The 2013 NBA playoffs are getting hot and heavy, to say the least. All four second-round series are knotted up at one game apiece, with some teams (i.e. the Miami Heat and the Chicago Bulls) already disposing of the niceties in favor of some good ol' fashioned basketball animus.
Figuring out where each squad fits in relation to the others in an orderly fashion is no easy task when the matchups are as even as they now appear to be.
Are the Golden State Warriors actually better than the San Antonio Spurs? Or has Gregg Popovich's squad simply been caught on the wrong end of two outstanding shooting performances, with an escape route planned for Game 1? Will the New York Knicks ever get a handle on their Jekyll-and-Hyde act? Or will the Indiana Pacers bludgeon them into oblivion before they do? And how long can Kevin Durant keep up this superhero act of his?
These questions (and many, many more) have all come into play during our "intensive" power ranking tabulations since our last edition hit the Interwebz. Here's what we came up with for this week's rankings after consulting on end with our resident experts and exhaustive simulations.
Guts and heart are necessary ingredients for postseason success, though they're hardly sufficient in and of themselves to fuel a deep playoff push.
The Chicago Bulls should know. They managed to scrape their way through a seven-game series against the listless Brooklyn Nets before stunning the rusty Miami Heat in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals.
This was in spite Joakim Noah hobbling around on one foot, Kirk Hinrich (and Derrick Rose) showing up in street clothes and Luol Deng watching from a hospital bed somewhere. Like Wile E. Coyote, the Bulls appear to be running on air, with a steep, painful fall soon to come.
Not that it hasn't already. Chicago came crashing down in a big way in Game 2, as Miami piled up 115 points on 60 percent shooting at the expense of Tom Thibodeau's typically stout defense. It's one thing for the Bulls to struggle mightily to put the ball in the basket. That's been the case all season—even more so amidst the recent rash of injuries and illnesses that's struck Chicago's locker room.
But if the Bulls can't butter their bread on defense, as they have since before Derrick Rose's knee became a matter of national significance, then their odds of surviving past Game 5 against the Heat drop precipitously.
The New York Knicks' series against the Indiana Pacers is probably the toughest of the remaining four to gauge. Both teams sport inordinately high ceilings, but lack either the discipline (in New York's case) or the depth (in Indy's case) to scrape the stucco consistently.
The difference, though, is that the Knicks' fortunes are a bit more reliant on the unpredictable—namely, the bad-shot making of Carmelo Anthony and JR Smith and/or the three-point shooting of the rest of the roster—than are those of the Pacers.
New York is certainly capable of getting after the opposition defensively and playing smart, pass-heavy, pick-and-roll basketball. The problem is, the Knicks just don't seem to play to that capacity often enough to inspire confidence in anyone, including themselves.
They were in control for most of Game 2 at home against Indy, but were still vulnerable to defeat deep into the third quarter, even with the Pacers struggling to hang onto the ball until a 36-4 Knicks run finally put the visitors out of their misery.
Winning at Bankers Life Fieldhouse is never an easy task, as the Knicks found during their two trips (and two losses) to Indy's home court during the regular season. Still, New York has the best player in this series ('Melo) on its side and can't be counted out so soon.
Assuming, of course, that said best player doesn't resort to jacking up contested 20-footers like they're going out of style.
Let's get one thing straight: If we're going to blame the Indiana Pacers' collapse in Game 2 on Frank Vogel's timeout, his decision to sub out Roy Hibbert for Jeff Pendergraph and Pendergraph's subsequent blunders (i.e. a three-point posterization opposite Carmelo Anthony and an offensive foul in the span of 19 seconds), then we might as well quit analyzing the NBA entirely.
The moves didn't serve Indy's own momentum, which had emerged in spite of its sloppy play, but it certainly didn't deliver said momentum to New York hand over fist.
If anything, the Pacers wound up on the wrong side of a 36-4 run because they compounded a few untimely mistakes with an uncharacteristic barrage of three-pointers—all of which went bunk until Orlando Johnson broke the string when garbage time was already in full effect.
With that said, it's tough to tell what you're going to get from these Pacers on any given night. Their lack of depth only comes into play when their superb starting five falls flat (which was the case in Game 2) just two days after a stellar effort from all key parties in Game 1.
That single win means the odds are still firmly in Indy's favor. The Pacers have been dynamite at home all season, even amidst routinely underwhelming crowds, while the Knicks have been only slightly above average (23-18 on the road) without the vocal support of the Madison Square Garden faithful.
Don't be surprised, then, if Indy takes control of this series under its own roof in a wholehearted attempt to leverage New York out of the postseason.
As is the case with the Knicks against the Pacers, the NBA's Superstar Rule of Thumb (i.e., that the team with the best player on the floor always has a chance to win) dictates that the Oklahoma City Thunder are far from toast, even with Russell Westbrook out of commission and the series headed back to the FedEx Forum (a.k.a. the Grindhouse), where the magic tends to happen for the Memphis Grizzlies.
The Thunder's defense is still relatively stout, especially against a Grizzlies offense that would hardly be mistaken for a certain helmeted strongman straight out of the Marvel universe. In fact, Memphis, with its pair of scoring bigs in Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph, is one of the few opponents in the entire league against whom Kendrick Perkins' talents as a low-post defender are actually useful.
