Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The Nugs and Magic Look to Foil the NBA's Dream Matchup

Since early in the season, the NBA has readied itself to have its two biggest starts, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James, pitted against each other in this year’s NBA Finals. Their teams cruised to commanding leads in their respective conferences, and up to this point everything has gone according to plan, as the Lakers and Cavs both dominated their first two playoff series for the most part. One more series victory for each team and the NBA would have its biggest Finals showdown since the days that Larry and Magic were controlling the court. LeBron and co. needed to continue their dominance against over-achieving Orlando, as the Lakers need to slide past the nuisance that is the Nuggets and the stage will be set. The matchup that everyone has been anxiously awaiting and anticipating. However, there is one small bump in the path paved to the perfect Finals; the Magic and Nuggets didn’t get the memo that stated that they were supposed to be just another overcomable obstacle standing in the way of destiny. But now, with the Nuggets fighting their way to a 2-2 series split with the Lakers, and the Magic holding a 2-1 lead over Cleveland heading into tonight’s matchup (and let’s not forget, they were one second and a LeBron miracle away from holding a commanding 3-0 lead), a Lakers/Cavs Finals showdown is anything but certain. Each team remaining has the ability to win the Championship, and at this point it is truly anyone’s ring. Despite the solid played demonstrated by each team throughout the playoffs, each team has strengths and weaknesses that will determine their overall ability to secure a ring for themselves. With that being said, my ranking of the four remaining teams follows:

1. Cavaliers – Despite their struggles early in this series, the Cavs have yet to have everyone clicking, as usual hot-hands such as Moe Williams and Delante West have been struggling, and they have received minimal help from the bench, causing them to rely heavily on LeBron James to score, which is not when they’re at their best. Once (and if) these players start contributing as they did throughout the season and playoffs to this point the Cavs will again create matchup nightmares. They also have the ultimate closer and go-to-guy in LeBron, who has shown he has the ability to single-handedly win games for the Cavs and after his awe-inspiring game winner in game 2 his confidence should be at an all time high. Add all these pieces together and the Cavs are still the championship favorites in my mind.

2. Nuggets – The Nugs have been the most impressive team in the Western Conference (if not overall) in these playoffs, showing off impressive depth spear-headed by the explosive J.R. Smith and the Birdman, Chris Andersen, along with vast defensive improvements and the ability to win tight games. Chauncey and Melo provide two legitimate scoring options, who have proven they can score in the clutch, which is crucial for playoff success. They have battled the Lakers to a 2-2 tie through four, and they show no sign of relenting. If they manage to outlast L.A. then the Eastern representative could be in for some trouble.

3. Lakers – Kobe, Kobe, Kobe. All year, the Lakers had success running a balanced attack which didn’t require the aforementioned Kobe to dominate the ball and the game. Rather, he would take his shots when necessary and facilitate the rest of his teammates, even referring to himself as a “compass.” However, that style of play has been nowhere to be found in this series, in which Kobe has needed an array of 40 point nights in order to keep L.A.’s playoff dreams alive. Where’s L.O.? Where’s Andrew Bynum? Until these players start to reemerge it is very difficult for me to label the Lake Show as the ultimate title contenders that they recently were. However, as long as number 24 is still suiting up in purple and gold it is impossible to count them out.

4. Magic – Although Orlando has rebounded nicely from their first round struggle with the Sixers with an impressive series victory of the short-handed Celtics, and they have looked extremely impressive against the Cavaliers thus far, I still believe that they are the team least equipped to make a true title run. Dwight Howard is not yet a dominant offensive presence who can score at will, and this leaves Orlando with the lack of a go-to guy. Sure, Hedo has proven that he can make some clutch shots, but a do not consider him the caliber closer that ever other remaining team has, whether it be Kobe, LBJ, Melo, or Chauncey. Combine this with their lack of depth (Orlando definitely has the least depth out of any remaining squad) and I find it difficult to see how they can truly contend for the title. However, I also doubted their ability to get past Boston, and they continue to surprise and impress. So, at this point, the Finals are anything but set in stone.

Monday, May 11, 2009

The Tao of Tracy

Having the title of ‘superstar’ carries with it certain, sometimes lofty, expectations, and playoff success is one such expectation. Once an NBA player enters that level of superstardom, they are automatically expected to propel their team to the playoff promised land. A role player can muddle in mediocrity for a decade, and no one will think twice about it, but a couple subpar seasons from a superstar’s team and his overall worth and talent is immediately questioned, often rightfully so. After all, if a team shells out upwards of a hundred million dollars for a player, then he should at least be able to push them past the first round. If a player is unable to do this, it often signifies the fact that they may not be the caliber player often associated with superstar status. However, what if such a player is clearly one of the best players in the league, racking in scoring titles and all-star selections, but can never carry a team come playoff time.

