2012 Olympic Basketball: USA vs. Tunisia Game Recap

After another sloppy start, the United States blew open a big lead in their second Olympic matchup against Tunisia. For the game recap and analysis, click here.

Miami Closes Out Knicks At Home

After looking flat and failing to sweep the Knicks at Madison Square Garden in Game 4, LeBron James and the Miami Heat left nothing to chance and dominated New York at home with a 106-94 victory to end to close out the series in five games. Carmelo Anthony led the Knicks with 35 points and eight rebounds, but didn’t get enough help on the offensive end from his teammates, and New York exited the playoffs immediately following their celebrated Game 4 win that snapped an NBA record 13 consecutive playoff loses.

LeBron James led Miami with 29 points, eight rebounds and seven assists. James didn’t shoot the lights out, but he got to the free throw line 15 times and only missed two to add to his total. The Heat jumped out to a lead in the first half and never let it go after that, taking an 11-point advantage at halftime and extending it to 14 by the end of the third. James led the way for the Heat, but it was an all-around team effort from Miami that prevented the Knicks’ defense from getting the stops they needed to win the game. With Baron Davis out with a severe knee injury, Mike Bibby moved into the starting lineup. Miami took advantage of Bibby’s inability to defend their guards as Mario Chalmers had 10 points and Mike Miller chipped in three 3-pointers for nine points off the bench. Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh had 19 points apiece to complement James, once again overwhelming one-dimensional Knicks attack with the balance of Miami’s big three and some contributions off the bench. For the Knicks, the one-handed Amare wasn’t able to duplicate his impressive 20-point, 10-rebound performance from Game 4 and finished with just 14 points and four rebounds. Tyson Chandler grabbed 11 boards but had just seven points. And J.R. Smith, who was once a huge contributor off the bench, continued his abysmal shooting streak with a 3-of-15 night off the bench.

Melo had another good shooting night, but the Knicks’ defense couldn’t get the stops they needed to hang around.

For the Knicks, the series was a disappointing end for a team that entered the playoffs as one of the hottest teams in the East. But despite being knocked out of the first round in just five games, New York has a bright future and shouldn’t hang their heads about their performance; after all, they were playing without quite a few key players that would have definitely made them more competitive. Jeremy Lin wasn’t on the court because of a knee injury, Amare Stoudemire missed a game after slicing his hand open, Iman Shumpert tore his ACL in Game 1 and Baron Davis tore ligaments in his knee in Game 4. The injury-depleted Knicks never really got a chance to gel this season because those injuries kept their three best players (Melo, Amare and Lin) off the court at separate times. They dealt with a coach who wasn’t a good fit for the team, they battled rumors about Melo’s interest in playing in New York and they handled all the attention that Linsanity brought. This was a team with high expectations put on them by the media and the fans, which is why being dismantled by the Heat seemed so disappointing. But in reality, Miami was and still is the favorite to win the Eastern Conference, while the Knicks never had sufficient time to build chemistry and were missing a number of key players.

For the Heat, this victory was dominant but nothing that we shouldn’t have expected. Miami was supposed to win this series convincingly, especially with no Lin, Shumpert and Amare (for one game). LeBron James put on impressive performances and the Heat’s big three proved to be too much for the Knicks’ lone superstar. The Heat now face a much better team in the second round in the Indiana Pacers, who have been convinced all year they are destined for more than what people expect out of them. The Pacers are my sleeper team, but a matchup with the Heat definitely favors Miami in every area except in the paint (thanks to Roy Hibbert). But the one area of concern that could show up in Miami’s future playoff games is how they handle crunch time in a close contest. With the game on the line in Game 4, LeBron James was stuck in a corner while Dwyane Wade dribbled around, lost the ball and hoisted a fadeaway 3-pointer at the buzzer. If this is the extent of Miami’s last-second strategy, they will fall short of winning a championship for the second year in a row and could possibly even fall to the Pacers if they don’t take them seriously. Erik Spoelstra has to recognize that this is LeBron’s team now, and despite the fact that the sports world has completely condemned his ability to perform with the game on the line, LeBron can get to the rim easier than anyone in the league and should be given the ball in a potential game-winning situation. If the Heat develop a pattern of not giving the ball when things get tight against an easier competitor like the Knicks, what’s going to happen when they face a title contender or even the dangerous Pacers and the pressure is on? Time will tell, but unless LeBron is given an opportunity to build his confidence with the game on the line, we could see another disappearing act when the going gets tough.

LeBron James and the Heat were too much for an injury-plagued Knicks side, but there has to be concern about what will happen against better teams when the game is on the line.

Knicks End Playoff Drought

The New York Knicks ended an NBA record 13-game playoff losing streak and avoided a first round sweep by edging the Miami Heat in a 89-87 Game 4 victory today. Carmelo Anthony finally had an efficient shooting night, shooting over 50 percent to lead the Knicks with 41 points, 6 rebounds and 4 assists. Amare Stoudemire, who played with padding on his injured left hand after missing Game 3, notched 20 points and 10 rebounds in his return.

