By Connor Hughes –
That’s the only way to describe the NBA Playoffs. The Playoffs have been exciting but predictable for the last decade. A lot of Duncan and the Spurs, Kobe and the Lakers, and LeBron James attempting to carry a team on his back to the promise land.
Not this year.
The Playoffs are up for grabs to any team who’s hot and can seize the opportunity; although, the reliable, veteran teams are still very much in contention to win the NBA Finals.
Miami Heat – After all of the preseason hype, the speculations, the Big Three (LeBron, D-Wade, Bosh) dancing on stage like pop superstars, and a general arrogance that has rubbed many people the wrong way, they have actually performed well. They haven’t lived up to the expectations of some, though.
NBA on ABC commentator Jeff Van Gundy is a part of that some.
“They will break the (Michael Jordan Bulls’) single-season win record (of 72),” Van Gundy told Barry Jackson of the Miami Herald. “And I think they have a legit shot at the Lakers’ 33-game (1971-72 winning streak) as well. And only the Lakers have even a remote shot at beating them in a playoff series,” Van Gundy predicted.
Extreme expectations go hand-in-hand with extreme talent. The Heat signed LeBron James and Chris Bosh during the off-season to maximum contracts (max allowed with salary cap), to go along with former Finals MVP Dwayne Wade.
James and Wade are second and fourth in points-per-game, respectively. They share the perimeter scoring load and they work well together. The Heat have no problem with playing transition basketball. The combination of LeBron’s court vision and basketball IQ, along with Wade’s athleticism and craftiness, makes for a lethal combination in the open court.
But it’s not all glamor and glitz in Miami.
The Heat struggle against the best teams in the league. They are 2-8 against the top 5 teams. Their half-court offense looks stagnant at times, partly because the Heat are the oldest team in the league. Besides the Big Three and Mario Chalmers, the Heat are old, slow and lack explosiveness. Regardless, The Heat are 6th in team defense and have athletes that can defend multiple positions, but can they get past the Celtics or Bulls with a 7-8 man rotation?
X-FACTOR – Chris Bosh. Without Bosh, the Heat would run a strictly perimeter offensive set, and frankly, it looks like Wade and LeBron sometimes forget Bosh is on the court. Perhaps he just isn’t working hard enough without the ball – either way, they need to get Bosh in pick & pop, pick & roll, and post-up situations. He is multidimensional in the post, with the ability to fade, pull up, or take most big men off the dribble. They need him to be aggressive.
San Antonio Spurs – The San Antonio Spurs organization has been a model franchise for over a decade. They make savvy draft picks, keep their star players happy, and they have arguably the best coach in the league, Greg Popavich. “Pop” has been around for decades and has won four championships with the Spurs.
This year is no different. The Spurs have the NBA’s best record, despite being the sixth oldest team in the league. The Spurs continuously prove that in order to be a great NBA team, you have to be well-rounded.
Tim Duncan lives basketball. He is fundamentally sound in every way, but Duncan is at a career low in scoring at 13 points per game and now relies on the French point guard Tony Parker to pick up most of the scoring. Parker runs the show for the Spurs, and he does it efficiently. Manu Ginobili is very shifty around the rim and has out-of-the-gym range. And when it’s crunch-time, Ginobili never shrinks under pressure. Expect him to be taking to clutch shots for the Spurs.
San Antonio’s one and only weakness is their lack of size. They are weak at the center position, and will be bullied by bigger teams, like the Thunder and Lakers. Although, their experienced line-up should give them an advantage.
X-FACTOR – Richard Jefferson. The Spurs need Jefferson’s energy, athleticism, and three-point shooting ability. Jefferson is shooting 43% from beyond the arc, which is 9th in the NBA. When he’s knocking down open shots and playing well, the Spurs will be hard to beat.
Chicago Bulls – The Bulls are for real. Losing four of five to the Cleveland Cavaliers in the first round last year put a chip on MVP candidate Derrick Rose’s shoulder. Rose, Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah are one of the best “big three’s” in the NBA.
First year coach Tom Thibodeau is a defensive genius, coming from the Boston Celtics coaching staff. Ranked first in opponents points allowed, the Bulls play lock down “D.” Noah is the anchor of the defense and averages 12 rebounds a game. Luol Deng is an experienced player with a great basketball IQ. He makes the right decisions with the ball and has very polished game compared to other third scoring options around the league.
X-FACTOR – Carlos Boozer. He has struggled with staying healthy this year, but when he is on the court, the Bulls play much better. Rose and Boozer work well together, even with the limited number of games they’ve played on the same court. Look out for the D-Rose and Boozer pick & roll in the Playoffs.
Boston Celtics – The Celtics are back and they’ve added some new pieces, but it starts and ends with All-Star point guard Rajon Rondo. Leading the NBA in assists, he distributes the ball effortlessly to his co-stars. All-stars Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and sharpshooter Ray Allen know what to do when Rondo gets them the ball in their spots.
Although, the Celtics did make some questionable off-season and in-season transactions. The roster additions of Jermaine O’Neal and Shaquille O’Neal brought height and experience, but they both have a lot of wear and tear. Injuries plague the two, and the Celtics need back-up big men who are reliable during Playoff time. The acquisitions of Jeff Green and Nenad Kristic provide the front court with skill, but they gave away the toughness of Kendrick Perkins, and the energy and streaky scoring ability of Nate Robinson.
Still, the Celtics lead the league in team defense, giving up only 91 points a game. We’ll see if the Celtics can make it back to the Finals with their new-look squad.
X-FACTOR – Paul Pierce. He has been with this team since the very start. He was in Boston when they could barely win 30 games in a season. Now, they are perennial Finals contenders. They need Pierce to be there in the clutch. His patented step back at the elbow is practically impossible to defend. So, when there’s five seconds left in the game and the Celtics are down by one, you already know who’s taking the last shot.
Los Angeles Lakers – The Lakers are back-to-back NBA champs, but can they get the three-peat? Kobe Bryant, also known as Black Mamba, is the best closer in the Game. Best player ever? Still to be determined. A sixth ring to tie Jordan and his second three-peat wouldn’t hurt his legacy. He is still the most skilled player in the NBA and he plays his best during the Playoffs.
Ron Artest, strong as an ox, gives the NBA’s elite scorers’ nightmares about facing him the next day, but he has the basketball IQ of a brick. Derek Fisher, a defensive liability whenever he is on the floor, but that awkward looking, over-the-left-shoulder jump shot always somehow finds the bottom of the net.
Now, Andrew Bynum is a whole new monster for the Lakers. 11 points and 9 rebounds a game, is great for any team’s starting center. He’s shooting 57% from the floor, which means he’s only taking what the defense gives him, and that’s perfect for the Lakers – especially when he’s paired with a forward as skilled as Pau Gasol. The two seven-footers dominate the paint in two completely different ways, that’s what makes the Lakers so special. The finesse and soft touch near the rim of Pau Gasol is unmatched. Plus he can step out to around 20 feet and knock down the face up jump shot.
The Lakers’ weakness is bench play. Besides Lamar Odom, they can’t rely on any of their bench players. Kobe and Gasol may be stuck with carrying too much of the scoring load. Also, Andrew Bynum’s health has been an issue all year. He has had knee troubles, and is in a constant struggle to stay healthy.
X-FACTOR – Lamar Odom. When he’s playing at the top of his game, there’s not a team in the NBA that can win four out of seven against the Lakers. Having one of his best statistical seasons as a pro, Lamar has really improved his shot selection and is shooting a smooth 54 percent. His versatility is unmatched. He can guard three positions easily and five against most teams.