Jamie Litoff

At best, the first round of the NBA playoffs were something to switch to during Cubs game commercials, and at worst they were straight trash. Blake Griffin and Chris Paul got a couples MRI, Stanley Johnson lost him mind, and Steph Curry channeled his inner Derrick Rose when he returned from an ankle injury only to SLIP ON A WET SPOT and sprain his MCL one half of basketball later. While we did see two oddly competitive game 7s, I don’t think anyone will look back on basketball in April fondly, except maybe Thibs.  So with that, round 1 is behind us and lets never speak of it again. We’re now into round 2 where two series may actually turn out to be competitive, and at least all of the teams that are still competing have a compelling reason to win, regardless of how you (or I) may dislike some of them (Cleveland).

Starting in the Eastern Conference, Toronto is fresh off their 2nd playoff series win in the franchise’s 21 year history, and ready to take on the Miami Heat on 48 hours rest. Both teams will go into Tuesday night’s game with nothing more than a shootaround to prepare so I would imagine the play will be as sloppy and bizarre as any in the teams’ round 1 match ups. Miami’s playoff experience, star power and hot shooting will likely move them on to the Conference Finals, but if Toronto’s DeRozan and Lowry can get back up to their regular season scoring numbers, they’ll have a shot.

On the West Coast, the Spurs/Thunder match up tips off the part of the NBA playoffs where you wonder why they even televise games in Atlanta or Toronto, when Russell Westbrook, Kawhi Leonard and Draymond Green are playing basketball a few thousand miles away. But Game 1 did not turn out to be the elite competition we had hoped. Instead, the Spurs played ‘as good as it gets’, executing flawlessly on the offensive side, and throwing defender after defender at Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant, rushing and contesting not just shots, but steps. Before Monday night, I figured the Spurs (probably) wouldn’t score 73 in the first half of every game this series but that we might have to endure an under-achieving Oklahoma City team fall in less than 7 games, with their inexperienced rotation pushing Durant over the edge and out of town.  While I was preparing myself to adjust perspective and appreciate the impeccable and dominant Spurs for as long as they’re around, OKC made it interesting with a last second win over San Antonio on Monday, evening the series and reminding us just how fun the NBA Playoffs can be.

And then there’s Lebron. And the inevitable question – can he be stopped? Answer: No. Not in the Eastern conference. The Cavs have a 9 game post-season winning streak against the Atlanta Hawks which is the 2nd longest active streak in the league, coming up short only to the Cavs 12 game run over Detroit who they just swept. They may have to weather a few storms here and there from Al Horford, Jeff Teague and a Hawks team who won’t roll over as easily as last year, but in the end, we’ll still be talking about Lebron, the health of his teammates and their chemistry with the coach 2 weeks from now when they’re headed to South Beach or the great white North for LBJ’s 6th straight Eastern Conference Finals.

Last but certainly not least, prayers up for Steph. He’s poised to return in Game 3 of Warriors/Blazers, but his team is doing just fine without him. They obliterated the Blazers in Game 1 behind the smothering defense of fellow splash brother Klay Thompson, and a triple double from the pride of Saginaw, Draymond Green. They don’t need Steph this series, but they’ll want to be firing on all cylinders when they head to the Conference Finals, so rest between games 2 and 3 can’t come soon enough for the winners of 73 regular season games.

So that’s round 2 in a nutshell.    The playoffs are on the up and up, and the TNT crew is in post-season form. It’s way overdue but it’s here and it’s fleeting, so just like Chicago Summer, enjoy it while it lasts.

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At 9:30pm CT Kobe Bryant will be 48 minutes away from retirement.  His storied career will come to an end after 20 seasons, 1,565 total games, one MVP, 2 Olympic Gold Medals, 5 NBA Championships, and a solid claim to a spot between the 5th and 10th best player of all time.  Tonight will be his 65th game of the season, an impressive number for a 37 year old, especially one whose retirement tour lasted longer than any of his previous 3 seasons.  As long as it seems to have been since he announced his retirement in poetic fashion in the Player’s Tribune as only Kobe can, it’s decades longer when you think about what’s happened and all he’s been through and accomplished with one team since coming into the NBA as a skinny 17 year old in 1996.

