NBA Today: April 15

  • Tracy McGrady, 30, says he will retire if he cannot return to his prime form.
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Finalized Playoff Matchups

After the regular season’s final slate of games, here are the finalized first-round playoff matchups:

Eastern Conference

No. 1 Cleveland Cavaliers vs. No. 8 Chicago Bulls (3 PM Saturday, ABC)

No. 2 Orlando Magic vs. No. 7 Charlotte Bobcats (5:30 PM Sunday, TNT)

No. 3 Atlanta Hawks vs. No. 6 Milwaukee Bucks (5:30 PM Saturday, ESPN)

No. 4 Boston Celtics vs. No. 5 Miami Heat (8 PM Saturday, ESPN)

Western Conference

No. 1 Los Angeles Lakers vs. No. 8 Oklahoma City Thunder (3 PM Sunday, ABC)

No. 2 Dallas Mavericks vs. No. 7 San Antonio Spurs (8 PM Sunday, TNT)

No. 3 Phoenix Suns vs. No. 6 Portland Trailblazers (10:30 PM Sunday, TNT)

No. 4 Denver Nuggets vs. No. 5 Utah Jazz (10:30 PM Saturday, ESPN)

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Playoff Preview: Part 1

As the playoffs begin this Saturday, April 17, I’ll be doing two series previews a day to have them all covered by the time the games start. To begin, I’ll look at the 1-vs.-8 West matchup and 2-vs.-7 East matchup today, as those are the only ones completely solidified in both conferences. Without further ado …

Eastern Conference: No. 2 Orlando Magic vs. No. 7 Charlotte Bobcats

The Bobcats do have a chance to tie with the Bucks for overall record tonight, but Milwaukee holds the tiebreaker, so Charlotte will be relegated to the seventh slot.

The Magic are playing fantastic ball, and they hold the league’s best post-break record at 22-5. They also hold the series advantage for the season over the Bobcats 3-1. Dwight Howard’s averages are slightly down against Charlotte at 16.5 points and 10.3 rebounds, but Larry Brown coaches one of the few centers who can hope to contain Superman in Tyson Chandler.

The Bobcats have been playing good ball this season, too, and they are an astounding 31-9 in their home floor. Their success can be attributed in large part to Gerald Wallace, who has been an integral contributor on the offensive and defensive end. Moreover, Stephen Jackson is providing the veteran leadership this team needs and is scoring to boot: At 20.7 points per game, he is 15th overall in the league.

After it’s all said and done, though, I have to imagine Orlando pulls this one out. They’ll play four games on their home court, where they best even the Bobcats at 33-7. Moreover, their stacked starting lineup and depth of rotation should be too much for Charlotte, which lacks enough bodies up front to contend with Howard, Rashard Lewis, Marcin Gortat, Brandon Bass, and Ryan Anderson.

Charlotte takes two of three at home, but Orlando wins the series 4-2 in six games.

Western Conference: No. 1 Los Angeles Lakers vs. No. 8 Oklahoma City Thunder

The Thunder surprised everyone by making the playoffs for the first time since the franchise relocated from Seattle. The postseason appearance would not have been possible without the emergence of Kevin Durant as an NBA star, Russell Westbrook’s marked improvement, and the quality leadership of coach Scott Brooks. That said, they have one hell of an opponent in the first round.

The Lakers, widely considered the favorites for the title at the beginning of the season, have struggled in the second half. Owing to injuries to center Andrew Bynum and forward Luke Walton, the rotation has been stripped thin, and they haven’t played up to standard. The defending champions are a mediocre (at least by their expectations) 15-11 since all-star weekend, and it has many starting to worry, especially after Oklahoma City put a hurting on the Lakers 91-76 March 26.

Nevertheless, The Thunder will have to play nearly flawless ball to oust Kobe and Co. from the postseason. Los Angeles will have home-court advantage in the first round, and they have been appreciably more dominant at the Staples Center. If Andrew Bynum is back for the entire series, it will be over in 5. Oklahoma City lacks the front-court talent to best Bynum and Pau Gasol, so they should have a field day in the paint.

That said, Bryant should have a tough time scoring on the Thunder as a result of his injuries and the matchups he’ll have. There will be almost no time during the series he won’t draw an assignment from Thabo Sefolosha or Durant, both of whom have the length and athleticism to bother No. 24. Furthermore, Westbrook’s ability to best Derek Fisher is well-documented, so that’s another circumstance in the underdog’s favor. If Bynum misses part or all of the series, it may very well go to seven games. Regardless, the Lakers move on.

Oklahoma City takes two of three at home, but Los Angeles wins the series 4-2 in six games.

Look back tomorrow for two more playoff previews.

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Game of the Day: April 14

Phoenix Suns at Utah Jazz — 10:30 PM eastern, telecast on ESPN

Well, it’s my final Game of the Day preview for the 2009 – 2010 season. But the action is far from concluded with over two months of postseason war to wage.

