We say this about the NBA Playoffs just about every year—like how every time March Madness comes around, we all reflexively explain why it's the best sporting event on the planet—but in 2011, the second season really might go down as the best we've seen in a decade.
Think about it. You have Kobe and the Lakers going for three straight. The Celtics and Spurs trying steal one last ring. Derrick Rose's Bulls and Kevin Durant's Thunder going for their first. And of course, LeBron and the Heat, who finally get the chance to win the first of their eight straight championships.
I mean, no matter who emerges from that group, we're getting matchups for the ages. And that doesn't even account for all the obstacles in between them. Dirk Nowitzki, Dwight Howard, and Chris Paul carrying their teams. The newly-minted Blazers buzzsaw making its playoff debut. A last-gasp for the Hawks. The first-gasp for the Sixers, Grizzlies, and Pacers. And we haven't even mentioned the Knicks...
It adds adds up to a playoff season that measures up the best of the NBA's glory days, and all those the 80s and 90s wars that gave birth to myths that still resonate two decades later. Stuff we go back to on YouTube just to remember how cool basketball can be. Or, if you're like me, stuff you were too young to really remember, so you watch those old clips thinking, "Damn, I would kill for the NBA to get back to that place." This year, we're closer than ever.
Couldn't Magic passing the torch to Jordan become Kobe passing the torch to Derrick Rose? If the Thunder end up in the Finals vs. the Heat, doesn't LeBron/Durant seem like a perfect rivalry? Or if the Spurs go on a run the next two months... Okay, so that might suck.
Right now, the NBA's as intriguing as it's been in 20 years. And after the best regular season in a decade, the only thing these playoffs are missing is Blake Griffin and/or those phenomenal intros all the networks used to do. Speaking of which...
I saw that video on Twitter earlier this week (via @netw3rk, to be exact), and after watching it a solid 75 times in the past few days, I figured there was no way we could do a Playoff Preview without using plenty of old school Playoff Intros just like that one. In no particular order, let's run through the first round matchups... And because that happens to be a Knicks-Celtics video about, we may as well start with the best series of the first round.
No. 6 New York Knicks vs. No. 3 Boston Celtics ... Both teams enter the playoffs looking to do two things. A.) Survive as long as possible, and B.) Avoid embarrassment. Not exactly the ideal playoff mindset, especially for the Celtics, who looked like the best team in the East until six weeks ago. 'Course, that's when the Kendrick Perkins trade happened, and... You know the story by now. They're both struggling, they're both desperate, and they both have insane fans—all of this makes them the perfect matchup in a seven game series. The Pick: Boston in 7.
No. 6 Portland Trail Blazers vs. No. 3 Dallas Mavericks ... On paper, this series should go to the Blazers. The Mavericks overachieved all season long--maybe the best testament to Dirk Nowitzki yet—and then finally came crashing back to earth over the final stretch of the season. Except for their season finale against the Hornets, since March 1st, Dallas lost to every single Western Conference playoff team they played.
Meanwhile, winning the Gerald Wallace Charity Auction™ (sponsored by Michael Jordan and the Charlotte Bobcats) has given Portland new life. With Wallace next to Nicholas Batum, Lamarcus Aldridge, Wes Matthews, Marcus Camby, and a one-legged Brandon Roy, they look like the biggest sleeper in either conference. So, what happens when one of the NBA's hottest teams plays the team that hasn't beaten a good team since February? Uhhh... Duh. Blazers win, and set up a fascinating second round matchup with the Lakers. You would think...
But while we're here, consider two things. First, whether it's fair or not, just when it looks like things are going right for the Blazers, things have a tendency to fall apart. Sam Bowie, Greg Oden, the 2000 Conference finals... Take your pick. Second, Dirk Nowitzki may not be good enough to carry Dallas to the Finals by himself, but isn't he too good to let them lose in the first round? I know Dallas isn't playing well, but Dirk's the only true superstar in this series, he's far more clutch than he gets credit for, and both those things matter twice as much in the playoffs. The Pick: Dallas in 7.
The video above comes from the '97 playoffs, when the Bulls got off to slow start and had people wondering whether the run was over. "What the public expects is us dominating teams," Jordan says in the intro. "It's not happening now."
No. 7 New Orleans Hornets vs. No. 2 L.A. Lakers ... The Lakers have looked like crap for the past 10 days, Kobe just sparked a gay rights controversy, and between Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook, and Derrick Rose, there's a good chance that Derek Fisher might drop dead on the court before the 2011 playoffs are overwith. But if you want to question the champs, just know that 15 years from now, all the skepticism and panic will be on YouTube, and it'll look ridiculous. The Pick: Lakers in 4.