Enter: Tracy McGrady, one of the most exciting and explosive players to grace the NBA in the past decade, but unable (to this point) to thrust any of his three teams past the playoff’s first round (a feat that all three teams have accomplished after his departure, or in the case of the Rockets, while he was injury-ridden). These facts alone would cause an outsider to believe that McGrady is a talented player, motivated by personal success and largely unable to be greatly productive on the larger scale, which in the NBA is playoff success. Such an analysis, if correct, would cause most columnists and coaches alike to write such a player off, and label him unworthy of the green he has been granted. But, in McGrady’s case such a label is not so easy to apply. Personal accomplishments aside, McGrady is not the common cancer, or leader who lacks the effort. He is continuously heralded as a tolerable, if not a terrific teammate, and I have never heard as much as a whisper of laziness or lack of effort in practice or games. He has simply not been able to succeed in the second season. Call it fate, luck, destiny, or simply inability. Whatever you choose to label it, it’s there. Personally, taking into account all that I know and have seen of Tracy, I coin it luck.

To me, Tracy represents the Ken Griffey Jr. of basketball -- an outstanding player with exorbitant amounts of talent and potential, who has achieved major success, but was never able to develop fully, due largely to injuries. Another fitting example would be a new-generation Grant Hill, who was touted as the next Jordan before injuries began overtaking his career. I feel that Tracy has never had the opportunity to get into a complete rhythm with his team and body in the same season, and this has greatly hampered him throughout his career. And every time it seems like he and his team is finally gelling, I see the phrase “McGrady out for remainder of season,” scrolling across my ESPN bottom line. The Rockets playoff success this season with Tracy sidelined further adds insult to injury (literally) as many are suggesting that the Rockets are better off without him, and should consider moving him since they were able to go farther without him than he could ever carry them himself. But in fairness to Tracy, the Rockets were going to win their first round matchup with the Blazers regardless of his presence on the court, and in reality, they pobably would have won with more ease if the sure-handed shooting guard was playing. I’m sure a poll of the Rockets’ locker room would illustrate that the players wish they had Tracy suited up for their current matchup with the Lakers and their own all-star. But, due to yet another season-ending injury, Tracy's season was cut short, and once again, we are deprived of seeing what Tracy is truly capable of, as the Rockets are forced to make way through the unfamiliar playoff terrain without hin. Although Tracy’s future is uncertain, his ability and desire should not be questioned.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Celtics/Bulls: An Instant Classic

The Celtics/Bulls first round series went from being an interesting at most first round matchup (in my mind), to must see- TV in the matter of a game. After the incredible game one battle between Rose and Rondo, I was hooked. See, since I enjoy watching almost all games, I break them down into two categories:

Category 1: Games that I fit things around. For instance, I would postpone going out or other activities until after the game has completed. (“Hey guys, I’ll be out, I’m just gunna wait ‘til this Sixers game is over.”) Also under this category is games that I turn into events to ensure my ability to watch them. (“Hey guys, let’s have some beers and watch the game.”) Games in this category simply mean that I want to watch them from start to finish and plan for this ahead of time.

Category 2: Games that are on, but can be missed or blended into the background. Such games are the ones that I sorta watch at a bar or party, but do not pay full attention to, or ones that I begin to watch that I do not mind leaving in the middle of to pursue another activity.

Before the start, I thought that the Celtics/Bulls series was going to fall into the second category, and boy was I wrong. Not only did it become my favorite series of the first round, but it developed into one of my favorite series of all time. It developed into a category one series. Such transformations do not happen often, and that’s what made this series so special. Sure, the sheer amount of extra periods was an indicator of the intensity of the series, and helped it to draw more attention, but I enjoyed the series for the pride and passion that the players showed, and the full range of emotion the series captured. The electricity that Joakim Noah showed after making a big play or the seemingly endless amount of big shots that Ray Allen was able to produce. Everything we, the fan, love about the game was captured in this series. It showed the highs and lows of the game. It illustrated how one game you could be booed out of the stadium, and the next be redeemed as your team’s hero (see Brad Miller), or struggle mightily one game to find your stroke and the next light the opponent up for a record high 9 three pointers (Ray-Ray). Not much more could be said about a series that has had everyone talking, as it has already been so well-documented across the sports world. This series, to me, represented all the reasons why I love basketball, and I can only hope that the next round of series can be equally as entertaining, and take that step from a category 2, to a first category series.

Round 2 Predictions


1. Lakers vs. Rockets: Lakers, 5 games. The Lakers are determined, and despite the fact that the Rockets have Ron Artest to throw at Kobe, their lack of depth to make up with the Lakers front court will present a problem. The Lakers have too many weapons that do not match up well for the Rockets. Houston finally got out of the first round (and it took T-Mac sitting on the bench to do it), but their joy ride ends here. L.A. moves on.