Although I pride myself on being a 90s Bulls girl, I’d be lying if I said I remember much from the first 3-peat, so it’s fair to say that I can’t remember an NBA without Kobe.  As the first guard to be taken in the draft out of high school, Kobe was immediately traded from Charlotte to LA, and never looked back.  It only took him two years to become the youngest NBA All Star starter ever, and four to create long lasting memories when he threw an alley-oop to Shaq to clinch the 2000 Western Conference Finals.  After that there were a lot of awe inspiring highlights, a handful of alarming controversies, lots and lots of winning, and the almost inevitable injuries. And no one did any of those things better than Kobe. From the 15-1 2001 playoff record – the best in postseason history, to the Shaq feud, the 81 point game, to his clutch performance in the 2008 Olympics, it was Kobe’s world and everyone else was living in it.  No one will ever forget his 5th NBA title in 2010 notching him 1 more than Shaq, or the free throws he shot when he went down with a torn achilles.

Calling tonight the end of a decorated career feels like an egregious understatement for someone who started 18 consecutive All Star games.  In true LA fashion, the Lakers are pulling out all the stops tonight to honor their all time leading scorer, and rightfully so, including a Red Hot Chilli Peppers National Anthem, the customary tribute video, and appearances from 30 of his former teammates.   With tickets costing hundreds of dollars more than any of even the Warriors home games this year, it will surely be a night to remember for Kobe, the fans, and probably his opponents – the Utah Jazz – who could very well be playing for their playoff lives amid the circus.

And what does Kobe think about it all?  He told ESPN.com, “So far, I’ve been pretty cool about everything. I’ve been very thankful about everything. I’ve been very happy about everything. It hasn’t really hit me yet. We’ll see if it does.”

Mamba out.

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Category: NBA

The start of Spring means the NBA playoffs are around the corner.  This should be good news all around for basketball fans, if you’re like me and completely bored of an even more uneventful NBA regular season than what is to be expected.  Yes, Chef Curry is still cookin, Kobe is still retiring, Lebron is still mad, George Karl is still in Sacramento, and the Spurs are still good.  The story lines have remained the same across the league since Halloween, and aside from a few Boogie tirades, Lebron social media standoffs and Blake Griffin blackouts, this season has lacked the high stakes and high drama we need to come from 7 games between Golden State and San Antonio, and the possibility of Boston, Miami or Toronto knocking off a tumultuous team in Cleveland.

With the postseason in view, the next few weeks aren’t only important to those 16 teams who will see the court in mid-April, but also to the organizations who are already looking toward next year, or have been for months.  NBA tank-a-thon 2016 is in full effect in Philly, LA and Phoenix, but come June 23rd, will it even matter? There’s a significant yet rarely discussed major detail in the tanking discussion – losing the most games rarely gets teams the coveted number one draft slot they so desperately want out of the draft “lottery.”

To be transparent, I support about 90% of conspiracies I hear about in general, and fully believe that there is no NBA Draft Lottery for the top 3 picks.  Those picks are bestowed upon the teams selected by Adam Silver, and David Stern before him, in order to keep parity in the NBA to the best of their ability while maximizing revenue and dominance in the major markets.  While I know this is constantly debated and there is much evidence to the contrary, I don’t really care to hear it, and basically operate under the assumption that this is fact.

That aside, it’s also important to note that the 2016 draft class is very shallow with a significant talent drop off after the first two picks – likely Ben Simmons and Brandon Ingram – and there is abundant skepticism as to whether either of them will become a franchise, super star, foundational leader wherever they end up.  In some ways that makes getting a top 2 pick even more significant than in other years, but on the other hand, maybe it’s best for teams not to cash in their good karma in what might be a wasted year.

With that in mind, who has the best chance of locking up the draft’s top pick?  Let’s see…

If they were to show the draft balls on TV, as it stands now, Philadelphia and their impressive 9-64 record have the largest claim to the #1 pick with a 25% chance of opening their envelope (do they still do envelopes?) last.  They are in such desperate need of that franchise player to round out their squad of top picks in Joel Embid and Jahlil Okafor if they can ever stay healthy, and probably should be rewarded for what has been just an epic tank job, and potentially their best work to date.  But I just don’t see it.  They’re going to get a top 3 pick given that they have a 64.3% chance of landing on the medal stand, but the #2 spot seems like a better place for the Sixers so they don’t have to make the Simmons or Ingram decision, and can just play the hand they’re dealt.

That 9-64 record in Philly is particularly remarkable this year given that they have 7 more losses than even the Los Angeles Lakers.  The Lakers have been nothing short of terrible, and it comes at an optimal time when LA would have to give up their first round pick to Philly if it fell outside of the top 3.  Instead, the Lakers have a 55.8% chance of keeping their pick, and a 19.9% chance of it landing at #1, making it less discernible when Silver selects them to be the next and forever home of Ben Simmons, the kind of star that LA requires, forming an up-and-coming big 3 with D’Angelo Russell and Julius Randle.

