Thursday, May 3, 2012

MAMBINO NBA Playoffs Roundtable

Look, we know you guys get sick of just me and BockerKnocker dominating the page. We get it. Handsome doesn't translate on the internet, otherwise you'd probably want more of us. But technology being the way it is, we're going to share the MAMBINO wealth and open up a NBA Playoffs roundtable to our stable of fine friends and writers - AO, El Miz, Thunderstolt, The King and of course, us two idiots. We're going to ask a few key questions in any series, and give our aficionados room to answer. Let's go!


Q: Can the Sixers win this series now? Seriously?

This is unfortunate. The Philadelphia Lucky Charms didn't just "steal" Game 2 from the Chicago Bulls. They looked them dead in the eye, smelled the blood left in the water by Derrick Rose's torn ACL, told Chicago they would win, and then did just that. So it can't be called "stealing" if Chicago essentially gave their apartment keys to Jrue Holiday and Lou Williams and watched while they ransacked the place. And it must have been tough to see Chicago native Evan Turner take one game back to Philly after Turner told the world that he preferred to play Chicago over Miami. Oh, and I almost forgot that Scottie Pippen sent a pre-game letter to the team trying to rally the troops. So if one of the game's best players of all-time can't get you psyched up to beat a freaking 8-seed at home, then YES, the Sixers can definitely win this series.

Q: What do the Bulls have to do to turn this around? Who has to step up just to beat Philly?
BockerKnocker: The obvious answer is first-time All-Star Luol Deng, who must shoulder most of the scoring load that Rose would have gladly taken. Luol, I get that you're hurting, but if you're gonna suit up, this team won't win if you score 8 points.

But I think the real answer is Carlos Boozer. It's one thing to make superstar-level money and not back up your contract with superstar-level play, but it's another to put up the same numbers when a key player goes down for the count. If he can't contribute more than 9 points and 5 rebounds in a game that the team so desperately needed to shake off the stink of Rose's injury, then Boozer has fully earned the nickname "Beach Muscles." And that would be extra fitting, because the way things are going, he'll have an early start to the summer.

I just read that part over again. 9 points and 5 rebounds in Game 2!? The guy is owed approximately 47 million dollars (!!!) through 2015. He needs to be Amnestied. And not after the playoffs. NOW.


Q:  Other than the obvious injuries to STAT & Shump, what has gone wrong?
If this wasn't digital, you'd see BockerKnocker's tears on the page
El Miz:  Everything. Newly minted DPOY by the NBA and the Great Mambino, Tyson Chandler got the freakin' flu in April.  I've never heard of this happening before -- I thought there was global warming or something. Should anybody get the flu after winter?  Coming into this series (and coming into this season), the front court was clearly the strength.  Chandler has been huge all year; he's been awesome on the defensive end, has come up with a number of huge rebounds and defensive plays, is so efficient offensively, and is really the one guy the Knicks have that the Heat don't really have an answer for.  Without him at 100%, the Knicks had to play essentially perfect basketball to have a chance to win.  The Knicks played basketball with execution that would not be described as perfect, and they haven't had a chance.

Moreover, I hate to blame things on the refs, but the calls the Heat got in the first game were really atrocious.  In my opinion, the Knicks had to assert themselves with a rugged physicality and really bring it to the Heat -- all chances of doing so were effectively called off when Stoudemire and Haslem got double technicals minutes into game 1 for chatter that never rose above the level of "engaged conversation."  Stoudemire blocked a weak Haslem attempt, and then sort of nodded and was talking to himself, and they exchanged words.  This was minutes into the first game of the playoffs for crying out loud!  Both were T'ed up, which indicated that the refs were going to call this one as tight as possible to prevent any sort of 90s Knicks-Heat "escalation" (as if any of these prima donnas have it in 'em to go LJ/Zo on us...yeah, right.)  After that egregious double-tech, the refs proceeded to call a foul on the Knicks every time they came within 3' of LeBron, in light of the new rule passed by the NBA which prevents any defender from coming within 3' of LeBron.  Oh wait, they didn't pass a rule like that?