And with one day to play in the regular season, things still aren’t completely settled. In fact, these two teams are tied at 53-28.

The Suns come in to Utah for their second game in as many days after a 123-101 whipping of the Denver Nuggets Tuesday, and that win assured Phoenix home-court advantage for the first round of the playoffs.

The Jazz, too, arrive off a win Tuesday. Theirs came over the Golden State Warriors 103-94. They, too, will have first-round home-court advantage regardless of the result of their tilt with the Suns Wednesday.

In terms of seeding, this game is pretty interesting, though. Whoever loses moves into a fourth-place tie with the Nuggets. If Dallas wins, the winner will get third seed no matter what. If Dallas loses and Utah wins, Utah will claim the second seed in the conference, as it holds the tiebreaker over Dallas. If Dallas loses and Phoenix wins, Dallas will keep the second seed, and Phoenix will get the three seed.

If Utah loses, it will get the fifth seed, as Denver holds the tiebreaker (having won three of its four games against Utah). If Phoenix loses, it will get the fourth seed, as Phoenix holds the tiebreaker over Denver with a 3-1 series advantage on the season.

Either way, the team that loses this game will play Denver in the first round of the postseason. The opponent of the winner of this game depends on Portland and San Antonio’s (both 50-31) final contests. If only one of those teams wins Wednesday, that team will get the sixth seed. If both teams win or lose, Portland will get the sixth seed and San Antonio the seventh seed, as the Blazers hold the series advantage and tiebreaker.

Confusing enough for you?

Anyway, this game should be exciting, as it features the Nash-Amare vs. Williams-Boozer clash everyone loves. I give the nod to Phoenix, however, as it’s scorching hot recently and has a better supporting cast. Stay tuned for the defined playoff matchups tomorrow.

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2010 Awards

As the regular season winds down, I thought I’d give my take on each of the awards. While my selections won’t seem groundbreaking (in fact, I agree with the experts in most cases), I’d be remiss if I didn’t record a few words about our season’s finest individual performances.

LeBron James edges Dwight Howard for his second consecutive MVP award.

MVP — LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers

It really couldn’t go to anyone else. James obliterated the competition in most statistical manners, just narrowly missing out on the scoring title behind Kevin Durant. What’s more? He has led his Cavaliers to the best record in the league once again, and he has a great shot to come away with an NBA title under his belt in June.

Stan Van Gundy accentuated one quibble people have in his endorsement for Dwight Howard: MVP voters don’t take into account defensive value even remotely as close to as much as they do offensive value. While LeBron is certainly no slouch on the defensive end, Van Gundy has point in suggesting that Howard doesn’t get all the credit he deserves for his stellar combination of offensive and defensive prowess.

Runners Up: Dwight Howard, Kevin Durant

Rookie of the Year — Tyreke Evans, Sacramento Kings

While Brandon Jennings made this race interesting at the beginning of the season, and Stephen Curry late, this award, too, had no significant competition in the eyes of fans. Evans led rookies in scoring, and proved he could be a serviceable point guard amid doubts about his leadership. While he has a long way to go in terms of becoming the distributor his team needs, he played the best ball of all rookies this year, bottom line.

Runners Up: Stephen Curry, Darren Collison

Defensive Player of the Year — Dwight Howard, Orlando Magic

I mentioned the insufficient appreciation of Howard’s defensive game above. In truth, he is more dominant on the defensive end than LeBron is on the offensive side of the ball. He lead the league in blocks, first of all, but that stat alone does not even come close to encompassing his effect on opponents’ offenses. His length and athleticism allow him to disrupt big men’s shots with ease and grab nearly every rebound within a 20-foot radius. Moreover, his mere presence on the floor dissuades guards from taking the ball to the hoop who fear the almighty swat.

Runners Up: Gerald Wallace, Thabo Sefolosha

Most Improved Player — Aaron Brooks, Houston Rockets

The quick, crafty point guard went from opportunistic shooter to dynamic show runner quite adeptly this season. In the absence of Yao Ming, he added eight-and-a-half (Yes, you read that right.) points and over two assists to his per-game rates while shooting nearly 40 percent on the long ball. Hopefully he can continue the solid play next year when Yao returns from his foot injury.

Runners Up: Andrew Bogut, Russell Westbrook

Sixth Man — Jamal Crawford, Atlanta Hawks

Manu Ginobili made a strong push for this award with his strong March, but I hesitate to give him this award because he could be starting in San Antonio’s lineup anway. Crawford, on the other hand, takes advantage of his second-fiddle shooting-guard role behind Joe Johnson by providing an incredible spark off the bench for his team. He increased his per-40-minute scoring by nearly three points, his true-shooting percentage by over three, and his PER by over three in significantly fewer minutes than he played last season. In eclipsing 1400 points on the season, Crawford became the first player since Ricky Pierce in 1991 to reach that plateau off the bench.

