As you can imagine, then, the grades for the remaining teams have shifted considerably. We might as well consider these marks as extra credit, seeing as how 26 other squads won't have any say in how things play out from this point forward.
But that's what it takes to claim the Larry O'Brien Trophy in any given year, isn't it? One hoops collective must go above and beyond the usual call of on-court duty to achieve something much bigger, much more desirable and much more permanent historically than any single paycheck.
Enough with the fluff, though. Go ahead and have a look at how the NBA's most dedicated "students" have fared in the proverbial classroom to this point.
Before I get too far up my own you-know-what with philosophical froo-froo.
You know you're in trouble when Grantland's Zach Lowe singles out defending Matt Bonner (yes—Matt Bonner) as the key to the series.
Especially when Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili (and Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green) are still only partially accounted for.
That's the spot in which the Memphis Grizzlies currently find themselves after a shocking 105-83 loss to the Spurs in Game 1 of the 2013 Western Conference Finals. The Grizz did their best to clog the lane against San Antonio, just as the Spurs did to Memphis on the other end.
But unlike the Grizz, the Spurs sport a fleet of deadly three-point shooters to make opposing defenses (like Memphis') pay for cheating and retreating into the middle.
As gloomy as that forecast sounds, there's still plenty of cause for Memphis to take heart.
For one, the Grizzlies have been in this position before (i.e. down 0-1 to start a series). They dropped the first two to the Los Angeles Clippers—the first in rather disconcerting fashion—before rallying to advance with four wins in a row. They pulled the same stunt against the short-handed Oklahoma City Thunder after blowing Game 1.
These Grizzlies are tough as nails, both physically and mentally, thanks in no small part to the efforts of head coach Lionel Hollins. They'll come back with a roar at some point in this series, as they nearly did down the stretch of Game 2.
And the sooner they do, the better their prospects of playing in their first-ever NBA Finals (obviously).
Current Grade: B+
Previous Grade: A-
Allow me to frame the Indiana Pacers' chances of toppling the Miami Heat on the way to the 2013 NBA Finals in simple, easy-to-calculate terms: The Pacers must beat the Heat four times in seven games to win the Eastern Conference.
A reasonable suggestion...until you consider that Miami has lost just three times in its last 48 games!
(Take a moment to do the math. It's astonishing stuff.)
Now that I've sufficiently buried them, here's why the Pacers might have a puncher's chance in this one:
- They have tremendous size inside, with which the Heat would be hard-pressed to contend. Miami's small ball has left it vulnerable to such exploitation all season. If Indy can create easy scoring opportunities off its own misses and keep Miami from doing the same on the other end, then the Pacers will have a shot.
- The Pacers play the sort of stifling defense that can give the Heat fits. They were tops in the league in defensive efficiency during the 2012-13 campaign, though they've given up slightly more points per 100 possessions in these playoffs.
- Indy has enjoyed success against Miami previously. The Pacers took two out of three meetings from the Heat this season (in which Miami lost just 14 other times) and did the same to start last year's second-round series, albeit with Chris Bosh sidelined by an abdominal injury.
In essence, Indy's strengths overlay with Miami's weaknesses—which would be an unequivocally good thing if not for the fact that this statement works both ways. Bothering the Heat's three-point specialists and playing "bully ball" with LeBron James and Dwyane Wade will be no easy task.
But if there's any team in the NBA that's up for it, it's these Pacers.
Current Grade: A-
Previous Grade: B
I'll temper my expectations for the San Antonio Spurs for now. I've seen what happens when folks (like myself) get too excited about this team.
That caution aside, it's tough not to be impressed by the Spurs right now. They dominated the mighty Memphis Grizzlies in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals, 105-83, and took Game 2 in overtime with a 93-89 victory behind Tony Parker's career-high 18 assists.
Mind you, that was with Manu Ginobili and Tim Duncan combining for just 14 points on 5-of-15 shooting in the first one. Clearly, the Spurs are much more than a three-trick pony.
If anything, they may be the most complete team left in the field.
They can play big, with Tiago Splitter next to Timmy up front. They can downsize, with Kawhi Leonard sliding up a spot. They can push the pace with Tony Parker or slow things down and grind out beautiful buckets in the half court while making do with all manner of pick-and-rolls and quick cuts to the rim.
Oh, and the Spurs play elite-level defense, the likes of which this organization hasn't seen since its last great run between 2003 and 2007...so there's that.
But memories of recent flameouts still linger, especially when considering last year's collapse in the Western Conference Finals against another up-and-coming club. Despite what Game 1 would suggest, the Spurs figure to have their hands full for however long they remain in the playoffs.
But with the core the Spurs have on hand and a coach in Gregg Popovich who's nothing short of a hoops genius, I wouldn't put anything past them.
Current Grade: A+
Previous Grade: A-
Remember how I laid out the Indiana Pacers' advantages in this series a couple of slides ago? Well, here's why the Miami Heat are the overwhelming favorites to claim their third Eastern Conference crown in as many tries during the Big Three era:
- The Pacers' overarching inability to hit threes with any consistency will give the Heat that much more incentive to trap on pick-and-rolls (as Zach Lowe lays out here) and collapse on Roy Hibbert, David West and Paul George in the paint.
- Indy's bigs have done an excellent job of forcing the action against small-ball schema thus far, but Miami is on a whole 'nother level in this regard. Can you imagine David West trying to guard LeBron out to the perimeter? Or even Hibbert attempting the same with a hot-shooting Chris Bosh?
- The Pacers are the most turnover-prone team still standing. Their guard play is solid but nonetheless susceptible to the sort of ball pressure that the Heat practice in spades. Miami is plenty deadly in the half court—and give that team any reason to get out and run, and you might as well start saving the white flags.
- The Heat have LeBron. The Pacers don't.
I could go on, but I wouldn't want you to think that Indy isn't a worthy foe or that the Heat are simply going to run away and hide. This series will present an intriguing contrast in styles that's worth watching, especially if you happen to have two thumbs and are a basketball nerd.
Other than that, the Heat are deeper, more experienced and thus have the upper hand in this series, to say the least.
Oh, and have I mentioned that LeBron plays for Miami?
Current Grade: A+
Previous Grade: A