It’s been two days – one weekend – and the NBA Playoffs have already thrown some twists our way. Derrick Rose is done, Nick Young and Reggie Evans spearheaded what might’ve been the greatest comeback ever and Andrew Bynum is setting records. Who would’ve thought? It only promises to get better from here as the Eastern Conference is now a complete disaster, and in the West, everyone outside of San Antonio has question marks.
I had the chance to catch up with NBA TV/TNT analysts Chris Webber and Steve Smith to talk about the playoffs, who can beat Miami and the best closers in the game.
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Is there some team in the East lurking out there that could be the surprised upset of say a Miami or Chicago?
Steve Smith: “Earlier when we did our midseason report, I predicted that if the Knicks did matchup with Chicago, that’s the one team other than the Miami Heat they could beat. Obviously because of talent, they can be a surprise. The New York Knicks now that they got Amar’e back they could beat maybe a Chicago. I think, though, a team everyone is overlooking is the Indiana pacers. Frank Vogel is probably the Coach of the Year. Along with his entire staff, Brian Shaw and Jim Boylen, they’ve done an excellent job. I think the way they have managed minutes and incorporated Barbosa [was done] extremely well. That team because of their depth and size has a chance. They could be the sleeper team that could get a chance and get to that Eastern Conference Finals.”
Chris Webber: “I agree with Steve totally. I think that the New York Knicks could be a factor in the first round. And also Indiana, with their coaching staff, their style of play, their size, and defense. But I also think that team that plays Chicago they have a chance. If, in the second round especially, the way the schedules are, if you don’t have home court or a Derrick Rose. So I think health will play a lot into it. So maybe yea, Knicks and Indiana could be sleepers.”
Who are your top three closers going into the playoffs; meaning most clutch players and what is their importance to their teams for a deep playoff run?
CW: “For me I think that the top three closers in the playoffs are the usual suspects. I think they’re the three top scorers in the league. And that would have to be Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant, and you’ve got to go with Carmelo Anthony. I think they are the best scorers from where they get their position. Kobe is probably the best, toughest shot-maker. Kevin Durant is probably the best pure shooter. As far as Carmelo Anthony, he is just scorer and does what he wants. So those three players you can’t check them at any point in the game, especially late in the game.”
SS: “I totally agree with Chris. You gotta keep Kobe Bryant on this list. What he did this entire season and what he did to OKC recently. Kevin Durant, even though he’s a younger superstar, he’s shown it over the last three or four years. Carmelo. And just to add one more player, Chris Paul. Just being able to make plays and those type of plays at the end of the game; with Chris Paul being 3B. And just being able to make unbelievable basketball plays to win games and closing them out.”
Is it possible to advance deep in the playoffs without one of those guys?
SS: “You know I think it’s possible. I think the reason why is if you have a team together that’s been there done that and have some veterans. And the two veteran teams I’m talking about are Boston and San Antonio. They may not have the top three. But I think because of familiarity of being there, being able to close out teams, and won championships. And you have an old grumpy vet like those two have. I think San Antonio and Boston without one of those top three closers, those teams could easily [get there], and Miami. Those three teams could get there without a top three closer.”
CW: “I agree with Steve. I think only those two teams because they rely on defense and the other team really is gonna rely on their scoring. Even though OKC is pretty good in defense, they basically have three scorers on their team. So I agree totally that San Antonio because of their defense principles is capable without one of those type of players.”
Can you speak a little bit on how the last lockout affected your playoff runs that year because I think your Sacramento team lost in the first round? Steve, you guys went to the second round and lost. What were your bodies like? Was it normal playoff atmosphere basketball or did you feel the effects of that lockout season?
SS: “I think for me, speaking of the Atlanta Hawks team, we had played extremely well in the regular season. But I think it was our lack of depth when we got to the playoffs. We got to the first round, which was a dogfight. And then we ran up against the eighth-seeded team, which was the Knicks. And we had a couple of injuries. Not to make any excuses, but we only went six and seven deep during the regular season. And I think it really caught up to us, whereas if we had a deeper team we could’ve went deeper because we could have gotten our starters right, ala what Boston has done and San Antonio. We could’ve been fresher but also give credit to the Knicks. They were hot and we all had to remember they were an eighth seed that got all the way to The Finals. So you never know. It’s a little bit with a team with more depth and experience who has the better chance.”
