Tag Archives: NBA playoffs

2015 NBA Playoff Preview: Eastern Conference, Round 1

Listen. Listen. Listen. That’s how I’ve been taught to get people’s attention—just repeating the word listen. Are you listening?

It’s been a while since I’ve written basketball things, but, like, it’s NBA basketball season 2.0, the never-ending, highlight-manufacturing, circus show that ends the never-ending, highlight-manufacturing, circus show that is the NBA season in a burning blaze of glory. And I should have plenty in the tank so to speak, since I haven’t exactly availed of the aforementioned idiomatic tank in a veritable long ass time.

Atlanta Hawks (1) v. Brooklyn Nets (8)

Alright, so Kyle Korver narrowly missed being the only dude ever to make the 90-50-50 club (with a paltry 89.8 FT%, 49.2 3PT%, 48.7 FG%), but let’s be honest and admit that back in November, this was what we, the basketball elite, and Hawks fans from Macedonia to Decatur were positive was going to be the most memorable thing the Hawks did this year.

Yet somehow Coach Mike Budenholzer has orchestrated a magical season, turning a watery (pretty muddy water at that) lineup into a fine, 60-win vintage with notes of juniper berry that finish with savory, peppery undertones (read: Coach Bud is Jesus, which makes Greg Popovich God). Four of the starters made the All-Star game, only the seventh time in the history of the NBA. Collectively, they balance the 10th best offense that assists the second highest total in the NBA with the 5th best defense—all without anyone averaging more than 17 points or 33 minutes per game (both: Paul Millsap).

The Hawks have given us shades of the Spurs-East, and at times have been the most entertaining team to watch in the NBA (sorry I’m not sorry, Steve Kerr). This has been in large part due to the revelation Al Horford has been, putting up numbers not unlike The Big Fundamental Tim Duncan, himself.

               Player A: 18.0p, 8.4r, 3.8a, 1.5b, 53.8fg%, 21.4 PER, 8.7 WS

               Player B: 17.3p, 11.4r, 3.7a, 2.4b, 51.2fg%, 22.6 PER, 9.6 WS

Hold the suspense. Horford is Player A. Let’s keep in mind, Horford played only 29 games last season and 11 games two seasons before that.

Lastly, in your NBA playoff bacchanalia that I’ve been assured other people do as well and is a perfectly normal ass thing to do in celebration of the greatest sports event ever, don’t’ forget to pour one out for Thabo.

PREDICTION: Give me the broom. Give me the broom. *sung to Biggie’s “Give Me the Loot.” Hawks sweep.

Toronto Raptors (4) v. Washington Wizards (5)

This will be the second most intriguing matchup in the East. 2 things to watch out for besides the backcourt battle:

  1. Toronto GM Masai Ujiri launching another f-bomb in a pre-playoff game hype train spinning off a geopolitical beef with Paul Pierce that may or may not include POTUS, launch codes, and chants of Buck the FlueJays till infinite.
  2. What banal and innocuous hygiene tool will DRAKE! turn into one of the most brilliant marketing schemes of the year? What could possibly be better than lint rollers? Floss? Toenail clippers (wait, Steve Ballmer, did we just stumble into something together?!)? Hair curlers? Those tiny paper cups that fancy people keep in a dispenser for rinsing mouthwash? Indentured servants? Lest we forget, since DRAKE! officially partnered with the Raptors organization as “Trill Ass Global Skrilla Ambassador” or T.A.G.S.A., they have gone from a 34-win team that hadn’t made the playoffs in 5 years to one of the best teams in the shitty Eastern Conference to get bounced in the first round.

PREDICTION: Toronto will make it to the second round for the first time since 2001 and for only their second time in franchise history. It will take all 7 games, a whole goddamn country’s sheer force of will, and a Jimmy Brooks type effort.

