The Playoff Diaries: Feeling the Vibe of the Semi-Finals

NBA Playoffs

As the exhausting, exhilarating first round marathon drew to a close, it seemed as if the NBA’s Law of Talent was taking hold despite all the drama and surprises en route: given ~100 possessions per team per game and the best of seven playoff format, basketball gives the most run to the law of averages, and the least room for outliers, of any major sport, which tends to make it the most (relatively) predictable in its ultimate outcomes. After all the insanity of Round 1, all of the “upsets”—Nets over Toronto, Washington over Chicago, and Portland over Houston—were pretty widely expected from the outset.

And now here we are, more than halfway through the second round, and the most likely Conference Semifinals matchups are shaping up to be exactly what anyone with even a casual interest in the NBA could have predicted in October: Heat vs. Pacers in the East, and Spurs vs. Thunder in the West. It seems churlish to complain after so much excitement, but I’ll be disappointed for all kinds of reasons if that’s really how it ends up going down.

Keep that in mind while reading this week’s installment, which will offer less exhaustive game-by-game diarizing and a more manageable focus on vibes and some predictions, which might be better classified as “wishes” in some cases.

BROOKLYN VS MIAMI

So this is it: the chance that Prohokov and GM Billy King mortgaged our future for, a shot at the champs! I ain’t gonna lie, I’m still in agony from Monday night, when the prospect of heading back to Miami tied 2-2 was painfully tangible before the Nets offense lost the plot over the last four minutes of the game to let Miami slip away with the win. But at the same time, I’m kinda proud, or at least not ashamed, of our guys—even if the first two games felt a little bit like Miami was toying with us, we kept things competitive, and the Nets genuinely looked like the better *team* for Games 3 and 4.

Of course, who needs a ‘team’ when you have LeBron James, who scored fully just about half of Miami's points the other night? Just ask the Cleveland Cavaliers! Hahaha, no seriously, the non-LBJ Heat look creaky and as non-scary as they’ve been in years, and unlike last year’s “heartless, gutless” Nets squad, Brooklyn is NOT scared at all of these guys or anyone. Seriously, fuck the 3-1 deficit, the Nets are highly motivated and after watching them sweep the Heat during the regular season I sincerely believe (or have sincerely convinced myself) they can bounce back and take this to seven games, and at that point anything can happen! NETS IN SEVEN!

– Not for the first time, it’s been occurring to me that the Nets are kind of like the bizarro Spurs—instead of an incredibly deep team full of non-superstars that know how to play within a system, it’s an incredibly deep team full of ex-superstars that have learned to play within their limits. Easily the deepest team still standing outside of San Antonio, and you can’t tell me that’s not gonna be important in taking this the distance.

– There are obviously actually a ton of differences between the Nets and Spurs, but maybe the most glaring right now is that the Spurs have Tony Parker, who is continuing his annual tradition of reminding everyone that he’s up there with Chris Paul as one of the two best point guards in the game, and the Nets have Deron Williams—who is getting paid as if he was one of the best two point guards in the game because he used to be up there with Chris Paul, but, like, just is not at all that guy anymore.

– D-Will’s 0-point Game 2 is the stuff of anti-legend, just the latest and most glaring evidence that the Nets may have built their franchise on a fatally flawed foundation. Imagine, if you will, if we’d kept Derrick Favors et al instead of trading for D-Will, kept the #6 pick that turned into Damian Lillard instead of appeasing D-Will by trading it for two months of Gerald Wallace? [Sad Deron sigh]

– Speaking of fatally flawed foundations, it’s crushing to see Brook Lopez on the sidelines and imagine What Could Have Been. Despite the Nets’ early-season struggles before Lopez’s injury, I think the ‘better-without-Lopez’ brigade is sorely mistaken—it was gonna take time for Brooklyn’s funky collection of players (and their rookie coach) to gel, and you’re crazy if you think they wouldn’t have learned to play around Brook’s unsurpassed—and ‘feathery’!—offensive game. And in this series in particular, his ability to keep the Heat out of the paint and muscle his way through the post… Anyway…

– Bummers aside, our heart-and-guts transplant from Boston has been a real asset during these playoffs. Their mediocre-at-best regular seasons undoubtedly lowered my expectations, but Pierce especially has been a legit go-to option in the clutch, and after a straight-up mummy-ish first couple of games Kevin Garnett has reached down to find some classic KG energy when it counts. Considering his likely (?) retirement after the season, you gotta expect him to empty the tank these next game(s).

