If you’ve watched even one NBA playoff game this year, you’ve probably heard “the end of an era” used in reference to (insert any old team here). The cliche might be warranted, depending on the team.
Should the Celtics big three of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen dissolve in any fraction during the offseason (win or lose against Miami, or Oklahoma City), “end of an era” would seem appropriate considering the impact those men had on the franchise.
Then we have Boston’s western counterpart in the Lakers, who were there every step of the way as the Celtics established their long-awaited reemergence as a league power.
After a failed attempt at trading Pau Gasol in the offseason, the likelihood of seeing the Lakers nucleus of the Spaniard, Andrew Bynum and Kobe Bryant remain in tact for 2012-2013 is slim. Dismantling the L.A. trio would certainly signify the end of the Lakers latest championship era.
But we’ve seen this act before. When Shaquille O’Neal and Phil Jackson left L.A., the Lakers were doomed. That was the end of an era. That is, of course until the Lakers acquired Gasol from Memphis for peanuts (thanks again, Jerry West). Then a new era of winning began as the Lakers made three straight NBA Finals appearances bringing home two Championships.
L.A.’s second title in the latest era came against the Celtics, who, after January 1, 2010, were a .500 team. The Big Three was too old and too injured. They weren’t even expected to win a first-round playoff series, much less make it to a Game 7 of the Finals and come within minutes of title No. 18. No, that era had ended with a regular season loss to the 12-win New Jersey Nets.
How ‘about the San Antonio Spurs? How many times have they been “done?” Who would’ve imagined a 36-year-old Tim Duncan would average more than 15 points per game and 9 rebounds per game while the 30-year-old Tony Parker would have the best statistical season of his career? This “old” team was the fastest and most entertaining Spurs team I’ve seen in the last five years. The Thunder are the only team with comparable ball movement and quickness. Who’s to say with good health and a few minor adjustments that the Spurs can’t get right back in the saddle next season?
“Out with the old, in with the new,” is inevitable for any dynasty or successful NBA team. The Chicago Bulls spent plenty of time in the toilet after the Jordan era and have just recently returned to glory in the last few years, thanks to Derrick Rose. After one magical run led by Shaq and Dwayne Wade back in 2006, the Heat needed LeBron James and Chris Bosh to get back to the Championship ranks.
Neither the Bulls nor Heat are that “young,” as the average player’s ages are 27.9 and 28.6, respectively. In fact, when you look at the last ten NBA champions (Mavs, Lakers, Celtics, Spurs, Heat and Pistons), most of those teams were comprised of “mature” players with a sprinkle of youth and veteran savvy mixed in.
That’s where the Oklahoma City Thunder enter the equation. The Thunder are the seventh youngest team in the NBA with players on the roster averaging 25.8 years of age. OKC’s nucleus of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden is barely old enough to get into the club as KD & Westbrook are 23 years old and Harden, a mere 22. That said, we’ve watched this team get to the top the old fashioned way, by working hard and improving every single year, climbing its way up up the mountain.
When a team this young makes it this far (which is extremely rare in general in the NBA), I would usually peg it as an anomaly with few expectations for the future. But the Thunder seem to be the real deal after disposing of the Mavs, Lakers and Spurs -three of the last four NBA championship teams- in one postseason.
Just because the Thunder are legit and likely to stay atop the NBA standings for the foreseeable future doesn’t mean that the torch has been passed for good. I look at it like a game of tug of war. The Celtics, Lakers and Spurs are all on one side of the rope while the Heat and Thunder are pulling from the other end with neither side able to force the other into the mud pit.
Does that mean there is room at the top for all five teams? Nope! Somebody has to give, it’s just a matter of who gets pulled down first.
If two of the Celtics’ Big Three remain on the roster next year and Boston makes it back to the Finals, clearly, they still won’t officially be over the hill, despite our best efforts to put them there. The Lakers can trade Gasol and still end up with a team in title contention. Should Gregg Popovich rest the Spurs elders from time to time throughout next season, I wouldn’t be surprised to see San Antonio win it all.
For now, we’ve got the Thunder in it to win it, and the possibility of the new Big Three or the old Big Three trying to show those young bucks from OKC how its done.
WESTERN CONFERENCE FINALS
It’s a battle of old school versus new school in the Western Conference Finals as the good ol’ San Antonio Spurs look for a fifth championship while the young Seattle Super Sonics….errr, Oklahoma City Thunder strive to make their first-ever trip to the NBA Finals.
Both teams have only ONE loss between them through the first two rounds of the playoffs, a stat which really boggles the mind. The Thunder swept the Dallas Mavericks before losing just one game to the L.A. Lakers in the second round while the Spurs swept both the Utah Jazz and the L.A. Clippers. The Spurs won the regular season series between the two 2-1.
The Spurs have won 18 straight games dating back to early April, making this a run for the ages if they make it past the Thunder in any number of games.
What makes San Antonio so good? The Spurs run a quick offense with superb ball movement led by point guard Tony Parker who is having the season of his life. with Russell Westbrook running the point, the Thunder are even faster, especially in transition (especially on the fastbreak) and have been successful shooting jumpers from all over the floor. Just as important, OKC is averaging a league-low 10.7 turnovers in the playoffs while often capitalizing on opponents’ mistakes instead.
During the regular season Westbrook, NBA scoring champion Kevin Durant and James Harden were the top scoring trio in the league combining for 68.4 points per game. That is FIERCE. Sure, we’ve watched each guy go through shooting slumps are various points throughout the playoffs, but they were short in duration and clearly, didn’t cost the team wins at the end of the day.
The Spurs aren’t exactly slouches on the other end. He might be on the older side, but Tim Duncan is having an outstanding year. The big man up’d his 28.8 ppg in the regular season to a fierce 32 points even in these playoffs. Duncan also boosts a small hike in rebounding, now averaging 17.6 per game. The guy is 36 years old. Seriously. It’s beyond impressive.
Might OKC’s Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins limit him down low? Yes. The Thunder defense stifled L.A.’s bigs Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol at times, forcing the Lakers to settle for bricks, errrr, jump shots and three-pointers. Luckily for the Spurs, who, along with its own trio of stars (Manu Ginobili being the third), also have legitimate depth as NINE guys on the roster averaged 8.9 points per game during the regular season. Rookie Kawhi Leonard has come up big for the Spurs in these playoffs. San Antonio will need all of the help it can get in dealing with a tough Thunder team.
The Thunder definitely took the tougher road in getting to the Conference Finals while getting nearly the same amount of rest as the Spurs. My heart says the Spurs will win this series because of their experience level and coaching, but my eyes have seen the Thunder and the fury they play with. I see this series going seven games and boy, would it be tough to send San Antonio packing on their own home court. You guys will have to decide your own winner on this one since I can’t!
I hate to say it, but I don’t think the Boston Celtics matter all that much in this series. What I mean by that is the winner of the series depends on which Miami Heat team shows up at the arena. Is it the confused, Bosh-less Heat? The secure, pink-pants-wearing DWade, Bosh-less Heat? The Heat, with Bosh?
Surprisingly, the Celtics won the season series 3-1 against the Heat and even with players out due to injury, looked their best against Miami. The old Big Three definitely get inspired taking on the new Big Three and it shows. The great thing about Boston is the palpable emotion that drips from the pores of Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, lifting not only their teammates but firing up the crowd as well, at home or on the road. Aside from the Lakers, no other team enthuses the Celtics the way Miami does.
I would give the playoff edge to the team with a true center, but neither the Celtics or Heat has one, which is pretty interesting considering the value of the position historically. I was looking forward to a Bosh vs. Garnett match up down low, but that is unlikely given Bosh’s abdominal injury.
The season-ending injury to Boston’s Avery Bradley could really hurt the Celtics as he has been integral to Boston’s defense, which has carried the team through the playoffs. Boston is holding teams to a mere 83.9 ppg in the playoffs, good for the best team defense in the postseason. It should be fascinating to watch that defense go up against the ever-potent Heat offense which is averaging 95.5 ppg. The highest score against the Celtics this postseason has been 92 points while the Heat have scored over 100 points in six of 11 games.
What makes the Heat machine run so well? LeBron James and Dwayne Wade. When they are on and feelin it, back up or else! Despite having issues at times, check out the overall playoff performances of these two. James: 29.0ppg, 8.7 rpg, 5.9apg. Wade: 23.8ppg, 4.5rpg, 3.6apg. Of course, various Heat role players step up to the plate each night which is great, although not fabulous for the sake of consistency.
Interestingly, the Celtics Big Three has been offensively inconsistent throughout the playoffs while Rajon Rondo has done most of the heavy lifting averaging 15.0ppg, 12.5apg, 6.4rpg and 2.6 steals. If Miami’s defense heats up and the Big 3 are off the mark offensively, it will make life tough on Rondo. Sure he can sore and be a one man show, but his job is to distribute the ball. Rondo alone can’t beat the Heat.
If Miami plays the way they did closing out the series against Indiana, they’ll beat the Celtics with the youth, speed and strength of LeBron and DWade along with the shot of Mario Chalmers (ok, shots…many shots… should they make it in the net). I say Miami in 7.
