North of the 400

North of Toronto, South of a championship

Posts Tagged ‘NBA playoffs

Elsewhere: My 2015 NBA Playoff Diaries

This spring, I’ve been writing occasional NBA Playoff Diaries for Flagrant Fowls. Here’s a complete list of them, all in one space!

Playoff Diary #1: Baller Alerts (On following the Raptors/Wizards series through Twitter updates)

Playoff Diary #2: Spirit of the Radio (On listening to game seven of the Clippers/Spurs series on the radio)

Playoff Diary #3: The Wild, Weird West (On a wild Clippers/Rockets second-round series)

Playoff Diary #4: I Hate Injuries! (How the Atlanta Hawks postseason was derailed by injuries)

Playoff Diary #5: Looking Forward, Looking Back (NBA Finals Preview)

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In the Crowd Outside the ACC: Raptors/Nets, Game One

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The bus lets you off at the station on Bay and a tunnel takes you into the Bay Atrium next door. From there it’s just a short walk down the Path to Union Station and a series of tunnels that takes you to the Air Canada Centre’s doorstep. I made the trip yesterday with my buddy Eric, hoping to watch some Raptors magic.

It’s been a while since the Raptors were in the playoffs. I’m pretty sure it’s been even longer since they were on ESPN, since people in the US paid any attention to this team. Raptor fans have been waiting for a national spotlight like this for a while. And that’s not even getting into this season’s special circumstances, either.

Coming into this season, the Raptors weren’t highly regarded. Rudy Gay was a high-volume, low-output scorer, although laser eye surgery was supposed to help that a little bit. Near the end of last season, DeMar DeRozan had started playing a lot better and Kyle Lowry was, too. All three seemed like trade bait, a way to help the Raps quickly rebuild as they looked forward to a stacked draft, topped by local talent Andrew Wiggins.

The Raptors flipped Gay to Sacramento early in the season and almost immediately looked better. But they weren’t done: there was a rumoured deal to send Lowry to the Knicks, but someone in New York vetoed the deal. Soon the wins kept piling up and, amidst a poor Atlantic division, the Raptors were in the thick of it. They couldn’t tank, they were just too good in a bad conference: by year’s end, they’d finish with an identical record as Phoenix, a team that didn’t qualify for the postseason.

Juxtapose this welcome surprise against the Toronto sports landscape: the Jays disappointing 2013 campaign, the Leafs crashing and burning late in the season. Two teams everyone expected to go places, both of whom crushed fans in new and exciting ways.

Essentially, going into Saturday, there was a lot of pent-up emotion.

The crowd outside the ACC packed into a tight square. There was a big fence and off to one side, a pile of steel bleachers. Some people brought signs, others brought their kids. One guy in front of me had his son on his shoulders, each wearing Raptors gear. I got there as the second quarter started and the Raptors were keeping pace with the more-experienced Nets team. People were shouting, yelling when calls didn’t go their way. When someone – Vasquez or Lowry, it usually seemed – made a play, they all cheered. It was a good scene and the lone TSN camera outside – a lens on a pole, occasionally swinging around like a pinata, just above our heads – didn’t do it justice.

***

The Eaton Centre is a changed place from even last December. The big Sears is gone, replaced by a gaping white tunnel. The food court is open now, looking more like a restaurant than the place where you could buy Sbarro’s. There’s nice tables, the food stands give you plates and flat screen TVs on every wall. All of them were on the Raptors game.

Eric and I sat there to watch the end of the game. Even here, in a crowded food court, people were yelling and shouting about the Raptors. The guy behind me was there with a young woman and a kid; we often yelled variations of the same line right around the same time. Usually something about Lowry, who was carrying the team on his back. He scored baskets, gambled on huge steals and created the fast break that led to the game’s highlight dunk.