And there’s no one that would hate that more than Boston.  But Boston is in a weird spot with this year’s draft.  They’re seemingly in an incredible spot given that they have Brooklyn’s pick, and the 4th best odds of landing in the #1 spot, at a time when they’re urgently in need of a star to put them over the top.  On the flip side, their team is young but not that young and they’re actually a contender in the East given the right match up.  The star they need has to contribute now, not in a few years when their current core is on the decline.   If Silver bestowed #1 on the Celtics, it might make the most sense to complete some type of blockbuster trade that gets Boston star power this year.  But having the #1 spot go to the highest bidder doesn’t sound like the best thing for the NBA.  Boston and everyone else would be better off if they were to land #3, grab a role player who can help win some games, and continue their efforts to bring KD, Kevin Love or Boogie to the City on a Hill.

So that’s my prediction for this year’s “lottery” – Lakers, Sixers, Celtics (via Brooklyn) 1,2,3.  Minnesota’s too small for Silver to let them rise to dominance with Wiggins, Towns, LaVine AND Simmons, and the Bulls’ chances are too small at 0.5% to pull another Derrick Rose scenario so blatantly.  But there are still 3 weeks left in the season and anything can happen.  In the meantime, you can follow tank-a-thon 2016 here to stay updated on the odds across the bottom of the league.

And for the record, I know videos like this exist; I just choose to ignore them.

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Damian Lillard is not a lot of things.  He was not highly recruited out of high school and he was not a major college player.  He’s not a 2014 FIBA World Cup winner, cialis or a 2016 NBA All Star.  He’s not a member of Nike’s elite, order and he’s not Steph Curry or Kobe Bryant.  So how is it possible that Damian Lillard is the talk of the NBA in early March, post trade deadline and headed into crunch time before the playoffs?

Because Portland.  You might see a woman walking her turtle on a leash down Pearl St. and you might catch an angry Damian Lillard dropping 51 on Golden State. Where zip off cargo pants and gluten free bread reign supreme, and a carpet can be the grand marshal of a parade, the Blazers are overcoming meager expectations and audacious snubs to do their part to keep things weird in the NBA.  I guess we shouldn’t even be that surprised.

So how did we get here?  The Blazers weren’t supposed to be good.  Lillard struggled down the stretch last season only to watch LaMarcus Aldridge, Nicholas Batum, Wesley Matthews and Robin Lopez leave in free agency and trades.  On draft night, the Blazers were poised to be absent of any big men this season and due to pay Lillard max money over the summer without the feeling that he had certain future All-Star potential.

But 2016 hasn’t gone as planned, in a good way.  A rebuild turned resurgence when Gerald Henderson and Noah Vonleh headed West in the Nicholas Batum trade bolstering the Blazer bench.  CJ McCollum has emerged as the NBA’s most improved player, Meyers Leonard plays with confidence behind the arc, and angry Damian Lillard has come to define clutch in a very raw Steph Curry kind of way, averaging 30 and 8 in the month of February.   Instead of 30 wins and a front row seat at the Draft Lottery in June, the youthful, “long term potential” Blazers have 33 wins with 6 weeks left in the season, a firm grip on a playoff spot and a very heavy bandwagon.

And I totally get it.  I might even join it.  Next season when the Bulls streak of giving up 100 points has hit 50, you might see me in PDX Carpet Adidas, covering my compost pile, and pretending to know why they call it #RipCity.  Regardless, it’s fair to say that things are staying weird in Portland for a while, and I’m not mad about it.

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The NBA All Star break couldn’t come soon enough for Bulls fans (Pau Gasol just missed a layup as I write this), drugstore but for those whose teams are rolling this time of year, a weekend of outlandish events, more focused on Kevin Hart and over the top fashion than basketball, is not always welcome.  Lucky for them, despite taking the game north of the border to -8 degree Toronto temperatures, All-Star Saturday night delivered for everyone.  The big stars were still missing from the court, but Zach LaVine and Aaron Gordon almost made us forget about the team dunk format of 2014 by putting on a true dunk contest reminiscent of the old school battles that featured the likes of Michael Jordan and Dominique Wilkins.

In the last 5 years, the dunk contest has lost the luster of those late 80s battles and the nostalgia of Vince Carter‘s prolific performances by serving up sub par dunks from role players while the All-Stars sat in the stands with their kids stealing most of the attention.  But this year,  Minnesota’s LaVine and Orlando’s Gordon took the NBA’s ultimate power move to new heights by pushing each other to perfect scores, round after round, forcing dunks even they had never seen or tried before.  LaVine and Gordon went beyond high flying dunks and 360s to new and improved moves like grabbing the ball from Stuff the Magic mascot while he spun on a hover board.