After last season’s transformation under then-rookie head coach Tom Thibodeau, 2011-2012 was supposed to be “the” season in which Derrick Rose and the Chicago Bulls would fully bloom into a team that could legitimately challenge the Heat for a spot in the NBA Finals.
But something was wrong from the start.
First and foremost was the NBA lockout which kept many players away from their typical off-season workout and conditioning programs in efforts to adjust to an unknown timetable of when the season might start up again. This affected every player.
Then, Rose was the passenger in a car when his buddy, the driver, was pulled over and arrested for DUI. While Rose wasn’t in any trouble personally, surely the incident shook the quiet 23-year-old who goes out of his way to keep his personal life private.
But things seemed to turn around in late December as Rose agreed to a five-year contract extension worth a whopping $94.8 million just days before the start of a shortened NBA season.
The much-deserved reward from his Chicago bosses would prove be the high point of Rose’s season which turned ugly quite quickly as the All-Star guard suffered a myriad of injuries.
Toe, back, groin foot and ankle injuries forced Rose to miss 27 of the Bulls’ 66 regular season games. Rose had only missed six games in his first three NBA seasons combined.
The Bulls logged a respectable 18-9 record without Rose and held on for the No. 1 seed in the East, despite the frequent absence of their superstar.
It was only fitting, in sports’ version of a cruel shakespearean tragedy, that Rose would wilt for good late in his team’s first playoff game against the Philadelphia 76ers, sidelined for up to eight months with a torn ACL in his left knee.
Kyle Korver said after the game, “It’s the saddest win,” as Rose’s teammates were clearly shell-shocked by the severity of his injury and the impact it would have on what was, just minutes earlier, a postseason full of promise and potential.
Leading the series against the 76ers 1-0, the Bulls have enough talent to dispose of Philadelphia, even without Rose. As fate would have it, Rose’s teammates are fairly used to playing without him, having figured out a system that worked well enough in the regular season. Chicago’s stellar defense, combined with adrenaline and the competitive spirit will propel the Bulls for the rest of this series against an inconsistent 76ers team.
It’s the long-term prognosis that is worrisome for the Rose-less Bulls.
While the Bulls beat Miami once and Boston twice without Rose during the regular season, a seven-game playoff series is a completely different animal.
Rose is so important to the Bulls not just because of the points he puts up, but because of the opponent’s perception of him as a scoring threat, forcing double teams which allows open looks for his Bulls teammates.
Who will opponents double team now? It won’t be Carlos Boozer or Joakim Noah. They SHOULD be the guys drawing a double team but they won’t be because neither is consistent offensively warranting the additional attention. Rip Hamilton and Kyle Korver certainly won’t draw the double team, thus the big guys shouldn’t get many easy scoring opportunities down low.
Ideally, opponents tried to force Rose to shoot outside instead of driving the lane, the place where he often put on a spectacular show while having his way with the defense. With veteran guard C.J. Watson set to start in Rose’s place, the defense will strive for the opposite in forcing Watson closer to the rim rather than allowing him to shoot from his comfort zone outside of the key.
This will be Luol Deng’s time to shine, even brighter than he has already this season. He has to make good choices and consistently execute offensively. Boozer, whose biggest knock as a pro has been that he doesn’t play up to his potential, finally has the chance to prove the haters wrong by stepping up and leading my example.
The biggest challenge for Chicago, in this series at least, will likely be mental, not physical. Losing your MVP can shatter one’s psyche. The Bulls have to find a way to quickly shake off the stench of losing Rose and focus on the immediate task, which is the 76ers.
If the NBA Playoffs started today, hoops fans would be happy campers! Why? A first-round Heat vs. Knicks match-up alone would be enough to send ratings through the roof and keep the many TV talking heads yapping from here to eternity.
Can you imagine? The Heatles versus Linsanity? Then again, it would be somewhat of a letdown if the most exciting series of the playoffs came in the first round. Either way, it’s a win-win situation, right?
If the NBA playoffs started today, we’d have a familiar cast of characters out East:
8. New York
…and an eclectic and somewhat surprising group in the West:
1. Oklahoma City
2. San Antonio
3. LA Clippers
5. LA Lakers
The teams in playoff contention (at the moment) in the Western Conference aren’t that shocking in and of themselves, it’s their seeding that brings the element of surprise.
Before the Chris Paul trade (umm, the second trade… to LA’s “other” team), who would’ve guessed the “Clippers” and “playoffs” would be words spoken in the same sentence? Sure, the Clippers had potential with a young nucleus of Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan, Eric Gordon and a veteran in Chris Kaman, but still… Donald Sterling’s team would be the type of squad to evoke a statement like “I’ll believe it when I see it” in conversation.
Instead, Chris Paul and the Clippers are only 3.5 games behind the first place Oklahoma City Thunder, a team that has risen to power the old fashioned way; through hard work and experience. This could be the year we finally see ThunderUp in the NBA Finals. Perhaps the youth of the Thunder’s roster gives them an advantage in this shortened season as OKC trails only the Heat and Bulls with a 23-7 record. Could an older, more experienced team catch up to them in the playoffs when everyone has a few days rest between each game? Sure, but Kevin Durant and Co. look pretty good halfway through the season and have been fascinating to watch in the playoffs in the last two years.
Sandwiched between the Thunder and Clippers are the aging San Antonio Spurs who could earn Greg Popovich a second Coach of the Year award (he also won the award in 2003). The Spurs have managed to stay atop the Western Conference without their star guard, Manu Ginobili who has missed 22 of the Spurs’ 31 games with an injury. What the Spurs have done is quite impressive, and as usual, until the playoffs, San Antonio will be largely ignored by many in the mainstream media. The Spurs have never been a flashy team full of typical stars or large personalities, but come playoff time, you’d better hope your favorite team doesn’t have to play them.
The Dallas Mavericks are basically back on track after an ugly start to the season and if they can stay healthy, I think they have a great shot at returning to the NBA finals. The Lakers, Grizzlies, Rockets and Nuggets are all in the hunt, each within two games of the 4-seed Mavs. All of these teams have a legitimate shot at making the post season, but it wouldn’t shock me if Portland, Utah or even Minnesota finds a way to sneak in, knocking a current contender out of the race. With young players like Kevin Love, Ricky Rubio and Derrick Williams sharing the court, the Timberwolves are easily the most entertaining team to watch on any given night. They remind me of the Thunder a few years ago: they are one or two pieces short of putting the puzzle together. If they can make a personnel move or two, these guys will be ready to shine after another year or so of learning how to play together.
If I had to predict today, who we’ll see in the NBA Finals, I’m going with a rematch (or three-match) of Heat vs. Mavericks, with the possibility of Heat vs. Thunder at a close second.
The Miami Heat are ON FIRE right now. So what if they lose a few games here and there, that doesn’t matter too much. We’ve watched them win with only two of their Big 3 healthy and playing, so barring a catastrophic injury, the Heat can easily survive the wear-and-tear of a typical NBA regular season. Miami leads the league in scoring, field goal percentage and three-point field goal percentage. The Heat are third in free throw attempts and somewhere in the middle of the pack when it comes to defense and rebounding. I think the Heat will roll right through the regular season and will once again have a chance to prove their worth in the NBA Finals. Of course, all the focus will be on LeBron James and whether or not he has the mental fortitude to win it all. From taking the last shot to making bizarre comments in the press, it will once again be the LeBrown Show should the Heat make it back to the Finals. In the words of Bart Scott, CANTWAIT!
The only team I can picture challenging the Heat in the East is Chicago. If Derrick Rose can overcome his back problems in the near future, there is no reason the Bulls shouldn’t make it to the Conference Finals. Chicago is second in the NBA in defense allowing 88.1 points per game (the 76ers and Celtics are tied for first, allowing 87.2 ppg), second in rebounding and ninth in scoring. The Bulls are tied for 15th in free throw attempts (22 per game) which surprises me, and are 25th in terms of free throw makes, capitalizing on only 72 percent of their attempts. The Bulls are a good team, even without the superstar Rose on the court. But can Chicago make it to the Conference Finals without Rose? I don’t think so.
The 76ers, Magic, and Hawks are all within five games of the Heat and Bulls, but none of them excite me all that much. I think Philly is the best of the bunch and would welcome a first round playoff series between them and the Indiana Pacers, which is what we’d get if the playoffs began today.
The Pacers are an interesting team that is flying under most peoples’ radars, including mine. I had forgot that Indiana made the playoffs last season and was reminded of it only when they pulled off an impressive come-from-behind victory over the Lakers at Staples Center back in January. I see the Pacers as a younger, Eastern Conference version of the the Spurs. They won’t razzle-dazzle you, but they’ll find a way to beat your team down for the win. Like last year, I think this group will put up another tough fight in the playoffs with the difference being that I think they’ll pull off a first-round victory this time.
