NBA Playoffs Conference Semi Finals: Cleveland Cavaliers Too Much For Atlanta Hawks?

May 4, 2009

joe-johnson1

It seems like the epic nature of the Chicago/Boston first rounder has made it difficult to even contemplate the other match ups that have taken place.

But that is over, the Bulls have gone, and the Conference Semi Finals are upon us. All 4 are intriguing and difficult to call with any degree of certainty given the way that most teams have decided to play either really good or really bad on any given night.

The only team who hasn’t experienced any worrying fluctuations in form are the Cleveland Cavaliers. They have been solid.

The biggest worry for LeBron and Co was that they took their foot off the pedal when they were up 20 in a series against Detroit that they won 4 to zero.

It almost felt that LeBron felt the need to fake annoyance because everything had gone so well: ‘Those other teams have problems right? Maybe we need some too… Hey! We only won by 20. That is not good enough Cleveland!’

If that is their only worry, they have to be pretty confident going into a series against the least fancied of any of the Semi Final occupants.

The Atlanta Hawks may have just dispatched the Wade-reliant Miami Heat in 7 ‘schizophrenic’ games but in Cleveland they face a team who have just destroyed and stamped all over a Detroit Pistons team who, on paper, were not far removed from the team that had challenged for all the marbles the last 6 years.

4 games. Cleveland has had enough time off to go fishing with Detroit AND come back in time to play the Hawks.

Despite the fact that this series has been written off already as a Cavaliers white wash, Atlanta has a lot more going for them than people are crediting.

For example, there is no other team in the League which is better equipped to deal with LeBron James than the Hawks who are as long and as athletic as is necessary to have a chance against King James.

Josh Smith may not have the measured and polished jump shot game of LeBron, but he is his equal athletically. The Hawks will be safe in the knowledge that they have a guy on their team who can run and jump with the Best in the Game.

It is also worth looking at the Atlanta front court which is one of the most slept on in the NBA. The tandem of Al Horford and Zaza Pachulia is mobile and long, giving the Hawks an imposing paint presence to combat Zydrunas Ilgauskus and Anderson Varejao down low.

One of the keys to this series will be how the Hawks deal with the Cavalier backcourt pairing of Delonte West and Mo Williams.

Mike Bibby and Joe Johnson have the size and athleticism to tie up Cleveland’s guards and if they can successfully put pressure on them the Cavs will starve offensively.

Joe Johnson should be able to take a nervy Mo Williams out of the game with his mix of size and speed.  

The major problem for Atlanta is that they cannot rely on their bench the way that Cleveland can. Ben Wallace, Boobie Gibson, Wally Szczerbiak, Pavlovic, Joe Smith. All guys that can be brought into the game when the starters need some rest.

The burden will rest solely on the Atlanta Hawks starting 5 to do anything in this series, making fatigue a real issue.

Regardless of the magic that has been sprinkled this post season, barring a miracle, the Cavaliers will beat the Hawks. Cleveland are just too deep and they have the King.

But. It wont be the blow out that has been predicted.

Cavs in 6.


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.


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: Where Far From Predictable Happens

April 9, 2009

portland-trail-blazers

Such is the nature of the NBA’s two conferences that every game between now and the end of the regular season are filled with potential consequences for the teams involved. Wins can mean an important jump up the playoff standings or perhaps the appeasement of the front office and fans with a more respectable finishing record. They also mean progressively less chance of obtaining the #1 pick come the lottery.

 

On the flip side, a loss in any of the games before April 15th can mean a dramatic slide down the rankings or perhaps the loss of home court in the playoffs. A loss for certain teams could result in that extra 0.5% chance of draft success.

 

Barring the fact that no teams in their respective conferences will want to hold the 8th seed for the Big Dance due to the teams they will have to meet in the first round, jostling for position is increasingly becoming chess like. Who matches up with whom better? And who do teams really want to avoid?

 

The importance of not finishing 8th in the East and West cannot be overstated. Every team will be trying their utmost to avoid the fate of facing Kobe or LeBron. Regardless of Rasheed Wallace’s statement that they truly believe they have a shot at the title, a meeting with Cleveland, who have held a vice like grip over the top spot in the East, must surely be viewed as nothing more than a formality. As for the Mavericks, nobody in Dallas, save for an ill advised rookie, believe that they have any shot at all at forcing the Los Angeles Lakers into a stumble.

 

In the East, perhaps the most important seedings of all are the 4 and 5. The team that occupy these positions know that they avoid the ‘Big Three’ of Cleveland, Boston and Orlando, giving them a real chance of progressing to the conference semi-finals, subsequently building some momentum with which to bring into a match up against the East’s top 3. Currently the 4/5 appears as if it will be fought between Miami and Atlanta, potentially the most exciting first round duel.

 

Whichever team can hold onto the 4th seed and secure home court for the first round will clearly have the advantage, although nothing is assured, especially when the opposition possess one of the best closers in the League in Dwayne Wade.

