First Cup: Monday

April, 21, 2014
Apr 21
5:02
AM ET
By Nick Borges
ESPN.com
Archive
  • Greg Cote of The Miami Herald: The Heat this season put together videos featuring every player that are shown on the home arena’s giant scoreboard screen during games. The one on Dwyane Wade happened to air Sunday during a timeout in the second half of the playoff victory over Charlotte that opened Miami’s postseason bid for a third consecutive NBA championship. It was a look-back on a long career spent entirely here. It was nostalgic to see Dwyane so much younger. The video was emotional. It almost had the feel of a farewell, like the kind of retrospective you’d see at a retirement or something. Wade couldn’t help but glance up and see his career flash before his eyes. “It was weird and cool at the same time,” he said afterward, smiling. ... Wade looked like his old self, not the version of himself that looks old. Miami’s 99-88 victory over Charlotte in Game 1 of this first-round series had a few players’ fingerprints on it, but none more than Wade’s.
  • Tom Sorensen of The Charlotte Observer: If Al Jefferson isn’t effective, the Charlotte Bobcats have no chance to beat the Miami Heat. If Jefferson ceases to be Big Al, if plantar fasciitis limits what he can do when he has the ball as well as when Miami has it, Charlotte’s season ends quietly. ... It doesn’t seem fair, after the season Jefferson and his teammates have had, for him to get hurt in the first quarter of Charlotte’s first playoff game since 2010. It probably isn’t fair that the Bobcats have to play the Heat. In the playoffs, fairness does not apply. Have to hope modern science becomes especially modern and discovers a plantar fasciitis cure by Wednesday, when the teams next play. As Jefferson stands to leave the interview room, he pauses before slowly walking away. “Don’t laugh at me,” he says, smiling. After all you’ve done for your team, nobody would consider it.
  • Buck Harvey of the San Antonio Express-News: He missed 10 shots, including one late at the rim without much resistance. His teammates made mistakes, too, but none of it mattered. He would always feel he let one get away, and he went to the podium afterward visibly frustrated. That was Tim Duncan 10 months ago in Miami. That was also Dirk Nowitzki on Sunday. And so those who think the Mavericks missed their one chance, that Nowitzki is too old to carry the Mavericks as he once did, consider what happened the next time Duncan played a playoff game. Aging, tall men who are destined for Springfield have a way of recovering. ... The missed opportunity was real. The Mavericks had caught the Spurs flat, and they had let it get away. So how can Nowitzki get over the sensation that this was “the one you were supposed to get?” “I'm not sure,” Nowitzki said. “We got two days to sit on it and watch the film, make some minor adjustments, and let it all rip in Game 2.” This wasn't a Finals-level disappointment. A first-round opener doesn't compare. But when it comes to recovery, and letting things “rip,” there are some players who are better at it than others.
  • Tim Cowlishaw of The Dallas Morning News: Dallas Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle reminded everyone after the game that Dirk Nowitzki and Tim Duncan are two of the 10 greatest NBA players ever, either in scoring or in a general evaluation of their skills. Maybe he felt it was necessary because while Duncan — who turns 38 this week — had just delivered a Game 1 message that he’s anything but long gone, Nowitzki simply looked lost. ... What the Spurs mostly forced was the Mavericks’ bench to supply all the offense. With Nowitzki and Ellis getting 11 points each as the only starters in double figures, Dallas’ starting five shot 32 percent (16-for-50) from the field for a grand total of 39 points. Both teams have an ample amount of time to ponder and institute Game 2 adjustments. They don’t meet again until 7 p.m. Wednesday in San Antonio. I have no idea if Harris and Brandan Wright will contribute another 30 points off the bench, or if the Mavericks can confine their turnovers to single digits (eight in Game 1) a second time. But if Nowitzki doesn’t have more than 11 points by halftime, it will be both a surprise and an indication that this series is fully under the control of the San Antonio Spurs.
  • Mike Wise of The Washington Post: The late-game images were so telling: Trevor Ariza chasing down D.J. Augustin from behind with two minutes left, swatting the ball off the glass. Every offensive possession treated not just carefully down the stretch but almost treasured, until someone had a wide-open look or a layup or ended up at the free throw line. The Wizards didn’t merely win Game 1 of their first playoff series in six years; they out- Chicagoed the Bulls. ... It’s one game, sure. But it’s also a series-opening statement by a group that was thought to be too green and not yet playoff-seasoned enough to mount a serious challenge to Chicago. You out-Bull the Bulls in Game 1, though, you’re doing something tremendously right.
