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Justin time: Previewing the first round of the NBA playoffs

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Kemba Walker

(AP Photo/R Brent Smith)

The Warriors broke the Bulls’ seemingly unbreakable record, the 76ers avoided matching their own seemingly unbreakable record and Kobe got to take 50 shots in a game. With another exciting regular season in the books, let’s look ahead to what should be a thrilling two-month playoff journey. Unless, of course, it’s interrupted by the pride and joy of the Canadian pop scene.

The matchup: No. 1 Cleveland (57-25) vs. No. 8 Detroit (44-38)

Offensive rating: Cavaliers 108.1 (4th), Pistons 103.3 (14th)

Defensive rating: Cavaliers 102.3 (10th), Pistons 103.4 (13th)

Net rating: Cavaliers 5.6 (4th), Pistons -0.2 (16th)

STATS primer: The Pistons rely on their starting five A LOT. The league’s most-used quintet this season (915 minutes) came from the Motor City, which is amazing considering that group hasn’t been together since Ersan Ilyasova was traded to Orlando on Feb. 16. Enter Tobias Harris, who joined Reggie Jackson, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Marcus Morris and Andre Drummond for 462 minutes over the last 25 games to rank second behind Minnesota’s starters since the All-Star break. A ludicrous 74.3 percent of Detroit’s points come from its starting unit, the largest figure in the NBA and just ahead of … Cleveland’s 73.1.

Can the Pistons win? Probably not. They did beat the Cavs three out of four this season, though one of those came without Kyrie Irving and another came Wednesday night as Jordan McRae took 29 shots and Joel Anthony played 25 minutes. The Pistons are one of a few teams that can hang with the Cavs on the boards, as their 52.1 rebound percentage was a tick above Cleveland’s for second best in the league. The Cavs are at their best when Tristan Thompson is grabbing alley-oops off the pick-and-roll and crashing the offensive glass to create extra possessions, but he’s been marginalized against Detroit. In Thompson’s 74 minutes in the series, the Cavs have been outscored by 6.3 points per 100 possessions. That’s an extremely small sample but the worst Cleveland has fared with Thompson on the floor against anyone in the East.

BAI (Bieber Affected Index): 10: Justin Bieber has a concert at Quicken Loans Arena scheduled for April 26 – the same date as a potential Game 5 – so if the Cavs can’t sweep, the teenage girl population of Northeast Ohio may be set for a mutiny.

The pick: Bieber gets bumped, which upsets Drake, creating additional hostility for a potential Cavs-Raptors conference finals. Cavs in 5


The matchup: No. 2 Toronto (56-26) vs. No. 7 Indiana (45-37)

Offensive rating: Raptors 107.0 (5th), Pacers 102.4 (23rd)

Defensive rating: Raptors 102.7 (11th), Pacers 100.2 (3rd)

Net rating: Raptors 4.3 (6th), Pacers 2.2(11th)

STATS primer: The Raptors have won the last three Atlantic Division titles and have a grand total of three playoff wins to show for the first two. Can Toronto finally win just the second playoff series in franchise history and first since Vince Carter could jump? It’s hard to look at the numbers and see a title contender here, but the Raptors can make some noise in the East.  DeMarre Carroll was supposed to be the big addition, but the former Hawks forward only played 26 games, and Toronto’s jump from a nice regular-season team in a bad division to a legit power boiled down to Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan getting to another level. Lowry’s average rose from 17.8 points to 21.2 as his 3-point shooting hit a career-high 38.8 percent, while his VORP of 6.3 is ahead of Kawhi Leonard’s and Chris Paul’s. No player in the league scored more points per game on drives than DeRozan (8.7), who also drew 166 fouls when bolting toward the rim – just five behind league leader James Harden.

Can the Pacers win? Maybe. Only the Suns allowed opponents to shoot better from 3 than the Raptors (37.3 percent), and Paul George, George Hill and C.J. Miles are all capable of going off from beyond the arc. A league-high 48.9 percent of the Raptors’ field goals are unassisted, and while letting Lowry and DeRozan penetrate and create worked in the regular season, relying on refs to call contact consistently in the playoffs is a dangerous line to toe. It did work against Indiana during the season. Toronto won three of four and got to the line at least 38 times in each victory, ultimately hitting the stripe 51 more times than the Pacers.

BAI: 4.5. Biebs isn’t set to invade Bankers Life Fieldhouse until June 25, which is after the Finals, but a two-night stop in Toronto in mid-May could provide trouble in the conference finals. In the meantime, there are other issues. Mumford and Sons has already moved a concert scheduled for the same night as Game 4 in Indianapolis to April 24, with lead singer Marcus Mumford politely claiming “it was not your fault, but mine.” That’s not all. The Who are set to play at the Air Canada Centre on the same night as Game 5, so a retirement tour that makes Kobe Bryant’s seem expeditious will be pushed back a night.

The pick: George and Miles shoot the Pacers to a pair of wins, but the Raptors embrace their musical guests and decide not to get fooled again. Raptors in 6


The matchup: No. 3 Miami (48-34) vs. No. 6 Charlotte (48-34)

Offensive rating: Heat 104.2 (12th), Hornets (105.1, 9th)

Defensive rating: Heat 101.5 (7th), Hornets (101.8, 9th)

Net rating: Heat 2.6 (10th), Hornets 3.3 (8th)

STATS primer: We’ve entered the 48-34 portion of the proceedings with the Battle for Josh McRoberts’ Soul. The East’s middle four playoff teams all finished with the same record, and the way things shook out gives us a rematch of the last time the Hornets – who are 0 for 8 in playoff games since 2002 – were in the postseason. Things figure to be much more competitive this time in a series that Vegas considers the toughest first-round matchup to call. Charlotte was the worst 3-point shooting team in the league last season (31.8 percent) on the eighth-fewest attempts. Now it’s the eighth best (36.2 percent) while jacking up more 3s than everyone but Houston, Golden State and Cleveland. Kemba Walker is no longer a sub-40 percent shooter who can’t make a 3, Nicolas Batum averaged a 14-6-5 on fewer than 13 shots a game (Draymond Green this season is the only other player to do that in the past 10) and Marvin Williams reinvented himself as a 40 percent 3-point shooter who’s actually willing to rebound and play defense. The Heat don’t take 3s (18 per game, 28th) and rarely make them (33.6 percent, 27th), but shoot better in the restricted area than anyone in the league (65.3 percent).

Can the (wait, who’s the underdog here?) win?: Steve Clifford has Charlotte playing like a team that’s greater than the sum of its parts – though the parts, as we detailed above, are pretty solid – while Miami is still heavily reliant on the offensive brilliance of Dwyane Wade and the game-changing interior presence of Hassan Whiteside. This is probably not a series for Al Jefferson even though the 12-year vet has shown flashes of his former self off the bench since returning from knee surgery. The Hornets were outscored by 12 points in the 49 minutes he played against Miami but were a plus-20 when he wasn’t around. How’s this for a starting point? In the 60 minutes Batum, Walker, Williams and Cody Zeller shared the floor against the Heat – easily the most of any Charlotte foursome – the Hornets were a plus-38. That’s significant. Stick Courtney Lee or Jeremy Lamb out there to check Wade and Whiteside might be hanging around the rim with nothing to do. For Miami to win, it actually might matter more how its young guys – Whiteside, Justise Winslow, Josh Richardson – perform as opposed to the veterans.

BAI: 1. The pride of London, Ontario, isn’t set to hit South Beach until early July and Charlotte was not deemed a worthy enough stop by His Biebness. Heat fans will have to make a tough call prior to Game 3, though: Watch their team play in Charlotte or attend something called “Miami Bash,” which features such acts as Alex Sensation, Ken-Y, De La Ghetto and Jacob Forever. D Wade or Jacob Forever? Now that’s a Decision.

The pick: Those touting playoff experience will favor the Heat, but many of these Hornets have been there before. If Chris Bosh were healthy, this might go the other way, but Charlotte gets the slight edge. Hornets in 6


The matchup: No. 4 Atlanta (48-34) vs. No. 5 Boston (48-34)

Offensive rating: Hawks 103.0 (18th), Celtics 103.9 (13th)

Defensive rating: Hawks 98.8 (2nd), Celtics 100.9 (4th)

Net rating: Hawks 4.1 (7th), Celtics 3.0 (9th)

STATS primer: On paper this might be the most interesting first-round matchup between two of the NBA’s best defensive teams, but on the court Atlanta exposed the otherwise brilliant, swarming system employed by Brad Stevens. The Hawks put up 110.4 points per 100 possessions in winning the final three meetings and Boston had no answers for Paul Millsap. One of the league’s best defenders was a nightmare at the other end for the Celtics, averaging 25.3 points, 11 rebounds and a pair of blocks in three games the Hawks won by a combined 43 points. Atlanta’s Spursian ball movement and Kyle Korver’s amazing accuracy were the big stories when it won 60 games last season, but the defense was good then and better than anyone this side of San Antonio’s in this one. Most of the Hawks’ best lineups come without Jeff Teague on the floor – they’re better defensively with Dennis Schroder – but what’s lurking behind either point guard allows for some leeway in non-pick-and-roll situations. It’s safe to say Isaiah Thomas will be able to break down either to some extent, but the Celtics are going to need more than their point guard running at an optimal level to beat Atlanta. This feels like a series Evan Turner could swing, but he could just as easily put Boston out of it as he could help it go the distance.

Can the (wait, who’s the underdog here?) win? These are two of the league’s eight fastest teams in terms of pace, but getting up and down the floor did nothing to favor the Celtics against the Hawks this season. The three Atlanta wins featured 106, 105 and 105 possessions while Boston’s lone victory back in December was a 97-possession slog they pulled out even with Avery Bradley sidelined. The Celtics are going to have to do a bulk of their work from outside the paint, as Atlanta is the best team in the league defending the restricted area (56.7 percent). Only the Lakers shot worse on catch-and-shoot 3s than Boston’s 34.6 percent, so that’s not going to be easy. Thomas, Bradley and Jae Crowder each attempt five 3s a game, but none is what you’d call a knock-down shooter.

BAI: 3. Add Boston to the list of cities Bieber could infect invade in later rounds, as he’s due for May 10 and 11 stops at TD Garden. Atlanta got its two shows out of the way on the last two days of the regular season, which is a total baller move by a team that knew it would be playing important games in late April and May. Or … that’s just how the “Purpose World Tour” worked out geographically. The Bruins conveniently missed the playoffs and the Thrashers haven’t been a thing for five years, so these arenas are wide open.

The pick: The Celtics are fun to watch, make the most of their talent level and are about to add a top-five draft pick courtesy of the Nets’ stupidity. But for now, this is a tough matchup. Boston probably beats either of the other 48-34 teams, but not this one. Hawks in 6


Halftime! Here’s a picture of Bieber pretending like he knows who Mark Wahlberg is.

