I love this game

by

It’s playoff time!

It’s amazing how memories can stick in our brains. My first memory in life is a hazy one of burying our dog Bo in the backyard in California. I don’t remember much about it, but I can remember being sad and hearing crickets. I’ve confirmed that this event did occur, so I’m not completely crazy, but the existence of the alleged crickets has yet to be verified.  While the memory of Bo is far from clear, my first sports memories are in HD quality. The first one is being devastated because the White Sox had lost to the Toronto Blue Jays in the 1993 ALCS. My dad told me then and again in 2003, “Don’t love this team, they’ll break your heart.” The other memory that stands out is more of a series of events. From 1991-1993 I was lucky enough to experience the Chicago Bulls winning 3 straight championships, and since we didn’t have a TV at this time, this meant that I was lucky enough to watch the games with my dad at Flakey Jake’s; a local bar and restaurant in Tacoma. The first 2 title runs are a little fuzzy, but I’ll always remember the 3rd. Going up against a juggernaut of a Phoenix team that had Barkley, Majerle, Ceballos and KJ, this was the one series in the title runs where I felt the Bulls didn’t have the clear edge in talent. What they did have was the best player on the planet. Jordan absolutely took over the series, averaging 41 points per game in over 45 minutes per game, including 55 points in a triple overtime thriller. The champs asserted their will over the length of the series, which culminated in token 3 point shooting white guy, John Paxson nailing the clinching jumper in the closing seconds of Game 6. . Between the video games in the lobby, spending time with my Dad and watching my favorite team cement their dynasty, this is one of my favorite sports memories of all time. The potential for these iconic moments and great memories is a big part of what makes the NBA playoffs so special to me. A lot of people don’t care much for NBA basketball, citing a lack of effort, thuggishness by players or even boredom with  the game itself. I won’t worry about that too much, because as much as I wish everyone would enjoy basketball as much as I do, if you don’t like something, no argument from me is going to change your mind.
While there are 16 teams in the playoffs, it’s widely assumed that there are 3 legitimate contenders to go along with 3 more teams that could make  run if things break the right way.
My official pick is Warriors over Cavs in 6, and while I’m excited for the playoff debuts of ‘The Brow’, ‘Greek Freak’ and Coach Brad Stevens, I’ll focus more on the contenders and what to expect from them.

The Heavyweights:
Golden State Warriors: Despite a 51 win season and the general consensus that they were a team on the rise, the Warriors cut ties with coach Mark Jackson in favor of rookie coach, Steve Kerr. Although he was a part of many championship teams and is widely considered one of the more intelligent players in league history, Kerr had zero coaching experience at any level. Many people publicly speculated whether the Warriors made a mistake in firing an established coach for a rookie wild card. Could he manage young superstars? Would the offense truly click with two ball dominant shooters? Would they play any defense? The answer to all 3 questions has been a resounding yes. Under Kerr’s tutelage, both Steph Curry and Klay Thompson have taken a leap from lovable scorers with a fun nickname (The Splash Brothers) to a pair of bona-fide crunch time killers; liable to go off at any moment. With the likely MVP, Coach of the Year and Defensive Player of the year all in the fold, the Dubs led the league in defensive efficiency and were second in offensive efficiency en route to a 67 win season and a Plus-10 point differential per game. For historical reference, only 7 other teams have accomplished that ridiculous statistic and 6 of them won the NBA title. Beyond the functional brilliance of Golden State, there are few things more enjoyable than Draymond Green mean mugging everyone, Harrison Barnes dunking on fools and The Splash Brothers going crazy.

Cleveland Cavaliers: When LeBron James announced he was going back to Cleveland, everyone was quick to attribute it to his love of the city and desire to make history where he grew up. While this is a cute and fuzzy narrative, the truth reflects a far more calculating and intelligent LeBron. James, who was neither born, nor raised in Cleveland, left an aging Heat roster with serious cap issues for a Cavs roster with cap room and the best scoring point guard in the Eastern Conference. When they traded for Kevin Love, people jumped to crown them as a budding juggernaut and automatic title favorite. After a horrendously mediocre first half of the season that saw an old-looking LeBron, over-matched David Blatt at head coach, a selfish Kyrie Irving and a bewildered Kevin Love, the same people who rushed to anoint the Cavs were just as quick to write them off. Everything turned around after LeBron took a 2 week break to rest his body in South Beach. After his return, the Cavs went on a 34-10 run and re-established themselves as a heavy favorite to bring home the title. Despite a thin bench and  lack of backup bigs, they still have LeBron, and that counts for an awful lot.

