NBA Playoffs Conference Semi Finals, Boston meet Orlando: 7 Games Never Looked So Good

May 3, 2009

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7 games never felt so good. Boston may have closed out the Chicago Bulls last night, but the only real winners were the audience.

Chicago are off home for exit interviews and the Boston Celtics have no time at all to prepare for what should be an even sterner test against an Orlando Magic team whose All-Star center has discovered a nasty streak.

The absence of Kevin Garnett effectively guaranteed that this first rounder would be much closer  than each franchise’s seeding would have suggested.

The Bulls team, with John Salmons and Brad Miller in the squad, would have been good for the 5th seed out East if they had played the whole season as they had since their trade with Sacramento.

In contrast, if Boston had missed Garnett the whole season they would have been closer to the 4th seed rather than the 2nd spot.

The seedings lied and what followed could well have been the finest first round playoff series in the history of the NBA.

Regardless of the exit, the Bulls know that in Derrick Rose they have a truly mercurial talent that should develop (more) into one of the finest in the game. Depending on Ben Gordon’s contract situation, the Bulls will return, a year wiser and more experienced.

Along with Gordon, Rose was the Bulls leader. Dude is a Rookie.

Perspective is a fine thing.

Boston have little time to be relieved as the Magic come calling in just a few days, fresh off of a confidence boosting win in Philadelphia, something they achieved without their suspended big man.

Can Orlando dethrone the Champions? They have to fancy their chances. Without Garnett the Celtics look lost defensively and will struggle almightily to contain Dwight Howard. Kendrick Perkins, Glen Davis and Mikki Moore will have their hands full.   

The possibility of 20/20 games for Howard is very real given the calibre of player he will be up against, none of who are the greatest of athletes, at least when compared to Howard.

The Cs will be even more reliant on their new Big 3: Rondo, Pierce and Allen. All of whom will have to be at their best to see off a surging Magic.

It is certainly worth considering the extent to which fatigue might play a part in this series with Allen especially having played many, many minutes in the numerous overtimes with Chicago.

The Celtic big men just have to try and contain Howard as best they can and make the magic hit their shots from deep. If Howard dominates (likely) Boston will be going fishing. If they keep his numbers respectable, then the likes of Allen and Pierce will have a chance to play clutch and sink the upstarts from Florida.

Such is the importance of Garnett and the presence of Howard that the Magic will progress in 6. Although if their first rounder has taught us anything it is that there will be countless twists and turns before we know who will advance to the Conference Finals.

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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.


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.         


Portland Trailblazers: NBA’s Youthful Redeemers Championship Bound?

April 10, 2009
Portland Is Back

Portland Is Back

Prepare to Uprise, Rip City. The excitement is officially back in Portland, Oregon. The team website is emblazoned with slogans full of pride which emphasise the importance of unity in the recent resurgence of the state’s only Major League franchise. ‘Together We Made It Happen, Playoffs Are Back 2009’. It has been a long 6 years for the Trailblazers who have not sampled the delights of the Big Dance since 2003.

 

The rebuilding of the Blazers has taken time and much patience on the part of some of the most loyal fans in sports: Portland holds just about every record for attendance and sell-out streaks. The start of their current journey toward post season glory can be traced back to the 2006 draft when the Blazers took Brandon Roy 6th overall. Despite injury in his first season, Roy contributed straight away, trying to help a struggling franchise. He was rewarded with the Rookie of the Year award.

 

The ability of B-Roy was recognised by Portland’s front office and the franchise identified their young shooting guard as the future of the team. With that in mind, the Trailblazers sent Zach Randolph, captain, to the Knicks, clearing the way for Roy to take up a leading role and to stamp his authority on His team.

 

Portland’s confidence in their man has proven to be well-founded as he has done nothing but improve over his short time in the NBA, both as a player and as a leader of men. Back to back All Star nods pay testament to his talent, the first Blazer to make the mid-season showcase since Rasheed Wallace in 2001.

 

Having identified their leader for the foreseeable future, the Blazers set about acquiring players that could complement each other and grow together. An emphasis on youth has been apparent in Portland where veteran leadership has been replaced or usurped by youthful exuberance and confidence.

 

The core that has been assembled is one of the youngest in the League and based on potential, the Blazers have their destiny in their own hands. Last season they showed what direction they were headed finishing 41-41 on the back of a 13 game win streak.  They did this without their number 1 draft pick Greg Oden who suffered a season ending knee injury before games had even begun. The fitness of their future All-Star center along with some wise picks in the draft bode well for the current season, demanding that other teams not sleep on Portland.

