In the National Basketball Association, the country may not get quite as mad as the NCAA Tournament, but we are down to the final four, and there is plenty to pay attention to. The NBA Playoffs have delivered their fair share of surprises (The Bulls taking game one against the Heat) as well as caveats and disappointments (Russell Westbrook's injury in the series against the Houston Rockets), but they've wound down by this point to the Conference Finals.
On Sunday, the Memphis Grizzlies got smacked around in their first game at San Antonio against the Spurs. The Grizz had a tough path in making their very first Conference Finals, taking down the Los Angeles Clippers in round 1 and the Westbrook-less Oklahoma City Thunder in round 2. Their defense, touted all season, has looked strong and will give the Spurs a serious test. The Spurs, meanwhile, defeated the disappointing Los Angeles Lakers in a round 1 romp and the upset-minded, young star-studded Golden State Warriors in round 2.
In the Eastern Conference, the Miami Heat have rolled through the Playoffs as most suspected they would. After blanking the Milwaukee Bucks in round 1, they were surprised by the Chicago Bulls for a game, but ended up sweeping the remainder of the series. They'll start the conference finals on Wednesday against a team that is the Eastern Conference mirror of the Grizz, the Indiana Pacers. The Pacers haven't made the Conference Finals since 2004, and many did not figure them to be back here this year, with the absent Danny Granger and his uncertain status during various points of the season. However, the Pacers have clearly found their way forward without their star player, recommitting to defense and grinding games out that may not be beautiful, but give them the win. They defeated the Atlanta Hawks in round 1 in 6 games and then did the same to the New York Knicks. In each series for the Pacers, home-court advantage has seemed to matter. They will not have it against the Heat, and the vast majority of sports pundits are picking LeBron James and company to beat the Pacers.
So the probable match-up is the Spurs vs the Heat. This would be a callback for James, as the first Finals he made, while he still played for the Cleveland Cavaliers, was in 2007, against the Spurs. Those Spurs destroyed that Cavs team, sweeping them out of the Finals in an unceremonious manner. James certainly remembers that and may use it as motivation if the two teams do meet. However, a player of his caliber is certainly not over-looking his current series and it's worth thinking about the possibility of the Grizzlies and the Pacers meeting. Memphis and Indiana are first and second in defense respectively and they'll both give their opponents more than a cursory spat in their Conference Finals games. San Antonio, known for its defense for seemingly decades, sits at a mortal 11th place in that category this year, but is balanced by the fourth-ranked offense. Again, the Spurs are the favorite in their Conference Final. But sitting above all other teams, in both esteem and odds, reign the Miami Heat. With both the fifth-best defense and offense they look, at times, unstoppable.
We'll find out about the Heat and the Pacers tomorrow. The Grizzlies and the Spurs, meanwhile, are off to a terrific start. All of the remaining Western Conference games can be seen on ESPN, while the Eastern Conference games will be broadcast on TNT.
Fans of Lobo basketball have experienced the full gambit of emotions this season; from the overconfidence of destroying inferior non-conference opponents to feeling the despair and fear from two early losses to the UNLV Rebels and San Diego State Aztecs. The end result seemed very much in question but now that New Mexico has avenged both defeats convincingly, the Lobos should be in good shape to try on their dancing shoes come March. This past Wednesday, New Mexico put themselves in position to take firm control of the Mountain West Conference by upsetting No. 15 San Diego 77-67. With the victory, UNM had a chance to prove through a nationally televised game why they belong in the NCAA tournament. UNM only had a single-point lead at half time, but then turned to Lobo senior Drew Gordon to dominate and bully the Rebels in the paint. Along with Gordon's 27 points and 20 rebounds, a suffocating defense allowed the Lobos to outplay and outclass UNLV to a 65-45 victory. For doubters and nonbelievers, perhaps these two wins over nationally ranked opponents will change their minds. While it was a great week for New Mexico, the job is not over as they must finish the season out strong to win the conference. If Gordon’s production remains at this level, look for the Lobos to be a massive favorite in the conference tournament.
