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The Scarlet & Black

The Scarlet & Black

Kunal talks the best basketball out there, the NBA playoffs

The NBA Playoffs are a spectacle to behold. The regular season is a grueling 82 games. It is well known that hardly any player is playing with maximum focus and intensity for every single one. Sure, the NBA is comprised of the best basketballers in the World, and star players like Derrick Rose are seemingly always playing at full-speed. However, even Rose had moments this season when his head was not fully in the game; for example, in a 107-78 loss to the Magic in early December, Rose had 15 points on 5-13 shooting from the field, four assists, no rebounds, no steals, three turnovers, and was a -24 for the Bulls when he was on the floor. He also went 3-6 from the charity stripe, which might be the statistic most revealing of the career 82 percent free throw shooter’s mindset. The Playoffs are a totally different animal.

In the Playoffs, because the stakes are so high (“win or go home” is the NBA’s cliché of choice), every player is playing with maximum intensity all the time. When the best of the best, such as LeBron, Kobe, and Rose, all step their game up to that next level, fans are treated to a quality of basketball that is unsurpassed by any other event or tournament anywhere ever. I don’t care how good any NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament is or was, that kind of basketball looks like crap when you compare it to the NBA Playoffs. Of course, the allure of March Madness reaches far beyond the quality of ball played on the court, and that’s fine; I’m just saying that if your goal is to watch the most highly-skilled basketball you possibly can, you need to tune in to the NBA’s postseason. Indeed, this year’s first-round games have not disappointed.

In the Western Conference, surprises abound. Obviously, few expected the eighth-seeded Memphis Grizzlies and seventh-seeded New Orleans Hornets to take the opening stanza of their matchups with the San Antonio Spurs and Los Angeles Lakers respectively. However, did anyone really expect the third-seeded Mavericks to take a two-game lead to Portland? Bill Simmons’ pre-playoff Podcast summed up well what the general consensus on this series was a few days ago, “the Mavs might have the series’ best player in Dirk Nowitzki, but the Blazers might have the next three or four best players after him.” The Blazers also entered the postseason on a bit of a roll, winning five of their last seven, including a 104-96 shellacking of the Mavs on April 3. I love the Blazers, as I think that their starting five has three of the most underrated players in the NBA in LaMarcus Aldridge, Andre Miller, and Gerald Wallace. I also really like Rudy Fernandez and Nicolas Batum off the bench, but the bottom line is that the whole team needs to play better defense if they’re going to beat Dallas. The Mavs have shot better than 40 percent from three-point range in both games so far, nailing 18 total, but their offensive success has not been limited to the perimeter; Dallas has 55 free-throw attempts in two games, with Dirk taking 30 of them. The way that Jason Kidd and Peja Stojakovic are shooting from the outside, the Blazers have been hesitant to double up on Dirk, and as a result, he’s getting to the line at a ridiculous rate. The Mavs are a veteran team with tons of playoff experience and a top-10 player in the league, and as much as I love the mix of size and skill on Portland’s roster, I can’t see the Blazers clawing their way out of a 2-0 hole.

Speaking of surprises, how about those Denver Nuggets? By now, everyone is aware of how good the Nuggets have been since the ‘Melo and Billups trade – 18 wins in 25 games, including impressive victories against the likes of Boston, San Antonio, Dallas, and the Lakers. As the postseason got underway this past weekend, Denver had become a trendy pick to not only beat the Thunder in Round One, but to actually make it to the Conference Finals and beyond. Arguably, there is not a more complete team in the playoffs, as Denver boasts basically two NBA-caliber starting lineups. The backcourt is solid with players like Raymond Felton, Ty Lawson, J.R. Smith, and Arron Afflalo. The frontcourt is formidable with players like Nene, Danilo Gallinari, Kenyon Martin, Wilson Chandler, and Birdman Andersen. The weaknesses of this Denver Nuggets team are few and far between, but I’m still not ready to sip the Kool-Aid quite yet. Why? Only because their opponent in the First Round, the Oklahoma City Thunder, boasts similarly impressive depth, and a clearly superior starting lineup. Russell Westbrook is obviously OKC’s main guy in the backcourt, but Thabo Sefolosha, Eric Maynor (VCU Alum), Daequan Cook, and James Harden are all suitable threats to score or put the ball on the floor. Kevin Durant, Kendrick Perkins, and Serge Ibaka provide a good mix of scoring prowess, defensive discipline, and rebounding, but Nick Collison and Nazr Mohammed can definitely hold their own for the 20 minutes or so a game that they’re asked to play. OKC took game one behind unbelievable performances from Durant and Westbrook. While I think this will be a topsy-turvy series that goes the full seven games, my gut is telling me that Denver doesn’t have enough offensive firepower to keep up with the Thunder.

The final results of the first few Eastern Conference playoff games were not particularly surprising, as the Bulls, Heat and Celtics got off to quick 2-0 leads in their respective series. The games have been fantastic, though. The eighth-seeded Pacers have given the Bulls all they can handle in the first two games, and while it is quite evident that Chicago is the better team, and Derrick Rose is the best player on the court, I can’t compliment this Pacers team enough on how hard they are playing. If Darren Collison didn’t go down right before the half of Game 2, the Pacers might have won that game. That all being said, the Bulls smell blood with a 2-0 series lead, and the Pacers’ confidence has to be rattled after letting two late-game leads slip away. I see Chicago putting that series to bed in the next couple of games. The best series in the East, though, has been Boston-New York. Two games, two times Boston has needed late-game heroics from one of the Big Three to take care of the pesky Knicks.  Carmelo went off in Game 2, putting up 42 points and 17 boards, but when Toney Douglas becomes your second best scoring option, and Amar’e Stoudemire scores four points on 2-9 shooting from the field, your team has offensive issues and it’s certainly going to be tough to outscore the Big Three plus Rondo. Despite the fact that Boston has shot well above 40 percent from the field in both games so far, I actually think the Knicks have played pretty well defensively (aside from letting Rajon “I really can’t shoot a jump shot” Rondo score 30 in Game 2). It is New York’s inability to get consistent scoring from any player other than ‘Melo, and even he went 5-18 from the field in Game 1, that has been their Achilles’ heel in this series. How ironic it is that offensive stagnancy is the biggest problem of this Mike D’Antoni-coached team? The Knicks have outplayed the Celtics at times during this series and I don’t think it is past them to win two in a row at the Garden. However, too much veteran leadership, combined with Rondo’s uncanny ability to step his game up in the playoffs and do a little of everything, will end the Knicks’ season short of the Second Round.

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