Also, about that Superstar Rule, the Thunder will always be a threat to win, so long as the game is close in the final few minutes, thanks to Kevin Durant. He's been nothing short of sensational since Westbrook went down, with five 30-plus-point games in his last six outings.
How long Durant keeps up this Atlas impersonation is anybody's guess, though you'd best not count out OKC unless he shows any signs of slowing down.
Perhaps the San Antonio Spurs' sub-par efforts in Games 1 and 2 against the Los Angeles Lakers in the first round were red flags after all. The Spurs let a depleted Lakers squad hang around before the former finally put the latter out of their misery with some second-half daggers.
Unfortunately for San Antonio, the Golden State Warriors have their full complement of guards on hand. Stephen Curry (44 points and 11 assists in Game 1) and Klay Thompson (34 points and 14 rebounds in Game 2) have played "Hot Potato" with the ball, torching the Spurs' typically stout defense with their razor-sharp shooting strokes.
On the other hand, San Antonio's attack has had some difficulty finding its own footing with any consistency. Tony Parker (18-of-43 from the field in this series) and Manu Ginobili (10-of-32) have not shot efficiently by any stretch, even while doing their darndest to make big plays.
Tim Duncan has been plenty productive up front, but there's only so much he can do while sharing space with the likes of Matt Bonner and Boris Diaw while awaiting Tiago Splitter's return to starting-caliber fitness.
The smart money is still on Gregg Popovich to make the necessary adjustments and call upon some of his sleeve-bound tricks to push this series deep. But unfortunately, the Spurs seem matched up against a younger, pluckier, buzzsaw of a team bolstered by a pair of up-and-comers for the second year running. They may well find themselves up a certain creek without a paddle soon enough.
Raise your hand if you thought the Golden State Warriors would, at any point, look like a top-three team in these playoffs.
Now, put your hand down and stop lying to yourself.
To be sure, the Warriors came into this, their first postseason since 2007, with ample surprise potential. Such is the advantage of starting Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson in a backcourt that Mark Jackson not so hyperbolically proclaimed to be the best of all time in terms of pure perimeter shooting.
Thompson did his best to reward his coach's lofty praise in Game 2 against the San Antonio Spurs (34 points, 29 in the first half, on 8-of-9 from three) in which the Warriors finally earned their first win in the Alamo City during the Tim Duncan regime.
But it's Curry who's carried Golden State through to this point. With David Lee sidelined by a hip injury, Steph has taken it upon himself to spark the Warriors' outside attack with pinpoint passes and expertly run pick-and-rolls interspersed between third-quarter scoring bonanzas.
Along the way, Curry has emerged as arguably the third-best player still standing in this postseason and might rightly be considered the most exciting given how his shooting can turn (and has singlehandedly turned) the tenor of a game in an instant.
All told, the Dubs have looked like the better team in every game but one (Game 5 at the Denver Nuggets) in these playoffs and will have at least two more golden opportunities to add to that particular resume with their series against San Antonio shifting westward to a raucous Oracle Arena.
At this point, the Memphis Grizzlies have to be considered the favorites in their tilt with the Oklahoma City Thunder, assuming Russell Westbrook doesn't make a miraculous comeback at some point in this series.
Kevin Durant is undoubtedly the best player in this matchup, but Memphis can count players 2 through 4 (Marc Gasol, Zach Randolph, and Mike Conley) in its employ. In Lionel Hollins, the Grizzlies have a head coach who actually seems to know what he's doing from moment to moment and whose team has taken on his tough, physical personality in spades.
Likewise, the Grizzlies know exactly who and what they are—a hard-nosed team that plays through its bigs on both ends of the floor—and have long favored crisp, team-wide execution over showcasing individual talent.
The Thunder, on the other hand, have never had much variety in their offense (beyond getting the ball to Durant and Westbrook via a few pet plays and getting the heck out of their way) and are even more predictable now that KD is essentially on his own.
This series could easily be 2-0 either way, but the Grizz did well enough to snag at least one game in OKC, and as a result, have home court on their side with the matchup now shifting to the River City. That worked out quite well for them in Round 1 against another talented but one-dimensional team whose postseason hopes were slashed and dashed at the Grindhouse.
I hope everyone took a deep breath and packed away the panic button before pulling any more shenanigans as they relate to the Miami Heat.
Their Game 1 loss to the exhausted, depleted Chicago Bulls appears to have been an aberration, to say the least—one that did plenty to wake up a juggernaut that had been slumbering since its four-game stomping of the Milwaukee Bucks in the opening round.
The Heat came back to dominate the Bulls in a manner that was as much record-setting as it was quintessential of this team. Miami spread the wealth around (29 assists on 42 makes), attacked the Bulls defense inside (56 points in the paint) and out (9-of-18 from three), applied crippling pressure at the point of attack (17 turnovers leading to 28 points) and got out in transition at every opportunity (20 fastbreak points).
The final result was one of the worst defeats in Chicago Bulls playoff history, 115-78.
To be sure, the Heat aren't at all likely to bum-rush the Bulls this way every time out. Tom Thibodeau is too smart and too determined a coach to not tweak his team's approach, and the atmosphere in Chicago figures to be too electric for the Bulls role players to not come equipped with their best efforts for Game 3.
That being said, there's only so far the Bulls can hope to go against a well-rested and properly motivated Heat team, assuming LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh don't either A) all fall victim to whatever bug got a hold of the Bulls last week (plausible) or B) decide to switch jerseys for a night (not as plausible...to say the least).