Memphis and the Insurmountable Maturity Gap
by Kevin McElroy
Want to understand how the First Round playoff series between Oklahoma City and Memphis is going to turn out? Look no further than a pair of reserve guards, one on each side, that symbolize the directions these two squads are headed in.
In one corner: Derek Fisher, 5-time NBA champion, reserve guard for the Thunder, and as likely an x-factor as any in determining who lifts the Larry O’Brien Trophy in two months. Years removed from his highly successful stint as Kobe Bryant’s clutch-shooting postseason caddy, Fisher now spells Russell Westbrook when he’s tired or hurt and rides his weary legs around the perimeter in search of clean looks at the rim.
And how many of those clean looks will Fisher get in the Thunder’s quest for a title? Likely as not: it will only take one to make all the difference.
As for the Grizzlies, their fate could be determined by a guard who lacks Fisher’s rings, his experience, and even his right to be on the court this postseason. I’m talking, of course, about Nick Calathes who was one of the most pleasant surprises of Memphis’ season…until he delivered them their most unpleasant surprise. Earlier this week, news broke that Calathes had been slapped with a 20-game suspension for the use of a banned substance, specifically Tamoxifen, a drug that offsets some of the effects of anabolic steroids and is thus classified as a “performance enhancer” by the NBA’s Anti-Drug Program.
In this case, the only thing it’s enhanced is the likelihood that the Grizzlies will be vacationing in early May.
Yesterday, while Calathes watched, Fisher thrived. Sure, he missed two of his three field goal attempts and tallied just one rebound and one assist. But what does any of that matter to a gritty veteran with championship pedigree? When it mattered, he performed, tallying a +15 in just 12 minutes – literally qualifying him as a difference-maker in a game his team won by 14 points. He also hit two free throws after leading a break that had me thinking about the most visually magnificent movie of last year:
As for Calathes? Donuts – both on his stat line and the food he might as well eat for all it will matter for him to be in shape this month. He messed up big time and his team looks unlikely to be able to recover from such a late-arriving shock to the delicate balance of minutes and personalities that carried Memphis to a 37-15 finish and the West’s seventh seed.
Memphis held the lead after three quarters but simply ran out of gas in the fourth – as sure a sign as any of a team missing out on one of the key components of its once enviable depth. Today, they sit in their hotel rooms with more questions than answers and no question looms larger than how Calathes could have taken his responsibility to team and teammates so lightly. Except maybe the question of how Memphis will overcome an obvious and overwhelming maturity gap between these two backup guards – one so stark that the scoreboard in Game 1 reflected it almost perfectly.
The Inevitable Demise of the Miami Heat
by Jack Winter
If the Miami Heat expect to complete the arduous task of winning three consecutive titles, they’ll need the franchise’s most important pieces – LeBron James and Erik Spoelstra – to perform at a far higher level than they did in the team’s 2014 postseason opener.
The Heat beat the Charlotte Bobcats by a comfortable margin of 99-88, and led by as many as 20 points in a mostly inconsequential fourth quarter. But don’t be fooled by the final score – even if LeBron James and company are lucky enough to get by the merciless Bobcats, Miami is by no means assured of becoming the first team since 1987 to make a fourth straight Finals appearance. In fact, after such an ugly, flaw-exposing performance on Easter Sunday, it’s never been more apparent that this team will be unable to resurrect the caliber of play that took them down the righteous path to championships the last two springs.
Like everything else orbiting this volatile, selfish group of misfits, the Heat’s fledgling hopes are a direct result of James’ continued apathy. Never before has a supposedly-worthy MVP candidate so flagrantly “coasted” an entire season. Don’t believe me? Check out the numbers. LeBron managed a 29.4 PER this season, a merely human mark that’s two points below his career-best number set in 2012-2013. His rate of rebounds, assists, steals, and blocks all dipped this season, too.
And worse? That James upped his field goal percentage for the seventh consecutive campaign isn’t impressive and indicative of his tireless work ethic, no matter what the liberal media will lead you to believe. Instead, it’s just further indication of a fully-realized problem: He passed up good shot opportunities all year with the goal of this self-serving “achievement” in mind.
