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Screens should be big in Cavs-Warriors trilogy worthy of the big screen

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lebron steph

                                                                                                                                     USA TODAY Sports

The top of any list of great sequels in cinema could easily double as a list of some of the finest – and most financially successful – movies ever made. The Empire Strikes Back, The Godfather: Part II, The Dark Knight, Terminator II, Aliens – we could go on.

That’s typically where the creative juices stop flowing.

Sure, there are some noteworthy third acts. The Return of the King is the best Lord of the Rings movie, though that’s more properly viewed as one colossal installment instead of three smaller ones. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade both made up for the weirdly terrifying Temple of Doom and was popular enough for Harrison Ford to keep playing the character as a senior citizen. Goldfinger was arguably the best James Bond movie and has inarguably the most sexually suggestive name for a character in pop culture history. Naked Gun 33 1/3 was … well, it was O.J’s last starring role in something less than nefarious.

There haven’t been many third acts in the sports world, which is just one small reason why Cavs-Warriors: Part III should be so compelling. The Lakers and Celtics have met in 12 Finals, but never three in a row. It’s a first for the NBA and just the fourth such threequel in American professional sports history, the likes of which haven’t been seen since the Red Wings and Canadiens battled for three straight Stanley Cups in the 50s.

We’ve already detailed the lack of big-screen triumphs when it comes to third acts, but the success of screens could have everything to do with a Finals that’s rightly drawing as much hype as anything since the days of Jordan, Magic and Bird. Let’s take a look at what the Cavs need to do to repeat and what the Warriors can do to make these Finals more Rise of the Machines after last year’s epic Judgment Day.

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When you have 30 percent of the All-Stars from a few months ago in one Finals series, it’s easy to get excited about matchups. Will Steph Curry or Klay Thompson guard Kyrie Irving? Does LeBron have no choice but to spend most of his time checking Kevin Durant? We know Draymond can cause issues for Kevin Love, but can Love be matched up with him on the other end?

Those seven will all find one another at some point, but the winner of this rubber match figures to be the team that consistently creates, and then takes advantage of, the most opportune mismatches.

That the Warriors move the ball and move away from the ball better than any team in the league is no great secret. It’s what almost every team in the league dreams of emulating and one day building themselves. Setting screens is still a major part of an offense that hums like a Ferrari when it’s at its peak, but ball screens are a different story. Golden State set 3,324 of those in 2016-17, per STATS SportVU, its third straight season bringing up the NBA rear in the category. Orlando was 29th, yet the Magic set more than 4,000.

There’s less movement in Cleveland’s offense because it’s less necessary. Possessions can come to a screeching halt in the final 10 seconds of the shot clock and Irving and James can save the day as few individual players can. Irving was the best isolation player in the league this season at 1.12 points per ISO, and he’s been even better in the playoffs. James can’t blow by defenders 1-on-1 like he used to, but his 42 percent success rate from 3 in the postseason adds a more complicated wrinkle for opponents than Batman suddenly wielding an assault rifle would for Gotham miscreants.

The Cavs relied on ball screens to generate offense less this season than they had in the past two, funneling through around 57 per game instead of the 65 or so they’d used in James’ first two seasons back home. Whatever way you slice it – and given the overall levels of talent and execution, this shouldn’t be a surprise – both Cleveland and Golden State get a lot out of their screens. Individually, the Warriors were third in the regular season in points per play (a screen that results in a field-goal attempt, foul or turnover by either the ballhandler or screener) at 0.934; the Cavs were fifth (0.925). As far as team points per possession – this adds in the other three offensive players on the floor as potential factors post-screen – Golden State was fourth (1.12), a tick ahead of Cleveland (1.11).

But those numbers take into account Derrick Williams setting a pick for Kay Felder on a cold February night in Minnesota or James Michael McAdoo trying to free up Patrick McCaw on a November back-to-back in Milwaukee. Let’s eliminate some of the noise and concentrate on what both teams should be focusing on – and what they must work to avoid at all costs.

Golden State DO: Get Curry/Draymond rolling

There was no Love in the 2015 Finals and there was no Irving for the final five games, and while those two are a generally dubious defending combination on ball screens, the Curry/Green combo likely couldn’t have done much better if they were both on the floor. Those six games featured 85 Green screens for Curry, which resulted in the Warriors eviscerating the Cavs defense for an average of 1.26 points.

