Now that the second round of the 2013 NBA playoffs is in the books, there are four teams left to fight for a ring and twice that many lessons to take away from the semifinal series that just came to a close.
The Indiana Pacers proved that defense counts for an awful lot, especially when there's a dominant big man like Roy Hibbert in the middle. At the same time, Carmelo Anthony and the New York Knicks learned that it's important to have a backup plan.
Stephen Curry and the Golden State Warriors announced their arrival but ultimately fell to a better-prepared, more experienced San Antonio Spurs squad. And Scott Brooks is going to have to do some explaining in OKC after the surprisingly fun (you read that right) Memphis Grizzlies mauled the Thunder.
Plus, the Miami Heat showed that even the gutsiest opponent could hardly make them sweat.
There were takeaways aplenty in the second round of the NBA playoffs. You'd better hurry up and absorb them; the conference finals are just around the corner.
Not in terms of geographic proximity, of course. How close you are to Oracle Arena is sort of a fixed proposition.
What I mean is that the Golden State Warriors, playoff outcasts in every year but this one and 2007 in the last 19 seasons, have proved that they've got the pieces in place to make this whole "postseason" thing a regular occurrence.
Stephen Curry exploded onto the scene, carrying through a stellar second half (of an All-Star-snubbed season, by the way) into a breathtaking playoff run. Curry captivated viewers everywhere with his limitless range and infectious confidence.
Only a couple of ankle sprains (shocking, I know) and a defensive scheme from the San Antonio Spurs that focused solely on preventing him from shooting as soon as he crossed half court were able to take some of the luster off what was easily the shiniest superstar breakout we've seen in recent playoff memory.
Toss in the sidekick skills of Klay Thompson, the where-did-he-come-from leap from Harrison Barnes and the prospect of a fully healthy Andrew Bogut in the future, and you've got yourself a recipe for a perennial playoff presence—and maybe even more than that.
How many more seasons is it going to take for everyone to realize that the San Antonio Spurs just know how to win? My apologies if you're among the many who already knew this to be true.
San Antonio needed a miraculous comeback to steal Game 1 against the Warriors in San Antonio, but then it promptly gave up Game 2. The Spurs were in a dogfight with the upstart Warriors, and for a while there, it almost looked as though they'd come out the loser.
But Gregg Popovich headed into his wine cellar and came up with a few shrewd schematic adjustments (probably over a nice 2003 Pinot Noir) that ultimately resulted in the Spurs taking care of their feisty opponents.
Whether it was encouraging Tony Parker to kill the Warriors from the mid-range area when Bogut sagged off in pick-and-roll coverage or, in a stunning turn, sending Tim Duncan to the bench to close out the series, Popovich and the Spurs did precisely what they had to do to advance.
Just keep this in mind if San Antonio falls behind to the Grizzlies in the Western Conference finals and it looks like the Pop, Timmy and Co. have met their match. You'll thank me later.
Kevin Durant gave it everything he had against the Memphis Grizzlies, averaging 28.8 points, 10.4 rebounds and 6.6 assists in nearly 46 minutes per game. But in the end, his Oklahoma City Thunder just didn't have enough to hang around for longer than five games against the Grizz.
KD succumbed to the overwhelming fatigue of having to carry an offense that was missing Russell Westbrook. That task would have been difficult under any circumstances, but because coach Scott Brooks had apparently never imagined he'd have to devise any sort of offensive system as long as he had Westbrook and Durant around, the latter ended up captaining an offense that simply lacked a plan.
When Durant missed the wide-open look in Game 5 that could have prolonged the series, there was a reason that nobody in their right mind came down hard on him or insinuated that he lacked clutch chops. The reason was that everyone who had been watching knew that No. 35 had been playing his heart out without the support of his most dangerous teammate or the help of a capable coach.
OKC fell apart against the Grizzlies, and the blame falls squarely on Brooks. Westbrook's absence exposed him in a major way.
After a Game 1 slip against the Chicago Bulls, LeBron James and the Miami Heat cruised to four straight wins en route to the easiest semifinal series victory of the bunch.
Chicago tried its best to muck up the action, but a few quick whistles and the Heat's overwhelming talent advantage ultimately resulted in a worry-free pass into the Eastern Conference finals for the boys from South Beach.
So after a handy sweep in the first round and a five-game set in the second, the Heat have managed to move within a series of the finals without so much as sniffing a real threat.
Dwyane Wade hasn't looked anything like himself because of a troublesome knee, James is basically on cruise control (24 points, 7.3 rebounds and 7.3 assists in the playoffs), and Chris Bosh hasn't had to do much besides hit the occasional jumper and worry about his next video bomb.
If it feels like the narrative in which the Heat are coasting along, simply waiting for someone to give them a reason to put the pedal down is familiar, there's a reason for that: We just spent an entire regular season watching the same thing.
