In The Scrum With Jim Kelly – Part 1

After getting an up-close look at NCAA tournament hero Kemba Walker during a draft workout in Toronto on Tuesday, Raptors Senior Director of Scouting Jim Kelly spoke to the media about the UConn alum. Kelly raved about Walker’s passing skills and added some general thoughts on the scouting process.

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In The Scrum With Jim Kelly – Part 2

Toronto Raptors Senior Director of Scouting Jim Kelly was busy on Tuesday. After the team hosted an early workout featuring Kemba Walker, Kentucky’s Brandon Knight took to the practice court for his own workout. In speaking to the media afterward, Kelly compared the two young point guards.

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In The Scrum With Brandon Knight

Kentucky alum and projected top five pick Brandon Knight stopped into Toronto on Tuesday to work out in front of Raptors’ brass and speak to the local media. Knight talked about playing for John Calipari, his decision to declare for the NBA and his friendship with DeMar DeRozan of the Raptors.

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In The Scrum With Kemba Walker

Former UConn hero Kemba Walker was in Toronto on Tuesday looking to prove to the Raptors that he is worthy of the team’s No. 5 over-all pick. Speaking to local media after going through a workout with Kansas State’s Jacob Pullen, Walker compared the experience of being drafted, winning a national title and talked about how he will adapt to no longer holding a leadership role on his team.

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In The Scrum With Isaiah Thomas

While some players shy away from one-on-one drills in draft workouts, Washington alum Isaiah Thomas welcomes the challenge. Fresh off a workout with Kentucky’s Brandon Knight, he spoke to Toronto media about playing bigger than his 5’9″ frame and finding inspiration from his grandfather.

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In The Scrum With Jacob Pullen

Hoping to here his name called come Draft day, Kansas State alum Jacob Pullen spoke to Toronto media after working out with UConn’s Kemba Walker in front of Raptors’ brass. Pullen talked about his mindset going into the workouts and how he was “just playing basketball”.

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Fisher’s Game Notes: NBA Finals – Game 3

* Go figure: a one-eyed Chris Bosh nails a clutch, 15-foot game-winner after being ice cold throughout the first three games of the series, while Dirk Nowitzki can’t put home the type of off-balanced jumper from the free-throw line that he’s made his bones off of all Finals long. As they say, that’s why you play the games.

* Bosh coming through in the clutch in his hometown makes for a nice, little narrative angle on Game 3, but let’s not over-state his impact. He remains, after all, just 16-52 (30.7%) shooting for the Finals and was switched off of Nowitzki coming into the game after getting blown by on a lay-up in the dying seconds of Game 2.

* Have to wonder how LeBron James is going to feel when Dwyane Wade is named Finals MVP. James has hardly played poorly and remains an emotional and defensive leader on the team, but Wade has simply done it all, as evidenced by his 29-11 effort on Sunday night.

* Give credit to Heat coach Erik Spoelstra for singling out Udonis Haslem for what would otherwise be a largely thankless effort. Haslem’s primary Game 3 role was to guard Nowitzki, who just happened to put up a game-high 34 points. Hardly an impressive defensive effort, right? Well, the stat line doesn’t show how many of those shots were contested and off-balance (much like the missed buzzer-beater attempt), nor does it show how many times Nowitzki was forced to pass the ball off to decidedly less clutch teammates.

* Nine years to the day of becoming the 13th player in NBA history to record a triple-double in the NBA Finals, Jason Kidd came awfully close to doing it again. The Mavs’ point guard finished with nine points, 10 assists and six rebounds while still defending at a surprisingly high level at 38 years of age. More remarkable, still, is that with one more point and four more rebounds, he would have been the first player since himself to record one in the Finals.

* How about the unlikely contributions of Miami’s Mario Chalmers, who has made the most of some wide open looks and is averaging 11.0 points through three Finals games. He already has more points in this series than in either of the Conference Finals against Chicago or Conference Semis vs. Boston.

