A green-tinted look at the NBA playoffs

A green-tinted look at the NBA playoffs
April 18, 2014, 1:30 pm
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The NBA playoffs kick off this weekend at various arenas around North America (I see you, Raptors), and for the first time since 2007, the Celtics aren’t invited to the party. Their season is over before the real season even begins. And you know what? That’s fine. Honestly and totally fine. Playoffs or not, there are still plenty of positive basketball vibes rolling through this city. For instance, maybe you caught last night’s report that Joel Anthony will exercise his $3.8M player option and rejoin the Celtics next season? That’s right — Joel. Anthony.

So, yeah. You can have your playoffs, INDIANA. Enjoy your moment in the sun, OKLAHOMA CITY. Good luck with that three-peat, MIAMI. We’ll be just fine over here in Boston with our man Joel. Our man. Not yours.

Really puts your sorry title-contending lives in perspective, now doesn’t it?

But while things couldn’t possibly be any better for the Celtics,  Boston basketball fans will still watch the NBA playoffs because that’s what basketball fans do. Because it’s the most wonderful time of the year. Because it’s the playoffs, and it’s still real to me, damn it! And best of all, if you’re feeling nostalgic, there’s an abundance of Celtic themes running wild throughout the postseason bracket.

So with that, let’s take a quick break from celebrating the Joel Anthony news and take a closer look at this year’s first round match-ups, as seen through the lens of a green-tinted telescope positioned high atop the Celtics’ majestic ivory tower.

East: Indiana Pacers (1) vs. Atlanta Hawks (8)
The situations are far from identical, but these Pacers are somewhat reminiscent of the 2011 Celtics — a team that burst out of the gate like gang busters, fueled by toughness, team chemistry and an intense hatred of the LeBron’s Miami Heat. But much like his former teammate Danny Ainge, Pacers boss Larry Bird couldn’t leave well enough alone, and took a big risk at the deadline, swapping harmony for the lure of untapped potential.

And sure, there are and were other factors at play, but the Pacers’ psyche crumbled without Danny Granger the same way the Celtics’ did without Kendrick Perkins. Evan Turner has struggled to co-exist with Lance Stephenson the same way Jeff Green did with Paul Pierce. Meanwhile, Bird was as crazy to think he could count on Andrew Bynum as Ainge was to count on Shaq.

The Celtics swept the Knicks in the first round that year, and the Pacers should get past the Hawks with similar (although probably not as much) ease. But if the Pacers aren’t still alive when the Finals kick off on June 5, Indiana will look back on that Granger deal the same way Boston does with Perkins.

For Bird’s sake, let’s just hope he doesn’t compound his mistake by signing Turner for four years and $36M.

Meanwhile, without Al Horford, the Hawks have no chance in this year’s playoffs, but they do have this — the longest playoff streak in the East! It all started back in 2008, when eighth-seeded Atlanta took the Celtics to seven games and nearly destroyed Boston’s dream run before it even started. And here they are, six years and seven-straight playoff appearances later — right back in the eighth seed.

Over the course of the streak, the Hawks never made it past the second round; they were never once considered a legitimate threat to win the NBA tile. They’ve just been OK. Consistently mediocre. And they’ve got absolutely nothing to show for it.

Let this serve as another reminder that while it hurts to see the Celtics suck, Danny Ainge is doing things right.

West: San Antonio Spurs (1) vs. Dallas Mavericks (8)
Call this more of Boston corollary than something Celtics specific, but if you love the Patriots, you’ve got to love the Spurs. If you’re inspired by how defiantly little Bill Belichick cares about anything other than winning, then Gregg Popovich is a God. If you’re just one of those old school Boston basketball fans, obsessed with lamenting over how boring and selfish today’s product is, the Spurs are your NBA wet dream. They are the league’s model franchise, led by one of the most focused and innovative coaches of all time and one of the best players the game has ever seen.