After a poor first half, Melo and the Knicks made a third quarter run to enter the final period with a three point lead. The Heat didn’t exactly look like they had the killer instinct to put New York away and the Knicks capitalized on it, even though no one other than Anthony and Stoudemire scored more than seven points. J.R. Smith, who scored those seven points, had an appalling 3-for-15 shooting night and Baron Davis went down in the third quarter in the middle of New York’s run, dislocating his right kneecap. Thankfully, Mike Bibby stepped in and hit a few big 3-pointers to keep the Knicks on top. But even though it was a much-needed win for a franchise that hasn’t had much to celebrate over the years, the likely reality is that the Heat will advance in five games. With the series shifting back to Miami and the Heat wanting to get as much rest as possible before the second round, they should return to their business-like mentality and play much better in Game 5.

Carmelo Anthony dropped 41 points and led the Knicks to a Game 4 win over the Heat.

LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh led their team in Game 4, but lacked the championship mentality to put this inferior team away and get some extended rest time with a sweep. James and Wade came alive in the fourth quarter, but by then it was too late. But even with the Heat’s lackadaisical Game 4 performance, even with Melo dropping 40 and even with Amare back on the court and playing well, the Knicks still only won by two points. So as happy a moment as it was for New York to win a playoff game and avoid being swept by LeBron and the Heat, all signs point to an absolute blowout in Game 5 in Miami. Just because Melo finally shot the ball well doesn’t mean he’ll do it again; just because Amare meshed well with Melo and was able to contribute while favoring one hand doesn’t mean it’ll happen again; and just because the Heat failed to come out with a finisher’s mentality doesn’t mean they’ll do so at home.

Miami should have swept this series. Not to take anything away from the Knicks, but there’s little excuse for letting Melo go for 40 and allowing a one-handed Amare Stoudemire to put up 20. There’s no excuse for losing the a New York team without Jeremy Lin and Iman Shmpert. It’s true that the Knicks had a lot more to play for and benefitted from an enthusiastic and victory-hungry home crowd, but if LeBron James wants to become a leader for a championship team, he needs to elevate his game in potential series-clinching moments like these. LeBron has worked hard to prove naysayers wrong and in today’s game he actually played well in the fourth quarter to keep Miami in it. But what should have been LeBron’s moment to take over, win the game and send the entire Madison Square Garden home empty-handed and heavy-hearted was stolen by Dwayne Wade’s ridiculous 3-point attempt at the buzzer. At the beginning of the season, I could understand why the Heat would stick LeBron in the corner and leave the last-minute duties to D-Wade. But LeBron has become the leader of this team with an MVP-caliber season and was playing much better at the end of this game than anyone on the floor for Miami. Believe it or not, Wade should have given the ball up to LeBron and let him decide the fate of the game. But the fact that LeBron didn’t demand it is a little worrisome; he seemed perfectly content with Wade’s decision and shot selection afterward. In a close game, the way LeBron failed to rise to the occasion and allowed his team’s fate to be decided by someone else could come back to haunt the Miami Heat against a better opponent.

The loss really doesn’t matter other than ending the Knicks’ playoff drought, but should we be concerned that LeBron didn’t get the ball at the end?

LeBron Pushes Miami To 3-0 Lead

The Knicks were ready to play in Game 3 and looked like they were going to take a game and show everyone they could compete with the Miami Heat in the first half. But LeBron James and the Miami Heat would not be denied, blowing the game wide open in the fourth quarter to win 87-70 and take a 3-0 series lead.

Despite an absolutely wicked J.R. Smith windmill dunk on the Heat in the fourth quarter that pulled New York within eight, the Knicks couldn’t sustain enough momentum to counter the offensive onslaught of LeBron James. James scored eight straight points to start the quarter after struggling with his shot and foul trouble in the first half. Carmelo Anthony continued to be the Knicks’ high scorer and best offensive option, but he was once again nowhere near as efficient as LeBron, shooting a poor percentage and requiring  23 shots to put up just 22 points. Tyson Chandler played well in the first half and finished with 11 points and 15 rebounds, but J.R. Smith and Steve Novak struggled to contribute. Aside from LeBron James taking over, Mario Chalmers hit a few 3’s in the fourth to extend the lead and finished with 19 points. For a Knicks team without Amare Stoudemire, Jeremy Lin and Iman Shumpert, a guy like Chalmers can’t score that many points.

J.R. Smith’s wicked windmill dunk got the crowd fired up, but they didn’t have much to cheer about after that.

The Knicks offense went stagnant in the second half after heading into the locker room with a four point lead. In a game where Chris Bosh didn’t do much and LeBron James actually struggled (for the first three quarters, that is), the Knicks needed to take advantage and build a sizable lead. But they were unable to do so and LeBron and company turned what was a close game into a blowout in a matter of minutes. Melo wasn’t clicking offensively and neither was anyone else as the Knicks were outscored 51-30 in the second half.

In their defense, New York hasn’t been able to develop team chemistry because Melo, Amare and Lin have all been injured at different times and the Knicks are missing two of their best three players for the postseason. But what could have been a very competitive playoff series has turned into quite the disappointment. Melo hasn’t been able to compete with LeBron’s efficiency so far and New York hasn’t come close because of it. Credit Miami for their stellar defense, high-flying transition offense and of course, LeBron James for not giving the Knicks any hope. New York has now lost a league-leading 13 consecutive playoff games. Unless everyone shoots lights out in Game 4 in Madison Square Garden tomorrow, the Knicks will extend that streak to 14 and be swept by the extremely business-like Miami Heat and their MVP LeBron James.

