Ball Don't Lie - NBA

  • The playoffs begin on Saturday, thankfully, which means it’s that lovely time of spring (and it is spring, right? It’s not going to snow again, is it?) when the minds behind Ball Don’t Lie to offer you their thoughts on the upcoming pairings in the first round of the NBA’s postseason.

    Kelly Dwyer’s Old Grey Whistle Test

    One year ago, the Indiana Pacers and Atlanta Hawks met in a first round series that was ridiculed for his boring play, Indiana’s inability to close out what felt like a lesser Hawks squad, and it’s relegation to the NBA TV end of things rather than a more nationally sponsored showcase.

    This … this doesn’t figure to change in 2014.

    Indiana, at its best, is a fearsome outfit. The group admirably paid tribute to its own fans and own potential while coming out of the gates swinging last autumn, re-stating a point with both words and play that the team treated home court advantage throughout the Eastern Conference bracket as a priority, an understandable goal considering the outfit’s Game 7 loss in Miami to the Heat in 2013. The Pacers held the NBA’s best record for a goodly chunk of the season’s first half, it more than held its own in both Indianapolis and Miami meetings with the defending champs, and it finished the season with both the top seed in the East, and a 35-6 record at home.

    It’s also finished the season on a 23-19 run, hardly a mark befitting a championship contender working with a healthy starting lineup and designs on knocking off the two-time champion Heat. Its offense sunk terribly, its particulars whined and moaned about each other on record to the media, and its top players fell off in ways that made the midseason summations of their respective seasons seem almost laughable in retrospect.

    Paul George won’t be battling Kevin Durant and LeBron James for All-NBA honors, much less MVP honors. Lance Stephenson doesn’t feel like much of a fringe All-Star anymore. Roy Hibbert may even lose out to Joakim Noah for Defensive Player of the Year honors, something that seemed unthinkable even a few weeks ago.

    And the Atlanta Hawks? They’re not exactly a needed salve, sent from on high to straighten Indiana’s ship.

    The Hawks split the season series with Indiana, with one midseason contest working as just the Pacers’ seventh loss in 35 tries, and it’s very much possible that Atlanta’s 107-88 triumph over Indiana from earlier in April acted as the Pacers’ low point. Indiana scored just 23 points in the first half of that contest, and partially as a result Indiana coach Frank Vogel decided to wipe his entire starting five off of the books for the team’s next contest in Milwaukee, a borderline unprecedented move for a team whose status as the top overall seed was still in question.

    The Pacers responded with a win over those Bucks, in a way, because they were eventually blown out by the Heat in Miami just two days later. The Hawks are the Hawks, though, one of the worst playoff teams in recent NBA lore, a squad that will have to see everything go right in order to merely take a win or two away from a Pacers team that was just a game away from the NBA Finals last season.

    Atlanta enjoyed a marvelous All-Star season from free agent signee Paul Millsap this season, but it will also be working without its best player in the injured Al Horford, led by a point guard in Jeff Teague that has been equal parts fantastic and far below average this year. The group turns the ball over more than any other team in the playoffs (though the Pacers are just one spot ahead of Atlanta), outside of Kyle Korver the team has no reason to rank second in three-pointers attempted this year, and many wondered if the Hawks should have just punted their chance at the eighth seed for basketball reasons, in order to glom onto a lower-end lottery pick.

    This is Indiana’s opponent. And though the Pacers will eventually win, all signs point to a struggle. Even if the Pacers sweep the series, things will be close from game to game.

    And things will be, unfortunately, quite ugly. So is their combined custom.

    Prediction: Pacers in six.

    Dan Devine's One Big Question

    Every postseason matchup has its own unique set of variables for each team, and prognosticator, to attempt to solve. Here's one that BDL's Dan Devine has been mulling over.

    Can the Hawks shoot the Pacers out of their defensive comfort zone?

    By now, we know what Frank Vogel wants his team to accomplish on defense. He wants to use the long arms, quick feet, agility and instincts of Paul George, Lance Stephenson and George Hill to track opposing scorers man-to-man, to clog passing lanes, and to short-circuit the ball movement that compromises defenses. He wants to protect the paint and the 3-point line above all else, refusing to help off the corners on dribble penetration and inviting ball-handlers to either pull up for low-percentage midrange jumpers or try to score over 7-foot-2 center Roy Hibbert.

    That defense works best when Hibbert, the league's preeminent obstacle, doesn't have to move very far from his dominion. It can be compromised when the opposition forces the plodding pivot to check someone who can shoot from outside accurately enough to make him pay for not staying close by.

    We've seen multiple teams deploy this sort of offensive attack against Hibbert -- the New York Knicks with now- teammate Chris Copeland, the Phoenix Suns with Markieff Morris, the Miami Heat with Chris Bosh and Udonis Haslem, etc. -- and while there's no foolproof way to consistently beat an Indiana defense that's topped the NBA in points allowed per possession two years running, this is one of the few ploys that seems to work with some level of regularity.

    Which is why, odd as it sounds, the key to the Hawks toppling the mighty Pacers very well might be a 31-year-old Macedonian rookie named Pero Antic. (He's the 6-foot-11 dude who looks like a pale, tattooed Carlos Boozer.)

    Under first-year head coach Mike Budenholzer, the Hawks have become a spread-the-floor-and-bomb-from-deep squad. Led by sharpshooter Kyle Korver, Atlanta's rotation is full of guys willing to fire from deep and able to connect at respectable clips, including front-liners All-Star Paul Millsap, DeMarre Carroll and Mike Scott. And then there's Antic, who came over from Olympiacos this summer and was pressed into duty when Al Horford went down for the season with a torn pectoral muscle.

    Antic's game has its detractors, but he fits Budenholzer's spread-and-fire ethos perfectly, and he had two of his best games of the season against these Indiana Pacers -- two games, perhaps not coincidentally, that the Hawks won handily. He scored 34 points in two meetings with Indy this season, shooting a scorching 13 for 18 from the field and 6 for 10 from 3-point land, as the Hawks repeatedly used him as a release valve to make Hibbert and the rest of Indiana's bigs pay for staying too close to home.

    They found Antic early out of Horns sets with plenty of off-ball screening that confused the defense until, all of a sudden, Antic was casting off:

    They had him set screens up top, roll to the rim and flow to the short corner, betting that Hibbert wouldn't follow:

    They had him switch it up by popping to the wing after setting his screen:

    They had him set off-ball screens for what looked like more threatening action, then pop free:

    None of this stuff is especially complicated or intricately designed; it just flows out of what Atlanta runs for primary scoring options like Millsap, Korver and Jeff Teague. That's what makes it so effective, though -- you don't tilt your defense to stop Pero Antic like he's Dirk Nowitzki, until he hurts you enough that you must treat him like a credible threat.

    Once you do, seams start appearing elsewhere, and you can exploit such openings. As detailed by SB Nation's Mike Prada, one of Atlanta's favorite half-court actions aims to either get Korver an open shot from the midrange area Indiana tends to leave open with its soft pick-and-roll coverage. If the opponent defending the screener sticks with Korver as he comes off his curl, Korver can pass back and give the screener either a run at the rim or an open midrange shot from the opposite elbow while his defender's otherwise occupied.

