Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Reviewing the Toronto Raptors 2007-08 season

Was the 2007-08 season for the Toronto Raptors a success or a failure ? Well, they made the playoffs, had an all star rep & won regular season games in San Antonio & Boston. But, while they did make they playoffs, they actually won less regular season games(41 this year) than the year before(47 in 2006-07) and were also the first team eliminated from they playoffs, bundled out in 5 games by Orlando. Does this make it a successful-failure ? Is there such a term ?

Toronto had a break out season in 2006-07. After years in the doldrums they had finally returned to the playoffs for the first time in 5 years. The Raptors were no longer the laughing stock of the league or a semi-retirement village for players who, while no longer in their prime, were now happy to move to the other 'country' to pick up their NBA healthy paychecks.

Rookie Andrea Bargnani showed raw promise in 06-07, far from the finished product but his up side certainly outweighed any first year nerves & teething problems. Chris Bosh became a starter for the Eastern Conference All-Stars, Sam Mitchell proved that he could coach at this level and Toronto's chemistry was at an all-time high. On top of it all, the Raptors equalled a team best 47 wins. Not only was Toronto out of the doldrums, the 2007-08 Raptors were about to become a serious challenger for the Eastern conference crown. Things were looking up and it could only get better, right ?

It all started off ok. Two wins in the first two games of the season, including a 37-point blow out on the road of last season's playoff eliminators, the New Jersey Nets. But, shortly after, the Raptors would display the wild inconsistencies which would plague their season. A close home loss to the Boston Celtics followed by a 27-point hammering in Milwaukee, was shortly followed by another 30-point road win in Chicago. In the end, the wins in New Jersey & Chicago were probably mirages and probably said more about their opponents than them, as they both endured tumultuous seasons of their own. One had a coach sacked, the other had it's star player demanding to be traded & neither team would figure in post season play.

The Raptors suffered a big blow early on when they lost one of their key figures from the previous season, Jorge Garbajosa. Garbajosa suffered a nasty ankle injury during the 2006-7 season. During the off-season, he represented his country, Spain, at the European Championships to qualify for the Beijing 2008 Olympic games. His ankle had never really healed completely though and further surgery was required and his 2007-08 campaign was over.

More nasty injuries followed Garbajosa's and in early December, late in a game in Atlanta whilst on a breakaway, TJ Ford was dumped by Hawks rookie Al Horford. Horford's clumsy attempt at trying to prevent Ford from an easy layup went horribly wrong as he struck Ford with a flayling arm and sent him to the floor. TJ lay on the ground for several minutes. Having previously suffered spinal and neck injuries, doctors took no chances and Ford wouldn't return to the team until early February. To further complicate matters, reserve point guard Jose Calderon's play in Ford's absence was garnering All-Star consideration. When TJ did return, the role as backup point guard didn't sit well with him and his frustration was obvious.

Not long after TJ returned to the Raptors lineup, Chris Bosh's wonky knees took their annual two to three-week hiatus. Toronto struggled in his absence and won only two of the ten games Bosh missed which, when added to the other five games he had missed (of which Toronto only won two) earlier in the year conspired to slowly derail Toronto's playoff plans.

Toronto had ended the calender year of 2007 with an impressive road win in New Orleans. Their record then was 17 wins & 15 losses, good for fifth in the Eastern Conference. But the feeling was that Toronto hadn't been playing their best basketball and the achievable goal of finishing with home court advantage in the playoffs was still very much within reach.

