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Friday Fives: 5 Questions Heading into Game 2

 

stevens

I think we can say we are officially back. For now.  Time for one of our favorite past-times: Friday Fives.  Here’s how this worked. I, Maneikis, posed 5 questions to our panel (Me, Will Weir aka “The Fedora’d One” and Taylor “I now prefer TJ” Simpson), and what you will read is our email exchange regarding each of these key questions heading into the critical Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Finals. Fun drinking game alert: every time we refer to Lebron by a name other than Lebron or anytime you feel we are being complete homers, you drink.  Prepare to get dnruk.

  1. How do we stop Tristan Thompson?

Will: Tristan has been bashing us over the head with a mallet like a kid playing Whack-A-Mole in an arcade for about 2 or 3 years now.  Feels like every game he gets about 20 rebounds vs. us and we are just powerless.  Having said that, they need to try something.  Rebounding has been a sore spot for C’s all year, not a secret.  Amir Johnson? Child Please. Tyler Zeller? I’ll pass.  Traditional big men are out.  Unfortunately, we can’t have Al guard both him and Kevin Love, so I think the answer has to fall to primarily Marcus Smart and maybe even a dash of Jae Crowder.  At this point, the best hope is that these 2 can be bulldogs and, at best, slow him down.  Marcus seems like he’ll get 1st billing, Jae doesn’t have the speed to stay with LBJ (Step up on up Jaylen!), but maybe he has the strength to battle with Tristan like he did with Morris last round.

Maneikis: Will, I totally agree per our conversation last night.  Marcus can bang with the big guys as long as it’s purely physical play.  The moment you add skill to the mix, Marcus tends to struggle, but he relishes the wrestling matches.  I’d also like to see us try to exploit him on the defensive end by going small and giving Marcus an opportunity to run PnR with Horford.  That might force the Cavs into some unnatural defensive rotations (have Thompson and Love ever had to defend a PnR together?), and we might even get some of their bigs in foul trouble.  I don’t see us stopping Thompson from getting rebounds, but I do expect us to make him work for those rebounds and to make him uncomfortable on the defensive end of the floor.

TJ:  Tristan is a player who has the specific skill set that exploits the biggest weakness on the Celtics’ roster – offensive rebounding.  It would be like if in The Illiad the Trojans hired a mercenary to a $60 million dollar contract whose lone skill was throwing arrows at soldiers’ heels.  In the first round against the Bulls the Celtics made Robin Lopez look like Wilt Chamberlain, so an honest goal would just not to end up like any of Wilt’s famed 20,000 women – you know, completely fucked.  However as many basketball coaches have repeated to me throughout the years, there is no secret to boxing out; it just takes placement, intention and a whole lot of effort. Dedicate a spot on the floor to one of the Lunks (Kelly, Zeller, Amir) who sole purpose is to stay between the basket and Tristan Thompson.  Barring a sudden fix for what has been a glaring flaw all year, sign his step-sister Kendall to a 10-day. She fixed institutionalized racism with a mere soft drink, so I’m sure she can grab a few rebounds.

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End of Season Awards

You won’t find many surprises on this list, but I decided to post this anyways.  This season was the most interesting regular season in recent memory, so I wanted to give these players their props for bringing excitement to my otherwise boring life in my 27th revolution around the sun.

MVP

Steph-Curry-628x353

Wardell Stephen Curry was phenomenal from start to finish, capping off the greatest offensive season ever with a ridiculous 45 points in three quarters while leading his team to the best regular season ever.  400 Threes? Check. Stop-What-You’re-Doing-And-Turn On-League Pass Heat Checks? Check. Clutch Shots? Check. 50-40-90 club? Check. This dude was the best player in the league almost every night, and no one else should garner any first place votes. Steph, I salute you. You are everything a man should be. (Leonard, James, Westbrook, and Paul round out the top 5)

Most Improved Player

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Kawhi Leonard has become a superstar.  He is the best two-way player in the league and now consistently plays with the greatness that he flashed two years ago when he won the Finals MVP.  He is by far the best wing defender in the league and shoots the ball with top 5 efficiency. He is the perfect player to carry the Spurs into the next era, and may be the reason the Spurs knock the Warriors out of the playoffs.  If he wins another Finals MVP, Kawhi will be the front-runner for next year’s regular season MVP award. (Curry, Crowder, Kemba Walker, and CJ Mccollum round of the top 5)

Defensive POY

draymond

Draymond Green can literally guard 5 positions on the floor. People have been purported to do so in the past, but Draymond can actually do it.  I seen’t it! At 6 6, Draymond should not be capable of guarding centers, but in this era of small ball, very few bigs have the ability to take advantage of mismatches in the post.  Draymond uses his leverage to get underneath bigger players and has the length and quick-jumping ability to bother the fade-away jumpers that he forces in the mid-post.  His quickness on the perimeter allows the Dubs to switch most pick-and-rolls, and although some guards sneak by him, he can usually block their shots from behind with his Revisesque recovery speed.  He is the heart and soul of the league’s best team, and although Kawhi does many things better than Draymond, Green’s ability to guard 1-5 gives him the slight nod over Leonard. (Leonard, Whiteside, Avery Bradley, and Deandre Jordan round out the top 5)

Rookie of the Year

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 Karl Anthony Towns won me $250 on a $5 while I was in Vegas recently, so he definitely gets the nod here.  That jump hook on the baseline to beat the Blazers cemented Towns not only as the ROY, but also as an All-NBA performer in my ballot.  He is doing things that few rookies have done, and seemingly got stronger throughout the season.  He is already a two-way player, and he has the skill set to be the league’s premiere big man for the next 15 years.  The T-Wolves have a very bright future and the rest of the league should expect to fear the bite of their top dog for years to come.

