Do you smell that?
No, not what The Rock is cooking (whatever that may be). I'm talking, instead, about the NBA playoffs!
You know, the smell of intense competition, of guys actually caring, of some fans jumping around in ecstasy for their team's victory while others sulk in the agony of defeat.
Kind of like sweat, but about a gajillion times more pleasant.
In any case, I'm as excited for the 2013 postseason as the next guy—so excited, in fact, that I've opted to lop off the dead weight (i.e. the teams bound for the NBA draft lottery) from this week's power rankings. I promise you won't be hearing any more about the Charlotte Bobcats, Orlando Magic or Sacramento Kings in this space.
Until next season, anyway.
(And for those of you whose teams didn't survive to see the playoffs, my condolences on a lost campaign.)
Now, keep in mind, the changes in the rankings from last week reflect both the disqualification of the 14 non-playoff teams and the outlook for the 16 remaining teams in their respective first-round series and (when applicable) beyond.
Hence, you may notice that some teams have moved up despite stinking down the stretch, while others have shuffled down even after finishing the season strong. The goal here is to weigh the quality of each team in its own context alongside (and against) its postseason prospects based on matchups.
But enough of my yammering, let's see who stacks up where before the playoffs get underway.
Let's put it this way—the Milwaukee Bucks have about a snowball's chance in you-know-where of stealing even one game from the Miami Heat in the first round, much less pulling off one of the greatest upsets in the history of all upsets.
Including (SPOILER ALERT!!!) Walter White over Gus Fring in Breaking Bad.
Not that the Bucks' formula for success is any more complicated than Heisenberg's. If Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis can each have an explosive night—or, better yet, have them in tandem—while cutting down on their errant looks, Milwaukee could, in theory, give Miami fits.
Even more so if Larry Sanders shows up to the block party, and if J.J. Redick and Ersan Ilyasova can get hot from beyond the arc.
Still, it's no coincidence that the Bucks went 1-3 against the Heat and are the only team left with a losing record, at 38-44. They're mediocre, at best, which figures to show through in a big way against the defending champs.
Figuring out where, exactly, the Houston Rockets fit in the playoff hierarchy is a bit puzzling.
On the one hand, they're probably better than the Boston Celtics and the Atlanta Hawks (both of whom we'll get to in a bit). They sport an exciting, uptempo offense built on the attacking tendencies of All-Star James Harden and Jeremy Lin, the Swiss army knife skill set of Chandler Parsons and the screening-and-rolling of Omer Asik.
On the other hand, this will be their first postseason appearance as a group, while Boston and Atlanta have both been to battle together a number of times in years past. The Rockets' odds of upending the Oklahoma City Thunder in the first round rest somewhere between slim and none and, at the very least, are noticeably slimmer than the odds faced by the C's and the Hawks in their respective series.
Moreover, Houston's defense is softer than Wonderbread—and even that makes Wonderbread seem harder than it is—and will be up against the league's second-most efficient offense in the first round.
Now, like the Bucks against the Heat, the Rockets employ at least one player (Harden) and maybe another (Linsanity) who could get hot enough to steal a game or two from the Western Conference favorites. That's essentially what happened back on Feb. 20, when Harden exploded for a career-high 46 points, Lin chipped in 29 of his own and Houston pulled out a thrilling home win against OKC.
Then again, the Rockets were behind by as many as 14 points in that fourth quarter and needed Herculean efforts from both of their guards just to sneak away with a three-point victory. If anything, the team's two prior meetings—a 22-point win for the Thunder in OKC and a 30-point drubbing of the Rockets in Houston—are more indicative of where these two teams actually stand in relation to one another.
The world will be rooting for the Boston Celtics against the New York Knicks, in the wake of the senseless tragedy that struck the Boston Marathon. A team that leans so heavily on two of the NBA's most emotional players in Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce figures to feed off the energy of a city in mourning and do its very best to bring some joy, relief and escape to those who need it.