  • Rick Telander of the Chicago Sun-Times: OK, Chicago, what’s the deal in the postseason? The Blackhawks just gagged away two games. And now the Bulls choked on their opener against the Washington Wizards, like it was an Easter egg they forgot to peel. Wizards are magicians, but the Bulls took a 13-point third-quarter lead and made it disappear in a 102-93 loss. It was just so odd, that period when the Bulls had the Wizards on the run. They seemed to get cocky for a couple of minutes, trying to run wild and do stuff they weren’t quite capable of doing. And that’s all it took. These were the fifth-place, 44-38 Wizards, with a bunch of guys who had never been in the playoffs, playing their debut on the road. How? What?
  • Chris Haynes of CSNNW.com: The Portland Trail Blazers proved on a grand stage that they now have two superstars on its roster. Damian Lillard joined that select company with LaMarcus Aldridge Sunday night in a 122-120 overtime win over the Houston Rockets in the Toyota Center. This game had every emotion one could have. It was intense, exhilarating, physical, emotional and so much more. Those two faced every obstacle and overcame it. Portland looked as if they had enough midway in the fourth quarter, but they fought back and shocked the Rockets on national television, stealing Game 1 of this series and taking homecourt advantage away from the Rockets. Aldridge played out of his mind to go for a franchise playoff high of 46 points and 17 rebounds along with two blocks before fouling out in overtime. His sidekick Lillard scored 31 points, pulled down nine boards and distributed five assists in his playoff debut. The two were sensational and Lillard took another step towards being one of the true great points guard we have in this game.
  • Jenny Dial Creech of the Houston Chronicle: When asked if the Portland Trail Blazers would look to the “Hack-a-Dwight” tactic in their first round playoff series against the Rockets, coach Terry Stotts joked, “First possession, we are doing it.” It didn’t come in the first possession, or any time near it, but when the Trail Blazers needed a comeback in the final minutes of the fourth quarter, the fouling began. The Rockets led by 10 with 4:30 to play when the Blazers started fouling him. He would go 2-of-6 in the next two minutes while Portland went on an 11-0 run to come back and eventually send the game into overtime. Howard finished 9-of-17 for the game. “I just have to go up there and be confident and knock those free throws down,” Howard said. “I practice on it enough. I just have to make them.” "That wasn’t the reason they won the game,” he continued. “I don’t think we valued a lot of the possessions.”
  • Berry Tramel of The Oklahoman: Like Saturday night in Game 1 of a Western Conference playoff series against Memphis. The Grizzlies survive on the production of big men Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol and the drives of point guard Mike Conley. But Ibaka blocked four shots and made the paint so treacherous that the Grizzlies’ interior players combined to make just 14 of 43 shots. Conley’s quick darts into the lane and the bull rushes of Randolph and Gasol are tempered by the knowledge that Ibaka has impeccable timing at crossing the paint for a backside block. And as we saw Saturday night, when the Thunder won 100-86, Ibaka’s rejections ignite his teammates and the OKC crowd as much as a thundering dunk.
  • Scott Ostler of the San Francisco Chronicle: Eons ago, when Harrison Barnes was a North Carolina high school and college phenom likened to the mighty Jordan, the kid got a nickname: The Black Falcon. You don't drag that kind of high-falutin' nickname into the NBA unless you're a certified god. King James and the Black Mamba can name-drop their own nicknames without a trace of irony. So when the Warriors call Barnes Black Falcon, it's in fun, not reverence. Really, a better fit for Barnes would be the Mystery Falcon, because you never know what kind of performance you'll get from him, or when he'll show up to save the day. It's a superhero nickname, and based on Barnes' playoff performance last season and in Saturday's Game 1 win over the Clippers, he has a mysterious ability to raise his game when the heat is on.
  • Dan Woike of The Orange County Register: Before the playoffs began, Doc Rivers told his team that at some point during the playoffs, they were going to lose a game at Staples Center and need to win away from home. "It’s Doc fault,” Chris Paul deadpanned. “He spoke that into existence.” The message wasn’t intended to be taken as instructions. “I didn’t actually mean it,” Rivers said with a laugh. “…You have to be prepared for it, obviously. And obviously, you don’t want to drop the first game. But we did. Now, we have to do something about it.” The Clippers began addressing that with a practice Sunday. While the Clippers need to figure out ways to contain Golden State’s passing and shooting between the lines, the team also has to address the clutter that caused them problems between their ears.