Lin went off for 28 points and 14 dimes
Two weeks ago Jeremy Lin was an afterthought in many basketball circles and was about to be cut by the New York Knicks. But with Baron Davis unavailable and Amar'e Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony hurt, the Knicks were looking deep into the abyss. Fortunately for New York, Lin wasn't just a spark off the bench, he was the missing piece of the puzzle they've been searching for, and the team is playing it’s best ball in years. Along with his scoring, Lin has finally provided leadership and direction to the Knicks offense. His latest test was against the defending NBA champion Dallas Mavericks and he passed mostly with flying colors. Despite another game with 7 turnovers, Lin continued his hot shooting with 28 points and added a career-high 14 assists. New Knicks J.R. Smith and Steve Novak teamed up for 29 bench points to defeat Dallas 104-97. New York may have tons of flaws, but with Anthony returning from injury, it might just have the most dangerous offense in the Eastern Conference.
Over the weekend, in the Western Conference both the No. 1 seed and the No. 2 seed lost their first games. There were indications that it would be this crazy when the boring game that everyone was talking smack about turned into an almost-instant classic.
On Tuesday night, Carmelo Anthony decided to take things to a whole new level by scoring 42 points in a noble effort to keep the New York Knicks afloat. It didn't work. But it made for one of the most entertaining games in a postseason that's been filled with them.
The time has come to declare that if you're not watching this season of basketball—and especially now, if you're not watching this postseason of NBA—you're clearly not a fan of basketball. There are always arguments made about whether the NCAA or the NBA is a better product, but putting that arguement aside one can not deny the quality of play thus far has been far beyond what fans even had a right to expect.
The righteous anger of Denver, with the drama surrounding Anthony all season, has been galvanized since the trade. They're playing out of their heads against an Oklahoma City Thunder team that some claim is ready to take that next step—all the way to the Finals.
On the other side of the bracket, no one expected the Chicago Bulls to be this good when the season started. But now that it's finished, and the Bulls had the best record in the league, the weight of expectations has been foisted upon them. The struggles that presumptive-MVP Derrick Rose and his team are having with the Indiana Pacers do not bode well for the other young gun team. (It'd be more than bizarre, but a little apropos, at least, if the Bulls were to meet the Thunder in the 2011 NBA Finals.)
Dirk Nowitzki was mentioned early in the season as a possible MVP candidate, but then his team merely did what it's done for the last 12 years straight: Win more than 50 games in pretty convincing fashion, despite a host of injuries. He's roared back to life (along with the old man swag of Jason Kidd) for the playoffs and the Dallas Mavericks look to be a tough out for anyone, much less the (seemingly, at this point) over-matched Portland Trailblazers.
This post-season is reaffirming the notion that this season was (and is) one for the ages. With the worry of a lockout looming over everyone's heads (the players, the owners, and, most of all, the fans), this feels a little bit like insurance. If the building burns down, at least we'll have memories of that one last rager of a party.
Whoever said the first round of the NBA Playoffs are boring, they are eating a lot of crow right now as opening weekend delivered upsets and game winning shots.
Chicago Bulls vs. Indiana Pacers
Many believed the No. 1 seeded Chicago Bulls weren't a legitimate threat to win the title. Perhaps the 37-point performance by leading MVP candidate Derrick Rose may turn doubters into believers. Game one witnessed the No. 8 seeded Indiana Pacers control the majority of game despite being huge underdogs. But playoff inexperience cost the Pacers with Rose hitting clutch shots to steal the victory 104-99. Chicago hopes to make game two less dramatic and take a 2-0 lead tonight.
Los Angeles Lakers vs. New Orleans Hornets
Despite the Lakers losing streak to end the regular season, no one truly expected the New Orleans Hornets to win a match up—let alone at the Staples Center. In order to spring the upset, the Hornets needed an entire team effort, especially because David West season ending injury. Chris Paul stepped up and put on a performance that would make even Derrick Rose jealous with 33 points and 14 assists. The 109-100 victory gives the Hornets home court and hope of creating one of the biggest upsets in the history of playoff basketball.
Boston Celtics vs. New York Knicks
The Celtics have heard it all before: they're old, injured and not supposed to win. But Boston continues to ignore critics and make one last playoff run. The Knicks were coming off their best season in years and have high playoff expectations. The Celtics were behind the majority of the first half but pulled into the lead in the fourth quarter. The game was close, but the Knicks took bad shots and gave Boston a chance to win. Ray Allen moved off a screen and hit a game winning three pointer to take game one 87-85. Along with losing, New York now has to deal with an injury to star point guard Chauncey Billups. If Billups can't play, Boston should dominate the rest of the series.