Without the help of instant replay, Tyson Chandler would have been EJECTED for this foul on Queen James:

JR Smith was also whistled for allegedly pushing Queen James.  JR Smith weighs thirty pounds less than LeBron -- draw your own conclusions.

So the whistles were tight and Chandler had the flu in April.  What else went wrong, might you ask?  I was a big proponent of bringing Stoudemire off the bench when he came back from his herniated disk.  By this point it is obvious that Melo and LeBron don't play well together.  Compliments of Tom Haberstroh over at The Worldwide Leader: "the Knicks were outscored by 1.3 points every 48 minutes Amare has been on the court this year, and outscored their opponent by 7.4 points per 48 minutes when Amare is not on the court."  

We can come to our own conclusions about whether Stoudemire is washed up or whether his energy just wanes when he isn't getting his shots, but him and Melo on the floor at the same time DOES NOT WORK.  I am perhaps in the minority in believing that, when he isn't punching out fire extinguisher panels (had to get it in there somewhere), STAT is still a competent scorer as the roll guy on the pick and roll.

That said, having him and Melo on the floor at the same time makes both of them worse.  Melo's dominance in April when he was playing almost exclusively at power forward is the most obvious indicator yet that Carmelo Anthony is in fact a power forward.  Melo's got a great post game, he can score from down low, he can pass out of the post very competently, and lets face it -- Melo is more power than finesse.  He gets tired very fast when he's getting the ball on the wing and having to score from the perimeter.  Melo is tailor made for the post, and when STAT is on the floor, it takes him out of that comfort zone.  Not to mention, STAT doesn't get the ball when Melo is on the floor, and then he pouts and doesn't play as hard, and the net result is neutering the Knicks two biggest offensive options.

As a quick aside (and if this were on Grantland I'd have a footnote you could click to, but instead I'll just use these curved lines that pop up when you hold down shift and hit "9" and "0" on the keyboard), Woodson continuing to rely on that lineup makes me question whether he is the right man for this team long-term.  Woodson has been able to get Melo to buy in on D and has held everyone accountable on defense -- this is in the "Assets" side of the ledger.  But over on the "Liabilities" side, I thought Woody have the vision or gumption or call it what you want to sit down Stoudemire and explain why the bench move would work, and he didn't.  Maybe it was a chemistry thing, I have never personally spoken with Amar'e Stoudemire so I do not know if he is a proud man, a stubborn man, or a guy who sees the bigger picture.  But Amar'e should have been coming off of the bench in this series -- starting Novak would have made a lot more sense.

Finally, where was the "outside-the-box" thinking?  The Heat are better than the Knicks.  Fact.  The Knicks needed to exert their will, utilize every matchup to their advantage, and try to flummox the Heat with a few weird looks.  Did Mike Woodson & Co. watch last year's Finals?  Carlisle's coaching in that series, and his use of things like zones, using different guys on LeBron, the pace the Mavericks played -- all of that should have been mimicked.  Instead it seems like the Knickerbockers came out in Game 1 with the mentality of "We're as good as these guys, let's play them straight up" and they got run out of the freaking building.

To sum it all up -- Chandler got sick, the refs called ticky-tack fouls that prevented the Knicks from being the more physical team, LeBron decided to put together an audition tape for Vince McMahon, Woodson decided to keep playing Carmelo and Amar'e together even though it hasn't and won't ever work, Woodson also did not come up with any creative defensive looks to confuse the Heat and turn them into "Dueling Banjos and Ten Other Guys: LeBron, Wade & A Bunch of Mediocre Professional Basketball Players" (which is what I prefer to call the Heat when they are not playing well)....oh, and the Heat are just a better team.

