Odd, isn’t it? Something does not quite fit. What has DeRozan done to be mentioned in the same breath as His Airness?
Well, everything. So far.
MJ was the last player to begin a season scoring 30+ points in five straight games. The season he did it in? The 1986-‘87 season where Jordan finished with an average of 37.1 Points Per Game, the fifth highest scoring average for a single season in the history of the NBA.
DeRozan has opened his 2016-‘17 campaign by carving up five NBA defences, including the reigning champions Cleveland Cavaliers, for 40, 32, 33, 40 and 34 points, respectively. This, while shooting a wild 55% from the field (he shot 63% in the season opening game vs. the Detroit Pistons) and just one three-pointer. Yes, one.
“I don’t even know what to say,” said the eight-year veteran when informed that he had scored himself into the same conversation as arguably the greatest player ever. “I’m just trying to go out there and win. When you hear something like that, you cannot believe it”
Drafted ninth overall by the Toronto Raptors in the 2009 NBA Draft, DeMar DeRozan, a native of Los Angeles, caught the tail end of the Chris Bosh era during the 2009-‘10 season. Bosh, an All-Star who never quite became the franchise cornerstone the Raptors hoped he would, parted ways in a sign-and-trade with Miami Heat to join LeBron James and Dwyane Wade.
While Bosh embraced his new role, reinvented himself and went on to win two championships in the next three seasons, DeRozan and the Raptors were in rebuild mode. It took them two more miserable seasons, muddled with an oversized roster of role players, to finally catch a break on the trade block.
Just as DeRozan was coming into his own, the Raptors landed him a running mate in Kyle Lowry for the 2012-‘13 season. The duo and the Raptors have not looked back since.
Best Raptor ever? Not just yet
Barring an injury, DeRozan will finish this season as the Raptors’ all time leading scorer and atop nearly every conceivable offensive category. It is hard to surpass the overall impact of Chris Bosh who contributed at both ends of the floor, or even Vince Carter who, in addition to his dynamic scoring, left this memory etched in everyone’s mind. The argument can be made, just not yet.
Not that it bothers DeRozan. “I’m just a student of the game,” he humbly reminded us. “I just try and put everything together, be a student of the game while working, always feeling like I’m new to the game, so I can soak up as much as possible. I try to release it once I get out there on the court.”
Kyle Lowry, his running mate in Toronto’s now starry backcourt, gushed, “He’s playing on another level right now. He’s saving possessions, he’s creating possessions. He’s creating offence.”
While Lowry and DeRozan both, had break out seasons in 2015-‘16, it was Lowry that inadvertently (but not undeservedly) became the face of the franchise. This, however, is Lowry’s last guaranteed year on a four-year $48 million deal that has an opt-out option after this season. Armed with tons of money from the television deal, there are more than enough NBA teams that would gladly take a 30-year old All-Star with no discernible history of injury, and who has at least four good years left in the tank.
Lowry is 30 and has most likely hit his peak as a player, which means this season until next summer is when his trade value will be at the highest. Nothing about Lowry’s personality indicates that he wants to leave Toronto, and LeBron “The King” James even endorsed the city’s passionate loyal fans. But we all thought the same, or better, of Kevin Durant, and see how that went.
DeRozan is just 27, and is just as good as, if not better than his running mate. More importantly, his loyalty was rewarded with a big payday this past off season: a five-year deal worth approximately $145 million that took a chunk off the Raptors’ books.
It is obvious the Raptors will have to find a way to pay Lowry immediately. But in the likely scenario they cannot, they have on their hands a 30-year-old two-time All-Star de-facto franchise player who has reached his max trade value. The decision to trade Lowry is a bit too obvious, and one they have to take soon to avoid a disaster.
In the meanwhile, let us enjoy this Raptors back court thrive, and DeRozan aim for greatness in the annals of NBA history.
It’s understandable. Folks are worried. No one said this was going to be pretty.
The Golden State Warriors are 4-1 in their last five games since imploding in Game 5 of the 2016 NBA Finals against eventual NBA Champions the Cleveland Cavaliers (No, the pre-season does not count). This would have been just another story, except that the 2015 NBA Champion Warriors were coming off an NBA record 73 regular season wins and rallied from a 3-1 deficit in the Western Conference Finals against Kevin Durant’s Oklahoma City Thunder.
Yes, the same Kevin Durant who, weeks later, signed on the dotted line to fortify the Warriors’ front line.
Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, Kevin Durant and Zaza Pachulia.
Now that is an enviable frontline. Question is, who holds the fort in the second unit?
There isn’t an argument about upgrading a slipping Harrison Barnes with one of the purest scorers the NBA has ever seen in Kevin Durant; and while Zaza isn’t as polished an offensive presence as Andrew Bogut, he doesn’t take anything off the table. Where the Warriors failed, and miserably so, is the inability to assemble a second unit that took care of business while the starters rested.
Shaun Livingston and Andre Igoudala are the only two bench players of any significance that remained in Golden State once the summer frenzy died down. Gone is veteran leader Leandro Barbosa and his playoff chops. Gone is the hustler and rim protector in Festus Ezeli. Gone is the enforcer and floor spacing of Mareesse Speights. More importantly though, gone is the camaraderie that held that championship winning, record breaking core together.
The modern NBA game has spread out even more
The pace and space era is putting more miles on NBA players. NBA coaches now spread out and stagger their stars’ regular season minutes, saving their legs for the playoffs. This shift places greater emphasis on second units that can stand their ground while the starters catch their breath.
Golden State has a unique problem. They have a loaded first unit. Extremely loaded.
Although their bench got drubbed (they were outscored 54-16) against the Spurs, Kerr has enough firepower between Durant-Curry-Thompson-Green to ensure at least one, if not two, All-Stars are on the floor all the time. This may not work in the playoffs, when firing on all cylinders (or All Stars) becomes crucial. And that’s why we have the regular season.
Unlike in the English Premier League where every single game matters in a 38 game season decided on wins / losses / points, the NBA’s regular season games, while critical for that coveted playoff seed, are a playground for coaches to figure what works and what doesn’t, until things get real in during the playoffs.
This is an ever so slight deviation from our high expectations of the 2016-‘17 season for Warriors. Golden State will be just fine. They have two former NBA Most Valuable Players in Durant and Curry, the NBA’s third best two-way player in Thompson (behind LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard), and the NBA’s most versatile player Draymond Green. Most importantly they have a student to two of NBA’s greatest coaching minds, Phil Jackson and Gregg Popovich, calling the shots: Steve Kerr.
If you still are worried, go ahead and find solace in this video of Durant’s shoot around on Thursday night as he was preparing to face the Pelicans. He sums up the Spurs’ loss it best: “It’s one game of 82 and you f***ing guys make me feel like the world’s going to end.”
It is an age old debate, this one. Kobe Bryant, a fierce competitor molded in the likeness of Jordan, versus Tim Duncan, a freakish athlete, who even at 39 continues to lead one of the greatest dynasties in NBA history.
The arguments seem fairly identical: 19 vs. 18 seasons, 5 vs. 5 titles, never got traded from or left the team that they started their career with.
No debate, however, is fair if the arguments do not dig deeper. Detailed and researched comparisons, such as this article aims to be, are important because 40 years from now we do not want a 13-yr old seeing Robert Horry’s name next to Jordan with six titles and wonder, “Wow, Horry was good, eh!”.
The Kobe vs. Duncan discussion, while fairly old, only ever simmered at best. There are a few reasons for this: Kobe is a guard, and Duncan is a forward; Kobe got a head start by entering the league at 18, while Duncan was 21 when he suited up for the Spurs; both have fundamentally different styles and personalities. However, as soon as Duncan won his fifth ring in ’14, tying Kobe in the process, there was renewed vigor and reason to resurrect the comparison.
Considering that the relevance of the number of rings is debatable (refer to aforementioned Horry example), the way to solve this is by establishing how critical either player was in winning the Championship(s).
In Kobe’s case, it sure is easy for his detractors to say that Shaq brought him his first three Championships. But let’s step back for a moment and consider: maybe Kobe brought Shaq the ’01 and ’02 Championships? As dominant as Shaq was, he wasn’t the best option if the team was down two points in the waning seconds of a close game. He was woeful from the line, could barely dribble to save his life, and could not spot up from anywhere beyond 6-8 feet. Kobe covered all those bases for him. Before Kobe’s rise, Shaq led the Lakers to a Western Conference Finals spot at best. As soon as Kobe found his zone, he and Shaq unleashed hell on the league, trotting three Championships back-to-back. With a happy* (hold this thought for Legacy) Shaq and Kobe on the floor, it didn’t matter who else suited up for the Lakers…the trophy might as well have been gifted to them every season.
Two legendary (for the wrong reasons) “What If?” seasons later, Shaq decided to part ways with the Lakers, moving to Miami and promptly wining a ring in ’06 with the Heat. Kobe’s never could quite take the team over the hump post-Shaq. The Lakers failed to make the playoffs the year Shaq left and did not hit 50 wins for (the first time since Kobe’s rookie year) for three consecutive seasons.
An increasingly frustrated Kobe began showing his displeasure publicly, with insiders strongly hinting at his exit from LA. It didn’t help that the Lakers foolishly traded away one of Kobe’s all time favorite teammates Caron Butler, who instead of teaming up with Kobe and Lamar Odom (then just off his career peak) to create a terrifying Big Three, was burning it up in Washington with the Wizards where he became a legit All-Star. It also didn’t help that Phoenix or Chicago, both considered Kobe destinations, had the pieces and picks to make the trade.
…in one of the most lopsided trades in the history of the NBA, the Lakers made a mid-season trade for Pau Gasol (Feb 2008), sending Kwame Brown, Javaris Crittenton, Marc Gasol, two 1st round picks and one second round pick to Memphis.
After losing 2008 Finals to a historically great Boston team, Kobe and the Lakers would have none of the losing that had become characteristic over the past three seasons as they went into overdrive and trotted two back-to-back titles, the first team to do so since well, the ’02 Lakers, once and for all cementing Kobe’s case for the greatest guard since Jordan, a legacy he cherished since the day he suited up for an NBA team. Pau Gasol’s presence helped, but the ’09 and ’10 Championships were unmistakably Kobe fighting his way to five rings and the Jordan-esque legacy.
