Let’s talk about the playoffs. LaMarcus Aldridge is staking his claim as the best power forward in the game. Blake Griffin, meanwhile, is shakily maintaining his throne after a disappointing first game against the Golden State Warriors. Chris Paul’s family lineage indicates a history of assistance, but the fourth quarter is when he takes it all upon himself. The Mavs are stressing out the usually unflappable Spurs, whose now 38-year-old anchor must take more responsibility. Wizards gonna Wiz, and Grizzlies gonna Grizz. The Hawks are up on the toast of the East, the Indiana Pacers, and their defensive master has more in common with Russell Stover than Bill Russell. The Thunder are not dominating as usual. Even the Bobcats are pushing the mighty Heat, with Al Jefferson trying to do his best Willis Reed impersonation. This is the first round of the NBA playoffs. Does it get any better than this?
1. Power forwards! Power forwards everywhere!: Take a look at this:
LaMarcus Aldridge has played brilliantly, stretching the Houston defense to his will with a complex inside-out game comprised of drives to the basket, a magisterial mid-range jumper and even a few threes. Posting up against the likes of Chandler Parsons, Omer Asik and Dwight Howard in two games, Aldridge has almost doubled his regular season scoring, from 23.2 points per game to 44.5. His rebounding is up almost two per game, and his blocks have almost doubled. This is a ridiculously small sample size in comparison, of course, but notable, and players are given to playoff hot streaks anyway. His running mate, Damian Lillard, is also heightening his game, and the two have led the Blazers to a 2-0 lead over a title favorite in the Rockets.
Blake Griffin may very well finish third in the MVP voting this season after carrying the Clippers during a Chris Paul injury stretch. He, too, is upping his game, averaging three more points per game than he did during the regular season. His disappointing play in Game 1, during which he only had 16 points in 19 minutes played, gave way to mammoth performances in the second and third games against a formidable David Lee, during which he has averaged 33.5 points per game, and the Clippers have taken a 2-1 lead over the Andrew Bogut-less Warriors.
While he hasn’t been as prolific a scorer for his team as Aldridge and Griffin, Dirk Nowitzki has effectively used his range to draw the Spurs defense to him and make their players uncomfortable. Monta Ellis, in particular, has benefited from Nowitzki’s play, which has allowed for key outlet passes and smart second chance opportunities. The Spurs were expected to steamroll the Dallas Mavericks, but San Antonio only has a 2-1 series lead, and the games have all been insanely competitive. The Spurs needed a 19-4 run to close out Game 1 after being down ten points late in the fourth quarter. The road may be wearing on San Antonio, and in particular on Tim Duncan, who turns 38 on Friday.
2. The Jeff Teague Renaissance is upon us, and Roy Hibbert can’t stop it: And now, take a look at this:
Roy Hibbert, who was anointed LeBron James’ kryptonite around this time last year, has been utterly powerless against the Atlanta Hawks through three games, to the point that people are calling for Hibbert to be benched. He can’t score. He can’t even get shots off against Kyle Korver, who is actually a much better shot-blocker than you think, but still. The Pacers were supposed to make a date with the Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals, to sort out a debate which has raged in NBA circles all year long. Instead, they could very well get bounced in the first round. If they do, a lot of that would hang on Hibbert and Paul George, whose 12-point, 14-rebound performance in Game 3 fell well short of expectation. Add to that the fact that midyear hired gun Evan Turner apparently got into a pre-playoffs fight with Lance Stephenson, and it seems that a dysfunctional locker room has gotten away from Frank Vogel, who may be coaching for his job at this point.
Lost in all of this, at least until last night, is the rise of Jeff Teague, who has raised his regular season points per game average from 16.5 to 21.3 in the playoffs, by far the highest mark of his career. Teague’s 22-point performance Thursday night lifted the eighth-seeded Hawks to a 98-85 victory, and excellent play from Paul Millsap and Lou Williams, as well as Korver, have contributed to the 2-1 series lead the Hawks now hold.
3. Every series is competitive. Every. Single. One: How rare is it that each series in a sport’s playoff tournament is truly competitive? Of the sixteen teams left, only three have not claimed a playoff victory yet. Two of them are wholly surprising – the Bulls, with DPOY winner Joakim Noah (who apparently hates the cold in Chicago), and Houston in the aforementioned struggle against Super Saiyan LaMarcus Aldridge – and the other, the Charlotte Bobcats, have impressed against the Miami Heat. Al Jefferson, the Bobcats’ offensive genius, suffered a foot injury in the first game but has remained a stable force inside, and it is not out of the question for the Bobcats to be able to pull out a game or two.
For basketball fans, this truly is the most wonderful time of the year, and we have the opportunity to cherish it. Just think, Kevin Durant isn’t even playing all that well – he was 0-8 from 3-point territory in an overtime loss to Tony Allen and the Memphis Grizzlies Thursday night, though I would be remiss to not mention his four-point masterpiece of a play in Game 2 – and basketball is still awesome.