Justin Bieber, Mark Wahlberg

(AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)


The matchup: No. 1 Golden State (73-9) vs. No. 8 Houston (41-41)

Offensive rating: Warriors 112.5 (1st), Rockets 105.5 (8th)

Defensive rating: Warriors 100.9 (6th), Rockets 105.6 (20th)

Net rating: Warriors 11.6 (2nd), Rockets -0.2 (15th)

STATS primer: Yes, it’s a Western Conference finals rematch in Round 1 that features the league’s top two scorers, the two teams who fire up the most 3-pointers and two teams who were each coached by two men this season. That’s about where the similarities end. The Warriors are much better than last season’s title winner and the Rockets are much, much worse. Golden State was missing Steve Kerr as he recovered from back surgery while Houston waited only 11 games before showing Kevin McHale the door and never quite looked like they were on the same page for the next 71. What were once an assortment of enticing options around James Harden now looks like a rotating cast of question marks centered by none other than Dwight Howard, who barely took six shots a game over the final month of the season amid reports his teammates were freezing him out. So yeah, it’s hard to look at the Rockets and get excited about the fact that they took nearly as many corner 3s (799) as mid-range 2s (899).

Can the Rockets win? Wellllll….

BAI: 0. Beebs hit Oracle Arena on March 18 and the Toyota Center on April 9. Coincidence that Golden State went 39-2 at home and the Rockets haven’t lost at home since (they’ve played two games)? Yes. Actually, that’s not even a coincidence. Let’s move on.

The pick: Harden has a huge first half in Game 3 – think like 30 points – and the Rockets lead by double digits at the break. But they won’t win that, or any other game, in this series. Warriors in 4

The matchup:
No. 2 San Antonio (67-15) vs. No. 7 Memphis (42-40)

Offensive rating: Spurs 108.4 (3rd), Grizzlies 102.6 (22nd)

Defensive rating: Spurs 96.6 (1st), Grizzlies 105.4 (19th)

Net rating: Spurs 11.8 (1st), Grizzlies -2.9 (22nd)

STATS primer: Poor Memphis. The Grizzlies have played almost an entire NFL 53-man roster worth of players this season thanks to an injured list that looks like Jack Bauer’s body count, and they almost built such an insurmountable lead for the No. 5 seed when healthy that it looked like they’d get a somewhat reasonable matchup with the Clippers in Round 1. But their 3-14 tailspin ultimately dropped them to seventh and a matchup with a team that, in many ways, is BETTER than the one that won 73 games. No Marc Gasol or Mike Conley, but Jordan Farmar played in the Finals six years ago! Heck, Chris Andersen was there two years ago! And Vince Carter? Well, he’s no stranger to playing basketball! JaMychal Green, Xavier Munford, Raheem McCullough, Jarell Martin and Bryce Cotton? Four of those five guys are real! Dave Joerger has done an amazing job keeping this M.A.S.H. unit together at all, but the Grizzlies weren’t going to beat the Clippers. Or the Thunder. They probably wouldn’t beat a few non-playoff teams in a seven-game series right now. Yet, we have to ask…

Can the Grizzlies win? Ummmmm

BAI: -10. These are the only two playoff teams whose arenas will not be graced with JB’s presence. Therefore, this series means nothing.

The pick: Gregg Popovich gives Boban Marjanovic at least 25 minutes in at least one of these games. At some point, Pop trots out what will forever be known as “The Molasses Lineup” of Boban, Tim Duncan, Matt Bonner, Kevin Martin and Andre Miller, but that unit still goes on a 13-2 run. Spurs in 3. OK fine, 4


The matchup: No. 3 Oklahoma City (55-27) vs. No. 6 Dallas (42-40)

Offensive rating: Thunder 109.9 (2nd), Mavericks 104.8 (10th)

Defensive rating: Thunder 103.0 (12th), Mavericks 104.3 (16th)

Net rating: Thunder 6.9 (3rd), Mavericks (14th)

STATS primer: The Thunder would certainly have preferred a matchup with the Grizzlies, but it’s not like the Mavericks should have them questioning whether they’ll survive to see the Spurs in Round 2. Oklahoma City swept four meetings with Dallas this season, twice winning by three points and twice cruising. That’s probably about what it should expect here, but the Mavericks can at least look to the sidelines for an edge. Rick Carlisle’s club gave the eventual champion Spurs their toughest test in the first round two years ago, and he’ll come into this series with a plan of how to contain Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant. The odds are long, of course, that it will work. The Thunder have made a living crashing the offensive glass this season, with a 31.1 offensive rebounding percentage that’s easily the NBA’s best and a 54.7 total percentage that’s also far and away atop the league. The Mavericks are 26th overall at 48.5, and those numbers have bared themselves out head-to-head. Oklahoma City outrebounded Dallas 194-152 in the four meetings, with their 58 offensive rebounds leading to 72 second-chance points. Enes Kanter, a defensive liability in many ways, has helped the Thunder grab 42.3 percent of available offensive boards in the 80 minutes he’s played against Dallas.

Can the Mavericks win? It’s fairly amazing Dallas is even in the playoffs. There are game when J.J. Barea is their best offensive player, or at least the one most capable of creating his own shot. But he’s slowed by a groin injury and he’s not exactly been a positive presence overall to begin with considering the Mavs have allowed 109.7 points per 100 possessions since the All-Star break when he’s played. There’s enough offense elsewhere for Dallas to be able to hang in most games, but Dirk Nowitzki, Wesley Matthews and Deron Williams aren’t likely to all have it going at the same time. This is where the absence of Chandler Parsons kills, and he lit up the Thunder in three separate Mavs wins a year ago. It comes down to this, particularly given Oklahoma City’s rebounding edge – Zaza Pachulia has to stay on the floor, and has to control the boards when he is.

BAI: 0. Bieber made all the tweens swoon at Dallas’ American Airlines Center on April 10 and wasn’t invited to Oklahoma City. Amy Schumer played Chesapeake Energy Center on Friday, the eve of the series opener. Perhaps a sign of Trainwrecks to come?

The pick: Dirk has one of those vintage Dirk games where the fadeaways are falling, Matthews gets hot from deep and the Mavs steal a game in Dallas before going out quietly to allow the Stars use of the arena to continue their Stanley Cup playoff run. Thunder in 5

The matchup:
No. 4 LA Clippers (52-29) vs. No. 5 Portland (44-38)

Offensive rating: Clippers 106.5 (6th), Trail Blazers 106.1 (7th)

Defensive rating: Clippers 100.9 (5th), Trail Blazers 105.6 (21st)

Net rating: Clippers 5.5 (5th), Trail Blazers 0.6 (13th)

STATS primer: Terry Stott’s team lost LaMarcus Aldridge, Wes Matthews, Robin Lopez and Nicolas Batum and somehow managed to win only seven fewer games, so if you’re wondering why he might win Coach of the Year, look no further. CJ McCollum picked up right where he left off in last season’s playoff loss to Memphis and became a 20-point scorer in more extended minutes, also showing that he could thrive as one of the league’s best 3-point shooters (41.7 percent) in a bigger role. Beyond him and Damian Lillard, who took a step toward superstardom now that the show is officially his, it’s tough to find a reason why these Blazers finished as high as they did. The rest of the rotation is mostly full of spare parts, and there’s no consistent secondary scorer to rely on. That’s a problem when they’re going up against a backcourt that’s at least similar offensively in Chris Paul and J.J. Redick and can get points from Blake Griffin and Jamal Crawford just as easily. There’s no answer for Griffin or DeAndre Jordan now that LaMarcus Aldridge is a Spur.

Can the Blazers win? Portland was starting Noah Vonleh at the four from about mid-November to mid-March before Stotts inserted Mo Harkless in his place, and that move has paid dividends. The Blazers have outscored teams by 13.3 points per 100 possessions since Harkless became a starter and they’ve been outscored by 8.3 with him off the floor. Harkless, McCollum, Lillard, Mason Plumlee and Al-Farouq Aminu have posted a 16.0 net rating in that stretch, giving Portland a five-man starting unit it can feel good about, and the Clippers’ bench isn’t exactly great. The question will be if the Blazers can find a scoring option when the second units are on the floor.

BAI: 0. Bieber paid his respects to both the Moda Center and Staples Center in March. The Clippers have to share Staples with the Kings – and definitely, definitely not the Lakers – while the biggest thing happening in Portland besides the Blazers is something called the Pentatonix World Tour. I’ve been assured that’s an a capella group, so one more pitch perfect prediction and we’ll get out of here.

The pick: The Blazers are too good offensively and the Clippers too inconsistent for this to be a short series. The Lillard-Paul matchup alone should make this arguably the most entertaining first-round series, even if it doesn’t quite go the distance. Close enough. Clippers in 6


Summer Sequel Starring LeBron Has Everyone Sucked In

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The summer blockbuster isn’t dead, but there’s no Jaws, Jurassic Park, Star Wars or The Dark Knight flying into a theater near you in 2014. Our highest-grossing film is the third X-Men entry in the past four summers. Tom Cruise is starring in a well-reviewed action flick that finished $20 million behind a tearjerker about a cancer-stricken teenage amputee on its opening weekend.

Fortunately, there’s an even better avenue for entertainment if you’re into explosions, fantastic drama and money essentially being lit on fire. If sequels are your thing – and who ISN’T excited about The Expendables 3? – even better.

NBA free agency has been more compelling than its six-month regular season for a while, but when LeBron James is the centerpiece for the second time in four summers, it becomes a whole different animal. Superstars equal titles in the NBA far more than any other sport, and with the biggest one of all threatening to alter the league’s landscape again, it’s no wonder the rumors, sources and speculation of the sport’s insiders are spiraling out of control.

But, as Ian Darke so eloquently crowed after Landon Donovan’s stoppage-time goal that propelled the United States to the Round of 16 in the 2010 World Cup … you could not WRITE a script like this.

You know the background by now. Northeast Ohio boy drafted by local team, becomes two-time MVP, game’s most dominant force, global icon, can’t win city’s first championship in half-century, leaves for greener pastures in poorly designed, nationally televised display of narcissism, owner of local team pens childish letter of betrayal in childish font, ties severed for good.

(Getty Images)

(Getty Images)

Two titles and four Finals later, he’s back on the market. And Cleveland, with the fewest wins in the league since James’ departure, is stunningly a frontrunner for a reunion that I dare say would be even more unlikely than Cory and Topanga getting back together.

Setting aside owner Dan Gilbert’s comic sans charade and Cavaliers fans – myself included – being quick to judge James as Mata Hari, the return would make sense on a number of levels. James has made no secret of his fondness for the area in which he was raised, and maintains a mansion in an Akron suburb. His wife, apparently allergic to the sun, ocean and drinks with umbrellas, apparently prefers Northeast Ohio to South Florida.

Most importantly, the Heat have little flexibility. The cracks began to surface in their NBA Finals no-show against the Spurs. Dwyane Wade isn’t getting new knees, and while a roster returning James, Wade, Chris Bosh and some spare parts may be favored to get out of the East, Miami would likely be swallowed up in subsequent Finals against five or six superior clubs from the West.

James and Kyrie Irving (USA Today Sports)

James and Kyrie Irving (USA Today Sports)

The Cavaliers have lucked into three No. 1 overall picks in the past four years, and can offer a core of Kyrie Irving, Andrew Wiggins, an offensive innovator in new coach David Blatt and a cache of draft picks and young, tradeable assets. Might some combination of Dion Waiters, Tristan Thompson, Anthony Bennett and picks be enough for Minnesota to let go of an unhappy Kevin Love? If James climbs aboard and Love lets it be known he’d actually want to play in Cleveland, the Timberwolves may have little choice but to comply.

