Didn’t the Knicks get the memo? This is the NBA Playoffs. Hello? The final two-min. execution has been absolutely horrendous for New York and that has been the difference maker this series. The Knicks led in the closing moments of both games, but managed to pull a typical New York. In game one, they got beat by an out-of-bounds play and a cold-daggered three from Ray Allen. In game two, the Knicks had to rely on Toney Douglas and Jared Jeffries due to their star PG and PF being injured. The Knicks later had to go with Jeffries late in the game due to Melo being double-teamed. Result? Jeffries surprisingly gave the Knicks the lead with nearly 45 seconds left, but then he reminded us that he is Jared Jeffries. He ended up giving the game winning turnaround to Garnett, and then on the following possession, turned the ball over attempting a wrap-around pass. Jeffries had a clear lane to the basket since Melo was being doubled again. Instead, he attempted a wrap-around pass? I have no idea what he was thinking on that possession, but if he goes to the bucket strong, it’s a lay-up or a foul. The play might have been designed that way, but you cannot pass up an open opportunity like that. Regardless, the Knicks were fortunate just to be in that situation. They were lucked out by a fluke Jeffries bucket off an offensive rebound on the previous possession (or should I say last 3 since of the offensive boards). Also, New York’s offensive execution in the final two minutes was nonexistent. They looked confused in their offensive sets once Carmelo was doubled. Players were rushing shots or making poor decisions. Coach D’Antoni could have definitely done a better job preparing his team in the closing minutes. It was really sloppy basketball. What’s even worse is the Knicks forgot to foul in the final 6 sec when only being down one point. Instead, they let the clock wind down to .6 before fouling. This is one very smart basketball team. The final couple minutes were one of the poorest closing attempts I’ve seen in a while, especially in the playoffs. For all Knick fans, let’s hope players like Jared Jeffries, Roger Mason Jr., and Bill Walker never ever see minutes again when the game is on the line.
1. Chicago Bulls vs 8. Indianapolis Pacers
The Bulls were predicted to be a good team, but nobody expected them to be the #1 ranked team heading into the playoffs. While Chicago is looking to make a deep run into the playoffs, the Pacers seem happy to be in the playoffs. However, the Pacers do have some players and can make this series interesting. The advantage the Pacers seem to have is size. Granger is big for a small forward and can bully other players in the paint. Hibbert is also one of the few remaining true 7 ft centers in the NBA. Outside of having the NBA MVP on their roster, the Bulls also have a solid set of complimentary players. Boozer is an athletic PF who should have no troubles with Hansbrough. Noah is a solid 10 & 1o player who will get looks off of pick and rolls. Deng is also a solid SF who plays well on defense and can shoot from deep. For the Pacers, they need to make sure they get out to early leads and attack the Bulls. Chicago on the other hand needs to use their superior talent and athleticism to get by the Pacers. The Bulls might lose one our two, but in the end should win this series.
Luol Deng, Bulls: Rose is going to get the hole and has Boozer down low to feed the rock, but a third player needs to step up. Deng needs to knock down perimeter shots when fed the ball and lock down Danny Granger.
Roy Hibbert, Pacers: I wanted to say Collison, but Hibbert needs to dominate in the paint and prove that he can be a force in the middle. He will need to eliminate his inconsistencies and lock down Noah.
Bulls in 5
2. Miami Heat vs 7. Philadelphia 76ers
As sad as this is, I don’t think Philadelphia competes with the Heat in the least bit this series. Whenever you think of first round blowouts, this is what I have in mind. The Sixers have some solid players, but when compared to the Heat they only true advantage they have is at PG. Holliday is starting to come into his own while Bibby and Chalmers are decent at best. However, Miami has three superstars which will give Philly fits. Everyone knows LeBron James and what he brings to the table. I honestly don’t see a single player on the other team who will be able to stop him. It might get interesting if the put Igudola on him, it might get interesting, but that still leaves Dwayne Wade going against someone like Jodie Meeks. The biggest advantage I see for the Heat is down low. Elton Brand has had a nice season, but I think Bosh and his size will give the shorter Brand problems. Overall, this should be a relatively boring series that ESPN will give too much coverage to because of the names on the Heat.
