Category Archives: Look Ahead

Rondo the key as the NBA Finals finally get underway Thursday

Rondo presents a host of matchup problems for the favored Lakers. (Pic via Zimbio.com)

The 2010 NBA Finals are finally here.  Let’s hope the Celtics and Lakers engage in a hard-fought, well-played series that produces compelling subplots.  Anything to overshadow the increasingly annoying NBA free agent speculation.

The Lakers are the prohibitive favorites thanks to a spry Kobe Bryant, an assertive Pau Gasol, and a cast of capable role players.  But the Celtics are peaking at the right time, thanks to a surprising bench and balanced scoring.

Make no mistake, the Celtics have a chance to win the NBA championship if Rajon Rondo is able to his thing.

Rondo’s unique game presents a host of problems for the Lakers.  Unlike Steve Nash, who is much more comfortable shooting jumpers off the pick and roll, Rondo seeks the paint and doesn’t stop until he gets near the basket.

Rondo struggles against bigger guards, but has his way against players his size.  Derek Fisher has physicality, but lacks the quickness to stay with Rondo.  Fisher’s efforts on the defensive end are admirable, but not overly effective, regardless of what the analysts say.

Ron Artest matches up perfectly with Paul Pierce, who isn’t quick enough or big enough to be able to work comfortably against the Lakers.  Ray Allen will most likely be shadowed by Kobe Bryant.  Kevin Garnett looked done by the end of the Orlando series and will face a huge challenge against Pau Gasol.

The pressure is on Rondo to control the game from start to finish.

Rondo tends to play at his best when the stakes are high.  He is capable of baffling opponents and quietly producing triple-double.  His big fingerprints needs to be all over the game for the Celtics to have a chance.

Much more NBA finals coverage coming throughout the night here on ToTheTin.

Celtics-Magic preview: Howard the key in evenly-matched series

Howard will be fouled early and often by the Celtics.

The Celtics spoiled the much-anticipated Cavaliers-Magic rematch, setting up what could be an epic Eastern Conference semifinals featuring two teams playing at a very high level.

The fun begins Sunday at 3:30 EST on ABC.

After a long layoff, the Magic could be a bit rusty. Don’t be surprised if Boston rides the momentum gained in the Cleveland series to a Game 1 win. Both teams are very capable of winning on their opponents home court, making a six or seven game series a strong possibility.

Here is a closer look at matchups and subplots.

Guards

It’s all about Rajon Rondo. A fantastic series against the Cavs provided a showcase for his improved jump shot and ability to control a game. He has an edge against Jameer Nelson, who isn’t a strong defender. Nelson needs to be aggressive and make Rondo work on the defensive end. Unlike Mo Williams, Nelson isn’t afraid of the moment and will look to attack Rondo. Ray Allen and Matt Barnes will be a fun matchup to watch. Barnes enjoyed a strong finish to the season but is dealing with a back injury. The Magic have the advantage off the bench, with Mickael Pietrus, J.J. Redick, and Jason Williams. Tony Allen played well against LeBron James and should get some run against Vince Carter.

Advantage: Celtics

Forwards

The Old G matchup between Vince Carter and Paul Pierce will be important to watch as the series unfolds. Carter hasn’t shot the ball well in the postseason, but has still shown flashes of his amazing talent by getting to the rim. If he decides to take over the game, he can still do it. It’s not that simple for Pierce, who doesn’t look healthy. His jump shot has been off and he looks slower than ever. Don’t count him out, but he really played poorly against the Cavs. Kevin Garnett has an advantage in the post against Rashard Lewis, but don’t expect K.G. to enjoy chasing Lewis on the perimeter. The Celtics will most likely play a smaller lineup with Garnett at center for parts of the series. Glen Davis is the only bench player likely to have any impact at the forward position in the series, although Ryan Anderson could spark the magic with some 3’s here and there. The matchups suggest that good ole ‘Sheed won’t get a whole lot of run against the Magic.

Advantage: Magic–barely

Centers

Dwight Howard has a huge advantage against the Celtics. He is too quick for Kendrick Perkins, too big and too quick for Kevin Garnett, and much more athletic than Perkins, K.G., Big Baby, and ‘Sheed. He should dominate, but as always, he needs to stay out of foul trouble. Howard’s presence makes it difficult for Rajon Rondo to score around the basket, something he did at will against the Cavs. Marcin Gortat is a nice player and plays well if he gets minutes, which usually only happens if Superman is in foul trouble.

