2015 NBA Playoffs Day 1

In case you missed my playoff predictions you can find the East and the West here.

 

John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

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!

Wizards

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.

 

Raptors

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.

 

 

Thearon W. Henderson Getty Images North America

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.

 

Warriors

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)

 

Pelicans

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.

 

 

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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.

 

Bulls

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.

 

Bucks

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.

 

 

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Houston Rockets vs. Dallas Mavericks @ Houston

Rockets lead 1-0

 

Rockets

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?

Mavericks

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.

2015 NBA Playoffs Predictions – East

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In case you missed the Western Conference predictions you can read it here.

Getting straight to the point…

Eastern Conference

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?

Child: Stevens!

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.

 

2015 NBA Playoff Predictions – West

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How do you build up to a playoff prediction for a season that came down to the wire like it did this week. On day 169 of a 170-day NBA season, eight (8) of sixteen (16) seeds and seven (7) of the eight (8) matchups were yet to be finalized. Of course the tankers tanked and the rankers rested ranks. But just the thought that, on Day 170 a win here or a loss there could have changed the entire landscape of the playoffs as we know it (now). What if the The Brow does not put up the 31 against the Spurs and OKC snuck into the playoffs? (Answer: they would’ve gotten torched by GSW and we would’ve most likely been treated the highest scoring game total by a team in history) Or what if the Pacers beat the Nets in their head to head two weeks ago, go 6-1 the rest of the way, sneak into the playoffs with a healthy George to play the Hawks who are in a funk?

The bright side to all of this? There are only three legitimate title contenders this season. Well, there were four, until Sefalosha, Millsap and Antic decided to go partying. You’re not beating the best two-way player of his generation and his (near) transcendent guard sidekick in a seven game series when your second best player is injured and your back up center almost faced jail time. But I digress.

Does Chicago have it in them to upset the 2015 Big Three, or does Coach Kerr bring his playoff chops (and wear his five rings) to every playoff game inspiring GSW to close out one of the ten greatest regular seasons in the history of the League?

Say what you want about the regular season, and yes, it is important (blah blah), the Playoffs is where real men play real basketball. So, without further ado, let the games begin!

Western Conference:

Golden State Warriors (1) (67-15) vs. New Orleans Pelicans (8) (45-37)

Regular Season: Warriors win 3-1

For those of you who are not aware, Davis cracked a 30 PER this year, making this the 11th time ever. The other ten times this was done, the players were named Hakeem, Kobe ad Jordan. Yes, I wanted to watch the ungodly Westbrook in the Playoffs. Yes, I wanted to see GSW torch OKC for a 180 point game.

But I’ glad.

I’m glad because, as exciting as a transcendent Westbrook vs. Curry matchup would have been (one for the history books), I am beside myself to see The Brow in the Playoffs. I’m glad because a postseason appearance is the perfect exclamation mark to what has been a mind blowing season from Davis. I’m glad because there could not be a better playoff lesson for Davis, going up against one of the ten greatest regular season teams and the best defense in the League.

All said and done, the Pelicans are playoff rookies with a mediocre (and that’s putting it mildly) coach albeit with a balanced side, while the Warrirors have a playoff series under their belt, with an incredibly talented team and a Coach of the Year candidate who has a fistful of rings.

In any other this scenario this series should have been a sweep, but watching Davis will the Pelicans into the playoffs on Wednesday, the last day of the regular season, against one of three title contenders playing at full strength and seeking home court for the Playoffs, tells me that he wins one game by himself at home.

I’m glad because this is where he Learns. This is where they Teach. Warriors in 5.

Portland Trailblazers (4) (51-31) vs. Memphis Grizzlies (5) (55-27)

Regular Season: Grizzlies sweep 4-0

The Blazers are a 2 seed if Mathews and Lopez stay healthy. The Afflalo signing would have nailed that Western Conference Finals spot as well. While injuries are a part of the game, I believe the Mathews injury has been more devastating for the Blazers than any injury on another team this season; even more than the KD injury for OKC. Yes, I said it.