LeBron James is living up the MVP hype and has dismantled the Knicks so far in the series.

Knicks’ Playoff Hopes Extinguished

From the beginning of this New York-Miami series, it was obvious Carmelo Anthony would have to put up superstar performances every night for the Knicks to have a chance. But even after he put up 30 points to lead all scorers (in addition to nine rebounds, one assist and one steal), Miami still came out on top in authoritative fashion, 104-94. The Heat’s Game 2 victory gives them a 2-0 lead in the series and puts the Knicks in serious trouble heading back to Madison Square Garden. But what’s even more worrisome is that New York might have to play with an injured Amare Stoudemire after he suffered lacerations on his left hand from hitting the glass case enclosing a fire extinguisher in frustration after the loss. Paramedics were called to the locker room and he left the arena with his hand bandaged and his arm in a sling. So where to the Knicks go from here?

Amare Stoudemire took his frustration out on a fire extinguisher case. Unfortunately for him and the Knicks, the glass case won.

Well for starters, the Knicks are pretty much done in this series. What I thought would be a competitive first-round matchup has proven to be nothing more than LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh overpowering Melo and the Knicks with their stifling defense, transition offense and sheer athletic ability. Game 2 was one superstar pitted against three and of course, the side with three is rarely going to lose that battle. Melo started off on fire, dropping 15 points on Shane Battier and the Heat in the first quarter. But Dwyane Wade kept the Heat on top with a solid first half. Without Iman Shumpert in the game to guard him, D-Wade was able to take advantage on numerous plays, cutting through the lane for easy baskets multiple times. Miami entered the locker room with a six-point lead despite LeBron not really doing much up to that point.

That’s a huge reason the Knicks don’t have a shot at winning this series: even with LeBron only putting up 19 points and Melo having a proficient scoring night, the Heat were still balanced enough to convincingly win. Miami’s bench and role players, who have been seen as huge weaknesses at times, made the difference in the game and are the main reason why there will be no upset here. No one in Miami’s big three played particularly dominant, but they didn’t need to. The three of them combined for 65 points, but it was the bench that kept Miami ahead for most of the night. New York can’t afford for Shane Battier and Mike Miller to both hit three 3-pointers and finish with 11 points apiece. They can’t allow Mario Chalmers to finish with 13. An area that should have been an advantage for the Knicks (a tiny advantage, but still an advantage, nevertheless) has turned into one of the biggest reasons it’s impossible to believe in an upset.

The final reason, aside from Miami’s big three and their solid bench contributions, is that LeBron James has been more efficient than Carmelo Anthony. Melo had a game high 30 points, but half of them came in the first quarter and he fizzled from there. LeBron only had 19, but his points came at game-changing moments, giving his team a crowd-rousing boost and extinguishing any New York momentum. Throw in the fact that Amare never woke up and that Tyson Chandler was never dominant on either end of the court and it’s easy to see why New York couldn’t make it a better game. Now with Amare possibly missing time or playing injured for the rest of the series, New York doesn’t have much hope to win. They needed consistent 3-point shooting from J.R. Smith and Steve Novak, but they haven’t gotten it. Melo had to go head-to-head with the best player in the league and be more efficient, but that hasn’t happened either. The Knicks could take one game at home with Amare out, because Melo will have more space to work and more shots to put up. They could definitely win without Amare if Novak and Smith hit a few long-range jumpers. But at this point, Miami’s big three look like they’re too powerful for this Knicks team without Jeremy Lin or Amare Stoudemire at full strength.

Carmelo Anthony scored more points, but LeBron James was more efficient and without Amare Stoudemire, New York could be done.

Blowout In Miami

On paper, my prediction that the New York Knicks would compete with the Miami Heat in this playoff series looks pretty bad after LeBron James and company dropped them in a 100-67 blowout in Game 1. But let’s slow down for just a minute. Saturday’s game in Miami was the perfect storm and literally everything that could have gone wrong for the Knicks did: Tyson Chandler was sick and looked like it, getting four fouls in the first half and playing sluggish on the defensive end; Carmelo Anthony couldn’t shoot to save his life (3-for-15); Miami’s defense disrupted the Knicks’ offensive rhythm; the referees completely disrupted the flow of the game with multiple, unnecessary technical fouls and questionable calls; Iman Shumpert went down with a knee injury; Amare Stoudemire disappeared again; Miami’s supporting cast outplayed New York’s; and LeBron James absolutely put on a clinic to close out the first half after a ridiculous “flagrant foul” on Chandler. So yeah, if you include all that in one game, you get a complete blowout.

I’m not making excuses for the Knicks, because Miami was clearly the better team today. But I will say it’s a mistake to count this New York team out after one appalling performance. While this game certainly sent a message to Melo, Amare and the rest of the Knicks, it’s only one game. The Knicks are deadly in Madison Square Garden and if Melo can pick his game back up to the level he’s been playing at all month, New York still has a chance in this series. LeBron James’ brilliant performance should be a little disconcerting for Knicks fans, but we haven’t seen what he’ll look like in the fourth quarter of a close game yet. And I’m still hoping that we’ll see one epic, back-and-forth scoring LeBron-Melo battle before the series is over. In any case, you can expect LeBron to keep playing well and Melo to pick his game up.

