Proximity sparks modern playoff rivalries

April, 18, 2014
Apr 18
4:13
PM ET
Adande By J.A. Adande
ESPN.com
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If you can't wait for the Los Angeles Clippers-Golden State Warriors series to begin, if watching the "Bad Boys" 30 for 30 documentary made you all nostalgic for back-in-the-day rivalries, you'd better hope the NBA keeps the conference playoff format.

This year's West-East disparity has people rushing to their keyboards to scrap the geographic divide and simply take the teams with the 16 best records, regardless of their location. That way everybody's favorite lottery-bound team, the Phoenix Suns, would have a place in the postseason party instead of a seat in Secaucus. The sub-.500 Atlanta Hawks could stay home.

But you know what else would NOT happen in the first round under that scenario? Clippers-Warriors, the series even players and coaches on other teams are talking about with anticipation. This is the matchup that generated nine technical fouls, two ejections and one flagrant foul during four regular-season meetings. It's the series that Clippers forward Matt Barnes said will include "some hostility and animosity and hatred."

If you took the top 16 teams, you'd have the Clippers against the Washington Wizards. Where's the history there? (Ummmm... one-time Clippers draft pick Danny Ferry is the son of former Washington general manager Bob Ferry?)

[+] EnlargeBlake Griffin and Andrew Bogut
Kelley L Cox/USA TODAY SportsThe Clippers and Warriors have met eight times over the last two years, sparking a heated rivalry.
Proximity, as much as familiarity, breeds contempt. That's why divisions and conferences haven't completely outlived their usefulness. Even though this is the first playoff meeting between the Clippers and Warriors, they've had eight contentious regular-season games the past two years. There have been hard fouls, outright mocking from the sidelines, turf battles and stare-downs. It's as much a part of this series as the superstar point guard matchup between Chris Paul and Stephen Curry.

"I'm not sure you can leave the emotions behind," Blake Griffin said. "I think both teams need that, to a certain extent. You can't be too emotional to where it's affecting your play, but you've got to play with some emotion. You can't take that out of the game."

And thanks to this playoff format, you can't make it easier for these teams to hide on opposite sides of the bracket.

Conference playoff formats played a huge role in the Detroit Pistons rivalries in the "Bad Boys" documentary, too. The most amazing statistic in the film was the 24 games the Pistons and Boston Celtics played in two seasons, thanks to two lengthy playoff series and 11 regular-season meetings back when there were only 23 teams to fill out the 82-game schedule.

Of course, the most memorable part was the footage of the hard punishment inflicted by (and against) the Bad Boys, with such little punishment from the officials and the league.

"It was incredible," Barnes said. "It was physical -- the stuff they did to [Michael] Jordan and [Larry] Bird.

"It was just physical basketball. They may have even tried to hurt each other back then. You kind of just wish that the game [today] could be a little more physical.

"If I did some of those fouls last night that I saw, I'd have to find a new job. Take my kids out of private school, cut my wife's allowance. We'd be in trouble."

What the documentary didn't show was the real aftermath of the Bad Boys, who showed that superior talent could be taken out by rough play. The New York Knicks took it from there, and by the mid-'90s some of the grace of the sport was lost. When Jordan took his sabbatical from 1993-1995, what was left was a league of slower play and lower scores.

Clippers-Warriors gives us a modern-day remix of the old rivalries. It's ornery, but artistic. There will be elbows at close range, but also long distance shots by Curry and Klay Thompson. There will be trash talk, but also high-flying jams by Griffin and DeAndre Jordan.

The primary common link to Pistons-Celtics or Pistons-Bulls? The conference playoff format made their meeting much more likely.

NBA to players and refs: Watch out for heads

April, 18, 2014
Apr 18
3:35
PM ET
Abbott By Henry Abbott
ESPN.com
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The NBA distributed a video starring Vice President of Referee Operations Joe Borgia discussing the league's "points of emphasis" for the 2014 playoffs.

Things get pretty serious at about 13 minutes in, when Borgia says "we noticed this season there was a lot more contact to opponents' heads ... this is a very dangerous situation." Then Borgia rolls a clip of a game broadcast in which Hubie Brown expresses dismay at the number of defenders going for the head and neck.

To my eyes, over the last few years defenders do seem to be using blows to the head as a fairly common tactic to prevent layups, even at the exact moment in history medical science and the league itself are putting new emphasis on preventing such dangerous plays.

Basketball doesn't have football's reputation for head injuries, but it does have a certain rate of concussion and head injuries, many of which, by virtue of the fact that they come on intentional fouls to prevent layups, could presumably be prevented.

The challenge facing the Heat's D

April, 18, 2014
Apr 18
12:35
PM ET
Abbott By Henry Abbott
ESPN.com
Archive
If the Heat are going to win a third straight title, it'll require a lot more offense on defense than they showed in the regular season, explains Tom Penn in Penn Station.
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TrueHoop TV Live

April, 18, 2014
Apr 18
11:41
AM ET
Join the chatter on playoff eve, starting at 2 p.m. ET.

Heat check-out line

April, 18, 2014
Apr 18
10:52
AM ET
Serrano By Shea Serrano
ESPN.com
Archive
Writer and illustrator Shea Serrano and his collaborator, Sean Mack, put their spin on the NBA.
Heat CartoonShea Serrano and Sean Mack
Previously: Indy's horror show »

Weird, wild stuff

April, 18, 2014
Apr 18
10:42
AM ET
By Devin Kharpertian
Special to ESPN.com
Archive
Jason Kidd, Deron WilliamsAP Photo/Bill KostrounThe Nets sketched a high-priced blueprint for success. But they didn't get good until things got weird.
The Nets sit right in the middle of Brooklyn’s tangled identities. They play in Barclays Center, an arena plopped in the middle of downtown Brooklyn and built within the last decade. Look north of Barclays Center and you’ll see a smattering of the borough’s few skyscrapers and luxury high-rises; walk two blocks south and you’ll be smack-dab in traditional brownstone country, where original and transplanted locals alike fuel the borough’s neighborhood vibe.

