With college basketball over, it’s time for the NBA to take the hoops spotlight. Even though everyone picked the Miami Heat to finally capture the title, the playoff field is wide open for any team to become champion. Here’s a breakdown by conference:
Both the Chicago Bulls and Miami Heat have been fighting injuries since the All-Star break and have been mediocre in the month of April. And the struggles of the Eastern Conference’s best have opened the door for an old favorite to have one more run at the title.
When the boston Celtics put together its Big Three of Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, it was with the expectation that the group wouldn't last forever. But along with Rajon Rondo, the Celtics have captured an NBA championship and have become a tough defensive opponent for any league team. So it was puzzling when the organization was aggressively trying shop Rondo around the league. Luckily for the Celtics, it kept him and the result has been Rondo quietly putting together a 17-game streak of 10-plus assists. His point guard play has turned into victories with the Celtics going 7-3 in their last ten, including a dominant performance against the Philadelphia 76ers. Despite having four superstars (albeit a few of them dwindling), the Celtics have dodged additional pressure from the national media. If the playoffs started today, Boston would face the dangerous Atlanta Hawks in the first round. Even though it’s not considered one of the league top contenders, the Celtics bench and veteran leadership could lead them to a surprise playoff run.
What would be the equivalent of oil and water in the NBA? It would probably be the Orlando Magic’s Dwight Howard and head coach Stan Van Gundy. They've never had the best relationship and now it’s reached a boiling point with Van Gundy confirming rumors he heard Howard requested he be fired. It's unfortunate the Magic are falling apart because they have one of the most effective offenses in the league. Its three point shooting combined with Howard dominating the paint should have made Orlando a lock for the conference finals. Instead, trade rumors, injuries and the turmoil of Howard and Van Gundy have turned the Magic into the most disappointing team in the association. Despite Orlando Magic General Manager Otis Smith publicly denying the rumors about Van Gundy, he has to determine either to fire his coach now and please Howard or keep Van Gundy and salvage the remainder of the season. If the Magic continues to side down the playoff ladder, it may be best to cut ties with Van Gundy and convince Howard to sign a long term extension with free agents and a big name head coach.
Under the Radar:
When Reggie Miller retired, the Indiana Pacers had to begin a search of a new identity to ensure the future of the franchise. It's been a long rebuilding process, but the Pacers have finally returned to respectability and have quietly made its way into the third seed in the East. Former-Lobo Danny Granger has been the star for the majority of his tenure in Indiana, but now he doesn't have to bare the burden alone with the additions of Roy Hibbert, David West and Tyler Hansbrough. Last year the Pacers pushed the Chicago Bulls to the limit in the first round with their lockdown defense on Derrick Rose. Now if Indiana can hang onto the third seed, they're most likely to receive a favorable first round matchup.
From 1999 to 2007 the San Antonio Spurs won four NBA title titles, but got little love from media or fans. Even though they have arguably the greatest power forward ever in Tim Duncan and consistent All-Star players with Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, they are always overlooked. Granted last year the Spurs performed well in the regular season but suffered an early elimination by the Memphis Grizzlies. In 2012 the Spurs have managed to earn the best record in the Western Conference without attracting scrutiny from the mainstream media. Head coach Greg Popovich has managed to keep his four main stars and surround them with quality roles players who are non-selfish and focused on winning. With the OKC Thunder barely behind the Spurs for the top seed, San Antonio cannot afford any injuries. The Western Conference is now going through a transition of younger teams dominating the playoff picture, but if the Spurs are healthy, it can use its experience to make a run to the conference finals.
Before Blake Griffin, the L.A. Clippers were considered the laughing stock of the league. Whenever the Clippers would be lucky enough to gain any talent, they would trade it away in order to make the organization profitable. Finally for Clippers fans,the organization has renewed focus on winning and playing exciting basketball. The acquisition of Chris Paul has enabled the Lakers’ 'little brother' to be fan pleasing while moving towards the top half of the playoff picture. But its loss against the Lakers should be a red flag for “Lop City” fans. Blake Griffin has morphed into a human highlight reel but fails to play consistent defense or make mid-range jumpers. The Clippers currently hold the fourth seed and would face the underrated Memphis Grizzles in the first round. If the Clippers plan on purely outscoring its opponents en route to an NBA title, the only thing the Clippers would be lobbing is their heads against the wall.
