NBA Playoffs First Round: Fouls, Referees and Contenders

April 29, 2009

The first round is almost done and the NBA is preparing to say goodbye to eight more teams. Some have already gone: apparently the Pistons had something better to do than play against the Cavaliers this post season. Same goes for the Jazz: you can’t really make excuses if you are letting a team as offensively talented as the Lakers beat you without making them play at least a little defense.

Others, like the Hornets, are just prolonging the departure of their fishing trip. Losing by a playoff record 50 plus points is not exactly contender form, is it? Their loss to Denver was just embarrasing. If Byron Scott had any hair you could have bet he would have pulled it out by now.

(Who would have thought that the Denver Nuggets would be legitimate title challengers this year. Before the Chauncey Billups trade they were just another talented Western team that might eventually bow down to King Kobe in the Conference Finals. Now though? Their match up with the Mavericks in round 2 will go some way to showing if they are truly legit or not, but they look damn good so far.)

However, for most of the playoff teams the immediate future is far from decided, with seedings and home court apparently counting for little. All the series are almost guaranteed to fluctuate and change.

In any other year the first rounder between the Bulls and the Celtics would be THE match-up of the year. 3 overtimes, 1 double overtime, 5 games. Madness. Neither team appears to know when they are beaten. And luckily or unluckily, depending on if you bleed red or green, all of the referees have forgotten how to call a foul.

Maybe it is catching because Dwight Howard basically Bruce Lee’d Samuel Dalembert last night. Elbow to the Face. But Sam didn’t go down. Apparently Canadians are made of tougher stuff. Ask Steve Nash and the Spurs I guess.

The Sixers still have a chance, so do the Heat, Hawks, Blazers and Rockets. Anyone of these teams could go through. Let us hope that the first round has not used all of the NBA’s magic.


NBA Playoffs: Home Court Is Far From Sacred

April 23, 2009
Rose is Scary

Rose is Scary

Who would have thought it? Despite the fact that, with the exception of L.A and Cleveland, this years first round match ups were some of the most widely anticipated and closest to call, nobody would have expected there to be this many twists already. And each team has only played 2 games this post season!


While the Lakers and the Cavaliers take care of business by destroying the Utah Jazz and the Detroit Pistons, the rest of the playoff hopefuls have clearly been listening to David Stern showing the world that the NBA really is where amazing happens.


Just ask Boston. Literally the day before they are due to begin their title defence against the written off Chicago Bulls they receive the news that their reigning Defensive Player of the Year will be missing for what could be the entire post season. Ouch.


Even so, the Celtics still boasted two more All Stars than the Bulls. And they had a fit Rajon Rondo a player who makes the champs tick. So regardless of Garnett’s forced absence, the good folk of Boston still would have expected an easy first rounder. The playoffs start in the semis right?


Que Derrick Rose who clearly had not attended the meeting when NBA rookies were told how they are supposed to play in their first season. He decided that the Bulls belonged on his shoulders, and with a little help from Ben Gordon, proceeded to snatch home court advantage from the Cs. Oh how the mighty can fall.


Meanwhile, Josh Smith and the Atlanta Hawks did what few have; silencing Dwayne Wade only for Wade to find his team and his stroke, leading his Miami Heat to victory to even the series and grab home court.


Apparently home court is no longer sacred as the Magic also decided to make their lives much harder by letting the Sixers back into a game that they should have killed at half time. Superman can only do so much.


Out West things were much the same with home court also counting for nearly nothing. Dallas marched into San Antonio and Dirk plus JJ Barea turned the Spurs over, taking the series back across Texas with home court and the series tentatively balanced at one apiece.


It could be a Texas thing. The Houston Rockets defeated the Trailblazers in Portland. It seemed that only Brandon Roy came to play with the rest of his team hiding like children, scared by the Big Bad Yao. This series, also at 1s, goes to the Lone Star State with everything to play for although their will be no more finger wagging with Dikembe Mutombo forced into an ‘early’ retirement after twisting his old old old knee. Damn shame.


