Kevin Durant and his Oklahoma City Thunder aren't planning to roll over in the West.
The Miami Heat are set to run away with the NBA championship. The franchise led by James is too talented, a lone shark in a fishbowl drained of opposing superstar talent.
The Oklahoma City Thunder, thought of as inevitable runner-up, will struggle to return to the NBA Finals without superstar Russell Westbrook.
The San Antonio Spurs swept through their first-round series against the injury-riddled Los Angeles Lakers, and though they seem fine now, the team has lingering health concerns of its own.
Of course, the Memphis Grizzlies already fell behind against the Thunder, but they still remain a contender. Meanwhile, the feel-good Golden State Warriors will need more than just Stephen Curry's shooting to get past the Spurs.
Then there's the Eastern Conference, as contending teams move closer to the roadblock that is the Heat.
The Chicago Bulls limp into their series against Miami—sick, tired and in need of a miracle.
The New York Knicks could shoot themselves out of their second-round series against the Indiana Pacers. And as for the Pacers, could they become the only true test for Miami through the Eastern Conference?
As action moves into the second round, the odds increase for each remaining team.
Current series: Series 0-0 vs. Miami Heat; would face winner of Indiana Pacers-New York Knicks.
The hopes of a title for Chicago meet two unfortunate realities: The Bulls are the most injury-depleted team still remaining in the postseason, and the Miami Heat are not the Brooklyn Nets.
The injury report is thick entering the second-round matchup against Miami.
|Derrick Rose||Left knee||Out indefinitely|
|Joakim Noah||Right foot||Day-to-day|
|Luol Deng||Right hip||Day-to-day|
|Kirk Hinrich||Left calf||Day-to-day|
Those injuries didn't stop the Bulls in their first-round seven-game series victory against the Brooklyn Nets.
Chicago proved resilient despite a flu bug attacking the team and minor, yet desecrating, injuries to much of its core.
Injuries. Flu. Up 17 in a Game 7 on the road. These Bulls are impressive.— chris palmer (@ESPNChrisPalmer) May 5, 2013
You can't be on crutches against the Heat.
Chicago's lowest title odds are based upon the current matchup with the league's favorites.
Miami has a feisty factor too, something Heat coach Erik Spoelstra told Ira Winderman of the South Florida Sun Sentinel in regard to the Bulls' grit:
That's their foundation, the bedrock of who they are. We feel that's our bedrock and foundation of who we are, as well. So, you have two teams with two similar mentalities. There'll be a lot of things that decide the outcomes of these games, but the effort areas, the loose balls, the rebounding will be major factors.
The season series was tied at 2-2, and it was the Bulls who snapped the Heat's incredible 27-game win streak. They did it with injured parts then too, missing Rose (obviously) and Noah. Chicago also has an advantage against Miami as a better rebounding team. Then again, so does every other team in the NBA.
Ultimately, the "hero ball" of Chicago—the style of isolation basketball that relies on a hero any given night—won't endure against the talents of the Heat. Miami will get too many easy hoops in transition.
Chicago's road, littered with pain and sickness, will hit a roadblock in Miami.
And no, it doesn't appear that Rose will return.
According to a Rachel Nichols report:
I asked Bulls’ Derrick Rose whether teammates playing thru injuries made him consider coming back before he feels 100%. He said: "You want that, but you have to look at the big picture, if I’m not healthy, there’s no way I’m not stepping on the court.” Rose did not rule out returning during playoffs, but didn’t make it sound likely. I asked him what he needs to happen to feel comfortable playing again; he said “Just me reacting, stop thinking and just going out there and just play. When I start reacting, that’s when I'll be on the court."
Current series: Series 0-0 vs. San Antonio Spurs; would face winner of Memphis Grizzlies-Oklahoma City Thunder.
Jump shooting is the ultimate equalizer, and the Warriors will need to shoot with the same volume of success that led to a first-round upset against the Denver Nuggets.
Here's the list of shooting percentages for each of the six games versus Denver.
The Warriors shot 49.4 percent in the series and averaged 9.8-of-24.3 (40.4 percent) from three-point range.
No Western Conference team allowed more three-pointers since the All-Star break than the Nuggets, part of what made the first-round matchup desirable for the Warriors.
But that was the Nuggets, and the next battle will come against a different style in the San Antonio Spurs.
Since the All-Star break, the Spurs are fourth-best in the West in opponents' made three-pointers, at 7.3 per game. In that same window of time, the Warriors made 8.5 three-pointers per game.
