Remember how we had that one series, a long time ago, where we'd entreat our writers to scribe short vignettes on the previous night's games? We've consistently discovered there's no way for us to do that every night, but with the capsules done and Aaron back in the saddle as a more active managing editor, we're hoping that we can bring the feature back as a weekly Wednesday post. Sometimes Thursday, like today. As always, the vignettes may not always be tactful, tacit, or terse -- they'll always be under a thousand words, though, and generally attempt to work through a question, an observation, or a feeling. Today's short pieces are as follows.
- GENERAL: A Prelude to Prognostirank (by Aaron McGuire)
- GENERAL: The Stephen Jackson Story (by Alex Dewey)
Read on after the jump.
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GENERAL: A Prelude to Prognostirank
As our main playoff preview feature, I'll be bringing back a revised form of one of last season's staples -- Gothic Ginobili's Prognostirank series, where I rate the playoff teams in the order I expect them to be eliminated. Hence, it's a prognostication combined with a ranking. I'm a beautiful butterfly made of slideshows and click bait, folks! This year we're going to include a few extra tidbits, as well; Dewey will be adding minor blurbs on each team as we go along, and I'll be rating not only the series length and winner predictions I considered last year but also the general confidence I have in the prediction, and the number of double digit wins I'd predict for each round. (Note: I will inevitably get each and every one of these playoff predictions wrong. I will laugh at myself about it. You are wholly entitled to do the same.)
Still, that feature never really covers the entire league. So I concocted a half-baked idea. For this final regular-season outlet, I decided I'd do a short version of the Prognostirank series that ranked the final 14 teams in the league, by my assessment of team quality and their chances of an upset if they faced the Heat in the first round. Yes, even the Western teams -- for this exercise, we're saying that the Milwaukee Bucks literally resign from the playoffs tomorrow and are replaced (in order) by every single lottery team in the league. How would they fare? Who would be most likely to upset the Heat? Valid questions, all. Let's start it from the top.
1. DALLAS MAVERICKS (41-41; 13th ranked O | 19th ranked D)
Is this a homer pick? Perhaps. Out of all the lottery teams, I realize that Utah has a better record and can be reasonably argued to be the better team. But let's be frank, here -- the difference between Dallas and Utah isn't enormous, and I'd take Carlisle and Nowitzki over Corbin and Utah's stable any day. Nowitzki can be counted on for 2 or 3 vintage games in any given playoff series -- it's pretty hard to sweep the Mavericks, all things considered, and I'm not sure it would be THAT hard to sweep the Jazz. But alas. Dallas' porous defense and complete lack of offensive coherence would doom them in the end, but a Mavs/Heat grudge-match re-match would be excellent theater and -- for my money -- more competitive than anything the Heat are going to see in the first two rounds of the playoffs.
2. UTAH JAZZ (43-39; 10th ranked O | 21st ranked D)
Although I lightly implied that the Jazz would be swept by the Heat above, it certainly isn't a given. Three main reasons for this. First, Paul Millsap has a weird tendency to have impossible performances against the Heat. Seriously. Millsap -- a 27% three point shooter -- has shot 75% on threes against the Heat in his career, mostly in that one unforgettable game. Second, the Jazz actually managed to split their two games against Miami this year, winning their home matchup relatively comfortably in early January. Finally? Four words. Mo Williams revenge game. Enough said.
3. MINNESOTA TIMBERWOLVES (31-51; 25th ranked O | 13th ranked D)
Alright. Hear me out. Yes, I may be slightly biased by the fact that the Timberwolves absolutely handled the Spurs in their last two matchups of the season. But the T-Wolves have the most intriguing combination of talent currently slumming around in the lottery, and they've got several legitimate star-level pieces in Rubio and... oh, wait. Love and Pek are both injured. Still. Rubio would cannibalize Chalmers and Cole with his head's up defense, leaving Chase Budinger and J.J. Barea to defend LeBron and Wade. Seems like a perfectly reasonable matchup. Wolves in five.
4. WASHINGTON WIZARDS (29-53; 30th ranked O | 5th ranked D)
This is another "screw the records! THIS FEELS RIGHT!" pick, I'll admit. But there are a few numeric reasons I'd think the 30th ranked offense in the NBA would have a chance to steal a game or two from Miami. First, out of all the defenses staying home, the Wizards are FAR AND AWAY the best one. They're borderline elite, especially since Nene and Wall returned to bolster their rotation. The team only won 29 games for a reason -- they're not very good. But having one elite trait gives you a stepping stone to work from. The other teams don't quite have that.
