Playoff Roundtable: With Boston, L.A. done, who is title bound?
As the second round nears its conclusion, four SI.com NBA writers take stock of some of the biggest playoff storylines.
1. Who is the favorite to win the championship right now?
IAN THOMSEN: The likeliest finalists are the Heat and Mavericks, based mainly on the deep playoff experience of their biggest stars. Miami could be viewed as a slight favorite because of their home-court advantage against Dallas and because LeBron James and Dwyane Wade would be seen as the best two-way (offense/defense) players in the series. But I'm not sure who to pick based on the mismatches created by Dirk Nowitzki, the interior defense of Tyson Chandler and the Mavs' superior depth. For now, I would go for the upset and pick Dallas, based on its flow of teamwork. The Mavs have been together for a relatively long time, and that can make a big difference under pressure.
SAM AMICK: I'm going with Miami. The Mavs have momentum and the sort of chemistry that is certainly championship-worthy, not to mention the fact that -- should they meet the Heat in the Finals -- they were 2-0 against Miami in the regular season. But the Caron Butler factor looms large. His defense would've been a huge help against James. And even if the veteran swingman does make a miraculous return from a knee injury that has sidelined him since Jan. 2, he can't be expected to handle LeBron like he did during the regular season. (James was 11-of-36 from the field in those two matchups while facing off against Butler.) And while Jason Terry is doing a valiant job as Nowitzki's scoring sidekick, he simply can't keep it up at this pace even if the Mavs need him to.
CHRIS MANNIX: I'm going with Dallas. Its bench has been terrific -- Terry is playing some of the best basketball of his career -- and Butler's possible return only makes it stronger. I like Dallas' chemistry, scoring distribution and (we've heard this before) the tough, defensive-minded presence Chandler has brought.
LEE JENKINS: The Heat. They have come together at the right time and already proved they can dispatch their toughest competition. When they are firing, they have it all.
2. What did we learn about the Heat in their five-game elimination of the Celtics?
THOMSEN: That James and Wade have learned to play together intuitively. Early this season, the pressures created by opposing defenses pulled them apart. Now each has a greater understanding for how to attack while feeding off one another. It is what their opponents feared most of all.
AMICK: That maybe we were the crazy ones. The Heat obviously still have much work to do, but the skeptics (myself included) who were saying back in November that the new Big Three wouldn't find the necessary cohesion in this first go-round together must have forgotten how long a season actually is. Miami has been rolling since early March, and the Heat's original plan to overwhelm opponents with athleticism, speed and skill on both ends is working out after all.
MANNIX: The cynic in me wants to argue that we learned the Heat knew how to outlast a (badly) wounded champion, but I'll give them a little more credit. Boston has owned Wade and James in the past, but the Miami duo stepped up in a big way this series. LeBron -- sloppy turnover at the end of regulation in Game 4 aside -- proved that he can close out games, and Wade looks a lot like the Wade of 2006. I'm still not ready to hand Miami a title, but it is certainly much closer to a finished product.
JENKINS: The Heat can win close games. They can win despite extended stretches of erratic play. They can win even when they appear to be outclassed down low. They are exactly what they were supposed to be: capable not only of beating the best in the NBA but also blowing past them.
3. The Bulls finished with the NBA's top record and second-best point differential during the regular season. Why haven't they been as dominant in the playoffs?
THOMSEN: They're contending ahead of schedule. Not many thought they could be this good this quickly, or that their roster was a finished product. Playoff experience is something they're gaining along the way, which would be an issue for them in a conference final against Miami. But I'm also reminded of some of Pat Riley's teams in Miami, which would clean up during the regular season by outworking all comers; in the postseason they would lose that advantage, just as the Bulls have lost an advantage against the improved work rate of the Pacers and Hawks.
AMICK: Fatigue, style and lack of experience. All three factors are intertwined, as the overdependence on 22-year-old Derrick Rose is compounded by this team's strong desire to keep pushing (with coach Tom Thibodeau's prodding) throughout the regular season. You had to wonder if they could take it to the next level that's necessary in the playoffs after grinding it out for so long, and they've been unable to on a consistent basis. Add in Carlos Boozer and his turf toe that, at times, has him looking like Carlos Arroyo in the post, and the already-heavy load on Rose's shoulders is simply too much to bear.
MANNIX: Two reasons: First, the Bulls aren't as consistent on defense. The regular-season Bulls team was a shot-contesting, pass-deflecting, quick-closeout menace. While the Bulls have had some great defensive performances this postseason, they've had more lapses than usual, too, most notably in allowing Atlanta to shoot 51.3 percent and 49.4 percent in its two second-round victories. And second, that regular-season team was deeper, too. Yes, Rose was the star, but Chicago, when healthy, could always count on solid contributions from Boozer, Joakim Noah and Luol Deng. They are not getting that regularly right now. They better get their acts together. No team carried by one player has ever won a title. Chicago won't be the first.
