Updated NBA Playoff Power Rankings, Post-Russell Wesbrook Injury
The 2013 NBA playoffs haven't been quite as exciting as most expected at the outset. Of the 19 games played thus far, 13 have been decided by double digits, including all seven games involving the Miami Heat, Indiana Pacers and San Antonio Spurs.
Not that there hasn't been plenty of cause for interest and intrigue otherwise, especially now that Russell Westbrook is bound for the first injury-related hiatus of his entire basketball life. His knee surgery will undoubtedly put a damper on the Oklahoma City Thunder's title hopes and shake up the playoff picture out West for however long his recovery lasts.
As you can imagine, then, there has been some substantial reshuffling of this year's postseason participants in relation to last week's power rankings.
So where do all 16 teams stand now? And what effect does Russ' bit of bad news figure to have in the grand scheme? Don't let me spoil it for you. Just read on to find out!
16. Milwaukee Bucks
The Milwaukee Bucks have tried every which way to make headway against the Miami Heat.
In Game 1, they gleaned 20-point performances from Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis...and lost by 23.
In Game 2, Larry Sanders and Ersan Ilyasova stepped up on both ends of the floor...and the Bucks lost by 12, largely on account of a 12-0 run by the Heat to start the fourth quarter.
In Game 3, Milwaukee registered six players in double figures and even owned the lead at halftime...and wound up losing by 13.
At this point, it appears as though the Bucks would need near-perfect performances from most (if not all) of their principals just to avoid getting swept out of the playoffs by a Heat team still on autopilot.
Realistically, that was always going to be the case for Milwaukee or any other team unfortunate enough to draw a first-round matchup with the defending champs.
15. Los Angeles Lakers
For those of you who still haven't stuck a fork in the 2012-13 Los Angeles Lakers, now is as good a time as any to do so.
The news regarding Steve Blake's hamstring (per Dave McMenamin of ESPN) merely adds to a mountain of misery that has befallen this star-crossed roster. Between Blake, Kobe Bryant (torn Achilles), Steve Nash (hip, hamstring) and Jodie Meeks (ankle), L.A.'s backcourt has now been reduced to a harrowing hodgepodge of Darius Morris, Chris Duhon and Andrew Goudelock.
These are not exactly guys you'd want to see playing heavy minutes against Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili.
With all of this being said, I certainly understand why there's still hope in Lakerland. L.A. has managed to hang tough with a relatively healthy San Antonio squad that should probably have carved the Lakers to bits so far in this series.
The Purple and Gold performed with a similar admirability during the regular season. They suffered narrow defeats to the Spurs—once without Steve Nash, once without Pau Gasol and once without Dwight Howard—and beat their Texas nemeses in the first game after Kobe Bryant's Achilles tendon popped.
Nonetheless, it's high time to bury these Lakers once and for all, as painful as that may be for many.
The memory of the 2004 Western Conference semifinals will undoubtedly come flooding back if they win Game 3 at home. But those who sip that Kool-Aid should remember that Kobe, Shaquille O'Neal and Derek Fisher aren't about to stroll back into the Staples Center any time soon.
Not in Lakers jerseys, anyway.
14. Boston Celtics
Like their longtime rivals, the Boston Celtics are quickly approaching the light at the end of the proverbial tunnel on account of injuries and the crippling damage they've wrought upon the team's offense.
The C's were bound to struggle to some extent. Rajon Rondo's torn ACL left Boston without a true point guard and only an aging Paul Pierce, an impotent Jason Terry and a defensively focused Avery Bradley among whom to divvy up the remaining duties.
But even that reality can't excuse the Celtics managing just 48 points combined during their two second halves against the New York Knicks in these playoffs. Not to take away from what the Knicks defense has accomplished, but the C's depressing lack of firepower, creativity and ball-handling has made New York's job that much easier.
Perhaps the Celtics will be re-energized by an emotional home crowd. Perhaps Kevin Garnett will overcome his hip pointer to lead Boston back from the brink. Perhaps Pierce and Terry will take care of the ball.
Even so, it's tough to imagine the C's pushing this series to six or seven games as so many had expected, unless Tyson Chandler remains as limited as he's been so far.
13. Atlanta Hawks
Part of me is inclined to give the Atlanta Hawks some credit right now.
They played much better in Game 2 than they did in Game 1. They may well have been able to sneak out of Bankers Life Fieldhouse with a win if not for some fluky plays that favored the Indiana Pacers and a toxic combination of foul and ankle troubles for Josh Smith.
