Alright, NBA. Let's see what you've got for an encore.
The utterly insane first round of the playoffs was arguably—and it's really not a difficult argument—the best in the league's history. Five of the eight series went the full seven games, eight contests went to overtime, multiple games (and a series) were ended by buzzer-beaters and according to SportsCenter's Twitter feed, an astounding 23 games were decided by five points or fewer.
Prepare yourself for chills:
NBA.com's Tom Haberstroh gave a different—yet equally amazing—look at the first round:
Thanks for a ridiculously clutch first-round, NBA. pic.twitter.com/bMhUTDJdMK— Tom Haberstroh (@tomhaberstroh) May 5, 2014
So, yeah, relatively, we're probably in line for a letdown during the conference semifinals, but that doesn't mean the scintillating basketball has to completely stop.
Let's take a closer look at where we stand heading into the second round.
NBA Legion on Twitter gives us a look at the new Elite Eight:
Here's the updated NBA Playoffs bracket. pic.twitter.com/7xZ9z0wmV1— NBA Legion (@MySportsLegion) May 4, 2014
Title odds come courtesy of Odds Shark:
|San Antonio Spurs||3-1|
|Oklahoma City Thunder||9-2|
|Los Angeles Clippers||15-2|
|Portland Trail Blazers||25-1|
Updated as of May 5 at 7:35 p.m. ET
X-Factors to Watch
Chris Andersen, Miami Heat
The entire Miami Heat bench was extremely effective during the team's sweep of the Charlotte Bobcats in the first round, but Chris Andersen's energy and physical play was perhaps the most impressive—and most important going forward.
Head coach Erik Spoelstra explained further, via the South Florida Sun-Sentinel's Ira Winderman:
It's important. It's vital for us. He injects that energy, instant athleticism, multiple efforts. These are the type of things we try to instill in everybody. It's natural for him.
In four games against the Bobcats, Andersen averaged 8.5 points, 5.8 rebounds and 1.3 blocks in 20.2 minutes per contest. Extrapolate that to a per-36-minute basis, and you've got 15.1 points, 10.3 rebounds and 2.3 blocks.
Furthermore, the Heat were an average of 26.1 points per 100 possessions better than Charlotte when Andersen was on the court, via NBA.com. That was the third-best mark on the team.
Granted, context is needed as much of his time came against the second unit, but take a closer look at Game 1. Andersen entered in the third quarter with the game tied at 59, and when he left nearly 11 minutes later, the Heat were up by 19.
LeBron James, via Bleacher Report's Ethan J. Skolnick, put it simply:
LeBron on Chris Andersen: "I wouldn't mess with him. I told him he could be on Sons of Anarchy for sure."— Ethan J. Skolnick (@EthanJSkolnick) April 27, 2014
Andersen's relentlessness and toughness around the hoop is going to prove crucial against the Nets, who boast solid frontcourt depth and an equally active Mason Plumlee in the second unit.
And by the way, don't make the mistake of calling the intimidating inside presence "Birdman" anymore. He's "Birdzilla" now.
Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio Spurs
Kawhi Leonard is a burgeoning superstar, but there was remarkably little talk about him during the Spurs' first-round win over the Dallas Mavericks.
Leonard averaged 11.9 points on 49.2 percent shooting to go with 7.4 rebounds, 1.0 assists and 1.1 steals in the seven games, numbers not too far off from his regular-season output. That's certainly nothing spectacular for receiving 32.7 minutes per contest, but his worth goes far beyond the box score.
The 22-year-old—oh man he's still only 22—is easily one of the best defenders in the league.
His combination of length, quickness and athleticism make him capable of shutting down a wide array of players, and the stats agree. Take a look at the Spurs' defensive rating (points allowed per 100 possessions) for the season and the series against the Mavs, both overall and with Leonard on the court, via NBA.com:
|Regular Season||Defensive Rating|
|With Kawhi Leonard in Lineup||97.7|
|With Kawhi Leonard in Lineup||102.9|
The San Antonio News-Express' Mike Monroe further noted Leonard's defensive versatility in a Game 5 win:
Gregg Popovich first assigned Leonard, his best perimeter defender, to limit guard Monta Ellis, the Mavericks' top scorer in the series, during Game 5.
Then, after 37-year-old Mavericks forward Vince Carter exploded for 22 points in the first three quarters, the Spurs coach asked Leonard to defend him.
Leonard succeeded in both defensive challenges, holding Ellis to 11 points in the first three quarters and Carter to six in the fourth, three of those on a relatively uncontested 3-pointer with 23 seconds left and the Spurs ahead by nine.
Leonard's next assignment? Damian Lillard, one of the most cold-blooded offensive weapons in the Association.
During last year's NBA Finals, Leonard showed he can fill up the box score (14.6 points, 11.1 rebounds, 2.0 steals), but his job against Portland will be on the defensive side of the ball, where he can be an absolute game changer.
Jamal Crawford, Los Angeles Clippers
Chris Paul isn't going to drop eight three-pointers every night.
The Clips jumped out to a 1-0 series lead over the Oklahoma City Thunder in impressive fashion on Monday, but you can bet games will be a little closer in the future.
Second units will become far more important than simply cutting the difference from 26 points to 17 in the fourth quarter, and Jamal Crawford holds a major advantage in that department against OKC.
As CBS Sports' Royce Young noted, the former (and soon-to-be two-time) Sixth Man of the Year saw one of the most favorable matchups imaginable in Game 1:
Yeah, so here's a heads up when you have time, Scott Brooks: Derek Fisher guarding Jamal Crawford isn't going to go well for the Thunder.— Royce Young (@royceyoung) May 6, 2014
Crawford finished with a relatively easy 17 points on 6-of-11 shooting in 19 minutes.
The 34-year-old veteran is instant offense off the bench, and he's going to continue to see favorable one-on-one matchups in this series. If he remains as locked in as he has been—19.3 points on 48.7 percent shooting over his last six—he's going to do some serious damage in this series.