Advantage: Magic–big time

Coaching/Intangibles

It’s not too difficult to out-coach Mike Brown, but Doc Rivers did a great job against the Cavaliers. He managed his aging team, limiting minutes for Ray Allen and Garnett while getting the most out of Tony Allen and Davis. Stan Van Gundy is one of the better coaches in the NBA when it comes to exploiting matchups. The Celtics experience doesn’t really give them an edge against the savvy Magic. The choke-factor is pretty even–neither team is likely to cave under pressure.

Advantage: Draw

Subplots

-Injuries and age: Matt Barnes has a bad back. Kendrick Perkins has a bad knee. Paul Pierce is clearly not healthy, and Vince Carter is as soft as any NBA star. The Celtics are an old team and could have used some additional layoff. Fatigue won’t manifest itself until later in the series, but could be a factor, especially for Kevin Garnett’s ailing knee.

-Rajon Rondo: Superstar? Numbers are one thing, but utter dominance is another. Rondo dominated the Cavaliers, controlling the game and making numerous big shots. Another series like that and he will catapult up the ranks of NBA stars.

-Vince Carter: What’s my motivation? There is nothing more frustrating to NBA fans than players who don’t try. Enter Vince Carter, who has developed a beautiful stroke for the perimeter. Too bad the stroke doesn’t yield results. Carter is amazingly talented, and has the ability to post, get to the rim, and even run the offense at times. He also has the ability to score nine points on 3-of-9 shooting.

-Make it rain Ray Ray: The pressure is on Ray Allen to make 3-pointers, at least until Paul Pierce gets going. As of right now, Allen is the only reliable threat from downtown. Layups and dunks won’t come easily against the Magic, so the Celtics need to shoot well from the perimeter.

-The forgotten ones: Remember Nate Robinson? Sure you do. He could see some minutes in the series if Doc Rivers needs a spark and some shooting off the bench. Orlando’s Brandon Bass could get some time if Garnett abuses Rashard Lewis.

Prediction

So who wins? It tough to bet against the Celtics right now, but the Magic are have such a huge advantage with Dwight Howard inside. The scrappy C’s push the Magic to the brink, but lose in Game 7.

Previewing and Predicting Cavaliers-Celtics

Double-Duty: The C's need Pierce put up points and keep LeBron under control to have a chance against the Cavs. (Pic via vernoncroys.wordpress.com)

The Celtics and Cavs meet in the Eastern Conference semifinals for the second time in three years with Game 1 tipping-off Saturday night in Cleveland. NBA fans should be excited for a long, physical series featuring plenty of intriguing subplots, most notably the health of one LeBron James.

LeBron practiced Friday, participating in non-contact drills and shooting mid-range jumpers and free throws–with his right hand. He is expected to continue wearing a padded shooter-sleeve on his right elbow after being diagnosed with a sprained elbow and bone bruise.

LeBron’s decision to shoot his final free throw in Game 5 against the Bulls left-handed brought needless attention to the injury. Don’t think the Celtics aren’t taking note.

Here’s a closer look at what to watch for in the series:

Key matchups

The King vs. The Truth: LeBron has been very successful against the Celtics in his career, but there is no question the C’s have made him work in the past. In previous years, Boston has used James Posey and Kevin Garnett, along with Pierce, to slow down LeBron. That won’t be the case this time around, with Posey gone and K.G. barely able to get up and down the court. It will be on Pierce and Tony Allen–a huge liability on the offensive end–to check LeBron. The Celtics defend pick and rolls better than most teams in the NBA, but LeBron should be able to dominant on the offensive end. It will be interesting to monitor how much Pierce plays LeBron–and if his offensive production suffers as a result.