Tim Duncan, the Wake Forest phenom, was the most sought after prospect in what was believed to be a poor ’97 draft. So after nearly a decade of top tier dominance in the NBA, the Spurs were the last team anyone would have considered to be in the mix for the Duncan Sweepstakes, Daivd Robinson’s back however had other plans, giving out in the ’97 preseason and rendering Robinson useless for the season ahead. Robinson did try, suiting up for six games under new head coach Gregg Popovich who replaced Bob Hill after a 3-15 start. The Spurs finished with a franchise worst 20-62, the worst record since their 21-61 record in 1988-’89 that netted them, you guessed it, David Robinson. Armed with the third worst record in the NBA a 21.6% chance at landing Duncan, the Spurs became the topic for a fairly insubstantial claim that they tanked for Duncan. Against all odds and the Celtics who had a League worst 15-67 record (technically the expansion Grizzlies were worse at 14-68, but waived their draft rights), the Spurs landed Duncan at number 1, and the rest as they say is history.
Duncan’s insurmountable legacy, which we will leave for later in the article, cannot be tarnished or doubted. Yet, the ’99 NBA Championship, which came amidst the worst NBA season: a shortened 50-game season, with players woefully out of shape and teams in disarray due to the uncertainty of the impending season following the 1998 lockout, carries an asterisk whichever way you look at it. Yes, all teams had the same situation to deal with and the Spurs dealt with it the best, but with all due respect to Coach Pop and Duncan, both of whom I have the highest respect and admiration for, it is hard for an NBA fan to take this season and the consequent Championship seriously.
The championships in ’03, ’05 and then ’07 present a total different story. At no point in time during their tear of 3 championships in 5 years could you count the Spurs out of the race. (actually, it’s been two decades since the arrival of both Pop and Duncan, and you STILL cannot count them out. But that is for another time). As long as Duncan (and Pop) was around, the Spurs were title contenders.
Can it be argued that Duncan needed both Parker (drafted in ’02) and Ginobili (drafted in ’03) to take him over the Championship hump? Sure…if we lived in a world where elephants could fly. While the timing of their arrival coincided with ’03 Championship, that two European rookies, a point guard and a sixth man, were critical to the ’03, ’05 and ’07 Championships, is the same as Rick Fox and Horry being critical to the ’00, ’01 and ’02 Championships. Yes, they were cogs in the wheel, but to even suggest that the above four players were crucial in Kobe’s and Duncan’s Championships is arrogantly ignorant to the greatness of both players. Oh by the way…the team that beat the Spurs twice between their ’99 and ’03 Championships? The indomitable Lakers.
That brings us to the ’14 Championship. In my opinion, the greatest comeback season in the history of the NBA. To fully understand why, we have to trace our steps to the 2010-’11 season.
Duncan was 34 and put up his worst career numbers (13.4 ppg, 8.9 rpg, 1.9 bpg) since his rookie season. Ginobili put up solid numbers (17.4 ppg, 49. apg) but turned 33 and was a shadow of his efficient acrobatic self. Parker was also solid (17.5 ppg, 6.6 apg), but was coming off a long, lengthy, difficult and very public divorce with TV Star Eva Longoria. Their next three best players? George Hill (a solid backup guard who played 28 productive minutes a game), Dejuan Blair (drafted in ’09 and fairly effective at best) and well, Richard Jefferson (at least two seasons off his career peak and declining fast). That’s it. That is what Pop had to work with. And work he did, until they ran into the up and coming hard-nosed tough-as-nails Memphis Grizzlies and lost 4-2. It all went downhill after that…or so it seems.
The season following the Grizzly defeat, the Spurs were counted out of Championship contention. Every leading “expert” felt the Spurs were too old, too injured, not motivated enough, missing the right pieces, too dependent on the aging Big Three, and (insert every conceivable reason why they should not be considered serious contenders). The Spurs? Well, they had other plans, silencing doubters by destroying the Jazz and the Clippers 4-0 each, before taking on an losing to a much younger and more resilient Thunder team in a slug fest that lasted six games.
Losing to a younger team was all the fodder that the “experts” needed to once again count out the “old” Spurs from contention in 2013, declaring their window for a championship “closed” for good. This was the Thunder’s time to shine (despite losing their third best player in one of the worst trades in NBA history), and there was no way the Spurs could keep up with the running gunning Thunder and the record setting defending Champions Miami Heat. Well, not only did they keep up, trotting out a 58-24 record, second best behind the Thunder in the West, but proceeded to wreck havoc in the post season trampling their opponents with a 12-2 record through the first three rounds, and making their first Finals appearance since their ’07 Championship.
So how does an “old” team that suffered one of the most devastating losses in the history of the NBA, comeback the next season? In classic Spurs fashion. They dust off the loss and proceed to win a league leading 62 games during the regular season, hold off a surprisingly feisty Mavericks team in a 7 game 1st Round series, tidily take care of business against Portland and OKC, before unleashing a can of ass whopping, a crushing 4-1 defeat, on the defending champs Miami Heat and the best player in the NBA that season, LeBron James.
So what does ALL this have to do with Duncan?! Stop ranting Jonathan!!
In 2011-12, Duncan earned US$ 21.1 million making him the third highest paid player behind Kevin Garnett (US$ 21.25 mn) and of course Kobe Bryant (US$ 25.24 mn). Sensing an impending run at a 5th title, Duncan renewed his contract at LESS THAN HALF his previous salary (US$ 9.6 mn), becoming just the fourth highest paid player on the Spurs. With this cut, the Spurs could re-sign both Danny Green and Diaw, and prepare for Manu’s extension in the coming season. Simply put without his sacrifice we would not have had the privilege of seeing this Manu dunk, this Green shooting performance, this Diaw passing clinic, this Mills introduction on Kawhi Leonard, and most importantly this beautiful two part series (Part I & Part II) of a video tribute made for the Spurs by super fan Colin Stanton
Kobe Bryant (5 titles) 1 vs. Tim Duncan (5 titles) 1
Comparing Kobe’s stats with Duncan’s is like comparing apples and oranges. but as a wise man Ronny Chieng put it, you can.
Career – 19 seasons (till 2014-15): 25.1 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 4.7 apg, 2.0 st’ocks* (*blocks + steals), 44–33–84 splits (FG%-3P%-FT%), with a 22.9 PER averaging 36.5 mpg for 1280 games
Career – 18 seasons (till 2014-15): 19.5 ppg, 11.0 rpg, 3.1 apg, 2.9 st’ocks, 51–18–70 splits with a PER 24.5 avg 34.4 mpg for 1331 games
Since both have been playing only sporadically this season due to injuries, and because teams are letting up on Kobe since it is his last season (yes, they are…don’t kid yourself, Kobe fans), I felt it would be fair to consider their careers till last season, i.e. 2014-’15. At first glance and without any analysis, the numbers seem to be in favor of Kobe. Kobe has more points, Kobe shot 3’s, Kobe averaged more assists. Of course Duncan was a better rebounder, has better defensive numbers and shot better from the field. (all of which can be easily attributed to his position. But it is impressive that Kobe’s career average is still 25 ppg, thanks to averaging 25 ppg or more in 12 seasons and 20 ppg or more in 15 seasons, whereas Duncan averaged 25 ppg just once and 20 ppg just 9 times.
Kobe Bryant 2 vs. Tim Duncan 1
Let’s dig a little deeper, though…
KOBE (2003-’04 to 2008-’09): 29.1 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 5.2 apg, 2.1 st’ocks, 45–35–85 splits with a PER of 25.0 avg 39.2 mpg for 452 games
DUNCAN (2001-’02 to 2006-’07) : 21.7 ppg, 11.8 rpg, 3.4 apg, 3.3 st’ocks, 51–22–68 splits with a PER of 26.2 avg 36.6 mpg 458 games
Conventional yet universally accepted knowledge and research peg a player’s peak between the ages of 25 – 30. Kobe edges out Duncan here ever so slightly. At his peak, Kobe was a better offensive player as much as Duncan overshadowed him defensively. Kobe did have the advantage of his 3-pt shot, while Duncan had the advantage of being the last man standing on defense. So is there anything that sets them apart? Yes. Something called championships. At his peak, Duncan won 3 championships, while Kobe won zero. Even adjusting the comparison to provide for the fact that Kobe had a three year head start over Duncan (18 vs. 21), pegging his peak from 22-27, not only do his numbers actually DIP by a fraction, but his title tally is still 2 compared to Duncan’s 3. Duncan wins.
Kobe Bryant 2 vs. Tim Duncan 2
CHAMPIONSHIP SEASONS. (Reg. Season vs. Playoffs):
KOBE (’00, ’01, ’02, ’09, ’10):
Regular Season: 26 ppg, 5.6 rpg, 5.0 apg, 2.1 st’ocks, 46–31–83 splits with a PER of 23.1 avg 38.5 mpg for 369 games
Playoffs: 27.3 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 5.2 apg, 2.1 st’ocks, 45–35–81 splits with a 23.3 PER avg 41.4 mpg for 103 games
Regular Season: 20 ppg, 11.1 rpg, 3.1 apg, 3.2 st’ocks, 51–18–69 splits with a PER of 24.9 avg 35 mpg 351 games
Playoffs (Championships): 22.0 ppg, 12.0 rpg, 3.2 apg, 3.1 st’ocks, 51–0.4–71 splits with a PER of 25.4 avg 38.58 mpg for 107 games
42 Club Appearances: 2 (’01, ’03)
I hate how close this is getting, only because the calculations make my head hurt and finding an edge is harder than finding Leo an Oscar. Oh wait…
Again, too close for comfort. Kobe’s improvement from regular season to playoffs, is marginal compared to some aspect of Duncan’s improvement. What most most people ten to miss though, and the reason I mentioned the years of the championships, is that 37 and 15 years removed from his last championship, Duncan’s number are still pretty solid to maintain a competitive match up against Kobe’s number that span over 10 years. That being said, Kobe was an absolute beast in the ’09 and ’10 playoffs averaging close to a 30-6-5 for both playoffs. Those kind of numbers in back-to-back championships counts over longevity anyday, so..
Kobe Bryant 3 vs. Tim Duncan 2
The popular consensus is that Duncan had better teammates throughout his career. This comparison is dicey, so let me make clear my assumptions:
I will only consider seasons where they played together, so no 1996-97
Am not a fan of All Star spots. Why? Tell me Lillard was snubbed for this year’s All Star list, and then watch this.also, feel free to read my take on All Star Games.
Greatness of players will be accounted for against All-NBA Teams, Hall of Fame induction, and other NBA rewards, i.e. Rookie of the YEar, Defensive Player of the Year, etc.
