2015 NBA Playoff Preview Podcast

The NBA Playoffs begin today, and to celebrate the big event my cousin Gianni Zambito and I conducted a massive two-part NBA Playoff Preview Podcast.

Part 1: We discuss who should win the NBA MVP, Defensive Player of the Year, Coach of the Year and other end of season awards. Then, we discuss the Eastern Conference 1st Round match-ups. Which team poses the biggest threat to LeBron James’ return to the NBA Finals? Are the Atlanta Hawks being underrated? Is there any team less entertaining than the Brooklyn Nets?

Part 2: We dive in Western Conference 1st Round previews and discuss how close Anthony Davis is to being the best player in the NBA. Are the Grizzlies and Blazers both too banged up to make a legitimate postseason run? Is this the Spurs last hurrah, and are San Antonio and Golden State locks for the Western Conference Finals?

Check it out! We’ll be back every week to discuss the biggest postseason narratives.

Advertisements

Rapid Reaction: NBA Finals, Game 6

Twenty thoughts after tonight’s NBA Finals Game 6, which was the greatest and most emotionally draining basketball game I’ve watched in my entire life.

1. Channeling my inner LeBron, there were not one, not two, not three, not four, but FIVE ways that this game was going to be remembered at a certain point in time. They were (and each point will be getting further discussion once I get into breaking down the game) the Tim Duncan Game, the Headband Game, the Erik Spoelstra/Dwyane Wade Game, the Tony Parker Game, and the Ray Allen Game. After digesting everything, I don’t really know what to call it. Hopefully I’ll figure it out by the end of this.

2. I can’t recall any basketball game ever generating as much “Greatest basketball game ever played” buzz as this one. Granted I missed out on the Bird/Magic duels in the 80’s and the majority of the Jordan era, but it seems like the rapid reactions from fans and analysts go something like this, “HOLY FUCK THAT GAME WAS AWESOME!!!!!”

3. Continuing on with the previous point: from the start of the 4th quarter until one hour after the game had ended, I had direct contact via text message, phone call, Twitter or Facebook regarding the game with sixteen different people. That easily shattered my previous undocumented record, which I would guess would be last year when the Heat won the title. Those were just a bunch of congratulatory messages though. Last night was different. Last night was a mix of “Whoa LeBron was great!”, “What the hell is Spoelstra thinking?” and “Holy crap that game was incredible!”

4. Let’s take it one step further: The players involved in the game have been gushing with quotes about how incredible, and incredibly bizarre it was. LeBron called it “By far the best game I’ve ever been a part of.” Bosh: “Best game I’ve ever seen.” Birdman Andersen: “It was the most amazing basketball I’ve ever seen and to be a part of it was special.” And even a very animated “It was a hell of a game” from Gregg Popovich.

5. In order to firmly grasp how monumental this game was, you need to take into consideration everything that was on the line. First and most obviously, the NBA Title. The Spurs were up 3-2 in the series and looking for a fifth championship in the Duncan/Popovich era. Duncan was playing for a fifth title and greatest player of his generation bragging rights. Parker was playing for a likely Finals MVP, the Greatest Point Guard Alive Championship belt, and an automatic spot in the top three when it comes to best international players of all time. Popovich was coaching for a fifth title and a permanent spot on the NBA coaching Mount Rushmore alongside Phil Jackson, Red Auerbach and Pat Riley. Wade and Bosh were playing not to be traded. And LeBron was playing for his legacy. Isn’t it amazing how many “legacy defining” games LeBron has played in. Seems like at least one every year. Duncan

6. A lot will be made of the 4th quarter and overtime (and rightfully so), but the mystique of this game started well before the fireworks exploded. Remember, before chaos broke out late in the game, this was going to go down as the Tim Duncan Game. Before the series I said that Duncan needed to have a couple of throwback 2003 Duncan games, and amazingly, the Heat survived one tonight. With Miami making it a priority not to allow the Spurs three-point shooters beat them, they allowed Duncan to go to work one on one in the post. Chalk this up as a catastrophically large advantage to Duncan, who started 8 for 8, posted a 25 point and 8 rebound first half, and finished with 30 and 17. To put it more simply, Duncan’s first half may have been the best half of basketball he’s ever played and I’ve ever seen. He was on pace for 50 points and 16 rebounds, and with how unstoppable he was in the first half I could’ve been talked into believing that that is what he would finish with. And based on that half alone, Duncan should’ve won the Finals MVP if, you know, the Spurs ended up winning the game.

7. You’ve heard of Danny Green, right? I’m sure you have. He’s the guy who got confused and thought he was Ray Allen, shattered the Finals record for three’s made (coincidentally held by Ray Allen) and generated a whole bunch of talk about how cool it would be for a former D-Leaguer to win the Finals MVP. Look, even though I wasn’t a huge fan of Danny Green’s out of body experience, it was definitely a neat story and an interesting narrative to write about. Notice the key word “was.” Those days are long gone. Green went 1 for 7 shooting and finished with only three points. You can thank or criticize Miami’s swarming perimeter defense for ending that Cinderella story.

8. The majority of the 1st half was back and forth and closely contested. But as we’re accustomed to seeing from the Spurs they went on a run to close out the 2nd quarter that pushed the lead to only six points, but it might as well have been 16. In the midst of my frustration I prematurely tweeted a simple and solemn “This game is over” that was 50% a pissed off overreaction, 25% prediction and 25% attempt at a reverse jinx. It did feel like it was over though.

9. And it may as well have been, by the time the 4th quarter had started the Heat were down by 10, LeBron was in full-fledged Dallas 2011 mode, and I was trying to make fake trades for Wade and Bosh in my head. Most of them were unrealistic and involved Stephen Curry somehow being traded to Miami, but still. I had to get to a happy place.

10. The 4th quarter started and all hell broke loose. With Miami trailing 75-65, Spoelstra trotted out a lineup that was screaming “Cleveland LeBron, save us!” Oddly enough, I was screaming the same thing earlier in the day when I made the executive decision to wear my old school Witness t-shirt I’ve had since my days as a Cavaliers fan. I’m a freak and believe in good karma based on the t-shirt I wear while the Heat are playing (Go ahead and laugh at me, but last year Miami didn’t lose a game in the playoffs once I started wearing my Big Woodies Fireworks t-shirt). My hopes for Game 6 were that by wearing a Cleveland era LeBron shirt that LeBron would trot out on the court and put together a 30-10-10 triple double. Well through three quarters LeBron was 3 for 11 shooting and I was ready to burn my shirt in the street like all of the pissed off Cavaliers fans did in 2010 when he took his talents to South Beach.

