Category Archives: Features
For somebody who writes about the NBA as much as me, you’d think I would actually be going to a few more games. Well, tonight’s Heat/Warriors game was the first game of the season I was in attendance for and it was easily one of the better games I have ever been to. A few things of note:
- If anybody saw a douche in a Marco Belinelli Golden State Warriors jersey shirt at the game tonight, yep, that would be me. Why do I own a Marco Belinelli jersey shirt? Because Marco Belinelli is a very special player to me who started my annual tradition of declaring one or two foreign draft prospects to be future NBA superstars based on absolutely nothing. All it took was Fran Fraschilla calling him “an Italian sharpshooter” for me to be all in. Joining Belinelli in future years would be the likes of Danilo Gallinari, Serge Ibaka, Nicolas Batum, Ricky Rubio, Roddy Beaubois, Donatas Motiejunas, and Evan Fournier, and I can’t even begin to describe to you how many words in the past few lines have the little red lines under them telling me that there’s spelling errors because of those names. I hate to be ‘that guy’ who isn’t a fan of either team in the game and wear something completely random, so I couldn’t pass up this perfect opportunity to unleash the Belinelli jersey shirt on the world.
- Not only was I repping Marco Belinelli, who contributed almost nothing to Golden State and hasn’t been with them since 2009 (although in Chi-Town, he’s averaging 19 PPG over his last 5 games!!!), but I was one of only two people in the entire arena even wearing Golden State gear. I know Golden State is renowned for their fan-base, but apparently they don’t travel very well when it comes to cross-country games.
- If you are a true fan of basketball and have never seen LeBron James play in person, I strongly urge you to do so. It’s like a thing of beauty…he is so good. So good that I finally thought that I had a grasp of how good he was before I saw him in person, and then I saw him in person and he completely redefined what ‘good’ even means to me. He had to have been created or genetically modified in a lab. There’s just no explanation.
- My long search is over, and I have officially found my favorite NBA team out west, and it is the Golden State Warriors. My two reasons are fairly simple:
1. I’m not even sure if this is a thing, but I love saying ‘G-State’, and that’s literally the only thing that I called them throughout the entire game. The letter ‘G’ is the only letter in the alphabet that, on its own, can describe something completely real and awesome. Then you add ‘State’ and it just takes it to another level. G-State. If that’s not a real thing, well, now it is. You heard it here first.
2. After the win, David Lee dapped me up as he was walking into the tunnel to head to the locker room, saw my Warriors shirt and yelled, “LET’S GO MANNN”. I felt a strong emotional connection between us during that moment…an unspoken bond between men. D-Lee saw me as the only Warriors fan in the entire arena, and I wasn’t even a Warriors fan. I can’t let him down now, my only option is to become a diehard G-State fan.
If you don’t know by now, Draymond Green hit a game-winning lay-up with 0.9 seconds left, so I was basically the only person walking out of American Airlines Arena looking like I was happy with the result of the game. I definitely got a few dirty looks, but I think the hometown fans were just so perplexed as to why there was somebody even wearing a Golden State shirt in their city 3,000 miles away that they didn’t even know what to say to me. I got home to find out that there were two other game-winners around the league, so that’s clearly an omen that my hopping on the G-State bandwagon was indeed the correct choice.
Below I’ll put all three game-winners that went down tonight (Mo Gotti’s is the best), and by the way, there’s still a lot of room on this G-State bandwagon. The more the merrier, and I just added them to my favorite teams on the ESPN app so you know it’s real.
Long ago…when the Warriors logo was still a muscular, shirtless man holding a lightning bolt, Andris Biedrins was a promising young player. His perfectly-groomed spiky hair and boyish charm were the perfect complement to his ferocity on the low block and on the glass. Biedrins exploded in the 2008-09 season as the Warriors’ starting center, averaging 11.9 ppg/11.2 rpg on 58% shooting. Rewarded for his good play, Biedrins received a 6-year, $54 million contract extension, as he solidified himself as the Warriors’ primary big man for years to come. Although his new fortune could buy him the finest designer clothes and Eastern European women, it could never buy him one thing: confidence.
