The NBA Playoffs tip off this weekend. While 19 17 teams are currently jostling for playoff positioning, they’re not all equal combatants in the NBA’s marathon postseason. Let’s separate them into five groups.
“We may cause ulcers, but nothing terminal”
The Nuggets aren’t good enough to win an NBA championship this season. They’re too raw, too unhealthy, and simply need time to gel as a unit. However, just because they won’t win a title doesn’t mean the Nuggets won’t give someone a scare.
Based on current standings, the Nuggets will probably meet the Thunder or Lakers in the opening round of the NBA Playoffs. Of the teams battling for positioning in those final three spots in the Western Conference, the Nuggets are the team I’d least like to play.
Denver is one of the most athletic teams in the league. They can and will run you up and down the court all night long. Fatigue? Not an issue. (Seriously, watch Kenneth Faried. I’ve never seen him tired.) In addition to being young, the Nuggets also boast one of the league’s deeper benches despite being without the sidelined Rudy Fernandez for most of the year. (Though, the season-ending injury to Wilson Chandler will certainly hurt.)
While I don’t expect the Nuggets to pull of an upset, I think they’ll put a scare into whomever they play for a few reasons. First, they thrive in the fast break. Ty Lawson is the fastest point guard in the NBA. If you give him fast break opportunities, you won’t catch him. Lawson has also developed into one of the top point guards in the NBA this season. He’s shooting 48% from the field and a respectable 35% from three. Clearly, he’s more than just speed and quickness. Lawson gives Denver a considerable advantage against Los Angeles (Lakers) both at point guard and in transition.
Second, Denver will punish you on a poor shooting night. The best way to slow down a fast break team is to make shots. An off night plays into Denver’s hands. They’ll steal a game or two simply by running their opponent to death.
Third, the Nuggets are as feisty as their coach. Even undermanned, I like Denver’s chances of pushing a first round series to six or seven games, especially against the Thunder, who lack the size inside to exploit Denver’s greatest flaw. Also, pay attention to Danilo Gallinari. If fully healthy, this could be his coming out party.
Nearly four years ago the young, up-and-coming Hawks gave the veteran Boston Celtics all they could handle in a seven game series that saw each team go undefeated at home. The Hawks, an 8th seed at the time, have progressed from “young and up-and-coming” to “mediocre and going nowhere.”
While the Hawks haven’t gotten significantly better in the past two years, they deserve credit for competing all season without perhaps their best player in Al Horford, who may or may not be out for the playoffs. In Horford’s absence, Josh Smith took a major leap in carrying the Hawks. He’s grown offensively and established himself as the team’s defensive anchor while Joe Johnson still carries the lion’s share of the scoring load.
Will Smith’s (as in “will Smith” not “Will Smith”) improvement and Johnson’s scoring prowess be enough to knock off the veteran and surging Celtics? Doubtful. But if Atlanta has one thing going for them, it’s this: Despite being the East’s 5th seed, Atlanta (assuming they don’t fall apart in their final two games) will play four of the series’ seven games inside the Highlight Factory where they were 3-0 against Boston in 2008. Hey, stranger things have happened.
New York Knicks
I get the excitement surrounding the Knicks. Carmelo Anthony has been on a tear. He’s the most lethal scorer in the NBA. In a close game with a chance to win or tie on a final shot, Anthony is probably the player you’d want with the ball. However, do the Knicks have enough weapons to put themselves in position to be in a tight game against the Bulls or Heat? My thinking is they don’t.
Sure, the Knicks have hung with the Heat at times and even beaten the Bulls, but the playoffs are different. While neither team will admit it, both Chicago and Miami have been on cruise control for the past two months. All the drama surrounding their recent struggles has been overstated. Both teams knew before the season tipped off they’d be the top two seeds and probably competing for the Eastern Conference crown. The regular season was simply an extended training camp.
In other words, the Knicks haven’t seen the best from Miami or Chicago. Neither the Bulls nor the Heat have ratcheted their play up to that next level. Conversely, the Knicks have been playing at a playoff level for the past two weeks, fighting desperately to remain in the playoffs and possibly increase their position.
Don’t get me wrong; the Knicks have a nice team, a team that could win a game or two against the East’s elite. Unfortunately, there’s no heart attack coming at the hands of the Knicks. Actually, they’d be fortunate to give either Miami or Chicago an ulcer.
Orlando Magic/Houston Rockets
Since I posted Part 1 of this series, the Magic lost Dwight Howard for all of eternity and the Rockets put Kyle Lowry on the shelf amid losing three of four and falling a game and a half out of the final playoff spot with only one game left to play. In other words, both teams now belong in the “We’re here for the free drinks” group.
I liked Orlando’s chances of causing a ruckus when Howard decided to remain with the team just before the trade deadline. When at the top of his game, no one in the East can contain Howard. Sadly, Howard created the aforementioned ruckus among his own team and ultimately scuttled any playoff hopes the Magic had.
As for the Rockets, they learned an invaluable lesson; don’t ever follow up an impressive four game winning streak by losing seven of eight down the stretch when competing for a playoff spot. Of course, injuries didn’t help Houston’s cause, but dropping from 6th to out of the playoffs in less than two weeks is an impressive feat for all the wrong reasons. Don’t worry, Houston, you can always blame David Stern for your 2012 struggles, and rightfully so. In fact, maybe you should demand he fix the lottery in your favor as restitution.