Most of their careers and supporting cast can be argued either ways, that is, both Kobe and Duncan have fair arguments, except in three seasons:
2002-03: Armed with both Kobe at his peak and reigning (3-time) NBA Finals MVP and at the peak of his career Shaq, the reigning CHAMPION Lakers could not make it past the second round, whereas the Spurs with Tony Parker (just one season old), Stephen Jackson (solid but hardly spectacular), Malik Rose (who scored at a career high 10.4 ppg that season. Yes. 10.4 was his career high), Manu Ginobili (honestly, All Rookie 2nd team does not count) and a fast fading Robinson went on to become Champions. This was both Kobe and shaq at their peak. Advantage Duncan.
2003-’04: Despite Kobe and Shaq making it to 1st Team All NBA, getting Gary Payton and Karl Malone, respected veterans with some gas left in the tank taking huge pay cuts for rings, and with very solid role players in Devean George and Stanislav Medvedenko, the Lakers got a beat down at the hands of an underdog Pistons team, losing the NBA Finals 4-1. Again…this was BOTH Kobe and Shaq at their peak! Advantage Duncan. (more like Disadvantage Kobe)
2014-’15: The Spurs, reigning Champions, kept the core intact and improved their second team and bench strength significantly, Yet fell in the 1st round. Yes, this was one of the five greatest frist round match ups ever; yes, this ought to have been a Western Conference Finals matchup; and yes, Chris Paul was not going to lose this series. Advantage Kobe. (more like Disadvantage Duncan).
Kobe Bryant 3 vs. Tim Duncan 3
This is it right? This is Game 7. Coming down to the wire. The two greatest competitors of my generation face off for one last time.
Kobe Bryant a.k.a. KB24 a.k.a. The Black Mamba. After Jordan left the game in ’98, the NBA and the world of basketball as we know it seemed ready to collapse. The game’s biggest star has just hung up his boots, the league went into salary negotiations followed by the dreaded lock out in 1998. We did come back to a shamble season in 1999, mooching off a 50-game season as legitimate. Yet, there was no solution to the NBA’s dearth of stars. Allen Iverson had potential, but between his cornrows, tattoos, baggy jeans and practice rant he became the poster child for everything the NBA wanted to distance itself from. Grant Hill was touted as the Heir Apparent, but his ankles could not bear that burden. And, Vince Carter was electric unlike anything the League had seen, but he still had to prove eh could win. Same was the case with Tracy McGrady, Kevin Garnett and Chris Webber. Duncan was Mr. Consistent, but hardly possessed any emotion.
And then there was Kobe Bryant.
A guard, standing 2 inches taller than Jordan, he had a body type reminiscent of Jordan. But that was hardly where the comparisons ended. Over his first three seasons Kobe displayed a maniacal desire to improve and become alpha dog on the League. his work ethic was Jordan-esque, and his climbing numbers in his first four seasons are stark indication of this. Make no mistake, it was this very work ethic that was one of the bigger reasons for the Kobe-Shaq feud. Kobe could not stand that Shaq showed up out of shape every season, used the regular season to whip himself back in shape, only to dominate and cruise to the Championship.
Kobe aspired to be counted in the conversation with Jordan. But no one player in the past two decades put in the kind of brutal work in the gym and on the court like Kobe did. And I’m afraid no player ever will.
You see, basketball was always a business. And as that business gets bigger players are getting savvier with business pursuits off the court. Carmelo could’ve gone anywhere in pursuit of a championship, but chose New York for its business potential. LeBron James left Miami to Cleveland because he was worried that the Miami Heat stint and The Decision hit his personal brand hard; does not matter that he won two championships. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook have adopted OKC and have become superstars in the a small market, and despite all rumors to the contrary, I do not think will ever leave OKC. Stephen Curry is just now arriving on the big stage, and while he leads an organization that cares to surround him with the right players and staff, it is undeniable that he plays for one of the biggest markets in the country.
All this makes me wonder. Will there ever be a Kobe Bryant again. A fierce competitor that has unparalleled focus on his goal to a championship. A player who, before teams hired trainers and specialists, sought to improve his game just by being the first on court and the last off court during practice, making sure he added a new element to his game every season. A player who, on an 2008 Olympic team filled with super stars, shows up to breakfast at 8 a.m. drenched in sweat with ice bags on his knees and full three hour practice under his belt. A player about whom His Airness said “He wants it so bad, he’s willing to go to the extreme, guarding points guards at the age of 34 playing 38-40 minutes a game. It’s ludicrous. This is what he is battling…he is just as cursed as me (referring to the burning desire to win)”
Duncan’s legacy is yet to be written. Save for a few games off due to injury, he is still starting games for the Spurs alongside LaMarcus Alridge, morphing into the older brother that David Robinson was to him.
Even if Duncan hung up his boots today, there should not even be a discussion on the greatest power forward ever. Karl Malone and Barkley never won a championship; Nowitzki, Garnett and Elvin Hayes won just one championship each but not at their peak; Kevin McHale won three but had one of the ten greatest NBA players ever Larry Bird by his side; Gasol won two championships but has played with three different teams in his career and Bob Petit won just one championship at his peak.
Duncan has won five championships over two decades. In fact he was so dominant till the ’09 season, that it seemed ludicrous anytime the regular season MVP went to anyone not named Duncan. His first and last championships coming FIFTEEN years apart! In fact, Duncan alone could guarantee a 50 win season and that could be said about just three other players in the past two decades, i.e. Jordan, Shaq and (a healthy) Dirk Nowitzki.
Here is the clincher though…
Kobe who has missed four playoffs during his career and more importantly one during his peak at age 26 where, despite having Butler and Odom on his team, the Lakers finished with the 6th worst record in the League that season and the eighth worst record in the 68-year history of the franchise. In his 18 seasons as a professional NBA player, Duncan never missed a single playoffs. Never. Yes, his role has “diminished” (I use the that word with extreme caution here) over the past 5 seasons, but that still leaves us with 13 seasons of Duncan leading the Spurs as the alpha dog.
Alpha Dog for 13 seasons. Five Championships 15 years apart. That is all that should matter.
Now for the last possession…
As good as Kobe is, the Kobe-Shaq feud will always hang over Kobe’s legacy. We will always wonder what could’ve and would’ve happened had Kobe and Shaq set aside their differences in the pursuit of Championships. Why, for instance, couldn’t two grown men keep their focus on the bigger picture? If Shaq was as casual as Kobe claimed, why couldn’t Kobe find a way to get to him and bring him on board. Why, after that whirlwind from 2000 to 2005 would one of the greatest practitioners of stoicism and mindfulness, Phil Jackson, pen a whole book in a tell all about how difficult it was to coach Kobe.
Now ask yourself…have you, or will you ever hear a story like this about Duncan. It’s too late now. In his 18 years as a dominant pro player, there has never been a negative story about Duncan. As a player, as a teammate, as an opponent. Kobe’s greatness, cannot entirely overshadow his difficult times with teammates, coaches and management. 19 seasons is a long time, so some friction is expected. But that expectation is decimated in the case of Duncan. He rose above it all. Basketball was of primary importance; but more important that that? Basketball played the right way. The Duncan way. The Spurs way. Maybe Pop has more to do with this than I am willing to admit. But give yourself a few minutes of quiet, and think to yourself…knowing all you do, if you had to pick a teammate to play ball with you for 20 years, who would you pick. I know who I would.
Fresh off the heels of the 2016 NBA All Star Game in the lovely city of Toronto, I decided do something I hate. Make a list. “Why?” you may ask. Short answer, “Hmmm…”. Long answer, the All Star Game is an exhibition bonanza to entertain the NBAs well wishers and sponsors. It is the NBA’s marquee event second only to The Finals, which aren’t nearly as elaborate, and unlike the NFLs marquee event the Superbowl, it does not hold any significance to the current season. It does reflect in a player’s career achievements, but ever since Yao Ming got voted to start at the 2011 NBA All Star Game without playing a minute that season, I stopped taking it seriously enough as a point of contention in the argument of the greatest players ever. So that makes the NBA All Star Game a mela. A multimillion dollar, everybody-who-is-anybody-needs-to-be-seen-there, let’s-not-play-defense-and-give-the-fans-what-they-came-for mela. And I don’t mind making lists about melas, because lists about melas ultimately do not matter in the grand scheme of things.
The game that started it all. This may come as a surprise to the young twenty somethings, but basketball wasn’t popular in its early days. In fact it was quite unpopular as allegations of point shaving in college basketball were making headlines. Sensing the opportunity to turn things around in favor of the game, then NBA President Maurice Poldoff, NBA publicity director Haskell Cohen and Boston Celtics owner Walter Brown decided to hold an exhibition game featuring the league’s best players. Players were selected by sports journalists across the country without regard to position and the coaches were those whose teams had the best records in their respective conferences, a practice that continues to date. Brown was so convinced about its success that he agreed to bear all costs and losses, if any. He was right. The game drew a then record 10,094 fans in a league that averaged just 3,500 per game.
MVP: Ed “Easy Ed” Macauley who not only scored 20 pts but held the great George Mikan to just 4 pts.
Other Notable performances: Bob Cousy 8 pts, 9 rebs, 8 asts.
Any All Star moments list that omits the 1964 game is being disrespectful to the very principles the league has come to rest on in the years following the 1963-64 season. The players union, founded in 1954 by Bob Cousy, was saturated from ten years of expressing their concerns (Saturday night-Sunday noon back-to-back games, no pension / insurance, poor pay and terrible playing conditions among others) and presenting their demands to Commissioner Walter Kennedy, but not getting the ear, time or respect of the team owners and league officials. The 1964 NBA All Star Game was to be the first All Star game televised live, and sensing an opportunity the league’s biggest stars led by Bill Russell, Oscar Robertson, Elgin Baylor, Tom Heinsohn and Jerry West (a huge deal in the midst of race tensions, especially in a city like Boston), threatened to strike by not playing if their demands were not met. Long story short, the league and owners could not risk giving up a potential a TV contract, especially since basketball was still a fringe sport, and gave in to the demands of the players. It signaled a shift in the attitude of the league and team owners towards the players, and brought NBA players the respect that is commonplace nowadays. Strangely enough yet understandably so, the recap of the game on the NBA site as well as Wikipedia barely mentions the strike. There are two fairly elaborate pieces describing the events of the 1964 NBA All Star Game here and here.
MVP: Oscar Robertson 26 pts, 14 rebs, 8 asts.
Other Notable Performances: Bill Russell 13 pts, 21 rebs; Wilt Chamberlain and Bob Petit with 19 pts each and 20 and 17 rebs respectively.