But with Tim Duncan one week shy of his 38th birthday, and Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker both on the wrong side of 30, who knows how long the Spurs greatness will be around for the world to appreciate? Then again, much like with the Pats, we’ve already been asking that question for years.

Speaking of appreciating greatness, let’s soak up every ounce of what Dirk Nowitzki has left in the tank. You know he has at least one vintage Dirk performance saved up for this series — although considering the way these two teams match-up, he might only have four or five chances to deliver.

East: Miami Heat (2) vs. Charlotte Bobcats (7)
The Celtics have many impressive playoff records to their name, but they also own at least one dubious postseason distinction: Michael Jordan’s 63 points in Game 2 of the 1986 first round is still the most points ever scored in a playoff game. And even though the Celtics won that game (and the series, and the NBA title), the record still stands at their expense.

But maybe not after this Heat/Bobcats series.

LeBron already dropped 60 on the Bobcats once this season. There was only one other 60-point game in the league all year, and that was posted by Carmelo Anthony against, you guessed it, the Bobcats.

Meanwhile, you know that LeBron has something fierce in store for these playoffs. He spent the whole year listening the world fawn over Kevin Durant. He knows that Durant is destined for the MVP. And he’ll be looking to drop an early reminder that, MVP be damned, he’s still the best player on the planet. Maybe with a little 64 Special?

Either way, the Heat will make quick work of Charlotte, but before we just write off the Cats — how about a little love for Al Jefferson?

Watching Big Al from afar these last seven years has been a pretty depressing exercise. Just seeing him toil season after season for a collection of horrible teams (while suffering a devastating ACL injury along the way). After making the playoffs his rookie year in Boston, Jefferson only made the postseason once in seven years before this — and that appearance ended in a first round sweep. It sucks to watch any player go through a stretch like that, but with Jefferson’s roots in Boston, the role he played in acquiring Kevin Garnett and the fact that he’s such a good guy, his stint of prolonged irrelevancy burned a little deeper.

And that’s only made everything Jefferson accomplished this season that much sweeter. Our boy’s all grown up. He’s in line to make an All-NBA team for the first time in his career. And even if this year’s postseason appearance ends in another sweep, at only 29 years old, and with a style of play that should help him remain dominant well into his 30s, Big Al still has many a great season ahead of him.

West: Oklahoma City Thunder (2) vs. Memphis Grizzlies (7)
Kendrick Perkins only averaged 19.5 minutes a game this year, and over the past few seasons has morphed into the bane of Thunder fans’ existence. But there’s no doubt that Perk will play a role in helping OKC deal with the Grizzlies massive frontcourt. He’s one of the only guys in the league who can withstand the relentless pounding that Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph bring every single night. At this point (or ever), Perk may not offer much beyond his size, strength and antagonistic presence, but in the playoffs, that counts for something.

On the Memphis side, Tony Allen, who’s now somehow 32 years old, will be part of the crew tasked with trying to stop Kevin Durant. That probably won’t go so well. But as a Celtics fan, or just a fan of basketball, it’s always fun watching TA squat down on D, pull up his shorts, concentrate his crazy and go toe-to-toe with the best offensive players in the world.

And before we move on, good for Courtney Lee. He escaped a horrible situation in Boston, landed on his feet in Memphis, and averaged 30 minutes and 11 points a game as the Grizzlies made a late surge into the playoffs.

East: Toronto Raptors (3) vs. Brooklyn Nets (6)
Both these teams are technically Celtics division rivals, but it’s hard to have animosity towards either one.

First of all, how can you hate the Raptors? You can’t. It’s great to see them back in the playoffs after all these years. That fan base deserves it. And for a Celtics twist, Kyle Lowry will be playing the role of Rajon Rondo in this year’s postseason. He’s the fiery, perpetually pissed off point guard with big time chip on his shoulder. He cares far more about shoving the ball down his opponent’s throat than he does about being a part of the NBA’s cool kids club. And much like Rondo, you know Lowry’s saving his best for the biggest stage. Deron Williams is about to have his hands full.