Now we come to the Celtics and the Knicks. The Celtics and Lakers, oddly enough, are in the same boat. Each squad’s Big 3 is no longer good enough on it’s own to propel their teams to victory. It’s sad watching both LA and Boston unable to do what came quite easily over the last few years knowing each team is probably just one player away from being a championship contender this year. For the Lakers, it’s a point guard, for the Celtics, it’s a dominant center. The Celtics are still fun to watch because you never know which team is going to show up each night so there is always an element of mystery when they take the court. As we’ve seen recently, the Celtics seem to take a nose dive after the half-way point in the season when age and health start to take a toll, but come playoff time, the older guys have adequate time to rest between games and get re-energized. As long as Boston makes it into the playoffs, they are in good shape. I’d be shocked if Danny Ainge doesn’t make a move of some sort by the trade deadline so who knows what the Celtics will look like in April.
Because of the NBA lockout, many teams have needed more time than usual to adjust, working out the kinks long into the start of the regular season. This might be the year where the NBA looks more like the NHL, where playoff seeding means virtually nothing as the lower seeds frequently beat the higher seeds in post season play.
The Knicks are a wildcard right now. Jeremy Lin has seemingly taken over the basketball world and we are all in a tizzy over how he has turned the Knicks around overnight. The story is sensational, in both meanings of the word, and hopefully New York can keep the train rolling. When the Knicks are good, it’s good for basketball. Period.
The Knicks are playing well at the moment, but who knows how the chemistry will change once Carmelo Anthony returns. As instrunmental as Lin has been to New York’s success, the addition of JR Smith might prove to be just as important as Smith is already in post season form after playing for several months in China. Plus, it would be helpful for Amare Stoudemire to turn into his old self by upping his shooting percentage.
But back to the “important” stuff… If Mike D’Antoni can figure out a way for Lin and Anthony to coexist, we won’t get a first-round Heat/Knicks match-up because there’s no chance New York will head into the playoffs as the eighth and final seed in the east. If Lin and Anthony can work together, the Knicks will not only make the playoffs for only the second time since 2004, but they could find themselves hosting a first-round series at Madison Square Garden. Wouldn’t that be something?
Friday’s game at Madison Square Garden was not the first time Jeremy Lin and the Lakers had crossed paths.
As an undrafted rookie out of Harvard, Jeremy Lin’s NBA options were limited, to say the least. After playing for the Dallas Mavericks’ Summer League team (and playing pretty well) in 2010, Lin’s hometown Golden State Warriors and the Los Angeles Lakers each made him an offer. Playing for his home team and knowing he would have more of an opportunity to get playing time with the Warriors, Lin signed a two-year deal with Golden State, forgoing a chance to join the reigning NBA champion Lakers.
For a team without a reliable point guard, watching Lin dominate several phases of the game had to be a painful reality check for the Lakers. Lin’s 38-point performance pushed the New York Knicks to a fourth consecutive win, trouncing the Lakers late for a 92-85 victory leaving LA’s coaches, management and fan base asking, “what if?”
Who knows how long the Linsanity will last in New York, but for now, it’s alive and well, boosting the importance of basketball for die-hard and casual fans alike while making a struggling Knicks team relevant once again. In his last four games (the latter three games being his only career starts in the NBA) Lin’s stats are straight silly as he has logged at least 20 points and seven assists per contest. In other words, Lin is EXACTLY the kind of player the Lakers need.
Of course, it’s way too early to proclaim Lin the next Chris Paul or Deron Williams, two of the league’s top point guards who are capable of running the offense while scoring at will, a rare breed indeed. Maybe it’s just a phase or a lucky streak, but after watching Lin play at Harvard while I was a reporter for Comcast SportsNet New England, I believe he is the real deal. He was good then, and he’s damn good now. Lin should help Amare Stoudemire get back on track when he returns to the team (death in the family) but I worry about what Lin’s fate will be once Carmelo Anthony heals from a groin injury and gets back on the court. Lin is not a selfish player who must score, but since he is capable of it, we’ve seen him put the Knicks on his back and carry them across the finish line; something none of the Knicks’ big names have succeeded in doing consistently this season.
The Lakers on the other hand, are offensively challenged, to say the least. LA has two seven-footers in the starting lineup, yet can’t find a way to consistently get the ball in the hands of Andrew Bynum or Pau Gasol.
Trading Lamar Odom to the Mavericks and losing Chris Paul when NBA Commissioner David Stern vetoed LA’s trade with the Hornets served as a crushing combination, leaving a talented Lakers team depleted on the wing and at the point.
Steve Blake’s play early in the season was a pleasant surprise as the nine-year vet was the only Laker aside from Kobe who seemed to understand the new offense implemented by head coach Mike Brown, a hodgepodge of pick & roll and elements of the triangle offense. Blake was a suitable facilitator and even managed to score some nice baskets, helping the Lakers to a 8-4 record to start the season. After a rib injury sidelined Blake, the Lakers went 6-7 without their starting point guard before going 1-1 (versus the Celtics and Knicks respectively) after his recent return.
With an aging Derek Fisher and a half-healthy Steve Blake, the lakers are left with the green Darius Morris and rookie Andrew Goudelock to fill in at point guard. Shockingly, that isn’t working, thus forcing Kobe to officially do everything at once; score, facilitate, play floor-general, defend the opponent’s best player, cure cancer, end wars, etc. Kobe might be one of the best to ever play the game, but even he can’t win playing 5-on-1 night in and night out in the NBA.
Rumors have swirled about a possible Gasol-for-Rondo trade which would be perfect for the Lakers, but I don’t see what the Celtics would gain by losing their best player for an older power forward. Sure, Jermaine O’Neal isn’t cutting it as a starting center and Gasol can play the five quite well, but I don’t see that getting Boston any closer to a championship this season.
The Lakers could use Rondo or any solid point guard right now to help ease Kobe’s burden. In theory, the Lakers should never need to take a 3-point shot with Kobe, Gasol and Bynum on the floor. A good point guard should be able to get the ball to Kobe and allow him to cut to the basket, at worse, missing the shot but drawing fouls and getting to the free throw line. This theoretical point guard knows where his teammates will be and can dump the ball down low, or find a guy with a passing lane in order to get Bynum and Gasol the touches they deserve. Sure, LA would most likely lose Gasol in a trade, but a point guard like Williams, Rondo, or even Lin is a dual threat in terms of scoring and assists, so it’s not as if the loss of a big man would kill the Lakers’ scoring ability (which is already lacking).
Instead of putting the ball in the paint, the Lakers have been forced to play a perimeter game that just isn’t working out. The Lakers are alone in dead last place, shooting a league-low 28 percent from 3-point land, averaging almost 17 long-range attempts per game and making good on only 4.7 of them. That’s ugly. Really ugly. Why would a team with Gasol and Bynum down low, Kobe and a physical Metta World Peace (in theory) need to jack up nearly 17 three-pointers a game? The Lakers offense has not figured out how to get the ball inside, even against poor defensive teams. The Lakers are tied for 20th in the league in scoring, averaging 92.7 points per game and have only hit the 100-point mark twice in their last 10 games.
The Lakers lost out on the Chris Paul sweepstakes. That’s okay. They may not be able to get Deron Williams or Rajon Rondo either, so how about good ol’ Jeremy Lin? He’s progressing at a fast pace, figuring out where his teammates will be and getting them the ball, plus, he is scoring at will. Lin doesn’t have much of an ego and I get the feeling he would be honored to play alongside of Kobe Bryant, thus having no problem giving up the ball. In his explosive performance Friday night, Lin exposed the Lakers biggest weakness; LA’s lack of Jeremy Lin, or a point guard like him.
Tonight’s Lakers vs. Celtics game reminded me of college when I used to go watch a group of my guy friends play intramural flag football. My girlfriends and I would cheer them on and sometimes go as far as making corny little signs, just to be supportive and make them feel good. Most of these guys were athletes whose careers ended with a high school diploma while their competitive spirit long outlasted their physical ability. I would always chuckle as the guys took flag football SO seriously, celebrating a good play like they won the Super Bowl and becoming furious with the smallest of failures. Although way past their athletic prime, my buddies loved to compete and played every game like it meant the world to them.
That’s how tonight’s Lakers vs. Celtics game felt to me. It was such a fun game and between the playoff-like atmosphere in the TD Garden and the close finish, the contest provided more than sufficient entertainment. At the same time, it made me sad to see two teams, once powerhouses, just shells of their former selves.
In 53 minutes of play, neither team made it to 90 points, both shooting around 39 percent from the field. 39 percent. Yikes. When the Lakers and Celtics were playing for titles in the latter part of the decade, each team had a strong presence down low (Perkins, Gasol and Bynum) and solid bench players; role players who were reliable and knew how to help their team.
If the Celtics can make it to the NBA Finals with Jermaine O’Neal starting at center without a legitimate backup, I’d be speechless…for once. Ever. Greg Stiemsa has potential, but he isn’t good enough right now and I don’t see Leon Powe walking through that door anytime soon. The Lakers outscored the Celtics in the paint 46-38 which isn’t that impressive considering LA has such a huge size advantage over Boston.
Three of the five bench players who played for the Celtics contributed 19 of Boston’s 87 total points, a near mirror-image of the Lakers bench which was responsible for 18 points between three of the four guys who played. Most of LA’s bench points came late as the non-starters were practically invisible through the majority of the game.