On all counts this is a fair series. Portland (105.5) has a 2 pt. offensive advantage over Memphis (103.1), while Memphis (99.9) has a similar defensive advantage over Portland (101.4). Even their benches are equally bad with Memphis (31.3) vs. Portland (27.3) being the only playoff series to have both teams among the League’s ten worst. Also, both teams have exceptional coaches.

The cases against Memphis are,

  • Can they score in the face of mediocre defense? (The addition of Jeff Green, signed to lurk on the perimeter while Gasol and Z-Bo pound inside has not necessarily worked out the way they hoped), and,
  • Despite all that size Memphis are a woeful rebounding team (20th in the League. Portland are 2nd)

The cases against Portland is

  • Can they defend four quarters in case the Memphis gets red hot (Of course, Memphis being red hot for four straight quarters is unlikely) and,
  • Can the Batum / Afflalo / McCollum trio deliver in at least four games?

This one genuinely hard to call, but I go with Grizzlies in 7.

Los Angeles Clippers (3) (56-26) vs San Antonio Spurs (6) (55-27)

Regular Season: Tied at 2-2

I cannot possibly express how much joy this particular CP3 season has brought me. For years he played the (seemingly) second fiddle on his teams, only take over the last 5 minutes of a game when it mattered the most. This season, however, losing Griffin to injury, coupled with the (unwarranted) buzz that he wasn’t his old self, Paul took matters into his own hands and dished out a near career season with 19-10-5 along with ungodly 48-39-90 (shooting) splits. With Griffin missing 15 games and a bench that is fourth worst amongst playoff teams, the Clippers making the third seed should have automatically given Paul the MVP. Unfortunately (for Paul) and fortunately (for basketball fans) the League fields three gentlemen named Curry, James and Harden.

Griffin’s offense has dropped off significantly offensively as he tries to inexplicably become a playmaker (last season he inexplicably tried to become a mid range jump shooter) and the Jordan/Redick/Barnes need someone to bring the ball up. That leaves Paul as the only legitimate threat for the Spurs who will kindly counter with only the best defensive player in the league this side of the All Star Break, Mr. Leonard.

This is most definitely an exciting series. But, let us not forget, in the last 15 years (and counting) we know that no team prepares for the Playoff Battle the way the Spurs do. This is their Domain. This is Pop’s Lair. This is the Spurs backyard.

Picking the Spurs in 6 is too easy. Also, I think Pop is mad as hell he did not get homecourt. He’ll want to get this done in 4.

I believe Paul will spoil the plan.

For one game. Spurs in 5

Houston Rockets (2) (56-26) vs. Dallas Mavericks (7) (50-32)

Regular Season: Rockets win 3-1

When I set out to write this column, I wasn’t sure if I should go down the standings (1v8, 2v7…) or go along the brackets. When I saw the brackets on Wednesday though, I had my answer.

I honestly cannot remember the last time a series was so entertaining more because of off court drama between than on court ability.

If you haven’t, please take a few minutes off to read Mark Cuban’s Grantland profile here. What’s relevent to this column is how he clearly states that “There’s no more predictable team than the Rockets…they are very talented, and James Harden, I think, is the MVP…(but) that’s not a very good team over there”.

First of all, it is hard to argue with a 56-year old billionaire basketball aficionado (fanatic actually) and team owner who was the first to hire an analyst that eventually brought him the title when his aging team beat a team on the cusp of a “dynasty” of “not one, not two, not three, not four, not…” (Sorry Heat fans). Secondly, Mr. Cuban’s analysis is way too accurate to argue against, only because it’s a glaring truth, staring us in the face every night.