11. I’ve watched LeBron closely for ten years… six of which I’ve had the luxury of the NBA League Pass which means I’ve watched just about every one of LeBron’s last 553 games (playoffs included). I can’t remember him ever playing an extended stretch without a headband. This might not seem like a significant enough event to warrant a whole point in this list, but it definitely is. You know how sometimes when a player changes teams in the offseason and he doesn’t look quite right in his new uniform? That was the case here. He looked like a completely different human being out there doing Cleveland LeBron things. It was probably coincidental, or maybe it was like a fighter seeing his own blood, but for whatever reason, when LeBron’s headband was knocked off with nine minutes left he went bananas and imposed his will like I had been yearning for since the start of the series. He was attacking the basket relentlessly (thanks to the space created by the shooters on the floor) and he managed to make one of the biggest plays of the game that nobody will ever remember because there were ten huge plays that would follow, but big enough that it deserves its own point.

12. With 6:50 left in the game Miami trailed 82-80. The Heat was flirting with making a huge run to blow the game open. A hard close out by Ray Allen on Danny Green allowed Green to drive into the paint, draw Birdman into the air to contest his shot and dish to Tim Duncan. This should’ve been a Duncan dunk and perhaps the end of the Heat run. In less than 2 seconds LeBron left Tony Parker on the wing, darted underneath the basket and elevated to block Duncan’s layup. It was incredible to watch. Not only the physical ability to do that, but also the mental capacity to realize in a split second that he could leave Parker on the wing because Green didn’t have the angle and Duncan didn’t have the time to make the pass… it was just outstanding.

13. Earlier in the game there was a telling sequence where LeBron backed down Kawhi Leonard (who by the way has huge hands and had the least talked about 22 point and 11 rebound game I’ve ever seen) and finished at the rim. Jeff Van Gundy commented, “The power of shooting gives James more space on the floor in that back in move. There’s no help coming, eventually he’s going to overpower Leonard.” For anyone that really knows about basketball, that isn’t a hard concept to understand. So by the power of deduction, that leads me to believe that the people who thought that Dwyane Wade should be brought back in the game despite the fact that Miami had just rolled off a 22-9 run without him don’t know about basketball. Unfortunately, one of those people happens to be head coach Erik Spoelstra.

14. I broke my self-appointed no swearing on social media rule because the only way I could accurately express how pissed off I was by Spoelstra’s decision to bring Wade in was by dropping a couple of F-bombs. Let me give that another go; how the fuck could Spoelstra bring Wade back in? It was uncanny. It was like watching a scary movie when the idiot protagonist decides to go back into the house that the serial killer is in. Miami was rolling with their Cavaliers-esque small ball lineup which going back to the movie comparison would be like the family driving away from the house. Spo putting Wade back in with Miami up by three with 3:48 left was like the protagonist of the movie making an aggressive U-Turn and driving back towards the house to confront the killer. Don’t be stupid Spo! LeBron had room to go to work in the paint because the Spurs defenders had to honor the shooters on the perimeter. As soon as Wade came back in the game the paint was clogged and LeBron suddenly had multiple defenders surrounding him. Parker

15. Once again, let’s recap.  The Heat are leading 87-84 with 3:48 left when Wade came in. The only person whose spirit looked more broken by this than myself was LeBron, who seemingly knew that Wade coming into the game meant that because Wade is Wade, he had to get a few shots so he’d play hard defensively (the most egregious example of this came with under a minute left overtime when the Heat were clinging to a one point lead and Wade decided to isolate and take a twenty foot jump shot based solely on the fact that he’s Dwyane Wade and he can seemingly do no wrong). It also meant that as I mentioned before, the Spurs ability to guard LeBron down the stretch would be infinitely easier now that they could send a help defender and not worry about a wide open player on the perimeter. To nobody’s surprise but Spo’s, the Spurs went on a run and eventually took the lead with under one minute remaining. This is when the game for just over one minute of game time action became the Tony Parker game.

16. I can’t say too many good words about Tony Parker based solely on the principle that Skip Bayless adores him and the Spurs so much, so this point might be brief. Don’t confuse this and mistakenly think I don’t realize how great Parker is (the internal “Who is the best point guard alive” debate has already begun inside my head since I started working on my Top 50 Players list). His skills speak for themselves and his crunch time chops have been on display this postseason. Tonight was no different. Parker was exhausted and struggling after having to deal with a 6’8 physical freak chase him around for the entire 4th quarter, but Parker managed to make not one, but two huge plays down the stretch. First was the step back bomb he hit with 1:30 left in the game to tie it, and then the floater over Chalmers to give San Antonio a 91-89 lead with 58 seconds left. Parker ended up a lackluster 6 for 23 from the field but still would’ve won the Finals MVP had the Spurs pulled out the victory. Then again, Game 7 is Thursday so we can’t close that chapter just yet.

17. Even though it seemed as if Parker was well on his way to a 2nd Finals MVP, the Tony Parker Game disappeared more quickly than Alan Parish getting sucked into Jumanji. Thanks to an gutty offensive rebound from Chris Bosh (Tim Duncan wasn’t in the game, but still) and a heady kick out to Ray Allen in the corner, the Heat season stayed alive and the very turbulent relationship between my mother and Ray Allen (Who was referred to as “The Saboteur” by my mom, who was convinced that Ray Allen signed with the Heat to screw them out of the title. She must’ve watched too much wrestling with me when I was a little kid) was mended. I told her from the get-go that there would come a time when she would love Ray Allen. Tonight was that night. The all-time leader in three’s made sat and watched as Danny Green obliterated his record for three’s in a Finals series… you just knew he was going to respond with something like this. Ladies and gentlemen, we’ve just entered the Ray Allen Game. Miami survived the final 5 seconds of regulation, and suddenly we were in overtime.