 

Cleveland Cavaliers (2) v. Boston Celtics (7)

Kyrie Irving has never played in a playoff game before. Neither has Kevin Love. The Celtics are surging. Brad Stevens is a wiz. All true statements. There’s also this:

Oof, harumph, and bazinga. Lebron James in the playoffs has averaged 28.0p, 6.4a, 8.4r on a crazy 48.2 fg% in an inhuman 42.7 playoff minutes per game. 2013 Finals, Game 6:

2008 First Round, Game 1 (LBJ first career playoff game):

2013 Eastern Conference Finals, Game 7:

2013 Eastern Conference Finals, Game 1:

2009 Eastern Conference Finals, Game 2:

2014 Finals:

He may just eat your babies:

PREDICTION: Cavs in 5.

 

Chicago Bulls (3) v. Milwaukee Bucks (6)

This matchup is super duper fun times for basketball wonks. The Bulls find themselves in a rare position where they’re facing a statistically superior defense come playoff time (although marginally so)—97.4 pts Bucks allowed per game v. 97.8 Bulls allow. Oddly, the Bucks score precisely the amount of points the Bulls allow—97.8. Jason Kidd has turned this band of long-armed avatars into the 8th best defense in the league with the most steals per game (9.6), all while sharing the ball at the 7th best clip with 23.6 assists per game. Unfortunately, the hustle J Kidd has inculcated into his young shapeshifters come at the cost of rebounds. They rank 24th in the rebounds while the Bulls tally the 3rd best rebounding rate in the NBA. Have I mentioned the Bucks height yet though? The starters come in averaging 6’9”, of which they’ll need every inch to corral Derrick Rose and Jimmy Butler, while staving off a deep and talented Bulls front court. The major storyline for the Bulls: emergence and resurgence.

Pau Gasol playing like it’s 2005, bumping Lil Wayne on his 512 GB iPod Shuffle on the way to a cool 18.5p on an alarming 49.5 fg% and even more alarming 46.2 3pt%—oh yeah, and there’s the career high in rebounding (11.8).

Nikola Mirotic making the case for Rookie of the Year and James (Harden) Beard Award honors averaging 20.8p, 7.6r on 44.1 fg% in just 30.8 mpg in March.

Jimmy Butler emerging as a go to offensive player in addition to the nightly guard-the-best-perimiter-player role he’s so dutifully filled the last few years; in addition to resurging this past month, following a few weeks of a bona fide injury scare.

Taj Gibson also coming back from injury in the last month to put up solid double-double-esque numbers.

Joakim Noah finally moving the floor like the 20something he is, running the floor, getting those assist numbers up from 3.5 in January to 7.2 in March.

Derrick Rose suiting up at all.

PREDICTION: Jason Kidd will find a way to get fined sans spilling drinks (though he’ll undoubtedly think about it), and it’ll be the most entertaining defensive slugfest you’ve ever seen. Bulls in 6

 

Doodads and Knickknacks

 

MVP for Lebron

Lebron James is a phenomenal basketball player and deserves the MVP award.

From a statistical standpoint, he scores more than Steph Curry but less than Harden. He assists more than Harden, but less than Curry. He outrebounds them all. He has the highest field goal percentage on the highest attempts. He is without a doubt the best defender of the group.

Then there’s the how-valuable-is-he-to-the-team wrinkle that gives blowhards like Colin Cowherd the leeway to say stupid shit on airwaves like Russell Westbrook is the second coming of Shaft and White Jesus.

But ultimately, I think it comes down to this: the Cavs we’re looking at now didn’t exist 12 months ago. The coach is new. Two of the three best players are new, and only four players remain from last season’s roster. Whereas the Golden State Warriors are effectively the same team. Even the Houston Rockets’ continued core brain trust of Kevin McHale, James Harden, Dwight Howard and those three other dudes that were also on the roster last season positively impacted this season’s record. If continuity establishes trust, which is the bedrock of the game within the game, the turnover and new environments must be considered. That James could perform comparably to Curry and Harden in brand new (old) conditions, points to his deservingness.

I tried to start this section with something like “Stephen Curry and James Harden have had prodigious years…” I really did try, and they totally have. But fuck that. I get it. Nobody likes to see the same person win everything for forever. But the shear amount of articles I get bombarded with about the closeness of this MVP race that don’t actually go into the argument for Lebron James is an insult. We only get Lebron for like another 5 years. Maybe. He deserves all of it. Everything.

