Will the league's two biggest stars match up again in the Finals? Or are the Oklahoma City Thunder done after the injury to Russell Westbrook?
The crystal ball is shattered.
Anyone’s predictable image of an NBA Finals rematch between the Oklahoma City Thunder and Miami Heat mutated into a tempestuous spin of the roulette wheel.
At least on one half of the postseason bracket.
While the Heat maintain their standing as favorites in the East, the season-ending injury to Thunder superstar Russell Westbrook has turned the West into a pretzel.
The Western Conference is now intertwined with matching levels of talent, and there’s no clear favorite—except for perhaps the San Antonio Spurs.
As witnessed in Oklahoma City's ongoing struggle to close out the Houston Rockets, it’s undeniable that the sheer dominance of the Thunder is now lost.
Some of the lesser postseason bids have already been dropped, but the Rockets and Boston Celtics remain alive.
The Kobe Bryant tweet-fest didn’t last as long as the Los Angeles Lakers’ postseason, but it was far more entertaining than the team’s sweep to the Spurs. The Milwaukee Bucks also served as a first-round sacrifice, being swept to the Heat.
With now just 14 teams left standing in the NBA postseason, and one less superstar, the odds just got a little better for everyone—except the Thunder.
Current standing: Down 3-2 vs. Chicago Bulls, would play Miami Heat
The Brooklyn Nets are the biggest long shots remaining in the NBA's postseason to win a title.
Down in the series against the injured Chicago Bulls and dealing with their own injury to Joe Johnson, the Nets could play their final game of the season on Thursday.
Johnson is dealing with painful, limiting plantar fasciitis, and the Nets already struggle drastically from lack of depth.
Joe Johnson said if it was the regular season he probably wouldn't be playing. Said, essentially, he's playing on one leg. #Nets— Andy Vasquez (@andy_vasquez) May 1, 2013
Johnson, in the postseason, is shooting 44.7 percent from the field, but he's shooting just 29.6 percent (1.6-of-5.4) from three-point range. Deron Williams has been mostly good—except for a rough Game 2—and he is averaging 20.6 points and 8.2 assists.
But aside from the starting backcourt and starting forward Gerald Wallace, there's no depth at the wing position.
C.J. Watson is playing 24.8 minutes per game at guard, but the other reserve guards are Jerry Stackhouse (1.3 points per game) and MarShon Brooks (0.4 points).
Only seven players are playing more than 12 minutes per game.
Brook Lopez has been sensational, however, and he is averaging 23.6 points and 8.0 rebounds.
#Nets points allowed per 100 possessions in playoffs: With Lopez 95.5; Without Lopez 118.9— Mike Mazzeo (@MazzESPN) May 1, 2013
But Lopez and Williams can't do it alone, and the lack of depth for the Nets is likely going to cost them the first-round series against the Bulls.
Even if they did pull off wins in Games 6 and 7, Brooklyn just becomes the next sacrifice to the Miami Heat.
Current standing: Down 3-2 vs. Oklahoma City Thunder, would play Memphis Grizzlies-Los Angeles Clippers winner
For all the excitement that comes with rallying for two consecutive wins after being behind 3-0 in the series against the Thunder, there's also reality.
Reality says: We all must calm down about the Houston Rockets.
Because, even without Russell Westbrook, the Thunder still have too much talent. Right?
Well, if not, the Rockets are still the most inconsistent team still playing. Aren't they?
But the statement is already being made by the West's up-and-coming Rockets. Houston is young and loaded with potential. There is no doubt that James Harden is a superstar, and Omer Asik and Chandler Parsons are potent stars in the making.
Props to the Houston Rockets. They are the youngest team in the playoffs, but they certainly don't play like it. They have a bright future.— Alex Kennedy (@AlexKennedyNBA) May 2, 2013
Still, four consecutive wins against the Westbrook-less Thunder is far-fetched. Can Francisco Garcia and Harden combine for 12-of-21 three-pointers next time the teams play in Oklahoma City?
For a No. 8 seed to come this far is impressive, but it has more to do with the adjustments of Oklahoma City's roster than it does a Rockets team ready for success through the postseason.
A first-round upset is unlikely; a run at the title is unimaginable.
