May 10, 2013

With all four second-round playoff series tied at 1-1, writers Ian Thomsen, Chris Mannix, Ben Golliver and Rob Mahoney take stock by examining the early trends, the most desperate teams, the surprising Warriors and more.

What's your biggest takeaway from the first two games of the second round?

Ian Thomsen: All of a sudden it's looking like Miami and Memphis are going to meet in the NBA Finals. The Thunder are in trouble without Russell Westbrook, and the Spurs are struggling to keep up with Golden State. That means the Grizzlies are looking like the strongest contender in the Western Conference, while the Heat are being put through a boot-camp series with Chicago that will only increase Miami's chances of surviving the Knicks or Pacers in the conference finals. I thought the Grizzlies' Rudy Gay trade was a big mistake, and it's looking like I was wrong in a big way (though injuries to Westbrook and the Clippers' Blake Griffin have surely helped).

Chris Mannix: Miami is still the clear favorite. Injuries -- particularly Westbrook's -- have opened up the Western Conference field, making it exciting to watch. But regardless of who comes out of the West, it's clear that the Heat are the cream of the crop. They laid an egg against the Bulls in Game 1, but rebounded to pummel them by 37 in Game 2. As long as Dwyane Wade's knee stays healthy, what we thought at the end of the regular season remains true: Taking four off Miami is going to be a tall task.

Ben Golliver: The parity in the Western Conference. Westbrook's knee injury not only brought the Thunder back down to earth but it also opened up a spot in the Finals that could be claimed by any of the four remaining teams in the West. The narratives seemingly shift by the hour. The next week of hoops will go a long way to separating fact from fiction in those disparate developing trains of thought.

Rob Mahoney: The Warriors' offense is capable of overwhelming even high-quality team defenses. It's one thing to take advantage of the Nuggets' muddled coverage, but another entirely to stretch the Spurs to their defensive breaking point. For the moment, Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and a well-balanced supporting cast seem capable of challenging even the stingiest defensive opponents.

MAHONEY: Playoff surprises | Disappointments

Which team most needs a win entering Game 3?

Thomsen: San Antonio.The Spurs need to put a stop to Golden State's momentum immediately. If those amazing fans in Oakland are having their way and the young Warriors shooters are feeding off them, the Spurs are going to feel more and more like the '07 Mavericks who were unable to stop Baron Davis and Stephen Jackson from hitting the big shots. If the Spurs are going to win this series, they're going to need to win it sooner than later by controlling the style of play and squelching Curry and Thompson in Game 3.

THOMSEN: Curry latest to shine under bright lights

Mannix: Chicago. The Bulls shocked everyone when they stole Game 1, but Miami has all the momentum back after the Game 2 blowout. The Heat are a freight train, and when they get going they can run right over Chicago's battered roster. The Bulls need to get back to protecting the paint and playing that physical defense that bothered Miami in Game 1.

Golliver: Oklahoma City. The inconsistencies of the Thunder attack since Westbrook went down are self-evident, a product of somewhat unreliable offensive players (Kevin Martin, Serge Ibaka and Reggie Jackson) being asked to fill enhanced roles. Expecting those guys to deliver when things get more desperate -- trailing in the series, playing on the road in Memphis, fighting off elimination in a make-or-break game -- is an even trickier proposition. For that reason, the Thunder badly need to reclaim home-court advantage against a mentally tough and physically brutal Grizzlies team. We know Kevin Durant can handle the pressure and we know he will do everything in his power to keep the Thunder in it. We just don't know who else, if anyone, can truly be trusted when the going gets tougher.

JENKINS: Durant can only do so much alone for OKC

Mahoney: Chicago. The Bulls have so little room for error in their series. Even a spirited Game 1 victory -- and the theft of home-court advantage from the mighty Heat -- doesn't put the Bulls in commanding position. Advantageous though it may be to split the opening two games on the road, Chicago remains an underdog playing in the face of staggering odds. Things could get out of hand quickly if the Bulls don't turn a corner in Game 3, as there are few forces in the NBA (if any) more dangerous than a Heat team empowered by momentum.

Which series has the best chance of going the full seven games?

Thomsen: Pacers-Knicks. This looks like a matchup that is going to be played on different terms every night. There are going to be more nights like Game 1, when the Pacers were too big inside for New York. And there will be others when the Knicks will be too strong on the perimeter, as in Game 2. In the end, Carmelo Anthony will make the difference. He's going to be the tiebreaker on his home floor.

Mannix: Pacers-Knicks. Here's the thing: If the Pacers can put Tuesday's epic collapse behind them and play well at home like they have most of the season, they can take the next two from the Knicks and close them out in five or six. But it was just last year, in Game 4 against Miami, that Indiana was rattled by a second-half comeback and never recovered. The Knicks aren't the Heat, but if they rattled the Pacers, they can get a split in Indiana and draw this series out.