Coach of the Year

stevens

Brad Stevens may have some stiff competition for this award, but I left Isaiah Thomas off of my All-NBA teams, gave Leonard the nod over Crowder for MIP and Livingston the edge over Turner for 6th man, so I had to make at least one homer pick here. I mean it’s my blog and no one is really paying attention anyways, and even now as I type this sentence I’m resisting the urge to give all of these awards to my boys in green.  Stevens has maximized the potential of the entire roster and has the Celtics feeling good entering the playoffs after that insane comeback victory over the Heat.  His ATO plays are legendary and his unchanging demeanor is rivaled only by Jay Wright. Dear Danny Ainge: if you give Stevens a superstar, he will give you a championship.

6th Man

livingston

Shaun Livingston has really impressed me all year with his steady play anchoring the Dubs all-time bench.  He shoots his shots every game and allows Steph to play off the ball for extended minutes, which significantly reduces Curry’s energy spent and increases floor space with all of the attention Steph garners off of the ball.  Livingston also wins the Stephen A. Smith award for NBA player with the biggest forehead.

 

All NBA Teams

1st Team: Curry, Westbrook, Leonard, James, Green

2nd Team: Paul, Lillard, Durant, George, Aldridge

3rd Team: Lowry, Thompson, Derozan, Millsap, Towns

Apologies to Isaiah Thomas and James Harden

 

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The 2015-2016 Boston Celtics

#IT4MVP

We’re baaaaaaack! We’re back we’re back we’re back! We’re back, so back!!!!!!! It’s been almost two years since we last wrote something on this blog, but we’ve always been here, we just weren’t posting content to the site.  Thanks for sticking with us.

Following last season’s improbable playoff push, the Boston Celtics’ future looked as bright as any franchise in the NBA.  They had solid young talent, a “treasure trove” of draft picks from Danny Ainge’s shrewd sorcery, and the best young coach in the league.  The narrative was, and largely still is, that these three in conjunction could land Boston its next big name. Fans were dreaming about Boogie Cousins, Carmelo Anthony, and other headline grabbers because that is who the media was telling us could take the franchise back to its lofty standards. However, it did not happen over the summer despite reports of Kevin Love possibly switching allegiances, and it did not happen at the trade deadline, despite reports ranging from the realistic to the utterly absurd (no Gary Tanguay, Anthony Davis was never coming to Boston).  Meanwhile, the current iteration of the Celtics struggled to stay above .500 and seemingly could not close out games down the stretch.  It was frustrating to watch, and I’m sure it was even more frustrating to be a part of.  My friends and I kicked around trade ideas that could steal Paul George or Jimmy Butler away from their teams, and groaned as we saw well-executed plays resulting in missed shots in the fourth-quarters of winnable games. Still, as any fan that bleeds green would, I watched every game, and saw some signs that these Celtics were starting to become a problem for the rest of the league.   They were starting to become contenders.

It’s easy to be a prisoner of the moment and say that I’m writing this article due to the Celtics’ upset win in Oakland last night, but the Celtics did not get lucky last night.  They won because they deserved to win and this is becoming a delightful trend for Celtics fans.  They play the brand of basketball that has come to define their identity and is giving opposing teams fits. For the C’s, it starts with their defensive pressure in the backcourt and their willingness to play much bigger than their size.  When last season began, the Celtics’ three-headed monster of Rondo, Bradley, and Smart wreaked havoc upon the league for about five games, but then Smart turned his ankle, Rondo realized defense meant he had to try, and quickly the foundation of the team crumbled.  But they shipped Rondo out for an unheralded rotation wing, Jae Crowder, a supreme athlete who looked like he belonged on a football field, not a basketball court, and we started to see improvement.  Crowder struggled to fit in last season, but we could see his potential, especially on the defensive end.  He’s strong, physical, and versatile enough to guard multiple positions (traits he shares with many other Celtics like Bradley, Smart, Turner, Olynick, and Jerebko). Not only that, but he has great defensive instincts to complement heady play and intelligent team schemes. Fast forward to today, and that ball-hawking, physical potential has been unlocked and it keeps the Celtics’ competitive in every contest. For fans who love defense, the Celtics’ ability to “turn it on” is every bit as exciting as a “Curry Flurry” of three-pointers in Golden Sate. Check out these highlights from the first game against Golden State earlier this season.

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This is the type of intensity with which fans are falling in love, and this team plays this hard almost every night.  They are a collective of talented, ultra-competitive players whom Coach Stevens understands better than almost any other coach understands his players.  The Celtics will be down ten, Stevens will call one of his uncanny, momentum stopping timeouts, and Smart, Bradley, and Crowder will stalk onto the court with the body language of Fulton Reed and Dean Portman ready to turn elite ball-handlers into JV  point guards playing Varsity for the first time.  Whatever message Stevens delivers during those timeouts gets through to these guys and they quickly respond. It gets to the point where All-Stars like Damian Lillard do not even want to bring the ball up the court (seriously, he barely touched the ball in the second half the other night, but CJ McCollum stepped up big time), and teams are forced to have a secondary or tertiary ball-handler advance the ball past midcourt while wasting half of the shot clock.  It throws teams out of their rhythm at worst, and completely alters the game at its best. To be able to play full-court defense at the NBA level is something we may have never seen before to the extent that these guys can do it.  And Stevens knows it.  Anytime his team is down, he will go to a lineup of Smart, Bradley, Crowder, Evan Turner, and one of his versatile big men, and before you know it the Celtics will have made up the deficit. And this is when they decide to unleash the league’s best-kept secret and this team’s MVP.  Enter Isaiah Thomas.