Q:  Is there any way the Knicks can come back and win?  What would have to happen?
El Miz:  Is this a trick question?  Look; I am as big of a homer as you will find on the Knicks.  In the Mambino Email Chain Google Doc Predictions (we really need to get a sponsor or come up with a catchier name), I was the only person to pick the Knicks to win (in 7 games...there's still a chance!).  That said, I sure as hell don't think there is any chance they can come back and win. 

Oh, but there's a second question, which asks "What would have to happen?"  Okay KOBEsh, you got me.  I will engage.  Here are two scenarios I could see play out, both of which could aptly be titled "Black Swan" events, which involve the New York Knicks advancing to the Second Round:

A)  Although I will never wish injury upon any pro athlete, maybe if LeBron and Wade knocked heads and concussed each other going for a loose ball, the Knicks would have a shot.
B)  Carmelo plays "figuratively literally" out of his mind ("Figuratively literally" is a phrase which is meant to convey the scenario where a person says the word "literally" and emphasizes that they are in fact saying something that could have literally happened when in fact such an event could not literally happen and "literally" is only being said for effect; EX (overheard on the 2-train going uptown today): "Yo ... I was literally about to die last night I was laughing so hard!" Hey buddy, no you weren't.  You were "figuratively literally" laughing so hard you were verging on death; but in reality you never literally approached death by laughter, jackass.

With Stoudemire now out of the lineup nursing his silly-ass hand injury (how did Donnie Walsh not think of putting into Stoudemire's uninsured contract "if player punches fire extinguisher and accidentally requires immediate paramedic assistance and hand surgery, this contract is null and void"?), maybe Melo returns to "NBA's April Player of the Month" status and rips off a 42/17 like he did last year in Boston.  Hopefully this time the final play isn't drawn up for Jared Jeffries to whiff on a lay up.  Then, Jeremy Lin returns like Willis Reed to propel the Knicks to game 4 victory behind a raucous MSG crowd.  Then...who am I kidding?  This is madness; outside of the highly improbable event that LeBron and Wade take each other out by accident, the Knicks are getting bounced again in Round 1.  Maybe Melo has one transcendent game in him, at home, and they don't get swept.  Regardless, the Heat will advance.


Q: How the hell did the Magic even win a game?
El Mariachi: During Sportscenter the next morning, Kevin Neghandi recapped the game, spurting, quite as dumbfounded as the rest of the world, that the Magic had stolen the first game against the "heavily favored" Pacers. His words. I had missed the game due to a surprise birthday party, though subconsciously I had already written the game off, as I assume most NBA fans would have. But to my pleasant surprise they had won thanks in no small part to Glen Davis.

Now not only am I a fan of basketball, but I was also a player for most of my life and I know what its like going into a game like this thinking the way the Pacers probably were; that the series was already over before it began with the death of Dwight Howard's perfectly muscular back (wait, what?). From the recaps and what I've read of the game, its that the Pacers showed up facing a team that wasn't so ready to roll over and die just yet. Now, do I think Big Baby can give us this same amount of rebounding output to get us through the series without his heart exploding two minutes into the second quarter of game 3?

Hell no! But it was a nice glimpse of what the Magic are/could be when Dwight inevitably leaves. Missing a few key components of course i.e. a center, a backup center, a good shooting guard, a power forward, just to name a few.

Q: Which Pacer do you see hurting the Magic most in this series, and why?
El Mariachi: I think the combination of David West and Roy Hibbert is what will break the Magic's back (semi-pun semi-intended). West and Hibbert ended game two with a combined 24 rebounds with Big Baby and Ryan Anderson combining for 18. And with Earl "I need a cheeseburger" Clark throwing his skinny ass arms around to grab 6 rebounds and having him be Big Baby's only real backup, the Pacers' front court can all but bend the Magic over and lube up.

Plus, Roy Hibbert wants to not only beat Dwight's team in the playoffs, he also wants to take his spot on the Olympic team. So Hibbert is out for blood. How else do you think he got his high school
nickname, Roy "Blood Money" Hibbert.

Q: With 3 games in the books, whats your prediction for the series?

