A condensed season draws to a close taking stars in its wake and with open speculation fueled by fans, pundits, viewership, and ticket sales alike whether the way forward is a shortened version of the 82 game season. Ricky Rubio, Kevin Love, and Dwight Howard were out by mid to end season while Dwyane Wade and Chris Paul carry serious knocks into the postseason . The first day of the playoffs saw reigning MVP Derrick Rose and rising rookie Iman Shumpert out with torn ACLs. Were the back to back (and back, on some stretches) games dictated by a lockout-clipped schedule to blame? Rip Hamilton of the Bulls thinks so, and so do multiple General Managers, if Mike Wilbon is to be believed.
Shaq on TNT last Thursday referred to the 1st round Hawks-Celtics matchup as the 300 series. The last stand of Sparta is a wonderful allegory for the final push for the geriatric trio of Garnett-Allen-Pierce, but somehow it didn’t sit well with me. A CGI-heavy, bring your script to the shooting production, doesn’t do justice to the drama that the match-up portends. So what would a better analogue be? The following is an attempt at matching the storylines of each playoff series with a well known movie. In attempt to make it identifiable, I stuck to the famed (or despised depending on if you are a movie snob who believes that categorizing movies makes no sense, or the general public has no taste) IMDB 250. The title leads the picks, but like a pesky axiom is necessary but not sufficient to revealed preference. In lieu of predictions, we present a cinematic tribute to the playoffs:
The catchy ’40 games in 40 nights’ tag would lead you to the obvious ’40 days and 40 nights’, as it no doubt led some hot shot backroom exec at TNT who must still be in the halls in power, since the math makes no sense. But that would be generic, much like the movie. First round of the 2012 NBA playoffs would be represented best by The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Nothing could be more characteristic than day one, when a Durant buzzer beater, a Mavs-Thunder game filled with brilliant plays all round, a Magic team coming together in the face of adversity was mixed with a severely underwhelming Knicks performance, and expected 76ers mediocrity. Add to that the ugliness of the injuries to Rose and Shumpert, and a hard pick by Tyson Chandler that had the presumptive league MVP, LeBron James, playacting his way to a Drogba-esque flop. Consider day two continuing on the theme: a historic comeback by Clippers, seamless execution by a deep Spurs team, a block party by Andrew Bynum, mixed with lackluster Celts typified by Garnett showing his age, Ty Lawson disappearing for the Nuggets and the added ugliness of a Rondo bump on the referee followed by a deserved expulsion, as also the fracture on Caron Butler’s hand that has him out of the playoffs.
Much like the western, where Blondie triumphs over Tuco, we can expect better displays from a talented but young, and inexperienced Nuggets team, and the Knicks would surely bounce back whatever the final outcome of the series. Rondo’s suspension would see Avery Bradley in the role, who has quite the story himself, and while the Knicks would badly miss Shumpert’s defense, it seems likely that Jeremy Lin would be back for game four. C. J. Watson and John Lucas have been better than good as backups, and a Rose exit might mean goodbye to the Championship, but a deep run may still be on the cards for a Bulls team that went 18-9 without their marquee player.
Bulls (1) vs 76ers (8)
‘Horror… Horror has a face’, and for the city of Chicago it was their talismanic point guard laying on the floor after a torn ACL. It would be hyperbolic to call it the ‘Nam of sports decisions, but the local and national radio is full with questions about why coach Thibodeau kept injury prone Rose on the court with less than two minutes to play and a twelve point lead. Of course he has done that through the season, and there were two games in the regular season against Houston and Washington where the Bulls lost despite big fourth quarter leads that would justify a full press. Despair knows not rationality. For the nay sayers, the coach’s decision was ‘..out there operating without any decent restraint, totally beyond the pale of any acceptable human conduct.’
The ’76ers are possibly the worst team to have made the playoffs going 16-22 in their last 38 with 20 point losses to Raptors, Wizards, and Magic. Even without Rose, Watson and Lucas should be sufficient for a comfortable series win, where if they meet the Celtics there would be no love lost. Both teams would go all out to ‘terminate with extreme prejudice’ the other’s hopes of a championship.
Heat (2) vs Knicks (7)
The Carmelo Anthony-LeBron James rivalry extends back to high school. Carmelo won a college championship with Syracuse, and guided Denver to the playoffs in his rookie season and has led the league in scoring since the All-Star game. He feels that respect for his skills has not been forthcoming from pundits and fans, and would love to upstage the chosen one. LeBron, like the ruthless oil-man Plainview in some fan’s eyes, is focused on getting a ring and (in?)famously jumped ship to Miami to create a super team with Wade and Bosh. The Knick-Heat rivalry has a fierce history. Chandler’s hard pick on LeBron in game one showed a glimpse of things to come. What is certain is that if Pat Riley the healer’s assembly of stars doesn’t win the championship this year, there is bound to be chopping and changing of the squad.
If either Durant or Kobe lifts the trophy this year, the sentiment in the line, ‘You’re not the chosen brother, Eli. It was Paul who was chosen.’ would be shared by quite a few.
Pacers (3) vs Magic (6)
The bizarre drama surrounding the impending departure of star center Dwight Howard has enshrined the whole city and franchise and has fans all over scratching their head. Statistics would tell you that the Magic team is much worse off without Howard. Team chemistry is a different ball game. It seems to outsiders that Jameer Nelson and company really want to prove that the Magic success is not All About Dwight (an alternative possibility for this series was All About Eve). So a matchup that analysts have written off saw a surprise Magic win and compelling performances by Nelson, Richardson, and Davis. The playoff inexperience of a Pacers team that outperformed expectations in the regular season cost them dear when Danny Granger turned the ball over with a travel violation on the last possession.