* How improbable is it that two consecutive Finals games have now come down to two point differentials? The last time any Finals game was decided by two or fewer points was back in 2007, when San Antonio completed their sweep of the Cleveland Cavaliers (and James, of course) with an 83-82 win. For back-to-back such games, you have to go back to the 1998 Finals, when Utah stayed alive with an 83-81 Game 5 win, only to be bested 87-86 in Game 6 on Michael Jordan’s famous push-off jumper on Bryon Russell.

Fisher’s Game Notes: NBA Finals – Game 2

A few scattered thoughts as I sat on my couch taking in what was an epic Game 2 of the NBA Finals, which the Mavs stole 95-93:

* Not sure if it’s Rick Carlisle’s inspiration or Dirk Nowitzki and/or Jason Kidd’s leadership, but holy crap do these Mavs have heart!
* Shawn Marion was Dallas’ second-leading scorer once again, with 20 points in the game, but Jason Terry filled a desperately needed role by coming to life in the game’s late stages. Having gone just 2-8 for eight points over the first 41+ minutes of Game 2, Terry reeled off six consecutive points in under a minute and hit on all three of his shots in crunch time to help spark the Mavs’ comeback.
* It hasn’t been a great postseason thus far for Miami critics who have argued that an NBA team can’t succeed with two alpha dogs who both demand the ball, but Game 2 certainly provided a nice piece of evidence to support their case. A three-pointer with 7:14 remaining in the fourth gave Wade 36 points on the night, but instead of taking over the game, the home grown star still spent most plays deferring to LeBron James and took just three shots the rest of the way (all misses). It’s no coincidence, then, that Miami held a 15-point lead at the time of the trey, only to Dallas go on a 22-5 run the rest of the way.
* Chris Bosh, who had really been coming through for the Heat since his 34-point explosion during Game 3 of the Bulls’ series, was back to being a liability on Thursday night. He was held to just 12 points on 4-16 shooting and was caught flat-footed on Nowitzki’s game-winning lay-up. Yes, you have to step out on the Mavs’ star and challenge his shot, but you also shouldn’t be getting beat off the dribble by a guy five years your senior who can hardly be described as fleet of foot.
* After being so critical to Miami’s Game 1 win, Udonis Haslem and Joel Anthony provided precious little on Thursday. While their combined two points was hardly surprising, they were non-factors on the boards (four rebounds between the two of them) and directly contributed to the Mavs’ 41-30 rebounding edge. Both men were solid defensively, but it’s hard to justify such one-dimensional contributions coming out of players that are each on court for nearly 30 minutes.
* Mike Miller’s continual defense of his health despite all appearances to the contrary is starting to bring to mind the “Dead Parrot” sketch from Monty Python (which can be found here for those of you who have no idea what I’m talking about). Mike, either your arm – which you’ve been spotted wearing in a sling – is damaged, or we might as well just believe that your zero-point, 0-3 stat line is all we can expect from you.
* Carlisle may want to consider employing more of a ‘hands off’ approach as the series shifts to Dallas, particularly in regards to his team’s offensive attack. It was only when the Mavs stopped running set plays down the stretch in the fourth that they played a relax, free-flowing game and got open looks for Nowitzki, Terry and Marion.

Fisher’s Game Notes: NBA Finals – Game 1

A few scattered thoughts as I sat on my couch taking in what was a slow, ugly, defense-oriented Game 1 of the NBA Finals, which the Heat took 92-84:

* Has Dwyane Wade always taken over as the central focus during the Heat’s player introductions like that? I get that the homegrown star gets announced last, but it was surprising to see  No. 3 take charge in the middle of the huddle as he shouted out what I assume to be words of motivational encouragement. Interesting to see LeBron James take a backseat as Wade emerges as the vocal leader.

* Joel Anthony’s in-your-face defense on Dirk Nowitzki may result in him spending much of the series on the bench in foul trouble, but it certainly seems to be working in keeping the big German out of rhythm.

* Don’t you find it ironic that in what it supposed to be the “Era of the Dynamic Point Guard”, the Finals’ two starting floor generals combined for nine points on 3-12 shooting and were, generally, non-factors? Not that either of Jason Kidd or Mike Bibby were being looked upon to produce much more scoring, but it goes to show that you still don’t need a Derrick Rose or Russell Westbrook to win in the NBA.