Chris Bosh, Heat: The “third” wheel needs to step up in a big way, most likely against fellow big Elton Brand. If he plays the way that everyone knows he is capable of playing, than this series should be over fairly quick. If he doesn’t, perhaps Philly can sneak a game (or two?) from the Heat.
Jrue Holliday, 76ers: When this kid makes plays, the 76ers seem to win. That might not necessarily hold true in this series; however, if he does play well, then that will at least give them a chance…right?
Heat in 4
3. Boston Celtics vs 6. New York Knicks
I’ll be dead honest; I have a strong aversion towards the Celtics. I’m sure it’s how everyone else feels about the Spurs; they want them to lose, but they keep winning despite age. It also doesn’t help they always seem to take series down to the 7th game every single time. The Knicks are interesting to me as they are with everyone else. They made a blockbuster trade to get Carmelo, and have settled into mediocrity. A lot of this has to do with their offense. They seem to settle early and take too many three pointers. They need to figure out how to work together on both ends of the court and start meshing as a team. The Celtics also made a mid-season trade giving up Kendrick Perkins for Jeff Green. Since then, they haven’t been the same down low in the paint and have been mediocre as well. Both teams however only have one star down low so the fact that Boston has gotten smaller shouldn’t hurt them. As cliche as it is to reference a star player, Anthony needs to body up Paul Pierce and take him down low. He can dominate based on his size. I think the Knicks make it interesting, but the Celtics know what it takes.
Rajon Rondo, Celtics: It’s been a bit of a down year for Rondo, but he always seems to step up in the playoffs. This year is no different. He needs to take command of the Celtics and lead them through the series.
Chauncey Billups, Knicks: Billups was brought over from Denver along with Anthony and has played well. However, he’s 3-point percentage has slipped. Billups will get open looks so he needs to be ready for them.
Celtics in 7
4. Orlando Magic vs 5. Atlanta Hawks
The first thing I thought of when I saw this match up was Dwight Howard against Al Horford. Howard is arguably the most dominant center in the league while Horford is of all-star calibur and plays in similar fashion. Seeing these two go at it will be fun. For Orlando, it’s the same team as always with a few different players. They will shoot early and often from deep and I can’t blame them with Richardson, Reddick, and Turkolu. Of course, going down low to Dwight is a pretty nice option as well. Expect to see screens to set up those looks from deep. For Atlanta, I like Joe Johnson’s matchup against Richardson. Johnson can score in just about every way imaginable so I think he should be able to put up a high number of points. The key here will be experience. Orlando has been to the finals and constantly make deep runs in the playoffs. Atlanta on the other hand hasn’t seemed to be able to make a deep playoff run in forever. They may be matched up similarly, but Orlando knows what it takes to make it in the playoffs.
Hedu Turkolu, Magic: For some reason, Turk only plays well for Orlando. Based on what he’s done in the past, Hedu could make the difference and play the X-Factor as he has just a few years ago.
Josh Smith, Hawks: When Orlando traded away Lewis, they gave up some definite size as they had him at PF. Josh Smith is uber athletic and a force down low. If he can focus and stay in the paint, he can dominate.
Magic in 6
1.) Houston Rockets
Surprised? You shouldn’t be. GM Daryl Morey has been looking at potential deals since the start of the season, even acquiring Terrence Williams from the New Jersey Nets while in-season. Now, a big man is the key ingredient he is looking for. Any takers out there on the trade front? Word is they have been eying Nene for the last month or so. If a potential deal is to go down, it would most likely involve their 2012 first-round pick they acquired from the Knicks and a combination of Chase Budinger, Jordan Hill, Patrick Patterson and Aaron Brooks. If they can’t acquire Nene, perhaps the Clippers would be willing to let Chris Kaman go for the right price. Also, keep an eye on an O.J. Mayo for Courtney Lee swap. The only thing that might be holding this one back is now with Rudy Gay out for the next month, Mayo might need to step in and fill his role as a go-to scorer.