The Carmelo Anthony trade has finally--officially--gone through. After holding his team hostage for more than two-thirds of the 2010-2011 NBA season, Anthony has been rewarded by being traded to the team he wanted to go to the first place. (And in the last place. And in every instance between.)
The official trade reads somewhere south of the insanity that was rumored approximately three months ago, but basically includes Anthony, Chauncey Billups, Sheldon Williams, Anthony Carter and Renaldo Balkman going to the New York Knicks. In exchange, New York sends Wilson Chandler, Danilo Gallinari, Raymond Felton and Timofey Mozgov to the Denver Nuggets. There will also be draft picks, straight cash and the involvement of the Minnesota Timberwolves.
It's a complicated deal, but it boils down to the looming collective bargaining lockout as well as the way owners treat teams and the people who play on them. Not to mention the players' increasing awareness of the way they can treat teams.
It's hard to know who to truly be mad at in this instance. On the one hand, Anthony lied to every reporter every chance he had. He let it be known he had no interest in signing the extension Denver offered him, but he clearly wanted to have his cake and eat it, too. Maybe he would sign it. Maybe he wouldn't. On the other hand--as a free agent to be--Anthony had nearly earned the right to choose where he plays and it's hard to begrudge players who are treated like so many chess pieces.
On the other hand, the Nuggets should have made this move (or a similar one) sooner. They played with their season, keeping a discontented star on their roster despite the fact that the entire team, city, state and professional organization to which they belong knew that he didn't want to be there.
It's typical for sports fans to root for the players in this instance, especially in a world where a hard working role player can allegedly be pulled from practice and informed that he's been traded. It's not a nice world and those who watch sports and love them would do well to remember: To those who play on the team, or those who own the team, this is a business--first and foremost.
But there's no denying that this trade has a tinge of bitterness to it. The Nuggets have lost all momentum from the team that was challenging the Lakers in the Western Conference Finals two years ago. This is certainly not all Anthony's fault and it's hard to say that it's even mostly his fault. But he was going to be a free agent at the end of this season. He could have signed with the Knicks without a trade. The only reason this happened is because of the fear that there would be too much money left on the table. And, to be fair, it's been pointed out that it might be as much as 45 percent of his paycheck--that's a lot of money. No one wants to leave that money behind when they don't have to.
Time will tell how this trade is looked back upon. If the Knicks get back to their early-season winning rate, it's easy to imagine Anthony jerseys being brisk sellers in not only New York, but around the rest of the nation. If he and Amar'e Stoudemire combine to form a ferocious front court that can defend well enough to scare some of the top tier teams in the Eastern Conference, New Yorkers will be beside themselves with joy at having a team worth talking about (again). And what's good for the New York Knicks is usually good for the majority of the league. But, if their defense is as bad as numbers suggest it will be and if Anthony can't produce in a system where he doesn't get to have the ball in his hands a majority of the time--or if he keeps the ball and everyone else's numbers drop--Carmelo Anthony will transform from the prize the Knicks thought they were getting into just another deadweight hanging around the neck of a franchise that's been treading water for too long.
LeBron James and his Cleveland Cavaliers are still in the thick of the NBA playoffs, but that didn't stop New York Magazine from getting a head start on luring the player to New York to play for the hometown team, the Knicks. The magazine put James on the cover, along with a list of 14 reasons why the reigning league MVP should come to New York.
Depending on how you look at it, the magazine either did its homework or is really creepy; it consulted a pair of New York's prominent real estate agents to pick out a house and an apartment for James, and the feature is filled with Photoshopped pictures of James in a Knicks jersey and a few New York-themed advertising mockups featuring James, including a six-frame storyboard for a potential Coca-Cola advertisement featuring the player. The entire series is so absurd, I can't tell if the “LeBron in 2018” slide show is a joke, even though it features James winning 10 straight NBA championships with the Knicks, extorting a U.S. Senate seat by threatening to retire if not elected, and leading the United States to an Olympic gold medal at 38 as a player-coach-senator.