The NBA playoffs begin tomorrow and there is at least one match-up in the first round in each conference (Boston versus New York in the east and Oklahoma City versus Denver in the west), that should not only be highly entertaining, but not too lopsided. After the lower seeds are winnowed out, the competition will only intensify in subsequent rounds as the best and hungriest players in the league scratch and claw their way to the 2011 NBA title. (Do you want to see at least one playoff game in person? Is your local ticket vendor sold out? You can still find NBA Playoff tickets here for reasonable prices.)
But which two teams would it be fascinating to see in the Finals? Who would be the ideal match-up?
How about the New York Knicks versus the Denver Nuggets?
Twists and Turns of the Regular Season
The 2010-11 NBA season has been interesting and dramatic in a number of ways. Remember the prediction that the Heat would win more than 72 games? (Here’s what I had to say about that in November.) There was the unexpected dominance of San Antonio (until late in the season, at least). There were Blake Griffin’s jaw-dropping highlights. There was the big trade between Orlando and Phoenix. There was Jerry Sloan’s shocking retirement. And how about Kevin Love schooling the league in how to rebound and put up double-doubles? (53 consecutive games? Who could have predicted that?) And there was the soap opera surrounding the fate of Carmelo Anthony. As soon as he refused to sign the contract extension that the Nuggets offered him, along with putting his Denver mansion up for sale, basketball fans in Denver could see the texting on the wall: “C ya.” Anthony played his usual brand of impressive one-on-one ball up until he was traded to the Knicks for, well, the entire Knicks team. Denver fans — some of the more knowledgeable, enthusiastic, and optimistic around the league — even refrained from booing him during home games until the bitter end (there were some boos as the trade deadline approached and it became clear that Anthony was going to spurn Colorado for the bright lights of the east coast). I suppose the folks in the stands hoped he might change his mind if they were nice to him.
At least we didn’t have to wait until the summer for him to have his own lame ESPN show about which team he’d go to.
But you know what was odd about it all? Almost before the ink on his new contract was dry, Anthony became a sort of distant memory in Denver. Nuggets fans immediately embraced the 10 or 15 new players (yeah, I’m exaggerating) who arrived in town. They were eagerly curious to see what sort of team they had on their hands. Sure, they missed home-town hero Chauncey Billups, who was an unfortunate casualty of the trade crossfire and had to reluctantly pack his bags for New York. But as for the general feeling, it was sort of like: Carmelo… Been-There-Done-That.
In New York, after getting a closer look at Melo in a few home games, it seems Knicks fans began to wonder: just what sort of player have we got here?
What New York got was an effective scorer who is never reluctant to single-handedly attack the basket, sometimes against double and triple teams. What they’ve also got is a player who will never make the All-NBA defensive team. What they’ve got is a superstar who has yet to figure out how to make his team better, how to elevate the strengths of his teammates. And if he hasn’t figured that out by now, after seven years in the league, he may never figure it out.
And what sort of team did Denver wind up with? Only a group of somewhat undersung guys that manged to go 18-7 after the trade, the highest-scoring team in the NBA (one place ahead of guess-who — New York). But in addition to scoring, the Nuggets had suddenly acquired a dimension of scrappy, turnover-producing defense and share-the-ball selflessness that hadn’t been consistently seen since Anthony’s advent in town. They even started boxing out on the boards (which the Knicks do not do, and Anthony won’t change that).
In basketball, teamwork is paramount. While it generally takes a superstar or two to win a championship, superstars only win if they meld their talents effectively with the rest of the team, if they synergistically leverage their ability by helping raise the level of everyone else. In addition, they’ve got to be a multi-dimensional superstar. They can’t just be good at one thing, like scoring. They’ve got to be great at scoring and defense, or rebounding and defense, or defense and passing. Jordan was great in at least 3 areas (scoring, defense, and passing). So was Bill Russell (defense, rebounding, and he became a good passer). Kobe is great at scoring and defense. Notice a trend here? Any superstar who intends to win a championship must play effective defense, or at least not make many defensive mistakes. Melo is a good scorer.
After the trade, the Nuggets began to play better team basketball. They began figuring out how to blend their skills effectively. There could be a different star each night. In the absence of the eclipsing superstar gas-giant planet that was Melo, they began to blossom as a team and individually. And they began having more fun.