* Miami’s 46-36 edge on the boards? Blame it on Tyson Chandler, who was on his game defensively but struggled in the low post against Chris Bosh, Udonis Haslem and the physical Heat, and Jason Terry, who too-frequently lost track of where Wade was once the ball was in the air.

* Speaking of physicality on the part of the Heat, it looks like James spent the past few days attending the Dwyane Wade School of Putting Your Body on the Line. The difference: James is 6’8″, 250 pounds and basically tore through much of the Mavericks’ front line, particularly late in the fourth quarter.

* One of the main tenets upon which critics of the Heat’s ‘Big Three’ rested their belief that the team would fail was a lack of depth, reasoning that pouring that kind of money into three players wouldn’t allow for Miami to establish a full-fledged squad of complementary players. Well, last night saw the Heat’s bench outscore the supposedly superior Mavs’ reserves 27-17, led by Mario Chalmers surprisingly outplaying perennial Sixth Man of the Year candidate Terry. Even worse for Heat haters, their bench advantage came with Eddie House, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, James Jones, Erick Dampier and Jamaal Magloire all sitting out.

* Sure, the torn tendon on the middle finger of Nowitzki’s left hand may be an inconvenience for both he and the team moving forward, but it’s no bigger an obstacle than the complete lack of offensive support by his Mavs’ teammates. In order to keep Miami’s ‘D’ honest, Dallas will have to do better than the 4-21 shooting it got from Terry, JJ Barea and Peja Stojakovic. Shawn Marion’s 16 points helped, but it’s an issue when three of the game’s top four scorers are wearing Heat jerseys.

* Attention: Miami fans, “Fanning Up” does not mean throwing items onto the court during the late stages of a win!

NBA Finals Preview

Forget the 2006 Finals.

It’s an easy over-arching storyline to focus on, especially given the fact that it marks both Dallas and Miami’s most recent visit to the NBA’s final showdown and the follow-up to what had been a series marred by referee controversies and a blown 2-0 Mavericks’ lead. But that was five years ago, involving a different Heat squad, different Mavs’ squad and – hopefully – a different calibre of ref competence.

For Miami, the duo of Shaquille O’Neal and Dwyane Wade has been replaced by LeBron James and an older, wiser Wade. Dallas returns just Dirk Nowizki and Jason Terry from the ’06 team (Wade and Udonis Haslem are the lone Heat holdovers) and now boasts greater depth and further veteran presence.

However, here’s the rub: while it may not be about 2006, this year’s series still has everything to do with the past.

James is driven by his close-call failures in Cleveland, as well as nearly 11 months worth of vitriol directed his way from the betrayal of his hometown team. On the other side of the ball, Nowitzki and Kidd have each come within spitting distance of the Larry O’Brien trophy and don’t know when – if ever – that next opportunity may come. As I pointed out this past weekend, these are clubs entering the Finals with a hunger for championship glory that borders on desperation.

Nowitzki has turned that desperation into a playoff performance for the ages. His 48-point effort in Game 1 of the Mavs-Thunder Western Conference Finals (on 12-15 shooting and a 24-24 mark from the charity stripe) was outdone only by his Game 4 showing in which he tallied 40 points, 12 of which came in the final 4:34 of his team’s stunning comeback. A group of OKC defenders that included Nick Collison and Serge Ibaka could not slow the 6’10” German, so now the job falls primarily to the Heat’s Chris Bosh, with Haslem stepping in on occasion.

For James, it has been a largely therapeutic trek through the postseason thus far. He and his Heat teammates have toppled Philadelphia, whose fans were among the league’s most vocal against the King, then dispatched Boston, the team against whom he came unhinged during last year’s postseason, then put away Chicago, who had been a rumoured free agent pursuer of James and Wade and were led by league MVP Derrick Rose. But the only true satisfaction will come in a trophy-raising that remains four wins away.

Interestingly, long-time LeBron rival DeShawn Stevenson (well, I suppose no moreso than the Globetrotters and Generals are rivals) will get a share of the defensive assignment, along with Terry, Shawn Marion and possibly Corey Brewer.

