NBA Playoffs: The Old Guard's Last Stand
By Chauncey Telese
Hey everyone, how are you? Hope all is well. The time is now 10:49 p.m. and playing in the background is the B.S. Report with Bill Simmons on espn.com and most likely the Adam Carolla podcast. What a great sports week right? Tiger is looking like he’s back on top and for once that has something to do with golf (yeah I know I’m sure I’m idiot number 40005 that has made that joke) which by the way, led to one of the weirdest bar moments in my life.
I was at Chuy’s and I’m watching Bulls Magic then later Heat and Celtics, and there is this large group of people - in their 30s and not golf people - cheering as Tiger was rallying on Sunday. They were legitimately invested in the Masters. Never have I been in a bar where people are cheering for golf like it was March Madness (by the way congratulations to UCONN though I wish the game weren’t unwatchable).
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Either the NFL lockout is already starting to cause withdrawals or it really is that awesome to have Tiger looking like a champion again. I don’t know, either way it was incredibly weird for me to witness. Even the bartender was perplexed at the enthusiasm for golf.
Anyway, after a dramatic last night of the regular season, the playoffs are now set and the Lakers can begin their quest for a three-peat, sending Phil off in style and having one last run before the impending lockout.
I thought about also doing a NHL playoff preview as well, but I haven’t been plugged in that much this year so I don’t want to come off like a bandwagoner who just Googles names and stats in order to put out a terrible column that doesn’t sound like it came from a real fan (though I think Vancouver will play either Washington in the finals and Ovetchkin will finally get his ring). My style is to put out a terrible product, but at least the love is there.
Anyway, here’s how this will work: I will break down every single first-round series and then predict the rest of the rounds, ultimately landing on a champion (gee I wonder who I’m picking, but it’s all about the journey right?). This could be the best playoffs in a long time (the first round in the east not withstanding) because more so then any other year, a plethora of individual and team legacies will be forged.
The Heatles will actually have to nut up or shut up, Durant and the Thunder will try to prove that they, and not Chicago, are the team of the future. Boston’s big three will have to rally the troops after the Perkins trade and try and get one last ring, the Spurs also have one last real shot at a title with Duncan as their leader, Derrick Rose will have the spotlight on him after he eventually wins the MVP and of course, Kobe goes for six and Phil goes for 12. These are just some of the subplots going on this year in the NBA, but before I go on, let me cast my imaginary votes for the NBA regular season awards.
Sixth Man of the Year: Lamar Odom gets it because he has filled in for Bynum on a plethora of occasions and has been the best player off the bench (which isn’t saying much, but it is what it is) and while I can’t fathom how anyone can watch promos for Khole and Lamar without vomiting, especially at the gym where I see them like every five minutes, Odom has earned this award hands down.
Most Improved Player: Kevin Love because while Minnesota was once again abysmal, Love did have 56 straight double doubles (not the record because Wilt has that at an unbreakable 256 in a row) and 62 overall. If he were on the Heat, Spurs, Lakers, Thunder or any other playoff team, he’d be receiving a lot more respect. While I’m not big on players bailing on the teams that drafted them (except for Howard, who I can’t wait to see in purple and gold in two years) he deserves to be on an elite team and prove he’s not just a looter in a riot.
Defensive Player of the Year: Dwight Howard, he’d also get an MVP vote from many if Orlando weren’t an easy out in round two. Howard needs to show that he is willing to give it all 100% of the time. He is easily the best center in the league (not saying much, but still) and if he played like he should, he’d be putting up Hakim numbers in terms of blocks and Shaq/Wilt numbers in terms of rebounding. He still leads both categories by far but, that’s only enough to get Defensive Player of the Year and not MVP. Hopefully, if and when he gets to the Lakers, Kobe can push him to find his dark side (I’d use black swan, but that’s becoming an overused cliché.)
Rookie of the Year: Blake Griffin, and while I know he’s technically not a rookie, this was a terrible rookie class. John Wall was okay, but he missed a lot of games and Landry Fields was traded midseason (not his fault but still) and this season featured more Blake Griffin highlights then either of those two combined. His dunks are showstoppers but he also is a decent shooter, rebounds well, and changed the culture of the Clippers almost overnight. He became one of the 25 best players in the league and can only get better.