Plagued by injuries over the next couple of years, both Biedrins’ playing time and playing ability began to plummet. In just one year, his free throw shooting dropped from 55% to a putrid 16% from the line. Many started to doubt the Latvian stud’s intensity and aggressiveness on the court, and thus, his confidence was shattered. One might even say that the great American Hip Hop duo Mobb Deep foresaw Biedrins’ fall from grace when they penned “Shook Ones”. Many believed that Golden State should have exercised their amnesty clause on Biedrins, exiling him to a life of sorrow and shame amongst the rest of the NBA’s pariahs. Instead, Golden State chose to amnesty Charlie Bell, to the surprise of nearly any NBA fan with a pulse. Biedrins was given another chance. Our Latvian hero seized his opportunity by averaging career-lows in points (1.7 ppg), rebounds (3.7 rpg), minutes (15.7 mpg), and FT% (11%). So by ‘seized’ I mean ‘barely did anything with’, but new Golden State head coach Mark Jackson wasn’t ready to give up on Biedrins.
Due to an injury to Andrew Bogut, Andris was thrust back into the rotation to his surprise. With 7:48 left in the 1st quarter, our hero entered the game for Festus Ezeli and looked to make the most of his first minutes of the 2012-13 season. In just 19 seconds, Biedrins drew a foul on Steve Blake and was pitted against his old arch-nemesis: the free throw line. After bricking the first shot, Biedrins still had one more opportunity to take the league by storm. Tongue sticking out the side of his mouth, Biedrins let his second free throw attempt fly…”AUUGGGGHHHH”. The ball, like a duck being shot out of the sky, missed the hoop by roughly 4.7 feet, and almost looked as if the ball was being deflated in mid-air. The Los Angeles Lakers home fans were almost too stunned to mockingly chant “Airball!” as a mortified Biedrins lumbered back on defense. Biedrins would play 9 minutes, recording 0 points, 4 rebounds, 3 fouls, and 3 turnovers.
(DISCLAIMER: I am like 88% sure this is what happened, although it is completely made up.)
That night, Biedrins returned to his chic San Francisco apartment and had no time for the seven or eight beautiful blonde women waiting to satiate his every desire. He retreated to his bedroom, put on his favorite Enya record (on vinyl, like a true music connoisseur) and began pondering the mysteries of life. During this deep meditation period (psychedelic drugs may or may not have been used), Biedrins explored the confines of his own mind and had a revelatory, out-of-body experience. As a spirit, he wandered through the San Francisco night sky to Oracle Arena, where he found himself face-to-line with the bane of his existence, the free throw line. The free throw line rose from the hardwood floor and spoke to the Latvian baller in a sweet, comforting tone. “Andris…step to the free throw line, do not let the free throw line step to you,” the line told him, before a great flash of light engulfed both of them and Biedrins awoke from his transcendent experience. He knew what he had to do.
With 8:55 remaining in the 1st quarter, Andris entered the game born anew…simply a man on a mission. After about 6 minutes of playing time, Biedrins was subbed out after accumulating 4 key rebounds. Although he was not granted the opportunity to face his demons and approach the free throw line, his time would come soon. With 8:34 remaining in the 2nd quarter, Biedrins once again entered the game, fearless and brave like…like, somebody fearless and brave in Latvian history. After fighting for a couple more rebounds, the game clock struck 6:09 and Biedrins was fouled by Nuggets forward Corey Brewer. Andris was ready for his time. Biedrins stepped to the line to a cacophony of cheers as the Oracle Arena crowd joined together as a collective aura, rallying to the side of one giant Latvian man. Biedrins eyed down the hoop, remembering the great wisdom the free throw line had bestowed upon him the previous night. Like a laser, Biedrins fired the first free throw…GOOD! He let out a sigh of relief as the crowd erupted even louder than before. One dribble, read, aim…Biedrins fired up another laser…GOOD! ANDRIS BIEDRINS GOES 2/2 FROM THE FREE THROW LINE! All is good in the universe for one brief, fleeting moment…
Don’t call it a comeback, but Biedrins finished with 2 pts and 8 reb in 19 minutes of play. I now fully expect him to return to his old form, somewhat of a Bill Russell/Wilt Chamberlain hybrid with more style. This is not the last you’ve heard from Andris Biedrins, it’s only the beginning.
The Oklahoma City Thunder mighttttt just miss James Harden’s reliability at the end of games a little more than they anticipated. I think in certain ways, the Thunder’s main weakness and Scott Brooks’ coaching were both exposed tonight because they no longer have the luxury of relying on James Harden, a vital cog in OKC’s 4th quarter offense last year. Now, San Antonio (although without Manu Ginobili) could have easily been beaten if the Thunder managed to knock down a few more open shots or limit their turnovers to a respectable number, but that doesn’t change the fact that there’s a glaring weakness here.
