April 2, 2014

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NBA Playoff Match-ups We Want

By: Joe Williams

Finally, the playoffs are almost here. With only about seven games left for each team, we can start to see who will face off when the championship run begins. A lot can change between now and then, but here’s what I hope to see come playoff time. We’ll start in the East:

1 Indiana Pacers vs 8 New York Knicks

All season, it has been almost a given that we would get Pacers-Heat III in the Eastern Conference Finals. Now it’s not looking like a sure thing. The Pacers are in a big-time slump and the Knicks have suddenly got it going and are just a game out of the last playoff spot. The Pacers against a red-hot Knicks team would be much more interesting that the Pacers taking on a faltering Atlanta Hawks squad.

Carmelo Anthony

If the Knicks make the playoffs, could they be a problem for the Pacers?

2 Miami Heat vs 7 Charlotte Bobcats
Unfortunately, this is as close as we will get to Lebron James vs Michael Jordan. I hope we see it happen. Miami swept the regular season meetings 4-0, but one game was decided by just one point and another went to overtime. If Dwayne Wade isn’t at full strength, Al Jefferson and the Bobcats could give the Heat a first-round battle. Maybe MJ will even decide to suit up.

3 Chicago Bulls vs 6 Washington Wizards
It will be nice to see a up-and-coming team take on a veteran club that just keeps winning no matter who they have dressed in street clothes. It could be a bad match-up for the Bulls (they are 0-2 against the Wizards this season), but I think their experience will be a big advantage. And if the Bulls can grab the three seed, that could set up another “Chicago Street Fight” with the Heat in round two.

4 Toronto Raptors vs 5 Brooklyn Nets
So that leaves us with another team looking to finally get a taste of playoff action against a team full of players that are used to playing in multiple playoff series every year. Do the old guys in Brooklyn have one more run left? Or will the Raptors be a newcomer making some noise?

As for the West: 

1 San Antonio Spurs vs 8 Memphis Grizzlies
Any chance history could repeat itself? Three years ago the eight-seeded Grizzlies made history and took down the top-seeded Spurs. Both rosters have a lot of the same players. After struggling early in the season, the Grizzlies have become one of the hottest teams in the West and the Spurs are currently riding an 18-game win streak.

2 Oklahoma City Thunder vs 7 Dallas Mavericks
The Thunder are one of the favorites to win the title. Kevin Durant is the favorite to win the MVP award. That usually means a fairly easy win in the first round. Maybe not this year though. The Mavs have beaten the Thunder twice in the last couple weeks. Let’s see if they can beat them again when it really counts.

3. L.A. Clippers vs 6 Golden State Warriors
I love rivalries. A playoff series between the Clippers and Warriors could lead to a great one for the next few years. These teams already have the building blocks in place after beginning the season with feisty affair that led to the teams refusing to attend chapel together and Blake Griffin calling the Warriors cowardly when they met in December. This series needs to happen.

4. Houston Rockets vs 5 Portland Trailblazers

Dwight Howard vs LaMarcus Aldridge. Damian Lillard vs James Harden. Neither teams feels the need to play defense. In their four meetings this season, each team scored at least 111 three times. At the time of year when the game slows down and defense is at a premium, a series like this will be a nice change of pace.

February 26, 2013

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NBA Playoff Races To Watch

By: Joe Williams

With about 25 games to go in the NBA regular season, we’ve got a pretty clear picture of the teams that will make the playoffs and the ones that will be in the lottery. What we don’t know is who will face who once the playoffs get started. And that will go a long way toward determining what happens in the NBA playoffs. Here are a few races I’ll be keeping my eye on as we inch towards the final game of the regular season.

Will the Lakers make the NBA Playoffs?

The Heat will be the top seed in the East. We know that. But the second and third seeds could go to Indiana, New York, Brooklyn, Chicago or Atlanta. These teams ought to be desperate to finish second or third. That will get them home-court advantage in the first round, but that doesn’t really matter too much. The important thing for these teams is to get on the other side of the bracket and avoid a second round meeting with the Heat. You don’t want to face the defending champs any sooner than you have to.

Speaking of avoiding the Heat…Boston and Milwaukee shouldn’t be too worried about anyone below them stealing a playoff spot. But they will be battling to get the seventh seed and avoid the Heat in the first round.