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In last year’s hard-fought playoff series with the Cavs, the Celtics could not get buckets down the stretch.  The Celts turned the series into a wrestling match, which played to their own strengths, but in the end they could not score when it mattered  (after last night’s game, I’m thinking maybe someone was just wearing the wrong shoes).  The main reason: Boston’s best offensive player is Isaiah Thomas and he only stands 5 feet 9 inches.  The Cavs’ defensive stalwart Iman Shumpert bothered him with length, a logical strategy with which most teams try to minimize Thomas’ elite scoring ability.  We saw it often early in this season, but Stevens and Thomas have seemingly figured out how to combat his size disadvantage.  Isaiah really struggles against length versus a set defense, so getting him out in transition via suffocating defense is the best chance at getting him going and winning games. The Celtics couldn’t get steals and stops against Portland the other night, and that is why Isaiah struggled so mightily because Alan Crabbe had set help behind him and high, active hands all game. However, Stevens has done a great job game-planning so that IT gets switches in the high Pick and Roll and gets the ball out and back quickly so that he catches with a live dribble attacking a secondary defender at a downhill angle. Portland’s secondary defenders were much better on Thomas than Golden State’s were last night, but when Isaiah gets hot, it really does not matter who is guarding him.  The Celtics’ strategy is so simple, but it’s everything to their offense, and in that 3rd quarter last night Isaiah dominated the game more effectively than Curry’s long distance dance. Isaiah should be an All-NBA candidate this season, probably 3rd team, but he deserves it.

 

Quick side bar. Here are my choices for All-NBA (hopefully breaking this down later this season).

First team: Curry, Westbrook, Leonard, Durant, James

Second Team: Lillard Paul, Thompson,  Green, Jordan

Third Team: Thomas, Lowry, Harden, George , Aldridge

Apologies to Demar Derozan, Anthony Davis, Demarcus Cousins, and Dirk Nowtizki

 

 

Local media will tell you that Isaiah is not a “Go-to guy,” but I’m not sure this is entirely true.  This is Thomas’ first year as a starter in his age 27 season, often considered the first year of a player’s prime.  Yes, he does have his weaknesses, but what player doesn’t? Maybe it is time we start appreciating Isaiah for what he can do instead of focusing on the obvious fact that he is short.  Maybe it’s time to start kicking around the possibility that he can win games with the current pieces surrounding him and the best coach in the league.  This is the same thing that happened to Russell Westbrook as he was trying to figure out how to close games.  Critics complained that Russ had tunnel vision and needed to pass the ball to Durant.  Well, he is starting to figure it out and has learned how to highlight his strengths and minimize his liabilities. He is now a triple-double machine and a perennial MVP candidate.  Back to IT. Okay he’s diminutive, but he’s stronger than half the guys in the league.  He gets into the body of bigger defenders and forces contact through which he can finish, or he can draw fouls.  Unlike the Celtics’ previous PG, Isaiah shoots 90% from the line, so he loves driving the ball to the basket, and with the pressure this puts on defenses, the rest of the roster becomes that much more of a threat.

Most recently, we’ve seen Evan Turner benefit from sharing the floor with IT down the stretch.  Defenses are so focused on IT and weak-side action Stevens’  offense creates, Turner is often left to go one-on-one with the other team’s second-best defender.  And this allows him to thrive in crunch time because Turner can get to his sweet spots on the elbow and right baseline shooting his patented mid-range jimmy.  Turner will never be a number one option on a championship team, but with the other team’s best defender often on IT, Turner can exploit smaller defenders with his size and bigger defenders with his crafty ball-handling in a PnR situation that those defenders are not used to defending.  Turner is also a great passer, so when he is entrusted with crunch time play-making, he can use his size to see over the defense to find spot-up shooters on the perimeter or sneaky back-cuts along the baseline as the defense gets caught ball-watching.  It’s titillating to watch. (I haven’t written an article in almost two years, excuse the adjectives)

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Coming into last season it did not appear as if the Celtics had any shooters on their roster.  However, we’ve seen that this team (except Marcus Smart…please Marcus, please find your shot!) can shoot the ball and shoot it very well.  Crowder, Bradley, Jerebko, and Olynick are all reliable 3-point threats spotting up around the arc, while players like Jared Sullinger and Tyler Zeller can knock down the open 18-footer.  This affords Thomas and Turner the space they need to operate in the paint, and has made for some effective fourth-quarter offense.  Mix all of this in with Brad Stevens’ ATO plays, and you can see why the Celtics are 12 games over .500.  More importantly, what it’s done has given the critics less ammunition.  The Celtics are winning close games and doing it without “a superstar.”  They are looking like they could make some serious noise in these playoffs, and are setting themselves up to be an attractive spot for Free Agents over the summer.  This would mean they could keep our current roster, draft picks, and merely add a superstar rather than trade for one (Ask the Knicks how that worked out for them).  They could draft the most NBA-ready prospect (Buddy Hield), or they could take a chance on a high-ceiling prospect like Brandon Ingram, depending upon where they draft.  But free agency and the draft are in the summer.  What we should be focusing on are their chances looking like in this year’s playoffs? These players deserve our attention in the current moment.  They play too hard and with too much pride for us not to root for them with as much fire as we rooted for the KG era Celtics.