No one team stagnates its offense quite like the Rockets do for James Harden. Nearly three-quarters of the Rocket’s possessions are some form iso play for Harden where he gets fancy with the ball before either:

  • pulling up for a shot, or
  • driving to the hoop, or
  • drawing a foul on either of the above

That’s it! That’s what got the Rockets to the 2nd seed! Look, all the arguments for Curry to win MVP this year are valid: Warriors have put up one of the ten greatest regular seasons ever and Curry was at the center of it, Curry never took a night off and brought his A-game for every single game he played and Curry’s level of play is so lethal that teams change their entire defensive strategy when he is on the floor making him invaluable to the team.

But to not reward Harden, an insanely gifted guard who took the fans and expert’s jabs at his defense personally and has improved on that end by leaps and bounds, taking the Rockets to the 2nd seed when, in an ideal world, this woefully depleted team should’ve been fighting for the eight spot in the Western Conference is just plain ridiculous.

Back to the series.

Cuban still believes that the Mavs can make the Rondo situation work with Rondo getting more practice time with the team and Carlisle’s complex system. There is also hope that the Rondo-Ellis back court pairing and the dreamy Rondo-Nowitski pick and roll sequence will peak for the playoffs.

Even so, The Rockets 20-9 since the All Star break (as against Dallas’ 14-13), they have found a more than reliable sixth man in a (rejuvenated) Corey, and Howard seems to have embraced his “role” as defensive anchor and secondary scoring option on the team (for now at least)

And as always, with all things constant and both teams even in a series, the team with (clearly) the best player will win.

Rockets in 7.

Seasons Greetings!

It is that time of the year again. The time when the lights are turned up and we gather by burning rubber on the hardwood to celebrate our gift under the Jumbotron. A time when some Elves are in peak you-can-see-my-rippling-muscles shape because they worked out all summer while others look like they ate a reindeer, or two.

The League is not perfect, as is clear from the Delay-Of-Game rule, and neither are the players, as is obvious from Shabazz Mohammed getting sent home from rookie orientation camp. But it is important that we count our blessings. It is important because this is the last season for Father NBA before he brings in Father Silver, and because every few years we run the risk of not experiencing a season at all.

Let us be glad and rejoice! It is here!! Merry NBA Season!!!

So with this ’13 Season upon us, I humbly count 13 blessings I am thankful for this season.

No. 13: Karan Madhok & Akshay Manwani on NBA.com/India. I have been working in the Indian basketball scene for over half a decade now and no where have I been reminded of the stark difference between the talkers and the walkers. Madhok falls squarely into the latter.

See, basketball is growing in India. And growing fast. You may not see it, but believe me, the rumblings are there. And you’d be hard pressed to find anymore more in tune with this growth than Madhok. Madhok has been at it since 2009, and despite his strong affection for the NBA makes sure he gives as much (and often more) importance to covering the game and its growth in India. The guy is near relentless in his pursuit of recognition for basketball in India and is big inspiration in getting me started on my writing.

Between Madhok and Manwani the Indian NBA fan, a big part of the NBA’s global outreach focus, gets analysis of the world’s best basketball league from the eyes of one of their own. Both Madhok and Manwani are part of an elite group of global writers that are spreading news and views about the league to unchartered corners of the world.

If you aren’t following them, I could not even try to tell you what you are missing. So, let me help you with this and this.

No. 12: NBA Gametime. Every. Game. Live. And recorded. All of them. Need I say more?

No. 11: Sony SIX: It happens. It is inevitable. The younger generation will always have it better than those that came before them. But to have it this good? God how I hate them! As recently as last decade, There were exactly two, yes TWO live NBA games a week. Friday and Saturday. There was the occasional game on Wednesday, but that’s if the India channel partner (at the time) felt generous. Every once in a while, we’d also get a surprise (like the one you get when you pull on an old pair of jeans to find 100 bucks in the back pocket) when the channel would throw in a double header. Wow! Four games for this week!!