Runners Up: Manu Ginobili, Carl Landry

Coach of the Year — Scott Brooks, Oklahoma City Thunder

Scott Brooks wins for a simple reason: He got a troupe of incredibly young and frighteningly talented players to believe in the prospect of a team. There’s no selfishness in that locker room. They all enjoy being part of a team, and it has resulted in the franchise’s first playoff appearance since moving from Seattle. No other coach has accomplished what Brooks has.

Runners Up: Larry Brown, Scott Skiles

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Game of the Day: April 13

Denver Nuggets at Phoenix Suns — 10:30 PM eastern, telecast on TNT

With only two days left in the regular season, the playoff race out west is only getting more exciting. Only one-and-a-half games separate second from fifth place, and these two teams are in the thick of it.

Both the Nuggets and Suns come in having won their last games, and they’ve both been hot of late. The Nuggets are 7-3 in their last ten, and the Suns one-up them at 8-2.

Denver features, of course, Carmelo at the 3-spot along with Chauncey Billups. Kenyon Martin will play in his third game back from injury, but it is yet unclear whether he will be in the starting lineup. If he is not, Johan Petro will, once again, fill in for him there.

The Suns bring in a deep team, led, of course, by Steve Nash and a resurgent Amar’e Stoudemire — who has been lighting up the league since the all-star break. Once again, center Robin Lopez will not play, and his status for the playoffs remains undetermined.

The Suns have taken two of the previous three against the Nuggets by a combined 28 points, despite Stoudemire’s being held to 20 point or fewer in both contests. The strong front-court defense of Martin and Nene was surely responsible for that.

Nevertheless, Denver needs to apply its toughness across the board to subdue Phoenix’s relentless offense and come away with the W. If Steve Nash is allowed to get in to a rhythm and take over, forget about it.

I think the Suns will win this one. They have the momentum of having won the two most recent matchups with the Nuggets, and Denver has seemed to play less inspired basketball with Adrian Dantley on the sidelines rather than George Karl.

If Phoenix does manage a win, that could make things very interesting as far as seedings go in the Western Conference, as the boys from Arizona would move one game ahead of the Nuggets, and all they’d have to do is win on Wednesday to keep hold of the advantage over Denver, as tomorrow will be the Nuggets’ final game.

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Jazz won’t play home games Sundays during playoffs

The Utah Jazz are one of the best teams in the league, and they can't even fill the arena on a Sunday during the playoffs?

According to Jazz president Greg Miller, the team will try its best not to schedule home games on Sundays during the playoffs. “Why?”  you might ask.

Well, apparently, they draw so few fans on Sundays that it’s not in the organization’s best business interest to operate. Keeping in mind that this is a long-established tradition for the only team in Utah from one of the four major sports leagues, I say the following to Miller and Co.:

“Tough luck.”

Why should you be given special considerations because you can’t draw on Sundays? You are one of the finest teams in the NBA. You stand fourth in the competitive Western Conference, and ESPN’s John Hollinger ranks you third overall in his Power Rankings. And you have two stars in Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer that should remind residents of Salt Lake City of some mildly notable point guard–power forward tandem of John Stockton and Karl Malone.

So the day isn’t the problem. There are enough incentives for fans to show up to a game at three in the morning. Instead, the problem lies with the marketing department.

Change it up or something. Feature new promotions, give discounts, do whatever you can. Just don’t expect the league to bail you out by scheduling your games on the days you prefer. How is that fair?

I remember watching the NBA Finals (the FINALS!) in 2002 and 2003, and the Nets’ home arena wasn’t even close to full. You didn’t see them complaining about it, did you? And they had the Lakers and Spurs, two huge draws, in those series.

This release pairs well with some other news out of the NBA’s office. David Stern said he probably wouldn’t want another team to establish in New Jersey after the Nets leave. He thinks that a team would not be able to thrive economically in what many refer to as basketball Siberia.

However, is the market in Salt Lake City a true issue? It’s not very populated, that’s for sure. But it’s good enough for the Pac-10 conference, which is considering adding Utah amid scrutinizing examination of its market to see if it will be economically suitable.

It all raises an interesting question about the NBA. Should the league allow teams to operate in cities where economic success isn’t feasible? In recent years, we’ve seen the Sonics move from Seattle to Oklahoma City and the Grizzlies move from Vancouver to Memphis.

If teams aren’t making money, should we let them stay where they are?

My initial thinking is no. When teams are strapped for cash, they cut payroll. When they cut payroll, their teams get worse. Meanwhile, teams like the Lakers and Knicks thrive. What does it all mean? A dissolution of parity in the NBA, which no one wants.

But then, are there enough big markets to host all the NBA’s teams? Probably not. Then again, the NBA could benefit from some reduction. Not that it will ever happen, given the pull of the Players’ Association.

In the end, it obviously doesn’t bother me that teams are losing money. But when you ask the league to make concessions and special arrangements for you because you can’t take full advantage of your situation, then I get upset.

Just focus on the game and trying to win. You have the tools, and maybe people will start showing up on the Day of Rest if you bring home some hardware.

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