Then again, most of me sees that the Hawks gave up 113 points and lost by 15 anyway, even though they played much harder than they did in a listless 17-point loss in Game 1.
Unless they can find a way to keep Paul George, George Hill and Roy Hibbert from stringing together reels of their own at the "Highlight Factory" in Atlanta, the Hawks will soon find themselves preparing for what looks to be another offseason rife with roster turnover.
12. Houston Rockets
Russell Westbrook's knee injury leaves the door open for the Houston Rockets to give the Oklahoma City Thunder some serious trouble in the first round.
Granted, we're not talking about the sort of trouble that the eighth-seed Philadelphia 76ers inflicted upon the top-seed Chicago Bulls after Derrick Rose went down in last year's playoffs. Those Bulls relied almost entirely on Rose to generate offense, while this year's Thunder still have their primary scorer (Kevin Durant) fit for duty.
And a 2-0 lead on the Rockets to boot. Houston showed plenty in a three-point Game 2 loss to suggest they might be able to steal a game at home, even with Westbrook in the lineup. Now that Russ is out, it's conceivable that Houston will push OKC to six or seven games, all the while reminding the Thunder of what they gave up when they traded away James Harden prior to the season.
Still, don't expect the Rockets to sneak away with this series in tow—or for Durant to let them.
11. Brooklyn Nets
The Brooklyn Nets' overall preference for slow, deliberate, isolation offense appears to be playing perfectly into the hands of the Chicago Bulls.
Since shredding Chicago's usually staunch defense for 106 points in Game 1, Brooklyn has failed to crack the 90-point plateau. The Nets have shot a shade under 35 percent from the field overall in a pair of losses to the beat-up, undermanned Bulls.
To be sure, part of the problem stems from Tom Thibodeau whipping P.J. Carlesimo's rear end in the head-to-head coaching matchup.
Thibs is a recent Coach of the Year, defensive guru and motivational mastermind. P.J. is, more or less, the guy who got the job because Avery Johnson couldn't handle it. He still has it because another P.J. (Phil Jackson) probably wasn't keen to jump on it.
Of greater importance, though, is Deron Williams' struggles since Game 1. In Game 2, D-Will had trouble scoring (eight points on 1-of-9 from the field), but he still chipped in 10 assists.
Williams wound up with better scoring numbers in Game 3 (18 points on 5-of-14), but he was nowhere near the distributor he had been or is capable of being. He also managed just two points in the fourth quarter.
Strangely enough, that was when the Nets made their run as the Bulls' punchless offense stagnated.
For all the talent on Brooklyn's roster, the Nets still lack both the system and the personnel to accentuate Williams' gifts as a ball-handler and distributor, particularly in the pick-and-roll. In the absence of those crucial ingredients, the Nets offense becomes a predictable slog, which is a no-no against just about any modern NBA defense.
That's especially true against Thibodeau, who practically invented the newer ways in which teams attempt to stifle each other.
10. Chicago Bulls
So much for the Chicago Bulls needing steady production out of Joakim Noah to win.
After getting blown out in Game 1, when Noah barely played, and coming out ahead in Game 2, when he registered a double-double, the Bulls bullied the Brooklyn Nets in Game 3 with their All-Star center scoring just one point.
Of course, he did plenty of other things on the floor aside from scoring. Noah blocked a pair of shots, grabbed eight rebounds and played a part in containing Nets big man Brook Lopez during the former's 27 minutes on the floor.
It makes sense that the Bulls would find a way to prevail without Noah at his best, though. They've been anything but a one-man team since Derrick Rose's injury woes first arose last season. They certainly haven't shifted the burden of their superstars onto the shoulders of just one remaining player.
From Noah and Luol Deng to Carlos Boozer, Kirk Hinrich and Chicago's pared-down bench, everyone has chipped in to keep the team on the winning track.
9. Denver Nuggets
The Denver Nuggets would appear to be in a spot of trouble at the moment.
They barely escaped Game 1 against the Golden State Warriors unscathed. They needed 37-year-old Andre Miller to save the day with 18 points in the fourth quarter, including the game-winning bucket in the waning moments.
Kenneth Faried came back in time for Game 2, though he was noticeably hobbled during his 21-minute stint. He was of little help, as the Warriors went on to drop 131 points in ending Denver's 24-game home winning streak.
