It's never too early to start evaluating teams in the 2013 NBA playoffs...right?
Granted, not even a week has passed since the Association bid adieu to its dregs. Since then, all kinds of coaching carousel carnage has ensued.
Leaving the lottery-bound aside for now—and hopefully, until the NBA draft at the very least—there's been plenty of intrigue to glean from the opening days of the postseason. We've already seen our fair share of last-second shots, surprising performances, mind-boggling blowouts and big-time bouncebacks. All of this bodes well for an exciting journey to the Larry O'Brien Trophy in the weeks to come.
But before we look too far ahead, let's have a look at how the 16 teams left in the NBA's big dance have fared so far. Teams are listed from lowest seed to highest, and the order alternates between Eastern and Western Conference.
I wish I could say that the Houston Rockets' 120-91 loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder in their first game of the 2013 playoffs was a surprise. I want to say that James Harden, Jeremy Lin and company should've, would've and could've put up a better fight, at least for a time. I wish I could say that there's reason to believe the Rockets can push this series any further than five games.
But I can't reasonably say any of that because the previous results between these two teams point to a humbling reality for Houston. The Thunder trounced the Rockets in their first two regular-season meetings by 22 and 30 points, respectively.
The Rockets managed to get on the board in their third tilt, but only after overcoming a 14-point fourth-quarter deficit and with Harden exploding for a career-high 46 points (on an unconscious 14-of-19 shooting from the field) against his old 'mates.
That was nearly the case in Game 2, when Harden tallied 36 points (including 17-of-20 from the free throw line), 11 rebounds and six assists in leading Houston—which went super small with Patrick Beverley starting for Greg Smith—back from a 15-point hole in the fourth quarter. This time, though, the Thunder were prepared for a swift and decisive response.
Regardless of whether the Rockets keep things close or get blown out of the water from the get-go, they still lack the proper seasoning and defensive acumen to put a full-blown scare into Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and their merry band of balling brothers.
As with the Rockets against the Thunder, nobody gave the Milwaukee Bucks much of a chance to so much as steal one win from the Miami Heat. So far, they haven't disappointed.
Unless, of course, you're a Bucks fan, in which case, you probably saw this coming anyway.
In Game 1, Milwaukee tried to top Miami by playing to its presumed strength: its speedy backcourt. Monta Ellis and Brandon Jennings combined to score 48 points on a solid 18-of-39 shooting, but the Bucks still got blown out, 110-87.
In Game 2, the Bucks' bigs stepped up, with Ersan Ilyasova, Larry Sanders and Mike Dunleavy Jr. totaling 51 points. Sanders in particular was a beast on both ends, throwing down dunks on offense and challenging Miami's interior attacks on defense.
But Ellis and Jennings shot 5-of-22, and the Heat all but sealed the Bucks' fate with a 12-0 run to start the fourth quarter on the way to a 98-86 result. Perhaps if Milwaukee could ever get all of its cylinders, big and small, firing at the same time, it might just be able to avoid Miami's broom.
That is, assuming the Heat's pressure defense ever lets up long enough for the Bucks to all get rolling.
Count Rugen from The Princess Bride couldn't have summed up the Los Angeles Lakers' current conundrum any better.
Indeed, it's all well and good that the Lakers have competed as closely with the San Antonio Spurs as they have. What more could LA hope for on the road, with Steve Nash, Steve Blake, and Jodie Meeks all hobbled, Metta World Peace just a few weeks removed from knee surgery, and Kobe Bryant out of the mix entirely on account of a torn Achilles?
The cruel irony of it all is that the early returns—a 91-79 loss in Game 1, and a 102-91 defeat in Game 2—have given corners of Lakers Nation cause for hope. We were down 0-2 to San Antonio in 2004, with a similarly star-studded and hobbled team, and we came back and won anyway. Just wait and see what happens when the Spurs step into Staples Center.
Except Kobe isn't about to limp (much less walk) through that door. Neither is Shaquille O'Neal with his TV ties. Nor is Derek Fisher, whose iconic "0.4" shot gave the Lakers the series lead over San Antonio in 2004. He's back on the bench in Oklahoma City.