But that’s all speculation grounded in some realm of logic. Let’s lay out exactly why NOTHING is more entertaining than NBA free agency. With James as the star, Bosh, Wade, Anthony as the supporting characters and Marcin Gortat, Kyle Lowry and Trevor Ariza lurking in the shadows, the following developments are what, in the past five days, have turned a James return from unlikely to possible. WARNING: Surprising levels of hilarity ahead.

Let’s start Thursday with a tweet from Cleveland sports radio personality Joe Lull.

Now let’s take a massive leap to one Friday from rapper and record producer Q-Tip, late of A Tribe Called Quest.

Is this getting crazy yet? No? How about this from a Cleveland-area personal trainer.

Or this, from someone within the Cavs’ marketing wing?

Now we’re on to Saturday, and a tweet from former Cleveland radio personality Kendall Lewis.

Then, perhaps in the ultimate sign that the apocalypse was indeed upon us, a Cleveland-area cupcake shop weighed in.

On Sunday, word broke of Gilbert’s private plane heading to South Florida, and predictably, Twitter connected the dots. Gilbert was on his way to make amends with LeBron, until he tweeted that he was enjoying the weather in his backyard in Michigan. Hmmm. No worries, the plane still arrived with general manager David Griffin and Cav-turned-Heat-turned-Cavs liaison Zydrunas Ilgauskas, surely there to bring James back home.

Until that, also, was debunked Monday afternoon.

Nonetheless, the whispers and angling and sourcing and silliness among those, um, LOOSELY connected to James were in full motion. We’d yet to hear from any of the key newsbreakers on the possibility of a James return drawing closer. Until …

The news cycle continued late Sunday night and Monday. USA Today reported that James was set to meet with Pat Riley this week to discuss his decision, and possibly, as Brian Windhorst speculated, to tell him he’d made one. Adrian Wojnarowski, the demigod of breaking NBA news, floated the possibility that James’ agent was pushing the prospect of LeBron-to-Cleveland Part II.

Later Monday, we learned the Heat – quiet up until now with Wade and Bosh non-committal about what salary cut they’ll accept to stay – agreed to deals with Josh McRoberts and a seemingly washed-up Danny Granger. It’s unclear if those were Riley’s desperation moves to keep James in an effort to recreate the 2010-11 Indiana Pacers roster – 37-45! – or merely the first transactions in a world in which he isn’t operating with the game’s biggest star.

By the time you read this, there certainly will be more layers off the onion. Perhaps Anthony will sign with the Lakers or return to the Knicks. Maybe Bosh jumps ship and takes the Rockets’ max offer of four years and $88 million. Gilbert’s plane could be dispatched to Canada to pick up Justin Bieber and Drake in one last-bit recruiting effort. Clam the psychic World Cup-prognosticating clam might make a prediction on where James will land.

I’ll join our bivalve buddy with one of my own: Whatever decision James makes will be better than your wasting $8 on 165 more minutes of Transformers.

2013-14 NBA Preview Part II: Breaking Bad

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Maybe I was being too optimistic in Part I of our NBA over/under preview yesterday. Eight of the 15 teams we looked at just had the look and feel of being better than what Vegas expects.

That’s certainly not the case in Part II, which feature 10 unders. Without further ado, the remaining 15 teams – including a few title contenders and a whole lot of awful.

15. Milwaukee Bucks

Over/under: 29.5

Well, four of the Bucks’ five leading scorers from last season are gone, but when the first two of those are Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis, are we sure that’s a bad thing? Milwaukee won 38 games with those two, Mike Dunleavy, and, for the last 28 games of 2013, J.J. Redick playing prominent roles, yet they’re now a collection of spare – though hardly useless – parts. Think Denver lite. It’s Larry Drew’s job to figure out what combinations work, and that might take a while. I don’t see anything resembling a leader on this team, and I don’t like much about the two starting guards, Brandon Knight and O.J. Mayo. They have a pair of big guys in John Henson and Larry Sanders who can serve as rim protectors, but no one on this roster is consistently capable of scoring in the post. People are excited about 18-year-old Green rookie Giannis Antetokounmpo, but at 6-foot-9 and 210 pounds he probably has a better chance of entertaining the Bradley Center crowd by being part of a halftime spanakopita-eating contest than getting significant run this season. This team might be fun to watch, but I have a hard time believing it’ll be very good.

The pick: Under

14. Atlanta Hawks

Over/under: 39.5

Atlanta, Cleveland, Detroit, Washington and Toronto are all within four wins of each other according to Vegas, and the Hawks are the last of that fivesome that we’re getting to. There’s a good reason why. Atlanta could be REALLY bad. And you know what? They should be. This team has won between 40-47 games in four of the last five seasons and it’s made the playoffs in each of the last six, getting bounced in the first round three times and winning a total of two games in its three second-round appearances. GM Danny Ferry finally saw that path was leading the Hawks absolutely nowhere, and the days of Josh Smith jacking up 20-footer after 20-footer are gone. Ferry brought in trusted Spurs assistant Mike Budenholzer, who was so excited about getting to coach the likes of Pero Antic and Gustavo Ayon that he was pulled over for a DUI after three months on the job. What’s left to work with? Not a whole lot besides Al Horford and Jeff Teague, the latter of whom doesn’t excite me and struggled greatly in Atlanta’s 2013 playoff loss to Indiana. The Hawks gave the versatile Paul Millsap a two-year, $19 million deal, but Millsap might be a more valuable trade chip than asset to a team that should be outside of the East playoff picture. Rookie German point guard Dennis Schroder has some upside and John Jenkins could eventually be a 3-point threat off the bench, but that’s not happening overnight. The Hawks should trade Millsap by February, and maybe even listen to offers for Horford. No one has talked about Atlanta being part of the Great Tank Race of 2014, but they should. It’s in the Hawks’ best interests to suck.

The pick: Way under

13. Brooklyn Nets

Over/under: 52.5

Nothing to see here, just a team that added Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Andrei Kirilenko and Jason Terry to a group that went 49-33 last season in addition to bringing in former No. 4 overall pick and rejuvenated injury cast-off Shaun Livingston to help spell Deron Williams. Brook Lopez is still lumbering around the paint effectively and Joe Johnson is still a surprisingly effective closer – 13 for 23 from the field while getting to the line 20 times in 48 minutes’ worth of “late and close” situations a year ago. Really, what’s not to like? The only thing I can figure is that this may really be a case of too many cooks in the kitchen. Pierce, Johnson, Williams, Lopez and even occasionally Terry have been their team’s go-to guy in late-game situations quite recently, and now Jason Kidd – the same Jason Kidd who you recently saw playing his final 189 minutes of playoff basketball without scoring – is left to manage those minutes and rotations. That will come somewhat quickly in the regular season, when Pierce, Garnett and Kirilenko may be taking some time off to rest, but would you want to be in charge of divvying up playing time among that crew and also dealing with Andray Blatche come playoff time? I sure wouldn’t. The Nets are, without a doubt, no worse than the fourth-best team in the East, but they might not NEED to win 53 games if the team in third is significantly ahead of them and the fifth-place team is far behind. Still, even with plenty of nights off for the stars and the requisite learning curve from their first-time coach, it’s hard to see this team not going over. Even if they might not care.

The pick: Over


12. Houston Rockets

Over/under: 54.5

Houston won 45 games last season while coming just two attempts shy of hoisting the most 3-pointers in NBA history, a mark the shamelessly-gunning (and yet-to-be discussed) New York Knicks knocked down. The lone meaningful addition in the offseason was a big one, noted narcissist and pain-in-the-ass Dwight Howard, but is Howard’s chiseled presence in the paint worth an additional 10 wins? It’s possible. Houston was 17th in the league in offensive rebound percentage last season despite taking the most combined shots at the rim and behind the arc – the two areas where a team is more likely to get a chance at a second possession. Howard should lead the league in dunks off putbacks alone, and he seems to have rededicated himself and is in the best shape of his life, and blah blah blah. But this team, as is, doesn’t seem like a finished product. The Rockets may try to trade Omer Asik at some point, as he’s somewhat unnecessary with Howard in the fold, and they’d be wise to get back another point guard with Patrick Beverley and Jeremy Lin as their primary distributors. They don’t need a John Wall or Kyrie Irving considering James Harden will be handling the ball as often as possible, but it certainly wouldn’t hurt to add a guard who can give them something between 3-point marksman and paint penetrator. Though I love the way this team values layups and 3s as basketball’s most efficient shots, I don’t like the team itself.

The pick: Under

11. Indiana Pacers

Over/under: 54.5

Same win total as the team above, much more complete group. The Pacers took the Heat to the wire in the Eastern Conference finals with a bench of Gerald Green, Tyler Hansbrough, D.J. Augustin, Sam Young and Ian Mahinmi. Four of those five guys are gone, with only Mahinmi remaining. In their place are Luis Scola, C.J. Watson, Chris Copeland, a potentially-at-some-point healthy Danny Granger(!) and the underrated Orlando Johnson, who played for the Cal Santa-Barbara Gauchos in college and spent time with the NBDL’s Fort Wayne Mad Ants as a rookie last season. Playing for a team as lame-sounding as the Pacers must be a major letdown, but Johnson and the Pacers’ bench give this team a much better chance of not only getting back to the East finals, but possibly getting past whomever they might find there. More importantly for the sake of this column, they’ll take some of the heat off a starting five that’s as complete as any in the league. Granger’s hypothetical return – or a trade should he prove himself healthy – will take some pressure off Paul George, who played the eighth-most minutes in the league last season. One last thing: Indiana should be in a tight race for the Central Division race with Chicago all season, which means it won’t be taking nights off. The Pacers and Bulls certainly value home-court advantage more than the Heat and Nets, which means both should go all out to win the Central and avoid finishing fourth – thus having to beat two of the East’s other Big Three and facing a pair of potential road Game 7s.

The pick: Over

10. Los Angeles Clippers

Over/under: 57

Like Indiana, the Clippers already have a game under their belts, but unlike the Pacers, LA’s biggest attraction looked dreadfully apathetic in losing to the team that has been LA’s biggest attraction for the previous half-century. What concerns me with the Clippers isn’t that they were caught sleepwalking through the Opening Night debut of Doc Rivers. It’s that while their starting lineup added a pair of nice pieces in J.J. Redick and Jared Dudley – despite the best efforts of Donald Sterling – the bench is an absolute disaster. Sure, Jamal Crawford is one of the NBA’s best-scoring reserves and has no issues creating his own shots (and even less of an issue taking so, so many of those). But beyond him? Woof. Matt Barnes is a 3-point specialist who specializes in missing 3-pointers, Darren Collison is a complete debacle of a backup point guard who defends like he’s in charge of the Fast Pass line at Disneyland, Antawn Jamison drew a DNP-coach’s decision in his Clippers debut, and Ryan Hollins – RYAN HOLLINS! – is their third big man. Who is scoring points with his back to the basket for this team? It’s not Blake Griffin, who still is overly reliant on Chris Paul and his own athleticism to get to the hoop. It’s certainly not DeAndre Jordan, who took 464 of his 488 field-goal attempts last season from inside 8 feet. The Clippers have the highest over/under in the West, and when they’re playing overmatched teams like Phoenix, Utah and most of the Eastern Conference, they’ll be just fine. But Memphis? San Antonio? Portland? Oklahoma City? Teams with an actual interior? Rivers will make sure this team makes a necessary move to put itself in the best position to get through a very winnable West, but that move needs to be made soon. Anyone above 6-foot-8 with a semblance of a post skill is welcome to apply.