Stephen Curry, playing through a sprained left ankle since Game 2 of the first round, scored 24.3 points per game on 46.8 percent shooting and 3.8-of-8.7 (44.2 percent) on three-pointers against Denver. He also averaged 9.3 assists per game.
Best NBA quote of the day RT @monroe_sa Steph Curry, on Popovich comparing him to Michael Jordan: 'Was he drunk when he said that?'— Rachel Nichols (@Rachel__Nichols) May 5, 2013
There's nothing to say Curry can't continue that trend of play, as he's done it through the entire season. But the Warriors will need continued production from Jarrett Jack (18.8 points, 7.0 assists vs. Denver) and rookies Harrison Barnes and Draymond Green, who have both stepped up in the postseason.
Jim McDonald of the San Antonio Express-News quoted Spurs coach Gregg Popovich regarding his impressions of the Warriors:
I don’t think anybody should be surprised. They’ve been doing a great job all year long. Sure, the intensity picks up in the playoffs, the physicality, all that sort of thing. They’re athletes who have been in a lot of situations before they got here to the playoffs. They’re not going to back off.
Ultimately, though, the Spurs look to be too difficult of a matchup for the Warriors. The frontcourt of Tim Duncan and Tiago Splitter, who are both likely to play in Game 1 (via Tim Kawakami of San Jose Mercury News), will likely be too much for the Warriors—a hobbled Andrew Bogut may not be enough.
The team's All-Star, David Lee, returned for one minute in Game 6 versus Denver, but he won't have a significant role at any point because of the severity of an injury that won't be healed until the offseason.
The run to this point has been extraordinary for Golden State, but it's hard to imagine the No. 6 seed will get to the Western Conference Finals.
Current series: Down 1-0 in series vs. Indiana Pacers; would face winner of Chicago Bulls-Miami Heat.
If the jump shot is the ultimate equalizer, well then it has to work the other way too, right?
Teams that rely primarily on perimeter scoring are often inconsistent. Eventually, the pull-up jumpers in isolation situations won’t fall.
Knicks scoring drought never would have been possible without endless devotion to Hero Ball.— Henry Abbott (@TrueHoop) May 4, 2013
New York scored just 87.7 points per game and shot 41.2 percent against the Boston Celtics in the first round. Against the Celtics’ tough perimeter defense, Carmelo Anthony shot just 38.1 percent and J.R. Smith shot 38.4 percent.
In Sunday’s second-round opener against the Pacers, shooting was an issue again. Anthony and Smith combined to shoot 14-of-43 (32.5 percent).
So.... here's Melo and J.R.'s shot chart... twitter.com/HPbasketball/s…— Hardwood Paroxysm (@HPbasketball) May 5, 2013
Obviously it’s just one game. The Knicks are plenty capable of coming back in this series, but the odds remain low that the Knicks can stay hot enough to rally for 12 more wins it takes to win the title.
The Knicks’ offensive struggles this postseason are based on a reliance on just three scorers: Anthony, Smith and Raymond Felton. Both Anthony and Smith focus too much on individual shot creation, which gives opposing defenses a much better chance to slow down the two prolific scorers.
The Knicks will only go as far as their shots take them, and based upon early returns, it could end against the Pacers.
Even if the Knicks did overcome Indiana, there is little chance that the perimeter scoring of New York could hang with the transition, interior scoring of the Miami Heat anyway.
Current series: Up 1-0 in series vs. New York Knicks; would face winner of Chicago Bulls-Miami Heat.
There's a level of basketball illiteracy in terms of the Indiana Pacers.
Outside of Indiana, not many know about this team. Since the season-ending injury to Danny Granger, expectations for the Pacers have diminished into cliches about toughness and intensity.
There's sometimes truth to hyperbole, and the Pacers are a physical example.
Their frontcourt offers sturdy pillars in the 7'2", 280-pound Roy Hibbert, 6'9", 285-pound David West and 6'8", 221-pound Paul George.
Missing the scoring of Granger, the Pacers defense and rebounding bails out an offense that recorded a regular-season shooting percentage of 43.6 percent, the worst of any playoff team.
No one allowed a lower shooting percentage in the Eastern Conference after the All-Star break than the Indiana Pacers (42.6 percent). The Pacers led the league in rebounding this season at 45.9 per game.
Pacers size affecting the Knicks. J.R. Smith forcing things. Indiana getting everything inside.— Al Iannazzone (@Al_Iannazzone) May 5, 2013
Indiana's blueprint works best when opponents' perimeter shots aren't falling; but as it stands, neither Carmelo Anthony nor J.R. Smith seems capable of making contested jumpers.
And it appears Indiana is willing to work harder than the Knicks.
