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West is Best: Lack of Superstars Means Nothing

With all the superstars in the league defecting to the East, we seem to have forgotten that the Western Conference is still home to the leagues best teams. Everyone is busy debating which team will come out of the East, well look at the West! It’s arguably more competitive, and holds the best teams in the league.

Now, I know the Celtics, Heat and Bulls are good teams, and I guess you can throw the Magic in there too, but look at the West. The Spurs are quietly the best team in the league. So much so, that people can’t refer to the Spurs without saying they are quietly the best team in the league. The Mavericks are pretty good as well. If Dirk Nowitzki wasn’t injured early in the year, they might have a better record than the Spurs. Even with their poor play when Dirk was out, they still have more wins than any team in the East. The Spurs and Mavericks may be the two top teams in the West, but the Lakers are still favored to reach the NBA Finals. Continue Reading

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Lopsidedness of Round 2 is a product of poor matchups

What a miserable second round for David Stern and the NBA.

After a fairly competitive Round 1 of the 2010 NBA playoffs, Round 2 has been a bit of a rout.

In the postseason’s inaugural round, five of the eight series went to six games, including Milwaukee-Atlanta, which went to eight. The only games that went five or fewer were Boston-Miami, Cleveland-Chicago, and Orlando-Charlotte (four games), all of which fans and experts expected to be fairly mundane sets.

And there was a lot of excitement, too. The Thunder gave the Lakers a scare, instilling hopes of basketball viewers nationwide that a young, upstart team led by Kevin Durant might be able to knock off the defending champions in the round of 16. Even though Oklahoma City came up short in that regard, everyone sees the Ford Center as the toughest place to play a road game in professional basketball.

There was the thrill of the Bucks’ running the favored Hawks all the way to seven games, even though everyone had written them off in the shadow of Andrew Bogut’s gruesome season-ending arm injury. And the series displayed rookie Brandon Jennings to the world, who didn’t get much consideration for the first-year players’ top award despite being the only serious contender to lead his team to the postseason.

There was San Antonio, which knocked off Dallas in six games to no one’s surprise — in spite of being a No. 7 seed facing a No. 2. It was disappointment again for the Mavericks, who loaded up last offeseason and at the trade deadline to make a push for a title in what many expected would be their last serious shot.

And Phoenix knocked off a banged-up Portland team behind the inspired play of a rejuvenated Steve Nash to square off with their familiar foes in Round 2. Utah stopped Denver from reacquainting itself with last year’s playoff dismisser.

So far in the second round, the play has been entirely lopsided and devoid of drama. Orlando leads Atlanta 3-0, and each of the games has been a laugher. Los Angeles leads Utah 3-0, as the team’s height has intimidatingly towered over Utah’s forwards for a quick lead in the series. And Phoenix has run out to a 3-0 lead, too, and it seems the speed and shooting of this Suns squad will finally get the better of the slow-pace, fundamentally sound Spurs after years and years of postseason abuse in the other direction this decade.

The playoffs are supposed to get more exciting, not more boring, as the rounds progress. So this year, what gives?

It has been a problem of matchups.

The Suns-Spurs series is cursed this year with a staunch difference in the offensive paces of both teams. Phoenix tries to score as soon as possible, jacking up threes indiscriminately and perfecting the pick-and-roll with Nash and Amar’e Stoudemire. San Antonio prefers to lull its opponents into a malaise and then utilize flawless fundamentals to score with relative efficiency. And they play great defense, of course.

In the past, this collision of the unstoppable force and the immovable object has made for great, tense basketball. This year, however, as San Antonio is another year older, the Suns’ pace is finally getting the best of the Old Guard, and they’re running the Spurs out of the building. It also doesn’t hurt that the Suns have shown a completely unexpected commitment to defense this year, as well.

In the case of the Lakers-Jazz, the matchup problem is well-documented. Carlos Boozer and Paul Millsap simply cannot contend with the height of Andrew Bynum, Pau Gasol, and Lamar Odom. I’ve written about this before, so see that post for further details.

Lastly, the Orland0-Atlanta series has amounted to little more than a joke. The Magic’s margins of victory have been astronomically high, and the problem comes with the incompatibility of the offense, which I, too, have mentioned.