Well, it is going to be tough no matter who they play because the East, while lacking in upper-echelon teams, is stacked with parity.  Cleveland is far and away the best team, but they are mired in internal conflict.  Toronto has not proven they can win in the playoffs but boasts the East’s best backcourt.  Atlanta’s defense is tops in the league.  Miami has the talent to beat anyone.  Charlotte is winning.  Detroit is unique. And Indiana has the second best player in the conference.  They will avoid Cleveland until the semis or conference finals, so maybe the Cs can catch a break and see someone else shock them so they won’t have to.  But if they do face them again, Brad Stevens and his menacing group of defenders will be ready to show them what they learned from last year’s sweep.  They will be ready to prove that what happened in Oakland was no fluke.  They will be ready to show the world that Isaiah Thomas is for real and that defense and chemistry can take you a long way. They will be ready.  Will you?

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Friday Fives: The NBA Finals

Finals MVP???

The NBA Finals we all knew was coming is finally here. For the whole season they were the best teams in their respective conferences (OKC never really stood a chance without Harden), and now here they are, representing very different systems and ideas. On one hand there’s the Miami Heat, featuring the inhuman THING that is LeBron James; on the other, the San Antonio Spurs and their incredibly consistent and prolific trio of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili. This series promises to be hard-fought and intelligently coached, probably with a monster individual game or two from James and Parker and some old school tricks from The Big Fundamental himself. In case that’s not enough, here are our top reasons to watch the 2013 NBA Finals.

