Midway through the second round of the NBA playoffs, the championship picture is coming even more clearly into focus.
Save the Miami Heat, every remaining team had to battle for its first-round victory, regardless of how many games it took. This round has not been so uniformly dramatic; some teams have hit another gear and are powering toward the conference finals, while others are mired in contentious series yet again.
Vegas keeps a constant, meticulous watch on how the playoffs unfold, shifting the odds accordingly to the successes and struggles. In this current scenario, that means that the less harried title hopefuls are looking like more probable champs than their counterparts running the risk of an early exit, to say nothing of the underdogs struggling to topple the powers they oppose.
|NBA Championship Odds|
|San Antonio Spurs||+232|
|Oklahoma City Thunder||+480|
|Los Angeles Clippers||+1225|
|Portland Trail Blazers||+8100|
|Oddshark.com, May 12|
|First Round||Conference Semifinals||Conference Finals|
|(1) Pacers 4|
|(8) Hawks 3|
|(1) Pacers 3|
|(4) Bulls 1||(5) Wizards 1|
|(5) Wizards 4||TBD|
|(3) Raptors 3|
|(6) Nets 4||(6) Nets 1|
|(2) Heat 2|
|(2) Heat 4|
|(7) Bobcats 0|
|First Round||Conference Semifinals||Conference Finals|
|(1) Spurs 4|
|(8) Mavericks 3|
|(1) Spurs 3|
|(4) Rockets 2||(5) Trail Blazers 0|
|(5) Trail Blazers 4||TBD|
|(3) Clippers 4|
|(6) Warriors 3||(3) Clippers 2|
|(2) Thunder 2|
|(2) Thunder 4|
|(7) Grizzlies 3|
(1) Indiana Pacers vs. (5) Washington Wizards
Sure, basketball gets that much easier for the Indiana Pacers when Paul George goes for 39 points and 12 rebounds in a game. When Indy has someone feeling it and able to get buckets at will in a given contest, the shoddy offensive scheming does not hurt so much, and the Pacers become a two-way threat.
Yet even star-caliber scoring from George doesn't make Indy a juggernaut on its own. The glaring improvement the Pacers have made this round comes from the fact that, contrary to popular belief, Roy Hibbert is alive and back to playing effective basketball.
In a deeper-than-numbers way, Hibbert's 17 and nine in a 95-92 Game 4 win mattered just as much as George's 39 and 12.
At his best, Hibbert is a defensive monstrosity under the rim who can be a game-changer without scoring a single point. But he has so rarely been at his best recently that his point total becomes a telling signifier: When Hibbert is frisky on offense, you can bet his impact will be felt on the other end.
Hibbert's renaissance happened roughly the same way his drastic fall did, in that it seemingly came out of nowhere. As long as it continues, the Wizards might be able to push Indy, but they will have no real answer.
Pacers in 5
(6) Brooklyn Nets vs. (2) Miami Heat
Don't sweat too much that Brooklyn beat the Heat by 14 points in Game 3. Miami is still in complete control of this series.
Granted, the Nets deserve a ton of credit for beating the two-time defending champs like that in a playoff game. Shooting 15-of-25 from beyond the arc will certainly help, and as Bleacher Report's Ethan Skolnick points out, the performance was actually even more impressive than those numbers immediately indicate.
For the Nets, there is a downside to that nugget of information, however: The shooting barrage that won them Game 3 is completely unsustainable thereafter. They're not going to shoot 60 percent on mostly deep threes every game, especially not now that Miami knows to redouble its close-out efforts.
The Heat are not immortal, but they are as good as anybody at covering up their flaws immediately once they're exposed. Once Miami takes a collective step back out toward the arc, Brooklyn's sharpshooting will be forced to scatter and adapt, but the Nets lack the personnel to consistently penetrate and produce off the bounce.
Game 3 was a blip following a pair of double-digit Heat wins. With the glitches fixed, Miami will roll again.
Heat in 5
(1) San Antonio Spurs vs. (5) Portland Trail Blazers
The Portland Trail Blazers are essentially a young man's version of the Dallas Mavericks, which is exactly why Portland is struggling so mightily with the Spurs.
During the regular season, Dallas ranked third in offensive efficiency, two spots ahead of Portland. Though the Blazers were slightly stingier on defense, Rick Carlisle is a far superior two-way game coach to Terry Stotts, his former assistant, which is proving very significant in the postseason.
It seemed the Blazers might be able to use the three-denying formula the Mavs employed in the first round to give San Antonio trouble, but a team with players as weak defensively as Portland's cannot both lock up the perimeter and stop Tony Parker inside using a strategy learned on the fly that its coach didn't fully scheme himself.
The issues have been obvious. Parker has gotten every look he wants for the most part, having to work only when Nicolas Batum guards him and Portland contorts its entire perimeter look to hide Damian Lillard. San Antonio is too good at identifying weakness to let Portland play that way; Lillard will be targeted no matter his assignment.
And after a grueling series with the Mavs, San Antonio is very used to defending this offensive system. Considering Portland is running a slightly less potent version of it, the Spurs have their opponents entirely solved.
Spurs in 4
(3) Los Angeles Clippers vs. (2) Oklahoma City Thunder
Here's something that reminds us of the tension-filled first round.
Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook versus Chris Paul and Blake Griffin has produced all the excitement we all expected it would. With those superstars leading the way, both the Thunder and Clippers are too strong to go down easily. That was abundantly clear in Game 4, when OKC finished the first quarter up 32-15 only to fall 101-99 after a furious comeback.
A key component of Los Angeles' turnaround involved Paul manning up Durant, who is eight inches taller, and the Clippers sending over quick double-team help. This gambit slowed KD down a bit near the end, just enough for L.A. to edge the Thunder out for the narrow win.
Scott Brooks and the vanilla OKC offense weren't able to adapt on the fly against Doc Rivers' ingenuity, but it shouldn't be a major problem in the rest of the series. Even if the Thunder aren't that creative, they'll know to work through Westbrook more in those situations, and Paul can't handle the Durant assignment full-time anyway.
This series is going the distance, no matter the outcome. OKC's stars are collectively outperforming Lob City's by just a smidge so far, so the Thunder get the nod, albeit a tentative one.
Thunder in 7