Thursday, April 28, 2011

The Wait Is Over For The Miami Heat

This is what we have all been craving since July. Even before the Celtics’ blowout-turned-nailbiter on opening night, this is what we wanted. The Miami Heat are finally about to play some meaningful ball.

Make no mistake. Despite finishing the season at a less-than-overwhelming 41-41, Doug Collins’ crew deserved to be here. In light of an atrocious start to the season, the seventh seed in the East, along with a playoff win is probably more than Collins would have dared hope for on Thanksgiving. After posting a 3-13 record through 16 games, the Sixers proceeded to win 38 of their final 62 to earn their way into the postseason.

With that said, and with all due respect to the 76ers, after a summer and regular season in which the Heat have had to overcome scrutiny and schadenfreude on a scale seldom, if ever, seen before in the NBA, no first round opponent would have felt like anything more than mini crab cake at a mildly-non-unpleasant after-work office cocktail party (I’m ditching LeBron’s breakfast analogy- I’ve had some hard-to-finish breakfasts). The closest Miami could have come to a prime time Round 1 matchup would have the New York Knicks. Even if they’d drawn the Knicks, it’s unlikely the resulting series would have been much more competitive than either of the ones in which the teams actually partook. However, with the added star power on the floor, along with a dozen year-old rivalry spawned by the franchises’ shared disdain for aesthetically pleasing basketball in 1990s, the series, short-lived though it may have been, would have at least felt relevant.

All season long, the Heat have been targeted by not only their on-court opposition, but by a legions of hoops-loving armchair shrinks- not pointing fingers, I did it too. And all season long, those same people- enraged by a) the unfairness of two of the league’s five best players (and three of the ~top-25) colluding (no proof that this actually happened, but it did seem to have been in place for a while) to join forces and b) the Superfriends’ victory celebration the night after “The Decision,” as premature a “happy ending” as one could bestow upon oneself- spent countless hours posing questions and constructing narratives, all aimed at building the same case- why the Miami Heat cannot triumph in June. (Note: I didn't do this part)

However, despite the occasional bout with regular season inconsistency and a less-than-dominant disposal of the spirited, but overmatched Sixers, barring injury- in Wade’s case, further injury- none of this matters anymore. They boast a top two that’s better than any other in basketball, one that is poised to attack the paint with vengeance. That duo, along with Bosh, and frankly not a whole lot else, carried this team to 57 regular season wins (including 28 on the road, tied for tops in the league with the Mavericks) and the distinction of being the only 2010-11 NBA squad ranked in the top-ten in efficiency at both ends of the floor.

Now, with the nuisance of the initial 82 behind them, and with Andre Iguodala, Elton Brand, Jrue Holiday, Thaddeus Young and Lou Williams in the rearview, it’s finally time for the Heat to get down to business. At 3:30 on Sunday afternoon, in front of about 4,700 (give or take) “white hot” fans at the American Airlines Arena, the Heat and the Boston Celtics will fire the opening salvos in the most compelling matchup in what could be the most compelling conference semifinal round in NBA history. The storylines abound- the Eastern Conference's proud, old guard, and the team that has flummoxed LeBron James on multiple occasions in the postseason, and the team that eliminated him and Wade in consecutive rounds of last spring's playoffs, squaring off against the Association's "test tube superpower," one formed

A quick side note on Miami’s supporting cast: For all that’s been made of the lack of depth and talent on the Heat bench, through one postseason series, it has outperformed its opposite number from Boston. Whatever your thoughts on +/- statistics, these numbers, passed along by Danny Martinez (@DannyMartinez4 on Twitter) of HotHotHoops.com, an excellent Heat blog, will likely surprise you. In Miami’s opening round series (5 games), Joel Anthony recorded a fantastic +72, while Mario Chalmers and James Jones posted +57 and +28, respectively. The trio hardly set the world on fire from the field against Philly, making just 30 of 75 shots (40%), but shot a comparable 18-for-46 (39%) from beyond the arc.

I decided to then take a look at the guys off of the Celtics’ bench that received the most floor time in Round 1 (I'll take Shaq into accoutn when I actually see him in uniform). In four games against the defenseless Knicks, Delonte West (+/- of -23), Nenad Krstic (-4), Jeff Green (-19) and Big Baby (-9) combined to hit just 25 of their 65 field goal attempts (38%), including just one of 11 3-pointers.

So, that's maybe something to think about. Anyway, moving on...