As much as the optimistic Angeleno in me wants to believe that the Lakers have a fighting chance against an aging imperial power in the West, the body count in head trainer Gary Vitti's office makes the writing on the wall that much more obvious for the Purple and Gold.
Should anyone be shocked that the Boston Celtics have struggled as mightily as they have to score against the New York Knicks so far?
In a word, no. The C's ranked 20th in offensive efficiency, with 101.1 points per 100 possessions, during the regular season. That number improved slightly, to 102.5 points per 100 possessions, after Rajon Rondo went down with a torn ACL.
Truth be told, Boston could use his services right about now. For all the gripes about Rondo's spotty play during the regular season, there's no denying the extent to which he has consistently raised his game during the playoffs and how he made his aging teammates better by doing so.
So, as woeful as Boston's back-to-back, sub-30-point second halves have undoubtedly been, the fact that they've come in Rondo's (and Ray Allen's) absence against a motivated Knicks squad that's capable of clamping down on D is hardly news worthy of halted presses.
There's an honest-to-goodness upset brewing in the West, and the Golden State Warriors deserve plenty of praise for it.
If you're a skeptic, you might say that the Warriors were lucky to hang around in Game 1, that Kenneth Faried's absence left the door wide open for Golden State to steal a win at the Pepsi Center.
You might also say that the Dubs would be hard-pressed to replicate the combination of factors that contributed to their 131-117 win in Game 2. Stephen Curry had 30 points and 13 assists. Klay Thompson and Harrison Barnes caught fire, and the team as a whole shot 64.6 percent from the field, setting a franchise-playoff record.
On the flip side, it wouldn't take much to convince any Bay Area optimist to dust off those old "We Believe" shirts. The Nuggets needed an out-of-the-blue, 28-point performance from the 37-year-old Andre Miller just to escape with a victory in Game 1 and got precious little out of a clearly hobbled Faried in Game 2, while the Warriors sauntered to a huge win without the injured David Lee.
As a result, the Warriors snapped the Nuggets' 24-game home winning streak and came agonizingly close to cutting it at 23. They outshot Denver from three and outmuscled them on the boards in both games. And best of all, Golden State still employs the best player in this series in Curry.
Perhaps the skeptics (that I admittedly invented) should change their respective tunes, lest they be left to languish if/when the Dubs take control of the series in Oakland.
Too bad the Warriors can't be the sixth seed in both conferences. Instead, those in desperate need of an NBA playoff fix are left with the listless Atlanta Hawks.
Assuming, of course, those in question care to flip over to NBATV, to which to the Hawks have (rightly) been relegated.
Atlanta's issues were all on full display in Game 1 against the Indiana Pacers. The Hawks, sans Zaza Pachulia, were battered on the boards by the big, bad Pacers, 48-32. Paul George (17-of-18 at the stripe) outshot the tentative Hawks (7-of-14) from the free-throw line all by himself. Josh Smith launched seven jumpers from 20 feet and beyond...and missed six of them.
The Hawks came out to play to a greater extent in Game 2—on the offensive end, anyway. They allowed the Pacers to pummel them for 113 points, a whopping 63 of which came between the second and third quarters.
In short, these were the Hawks that folks in Atlanta have come to know and loathe. A quick exit, followed by another major roster shakeup over the summer, seems to be the appropriate path for this group going forward.
The Memphis Grizzlies can mope all they want about the no-calls on the last play of Game 2 against the Los Angeles Clippers. The fact remains that the Clips have their number...and the best player in the series. Memphis has lost six of its last seven meetings with LA, dating back to last year's Game 7 at the FedEx Forum.
Not that the Grizz are doomed by any means. They were within striking distance of the Clips through the first three quarters of Game 1 before getting blown out in the fourth and stormed their way back from a double-digit deficit with just over nine minutes to go in Game 2 before finally succumbing to Chris Paul's controversial finish.
As great as their defense has been all season, the Grizzlies can't hope to get by on that alone. They'll need more from their perimeter players, particularly Tayshaun Prince (2-of-10 in Game 2) in the starting lineup and Jerryd Bayless (1-of-4 in Game 2) off the bench, to ease the burden on Mike Conley Jr. and open up space in the middle for Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph to operate.
