The Oklahoma City Thunder did not make the playoffs, and this fact alone deferred some of my predictions for the 2014-2015 championship contenders. Not only has a last-minute elimination of a crowd-favorite interrupted a usual prediction-making process, but the absence of an expected presence has shaken usual excitement for Western Conference match-ups. Specifically, because Russell Westbrook performed an MVP-caliber season in the sudden departures of his MVP-teammate, Kevin Durant, witnesses of such leadership look forward to its fulfillment with a postseason. However, leadership has risen another team to the playoff occasion in Anthony Davis and the New Orleans Pelicans. After being selected as a first-time All-star in February, Anthony Davis now has a chance to represent the Pelicans with a playoff spot for the first time since being drafted in 2012. With the regular season, comes surprises like the Pelicans above Thunder, and the surprise of Anthony Davis and the Pelicans against the Golden State Warriors in the post-season has not fallen short. The juxtaposition of a more established team being replaced by a building team still ignites the playoffs, which sometimes juxtaposes our predictions, expectations, and favoritism during the off-season. Yet still, inspires a courage create them, so below is my 2014-2015 take on some interesting entrances, starting with the developing Pelicans and ending with another surprise team, Atlanta Hawks.
New Orleans Pelicans
Along with his All-star selection, came a lead in most blocks, which became one of the huge plays to clinch the playoffs for New Orleans. On April 15, The Pelicans sent the San Antonio Spurs to the locker room in a 108-103 bout. Anticipation for a tie-breaker preceded the Pelicans-Spurs game, as New Orleans and OKC were not only battling each other for the 8th seed, but battling teams who long-ago clinched their playoff spots. For the Pelicans to beat the defending champions is a testament to their productivity against other key Western Conference teams. Although New Orleans lacks the experience to candidly defeat a returning Warriors team with conquest, they do have the enthusiasm to compete for a first-round shocker. “The Brow” will not have to compete on his own, with a host of stunning point guards in Evans, Holiday, Gordon, and the newly-required Norris Cole, who brings 2 rings worth of experience from the Miami Heat. Anthony Davis will have to at times, however, recognize when to make plays and when to take over, which he is no stranger to from his accelerating 2 years in the NBA. As one of the best basketball sayings go, ” Players win games, but teams win championships,” and nothing can be better than a young Davis leading an improving New Orleans to playoff aspirations.
Considering lead showmanship, the Houston Rockets are an obvious Western Conference favorite, with the unique James Harden. Houston has the depth that many teams desire to go to the Finals with, let alone compete in the first round. Very little can be done to stop a 2-seeded Rockets team, except that their first-round match-up is against a versatile Dallas Mavericks, with the substitution strategies of Rick Carlisle. Having to deal with the veteran finesse of Dallas may be testing to a grooming Rockets, but if James Harden can muster some accurate teamball into his isolation game, Rockets v. Mavericks can be a shorter series than expected.
I wanted so badly to write about the Portland Trailblazers here, instead of the Grizzles, and I’m unsure if it’s because of the usual, “let’s face it,” monkey-in-the-middle queasiness of the 4th-5th seed match-up that splits the top and lower tier, or if Memphis may actually upset the more exciting Trailblazers. The Trailblazers have been setting Portland on fire since LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lilliard teamed up post-Brandon Roy, but the gritty Grizzlies have positional weight to compete against anyone. Memphis also had what many call a “quiet season,” which scares most in the post-season because teams who seemingly make their way without much hype cannot be advertised or predictable beyond their wins and losses. For their traditional regular season swiftness, the Grizzlies have established a dominant reputation in the post-season, and Portland will undoubtedly have their, “Let’s face it” moment in the first-round against Memphis. With a recovering front court, and conducive activity from their back court, the Memphis Grizzlies can control some of the tempo from Portland.