That egotism was on display against Charlotte, of course. James scored 27 points on 8-16 from the field, 4-8 from three-point range, and 7-10 from the free throw line. Look around the league; how many other so-called franchise players “couldn’t” get off more than 16 shots in their playoff opener? Only two, and those players come with mitigating qualifiers – Dirk Nowitzki is over the hill and Steph Curry isn’t built for the rigors of postseason basketball. LeBron got his numbers and did so efficiently, but at what cost? The Heat scored just 99 points against a defense led by a hobbled Al Jefferson; how stingy could Charlotte really be on that end of the floor? And during the regular season, a team featuring four (five if we’re counting Norris Cole) future Hall-of-Famers couldn’t even lead the league in offensive efficiency.
But that’s not all on LeBron. Spoelstra, as in over his head just as he was during that disastrous Eastern Conference champion 2010-2011 season, deserves much of the blame for the Heat’s inevitable demise. Ancillary, replaceable players – Chris Bosh immediately comes to mind – look to their team’s alpha dog (if James even deserves that distinction) for guidance and motivation throughout the grind of an 82-game regular season. With LeBron’s motor running low since late October, though, the onus fell on Spoelstra to instill a sense of effort and intensity in his roster that Miami could count on come playoff time. Instead, he afforded the Heat a degree of physical and emotional latitude all year long that no team deserves – not even an older one that’s played 313 games over three calendar years.
As has been proven time and again in the NBA, teams can’t simply “flip the switch” when the games start to really matter. Miami, clearly, is learning that the hard way right now. Why else would have Spoelstra – in a selfish, empathy-lacking vein propagated by James, some might suggest – resorted to playing the seldom-used James Jones 14 minutes against the Bobcats? This is a last-ditch effort to save the Heat’s season. And as Jones predecessors Mike Miller and Shane Battier can attest, it’s one that will ultimately prove futile.
So the Heat are up 1-0 on Charlotte. Big deal. Were we expecting anything less? Of course not – these are the same-old Kitties, after all. But I know damn well I was expecting much more than I saw on Sunday, and it begins and ends with the two men Pat Riley and Micky Arison have so irresponsibly and spontaneously chosen to lead their increasingly feeble franchise.
The Experience of the Dinosaurs
by Robby Kalland
Prior to Game 1 of Nets-Raptors, the Toronto Sun ran the headline “Raptors vs. Dinosaurs” laughing at the Nets’ aging roster full of Hall-of-Famers past their prime, and then the Raptors’ classless, young GM proclaimed to the crowd outside the AAC, “Fuck Brooklyn.”
All that did was provide bulletin board material as those dinosaurs from Brooklyn got the last laugh on Saturday night, sending their message on the court, not over a microphone or in the papers.
Seven-Time All-Star Joe Johnson offered up a throwback performance to when basketball was dictated by players on the court, not what people saw on their spreadsheets. Johnson was 8-of-13 from the field for 24 points, wearing down the Raptors defense. He bruised and abused a physically — and mentally — weaker Raptors team by methodically working his way into the paint the way the greats once did.
Johnson’s long-time foe turned teammate Paul Pierce, who’s been written off as too old and too slow all season, finished what Johnson started and closed the game out in the fourth quarter. Pierce leaned on veteran experience and savvy for nine points in the final quarter, as the Nets sealed the victory. Pierce worked his magic, as he has so many times, shrugging off the Raptors’ feeble attempts to guard him and knocking down clutch shot after clutch shot.
Toronto learned the hard way that The Truth hurts.
The Raptors felt slighted, even disrespected, that Brooklyn would work their way back to the sixth seed to set up a matchup with Toronto in the first round. After what we saw in Game 1, can you blame them?
The Raptors are easy prey for the grizzled, experienced veterans on the Nets. Brooklyn has a core that has been through the battles of the playoffs. They’ve suffered heartbreak and are fueled by the desire to never feel that again.
The Raptors? Well, they’re just happy to be here for now.