    If Antic and Atlanta's other bigs can force Hibbert and company to take an extra step or two outside their comfort zone, that could open up driving lanes for Teague, Lou Williams and Shelvin Mack, or afford Millsap -- who struggled mightily when defended by Hibbert or David West during the regular season -- more room to operate inside. The more chaos the Hawks can create inside, the more space their shooters will have to let it fly, and we know they're going to do that; Atlanta attempted 101 3-pointers in four games against Indy this season, connecting at a sterling 40.6 percent clip.

    If Atlanta comes out of the gate firing and hitting in Game 1 at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, the Pacers might start flashing back to the 107-88 roasting they suffered a couple of weeks back, and the Hawks might have a real shot to steal home-court advantage. But despite the Pacers' well-publicized and much-discussed struggles over the past two months, I can't shake the feeling that they're going to enter Saturday prepared to sell out to shut down the arc like they do to everybody else, recommit to funneling everything into Hibbert and rededicate themselves to punishing the opposition with West on the block. If I'm wrong, well, here's hoping it'll be in the service of seeing the sort of entertainment only giant Macedonian gunners can provide.

    Prediction: Pacers in 5.

    Eric Freeman’s Guide to Playoff Watchability

    Over the next two months, basketball fans will hear all manner of insights into key matchups, x-factors, and other series-deciding phenomena. For most people, though, watching so much basketball is a luxury or bizarre form of punishment, not a fact of life. These brave souls must know one thing: is this game between 10 men in pajamas worth the time? Eric Freeman’s Guide to Playoff Watchability attempts to answer this difficult question.

    Instead of writing some wonderful introduction to the issues at play in this series, I suggest you consider the wisdom of Twitter celebrity Dragonfly Jonez:

    Now, as someone whose livelihood depends on public interest in the NBA, I cannot fully endorse Mr. Jonez’s comment. However, he makes a compelling case. The Pacers are stumbling into the postseason, having gone 10-13 since March 2, and look in need of a reloading period to get ready for the East’s tougher challengers. The Hawks, meanwhile, are the only playoff participant to have finished under .500, have been without marquee star Al Horford for the bulk of the season, and generally seem to have considered their postseason berth a nice by-product of the season rather than the point of playing 82 games.

    In other words, this series is a one-sided affair in which the heavy favorite hasn’t even been playing well enough to recommend viewing on the basis of seeing how terribly one team can lose. It’s easy to imagine this tilt as a four- or five-game ordeal in which the Pacers control the proceedings without ever really looking like a dominant force. Spend your time elsewhere.

    Rating: 1 out of 10 Hawks Mascots on Motorcycles

    Prediction: Pacers in 5.

  • A look around the league and the web that covers it. It's also important to note that the rotation order and starting nods aren't always listed in order of importance. That's for you, dear reader, to figure out.

    C: HoopsAnalyst. Are the 2013-14 Atlanta Hawks the worst eighth playoff seed of the modern era? Somehow, strangely, no.
    PF: The Detroit News. In contrasting a previous television report, Vincent Goodwill is telling his readers that Grant Hill has no interest taking on a gig as Detroit Pistons general manager. Whatever his interest, anything would be better than Grant Hill slumming on ‘Inside Stuff.’
    SF: SB Nation. Holy lord I don’t know where to start just watch this brilliant thing Jon Bois did with Kobe Bryant meeting up with a version of himself from 16 years ago via a video game please watch this.
    SG: Sports Illustrated. This is Lee Jenkins writing about Joakim Noah, with both of them in their primes. Assuming Lee Jenkins will ever move out of his writing prime. You should probably read this.
    PG: Minnesota Star-Tribune. As we discussed last week, we’ve probably watched Rick Adelman coach his final NBA game.
    6th: SB Nation. Yes, it’s true that Carmelo Anthony is frustrated with the New York Knicks. Anyone should be, after a season like that. This is also a man who would have to turn down a five-year, $129 million contract to play for a storied franchise in a wonderful city under Phil Jackson. It’s April. We’ll come back to Carmelo in July.
    7th: New York Post. Full disclosure: Clarence Gaines Jr. is the uncle of one of my best friends, but it’s not bias that is influencing me in telling Knicks fans that he is a scout and executive that can truly help Phil Jackson in so many beneficial ways as he works toward his first offseason as Knicks personnel boss.
    8th: Grantland. Zach Lowe represents us silly League Pass folk in breaking down all the wonderful and not-so-passable things about the NBA’s 2013-14 regular season. A lovely read that I’ll be giving another look-over, as you should too.
    9th: Hardwood Paroxysm. Jack Winter echoes what the three of us talked about earlier on Thursday: Andrew Bogut will be terribly missed by the Golden State Warriors in this postseason.
    10th: Akron Beacon-Journal. Kyrie Irving gives the sort of milquetoast responses you’d respect about his future in Cleveland after yet another frustrating year with the Cavaliers.

    - - - - - - -

    Kelly Dwyer is an editor for Ball Don't Lie on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at KDonhoops@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

  • The playoffs begin on Saturday, thankfully, which means it’s that lovely time of spring (and it is spring, right? It’s not going to snow again, is it?) for the minds behind Ball Don’t Lie to offer you their thoughts on the upcoming pairings in the first round of the NBA’s postseason.

    Kelly Dwyer’s Old Grey Whistle Test

    It’s sad and more than a little enervating that the Golden State Warriors’ chances at a championship are exactly where we pegged them a year ago. They’re the same as when we left them following their second round loss to San Antonio, and last autumn when 2013-14 sparked up. The team is only going as far as the relative health of Steph Curry and Andrew Bogut will allow, and no amount of bench woes, coaching intrigue, and dodgy shooting can drag the narrative and scouting report from where it belongs. It needs Curry to dominate offensively, and Bogut to do the same on the other end, and while this may come off as too simple, one would have a hard time arguing otherwise.

    This is why the revelation of Andrew Bogut’s most recent significant injury is such an absolute downer, such a killer for a team that truly could have made some postseason noise had the matchups been in place, and the threes-and-defense philosophy fully executed. Bogut may not even be his team’s best defender, all-around demon Andre Iguodala probably takes that prize, but in spite of some intriguing defensive depth in the pivot and the possibility that the team’s brilliant shooting backcourt could still make wonderful work out of April, May and June, the Warriors’ hopes were just about dashed when it was announced that the big man would be out indefinitely with a rib injury.

    The Los Angeles Clippers don’t have their own injury woes, not to that extent, but it is always worth biting a nail or two when discussing the durability of all-world point guard Chris Paul. CP3 isn’t exactly a ligament-tearing charity case, but he has missed solid chunks of some of his NBA turns. This season’s 20-game interruption was his longest since 2010, and with the flighty Darren Collison replacing Paul in the lineup and forward Blake Griffin still working past criticism about his supposed stasis as a contributor, there was significant worry when Paul went down with a separated right shoulder over the winter.

