Looking at the possible first round upsets in the NBA playoffs

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There are some first round series in the NBA playoffs, like the one between the Heat and the Bucks, for example, that are nothing more than foregone conclusions.

But there are others where the lower seed has a more than legitimate shot at beating a higher-seeded team winning and advancing, at least in theory.

In the East, the four-five matchup between the Nets and the Bulls could really go either way. Brooklyn is probably the better team based on the way the Nets have closed the season, and with Deron Williams appearing to be as healthy as ever over the past few weeks, that superstar presence offensively might be enough for Brooklyn to advance.

Then again, Chicago is the one team (other than the defending champion Heat, of couse) no one wanted to face in the postseason, thanks to the hard-nosed, defense-first style the team plays under head coach Tom Thibodeau, and a Spurs-like ability to find a way to win no matter which players are available on any given night.

The Celtics and the Knicks should be an absolute war, given the history between the two teams this season. Even though New York is the two seed and has a far better won-loss record, Boston is unpredictable in terms of the effort veterans like Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett may be able to turn in, and even without Rajon Rondo, the Celtics are capable of putting up a fight of epic proportions against the Knicks in a seven game series.

The Hawks, entering the playoffs winning just two of their last seven games, don’t appear to be much of a threat against the higher seeded Pacers, and as we touched on briefly, there’s no way in the world the Heat lose four times to the Bucks unless multiple, tragic injuries should somehow rock the Miami franchise.

Shifting to the West, it’s tough to see any of the lower seeds taking out the higher ones in an upset.

The Thunder aren’t going to lose to a Rockets team that has become way too easy to slow offensively, and Houston (like most teams) has no answer for Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.

The Lakers may seem like a decent upset pick to take down a Spurs squad that has struggled to stay healthy, but L.A.’s team defense has been dreadful all season, and even a moderately healthy Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili should be able to exploit that for way too many easy baskets.

Memphis, meanwhile, as the five seed taking on the Clippers would seem to have a shot at the minor upset given the fact that they took L.A. to seven games in the first round of the playoffs last season. But as good as the Grizzlies are defensively, they can’t be counted on to score with any consistency. So, a Clippers team led by Chris Paul who can both score plenty himself as well as set up his teammates for easy looks should have surprisingly little trouble with Memphis, even though the Grizzlies have appeared to be a somewhat strong team throughout the course of the season.

As for the Warriors taking down the Nuggets, Denver’s home court advantage is so strong that it finished with a better home record than the Miami Heat, who won 66 games and at one point during the season rode a 27-game winning streak. The home record of 38-3 the Nuggets put together is beyond impressive, it’s formidable.

The Warriors have a legitimate superstar in Stephen Curry, but they’ll need to prevent Denver from getting out in transition for the bulk of the series, especially at home, to even have a chance.

There’s a reason that upsets in the first round of the NBA playoffs are few and far between. Teams play all season long for postseason positioning, and the better team needs to lose four times before being sent home, which isn’t likely to happen unless injuries intervene, or an underdog puts together a rare and magical run that gets them to the next round.

The Bulls seem the most likely to pull the “upset,” with the Celtics, Grizzlies, and Warriors having the next best (albeit longshot) chances of proving the pundits wrong and advancing to the second round.

Dwight Howard still feeling ‘super’ expectations with Hornets

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DETROIT – Dwight Howard went from leading Orlando in the NBA Finals to playing in star-studded Los Angeles to joining a Houston team that also fancied itself a contender to being the highest-paid player in his hometown Atlanta to… landing in Charlotte, a small-market franchise with modest ambitions.

The spotlight finally off the former No. 1 pick, Howard doesn’t feel reduced pressure.

“Everybody expects me to be Superman every single night,” Howard said.

Howard is diving into his new situation – his third team in three years – headfirst. He’s leading pregame huddles and the Hornets onto the court.

“I have the most experience,” said Howard, in his 14th season. “So, it’s not to come in and fit in. It’s to come in and be a leader.”

This is the latest referendum on Howard. Despite eight All-NBA selections (most of them first-team) and three Defensive Player of the Year awards, he faces relentless criticism of his legacy.

His exit from the Magic was so ugly, it’s known as the Dwightmare. His feuding with the Lakers great is the stuff of legend in Kobe Bryant mythology. Howard never clicked with James Harden with the Rockets. The Hawks unloaded him for a paltry return in what was more salary rearrangement than salary dump, and his former teammates reportedly cheered.

Howard just seems to rub people the wrong way.

