Three series with many queries
5-on-5 roundtable: The Nuggets need to neutralize the Lakers' size
All season, the Bulls' defense had been stout. But in Game 2 against Philly, the Sixers ran the Bulls out of the United Center.
And the Lakers have had trouble with ... well, not much of anything so far against the Nuggets.
With the Lakers up 2-0 heading to Denver and the Bulls-Sixers and Celtics-Hawks tied at one game each, we turned to five experts to see how these series will play out.
1. What matters most going forward in the Boston-Atlanta series?
J.A. Adande, ESPN.com: Smith's status. It used to be you didn't know how he'd play. Now you don't know if he'll play. If he's out, the Hawks don't have their leader in scoring, rebounds and blocked shots in the series. Smith desperately wanted to get the Hawks deep into the playoffs this season and had been playing some of his best ball after the All-Star break. What a shame if he can't go.
Beckley Mason, ESPN.com: Smith's health. Smith is far and away the most vital member of the Hawks. They need him to be the two-way force he was in Game 1, when he finished defensive possessions with rebounds and initiated the offense with his ballhandling and passing. Aside from LeBron James, no player fills more roles for his team than Smith does.
Danny Nowell, Magic Basketball: The health of Smith. While I have no medical expertise whatsoever, I would be surprised to see Smith again in this series, and he's been the most effective Hawk by far. If his teammates can stretch the series and he's healthy enough to play a few games, it could be the difference between elimination and the conference finals.
Tom Sunnergren, Philadunkia: Before his left knee turned on him, Smith was doing things to the Celtics that forced more than a few of us to downgrade their title prospects from dark horse to just dark. He posted 38 points and 30 rebounds in 80 minutes of work. Smith will reportedly test the knee out during Friday's shootaround, and the series could hinge on the results.
Rob Peterson, ESPN.com: Smith and his knee. I didn't give the Hawks much of a chance with him healthy, but if he's only half-speed and therefore half-Smoove, I don't think the Hawks have a chance of winning another game, let alone beating the C's in the series.
2. What matters most going forward in the Philly-Chicago series?
Adande: Philadelphia's ability to get out on the break. You know Tom Thibodeau will be obsessed with fixing a Bulls defense that allowed the 76ers to shoot 59 percent in Game 2. If the Bulls are going to pull out of their post-Derrick Rose funk, they'll do so by regaining their identity. That puts a premium on the Sixers finding easy baskets in transition.
Mason: Transition play. Chicago wants to send two or three players to the offensive glass each possession, but that can open up transition opportunities for a team like Philadelphia, which has three or four dangerous ball handlers to ignite the break. If the Bulls keep it in the half court and limit turnovers, they still have the advantage.
Nowell: Jrue Holiday's performance. The young point guard's 26-point eruption is more than could be feasibly expected of him going forward, but if Holiday is able to become a viable scoring threat over the rest of the series, it may overwhelm the short-handed Bulls.
Sunnergren: Holiday. If Philly's oft-unimaginative O can muster just a touch of the panache it flashed in Game 2, it just might have enough to top the (still deservedly, heavily) favored Bulls. The young guard's the key. He's averaged 21 points in five games against Chicago this season and, per ESPN's Stats & Info blog, is shooting 70.6 percent in the series when Rose is off the court. I'm not a doctor, but I believe Rose's torn ACL will keep him off the court.
Peterson: Chicago's defense. The cornerstone of Thibodeau's coaching philosophy is defense, and that crumbled in Game 2. No team shot 59 percent against the Bulls this season -- and only two teams surpassed the number of field goals (46) that the Sixers hit. Even without Rose, the Bulls have been able to stop opposing teams. Thibs needs to get his team back to basics on D and all will be well again.
3. What matters most going forward in the Denver-L.A. Lakers series?
Adande: The Lakers sticking with their plan of attack. Work the ball below the free throw line on offense and own the paint on defense. If the Lakers play their game, the Nuggets can't beat them. It's that simple. The Nuggets are dependent on the Lakers straying from their strategy. The Lakers aren't dependent on any shortcomings by the Nuggets.