Of course that number never went up, instead staying at only two games a week. No one took NBA fans seriously, no one took basketball seriously. Cut to 2013 and blessings have poured from the NBA gods and how. F O U R T E E N Live games a week! Not to mention nearly 10 game repeats and highlights from nearly every game around the league. Never have NBA fans had it better and, if sources are to be believed, SIX is in this for the long haul. There has never been a better time to be an NBA fan in India.

No.10: The Brow Power. Here is some perspective. Below are the numbers through games 1 – 3 in each respective player’s Sophomore year in the League.

FG%

FT%

PPG

RPG

BPG

APG

SPG

TPG

SophScore™*

Davis (20)

0.495

0.950

23.7

12.3

4.0

1.7

2.7

2.0

42.4

Garnett (19)

0.477

0.583

14.3

8.0

3.0

4.0

2.3

3.0

28.6

Howard (19)

0.397

0.613

15.0

7.3

1.7

0.7

0.3

1.3

23.7

Lebron (19)

0.410

0.743

26.7

6.3

1.0

7.3

1.7

3.7

39.3

Kobe (19)

0.250

0.882

10.3

2.3

0.3

3.0

1.3

1.3

15.9

Duncan (22)

0.471

0.519

20.7

15.3

1.3

3.3

0.7

4.3

37.0

*SophScore™ is arrived at by adding all relevant stat categories (less) turnovers per game.

Look at that chart. Really look at it. Don’t skim.

Granted we are at the beginning of a season, and everything is about games 1 – 15 is premature (Philly at 3-0 anyone?). I’ll also give you the argument that Kobe’s, a 5-time NBA Champion no less, numbers are downright outrageous. But if you watched Davis’s first three games you know this kid is special. He annihilated the Orlando and Charlotte frontlines and put up a very respectable 20-12 in addition to 3 blocks and a steal against The Legend’s Pacers, only the best defensive team in the league.

Are we really gonna let our acute sense of skepticism cloud our passion for the immense basketball talent, acumen and IQ this kid brings to the hardwood? I hope not. I really do.

No.9: To Harden or To Howard, that is the question. I’m not a Howard fan. No more. After his monster ’09 season when he carried a dysfunctional team to the Finals, Howard gave us two beautiful seasons reminding everyone that he can lead a team to 45 wins and the playoffs as its best player. But then it went downhill. Fast. Howard sulked the whole ‘11-’12 season until he moved to a team of his choice, then sulked again, mailed in the ’12-‘13 season (because playing with  5-time champion and one of the 10 greatest players ever was not enough) and (again) signed with a team of his choice. How is this different form Lebron’s infamous “Decision” to sign with Miami, you ask? Two differences:

One, Lebron never sulked and the Cavs finished no less than Eastern Conference Semi Finalists in his last five seasons there: EC SF, NBA F, EC SF, EC F, EC SF. Check out the three best players on those teams: Ilgauskas (No more in the league), Hughes (No more in the league) and Mo Williams (Playing backup in Portland). We could even throw in a Washed-Up-Shaq (now playing owner at SacramIndia). With the exception of Williams in ’08-’09 none of those guys cracked 16 ppg.The Howard / Magic comparative?: EC SF, NBA F, EC F, EF 1R, EC 1R, while playing alongside Hedo (18-5-5, in his prime), Rashard Lewis (16-5-3, just past his prime) and Vince Carter (17-4-3, over the hill but still very effective).

Two, Lebron moved to hook up with the sixth greatest shooting guard ever, submitted to being publicly humiliated, took all that criticism and belted out two championships back-to-back, with a legit chance for a three peat. Howard moved to hook up with the second greatest shooting guard ever and a top 5 Forward-Center, took almost no criticism (he got away because of his back problems), and ran away because this would never be his team. (He stupidly believed the Lakers were gonna do this)

So why am I thankful for a clearly thankless Howard?! I am not. What I am thankful for is Harden finally getting rewarded with a chance to form one of the greatest Pick & Roll duos of this generation. What I am thankful for is that Houston hired one of the greatest power forwards ever in McHale as their coach. What I am thankful for is Houston then goes and hires the fourth greatest center in NBA history in Hakeem Olajuwon to coach Howard! And all I (want to be) thankful for is that Howard stops bickering, realizes what an opportunity he has been gift wrapped and finally live up to his immense potential.

