Keeping Score: Casting the NBA Playoffs
Summer blockbusters and heart pumping NBA Playoff action seem to go together year after year as if the 16 teams themselves personified the scripts being pumped out of Hollywood – each with the chance to capture gold hardware and the attention of even the most casual fans thanks to the improbable storylines that are written. The NBA playoffs: where heroes crash and burn and villains feel the cool shade provided by championship banners hanging from the rafters. The truth will in fact be televised, but the cast of A-List superstars is one that is forever changing. With this year’s playoff landscape becoming clearer and clearer, players and teams are being typecast for their run at a title. But the question remains: are some of the NBA elite here to save the day or rather are their motives more nefarious in nature? LeBron James as “The Reluctant Hero” Despite his less-than covert exit from Cleveland that came off like a bungled bank heist, LeBron James is still considered NBA royalty for his on floor performance. A dedicated contributor to every facet of the game, King James is a perennial MVP candidate even on a “down” year. But like any hero we enjoy watching on the big screen, it’s what makes them more “human” that allows us to understand the character better. With almost nine years under his belt and zero championships to show for it, a person should look no further than the 4th quarter as to why. A career 27.7 ppg scorer, James completely disappeared during crunch time during last year’s finals against Dallas. Averaging only 2.2 ppg during the 4th, during that same five game stretch James didn’t score in the last five minutes of the game when the score was within 5 points – missing all seven shots. Contrasted with Dirk Nowitzki during that same frame – scoring 26 points on 8-13 shooting, it’s clear that LeBron doesn’t know if he’s supposed to go for the kill or defer to Dwayne Wade. After his dazzling performance albeit against the New Jersey Nets where he scored the Heats last 17 points of the game, only time will tell if LeBron exorcises his demons this year. Kevin Durant as “The Quiet Killer” Kevin Durant is the “anti-LeBron.” He re-upped with OKC without much fuss and didn’t have to tell the world that he was “keeping his talents in a dust bowl.” With a work ethic and will to win that puts him at the top of the NBA superstar hierarchy, Durant boasts a running mate much like LeBron/Wade in the form of the always athletically freakish Russell Westbrook. At times it seems as if their cohesive nature is what’s going to bring them a title. But every once in while the never shy Westbrook seems to want to shoulder the scoring load a little too much. The consummate teammate, this year’s playoffs will reveal if Kevin Durant’s quiet nature is what gets the Thunder bounced from the playoffs because the ball isn’t coming to him in crunch time. Derrick Rose as “The Wounded Warrior” Derrick Rose has missed 24 games (and counting) for the Chicago Bulls this season, with the team fairing admirably at 16-8. Up until this injury plagued season, Rose had only missed a total of six games for his entire career. Now add into the mix that Rose’s emotional health and state of mind has come into question after making comments to GQ that stardom “doesn’t fit his personality.” While the Bulls may perhaps have the best “team” in the conventional sense of the word, it’s clear that amongst the NBA elite Rose doesn’t have a partner in crime that is going to dramatically fill in a la Wade, Westbrook, Bynum, Duncan and Griffin. As Rose goes, so too does Chicago’s expectations to add to the collection of banners in the rafters at the Madhouse on Madison where Jordan specialized in interior decorating. Kobe Bryant as “The Last Mamba” Kobe Bryant is the lone hold out of the days when NBA stars were cold-blooded killers. Snarling and deviously deceptive like any charismatic foil in a Hollywood movie, as Kobe ages people are starting to look at him more like he’s Verbal Kint than Keyser Söze. That’s the type of mistake that could cost a team like the Spurs another championship or OKC their first. With Andrew Bynum playing arguably the best basketball of his career and completely healthy, a bit of youth at the PG position for the first time thanks to the acquisition of Ramon Sessions and Pau Gasol who has a damaged playoff legacy to repair, Kobe Bryant has a couple of usual suspects with him to pull off the greatest heist of his career. Dwight Howard as “Clark Can’t” Dwight