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Playoffs Preview: Is James Harden worth embracing? (and other pressing questions)

In an NBA Playoffs-wide preview of seven different series, find out the answers to many intriguing questions, including: Does Aaron Stampler have it in him to embrace James Harden?

Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports


Hey there, long time, right?

Here's my playoff preview. Today I'll deal with the seven other series that (yawn) the league insists on playing as scheduled when really the only one that matters is Lakers-Spurs. Tomorrow, I'll tackle Spurs vs Lakers, or at least JRW's edited version where he takes out all of the swears.

Eastern Conference

1. Miami vs. 8. Milwaukee

Brandon Jennings predicted that the Bucks would shock the world and pull off the upset, winning the series in six games because of course he did. At first you might dismiss his statement as the hubris and chutzpah that goes hand in hand with being young, rich and relatively famous. However, the basketball historians among you may remember that just last year the eighth-seeded 76ers beat the top-seeded Bulls after Derrick Rose tore his ACL late in a Game 1 Bulls blowout. And the year before that there was also an eighth-seed that toppled a one, but I don't remember the particulars of that one too well. Also, in 2007 the "We Believe" Warriors upset the top-ranked Mavericks, which may or may not have opened the door for the final Spurs championship of the Tim Duncan era.

So, it is theoretically possible, gang. All we need for Jennings' prediction to come true is for LeBron James and/or Dwyane Wade to screw up the timing of their pregame handshake just a bit before the tip-off of Game 3 and for this to tragically (yet hilariously) turn into this.

Injuries aside, it's tough to have too much hope in the Bucks. Jennings and backcourt mate Monta Ellis are both low-efficiency chuckers who've yet to show any interest or aptitude for limiting the damage in their own end. Ellis was moved from the Warriors once they saw what they had in Stephen Curry, and it was baffling to me why the Bucks were eager to embrace him... midget backcourts don't work.

The Bucks have some capable and athletic bigs in Samuel Dalembert, John Henson and shot-blocking sensation Larry Sanders, but with Wade and James likely to get a running start past the matador midgets, all the bigs will get for their defensive efforts are foul calls and LOLGIFs.

On the wings there's Ersan Ilyasova, who made a spirited late-season charge to defend his "Best Turkish baller" title but still lost out to Omer Asik (Mehmet Okur held the title in the mid '00s, ceded to Hedo Turkoglu in 2008, and Enes Kanter is the odds-on favorite to win it next year).

Also, we have Mike Dunleavy Jr. (yup, he's still in the league), Luc Richard Mbah a Moute and J.J. Reddick, whose postseason history is positively Bonneresque. So... yeah.

I'm picking a sweep because in the end I'm just a sucker for a good Harlem Shake video. Kudos to Boris Diaw's Lego efforts, but it's just not the same. How I wish it was our dreary boring ol' Spurs who beat Miami to the punch here. What would the NBA's reaction been to that? Would ESPN have even noticed? I think we can all agree that Patty Mills would've been in the "Birdman" role, yes? Alas.

Heat in four.

2. New York vs. 7. Boston

To me, this is wholly similar to the Spurs-Lakers series, not just because it's a two-seven match-up, but more importantly because the Celtics are missing their best player in Rajon Rondo. Regardless of whatever hot streak or cold spell envelops either of these clubs -- and for what it's worth the Knicks ended the season in the former state and the Celtics the latter) I simply cannot fathom Boston winning without Rondo's considerable talents.

Kevin Garnett is dealing with a balky foot and his career is just about done. Without Rondo's playmaking the Celtics are left to rely on the inconsistent Jeff Green and the herky-jerky off-balance fadeaway unpleasantness that is Paul Pierce. Jason Terry's season has been one bestowed by the basketball gods to make the rest of us point and laugh. Avery Bradley, without a real point guard to work off of, has been miscast as someone who has to take and make tough shots. The whole thing is kind of a mess, and you get the sense that this group would've just as soon faced the Pacers in a series everyone would've ignored and they could've just gone gently off into the good night.

But no, they drew the Knicks, and then all the real world craziness in Boston intervened, so now these geezers have no choice but to play hard, to make the Knicks work a helluva lot harder to get past them than they would prefer to. Now, they're in a spot where Carmelo and Co. will actually have to focus and play smart to win the series. Do you really trust Anthony and J.R. Smith to be able to do that in a situation where their opponents will actually be viewed as the lovable underdogs? I sure don't.

To me the series comes down to Raymond Felton. He has to show up, has to get into the lane despite Bradley's dogged efforts to contain him, and has to be able to finish at the rim and set up his shooters. If he's a dud and the Knicks are forced to rely exclusively on the Iso efforts of Anthony and Smith, or even worse, on the rotted out corpse of Jason Kidd, then the Celtics will indeed ride the emotion to pull off a string of ugly 84-81 upsets.

I see it as a tight series, the only worthwhile one in the East, really, but one in which the Knicks will ultimately pull out in Game 7 when, finally, their own fans get into it and make themselves accounted for.