That being said, it’s going to be the other guys who decide this one. The Mavs will need to offer up some kind of consistent offensive support for their franchise leader. Nowitzki’s 28.4 points per game are over 11 higher than his next closest teammate’s scoring average (Terry, 17.3), with Marion and Peja Stojakovic being among the most underwhelming players offensively.

Conversely, Miami also has issues in scoring depth which have been diminished in light of some explosive scoring performances from the Big Three (yes, even Bosh). Now, it isn’t Bosh but Wade – and his wonky shoulder – that is under the microscope. He’ll need to be better than his Game 5 output (21 points on 6-13 shooting, including one field goal and six turnovers in the first half) in the Eastern Finals, a showing that raised serious questions about his health. Having five days between series will help, but that’s an awful lot of pressure to place upon a guy whose spent so much of his NBA life banged up.

Nowitzki and James are the headline names here, but basketball is a team game and the NBA title will come down to just that – who is the better team.

Prediction: Heat in six

The Comeback Kings

Too bad that the NBA seems to have shifted their marketing efforts towards talking basketballs, as a “Where Late Game Heroics Happen” ad campaign seems like it would practically write itself.

First shot: Dirk Nowitzki hits another impossibly clutch jumper in the final minutes of Mavs-Thunder Game 4 while the jovial Dallas bench offers a stark contrast to the stunned-silent Oklahoma City crowd. Cuts to a rapid trio of three-point daggers from Miami Heat superstars LeBron James and Dwyane Wade to turn what looked like a Game 5 win for the Chicago Bulls into a series clincher. Shift back out West, with a Shawn Marion transition dunk to cap off an eight-point comeback and send a shell-shocked Thunder squad packing.

The NBA: Where Late Game Heroics Happen.

It’s no coincidence that the two featured clubs in this imaginary commercial spot happen to be the two teams set to do battle in the NBA Finals. Dallas and Miami appear to have little in common, but what unites them – and what has brought them to this point in their playoff journey – is a hunger bordering on desperation to get their hands on the Larry O’Brien Championship Trophy.

Just look at the two teams involved.

Dallas is chockfull of veteran players who have yet to ascend to basketball’s holy grail. Jason Kidd’s 17 NBA seasons have all been title-less, as have Nowitzki and Peja Stojakovic’s 13. Remarkably, on a roster that includes 10 players with nine or more years of NBA experience, not a single Maverick has a title to his name.

The Mavs’ Game 4 win over Oklahoma City – a victory that saw them trail by 15 points within the final five minutes of the fourth quarter before a 28-6 run the rest of the way helped them to an OT triumph – was the most impressive feat of what has been an electric postseason. Nowitzki managed to top his 48 points / 12-15 FG/ 24-24 FT stat line from Game 1 by scoring 14 points from the 43:26 mark on (most of which came with his body contorted and a hand in his face) and Kidd bested his supposedly superior counterpart Russell Westbrook by running a sound offense and cutting down on mistakes.

Miami, meanwhile, has title winners in Wade and Eddie House and a core in its relative infancy compared to the aging Mavs, but possibly also has more to prove. They do, after all, still carry some stigma from “The Decision” and can bank on having more casual fans rooting against them than for them come Tuesday night. Perhaps even moreso than any Maverick player, James embodies that need to win as a much-scrutinized superstar with a Golem-like obsession with the NBA title.

Another team may have settled into a defeated, less urgent pace as a Ronnie Brewer three-pointer gave Chicago a 12-point lead with under four minutes left in Game 5. After all, a Bulls’ win would only have moved things back to Miami with the Heat holding a 3-2 series lead. But for James and Wade, who know how much they have to prove, no time is a good one to take the foot off the gas pedal in these playoffs. Wade had eight points down the stretch and James out-MVP’ed league MVP Derrick Rose with eight of his own (including two of the duo’s aforementioned rapid-fire three’s) to knock the air out of the United Center and send Chicago home.

Let’s not forget that these weren’t exactly scrubs they were up against. Dallas had to contend with Kevin Durant, whom they held in check long enough to secure the Game 4 win, and Westbrook, whom Kidd handled far better than most NBA observers expected. Out east, Rose didn’t quite rise to the occasion on par with his Heat counterparts (he said as much himself in the post-series press conference), but also could have used more help from teammates – namely Carlos Boozer.