New York's Raymond Felton told reporters after the Pacers' Game 1 victory that Indiana was playing a very physical style against Anthony.
Anthony didn't admit to physicality being a factor in his struggles, but he did admit that the Pacers outworked his Knicks:
The physicality of this game didn't do nothing to me, to us. It's like Coach Woodson said and I agree with him, they beat us on the glass, they beat us to the loose basketballs out there, the hustle plays, and they outworked us. I don't think that had anything do with being more physical.
Indiana can grind out victories, and defense and rebounding will create issues when the Knicks' perimeter shots are not falling. That may or may not be enough to pull out a series that could turn back to New York's favor if either or both Anthony and Smith get hot.
The Pacers' chances of winning a title are similar to New York's, as both teams are playing for an Eastern Conference Finals matchup against the Miami Heat.
However, the physicality of the Pacers and their 2-1 record against Miami in the regular season might give them the best chance of any East opponent to knock off the defending champions.
Either way, Indiana will need better efficiency on offense to win a title.
Current series: Down 1-0 in series vs. Oklahoma City Thunder; would face winner of Golden State Warriors-San Antonio Spurs.
The Memphis Grizzlies seemed dead—at least rocking on the deepest ends of their heels—when they lost the first two games in the opening round against the Los Angeles Clippers.
But while the obituaries were being prepared for an organization with questions surrounding direction, Memphis rallied first on its home court, then back in Los Angeles, before winning its fourth in a row to close out the opening-round series victory.
Tough interior play matched with a buzzing backcourt—oh, and Blake Griffin's bad ankle—proved successful for a ticket to play the No. 1 seed Oklahoma City Thunder.
And with no Russell Westbrook, the Thunder seem reachable for the picking, especially for the frontcourt size of Memphis.
Marc Gasol, the league's 7'1" Defensive Player of the Year, clogs the lane, and he's matched with the rumbling length of Zach Randolph, who can be menacing around the basket. The duo forms the Grizzlies' identity as a grinding, defensive team that can shut down any Thunder player not named Kevin Durant.
In Game 1, the Grizzlies did mostly that except for the breakout of Kevin Martin.
Without Westbrook, the Grizzlies can set a tempo that suits the inside-out play with their big men.
Memphis certainly could find success with this to get past the Thunder, but it will need production from its wing players. While Randolph and Gasol combined for 15-of-30 shooting in Game 1, the Grizzlies' perimeter shooters were just 18-of-47.
And any time the Grizzlies' perimeter scorers struggle, critics will point to the Rudy Gay trade to the Toronto Raptors:
Memphis has a major problem in tight finishes. Their go-to guy is in Toronto.— Shaun Powell (@Powell2daPeople) May 5, 2013
But when you're the victim of a game-winning shot—as the Grizzlies were when Kevin Durant gave the Thunder the lead with 11.1 seconds remaining on Sunday—it means you've still done enough to win.
And the Grizzlies won't go away. If they do find a successful formula against the Thunder, one that includes heaves of various defenders thrown at Durant, they certainly are capable of winning this series, maybe even in six games again.
From there, the interior of the Grizzlies can match the strengths of the San Antonio Spurs.
The Grizzlies have a chance to represent the Western Conference in the NBA Finals.
Current series: Up 1-0 in series vs. Memphis Grizzlies; would face winner of Golden State Warriors-San Antonio Spurs.
Kevin Durant made a statement with his game-winner on Sunday.
With his clutch moment in the Oklahoma City Thunder's Game 1 victory against the Memphis Grizzlies, Durant signaled that his Thunder are still a threat to contend.
But it also revealed what has become so apparent since the injury to Russell Westbrook: Durant better be near-perfect if Oklahoma City still has a shot. Durant had 35 points, 15 rebounds and six assists in Game 1.
But does he have enough gas to do it alone?
OKC lost the Finals with Durant/Westbrook/Harden. It's just KD now. Do the math.— chris palmer (@ESPNChrisPalmer) May 2, 2013
Sunday's win unlocked at least one hopeful blueprint for a successful Thunder run.
The much-needed second option became clear, as Kevin Martin scored 25 points on 8-of-14 shooting, including 3-of-5 three-point shooting. The team needs his output, especially on days when Serge Ibaka hits just one of 10 shots.
A scary line for the Thunder: Durant and Martin were a combined 21-of-40, and the rest of the Thunder were 12-of-40.
OKC might have to start Kevin Martin to keep another scorer on the floor with Kevin Durant. MEM can crowd KD all day otherwise— Michael Lee (@MrMichaelLee) May 5, 2013
But looking past just one game in this series, the Thunder still remain one of the best teams in the Western Conference.