After an impressive rookie campaign, Toronto was looking for Andrea Bargnani to continue his development and become a consistent offensive threat, while also improving his defensive game and his rebounding. But Bargnani struggled this season, badly. His long range shot was still smooth, but there was little to no improvement in the other aspects of his game. Defensively he was soft, very soft & he actually became worse at rebounding, averaging an Eddy Curry-like 3.7 per game, down from 3.9 the year before.
On offense, he looked confused, unsure it seemed as if the Raptors brainstrust and coach's wanted him to work on his post game, drive to the hoop or simply continue to do the one thing he did do well, shoot 3's.
Furthermore frustratingly, Bargnani did show flashes of why GM Bryan Colangelo selected him with the first overall pick in 2006. A 20-point, 7-rebound, 7-assist night in a win in Boston, a 25-point, 7-rebound, 5-assist night in another victory, this time against the New York Knicks. Ten times he had 20-points or more in a game, but on another 13 occassions, he scored only 2 points or less.
Jason Kapono came to the Raptors in the offseason from the Miami Heat. In 2006-07, he led the league in 3-pt fg% and Bryan Colangelo handed him a healthy 4-year $24m contract to entice him north of the border. Colangelo figured the leagues most accurate 3-point shooter would be a perfect compliment for Toronto's varied offense. Kapono did repeat two of his 06-07 acomplishments. He won the 3-point shootout at the All-Star game and he again led the league in 3-pt fg%. However, the latter of the awards is grotesquely misleading as Kapono took only 118 3-pointers, making 57 of them. For comparitive purposes, Phoenix's Steve Nash finished 2nd in 3-pt accuracy to Kapono but made 179 of the 381 3-pointers he tried.
Kapono did have an excellent playoff series against Orlando, but everyone must be wondering where that guy was during the regular season.
Toronto's once promising season kept getting worse the closer the playoffs got and with five losses in their final eight games, the Raptors finished sixth in the Eastern Conference and faced the Orlando Magic in the first round. The Raptors would win only 1 playoff game, despite being close in another 3.
So Toronto now head to an offseason with alot of questions. Only Bryan Colangelo has the answers. Whatever does happen, it would appear that the 2008-09 outfit will be drastically different from the 2007-08 one. TJ Ford is probably the only player who definately won't be back, because it's hard to see Colangelo paying Jose Calderon $10m a year for the next 4 years to come off the bench. The Raptors are going to be stuck with Bargnani for atleast another season, because even if they wanted to trade him, his value is so low that the Raptors wouldn't get anything significant in return. This is a critical year for Andrea, he could still become the next Dirk, but at the moment, he's heading dangerously close to becoming the next Kwame.

Final Grade: C

Hornets buzz past Mavs, Spurs down Suns...again

If Chris Paul was nervous about playing in the playoffs for the first time in his young career, he didn't show it. Paul was again sensational last night as he had 24 points, 11 rebounds and 15 assists & the New Orleans Hornets defeated the Dallas Mavericks 99-94 & sent the Mavericks to an early summer by eliminating them from the playoffs, 4 games to 1.
Paul has maturity well beyond his 22 years. His calmness and ability to make the right play at the right time is uncanny. No point guard in the league has such control, not just over his team, but over the entire game. He's listed at a stocky 175lb, 6 feet tall from head to toe, but to see his influence on the game, you would think he was cut from the same mould as Dwight Howard.
New Orleans were never seriously threatened in this series. Dallas grabbed a token win in game 3, but that aside, the Hornets picked apart a Mavericks team that looks certain for big changes in the offseason. Owner Mark Cuban's gamble in giving up the young, speedy Devin Harris for Jason Kidd's old legs just before the trade deadline looked a risky move then and looks even worse now. Harris was exactly the type of player the Mavericks missed in this series. His pace and long arms might not have slowed Paul, but certainly he could have at least kept up with him. Paul simply abused whoever the Mavericks threw at him.
New Orleans now face the San Antonio Spurs. We all knew that the Spurs were going to beat the Phoenix Suns, but few thought that it was only going to take them 5 games, especially after the double overtime thriller in game 1.
Phoenix now head to an offseason of uncertainty. The window of opportunity that the Suns had to win a championship has now been slammed shut. Steve Nash has achieved alot in this league, but he's 34 years old now and when you consider the plethora of quality point guards in the game, it's hard to see him getting any better or quicker than he has been already. In the Western conference alone, he would now sit comfortably behind Chris Paul, Tony Parker and Deron Williams, if he didn't already.
I wonder if Suns GM Steve Kerr still thinks that giving up Shawn Marion for Shaq was now such a good idea afterall. Marion will earn around $17.8m next year and despite whether or not Kerr thinks he's worth that much, his contract is a touch more attractive than Shaq's two years and $40m, to which the Suns still owe him. I doubt any other GM will be as generous as Kerr was in bailing out Pat Riley this season.....maybe Isiah Thomas would if he still had a job.
For the San Antonio Spurs though, it was business as usual. Typically, they didn't demolish Phoenix in this series, they just did what they had to do & always do...make the big play at the right time and finish the game in front. Case in point, Phoenix led big in both game 1(16 points) & game 2(14 points) before the Spurs came back to win each time.
The match up now between New Orleans and San Antonio promises to be a classic. A battle of Old & Familiar vs New & Exciting.
The Hornets are young and hungry & led by a legitimate MVP candidate in Chris Paul. They have a 2nd all-star in the lineup in David West and a former all-star, rejuvenated this season after a couple of years of injuries, but who can still shoot the ball as well as ever in Peja Stojakovic.
The Spurs though are the battle proven veterans, seemingly never overawed by the occasion and led by Manu Ginobili and last year's finals MVP, Tony Parker. Oh and Tim Duncan is still as effective as ever.
It's always tougher to win in the playoffs than it is during the regular season. The hoop seems to be just a little smaller, the ball bounces a little differently and every basket could be the decisive one. Player's & coach's face the ultimate test. New Orleans breezed through their first exam with flying colours, but now they face probably the toughest playoff opponent in the league. The season series was split 2-2, with each team picking up a win on the other's home court.
While New Orleans has home court advantage in this series, I think that San Antonio will still start as favourite to win. But, I believe in Chris Paul and I also believe New Orleans are ready to send a message around the league that they are for real.....the Hornets to win in 6 games.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Howard powers Magic as Orlando eliminate Toronto

