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With the NBA Playoffs about to enter the Conference Finals stage for both East and West, it is time to take a look at the players who have so far been boons and banes in these playoffs.
Bang: Stephen Curry, Guard, Golden State Warriors
Steph is averaging over 27 points and nine assists so far in these playoffs, and he has been a heck of a leader for a Golden State team that was for years an underachieving bunch. All Star power forward David Lee went down with an injury and yet Curry still found a way to help his Warriors even their second round series at two game apiece against the savvy San Antonio Spurs. He's been shooting like Clint Eastwood in a spaghetti western and he's been making all of his teammates better, especially second point guard Jarret Jack, on the drive-kickout.
Bust: Jeremy Lin, Guard, Houston Rockets
Lin, the Harvard graduate who was last season's feel-good story of hanging in there and making the most of a big break, was just awful in his first NBA Playoffs against the then-rampaging Oklahoma City Thunder. Ranged against the speed and athleticism of the Thunder perimeter, Lin wilted for a woeful average of four points per game on 25% shooting. Lin punctuated this unmitigated apocalypse of a playoff debut with a chest contusion.
Bang: Zach Randolph, Power Forward, Memphis Grizzlies
When it comes to the top power forwards in the league, Randolph is always in the conversation. For a guy who is by all accounts far from the chiseled, sleek and buff prototype of the modern NBA power forward, he certainly knows how to put together consistent double-doubles and keep his team in the Win column. He totally outplayed jumping jack Blake Griffin when his Grizzlies ousted Griffin's Clippers in the first round. Now he is making life difficult for the Thunder with his crafty moves and patience operating inside.
Bust: Dwight Howard, Center, LA Lakers
With all the injuries the Lakers had going into the playoffs, there was only one way they would make their first round series against the Spurs competitive: Howard would have to dominate inside. A four-game sweep later, and the big man who would be the future of the NBA's most glamorous franchise was mumbling through media availability. Tim Duncan and the rest of the Spurs went to town against Howard and what was left of the Lakers, beating Los Angeles by double digits in each of those four first round games.
Bang: Paul George, Swingman, Indiana Pacers
Paul George was the NBA's Most Improved Player and deservedly so. He is averaging over 18 points and nearly nine rebounds per game in these playoffs. He brought a rare combination of size, length, athleticism and all-over-the-place scoring to help his Pacers down the Atlanta Hawks in the first round. If they catch enough of a break here and there they might face the reigning champion Miami Heat in the East Finals.
Bust: Blake Griffin, Power Forward, LA Clippers
Anybody who thinks Griffin is a great player is seriously deluded. This is a guy who can hardly drop step, really doesn't know his way going box to box at the NBA level, and gets rebounds only through his crazy leaping ability. Griffin MIGHT become a great player someday, and certainly someone only 24 years old, 6-foot-10 and with his strength and athletic ability will surely if slowly learn the game. For now though, the earth-bound but cunning Zach Randolph just took him to power forward school in the first round.
Bang, Honorable Mentions:
Klay Thompson, Off-guard, Golden State - Thompson is making a living playing off the brilliance of Curry in the Warriors' perimeter. His dead-eye shooting is certainly making the second round against San Antonio still very much a toss-up.
Chris Bosh, Forward-Center, Miami Heat - Bosh has finally abandoned all notion of his being part of a Big 3 in Miami, and as a result he has allowed the transcendental play of LeBron James make him the most valuable teammate in the NBA.
Tim Duncan, Center, San Antonio Spurs - A lot of people tend to forget how old Duncan is (pushing 40...) because he still maintains a high level of play and anchoring the inside. He is the one, true reason the Spurs are still a contender even though their three superstars at advancing in age.
Bust, Dishonorable Mentions:
Andre Igoudala, Off-guard, Denver Nuggets - For all he's done, including becoming a US Olympian, Igoudala remains just a second-tier star in the NBA. A lot of Denver fans were looking to him to step up in these playoffs. Instead he and the Nugs crashed whimpering out of the first round.
