Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Western Conference Playoffs First Round Preview

Now, for two months of angst.

Let's get it started...

1. L.A. Lakers (65-17) v. 8. Utah Jazz (48-34)
Season Series: L.A. won, 2-1

Utah hasn't been right all season. For most of the year, they were marred by injuries - specifically to Carlos Boozer (missed 45 games), but also Andrei Kirilenko (15 games), Deron Williams (14 games), and Mehmet Okur (10 games). Boozer finally returned in late February, in the middle of Utah's 12-game winning streak, and it seemed that the Jazz were going to make a serious run. But it has not been so. Utah has sputtered at the end of the season, losing 11 of their last 18, including home losses to Minnesota and Golden State this month. They have all their people back, but still aren't truly healthy - Boozer is still at less than 100 percent. He hasn't been himself. Thursday night against the Lakers, Williams looked all alone out there.

As for the Lakers - I mean, wow. They have the most talented team in the league by far. Lately, Shannon Brown, acquired from the Bobcats near the trade deadline in the deal that sent away Vladimir Radmanovic, has been stealing minutes from Jordan Farmar - just another good player for the Lakers, as if they needed any more. Andrew Bynum, just returned from a knee injury, is already getting his explosiveness back. Kobe Bryant, now 30, has picked his spots brilliantly this season (preserving himself at the beginning and end of the campaign and dominating in the middle, when Bynum was out) and is now ready to go full throttle. I mean, freaking Lamar Odom comes off the bench.

I agree with Charles Barkley - if the Lakers don't win the championship this season, it ain't happening. Think about it: What would make the Lakers win a championship in the next five years that won't allow them to win it this year? Better players? There hasn't been an NBA team this stacked in more than 20 years. If L.A. doesn't win it all this year, they don't have what it takes and never will, and the missing ingredient sure as hell won't be talent. And I love the Lakers more than almost anything.

The Lakers beat the Jazz in the playoffs last year without Bynum - and right now Utah isn't playing nearly as well as they played last year. Actually, they seem like they are ready to implode, the same way that the Nuggets did as the Lake Show was sweeping them in the first round last year.

Verdict: Lakers in four.

2. Denver Nuggets (54-28) v. 7. New Orleans Hornets (49-33)
Season series: 2-2

I really like this Denver team. It's amazing what Chauncey Billups has done with them. Simply put, he's made them more grown up. And as they head into the playoffs, a team that has lost in the first round of the playoffs in each of the last five years finally has itself a leader - the kind of leader any team could use. Kudos, Mr. Big Shot. We salute what you do.

Carmelo Anthony had some injuries this season - a broken wrist, a bad elbow - the latter likely the cause for his field goal percentage dipping five points, from 49 to only 44. Still, though, he can score the ball with the best of them, and is an improved all-around player. Nene had himself a career year. K-Mart still does K-Mart things. J.R. Smith lights it up off the bench. And Chris Anderson may be the best backup big man in the game right now - always makes an impact on the game with his shot-blocking, rebounding, and athleticism.

As far as the Hornets go, aren't they a two-man team at this point? It's an excellent tandem to have - David West was terrific in April, averaging a 24-9 on 52 percent shooting, and he's a bulldog, too. And Chris Paul is the best 6'1"-and-under player who ever lived. But they don't have enough help - Rasual Butler is okay, I guess, but you'd rather have him coming off the bench. Peja is playing hurt - he averaged 10 points a game on only 34 percent from three and 35 percent overall in 35 minutes a game in April, after playing only two games in March. Tyson Chandler missed almost a month before returning for the last game of the regular season.

I see Paul and West, two super-competitive guys, throwing up a 30-15 and a 25-10, respectively, in this series - and it still won't be enough.

Verdict: Nuggets in six.

3. San Antonio Spurs (54-28) v. Dallas Mavericks (50-32)
Season series: 2-2

In the past, Dallas matched up well with San Antonio. But that was when Dallas was good. Then again, San Antonio isn't what they once were, either - not with Manu Ginobili out for the year and Tim Duncan's knees aching, God bless his soul. He'll fight like a warrior, as he always does when he's playing hurt, and Tony Parker is now the third best point guard in the league, behind Paul and Williams. He'll probably average 30 points and 10 assists in this series. Still, it's hard to imagine how they can get by the way they are.

These guys had a great run.

Verdict: Mavericks in six.

4. Portland Trailblazers (54-28) v. Houston Rockets (53-29)
Season series: Houston 2-1

Probably the toughest first round match-up to call:

On the one hand, Portland has more talent. That's obvious. Brandon Roy is one of the ten best players in the league; LaMarcus Aldridge is the re-birth of the Portland-era Rasheed Wallace, minus the techs; Rudy Fernandez and Travis Outlaw are outstanding off the bench; and Batum, Blake, Sergio Rodriguez, and the Gorilla Vanilla Joel Przybilla are excellent role players. Hell, when he's not sitting on the bench in foul trouble, even Greg Oden comes in and contributes, using his sheer size to throw people around down low, grab some boards, get some put-backs, power home some dunks, and, occasionally, block a shot or two.

