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.

June 6, 2011

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Shaq Retires

By: Anson Whaley

It goes without saying that Shaquille O’Neal was one of those rare athletes that transcended the game he played. He wasn’t the most dominant as some have called him lately – that title clearly belongs to Wilt Chamberlain, who averaged more than 50 points and 25 rebounds per game in the 1961-62 season and more than 30 points and 20 rebounds per game for his career. But Shaq (like Wilt) was larger than life, which is why no single article will do him justice.

So with that, I give you the top ten things I’ll remember about the Diesel.

Shaq

 

10. Shaq Signs Exclusive Deal with Classic Trading Cards

Shaq was a trendsetter and had one of the first exclusive trading card deals in history. Classic, an upstart company back in the early 1990s, made one of the biggest splashes in history by signing O’Neal to an exclusive card deal, owning the right to print his first rookie cards. Sure, go ahead and scoff if you want. But his deal was enormous for the industry as it led to other companies signing exclusive deals with athletes.

9. Literally a Showstopper

O’Neal didn’t only break a few backboards when he dunked early in his career, but he literally tore down the entire support systems. This, of course, delayed play while the systems were fixed or replaced. Shaq was one of the few players that forced the NBA to look into reinforcing their backboards.

8. Shaq Raps

No, the Diesel’s abilities weren’t limited to only the basketball court. He was also a great rapper. Okay, well, maybe not. But his debut Album ‘Shaq Diesel’ still went platinum, which gives him exactly one more platinum record than almost everyone on the planet.

7. Leading Magic to Finals

O’Neal was only in his third season when he led the Magic to the Finals. He didn’t just help them get there, he was the clear star of the team. With all due respect to Penny Hardaway, Dennis Scott, Horace Grant, and Nick Anderson, the Magic probably don’t get out of the first round without the Diesel. Orlando was swept by the Houston Rockets, but it wasn’t because of Shaq, who averaged 28 points, 12 rebounds, and 6 assists per game.

6. Passed over for Christian Laettner

The decision to take Christian Laettner over O’Neal for the final spot on the 1992 USA Olympic Dream Team had about as much impact on the outcome as it would if I were selected. Lots of factors played into the decision – Laettner was a senior with two NCAA titles for starters. Still, it was a big-time snub nonetheless and Shaq wasn’t all that happy about it.

5. Taking Heat to the Title

Make no mistake – the 2005-06 Miami Heat were Dwyane Wade’s team. But it’s fair to say that without O’Neal’s nearly 20 points and 10 rebounds every night, Miami would still be looking for their first title. Shaq also proved to the world he could win a championship without Kobe and his fourth title placed him in select company.

4. Kobe Feud

Okay, let’s get this out of the way. If Kobe and Shaq stay together, it’s likely that they would have gone on to win several more titles. The feud will always be one of the first things fans think of when reminiscing about Shaq. O’Neal wouldn’t have been able to run down Bill Russell’s 11 championships, but Kobe is young enough that it’s conceivable that he could have gotten close.

3. Signs with Lakers

The rumors swelled in the Summer of 1996 about what Shaq would do. He eventually chose to sign with the Los Angeles Lakers and effectively began a mini dynasty, helping the franchise to three titles. His signing filled the gap left by Vlade Divac, who was traded to the then Charlotte Hornets for … Kobe Bryant. That effectively concluded the most lopsided deal in NBA history.

2. Leading Lakers to Three-Peat

O’Neal began the Lakers’ Dynasty by helping the franchise to three straight championships. Whatever side you fall on of the great Shaq vs. Kobe debate, none of those titles are won without O’Neal, who won the Finals Most Valuable Player award each year.

1. Pythagorean Theorem

There have been countless memorable quotes over Shaq’s career, but none will ever top the time he tried to describe just how unguardable he was. An exacerbated O’Neal said his game was like the Pythagorean Theorem, claiming there was no answer. The only problem with that is there actually is an answer to the Theorem: A2 + B2 = C2.

It’s okay, Shaq – we get the point.

April 27, 2011

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NBA Playoffs: Lessons Learned So Far

By: Rick Jarrell

With less than a quarter of the NBA playoffs complete, it may be too early to rush to judgment. There’s a lot of competitive basketball to be played, and as we’ve seen so far in the Memphis/San Antonio series, anything can happen. But a few of the first round match ups have made for some fairly concrete, if not obvious, conclusions.

