By Joe Manganiello
Miami and San Antonio made quick work of their first round series. Golden State provided us with the most entertaining series of the first round, and finished off their upset of the Denver Nuggets last night in six games. That leaves 10 teams fighting for the final five spots in the second round, while the Heat, Spurs and Warriors wait in the figurative clubhouse until Monday.
Sidebar: The NBA nerd in me would love if there was a literal NBA playoff clubhouse. I’m thinking Vegas… no, that’s a bad idea.
Here are the 13 teams left in the playoffs entering this weekend, organized from most likely to compete in the NBA finals to least likely.
1. Miami (The Favorite)
The Bucks had no answers for the defending champions. The game four box score tells it all. LeBron James scored 30 points and collected eight rebounds, seven assists and three steals. The Bucks were out-rebounded and out-shot (and out-scored).
Whoever wins game seven between the Nets and Bulls is going to get a Heat roster that’s been resting since Sunday. I’m not saying that the series is doomed from the start or anything, but I don’t know what’s more unlikely: the prospect of Brooklyn holding off a fiery Bulls roster for one more game, taking a shower and catching a flight to South Beach and then having any energy left OR the Bulls overcoming a roster riddled with influenza, the negative press against Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah‘s injury for one more game against the more talented Nets, in Brooklyn, then having any energy left.
2. San Antonio (The new (old) favorite in the West)
Oh yeah, the Spurs are the favorite in the west now.
Lakers fans were trying to tell me for weeks that if the Lakers got the Spurs in the first round, a deep playoff run – not a first round upset, but a run to the conference finals – was in the works. Kobe went down, and I still heard rumblings from Purple and Gold nation about how a first round upset against the Spurs was likely because “the Spurs are old.”
Well, that thought process backfired.
And look, I’m not here to talk about the Lakers, but I know all the arguments. No team in the HISTORY OF BASKETBALL (hyperbole) has had to deal with the injuries that the poor, persecuted, doomed, unlucky Lakers (comedy) dealt with this season, plus lose their superstar leader days before the playoffs (untrue).
Moving on… After Steph “And You Will Know My Name Is Steph Curry When I Strike Down My Vengeance Upon (All-Star Voters Who Snubbed Me)” Curry’s performance in the first round, arguably the most important performance of the opening action was Manu Ginobili‘s first four games. Not only is he healthy (and rested), but he totally destroyed the Lakers (albeit, the Lakers) second unit. Here are Ginobili’s stats per 36 minutes in the series: 20.8 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 8.8 apg, 3.2 spg.
The Warriors play uptempo basketball and live for transition three-pointers, which the Nuggets practically begged them to take over the six-games series. The Spurs will not let the Warriors play at their preferred tempo, at least not as easily. Tim Duncan will negate a lot of the impact that Andrew Bogut made against the Nuggets, and Tony Parker is a step ahead of Ty Lawson in terms of efficiency and agitating quickness.
3. Memphis (The new contender in the West)
4. Los Angeles Clippers (The contender with odds stacked against them)
This is a banter over Facebook chat between my great friend and Grizzles fan Conrad Richer and myself, written Wednesday morning after Memphis took the 3-2 lead over the Clippers:
Conrad: Let me show you the Memphis Grizzlies path to the Finals. If the Grizzlies can beat the Clippers, at home, with either a severely limited or entirely nonexistent Blake Griffin, they make it to the second round. We just won game five in L.A. How are they gonna come into the Grindhouse and steal this one?
Joe: This Memphis Grizzles team reeks of the ’04 Pistons, hell, they even have the starting small forward from that team. They play the best defense in basketball, rebound like professionally-trained bears and seem to be the only team in the playoffs with a physically/mentally healthy Top 6 rotation. I’m still not counting out Chris Paul, who is the NBA’s smartest player and best fourth quarter performer, and I think the series tilts back over to the Clippers instantly if they beat the Grizz in the Grindhouse Friday. But I think I’m with you; I just don’t see Memphis missing this opportunity.
Conrad: Grizzles win this thing in six. In the second round they will in all likelihood face a Russel Westbrook-less Thunder squad. Already showing a level of relative dysfunction on the offensive side of the ball, how will the Thunder fair against the best defensive team in the league? Durant puts up 40 a game, but how are they gonna get even another 40 points a game?
Joe: You think Memphis could hold down the Thunder to around 80 points per game?
Conrad: Think about it. Red hot Mike Conley on Reggie Jackson or Derek Fisher? OK. Serge “I Suddenly Need To Score A Lot Without Westbrook Here” Ibaka vs. the defensive player of the year Marc Gasol and Zack Randolph. Think about that. There is no way Ibaka can average 20 a game, or even 16 a game. So far the Thunder have maintained their same offensive style and have just “replaced” Westbrook – which is impossible. Expect this ideology to be tested against a ferocious Memphis defense.
Joe: That isn’t crazy. What about coaching?
Conrad: It comes down to Scott Brooks vs. Lionel Hollins. Can Hollins exploit the lack of Westbrook? Can Brooks create offense with some of his bench guys? Call me crazy but the Grizzles should be favored in this series, and they’ll win in six.
Joe: I wonder if Hollins would rather play the Thunder or the Rockets right now. Never imagined I’d be seriously asking that question. I think the Rockets might even take this Thunder series; they are absolutely outperforming the Thunder in the second half of these games, and if Durant doesn’t get the luckiest bounce of the playoffs in game three, the Rockets are ahead 3-2.
Conrad: I’d favor the Grizzles either way. Then we get a probable San Antonio (although if Curry and Jack get red hot, then San Antonio might be in trouble). It would be a tough series, but we have beaten San Antonio before; we are better now; we could win. If it goes seven games, the Spurs win, but the Grizzles could pull it off in six.
Joe: Very interesting. I can see it. At this point, I think the winner of Memphis/Los Angeles is going straight to the conference finals, where a series against the Spurs would be very tough. Winnable, but tough. And hey, you left me in the figurative finals. Not ready to pick Memphis vs. Miami? Are you bold enough to call the upset? You ready to point out that the Grizzles are the only team in the league that can 1) take away the drive with Gasol/Randolph 2) take away Wade with Conley/Allen and 3) rotate Allen/Prince on LeBron? Memphis might be the league’s only team that can play with Miami in a seven games series, at least without a superhuman shooting performance (Dallas, 2011).
Conrad: Let’s get there first.
Here’s Part Two. Follow me @joemags32.