By: The Same Page Team
As part of our ongoing NBA coverage this year the Same Page welcomes you back to our Three for 3 feature. The concept is simple: We ask three of our contributors three questions about the NBA during the season and get three different answers. With the playoffs looming, it was time to take stock of the coming post-season. Now, follow along with Grant, Reynolds and Osubronie (bringing his talents from the basketball blog Game 6ix).
Which first round playoff match up are you most looking forward to?
Osubronie: Is it Christmas already? With the NBA playoffs only days away, the NBA gods have given us a stacked playoffs schedule. Now that all the Lakers drama is behind us, we can finally focus on the real subplots that seemed inevitable from the beginning of the season. James Harden and his Houston Rockets are set to face the Oklahoma City Thunder in the first round which, should be the unanimous choice for most anticipated match up.
Since the day Harden arrived in Houston, he has been hell bent on proving to his former team that they made a huge mistake by letting him go. Scoring 106 points in his first three games to start off the season and going off for 46 against the Thunder appeared to have proved his point, but maybe that’s just the beginning. Harden can’t take all the credit especially with consistent play from Jeremy Lin, Chandler Parsons and Omer Asik but the fact remains, without Harden on the floor to create space, the Rockets don’t make the playoffs. Only time will tell if Harden is ready to leave his “sixth man” label behind him, however to do that, he’ll have to go through a team that is in first place in the Western Conference.
Many analysts doubted the Thunder for letting Harden go to the Rockets. Questions of a third scoring option and break in chemistry were just a few of the concerns that faced them. Well, all of that worrying was pointless on our parts as the Thunder lead the Western conference with a 60-22 record. Lead by Kevin Durant, who would be an unanimous choice for MVP if Lebron didn’t exist, reaching career highs in scoring, assists, rebounds and steals this year. With his trigger happy sidekick Russell Westbrook and the shot blocking phenom Serge Ibaka, the Thunder have pummeled opponents, securing home court advantage through the conference finals.
After watching three high scoring games between these two teams during the season, I can guarantee this series won’t disappoint and will be the first round match up that you’re looking forward to as much as I am.
Grant: Personally I don’t think there’s any debate about this. Many years in the NBA there’s a first round series that absolutely thrills us, such as Bulls-Celtics from a few years ago or the Warriors magical upset of the 2006-07 Mavericks. But generally, the first round offers a lot of blowouts and sweeps. It separates the real contenders from the pretenders to the throne, which is why I think the most entertaining first round series this year will be between the Memphis Grizzlies and the Los Angeles Clippers.
The Grizzlies and the Clippers are both fringe contenders with tons of talent but glaring flaws. They went a grueling seven games last spring, with the Grizzlies ultimately emerging victorious. They also hate the crap out of one another.
The main players, minus Rudy Gay, are the same as last spring but there have been significant changes to both supporting casts. The additions of Tayshaun Prince, Ed Davis and Austin Daye and the subtractions of Gay and OJ Mayo for the Grizzlies have made them a different team. They’ve fully embraced running their offense through the beastly tandem of Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol and there isn’t a team in the NBA who can bruise with those two down low.
The Clippers have turned over a large portion of their roster and the additions of Jamal Crawford, Matt Barnes, Grant Hill and Caron Butler have added much needed veteran depth to the roster. Even Lamar Odom is sort of contributing! Their bench is deep and it produces. It’s a huge advantage for them and a big improvement over last season. However, this team still stops and starts with the contributions of Chris Paul and the improving Blake Griffin. Can Blake handle Z-Bo and Gasol? What about a battle between Chris Paul and Grizzlies defensive specialist Tony Allen? It isn’t going to be pretty basketball. It’s going to be another dog-fight and I can’t wait to watch.
Reynolds: The first round of the NBA playoffs is a crazy time. Does that go without saying? Sure, in a seven game series it feels much more unlikely (yet monumentally more amazing) for a lower seed team to upend a top seed, and one gets the sense that the majority of the first round battles are fairly one sided (well, in the Eastern conference anyway). But, come on, it’s the start of the NBA playoffs! It’s a magical time.