Clips, Warriors at odds with foul judgments

April, 19, 2014
Apr 19
9:58
PM ET
Shelburne By Ramona Shelburne
ESPN.com
Archive
video
LOS ANGELES -- The narrative leading into this first-round playoff series between the Los Angeles Clippers and Golden State Warriors was that some sort of MMA fight was liable to break out at any time.

These teams really don’t like each other!

No really, there’s bad blood!

Bad things could happen!

Beware!

So, naturally, the first game was refereed with extreme caution, and the end result had two of the best players in the series -- Blake Griffin and Andre Iguodala -- sitting on the bench at the end of the Warriors' thrilling 109-105 win.

"I thought all the hype absolutely had an impact on how the game was called," Clippers coach Doc Rivers said. "There’s no doubt about that. A lot of tight, touch fouls. I thought Blake, of the six [fouls], three of them were probably touch fouls. Same thing with [Chris Paul, who had five fouls].

"But the way I look at is, both teams have to play under the same rules. They did a better job of playing under the same rules that we had to play under."

In all, the referees in Saturday’s game called 51 fouls, 29 in the first half, in which Iguodala collected four fouls in 11 minutes and Griffin was limited to less than four minutes with three fouls.

The 51 fouls is not an obscene number -- the four regular-season games between the teams averaged 47 fouls -- but it did seem to affect both the flow and outcome of the game.

"It's frustrating," said Iguodala, the Warriors' best perimeter defender. "Because you put in so much work for these moments. To have a few things not go your way and you know you're not wrong, it can be tough."

For his part, Griffin thought it actually took the expected physicality of this series out of the game.

"To be honest, it felt like just a regular-season game as far as the physicality goes," Griffin said. "I know the series we played last year [against the Memphis Grizzlies] and the years before that were way, way, way more physical. So it’s kind of hard to know what you can get away with and what you can’t.

"But I just I have to be smarter in that area and not put us in that situation."

Or maybe things will just loosen up and Griffin and Iguodala will be able to influence the series, like one would’ve expected.

Blazers, Rockets take similar paths to Rd. 1

April, 19, 2014
Apr 19
12:29
PM ET
By Daniel Nowell
Special to ESPN.com
Archive
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The Portland Trail Blazers and Houston Rockets tip off Sunday in a first-round matchup that will seem, in many ways, like warp-speed shadow boxing.

This series is perhaps the most stylistically even of any in the opening round -- both teams are in the league’s top five in 3-point attempts, and both are in the top 10 in pace. Both are defined by inside-out, All-Star combinations, and both are led by staid coaches who believe in letting it fly when the opportunity presents itself. Both teams are in the middle third of the league in defensive rating, so fans of high-scoring marksmanship competitions will likely find this matchup irresistible.

For all the broad-stroke similarities between the two teams, however, the truly compelling aspects will be found in the details. For instance, Portland’s offensive style is committed to flow and ball movement; the ball tends to move radially around LaMarcus Aldridge post-ups in Portland, swinging around until it produces a seam to attack inward.

Houston, conversely, relies very much on James Harden’s ability to produce from the outside in, beating the game into submission with drive after drive to the rim and the free throw lane. In fact, with the league increasingly favoring shots at the rim and behind the arc as cornerstones of healthy offense, Portland and Houston represent two contrasting approaches to realizing the ideal.

On the one hand, Portland has an almost principled commitment to an open, aesthetically pleasing style of basketball, and coach Terry Stotts takes pride in a fan-friendly product. Houston, on the other hand, combines random bursts of transition frenzy with a stubborn, almost cynical dedication to producing free throws with Harden drives and Dwight Howard post-ups.

If you wanted to read that ideological divide into the teams’ organizational characters, you’d find plenty to support it. In Houston’s corner is GM Daryl Morey, high-volume trader king of the league, and his counterpart is former actor and workout guy Neil Olshey.

Olshey inherited much of Portland’s core, and what he didn’t inherit he has built with holistic finesse. Aldridge was the lone All-Star when Olshey took over the team -- adding a scoring point guard in Damian Lillard and a yeoman rim protector in Robin Lopez.

Morey inherited … well, who can remember? The Morey model views players as assets, and an accumulation of assets must always be gathering interest. After a few years of stockpiling, he liquidated and found himself holding the gems -- Harden and Howard.