Hopefully, after this farce of a round is finished, we’ll see some more interesting play in the conference finals.

For now, though, I have to slog through a few more meaningless, monotone games to tide myself over.

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Mark Cuban hates the Spurs

So Mark Cuban announced he hates the Spurs. Seems fair. After all, the Spurs and his Mavericks both play in Texas, they both play in the Western Conference, and the Spurs have four championships in the last eleven years.

Dallas? It has zero.

So it’s definitely understandable that the most passionate owner in sports is, well, passionate about his Texas compadres.

But the timing of this announcement is slightly troubling.

As if you didn’t know, the Mavericks and Spurs are competing in this year’s playoffs — a 2-vs.7 matchup. The Mavericks are, indeed, the favorites to win.

Dallas took care of business in Game 1, coming away with a hard-fought 100-94 victory and a 1-0 series advantage. All was well.

Then Mr. Cuban had to run his mouth. He had to announce to the world (and to the Spurs, in particular) that he loathes them. And how does San Antonio respond? With a 102-88 beatdown that has Mavericks fans very worried.

And worried they should be. After all, San Antonio — after struggling for most of the year — put it into high gear for the last month or so, taking the conference by storm.

Don’t forget, too, that the Spurs are constant playoff threats; they haven’t missed the postseason in some 13 years, and they can always sneak up on an unsuspecting opponent.

Sneaking up on an unsuspecting opponent … Sounds a little like Dallas’s predicament in 2007, after the Western Conference regular-season champions were dispatched by a ragtag Warriors team in the first 1-vs.-8 upset since Washington crossed the Delaware (or s0).

With that in mind, was this a good play by Cuban?

Was it wise to ignite a fire in one of the calmest teams in the league — a team on which the best player takes calm to a new standard?

Of course not. He awards San Antonio with yet another intangible leg up in a series that many expect to be the most competitive first-round battle of them all.

Was it wise to get the competitive juices flowing in Richard Jefferson after a mediocre season?

Of course not. Jefferson’s looking for any way to gain redemption in the eyes of the Alamo faithful. And he’s made him nostalgic about failed postseason appearance after failed postseason appearance in New Jersey. Why turn RJ into the difference maker he was supposed to be but didn’t appear to be?

Was it wise to rile up the Spurs fan base with three games still to be played in San Antonio?

Of course not. After the Game 2 defeat, he has now squandered precious home-court advantage in the series, and the Dallas players will be like fresh meat for the Spurs’ crowd in Games 3 through 5.

Was it wise to pile added pressure on the players who are already incredibly stressed?

Of course not. Dirk Nowitzki couldn’t miss a shot in the first game, and he goes and backs up that effort with a 9-24 circus. The starters as a group shoot 32 percent in the pivotal Game 2. Sure, attribute that in part to adjustments on Popovich’s part. But don’t discount the fact that the Mavericks had 2007 in their heads.

The bottom line here is that Mark Cuban incorrectly saw this announcement of his hatred as a way to pump up his team. In reality, though, it was just the opposite. He has jeopardized his team’s chances of winning. In a year that many expect is a one-year window for the Mavericks to come home with an NBA title in June, it’s a colossal misstep.

It’s great that Cuban’s passionate, but he has to keep it in check at the right times.

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Observations from the Playoffs thus far

With the 2010 NBA playoffs underway, here are some of the things I’ve noticed this weekend in the first games:

  • Point guards have been threats in losing efforts so far.
    1. When the Thunder were in striking distance of the Lakers, it was all thanks to Russell Westbrook. He repeatedly make the Lakers’ otherwise-solid defense look silly, diving into the lane and finishing with ease at the rim. I’ve said it all season: L.A. can’t handle the quick point guards. If Westbrook can recreate that production for the rest of the series, and Kevin Durant gets back on track, Oklahoma City has a serious chance to make some noise.
    2. In the Cleveland-Chicago series, Derrick Rose was the only semblance of offensive production for the Bulls, and although he shot a low percentage, he played decent ball against a stingy Cavaliers defense.
    3. Jameer Nelson absolutely lit up the Bobcats in the first half of their contest.
  • The underdogs are finding a way to stick around.
    1. Chicago, despite trailing to Cleveland big, made the game somewhat interesting at times.
    2. Oklahoma City gave L.A. a run for its money even into the fourth quarter.
    3. The Heat were in striking distance after Kevin Garnett’s eruption on the sidelines.
    4. Charlotte, too, was able to stay in the picture by drawing well-timed fouls on Vince Carter and Dwight Howard.
  • There probably won’t be any upsets in the first round, although San Antonio has an outside chance.
  • The stars aren’t going to be the only factors. Carmelo Anthony’s the exception for now.
    1. Kevin Durant and Kobe Bryant shot for poor percentages in their first game.
    2. Dwight Howard, although a beast on defense, was shut down completely on the offensive end.
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Game of the Day: April 7