Will that be enough to carry the C's through a seven-game series with KG and Pierce hobbled and the rest of the roster depleted by injuries, particularly to Rajon Rondo?
Probably not. The Knicks have had the Celtics' number since the infamous "Honey Nut Cheerios" incident at Madison Square Garden, including a pair of blowouts in the wake of Rondo's ACL tear. The best Boston can hope for is that New York's bigs don't heal, its three-point shooters go cold and Carmelo Anthony is somehow still intimidated by the Big Ticket and the Truth.
Otherwise, expect the C's to feel the sting of their earliest playoff exit of the Garnett-Pierce era, even if it takes six or seven games for that reality to set in.
It's a wonder that the Atlanta Hawks will be on TV at all during the playoffs, especially against a team as tough to watch as the Indiana Pacers.
That's not to say that the Hawks are exactly the stuff of James Naismith's dreams. They're as prone to turnovers as they are to Josh Smith's long jumpers, which is to say, a bit too prone.
Nonetheless, Atlanta, for better or worse, can still make some noise against Indy in the first round. These two teams split their season series, with each holding serve at home. The Hawks' frontcourt of Josh Smith and Al Horford could prove surprisingly effective against the Pacers' slower bigs, and if Smith can give Paul George a tough time on both ends, all the better.
For the Hawks, that is. Probably not for your average NBA fan. Unless you really like the Hawks for some reason.
That would be weird, because Hawks fans barely fill up their own building, but I digress.
The difference between finishing seventh and eighth may not seem like much, especially for a team picked as a title contender in the preseason. But for these Los Angeles Lakers, as disappointing as they've been, that difference means plenty.
A loss to the Rockets in the season finale would've left the Lakers to fend for themselves against the Oklahoma City Thunder, whose young legs and overall explosiveness have given L.A.'s aging roster fits dating back to last season.
Instead, the Purple and Gold will be matched up against another team that's precariously reliant on the elderly and the infirm—the San Antonio Spurs. With or without Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash, the Lakers probably don't defend well enough to slow down the Spurs four times in seven games. And, absent Bryant and (possibly) Nash, the Lakers don't have anyone of note to whom they can turn to get a shot against smothering defense in crunch time.
But the optimistic Angeleno in me can't shake the suspicion that the Lakers might be onto some next-level Ewing Theory business right now. They're moving the ball much better on offense now that Kobe's not around to kill the clock, and that involvement, in turn, appears to have sparked a greater team-wide effort on the other end.
Much of that was on display during the Lakers' 91-86 win over the Spurs on April 14. The fact that L.A. hung tough with San Antonio in their two previous meetings—a two-point loss without Nash and a three-point loss without Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard—speaks to the Lakers' preparedness for such a matchup.
Even more so if Pau and Dwight can give the Spurs' thin front line fits.
The Golden State Warriors are in the playoffs! For the first time since "We Believe" in 2007! And just the second time in the last 19 years! Hooray!
Better yet, they just might make some noise against the Denver Nuggets.
For one, the Warriors have the best player in the series on their side in Stephen Curry. The fourth-year sharpshooter out of Davidson set a new NBA record for most three-point makes in a single season and only improved as the campaign progressed. When he gets hot, the Warriors are tough to stop, especially when Klay Thompson gets in on the three-point parade.
Even when those guys aren't dealing from deep, Golden State can still succeed by leaning on the interior tandem of David Lee and Andrew Bogut, as well as the attacking talents of Jarrett Jack off the bench.
Beyond all of that, defense and ball security will be the keys for the Warriors against the Nuggets. Denver's frenetic, uptempo attack feeds off of its opponent's miscues, as it did in beating Golden State three out of four times this season.
As expected, then, Golden State's fate in these playoffs will be decided by its guard play. If Curry, Thompson and Jack can squeeze the orange and knock down jumpers, they may upset a hobbled Nuggets squad. Otherwise, they'd best prepare to be run out of the building, whether or not it's their own.