You can put together a gimmicky game-plan and win some games but you need experience to win series in the postseason, and that’s the one thing you can’t fake. The wherewithal needed in this game of runs is forged in the fires of playoff competition, and without anyone to provide that veteran leadership the Raptors are doomed to burn.
These humbling experiences will eventually pay off for these young Raptors, the way they did long ago for Pierce, Johnson, Kevin Garnett, and the rest. But for now, the way I see it, those dinosaurs will get a sweep and make these young, inexperienced Raptors extinct.
Do the Nene
by Andrew Lynch
To dance around the issue does a disservice to all, so I’ll just come out and say it:
Nene Hilario is going to win the NBA Finals MVP.
We all saw the way the Washington Wizards manhandled the Chicago Bulls on Sunday. It wasn’t a fluke. This team is in prime position to knock off the Rose-less Bulls easier than the Joker robbing a 7-year old’s lemonade stand. And the rewards will be just as sweet. After the first round, Washington will take on the flailing and failing Indiana Pacers — unless, of course, the Atlanta Hawks take care of the Pacers before they can be served up to the Wizards on a silver platter. In that case, this coven of warlocks would fry those birds of prey in no time flat.
One more obstacle remains: the Miami Heat, barring a Brooklyn Nets victory, which is well within the realm of possibility. Call it a 45% chance. Anyway, Washington probably draws Miami. If so, the Wizards are good to go against the two-time defending champions, and it’s because of their man in the middle, the prodigal sorcerer whose return to the starting lineup makes everything possible in Our Nation’s Capital.
You realize how thoroughly Nene destroyed Joakim Noah, right? Noah never stood a chance on either end of the floor. That’s because of Nene, and its importance simply cannot be overstated. You can have your LeBron James and your Kevin Durant — for my money, Noah was head and shoulders and top-knot above everyone else in the race for regular season MVP. No one meant more to his team. No one had his heart and his hustle and his determination. And no one in the league — not Chris Paul, not Nick Young, and certainly not the Drama King in Miami — is anywhere near the plane of existence that Noah is on as a passer.
And Nene shut. Him. Down. Stone cold, baby.
Take that man — Mr. Hilario, if you’re respectful, and you damn well better be — and put him in the rectangled circle of a basketball court against Chris Bosh and something called the Birdman, and what do you expect to happen? Total and utter annihilation, that’s what. Don’t even think about it. I’ll tell you what reality is. And Nene is reality. And fantasy. And surreality, probably. Ask Dali.
I don’t even care who wins the West. Bring on the Spurs or the Thunder or the Lakers or whatever. Nene wins. FLAWLESS VICTORY. NBA FINALS-TALITY.
The Five Fingers On God’s Own Hand
by Ian Levy
In Game One the Mavericks came up just short. Tied going into the fourth quarter, the Spurs ripped victory out of their hands just like gravity swiped Sarah from the meaty paws of Sylvester Stallone in Cliffhanger. Luckily for Rick Carlisle, the path forward is clear–play the Devin Harris-Vince Carter-Jae Crowder-Dirk Nowitzki-Brandan Wright lineup 48 minutes a game, every game, until he’s holding the Larry O’Brien Trophy.
In 11 minutes in Game One this group outscored the Spurs 35-19. Just in case you don’t have a calculator handy, let me bend those numbers for you. That’s an average of more than three points a minute, outscoring the opposition by nearly a point-and-a-half per minute and would work out to an 85-point margin of victory in a 100-possession game. Can you think of any good reason Carlisle wouldn’t want to win the rest of this series by an average of 85 points per game? Me neither.
I’ll also take a minute to point out that this is not just a one-game data blip. That five-man unit has played 109 minutes together in the 24 games since Devin Harris returned from injury. Over those 109 minutes they’ve outscored their opponents by an average of 26.6 points per 100 possessions. That makes them the most effective unit in the league to have played at least 109 minutes together this season and probably sets them up to be the most effective unit of all time. I don’t mean to stagger into hyperbole, but there is literally nothing this group can’t do. They are a splendidly divine mix of dribbling, shooting, passing, cutting and spacing. I didn’t mention anything about defense because they are, perhaps, the first group of NBA players who can and should say with a straight face that their offense is their defense.