Dwight Howard had his third 20-20 of the series as the Orlando Magic overpowered the Toronto Raptors 102-92 and won the best of seven series 4-1 on Monday night in Orlando. Howard had 21 points, 21 rebounds and 3 block shots & it was his 10th offensive rebound and put back with 4 minutes remaining after Chris Bosh and Jason Kapono fumbled a rebound that effectively ended Toronto's challenge and their season.
All 5 starters for Orlando scored in double figures on the night that Hedo Turkoglu was awarded the leagues' Most Improved Player. He narrowly missed a triple double and finished with 12 points, 8 rebounds and 9 assists.
Jameer Nelson backed up his solid game 4 performance and hit a clutch 3 pointer with 2.57 remaining which stretched Orlando's lead to 10, 92-82.
The Raptors were led by Chris Bosh with 16 points and 9 rebounds and again got good support from their bench with Jason Kapono(13 points), Carlos Delfino(14 points) and Jose Calderon(12 points) all scoring in double figures.
Orlando opened up an early 10-2 lead within the first 3 minutes and Toronto called a time out to try to prevent Orlando from putting the Raptors in a hole again as they had done in games 1 & 2 of this series. And it worked as Toronto fought back and behind two 3-pointers from reserve Jose Calderon including one as time expired, gave the Raptors a 26-22 lead after the first period.
At one stage, the Raptors built their lead to 7, 34-27 during the second period but Orlando managed to trim the deficit to 1 at half-time 50-49, with Dwight Howard having already registered a double-double with 10 points and 12 rebounds.
In the final quarter, the Raptors were trailing by 7 when Dwight Howard was called for his fifth foul, and with still 4 minutes remaining, Toronto might have had a chance if they could have got Howard eliminated, but they sat back and didn't attack him and apart from a 3 point heave from Anthony Parker, Toronto's other shots fell short and their season ended.
Orlando now awaits the winner of the Detroit Pistons Vs Philadelphia 76ers series, which currently stands at 2 games apiece while Toronto head home to lament a season that started promisingly, but again ended shorter than they would have hoped and expected.