5. TORONTO RAPTORS (34-48; 13th ranked O | 22nd ranked D)
At this point, I'm starting to lose hope that ANY of these teams would take more than a game. But I'll play along. On the ropes in game #3, down 2-0 and down by 20 points at the half, the Raptors announce that they're waiving their vets mid-game and signing Tas Melas, J.E. Skeets, Trey Kerby, and Leigh Ellis to 10-day contracts. The Basketball Jones crew comes in and absolutely styles on Miami, taking the next two games after they break out the pun gun and literally shoot LeBron James in the shoulder. After upsetting the Heat in game 5, the Heat announce that they're waiving every single player outside their big three and signing TBJ's sworn pick-up court enemies, The Sex Warriors. The so-called "Sexy Heat Warriors" proceed to destroy the Raptors in the final two games of the series, freeing TBJ to get back to the booth and greatly confusing everyone who doesn't listen to the podcast.
6. PORTLAND TRAILBLAZERS (33-49; 15th ranked O | 26th ranked D)
Because it's the playoffs, coach Stotts decides to simply play the Portland starters 48 minutes a game to try and avoid relying on the worst bench in the NBA. This makes Portland a dramatically better team during the first three quarters, going into every fourth quarter of the series with a lead. Unfortunately, the players are all too exhausted to actually keep the lead, and the Blazers collapse in the fourth quarter in each of the series' four games. Sorry, Blazer fans.
7. PHILADELPHIA 76ERS (34-48; 26th ranked O | 15th ranked D)
8. DETROIT PISTONS (29-53; 21st ranked O | 24th ranked D)
Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe take advantage of Miami's terrible big man depth and the Pistons push the Heat to six games. (What's funny about that sentence is the fact that many analysts continue to pound the "Miami has terrible big man depth, teams with good bigs will obliterate Miami" trope into the ground to the point where typing that ridiculous sentence didn't actually seem that far from the norm.)
9. SACRAMENTO KINGS (28-54; 12th ranked O | 29th ranked D)
The Kings would have a significantly higher chance of beating the Heat if they smudged out the names on their jerseys and rebranded themselves "the Kinks." Mainly because they could play Dave Davies' voice over the PA throughout the games and viscerally terrify the Heat. Kind of want to see this happen, all things considered. I love the Kinks.
10. NEW ORLEANS PELICANS (27-55; 16th ranked O | 28th ranked D)
In a bold move, the Hornets decide to change their name and brand right before the series. They win the first two games as the Heat are just terribly confused about the whole thing. They proceed to get destroyed in the next four, but hey, they got three home games!
11. ORLANDO MAGIC (20-62; 26th ranked O | 25th ranked D)
The Magic have actually played Miami oddly close ever since the Heatles got together, and Vucevic has been HUGE for them against the Heat this season. Still feel like they get swept, but it'd be more akin to the 2010 Magic's close sweep of the 2010 Bobcats than their monstrous sweep of the 2010 Hawks. Also: Tobias Harris would go OFF at some point, I guarantee it. (This series would go better for Orlando if they could get J.J. Redick back. J.J., come home!)
12. CLEVELAND CAVALIERS (24-58; 20th ranked O | 26th ranked D)
To prepare for the series, the Cleveland Cavaliers hold a pow-wow with Dennis Kucinich, Dennis Kucinich's incredibly smart and attractive wife, and Drew Carey. The trio teaches the Cavs about the true meaning of friendship and togetherness, and teaches Byron Scott that suicide sprints and making everyone throw up repeatedly isn't quite the right way to coach a young team. Bolstered by their pow-wow, the Cavaliers proceed to pull everything together and get everything right... only to get destroyed by an exponentially increasing margin in each game, losing the final game by a score of 256-0. Kyrie scores 0 points with 0 assists and 0 rebounds in the final game, but stays after the game. I bet Cleveland fans will like him again!
13. CHARLOTTE BOBCATS (21-61; 28th ranked O | 30th ranked D)
Desagana Diop has started more NBA Finals games than Dwight Howard. That's all I've got.
14. PHOENIX SUNS (25-57; 29th ranked O | 23rd ranked D)
Michael Beasley revenge series. Dude averages 70 PPG... on 95 shots per game. Unfortunately, they forget they aren't supposed to keep tanking in the playoffs, losing each game by upwards of 30 points. Good show, guys.
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GENERAL: The Games That Mattered
[EDITOR'S NOTE: The following is a fictional tale. It marks the return of "John", Alex Dewey's alternate reality San Antonio ballboy. It is set directly before Game 6 of last year's Western Conference Finals.]
