By BEN SHATZMAN
February marks the beginning of basketball paradise for fans around the world. The NCAA tournament is approaching. The NBA All Star break is over (and so is that disaster of a dunk contest). What more can us basketball fanatics ask for? As of today, roughly two-thirds of the teams in the NBA are serious playoff contenders. The difference between eighth and ninth place in the East and West is 3.5 games and two games, respectively. The difference could be closer, but there is plenty of time for teams to make a run, and those runs, and the playoffs themselves, are sure to be more exciting than ever. I say more exciting than ever because due to the number of star-studded squads, many teams that have legitimate aspirations have received little attention over the course of the season. In a world where millions of people are connected online, it is easy to read through people’s opinions and predictions for the rest of this season. I will examine a few of the most popular “certainties” that I have come across online, on ESPN, or from chatting with friends, and will show you that there is plenty of reason to expect the unexpected in this final stretch of the season.
1. The East is a wrap
Heat. Pacers. Eastern Conference Finals. We hear this day in and day out. Frankly, someone unfamiliar with the NBA could predict this with confidence. The Pacers are one game up on Miami, with third place Toronto trailing the Heat by 10 games. It is likely that there will be a rematch of last year’s ECF, and if so, it will be something of basketball porn for fans.
People seem to be forgetting, however, the six teams that will also qualify for the playoffs. Teams like the Wizards, Raptors, Nets and even the Bobcats (give me a second) could compete in a series against Indiana or Miami. John Wall could go ’01 Iverson for a series or two. Toronto has a tough lineup that can score and play defense. And if you’ve watched Al Jefferson this season, you know how dominant he can be. I predict a Heat–Pacers ECF matchup, too, but it is necessary to point out that the first three rounds of the playoffs will not be a breeze for Indiana or Miami, and you never know when the next historic upset will happen. Please, show the East some love come playoff time.
2. The Suns will miss the playoffs
Phoenix could go down as the most surprising team in the last decade if they hold onto a playoff spot. Suns fans have gone from asking “Wiggins, Parker or Smart?” to “Spurs, Rockets or Clippers?”. They are currently seventh in the West, and if the season ended today they would travel to San Antonio to meet the Big Three. And they will.
Their lineup is full of potential-packed players and hardworking grinders who Jeff Hornacek has taught to play basketball the right way — and the winning way. Goran Dragic has to be the most slept-on player in the league this season. His All Star snub was a travesty. If we define MVP as what it literally means — most valuable player — then Dragic certainly deserves votes. Think Steve Nash’s back-to-back MVP’s with the Suns. Watching Dragic is eerily similar to Nash. His ability to remain in control of the situation is top notch among point guards. He seems to make the right play every time, whether he drives to the bucket and makes a highlight reel finish, or just kicks it out to one of his many sharpshooting teammates. Even minus free-agent acquisition Eric Bledsoe, who is recovering from an injury, the Suns are really, really dangerous. If Bledsoe can have a positive impact upon his return, look out. Their consistency is perfect for a playoff run. They will make the playoffs, and I believe a matchup against a team like the Spurs would be a toss up. Watch them before you judge them. Goran Dragic is no joke.
3. If the Mavericks make the playoffs, Thunder in Four
The loaded Western Conference makes it easy to forget about certain teams and certain players.
Perspective: the Cousins-Gay-Thomas big three led Kings are 16 games below .500 at 9-22 in the West. We know the Western Conference is crazy good. But one of the least-discussed teams currently holds the eighth spot in the conference: the Dallas Mavericks. They are two games up on the Grizzlies for the last spot. Dirk Nowitzki is still Dirk Nowitzki — one of the most underappreciated living legends in the NBA. The 7-footer is impossible to guard, as unless Yao Ming is plotting a return, Dirk will have no problem draining a fading shot in the post. Ask LeBron. His jumper is pure beauty — basketball at its finest. Monta Ellis has struggled of late, but if he can play well enough to hold onto a playoff spot, the Mavs are primed for a first round upset. If the season ended today, they would face Durant in OKC for a 1 vs. 8 matchup. Remember ’07 when the Mavs were the one-seed and were upset by the Warriors in the first round? Oh, and who led that Warriors team? Monta Ellis. Ellis can win, Dirk is Dirk and the Mavs are going to be a tough out in the playoffs. Dallas is as capable as any team in the West to make a run to the Finals.