18. Overtime served as the continuation of my intense frustration towards Spo and Wade, and also as the redemption of Chris Bosh, who played spectacularly down the stretch doing all the things he was supposed to do. Statistically this game won’t stand out for Bosh (10 points, 11 rebounds, 5 for 12 shooting), but he made every big play he was supposed to make. The big time offensive rebound and kick out to Allen; the block on the Tony Parker jump shot in overtime; and the game winning block on Danny Green in the corner, which was double sweet since Bosh declared before the game that Danny Green wouldn’t get an open look for three.  So let’s recap really quickly: The Heat got what they needed from LeBron, Allen, Bosh, Chalmers, Miller and Battier… and Wade sucked. Okay, just wanted to make sure we cleared that up.

19. The Heat miraculously managed a 103-100 win when it seemed like they were dead in the water with under a minute left. This evokes two questions: First, how do the Spurs bounce back from such a devastating loss? Think about it: The Spurs split two pairs of free throws in the final minute which could’ve pushed their lead to six or four points. They were so close to winning that the yellow rope was going up around the court and the Larry O’Brien Trophy was courtside across from the Spurs bench. They watched their lead, their trophy and just as an extra kick in the nads the yellow rope all disappear. Now, it comes down to a Game 7. What do the Spurs have left mentally, and what does either team have left physically? How could Thursdays game possibly live up to Game 6? And how can my parents, myself or my cousin Gianni (a Spurs fan) withstand another game like this. Gianni and I had the following texting exchange at the end of regulation:

Gianni: Holy smokes. That’s all I got to say about that.

Me: I’ve already cried once during this game. I can’t handle this.

Gianni: I already began to cry tears of joy. That was short lived. Alright time for OT. No more texting cause neither of us can handle it. LeBron headbandless

20. That text messages revealed the final and most important point of this game for me. If I learned one thing from Game 6 it’s that I’m far too emotionally invested in LeBron James than I should be. I’m blessed to have great family and friends, to be able to live comfortably, and to go to a great college. I couldn’t ask for much more than I’ve been given, yet I was reduced to tears when LeBron was faltering down the stretch in Game 6. Is that healthy? Definitely not. But that’s just the way it is for me. That wasn’t the first time that’s happened, and it certainly won’t be the last time. Last year after LeBron won his first title I wrote that nine years of hopes and dreams dashed was worth it for the one year of unimaginable happiness. Well call me selfish, but I don’t want to go another 9 years of hopes and dreams being dashed. That sucked. Tonight it looked like I was going to have to wait at least one more year for that distinct kind of happiness that only your favorite team or player can bring you; the happiness that comes from being a part of something bigger than you. For me, every game is the LeBron James Game. There is just always a subtitle that goes along with it. Game 6 will always be the LeBron James Headband Game for me. It’s right alongside with the 48 Special Game in Detroit in 2007, the Orlando Game Winner, the 40-18-9 Game in Indiana last year, the 45 point evisceration of Boston in Game 6 last year, the Cramp Game in the 2012 Finals, the night LeBron won his first title, and the Indiana Game Winner. What will Game 7 be?

NBA Finals Game 5 Diary

Two years ago I wrote a running diary of Game 5 of the NBA Finals. The Dallas Mavericks took a 3-2 series lead, LeBron notched a triple-double but was silent in the 4th quarter (an alarming trend during the 2011 Finals), and the most trying summer of my life as a LeBron fan was just around the corner. I capped that running diary off by saying that the Heat wouldn’t die easy. Not my proudest moment as a writer. Once again with the NBA Finals tied at two games apiece, a running diary seemed like an absolute necessity. All I could do was hope that it would turn out better this year.

3rd quarter

11:18- LeBron connects on a deep two that may have been a three to start the 2nd half. Jeff Van Gundy, never content with remaining calm, is riled up because on a similar play in the first half the refs didn’t give a signal to the scorers table to review the play, but would go on to change a Manu Ginobili three to a two. Let’s just say the only people more upset about those two calls than Jeff Van Gundy were my parents.

10:43- You absolutely do not want to turn the ball over against the Miami Heat. Uncharacteristic back to back turnovers from the Spurs lead to a wide open corner three from Mario Chalmers and two free throws for LeBron. Just like that Miami trails only by two. Amazing what happens when the best player in the world creates shots on three straight possessions.

9:40- Dwyane Wade dribbles into four Spurs defenders, falls down, turns the ball over, and fails to run back on defense which leads to (let me know if you’ve heard this one before) a Danny Green three-pointer. My goodness gracious, that’s Green’s 4th three of the night and 23rd of the Finals, an NBA record. I can’t say that I’m a huge fan of this out of body experience that Danny Green is having this postseason. Over the last month he’s had more success than anyone else in the playoffs at guarding Stephen Curry, my 2nd favorite athlete in the entire world, and he may shoot my all-time favorite athlete out of a 2nd NBA Title. The only person angrier than me about this development is Erik Spoelstra, who marches onto the court and gets a timeout. I secretly love angry Spo timeouts. Spurs lead 66-60.

8:50- Ginobili gets Bosh on a switch and I actually think he licks his lips before he attacks the basket and scores. That’s vintage Ginobili right there. I joked in my Finals MVP Power Rankings that Trick Shot Titus has made more big shots over the last two months than Ginobili has. Foot, meet mouth. Ginobili has 13 points and 8 assists. Spurs lead 68-60.

8:05- Kawhi Leonard answers a Dwyane Wade floater with one of his owns over Mike Miller in the paint. One of the most surprising developments of Game 5 so far is that there have only been two mentions of how large Kawhi Leonard’s hands are. Is there a player in the league who is as widely known as Kawhi Leonard for a large body part? Wait, don’t answer that.

7:02- Tony Parker gets a wide open lane into the paint after Chalmers goes down on a screen but LeBron manages to strip him at the last possible moment. LeBron and Wade vs. Danny Green on the fastbreak. Advantage Danny Green. To everyone’s surprise but my own, LeBron dishes to Wade and Wade misses the layup. Look, you can’t give me crap for making jokes at Dwyane Wade’s expense when he makes (or fails to make) plays like this.