All aboard the coach's carousel

The playoffs are normally a time for teams, fans, players and coach's to feel a level of achievement. After all, regardless of where your team finished the regular season and regardless of what the experts say, as long as you qualify for the playoffs, you're got reason to hope that maybe, just maybe your team can win it all this year.
But, for all but 1 team each year, everyone goes home empty handed and the repercussions start. Fans usually don't care who gets the chop, just as long as there are changes so the owners show that they care & that they do actually listen to the fans. The coach often takes the initial brunt of fans wrath, followed by ownership who can sometimes be seen to be rich men just running another business deal...aslong as they are making money, it's a good investment for them and their cronies. Fans want quick, decisive, George Steinbrenner type trigger pulling. Just aslong as someone, anyone gets fired.
As this season moves closer to it's climax, impatient GM's & owners won't wait until all the trophies have been handed out to start the rebuilding process for next year, indeed, some have already started !
Let's take a look at who's already in the hot seat and who might still be depending on what happens in the next couple of weeks.
Sam Vincent's first & only season as coach in Charlotte ended on Saturday. He was once a teammate of GM Michael Jordan, but it wasn't enough to save him. Charlotte are undoubtedly talented and they need success just to stay alive in this city, so look for an experienced coach to take the reins next year. Larry Brown looks favourite for this job.
Avery Johnson - In 2006, Dallas were on the brink of winning the championship. Up by 13 points with 6 minutes to play in game 3, a win would have given them a 3-0 series lead against Miami. The NBA crown looked certain to be staying in Texas, just at a different address, finally. Owner Mark Cuban had even started planning his celebration route through Dallas. Since then, Dallas has fallen a long, long way. Cuban has clashed often with Johnson and the trade that brought Jason Kidd back to big D, looks now like a major error. If Johnson can somehow get his team to the Western Finals, he'll probably keep his job but both of those scenarios seem wildly unlikely right now.
Flip Saunders - So far, Flip has flown below the radar. But you only need to cast an eye over to Detroit's series with Philadelphia, currently tied 2-2 to see that things aren't going quite to plan for the Pistons. Saunders has always had a question mark over his ability as a playoff coach and seeing Detroit struggling against Philly will not help that assessment. Detroit have been very successful for a lot of years now, but each year that championship window of opportunity comes a little closer to closing and Joe Dumars will not want Flip to flop again this year.
Sam Mitchell - With a decent roster for the first time in his 3 seasons as Raptors coach last year, Sam Mitchell did well and won the NBA's Red Auerbach award for coach of the year & took the Toronto Raptors to the playoffs. They went out to New Jersey in 6 games but they had arrived. This year the Raptors were expected to build on that success and seriously contend for the Eastern conference crown. Mitchell hasn't failed, but the team has taken a step back and with an expectedly large pool of coach's to choose from, GM Bryan Colangelo may decide it's time to bring in his own man.
Mike D'Antoni - Mike D'Antoni has done an excellent job in his 4-and-a-half years in charge of the Phoenix Suns. Phoenix are a fast-paced, high scoring team that are always fun to watch & D'Antoni has never won less than 54 games in a season. But, despite this success, his teams have failed to make the NBA finals once during his time and the feeling is that perhaps the party is over for D'Antoni. It's unlikely he'll be unemployed for long though as his resume still makes for impressive reading & his former boss Bryan Colangelo could come calling for him if Colangelo decides that current Raptors coach, Sam Mitchell's time is up.
Isiah Thomas - Thankfully, Isiah Thomas' time in New York has come to an end. As a player, few have been as good a leader or as courageous a player as Thomas was. On the court, Zeke punched well above his weight, never taking a backward step to any opponent, never ducked any challenge and he carried the Detroit Pistons to the promised land, not once but twice. Unfortunately, he hasn't been able to transfer his on court success into the boardroom.
I was a huge fan of Isiah as a player, he gave hope to any kid who was told that basketball was a 'big mans game'. He may return as a coach in the NBA one day, but given the circus of events that went on in NY during his time, it won't be for a long, long time.
Former Knick Mark Jackson appears to be the front runner to take the hot seat in MSG, although Donnie Walsh may look for an experienced coach with Jackson serving as an assistant.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Orlando look to close out series at home

The Toronto Raptors got a career playoff high from Chris Bosh with 39 points, but it wasn’t enough to propel them past the Orlando Magic as they lost 106 – 94 in front of another sellout crowd of 20,416 at the ACC this afternoon. Toronto now find themselves in a hole, down 3-1 in their best of seven series, with game 5 back in Orlando on Monday.
Jameer Nelson torched the Raptors for 12 points in the final quarter & had 19 for the match, & it was his 2 huge 3-pointers down the stretch which drained the life out of Toronto and gave the edge & the lead to Orlando. Nelson was something of an injury concern coming into this game after suffering back spasms at the end of game 3, but he showed no signs of ill health today and single handedly outplayed Toronto’s point guard tandem of TJ Ford and Jose Calderon.
Rashard Lewis had 27 points and 13 rebounds for the Magic and he also drilled a killer 3 pointer with just over a minute & a half remaining in the final quarter that put the final nail in Toronto’s coffin. Dwight Howard had another strong performance with 19 points, 16 rebounds and 8 blocked shots, although he did struggle from the free-throw line, making only 1 of his 6 attempts. Toronto’s fans doing their best to make every trip to the line a nightmare for Howard.
After a relatively quiet game 3, Chris Bosh was aggressive from the start of this game and 9 of his team high 15 rebounds came on the offensive end, but as a team, Toronto shot poorly, especially from the 3 point line, going an anemic 2-15, or 13%.
Anthony Parker, TJ Ford and Jason Kapono each had 12 points for the Raptors, but Toronto missed the usual solid performance from Jose Calderon who struggled badly today had only 2 points and 5 assists.
Toronto now faces the daunting task of trying to overcome a 3-1 deficit to win a playoff series. If history is any guide then the Raptors know that while the task is unlikely, it is not impossible. There has been 8 teams in NBA history to have come back to win a best of seven series after trailing 3-1, the most recent being in 2006, when the LA Lakers lost to the Phoenix Suns.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Raptors rampant, take game 3