When these teams played this season, it played out more or less how a bookie might call it. Houston held a 3-1 advantage in games and a combined margin of plus-26 points. Where the Blazers have All-Stars, the Rockets have superstars, and Houston has proven slightly more tenacious on defense than Portland.

Among rotation players, Portland has just two real defensive specialists, and, while Lopez and Wesley Matthews are smart, rugged, and dutiful, their Houston counterparts, Howard and Patrick Beverley, are simply more disruptive.

Crucially, Lillard is shooting just 25 percent against Beverley, and his ability to improve upon that mark might well decide the series. The Blazers rely on two pressure valves: Aldridge’s abilities from midrange on the left block and Lillard’s ability to cash in from any range when left unattended.

When Beverley is on the floor, Lillard is hardly ever unattended, and, what’s more, the Houston provocateur has done what few defenders have in seeming to get under Lillard’s skin enough to draw comment. After a particularly physical exchange earlier this season, Lillard somewhat famously told reporters "I’m just not going to let somebody be in my chest doing all that extra stuff." From Portland’s measured young All-Star, that rates as near-vitriol.

On the other side of the ball, the Blazers have had difficulty slowing Harden but might be more concerned with Howard bludgeoning their thin front line. Beyond Lopez, the Blazers lack a real post deterrent, and foul trouble will bring Joel Freeland, recently recovered from a sprained MCL, more in focus than Portland would like. Though the Blazers have consistently proven unable to contain Harden, they’ll need to be just as careful, over two weeks of attrition, not to allow Howard to control the series.

There are other players. Portland’s Nicolas Batum has oscillated between being the West’s most versatile offensive player and a nearly unfelt one; Houston’s Chandler Parsons provides a similar flexibility to the Houston lineups. It appears that everywhere you look this series, a strength is met with a nearly equal one.

Certainly, it appears the Rockets have a wider margin of error, but this series seems destined to provide viewers with the best that postseason basketball has to offer: adjustments, readjustments and two teams who figure to play larger roles over the next few springs.

Wiz kids' rise up the chain of command

April, 19, 2014
Apr 19
10:00
AM ET
By Conor Dirks
Special to ESPN.com
Archive
John WallSam Forencich/NBAE/Getty ImagesThe Wizards met their preseason goal of making their first postseason since 2008. ... Now what?
Before the 2013-14 season began, owner Ted Leonsis made his goal awfully conspicuous: “I think that all of our focus, all of our attention, is to make the playoffs this year.”

Laboring under the weight of this mandate, the Washington Wizards have put together a qualifying season, albeit in an Eastern Conference notorious for its frailty and with Washington clinging distrustfully to the least challenging schedule in the NBA. The playoff-bound Wizards have already achieved everything they set out to do, but the way they reached this unassuming goal has at times been as disappointing as it has been gratifying.

Asked whether the Wizards had met his preseason expectations, stately sophomore shooting guard Bradley Beal offered this specter of insight into the nature of Washington’s modest ambitions: “We knew we could be an above-.500 team, and we knew we could be a playoff team, and we accomplished those two goals. Now it's up to us to just finish out this regular season, keep our sixth seed, and move on into the playoffs.”

Said fourth-year player Kevin Seraphin: “We was just trying to get to the playoffs, whether we was a seven, eight, five. It didn’t matter.”

[+] EnlargeWizards
AP Photo/Alex BrandonThe Wizards are in! But do they have the goods to go any farther? The Chicago Bulls await in Round 1.
Can you blame these Wizards, long below sea level within the league’s topography, for not aiming higher?

The six seasons since their last playoff berth have not always neatly traced Leonsis’ 10-point plan for professional sports teams. Point No. 5, for example, is headlined by Leonsis’ commitment to being patient with young players. In practice, not all young players were found worthy of that patience, and Leonsis’ one-time “New Big Three” concept disappeared rapidly -- along with the amnesty money Leonsis is still wiring to Andray Blatche -- into a void previously inhabited by organizational optimism.

JaVale McGee was traded for Nene, Nick Young was traded for Brian Cook and a second-round draft pick, and Jordan Crawford was traded for a few games of Jason Collins and an injured Leandro Barbosa. Most recently, 23-year-old Jan Vesely -- the sixth overall pick the season after John Wall was drafted first overall -- was traded for 38-year-old Andre Miller. The argument has been made that all of these maneuvers, each in its own pocket-sized vacuum, were necessary. But considered together, each transaction is another verse in a lament for player development that plays on loop for those who follow the team.