Fact is, the Thunder and Bulls have every reason to be proud of their accomplishments and eagerly anticipate bright futures rather than mull the ‘what ifs’ of the gut-punch losses.

But the Mavs and Heat just wanted it more – and that’s why they now find themselves on basketball’s biggest stage.

Young and Old Battle in Western Final

To call the Western Conference Final featuring the Dallas Mavericks and Oklahoma City Thunder a series of the old guard versus a group of young rising stars would be an oversimplification. After all, Dallas has 26-year old J.J. Barea playing a crucial role off the bench, just as 33-year old Nazr Mohammed and 30-year old Nick Collison have played in every Thunder playoff game.

But, exceptions aside, let’s face it: this series is all about old versus young.

On one end of the court, you have the Mavs, the league’s fourth-oldest team at the start of the season (average age of 28.88) who are led by 32-year old Dirk Nowitzki. On the other side, you have the Thunder, the third-youngest team in the league (24.73) that boasts the two-pronged attack of 22-year olds Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. Heck, Westbrook was still a month away from his sixth birthday when Jason Kidd, his opposing point guard in the series, made his NBA debut.

This series is about one team trying to attain basketball’s Holy Grail after years of crushing disappointment and the knowledge that their window of opportunity is closing, while the other is still growing together and view the postseason as a launching pad to building a perennial winner.

Age also has a part to play in the strange match-ups that the series appears set to produce.

Each team will be hard-pressed to find a suitable defender to shoulder the bulk of the load on the other team’s leading scorer. Dallas will try to through a variety of wing players at Durant, none of whom are ideal – Shawn Marion isn’t quick enough, DeShawn Stevenson isn’t big enough and Cory Brewer simply doesn’t give the Mavs enough offensively.

Similarly, Oklahoma City traded away their preferred regular season defensive option on Nowitzki (Jeff Green) and will have to hand the assignment to Serge Ibaka and Nick Collison, both of whom are better suited guarding the low post.

It isn’t just the superstars that will pose quirky mismatches, either. Kidd will face his toughest challenge of the postseason as he tries to stay in front of the explosive Westbrook, while Thunder swingmen like Thabo Sefolosha and James Harden will be forced to step out on Dallas perimeter shooters Peja Stojakovic and Jason Terry.

For as much as the Thunder’s seven-game set against the Memphis Grizzlies came down to Durant’s ability to answer the bell when it mattered (and he did to the tune of a 39-point effort in the deciding contest), a spot in the NBA Finals could come down to the backpack-wearer’s running mate.

Westbrook should dominate the match-up with Kidd, but how he goes about doing so will make all the difference in the series. If he takes the edge as a green light to take over the series, he would be taking the ball out of Durant’s hands and potentially throwing the Thunder offense out of sync. After all, Oklahoma City are 3-4 in playoff games where the UCLA product takes 20 or more shots, as opposed to 5-0 when he puts up 19 or fewer. If he can dominate Kidd (and Barea, for that matter) while continuing to create for teammates, he will get not only Durant, but also Harden, Sefolosha and Daequan Cook some open looks.

However, in my humble opinion (an opinion that, mind you, owns a pretty mediocre 7-5 prediction record in these playoffs), it won’t work out that way. Westbrook shot 14-44 in three games against Big D this season and Kidd has the veteran savvy to play off of the youngster so as not to let him use his quick first step to find the lane. I see Westbrook putting up his fair share of bricks en route to the Mavs making their first NBA Finals appearance since 2006.

Ben’s fearless prediction: Mavs in six

2011 NBA Playoffs – Conference Semifinals

The first round of the NBA playoffs served as a confirmation of much of what we already knew: the East still isn’t particularly deep (seeds No. 6, 7 and 8 combined for two wins), the West certainly is (Grizzlies’ upset, plus spirited efforts from New Orleans and Portland) and we are living in the age of the young point guard (Derrick Rose, Rajon Rondo, Russell Westbrook and Chris Paul all shone).