6:15- If I’ve learned anything from writing running diaries, it’s this: I should keep my mouth shut. LeBron vs. Danny Green on a fastbreak. Advantage Danny Green. Green (who all joking aside is a fantastic transition defender) gets a good contest on LeBron’s first layup attempt. LeBron, despite nearly crumbling to the ground after the initial contest, gets his own rebound but misses the follow. As always, a missed opportunity for the Heat leads to a Spurs basket, this time a Tony Parker floater over Mike Miller, looking more and more like a deer in headlights by the minute.

4:45- LeBron misses a contested three pointer (exactly the shot the Spurs want him to take) and Parker answers on the other end with a transition layup. He’s a magician when he gets into the paint. Just pay attention to the way he can maneuver his body around defenders and the incredibly odd ways he manages to get shots off over and around defenders. There are times it doesn’t seem possible. Wade comes back and knocks down a contested elbow jumper. 20 points for Wade, but again, that’s the shot the Spurs want the Heat to settle for. It also happens to be the shot that unites Dwyane Wade and Josh Smith as two of the only players who consistently settle for mid-range jumpers even though they are below average jump shooters.

3:05- A mini-run for Miami, now seven consecutive points, continues after another jumper from Wade and a foul away from the play on Ginobili. Battier makes the free throw and cuts the Spurs lead to one. Oh you guys didn’t hear? Shane Battier is still alive! Yeah, we had a party for him and everything. Good times.

2:50- That Heat run ends after Danny Green buries a three from inside the Alamo. I love and appreciate a good ole Mike Breen “Bang!” just like everybody else, but it’s a shame that Gus Johnson couldn’t somehow be involved in this. Brain fluid would be leaking out of his ears if he was in the building calling this game.

2:03- Ginobili connects on a tough fade away runner over Norris Cole. 18 points, 8 assists for the recently resurrected Ginobili. “Manu Manu” chants are echoing throughout the arena as the Spurs lead is pushed to 9. Norris Cole has been the recipient of serious abuse from Parker and Ginobili tonight, and I’m pretty sure Mario Chalmers just got yelled at for it.

2.6- Really all I could say at this point is Ginobili is a basketball savant. Good lord. Apparently shooting left handed was getting too easy for him so he opted to try out a right handed runner. The Spurs are up 87-75 and you can almost feel the panic of the Heat through the television screen.

4th quarter

12:00- The Heat start the 4th quarter with LeBron, Mario Chalmers, Ray Allen, Udonis Haslem and Shane Battier on the floor, a 6 point underdog to the 2009 Cavaliers lineup of LeBron, Mo Williams, Sasha Pavlovic, Anderson Varejao and Wally Szczerbiak. By the way, WHERE THE HELL IS BIRDMAN BIRDMAN?!?

10:41- After we see a replay of Boris Diaw forcing LeBron into taking a tough shot in the post, Mike Breen comments Diaw has given Pop 23 good minutes tonight. In return Pop will treat Boris Diaw to a $23 worth of McDonald’s after the game. Ginobili hits another floater in the lane. Spurs are up 89-75.

10:10- Kawhi Leonard drills a corner 3 to extend the Spurs lead to 17. Breen again neglects to mention Leonard’s large hands. He’s caught up in the excitement that the Spurs have hit eight more three’s than the Heat have tonight. Understandable, but he’ll be getting a notice in the mail tomorrow from the league office telling him that he’s been fined $5,000.

9:30- Two contested misses by LeBron leads to a Duncan tip in on the other end. A very quiet 15 point, 12 rebound night from Duncan. The Spurs are on a 19-1 run and leading 94-75. Coming back from the 143rd Angry Spo Timeout of the series, we hear a Coach Pop tell his players to, and I quote, “Knock the stuffing out of em!” If the game wasn’t over before, it is now officially over. So what do we know going into Game 6? Not much.

The three biggest mysteries stemming from ABC programming over the last two weeks are how did Jesse Williams get his sideline reporter gig, will Whodunnit? last more than seven episodes, and who would win the Finals MVP if the Spurs won the series—you can make a compelling case for Green, Leonard, Duncan or Parker. We also don’t know if there will be any correlation between what happened tonight and what will happen in Game 6 since there has been virtually no carry over from game to game this series. I may not be in a position to give you any of those answers, but I can guarantee you Miami won’t die easy… Wait, that didn’t turn out well last time.

NBA Playoffs 10 Questions- Quality over Quantity!

Last year I had a post with this 20 Questions gimmick that I ran before the NBA playoffs started. Not to sound braggadocios, but I felt that it was a really solid piece of writing. There is nothing more satisfying and interesting than asking questions, and then going ahead and answering them yourself. Even though I love the idea, I made two changes to the format this year. First, I trimmed the fat and removed ten questions. As the title states, I felt quality was more important that quantity, and it turns out, I have just as much information in this year’s edition as I did last years. Second, I made the executive decision to wait until the end of the 2nd round to post this. I felt like I would be able to put out an overall better product if I tackled less questions, included the early rounds, and also looked into my magic 8-ball and made some predictions for the next few weeks.

1: What was the most interesting series so far?
In the first round, the Los Angeles/Memphis series was legitimately intriguing from a stylistic standpoint, and the games didn’t fail to deliver. Four games were decided by 4 points or less, and there were three legitimately memorable games in the series. Obviously, the 27 point comeback in game seven qualifies as one of the three. Watching it live, it was one of the most incredible things I’ve ever seen in an NBA game, and a testament to the statement that no lead is safe in the NBA. Here is how quickly Los Angeles came back in that game: My dad has a tendency to fall asleep towards the tail end of sporting events. He does the classic head bob and acts like he isn’t falling asleep; rather he’s just resting his eyes for a minute. Eventually, you start to hear the snoring and that’s all she wrote for him. Well, Los Angeles came back so quickly in that game my Dad didn’t even get to the latter stages of dozing off. Memphis handled that for him. By the end of the game he was actually wide awake, and neither of us could believe that Memphis blew the game. And I was in shock he stayed awake to see it all.