Fast forward to 2016 and it turns ugly for Golden State. Seven games, a total of 39 Curry/Green ball screens and just 0.78 team points per action.

Green is fronting for Curry 6.7 times per game in these playoffs with excellent results: 1.30 team PPP. If that number stays in that vicinity – like it did two years ago – start sizing up the Warriors for their rings, and perhaps 16-0.

Cleveland DO: Target Curry when he’s guarding the screener

Irving has been known to struggle when he’s checking the ballhandler in the pick and roll, often never finding his original man or the roller and easily providing the opposition with a 2-on-1 toward the hoop. But that Irving/Love combo we discussed a few paragraphs ago? They actually defended quite well when put on an island in the 2016 Finals. There were 19 ballhandler/screener combos that defended at least 10 screens last June, and Irving/Love was by far the MOST effective despite getting torched overall in the postseason (1.31 PPP). Irving fared pretty well in the Finals when paired with Tristan Thompson as well.

Ballhandler Screener Screens Defended Team PPP
Irving Love 39 0.59
K. Thompson Green 12 0.73
Iguodala Livingston 14 0.77
Livingston Green 11 0.78
Irving T. Thompson 41 0.85
Curry Bogut 18 1.00
kevin kyrie

                                                                                                                                   The Plain Dealer

As for Curry, Cleveland preferred to have whomever he was guarding set the pick for the ballhandler. With Curry already banged-up to some degree in the Finals, the Cavs were physical while guarding him and made him work overtime at the other end. Curry was involved in 88 screens as the screener, nearly 50 more than the Warriors made Irving take on. A look at the difference in how both point guards were attacked in the pick and roll in last year’s sequel:

Player Screens starting on ballhandler Team PPP Screens starting on screener

Team PPP

Irving 118 0.805 33 1.06
Curry 68 1.096 82 1.07

On Christmas Day in Cleveland, the Cavs ran Curry through nine more with him initially on the screener, scoring 12 points. Klay Thompson was the targeted on-ball defender – often on Irving – with Cleveland putting him through 28 screens and scoring 40 points. Overall, the Cavs celebrated their comeback win at The Q with 75 total points (1.19 team PPP) as the result of screens – 51 more than Golden State (0.71).

Cleveland DON’T: Let Iman Shumpert get screened into submission

The Warriors’ holiday in Northeast Ohio may have been dampened, but they took out seven months’ worth of frustration on the Cavs three weeks later in Oakland. Golden State used 46 ball screens in this one and particularly attacked Iman Shumpert on the ballhandler, often when he was checking Curry. Ten screens of Shumpert led to 22 Warriors points, further lending credence to this stat: In the 128 minutes Shumpert was on the floor in the 2016 Finals, the Cavs were outscored by 13.4 points per 100 possessions. In the 208 he sat, Cleveland enjoyed a plus-9.1 edge.

Golden State could drive Shumpert off the floor entirely in these Finals. In theory, he’s an ideal guy to stick on Curry or Thompson to hide Irving for a bit, but in reality he tends to get lost when he’s asked to do more than guard someone 1-on-1. Richard Jefferson played a key role against the Warriors last season and seems more suited to have a chance of defending Durant than Shumpert. With Kyle Korver a potentially vital offensive piece to stretch the floor, Shumpert may wind up a DNP-CD (can’t defend).

Golden State DON’T: Ignore Kevin Durant as a ballhandler

Let’s get to the elephant in the room of why many expect this series to be short. The Warriors added one of the three best players in basketball at the expense of Harrison Barnes, who went 5 for 32 from the field once Golden State went up 3-1 last year.

As we’ve covered, the Warriors aren’t going to rely nearly as much on the ball screen as the Cavs. But when things start to break down – particularly in the fourth quarter – there will be instances when it could be a necessity.

Logic tends to dictate that should a critical Golden State possession become bogged down, Durant will ISO, Curry will launch a 3 or, perhaps, Durant will come to the ball and screen for Curry. But there’s another option.

durant

                                                                                                                                                USA TODAY Sports

Durant has an awfully good handle himself. Curry screening for him should allow KD a moment to turn the corner and pop away from the secondary defender for an open 3. And if Curry can’t get free, Durant proved during the regular season that he was fantastic finishing in these situations. Of the 144 players who participated in 300 screens as the ballhandler, only Wilson Chandler and Paul George scored more points per individual screen than Durant (0.48).