Seemingly without an actual offensive gameplan, OKC had a complete reliance on one-on-one basketball. You had Russell Westbrook bringing the ball up, and for the most part, four guys standing and watching. So what did Russ do? He forced up shots in a fruitless attempt to get something going. Reggie Miller, who was commentating tonight, was incessant in saying that Westbrook needed to be giving the ball to Durant, but Durant is not at his best when he needs to create a shot for himself, and was never even really open. Leave it to the guy who said Serge Ibaka should have won Defensive Player of the Year last year to provide a solution to a problem without actually explaining how to solve it. That’s where I come in.
Part of this problem falls on Durant for not being aggressive enough without the ball, as Stephen Jackson continually bullied him and muscled him out of plays. Not only did he get the best of him defensively, but he got the best of him lyrically on Stak5′s newest hit single, “Lonely at the Top” (okay, let’s be honest they were both terrible). Most of the blame should fall on Scott Brooks for not running any plays for Durant (or…anyone). Yes, there’s the occasional pick-and-pop or pick-and-roll, but there needs to be more offensive creativity to get KD scoring opportunities. Westbrook handing the ball to Durant as he’s posting up 6 inches inside the 3-point line just isn’t going to accomplish much. There’s an overall lack of execution, and part of this also falls on Westbrook for trying to make too many plays himself, and not trusting his teammates.
DISCLAIMER: Russell Westbrook is my dawg and I am his #1 apologist, but he did have a terrible game. In order to make the jump from star player to superstar player, he does need to learn how to make plays for his teammates and not just himself. Everyone knows he can get into the lane and find himself open shots at will, and I think that’s the conundrum here. With the offense so stagnant and without any structure, Westbrook feels the need to put the team on his back and make plays, regardless if they are the right plays to be made in certain situations. But let’s be honest, if a few shots bounce a different way, we’re not even having this conversation. He’s still a top 10 player in the league, and he will still be the scapegoat for this team when there’s a tough loss. Let’s also remember that besides him, everyone not named Kevin Durant shot a combined 14-38 from the field. The blame can’t solely fall on his shoulders.
Besides the offensive system as a whole, or lack thereof, there’s going to be a big problem if Brooks needs to play Kendrick Perkins in the closing minutes because Serge Ibaka is getting abused by opposing bigs. When the Thunder signed Ibaka to that big extension, hindsight says that GM Sam Presti was essentially choosing him over James Harden, fully expecting him to improve as a shooter, defender, and rebounder. So far, Advantage: Harden. It’s hard to make such judgments after just one game, but it seems like Ibaka is still just a mediocre on-ball defender (and nowhere near worthy of DPOY consideration) and incapable of knocking down most open mid-range jumpers. I trust the jumper will fall eventually, but the disconcerting thought is that he didn’t improve defensively. If Brooks had the luxury of going with a Maynor-Westbrook-Martin-Durant-Ibaka lineup for the 4th quarter, they would have had much more offensive versatility because of Maynor’s ability to play the point guard position. Instead, he was forced to play Perkins, to make sure Tim Duncan didn’t absolutely go off.
Two days ago I stressed to not come to conclusions after just one game, so it seems a little hypocritical if it looks like I’m already passing judgment on the Oklahoma City Thunder. They could easily be 1-0 right now, but they lost a grinder on the road against a San Antonio team that’s still very much a contender. If Tony Parker’s game-winner rims out, then maybe I don’t even make this post, but it was coming eventually. There’s an obvious weakness here that needs to be addressed, and it can be addressed. I fully expect them to finish this season with the best record in the Western Conference, but they must make the necessary offensive adjustments or they’ll continue to falter in crunch time.
Lakers fans — It’s only one game, you’re still a contender.
Thunder fans — You were the favorite to win the West regardless, calm down.
Heat fans — You’re not a lock for the repeat just yet. Relax.
Knicks fans — We have nothing to do with this, but I thought I’d just tell you that we’re still slightly above average, and not a contender.
I can already see Skip Bayless’ wrinkly forehead scrunching together, yelling at the caricature of a caricature of a black man known as Stephen A. Smith that the Lakers are overrated and have no shot at winning a championship. Now, maybe that won’t be his opinion, but regardless, prepare yourself for a day, a week, or maybe even a month of nonsensical ESPN storylines about the Lakers’ so-called problems preventing them from winning a championship.
