Expert’s Corner: A Second Look at the Second Round

As we reach the conclusion of the Second Round of the playoffs, we have already experienced all the emotions that make the NBA postseason one of the most special phases in all of sport. We have seen brilliance and we have seen heartbreak, we have experienced history being made, we have witnessed bravery against the odds, we have been surprised and, most importantly, we have constantly been entertained.

On the eve of the Conference Finals, columnists Akshay Manwani and Karan Madhok chime in their thoughts on some of the most intriguing storylines around in this edition of Expert’s Corner.

Can the Knicks make a comeback and beat the Pacers?
Karan's Take Akshay's Take
After winning Game 5 at home and stretching the series to a sixth game in Indiana, the Knicks may be feeling that they could shift the momentum their way. Alas, history (only eight teams in NBA history have bounced back from 3-1 down to win a series) and control (despite losing two games, Indiana have clearly looked like the team imposing their identity on this series) are against New York. In all likelihood, the Pacers should win Game 6 at home and move on to the Conference Finals. But if the Knicks can steal the next game and force a deciding Game 7 back in New York… Well… then surely all bets are off! I actually like the Knicks’ chances. Through the 82-game 2012-13 regular season, the Pacers, while being the best in the league defensively, struggled offensively. Narrow that further, to the Pacers’ performance in the playoffs and their offensive rating is much lower than Miami, San Antonio and Memphis – the three teams who have qualified for the Conference Finals. Also, with the status of their starting point guard George Hill’s (out with a concussion) unknown, the offensive potency of the Pacers – a big reason for their Game 5 loss - will further be stifled. So if the Knicks can claw their way to a win in Game 6, they will hold the edge when Game 7 returns to Madison Square Garden.

Can the Grizzlies become Western Conference Champions?
Karan's Take Akshay's Take
The Grizzlies are in the Conference Finals for the first time in the franchise’s 18 years existence, from Vancouver to Memphis. They’re set to face the Spurs, a team that will be making its ninth appearance on this stage in that same stretch of time. Memphis have already punched above their weight twice in the playoffs and have won eight of their last nine games. But I believe that this is where the journey will end. A rejuvenated Tony Parker and Tim Duncan have been revving up for this very moment, and led by the great Coach Popovich and the Spurs’ excellent supporting cast, San Antonio will become West champs again. Yes. It was this same core of Grizzlies, with Zach Randolph playing at a high efficiency that stuck it to the Spurs in the first round of the 2011 Playoffs. Of course the Grizzlies had some terrific defensive presence in the form of Shane Battier back then, but with Tayshaun Prince around and Mike Conley a much better player today, Memphis have the ingredients to upstage the Spurs yet again. The Spurs will also look to double team the Memphis’ frontcourt pairing of Randolph and Marc Gasol, but if Conley, Tony Allen, Prince, Jerryd Bayless and Quincy Pondexter can make them pay for those decisions, this series should go Memphis’ way.

Biggest surprise performance of the Playoffs so far?
Karan's Take Akshay's Take
A year ago, the 30th pick of the 2011 draft Jimmy Butler only played 1.3 minutes per game in the playoffs and didn’t record a single statistic. This year, as the Bulls heroically battled the mighty Heat without Derrick Rose, Luol Deng, or Kirk Hinrich, the sophomore guard/forward played nearly 41 minutes per game in the postseason, including five games of all 48 minutes. Butler had to directly replace the absence of Deng, an All Star and the league’s leader in minutes. He did it admirably, averaging over 13 points and five rebounds in the playoffs while defending the league’s four-time MVP LeBron James as well as anyone could’ve in the second round. To my mind, there is only one name that can figure here and that is Jimmy Butler. For a 23-year-old, who played only 42 games in his first NBA season last year and whose minutes in the pressure cauldron of the playoffs rocketed up from 1.3 MPG in 2012 to 40.8 in the 2013 Playoffs, Butler was simply outstanding. And he stepped up as the Bulls progressed. Against the Nets, Butler averaged just 11.7 PPG, while against Miami he averaged 15.6 PPG over five games. He also led all Chicago players with 78 points during the series against Miami and his defense on LeBron James in Game 1 propelled the Bulls to their only win of the series. Kudos to Butler.

All Playoff First Team – Through the First Two Rounds
Karan's Take Akshay's Take
Stephen Curry, Mike Conley, LeBron James, Kevin Durant, and Joakim Noah. Easy pick for Curry, he was able to take Golden State further than anyone thought imaginable and ends his postseason with deadly scoring and shooting averages. Conley has been a special player, taking over the perimeter scoring responsibilities for the Grizzlies, being a defensive force, and the team’s silent leader. LeBron has made brilliance look easy, leading his team in nearly all statistical categories as they went 8-1 through the first two rounds. Durant’s numbers were off the charts as he singlehandedly tried (and failed) to keep the Thunder alive in the playoffs. And Noah closely edges Marc Gasol for me in this list for his inspirational defensive performance in the first round, including the memorable Game 7 win over Brooklyn. Stephen Curry, Tony Allen, LeBron James, Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol. Gasol and Randolph have easily been the best center-power forward players for me in these playoffs, together and individually. Kevin Durant’s (30.6) efficiency rating is higher than LeBron’s (27.4), but Durant was stretched in Westbrook’s absence and James’ full repertoire could hardly be seen given how easy, relatively, Miami has had it in the first two rounds. Curry, for me, edged Tony Parker and Mike Conley, not just because he led Golden State in scoring and assists, but his impact on his team’s fortunes was also probably the most compared to the other two. Finally, Allen makes it for his defense alone. He is the embodiment of the Grizzlies’ style of play as he hustled Durant right through the 1-4 series win.

What does the future hold for OKC?
Karan's Take Akshay's Take
In the Kevin Durant era, the Thunder rose every year, from the West’s worst record to the eight place, and then to the Conference Finals. But it was also the Russell Westbrook era, and without Westbrook, the Thunder fell surprisingly in five games to the Grizzlies in the Second Round. Their future is bright because they still have a core of Durant, Westbrook, and Ibaka – all legit stars, all under 24 – as the core of the team. But if the team wants to get back to their rise to a championship, they need to revamp their supporting cast. OKC might be saying goodbye to the likes of Kendrick Perkins and even Kevin Martin by the time the new season begins.

- Karan Madhok
The way the Thunder are built, with Kevin Durant signed through to 2015-16 and Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka, both, all the way up to 2016-17, OKC will remain among the league’s elite teams over the next 3-4 years. Does that mean they should stop getting better? No. The Thunder simply need more scoring help for both Durant and Westbrook. Remember, Ibaka and Kevin Martin were woeful against the Grizzlies, shooting less than 40 percent cumulatively from the field. In fact, the Thunder need not look any further than Miami, who make teams pay for doubling LeBron James, Dwyane Wade or Chris Bosh with their array of three-point shooting talent. Really, the solution for OKC to get better is just that simple.

- Akshay Manwani