It’s been even more absurd during the playoffs. Durant’s 0.66 average is a full tenth of a point better than any of the other 46 players who have participated in at least 50 screens. From a team perspective, the Warriors’ 1.36 PPP off screens with Durant as the ballhandler is second – and the chart below shows how infrequently that’s used compared to some of the other big names at the top.

Ballhandler Screens Team PPP
Stephenson (IND) 56 1.38
Durant (GS) 77 1.36
James (CLE) 271 1.35
Leonard (SA) 222 1.28
Curry (GS) 256 1.25

They’ve only broken the Curry-screening-for-Durant combo out 13 times during the playoffs but it’s led to 21 Warriors points, and frankly, there was no need to even do it that much. It’s a wrinkle that Steve Kerr and Mike Brown have largely been saving to unleash only when they need it, and that alone should terrify the Cavs.

Cleveland and Golden State DO: Get the big men involved

There have been 72 two-man combos that have run at least 30 screens in the playoffs, and the top two involve, as you might expect, James and Curry. But the other half of those equations probably isn’t who you’d expect. JaVale McGee has teamed up with Curry for 52 screens that have resulted in 1.47 Warriors PPP, tied with James and Tristan Thompson for the most effective in the league this postseason.

The James and Thompson combo has been a special kind of deadly on their 112 screens. James has hit 7 of 14 3s directly after Thompson frees him up, and the duo is 31 of 53 (58.5 percent) overall immediately after Thompson screens for James. Thompson is one of the league’s best at rolling off a screen and flushing an alley-oop from James or Irving, and he and James went for an impressive 1.14 PPP in last season’s Finals as well.

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There you have it. There’s no shortage of storylines in the most star-studded Finals since Lakers-Celtics was in its mid-80s heyday. Durant’s chasing his first title. LeBron is chasing MJ’s legacy. Curry and Green are seeking Finals redemption. Klay Thompson wants to prove his subpar playoffs so far have been a fluke. Love wants to show that he can play – and play effectively – against the Warriors. Irving wants a few more weeks in the spotlight to pepper America with his flat-Earth theory.

Golden State knows what’s coming. It’s up to the Warriors to keep Cleveland from catching them in bad ball screen combos while picking and choosing their own spots to use them in an offense that rarely does.

In a third act worthy of the big screen, we’re about to find out how big the screen can be.

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2013-14 NBA Preview Part II: Breaking Bad

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spencer_hawes

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

dwight_howard

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

gregg_popovich

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

brad_stevens

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

carmelo_anthony

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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stephen-curry

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.

bradley_beal

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

lillard_damian

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

anthony_davis

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

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

NBA Western Conference Finals Preview: Memphis vs. San Antonio

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Marc Gasol, the younger brother of some hack who plays for the Lakers (Getty Images)

Marc Gasol, the younger brother of some hack who plays for the Lakers. (Getty Images)

The NBA playoffs began with the general consensus that the conference finals would feature Miami vs. New York, as marketable a matchup as one could find, and Oklahoma City vs. San Antonio, featuring a rematch of last season’s brilliant series pitting two of the league’s most dynamic players against a team that’s won four titles in the last decade-and-a-half.

Miami and San Antonio made it, but after Indiana finished off the Knicks on Saturday, the other half of each conference final will feature a team that’s … well, not exactly what David Stern would describe as TV friendly. Instead of thinking “hey, we have a fantastic final four that will drive ratings through the roof,” the league’s New York offices instead are left with the villainous Heat and the country’s 28th-, 40th- and 51st-largest media markets.

Oklahoma City is roughly the same size as Memphis, but Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and the tasty possibility of rematches against the Spurs and Heat would have rendered that largely irrelevant. New York has Carmelo Anthony AND IS NEW YORK, so who cares if the Knicks are trotting out ‘Melo and four guys who couldn’t shoot a usable iPhone photo let alone a basketball. (Oh right, they were. Jason Kidd had as many points against the Pacers as your Great Aunt Bethany and he played 89 more minutes than her. J.R. Smith also decided to start hitting Rihanna rather than 18-foot jumpers).

While what we’re left with may not move the needle much, the basketball itself should be excellent. The Heat and Spurs were the two best offensive teams in the league based on true shooting percentage (Oklahoma City actually was second, but Westbrook’s absence essentially renders that irrelevant) while the Pacers and Grizzlies – by nearly every metric available – were the league’s two best defensive teams.