Hold on D-Rose, CP3 is Still Here

The second half of the regular season brought the rise of Derrick Rose. As I’ve said before, Rose took his game to a whole other level the first half of the season. Then with Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer back from early injuries, Rose took his game to yet ANOTHER level to lead the Chicago Bullsto the best overall record. His performance was tantalizing to casual and diehard basketball fans alike. A lot of people, including myself, saw him as the best point guard in the league – with good reason. But with the regular season over, and the playoffs underway, a lot of people are watching with their foot in their mouths as Chris Paul makes professionals look like amateurs.

Despite playing at a high level all season, Paul’s serious knee injury seasons ago left him without his quick first step, and caused many to question the longevity of his career. Still hands down the best pure point guard in the league, it was amazing to watch him adjusting his game accordingly after the injury. But something was still missing. Apparently, that something was stored away for the playoffs.

CP3 has led the New Orleans Hornets against the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers, currently down 3-2, all without star power forward David West, lost to injury. His ability to manage the game, draw defenders just far enough toward him to seed the pass into the lane for an easy bucket, or nail the mid range jumper if left open, is magical. As for the knee? This video of Paul crossing up Andrew Bynum shows as visual proof CP3 can still break your ankles. If he’s on his game, New Orleans will win the series. Let’s see what he can do with his team facing elimination for Game 6 back in New Orleans.

Brandon Roy is Still Here, Too

The Portland Blazers, perhaps the most trendy upset pick this year, were on the verge of going down 3-1 to the Dallas Mavericks. That is, until Brandon Roy came to life. In the process of being blown out, the Blazers began to slowly pick away at the lead after halftime. Then, in the fourth, Roy took over, hitting shot after shot for the otherwise anemic Portland offense, carrying his team to victory. Impressive for a franchise player, but Roy’s story is different.

Coming out of Washington, he had two severely injured knees. No one knew how long his career would be able to go. After early success, more knee issues emerged, and Roy was forced to miss a ton of time, including the majority of this season. He can’t even play in back to back games in some cases. His knee is essentially a series of bone-on-bone connections. I can’t imagine living with that, let alone running up and down a court and colliding with physical specimens. But Roy was able to get past his problems, and rise above them to a truly inspiring performance. I don’t usually gush over comebacks like this, because he making millions of dollars a year, but Brandon Roy is a classy guy and great teammate. Makes me feel like I should take my fully function knees to the gym immediately. The Portland crowd was ecstatic for their hobbled superstar. The city deserves their first playoff series this decade, and hopefully Roy’s performance will provide momentum toward an upset over the Mavs, who now hold the series lead at 3-2.

Grizzlies Rewrite the Rules

Speaking of unexpected performances, the Memphis Grizzlies are on the verge of upsetting the Western Conference’s top seed, the San Antonio Spurs. A playoff mainstay and three time champion over the past decade, the Spurs usually make lunch meat out of inexperienced, young teams like the Grizzlies. But inspired play from Zach Randolph, Marc Gasol, and OJ Mayo has fueled the athletic Griz past the veteran Spurs to a 3-1 series lead.

Memphis has managed to make the Spurs look inept. Usually a well oil machine, turnovers and lack of defensive presence have so far doomed the powerhouse. There’s still a small chance the Spurs can come back, and if there’s a team out there with that drive in them, it’s definitely San Antonio, but the Griz still hold the reigns. Not only is a first round upset a possibility for Z-Bo and the gang, but a favorable match up with Oklahoma City in the second may wait, depending on the outcome of that series. Memphis has a serious opportunity for the Grizzlies to make some noise.

Big Three Non-existent in NYC

That was fast. All of the media fire surrounding the so-called revival of the Celtic-Knicksrivalry was extinguished before it even had a chance to spread. For the second year in a row, Boston stumbled into the playoffs only to show us, again, that a veteran team doesn’t necessarily have to perform at the highest level during the regular season. And the optimism for New York fans that the Carmelo Anthony trade would finally bring playoff success after a decade of dismal play was squashed, just like that.