Golliver: Pacers-Knicks.I picked Knicks over Pacers in seven and we've already seen enough ups and downs from both teams to suggest that this series won't be over quickly. Despite giving away home-court advantage in a clear-cut Game 1 defeat, the Knicks were able to show enough offensively in a blowout Game 2 win to reinforce the thinking that this remains their series to lose. Indiana's well-documented road struggles should, at the very least, prevent this from being a five-game series. The Pacers' pride and defense, though, will make it tough for the Knicks to take one, let alone two, in Indiana.

Mahoney: Pacers-Knicks. I wouldn't be shocked if a few of these series end up going the distance, but the most likely would seem to be this impeccably balanced matchup. Both teams are inconsistent enough to win or lose games they shouldn't, and in that lack of reliability exists a perfect formula for a seven-game affair.

True or False: The Warriors are now the favorite to win their series against the Spurs.

Thomsen: True. The Spurs have been unable to keep up with the hottest opponents in recent postseasons. The Warriors are now trying to extend that trend. I still give the Spurs a chance to turn it around, but it doesn't look as if the Warriors are going to help them. Golden State coach Mark Jackson has his young players believing in themselves, as shown by their dominance of Game 2 after blowing a big lead in the opener.

Mannix: True. Gregg Popovich will make adjustments and find ways to push Golden State off of the three-point line. But this deep-shooting barrage from the Warriors isn't an aberration; they have been doing it all season. The Spurs were built to play conventionally with two big men on the court, but to defend Golden State they have been forced at times to go small, which plays right into the Warriors' hands. Sure, Curry and Thompson could suddenly go cold. But if they don't, Golden State has proved that it can dominate the Spurs for stretches.

Golliver: False. The Warriors are really, really, REALLY tempting. But I'll still say false, barely. I think we've seen the best that Golden State has to offer -- and it could easily be enough to pull the upset -- but I don't think we can say the same about San Antonio, with the possible exception of the final 14 minutes of Game 1. Manu Ginobili made it clear after Game 2 that the Spurs feel that they have a higher gear that they haven't reached and that they are now fully aware that they will be eliminated if they don't step it up. It's easy to envision that improvement. San Antonio is a better defensive team that it has shown and a significantly better shooting team than it showed in Game 2, especially from outside.

GOLLIVER: How the Warriors bounced back in Game 2

Mahoney: False. Golden State has certainly dictated the course of the series thus far, but we're a mere two games in. There's plenty of basketball yet to be played. I wouldn't count out Popovich's ability to make a series of necessary adjustments or overlook the possibility of the Warriors' shooting cooling off. Many have noted that Golden State could be heading back to Oracle Arena with a decisive 2-0 lead, but San Antonio could hold an equally commanding advantage. Both of the games in this series have been well within the Spurs' reach, and if not for some uncharacteristic misses on wide-open three-pointers, they could have broken the Warriors' spirit with two consecutive comeback wins.

The playoffs so far have been ...

Thomsen: Influenced by injury. I know Wade is hurting, but at least he's still in uniform. Miami was the best team entering the season and its superiority has been extended by the absences of Derrick Rose, Kirk Hinrich, Luol Deng, Amar'e Stoudemire (who's expected to return in Game 3), Danny Granger, Rajon Rondo and others -- and that's only in the East. The loss of so much firepower has enhanced the Heat's advantage. The non-Miami series have become quirkier because of those injuries, but at the top? Miami looks stronger than ever.

Mannix: Injury riddled. What would the Celtics look like with Rondo? Or the Knicks with a healthy Stoudemire? Or the Thunder with Westbrook, the Bulls with Rose, the Pacers with Granger or the Warriors with David Lee? The players not playing in the postseason could form a two-deep All-Star team. Injuries happen and they haven't taken away from the competitiveness of these playoffs. But it's disappointing not to see some of the biggest -- and most impactful -- names in the game on the court.

ROSENBERG: Expectations complicate Rose's return

Golliver: Even more fun than I expected, although if you asked this same question one week ago, before the start of the conference semifinals, I would have answered with an opposite sentiment. There was way too much mediocrity hanging around in the first round (I'm looking at you, Bucks, Celtics, Lakers, Hawks and Nets). Now that the cream has risen, the intrigue has increased exponentially. Nate Robinson! Mike Conley! Klay Thompson! Pablo Prigioni! Through just two games of the second round, all of those smaller names have found a way to stand out alongside LeBron James (dominant Game 2), Durant (go-ahead jumper in the closing seconds of Game 1), Anthony (big numbers in Game 2), Ginobili (game-winner in Game 1) and Curry (three after three after three after three), who have all delivered the star power. A rare night off from hoops on Thursday served as a nice reminder: We've been getting spoiled.

Mahoney: A blur. We're already 53 games into the postseason, with a flurry of injuries, sound bites and narratives running dense through a massive slate. It should all weave together into some meaningful whole by the playoffs' end, but for the moment we're left to focus on a constant stream of fun, high-level basketball and the micro-elements that exist between games. This is the most wonderful time of the year for hoops fans, and I, for one, have enjoyed it.

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