There were some positives though. Just like the good old days, it came down to Kobe Bryant and Paul Pierce laying it all out on the line; no guts, no glory. The Celtics captain played 48 minutes in which he scored 18 points, grabbed nine boards and logged seven assists, not to mention sinking a gorgeous jumper to give Boston a 1-point lead with under two minutes to play in overtime. But it wasn’t enough.
Ray Allen, dropping 22 points and giving us a classic old school 1-on-1 defensive battle with Kobe - holding him to 27 points, well under his 30 points per game average - wasn’t enough either. Kevin Garnett, once the heart and soul of the Celtics (and perhaps he still is in certain ways) had a miserable shooting night, going 6-23 and missing his last nine consecutive shots.
The Lakers and Celtics are two of the oldest teams in the NBA so 17 fast break points for Boston (LA scored only six) is one positive to take away from a loss like this. On the other hand, the free throw opportunities were heavily skewed in LA’s favor, as the Celtics were called for 21 personal fouls to the Lakers’ 12.
Kobe, a master of drawing fouls, among other things, was superb in the second half, demoralizing Boston with plays like the one in the third quarter when he patiently waited down low, eventually spinning around three defenders for the bucket, followed by a shot right over Allen, who did as much as he could to prevent it.
Pau Gasol, who has been in a funk since last season finally played the way he has for so many years, picking the right spots, rebounding, tipping and shooting his way to 25 points, 14 rebounds and two blocks, all on the same day as he was left off of the NBA All-Star roster.
Also with something to prove (and hoping to avoid being traded) is Andrew Bynum who scored 16 points, blocked three shots and more importantly, hauled in 17 boards as he and Gasol combined for 31 rebounds. Gasol and Bynum were responsible for critical blocks and deflections, Gasol winning the game for the Lakers as he blocked Ray Allen’s layup attempt as time expired in the extra period.
Interestingly, the Lakers are unmatched down low with Bynum and Gasol yet have been unable to find a way to get them the ball which has been a source of the team’s struggles. It wasn’t pretty, but tonight, they figured it out.
I’m convinced Steve Blake is the key to the Lakers success. Before he injured his ribs a few weeks ago, the Lakers point guard was playing the best basketball of his professional career. Blake and Bryant seemed to be the only two Lakers who truly understood Mike Brown’s system (and Blake was actually hitting shots too) so when he went down, it looked like the glue holding the Lakers together had evaporated. With Blake (not including tonight), the Lakers were 8-4. Without him, the team found itself in deep trouble going 6-7. While Blake was beyond rusty tonight, he helped his team get the job done down the stretch.
As badly as we want this rivalry to be what it once was a few years ago, or what it has been at different points over the past several decades, it just doesn’t feel the same. The competition is still there, but the level of play is not.
Remember when Rondo and Bynum represented the future? Now they are the present, which means some of the best players in hoops history will soon be a thing of the past.
The fact that these two teams were so cordial to each other on the court, conversing, helping each other up when someone hit the deck… perhaps that is their way of acknowledging that they aren’t what, or who they once were; That they appreciated all of those ugly hard-fought battles and wish so badly to go back to that place in time.
Whether it’s in the regular season or the playoffs, an all-star game or a charity game, or even a flag football game, we can always count on the fiercest form of competition between these two teams; the kind that will forever be worth cheering for.
This is why Kendrick Perkins is one of my favorite athletes to cover as a reporter. He looks mean and scary but the Oklahoma City Thunder center is actually a really nice guy and also happens to be exceptionally honest.
A week or so after getting dunked on by Clippers forward Blake Griffin, Perkins had a lot to say, not only about the dunk itself, but about LeBron James who famously tweeted after the dunk, “Dunk of the Year! @blakegriffin just dunked on Kendrick Perkins so hard!!! Wow! I guess I’m No. 2 now. Move over #6.”
I was in Indianapolis covering Super Bowl week when the dunk happened, and when I saw James’ tweet up on SportsCenter, my first thought was, “wow, LeBron can’t help but show arrogance even in trying to compliment someone else! Go figure.” It turns out I wasn’t alone as Perkins absolutely ripped James in a conversation with Yahoo Sports writer Marc J. Spears.
Take a gander at this missile Perky launched directly at the Heatles super star:
“You don’t see Kobe [Bryant] tweeting,” Perkins said. “You don’t see Michael Jordan tweeting. If you’re an elite player, plays like that don’t excite you. At the end of the day, the guys who are playing for the right reasons who are trying to win championships are not worrying about one play.
“They also are not tweeting about themselves talking about going down to No. 2. I just feel [James] is always looking for attention and he wants the world to like him.”
I had a hot flash reading that. So juicy. So angry. So real.
Perkins - a former alter boy who once told me he needed custom-made robes to fit his large frame as a child - threw down SO hard on LeBron right there that he should probably go to church and ask for forgiveness. On the other hand, Big Perk is just speaking the truth, isn’t he?
“The people that move out the way and stuff are the people who have insecurity problems,” preached Perkins. “That’s my job. How will my teammates look at me if next time I just back out the way and just let him dunk when I’m supposed to be defensive-minded, a shot-blocker? That would be a coward move on me. He’d just have to dunk on me again.”
I love that. Perkins would rather get posterized while doing the right thing than save himself the embarrassment by backing down.
I have yet to meet a reporter who knows Kendrick Perkins and doesn’t like him. While the Big 3 and Rajon Rondo possessed the top talent in Boston, Perkins had become the heart and soul of the Celtics. Perkins represented what that Celtics group was at its core, becoming an extension of Kevin Garnett in terms of ferocity, intimidation and drive.
The Thunder are lucky as hell to have a veteran like Perkins to keep the young guys on track and teach them what defense and determination are all about. In most cases, I would think a move like this by a player was a calculated way of using the media, but knowing Perk, Spears might have just asked the perfect questions that solicited honest answers from a genuine, hard-working man.
Sunday, March 25… Mark your calendars folks because LeBron and the Heat will face Perky down low and the rest of the Thunder in Oklahoma City. The teams meet again in Miami on Wednesday, April 4. I’m guessing LeBron will play with an air of oblivion, as if Perkins did not verbally abuse him in the press. As for Perkins, I expect him to put on his meanest and nastiest game face yet, using the tweet and his own comments as big-time motivation next time he takes on the Heat. A la Bart Scott, “CANTWAIT!!!”
To read the rests of Perkins’ gritty comments, click the link for the original story from Marc J. Spears: http://sports.yahoo.com/nba/news?slug=mc-spears_kendrick_perkins_lebron_james_blake_griffin_020712
One third of the way through a truncated NBA season, several teams have already gone into panic mode with fans and some players alike clamoring for trades.
Former power houses like the Lakers and Celtics are struggling to stay afloat while up and coming teams like the Knicks have failed to meet lofty expectations.
Magic center Dwight Howard could be a solution to each of those three team’s problems should he opt for a trade out of Orlando. After getting whooped by the Hornets Friday night (93-67… ya. You read it right), the Magic have lost three of their last four games and their star player is furious. Howard, whose agent has received permission to talk trades with the Nets, Lakers and Mavericks, said after the loss to New Orleans, “”I look at guys and they don’t look like they want to play. I told them at halftime, ‘If you don’t want to play, just stay in the locker room, because it don’t make sense for a team who we should beat to just demolish us.’”
OUCH. There was a stretch of a few games where the Magic (12-7) looked on point and many guessed the team would keep Howard in hopes of making one last title run. But now that the seesaw seems to be stuck in the down position, one would guess Howard will find a way out of town.
One team that might want Howard’s services is the New York Knicks (7-13). Amare Stoudemire is only shooting 42 percent from the field, a significant drop from his 53 percent career average. Sure, Amare is scoring over 17 points per game, but his rebounding is dismal, grabbing 8.2 balls per game and blocking less than one shot per game on average. I’m sorry, but when you are 6’11, you should have no less than 10 rebounds per game. When Kris Humphries Kardashian is killing Amare on the boards, there’s a problem. I’m well aware of the fact that perhaps Carmelo Anthony isn’t dropping the ball down low enough, but when he does decide to share, Stoudemire has to make the most of it and shooting under 50 percent won’t get it done. Plus, with $83 million remaining on his contract, Stoudemire is going to be very tough to move.
But would Howard even want to play for the Knicks under Mike D’Antoni? Probably not. The fact that a big guy has yet to really succeed in the D’Antoni run-and-gun system is likely a turn off for Howard, whose agent has not received permission to negotiate with the Knicks (as far as we know). In that case, shouldn’t Howard just go to the Lakers (11-9) like many had originally assumed as early as two years ago?
Before we get ahead of ourselves, lets take a few steps back. I know the season is short, putting pressure on teams to win fast and often, but what if we’re all jumping the gun? Without an organized off-season and a poor excuse of a training camp, it’s only logical that many teams (especially those with new coaches and/or key players) might take longer than normal to get in the swing of things.