El Mariachi: I think that the Magic have one more win in them...but that's it. The real question is whether the Pacers will realize that they are a better basketball team before that or not. If they do, than I don't see the Magic winning another game, though it saddens me to say it. Once Dwight was checked out with back problems, the playoffs were basically a wash for me. And its a shame, there was an ember of hope in me that if the Magic had the right match ups at the right time, they could make a serious run in the East. Oh well, maybe next year. Oh wait...


Q: After watching two games and seeing how their absences affect the team, whose more important to his team's success: Josh Smith or Rajon Rondo?
The King: Not to get cute here, but it really depends on how you define “success”. If success is defined as advancing to the next series, then without a doubt it is Josh Smith. He, not Joe Johnson, has been the best player on the Hawks this series and all season. If he isn’t playing, I don’t see how the Hawks take another game from the Celtics this series. You can’t say the same thing about Rondo. The Celtics have already won a game without him and while I wouldn’t consider the Rondo-less Celtics favorites over the Hawks, I wouldn’t be shocked if they still won the series anyway.

If you define success as making a title run, then I’m picking Rondo. Sorry Hawks fans, Atlanta is not making it to the Finals even if Horford comes back. For that reason, I don’t really consider Josh Smith that important – the result will be the same regardless of whether he plays or not. The Celtics, however? I wouldn’t be shocked if they made it to the Finals with Rondo, but they are a second round exit at best without him. The Celts had little chance against the Rose-led Bulls but now that he’s out, it’s a totally different ball game. They have already proven they can beat Miami and while that does not make them the favorite, I think they have a legitimate shot of upsetting the Heat in a seven game series. However, they aren’t doing any of that without Rondo (and more than likely a healthy Ray Allen) considering their lack of depth.  The key to the Celts title run will be the strength of their starting lineup and without Rondo, the Celtics will have holes at two spots on the floor – point guard and power forward (Bass is completely ineffective when Rondo doesn’t play).  That’s just too much to overcome.

Q: Knotted at 1-1, you know how much the Celtics love 7 game first rounders. You see this going 7?

The King: No, I do not.  The Celtics were 15-18 on the road this season and 24-9 at home. The Hawks were 23-10 and 17-16 on the road. Looking at those records and considering that the Hawks energy was the difference in game one, do you think the Celtics want any part of a game seven in Atlanta? They don’t and for that reason they will take care of an inferior Hawks team missing their best player for game 3 (and still questionable after that) in six games. 


Q: The Spurs have simply outclassed the Jazz in nearly every way this series. How does Utah even make this competitive?

AO: They can't. Anything Ty Corbin comes up with, Pop will find an equal or greater counter.  There's just too many weapons for Utah to deal with. They're fighting against a blitzkreig without the requisite manpower. There are too many non-factor minutes being played by guys in Jazz jerseys (DeMarre Carroll, Tinsley, etc). It's really no dig at Utah, and you can't feel bad as a Jazz fan. These experiences are necessary for young cores. Take the playoff appearance and be happy. Continue to evolve (hint hint, Devin Harris is not the answer at PG!). Get out the broom. See you next year.

Q: Now seeing two games from San Antonio, how do you feel about their title prospects at this point?
AO: I feel better than I have about the Spurs than at any other point this year. It's tough to look better than they have over the first two bloodbaths of the series.  Honestly, it's looked like Varsity vs JV.  Their cohesiveness exudes through every rebound by Duncan, every outlet to Parker, every pick by (insert good role playing forward here, i.e. Splitter, Bonner, Blair, Diaw) and every good decision off that pick by Parker.  They're firing on all cylinders.  However because of the lack of competition, you can't call them the favorites in the West.  In my opinion, the Lakeshow's size is the only undeniable advantage any of the 4 contenders can claim (not willing to except OKC's "youth" yet, because that word in itself is inherently flawed).  The Spurs are right there, it's just a matter of maintaining their style and execution against tougher competition.  Also, sadly, as we've seen too much already in these playoffs, staying healthy may play a bigger factor than it should.