Despite flopping on Chandler's screen, LeBron James put on a show in the first half and put New York away early.

There are a few serious areas of concern that might not change as easily, however. Even though I don’t see it happening, If Miami’s supporting cast plays well again, the Knicks are in real trouble. The Heat will continue to play good defense, but Melo and the Knicks can still score and should compete better with a healthy Tyson Chandler and a fresh start in Game 2. What’s really critical is the severity of Iman Shumpert’s injury. Losing Shumpert could prove to be a big blow if he’s out for an extended period of time, as he’s one of the best defender’s in the league. With so many prolific scorers on the Heat, New York might lose the one defensive anchor that could help them contend in this series. After that awful performance, the Knicks need more out of pretty much everybody. But J.R. Smith and Steve Novak absolutely HAVE to bang in some 3-pointers for this team to have a chance. Amare MUST show up and take more than seven shots. And New York really needs to exploit Miami’s disadvantage in their lack of depth, which is the exact opposite of what they did today, letting guys like Shane Battier and Mike Miller to make an impact.

The odds are definitely not in New York’s favor for pulling off the historic upset. Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh didn’t do much and the Heat still absolutely smashed the Knicks. LeBron James stated his case for the MVP Award one more time and looked unstoppable as Miami sent New York a clear message: We’re better than you and you have no chance in this series. But I have to think that the competitor in Carmelo Anthony is absolutely ready to have a big game in Game 2, or at the very least, will show up to play for Games 3 and 4 at home. Either way, Melo has been playing too well recently to completely flush it all down the toilet. I still stand by my prediction that the Heat will win in 6 games, but don’t count New York out just yet; they were labeled as one of the most dangerous teams in the East coming into the playoffs for a reason.

It was a horrible day for Melo and the Knicks as everything went wrong. But don't count them out just yet.

Top 20 Players To Watch in The Playoffs

Now this list can’t technically be fully complete since the playoff teams aren’t determined yet, but I thought it would be a good idea to reflect on which players have had the most meaningful seasons for their teams and which ones will be the most essential to both their team’s success and a viewing audience. So even though Milwaukee is only two games back and Utah is only half a game behind, for the sake of this post, we’re going to assume they don’t make it to the postseason. The Suns currently hold the eighth spot, owning a tiebreaker over Houston, and since they’re both so close to the Nuggets and Mavs, I included a player from each of those four teams just in case. Spoiler alert: the biggest snubs on this list are Dwyane Wade, Andrew Bynum, Russell Westbrook, Zach Randolph and Blake Griffin. Now that that’s out of the way, without further adieu, here are the top 20 players you need to watch in the NBA playoffs this year:

20) Steve Nash – There’s no guarantee this guy even gets a chance to make some noise in the playoffs, but if Phoenix does somehow maintain their current playoff standing, Steve Nash is the one you want to pay attention to. The way he facilitates and runs the point guard is absolutely gorgeous to watch, and if he takes a decent number of shots, he can be pretty entertaining in close games as well. Don’t count this championship-hungry point guard out just yet.

Can Steve Nash give the Suns another playoff run?

19) Andre Iguodala – I’m not big on the 76ers. The numerous posts I’ve written about them this year should have gotten that point across already. I didn’t even want to put anyone from Philadelphia on this list, because they don’t really have anyone exciting on their roster anymore, but if anyone in Philly were to help the Sixers finally get past the first round of the playoffs, it would be Andre Iguodala. The new A.I. has seen better seasons, but he finally hit the 20-point mark for the first time in 40+ games. If he can somehow put up solid numbers in multiple categories like he tends to do, who knows? Maybe Philly will be worth watching this year.

Andre Iguodala will need to score for Philly to have a prayer.

18) James Harden – What? Russell Westbrook gets snubbed and somehow James Harden makes the cut? Let me explain. While Westbrook is certainly one of the top players to watch every night for his pure athleticism and entertainment value, James Harden is the definitive role player to keep an eye on during the postseason this year. We’ve grown accustomed to both Kevin Durant and Westbrook going for 40+, but few people realize how vital James Harden’s scoring ability is for this team. Harden has been the perfect sixth man and third-best player on the Thunder, and if he plays as well as he has all season, I still think the Thunder are favorites to make the NBA Finals. Plus, for the millionth time, you can’t ignore that ferocious beard!

I give you...the black King Leonidas!

17) Paul Pierce – Rajon Rondo is running the show down in Boston as the ringmaster, but Paul Pierce is the main attraction. Pierce is the one who puts up big points, take game winning shots and usually rises to the occasion when matched up with another superstar at his position (LeBron James especially). Rondo is the one with the pretty assists making critical plays for his team, but Paul Pierce is the one knocking down threes and somehow getting around younger defenders to the rim to fire the crowd up.

Pierce dropped 43 last night. Safe to say he's still got it.

16) Chris Bosh – Yes, I am fully aware the Dwyane Wade is probably the biggest snub on this list (Russell Westbrook is up there too), but from a team’s success standpoint, the Miami Heat always have the comfort of D-Wade showing up to play well. Saying Wade is going to play well in the playoffs is like saying the Bobcats are a terrible team; we already know that. But whether or not Chris Bosh shows up will be a huge question for Miami. If Bosh rebounds and puts up 20+ points a night, the Heat will be extremely tough to beat, but if he disappears, so will Miami.