TED

WILL

GREG

5. The Heat fans:  What is it with Florida sports teams and their lame ass fans? The Rays still have the worst fans in baseball despite their perennial contender of a team, the Marlins could never draw crowds even after winning two World Series in seven years, nobody even knows there’s a basketball team in Orlando, the Dolphins and Buccaneers had the lowest attendance in the NFL last year, and the Jaguars’ turnout is so pathetic that they might ship the team to London. So to say the Heat have the most pathetic fans in the state is a serious accusation. But do any of the aforementioned teams’ fans show up late to every single game? Do they sneak out of games in which their team is down one possession with seconds remaining – a very winnable situation – like Heat fans have done continuously throughout this postseason? Do they need emails from the organizations begging them to show up and cheer? Well, probably, but that’s beside the point. I used to despise these rich idiots, but as the years drag on and we realize that LeBron is essentially playing for nobody, I’ve come to find them entertaining as hell. And when this pitiful excuse for a human is your most public current supporter, you can only watch in amazement at the train wreck your fanbase has become. 5. The legacy of Tim Duncan:  The man is already set to be enshrined in the Hall of Fame as one of the top ten players to ever play the game, and will go down as the best to ever play his position. This Finals, however, could be his most challenging, as he faces another team that features not only a fellow member of the top ten club but also a top 25 member as a sidekick. If Duncan can best Father Time once again he will have gone five for five in his NBA Finals appearances. Perfection. LeBron has already lost two, Kobe’s lost two, Shaq lost two. Winning this championship would solidify him as the best player of our generation, no questions asked. 5. T-Mac:  Tracy McGrady was one of the top ten, borderline top five players in the NBA for a five-year stretch during which he averaged over 25 points per game and was selected to two All-NBA First Teams. T-Mac was arguably a better player than Kobe during his (T-Mac’s) prime, but was never on the right team to help him get out of the first round of the playoffs. He has a reputation for not getting it done in big games, but the guy averaged over 30 points per game in four straight playoffs, and has career averages of 23-6-5 in the postseason.  T-Mac joined the Spurs right before the end of the season and hasn’t played much during this run, but it will be an underrated, underappreciated moment in the career of one of the most talented players to ever wear a jersey if he gets a ring with the Spurs.  And wouldn’t it be something special if T-Mac left his fingerprints all over one game in this series? I’m thinking something like this.
4. What’s left for the Big Threes? Miami:  First, let’s get the Heat out of the way. After this atrocity tried to convince us that the NBA crown would reside in Miami for the next decade, the Heat’s Big Three era looks like it could come to an end prematurely. Throughout this season and playoffs, Wade has clearly lost several steps and has become a merely above-average player; Bosh has proven unable to handle the national attention away from the Great White North, and has been a shell of his former self since his arrival in South Beach. Trade rumors have surrounded both players this year, and their performances in the Finals could very well determine their futures with the franchise, though it’s hard to imagine Wade ever leaving. LeBron will never be traded, but it seems all but certain that he’s bolting Miami when his contract is up next year. For those of you scoring at home, that would give the Heat three or four years, with probably two, maaaaaybe three titles – a far cry from the “not five, not six, not seven…” that LeBron predicted upon his arrival. Of course, Wade could find his stroke, Bosh could come up with a few huge shots that he always seems to randomly stumble into, and/or LeBron could put them on his superhuman back and drag them to stability, securing the Big Three for the next several years. But with the aforementioned fans, an aging squad, and much more enticing options on LeBron’s horizon (have you seen Kyrie Irving play?), this Fab Three looks like it’s going the way of the Beatles – and Bosh is definitely Ringo. 4. The legacy of Tony Parker:   As my esteemed colleague wrote  last week, Tony Parker has been severely underrated throughout his career and he potentially could be considered a top five point guard of all time, yet rarely gets mentioned as the best point guard currently playing. He’s already been a part of three championship squads and even has a Finals MVP from one of them. However, this will be the first time that he is undoubtedly the best player on his team. Duncan has still managed to be great and is by all means performing at a high level, but Tony’s game is off the charts. Without question he is a top ten player in the league and is primed for a big series with point guard being an area in which the Spurs hold a strong edge over the Heat. If Tony is the catalyst to deny The King and his Heatles sidekicks a second straight crown, how can we not view him as one of the best ever? 4. D-Wade’s knee:  I won’t spend too much time harping on Wade’s horrid postseason to this point, but he just hasn’t been very good. He has clearly lost a step and most of his explosiveness, but he can still affect the game with his will. Say what you want about Wade, but up until these playoffs he has always been one of the fiercest competitors on the floor. If he decides to sacrifice his body for the betterment of the team then the Heat should win this series, but I could also see Danny Green completely shutting him down. Green is an elite wing defender and could bother Wade, but he doesn’t pose the same physical threat that Wade saw in Lance Stephenson. D-Wade must take Green into the post and exploit his strength advantage because he is no longer quick enough to take any great defender off of the dribble. If Wade is the same player we saw in Game 7, then the Spurs will be in trouble.
3. What’s left for the Big Threes? San Antonio:  Okay, onto the good stuff. Duncan, Parker, and Ginobili have been together for 11 freakin’ years and three championships. Duncan, at age 37, hasn’t lost a step and actually seems to have improved on his past few years: if you round up (9.9 rebounds), he averaged a double-double for the first time in three seasons, and he averaged the most blocks since 2004. Parker, despite turning 31 last month, has improved so much over the last few seasons that he was a dark horse MVP candidate in 2013 and is making my colleague Greg look like a genius. Ginobili, that soon-to-be 36-year-old Argentine, may have seen his raw numbers dip slightly, but his impact on the game and his longtime teammates – particularly in tight spots, where he thrives – is as strong as ever. And they still have Coach Popovich, the man who keeps them sane and healthy and at the top of the pile year in and year out, the best coach in the league and one of the best all time. Duncan and Parker are signed through 2016, Ginobili will certainly re-up this summer (and you can bet whatever’s in the basement of The Alamo that they’re not going anywhere), they’re going to give the defending champs a serious run for their money, and they’re not slowing down. The Heat may have possibly the most talented player to ever pass through the league…but whose future is really brighter? 3. Will Chris Bosh find his balls?:  How soft has Bosh become?  He was averaging a mere 3 rebounds per game for most of the Eastern Conference Finals. His game has been demoted to nothing more than a stretch four who now shoots more threes than has points in the paint, it seems. Part of this is obviously due to the structure of the Miami offense which is predicated on having spacing and room for LeBron and Wade to operate. But the dominance slapped on him by David West and Roy Hibbert last round is completely unacceptable for a max-level player. I get that Chris Bosh isn’t a typical center, but he’s 6’11” for Christ sakes, enough with the damn excuses. When you’re that big it’s more about putting on your big boy pants and showing up when the spotlights are on. A lot of this series hinges on what Bosh can do to try and slow down the tandem of Splitter and Duncan. On a side note, how many infants do you think this Velociraptor can eat in one bite? 3. Threes:  Clever huh? Both of these teams are terrific from long range, but the Heat’s trifecta completely abandoned them in the ECF. Ray Allen, Mario Chalmers, Shane Battier, and Mike Miller must make their open three-point shots because the Spurs always seem to hit theirs. Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard have turned themselves into good shooters and Manu Ginobili is always dangerous when the game is on the line. Both teams rely on this unreliable shot so this will be a fun storyline to follow game-to-game. Whichever team wins the battle from downtown will have the fast-track to hoisting the O’Brien Trophy.
2. The subtext, the narratives, the drama:  Every good Finals has a ton of storylines, and this year’s seem juicier than usual. The upstart dominance of the Heat versus one of the league’s longest-standing institutions in Duncan’s Spurs. The old versus the new. The flashy/fast/athletic versus the fundamentally sound. The style versus the substance. The groundbreaking Miami “small ball,” for lack of a better term, versus the classic tradition of the Spurs. Whether Miami can finish off its historic season or whether they’ll go the way of the 2007 Patriots. Who can flop more in a series, Manu or LeBron. Whether Duncan is ready for LeBron to take over the league, like he said in their 2007 Finals matchup. Whether LeBron will atone for that disheartening sweep with his vastly improved skills, clutch performance, and supporting cast. Whether Wade, Bosh, Ray, and the rest will show up or whether LeBron will have to do it himself. How the series will affect the legacies of about ten different players and coaches and their positions on the current and all-time lists. Anything to do with Birdman. How this will affect the futures of LeBron, Wade, and Bosh, and consequently, the entire league. Yeah, this is gonna be a good series. 2. LeBron James:  This guy is good. And I mean really good. I don’t think that there is a scenario in which I could bet against LeBron. He does everything you could ever ask a player to do on both ends of the court. He’s almost becoming superhuman and it’s scary. The move to South Beach and his whining towards the end of his Cavs days has soured me on LeBron as a fan, but I can’t help but admire the greatness that I am watching. LeBron is potentially in the midst of what could be a long run of MVP’s and championships and it doesn’t look like much can stop him. This Spurs team could be one of the few teams built to do just that. However, when you factor in revenge after LeBron and his helpless Cavs were swept by the Spurs in ’07, I can only imagine the displays The King is going to put up in this series. Stay tuned. 2. MVP:  Who will win this year’s Finals MVP? We have four former MVPs in this series (Duncan, James, Parker, and Wade) and all four would love to add another to their resumes.  As I wrote last week, another MVP for Parker would mean that he would join Magic Johnson as the only point guards to have ever won multiple Russell’s. An MVP for Duncan would pretty much cement him as the best player since Jordan and put him in the discussion for best big man ever. LeBron James would join Jordan, Hakeem, Shaq, and Kobe as the only players to win the award in consecutive years in addition to capping off this ridiculous two-year run. And the least likely scenario would be a second MVP for the shell of Dwyane Wade. That’s just not happening. The MVP will be a player on the winning team so by picking a player I am picking a team so without further ado…

