Playoff Roundtable: With Boston, L.A. done, who is title bound?
The Miami Heat and Dallas Mavericks are favored to battle for the title
LeBron James, Dwyane Wade proved skeptics wrong with win over Boston
More: Outlook of Celtics and Lakers; Bulls' big men, Thunder's consistency
As the second round nears its conclusion, four SI.com NBA writers take stock of some of the biggest playoff storylines.
1. Who is the favorite to win the championship right now?
IAN THOMSEN: The likeliest finalists are the Heat and Mavericks, based mainly on the deep playoff experience of their biggest stars. Miami could be viewed as a slight favorite because of their home-court advantage against Dallas and because LeBron James and Dwyane Wade would be seen as the best two-way (offense/defense) players in the series. But I'm not sure who to pick based on the mismatches created by Dirk Nowitzki, the interior defense of Tyson Chandler and the Mavs' superior depth. For now, I would go for the upset and pick Dallas, based on its flow of teamwork. The Mavs have been together for a relatively long time, and that can make a big difference under pressure.
SAM AMICK: I'm going with Miami. The Mavs have momentum and the sort of chemistry that is certainly championship-worthy, not to mention the fact that -- should they meet the Heat in the Finals -- they were 2-0 against Miami in the regular season. But the Caron Butler factor looms large. His defense would've been a huge help against James. And even if the veteran swingman does make a miraculous return from a knee injury that has sidelined him since Jan. 2, he can't be expected to handle LeBron like he did during the regular season. (James was 11-of-36 from the field in those two matchups while facing off against Butler.) And while Jason Terry is doing a valiant job as Nowitzki's scoring sidekick, he simply can't keep it up at this pace even if the Mavs need him to.
CHRIS MANNIX: I'm going with Dallas. Its bench has been terrific -- Terry is playing some of the best basketball of his career -- and Butler's possible return only makes it stronger. I like Dallas' chemistry, scoring distribution and (we've heard this before) the tough, defensive-minded presence Chandler has brought.
LEE JENKINS: The Heat. They have come together at the right time and already proved they can dispatch their toughest competition. When they are firing, they have it all.
2. What did we learn about the Heat in their five-game elimination of the Celtics?
THOMSEN: That James and Wade have learned to play together intuitively. Early this season, the pressures created by opposing defenses pulled them apart. Now each has a greater understanding for how to attack while feeding off one another. It is what their opponents feared most of all.
AMICK: That maybe we were the crazy ones. The Heat obviously still have much work to do, but the skeptics (myself included) who were saying back in November that the new Big Three wouldn't find the necessary cohesion in this first go-round together must have forgotten how long a season actually is. Miami has been rolling since early March, and the Heat's original plan to overwhelm opponents with athleticism, speed and skill on both ends is working out after all.
MANNIX: The cynic in me wants to argue that we learned the Heat knew how to outlast a (badly) wounded champion, but I'll give them a little more credit. Boston has owned Wade and James in the past, but the Miami duo stepped up in a big way this series. LeBron -- sloppy turnover at the end of regulation in Game 4 aside -- proved that he can close out games, and Wade looks a lot like the Wade of 2006. I'm still not ready to hand Miami a title, but it is certainly much closer to a finished product.
JENKINS: The Heat can win close games. They can win despite extended stretches of erratic play. They can win even when they appear to be outclassed down low. They are exactly what they were supposed to be: capable not only of beating the best in the NBA but also blowing past them.
3. The Bulls finished with the NBA's top record and second-best point differential during the regular season. Why haven't they been as dominant in the playoffs?
THOMSEN: They're contending ahead of schedule. Not many thought they could be this good this quickly, or that their roster was a finished product. Playoff experience is something they're gaining along the way, which would be an issue for them in a conference final against Miami. But I'm also reminded of some of Pat Riley's teams in Miami, which would clean up during the regular season by outworking all comers; in the postseason they would lose that advantage, just as the Bulls have lost an advantage against the improved work rate of the Pacers and Hawks.
AMICK: Fatigue, style and lack of experience. All three factors are intertwined, as the overdependence on 22-year-old Derrick Rose is compounded by this team's strong desire to keep pushing (with coach Tom Thibodeau's prodding) throughout the regular season. You had to wonder if they could take it to the next level that's necessary in the playoffs after grinding it out for so long, and they've been unable to on a consistent basis. Add in Carlos Boozer and his turf toe that, at times, has him looking like Carlos Arroyo in the post, and the already-heavy load on Rose's shoulders is simply too much to bear.
MANNIX: Two reasons: First, the Bulls aren't as consistent on defense. The regular-season Bulls team was a shot-contesting, pass-deflecting, quick-closeout menace. While the Bulls have had some great defensive performances this postseason, they've had more lapses than usual, too, most notably in allowing Atlanta to shoot 51.3 percent and 49.4 percent in its two second-round victories. And second, that regular-season team was deeper, too. Yes, Rose was the star, but Chicago, when healthy, could always count on solid contributions from Boozer, Joakim Noah and Luol Deng. They are not getting that regularly right now. They better get their acts together. No team carried by one player has ever won a title. Chicago won't be the first.
JENKINS: The Bulls outworked opponents in the regular season. In the playoffs, everybody works, so one of their major advantages is neutralized. Teams have loaded up on Rose, he has not shot as consistently as he did and the Bulls still don't have many other scoring options.
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