't afraid, the Pacers have been playing the role of "tough guys." Danny Granger has had to be separated from James in two of the five games. Lance Stephenson signaled a choke sign to James after a missed free throw in Game 3.
Then in Game 5, Tyler Hansbrough fouled Wade too hard, earning a Flagrant 1. The Heat finally had enough of the Pacers and began to retaliate. Udonis Haslem mauled Hansbrough in what should have been a Flagrant II. Dexter Pittman took it too far when he elbowed Lance Stephenson in the neck with less than a minute remaining in Game 5. It was dirty and cowardly.
Although it may have been wrong, the message was still sent, and the Pacers received it. They have been tugging at the wrong animal all series long. The Pacers got the Heat's attention, and now they probably wish they went about it in a different way. The Heat are mad. When James and Wade are mad, the rest of the NBA needs to watch out.
Can anybody beat the Spurs?
The last time the Spurs lost was April 11. That was the game Andrew Bynum pulled down a career-high 30 rebounds. In the playoffs, the Spurs have won six of their eight games by double-digits. They are playing as close to perfect as possible.
The Spurs will finally get their first test against the Thunder. The Spurs have blown out the competition so far, but it will be interesting to see how they respond to a team that is willing to exchange blows with them. The Thunder will not be afraid of the Spurs. At the same time, the scoring bursts of the Thunder will not rattle the Spurs. They never stray away from their game, which makes them extremely dangerous.
If any team left has a shot to beat the Spurs, it's the Thunder. The Thunder don't have the depth to compete with the Spurs, but they have the firepower. With James Harden, Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant, the sky is the limit.
What makes Durant such a special player is that feeling you get when he has the ball late in games. He makes you scared, not only because you think he has a good chance to score, but also because he believes he's going to score.
The Thunder didn't just take the baton of Western Conference supremacy from the Lakers in the last series, but Durant also took the title of "best closer" in the NBA from Kobe Bryant. Where Bryant shot his team out of victory in Games 2 and 5, Durant capitalized in the clutch numerous times. His soft touch always seems to make that extra lucky bounce.
Who knows what the results will be this Thunder-Spurs series. What will happen is a clinic of great basketball. Make sure you tune in.