The pick: Under


9. San Antonio Spurs

Over/under: 55.5

Let’s review the Spurs’ win totals in the Tim Duncan era, starting with 2012-13 and working backwards: 58, 50 (in 66 games), 61, 50, 54, 56, 58, 63, 59, 57, 60, 58, 58, 53, 37 (in 50 games), 56. That’s exactly three seasons out of 16 in which they wouldn’t have gone over this number in an 82-game schedule. Yes, Duncan/Parker/Ginobili are another year older. Yes, Gregg Popovich has zero concern with leaving those three, Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green, the team’s uniforms and his best bottle of Merlot home on certain nights. But if my choices are betting on or against this team losing 26 games, I know which way I’m headed.

The pick: Over

8. Utah Jazz

Over/under: 25.5

I like some parts of this young core, and boy is it young. Of their five primary assets – the currently injured Trey Burke, Derrick Favors, Alec Burks, Enes Kanter and Gordon Hayward – Hayward is the elder statesman at the ripe old age of 23. But the bottom line is that someone in the West is going to have to lose. A LOT. Every team except for Phoenix, Utah and probably Sacramento has some sort of legitimate playoff aspirations. The tankers, by and large, lie in the East. But Burke is out for at least a month with a finger injury. His backups are the 157-year-old Jamaal Tinsley and John Lucas III, who is on team number III in as many seasons and may, in fact, not retire until appearing in the media guide of all 30 NBA teams. I don’t think this is a terrible team. They’ll be competitive for three quarters on many nights, and they’ll steal some games against the West’s lower echelon and much of the East in Salt Lake City. But this is probably a 6-35 road team that might not be terribly interested in winning come March and April.

The pick: Under

7. Charlotte Bobcats

Over/under: 26.5

Al Jefferson has the worst contract in the NBA. There are worse players, for sure. Al can’t do much but score, and he does that one thing well. But three years and $41 million committed to a guy entering his 10th season in the league for a team that has won 28 games COMBINED over the last two seasons? It just doesn’t make any sense. Charlotte has drafted Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Cody Zeller after finishing with the worst record in the league for the past two seasons, so maybe the organization is just bitter after bottoming out so completely and ending up with two guys who – in a best-case scenario – are the third- and fourth-best players on a legitimate contender. But why the hurry? Maybe this is the year the Bobcats finish with the sixth-worst record and land the No. 1 pick. Either way, they’re not good, even if they’re trying to be a little bit better. This is a roster full of one-trick ponys. Jefferson can provide points in the paint. Kidd-Gilchrist is a defensive pest on the wing. Kemba Walker can beat his man off the dribble. Ben Gordon can take lots of wildly unnecessary shots. Bismack Biyombo can miss free throws. I don’t know one thing this team does well, though new coach Steve Clifford will claim it’s “playing defense.” Sadly for Steve, an 86-84 loss is still the same as a 132-96 loss.

The pick: Under

6. Orlando Magic

Over/under: 24

We continue our look at the teams more interested in ping-pong balls than living, breathing bodies in the seats with the Magic, but Orlando is the one supposed tanker I don’t think will live up to that billing. If nothing else, this is a fun bad team. There are eight guys on this roster with two years or less of NBA experience, and I see five of them as being potential rotation guys for a really good team someday – Mo Harkless, Tobias Harris, Andrew Nicholson, Victor Oladipo and Nikola Vucevic. Maybe not all of them make it, but that five is light years ahead of anything else the league’s tankers have to offer. The problem this team has, aside from employing too much dead weight elsewhere, is that it’s terrible defensively. Jameer Nelson is still around and couldn’t guard his own coach, Jacque Vaughn, in Vaughn’s current sideline state of a sharp suit and a clipboard. It’s hard to definitively say this team will win five more games than it did last season, but it won’t be for lack of trying. And that’s a lot more than some certain teams in the East can say.

The pick: Over


5. Boston Celtics

Over/under: 27.5

This number seems to have built in some wiggle room for when Rajon Rondo returns – though no one seems to know when that will be – but this roster is bad. Courtney Lee, Brandon Bass and Kris Humphries are likely starters, so … yeah. The better question might be an over/under of how many games Rondo plays in a Celtics uniform this season, with the injury, a possible delayed return in case Boston wants to lose as much as it can and a potential trade all looming as factors. Brad Stevens is an excellent basketball coach who will one day be an excellent NBA coach, but he’s knows this isn’t an overnight process. He’s smart enough to realize that this team is going to take a lot of lumps for two or three years before it has a chance to build a winner. Maybe Avery Bradley and Kelly Olynyk are around when this group is an actual contender, but that’s likely it. This team will play hard but the talent just isn’t there.

Over/under: Under

4. Chicago Bulls

Over/under: 56.5

The Bulls are playing the wrong sport. If they were a soccer team in … let’s say England, they would have already won two titles and would be searching for a third. Tom Thibodeau values regular seasons wins. A LOT. This team feels like it has something to prove, Derrick Rose is back and allegedly better, Thibodeau won’t allow it to take nights off and treats every possession like it’s Game 7 of the NBA finals that’s being played at the peak of an active volcano with martian gila monsters circling the court. Did they look good on Opening Night in Miami? Nope. Does it matter? Not one bit. Assuming Rose stays healthy, this team is winning at least 57 games. No one wants to win more regular-season games than Thibodeau, and perhaps no East team values having home-court advantage as much as the Bulls. They can win in Indiana, they can win in Brooklyn, but they’re probably not winning in Miami.

The pick: Over


3. New York Knicks

Over/under: 48.5

This total was at 49.5 as recently as two days ago, so apparently bettors are pounding the under. I couldn’t agree more. There seems to be no safer bet in the NBA this season than “the Knicks will be the East’s No. 5 seed,” which in a vacuum makes sense. They’re clearly not better than Miami, Chicago, Indiana or Brooklyn, yet they seem a step above Washington, Detroit, Cleveland, et al. But are they? The mix on this team, which set the aforementioned NBA record for 3-point attempts last season, didn’t quite fit then, and New York’s biggest offseason move was to add a big man who is allergic to rebounding and stepping near the paint. If there’s a moment when Andrea Bargnani, Carmelo Anthony and Amare Stoudemire are on the court at the same time, Madison Square Garden may collapse in horror. Sure, there’s Tyson Chandler patrolling the paint and, at least at the outset, Metta World Peace standing in the corner shooting 3s and preparing for the release of his book detailing the Malice at the Palace. Oh, and J.R. Smith is involved, or at least will be in Game No. 6 after serving a suspension for violating the league’s drug policy. Oh, and Mike Woodson is probably going to be on the hot seat if this team starts out around .500 after 18-20 games. Oh, and Anthony is already talking about testing the free agent market next summer. Did I mention that Kenyon Martin, the artist formerly known as Artest and Smith are ON THE SAME TEAM? And will probably party together on the road? No city is safe when this team comes to town, no lead or deficit will be too big for it to overcome or cough up, and the 2013-14 New York Knicks will be America’s best reality TV show. Does that sound like a 50-win team to you?

The pick: Under

2. Philadelphia 76ers

Over/under: 16.5

There have been 16 teams in the NBA’s lottery era that have failed to win at least 17 times in an 82-game season. Many of those teams were in such dire straits largely at their own choosing, and the 76ers are about to be the next in that not-so-proud group. This team is AWFUL. A-W-F-U-L. Evan Turner is by far its best player. Jason Richardson will play a prominent role. Philadelphia traded away its All-Star point guard for a guy (Nerlens Noel) who likely won’t see the court this season. It will only be interested in winning the two times it faces New Orleans, whose pick Philly owns (top-5 protected!) in the 2014 draft as part of the Noel-Jrue Holiday deal. The bench? Tony Wroten, Lavoy Allen, Hollis Thompson, Darius Morris and Daniel Orton. New coach Brett Brown is going from the Spurs’ bench and coming within a whisker of winning the NBA title to coaching this train wreck. In the town that booed Santa Claus, this team is gonna need Jolly Old Saint Nick to drop more than a few gifts down the chimney if it plans to even sniff 17 victories…

The pick: Under

1. Phoenix Suns

Over/under: 19.5

… And yet. And. Yet. There’s absolutely no guarantee that the 76ers’ efforts to finish with the league’s worst record will even come to fruition. Because this Phoenix team may well be worse. Concerned that the Suns might be too far ahead of Philadelphia in the race to the bottom, GM Ryan McDonough dealt center Marcin Gortat – one of the team’s few legitimate NBA players – to Washington just days before the season for what could wind up being their FOURTH first-round pick in 2014. McDonough is only 33 and hasn’t even held his job for six months, but it’s like he’s been practicing to tank the 2013-14 season his whole life. The Morris twins will play heavy minutes for this team. Eric Bledsoe, a good guy to have in your rotation’s top 7 if you’re a contender, is by far their best player. Between him, Dionte Christmas, the Morris boys, Gerald Green, Miles Plumlee, Alex Len and Ish Smith, the roster reads like something you’d see playing in the third-place game at an AAU tournament in 2005. Goran Dragic is easily Phoenix’s second-best player, but with the lone contract on the team that extends beyond next season, he’ll likely be gone by February. The talent here is just about equal with that on the 76ers’ roster, but Phoenix plays in what’s, top to bottom, the more competitive conference. You could have made this number 9.5 and I still would have taken the under.

The pick: Dreadfully awful

2013-14 NBA Preview Part I: Overly Underwhelmed

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I could sit here and tell you that the Miami Heat are a budding dynasty. I could tell you that Derrick Rose’s return will help the Chicago Bulls return to being a bona fide title contender. I could tell you that there are at least five teams more interested in landing Andrew Wiggins eight months from now than fielding a competitive basketball team for the next six, that Kobe Bryant and Russell Westbrook’s recoveries from devastating injuries will impact the Western Conference playoff picture, that Dwight Howard is tall, Nate Robinson is short and that the Milwaukee Bucks could build a starting five of guys named Giannis, Miroslav, Zaza, Ekpe and Khris.

I could. But I won’t.

Every NBA preview you’ve read or seen over the past few weeks is something cut from the same cloth. There’s a lot of talk about how far Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and the Brooklyn Nets will go in the playoffs and certain people screaming into a microphone (or megaphone) about how THIS SEASON WILL DETERMINE THE LEGACY OF LA-BRAWN JAMES!!(!).

The reason that’s happening? Because most NBA regular seasons are borderline meaningless. Sure, occasionally we’ll get the mild surprise like the Lakers nearly missing the playoffs last season because they were coached by a guy who was more afraid of defense than a Trinidad Moruga Scorpion pepper. But for the most part, it’s a six-month slog of predictability.