The Clippers celebrate after one of the greatest comebacks in NBA history

The series was decided in a tough and ugly game seven which I chronicled in a Running Diary Recap. It was far from pretty, but as I tweeted during the game, it was the most compelling game of the playoffs at that point. I think sometimes ugly, low scoring, poor shooting games get unfairly judged as boring games. Game seven was a war that was closer than the final score indicated. It probably would’ve put my Dad to sleep though.The only other series that has matched what Los Angeles/Memphis brought to the table has been Indiana/Miami. Aside from the fact there were 3 games that stand out because of the final score and an all-time great performance from LeBron (we’ll get there), there was legitimate bad blood between the two teams that is so rare to see in today’s AAU/everyone loves everybody NBA lifestyle. It was actually refreshing to see flagrant fouls (which shouldn’t have really been called flagrants), technical fouls (which really shouldn’t have been called technicals) and even a little blood shed (which was actually blood).

2: What’s the forecast look like next year for the teams already eliminated from the playoffs?
Chicago Bulls- Well, Derrick Rose will be out a while, so I really doubt the Bulls will again have the best record in the East. They were successful without Rose this past year during the regular season, but it’s entirely different knowing that Rose won’t be there for a while. Chicago will still be competitive. The Bulls are a well-coached, gritty, great defensive team… even without Rose.

Indiana Pacers- It was no fluke Indiana had a 2-1 lead against Miami in the 2nd round. We were getting a look at the new top dog in the Central Division. The Pacers will likely be able to re-sign Roy Hibbert, and with Derrick Rose out for a portion of the year for Chicago, the Pacers should take a step forward in the Eastern Conference.

Atlanta Hawks- Just like every other year, the Hawks will finish in between 3rd and 6th in the Eastern Conference and remain totally irrelevant in the big picture of the league.

Philadelphia 76ers- Philadelphia is tricky to predict because it’s not a certainty that Andre Iguodala will be there next year. Look, I like Iguodala, but not as a team’s best player. If Iguodala is the 3rd best player in your team, you are in good shape. But you don’t win a championship when your best guy shoots 38%, and averages 13 points, 6 rebounds and 4 assists like Iguodala did this post season. Let’s see if Philadelphia moves Iguodala, and if so, for whom.

Orlando Magic- Let’s forget about Orlando until Dwight Howard is gone. And well we’re at it; I’ll go ahead and forget that Dwight is a total dick too. Everyone else seems to have forgotten this, so I might as well jump on board too.

New York Knicks- The question still remains: Can Carmelo Anthony be the best player on a NBA Championship contender? I thought after Mike D’Antoni was fired and the Knicks took off before the playoffs started, that the anti-Carmelo argument was dead. But man, he didn’t show me too much promise against Miami. Yeah, 28 points and 8 rebounds per game looks good, but 42% shooting doesn’t. As talented of a scorer as he is, he needs a lot of shots to get those points, and he doesn’t make a single teammate any better. The Knicks have plenty of intriguing pieces; Carmelo, reigning Defensive Player of the Year Tyson Chandler, Jeremy Lin, JR Smith and his quick trigger, and Amare Stoudemire with his fire extinguisher. It still remains to be seen if all of those pieces can be put together and used effectively.

Los Angeles Lakers- As much as I’d love to speculate about the Lakers, it’s hard to guess where they will be because we have no idea who’ll be on the roster. Is Pau going to still be there? What about Bynum? Will they find a way to trade for Dwight Howard? Could Deron Williams end up in Los Angeles? Will Metta World Peace change his name back to Ron Artest to eliminate the incredible awkwardness of calling him World Peace? This team is a giant question mark. Plus, maybe the biggest question is how much does Kobe Bryant have left in the tank? During the postseason he looked like he was still capable of carrying the scoring burden for the Lakers, but is that necessarily what is best for the Lakers? I don’t think Kobe shooting 30 times a game is a recipe for a title, at least not this stage in his career. The best move in my eyes: Flip Pau for Kyle Lowry and Luis Scola, and try to sign an off the bench scorer during free agency. Lowry, Kobe, World Peace, Scola, Bynum and more bench help doesn’t sound too bad.

Los Angeles Clippers- Year one of Lob City can only be seen as a success. There was talk of the Clippers making a finals appearance, but the expectations were set way too high from the start. If the Lakers make the right moves they’ll probably remain at the top of the Pacific Division. But giving Paul an offseason to learn his teammate’s tendencies and another year of polishing for Blake will definitely result in an improved Clippers team.

Memphis Grizzlies- Memphis should be able to sustain success for a while. They weren’t totally healthy either of the last two seasons, yet still managed to upset 1 seed San Antonio last year, and grab a 4 seed this year. I think Memphis remains a contender in the West next year, again hovering around in the top 5 of the standings.

Denver Nuggets/Utah Jazz- These two teams won’t make the playoffs next year. Count on Golden State and Houston taking those two spots. That’s my first major prediction for the 2012-13 season.

Dallas Mavericks- Considering Dallas eliminated any chance at a title defense this year by letting go of Tyson Chandler, JJ Barea, and DeShawn Stevenson, I’d expect them to make some big moves in the offseason (Example: Sign Deron Williams) and try to get a little younger before Dirk is no longer relevant. If Dallas, well, when Dallas signs Deron Williams, they suddenly become very a very interesting contender in the Western Conference.

3: What have been the best non NBA Playoffs aspects of the last month?
Three things come to mind. First, on April 29th the WWE Extreme Rules pay-per-view was about as good of a show as you could realistically ask for. It was going to be a tough task to follow up WrestleMania 28 (check out LaterNamed on June 1st to see my firsthand recap of the show), and Extreme Rules somehow managed to successfully do so. The Daniel Bryan/Sheamus 2 out of 3 Falls Match was an exciting contest, and it gave the two a chance to showcase their skills since their match at WrestleMania lasted only 18 seconds. The Chris Jericho/CM Punk Chicago Street Fight was far different than their technical wrestling clinic at WrestleMania, but just as entertaining. And the John Cena/Brock Lesnar Extreme Rules Match was a throwback to the style of match that wrestling fans were familiar with ten years ago, even though it played out like a real fight. Every time I think the WWE is going to fail to deliver, I’m hit with a pay-per-view like Extreme Rule and then I remember why I still love the WWE.

