Trail Blazers, Knicks top list of upset specials

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There are things we know about this year’s NBA playoffs. The beer in Madison Square Garden will be too expensive. Lakers fans will blame any loss of their team on the referees. Derrick Rose will dominate Indiana and some will claim that as further proof of his deserving the MVP.

And some higher seed is going to get upset in the first round.

The NBA does not (nor will it ever) have NFL-style parity, but there are just too many good teams on the bottom half of the standings this season for one not to rise up and smack down a higher seed. It’s going to happen.

So who is it going to be?

The usual bet is the four-five seed matchup, but not this year. Atlanta is going to put up a better fight than they did last year against Orlando, but to believe in that upset is to believe Jason Collins can best Dwight Howard for four out of seven games. I’m not on board there. As for Denver, they have been special and fun since the trade, out working everybody and sharing the ball on offense. Problem is, the Thunder have similar strengths and better players. Denver will make them work, but OKC will pull away like they did in the last two meetings between these two teams.

No, the potential upsets are the three/six seed matchups. The Knicks and the Trail Blazers have a real shot to advance.

The Knicks have a puncher’s chance in this series. They are not the better team, they are not deeper, they are not anywhere near as committed to their system as the Celtics. Shaq or no Shaq, Boston is superior.

But the Knicks have two guys who can simply take over games and win them single handedly — and they are in a system that gives them the freedom to do that. Boston players will have a hand in the face of Carmelo Anthony all series, but there is no better shooter of contested shots in the league (well, maybe Dirk Nowitzki, but it’s close). Anthony is fully capable of putting up 40+ with that hand in his face and winning a game. At some point in the series Amar’e Stoudemire may shake free of Kevin Garnett and take over a game himself.

Then there is the Knicks secret weapon in Chauncey Billups — his steady hand has long proven to be a big playoff asset. He does not get rattled, he’s seen it all before.

What the Knicks also have with Billups and Anthony is two of the best guys at game winning shots around. If the Knicks can keep it close, so it comes down to a one-possession game, they have serious closers. They’d have a real puncher’s chance because they have the guys that can land the haymaker.

It’s not going to be easy — but it is going to be entertaining. But maybe, just maybe if the Celtics late regular season struggles carry over to the playoffs, the Knicks can shock the world. And give Spike Lee the idea for a new documentary.

The sexy upset pick — and we picked it as well — is Portland to beat Dallas.

There are a couple of reasons why. The trade deadline acquisition by Portland of Gerald Wallace is a key one — a lot of fans don’t realize just how good this guy is. Dirk Nowitzki does, and he knows Wallace will be draped on him all series. And make him work on the defensive end. Wallace is not flashy but the guy is good at everything and works harder than everyone. He’s a monster.

Another reason is LaMarcus Aldridge — he averaged 27.8 points on 51% shooting against Dallas this season. He will occupy Tyson Chandler’s time and may lead to Chandler in foul trouble. Also, Portland brings Brandon Roy off the bench now and he can win a game (as can Rudy Fernandez from three on the right night). Dallas has depth, they have Jason Kidd and Shawn Marion.

Dallas was the better team over the course of the season, but the playoffs are about matchups. And Portland has some advantages there. Enough that they could pull off an upset.

And teach the lesson to Dallas one more, hard time that building for the regular season and playoffs are different.

James Harden reveals he’s playing through ankle injury

AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki
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James Harden didn’t lead the Rockets in scoring in their Game 4 win over the Thunder yesterday.

He didn’t even rank second – or third.

Nene, Eric Gordon and Lou Williams each outscored Harden, who scored 16 points on 5-for-16 shooting, including 0-for-7 on 3-pointers.

What happened to the Houston star?

Calvin Watkins of ESPN:

Houston Rockets star guard James Harden said he has been hobbled by an ankle injury that occurred in Game 3 of this first-round series against the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Harden made the revelation to ESPN’s Lisa Salters after the Rockets’ 113-109 Game 4 victory on Sunday afternoon.

“It was pretty tough; we don’t make excuses,” Harden said in a news conference when asked about his health. “We just try to go out there and get the job done. You build trust, and trust in your teammates all year long. When there’s moments like this, guys step up and they did tonight. We have another opportunity in a few days to go out there and win on our home court, and we’re going to have to get off to a really good start.”

Many players are grinding through injuries this time of year. Is Harden’s exceptionally bad? There’s no way of telling from the outside.

But he didn’t look quite right in Game 4, and if he’s hobbled, that opens the door slightly wider for Oklahoma City to come back from its 3-1 deficit.

Video Breakdown: Rockets launch Eric Gordon from 3-point range against Thunder in Game 4

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The Houston Rockets beat the Oklahoma City Thunder on Sunday, 113-109, and now the series heads back to Texas with the Rockets in the lead, 3-1.

Houston and OKC played a weird game, with Nene scoring 28 points off the bench for the Rockets and serious mischief in the final moments. The end of the game included a purposely missed free throw by Steven Adams that allowed Russell Westbrook to grab a quick 3-pointer and a missed call when James Harden shoved Alex Abrines out of the way like an NFL tackle.

While the Rockets didn’t shoot a stellar percentage from 3-point range — just 31.5 percent — they still knocked down 11 buckets from deep. Part of that action was a play run for Sixth Man of the Year candidate Eric Gordon that included a little semi-Pistol action, and a stagger screen that allowed Gordon to work his way free.

I picked this play to go over this week because it exemplifies just how committed to the 3-point shot the Rockets are. Plus, Gordon ran around three screens just to get this one bucket, which is always fun to see.

Watch the full video breakdown above.

Jimmy Butler on Marcus Smart dustup: ‘He’s not about that life. So, he’s calming down’

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Marcus Smart and Jimmy Butler had to be separated during the Celtics’ Game 4 win over the Bulls after Smart pushed Butler, who was hounding him defensively in the backcourt.

Butler:

As far as the Marcus Smart situation goes, he’s a great actor. Acting tough, that’s what he does. But I don’t think he’s about that, and I’m the wrong guy to get in my face. So, he needs to take it somewhere else because I’m not the one for that.

Was that their first run-in? Butler:

That’s the first time. Last time, too. We’re not going to sit here and get in each other’s faces like that. Like I said, he’s not about that life. So, he’s calming down.

The Bulls, who’ve lost two straight to allow Boston to tie the series 2-2, is angling for any edge. Butler tried to intimidate Smart on the court, and the Chicago wing might actually rattle the too easily shakable Smart with his postgame comments.

The irony: Some might say Butler, who did come up hard, lost touch with his roots as he entered stardom. I don’t buy that, at least not majorly.

But even if both – or neither – are posturing to any degree, this will be a matchup to watch in Game 5.

Remembering former NBA official Jess Kersey, who passed away Saturday

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Jess Kersey, who officiated more than 2,200 NBA games, including being part of 19 NBA Finals, passed away over the weekend, losing his battle with cancer at age 76.

Kersey was a well-respected official who feared nothing. Maybe the most remembered image of Kersey is him trying to break up a fight between Mitch Kupchak and Hakeem Olajuwon, essentially trying to tackle Olajuwon with his head in Olajuwon’s chest and his arms wrapped around him. Kersey got in the middle of everything if that was what was required.

Our thoughts go out to the Kersey family for their loss.