By JOHN ZAKOUR
After a week of playoff basketball, it’s time to ask our ourselves, what have we learned?
The Washington Wizards might be ready for this moment already. I thought the Wizards, with their backcourt of the future, might still be too young to make noise in this year’s playoffs. But now Washington is headed back to the nation’s capital with a 2-0 lead. The Wizards can gain some valuable playoff experience and accelerate their ascent if they can slip past the gritty, defensive minded, but undermanned Chicago Bulls team. The Wizards are here for a reason however, and look to make the most of it. John Wall is a good bet to break out and become the latest NBA star who establishes himself on the big stage of the playoffs — like Paul George a year ago or James Harden before that.
The East might still be a one-team conference (again). Call me nostalgic, but I liked it better when the East was a real conference. Not too long ago, when Ray Allen, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett were all wearing Celtics jerseys, the East was a real conference with more than one team that could possibly win it. Derrick Rose was a player in the NBA who would actually do things like score, play basketball and give the Heat a run for its money. Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett weren’t over the hill, and the Pacers were an out of nowhere team with the best collection of bigs in the East. But after a few games of play, the Heat, even as the two seed, look to cut through whatever the Eastern Conference has to offer.
The Pacers dropped game one to the lowly Hawks, the worst team in the playoffs, and don’t look like a certainty to make it to Miami anymore. Even after salvaging game two, the Hawks have still managed a split on the road — all you can ask for as an eight seed. The Bulls still can’t score, and the Raptors aren’t particularly threatening to the Heat (or anyone else, evidently, since Brooklyn seemed all too happy to fall to the six-seed to play Toronto). While the Nets themselves, after sweeping the Heat in the regular season, look more dangerous on paper, I just don’t like their age. I can’t see them going toe-to-toe with the up-and-down Miami team in a seven-game series.
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I’ve said I think the Heat are vulnerable and I still believe it. But I’m not sure anyone out of the East can take advantage of that vulnerability. If I had to guess now, I would pick a Wizards Heat Eastern Conference Finals. I might actually be rooting for it over a Pacers Heat matchup, just to see the dynamism of the Wizards face the two-time champs, as the Pacers have already had two shots at the Heat. Indiana is still a bad matchup for the Heat, or anyone else, with their size, but at times they refuse to play like it. Pacers swingman Paul George is a star, but if he excessively tries to go one-on-one with LeBron like he did at times during last season’s Eastern Conference Finals, the result will be the same. If the long expected one-seed against two-seed materializes, the Pacers need to play strength on strength and bang up the Heat on the inside. Of course it’ll all be a moot point if their center and matchup nightmare, Roy Hibbert, can’t break out of his slump.
The West is still loaded. Why does the East feel like a foregone conclusion while the West, featuring far and away the best team in basketball in the 62 win San Antonio Spurs, feel like a brawl? That’s because the West has depth. Even though the Spurs will be favorites against any team they play, the West still features several good teams. I think the Spurs will run over the Mavericks, but that says more about the Spurs than the Mavs. Even the Thunder, having lost their home-court advantage, have their hands full with the seventh seeded Grizzlies, and will have to battle to advance. Everyone will. The Spurs, Thunder and Clippers are all title contenders and if the Rockets miraculously become a good defensive unit, there will be four teams that could possibly lift the Larry O’Brien trophy out of the West. Record-wise, the worst playoff team in the West is better than the third team in the East. There are no gimmes out West.
Kevin Durant is not human. Durant, the presumptive MVP, made the shot of the year in the Thunder’s game two loss to the Grizzlies. Durant received a Westbrook pass trapped in the corner, but felt fouled by Marc Gasol. So Durant, completely off balance, managed to swish a corner three, falling backwards into the crowd as the ball went through the hoop. He was rewarded with a four-point play for his efforts. Durant, for his short time in the league, already has his share of playoff moments. He’s had game winners, a Finals showdown with LeBron and he has had to carry an undermanned Thunder team in last season’s playoffs. But he’s still missing a ring. He seems like he’s on a mission this year, but to get there he might have to emulate Dirk Nowitzki in the 2011 playoffs, who averaged 32 and 26 in the Western Conference and NBA Finals respectively, on the way to the Finals MVP. Durant can do it; he has the same game breaking ability to pick up his team and make any contested shot he might have to settle for late in the shot clock. Whatever happens, I can’t wait to watch.