JENKINS: The Bulls outworked opponents in the regular season. In the playoffs, everybody works, so one of their major advantages is neutralized. Teams have loaded up on Rose, he has not shot as consistently as he did and the Bulls still don't have many other scoring options.
4. Both of last year's finalists, Boston and the Lakers, bowed out in the second round. Which veteran team has a better chance of keeping open its championship window?
THOMSEN: Apart from Kobe Bryant and Derek Fisher, the key Lakers players have less mileage than Boston's three future Hall of Famers. Failure and a shortened (by their standards) postseason may provide the inspiration the Lakers couldn't find this season while chasing a fourth straight Finals appearance. I think they have the legs to make another run at it, but I don't know if that's true for the Celtics.
AMICK: The Lakers. Whether they follow Magic Johnson's advice and blow up the roster or stand pat, the Lakers have the necessary flexibility to remain contenders. Big men Andrew Bynum, Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom are still considered among the best at their respective positions, meaning they could be dealt for serious talent or simply used to compete. Ron Artest's value has certainly decreased, but he remains one of the league's best perimeter defenders and a capable part of the core. Bryant is the untouchable one, and there is -- as exiting Lakers coach Phil Jackson said on Wednesday -- a serious need for more speed (see Fisher at the point).
Amick: Kobe laments 'wasted year' | Lakers confident in future
MANNIX: For all of Magic's bluster, the Lakers aren't in a bad spot. Bryant and Gasol are still in their prime and Bynum is only going to keep getting better. Yes, they need younger, quicker guards, and they might push to trade Artest. But this is a team that needs to be retooled, not revamped. Boston won't get an overhaul, either, but another year won't help Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce or Ray Allen. And the loss of Kendrick Perkins, which I think really hurt the Celtics in the Miami series, is going to continue to haunt them.
JENKINS: The Lakers, mainly because they are in the Western Conference, and the Heat are not. The emergence of 23-year-old Bynum solidifies the Lakers' frontcourt for the foreseeable future -- or gives them a valuable trade chip to dangle this summer.
5. Russell Westbrook's decision-making and shot selection have been hot topics during the playoffs. With his emergence as a shoot-first point guard, do you foresee issues in the long term between Westbrook and two-time scoring champion Kevin Durant?
THOMSEN: This is just the beginning for both of them. One month ago, they'd never won a playoff series. They're both still finding their way and a few years from now they'll both be doing things that are beyond them right now. Based on the huge improvement Westbrook has shown already, how can anyone assume he won't learn and grow based on his successes and failures during these educational playoffs? If he's able to reach the conference finals, then it will have been a terrific year for him.
AMICK: I foresee quite the challenge for coach Scott Brooks, who can't afford to allow this perception that Durant is being marginalized to continue. Durant is a once-in-a-generation type scorer, but it seems Westbrook is the only one around who doesn't notice when these painfully long stretches unfold without the ball heading his way. The pursuit of balance should be shared, with the affable Durant needing to speak up when he knows the offense is heading south and Brooks sending the message to Westbrook that the ball movement -- no matter which direction it goes -- can't be so atrocious. As for a prediction, I say they get this kink worked out sooner rather than later. It's the Thunder, after all, and that's what recent history tells us happens when it comes to them.
MANNIX: Brooks has done his best to defuse this talk. But it's a valid question. Westbrook is a spectacular player, but his scorer's mentality just isn't meshing with Durant right now. It's way, way, way too soon to be talking about unloading a 22-year-old point guard who made a Derrick Rose-like leap in his second year. But I've heard talk of Westbrook/Durant being like Stephon Marbury and Garnett, two really talented players who just couldn't figure it out.
JENKINS: Yes. Durant is a true leader and self-effacing star who will do whatever is necessary to help the Thunder win a championship. We can't say the same yet about Westbrook.
6. Are the Mavericks helped or hurt by their long layoff awaiting their opponent in the Western Conference finals?
THOMSEN: Helped. Jason Kidd won't be hurt by this at all, and neither will Nowitzki nor Terry. I am certain their practices have been focused and productive because all of their key players view this as a championship opportunity they may never see again.
AMICK: The only way it hurts is from a momentum standpoint, especially coming off the team-wide heat check otherwise known as Game 4 of the Western Conference semifinals. But it helps in the end because of age, as the Mavericks are the oldest team in the league when it comes to their rotation players and the break means extra time to rest all the aches and pains. What's more, coach Rick Carlisle and highly respected lead assistant Dwane Casey are among the game's best and the added preparation time will be put to good use.
MANNIX: Kidd is 38. Terry is 33. Nowitzki is 32. I think these guys will take all the rest they can get. A young team with this much time on its hands might worry you, but Dallas' experienced roster (Terry and Nowitzki have been to the Finals, Kidd has been to two) won't let it skip a beat. They will be ready to go in Game 1.
JENKINS: A young team like Oklahoma City might not want this long a layoff, but the Mavericks are a veteran group with a 38-year-old point guard. They can use the rest.
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