Eastern Conference Playoff Preview

#4 Toronto Raptors (49-33) vs. #5 Washington Wizards (46-36)

The Raptors swept the series 3-0, but both teams are evenly matched. DeMar DeRozan (20.1) and Kyle Lowry (17.8) team up in the backcourt along with sixth man Lou Williams (15.5) to provide the scoring punch. 22-year-old Lithuanian center Jonas Valanciunas has continued to show signs of having a breakout season, but Dwane Casey refuses to play the big man 30 minutes a night. He still managed to average a career-high 12 points along with 8.7 rebounds in 26.2 minutes this season. Toronto quietly has averaged 104 points; fourth-best in the NBA.

Washington has some bruisers inside with Marcin Gortat, Nene Hilario and Kris Humphries, but its exciting guards John Wall and Bradley Beal who run the show. Wall averaged 17.6 points and a career-high 10 assists during the regular season while Beal, who was hampered with an injury early on, finished with 15.3 points. Paul Pierce recently called out Beal and Wall on whether they want to be great or not. It might have been a shot at them or a veteran’s tactic of lighting a fire underneath them before the postseason.

#3 Chicago Bulls (50-32) vs. #6 Milwaukee Bucks (41-41)

Injuries have been the prevalent theme this year for the resilient Bulls. New addition and oldest starter Pau Gasol has played the most out of all the starters, appearing in 78 games. The Spaniard has been sensational averaging 18.5 points and 11.8 rebounds. The regular starting lineup has hardly been together. Jimmy Butler (17), Derrick Rose (31), Taj Gibson (20), Mike Dunleavy (19) and Joakim Noah (15) have all suffered lengthy injuries causing them to miss a handful of games. The emergence of Jimmy Butler has paid dividends as he has risen his scoring by nearly seven points from a season ago and now leads the team in scoring with 20 a night.

Jason Kidd needs to get more credit as a coach. After a strenuous relationship with the Nets, Kidd bounced over to Milwaukee and has another team in the playoffs. Top scorer Brandon Knight was having a breakthrough season but was dealt at the deadline in a trade that in return brought back Michael Carter-Williams. MCW still can’t shoot well, but his ability to fill a stat sheet with his length is helpful. Top pick Jabari Parker went down for the season after 25 games but that allowed Khris Middleton and Giannis Antentokounmpo to shine. Middleton has averaged a career-high 13.4 points while the Greek Freak has blossomed into a do-everything type of player. The experience will be invaluable for the 20-year-old as he looks primed for a monster season next year.

#2 Cleveland Cavaliers (53-29) vs. #7 Boston Celtics (40-42)

The last vision of LeBron James in Cavaliers jersey in the playoffs was him ripping off his jersey after losing to the Celtics in the second round. King James will try to forget that and lead the Cavs to the city of Cleveland’s first title in decades.  The Cavs split the series 2-2 this season. A slow start to the season doomed Cleveland from claiming the top seed, but they have played the part ever since LBJ returned from injury. The additions of J.R. Smith, Timofey Mozgov and Iman Shumpert have been huge boons. Questions still remain on whether they can be an elite defensive team to win a title. Kevin Love has been a liability and has sat out down the stretch in close games.

Isaiah Thomas has made the name proud. The free scoring guard has sparked the Celtics as they enter the playoffs winners of six straight including two wins over the Cavaliers. Thomas has averaged 19 points and 5.4 assists in 21 games with the Celtics; Boston has gone 14-7 with Thomas in the lineup. Brad Stevens warrants votes for Coach of the Year after making the playoffs without Rajon Rondo and Jeff Green. The Celtics are loaded with strong role players who have bought into Stevens’ system and will give them a chance to challenge to superior Cavaliers.

