Thursday afternoon, I caught myself getting lost in old NBA videos on YouTube. Not the ones I usually watch, like Rasheed Wallace singing "Jingle Bells." But the old highlight videos that get us all nostalgic and remind everyone why basketball is so awesome. There's really no better way to set the mood for the NBA Playoffs.
Here are a few of my favorites, in no particular order ...
Those are just a handful from the past 20 years or so, but the list goes on and on, and everyone has their own favorites to remind us why this stuff is worth obsessing over. And if you're ever trying to explain the playoffs to an outsider, say this: Nothing in team sports leaves you as naked as a basketball court. It's why the NBA gives us the most vivid superstars in sports. And after enduring months and months of hype and commercials and arguments, the playoffs are where we get to watch those superstars and their teams laid bare, and all the arguments are settled.
Legacies are on the line, history is made, etc., and it all sounds totally cliche until June, when we're watching the same guys we've watched for the past decade, and they either break down like LeBron or break through like Dirk. There's nothing else like it in sports. The NBA spends nine months of the year as the most ridiculous, consistently hilarious sport on Earth. But every April, for a few months it becomes something totally different.
With that in mind, and because the playoffs are too awesome to NOT waste thousands of words on rambling predictions, here are some stray thoughts on what's in store for us this year.
The Knicks vs. the Heat is about as good a first-round matchup as you could ask for any given year. You have Carmelo AND LeBron playing the best basketball of their careers, and if the Knicks look overmatched record-wise, remember the Heat game at MSG two weeks ago. Miami won, but it took LeBron going into Superman mode on defense against 'Melo, and Wade coming through with a number of clutch buckets on the other end.
That's the formula for Miami at this point: They need LeBron to be outrageous on defense, and then either Bron or Wade has to take over offensively over the final minutes of any close game.
If the Knicks had a decent point guard, they could steal this series and it wouldn't even be that surprising. Even without one ... If Melo plays as well as he has for the past month or so, Miami will get pushed much harder than any two seed expects in the first round. Iman Shumpert (noted swag expert) can guard on the perimeter, Tyson Chandler can protect the rim, and then if/when guys like J.R. Smith and Steve Novak get hot and supplement Melo ... It's not THAT one-sided, right? Maybe? (Maybe I just really want to see J.R. Smith and Steve Novak shock the world together.)
Even if it's not that close, we're guaranteed heavy doses of Melo and LeBron going toe-to-toe for the first time in the playoffs, Tyson Chandler's rematch with the Heat team he dominated last spring, and batshit Knicks fans as the backdrop to every game. All things considered, it's the perfect way to whet our appetite for the rest of the playoffs.
No, we didn't mention Bosh or Amare. Random question: Given Amare's injuries and likely descent into McDyessian mediocrity, Bosh's ongoing problems as an inside presence for Miami, and Carlos Boozer waddling around in Chicago... Who even counts as the biggest bust from the most hyped free agent class of all time?
(Don't sleep on Bosh there. Counting on him as a franchise cornerstone cost Miami the chance to spend that max salary elsewhere. Like, on any big man besides Joel Anthony or Dexter Pittman.)
Speaking of big men, there's Blake and Z-Bo. And the Clippers and Grizzlies. If Knicks/Heat is the series that gets us all excited about playoff wars, #grizzclips is the series that reminds us how much fun this stuff can be. The Grizzlies have spent the past six weeks as the team Nobody Wants To Play, while the Clippers finished the season on 14-5 run, and in case you didn't see the Hornets-Lakers series last year, Chris Paul turns into 1989 Isiah Thomas in the playoffs. That's just the rule.
I'm actually glad that Blake Griffin has no post moves, can't really score in crunch time and will almost certainly get eaten alive by Zach Randolph on the other end. Likewise, it's great that Vinny Del Negro is the worst coach in the playoffs, and the Clippers don't play any defense. All of it just sets the stage for CP3 to be extra incredible and make this the most entertaining series of the first round.
(By the way, if any NBA star could run for president one day, it's Chris Paul. Charismatic and lovable in public, and every bit as ruthless behind the scenes as any other dominant politician out there. Twenty-five years from now, remember we had this discussion.)
Will Derrick Rose be healthy? Let's look at what he's been dealing with this year.
- Sprained left big toe (left foot) -- 5 games
- Lower back strain -- 5 games
- Strained groin -- 12 games
- Sprained right ankle -- 1 game
- Sore right foot -- 3 games
Sprain, strain, sore. The problem with Derrick Rose is that the injuries he's dealing with don't just get better one day. Not like a broken finger where one day it just heals. You can get less sore, but if you go out and play 40 minutes in an NBA game, you sorta go back to square one.
Rose been battered all year, and even if he can (sorta) coast through a first-round series against the dysfunctional Sixers, surviving an extended playoff run -- with Thibs playing him 40 minutes-a-night -- is going to be a whole lot tougher. If they end up playing Miami in the Conference Finals, the Bulls need him at 100 percent to have a realistic shot. And how realistic is that?
The problem with the Celtics is, they've proven they can play with Miami, but they have to get that far first. Even if Rose isn't 100 percent, the Bulls are so deep and so athletic that they can harass Boston for an entire series and still will. Chicago's every bit as tough, they play the same defense Thibs first installed in Boston, only they do it with younger, more athletic players, and a much deeper rotation. So among the East Contenders, it looks like rock-paper-scissors:
- Boston can beat Miami
- Miami can beat Chicago
- Chicago can beat Boston
The way the seeding's shaken out, Boston's scissors are going to get crushed by Chicago's rock before they ever have the chance to go after Miami's paper. (For the record, I hope Rondo makes this section look ridiculous and averages a 15-20-12 all playoffs long on the way to the NBA Finals.)