    Famously, the Clippers went 12-6 in Chris’ absence, with Blake leading the way while boasting a fantabulous mix of point forward-isms and potent finishing from just about everywhere within that three-point line. Los Angeles didn’t seem to miss a beat following Paul’s return, reeling off a 12-2 run that saw the league’s best point guard happily passing on dominating the ball, allowing Griffin and his cohorts to run the show at times while still somehow maintaining the same assist and usage percentages.

    This is why the Doc Rivers-led crew is a championship contender. The former Celtics title-winning coach somehow found a way to eliminate the previous era’s glaring weaknesses – Griffin’s short-armed missteps, DeAndre Jordan’s clueless defensive work some 19 feet away from the goal, Paul’s ball domination – in the span of a year, and the returning Pacific Division champs have a genuine shot at something special this spring, and possibly summer.

    Golden State shouldn’t boast that same confidence, not without Bogut in place for an extended period of time. New starter Jermaine O’Neal has been a revelation in his 18th season, but even the NBA’s best potential defensive backup pivotman doesn’t approximate what Bogut provides, and rookie Ognjen Kuzmic is just too raw to be counted on in nationally televised games. The team with the ill-gotten stereotype as an offense-only squad may have to act as much against Los Angeles, ignoring the Kent Bazemores and Iguodalas in favor of something desperate. Usually pitched from 25 feet away.

    Toss in the clear enmity between the two squads, and you just have a huge disappointment. The Warriors may annoy at times, but the team’s roster is also filled with all manner of respectable characters, and there genuinely was second and third and perhaps fourth round potential with this lot. Bogut’s absence doesn’t completely decimate Golden State, and the man could still return before his team’s season ends, but those chances have been hamstrung.

    From there, it’s up to the Clippers. After years of prattling around with former administrations in charge, it’s time for this squad to follow through on what could be theirs. It has to start with a swift take down of a team it hates.

    Prediction: Los Angeles in five.

    Dan Devine's One Big Question

    Every postseason matchup has its own unique set of variables for each team, and prognosticator, to attempt to solve. Here's one that BDL's Dan Devine has been mulling over.

    Do the Warriors stand a chance without Andrew Bogut?

    Forgive me for being obvious, but after learning that the bruising Aussie is out indefinitely with a fractured rib — a break that Bogut told reporters has him "looking at a punctured lung," and that head coach Mark Jackson "all but confirmed" will keep Bogut out for the full postseason, according to Tim Kawakami of the San Jose Mercury News — it seems like the most relevant question.

    Bogut played arguably his best ball of the season against the rival Clippers, averaging just under 12 points, 11 rebounds and two combined blocks and steals in 27.5 minutes per game, shooting 67.7 percent from the field and setting a physical tone that helped keep high-flying Clippers stars Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan a bit more grounded. Willingness to push and shove aside, Bogut also stood as Golden State's best interior defender and rim protector this season; his absence figures to be a problem against a Clippers team that shot a scorching 67.7 percent in the restricted area this season, second-best in the NBA behind the LeBron James-led Miami Heat.

    Bogut held opponents to 45 percent shooting on at-rim attempts when he was in the defensive neighborhood this season, according to the NBA's SportVU player tracking data, an elite number among paint-protecting regulars. Warriors opponents took a lower share of their shots inside the paint with Bogut guarding the yard (46.4 percent of total field-goal attempts) than with him resting (47.3 percent) and connected on a lower percentage of them (49.8 percent with Bogut, 52.8 percent without). While Jackson has several other strong defenders on his roster — perimeter ace Andre Iguodala, versatile forward Draymond Green, point-checking two-guard Klay Thompson, veteran backup center Jermaine O'Neal, etc. — he doesn't have another paint deterrent of Bogut's caliber, and if the numbers from the regular-season series against the Clippers are any indication, that's a major issue for Golden State:

    • With Bogut on the floor, the Warriors outscored the Clippers by 17 points over 110 minutes in four meetings this season. Without him, L.A. was +20 in 82 minutes.

    • With Bogut on the floor, the Clippers scored an average of 105.7 points per 100 possessions, which would've ranked 10th in the NBA over the course of the full season. While that mark would be the envy of plenty of NBA teams — 20, according to my advanced math — it represented a steep drop-off from the Clippers' top-of-the-pops offensive efficiency of 109.4-per-100. When Bogut sat, the Clips shot right back up to their customary rate of scoring brilliance, pouring it in at a 109.3-per-100 rate.

    • With Bogut on the floor, the Clippers grabbed just 45.6 percent of available rebounds. When he sat, that number rose to 53.8 percent. To put that in perspective: when facing Bogut, the Clips rebounded like the dead-last-in-the-NBA Los Angeles Lakers, and when they didn't have to face him, they scarfed up caroms at a clip that would have been No. 1 with a bullet during the regular season, head and shoulders above the league-best Oklahoma City Thunder.

    • With Bogut on the floor, the Warriors were much better at defending L.A. without hacking, committing 46 personal fouls in 110 minutes. With Bogut on the bench, the Clippers drew 53 personal foul calls in 82 minutes, leading to an obscenely high free-throw rate that kept the Clipper offense humming along.

    It's worth remembering that we're only talking about a couple of hundred minutes over the span of four games, but if those trends hold up, the future looks grim for Golden State. A version of the Warriors that can't keep Griffin and Jordan off the glass, can't keep the Clippers off the foul line, and can't slow down an elite offense now firing on all cylinders thanks to the return of shooting guards J.J. Redick and Jamal Crawford is a version of the Warriors that doesn't appear to be long for the postseason world.

    The Warriors are not utterly bereft without Bogut, of course. The 17-year veteran O'Neal has played well when pressed into duty as a starter, averaging 10.5 points on 57.7 percent shooting, 7.1 rebounds and just over one block in 25 minutes per game, and he's certainly more than willing mix it up with Blake and company. But he's just one man, and there's not much behind him on the Dubs' depth chart. Sophomore Festus Ezeli isn't yet back to 5-on-5 action after missing the entire season following right knee surgery. Jackson likely won't turn to end-of-the-benchers Ognjen Kuzmić and Hilton Armstrong in the playoffs. And past MVP chants aside, I wouldn't want to hitch my wagon to Marreese Speights' defensive prowess against Chris Paul in the pick-and-roll.

    The best solution might be one that Jackson has said he'll now give longer looks: smaller lineups featuring David Lee at the five with some combination of Green, Iguodala and Harrison Barnes up front alongside Thompson and Stephen Curry in the backcourt. Such units have largely roasted the opposition offensively this season, albeit in relatively limited burn (none have seen more than 105 minutes of floor time) and could pose problems for the Clippers defense by creating gobs of space for Curry-Lee pick-and-rolls and pick-and-pops, Curry's unique brand of dribbling improvisation and ball swings that lead to open 3-pointers, much as they did against the Denver Nuggets in the first round of last year's postseason.

    But these Clippers are not last year's Nuggets, this Barnes is not last year's Barnes, and last year's injured Lee isn't this year's injured Bogut. It ought to be sensationally fun to watch Steph try to Human Torch his way past the Clips. Enjoy it while it lasts; unless Bogut winds up pulling a miraculous Lee-like recovery sooner rather than later, I don't think it'll last very long.

    Prediction: Clippers in 5.