Secondly, we have a Triple Crown threat for the first time since Big Brown won the first two legs in 2008. Even though I’m not much of a horse racing guy, I can always get into a chance at history being made. That’s why I always watch the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes, and in the off chance there is Triple Crown potential, the Belmont Stakes becomes Super Bowl level exciting… well for like two minutes. This year, I’ll Have Another and jockey Mario Gutierrez have a chance at making history, and a chance at providing me with a previously unknown level of excitement.

And speaking of previously unknown levels of excitement… how much do you love the Corona Light commercial with Stan!? Isn’t Stan the biggest winner of the playoffs so far? How can’t you love Stan? Can I book him for a party? If I’m going out and partying, I want Stan as my wingman. He is the epitome of awesome.

4: Which player has improved his free agent stock the most in the playoffs?
Not that it really matters since neither player would leave their current team, but Kevin Garnett and Tim Duncan have been playing better than any of the other upcoming free agents this postseason. That’s a slap in the face to father time and to every young guy who is supposed to be outplaying these two vets. Kevin Garnett is showing flashes of being the Minnesota Timberwolves version of KG and Tim Duncan is playing like he’s capable of putting up the numbers he did when San Antonio was rattling off titles every other year. In Garnett’s case, this scares the hell out of me. As a Heat fan (excuse me, a LeBron James fan), this could pose as a major problem since the Heat front line is as thin as a starving Kenyan and Chris Bosh isn’t even in the picture. Even if Bosh was healthy, there is still the realistic fear that Garnett could go all Big Ticket on him and eviscerate Bosh and the rest of the lackluster Miami bigs. It’s not unthinkable. Garnett has averaged 19.5 points on 50% shooting, and 10.7 rebounds throughout the playoffs, and has had a double-double in 10 out of 14 playoff games.

Statistically, Duncan hasn’t been as spectacular as Garnett has, but I think it’s safe to say Duncan is a very vital piece of this San Antonio squad. I find it interesting that all we hear about San Antonio this year is Parker’s MVP caliber season, Ginobili coming off the bench doing Ginobili things, and an incredibly deep supporting cast. Tim Duncan is rarely mentioned, and that just doesn’t make sense to me. Just like he has for the majority of his career, Duncan has flown under the radar this year. No one has ever fully appreciated how great Duncan has been for 15 years, so why start now? In the hypothetical scenario that Duncan wasn’t 36 and didn’t have a connection with San Antonio, he’d get plenty of long looks as a free agent.

So ultimately, the biggest free agency winner is Roy Hibbert. By simply averaging a double-double (11.7 points, 11.2 rebounds, 3 blocks, 50% FG) this postseason, Hibbert will cash in during free agency; likely to the degree that Marc Gasol did this past December. The Grizzlies agreed to a contract extension with Gasol, who got paid nearly $13 million this year and will be getting 12.5% raises over the next three years. Since the center position is arguably the weakest in the league right now, I guess I can see paying a 7’2 center who has shown glimpses of improving $13 million a year. My only problem with this is that Hibbert, 7’2, couldn’t even manage 9 rebounds a game during the regular season. In the postseason he feasted on two teams playing without a legitimate big man. Hibbert was guarded by the likes of Ryan Anderson, Glen Davis, Joel Anthony, Ronny Turiaf and Udonis Haslem, so you have to wonder if the numbers are skewed a little in his favor. If I’m a GM and I’m thinking of signing him, I’m certainly hoping he can grab double digit rebounds, and not just against a bunch of power forwards. The fact of the matter is I would feel a hell of a lot more comfortable throwing $13 million a year at the aging Garnett or Duncan for 2 years than I would at Hibbert for 5 years.

5: What has been the biggest disappointment of the playoffs so far?
Honorable Mention: Chris Paul’s play in the 2nd round, Memphis losing in the 1st round, Phoenix/Minnesota not making the playoffs in place of Utah (so we could see Nash or Love/Rubio for four games instead of Utah’s lackluster squad).

The clear cut number one disappointment of the playoffs is Derrick Rose’s ACL. Well it’s not so much the ACL’s fault, but the fact he tore his ACL. It doesn’t matter how much you love your team or how much you maybe even hate the Bulls, you don’t want guys to go down with injuries that severe. Even though surgeries are entirely different now than they used to be, there is still a chance that Derrick Rose is never the same player. He was incredibly successful because of his explosiveness and speed, and he is going to lose some of that, or at least take some time to recover it. And maybe I’m different than everyone else, but I’m an NBA fan more than anything. I want every team 100% coming into the playoffs. I don’t want any asterisks or footnotes next to a title winner. I want the 16 best teams in the league all at their very best for two months of great basketball. Taking Rose out of the equation was a major blow to the Bulls, and to the overall quality of the NBA Playoffs.

6: Any potential Big Room Award winners from this post-season so far?
It’s early in the year, and we have some basketball yet to be played, but we have a few. Obviously there are a few candidates for any NBA exclusive categories. I’d say right now the early front runners for NBA Player of the Year are LeBron James or Kevin Durant, and that can definitely be wrapped up with a title. Speaking of a title, whoever wins the championship will almost certainly get a nomination for Team of the Year, and if the Spurs end up wrapping up a title, it’s hard to imagine a team going on a run as impressive as theirs not taking home the hypothetical Biggie Award Trophy. Coach of the Year honors are definitely up for grabs, especially with Gregg Popovich and Doc Rivers still in the mix. There haven’t been any major upsets, but there have been some really good games. Clippers/Grizzlies game one could definitely get some Game of the Year love because of an unthinkable comeback.

Additionally, we have potential nominees for some off the court action as well. TNT’s Inside the NBA has been nominated two straight years for Best Pre/Post Game Show, and this year they could bring home the gold. We also have Best and Worst Announcers of the Year honors potentially in play. Marv Albert is the voice of the NBA, and Mike Breen is high on the game-caller power rankings as well. On the opposite end of the spectrum, we have Chris Webber seemingly doing everything he could to secure a nomination for Worst Announcer of the Year. It’s almost like he’s purposely awful.