JaVale McGee in the playoffs? JaVale McGee in the playoffs!
Nothing more needs to be said, really. Let's all just to take a few minutes to genuflect before the most incredible paragraph Sports Illustrated has ever written about the NBA:
There's more to McGee than he lets on. He writes music. He creates clever comedy sketches featuring his alter ego, Pierre McDunk. (He has a tattoo of a mustache on his index finger, which he puts over his lip when he's in character.) He is a techie with five iPads, six laptops, two desktop computers and all the latest software. When friends and family have computer problems, they call JaVale. Nuggets officials watched the bloopers but viewed them in a different way. Sure, McGee ran back on defense while his team had the ball, but at least he ran back on defense. And sure, he missed a free throw line dunk, but at least he wasn't afraid to fail.
Can't wait to see what he does in a seven-game series.
The Mavs haven't been the same team without Tyson Chandler, which has been surprisingly depressing to watch after last year's run. Maybe Dirk gets hot and they can make things interesting with OKC? If not, just remember they'll probably have Deron Williams and Dwight Howard when we do this next spring, and you won't feel as bad for Dirk and company. ... Plus no matter what happens, Brian Cardinal, DeShawn Stevenson, and Jason Terry are NBA Champions.
The Jazz, Pacers, Hawks, Magic, Sixers, and Nuggets. Quick notes:
Orlando has played out the season like a team that's tanking, but no, that's just their team. Not a great sign coming into the playoffs. (Although Stan Van is still the greatest). ... The Nuggets are maybe the most entertaining team in the league, but when Ty Lawson's your best player, Ty Lawson's your best player. ... Utah's big enough to scare the Spurs, but only for a second. ... All those people arguing against gutting your roster and openly tanking have clearly not been watching the Hawks for the past five years ... Or the Sixers.
And the Pacers are awesome, but I can't shake the memory of two games against the Heat. The first they lost by 35 on the road. The second, they had two days rest against a Heat team playing their third road game in three nights (and who'd just beaten them by 35), and they got absolutely humiliated at home. They were down 30 coming into the fourth quarter. So yeah, it's hard to take them seriously against Miami in Round 2.
Finally, a look at the odds for the contenders we have left (via Sportsbook.com).
Grizzlies (+2000) -- I love everything about this Grizzlies team, but ... You know how some years, everyone likes an underdog so much that they eventually become overrated?
Clippers (+2000) -- Chris Paul may not be enough to make the Clippers a legitimate contender next to San Antonio, but he's great enough to carry the Clips against Memphis.
L.A. Lakers (+1000) -- Listen: Kobe is psychotic and hilarious and slowly becoming the exact same character from all those Funny or Die parodies, but he's also still terrifying to pick against in a playoff scenario. Ramon Sessions has given the Lakers the balance they lacked for the first two months of the season, Andrew Bynum's been dominant, and Pau is still Pau. If they were playing the Spurs and not the Thunder in Round 2, I'd have them in the West Finals and maybe beyond. Even against OKC, it's scary betting against a team with this much talent.
San Antonio Spurs (+350) -- "No Manu, no championships," Gregg Popovich said.
"'Have you watched TV lately?" Gregg Popovich also said. "Have you seen what Americans do? How many languages do you speak? And you wonder how they're going to adjust to our culture? I hope [European] avoid it and keep their own!" Because Pop is the greatest.
Anyway, Manu's back this year, and he finally looked like he's getting his stroke back over the past month or so. They've also added Stephen Jackson to the mix, who's exactly the sort of guy who becomes twice as valuable on a good team. Between Captain Jack and Kawhi Leonard, they've got two defenders who will go at pretty much anyone over seven games. Throw in a rested Tim Duncan, and if everyone stays healthy, they should have enough to handle the Clippers or Grizzlies in Round Two. The thing is...
Oklahoma City Thunder (+275) -- If James Harden comes back healthy, he's the difference between the team that lost to the Lakers this past Sunday and the team that can win the West. He's the steadying presence that balances out Russell Westbrook's ADHD, blends perfectly with Durant, and gives the OKC outside shooting they've always needed. So it's either the Spurs or Thunder, then.
But as dangerous as the Spurs have been, if both teams max out what they've got, OKC is just better. It's not San Antonio's age or athleticism or anything else that'll hold them back; no, if OKC can beat the Lakers and Mavs, two teams that've knocked them out the past two years (also the past two champions) they'll be coming into the Western Conference Finals with more momentum and more confidence than they've had all year. And when they're confident and hitting on all cylinders, they're just a better team than San Antonio.
Meanwhile, back East...
New York Knicks (+2000) -- Not ruling it out!
Boston Celtics (+1500) -- Again, we should all be hoping Rondo averages 15-20-10, but unless we see something outrageous, it's hard to imagining them having enough to take down Chicago and then Miami without home court in either series. Avery Bradley's good, but not that good.
Chicago Bulls (+275) -- With a healthy Rose and home court, they'd be the pick to avenge last year's Eastern Conference Finals and probably win it all. But Rose isn't healthy, and even if he is, playing 40 minutes per night isn't exactly going to help ease him back into things. So...
Miami Heat (+200) -- Avoiding Boston helps, Rose's injuries help more, and if they survive the first round, everything's lined up for them to end up running through the East just like last year. And that leaves us with the Heat and the Thunder in the NBA Finals.
On that front, there are a million different factors that'd decide the hypothetical series, but this much is definitely true: Whenever Durant goes off, the Thunder look like the best team in the NBA. When LeBron goes into superhero mode, you can say the same for Miami. If they both go off at the same time, with both guys trading buckets -- and then games -- back and forth in a seven-game series till somebody cracks? Legacies on the line, history being made, etc.?
It all sounds totally cliche until June.