Take your time reading this, because I know how you're feeling right now. Dizzy. Disoriented. Wobbly-kneed. A lot like the poor guy who had to check Steph Curry. That was some wild ride, wasn't it? Took you around the bend, through the wind, up the hill and then pushed you off a cliff. You weren't alone. The first round of the NBA playoffs treated everyone that way.
Well, here's some good news: Two weeks from now, you won't need to suck on another oxygen mask.
And here's the bad news: That's because the next round is likely to treat us the same way the Heat treated the Bucks in the first round. Put them right to sleep. Soundly.
Not trying to spoil all the fun, but the conference semifinals are not only following a tough opening act, the blueprint has creases all over it. While the first round started slowly, gained traction, took flight and then ended with a thud from a string of lousy Game 6s, the next stage of the post-season journey is designed to be mostly free of those wicked twists. The matchups, on the whole, aren't terribly attractive. A handful of teams aren't healthy enough to bring their best. And Miami is looking to remain undefeated in the playoffs and could be weeks away from breaking a serious sweat.
That said, it'll be settled on the court, not inside a crystal ball. Here's how we see the East and the West semifinals and the halfway point to the NBA Finals:
No. 1 Thunder (beat the Rockets in six) vs. No. 5 Grizzlies (beat the Clippers in six).
If you wanted to create a cardiac seven-game series from scratch, then you'd make a copy of the one these teams played two years ago. It was the true essence of playoff basketball, filled with loud arenas, intensity, physical play, big shots, big stops. Games 3 and 4 needed a total of four overtimes. You never got the feeling Oklahoma City would lose the series but the Grizzlies gave themselves a chance by forcing a Game 7. Everyone -- fans, players, coaches -- walked away sopping wet, either from sweat or emotion or both. Well. Two years later, a big injury and a controversial mid-season trade will strip away some of the promise from this series. There will be no Russell Westbrook, done after knee surgery. And no Rudy Gay, now wrestling with currency exchange and going through customs in Toronto. It's a polite way of saying: Don't expect a repeat of Thunder-Grizzlies 2011.
About the Thunder. You must pardon them for being stretched to six games by the Rockets. The Thunder spent the last week rubbing their eyes and clearing their heads after the Westbrook injury. They were locked in shock. Given a bit more time to adjust, they might be better equipped now to deal with the loss, but not better equipped to beat a tougher team. Kevin Durant won't be a problem; he did average 32.5 against Houston and quite naturally took a more aggressive approach without Westbrook. His teammates are a different issue. OKC can get production from the supporting cast, but how consistent will it be? Offensively, Coach Scott Brooks simply doesn't know what to expect when the ball goes up. Kevin Martin was 1-for-10 one game against Houston, then scored 25 the next. For the most part, it's the same with Serge Ibaka. Without a solid No. 2 scorer, OKC must find other ways to win against Memphis, like defense and rebounding. They can match up, size-wise, with the Grizzlies' front court. But that's asking Kendrick Perkins to be more than just a totem pole. Perkins played an average of only 15 minutes against Houston and you wonder how much confidence he inspires in Brooks.
About the Grizzlies. The Grindhouse Gang goes about business in a meat-and-potatoes way, content to bang inside, hit the boards and hustle on defense. You absolutely hate watching the Grizzlies play basketball -- think C-Span -- but respect the way they saw wood. There's nothing fancy about Memphis, and because of that, the Grizzlies appear built for the post-season. They force you to play their game by slowing the pace to a grind (sorry, couldn't resist) while using Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol to their benefit in the half-court game. On the rare occasion when they push the tempo, the burden falls to Mike Conley, Tony Allen and Jerryd Bayless, who are slightly less predictable and reliable. They're a poor three-point shooting team (32 percent) and only Conley is a threat from deep, so if the Grizzlies fall behind big, they're in trouble. This is where the absence of Gay hurts. There's no one to turn to in a pinch from the perimeter. Also, Durant shot 50 percent against them this season.
