Ryan O’Hanlon and Max Ornstein trade a bunch of words back and forth, but they come to one conclusion: the NBA playoffs are going to be awesome.
Ryan O’Hanlon: This is the most excited I’ve ever been for the NBA playoffs. Of course, a lot of that has to with this being the first playoffs since I became a teenager where the Knicks actually matter. That’s got a lot do with it, sure. But, also, I think I’m excited because this has been the best NBA season of the last 15 years. The league is stacked with talent right now. The Knicks have two starters from the All-Star game on their roster, and they’re an afterthought for everyone outside of the Tri-State area. But what’s best about the abundance of talent is that it promises some parity.
No, the NBA playoffs will be nothing like the NCAA Tournament. The Sixers won’t be playing the Pacers in the Eastern Conference finals. Pros are less prone to brain flatulence in key moments. And the seven-game series—plus home-court—takes a lot of the randomness away. Still, the six/seven seeds in both conferences could be trouble with the right match-ups, and in both conferences I don’t think anyone would be surprised to see any of the top-three seeds to make the Finals. Yes, the Lakers and the Bulls look the part, but even if both those teams make the finals, they’re gonna have to go through hell to get there. And it’ll be fun as hell to watch that happen.
For a neutral or a liberated fan like yourself, these promise to be the best playoffs in a long, long time. But for a reborn Knicks fanatic like myself, it’s got an extra edge. I feel like my team can compete and maybe pull off a first round upset, but I could also see them getting swept aside (heh, get it?). More than anything, I feel like the Knicks are just annoying everyone. Yes, in New York we’ve got absurd expectations, and we’re talking ourselves into a shocking multi-round run. But that’s New York.
Everywhere else, it seems like everyone is mad that a six-seed is getting so much fanfare. Most “knowledgeable” fans and online sports media heads say they don’t see the big deal with the Knickerbockers. Sure, they’ve got some talent, but the pieces don’t fit. And look at some of those losses. They’re barely a 500-team for crying out loud! And around the NBA it seems like the Knicks are the team no one wants to play. The Knicks could get hot and knock off one of the top seeds, the say. They won’t go much further than that, but they could ruin someone else’s dreams. And all of that’s annoying.
I try to temper myself to somewhere in between “Joey T. Knicks” and “Cynical basketball blogger.” We might cause some problems, we might not. But I’m glad we’re back. It’s become a cliche over the last decade while Isaiah and Jimmy Dolan tried building the best NBA Live team money could buy, but people said the league needed the Knicks to be good. Basketball’s better when the Knicks are in the playoffs. Right? Well, now we’re here. Do you still think that’s true?
Max Ornstein: I do think its true. The playoffs are better when the Knicks are in them, even for me, because it’s fun to watch New York go crazy about basketball. The playoffs aren’t as fun if the team I like to root against the most isn’t in them. I think the only top four team they could’ve give trouble to is the team that everyone else likes to root against—the Heat, because against any other of the top seeds the Knicks will be overmatched. Orlando, Boston, and Chicago are simply too well balanced to be toppled by a two man team with defense like sieve. Miami is a two-and-a-half man team, and their 4-9 is even thinner than the Knicks. In that series, it really would come down to which two of Melo, Stat, Wade, and Lebron would say, “Our team isn’t losing this series.” For that reason, I think that would’ve be an incredible series to watch and probably the best series of the first round, but now it’s not gonna happen unless the Knicks knock off the Celtics.
I also think that Knicks fans are talking themselves into a frenzy because the season-long Melodrama stunk—Knicks fans know it—and because they shipped off a few players that they considered “their guys.” Until Deron Williams leaves Brooklyn, Knicks fans aren’t willing to admit that Dolan got outfoxed by Prokhorov at the deadline and that the trade that was supposed to take the team to the next level has turned into “a smart move to acquire building blocks for the future.” I feel like many Knicks fans need the Knicks to justify the move now.
In the larger scope, I can’t remember being as excited for some of the potential matchups, both in the first round and going down the line. I was surprisingly invested in Oklahoma grabbing the three seed from the Mavs so they wouldn’t have to play Denver in the first round and both teams would’ve a chance to survive to the second, because I’m not convinced it’s as wide open as everyone is saying it is, and I want the teams I like to hang around for as long as possible.
I am afraid that Denver, Oklahoma City, and Chicago—the three teams that I think are the most fun to watch—are all a year away, and we’re headed for another Lakers–Celtics finals, with the Celtics out-experiencing the Bulls (although the Celts got crushed by the Heat last Sunday), and then the Lakers taking the Celtics in six—the Perkins trade finally derailing their season. Count me out of the group that wants to see another 79-83 brickfest, which is what we’ll be in for. I want some new blood in the finals—new players to be tested on the world’s biggest stage. I want to see how Durant, Rose, or Danilo Galinari/JR Smith/Ty Lawson (Hah!) will respond on the biggest stage, but I think I’m going to have to wait at least one more year.