What’s at least a little bit less predictable? Turning it over to the fine folks of Las Vegas to estimate how many regular-season wins each team will finish with and going over or under that number. I’ll take a reason to care about that Tuesday night Pelicans-Kings game in mid-February over the 381,945th person on the Internet proclaiming that Steph Curry is the NBA’s best pure shooter or that Kevin Durant is approaching his prime.

In order of least to most confident, it’s time to tip this puppy off in the first of two parts. Part II will run tomorrow, and yes, I know there are three games tonight featuring four teams that are in the latter half of the list. You’ll just have to trust me that the list was completed early Tuesday.

To have the most up-to-the-minute lines, we’re using online sports book Bovada.


30. Washington Wizards

Over/under: 40.5 wins

I have no idea what to think of this Wizards team. They just took advantage of Phoenix trying to be as terrible as humanly possible by trading for Marcin Gortat, so they can trot out a starting five of John Wall, Bradley Beal, Otto Porter, Nene and Gortat. That’s a good group, but their bench is dicey at best, they’re coached by Randy Wittman, Al Harrington will get major minutes and they won 29 games last season. Is a projected Beal breakout season and a seemingly healthy Wall enough to get them 12 more wins? I’ll say yes, but I don’t feel good about it.

The pick: Over

29. Miami Heat

Over/under: 61.5

[Hubie Brown enters] [Hubie Brown is asked his opinion on the 2013-14 Heat] “Brett, I’m glad you asked. You’re the Miami Heat. You have just won the last two NBA championships. You have the best player in the world. You also feature two All-Stars on the tail end of their primes. You’ve added former No. 1 overall pick Greg Oden to boost your defense in the painted area. But you also have no idea how motivated you’re going to be. You know that the impending free agency of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh may be a distraction. You also know that Oden’s knees are made of sponges, Elmer’s glue and pretzel rods. You also for some reason added Michael Beasley, who is a terrible teammate and is as allergic to passing the ball as I am to using the third person. You don’t know what to expect.

The pick: Under

28. Detroit Pistons

Over/under: 40.5

Any time Brandon Jennings and Josh Smith are involved in something, I’m skeptical. When they’re suddenly involved together, as the two best offensive playmakers on a team that’s been sorely lacking offensive playmakers in recent years, I’m even more skeptical. When they feel like they have something to prove to their former teams – meaning they’ll want to shoot more – I’m even more skeptical. When they’re asking 37-year-old point guard Chauncey Billups, who shot 37.8 percent over the last two seasons, to be they’re starting shooting guard, I’m even MORE skeptical. But then again, they have Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond inside, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope should provide some help from the perimeter and there’s a man named Luigi involved, it’s hard not to be somewhat optimistic.

The pick: Under

27. Sacramento Kings

Over/under: 31.5

I like the point guard combination of Greivis Vasquez and Isaiah Thomas, which should be a welcome change after Tyreke Evans and Aaron Brooks were handling too much of the ball last season. But although those two knuckleheads are gone, there’s still a little too much knuckleheadness around for my liking. DeMarcus Cousins is uber-talented and also has a Rasheed Wallace streak that can appear at any time. Their small forwards are Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, John Salmons and Travis Outlaw, rookie Ben McLemore is talented but also 20 years old and they’re dealing with first-time head coach Mike Malone. Unless that schedule includes Utah and Phoenix approximately 24 times, I have a hard time picking the Kings to win 32 games. But they could.

The pick: Under

26. Denver Nuggets

Over/under: 45.5

George Karl is gone, Executive of the Year Masai Ujiri is off to Toronto, Danilo Gallinari is out for at least the first month, Andre Iguodala is in Golden State and starting center Kosta Koufos is gone to Memphis. The Nuggets were underestimated for being a collection of spare parts last season, winning 57 games, so maybe they’re being a bit underestimated again. Randy Foye can shoot and Wilson Chandler is a solid offensive sixth man, but the biggest factor to me in thinking the Nuggets can win at least 46 games is all about the geography. Denver went 38-3 at home last season, and while that’s not going to happen again, it’s hard to see them winning anything less than 30 games in the Pepsi Center’s altitude. Go 16-25 on the road – completely doable with as many bad teams are out there – and the over could be there.

The pick: Over


25. Portland Trail Blazers

Over/under: 38.5

The Trail Blazers had a historically terrible bench last season, with their reserves’ average of 18.5 points the fourth-lowest by any team since 1985-86. The bench is worlds better this season, with Mo Williams, Dorell Wright, Earl Watson, Thomas Robinson, Meyers Leonard, and after six weeks, rookie C.J. McCollum capable of providing a more-than-capable second unit. At the same time, Damian Lillard played a ton of minutes as a rookie last season and it’s hard to see him repeating that effectiveness level and staying healthy for 82 more games. A slow start also feels like it could mean the rumors of a LaMarcus Aldridge trade will grow increasingly loud. This team feels like a darkhorse to make the playoffs, but there’s much to be proven.

The pick: Over

24. Memphis Grizzlies

Over/under: 50.5

Coach Lionel Hollins is gone thanks to an odd standoff with management despite him guiding the team to the Western Conference finals, leaving assistant Dave Joerger – whose profile on his Wikipedia page is actually this – to take over. Joerger is more of an analytics guy, which sounds great on the surface for a team that was a shooter or two away from a possible finals appearance but may not play nearly as well in practice. What was Memphis’ offseason reaction to not having enough help from the perimeter? Well, they traded for Mike Miller, of course! Miller’s glory days, if those were actually a thing, came with Memphis in the middle part of the last decade, but his legs are currently being held together with state-of-the-art fishing rods and Big League Chew and he tends to have trouble keeping his shoes on his well-worn feet in big moments. Let’s just say a drop-off seems in order.

The pick: Under

23. Los Angeles Lakers

Over/under: 36.5

The Lakers, frankly, shouldn’t come within 20 wins of this total. They should have amnestied Bryant, saved themselves $30 million rather than pay the franchise icon for recovering from his Achilles injury, traded Pau Gasol and turned into the West’s answer to the 76ers. But, of course, that didn’t happen. Kobe will work his way back sooner than he should, look better than it should be humanly possible for a 35-year-old with 54,000 minutes on his NBA odometer to look, and keep this group of absolute garbage from completely collapsing. Which, again, is what they should do. Sports Illustrated picked the Lakers to finish sixth in the West, which raises the question of whether SI is aware that Howard signed with Houston. This team is terrible, but Bryant’s maniacal craving to compete may hinder it from bottoming out.

The pick: Under

22. Toronto Raptors

Over/under: 36.5

Toronto went 18-18 after the much-maligned Rudy Gay’s arrival north of the border, so it’s perfectly reasonable that the Raptors could be around .500 with Ujiri taking over the franchise, right? Not so fast. Considering our friends at Bovada have exactly one NBA coach prop bet currently being offered – will Dwane Casey be fired before the end of the 2013-14 season – and that the yes is currently -140, there’s still plenty of issues to solve in Toronto. The most significant? The bench resembles the Blazers’ from last season. A starting five of Kyle Lowry, Demar DeRozan, Gay, Amir Johnson and the improving Jonas Valanciunas could get you to the brink of the lousy East playoff picture. A bench of Quincy Acy, D.J. Augustin, Tyler Hansbrough, Landry Fields, Austin Daye, Terrence Ross and Steve Novak makes it seem fairly likely that Canada’s only NBA franchise will have at least somewhat of a statistical shot to land Wiggins, Canada’s savior on the hardwood. To save themselves of the 40-percent shooting, .500-finishing purgatory that Gay brings with him, it’s exactly what they need.

The pick: Under

21. Golden State Warriors

Over/under: 51.5

I love this Golden State team, but considering this pick relies largely on the health of Andrew Bogut, I don’t love them too much. Bogut played an average of 75.3 games in his first three NBA seasons. In his last five, he’s played an average of 42.8. He also just signed a three-year, $36 million extension, which should result in me and every fan of the Warriors hitting refresh on the Twitter feeds of any Golden State beat writer until the words “Bogut just banged knees with David Lee under the hoop” appear. Malone got a lot of the credit for running things under Mark Jackson last year and is now in Sacramento, and third-guard extraordinaire Jarrett Jack is in Cleveland. But Iguodala should take a lot of the pressure off Klay Thompson and Curry, and Harrison Barnes could wind up winning the Sixth Man of the Year award. There’s a lot to like here, but there are also enough question marks to make this anything but a lock.

The pick: Over


20. New Orleans Hornets Pelicans

Over/under: 39.5

Another caution due to health. By all accounts, Anthony Davis has looked like a monster in the preseason and is on his way to having an absolute breakout season. But Davis’ still filling-out frame is going to be an injury concern for a while longer, and Eric Gordon can never seem to stay healthy. They traded their Top 10 pick to Philadelphia for Jrue Holiday, who was an All-Star in the watered-down East last season and should provide a calming influence to an offense that averaged fewer points than everyone in the West but Memphis last season. I’d keep Ryan Anderson in the starting lineup and bring Tyreke Evans off the bench, but it remains to be seen how Monty Williams will handle that. A 13-win jump seems like a lot, but this should be a much-improved team. But if Davis goes down for any length of time, they may have trouble cracking 30 victories, let alone 40.

The pick: Over

19. Oklahoma City Thunder

Over/under: 52.5

If Westbrook was going to be healthy all season, this total is somewhere around eight or nine wins higher. There’s no specific timetable for his return, but it seems as if he’ll be back by Christmas. The Thunder shouldn’t be lacking motivation early, and assuming Westbrook is close to 100 percent upon returning, he’ll have a lot to prove as well. A lot of the burden here will fall on Jeremy Lamb being able to develop into a consistent scorer with Kevin Martin gone and Westbrook M.I.A. for at least six weeks, and it’s hard to tell if that’ll happen. But OKC is another team, like Denver, where it’s hard to see them winning anything less than about 32 games on its home floor. Do that, go .500 on the road, and the over is as guaranteed as Durant’s silky-smooth mid-range jumper.

The pick: Over

18. Dallas Mavericks

Over/under: 43.5

There’s really no reason this team should be particularly good, and the Mavericks finished 41-41 last season. But that was with Dirk Nowitzki missing 29 games, Shawn Marion missing 15, and an offense that was left to rely heavily on O.J. Mayo, Vince Carter and Darren Collison. Dallas’ point guard play was horrific, but they brought in Jose Calderon, drafted Shane Larkin and brought back Devin Harris to make getting the ball to Nowitzki, Marion and Carter less of a chore. Of course, how much Harris, Calderon and Larkin get to handle the ball may vary depending on how often Monta Ellis is on the court – because if Monta has the ball, it’s headed toward the basket. This team has seemed to be biding its time and hording cap space in order to bring in a big free agent since winning the title, but after giving Ellis three years and Calderon four, it’s seemingly panicking into making a return to the playoffs. Bad move for the franchise, but maybe a good move for the over.