Still, Houston's Royce White will have his moment:
Current standing: Down 3-2 vs. Indiana Pacers, would play New York Knicks-Boston Celtics winner
The hot-blooded tumbles of the Atlanta Hawks have once again spoiled their trip to Indiana.
“In games 1 and 2 we were not a very aggressive team, and we complained about all of the calls," said Hawks coach Larry Drew (via Jeff Schultz, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution). "You have to play through that. You can’t let that be a reason why we don’t play well.”
The Hawks received three technical fouls Wednesday, delivered to Josh Smith, Jeff Teague and Ivan Johnson.
But ultimately, it was just another road loss for the Hawks in a series that's been all about the road loss.
Including playoffs, Pacers are 4-0 at HOME this season vs Hawks, and ATL enters tonight on a 7-game playoff road losing streak.— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) May 1, 2013
Atlanta returns Friday to its home, where it has won 13 straight against the Pacers. Since all wins in this series have been double-digit, home victories, it stands to reason that this series could go seven games.
But the Hawks won't win on the road until they can play equally as physical in Indiana as they can in Georgia. And when things aren't going their way, the Hawks must keep cool heads.
If Atlanta finds a way to win at home and somehow claims the—gasp—unthinkable road win, it will need to keep greater composure in the next round on the grander stage of either New York or Boston.
Current standing: Down 3-2 vs. New York Knicks, would play Atlanta Hawks-Indiana Pacers winner
Somebody hit repeat on that Daughtry song. (Don't pretend like you don't know the one.)
"It's not over."
The Boston Celtics will bring the series back to Boston after a Game 5 victory at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday. It isn't over for the pair of veterans, 35-year-old Paul Pierce and 36-year-old Kevin Garnett.
Their NBA funeral, as hoped for by Knicks forward Kenyon Martin, won't commence for at least another day.
For fun, the Celtics should wear all black to the next two games vs. the Knicks.— Jeff Zillgitt (@JeffZillgitt) May 2, 2013
The Celtics can continue to hang on by utilizing one of the best perimeter defenses in the league and limiting Carmelo Anthony, J.R. Smith and Raymond Felton.
If the jump-shooting Knicks stay cooled off, as they were in Game 5, the Celtics could sneak away with two more wins and a series upset.
Of course, the Celtics will also need more career moments from Pierce and Garnett to not only move past New York, but also to move past the Pacers or Hawks and eventually against the Miami Heat.
Current standing: Up 3-2 vs. Brooklyn Nets, would play Miami Heat
Nate Robinson is not a sustainable offense.
The Bulls reserve guard-turned-star scorer is averaging 27 points in the last two games, including his 23-point performance in the fourth quarter of Chicago's Game 4 triple-overtime victory.
But if that's what it takes to win, the Bulls are obviously in trouble.
The plantar fasciitis of Joakim Noah continues to plague the All-Star center, though he continues to play through the pain.
Bulls C Joakim Noah on plantar fasciitis: "It feels like you have needles underneath your foot while you're playing."— Jeff Zillgitt (@JeffZillgitt) April 25, 2013
The same, obviously, can't be said for Derrick Rose, who doesn't appear to be giving up his suit for a jersey anytime soon.
Does Rose owe it to his teammates to play? Not according to Bulls players quoted by Chicago Tribune's K.C. Johnson.
Kirk Hinrich said:
I haven’t heard one ill word said about it. You give a guy who has that type of character the benefit of the doubt. We know that he’s such a big part of this organization and this team that we trust he’s making the right decision for that and for himself.
And Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau:
There is a big difference between the type of injury that he has had and all these other injuries. And we certainly appreciate what all the other guys are doing, but Derrick has had a very serious injury. It requires time. He’s 24 years old. We’re not going to rush him back.
When he’s completely comfortable, that’s when we want him out there. If that means we wait another game, if that means we wait until next year, so be it. We want him completely comfortable and we’re not going to make that mistake.
If Rose is not returning though, the Bulls certainly won't advance past the Miami Heat in the second round—of course, that's if they make it past the Nets.
Current standing: Down 3-2 vs. Memphis Grizzlies, would play Houston Rockets-Oklahoma City Thunder winner
The ancillary storyline in the Western Conference continues to be the Los Angeles Clippers.