And if Marc Gasol-Tim Duncan, Mike Conley-Tony Parker and Zach Randolph-NBA officials don’t get your interest piqued, I’m sure the real storyline in this series will. The one you won’t be able to stop hearing ESPN promote.

It’s Beale Street vs. the Riverwalk! Which tourist trail will reign supreme?

Tony Parker has an alter ego who plays for Team France. (PR Photos)

Tony Parker has an alter ego who plays for Team France. (PR Photos)

2.) San Antonio vs. 5) Memphis

What’s in the past: Well, first of all, a series between these two from two years ago that just so happened to feature the eighth-seeded Grizzlies toppling the Spurs. But we’ll get to how they match up in a moment. San Antonio got here with one cakewalk through the Lakers and then a far-tougher-than-expected six-game win over Golden State. The Spurs easily could have been down 3-1 against the Warriors, but wound up even after four games before closing out the final two the way a championship contender should. They got some fantastic individual performances from Duncan and Parker while Kawhi Leonard – if he hadn’t already – established himself as one of the league’s up-and-coming two-way stars.

Memphis dropped its first two games against the Clippers in Round 1 and has won eight of nine games since. The Grizzlies were probably the better team in all five games against Oklahoma City – only Durant’s brilliance down the stretch helped the Thunder steal Game 1 – and have, in my mind, the biggest breakout star of these playoffs east of Stephen Curry. Conley isn’t even shooting that well in the postseason – 38.5 percent overall, 28.6 from downtown – but he’s averaging four assists for every turnover and initiating an offense that’s averaging four more points than it did during the regular season. That’s something that just doesn’t happen in the playoffs. Golden State averaged 1.5 points more than it did in the regular season with the benefit of three OTs in Round 2, but every other team to reach the conference semifinals scored at a lower rate than it did during the season.

”He’s the real key to their basketball team,” Popovich said of Conley. ”Everybody just thinks about Zach and Marc, who are sufficiently wonderful as players. But Conley is very, very important to that group.”

What’s to come: The Grizzlies’ six-game stunning of the Spurs in the first round two years ago would seem to be a good barometer for this series – remember, Rudy Gay was hurt that postseason and is probably taking contested 20-footers on a playground somewhere in Toronto as you read this – as the major players for each team are still around. But Randolph owned Duncan in that series, Manu Ginobili was more of an offensive force and not the inconsistent bit player he’s become and Gasol was more “Pau Gasol’s younger brother” than “Defensive Player of the Year Marc Gasol,” “Last Gasol Standing” and “Gasol whose beard you’d want in a fight.”

Memphis and San Antonio played four times this season, two of which went into overtime and another of which was decided on a Conley layup with under a second remaining. But Sunday’s Game 1 will be the first time we’ve seen these incarnations go to battle. Gay was still around for the first three meetings, and in that 92-90 Memphis win on April 1, the Spurs played without Duncan, Leonard and Ginobili.

Memphis' Tony Allen gets advice on which San Antonio restaurant has the best fajitas from coach Lionel Hollins. (AP)

Memphis’ Tony Allen gets advice on which San Antonio restaurant has the best fajitas from coach Lionel Hollins. (AP)

Conley and Parker may decide this series, but how much they see of each other is up in the air. Parker was particularly a liability against Curry in Round 2, and while he may check Conley for stretches, Leonard will likely be on Memphis’ budding star down the stretch. For the Grizzlies, it’s an easy call. Tony Allen should be matched up with Parker on key possessions, though San Antonio will try to exploit Conley checking the bigger Danny Green or Gary Neal if that’s the case. Putting Allen on Parker would also keep him away from Ginobili, but Memphis has a seemingly perfect candidate to make sure the Argentine doesn’t go off on the offensive end in the long-armed Tayshaun Prince.

Looking inside, Memphis should have an edge if the Spurs decide to match bigs with Gasol and Randolph. How’s this for a playoff upgrade? The Grizzlies averaged 22.2 free throws in the 37 regular-season games they played after the Gay trade. In the playoffs, they’ve gotten to the line an NBA-best 31.6 times per game. Part of this is due to the fact that Memphis shoots the 3 less than anyone else in the league, but that’s still a stunning jump considering it was 16th in free-throw attempts during the season.

