Posts Tagged With: russell westbrook

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

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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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The Playoffs Minus Westbrook

Patrick Beverly just ruined the playoffs

The news of Russell Westbrook’s injury is devastating to a playoffs already marred by the absence of stars like Kobe Bryant, Derrick Rose, and Rajon Rondo.  It can be fun at times to watch a team overcome the loss of a star player and sometimes teams thrive minus that player (see the Simmons Ewing Theory), but this is a lose-lose for the Thunder and the NBA.   Say what you want about his decision making, but Westbrook is one of the most exciting players in the game today.  He plays with reckless abandon, plays harder than everyone else on the court, and is good for at least one “wow, would that be considered flying?” moment a game.  Without Westbrook, some of the Thunder’s warts may be exposed (over-reliance on isolation basketball, lack of shooting, lack of a true PG on the roster, no James Harden), and their only hope of returning to the Finals is if Kevin Durant transcends greatness and flirts with immortality.  Maybe Durant can save the Western Conference Playoffs by donning his Superman cape, or maybe this opens the door for Chris Paul to reach his first Conference Finals, but in the end, this injury all but guarantees Dwyane Wade’s 3rd championship (what, why didn’t I say Lebron’s second championship? I’m confused).  Continue reading

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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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