Plus, come on, how funny is that?

15) Arron Afflalo – I wanted to give this spot to Danilo Gallinari, but with the way Arron Afflalo’s been playing lately, it’s impossible to deny that he is the player to watch on the Denver Nuggets this postseason. It’s hard to pick just one player on such a balanced team, but Afflalo’s been leading this team in scoring and playing very effectively. While I still think the Nuggets need Danilo Gallinari to play like an All-Star to win and even though Ty Lawson is prone to having big nights, Afflalo will most likely be Denver’s most consistent offensive weapon.

Arron Afflalo is leading the charge for a balanced Denver team.

14) Tony Parker – Someone from the Spurs had to make the list, and since Tim Duncan is so fundamentally sound that his dominance has become boring to us, I had to go with Tony Parker. Parker has had an All-Star season and is probably the most exciting player to watch on a very mundane Spurs team. San Antonio has never been the most entertaining team to watch, but if they want to avoid another first-round playoff exit, they will rely on Tony Parker to run the offense and pump up the fans.

Tony Parker is the Spurs most entertaining and essential player.

13) Goran Dragic – Now everyone in the NBA knows what Phoenix Suns fans have known for years: Goran Dragic is a quality point guard who should be starting somewhere. Now that he’s gotten that chance in Houston, he hasn’t disappointed expectations, averaging 19.9 ppg, 7.4 apg, 3.4 rpg and 2.0 spg in April. He was a terrific replacement when Kyle Lowry was out with a bacterial infection and is keeping Houston in the playoff race as a starter even with Lowry playing again. Dragic is exciting, athletic, attacks the basket and has been an extremely pleasant surprise for the league. Keep your eye on this kid, he can score points in bunches.

Dragic has become the man down in Houston.

12) Rudy Gay – Rudy Gay is Memphis’ main main and can get a crowd on their feet extremely fast with one his signature high-flying dunks. Marc Gasol will need to keep performing consistently and I almost gave this spot to Zach Randolph because of how badly the Grizzlies need him to play well again, but Rudy Gay will be leading his team in the playoffs this year, for better or worse.

Rudy Gay is an exciting player on a surging Memphis squad.

11) Rajon Rondo – Paul Pierce connects better with the crowd, but Rajon Rondo’s tendency to rack up triple doubles and find the open man with fancy passing and dribbling makes him the show-stopper in Boston. Rondo doesn’t always put up big scoring numbers, but the way he runs the point powers this Celtics team and is worth noticing.

Rondo is one of the most exciting guards in the league.

10) Josh Smith – Josh Smith is Atlanta’s Do-It-All Guy. The Hawks really don’t look like they’ve improved much over the past few years and seem primed for a first-round playoff exit (again), but if they somehow do compete, it’ll be behind superhuman performances from Atlanta’s high-rising, all-around stud Josh Smith. Smith can score, rebound, block shots and do whatever else his team needs to win. Joe Johnson used to be the alpha dog in Atlanta, but Smith has taken over that role now.

Josh Smith is a high-rising dunk machine, but he's an all-around great player too.

9) Dirk Nowtizki – Don’t forget the guy who’s the main reason we refer to the Dallas Mavericks as “defending champs.” Dirk has struggled at times this season, but if he finds the right motivation, he can single-handedly keep his team in games down the stretch. Dirk is nearly impossible to guard, so when he’s starting to get hot, you can almost guarantee audiences are in for something special.

You definitely can't forget about the big German in the playoffs this year.

8) Dwight Howard – After a drama-filled season, Dwight Howard almost needs to come back and play. Herniated disk in his back or not, Superman has to show up and play his heart out this postseason to save his team and his reputation. The Magic have been on the steady decline with Howard sitting out, and after all he’s put the Orlando organization and fanbase through this season, the least he could do is come out and roll over every center unfortunate enough to cross his path. Dwight Howard flip flopped on staying in Orlando. He was involved in rumors that he wanted Stan Van Gundy fired. He mailed-in an awful, half-hearted performance the day those rumors surfaced. He owes the Magic everything he’s got and if he’s healthy (big IF there), we could be in for a treat.

Howard is currently questionable for the playoffs, but he needs to suit up and play some amazing basketball for the sake of his team, his coach and his legacy.

7) Danny Granger – Danny Granger never gets enough credit for being the superstar that he is; he didn’t make the All-Star team this year getting completely snubbed, yet he’s led the Pacers night in and night out. Indiana still isn’t getting credit as a tough postseason matchup, yet they’re third in the Eastern Conference and find a way to just keep winning thanks to Granger’s consistent scoring every game. The Pacers were my sleeper team before the season even began, and rightfully so after they gave the Bulls all they could handle in the first round last year (Chicago won in 5, but had to work for all of those wins). If the Pacers turn out as dangerous as I think they are, Danny Granger will be the guy to keep an eye on.

The Pacers are dangerous. Is it Danny Granger's time to move into the elite category?

6) Kobe Bryant – Kobe Bryant is always a player to watch come playoff time, but this year his story will be more interesting based on how he deals with that shin injury that has sidelined him for five games now. Make no mistake, Kobe has no problem playing through pain. So with him missing so much time, he is either in a lot of pain or he’s really making a commitment to being 100% for the playoffs. Either way, how Kobe comes to play this postseason will be worth following, especially now that the Lakers have established some chemistry and have been able to win without him on the floor. Andrew Bynum was a big snub, especially considering his temper and what he did in the postseason last year, but Kobe is still the biggest reason to watch the Lakers and that won’t change even if Bynum is still a head case.