No.8: Lob City: Day 3 Regular Season (L.A.) – It’s 7 minutes into the 3rd quarter of an offensive showdown. Nothing out of the ordinary considering it’s the Clippers against the Warriors.

Then it happens. Not once. Not twice. But Thrice.

Three Steals. Three lobs. Three Dunks. Six points. Fans and viewers (at home) on their feet? Every. Single. One.

No, Griffin did not spend the summer turning into a devastating post up presence.

No, DeAndre is not winning Defensive Player of the Year.

No, the Clippers still cannot defend effectively enough for a Championship contender.

Question is, does all this matter? The Clippers have assembled, and continue to grow into, the most exciting basketball team of the decade. With sharp shooters Reddick and Crawford alongside two of the nastiest dunkers in Griffin and Jordan, this team is a point guard’s dream. Oh wait, did I mention they also have the best point guard in the League?! Are you kidding me?!?!

You want to watch their every game. You hold your breath every time they get a long rebound. You look for that eye contact between Paul and The Dunkerons™. You want expect them to do something spectacular every possession. You want … Oh geez, turn on the game already!

No. 7: The Legend’s Pacers: The Pacers sign … Larry “The Legend” Bird.

Ladies & Gentlemen! Your NBA Champions…The INDIANA PACERS!!! What? You doubt me? Wait, wait, WAIT!!! … You doubt (dramatic pause) The Legend?! Do you not know what this man is capable of?!

Let me lay it down for you. No one can argue that a big factor in Miami’s Finals appearance last year was Indiana’s woeful bench and absolute lack of Big Game Reps a.k.a. Big Game Cojones. They could not have asked for a better match up, thumping Miami in the paint who were clearly on the brink of a series loss. Instead, the Pacers suffered from the classic Too-Far-Too-Soon Syndrome.

Enter Larry Legend.

The Pacers now:

  1. Have brought back every relevant piece from the ’12 – ’13 run. Including Coach Vogel
  2. Have cleared out the bench and made it exponentially stronger.
  3. They did this and STILL managed to keep Danny Granger who is widely perceived to be the biggest Tier 2 trade chip this season.
  4. Have one of the five greatest Big Game Winners guiding them.

Can you imagine playoff practice time with Larry Legend? Breaking down opponent game film. His words failing to match the intensity in his eyes as he explain what it truly means to step up and close out big games. Him doing this. Him … gahhh! I’ll stop now…

How is this not a championship team? Barring injuries, Indiana are, for the first time since 2005 a legitimate title contender. I’d dare to put them ahead of The Heat and the Spurs. There … I said it.

Ladies & Gentlemen! Your NBA Champions…The INDIANA PACERS!!! (cut to shot of Larry Legend seemingly unfazed by this “development”)

No.6: The Warriors Cry. The Warriors need to seriously consider making more room on their bandwagon. A whole lotta us gonna climb dat baby!

That they are offensively phenomenal is no surprise as they trot out Curry-Thompson-Lee as their Big Three. But it is their defense that casts doubt on their ‘14 Western Conference Champions Campaign. (No, they aren’t beating Indiana or Miami if they make out of the West). That doubt, I would believe, is now laid to rest with the signing of Andre the Iggy. Yes, the Bogut signing last season helped them improve from 27th to 14th in the League in Defensive efficiency, but a bigger part of that improvement was a season and a half including an offseason with one of the greatest defensive point guards ever, Marc Jackson, as their coach. They have already showed signs of sheer brilliance by blowing out the Lakers (by 30) and hanging in the mix with the Clippers, who many believe will lead the league in all offensive categories this year. I know they have yet to face a real defensive line up, but I doubt I will be missing any of their games this season.