Pretty sure that Mr Big Shot might have been hired by a certain Jason Kidd to exact brutal revenge on the point guard who shouted at anyone who would listen that ‘this guy can’t me!’ Dont anger veterans Chris Paul. They are a protective bunch who maintain a pack mentality if threatened. Billups proceeded to shoot the lights out in Paul’s face going a Denver Nuggets franchise record 8-9 from down town. In. Your. Eye. The Nuggets are looking pretty darn good right now. They couldn’t. Could they?


Nevermind amazing. The NBA is where ANYTHING can happen. Unless you’re on a team with Kobe or LeBron. But they’ll have to play eventually. Unmovable force against Unstoppable force?


There are no ties.

Welcome to the Highlight Factory: Josh Smith’s House

April 23, 2009
Nobody Does It Better

Nobody Does It Better

Josh Smith is flat out scary. Worryingly so. Every single basketball player in the world should be afraid of him. His jump shot might not be as consistent as his team mate Joe Johnson, and he might not be able to thread the needle like his point, Mike Bibby, but nobody in the NBA, let alone the Hawks can match him for straight up athleticism. He is Mr Jump Out Of The Gym.


You could argue that Nate Robinson is at least in competition with Smith since the little Knicker-Bocker can clearly jump. Over Centers. At 5-7 he isn’t really supposed to be able to jump that high.


At the other end of the spectrum, some people would have you believe that Dwight Howard is THE athlete in the League. Dude can dunk on 12 feet. And he barely even tries. But Howard, standing at just under 7 feet, has so much length that any dunking kinda looks too easy. Howard and Robinson are premier leapers but their respective sizes gives Smith the edge in this race.


As the average sized NBA player, 6-8, Smith kinda comes out out of nowhere. He creeps up on you even though you know that his freakish legs are just ready to explode upwards at any time. The massive amount of air time that he can generate means that he can attack the rim with an unrivaled ferocity from further out than pretty much all the other NBA’s players, LeBron and Iggy excepted.


If teams are stupid enough to not put a body on him to keep him out of the air, just get out of the way or its your own fault why you are on the next top selling poster.


Dunks don’t win games. They ruin lives. Andrei Kirilenko will attest to that. His dreams are still haunted by Baron Davis.


There is a reason Atlanta’s home court is called The Highlight Factory, and his name is Josh Smith.

Utah Jazz To Face Los Angeles Lakers In Round One, NBA Playoffs 2009.

April 16, 2009
Reasons To Be Cheerful

Reasons To Be Cheerful

If sympathy is at all possible in professional sports, you would think that NBA players around America are feeling pretty sorry for the Utah Jazz and the Detroit Pistons. The other 6 first round match ups are as exciting as they are unpredictable, with no team assured of a clean sweep and easy progress to the conference semis.


So, while 12 other teams quietly get excited about the prospect of a lengthy post season run, the two respective conference 8th seeds must be cursing their 82 game record for landing them in the utterly unenviable position of facing the two most bonafide contenders in the League: Kobe’s Lakers and LeBron’s Cavaliers.


The thing which separates these two 8th seeds is swagger. Somewhere within the wounded roster of Detroit is the knowledge that just a year ago they were in the Eastern Conference Finals with the same bravado that has been a constant in Mo-Town over the past 6 years. Despite the loss of their leader to the Denver Nuggets the Pistons remain a much more dangerous team than the Jazz because they can summon upon previous and recent experience when looking up at the stacked odds against them.


In contrast, Utah has nowhere to hide and no old victorious mindset to revert to. They are staring down the barrel at a Los Angeles team that appears destined to return to the Finals barring some freakish event or voodoo magic.


The proposition for the Jazz is simple enough: beat the Lakers or go home early. The question is how can Utah conjure the brilliance to overcome what is the most loaded roster in the NBA.