The only reason this game makes the list? The scoring. The first NBA All Star Game to travel outside the US, possibly encouraging talks for another team in Canada, was also Kobe’s last All Star game. Unlike MJ, Kobe did not bring anything close to his A-Game, and this turned out to be more a farewell for him. None of that characteristic competitiveness that Kobe brings to every game he plays, which was disappointing. What did happen though, was scoring. Lots of it. Tons of it. Both teams barely scratched the surface of what would be considered below average defense. The total number of blocks was two consequently resulting in an offensive display for the ages. The sheer quantum of points scored was staggering, 369 points between the two teams, with the leading scorers Paul George and Westbrook scoring 41 and 31 points respectively. This game was toying with being boring, because frankly no played defense. But competitive play from Paul George, MVP Westbrook, Chris Paul who had 16 assists and cannot turn off his competitive switch, DeRozan and Lowry who were playing in front their home crowd and in their first All Star, John Wall and Kevin Durant kept the game as interesting as it could be.
As hard as I tried, I could not find a way to feature both these games and still make sure the other nine stayed put. So I did what every confused All Star MVP Awards does, kept them both, tied at the 7th spot.
By his own admission, his performance in the 1986 game drove Isaiah Thomas to push his game to the next level and pursue championships. He was already one of the league’s premier point guards and well on his way to crafting an eventual Hall of Fame career. It was this game, however, that saw him mature into the leader that eventually led the Pistons to back-to-back titles in ’89 and ’90. Finishing with 30 points and 10 assists, K. C. Jones’ one guard offense ran amok and erupted for a 39 point quarter led by Thomas en route his 2nd NBA All Star MVP.
MVP: Isiah Thomas 30 pts, 10 asts, 5 stls.
Other notable performances: Larry Bird 23 pts, 8 rebs, 5 asts, 7 stls; Moses Malone 16 pts, 13 rebs; Magic Johnson 4 pts, 15 asts.
It may be hard to fathom, but before the 70’s, basketball was a game largely played below the rim, with only bigs like Russell, Chamberlain, Petit and Baylor holding dominion above the rim. Dr. J changed all that paving the way for guards playing above the rim and the high flying NBA action we see as commonplace these days. He scored 22 points in his last All Star Game fittingly handing over the reins to a young phenom named Michael Jordan, who idolized Erving. But the story of the game was Tom Chambers, who made it into the game only thanks to a knee injury to Ralph Samson, and ending up crashing Dr. J’s party by scoring 34 pts, stealing the ball 4 times and leading the West to a win en route his against-all-odds MVP Trophy.
(against-all-odds) MVP: Tom Chambers with 34 pts, 4 stls.
Other notable performances: Moses Malone with 27 pts, 18 rebs; Magic Johnson with 9 pts, 13 asts, 7 rebs, 4 stls.
I never liked Wilt Chamberlain. I still don’t. But we cannot deny that the physical presence he brought to the game was way ahead of his time. Chamberlain did set the record for most points scored in an All Star Game by dropping 42 on the West, and flirted with the record for most rebounds falling shy by just three to finish with 24 for the game (the record? Set in the same game by Petit with 27! Go figure.), but it was the West’s balanced attack with Baylor, Robertson, West, Petit and Bellamy that dominated the East that was no pushover with Russell, Cousy, Schayes and Heinsohn rounding up a stacked team. The West was devastatingly good, with all starters scoring 18 points or more and pulling down 79 rebounds, a record at the time. Petit deservingly took home MVP honors pouring in 25 points to go along with a monster 27 rebounds, a record that stands till date. Another significant fact about this game: It would be the last time Chamberlain and Russell would be on the same team.
I could harp about how MJ was so ill before the game, he allegedly would not be playing the game, let alone start it. I could harp about how he passed on the torch of greatness to a young rookie named Kobe Bryant, then the youngest rookie to start the NBA All Star Game. I could write about how Kobe was far from shoddy scoring 18 points and pulling down 6 rebounds to Jordan’s 23 points, 8 assists and third All Star MVP, just the third player since Oscar and Petit to do so. But since hindsight is 20:20, I’ll just leave some of the post game press quotes here:
Larry Bird, coaching his first NBA All Star Game: “Give it to Michael and get out of the way. That is the way it usually happens.”
Jordan: “I’ve been in bed for three days, basically. I didn’t really expect to come out here and win the MVP. I just wanted to fit in, to make sure Kobe didn’t dominate me. He came at me early, which I would have done if I were him. If you see someone who’s sick, or whatever, you’ve got to attack him. He attacked. I like his attitude.”
Kobe: “That’s all about competitive nature, I came out aggressive, he came back at me he hit those two turnarounds, and I was like ‘Cool, let’s get it on!”.
And my favorite…Bryant: “As far as carrying the torch for the years to come, I don’t know. I just want to be the best basketball player I can be. If that happens, that will be fine.”
Who woulda thunk! Hindsight is always 20:20.
MVP: Michael Jordan 23 pts, 8 asts, 6 rebs, 3 stls.
Kobe is now the alpha dog and halfway through the number of rings MJ has won. MJ, now 39, seems to (I repeat: “seems to”) be shadow of his former self. They get mic’d up for a video that has become a Youtube sensation since and will remain so forever. But nothing about the game stands out more than the second last play of overtime. With just over ten seconds left and the game tied, Jordan, guarded by the West’s best defender the 6’8” Shawn Marion who happens to have a 7’0” wingspan, receives a pass on the right wing, posts up Marion on his left, switches to his right, drives to the baseline and pulls up about midway between the 3pt line and the paint to unleash one of the deadliest shots in NBA history over the stretched-out-to-max hand of Marion, and sinks what could’ve been one of the greatest shots in the history of the All Star Game, and a reminder to Kobe of who’s his 40-yr old boss. Just imagine… a (nearly) 40 year old Jordan comes out of his second retirement, scores 20 points in the All Star game AND hits the game winning jumper with 5.2 seconds left! How is that NOT a fourth MVP for Jordan?! Alas, sadly we all know what happens next. Jermaine O’Neal has the idiotic audacity to foul a 3pt shooter, who just happened to be Kobe freakin’ Bryant!. Kobe calmly sinks two of three taking us to the first double overtime game in the history of the NBA All Star. Amongst all this madness, my favorite player of all time Kevin Garnett took home MVP honors, putting on an offensive clinic scoring 37 points on 71% shooting from the field! Add that to him filling every stat on the sheet except 3pt and you had one deserving MVP. If only Jermaine kept his freaking hands to himself!
MVP: Kevin Garnett 37 pts, 9 rebs, 3 asts, 1 blk, 5 stls and 71% FG%. Told ya…stat sheet stuffed and how!
This was special. Because I was there. But more on that later.
This, in my humble opinion, was the last ever competitive All Star Game.
As with every All Star Game, the media creates a storyline, and this time, fittingly so, it was Lebron vs. Kobe. Lebron and his Miami Heat were in the midst of what would become the second longest win streak in the history of the regular season. Appearing invincible, the media began to wonder if Lebron, who before the All Star Game became the 1st player to average 30+ points while shooting 60+ pct from the field in six consecutive games, was finally ready to take on the mantle from Kobe. (This seemed ridiculous, even at that time, not only because Lebron had won just one championship, but he did so leaving Cleveland and joining another alpha dog’s (Dwayne Wade) quest to win a few more rings. Something Kobe would’ve never done, no matter what the rumor wines said. Even Jordan chipped in, picking Kobe over Lebron because well…five is better than one). Kobe disagreed, and Kobe being Kobe decided to take it to Lebron and his budding legacy. While the numbers do not reflect this (Kobe 9 pts in 27 mins), the last 5 minutes of the game do. With 5:37 left in the game and the West up by 5, Kobe turned up the heat (pun intended) playing Lebron full court, and doesn’t let up for the rest of the game. But the drama begins in earnest around 2:57 when Kobe crosses Bosh over for a lay up finishing on the left of the rim.
2:42: West by 8. Kobe picks up Lebron full court, sticks with him and locks in at halfcourt. Lebron runs towards the Bosh screen, looking to come off the screen and pull up for a shot. Kobe goes over the screen and blocks his shot clean, leading to an open Durant layup.
2:30: West by 10. Kobe is still chasing Lebron around forcing him to give up the ball and stand around watching Wade, Anthony and Bosh play ball.
0:56.8: West by 6. Lebron brings the ball into the half, is hassled by Kobe as he reaches the top of the key, tries to split the screen but dribbles it off his leg into KD’s hands who passes it to the Griffin for the off the board slam.
0:47.7: Wesy by 8. Griffin gets in on the action and double teams Lebron receiving the inbound pass followed by Kobe chasing him full court. Lebron’s had enough and decides to take Kobe all the way to the rim. Kobe stays with him and blocks the shot! Reggie Miller says “Kobe’s making this personal”
0:40.9: West by 8. Both teams clear out as Lebron posts up Kobe on the right side. He spins right, thinks he’s lost Kobe and goes up for the shot, only to get swatted hard by Kobe. Foul. Two shots for Lebron. He makes the 1st, giving him his FIRST point of the 4th quarter. Kobe swings over to the West bench loudly proclaiming to Kerr “He can’t score on me!” Lebron misses the second.
0:33.2: West by 7. Harden gets the rebound off the miss and goes by Lebron, who has lost all will in this game. Visibly distressed that Kobe is coming at him so hard.
And that’s it.
None of the players currently in the NBA, except for maybe Chris Paul, will ever do this in the NBA All Star Game. None. I’d like to be proven wrong. I’d love it, actually. But I know I won’t be. As much as I dislike Kobe, he will always have my respect for being one of the most competitive players to have ever stepped on hardwood.
Other notable performances: Dominique Wilkins 29 pts, 5 rebs; Isaiah Thomas 8 pts, 15 asts; Magic Johnson 17 pts, 19 asts, 6 rebs, 2 stls, 2 blks, Karl Malone 22 pts, 10 rebs.
Number 3: 1992 NBA All Star Game, Orlando Arena, Orlando. The Magical Farewell.