About the series. Durant will take it upon himself to have a monster series. And he just might, as long as he's shooting the ball. If he's forced to give it up early and often, this will end quickly. It might anyway, because Memphis has adjusted to life after Gay, while the Thunder are still learning on the fly without Westbrook.
The pick: Memphis in 6.
No. 2 Spurs (beat the Lakers in four) vs. No. 6 Warriors (beat the Nuggets in six).
What a contrast. Old heads versus newcomers. Boring and Predictable vs. Fun and Lively. This series is about two teams who couldn't be more different, in terms of experience, makeup, style and expectations. The Warriors, at this point, are playing with house money. They can get swept (which won't happen) and still call it a successful season. Beating Denver in the first round energized their fan base and built their momentum for next season. The Spurs are different. A loss here (which won't happen) would be a blow that they might not recover from in the remaining years of the Tim Duncan era. With OKC playing without Westbrook, the conference title is San Antonio's to lose. Anything less is a choke.
About the Spurs. They had a week off to heal old wounds and new ones, to give Duncan a breather and to figure a way to silence Steph Curry, the hottest player in the post-season. That's plenty of time for a coach like Gregg Popovich, who might be the best in the biz. The Spurs received a tremendous lift when creaky Manu Ginobili showed up big for Game 2 against the Lakers. Since the following games weren't close, he was allowed to rest and be preserved for the next round. Anyway, the Spurs averaged a healthy 104 points in the first round and nobody spaces the floor or knows its strengths and limitations better. Tony Parker could cause the same problems for the Warriors as Curry might cause for the Spurs. And Duncan averaged 22.7 against the Warriors this season. Overall, the depth and number of dependable fourth-quarter options is heavily in favor of the savvy Spurs.
About the Warriors. It all starts with Curry, an all-around threat with the ball and the breakout star of the post-season. He made 23 from deep and averaged almost 10 assists against the Nuggets, slicing them up repeatedly. Since the All-Star break, actually, Curry has been one of the toughest checks in the league. Jarrett Jack continued to show why he was one of the better sixth men in basketball with solid first-round play. But the real discovery against Denver was Andrew Bogut. Mostly MIA since arriving in the Monta Ellis trade 15 months ago, Bogut protected the rim, the glass and was a threat with the ball. If the Warriors get a high level of production from him, he can go a long way into neutralizing Duncan. Everywhere else, the Warriors are iffy. Klay Thompson is a streaky shooter, the bench besides Jack is inconsistent and the Warriors continue to be a work in progress defensively.
About the series. The Warriors would probably match up better against anyone still alive in the West than the Spurs, who are the wiser and healthier team. Remember, no David Lee is expected for the Warriors. Also, they've never won in San Antonio since 1991. The Spurs realize this might be their last best chance at a title. Can't see them blowing it this early in the post-season.
The pick: Spurs in 5.
No. 1 Heat (beat the Bucks in four) vs. No. 5 Bulls (beat the Nets in seven).
When was the last time Miami was truly tested? Back in January? A 27-game winning streak, followed shortly by a playoff sweep of the Bucks, only supports the notion of Miami being almost unbeatable, at least in the East. LeBron James is on an epic roll after winning the MVP again and the role players are more productive than this time a year ago. Speaking of which, this is right around the time last year Chris Bosh suffered an abdominal strain. Well, with the possible exception of Dwyane Wade, Miami is healthy and rested. The same can't be said for the Bulls, the team that stopped that 27-game streak, who'll wheeze into Game 1 with health questions. Of course, if Derrick Rose says he's ready, the Bulls could get well in a hurry.
About the Heat. Life for the Heat since the regular season ended has seemed like four weeks of practice and scrimmages. The only real concern is Wade. Either his knee is hurting or Miami's just being careful. Regardless, Wade missed the final game with Milwaukee after shooting 1-for-12 three nights earlier. If this series starts well for Miami, Wade would be put on a minutes ration, especially if his replacements are rolling. That's the silver lining; Miami knows it can turn to Ray Allen (16.5 points against Milwaukee), Shane Battier and even Mike Miller for offense. And Miami is thrilled to know Chris Andersen still has wings. Solid inside play from the Birdman has relieved the rebounding burden from Chris Bosh and thankfully assures us that we'll never see Joel Anthony remove his sweats again.
