The NBA playoffs are upon us, with 16 teams competing for the Larry O'Brien Trophy. But what about the other guys? What about the teams we wish were in the playoffs? We may know, in our heads, that they didn't do enough to get into the postseason, but that doesn't change how we feel in our hearts. We'd like to see these teams competing in Bill Simmons's Entertaining as Hell Tournament, but until that day, we'll just have to write longingly about why we wish they had made it to the promised land.
Portland Trail Blazers
Sean Fennessey: This isn't exactly a song for the Blazers because the Blazers were hard to watch this year. Nic Batum was long and lean and aggressively French, J.J. Hickson played like an exploding can of soda, and Weber State's Damian Lillard was a revelation to those who enjoy tiny-man dunks but don't much care for consistency. (He is only the Rookie of the Year because Anthony Davis hasn't totally figured out how to play basketball yet. He will.) I won't miss those Blazers and I certainly won't miss their bench, mostly because their bench doesn't exist beyond the many terrified faces of Meyers Leonard.
In the 71st game of your 17th season, in the midst of a “heated” playoff “race,” why are you still watching your own errant jump shot while your mark, Klay Thompson, beats you back in transition for an open 3-pointer? Thompson doesn’t exactly take off like Corey Brewer, either, and he still beats you down the floor by several steps.
Why is this still happening? It’s almost April, and Bryant and the Lakers still can’t figure out transition defense, or defense in general.
It has been a rough year for Kevin Love and the Timberwolves in basketball terms. Love broke his right hand twice, first doing knuckle push-ups, and then during a game shortly after returning. Love wasn’t himself in those 18 games, shooting just 35 percent, and the Wolves never really had a chance to compete for a playoff spot as injuries claimed just about every rotation player at some point.
But Love’s off-court life has gone well. The NBA awarded him its Community Assist award in December, an honor that comes with $10,000 to the charity of Love’s choice. He selected St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, which cares for pediatric cancer patients around the country and seeks a cure. Cancer has claimed a couple members of Love’s extended family, and that’s in part why he's involved year-round with St. Jude and formed his Spreadlove campaign to raise awareness for breast cancer. Love played a large part in the NBA’s St. Jude Week at the end of February, and he chatted with Grantland in an extensive one-on-one about his charity work, the Wolves’ lost season, the future of the franchise, and Nikola Pekovic’s “aura.”
In the time of attack guards, small ball, and stretch 4’s, Big Al Jefferson’s game is unapologetically old school. He’s the kind of post player that was once so ubiquitous in the league, but now seems to be an endangered species. Like Adrian Peterson rushing as if it’s still the 1980s, Jefferson’s throwback style is strangely comforting to fans of a certain age, and the scarcity of those who play like him also offers commentary on the state of the NBA in 2013.
When you watch the Jazz offense trot down the court, chances are you will see Jefferson quickly assume his position in his native ecosystem, down on the left block. Simply stated, Al Jefferson loves the left block. If all the NBA players were on Foursquare, Big Al would definitely be the mayor of the left block. He has compiled a collection of effective pivots, drop steps, half hooks, mini-jumpers, “weezies,” and up-and-unders that are highly calibrated for the left side, not the right. This asymmetric love affair is so torrid that Big Al has become the most lopsided shooter in the NBA. No player in the NBA has a more asymmetric shot chart than Al Jefferson. Out of the 137 players who have attempted at least 200 field goal attempts this season, Al Jefferson is the most one-sided shooter.
It was a year that provided plenty of personalities, story lines, and moments, but the question is, which of those moments got their due and which did not? Could LeBron James actually be underrated? Could the Olympics? They just might be.
Underrated: LeBron James's Game 4 of the Eastern Conference semifinals at Indiana
Everyone remembers the 45-point evisceration of Boston on the road in an elimination game, and the ultra-efficient inside-out torching of the Thunder in the Finals. But Game 4 against the Pacers has sort of gotten lost in the shuffle, which can happen, I guess, when a game kicks off one of the greatest 15-game stretches in the entire history of a sport. Miami felt like it was on the verge of a franchise-altering crisis going into Game 4, down 2-1 to a feisty Indiana team and missing Chris Bosh. Dwyane Wade had shot 2-of-13 and snapped at Erik Spoelstra during a Game 3 blowout loss. It wasn't an elimination game, but in that moment it was hard to imagine Miami coming back from a 3-1 deficit against a Pacers club that clearly didn't fear them.
And when Miami fell behind by 10 points in the first half of Game 4, looking a bit listless, it was tempting to start thinking about the consequences of a conference semifinals loss. Would they make a panic trade of one of the stars? Would they conclude James and Wade just couldn't coexist well enough to win a title? Would they fire Spoelstra before his extension — which was signed before the season — even kicked in?
Then LeBron and Wade went absolutely bananas, scoring 38 straight points for Miami in a second-half stretch for the ages. It wasn't just the production; it was the way it looked. Both were cutting actively off the ball and feeding each other for the sorts of semi-improv scores we all envisioned when they teamed up. Spoelstra began leaning on sets in which Miami cleared one side of the floor for LeBron and letting James go to work. He was dominant in those sets, which were rarely a major part of Miami's offense before, and they morphed into post-ups as the playoffs wore on — the post-ups for which Oklahoma City had no answer. It all just came together, at a startling speed. James finished with 40 points, 18 rebounds, and nine assists, numbers that no other player has ever put up in a postseason game since the mid-1980s. He hit post-up shots, jumpers, graceful floaters over Roy Hibbert in the lane — shots he just didn't quite have down even two or three seasons before. It was masterful, and the Heat needed every bit of it. — Zach Lowe
In case you were out living a life of leisure, here's what you missed in sports on Thursday.