There’s everything he did on court, and there’s everything he did off it. But nothing exemplifies the place Magic had in the hearts of fans more than being voted to start in the 1992 NBA All Star Game. Upon learning he contracted HIV, Magic decided that he needed to focus on treatment and hung up his jersey for good before the 1991-92 season began. Remember that this was a time when HIV was terribly misunderstood and the harshest judgments were reserved for those who contracted it, especially vile when it came the individual’s personal life. Magic was one of the biggest celebrities to come out openly about his condition. The media went nuts speculating, especially since the Lakers were known to indulge in the good life. Fans fed off the speculation for a while, fueled by Magic’s decision to retire just as he was coming off the peek of his career. But almost immediately, the fans felt a void. Magic was more than just basketball. He was a global ambassador of the game, and much unlike Jordan, he was just as brilliant off the court as he was on it. His mega watt smile, coupled with his magnetic personality had the fans pining for one last Showtime Show, voting him to start the NBA All Star Game that season. The League bent the rules, Magic complied to play, and what followed was a few of hours of pure blissful magic as the world was watched Earvin Johnson weave his “Magic” into the 1992 NBA All Star Game. He barely missed a step all game, and played his heart out, sky hooks here, no look passes there, 9 assists and 25 points on 75% shooting while being a perfect 3-for-3 from 3pt land, panting at half time interviews, knocking down threes in his good friend Zeke’s face. He closed out the game successfully defending Zeke and Jordan on consecutive possessions, and put an exclamation mark when with 16.3 secs left and Zeke guarding him he launched and awkward looking but fundamentally perfect three that touched only the bottom of the net going in. It was a blowout with the West winning 153-113 and Magic was the heart of that win, deservingly taking home MVP honors for the second and last time in his career.
Other notable performances: Clyde Drexler 22 pts, 9 rebs, 6 asts; Michael Jordan 18 pts, 5 asts, 2 stls.
Number 2: 1988 NBA All Star Game, Chicago Stadium, Chicago. – His Airness Micheal Jordan arrives.
Having received the mantle from Dr. J the previous year, it was Jordan’s time to shine. And the NBA could not have chosen a better venue. Whether the move was strategic knowing Jordan’s draw on fans and his impending blowout game, we will never know. What we do know, and have as a memory for ever, is Jordan exploding for 40 pts in one of the best All Star Games ever played. Both the East and the West were stacked with Hall of Famers, and Jordan saw this as the perfect coming out party. He felt he was sidelined in the games from 85-87, hinting that the older players were threatened by his presence and his abilities, and gave him the cold shoulder. Jordan decided to take matters in his own hands and dominate the All Star Game like no one has ever done and will ever do. In just 29 minutes on court. Jordan single handedly kept the East in the Game pouring in 40 pts (impressively this did not include a single 3ptr) and filling nearly every stat on the sheet. His running mates included his dunk contest nemesis, Dominique Wilkins and two NBA Finals nemesis Isaiah Thomas, with Bird and (Moses) Malone rounding up the East. The West was just as stacked with Magic, (Karl) Malone, Olajuwon, Alex English and the incredibly talented but streaky Lafayette “Fat” Lever. The two teams battled furiously, and remember, this was when teams actually played defense and treated the All Star Game with the utmost respect. Jordan scored 16 points in the final 5:30, but had to share his thunder with Kareem, whose sky hook took his All Star Game points total to 247 points, a record at that time.
Other notable performances: Dominique Wilkins 29 pts, 5 rebs; Isaiah Thomas 8 pts, 15 asts; Magic Johnson 17 pts, 19 asts, 6 rebs, 2 stls, 2 blks, Karl Malone 22 pts, 10 rebs.
Number 1: 2001 NBA All Star Game, MCI Center, Washington D.C. – The Comeback
The Game simply known as The Comeback.
My research for this article involved watching, pausing and re-watching All Star Game highlights and specials on Youtube. None though, gave me goosebumps the way the 2001 NBA All Star Game did.
I fell in love with basketball watching the 2000 NBA Playoffs Western Conference Finals between the Lakers and the Blazers. So nearly everyone in the 2001 NBA All Star Game got me jumping out of my seat! “Damn! A young McGrady running with cuz Carter!”… “Look at that…Marbury when he actually played basketball and wasn’t eating jelly!!” “Holy crap Iverson was freakin insane!!!” … “ Ray Allen with the Bucks…young cats forget!!!” And my favorite “Holy Savior of the World…its Antonio McDyess!!!!”
Just so I could save my energy, I stood up and watched the whole video. Sitting down wasn’t an option. This was beyond incredible. These are the guys that got me hooked on to a game that has become the Purpose of my Life.
The East were almost puny in comparison to the giants of the West who, believe it or not, did not even have Shaq. This mismatch reflected in the score, with the West dominating just about every aspect of the game from the opening tip. Alley oops, rebound putbacks, dominating post play, incredible interior defense and just about everything you’d expect when a team as physically imposing as the West took on the comparatively puny East. Every one was in on the party…Kobe, Duncan, Garnett, Webber, MdDyess, while Iverson, Carter, Marbury and Allen tried to keep the East in the game.
So when they found themselves up by 21 with nine minutes left to go in the game, the West thought they had nothing to worry. Well, they were wrong.
The East, led by Iverson, suddenly caught fire and rallied to stage the biggest comeback win in the history of the NBA All Star Game. The West looked lost and frazzled by the East’s feisty defense during this stretch. The look in Iverson’s eyes was unmistakable, he wanted no part of a loss, possibly due to the sorry state that the media cut of the East, claiming that they stood no chance against the bigger West lineup. Scoring 15 of his game-high 25 in the fourth quarter, Iverson willed the East back into the game and was helped by Marbury whose two late threes in response to Kobe’s baskets at the other end, sealed the deal.
We may indulge in a pointless debate of why this list isn’t right, and I may even let you change my mind on games from 2 – 10. But for its relevance in my life, and what it means to me till date, the 2001 NBA All Star Game will always be number one in my books. And you cannot convince me otherwise.
The All Star Game, while still an exhibition, used to be fairly competitive when it started, picked up in intensity in the mid – late 80’s and early 90’s, and stayed fairly competitive till late 00’s. That’s all gone now, and the game has turned into a dunk and trickery fest. There were two block the entire game in 2016! And one was by Kyle Lowry!! While offense wins games, defense wins championships, making it a vital part of the game. That’s what sets basketball apart from other team games, in that you have to play both ends of the floor as a team at all times. As much as fans idolize these players, they also remember great performances and pay good money to watch these guys play a decent game of basketball. Instead, the highlight of the 2016 game for basketball purists was Popovich’s face every time the camera panned on him. He seemed like he did not want any part of the dunk fest. Or maybe that’s Pop just being his stoic self.
It is sad that the casual and new fans of basketball do not take the All Star Game more seriously. Actually most of us serious fans do not as well anymore. And there’s good reason… even the players themselves barely take it seriously.
When watching highlights and re-watching earlier games, three things stood out:
The All Star game meant something. Starters played their best, because they felt they owed it to the fans who voted them in. Benchers played their best to prove to the coaches and journalists they made the right choice.
Everyone played Defense. Plays were called on Offense. Yes, it was made fancier with slick passing and theatrical dunking. But they were still solid offensive set plays with a purpose of “beating” the other team. Not cruising for uncontested lay ups and dunks. That’s what the Dunk Contest is for.
Teams played hard. They went at each other. Players wanted to show up their opponent. You went after your opponent, because you knew he was coming back the other way next possession. There has to be a winner and there will be a loser. None of that “everyone-is-a-winner” bullshit. That’s what the game of basketball is about.
I fear that with Kobe, the last of the legends that took the All Star Game fairly seriously has gone.
A final thought:
I spent every waking hour from 2000 till 2012 dreaming of one day attending an NBA Game and meeting with players who were demi-gods to me. The only basketball I had access to till then was two live games a week on TV (no highlights), highlights on Youtube (only from ‘06 onward), and the two of most important influences in my life, Scoop Jackson for SLAM Magazine and Bill Simmons also named the Sports Guy. I devoured every letter of every word of every article they wrote, including Simmons’ The Book of Basketball which I read once at the beginning of every year.
And then the 2013 NBA All Star happened. And I was there. (you can read my running blog here)
To have come this close to actually playing hoops with Simmons at a closed game for the media (Thank you for the media creds Akash Jain), to pass by Greg Popovich in the player tunnel and have him promise to come back around after the pregame press conference (he didn’t come back, but I ain’t mad…I shook his hand. Greg. Popovich’s. Hand.), to be the only media representative from India ask both David Stern and Adam Silver what plans they had for India, to try and meet Magic Johnson only to have his bodyguard palm my chest and say “No.”, to promise myself that one day Magic will know my name, to bring in my 30th birthday a day after His Airness brought in his 50th, to have spent an hour going absolutely nuts talking hoops with Scoop over beers, and the best part of the weekend…to stand two feet away from my all time favorite player Kevin Garnett asking him when does he plan to come to India again and hear him say “Soon, man. Soon”, is a feeling that cannot be expressed in words, no matter how eloquent my language. So yes, the All Star Game has turned into a bunch of grown men playing aimless basketball. Yes, the All Star Game is just about the NBA calling its big guns to impress the corporate world in the hopes of more sponsorship, partnerships and money. Yes, the All Star Game isn’t something serious basketball fans take seriously anymore and neither do the players. And yes, the All Star Game doesn’t count for anything in the argument of who is the greatest of all time after Jordan (see what I did there?).
But for a starry doe eyed dreamer so far away from the action, those four days meant the world. They meant everything. They make living worthwhile.
Before we move on, KD addressed free agency at his media availability during the NBA All Star Weekend here. “I want to finish this thing out with my team. I think we got a really good thing going right now”
The biggest, most stupid, and atrociously insane idea is the KD to Golden State rumor. The nightmare it seems. Oooh I’m scared! What a load of rubbish.
Now imagine this scenario. It is mid August and Warriors owner Lacob is addressing the media alongside Coach Kerr and Curry, fresh off beating the Cavaliers in a six game series for their second NBA Championship in a row, coming on the heels of a 75-7 regular season record, the best since the 95-96 Bulls 72-10 season. Lacob is addressing the media, and proceeds to say. “I really like what we have going here. We have one of the three best players in the League, the League’s best regular season record, and I’m confident of seeing ourselves repeating this year. I’m having a lot of fun. But I need to make this better. So let me lay all rumors and assumptions to rest. Next season, we are going to sign Kevin Durant.” Stop. Hold. I cannot go on. I almost threw up in my mouth. And my fingers want to self amputate.
Remember when the Bulls wanted to sign Shaquille O’Neal and Penny Hardaway after the 95-96 season? No? Exactly my point.