Pitchforks for Michael Jordan

I had the good fortune of stumbling onto the below beauty of a quote from the G.O.A.T., His Royal Airness Michael Jordan. In a 2010 interview with CNBC, Jordan prophesized, “Ultimately, if you can say that I’m a bad owner and we’re winning championships, I can live with that. But if we’re not making the playoffs and we’re spending and losing money, then I have to look in the mirror and say maybe I’m not taking the necessary steps to doing what it takes to run an organization.” If by some miracle, MJ ever happened upon this paragraph (he won’t), I want to maintain a semblance of respect and dignity (a first), so I won’t say the thing I really want to say (also a first). I wouldn’t venture to say eat crow, but maybe the lackluster performance as owner is having disastrous effects on the legacy of MJ? Pish posh and thimbles and stuff. We love you anyway, you gambling, self-aggrandizing, conceited, arrogant, bald, beautiful old-ladykiller, you.

Bitterness and Glee Reign, Man

Last night, Shawn Kemp hosted a party in celebration of the Thunder missing the playoffs. It was amazing. Or at least, I think it was. I have kids and was building a bunk bed from IKEA while everyone was getting turnt at Neumos. Thank god for Twitter:

West Points

CP3: 18.4 p, 9.8 a, 4.3 r, 2.4 stl, 47 fg%, 25.6 PER, 46.5 A%, 23.7 U%, 122 ORtg, 104 DRtg, .270 WS/48

RW0: 21.3 p, 7.3 a, 5.3 r, 1.7 stl, 43 fg%, 21.1 PER, 36.1 A%, 30.1 U%, 105 ORtg, 102 DRtg, .178 WS/48

TP9: 18.8 p, 6.6 a, 3.3 r, 1 stl, 49.5 fg%, 19.9 PER, 33 A%, 25.8 U%, 110 ORtg, 107 DRtg, .141 WS/48

DL0: 19.2 p, 5.8 a, 3.2 r, 0.8 stl, 42.7 fg%, 17.5 PER, 27 A%, 24.6 U%, 112 ORtg, 111 DRtg, .121 WS/48

–Career averages per 36 minutes (via basketball-references.com)

The four teams remaining in the Western Conference Playoffs feature the four of the top seven regular season offenses. Three of those teams were also among the top seven defenses (San Antonio Spurs, Oklahoma City Supersonics and the Los Angeles Clippers). Each of those teams feature a Hall of Fame, or potential Hall of Fame forward. But for each team their success begins and ends at the hands of their point guards.

Their career splits are surprising similar, yet they are dramatically different players. In this sense, metrics are dangerous. It hides how each plays their position, as well as where they are in their careers. Both Paul and Parker are nine and 13 years into their careers, and have statistically, stylistically and, at least in Parker’s case, historically cemented their place in the NBA. For both Lillard and Westbrook their numbers will certainly change, skewing more efficient.

Pay attention. No four players shape the outcome of the West more so than Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook, Tony Parker and Damian Lillard.

The Floor General

From the moment Chris Paul took an NBA court, fans and basketball wonks alike fell in love with Paul’s game. He is the truest of true point guards not named Steve Nash, and is unparalleled in managing his team’s offensive tempo. As this newest class of score-first point guards—led by Stephen Curry, Kyrie Irving, Derrick Rose and Westbrook—continues to prosper, Paul remains a beacon for old school point guard play that thrived on setting your man up for the easy basket.

The extent to which Paul impacts the flow, the speed and the positioning of the players around him is almost unfathomable.

Paul scores high marks on the Thibodeau test. He is among a handful of players (Lebron James, Kevin Durant, and maybe Stephen Curry and Goran Dragic for the sheer relentlessness of their respective games) that a coach, in this case Tom Thibodeau, wouldn’t have to practice or draw an offensive play at all, ever for a whole season and still get an above average offense.

Only with the emergence of analytics have we begun to quantitatively grasp all that Paul does. As a floor general, Paul lives for his teammates and his fingerprints can be seen all over the assist world, consistently ranking in the top of every assist-related metric throughout his career. This playoffs has been an exemplar.

