For all you casual basketball fans, now is a good time to start paying attention to the National Basketball Association. Playoff races are heating up, LeBron James is playing out of his mind and the Minnesota Timberwolves are terrible (but not in the usual sense). I’ll start by discussing the beloved local team and eventually move on to other NBA subjects that warrant a larger word count.
Unfortunately for the Timberwolves, Minnesota Nice doesn’t translate to finding durable basketball players. They’re awful. This may come off as a nonsensical blanket statement, but I assure you, it’s more thought out than that. Usually when I claim a team is awful, it’s because their players are totally inferior to other players. However, the Timberwolves aren’t awful because they have terrible players; they are awful because they are incredibly unlucky. After the injuries they seem to always sustain, they are simply left with inferior players.
Olympic Gold Medalist Kevin Love has spent much of the season wearing a suit instead of a jersey. As one of the most valuable players in the entire league (and by far the best player on the Minnesota roster), Love’s loss cannot be overstated. Furthermore, Brandon Roy, Jose Barea, Chase Budinger, Ricky Rubio and Nikola Pekovic were all out at some point or still are out with injuries. They have the talent, but the problem is that the talent spends all its time in the trainer’s room. It is sad because they have a great coach in Rick Adelman and a potential All-Star combo in Love and Rubio. A full year of watching a healthy Rubio-Love pick-and-roll combo is a basketball fan’s dream. Hopefully next year, it will all come together to create a playoff team. However, this season is too late to be salvaged.
Moving on to happier NBA thoughts, LeBron James is well on his way to winning a second straight MVP award. His Miami Heat won their 16th game in a row on Tuesday and are showing no signs of slowing down. During this streak, they have beaten elite teams like the Oklahoma City Thunder, the Los Angeles Clippers and Lakers (do the Lakers even count anymore?), the Memphis Grizzlies and the Chicago Bulls. James has been the leading scorer in eight of the 16 games. For the season, he’s averaging 27.0 points, 7.2 assists, and 8.2 rebounds per game. I understand a lot of people don’t enjoy hearing about LeBron, but he’s really playing at an elite level and if the Heat and James maintain this pace, no team from the Eastern Conference will stop them come playoff time.
The Western Conference playoff picture is looking like it will come down to the very end of the season. If the season ended today, the Lakers and Portland Trail Blazers would be on the outside looking in. The Golden State Warriors, Houston Rockets and Utah Jazz are all currently in the playoff picture. However, Kobe Bryant’s Lakers have been playing much better as of late. If they continue their winning ways, no one will want to play them come playoff time. I see them sneaking into the seventh seed, the Jazz missing the playoffs, the Warriors holding the sixth seed and Houston dropping to the eighth seed.
As for things to expect once the Western Conference playoffs begin, the San Antonio Spurs and the Oklahoma City Thunder are clearly the cream at the top of the conference. They will win their first round matchups. The Clippers, Memphis Grizzlies and Denver Nuggets are less likely to cruise through the first round. Of the three teams, the Clippers seem the most vulnerable and the Grizzlies might be the safest. The Clippers have the best pure point guard in basketball in Chris Paul and while they play an exciting brand of basketball, they can play very raw at times. The Grizzlies and Warriors would be tough matchups for the Clippers in the first round because Memphis can slow them down and out-rebound them, while Golden State is one of the few teams in the league that can actually play at their pace. Consequently, I see the Clippers losing in the first round of the playoffs to either the Grizzlies or Warriors.
Regardless of whatever minor upsets occur in the first round, I still see the Spurs and Thunder meeting in the Conference Finals. With San Antonio’s Tony Parker unlikely to be fully recovered from his sprained ankle, Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook will be primed for a huge series. Paired up with the league’s second-best player in Kevin Durant, this duo will be too much for the Spurs to overcome. Expect the Thunder to win in six games.
The Eastern Conference is not nearly as fun. The playoff teams are essentially set, but there are many combinations that the eight teams can finish in. Miami, the Indiana Pacers and the New York Knicks seem pretty set at as the top three seeds. The Chicago Bulls are fourth, but if they get Derrick Rose (one of the top-five players in the NBA) back by the end of the year and he’s in fine form, they can beat anyone in a best-of-seven series, including the Heat. I see the Knicks and the Brooklyn Nets getting upset in the first round by whomever they play, mainly because they are New York teams and New York basketball teams are never to be relied on. For all you Wisconsinites, it is indeed exciting that the Milwaukee Bucks will most likely make the playoffs this season. It would be really fun if the Bucks took the Heat to five games the first round. I predict they will win Game 3, aided by a raucous home crowd and huge games by Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis. However, that’s the only game they’re going to win.
After easily dispatching the Bucks, the Heat are unlikely to be challenged en route to the Finals (although the Pacers might win a game or two in the Conference Finals). To put the weakness of the Eastern Conference in perspective, the Denver Nuggets (currently seeded fifth in the Western Conference) would likely finish second in the East. Miami is clearly the class of the conference.
End of Season Predictions
MVP: LeBron James (Miami Heat)
Rookie of the Year: Damian Lillard (Portland Trail Blazers)
Finals: Oklahoma City Thunder vs Miami Heat. Thunder win in 7