I will come back to the Durant angle, so let’s look at this from the Warriors point of view. You do not need to be a basketball expert to see why any change of any sort in the makeup of this team is illogical. Hell, you don’t even have to be a basketball fan to witness the joy and fun with which this team gels together and plays the game of basketball in the most beautiful way possible. The right way. Every piece fits, Curry is transcendent as a player / teammate / leader, and through some sheer stroke of luck gets to play with the second best shooter in the league in Thompson, all the while their hybrid forward Draymond Green causes all kinds of havoc running, passing and shooting like a guard and playing center in crunch time, defending players that have anywhere between 3 – 5 inches and 10-15 pounds on him. Proof that these guys are doing it right? Despite all that talent ahead of him Igoudala, a premier D & 3 guy nevertheless, was Finals MVP in a Championship year! Barnes, drafted by Golden State, has been there from the beginning, Bogut (despite the career low in MPG and PPG) is shooting a near career best from the field because of impeccable ball movement, Livingston has found his element showing us traces of what could’ve been had it not been for that nasty injury in ’07. Rounding off the team with Ezeli, Barbosa, Speights and occasionally Ian Clark and Brandon Rush, and you have the near perfect basketball team. So perfect, in fact, that aside from Klay and Curry, none of these players would thrive on any other NBA team the way they thrive in Golden State. Individually they may have faults, but as a team they are near perfect. Just like those 95-96 Bulls. To even suggest that there is an inkling of an intention to blow this up by trading and / or renouncing nearly 1/4th the team to sign another alpha star, who everyone knows will not move to Golden State (more on this in a bit), is not just ridiculous, but borderline stupid. And I would completely be in support of Lacob calling a press conference with Kerr by his side and the team at his elbows, telling the world where exactly they can put this Durant to Warriors idea. Hint: It is a dark dark place.
But I digress.
Anyone who has followed Durant’s career, even fleetingly so, knows he is exceedingly loyal. To a fault.:
Flashback to 1995. After reeling off three back to back 50+ wins regular seasons, the latter two of which ended in an NBA Finals loss to the Houston Rockets (’95) and a loss to eventual NBA Champions the Chicago Bulls (’96), Shaquille O’Neal had two choices. Stay on and continue to build on his legacy in Orlando, or move to L.A. to start afresh with the Lakers and young high school phenom, Kobe Bryant.
Flashback to 2010. After reeling off two back to back 60+ wins regular season records both ending in losses to eventual NBA Finalists the Orlando Magic (’09) and the Boston Celtics (’10), Lebron James had two choices. Stay on in Cleveland and continue build on his legacy in Cleveland, or move to Miami to form the Big Three there by increasing his odds of winning an NBA Championship.
Flashback 2012. After reeling off three 45+ wins regular season records seasons where they went deeper in the playoffs every year, eventually losing to NBA Champions Miami Heat, Kevin Durant had two choices, stay on in OKC and continue to build on his legacy in OKC despite losing one of his closest friends and one of the OKC big three James Harden in one of the worst deals in NBA history, or force a trade to a better situation on any team he wanted. Literally, any team.
We all know what happened in each of the three situations. Lebron scooted to Miami and reeled off two championships in four years, Shaq moved to the Lakers and won three championships.
Durant? Well, Durant stayed loyal and stayed put, fighting his way till this very day all the while carrying the burden of terrible management decisions year-on-year. Now yes, pundits will argue, and I will agree that Lebron and Shaq were free agents, and Durant had just signed his first max contract post his rookie contract. But to dismiss the fact that Durant could’ve thrown a “superstar tantrum” and forced his way out of OKC, considering that the OKC management did not know what it was doing as evidenced by the Harden fiasco, is being naive. Instead, Durant chose to stick by his team and his running mate Westbrook, who felt just as let down in the Harden fiasco.
Fast forward to 2016, the Thunder have the third best record in the league, behind the Warriors and the Spurs who are boasting historically great runs, and finally have a team where the pieces fit.
Ibaka has gotten better with each passing year, Kanter is turning out to be better than expected, and the usual suspects in Adams, Payne and Morrow are doing their bit.
But the most important bit is, no matter who they are matched up against in the playoffs, they will have two if the three best players in that series. Simply put, do you really want to meet OKC in a Game 7, when they have two of the three best players in the series suiting up for them? Didn’t think so.
There are a bunch articles explaining why KD renewing for year makes the most financial sense for him. But I don’t believe its about money for KD. This is about chasing a legacy that very few players can boast off…winning a championship with the team that drafted you. And that is what, I believe, KD cares about the most.
Cleveland Cavaliers vs. Boston Celtics @ Cleveland
Cavaliers lead 2-0
For a title contender, they let their defense slip to below average levels at times today. It was worrying that, despite the Celtics struggling to find a flow on offense, the Cavaliers never really put them away until late in the fourth quarter. While that speaks volumes the character of this Celtics team, the Cavaliers need to gather the cojones to put the proverbial foot on the jugular and close out games earlier if and when they can. They also broke character or some ill advised shots, especially JR Smith. While they have the ability to rally and comeback against an underdog Celtics team, they will have a tough time against a more elite defensive team that will come out of the Bulls vs. Bucks matchup. Mozgov was brilliant today, rightly trailing behind every shot / layup to follow up with a tip in case of a miss. Love contributed defensively, something that one does not see often and something that the Cavaliers can most definitely use as they progress along the playoffs. The Cavaliers seemed to be using more off the ball screens today, an adjustment from on-the-ball screens between the Lebron-Kyrie-Love combination they used in Game 1. Lebron seems to have settled into a Chris Paul-like pace with his game, getting his teammates in volved for three quarter and taking matters into his hands in the fourth. This gives the Cavaliers the cushion to allow Kyrie, Love and the rest of the Cavalier team to find their legs and pace in playoff basketball.
The Celtics are giving the Cavaliers everything they can handle, and then some. What was most impressive was even when, in the third quarter, the Cavaliers made a run and went up by 13, they stuck to their system and pulled back within 4 in almost no time. It spoke volumes of their character that despite of their struggles in the first half, the Cavaliers could not put them (the Celtics) away until late in the game. I’d like to see more movement of the ball on offense, something that worked for them in Game 1. They aren’t a team with stars and great one-on-one players, so stagnating the offense after a screen or two for a jump shot does not work for them and it showed early in this game. The moment they began to move the ball more in the second half they found the basket much easier, and made came back from 13 down to within 4 in almost no time. Stevens will look to run a few plays for Sullinger especially if he continues to make those threes and the Cavaliers do not switch / rotate on him.
Toronto Raptors vs. Washington Wizards @ Toronto
Wizards lead 2-0
I do not recognize this Toronto team. Gone is the comfort level they had in running offensive rotations during the regular season. Come playoff time, something in this Raptors team has switched, and I’m sure even they do not know what it is. They are struggling on both ends of the floor, with respite coming in spurts during brief runs spread across the duration of the entire game. It will be tough for them to win 4 out of the next five, especially after losing home court advantage. They look like the underdog in this series now. There are glimmers of hope…(Amir) Johnson is still as effective, Lou Williams struggled in this game but has the ability to snap out of his funk, Kyle Lowry is still an All Star and both Ross and DeRozan can pull their weight. This is still a team loaded with talent, question is can they come together and play as a team to at least win back home court advantage in Game 3? Whatever they need to do, they need to do fast because this Wizards team not only has the momentum, but it has Pierce, who is the veteran presence needed in the locker room to keep the Wizards humble in pursuit of that second round appearance. I certainly hope Casey spends the next few sleepless nights crafting a master plan to stop the Wizards in their tracks.
I do not recognize this Wizards team. Gone are the deer-in-the-headlights offensive and defensive rotations that made them a team least deserving of a playoff spot in a very very long time. They had no business being here. Yet, here they are up 2-0, both road wins, against the higher seed who happen to be a very effective and established offensive threat in the East. I’ve said this before, the Wizards are surviving on sheer talent, the only difference in this game was all the talent moved like they had a purpose. They still played barely league average defense at best, but offensively they have found a groove that they are hoping will take them past the Raptors. Good things happen when John Wall is left by himself, something that the Wizards team (unintentionally / innocently) sabotaged in Game 1 by setting too many picks for him. Wall is among the top ten one-on-one players in the League, something he proved in this game by notching a 26-17 on 50% shooting. Beal was spectacular and so was Porter (and unusual but not surprising suspect), and if the Wiz keep playing with this sense of purpose, something Pierce is sure to lecture them on, look for a first round upset.
Houston Rockets vs. Dallas Mavericks @ Houston
Rockets lead 2-0
The Rockets we built by mastermind Daryl Morey to play the way they played in Game 2. High lobs to Dwight. Harden at the line. Wing players like Brewer and Ariza making cuts and making threes, and Josh Smith doing everything he should be doing except taking threes. As much as I personally dislike the Rockets for Harden’s getting-cheap-calls-on-the-move style of play and Dwight’s dwightness, I must admit to enjoy watching the second half when they clinically took apart the Mavericks, one basket after the other. Josh Smith took quickly to being the facilitator on offense, and here’s hoping he realizes that he most effective in the low post area from where he can make those crisp passes to either of the wings or lob it to an undermatched (in this series) Howard. Don’t be fooled by his 20 pt games, because Harden hasn’t still taken over. It will be ugly for the Mavericks if he does and the other Rockets perform the way they did today. Nearly every aspect of their game was on point and you’d have to be a sucker for perfection to pick a single flaw. If anything, I’d like them to make adjustments on Barea who is proving to be the X-Factor for the Mavericks. But all in all, the Rockets played some beautiful basketball today. So uncharacteristic of them.
Everything went right for the Rockets. Nothing went right for the Mavericks. They looked out of sorts right from the whistle and it may have had to do with the psychological injury of not having Parsons on the floor. They were never a good defensive team, but they were beyond terrible today. They gave up on nearly every second possession, simply forgetting to rotate defensively. Of course the emergence of Smith as a “elite” passer in this game coupled with Dwight’s resurrection made it difficult to switch, but the least the Mavericks could have done is tried. There were possessions where Chandler, the only rim protector they have, looked so helpless deciding whether to help on a Harden-Smith pick-and-roll or stick with Howard lurking in the paint in search of lobs. Not having Chandler hurt them on both ends of the floor, but give credit where due, the Rockets choked them on defense, making sure they worked for every shot they took this game. Aminu was a bright spot, and if he can elevate his play the Mavericks may steal a game at home. But from the looks of it, the Rockets are gonna enjoy and feed off this new found efficiency. And for whatever reason they don’t, they’ll always have Harden.
This was the perfect wake up game for the Bulls. Not that they took the Bucks lightly because, well, Thibs. Thibs wouldn’t take a high school team lightly, let alone the second best defense in the league. In all honesty though, the Bulls had to grind out this win, and in doing so (at the risk of sounding philosophical) found themselves. They don’t have the prettiest offense in the league, Gasol and Butler being their only legitimate threats on that end. What they do have is elite level defense, a defense that met is match in this series. The Mirotic injury becomes a concern if he misses a game in the series, especially since he brings that inside-out offense and the ability to draw fouls and get to the line that will be key to breaking a scoring drought that the Bucks can impose. Two things stand out from this game, one, the Bulls cannot take these “kids” lightly and two, the Bulls could not have asked for a better match up to “find themselves”.
