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.
Every time there's a seismic shift, things feel more important. And this year in the NBA, things feel important—like something is happening. Like a changing of the guard.
When the San Antonio Spurs were taken out by the upstart Memphis Grizzlies, it was clear that the times they are a'changing. The Boston Celtics are still clinging to life—thanks to a one-armed Rajon Rondo—but their title window has been limited to "only this year" regardless of what year it is, and despite the fact that the pundits said the same thing last year. Finally, with the sweep of the Los Angeles Lakers by the Dallas Mavericks, the icing's on the cake and the writing's on the wall.
The coronation of Derrick Rose as MVP was a nice nod to the coming youth movement. But Rose has already been acknowledged as a high school prospect and as an elite college player who took his team to the promised land—even if they fell short, and that run has since been negated. When he said that he wanted MVP his rookie year, people looked at him like he was crazy. No one is now. But Rose has never been the ringleader of this movement—that honor falls to Kevin Durant. As the youngest scoring champion in the history of the league—and the fresh, smiling face of the Thunder—he was supposed to be the one. And he still might be.
But he'll have to get past Tony Allen, Marc Gasol and—most of all—Zach Randolph if he wants to continue his assault on the league. With the Grizz taking the fight right to the jaws of the Thunder and the Hawks battling the Bulls like no one expected, it's clear that the league is shifting right from under the feet of those who were privileged to come before, and even more quickly from those who just assumed they got next.
"Who got next?" is a persistent question in basketball. If you keep winning, you get to keep playing. You see the faces across from you shift, and you don't really care—you don't take time to honestly evaluate the opposition because it doesn't matter. All that matters is the fact that you're winning. Your time is now. But sooner, rather than later—because time bows to no man, woman or team—you will slip. The Spurs, Lakers and maybe the Celtics are learning that lesson now. And when you do slip, as they have (or will), it can be disorienting to look at the face of the team that beat you. You might find yourself wondering, "Who is this? How did they get here? How did they get me?"
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.
A few years ago, the Boston Celtics traded for Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, who joined Paul Pierce to become the new Big Three. Then, the Memphis Grizzlies gave the Los Angeles Lakers Pau Gasol for a washed up No. 1 draft pick, a never-used point guard and Gasol's little brother, who hadn't seen a minute of the NBA. Basketball fans all the world over shrugged their shoulders and resigned themselves to a continued domination from two of the most storied franchises in the history of not only this game but all games.
Basketball is unique because, as of today, 60 champions have been anointed and 32 came from either the Celtics or the Lakers. That total will rise by one no matter who wins this series. While football, hockey and maybe even soccer like to pretend that there's some parity in their sports, basketball revels in this tradition of the giants facing off. Baseball is perhaps the only other sporting industry that indulges in such a ferocious manner, especially in the analogous Yankees-Red Sox match-up.
The Celtics have a lifetime record of 9-2 against the Lakers in the Finals, but that stat doesn't tell the whole story. It’s so much more involved, so much deeper. They've made the playoffs, become champions of the NBA, but haven't had to play each other a combined 21 times. They've controlled decades at a time—the Celtics the ’60s and the Lakers the ’80s. They've amassed superstar after superstar. And, now, again, the two most storied franchises of the NBA will play for all the marbles. The NBA Finals start on Thursday night on ABC.