In all fairness, this should have been a better series. New York could have won the first game, and probably would have if not for a questionable offensive foul call on Carmelo. If that outcome had come to fruition, the Knicks could have used that momentum towards an upset. But instead, we saw Boston adjust to the Knicks game plan and cause them to panic into late game Carmelo isolations rather than go to Amare Stoudemirein the post. The injuries to Stoudemire and Chauncey Billups weren’t exactly catalysts, either – the downfall of assembly a “big three” surrounded by veterans and minimum contract players.

But is the Carmelo-Amere-Billups combination even really a “big three?” The trifecta do not complement each other like Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Ray Allendo, nor are they individually as talented as LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh. It’s clear the Knicks have a lot of work to do, and even more clear the “big three” euphemism is being thrown around WAY too much. Toward the end of the regular season, my local media outlets began referring to John Wall, Jordan Crawford, and Andray Blatche as a “big three.” The NYC application of the term is nowhere near as presumptuous as the Washington Wizards, and may be slightly off topic, but you get the point.

Look on the bright side, Knicks fans. The NBA draft is quickly approaching us. Oh wait, no draft picks… let the Dwight Howard watch begin!

Demise of the Orlando Magic

Speaking of which, look how far the Orlando Magic have fallen. From a surprise Eastern Conference powerhouse to an athletic superhuman surrounded by shooters who can’t seem to shoot. The team has only seemed to decline since their surprise domination of the Cleveland Cavaliersa couple years ago. From letting Hedo Turkoglu leave, the Vince Carterexperiment, reacquiring Turkoglu, and trading away Rashard Lewis for once upon a time Agent Zero in Gilbert Arenas, General Manager Otis Smith appears to be chasing Howard out of town on purpose.

The Atlanta Hawks, a team that Orlando has historically man handled, largely in part due to Howard’s dominance in the paint, have taken control of the series. Journeyman Jason Collins, Atlanta’s cure for Howard, has kept the big man from taking over. Aside from Howard’s 46 point, 20 rebound performance in Game 2, which Orlando lost anyway, Collins and the Hawks have held their own in the paint. And when Howard does kick the ball to the wings, Turkoglu, Jason Richardson, and Jameer Nelson are unable to knock down open jumpers. Sharpe contrast to what we’ve seen in the past.

Some highs, some lows, but an exciting beginning to the 2011 NBA playoffs for sure. Non-NBA fans point to the long post season as one of the negatives of the league, but I’m thankful we get two months of the highest level of competitive basketball. Honestly, it’s hard to get anything productive done during this time frame, unless you count watching the playoffs as productive. Which I do…

April 19, 2011

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Wild Start to NBA Playoffs

By: Joe Williams

The next few weeks can’t be this good. Can they? If the first couple days of NBA playoff action are any indication of what’s to come, this will be one of the best NBA playoffs in NBA history. Every higher seed was in danger of losing. There have been devastating injuries, controversial calls and nearly every game in doubt in the final minutes.

Most of the best-of-seven series have just one game in the books and now there are more questions than answers about who is going to survive the first round. Here’s a look at each NBA team playoff matchup.

1 Chicago Bulls vs. 8 Indiana Pacers

Derrick Rose scores 39 points and leads Chicago on a 16-1 run to finish the game for a come-from-behind victory in game one. He followed that up with 36 in Monday’s game two win. The Pacers showed they can hang with Chicago in both games. The question is can they finish when the series shifts to Indiana? It’s going to be tough if starting point guard Darren Collison’s sprained ankle keeps him on the bench.

Prediction: Bulls in five.

1 San Antonio Spurs vs. 8 Memphis Grizzlies

Memphis picked up its first playoff win in franchise history, shocking the top seed in game one. As the regular season came to a close, it looked as if the Grizzlies were trying to get a matchup with the Spurs instead of improving their seeding. Maybe they know what they are doing. Or maybe the Spurs need to get Manu Ginobili back in the lineup to beat Memphis. His status for game two on Wednesday will go a long way towards determining the outcome of this series.
Prediction: Grizzlies in seven.

2 Miami Heat vs. 7 Philadelphia 76ers

Philadelphia nearly stole game one. The 76ers cut the Heat lead to one with two minutes to play but could not reclaim the lead. Miami took advantage of the free throw line to keep control of the game. The Heat hit 31 of 39 free throws while the 76 had just 15 attempts from the charity stripe. That wasn’t Philadelphia’s problem in game two though as it was blown-out 94-73.