The Chicago Bulls are fortunate to be paired with such an inconsistent squad in the Brooklyn Nets considering how "Jekyll and Hyde" they've been themselves all season.
The Bulls bounced back from a 17-point Game 1 beatdown in Brooklyn in brilliant fashion by tangling the Nets in their web-like defense. The Nets scored a paltry 82 points on 35.4 percent shooting while getting beat up on the boards by the hobbled Bulls.
Save for a shocking return from Derrick Rose, Chicago's hopes will ultimately rest on the fate of Joakim Noah's painful foot. The All-Star big man was largely ineffective during his 13 minutes in Game 1, but came up huge in Game 2, with 11 points, 10 rebounds, three assists and two blocks in 25 minutes.
The more Tom Thibodeau can coax out of Noah, the better the Bulls' odds of advancing to a second-round series against the Miami Heat become.
There's a lot to like about the way the Los Angeles Clippers have looked so far. They are active, energetic and engaged on defense and more than willing to move the ball around on offense. But when things (inevitably) stall in the fourth quarter, Chris Paul's been ready, willing and able to rise to the occasion as he so often has since he first landed in LA.
The superstar point guard scored each of the Clippers' last eight points in Game 2 against the Memphis Grizzlies, including the winning bucket in the closing seconds with the score tied at 91.
Whatever adjustments the Grizzlies make as the series moves back to the River City, the Clips can always count on one advantage in particular: They have CP3 on their side and Memphis doesn't.
Like the Clippers with CP3, the Brooklyn Nets can confide in the fact that they employ the best (healthy) player in their series in Deron Williams.
Not that simply having D-Will on their side will be enough to push the Nets to their first playoff series victory since 2007. That much was clear in Game 2 against the Bulls, when Williams hit just one of his nine attempts from the field in a 90-82 loss for Brooklyn. Chicago smothered him from start to finish, with Kirk Hinrich leading the way and Jimmy Butler and Luol Deng providing help early and often.
Such is the conundrum for the Nets. They need D-Will to be their catalyst, as he was with 22 points and seven assists in Game 1. But with offensive non-entities like Gerald Wallace, Reggie Evans and Keith Bogans in the rotation, Brooklyn is practically begging Chicago's defenders to leave their assignments and clog the middle.
And it worked to a tee. After hitting 6-of-7 from within nine feet in Game 1, Williams managed just three looks (and one make) from that range in Game 2. It's imperative, then, that the Nets devise other ways to open up driving lanes for D-Will if they're to regain control of this series in the Windy City.
The Denver Nuggets can't simply brush off the Golden State Warriors' statistical aberration.
Not because the Warriors are likely to shoot 65 percent from the field again, but rather because they probably didn't need to be so scorching hot to snap Denver's 24-game home winning streak. The Warriors whooped the Nuggets by 14 points in Game 2 without David Lee and just three days after coming within an Andre Miller fourth-quarter bonanza of stealing Game 1.
Denver, then, should feel fortunate to be heading to Oakland with the series tied. Its perimeter defense—an Achilles' heel all season—has left much to be desired. Kenneth Faried was hobbled in his return from an ankle injury (and even that's putting it mildly), and the Nuggets' other principal starters (Ty Lawson, Wilson Chandler and Andre Iguodala) have performed unevenly at best.
Denver had better get its act together in a hurry before the Dubs grab this series by the horns at home.
Aside from allowing the Atlanta Hawks to shoot 50 percent from the floor, the Indiana Pacers couldn't have hoped to play much better than they did in Game 1 of their first-round playoff series. They outboarded the Hawks by 16 and six players registered double figures, including Paul George, who led the way with an impressive postseason triple-double (23 points, 11 rebounds, 12 assists).
George's virtuous performance helped bring an end to a disconcerting funk into which he and the Pacers had plummeted down the stretch of the regular season. He did plenty to keep the new-found roll going in Game 2, stuffing the stat sheet with 27 points, eight rebounds, three assists, four steals and a block in Indy's 113-98 win.
