The 2014 NBA Playoffs begin on Saturday. I'm excited. Are you excited? If you are not excited, let me help you get excited. Here are the 23 things to look forward to, most of them good.
23. THE MYSTERY OF KLAY THOMPSON
Klay Thompson is either entirely overrated or entirely underrated. I watch a good bit of Warriors action and have looked at the numbers and I have no idea if I should be enamored with his performance or concerned that without Stephen Curry he'd be a total Monta, or that without Andre Iguodala and Andrew Bogut he'd be a ... well, total Monta.
Photo credit: Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports
In one sense, who cares? He has those guys, and he looks like a fricking All-Star one of out every three games or so. On the other hand, I want to know what he will become and just can't strip out the context. The Clippers series and more playoff action in general could help unwrap the onion.
22. PLAYOFF TEAGUE
As it turns out, Playoff Teague may be a myth. The meme started back in 2011 when Jeff Teague was stunningly stellar as the Hawks beat the Magic 4-2 and took the Bulls to six in the second round. Teague had averaged five points and two assists per game during the regular season, and was beginning to look like a bust. But he exploded in the playoffs, averaging 12 points and shooting the lights out. Thus, Playoff Teague was born.
Unfortunately, as he's now the featured scorer on the team, he's not surprising anyone. He shot 33 percent from the field in the Hawks' 4-2 first-round loss to the Pacers last spring. He gets that same nasty Indiana defense this time around, so unfortunately it appears I may have teased you and we will not see Playoff Teague ever again.
21. PLAYOFF SCHROEDER
"A dream is a wish your heart makes."
20. JEFF VAN GUNDY'S STIRRING COMMENTARY ON MARK JACKSON
One of the most interesting subplots heading into Warriors-Clippers is the future of Mark Jackson. There have been murmurs of discomfort between him and owner Joe Lacob, and the weird assistant coach dismissals have only added to the intrigue. (We still don't know what Darren Erman did to get canned two weeks before the playoffs.) If the Warriors lose in the first round, chances are that Jackson will face judgment.
Which means that his old buddy and coach defense lawyer extraordinaire Jeff Van Gundy will be preemptively making a strong case for Jackson on the air. Given the stakes, it may be more aggressive than JVG's usual anti-owner screeds. The one hiccup is that JVG usually likes to blame a star player (Dwight Howard, for example) while defending the job a given coach has done; there's really no Warrior who could be fingered as a Jackson detractor. It's really an owner vs. coach thing.
19. LAMARCUS ALDRIDGE IN THE CONTEXT OF DIRK AND LOVE
Aldridge is back in the playoffs, leading a brilliant offense into the fire against a brilliant offense in Houston. My regular considerations of Aldridge in the context of the Stretch 4 As Defined By The Dirk Nowitzki Era is especially interesting this postseason. Aldridge this season has been Dirkian, and the Mavericks have been Blazerian to an extreme (hot offense, weak defense). The Rockets are weakest at power forward, and I'm not sure Kevin McHale wants to send Dwight Howard out to chase LMA. So we could be setting up for a monster series from Aldridge, which would certainly build his Next Dirk legend.
Houston and Portland
18. MORE ATTENTION ON THE LAKERS AND KNICKS THAN THE GRIZZLIES AND BOBCATS
It's just the way it is. Some things will never change.
17. THE HEAT TRYING DESPERATELY TO STOP AL JEFFERSON
One of the benefits of Miami's hyper-flexible line-up is that it's difficult, if not impossible to defend. The downside is that the Heat really struggle to lock up scoring big men. In the first round, the Heat have to lock up perhaps the conference's best scoring big man in Al Jefferson.
This season, Jefferson averaged 25-15 with a 57-percent True Shooting mark against Miami. Chris Bosh can make him pay at the other end, and Charlotte doesn't have much else in the way of offense. But it'll still be something to watch Big Al attack Miami's relatively soft middle time after time.
Photo credit: David Manning-USA TODAY Sports
16. RICK CARLISLE'S GONNA GET WEIRD
Let's face it: Dallas is most likely toast. Not only are the Spurs the best team in the league, but they have totally overpowered the Mavericks in recent years, sweeping the season series in each of the past two seasons. San Antonio comes in as an incredible favorite.
That's actually a little exciting, because that means Rick Carlisle -- one of the more innovative coaches in the league -- is going to get even weirder in an attempt to beat the Spurs. I'm not sure how one ever tricks spymaster Gregg Popovich, but Carlisle's going to die trying.
14. KAWHI'S TIME
One of the underplayed subplots of the season has been how crucial Kawhi Leonard has been to the Spurs' incredible success. Of course, San Antonio is pretty good without him: they were near the top of the standings when he was out of the lineup early in the season. But adding him to the Tim Duncan-Tony Parker-Tiago Splitter-Danny Green core takes the team to another level entirely. His timely effective scoring, his vicious defense, his athleticism -- it's a perfect complement.