Coach of the Year: This is tough because while Thibodeau brought the Bulls back to prominence despite having to ask Rose to carry the load when Noah and Boozer went down for most of the year, and made them the best defensive team in the league, and Poppovich practically reinvented the Spurs to be an offensive team despite having an aging Duncan, Parker, and Ginobili, Lionel Hollins made the Grizzlies a playoff team despite losing Rudy Gay, Phil is Phil, and Doug Collins brought the Sixers back to the playoffs, my vote goes to George Karl in Denver. All of those guys had great years, but Karl had the biggest degree of difficulty because not only did he beat cancer for the second time but Carmelo wanted out for most of the year and since the trade ultimately had to meet his approval, he held the Nuggets hostage. Despite that, the Nuggets were a fifth seed and after he and Chauncey were traded to the Knicks, Karl had Fields, Mozgov, Gallinari, and Felton to work into his rotation and you know what? They were better without Melo. That’s right, even though Carmelo is one of the 10 best players in the league, the Nuggets became better once he left and now they get a really fun matchup with Oklahoma City. I give the credit to Karl who handled all of this nonsense with total class.
Most Valuable Player: Derrick Rose, I know, not a controversial pick, but I dare anyone to make the case against him. He put the Bulls on his back and willed them to the number one overall record in the league. LeBron had Wade and sure Cleveland was awful without him, that shouldn’t give him his third MVP. This was Rose’s year though I guess you could make the case for Dirk as well, but given how his last MVP award went over, I think he has to earn it back. Rose is the best point guard in the league and will prove that in the playoffs I promise you.
Now that the regular season hardware has been handed out let’s break down the playoffs, let’s start in the East because it’s easier.
1. Bulls vs. 8. Pacers: The Bulls will sweep Indiana, though I give the Pacers credit for making it this far despite having a losing record, they still can’t compete with Chicago. This one won’t even be exciting.
2. Heat vs. 7. Sixers: See above. Miami may have a few fits with this Sixers team but, they sweep.
3. Boston vs. 6. Knicks: This one could be fun. Melo and Amare will definitely make the Celtics work. If D’Antoni weren’t such an abysmal defensive coach, I’d give them a chance to upset but he’s not. Rondo will eat Billups alive, Garnett will smack Amare around, and while Pierce will get tired after having to guard Melo, the Celtics gut out a six game series win. Jeff Green and Nenad Kristic will find their roles, I’m sure and if anyone can name me a Knick besides Landry Fields that can make an impact you’re either delusional or a liar. I hope Spike Lee (or as I call him, the poor man’s Jack Nicholson) gets angry at an official or tries to talk smack to Garnett (good luck winning that battle and I doubt he’ll say anything to Ray Allen because after all, Ray was kind enough to be one of the better things about “He Got Game”). The Knicks won’t be anything until they fire D’Antoni and get a coach who knows defense and find a true point guard either with Paul, Williams, or whoever. For now they will be a fun, up-tempo team that will get knocked out in the first round.
4. Magic vs. 5. Hawks: Sadly, this could be the only competitive series in the first round, at least in the East. I say sadly because these two met in the second round last year and that was a sweep that the Magic won which was so awful that Atlanta felt compelled to give Joe Johnson a contract that could probably make a dent in the national deficit. Look up how much the Hawks owe Johnson over the next six years and you’ll be astounded at the stupidity going down in Atlanta. Oh well, let’s go out West.
1. Spurs vs. 8. Grizzlies: This is an intriguing series or at least became one after Ginobli got hurt this week against the Suns. The Grizzlies are down their best player but have managed to make the playoffs in a competitive Western conference. The Spurs are old and while yeah, Pop has gotten a lot of younger players to work with, his nucleus is getting up there. Duncan is smart enough to compensate his diminishing athletic skills with his hoops IQ. Manu and Parker are still good enough to get some quality minutes but Father Time is definitely taking up residence in Texas. The Grizzlies won’t go down easy but only because of their athleticism. Spurs in five.