“We’re In,” the Brooklyn Nets’ preseason slogan boasted, affirming the team was both all-in on its quest to win a championship and in Brooklyn for good. Now, the playoff slogan is “For Brooklyn,” demonstrating the team’s “pride” in its home borough, and the Nets' desire to win for their city. It’s a tough sell, since the team still practices and has its primary offices in New Jersey, and not one player on the roster actually lives in Brooklyn.

Nevertheless, the team assured us that Brooklyn meant “uncompromising confidence.” On the heels of last season’s first-round playoff loss when the team openly bemoaned a lack of “toughness,” the Nets traded for Hall of Famers Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce. They had five All-Stars and future Hall of Famers in a strict, positional lineup flush with veterans. They assembled an all-star cast of assistant coaches, led by Lawrence Frank, to sell Jason Kidd as a head coach.

But Brooklyn is at its best when it’s not a city, and the Nets are a brand that’s best when they’re not a brand. In a down-and-up season, things worked out best for Brooklyn when the Nets bucked convention and went quirky, chipped away at their shiny, new shield and got weird.

When All-Star center Brook Lopez went down for the season with a right foot injury, Kidd ultimately chose 6-foot-7 point guard Shaun Livingston to replace him, playing two point guards and pushing career small forward Pierce to power forward. The change put a backup on a minimum salary in a rare spotlight, pushed a Hall of Famer with 15 years at one position to a brand new role and turned the Nets into a versatile “long-ball” team, firing 3-pointers at a higher clip and forcing more turnovers than any team in the league.

This season, the Nets went 10-21 in 2013 and 34-17 in 2014, losing only four of their past five games as Livingston sat with a toe injury. It seems crazy that the team played its best after losing its best player, but that’s exactly what happened when the Nets adapted.

On a bench praised for veteran presence, it was rookie Mason Plumlee, who was supposed to spend the season in the D-League, who made the most waves, earning a rotation spot over veterans Andray Blatche and Reggie Evans. The 24-year-old even started 19 games when Garnett went down with a back injury.

The Nets buried and eventually traded Evans, a reckless rebounder who started a career-high 56 games and all seven playoff games under P.J. Carlesimo last season. They subsequently became one of the league’s worst rebounding teams ... and kept winning games nonetheless. Blatche, who played a key role in the Nets’ first-round series against the Chicago Bulls last season and was the team’s no-doubt first big man off the bench, may not even have a role in this year’s playoffs.

[+] EnlargePaul Pierce
AP Photo/Jason DeCrowPaul Pierce, stretch-4! A nontraditional lineup in the new year dug the Nets out of an early-season hole.
The Nets played their best offense with the energetic Plumlee throwing down alley-oops, scoring 113.7 points per 100 possessions in the 284 minutes he played with the other four starters. The rookie provided perhaps the highlight of the season, denying four-time MVP LeBron James at the rim on a potential game-winning dunk in Miami to help the Nets complete their season sweep of the two-time NBA champions. Plumlee, the 22nd overall pick in last year’s draft, leads qualifying NBA rookies in player efficiency rating (PER) and has started more games than any other rookie on a playoff team.

No one on the team came to eccentricity more naturally than Kidd, the rookie coach learning on the job. He made his first splash on the court in the rare literal sense, commanding second-year guard Tyshawn Taylor to “hit me,” which knocked his drink to the floor and gave the Nets a bonus timeout. He coldly dismissed Frank after one too many disputes, deciding he didn’t need the planned route to build a winning team. He stopped wearing ties. He stopped shaving. He stopped trying to prove he deserved a spot as an NBA coach, using blasé clichés as passive weapons in news conferences. He won two Eastern Conference Coach of the Month awards in the last four months thanks to his team’s newfound energy and two-way punch. All because things didn’t go as planned.

The Nets have undergone the most successful reimagining of a sports franchise ever in two seasons, evolving from the afterthought laughingstock of the Eastern Conference to a lavish “brand,” an unflappable cultural cachet that goes beyond the court and infiltrates music, fashion and business. They’re a symbol of Brooklyn’s Manhattanization, with a record-breaking $190 million spending spree to fill their roster and enough sponsors to fill every second of their home games, while still taking time to honor Brooklyn’s history and heroes.

They sold themselves on their hype, on the promise of greatness because of their giants. Except the Nets, in typical Brooklyn weirdness, were at their best only after outside circumstances knocked them out of their failing made-for-TV box and forced them to explore unconventional, creative solutions.

Devin Kharpertian is the managing editor and founding partner at The Brooklyn Game. Follow him, @uuords.

Kings of the north

April, 18, 2014
Apr 18
10:00
AM ET
By Seerat Sohi
Special to ESPN.com
Archive
Amir JohnsonDave Sandford/NBAE/Getty ImagesAfter nearly two decades of indifference, Canada is finally starting to embrace the Toronto Raptors.
There’s a Montana’s located about five minutes from my place in Edmonton. It’s a homely Sunday afternoon joint, the kind of place that usually broadcasts four different hockey games at once. Mid-March deviation from the NHL is never anything more than an empty nod to the the NCAA, so finding a booth to the tune of Raptors vs. Nets in the background was a signal I took with cautious optimism: The tide of Canada’s sports culture may be turning.