2.) Portland Trail Blazers
Portland needs to make a move, and fast, if they are serious about contending this year. The obvious trading chip for them is Andre Miller and there is talk that a potential three-team trade involving Portland, New Jersey and Denver, with the key piece being Melo, could go down. In it, Portland would look to acquire Devin Harris and Anthony Morrow. Another juicy rumor has them offering up Dante Cunningham and a 2nd-rounder for Sixers PF Marreese Speights, although Philadelphia sounds not too keen on the initial offer. Perhaps, a deal could be reached with that one with another piece or two involved; the bottom line is that it’s almost an inevitability that the Trail Blazers add at least one key piece to their roster before the deadline. Keep an eye on Ramon Sessions as well. He’s a name that has begun to circulate as a potential Trail Blazers pick-up.
3.) Chicago Bulls
This team is desperate for SG/SF help and has been making inquiries for a while now. One name that keeps popping up is J.R. Smith. In Chicago, I believe he would excel greatly, as he is the type of quick scorer the Bulls covet. The problem here is that Chicago might have a problem with Smith and his character issues. The Bulls have great chemistry and might be reluctant to acquire a player who could potentially mess that up. Also, Courtney Lee has been mentioned here for quite a while now. I just don’t see what Houston would want in return. Taj Gibson perhaps? I’m not sure Chicago would be willing to give that up and the Rockets seem set at power forward. Omer Asik is another name that could be involved in a trade for Lee, as the Rockets are size-starved and Asik is a legit 7-footer. Stay tuned with that one.
4.) New Orleans Hornets
With this team setting itself up for a playoff berth, acquiring another piece seems probable. The only reluctance here might be the fact that the Hornets will not go over the luxury tax. Their biggest trade piece involves a $15 million trade player exception. With that, a deal involving Antawn Jamison or the aforementioned J.R. Smith could be doable. Jamison, due $28 million over the next two years, would probably have to have some of his contract “picked up” by Cleveland in order for a trade to the Big Easy to be plausible. However, if Cleveland is willing to do this, I think New Orleans is his #1 option. Also, it would make the Hornets an even better team; keep an eye on New Orleans acquiring a back-up center as well.
5.) Boston Celtics
Ah, yes, the “sleeper” of the 5. Boston has been pretty quiet on the trade front, but there is reason to believe that they are looking hard for talent in order to pad their depth for the playoffs. The name to watch, I believe, is Grant Hill. On a team that looks to not make the playoffs in Phoenix, Hill would be a great piece to add to an already good defensive team in Boston. Also, Anthony Parker might be a name to look closely at. He would be a great shooter to help add spacing to the floor for big men Kevin Garnett, Kendrick Perkins and Glen Davis (and Shaq, if healthy). I know most might believe the C’s aren’t looking for help, but I would almost bet that they make something happen at the deadline.
*Other teams to closely monitor are the Atlanta Hawks, New York Knicks, Memphis Grizzlies and Utah Jazz. All 4 teams seem poised to look for upgrades at the trade deadline.
Russell Westbrook, PG, Oklahoma City
Deron Williams, PG, Utah
Manu Ginobli, SG, San Antonio
Blake Griffin, PF, Los Angeles
Dirk Nowitski, PF, Dallas
Tim Duncan, PF, San Antonio
Pau Gasol, C, Los Angeles
Rajon Rondo, PG, Boston
Ray Allen, SG, Boston
Joe Johnson, SG, Atlanta
Paul Pierce, SF, Boston
Kevin Garnett, PF, Boston
Chris Bosh, PF, Miami
Al Horford, C, Atlanta
Western Conference Reserves
Deron Williams, Utah Jazz
Manu Ginobili, San Antonio Spurs
Dirk Nowitzki, Dallas Mavericks
Blake Griffin, Los Angeles Clippers
Kevin Love, Minnesota Timberwolves
Pau Gasol, Los Angeles Lakers
Tim Duncan, San Antonio Spurs
Zach Randolph, Memphis Grizzlies
Monta Ellis, Golden State Warriors
Eric Gordon, Los Angeles Clippers
Eastern Conference Reserves
Rajon Rondo, Boston Celtics
Stephen Jackson, Charlotte Bobcats
Kevin Garnett, Boston Celtics
Danny Granger, Indiana Pacers
Chris Bosh, Miami Heat
Al Horford, Atlanta Hawks
Joe Johnson, Atlanta Hawks
Carlos Boozer, Chicago Bulls
Raymond Felton, New York Knicks
Paul Pierce, Boston Celtics
10. Atlanta Hawks (21-13)
Will it be the same story for Atlanta? Middle of the pack, then a first-round bounce?