This game should have gone the Bucks way. I blame Sam Hinkie and bloody 76ers for this loss. With Rose clearly struggling, this was MCW’s game and match up to win. Only he just cannot elevate his game because at his core he still carries around the complacency that comes with playing for a terrible team that seeks to lose games. I cringed every time he posted up Rose, because a.) he could not make anything happen from there, and b.) the Bucks were perfectly fine moving the ball around the perimeter and getting those open looks. MCW isn’t the only one to blame. But as the point guard and commander of this team, he has to shoulder the most responsibility. Now much of this has to do with inexperience. The last thing you want to do, when a playoff veteran team like the Bulls is making a comeback, is change your offense. The Bucks did everything right on the defensive end for the full game and they could not have played the Bulls any better. Offensively though, they were punching above their weight in the 1st half moving the ball around and getting open like they were the veterans in the matchup. Sadly, on the 2nd half, they lost focus and played reactive basketball as soon as the Bulls made a run, when all they should have done is stuck to the same script and eventually the shots would have fallen. They always fall. Always. All I’m gonna say is this, if the Bucks play the next 14 of 16 quarters the way they played the first half today, expect an upset.
Golden State Warriors vs. New Orleans Pelicans @ Golden State
Warriors lead 2-0
Both games today were similar in that the favorites (teams) got pushed to the edge. Facing a Pelicans team that brought the fight to them today, the Warriors had to play with their backs against the wall some time in this game. The difference though, between the Warriors and any other team in a similar situation, is that they know who they are, and simply carry on with the script. It is both scary and fascinating to watch this team come out of time outs (taken when they are down) and right every wrong that got them in the hole in the first place. They are a supremely confident team because they put their trust in a system that has worked for them all season, and they know will work for them in their pursuit of the Championship.
That they played 44 minutes to the absolute best of their ability is commendable for a team that is a rookie to the NBA Playoffs. However, it is precisely because they are rookies they lost hold of the game in the last four minutes. I’m sure that the Pelicans did to wish for it to end this way, and fully intended to play till the whistle. But not giving a 100% even on a single possession against a historically great team is suicidal. This is as good as the Pelicans can get, both defensively and offensively. With the exception of Tyreke playing hero when has on his team a certain Anthony Davis and Eric Gordon (who was blazing hot for the field, no less), the Pelicans hardly had any flaws this game. They closed out well on the three point shot, rebounded exceptionally well and stayed the course at every Warriors comeback run, except for well, the last one. Davis did look tired in that crucial period, but I’m against the call for having him rested more earlier. These are the playoffs, and if you want to be counted among the greats then this is where you lay it out. The Pelicans did miss Jrue Holiday, especially as the leader of that second unit and will look for him to return when they play at home. Look for Monty Williams (who is also punching way above his weight here) to deploy the small ball line up with Cunningham at four and Davis at five, for more minutes in Game 3. I sincerely feel the momentum in the favor of the Pelicans, and they can make a series of it if they take care of business at home
Cleveland Cavaliers vs. Boston Celtics @ Cleveland
Cavaliers lead 1-0
For a team that has this unique mix of a 2-time NBA Champion who also happens to the best player alive, and two elite level playoff debutantes, the Cavs did a more than fair job of taking care of the “upstart” Celtics in Game 1. Both Love and Irving were very good and lived up to their regular season abilities. Irving especially impressed with this new found aggression on the defensive end. Something he (rightfully) took flak for almost his entire career. Lebron was, well, Lebron. His ability to do anything needed to elevate his team at almost any point of the game is something we have not seen since Magic Johnson. What impressed me is the maturity with which he handled the debut of Love, Irving and Mozgov, even saying while being mic’d up that it is normal to be excited, but they just needed to calm down and play their game.
“Things are gonna go back and forth, just stay the course. Be back, purposeful offense.” – Brad Stevens
These guys aren’t intimidated and will not back down. It isn’t like they have irrational confidence guys like Stephen Jackson or Nate Robinson playing for them, but they don’t need those guys. They have Stevens in their corner. If anything, the comeback 16-2 run over a span of three minutes in the 3rd quarter was indication enough that these guys came to play. Their inexperience showed in places, especially when (they felt) calls were not going their way. Someone needs to tell them that thises are the playoffs. And you are playing Lebron at home in his first playoff game back as a Cavalier. Get used to not getting the calls you want. It is going to be an uphill task against a title contender so the Celtics would do well to stick to the basics and bring that heart, that system and that Stevens to every game.
Memphis Grizzlies vs. Portland Trailblazers @ Memphis
Grizzlies lead 1-0
They continue to do what they do best, play stifling defense. They throttled the Blazers for nearly the whole game while making simple plays ending in high percentage shots at the other end. Conley struggled with his injury, but Udrih stepped in style to cover up for any shortage on the offensive end. Both Randolph and Gasol were as effective as expected and I am running out of thoughts for this paragraph. The Grizz did everything right. Nothing to see here…let’s move on.
Surviving the regular season without Mathews was commendable, but they missed him and his phenomenal two-way play terribly in Game 1. If Portland cannot find a rhythm, look for Memphis to wrap this up earlier. The good news is that Memphis shot very well, something that history tells us isn’t going to happen in succession often. Portland also win the home crowd war in the series by a mile and then some, so look for them to take at least two games back at home. Alridge (although playing hurt) and Lillard both struggled significantly, something that does not seem likely to happen for four games back to back. Portland will need to be patient with themselves and trust that they can give the Grizzlies a run for the second round appearance.
Atlanta Hawks vs. Brooklyn Nets @ Atlanta
Hawks lead 1-0
If the Hawks were affected by the night club incident, they certainly did not show it. Yes, they are missing Sefolosha, and miss him even more when the move to the second round. As good as they still are defensively Sefolosha adds another level to it. Brooklyn aren’t a worthy competitor on any level, so the Hawks will have their way with them throughout the series, just like they did in Game 1. Coach Mike can use this series to test a few lineups / formations in preparation for whoever comes for them in the second round.
Not much to be said after The Truth said it all last week. They make the playoffs only because they play in the weaker conference and the NBA refuses to budge on its stance on having the top 16 teams in the league make the playoffs as opposed to the top eight teams in each conference. There were some bright spots on the offensive end, especially from Deron Williams who still controls the heart of this team. Even the late run in the 4th quarter was a good sign for the Nets who look to make a series out of this. How successful they will be, is yet to be seen.
Los Angeles Clippers vs San Antonio Spurs
Clippers lead 1-0
There is no doubt in anyone’s mind that this should absolutely not be a first round match up, and this first game showed us why. That one of these two elite teams will be eliminated in the first round because of a silly technicality is proof that the playoff seeding rules need to change. And change fast.
CP3 was in assassin mode. He was determined the Clips stay in the game from whistle to whistle and took full advantage of banged up Spurs team. The other star for the Clippers was their defense which was beyond spectacular for large periods of the game. The Clippers are right to double up on Kwahi as soon as he touches the ball, but need to rotate quicker when he passes out of the double team. This may become a challenge as the series progresses since the Spurs, as a team, shift formations at great speed and no one adjusts better from game to game than Pop’s teams. Jordan needs to work on his free throws during downtime to eliminate Hack-a-Jordan, a strategy that takes away the Clipper biggest strength, transition offense.
The Spurs struggled immensely, both from the field and the free throw line. That is both good and bad news. Bad because they are now down 1-0 against an elite team they should have ideally met in the second round. Good because it can only get better from here. That Parker ankle twist made me nearly crap my pants, and the way Paul’s been playing that’s the one injury the Spurs cannot afford at this time. In classic Spurs style they took their time coming out of the blocks, feeling their way around the Clippers before coming through at the start of the second quarter. As much of a purist he is, do not expect Pop to not take advantage of Hack-a-Jordan to break the Clippers flow. I’m all for taking advantage of an NBA player who cannot make at least 60 percent of his free throws. And let’s not forget that Duncan was there at some point in his career as well. The Spurs will bounce back. And let’s be honest, how many of us are willing to bet against the defnding Champions winning four of the remaining six.
In case you missed my playoff predictions you can find the East and the West here.
Toronto Raptors vs. Washington Wizards @ Toronto
Wizards lead 1-0
If I were a nice guy, I’d say this game was downright ugly. But I’m not a nice guy.
What the hell was that Game 1 about?? I cannot remember the last time I saw such reckless basketball being played. Once sequence, 3 minutes into the 2nd quarter, looked like two lowly high school teams playing a finals game in a tournament sponsored by the local convenience store. Only these are two professional NBA teams that are in the NBA playoffs!
If you needed more proof that Wittman needs to go, please watch this game. The Wizards won this game solely on the sheer talent they trot out on court. No one is surprised that Pierce is now the leader and coach of this team. You could see him actively leading in the breaks and timeouts, rallying this team that he knows has the ability to beat a team that is clearly better (although he will not admit it) than them. Wall and Beal were uncharacteristically ineffective, but that will change when they adjust to the defense in Game 2. They did play solid defense, impressively keeping all five Raptors outside the three-point line for large stretches of time. If they want to win this series they will need to throttle the Raps flow (like they did in spurts this game) for 48 minutes.
This game was a colossal mess for a team that does not often struggle on the offensive end. The Raptors looked impatient, and seemed more concerned about living up to and going one up on last year’s post season run. This was clearly evident in the reckless possessions, missed layups, forced shots and shot-clock-expiring Hail Mary passes that were being thrown around. Even Lowry notching up 6 fouls well before regulation time was indication that he was trying too hard. Yes, this is the playoffs, and yes, I’d expect the Raptors to come out with increased intensity, but they have to be patient and trust their system. Come playoff time, patience and aggression are opposite sides of the same coin, and someone needs to remind the Raptors of this.
Golden State Warriors vs. New Orleans Pelicans @ Golden State
Warriors lead 1-0
It’s such a joy to watch basketball played the right way. To watch sublime movement off the ball. To watch sublime movement, period. No one thought the Pelicans would be a pushover in this series, but to watch them come together as a team and match the Warriors play-for-play for a full quarter in this game was hugely refreshing after that horrible TOR vs. WAS game.
