NBA Playoffs 2012: Best Storylines for Conference Semifinals
The Eastern and Western Conference Semifinals are under way and the stakes are higher than ever in the NBA Playoffs.
We were robbed of one of the NBA's best potential matchups when Derrick Rose went down with a torn ACL, but there are still plenty left for NBA junkies to get their fill. Legacies are on the line. Ring-less franchises are ready to get that first banner. And some old champs are trying to add to the collection.
Yes there are plenty of intriguing story lines heading toward the NBA Finals. Here are some of the best.
The Resurgence of Kevin Garnett
What a difference a few months make. Early in the season I laughed at KG's defense on Dirk Nowtizki, which gave new meaning to the term "face-to-face defense."
Garnett averaged 10 points and five rebounds per game to start the year. After a disappointing season that saw KG's Boston Celtics get eliminated in just the second round of the NBA Playoffs, it seemed the end was nigh for one of my favorite players of the generation. KG and the Celtics struggled early, but apparently they were just getting warmed up.
Garnett's game improved vastly when he became the Celtics' starting center. After turning back the clock to end the season, KG has cranked up his production to 20 points, 11 boards and two blocks per game thus far in the playoffs. In Game 6 against the Atlanta Hawks and Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Semis, Garnett gave two true vintage KG performances with an average of 28.5 points and 12.5 rebounds in the contests.
If there is anything that can keep Garnett playing like it's 2005, it is the potential matchup in the Eastern Conference Finals against LeBron James and the hated Miami Heat.
The Los Angeles Lakers and Oklahoma City Thunder
This is a classic (potential) changing-of-the-guard series. After three straight NBA Finals appearances and two wins, Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers are still one of the NBA's measuring sticks, even after last season's disappointing end. The Oklahoma City Thunder are the young guns ready to show the old guys the door.
We have the NBA's second-leading scorer, 33-year-old Kobe Bryant, vs. three-time scoring champ Kevin Durant, ten years Kobe's junior. There is the flashy young Russell Westbrook. Kendrick Perkins will bring his intensity from his days taking on the Lakers in the NBA Finals with the Boston Celtics. Shot-block king Serge Ibaka will team with Perkins to take on the Lakers' talented but inconsistent duo of Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum. Oh, and then there is Metta World Peace's elbow vs. James Harden's jaw, round two.
The Lakers represent the exact type of team that I thought all season could give the talented young Thunder problems. The Thunder are the NBA's worst team when it comes to ball movement, finishing dead last in both assists and turnovers per game. That means a veteran unit that can slow the ball down and limit their own mistakes can upset the Thunder.
It is a matchup that could spawn an extension of the NBA's last dynasty, or the start of a new one. I can't wait to see what happens next.
Kevin Durant and Russel Wesbtook's Stringer/Avon Complex
It was around this time last season that Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant's chemistry was brought into question. By what we saw on the court, the questions were legitimate.
Westbrook was horribly inconsistent in the Western Conference Semifinals against the Memphis Grizzlies. In the seven-game series, it was horridly apparent that when Westbrook looked to the game's most gifted scorer, the Thunder won. When he forced the issue and tried too hard to be the alpha dog, they lost.
This bipolar play was personified by Game 7, when Westbrook took just 12 shots, had a triple double and the Thunder won by 15. Westbrook was even benched late in games in the following series against the Dallas Mavericks.
The stakes are higher now and the lights will shine the brightest against the LA Lakers. Will one-on-one ball kill the Thunder's championship dreams? Or will their dynamic duo continue to thrive and grow together?
San Antonio Spurs' Resurgence
I will admit it. I absolutely wrote off the San Antonio Spurs after they were embarrassed by the eighth-seeded Memphis Grizzlies in the opening round of last year's playoffs. Tim Duncan was no longer a 20/20 guy, while Tony Parker and especially Manu Ginobili could not stay healthy.
A year later, the Spurs are once again the top seed in the Western Conference playoffs. Tony Parker emerged as a fringe MVP candidate, the Spurs got younger and more athletic at key positions and Tim Duncan can still dominate in spurts. Most importantly, Gregg Popovich did by far the best job of any coach in the league at adjusting to the compressed schedule. The Spurs could be the NBA's freshest team in the playoffs.
Now, they will have a new challenge in the big, athletic Los Angeles Clippers. Do the Spurs knock off the young bucks and make one more run to the NBA Finals?
Can the Los Angeles Clippers Do It Again?
If the Los Angeles Clippers can defeat the San Antonio Spurs, they will be playing in their first Conference Finals in the 42-year history of the franchise.
I fully expected the Clippers to go down in six games to the Memphis Grizzlies. I did not believe the Clippers had anyone else that could close but Chris Paul and that the Grizzlies were just a better overall team than the Clippers. I soon realized Chris Paul really is that good, and can motivate teammates to play at another level.
Kenyon Martin and Reggie Evans played phenomenally off the bench, teaming with Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan to give the Clippers the NBA's best mix of big man athleticism, experience and toughness. Caron Butler keeps getting the job done in spite of a broken hand and Nick Young has performed better than I ever could have believed after his days as a chucker with the Washington Wizards.
Following Chris Paul's lead, this team is ready to contend for an NBA Championship sooner than I could have imagined. The Spurs will have their hands full in this series.
Can Dwayne Wade and LeBron James Keep Miami Hot?
After injuries to Derrick Rose and Dwight Howard, the Miami Heat seemed to have the path clear to the NBA Finals. Now the injury bug has taken its talents to South Beach and the Heat will be without Chris Bosh against the Indiana Pacers.
If Miami can get by Indiana, Bosh could be back and they could keep rolling to the NBA Finals. However, make no mistake: the Pacers are no pushover. They gave the top-seeded Chicago Bulls a tough series last season and have improved vastly since then. The Heat have the series' two best players, but the Pacers might have the third through 10th best.
Without a legitimate two-way big man, and the 7'2" Roy Hibbert clogging things down for Wade and James, LeBron will have to play virtually every position. In short, he will have to do what Magic Johnson did in 1980. The difference is Magic had to do it for a game. LeBron will have to do it for a series.
The good news for LeBron: if he succeeds, it will add to his legacy as one of the best individual playoff performances. The bad news: if he fails, the Heat will enter year three looking for NBA Championship number not two, not three, not four, but one.
Can the Old Big Three Hang with the New Big Three?
The Boston Celtics and their aging stars struggled mightily in the first half of the season. The second half has been a different story, as the Celtics have been the best team in the NBA.
By moving Kevin Garnett over to center and putting Brandon Bass and Avery Bradley in the starting lineup, the Celtics got younger, quicker and more athletic. With Ray Allen as the sixth man, he can lead a second unit that lacked a scorer. With Bradley as the starting shooting guard, the Celtics have a pit bull of a perimeter defender to unleash on the other team's best backcourt scorer. That allows Rajon Rondo to play off the ball, rack up steals and ignite the fast break.
In this generation of smaller centers, Rivers put new life into KG's game. Andrew Bynum and Roy Hibbert are the only players in the NBA above seven-feet tall with any skill, and Garnett has the advantage over a lot more fives than he did fours at this point in his career. Paul Pierce has also rejuvenated his game and become the clutch-shooting, play-making small forward that won the Boston Celtics a title a few years back.
Assuming the Heat survive without Bosh against the Indiana Pacers, a Heat-Celtics Eastern Conference Finals matchup will be much more competitive than last season's Eastern Conference Semifinals. In fact, some may say, it will be a bar fight.