Thursday, May 04, 2006

HOOPLAH! NBA PLAYOFFS

Before I finish my incredibly detailed, time-intensive NFL draft analysis, I thought I'd touch upon the NBA's circus; the playoffs.

Sure, the playoff structure is somewhat laughable seeing as how teams with .500 records (or in some cases teams with losing records) receive playoff seeds. Even so, the Association's second season is rife with controversy, upsets, and plain ol' good Basketball. Take the formerly hapless Clippers as an example. For years this was a team that couldn't get out of its own way, but now, after some money was spent on payroll, the team is on a roll. PF Elton Brand is quietly assembling a Hall of Fame caliber career, SF Corey Maggette is both clutch and tough as nails, and young PG Shaun Livingston, finally healthy, has rare court vision and tremendous upside. Without doubt, the Clipps' are a team that NO ONE wants to face.
In turn the Heat, a club that was just a couple of baskets away from the NBA Finals last year, saw their roster purged of solid players such as SG Eddie Jones and F Qyntel Woods during this past off-season. What did Miami receive in return? A pair of aging players who are accustomed to being "1st option shooters" in PG Gary Payton and F Antoine Walker. Neither player has the endurance to run up and down the court, Walker has never been a very good defender, and Payton's days of sticking to a ball handler's hip are long gone.
Shaquille O'Neal petitioned team President Pat Riley and head coach Stan Van Gundy to acquire his good friend Walker. In satisfying the long time face of the NBA, Riley only weakened his team.

But let's not delve into such matters here. Instead, let's take a quick look at how each series shook-out or is shaping up.

Cavaliers V. Wizards: Currently 3-2 in favor of Cleveland, this series has seen LeBron James take yet another step forward in his quest to become the most dominant player in all of Basketball. After averaging 31.4 points, 7 Rebounds and 6.6 Assists per game during the regular season, James has actually increased his level of intensity. "King James" is averaging 36+ points, 5+ Assists, and 7+ 'boards per game while playing an average of 46 minutes per game.
James put on an absolute clinic last night and much like "MJ" used to do with his mid-90's Bulls, LeBron put the team on his back and almost single-handedly willed them to a 121-120 OT victory. Of course... his 41 point game certainly played a factor, but so too did his relaxed demeanor and ability to drain a vastly improved Jumper. The 21 year old Hoopstah' prodigy has always been able to attack the rim, but now that he can sink 'em from distance... LeBron James has become a complete Basketball player and has just begun to show us his greatness. The Wizards are unable to contain James, and with PF Drew Gooden averaging a 10+/10+ Double-Double and SG Larry Hughes' hand not quite the issue it was, Washington can't match-up with all of Cleveland's weapons.
Wizard PG Gilbert Arenas appears to match-up well with James statistically (33+/5+/4+) but his Basketball IQ is somewhat suspect. And, after SF Antawn Jamison (averaging 20/7+/2+), Washington is a thin group and C Brendan Haywood is clearly over-matched by Cleveland's Zydrunas "Big Z" Ilgauskas.
One game away from being swept aside, the Cav's are ready to make the Wizards... disappear!

Nets V. Pacers: In a previous column I wrote that "if any first round favorite stands to be upset it is the New Jersey Nets." Leading the series 3 games to 2, a contest I predicted would go to Jersey in 6, the Nets have benefited from the dynamic play of SG Vince Carter and the stepped-up game of C Nenad Krstic (18+/7+ with 1 Block per game). Carter has shot almost 58% from the field while averaging a hair over 30 PPG, and his standout 34 point, 15 'board, 7 dime' Game 3 effort will likely prove to be the key to this series, assuming Jersey takes care of business and puts the Pacers down tonight. PG Jason Kidd, the undisputed team leader, has struggled mightily to get his game untracked over the course of this series. But as all real leaders do Kidd has contributed in any and every way possible, he's managed to "play within himself," and he has refused to get so frustrated as to take the team down with him. During the regular season JKidd shot 40.4% from the floor and 35.2% from distance, drained 13+ PPG, pulled down 7+ Rebounds and distributed 8+ Assists. Over this series, though, the effervescent point has been unable to develop any kind of rhythm, shooting just 30% from the field, a ghastly 18.8% from 3-point land, and is averaging 8/6+/10. But that's just it; great Point Guards elevate the play of those around them, and Kidd's 10 "helpers" per game have been just as valuable, if not more so, than points. Unable to decide precisely whom to cover, the Pacers have worn themselves thin and are getting worn out.
PF Jermaine O'Neal is a monster and has continued to play hard-nosed Basketball, but because high scoring SF Peja Stojakovic is hobbled and has been unable to play due to a bad right knee, Indiana... much like the Washington Wizards, is sorely lacking in weapons. After averaging almost 20/6+ during the regular season, Peja is notching just 11/4.5 in the 2 post-season games he's been able to play. Frankly, Indy' just can't survive that kind of drop-off in productivity from the club's #2 scoring option.

