OKLAHOMA CITY VS. HOUSTON: OKC in 4
The Rockets are cute.The Thunder are for real.
SAN ANTONIO VS. LA LAKERS: SA in 6
This series will be a microcosm of the Lakers’ season: they’ll play well enough to get your attention, then once they have it they’ll put up a stinker.
DENVER VS. GOLDEN STATE: GS in 6
The Nuggets are cute. Stephen Curry is for real.
LA CLIPPERS VS. MEMPHIS: LAC in 7
An asterisk: if one of the Grizzlies murders Chris Paul for flopping mid-series, I’m picking Memphis.
#1 OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER (60-22)
THE GOOD: TheThunder looked better this regular season than they did last year, when they lost in the Finals. Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and Serge Ibaka, their 3 best players, all improved; Reggie Jackson has emerged as a playoff X-factor; Kevin Martin’s production off the bench helped soothe the unwanted trading away of ex-Thunder beardista James Harden (If you’re keeping score: OKC traded Harden, Atlanta traded Joe Johnson, and Memphis traded Rudy Gay, all instances of teams that slowly built good rosters, then blew them up at the peak of their competitive powers because the new luxury tax penalties—the ones that don’t scare the Nets’ supervillain owner, or the Clippers’ racist owner, or the Lakers’ dead owner, or the Knicks’ unholy-pig-of-a-boss owner—scared them off from paying to keep key players. So remember: in 4 years, when the owners once again lockout the players and shut down the season because THEY HAVE TO PROTECT SMALL MARKET TEAMS: that’s why they locked out 2011. And if you believe that, I have an electronic voting machine from Ohio you may be interested in).
THE BAD: The Heat have improved even more than the Thunder. Being better in the regular season doesn’t mean you will be in the playoffs. Harden could break defenses down off the dribble and create for others. Kevin Martin is a nice shooter, and that’s about it. Harden was a Swiss Army Knife inside Harpo Marx’s coat and worn by Inspector Gadget. Kevin Martin is a spork.
THE UGLY: Durant and Westbrook are starting to give off sparks like Kobe and Shaq did back in the day. The Thunder’s window may be shorter than typically assumed. Also,Kevin Durant continued his odd Billy Madison-routine this year: his first few years in the NBA, Durant carried himself like the world’s tallest 3rdgrader, wearing nerdy glasses and backpacks to press conferences and hugging his mom after every whistle/dead ball and being the media’s panacea vs. LeBron (“Durant stayed with OKC,” they sniffed. “He didn’t leave town like LeBron!”…ignoring the million and one differences in their personal situations…ignoring the different quality of teammates they were paired with (Durant chose to stay with a team built to win; LeBron chose to leave a Cleveland team built to weigh him down)…ignoring the different collective bargaining agreements in place when Durant chose to re-sign versus when LeBron had to make his decision…ignoring the fact that it is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of legendary b-ball skillz must want to showcase this skillz in a venue worthy of his resonance. To put it another way: go to Cleveland sometime, stop every 25-year old you see on the street, and ask them if—money being equal—they’d rather stay in Cleveland and a job that requires they multitask their asses off, and it still may not be enough to save the company, or move to South Beach and enjoy a lighter workload while working alongside their best friends. Boy, that LeBron sure was a jerk, huh?). Durant has begun to act like a surly teenager, even busting out the year’s most curious performance art when, after going full-court and dunking against Golden State, he made a throat-slash gesture and followed it up by folding his hands in prayer and looking up. That’s Old Testament vibes & New Testament vibes in one act. Props, KD.
DID YOU KNOW? Though functionally literate, Thunder coach Scott Brooks cannot actually coach.
#2 SAN ANTONIO SPURS (58-24)
THE GOOD: Like Bob Hope, Dick Clark, and Mother Theresa, the Spurs just keep on keeping on, apparently immortal, raising spirits along the way. The Spurs reinvent offense, reinvent defense, re-reinvent both, and never miss a beat; 15 years at or near the top has established San Antonio as the basketball- and business-model other organizations aspire to be.
THE BAD: Apparently Bob Hope, Dick Clark, and Mother Theresa are all dead. Hmm. Well, the Spurs are still vertical, at least…but it’s been 6 years since they last won a title. And they’re pretty banged up. And they got their doors blown off at the end of last year vs. OKC. And OKC may be better this year.
THE UGLY: One day, perhaps one day very soon, the Spurs will not have a Hall of Fame 7-footer to build around. I know, I know: it’s been 25 years since that was the case, and once a decade the Spurs win a clearly un-rigged lottery and pick up a Hallof Fame 7-footer. But one day they won’t have a Hall of Fame 7-footer. They won’t. They can’t. Since the Knicks traded Patrick Ewing, I’ve lived through Luc Longley…Felton Spencer…Travis Knight…Eddy Curry…Eddy Curry…Eddy Curry…Jerome James…Eddy Curry…IT’S NOT FAIR.
