It's time, ladies and gents. It's time for the Apologist to dust off his basketball thinking cap and expose his innate ability to inaccurately predict the course of events in the NBA playoffs. And he's done talking in the third person. For now.
The NBA regular season, much like the NHL, has become sort of a moot point in the modern era. All of your accomplishments can be disregarded in an instant. Because when the ball goes up on the playoff's first tip, it's anyone's game. But unlike the NHL, the NBA's postseason is usually very predictable. Aside from the occasional anomalies like the '06 Heat or, of course, last year's Mavericks, you don't usually see a team hoisting the championship trophy that you didn't expect to be there.
I know you're thinking, "Aps? Is this supposed to make me want to watch?" Just stay with me. This is headed somewhere… maybe.
At a glance, this year's postseason doesn't look much different than last year's. Of the 16 teams preparing for the playoffs, only the Los Angeles Clippers and Utah Jazz weren't in it last year. The biggest stars in basketball are all back (except for the big man with the bad back) and nearly every one of them is playing on a team that's better than last year's (except for the aforementioned big man's and the other big man who just got his first ring). But a look beneath the surface reveals that a lot has changed in the last 12 months.
For several teams that have seen their dominance slipping in recent years, this may be their last, best shot. The Lakers, Celtics and Spurs have been fixtures in the playoffs for the last five seasons. But they all know that their stars are nearing the ends of their careers and the window of opportunity is closing. Luckily for them, they're still led by cores that are as driven & determined as any in the league.
The Spurs might be the most impressive of the three, simply because the best player of their recent championship teams is now maybe their third best and they haven't missed a beat. Not to mention, their first round exit against a much younger Memphis Grizzlies team (the kind of inexperienced bunch the Spurs used to slice and dice like butchers) made it seem as though their time was up a year ago. But leave it to the most underrated coach in modern day sports, Gregg Popovich, who circulates fresh talent through his system with absurd ease, to push them right back to the top of the Western Conference. And with a core of veterans the likes of Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobli and Tony Parker, only a fool wouldn't consider them a title contender.
It hasn't been quite so easy for the Boston Celtics this season. After finally losing their grip on Eastern Conference dominance last season when they were bounced by the Heat in 5 games, the 'Big 3' spent most of this regular season wondering which one of them would be the first to go. I felt certain that after losing Jeff Green for the season, the C's would scrap this season for the sake of the future. And I was almost right. A deal fell apart literally at the last possible minute that would've sent Ray Allen to Memphis for O.J. Mayo. But here they are, back in the playoffs and back to being a team no one wants to face for best-of-7 series. Yes, they're older and arguably more brittle, but thanks to another great coaching job by Doc Rivers, they've been able to develop some young talent (see: Avery Bradley) that should take some of the pressure off the veterans.
The Celtics and Spurs have been saved by their coaching staffs. The Lakers seem to be winning in spite of it. Don't get me wrong. I'm nowhere near the Mike Brown hater that a lot of people are. It's an easy bandwagon to jump on. But the fact is this guy walked in to replace arguably the greatest coach of any sport ever. So it was no surprise when he quickly established the fact that he was going to stay out of Kobe's way because Kobe had to "let him coach him". It is a player's league, but when your head coach basically announces, "I don't have control over my best player", it's hard to say your coaching is one of your team's strengths. That's why I was shocked when I heard that Black Mamba had agreed to sit out the last game of the regular season, thus forfeiting his chance at being the second oldest player to win a scoring title. (He would've been second to, of course, Michael "Please sell the Bobcats so we can just go back to remembering the great player that you were!" Jordan). But what I forgot is that Kobe is just 1 ring shy of tying Michael Jordan with 6 NBA titles. And with Andrew Bynum finally fulfilling the expectations he has flirted with for years, Bryant has a reason to believe he has a shot this year. So maybe he and Brown will find a way to make it work and erase the Lakers' hideous playoff exit last year by challenging the Spurs and Thunder for the Western Conference title.
Still, it's obvious that the more popular storylines will be about the new guard. There's a slew of up and coming squads that aren't quite ready, but could still make waves this year like the Los Angeles Clippers, Denver, Indiana, Utah and Philadelphia. I don't expect any of them to get out of the first round, but a good showing would go a long way towards building their confidence for the future. Obviously the Clippers are the sexiest of those squads simply because of the Poster Child, Blake Griffin. Who doesn't want to see him vault over the other Gasol and throw down a dunk with the same ferocity we've seen all season? But if Memphis could bounce a better, more experienced Spurs squad, I don't see this inexperienced group led by Vinny "I look like I got lost and just sat down on the Clippers' bench to gather my thoughts" DelNegro getting past the first round.