The defenseless point guards: An interesting matchup between two players who don’t like to play defense. Rondo led the NBA in steals and can play d when he wants to, but tends to gamble and allow players to go around him. Williams is horrible defensively no matter how hard he tries. Both players could put up huge numbers in this series. Rondo has the ability to exploit Cleveland’s pick and roll defense, which was a huge problem against the Bulls in Game 1 and throughout the 2009 Eastern Conference Finals against the Magic. Rondo can’t shoot it like Derrick Rose, but the Celtics have good floor spacing and players able to hit perimeter shots. The Cavs will most likely play Anthony Parker on Rondo for much of the series. Williams and Parker will get open looks, and they need to connect early to keep their confidence up. Williams choked repeatedly during the playoffs last year and wasn’t great in the First Round this year either.

The men in the middle: Shaq is the headliner, but his true value (if there is any left) won’t be felt unless the Cavs advance to face Orlando. Kendrick Perkins won’t be intimidated by Shaq or Big Z and could have a big series–or he could get frustrated a be a non-factor. Kevin Garnett has very little left in the tank and needs all the help he can get. Rasheed Wallace hasn’t done anything all year, so don’t expect him to be much of a factor. Glen Davis showed signs late in the year and has been productive in the postseason before. He needs to play big against the Cavs, who need consistent production–and minutes–from Shaq, Big Z, Anderson Varejao and J.J. Hickson. If he gets minutes, Hickson could be key to Cleveland’s success. His athleticism and activity gave the Celtics problems during the regular season.

The second-tier stars: Ray Allen and Antawn Jamison are prone to inconsistency and don’t always get enough touches to make an impact. Jamison poses an interesting matchup for the Celtics, who will be forced to chase him on the perimeter with K.G., Big Baby, and ‘Sheed. Jamison would figure to have a big series, but it depends on how much Cleveland looks for him. The same goes for Ray-Ray, who sometimes becomes an afterthought for Boston, especially if Pierce is scoring. The player who has the bigger impact will most likely be on the winning team in this series.

Coaching: Doc Rivers and Mike Brown are extremely overrated as coaches, prone to questionable strategy, substitution patterns, and a puzzling failure to make adjustments. There is no advantage here on either side, although Brown has been woefully inept at times, most notably last year against Orlando.

The X-Factor: Most of the sexy candidates are on the Cavs roster, with J.J. Hickson, Big Z, and Delonte West poised to contribute if called on. But don’t count out Tony Allen or Nate Robinson either. Allen is a high-energy player who could bother LeBron at times, and Robinson is capable of exploding.

Predictions

If this year’s NCAA Tournament was any indication of my ability to pick winners correctly, I will probably end up picking the wrong team. With that disclaimer out of the way, I’m going to go ahead and pick the Cavs in six games. The Cavs are too deep and too good. Even with the tendency to blow leads and wilt under pressure, becoming stagnant late in games and relying on LeBron to go 1-on-5, the Cavs should be able to survive. Boston doesn’t have a clear advantage in any area in the series and no longer plays smothering defense on a consistent basis. Cleveland simply has too many weapons.

2010 NBA Playoffs: Where excitement and intrigue happens

Will Gasol and the Lakers emerge from one of the deepest playoff fields in history? Not without some drama. (Pic via laweekly.com)

The NCAA Tournament is known as the Mecca of postseason tournaments. The 2010 Big Dance featured an amazing first week of action, but things quickly went downhill. Sloppy games, bad execution, and the tendency of teams not advance by playing slightly less crappy than their opponent made the final rounds of the tournament a disappointment. The Final Four lacked intrigue—no matter how the National Media tried to spin it.

Under normal circumstances, the NBA playoffs would never be able to match the entertainment value of the NCAA Tournament. The 2010 NBA playoffs could be a different story.

There is no shortage of compelling storylines heading into the postseason. In the Eastern Conference, LeBron meets Chicago—a team that should make a strong push to acquire his services this summer—in the first round. The Bobcats, a team with a stunning collection of knuckleheads, including Stephen Jackson, look to pull a huge upset on Orlando. They have the talent and the swagger to pull it off, much like when Captain Jack’s Warriors shocked the top-seeded Mavs in 2003. Atlanta gets little love, but should be a factor in the East with Jamal Crawford and Josh Smith as the catalysts.