 

The Eastern semi-finals appear to be pretty sewn up with 3 of the 4 apparently already chosen. Unless Chicago, Philadelphia or Detroit can pull of a remarkable upset, the Cavaliers, Celtics and Magic will progress with the 4th spot being decided between the Heat and the Hawks. Nothing is so predictable out West, where seeds 2-8 are separated by very little.

 

The Lakers will likely face Dallas in the first round although the Mavericks are only 1 game back on 7th seed Utah who as things stand will face the Manu-less Spurs in round 1. The fact that San Antonio are missing one of their three major players must appeal to all the other teams in contention. An aging Spurs who are over-reliant on Tim Duncan and Tony Parker do not match up well with a healthy Jazz who could realistically overpower San Antonio inside with Boozer, Okur, Kirilenko and Milsap all fit and productive.

 

Houston, with a healthy Yao Ming, are a difficult match for anyone in the Western playoff picture. Nobody, not even Superman, can deal with him. If the likes of Von Wafer can provide scoring off of the bench and Aaron Brooks can maintain his composure, the Rockets could have a deep post season run.

 

The real wild cards out West are the Portland Trailblazers. The combination of youth and potential make them a difficult prospect for a first round match up. They have power and length inside in the shape of Greg Oden who is beginning to fulfil some of his promise as he stays healthy, and LaMarcus Aldridge who is flat out scary some nights. Combine this with the leadership and scoring of Brandon Roy and the versatility of the likes of Rudy Fernandez and Nicolas Batum and Portland are a tough team.

 

Which leaves New Orleans. Having the best point guard in the League can only be a good thing and as long as CP3 stays healthy the Hornets have always got a chance. The fact that they are as banged up a team as there is in the playoffs is some what misleading as a full strength Orleans is capable of going deep into the latter stages of the playoffs. To have a real chance they need everyone back to compliment Chris Paul, especially the inside presence of Tyson Chandler.

 

The West is wide open and the East is far from decided. Drama is assured, but it is hard to look past a Cleveland Lakers final.


NBA Playoffs Loom: LeBron Loses Back-To-Back, West Wide Open, Anything Could Happen.

April 6, 2009
Big Dance Finalists?

Big Dance Finalists?

Some things change and some things do not. It is an old adage and yet the message retains it’s potent truth, especially in the fast paced world of the 21st century. No where is change assured than in the NBA. Check it out:

 

Last week the Cavaliers were being billed as favourites for the Championships, seemingly unbeatable, irresistibly maintaining their momentum which has been building toward victory at the Big Dance. What a difference a few days can make.

 

LeBron and his Cavaliers flew into Washington assuming nothing but a convincing, and in all likelihood, an easy W. But the Wizards did their best to reinforce a lopsided rivalry by dropping Cleveland, simultaneously planting seeds of doubt into the minds of every NBA fan, coach, player, critic, as to the Cavaliers apparent invincibility.

 

But slip-ups happen, right? Yes, indeed they do, but the Cavaliers’ response, crushed by Orlando, was not what LeBron and his team needed. Back to back losses this close to the post season is far from ideal preparation.

 

Luckily for the Cavs, just about everyone has been flawed the past few weeks. The Lakers loss to the Bobcats highlighted that any team, especially those already buried, can inflict fairly disastrous losses even to the League’s best. What looked like a certain Lakers-Cavaliers Finals is now looking far less concrete, and even if LeBron-Kobe does take place, who will have home court advantage is also still to be decided, ensuring a competitive and driven finish to the regular season.

 

The Eastern semis look fairly predictable, with 3 of the 4 spots (Cavs, Celts, Magic) likely alrwady decided, barring some first round heroics from one of the East’s lower seeded teams. There is nothing so cast-iron out West, with anyone from 7 teams capable of occupying the other 3 places in the Conference semis.

The Lakers will be there. But who will join? Given their pedigree, the Spurs should progress. And Denver just won’t go away despite many people questioning how they have come to be the 2nd seed out West. And I like a young a exciting Portland team.

 

Truthfully however, anything could happen. Change is a certainty, as illustrated by the sad demise of the Suns.

 

The Big Dance awaits.  


Cleveland Cavaliers Roll On: Detroit Pistons Lose But Message Is Clear To NBA’s Playoff Contenders

April 1, 2009
Down But Dangerous

Down But Dangerous

Last night the Cleveland Cavalier home court war machine kept rolling, despite the efforts of a hungry and determined Detroit Pistons. The game was tied going into the last quarter in a truly low scoring and gritty playoff type atmosphere. LeBron had been relatively quiet all night by his imperious standards and when the Pistons went up in the 4th it looked like Detroit’s veteran leadership might drive them toward a famous and confidence boosting victory.