– With all due respect to Shaun Livingston, I think my favorite Nets-roleplayer-stepping-it-up story of the season and the post-season has been FEARZA Teletovic finally finding his Euromojo and emerging as a deadly offensive cog in the Nets second unit. He was huge against the Heat in Game 3, draining four three-pointers and inspiring this excellent Jake Gyllenhaal reaction shot.

– Speaking of role players, while the Nets as a team are clearly never scared of Miami, no one is as psyched to get physical with the champs as ALAN ANDERSON, who has been absolutely indispensable “3s and D and unnecessary-but-welcome-aggression” guy for the Nets. Am I the only one that says “Mr. Anderson” in the voice of Agent Smith from The Matrix every time dude nails a trey?

– I’m proud of Andray Blatche for bouncing back from his disastrous finale in Game 6 vs. Toronto to play some of the most focused, (relatively) disciplined basketball I’ve ever seen him play in the past few games. Dude is wacky but crucial if the Nets are gonna have a chance here.

INDIANA VS WASHINGTON

In a weird way, this has shaped up to be the most intriguing, hard-to-predict matchup—of the remaining teams, their identities at this moment in time seem most in flux. Are Indiana re-discovering their true, Finals-contending selves just in time? Or are they still trapped in the bad-chemistry nightmare that has been most of their last three months? Is this the Wizards’ coming out party as a true contender, or is this just a blip in our capital’s historic run of basketball misery?

After five games, we still don’t have any idea. While Washington’s failure to close out a potential Game 4 win that would have tied the series was a bad blow, it apparently wasn’t fatal, as the Wiz flat out embarrassed Indiana in Game 5 on the backs of 31 points from Marcin Gortat (!) and 27 from John Wall. After Indiana’s brutal D held Washington to just 63 points in Game 3, it seemed like the Pacers were ‘back’—but a total bed-diahrrheaing like last night is a reminder that there is no way these guys aren’t capable of blowing three straight. That said, while I root DC, I think the Wall/Beal core is still not-quite ripe, and Indiana will pull it together again—but only if and when their backs are truly against the wall (Wall), after the Wiz take Game 6 at home. PACERS IN SEVEN.

– Chris Webber really nails it with his description of the Wizards style of play: “reckless abandon with attention to detail.” Really enjoying the Webber/Eagle broadcast duo in general!

– John Wall’s still-inconsistent but athletically spectacular game is kind of like a more well-adjusted, less Hulked out version of Russ Westbrook. He’s been playing like he’s got something to prove this entire playoffs, his monster Game 5 was a big time big stage performance, and, if the Heat make it past the Nets, I’d be pretty psyched to see him level up some more while tormenting Mario Chalmers.

– Roy Hibbert’s resurrection, after the unfathomable abyss of his 0-point, 0-rebound Game 1, was an enormous hunk of psychic relief. I enjoyed everyone taking shots at Roy as much as the next guy, but the sheer vastness of his sorrow was starting to bum me out. No man that size with that Muppet-y of a voice should be that sad! And seeing a big man dominate like Hibbert has the added bonus of getting Shaq worked up enough to rise out of his usual unlistenable mumble.

– Lest we overrate Hibbert’s return to form—self-proclaimed “soulmates” Marcin Gortat and Nene are taking their turns having their way against Hibbert and Mahinmi, frequently making them look foolish with their mobile-big-man chemistry. What do we have to do to get a Gortat + Nene reality show and/or buddy cop movie made, by the way? Can we Kickstart this?

– Along with Gortat, Trevor Ariza is setting himself up for a nice payday this off-season with his dependable “3s and D” this playoffs. In honor of Ariza’s understated excellence, I’d like to take a minute to sing the praises of the food I’ve eaten the most often by far throughout this playoff journey—carnitas burritos (with avocado) from Tacos Arizas truck near my house in Echo Park. One of the best things you can eat by any standard but considering it’s $6.50 and big enough to be lunch and dinner (for me anyway), it’s truly a world-beater.

