Friday, April 29, 2011
Posted: 10:04 a.m.
By Aggrey Sam
And then there was one--first-round series, that is. In addition to Atlanta, the Bulls' second-round opponent, two other teams advanced Thursday night, leaving just Memphis and San Antonio as the lone ongoing opening-round matchup.
Although no series went to seven games--and none will, if the Grizzlies close out the Spurs at "The Grind House" (as Grizzlies guard Tony Allen has dubbed Memphis' Fed Ex Forum) Friday evening--this spring's edition of the playoffs has been among the most exciting in years. Only one team, Boston, swept its opponent (New York, which was missed both All-Star Amar'e Stoudemire and point guard Chauncey Billups for much of the series) and even in that instance, the Knicks gave the Celtics a battle half of the time.
READ: Second round matchup with Hawks favors Bulls
Upstart teams rose to the occasion--Indiana tested Chicago's mettle, Atlanta upset Orlando, Philadelphia refused to bow down to Miami, New Orleans stole two games from the defending champion Lakers, Portland threw a scare into Dallas, Denver didn't make it easy for Oklahoma City and Memphis is on the verge of shocking San Antonio--everywhere and even though the favored teams have mostly held serve, nobody appears to be invulnerable.
Adding to the fun is the possibility of a changing of the guard, with youth-driven teams in the Windy City and elsewhere (specifically Oklahoma City) having a clear path to the conference finals, something NBA conspiracy theorists probably love. That said, neither Derrick Rose nor Kevin Durant will have valet service on their way to their potential first NBA Finals trips, not with the old guard--the Lakers and Mavericks in the West, Miami and Boston in the East--looking to stand in their way after getting through much more obtrusive roadblocks.
Regardless of whether they face an underdog Memphis team or an aging San Antonio squad, the young Thunder should advance in no more than six games. As for the other conference semifinal matchups, expect the experience and team-oriented style of the Celtics to get them by the still-individualistic Heat in a hotly-contested, seven game slugfest, while the Lakers should make one more stand in Phil Jackson's final season coaching and rely on a rejuvenated Kobe Bryant--who, in turn, seemed to pass on that energy to his teammates in the process of dispatching Chris Paul's pesky Hornets--and their frontcourt dominance to beat Dirk Nowitzki's flawed Mavericks in six games.
Coaching carousel begins its ride
Always running concurrently with the playoffs is the start of the NBA's annual coaching carousel. The first organizations to make move this spring were Houston and Golden State, which parted ways with under-appreciated veteran Rick Adelman and rookie head coach Keith Smart, respectively.
READ: NBA releases Bulls vs. Hawks schedule
Adelman's ouster might not have been a surprise, but it seemed to come as a jolt to his players, who understood the incredible job he did with short-handed rosters that were without injured superstar center Yao Ming most of the time. Smart, on the other hand, was put in a tough position by being given the head job by the Warriors' new ownership group just before training camp; the longtime Don Nelson assistant couldn't be expected to change the team's culture in one season, but while free-agent signee Dorell Wright blossomed under his watch, their marquee acquisition David Lee was a mild disappointment and second-year star Stephen Curry appeared to regress.
One situation that bears watching is Indiana, where 37-year-old Frank Vogel took over for the deposed Jim O'Brien on an interim basis mid-year and not only led the Pacers to the playoffs, but adjusted the young team's approach and actually gave the Bulls a run for their money in four of the five games in the first-round series. Vogel is enthusiastic, a bit brash and somebody who inspires his team, which genuinely seemed to like playing for him.
If Larry Bird returns as the franchise's top executive, expect Vogel to also stay put, although Bird indicated he'd also interview other candidates for the opening. Indiana's youth and potential are obvious, and with the cap space the Pacers have, bringing in power forward that can score on the low block and a perimeter scorer to complement Danny Granger--a deal they almost made at the trade deadline would have brought them Grizzlies shooting guard O.J. Mayo--could elevate them in the Eastern Conference pecking order.
FOLLOW: Aggrey Sam on Twitter
While speculation about other openings--outside of the aforementioned Lakers, where Bryant has already offered his support for longtime assistant Brian Shaw to take over for the departing Jackson--would be unfair at this point, former NBA head coaches Mike Brown, Mike Woodson and Kevin McHale are hot names, as are a litany of current assistant coaches, such as Boston's Lawrence Frank and San Antonio's Mike Budzenholzer.
Draft season also shaping up
With the deadline for underclassmen to enter June's NBA Draft--players who didn't sign with agents have until May 8 to return to school--recently passing, it's clear that many collegiate stars are taking advantage of the upcoming multi-team mega-workout to be held in New Jersey. Sixty-nine underclassmen declared for the draft this year, with the usual anonymous names dotting the list alongside potential lottery picks like Duke point guard Kyrie Irving, Arizona forward Derrick Williams and Connecticut star Kemba Walker.
However, the list of entrants might be more notable for the names not on it, such as the freshman trio of North Carolina's Harrison Barnes, Ohio State's Jared Sullinger and Baylor's Perry Jones, all of whom were projected to be top picks, but opted to return to college. While some of those decisions were primarily motivated by the potential of team success--in Jones' case, it was surprisingly about improvement, something more shocking considering the NCAA-mandated suspension he faces at the beginning of next season for receiving improper benefits--the chance of an NBA lockout also likely played a role, as a truncated rookie campaign would be detrimental to player's development.
Having seen the three aforementioned prospects--and the majority of the other players on the early-entry list--develop from the time they were prep phenoms, their decision is commendable, although a perceived strong 2012 draft class might push some players to strike while the iron is hot. Still, even in what's being panned as a weak crop of incoming rookies for next season, there is a lot of underwhelming talent looking to make the leap and even if selected in the first round, some may never make an impact in the league due to lack of preparedness.
Artest wins league's citizenship award
Lastly, Lakers forward Ron Artest won the NBA's annual Walter J. Kennedy Citizenship Award, voted on by the Professional Basketball Writers Association, for his efforts in the field of mental; health. The former Bulls draft pick, who famously thanked his therapist after the Lakers won last season's NBA Finals, is one of the league's great turnaround stories, going from a pariah after various antics--well, the antics are still there, but in a non-destructive fashion--and more importantly, his role in the infamous "Malice in the Palace," to a media darling and fan favorite.