    Eric Freeman’s Guide to Playoff Watchability

    Over the next two months, basketball fans will hear all manner of insights into key matchups, x-factors, and other series-deciding phenomena. For most people, though, watching so much basketball is a luxury or bizarre form of punishment, not a fact of life. These brave souls must know one thing: is this game between 10 men in pajamas worth the time? Eric Freeman’s Guide to Playoff Watchability attempts to answer this difficult question.

    The basketball world has awaited this series for several months. Way back in the first week of the season, the Clippers snubbed the Warriors by declining to share pre-game chapel services, a rare snub in a league where most players stay friendly when not on the court. That moment ran alongside several hotly contested games, including a Christmas barnburner that featured several scuffles and ejections. A seven-game series promised all that drama, plus the purer pleasures of watching so many exciting, athletic players in one place. Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan, Jamal Crawford, Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala, et al. — it was almost too much to handle.

    Up until this past weekend, that excitement was still palpable. However, the broken rib recently suffered by Andrew Bogut, the Warriors’ chief antagonist, has thrown all that into flux. If Bogut is out for the entire series, which seems likely, the Warriors will be forced to go small. That could be very watchable, particularly given their arsenal of three-point shooters, but Doc Rivers already starts two hyper-athletic frontcourt players and has many perimeter options at his disposal. More than perhaps any other team in the league, the Clippers can adjust to smaller lineups without sacrificing much at all.

    To be clear, this series figures to be very watchable, if only because these teams offer so much potential in the way of stylistic basketball. Yet, with Bogut out, it also figures to be somewhat one-sided. Tune in only if you’re more concerned with fun stuff than the final score.

    Rating: 6 out of 10 Recitations of Philippians 4:13

    Prediction: Clippers in 5.

  • Even as an outsider, even if you’ve just looked on from afar as an unholy confluence of unknowing sportswriter disses, unfortunate injury timing, and downright terrible executive work from a series of general managers takes the Toronto Raptors and their followers down a peg, you kind of know what it’s like to live life as a Raptor fan. It started with an embarrassing logo in 1995, the first realization that Isiah Thomas might not be cut out for such things, sportswriters just assuming that Vince Carter would not want anything to do with the fantastic city as a would-be free agent, Rafael Araujo, the post-Chris Bosh decline, on and on …

    You feel for them, which is why you feel great when the team makes it back to the playoffs, when it wins its division in spite of a year that was supposed to drive team deep into the NBA lottery, and when you warm to the fact that this young and learning Raptors team could down a batch of NBA luminaries over the next few weeks, it could move on to attempt to shake the Miami Heat in the next round, and it might serve as a destination spot under new GM Masai Ujiri.

    This is why this recently-released Raptors video was such fun to watch:

    From there, you should be convinced to read James Herbert’s fantastic take on a team gone right, in a city that’s always deserved so much more from its professional basketball club.

  • The playoffs begin on Saturday, thankfully, which means it’s that lovely time of spring (and it is spring, right? It’s not going to snow again, is it?) when the minds behind Ball Don’t Lie offer you their thoughts on the upcoming pairings in the first round of the NBA’s postseason.

    Kelly Dwyer’s Old Grey Whistle Test

    If you’re just checking in now, you’d be forgiven for wondering just how the Brooklyn Nets made it to the 2014 NBA playoffs. Actually, if you’re just checking in now, you likely missed the early season swoon these Nets cobbled together while you were paying attention to various brands of football. A team featuring Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Deron Williams would seem to be a postseason lock, as the springtime championship attempt commences.

    The Nets had to work through an extremely challenging set of conditions before righting the ship, though. Lead assistant coach Lawrence Frank was booted from rookie head coach Jason Kidd’s staff in the first month for allegedly watering down Kidd’s touch, tone and impact from the bench. Brook Lopez, by far the best player on the team at the time, was lost for the season to a foot injury in the days before Christmas. The team played a hellacious schedule, working up a series of back-to-backs and four-games-in-five-nights runs in anticipation of the team’s midseason “vacation” jaunt to play a contest in London.

    Garnett was aging before our eyes, Pierce needed months to top 40 percent from the field, many questioned Kidd’s abilities as a head man, no help via draft picks was forthcoming, and Williams’ once-stellar game was nowhere to be seen.

    The team then railed off five wins in six tries in the last days before the London trip. The break surrounding the game in England helped, the schedule de-stiffened, and the wins started piling up. Kidd had his team of oldsters playing small, with Pierce at big forward, and even the loss of Garnett (who played just five contests after February) was offset by the ascension of rookie Mason Plumlee. Suddenly, the Nets are right back to where we’d thought they’d be entering 2013-14 – unpredictable, old as hell, and seemingly one matchup away from doing some real postseason damage.

    The Toronto Raptors, meanwhile, hadn’t even made the postseason in six years, and they sure as hell weren’t supposed to be in contention heading into this season. After years of dealing for 40-some wins, new general manager Masai Ujiri dealt former stalwart shooters Andrea Bargnani and Rudy Gay for draft picks and cap relief. The team had no idea what it wanted to do with firebrand, free agent to-be point guard Kyle Lowry, and everyone involved in the organization was left awaiting further hammer strokes from the new boss in town.

    The team responded by winning. It utilized depth and Lowry’s deft touch, taking in increasingly efficient production from swingmen DeMar DeRozan and Terrence Ross. It forced heaps of turnovers and got to the line a ton, and most importantly it gave beleaguered Raptors fans something to finally cheer for outside of lottery odds.

    How long this lasts is left to be determined. The Raptors aren’t exactly shrinking violets, in spite of their relative youth (hell, the Easter Island statues look young compared to the Nets), but the team has provided some fitful play down the stretch of close games this year. Brooklyn has not – swingman Joe Johnson has enjoyed a historically clutch season towards the end of nail-biters, Pierce remains a killer go-to option late in games, and Williams has a history of being able to clear for a good look with the digits winding down.

    Lotta history there, but this is what the Nets were created for. If this series goes seven contests, a good possibility for two pretty solid teams, its term could be spread out over 15 days. That’s fantastic news for a Nets team that spends half its year in a bucket filled with ice, and not so great news for a young Raptors team that probably wanted to start this series yesterday.

    In all, though, it’s nice to see the Nets turn their season around, and these Toronto Raptors turn their franchise around. How much more “around” both teams will be this year will probably be determined by fourth-quarter play, and if the younger Raps want to earn a semblance of the name recognition that the Nets’ stars have, this is a good time to start creating positive headlines.

    Prediction: Nets in six.

    Dan Devine's One Big Question

    Every postseason matchup has its own unique set of variables for each team, and prognosticator, to attempt to solve. Here's one that BDL's Dan Devine has been mulling over.

    Are the Nets too experienced for the Raptors?

    The 2013-14 postseason begins with what might be the closest matchup on the board. The Atlantic Division foes split their season series at two wins apiece. Three of the four matchups were decided by four or fewer points, and the lone exception -- a 96-80 Raptors win in Toronto back in January -- came with Brooklyn playing the second game of a road back-to-back after a double-overtime win over the Miami Heat without Deron Williams and Kevin Garnett. Both teams have been lights out since the start of 2014, to boot.