The Toronto Raptors have attempted to sweep the nation before, to varied success. Alternate road jerseys tacked with maple leafs and the moniker “Canada’s team” can take an organization only so far; certainly not the 3,000-kilometer gap between Toronto and Vancouver. It’s especially tough in Canada, where the zenith of sporting and patriotic fervor elicits images of Terry Fox, Wayne Gretzky and Sidney Crosby’s famed Olympic goal.

Without a strong philosophy or a winning team, the Raptors have constantly lacked a force for fans to hitch their wagon to. The Vince Carter era is underscored more by his leaving Canada than it is his tenure in it. Chris Bosh didn’t think he could get NBA League Pass north of the border (he could). In their 19 years, the Raptors never eclipsed 47 wins. Since marketing themselves as Canada’s team in the 2008 offseason, they haven’t even made a playoff appearance.

Canadian NBA devotees outside of Toronto share a certain degree of passion for the Raptors but align themselves with a separate cause: LeBron vs. Durant, Boston vs. Los Angeles, Steve Nash vs. universe.

The Raptors don’t have the benefit of history. It’s easier for Lakers fans to swallow Kobe Bryant’s freshly penned albatross when viewed through a veneer of certainty, but Raptors fans have never been able to reference the team’s greatest hits album and think, “Yeah, we’ll trust you guys.” The smart money tells them to invest their emotions in a less precarious place.

The Raptors’ identity has always been “the Canadian team,” but like most forms of Canadian identity, no one really knows what that entails. But there are benefits to not having any preordained expectations to live up to.

Raptors GM Masai Ujiri, one of the smartest basketball minds on the planet, has creative authority in an organization that is a blank whiteboard. On Dec. 6, with the Raptors looking at a 6-12 record after five straight losses, Ujiri traded Rudy Gay, the high-priced star wing brought in before last season’s trade deadline by the previous regime. The seven-player deal netted the Raptors Patrick Patterson, Greivis Vasquez, Chuck Hayes, John Salmons and a chunk of savings.

Since the trade, the Raptors have evolved. They’re more than just that team north of the border. Rather, one of the most dangerous teams in the Eastern Conference, outscoring opponents by 4.8 points per 100 possessions, sixth in the league since Dec. 8. DeMar Derozan is a candidate for most improved player, Kyle Lowry is having a career season. While Tyler Hansbrough’s tenacity appeals to the conservative hard-hat West, Toronto waxes poetic on DeRozan’s silky smooth post repertoire. Now, if only they retained Mickaël Piétrus. …

[+] EnlargeBanners
John E. Sokolowski/USA TODAY SportsThere isn't much good NBA history in Toronto. But these Raptors are using that to their advantage.
The Raptors’ offense is simple, yet not unlike the San Antonio Spurs', the wrinkles make it effective. It’s hard for opponents to stymie pick-and-rolls when Amir Johnson is so adept at slipping screens; or maybe it’s Patrick Patterson and Tyler Hansbrough discretely floating into open space. Vasquez delivers pick-and-roll passes like it’s pizza for Hedo Turkoglu. DeRozan has transitioned from an abysmal passer to one who’s slightly above average, taking whatever the defense throws at him in stride -- be it in the form of a 30-point barrage or a cerebral read-and-react outing. While other squads would develop complicated tactical maneuvers for the various types of coverage DeRozan is prone to seeing now, the Raptors rest their laurels on just knowing where to be. It has paid off. The Raptors’ offensive rating has gradually increased with their chemistry, peaking at 112 in April.

Toronto is bringing back the dearly missed purple dinosaur jersey as an alternate next season, marking the first time since 2006 that a Raptors uni won’t be accentuated by Canada’s red and white. The Raptors’ latest rebranding effort, featuring an advertising campaign and a #WeTheNorth hashtag, skews dramatic with its fire pits and snow-filled arenas -- the climate is hyperborean, though DrakeWeather.com can tell you it’s not that cold in April -- but it works because of the substance behind it. Finishing the regular season with a franchise record 48 wins and the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs, Toronto is brimming with excitement to face the Brooklyn Nets in Round 1.

If a deep playoff run is really as imminent as some fans hope, the Raptors might just permanently latch onto a semblance of identity, something to get fans across the border to tune in on Game 1 of 82, not in a mid-February win streak. After all, if memories breed fandom, Raptors fans have few that aren’t accompanied by a I-missed-the-good-cable-in-America-esque sting.

Canadian sports culture will always be defined by the nation’s dispersed Hockeytowns but it’s still a heady time for hoops fans north of the border. Just ask the slew of portable basketball nets swarming driveways in suburbs all over Canada, some of them flanked by the occasional patch of ice: Nike has yet to produce the preeminent “Be Like DeMar” commercial but Canada’s basketball culture is growing with this team; by no explicit maneuver, Canada’s team.

Seerat Sohi writes for the TrueHoop Network. Follow her, @DamianTrillard.