San Antonio Spurs at Phoenix Suns — 10:30 PM eastern, telecast on ESPN

There’s nothing quite like witnessing the struggle between an unstoppable force and an immovable object. And the Spurs-Suns matchup has come to represent this struggle over the past several years.

Phoenix boasts one of the most offensively gifted rosters in the NBA, led by point guard Steve Nash and power forward Amar’e Stoudemire. Its defense, though, leaves much to be desired.

Meanwhile, San Antonio is honored for its tenacious play on the other side of the ball. Tim Duncan is among the best players defensively every year, and the team effort is always there.

Defense is said to win championships, and if you review the Spurs and Suns’ playoff series over the past several years, they’ll tell you the same. Phoenix never manages to top San Antonio in a best-of-seven spate, even with its absurd offense.

On Wednesday, both of these teams come in playing scorching-hot ball. You read what I had to say about the Spurs yesterday, and the Suns are 9-1 in their last 10 contests. But the Spurs have beaten the Suns twice this year.

Notwithstanding that statistic, I’m giving this one to the Suns. The Spurs will be out point guards Tony Parker and George Hill, relieving Nash of a tough defensive assignment, against which he doesn’t usually fare well. The win will be contigent upon the ability to stop Manu Ginobili, who has been ridiculous over the past month or so. Regardless, it should be a great game.

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Game of the Day: March 22

San Antonio Spurs at Oklahoma City Thunder — 8 PM eastern

Wrap up your Monday with a taste of both the old and the new. The Spurs, complete with the aging trio of Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, and (still rather young) Tony Parker, face off against the Thunder, with the youngster trio of Kevin Durant, Jeff Green, and Russell Westbrook.

Still, both of these teams can ball. The Spurs rely on defense, a slow pace, and fundamentals, while the Thunder play more up-tempo basketball, banking on their athleticism and the soon-to-be best pure scorer in the game.

This will be the fourth and last matchup of the season between these teams. While Oklahoma City won the first, San Antonio came away with victories in the second and third (including a riveting OT win behind a beastly showing from rookie DeJuan Blair on January 13). Give the edge to the Thunder here. San Antonio hasn’t played that well on the road, and the lengthy NBA schedule favors the spry down the stretch. Expect a big game from Durant, too. But don’t you expect a big game from him every night he’s out on the hardwood?

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Game of the Day: March 21

San Antonio Spurs at Atlanta Hawks — 8 PM eastern, telecast on ESPN

I recommend for today an interconference matchup between the Spurs and Hawks. The Spurs have been playing well of late, winning eight of their last ten games, but face a very dangerous Hawks team featuring premiere scorer Joe Johnson, two promising bigs in Josh Smith and Al Horford, and sixth man of the year candidate Jamal Crawford. San Antonio counters with perennial all-star and future hall-of-famer Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili.

Atlanta currently holds fourth place in the east, tied with Boston in the loss column and only percentage points behind for third place. San Antonio, given its strong play of late, appears to have a solid grip on a playoff spot, five-and-a-half games ahead of ninth-place Memphis in the West.

The Spurs won the only other game these two played earlier in the season on January 27, 105-90. Duncan had a mammoth of a game, amassing 21 points, 27 boards, and 7 assists. Johnson lead the Hawks with 31 points.

In a game like this in which the talent level is fairly equal, I look for the team who needs it more to come out on top down the stretch like this. Expect a win from Atlanta with another strong showing from Johnson and a solid effort up front from Smith