Kobe Bryant is still THE player to watch down in LA

5) Chris Paul – There is one player you need to watch during the playoffs this year on the Clippers, and no, it isn’t Blake Griffin. I’m sure Griffin will provide us with plenty of Lob Alert specials on SportsCenter’s Top Ten, but Chris Paul is the player to watch for LAC this season. CP3’s complete control of the game has been quintessential of what a true point guard does: managing and facilitating, deferring to teammates for the majority of the game and taking over in the fourth quarter when they need it the most. If there’s a close game for the Clippers, notice how it will come down to Chris Paul’s heroics.

CP3 has taken worse teams to the playoffs before. How far can he take the Clippers?

4) Derrick Rose – The Bulls success this postseason is contingent upon one thing: how Derrick Rose fits in with Chicago’s new team chemistry. Everyone knows the Bulls won’t win a championship without D-Rose, but it’s also pretty clear they can’t win if he’s taking too many shots or not 100% up to speed. Because of all the time he’s missed with injury, D-Rose has to make sure his own skills and play are up to par as well as fit in with the team dynamic again. The Bulls are the best team in the league as of right now, so if Derrick Rose can elevate his game again and if Chicago’s supporting cast can play as well as they have without him on the court, the Windy City might get its first championship since the days of Michael Jordan.

Can D-Rose stay healthy long enough to give the Bulls more last-second, game-winning magic?

3) Carmelo Anthony – Here’s his recent resume: over 30 ppg and 7 rpg in the month of April, singlehandedly turned New York into the most dangerous underdog in the East, inspired the entire city’s hope in a Knicks team with an interim coach, finally started playing like the top 5 superstar he was down in Denver, played much better defense, looked like he cares about both sides of the court, developed into a leader for a team without Amare Stoudemire and Jeremy Lin, and finally looked happy playing the game again. I’d say that sounds like a player worth watching when the playoffs roll around. Based on how everyone in the NBA is playing right now, if I had to pick one guy to lead this Knicks team to a first-round upset over the Miami Heat or Chicago Bulls (their most likely opponents as of right now), it’d be Carmelo Anthony. I told you Melo wasn’t the problem!

Carmelo Anthony has finally got his game face on. He dropped a triple double last night. What does he have in store for the playoffs? I'm excited to find out.

2) Kevin Durant – People have been saying it all season long: This is Oklahoma City’s year. This is Kevin Durant’s year. The Thunder have handled all that talk all year long and have done it well until recently when they dropped a few games. But OKC still sits atop the Western Conference and anything less than the Western Conference Finals would be a big failure for them. Kevin Durant has stepped up in big games all season long, can score from anywhere on the court and electrifies audiences and home crowds with elite crunch-time performances. Durantula is one of those players that you just sit back, relax and enjoy.

Is it finally Kevin Durant's turn? If OKC is going to win it all, Durantula is has to bring it.

1) LeBron James – LeBron might be the number one guy to watch this postseason. Not only because of his MVP season that he’s had this year, but because this year, LeBron NEEDS to win it all to save his name, his reputation, his Decision and possibly even his legacy. The fact that Miami didn’t win it all last season was disappointing, but not inexplicable; it was only their first year together. But this year, after having a whole season to improve with that thirst and anger after losing last year, falling short this year would be indefensible. So now everyone will tune in to watch LeBron James either finally succeed, score in the crunch time and prove everyone wrong, or they will watch as LeBron shies away from the fourth quarter spotlight, the Heat implode and revel in watching this misunderstood superstar fall flat again. Either way, you know you’re going to be watching.

Win or lose, choke or championship, you know you want to see this guy either way.

EASTer Update

Happy Easter, NBA fans! Just in case you haven’t been following all the recent developments in the league this week, here’s a quick rundown of where everyone stands:

Chicago Bulls – The Bulls still have a three-game lead over the Miami Heat for the first seed in the Eastern Conference. But in addition to all this news is that Chicago’s star point guard Derrick Rose is hopeful to play today against the New York Knicks after missing 12 games with a groin injury. If D-Rose can mesh with the team chemistry the Bulls established without their MVP on the court, look out for this team in the playoffs.

Miami Heat – LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and the Heat have dropped some games this week, raising concerns about whether or not this team will be peaking at the right time. People are right when they say that you can’t just turn it on and off, but if any team can, it’s the Heat. Despite getting smashed by the Grizzlies, keep in mind that Memphis is the sleeper team of the West and it was only one game. Miami and LeBron made a statement in a win over the Thunder on Wednesday and should be comfortable entering the postseason with the two seed.

LeBron James settled the MVP debate with a dominant performance against the Thunder Wednesday.

Indiana Pacers – Despite dropping a game against the Celtics at home in an ugly offensive performance, the Pacers have taken the three spot in the East like I predicted they would. The Pacers were on a five-game winning streak until their off-night against Boston and have looked impressive with wins over Houston, New York and OKC. Danny Granger has been a terrific leader and has stepped up his offensive production when Indiana has needed him to. Don’t be surprised if this sleeper team makes some noise in the playoffs as the third seed.