DeAndre Jordan, Center, LA Clippers - A young, dynamic, athletic 7-foot presence, Jordan still has yet to develop anything resembling a real game. He got pushed around by
If there was ever a time to think that the old dynasties have reached their end, these 2013 NBA Playoffs might be it. Both the Los Angeles Lakers and the Boston Celtics, the most celebrated and decorated of the NBA's franchises, have bowed out of the playoffs. Each team seemed to just limp off the court. LA was swept clear out of the first round by the venerable San Antonio Spurs. Boston fought for six grinding games before yielding to the New York Knicks in the second round.
For each franchise, and given their current overall travails, their current franchise foundations may have finally called it quits as well. Kobe Bryant didn't even make it into the playoffs, having ruptured his Achilles tendon after playing eight straight quarters without rest as the Lakers made a surge in the last two weeks of the regular season to try and catch the last playoff berth in the Western Conference. In the Eastern Conference, Kevin Garnett walked off the Madison Square Garden floor with his head bowed, exhausted as all hell as his coach, Doc Rivers, took him out in the dying seconds of their Game 6 versus the Knicks. "You all right, Doc?" was all Garnett could say to his coach as he made his way to the Boston bench.
Bryant underwent surgery on the broken tendon and will be ought a couple of months at the very least, healing, recovering and getting into rehab. "I hope to get back to being 100% healthy and playing again," Bryant said before the oepration. Garnett also has a banged up body that has seen many NBA wars, and will most likely retire or wind up as trade bait for GM Danny Ainge, making his future in Boston uncertain. While trades are unlikely for Bryant in LA, he might also be pondering deeply about what his future holds. At least Garnett managed to end this season on the court and playing hard, essentially holding his own fate in his hands.
Both men are at advanced ages for elite NBA sueprstars. Garnett turned 37 years old this year, while Bryant hit 34. Bryant has been playing close to 17 years, Garnett 18. It is sometimes difficult to imagine that both men actually skipped college ball and turned pro right out of high school, each precocious livewires when they entered the league as teenagers. They were held up as the poster boys of a new breed of pros making the jump from prep school to the L, with newly-crowned league MVP LeBron James their ultimate heir.
Their journeys in the pro ranks ran parallel, as they spent almost all of their careers as Western Conference Rivals. Bryant came to the Lakers in the 1996 draft through a trade with the Charlotte Hornets, as then-LA GM Jerry West sent veteran 7-foot-1 Yugoslavian center Vlade Divac to Charlotte to get the teenaged son of NBA journeyman Joe "Jellybean" Bryant. Garnett was drafted by the Minnesota Timberwolves in 1995. Bryant would go on to win five NBA championships with the Lakers, thanks to partnerships with Shaquille O'Neal, Phil Jackson and Pau Gasol. Garnett would get the Timberwolves into the Western Conference Finals only once after unceremonious first round ousters. Garnett would get his own NBA championship in 2008 with the Boston Celtics, along with Paul Pierce and Ray Allen beating Bryant and the Lakers. Bryant would get back at Garnett and the Celtics in the 2010 NBA Finals. Bryant's five titles with the Lakers are part of 16 total NBA championships for the Purple and Gold. Garnett's lone NBA title with the Green and White kept them ahead of the Lakers with 17. "Those two will be major parts of the lore for each of those great teams," said Alan Taule, a former college coach and student of the NBA.
Both men are driven, cunning, some would even say ruthless, merciless hardcourt warriors. They have had their fair share of ups and downs throughout their respective careers. As admired as they are by fans, the media and their peers, they also strike a number of the same constituencies as overbearing, trash-talking jerks. Both are accomplished at talking trash and planting the occasional elbow into an opponent's midsection or lower back. Both are also known to get in teammates' faces, and call out their fellows who they think are not living up to their lofty expectations. No one however will ever question the spirit, the obsession, the religion, these two guys have with winning. "They were all about winning, even KG when he was on those struggling Minnesota teams, they led by example, and when their teams won it was because they were right up there leading the way," Taule explained.
