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First Round NBA Playoff Observations

Thus far, we’ve witnessed the most exciting first round of the NBA playoffs that I can ever remember.

Thus far, we’ve witnessed the most exciting first round of the NBA playoffs that I can ever remember.

Unfortunately, the memorable and surprising plot turns, along with the amazing performances of guys like Portland’s LaMarcus Aldridge or Washington’s Brad Beal have been overshadowed and sabotaged by the most robust gold-digger-destruction ever waged since 100,000 Native Americans were murdered and forced from their lands during the California Gold Rush in the 1800’s.

Commissioner Adam Silver’s response to Slumlord Billionaire and Los Angeles Clippers’owner Donald Sterling’s bigotry and mental midgetry was more swift and rugged than Omar hitting a Barksdale stash house on The Wire, which has many people exalting the demise of the most inept team owner the league has seen since Ted Stepien owned the Cleveland Cadavaliers in the 1980’s.

In case you’ve been living under a rock, Silver imposed a lifetime ban and a maximum $2.5 million fine on Sterling yesterday afternoon, after the miscreant was caught on tape making a series of racist remarks that became public on Friday. In addition, the commissioner vowed to take even further steps that will force Sterling to sell the franchise.


We haven’t seen a stunning reversal of fortune like this since Anthony Weiner. Or Tiger Woods sampling more than the appetizers on the dollar menu at Hooters. Or Charlie Sheen’s last bender.


But be careful with the term, “Reversal of Fortune”, because with the NBA on the verge of a lucrative new television deal, and with the Clippers looking to make a deep playoff push for the first time in franchise history, the team is far from reaching a point of diminishing financial returns. 

In fact, when Sterling does sell, he’ll recoup close to $600 million off of the $12.5 million investment he made in 1981.

But while we celebrate the commissioner’s decision, we should also question the role that former league czar David Stern played in enabling and allowing Sterling to run amok for as long as he did. Not only was he aware of his racist past, but he added legitimacy to this fool by awarding him Chris Paul after his infamous veto of the deal that would have landed the league’s premier point guard to the doorstep of Kobe Bryant and the Lakers.


It’s almost as if, with Sterling, Stern and the league owners took the advice of General Motors, who knew they were selling defective automobiles, but refused to recall them until the death toll swelled and the public outcries became untenable and indefensible.

But I’ll leave the serious talk aside for now and delve into what we would have been excitedly discussing all along, before Sterling’s idiocy cast an ominous cloud over the succession of the most thrilling opening round of the playoffs we’ve seen in the aggregate.


Up until now, I thought the greatest first round matchup I ever saw was in 2009, when the defending champion Celtics and the Bulls, with the effervescent backcourt of a young Derrick Rose and Ben Gordon, gave us a series for the ages. But this year’s menu has me starting to re-think that.

So how about we talk about some actual basketball. Shall We?

 

San Antonio Spurs vs Dallas Mavericks

With Monta Ellis playing composed and blending into the natural flow of the game, rather than trying to assert himself in ways that were detrimental to his teams in Milwaukee and Golden State, Dallas is looking like the best 8th seed I’ve ever seen.

But had it not been for Vince Carter’s miraculous game-winning corner buzzer-beater in Game 3, the Spurs would be in firm control of this series right now.



Watching Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, no matter what the uneducated fan says about San Antonio being boring, is always a treat, as is watching Dirk Nowitzki.


These teams have looked evenly matched, and even with San Antonio’s crisp ball-movement, pick-and-roll mastery, great bench production and the magic of Ginobili, they still struggled to pull out the victory in Game 4.

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Other than Dallas’ Game 2 rout, each game has come down to the final seconds. Expect that to continue.

 

Miami Heat vs Charlotte Bobcats

The defending champs dispatched the emerging Bobcats in four straight, but Charlotte’s Kemba Walker proved that, as he did during the NCAA Tournament while winning the National Championship at UCONN, the game’s bright spotlight brings out the best in him.


In order for him to make the leap and be considered a franchise point guard, he will have to replicate his performance in Game 4 with more consistency, where he dazzled with 29 points, five assists and five rebounds.    

Kemba always plays with heart and can overwhelm with his speed. At times, though, he can also build a small schoolhouse with his bricks and abysmal shooting percentages. And yet, despite shooting a woeful 28% in Game 2, he still influenced the game with distributing the ball, hitting his free throws and playing great defense.