The Toronto Raptors two-headed point guard monster in TJ Ford & Jose Calderon finally displayed their full potency last night as the Raptors won game 3 in front of a sellout crowd of 20,023, 108-94. Ford and Calderon went for a combined 39 points, 12 rebounds & 16 assists while committing only 4 turnovers. Since returning for a neck injury suffered in December, TJ’s role with the team has been in question as he struggled to adapt to the role of back up point guard. But last night, as a starter again, he was brilliant. He kept control on offense, worked hard on defense and when Orlando’s starting point guard Jameer Nelson picked up his 3rd foul late in the 2nd quarter, forcing coach Stan Van Gundy to use his reserve Carlos Arroyo, Ford went on a tear, ripping the Magic for 11 points in the quarter, 18 for the half and giving the Raptors a 61-40 going into the main break.
Two quick 3 pointers by Orlando’s Rashard Lewis to open the second half reduced Toronto’s lead to 15 with less than a minute gone by and Sam Mitchell called a time out to organize his team and re-assert control. The Magic continued the comeback however & despite Dwight Howard picking up 3 fouls in the quarter, they had cut the halftime deficit to 11, 80-69 after 3 periods of play.
For Orlando, their star man-superman Howard was having a frustrating game, unable to assert his dominance as he had so easily done in games 1 & 2. He still finished with 19 points and 12 rebounds, but also committed 6 turnovers and shot only 3-8 from the free throw line. Hedo Turkoglu(26 points, 7 rebounds) was keeping Orlando within striking distance but in the last quarter but back to back 3 pointers from still-hot Jason Kapono with under 5 minutes remaining effectively ended Orlando’s charge.
Sam Mitchell did make one lineup change, re-inserting Jamario Moon into the starting 5 after going with Rasho Nesterovic for the games in Orlando and the move paid off. Moon had 11 points and 10 rebounds in the first half alone, but more importantly, he gave the Raptors a spark from the start, something that had been lacking in the opening quarters previously.
This game however, was decided at the point guard position & Toronto’s duo of Ford & Calderon outclassed and outplayed Orlando’s Jameer Nelson, Carlos Arroyo and makeshift fill-in, Keyon Dooling.
Ford and Calderon played exactly 48 minutes between them and showed that there really is no ‘backup’ point guard on this team.
Game 4 goes in Toronto on Saturday where the Raptors look to square the series. Based on this performance, they will feel that this series is very much alive and up for the taking.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Raptors closer, but fall short again.

Another monster 20-20 performance by Dwight Howard and a 19 foot jump shot by Chris Bosh that came up short as time expired, gave the Orlando Magic a 104-103 win and a 2 games to 0 series lead over the Toronto Raptors.
This game started in similar circumstances to game 1 with Orlando building 17 point lead after the first period. This time though, it wasn’t 3 pointers that Orlando used to propel them to the double digit lead, it was by attacking the rim as they had 5 dunks on their first 7 scoring plays.
Toronto’s offense was again tentative and they committed a horrific 7 turnovers in the first 8 minutes. But behind strong play from their leader, Chris Bosh (29points, 10 rebounds) and previously out-of-form sharpshooter, Jason Kapono (20points, 4-6 3pt fg’s) the Raptors fought back and only trailed 59-57 at halftime.
Things livened up in the second half as Toronto carried the momentum over into the 3rd period and took their first lead of the game 61-59 to quiet the raucous home crowd but they wouldn’t be able to keep it for long. Stan Van Gundy immediately called a time out and Orlando quickly reclaimed the lead and took an 83-78 lead into the final stanza.
Neither team could establish authority for long in the 4th but 2 huge 3-pointers by Keith Bogans pushed the Magic to a 7 point lead, only for Carlos Delfino and Jose Calderon to reply with one 3 pointer each.
Having trailed most of the game, the Raptors then took the lead 101-100 after Delfino split a pair of free throws but a wild lay up from Hedo Turkoglu reclaimed the lead, and he followed that up with 2 free throws after Delfino had again replied with a lay up for Toronto. With 9.6 seconds remaining and in possession, Orlando looked to close this one out, but an offensive foul by Keyon Dooling gave the ball to Toronto and a chance to win the game and even the series. The Raptors called a timeout and ran a play for Chris Bosh but with Dwight Howard defending, his shot fell short and time ran out.
If the Raptors are to get back into this series, they must start the game stronger and coach Sam Mitchell hinted that the Raptors are likely to make changes for game 3. TJ Ford has struggled mightily with his shot and is only 2-17 for the series and could be replaced by Jose Calderon who has finished both games.
The intensity of the series lifted a notch with Hedo Tukoglu being assessed a flagrant foul 1 after he sent Chris Bosh tumbling on a fast break in the 2nd period and Dwight Howard picked up a technical foul after being fouled by Carlos Delfino in the 3rd period.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Orlando need no Magic in game 1

