Coming at You Like a Dark Horse (Like a Dark Horse)

“A horse never runs so fast as when he has other horses to catch up and outpace.”

Publius Ovidius Naso, (Ovid) a 1st century Roman poet.

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It’s Just There in the Air

The playoffs this year are not as simple as they have been the last few years.

We’re not going to see a Heat vs. Spurs Finals again.  Not for a few years at least

How will the Thunder’s playoff absence will change the West?  2 of the 5 best players in the league spearhead a Thunder team that has been consistently dominant since 2009; their absence opens up another slot for a Western team to sneak in.  Kevin Durant has to be re-evaluating whether or not the Thunder can win a championship.

Now the Pelicans are in the mix.  They’re going to get smoked, but the long-term impact of Anthony Davis getting playoff exposure is substantial.  The Pelicans have assembled a young core that looks awfully promising with the emergence of Tyreke Evans and the re-emergence of Eric Gordon.  Gordon will probably flee after taking his player option for next year, but that could be an opportunity for Davis to find his second fiddle.

The teams that I’m going to focus on, however, are the long-shots for a title run.  The dark horses of this years playoffs – the teams that have a tiny bit more than ‘ in hell of winning a title, but not much more than that.

My crystal ball is of no use to me now.  This year, anything could happen.

Memphis Grizzlies

gasol

For a third of the season, most considered Gasol to be second in the race for MVP.  There was a time when the Grizzlies had a 40-14, on pace to have a 60 win season.  But fatigue haunted the Grizzlies in the second half of the season, particularly star center Marc

Remember when Marc Gasol was an MVP candidate?  In fact, many considered him to be 2nd in the running for MVP.

At 7’1″ tall, and 265+ pounds, Gasol is a mammoth.  His sheer size is of great value on the court, making the center key on both sides of the court.  like setting picks, guarding the paint, muscling through defenders, etc.  Gasol can set impenetrable picks, guard the paint with his size and length, muscle through defenders to score, and intimidate players just by being on the court.

But Gasol’s huge size means he is prone to fatigue.  After 3+ days rest, his stats are as follows:

23.2 points per game / 4.4 assists per game / 2.4 blocks per game / 58 field goal %

On the second game of a back to back, he’s much less effective:

16.5 points per game / 3.7 assists per game / 1.5 blocks per game / 49.4 field goal %

Entering the playoffs, Gasol has had plenty of rest, and you can see it in his performance against the Pacers in the Grizzlies’ last game of the season.  After playing a combined 31 minutes between April 10th and April 15th, he put up one of his best games of the season:  33 points on 68.4 % shooting, 13 rebounds, 2 steals, and a block.  The opposing center guarding Gasol was the Pacers’ Roy Hibbert, a 7’2″ defensive beast and one of the top 5 defensive centers in the league.

Their first round matchup is against a depleted Trailblazers squad that won’t put up much of a fight.  If Anthony Davis can bring the series to a game 6 or 7, a fresh Grizzlies team will be a daunting obstacle for the relatively inexperienced Warriors to climb.  The post dominant play of the Grizzlies is a proven playoff strategy, while the run-and-gun style of play, was only introduced a few years ago by Steve Nash and the Phoenix Suns.  They weren’t able to get past the Western Conference Finals, though bad luck had a lot to do with their inability to do so.

Beating the Grizzlies when they’re fresh is like fist-fighting a Grizzly Bear: it’s not easy.  If the Grizzlies can look like they did at the beginning of the year, then they might win the whole shebang.

Toronto Raptors

Toronto Raptors v Brooklyn Nets - Game Four

Typically a 4th seeded team wouldn’t be considered a dark horse candidate, but in a conference that features only 2 teams that are considered contenders by the NBA community at large, the Raptors are a potential 3rd.

The series was tied 3 to 3 and the Raptors had home court advantage.  In the final seconds, the Nets have 104, and the Raptors have 103.  Kyle Lowry gets the ball – to him and tries to make something happen.  As the last few seconds melt away on the clock, Lowry puts up a floater to take the win:

Nope.

The 3rd seed Raptors were knocked out last year by a 6th seed Nets team filled to the brim with veteran ball players.  This Includes Paul Pierce, who just mad sure that Lowry remembers who has seniority.

The Raptors began a rebuild in 2010 that crawled along slowly until, all of a sudden, in the 2013-14 season, the Raptors were set loose on the rest of the NBA and began biting heads off.  The season before, the Raptors had a 34-48 record; the next season, they achieved a franchise best 48-38 record.