As for concerns about the Heat's collective reaction to "postseason intensity" and playing in a hostile climate (this is always a fun one to speculate about), consider that a) neither LeBron nor Wade is a stranger to either the NBA postseason, or the spotlight in general and b) these guys have basically been playing road playoff games since October. If anything, the Heat are probably better prepared for hostile surroundings and increased scrutiny than any team other than the Lakers. Throw in a tighter playoff rotation, with fewer minutes for subpar bench guys, along with a steady stream of potentially the deadliest play in basketball, the Wade-LeBron pick-and-roll (which was far more prevalent in the regular season’s final weeks), and there’s suddenly plenty of cause for optimism in South Florida.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Forget The Ankle And Enjoy Some Vintage Kobe

Whatever your reason for tuning in- escapist entertainment, civic pride, gambling interests, whatever- the greatest moments in the sports-viewing life of any fan are those that unfold when the spectacular and the unexpected converge. Last night in Los Angeles, Kobe Bryant, author of countless such moments, made his latest deposit into our memory bank.

Having relied less on athleticism this season than in any of the previous 14, and playing on a left ankle that he'd sprained exactly six weeks prior in Dallas and rolled again in the Lakers' Game 4 loss in New Orleans, Kobe was not expected to conjure up images of a mini-fro and a #8 jersey on Tuesday night. It's a good thing no one bothered to inform Kobe.

With a little under four minutes remaining in the first half and the Lakers trailing 44-40, the ball went inside to Pau Gasol. After a couple of dribbles, he was double-teamed by Trevor Ariza, who left Kobe at the top of the 3-point arc to do so. Pau quickly kicked the ball out to Kobe, with Ariza stuck in defensive No Man's Land. After catching the pass, Kobe blew past a trying-to-recover Ariza and attacked the paint with a fury. Elevating from just inside the dotted line, Kobe ignored the presence of Hornets' big man Emeka Okafor and simply took flight. Despite the best efforts of Okafor, a very good shot-blocker and interior defender, Kobe reared back and delivered a more-than-welcome dose of 2006, throwing down a vicious right-handed tomahawk dunk.

In case you missed it, here's a clip of Kobe's destruction of Okafor:



And lest you think Kobe emptied the tank elevating over Okafor, early in the second half he treated fans at the other end of Staples Center to closeup of Vintage Kobe, again beating Ariza off the dribble, this time to emphatically throw down a lefty jam over Carl Landry.



Regardless of physical state, we've not been seeing a whole lot of Kobe Bryant taking to the skies of late- hell, some idiot even wrote close to 1500 words on the beginning of the Mamba's twilight- so whatever your take on the severity of his injury, Tuesday night's performance delivered to us two jolts that are only available at the greatest address in sports- the intersection of Spectacular and Unexpected.

As an added bonus, via Lakers.com, a frame-by-frame look at Kobe's posterization of Emeka Okafor.

Friday, April 22, 2011

On Magic Johnson, Kobe Bryant and Long Goodbyes

I find it extremely difficult to write about the Lakers, particularly Kobe Bryant. I realize this sounds disingenuous coming from a lifelong, diehard fan that's seldom short on opinion, but it’s true. It’s not for a lack of experience with, or knowledge of, the franchise and its history, or a shortage of opinions on the state of the team, but rather a personal policy of trying to steer clear of a) unabashed homerism and b) the all-too-common “my relationship with my team is personal, and you wouldn’t understand” shtick that seldom wins people over.

With all of that said, I recently came to a realization that warrants further exploration. Plus, it’s time I get the fuck over myself.

In the aftermath of the Lakers’ playoff-opening loss on Sunday, a game perhaps best known for Chris Paul exerting a control over time and space not seen since the days of Magic, Michael and Larry, I lost my shit. I managed to keep from coming totally unhinged publicly, though not before hopping onto Twitter to stick a fork in the latest era of the most successful and dynastic franchise of the past three decades, and the first sports team I ever loved. In the hours and days following my mini-meltdown, I concluded that a) knee-jerk, angry tweeting may get me into trouble one day, b) CP’s evisceration of the Lakers was more emblematic of his greatness than of fatal flaw in Kobe & Co. (though it’s worth noting that I have NO recollection of the Lakers ever having the ability to guard smaller, quick point guards- especially one with Paul’s transcendent skill set) and c) whether or not Game 1 itself had an “end of an era vibe” to it, this has subtly been the overarching theme of the 2010-11 Lakers’ season.

Phil Jackson, who joined the Lakers prior to the 1999-2000 season and has won five of the last 11 NBA titles with the franchise, has no more than 26 games left on the Lakers’ sideline. Only three players remain from the 1999-2000 title team- the first of the post-Magic era- and one of them (Brian Shaw) is now an assistant coach. Derek Fisher, one of just two guys to collect all five rings from the current Laker dynasty as a player, is also still very much in the picture. Never an offensive juggernaut, Fisher, now 36 years old and clearly on his last NBA legs, remains the emotional anchor of this team and beloved figure across Laker Nation, though his on-court effectiveness is now almost entirely dependent on experience and guile.