In this postseason, Paul’s offensive rating scores a stellar 115.2 with an unsurpassed 34.1 assist ratio (assists per 100 possessions). But more impressive, his play has elevated teammates J.J. Redick and Blake Griffin into the top five of that category (for players averaging more than 25 minutes/game).

Paul has led the playoffs in percentage of field goals assisted while on the floor with a 48.9 Assist % (via basketball-reference.com). Mike Conley is the only player with a higher assist to turnover ratio in the post-season—and only by a hair (3.67 to 3.55). Not coincidentally, Conley is perhaps the only other playoff point guard whose team absolutely relied on his offensive management.

Paul separates himself from Conley, however, with his scoring ability—by-products of his superior strength and shooting touch. Conley’s individual offense does not come so easily. If Paul took 20-23 shots a game (instead of his current 15), no one would bat an eye. In fact, it’s encouraged. But Paul’s game isn’t interested in that. Paul’s game does what his team needs, and if that means jacking up nine threes, hitting eight

If it means going H.A.M. on pick and rolls

If it means being selfless, putting on a show and energizing his team and the crowd—home or away

If it means showing the pick and rolls, being selfless, putting on a show and energizing his team and the crowd—home or away

So be it. Count him in.

There’s that weird 18 point differential between Paul’s offensive and defensive ratings, but that’s mostly due to his out of this world offensive impact. He’s always been a tenacious defender, may be the answer to the MVP and is the best defensive point guard his coach has “maybe ever” seen.

The Freak                                                                                    

Pound for pound, Russell Westbrook is perhaps the most athletic basketball player in the NBA. The combination of speed, strength, quickness and leaping ability packaged in a 6’3”, 190 lb. point guard frame is a once in a generation phenomenon.

And we get to witness two of the top 10 NBA players develop together and explode all over the NBA in all their youthful glory

Now KD to RW

They’re also occasionally adorable

Westbrook scores more, rebounds more and has a better defensive rating, than the other point guards on this list. Still, more than CP3, Parker and Lillard, he suffers from a purely analytic view of his game.

Anyone who has seen RW0 play basketball cannot ignore the ferocity with which he goes about his business. His sheer relentlessness and undying predatory pathology elevates his strain of “give me that” to the highest of art forms.

Even after the whistle has blown

His tenacity and relentlessness has almost made him a caricature of himself

You hate guys like this. You love guys like this. If you’re playing him, you can’t stand the bravado. If he’s on your team, he’s the lifeblood.

I’m going to ignore the criticisms that he takes too many shots, that he should defer to Durant more.

Let Russell be Russell.

Whatever your view of him, his spirit is infectious. And despite his many physical talents, that is perhaps his greatest asset. He leaves no room for doubt as to what he’ll do to score this basket, to snag this loose ball, to win this game.

Anybody who has seen Kevin Durant play since his time at the University of Texas knows that he’s gotten nastier. It’s the only way he scores 32 points a game this year, snags the Bill Russell trophy and has a shot at a ring. He knows it too. And anybody who has seen his evolution alongside Westbrook’s knows in their heart of hearts that #0 is the reason KD is MVP.

As Kendrick Perkins has receded more and more into the background, Westbrook has become the emotional engine for this team. Unlike CP3, he doesn’t read his team’s needs and act according. Rather, like a benevolent ruler, he dictates the terms of this game, and this victory.

For Westbrook, moderation is a four-letter word to ignore—like quit.

Par Excellence!

Tony Parker has achieved nearly everything the other guys on this list hope to in their careers. In many ways, his career arc illustrates how a player—not born with God-given size and skill—develops into a probable Hall of Famer.

Parker has won three championships with the San Antonio Spurs, earning NBA Finals MVP honors in 2007. He has been voted to the All-Star game six times, made the All-NBA Second Team twice, the All-NBA Third Team once and is already the Spurs all-time leader in assists. And we haven’t even broached his storied international career.

Certainly Parker has benefitted from an ideal situation. He came into the league with uncanny quickness and exceptional ball handling skills. And together, with one of the greatest coaches in NBA history, probably the greatest power forward in NBA History and the greatest Argentinian basketball player in NBA history, learned to master the pick-and-roll-or-kick.