The answer is unlikely to be found in the paint where the Jazz will face a domineering front 3 which could comprise of 3 7 footers, Bynum, Gasol and Odom, all of whom can hurt you in different ways. One thing is guaranteed; if the Jazz cannot stop scoring down low and on their own glass the Lakers will simply and ruthlessly bully them off the court. They are just too big and too skilled.


If Carlos Boozer, Mehmet Okur and Ronnie Brewer can stop, or at least halt, the Los Angeles big men, they will force the Laker back court to pick up their scoring. Luckily for L.A. they have the best scorer in the world on their roster and plenty of worthy and effective sidekicks to partner him. Forcing the ball into Kobe’s hands is hardly a safer alternative to getting punished in the paint.


And then there is ‘The Bench Mob’, arguably the best reserves in the NBA. Nobody can bring more fire power off of the bench than L.A. In fact, the Lakers second string are so good that they force the other teams starters to play even more minutes while Kobe, Pau and Andrew enjoy a valuable rest on the sidelines.


The only bright light for the Utah Jazz is Deron Williams who will be asked to put the franchise on his shoulders and carry them out of the first round. For that to happen Williams will have to find the ‘playoff gear’, the fabled ‘next level’, that certain players are capable of elevating to when their teams really need them. Unless Deron Williams turns over night into Superman, even a monumental series from the Jazz guard will not be enough for Utah.


Lakers in 4.

Shaq Means Championship? NBA GMs Look To Change Their Fortunes With Trades

April 15, 2009
Center Seeks New Home, Willing To Travel For Rings.

Center Seeks New Home, Willing To Travel For Rings.

The final day of the season represents two separate things. For those 16 teams in playoff positions it is a last opportunity to try and improve their seeding. For the other teams in the League it is a chance to savour the last competitive encounter of the lengthy season and to look forward to a period of relaxation and the off season improvement that follows.


While the players of teams like the Grizzlies and the Warriors go fishing and eventually hit the gym, the front office of each franchise will be busily planning and revising their strategy for constructing a team capable of storming the playoffs next season.


Some of the playing personnel will be working out harder than others in the off season, or at least you would suspect they were, given the fluctuating nature of rosters in teams not necessarily happy with their performance.


Some players will be cut and asked to look for employment elsewhere, whereas others will be nervously anticipating any trades that could materialise. The nature of the economy dictates that many teams will in all likelihood not be involved in any blockbuster transactions. So, if we were still in the days of the boom, rather than the bust, which players would be looking for new accommodation?


Shaq. Despite his aging hulk of a body, the Big Diesel has proven this season that he is still a major force in the paint, replicating some of the form which led the Lakers and the Heat to Championships. If he is healthy he is still one of the best centers in the L without question.


It is highly doubtful that a player who likes to deal in rings is at all happy with his early holiday. Missing the post season is simply not Shaq. The acknowledgement that the great experiment in the desert, where Shaq’s Ying did not mesh as hoped to the Sun’s track meet Yang, is over will surely lead to the Big Aristotle leaving Arizona.


The rumoured mid season trade to the Cavaliers should have happened simply because Shaq and LeBron on the same team would be just too much fun. Imagine the pre-game introductions. Imagine Shaq reducing the Celtic’s front line to tears. Imagine the fifth ring and the parade.


There is no doubt that Cleveland could use a banging inside presence to compliment Big Z’s more cultured/finesse approach on offense, and Cleveland’s contender status would provide a fitting stage for Shaq to bow out as one of the greatest to have ever played the game.


While Shaq finishes his career in Cleveland, a young player could make a big step toward post season success by ditching his lowly franchise for a legit contender. Enter Kevin Durant. Despite the fact that the people of Oklahoma would probably riot if the trade were to go through, KD to Houston would catapult the Rockets forward giving them an explosive swingman capable of hitting big shots: something that they are already supposed to have but for injury after injury to T-Mac.


