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.
The Indianapolis Colts and Washington Redskins took the suspense out of their first two picks in selecting Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III (respectively), but the draft still contained some surprises. Cleveland Browns General Manager Tom Heckert chose to overhaul the offense by selecting Alabama running back Trent Richardson and Oklahoma quarterback Brandon Weeden in the first round. Current Browns starting QB Colt McCoy showed some promise last season, but the Browns needed to make some power moves to make sure they’re no longer an afterthought. Another surprise was the Dallas Cowboys moving to sixth pick of the first round to select LSU cornerback Morris Claiborne. Even though the Cowboys had to give up 14th and 45th overall picks to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, it was a necessary sacrifice to ensure Dallas improve its much-criticized defense.
As for the University of New Mexico, no Lobos were selected in the draft, but three defensive players have signed free-agent deals to play at the next level. Leading the pack is Carmen Messina, who shockingly wasn't selected but signed a contract with the improved Detroit Lions. All-Mountain West safety honorable mention Bubba Forrest was selected by the Cincinnati Bengals and defensive end Jaymar Latchison used Twitter to state he signed a contract with the Green Bay Packers.
Chicago Bulls vs. Philadelphia Sixers
Memphis Grizzlies vs. Los Angeles Clippers
It was a party in Memphis as the Grizzlies had a dominate 27-point lead in game one. With the Clippers down by 21 in the fourth, head coach Vinny Del Negro removed point guard Chris Paul from the game. But Paul pleaded with Del Negro for one more shot to at least gain a moral victory. Instead, Paul had seven assists and hit two clutch free throws to take a 99-98 lead with 23.7 seconds left. Rudy Gay had a chance to be the hero but missed a fade-away jumper to give the Clippers the stunning victory. Now Los Angeles has stolen home court and the momentum of the series. To make matters worse, rumors have now heated up regarding tension between Rudy Gay and Zach Randolph. The Grizzlies have tons of potential and have good fundamental skills to make a respectable run in the playoffs. But if they can't put a stop to their issues, the Clippers will embarrass the Grizz.