For the most part, the Brooklyn Nets still look good on paper. Deron Williams has rounded into All-Star form of late, Brook Lopez has been playing like one all season, Joe Johnson can create (and make) shots in the clutch and Gerald Wallace is the sort of defender who can pester the East's top wing-forwards (LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Paul George, Luol Deng, Josh Smith) in big games.
Yet, even with all of that "star power" and one of the most bloated payrolls in the NBA, the Nets aren't exactly anyone's idea of an exciting, high-ceiling squad. They play at an unbearably slow pace, they don't defend particularly well and their offense is far too reliant on isolations.
And that's before considering that D-Will was (and still is) one of the league's top proprietors of the pick-and-roll.
Of course, all of this also makes it easy to forget that the Nets, who hadn't made the playoffs since 2007, will host four first-round games at the Barclays Center, where they went a respectable 26-15 this season.
Trouble is, Brooklyn won just one game in four tries this season against the Chicago Bulls (its upcoming opponent), despite injuries plaguing the Bulls' roster throughout. The Nets certainly have the talent edge—so long as Derrick Rose doesn't make a surprise return during the series—but will that supposed superiority shine through against Chicago's smothering defense?
Or will it be left to sparkle and fade on paper?
The fact that the Chicago Bulls are even this high up in the pre-playoff power rankings speaks volumes of the work Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson have put in to get back on the floor, the effort and quality of play Luol Deng and Carlos Boozer have put forth in their absences and the job Tom Thibodeau has done to weave his banged-up, makeshift roster into a winning tapestry.
All without Derrick Rose, who's yet to be ruled out for the postseason, even though he hasn't set foot in a live NBA game in nearly a year.
The Bulls' somewhat plum spot here is also a credit to the success they've enjoyed this season against the Brooklyn Nets, who they'll meet again in the first round. Chicago took three out of four from Brooklyn, and though three of the games were decided by four points or fewer, the Bulls would appear to have the Nets' number—for the most part, anyway. Brooklyn's sluggish offense has been stymied by Chicago's smothering defense on each occasion.
And if there's any strength that plays well in the postseason, it's the sort of defense that Thibs has had his guys playing all year long.
The Indiana Pacers are another one of these teams whose on-paper profile would appear to obscure their postseason preparedness.
Or lack thereof. The Pacers seemed all but destined to hit the 50-win plateau before closing out their Central Division-crowned campaign with five defeats in six tries. Paul George, in particular, struggled down the stretch, averaging just 10.8 points on an abysmal 28.3 percent shooting over his last five games.
Despite all of that, the Pacers' potential for playoff success is far too tantalizing to ignore. They're an outstanding defensive squad, with Paul George locking up the opponent's best perimeter player, Lance Stephenson using his strength and physicality to bludgeon other guards and Roy Hibbert using his size and length to protect the rim.
So long as Frank Vogel has his guys competing as hard as ever on that end of the floor, the Pacers should be able to get by just fine, particularly against the Atlanta Hawks in the first round.
And if Indy's scorers (i.e. Paul George, George Hill, David West) catch fire, the Pacers will be as tough an out as any in the Eastern Conference, thanks to their size and all-around toughness.
You'd hardly be able to tell that the Denver Nuggets were riddled with injuries by the way they finished the season. They won three in a row and eight of their last nine, securing their best record in franchise history (since joining the NBA, anyway) along the way, despite seeing Ty Lawson, Kenneth Faried and Danilo Gallinari succumb to injuries.
Lawson has since returned and Faried hopes to be back in time for Game 1 against the Golden State Warriors, but neither player will be close to 100 percent. More importantly, Gallo's absence leaves the already shooting-starved Nuggets with one player fewer who can spread the floor on offense and open up driving lanes for Denver's stock of slashers and drivers.
With that said, the Nuggets' first-round matchup with the Warriors should make for not only an exciting, high-scoring series, but also an interesting compare-and-contrast case between two of the NBA's best offensive squads. Both teams are capable of pushing the pace and piling up points, but Golden State tends to settle for perimeter jumpers, while Denver goes out of its way to attack the basket and get to the free-throw line (where its players convert just 70.1 percent of the time).