The Spurs are, for the second straight season, +10 per 100 possessions with Kawhi on the floor The Spurs were +4 when he was not on the floor this season, and +5 without Kawhi in 2012-13.
And a friendly reminder: Kawhi is eligible to sign an early extension this summer. Can the Spurs convince him to do what Duncan did for years and take less than the max?
13. DWYANE WADE: IS IT A TRICK?
Wade played fewer than 2,000 minutes this season. His shooting percentage remains high, but he shot less frequently than in any year since his rookie campaign. He's drawing fouls at a slower rate than at any point in his career. His turnover rate is the highest of the LeBron-Bosh era. The share of his attempts coming in the paint continues to shrink. The Heat were better when Wade was not on the floor for the first time since 2005.
Photo credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
But we have no idea whether Wade was taking it easy during the regular season to save himself for the title run. He has three rings. He knows the deal: it matters what happens in April, May and June, not so much November, December and January. Wade is one of the best playoff performers in his generation. Is he laying in the weeds, ready to pounce on the Raptors or Nets or Pacers or Spurs or Thunder or Clippers? You can't rule it out.
12. PLAYOFF NOAH
No Derrick Rose, no Luol Deng. Just Joakim Noah, leading the Bulls on a potential rampage through the East. Given Indiana's struggles, the Bulls could make a run at the East finals if they get past a saucy little Wizards club. And it's because of Joakim Noah, one of the weirdest dudes in the NBA.
Run with the Bulls
11. HARDEN AND HOWARD IN THE PLAYOFFS
Remember: Dwight Howard once carried a team to the NBA Finals. James Harden has been there, too. Houston isn't used to seeing more than the first round, but this postseason is the first test for the Harden-Howard duo. Supposing the Rockets beat the Blazers -- nothing like a certainty -- a match-up with the Spurs, who Houston owned this regular season, looms. That series could tell us a ton about how seriously to take this Rockets era.
Photo credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
10. THE CROWDS IN TORONTO AND PORTLAND
There are some great crowds in the NBA bracket this season. I'm most excited to see two who have been out of the playoffs lately: Toronto and Portland. The Raptors have totally won the hearts of Toronto this season -- the Raps have gotten shout-outs at Leafs games, for crying out loud -- and Rip City is always game for the playoffs. We'll see what Canada brings this weekend, while the Blazers faithful will have to wait a few more days. Add them to the crazies in Oakland and the long-suffering folks of D.C., and we should have a really LOUD postseason.
9. ALL HAIL AMIR JOHNSON
Amir has 56 career playoff minutes. All of them came as the human victory cigar for the mid-00s Pistons. So really, this is first time as a featured player for a postseason contender. And as has been noted far and wide, he's the rare player beloved both by the eyeball camp and the math folks. He's just really great, and I hope a lot of people watch Raps-Nets because everyone should be watching Amir.
Speaking of which ...
The Improbable Vet
8. HOW DO WE FEEL ABOUT THE NETS?
It's been a roller coaster season for Brooklyn. They once battled the Knicks as the most disappointing, hilarious failure in the league. Then they fixed the problems and went on a tear. Then they limped into the playoffs and quite possibly tanked to draw Toronto instead of Chicago.
This is a team that can sweep the Heat with four skin-of-their-teeth wins in the regular season and also lose to the Knicks, Magic and Cavaliers in the final week of the season. This is a team with two living legends in Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, an All-Star point guard in Deron Williams and a deep, useful supporting cast. It's also a team with Playoff Andray Blatche, head coach Jason Kidd, a role player who is bringing Hooter's to Russia and an owner who makes Mark Cuban look like Fred Mertz.
If the Nets get handled by the Raptors -- which is a distinct possibility, because on paper the Raptors have been much better than the Nets -- will we all just laugh at the $180 million failure? If they win, will we bow to experience and veteran savvy? Can we ever really process the implications of this Frankenstein creation of a bottomless payroll and vet-crazed general manager? No matter what happens, I fear we'll have no way of understanding what the Nets team seeks to teach us.
7. PLAYOFF SIR FOSTER
Your friendly reminder that we will get at least two games of the playoff stylings of Sir Foster, the Hawks' organist who won All-Star MVP by adapting a bevy of hip hop hooks for the official musical instrument of the Basketball Gods.
6. A NEW BLAKE GRIFFIN
Blake Griffin's playoff history hasn't been altogether awesome, but he's improved so much this season that I almost feel as if we can throw out the past two postseasons and get ready for a new guy. He has a real playoff coach, Chris Paul is looking sharp as ever and the supporting cast has never been better. Griffin needed to deliver this season, and he has. Now he needs to deliver in the postseason, and I'm finding very little reason to doubt he can.