San Antonio Spurs
Let’s face it: The San Antonio Spurs are in the playoffs. Let’s face it: In spite of who their opponents are, expectations are high. San Antonio does not have a clear, necessary advantage over a thriving L.A. Clippers team with a confident Blake Griffin, smart Chris Paul, and experienced Doc Rivers, which resemble a building Spurs team in their younger championship days against franchises like the L.A. Lakers. But let’s face it: The Spurs are in the playoffs a year after winning their 5th title, and the Clippers will have to rely on their variety bench to trick the Spurs into a loss.
The Celtics are interesting for several reasons: 1) They made the playoffs this year; 2) They made the playoffs, following the loss of Rajon Rondo; 3) They made the playoffs above a hot Miami and arriving Pacers. All 3 reasons should give them confidence to compete against the Cleveland Cavaliers, who are interesting for obvious reasons. Boston’s recent decisions concerning both players and coaches will be fun to watch against a team who made similar decisions to spring them to the playoffs. The acquisition of Brad Stevens as Head Coach can finally show itself worthy, and the future couldn’t be brighter for Boston. Expect Coach Stevens to strategize his minutes between transition to garner some scoring. Keeping up on offense is not a difficult task for a running Celtics, but their defensively-minded starters will ultimately burn their bodies keeping up with the superstar-packed Cavs. Although defense-first mentality will be useful in opening minutes, selective points will be necessary down the stretch to level usual explosions from Lebron James, and offensive-minded Isaiah Thomas coupled with defensive-minded, Avery Bradley, can execute and excite.
When analyzing the circumstance of a Coach on a playoff team, asking hall of fame point guard, Jason Kidd, may be your best Q&A, as Kidd has lead teams as both a Coach and player with the mentality that “playoff teams” simply do not exist. Rather, old-fashioned teamwork, bench contribution, and ‘with your hands up’ defense, can will any team to a playoff spot. The Bucks have made an authentic transformation in their drafting of a lottery player from Duke University, Jabari Parker, unique contracts for up-and-coming talent, and new ownership who invest so much into the team that a rallying city may be all the Milwaukee Bucks need to succeed in the playoffs. Facing a healthy Chicago Bulls is a challenge for anyone, but with focus on their regular season playbook, which earned them a 6th-seed, Milwaukee can be comfortable on the big stage. Many were looking forward to analyzing bright lights on a rookie like Jabari Parker, but teammates such as, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Michael Carter-Williams will not have to minimize their play while they await his return from an unfortunate injury. Coach Kidd can further utilize his methods to produce basketball with multiple players who enjoy passing the ball and calling the right shots, which can make the Bucks’ playoff games a believable transition to becoming a “playoff team.” The Bucks are young, but they have arrived for years to come in a player-coach relationship that resembles the rise of their Chicago opponents during the days of Jordan and Jackson.
Everyone is grabbing popcorn for the Atlanta Hawks in this season’s playoffs because absolutely no one saw them in the 1st seed of an Eastern Conference with Toronto and Cleveland. Absolutely no one, except for them, which is exemplary of how old-time faith and belief can win sports games. So, a great team is there and fans are here, not only waiting for them to arrive each game, but hoping that they will announce, “I have arrived” for certainty that they belong. The Atlanta Hawks have remained consistent for years, however, so no one expects them to hype their own arrival, even if earning a 1st seed after years in the 4th, 5th, and 6th may provoke them. With only 6 games lost at home against a Brooklyn Nets team with an even home-road game record, the Hawks have a likely advantage to dominate this series. The Nets’ Joe Johnson will expectantly arrive to trouble the Hawks’ defense, but unexpectancy has been the name of the game for the Hawks all season. Unpredictability heightens in the post-season, and even a Barclays Center atmosphere cannot hinder a recently-discovered breath of fresh air from a constant Hawks team. Both teams, however, have determined masterminds to succeed, so the ending may be very different from the beginning.
Like the Atlanta Hawks and New Orleans Pelicans, there are other must-see teams in Toronto and Washington, who kick-off the playoffs against each other. Because of the must-see teams, games will need little to no introduction with predictions and expectations, but conclusions with simple, exciting basketball for 2014-2015 memories.