    Brooklyn posted the East's second-best post-Jan. 1 record, going 34-17 thanks in large part to Jason Kidd's tactical switch (prompted by losing Brook Lopez for the season) to more opportunistic, long-limbed lineups featuring Garnett at the five spot, Paul Pierce to the four, Joe Johnson at small forward and Shaun Livingston alongside Williams in a two-point-guard backcourt. That five-man unit wrecked the league in limited floor time, holding opponents to a microscopic offensive efficiency (89.9 points per 100 possessions) that would have been far and away the league's stingiest D over the full season, and outscoring opponents by a whopping 17.5 points-per-100 in 129 minutes.

    When Garnett couldn't go, Mason Plumlee stepped in, and that unit kept rolling. It was much leakier defensively, as you'd expect when replacing one of the greatest defensive players ever with a freshman, but with the Duke product dunking everything, Williams-Livingston-Johnson-Pierce-Plumlee lit up defenses to the tune of 113.7 points-per-100, far above the Los Angeles Clippers' league-leading mark, in 284 minutes. The Nets finally found the on-court identity that had long eluded them -- play small(ish), play aggressive, force turnovers, take advantage of mismatches in the post and hunt 3-pointers (33 percent of their shots since Jan. 1 have come from beyond the arc, the highest share in the league) -- and it's suited them.

    Toronto also experienced a December shake-up after Rudy Gay and reserves Quincy Acy and Aaron Gray were shipped to Sacramento in exchange for swaggering Greivis Vasquez, floor-spacing Patrick Patterson, swingman John Salmons and big man Chuck Hayes. The Raptors went an East-leading 42-22 after that, and ranked as one of four teams -- and the only one from the East -- to finish in the top 10 in both points scored and allowed per possession after Jan. 1. (The three from the West: the Los Angeles Clippers, Oklahoma City Thunder and San Antonio Spurs.)

    With Gay gone, the Raps leaned into a guard-centric, pick-and-roll-heavy attack. Kyle Lowry proved himself one of the East's best point guards, averaging more than 20 points, seven assists and five rebounds per game after the All-Star break. Rising star DeMar DeRozan stepped up his season-long assault on the rim, averaging 9.1 free-throw attempts per game after the All-Star break en route to per-game career highs in points, rebounds and assists. Toronto attacks the glass on both ends, relying on Amir Johnson, Jonas Valanciunas and famed pest Tyler Hansbrough to set strong screens and do interior dirty work. Sophomore Terrence Ross hectors ball-handlers on the perimeter and soars in transition, Vasquez keeps the offense humming with the second unit, and when his shot's going down, Patterson can be a valuable X-factor -- he averaged 14.5 points per game on 47.8 percent shooting in Toronto's wins over the Nets.

    The glaring difference, of course, is experience. The Nets have it and the Raptors don't. As Eric Koreen of the National Post noted, Brooklyn's rotation members have "played approximately 10.4 times the postseason minutes" that the Raptors’ have. The gap's a bit less clear on the sidelines -- while both Kidd and Dwane Casey will be entering their first series as head coaches, Kidd's got more than 6,000 playoff minutes under his belt, while Casey took part in many postseason runs as an assistant in Seattle and Dallas.

    Pierce, Garnett, Johnson, Williams and Andrei Kirilenko are all well versed in pressure-cooker scenarios like this one. Toronto's young guns aren't. Will that tilt the series? Maybe this is bright-eyed optimism, but I don't think so.

    For one thing, as Alex Raskin of the Wall Street Journal wrote, the Nets' defense hasn't really derailed the Raptors. Brooklyn forced turnovers on the same share of Toronto's possessions (16.7 percent) as it did to the rest of the league this season, and capitalized on them at an even higher clip (19.8 points off turnovers per 48 minutes against the Raps, up from 18.4-per-48 against the league at large). Yet the Raptors still scored at a super-efficient 107 points-per-100 possessions clip against the Nets this season -- significantly higher than the Nets' full-season, post-Jan. 1, and post-All-Star defensive marks -- largely by averaging 24 3-point tries per game and drilling 38.5 percent of them. The Nets should be more focused and disruptive in the playoffs, but I'm not sure they've got the Miami-flip-the-switch-create-chaos gear that suddenly just shuts down the arc.

    I'm skeptical we'll see much game-changing play from Garnett, who's got a balky back and whom we've barely seen over the past two months. I think Ross and Johnson can hold their own defensively against Johnson and Pierce, and that Toronto's athleticism will help them avoid major breakdowns on the Nets' ball swings. The Nets have had trouble curbing point-guard production all season, and now they'll get both barrels of Lowry, who averaged 22 points, six assists and 4.8 rebounds per game against them on 50/48.1/88.2 shooting splits this season.

    Brooklyn thrives on open 3s, but Toronto has allowed the second-fewest long balls per 48 minutes since Jan. 1, while holding opponents to the league's ninth-lowest 3-point percentage. And I think home-court matters here -- while each team scored a win on its opponent's home floor this season, the Nets were just 16-25 on the road (the second-worst road record of any playoff team, ahead of only the Atlanta Hawks) and the Raptors finished 26-15 at the Air Canada Centre, including a 12-5 mark since the All-Star break.

    There are plenty of reasons to believe the Nets can move on to an eagerly anticipated second-round matchup with the Heat. But these Raptors are for real, too, and I think a national audience that hasn't seen them much this year is about to learn that.

    Prediction: Raptors in 7.

    Eric Freeman’s Guide to Playoff Watchability

    Over the next two months, basketball fans will hear all manner of insights into key matchups, x-factors, and other series-deciding phenomena. For most people, though, watching so much basketball is a luxury or bizarre form of punishment, not a fact of life. These brave souls must know one thing: is this game between 10 men in pajamas worth the time? Eric Freeman’s Guide to Playoff Watchability attempts to answer this difficult question.

    The vast majority of this year’s 16 playoff participants have been on national television many times this season. The Toronto Raptors, though, enter the postseason in the atypical position of the unknown quality. Apart from League Pass devotees, most fans just haven’t seen the Raptors this season. The casual fan is unfamiliar with the offensive strides taken by DeMar DeRozan, Kyle Lowry’s big jump towards stardom, and Amir Johnson’s excellent screens and defense. If only for the curiosity factor, the Raptors stand out as a particularly watchable team.

    The Nets might be the exact opposite — a squad with very familiar faces who were probably overexposed early this season. While their improvement since the calendar turned to 2014 and potential quasi-takeover of New York in the Knicks’ absence make the Nets a more compelling team, we all generally know what Kevin Garnett, Joe Johnson, Deron Williams, and Paul Pierce look like in the playoffs. Unless a critical mass of Duke fans need to catch up with Mason Plumlee, it’s hard to see the Nets serving as a major attraction.

    As usual, then, this series will probably come down to the quality of competition. Although the contrast in fame makes these teams interesting foils, their substantive pull will come from the fact that they’re two quality teams, if not quite conference-champion contenders, that have managed to prove themselves as worthy of our time. Among an iffy quartet of first-round series in the East, this one provides the best chance of rewarding those who follow it.

    Prediction: Nets in 6.