The Nuggets have the depth to overcome their physical setbacks in a series opposite the upstart Warriors. But against the San Antonio Spurs, their likely second-round opponent? That's a much more difficult call to make.
Nearly everything about the Memphis Grizzlies screams "playoff sleeper."
They play a physical, well-coordinated brand of defense, captained by Marc Gasol in the middle and Tony Allen on the wing. They feature two bigs, in Gasol and Zach Randolph, who work exceedingly well together in a league and amongst a field in which size is at a premium.
They operate and execute their sets at a slow, deliberate pace that fits perfectly with the playoff norm. They sport some depth, but head coach Lionel Hollins generally keeps his rotation to eight guys, with three subs who mix in well with his starters. And as far as momentum is concerned, they won five of their last six heading into the postseason.
Their lone loss? At home to the Los Angeles Clippers, who the Grizzlies will have to overcome if they wish to embark upon a deep, dark-horse run.
Not a good sign for Grizzlies. The Clips seem to have their number, with three wins in four meetings against Memphis this season and two road victories against the Grizz in the first round of last year's playoffs, including a miraculous comeback in Game 1 and a stirring effort at the FedEx Forum in Game 7.
The Grizzlies certainly have the talent and the aptitude to give the Oklahoma City Thunder a run for their money in the second round, but only if they're able to take care of business against L.A. first.
As such, the Los Angeles Clippers appear to be a solid bet to crack the second round of the playoffs for the second time in as many years. They've fared well against the Memphis Grizzlies over the last two years and are currently on a roll, with seven consecutive wins to end the most successful regular season in franchise history.
Don't expect the Clips to advance much further than the Western Conference semis, though, what with all of the concerns hanging over their heads. Jamal Crawford and DeAndre Jordan have both dropped off considerably since tasting success earlier in the season.
Blake Griffin, while still a high flier and now a more competent free-throw shooter, isn't nearly as reliable on either end of the floor as a supposed superstar should be. The bench, as deep and productive as it is, won't be nearly as big a factor in the playoffs, when the shortening of rotations leaves far less subpar fodder to be picked at.
And Vinny Del Negro is still their head coach, at least in title.
For all of their depth and talent, the Clippers are still way too reliant on Chris Paul. As great as he may be—as the presumed "Best Point Guard on Planet Earth"—Paul can't be expected to orchestrate the entire offense and apply pressure at the point of attack defensively without being worn down to the nub.
CP3 is certainly capable of carrying the Clips quite a ways. But if history is any guide, we need only look back to 2008, when Paul helped a 56-win New Orleans Hornets squad push the San Antonio Spurs to seven games in the second round, to see where L.A. may be headed if/when they run into the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Okay, so the San Antonio Spurs didn't exactly end the 2012-13 regular season on a high note. They dropped seven out of 10, including their last three in a row, to cement their spot as the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference.
But much of that misery came with Manu Ginobili on the shelf, Tony Parker working his way back from his bum ankle and Gregg Popovich resting the rest of his players rather liberally. Now, the band is together again and ready for another crack at the crown, with Tim Duncan emerging as the apple of every stat geek's eye with his prodigious per-minute production.
To be sure, the road ahead won't be easy for San Antonio. The Los Angeles Lakers, the Spurs' first-round opponent, played them tough all season and have, in many ways, looked like a more unified club since Kobe Bryant went down with a torn Achilles. The Purple and Gold won't be scared, especially after upending the Spurs in their most recent meeting.
Still, the Spurs execute well enough to carve up L.A.'s suspect defense, even if Parker and Ginobili are a ways away from full capacity. The greater concern for San Antonio lies in the subsequent rounds, when it'll be faced with either the relentless Nuggets or the sweet-shooting Warriors before (if they succeed) returning to the Western Conference finals against, in all likelihood, the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Can San Antonio's principals survive the slog without winding up back on the training table? And, if so, will Pop's system allow for enough improvisation to overcome a top-tier defense?