The Nuggets will need to step up their perimeter defense in a big way going forward, lest they let their franchise-record-setting season slip by without a playoff-series win.
But doing so could be a tall order. Denver's 19-22 road record will be put to the test in Games 3 and 4 at Oracle Arena. The Warriors compiled a 28-13 mark in front of one of the NBA's most raucous home crowds this season.
8. Golden State Warriors
The Golden State Warriors are poised to put the Ewing Theory to the test from here on out.
They nearly upended the Denver Nuggets in Game 1 after losing David Lee to a torn hip flexor. They blew away the Nuggets in Game 2 without their All-Star big man, thanks to a fusillade of three-pointers from Golden State's small-ball lineup.
Sustaining such excellence sans Lee will be anything but a picnic for the Warriors, even in their own gym. The Nuggets are long on talent, and head coach George Karl has been around long enough to know which adjustments to make and when.
Still, the Dubs have every reason to feel good about where they stand right now with home court in their favor. If Klay Thompson and Harrison Barnes can continue to produce in support of Stephen Curry, they'll have every opportunity to spring their second upset in their last two postseason appearances.
The other? The "We Believe" Warriors' monumental takedown of the top-seeded Dallas Mavericks in 2007.
7. Memphis Grizzlies
It was only a matter of time before the Memphis Grizzlies' constant physicality got under the skin of the Los Angeles Clippers—and before Zach Randolph rediscovered his scoring touch.
Both of those Memphis staples returned with a vengeance in Game 3, as the Grizzlies trounced the Clips at the FedEx Forum, 94-82. Z-Bo piled up 27 points, 11 rebounds, two assists and a steal while bullying Blake Griffin, his current archnemesis, at every opportunity.
For the most part, Randolph's tactics worked. He drew both a technical foul on Griffin and a flagrant foul on Matt Barnes, who serves as L.A.'s "enforcer."
On the whole, the Grizz finally ground the game down to a pace of their own choosing after watching the Clips run wild at the Staples Center in the first two meetings. They held L.A. to modest points totals on the break (nine), off turnovers (12) and in the paint (26).
And for the first time, Memphis managed to corral Chris Paul, who finished the evening with eight points and four assists.
The Grizzlies were always going to need to muck things up to challenge this deep, talented and (relatively) young Clippers squad. If Memphis can maintain this slower pace going forward, it may yet have an opportunity to exact revenge for last year's seven-game defeat.
6. Oklahoma City Thunder
The Oklahoma City Thunder were well on their way to sweeping the Houston Rockets and winning the Western Conference once again.
That is, until Russell Westbrook knocked knees with Rockets guard Patrick Beverley and tore the meniscus in his right knee. Westbrook will undergo surgery to repair the tear, leaving the Thunder without one of their two superstar perimeter talents on whom to rely for however long Russ has to sit.
How OKC fares in the interim will depend as much on what Kevin Durant does to take his game to the next level as on what the rest of the Thunder's guards to do fill in the gaps. Kevin Martin must shoot (and score) more off the bench. Reggie Jackson must attack with a greater abandon. Derek Fisher must do his best to shave a handful of years off of his 38-year-old frame.
And general manager Sam Presti must refrain from smashing his head into a wall on account of whatever regret he may or may not feel for trading James Harden prior to the season and Eric Maynor at the deadline.
The Thunder still have the requisite blend of talent and experience to outlast the Rockets in the first round, and could make a run at their third consecutive Western Conference Finals appearance, assuming Durant flips the switch into "Beast Mode" from this point forward.
On the whole, though, OKC's survival is riding on the ability of its entire roster to band together to fill in every conceivable gap and on Scott Brooks to pull off the coaching job of a lifetime.
It's a tall task, to be sure, but certainly not an impossible one for these Thunder to complete.
5. Los Angeles Clippers
The Los Angeles Clippers shouldn't be too concerned about their Game 3 loss to the Memphis Grizzlies. They still own home-court advantage in the series and only need to recapture the pace of play to put their newfound rivals at a disadvantage.
But therein lies the danger for L.A.
Memphis doesn't typically make mistakes in volumes that would suit the Clippers' fast break. And after the rash of hard fouls and erstwhile contact that led to confrontation, it's clear that the Grizzlies have snuck their way back into the heads of those Clippers who aren't as calm, cool and collected as is Chris Paul.