7: Now that Dwight Howard and Derrick Rose are out for the Olympics, who should round out the 12 man roster for Team USA?
First let me say that even though Dwight Howard is my least favorite player in the NBA, losing him really hurts Team USA. Not to the point that I fear we aren’t bringing back the Gold Medal, but enough that it’s not totally out of the question that Spain could pull an upset. They nearly did in 2008, and now Serge Ibaka will join more rested than expected Gasol brothers on the Spanish team. Rose’s injury hurts too, but there is a bulk of great point guards USA has to choose from. Not exactly the case with centers. We have two separate questions here: who do I think should, and who do I think will round out the 12 man roster for Team USA. I personally think it would be wise to have James Harden take Derrick Rose’s spot and Anthony Davis take Dwight Howard’s spot. If you didn’t read my USA Basketball post back in January then the quick rundown of my 12 man roster now including Harden and Davis is: LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant, Dwyane Wade, Chris Paul, Kevin Love, Tyson Chandler, Russell Westbrook, Chris Bosh, Blake Griffin, James Harden, and Anthony Davis. Hold the phone though, Dwyane Wade has talked about how he may not participate in the Olympics, and due to a knee issue and an extended playoff run, this is something we need to consider. Assuming Wade doesn’t participate, I hesitantly put Carmelo back onto Team USA. Again, if you didn’t read the post back in January, the reason I kept Carmelo off in the first place is because Team USA doesn’t really need any more scoring, and as seen in the playoffs, Carmelo is a scorer who needs a lot of shots to get those points. Just take a look at the Knicks/Heat series. It took Carmelo 124 shots to score 139 points. I trust Durant a lot more in the role of “Off the bench scoring forward to come in and light it up” than I do Carmelo.

One more quick thought before I get to who I think will be on Team USA: I know that the pool of players who could potentially play in London has already been determined, but if possible I think Jerry Colangelo and Coach K should take a look at bringing in Kevin Garnett. He looks better this postseason than he has since his first season in Boston, and I trust him more than Bosh, Griffin and even Love in a big game. You’re telling me KG wouldn’t get all kinds of fired up to go to war against Spain in the Gold Medal Game? If that were the case, I’m keeping Anthony Davis off and bringing Garnett along.

Alright, so now who will actually make Team USA? Well, if Dwyane Wade wants in, he’s in. If Deron Williams decides that playing for Team USA is more important than leaving Brooklyn, he’s most likely in. So that brings us to 10 locked spots for LeBron, Kobe, Wade, Durant, Paul, Williams, Westbrook, Love, Chandler, Carmelo. My guess would be that Bosh will be added (experience, size, and a game that translates well to the international game) and so will Blake Griffin (for marketability and a slew of garbage time alley-oops). Anyways, whether these are the smartest moves, it’s likely where we are headed and regardless, USA will all but certainly win Gold. I just think Harden makes more sense than Williams or Carmelo; he can play 1-3, he’s familiar with coming off the bench, and he can be effective by scoring or distributing. Plus he would have the best beard in the entire 2012 Olympics.

8: Where does LeBron’s game four against Indiana rank among his all-time best playoff performances?
Of course I was going to have one whole question devoted to LeBron! By now you knew this had to be coming, didn’t you? Plus, this question gave me an opportunity to look back and reminisce on all of his past playoff games. After careful research thanks to www.basketball-reference.com and a brain that is geared towards remembering useless pieces of NBA information, as far as I can tell, this was the 2nd most impressive/significant game of LeBron’s playoff career. Allow me to break down the top five, in descending order.

T5: 2006 Game 3 1st Round- Win 97-96 at Washington, 16-28 FG, 6-9 FT, 41 points, 5 rebounds, 3 assists
-This game has lost steam historically because it came in the first round and because Cleveland lost in the next round. In reality, it was one hell of an effing game and series for that matter. LeBron was absolutely out of his mind in this game (as you can see above) and in the series (35.7 points, 7.5 rebounds, 5.7 assist, and an unheard of 47 minutes per game). What’s not shown in the stat line is LeBron breaking the record for most points in a road playoff debut, his 14 points in the 4th quarter or the game winning bank shot he hit with 6 seconds left.

T5: 2011 Game 5 Conference Finals- Win 83-80 at Chicago, 8-19 FG, 9-11 FT, 28 points, 11 rebounds, 6 assists
-This game has already lost steam historically because of the fact the numbers don’t stand out like many of LeBron’s other games do, and because he played a round of hide and seek in the NBA Finals. In reality, this game was Chicago’s to win and it was a minor miracle that Miami won. The Bulls were up 77-65 with just 3:14 left, and then LeBron (along with Dwyane Wade) started making huge shots, Chicago went cold, and suddenly Miami, thanks to a clutch LeBron James jumper, had the lead. To cap off the game, LeBron fittingly blocked a potential game tying three point attempt from Derrick Rose. It was an appropriate way to end a series where Derrick Rose shot 7% in the fourth quarters with LeBron guarding him.

This postseason LeBron has been on a different level than everybody else.

4: 2009 Game Two ECF- Win 96-95 vs. Orlando, 12-23 FG, 10-12 FT, 35 points, 4 rebounds, 5 assists
-A not so fun fact: I actually missed this game live. It was the night of prom my junior year of high school and I didn’t see LeBron knock down the biggest shot of his career, which doubled as the biggest shot in the history of the Cleveland Cavaliers. That night I actually spent more time on the dance floor getting updates from my dad than I did dancing. And I was one pissed off S.O.B. when I got the message saying that Cleveland had blown a 23 point lead and was down 2 points with one second left. Needless to say, my night completely turned around when I got bombarded with text messages from every family member and friend who was watching the game. It still bugs me that I didn’t get to watch this game as it happened, but luckily Sports Center ran the shot on a 24/7 replay for the next two days, and I was fortunate enough to catch the game on ESPN Classic a while later.

3: 2009 Game Five ECF- Win 112-102 vs. Orlando, 11-24 FG, 15-19 FT, 37 points, 14 rebounds, 12 assists
-Incredible performance with Cleveland on life support at the time. LeBron scored 17 in the fourth quarter, and scored or assisted on Cleveland’s final 29 points of the game. 1962 was the last time anyone posted at least 37-14-12 in a playoff game, so umm yeah, that’s kind of impressive.