Now come the unknowns, headlined by a much-anticipated Boston-Miami tilt that will define both teams, but also featuring the rising Bulls’ first true test, the possible last stand of the Mavs and more Memphis mania.

Eastern Conference

No. 1 Chicago vs. No. 5 Atlanta

What could have been a fascinating point guard battle between mentor – Kirk Hinrich – and protege – Derrick Rose – now could prove disastrous for Hawks. Hinrich, who would likely struggle against his more dynamic former teammate anyway, is out for Game 1 and a significant question mark the rest of the way for Atlanta, who will rely on rookie Jeff Teague and the defensively liable Jamal Crawford to stop the likely soon-to-be league MVP.

As for the rest, the frontcourt battle will be one to watch, as Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer challenge Josh Smith and Al Horford in the paint. This series will go a long way in establishing whether Atlanta’s first round upset of Orlando should be credited to their exceptional play, or moreso an utterly disappointing showing by Dwight Howard and co.

Prediction: Chicago wins 4-0

No. 2 Miami vs. No. 3 Boston

You can read my extended take on the marquee series here, but the main takeaway from the piece should be that while most media coverage will have you believe that this is the battle of two star-studded juggernauts, it is in fact a clash between two fractured – albeit talented – clubs.

Miami will have to finally settle on an identity so that both LeBron James and Dwyane Wade are on the same page come crunch time and will hold out hope for the return of Mike Miller and Udonis Haslem at some point in the series.

Boston, meanwhile, will quickly find out how successful their much-maligned Kendrick Perkins deadline deal was, as Jeff Green is asked to play a bigger defensive role and Jermaine and the injured Shaquille O’Neal will use whatever they have left in the tank in trying to compensate for the loss of Perkins up front.

Prediction: Boston wins 4-2

Western Conference

No. 2 Los Angeles vs. No. 3 Dallas

The elimination and questions surrounding the future of the Spurs had to offer a sobering reminder to their in-state rival Mavericks that success can be fleeting in the NBA, especially when you have seven guys in your nine-man rotation on the wrong side of 30 (as is the case in Big ‘D’).

Meanwhile, on the other side of the court, the Lakers are hardly young pups, but showed some flashes of that trademark springtime edge in the first round, with Andrew Bynum offering quality minutes, Pau Gasol displaying signs of life and Kobe Bryant even serving up a posterizing dunk of Emeka Okafor.

For the Mavs, pushing the defending champs to the brink will mean execution from secondary scoring options like Jason Terry and Peja Stojakovic, stellar defense on Bryant from Cory Brewer and DeShawn Stevenson and Tyson Chandler providing a formidable post presence.

Prediction: Los Angeles wins 4-3

No. 4 Oklahoma City vs. No. 8 Memphis

I’ve already read one rag proclaiming this to be the official coronation of Westbrook, Kevin Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder into the pantheon of contenders, as though the Grizz are simply a flukey afterthought.

Not so fast, I say.

It wasn’t as though the Spurs lay down and handed the series to Memphis, as Zach ‘Z-Bo’ Randolph came up huge and Lionel Hollins did the unthinkable in outcoaching Gregg Popovich. Now, upending a younger, more energetic and possibly more talented Thunder squad would be a whole other feat, but Shane Battier and Tony Allen could frustrate Durant while Randolph and Marc Gasol will give Perkins and Serge Ibaka a fight in the low post.

I see the Thunder emerging, but it won’t be a cakewalk.

Prediction: Oklahoma City wins 4-3

Series Preview: Heat – Celtics

That sound you heard towards the conclusion of Wednesday night’s Heat-Sixers game was the collective pumping of fists from ESPN, ABC and TNT executives, not to mentions those in the NBA’s offices in New York.

Yes, the league’s hype meter is about to be sent into overdrive as Miami’s Big Three (more like a Big Two) clinched a playoff date with the Boston Celtics in a star-studded second round tilt that has been anticipated since the two teams met on October 26 to kick off the regular season (an 88-80 Celtics’ win).

We know that there will be plenty of breathless analysis over how LeBron James and Dwyane Wade will fare against Paul Pierce, Rajon Rondo, Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett, not to mention the James-Delonte West angle and former teammates opposing one another or taking on their former club (James and Shaquille O’Neal, Eddie House and Boston and Chris Bosh and Jermaine O’Neal, just to name a few).

