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.  

Stan Van Gundy goes off on officials: “We got absolutely screwed all night”

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The Pistons were likely to lose to the red-hot Trail Blazers on the road, and that came to be Saturday night 100-87, Portland 12th straight win. The Pistons shot 38.8 percent for the game and had a dreadful offensive rating of 93.8 (points per 100 possessions).

Portland is one the top five defensive teams in the NBA this season, but that’s not what Detroit coach Stan Van Gundy thought was the problem — he laid the blame on the officiating.

That’s going to be a fine.

Van Gundy is frustrated — with this game and with this season. So are Pistons fans, and seemingly so is Detroit owner Tom Gores after his lukewarm vote of confidence in Van Gundy recently. They should be, this team is a disappointment and the Blake Griffin trade was a big swing that has yet to work out. The Pistons are going to miss the playoffs. Around the league, the sense is that Van Gundy will lose his GM job to former super agent Arn Tellem, who was brought in to guide the Pistons into their new building but now whose talents would better serve the basketball side of the operation. The only question is will Van Gundy still be coaching in Detroit next season — just coaching, like Doc Rivers with the Clippers — or of the change will be more sweeping than that.

Hornets’ coach gives savage, frank assessment of Willy Hernangomez

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When Willy Hernangomez was not getting much run with the Knicks this season, especially as injuries opened up space in the front line rotation, there were questions as to why. Then the #freeWillyHernangomez movement popped up.

Eventually, Hernangomez was traded to the Hornets where… he barely plays. He’s gotten more than 10 minutes just once since coming to Charlotte.

What gives? Hornet’s coach Steve Clifford didn’t hold back when answering that question to Marc Berman of the New York Post.

“If you were in one place and didn’t play much, if you want to play more in the next place, I’d say work harder and kill myself,” Clifford said at the Hornets shootaround at the Players Association’s midtown headquarters. “The reality is he wasn’t playing here for a reason. He’s got to change things…

“He’s not up to speed on what we’re doing to play a lot,” Clifford said. “It’s been a little bit of a struggle for him. He’s smart, but he’s not this high-flier, phenomenal, natural athlete able to make up ground. He’s got to be on top of things, especially on the defensive end. If he’s not detailed defensively, he’s not that [athletic] guy…

“To be an every-night player, and I’ve told him this, he’s got to improve his shooting,” Clifford said. “He is right now, in my opinion, a back-to-the-basket player who can pass. But the reality is his passing doesn’t come into play until they have to get close to him and know he’s not going to knock down a shot. And he’s not a knockdown shooter.”

Well then.

Just to be clear he’s got to put in a lot more effort, become smarter on the defensive end, and improve his shooting. That’s a healthy off-season checklist.

Hernangomez has another year on his contract at a very reasonable $1.5 million before the Hornets have to make any kind of decision on him, which means whoever is the new GM in Charlotte he will choose to keep Hernangomez around. For now. He flashed potential his rookie season with the Knicks, when asked to play strictly to his strengths, but Clifford and the Hornets — and basically every other team in the NBA — is going to ask more of him.

Clifford was clear, as no doubt he has been clear to Hernangomez (Clifford is as straight a shooter as the league has). The ball is in Hernangomez’s court.

Glen “Big Baby” Davis denies drug charges while eating Popeyes on a charter plane

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Best. Denial. Ever.

Last month, former NBA player Glen “Big Baby” Davis was arrested last month at a hotel in a suburb of Baltimore by Jimmy McNulty and Lt. Daniels with 126 grams of marijuana and more than $96,000 in cash, according to a police report. He has been charged with possession and intent to distribute.

Davis has declared his innocence in the best denial video ever — eating Popeyes chicken and flashing cash and a championship ring.

I have no idea whether Davis is guilty or not, I was not at a Hampton’s Inn outside Baltimore last month. The court system will sort that out, that is what it’s there for.

But I know a brilliant video when I see one. This is it.

Report: Michele Roberts to seek second contract as players’ union head

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Michele Roberts entered the NBA’s player union in a tumultuous time — long-time union president Billy Hunter had been ousted in a rancorous fight, the union felt adrift, and negotiations with the NBA on a new Collective Bargaining Agreement were looming (and players felt they had been screwed in the last CBA, following the lockout).

Roberts, the first female head of a professional sports labor union, settled things down. She cleaned up the union finances and made them more transparent to players, she worked hard to establish relationships with the players, and while she rattled some sabers with the NBA in negotiations, she also worked in a non-combative way with Adam Silver and team (unlike the Billy Hunter/David Stern relationship) and got a deal done the players liked without a lockout or labor mess.

Roberts’ contract with the union is up, but she is going to ask for a new deal — one she likely gets — reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

With an original four-year agreement set to expire in September, Michele Roberts plans to seek a new contract as the executive director of the National Basketball Players Association, sources tell ESPN…

Roberts had strongly considered staying in the NBPA’s executive director role for only the length of her original contract — and expressed that to the union’s senior membership — but has recently decided to pursue a longer tenure, sources said.

NBPA president Chris Paul played a significant part in Roberts’ hiring in July 2014 and he has built a strong working relationship with Roberts.

Roberts also has a good relationship with the star-heavy executive committee of the union — CP3, LeBron James, Stephen Curry and others — making it likely she gets a new deal.

As for what’s next, at the front of that list Roberts is working with Silver and others on reforming the NBA’s one-and-done rule (it was supposed to be part of the CBA negotiations but was too big and complex an issue to fold into that timeline).

Neither the owners or players can opt out of the CBA for four more years (and if neither side does it runs a couple more beyond that) so labor peace will continue in the NBA for a while.