5. DOC'S LEGACY
In addition to Griffin, this postseason is in some ways a referendum on Doc, considered one of the league's very best coaches. Vinny Del Negro got this team to the second round in 2011-12. How much pressure is there on Rivers to take them further, to the West finals? I don't mean pressure as in Doc's job is at risk or anything -- that's not even close to the case. But he did all of his winning with Garnett, Pierce and Ray Allen. Can he take a second team that deep? That's the question we're all waiting to see answered.
4. THE PACERS AGAINST THEMSELVES
I still can't quite process what's happened to the Pacers, but it appears that whatever isn't right has become a trial on Roy Hibbert. Whether that's fair or not, all eyes will be on how Hibbert performs and how the other stars of Indiana treat Hibbert on the court. The Pacers may still not be used to having targets on their chests and every quote analyzed with the worst intentions. Between Hibbert's issues, Lance Stephenson's impending free agency (and habit of often erratic play) and the heat on Frank Vogel (delivered personally and loudly by Larry Bid), this is going to be a highly pressurized couple of months of the Pacers. The days of muted expectations are long gone. The fun really is over.
3. JOHN WALL
Wall had a tremendous season. He might be a top-three point guard right now (behind Chris Paul and Russell Westbrook, in my opinion). I wish he weren't facing such a smothering defense, but I still find myself anxious to see what sort of mastery he drops in his first postseason. If the 2014 All-Star Game was the next generation's warning, this postseason could be Wall's claim to the throne for the rising stars of the league.
John Wall's biggest test
2. LEBRON, DURANT AND THE TESTS THEY FACE
There's no guarantee LeBron or Durant gets to the Finals, nevermind the odds of both making it out of the No. 2 seed. But regardless of whether the league's two best players battle each other, they'll both face real tests on the path toward the Finals.
The East is packed with top defenses, and the Heat figure to take on three of them to make the Finals: the Bobcats in Round 1, the Raptors in Round 2 and the Pacers, Bulls or Wizards in the East finals. (If the Nets beat the Raps, defense won't be a concern -- Brooklyn's bad on that end -- but the Nets also happen to be 4-0 against the Heat this year.) What's more is that LeBron has to do it with a Wade who is clearly aging, and with a bench that has underperformed. He has Bosh, one of the league's best bigs, and some bench shooting. But clearly, he's going to have to carry the Heat like he hasn't since he arrived.
Meanwhile, Durant raised his game as co-star Russell Westbrook fought off injuries all season. Russ is back full-time, and the Thunder's young supporting cast is improving. But with an almost certain MVP trophy on its way, Durant will be expected to take over the West and lead his team to victory. If you haven't heard, the West is pretty danged good. The Thunder have the Grizzlies, who made the West finals last season and returned most key players, in the first round, followed by the Clippers (No. 2 in the NBA in scoring margin) or Warriors (No. 6), followed by, in all likelihood, those damn Spurs. There is no space to go easy at all in the West. You have a few bad games, and you're going to get your ass knocked out.
It'd be magical if we again got the league's two best players back in the Finals to square off. But it's going to be pretty special to watch LeBron and Durant fight off everyone who stands in their way even if they don't make it all the way.
1. TIM DUNCAN'S THUMB
The NBA has written off Tim Duncan so many times that it's cliché to talk about how many times Tim Duncan has been written off. (I'm going to write off writing about writing off Tim Duncan.) But here he is, the star of the unequivocally best team in the NBA. This isn't a former star hanging around for another shot at a ring. This isn't David Robinson in 2003. Duncan is the single biggest reason the Spurs are in the position we find them. Without him, the Spurs would be good, but they wouldn't be title favorites.
How crazy is that? Duncan will turn 38 before Game 3 of the Spurs-Mavericks series. He won his first title 15 years ago this season. Duncan won the championship in 1999. LeBron James was finishing his freshman year in high school. Kevin Durant was a fifth-grader. Kawhi Leonard was seven years old.
Tim came one heartbreaking Ray Allen jumper from winning his fifth championship a year ago. That could have been the final chapter of Duncan's ring chase. Instead, he's kept himself in impeccable shape, his front office has continued its generation of brilliance and he's back, trying to get a ring for his thumb. Again. Sometimes he feels like his era will never end, and that would be totally fine for me.
0. RUSSELL WESTBROOK BACK
In honor of Russell, we'll add a special No. 0 to this list. Last year's playoffs was awesome, to be sure, and capped off with an epic Finals. But the whole episode lacked a certain je
ne sais quoi: Russell Westbrook, who got injured in Game 2 of the first round and was sadly absent as the Thunder fell apart.
Gods willing, there will none of that this time around. Be free, Russell. Be free.