Did this injury change the whole complexion of playoffs?
This year’s NBA playoffs are off to a great start. We have had exciting and closely-contested games, and stars have already started to shine as they always do this time of year. Some teams and players are just getting going, as their aspirations are far beyond the first round, while others have had a switch of priorities and plans as a result of poor misfortune.
The Heat, Thunder and Spurs, probably the most likely championship contenders, are already into the second round after pretty easy first-round bouts, while the Bulls, Celtics, Lakers and Magic have struggled due to the absence of key players leading to tougher matchups than they had bargained for. The Celtics got Rondo back, and Pierce does not appear to be severely hurt. The Lakers will get Artest (aka Metta World Peace) back after Game 6 against the Nuggets.
The big difference is that some teams have gone through unscathed with their rosters still intact, while others are struggling to recover from being bumped and bruised and in the case of the Bulls maimed. Whether a team is suffering from injury or not, their fortune is invested in the performance of their best players. Some teams have the balance to sustain injury or poor performance from stars, while others cannot.
This has caused me to think of the eight most influential players that will have a large bearing on the playing out of the NBA playoff story. These are the ones I have chosen:
Parker is now Pop's go to man
Tony Parker is probably the most underrated superstar in the NBA. Yes, that’s right, I said superstar. There is nothing about Parker that is not a superstar. He may not dunk and may not consistently light up the score sheet, but I dare you to quiz players and coaches around the NBA and ask them of too many more players they would least want to play against.
He is ultra-fast off of the dribble still, albeit smooth and, more importantly, he is ALWAYS under control and tends to finish around the basket as well as any guard we have ever seen play in some time.
The Spurs definitely are a favorite to win it all this year, and of course, one of the reasons why is their depth and the infusion of youth that they have been injected with, but if the Spurs are to win it, the Big Three of Parker, Ginobili and Duncan must lead the way. Of the three, Parker is closest to his prime and playing at a high level this year.
This season, he booked his normal 18 points per game, but added a career 7.7 assists to the equation as well and shot near 50 percent as always. He is the one constant that you can count on game in game out, and he has to lead the way for this Spurs team to be victorious once again.
Rondo is the leader, but Paul is still the Captain
The Celtics are now Rajon Rondo’s team, but in order for them to go as far as they are capable of going, Paul Pierce must be healthy and engaged.
Paul showed this ability when he dominated Game 2 in Atlanta with Rondo out. He is the one guy on the team that can get his own shot consistently and can be relied upon for the big shot. Ray Allen is still clutch and Rondo will make plays for you, but when you need a basket, Pierce is and will always be that guy.
If Paul plays like he has played over the years in the playoffs, the sky is the limit for the Celtics. You can book Rondo for 10-15 assists per game and constant penetration. Garnett has dominated the center matchup, especially before Horford came back, and Avery Bradley has stepped up tremendously. But at the end of the day, if the Celtics want to beat the Hawks and Heat especially, Pierce must be the guy to carry them home.
Despite a slow start and some nagging injuries, he still led the team in scoring at 19.4 points per game. He is up over 20 in the playoffs, and that type of production will continue to be counted on throughout the playoffs for the Celtics to make a run.
The beast on the rise
Yes, the Lakers are still Kobe’s team, but I tell you what: For the Lakers to make a real run this year, it is going to come down to the performance and focus of his new “Robin” Andrew Bynum. This year has been nothing short of a career breakout year for Bynum. He averaged 18.7 points, 11.7 rebounds and 1.9 blocks. At times, he was the focal point of the Lakers offense, and usually, that was a good thing.
Bryant is still the catalyst and the closer and the bully that you have to go through if you want to beat the Lakers, but Bynum’s steady diet of low post scoring, rebounding and presence on the defensive end are extremely valuable. When the Lakers rely solely on outside shooting and/or Bryant’s domination of the ball, they become a more average attack. When Bynum is doing his thing inside and combining with Gasol to create outstanding length on defense and creating room for the the guards to operate, this Laker team starts to resemble the Laker teams of the early 2000s featuring Shaq and Kobe minus the drama.
They are still a tried and true, playoff-tested bunch that can easily be considered to represent the West in the NBA finals. If only Bynum can keep his attitude in check and limit the amount of stupid comments he has to offer, they will be in great shape.