There was significant roster overhaul, most notably the absence of Rudy Gay, but the most impactful part of the transformation from old Raptors to new Raptors was the team’s discovery that they were actually a pretty good basketball team.

This year, the Nets will not be a problem for the Raptors: as an incredibly uninspiring 8th seed in the Eastern conference, the Brooklyn squad is poised to get destroyed by the Hawks.  Meanwhile, the Raptors play the Washington Wizards, whose presence in the playoffs surprises me because they’re not well coached and they don’t have adequate talent.  The Raptors should dispatch them easily enough.

Now comes the fun part: a potential Hawks vs. Raptors 2nd round.  I wrote an article about why the Hawks aren’t championship material, but to be honest, the Hawks still have the upper hand in this match up.  That being said, the Raptors have the depth to match every Hawks personnel change, they have the size advantage, the explosiveness, the youth, and the rebounding.  The Hawks might have the upper hand, but only barely.

After dispatching the Hawks, the Raptors will need to ride momentum to get past the Cavaliers.  The Cavaliers are a significantly more talented squad, but again, the Raptors have the depth to match up well.  They also have the benefit of having been to the playoffs the year before and of playing with one another for more than 81 games.  The Cavaliers are a brand new team with superstars who are not used to the post-season.  They’ll get it together, but it might not be this year.  The Raptors have to seize the day if they want to prove their playoff worth before retooling their squad and managing contracts.

Dallas Mavericks

NBA: Dallas Mavericks at Boston Celtics

 One of the best basketball articles I’ve read all year is Good at Math, Bad at People, by ESPN writer Baxter Holmes.  The article is about mercurial point guard Rajon Rondo and his behavioral precepts, his inner mechanics.  In an interview with Kevin Garnett, Baxter writes the following:

Garnett wants to reveal what the water bottle incident says about Rajon Rondo. Garnett sees. He reads. He knows what’s going on in Dallas. He’s aware of the friction, the concerns about fit. He also knows that the point guard is once again raising those age-old questions, the ones that surfaced in that Celtics film session and are resurfacing now, down the homestretch of a season with a playoff contender, prior to the most important free agency summer of Rondo’s career. Questions like,What the hell is Rajon Rondo so damn mad about? And, Can you really build a franchise around a guy like that?

Rondo: the tortured genius.  How fascinating is that?

The Dallas Mavericks have struggled to integrate him into his offense, and it’s no wonder: who plays like Rondo?  He knows when his teammates are open even when they don’t:

The question always was, ‘Is he a good enough player to behave the way he does?

– Celtics GM Danny Ainge

Ainge, and the rest of the league, will know the answer to that question very soon.

When the Mavericks traded for Rondo, they weren’t interest in regular season glory.  Dirk wants another ring, and Dallas is spoiled: The Mavericks have won 50 or more games in 14 of the last 15 seasons.

There’s Rondo, and then there’s ‘Playoff Rondo:’ as a 21-year-old point-guard wedged into a starting lineup with 3 future Hall-of-Famers, there was an expectation that Rondo would fill a deferential role to the superstars during the 2009 playoffs.  In the first round the Celtics matched up with the Bulls.  Opposite Derrick Rose, Rondo averaged 19.4 points, 11.5 assists, and 9.2 rebounds.

In a 2010 playoff series against the Cavaliers, Rondo put up a triple-double with 29 points, 18 rebounds, and 13 assists.  His masterpiece was a 44 point performance on 16-for-24 shooting with ten assists, eight rebounds and only three turnovers against the Heat in the 2012 playoffs.

The 2011 championship Mavericks Roster wasn’t too dissimilar from the current roster.  If playoff Rondo shows up and Dirk is able to turn back the clock, the Mavericks will be nearly unstoppable.

A Game of Horse

 I don’t mean to imply that any of these 3 teams are true contenders: that’s the point.  Teams like the Nets or Pelicans have a statistically insignificant chance of winning, so they aren’t in the race.  Other horses, like the Warriors or the Cavaliers, are clearly well-groomed, well-bred, and ready for a deep playoff run.  It’s no fun betting on ‘Seabiscuit’ or ‘Secretariat:’ betting on a horse named ‘Lester’ is so much more daring!

But for real though, bet on the safe horse.  It almost always wins.

Sigh.

the prophet