In early 2007, Floyd Mayweather had a question to answer. Long hailed by hardcore boxing fans, the man known as “Pretty Boy” signed a contract to take on a career-changing fight against Oscar De La Hoya. This was going to be Floyd’s big chance in the spotlight. Mayweather, already a multiple “fighter of the year” award winner and pound-for-pound king, toiled in obscurity prior to the fight labeled “The World Awaits.”
The question for Floyd was this: ”How do I capitalize off of this fight, and use it to springboard myself into the boxing zeitgeist?” The answer was simple, but revolutionary. What if Floyd could use De La Hoya’s fame to thrust himself into the spotlight? What if HBO’s cameras followed both he and De La Hoya around, chronicling their lives in preparation for the fight? Interesting idea, for sure, but there was no way Mayweather would be able to come off as being a more likable person than the uber-fan-favorite De La Hoya. But, who said you only became famous by being likable?
Thus, the persona of “Money” Mayweather was born. Obsessed with money, arrogant, flashy, but excellent, the character of “Money” was straight out of the Vince McMahon WWE playbook. Get the people to hate you, get them to want to see you lose, and you’ll always have eyeballs on you. Floyd turned himself into the boxing version of Duke basketball or New York Yankees baseball, the empire that you knew you were desperate to beat, but also knew was too good to be beaten.
“24/7: De La Hoya vs. Mayweather” was a revelation for Floyd Mayweather. In terms of getting exposure, it was a resounding success. People watching began to openly hate a person who was completely unknown to them. They were going to buy the Pay-Per-View just to see this loudmouth get crushed by the “good guy” in De La Hoya.
The strategy worked wonders. De La Hoya-Mayweather still holds the record for most PPV buys ever. They fought on Cinco de Mayo, and Mayweather made a bold choice in coming out for his introduction in a giant sombrero, a robe covered in the colors of the Mexican flag, and having 50 Cent in his entourage wearing a bulletproof vest also covered in the colors of the Mexican flag. Floyd Mayweather became the ultimate boxing heel.
The “Money” persona is a double-edged sword for Floyd. On one hand, it’s brought him untold notoriety and (more importantly) fortune. Floyd’s most recent fight against Miguel Cotto earned him a record $32 million in guaranteed money. This means if the PPV does well (which it obviously will), Floyd could stand to make upwards of $50 million dollars. ”Money,” indeed.
However, at what cost does Floyd continue this character? There’s something ghastly about a young black man perpetuating every terrible stereotype of young black men to a worldwide audience openly rooting for him to lose. Floyd has to be a self-aware guy; nobody who would conceive of “24/7″ or the “Money” character wouldn’t be. How does all of this make him feel inside? Boxing is not an easy sport to be involved with. The events themselves aren’t called “matches” or “games,” they’re called fights. It can literally be life and death inside the ring, and I don’t know that I can really begrudge Mayweather for doing everything he can to maximize his earning power. What’s interesting to me, however, is that as a generally unassuming guy pre “Money,” Floyd’s genius was largely unnoticed outside of hardcore boxing circles. Why?
Boxing fans can generally be broken down into one of three categories. First, there are the hardcore fans who follow boxing with a true “nerdist” heart. They know all of the fighters, including the young guys breaking onto the scene as well as the foreign guys trying to break into the lucrative U.S. PPV market. Hell, they can even make sense of the weight classes and governing bodies, a rare feat. The second category is the group of fans that could best be labeled as “patriotic.” These fans (usually not White Americans) root for their countrymen first (Ricky Hatton is a GREAT example of this) and view all fighters not of their ethnic group to be non-entities. Finally, there are casual boxing fans, who root for the “good guys” and against the “bad guys” in the mold of professional wrestling.
As the popularity of boxing has waned, most of the loss in fans has come from that last group. By and large, casual fans of so-called “combat sports” are flocking towards mixed martial arts, primarily due to the perceived fairness and lack of corruption relative to boxing (both fair points). It has become harder and harder for American boxers to really break out of anonymity and make the leap into the big money. I’d have a hard time putting any American boxer in the top 5 most popular boxers right now. As an American, you need a hook to get the casual fan. Floyd has found his hook. His hook is getting casual boxing fans to hate him. Vociferously. Why is that the only way he has been able to make money? He wasn’t able to do it with Jordan-like universality. No, it has only been by playing to the stereotype of the angry, materialistic, arrogant black man that Floyd Mayweather has turned into one of the richest black athletes in the country.