PREDICTIONS

Heat in 7, Rashard Lewis for MVP:  It’s pretty obvious from the rest of my reasons to watch that I’d love to go with San Antonio, but LeBron is an unstoppable force of nature. The man is just plain better at basketball than anyone else on the planet, and a good deal better, too. This season he’s done things that nobody has seen before – there’s a reason his team reeled off 27 straight wins at one point. Sure, they looked vulnerable against the Pacers, and sure, the Spurs would absolutely be the team that can solve LeBron, and sure, Tim Duncan doesn’t lose in the Finals. But with the teammates LeBron has – and let’s face it, at the very least Wade and Co. will do enough to help LeBron win – and with Spoelstra surprisingly entering Coach of the Year discussions with his adaptations to his superstar’s strengths, the Heat are just too damn good. Miami in an intense seven games. Oh, and I obviously don’t think Lewis will win MVP but I just can’t bring myself to give LeBron any more credit. Heat in 7, LeBron for MVP:  My heart is pulling for the Spurs, but as I said, I can’t bet against LeBron. As exciting as the growth of Hibbert and Paul George was last series, not very many truly expected the Heat to ever lose that series for one reason and one reason only: LeBron. The man is at the apex of his game and at this point is just building up his resume so that when he retires he can throw it down next to the Kobes, Jordans, Birds, and Magics of the world. However, this Spurs team is deep, talented, and above all else, well-coached. Pops is hands down the best coach in the league and much like his point guard, probably an underrated all-time great as well. The Spurs have the edge on the Heat in all the right places: point guard, bigs who defend the rim, and coaching. Neither of these teams is just happy to be here and this is not a business casual affair. There is only one objective for each team and if they don’t reach that goal, their season will be considered a failure. The Heat have home court and the best player in the world. Heat in seven, get ready for a great series. Spurs in 7, Parker for MVP:  I really, really, really, really like how the Spurs are playing basketball and I don’t like how the Heat have become a one-man show. Unless Norris Cole proves to be Parker’s kryptonite, Tony should have his way with the Heat’s suddenly vulnerable defense. There is a reason the Spurs traded George Hill a few years back: Tony Parker is a much better player. Parker won’t be flustered by the helter-skelter, trapping scheme that the Heat employ and he should be able to find his open teammates for high-percentage shots. I know LeBron is the best player in the world, but he can’t do it by himself. If the Heat want to win he must get consistent greatness from Bosh or Wade, but neither player has looked capable of that in recent weeks. I like the Heat to take games one, three, and six, but unfortunately that leaves them one win short of a trophy.  Spurs take it in a riveting Game 7.
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All NBA Teams

1st Team All-NBA 

G Chris Paul: What else can you say about Chris Paul?  Without him the Clippers are a possible lottery team because the rest of the team is not ready and Vinny Del Negro doesn’t run an offense.  He is an All-NBA defender, orchestrates the best pick-and-roll in all of basketball, and is clutch at the free-throw line in late game situations. As a result, he is fearless and dangerous during crunch time because he isn’t afraid to take the ball to the cup (unlike a Lebron James who would rather not shoot late-game free throws).  Tony Parker played better during stretches this season, but overall CP3 has a firm grip on his “best in the league” moniker.

G Kobe Bryant: I was actually going to leave Kobe off of the first team in favor of Russell Westbrook, but then Kobe tore his Achilles and I got sentimental with this pick.  I know Kobe is a Laker, but he is my favorite player to watch – I just don’t want him to win any more championships (Michael Jordan was better and that’s that).  Say what you want about him and his past transgressions, but it seemed to me that Kobe has grown far more popular with today’s fan base.  People just appreciate him more.  He plays through injuries others would complain about, hits ridiculous “only Kobe could hit that” shots, and willed a trainwreck of a team towards the brink of the playoffs.  It’s a shame that we may never see Kobe at this elite level again because this injury is no joke.  Ask Elton Brand.