  • Oklahoma City Thunder superstar Kevin Durant is the NBA's likely MVP for the 2013-14 season. While LeBron James might still be the league's best player, depending on how you rate such things, there's little question that Durant has put forth the best campaign of any player. Apart from winning his fourth scoring title in five years, Durant has improved in virtually every aspect of the sport and carried OKC through several lengthy periods of absence for co-star Russell Westbrook. It's hard to imagine him having done more to help his team.

    In Wednesday night's regular season finale against the Detroit Pistons, Durant put an exclamation mark on his already amazing year. With the Thunder needing a win to lock down the West's No. 2 seed for the playoffs, the lackluster Pistons held a meaningful lead for much of the contest. Then, in the fourth quarter, Durant took over. With OKC down 111-110 and under 20 seconds on the clock, Durant took an inbounds pass, went to his left, and dunked on both Kyle Singler and Greg Monroe for the game-winning dunk. Watch it here:

    The Thunder's 112-110 win secured a 59-23 record and a first-round matchup with the Memphis Grizzlies. Durant finished with 42 points on 14-of-30 shooting, plus six assists and four rebounds. He also had a fantastic dunk over Andre Drummond earlier in the game.

    Naturally, Durant will not rest on his forthcoming MVP trophy. He has designs on his first title, and the Thunder figure to have roughly as good a chance as anyone else to get it. We'll find out over the next two months.

    - - - - - - -

    Eric Freeman is a writer for Ball Don't Lie on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at efreeman_ysports@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

    Stay connected with Ball Don't Lie on Twitter @YahooBDL and "Like" BDL on Facebook for year-round NBA talk, jokes and more.

  • Heading into the 2013-14 NBA season, many observers and prognosticators expected the New York Knicks to take a step back from the 54-28 record they put up en route to winning the Atlantic Division and making it to the Eastern Conference semifinals last year. (I mean, when you add Andrea Bargnani in the offseason, you've got to take some type of hit.) Here at BDL, we pegged the Knicks at 49-33 — a five-game drop-off that would make it tough to maintain their spot atop the Atlantic, but still figured to keep them comfortably in the top eight of the Eastern Conference.

    Others were a bit less bullish, picking the Knicks to fall closer to .500. One preview, though, raised an awful lot of eyebrows by projecting Mike Woodson's club to sink like a stone in the standings.

    ESPN Insider's prediction for the Knicks' season, as forecast using Kevin Pelton's SCHOENE projection system, included a record of 37-45 — a staggering 17-win decline predicated heavily on an anticipated drop in 3-point shooting accuracy after losing the likes of Steve Novak, Chris Copeland and Jason Kidd, cramped spacing resulting in fewer and lower-quality looks for Carmelo Anthony, and the onset of age taking its toll on the many veterans that made up the Knicks' roster.

    As you might expect, the Knicks didn't take too kindly to a prediction that they'd freefall from division champs and No. 2 seed in the East all the way down to well-below-.500 and near the bottom of the playoff bracket.

    From ESPN New York's Matt Ehalt:

    "Sometimes there's glitches in the computer," said Anthony, who added he doesn't pay attention to predictions. "That's all I got to say." [...]
    “Do they play? It’s a computer system. So I don’t think computers run up and down the floor. You still gotta play the game," Knicks coach Mike Woodson said. "I don’t get caught up into that. Bottom line is we take it one game at a time and put our best foot forward and we try to win. That’s what it’s all about.
    "I have no control over the computers, I really don’t," he added. "All I can control is our team and how we play, and that’s all I’m going to try to do.”

    As you might've heard, a funny thing happened on the way to proving those hateful computers wrong.

    Things started badly — the general manager fired a month before the start of the season, an owner expecting a championship despite mismatched parts that seemed worse than last year's model, the reigning Sixth Man of the Year both suspended for testing positive for weed and rehabilitating from a post-contract-signing knee surgery, etc. They got worse, with buzzer-beating losses, Tyson Chandler's season-scuttling broken leg, embarrassing losses in matinee games at Madison Square Garden, the tyranny of the orange alternate jerseys, and a metric ton of other missteps en route to records of 3-13, 9-21, and 21-40.

    The Knicks were bad. Remarkably, consistently bad. Frustratingly, relentlessly, bafflingly bad. Bargnani's-shot-against-Milwaukee bad. Holiday-ruining, catatonia-inducing, nearly-impossible to defend bad. Protest-in-front-of-the-Garden bad. Hire-the-Zen-Master-to-make-it-all-better bad. And, as it turned out, just-as-bad-as-the-computer-said bad.

    The Knicks beat the Atlantic Division champion Toronto Raptors, 95-92, on Wednesday night in their final game of the 2013-14 regular season. It was the last game the Knicks will play this season, because they were eliminated from playoff contention last Saturday. The Knicks ended the season on a positive note, having won 16 of their final 21 games, including a pair of wins over the No. 3-seeded Raptors to go with victories over the No. 4 Chicago Bulls and No. 5 Brooklyn Nets in the final week.

    They also ended the season with a record of 37-45. Exactly, 100 percent, bang-on the number spit out by SCHOENE and spat upon by the Knicks lo those many moons ago.

    'Melo wasn't wrong when he said that sometimes there are glitches in the computer. After all, SCHOENE projected the Detroit Pistons to finish fifth in the East while the Washington Wizards and Charlotte Bobcats missed the playoffs; it expected the Minnesota Timberwolves and Denver Nuggets to make the postseason while the Golden State Warriors and Portland Trail Blazers watched from home; and it anticipated the Phoenix Suns finishing dead last in the Western Conference. (Not that it was alone there.) When it comes to the Knicks, though, one thing's crystal clear as we close the book on the 2013-14 season: the glitches weren't in the computer. They were everywhere else.

    On the plus side, while the Knicks won't be among the 16 teams competing for the chance to hoist the O'Brien trophy in late June, Wednesday's win did make New York one kind of champion:

    Congratulations to everyone in the Knicks organization for winning the 2013-14 NBA Championship Belt. We eagerly await your first defense in about 6 1/2 months.

    - - - - - - -

    Dan Devine is an editor for Ball Don't Lie on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at devine@yahoo-inc.com or follow him on Twitter!

    Stay connected with Ball Don't Lie on Twitter @YahooBDL, "Like" BDL on Facebook and follow BDL's Tumblr for year-round NBA talk, jokes and more.

  • After nearly six full months and 82 games for each of the NBA's 30 teams, the regular season now gives way to the postseason. With no clear favorite, a massively competitive Western Conference, and two big rivals atop the Eastern Conference, this year's playoffs figure to be worth the wait.

    Without further ado, let's take a quick look at the first-round matchups, along with full schedules (all times Eastern and some quick analysis. (We'll publish in-depth previews for every series later this week.)