These teams have the two lowest turnover rates in the playoffs, and Memphis has yet to give the ball away more than 13 times in 11 postseason games. The Grizzlies were 35-9 in the regular season when they had 14 turnovers or fewer.

San Antonio’s best option, to me, is to be to play small whenever possible to force Randolph or Gasol away from the paint. That will open things up for Parker’s penetration, and someone like Matt Bonner could have a big series camping out in the corner and waiting for Parker to drive and kick. The problem, of course, is that Bonner would be a defensive liability in a wheelchair league, so that will limit Gregg Popovich’s interest in sticking him out there for long stretches. What he can do more often, though, is give Boris Diaw a significant amount of minutes. Diaw likes to spot up on the left side of the floor – he was 25 of 49 from beyond 16 feet on that side during the regular season – and unlike Bonner, can also take someone like Randolph off the dribble. He can also at least resemble something other than a matador while defending Randolph, as well.

The pick: There’s little not to like about this series from a basketball standpoint. Memphis is the more traditional, old-school team that plays from the inside out, but the emergence of Conley as more of an offensive threat and the always outstanding high post game of Gasol allow it to score at a level good enough to, along with a championship-level defense, make it very dangerous. San Antonio has more of a chameleon-like approach, as it’s happy to run up-tempo stuff with Parker and rely on long-range shooting or dump it into Duncan and Tiago Splitter and let them go to work. No result would be hard to imagine here other than this being a short series. I love what the Grizzlies have become, but still think they’re a perimeter threat better than Jerryd Bayless or Quincy Pondexter away from being a true title contender. Still, Memphis’ defense and inside game make this feel like a toss-up, but I’ll take the Spurs in 7.

The Long, Winding Road of Loving and Hating Joakim Noah

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Joakim Noah after just ordering a cheeseburger (Getty Images)

Joakim Noah after just ordering a cheeseburger. (Getty Images)

Even though it seems like it would take very little, there’s a lot of thought that goes into hating someone you’ve never met.

Maybe you’re not a fan of his appearance. Maybe it’s the body language, the unnecessary swagger. Maybe he plays for a team you just don’t like. Maybe he’s too good. Maybe he’s not good enough for the amount of attention he gets.

With Joakim Noah, it all fits.

Noah only made it to the final 8 in Grantland’s 32-player “Most Hated College Basketball Player of the Last 30 Years” bracket, but that’s hardly an accurate assessment of the level of contempt for someone who was still years away from fulfilling his potential as the city of Cleveland’s favorite tourist.

Brook Lopez's reaction to having another shot blocked by Noah. (Getty Images)

Brook Lopez’s reaction to having another shot blocked by Noah. (Getty Images)

The difference between Noah and the Christian Laettners, Tyler Hansbroughs and J.J. Redicks of the world – all of whom were also among America’s least favorite 22-year-olds – is that Noah’s history of hostility has carried over to the next level. Laettner played 13 years in the NBA but was little more than a role player after his first five. Hansbrough isn’t good enough to inspire any sort of serious loathing. Redick has become a genuinely likable guy for the way he’s faced his petulance and transformed himself from a guy who was on his way to being out of the league in three years to a valuable sixth man.

Noah hasn’t changed his persona one bit, and after watching him score 24 points, grab 14 rebounds and block a quarter of Brook Lopez’s 20 shot attempts in the Bulls’ highly impressive Game 7 win Saturday, it’s clear these next four words – ones I never thought I’d say – are true.

That’s a good thing.

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You remember the first time you saw that face. You remember being introduced to that scowl, the one with the patchy facial hair that lit up after he made a big play, causing those propeller arms to flail around in celebration.

It was easy to dismiss Noah as Florida’s energy guy at first, the big man who came in and blocked a shot or two, took a charge and occasionally swung momentum. Even when he was averaging 13 points, nearly eight rebounds, two blocks and a steal while helping the Gators win two national titles, it was hard to imagine he’d be more than a seventh or eighth man in the NBA.

Noah reacts to being told he won his money back for finishing last in his NCAA pool. (Getty Images)

Noah reacts to being told he won his money back for finishing last in his NCAA pool. (Getty Images)

Thing is, he did it with the swagger of Shaq. There was nothing Noah himself though he couldn’t do, and along with the hair and the teeth and the screaming and the winning, it was just too much. You didn’t hate those Florida teams for their dominance of college basketball as much as you hated Noah himself for his sense of seemingly undeserved entitlement. He wasn’t the engine that powered 68 wins in a two-year stretch – only one of which once the tourney began was decided by fewer than five points – but a necessary cog, the grit to complement the skill of Al Horford, Corey Brewer and Taurean Green. At least that’s what would have been convenient to believe.

