Recalibrating the 2013 NBA playoffs
One round and one game in each second-round series are in the books. How do things look now? Our 5-on-5 panel takes a fresh look at the postseason landscape.
1. Now who's the favorite in the West?
Kevin Arnovitz, ESPN.com: The Spurs entered the postseason with one serious question mark: Would their savvy be trumped by the Thunder's athleticism? That threat becomes infinitely less scary if Russell Westbrook isn't in the equation for OKC. Now the Spurs' defense can rely on its mastery of space, pick-and-roll coverages and general decision-making without fear of being swamped by speed.
Jovan Buha, ClipperBlog: The Spurs. Before their late-season struggles, which were mainly a result of injuries, the Spurs had the best record in the West and were undoubtedly a top-three team in the league. With Westbrook out for the playoffs, the Western Conference title runs through the River Walk.
D.J. Foster, ClipperBlog: The Spurs. The Warriors are capable of getting hot from deep and putting a serious scare into the battle-tested Spurs, but that's relatively harmless compared to the physical abuse the Thunder and Grizzlies will impart on each other. With the best coach, deepest roster and most playoff experience, this is still San Antonio's conference to lose.
Benjamin Polk, A Wolf Among Wolves: The Spurs. After their beatdown of the Lakers, it looks like the Spurs are humming again. No team but Miami has San Antonio's capacity for near-utopian levels of execution. With Westbrook and James Harden, the Thunder were too young and athletic and ferocious for the Spurs. Now, I don't think anyone in the West can play with the Spurs at their best.
Jason Gallagher, BallerBall: The Spurs, who were my pick before OKC lost Westbrook. San Antonio can run with just about any type of offense out there because of their size, quickness, depth and 3-point shooting. Partner that with their above-average defense and the best coach in the league, and I just don't think anyone in the ever-weakening Western Conference beats San Antonio in a best-of-seven series.
2. Now who are the biggest challenge to the Heat in the East?
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Arnovitz: By virtue of stealing Game 1 from the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden, the Indiana Pacers represent the biggest challenge to the Heat. Both Indiana and New York figure to win a game or two against Miami, but neither stands a chance against the Heat's depth, experience and talent -- both raw and refined -- Monday night's stinkbomb against Chicago notwithstanding.
Buha: The Pacers. While they don't have the Knicks' offensive chops, their league-leading defense is capable of flustering the Heat, and they have enough size and physicality to bully Miami inside. That said, "challenging" the Heat means maybe stealing two games. Good luck winning more than that.
Foster: The Pacers. It's easy to forget, but the Pacers were one half of basketball away from going up 3-1 against Miami in last year's playoffs. Of course, Miami was without Chris Bosh, which speaks to a different point: It's more about "what" can stop the Heat instead of "who." A little rust may slow them temporarily, but injuries are the only thing that can permanently derail this train.
Gallagher: The Bulls. I don't see any of these teams beating Miami in a seven-game series, but I'm picking the Bulls by major default. Indiana and New York are at maximum power right now and look about as unimpressive as someone juggling two tennis balls. The beat-up Bulls are playing at a very high level, and with the potential of an important player coming back, they can only get better.
Polk: The Pacers. The Knicks aren't consistent or mentally disciplined enough. The Bulls just don't have the talent. As they showed last playoffs and this regular season, the Pacers have the size, physicality and defensive intensity to grind it out with Miami. Doesn't mean they'll win, but they certainly could make things interesting.
3. Who has made the biggest impact on the playoffs thus far?
Arnovitz: The injury bug, that rascally beast. Being denied Westbrook, Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash, David Lee, Rajon Rondo, Danilo Gallinari, among others, is like showing up for a Broadway smash only to be told before curtain that understudies will be filling in for the big-name talent. May the healthiest team win.
Buha: Stephen Curry. He has become a superstar before our eyes, even if he has been playing this well for months. The playoffs are often the first chance for casual fans to catch a glimpse of players they don't normally watch, and Curry has made the most of his opportunity.
Foster: Zach Randolph. The window of opportunity was open. The Los Angeles Clippers had the Grizzlies knocked down, but then Z-Bo got right back up. Randolph's sudden reversion back to his dominant 2010-11 form completely altered the series, and possibly the entire landscape of the Western Conference playoffs.
Gallagher: Kevin Durant. I vocally proclaimed that there was no way Durant could continue to play this efficiently in the absence of Westbrook, but KD made me look very stupid by averaging 35 points, 10 rebounds ans 5 assists and better than 50 percent shooting since Westbrook went down.
Polk: Stephen Curry. Those ridiculous moments against the Nuggets -- those crossovers and step-backs, those 28-footers, those floating finger rolls -- were transcendent. There's nothing in the world quite like a pure scorer in trance-mode at playoff time.
4. Who has been the biggest disappointment of the playoffs?
Arnovitz: The Los Angeles Clippers. The spring edition of the Clippers might not have been as impressive as the December squad that won 17 straight, but the prospect of seeing Chris Paul and Blake Griffin on a big, well-lit stage was tantalizing. Instead, the Clippers were outworked, outcoached and ultimately outmatched by Memphis, which, as it turns out, is a pretty fun team to have around, grit and all.
Buha: Derrick Rose. He hasn't played yet and probably isn't going to, which is understandable given the long-term nature of his injury. But he should stop toying with the media -- and more importantly Bulls fans -- and just say he won't suit up this season. There's no point in perpetuating a fairy tale that'll never come true.
Foster: J.R. Smith and Carmelo Anthony. The NBA Sixth Man of the Year and the MVP candidate have combined to shoot only 37 percent from the field in the playoffs. After months of trusting their teammates and making quick decisions with the ball, Smith and Anthony have regressed back to shooting bad jumpers off the dribble. Against Indiana's defense, this could get worse before it gets better.
Gallagher: The Nets. Brooklyn is the John Carter of NBA teams this post season. In all seriousness, the Nets combined closing unit in Game 7 made around $40 million more this season than Chicago's.
Polk: It's not a "who" but a "what": injuries. The postseason passions of dudes such as Rose, Westbrook, Rondo and Bryant have been among the most fascinating spectacles in the game. These playoffs are poorer for those guys' absence.
5. Who has been the most pleasant surprise of the playoffs?
Arnovitz: Golden State. The Warriors are so much fun to watch and work so hard that Mark Jackson's self-importance is almost tolerable. The Spurs are a far less forgiving team than the Nuggets, but let's hope they're a little forgiving so we can enjoy the end-of-game theatrics that make the W's a thrill ride.
Buha: Zach Randolph. His first-round resurgence has the Grizzlies looking like the dark-horse contender many thought could be. If Randolph continues his tear as the top-scoring big man in the playoffs, Memphis may have just enough offensive firepower to match its defense and sneak into the NBA Finals.
Foster: The Bulls. Every year we seem to forget that a strong regular-season defense translates to playoff success, and the Bulls have taken it to a level beyond belief. It's one thing to be short-handed; it's another to be missing a former MVP and an All-Star forward while having a 5-foot-7 player routinely save the day with clutch heroics. This is a special run.
Gallagher: The Bulls. While I love what Curry and the Warriors have done, what's happening with Chicago is flat out remarkable. The Bulls are playing as such a solid unit that even though they are missing key players from their team, they never lack the key elements that make them so good, and that's all thanks to the brilliance of Tom Thibodeau.
Polk: The Warriors. When David Lee went down, it seemed impossible that Golden State would have enough firepower to stay with the Nuggets. Instead it allowed the Warriors to unleash the fury of their small lineups, a barrage of impossible shots, and the beautiful mania of the Oakland home crowd.
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