Knicks in seven.

3. Indiana vs. 6. Atlanta

Shut up. Shutupshutupshutup.

If you so much as ask your DVR for information on when games in this series will be played or what channel they'll be on, your satellite provider will send a beefy, agitated man to beat the crap out of you.

I like and root for George Hill. I sympathize with David West, since both he and I share a mutual affliction in that we are cursed with a permanent "angry face" -- even though there are times, albeit seldom, where we're not, in fact, angry. Paul George can throw down the occasional flashy dunk when the mood suits him. I enjoy Roy Hibbert's work on Park and Recreation.

Now, lets never speak of this abomination again.

Pacers in five.

4. Brooklyn vs. 5. Chicago

Okay, this isn't exactly a politically correct opinion, and forgive me for sounding like a Neanderthal here, but I know the thought has crossed all of your minds a time or thrice, so let me be the jerk who puts it out there in the open for all of you to pretend to be shocked and offended...

Either Derrick Rose's knee surgery was terribly botched and we just don't have all the medical details OR... well... the guy's a huge wuss.

Look, I'm sorry, but somebody had to say it, right? It's been a freaking year. A whole calender year. We're in 2013, where medical technology has advanced quite a bit. It's difficult for me, after watching Adrian Peterson run roughshod over the NFL eight months after his knee injury, to accept that Rose, a fellow who's younger than Peterson, plays in a less physical sport and has a less-extensive injury history, can't come back from his surgery after four months more recovery time than Peterson had.

After a certain point, the recovery stops being physical and is entirely about the brain. Obviously it'd be foolish for me or any of us to expect Rose to quickly regain his MVP form at any point this season, but I still can't believe that he never went out there and tried, whether he was at 90 percent, 80 percent, whatever. He owed it to his teammates and the fans to take the court and see what he can do.

More than anything, I think what bothers me, as a former journalist, is the lack of information. If I'm being a misinformed jerk, then tell me why I am. Tell me what exactly went wrong with the surgery. Tell me what setbacks there have been in the rehab process and why. Give me an answer besides "this guy is mentally traumatized and doesn't know how to snap out of it."

Rose's unwillingness to get into specifics, and the lengths to which the Bulls organization has coddled him and withheld information, has just turned me off to the extreme. When will teams learn that coddling a superstar in the modern age doesn't work? If anything, that weakness, that willingness to bend to the star's whim about anything, is what turns them off. Look at LeBron with Cleveland. They gave him whatever he wanted and he still bolted. Rose won't be a free agent until 2017, but I don't expect him to sign another contract with the Bulls and I won't be surprised a bit if he demands a trade before then.

Combine that with the latest plantar fasciitis flare-up on Joakim Noah's foot and it's hard to have any good feelings with the Bulls, despite the best efforts of Jimmy Butler, Nate Robinson and Kirk Hinrich.

Meanwhile, the Nets' own star point guard, Deron Williams, played the first half of the season very much like how we'd have expected a fellow coming off knee surgery to. He was fat, slow, had no lift or acceleration, and looked like a shell of himself. As the calender turned to 2013 though he gradually found himself, got a bit leaner, and started to regain his leap and his quickness. He was dunking and finishing at the rim again and had more legs in his jumper, which helped his accuracy from downtown (cough Manu cough).

Brook Lopez' steady development into a big who can hurt you in all areas of the court regardless of whether he's facing up or has his back to the basket and Joe Johnson's wholly uninspiring consistency has given the Nets a true three-pronged attack in the piss-poor Miami mold and even though they're getting next to nothing from their forwards, the Nets remain a viable contender in the East, as much as anyone could be when they don't have LeBron on their team, anyway.

It's really a shame that the Nets and Knicks won't be able to meet in the second round. Now that would've been a fun series. Still, I'm pulling for the Nets here, because Lopez' size would give them a puncher's chance against the Heat, in a Buster Douglas kind of way.

Nets in five.

Western Conference

1. Oklahoma City vs. 8 Houston

I'm much too pessimistic and pragmatic to ever hope that the Rockets will upset the Thunder. That's craziness. No, what I want from this series is this: Make the Thunder form some bad habits.

I want the Rockets defense to be so porous, so easily penetrated, that it never occurs to Russell Westbrook or Kevin Durant to look to move the ball. I want there to be baskets galore, at both ends, to the tune of 128-121 final scores. I want games where the outcome is never in doubt, regardless of the furious pace of the scoreboard changing, and for the contests to take on the air of rookie-sophomore game frivolity, a "I'll let you score, you let me score" free-flowing carelessness that entertains the nitwits and makes coaches wretch in the private confines of the film room.

I want the games to come so easily to the Thunder that they get lazy on defense and greedy on offense. I want them to lose their hunger and their edge. I want their role players bored and disinterested and their stars overconfident and unfocused. I want the tenor and tone of the series to so drastically alter the Thunder's mojo that before they know it they'll be staring at a 3-1 deficit in round two against Memphis.