However it may end, and the escape of Howard seems all but done at this point, the series will make for a better viewing than previously thought. Is the escape of the Magic team itself to the next round, against odds, also on the cards? Like the movie, the ending may be anti-climactic, but the drama is not to be missed.
Hawks (4) vs Celtics (5)
Starring commissioner David Stern as sheriff Bell bemoaning the lawlessness of the land, Rondo as the hitman Chigurh who is dispassionate about his team affiliation, but extremely passionate about getting the job done, and the entire Hawks team led by Joe Johnson and Josh Smith as Moss who lucked into the treasure of an injured and ageing squad at its most depleted. Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett are carrying massive knocks, with Allen not even playing the first, and KG showing signs of a 17 year career towards its end. It’s going to be an ugly chippy series, as jump shot happy teams clank rims. It will be a bit like 2008 when the two met in the first round on the way to a Celtics championship ride, but with the shoe on the other foot. The movie concludes in a dream with two endings, much like the suspension of Rondo has analysts revising their initial pick of Celts going through easy. This series will be a classic study in the limits to veteran advantage. ‘… age will flatten a man‘, said Bell. To what extent, is the question.
Spurs (1) vs Jazz (8)
It is one heck of a story in the west, where virtually no one saw an ageing Spurs getting the number one seed. The core of Parker-Duncan-Ginobili is completed by the unlikely role play of Stephen Jackson and Boris Diaw. If Sweetwater is the Western Conference Finals, then coach Popovich in his role as the enigmatic Harmonica is all set on preventing scheming Mortons who think the Spurs are vulnerable because of the mileage the squad has seen. Pop has prepped in his own way for the playoffs, listing Duncan as “DND – old” on a game sheet in mid-season, and, with the number one seed locked up, going as far as putting his core trio on a plane to San Antonio before a road game at Phoenix, so that they are amply rested for the big push.
Spurs lost to the big frontline of Memphis last year, in one of those rare occasions where a number one lost to a number eight, and in some ways he sees the bigs of Millsap, Jeffesron, and Favors as a version of that team. Not this time. Harmonica may still blow the last tune mid June.
Thunder (2) vs Mavericks (7)
On the Dan Patrick Show, on the eve of the first game, this is what Thunder coach Scott Brooks had to say, ‘…I didn’t get much sleep last night thinking about all the things Dirk did to us last season…’. He then went on to describe how difficult it was to guard Dirk when he made shots off balance or off the wrong foot. Kevin Durant is just won his third scoring title in succession, and the team trio of Durant-Westbrook-(Harden+Ibaka, one by halves) may not be as celebrated as James-Wade-Bosh, Garnett-Pierce-Allen or Duncan-Parker-Ginobili, but is as lethal as any of them. Kidd-Terry-Marion make for a good supporting cast to Dirk, though the affect of the loss of Chandler to the Knicks and Berea to the Timberwolves is apparent.
Thunder has the hometown roll to thank for in game one, and Dallas is almost as tough a matchup for them this year as last season’s conference finals. Who will be the John McClane of the story this year? Don’t just go by Hans Gruber being German.
Lakers (3) vs Nuggets (6)
‘Why is your shooting percentage the second lowest of your career?’, asked an inquiring reporter. Pat came the answer from an unfazed Kobe, ‘Old age’. Kobe sat himself down for the last game with the possibility of a scoring title within reach. In his mind all that matters to his legacy is a sixth ring to bring him on par with Jordan. Everything else is filler. While the first game had the Bynum triple double with ten blocks by the talented young center, Kobe quietly dropped 31, putting up a clinic in the second half after Afflao had kept him quiet for the first. He is the Raging Bull (considered an alternate, but dropped as there are no questions about the clarity of Kobe’s thoughts), he is Munny assisted by Kid (Bynum), and Logan (Gasol since Fisher was traded), on a mission that could well be the final chapter of his storied career with the West growing stronger and the younger teams gaining traction every year. After the inglorious sweep by the Mavericks last season, some of the shooting displays that made him a cold-blooded killer in seasons past are back for us to appreciate. Denver with its young lineup of Affalo-Lawson-Gallinari and ‘the manimal’ Faried, who was in some lists for Rookie of the Year, are just unlucky in their pick of the draw.
In the end if Kobe lifts the trophy and we have some players, fans or analysts whingeing about how there were more deserving winners, he can just smile and say, ‘Deserve’s got nothin’ to do with it.’
Grizzlies (4) vs Clippers (5)
‘Who’s afraid of living life without illusions?’ Put in another way which team is afraid of playing basketball with no regards to hype? Grizzlies have gathered a fan following after knocking out the Spurs as an eight seed, and the Clippers have been termed Lob City after Chris Paul landed on their roster to team up with Blake Griffin for alley-oops and in making LA a city with a viable second basketball option in a long time. In one season, Grizzlies have risen from the eighth to the fourth seed and Marc Gasol named an All Star, while Clippers won their first playoff game in six years on Sunday in a historic comeback from 27 points down with coach Del Negro all but ready to pull his starters from the game.
It is arguably the most closely contested of all playoff matchups in the first round. Who will give in to the chatter? Who will say, at the end, the basketball equivalent of ,‘I am, George, I am.’