2. Lakers vs. 7. Hornets: This has been a terrible April for the champs. They went on a five game skid, almost lost Bynum, Kobe cost himself $100 grand for dropping a homophobic slur, and yeah “Khloe and Lamar” premiered. But the Lakers locked up the two seed and avoided having to play Portland in the first round and Oklahoma City in the second round. The Hornets were the best case scenario because the entire team rests on Chris Paul and Paul is 25 yet is having to play like he’s 35 because of the knee injury he sustained two years ago. The Lakers will not be without drama and Bynum will be handled with kid gloves. Lakers in 5.
3. Mavericks vs. 6. Blazers: This could be interesting because Dallas is notoriously a weak team. Yes, Dirk is good but the team as a whole doesn’t have what it takes to win it all. Having said that it’s a matter of where they go down. The Blazers are a team that L.A. and San Antonio don’t want any part of because they are an athletic team with size and depth. Wallace has been the best trade acquisition of the year because he can out rebound with the best of them. Roy is coming back from his injury. He may be on borrowed time but he’s tailored his game because of that. Andre Miller is tough to defend and LaMarcus Aldridge has become a beast. Dallas could lose this series, but I see them fighting off the Blazers only because of the fact that the injury bug hits Portland frequently. Dallas in seven.
4. Thunder vs. 5. Nuggets: Oh man is this going to be fun! These teams will both put up a TON of points. Durant and Westbrook are the one-two punch of the future and Serge Ibaka has really stepped up. Denver has Felton, Gallinari, Martin, J.R. Smith, and everyone else. The deciding factors in this series will be Durant who will most likely be taking the last shots when needed and Perkins will be the defensive anchor that swings games. Thunder in 7 and trust me there will be many nights spent at All Star Sports Grill on the edge of my seat.
ROUND TWO EAST
1. Bulls vs. 4. Magic: Quick, name me a member of the Magic other then Howard that can match up with the Bulls. That’s right you can’t. Granted Nelson and Turkoglu are decent shots but defensively Howard is the end of the line and that won’t be enough. They will win games here and there but Orlando lives and dies by the three and that’s no way to win a series against a team who make their bones by playing defense. Rose will take down Nelson, Arenas (yeah, that’s right I forgot Gilbert Arenas was on the Magic too), and Jason Richardson is again a great show but an average defender. Noah and Boozer will control the boards, Deng will step in when needed and everyone else will fill in where needed. Bulls in 6.
2. Heat vs. 3. Celtics: I am dying to see this because while yeah, I want both teams to disappear, one has to win. This is a series about two different philosophies. Miami wants to win a title without having to have a real team and the Celtics preach team unity (they use the word unbuntu, which may or may not be a real word for brotherhood) but that idea was somewhat torpedoed by the Perkins trade. Boston owns the Heat and granted Miami blew them out to take control of the two seed, but over a seven game series I see Pierce though being tired from guarding Melo in round one, will have enough to give LeBron trouble, Garnett can easily take out Bosh (who has to prove when the lights go on he can step up every night) and Rondo can easily vanquish either Chalmers or the cadaver once known as Mike Bibby. Wade is the difference maker for Miami but I just don’t see Miami having the depth to outdo the Celtics even with the home court. Celtics in 7.
ROUND TWO WEST
1. Spurs vs. 4. Thunder: Man this is a tough one to call. I treat the Spurs like a slasher in a horror movie. I’m not convinced they’re down, until the credits roll and even then I’m not sure. The Thunder have a chance to make a statement and I think they will. Durant should continue to grow and Westbrook has a tough assignment with Parker and Manu, but I think that he prevails. Again, Perkins will be the x factor inside, though not as much because Duncan is still more savvy then Perkins. I think the Thunder knock out the Spurs and end the Duncan era in seven games. Thunder in 7.