Statistically, Parker would seem to not excel at anything in particular–with the exception of a high field-goal percentage, but with as high a percentage, you’d expect a higher Player Efficiency Rating (PER)–this speaks to the system he’s had the had the good fortune of playing in and crafting.

Over the years, with the help of Chip Engelland he has developed a more-than-serviceable jump shot. His three-point shooting percentage has increased from a career worst 26% in 2008 to 37% this past season on the same number of shot attempts.

What has truly come to define TP9’s career is his extraordinary finishing ability. He has seemed to master every layup conceivable and in any given game, he’s prone to bust out more versions of a layup than you even knew existed.

Pretty much anywhere within 10-15 feet from the basket Parker seems to apparate at will, making magical plays

Also Parker has a Van Halen Lamborghini and a hyperbaric chamber. Probably because he’s made shots like this

TheDeadeye

The youngest of this group, Lillard’s ascension to the top tier of point guards has been surprisingly rapid, if not unlikely.

Lillard’s last two years reads something like a typical millenial’s resume—except, you know, talent.

A Technical Sales graduate from Weber State University in Utah, Lillard has gone from three consecutive first-team all-conference to NBA Rookie of the Year, to playoff hero in a city that hadn’t won a postseason series in like 300 years.

Let us supplicate for the sacrificial lamb that is and was Chandler Parson’s hair

Lest we forget, that’s not the only time he’s done it this year. Let us mourn for Alonzo Gee as well

At 6’3” with 6’8” wingspan, Lillard has a uncannily quick first step that splits the defense as good as anybody in the NBA—devastatingly so on a pick and roll. He makes oafs of slow footed bigs; when they (J.J. Hixon, below) come up to hedge on the screen, Lillards shoots the ball between his screener and away from the hedger the moment the big plops down flat-footed

At such an early point in his career, it’s incredible that Lillard has been able to put it together so quickly. Most likely, he’ll be exiting the playoffs tonight with a righteous Spurs sweep, but this is his first appearance in the NBA Playoffs. Ever. There’s no doubt he will return for years to come.

He has finishing ability

 

He has range

He has endeared himself to the hearts and minds of Rip City

He has found a groove

7-7-7-7-7: How Did We Get So Lucky?

After a weekend of five game-7s and a first round of eight overtimes, the past 48 hours of NBA basketball has been pretty boring.

Washington beat Indiana by six—though it was never really that close. The Clippers trounced Oklahoma City by 17—though it wasn’t really that close either. Miami soundly beat Brooklyn by 21. And San Antonio thoroughly outclassed Portland by 24.

Fear not, basketball fans. As the Prince of the Peanut Gallery, the High Priest of the Punditry, the Baron of Bloviators and Admiral of NBA Analysts Charles “That’s Turrible” Barkley would wisely warn us, “Let’s not overreact to Game 1.”

Well Sir Barkley, give me a subpar screen play, stick me in a middling production and call me Nic Cage:

BLOWOUTS! BLOWOUTS!! MORE BLOWOUTS!!! THE WINNERS OF GAME ONES WILL ALL BE IN THEIR RESPECTIVE CONFERENCE FINALS!!!!!!!!! ASDFKLASMDLBMAOWASDA;’SADFA/]ASVASCAXLKJUHNV!!!! REALLY THOUGH I’M NOT EVEN THAT CRAZY—CAPS LOCKS JUST MAKES ME SEEM LIKE I AM—LIKE BAD MOVIES MAKE CAGE LOOK GENIUS!!!

San Antonio v. Portland

This has barn burner written all-over it. They split the season series, and there is a possibility these teams offenses will literally set one or both of their arenas on fire. Portland had the most efficient offense in the first round, scoring 111.8 points per 100 possessions. While San Antonio had the highest effective field goal percentage (54.3) of any team in the first round. Together, they combined to take 282 3-pointers, sinking  over 37% of them.

While Portlandia was riding high on Damian Lillard’s sacrificing of Chandler Parsons on the altar of the scorer’s table:

the Spurs kept them kitsch by putting a 24-point bird on it.

Rip City seemed to try the switch-on-everything defense that the Dallas Mavericks used pretty effectively. Unfortunately, their bigs can’t contain Tony Parker (neither could the Mavs really), who torched the Blazers for 33 points and 9 assists.