I had no specific reason to root against those Florida teams other than absolute despising Noah, wanting someone – ANYONE – to pop him in the face, send him back to the bench whimpering and to make absolutely certain that brash, cocky attitude would come back to bite him in the ass.

The Bulls took him ninth overall in the 2007 draft, a night you might remember for Noah’s attempt to be cast in a belated sequel to Dumb and Dumber. That’s a title that might eventually be used for Isiah Thomas’ memoirs, as the Noah pick only became possible after the Knicks’ brilliant president of basketball operations gave it away for Eddy Curry, who refused to take a DNA test over a heart problem. That’s not the outline for Wednesday’s episode of Maury – it’s true.

Noah asks David Stern if he'd prefer to be Harry or Lloyd in Dumb and Dumber II. (NBA.com)

Noah asks David Stern if he’d prefer to be Harry or Lloyd in Dumb and Dumber II. (NBA.com)

It wasn’t a popular pick at the time. Chicago Tribune columnist Rick Morrissey didn’t have kind things to say – he would have preferred a guy who’s currently playing in Israel – and after one season, he seemed to be justified. The Bulls went from a 49-33 team that made it to the second round of the playoffs to a 33-49 team that got Scott Skiles fired along the way. Noah was benched thanks to a unanimous vote BY HIS TEAMMATES after he confronted an assistant coach in practice. He was late to practice numerous times and at season’s end was arrested in Gainesville on a charge of – hold your shock to the end of the sentence – possession of marijuana.

As a Cavaliers fan, I now had a vested interest in hating Noah, who was nothing more than a pest at the time Cleveland and Chicago met in the first round of the 2010 playoffs. That Bulls team had no business hanging with LeBron in a playoff series, but that wasn’t for a lack of effort from Noah, who after getting his digs in at vacationing in Northeast Ohio averaged 15 points and 13 rebounds. It was clear that Noah was becoming something more than a role player, a defensive force who learned enough of a mid-range game to be effective at more than just getting putbacks on the offensive end.

This season, with Derrick Rose out and no point guard he trusted enough to consistently initiate the offense, Tom Thibodeau often funneled things through Noah. Always an underrated passer, Noah was the only player in the NBA in 2012-13 to average 11 points, 11 rebounds, 4 assists and 2 blocks. He’s one of only three players to hit those marks since 1980, with Chris Webber and Kevin Garnett the others.

He made his first All-Star game and finished fourth in the Defensive Player of the Year voting, but Noah was hardly a different guy. He still got ejected for getting into it with Tyson Chandler in a December game against the Knicks and called out Garnett for being a cheap-shot artist a month later.

“He’s a dirty player, man,” Noah said of Garnett. “He’s a dirty player. That’s messed up, man … I’m hurting right now because of an elbow he threw. It’s unbelievable. He’s a dirty player. It’s one thing to be competitive and compete and all that, but don’t be a dirty player. He’s a dirty player.”

Noah’s maturity had to change but the edge could never leave. His drive to win certainly didn’t. The Bulls have been inflicted with everything short of the Ebola virus in the past month and could have packed in this season long ago. No one would have blamed them. There’s a reason Derrick Rose isn’t coming back until training camp, and it’s that Chicago doesn’t have a roster good enough to win an NBA title.

Just don’t tell Noah that. He’s been battling plantar fasciitis since February for what seems like the 347th time in his career (I’ve had it. You can’t walk) and was barely able to move in the first three games of the Bulls’ first-round series with Brooklyn. His team lost games 5 and 6 after that stunning triple-overtime win, Luol Deng had a spinal tap, Kirk Hinrich had the calf of an 85-year-old and there was one more chance for the Bulls to cash in their chips and look forward to 2013-14.

Noah tries to follow the Dunkin' Donuts race on the scoreboard at the United Center. (Getty Images)

Noah tries to follow the Dunkin’ Donuts race on the scoreboard at the United Center. (Getty Images)

Noah wouldn’t let it happen, playing the best game of his NBA career on the road in Game 7. Four blocks in the third when the Nets were starting to come back, eight rebounds in the fourth when the Bulls were trying to hang on. For a man whose mobility was so limited that he lost a crucial jump ball to Deron Williams in Game 6, it was as impressive a performance as it gets.