The pick: Over

17. Cleveland Cavaliers

Over/under: 40.5

I have no idea why the Cavs fired Byron Scott – they improved their win total in each of his three seasons on the sidelines! Who cares if that involved making a two-win jump from 19 to 21 in 2011-12 and a three-win leap to 24 in 2012-13? And who cares that last season’s win jump was actually a downgrade since it was a full 82-game season instead of 66? Cleveland is at a bit of a crossroads. It’s trying to show James that the franchise is headed in the right direction and has a playoff-caliber roster, hence the signing of Jarrett Jack and the gamble on bringing in the chronically injured Andrew Bynum. The Cavs have their star in Kyrie Irving, but the long-term effectiveness of the highly drafted pieces around him – Anthony Bennett, Tristan Thompson and Dion Waiters – remain unknowns. IF Bynum can give them 50 games and IF Bennett shows any flash of why he was the No. 1 overall pick last summer and IF Thompson develops into a 15-10 guy and IF Waiters shows that he can be more than just an out-of-control gunner on a bad team, this team could be as high as the fifth seed in the East. One thing’s for sure – it won’t be the defensive sieve it was under Mike Brown that it was under Scott’s cross-armed, stoic indifference. But if Bynum is a bust and Irving misses an extended stretch – he’s sat out 26 percent of Cleveland’s games his first two seasons – the playoffs are a long shot.

The pick: Over

16. Minnesota Timberwolves

Over/under: 41.5

We continue the health-dependent portion of the league with Minnesota, who had Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio on the floor together for THREE games last season. They are good to go for at least the opening tip in 2013-14, but this is a team that also had a lot of turnover in the offseason. Andre Kirilenko and Luke Ridnour are the biggest names to depart, but new additions Kevin Martin, Corey Brewer and Ronny Turiaf should offset those losses. Minnesota used one of two first-round picks on Shabazz Muhammad, who seems to be more worried with hooking up with random chicks than developing any aspect of his one-dimensional game, but shrewdly grabbed Louisville’s Gorgui Dieng with the other. You can pick apart the length and dollars of the deals they gave Martin, Brewer and Chase Budinger – in addition to re-signing Nikola Pekovic – but as far as putting a competitive product on the field this season, they’re most definitely an upgrade. If Rubio and Love aren’t involved in some sort of freak golf cart or T-shirt gun accident before Wednesday’s opener in Orlando.

The pick: Under

Lost in Translation: A List of Devastating Defeats

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Does this man look happy to you? I didn't think so. (AP)

Does this man look happy to you? I didn’t think so. (AP)

I give myself 60 minutes.

That’s it. One hour.

Thirty-six hundred seconds to think about what I just witnessed, overanalyzing every missed shot, every turnover, every bad substitution, every foul ball that should have been fair, every wide open receiver the quarterback didn’t see, every penalty that could have been called.

When you’re young, watching one of your favorite teams lose is devastating. You think they blew their only chance, that they’ll never come so close again, that your world is crumbling because you don’t know sports are nothing more than a distraction – a really, really great distraction – and you live and die a little with every big game.

Maybe it’s the same when you’re older. You think they blew their last chance, that they’ll never come so close again. Red Sox fans went through went through a Halley’s Comet-plus-10-year drought without a championship. Cubs fans are on their 27th presidential term without a World Series winner. There are now TEENAGERS born in the Columbus Blue Jackets’ first year of existence who are wondering if their team will ever as much as hold a lead in a playoff game.

No one ever runs down the hard parts of being a fan when you become one. You don’t recognize sports disappointment exists until it rises up and socks you in the face like an Evgeni Malkin slap shot. Unless you were a fan of the 1960s Celtics, the UCLA basketball teams of the 60s and 70s or the Lakers in the 80s, your season is ending in disappointment far more often than not.

This all comes to mind because of last night’s fantastic, pulse-pounding Game 6 of the NBA Finals.

As a Cavs fan, but more specifically as a human being, I was rooting for San Antonio to not only close out Miami, but to do it in the most devastating way possible. So much so that it felt like the Spurs were MY team. I’m over LeBron James pulling the rip-cord on Cleveland by now, but that doesn’t make me feel any less anguish when the Heat win.

Even Eva shed a tear for Tony after last night's Spurs collapse. (AP)

Even Eva shed a tear for Tony after last night’s Spurs collapse. (AP)

I’ve always had a thorough appreciation of San Antonio. Tim Duncan is without peer among power forwards in NBA history. Gregg Popovich is among the top 10 coaches  the league has ever seen and Tony Parker belong in the same breath among point guards. The Spurs, with those guys in charge, had Game 6 in the freaking bag. They recovered from a blown 13-point lead and were up five with 28 seconds left. But Popovich’s decision to remove Duncan – a man who has appeared on the NBA’s all-defensive team FOURTEEN TIMES in his career and averages the seventh-most defensive rebounds per game EVER – cost San Antonio two critical rebounds and led to two second-chance 3-pointers for Miami. The substitution game bit Popovich again in overtime, when he failed to use his final timeout with eight seconds left to get Parker, also off the floor for defensive purposes, back in. Manu Ginobili decided to take matters into his own hands, further dropping trou on one of the worst games he’s ever played by wildly driving into the lane and losing the ball, ensuring there’d be a Game 7.

He probably got fouled, but only after he’d blatantly traveled. No complaints. This one was on Popovich, who always makes the right moves, the Argentine, who had played one of the best games of his life two days earlier, Parker, who missed 17 shots, and Duncan, who had 25 points in his brilliant first half but just five in the second half and overtime.

I’m not going to pretend that loss hurt me as much as it did an actual Spurs fan, who even if Thursday’s decisive game goes poorly can sit back and reminisce about any of their four championships in the past 15 years. But it still stung. The odds are heavily against them in Game 7 – road teams are 3-14 in decisive NBA Finals games – and this may be the last realistic shot for Popovich, Duncan, Parker and Ginobili together. It also would provide further validation to the Heat and perhaps increase the likelihood that James stays when he can become a free agent next summer.

The Spurs sounded like they couldn’t get off the mat after the game. Ginobili said he was “devastated.” But that’s the reaction that comes from the immediacy of a game that was one rebound or free throw from being over. Duncan said Wednesday the players aired their grievances during a late postgame meal, and like the veteran bunch they are, the Spurs sounded poised to recover.

It probably took them all of 60 minutes.


I can’t say for certain each of the games on the following list of difficult defeats only took me 60 minutes to get over. I’m still reeling from one of them.

This list is unique to me, and even someone who roots for the exact same set of teams might make a different one. It depends on how old you are, where you were, who you were with and what you were expecting. I’m sure a few of these games will ring a bell, even if they didn’t stick with you as long as they stuck with me. There are two Super Bowl losses, one of which I attended, that don’t even make this top 10 list, so either I’ve seen my share of sports devastation since 1990 (we’re arbitrarily starting this list from games I at least have a solid memory of) or I just really, really like to complain.

Maybe a little bit of both.

Brad Marchand scores one of Boston's 317 first-period goals from Game 3. (AP)

Brad Marchand scores one of Boston’s 317 first-period goals from Game 3. (AP)

10. 2013 NHL Eastern Conference finals Game 3 – Bruins 2, Penguins 1 (2OT)

This one is all of two weeks old, but it still sneaks onto the list. The Penguins were favored to get to the Stanley Cup finals heading into this series against Boston, but were outscored 9-1 at home in Games 1 and 2. This was their chance to make it a series and perhaps turn the tide, which can tend to happen for the winner and loser of a multiple overtime game in the Stanley Cup playoffs. Pittsburgh was arguably the better team in regulation and had numerous chances throughout the first overtime, but Patrice Bergeron ended any hopes of this series becoming a lengthy battle with his goal 15:19 into the second OT. This makes the cut due to the high quality of play in Game 3, the nearly 100 minutes of hockey that took place and the fact that it was essentially the epitaph to a Penguins season that failed to live up to the ever-so-lofty standards they set for themselves.

Manu Ginobili Scale of Devastation Score (out of 10): 3.5

Penguins goalie and first-class media darling Tom Barrasso reacts to Florida fans littering the ice with vermin.

Penguins goalie and first-class media darling Tom Barrasso reacts to Florida fans littering the ice with vermin.

9. 1996 NHL Eastern Conference finals Game 7 – Panthers 3, Penguins 1

Pittsburgh was an offensive machine led by Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr, averaging 4.4 goals a game and scoring EIGHTY more than anyone in the Eastern Conference. Lemieux and Jagr combined for 310 points on what was the NHL’s last great offensive team. The Penguins score 362 times that regular season, and no one has scored more than 313 in an 82-game season since. This was just as much about who they were playing than the end result. Florida was in only its third year in the league and was in the playoffs for the first time. Pittsburgh went 32-9 at home during the regular season but was just 5-5 on its own ice in the playoffs, culminating with this Game 7 loss that remains the Panthers’ last postseason series victory 17 years later. Florida went on to get swept in the Stanley Cup finals rather than setting up what would have been a fascinating offensive showcase between the Penguins and Avalanche. Instead, this was Pittsburgh’s last great chance with Lemieux and Jagr at their peaks, but it went by the wayside to a team that threw rubber rats on the ice to celebrate goals.


I'm sure you're a nice guy, Dan Nystrom, but I'm still not sending you a Christmas card. (University of Minnesota)

I’m sure you’re a nice guy, Dan Nystrom, but I’m still not sending you a Christmas card. (University of Minnesota)

8. 1999 NCAA Football Week 11 – Minnesota 24, Penn State 23

Penn State was the preseason No. 2 in the nation behind Florida State, and after starting 9-0 it seemed to be destined for a national championship showdown with the also-undefeated Seminoles. The Nittany Lions were led by an outstanding defense that would feature two of the top three picks in the 2000 NFL draft (Courtney Brown, LaVar Arrington), and I just so happened to be in attendance for this one, nine months before I’d begin my freshman year in Happy Valley. So, naturally, Penn State let this mediocre Minnesota team hang around until well into the second half, though it seemed like it would survive when Travis Forney’s 44-yard field goal midway through the fourth quarter put the Nittany Lions up 23-21. Penn State even got the ball back with under five minutes to go but played conservatively, choosing to ride its top-ranked defense to victory. Except it never happened. Minnesota got the ball at its own 20 with 1:50 to go and marched 65 yards, completing a 4th-down Hail Mary and eventually kicking a 32-yard field goal as time expired. That started a downward spiral that included four losing seasons in five years – three of which I was, of course, in college to witness – and Penn State has never truly been the power it once was since. Oh, and far more significantly than this game, the architect of that great Penn State defense turned out to be using his position of power to sexually abuse children. Other than that, just another loss.