Ty Lawson, promoted to a starting role, almost immediately came into his own as a point guard (and added an element of quickness on defense that was lacking with Chauncey Billups). J. R. Smith began to wield his formidable talents more selflessly and intelligently. The players from the Knicks — former Tar Heel Raymond Felton, Wilson Chandler, Danilo Gallinari — showed that they could play well both individually and in support of others. This team without a superstar began to play some pretty good ball. And as they had fun (sometimes 5 or more players scoring in double figures in a game), they made it entertaining to watch.
Now the “real season” begins…
There’s a lot of tension and excitement in the NBA playoffs, the so-called “real” season. But what would be more dramatic than a match-up in the NBA Finals between the Nuggets and the Knicks? You’d have solid team play and defense pitted against two scoring superstars in Anthony and Stoudemire, with the backdrop of the trade to sweeten the pot. There would be the sub-plot of student-versus-master with Ty Lawson and Chauncey Billups. You’d have the aspect of no coach in the league knowing better how to play against Carmelo than George Karl. Yet Mike D’Antoni would have intimate knowledge of his ex-Knicks’ strengths and weaknesses. You’d have Denver fans anxious to observe Anthony learning yet again that individual accomplishment alone is not what wins championships. And New York fans ambivalently watching their former, somewhat under-appreciated players kick their ass.
A fair amount of unlikely things would have to happen for that match-up to occur. First, the Knicks would have to beat the Celtics in the first round, which is unlikely. And they would be heavily favored to lose against any team they would subsequently face if they somehow got past Boston.
Second, the Nuggets would most likely have to beat both the Spurs and the Lakers to win the western conference. While they haven’t fared badly against those teams this season, it’s a different proposition in the playoffs. If the Lakers make it to the conference finals (as seems likely, since Kobe Bryant is still the one player in the league who wants to win a championship more than anyone else, including Lebron), the Nuggets would somehow have to prove that the Lakers don’t have their number. Maybe, just maybe, with what in essence is a brand new team, they could do that.
But first they have to get past the Oklahoma City Thunder in the first round. And, as of this moment, that also seems unlikely. Some of the most important Nuggets players (Arron Afflalo, Nene, Lawson) are banged up. And Oklahoma had begun to play some formidable ball as the regular season concluded. Kevin Durant is hitting on all cylinders, Westbrook and Harden are playing well, and the addition of Kendrick Perkins has really strengthened them inside. Even if all the Nuggets players were healthy, the Thunder would be a tough match-up for them.
But, we’ll see. That’s what they play the series for.
Of course, if you’re a Chicago or Orlando or New Orleans fan, you won’t prefer to see the Knicks versus the Nuggets. But if your team happens to lose, what match-up would be more entertaining for those who appreciate multiple dramatic threads in a playoff series?
In any event, if you’ve never been to an NBA playoff game, you should try to attend at least one. The electric atmosphere and intensity of the games are something to experience close up. And if you buy your playoff tickets through TicketNetwork (and it’s likely they will be your best bet, since many local venues have already sold out of their allotment), NBA playoff tickets are surprisingly affordable. For example, you can get tickets for as low as $24 to the game in Denver between the Thunder and the Nuggets on April 24. You can find tickets for around $30 to see the Heat against the Pacers in Miami on April 18. You can find tickets for as low as $13 to see the Grizzlies versus the Spurs on April 23 in Memphis. All of these and every other NBA playoff game are available now from TicketNetwork, an efficient, secure, guaranteed way to buy tickets online. Their website is informative and clear to use, plus they’re known for good customer service. (I wouldn’t recommend them if they weren’t one of the better ticket-brokers around.)
And, since you’re reading this post, you can even get a deal. TicketNetwork has provided me with a coupon code I can pass along to you. Right now, place an order over $350 at TicketNetwork.com and get $10 off using coupon code AFF$10. Let your friends know about it, too, via the sharing buttons below. (But don’t wait, because this deal ends April 30.)
It’s a great time of year to be a basketball fan. Catch a game! And, if you like, leave a comment about your take on the NBA playoffs below…