Ghastly defence and a sputtering offense by the visiting Toronto Raptors, topped with a 43 point first period explosion by home team Orlando Magic and game 1 was all but over after the first 12 minutes.
Orlando opened the game by shooting an insane 9-11 from the 3-point range and even though Toronto had a respectable 23 points on the board, they found themselves in a hole, down by 20 at the end of the first quarter.
Dwight Howard was huge for the Magic and poured in 25 points, had 22 rebounds and 5 blocked shots. A 59% free throw shooter on the season, perhaps his most important & impressive stat was that he shot 9-11 from the line today, including making his first 8.
Orlando got valuable contributions from all their starters including 24 points and 7 assists from Jameer Nelson and 21 points, 6 rebounds & 6 assists from Hedo Turkoglu.
Toronto coach Sam Mitchell made a surprise by inserting Andrea Bargnani into the starting line-up, but the move had no significant impact and Bargnani finished with only 5 points and 3 rebounds. Jason Kapono came off the bench and had 18 points and at one stage, the Raptors pulled to within 5 points early in the last quarter, but they would get no closer. In the end the 14 point margin flattered the Raptors.
Game 2 goes Tuesday night in Orlando. If the Raptors are to have any chance in that one, they are going to have to make huge improvements at the defensive end, as Orlando's shooters got far too many wide open, unchallenged looks in game 1. The Raptors can at least take some confidence from the fact that they got to the free throw line 28 times, making all but one. Chris Bosh leading the way going a perfect 13-13.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

NBA Western Conference Playoff Preview

Lakers V Nuggets

I would have paid alot of money to have seen George Karl's face when he was told about Carmelo Anthony's arrest for DUI the other night. The Nuggets were having a trouble free season until 'Melo undid all that good work.
Denver finished in eighth spot in the tight Western Conference, but that was only 7 games back of their first round opponents, Los Angeles. To highlight what that says about the two conferences, eigth placed Atlanta finished a massive 29 games back of first seeded Boston in the East.
The Nuggets have talent to compete in Allen Iverson, 'Melo(when sober), Marcus Camby and the maturing JR Smith and this will be a high scoring series.
For the Lakers though, Kobe is happy and finally has quality support starting with Pau Gasol. Kobe wanted to be traded in the off season, now his team sits atop the Western Conference and LA will go deep this year, but will still need 6 games to get past Denver.

Hornets V Mavericks

The last 2 years have provided a lot of hurt for Dallas Mavericks fans. In full view of the NBA and basketball world, Dallas have fallen apart spectacularly in the playoffs in both seasons. Ironically, both teams that have tripped them up (Miami & Golden State) didn't even make this years playoffs either.
Chris Paul has been so good this year, that he is a legitimate MVP candidate. And New Orleans' success on the court, has helped the city recover from the tragedy of almost 3 years ago in hurricane Katrina. But the test for CP3 and the Hornets now is to go out and repeat their efforts in the playoffs. David West & Peja Stojakovic have had excellent seasons but they come up against a Dallas team, eager to put the last 2 years behind them. The Mavericks traded for Jason Kidd just before the trade deadline and after an awkward transition period, he appears to have settled in and he is undoubtedly the type of leader this team has missed when things fell apart in the past. This will be a fun series to watch and it will be New Orleans who prevail in 7.