    WESTERN CONFERENCE

    No. 1 San Antonio Spurs (62-20) vs. No. 8 Dallas Mavericks (49-33)

    Game 1: Sunday, April 20, at San Antonio, 1:00PM on TNT

    Game 2: Wednesday, April 23, at San Antonio, 8:00PM on NBA TV

    Game 3: Saturday, April 26, at Dallas, 4:30PM on TNT

    Game 4: Monday, April 28, at Dallas, 9:30PM on TNT

    Game 5*: Wednesday, April 30, at San Antonio, TBD

    Game 6*: Friday, May 2, at Dallas, TBD

    Game 7*: Sunday, May 4, at San Antonio, TBD

    The eternally effective Spurs bounced back from last June's heartbreaking NBA Finals loss to finish with the league's best record, due in large part to the strengths of head coach Gregg Popovich and the mainstay trio of Tony Parker, Tim Duncan, and Manu Ginobili. The Mavericks return to the playoffs after a one-year absence and boast Dirk Nowitzki and Monta Ellis as offensive leaders. San Antonio swept the season series 4-0 and looks like the favorite this year, as well.

    No. 4 Houston Rockets (54-28) vs. No. 5 Portland Trail Blazers (54-28)

    Game 1: Sunday, April 20, at Houston, 9:30PM on TNT

    Game 2: Wednesday, April 23, at Houston, 9:30PM on TNT

    Game 3: Friday, April 25, at Portland, 10:30PM on ESPN

    Game 4: Sunday, April 27, at Portland, 9:30PM on TNT

    Game 5*: Wednesday, April 30, at Houston, TBD

    Game 6*: Friday, May 2, at Portland, TBD

    Game 7*: Sunday, May 4, at Houston, TBD

    With All-Stars Dwight Howard and James Harden, plus a strong supporting cast that includes the multi-talented Chandler Parsons, the Rockets have a solid chance at representing the West in the NBA Finals. The Blazers cooled down after a scintillating start to the season, but All-Stars LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard present a formidable challenge for any opponent. Expect a high-scoring series from two of the NBA's most efficient offenses.

    No. 3 Los Angeles Clippers (57-25) vs. No. 6 Golden State Warriors (51-31)

    Game 1: Saturday, April 19, at Los Angeles, 3:30PM on ABC

    Game 2: Monday, April 21, at Los Angeles, 10:30PM on TNT

    Game 3: Thursday, April 24, at Golden State, 10:30PM on TNT

    Game 4: Sunday, April 27, at Golden State, 3:30PM on ABC

    Game 5*: Tuesday, April 29, at Los Angeles, TBD

    Game 6*: Thursday, May 1, at Golden State, TBD

    Game 7*: Saturday, May 3, at Los Angeles, TBD on TNT

    New head coach Doc Rivers guided the Clippers to their second-consecutive division title as Chris Paul provided his usual peerless point guard play and Blake Griffin elevated from All-Star to genuine MVP candidate. Known for their offensive firepower and the outside shooting of Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, the Warriors struggled to score efficiently at times this season and now face the absence of center Andrew Bogut, out indefinitely with a serious broken rib injury. These teams do not like each other, having engaged in several scuffles this regular season, and figure to get into a few more regardless of the series result.

    No. 2 Oklahoma City Thunder (59-23) vs. No. 7 Memphis Grizzlies (50-32)

    Game 1: Saturday, April 19, at Oklahoma City, 9:30PM on ESPN

    Game 2: Monday, April 21, at Oklahoma City, 8:00PM on TNT

    Game 3: Thursday, April 24, at Memphis, 8:00PM on TNT

    Game 4: Saturday, April 26, at Memphis, 9:30PM on ESPN

    Game 5*: Tuesday, April 29, at Oklahoma City, TBD

    Game 6*: Thursday, May 1, at Memphis, TBD

    Game 7*: Saturday, May 3, at Oklahoma City, TBD on TNT

    The Thunder have been without star point guard Russell Westbrook for several long stretches of the season due to knee trouble, but Kevin Durant has made up for his teammate's absence with performances that should earn him his first MVP award. After early injuries, including a serious one to linchpin Marc Gasol, the Grizzlies returned to their typical grit-n-grind ways to get back into the playoff picture. This series represents a rematch of last spring's conference semifinals, in which the Grizzlies pushed around the Westbrook-less Thunder.

    EASTERN CONFERENCE

    No. 1 Indiana Pacers (56-26) vs. No. 8 Atlanta Hawks (38-44)

    Game 1: Saturday, April 19, at Indiana, 7:00PM on ESPN

    Game 2: Tuesday, April 22, at Indiana, 7:00PM on TNT

    Game 3: Thursday, April 24, at Atlanta, 7:00PM on NBA TV

    Game 4: Saturday, April 26, at Atlanta, 2:00PM on TNT

    Game 5*: Monday, April 28, at Indiana, 8:00PM on NBA TV

    Game 6*: Thursday, May 1, at Atlanta, TBD

    Game 7*: Saturday, May 3, at Indiana, TBD on TNT

    The Pacers tailed off considerably with a 10-13 record since March 2, but this team, led by All-Stars Roy Hibbert and Paul George, remains dangerous and stands very good odds of supplanting the Miami Heat as conference champions. Meanwhile, the Hawks made the playoffs largely by default in a top-heavy East and didn't consider the accomplishment especially relevant to their long-term goals. Despite Indiana's recent struggles, it would be downright shocking for this series to go Atlanta's way.

    No. 4 Chicago Bulls (48-34) vs. No. 5 Washington Wizards (44-38)

    Game 1: Sunday, April 20, at Chicago, 7:00PM on TNT

    Game 2: Tuesday, April 22, at Chicago, 9:30PM on TNT

    Game 3: Friday, April 25, at Washington, 8:00PM on ESPN

    Game 4: Sunday, April 27, at Washington, 1:00PM on ABC

    Game 5*: Tuesday, April 29, at Chicago, TBD

    Game 6*: Thursday, May 1, at Washington, TBD

    Game 7*: Saturday, May 3, at Chicago, TBD on TNT

    Despite losing star point guard Derrick Rose to yet another season-ending knee injury, the Bulls bounced back with their trademark tenacity and an MVP-type season from center Joakim Noah. The Wizards have rebounded from several years of franchise-wide malaise, primarily due to the emergence of star point guard John Wall. The battle-tested Bulls and upstart Wizards provide an interesting contrast.

    No. 3 Toronto Raptors (48-34) vs. No. 6 Brooklyn Nets (44-38)

    Game 1: Saturday, April 19, at Toronto, 12:30PM on ESPN

    Game 2: Tuesday, April 22, at Toronto, 8:00PM on NBA TV

    Game 3: Friday, April 25, at Brooklyn, 7:00PM on ESPN2

    Game 4: Sunday, April 27, at Brooklyn, 7:00PM on TNT

    Game 5*: Wednesday, April 30, at Toronto, TBD

    Game 6*: Friday, May 2, at Brooklyn, TBD

    Game 7*: Sunday, May 4, at Toronto, TBD  

    The Raptors went from lottery participants to one of the East's best teams after a December trade of highly paid forward Rudy Gay, with All-Star DeMar DeRozan and point guard Kyle Lowry having breakout seasons. The Nets were one of the league's biggest disappointments until the calendar turned to 2014, when their considerable talent meshed and first-year head coach Jason Kidd began to get more of a handle on his squad. This series could be one of the most competitive of the first round.

