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Race to the NBA Finals remains wide open

The Spurs are on the verge of being knocked out by the Grizzlies, the Lakers are in a tough 2-2 series with the Hornets, and the Thunder look better than both. The Celtics swept, but the Knicks were decimated by injuries and Shaq still isn't back. Forget those season-long power ratings.
Being up 3-0 on a Denver team without a closer and internal strife already maybe isn't that telling. But the Oklahoma City Thunder's new big duo of Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka is standing up impressively and they have perhaps the best 1 and 1a in Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. (Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Chicago Bulls. All opinions expressed by Sam Smith are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Chicago Bulls or its Basketball Operations staff, parent company, partners, or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Bulls and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.

Sam Smith Mailbag

So what have we learned about the NBA playoffs just halfway into the first round? Maybe what we expected—that we still have no idea who's getting to the NBA Finals. The Spurs are on the verge of being knocked out by the Grizzlies, the Lakers are in a tough 2-2 series with the Hornets, and the Thunder look better than both. The Celtics swept, but the Knicks were decimated by injuries and Shaq still isn't back. Forget those season-long power ratings. Here's a look at the teams with the best chance to win a little over a week into the playoffs.

1. Boston Celtics: They swept the Knicks, though Chauncey Billups was out and Amar'e Stoudemire was limited. But they looked healthier than in awhile with good coaching, unselfish play with more scoring options than anyone with Rajon Rondo apparently out of his funk.

2. Oklahoma City Thunder: Being up 3-0 on a Denver team without a closer and internal strife already maybe isn't that telling. But their new big duo of Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka is standing up impressively and they have perhaps the best 1 and 1a in Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.

3. Miami Heat: They gave up their sweep Sunday blowing a six-point lead in the last 90 seconds, and once again can't seem to close. Their defense has been very good and James and Wade—oh, right—are a pretty good 1 and 1a as well. Though if they don't get into transition it's going to get tougher for them.

4. Los Angeles Lakers: They're 2-2 as well after the loss in New Orleans Sunday. Kobe had another ankle twist and they continued to be exposed by quick point guards, which most everyone but them has. Bryant is averaging just 19 points on 37 percent shooting since Game 1. But Bynum still is playing, and if he does they have the edge.

5. Bulls: They've had to rely too much on Derrick Rose, and you cannot get all the way that way. They've rebounded and defended, but the offense has been very shaky. Their resilience has been their biggest attribute so far.

6. Portland Trail Blazers: They're 2-2 returning to Dallas, but the Mavs have to be shaken by that blown 18-point fourth quarter lead against, of all guys, Brandon Roy. If Portland can get half as much from Roy the rest of the way they can move on.

7. Grizzlies: Yes, they did need a Zach Randolph three to go up 2-1, so they're not exactly dominating. But their size up front has been too much for the Spurs and the emergence of Tony Allen's hustle with Rudy Gay's injury has matched Manu Ginobili.

8. Spurs: Don't count them out yet. I did think they weren't that good, but 60 wins can't be a mirage. Ginobili is playing through his injury, as expected, and Tim Duncan has been giving them a lot more than many expected. They've been down before.

9. Mavs: It's tough to see them going very far given the psychology of losing they'll keep facing. But they are old with Kidd, Terry and Shawn Marion, and they still could never replace Caron Butler.

10. Hornets: Chris Paul has been a magician. They may have without David West the weakest roster in the playoffs. But Paul may be the MVP of the playoffs so far and back to the level we thought had long left him.

NBA Playoffs news and notes

-- Good thing if the Bulls get past the Pacers the Magic is looking less likely. No, not because of Dwight Howard. The Magic call their reserves the Bench Mobb, and the Bulls have decided on Bench Mob, which can be very distracting. Though you assumed with Gilbert Arenas they wouldn't spell it correctly. ... Interesting to hear Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins after the Grizzlies Game 3 victory to go up 2-1 say they felt Zach Randolph had an edge in the matchup with Tim Duncan. No, you don't get much respect for long in pro sports. Randolph, an 18 percent three point shooter, hit a three to win the game, somewhat reminiscent of Tim Duncan's unlikely three in Game 1 against the Suns in 2008 that effectively was the end of the Suns' run. Could it be for the Spurs finally, if they lose to the eighth seeded Grizzlies? ... Revealing to hear Kevin Martin about Rick Adelman leaving. And though Adelman clearly wasn't happy with Rocket GM Daryl Morey's constant game of musical chairs with lots of trades and running in place, you also got the sense Morey would have gotten rid of him if Adelman didn't want to leave as well. Adelman does want to coach next season. "I think we lost one of the greatest coaches of all time," Martin told the Houston Chronicle. "We took a step backwards. It's like losing a great player. You see what happens. But for now, we took a step backward." No organization gets involved in talks for more top players and ends up being shut out. Players always adjust to changes, but you get the sense with Martin their top scorer he'll most likely be on the market. With the Rockets so small, my guess is they'd want nothing less than Joakim Noah from the Bulls. With Luis Scola, no, they need a real center considering no one expects Yao to play in the NBA again.