Manu is still a threat
Typically, when Manu is healthy and playing at his best, the Spurs are always a threat to win it all. The times that he has been banged up, injured or ineffective, the Spurs have been hit or miss and susceptible to losing early in the playoffs. Manu is undoubtedly older and not quite as spectacular with his moves and finishes, but he still is a lethal threat on the offensive end that can strike fear in the Spurs’ opponents.
The Spurs have been extra careful to pace him and use him sparingly this season, even when he was healthy. He logged his lowest minutes per game total (23.3) since his rookie year in ’02-’03 and averaged less than 10 shots a game for the first time since that year as well. He still was very effective, shooting 52.3 percent from the field, and averaged 12.9 points per game. He also showed signs of explosiveness and aggressive play in bigger games against the Lakers in April, where he had 20 points, Memphis, where he had 20 points, and 23 against the Utah Jazz during the season.
The minutes have been kept down, and Coach Popovich did a great job of conserving him for when the games really matter. Expect Manu to be there when the going gets tough and the Spurs need key baskets. This is Tony Parker’s team, but down the stretch, there still may not be a better option to get a big bucket than Ginobili. If, in fact, he is up to the task, he will play a big part in the success that the Spurs have in the playoffs.
Rondo is the face of the new Celtics
Rondo is coming off of his best year as a pro and has cemented himself as one of the best point guards in the game. His game still has definite holes, but as Steve Nash starts to decline, it is very possible that Rondo may be one of the top two or three floor generals in the game.
The Celtics have declared the team his, and he is fully in charge of controlling the tempo, making sure everyone gets their touches in position to score and orchestrating the offense to be as productive as possible. With his fellow stars aging and becoming less and less capable of doing it “on their own” consistently, Rondo has become the most important player on the team because when he is on the floor, everyone gets good shots and the offense moves smoothly.
While Pierce is the closer, Garnett the emotional leader and Rivers the director of this program, Rondo’s play and ability to avoid emotional outbursts similar to what took place in Game 1 are what will determine how far the Celtics go.
The Celtics are the only true threat to the Heat in the East, and if Rondo is playing at a high level and winning the point guard matchup thoroughly in the next two matchups, sky is the limit for this team. The Sixers have a pretty good point guard in Holliday, but if the Bulls recover to win the series, they come with two backups instead of Rondo’s nemesis and now superior rival Derrick Rose. If and when they get to the Heat, Rondo’s domination of Mario Chalmers and penetration into the teeth of the defense will be a mandatory in any Celtics’ Eastern Conference winning equation.
If Rondo can continue to rack up the assist totals, make the game easier for others and attack offensively when appropriate, the Celtics may find themselves playing into June. If he loses his temper and lets the immature side of him come out and does not run the offense at a high level, the Celtics may not make it through the East semifinals.
Can Russ keep it together long enough to win a championship?
Russell Westbrook may be one of the more polarizing players in the NBA. He is a lightning rod topic of discussion and is a very interesting and vital piece to the NBA playoff picture. While the Thunder are led by MVP candidate Kevin Durant, who is without a doubt the best player on the team, there is no denying Westbrook’s extraordinary athleticism and talent.
If Russ were on any other team, he would probably have a Derrick Rose-like green light to carry a team and attack the defense on a relentless basis. However, with the presence of another star and other pieces like James Harden that need to be involved, it is important that Westbrook find a balance between getting “his” and helping his teammates get “theirs."
I do not think that Westbrook is necessarily a “selfish” player that is unwilling to pass, or even a guy who does not like or respect his good buddy, Kevin Durant, as some accuse him of, but the problem is that he does believe that he is a great basketball player that should bow down to no one. This is not an abnormal attitude, as most of the league’s elite stars have that attitude. Most players think they are the best in the league, whether it’s true or not. The only problem is that usually, these types of stars (and he is an elite star) do not have to share the spotlight with other stars.
Westbrook is fully aware that no one defender can stop him off of the dribble and that his pull-up jumper is pretty reliable as well. Most players with this type of talent would never be told to “pull back” on their full assault of every team in the league, however, as a point guard on a team loaded with talent, namely Durant, he does have a unique responsibility to make sure he is a distributor first.
In order for the Thunder to make a run at the championship this year, as many expect them to do, their star point guard must find an even balance between attacking the defense and distributing the ball on offense. If he can do this effectively without pouting or overdoing it on either end, this season may end in glory in mid-June.