LaMarcus Aldridge will continue to have a killer playoffs. He (along with the rest of the team) started off slow, but last night’s 32 and 14 was no aberration. He’s owned San Antonio’s power forwards all season, shooting 23 of 38 (61%) against Tim Duncan and Boris Diaw.

(Then again, if Pop can continue to get double digit contributions from the likes of Aron Baynes, then LMA’s contribution is effectively neutralized.)

Every facet of the San Antonio Spurs franchise has, at one time or another, had a place in every basketball wonk’s spank bank. From their ageless giant wonder to their too-good-for-your-shenanigans head coach, the Spurs are the Raquel Welch of the NBA. They have almost even managed to hold up (perhaps get better?) over time.

They’re still the one seed. They still won 60+ games this season. Their offensive schemes are still beautiful to watch. And their team defense is still unflappable.

That said, Rip City has been forged in the crucible of the Western Conference, Damian Lillard and LMA are the real deal and the Spurs were pushed to 7 by the significantly less talented Mavericks. The Blazers’ fit the underdog ethos, and will keep San Antonio honest.

The Spurs in 7.

Miami v. Brooklyn

Miami’s vice no more.

Prior to last night’s beat down, some held out hope that Brooklyn could really beat Miami. They did after all sweep the regular season series!

Except three of those games were last second, one-point victories, and the fourth, a double overtime slugfest. Which is not to say they were flukes. Entirely.

Mikhail Prokhorov and Billy King put together this team for this playoff moment against the Heat. Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett have a history with Lebron James, and the Heat have a history of wavering in the face of wisdom (see 2011 Mavs, 2013 Spurs). Prokhorov’s purchase of the Nets must have come shortly after he emerged from his Serbian underground cryogenics chamber because he seems to have forgotten the symptoms of age—mainly that Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Jason Terry and Andrei Kirilenko were getting slower and could no longer jump as high as in their hayday.

Whereas, Miami has the best combination of talent and athleticism on this Earth in James.  They also have that unseemly extra gear that they turn on in the playoffs when they’re in trouble. It’ll prove problematic in the Finals, but while they are in the East, they should be just fine.

The Heat in 5.

Los Angeles v. Oklahoma City

First of all, if you have not watched Kevin Durant’s MVP acceptance speech yet, stop reading this and invest the seven minutes. It’s worth it. It’s a bit heartbreaking to write the following after such a thoughtful and unselfish outpouring from one of the Supersonic greats, but….

The LA Clippers has been Doc Rivers’ opportunity to resurrect the ‘08 Celtics. Boston won 9 more games than LA this season, but just take this ride with me for a moment. Here are the anonymous player splits (per 36 minutes via basketball-reference.com):

clippers celtics

The numbers don’t matchup perfectly. You could probably guess whom most of the players are, but it takes a thoughtful minute.

Blake Griffin, J.J. Redick (only played 35 games and averaged 28.2 min/game) and Chris Paul are the better had better stat lines than their counterparts—Pierce, Ray Allen and Rajon Rondo. Deandre Jordan’s defensive acumen is not quite on par with Garnett’s, but despite scoring half the points KG did, he still produced over a third more blocks and rebounds.

Doc Rivers has always been a great motivator. In Boston, he united an entirely new roster around the philosophy of Ubuntu—as critical a component of their championship run as any of those individual players.

In this first year with the Clips, Rivers never seemed fully content with the unity and heart of his team. They clearly have got the talent to win it all. But in a glitzy Los Angeles market, with his best players fronting for corporate America in series of national commercials and a squad too young to really be hungry (with the exception of Paul), Rivers never seemed to have his players performing at the selfless and courageous level that he knows is at the core of a true champion.

Enter Donald Sterling.

In their three victories since the Donald-Sterling-Is-Fascist-Bigot-Gate, LA has averaged over 120 points in each of their contests. And more importantly, they look like had champion’s heart and fight. They played with a fire that makes even the casual observer step back, and say, “Damn. Those guys mean it!”

Their beating of the Oklahoma City Supersonics put the world on notice. And yes, they mean it.