Q: Are you comfortable with the fact that both games came down to a last second shot? Has this shaken your confidence in a largely jump-shooting OKC team?

I thought every game in this series would be close down the stretch and whoever made plays was going to win.  Last year's Western Conference Finals was a big teaching moment for the Thunder because they were never able to make those plays.  The bounces and shots were falling for the Mavs.  Now with the roles seemingly reversed, I'm still never comfortable with OKC being able to secure an easy win. Going through a "grind it out" first series can really help this team though. They need to be tested right now to see if they have it.  I knew the Mavs were not going to go down without a good fight and I'm losing years off my life because of it.

A common misconception is that the Thunder have relied heavily on jump-shots in crunch time.  In game 1 it was Durant facilitating two and-1s for Ibaka late and then KD with the shot helped by those rafters he hangs from.  In game 2 it was James Harden running the show and getting in the paint, finishing the game with pace and poise then had the final four points of the game on free throws.  The constant in this series is Russ Westbrook.  He has played his ass off on the defensive end and been a steady and patient point guard picking his spots and knowing when his team needs a bucket he can get it.

2) Is there any way that Dallas can pull off the huge upset?

There is always a chance for a huge upset, especially when you are trying to knock out a very prideful defending champion.  There is no waver in these Mavs.  They feel like they are big brother to OKC's little brother and if they play their game, they'll win.  This series could easily be 2-0 Dallas, but the difference is the Thunder aren't getting tight down the stretch so far this series. When they've absolutely had to have the bucket they have gotten it, while the Mavs haven't had the same late-game magic as last year.  In game 2, Dirk had a chance to put the Mavs up 4 with 1:13 left and also had a 12 footer to put the Mavs up one inside 30 seconds that bounced like KD's in game one but bounced out instead of in.  
Having said all that, I don't think the Mavs pull the upset.  The Mavs will play Game 3 with a ton of effort and energy and the Thunder need to be able to weather the early storm and settle in.  I expect the Thunder to take one in Dallas but wouldn't be shocked if they won both.  They won game 2 in Dallas of the WCF finals last year so they know they can win there in a pressure filled playoff game.

3) With 2 games in the books, whats your prediction for the series? Still the same?
Thunderstolt: My initial prediction was Thunder in 7 and now I think its Thunder in 5. There are many things to be confident about going into the rest of the series for the Thunder.  Something that is being said openly between Game 2 and 3 is the Mavs will probably use Marion to defend Westbrook in stretches; thats how good Russ has been.  They have to take their best defender off KD so they can check Russ better. Shawn Marion has gone time machine like he's back on the 7 Seconds or Less Suns and playing fantastic defense and scoring with timely shooting and offensive boards.  If they do this switch then everything will go through Durant.

I do believe Scott Brooks and his staff will have come up with a few new sets to get KD the ball at the elbows and mid-post off pin-down screens and curls early in the game to get him easy looks to get him going.  If Scott Brooks can keep riding his gut like he has the first two games the Thunder is in good shape and that talk about his job security will subside.  He felt Fisher playing like Fisher does when the playoffs arrive and gave him 24 minutes in game two.  Fisher answered the bell with steady defense on Kidd and picking his spots to hit his shots, including a big three in the corner to put the Thunder up 4 with 5:26 to go.  Brooks rotations on Dirk have been timely, switching Perkins, Ibaka, and Collison at different times with Perkins drawing the duty late in the game and for the most part delivering.  It feels like this Thunder squad is figuring this out and they know they have not had a game yet where their three headed monster of James, Russ, and Kevin have all had good games.  When the trio is firing on all cylinders this team is nearly unbeatable.  I feel like one of the games is coming, possibly as soon as Thursday night.


Q: Is this series over?

Without being too arrogant, yes. That might be the first time I've ever done that. It was of the utmost importance that the Lakers win the first two at home, if only to quell any potential swagger or momentum the Nuggets would get from a road upset.