First Cup: Friday

April, 18, 2014
Apr 18
6:18
AM ET
By Nick Borges
ESPN.com
Archive
  • Mike Ganter of the Toronto Sun: Experience. Talk to 100 different basketball fans with a rooting interest in the Raptors-Nets first-round playoff series and chances are somewhere between 90 and 100 will tell you it’s the single biggest factor that will decide the series. ... It was downright funny, not to mention enlightening, to hear DeMar DeRozan deconstruct the whole experience disadvantage. “I mean, it ain’t like it’s rocket science or nothing,” DeRozan said about the game of basketball in the post-season. “Everybody keeps talking to me like, bringing it up like it’s rocket science or I’ve got to know trigonometry or something. You just figure it out. You just go out there. I’ve been playing this game long enough, I’ve been in the league long enough, been in a lot of situations, so it shouldn’t be hard.” And if you are Masai Ujiri or Dwane Casey, that is exactly what you want to hear from one of your key, young, players.
  • Tim Bontemps of the New York Post: But after Brooklyn lost four of its final five regular-season games to fall out of the fifth seed — and a meeting with playoff-tested Chicago — and into sixth and a matchup with inexperienced Toronto, Jeff Van Gundy saw something else. “Yeah, they tanked to try to get to Toronto, OK,” the ESPN analyst said Thursday on a conference call previewing the playoffs. Van Gundy also thinks the Nets may not have been wise to fall into a matchup with the Raptors, who won a franchise-record 48 games en route to their second Atlantic Division title. “Well, it’s really interesting,” Van Gundy said. “The Nets absolutely tried to get to [the Raptors] by resting their guys and moving games down the stretch, so this is a very unique situation. You have a third seed who’s really good, and you have teams who are trying to win to get to them and lose to get to them."
  • Robert Morales of the Long Beach Press-Telegram: If some of the players indeed did not like Del Negro, that does not seem to be the case with current coach Doc Rivers. By the time some of the team’s top players were done talking about him at a recent practice, one got the feeling Rivers is like E.F. Hutton. When he talks, players listen. “I mean, the Xs and Os and the things on the court, they speak for themselves,” said Blake Griffin, who is having an MVP-type season under Rivers. “But the mental side that he brings, just his experience as a coach and almost his stories he tells and the way he reads basketball situations, I think is interesting and unique. “Every time he speaks during practice, for me it’s a learning experience whether it’s a short speech that he didn’t put much thought into, or whether it’s something that he really wants to bring home to us.” Darren Collison echoed that sentiment. “He’s been there, done it all,” said Collison, whose team will take on Golden State in a Western Conference first-round playoff opener at 12:30 p.m. Saturday at Staples Center. “Every time he talks, it’s as if he’s done it before. That’s always good for a young team that’s never done it before.”
  • Bruce Jenkins of the San Francisco Chronicle: It's about time this came to a head. Stephen Curry and Chris Paul have a long history of friendship, even living and working out together for a month before Curry entered the NBA, but the Warriors-Clippers rivalry has put a strain on their relationship. More than anything, it's still about respect - but there won't be a more entertaining individual matchup in the upcoming playoffs. By all measures, they are the two top point guards in the NBA, one of them likely to be a first-team all-league choice (conceivably, both could make it, although Houston shooting guard James Harden is a strong candidate).
  • Berry Tramel of The Oklahoman: Teams that play lax defense don’t last long in the NBA postseason. So as the Thunder awaits the arrival of the Memphis Grizzlies for what promises to be a bear fight of a first-round series, one question trumps all others. Can the Thunder flip the switch? Can the Thunder shake off the doldrums of a regular season that has grown long and irrelevant to a team that knows it has championship pedigree? Kendrick Perkins said he didn’t know. Scotty Brooks avoided the question. Kevin Durant said yes.
  • Ira Winderman of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel: It has been a frustrating ride that saw Wade miss 28 games this season, mostly for a maintenance program for his balky knees. And yet through it all, including being limited to a maximum of 24 minutes in each of his three games this past week, Wade believes he is in a better place than a year ago, when his knee issues had him out of the lineup just four games into the postseason. "It's a lot better than going into it last year," he said, with the team given Thursday off before beginning playoff preparations Friday at AmericanAirlines Arena. "Now hopefully move on from that, and have a better first round health-wise than I did first round versus the Bucks last year, when I had to miss that game up in Milwaukee. So I look forward to Game 1 and hopefully not having any setbacks."
  • Rick Bonnell of The Charlotte Observer: Gary Neal did his best Thursday to describe how different this will be for the seven Bobcats who have never played in the postseason. “It’s so different, first off, just because it’s the best 16 teams in the league,” Neal said. “Beyond that, the intensity is so different. Every possession, every shot, every turnover goes to another level.” Neal started talking about this shortly after he joined the Bobcats for the playoff push. He mentioned after one sloppy game that mistakes that might be acceptable in Game 57 of the regular season will get you beaten in Game 7 of a playoff series. That’s any playoff series, much less one against defending NBA champion Miami.
  • Dan McCarney of the San Antonio Express-News: The Spurs have never been less reliant on one player. Indeed, they just became the first team since the ABA/NBA merger in 1976 to not have a single player average at least 30 minutes per game. (Parker led at 29.4.) If they go on to win it all, they’ll also have the lowest leading scorer of any champion since the merger. (Parker again, at 16.7.) But the Spurs also know that keeping Parker in one piece and productive is a top priority as their postseason begins on Sunday with Game 1 of their best-of-seven series against Dallas. “We’re going to need Tony,” Manu Ginobili said. Parker, who will turn 32 next month, actually played two more games than he did last season, 68 to 66. But despite his sixth All-Star nod, his latest campaign has been interrupted by a seemingly endless series of stops and starts. Between rest and injury, Parker was never available, let alone fully healthy, for more than 15 games in a stretch.
  • Eddie Sefko of The Dallas Morning News: Allow Monta Ellis to step in as Mr. Sunshine. "The standings,” he said, “are zero-zero.” While it’s hard to argue with his Mississippi public schools education on that one, any unbiased person would look at the facts and determine that this is a mismatch of epic proportions. OK, Mark Cuban isn’t unbiased. And he doesn’t see it as a huge mismatch. But the owner knows what the evidence suggests. “We haven’t played well against them, certainly,” Cuban said. “But I just don’t think in general teams look at any other team as being unbeatable. I don’t think anybody’s afraid of anybody.”
  • Michael Lee of The Washington Post: John Wall used to scribble, “playoffs,” on his sneakers before each game to remind himself of the shared goal within the Wizards organization. The Wizards reached that goal two weeks ago, so Wall decided to go with a new slogan: “We made it.” The new message doesn’t reflect complacency or satisfaction with an accomplishment that’s relatively modest, considering the flimsiness of the Eastern Conference this season. To Wall, it’s a declaration of what the Wizards can accomplish by sticking together, sharing the ball and staying committed on the defensive end. “Playoffs was our goal as a team,” Wall said. “We made that part and now just put, ‘We made it’ on there and see how far we can keep going. See what the next step takes us.”
  • Mike McGraw of the Daily Herald: The playoffs are for superstars. When teams play seven games in a row, they quickly learn every play, every move, every adjustment. That's usually when the games come down to giving it to your best player and hoping the defense can't stop him. The Bulls had this last year with Nate Robinson. Now the offense requires precision. Set a screen for D.J. Augustin and hope the defender gives him room to shoot. Or get it to Joakim Noah and hope he can either drive and dish, or hit someone on a backdoor cut. It's certainly possible the Bulls could beat Washington in the first round and give Indiana fits in the second round. They'll just have to do it with a non-tradition style.
  • David Barron of the Houston Chronicle: The arrival of the NBA Playoffs means that things are about to get a lot tougher for the Rockets and a lot easier for some fans. The first four games of the Portland-Houston first-round series will air on TNT (Games 1, 2 and 4) or ESPN (Game 3), making them available to hundreds of thousands of local households without access to Comcast SportsNet Houston, the team’s primary regular-season network. Fan excitement already is building in anticipation of Sunday’s series opener, particularly in the wake of Thursday’s pronouncement by ESPN. ABC analyst and former Rockets coach Jeff Van Gundy that the Rockets are his pick to win the NBA Finals. “I’m going to pick the Western Conference winner, and I’m going to stick with Houston,” Van Gundy said.
  • Jason Quick of The Oregonian: On the court they have shoved each other. Exchanged words. Drawn simultaneous technical fouls. And each fouled out in the same game. Off the court, they have expressed opinions about the other’s actions, little of it complimentary. But behind the bravado and name-calling between Portland point guard Damian Lillard and his Houston counterpart, Patrick Beverley, lies a substantive matchup that could very well dictate this first-round playoff series. It’s strength versus strength, with Lillard’s explosive offense against Beverley’s tenacious defense. ... Who wins the battle for space and freedom will likely go a long way in determining who wins the best-of-seven series, which starts Sunday in Houston. “I’m looking forward to the challenge," Lillard said.