About the Bulls. Missing three key players, they squeezed every ounce of remaining energy to win a Game 7 in Brooklyn, a credit to their desire and their coach. Tom Thibodeau always has his team prepared and the Bulls are seldom outworked or outhustled. The best you can say about their players is they're fearless. Joakim Noah stays locked in a high gear. Nate Robinson will gladly take the tough shots. Same for Marco Belinelli and Kirk Hinrich. The entire team buys into the concept of defense, which is important because without Rose, they often struggle to score. Since the Bulls beat the Nets while undermanned, Miami would be foolish to underestimate them.
About the series. The Bulls present a challenge for Miami, mostly because they're not afraid to mix it up, they're aggressive defensively and their coach knows what motivational buttons to push. They'll win a game. Maybe two, if Rose returns. But LeBron just won the MVP trophy and if he's hell-bent on confirming how he won it, there's no stopping Miami this round.
The pick: Heat in 5.
No. 2 Knicks (beat the Celtics in six) vs. No. 3 Pacers (beat the Hawks in six).
Back in the 1990s the Knicks and Pacers gave us Reggie Miller, John Starks, Patrick Ewing, head butts, trash talking and Spike Lee. Hicks vs. Knicks. Yes, those were the days when Indiana basketball was at its NBA best, constantly winning 45-50 games and finishing second to the Bulls and Knicks, except for the year they reached the Finals. The Knicks were at their peak as well, but soon after, the Lost Decade followed. Those Pacers-Knicks games weren't short on emotion or fight or intrigue and they flushed out the best in both teams. This updated version promises to be more PG-rated, lacking the bitterness or characters, although the series could become just as dramatic. The teams are fairly evenly matched after a season of flip-flopping in the 2 and 3 spot in the East, and both feel they're worthy of giving Miami a run in the conference finals.
About the Knicks. Could it be that we'll finally see the complete Knicks of 2012-13? Amare Stoudemire could return from knee surgery by Game 3, although nobody's quite sure if that's a good or bad thing. The Knicks didn't have Stoudemire late in the season and they finished strong, going 17-6 and clinching home-court advantage for at least two rounds. Plus, there's always an issue about his role. Anyway, the Knicks would rather have Tyson Chandler completely healthy; he wasn't 100 percent against the Celtics and it showed defensively, when the Knicks had to turn to Kenyon Martin. All told, the Knicks depend mostly on Carmelo Anthony's scoring and their three-point shooting. At times they get solid point guard play from Raymond Felton (17 points, five assists against the Celtics) and an assortment of contributions from others, including J.R. Smith, a healthier Iman Shumpert and Jason Kidd.
About the Pacers. Now that they've graduated from NBA TV and the Hawks in the first round, the Pacers are prepping for prime time. Their formula for success is simple: Paul George, plus rebounding and defense. That won't win many fans -- just check their home attendance -- but if all goes well would be enough to beat the Knicks. George (18.7 points, 9.5 rebounds, five assists, two steals vs. Hawks) is better all-around than Carmelo, the player he'll see this series. His rebounding, defense and court awareness puts him in a small company of elite do-it-all players, and he's not afraid to take the big shot. Still, the Pacers are at their best when the ball moves and David West and George Hill are getting touches. Their bench is suspect, though, lacking a lights-out sixth man, and Roy Hibbert doesn't always show up on the glass. That's why Atlanta took them to a Game 6.
About the series. This should be the most closely-contested of them all. Both teams are flawed, both are elite when everything's falling in place. Melo averaged 22 points on 38 percent shooting against the Pacers during the season and any duplication would doom the Knicks. Defense and rebound usually win in the end, and while Indiana holds that advantage, the Knicks have home court.
The pick: Knicks in 7.