Mason Plumlee had 21 points and 15 boards to lead no. 1 Duke to a 76-54 win over Elon on the same day that the nation's no. 2 high school recruit, Jabari Parker, committed to the Blue Devils. Parker is a Mormon, and sources report that his choice has given Mitt Romney a sliver of hope that someone else might take over the "Mormon Devil" nickname. Unfortunately, because Parker is a 6-foot-8 post player, it has already been confirmed that his nickname will be "The Hook of Mormon."
With nine minutes left in the fourth quarter of the Timberwolves’ November 16 loss to the Warriors, a middle-aged couple descended from the stands at the Target Center, ostensibly on their way out. After bypassing the exits, they eventually reached court level and paused behind the Timberwolves’ bench, where Ricky Rubio was perched in a black folding chair. Inches away, but just out of Rubio’s line of vision, the woman posed while her companion snapped a photo.
A security guard stopped them shortly after, stepping in just as the line between excited fans and crazed invaders of personal space was crossed. The two laughed, and turned back into the stands. Turns out, it hadn’t been a stop on their way out. This was a short Ricky pilgrimage, a chance to get close to the point-guard-cum-pop-idol who’s risen to a mythical status among fans in Minnesota over the past eight months.
When Rubio tore his ACL March 9 and the Timberwolves’ charmed season fell apart, the Spaniard's cult following grew larger than ever before. Even noted curmudgeon Rick Adelman admitted he hadn’t realized Rubio’s full import to the team, both on the court and off. The locker room was quieter, practices became lifeless, and a team that had been convinced it was only getting better was crippled by the belief that it couldn't do so without Ricky. Now, just eight months after surgery, and with Minnesota sitting at 8-8, Rubio’s return looms, and with it, the hope that a team that’s managed to stay afloat without him will leap forward with him. That’s a lot for a 22-year-old who’s played a grand total of 41 NBA games and was falling off last season even before his injury.
1. David Lee’s unnecessary but appreciated post-fancy-pass spin away from the play.
2. The realization that Kevin Love’s return opens the door for both a T’Wolves whiteout and an all-bearded, zero-defense Minnesota frontcourt.
3. The suspicion that Andrew Bogut was a bit too inspired by Adrien Brody’s look in that Gillete ad.
4. Andris Biedrins. Everything about Andris Biedrins: that he’s the first one off the bench, that his celebration involves lifting one leg off the ground and a pelvic thrust, that there’s more joy in his towel-draped face than I’ve ever experienced.
5. The Barnes stare-down.
6. The chance to tell my Nikola Pekovic story. It goes like this. Apparently, last season, a group of reporters had gathered in the Minnesota locker room, and one inquired about the tattoo on Pekovic’s left arm — what looks to be a knight thrusting a large sword into a pile of skulls. Asked whom the tattoo was supposed to represent, Pekovic responded, “Oh, that’s just my friend.” It sure is.
The Minnesota Timberwolves, with Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio healthy, projected as a clear playoff team — and one that might have surprised folks by pushing something like 50 or even 55 wins. They were a .500 team when healthy last season, and they upgraded one of the two or three worst wing rotations in the league with Chase Budinger, Alexey Shved, Brandon Roy, and the jack-of-all-trades game of Andrei Kirilenko. Toss in some internal improvement and a full season of Nikola Pekovic producing during minutes in which Darko Milicic generally crapped the bed, and the Wolves looked like a playoff lock.
In case you were out living a life of leisure, here's what you missed in sports on Wednesday.
Matt Carpenter, subbing for an injured Carlos Beltran, hit a two-run homer to lead the Cardinals to a 3-1 win over the Giants and a 2-1 lead in the NLCS. "Look, we're not saying for sure that Jesus is rooting for our team," said a statement released by Cardinals fans. "But how many times can you be led by a Carpenter before you start saying, OK, maybe something's happening here? Are we crazy? Are we being unreasonable? Or deep down, are the rest of you jealous that Jesus is a Cards fan? Be honest."
Has anyone checked on Diego Maradona? The far left end of the bench, where Tyson and Kobe sit, has the most "GTFO" reaction. Kobe whipping the towel, and Tyson going beast-mode. Let me sit there. Then there's Kevin Love, who seriously would rather be celebrating on the bench than playing in the game. Someone in the middle, I think Paul, is practically jumping out of the gym in joy BEFORE RUSSELL EVEN THINKS ABOUT LEAVING THE GROUND. And then ... then there's this. Forever:
You guys have a nice, relaxing trip to LV-426. This one comes from the Instagram account of Kevin Love. It's a flight from Spain to England. If Anthony Davis got any deeper into that slanket he'd be mummified. If you're going to go into a 120-minute coma, you might as well put safety first like Russell Westbrook did. Excellent use of reflective tape. You never know when a car is going to come flying right up the aisle of a plane. Maintain the mystery.