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Thursday, May 9, 2013

NBA: Pick a Team, Any Team

When the NHL playoffs got under way, Grantland published a fantastic team-by-team guide for those of us who were looking for a bandwagon to jump on for hockey's second season.  I loved that article, so I decided to do something similar for the NBA playoffs.  Sure, I'm a little late.  The NBA playoffs are into the 2nd round.  But really, eight teams is enough to choose from.  And, at this point, all four series on the second round are tied at 1-1.  In other words, the NBA playoffs are just beginning.

So, here is my sales pitch for why you should root for each of the remaining NBA playoff teams.  We'll start in the West.  And we'll go from the lowest seed up to the highest seed in each conference.

Stephen Curry (Debby Wong/USA Today
Golden State Nuggets.  There are a lot of reasons to root for these guys.  The Nuggets are the 6th seed in the West.  That makes them the lowest seed remaining in either conference.  So, they've got the underdog thing going for them.  But, the Warriors aren't even at full strength.  They lost their all-Star forward David Lee to injury in the first round.  But the real reason you should root for the Warriors is Stephen Curry.  Look at this guy!  He's what we all thought we could grow up to be when we were shooting hoops in the driveway.  Under sized.  Wiry.  And able to shoot the lights out.  Much like when he led the Davidson Wildcats in the NCAA tournament a few years ago, Curry's Warriors have captured that March Madness feeling that isn't usually part of the NBA playoffs.

Memphis Grizzlies.  The Grizzlies are a blue collar team built on defense and balanced scoring.  They have good players on the roster, but these guys aren't really household names.  The Grizzlies are led by the defensive player of the year, Marc Gasol, at center.  Following Gasol's lead, they were able to upset the high-flying and flashy L.A. Clippers in the first round.  True, a 5-seed upsetting a 4-seed is hardly earth-shattering, but it was a triumph for small markets.  Despite their lack of fame, the Grizzlies are looking like they might be a legitimate contender to win the West because they really don't need any one player to have a great game on a given night to be successful.  They just need a a solid team effort on both ends of the floor.

(Steve Dykes/Getty Images)
San Antonio Spurs.  The San Antonio Spurs are the team all curmudgeons can get behind.  The Spurs are basically like that group of older guys you run into at the Y on a Saturday morning.  You know the group.  It looks like they should be easy to beat, what with their rec-specs and knee socks, but they keep sending young, undisciplined whippersnappers back to the sidelines in defeat.  Tim Duncan is approximately a thousand years old but still getting it done.  Manu Ginobili has an epic bald spot on the back of his head.  They both embody the addage, "Age and treachery beats youth and skill."  And all the while, their head coach Gregg Popovich yells, "Get off my lawn!" every time a sideline reporter tries to ask him a question.  I guess this doesn't sound like much of an endorsement, but all Dennis the Menace fans actually do love Mr. Wilson.  Besides that, the Spurs play about the purest form of basketball of any franchise in the NBA.  Cutting, moving, passing and team defense.  Students of the game can get behind that.

Oklahoma City Thunder.  OKC is the ultimate example of how to win in a small market.  General Manager Sam Presti has not only drafted well, but convinced big stars like Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook to stay in the fold rather than bolt for the bright lights of either coast.  Loyalty is a endlessly likeable quality.  And the Thunder fans appreciate that fact.  The atmosphere at home games is reminiscent of a raucous on-campus college arena.  And, even though the Thunder are the defending champs of the West, they still have a bit of an underdog thing going for them because Durant will have to go it alone without co-star Westbrook due to a knee injury in the first round.

Deng's seat for Game 1 vs. Heat
Chicago Bulls.  The Bulls managed to get the 5th seed in the East despite the fact that their best player and former MVP Derek Rose has missed the entire season with an ACL injury.  But the casualties continued to mount during the Bulls 7-game series against the Nets.  Rose's back-up, Kirk Hinrich, hasn't played since the middle of the Nets' series due to a calf injury and may even require surgery.  Then there is Luol Deng.  Deng is an all-star caliber forward, but he got sick with flu like symptoms that just wouldn't go away.  He ended up undergoing a spinal tap to test for meningitis.  Turns out those tests came back negative, but side-effects from the procedure have kept Deng in and out of a hospital in Chicago since April.  He's lost fifteen pounds during the ordeal and has no projected return date.  Nonetheless, the Bulls not only advanced past the Nets but also stole Game 1 from the mighty Heat in Miami to start the second round.  The guys that are suiting up are playing a ferocious style of basketball that has captured America's fancy.

Indiana Pacers.  Basketball is clearly the number one sport in the state of Indiana.  So, it's nice to see a team from Indianapolis having real playoff success.  The Pacers have the best young star you've never heard of.  Paul George.  Plus, if you are a fan of old school post play, this is your team.  The Pacers have two big men in David West and Roy Hibbert who actually play on the blocks with their backs to the basket.  And they do it effectively.  Because of this unique style of play, the Pacers could present a real challenge to the Knicks and even the Heat in the East.

(Debby Wong/USA Today)
New York Knicks.  Events happening in New York just feel bigger than events in other places.  So, it's fun to have meaningful playoff basketball back in the Big Apple.  I've talked about defense and grit with several of the teams.  Neither one of those terms come to mind when you think about this edition of the Knicks.  This team is all about scoring.  As the whole world got to see this summer in London, Carmelo Anthony is one of the best pure scorers on the planet.  Then there is J.R. Smith coming off the bench.  His range begins when he enters the gym ... just ask him.  And, this team has to lead the league in tattoos.  Between the explosive offense and the colorful cast of characters on this roster, Knicks games are at the very least entertaining.

Miami Heat.  If you are reading this sports blog, then you are certainly already aware that the Miami Heat are a tremendous team led by the historically great LeBron James.  As long as you don't pretend that you've been sweating and bleeding and crying with this team for years (my apologies for the ten of you who actually do get to your seats in time for tip-off), there is nothing wrong with jumping on this bandwagon now.  It's fun to see historical greatness.  It's exciting to watch something you know your grandkids will ask you about some day.  And this team, with this collection of players could fall into that category.

So, pick a team ... any team.  And join the fun!

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