In the West, the final playoff spot is getting all the attention. Can the Lakers squeak into the playoffs? That’s what all the talk is about, but I’m not counting out Dallas or Portland yet. All three teams are tied with 30 losses at the moment and are going to have to get red-hot to catch Houston or Utah. On second thought, after looking at the Blazers schedule, I’m counting them out. Their final 16 games are against teams in the playoff race. If they find a way to get in, nobody will be able to say they didn’t earn it.

Of course, whoever does get that final spot is going to be facing the team with the best record in the NBA, San Antonio. It would be quite the series if the Lakers do end up as the eighth seed.

The Clippers and Memphis must keep winning to stay in the top four and get home-court in round one. With so many good teams in the West, home-court will be important.

One more race that is a little bit interesting will be to see which team finishes with the worst record and gets the most ping pong balls in the lottery. It looks like this will come down to Charlotte and Orlando.

May 15, 2012

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NBA Playoff Power Rankings

By: Joe Williams

The first round of the NBA playoffs became survival of the fittest with player after player going down with an injury. The list looks like an all-star roster. The Bulls, Hawks, Magic and even Knicks could all blame injuries for their first round exits. As the conference semi-finals get underway, the playoff picture is much different than I expected with the 50-win Bulls and everybody’s “sleeper” team (Memphis) eliminated. Time to reassess and rank the eight teams still standing.

The Thunder have been very convincing during the NBA playoffs, already eliminating the defending champion Dallas Mavericks.

No. 8   Philadelphia 76ers

This young team took advantage of an injury-riddled Bulls team and became the fifth No. 8 seed to advance to the second round. They have stolen home-court advantage against the Celtics with a game two win and showed that they will make Boston earn a trip to the Eastern Conference Finals.

No. 7   Los Angeles Clippers

The jam-packed NBA schedule has been tough on players and coaches but the group that may be the most exhausted by the whole thing is Clipper fans. These people are usually in wait-till-next-year mode by New Years and here they are in round two after a thrilling seven-game series against Memphis. How much more can they take?

No. 6   Los Angeles Lakers

This team looks like a championship contender. But only about once a week. They should be better than that with Kobe Bryant and two 7-footers. That was an embarrassing loss in Oklahoma City. It’s only one game, but the Lakers are in trouble.

No. 5   Indiana Pacers

Indiana has quietly been one of the best teams all season. Only four teams had more regular season victories than the Pacers. But they don’t seem to get much respect. Here’s their chance to change that. The Dwight Howard-less Magic didn’t give them any trouble in the first round. Can they challenge the Heat?

No. 4   Boston Celtics

It’s now or never for the Celtics. They caught a break with the Bulls going down after the Derrick Rose injury. They ought to be able to use their championship experience to get by the up-and-coming 76ers and likely have one more showdown with Miami. They know this is probably their last shot as a group. The question is how much is left in the tank?

No. 3   Miami Heat

Miami leads the Pacers 1-0 but it looks like the big three is down to a big two with Chris Bosh out “indefinitely.” Without Bosh, the Heat could be in trouble against Indiana. They are still the favorites but it may take six or seven games. They won’t win the NBA championship without a healthy Bosh back in the lineup.

No. 2   San Antonio Spurs

The Spurs have home court advantage as long as they are in the playoffs. It seems like they have had about two weeks off after the sweep of the Utah Jazz. A lot of people expected them to have a tough matchup with the Grizzlies after losing to them in the playoffs last season. But instead they get Chris Paul and the Clippers. This should be a good series.

No. 1   Oklahoma City Thunder

Oklahoma City has the look of a champion. Trailing by double-digits in game four against the defending world champion Mavericks, the Thunder could have easily let that game go and finished off the Mavs in another game. But Durant and company would have none of that and finished off the sweep. Then they absolutely destroyed the Lakers in game one. They look like they are on a mission.

November 28, 2011

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NBA’s Top Ten Storylines for 2011-12

By: Anson Whaley

What, the NBA lockout’s over? Seriously?

Well, sort of. There are still some ‘I’s to be dotted and ‘T’s to be crossed, but for all intents and purposes, there should be NBA basketball this year. And not only that, but the plan is to play 66 games, meaning it’s practically a full season.

With college football winding down, that’s good news indeed. So what can we look for this year in the NBA?