The Spurs would face a 2-3 deficit and perhaps the end of their season tomorrow night. Tim Duncan's legendary career, the legendary Spurs dynasty, all of this was perhaps at its twilight. I felt anxiety and restlessness that night, as I'm sure all the Spurs also felt on some level. All that considered, I wasn't terribly surprised when a couple of players woke me up at midnight to fetch a couple basketballs from the storage locker. After all, I'm just an exhausted equipment lackey sleeping in a run-down motel room. It was my job back in that warm and pleasant June, so I certainly didn't resent it when Tim Duncan and Stephen Jackson came knocking at my door. I grabbed the keys, rubbed my eyes, and silently walked down to the outdoor courts a few hundred feet from the base of the hotel.
"Just gonna shoot some hoops, you guys?" I asked as we entered through the locked fence.
"Yeah, probably. Maybe not." In four words, Tim had managed to assert and cast doubt on the very assertion. I couldn't even get a scare quote from him!
Not so savvy was Stephen Jackson: "Kid, you like the Thunder?"
I responded honestly: "Sure. Just not as much as the Spurs, Stephen."
"So you might not be so interested in this little pick-up game. Alright, kid. Just go back upstairs."
Tim Duncan gave a dry, furious, expressionless stare at his friend's characteristic lack of couth or patience. "Come on, Jack, you just had to be silent for a few seconds. Come on, man. Heh."
"I was discreet, though, Tim! No way he guesses it's Durant and Westbrook from that!" I blinked quickly in befuddlement at Jack's amusing attempt to rectify the situation. S-Jax, that fount of self-awareness, found it pretty funny himself, "Come on, who cares, Tim, heh? It's not like the mop-boys have picnics on the hotel lawn in the middle of the night, heh. He's just one dude," Stephen Jackson was needling Tim Duncan with no regard for human life. I wasn't sure if Tim ever changed his facial expression during the conversation.
As this absurd discussion settled down, my thoughts turned back to the situation before me. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook against Tim and Jack, in a red-eye pick-up game the night before their possibly-decisive playoff game? I couldn't think to do anything, so I stood silent. But even then, I couldn't help but grin in anticipation. Tim noticed and told me: "You can't tell anyone about this game, John. I mean it. No one's violating curfew or their contracts, or anything, but I don't want any of this to reach the public."
"Alright, nothing. Not a word," I said with surprising conviction. After all, my sights had turned to something larger, and I didn't want the story so much as I just wanted to be a part of this game. No one else had to know about it. I took my watch off and started shooting hoops. At halfcourt, Tim and Jack started doing some passing drills that I saw intermittently after I'd get the rebounds from my shots. Gradually, though, the drills became more engrossing than my own shots, and I caught a final rebound and turned to watch from the top of the key.
Having been a mopboy for several years, I'd seen plenty of these kinds of drills, but what I hadn't seen was the level of focus and chemistry Tim and Jack possessed and brought to the table. They were passing from and to every angle that the hand can reach to throw and catch. They were moving with and without the ball, passing off the dribble, passing into the dribble, throwing and gathering hailmarys over their shoulders, and so on.
They would soon lose to the Thunder, of course. Both that night when it didn't matter and the next night when it did. No one on Earth could stop Kevin Durant on either night, much less a couple crafty vets on a pale-lit blue on green court without a hotel or a dozen crafty vets on a Chesapeake court so blue and bright you'd test it with your feet as water if it weren't so eerie and unnatural of hue. This historically dominant team the Spurs, full of every type of doer and thinker in an offense, was unseated by their young, more openly pious and brash brothers in the Thunder. There was nothing to be gained from the loss but the mystic's absurd purchase, a purchase of land that one alone can walk upon and which one cannot confer.
We Spurs fans know it; that team was something else, something special. Plenty of writers and league observers know it too. But for the most part we're the only ones that do, and, as memory fades, all that is left is the experience and the testimony, and finally nothing as we go. And friends come and go, too, and Stephen Jackson got released the other day, and Tim's not too far from the end, despite his dogged insistence on writing his final chapters with a most emphatic ink.
But those final days are always coming, aren't they? And with the benefit of reflection I'm so glad of what I did next, as I watched their mesmerizing passing drill. I told Tim maybe they should try with two at once, and so I sent a bounce pass his way with the ball I'd been shooting. They obliged and, with the extra projectile, the level of focus between the two grew still more intense, the passes got faster, and sometimes the trajectories of the simultaneous passes were so close that the gap could scarcely fit the width of a pin. These were the passes that only the ultimate teammates could pull off, what with their collective proprioception that bordered on telepathy. I reasoned that subtle hints in body language and eye contact must have tipped one off to the other's intentions, but I wondered if the court wasn't too dimly-lit for that. No matter the mechanisms, I know that the world beyond the chain-link cage had faded into black, and all of existence was a converted street-light throwing pale blue light upon a pale green court.
They were friends.