F Kevin Durant: Ah let the love-fest begin.  Durant was forced to grow up this year after last season’s failure in the NBA Finals and the preseason A-bomb that saw James Harden inexplicably shipped out to Houston (Thunder management could have found a way to keep him). Durant needed to become an ultra-efficient scoring machine, increase his willingness to distribute the rock, and improve his defense and rebounding.  He did all four things and led the Thunder to the best record in the Mariana Trench.  The only thing KD didn’t do was win another scoring title, but Carmelo Anthony deserves some sort of accolade for this season because he won’t get the MVP, 1st-Team All-NBA, and may not get out of the first round (check out Friday Fives for why not).  Durant was the second best player this season and should take the Thunder back to the WCF at the very least.

F Lebron James: Lebron only posted the second highest PER ever and led the Heat to the ridiculous 27 game winning streak during a time in the season when nothing really mattered for them.  They were cruising to the top seed regardless of the streak, but I guess Lebron is all in on this being his “legacy year,” and needed something new with which he could challenge himself.  Lebron is the best player on the planet, has been for a while, and will be for the next two to three years.  Four MVPs in five years is ludicrous, but six in seven years is unparalleled.  Lebron has a legitimate shot at making history and carving out his place on basketball’s Mount Rushmore.

C Marc Gasol: Duncan got the nod on my 1st Team Defense, but Gasol played nearly 700 more minutes than Timmy and deserves the credit for this feat.  Gasol is such a smart, efficient player, but not many people realize it due to the Grizzlies’ lack of national exposure.  There is a slight chance that he is now overrated because he has been underrated for so long, but when Dwight Howard misses significant time being his usual self and Andrew Bynum decided to do whatever the hell he did this year, there is an opening on the 1st Team All-NBA for a player like Gasol.  I hope he brings it in the playoffs because he will get slapped with the “soft” label quicker than older brother, Pau.

2nd Team

G Russell Westbrook: He is the most athletic player in the league and the second best player on the second best team.  Sure he takes bad shots and isn’t much of a point guard, but without James Harden the Thunder need Westbrook to be this aggressive.  Oh yeah, he never misses games and plays harder than everyone on the court at all times.  I would not hesitate to start my franchise with Young Russ.

G James Harden: Harden has been dubbed a DH by Grantland’s Bill Simmons and Zach Lowe, but when your team plays at such a frenetic pace and demands you to be an all-world offensive force, I can overlook some defensive lapses. If the Rockets lose to the Lakers tonight then Harden gets to square off against his old buddies in OKC. Boy, wouldn’t that be fun.

F  Carmelo Anthony: Melo had his best season is years and led the league in scoring all while carrying the Knicks to its first Atlantic Division title in years. Melo needs to get the Celtics off his back and get out of the first round if he wants legitimize the MVP talk surrounding this season, but if he does the Heat better watch out.

F Blake Griffin: Blake has made a step forward but did not make the leap many expected.  Nevertheless he is a 2nd teamer and one of the winners of the genetic lottery.  His free throw shooting still needs work and there is no good reason for why he didn’t average a double-double, but Blake Griffin is Blake Griffin is Blake Griffin.  He is one of a kind.

C Tim Duncan: Tim Duncan had a remarkable season despite playing a limited number of minutes. He has turned back the clock on both ends of the floor and could very easily be the best player on the floor on any given night.  Can he play 35-40 minutes a night in the playoffs and be just as effective?  If the answer is no, then the Spurs won’t make the WCF.

3rd Team

 

G Stephen Curry: Finally healthy, Steph gets the nod here after being an All-Star snub.

G Dwyane Wade: Early rumors of rapid decline proved false because if he is healthy he is a top 5 talent.

F Paul George:  The new face of the Pacers’ franchise is on the verge of becoming an All-NBA fixture.

F Paul Pierce: The Truth carried the Celtics when Rondo went down by doing a little bit of everything. Love you.

C Brook Lopez: Lopez kept the Nets afloat early when Deron Williams struggled and gets the nod over Howard and Bosh.

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NBA Week: All Defensive Teams

These teams were extremely difficult to pick.  I tried to avoid looking at defensive ratings because some individual defensive attributes aren’t measurable in my opinion.  However, while picking these teams I decided I would only choose players from teams in the Top 10 in Defensive Efficiency so as a result players such as Andre Iguodala, Larry Sanders, Josh Smith, Andre Kirilenko, Dwight Howard, and last year’s DPOY Tyson Chandler did not make my teams.  After narrowing down my list, I considered defensive rating, reputation, and whether or not that player passed my eyeball test.

 

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G Avery Bradley: The Celtics’ combo guard has wreaked the type of havoc Mobb Deep wished they had.  He terrorizes opponents with his relentless ball pressure, quick hands, and unparalleled ability to square-up the ball-handler.  Bradley even has this cute little trick where he grabs the opponent’s hand for a brief second in order to gain an advantage, and the refs have not quite picked up on it (though he was whistled for it the other night). The Celtics have returned to their usual spot in the Top 5 team defenses and it is largely in part to Bradley’s return from double shoulder surgery. When he is on the court the Celtics are giving up nearly four points less per one hundred possessions. With Bradley, Rondo (if he is still with the Cs), Jeff Green, and Kevin Garnett (pending retirement), the Celtics will be able to stay in the playoffs due to their commitment on the defensive end of the floor.  Oh yeah, if the Celtics want to win Round One against the Knicks, Bradley must neutralize JR Smith, and I have a feeling he is up to the challenge.

