Monday, April 22, 2013

What Did We Learn?

After playing 82 games apiece during the regular season, there always seems to be ample information with which to judge each one of the 30 teams in the NBA. An educated fan knows who the important players are for each team, what style they like to play, and how much success (or lack thereof) they have had thus far. Yet every year, the playoffs start and despite watching all season, you still find yourself learning new things about the NBA landscape. Like any red-blooded American that doesn't have a wife or girlfriend to consider, I watched at least part of every game this weekend, and sure enough, there was a lot to learn in each matchup. So what were the key takeaways from the first weekend?

Both of these guys will be important in the playoffs. No, seriously.
New York Knicks vs. Boston Celtics: The Knicks (somehow) have an awesome bench
The playoffs opened with two of the oldest teams in the league battling in a contrast of styles - the Knicks shooting a million 3's and the Celtics running...some sort of offense...I think? Despite their ineptitude, this game was tilting Boston's way until the 4th quarter, when the Knicks bench mob came in and changed the complexion of the game. Even with all their injuries, the Knicks can bring Kenyon Martin, Jason Kidd, Steve Novak, and likely 6th man of the year J.R. Smith off the bench, giving them an excellent nine-man rotation. Meanwhile, the Celtics brought only three players off their bench: Jordan Crawford (who was one rebound away from an impressive 11-trillion), Courtney Lee (0-2, 4 points) and the much maligned Jason Terry (0 points and 0 assists in 20 minutes of action). Carmelo may have gotten the headlines from this game, but it was the Knicks bench that may end up making the difference this series and beyond.
Denver Nuggets vs. Golden State Warriors: It's terrifying to root against Steph Curry
I was lucky enough to root for Stephen Curry in his last year at Davidson, and was treated to an amazing performance nearly every single time out. Once he got to the NBA, the Warriors became my second team despite their struggles, and would occasionally make a late-night TV appearance where Curry would start hitting shots from everywhere. Unfortunately, Curry's Warriors drew a first round matchup with my hometown Denver Nuggets, meaning for the first time in my life I would have to root against Curry. Let me tell you: this is not a position you want to put yourself in - even after a poor first half, he came back and hit several crazy 3s in the second half, including one contested shot that nearly sent the game to overtime (go to 2:50 in the recap video). I don't know how this series will play out, and I'll be rooting for the winner in the next round regardless...but I am not relishing rooting against one of the best shooters in history.
Brooklyn NYETS Nets vs. Chicago Bulls: The Eastern Conference remains terrible
The Chicago Bulls managed to secure the 5th seed in the East without their best player the entire season. Unfortunately for them, this led coach Tom Thibodeau to play their two best remaining players, Luol Deng and Joakim Noah about 100 minutes a game, a difficult task for any player to take on. Sure enough, Noah got hurt at the end of the season and wasn't anywhere near 100% in Game 1 against Brooklyn, and Deng looked pretty dead-legged as well. The Bulls proceeded to lose by 17 after being down 25 at half, in a game that was only competitive for about 20 minutes. Watching this game, I kept thinking to myself, "Is this really the 5th best team in the East?" This is the same Bulls team that at one point lost to the Sacramento Kings by 40 points this year and is about to make my "Bulls in 7" pick look patently ridiculous. The Nets are a pretty good team, but they looked like the '86-'87 Celtics playing this Bulls team. Meanwhile, the Clippers have to play the Western 5 seed, a 56-win Memphis team. As Charles Barkley would say, "That's turrible Kenny."
Los Angeles Clippers vs. Memphis Grizzlies: Veterans are more important in the postseason
In a matchup between two teams actually worthy of their seed, the Clippers and Memphis played a surprisingly high-scoring game that was close for a while but ended up being a comfortable LA victory. One of the most important developments for the Clippers was the return of cagey veteran Chauncey Billups, who has been out the majority of the season, but returned to score 14 points in just 21 minutes and finished +14 for the game. It's not as though the Grizzlies have a bunch of rookies getting significant minutes, but they still looked lost in the 4th quarter against the Clips veteran bench crew of Ronny Turiaf, Jamal Crawford, Lamar Odom (LOL) and Matt Barnes. There are superstars and there are role players in the NBA. Superstars you will take however you can get them, but for my money, you always want your role players to have been around the block a few times. They might end up helping you do something like this:
