The San Antonio Spurs open with the Kobe-less Lakers, the Oklahoma City Thunder get former teammate James Harden, now with the Rockets, and the Celtics will have an entire city backing them up. It’s the NBA playoffs, which begin Saturday. American-Statesman columnists Kirk Bohls and Cedric Golden weigh in on several hot-button playoff topics:
1. Pick one breakout player for the playoffs.
Bohls: It’s tempting to take a real flier and go with — drum roll — Tracy McGrady (but he’s a defensive liability) or Steph Curry (but I don’t think he’ll be around enough games), so I’m taking San Antonio’s Kawhi Leonard. His star is rising fast. He’s even been compared recently to Lakers great James Worthy, which is high praise indeed. Leonard’s just now coming into his own and will be a much-needed scoring option after Tim Duncan and Tony Parker. His role-playing days should be over.
Golden: Indiana swingman Paul George, the best player no one knows about. He averaged a modest 17 points per game, but did so in obscure fashion because we hardly ever get to see the Pacers on television. He has taken over as the Pacers’ go-to guy, is one of the league’s best dunkers, and is adept at coming off screens to knock down mid-range jumpers.
2. Name one possible first-round upset.
Bohls: The Celtics over the Knicks. I know it’s probably a stretch, but they’re the Knicks, remember? It’s hard to trust Carmelo Anthony even though he did eclipse Kevin Durant as the scoring champion and no team shot or made more threes than New York.
Golden: Spurs fans already hate me for trying to put the team in the old folks’ home the last five seasons, but the Kobe-less Lakers have a real chance to win this series. San Antonio went 10-10 in its last 20 games and Gregg Popovich’s firing of Stephen Jackson came at a time when teams are supposed to be pulling together for the playoffs. Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol are tough matchups for the Spurs’ bigs.
3. What star is close to done?
Bohls: It ain’t Gasol, if his triple-double in the Lakers’ regular-season finale is any indication. How about Steve Nash, one of the game’s best-ever point guards? The Lakers’ expected lineup played together only seven games this season — and lost all seven. A leg fracture forced Nash to miss 24 games, and he sat the last eight games with hip, hamstring and back injuries. Otherwise, he’s fine. Yikes.
Golden: The Duck’s right. We’ve seen the best of Nash, and the shots of him on the bench in designer suits are a bad look for Laker nation. At 39, those two MVP awards are well in the rear view.
4. What coach did the best job preparing his team?
Bohls: I have much love for Mike D’Antoni just for piloting the Lakers into the postseason, but Erik Spoelstra gets higher marks for resting Dwyane Wade as well as LeBron James after their flirtation with the consecutive wins streak. It recharged the Heat’s batteries and refashioned the offense.
Golden: The Knicks’ Mike Woodson guided his team through some tough times despite a rocky 6-7 start after the All-Star break. He has his team playing its best ball at the right time of the season, and he’s helped turn Anthony into more than just a catch-and-shoot scorer. The Knicks represent a credible threat to the Heat.
5. Besides Kobe, what’s the biggest, most recent injury impacting the playoffs?
Bohls: I’d be more than a little worried about Blake Griffin’s lower back. He had some back spasms after tweaking it in the regular-season finale. The Clippers must have him to have any shot against the defensively-tough Grizzlies.
Golden: New York being without Amar’e Stoudemire, who would have given them that inside presence needed to combat the high-flying Heat. Miami’s Achilles heel is its lack of beef on the interior, and if the Knicks make it to the conference finals, they would really need Stoudemire and his gimpy knees.
6. What’s the most intriguing first-round storyline?
Bohls: The rematch between the Grizzlies and Clippers, who went seven games a year ago.
Golden: Will there be any defense played in the Golden State-Denver series? First one to 120 points wins each game.
7. Name a dark horse champion possibility.
Bohls: I’ll sidle up to the Denver Nuggets, the most exciting team under the radar. They get no credit, but get up and down the court faster than anyone, have a proven stud in Andre Iguodala and figure to give everyone trouble.
Golden: If the defensively-challenged Knicks can shock the world by winning the East — which would mean taking down the Heat — then they’ll win the championship. Please note the word “if.”
8. So who wins — and why?
Bohls: I’ll stick with my preseason pick — the Heat over the struggling Spurs in six games, although the play of the Spurs down the stretch is severe cause for concern, with losses in their last six games against Western Conference teams. Manu Ginobili is nowhere near 100 percent, Boris Diaw will miss the first round, and Parker has his own health issues.
Golden: The Heat — my preseason pick to win it all — will beat Kevin Durant’s Oklahoma City Thunder in five games. They have a transcendent talent in James, an experienced bench, and Wade, a future Hall of Famer who isn’t even the best player on his own team.