Howard’s decision to stay in Orlando is quite possibly the worst thing that could have happened to the middle of the pack Orlando Magic squad. Sidelined for the rest of the regular season and almost certainly a first round matchup with the upstart Indiana Pacers, the Magic are left without the needed bodies in exchange for what we thought was an inevitable Howard trade that hung around way past its relevancy like the Police Academy franchise. Howard held the city and league hostage for months. Now it seems he’s added an ailing back to the long list of reasons why Orlando needs to blow up the squad and rebuild. If Oklahoma City is any indication, small market teams can compete if management can assemble a franchise rather than a franchise player. Tony Parker as “The Artist” Like another “Artist” that captured the attention of the Oscar voters, the NBA’s French import is similarly silent – instead getting the job done in an old-school way, with flares of improvisation that spans from Chaplin to Pistol Pete. Parker has the reliable San Antonio Spurs playoff train chugging along smooth and steady like any vehicle with steering suggestions by Greg Popovich. People seem to mistake the Spurs as a team without personality, which certainly isn’t the case. Rather, they handle their business without internal squabbles and outward dramatics. Tony Parker and the Spurs prove that making a compelling case for a championship doesn’t have to stem from melodrama. Carmelo Anthony as “The Swing Man” With the Knicks on a collision course with the Miami Heat for a first round matchup, there is no single player more important in that series than Carmelo Anthony. After the firing of Mike D’Antoni, Carmelo has seen his scoring (21.9), field goal (45.3), 3 point (31.4) percentage and rebounding (6.6) all increase, as well as an added attention to the defensive end since sliding to the four spot. With Amar’e Stoudemire finally healthy, the Knicks need both playing at top form to have any chance to compete with the Heat. Consider this: Amar’e and Carmelo have only scored 20+ points in the same game eight times in New York’s 56 games this season. Like any good swing man, ‘Melo is going to have to play the two, three and four for the Knicks to have any hope at trying on the glass slipper that seems to always have a knack for showing up at Madison Square Garden. Dirk Nowitzki as “The Un-Guardable” No one is banking on the Dallas Mavericks to make any noise in this year’s playoffs. The problem with that outlook is that there isn’t a single person in either conference that can matchup with Dirk Nowitzki – especially OKC, who they would face in the first round if the playoffs started today. Too big and strong to get checked by Harden, and too agile for Ibaka or Perkins, Dirk would be a nightmare matchup for the Thunder. The Boston Celtics as “The Dark Horse” The Boston Celtics have the most wins (19) of any team since the All-Star break. Battle tested, rugged and youthful at a position where it matters the most, the Celtics are poised and capable of running through both the Heat and the Bulls. Like any good heist movie, the roles of the participants are clear and straightforward. Now it’s simply about executing. Chris Paul as “The Dude” Like another City of Angeles de-facto leader who lead a hodgepodge of unfocused and at times unreasonable misfits, Chris Paul is “The Dude” in his own right. As he goes, so to do the young Clippers like Griffin, Jordan and Foye. No one expects much from the Clippers, but it’s that “us against the world mentality” that makes this underdog the perfect man for the job. Everyone knows that a championship banner really ties the room together.
Illustration: Sam Rodriguez for HYPEBEAST
Every other Thursday HYPEBEAST’s Keeping Score will span the world of sports, ranging from thoughts about the state of the NBA to whether or not the United States National Soccer Team will ever challenge for a World Cup. Handled with words from Senior Editor L. Ruano and North American Staff Writer Alec Banks, both life-long sports enthusiasts and dedicated writers, no sport will go unrepresented. Alec Banks is a Los-Angeles based writer by way of Chicago which means he doesn’t put ketchup on his prose. He currently serves as the North American staff writer for HYPEBEAST and contributes regularly for the likes of Complex, Playboy and Maxim. He was a 2x Quarterfinalist for the prestigious Academy of Arts and Sciences Nicholl Fellowship in screenwriting. You can read more of his work at alecbanks.com or @smart_alec_.