-- So J.R. Smith complained about not enough playing time in the Nuggets Game 2 loss and the Nuggets now are facing a sweep. Look, they are overmatched by a good Thunder team, especially since the trade for Kendrick Perkins (which freed Serge Ibaka and he was huge in Game 3). But it's why you just don't trade for talent and need. Players like Smith can destroy your team's morale and chemistry and you stay away from them. They come from the Larry Hughes school.

-- Dwight Howard Sunday on going down 3-1: "Some of us played 48 minutes." Howard singled out for praise on the Hawks Jamal Crawford, the first player since Kevin McHale, to come off the bench with four games of at least 20 points off the bench, and Kirk Hinrich, averaging 11 points with 14 on Sunday and taking Jameer Nelson out of the game and limiting the Magic's pick and roll. Said coach Stan Van Gundy of Hinrich: "He's always been one of the best defensive guards in the league. Going back to when I was in Miami and he was in Chicago, I've always thought he was one of the best guys guarding (Dwyane) Wade. He can guard at both guard positions. He's got good size. He's extremely tough. He's smart and a great competitor. Long before the playoffs got here, I thought of all the moves made at the trade deadline, and I know everybody got jacked up with the New York thing because of the names involved, and I'm not saying that was a bad move, I thought this was the best of all the moves (getting Hinrich)"... Also, so much for being a tough guy in the playoffs. Did you think the Magic missed Jason Richardson Sunday in shooting two of 23 on threes? Macho stupidity. Richardson, of course, said he'd do it again to protect his teammate. How about going outside and protecting someone? There is no fighting in basketball. The NBA makes sure of that. There's just posturing... As for the Magic's miserable shooting in the series (20 percent on threes and 40 percent overall with Howard only dunking or shooting layups), Van Gundy was asked if he's putting too much pressure on the players by bringing it up. Said Van Gundy: "You are a pro. There's pressure. Deal with it! Make shots!" One of the great joys of the playoffs is listening to Van Gundy and Gregg Popovich in post games (get NBA-TV just for that). They are unequivocal truth tellers. Van Gundy said his guards were "tuned up" by the Hawks guards and noted on the last play for Hedo Turkoglu he "held the ball out front and they took it from him. He gave them the ball." Nelson would miss a three on the broken play. Van Gundy corrected, saying that wasn't a shot. "I don't really have a strategy for getting guys to shoot the ball well," Van Gundy said. "That's not really something I can X and O. Maybe when I draw the diagram I'll show the ball going in. Maybe we've left that part out. Generally, when I draw the play, it's just who's going where. Maybe I have not made it clear enough that we would like the ball to go in the basket." He was being sarcastic there. I did like that. Though he also said his coaching wasn't great. But here's the bottom line, as it were. The Hawks have now won six of seven from Orlando, which comes down to more than coincidence. Since I think the Hawks are an out of control, irresponsible, selfish, unintelligent team, what must I think of Orlando. And if the Magic lose, as seems likely now, you know it's a year of where Howard is going. Frankly, unless the labor deal changes things and makes it almost impossible to leave, it would be difficult to see him staying with the Magic locked into multiyear bad deals for Gilbert Arenas, Hedo Turkoglu, Nelson and J.J. Redick at least through 2013. So for those saying this could be the end for Van Gundy, so far GM Otis Smith has been much more unpopular in Orlando.