DID YOU KNOW? If you stand in front of your bathroom mirror with the lights off and say “Bloody Mary” three times, Gregg Popovich will appear in the reflection. In his spare time, Pop likes to scare people.
#3 DENVER NUGGETS (57-25)
THE GOOD: Unlike Indiana and Philadelphia, who said “Superstars? We don’t need no stinkin’ superstars” and then proceeded to built two of the most unwatchable teams in history, Denver’s starless show is actually wildly entertaining. Taking advantage of 41 home games a year played a mile above sea level, the Nuggets’present an athletic & psychological dare to opponents: they know most players/teams feel most confident in open court/running situations. The Nuggets run every chance they get, drawing the other team into a track meet, where Denver excels. They were historically great at home this year. And their uniforms have always, ALWAYS been among the best in the league.
THE BAD: They can’t play every game at home. And despite their depth, there are players you just can’t replicate if they go down with an injury. For Denver, Danilo Gallinari is one of those players. In the playoffs, especially, teams have to be able to score in slower tempos. Gallinari was Denver’s best shooter and he gets to the free throw line, but he’s out for the year. Teams like the Nuggets are like a house of cards: mesmerizing when it’s all together, but take away any part & the rest starts wobbling.
THE UGLY: Denver may have drawn the one team in the playoffs as comfortable as they are playing at a fast pace: Golden State. The postseason often boils down to health and matchups. That’s 2 strikes against the Nuggets right off the bat.
DID YOU KNOW? Denver center Timofey Mozgov was once the Nets’ supervillian owner’s personal Golem.
#4 LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS (56-26)
THE GOOD: This was the most successful regular season in Clippers’ history, a context as uninspiring as someone being Stalin’s deadest enemy. Still, they won their division for the first time and more games than ever before. Chris Paul cemented his status as the most ornery great player in the game today. Blake Griffin’s game blossomed, even with him filming 8 new commercials a day. The Clippers’ bench was as good some teams’ starters. Coach Vinny Del Negro went all year without punching somebody.
THE BAD: Vinny Del Negro went all year as the Clippers’ head coach. Why is that a problem? Because Vinny’s offensive philosophy has yet to grow beyond pointing at Chris Paul and shouting “Save us!” And as great as Paul is, that isn’t a blueprint for success against teams that can throw credible defenders at him (Memphis & Tony Allen/OKC & Thabo Sefalosha/MIA & that LeBron fellow.).
THE UGLY: How awful is Clipper owner Donald Sterling? Not just as an owner, but as a human being? Seriously: Google Donald Sterling sometime. This guy is an embarrassment to carbon-based bipeds everywhere. If there is life on Saturn’s moon, Titan, you can bet they think Donald Sterling’s an embarrassment to the Milky Way. Here’s all you need to know about how bad Donald Sterling is, just as an owner:he’s worse than James Dolan. That’s right. Unholy-pig-of-a-boss James Dolan is BETTER than Donald Sterling.
DID YOU KNOW? Dolan still sucks.
#5 MEMPHIS GRIZZLIES (56-26)
THE GOOD: Memphis appeals to a lot of demographics. They’re a balanced team, rather than one or two stars and a bunch of acolytes (see: Lakers, Los Angeles). They had to deal with a new owner trading away a key player to save money, possibly derailing their dark horse title hopes, yet overcame that disruption to raise their level of play even higher. They are the one team nobody in the East or West wants to play, in large part because Memphis plays physical, felonious defense, like something out of the 1990s.
THE BAD: The Grizzlies’offense also seems like something out of the 1990s: they can post-up, they have as good a big man rotation as you’ll find, but as far as shooting goes…wherever you live in the world, if you go to your local basketball courts today and watch pickup games, you will see someone who shoots better than the Grizzlies’shooters. You will also see that one guy who wears all the freshest gear and talks a big game—usually he fancies himself a point guard—and once the game starts you realize he’s all talk; the hot potato guy, who cuts and moves like he knows the game, but as soon as the ball’s in his hand he’s looking to get rid of it; the Patrick Ewing guy, who’s dripping sweat by the time you’ve finished shooting free throws to pick teams (I’ve become that guy); and the guy who, whenever you post him up, you can’t tell if he’s breathing heavily from playing D or because he’s that one guy out of ten who likes you banging your body into his.
THE UGLY: Everything Memphis does is ugly! They’re like a boxer who wants a close-up, jabs & short uppercuts kind of scrum. Memphis can’t throw a roundhouse. But they’ll bruise your kidney something fierce (which is still better than James Dolan charging ticket prices that may as well be for your kidney).