    No. 2 Miami Heat (54-28) vs. No. 7 Charlotte Bobcats (43-39)

    Game 1: Sunday, April 20, at Miami, 3:30PM on ABC

    Game 2: Wednesday, April 23, at Miami, 7:00PM on TNT

    Game 3: Saturday, April 26, at Charlotte, 7:00PM on ESPN

    Game 4: Monday, April 28, at Charlotte, 7:00PM on TNT

    Game 5*: Wednesday, April 30, at Miami, TBD

    Game 6*: Friday, May 2, at Charlotte, TBD

    Game 7*: Sunday, May 4, at Miami, TBD

    The two-time defending champion Heat will attempt to become the first team to win three titles in a row since the Los Angeles Lakers of 2000 through 2002. The Bobcats were one of the league's surprise teams after two historically bad seasons, with offseason pickup Al Jefferson playing well enough to earn All-NBA consideration and the defense improving considerably. Nevertheless, the Heat are an overwhelming favorite to make this a short series.

    - - - - - - -

    Eric Freeman is a writer for Ball Don't Lie on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at efreeman_ysports@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

    Stay connected with Ball Don't Lie on Twitter @YahooBDL and "Like" BDL on Facebook for year-round NBA talk, jokes and more.

  • Tuesday marked the one-year anniversary of two pressure-cooker bombs exploding near the finish line of the 2013 Boston Marathon, an attack that killed three people and injured 264 others. It was an unspeakable tragedy that shook Boston — and the country — to its core, and touched countless lives. But the city's response to in the aftermath of the attack — the tireless work of Boston police officers, firefighters and emergency personnel, the selfless heroism of civilians like Carlos Arredondo, etc. — also showcased the very best of the character and fortitude that Boston could offer.

    As Boston and its residents began the long and difficult journey of returning to normalcy, the city's sports teams — the Boston Celtics, the Boston Bruins and perhaps most of all the eventual World Series champion Boston Red Sox, led by the famously quotable David Ortiz — played a significant role in giving Bostonians something to band together and rally behind, common colors and causes to celebrate. After the bombings, the Celtics donned special warm-up shirts and jersey patches to honor the victims and survivors alike, and with this year's model of the Celtics set to close out their season on Wednesday night at home against the Washington Wizards, point guard and captain Rajon Rondo took it upon himself to show a similar sign of support.

    While Rondo was ruled out of Wednesday's season finale due to a strained hamstring, he still went ahead with his plan to wear the special sneakers that Anta, the Chinese apparel brand with whom he has an endorsement deal, made specifically for this occasion. The sneakers feature the initials of every victim of the attack, with the now famous "BOSTON STRONG" slogan and the number "41513" — representing the date (April 15, 2013) of the tragedy — on the tongue.

    Here's one look, from the Instagram account of Celtics strength and conditioning coach Bryan Doo:

    Here's another, from Comcast SportsNet New England sideline reporter Abby Chin:

     And a third, from NESN.com's Ben Watanabe:

    And a postgame collage from the man himself:

    “Coach [Brad Stevens] brought it to our attention that this is a special week in Boston,” Rondo said, according to Mark Murphy of the Boston Herald. “It’s a great time to play sports and give the fans something to cheer about — keep their spirits high.”

    Rondo's cool, kind and thoughtful gesture also afforded an opportunity for the point guard to get in one last bit of gentle rookie razzing before the end of the season, according to Jay King of MassLive.com:

    While in the locker room, teammate Kelly Olynyk asked Rondo if he plans to run the marathon in the sneakers. The point guard raised his eyebrows in response before saying that if he could run, he would be playing with the shoes on.

    Rondo said he plans to donate the sneakers after the game to the One Fund, a charitable organization founded in the aftermath of the explosions to help those most significantly affected by the tragedy.

    - - - - - - -

    Dan Devine is an editor for Ball Don't Lie on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at devine@yahoo-inc.com or follow him on Twitter!

    Stay connected with Ball Don't Lie on Twitter @YahooBDL, "Like" BDL on Facebook and follow BDL's Tumblr for year-round NBA talk, jokes and more.

  • This Los Angeles Lakers season was always going to be a trying one full of challenges, but the reality has been something akin to a worst-case scenario. L.A.'s most popular squad enters Wednesday night's season finale at the San Antonio Spurs with a 26-55 record, second-worst in the Western Conference and sixth-worst in the entire NBA. The franchise will have to consider many options this summer as they attempt to reload and return to relevance.

    The most bizarre aspect of this terrible season, though, has been the relative absence of Lakers icon Kobe Bryant. In his 18th season, Kobe managed to participate in only six games as he struggled to recover from a torn Achilles tendon and subsequent injuries. He has been a presence around the Lakers, but he hasn't been the sort of ever-present force that has made him the NBA's most popular active player around the world.

    It now appears that Bryant has ended his 2013-14 responsibilities with the Lakers a little earlier than originally intended. As reported by Mike Bresnahan of the Los Angeles Times, Kobe has left the country ahead of both the team's home finale at Staples Center and Wednesday's season finale:

    Bryant went to France with family members either Tuesday or Wednesday, the Los Angeles Times has learned. The Lakers conclude their season Wednesday night against the San Antonio Spurs.

    A team spokesman said he was unaware of the situation and referred a reporter to Bryant's agent, Rob Pelinka, who did not immediately return a phone call. Bryant has been in a surly mood since the team's fortunes started sagging, muttering under his breath at last month's team photo that he doesn't like associating with a team so many games under .500. [...]

    Bryant was supposed to address Lakers fans before the team's home finale Sunday but showed up at Staples Center near halftime because of a migraine headache, a Lakers spokesman said. Instead of Bryant, Nick Young grabbed a microphone before tip-off against Memphis and called Lakers fans "the best in the world."

    Shortly after this report surfaced, Bryant tweeted about what he plans on doing to this terrible season:

    These sort of actions might be controversial for any other player in the league, but Bryant's position with the Lakers is virtually without comparison. As the team's longtime star, Kobe has taken on near-mythic qualities for Lakers fans. If he chose to leave town a bit early, then it must have been the right call. It's not even as if he's acting out against the team — the tweet's references to the Buss family and improved fortunes next season speaks to his commitment to the Lakers. (Getting paid $48.5 million over the next two seasons probably doesn't hurt either.)

    That's not to say that the Lakers figure to be particularly happy about Kobe's actions. Teams expect players to honor their responsibilities, even when injured, and a player heading off to Europe before the season's close isn't a great look. Yet Kobe is not any other player, and the Lakers have often considered the team's needs to be synonymous with his own. That might seem like a misplacement of priorities, but it actually makes some sense. Given Bryant's standing with the franchise, his public image reflects upon that of the team. It behooves them to not make too big a deal out of his trip.

    And, really, it's probably in the Lakers' best interest to call as little attention to this season as possible. As Kobe says, it was a season best compared to excrement. Flush it — plunge if necessary — and let 2014-15 serve as the air freshener.

    - - - - - - -

    Eric Freeman is a writer for Ball Don't Lie on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at efreeman_ysports@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

    Stay connected with Ball Don't Lie on Twitter @YahooBDL and "Like" BDL on Facebook for year-round NBA talk, jokes and more.

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