Like all things though, good and bad, all of it will come to an end. Indeed, this seems to be it for these two battle-hardened basketball gods of war. Pierce will most likely be moved at all cost by Danny Ainge while the veteran swingman still has relatively high trade value. Once Pierce is gone Garnett will most likely retire. He still has
It is the triumph of youth in the 2012 NBA FInals, with the Oklahoma City Thunder representing the West and the Miami Heat carrying the East. It has been a long time since the NBA has seen a marquee matchup of this sort, the reigning league MVP LeBron James going head to head versus scoring champion Kevin Durant.
Both teams are young, with the just-about-30 year old Dwayne Wade as the resident geezer in this pack. Wade, the man who won the first NBA championship in franchise history for Miami in 2006, is joined by fellow members of that great draft class of 2003. James of course was the high school phenom out of the great state of Ohio who went straight to the pros. Chris Bosh was in that class as well. All three came together last year in South Beach, in what many said would be a championship team for the ages. Things have not quite worked out as planned. Bosh and James are also pushing 30 but are in their hoops prime. This is a Big 3 looking to go for all the marbles right now and into the near future.
Oklahoma City is even younger, with all their key stars at 24 years or younger. This is a team that will likely dominate the NBA landscape for the next decade or so, establishing a new dynasty. That they beat the more experienced Heat 105-94 in Game 1 of the Finals is already a major step toward that. Durant is simply a freak of nature, a 6-foot-11, long-limbed jumping jack who can play all five positions just like Magic Johnson a generation ago. He is joined in their youth core by guard Russel Westbrook, Thabo Sefolosha, Serge Ibaka and newly-crowned NBA Sixth Man of the Year James Harden. Steadying the ship are veterans pointguard Derek Fisher, late of the Los Angeles Lakers, and center Kendrick Perkins.
Oklahoma took a relatively easier route to these Finals, losing only three times in the Western Conference Playoffs while bouncing erstwhile champion Dallas, the Lakers and the aging San Antonio Spurs. Miami had to fight through a 2-3 series deficit in their Eastern Conference Finals versus the tough and battle-hardened Boston Celtics, as that series went the full seven games. They reactivated Bosh only in that Game 7 after he suffered through an abdominal muscle injury.
Oklahoma is a deeper team with springs for legs. They can easily run right past or jump over any other NBA team, which they showed throughout the playoffs. They certainly made these heat look older than they are with all the running and jumping they did in Game 1. Ibaka and Durant had easily the best dunks done with total impunity in opponents' faces in a Finals series since Shaquille O'Neal was in a Lakers uniform. But the prettiest shot to my mind was when Westbrook made a stop-on-a-dime pull-up jumper in transition that found nothing but the bottom of the net. It was a display of pure athletic prowess that the Heat simply were unable to match.
This Game 1 showed not just the best players in the world going at it. It also showed why a team game beats sueprstar isolation plays every time. While Miami insisted on all manner of high post, dribble drive and isolation plays featuring James or Wade, the Thunder barely saw the ball touch the floor in their halfcourt sets. Those end-game dunks by Nick Collison that all but giftwrapped the game for the Thunder came off simple short passes and movement without the ball. It was as if the Heat suddenly forgot what a screen-roll and a pick-roll looked like. They drove and they drove and they drove, and yet consistently ran into fast feet on the Thunder defense, cutting off driving lanes, with equally fast hands disrupting passing lanes. Sefolosha had a heck of a time picking passes that resulted into swooping dunks for his teammates.
Durant led all scorers with 36 points. James had 30 for the Heat. Wade was woeful from the field, missing 10 or 11 of his first dozen or so shots. He still wound up with 19 points and eight assists, but was practically invisible in the second half, leaving James to try and fight the Thunder on his own. Wade insisted in the post-game that he'll do better in Game 2. Durant and Westbrook seemed too polite in the wake of probably the biggest win of their young careers.
Game 2 will be another raucous night in Oklahoma City. These finalists may be young, but they are far from restless.
