Last year, as the playoffs approached we were living in an entirely different NBA era – the big question was “is LeBron clutch enough to win a title?” The answer was a resounding and emphatic “yes” as LeBron went on to massacre the rest of the NBA on route to his first (of many??? hold on, we will get there) championship.
This year has played out a little bit differently as LeBron and the Heat have effectively destroyed our expectations and are cruising into the playoffs as the biggest favorites since the days of Jordan and the Bulls. Now the question has become not about who can beat the Heat but who can potentially push them to five or six games. Yet, we need to take a look at more than just the overwhelming favorites, so here are some other things / matchups / players in the 2013 NBA Postseason:
10. Stephen Curry, welcome to the party – The all-time NBA leader in made three pointers in a single season is an awesome addition to the games when it counts most. He can get hot at the drop of a hat and few guys in the history of the league can score in bunches quicker than Curry. Could he potentially drop 54 in the first round like he did against the Knicks at MSG? He absolutely could, and that makes the Warriors a very intruiging team. Can they put it together at the right time?
9. Rockets vs. Thunder is a decent matchup – Lets be clear right from the outset: if James Harden is on the Thunder they might just win the NBA Title this season. Without Harden they might win it all, but with him? Terrifying. It is pretty clear at this point that in Harden’s first season leading a team that he is pretty good at the basketball, no? After OKC severly underestimated his importance, he went on a huge FU tear of a season and proved he is probable the second or third best shooting guard in the league. His presence makes the Rockets a small threat to steal a game or two in OKC, especially given how well he has been playing. Additionally…he knows these guys and can genuinely challenge them a lot more than the Kobe-less Lakers could. Harden v. OKC (with a sprinkle of Linsanity!) makes this a must watch matchup. Every game has the potential to be 125 – 124 and is must see.
8. The Prodigal Son returns? – Almost exactly one year ago, Derrick Rose blew out his knee and has not returned to NBA action since. Rumors of his working out and playing in full contact drills were circulating as early as February. He has still not returned. The question is, of course, why? Obviously many players have returned too early and been ineffective. Rose does not want to do that, primarily in a year where Chicago has virtually no chance to win the NBA title. However…entertain the following conspiracy theory with me for a moment: imagine that Chicago has pulled the most ridiculous rope a dope in the history of modern sports. Could Rose be waiting in the wings for some kind of return in the playoffs, instantly giving the team a new dimension and a ridiculous boost? Could they then, shock the world with Rose at the top of his game? No chance, but if it happens, you heard it here first, folks.
7. Healthy Scratch – Miami has not played the Big Three together for too many games following the conclusion of their 27 game winning streak. How rusty will they be coming into the playoff….wait, sorry, just a minute. I am trying to stop laughing. Given how well the team was moving the ball during the streak and how well LeBron has been playing this is not really a concern. As Zach Lowe pointed out: the Heat essentially figured out basketball offense.
6. Pacers – Hawks does anyone care? – The short answer: no. The long answer: no.
5. Can Deron Williams prove he belongs with the big boys? – DWill suddenly seemed to come alive near the end of the season and has led the Nets into the fourth slot in the East. If he wants to rejoin the conversation around best point guards, now would be a great time. Few players have been as frustrating this year as Williams and as he goes, so do the Nets. Is it any surprise they have frequently vaciliated between awful and very good?
4. Can the old guys make one last run? – The Spurs and Celts have managed to make it into the playoffs yet again (the Spurs again making the run for the 1 seed in the West) but how much do they possibly have left? The Spurs have proven they can no longer hang with the Thunder, and the Celts will likely serve as cannon fodder for the Knicks. Can Timmy D and KG make a miracle run? Probably not, but either way both will go out among the best players in the history of the game (Duncan of course being one of the six or seven best ever). This could easily be a swan song for one, or both and we must take the time to appreciate them while they are still playing at a remarkably high level.
3. The Knicks: Pretenders or Contenders? – Coming into the playoffs hot, with Melo playing out of his mind and JR Smith suddenly realizing how to play the game of basketball…the Knicks have never been better positioned. Any team that can heat up from beyond the three point arc like they can deserves mention among the contenders and yet, until Melo shows what he is truly made of, they cannot possibly be considered a true contender. Maybe they drag Miami to six games, but likely not.
2. The Wild, Wild West – OKC is the favorite (and has tasted defeat so they know what it takes to win), but they lost Harden. The Clips have looked unstoppable at times, and easily beaten at others. Can Chris Paul even lead them past the towering juggernauts of the Memphis Grizzlies? Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol certainly know how to play when the games are on the line. Denver is a surprise three seed with a major home court advantage but no “go to guy” with the game on the line. And then there is the sleeping dragon that no one wants to play: The LA Lakers who, without Kobe, are in serious Ewing Theory contention. Pau “I will just pretend I am playing for Spain” Gasol has two triple doubles…in the last three games (I had to look it up and it is shockingly true). LA seems to have (correctly) gone with a twin towers approach that is so frighteningly effective that only an idiot would have taken so long to get it going. Sorry, Mike D’Antoni, did not see you there.
The elephant in the room? No Kobe. As much as I have hated on him all these years, mostly because of Laker fans blind and unquestioning loyalty to him, I am going to miss him in the playoffs. The best game I saw this year was Kobe against the Raptors where he simply refused to let the team lose. He hit three pointers while he was falling away with three guys draped all over him, it was one of the most ridiculous sequences I have ever seen. He will never be as good as Jordan – ever, but he is probably the closest thing the current generation will ever see to him (even if LeBron is ultimately a way better player, Kobe has had the better career…so far.). Sorry I do not get to root against him this year. Very few guys have ever come back from achillies tears the same, so we may have seen the end of amazing Kobe but he will not soon be forgotten. Could the Lakers shock the Spurs? Maybe. Could the Lakers amnesty Kobe? Maybe. Two sentences I never thought I would write this year, I will now go throw up.
1. The Heat will REPEAT! – Suddenly, “not one, not two…” does not become so funny, but rather a frighteningly accurate Nostradamus-esque prediction of what is to come. When LeBron joined the Heat we asked ourselves what was possible from him and the team: this season we have all been witnesses. LeBron has played the best basketball, at the highest level since MJ and has peaked so powerfully that his team won 27 straight games. He has transformed himself into a player we have never seen before: a point power forward who passes the ball better than the best point guard in the league; a rebounder who can beat anyone on the boards; a shooter who can hit more than sixty percent of his shots over an entire month; a three point threat; the league’s best and most versatile defender, a guy who can guard Kobe and Dwight Howard in the same game.
Forget the MVP conversation, it is over for the forseeable future. The only conversation worth having is whether or not LeBron is the Most Valuable Player…of all time. The sky is the limit, and we are now entering the atmosphere. LBJ had to taste failure in order to learn how to win and now that he has, he truly is breathtaking to behold. We are all witnessing greatness at its peak. Enjoy it while it lasts. In any event: the Heat repeat and a “fo, fo, fo” situation is not out of the realm of possibility. Truly that may be the greatest gift LeBron has given any of us – nothing is impossible. From full court alley-oops to allowing someone to go past him so he can block their layup. We have never seen anyone play like LeBron. Going forward, we may never see anyone win like he does.