I just don't see how the Nuggets win this series. As I texted my dad yesterday, when the Lakers are sharing the ball and scattering the Nuggets defense, it quite honestly look like the Lakers are a varsity squad playing against the 8th grade troupe. The Show is just so much bigger and more developed Lakers beating up on their smaller and more awkwardly ugly opponents (Andre Miller? Kenneth Faried? Kosta Koufous? Timofey Mozgov? Does puberty hit in the late-twenties these days?). Unless the Nuggets go bonkers in game 3 and start shooting 45% on their three pointers (up from the 24% percent so far -- only Corey Brewer, Gallinari and Al Harrington have made three point shots), or Ty Lawson channels his inner Puerto Rican and becomes JJ Barea, there's no way the Nuggets come back. I think Denver punches the Lakers in the jaw tomorrow night with a game 3 win, but I still maintain my position that this thing is over in 5 games. 

Q: Has the Lakers performance made you think they're a title contender?
KOBEsh: Yes and no. As if I wasn't drinking enough Andrew Bynum Kool-Aid already, I've got it all over my shirt and I just downloaded the app onto my phone. Even though he didn't end up with a triple-double in blocks in game 2, Bynum has committed himself to defense, and the Nuggets know it. If you look at Denver's points in the paint, it's pretty obvious that the Nuggets simply cannot manuever around the gigantic presence manning the center spot. The Lakers are scoring efficiently, and when fully committed, are simply destroying the opposition on defense. The squad you saw in game 1 was a fully engaged LA team firing on all cylinders. But as you just read, consider the opposition. The Lakers are playing a team that they can physically dominate on every spot on the floor, and that's without Metta World Peace manning the 3. I'm wary to officially proclaim the Show as a surefire title contender, but all signs point to "yes".

Q: Even with game 2 in the books, can the Grizz recover from one of the greatest comebacks in playoff history?
AO: For my money that was the greatest comeback in playoff history save for one game (Celtics coming back from 24 down in game 4 of the '08 Finals wins out because of the higher stakes). Anyways the answer is yes, they can. And saying that shows tremendous amounts of respect for Memphis for one reason. The will of Chris Paul is usually good for one series, regardless of his teammates. And when you feed his fire with what transpired in game 1, you're just asking for him to gut out a round 1 victory all by himself. However, like a lot of other people, I really believe in this Memphis squad, especially after the game 2 win. They are too much better talent wise across the board, with the biggest disparity being on the frontline. ZBo and Marc Gasol will ultimately overwhelm Blake and his fanboy (DeAndre Jordan is really nothing more than Blake's jester, what a horrible contract that was). CP can push the series to 7 games on heart alone, but I fear that in game 7 when the Grizzlies build a lead, their rabid fans and determined players will step on the Clips' collective throat rather than letting another game 1 happen.

Q: Does the result of game 2 have you thinking that the Clips are still title contenders? What about the Grizz?
AO: The Clippers are not title contenders this year. Any hopes they had went out the window with the Caron Butler injury. He was one of the few Clippers with real playoff experience and added a much needed level of guts and guile. Also, where is the scoring going to come from? CP and Blake would do great to combine for 50, but after that what do you get? You can't expect much from Mo/Bledsoe/Foye because of the lockdown perimeter defenders Memphis has. Anyone expecting a consistent presence from Nick Young is smoking crack. I think this Clips team is a piece or two + a lot of Blake development away from being true contenders. I'm not ruling that out for next year, but it aint happening this go around.

In terms of the Grizzlies, I think this first round matchup is exactly what they need to cement themselves as contenders. They have to overcome a truly supernatural force (CP's heart) and to achieve that they will have to come together and fight. Nothing but good things can come from being in that foxhole together and emerging victorious. Plus, they get a SAS squad in round 2 who they are very confident they can beat. I put MEM right up there with OKC/SA in a group right behind the Lakeshow in terms of favorites for the West. None of the 4 making the Finals would surprise me. And that is why these playoffs are going to be absolute candy to watch

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