DID YOU KNOW? The city of Memphis has no grizzly bears. The team is called the Grizzlies because when they first played they were in Vancouver, and in the more than 10 years since they moved to Memphis, nobody has bothered to come up with something that has anything the hell to do with Tennessee. There are no lakes in Los Angeles, no jazz clubs in Salt Lake City, no grizzly bears in Memphis, and fewer wizards in Washington than assclowns.
#6 GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS (47-35) THE GOOD: Golden State is fun to watch. Always. Home or away. And it seems like they’ve always been that way. I’ve watched the NBA for 25 years. Golden State always seems to play a high-octane, fast-paced, exciting brand of basketball. Phoenix, too. It’s like they took an oath to always play one way. I don’t know what it’s like for their fans to root for a team who always plays an iconoclastic style. As a fan of the game itself, I’m grateful for Golden State. And their fans are fantastic.
THE BAD: Trusting the Warriors to have success in the playoffs is like Charlie Brown thinking Lucy won’t pull the football away this time. There’s just soooo much evidence against their all-offense/no-defense style succeeding big-time. You have to have a bit of the active nihilist in you to root for them: accept that the destination is somewhere you will never reach, freeing you to enjoy the fractals & nuances of the journey.
THE UGLY: Someone on the Warriors will suffer an ugly, serious injury during the playoffs. Mark it. Maybe that’s the basketball gods punishing them for their iconoclasm. But guaranteed: someone’s getting hurt. Bad.
DID YOU KNOW? Warriors forward Richard Jefferson, who always seemed like a twat in New Jersey, once left his fiancée at the altar. I don’t know details. I don’t need to. I just wanted to remind you all that RJ’s a twat.
#7 LOS ANGELES LAKERS (45-37)
THE GOOD: Hmmm………………………..well……………………Kobe didn’t hold a press conference to announce he’s contracted the virus that causes AIDS. 10 games into the season, when Mike Brown was fired, the Lakers didn’t bring Magic Johnson back for another ugly stint as coach. Kermit Washington did not punch Robert Sacre in the face, despite Sacre’sunconscionable behavior at the end of the bench all year.
THE BAD: Almost everything went wrong. A team built to be Miami’s biggest threat would have been the worst team in California if the Kings didn’t exist…and they may be moving to Seattle,so the Lakers may lose that safety net. Their key players are old, overpaid, and injury-prone of late. Steve Nash broke his leg. Kobe tore his Achilles. Pau Gasol had foot issues—never a good sign for an aging7-footer. Also: Kermit Washington should have punched Robert Sacre in the face.
THE UGLY: Not too long ago, the Lakers had Chris Paul to pair with Kobe, and probably would have added Howard to that mix. Now Paul is in the building, only as a Clipper; Kobe’s future is in doubt, given his mileage and the severity of his injury. But the real ugliness will come if Howard decides to leave LA.
DID YOU KNOW? If you punch Robert Sacre in the face, you can claim it as a charitable deduction on your federal tax return (this exemption varies from state to state)
#8 HOUSTON ROCKETS (45-37)
THE GOOD: James Harden. Those uniforms. The up-and-down, breakneck style of play. A certain Ivy-educated point guard who unholy-pig-of-a-boss James Dolan drove out of NY. Chandler Parsons. It was easy to root for coach Kevin McHale already, due to his quick wit in interviews and willingness to subjugate his ego & philosophy to his players; when McHale’s young daughter passed away during the season after a long illness, as he was hugged after a game by Kevin Garnett, McHale cried. It was gut-wrenching and poignant. Some teams just seem like good guys. That’s Houston.
THE BAD: The Rockets are an intriguing work in progress, and one that is ahead of schedule. At some point, they will have to play defense. And they still need one more big player to really raise eyebrows around the league—Dwight Howard would look awfully nice in that lineup for the next 5 years or so.
THE UGLY: Had the Rockets won one more game, they would have finished 6th and had a puncher’s chance to knock off the banged-up Nuggets and face the Spurs in the 2ndround, a team they may have scared with their balls-to-the-wall style of play. Oklahoma City is not a good matchup for Houston: while Harden will be motivated against his old team, the Thunder will be equally motivated against their old teammate.
DID YOU KNOW? I still can’t believe the Rockets beat the Knicks in 1994. If I ever see Pat Riley, I’m performing a citizen’s arrest and I won’t let him go until he explains why he replaced Xavier McDaniel with Charles Smith, why he didn’t give Rolando Blackman some run in Game 7 when John Starks was bricklaying, and if he’d ever consider coming back to run the Knicks…assuming we’ve found someone to get rid of their unholy-pig-of-a-boss first.