NBA playoffs: East difference-makers could be the change they wish to see in the world

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Thumbnail image for nba_wallace_250.jpgWhile the Eastern Conference playoffs may lack the volatility of the West in the first round, there are still all kinds of characters scrambling about looking to cause mayhem. There’s something to be said about being in a series with no expectations, and underdogs looking to seize the moment can have a field day if only for a game or two.

Something, I think, is lost among the talk of difference-makers and x-factors; while such players would obviously swing the fortunes of their team in a particular series, x-factors also have the ability to significantly alter the playoff outlook in a loss.

Think Andre Iguodala against the Magic last year, as he led the upstart Sixers to an early series lead over the Magic. In doing so, he awoke the real Orlando, and the Dwight Howard took that team all the way to the Finals. Think Joe Johnson in 2008, whose Hawks took the Celtics to seven games in the first round. Does Boston go all the way to the title if not for their early, energizing battle with Atlanta?

Early playoff opponents can expose weaknesses to be exploited by later teams, wear down the opposition with a long series, or summon something within their opponents that drives them to further victories. All of these things are what make even the lesser Eastern Conference playoff teams interesting to watch, even if they don’t stand much of a chance to take the series.

With that, I present you the players to watch in the East, who are capable of making an impact on the series level, or shaping the grander playoff picture:

Derrick Rose (Chicago Bulls): Rose showed in last season’s playoffs that he’s ready for the big stage. We shouldn’t expect an equally scintillating team performance from the Bulls this year, but that doesn’t mean Derrick isn’t a must-watch player for every minute he’s on the floor. Rose will be the first test for the Cavaliers’ D, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see Derrick poke a few holes in Cleveland’s perimeter. His ability to run the pick-and-roll will also be crucial, as Rose can use Joakim Noah’s quickness against the likes of Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Shaquille O’Neal, even if its less effective against Anderson Varejao et al. The Cavs are much improved in defending the pick-and-roll, but they could still suffer against finishers like Noah (who could set a precedent for Kendrick Perkins, Jermaine O’Neal, and Dwight Howard).

Gerald Wallace (Charlotte Bobcats): The Bobcats don’t stand much of a chance to beat the Magic, but their upset hopes lie with Wallace. Gerald an All-NBA caliber defender, but the real reason he’s on this list is because of his offense. Wallace seems to be a completely new offensive player this year, sporting a better jumper (especially from three) and a far smoother style than he’s ever displayed before. He’s always been an instinctive scorer, but now he’s a more polished one. With Stephen Jackson’s injured, the Bobcats’ dismal offense will rely on Wallace more than ever, and whether or not his offensive improvements hold up against the Magic D is a big question mark.

Marvin Williams, (Atlanta Hawks): Marvin is the epitome of a traditional x-factor, but what he actually represents is balance. It’s assumed that the Hawks should have no problem taking care of the Bogut-less Bucks in the first round, which means that Atlanta’s most likely second-round opponent would be the Orlando Magic. Just as Wallace’s singular brilliance could push the Magic, how would Orlando respond to a team of balanced scorers? The Hawks’ roster is anything but top heavy, and their style on both ends of the court speaks to their versatility. Should Marvin be able to provide supplementary scoring to balance Joe Johnson, Jamal Crawford, Al Horford, Josh Smith, and Jamal Crawford, the Hawks could expose a weakness in Orlando’s armor.

Michael Beasley (Miami Heat): Be easy, Mike Beasley. The Heat are a fantastic defensive team, and that should do two things: scare the hell out of the Celtics and give Miami a decent shot at the 4-5 upset. They don’t even sniff a first round series victory without Beasley’s help, though. Beas is a thoroughly confounding player, and though he has the raw offensive skills to really blitz Boston, he probably won’t. It would just make too much sense for a player with that much talent to bother with capitalizing on it, and instead Mike will continue in his role as a wild card. However, should Beasley get into an offensive rhythm early in the series, he could help Dwyane Wade dismantle a Celtics defense that has struggled lately. Even if that doesn’t usher the Heat into the second round, it could go a long way in erasing Boston’s defensive prestige.  

It’s time: Russell Westbrook looks to fill void after Durant’s exit

Oklahoma City Thunder forward Nick Collison (4), head coach Billy Donovan, guard Russell Westbrook (0) and center Steven Adams pose for a photo during the 2016-2017 Oklahoma City Thunder Media Day in Oklahoma City, Friday, Sept. 23, 2016. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)
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OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — There were few indications before August that Russell Westbrook would be so willing to be the hero downtrodden Thunder fans needed.

For years, the sometimes combustible Westbrook toiled in Kevin Durant‘s shadow. He often was viewed as the talented, selfish player who was as likely to get in Durant’s way as he was to make a winning play. His flashy style seemed at odds with small-market Oklahoma City so when Durant, who seemingly was a better fit in OKC, left for rival Golden State, fear that Westbrook would bolt for a larger market increased.

He didn’t. He chose to re-sign with the Thunder and now that he has answered the call, it’s time to deliver.

“We know a few things about Russell at this point,” Thunder general manager Sam Presti said. “He’s going to bring his lunch pail every day. He’s going to compete. He’s going to inspire. He’s going to show great conviction and courage to his teammates, to the city, to the organization. And from there, we have to figure out how that comes together.”