2: 2012 Game Four 2nd Round- Win 101-93 at Indiana, 14-27 FG, 12-16 FT, 40 points, 18 rebounds, 9 assists
-Let’s wait to discuss the magnitude of this game until this post season ends. From what I can tell, it’s safely locked in at number two since it can’t surpass the number one game, and since number three took place right before the Cavaliers were knocked out of the playoffs. Let me just say this though, in 9 years of watching LeBron, this was probably the most complete game he has ever played when you consider his scoring, rebounding, defense, etc. He played nearly flawless basketball.

1: 2007 Game Five ECF- Win 109-107 at Detroit, 18-33 FG, 10-14 FT, 48 points, 9 rebounds, 7 assists
-Call me biased, but I’d be willing to argue with anyone that this was the best post-MJ playoff performance yet. You know who got 4th quarter and overtime minutes for Cleveland besides LeBron in this game? Eric Snow, Sasha Pavlovic, Daniel Gibson, Damon Jones, Drew Gooden, Donyell Marshall, Anderson Varejao and Zydrunas Ilgauskas. There is a reason why LeBron scored 29 of the last 30 Cleveland points… That team sucked! I keep saying this! LeBron’s greatest accomplishment of his career hasn’t been his three MVP Awards, back to back 60 win seasons or the all-defensive teams he’s made; it’s getting this particular Cleveland team to the NBA Finals. It’s not just impressive, it’s slightly miraculous. If you have the time, click on the link and watch the 13 minute highlight video from this game. It’s worth the time, trust me, and I’m not just saying that from a LeBron fan perspective. If you appreciate basketball brilliance or you don’t necessarily remember the game so vividly like I do, then I beg you to watch the highlights.

9: What is the biggest reason for each team remaining why they won’t win the title?
Miami- As a half-hearted Miami Heat fan, I have three major worries about this team. Worry number one is if the Big Three can hold up. And that doesn’t concern just Chris Bosh, who is a serious question mark for the rest of the postseason. Dwyane Wade is getting his knee drained (never a good sign) and LeBron is going through yet another post season averaging 40 plus minutes per game. Not trying to make excuses for LeBron, but fatigue was definitely a reason why he performed poorly against Dallas in the Finals last year. Without Bosh in the mix and a banged up Wade, it worries me that LeBron might need to start logging even more minutes. My second worry is the supporting cast, which has so far offered little help. Outside of Mario Chalmers, I don’t feel totally comfortable with offensive contributions from any other players. Battier is shooting under 30% from deep, and Mike Miller is running like a 70 year old man with two hip replacements and a back surgery in the past. Worry number three is the LeBron/Wade dynamic. I’m still convinced they haven’t reached their peak as teammates, and I don’t know the Heat can win a title until they do. This is especially troubling against teams like Boston and San Antonio who thrive on teamwork.

Boston- Injuries, injuries, injuries! Ray Allen has two bad ankles, Avery Bradley has a bad shoulder, Paul Pierce has a sprained knee and Kevin Garnett isn’t exactly unbreakable. If Boston isn’t at full strength, it’s hard to believe they can beat the Heat, let alone win the NBA Title.

Oklahoma City Thunder- The biggest reason the Oklahoma City Thunder won’t win the NBA Title is the San Antonio Spurs. Plain and simple. Ten years ago, the Kings and Lakers had a 7 game battle in the Western Conference Finals, and were without question the two best teams in the league. If the Thunder can manage to make this series interesting (that looks like it might be a big if), we might end up looking at things the same way this year.

San Antonio- At this point it’s really hard to point to anything San Antonio does and call it a potential weakness. The only way I can see them not winning the NBA Title is if their bench pulls a Houdini and disappears, AND the Duncan/Parker/Ginobili Big 3 is badly outplayed. That looks very unlikely. When you play rock solid team basketball like San Antonio does, it’s really hard to imagine a scenario where the Spurs don’t win the title.

10: Historically, how significant are the rest of the playoffs?
Very. Up for grabs:
-Rajon Rondo, Tony Parker or maybe even Russell Westbrook could take sole possession of the “Best Point Guard in the World” Championship Belt.
-Kevin Durant could make a serious push as the best player in the NBA. His late game heroics and overall brilliance so far in the playoffs, combined with an NBA title would give that argument some serious momentum.
-Miami desperately needs to win a title… And that’s all I really need to say.
-This might seem crazy at first glance, but a 2nd ring would put Dwyane Wade third on the list of best shooting guards of all-time.  I’m not going to list the credentials because I can only give Dwyane Wade so much love in one post.
-Boston could pull one of the greatest upsets in NBA playoff history if they could somehow win the NBA Title. Additionally, if Boston wins the title the Garnett/Pierce/Allen era will be seen as a complete success, without any objection. This was originally supposed to be a three-year plan, and we are now in year five. If two titles come out of a supposed to be three-year plan, no Boston fan is complaining.

The Spurs are seven wins from capping off an all-time great NBA season

-San Antonio could not only lock down a spot as one of the greatest dynasties in NBA history (5 titles in a 13 year span), but lock down a seat at the Greatest Teams of All-Time round table. It’s not completely out of the question that they could sweep the playoffs. Even if they didn’t, but still remained relatively dominant (say they finish 16-2 in the postseason), they enter the conversation. For God sakes, they are 33-3 since March 12! They aren’t at the level of 96 Bulls, 86 Celtics or 87 Lakers as far as historical relevance goes… but this is the best NBA team I can remember see playing. If they finish the job, they more than deserve that recognition. Plus, the individual legacies of Tim Duncan and Gregg Popovich are greatly improved, not that they need it.
-As much as Miami needs to win a title this year, LeBron James needs to win a title even more. It just has to happen. LeBron may be the most brilliant basketball talent of all-time, yet won’t ever be fully appreciated if he doesn’t win at least one championship. It’s a shame, but it’s true. Right now, I’ve never felt more comfortable with the way LeBron is playing. I’ve watched him closely for 9 years and he is playing the best basketball of his entire career right now. There is one gigantic problem; basketball is a team sport, and the brilliance of the best team (San Antonio) will almost always be greater than the brilliance of the best individual (LeBron James). That’s why even if the Heat make the Finals (I still can’t count out Boston… it’s a mental thing for me) come mid-June I’ll again be left disappointed. At least I know it in advance.