I know that playing 48 minutes will likely reduce their potency, but even if that extra wear and tear takes 50% off their effectiveness, they’d still be cranking the Spurs by an average of 40+ per game. And if Rick Carlisle has any questions about how to make this kind of scenario work, he just needs to reach out to Tom Thibodeau who’s been running with the same minute allotment strategy for the past three seasons. There is, quite literally, no downside to this strategy other than the endless array of parades and media appearances awaiting the Fantastic Five after the bring another title to Dallas.
Still need convincing? This group was on the floor with 7:15 left in the game and a ten-point lead. Jae Crowder was subbed out for Monta Ellis and the Mavericks lost by five. I rest my ironclad case.
In Bird We Trust?
by Noam Schiller
The Indiana Pacers were working with a fairly simple blueprint.
They came within one game of the Finals last year with the league’s best 5 man unit, overcoming the best efforts of a truly atrocious collection of bench contributors for two series and three of six games before the Miami Heat finally brought their run to an end. That’s it. Those were the three major columns upon which last year’s epic Eastern Finals were built. Starters good, bench bad, Heat scary. That was the crystal clear starting point, from which the Pacers needed to extend their reach just 5 postseason wins further.
Pacers GM/NBA legend Larry Bird, fresh off a one year hiatus, decided the best path was the one not taken for the first and third “issues”. The starters were already phenomenal, and between young wings Paul George and Lance Stephenson, had enough room for internal growth to improve organically. The Heat were a bit out of Bird’s jurisdiction – any closing of the gap in that regard would have to be done by Miami’s natural aging process.
The bench, though… the bench is what Larry Bird is getting paid for. And Larry Bird went to work. A Luis Scola here, a C.J. Watson there, Danny Granger coming back from injury and some Chris Copeland on top. Bam. Indy has a second unit. No more terrifying stretches of D.J. Augustin defending the pick and roll. No more Tyler Hansbrough barreling into defenses hoping to get free throws. Miles Plumlee was excused from his spot on the team bench. No more Gerald Green chucking everything in sight.
Fast forward one year, and all acquisitions have failed. As Augustin leads the Chicago Bulls in scoring and Plumlee and Green await the Most Improved Player voting after excellent seasons in Phoenix, Indiana’s bench is as bad as ever. Scola’s mid-range jumper has abandoned him. Granger was so bad he was traded… for Evan Turner, who hasn’t done much better. Copeland has been buried on the bench. Really, among Bird’s offseason acquisitions, only Watson has been passable.
And the starters? Internal improvement did indeed lead the way early on, with George and Stephenson blooming to career years and Roy Hibbert looking poised to win Defensive Player of the Year. But since the all-star break, all that progress has been swiftly undone, as finger pointing and sluggish offense reigns. George Hill looks like the wrong combo guard trying to masquerade as the right point guard, David West has aged in the shadows of George’s ascension only to be exposed as the 4th year wing has hit a plateau, and the Lance/Paul/Roy trio has replaced offense with finger pointing.
The fall has been violent and sudden, culminating in Saturday’s embarrassing game 1 loss to a Hawks team that really shouldn’t be a factor in a playoff setting. Regardless of whether the Pacers manage a u-turn, it’s time to ask ourselves if Bird knows what he’s doing. He presided over an Indiana lull that spanned the entire second half of last decade, where a single star in Granger could never get enough juice from a lackluster supporting cast. This supposedly carefully crafted unit, again working without much of a secondary, has collapsed after two and a half successful years together despite staking its claim to the throne via defense chemistry – things that should sustain over time.
Bird is the one who put his eggs in the Stephenson basket ever since he gambled on him in the second round, reaping credit when Prancing Lance was dancing his dance and avoiding criticism when Lance’s over-aggressive play derails the team. Bird is the one who hasn’t cobbled together a solid NBA bench over a decade. Bird gave major money to the odd fitting Hill and the aging West. Bird gave Phoenix two rotation players and a pick for the decaying Scola.
The praise was all over the place in February, but February didn’t matter. This matters. Where’s the Bird scorn?