It’s a strange symbiotic relationship that Floyd Mayweather has with boxing fans. He literally feeds off their hate. If they stop tuning in to see him lose, he falls like a brick in the PPV rankings. If he toned it down, even slightly, would people still care? Would people still purchase his fights? Floyd would probably argue that no, they would not.
None of this is to say, by the way, that the entire “Money” character is an act. Similarly to a WWE superstar, the best characters are a hyperbolic extension of a person’s natural personality. I’m sure Floyd loved money before the De La Hoya fight. I’m sure he was arrogant, I’m sure he was pretty ignorant, but not like this. I suppose, though, Floyd is just giving the fans what they want to see.
Does that make him mad, or us?
Phoenix Coyote’s goalie Mike Smith looked up at the scoreboard as the clock ticked down to zero during Phoenix’s series with the Chicago Blackhawks. With a 39-save shutout and a 4-2 series win tucked into his back pocket, Smith trekked back to the visitor’s locker room to celebrate the Coyotes’ first playoff series victory since 1986, when they were the Winnipeg Jets.
However, if you look behind the Wile E. Coyote goalie mask, you would find an unexpected past. The journeyman netminder has struggled to find a home, much like the current franchise that he is playing for. Smith has bounced around in the OHL, AHL, and NHL, playing for ten different clubs in total over the course of his career. As an NHL goalie, he started out with the Dallas Stars, then landed with the Tampa Bay Lightning, until finding his current home in Phoenix. Smith’s career numbers are pretty pedestrian as well, posting a 105-84-29 record with a 2.56 GAA and .914 SV%.
Much like Smith, the Coyotes are struggling to form an identity at home. The team packed its bags and moved from Winnipeg to Phoenix in 1996 after a group headed by Jerry Colangelo, the owner of the Phoenix Suns, bought the franchise. Then in 2001, the group sold the team to Phoenix-area developer Steve Ellman, with Wayne Gretzky as a part-owner and head of hockey operations. From then until the 2007–08 season, the Coyotes were barely competitive and managed to break the 80–point barrier only once. Attendance levels dropped considerably, worrying many league executives. In addition, an unfavorable lease with the city of Phoenix had the team suffering massive losses. In 2005, Ellman sold the Coyotes to trucking magnate Jerry Moyes, who is also a part-owner of the Arizona Diamondbacks. In December 2008, the media became aware that the Coyotes were suffering massive losses, and the NHL was paying the team’s bills. The media reports were minimized by NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and vice-president Bill Daly, however, Moyes had secretly given operational control of the team to the league. Finally, by the 2009 season, the NHL had full ownership control of the Phoenix Coyotes.
Fast forward to the 2011-2012 season. The Coyotes finished first in the Pacific division with 97 points and earned a trip to the playoffs as the third seed in the Western Conference. Smith has put the team on his back so far in these playoffs by posting a 6-3-2 record with a 2.03 GAA and a .942 SV% and the Coyotes faithful are packing home playoff games at the Jobing.com Arena in Glendale for the first time in a very long time. In addition, the ‘Yotes currently have a 2-1 series lead over the Nashville Predators, a team that many people picked to advance to the Stanley Cup Finals. Smith, resembling a brick wall so far in these playoffs, has given a ray of hope to a city that has had little to none over the past 15 years. And maybe, just maybe, this journeyman netminder has finally found a match made in heaven that could save the franchise, and in turn, give him a place to thrive for the rest of his career. We will have to wait and see what happens, but right now, there has never been a more exciting time for hockey in the desert.
After a typical night of college partying on a Friday night (creating a Madden franchise and playing for 5 hours), I’m still awake at 7 am. It might be because: A) I’m an insomniac. B) This Egg McMuffin has me on the verge of vomiting. C) I’m really antsy to see Aldon Smith’s impact on my defensive line in the second full season of my Madden franchise. Or most likely D) NBA playoff time is finally upon us. I have that ‘Mom won’t let me go downstairs and open up the Christmas presents’ feeling, and I won’t be officially indulged until after I open up what’s in my stocking (something I’m not entirely invested in but will still enjoy…Bulls/Sixers) and open up A BRAND NEW GAMECUBE/PUPPY/COMPUTER/BIKE/SOMETHING AMAZING (Knicks/Heat).