Lowry was doing it alone, it seemed. DeMar DeRozan shot 3-of-13 and seemed even less a factor than that; Amir Johnson scored two points in over 20 minutes of play. Going into this series I worried about the Nets outside shooting and what’d happen if it went to the wire, if Toronto has someone as willing to take the big shot as Brooklyn’s Paul Pierce is. Now I wonder if it’ll even be close – if Toronto can even recover from this game. Lowry was going everything, doing everything.

I remember one possession well: after a turnover, he rushed it back up the court and was fouled hard on his way to the basket, landing on his side and slamming into the base of the net. He was down for a moment; all I could think was how he can’t do this alone. He was still trying, though, in a way I haven’t seen a Raptor try in years. I don’t think I’m alone: as I left the crowd outside the ACC, people were chanting “Ky-le! Ky-le!”

A Quick NBA Finals Prediction

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Last week, I wrote about the Western Conference champs and a few days ago, about the Miami Heat going to a game seven, so I’ve already written a bunch about the Finals already. But here’s a few more loose thoughts and a prediction for the Finals, which start tonight.

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Not the Finals we expected, but that’s cool

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At year’s start, I’m not sure anyone would’ve guessed San Antonio would be the team to come out of the Western Conference. Even at the start of March, I doubt many thought the Miami Heat would be tested so hard by Indiana. And as the Finals gear up, this is not the outcome anybody expected. And it’s probably the best outcome we could’ve hoped for.

All the way back in November, the smart money was on the LA Lakers to win the West. They’d taken an already talented team – Pau Gasol, Kobe Bryant, Metta World Peace, etc – and augmented it. Steve Nash was the point guard who’d mesh with Bryant, freeing him from bringing the ball up court and directing play. And Dwight Howard was the center that Andrew Bynum was always supposed to be. Concerns? No way! As Sports Illustrated said on their cover, “This is going to be fun!”

It was fun, just not in Los Angeles

But what happened wasn’t much fun. Nash, who struggled with injuries when surrounded by the best training staff in the NBA, was hurt and played in just 50 games. When he did play, he was nowhere near as effective: his scoring dropped to under 13 points per game while his assist numbers, long his bread and butter, fell through the floor. It’s almost as if Bryant is a playmaker himself and best functions when he can dictate the offence, usually through the triangle.

Howard, meanwhile, struggled in his role. He scored fewer points per game than he had since 2005-06. His rebounding numbers were almost as bad: the lowest since 2007. Even his PER – a stat all but tailored to big men like himself – plummeted down to 19.4, his lowest in years. And how, it looks like Howard’s ready to leave. Bill Simmons went on at length about this, especially about Howard’s decline. I’m inclined to agree: he was a tremendous bust this season, all things considered. The Lakers lucked into the postseason, scraping in as Utah fell apart in the late part of last season. They fired a coach, seem likely to let another go soon and were soundly swept by San Antonio in the first round. Do people still think the SI Jinx is a thing?

If you didn’t have the Lakers, you probably had Oklahoma City getting to the Finals. It wasn’t a bad risk: they had the duo of Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant, both of whom were both some of the best players in the NBA and still improving. And they did have a very good season winning 60 games, their division and holding the top seed in the conference. And then, in game two of their first round series, Russell Westbrook hurt his knee and was done for the playoffs. Without him, Oklahoma City roughed out a series win against Houston and fell in five games to Memphis. There goes another Smart Pick.

So it’s been San Antonio who slugged it out through the postseason. After sweeping the Lakers, they slipped past Golden State in a pretty fun series, especially the double OT game one thriller which I’ll probably rewatch next time it’s replayed on NBA TV. In the conference finals, they swept Memphis in a series I bet most people won’t really think about much, other then to call it ugly. It’s too bad: two games went to OT, one of them featuring an insane Memphis comeback, and game four was pretty close, too.

If Miami gets past Indiana, as I hope they do, it’ll set up one hell of a NBA Finals: the closest thing to a real dynasty the NBA has had in years against the a new style of dynasty; the best player of one generation (Duncan) playing the best player of another (LeBron James); the team everyone likes to hate because they’re “boring” playing the team everyone likes to hate because of the way they came together.

