Around the Association
MVP: We'll remember the last-second, game-winning layup most, but Andre Miller dominated the entire fourth quarter. The 37-year-old scored 18 of his game-high 28 points in the final stanza, almost single-handedly keeping the stubborn Warriors at bay.
X factor: Golden State led 62-58 with 3:19 left in the third quarter, but Denver closed on a 14-4 run to end the period that proved too much to overcome. Corey Brewer hit two 3-pointers during the Nuggets' binge, and from there the scoring floodgates were open.
That was ... emotionally exhausting: Both teams saved the most exciting and potentially disheartening action for last -- Miller's heroics, Steph Curry's nearly game-saving 3-pointer and a right leg injury to David Lee marked a wild, wild finish.
MVP: For those hoping for an extension of his April brilliance, Melo's helter-skelter outing (36 points on 29 shots) was as sobering as it was indispensable. If the C's can make it this hard consistently, Bockers beware.
X factor: Turnovers. The Celtics committed 20 of them, including 15 by way of steals -- a bevy of those at crucial points down the stretch. Many applauded the Rondo-less offense for its intermittent dynamism, but this is the flip side.
That was ... a heckuva start. Only fitting that this year's playoffs launched with these two ancient rivals doing their parts to help lead a bewildered city -- and country -- back to normalcy. Solidarity expressed, the bad blood rejoined. More please!
MVP: Brook Lopez. Best scoring big in the NBA? Best scoring big in the NBA. With Joakim Noah too dinged-up to stay in the game for long, Lopez was a force inside and proved too difficult for Chicago's depleted bigs to guard. He nailed all of his foul shots, too, and led the first wave of offense that put the game out of sight.
X factor: Gerald Wallace. This was literally Wallace's best game in months, and maybe of the entire year. He didn't miss a shot until the third quarter, scoring six straight points at one stretch while providing his characteristically frenetic defense for a balanced effort that's been missing during his season-long shooting slump.
That was ... reassuring: There isn't a better way to kick off franchise history than by pacing an easy blowout victory over a team that plenty of pundits picked to win. It's just one game, yes, but all of the fan base's worries were absolved as almost every player did well, save for a few Jerry Stackhouse air balls.
The Pressure's On Carmelo
If now isn't the time, it'll never happen.
Not for the foreseeable future, anyway, for these New York Knicks. Not for a city craving a return to basketball relevancy beyond 82 regular-season games. And certainly not for Carmelo Anthony, the league's scoring champion and viable MVP candidate, under immense pressure to produce now more than ever before -- no matter what he says to the contrary.
It is perfectly within Melo's right to utter "No! None at all!" when asked if there's additional pressure resting on his broad shoulders. But taking into account his 1-8 playoff record as a Knick, his 17-38 career playoff record and just one -- yes, one! -- trip beyond the first round in nine postseason appearances, it's appropriate for anyone else to consider such banter utter nonsense and to make sure Melo knows exactly what's expected of him.
Let it be said here that the Knicks will win this first-round series versus the Boston Celtics in six games. That victory will involve the Knicks simply being a better team, having more depth and more firepower. It won't hurt that Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce have aged, Rajon Rondo is out for the season, and Ray Allen is busy trying to win a title in Miami.
Yet the reality is none of that should matter for the Knicks this year, at this moment, because they have Melo -- a man whose hunger and drive should supersede the 28.7 points he averaged per game this season.
How many times do you have to lose? When does fatigue kick in from watching his boys from the 2003 draft class (LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh) enjoy the kind of celebrations that have evaded Melo for his entire career?
"We ain't thinking about Miami right now," Anthony told reporters Thursday. "We'll let Milwaukee have to deal with that problem. We've got a big task on our hands, and that's the Celtics. No way we should be thinking about Miami at this time. We have a big enough task of our own."
Melo is correct. The Knicks should not be thinking about the Miami Heat at all, not with KG and Pierce on deck -- two individuals with a championship on their résumés -- along with coach Doc Rivers, who seems to exhibit a heightened level of excellence around this time of year.
It's important to acknowledge that Avery Bradley could cause Raymond Felton problems. Tyson Chandler and Kenyon Martin might not be 100 percent, no matter what they say. And J.R. Smith, regardless of his 18.1 points per game and imminent Sixth Man of the Year Award, is still a potential wild card -- purely due to the kind of defense Boston is capable of playing.
But if you're Anthony, you have to recognize that a scoring sensation such as yourself can't get outplayed by Jeff Green.
Omit Melo from the equation and the Celtics win this series. Count on Melo being the prolific, versatile scoring machine he has primarily been throughout his entire career and this should not be a series the Knicks end up losing.
"I'm 100 percent baby," Chandler told me at the premiere of Amar'e Stoudemire's documentary, "In the Moment," on Thursday. "As I told folks earlier, this is the best I've felt in a long time. It actually was a blessing in disguise I was able to get that time off, because now I'll have fresh legs throughout the playoffs. I'm excited about this long, long run we're about to endure.