2. Lakers vs. 3. Mavericks: As I said three weeks ago, if you hit the Mavericks in the mouth they go down and go down hard. Dirk and Terry are the only factors in this series, and while it will be a little funny to watch Kidd and Fisher guard each other the Mavericks have no shot against the Lakers unless of course Bynum isn’t healthy then things get a little tricky. Kobe will decide this series and the Mamba will only allow Dallas two wins. Lakers in 6.
CONFERENCE FINALS EAST
1. Bulls vs. 3. Celtics: The theme of this year’s playoffs to me is that it’s the last stand of the old guard before the lockout and the changing of the times cause a dramatic shift in the NBA landscape. It starts here as Derrick Rose and Rondo continue their rivalry of best point guard in the league, Garnett and Noah should be a great defensive battle and Pierce should beat up Boozer. Big Baby will help out with Noah as well, and Jeff Green and Kristic again will have a chance to show what they’re made of. Ray Allen will have one or two more huge moments that could swing this series but ultimately come down to whoever wins between Rose and Rondo as well as the coaching battle between Rivers and his protégé in Thibideau. This is Rivers’ last year no matter what and it may also be Garnett and Allen’s last year as well. The Bulls have home court, so that could be the ultimate factor. The Celtics have been fun to root against these past couple of years but they go back to rebuilding but at least I still have Rondo to boo for many years to come. Bulls in 7.
CONFERENCE FINALS WEST
2. Lakers vs. 4. Thunder: Again, young vs. old. The Thunder traded for Perkins in order to compete against Gasol, Bynum, and Odom. They felt the sting of getting beat at home in the first round last year and have made it their mission to grow from this and they have. I think they still have some work to do and Kobe won’t give up his title without a fight. The Lakers will have home court in this series and while Durant will have some big moments that make me nervous it won’t be enough. I must reiterate that this all hinges on Bynum because without him all of a sudden the Lakers look really thin. Westbrook will completely demolish Fisher but I still see one or two big three pointers from Fish in spite of that. Artest is still hit or miss but I think he can handle Serge Ibaka though it will be a tough gig for him. The bench will drive me crazy because Blake, Barnes, Caracter, Ratliff, and god knows who else is there can’t compete with the Thunder. Kobe is the key cog in all of this as I said and ultimately the Mamba won’t go down before the finals. Lakers in 7.
Bulls vs. 2. Lakers: The young vs. old culminates in what should be an awesome series. The last time these two teams (obviously in way different incarnations) met Jordan won his first title and ended Magic’s run at the top (also they had Divac who’d later be traded for the draft rights to Kobe) and that was another young vs. old, passing the torch series. The only common denominator is Phil Jackson (cosmic right?) Derrick Rose vs. Fisher will be a no contest (Rose), Bynum vs. Noah will be compelling and the injury bug is a happy camper because both guys are injury-prone. Gasol and Boozer will be fun but Gasol has the edge there and Kobe should take out either Deng or Gibson. Having said that, Artest will probably make me lose ten pounds from stress (not a bad thing by the way, we are approaching beach season). The bench is atrocious especially compared to Chicago but we still have Phil as our coach, though Thibideau knows how to shut down the Lakers (see 2008 finals). Kobe is playing for his legacy and considering last year’s game seven he shot 6-24, he could make up for that. He’s also trying to get a sixth ring and become the best overall player of the decade and this is his last chance to tie Jordan. Obviously, Jordan is the greatest player that we will ever see but Kobe will at least be mentioned briefly in the argument. Jack gets to smile one last time because once this Lake show’s over (Dwight Howard’s arrival permitting) it will be a long rebuilding process. The Bulls, Thunder, and Heat are the teams of the future but this is still L.A.’s time. Lakers in 7.
This playoffs features some awesome match ups and some compelling stories that won’t be really there next year because of the lockout. I am looking forward to spending all of my time at All Star Sports Grill watching these games (and hockey) with my friends and even though I maybe wrong (to quote Barkley) with my picks, who cares, I’m just the movie guy.
Thank you for reading and I’ll return to my regularly scheduled programming Friday, with “Super,” “Your Highness” and a sneak peak at a movie that doesn’t come out until October. I promise you Friday will feature one of the most personal columns I’ve ever written, so enjoy.