I keep seeing Kendrick Perkins in my head with flashing red lights surrounding him, reminding me of what a terrible trade that was for the Celtics (9-9) last year. Yes, that situation is different in the fact that Boston opted to get something in return for Perkins, who the team was not willing to pay top dollar to re-sign after his contract was set to expire. The gamble was that the Celtics, in theory, coming off a game 7 loss in the NBA Finals, were still equipped to make a playoff run with that same roster primarily in tact. Instead, they saved money but lost the heart and defensive presence of their team and fizzled out in the playoffs. I would hate to see any team make the wrong move in haste because of the unique situation caused by the lockout.
Now that we have that spiel out of the way, lets go back to various trade scenarios of this season. I don’t think Dwight Howard is the answer for the Lakers. Yes, he’s a fantastic player, but the majority of the Lakers issues are not down low, but at the guard position. Steve Blake got off to a fantastic start before injuring his ribs, which has the point guard out and missing significant time. The Lakers are more in need of a facilitator than a big man, given that they already have two.
If I am Orlando, I would LOVE a trade with the Lakers. With the choices being to keep Howard this season then let him go, or trade him in return for Andrew Bynum (and another player, draft pick, cash, whatever…) who could become our franchise center, I’m going with the “give something to get something” approach.
Bynum is third in the league in rebounding, he is blocking 1.9 shots per game and averaging 16 points in 21 minutes per game. I have watched every Lakers game this season and Bynum, while playing well, isn’t playing up to his potential. He’s shooting 53 percent from the field, but he has the shot and footwork to be even better. The sixth-year Big has missed several easy, uncontested shots in nearly every game, which in my opinion, is completely mental. He has been through a lot in his career and aside from injuries, I think the only thing stopping him from being an all-out monster is his psyche. Moving out of LA may very well be the key to unlock Bynum’s inner-beast.
Yes, Pau Gasol has been inconsistent since last season but I wouldn’t give up on him just yet either. Had the Lakers original trade with the Hornets been accepted by the league, yes, it would have been worth it to let go of Lamar Odom and Gasol for Chris Paul. That would have worked beautifully in the non-triangle offense under head coach Mike Brown.
As we know, the trade didn’t go through so unless the Magic are willing to throw in Jameer Nelson along with Howard (which will not happen), I say the Lakers stay put and hold out for a guard via trade or find a different way to weather the storm, perhaps utilizing a developing Andrew Goudelock until Blake is healthy and available to help Kobe Bryant run the offense.
Sure, trading Gasol to the Nets (7-13) for Deron Williams sounds like a pretty sweet deal, but with the way Pau is playing at the moment, I don’t see New Jersey making that move. Williams leads the Nets in points and assists so bringing in Gasol isn’t going to replace that level of production. The Nets have some good pieces, but it seems like they each fit different puzzles instead of all coming from the same box.
Then we have the Boston Celtics. Oy Vey.
It’s quite sad watching the once-almighty Big Three get older and suffer loss after loss as the team around them just doesn’t seem to mesh. If Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen each played for different teams, each would probably be the difference-maker that could take his team to new heights. When Jermaine ONeal is your starting center, well, that can’t bode well for your team. O’Neal has already missed a few games and he’s scoring less than six points per game. Garnett is the team’s leading rebounder with a whopping 7.7 per game. 7.7 rebounds a game to lead the team? No bueno.
Word on the street is that Danny Ainge isn’t opposed to trading away any of the Big Three who brought the Celtics a championship in 2008 after a 22-year drought. If he gets a good offer, Ainge must let anyone on that roster go, well, anyone aside from Rajon Rondo who has turned into one of the league’s premiere players in the last few seasons.
As much as fans would hate it, I could see Pau Gasol playing well in Boston and imagining Paul Pierce in is hometown purple and gold isn’t a stretch of the imagination by any means. I think Doc Rivers is the type of coach who can motivate anyone and positively reinforce Gasol in order to squeeze the best game out of him. Although, Garnett might eat Gasol for lunch one day, but theoretically, Rivers could get those two on the same page. Because of injuries to Bynum, Gasol is used to playing center despite being a natural power forward and the Lakers could use Pierce’s versatility. I’m not sure that Bryant and Pierce could play together, but that’s another story.
Will trades go down this season? Yes. Which teams will be involved? I have no idea. Will we see a blockbuster? Probably. I love the trade deadline as the NBA typically has at least one exciting move providing us fans with tons of drama, but I sure hope each team really does its homework before signing the paperwork.
After the lockout ended, remember how exciting basketball was in the first few days of the NBA season? Christmas day felt like the playoffs between the Knicks two-point win over the Celtics and the Bulls’ come-from-behind victory over the Lakers by a single point in L.A. as both games were intense and entertaining. Heading into the season without a lengthy training camp, I anticipated ugly, discombobulated basketball but instead was pleasantly surprised as we were treated to some fantastic games.
Four weeks into the condensed 66-game NBA season, the enthusiasm seems to have worn off a bit and the rust is showing as many of the league’s teams are struggling to find consistency. Teams are having issues with chemistry, several key players have sustained injuries and every team is playing at least one stretch of three games in three nights as well as four games in five, and even five games in six nights. That’s a lot of games, and not a lot of quality practice time.
Logically, we want to attribute things like injury, sloppy play, lack of understanding of a coach’s scheme, etc. to the fact that teams are playing much more often than during a full, 82-game regular season therefor they must be tired, hurt and practice-deprived.
I crunched some numbers and noticed that our conspiracy theories surrounding the shortened season could be off the mark. Lets take the Lakers, for example. Last season, the Lakers played 82 regular season games in 170 days over approximately 24.3 weeks. If you break those numbers down, the Lakers played 3.37 games per week last season. This year, the Lakers will play 66 games in 124 days over 17.7 weeks, thus playing 3.72 games per week. That’s only about one third of a game more per week than last season. I’m no statistician (although I took social statistics in college… it was dreadful) but I don’t think that figure is of any true significance.
Basically, the number of games being played in this shortened time frame is proportional to the number of games played over a full-length season last year.
There is a learning curve every season, especially through the first 20-30 games. It usually takes teams a while to get their ducks in a row even when they have a full-length training camp and preseason.
Here’s where it gets tricky. What about all of the back-to-back games? Many have suggested that the back-to-back sets, and especially the back-to-back-to-back games would give younger teams an advantage because their youthful bodies can bounce back quicker than the veteran players.
Guess what? Age doesn’t seem to be a big factor when it comes to back-to-back games, at least not yet.
Take a look at the five oldest teams in the league (Dallas being the eldest) and their records when it comes to wins and losses on zero days rest:
Now lets look at how the five youngest teams in the league (Minnesota being the youngest) fared on zero days rest:
Again, I’m no math major but it doesn’t appear as though we can draw any correlation between age and wins/losses of games played on consecutive days. Because it’s still early in this season, this could change down the road, but as of now, those young, fresh legs aren’t making much of a difference as wisdom and experience has proved tough as well.
What role could back-to-back games play over the duration of the season? I’ll let you be the judge.
I looked at the schedules of four teams and compared them to last year in terms of how many times they played on consecutive nights (back-to-backs). Below are the number of times the Clippers, Celtics, Lakers and Mavericks played on consecutive days/nights.
Clippers 23 20
Celtics 19 19
Lakers 15 19
Mavericks 17 20
While the Celtics are playing exactly the same number of back-to-backs as last season, the other three teams are in a different boat. The Lakers and Mavs will both play more back-to-backs this season with LA playing 26 percent more back-to-backs than last year and 18 percent more for Dallas. Meanwhile the Clippers are playing 13 percent fewer back-to-back games than they played last season. Lucky them!
This tidbit does seem significant. It looks like the Lakers got lucky last season, as 15 back-to-backs is quite different from the Clippers down the hall who played 23 such sets. Playing 26 percent more back-to-backs than in the previous year has to hurt, especially as the Lakers are the second oldest team in the NBA. I would think it will catch up to them eventually, well, everyone but Kobe that is (unless his wrist actually falls off at some point), and I guess time will tell.
I wonder if travel might be more of an issue than playing on consecutive nights, especially because plenty of the back-to-back scenarios involve travel. Only eight teams have road records of .500 or better. That’s pretty pathetic.
At the end of the day, I think true talent will win out despite age, long flights, late nights and little rest between games. As mentioned above, the condensed schedule isn’t really much tighter than a normal schedule. Look at the league’s top two teams. The Bulls are the 19th oldest team in the league, they are 12-3 overall (7-3 on the road) Derrick Rose is injured and they are 6-2 on zero days rest. Conversely we have one of the league’s youngest teams in the Thunder who are also riding high at 12-3 overall (6-2 on the road) and 5-1 on zero days rest. Both teams follow the trend that at this point in the season, age isn’t much of a factor and that back-to-back games haven’t proved detrimental just yet. With more than two thirds of the season left to play, we have plenty of time to dissect and diagnose the failures of struggling teams.
Looking for a sports reporter? I think I know of one…
Before the Celtics’ first victory of the season on Friday night, there was plenty of panic running up and down Causeway Street as Boston began the season with an 0-3 slump. Meanwhile a familiar foe was going through a similar situation out west as the Lakers lost their first two games of the season causing folks to practically crown the Clippers as the new kings of Los Angeles hoops.