The Heinz Field end zone tackled Troy Brown, or he may very well still be running. (Getty Images)

The Heinz Field end zone tackled Troy Brown, or he may very well still be running. (Getty Images)

7. 2001 AFC Championship game – Patriots 24, Steelers 17

The Steelers were once again the class of the AFC in the regular season, going 13-3, outscoring opponents by a conference-best 140 points and featuring what was by far the NFL’s top-ranked defense. They were at home for their fourth conference championship game in eight seasons, two of which they had lost and the third of which they came within a whisker of losing as a 12-point favorite. Pittsburgh was favored by 10 in this one, but the oddsmakers forgot to weigh a few key factors – the Steelers’ dreadful special teams and the presence of Kordell Stewart. New England got on the board late in the first quarter via a Troy Brown 80-yard punt return touchdown and Pittsburgh never recovered, with an Antwan Harris blocked field goal TD return midway through the third putting the Pats up 21-3. The Steelers got within 21-17 but Stewart threw a pair of fourth-quarter interceptions and Drew Bledsoe – filling in for some injured rookie named Tom Brady – helped New England hold on. Stewart started five more games the following season before mercifully earning his ticket out of town, and Brady and the Patriots went on to win three Super Bowls in four years – again beating the Steelers at home for the AFC championship after the 2004 season. You may be starting to notice a preponderance of New England-related heartbreak on this list, but don’t worry – there’s more to come.


Be sure to say hi to David Volek the next time he assists you at Radio Shack. (Getty Images)

Be sure to say hi to David Volek the next time he assists you at Radio Shack. (Getty Images)

6. 1993 NHL Eastern Conference semifinals Game 7 – Islanders 4, Penguins 3 (OT)

The third and final entry involving the Penguins on this list, it’s debatable whether to put this higher or lower. On one hand, Pittsburgh had won the past two Stanley Cups, so bowing out of the playoffs and failing to three-peat (trademark: Pat Riley!) is hardly something to be ashamed of. On the other hand, this was EASILY the best of those three early 90s Penguins clubs. They’d set an NHL record with 17 straight wins, Lemieux had 160 points despite missing 22 games while being treated for Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and the team had THREE 48-goal scorers. One of those, Kevin Stevens, went down with a nasty injury following a collision with the Islanders’ Rich Pilon early in Game 7, and New York built a 3-1 lead midway through the third period. The Penguins scored twice in the final four minutes to force overtime, though, and seemed to have all the momentum in the world heading into the locker room. But little-known winger David Volek scored his second goal of the game 5:16 into OT, ending Pittsburgh’s pseudo-dynasty and breaking the heart of 10-year-old me. Volek, in his fifth year in the NHL, scored twice more in the Islanders’ conference finals loss and had five more goals the following season before never playing again. The remainder of the Penguins’ Lemieux-Jagr years ended in playoff disappointment – one of which we covered earlier.


Sniffle. (AP)

Sniffle. (AP)

5. 2009 NBA Eastern Conference finals Game 4 – Magic 116, Cavaliers 114 (OT)

I probably could have gone with Game 1 as well in a series that seemed like a mere formality for James and the 66-win Cavs before they went head-to-head with Kobe Bryant and the Lakers in the finals. That matchup never came to fruition, though, as Dwight Howard thoroughly dominated Cleveland’s empty interior, the Magic shot lights-out from 3-point range and the lack of a second offensive option weighed heavily in the Cavaliers’ collapse. Cleveland built a 16-point first-quarter lead in Game 1 before falling 107-106 and almost went down 2-0 before James’ miraculous 3-pointer at the buzzer saved it in Game 2. Orlando won Game 3 by 10, but this was the one the Cavs had to have to make it a series. Cleveland led by eight at the half but faltered down the stretch, losing in overtime despite 44 points, 12 rebounds and seven assists from James. The Cavs won Game 5 in Cleveland but never led in a 13-point loss in Game 6, ending the franchise’s best season in history as the writing on the wall began to appear that James’ next season in Cleveland could be his last. We’ll get to that, though.


Mario Manningham celebrates. I'm pretty sure I threw things. (The Michigan Daily)

Mario Manningham celebrates. I’m pretty sure I threw things. (The Michigan Daily)

4. 2005 NCAA Football Week 7 – Michigan 27, Penn State 25

This seems a bit early in the season for a college football loss to register as devastating, but just a week earlier, the Nittany Lions seemed to announce their return to college football prominence. They’d beaten sixth-ranked Ohio State in a raucous 17-10 home victory under the lights that literally left the stadium shaking, and next week had to make a trip to Ann Arbor to face a Michigan team they’d lost to six straight times. The Wolverines kept Penn State’s powerful offense off the board entirely until the final 10 seconds of the third quarter, and led 10-3 heading into what became a surreal final 15 minutes. Three touchdowns were traded in a 2:24 span early in the fourth before Garrett Rivas’ 47-yard field goal put Michigan ahead 21-18 with 3:45 left. Like he seemed to do so many times that year, quarterback Michael Robinson led Penn State back, taking his team 81 yards in 13 plays and scoring on a 3-yard run with 53 seconds left to grab a 25-21 lead. Unranked but hardly untalented, Michigan fought back, getting an outstanding kick return from Steve Breaston and going 53 yards from there, scoring with no time remaining on a strike from Chad Henne to Mario Manningham. Penn State finished third in the BCS standings, behind USC and Texas. Had it held on at Michigan, it’s unclear whether the Nittany Lions would have spoiled the Trojans and Longhorns’ classic of a national title game. What they would have most certainly done was jump-start the conversation for a playoff, as that would have marked two years in a row with three major conference teams unbeaten in the regular season.


Stan Humphries was the definition of an average quarterback. The Steelers followed through on their plan to make him above average. (Sports Illustrated)

Stan Humphries was the definition of an average quarterback. The Steelers followed through on their plan to make him above average. (Sports Illustrated)

3. 1994 AFC Championship game – Chargers 17, Steelers 13

The Steelers’ days of Super Bowl glory all happened prior to my arrival on this Earth, so one could understand my excitement as they tore through the AFC with a 12-4 record, the conference’s top seed and bounced the hated Browns for a third time with a 29-9 divisional round victory. It was time to sit back, relax and watch Pittsburgh pound the heavy underdog Chargers in the Steel City’s first AFC title game in 15 years. You, of course, know where this is headed. Up 13-3 in the third quarter, the Steelers allowed someone named Alfred Pupunu to break lose for a 43-yard touchdown catch on their vaunted defense, the same magical distance covered by Tony Martin on a TD reception with 5:13 to go in the fourth. Down 17-13, Neil O’Donnell led the Steelers down the field with time running short, but his fourth-down pass to Barry Foster fell incomplete in the end zone and 12-year-old me got my first serious lesson in taking a game for granted. The Chargers went on to get absolutely annihilated by San Francisco in the Super Bowl, while the Steelers made it to the big game next year. But this is the loss that set the tone that defined Bill Cowher’s career on the Pittsburgh sidelines. Five conference championships were played on the shores of the Allegheny in Cowher’s tenure and the Steelers won but one of those.


Dammit LeBron, I just can't quit you. But you can quit me. (Washington Post)

Dammit LeBron, I just can’t quit you. But you can quit me. (Washington Post)

2. 2010 NBA Eastern Conference semifinals Games 5/6 – Celtics 4, Cavaliers 2

The only spot on this list I felt had to be occupied by two games instead of one to tell the complete story. The Cavaliers bounced back from their ouster to Orlando to win 61 games even with James’ free agency the only story the media was interested in talking about for seven straight months. Cleveland was up 2-1 in the series when Boston won Game 4 at home, but that wasn’t unexpected. The series was shifting back to Quicken Loans Arena, where the Cavs were 39-7. Sure, they’d lost Game 2 at home by 18 points in a complete and utter no-show, but that certainly wouldn’t happen again. Or would it? Cleveland led 29-21 early in the second quarter before the wheels began to fall off and the RV it was driving careened into the side of a mountain, spritzing gasoline on the city below before igniting in flames. The Celtics outscored the Cavs 99-59 over the final 34 minutes, James finished with 14 points on 3 of 14 shooting in arguably the worst performance of his life and seemed disinterested at the boos rained down in the arena he’d turned into a sold-out, opened-ended Broadway show. The series wasn’t over, but it might as well have been. Cleveland played better back in Boston for Game 6, but James’ triple-double nearly became a quadruple-double due to his nine turnovers. His headband came off – hi there, Game 6 of the 2013 Finals! – and as he walked down the tunnel of the TD Garden and ripped off his wine and gold uniform, there was an overwhelming sense that jersey was never going back on. He was off into the night, beginning a two-month process of toying with the entire league’s emotions, and on that sticky July evening when the decision came down, the Cavaliers entered an abyss from which they’ve yet to emerge. There have been worse losses, but this one wasn’t about the end of a singular season. It was the end of an era, the end of a dynasty that never got going and the beginning of James being branded a traitor. James has come up short in playoff games before and since, but never has a player of his caliber delivered the absolute shit sandwich that he submitted in Game 5.


The exact moment my childhood innocence was lost. Thanks, Sid.

The exact moment my childhood innocence was lost. Thanks, Sid.

1. 1992 National League Championship series Game 7 – Braves 3, Pirates 2

A moment that, quite frankly, the Pirates have yet to recover from, and I think one that any Pittsburgh fan still feels whenever he or she watches any team, anywhere, suffer a particularly gut-wrenching loss. It was the playful impetus for my Twitter handle, but there was nothing funny about what happened in the 9th inning at Atlanta’s Fulton County Stadium during the hour 9-year-old me spent sobbing, disconsolate, on the couch as my parents wandered by and wondered when I’d get over it. For those unfamiliar, the Pirates were in their third straight NLCS, having fallen short in the previous two. They lost to these same Braves a year earlier in seven games, scoring a grand total of zero runs in the final two. This was the last hurrah as the team had been constructed, with Bobby Bonilla already gone to the New York Mets via free agency and Barry Bonds – then a skinny, speedy, twig of a man – and former Cy Young winner Doug Drabek headed out of town as well. This time it was the Pirates rallying to force a Game 7, scoring 20 total runs in winning the fifth and sixth games after falling down 3-1. Drabek pitched eight spotless innings in Game 7 and manager Jim Leyland decided to let him start the ninth rather than go to a bullpen that was shaky during the regular season and downright bad in the series against the Braves. Drabek ran into trouble, loading the bases with no outs via a double, an error and a walk, and Leyland brought in closer Stan Belinda. Atlanta cut the lead in half with Ron Gant’s sacrifice fly, Damon Berryhill walked to again load the bases but Brian Hunter popped out. Needing only one out to make it to their first World Series in 13 years, the Pirates saw Atlanta send pinch hitter Francisco Cabrera to the plate. Cabrera had 10 at-bats during the regular season and was a non-prospect approaching journeyman status, but he cemented his legacy in Braves history and Pirates nightmares by lacing a single into shallow left field. David Justice scored the tying run and former Pirate Sid Bream – carrying not a piano but an entire orchestra on his balky back – stumbled around third and slid into home, just under Mike LaValliere’s tag. The throw from Bonds in left wasn’t great, and that was his last act in Pittsburgh before ballooning up via illegal means and becoming baseball’s all-time home run king. The Pirates haven’t had a winning season since. If ever a singular moment became the defining fork in the road for a franchise, it was Game 7 of the 1992 NLCS. Pittsburgh’s baseball club has been a laughingstock since, underspending, overdrafting and failing to properly evaluate talent from the top down. There are losses, and then there’s THIS loss.

Give me 60 years and I won’t forget it.

MGSODS: 11 out of 10

NBA Finals Preview: Spurs vs. Heat

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Manu Ginobili, Tim Duncan and Tony Parker don't want to hear about any other Big Threes (Sports Illustrated).