But much has – and hasn’t – transpired since James, Wade and Bosh joined forces in Miami to challenge the Celtics for Eastern supremacy. For one thing, Derrick Rose and the Chicago Bulls saw to it that neither club would rule the East and, as such, a new title contender and a three-way rivalry was born. Sticking with Boston and Miami, though, identity, chemistry and personnel changes have altered the series from what could have been expected back in October to what will likely transpire once things get underway on Sunday afternoon.

Even though Miami was seen as the great team on paper that would need to learn how to play together, both clubs continue to face issues with getting their personnel on the same page.

James and Wade each had typically brilliant seasons, but still don’t look entirely comfortable on court with one another and don’t seem to fully understand how to play off of each other. It is telling that against Philadelphia in the first round, coach Erik Spoelstra allowed for long stretches of time where one of his superstars sat while the other played. Critics who were quick to scrutinize the Heat when James and Bosh joined the club last summer pointed to a team with two alpha dogs, both of whom would want to put the team on their shoulders. The team was plenty talented enough to dispatch the Sixers without fully resolving the ‘who’s the man’ issues, but you have to figure that the defensive-minded and experience Celtics will find a way to exploit that lack of identity.

However, Boston has personnel issues of their own to work out. When GM Danny Ainge dealt Kendrick Perkins to the Oklahoma City Thunder at the trade deadline, he gave up an imposing interior presence but also lost a key cog from the close-knit core of a team that relied so heavily on unity in getting to the NBA Finals last season. Instead, the two O’Neals can hardly be expected to fill Perkins’ void and Jeff Green and Nenad Krstic aren’t exactly thriving as the players that came the other way. Green will be relied upon as a primary wing defender against James and Wade and could prove his worth should he help contain the dynamic duo, but it remains hard to believe the veteran Celtics face chemistry questions in April.

Each team will have to exploit what are distinct edges they hold over their respective opponents. James and Wade give Miami a near-unstoppable force in transition that the aging Celtics will have to find a way to counter. Allen and Pierce simply cannot keep up with their younger, quicker counterparts, leaving the longer Green as the best defensive option to be found wearing his namesake colour.

Conversely, Boston can really take advantage of a point guard mismatch in which neither of Mike Bibby or Mario Chalmers can offer much resistance against the dynamic Rondo, fresh off a 15-20-11 stat line in game three of the C’s first round series against Toney Douglas and the New York Knicks.

For all the talk that is sure to transpire over the considerable star power of the series, the less-heralded benches of both the Heat and Celtics could loom large. After all, each side has some major reserve X-Factors in play, with Miami holding out hope for a return by injured veterans Mike Miller and/or Udonis Haslem, while Boston could receive a huge boost if the O’Neals could turn back the clock and defy age one last time.

The Heat’s back-up bigs – namely, Joel Anthony and Juwan Howard – aren’t going to earn the moniker of “Twin Towers” anytime soon (in spite of the wishes of the Miami faithful, who serenade Anthony with tongue-in-cheek ‘MVP’ chants when he steps to the charity stripe), but they could do some damage if Shaq and Jermaine aren’t healthy / contributing.

The Celtics can’t expect another series sweep, just as the Heat can’t anticipate a comfortable five-gamer without really playing up to potential. This match-up could well be worth the hype but, despite what some media coverage may have you believe, there will be players to watch not named James, Wade, Pierce, Allen or Garnett.

Western Conference Playoff Preview

Take one look around the Western Conference playoff picture, and you can be forgiven for feeling as though the Conference championship is the Lakers’ to lose.

They have, after all, emerged from the West in each of the past three seasons (including the last two NBA titles), hold the No. 2 seed and home court advantage through at least two rounds and face a group of rivals that can’t match their star power or playoff pedigree.

However, the Lake Show hardly looked the part of champions throughout the season, losing to six of their seven Western playoff rivals and enduring a stunning five-game losing skid down the stretch. Toss in the iffy status of Andrew Bynum (knee) and Steve Blake (chicken pox, believe it or not) and the Lakers enter the postseason looking surprisingly vulnerable.