-- You know in New York it's always about the next thing, and already in the last week there have been columns in the New York Post and New York News predicting/appealing/proposing Doc Rivers will take a year off and then come to coach the Knicks. My guess is he's too smart for that. ... Although it was difficult to see the Knicks winning much (I had them for one game), there was little chance after Chauncey Billups went out yet again and Stoudemire hurt his back. But it was telling down the stretch to see Anthony get a mismatch on Rajon Rondo in the post and Stoudemire look and then take an 18-footer. It's not going to be easy getting them to work together. ... How about Anthony after the Game 2 loss in Boston about the pass to Jared Jeffries that Kevin Garnett stole. "I made the right play," Anthony said. "The right play was to go to Jared. I thought Jared was going to lay it up. I made the right play and so I can live with that." Can you imagine Derrick Rose saying that after a loss? But I have to admit, it would be nice to have a scorer like that in the playoffs. You just need someone else to handle the ball and run things who he knows is better than he is. Can the Knicks ever get someone like that? Maybe they'll trade Stoudemire for Deron Williams. ... The Hawks going up 3-1 eased the head scratching of Hawks coach Larry Drew sitting Al Horford the last 21 minutes of the first half of the one game they lost because Horford, who is averaging the fewest fouls of his career (about 2.6 per game), drew two early fouls. Though you could say that was how close they were to a sweep. But Drew has succeeded with the Hawks not sending help on Howard and pressuring shooters who don't put the ball on the floor well. Van Gundy said the defensive focus for Game 5 has to be trying to limit Jamal Crawford. ... The Miami crowd at home chants "MVP" for Joel Anthony. It wasn't a Scalabrine thing. I think they were serious, and 76ers coach Doug Collins did say Anthony was pivotal in the Heat's home wins. Said Chris Bosh: "We know he isn't going to get the MVP, I'm not going to get the MVP, either. It is encouraging. I think the fans are just showing their support." Well, maybe it is a little bit of a Sacabrine thing as Anthony is famous on YouTube for an airball layup and a crisp pass to a courtside fan. ... We've heard all the talk all season about Miami unable to close games and who should. Dwyane Wade seemed to be the guy, but in Game 4 Sunday against the 76ers it was back to LeBron James and he missed a drive again. The Heat this season were worst in the NBA in scoring when tied or losing by three with 10 seconds or less. Though the issue with Miami might be since they play more half court than everyone imagined, they're going to be in a lot of close games. And so far they haven't finished them well. ... It helps to be respected. And in a small market perhaps no one else but the Spurs and Gregg Popovich could have gotten away with the incredulous ending of the Game 3 loss in Memphis when the Spurs got the ball with six seconds left down three, failed to call a timeout and Manu Ginoboli dribbled up court and didn't even attempt a shot. Popovich said it was his fault and reporters hid under their seats.

-- I was struck by one thing Nets GM Billy King said about next season, other than making the playoffs, sure, sure, sure. Assuming there is a next season (we always have to make that disclaimer), it will be another awful "Where is Deron going?" When we are not reading anonymous sources declaring where Dwight Howard and Chris Paul are going. Anyway, King said his players have to come into camp in shape and mentioned Travis Outlaw. That is particularly noteworthy because Outlaw, not necessarily suggesting his last name is a description, may have been stealing money. Outlaw happened to hit the jackpot with a $35 million contract on par with the mid level exception contracts. Although Outlaw's contract wasn't technically a mid level because the Nets were under the salary cap, it was in that neighborhood and whom they were bidding again. There have been some exceptions over the years, like Chauncey Billups and Wesley Matthews this season. But there have been way more of Drew Gooden, Jared Jeffries, Al Harrington, Brad Miller, Chris Duhon, Jerome James and Amir Johnson, the kinds of inflated contracts that have decimated teams. Though most teams don't use it anymore. So Outlaw gets a deal of a lifetime and spends the season getting in shape? It's why whatever comes out of the new labor agreement, the one thing most teams seem to agree on is no more mid level exception for underachievers to be.

-- It's not difficult to root against Mark Cuban. I do feel badly for Dirk Nowitzki, who gets all sorts of condemnation in Dallas, though in the Game 4 collapse in Portland Saturday Jason Kidd and Jason Terry both took late threes in avoiding passing back to Nowitzki, who carried the Mavs in the Game 1 comeback. But Cuban probably is the reason the Mavs have become the symbol of NBA choking with their 2006 Finals collapse, their first round loss to the Warriors in 2007 as No. 1 seed and the Game 4 meltdown in Portland with a 23-point lead with 13 minutes left. It was evident in Dallas when Danny Crawford came in to referee and suddenly the media, very much fearing of Cuban there, was filled with stories that the Mavs had a 2-16 record in playoff games Crawford officiated. In the interest of disclosure, I know Danny because he lives in the Chicago area and is a man from my experience of towering rectitude and beyond reproach. Cuban is known for hiring former referees and charting all sorts of referee statistics. The result, my belief, is it continues to give the Mavs an excuse. They come to believe the officials are against them and they have no chance because Cuban so often mentions that. So it is not surprising to me they have more of these kinds of collapses than any other top team. They have come to believe things will work against them, so they don't quite have the edge other teams do. I don't have proof, but they sure do seem to have a defeatist complex.

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