There are certain things that come with being a champion, especially if you've built a dynasty. Standards for you are a lot higher, a lot tougher than with everybody else.
Take the case of the Los Angeles Lakers. In a lockout-shortened 66-game season, the Lakers were 41-25. Any other team would have been happy with that record and the upper-middle playoff seed that went with it. Not the Lakers though. They were ousted in five games by the younger, hungrier and more athletic Oklahoma City Thunder in the second round.
Let's think about that for a minute... very good regular season record, good playoff seed, made it to the second round of the playoffs. And still a failure by Laker standards.
That is what happens when your team is the second winningest team in the history of the NBA, when you win NBA titles in bunches, and when Hollywood A-listers are actually decades-long and very knowledgeable fans. Anything less than an NBA championship just isn't the same.
In the NCAA it is much the same thing for a program like Duke. While much has been said about how the great Dean Smith's North Carolina teams really only won two NCAA titles, Mike Krzyzewski's Blue Devils have won far more, so much so that Duke fans think a mere trip to the Final 4 is inconsequential. Smaller schools like Virginia Commonwealth or George Mason might see the Final 4 as beyond their wildest expectations, but Duke fans need their Blue Devils to at least fight for the national championship.
John Calipari and his Kentucky Wildcats are now living in that same surreal universe of much-bloated expectations. Calipari has been very good at getting the one-done phenoms from American prep schools, the latest being uber athletic big man Anthony Davis. His latest recruit Nerlens Noel continues this new trend for him. And with all of this of course comes the expectation that Calipari's first NCAA title this year will be the first of many, possibly annual, championships he will bring home to bluegrass country.
Perhaps nowhere else in the basketball universe is the impossibly high expectation even more unattainable than with USA Basketball, the program and organization in charge of ensuring that the country that invented the game continues to be at the apex of the game. Krzyzewski will be experiencing all of this again in roughly 60-plus days when the 2012 Olympics rolls around in London, England.
In a country whose average citizen probably thinks the pick-and-roll is a pastry or a quirky cocktail, Krzyzewski will once again have the thankless and unenviable task of making sure the Americans keep their precious Olympic gold medal in men's basketball. After all, they have the best players in the world, NBA superstars, on their roster, who could possibly stop them?
Well, they were stopped already in the 2004 Olympics in Athens, Greece and the 2002 World Championships in their own basketball-crazy backyard, Indiana. Did we mention that the Women's Program is actually far more successful in recent international play? Still, Krzyzewski, who coached the American back into international glory in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, is expected to continue stamping American class on international basketball.
He'll have less than a full deck with Dwight Howard, Chris Bosh and Derrick Rose, all shoe-ins for the London roster, all officially and indefinitely sidelined with various injuris sustained in NBA play. Those three represent easily two starters and the sixth man. Krzyzewski is so bereft of talented size he has had to bring in Davis from Kentucky, techncially an incoming college sophomore who is the consensus Number 1 choice in the next NBA draft.
Sure, he will still have reigning NBA MVP LeBron James and scoring champion Kevin Durant, as well as James' Miami Heat running mate Dwayne Wade, Chris Paul, Kobe Bryant and maybe even Andrew Bynum and Blake Griffin. That is a roster no other international team could match on a talent-for-talent scale. "America is the worst team tactically, but when James or Wade or Bryant drive or want to score, what can you do?" asked former Smart Gilas head coach Rajko Toroman at dinner one evening. It is a rhetorical question. Or is it?
That same thing could be said of the Lakers, Duke, Kentucky, maybe even Talk N Text, Ateneo and San Beda in the local scene. But everybody knows any team can beat any other team at any given time. Bilog nga naman ang bola. Holding up even a known and proven team to standards that are already unreasonably high can only result in added and unnecessary pressure. When it all adds up, failure becomes magnified out of all proportion as well.
This is when fans have to realize that expectations can weigh down a team. The least they can do is wisen up and relieve the burden by first unburdening themselves.