Danny Granger has stepped his game up and the Pacers have moved up the standings as a result.

Boston Celtics – The Celtics have been on the rise in the past few games thanks to Rajon Rondo and Paul Pierce, but you can expect them to lose a fair amount of games down the stretch because of their tough remaining schedule. The Celtics have a two-game lead over the 76ers for the fourth seed and the top spot in the Atlantic division, but with their remaining schedule, it’s even money on who takes this spot. However, it wouldn’t surprise me if the Celtics did hang on, if only because of how bad the Sixers have been lately.

Atlanta Hawks – While the Hawks haven’t proven much in their three-game winning streak (they beat Charlotte twice and Detroit), they are only a half-game behind Indiana for the third seed. Josh Smith has been playing like a man possessed this month, doing it all for Atlanta. The Hawks’ remaining schedule is pretty favorable, but it remains to be seen how this inconsistent team will fare once the playoffs roll around.

Orlando Magic – After a tumultuous week of friction, media criticism and poor play, the Magic ended their five-game losing streak with a much-needed win in Philadelphia. Even though Philly isn’t playing good ball right now, the win was impressive because Orlando was without Ryan Anderson and Hedo Turkoglu, as well as the fact that Dwight Howard has been getting hammered for the past few days. Superman responded with a statement game: 20 points, 22 rebounds, 6 assists, 1 steal and 2 blocks. As long as Stan Van Gundy and D12 focus on playing basketball, the Magic will at least compete.

Dwight Howard silenced his critics with a 20-point, 22-rebound performance against the Sixers.

Philadelphia 76ers – The Sixers have lost three straight and four of their last five. I predicted this team was a pretender, but I didn’t think they’d collapse like this heading into the postseason. Philly has an easier remaining schedule than Boston, but the way they’re playing right now, with Andre Iguodala getting booed at the free throw line at home, things are looking good. All this combined with their ever-present inability to score should make for a first-round exit in the playoffs.

New York Knicks – The Knicks are playing great basketball right now and Carmelo Anthony has finally started to play like the quality superstar fans have waited for since he first came to New York. It took almost an entire season, but Melo is finally in shape and shooting well, so even with Jeremy Lin and Amare Stoudemire still sidelined, the Knicks are in good shape. Iman Shumpert and the rest of the Knicks’ role players have all stepped up, but New York still has to keep winning because of how good the Bucks are playing. The Knicks are only one game behind Philly for the seventh seed but are just one game ahead of Milwaukee for the final playoff spot.

Carmelo Anthony has finally started playing like one of the NBA's elite superstars again.

Milwaukee Bucks – The final playoff-contending team in the East is doing everything it can to catch the Knicks for the last postseason spot, but the Knicks are doing extremely well in winning to keep Milwaukee at bay. Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis look like they’ve grown acclimated to each other and form one of the most formidable backcourts in the NBA. Jennings, Ellis and Ersan Illyasova, along with a suddenly lively bench, will keep them in the playoff hunt until the end.

Happy EASTer basketball fans!

Blaming Melo

The popular thing for awhile seemed to be blaming Carmelo Anthony for the New York Knicks’ struggles. Whether it was the six-game losing streak, Mike D’Antoni’s resignation or the rumors that he wanted to be traded, the common trend when talking about the New York Knicks became: “Blame Melo!”

But let’s take a closer look at the facts and use our brains a little bit. This trend spread like wildfire, but was it fair to put 100% of the blame for the Knicks’ extensive problems on Melo? Definitely not.

Stop regurgitating what you hear on Sportscenter. It's not Melo's fault

First, let’s take a look at the three ways Melo did screw up New York. 1) Melo’s isolation plays. Melo’s playing style turns downright selfish at times and hurts the team’s chemistry and ability to contribute. You’ve seen it before: Melo dribbling around, jacking up a shot after winding down the shot clock, usually missing, then jogging back on defense. 2) Melo’s defense. “Playing” defense is exactly what I would call it, because it doesn’t look like he’s really even trying. What happened to the guy that went toe-to-toe with Kobe Bryant in the playoffs on the Nuggets? 3) Melo’s injury. This is probably the one that hurt the most. The injury that sidelined Melo gave Jeremy Lin the chance to rise as New York’s go-to man and allowed the team to develop new chemistry. Behind Jeremy Lin, this Knicks team clicked, had fun, and everyone saw the ball thanks to their newfound distributor and scorer. Carmelo’s return screwed up the winning chemistry that the team established with Lin.

Now it’s important to understand why the Knicks’ six game losing streak shouldn’t have fallen entirely on Melo’s shoulders. First of all, calling Melo is a ballhog is only semi-accurate. The guy is a scorer and should be given the ball because otherwise what’s the point of having him? Certainly not for his defensive intensity! A dip in everybody else’s numbers should be expected when a scoring machine like Carmelo Anthony is inserted back into the lineup. Second, keep in mind that any time a star player sits on the sidelines for awhile, the team has to respond to his absence. This means that the group establishes a new rhythm and chemistry, so when the star returns, the team dynamic is different and both sides have to adjust. This happens with ANY star player, so saying that Melo ruined the team chemistry is a little unfair.