Unabashed and unafraid, I’m about to make some real bold predictions for these playoffs. I’m of the train of thought that if you make an extremely bold prediction, when you inevitably get it wrong, people will just assume you were half-kidding and take it in stride. Yet, if you get it right, you’re a genius. It’s a win-win and a fool-proof system. As far as most people are concerned, my acumen for sports predictions is spot on because for every “Robinson Cano is hitting .400 this year” there’s a “Kemba Walker will lead UConn to the National Championship” to overshadow it. For these NBA playoffs, my prognostications are even more likely to come to fruition because it was a lockout-shortened season. What does that have to do with anything? Weird things happen in lockout-shortened seasons.
The last time we saw one (the 1998-99 season), the Knicks, led by Latrell Sprewell, made it to the Finals as the 8-seed, a feat which had never been accomplished before and may never happen again. Unsurprisingly, they were pummeled by the Spurs, but an 8-seed made it to the Finals. While it might not be as much of an anomaly as the Knicks’ final run, something almost as weird and unsuspected is going to happen like that, and I’m going to surmise that I have it listed below. That way, I can have something to brag about in a month or two.
10. Celtics vs. Hawks will be the best series of the first round.
In 2008, a young, on-the-rise Atlanta Hawks team nearly took out the eventual NBA Champion Boston Celtics in 7 games. Josh Smith created match-up problems, Joe Johnson emerged as a legitimate superstar, Marvin Williams almost killed Rajon Rondo, and Zaza Pachulia set an NBA record for almost getting punched in the face. Even though it was so close, Boston was seemingly in control of the entire series as evidenced by their 34-point rout of Atlanta in the winner-take-all Game 7, but it was great basketball and made you really excited to see this Atlanta Hawks squad in the future. Well, four years later, we have all of the same major players, Atlanta isn’t much better, and I foresee them taking Boston to Game 7 again, only to get destroyed again. Atlanta fans should be glad that they managed to match-up with the Celtics, because it’s going to be a good one (and they normally would have had their series relegated to NBATV because nobody would watch).
9. Indiana is going to annihilate Orlando in 4 games.
Newsflash: this Pacers team is nice. Solid PG play (Darren Collison, George Hill), legitimate bigs (Roy Hibbert, David West), athletic wingman (Paul George), perimeter defender (Dahntay Jones), spark plug off the bench (Leandro Barbosa), dude with a ponytail (Louis Amundson), and a go-to-guy (Danny Granger). Only problem? Danny Granger is their go-to-guy, which is why I don’t see them advancing much further than the Conference Semis. But for now, they should sweep the Magic.
People are giving this Orlando team too much credit, because without Dwight Howard, they are bad. Stan Van Gundy deserves Coach of the Year for somehow managing to keep this team afloat when they’ve been on the verge of an epic collapse for months now. I think a lot of Orlando’s players will come to think of this series as the time to prove themselves, but once Indiana jumps out to a 12-point lead early in the 2nd quarter, who do they feed the ball to get them back in this game? Ryan Anderson? Orlando lives by the 3, and I have a feeling Daniel Orton won’t have the same ability as Dwight to free up shooters on the perimeter. I have Indiana all day in 4 games, and by ruthlessness.
8. Dallas is also going to get hit with a first round beatdown.
Dallas mailed it in for this season the second they let Tyson Chandler walk so they could free up the cap space that now reads “Deron Williams” on every graph and pie chart in their front office meetings. Deron Williams will be on their team next year…you know it, he knows it, Mark Cuban knows it, Gerald Wallace knows it, and Nets fans know it. The price for this is a title defense, and only time will tell if it’ll be worth it.
I don’t see them getting swept, and that’s only because Dirk Nowitzki is just too good of a player. He’ll win the Mavs at least one game completely by himself. This is just not the same team from last year. Gone are J.J. Barea, Tyson Chandler, and Deshawn Stevenson, and replacing them are Delonte “Wet Willie” West, Brandan Wright, and the soul of Wesley Person possessing Vince Carter. The Thunder will play impressively this series, yet:
7. Oklahoma City isn’t ready.
I can’t really put my finger on it, but there’s just something missing from this team. They have two of the top ten players in the entire league (
Nick Collison, Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook), the inevitable Sixth Man of the Year Award-winner (James Harden), an enforcer (Kendrick Perkins), the NBA’s leading shot blocker (Serge Ibaka), a perimeter defender (Thabo Sefolosha), a useless player with “championship experience” (Derek Fisher), and a ‘stand in the corner and shoot wide open 3′s’ guy (Daequan Cook). Somehow, this team struggles down the stretch in half-court sets, and it’s going to be a problem. Becoming more and more apparent is the fact that Scott Brooks isn’t what he’s chalked up to be, and I just can’t imagine this team beating either the Spurs or the Lakers in a best-of-7 without the ability to properly run a functional offense.