The problem is, can Russell avoid letting the bright lights and adrenaline from getting to his head, which could lead to him disregarding everyone else and trying to get “his” while a 30 ppg scorer is kept without touches for five to 10-minute stretches? Can he avoid getting too passive, in response to the critics and not fulfilling his responsibilities as the team’s second scoring option that can be a headache for the defense and a lightning rod to the rest of the team and their fans? This remains to be seen.
OKC has the talent, they have the firepower, can they execute in the half court effectively and unselfishly as they start to play the league’s better teams in grueling seven-game series. This remains to be seen.
No team wants to see their star player on the floor without a jersey on
Before the playoffs, the question was, will the Bulls have a healthy Derrick Rose, or just a fraction of the D-Rose that we were forced to settle for the latter half of the season? This question alone was the hinge between prognosticators thinking the Bulls had a title run in them or if they were going to fall short because their star was unable to lead the way.
Just a matter of hours into the 2012 playoffs, the whole complexion of the Eastern Conference and league playoff picture changed. Near the end of the game, in almost unjust fashion, Rose tore his ACL and is out for the foreseeable future. Many talked about how good the bulls were without Derrick during the regular season (18-7), but anyone with any sense or memory about how the NBA Playoffs worked had to know that the Bulls could bank on a deep playoff run without their star.
Now, the silly talk was put to test when the star went down.
Soon after the injury happened and the shock of the tragedy wore off, most thought that the Bulls could still easily get through the first round and maybe through the second round before their seemingly imminent fate would come in the East finals.
In just a week, the Bulls found themselves down 3-1 in the series before winning Game 5 and have been dealt a harsh reality blow as to how important Derrick Rose is to their franchise’s success. All of the talk about how good the Bulls were without him were put to test, and now, the eight-seeded 76ers control their own destiny and are in control of this first-round series.
If this turn of events does not tell you how important Derrick Rose was to the Chicago Bulls and their championship hopes, I am not sure what it will take. The Bulls can still win this series and have a chance in the second round, but they are not well-positioned right now. All of their preparation and hope to overcome the insurmountable hurdle from the year prior had gone to waste seemingly.
Previously, it seemed that the Bulls may have enough to beat the Heat in year two with Coach Thibodeau and the addition of Richard Hamilton. The Bulls had the best record in the entire league despite numerous injuries to key players, and now they, at times, look like they do not belong in the playoffs, struggling to score 80 points on multiple occasions.
The presence/absence of Derrick Rose is about as big of a story as you can find in the NBA Playoffs. The same could hold true for other teams if they were to lose their star, including the Orlando Magic, but no team’s fortune was so tied to one player as the Chicago Bulls.
The Heat's fate is in LeBron's hands.
As if this guy does not get enough unnecessary heat and pressure from the fans and pundits, I have declared LeBron the most influential player in the NBA Playoffs this year. It is no secret that the Heat are built to win Championships. Not just one championship, multiple championships.
The journey got off to a rough start last year when the Heat fell short to the Mavericks. This year, if the Heat fall short, the sky will fall. God has not signed off on this prediction, but that’s just my gut feeling.
While the Heat definitely have a Big Three in James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh (all superstars in this league), I cannot see how any reasonable mind cannot see that James is the best player on this team. Wade is just as lethal as James, especially in the clutch, and he’s as good a slasher as there is in the league, but James has the best all-around game. At the end of the day, the Heat’s destiny will be determined by how close to LeBron’s best we see during the playoffs when it counts.
In the past, we have seen LeBron play great on several occasions for the Cavaliers, and he was about as good as anyone has ever been against the Chicago Bulls last season in the East finals evoking comparisons to Michael Jordan. He has dominated early rounds for the Heat and played well in the regular season, but what everyone is looking for is greatness from LeBron James when the going gets tough in the NBA Finals.
Against Boston in 2010, as a Cavalier, he was stymied and he crawled into a shell and quit. When the Mavericks took away all penetration and forced him to shoot and the media hounded him about who was the man on the Heat, he shrunk back and disappeared in the biggest series of his life.
This year, and in the future, all eyes are on LeBron James to see if he can overcome these demons and step up and star for the Miami Heat. If D-Wade plays well, that’s great. If Bosh steps up, that’s excellent as well. Coach Spoelstra will play a big part as well, but if the Heat are to be crowned champions, LeBron must elevate his greatness to a championship level.
When JSmoove plays smart and at his best, the Hawks are tough to beat
Kobe Bryant, Josh Smith and Jason Terry