Indy's back-to-back shellackings of the haphazard Hawks hardly guarantees a four-game sweep for the Central Division champs, but the way in which the Pacers have opened the postseason has to be encouraging to all those who saw the potential in this team when it went toe-to-toe with the Miami Heat in last year's playoffs.
The San Antonio Spurs seemed vulnerable to a first-round upset against the Los Angeles Lakers.
That is, until the long-time rivals set foot on the floor for Game 1. San Antonio reaffirmed its advantage over the Kobe Bryant-less Lakers in a big way thanks to standout performances from each of its Big Three.
Tim Duncan took Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol to school, Tony Parker sliced and diced his way through LA's porous D and Manu Ginobili burned the Lakers for 18 points in 19 minutes off the bench—including eight straight to close the third quarter—to boost the Spurs to a 91-79 win.
Mind you, the Spurs hit just 37.6 percent of their shots in that game after failing to crack the 40 percent plateau just eight times during the 2012-13 campaign.
Predictably enough, San Antonio shot much better in Game 2 (51.2 percent) and came away with a similar result thanks in no small part to the Lakers' ongoing issues with a traveling infestation of injury bugs.
It's probably pure coincidence that the Spurs are getting healthier while the Lakers' bodies are crumbling. But given the long-standing rivalry between these two teams, it's not difficult to imagine Timmy and company using this series to suck the life force out of their old foes like a pack of basketball vampires thirsting for another trophy.
At the moment, it appears that the New York Knicks are fortunate to be matched up against a Boston Celtics squad whose offense has hit the skids in a big way.
The Knicks went 3-9 during the regular season when they failed to score at least 90 points in a game, but are now 2-0 in these playoffs when doing so. Carmelo Anthony, J.R. Smith and Raymond Felton have carried nearly the entirety of New York's scoring load so far, with Tyson Chandler struggling with a neck injury and the Knicks' corps of perimeter shooters still finding their collective range.
You could say, then, that the Knicks, as impressive as their second-half defense has been, have plenty of room for improvement. That's a good thing for a team with New York's lofty postseason aspirations. The Knicks certainly have the talent and potential to play better than they have so far against these C's.
But they won't reach (much less exceed) their ceiling without an active and effective Chandler manning the middle.
Pity the poor Houston Rockets. The youngest team in the NBA shouldn't have to begin its maiden playoff voyage against a team as talented, experienced and still youthful as are the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Not that the defending Western Conference champions care—or seem to, anyway. The Thunder thumped the Rockets by 29 points to tip off their own journey back to the NBA Finals and followed that up by ripping out Houston's collective heart after putting the kibosh on a fourth-quarter comeback in Game 2. James Harden, Jeremy Lin and company may push OKC as this series, but likely no more so than the Dallas Mavericks did during last year's first-round sweep.
Because as much of a revelation as Harden has been for Houston, he can hardly outshine Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka, even if Lin shakes his playoff jitters.
And especially with Durant doing his darndest to finish better than second this time around.
I'll bet most cats break a bigger sweat toying with mice than the Miami Heat have with the Milwaukee Bucks. In each of their first two playoff games, the Heat have so "graciously" allowed the Bucks to hang around in the first half before, you know, remembering these games actually matter and turning on the afterburners in the second half.
Miami waited a while longer to get things going in Game 2, though a 12-0 spurt to start the fourth quarter quickly put any concern to rest. The Bucks' size, between Larry Sanders on the inside and Ersan Ilyasova on the outside, gave the Heat some problems.
But certainly not enough to think they won't be swept away by the defending champs, much less derail Miami's march back to the NBA Finals in any meaningful way. At this point, the Heat's biggest threat is their own transcendence. They may be vulnerable if (and only if) they tire of dominating their present opposition.
Short of that, expect the Heat to romp through the first round on the strength of LeBron James' brilliance, Dwyane Wade's sidekick superstardom, Chris Bosh's front-court versatility, the three-point shooting of their supporting cast and—last, but certainly not least—the manic energy of Chris "Birdman" Andersen.