– How long has the Indiana PA announcer been ripping off the Timberwolves’ fun, Ricola-aping “Niiiikola” call for Nikola Pekovic baskets, awkwardly warping the iconic Scandinavian jingle to fit “LuiiiiIIS Scolaaaa”? It sucks.

– “Uncle” Drew Gooden is alive and thriving off Washington’s bench, which is a good occasion as any to remember the impressively heinous “ducktail” haircut he invented a few years ago whilst on the Cavs.

LOS ANGELES VS OKLAHOMA CITY

This is just an impossible matchup for me to get an emotional handle on—two evenly-matched, very competitive teams, each with two of the league’s most exciting players, and each embroiled in odious ownership situations that make it hard for me to root for them. The less said about Donald Sterling the better at this point, but the prospect of this heavily-used XL leather gimp suit of a shitbag seeing the value of his team appreciate even further before he’s finally forced to sell is hard to swallow… But it’s also hard to root for a stolen Thunder team that, in a more just world, would still be the iconic SuperSonics of Seattle. I mean… fucking SEATTLE!

Also, #THEBASEDGODSCURSE #TASKFORCE

After splitting the first two relatively undramatic games, the screws have tightened, with high-octane-yet-erratic offenses trading heavy blows and wild comebacks that are making me wish I could get more viscerally involved one way or another. LA’s in a tough place after last night’s brutal, bullshit call inflected, comeback (comedown?) loss, but I think I’m gonna throw my hat in with the Lobsters of Lob City after all. In a close series like this, you can’t underestimate the importance of the Clippies advantages in both coaching smarts and on-floor leadership at the point—Doc and CP3 are going to make Good Decisions, and Scotty Brooks and Russbro are almost definitely going to make at least a few Bad Choices. CLIPPERS IN SEVEN.

– Who in the league works harder, or at least absorbs more raw punishment, than Blake Griffin? He’s like the NBA’s version of Mick Foley, or maybe Bruce Willis in the Die Hard movies. Even if he tragically doesn’t have to face the Wrath of ZBO this year, he’s taking a hell of a beating from Serge Ibaka:

– We all knew about Chris Paul the floor general, the tenacious defender, the inventor of the assist—but he’s also been doing an intermittently spot-on impression of Steph Curry this round, highlighted by his 8 (!!!) three-pointers in Game 1. How hungry is CP3? REALLY FUCKING HANGRY.

WHY NOT? Oh Russbro, I dunno…

– Weirdly, Charles Barkley ragging on Shaq for mixing up Nick and Darren Collison was NOT the best Darren Collison-related moment of the series!

– My very large and Clipper-lovin roomie was screaming extra loud during LA’s incredible Game 4 comeback, but was conspicuous for being seemingly the only one celebrating in extremely Lakers-centric Echo Park. As far as our neighborhood is concerned, there is no basketball these days, only Dodgers.

– As discussed during the Game 3 broadcast, Most Valuable Kiwi Steven Adams is one of eighteen (!!) children sired by his father, who was (obviously?) a sailor in the New Zealand Royal Navy. This inspired some research into dude’s sister, Valerie, who is a 6’4”, 260 lb. world championship shot-putter… Uhh do NOT fuck with the Adamses.

SAN ANTONIO VS PORTLAND

The hard-fought series against the Mavericks clearly got the Spurs very well warmed up, because these games have been as boringly inevitable as death, taxes, and the Spurs can be. Tony and Timmy vs. Dame and LaMarcus could be a pretty competitive game if this was NBA Jam, but depth is crucial in the IRL playoffs. The Spurs have the highest-scoring bench in the league and the Blazers have the lowest-scoring bench in the league. The Spurs led for all but 33 seconds of the first four games. Tony Parker is casually reasserting himself as the league’s quietest superstar, putting on an absolute clinic against poor Yung Dame. We’ve had a fucking “Aron Baynes Game.”

What more is there to say? All due respect to the Portland team and fans and their great season and the late Dr. Ramsay, but it’s a relief to have these boring games following the nausea/heart palpitation-inducing Miami/Brooklyn games. SPURS IN 5, let’s leave it at that.

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