The fun is just starting in the NBA Playoffs

With all the conference semifinal series hitting their stride, it's abundantly clear that the NBA Playoffs are just starting to get warmed up.

By Bryan Gibberman

The second round of the NBA playoffs is giving us quite a bit of symmetry. All four series are tied at one as we head into today’s rare day off.

Since the 1979-’80 season, all four conference semifinal series have been tied at one on only two occasions (2012-’13 was the other). It seems like a good time to reassess what’s happened and where we are with each matchup.

Cleveland Cavaliers vs. Chicago Bulls

The Cavs were down three of their top six players, but that didn’t stop them from a 12-minute explosion leading to a 106-91 Game 2 victory over the Bulls at Quicken Loans Arena.

During the first quarter, Cleveland went off for 38 points on 75-percent shooting with five threes. Eleven points was the closest Chicago would get after failing behind by 20.

It’s hard to go home feeling poorly after splitting on the road, yet here we are with the Bulls.

Derrick Rose continued his pattern of only playing well with multiple days of rest, as he shot 6-20 from the field. The next four games are being played with only one day off.

The same issues that have plagued Chicago head coach Tom Thibodeau in the past are continuing in the present. Nikola Mirotic has played nine minutes in the first two games and some of those were in garbage time. Tony Snell has seen only 14 minutes, also a good chunk in garbage time. These two players should be fuller parts of the rotation in some capacity.

Timofey Mozgov and Tristan Thompson are too big, strong and mobile for these incarnations of Joakim Noah, Taj Gibson, and Pau Gasol to deal with. In two games, the Cleveland big men have combined for 15 offensive rebounds.

Cavs head coach David Blatt decided to start the two together in Game 2. Mozgov played only 18 minutes, and the Cavs still played plenty of small ball, but it was rotated through after starting big.

J.R. Smith returns for Game 3, giving the Cavs a more dangerous look in their smaller groups. As long as Cleveland doesn’t implode and Thibodeau continues to sit Chicago’s best lineups, the most likely scenario is the Cavs coming away with this series.

Golden State Warriors vs. Memphis Grizzlies

Mike Conley played with a broken face. Mike Conley is a raging lunatic.

In all seriousness, I’m happy Conley was able to put together a kick-butt performance in Game 2 – it was a true pleasure to watch. The righty floaters and his dagger three late in the fourth quarter were part of a special moment. Conley’s importance to Memphis on both ends of the court was clear.

His presence gave the Grizzlies two defense-minded guards with the physical traits needed to force Steph Curry and Klay Thompson to work for their buckets. The result was the duo shooting a combined 3-17 from three-point range. I thought the Warriors’ offense would allow Thompson to get solid looks with his length despite Allen’s rare tenacity and skill as a defender. In Game 1 that was the case, but not so much in Game 2.

What Memphis did in that second game is what it needs to replicate in order to win again. Memphis had a couple extra possessions due to a positive turnover margin, and was only minus-3 behind the arc with the Warriors shooting 11 more threes.

What the Grizzlies have to accomplish is still a difficult task, even though they’re heading home. Conley and Allen are freaking awesome, but limiting Curry and Thompson in three out of the next five games won’t come easily.

Game 1 was what I thought this series was going to be, and I was surprised to see Memphis impose itself in the way it did in Game 2. The Grizz even beat the Warriors at their own game on Tuesday, having 21 fast break points to 19 for the top seed in the West.

It was Golden State’s first loss at ORACLE Arena since January 27, when they fell 113-111 to the Bulls in overtime. At worst the Warriors need one road win and two home wins to move on.

The Warriors have reached their first roadblock in the playoffs. I lean toward a bounce-back performance at the “Grindhouse” in Game 3, but I’m looking forward to seeing what Memphis has to say about that.

Atlanta Hawks vs. Washington Wizards

A potentially fun series might be on the path to dying. It’s impossible to speak of anything in this series without speaking about John Wall’s injury status.

Wall took a rough fall in Game 1, came back in and helped carry the Wizards to a 1-0 series lead over the Hawks.

All sounded well and good, but Wall didn’t end up playing in Game 2, and his status going forward is a complete unknown. As of Wednesday, Wall still didn’t have an MRI because of swelling, and was seeking a third opinion.

Without Wall the Wizards are done. They fought valiantly for three quarters Tuesday night, going into the final 12 minutes trailing by only five. Unfortunately, there’s not enough talent with no Wall to push them through. Atlanta clamped down, holding Washington to 4-for-15 shooting and 15 points in the fourth quarter as it pulled away.

There’s been some noise that the Hawks can’t have long-term playoff success because DeMarre Carroll is playing like their best player. That’s not really true – Carroll has been their top scorer, but Al Horford is the Hawks’ best player. Watch Horford defend guards on the perimeter when he gets forced into switches.

There’s nothing wrong with Carroll currently being the Hawks’ leading scorer, because he’s shooting an absurd .556 from the field and .465 from three. When those numbers inevitably regress, will Kyle Korver’s shooting return to the mean or will others pick up the slack?

That’s what I’m watching for from Atlanta these next two games in D.C. starting on Saturday.

Houston Rockets vs. Los Angeles Clippers

Here is a sequence of events:

  1. The Clippers outscored the Rockets 41-21 in the second quarter to go into halftime with a 65-56 lead.
  2. James Harden gets his fourth foul at the 10:32 mark of the third quarter and has to leave the game with Houston trailing by 11.
  3. On the possession immediately following Harden leaving the game, Blake Griffin gets an and-1 bucket. He did miss the free throw.

At this very moment I thought the game and series were over. Los Angeles was about to go up 2-0, head home, and get Chris Paul back or rest him because he wasn’t needed.

Incorrect assumption, this.

After a scorching hot first half, Houston made adjustments and held Griffin to 2-9 shooting in the second. Oh yeah, the Rockets also outscored the Clippers by 16 at the free throw line and took 26 more attempts over the final 24 minutes. For the entire game it was a 17-point discrepancy at the foul line in favor of Houston (only +1 in first half).

Harden was good, not great, in Game 2. He followed up a nine-turnover performance in Game 1 with another seven giveaways. He hasn’t found the range from three, but he got back to charity stripe in Game 2, returning his efficiency to typical levels.

The Rockets had some success with a small-ball look in the second half, and with Dwight Howard continuing to play at high level.

All of that being said, it still feels like a series that should go the Clippers’ way if Chris Paul can come back healthy. It’s hard not to believe Los Angeles wouldn’t be heading home with a 2-0 lead if Paul was playing.

I picked the Rockets to win this series in seven, and what I’ve seen so far makes me think that will end up being wrong.

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