RO: See, that’s interesting to me. Right now, when I think of the Celtics, I don’t see them going anywhere, but that’s exactly how everyone felt last year. They were the 4 seed, and their biggest fan even picked them to get knocked off in the first round. Some say that it was the Quentin Richardson elbow that motivated them into gear, but, really, it was probably just a veteran team saving themselves for the playoffs. I don’t know if you’ve read Scorecasting (name drop!) but it’s basically the Freakonomics of sports. One of the big chapters is about momentum—among players in games and teams over a season. Using statistics, the authors decide the momentum actually doesn’t exist.
Now, the Celtics are a different case this year. They fundamentally changed their team in what, to me, was one of the most baffling trades I’ve ever seen. They’ve gone 15-12 since and just look totally different.
Meanwhile, the Lakers and Bulls—favorites for the finals—are only favorites because of how they’ve finished the season. The Lakers are 19-6 since the All-Star break. The Bulls are 27-6 since they’ve had a full roster (which negates some of the momentum argument, but not all of it). Both the Bulls and Lakers could very well make the finals, but the more you look at it, the more you see both teams might be a bit overvalued. Momentum would carry over into the playoffs … if it actually existed.
But maybe last year’s Celtics are this year’s Spurs? Could this be the last year they fool us all? It seems like they haven’t won a big game in months, and it almost feels like they’re limping into the playoffs. You would say they have no momentum. But, if anything, isn’t this what an old team like the Spurs need? Rest and relaxation before the month-long run. Quietly cruising to the league’s best record. A great coach and a veteran team that’s boring the shit out of everyone. Haven’t we heard this story before?
MO: I haven’t read Scorecasting, but I’ll argue—aggressively and ignorantly, maybe—that momentum does play a part in sports, because the people playing the sports are human, not statistical robots playing robo-ball, and that it’s really hard to quantify emotions—namely confidence.
I think the Bulls are favorites because of their whole body of work, not just the post All-Star break tear. The beginning of the season, where they were winning without major parts of their team, speaks as much to why I think they’re the favorites as the fact that they’re steamrolling now that they do have their full squad. And the Lakers, well, I was going to write something about how wide open these playoffs are, and how whichever team stays healthy has the best shot, and then, down goes Bynum, down goes Bynum, and the Lakers suddenly don’t look so intimidating. But luckily for L.A., it’s not anything serious.
But back to momentum: I think there’s an interesting line between momentum—in the way we’re talking about it—and consistent, repeated execution and the self-belief that comes from that. Do we confuse consistent, repeated, execution—that is, winning games night in and night out because you’re doing the things you know you need to do to win those games—with momentum? Do we mistake the confidence winning builds for momentum? Or the chemistry?
I don’t think any of the Bulls’ wins on their 25-6 run made the next game easier or more winnable. But I do think that as you repeat good habits, they become second nature—the execution gets easier, the muscle memory gets stronger, and the things they need to do to win become more natural to them. Is that momentum? Not in the “rock rolling down a hill” sense, but maybe long-term “momentum” as you’re talking about it, is actually a team consistently improving their execution and getting into a mutual groove. In this way, “momentum” isn’t something that would vanish at the end of the regular season—it’s something that would carry into the post-season—and also, farther down the road, into next season.
I don’t buy into the idea of the Spurs as this year’s Celtics. Looking past the fact that the Celtics waltzed to the finals last year, the Spurs rely so heavily on three-pointers that I can’t help but think that, even though they’re the Spurs, the well is going to run dry at some point. When the shots fell, they blew the Heat out. But when they didn’t, the Heat ran them off the floor. Unless their run-and-gun was a regular-season strategy to save Tim Duncan, so he can uncork some vintage 23-16-6-5–type games in the playoffs (which I half-believe it was), I don’t think this is the Spurs’ year.
RO: I think the point is that that the feeling of confidence we get from the imagined momentum is something we believe ourselves to have, but that it doesn’t really exist. We remember the times when we played well because we (thought we) were buoyed by confidence, but we don’t remember the times we were just as confident, but failed to succeed. So it’s our selective memory and our conceptions of confidence as a direct cause of success that create the myth of momentum. Or something like that.
My brain hurts.
So I’m gonna move us on … sort of. The thing with stats—not that Scorecasting necessarily falls victim to this—is that you can basically mold anything in favor of whatever argument you’re looking to make. The Lakers have lost five of their last seven, but they’ve won 19 of the last 26. ’Nuff said. So, instead of looking at stats that make our arguments, let’s look at some of the narratives that make us happy. Because that’s why we watch sports, right? To be happy!