It’s the best Finals we could’ve hoped for: there’s real storylines here, not the kind TV producers would’ve kicked up for a OKC/Miami series. There’s the idea of generational conflicts, or at least the kind that happen in pro sports. There’s Gregg Popovich going for his fifth championship, which puts him in the same class as people like Pat Reilly, Red Auerbach and John Kundla. I haven’t been as excited for a series all through these playoffs. I hope you’re feeling the same way.

Written by M.

May 28, 2013 at 6:54 pm

2013 NBA Playoff Picks, Round One

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Every year I like to make wild and baseless predictions on the NBA playoffs. Usually they’re on Twitter or something, but I wanted to write a few words on each series this time.

Eastern Conference

1. Heat vs 8. Bucks

Probably not a series that’ll last more than five games. It’s cool how the Bucks snuck into the playoffs while being six games under .500 while out west, while two .500 teams were left out of the playoffs. I expect this one to be over in a hurry. Heat in four.

2. Knicks vs. 7. Celtics

Is Boston/New York a NBA rivalry? I don’t think so, but ESPN and some other places are really hammering at it so who knows, maybe a bunch of people will whip themselves into a petulant frenzy over this series. Again, this is another one that could be over quick: Boston is an aging team that’ll rely a lot on Kevin Garnett and they’re missing Rondo, easily their best player. But New York is also banged up (they’ve got five probables for game one), missing Amare Stoudemire and will be relying hard on Carmelo Anthony. If Boston can keep him under control (and I can see that happening), Boston might be able to squeak this out. Still, I think this is the Knicks series to lose. Knicks in six.

3. Pacers vs 6. Hawks

The Pacers are a tough, defensively minded team that plays an agressive, physical style of basketball. They had the closest thing to a full-on brawl I saw this season and don’t look now, but Roy Hibbert is quickly becoming one of the better young centers in the NBA. And Paul George is a beast, too. Meanwhile, I’m not big on Atlanta: Josh Smith is a gunner (last year in the playoffs he was taking something like 18 shots a game) and Al Horford is another good young center (I’m looking forward to seeing him and Hibbert go at each other, actually) but I like the Pacers a lot in this series. My gut tells me it’ll be ugly, but compelling. Pacers in five.

4. Nets vs 5. Bulls

Two fun-to-watch teams who match up well. First, their SRS are right around each other and second, their defences/offensive ratings make for an interesting match: Chicago’s offence is 23rd in the league, Brooklyn’s defence is 17th; Brooklyn’s offence is eighth, Chicago’s defence is sixth. I do think Chicago has it’s flaws (they’re missing Derrick Rose for sure and maybe Joakim Noah) but they have bright spots, like Carlos Boozer (who I wrote about in January) and Jimmy Butler. The Nets, meanwhile, are great inside (Brook Lopez) and out (Deron Williams) and might make quick work of Chicago. On paper, this could be a close series but I wouldn’t be surprised if the Nets tore things up early and often. Nets in five.

Western Conference

1.Thunder vs 8. Rockets

Are the Thunder the best team in the NBA? Well, no, that’s Miami, but they’re a close second. In most years, Kevin Durant’s 28 points, eight rebounds and five assists per game (not to mention nearly 19 Win Shares) would be enough for serious MVP consideration. It’s only because Miami has been so damn good that he isn’t. I do like some of the subplots to this series – James Harden takes on his old team, will Jeremy Lin explode in the postseason, etc – but let’s be real here: the question is only how many games it’ll take the Thunder to win four and they’ll do it quickly. Thunder in five.

2.Spurs vs 7. Lakers

One the fun end-of-year stories was seeing the Lakers go on a late tear and make the playoffs. It’s too bad it was derailed when Kobe Bryant went down last weekend. True, they still have Steve Nash and Dwight Howard. But San Antonio has Tony Parker, Tiago Splitter and Tim Duncan. Without Bryant, this one will be over in a hurry. Spurs in four.