Which brings us to the subject of one, Kobe Bean Bryant. Like Fisher, Kobe’s in his 15th NBA season, and boasts an identical five-ring collection. Over the past decade and a half, he’s taken Laker fans on an incredible journey, running the gamut of emotions
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Tuesday, April 19, 2011

20 Questions From The Association - Best. Weekend. EVER.*

Is it just me, or…

Is having the phenomenal weekend of playoff ball we just saw be followed immediately by Tax Deadline Day equivalent to waking up from a weekend of the greatest sex ever, to chlamydia?

Based on Chris Paul’s Game 1 performance against the Lakers- which, ignoring stakes (Finals, elimination game, etc) compares favorably with anything we’ve ever seen from Magic Johnson or Michael Jordan- should we retire the “value to his team” argument from all future MVP discussions?

After the way he closed out the Bulls’ two playoff opening scares (22 points on 60%+ FG in the 4th quarters) against the Pacers- complete with defense and passing in Game 1- averaging 37.5- 7- 6 and making 31 of 34 free throws along the way, does the “Derrick Rose is not the MVP and the stats say so” argument seem a bit less relevant?

Was Boston’s alley-oop to Kevin Garnett with 37 second remaining the epitome of a “chess vs. checkers” coaching moment?

For all the talk of how Pau Gasol disappeared in the Lakers’ Game 1 loss, should the team be thrilled with, and encouraged by, the effective, efficient performance (16 points on 4-8 FG, 2-3 3s and 6-6 FT, 11 rebounds and a team-best +/- of +3) turned in by Ron Artest?

Between hitting the decisive 3-pointer in a road playoff game against a top-seeded opponent and later welcoming a new baby girl into the world, did Shane Battier have the greatest day of his life on Sunday?

With Manu Ginobili in street clothes, are the Spurs the eighth scariest team in the Western Conference?

As well as the Pacers played on Saturday afternoon, are they going to need more than one player (Roy Hibbert with 8) to outrebound Derrick Rose (6) if they’re ever going to get that close to stealing a game again?

On the heels of Amar’e Stoudemire hitting six straight shots in six minutes and 
emasculating the Celtics’ front line, might Mike D’Antoni want to instruct his players to look for the team’s best player in the final three minutes of a nailbiter?

Is it staggering to think that the only double-digit Game 1 winner, the Atlanta Hawks, managed the feat while grabbing just one more offensive rebound as a team (5) than Jameer Nelson did by himself?

For all the abuse he endures when things are not going well, is Chris Bosh (23 points, 11.5 rebounds, 56.7% FG, 2 turnovers total) owed a little bit of love for being the Heat’s best performer to open the postseason?

Is Chauncey Billups’ early exit not exactly the worst thing that could have happened to the Knicks’ postseason run?

Did Dwight Howard’s eight turnovers and lone blocked shot (spectacular as it was) against the Hawks remove a lot of the luster from what should have been an epic 46 (16-23 FG, 14-22 FT) and 19 (13 offensive rebounds!)?

As the Spurs-Grizzlies series progresses, will we increasingly Mike Conley “out-Tony Parkering” Tony Parker?

Should the Denver Nuggets have more confidence than ever, since it took them shooting 25% from beyond the arc, J.R. Smith and Ty Lawson combining for just 19 points, 72 points from Durant and Westbrook and an embarrassing no-call on a blatant offensive basket interference for the Thunder to top them by a whopping four points?

Is it beyond inexcusable for Hedo Turkoglu, Gilbert Arenas, Jason Richardson, J.J. Redick, Quentin Richardson, Brandon Bass and Ryan Anderson- who were paid ~$60 million in 2010-11- to combine for 20 points in 157 minutes on the floor?

Could you have won a lot of money this summer betting that Mike Miller would suit up in the Heat’s first two playoff games, but play just six minutes and be outscored by Juwan Howard (3-0)?

Whether you hate KG or really hate KG, was his intentional trip, err, screen, of Toney Douglas- masterfully executed?

Should the Mavs be less than thrilled that it took 24 points (6-10 on 3s) from a guy that is now the offensive equivalent of Derek Fisher and a combined 12 points, on 6-of-23 from the field, from Gerald Wallace, Brandon Roy and Wesley Matthews to secure an eight-point win in their home playoff opener?

Are
irrational, knee-jerk reactions the best part of playoff Game 1’s?