I don’t hate Joakim Noah any more. Maybe some of that has to do with the fact that he’s gone from being Billy Donovan’s most pompous brat on a team that never lost to an underdog on a team no one’s given a chance to win. The Rose-less Bulls have no business giving Miami a series – losing in five sounds about right (Spurs over Warriors in 5 as well) – but it won’t feel like a short series to the Heat. They’ll work for every shot, earn every point and get punished on every ball screen and box out.

At some point in the series, Noah will make a tide-turning block on Dwyane Wade or score and draw a foul on Chris Bosh. He’ll hoot. He’ll holler. He’ll scream and preen and act like he just won an NBA title.

It might make you roll your eyes and shake your head, but I’ll just laugh.

He’s earned it.

Coming Out of the Shadows

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Jason Collins (USA Today)

Jason Collins (USA Today)

The first active player in a major American professional sports league to come out was never going to be a Bryce Harper, Aaron Rodgers, Kevin Durant or Sidney Crosby. It was never going to be an athlete who had so much invested in his career, a perennial superstar who was either at the beginning or peak of his powers.

It was always going to be someone like Jason Collins. And for now, that’s perfectly fine.

Collins is the courageous individual who on Monday announced to the world that he’s gay, following in the footsteps of the likes of Billie Jean King, Martina Navratilova, John Amaechi, Greg Louganis and more recently Seimone Augustus, Robbie Rogers and Brittney Griner. The circumstances aren’t quite the same, though. King, Navratilova and Louganis were participating in individual sports and didn’t have to worry about any friction between teammates, which particularly would have been relevant considering all three announced their sexuality in the much less tolerant and more turbulent 1980s. Augustus and Griner, while stars in the game of women’s basketball, can take solace in the fact that the WNBA has openly embraced a fan base that includes a large percentage of homosexuals. Amaechi’s announcement came four years after he retired and Rogers’ was a part-retirement, part-coming-out blog post earlier this year – though he’s since thought of returning to soccer.

Brittney Griner (Getty Images)

Brittney Griner (Getty Images)

Collins is a relative nobody in NBA circles. I consider myself someone who follows the league as close as anyone and had zero clue that he played 32 games for Boston this season before being traded to Washington in late February. He’s played more than 14,000 minutes in his career. Of the other 677 players who can say that, only one – Charles Jones – has scored fewer points. Collins spent 383 minutes on the floor this season and took 29 shots. Carmelo Anthony has attempted that many per game in about one-tenth the playing time so far in the playoffs.

But Monday’s announcement wasn’t about points, blocks or rebounds. It was about stepping forward to be a trail blazer for others. Collins is 34, has made more than $32 million dollars for being a nearly 7-foot tall foul machine who is capable of setting a good pick, is secure financially and can finally be secure personally. He’s a free agent this summer who won’t cry foul if he’s not offered a contract. If he isn’t, it’s because talent evaluators don’t think he can be one of the 12 best players on an NBA team, not because he’s gay.

“I’ve never sought the spotlight. Though I’m coming out to the world, I intend to guard my privacy. I’m making this blanket statement in part to keep rumors and misunderstandings at bay. I hope fans will respect me for raising my hand. And I hope teammates will remember that I’ve never been an in-your-face kind of guy. All you need to know is that I’m single. I see no need to delve into specifics.” – Jason Collins in Sports Illustrated, 4/29/13

The thought here is that he’ll wind up on someone’s bench for one more season, coming in occasionally to grab a key rebound or foul Dwight Howard six times. He’ll be the same good teammate that he’s always been and be an eloquent advocate for gay rights, not a sideshow who is more of a media distraction than his talent warrants (“see Tebow, Timothy”).

Collins didn’t open the door to more tolerance and understanding of homosexuality in professional sports today. It was already cracked thanks to the names who bravely spoke up before him, but he gave it an awfully noticeable nudge. Someday, not long from now, an athlete with a bit more talent who’s in the prime of his career will make the same announcement. After that, a star rookie or second-year player will do the same.

Eventually, a team will draft a player knowing he’s openly gay. Except you won’t hear about it, because by then it will matter just as little as what color suit he’s wearing on his way to shake the commissioner’s hand.

Then, we’ll know that Collins didn’t just keep opening the door.

He broke it down.