10. Will any guys stay overseas? A good number of NBA players dabbled in the international game, playing in various leagues overseas. It’s not likely we’ll see major stars remain over there, and ones with contracts will have to come back, but what about free agents? Could some of them stay and make a bit more money than they could here? I think it’s possible, but don’t expect it to become a trend … especially this year. With the possibility of a shortened training camp, we could see plenty of guys come in out of shape and even a few more injuries than normal. There should be lots of opportunities for free agents to come in and play right away, and NBA teams will be looking to persuade them to play in the States.

9. Can the Mavs repeat? This question gets asked of the NBA champion every year. Can they? Sure. Will they? Eh, who knows? One thing we do know, though, is that repeating in any professional sport is difficult. Add playing in the difficult Western Conference, and the chances are good that Dallas might not even get back to the NBA Finals.

One of the big questions this year is whether or not the Mavs can repeat as NBA Champions.

8. How much noise will the Knicks make? New York has the sport’s newest trio of superstars with Carmelo Anthony, Chauncey Billups, and Amare Stoudamire. Having acquired Anthony in the middle of last season, this will be the first full year with all three players. Playing in the Eastern Conference will help, and it’s hard not to see this team right up there with the Miami Heat, Chicago Bulls, Orlando Magic, and Boston Celtics. The Knicks should at least contend for the conference title.

7. Which rookies will create a stir? The Cleveland Cavaliers’ Kyrie Irving and Minnesota Timberwolves’ Derrick Williams will almost assuredly have decent seasons. But the most intriguing prospect to me is the Washington Wizards’ Jan Vesely, who was taken sixth in this year’s NBA Draft. At 21, he’s got the equivalent of three seasons worth of college experience playing overseas, so he should be a bit more polished than one-and-done players. He also was arguably the top international player in the Draft and one of the most athletic players as well. He’s known as a good defender and should be able to step in and contribute right away.

6. Are the Bulls for real? Last season, no one outside of Chicago expected the Bulls to come away with the NBA’s top record. But that’s exactly what happened as Derrick Rose led them to 62 wins. We know the Bulls should be good this season, but how far can their defense-first approach carry them in the playoffs? Time will tell.

5. Is Kevin Durant the NBA’s best player? Having won the last two scoring titles, it’s easy to make an argument that Durant is the most prolific offensive talent in the NBA. But best overall player is an entirely different category, and, until he at least gets to a Finals as Lebron and Kobe have, I’ll lean towards saying no.

4. What effect will the lockout have on the season? As I said earlier, I think we could see some out of shape and rusty players early on this NBA season. But more importantly, the lockout probably favors the veteran teams a bit. Cutting 16 games off of the NBA schedule is a big deal and veterans such as Tim Duncan and Steve Nash will probably be grateful for the extra rest they’ve had. Those teams could have more gas in the tank than usual come playoff time.

3. Can Kobe win another ring? The Lakers were ousted unceremoniously by the Dallas Mavericks last year. With Kobe and Los Angeles a year older, do they still have another title run in them? I think so. Pau Gasol is still pretty young, and with Kobe, Lamar Odom, Andrew Bynum, and Ron Artest Metta World Peace, there’s plenty of firepower on that team.

2. Is the nation ready to embrace LeBron? The Heat played one of the biggest heel roles since some guy named Darth ran around in a cape using the Force to choke the living daylights out of people. But a year later, will the hatred be gone? I’m guessing not. Folks were critical about how Bron Bron left Cleveland, and Miami’s triumvirate of stars are likely to still hear about it when the Heat are playing on the road (especially those games in Cleveland). I imagine things would have been even worse if the Heat had won the title this Spring, but I believe many NBA fans are just not ready to forgive yet. Which leads us to…

1. Can the Heat win the title? In a word, yes. They were close last year, reaching the NBA Finals after struggling early in the season. The Heat do have an advantage in the East where the competition top to bottom isn’t as strong as out West. The talent’s there, and having reached the NBA Finals last year, so is the experience. All they’ve got to do is put it all together.

If only it were that easy.

May 25, 2011

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Fallout at the OKC Corral

By: Rick Jarrell

Two days ago, the Oklahoma City Thunder had a commanding 15 point lead with five minutes left in Game 4 of the Western Conference Finals. Kevin Durant had just nailed a seemingly dagger-three, consequently celebrating by turning to the OKC bench and miming a wrestling championship belt around his waist. But the gesture was premature, as the Thunder fell victim to a Dirk Nowitzki led comeback by the Dallas Mavericks in one of the most epic collapses in recent  history of NBA playoffs.