CW: “I think experience definitely matters. I also think it matters where your team is at that time. For us in Sacramento, making the playoffs was an accomplishment. The team hadn’t been to the playoffs since so many years. For us, we wanted to make the playoffs and our bodies felt pretty good because we were a young team. The 66 games or whatever it was, 50 games that season, guys were just getting in shape going into the playoffs. So for some teams it depends on their goal and our goal was just to be in the playoffs. So for us, just the success of that overcame anyone having tired bodies or anything like that. That’s basically what it was for us.”
There’s been so much scrutiny yet again this season with Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant and the roles they have on the court. Now that the playoffs are around the corner, I wanted to know your take on how do you see that playing out? What those guys may need to do in terms of sharing the ball and being successful?
CW: “Well, last year I don’t think anybody was harder on Westbrook than I was. I thought that he needed to add more of a team element to his game. But this year what I just realized is that he’s a two-guard that is so good and smart enough that he can adjust to the one; and I think all they have to do is play their game. The game against the Lakers the other night is, as a player, you have to laugh at games like that because they missed every shot. If I was a betting man, I wouldn’t bet they would miss that many of those same shots the next time. So I actually would play the way that they got here with that type of aggression and passion. And if they don’t score, who else is going to do it? They have three scorers, that’s it on the team, with Harden as their best playmaker. So I would let the game come to them. And once they do that, I think they’ll be ok.”
SS: “We all look at Russell Westbrook and want him to turn the corner. He’s always played two-guard his entire career. But I think also that the media put a lot of pressure on him and Kevin Durant. Because when you’re the best player, you still got to find ways to get the rest of the guys easier buckets. So with Westbrook at the one as the point guard, but also Kevin Durant, I think that’s the next step for both of them. No matter what the issue is, when you’re that good you’ve got to find ways to get Perkins five or six easy buckets, Ibaka some easy buckets. Other than that, you can’t really change their stripes right now. You’ve gotta get better and better. We wish he had that vision and play a little more as a point guard. But right now I think he’s a two-guard that’s playing the one position.”
How does this Heat team going into the postseason compare to last year?
CW: “Well, the one thing that I like about them as oppose to last year is they aren’t apologizing every second for being good. They don’t care about what everybody is saying. So I love the fact that we’re not hearing about how close they are and how they care for each other. Those are the type of things that a team does since middle school. So them being quiet and their resolve make for a good team. I think their chances are as good as any. I think there isn’t a difference from last year to this year from disbelief and heartache. They’re still, to me, the most athletic, fastest team. So to me they have been better by experience, so that should show this year.”
SS: “I totally agree. You look at somebody like them and like their additions and the young guys. The only problem that I have for them is when they get set on their lineup. Some of their additions, and some of their young guys who are key guys: Mike Miller, James Jones and Shane Battier. Love all those guys. But when you look at it, they are all small forwards. So LeBron James will have to play 40-45 minutes upfront where they can get those guys more playing time or will have to go big at the backcourt, with all of those guys taking time at the three. That’ll up to Erik Spoelstra to figure out. But other than that, I think this team has the capability. I would like to see them play a little more where they take advantage of their size and speed. And also as we’ve seen the other day, with Wade and Bosh out, LeBron James of the Cleveland Cavaliers shows up. When they played, he has to be involved with or without the basketball for them to have any chance on winning a championship.”
Is there any way the Heat don’t make the Eastern Conference Finals at least?
SS: “It’s very possible. Obviously they are the most talented [over] Chicago, New York, Indiana, Boston and the rest of the Eastern Conference teams. I think they have some holes of who will play upfront for them, whether that’s Joel Anthony and Turiaf or Udonis Haslem or Bosh play the five. I think that’s an area where teams can take advantage of them.”
CW: “I agree with Steve. I think, especially when you look at playoff games, it is about matchups and coaching adjustments. I think coaches matter more due to the adjustments. You never know what a coach like Woodson can do defensively. So definitely, there’s a fair chance that nobody is playing the same style as last year. So they can be beaten.”
Who do you think are the three best closers in the NBA Playoffs?
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