Manu Ginobili, Tim Duncan and Tony Parker don’t want to hear about any other Big Threes. (Sports Illustrated)

Let’s give a round of applause to the Indiana Pacers, who despite looking like they’d never played organized basketball together Monday night, did two things in taking the vaunted Heat to a Game 7.

1) Gave the Spurs, and the rest of the league, at least somewhat of a blueprint for attacking Miami’s vulnerabilities.

2) Gave the world the gift of the yapping caricatures on ESPN and elsewhere only having two days – rather than the week we’d have had if Pacers-Heat ended in 5 – to break down and overanalyze this series before it begins.

This is the matchup the NBA needed, featuring two teams that have combined to win five of the last 10 titles. As soon as Russell Westbrook’s knee collided with Patrick Beverley’s in Game 2 of Oklahoma City’s first round series, this became the clear-cut marquee finals matchup, and despite Indiana’s best efforts, it’s here.

You hear a lot about legacies around this time of year, and what it means to the NBA afterlives of guys should their team triumph or come up short in the finals. You’ll hear what it would mean to Tim Duncan’s status as the game’s best power forward to win a fifth title, how Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili can cement their Hall-of-Fame cases with a fourth, how Gregg Popovich will go down as one of the game’s greatest coaches if he can join Phil Jackson, Red Auerbach, John Kundla and Pat Riley in the five-timers club.

Tim Duncan with a whale, because, why not? (Mark Langford)

Tim Duncan with a whale, because, why not? (Mark Langford)

Ignore it. Duncan is the best power forward ever, and that doesn’t change even if he shows up for seven games of this series drunk and wearing Tobias’ “The Thing” costume from Arrested Development.  Parker is a Hall of Famer. The Spurs have won SEVENTY-FOUR percent of their regular-season games when he’s been in the lineup, he’s a five-time All-Star who has been the game’s best point guard (sorry, Chris Paul) for the past eight seasons and has won a finals MVP. Ginobili may be as well based on his international achievements, but these finals won’t make or break his case.

But the one legacy that will at least take somewhat of a hit, fairly or unfairly, is that of the man Joe Thiesmann thinks can be an NFL quarterback.

Look, LeBron James is already one of the five best players to ever set foot on the hardwood. He’s transcendent in every sense of the word, a true showman who is, right now, arguably at the apex of his powers. Every night you turn on the TV to watch the Heat – or in Justin Bieber’s case, show up at center court looking like an M.C. Hammer video vomited on you – you’re witnessing perhaps the pinnacle of the best basketball player ever.

And that’s why he’s the only one with much at stake here. A loss to the Spurs isn’t going to take away from James’ accomplishments. It’s not going to take away his status as the league’s premier player. But it would leave him 1-for-4 in NBA finals appearances.

Let’s take a look at some of the other greats of the game. Any reasonable top 10 list of NBA players would include Michael Jordan, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Duncan. Those seven in the finals are a combined 37-13. Only Wilt, more interested in individual awards and being a Ladies Man, had a losing record in the finals of that bunch (2-4).

When you look at many of the 13 series losses of that group, though, many came against another player on the list. Chamberlain’s teams lost twice to the Russell-led Celtics. Kareem and Magic’s Lakers lost to the Bird-led Celtics and again to a 76ers team led by Moses Malone, who’s not far down that list of all-time studs. Bird lost twice to the Lakers.

Heat? This guy might get some if his team loses. (AP)

Heat? This guy might get some if his team loses. (New York Daily News)

Neither of the teams LeBron has lost to in the Finals even won its division in the regular season. Not that that’s some sort of all-encompassing barometer of measuring failures, but getting swept by San Antonio in 2007 – even if Sasha Pavlovic was prominently involved – and losing three straight against a clearly inferior Dallas team in 2011 are hardly resume highlights.

And that brings us here. This Spurs team isn’t exactly an all-time great – San Antonio’s plus-6.4 point differential during the regular season was only the EIGHTH-BEST of the Duncan era – but it’s still a machine with two slam-dunk Hall of Famers, Ginobili, the best coach of the last 15 years, Matt Bonner’s non-tan and Tracy McGrady’s warmups. This isn’t a green Oklahoma City team from a year ago that the peaking Heat saw as ripe for the picking. This is the best organization in the league since Jordan left.

Potential free agency is a year away. Dwyane Wade’s career is aging as well as hot milk. Chris Bosh is a replaceable third banana.

Lose here and the LeBron era in Miami officially becomes a lame duck.

That dinosaur is ANGRY. (AP)

That dinosaur is ANGRY. (AP)

1.) Miami vs. 2.) San Antonio

What’s in the past: For the Spurs, a lot of rest. The last time a team had as long a layoff between the conference finals and the NBA finals was also the last time there was a conference finals sweep – the 2003 Nets had TEN days off between sweeping Detroit and facing – you guessed it – San Antonio in the finals. A lot of help that did the then-Jersey dwellers – they lost Game 1 by 12 points and the series in six stale, uneventful games.

For all the credit they get for going 4-for-4 in the finals, this is really the Spurs’ first legitimately interesting matchup in the championship round. San Antonio got the eighth-seeded Knicks after the lockout season in the 1999 finals, a Nets team that had very clearly gone as far as it was going to go four years later, a Pistons team that was on its 212th game in a 20-month stretch by Game 7 in 2005 and a woeful Cavs team in 2007 that James willed through a watered-down Eastern Conference.

The Heat have only had two days to recover from what was a toll-taking seven-game series against the Pacers, while the Spurs have had nine days off since finishing off Memphis. Might those brittle old bones get a bit stiff from going more than 200 hours without playing competitive basketball? Think again. San Antonio is 7-0 in playoff series openers on five or more days of rest since its Big Three has been together.

Can the Heat shake off their injuries and emotionally move on from Indiana in just a couple days? Take a look at last year’s postseason and you may have your answer. After coming back from 3-2 down to beat Boston in Game 7 of the East finals, the Heat had exactly two days to recover before starting the NBA finals in Oklahoma City. Miami rode that emotion to a 13-point first-half lead but ultimately lost by 11 before winning the series’ final four games.

All those Rest vs. Rust angles would seem to give the Spurs an edge in Game 1. It’s hard to disagree.

What’s to come: It’s hard to believe, but the Spurs vs. Heat as currently comprised – and by that, we mean with their respective BIG THREES (remember, we’re in an era where each team MUST have a Big Three. Even if it’s Kemba Walker, Gerald Henderson and Ramon Sessions) – have played only twice in three seasons. They both came back in 2010-11, and don’t look to draw too much info from those matchups considering they traded 30-point home victories.

There are fascinating matchups all over the floor in this series, but the most interesting will be how Miami handles Parker. Parker doesn’t necessarily have to be the best player in the series for the Spurs to win – that LeBron guy figures to get his – but he most certainly has to be San Antonio’s best player. He’s been that throughout the postseason, and in a conference finals matchup with Mike Conley that some people felt was fairly close to even, Parker owned him, averaging 24.5 points and 9.5 assists.

Rajon Rondo has given the Heat fits over the past two seasons and Parker presents similar problems with his penetration – with the bonus of being a far better finisher. Parker had few issues getting into the lane against Memphis’ excellent perimeter defense, and it’s hard to imagine he’ll have many issues with Norris Cole or Mario Chalmers chasing him through pick-and-rolls.

LeBron stopper? Not really. But the Heat might want to keep Kawhi Leonard out of the paint. (Getty Images)

LeBron stopper? Not really. But the Heat might want to keep Kawhi Leonard out of the paint. (Getty Images)

The game changes a little bit if Miami chooses to apply some ball pressure just past half-court to get the ball out of Parker’s hands. But Ginobili is capable of creating himself, getting into the lane and finishing at the rim or kicking out to shooters like Danny Green, Bonner or Kawhi Leonard. In crunch time, or possibly earlier than the final five minutes should Erik Spoelstra deem it necessary, look for James to be in front of Parker. When that’s the case, look for Popovich to counter by having Parker off the ball, where he’s still quite dangerous. The Heat will happily have James deal with Parker should he have the ball late in games, but they want no part of him chasing Parker off the ball.

Indiana had 54 more rebounds than Miami in that seven-game series but was ultimately done in by its lack of reliability in the backcourt. The Spurs won’t have that problem, but they’ll also want to trot out a big lineup whenever it’s prudent to keep the Heat off the glass. Miami’s four losses in the postseason have had a transparently common theme:  The Heat have been outscored by an average of 12 points in the paint and outrebounded by 15 per game.

That should mean plenty of minutes for Tiago Splitter, who was outstanding in the final three games against Memphis, and plenty of time for the versatile Boris Diaw. Aron Baynes probably won’t get much time, but I’d be surprised if Popovich doesn’t give DeJuan Blair some run inside.

You want another key for the Spurs? Leonard is going to have his hands full defending James much of the time, but he can’t afford to give up his looks on the offensive end. Leonard has taken 59 shots from eight feet or closer to the basket in the playoffs and made FORTY-SEVEN. He’ll presumably spend much of the time here with James fronting him as well, so looks may not be as easy as they were against the likes of Tayshaun Prince and Klay Thompson.

We haven’t even gotten around to discussing Duncan, who is basically exactly what Miami just struggled with in Roy Hibbert on the defensive end. Duncan may not have the springy legs to get to and affect as many shots as Hibbert does these days, but he’s as intimidating in the paint as ever.

You want Gregg Popovich coaching your LIFE. (San Antonio Express-News)

You want Gregg Popovich coaching your LIFE. (San Antonio Express-News)

He’ll certainly challenge James at the rim, but I think if Miami is going to win this series it will be because of the re-emergence of their shooters. The Heat need to get more than they got from Wade and Bosh in the Indiana series, for sure, but they also need to recommit to making the corner 3 a priority after the Pacers largely shut their perimeter game down. Opponents are shooting 40 percent from the corners against the Spurs in the playoffs, while Miami has largely taken that shot away from their opponents, holding them to just 25.4 percent. These, of course, are advanced stats that our man Popovich isn’t necessarily a fan of.

“I think today we’ve had a proliferation of geniuses who have come up with new formulae to prove what wins and what loses,” Popovich told USA Today on the increased presence of advanced stats. “… So everything being copacetic, maybe shots and making stops on demand wins a lot of games.”

The Heat basically abandoned Shane Battier against the Pacers, and why not? He’s shooting 23.0 percent from 3-point range in the playoffs. But Ray Allen gave them some big shots in Game 7 in Indiana and they’ll need him again here.

While the shooters must be better, Bosh, to me, may be the biggest X-factor for Miami. He’s averaged 23.6 points, 11.0 rebounds and shots 60.5 percent in five games against the Spurs since arriving with James to South Beach, and if he’s anywhere near 100 percent, the Spurs don’t have a ton of great options to deal with him. They won’t want to have Duncan as far away from the basket as Bosh typically plays, and he’s capable of overpowering someone like Diaw if he’s right.

But I don’t think he is. James won’t shrink from the moment at all in this series, but I think San Antonio have just a little bit more in the tank and more around Parker than James has around him.

The pick: Spurs in 7