The NBA Playoffs begin Saturday as 16 teams begin their challenge for a championship. OK, only about seven of them think they actually have a chance. But still. Here’s what’s on tap today.
1 p.m. EST: Philadelphia 76ers at Chicago Bulls. The Sixers actually do really match up better with Chicago than Miami, all the numbers indicate so, but Evan Turner openly saying the Sixers were trying to face Chicago was up there with was that time I told that girl in 8th grade the reason I wanted to go out with her was because everyone said she was easy. There is no situation in which that is the right decision. And the Sixers will likely pay for it the same way, only instead of getting kicked in the crotch, the Bulls will just run up the score on them. Over/Under on minutes for Derrick Rose when the team is up by 15+ in the fourth is 8.5.
3:30 p.m. EST: New York Knicks at Miami Heat. The big one for today, as the most hyped team in the land takes on the most hyped city in the land. The Knicks are facing the Heat with what feels like their 18th different incarnation. They’ve faced them without Melo, without Stoudemire, without Jeremy Lin. Now they’ll be facing them possibly without Tyson Chandler, who has the flu. Good times! Anyway, a lot of people are doing that “I’m not saying Miami’s going to lose, but…” thing with this series which is code for “I think they’ll lose but I don’t want to look horrendously stupid if they don’t.” The Heat in all likelihood won’t lose, but NY can steal a game and set the tone today. Over/Under on Melo Isolation shots when Steve Novak is wide open in the corner, waving flaming maracas while Mariachi music plays to try and get Melo’s attention: 10.5.
7 p.m. EST Orlando Magic at Indiana Pacerzzzz No one cares about this matchup, and the Pacers will win easily. You can just cut and paste that sentence for the other three games in this series. (The Magic will now proceed to win by five in thrilling fashion. Hate you, hubris.) If you’re going to make a drinking game out of one of today’s games, this is the one. Over/Under on tequila shots you’ll need for every time Glen Davis does something which causes someone on the Magic bench to shake their head: 5.
9:30 pm. EST: Dallas Mavericks at Oklahoma City Thunder. The reigning champs start on the road versus the team they beat last year. That’s awkward. This isn’t the same Mavericks team, but they’re still dangerous. Specifically, Delonte West is back in a starting role in the playoffs, so that could be fun. Delonte West + Russell Westbrook = must-watch television. Oh, and that Durant fella and the big German guy, too. Also, Kendrick Perkins faces Brendan Haywood in a battle of one player facing an earlier/later version of himself. It’s like “Back to the Future, Part III” only with more glaring. Over/Under on Ibaka Goaltends is 2.5.
The Kobe Bryant farewell tour has gone all around the NBA, but some stops are more emotional than others. His final trip to San Antonio certainly qualifies — the Spurs and Lakers have played each other in the playoffs eight times in his career, including twice in the Western Conference Finals (the Lakers won both times). The only player who has rivaled Bryant’s longevity is Tim Duncan, and the Lakers and Spurs were the two most dominant teams of the 2000s, winning nine of the 12 championships from 1999 to 2010 between them.
So, of course, the Spurs had an elaborate tribute video planned for Bryant. The video ran two and a half minutes and featured narration from Gregg Popovich, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili. Watch it below:
The Clippers are without Blake Griffin for the next few weeks as he recovers from a broken hand stemming from an altercation with an equipment manager. Now, the Clippers have lost backup point guard Austin Rivers to the exact same injury, albeit not in the same circumstances, obviously.
The loss of Rivers isn’t as devastating as the loss of Griffin, but given the Clippers’ lack of depth, it’s certainly not ideal. Now, Chris Paul‘s only backup is Pablo Prigioni.
For once, a marquee matchup involving the Golden State Warriors lived up to its billing. Their much-hyped meetings with the Cleveland Cavaliers and San Antonio Spurs were anticlimactic blowouts nearly free of drama. And for the first half on Saturday night’s 116-108 win over the Oklahoma City Thunder, it seemed like the defending champions were headed for another snoozer. They led by as much as 20, and completely outmatched the Thunder on both ends of the floor.
But the Thunder rallied behind a surprising defensive effort in the second half and some solid play from Enes Kanter. Plus, you know, Kevin Durant, who led all scorers with 40 points and gave the normally unflappable Draymond Green fits defensively. They tied the game at 104 before Golden State pulled away.
Despite the huge first-half lead, the Warriors weren’t their usual selves. Stephen Curry shot 1-for-8 from behind the three-point line, and triple-double machine Draymond Green scored just nine points. Golden State’s most consistent player was Harrison Barnes, who has probably read the speculation that the Warriors would have to dump him to land Durant this summer. He hit three three-pointers and shot 8-for-14 overall on the way to 19 points.
The Warriors’ bench carried them for stretches, outscoring Oklahoma City’s reserves 42-17.
Despite the Thunder’s late run, this was a statement win for the Warriors. They sent the message that, even when they aren’t in total control from start to finish, they can still pull away from other elite teams. The Thunder have given them the toughest challenge of any team they’ll likely have to face in the late rounds of the playoffs this spring, and it’s to their credit that they took the first-half punch and came back to make it a game. But the Warriors are on a different level from the rest of the league, and they showed that clearly on Saturday.
It goes without saying that with the Thunder and Warriors playing each other for the first time on Saturday night, Kevin Durant free-agency talk has been at an all-time high. The hot rumor this week is that the Warriors are the frontrunners to land Durant this summer, which would shake up the league like nothing since LeBron James going to Miami.
Obviously, all parties were going to be asked about it before the hotly anticipated game. And obviously, all parties were going to downplay it. That’s exactly what happened.
Here’s what Durant said, via the San Francisco Chronicle‘s Rusty Simmons:
“Once that time comes, I’ll make that decision. I’ll sit down and talk to my closest friends and family and figure it out, but right now, I’m just trying to be the best basketball player I can be every single day. I have to be at a high level to lead every day at practices, shootarounds and games, and that’s a tough task. I can’t focus on anything else, other than that.”
Warriors coach Steve Kerr also downplayed the speculation:
“I don’t know why anybody would talk about anything but the fact that we’re 45-4 and have a hell of a team,” said Kerr, who hasn’t addressed rumors about Durant favoring the Bay Area as a future destination with his players. “Why would anybody talk about some different team, future stuff and other players?
“Focus on our team. We’re pretty good.”
On both sides, that’s the appropriate way to respond publicly. Not that this is going to go away anytime soon. They play each other two more times this season, once in Oklahoma City and once more in Oakland, and this is going to get brought up then, too. And just like Saturday, nobody will give a definitive answer. Nor should they. Nobody will know anything until July 1. But until then, it will be impossible to quiet the chatter.