The loss of Westbrook means the Thunder are no longer loaded with high-scoring talent, but Durant is still the best player in the West. He is capable of carrying OKC to the next round.
That's not to say it will be easy against the defense and inside play of the Memphis Grizzlies.
The league's second-most efficient offense may be without its superstar point guard, but if Durant can continue to match volume with efficiency, he could be enough.
At least until the Western Conference Finals.
Current series: Series 0-0 vs. Golden State Warriors; would face winner of Memphis Grizzlies-Oklahoma City Thunder.
The San Antonio Spurs are resting placeholders as the favorite to represent the Western Conference in the NBA Finals.
It’s not because San Antonio has done anything special in the last month.
In fact, before the Spurs knocked out the injured Los Angeles Lakers in the first round, San Antonio rolled out mostly a preseason lineup, resting its core at every opportunity.
But it came with a cost, and the Spurs lost seven of their last 10 regular-season games as well as home-court advantage out West to the Thunder.
That stretch included a 116-106 loss on April 15 at Golden State, their second-round opponent. The loss doesn’t mean much, as the Spurs did not play Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Kawhi Leonard and Manu Ginobili.
More proof the late-season loss has little meaning is that the Spurs also lost to the Lakers a night prior despite the Spurs playing Duncan, Parker and Leonard that night. And that obviously didn't signify much, considering the Spurs' sweep of the Lakers.
The Spurs are somewhat of a mystery heading into the second round, as the Lakers didn't have enough talent to test the Spurs:
Gregg Popovich on the injury-riddled Lakers: "Obviously it wasn't a fair fight."— Dave McMenamin (@mcten) April 29, 2013
What was learned, however, is that Parker and Ginobili, both of whom sat several games down the stretch due to respective injuries, are healthy enough to play at a high level:
Parker: 22.0 ppg, 7.3 apg, 47.3% FGs; Duncan: 19.7 ppg, 8.0 rpg, 53.1% FGs; Ginobili: +44, 7 of 11 on 3's.— Mike Trudell (@LakersReporter) April 28, 2013
After the sweep of the Lakers, the Spurs earned seven days of rest before Monday’s Game 1 against the Warriors. The scorching shooting of Golden State offers a greater test for the Spurs, and it may reveal just what type of contender Gregg Popovich’s team truly is.
Nearly by default, the Spurs are the favorites in the West.
But that still doesn’t mean they can compete with the Heat in June.
Current series: Series 0-0 vs. Chicago Bulls; would face winner of Indiana Pacers-New York Knicks.
When LeBron James takes the court for Game 1 against the Chicago Bulls in Miami on Monday, he’ll have rested for 30 of the last 39 days.
Since the Miami Heat’s 27-game win streak ended on March 27 against the Bulls, James has played just nine games, including all four games in the first-round sweep of the Milwaukee Bucks. The Heat ended that series on April 28.
The league’s Most Valuable Player, for the fourth time in five seasons, should be plenty rested against a Bulls lineup that comes limping in.
That's added advantage for a team that's obviously overloaded with talent.
K.C. Johnson, the beat writer for the Chicago Tribune, quoted Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau on the heavy lineup of Miami:
The obvious with Miami is LeBron with (Dwyane) Wade and (Chris) Bosh. But they're a lot more than that. I coached Ray Allen. I know how good he is. I coached (Shane) Battier. I know how good he is. I know what that team stands for. They play as a team. They never beat themselves. So you have to play well to beat them. We're going to have to be at our best.
The Bulls are the next obstacle, but they won't be the last in a season that's been mostly without struggle for Miami.
As noted by Thibodeau, Miami is more than just James. The offense was the most efficient in the league this regular season, scoring a league-high 110.3 points per 100 possessions.
The defending champions are incredibly difficult to defend, with an evolving offense that locates the best-percentage shots per possession.
Zach Lowe of Grantland quoted Dallas Mavericks star Dirk Nowitzki in March:
It's gone away from just pounding the ball. It's all about spreading the floor with so much shooting. I guess we were lucky to have caught them in the Finals that first year.
The Heat are more dangerous than ever, and it doesn't appear that a team in the East will be enough to overcome a talented system that ran through the regular season.
And it's not like looming giants await out West.
If Miami won last year's title over the Oklahoma City Thunder with ease, imagine how an even more improved Heat team would cruise against this version of Oklahoma City without Russell Westbrook.
With the likelihood that Miami reaches the NBA Finals, it could be the San Antonio Spurs that have a better opportunity to upset the Heat. But can the Spurs expect their core to be healthy in June? They barely made it through the regular season.