Still, when talking about the first round and surveying the matchups, one solid truth emerges: the Western conference playoffs are going to be absolutely bananas. My compatriots here have already talked about two series and I can’t help but add to the dogpile. Do you realize we are going to have a Denver vs. Golden State first round series? Multiple games of Steph Curry and Ty Lawson trying to see who can break the sound barrier; endless quarters of Andre Iguodala chasing Klay Thompson around; Andre Miller and Jarrett Jack having vet stare downs! And we haven’t even talked about the bizarre mix of post players (Koufos! McGee! Lee! Bogut?!). I know the Nuggets lustre is a bit duller today than it was a few weeks ago (Danilo Gallinari is gone; your mother’s favourite basketball player Kenneth Faried is hobbled; and Lawson is operating at Warp 3 rather than Warp 5), but come on guys, let’s embrace the forest AND the trees and just enjoy what is sure to be an insane series of basketball games.
Which late-round playoff match are you hoping to see this year?
Osubronie: Unless the Clippers beat the Grizzlies and the Thunder and the Lakers can get through Denver in the second round (which they won’t), my dream late round matchup of the battle of L.A. isn’t likely to happen, but that doesn’t mean I don’t want it to. There are a lot of people who refuse to call this a rivalry because the Lakers have been dominant since the Clippers came into the league. After watching the Clippers sweep the season series, I beg to differ. The disorganized Lakers were simply destroyed in every meeting between the two teams, causing a lot of anger and resentment in the Staples Centre. Plus, I’m already taking prop bets on which diehard fan gets ejected for fighting in the stands. C’mon Billy Crystal, I need you to bring the crazy!
Kobe Bryant out with a torn Achilles for the next 6-9 months doesn’t get any easier to stomach but somehow the Lakers are looking good again. Dwight Howard has found his big boy pants and Pau Gasol has two triple doubles in the last three games. They are finally primed and ready to play the younger and more athletic duo of Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan. I never thought I would have ever said that sentence in that order, but that’s the reality right now. Blake and Jordan have elevated their games to cause defensive nightmares for opposing teams. Their high flying attack in transition leave slower non agile centers looking lost under the rim.
At the guard position, it’s really a no brainier who has the advantage here. With an elderly Steve Nash on the bench, Steve Blake has the assignment of going against Chris Paul. No need of examining how much of a lopsided battle this will be, so I’m going to move on to the teams benches. Crawford, Bledsoe, Barnes against Jamison ….(give me a minute)…that guy with the… OK, so the Clippers clearly have the advantage on the bench too. Despite the legacy and their recent play, the Lakers could be in serious trouble in a playoff matchup. This is still going to be my dream late round match up (too bad it will never happen).
Grant: I gotta go with Heat-Knicks. I believe that due to the way the seeding works, this would have to be in the Eastern conference final and I can’t think of a better matchup.
For those who don’t remember, the Heat and Knicks have history going back to the late 1990’s, when they met four seasons in a row in the playoffs, the only teams ever to do so. Back then, the Knicks and Heat were in the same division, so they met often during the regular season as well, something that only fueled the fire of their rivalry. Each time, they met in the second round of the playoffs, with the Heat winning the first meeting in 1997, followed by three straight Knicks victories. These were the Knicks of Patrick Ewing and Charles Oakley and the Heat of Tim Hardaway and Alonzo Mourning. This rivalry was exacerbated by the fact that Pat Riley had stepped down as Knicks head coach in 1995 and moved to… that’s right, the Heat. Riley is still with the Heat organization, having coached them to a title in 2006 and currently serving as the architect of the modern day Heat juggernaut.
I can’t rightly explain how awesome this series would be. The best in the world in LeBron James against reigning scoring champ Carmelo Anthony (set to become the next what exactly, if he continues to lose? Gervin? King? ‘Nique? English?). The massively improved J.R. Smith vs. Dwyane Wade. Chris Bosh, Udonis Haslem and the Bird Man vs. Tyson Chandler, (maybe) a healthy Amar’e Stoudemire and Marcus Camby in the trenches. There would be spectacular offensive plays and punishing intensity from both sides. I want it so bad I can taste it. Please let this happen. I don’t ask for much.
Reynolds: The Clippers need to re-tool and fire Vinny Del Negro, the Nuggets (God love them) are now just a tad too injured to make a serious run, and the Heat will probably roll (despite what I say for my next answer), so the later round series I want to most see is the rematch of those beasts of Tennessee, the Memphis Grizzlies, versus the rolling power of the Oklahoma City Thunder.
