After a needlessly overwrought season that seemed to start all the way back in July with LeBron James' "Decision," the playoffs are finally here. After months of waiting, we're at a point where we don't have to qualify every on- or off-court decision with the caveat that reminds us that we're not yet at playoff time. No, we're at playoff time. It's the freakin' playoffs, cats and kittens, and I can hear your goosebumps popping from here. Gross.
In this episode, the Philadelphia 76ers take on the Miami Heat.
You tend to see this sort of series every year. The 76ers are good, the Heat are greater. The 76ers are an opportunistic offensive team that drives well and is at its best after securing a turnover and leaking out in transition, and God help you if the team's streaky shooters start hitting.
The Heat? All of that, plus more. Plus 70-win hopes and LeBron James musing aloud as to whether or not the Heat will win five or six championships. He isn't wrong for keeping his eye on that particular sky.
The 76ers are to be commended for roaring all the way to the East's sixth seed after a 3-13 start, and while the Heat aren't to be commended after their slow start (they didn't really change much outside of myriad lineup looks), this is a team to be feared. The Heat are still amongst the league's best running strictly as an on-paper group of talents, and they've yet to find a groove that doesn't stack one giant heap of talent on another.
Once they hit that groove? Look out. Could it happen in this series? Why not? Sick of me asking questions of myself while you're on the clock? Of course you are. You're already aware of the potential in Miami that has yet to be unlocked.
Philly's Lou Williams hasn't practiced with his team yet as he recovers from a nagging hamstring injury, but he has run drills, played one-on-one ball while promising that he'll be ready for Saturday's Game 1. He could be a key, as the Heat continue to try and hide Mike Bibby on the defensive end. The rebounding prowess of Elton Brand, Marreese Speights and Thaddeus Young could also swing a game or two as Joel Anthony chases down shots and Chris Bosh is distracted by belts, and Spencer Hawes' ability to nail free-throw line jumpers could draw Anthony away from the rim, but these are all best-case scenario situations for Philadelphia.
The Sixers can compete in this series merely because the Heat have no confident system in which to fall back on, and the team's focus comes and goes. Philly's focus, since December, has been pretty singular, so there's always a game or two to grab from that alone.
It's the NBA, though. Talent, even surrounded by the worst supporting cast in NBA history (and not just amongst good teams), will usually rule out.
My pick? Miami in five.
Welcome back to "PLAAAAAAAAAAYOFFS!" It's that time of year again, sports fans! This postseason, who will survive and thrive? Who will spit the bit? And who's going to come up with a third thing that rhymes?
Here to give you their made-up takes on the key X-factors, O-multiples and Zeeman effects of Heat/Sixers are 7-foot-4 Utah Jazz center-turned-celebrity motivational speaker Mark Eaton and 310-year veteran/olde-tyme crustbucket Ol' Man Howard!
Mark Eaton: This one's got to be tough for you to comment on, partner, what with you being a reserve forward on the Heat and all.
Ol' Man Howard: Sixers might sweep.
ME: Really? Wow, that's … that's shocking. You've got the two, and perhaps the three, best players in the series, home-court advantage and three straight wins over Philadelphia this season. What's got your faith flagging?
OMH: Can't stand us as a playoff team. Too much smiling; not enough haunted stares. Too much preening; not enough appreciation for fine tobacca. Too much lollygagging; too few gollywagons.
ME: What's that, now?
OMH: Those're where you did a fine, honest job, the kind of job that would've almost gotten a grudging nod of respect from your pa. If it was a wagon on the thoroughfare, passersby would remark, "Golly, that's some wagon."
ME: So they're sort of like Tommy Points?
OMH: Won't answer that. Grant an Irish entry into your mind, he'll steal your wishes.
ME: Shrewd move, Olie. Pessimistic as you might be, though, I'm going to take a page out of the book I'm giving away at my upcoming series of seminars and Opt for Optimism!
OMH: Which page is that?
ME: It's the title page. With the Spencer Hawes/Zydrunas Ilgauskas matchup being just about a wash, I think this series will come down to the shooting guard position, and I think Dwyane Wade's going to surprise some people by having a better series than Jodie Meeks. Heat in five.
OMH: The hosts above will weep as Thaddeus Young's dark alchemy wins the day. Sixers in three.
(Editor's note: Dan also likes the Heat in five.)
Eric Freeman's Reputation Index
The regular season counts, but the postseason is where reputations are made. Tracy McGrady never won a playoff series and will always be seen as a disappointment. Derek Fisher lacks several fundamental basketball skills but will always be seen as a champion because he makes big shots when it counts. Chauncey Billups owes his entire nickname to the 2004 playoffs. The point being that playoff performance skews national perception of NBA players beyond all reason. In that vein, behold the BDL Reputations Index, your guide to what's at stake for the top names in the first round.
LeBron James: The rules of LeBron's reputation are pretty set at this point: to win back the public, he's going to have to win a championship, and he may need more than one before most people really accept him again as Basketball Savior and the clear best player in the NBA. However, there is a circumstance where continual elite performance could help him win back some fans even if they run attendant with a postseason exit. The Heat have many holes as a team, and it's entirely feasible that they'll lose a series with their Big Three performing extremely well. If LeBron can average something close to a triple-double with, say, 30 points per game, he may at least be seen as something other than a loser who only fails because of some greater moral failing. It's a long shot, but LeBron can gain back some credibility just by being a terrific performer on a flawed squad.
Erik Spoelstra: Coach Spo has had a trying season, bouncing between having his team's trust and seeming overmatched seemingly every week. He's acquitted himself reasonably well, though, and virtually guaranteed himself a long career manning an NBA locker room. But the Heat are supposed to win championships, and a rough playoffs -- including, say, a difficult series against the Sixers -- may be the beginning of the end for Spoelstra in Miami. Rumors would start that Pat Riley was looking to bring in a high-profile coach (not necessarily himself), and, unfairly or not, Spo would be thought of as not good enough to create a dynasty. The Heat have to win convincingly to make sure that's not the case.
Andre Iguodala: The Sixers are constructed so that no one rotation player is considerably more important than any other: Six players average double figures in points with none higher than 15 points per game. However, within that calculus, Iguodala is the team's most talented player, contributing in many different areas and serving as a franchise linchpin. In the playoffs, a team's best player is expected to step up, but for Iguodala that doesn't necessarily mean he has to score more. In fact, he will likely see his reputation improve if he doesn't shoot much and instead adds value in as many aspects of the game as he can. No one especially believes that Iguodala is a scorer. He shouldn't try to be something he isn't.
Elton Brand: Now in his third season with the Sixers, Brand has finally managed to stay healthy and has become the team's leading scorer. In truth, his good reputation has been restored just by virtue of helping Philly to a surprising playoff berth. A strong performance in the playoffs would solidify that opinion, though, even in the event of a disappointing season in 2011-12.
My pick? The Heat in five.