9. Oklahoma City Thunder (22-11)
They still have a long way to go if they want to contend with the Lakers, Mavericks, and Spurs.
8. Chicago Bulls (20-10)
Derrick Rose is stating his case for MVP with his outstanding play. Once Joakim Noah returns from injury, the Bulls can very well be a sleeper to the big three in the East.
7. Utah Jazz (21-11)
Injuries have really been a problem for the Jazz this season, but they quietly, continue to win games. They are currently tied with the Thunder for first in their division.
6. Los Angeles Lakers (22-10)
Even though the Lakers are slumping, I still expect them to make a run in the West. They simply look as if they are running through the motions, playing lazy basketball right now. Gasol and Artest have looked ordinary this month. Look for the defending champs to play up to their caliber come All-Star break.
5. Orlando Magic (21-12)
The Magic have been playing better since the huge trades, beating the Celtics and the Spurs. I still don’t think they are done making moves, as they are very thin at the center position. With their loaded offensive power, Orlando can very well pose a threat to Boston and Miami.
4. Boston Celtics (24-6)
With Kevin Garnett going down to a knee injury and Rajon Rondo nursing an ankle injury, I think the Celtics will struggle a little bit. Rondo is expected to return soon and Garnett will be out for a couple weeks. Let’s hope Paul Pierce can hold it down, as these two can recover.
3. Dallas Mavericks (24-7)
This dangerous, Dallas team isn’t too far behind the Spurs. Dirk Nowitzki’s minor injury may cause a little set back, but it shouldn’t be too big of a problem as he is expected back soon. Like the Spurs, the Mavericks have veterans all across the floor and will continue to be a top three team in the West. I’m looking forward to seeing another I-35 showdown in April-May.
2. Miami Heat (25-9)
After dismantling the Lakers on their home court on Christmas, the Heat are beginning to emerge into the team we expected. The Heat have won 16 of their last 17 games. The task of stopping Lebron, Wade, and Bosh looks virtually impossible at this point. Expect the Heat to give opposing coaches ulcers come playoff time.
1. San Antonio Spurs (28-4)
In my opinion, the Spurs are the best team in the league right now. The bench has been huge, especially Gary Neal. Also, with George Hill, Antonio McDyess, Matt Bonner, and James Anderson returning from injury soon, the Spurs may possibly have the best bench in the league. This Spurs team has championship caliber written all over them as Manu Ginobili, Tim Duncan, and Tony Parker continue to anchor the team.
The question arises: can Duke go 31-0? The last team to do so was Bob Knight’s Indiana Hoosiers in 1976, which went 32-0. In 1991, the UNLV Rebels came very close by going 34-1 and losing in the national championship game to Duke. This year’s Duke squad could very well pull it off. Remaining on their schedule are currently zero ranked teams; however that could change. Playing in a basketball conference such as the ACC, you would think there would be a few teams in the top twenty-five. Duke has experienced players returning in Kyle Singler and Nolan Smith with the major addition of freshman phenom Kyrie Irving; therefore, they have the experience and talent to pull it off. Duke has already beaten two top ten teams on their schedule, if not, the two toughest teams on their schedule. However, once conference play comes around, teams have to play on the road and that can be a different story. I see Duke losing anywhere from 2-3 games, but at the same time, I could definitely see them pulling off 31-0. I think it will come down to how Kyrie Irving plays on the road when facing adversity, especially with the home teams getting the majority of the calls. All in all, if one team could do it, it would be a team coached by Mike Krzyzewski. Like Kevin Garnett once said, “Anything is possible!”