Bulls V. Heat: I briefly touched upon this series in the article's intro. The Heat lead the series 3-2, but not because Miami has so outplayed the Bulls. In fact, the Heat are extraordinarily fortunate to be in the position they're in. Although there's been talk of a decline in Shaquille O'Neal's game for several seasons, this post-season has truly illustrated just how slow "The Big Aristotle" has become. Never a strong free throw shooter and increasingly foul-prone, the Bulls defensive strategy has been to collapse upon the big man and force him into ill-advised passes and ugly shots. Frustratingly, most of O'Neal's teammates have also floundered around the rim... largely because they've been unable to get to the rim! Chicago has done a great job of preventing Miami from getting the ball into the paint. Forced to play a perimeter game, Payton is shooting just 30.8%, Walker 27.8% (37.8% from the floor), Jason Williams 30.8% (40% from the floor), and Wade a horrifying 16.7% (42.3% from the field). Derek Anderson, at 44.4%, is the only South Florida player with a respectable 3-point shooting percentage (better than his 41.7% from the floor) probably because he's only made 9 attempts!
Unless Van Gundy decides to radically change his alignment the Heat, even if they slip past Chicago, will go nowhere this year. The Bulls have done a brilliant job defending 'Twan Walker, who has stolen valuable minutes from the gritty, do-everything PF Udonis Haslem. An unheralded player, Haslem will throw his body around with abandon, clean the boards like Windex, and possesses the game-time intensity that is missing from the current Miami incarnation. Oddly enough, the post-season fortunes of the Miami Heat, at least the 1st round fortunes, won't be decided by either Shaquille O'Neal or his SG crony, Wade. Nope', Miami needs help from a most unlikely source; their rough and ready Power Forward.

2 Comments:

At 2:01 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi,

I wanted to thank you for your article in today's blog regarding the Nets. I'm not a season ticket holder yet, but I've been going to every playoff game. I can tell you that Tuesday nights game was unbelievable, the energy in the arena was intense. I think the biggest story of the series isn't the lack of Jason Kidd's scoring, but rather the extraordinary talent, potential and heart of Nenad Krstic. In the last game Krstic was fouled repeatedly, and the refs chose to not make the calls; yet he persevered and ended up having an excellent game again. In fact, Krstic has been the one of the only Nets that have played consistently and delivered every playoff game - playing as if each is his last game of the season.

It would be great if the Net's win tonight and they finally receive some FRONT PAGE coverage they deserve. I'm embarrassed to see the Yankees getting more coverage in the daily sports sections of each NY based paper; rather then the Net's run for the playoffs. The Net's are a true NY Metropolitan sports team, even if they abandon NJ for the dreaded move to Brooklyn. The fact is the Net's are a phenomenal team, with some of the best players in the NBA. Namely Vince Carter, Richard Jefferson, Jason Kidd and of course the new rising star Nenad Krstic. Who in only his second season in the NBA has helped carry them to the next level. Krstic grew up in war torn Serbia, and was chosen to participate in the 2004 Olympics in Athens as a member of Serbia and Montenegro National Team. I would even dare to compare Krstic who is showing signs of being the next Larry Bird. After all how many 7 foot white guys can shoot consistently 15 foot jumpers and foul shots over 50%?

Thank you,

Andrew S.

 
At 4:47 PM, Blogger Jamey said...

Andrew- Allow me to preface by thanking you for reading my Blog. A labor of love, it's particularly rewarding when a reader sees fit to comment upon a piece.
Now, in the blurb I wrote about the Nets in my recent; "NBA Playoffs; Breaking Down the Eastern Conference!" I focused upon Krstic, "...Here's a team that finally looks to be complete... In Nenad Krstic the team boasts a legit' Center. The dude really came on over the final 1/3 of the season and can both score AND rebound. While he may not be a tremendous shot blocker, Krstic is a true 7-footer and is able to force opponents to alter their shots."

Now, Kidd's line (8/11/11) was stellar, he was the catalyst behind last night's victory, and his unselfish play and willingness to contribute in any way possible was arguably the key to the entire series. Of course, Richard Jefferson and Vince Carter form one of the leagues' most dangerous 1-2 punches and each has elevated his game over the course of this post-C'. But Krstic is special. Almost an afterthought entering the season, the Net Center forced opponents to respect his game and, without his height and intensity, it's quite possible the Nets wouldn't be advancing to the next round. Nenad's intangibles are impressive, and his contributions don't always manifest themselves in the boxscore. The waning minutes of last night's game are a prime example. I know you watched the game... but bear with me for a moment.
Consider that with a little less than 3 1/2 minutes remaining in the contest and the score 87-85, Krstic buried a 2 AND managed to draw Jermaine O'Neal's 5th personal. After completing the 3 point play and the Net lead back up to 5, O'Neal was forced to play with uncharacteristic caution for fear of fouling out. The Pacers continued to play balls-to-the-wall Hoops, especially an Un-Freakin'-Conscious Anthony Johnson who dialed in from distance, AGAIN, and made the contest a 92-90 nail-biter with his 3. Jersey whittled precious time off the clock and with just 15 seconds left in regulation, Indy' fouled our friend Nenad... who promptly sunk both foul shots, extended the Net lead to 4, and essentially salted the game away.
While calling Krstic the "next Larry Bird" might be a bit... enthusiastic? Comparing him to a young Dirk Nowitzki might be more accurate... and there's no shame in being the Giant German's protoge'! Krstic isn't quite the ball-handler Nowitzki is... yet. But the youngster is willing and eager to learn and you're quite right; few 7-footers possess his range and athleticism. It wouldn't be a shocker if he reaches All-Star status within the next 3 seasons. Indeed, irregardless of where the Nets are playing... and Brooklyn (I grew up there and my cousins still reside there) is ill-suited to house a professional Basketball franchise, the club would be wise to lock him up to a long-term contract (he inked a VERY friendly 3 year/ $3 milly' dollar deal with a $1.88 4th year team option in '04) sooner rather than later.

 

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