3.Nuggets vs 6. Warriors

This’ll probably be the most fun series of the first round: the Nuggets are a blast to watch, score like it’s nobody’s business and have one of the most enjoyable players in the NBA, JaVale McGee. Golden State scores a bunch, too (seventh in the NBA for points-per-game) and Stephen Curry is jacking up 18 shots per game (I expect this will only go up, too). This series will be worth staying up late for and I expect at least one wild shootout. But who will win? I’m going with what I want to see and that’s more McGee. Nuggets in seven.

4.Clippers vs. 5. Memphis

Remember when the Clippers were lob city and everyone loved to watch their sweet jams? And then Blake Griffin started becoming a little unbearable and the team started flopping often and everyone I know turned on them. They’re still a good team on both ends of the floor and Chris Paul is a dark horse for the MVP (one could make a case for him over Durant) but they’re awfully hard to cheer for. Memphis, though, is a legitimately fun team: Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol are fun to watch and Ed Davis was my favorite Raptor (and I hope he tears shit up in the postseason). And for what it’s worth, they have the best defensive numbers in the NBA. I think they have a great shot at this one: if they can contain Paul, the Clippers are a lot less dangerous. Grizzlies in six.

Lakers share the wealth in game five win over Nuggets

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When Nene fouled out late in the fourth quarter of game five of the Western Conference Finals on Wednesday night, he lay on the court, shaking his head as if in disbelief.

He wasn’t alone, as the Nuggets let another one slip away, losing 103-94 to the Lakers, ceding them a 3-2 series lead.

The Nuggets had every reason to be confident they could steal a win in LA. They had survived a close call in game four, when the team nearly self-destructed in a succession of fouls, yet hung on to win. Carmelo Anthony looked good and shot good early on, while their bench had been outplaying the Lakers throughout the series.

Besides, they had won game two and nearly won game one, both played at the Staples Center.

But the Lakers were just as determined and met them head on; this game was a lot closer then it’s score shows.

It was a defencive kind of game, but not in the recent Knicks/Heat or Pistons/Spurs styles. Both sides were throwing themselves to the floor – Odon made a wild lunge at a loose ball in the fourth that’s completely illustrative of this. Both sides were making the other take it strong to the hoop – witness Chris Anderson, the Birdman, stuffing Odon early in the game, deadening his attempted dunk. Both sides were playing pressure-packed D – Carmelo wasn’t just double teamed, but had three defenders on him late in the fourth.

Bouncing back from a lackluster game four, Anthony had a good night – he shot 9-23 for 31 points and grabbed four boards in the process. From the charity stripe, he was nearly perfect, hitting 12 of 13.

He was alone in his play tonight.

Most of the Nuggets finished the game in the negative, with only Nene and Dahntay Jones having a +/- in the positive. JR Smith cooled off considerably from his game four hot streak, hitting only 3 of 13 shots (including 9 missed threes). Chauncy Billups took only seven shots, six of them threes, and hit four for 12 points – tying him with Kenyon Martin for second highest scorer on the Nuggets.

It was indicative of Denver’s shot selection, which faltered and withered late in the game. Too many quick, ill-advised long shots, plays that either took too long to develop or didn’t at all… it felt at times like if they were going to pull off the win, it was in spite of how their shots weren’t dropping.

A neat stat from the fourth: at one point, the Nuggets had a streak where they hit only three of 21 shots.

The Lakers, on the other hand, played like Denver had on Monday night. They spread the ball around, with five players scoring 12 or more points. Odom played his best game of the series and probably the playoffs, scoring 19 and grabbing 18 rebounds – and had four blocks, too.