Miami, gunning for their third consecutive title, awaits the winner of the Brooklyn and Toronto series. The Heat have looked more vulnerable, at times during the regular season, than we’ve been accustomed to seeing over the last few years. But I’m chalking that up to disinterest. Now that the playoffs are here, I expect King James to continue to prove that all MVP discussion during the regular season is simply verbal flatulence, because the real MVP emerges with his work at this time of year.

 

Washington Wizards vs Chicago Bulls


It wasn’t that long ago when Agent Zero, aka The Hibache, aka Gilbert Arenas, had the Wizards and D.C. on fire. Unfortunately, the fire got out of control when he and Javaris Crittendon got into their Gyp Rosetti routines of “Everybody Got Guns!”, and burned the house down.


But it’s a new day for the Wizards, and with the emerging backcourt of the young and superfluously talented John Wall and Bradley Beal, Washington is suddenly for real. With their 4-1 series win against the always tough and defensively rugged Bulls squad, combined with the fact that Indiana is playing uglier than Karl Malone’s old L.A. Gear signature shoe line, the Wizards are surprisingly looking like the second best team in the east behind Miami right now.

Even for folks who’ve watched Washington on a consistent basis this year, Nene’s domination of Chicago’s frontline, especially the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year Joakim Noah, was a revelation. His 20-point, 8-rebound and 7-assist performance in last night’s 75-69 win, along with the stellar contributions of Marcin Gortat, Trevor Ariza and 157-year-old Andre Miller throughout the series, is a harbinger of good things to come in the gentrified Chocolate City.

 

Memphis Grizzlies vs Oklahoma City Thunder

This matchup has been more visually stunning than Pam Grier in Foxy Brown and more action-packed than Jim Kelly in Black Belt Jones.

Last night’s fourth-straight overtime game of the series, a 100-99 Memphis win, was another classic nail-biter that wasn’t decided until the last seconds. The entire, head-scratching conundrum of Russell Westbrook has been on display throughout the series. Last night, his stat line was crazier than Jameis Winston shoplifting some crab legs: 30 points, 13 assists and 10 rebounds. But he took 31 shots and only made 10 of them.



You can say what you want, but Memphis’ Mike Conley is the best point guard in this series. In terms of floor-generalship and elevating the play of those around you, it’s not even debatable. He distributes the ball, his pace and assist-game are all exquisite, and he gets his teammates, from Mike Miller to Zach Randolph to Marc Gasol involved in the offensive flow.  And his boogie off the bounce, if you know what you’re seeing, will make you catch the holy ghost at least five times a game.

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And for people who are yelling about how we need to re-evaluate Kevin Durant due to a couple of sub-par performances, they must be smoking more crack than Tyrone Biggums. Durant is one of the most inexorable offensive forces that the NBA has ever witnessed. But Tony Allen, one of the best defenders since Johnnie Cochran, is digging up in him like Fleece Johnson right about now.  


If you miss the remaining games of this series, to quote the Korean grocer in Menace II Society, “I feel surry for ya muddah!”

 

Golden State Warriors vs Los Angeles Clippers

With their critical 113-103 victory in an emotionally-charged Staples Center last night, the Clippers, in spite of the Donald Sterling circus, are on the verge of possibly capturing only their third playoff series since 1981.



DeAndre Jordan looked like he was playing on a Nerf hoop last night with an inspiring and powerful 25-point, 18-rebound masterpiece. L.A. is one of the most exciting teams to watch, in terms of Chris Paul’s mastery of the point guard position and the strength and athleticism of Jordan and Blake Griffin. In addition, seeing Jamal Crawford, this year’s Sixth Man of the Year and only the fourth player in league history, along with Kevin McHale, Ricky Pierce and Detlef Schrempf, to win the honor twice, is always worth the price of admission.

No matter how gifted Klay Thompson and Steph Curry are, and how good David Lee and Draymond Green are, the Warriors cannot match up with the Clippers’ strength and size in the paint.

 

Portland Trail Blazers vs Houston Rockets

In another of this year’s surprising post-season developments, Houston walks into tonight’s home game on the brink of elimination, with Portland up 3-1. LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard have been exceptional. They are the most promising inside-out combo that the franchise has seen since Rod Strickland and Cliff Robinson (who were both very much slept-on, btw) back in the mid ‘90s.