Here's to hoping the Indiana Pacers can at least make things interesting.
Tom Thibodeau lied through his teeth throughout the postseason.
"We've got enough to win," he said, time and time again. Hey, I get it; Thibs' never-say-die, no-excuses mentality was a huge key to the Bulls' success all season long. He had to think (and talk) like this.
But everyone knew that no matter how hard they played, no matter how ferociously they fought, the Bulls really didn't have enough to beat Miami.
Joakim Noah played through plantar fasciitis. Nate Robinson, Kirk Hinrich and Taj Gibson all suffered from a wicked stomach virus. Jimmy Butler seemed to play without rest for weeks on end. If effort and guts won championships, the Bulls would be wearing rings right now.
Losing to the Heat doesn't constitute a failure for the Bulls. It was just an inevitable result of not having enough—no matter what Thibodeau thinks.
The occasional bout with foul trouble was the only thing that kept Roy Hibbert from controlling every single game of the Indiana Pacers series against the New York Knicks. When the big man could stay on the floor, he was a shot-blocking, drive-stopping menace.
With 19 blocks in the series and at least twice that many "shot changes," Hibbert proved to the viewing public what the Pacers have known for some time: He's capable of dominating a series against anyone.
The Pacers always force the offensive action toward Hibbert; it's the hallmark of their league-best defense.
But against the Knicks, Indiana exaggerated that tendency even more severely than it did during the regular season. It made sense to do so, as running the Knicks off the three-point line and into the tree-limb arms of Hibbert forced New York way out of its offensive comfort zone.
It'll be interesting to see if the Pacers can make Hibbert as big of a factor against the Heat, who seem to find a way to get the shots they want, no matter what the defense does. If Indy can keep its big man on the court and repeat some of the tactics it used against the Knicks, Miami might finally get that test it's been waiting for.
Plus, doesn't everyone want to see what'll happen when an irresistible force (James) runs into an immovable object (Hibbert)? I know I do.
Don't be surprised if we learn in the coming days that Tyson Chandler's troublesome neck injury—which has, for some reason, alternatively been called a back injury—is actually something pretty severe. I mean, there's just no other explanation for the way he played on both ends against the Pacers.
His injury was a bad break for New York, which desperately needed him to serve as a threat to dive toward the rim in the pick-and-roll and as a defensive anchor against Hibbert and the rest of the Pacers. If he had been healthy, there's a slight chance that this might have been a different series.
But here's the problem: The Pacers completely exposed the Knicks' offensive shortcomings.
When New York couldn't fire off a whole bunch of threes early in the shot clock, it essentially had no second option. Well, technically, its second option was tossing the ball into Carmelo Anthony and hoping he'd find a way to score against Paul George and the other four Pacers who were waiting to collapse at the moment he got into the lane.
Obviously, that didn't work out so well for the Knicks.
Indiana's scheme was perfect, and even when Mike Woodson finally instituted a few more pick-and-roll actions in Games 2 and 3, the Pacers quickly swallowed those up, too.
In other words, the Knicks' somewhat gimmicky offense failed, and their backup plan, "Iso 'Melo," played right into Indiana's hands. Because the Pacers had an answer for everything the Knicks tried to do, it's pretty tough to point to the untimely coalescence of Chandler's injury, J.R. Smith's regression and Raymond Felton's disappearance as the cause for their defeat.
Sorry, Knicks; you simply lost to a better, more prepared team.
The Memphis Grizzlies have self-identified as a bruising team, complete with a trending "grit 'n grind" hashtag that seems to be popping up more and more these days.
And although that kind of label might make it seem like these Grizzlies are a slow-it-down bore, they're actually really enjoyable to watch—as long as you're into really good basketball.
It goes without saying that Marc Gasol is highly watchable. Who doesn't enjoy a big man who can fire bounce passes to backdoor cutters just as easily as he can bury a set shot from the top of the circle? When Gasol does either of those things, somewhere, Arvydas Sabonis smiles.
Plus, you've got Tony Allen, who, in addition to playing some of the best lockdown defense on the planet, is a pure adventure in the open court. When he's on the break and coach Lionel Hollins is screaming for him to pull back, anything's in play.
Allen could fire a pass to somebody in the fifth row, brick a layup or finish while drawing a foul. Usually, it's one of the first two options, but the sheer unpredictability is terrific.
Zach Randolph is thoroughly enjoyable as well. Aficionados of fundamental work in the post can definitely appreciate his technical skills. And if you prefer your power forwards to play without ever jumping, you've got your man in Z-Bo.
Look, the Grizzlies are where they are because they play phenomenal, five-guys-on-a-string team defense. But that togetherness, along with the quirky individual brilliance of a few of its best players, makes Memphis an awesome team to watch.