The holes in the New York Knicks' case for a deep playoff run are numerous and varied enough that, in most other years, they'd keep Carmelo Anthony and company from accomplishing much of note.
There's the Knicks' reliance on three-point shooting and the often streaky play of J.R. Smith and their inconsistent effort on the defensive end. They also lack big bodies up front amidst injuries to Tyson Chandler and Kenyon Martin, Amar'e Stoudemire's ongoing recovery from knee surgery and Rasheed Wallace's latest retirement.
To name a few.
But playoff success is so often predicated on matchups, and in the Knicks' case, those should play rather favorably. New York dominated the Boston Celtics, their first-round opponent, in two meetings after Rajon Rondo went down with a torn ACL.
In the second round, the Knicks would face the Pacers, with whom they split the season series but captured the most recent meeting. In each of those series, New York could be said to employ the best player on the floor in Carmelo Anthony, and more often than not, the team with the best player in a series goes on to win it.
And should the Knicks crack the Eastern Conference finals for the first time since 2000, they'd almost assuredly be pitted against the Miami Heat. Beating the defending champs four times out of seven would be a tall task for New York, but far from an impossible one. After all, the Knicks beat the Heat handily on three occasions and held a 16-point second-half lead in the lone loss.
It's no wonder, then, that folks in the Big Apple are so optimistic about the Knicks' chances.
The Western Conference is as deep as it's ever been, but the Oklahoma City Thunder still stand head and shoulders above the competition.
Even with James Harden wearing a Houston Rockets uniform. Harden's success in his new home should make OKC's first-round series a must-watch, though it doesn't figure to last long, considering Houston's porous defense and lack of playoff experience.
A second-round pairing with either the Grizzlies and the Clippers would make for a more challenging trial, especially if Memphis advances. The Thunder swept the Clips in their three meetings but were beaten twice by the Grizz—once on a last-second tip by Marc Gasol.
We all know what the Thunder, with the young legs and the individual scoring talents of Kevin Durant and Westbrook, can do to the Spurs in a Western Conference finals showdown.
Prohibitive favorites in the West though they may be, the Thunder still seem a bit shy of being able to beat the Miami Heat head-to-head. Harden's departure has hurt OKC's ability to create competent half-court offense, particularly in crunch time, and Scott Brooks' insistence on starting Kendrick Perkins has yet to pan out in a positive way when matched against Miami's smaller, more versatile alignment.
Including during this past regular season, when OKC went 0-2 opposite the Heat.
Replicating last year's results will be quite an accomplishment in itself for the Thunder, considering the roster turnover from last season, but it wouldn't figure to satiate the thirst for glory that Durant, Westbrook and company have acquired since.
If I were David Stern, I'd be tempted to hand the Larry O'Brien Trophy to the Miami Heat right now.
Except, watching them work for it figures to be quite the spectacle. They're well rested—but not too well rested—for this run. They've rotated their most important players in and out of the lineup during the eight-game streak they've strung together over the final two weeks of the regular season.
The Heat should get plenty more rest against the Bucks in the first round before going toe-to-toe with either the Bulls or the Nets in the second round. Neither opponent will be easy to push over, though in both cases, Miami will employ the three best players involved.
Carmelo Anthony will have plenty to say about that should the Knicks stand in the Heat's way in the Eastern Conference finals. Still, it's tough to imagine Miami's defense not getting in the mugs of New York's marksmen and clogging the middle whenever 'Melo, Raymond Felton and J.R. Smith try to drive.
It'll be exceedingly difficult (but not impossible) for any Western Conference foe to deny the Heat once they've reached their third NBA Finals in three years. LeBron James has been on another level from his peers all year, and with Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and a fleet of three-point shooters by his side, he should come away with another trophy or two to add to his already formidable collection.