Playoff outlook different after opening round?

Playoff outlook different after opening round?
May 14, 2012, 7:59 pm
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My, how the postseason landscape has changed since the playoffs first started. A big part of that is due to the earlier-than-anticipated exit of the Bulls, who were fully intact at the beginning of the opening round, then had to endure the devastating season-ending injury to Derrick Rose in Game 1 of their first-round series against Philadelphia and a severely sprained ankle to Joakim Noah that left him out of commission, eventually leading to their ouster by the 76ers.

Ostensibly, that makes Miami's road to a repeat NBA Finals appearance much easier, though they should still have their hands full with a big and physical Indiana team, as well as a potential conference-finals matchup with a veteran Boston squad that should take care of the young Sixers in the second round. Whether the Celtics have enough in the tank to make another run to the Finals is an interesting proposition, but given the way they handled Miami in the regular season, it's certainly feasible.

The Western Conference has mostly held serve, save for the Clippers' mild upset of the Grizzlies in the first round. After last year's postseason run, the Grizzlies were expected to be a spoiler in some circles, particularly with power forward Zach Randolph in the lineup and a potential rematch with the top-seeded Spurs, whom they upset a year ago. However, now a clash of the old guard and the new school is on tap, as San Antonio's aging corps, like Boston's in the East, will look to make one more trip to the promised land, with the All-Star duo of Chris Paul and Blake Griffin standing in their way.

Then, there's the Thunder-Lakers grudge match, coming on the heels of the late regular season elbow heard around the world, Metta World Peace's concussion-inducing blow to the head of Sixth Man of the Year winner James Harden. Subplots aside, the young Thunder, led by three-time reigning league scoring champ Kevin Durant and All-Star point guard Russell Westbrook, will be tested by the Lakers' interior size -- if Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol come to play every night, something that didn't always happen in their first-round series against Denver, in which a deep and athletic Nuggets squad took them to the limit -- as well as the annual playoff exploits of one Kobe Bryant.

With the way the Thunder dispatched the defending-champion Mavericks in four games and how the Spurs were all business in sweeping a young Jazz team, plus added rest as they waited for the second-round opponents to get through grueling seven-game opening round series, the West's top two seeds should move on, setting up a fantastic conference finals, one which Oklahoma City, if indications that they're ready to make the leap from good to great are real, should survive behind Durant's brilliance. Despite the Celtics' experience, how they appear to click on all cylinders on certain nights and All-Star point guard Rajon Rondo's masterful offensive orchestration, the sheer dominance of new league MVP LeBron James simply can't be accounted for, which give the Heat a second straight crack at the Finals, an opportunity they're unlikely to squander again.