Always in the shadow of big brother, the Los Angeles Lakers' exit interviews garnered more attention than the Clippers' playoff game against the Grizzlies.
But at the end of the day, the Clippers may not move the needle any further than the Lakers did anyway.
The Clippers are on the verge of a complete first-round collapse. After opening the series with two home wins, the Grizzlies have become too unstoppable inside and have won three in a row.
The injury to Blake Griffin's ankle only provides more interior suffering.
Blake Griffin on ankle sprain: 'I've never had one this bad before' latimes.com/sports/sportsn…— Melissa Rohlin (@melissarohlin) May 1, 2013
Chris Paul has maintained his top-tier play, as he is averaging 21.8 points on 50 percent shooting and tallying 6.0 assists per game. But Paul won't be enough to save the Clippers.
Chris Paul played great but he needs help from Blake Griffin and the other Clippers. #NBA— Earvin Magic Johnson (@MagicJohnson) May 1, 2013
Potentially without Griffin, who is questionable for Friday's Game 6, the Clippers will need more production from DeAndre Jordan (3.4 points per game) and Lamar Odom (4.6 points per game).
It looks like the Clippers' proud season is set to end in the first round; they simply don't have enough to win in Memphis.
Current standing: Down 3-2 vs. Golden State Warriors, would play San Antonio Spurs
If the Denver Nuggets have a shot at avoiding a first-round ousting in Oakland on Thursday, it will come through the play of Andre Iguodala.
Iguodala is the solution—the only one, it seems—to helping limit the Warriors' three-point shooting. Iguodala is averaging 16.8 points, 7.8 rebounds and 5.2 assists per game.
Andre Iguodala is the first Nuggets player to have at least 25 points, 12 rebounds and 7 assists in a playoff game since Fat Lever in 1990.— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) May 1, 2013
The Nuggets won Game 5 at home, where they were a ridiculous 38-3 in the regular season, but they now need to win at a festive Oracle Arena.
After the injury to Golden State's David Lee, the Warriors had to go with a smaller lineup that included Jarrett Jack and moved rookie Harrison Barnes to power forward.
Nuggets coach George Karl matched the smaller lineup at first, but in Game 5 he switched to create his own mismatches and went big, starting JaVale McGee, Kenneth Faried and Iguodala. It led to Denver outscoring Golden State 50-24 in the paint.
Denver is at its best when scoring inside. If the Nuggets can do that again on Thursday and advance the series back to the altitude for Game 7, they will likely advance to a second-round matchup against the San Antonio Spurs.
The Nuggets are still very much alive.
Current standing: Up 3-2 vs. Atlanta Hawks, would play New York Knicks-Boston Celtics winner
The Indiana Pacers are often the forgotten franchise in the Eastern Conference. With the league's Most Improved Player, Paul George, and a talented frontcourt of Roy Hibbert and David West, the Pacers can compete in the East.
At least, when playing in their Indiana home.
The Pacers have won each of their three home games, but they still have not won in Atlanta for a streak that is currently at 13 games.
For an evenly played series, each game has been lopsided. All five games have been decided by double-digit points.
It's a tough series to read.
"It's the playoffs. It's good that both teams know how important it is to get home victories," George said after the Pacers' Game 5 win. "It's all about what team is going to be dominant on the road. Neither team has really done that yet."
George is leading the way with 21.6 points per game, but the biggest factor for the Pacers has been the inside play of David West (15.4 points) and Roy Hibbert (14.2 points). West is shooting 50.8 percent in the series while Hibbert is less efficient at 45.3 percent.
But the Pacers need to prove capable of winning on the road if they have any shot of success when they likely (if the Knicks finish off Boston) lose home-court advantage for the second round.
Pacers are playing in Atlanta, where they were 0-2 this. Indy was only 5-14 against playoff teams on the road this season— Tim Donahue (@TimDonahue8p9s) April 27, 2013
The Pacers' inability to win on the road severely limits their hopes to contend for a title.
Current standing: Up 3-2 vs. Denver Nuggets, would play San Antonio Spurs
The Golden State Warriors don't often make the postseason—actually, this playoff appearance is just the second in 19 seasons—but when they do, they create national intrigue.