To be fair, the Dallas comeback was both highly improbable and astonishing. No one expected them to make a run to get back into the game, let alone win, especially in the fashion they did – Dirk hitting ridiculous shot after ridiculous shot. At one point, Nowitzki pump faked to draw contact, which he clearly did, severely altering his shot, but didn’t get the foul call. But it didn’t matter. He nailed the jumper. Just Dirk being Dirk.

Even more improbable than Dallas’s Game 4 comeback is OKC coming back to win this series. That’s a tall order, especially for a young  team with little NBA playoff experience. The series will likely end, in my opinion, tonight in Dallas. But Oklahoma City, team and fans, shouldn’t look on the outcome as a complete loss. For young teams, unfavorable NBA playoff losses and crushing disappointment often serve as building blocks for perennial championship contenders. The heartbreak Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden, and Serge Ibaka felt after Game 4 and (most likely) the end of the series will fuel their offseason routines have them more than ready for next year.

That’s part of the beauty of what OKC General Manager Sam Presti has built – a young team that’s molded together who, along with their coach, Scott Brooks, have a single goal in mind. Not fame or fortune, but a championship. Every indication coming from the NBA players leads us to believe they are in it to win it – together – for the long run.

Durant, the humble 22 year old superstar, leads the team on and off the court. During last summer’s free agent extravaganza, while NBA players LeBron James, Dwayne Wade, Chris Bosh, Carlos Boozer, Joe Johnson, and David Lee were being wined and dined by teams in need of superstars, holding egotistic press conferences and premature celebrations, Durant signed a five year contract extension with the small town team who drafted him. How did the public find out? He tweeted it.

The remaining young core exemplifies the same modesty, as well. Russell Westbook, Durant’s Robin to his Batman, was recently benched for the entire fourth quarter of a pivotal NBA playoff game. Most 22 year old budding stars would have been visibly upset, taking their issues to the media. But Westbrook handled it well, maintaining something along the lines of “as long as we win, it doesn’t matter.”

Kevin Durant

James Harden and Serge Ibaka, both 21 years old, have seen highs and lows in their sophomore seasons. Harden, a potential offensive powerhouse, and Ibaka, a block machine, have been benched and lost playing time for extended times this season, largely due to match ups with opposing teams. But they’ve both taken the reduced minutes in stride, as each has received more playing time since the trade of Jeff Green to the Boston Celtics. But will still sit, if needed, for match up sake.

Beyond the young core is a set of blue collar role players. Kendrick Perkins, the defensive minded center, provides toughness inside. Thabo Sefolosha starts at shooting guard, also as a defensive presence. Nick Collison spells Ibaka and Perkins when needed, providing solid rebounding, causing offensive fouls, and scoring back door layups. Eric Maynor, of Virginia Commonwealth fame, has developed into a more than capable point guard who can come in and hit shots and change the pace from Westbrook’s freight train style.

Together, the Thunder display the true meaning of the word team. They cooperate on the court, hang out off the court. Say the right things, do the right things. They’re everything that is right with sports and competition. Oklahoma City has developed a rare, but successful, organizational model that will be mimicked by other small market teams.

But even with all the right pieces in place, the Holy Grail isn’t a given. There is still work that needs to be done. OKC still has its weaknesses. Westbrook has a tendency to be a “black hole” and be less point guard, more scorer, sacrificing offensive plays and passes for kamikaze dives to the basket (good and bad, depending on the situation and outcome). Durant, while a gifted scorer, is not assertive enough with the team and lacks great defensive skills. Harden, also a capable scorer, is still very streaky and lacks a defensive presence. Sefolosha and Perkins, while strong defensive, are offensively inept. Perkins, too, has terrible knees, and often takes forever to get up and down the court (he also can’t really jump).

Clearly, they aren’t perfect. Presti and Brooks know this, as do the players. And they have the ability to improve and fix these issues, both internally through young player development, and externally, through flexibility available through draft picks and trades. As captain of the ship, Presti is more than capable of steering the Thunder even further in the right direction. So if my prediction is correct, Dallas defeats OKC in the NBA playoffs to reach the NBA finals, it’s not the end of the world (that’s scheduled for October now, right?). Unlike many teams, built for a 3-5 year run, the Thunder, assuming at least some of the team stays together, have the potential to be title contenders for the next ten years. As a Cleveland fan, I’m jealous, but also excited to see what the “good guys” can do.