That makes his latest test in Charlotte so interesting. Howard is supplanting maybe Kemba Walker as the face of the team and definitely Cody Zeller as starting center. The Hornets have found success with Zeller, going 63-53 when he starts and 57-73 otherwise the last three seasons.

“The nature of his game, he plays in a way to help other people play better,” Hornets coach Steve Clifford said of Zeller. “He is a screener. He is a ball-mover.”

In other words, the type of player teammates love.

Is Howard?

Howard is still solidly productive. In Charlotte’s season-opening loss to the Pistons, he posted 10 points, 15 rebounds and two blocks – and ruffled a few feathers. Vince Ellis of the Detroit Free Press:

https://twitter.com/Vincent_Ellis56/status/921100491362365440

Dirty-work players who irritate opponents are revered. High-priced players who irritate their teammates are loathed.

Howard walks a fine line.

He returned to Atlanta with emotion and expectations. By the end of his time with the Hawks, everyone seemed unhappy. Still, Howard says he’s grateful for the opportunity to play in front of people, especially his grandparents, who watched him grow up.

“Atlanta is going to be my home,” Howard said. “The Hawks is always going to be my favorite team.”

It’s just never easy for Howard.

Even a career Basketball Reference pegs as 99% likely to end in the Hall of Fame based on his tangible accomplishments stirs controversy.

“He’s a Hall of Famer right now if he never played another game,” Clifford said.

Said Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy, who coached Howard in Orlando: “It’s mind-boggling to me that would be any debate there.”

It’s probably easier for Van Gundy and Howard to recall their time together fondly than it was to enjoy it while partnered. Clifford, who was an assistant in Orlando and Los Angeles while Howard was there, is just getting into his time as Howard’s head coach.

It’s those middle moments, in the throes of long seasons, that have proven difficult for Howard and those around him.

Here he is in Charlotte, hosting the Hawks tonight, and facing another challenge. The Hornets would probably be happy just making the playoffs and ecstatic advancing, which would be their first playoff-series victory since reemerging as the Bobcats in 2004. Howard, who has reached three conference finals, is counting on himself to lead them there – even if nobody else is anymore.

Kobe Bryant still has it, bounces shot in from near half court

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This was a Nike gala, an event with a basketball theme. The court was lit up from below, there were tables at half court, and people had drinks in their hands.

Kobe Bryant was there, stylishly dressed in black. So was famous model Winnie Harlow.

Know that regardless of the setting, Kobe still has game.

Draymond Green, Andre Iguodala cleared to play vs. Pelicans Friday

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Without Draymond Green in the fourth quarter Tuesday night in the opener, and with Andre Iguodala out for the game, the Warriors defense fell apart against Houston. The Rockets scored 34 points in the quarter and came from behind to beat a Warriors team that had been in control of the game up to that point. There was more to it than just Green’s balky knee, but without the Defensive Player of the Year they are not the same.

Bad news for the Pelicans: Green and Iguodala have been cleared to play in New Orleans Friday. Green had an MRI and it came back negative.

Green admitted he was concerned that the injury, via Anthony Slater of The Athletic.

Now it is the Pelicans who should be concerned. The Warriors will want to wash the feeling of that opening night loss off them.

Report: Kevin Love was frustrated with move to center

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With Derrick Rose having to start at point guard (until Isiah Thomas returns sometime in early 2018) and Dwyane Wade starting at the two, Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue had no choice but to move Kevin Love to starting at center. The Cavaliers desperately need the floor spacing to open up driving lanes and options for LeBron James. Start Tristan Thompson at the five (with Love at the four and Jae Crowder coming off the bench) and it adds another non-shooter to the mix that allows opposing defenses to just pack the paint and force LeBron to be a jump shooter.

That doesn’t mean everyone liked the change.

Love admitted to Chris Fedor of the Cleveland Plain Dealer he was frustrated with the move at first.

“It’s been a little bit of a change for me,” Love admitted. “I still find myself spacing a little bit wanting to roll a little bit more and on the defensive end just playing the primary big on their team the whole time on the defensive end. It’s been a little bit different figuring things out on that end, but it comes with the growth I’m talking about. We need to do that and hopefully be a machine when things start clicking.”

Lue put it this way.

“We’re going to try it out and see how it works. He was frustrated at first, but now he’s enjoying it.”

While in certain matchups, when the opposition has a more traditional center, the Cavs may go back to the Love/Thompson front line for a stretch. But the small ball lineup is the way Cleveland should be leaning, even with its clear defensive deficiencies. We saw that in the opener with Love’s dagger three in the fourth quarter.

Love is adjusting, he’s already sacrificed a lot to play with LeBron. This is just another step in that evolution.