Kobe Bryant had a similarly good game, scoring 22 on 6-of-13 shooting. He was a big reason why the Lakers were able to win: because he wasn’t forcing his shots and because he shared the load, getting eight assists. For the best example, look to one of them, from late in the fourth:

Kobe’s on the perimeter, looking for a long shot. He goes up, the Nuggets defence turns and pulls towards him… but it’s not a shot, it’s a quick pass to Odon, camped in the low post, who grabs the pass and stuffs it home. It’s either an expertly designed play, one the Nuggets completely fell for.

Or maybe it was a shot, or at least it was going to be until Kobe saw how the defence shifted, saw where Odon was and made a quick decision to go for the easy two rather then risk an iffy three.

Was it a one-off play? Or was that the turning point of this series, where Kobe realizes that no, he doesn’t have to do this alone.

One more fact: Carmelo outscored Kobe tonight, but for the first time it resulted in a loss.

Maybe this is less of a duel then a chess match after all.

Written by M.

May 28, 2009 at 4:53 am

Nuggets bend but don’t break in game four win

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If they say there are no easy baskets in the conference finals, they’re wrong.

Game four of the Western Finals seemed to be an exercise of foul shooting at times, in a game that was constantly stopped by the officals.

In the fourth quarter, the game got a little chippy and the refs started to crack down, calling fouls all over the place: to Denver and to LA… plus four technicals, with two called to the Nuggets without a second of gameplay in between.

Hence, LA got a few uncontested shots from the line.

Mind you, Denver got more then a handful too. Combined, both sides had 84 chances from the line… and with all those stoppages, it wasn’t just a blowout, it was kind of a stinker.

It wasn’t as bad as some games have been in these playoffs – game seven between the Celtics and Bulls, I’m looking at you – but it was hard to keep a flow going with this many trips to the line. Yes, play was choppy, but this is the playoffs. Things are supposed to be tough here, aren’t they?

It’s a shame that’s the lasting impression from game four, too, because it was an important win for a few reasons:
– An injured Carmelo scored 15 points, even though he was hobbling around on the floor early on.
– The Nuggets bench contributed 42 points, led by JR Smith who had a great shooting night and hit some late three’s that broke the Lakers’ back.
– Chris Anderson gave a great Dennis Rodman impression, grabbing boards like a vacuum and even shot a wildly amusing – and off mark – three. In all, he had 14 in just 24 minutes.

But there was one more thing that’s extremely telling about this win: the Nuggets composure.

When the refs cracked down late, the Nuggets started to break. They were fouling and looking lost. Carmelo picked up a technical for a stupid shove, and while Kobe shot the corresponding free throw, Kenyon Martin picked up another technical foul for the Nuggets. As a team, they were close to complete self-destruction, the kind where they lose their composure, miss shots and blow a big lead.

You know, the kind of self-destruction that the Kings and Blazers have had against the Lakers in conference finals of years past.

After the refs got everything sorted out, Bryant hit his foul shots and cut the lead to 10.

That was as close as he’d get. The Nuggets didn’t fall apart, but rallied and had a strong finish to the game. Martin hit the bench and the team settled down. When JR Smith hit two consecutive threes and made the score 113-96, the Lakers were finally out of contention.

So, it’s an important win for the Nuggets. They showed that while they have the self-destruction potential, they also can keep their head (and their lead) when it matters.

Besides that, it means the Lakers don’t have a stranglehold 3-1 lead on the series and the Nuggets gave themselves a little bit of breathing room. They showed that even without Carmelo at his best, they can still win: Billips and JR Smith both had great scoring nights (24 each), while Martin, Nene and Anderson each grabbed double-digit rebounds. They showed how deep they are, especially compared to the Lakers: 42 bench points to LA’s 24. That’s important – in a long series, that depth can pay some serious dividends.

But as the series moves to game five, the Nuggets have to be at least a little worried: if this could happen in game four, what’s to say it can’t happen again? And what happens with a hostile crowd? What if Smith misses those shots? Do they still hang on?

Still, it was a good win for the Nuggets. One that raises some questions, yes, but compared to the ones that a loss would have raised, I’m sure they’ll take them.

Written by M.

May 26, 2009 at 5:03 am