Combine Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook’s ages and it’ll be somewhere around Juwan Howard, so there’s nothing to worry about going forward. This team is going to be a perennial contender for the next 5-8 years contingent upon the re-signing of Harden and Ibaka. I’m going against my preseason NBA Finals pick, which was Thunder over Heat in 7, but only because I’m going with my gut here. Could I see this team winning it all this year? Yeah, sure, but I just don’t think it’s very likely.
6. J.R. Smith is going to be 2-13, yet hit a game-changing, contested fade-away in crunch time leading to a Knicks victory.
Let me paint you this picture: It’s 4th quarter, 1:47 remaining, 93-92 Heat. J.R. Smith misses a wide open 20-footer, and a collective groan can be heard throughout Madison Square Garden. He’s 2-13, has 6 turnovers, and you have no idea why Mike Woodson is leaving him in. Wade grabs the rebound and takes it up himself. He slows it down and eyes rookie Iman Shumpert guarding him around the 3-point line amidst tremorous “DEFENSE” chants. He crosses over left-to-right, makes his move to the basket, pulls up, and clanks one off the back of the rim. Stoudemire grabs the board and immediately outlets it to Melo, who tells everyone to clear out. Melo/LeBron…LeBron/Melo…it’s the stuff of legends. Melo milks the shot clock down to :06 and thinks about pulling up for a jumper, but instead tries to take LBJ off the dribble and heads towards the paint. Wade quickly comes over to help. Melo picks up his dribble and is faced with an improbable shot, so he kicks it out to J.R. J.R. takes one dribble, realizes the shot clock situation, steps back to the three-point line and swishes it. The Garden erupts, Knicks eventually win.
This scenario actually has me thinking about what lineup Mike Woodson will go with in crunch time. Without Amare of late, the go-to lineup at the end of games was Shumpert-Smith-Novak-Anthony-Chandler, so who gets subbed out? Shumpert, Melo, and Chandler are all necessities down the stretch, so that leaves just J.R. and Novcrack. Novak will force defenders to think twice about leaving him to double team Melo because he’s almost automatic when left open, but he’s also a defensive liability. J.R. has been playing solid defense lately and also has play-making ability, but his basketball I.Q. and decision-making, to put it nicely, are extremely questionable. This series is going to be fun.
5. Spurs will be the best team in the playoffs, only to have a key player injured and ruin their chances.
I genuinely think that at this point in the season, San Antonio is playing better than anyone. Popovich is the best coach in the game, Tony Parker is playing at an MVP level, Ginobili is almost at 100%, and Tim Duncan is still doing his thing. Throw in Kawhi Leonard, Gary Neal, Danny Green, Tiago Splitter, DeJuan Blair, and Boris Diaw, and this might be the deepest team in the league, and with very few weaknesses.
Tell me you can’t picture this: Game 5, the Spurs are already up to a 15-point lead in the 2nd quarter and looking to close out the series against the Jazz on their home court. Ginobili catches the ball out on a fast break, makes his way past Gordon Hayward, only to get completely walloped by Al Jefferson on a lay-up attempt. Manu winces in pain grabbing his left hand, which he landed on awkwardly. It’s broken, and he’s out for the playoffs. You can even create-your-own scenario! Just substitute in Tony Parker, change the opponent to either the Thunder or the Lakers, change the fouler to Andrew Bynum or Kendrick Perkins accordingly, and you can even change the injury. I think sprained MCL sounds plausible. I’m hoping this is one of the predictions I completely whiff on, because this happens to be the first year I’ve actually grown to truly appreciate how great the San Antonio Spurs are.
4. Chris Paul will put on one of the best performances in a playoff series (27 PPG, 11 APG, 60% FG range) we’ve seen in recent memory, but to no avail.
The next time you watch a Clippers game, even if it’s just for a few minutes, take the time to ignore the other nine players on the court and just watch Chris Paul. Everything he does seems calculated and predetermined, as his every move dictates the flow of the entire game. It’s almost like he’s running on autopilot for the first three quarters to conserve himself. He involves his teammates and does just enough offensively to keep his team in the game, and then suddenly the 4th quarter comes along and he just turns it on and takes over. You could make a strong MVP case for CP3 (I have him ahead of KD) if LeBron hadn’t had such a statistically historic season of his own. For the playoffs, I’m thinking he turns it on the moment that first jump ball goes in the air. Too bad the rest of his team isn’t that good.
