Lebron James is the unanimous MVP of the regular season and the anointed best player in the world, this much we know. But Lebron is about to find out the NBA has always been a “what have you done for me lately” league. Enemies may respect him, but no one is backing down. His first round matchups include an irrationally confident Monta Ellis and Brandon Jennings, followed by former U.S. teammates Deron Williams and Joe Johnson (possibly even Derrick Rose if he returns), and then a scheduled tussle with either Carmelo Anthony or his old nemeses in Boston. It’ll be interesting to see the strategies employed by other defenses to try and stop him, but when your best defense is “back off and hope he misses the jump shot,” you pretty much have no hope of beating this guy four times. Could this be the year Lebron averages close to a triple-double? Improbable? Yes. Impossible? No.
As gifted a scorer as Carmelo Anthony is, it’s almost unfathomable to think that 2013 is the first year in which he has won the scoring title. As recently as two years ago, critics were snickering about Melo’s fate. First, handcuffed by Mike D’Antoni’s system and then having his spotlight stolen by Jeremy Lin, 2013 is now everything that Melo wished for when he requested a trade from Denver.
He is now the main man in the city that he loves, and the Knicks will not advance if he does not replicate what he did in the regular season AND have some out of body experience games in the playoffs. J.R. Smith may ultimately be the X-factor, but for him to be the difference, Melo first has to establish the benchmark. If the Knicks do happen to make the Eastern Conference Finals, he is one of the few players at the four position who can match Lebron James tit for tat. But first, he has to overcome a Celtics team by himself, much like Lebron James did before he reached the summit.
Over the years we have heard about the Deron Williams and Chris Paul debate. Which guard will emerge as the premiere elite point guard in the game? Since moving to New Jersey/Brooklyn, that question has almost been laughable. Deron Williams has been nowhere near the level he was at in Utah. But as the adage goes: Winning solves everything. A simple round one victory would propel Deron Williams back into the discussion, even more so if Derrick Rose returns as is being whispered around the league. For his team to succeed, Deron would have to average a near double-double in points and assists. He has averaged 23.2 points and 8.2 assists since he injected his ankles with whatever trickery technology has come up with these days (the team’s record has been 15-7 since those injections). But against a Tom Thibodeau organized defense from the Bulls, the question is whether those ankles can stand their ground.
The Boston Celtics will be relying on Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce to do most of the heavy lifting, but the Celtics success hinges on Jeff Green. Since Rajon Rondo went down with a season ending injury, Jeff Green has been the sixth most efficient player in the league. As a starter (16 games), Green has averaged 20.8 points and 5.9 rebounds, and also a massive amount of one-handed dunks. Ironically, with Rondo being out the Celtics finally learned how to use Green, running plays with off the ball cuts rather than isolations and post-ups. Green plays better when he’s flanked with more skilled players, and that may warrant him to be part of the starting lineup come Sunday. He’s not the number one guy, but he’s a better than average number two option. After this series is over, we may finally approve of the $36 million contract Danny Ainge handed over to him. But more importantly, we may get a glimpse of what the future of the Celtics could be: a core of Rajon Rondo, Avery Bradley and Jeff Green could be the new wave of small ball lineups.
There have been rumblings that Derrick Rose may come back for the playoffs, as he has been medically cleared to play for a few weeks. But will Rose really rush back to full speed playoff basketball after being off for a few months? The perpetual nice-guy around the league clearly cares about his hometown, but playing through injury last year may have taught him a lesson. It’s clear the Bulls are still a tough team without him, as they locked up the fifth seed. But if Rose comes back at even 90% of what he is capable of doing, the Bulls may be the team that is best equipped to beat Miami. They’re tough as nails, have the best defensive mind as their coach, and are a strong rebounding team. Your move, Derrick. But no pressure.