San Antonio Spurs: The Spurs were known as being under-appreciated and underrated so much that I was afraid the narrative had changed to the point where they were on the edge of being overrated. Gregg Popovich is notorious for resting players, but beyond their usual disdain for the regular season, the Spurs looked lethargic; fat and happy from their title run in 2014. What most people failed to factor in was the leap coming from Kawhi Leonard. Despite his Finals MVP, he was still viewed as a complementary piece: a great defender who could give you the occasional offensive burst. Since the All-Star break, Leonard has averaged 18 points on 53 percent shooting to go along with lock down defense that has many comparing him to a young Scottie Pippen. While I’m not ready to compare him to my favorite Bull of all time, there’s no question that his return from injury was the key factor in the Spurs recent run and the reason for hope in the postseason.

The Warriors, Cavs and Spurs definitely have the smart money, but part of what makes the playoffs so much fun is the mystery team. Every year there seems to be a team that lurks as a stealth contender all season before making a deep run. For years it was the San Antonio Spurs, but the level of admiration they have keeps them from ever being a dark horse again. There are three other teams who have a semi-realistic shot to win the title, but also have at least one fatal flaw that could derail them.

The Dreamers: 

Atlanta Hawks: The Hawks were the other darling of the NBA season. Led by long time Popovich disciple, Mike Budenholzer, the Hawks established themselves as “Spurs East”, fully embracing a ‘no superstar’, free-flowing style made possible by versatile players like Paul Millsap and Al Horford to go with an otherworldly season by Ashton Kutcher look-a-like Kyle Korver. For fans of unselfish basfketball, they were a drug we couldn’t get enough of. After a decent start the Hawks went on a 19 game winning streak to propel themselves to a conference lead they would not relinquish. Between fun things like Tinder Night,  “Emoji King” Mike Scott and a switch to their Pac-Man style logo  they won the hearts of both Atlanta die-hards and casual fans alike.With all that being said, a second half slump and some ugly legal issues at the end of the season robbed them of both their shiny, new toy exterior and a key perimeter player. As a fan of team first basketball and a hater of LeBron James, I’m rooting for the Hawks to come out of the East. As a realist, I don’t see any way that happens.
Houston Rockets: An analytics enthusiast, Rockets GM Daryll Morey took a lot of flack for his unconventional team building technique. His focus was on asset collection with the end game of acquiring multiple game changing stars to fit into a specific modern system. Based on advanced statistical thinking, the entire offense relies on an obsession with layups, free throws and three pointers. Old-school knuckleheads like Charles Barkley aren’t big fans of the style, but it’s impossible to argue with the results. The combination of James Harden’s brilliance and contributions from secondary players like Jason Terry and Corey Brewer has led the Rockets to a 2 seed and the designation as the team all the NBA Nerds root for. While fans of traditional basketball have a tough time embracing the style employed by Coach McHale and the Rockets, there’s something oddly enjoyable about a team going all in with modern thinking. The Rockets are the highest variance team in the West: they could lose in the first round to the dangerous Mavericks just as easily as they could make a run to the Finals.

Chicago Bulls: 
Last, but hopefully not least, my favorite team. At the beginning of the season, the common line of thinking was that if the Bulls could stay healthy, they could challenge the big boys for the title. Anyone who has watched this team regularly knew that this was a tall order, and the results have borne this out all season. Joakim Noah has no cartilage left in his knees, Derrick Rose doesn’t trust his body, Jimmy Butler only has one functional arm and Kirk Hinrich has turned into the Bluesmobile at the end of Blues Brothers. With that being said, I’m a complete homer, so IF the Bulls can stay healthy they could make a serious run this year. Pau Gasol is a defensive liability, but he provides the first low post threat since Elton Brand left town. Jimmy Butler made himself a lot of money with his jump in play this season and if they get 80 percent of Derrick Rose, they have a legitimate offense for the first time since the mid 90’s. Again, this is a big IF, and i’m sure I’ll be disappointed.

Between the start of the MLB season, the NHL Playoffs and the NBA Playoffs, this truly is my favorite part of spring, and I’m hoping for a Bulls title to add to my collection. With that being said, I sure don’t expect it, but I’m happy to go along for the ride.  

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