(Who, by the way, had his own issues against Memphis' stifling defense at FedEx Forum, as his eight points and four assists will surely attest.)
At some point, the Clips are going to have to score consistently in the half court and deal with the body blows that come with playoff competition if they're to do anything more than flame out in the first or second round. They could also use a more levelheaded Blake Griffin, whose tiff with Zach Randolph once again landed him in foul trouble and hamstrung L.A.'s offense as a result.
But, if the pieces come together for LA as they should, the Clips' path to a conference crown will be clearer than ever, now that OKC is without Russell Westbrook.
4. Indiana Pacers
The 2013 NBA playoffs are quickly turning into Paul George's nationally televised coming-out party—not that George is exactly a well-kept secret anymore. He played his way into the All-Star Game back in February, though he struggled down the stretch of the regular season.
By the looks of things, George has found his form again...and then some.
He came storming out of the gate with his first postseason triple-double (23 points, 11 rebounds, 12 assists) to propel Indy to a 17-point win in Game 1. He continued to stuff the stat sheet in Game 2 (27 points, eight rebounds, three assists, four steals, one block) as the Indiana Pacers came out ahead by 15.
No disrespect to Roy Hibbert and George Hill, both of whom have performed exceedingly well for Indy to this point, but the Pacers' hopes in these playoffs (and beyond) will hinge on George's ability to play like a bona fide superstar.
3. San Antonio Spurs
Is it just me, or do these San Antonio Spurs resemble a pack of vampires in high tops?
For one, they never seem to age. And by "they," I mean Tim Duncan, who just turned 37 but has been playing like a big man in the midst of his prime. "The Big Fundamental" has done a fine job of abusing Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol on both ends of the floor, despite being significantly older and sporting way more NBA mileage than either of them.
Secondly, the Spurs seem to be sucking the life right out of the Los Angeles Lakers.
While San Antonio's players—particularly Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker—are getting healthy, L.A.'s continue to drop like flies. Steve Blake and Jodie Meeks joined Steve Nash and Kobe Bryant among the wounded.
Like most good vampires, the Spurs are lurking in the shadows of the title race. Now that Russell Westbrook is on the shelf for the Thunder, the West may well be San Antonio's to lose, thanks in no small part to their beautifully executed offense, their top-notch defense, and their collective wealth of playoff experience.
2. New York Knicks
The New York Knicks used almost the exact same formula to blow by the Boston Celtics in each of their two meetings at Madison Square Garden in these playoffs.
In both games, the Knicks came out hot in the first quarter behind streaky scoring from Carmelo Anthony and J.R. Smith. They slowed down in the second quarter as the C's coasted into the locker room with a lead. Then they blitzed Boston in the second half behind stifling defense and another combined barrage from 'Melo and Smith.
New York's D has been particularly impressive, even in light of how limited Boston is offensively. The Knicks limited the C's to 25 points over the final 24 minutes of Game 1, only to best that with a 23-point performance over the same time frame in Game 2.
And it's not as though the Knicks have been operating at full capacity either.
Tyson Chandler's been slowed by the lingering effects of a neck injury. His ineffectiveness has provided Kenyon Martin ample opportunity to prove that he's not just some scrap-heap schlub.
If Chandler can ever get himself right, New York should be able to scoot by Boston in four or five. Otherwise, the Knicks had better be prepared to go six or seven to oust the C's, especially if Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce have anything to say about it.
1. Miami Heat
Like the second-seeded Knicks, the Miami Heat have made minced meat of the Milwaukee Bucks. They've all gone something like this, with Miami's 104-91 win in Game 3 serving as the blueprint:
Part 1: The Heat let the Bucks hang around in the first half, perhaps even with Milwaukee taking a lead into the locker room. Milwaukee went up by as many as nine points during the first two periods and entered the break up 50-48.
Part 2: Miami starts to play with a bit more determination coming out of halftime. The Heat hit their first three shots of the third quarter to regain the lead.
Part 3: Between the end of the third and the beginning of the fourth, the Heat go on a quick run to put the Bucks away. Miami used a 14-1 run during a four-minute span that began in the third and ended in the fourth to go up 85-69 with just under 11 minutes remaining.
LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and Co. are just toying with the Bucks before they move on to the second round. And should the Thunder fail to return to the Finals on account of Russell Westbrook's injury, the Heat could find their run to a second straight title even smoother than anyone might've imagined.
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