TrueHoop TV Live: After Dark

April, 17, 2014
Apr 17
9:12
PM ET
Elhassan By Amin Elhassan
ESPN.com
Archive
Get ready for the NBA playoffs! Join Amin Elhassan and friends at 10:30 p.m. ET for the latest edition of TrueHoop TV Live: After Dark.


Brett Brown's playoff preview

April, 17, 2014
Apr 17
9:09
PM ET
Abbott By Henry Abbott
ESPN.com
Archive
The head coach of the 76ers expects a rematch of last year's finalists.

video

Penn Station: Thunder duo lack synergy

April, 17, 2014
Apr 17
11:54
AM ET
Abbott By Henry Abbott
ESPN.com
Archive
In a new feature, Penn Station, ESPN NBA analyst Tom Penn uses some advanced stats to show that Oklahoma City Thunder forward Kevin Durant and guard Russell Westbrook are fantastic, but lack a certain synergy typical of championship duos.
video

What the NBA can learn from other sports

April, 17, 2014
Apr 17
10:50
AM ET
By Michael Regan
Special to ESPN.com
Archive
videoMichael Regan is the head of sports science at Catapult, an Australian athletic tech company.

Athletes can have all the desire, all the technical ability, all the intangibles, all the game metrics, but if they are physically incapable of performing to their potential, how good can they actually be?

This is where basketball, among other mainstream sports, can learn from others. This is where the war between old-school and new-school is being waged.

Australian Rules to live by

Australian Rules football is a free-flowing game with no offside and incredible demands on the players. Athletes regularly cover 10 miles in a two-hour game and are required to participate in full-contact tackling and bumping, jump repeatedly, sprint very often and do it all once a week.

The current leaders for distance per game in the NBA (Chandler Parsons, Jimmy Butler and Nicolas Batum) move at an average of 127 yards per minute of game time. When you factor in all the stoppages -- timeouts, free throws, etc. -- it’s closer to 80 yards per minute. An elite NFL safety playing both defense and special teams works at about 50 yards/min, including stoppages.

An elite Australian Rules athlete is required to work at 140-plus yards/min, including stoppages.

Yet, despite the high toll a game takes on the body, Australian Rules football was for a long while stuck in an “old school” way of training. Coaches knew that players needed to run long distances, so preparatory sessions sometimes involved running half-marathons. Benches were used only in emergencies.

For the better part of 40 years, these beliefs went unchallenged and teams progressively pushed their athletes harder. But the advent of athlete-tracking technology changed all that.

Data clearly showed that instead of a sport in which athletes run for a prolonged periods at submaximal intensity, it was actually a series of moderate, high- and very-high-intensity runs. The days of half-marathon training were over, and the days of high-intensity training, recovery strategies, new interchange/rotation strategies and “shock-horror” resting players had begun.

Introducing new substitution strategies and the increasing acceptance of player resting have paid major dividends in the sport over the past five to 10 years, so it was a welcomed sight for Australians to see those practices implemented by the San Antonio Spurs.