Side note - play #6 in that video??? Who knew Big Shot Bob had those kind of ups? 
Indiana Pacers vs. Atlanta Hawks: You shouldn't guard Paul George with Kyle Korver
When I saw the starting lineups announced for this game, I wondered how exactly Atlanta was planning to cross match their starting Small Forward (Kyle Korver) against Indiana's SF (Paul George). Turns out they weren't planning on doing that at all, as Korver started and played most of his minutes guarding Indiana's first-time all-star from this season. Needless to say, this did not work out very well - George scored 23 points, shot 18 free throws, and just for good measure, recorded a triple double with 11 boards and 12 assists. Its not like Atlanta has many options for how to defend George considering they start two small guards (Jeff Teague and Devin Harris) and their big men are pretty preoccupied with David West and Roy Hibbert. But whatever they did today simply did not work - and you could see it coming from a mile away.
San Antonio Spurs vs. Los Angeles Lakers: Gregg Popovich is a wizard 
With the Lakers ending the season in strong fashion as the Spurs slipped mightily down the stretch, all the silly people who write about basketball on the internet once again underestimated the genius of Gregg Popovich. "His team is so old," we said. "They have been hurt all year," we said. Foolishness. I imagine this conversation took place between Pop and his assistant coaches right before the two teams took the court:
Popovich: "Have you guys heard what the pundits are saying about us?"
Assistant Coach: "Pop, you tell us not to pay attention to that stuff."
Pop: "Nonsense, I actually read all of it. Let's have some fun with them today. I'm going to play Matt Bonner 29 minutes, make him the focal point of our offense and have him spend most of his time defending Pau Gasol."
Assistant Coach: "But how will we get away with that?"
Pop: "Turns out I'm a wizard. Trust me, it will work. Oh and Manu will score 18 points in 19 minutes even though he's been hurt the last 4 weeks."
Ladies and gentlemen, Gregg Popovich! At this point, he's just trolling us.
Miami Heat vs. Milwaukee Bucks: Miami might not lose until the NBA Finals
Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis were their usual volume shooting selves against the Heat today, but it was actually working, as they combined for 48 points on a passable 18-39 shooting performance...and they still got absolutely shelled. I already talked about how bad most of the Eastern Conference is above, and this game did nothing to change my opinion. Milwaukee really can't play much better, Brooklyn isn't going to give the Heat any trouble, and the Knicks and Pacers will likely be weakened when one of them advances to the conference finals. Could Miami start the playoffs 12-0? To my knowledge this has never been done, although the 2000-2001 L.A. Lakers did sweep the first 3 rounds (when the first round had only 3 games), lost Game 1 of the Finals when Iverson dropped 48 points, then won the next 4 games for an impressive 15-1 postseason. I don't think the Heat will match that since the West champion is likely to give them some real trouble, but it wouldn't surprise me if they started 12-0.
Oklahoma City Thunder vs. Houston Rockets: Home court matters more against young teams / James Harden is the best flopper in the NBA
This game was competitive for the first few quarters, until Jeremy Lin seemed to get rattled by the moment, OKC closed the first half on a nice run, and the Rockets weren't able to drag themselves back into it at all in the second half. OKC is nearly impossible to beat when they are forcing turnovers, which happens more against young teams and at home. There wasn't a lot to see in the second half of this game, as Durant and Westbrook controlled the second half from the get-go and the fat raucous Thunder crowd powered their team to victory. Special shout-out to James Harden, however, who has really taken the "drive into the lane and imitate a deer being smacked by an SUV" strategy to perfection on his way to taking 10.2 free throw attempts per game this year. So far the refs are buying it, but if OKC continues to get this much support from the home crowd, it definitely won't be enough.

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