As I’ve said before, for the Grizzlies this is it. Their chemistry is about as solid as it’s going to be, their players are mostly peaking (though Zach Randolph doesn’t seem himself) and their grinding defensive style is as oppressive as ever. They were the upstarts in 2011, an eighth seed, a team playing without its “star” Rudy Gay. They gave the Thunder a hell of a run right to a seventh game (in a series that included single and triple OT games). They bobbled their first round series last year against the Clippers and were humbled. This is it.
For the Oklahoma City Thunder, it is championship or bust. This is it. Well, OK, not quite that. They still have two of the best players in the world (I’m a Westbrook supporter) and a play style that is as terrifying as it is beautiful (and I’m not just talking about Westbrook’s wardrobe. Zing!). They traded James Harden out of town, they doubled down on “Not Nice“, they want to win. They could meet the Grizzlies again in the second round. Ring the bell.
Which team do you like as a dark horse in this year’s playoffs?
Osubronie: It’s hard to pick Denver as a dark horse when they are coached by George Karl, but that’s exactly what I’m going to do. Placing third in the stacked Western Conference is nothing to be overlooked, although with the level the Spurs and the Thunder are playing at, it’s difficult to believe they can make it past the second round. Along with nagging injuries to Ty Lawson, Danilo Gallinari and Kenneth Faried, a ticket to the Conference Finals or beyond looks bleak. However, with one of the deepest benches in the league, the Nuggets they have a better chance than most would like to believe.
Even though George Karl doesn’t have a championship ring to add to his credentials, he has an uncanny ability to create chemistry with his teams. By giving deeper responsibilities to players like Corey Brewer and Wilson Chandler, he has inspired a level of play I didn’t think was possible. He has also worked closely with long time veteran, Andre Miller, to be a more vocal leader on the team which has played made and incredible impact of young stars like Ty Lawson. Plus, any coach that can get Javale McGee to stop swatting basketballs into row 20 should be instantly given Coach of the Year. If George can get his team to overcome their injury issues throughout the playoffs, they have the potential to be the dark horse and finally reach the level of elite status that has eluded them for years.
Grant: The Chicago Bulls are the one true dark horse that I would love to make some noise this year. Tom Thibodeau is a spectacular coach and nobody wants to see them in round one. Luol Deng, Joakim Noah and Kirk Hinrich are a pain in the ass to play against, Carlos Boozer has been playing well of late and the longer their season goes, the more possible it is that a little somebody named Derrick Rose might return to the court.
The fact that this Bulls team has won 44 games without a player one season removed from an MVP award in Rose speaks to their talent and their execution. They’re a better than.500 team on the road, which means they’ve been just average at home, something that will improve with a rowdy United Centre in the playoffs.
Picture it: the Bulls grind out a first round series win over the Brooklyn Nets or Indiana Pacers (the Nets being a far more ripe opponent for this scenario; Indy’s defense is tremendous). Rose, inspired from the bench walks into the locker room and, well, skip to the 3:10 mark of this video.
It would break the internet. And the Bulls would suddenly be the biggest threat to the Heat in the Eastern Conference! Let’s see it!
Reynolds: I have to throw a bunch of disclaimers in front of this one. When talking about the Eastern Conference, there is (are?) the Miami Heat and then there are a bunch of other teams that are not based in Miami. So, when I say the Indiana Pacers are a dark horse, I think you understand where I’m coming from, right? Yes, the Pacers will probably be putting the final touches on a 50-win season by the time you read this (their final game was cancelled due to the Boston tragedy). They are locked into third place in the conference. This is not an underdog. I get that.
But look at that East conference again. Is a Joe Johnson team beating the Heat? How about Carmelo and the Old Men? Alright, that was a bit harsh. The Knicks did just sign Quentin Richardson after all. My point is the Pacers present the only legitimate threat to Miami’s stampede to the Finals. They took that 2-1 series lead last year and didn’t know what to do with it (besides stand idly by as Lebron went completely H.A.M. on them). Now, with a Danny Granger sized chip on their shoulder, and young phenom Paul George a year more seasoned, why couldn’t the Pacers at the very least make it interesting?