The more revolutionary idea still to be embraced in the NBA, though, is shifting the way elite players are substituted. Instead of the best athletes playing a 25-minute continuous period, then getting the last five minutes before the end of the quarter to rest, Aussie Rules teams started to look at what would give an athlete the best chance to repeatedly sprint. Which means resting the player often, for short periods of time. By playing in shorter blocks, their physical capability could be increased at the end of the game by as much as 20 percent when compared to longer rotation strategies.

While this method is hard for some athletes to embrace, teams had proof that their performance was better this way, pointing to their increased distances, higher percentage of work covered at high speed and their increased output on the traditional stat sheets.

As more teams caught on, a wave spread through the league, to the point where the governing body had to slow the game down to prevent collision injuries and level the playing field.

Too much practice makes imperfect

What Australian Rules football doesn’t have is the same schedule demand.

European soccer, though, is setup pretty similarly to the NBA, with its athletes required to play multiple games per week with little to no recovery in between.

In an average week you can expect a European soccer player and an NBA player to cover similar distances. Training time is also limited in both, as full practices are eventually phased out and replaced by shootarounds (NBA) and pregame warm-ups (soccer) for technical/tactical preparation.

But teams have begun to quantify the demands of these sessions, which have historically been viewed as very low-intensity work. In both sports, some have been shocked by the pregame workload on some of their athletes, with some teams and players participating in workouts that amount to playing a quarter of a game.

Tracking data has shown that time on legs has a tremendous load effect on the athlete. Taking lazy jumpers for an hour and walking through plays might not sound all that arduous, but it actually creates a larger load than anticipated. The athlete is better off doing shorter, more intense sessions, and then being given more time to work through their recovery, nutrition and rest protocols in preparation for a game.

But the leagues approach this problem differently. English Premier League (EPL) teams have an extensive series of monitoring programs and protocols in place to understand the physical, emotional and psychological profile of the athlete and use the full picture on athlete well-being to inform decisions on practice and game minutes. If a practice lasts for 60 minutes, elite players with heavy game loads might be required for only the core team drills and be on modified training for the other parts of practice.

The future of basketball

So where does that leave basketball? The answer to that is that it is evolving -- and quickly.

Should teams be shortening rotation length? Teaching players to use recovery time in game better? Limit practice minutes? Rest players? Accurately monitor true physical performance in games?

Whatever the answer is, teams need to realize there isn’t some magic solution. Every human is different -- from their personality to their injury history to genetics to tactical/technical ability.

The truth lies in the balance of objective numbers, subjective coaching and the knowledge of the person.