No. 5: Love in the time of Rubio, FINALLY! 2013 has been a  good year.  The Spurs and Heat played one of the five greatest Game 7’s ever, Lebron vanquished his demons by proving that Championship ’12 was not a fluke and Derrick Rose returns for his 1st full season (fingers crossed) since surgery. But for this fan of all things K-Love, I find it hard to hard to be thankful for anything more than the Love – Rubio combo suiting up for what would be their first full season together. Take a look at the stats of these two 1-2 combinations:

  FG% 3P% FT% RPG SPG PPG
I 0.448 0.372 0.824 13.3 1.4 26.0
0.360 0.293 0.799 4.0 2.5 10.7
  0.404 0.333 0.812 17.3 3.9 36.7
II 0.496 0.423 0.896 9.8 2.6 25.8
0.562 0.000 0.713 6.8 1.8 7.6
  0.529 0.423 0.805 16.6 4.4 33.4

If you guessed I was Love-Rubio, then you’re right. Question is, who’s the other combination? Those, my friends, are numbers of the two of the greatest passers in the history of the NBA during their magical ’85-’86 season. So transcendent was their passing that Bird   and Walton almost never needed words or actions to communicate each other’s position on court, leaving defenses dumbfounded, even admitting to being “bored” at how easy it was.

I would not dare put the Love-Rubio duo at that level, not until they have played at least one full season together and put in more, much more effort on defense. But to see one of the smartest point guards ever play Picks and Passes with one of the smartest forwards ever!!! Warning: Not advisable for basketball fans with heart problems.

No. 4: The San Antonio Spurs. We sleep on these guys yet again?! Did we not learn anything last season? This is the only team that is bringing back ALL of its key players from last season’s championship run and traded up from Gary Neal to bring in Marco Belinelli. The Green / Kwahi / Bonner / Splitter / Belinelli lineup is a playoff team by themselves and all could start for all four of last season’s finalists. Add to this a guaranteed Most Improved Player season from Kwahi (who I am huge fan of after his phenomenal performance in the Finals) and you have this seasons Western Conference Champions.

“Blasphemy!!” you say, “The Duncan-Ginonli-Parker trio are still the heart and soul of this team!” Oh, I agree. The most definitely are. But If you think Pop’s not taking on a few more fines in order to rest his Big Three and expose the young’uns to more game time, preparing them for battle in the playoffs, then you are nuts. And we cannot be friends.

No.3: Kevin “F.U.” Durant. Give me one logical explanation as to why KD does not go into F.U. mode this season on the way to breaking the 35 ppg barrier for the first time since Kobe’s 35.58 in ’05-’06? The entire league thinks he cannot do everything (read: Make it to the Finals again) by himself and needs Westbrook, not to mention the widely held belief that OKC traded themselves out of (and lost all those pieces in more trades this summer) perennial contention talk as Harden continues to give Sam Presti sleepless nights. KD has already cracked the 50-40-90 club and with Westbrook’s return the team could not be in “better” shape for KD to play with a vengeance not seen since Bird in ’86 and score at a maniacal pace.

No. 2: Lebron James.  Aren’t we all thankful for him? (cut to Spurs / OKC / Pacer / Bulls fans burning my effigy)

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No. 1: Derrick Rose and his Bulls. Panic seems to have set in with what many people believe is a subpar performance so far from one the greatest point guards ever, leading a team (arguably) on course to upset the reigning 2-time Champions. What these same shallow emotional fans do not realize is that Rose is back after nearly two seasons off. This is first time in that same period that the Bulls have had their best five best players on the floor all at once. And who do they draw on opening night?…the wall that is the 2-time Championship wining Miami defense. Give them some time. Rose is back at full speed, Noah hates the Heat even more, Deng is still an All Star and Butler and Boozer seem ready to do what it takes to make this work to the Ring.

They’ll be fine.