Not only would the Rockets have a great 1-2 punch in Yao and Durant instantly, they would also safe guard the future of the franchise with Durant looking likely to cement his position as one of the League’s absolute elite players, possibly taking Kobe Bryant’s mantle when the lock Hall of Fame player decides to retire in the relatively near future. Durant versus LeBron could replace LeBron versus Kobe as the clash of the titans.


The trade of Shaq and Durant as illustrated above may be slightly fantastical to say the least, so how about a shade of realism? The Wizards, the worst team in the East and second worst in the League, have a statistically compelling shot at the number 1 draft pick for this year’s draft. Taking Blake Griffin first overall would give the Wiz some much needed power down low and height on the boards. Combine what is considered to be the only lock-star in the draft with Washington’s roster and on paper you have a contender. On paper.


Injuries have blighted the Wizards the past few years but one season is all they need to get back toward the top end of the League. Gilbert Arenas, on the back of rest and renewed focus, is easily one of THE elite guards in the NBA. There is perhaps only one guard by the name of Kobe who you would rather have the ball down the stretch.


Caron Butler gives scoring and defensive toughness. Antawn Jamison is probably the most under-rated scorer in the entire League. Guaranteed points. Brendan Haywood gives them valuable size and presence in the paint. Add Griffin and a few veteran role players and the Wizards record one of the biggest turnarounds on their way to a deep post season run.


One or two trades is all it can take in the NBA for a franchise to transform its fortunes, see Celtics, Boston. And, Cavaliers, Cleveland.  Equally, one or two trades can be enough to cause an otherwise successful franchise to implode, see Suns, Phoenix. And Pistons, Detroit.     


Mediocrity is far from good enough in professional sports, so change is in the air regardless of the economy because ultimately the pursuit of trophies does strange things to people. 

NBA Playoffs 2009 Momentum: Just Don’t Lose.

April 12, 2009
Just Don't Lose.

Just Don't Lose.

With the playoffs 2009 just days away some teams are doing a better job than others in creating that all important momentum which is crucial to post season and more immediately, first round success. Regardless of how loaded a roster is on paper, very few, if any, teams in the NBA have the ability to turn match winning form on and off.


The Detroit Pistons are the most famous example of recent history, a team that believed it could shift momentum when it really mattered. To a certain extent their self belief was well founded: the Pistons having been a fixture in at least the Eastern Conference Finals during the period that their core of players has been together despite the fact that going into the playoffs they were far from on fire. When round one begun the Pistons were ready. Mostly any how.


So who in 2009 is ready for the post season and who is praying that they can flick the win switch in a week’s time. The teams occupying the 16 NBA playoff seeds in the East and West can be easily split into 4 groups according to how they are playing as the Big Dance approaches.


Firstly, there are the winners. Teams that have managed to find form at just the right moment. In the West, Houston and Portland are both on the back of 4 game winning streaks while the Dallas Mavericks go into this afternoon’s game against New Orleans with 3 straight victories.


Meanwhile, the hottest team in the League is out East with Boston winning 6 straight heading into today’s heavy weight showdown with the Cleveland Cavaliers. There are 3 other teams in the East streaking going into the playoffs: Chicago have 4 in a row while Cleveland and Atlanta both have 3.


Then, there are the losers. These teams are doing exactly what their coaches do not want them to. The worst of the bunch are the Philadelphia 76ers who have lost 4 straight, not only killing team momentum, but also, and crucially, slipping down the seedings in the East. The Western equivalent is the Utah Jazz who are marginally better than the Sixers having lost ‘only’ 3 in a row. Both of these teams face an uphill struggle to turn around their fortunes before round 1 starts.


The last two groups contain the teams that know that their season could sway one of two ways. Some of them lost their last game and are wishing that one loss does not become two. The others are on the back of 1 victory with high hopes of putting together a nice winning streak. Both groups of teams are all too aware that one victory, or loss could be enough to propel them into the first round as either hopefuls or down-and-outs.


A few of these teams, the Lakers and the Nuggets, will take confidence from their season records and will believe that they can stop the losing habit after only 1, getting back on track quickly and without crisis. Others, like Miami and New Orleans will be worried that one or two losses do not transform into a devastating streak.