G Tony Allen: Man, Tony Allen is very, very good at defense. He is the toughest defender in the league and makes his opponents work for every inch of space on the court.  The Grizzlies have the league’s second rated defense, and Tony Allen is the straw that stirs the drink.  According to ESPN.com’s John Hollinger, TA finished in the top 10 in steals per minute, finished in the top 20 in overall steals, and helped the Grizzlies lead the league in forced turnovers. He is basically useless on offense, though he has the occasional scoring output due to the fact that no one guards him, like ever, but his specialty is defense and he will do his best to contain CP3 come playoff time.  Man, imagine if the Celtics still had TA to pair up with Bradley?

F Lebron James: As I mentioned in my NBA Awards Piece, Lebron is my pick for DPOY so obviously he makes my first team.  Click the link above for my reasoning behind Lebron’s candidacy.

F Paul George: George is my pick for Most Improved Player, but that is more due to his offense.  George has always been a good defender, but this year he made the jump to elite.  The Pacers have the league’s top-ranked defense, and it starts with George.  He shuts down the opponent’s best wing player by using his long, disruptive arms and impeccable timing to hound ball-handlers and jump passing lanes. Right now the Pacers are slotted to face the Chicago Bulls in the first round so he will be going toe-to-toe with F Luol Deng in what I expect will be a low-scoring affair.  If they draw the Hawks, George will likely spend some time on Josh Smith during key moments.  If the Pacers advance, George will draw either Carmelo Anthony, Paul Pierce, or Jeff Green, and then he must tackle the unstoppable force that is Lebron James in the ECF.  (For the record, Iguodala is the better defender, but the Nuggets fell outside the top 10, so George gets the nod.)

C Tim Duncan: Talk about a renaissance year.  Duncan posted his highest PER in three years and the Spurs gave up less than six points per one hundred possessions with him on the floor.  He nearly averaged a double-double, blocked nearly three shots per game, all while playing less than thirty minutes per game.  Granted, Timmy can’t sustain these high levels for a full game any more, but when he is on the court, there is nobody better (especially since Dwight Howard couldn’t move the first half of the year and Tyson Chandler has missed too much time due to injury.)  Duncan may have trouble in the first round if the Spurs draw the high flying, speed-oriented Houston Rockets, but if they control the pace, San Antonio should get advance as they await Ginobili’s return from injury.

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Can you tell I love Avery Bradley?

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Second Team

G: Russell Westbrook: I love Russell Westbrook. He plays harder than anyone else on the planet and when he needs to be he is an elite defender.  He is longer and bigger than you think standing at nearly six-foot-five, so he can match up with ones and twos.  He does gamble too often because he relies so heavily on his natural ability and athleticism and he struggles against smaller, water-bug point guards (Chris Paul, Tony Parker, Ty Lawson), but in my opinion he more than makes up for it with big plays in key moments.  He should dominate the Lakers in the first round on both ends of the floor, and I expect Russ to lead the Thunder into Round Two as heavy favorites against either the Grizzlies or the Clippers.

G: Chris Paul: Chris Paul is the opposite of Russell Westbrook.  He no longer can rely on his athleticism as knee injuries have robbed him of his once elite speed, so now Paul plays the game with a cerebral ingenuity that few can match.  Unlike Westbrook, Paul struggles with bigger guards, which is why the Paul/Westbrook is so intriguing because neither player can guard the other.  He led the league in steals and finished second in steals per minute, and he plays tough, hard-nose defense against the league’s best.  The Clippers look a heckuva lot better when CP3 is on the floor, and they will go nowhere unless he is playing he very best on both ends.

F: Luol Deng: The Bulls fell outside the Top 5 in team defense after leading the league during Tom Thibodeau’s first two years at the helm, but it had nothing to with Deng’s play.  He was as dominant as ever and has the size and quickness to guard three to four positions depending on the match up.  If the Bulls had Derrick Rose, Deng’s life would be a lot easier as he would be able to focus solely on defense and not worry about helping to carry the scoring load as much as he had to this season.  If Rose comes back for the playoffs (highly improbable), Deng and the rest of the gang could be a surprise pick to make it to the ECF, that is of course if they avoid Miami in Round Two.

F: Serge Ibaka: Ibaka is a monster on the defensive end blocking the most shots in the league and the most shots per game. Larry Sanders bested him in blocks per minute, but Ibaka is still the king in this category.  He is a freak athletically and has improved his team defense since last year.  He doesn’t rebound as much as one would think, but is still above average on the boards.  With the way the league has moved to playing stretch 4s, Ibaka often is pulled away from the basket so that explains why his rebounding numbers may not be what we expect.  Still, Ibaka is an animal and will be part of the two-headed monster aimed at neutralizing the dominant frontcourts of either potential first round opponent (Lakers/Jazz).

C: Marc Gasol: I love Marc Gasol.  He is such a smart player it blows my mind. Every time I watch him play I can’t believe he was once thought to be nothing more than Pau’s joke of a younger brother because he has finally surpassed Pau in the Gasol family. Like Ibaka, he doesn’t average close to a double-double, but he does block 1.75 shots per game and anchors the Grizzlies second-rated defense. With Gasol clogging the lane and Tony Allen and Mike Conley on manning the perimeter, not to mention the lengthy Tayshaun Prince and the tough-as-nails Zach Randolph, you have a Grizzlies team that loves to muck it up and play a playoff-tested style of basketball.  Wait until this week’s Friday Fives because I have a bold prediction regarding this Memphis squad.

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