The city of Boston’s self-doubt and neuroticism seems to have finally caught up with the Celts. Formerly the most confident team in the league, now they look like they’re all just learning how to ride a bike for the first time each game. And they get to take on the team and the city with the most unwarranted confidence in the league: the Knicks. They’re the guys who’ve never ridden before, but jump right on and try to take the bike off a ramp. They’ll probably end up bloodied, in a crumpled heap, but isn’t that better than the guy who never tries the jump. It’s Boston-NY, but so much more. Then again, it’s always so much more, isn’t it?
The there’s the sort of un-transformation of the Heat. This season should’ve been so much more interesting that it was. The Heat sucked, then they were awesome (remember Christmas?), then they sucked again, then they were pathetic, and then they kind of disappeared. Now they’re a two seed and no one outside of Cleveland really seems to hate them. It’ll be interesting to see how their success determines their reception—and if Chris Bosh cries when he wins his first playoff series.
In the West, there’s the grouchy old guard (Spurs, Mavs, and the Lakers) trying to hold off the likable new guys (everyone else). There’s a reason to love the Blazers, Nuggets, Thunder, and even the Grizzlies. Portland is fighting off the Roy and Oden could’ve-been era. With the Thunder, it’s taking their success in the Oden era (drafting Durant) and taking it to another level. They’re a mini Arsenal right now—style, promise, potential, but no product … yet. The Nuggets are the reborn, unleashed version of what D’Antoni’s Knicks should’ve been. And the Grizzlies? The fucking Grizzlies are in the playoffs! What more needs to be said?
The best—and most emotional—moments in sports are when two generations rub up against each other and the newer guys finally take over. Whenever it happens, it’ll be sad to see Kobe, Dirk, and Timmy to go … for about five seconds.
I know you’re like me, looking for certain story lines to play out. What are you selfishly looking forward to?
MO: Personally, I wish Boston and New York weren’t playing each other. That way, they could both lose in the first round. If I were a Knicks fan, the Celtics are the last matchup I’d want. There’s no other matchup across the whole playoffs that’s worse for one team and better for the other. The Knicks lost to the Celtics B-Team on Wednesday, down by 20 at one point. The Celtics are playoff-tested, patient enough to break down the Knicks’ Swiss-cheese defense, and smart enough defensively to shut down the Knicks’ two-man game. I think the Celtics are going to jump on the Knicks, and down 2-0, the Knicks are going to check out in front of 20,000 fans at the Garden.
For me, the stories begin with the Thunder and the Nuggets. The Thunder are the Blueprint of how a team “should” be built—two stars, defensive big men, supporting players who know their roles, a singular vision and culture from the top of the organization to the bottom, smart asset management, etc. The Nuggets are a blueprint of how a team should not be built—a team that just switched owner and manager, held hostage by its superstar for half the season, forced to revamp its entire roster mid-season (with unexpectedly positive results), not to mention everything George Karl has gone through in the past two seasons. This matchup is an emerging traditional power versus the most talented playground team ever, and I think it will be the best first round series to watch.
I get what you’re saying with Arsenal. It’s interesting to take that a bit further. The Thunder are Arsenal if Arsenal had two of the top ten players in the world as well as one of toughest backlines or goalies (however you want to transmute the Perkins–Ibaka combo into soccer players), which they don’t. Am I saying that the Thunder are the “Invincibles” from ’03–’04? No, just that they are loaded.
I want to know which of the East’s favorites—the Bulls, Celtics, or Heat—is going to be the first to fall. They’ve all got their strengths and their flaws, and you could argue any of them winning the conference. I don’t hate the Heat, but I like rooting against them. I think everyone’s being quiet because, until they lose in the playoffs, there isn’t that much more to say. But the moment they lose—against the Bulls if it doesn’t happen in the second round against the Celtics—the floodgates will open and the criticism of LeBron, Wade, Bosh, the superteam concept, Spoelstra, Mike Miller, etc. will resume in full force.
We’re in a new era in the NBA. I’m not just talking about the Old Guard versus the Young Guns. The entire landscape of the league is different from what it was last year. We’re in the process of starting a new chapter in the league’s history. The stars drafted in the ’90s are beginning to decline, the stars from the ’03 draft hit their primes, and all the talent from the ’07–’10 drafts begins to make names for themselves. Taken together, this is a ton of talent, and while a few things will change year to year—the Nets and Clippers might rise, the Spurs and Celtics might struggle to hang on—this is what the league is going to look like—if the league exists—for the foreseeable future.
RO: That last paragraph sums it up for me. Naturally, I think we all like seeing the new guys take over, so, basically, the Lakers-Celtics would be the worst-case scenario—the best rivalry and the two best franchises in the sport. These playoffs aren’t going to suck.
Anyway, on to our most-likely inaccurate predictions that should, by no means, be used as any type of gambling advice.
- Bulls over Pacers in 4: Gordon Hayward is the Pacers’ favorite player. He’s on Utah.