* Assumes the Lakers' playoff-opening loss was an anomaly.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Hardwood Hype's Twitter-Friendly Round 1 Predictions

It’s showtime.

With the most intriguing regular season of the post-Jordan era behind us, the playoffs are upon us. The NBA postseason tips off at 1:00 Saturday afternoon, with the Indiana Pacers’ stepping into the gallows of Chicago’s United Center, against the presumptive league MVP and the top-seeded Bulls. Not only does the arrival of the 2011 postseason (mercifully) drop the curtain on a fascinating and contentious (but at the same time tired and increasingly redundant) MVP debate, the arrival of the Association’s spring tournament- which, top to bottom, promises to be as compelling as any we’ve seen in several years- brings to the forefront the season’s overarching storylines.

Regrettably, due to the unfortunate timing of a number of professional and academic responsibilities, I’ve been unable to do the desired amount of prep work in order to produce an exhaustive playoff preview. However, that’s not to say that I’m short on opinions. In the interest of going on the record, wanted to toss out these Twitter-friendly (more or less) predictions for each of the eight first-round playoff series:

Bulls- Pacers- Upset alert! Nope, not picking the Pacers to advance, but they will avert a sweep. Indy's got the horses to pull out one home win. Bulls in 5.

Heat-76ers- Miami's been waiting for this. Look for them to dominate early and often. Even with Lou Williams & Elton Brand healthy, this probably wouldn't go past 5 games. Heat in 4.

Celtics-Knicks- Not crazy about the Knicks, but even less enthralled with the C's. Look for NY to hold court at MSG after stealing one in Boston. Knicks in 6.

Magic-Hawks- Thank goodness for counter-programming! No interest in this one. Orlando’s DEEPLY flawed, but the Hawks can always be counted on to not show up. Magic in 5.


Spurs-Grizzlies- Yep, I did it! Manu is dinged & Duncan has slipped at both ends. As good as Parker is, that leaves no one for Memphis' D to fear. Grizzlies in 6.

Lakers-Hornets- Out of respect for CP3, I'd like to predict anything but a sweep, but the Hornets couldn't beat L.A. in 4 tries with David West. Lakers in 4.

Mavericks-Trailblazers- If you believe (as I do) that Dirk & LaMarcus will cancel each other out, Portland's size & athleticism win in a landslide. Dallas will regret not trading Caron Butler. Blazers in 6.

Thunder-Nuggets- Can't wait for this one. Love this Nuggets team, and they've got a shot, but it's tough to overcome the series' two best players being on the other team. Thunder in 6.


I imagine a few of you may have some thoughts on either these predictions, or my takes on the individual teams above. Love my gutsy calls! Praise me in the comments! Think I come from a gene pool shallower than a puddle? Let me have it! Finally, if your sensibilities have been offended to the point that you'll never again visit this hallowed slice of digital real estate, a couple of parting gifts: Hardwood Paroxysm's Rob Mahoney comes to the rescue, with an epic NBA playoff preview video.

It's winnin' time! Enjoy everyone!

Monday, April 11, 2011

Blake Griffin- There's Only One First Time

There can only be one first time.

For the entire 2010-11 regular season, Blake Griffin has been a fixture in both my live television viewing schedule, as well as on my DVR. Of the 81 meaningful games he’s played thus far in his career, I’ve tuned in for roughly 70, almost every time with a childlike enthusiasm that I’d have sworn had been jaded out of me.

The last NBA newcomer to have this profound an effect on me was young Kobe, who in the late 1990s- before he began collecting jewelry and cementing his place in the NBA’s pantheon- achieved a similar must-see status, though few people outside of Southern California has the pleasure of following his exploits on a nightly basis. Given the singularity of his talent, the electricity with which he deployed it, and the fact that I’d certainly be quite a bit older the next time I saw his athletic peer, I wondered if I’d ever watch another player from such a youthful perspective, with such visceral excitement.

In the intervening years, thanks to the likes of (among others) LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Dwight Howard, Chris Paul and Kevin Durant, the NBA has seen an influx of young superstars rivaling that of any decade in league history. While rookie year Chris Paul was very close for me personally, I don’t remember any of these transcendent talents capturing the collective imagination of the NBA fan base the way that Blake Griffin did in 2010-11.