Los Angeles’ pain in their rivals’ gain, and teams like San Antonio (hoping to get a healthy Manu Ginobli back), Dallas (an aging group that might have one big run in them), Oklahoma City (a young club possibly ready to make the jump) and Denver (seemingly energized after getting past the Carmelo Anthony distraction) could be looking to close in for the kill.

The East may hold the bulk of the star power (Anthony, LeBron James, Derrick Rose, Dwyane Wade and Dwight Howard), but the West has them matched in terms of storylines. From the continued excellence of playoff stalwarts San Antonio and Dallas to the shaky Lakers to young Thunder to the no-name Nuggets, there is plenty of intrigue that will play out in the wild West.

No. 1 San Antonio vs. No. 8 Memphis

Those awaiting the Spurs’ return to earth this season learned that they will continue waiting, as Tony Parker, Tim Duncan and Ginobli, along with a strong cast of skilled reserves and capable role players, put together the club’s best regular season output (61 wins) since their 63-win campaign during the 2005-06 season. While Ginobli’s health is key to any title aspirations, the team can lean on its tremendous depth to make up for any time lost by the Argentine.

They will open things up against the Memphis Grizzlies, who did well just to make the playoffs without leading scorer Rudy Gay (shoulder). While big men Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph could off-set the contributions of Duncan and DeJuan Blair, inexperienced guards OJ Mayo and Sam Young are unlikely to make up for the loss of Gay. San Antonio’s biggest advantage, however, could come beyond the arc, where the Spurs ranked first in field goal percentage while the Grizzlies allowed the league’s seventh-highest rate from three-point territory.

Prediction: Spurs win 4-0

No. 2 Los Angeles vs. No. 7 New Orleans

Remember how I mentioned the “Lakers have lost to six of their seven Western playoff rivals this season” stat? Well, unfortunately for New Orleans, the only team that L.A. happened to sweep were their first round opponents. While the Hornets hold a distinct advantage at the point (Chris Paul vs. Derek Fisher), the Lakers are better everywhere else. No Hornet can offer much resistance against Kobe Bryant (Trevor Ariza knows him well and might get most of the defensive assignment) and David West and Carl Landry can’t match the frontcourt depth of a team that boasts Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom and Bynum.

Perhaps the most interesting wrinkle to this series will come in how quickly a one-on-one, star vs. star battle breaks out between Bryant and Paul. Fisher will need help with Paul and we’ve seen Bryant demand the defensive assignment on the other team’s star in the past.

Prediction:Lakers win 4-1

No. 3 Dallas vs. No. 6 Portland

The Mavs would never admit as much, but they had to be cursing under their breath as the Lakers used a Bryant game-tying three at the end of regulation and a strong defensive effort in OT to secure the No. 2 seed and leave Dallas to face the dangerous Trail Blazers.

Now, Dallas, having won their last four games and enjoying some relatively good health (only Caron Butler remains out), are hardly pushovers, but they have lost twice to the Blazers since Gerald Wallace joined the team at the trade deadline. Meanwhile, Dirk Nowitzki and LaMarcus Aldridge will offer up a fascinating clash of styles in the power forward battle that could go a long way towards determining the winner of the series.

Prediction: Blazers win 4-2

No. 4 Oklahoma City vs. No. 5 Denver

In a series between two offensive-minded teams, the end result could well come down to who can get the key stops. Both the Thunder and Nuggets ranked among the top five teams in points scored, with OKC managing to boast a slightly stingier defensive presence. Denver likely doesn’t have much of an answer for NBA leading scorer Kevin Durant, who is too quick for Nene Hilario and Kenyon Martin, and would hardly be challenged by Danilo Galinari.

But the Nuggets’ 18-7 record after the Anthony trade wasn’t a fluke, and they could benefit from a deep roster of bench scorers that includes JR Smith, Wilson Chandler and Arron Afflalo. What should be an entertaining series might also have a gritty side, as Nene and Kendrick Perkins have engaged in shoving matches during each of their past two meetings, and emotions could be even higher with the postseason upon us.

Prediction: Thunder wins 4-3