- Heat over Sixers in 6: I can’t wait for the Elton Brand–Chris Bosh matchup …
- Celtics over Knicks in 7: Anthony Carter and Shelden Williams play—like, actually play—on the Knicks. Advantage: Boston.
- Magic over Hawks in 5: The Hawks are the most “meh” franchise in American sports.
- Bulls over Magic in 5: Something about Dwight Howard really annoys me.
- Heat over Celtics in 7: Shaq and Jermaine O’Neal are too old. Maybe Pierce, KG, and Ray are too.
- Heat over Bulls in 6: I’m not ready to say Rose is ready to bring a team to the finals. I’m not sure why, but I’m just not.
- Spurs over Grizzlies in 5: I could see the Grizz winning. So, logically, the Spurs move on in a cakewalk.
- Lakers over Hornets in 4: That about does it for the Hornets as a relevant NBA team.
- Blazers over Mavericks in 6: The Ghost of Greg Oden? Or Zombie Greg Oden?
- Nuggets over Thunder in 7: Sadly, one team has to go in the battle of weirdly-shaded blue uniforms.
- Spurs over Nuggets in 6: Can’t see Duncan and Pop going out like this.
- Lakers over Blazers in 5: I really like the Blazers uniforms—for what it’s worth.
- Lakers over Spurs in 6: It’s the one team the Spurs can’t out-experience.
- Lakers over Heat in 6: Damn you, Kobe. Damn you.
MO: My picks.
- Bulls over Pacers in 4: I think the Pacers have a promising future. The Bulls have a promising present.
- Heat over Sixers in 5: The Sixers will work their way to a win, maybe two, but Lebron and Wade will carry the Heat through.
- Celtics over Knicks in 5: The worst possible matchup for the Knicks. Two stars against a complete team. I expect the Celtics to go up 2-0, then give one back before taking the series.
- Magic over the Hawks in 4: Watching the Hawks lose to the Bulls by 30, live, convinced me that the Hawks are the worst good team I’ve ever watched in person.
- Bulls over Magic in 6: The Magic are the most flawed top seed in the East. How the Bulls’ bigs cope with Dwight’s size night in and night out will say a lot about how realistic this year’s championship aspirations are.
- Celtics over Heat in 6: I don’t trust the Heat against whatever tattered remnants of that Celtic pride and championship expertise still exists.
- Bulls over Celtics in 7: The old folks go home after Thibodeau’s new defense bests Thibodeau’s old defense. The Bulls will beat the Celtics up inside, Deng will get his due for giving Pierce fits, and Derrick Rose will be Derrick Rose.
- Spurs over Grizzlies in 7: The Grizzlies are a tough team to figure out. They’ve got size to give the Spurs fits, but I think Tim Duncan, of all the aging superstars who might have been taking it easy, is going to be the one we see the biggest jump in production from during the playoffs. Ginobili’s elbow could be the key to this series, because if he’s not 100 percent, I could see the Grizzlies pulling the upset. But as it is, and as much as I like Z-Bo, I can’t pick him over Big Fun.
- Lakers over Hornets in 4: The only difference between this series and a bye is the fact that Chris Paul is in it.
- Mavericks over Blazers in 7: Who do you like more, Dirk at home or LaMarcus on the road? I like Dirk at home.
- Thunder over Nuggets in 6: This is a match up nightmare for the Nuggets. The Thunder have more size than Denver, the speed to keep up with them, and the two best players in the series. Westbrook is going to crush Ty Lawson and Raymond Felton.
- Thunder over Spurs in 7: This, and my next Thunder pick, might be more what I want to happen than what I think will happen. The Spurs had the pre-trade Thunder’s number, and if Ginobili’s elbow holds up and Tim Duncan turns back time like I think he might, I might rue this pick. But I think it’s a tossup, so I might as well go with the team I like.
- Lakers over Mavericks in 5: Dirk Nowitzki goes nuts, but the Lakers out-talent the Mavericks four out of five times. All the talk of Dirk not getting it done goes away, replaced by a hard look at the level of talent around him throughout his career.
- Thunder over Lakers in 7: If Bynum is healthy, I see the Lakers having a slight edge. If he’s not, I think the edge belongs to the Thunder with Perkins. This is a Thunder team that’s a lot better than the team that pushed the Lakers harder than anyone until the Celtics last year, and I think this might be the year they push past them. Then again, Kobe is Kobe. But picks are picks, and I’d rather be fun than right.
- Bulls, Thunder, 7 Games? Derrick Rose, Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Luol Deng, Serge Ibaka and Joakim Noah? Oh man, is this a tough pick. I’ll make it when we get there.
Max Ornstein is a freelance writer and screenwriter in New York. Follow him on Twitter.
Ryan O’Hanlon is the sports editor and a blog editor for the Good Men Project. He used to play soccer and go to college. He’s still trying to get over it.