That's not too much to ask for, right? Imagine Westbrook and Durant trading blows in front of an exasperated Scott Brooks after Westbrook's latest wayward jumper with 14 seconds left on the shot clock. Makes you happy, doesn't it?

Sure, we can all root for Asik, for Chandler Parsons and for Jeremy Lin, but let me be crystal clear about this, peeps: I refuse to root for James Harden under any circumstances. No. The enemy of my enemy will not be my friend. He is a stupid person with a stupid beard and his beard looks stupid.

Thunder in five.

3. Denver vs. 6. Golden State

For whatever reason George Karl looks like he'll forever be one of these snakebit star-crossed guys where it's never going to happen for him. Like Jerry Sloan, and, to a lesser extent, Don Nelson, he's going to finish his career having won a bajillion games but never the final one that matters.

Now, it'd be silly, even under the best circumstances, to think that the Nugs could upset, in order, the Spurs, Thunder and Heat to win the title, but damn if they wouldn't have put up a worthy challenge had they all their parts in order. One through nine, this team was scary.

Let me put it this way... the Spurs have lost a bunch of games since I last wrote here, probably like 15 or so of them, but in all the games I've watched them play, no opponent impressed me as much as the Nuggets did on March 27, in a game the Spurs squeaked out a 100-99 win, no less. (In the interest of full disclosure, I skipped most of the Spurs losses on the DVR, so I guess I have no point, but still).

I can't ever remember any team getting so many lay-ups and dunks in one game against the Spurs. Between JaVale McGee, Kenneth Faried, Andre Iguodala and Wilson Chandler they had so many guys who could go to the rim with force and a perfect trigger man in Andre Miller who throws the most pinpoint lob passes east of Chris Paul.

As Spurs fans, we're well used to being at an athletic disadvantage against nearly every opponent but the Nuggets take it to a whole other level. I'm not sure I've ever seen a squad who, team wide, are so adept at getting to the basket and throwing it down very hard from very high. These guys are freaks. Thank FSM they can't shoot a lick.

Anyway, like I mentioned and as you're well aware, the Nuggets aren't at full strength. Danilo Gallinari tore his ACL and he's out and Ty Lawson is limping around and not himself either. Denver is just wobbly enough to leave themselves vulnerable to a plucky underdog filled with piss and vinegar...

And this is where the Warriors come in. Nobody in the league is hotter than Curry, and the mentality of the Nuggets will be to try to outscore him rather than guard him. Klay Thompson can catch fire in short bursts. David Lee is good for 25 on each end of the floor. Jarrett Jack is a dangerous sixth man who frees up Curry to do what he does best.

The Warriors have a terrific home court advantage in the playoffs and they'll defend their turf with every bit of passion and determination that the Nuggets play with in the thin air of the Nugget Dome or whatever they call their building.

I'm picking the upset for two reasons: One, somebody has to pull off one in the first round, so why not this one, where the favored team has a guy with a season-ending ailment? Two, the Nuggets don't have a true go-to scorer when things get hairy. They don't have any alpha dogs (not even any beta dogs, really) to rely on, and Karl's teams have a history of getting tight down the stretch. Outside of Miller, who on this team has a reputation of playing remotely poised when it matters?

Do you trust Iguodala or McGee or Corey Brewer? Really? Good luck to you sir. I'm going with the team that has the true star player to win the series and that player is Curry and he's on the Dubs.

Warriors in six.

4. Los Angeles Clippers vs. 5. Memphis

And finally we come to the series I'm most looking forward to, outside of Spurs-Lakers, of course. These teams hate each other. The coaches dislike each other. The star forwards despise one another. There is recent, contentious history.

On one side you have a club that is all style, zero substance; a lobbing, dunking, show-boating circus show whose offense consists of "give the ball to Paul and let him figure it out" and whose defense is Flopalooza '13.

On the other side is a squad that is all substance, zero style, a ground-bound, grinding, defense first, second and third outfit that eschews perimeter pyrotechnics and relies on their twin bigs to produce just enough ugly baskets to come out on top.

Really, LOTS of teams hate the Clips, the Grizzles just have the most reasons to.

You know the particulars by now. Blake Griffin, Chris Paul, Jamal Crawford, DeAndre Jordan, Caron Butler, Matt Barnes, Eric Bledsoe for the Clips vs. Marc Gasol, Zach Randolph, Mike Conley, Tony Allen, Tayshaun Prince and Jerryd Bayless for the Grizzles. They're gonna beat the crap out of each other for six games and after it's finished the winners will hate the Thunder even more than they did before, for the simple fact that while they survived a heavyweight bout over two weeks, nobody on OKC will have so much as gotten touched against the gee-whiz happy-to-be-here Rockets. It's gonna be awesome.

Here's a prediction you can take to the bank: In the first half of Game 1 in their second round series against the Thunder, somebody on the Grizzlies will lay a flagrant foul on Westbrook or (more likely) Durant, just to let them finally know they're in the playoffs.

Grizzlies in six.