The Big Mo is integral to playoff success. But it is a strange beast, unpredictable as it is useful. A win streak going into the first round can easily be crushed by freakish events in game one. For example, Miami might be losing right now, but with Dwayne Wade in the line up anything could happen regardless of streaks. A 50 point outburst could just be enough to sink a team that had previously been winning for fun.


Just ask Detroit. No team more than the Pistons know the importance of having more than momentum on your side. It sure does help for confidence and team chemistry, but it will not win games for you. One championship to show for numerous years as contenders is enough to illustrate that.


Who will Momentum smile upon this playoffs?

No Clutch, No Championship: Can Yao Ming Do It All For The Houston Rockets?

April 10, 2009
Mr Big Shot?

Mr Big Shot?

With the playoffs fast approaching, every team headed to the Big Dance is praying that their go-to guy is on form and firing when their team really needs them. And down the stretch there will be moments when these players either come through strong or fall short. Sometimes there will be a mix of both with one game’s hero switching to villain just a few days later.


Some teams are more reliant on these players than others. For example, Dallas will be going no where but fishing unless Dirk replicates the performances he made when the Mavs made the Finals. Similarly, without Dwight Howard, the Magic may as well not turn up to the post season. D-Wade is probably the best example of team over-reliance. 


Other teams are built more around a team effort. Ubuntu. Their go-to guy is not necessarily their greatest scorer, but they act as a catalyst for their team to go to a higher level. Kevin Garnett in Boston, for example, will not be taking the last shot, game 7 of the Finals, but without him, the Celtics are only the shadow of the team they can be.


Of the 16 teams headed to the first round, one is in a fairly unique situation: their go-to guy is injured. Despite an injury to the Houston Rockets’ premier scorer the franchise find themselves 3rd in the West, home court in sight. Injury to Tracy McGrady has forced the Rockets to adapt their collective personality with his major responsibilities filtering down throughout the team.


The saving grace for Houston is Yao Ming. No other team in the League bar the Celtics have more than one truly franchise status player. The Rockets have two. McGrady’s injuries have been a constant in Texas so to be officially without him for the run in has enabled the Rockets to take responsibility for their own destiny rather than having to wonder every night if Tracy will play and do it for them.


Yao Ming has had to become the solitary leader for a changing franchise who have also lost their starting point guard, trading Rafer Alston to the Magic in a money saving move. With the expectations spread firmly upon Yao’s broad shoulders the Rockets have flourished and are well positioned for a deep post season run.


The key? Defence. Yao’s length will always make him a problem for opposing teams on both ends of the floor, but height is nothing without skill and basketball IQ to match. Yao is laden with both, acting as the anchor for the League’s 4th best defence. The center is perfectly complimented by Ron Artest and Shane Battier, two of the games best perimeter defenders. Combined with the gritty determination of Luis Scola, the Rockets are as hard a team to score on as any.


If Yao can maintain his current production, almost 20/10, for the playoffs, the Rockets will certainly have a chance of a deep run. He is the heart of the Rocket’s and is certainly the go-to guy in the absence of McGrady, but crucially he is not alone. Artest is averaging 17 a game and Scola adds 13 as well as 9 rebounds. The Houston bench can also be counted on for consistent production with the likes of Von Wafer, Carl Landry, Brent Barry and Battier all firing.


The only problem for the Rockets is who is their clutch player? The person you give the ball to in a deciding game, final quarter. Every other title contender team has a closer. And without McGrady Houston may lack the decisive blow that teams need to be successful in close games down the stretch.


Kobe, Chauncey, Tony Parker, CP3, Dirk, Brandon Roy, Deron Williams, LeBron, Paul Pierce, Hedo, Joe Johnson, Wade.


As good a player as Yao is, he does not belong on that list.


So, how does Houston achieve success without a Mr Big Shot? Blow every team out before the 4th. That’s the only way.