 

The eyes of all in the Quickens Loan Arena fell on King James expecting as they have done for the entire season that their MVP would drag his Cavs back into the game and eventually over the winning line. To a certain extent this was the reality. LeBron upped his production in the 4th and started demanding the ball. Yet the real difference maker for the Cavaliers was Anderson Varejao. The Brazilian exhibited his true worth to the team with numerous high energy, hustle plays which kept his team alive. When the Cavs needed them the Brazilian grabbed huge offensive rebounds down the stretch.  

 

The Brazilian took an elbow to the face earlier in the game and such physicality was characteristic of the whole night. These two teams plain do not like each other as illustrated by Delonte West who banged with Rip Hamilton all game long, most notably grabbing Rip in the often court after being stripped and subsequently throwing the Pistons’ shooting guard to the ground. Flagrant.

 

Guess who got served with his 16th technical, enough to get a one game ban. Rasheed Wallace was back and doing what he does, coming off the bench with A.I. which actually looked pretty nice when The Answer passed the ball. Wallace was hitting threes off the pick and pop, 3 in a row, but the Pistons and particularly Iverson stopped going to Sheed later in the game. It sure is nice to see Wallace getting his argue on. Especially when its about 10 minutes after the call. Entertaining but not too helpful in a tight game, right.

 

For the penultimate 2 Cavalier possessions in the 4th the Pistons had Rip go one on one with LeBron, and it was not even fair. Dude got blown by and scored on. The final possession, when the game was almost out of reach and Varejao had done his magic, Tayshaun got the assignment instead and made LBJ take the toughest shot possible which he missed. Just does not make sense. In Prince you have a lock down player and in LeBron you are faced with probably the best closer in the game. Put Tayshaun on LBJ!

 

So the Cavs win, again, on a night when L.A. lose to the Bobcats improving their case for home court in the Finals massively. As for the Pistons, A.I. starting or coming off the bench just does not work. Simple. In fact, it got pretty ugly for a few minutes in his first stint off the B when he was forcing his shot and the team ethos got thrown out. But, they did run Cleveland close, highlighting that Detroit are to be avoided come play off time. They are too dangerous and experienced to meet in the first round.

 

The Pistons are to be avoided at all costs.


Detroit Pistons Visit LeBron’s Cavalier Fortress: Celtic’s 40-1 NBA Record In Sight

March 31, 2009
40-1?

40-1?

King James and his Cavaliers will tonight host the Detroit Pistons in a showdown whose chemistry has changed dramatically in the past few years. Not 2 seasons ago, this would have been a Eastern power house battle, with the emphasis on Detroit to come out with the W. Yet, as advertised, we are all witnesses, and we have seen Cleveland shift the balance on the Pistons, mutating through trades and personal improvements into what is today the best team in the NBA. Just don’t tell Kobe.

 

The transformation from contenders to favourites has been dramatic, as illustrated by the Cavaliers staggering home record this year. Detroit may be in town, but Cleveland, much to every Piston in the world, have bigger fish to fry. They are hunting down a truly frightening record, a record which turns a visit of Detroit into ‘just another game’, another piece in the puzzle, as opposed to the hype that has accompanied these two teams meetings in the recent past.

 

At 35-1 the Cleveland Cavaliers are on course to equal the Boston Celtics’ home record of 40 and 1 set in the ‘85-‘86 season. Such a record is shrouded in a mystical aura, the kind that says that once it has happened once it will never happen again. Yet, despite their critics spouting lack of depth and over reliance on LeBron, here the Cavaliers are, 5 games away from the almost perfect home season. If ever you needed a way to shut the door on Cleveland haters this is surely it: only a truly special team could get even close to this record.

 

Lengthy undefeated home streaks are rare in basketball. They occur in other sports, especially football, but for an NBA team to achieve such a record is remarkable. Chelsea turned Stamford Bridge into a fortress where they did not lose for nigh on 2 years. However, a team like Chelsea would welcome absolute elite teams 5 or 6 times in a season. Coaches in the NBA would be eager to tell you that there are no easy games in the League and even if you disregard some of the teams’ visits as easy pickings, what about the other 30 games? Just about every team in the NBA is capable of winning on their opponent’s floor. For the Cavs to have registered just one loss is astounding.

 

Detroit, the fallen master, would dearly love to spoil the party for Cleveland. But beware: anger the Cavaliers at your own risk. Cleveland has the number 1 seed pretty much sewn up, and a loss tonight would drop Detroit to the notorious number 8 spot and even the Pistons with their (wounded) swagger would not fancy a first rounder with the League’s best team with 4 of the potential 7 being played in an arena where King James reigns supreme and pretty much uncontested.

 

40-1. Special. But ultimately imperfect. And who has the satisfaction of dirtying the otherwise pristine record? KB24. A man with little regard for records and stats. A man who measures success not by 40 and 1 home records, but by the 3 rings on his fingers.

 

See you in the Finals. You can leave your stats at home.