Both Celtics and Lakers were missing a star player, not to mention a number of other factors contributing to their slow starts, so working with a sample size of less than five games, is it really fair to freak out just yet?
Yes and no.
No, because when you are missing a team captain in one case, and a starting center in another, the expectations should be lowered substantially. Yes, Celtics head coach Doc Rivers said there would be no excuses for his team to start slow; losing Jeff Green to heart surgery right before the season, team captain Paul Pierce out with a bruised right heel… neither was an acceptable excuse for failure according to Rivers. Obviously, a coach can’t tell his or her team, “hey listen, we’re missing some key parts, so if we suck, well, no big deal. Nobody expects us to win anyway,” but losing to the Knicks, Heat and Hornets all within four days on the road shouldn’t really come as a shock.
The Knicks looked good in the opener, the Heat were forced to fend off a furious Celtics comeback and the Hornets have some great young talent thanks to the Chris Paul trade so I don’t think there is much shame in this particular 0-3 start.
Here’s where Celtics fans have the right to worry. Jermaine O’Neal is your starting center. Yikes. The big man finally got his act together dropping 19 points on the winless Pistons in Boston’s 96-85 victory over Detroit on Friday, but one good game doesn’t give me much confidence. In his 15th NBA season, O’Neal (who missed much of last season with injuries) only scored eight points, 9 rebounds and 3 blocks in the Celtics’ first three games combined. The guy is 6’11, c’mon! O’Neal’s backups are Chris Wilcox (who has missed two games with a bruised shoulder) and rookie Greg Stiemsma.
The good news is that Stiemsma, last year’s D-League Defensive Player Of The Year has a lot of potential. The 26-year-old was a standout in an otherwise awful game against the Hornets, with 6 blocks in about 20 minutes in his NBA debut. I heard good ol’ Tommy Heinsohn compliment Stiemsma a few times during the Celtics broadcast of the Pistons game during the rookie’s 16 minutes which comprised of 2 points, 3 rebounds, 2 assists, one block, one steal and four fouls. While the stats seem small, Stiemsma’s presence was felt in a big way, which will only improve with time.
More good news/bad news …. Pierce, Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett might be on the verge of dinosaur age by NBA standards, they all still have “it.” They are still fierce competitors with the physical abilities to win on a nightly basis. The shortened season is a double-edged sword for an older team as they benefit from playing fewer games overall, yet suffer a disadvantage of little rest between games. As a true master of this team, Rivers knows these cats well enough to pick the right games to rest each guy when they need it.
Then there’s Rajon Rondo getting ready to hit his prime, not to mention that trade rumor chip on his shoulder that will keep him intent on his proving his worth to Danny Ainge and anyone else who dares to doubt him.
Guards Marquis Daniels and Keyon Dooling will be nice role players for Boston as will forwards Brandon Bass and Sasha Pavlovic. But as with most things in life, it all comes back to the middle, or the center. Will the trio of O’Neal, Wilcox and Stiemsma be strong enough to fend off the likes of Dwight Howard, Amare Stoudemire and Tyson Chandler, Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer, Al Horford, and the entire Miami Heat throughout the whole, albeit shortened regular season? Can the Celtics rotation of Bigs truly compete with the size, strength, skill and experience of the top teams in the East at the 5 position? Time will tell, but I won’t get my hopes up.
Then there’s the defense. Losing a defensive mind Tom Thibodeau is a big deal and it showed last season. The defense is what made this team dangerous over the last few years. It is one thing to ask older players to produce offensively but it’s another to expect them to play as tenaciously on the other end of the floor. I think the younger players should do whatever they can defensively to compensate for what the Big 3 might lack at that end.
If the Celtics can find a way to stay rested and maximize the play of their big men, I think they’ll get back on track and be a legitimate factor in the East.
As for the Celtics loathed rival, I would start with expressing concern over Kobe Bryant’s health, but after doing so over the last few years of bad knees, jacked up pinkies and whatever else, I have finally learned to accept the fact that injuries rarely hamper Bryant. He says his surgically repaired right knee is “as close to 100% as it’s going to get” after an offseason procedure in Germany, and despite a torn ligament in his right wrist, Bryant is shooting a career-best 48.1% from the field. True, the Lakers have only played four games this season, but it’s impressive nonetheless.
Barring catastrophic injury, I expect Bryant to kick it up a notch on the heels of what many perceived was a “down year” for him on the court. Kobe has been less concerned with offense though as he says defense will be the bread and butter for this Lakers team. Even in L.A.’s losses to the Bulls and Kings, the team played stifling defense in stretches, but not consistently. That changed in the Lakers last two games against the Jazz and Knicks as the team really picked up its pick and roll defense and held both teams to under 33% shooting. If the Lakers can play the defense that Mike Brown and his staff have implemented on a consistent basis, their offense will come easily via the fastbreak, turnovers, and defensive rebounds.
Defensive rebounding shouldn’t be an issue for the Lakers with Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol hanging out under the hoop. If Bynum can keep his head screwed on straight, the Lakers won’t need Dwight Howard this season. Every year, Bynum is proclaimed as the “key” to the season by coaches, teammates and the media. While he has showed flashes of brilliance, a combination of injuries and mental/emotional weakness has derailed what should be an all-star career going into his sixth NBA season.
I ran into Bynum at one of L.A.’s toughest workout spots over the summer and he looked fantastic, perhaps in the best physical shape of his NBA career. If he can stay disciplined and even-tempered, playing alongside Gasol will give the Lakers a lot to work with. As for Pau, remember how he got hammered after the Lakers lost to the Celtics in the finals back in 2008? “He’s soft,” “he sucks,” etc.? How did Gasol rebound from that criticism? He kicked ass and led the Lakers to back-to-back NBA titles. Gasol is now facing the same situation, and thus far, has responded accordingly. He has to prove himself once again and Gasol is already playing with a fire he lacked last season.
Now to Lamar Odom. Without bringing in an all-star player, Odom can only be replaced by committee which is what the Lakers are looking to do. Josh McRoberts and Devin Ebanks have both played surprisingly well thus far at the 3 and 4 and will do so with less pressure once Bynum returns from a four-game suspension today against the Nuggets. New addition Jason Kapono has made the most of his little playing time behind Kobe, and Steve Blake is not only facilitating but actually hitting his shots this season! Who knew?
The X-factor here is none other than Metta World Peace. Fitting, right? The artist formally known as Ron looked HORRENDOUS in the Lakers preseason games and regular season opener, in fact, I half-joked that he might get cut before the season started. He was slow, couldn’t run, certainly couldn’t jump and was unable to make a basket if you stood on the baseline waving cash in front of his face.
But with a new name (‘Metta,’ a Buddhist term meaning loving kindness) and a new outlook on life also comes a new job on the court. World Peace is filling Odom’s old shoes as the anchor of the Lakers second unit and is actually scoring points in doing so, 12.4ppg to be exact. While the 2004 Defensive Player Of The Year is known for what he does without the ball, the Lakers need him to produce offensively as well. Like Odom in years past, I think putting World Peace in the “bench leader” niche will give him just enough responsibility to feel accountable and important without the pressure and lofty expectations that come with being a starter.
With so many new and inexperienced players on the roster, not to mention a new head coach as well as overhauled systems both offensively and defensively, there will definitely be a learning curve for this Lakers team. Having said that, this specific group of guys (a few stars and several role players) reminds me of the kind of roster the Lakers had back in the Phil Jackson 3-peat days. The real concerns for the Lakers are heath (as it is with every team), consistency and just how big the learning curve might be in this truncated season.
Thanks to the groups of lawyers representing the NBA and its players, we were given the gift of the professional basketball this Christmas. Opening day of the shortened 2011-2012 NBA season was no throw-away as each of the five games had something to positive offer as well as something to hate on. In the spirit of Christmas, we present the naughty and nice of NBA’s opening day!
The Justin Beiber/NBA Holiday Promos: Was the idea that the Beibs has the power to draw in the under 18 female viewers? Surely, the NBA’s target audience was cringing while being force-fed spoonfuls of the talented teeny-bopper throughout the day.
Rajon Rondo, But In A Good way: The Celtics guard stole the show for me (despite Carmelo Anthony’s performance) as many wondered if preseason trade rumors would distract Rondo and make his already questionable attitude worse. If anything, Rondo did what the best competitors do as he excelled among controversy (real or perceived), picking apart the Knicks defense and dropping 31 points and 13 assists while logging five steals in Madison Square Garden. While the Knicks escaped with a 106-104 win, Rondo’s performance was encouraging for a team playing without the injured Paul Pierce and boasting Jermaine O’Neal as the starting center.
Lamar Odom: Adding insult to the injury of his new team being humiliated by the Heat, Lamar Odom got himself tossed out of his first game playing for the Dallas Mavericks. Coincidently, the ejection was the second in as many games for Khloe’s husband dating back to last season when Odom was ejected in what would be the Lakers final playoff game after being swept by the Mavs in Dallas. This time around, Lamar got tossed because he barked at the referee about a foul call in the third quarter, or as my Mom explained to my Dad, “he sassed the ref.” Looks like L.O.’s track record in American Airlines Center could use a turn-around real soon.
