With most playoff spots already locked in, the most interesting drama on display in Thursday night’s finale of this lockout-shortened NBA season regular season is also the greatest tragedy. As I write this, the Charlotte Bobcats have not yet played the New York Knicks, but most probably Charlotte will lose to the Knicks. Such a defeat would make these Bobcats the worst team in NBA history with a record of 7-59 and a “winning” percentage of .106. Will the young ’Cats muster enough to overcome New York and avoid historic futility? It seems unlikely that D.J. Augustin, Gerald Henderson and Bismack Biyombo will put enough points on the board to overcome Carmelo Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemire’s high-scoring Knicks.
Michael Jordan has a lot to answer for as the team’s GM. Even if he had never taken Kwame Brown as the first overall pick with the Wizards, Jordan’s record with the Bobcats would be enough to garner serious criticism, trading away entertaining local favorites Stephen Jackson and Gerald Wallace. Now the only hope in Charlotte is what some call the Unibrow Sweepstakes, the chance to get the first overall draft pick and presumably take college hoops’ best player, Kentucky’s Anthony Davis. With the lanky, shot-blocking, offensive work-in-progress Biyombo on the roster already, Davis seems like he might be a redundant addition. Yet no other player who could make a significant impact for Charlotte like a Bradley Beal or Harrison Barnes seems worthy of the first overall pick. I don’t see His Airness (or Errorness) managing to save his job next season.
Kobe Bryant’s quest for a third scoring title in perhaps the last NBA game to be played in Sacramento provides another reasonably interesting story line. If Bryant amassed 38 points last night, it would halt Kevin Durant’s quest for a third straight scoring title. The playoff picture, however, is largely set. Denver and Dallas are still competing for the right to lose in the first round to the Oklahoma City Thunder, but otherwise we know who is competing for the next Larry O’Brien Trophy. Though I don’t have a strong rooting interest for any hometown NBA team, this year I am going all-in for the Thunder, the NBA’s most likable, talented and young team. Here I will offer two playoff scenarios, the first my ideal as a fan of good competition, beautiful basketball and the Thunder, and the second nightmare scenario driven by my now realistic expectation that my favorite sports teams function mostly to crush my dreams through bitter disappointment.
In the ideal scenario, the Thunder face the Dallas Mavericks in the first round in a rematch of last year’s Western Conference Finals. The Thunder won three of four regular season contests between the two, but none of the games was decided by more than 13 points and two were decided by four or less, so I anticipate a fairly close series. Next the Thunder will get a very dangerous opponent in the winner of the Lakers/Nuggets series. Though the Lakers fizzled in the playoffs last year, they still have Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum, and Kobe Bryant. Depending on how the Lakers’ first round series goes, they may not have Metta World Peace back, which means the Lakers will struggle even more to contain Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden. Next the Thunder will likely meet the San Antonio Spurs, owner of the league’s best record (unless Memphis manages to pull another huge upset). The Spurs are a scary match-up for the Thunder. The Spurs won two of the three regular season contests with the Thunder, but Oklahoma City’s youth and depth will be a big advantage against the Spurs coming out of a physical series against the Grizzlies. I’m counting on Tim Duncan being too banged up to continue his late-career renaissance, and now that the Thunder have been to a conference finals and came up short I think they’ll have the killer instinct to be able to take this series even if it comes down to a game seven in San Antonio.
The final barrier in the way of the Thunder fulfilling their destiny as a small-market team with likable young superstars will be the Eastern Conference’s best, almost certainly either the Chicago Bulls or Miami Heat. I think the Heat are the more likely foe due to Chicago’s injury issues and the tendency of Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah to disappear on offense. Plus, LeBron and D-Wade will be out for blood this year after their epic fourth quarter collapses against the Mavs in last year’s finals. The Bulls are the more physically imposing match-up for the Thunder with their interior play, so I would actually prefer to get the Heat here. I think Westbrook provides a huge advantage at the point guard spot, Miami’s only real weakness, and I think Durant can defend LeBron better than vice-versa. This series will be incredibly close, but this is my ideal scenario, so the Thunder win it all on Miami’s home court in front of their bougey bandwagon fans.
The nightmare scenario for me is any in which the Lakers or Heat win it all, which could happen if the Thunder fall to the Lakers in the second round and the Heat dominate everyone they play. I hate Kobe for being so selfish and arrogant and yet so good, and I hate the Heat for being an underachieving artificial aggregate of three of the league’s best. I simply don’t have the stomach to watch Kobe or LeBron lift the O’Brien Trophy to an adoring home crowd as a champion this year. So, based on past experience, my realistic NBA Finals Prediction: Heat over Thunder in seven.