The Western Conference features eight teams with 50 wins in what is perhaps the deepest postseason field in NBA history. An abundance of interesting matchups highlight the parity—and uncertainty—of the West. Kevin Durant leads the upstart Thunder against the slumping Lakers. Phil Jackson has already started to play mind games against Durant, a sign that he is worried. The Lakers signed Ron Artest as a designated defender against the best wing players in the NBA. After an inconsistent season, Ron-Ron faces a huge challenge. Durant seems poised to take the next step to superstardom; he could author an upset if Kobe isn’t 100%.

Utah and Denver collide in what should be a high-scoring, thrilling series. Portland faces Phoenix without Brandon Roy. Nobody has played better than the Suns in recent weeks, but the Blazers are feisty and experienced. A First Round win could produce a Willis Reed moment, with Roy attempting to return just weeks after knee surgery. Finally, Dallas and San Antonio meet in what looks like mismatch on paper. The Spurs played the regular season to get to the postseason, now is when they will turn up the heat. The Mavs could make a run at the NBA Title—or they could lose in the First Round.

The Playoffs figure to feature upsets, close games, and plenty of drama. And unlike this year’s NCAA Tournament, the quality of play should be consistently high.

Things could get ugly this summer, but for right now at least, basketball fans will be treated to one of the most entertaining NBA Playoffs in a long, long time.

Previewing Duke-West Virginia

Mr. Big Shot version 2.0 could present matchup problems for Duke in Saturday's matchup. (Pic via thehoopsreport.com)

Duke and West Virginia tangle in what appears to be the real National Championship game.  Saturday’s matchup features the two best teams in the Final Four by a wide margin.  Bob Huggins led his team through a difficult region, while Coach K didn’t have much to worry about as Duke coasted through the easiest region in recent memory.  I’m excited to watch this game unfold.

Duke and West Virginia tip around 6:15 Eastern Time.  Let’s take a closer look at the interesting matchups, keys to the game, and who will win.

Matchups to watch: One of the reasons this game should be so interesting is how well both teams matchup with one another personnel-wise.  Joe Mazzulla figures to check Jon Scheyer, who gets a ton of attention for being Duke’s so-called best player.  The real key to Duke’s success, and perhaps the Devils best player, is Nolan Smith.  Mazzulla and Devin Ebanks could split time on Smith, who has an advantage in quickness but could struggle against size.  Kyle Singler is the only Blue Devil with both the size and athleticism to stick with Da’Sean Butler.  Singler needs to stay out of foul trouble for Duke to contain the versatile Butler.

Keys to the game: After battling a lack of size and toughness for the last few seasons, Duke has emerged as one of the biggest and most physical teams in the NCAA Tournament.  West Virginia has the length and athleticism to match Duke, and certainly the toughness.  A matchup featuring two of the nation’s best defensive teams (Toughness and defense, two traits not commonly associated with Duke) could simply come down to which team shoots the ball better from the perimeter.  Neither team figures to spend much time in the paint in this one, placing an emphasis on taking care of the ball and taking good shots.

Who will win: Oh boy.  This is really tough to call.  West Virginia doesn’t seem to do anything great, but does everything pretty well.  Despite playing without Truck Bryant, WVU should be able to control the tempo against Duke, a good defensive team but not a true pressure team.  The Blue Devils haven’t seen anything close to the combination of athleticism and toughness exhibited by the Mountaineers in the tournament.  I like West Virginia in a low-scoring game filled with lots of fouls.

No more drama: Final Four lacks intrigue, excitement

It took Izzo's finest coaching job to lead the Spartans to the weirdest Final Four in a long, long time. (Pic via Blogs.SunTimes.Com)

The Final Four usually marks the pinnacle of the most captivating events in sports. March Madness creates spirited debate, tense drama, and more and more surprises with each passing game. At some point, the magic has to come to an end. This year at least, the end is already upon us.

As sports fans, we crave excitement. We want our favorite teams to succeed and our enemies, be it a team, player, or coach, to fail miserably. But more than anything else, we want to sit in our recliners and be entertained.

It’s safe to say that the 2010 NCAA Tournament has already reached it’s climax. Although the National Championship still hangs in the balance, the intrigue has faded. All that remains is simple bewilderment regarding just how exactly we ended up with this particular Final Four.

Duke and West Virginia are certainly not huge surprises.