Under the Radar:
Yao Ming's sudden retirement from the NBA left the Houston Rockets reeling. But, like the Indiana Pacers, the Rockets have quietly formed an effective combination of veterans and newcomers to currently gain the sixth seed. Head coach Kevin McHale has turned a potential bottom feeder into a respectable playoff team. The major Achilles heel of the Rockets is its ability to win games on the road. Its 11-17 road record will not translate into success in the playoffs. But the Rockets recent victory over the Lakers in the Staples Center should give them a much needed confidence boost. If the playoffs started today, the Rockets would face the troubled Lakers. The Rockets are unlikely to win the series, but considering the recurring Laker drama, Houston has the ability frustrate the Lakers into a long seven game series.
Before the season started, fans and critics questioned the potential of this year's Lobos. Head coach Steve Alford imposed multiple non-conference tournaments into the schedule to test his team’s mental toughness. Based on its 14-2 record, it seems this team has answered the challenge. The Lobos concluded non-conference play last Saturday at home against North Dakota. Despite having starting freshman point guard Hugh Greenwood recovering from an ankle sprain, the team didn't miss a beat, with six Lobos scoring in double figures. UNM only had a 10-point lead at half time, but turned up the pressure and blew out North Dakota 85-57. Now riding a 12-game winning streak, the Lobos have an extended break before facing the Wyoming Cowboys, Jan. 14 at Laramie. Alford has his team performing extremely well, but there's no denying some of its opponents have been subpar. Only time will tell if this could come back and haunt New Mexico when facing the top Mountain West Conference teams.
The New York Giants may be experiencing deja vu during their attempt at another Super Bowl run. An underrated Eli Manning, an average regular season, great unknown wide receivers and a furious pass rush are creating a lethal combination that could lead the Giants to the promised land. But first they had to take care of the Atlanta Falcons. The Giants defense tormented Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan, enabling Giants QB Eli Manning to have good field position and throw for 277 yards and 3 touchdowns. New York only allowed a safety and dominated the Falcons, 24-2. Now the Giants must face the defending Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers for a spot in the NFC Championship. The Packers will be the favorite, but to count out Manning and the Giants would be a mistake.
For those hoping the hype surrounding Tim Tebow would eventually disappear, they’ll have to wait at least another week. Besides Denver Broncos fans, anyone who says they picked the Donkeys to beat the Pittsburgh Steelers is probably lying. The Steelers were fighting injuries to key defensive stars and Ben Roethlisberger was hampered by a leg injury. But going into the game Denver was given little chance to pull the upset, considering they lost three in a row prior to Sunday. The unsung Broncos defense stopped the Steelers in the fourth quarter to force the first new playoff overtime. That set the stage for another Tebow miracle. It only took a coin flip and one play and Tebow delivered another miraculous victory. His 80-yard touchdown pass to Demaryius Thomas not only gave the Broncos the 29-23 win but also should guaranteed Tebow's job for next season. His stats aren’t always impressive, but there's no doubt when it's crunchtime, he delivers. Tebow has to prove he can put a full game together before he can be worthy of all the media attention. Keep in mind this is Tebow’s first season as a starter. If he can improve, it wouldn't be surprising if he rises to be an elite quarterback in the NFL.
As the regular season finished up last week, New York Giants fans got another win to gloat about in their rivalry with the Dallas Cowboys. This one stung in a pretty spectacular manner, too, since the G-Men's win meant that the Cowboys would be nowhere to be found in this year's playoff schedule.
Things get started this wild card weekend with a quartet of games that offer plenty of excitement, plus the promise of water cooler talk to last the entire week. Cincinnati plays at Houston to open things up and then Detroit gets to play in New Orleans.
If you can find two better examples in the last ten years of cities with everything hanging out on the line playing each other in the playoffs, your memory is better than mine. The Saints' first season after Hurricane Katrina ravaged its city was kicked off with a bang and finished almost as near as one can ask for, without winning the big prize. Of course, New Orleans is past its sportly woes after taking home the Lombardi Trophy two years ago.
Detroit, on the other hand, has been awful for a long time, and has had its troubles well-documented as a result of the auto industry's meltdown. A win for either side will represent just another level by which the respective cities have overcome the tumultuous previous decade.
The Atlanta Falcons get things kicked off on Sunday with a game against the aforementioned Giants. That great game, though, serves merely as a precursor to the ongoing drama of Tim Tebow. The Pittsburgh Steelers (they of the most championships of all time in the NFL) will face off in Denver against the Broncos, hoping to end the miraculous season of a team that virtually no one picked to even make the playoffs.
Let's be clear: This is merely the wild card weekend of the playoffs. Details haven't even been given on the top dogs in each conference, which consist of the Green Bay Packers, the San Francisco 49ers, the Baltimore Ravens, and the New England Patriots. The Packers and the Patriots are the likely favorites to win their respective conferences, but their paths to Super Bowl XLVI are by no means guaranteed.
The best time of the year for a football fan is upon us. It's only going to get better.