That trek begins Wednesday in Philadelphia when Oklahoma City officially tips off the post-Durant era in its season opener against the 76ers.

Westbrook is now the unquestioned leader of the Thunder and player folks behind the scenes knew – the thoughtful, humble, giving man – has more readily come to the surface. He has gone to great lengths to connect with Thunder fans in recent months.

Among other things, he unveiled his new line of True Religion clothing near downtown Oklahoma City and he attended an Oklahoma home football game against Louisiana-Monroe wearing a custom-made Sooners jersey. When he was introduced to the crowd before the Thunder’s preseason home opener, he got the kinds of cheers normally reserved for a return from injury.

Westbrook seems more at ease on the court, too. His preseason play seemed more effortless than electric, with an occasional flourish.

“I want the team to play how they want to play,” Westbrook said. “I mean, it’s not totally up to me how we play. You have to adjust to the team you have and adjust on a night-in, night-out basis on how you want to play. You want to play fast some nights and you want to play slow. I think it depends on the game, on the situation, who is on the floor.”

He is poised to put up astronomical numbers this season as he tries to keep the Thunder among the NBA elite.

Last season Westbrook averaged 23.5 points and career highs of 10.4 assists and 7.8 rebounds. He posted 18 triple-doubles, the most for a player since Magic Johnson had 18 during the 1981-82 season. The two-time All-Star MVP and former scoring champion could do more damage without Durant, but the Thunder don’t want too much pressure on him.

“I think we have to be able to play in a way that’s not just relying on him to do everything and create every single shot, whether it’s him making the shot or making the play for another guy,” Thunder forward Nick Collison said.

Westbrook already has left an impression on his new backcourt mate Victor Oladipo, who was acquired in the trade that sent defensive enforcer Serge Ibaka to Orlando.

“After working with Russ, I can see the intensity in how serious he was about his craft,” Oladipo said. “But one thing that I realized that after guarding him for three years – I can see why he’s so effective at what he does. I definitely stole that from him, and I’m going to take it and run as fast as I can with it.”

How Oladipo and the rest of the Thunder do in keeping up with Russell will determine how much success the team will have. Oklahoma City is no longer considered the team to beat in championship conversations, and that’s fine with Westbrook. He said the team embraces the underdog role.

“I love it,” he said. “I love it, man. I think it’s a great challenge, not just for myself, but for our whole team. I think just from talking to the guys throughout the summer, they understand that. They want to win. They want to get better.”

Follow Cliff Brunt on Twitter (at)CliffBruntAP .

Memphis’ Chandler Parsons says he’s playing 5-on-5, hopes to be on court soon

Memphis Grizzlies forward Chandler Parsons poses for a picture on NBA basketball media day Monday, Sept. 26, 2016, in Memphis, Tenn. Parsons signed with the Grizzlies in July. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)
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When the Memphis Grizzlies get their full starting five on the court, that lineup is going to be a handful.

But the Grizzlies enter their opener Wednesday night likely without Tony Allen and certainly without Chandler Parsons.

Parsons is being brought along slowly following his latest knee surgery, but in an update on the team’s Twitter account notes he is now playing 5-on-5 and hopes to be on the court “soon.”

Parsons also says he hasn’t lost a step. We may need to see that before we fully buy in.

Memphis needs him — and Allen — on the court as soon as possible. While their starting five can be a force, there is not a lot of depth on the Grizzlies’ roster. Plus Parsons provides the floor-spacing shooting and second shot creator the Grizzlies desperately need.

Charles Barkley: Klay Thompson is a better player than Kevin Durant


You know the NBA season is back when Charles Barkley is just talking out his… er, saying ridiculous things.

On Inside the NBA before the tip off of San Antonio thrashing Golden State, Barkley said then tried to defend the idea that Klay Thompson is a better all-around player than Kevin Durant. It was vintage Barkley — and it’s what makes the barbershop feel of Inside the NBA must-watch television every week.

The flaw in Barkley’s argument is that he tries to use the “two-way player” argument to try and balance out Durant’s and Thompson’s offensive contributions. Is Thompson a better defender than Durant? Yes. Even though people underestimate Durant’s defense a little, I will stipulate Thompson is a better defender. But does that defense make up for how much more offensive versatility and shot creation Durant brings to the table compared to Thompson? No. Again, Thompson is an excellent offensive player and probably the second best shooter in the game, but he does not create shots or force a defense to adjust the way Durant does. KD’s amazing offense tips the scales more than Thompson’s defense. KD is the better overall player.

And The Jet is way too quick to dismiss Kawhi Leonard as maybe the second best player in the league. But Leonard made his case just after these comments.

Watch Jonathan Simmons posterize JaVale McGee


This was the exclamation point on the Spurs thrashing of the Warriors on opening night.

Jonathan Simmons — who was a beast in the first half and finished the night with 20 points off the bench — was pounding the ball out top, then as the clock wound down blew by rookie Patrick McCaw, got into the lane looking for the two-handed slam. When JaVale McGee slid over to contest Simmons switched to the one-hander and finished over the big man.

That’s the way to start an NBA season.