When the Grizzlies throw Tony Allen on CP3 in the 4th quarter and he’s forced to dish the ball to his teammates, who’s going to step up and win them that game? This is where the Clippers will really miss Chauncey Billups. Blake Griffin can dunk over Marc Gasol standing on top of a car if he wants, but he hasn’t shown that he has the ability to create his own shot or get himself to the free throw line and produce (around 52% FT for the year). Side prediction: Blake attempts to dunk over Z-Bo, who’s just a little too hood to let that happen. Griffin gets hit with a clothesline and we have our first major fight of the 2011-12 NBA Playoffs.
3. “Are the Bulls better without Derrick Rose?” discussions arise when Boston beats them in the Conference Semifinals.
No, they aren’t anywhere close to being better without Derrick Rose, but that won’t stop the ESPN SportsNation poll and Skip Bayless debate about it. Call me crazy, but I don’t expect a tandem of C.J. Watson and John Lucas III to be taking over games on a consistent basis in a best-of-7 series. The same reason why Indiana (sorry Danny Granger), Philadelphia (Lou Williams…I guess?), Orlando (Hedo’s old now), and Denver (PASS IT TO GALLINARI) are going nowhere in the playoffs is the same reason Chicago wouldn’t go far without Rose: there’s no reliable star player to take ‘the shot’.
Now, as to why they’ll lose to the Celtics. The Chicago Bulls are an incredible regular season basketball team. They play great team defense, have the intangibles, and Thibs has them playing harder than anyone else in the NBA. But Derrick Rose has been in-and-out of more games than Brian Scalabrine has actually played in. His injury situation scares me, which is why I can’t trust the Bulls this postseason. Even with Rose in the lineup, the glaring weakness which cost them a shot at a championship last year is still very much real: Who is going to score when Rose is locked up? Avery Bradley is one of the best perimeter defenders in the NBA already, and let’s just say Rose is having one of those nights where his shot isn’t falling. Where does Chicago look? Carlos Boozer’s hairline has made more headlines than his play this year, Luol Deng is not a scorer, and the Rip Hamilton signing, for all intents and purposes, has been a failure thus far. I say Boston in 7 in a great series.
2. LeBron doesn’t disappear in late-game moments.
(But seriously, for the love of everything good in this world, please don’t disappear, LeBron. You’re by far the best player in the world, and already one of the ten greatest talents we’ve seen in NBA history. It would be a shame to further taint your legacy with another confusing and completely out-of-the-blue no-show in the playoffs. Unless it’s against the Knicks, then by all means, please average 1.8 ppg in the 4th quarter.)
1. The Los Angeles Lakers will be this year’s NBA Champions.
Playoff basketball is much different than regular season basketball. It becomes less about pure talent and more about executing and effectively using that talent in the right situations and match-ups. I’m going to go back to one of the earliest points I made and remind you that weird things happen in lockout-shortened seasons. The favorites don’t always win, and surprises are to be expected. Most of all, I am steadfast in my belief to stick to my gut feelings, and I’ve had a gut feeling about the Lakers for a couple of weeks now.
We know the Lakers’ primary offensive gameplan, but they also have a sizable advantage (sure…pun intended) on the low block against any team in the playoffs right now. Call him soft, but Pau Gasol is one of the most fundamentally sound and skilled big men we’ve seen in years, and along with Gasol, the x-factor is going to be Andrew Bynum. Are we going to see the ‘uggghhhhh Mike Brown, just let me be who I’m trying to be’ Andrew Bynum sulking on the bench or are we going to see the most dominant NBA center offensively who is probably making Orlando kick themselves in the nuts for missing on him in a Dwight trade? Kobe will be Kobe, he’s going to shoot, he’s going to make this face, and he’s going to sacrifice one bench warmer after every loss that should have been a win (Andrew Goudelock, you could be the first to go), but Bynum is going to need to put up at least 20 and 10 for the Lakers to win it all and Gasol will have to play up to his abilities. They have a legitimate PG for the first time in years (Ramon Sessions) and The People’s Elbow on James Harden may have actually awoken the real Ron Artest playing-wise. Oh yeah, and just a side note, Kobe is chasing immortality in his 6th ring, rendering all ‘MJ vs. Kobe’ arguments to actually become realistic now. I’ve got Lakers over Heat in 6, and Kobe doin’ work for just that reason.