It’s also unfair to place all of the blame with Melo when the Knicks had a myriad of other problems going on that few people acknowledged during that six-game skid. One was Jeremy Lin’s poor shooting during that stretch. Although he put up 14.5 shots per game, he shot 39% from the floor. Yes, Melo was leading the team with 18 shots per game and his shooting percentage wasn’t fantastic either, but Amare Stoudemire was only getting 13.7 looks per game. Amare is the Knicks’ second-best offensive threat! Even if Amare’s numbers have drastically dipped from 25.3 ppg last season to 17.4 ppg this seaosn, Lin should not be putting up more shots than him, especially when Lin is shooting so poorly. Amare already plays terrible defense, so if he’s not getting touches you might as well leave him on the bench. Then you realize guys like Landry Fields and JR Smith weren’t getting enough touches. Tyson Chandler was out for a few games and battled that wrist injury. Finally, look at the teams the Knicks played during that stretch. You should notice the level of competition rose dramatically compared to when Linsanity was on the rampage; games against the Celtics, Mavs, Spurs, Bucks, Sixers and Bulls would all be challenging even without all the problems the Knicks have been dealing with.

You're looking at New York's biggest problem, but here's a hint: it's not Melo.

But the biggest problem with the Knicks was their coaching situation. You can talk all you want about how D’Antoni’s resignation came down to Melo’s isolation style vs. D’Antoni’s “team-basketball-centered-around-the-point-guard” strategy. You can blame Melo for basically ousting D’Antoni when management realized it was time to either get rid of the coach or get rid of the player. You can even blame all the ESPN reports for spurring the resignation with their stories about Melo not backing D’Antoni’s system and wanting a trade (which he adamantly denied). But that fact is, D’Antoni was not the right coach for New York and his system tanked there. He didn’t connect with his star player and the team suffered for it as conflicting styles of play manifested themselves. Think back to Melo’s time in Denver. Before Anthony wanted a trade and put the Nuggets in an uncomfortable place for most of the season, did George Karl have these kind of extensive problems with Melo or his team? Not even close. D’Antoni was the wrong guy for the job. And this is coming from a Suns fan who realizes how important he was in revitalizing basketball in Phoenix (before his lack of emphasis on defense led to the team coming up short).

I started writing this post before the Knicks went on a three-game winning spree, but the fact remains the same even if they hadn’t won those games: New York is much better off without D’Antoni. The Knicks have won three straight under Mike Woodson, all by double digits (including a 42-point Portland massacre). The scoring has been extremely balanced under a coach who knows how to manage his players, even if that means letting them take the reins a little bit. Melo has lowered his shots per game by about six during this winning streak, which does show the team is better when he’s not putting up 20 shots every night. But don’t forget all the other problems the Knicks had before Woodson took over. JR Smith has turned things around, averaging just under 17 ppg. Lin is shooting the ball less and stepping into his role as a true point guard. Novak has emerged as a dangerous threat from downtown and Chandler has returned to the lineup.

Despite the fact that Carmelo Anthony has shot the ball poorly this season, Linsanity is over; he has offensive weapons around him. What the Knicks need now is for Lin to be a true points guard by looking to facilitate first and score second. If he does this, if the scoring continues to be balanced, if Melo shoots the ball less, if Amare and JR Smith stay involved and if Novak, Chandler, Shumpert and the rest of the supporting cast continue to fulfill their roles, New York will make the playoffs. Whether or not Woodson’s coaching will help this team realize its full potential remains to be seen; his record as head coach of the Atlanta Hawks wasn’t exactly stellar. But the most important point is that with someone else in charge, New York could develop into the team Knicks fans hoped for, but could only dream about, with D’Antoni in charge.

Without D'Antoni, the future of the New York Knicks looks much brighter

Mike D’Antoni Resigns as Head Coach

Mike D’Antoni resigned as head coach of the New York Knicks today. After recent reports that D’Antoni had lost the team’s respect and that there were rifts between Carmelo Anthony and the Knicks’ coach, it was made official today with D’Antoni’s resignation. It was a mutual decision according to Yahoo! Sports, as D’Antoni and Knicks owner James Dolan agreed it was time for the three-year coach to step down.

The Knicks are currently on a six-game losing streak despite their extremely talented roster of Melo, sensation Jeremy Lin, Amare Stoudemire, Tyson Chandler, JR Smith, Landry Fields, defensive specialist Iman Shumpert and 3-point machine Steve Novak. The Knicks competed with the league-leading Chicago Bulls Monday, but were unable to get the win despite a better offensive night from Amare and Jeremy Lin. The loss put New York behind Milwaukee in the East standings as the Bucks moved into the 8th spot.

I’ve never been a fan of Mike D’Antoni (and yes, this is coming from a Phoenix Suns fan), but I thought the Knicks would give him the rest of the year at least to turn things around. This move midway through the season might put the team into further disarray unless the team can get a quality replacement in fast. Rumors are already circulating that Jerry Sloan and Phil Jackson may take over, but these rumors have yet to be confirmed. For now, Assistant Mike Woodson, former coach of the Atlanta Hawks, will take over as interim coach. But a quality coach could be exactly what the Knicks need to finally establish chemistry team with an unhappy star (Melo), a struggling point guard (Lin), and an underachieving/defensively lazy star (Amare).

Mike D'Antoni has officially resigned as head coach of the New York Knicks after three years