First Cup: Thursday

April, 17, 2014
Apr 17
5:43
AM ET
By Nick Borges
ESPN.com
Archive
  • Sid Hartman of the Star Tribune: There is no chance — zero — of Rick Adelman returning as Timberwolves head coach next season, according to one of the team’s decision-makers. Look for an announcement to that effect soon. Two college coaches mentioned as candidates to replace Adelman, Michigan State’s Tom Izzo and Iowa State’s Fred Hoiberg, aren’t likely to take the job because of their popularity and security at their respective schools. The Wolves could be a playoff contender next season with the personnel additions they made this year, but Izzo or Hoiberg probably won’t move unless offered a fantastic contract with big money. ... I still think Flip Saunders, Wolves president of basketball operations, wants to coach. Even though Taylor says he prefers to have the team president and coach be two different people, I think Saunders could talk Taylor into letting him coach.
  • Mike Bresnahan of the Los Angeles Times: Nick Young has been coy the whole season about the meaning of his "Swaggy P" nickname, specifically the "P" part. Everybody will have to wait awhile longer, apparently. "I've got a book coming out in July," he said. "I'll let you all know." The book title? "The Mystery of the 'P,'" Young said, adding quickly, "Made that up just now."
  • Bob Finnan of The News-Herald: The Cavaliers’ franchise faces several major decisions this summer. None is bigger than the five-year, $80 million maximum extension the Cavs are expected to offer two-time All-Star Kyrie Irving. "Obviously, I’m aware I can be extended this summer,” he said after the Cavs’ 114-85 victory over the Brooklyn Nets on April 16 before 19,842 at Quicken Loans Arena. “It’s a big deal for me if they do offer me that. It will be exciting. I’ll make the best decision for me and my family. That’s what it will boil down to.” Irving doesn’t sound like someone who wants out. “I’ve been part of this, and I want to continue to be part of this,” he said. “We’ve made some strides in the right direction, especially as an organization. I want to be part of something special. I don’t have a definitive answer to that right now.” The offer is expected to come on July 1.
  • Michael Hunt of The Journal Times: Wesley Edens and Marc Lasry gave every indication that they are committed to keeping the Bucks in Milwaukee. The joyful reception they received in the BMO Harris Bradley Center atrium to announce the ownership transfer stood in stark contrast to the funereal atmosphere that enveloped the sale in 2006 of the Seattle SuperSonics to an Oklahoma City investment group. Contrary to what the new owners said that day, everyone in the room knew the Sonics were on their way out of Seattle. No one trusted the carpetbaggers who eventually rustled the team away. There was no such sensation after out-of-towners Edens and Lasry said they'd ante $100 million toward a place for the Bucks to play at least 41 times a year and concerts and shows to occupy another 200 nights in the building. There is no reason to doubt their sincerity at the moment.
  • Dave Dulberg of ArizonaSports.com: While the Phoenix Suns have made it very clear that re-signing Eric Bledsoe and P.J. Tucker are at the top of their wish list this offseason, retaining the services of veteran forward Channing Frye is also a stated priority. After missing all of 2012-13 due to an enlarge heart, Frye became the only Sun to not only play but start all 82 games this season, averaging in 11.2 points and 5.1 rebounds per game in the process. ... Frye signed a five-year, $30 million contract back in July 2010, however the 30-year-old holds a player option for the fifth year worth $6.8 million. So the question is, will he pick it up this summer? "I don't know, you'd have to ask Channing," Suns general manager Ryan McDonough told Arizona Sports 98.7 FM's Burns & Gambo Wednesday. "We'd like to have him back either way. If he picks up the option, that's great. It's remarkable. He's going to be the one guy who is going to start every game for us this year."
  • John Reid of The Times-Picayune: Dell Demps declined to say specifically what areas he intends to address to improve the roster. But Demps did say he plans to be creative to add more talent around forward Anthony Davis, who emerged as an All-Star in just his second season. The Pelicans struggled to get a consistent effort at both the center and small forward spots. ... Demps said they won't pursue a maximum-money free agent like they did last summer with Evans, who agreed to a four-year, $44 million offer before the Pelicans acquired him in a sign-and-trade deal from the Sacramento Kings. ... Demps didn't rule out the possibility they could pursue trying to acquire a pick in the upcoming June NBA draft, which is expected to be one of the strongest in several years.
  • Jason Jones of The Sacramento Bee: The season is over. Now on to to the top priorities for the offseason. That begins with Rudy Gay and Isaiah Thomas. Gay can become an unrestricted free agent by opting out of his contract that is due to pay him $19.3 million next season. Even if Gay does opt out, the Kings will try to keep him. ... Thomas will be a restricted free agent after the Kings make him a qualifying offer. Thomas can then sign an offer sheet with another team, which the Kings could match, or agree to a new deal with the Kings.
  • Christopher Dempsey of The Denver Post: So you want to label the Nuggets 2013-14, ending with their first missed playoffs in 10 years, as a "terrible" season? Nuggets coach Brian Shaw won't go that route with you. "People can talk about the fact that we didn't make the playoffs. They can say we've had a terrible year," Shaw said. "I don't think we had a terrible year. We had an unfortunate year. We had to endure a lot of injuries. At the same time, there was a lot of positive that came from this year." Indeed, the Nuggets, who finished the season Wednesday night at the Pepsi Center with a 116-112 loss to the Golden State Warriors, won't actually go down as having one of the worst records in franchise history. The 36-46 mark was just kind of blah after the team won 57 games a year ago. The two overarching reasons for a below-average season are simple ones: injuries and effort.
  • Jody Genessy of the Deseret News: Utah's double-overtime victory at Minnesota was an exciting way to finish a rough 2013-14 season, but it might come back to haunt the Jazz a bit at the NBA draft. By virtue of Utah's win and Boston's season-ending loss to Washington, the Jazz and Celtics finished tied for the fourth-worst record in the league at 25-57. This means Utah and Boston will split their lottery chances, resulting in each team having a 10.35 percent chance of winning the No. 1 pick and a 33.5 percent chance of finishing in the top three.
  • Vincent Goodwill of The Detroit News: Greg Monroe admitted the chemistry wasn’t right with the players all season along, marked by the additions of Josh Smith and Brandon Jennings, along with the integration of Andre Drummond to a full-time starter in his second season. Monroe but when pressed about what exactly was the issue, wouldn’t elaborate. “I would answer your question but I don’t want to go further than that.” Chauncey Billups has the ear of virtually everyone because of his status in the NBA and in a young locker room, while Smith has never been afraid to speak his mind. Whether Monroe truly wanted to say something when things began to go sour or not remains in his thoughts. “Negative comments always get more attention, or anything that’s slightly controversial,” Monroe said.
  • Bob Cooney of the Philadelphia Daily News: The weeks and months ahead will be as important to the organization's future as the 82 games that were played. There is the June draft, in which the Sixers now have two first round picks and five second-rounders. There will be free agency, trade talks and competition in two summer leagues in which the new rookies and injured Nerlens Noel will give a sample of what next season may hold. "It is so complicated," Brown said of getting ready for the offseason. "I will be led by Sam [Hinkie, the general manager]. I've gone through a very system-oriented process for the past 12 years with an organization [San Antonio] that has proven that they've made way more good decisions than bad decisions. That is Sam's strength. I've got faith in Sam. It is a very large reason why I'm here.
  • A. Sherrod Blakely of CSNNE.com: Danny Ainge on trading Rondo who is set to be a free agent in 2015. DA: “Listen there’s no one person that’s more important than the whole organization. We need to be good because we all want to be good. I want my coach to stay, I want Jeff Green to want to be here, I want free agents that are out there looking at us play to want to play here. I want fans to want to come to the game, ya know everybody wants to win, but not just for one player, not just for one person. We all want to win and that’s what we are trying to accomplish."
  • Marc Berman of the New York Post: Mike Woodson said he still hopes to talk to Phil Jackson about remaining as head coach next season, but wouldn’t say if he will help the Knicks team president conduct exit meetings Thursday and Friday with the players. Woodson said he’d like to find out his status “soon” and he likely will in the next 48 hours. Woodson is not expected to be retained to finish the final year of his contract and almost assuredly coached his final game Wednesday in a 95-92 win over Toronto, going out on a four-game winning streak. That Woodson said he “won’t comment’’ on whether he’ll join Jackson for the exit meetings spoke volumes about his tenuous status. ... Woodson has one year left on his pact at about $3.3 million.

TrueHoop TV Live, 2 p.m. ET

April, 16, 2014
Apr 16
12:58
PM ET
Strauss By Ethan Sherwood Strauss
ESPN.com
Archive
It's the regular-season finale of TrueHoop TV Live! Join the conversation with Ethan, Tom and Amin at 2 p.m. ET.