Spurs V Suns

Facing the San Antonio Spurs must feel like meeting your girlfriends' Dad for the first time. Intimidating and daunting.
Just before the trade deadline this year, Phoenix surprised everyone by trading away one of the teams' stalwarts and arguably their best defender in Shawn Marion to Miami for Shaquille O'Neal. 54 & 61 win seasons back to back hadn't yielded one shot at the NBA crown so rookie GM Steve Kerr decided something had to be done and made the big move.
To think that one of these teams won't make into the Conference semi's is hard to fathom and it is even harder to fathom if that team was San Antonio. The Spurs in 6.

Rockets V Jazz

Tracy McGrady desperately wants to get past the first round of the playoffs. In previous years his teams have blown big series leads 3-1('03 versus Detroit when McGrady was with Orlando), 2-0('05 versus Dallas) & 2-0(last year versus Utah) and this years opponent - Utah returns as most recent tormentors. McGrady remains one of the league's best individual talents but unless he gets this gigantic monkey off of his back, he's going to be tagged as a something of a failure.
For Utah, Deron Williams elevated his game this year to show that he'll be one of the league's premier point guards for a lot of years to come. Added to Carlos Boozer's solid inside game and it's going to be another year of hurt for McGrady and the Rockets.....Utah in 5.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

2007 - 2008 Regular Season Award Winners

MVP - Kobe Bryant
Lebron James, Chris Paul & Kevin Garnett have all put forward strong claims to this years highest individual prize, but if Kobe doesn't win it this year, he may never do so.
Rookie of the Year - Al Horford
If Kevin Durant wasn't averaging 20ppg on this awful Seattle team, then he'd be in danger of being labelled a bust. Someone had to score points for the Sonics. Horford on the other hand, while almost averaging a double-double on the season, has had a greater impact in helping the Hawks to break their 9 year playoff drought and for me, that gives him the edge.
Coach of the Year - Byron Scott
This award is a bit misleading because it often goes to a coach who's team's had the biggest turn around from the season before. Case in point, Sam Mitchell has won this award the same amount of times as Gregg Popovich and Phil Jackson, and at the time Mitchell had only coached one +.500 season !
So based on that rationale, Byron Scott just edges out Doc Rivers because Doc was expected to make the Celtics immediately into a contender this year. For Scott though, he has turned the Hornets from not making the playoffs last year to number 2 seed this season. Now comes the big test for the Hornets though as the regular season counts for little come playoff time.
If this award is to be given to the league's best coach, then that is San Antonio's Gregg Popovich. Year in, year out his Spurs are contenders and off court issues are non-existent, such is the mutual respect between the players and coach. The only time San Antonio have made the news during the off season was last year when Tony Parker wed Eva Longoria. It's unlikely Pop handed out any punishment to Parker for drawing that kind of attention to the team.

Most Improved Player - Hedo Turkoglu
This is the only award that there isn't a clear cut winner. Jose Calderon, Beno Udrih and even Dwight Howard and Chris Paul probably qualify for this award, but Hedo has had the most unexpected impact. A career fringe player, Hedo made the step up this year and is most likely to win this award.
Sixth Man of the Year - Manu Ginobili
Manu might just be San Antonio's best player right now and that's even more amazing considering he doesn't even start. But it's just another reason why the Spurs are so consistently good, ego's never come before winning.

All NBA First Team
F: Kevin Garnett
F: Lebron James
C: Dwight Howard
G: Kobe Bryant
G: Chris Paul

NBA Eastern Conference Playoff Preview


Celtics V Hawks

The Boston Celtics endured an ugly 2006-2007 season and GM Danny Ainge sort to erase that from everyone’s memory as quickly as possible. After landing smooth shooting Ray Allen in a draft day deal, Ainges’ biggest move was yet to come, but when it did, it changed the entire landscape of the Eastern Conference. When Kevin Garnett arrived in Massachusetts, Boston was almost immediately installed as favorite to win the NBA title for 2008. As always there were doubters and snipers….could 3 guys who have always been ‘the man’ on their teams co-exist, or would ego and reputation get in the way?
The regular season went more or less to plan, and after Boston raced out to 8 straight wins, they have been in cruise control ever since. But the 07-08 regular season is now as much a memory as the 06-07 season for the Celtics and it is only what happens between now and late June to see if this marriage by Ainge is made in heaven, or a Las Vegas style elope.
The Hawks meanwhile are back in the playoffs after a 9 year absence. They are young and exciting and the addition of veteran Mike Bibby has given them an experienced leader to take some of the heat off of All-Star guard Joe Johnson. Those two combined with Josh Smith and Rookie of the year candidate Al Horford suggests that it won’t be another 9 year wait for the Hawks to make the playoffs again after this season, but unfortunately for Atlanta’s long suffering fans, this first return will only last 4 games, maybe 5.