 

And it has come to pass. Despite Oden’s unfortunate injuries, Portland has begun to deliver on their youthful promise. With 4 games to go, the Trailblazers are tied for the 4th seed in the Western Conference, with home court advantage for the first round looking attainable. The Blazers are only half a game back on Houston for 3rd, making the climax to the regular season all important.

 

The playoffs are well and truly back in Rip City and such is the confidence and excitement which surrounds this young team that expectations are well above a respectable first round exit. The reason for this is simple: Portland are a team. They are not overly reliant on one player, beating others with teamwork and consistent production.

 

They are paced by Roy’s 22.9 points per game along with his 5.1 assists. But the Blazers can score in so many ways that teams have a hard time picking how to get beaten. In LaMarcus Aldridge they possess a developing inside presence who can not only bang in the paint but has also been pulling other big men out of their comfort zone by shooting mid range and even 3 point jump shots. Consistently. Aldridge averages 18.4 and 7.5 rebounds and is a great second option on the Blazer offense.

 

Consistent play by their starters is complimented by the League’s second most prolific bench, led by Travis Outlaw who is averaging 12.7, placing him among the candidates for 6th Man of the Year. Any player is capable of big nights off the bench in Oregon: Rudy Fernandez, Jerryd Bayless, Channing Frye, Nicolas Batum. All young, all supremely talented and all loaded with potential.

 

Their current record of 50-28 has Portland on course for a first round match up with either New Orleans or San Antonio, and with a home record of 31-7 they have every chance of progressing at least into the conference semis. Beyond that Portland will be in unchartered territory, possibly meeting the Lakers, a team who has been and done everything before.

 

But who knows. Strange things happen in playoff atmospheres. Only one thing is certain. Portland are back.


Phoenix Defeated By Worst In League Sacramento: Lottery Looks Likely For NBA’s Great Entertainers But Playoffs Still No Sure Thing For Rightfully Worried Dallas.

March 30, 2009
Phoenix Still Sporadic, Dirk Still Scared
Phoenix Still Sporadic, Dirk Still Scared

The NBA is full of guarantees. Shaq WILL insult just about every other player who even claims to play the center position in the League. Rip Hamilton IS cash money coming off of screens. Charles Barkley WILL make you laugh. The commentator in Cleveland will NEVER get tired of shouting ‘LEBRON THROWING THE HAMMER DOWN!’ There are many guarantees, but perhaps the most cast iron and absolute is the Phoenix Suns ability to entertain.

 

This entertainment can manifest itself in many forms but usually it is in 140 point outbursts where defence is disregarded and points mean prizes. It is perhaps fitting that as we continue toward the end of the regular season Phoenix has the entire NBA holding its breath as a result of a soap opera style cliff hanger that only the Suns could pull of: a ‘will they, wont they’ stumble toward the post season worthy of America’s finest melo-dramas.

 

Things were starting to look brighter for Phoenix. Despite lying in 9th in West’s standings, the Suns were on a hot winning streak, 5 games; their longest of the season. They were gaining on a faltering Dallas and it seemed inevitable that Nash and Co would squeeze into the second season.

 

If only it was that simple. In the Valley of the Sun simple efficiency is not the done thing. They prefer sporadic genius to sustained grind. So, now, fresh off of a 3 game losing streak, they drop back to 3 and a half games behind Dallas. Of those losses 2 were to playoff calibre teams, Portland and Utah. The third however was against Sacramento last night. The Kings are statistically the worst team in the NBA. Yet they beat Phoenix and in so doing may have spoilt the big playoff party for the Sunds.

 

However, as bad as the Suns were last night, the playoff door is still slightly ajar. They have 8 games to play, only 3 of these are against playoff teams: Houston, New Orleans, and of course, the Dallas Mavericks. The other 5 games provide the Suns with hope: Sacramento (again), Memphis (twice), Minnesota and Golden State.

 

The other reason for optimism lies in Dallas’s schedule: 9 games left, 6 of which are against playoff teams. Miami, Phoenix, Utah, New Orleans (twice) and Houston all stand lie between Dallas and the post season. 3.5 games back, but Dallas must be secretly cautious, especially with Minnesota the only sub .500 team in their final 6 games.

 

It seems inconceivable that either of these franchises will miss out on the playoffs this season. But it will happen. And one of them will be in the lottery for the fist time in what seems like forever. Surely, for either team, the lottery spells destruction. It is hardly likely that a Mavericks failure will be met with patience by Mr Cuban. Wide scale changes will surely occur. And Phoenix will almost certainly press the re-building button which will in all likelihood usher in a substantial period of basement dwelling as young pieces are given some time to develop a la Portland.

 

That would seem the most likely course for Phoenix. But the Suns are hardly known for following the script.

 

Everything will change.

 

Maybe.