No. 7 Philadelphia 76ers vs. No. 2 Miami Heat ... Philly's best chance to make some noise here is to steal Game 1 on Saturday, and then hope that the media FREAKS OUT in the ensuing four days before Game 2 Wednesday. LeBron and the Miami Heat have a lot of strengths, but tuning out the media hasn't been one of them this year. I mean, why else would they cry over a regular season losing streak? The Lakers just lost five straight games, and the Lamar Odom's biggest drama had to do with his reality show's ratings.
For the Heat, this could be a serious issue later on, but if they lose Saturday, it could start sooner than expected. 'Course, even then, there's still no way Miami loses. The Pick: Heat in 5.
(Also, the best part of that Bulls video is watching Pippen and Jordan lay into Dennis Rodman in their press conferences. "Dennis hasn't really given us the effort that he's given us throughout the season," Jordan says. "I think that's obvious. You know, I'm doing all the rebounding, he's not." ... So, what's the over/under for LeBron and Wade saying something similar about Bosh this spring? I'm going to say May 10th. 'Course, if it's 'Bron, it'll be something totally subliminal like, "Our big guys haven't really been there for us. So what can you say? Me and D can only do so much." Then it'll become a huge controversy and he'll tweet that he wasn't talking about Bosh, because... Yeah. Superstars used to be cooler.)
No. 8 Memphis Grizzlies vs. No. 1 San Antonio Spurs ... I'm not saying Memphis will win, but if the first round was still five games like it was '94, they'd have a 50-50 shot against this Spurs team. Alas, we've moved to seven, and the chances that Popovich gets outcoached over a two week span are about the same as the chances that a team built around Zach Randolph, Tony Allen, O.J. Mayo, and Mike Conley can possibly keep it together to string together four wins under pressure.
On the bright side, we get to watch a team with flawless perimeter defense with an offense that revolves around a dominant low post player and a bunch of quality role players. The Memphis Grizzlies are just like all the best Spurs teams from the past decade, but f**king insane and liable to self-destruct at any moment. If you're looking for the most surreal matchup of the playoffs, you won't do better than Griz-Spurs. The Pick: Spurs in 6.
No. 8 Indiana Pacers vs. No. 1 Chicago Bulls ... Yeah, so... The Pick: Bulls in 4.
Hey, it's Lil Penny!
No. 5 Atlanta Hawks vs. No. 4 Orlando Magic ... If Dwight Howard leaves after next season, I feel comfortable saying that Lil Penny's still the best thing to ever come of the Orlando Magic franchise. It's not to downplay those two Finals appearances, either. It's just... It'd take A LOT to top the Lil Penny era. Like, it'd take Dwight Howard going into full-on Shaq mode one year, unleashing what we've always suspected lies somewhere within, and single-handedly destroying the league.
Until that happens... The Magic aren't much different from this Hawks team. The same Hawks team that's two months away from auctioning off Josh Smith and conceding that the current roster just isn't good enough to compete in the East. Orlando's got Dwight instead of Joe Johnson, so things don't appear quite as dire, but the pieces around Dwight are even worse than Atlanta's supporting cast. So, split the difference, I guess? The Pick: Orlando in 6.
No. 5 Denver Nuggets vs. No. 4 Oklahoma City ... It's pretty amazing how much one trade can change. Eight weeks ago, you could make a convincing case that the Denver Nuggets were the most depressing team in the entire league. Selfish, plodding, and completely dysfunctional--every game Carmelo played in Denver this year was equal parts awkward and infuriating.
Then, they sent the "plodding" elements packing ('Melo, Chauncey) and with Gallo and Felton in their place, they became the most enjoyable team in the NBA. Even better, they were good. It's been the feel-good story of the regular season's second half. Unfortunately, unless you have four All-Stars (like those old Detroit teams) it's tough to win an NBA playoff series without a true superstar. Even more unfortunately, the feel-good story of the regular season is about to face the feel-good story of the postseason.
OKC made a big trade, too. With Kendrick Perkins on board, they're suddenly able to guard any team in the league, and with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook firing away on the other end, they can still outscore anyone. Suddenly, they've become a juggernaut.
Adding Perkins was like giving ritalin to a team with ADD. Before, there was a lot to love about the Thunder, but there was always something a little off. Like, enough raw talent to be optimistic about the future, but not quite enough coherence to bank on them now. Perkins changed all that; the team makes sense now. The lineups make sense, the defensive matchups make sense, and on offense, they still have the raw energy that made them so intriguing to begin with. The only question mark is Westbrook, who, naturally, still plays like he's got unmedicated point guard ADD.
Nevertheless... Any true playoff preview has to give a title pick. So while there's a whole lot that'll happen between now and then, I'm picking OKC over the Bulls in six. Derrick Rose owned the regular season, but KD will own the playoffs. It just sucks this isn't happening in Seattle...