On the eve of the playoffs, there is a contingent of Wizards fans, disenchanted with the direction of the rebuild, who would welcome a swift playoff exit were it to serve as the denouement of team president Ernie Grunfeld’s 10-year tenure, and as the last gasp of Randy Wittman’s term as head coach. This internal conflict, far too deeply rooted in D.C. to be excised by the embryonic hope afforded by one playoff appearance, is integral to understanding why The Washington Post’s Dan Steinberg felt compelled to host a roundtable discussion asking the question, “Why aren’t people excited about the Wizards?”

It comes down to expectations. People don’t draw joy from basketball, from competition, in the same way an unrepentant completionist takes satisfaction from checking a necessary goal off of a reasonable checklist. Joy, pain and, to a similar extent, interest, are all generated by teams that brazenly disregard goals on their way to the sublime or into the abyss.

While other teams have adjusted and outstripped their initial expectations, the Wizards have done little more than meet them. Gifted every opportunity for success, the team has found unique ways to instead orbit mediocrity.

Tied with Miami and Toronto for the best road record in the Eastern Conference (22-19), Washington ended the season with the worst home record (also 22-19) of any playoff team.

At 9-9 in December, the Wizards briefly held the third seed in the East. Over the course of the season, the team stepped ponderously down the standings with the grim determination of a precompressed helical spring (er, a Slinky), but not because their play deteriorated. On the contrary, it showed gradual, if unexceptional, improvement.

The problem, then, was everyone else. While the Wizards mostly upheld the status quo, the Bulls obscured the loss of Derrick Rose and the trade of Luol Deng by rallying behind a galvanized Joakim Noah, the Nets dug themselves out of an ironclad coffin 60 feet under before kindly resting their aged roster, and the Raptors clawed callously at every well-meaning prognostication on their way to an identity and the third seed.

There are other, more nuanced concerns. Washington’s scoring strategy involves a prodigal amount of 15- to 19-foot shots, one of the least efficient shot types. The Wizards take the second most of these shots, but are the seventh worst at converting them. Without the 3-pointer (the Wizards are the NBA’s fifth best team from deep), Washington’s offense might be fairly abominable.

[+] EnlargeJohn Wall
AP Photo/Alex BrandonA first-round flop wouldn't be the worst thing if it led to big-time shakeups in the Wizards organization.
And then there’s young Otto Porter, Jr., third overall pick in 2013. The hushed, desperate and not-at-all-ironic chants for Porter have begun to seep over Wittman’s shoulder at Verizon Center in the waning moments of games no longer in question. As William Carlos Williams wrote in "The Descent," Otto’s “descent made up of despairs and without accomplishment realizes a new awakening: which is a reversal of despair.” At least, that’s the hope for an unready rookie who was touted as one of the more NBA-ready prospects in his draft class.

This is just to say that success, in this case, isn’t completely unburdened by disappointment. Losses to Philadelphia, Milwaukee, Boston, and various other non-playoff teams at home; eight overtime losses (the most of any team); and the inability to fully capitalize on the easiest schedule in the league are all bound up in an essential truth: These Wizards could have accomplished more.

They still might. The playoffs start now, and with nothing better to do, the Wizards will attempt to win as many games as they can. When “Uncle” Al Harrington was asked whether his younger counterparts were mentally prepared for what was to come, he simply replied: “We better be.”

Now the Wizards will check the postseason off their conservative list and cut their teeth on the playoff pavement. For Washington’s brilliant but unpracticed young backcourt of Wall and Beal, it could prove to be a necessary step. But while the team’s veterans hold the window open for the uninitiated to take in the playoff view, one has to figure that next season, the bar will be adjustable.

Momentum is a myth

April, 18, 2014
Apr 18
11:27
PM ET
Haberstroh By Tom Haberstroh
ESPN.com
Archive
Tom Haberstroh reveals why history says the slumping Indiana Pacers are a sleeping giant.

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Predict: Nets-Raptors and Blazers-Rockets

April, 18, 2014
Apr 18
5:07
PM ET
Webb By Royce Webb
ESPN.com
Archive
We want to see what TrueHoop readers predict will happen in two series: Nets-Raptors and Blazers-Rockets.

We’re looking for your best, most accurate opinion about each series.

You can vote here: Nets-Raptors | Blazers-Rockets

We will publish the results at TrueHoop next week.

Thank you.

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 in the past 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, too, as seen in the "Bad Boys" documentary. 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 to 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
Archive
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
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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.


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