Jeff “The Sage” Van Gundy disagreed with Mike Breen. He (Van Gundy) said that this game was more a learning for the Warriors than the Pelicans, because, if they (the Warriors) did blow out the Pelicans in Game 1 at home, which in all probability they should have, Kerr would find it hard to pick apart their faults and prepare them for a Pelicans resurgence in Game 2. I could not agree more. Look, the Warriors looked impeccable for three quarters. They ran circles around the Pelicans both on offense and defense. I got frustrated just watching them toy around with the Pelicans, I can only imagine how the Pelicans felt. But the Warriors need to keep mercilessly pounding away in the first two rounds and get them over in five games each. Why? To get that much needed rest between rounds that will help them put up a fight against Pop and the Spurs. (Yes, I just revealed my Western Conference Finalists)
The Warriors were expected to dominate the game. They are after all playing at home where they are 39-2 and have the best offense and defense in the League. What was unexpected though, and feel free to call me skeptical, was the Pelicans’ response. I was ready to see them overwhelmed by the scale of it all, to be intimidated by the raucous Oracle crowd, to give up in the third quarter, 25 points down. What they did instead is show the world they belong here, and rightfully so. That they did not crumble under pressure showed tremendous character on their part. From being 25 points down to outscoring the Warriors 40-22 over the last 12:41 of the game, to Davis making it clear that his regular season fourth quarter antics aren’t a flash in the pan, the Pelicans matched up spectacularly and gave the Warriors everything they could handle in a Game 1. Put it this way…the Pelicans lost by seven and the Warriors had exactly four wide-open defensive-breakdown lay ups. You do the math.
Chicago Bulls vs. Milwaukee Bucks @ Chicago
Bulls lead 1-0
Contrary to my prejudice, I quite enjoyed this game. Both teams were expected to be horrendous from the field, but while Milwaukee’s young team marginally struggled offensively, they did have a few good moments, while Chicago was finding its offensive flow just in time shooting 38% from 3-pt and 46% from the field.
Watching Rose show streaks of his former self, going for 23 points in 27 minutes on 56% was easily the highlight of my weekend. One play in particular in the second quarter where he blows by MCW, who is ready for him, for a reverse layup brought back so many memories from his MVP season and the 2011 playoffs. What’s impressed me is that Chicago are playing at just the right pace to allow Rose back into the flow, both offensively and defensively. They have come a long way in his absence, something even Rose acknowledged, and being patient with themselves in Game 1 of the playoff, no less, shows a lot of maturity. If this Game 1 is any indication, the Bulls only get better and create a power shift in the East rankings this playoffs.
They were everything they were in the regular season, a long armed, defensive team that struggles to score the basketball for large periods in the game. They aren’t intimidated, which is encouraging, so they can only get better from here. The high odds that they have one fairly solid shooting night means they will steal a game at home. This will also be aided by the Bulls playing at a comfortable pace for reasons mentioned above. This is the first series where I feel I may need to change my pick to say Bulls in 5.
Houston Rockets vs. Dallas Mavericks @ Houston
Rockets lead 1-0
The first quarter of this game showed everything that is right about the Rockets. The second showed everything that isn’t. Right from the whistle, it was clear that Harden and the Rockets took to heart Cuban’s words that they were a predictable, one dimensional (not very good) team built around Harden, his brilliance and his isolation plays. Nothing in the first quarter vindicated Cuban. Every Rocket contributed, whether it was Brewer slashing to the rim, Terry throwing lobs, and Howard with three blocks. That monster first quarter coupled with Brewer’s outburst in the fourth quarter helped the Rockets stay in the game and hold on to home court advantage. What has been established is that for Houston to succeed in the playoffs, Howard has to be on the floor since he is the only competent rim protector they have. This was glaringly evident as every Dallas comeback coincided with Howard on the bench. What is encouraging for Houston is that the pulled off this win with Harden barely cracking 20 pts on 4-11 shooting. That’s not gonna happen too often now, will it?
Cuban may not have been vindicated on his Rockets analysis, but his Rondo predictions seem to have come true, for this game at least. From a player who got suspended for arguing with the coaching staff, to 15-5 in 27 minutes in Game 1 of the playoffs, Rondo has come a long way and is, along with Barea, the x-factor in this series. What was frustrating to watch though, was the Mavs, including Ellis, often ignore the mismatch on Nowitski on the pick and roll, especially when he (Nowitski) was calling for the ball. It takes some level of idiocy to ignore a 7-ft All Star German screaming for the ball.
This game did make me wonder if the Mavs can take this series. For them to do that, two things need to happen, 1.) Ellis needs to straighten himself out and play at a much higher level, something that he is capable of, and b.) Nowitski needs to come down hard on the team, rallying them to believe that they can beat these guys.
Atlanta Hawks (1) (60-22) vs. Brooklyn Nets (8) (38-44)
Regular Season: Hawks win 4-0
I’m seething. I’m pissed off! I’m so upset as I write this preview that I may need a new keyboard when I’m done!!
Maybe the Hawks should’ve sat with JR Smith for lessons on what to do when partying past 4 a.m.
The incident in New York this last week could not have come at a worse time for a Hawks team for all intents and purposes should have been a title contender this season. Their seamless offense coupled with near impenetrable defense was set to become the stuff of legends as nearly every basketball fan was waiting with bated breath to watch them unleash this brand of basketball, the right brand of basketball, in the playoffs, only ever seen executed by the Spurs and the Celtics in the late 80’s. For crying out loud, they had five players named the Eastern Conference Player(s) of the Week! In the same week!!
Still, the Nets are a mess and continue to be so. That they sneakily made the playoffs upsets me even more. They are a terrible team posing as a competent one, and even more infuriating is that no one on that team even cares enough about the game. Right from Deron Once-Upon-A-Time Williams to Joe I-Had-my-Payday Johnson to their equally indifferent owner I dislike everything about the organization. The only saving grace is Lopez and even he has shitty ankles.
Enough of this upsetting matchup, Atlanta in 6. (should’ve been Atlanta in 4!!! Argh!)
Toronto Raptors (4) (49-33) vs. Washington Wizards (5) (46-36)
Regular Season: Toronto win 3-0
Anyone who ever told you that an incompetent coach cannot make the playoffs no matter how talented his group, show them Randy Wittman. To be fair, Wittman does draw up the occasional good play that make the Wizards look like a competent NBA Team. But, on most nights (read almost every night) the Wizards just stand around, looking at each other, trying to communicate with their eyes and hands, and failing miserably because no one player really knows what the other fellow is saying! Don’t get me wrong, the Wizards have a group of phenomenal and intelligent players. But how are these guys to play as a team if there is no actual play! The only way makes anything of itself is to immediately change their Head Coach
Still it is hard to bet against Wall and Beal, who can be legit starters for a title contender and Pierce, Gortat and Humphries who complete a perfectly competent supporting cast. With some playoff chops under their belt and The Truth to guide them, they will be no pushover in Round 1
The Raptors on the other hand, have been pretty stalemate this season. It isn’t like they had a terrible season, but a team’s current season is always measured against it’s previous season, and the Raptors have not done much to over shadow their surprising 2013-14 campaign. Lowry is still among the top ten point guards in the League and has emerged as the undisputed leader and franchise player for the Raps. I still don’t think you can win a championship with Lowry as your best player, but a team that is loaded with talent like (Lou) Williams, DeRozan, Patterson and bench guys like Hansbrough, and suddenly the Raps become a team you do not want to see in Round 2.
With Atlanta being incapacitated, this is as easy as it gets for the Raps to sneak into that maiden Eastern Conference Finals spot. Raptors in 6.
Chicago Bulls (3) (50-32) vs. Milwaukee Bucks (6) (41-41)
Regular Season: Bulls win 3-1
This here is my favorite series for the playoffs. Not many would share that sentiment with me though. In the four times they played each other, no team shot more than 40%. And considering both teams are defensive minded, most folks are expecting a gritty and possibly ugly first round series. I, for one, am not complaining.
The Bulls are the hardest working team on court in the League. Not all of it by choice though. Thibs running his players to the ground is now an open secret. It is a major point of contention between him and the Bulls front office and is said to be the biggest reason for his possible departure in the summer. The Bulls play at a frenetic pace; sometimes treating the meaningless mid-January game like it was the playoffs. You would think that Gasol’s demeanor and his veteran understanding of “picking your spots” in the season would have slowed down the team. Not with Thibs around. This is not necessarily a bad thing, Gasol is having a semi resurrection with a near career year and covering up for a dip in Noah’s numbers this season, Butler is playing the best basketball of his life, and with Rose back, the Bulls are healthier than they have been in the previous couple of seasons.
The Bucks are the feel good story this season. They suffered, what seemed like at the time, a massive blow to their playoff aspirations with the Parker injury. For a team with slew of fresh faces and some strong role players, the Bucks went back to the basics and played some devastating defense, finishing second in the league in defensive efficiency, unprecedented by a team coming off a lottery season (I’m still looking this one up)
Just how much Rose will be able to fit back into the system just when things are heating up, and whether the Bulls have the legs to keep up with the Bucks is to be seen.
It is hard, though, to bet against Tenacious Thibs and his team of veterans. Sorry Bucks, Bulls in 6.
Cleveland Cavaliers (2) (53-29) vs. Boston Celtics (7) (40-42)
Regular Season: Tied at 2-2
Mother: What is the Opposite of Wittman?
What a wizard! What. A. Wizard!! There is pure unbridled joy watching Stevens coach a team. At no point during season did the Celtics field a team that had any business being considered a sleeper in the Playoffs. To say this is the “only the East”, and discount the sheer magic that Stevens has worked with this Celtics team is sacrilege. I mean look at the starting five Smart, Bradley, Bass, Zeller, Turner with Thomas coming off the bench. None of guys, I repeat, none of those guys start for a title contender. Yet, here they are against all odds ready to face the potential Champs. The best part? There is not a soul that believes they will get swept when, in an ideal world, they should be.
The Cavs are getting there. It was always gonna take time. An incredibly gifted guard, who needs the ball in his hands, having to adjust to the best basketball player on the planet, and vice versa. And then both of them adjusting to one of the five best power forwards in the League and vice versa. Throw in an experienced coach who is but a novice in NBA ways, and a bunch of pieces that have to blend into a team that everyone expects to win a Championship in Year 1, and you have organized chaos.
Now that they have figured it out, the Cavs can, on a given night, put up an offensive clinic unparalleled by anyone League not named the Warriors. They still have glaring defensive issues (hardly surprising when two of your best three players are barely average defenders or less) thus making it difficult for them to stay in a game when their shot isn’t falling.
All things considered, they still have the best player on the planet. And while he may have relaxed a bit this season, let’s not be too hasty to forget that he is a 2-time Champion.
Just don’t write off Steven for a sweep. Just don’t. Ok? Cavs in 6.