2. Nuggets vs. Mavericks: Nuggets, 6 games. This has potential to be the most exciting and high-scoring second round series. The Mavs impressed many (including myself) with their domination of perennial powerhouse Spurs, but the Nuggets have many weapons of their own, including a variety of defenders to throw at Dirk. The Nuggets bench including the hot-handed J.R. Smith is one of the best and deepest in the League. The leadership of Chauncey and ability of Carmelo will nudge the Nugs forward into a Confrence Finals showdown with the Lakers.


1. Cavs vs. Heat/Hawks: Cavaliers, 5 games. It seems like forever since I've watched a Cavs game, since they were the only team to sweep their first round series. Either team they face will be tired from a long 7 game series, while the Cavs continue to be the most well-rested team in the playoffs. If the Heat advance, Dwayne Wade should be able to get them a victory on his own, but unfortunately for Miami fans, that's all they can hope for. The Hawks should also be able to squeak out a victory at home, assuming that neither team will be able to grab a victory at the Q, where the Cavs were an absurd 39-2 this season. Assuming that the Cavs kept their focus and hunger during their recent down time (which is very likely considering they are led by a hungry LeBron), then they should coast into the Confrence Finals.

2. Celtics vs. Magic: Celtics, 7 games. The Celtics have to be tired. They just completed one of the best 7 game series in NBA history, which included 5 overtime games. This fatigue factor favors Orlando right off the bat. However, the Magic didn't look anything like the dominating team they were in the regular season in their first round series against Philly. They often struggled to score and looked lackluster on defense. Their main advantage in the series will be the presence of Dwight Howard compared to the depleted Boston backcourt. This is where the Celts will really miss Powe and Garnett, who could be used as extra bodies to throw at Dwight. But, Boston is solid in all other areas and certainly has the advantage at the point guard position and on the wings. If Boston can use the bigs that they still have to limit Dwight's impact, they should be able to advance and face the King and the Cavs.

Friday, May 1, 2009

So Long Season

So long season. I’ve always heard that you can’t be let down if you don’t expect too much, and boy did my expectations sure let me down this time. Heading into game 6, I actually fooled myself into believing that the 76ers had a chance to beat the Orlando Magic without Dwight Howard and Courtney Lee. How foolish of me. How naive must I have been to have believed that a team at full strength, in an elimination game in their home building, could put forth the effort to defeat an opponent without two of their starters, including their best player? The worst part about the Sixers embarrassing 114-89 loss, besides the fact that I’m forced to dwell on it until October, is that fact that I was actually convinced that the Sixers could defeat the Magic sans Dwight, and force a seventh game, and then even potentially surge into the second round. However, my fantasy did not lost for long, and after the team came out flatter than a ten year old basketball, I was quickly dragged back down to reality and forced to accept another first round failure.

It is only fitting that the Sixers main defensive flaw all season, the inability to defend the three point shot, came back to haunt them in their final game of the season, as they allowed one of the best three point shooting teams in the league to successfully convert twelve threes, including five by the usual reserve, J.J. Redick. I mean come on, everyone in the arena knew that all J.J. does is shoot threes, and the stagnant Sixers allowed him to make five? He hasn’t made five threes in a game since he was at Duke! But sure enough there he was, scoring 15 points on 5 made three point shots, each one serving as an dagger to the Philadelphia faithful. The perimeter defense was inexcusable, and not only did it allow Orlando to pile on the points, it prevented the Sixers from scoring as well. These successful shots by Orlando eliminated the chance for defensive rebounding and fast breaks, which is where the Sixers thrive, forcing them too often to set up in a half court offense, where they looked confused by the mere concept. It seems as though they assumed without Dwight Howard clogging the middle they would have an easy path to the basket all game, and they were surprised when the other Orlando players didn’t grant them such easy access. Aside from the contribution from Lou Williams off the bench, Igoudala’s usual 20, and the ever-steady play of Andre Miller (who proved to be the team’s most consistent and reliable player throughout the series), the team was largely absent on the offensive end, and as evidenced by the 12 made threes, the defense was no better. Orlando wore down the Philly D with a balanced attack, with six players scoring in double figures, led by Rashard Lewis’ 29.

From the opening tip the Sixers lacked the energy and enthusiasm required to win a game in the NBA, let alone an elimination game in the Playoffs. They were not committed defensively, looked largely sheepish on offense, and did not seem overly concerned with the outcome. Where’s the passion? Such a loss was disappointing enough, but coupled with the fact that the victor was missing its best player is like throwing salt on the wound, and takes the loss from simply disappointing to embarrassing. Someone should inform this team that this is Philadelphia and such a paltry effort is not tolerated by the fans and hopefully not by the front office, as it is quite evident that changes need to be made if the team ever aspires to fight past the first round. For now, I am once again forced to watch the many remaining playoff series sans the Sixers, and eagerly waiting for October, hoping that it may finally, be our year.