"You know it's going to be a physical series because it's Boston. It's playoff basketball. It's two teams who don't like each other. But we're prepared for this. We don't have a choice."
Actually, the Knicks do.
Without a productive Melo, the Knicks have all the excuses in the world. Martin's knee. Both of Stoudemire's knees. Chandler's neck. Rasheed Wallace's retirement. Pablo Prigioni's ankle sprain. Bad luck. Questionable ownership. An inferiority complex. The Celtics, Pacers and Heat.
The same can't be said for Melo.
It's his team. His time. And if ever there was an argument to be made for it being his destiny, now would be the time.
Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant are not standing in his way this time. Neither are Tim Duncan and the San Antonio Spurs. There's no shame in losing to LeBron and the Heat, but being the No. 2 seed in the East comes with expectations. And that entails extending your playoff life beyond the first round for a second time in your career and beating everyone leading up to the Heat.
"It's been a long road, a long roller coaster," Knicks coach Mike Woodson told reporters Thursday, reflecting on the season. "We hung on as a team and put ourselves in the best position we possibly could. Despite our injuries, the fact that we are committed, we overcame."
They overcame an abundance of injuries during the season. Enough so that they were able to win the Atlantic Division for the first time since 1994, win at least 50 games for the first time since 1999-2000 and capture the second seed in the East.
So a berth in the Eastern Conference finals isn't too much to ask.
Especially from Melo.
Will good Melo or bad Melo show up?
Elhassan: That all depends on whether the Knicks' perimeter shooters are on their game. Anthony tends to revert back to his bad Melo ways when the offensive system is failing, feeling a need to carry the team. This leads to a stagnation of the offense, with players standing around and watching Anthony as he jab steps from the mid-post before putting up a contested 15-footer. The Celtics will try mix up the defensive looks they give Anthony, making it tougher for him to decide whether to kick out or take his time against what appears to be one-on-one coverage. Ultimately, it comes down to his trust in his teammates to keep the defense honest.
Doolittle: The answer won't be determined by how often Anthony shoots but where he shoots from. He averaged 25 shots per game during the Knicks' strong finish, and the team leads the NBA in offensive efficiency during that span. During the early season New York spurt, Anthony split his shots from midrange and at the rim evenly. Since March 18, he and the Knicks have both been on fire, but he has reverted to lots of elbow jumpers. Even while finishing strong overall, he went a combined 40-for-103 against the elite defenses of Boston, Memphis, Chicago and Indiana.
NBA on ESPN Radio Interviews
NBA Video Channel
Both teams are hurting. How much will injuries play a role in this series?
Elhassan: Expect injuries to be a major concern for both teams. Obviously, Stephen Curry's ankles are and probably will always be a source of concern for the Warriors, but much of Golden State's hopes for success beyond a mere playoff appearance lie with Andrew Bogut, who has battled injuries all season. Bogut's ability to protect the rim and rebound is vital, but he also presents a legitimate post presence and facilitator on the offensive end (when healthy).
The Nuggets, on the other hand, have dealt with injuries to key personnel down the stretch, most notably Danilo Gallinari's torn ACL. The main difference is Denver has the depth to survive these absences.
Doolittle: Since Gallinari was injured, Denver has won five of six while ranking in the top seven in efficiency on both ends of the floor. The thing about Denver's depth is that it's not just a fully-stocked rotation. The non-rotation group of players is probably the best in the league. Recently Anthony Randolph and Evan Fournier have stepped up, and if more injuries happen, Timofey Mozgov is on hand. The Nuggets are well positioned to overcome injuries. Golden State signed Dwayne Jones -- it really needs Bogut and Andris Biedrins to be healthy enough to prevent Jones-as-paint-protector scenarios.
What is the most significant change in this series (for both teams) since last season?
Elhassan: Both rosters have undergone major changes. The Clippers brought in an almost entirely new supporting cast to help Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, most notably Sixth Man of the Year candidate Jamal Crawford and versatile big Lamar Odom. Meanwhile, the Grizzlies consummated two midseason trades, highlighted by the deal that sent Rudy Gay to Toronto.
You can argue that the Clippers upgraded their talent while Memphis upgraded its "fit," bringing in players who don't need the ball as much as Gay does. The addition of Odom to L.A. and Ed Davis to Memphis re-emphasizes the need among both teams to win the frontcourt battle.
Doolittle: For Memphis, it's obviously the transition at small forward from Gay to Tayshaun Prince, while for the Clippers it's the souped-up bench with Crawford, Matt Barnes and Eric Bledsoe. By refocusing their offense, the Grizzlies have improved their offense by 3.5 points per 100 possessions since the trade with Toronto while remaining an excellent defensive team.
Meanwhile, Paul's plus-minus has declined by 7.3 points over last season, and Griffin's has dropped by a staggering 17.5 points. But it's not because either player has slipped at all -- the Clippers' bench is just that much better.