The frenzied environment of Oracle Arena will host Game 6 on Thursday night, and the Warriors will have an opportunity to close out a first-round upset against the Denver Nuggets. It would be the second first-round upset in as many appearances, as the 2006-07 eighth-seeded Warriors dropped the first-seeded Dallas Mavericks.
This time around, though, the Warriors have Stephen Curry, not Baron Davis, as the energizer. Curry is averaging 24.8 points and 9.6 assists per game in his first postseason. He has connected on 3.8-of-9.0 three-pointers per game—that's a lot of heaving.
Stephen Curry - 3rd player in NBA history w/ 100 pts & 40 ast in 1st 4 career playoff games (Kevin Johnson, Oscar Robertson) (h/t Elias)— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) April 30, 2013
Curry, despite an injured left ankle that he sprained in Game 2, is upping his attempts due to the absence of David Lee, who was one of the first major casualties of the postseason.
Lee was the team's first All-Star, and he averaged 18.5 points and 11.2 rebounds per game in the regular season. He went down for the remainder of the postseason when he tore his right hip flexor in Game 1.
Without Lee, the Warriors weren't given much of a shot. Still, here they are up in the series with the ability to close it out on their home floor on Thursday.
This is why I said the Warriors were so dangerous. Beating them in Oracle in a playoff setting is gonna be very difficult.— Nate Jones (@JonesOnTheNBA) April 29, 2013
The play of rookies Harrison Barnes, Draymond Green and Festus Ezeli has been vital in Lee's absence. But it's the bench play of reserve power forward Carl Landry that has been the biggest factor, as he is averaging 13.6 points on 50 percent from the field and 84 percent from the free-throw line this postseason.
Also helping plug the hole inside is the revitalized play of Andrew Bogut. He has offered the Warriors a needed interior presence against a Nuggets team that led the regular season in points in the paint.
But for all the feel-good sentiment surrounding a Cinderella run by Golden State, the Spurs loom in Round 2—rested and very able.
Current standing: Up 3-2 vs. Boston Celtics, would play Atlanta Hawks-Indiana Pacers winner
Don't throw dirt over that casket just yet, right Kenyon Martin?
At the request of Kenyon Martin, the Knicks showed up to tonight's game wearing black for the "Celtics funeral"— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) May 1, 2013
But instead of burying the Celtics, the New York Knicks allowed the Celtics to resurrect in Game 5. Now, either New York wins at Boston in Game 6 on Friday or the series moves back to Madison Square Garden for a Game 7.
J.R. Smith on all the Knicks dressing in black: "We was going to a funeral but it looks like we got buried."— Frank Isola (@FisolaNYDN) May 2, 2013
J.R. Smith missed Game 4 due to a suspension from a Game 3, Flagrant 2 elbow against Jason Terry. In his return for Game 5, Smith was just 3-of-14 for 14 points.
Carmelo Anthony also struggled from the field on Wednesday, hitting 8-of-24 for 22 points. Anthony had averaged 33 points through the first four games of the series.
When the Knicks win, they need both Anthony and Smith—and probably also Raymond Felton—to each be on together. If they're to advance past the Celtics, and again past either the Brooklyn Nets or Chicago Bulls, it would take extreme shooting performances by all three to surpass the Miami Heat.
The odds of a Knicks title are low since so much of their success relies on jump shooting.
Current standing: Up 3-2 vs. Los Angeles Clippers, would play Houston Rockets-Oklahoma City Thunder winner
Suddenly, the Memphis Grizzlies are one of the top four teams with a chance to win a title.
How quickly things can turn around.
After falling back two games in the opening-round series against the Clippers, the Grizzlies have now stormed back with three consecutive wins.
The regular season's best defensive team is limiting the Clippers to 92.6 points per game on 45.5 percent shooting. The Clippers averaged 101.1 points per game on 47.8 percent in the regular season.
The inside presence of Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph has been too bullying for the Clippers, especially following the ankle injury to Blake Griffin.
The frontcourt of the Grizzlies:
The frontcourt of the Clippers:
If Griffin doesn't play in Memphis on Friday, which remains questionable, the Grizzlies look likely to finish the series.