Prediction: Heat in five.
2 L.A. Lakers vs. 7 New Orleans Hornets

Chris Paul played like the Chris Paul of old and New Orleans surprised the Lakers in game one. Kobe Bryant looked as if he may have been hurt at the end of the first half, but was able to return in the second half and keep the Lakers in the game. He didn’t get much help. Especially from Pau Gasol. The big man struggled with just eight points while Aaron Gray had a season-high 12 for New Orleans. Gray left in the fourth quarter with a sprained ankle. The Hornets will need him back to compete with the size of the Lakers.
Prediction: Lakers in six.
3 Boston Celtics vs. 6 New York Knicks

Ray Allen buried a three with 11 seconds to play to give Boston the game one win in a game the Knicks believe they should have won. Carmelo Anthony was called for a controversial offensive foul with 21 seconds left and it appeared that Kevin Garnett may have tripped Toney Douglas to get Allen open for the game-winning shot. The Knicks biggest problem now is the health of point guard Chauncey Billips. He left the game in the final minute with a leg injury and his status for the rest of the series is up in the air.

Prediction: Celtics in six.

3 Dallas Mavericks vs. 6 Portland Trailblazers

Portland was a popular upset pick but Dirk Nowitzki scored 18 points in the fourth quarter and the Mavericks took game one at home. The question is can they win game two? In eight of its last ten playoff wins, Dallas has followed it up with a loss. It will be a long series if that trend continues.

Prediction: Mavericks in seven.

4 Orlando Magic vs. 5 Atlanta Hawks
Orlando destroyed Atlanta in the playoffs last year. This year has been a different story. Dwight Howard exploded for 46 points and 19 rebounds but Atlanta dominated the game. The Hawks have beaten Orlando four straight times this season.

Prediction: Atlanta in six.

4 Oklahoma City Thunder vs. 5 Denver Nuggets

Kevin Durant scored 41 and Russell Westbrook had 31 for the Thunder, and Denver still could have won the game. The Nuggets had the lead with a minute left and Oklahoma City took the lead on a basket that the NBA admitted later should not have counted because of basket interference. Both teams like to play fast and should provide a very entertaining series.

Prediction: Thunder in six.

March 9, 2011

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NBA MVP Race Is Over

By: Joe Williams

For much of the season the MVP talk in the NBA has been about LeBron James and Derrick Rose with Dwight Howard and Dirk Nowitzki in the conversation. The race is over. Give the trophy to Rose because he and the Bullsare surging while LeBron and the Heat struggle.

The last few days for James and the Miami Heat have been closer to a Charlie Sheen meltdown than a NBA championship contender. Sheen has been “WINNING” more than the Heat as of late.

Chicago is 10-2 in its last 12 games. Miami has lost five in a row and six of seven. An MVP would not let that happen. Especially considering the way the Heat have lost. They have blown double-figure leads in three of the last four losses.

On Feb. 24, Miami led Chicago 84-80 with four minutes to go and couldn’t finish it off. Rose made plays in the clutch. James didn’t. Miami came back with a win at home against Washington (a team that is 1-29 on the road) and built a 73-49 lead against Orlando. Then things got really bad. The Magic went on an unheard of 40-9 run on the Heat’s home floor.

The next day they get blown-out 125-95 in San Antonio. The Heat followed that up with another meeting with the Bulls and another loss to the Bulls. Again, Rose led his team to a win, and James couldn’t convert in the final seconds.

So it’s Derrick Rose and Chicago 3, LeBron James and Miami 0 for the season.

But it’s not like Chicago is the only team Miami can’t beat. Miami is 1-9 against the top five championship contenders (Spurs, Celtics, Mavericks, Bulls and Lakers). Chicago is 8-4 against the NBA elite.

Rose has the Bulls at 44-18 and second in the Eastern Conference. And he’s done it with Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah out with injuries for a large portion of the season. Miami’s big three have all played in at least 60 games.

After the last loss to Chicago, James apologized to teammates for ”failing them late in games” after he missed a potential game-tying or go-ahead basket in the final seconds for the fourth time in two weeks.

Rose hasn’t had to apologize to the Bulls. He’s been the MVP that they’ve needed.