Now let's talk about the two biggest stars to never see the Finals, Derrick Rose and Kevin Durant. Both men are marquee players who have lifted their respective teams from obscurity to the doorstep of greatness. Still, both men are treading dangerously close to hearing the "Why haven't you won a championship yet?" questions that chase LeBron James.
For Rose, this will be he and the Bulls' second straight season as the overall number 1. But whereas last year's postseason began with Rose accepting his MVP trophy, this postseason starts with Rose being his team's biggest question mark. The team was able to hang onto the league's best record while Rose missed significant time with multiple injuries. And you'd like to believe he'll be ready to step in and play at the level we've become accustomed to, it's just hard to imagine he won't have some rust to shake off. And a feisty, defense-first squad like Philadelphia might not be the best medicine, followed most likely by an even better defensive unit in the Boston Celtics. Look, the safe money is on Chicago, but don't be surprised if they look less like Jordan's Bulls and more like Artest's.
But the biggest storyline and most common factor from last season is this: All of the pressure is on LeBron James and the Miami Heat. This is the way it will be and the way it should be, until BronBron brings an NBA title to Biscayne Bay.
All the other championship contenders have some sort of excuse if things don't break their way. Boston, LA & San Antonio are old. Chicago is banged up. Dallas lost their mojo. OKC has never been there before.
For Miami, there are no excuses. Yes, they have all the same flaws they had last year, but that doesn't matter. Because they have LeBron James.
Fortunately for LeBron, this year's road to the Finals looks significantly easier than last year's. Unless Mike Woodson really is the defensive mastermind he's been made out to be lately around NYC, the Knicks don't seem like much of a threat in the first round. Iman Schumpert and Landry Fields have looked like top-tier defenders at times, but asking them to guard James & Wade night after night seems like too much. What about Carmelo you ask? Well… defense and Melo don't really… hang out that often. Conversely, the Heat have four different players who can guard Anthony. And while the Knicks have improved defensively, their offense still revolves around Melo scoring and scoring big.
After that comes either the Orlando Magic, who lost their edge against Miami when Howard went down, or the rising, but not ready for primetime, Pacers. Is it foolish to dismiss a Pacers team that quietly had the league's fifth best record? Possibly. Do you really think I'm going to take them against the Heat? Of course not.
Presumably, the next leg of LeBron's journey will take him either to Boston or Chicago. If I had to choose right now, I think it's going to be Chicago, but I have almost no confidence in that choice. As I said before, Rose is banged up and has barely played in the last month. Plus, he hasn't beaten the Celtics in the playoffs before. And if any team can figure out a way to shut him down, it's Boston. Still, the only person who knows the Celtics as well as Doc Rivers is Tom Thibodeau. Ergo, I flip flop on my own opinions as I write them. Whatever.
Regardless of whether I'm right or wrong, the Heat have one common advantage over both possible conference finals opponents. They beat them both in 5 games last year. So my gut tells me that the team with more talent that beat Chicago in this same series a year ago will do it again, sending the Heat back to the Finals for the second year in a row.
But that's where my crystal ball begins to really cloud up. Every day, I feel like a different team could make it out of the West. The obvious choice to make is the Oklahoma City Thunder. And Lord knows, if they can get through the Mavericks, Lakers and Spurs (their most likely paths), they'll be more than deserving of OKC's first Western Conference title. But can they? I do worry about Westbrook. If he shows that he gets it and gets Durant the ball in crunch time, they can make it. If not, either LA or San Antonio might be able to knock them out. Still, the safest bet is that the Thunder will finally break through and make their first Finals appearance.
In the end, I think it's a moot point. I'd honestly love to see any of those western teams make it to the Finals. For me, these playoffs, regardless of the outcome, will all come down to King James. Months after the Finals are over, most people will remember them as the title that LeBron did or didn't win. Love him or hate him, he's that big a deal. His team's flaws will be overlooked, while all of his will be spotlighted and exposed. If the Heat win the title, but his numbers are paltry, it will be remembered as the championship trip where he was proven to be unclutch. Or if he dominates the stats sheet, but they come up short, he'll be the selfish ball hog who's never going to win a title. Only winning and winning impressively will undo this treatment. And I think he understands this. I believe he knows the hole he has dug for himself and he's made great strides this season to put himself in a position to get out of it.
Ultimately, I do believe that LeBron James & the Miami Heat will win the championship. But I'm also smart enough to know I'm not smart enough to know for sure. All I know for sure is that I can't wait to watch.