The first week of the 2014 NBA playoffs is winding down, but a handful of teams have already taken a huge leap toward the conference semifinals.
Coming into Thursday night, three teams (including two No. 5 seeds) lead their respective first-round series by a count of two games to none. The other five series are tied at a game apiece, with the underdog Memphis Grizzlies and Dallas Mavericks seizing momentum by winning Game 2 on the road in each of their series.
Here, we'll get you up to speed with the updated opening-round bracket and a closer look at the teams poised to advance to the conference semifinals.
2014 NBA Playoff Bracket (as of Thursday, April 24 at 5 p.m. ET)
|First Round||Conf. Semis||Conf. Finals||NBA Finals|
|(1) Indiana Pacers (Tied 1-1)|
|(8) Atlanta Hawks|
|(4) Chicago Bulls|
|(5) Washington Wizards (Lead 2-0)|
|(3) Toronto Raptors (Tied 1-1)|
|(6) Brooklyn Nets|
|(2) Miami Heat (Lead 2-0)|
|(7) Charlotte Bobcats|
|(1) San Antonio Spurs (Tied 1-1)|
|(8) Dallas Mavericks|
|(4) Houston Rockets|
|(5) Portland Trail Blazers (Lead 2-0)|
|(3) Los Angeles Clippers (Tied 1-1)|
|(6) Golden State Warriors|
|(2) Oklahoma City Thunder (Tied 1-1)|
|(7) Memphis Grizzlies|
Portland Trail Blazers
The Portland Trail Blazers are just two wins away from reaching the Western Conference semifinals this spring following back-to-back wins over the Houston Rockets in Clutch City.
But the Rockets have been anything but clutch in this series and find themselves in full-on panic mode heading to Portland, where the Blazers won 31 games during the regular season. What's more, Houston has struggled mightily on the road this season, finishing the regular-season 21-20 away from home, the worst of any Western Conference playoff team.
While the Rockets certainly possess the offensive firepower to fight back into this series, Portland's ball movement has been sublime thus far and was the difference in Game 2 (23 assists).
Not to mention James Harden has struggled immensely, shooting a dismal 29.8 percent from the floor in two losses. Dwight Howard is averaging 29.5 points per game, but doing so on 51 percent shooting, a considerable drop-off from his regular-season mark of 59 percent.
Meanwhile, the play of LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard has been sensational for Portland, with the two stars combining to average 69 points per game thus far in the postseason. Aldridge and Lillard single-handedly kept Portland alive down the stretch in Game 1's overtime triumph, as noted by ESPN Stats & Info:
LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard scored Trail Blazers’ final 25 points of regulation #PORvsHOU— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) April 21, 2014
The scary part is that both players will be even more comfortable at home this weekend, where the series could potentially come to an end.
Both of these teams can score points and rebound the basketball. However, the series will hinge on which team defends better in Portland (each allowed 103 PPG during regular season) and which is able to spread the ball and keep it moving.
The Blazers have done both through the first two games and all indications are that they will continue to on Friday and Sunday.
Another reason to jump off the Rockets bandwagon as quick as you can is the fact that their threes aren't falling in these playoffs. As a team, Houston is just 11-of-51 from distance through two playoff losses, worse than any of the other 15 playoff teams.
Like the Blazers, the Washington Wizards return home for Games 3 and 4 against the Chicago Bulls with an opportunity to close out the series and secure a berth in the conference semifinals, as pointed out by ESPN Stats & Info:
Bad news for the Bulls? Teams that take a 2-0 lead in best-of-7 series go on to win the series 93.7% of the time. Wizards up 2-0 on Bulls.— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) April 23, 2014
At worst, the Wizards will head back to Chicago (where they've won twice already) tied at 2-2. And with just one home win this weekend, Washington is guaranteed to head back to the Windy City leading 3-1 at the very worst. And only eight teams in NBA playoff history have come back from that deficit.
More importantly, Washington has figured out Chicago and the best way to beat them, by getting stops and using defense to fuel the offense.
Through two playoff games, the Wizards have held the Bulls to 42.6 percent shooting from the floor and 27 percent shooting from beyond the arc.
Meanwhile, the Bulls haven't been able to slow the Wizards on the other end, allowing Washington to shoot 48 percent from the field and 38 percent from downtown.
Don't expect the Wiz to cool off at home in Games 3 and 4. The Bulls defense and hustle has allowed them to exceed expectations in Derrick Rose's absence this season, but they're headed for an early offseason.
The two-time defending champion Miami Heat lead the Charlotte Bobcats 2-0 in their opening-round playoff series as the stage shifts to Charlotte for Games 3 and 4. However, you can bet on the Heat to sweep the Bobcats on the road.
Clifford talked about Jefferson's struggle following the Game 2 loss on Wednesday, per the Associated Press (via ESPN.com):
He's not anywhere close to 100 percent. But we can play through him...You've got to respect the fact he's out there battling. He has no mobility, basically. Limited mobility and yet he had 18 [points] and 13 [rebounds], and he fought hard.
Defensively, Miami has clamped down on Charlotte, holding the Bobcats to just 43.7 percent shooting from the field in two games. The only thing keeping the games relatively close is the Bobcats' accuracy from long range. Charlotte is shooting 40.5 percent from behind the three-point line as a team in these playoffs and matched Miami with nine made threes in Game 2.
But this is a Bobcats team that hit at a clip of 35 percent during the regular season (eighth-worst in the NBA). Therefore, expect Charlotte to experience a drop-off from deep as the series continues.
On the other side, Miami still has some extra gears to reach and can ensure more comfortable victories in Games 3 and 4 by avoiding unnecessary turnovers and contesting shots on the perimeter.
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