From arguably the
greatest 90-second opening to a career, on October 27 against Portland, to his public baptism of Timofey Mozgov (True story: I’ve been to Vegas 50+ times in my life, and have never seen so many people in a sports book so jacked up for something in which they had no financial interest) three weeks later, to a highlight-laden 30-12.5 and 61.5% FG in December victories over the then-15-2 Spurs (at home) and the Bulls (in Chicago), to a combative 24-14 in a home win over the Heat, to 47 (on just 24 shots) and 14 rebounds against the Pacers on MLK Day, Blake strung together as spectacular a three-month stretch as you’re ever going to see. He established himself as not only the most electrifying player in the league, but in a world equipped with a seemingly endless catalog of entertainment options, he turned the Clippers- the lowly, comically inept, racist slumlord-owned, possibly cursed Clippers- into appointment viewing, made Ralph Lawler a household name across NBA Nation and nearly melted in the internet in the process.

It felt fleeting even as it was happening. During that 10-12-week stretch, it wasn’t enough to simply marvel at his jaw-dropping highlights and fantastic stat lines the morning after- there seemed to be intrinsic value in witnessing the shock waves in real time. For hardcore NBA fans with both League Pass and Twitter, as much as any television event of the past year, the first ~55 games of the Blake Griffin era epitomized the communal experience. From Thanksgiving through Valentine’s Day, Griffin owned more of Twitter than Kleiner Perkins and Union Square Ventures combined.

In a sense, Blake walked into the perfect storm for universal adulation. A personable young guy that lost the entirety of what would have been his rookie season to a broken kneecap, and entered the season with lowered expectations. Then, once he hit the league, he did so like a force of nature, a hybrid of LeBron James and Dwight Howard, only one that we could enjoy with a certain innocence, free from post-Decision backlash or an unshakable, increasingly mind-numbing MVP debate. Thanks to a blatant disregard for his physical well-being, Griffin immediately established himself as one of the NBA's most physically dominant players, and ran circles around both this season's rookie class and the sophomore class with whom he was drafted. Finally, since all of this took place on a team that never made the smallest pretense of contending for a postseason berth, his success posed no real threat to the aspirations of anyone else's favorite team. Our initial demands of him were extremely low, and he was giving us more than we'd ever dream of asking for
.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The Hall of Fame Case for Bernard King

In the aftermath of Monday afternoon's announcement of the Basketball Hall of Fame's 2011 class- during which we learned that Chris Mullin, Dennis Rodman and (finally!) Artis Gilmore, among others, would be enshrined in Springfield- once I'd telepathically conveyed congratulations to the dozen honorees, my thoughts shifted to the subject of players not in the Hall.

Unless you count the curious decision not to even include Reggie Miller (25,279 points, five All-Star selections) among the candidates up for consideration, there wasn't a particularly egregious snub among 2011's first-year hopefuls. I began rummaging through childhood memories and historical numbers, in search of transcendent performers and statistical standouts that have thus far been deemed unworthy. Soon after, on Twitter, the digital barbershop at which the individuals behind the NBA blogosphere congregate daily, the conversation turned to one of the the most mythologized players of his era, Bernard King.

As is often the case when discussing King's career, sentiment was on his side, but quickly gave way to pragmatism. It's almost unanimously agreed upon that a) at his peak King played Hall of Fame-quality ball, but that b) he was robbed of too much floor time (he essentially missed four full seasons) by knee injuries to be a top-tier candidate. I loved King as a player and have rooted for him as a Hall of Fame candidate for as long as he's been eligible. However, without looking closely at the numbers from his entire career, I'd lazily accepted the conventional wisdom about his career to be true. Yesterday, after yet another "yeah, but..." assessment of his legacy, it became clear that as a fan and an amateur NBA historian, a closer look at the matter was needed.

Upon closer inspection, I'm pleased to report that a) not only is Bernard King deserving of enshrinement, b) he's kind of a no-brainer and c) the notion that he was healthy for no more than a few seasons is something of a misnomer. Let's deal with this last point first. King's career spanned 16 years, during which he played 12 seasons- ACL injuries cost him two full seasons and limited him to just six games in 1986-87. Sure he was prone to injury- and serious injury at that- but his is as much a story of perseverance as it is fragility and susceptibility to injury. With his explosiveness no longer at an elite level, the Knicks released him at the end of the 1986-87 season. In the face of this adversity, he recovered and authored an excellent four-year comeback with the Washington Bullets, during which he improved his scoring average each year he was with the team (17.2 in 1987-88, to 20.7, 22.4 and 28.4 in 1990-91) and earned the fourth All-Star selection of his career 1990-91.

The fact is that he was actually on the floor a lot more than he was off of it. In the 12 NBA seasons in which he played, dude took the floor in 64+ games ten times, and had seven seasons in which he suited up for at least 77 games. His career total of 874 games played trump the tallies of no-brainer Hall of Famers like Sam Jones (871), Bob McAdoo (852), Elgin Baylor (846), Jerry Lucas (829) and Walt Frazier (825).