Mason: Denver's 3-point shooting. Games 1 and 2 set the terms of this confrontation. Denver is going to run, run, run and hope to race past the Lakers. Los Angeles is going to bludgeon the Nuggets inside. But the Nuggets can't outrun their size issues if they don't capitalize on open 3-point looks. So far they're shooting just 8-for-33 (24 percent).
Nowell: Lineups. George Karl might want to visit Don Nelson's "We Believe" playbook and try to run the Lakers out of the building with some smaller, faster lineups. I'd like to see Ty Lawson and Andre Miller together with Kenneth Faried sprinting around the Lakers' bigs. It may not swing the series, but it seems like the last hope the Nuggets have.
Sunnergren: The Lakers' leviathans up front. Between Andrew Bynum, Pau Gasol and, yes, Jordan Hill, the Lake Show's gotten an average of 39.5 points, 30 rebounds, 9.5 blocks, and 7.5 assists in the series' first two tilts. Yeah, Lawson's fast, but if this continues, the Nuggets won't.
Peterson: The Lakers' size. Despite the proliferation of productive perimeter players in the NBA these days, it's easier to score when you're closer to the hoop. That hasn't changed in more than 100 years. Bynum and Gasol are head and shoulders above the youthful triumverate of Timofey Mozgov, JaVale McGee and Faried. If needed, Kobe Bryant can close, but let the big guys get him there.
4. How many games will the Nuggets win in this series?
Adande: One. The Nuggets made only 24 percent of their 3-pointers in the first two games. They're due for a night when the 3s drop, and when they do, they'll get a W. It just isn't a formula for series-long success.
Mason: Two. The Lakers travel across state lines about as well as actual lakes, so the Nuggets will have a great shot at tying the series. But Denver better do a better job of sticking its open jumpers, or this could easily be a sweep.
Nowell: Just one. I'd love to see something unconventional allow Denver to steal two games, but the Lakers have proved beyond a shadow of a doubt how bad a matchup this is for the relentlessly enjoyable Nuggets.
Sunnergren: In two games in the Rocky Mountain air this season, Kobe has shot 13-of-51. Think on that. While I'm sure the early adopter has got some freshly imported, legally dubious blood-oxygen-maximizing contraption humming along in his suite as we speak, the bet is that the elevation will take just enough of an edge off he and the Lakers to allow the Nuggets, who have won 79 percent of their home games the past five seasons, to steal one in the Pepsi Center.
Peterson: One. The Lakers are too big, too experienced and too good for this Nuggets team to eke out more than that.
5. Which team emerges from the Bulls-Hawks-Celtics-Sixers bracket?
Adande: The Celtics. They survived their game without Rondo. They're getting Ray Allen back. And if you had to pick one player from the four teams to take over a playoff game, wouldn't it be Paul Pierce? They have enough to get through the first two rounds. Asking them to get past Miami is where they could fall short.
Mason: The Sixers! Philadelphia seems to have found its confidence against the Rose-less Bulls, and that's a scary thing for a team that asks Rip Hamilton and Carlos Boozer to carry significant defensive burdens. If the Sixers escape Chicago, they should be the favorite to reach the Eastern Conference finals given their regular-season dominance over each of their potential second-round opponents.
Nowell: It really could be any of the four, depending on injuries and other surprises. But I'll say the Celtics, for the simple reason that they will probably have the two best players in every game until the conference finals.
Sunnergren: Let's say the Celtics, but really, what difference does it make? The most salient thing that'll emerge from the flawed bunch is this: an unassailable sense of the Heat's inevitability.
Peterson: The Celtics. With Rose being out, Smith's balky knee and a young Sixers squad that probably won't get past the Bulls anyway, I put a lot of emphasis on postseason experience. The Celtics have more than enough.