They also have the best home-court advantage in the league.

But here's what they don't have: any playoff experience whatsoever by any serviceable player other than Blake.

Houston, on the other hand, is a veteran team with a veteran coach and playoff experience, if not the good kind (they always lose in the first round). Yao is unstoppable on the low-block, and they play defense, and they play well together. Other than Yao, their biggest advantage may be this: the ability to tag-team Roy with Artest and Battier. As good as Brandon is, he isn't exactly an unstoppable virtuoso force of a scorer, a la Kobe or LeBron or Wade. I could see them giving him some trouble.

It's impossible to predict how this Portland team will perform in their first playoff appearance, but here's my best prognostication: They will win their first three games at home. So will Houston. Then, in Game 7, in a close game, right at the end, Portland will play like a team that has never been in such a situation before.

That is the way it goes.

Verdict: Houston in seven.

Check back tomorrow for the East preview...

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Pau Gasol the NBA's Newest Secondary Superstar

It has been said that he has the physical characteristics of an ostrich.

After last seasons NBA Finals, Jemele Hill called him Pau Ga-soft.

But I believe Jeff Van Gundy defined him most justly.

He's the NBA's best second best player.

As the Lakers prepare to embark on another run at the championship, let's take a timeout to honor the game's latest, greatest supporting player.

The Lakers are 86-21 with Gasol in the lineup over the past two seasons. The Spaniard has found his ultimate niche in Los Angeles - the steady seven footer, Mr. Consistency, with the all-around game, Mr. 19/10/4 on 57 percent shooting, serving as the Pinky to Kobe Bryant's Brain.

Last year, it was his arrival from Memphis that saved L.A.'s season after the season-ending knee injury to center Andrew Bynum - Gasol's skill level and basketball intellect making him a perfect big man for the triangle offense, which he picked up on the fly.

This season, Bynum went down again, to another knee injury - but once again the Lakers didn't miss a beat, thanks in no small part to Gasol, who moved back to center and upped his workload, even after playing into June last season, then leading Spain to the gold medal game at the Olympics in the summer.

Doug Collins once proposed the idea that Gasol was the most skilled big man in the game, and he very well may be. He is an excellent passer. He is an excellent shooter. He is a nightmare both facing up and with his back to the basket, where he uses craft and finesse to dominate stronger, more physical defenders. He has terrific hands and great touch around the hoop, where he can finish equally well with either hand.

But he's also toughened up. Gasol still isn't going to out-muscle anyone, and he does still fall down often - almost like a stage actress fainting during a play - but he does seem a bit more willing to pound bodies in his back-up. The dude had his manhood questioned after last June's debacle, and like the rest of his teammates, he will no longer be pushed around.

And if the Lakers manage a championship or two or three out of this bunch, the name Pau Gasol will join a list of great players who were not the best players on their teams. Before Gasol, there was Scottie Pippen, the greatest supporting actor of them all (Kobe doesn't count; he and Shaq were really more like two Brando's sharing the same movie). Before Pippen, there was James Worthy and Kevin McHale. There is nothing wrong with being mentioned with any of these men. It is an honor.

As was proved in Memphis, you can only go so far with Gasol as the best player on your roster - the Grizzlies were swept out of the playoffs three straight years in their only playoff appearances with Gasol as their franchise player (and the only three playoff appearances in team history).

But put him on a squad with Kobe Bryant, and suddenly, you are in serious business.

Throw in a Lamar Odom, and you are going to contend for the title.

Throw in a healthy Andrew Bynum, and there is no reason for the Lakers not to win the whole damn 'ship.

If and when it happens, Gasol will no doubt have played a monumental part, and if they can duplicate such success in coming years, he can start thinking about a legacy.

But first, we must hand out some awards:

M.V.P - LeBron James, Cavaliers. Duh.

D.P.O.Y. - Dwight Howard, Magic. I actually think LeBron is the best defensive player in the league - but to me, a great interior defender is always more valuable than a great perimeter one. So Howard, who leads the league in blocks and rebounds, gets the nod.

R.O.Y. - Derrick Rose, Bulls. Duh, again. Although there are several future All-Stars that will come from this rookie class.

Sixth Man - Jason Terry, Mavericks. I believe it is Kenny Smith who says the award should not go to someone who could actually start for his team. Jeff Van Gundy has expressed similar sentiments. Whatever. Terry gets 20 a game off the pine for a playoff-bound Dallas team. 'Nuff said.

Most Improved Player - Danny Granger, Pacers. Went from a very good young player to one of the five best small forwards in the league. Devin Harris a close second.

Coach of the Year - Mike Brown, Cavaliers. Opened up the offense, accepted the Phil Jackson doctrine of never panicking, and allowing the players to play through rough patches, rather than bail them out with timeouts. Before, the Cavs pretty much won solely because they had LeBron, and almost in spite of Brown. This year, Brown has hit his stride.