Watch our breakdown from today: Clippers vs Grizzlies and how poorly LAC defend the post youtu.be/-_xpjnkPUAQ— BBALLBREAKDOWN (@bballSource) May 2, 2013
Mike Conley and Tony Allen are suffocating the perimeter, and only Chris Paul can break free. That isn't enough for Los Angeles.
A series win for the Grizzlies will lead to a still-likely matchup against the Oklahoma City Thunder, who, without Russell Westbrook, are barely handling the Houston Rockets.
That's a series the Grizzlies could win, and it could just land them in the Western Conference finals against the San Antonio Spurs.
Current standing: Up 3-2 vs. Houston Rockets, would play Memphis Grizzlies-Los Angeles Clippers winner
The Oklahoma City Thunder's chances of winning a title took an immense shot this week when Russell Westbrook was lost for the season with a knee injury.
Wow. OKC Thunder's Russell Westbrook undergoing surgery to repair meniscus tear in right knee. No timetable for return
— Rachel Nichols (@Rachel__Nichols) April 26, 2013
The loss of Westbrook is a crushing blow, and now Kevin Durant is having to go it alone. Without Westbrook, the Thunder have lost two of three against Houston.
Durant is trying to, and must, do it himself:
|Game 1 w/ Westbrook||34||24||7-of-15||4||6||Win|
|Game 2 w/ Westbrook||46||29||10-of-25||9||4||Win|
While Durant is clearly capable, it's not sustainable that he can carry the team to series victories alone.
Without Westbrook, Oklahoma City's second and third options are limited. Kevin Martin was 1-of-10 in Game 5's loss.
Reggie Jackson, who scored 20 points on Wednesday as the team's next-highest scorer behind Durant, is playing well, but he still can't match Westbrook's game-changing talents.
Without Westbrook, it's simply a much more difficult road to an NBA Finals rematch against the Miami Heat.
Current standing: Def. Los Angeles Lakers 4-0, awaiting Golden State Warriors-Denver Nuggets winner
As the Warriors and Nuggets battle it out into Game 6 on Thursday, you can imagine San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich sitting with a spiral-bound notebook jotting down his scouting report.
While the trio of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili can take advantage of earned rest, the game's best coach can also spend more time preparing.
The Warriors might be a better second-round matchup for the Spurs, since San Antonio hasn't lost at home to Golden State since 1997. The Spurs were even against both teams in the regular season, but that included Spurs' losses in April without Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili.
Realistically, the Spurs will be too much for either the Warriors or Nuggets.
But the real reason the Spurs jump to the second-best odds of winning the title is to the season-ending injury to Russell Westbrook.
Sometimes you're only as good as your competition is bad—or hurt—and the loss for the Thunder is the Spurs' gain.
The Heat media may want to amend their NBA Finals pick now that OKC's Russell Westbrook is injured. Spurs vs Knicks, right?— Frank Isola (@FisolaNYDN) April 26, 2013
Current standing: Def. Milwaukee Bucks 4-0, awaiting Chicago Bulls-Brooklyn Nets winner
Rest doesn’t become rust when you’re made out of platinum.
The Miami Heat will need to grow accustomed to hanging out and waiting for their next opponent.
With a quick sweep of the Milwaukee Bucks in the first round, Miami now awaits the winner of the Nets-Bulls series. The Bulls currently lead the series 3-2 before Thursday’s Game 6 in Chicago.
If the Bulls win that series, LeBron James will bring his all-time season on to Michael Jordan’s turf. James is pacing for a second Most Valuable Player postseason.
Through four games:
Dwyane Wade shot just 36.8 percent in the series and averaged 13.7 points through three games, but he sat the fourth game with a sore right knee.
Said James (via Nate Taylor, The New York Times):
I told him, Hey, if you don’t feel like you can be close to 100 percent, then don’t push it. We’ve seen too many injuries already in this N.B.A. season, both regular and postseason of guys getting injured. That kind of came to my mind.
In a postseason riddled with injuries, James' point brings up the biggest question: Can the Miami Heat remain in the driver's seat by simply staying healthy?
If they remain injury-free into the NBA Finals, there isn't a team that can compete with them.