Dallas Mavericks: The reigning NBA Champion Mavericks were god awful in their season debut leaving a sellout crowd disappointed in Dallas as last season’s finals foe, the Miami Heat trounced the home team 105-94. The game was nowhere near as close as the final score with the Heat leading by 35 points midway through the third quarter. We’ll address the Heat in the “nice” section, but the Mavs, while still reigning champs, lost several vital pieces of the title-winning team, such as J.J. Barea and Tyson Chandler. The addition of Sixth Man Of The Year Lamar Odom is fantastic, but with Vince Carter and Delonte West also new to the roster, Rick Carlisle, Dirk Nowitzki and the gang have a lot of bonding to do in order to find the right team chemistry.
Dwight Howard: The Orlando Magic big man had a less than Super performance on Sunday as the Oklahoma City Thunder held Dwight Howard to only 11 points. Thunder bigs Kendrick Perkins and Nazr Mohammed did most of the damage on Howard helping OKC to a 97-89 win. Sure, it was an ugly team effort for the Magic as only three players scored in double figures, but as the leader of your team, trade talks or not, Howard needs to shoot better than 4-12 from the field (he’s 7 feet tall, c’mon now) in 38 minutes. Howard grabbed 15 rebounds, so I’ll give him credit for that, but if nobody on the team can convert rebounds into points, why bother? Meanwhile Kevin Durant balled out, dropping 30 on Orlando in a solid overall team win by the Thunder at home. By the way, if you folks haven’t checked out Kendrick Perkins on Twitter (he recently joined), you are missing out big time. He is one of my favorite athletes I’ve covered as he is sweet, sincere and brutally honest. Follow him on twitter for some good laughs and Perky knowledge bombs at @KendrickPerkins
Drunk Santa Harassing LeBron James: A lovely man dressed as Santa Claus heckled LeBron James with an alcoholic beverage in hand as the Heatles star shot free throws during Miami’s shellacking of the Mavs. Santa, clearly a Dallas homer, shouted to James, “What do you want from Santa? A ring?” I would give this guy props if he had anything original to say to James, but not only was he boring, but his team was getting hammered which makes heckling a bit pointless.
Carmelo Anthony: On a day where the New York Knicks led by 17 points and trailed by 10 in the same game, Carmelo Anthony provided the only real consistency for the home team in MSG. Anthony scored 20 of his 37 points in the second half and sunk two free throws which proved to be the game-winning points for the Knicks. After trying to pull a Sprewell on former teammate Billy Walker after the game, Celtics big man Kevin Garnett told reporters, “They seem to have a little swag and confidence behind them. It’s good for the city. It’s good for the Knicks. I’m going to see how consistent they are with that, but for the most part Carmelo played really well.” When KG shows you love after you beat him, that is saying something.
Los Angeles Clippers Swagger: There was no shortage of confidence among the Clippers starting lineup; Caron Butler, Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan, Chauncey Billups and Chris Paul took the court at ORACLE Arena in Oakland beaming with pride and a sense of belonging as they faced the Golden State Warriors. While the Clippers performance was far from perfect and the 105-86 win over the Warriors was closer than the score indicates, the Clipps season opener was encouraging as the guys demonstrated noticeable differences from Clippers past. As an L.A. native and long time Clippers fan, I have never seen a Clippers team with this kind of swagger. There was a time when a young run & gun collection of guys like Darius Miles, Quentin Richardson and Lamar Odom got cocky after doubling their win total one year after a 15-win season. Once Blake Griffin took off last season, the Clippers showed more and more confidence with each game they played, but this season, that positive attitude is on a different level. Now watching the Clipp Joint play with legitimate energy and boldness from the opening tip (backed up by their play in the preseason and down the stretch vs. Golden State) until the final buzzer sounds is really refreshing.
Miami Heat: Yes, it was only the first game of the season but it was important for the Heat to get off to a good start this year, especially given the time and place of their 2011-2012 debut. Heat head coach Eric Spoelstra kept his team sequestered as the Mavericks unveiled their championship banner and celebrated last season’s finals win over Miami on the court before the game. It was a small gesture that sent a strong message that their finals failure was in the past and it was time for the uber-talented Heat to start anew. That they did as Miami scored at least 30 points in each of the first three quarters, and at one point, held a 35-point lead en route to smoking the Mavs 105-94. LeBron James and Dwayne Wade scored 37 and 26 points respectively as the Heat finally got the better of the Mavs; at least for one game.
NAUGHTY & NICE
The final minutes of the Bulls/Lakers game played out like a poetic Wagner opera, full of surprise, joy and heartache. My eyes began to water and butterflies took over my stomach after Chicago’s defense forced a turnover resulting in a gorgeous Derrick Rose floater good for a one point Bulls lead with 4.8 seconds to play. The beauty of DRose’s shot coupled with the anticipation of watching perhaps another Kobe Bryant game winning shot was a bit overwhelming for me on Day 1 of the NBA season.
While the home team Lakers started strong despite a torn ligament in Kobe’s shooting wrist as well as being without center Andrew Bynum (who is serving a four game suspension), L.A. let it all slip away in the final minutes of the fourth quarter. The Bulls fell flat for a good chunk of the game, seemingly unable to hit air with the basketball or play anything resembling defense. But that all changed when Chicago woke up as Rose went down with 3:34 left to play after the league MVP took a shot to the head, care of teammate Luol Deng’s elbow, as he landed a pretty up & under for two points. Rose hit the deck shortly after, and clutching his head, the Bulls took a timeout to make sure he was okay and had not received a concussion. Rose stayed in the game and from that moment on, Chicago’s offense and defense were synchronized enough to dig them out of an 11-point hole and lead them to a one-point, 88-87 win over LA.
For the Lakers, they have to be pleased with the play of Kobe as well as Pau Gasol, despite the drama surrounding a failed trade that would’ve sent the Spaniard to Houston for Chris Paul. Role players (aka guys you probably didn’t know existed) like Josh McRoberts, Devin Ebanks and Steve Blake were impressive in running Mike Brown’s new offense as well as variations of Phil Jackson’s old triangle. The Lakers defense was also spectacular until the final minutes. It is not encouraging for LA that they had the Bulls down in the dumps and couldn’t keep them there, at home, on opening day, with the Staples Center going crazy.
As for the Bulls, they struggled to shoot and rebound for much of the game, despite having scoring ability and being one of the league’s top rebounding teams last season. The defense was non-existent which was shocking as the Bulls had the top defense in the league last season. Despite a long rough patch in this one, the team managed to turn water into wine, pulling the win out of nowhere. As usual, DRose did his part but Deng was also sensational, playing stellar defense down the stretch and scoring 21 points, second only to Rose’s 22 for the Bulls. I think this young Bulls team started slow and just needed a while to realize the lockout truly is over, for real, and no, they weren’t playing in a charity game or Vegas league contest. The Bulls are incredibly talented and fun to watch, thus I wouldn’t anticipate too many more slow starts like the one we witnessed against the Lakers on Christmas.
The Boston Celtics announced Saturday that the contract of Jeff Green will be voided as a result of the forward being diagnosed with an aortic aneurysm. The 25-year-old will undergo season-ending heart surgery to repair the problem.
This incident is important on both micro and macro scales.
After reporting to training camp on Dec. 9, the condition was discovered when Green failed a stress test during his physical. Several cardiac specialists recommended the surgery that should allow Green to resume his basketball career next season.
According to the Mayo Clinic website, an aortic aneurysm (which can cause fatal bleeding) is described as, “a weakened and bulging area in the upper part of the aorta, the major blood vessel that feeds blood to the body. Because the aorta is the body’s main supplier of blood, a ruptured thoracic aortic aneurysm can cause life-threatening bleeding.”
Green is not the first professional athlete this year who has discovered a life-threatening condition via a team physical.
In October, the Eagles medical staff discovered a brain tumor when running back Jerome Harrison underwent a required physical after being traded by the Detroit Lions to Philadelphia. The Washington Post reported that Harrison told the Eagles doctor he suffered from headaches, prompting the doctor to order an MRI which revealed the tumor. ESPN reported that Harrison’s surgery was successful as doctors removed the entire tumor.
Had Harrison not been traded, or Green not signed a new contract, both of their lives would still be in medical jeopardy, at best.
News of Green’s heart condition elicited sad memories for Celtics fans as the death of Reggie Lewis in 1993 still haunts Boston. The late Celtic died during an off-season practice after having previously shown symptoms of a heart condition (including collapsing during a playoff game) in the months leading up to his death.
Lewis died of hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, commonly referred to as an an enlarged heart, the same condition that took the life of Fred Thompson, an Oregon State freshman football player who died on Dec. 7.