Lillard, Aldridge, Wes Matthews and Nicolas Batum all scored over 20 points in Portland’s 123-120 overtime victory in Game 4. Houston was known as the team to be feared behind the 3-point stripe, but the Blazers showed they can be proficient from deep as well when they knocked in 11 in Game 4. And Aldridge has been putting up Hakeem Olajuwon-like scoring and rebounding numbers on The Dream’s former team.



Three of the games in this series have been decided in overtime. If Houston wants to hang around to play a game 6 and 7, they better get more serious about offensive rebounds and second-chance points during the second halves of these games, and Chandler Parsons better play in attack-mode from start to finish.

The hidden gem in this series is Batum. He’s steady, crafty and does many things well. James Harden and Dwight Howard better bring their A-game tonight, or they’ll never hear the end of Charles Barkley saying, “Lemme teyell you sumthin’ about Dwight Howard and James Harden….”, as they are left to wonder why they got smoked out of in the first round.

 

Atlanta Hawks vs Indiana Pacers

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Indiana is proving to be an epic one-hit wonder, along with the likes of Buster Douglass, The Lady of Rage, He Hate Me, Icky Woods and Matty Rich.

Atlanta holds a stunning 3-2 series lead after the 107-97 win in game 5, and they can deliver the knockout blow at home tomorrow night. If you haven’t seen them play yet, the Hawks are looking much better than their #8 seed suggests. Paul Millsap, Kyle Korver, DeMarre Carroll and Jeff Teague can all beat you on any given night, but they weren’t expected to win more than a game in this series.



Role players Shelvin Mack and Mike Scott exploded for 30 points in the second quarter of Game 5. It was baffling that Indy showed no signs of life until they were down 80-50, midway through the third quarter.

You know things are bad for the Pacers when Chris Copeland gets sent into the game, when the outcome still has yet to be determined.  

It’s amazing to think that earlier this year, Indiana looked like the best team in the NBA. Now, they look like they couldn’t keep next at the Sheboygan YMCA.


The disappearance of Roy Hibbert is more fascinating to me than the missing Malaysian Airlines flight. How has he reverted back to that freshman at Georgetown back in 2005 that looked like he was plodding downcourt in a soiled diaper?

The erosion and disappearance of his skills is a bigger mystery than the Lochness Monster, El Chupacabra, Jimmy Hoffa and Eddie Murphy’s music career.


 

Brooklyn Nets vs Atlanta Hawks

This one is simple. When the Deron Williams of old steps up, the All-Star, Team USA point guard Deron Williams, the Nets win. When he plays like Marcus Banks, they lose.

If Brooklyn can knock down their open looks, they can take control of this series tonight.  This team was constructed with the microwaveable expectation of challenging the Miami Heat, and they defeated them every time they faced the defending champs during the regular season.

But this is the LeBron Season right now, not the regular season, which is an entirely different ballgame.

If you don’t watch the NBA on a regular basis, you might be shocked by this, but Toronto has some tantalizing young talent, a deep roster and a great chance to become relevant for a few years. They’re also one of the most fun teams to watch. 


Kyle Lowry is a capable point guard who is elevating out of the league’s second tier who can score and pass, Greivis Vazquez brings a high-motor, toughness and some Manu Ginobili-ness, and the youngster Terrence Ross can attack the rim with vigor while cutting through the lane, off offensive rebounds, and especially filling the lane on the break. He’s more explosive than the temper on a Real House Wife of the Jersey Shore.


They also have an absolute hidden treasure in All-Star DeMar DeRozan as well.

Watching the Raptors is like watching a good foreign film. At first, you’re wondering why even do it in the first place. But when they hit their stride, you’re glad that you made the investment.

The Nets are old as dirt, but there’s something beautiful about seeing them when Kevin Garnett can conjure up the old KG, when Paul Pierce can summon ‘The Truth’, when Joe Johnson shoots the ball like he did in Game 3, and when Deron Williams plays like the guy who used to be in the “best point guard in the NBA” discussion not too long ago.

As Miami’s next opponent, the rest of this Raptors and Nets series is worth paying a little more attention to.



Ali

Alejandro “Ali” Danois is the Editor-in-Chief of The Shadow League. His features “Humble Beginnings”, and “Rocky Flop” were mentioned in the Best American Sports Writing Anthology as among the country’s most notable stories of 2014 and 2015 respectively.

Ali is the author of the critically acclaimed book, The Boys of Dunbar, A Story of Love, Hope and Basketball, and he served as a Producer on the ESPN Films 30-for-30 documentary “Baltimore Boys”.

Follow him on twitter @alidanois