While LaVine came out victorious after perfect scores forced a bonus round, the most reality-defying dunk of the night came from Gordon when he leaped over Stuff (my second favorite mascot to Benny the Bull), grabbing the ball off of the pink wings on the side of his head, tucked his legs to a fully seated position and pulled the ball under them before slamming it down.

It’s hard to believe that didn’t seal the deal, but LaVine finally ended the night and took home the trophy with a spur of the moment decision to try a windmill dunk from the free throw line that he’d never even seen himself do.

The 2016 All-Star Weekend was a major stop of the Kobe Bryant retirement tour, with Saturday’s dunk contest coming 19 years after Kobe won the event in 1997.  Earlier in All-Star Saturday, Bryant expressed displeasure with the state of the contest, longing for the days when the NBA’s biggest stars participated.  And he wasn’t wrong, with the last All-Star caliber player to participate in a true dunk contest (disregarding whatever the NBA tried to do with the team format in 2014) being Blake Griffin in 2011 who won amid controversy that the league rigged the event to allow him and Kia, a major NBA sponsor, to win when he jumped over the hood of the automaker’s sedan.  And don’t ever forget that Lebron James has never shown his face on the court in the Dunk Contest for fear of injury or failure.

Nevertheless, the big stars weren’t necessary on Saturday, just the best dunkers, who were dedicated to bringing back an NBA tent-pole event by paying homage to those who brought it to prestige in the first place.  Zach LaVine said he came back in 2016 to defend his 2015 Slam Dunk title as a nod to the days when stars like Michael Jordan and Dominique Wilkins would compete year after year.  Aaron Gordon, born in 1995, still managed to throw it back to a staple Wilkins move from the late 80s, with a between the legs reverse dunk in an early round.

Dominique Wilkins has been another outspoken critic of the dunk contest in recent years, so if he says it, it goes…

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Lebron James’ major motion picture debut may have been a comedy, health but that doesn’t mean he’s lost his flair for drama.   On Friday, sickness the saga continued when the Cleveland Cavaliers fired head coach David Blatt after being flanked and then obliterated by the Western Conference’s two top teams.  From one angle, pilule you could chalk it up to close not being good enough for the Cleveland front office who saw the writing on the wall for the Cavs to come out of the East again only to lose to the Warriors, Spurs or Thunder in 6 games.  But there’s always more to the story, and in this case, much more, in the form of an Adrian Wojnarowski story alleging that Lebron and company have had a version of this succession plan in place since day 1.  Woj, the master NBA Insider, purported that David Blatt never stood a chance against Lebron’s camp, who had moved on this season from their first choice in former Golden State head coach Mark Jackson, and had been clamoring for the promotion of assistant coach Tyronn Lue for months.  On Friday, Team James got their wish, when news of Blatt’s firing broke at 3:08 pm and Lue was quickly contracted to a multi-year deal reported at 3:17.

No one will argue that Blatt made mistakes and likely wasn’t the right person for a job that quickly went from developing a young talented roster over time to managing superstar personalities under win-now expectations as soon as Lebron decided to take his talents back to Northeast Ohio.  But with Blatt’s 30-11 record and the Cavs firmly atop the Eastern Conference, how much of a difference will a coaching change make?  And is there any evidence that Tyronn Lue can coach, and implement a new system with the current roster given only months until the playoffs?

Luckily for Bulls fans, these questions didn’t bother Cavs management, and we only had to sweat a few minutes imagining facing a Thibs coached Cleveland team at least four times a year.  It seemed all too perfect for Thibs for a moment since Lebron has consistently supported him over the years based on his time with Team USA, and lauded the tough Bulls defenses he had to face (yet easily destroyed) in the playoffs as far back as his first year in Miami.   While Lebron in a Thibs defense is a scary thought, maybe Thibs didn’t see the stars aligning in Cleveland where he would have had to manage two superstars covering up an awkward feud, a volatile ownership, and a point guard yet to play a full season in his entire career.  I think he’s seen that movie before.

However, it’s possible that a lack of the real coaching you would get from Thibs is part of why we never saw that 3rd, 4th or 5th promised championship from Lebron in Miami, or in his first stint in Cleveland, or even last season.  Lebron has always relied on his talent, of which he has a lot, and never really benefited from real coaching.  Dating back to Little Dru’s Dad at St. Vincent-St. Mary to Mike Brown to Erik Spoelstra to David Blatt, he’s always been somewhat of a player-coach. And maybe that’s what’s lacking in Northeast Ohio, where nothing is given and everything is earned.  But Tyronn Lue has been given the opportunity, and what comes next is, yet again, really up to the King.

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