As for the Nets, well, as dirty as it might feel to get behind Brooklyn, and despite every inclination to root against Jason Kidd, you know you can’t root against Kevin Garnett. You know you can’t root against Paul Pierce. You certainly can’t root against Kevin Garnett AND Paul Pierce. Regardless of anything else, this Nets team provides Boston with the best opportunity to feel something in these playoffs. Something deep and emotional. Something real. If it doesn’t happen in the first round, I guarantee it will in Round 2:

That Nets/Heat series would be something special.

West: Los Angeles Clippers (3) vs. Golden State Warriors (6)
It’s too bad that Mark Jackson demoted Brian Scalabrine instead just firing him, because how great would it have been to see Doc Rivers snatch up Scal before this series? It would have been the greatest assistant coach subplot in NBA playoff history!

Even without that, this might be the most exciting series of the first round. Doc’s been grooming his team for this very moment since the second he took over. This is the time of year when Doc’s deep personal connection with his players and magical ego juggling skills are in the spotlight. And this year, it certainly helps that he has arguably two of the NBA’s top 5 players in his starting lineup and the second coming of Bill Russell at center. It won’t be easy, but this is the Clippers series to lose.

Of course, there’s the issue of stopping Golden State’s point guard. You know who I’m talking about. He’s one of the most explosive offensive players in the game. He’s one of the most dangerous deep threats that basketball has ever known. When he gets in a groove, there’s just no stopping him. He possesses a level of unconsciousness that’s unrivaled across the entire spectrum of professional sports. He can really do it all.

But at the end of the day, I’m just not sure Jordan Crawford can beat the Clippers all by himself.

East: Chicago Bulls (4) vs. Washington Wizards (5)
While one half of the Celtics championship-coaching tandem (Rivers) is doing his thing out west, the other half (Tom Thhhhibodeau) is doing big things in Chitown, and doing them as psychotically as ever.

Coach Thibs isn’t for everyone. It takes a certain type of player to sacrifice every bit of self in the name of team defense and withstand the grind that accompanies Thibodeau’s relentless pursuit of perfection. But these Bulls — with Joakim Noah installed as Kevin Garnett — are all in. They’ve survived the loss of Derrick Rose and Luol Deng and (despite an almost non-existent offensive attack) are still a team that no one wants to face.

But the Wizards don’t have a choice. It’s probably a tough match-up for this young Washington team. Their best chance of survival might be to sneak Marcin Gortat into the Bulls huddle and see if he can’t steal a few of Thibs defensive secrets.

Either way, a return to the playoffs was a long time coming for Washington. It’s great to see the franchise finally claw its way back into the NBA’s second season. With one of the best young backcourts in basketball leading the way, this could be the start of something special for the Wizards.

West: Houston Rockets (4) vs. Portland Trailblazers (5)
I’ve said this all season, so what’s one more time: The Rockets are the ultimate inspiration for Celtics fans. They are the model that Danny Ainge is looking to mimic — the art of building a contender without spending an extended period of time scraping the bottom of the NBA barrel. I mean, just look at their roster.

James Harden, a superstar, one of the best scorers in the game: acquired via trade for a bundle of young assets

Dwight Howard, a superstar, one of the most dominant big men in the game: acquired via free agency through the power of patience and creative cap work.

Chandler Parsons, an egoless, all-around contributor: drafted with the 38th pick in 2011.

Patrick Beverly, a professional antagonizer: signed off the scrap heap in Europe and brought up through the D-League.

Jeremy Lin, a solid, incredibly smart point: acquired via free agency

Terrence Jones, a young, strong, athletic big: drafted with the 18th pick in the 2012 draft.

That’s Houston’s top six. That’s two lottery picks that weren’t their own, one non-lottery first rounder, two second rounders and one guy who wasn’t drafted at all. Yet they’re contenders. They should beat the Blazers and anything’s possible after that. And not just this year, but for years to come.

It’s just too bad they don’t have Joel Anthony.

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