All-NBA first-team

G Chris Paul, Hornets/Dwyane Wade, Heat
G Kobe Bryant, Lakers
F LeBron James, Cavaliers
F Tim Duncan, Spurs
C Dwight Howard, Magic

All-NBA second-team

G Chauncey Billups, Nuggets
G Brandon Roy, Blazers
F Paul Pierce, Celtics
F Dirk Nowitzki, Mavericks
C Yao Ming, Rockets

All-NBA third-team

G Tony Parker, Spurs
G Deron Williams, Jazz
F Carmelo Anthony, Nuggets
F Kevin Garnett, Celtics
C Pau Gasol, Lakers

All-NBA Defense first-team

G Dwyane Wade, Heat
G Kobe Bryant, Lakers
F LeBron James, Cavaliers
F Shane Battier, Rockets
C Dwight Howard, Magic

All-NBA Defense second-team

G Chris Paul, Hornets
G Rajon Rondo, Celtics
F Kevin Garnett, Celtics
F Tim Duncan, Spurs
C Kendrick Perkins, Celtics

All-rookie first team

Derrick Rose, Bulls
Russell Westbrook, Thunder
O.J. Mayo, Grizzlies
Kevin Love, T'wolves
Brook Lopez, Nets

All-Rookie second-team

D.J. Augustin, Bobcats
Eric Gordon, Clippers
Rudy Fernandez, Blazers
Michael Beasley, Heat
Marc Gasol, Grizzlies

Monday, April 6, 2009

UNC's trouncing of Michigan State a case study in match-ups - kinda

In recent years, this truth has become more and more evident: As Kenny Smith has been saying for years, and as Scoop Jackson first brought to my attention several years ago in a piece for SLAM magazine, basketball is all about match-ups.

For example, from 2005-2007, the three best teams in the NBA's Western Conference were the Dallas Mavericks, Phoenix Suns, and San Antonio Spurs.

The Mavs matched up well with the Spurs, who matched up well with the Suns, who matched up well with the Mavs.

In 2005, San Antonio made the Finals, because they were able to avoid Dallas, who was defeated by Phoenix in the second round, creating a Suns-Spurs Conference Finals which Tim Duncan's squad won, 4-1.

In 2006, Dallas made the Finals - but only because Phoenix was without Amare Stoudemire in their Conference Finals clash.

The Spurs made the Finals in 2007 - a huge factor being that the Mavericks had been upset in round one by the Warriors, meaning that San Antonio was able to avoid them in the Conference Finals.

Phoenix never made the championship round because they could not avoid San Antonio in 2005 and 2007 (and because Stoudemire was hurt in 2006).

The best team is the team that survives.

What happened in Detroit Monday night, where the North Carolina Tar Heels defeated the Michigan State Spartans, 89-72, to win their second national championship in the last five years, was similar to that NBA scenario. UNC jumped all over the Spartans, right from the start, and it became obvious what was happening: at the beginning of the season, Carolina played MSU at that same Ford Field and beat them 98-63, causing people to seriously wonder whether or not the Heels could run the table.

Now history was repeating itself, and it was clear Tom Izzo's kids simply had no chance against Roy Williams's. UNC was still bigger and better on the inside and bigger and better on the perimeter, and there was no amount of time that was going to change that. The Spartans fell behind by 24 in the first half, but never stopped playing hard - and yet even with their most earnest efforts they still could not get closer than 13. Tilting at windmills.

And that's the thing about basketball sometimes: Michigan State was a no. 2 seed, and they had defeated two no. 1 seeds to get to the final game against the Tar Heels (just as I had predicted in my bracket); but they could play this North Carolina team 100 times and I doubt if they would win more than once or twice.

Michigan State was closer to the team that defeated Louisville and Connecticut in consecutive games than they are the ones that got outclassed last night; Monday night, that didn't matter. Unluck of the draw.

Carolina, on the other hand, simply had the best team.

No opponent from this college basketball season was defeating the Tar Heels last night. Their sights were set on this night in April since a night last April, when their season ended at the hands of eventual champion Kansas in the semifinals. UNC returned everybody from that team, and by doing so positioned themselves as the preseason no. 1. They failed to distinguish themselves during the season, as many thought they would, but maybe they were just bored, waiting for March to begin.

They peaked during the tournament, winning every game by a double-digit margin.

As it turns out, the Heels were who we thought they were - they had the best talent (against Michigan State, I think they had the six best players in the game - their entire starting unit and freshman backup big man Ed Davis, who's a beast), this was their year, they were supposed to win, and they did.

They would have matched up well with anyone.

I'd say something nice about Roy Williams, but a coach that great deserves more than a paragraph or two.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to go collect my earnings from my bracket beatdown of my family. I won $50 from my dad and grandmother.

Hey, it was a favorable match-up.