The Clippers in 6.

Indiana v. Washington

Washington is only technically an underdog here. The Pacers are still debacling, despite their first round victory over the Atlanta Hawks.

At this point, the Pacers are only a slightly better version of the Chicago Bulls (though I’m not entirely convinced of that—giving a slight edge here in deference to seeding), whom the Wiz pretty easily dismantled. And if Jeff Teague gave Indiana fits last round, I’d like to introduce you to John Wall:

and Bradley Beal:

These young men are 23 and 20 (that’s right BB can’t even drink alcohol—legally), respectively, dynamic ballers that enjoy long walks on the beach and candle lit dinners. They’ll be accompanying your nightmares, or dreams, for the next couple weeks.

The X-factors (or Z-factors, if you prefer) are Trevor Ariza and Nene. Both bring deep playoff experience and have played balls to the wall this post-season. Ariza is shooting a ridonkulous 55.9% from behind the arc on just under six attempts per game. While Nene has increased nearly every statistical category from the regular season and generally looked spry and dominating against a hapless Carlos Boozer and Taj Gibson.

On the other end of the court, Ariza and Nene will be charged with guarding Paul George and David West, respectively—the most consistent and necessary cogs in the Pacers offensive contraption. In the regular season, Ariza held George to 8 of 26 shooting. Conversely, West is much better than the Boozer/Gibson duo that Nene had had his way with previously, and the big Brazilian isn’t exactly renowned for his defense. Hopefully, West will find his rhythm and his stroke—he certainly deserves it.

Randy Wittman (who I’m pretty sure is another D.C. leader and baller Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s night gig) has got his guys playing really good ball. And in the end, this fast, shooting, magical fellowship of “pretty good” guys will stop the Balrog at the Bridge of Khazad-dûm Pacers in their tracks:

The Wizards in 6.

Giants

“It’s a showcase for two of the 12 greatest players of all time. Both of those guys have been more than 10-time All-Stars, league MVP and finals MVP. There’s only a dozen guys that have done that, and you’ve got two of them.

“They still play like they’re in their prime, both those guys. And so, this is a treat for people who appreciate NBA basketball and the history of the game. You’ve got two guys whose love and respect for the game is so high, and their work ethic and standards are so high that they’ve kept it going in their mid-30s as well as anybody I’ve ever seen.”

-Rick Carlisle

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After Game 7 of another thrilling series between Tim Duncan’s Spurs and Dirk Nowitzki’s Mavericks concluded in more of a whimper than a bang (a 20+ point blow out), fans and viewers were treated to a delightful—somewhat surprising—celebration by both teams. Smiles, high fives and butt slaps—a collegial celebration of courageous rivals and hard-fought competition.

Tim Duncan seemed to grab everyone’s neck at least once. Dirk made sure to touch everyone. There wasn’t the sort of animosity that sparked after recent games—perhaps because of the blow out and that there wasn’t any intensity left to seep over.

One got the sense that these teams not only understood basketball, but where basketball fits in relation to being—you know—people.

Here were two winning clubs led by two brilliant coaches embodied by two of the most prolific—and by all accounts, totally delightful—players in NBA history, celebrating each other and the game that by the grace of God had the good fortune to be in.

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This series wasn’t supposed to be this good. No way was Dirk’s hilarious supporting band of misfits going to hold up against the relentless Spurs offensive attack. No way was the Mavs backcourt of Monta Ellis (fantasy alert!) and Jose Calderon not going to get eviscerated by Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili. No way was Dirk—at his advanced age, as the only truly effective big on the Mavs roster—supposed to prop up an entire offense.

Yet despite every analyst and expert picking a sweep or near sweep in San Antonio’s favor, this year’s iteration of Dirk v. Duncan proved to be a classic.

They didn’t have the individual performances of years past. Such is the cruel fate of time. But they each still left their fingerprints all over the series with plenty of banks and swishes, grit and grace.

For men who go about their business diametric ways, this year’s matchup produced interestingly similar numbers. Rejoice in wisdom:

dirk_duncan1

Duncan had a much more efficient offensive series (with a sweet 58 fg %), but this happened with Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, Patty Mills and Austin Daye (PATTY MILLS AND AUSTIN DAYE!) having higher usage percentages. It doesn’t take advanced metrics to deduce Duncan has a significantly higher talent pool and player development machine around him.