Despite their high seed, most people expected the Mountaineers, who don’t do anything great and are made up primarily of rugged athletes, to lose to Kentucky, if not sooner. Teams like Clemson, Kentucky, Marquette, Washington, and even New Mexico matched up well with West Virginia. The Moutaineers weren’t exactly a sexy pick.

At first glance, Duke’s road to the Final Four appeared to be comically simple. The Blue Devils figured to roll against Cal or Louisville, then against an overachieving Texas A&M squad or a Robbie Hummel-less Purdue team, before facing its first true test in the Elite Eight. But a recent history of tournament collapses and the perception that Duke is soft made some people stop and think. Logic and basketball acumen triumphed as the Blue Devils enjoyed a smooth ride to Indy.

Butler and Michigan State defied the odds, conventional wisdom, and sheer logic.

The Spartans entered the tournament appearing to be on the brink of a collapse. Durrell Summers had been benched for long stretches, Chris Allen had been suspended for being what Tom Izzo called “a bad teammate” after being benched for longer stretches, and Delvon Roe’s knee was acting up—again. Michigan State eeked out a First-Round win thanks to a little luck and some help from the refs and knocked-off Maryland thanks to Draymond Green and Korie Lucious. Even though Kalin Lucas was lost for the season with an achillies injury, Northern Iowa had shocked Kansas. A win over a nervous UNI team earned the Spartans a spot in the Final Four after outlasting all opponents in one of the toughest regions in recent memory.

And finally, there is Butler. The Bulldogs can certainly play, but there is no question they benefited from the futility of their opponents throughout the tournament. UTEP looked overwhelmed by the moment and saddened by the inevitable departure of their coach. Murray State played wonderfully against Vanderbilt but caved in crunch-time against Butler. Syracuse sleep-walked through a game that didn’t appear to mean very much, and Kansas State had nothing left after being pushed to double overtime against Xavier.

All of a sudden, Butler was in the Final Four.

I find myself unable to muster up any excitement for this weekend’s games. My brackets are shot, but that’s nothing new. The feeling that almost all the best teams are at home watching makes me not want to bother tuning in. The fact that Duke and West Virginia are by far the best two teams remaining in the field makes wish that the four remaining teams could be re-seeded.

I just want to start over.

Saint Mary’s dominates Gonzaga, dances into March Madness

Sahman and the Gaels are burst their bubble Monday against the Zags. (Pic via rushthecourt.net)

Saint Mary’s entered Monday night’s West Coast Conference title game on the bubble for a second consecutive year.  The Gaels won’t be have any anxious moments on Selection Sunday this year after a convincing win earned them an automatic bid to the Big Dance for the sixth time in school history.

The Gaels led by a single point at halftime but used a barrage of 3-pointers from Ben Allen and Tournament MVP Mickey McConnell to leave the Zags in the dust.  When it was over, Saint Mary’s held a 51-33 scoring advantage in the second half.

Who needs Patty Mills?

Some NCAA Tournament prognosticators, including ESPN’s Joe Lunardi, already had the Gaels in the NCAA Tournament–but just barely.

Now that the Gaels are in the field, let’s take a closer look at their resume:

Saint Mary’s Gaels (26-5) WCC Tournament Champions

Quality wins: Gonzaga, San Diego State, Northeastern

Close Calls: Lost 72-70 to Vanderbilt early in the season

Projected Seed: 11

Key Players: Mickey McConnell and Omar Sahman provide a nice 1-2 punch.  Sahman dominated the WCC in his senior season, averaging 21 points and 11 rebounds.  McConnell shoots 51 percent from 3-point range and teams with Aussie Matthew Dellavedova to provide consistent perimeter scoring.  Indiana transfer Ben Allen provides size and outside shooting to compliment Sahman’s game.

Analysis: Saint Mary’s has terrific size for a mid-major, with a much-improved Sahman anchoring the middle and flanked by 6-11 Ben Allen, and 6-7 swingman Clint Stiendl.  The Gaels won’t be intimidated by size and have played in big games, so expect them to put up a fight no matter the opponent.  Saint Mary’s could potentially struggle against quick, penetrating guards and needs Sahman to stay out of foul trouble.

Projection: Obviously difficult to forecast without knowing opponents or seeding, but Saint Mary’s is legit and could certainly win a game or two in the Big Dance.