Pistons V 76ers

Ho Hum and it’s another 50+ wins for the Detroit Pistons. They are the closest thing the East has to the San Antonio Spurs - strong, stable, professional and always, always hard to beat. While not having as much ultimate success as the Spurs, Detroit has been to last 5 Eastern Conference Finals. The only question mark regards the coach, Flip Saunders. He’s shown to be decent enough at the job during the regular season, but only so-so in the playoffs.
Detroit comes up against the surprising Philadelphia 76ers. Early on in the season it looked like the Sixers were lottery bound but behind strong play from the two Andre’s – Miller and Iguodola and quicker than you could say bye bye Billy King, Philly were back in the thick of the Eastern Conference playoff hunt. Add to that, that the season series was split 2-2, with Philadelphia winning the last two games and all of a sudden, this shapes up to be an intriguing match up.
The last two years have shown that for all Detroit’s defensive prowess, they can run into problems when faced with an outstanding individual athlete, namely Dwayne Wade or Lebron James. Andre Iguodola isn’t quite in the same class as those two just yet, but he has shown signs this season that he is ready to elevate his game. This would be the perfect platform for him to emphasize that.
I think this one will go a bit further than expected, but the Pistons will prevail in 6.

Magic V Raptors

Dwight Howard dropped the child and became just the Man this year. He has been a beast at both ends of the floor and he has had more dunks himself on the season, than some teams have had in total. The obvious comparisons in power and dominance to Shaq are there, but so too is the poor free-throw shooting and propensity to pick up early fouls. Until he can improve in these two areas, opposing teams will always have a chance against the Magic.
It is in those areas where the Raptors and Chris Bosh must focus on and attack.
After a breakthrough season in 2006-07, big things were expected in Toronto for 07-08, but after a good start, the Raptors lost their way and they now stumble into the playoffs, rather than charge in as they did a year ago. This year Toronto are a little unsure of their identity. Andrea Bargnani took a step backwards after a strong rookie campaign and TJ Ford seemed to upset one of Toronto’s strongest assets – team chemistry – when he failed to grasp his new role as back up point guard to Jose Calderon, when he returned from a nasty injury suffered in December.
Orlando however, is by no means a one man team. Hedo Turkoglu had his finest season as a pro this year and big money signing Rashard Lewis gave the Magic another veteran offensive threat. The weakness for Orlando is the inconsistency of their PG tandem in Jameer Nelson and Carlos Arroyo. When Nelson isn’t visiting Stan Van Gundy’s dog house, he is capable of running the offense well and as he matures, his visits there should be less frequent, but for now there remains a question mark on whether or not he is the long term solution for the starting PG role of this team.
If Toronto is to win this series, they will need contributions from everyone & their bench is deep. They have the offensive weapons – no doubt, but Toronto is soft defensively and allows teams too many open looks and easy points in the paint. The heart wants to say the Raptors will win, but the head overrules and says Orlando in 6.

Cleveland V Washington

These two teams face each other for the third time in 3 years, with Cleveland winning both previous meetings. Last year Washington was missing both Gilbert Arenas and Caron Butler and Cleveland swept by them easily in 4 games. This year promises to be different however, as Washington are back and this time, they are healthy.
Arenas returned to the Wizards’ lineup a couple of weeks ago after missing most of the season with the same injury which kept him out of last years series. He has shown that his ego is operating at full strength already even if his knee isn’t just yet. In Caron Butler & Antawn Jamison, Washington has two reliable veterans which will provide match up problems for the Cavs, and Brendan Haywood is also coming off a career year.
Cleveland made its biggest move of the season at the trade deadline, shipping out Drew Gooden and Larry Hughes and bringing in Delonte West, sharpshooter Wally Szczerbiak and Big Man Ben Wallace. The difference though has been negligible and Cleveland will live or die by Lebron James. James’ heroics in game 5 of last years Conference Finals game in Detroit showed that come playoff time, with the eyes of the basketball world watching, he can turn in Jordan-esq performances. This year, he’ll look to build further on his young legacy and he’ll get the Cavs past Washington in 6 games.