Bogut-less in April

April, 16, 2014
Apr 16
10:54
AM ET
Strauss By Ethan Sherwood Strauss
ESPN.com
Archive
Andrew BogutRocky Widner/Getty ImagesWith Andrew Bogut sidelined, the Warriors will need to alter their approach in the playoffs.
Warriors fans will grouse about what could have been against the Spurs last season in the Western Conference finals, but in reality, Golden State had no shot of winning that series. It wasn’t just because the Spurs were great, which they were and continue to be. It was because Andrew Bogut and Stephen Curry were spent.

After the series was finished, both gingerly limped to their exit interviews. They had been pushing through searing foot ailments, buying breaks from the pain with injections. The end brought more relief than regret because there was little else to give. The end also brought hope, because imagine what this team could be at full health. Curry and Bogut might have walked like old men sauntering off into the sunset, but their pain-stricken accomplishments promised new beginnings.

Now we’ll never really know what this team could have been, as Bogut will be sidelined indefinitely. His ribs suffered the effects of what may as well have been the chestburster scene from "Alien." We might have an idea based on what transpired this season, but with Bogut out, we won’t see a fully realized Warriors squad in the playoff crucible. That’s a shame.

This isn’t like the time David Lee got injured in last year's playoffs. Carl Landry was a capable Lee understudy, and the Nuggets couldn’t punish Golden State for going small. The outlook is a lot bleaker this time around, especially if the Warriors face the Clippers.

DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin already had the ability to crush Golden State on the boards before Bogut went down. Now Golden State will be relying on Jermaine O’Neal, a solid backup but also someone who jumps once in the time it takes Blake Griffin to jump twice.

Matchups aside, it’s difficult to replace someone with a fair claim to “best defensive player in the conference.” O’Neal can replace some of that rim protection, but it won’t really be the same. Bogut is a bit of a contradiction because his fragility belies an intimidating presence on the court. He’s a confrontational shot-blocker, often latching an offhand paw on his opponent while spiking the shot back from where it came. His offense might be even scarier, as he sets the kinds of screens that would get him fined by Roger Goodell.

Bogut will do anything to win, personifying team play with his defense, passing and willingness to take on physical contact. But he doesn’t exactly fit the bill of “team guy” in sense of office politics. The Aussie is a bit of a loner in this setting, and he’s blunt with assessments of teammates.

In February, Bogut had a bizarre clash with coach Mark Jackson over whether the center had injured himself sleeping. While Bogut never openly criticized Jackson after the oustings of assistant coaches, his “He’s the coach. He makes the decisions. We’re not silly enough to believe anything else” comments didn’t exactly mirror teammates’ glowing praise of their embattled leader.

Now that embattled leader, someone who evangelizes on the benefits of off-court harmony, is tasked with proving that togetherness can compensate for the loss of a 7-foot mercenary. Jackson has an exceedingly tough job, but there are ways in which Golden State could pull off the improbable.

In yet another playoffs, the Warriors must shrink themselves in pursuit of an upset. Small ball worked against the Mavs in 2007 and against the Nuggets in 2013. The future looks grim in 2014, but at least there’s a general precedent for success. Here’s the blueprint for an upset.

Lee in his old Knicks role
[+] EnlargeDavid Lee and Stephen Curry
Rocky Widner/NBAE/Getty ImagesThe pressure is on David Lee and Stephen Curry to step up in Andrew Bogut's absence.

Lee, the occasional fall guy for GSW shortcomings, gets an increased role doing what he does best: slipping screens and diving to the rim as a small-ball center. This ultimately isn’t a sustainable way to go long term, but such lineups can put up points in the right situations. If Lee is healed coming off this latest back injury, expect him to perform well offensively in the playoffs.

More Draymond Green

Draymond Green should see more time, especially at the 4 spot. Jackson has already said that he likes the Lee at center, Green at power forward lineup and that he will use it in the playoffs. This look makes for an intriguing playoff experiment, especially if Andre Iguodala plays within it. Green and Iguodala have comprised a vicious defensive one-two punch this season. Can they do it with almost no rim protection in the background? The Lee-Green-Iguodala-Klay Thompson-Curry lineup held opponents to a stingy 89.2 points per 100 possessions over the 105 minutes they shared.

Jermaine O’Neal as Bogut facsimile

It’s the backup’s time to shine. O’Neal is Bogut’s opposite in terms of locker-room demeanor -- hand him a mike and he could be mistaken for Jackson’s agent. Now he has the chance to step up for his coach in a huge way.

The Warriors need O’Neal to be a hero, but to pull it off, he must cool it with the hero ball. O’Neal’s 2001 isolation post-ups are fine when he’s sharing the floor with Marreese Speights and Jordan Crawford. When he’s getting minutes with Curry, he needs to be more of a screener, less of a scorer. O’Neal doesn’t screen as severely as Bogut, preferring to evade contact and dive toward the rim. For the Warriors to score at a series-winning pace, they have to adjust O’Neal’s role.

Defensively, O’Neal is just fine. He’s not quite Bogut with the rim protection, but he’s not far off.

One big to rule them all

I’ve long been a proponent of “Bogut, plus shooters,” but the truth is that Golden State’s one-big lineups seem to thrive no matter who the big guy is -- as long as it isn’t Speights, I should say. It might be tempting for Jackson to use two traditional bigs against lineups of size, but Golden State cannot pull off an upset as a conventional, weaker version of itself. To win, the Warriors need to stretch and prod the opposition’s traditional approach.

Stephen Curry needs to do cool dribbling stuff and hit ridiculous shots

Duh.

It’s unfortunate we’ll never get to see that battered 2013 playoff team realize its potential in the 2014 playoffs. That hope is dead. In its place, the possibility remains that Golden State can once again shock the world. It’s unlikely, but it’s probably no more unlikely than Bogut finishing a season wire to wire.

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