Like Green’s condition, an enlarged heart can easily go undetected due to lack of physical symptoms. According to an Associated Press story about the death of Thompson, “Dr. Karen Gunson said Friday that the 19-year-old had increased thickness of the heart muscle, which can cause an irregular heartbeat during strenuous exercise. She says the condition is a common cause of death in young athletes who seem completely healthy but die during heavy exercise.”
Despite the fact that few people exhibit symptoms of an enlarged heart, some do, and others could if they underwent physical testing, such as the stress test that helped reveal Green’s condition. According to the Mayo Clinic website, “in a small number of people with this condition, the thickened heart muscle can cause signs and symptoms, such as shortness of breath and problems in the heart’s electrical system resulting in life-threatening abnormal heart rhythms (arrhythmias).”
If an athlete exhibits any symptoms, a simple, painless test called an Echocardiogram (ECG) could be administered to diagnose an enlarged heart and other heart conditions. In fact, several countries and the International Olympic Committee now require athletes to undergo screening including an ECG before partaking in sports, according to a story written by CNN’s Elizabeth Landau in March of this year after four high school student athletes died of heart conditions during athletic competition within a two week period.
“There are about 50 to 100 sudden deaths among athletes in middle, high school and college every year, said Dr. Marlon Rosenbaum, associate clinical professor of medicine and pediatrics at Columbia University College of Physicians & Surgeons,” wrote Landau.
The same article ( http://tinyurl.com/6nfepto ) cites two differing studies; one of which found mandatory ECG testing did not affect the number of sudden athlete deaths in Israel and another study which previously found a reduction in sudden deaths among athletes after the implementation of mandatory testing in Italy.
While the impact of screening is debatable, that is exactly the point; there should be a debate. I have long maintained that professional athletes (and even college athletes for that matter) should undergo both physical and mental evaluations three times per year. Once during the preseason, again during the season and once more at season’s end.
Why should some football and hockey players suffer head injuries in a game and not be given a concussion test immediately?
Why should an athlete wait to get traded to undergo a simple test that would subsequently reveal a brain tumor?
Why should three NHL enforcers fight mental demons which stemmed from the game and resulted in their deaths?
While Derek Boogaard addressed mental health and addiction issues by going to rehab, he was embarrassed and worried about how his reputation might be impacted ( http://nyti.ms/vvLrZM ). Surely mandatory physical and mental evaluations would simultaneously help to reduce the stigma of weakness associated with health issues and perhaps, reveal life threatening conditions before its too late.
Click here to read Elizabeth Landau’s article on how teen athlete deaths can be prevented: http://tinyurl.com/6nfepto
Click here to read “Punched Out: The Life and Death of a Hockey Enforcer,” a fascinating 3-part series about Derek Boogaard by John Branch of the New York Times: http://nyti.ms/vvLrZM
Between Adrian Wojnarowski, Marc J. Spears and their fellow hoops writers, Yahoo Sports’ coverage of the NBA is absolutely top notch.
The aforementioned Wojnarowski hasn’t slept since the lockout began, and apparently the tentative deal between the owners and players hasn’t cured his insomnia as he posted the following scoop in the wee hours of Wednesday morning:
“As Boston Celtics general manager Danny Ainge aggressively pursues possible deals for Rajon Rondo, the Indiana Pacers have emerged as an intriguing suitor for the point guard, league sources told Yahoo! Sports.
For the past few days, Pacers officials – and third-party surrogates – have been making calls and gathering information and insight into Rondo’s reputation as a teammate and leader, sources said.
The Pacers and Celtics have discussed the preliminary framework of a deal, but two sources said Indiana would need a third team to provide Boston with the talent it wants to do a deal. The Celtics are likely trying to gather the necessary pieces to make a bid for Ainge’s ultimate target: New Orleans point guard Chris Paul, sources said.”
Could Danny Ainge do it again? Could he swing yet another blockbuster trade? Which players are off limits? Could we possibly see a new Big 3 in Boston?
Time will tell, because due to the recent end of the lockout, the trade deadline for this shortened season of 66 games has yet to be established. I think it would be pretty tough to execute three-team trade of this magnitude before opening day on Christmas, but surely the league will provide ample time for trades given the lockout.
As far as the Hornets finding any of this discussion attractive, it looks like swapping for players on the Celtics roster doesn’t top their priority list.
“New Orleans has shown no interest in a deal that would include Rondo and any combination of Celtics teammates,” wrote Wojnarowski. “Yet, New Orleans GM Dell Demps is determined to get maximum value for Paul, if it’s clear the point guard sees his future elsewhere. Demps has no desire to simply let Paul walk away as a free agent to New York.”
According to Wojnarowski’s article, the Celtics have been assessing Rondo’s trade value for more than a year despite the lack of consensus among the coaching staff, locker room and front office in regards to moving the two-time all star. Wojnarowski raises the issue of Rondo’s sometimes-sour attitude as being a factor in whether or not he would be a good fit for the Pacers and Frank Vogel, their young coach.
Having covered the Celtics, I sometimes wonder why Doc Rivers doesn’t win the coach of the year award every single season. The Celtics players are a good bunch; nice, smart, decent sense of humor, charitable, driven, hardworking and extremely talented.
At the same time, the group is volatile with its mix of veteran all stars, youth and ego. Rivers is the voice of reason and has proved to be a mastermind personality manager. Regardless of his disposition, Rondo’s teammates respect his talent immensely and I find it hard to imagine him anywhere else right now.
Should Rondo be forced to take his talents elsewhere, yes, he will still be a great player. A different logo on his jersey won’t change that, but I can’t help wanting to watch this star-powered yet aging Celtics nucleus go for the title one last time.
To read Adrian Wojnarowski’s article on the Pacers interest in Rajon Rondo, click here: http://sports.yahoo.com/nba/news?slug=aw-wojnarowski_boston_celtics_rajon_rondo_112911
The truth hurts sometimes, doesn’t it? In excerpts from Shaquille O’Neal’s autobiography, “Shaq Uncut: My Story,” the Big Diesel plays a game of kiss and tell with his friends and foes from the hoops world through the years.
Deadspin released juicy excerpts about Shaq’s rocky relationship with Kobe Bryant and Pat Riley a few days ago ( http://deadspin.com/5854904/in-new-book-shaq-explains-how-kobes-sexual-assault-charges-destroyed-the-lakers ), and now hoopsworld.com has released the next batch of gossipy goodness from the book which hits stores November 15.
Shaq and writer Jackie MacMullan take you inside the Cleveland Cavaliers film room where things got a bit testy between central characters LeBron James, Delonte West and head coach Mike Brown. Shaq takes aim at James’ inability to bring his ‘A game’ when it matters, the fact that Coach Brown’s rules did not apply to James and that Brown, the new Lakers head coach, might have similar problems with Kobe Bryant.
Read and enjoy, care of hoopsworld.com and the Chicago Tribune:
“Our coach, Mike Brown, was a nice guy, but he had to live on edge because nobody was supposed to be confrontational with LeBron. Nobody wanted him to leave Cleveland, so he was allowed to do whatever he wanted to do.
“I remember one day in a film session LeBron didn’t get back on defense after a missed shot. Mike Brown didn’t say anything about it. He went to the next clip and it was Mo Williams not getting back and Mike was saying, ‘Yo, Mo, we can’t have that. You’ve got to hustle a little more.’ So Delonte West is sitting there and he’s seen enough and he stands up and says, ‘Hold up, now. You can’t be pussyfooting around like that. Everyone has to be accountable for what they do, not just some us.’ Mike Brown said, ‘I know, Delonte. I know.’ Mike knew Delonte was right.
“I’m not sure if Kobe (Bryant) is going to listen to (new Lakers coach) Mike Brown. LeBron never really did.”
O’Neal also addresses James’ failure in the 2011 NBA Finals, comparing it to his infamous disappearing act in the 2010 playoffs against the Boston Celtics:
“There’s no question in Game 5 LeBron was kind of out of it… . I always believed he could turn it on at any moment, but for some reason he didn’t. Not against the Celtics in 2010 and not against the Mavericks in 2011. It was weird. It’s one thing to be a passer, but you are supposed to be the One.
“I’m watching him play against Dallas, and they’re swinging the ball and they get him a perfect open look — and he’s kicking it to Mario Chalmers. Makes no sense. I told people, ‘It’s like Michael Jordan told me. Before you succeed, you must first fail.’ ”
For many years, I felt that LeBron James was crowned The Golden Child, receiving a free pass from the media enabling him to say and do things that other players couldn’t get away with. When James stormed off the court, refusing to shake hands with the Orlando Magic after the Cavs were defeated in the 2009 playoffs, that was the first time I saw any media members publicly criticize James.
Obviously, the flood gates opened with “The Decision” and people finally got to see that not-so-golden side of James. One would think that at his age, after all that Shaq had dealt with through the years, LeBron would be the least of his concerns at that point in his career. Clearly Shaq was still competitive, wanted to win and didn’t appreciate James getting special treatment.
Especially with Jackie MacMullan behind it, this book is a must-read. I’ll put it on the shelf next to my autographed copy of “Shaq Talks Back,” which I waited in line for a few hours to get signed by the big man when I was a teenager. Those were the good old days!