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.  

New Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer: ‘I think I’m in the best place in the league’

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Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo will almost certainly finish fourth in Most Valuable Player voting this year, his age-23 season.

The last coach to take over a team with a player who already accomplished so much at such a young age – Del Harris (a familiar name in Milwaukee), who inherited reigning MVP Moses Malone with the Rockets in 1979. It’s just so rare for jobs coaching such a promising player top come open.

“I think I’m in the best place in the league,” new Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said at his introductory press conference today.

Budenholzer had his pick of Milwaukee and Toronto, another highly successful team, especially for one seeking a new coach. But the Bucks offer Antetokounmpo and more modest expectations.

Milwaukee hasn’t won a playoff series in 17 years. Budenholzer was asked today as much about delivering a division title as an NBA title.

Topping the Cavaliers, Pacers, Pistons and Bulls sounds much easier than surpassing the Warriors, Rockets, Celtics and 76ers in coming years.

Not that Budenholzer, who reached the conference finals with the Hawks, is completely ducking big talk.

“We’re lucky to have a Giannis, who will do anything to win, and a Khris Middleton that will do anything to win,” Budenholzer said. “When you have your best players that are true competitors and that are truly unselfish and care more about the team than they do themselves, those are a couple of big, foundational blocks to winning championships and doing things that are special.”

The Bucks held the press conference at their still-under-construction new arena, the media wearing hard hats and orange vests:

But this isn’t a complete rebuild for Budenholzer.

Milwaukee has made the playoffs the last two seasons, including winning 44 games this year. Antetokounmpo is a superstar. Middleton is a borderline All-Star. Eric Bledsoe is a solid starter. Restricted free agent-to-be Jabari Parker is talented. The rotation is somewhat deep.

The Bucks just underachieved under former coach Jason Kidd (and never capitalized before him for more than a decade for other reasons).

Citing the potential of current players, Budenholzer said Milwaukee could become “elite” defensively. The Bucks are full of long and athletic players, and Budenholzer coached sound defenses in Atlanta. There’s only one reason to doubt him: Milwaukee finished just 17th in points allowed per possession this season.

But that’s a feature of this job, not a bug. The Bucks aren’t stuck with an inevitably bad defenders. They just underperformed. Budenholzer can nudge them ahead – and is positioned to receive outsized credit if he does.

“Working with the entire with the entire roster, with the front office, with ownership,” Budenholzer said, “I can’t wait to take us to the next level in Milwaukee.”

That next level isn’t that high, which is why Budenholzer is right.

Milwaukee is a great place for a coach to be.

Mike D’Antoni: Rockets ‘played soft’

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The Warriors beat the Rockets by 41 last night to take a 2-1 lead in the Western Conference finals.

Houston coach Mike D’Antoni:

We didn’t switch up into people, we didn’t box off. It’s just one thing led to another. Played soft, actually.

His stars agreed.

James Harden:

He’s right. We weren’t as aggressive as we needed to be. We started off the game pretty solid, and then we let them gain some confidence to end the first quarter. You know, but just defensively they didn’t feel us and it showed tonight.

Chis Paul:

Coach is right. We’ve got to be better. I think, you know, we’ve got to come out more aggressive. We were letting them hit first, you know what I mean? They were running their screens and all that stuff like that. I mean, we know that we’re at our best when we’re in transition and not taking the ball out the net. And tonight we were taking the ball out the net. We had 19 turnovers. That’s uncharacteristic of us. We knew we were going to get a great game from them being back here at home, but we’ve got to be better Game 4.

That’s a harsh assessment – but at least somewhat warranted. The Rockets applied far too little defensive pressure, and they missed shots inside and committed turnovers as if they were rattled.

I don’t think the Rockets are soft. But they looked soft in the face of Golden State’s elite ability.

The Warriors pressure teams into mistakes and then exploit many of them. Play that doesn’t look soft against other opponents suddenly does against Golden State.

Houston can toughen up before Game 4 Tuesday. Acclimating to the Warriors’ high level of play, especially at home, could help. The Rockets are good enough to hang at this level.

But it certainly won’t be easy.

Klay Thompson on Stephen Curry’s profane outburst: ‘I hope Riley didn’t see it’

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Through halftime of Game 3, Stephen Curry was shooting 3-of-20 on 3-pointers in the Western Conference finals. The Rockets targeted him relentlessly while he was on defense. The Warriors had been outscored with him on the court.

For days, questions swirled.

Is Curry overrated? Is he too soft to withstand the pressure Houston was applying? Is he still injured?

Curry answered in an an emotional third quarter of Game 3: No, no, no. The Golden State superstar scored 18 points on 7-of-7 shooting, including 2-of-2 on 3-pointers, in the period.

Along the way, he shimmied:

And after another made basket, he removed his mouthpiece and stayed behind the play to declare,”This is my f—ing house:”

That was quite a moment for Curry.

Monte Poole of NBC Sports Bay Area:

So hyper-aware of it was Curry that had a ready response when asked about it after the Warriors laid a 126-85 beating on the Rockets in Game 3 of the Western Conference Finals.

“I already know,” he said.

“I blacked out,” Curry explained, his tongue planted firmly in his cheek. “I blacked out.”

People close to Curry didn’t miss it – nor did the many fans watching.

NBC Sports Bay Area:

Klay Thompson:

That was funny. I hope Riley didn’t see it. It got Oracle pretty fired up. And that’s a rare occurrence. I’ve never really seen Steph – I’ve seen him, yeah, use that langue. But that’s what the playoffs brings out of you. So, don’t do that at home, kids. It’s just once in a while.

Chris Haynes of ESPN:

His mother, Sonya Curry, was pleased with her son’s performance, but not with his mouth.

“She already sent me two home videos, showing me the clip and playing it back,” Curry told ESPN. “She was telling me how I need to wash my mouth out, saying to wash it out with soap. It’s a message I’ve heard before.”

It was Curry’s breakout game in this series, but he is a devout Christian and says he understands why he received such a scolding.

“She’s right,” Curry told ESPN. “I gotta do better. I can’t talk like that.”

Curry has cultivated such a wholesome image despite massive amounts of showboating and taunting on the court. If his previous boastful behavior didn’t turn off anyone, this incident probably won’t, either.

No matter how he’s marketed, Curry is an exceptionally intense competitor. That’s a huge part of what makes him a great player, and it’s not always polite when that side shines through.

I won’t start chiding Curry for playing with emotion and, gasp, swearing. I’d much rather appreciate his passion.

I’d also prefer if we appreciate similar passion from all players rather than applying a double standard.

Warriors-Rockets features one of biggest game-to-game swings in NBA playoff history

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In Game 2, the Rockets handed the Warriors their biggest playoff loss with Kevin Durant.

In Game 3, the Warriors earned their biggest playoff win and gave the Rockets their biggest playoff loss in each franchise’s history.

Quite the turnaround.

The 63-point swing from Houston’s 127-105 Game 2 win to Golden State’s 126-85 Game 3 win is one of the largest reversals in NBA playoff history.

It’s been a decade since the last larger game-to-game swing. The last series to have one as large as these Western Conference finals was the 2016 NBA Finals, when the Cavaliers began their comeback against the Warriors after getting blown out in Games 1 and 2.

Here are the biggest game-to-game swings ever in the NBA playoffs:

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That’s a lot of momentum moving against the Rockets. Can they recover?