On the flip side, Dirk has to touch the ball (or at least should) almost every time down the floor. He shoots more and passes more than his counterpart. As a result, he’s got a lower assist to turnover ratio, field goal percentages and even offensive rating.

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If Duncan is Mr. Fundamentals, Nowitzki has made a career out of being Mr. Unorthodox.

A graduate of Wake Forest, Duncan’s penchant for academic endeavor and thoughtful consideration made him a beacon of hope for the NCAA in a raging prep-to-pro era that produced superstars Kobe Bryant and Kevin Garnett. Making the right pass, getting in position for the box out, setting the well-timed screen, rolling away from the ball to create space for the driver (instead demanding the ball) making the pass to the assist (or the pass to the pass to the assist) Duncan’s understanding of the rhythm of the game makes his remarkable all around skillset seem unremarkable to the casual observer—especially when he’s sharing the court with Lebron James or Kevin Durant. While the cast for the model of a prototypical power forward may not have entirely been carved from Duncan’s 6’10” frame (see: Kevin McHale, Charles Barkley and Karl Malone), what the position could do was redefined when Duncan took the court.

On the other hand, there’s Dirk. A professional basketball player since his early teens, it took uniquely designed training to refine a 7’ tangled mess of limbs into a fine tuned Formula One machine. Unflappable shooting form. Uncanny passing skills for his size. Years of relentless shooting and passing drills even had Dirk’s first NBA coach try him out at point forward. It didn’t work out. But he heightened the role of stretch fours from novel rotation player to the fulcrum of offense. The step-back, raised-leg fade away has become iconic: one of the coolest moves in basketball history, a kickass NBA spot and inspiration for a player who will almost certainly wind up being the most prolific scorer of the 21st century.

Duncan and Dirk are the flip sides of the same power forward coin. Drafted first overall in 1997, and ninth overall in 1998, respectively, both came into the league with international backgrounds, high ceilings and higher expectations. In an NBA universe with endless variables working to keep unbridled potential from achieving greatness, that these two mastered their craft, redefined their positions and continue to set the benchmarks at 38 and 36 is truly remarkable.

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This wasn’t the greatest individual performance by either Hall of Fame-bound player. In their careers they met in the post-season five previous times, providing some of the most entertaining playoff battles A.M. (after Michael).

Early on, there were the Western Conference Semis in 2001 and then the Conference Finals in 2003. Duncan’s Spurs took both in six and five, respectively (en route to a Conference Finals loss to the Shaqtastic Lakers and the Larry O’Brien Trophy in 2003).

There were the other first round matchups in 2009 and 2010. Both upsets, Dallas (#6) upset San Antonio (#3) in five. Only for San Antonio (#7) to return the favor a year later, trumping Dallas in six.

The most memorable was probably the 2006 conference semis where Dirk triumphed over Duncan in their only other 7 game series. Game seven was won in overtime behind Dirk’s 37pts and 15 reb. Duncan chipped in 41 and 15, 6 ast and 3 blocks. Of course, the supporting casts were almost entirely different then—with the exception of Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Devin Harris.

Coincidentally, Dirk and Duncan where at the helm of two of the five first-seed teams upset in the first round by an 8-seed (GS over Dal in 2007, MEM over SA in 2011).

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Perhaps in any other year the significance of Duncan v. Dirk would carry more weight. With two of the greatest power forwards ever going at it for quite possibly the last time, with so much history between the players, this was living, breathing NBA history being played out—a Mt. Rushmore conversation incarnate.

Sure enough, this year, we saw the ridiculousness of five 7-game series, seven of eight competitive matchups and an unprecedented eight overtime games—nearly overshadowed by the Donald Sterling affair and the Adam Silver bullet.

For an entire generation and for many, many years to come, kids will be practicing the Dirk fadeaway in their backyards, and coaches at every level will point to all the little things Duncan did well that, together, comprised greatness.

Greatness matters in sports. Deference should be paid. And we should celebrate every opportunity we have to witness it.