Hawks-Nets Playoff Preview

Atlanta (60-22) vs. Nets (38-44)

Atlanta enters the playoffs as the number one seed in the East for the time since the 1993-94 season. The Hawks have lost three-straight games heading into the postseason. The team is finally healthy, but the late season loss of Thabo Sefolosha (5.3 ppg 4.3 rpg) after suffering a broken tibia in a scuffle with the police hurts Atlanta’s experience on the wings. Forwards Mike Scott and Kent Bazemore will likely find some more minutes.

Jeff Teague, one of four Atlanta all-stars, will need to pick up his play. His production since the all-star break has tapered off dropping from 17 points and 7.5 assists per game to 13.5 and six. Leading scorer and rebounder Paul Millsap (16.7 & 7.8) has returned after missing five games with a shoulder strain. Seldom used big man Mike Muscala stepped up in Millsap’s five game absence and averaged 9.8 points and 4.2 rebounds while shooting 70% from the field.

Nearly six players averaged double figures on the season. Al Horford managed to stay healthy and anchored the paint averaging 15.2 points, 7.2 rebounds and a team-leading 1.3 blocks. Kyle Korver and DeMarre Carroll have both excelled in their roles. Korver led the league in three-point percentage (.492) among players with over 150 attempts. Carroll averaged a career-high 12.6 points and shot 48 percent.

Defense and ball-movement has been the key to Atlanta’s success. The Hawks allowed 97.1 points per game in the regular season, fifth best in the league. The offense ranked second in assists at 25.7 a night. The emergence of a deep bench has helped keep the team afloat during recent stretches of injuries. Second-year point guard Dennis Schroder has improved exponentially raising his play across the board. In 19.7 minutes per game, Schroder has averaged 10 points and 4.1 assists. His Per 36 numbers closely mimic those of starter Jeff Teague.

The Nets somehow find their way into the playoffs after a disappointing season. Brooklyn dropped four of their last six games before a season ending comeback win over the Magic and a Pacers loss to Memphis. The Hawks swept the season series by an average of 17 points per game. In an April 4th, 131-99 thrashing of Brooklyn, Paul Millsap injured his shoulder going after a loose ball. Millsap has since returned but said his shoulder still bothers him. Most recently, eight days ago, Atlanta defeated the Nets 114-111.

Atlanta will need to stop Brook Lopez inside. The oft-injured big man has put together one of his finest seasons after a second half surge. Lopez has averaged 19.7 points and 9.2 rebounds since the all-star break and has helped carry the Nets into the playoffs. In four games against Atlanta (three in which he started), the Stanford product averaged 18.8 points and 7.5 rebounds. Point guard Deron Williams has done the complete opposite, averaging 9.3 points and 6.7 assists.

Brooklyn has a lot of Georgia ties on its roster. Former Hawks Joe Johnson is the Nets’ second leading scorer at 14.4 points per game. Thaddeus Young, a former Georgia Tech Yellow Jacket, was acquired at the trade deadline for Kevin Garnett and has averaged 13.8 points and 5.9 rebounds in 28 games with Brooklyn. Another veteran Yellow Jacket has had a good year in Jarrett Jack. The 31-year-old picked up the slack for Deron Williams and averaged 12 points and 4.7 assists during the regular season.

The Hawks dodged a bullet with the Pacers getting iced out of the playoffs. A meeting with a bumbling Nets team should allow Atlanta a quick series. With 12/1 odds, the Hawks are given the fourth-best chance to win the NBA championship according to Bovada.

Who’s The Real MVP (and other awards)?

Who’s the Real MVP?

The 2014-15 NBA Regular Season comes to a close this week but the race for the NBA’s individual awards has not yet been settled. The hardware is usually handed out sometime in May, but it never hurts to take a guess at who should win.

Most Valuable Player

It has been one of the tightest races in years with plenty of candidates having outstanding seasons. Stephen Curry, James Harden, Chris Paul, Anthony Davis, LeBron James and Russell Westbrook all make strong cases. In the end though, knowing how the voters’ minds usually work, I will subscribe to Curry’s case to win the MVP. The old “best player on the best team” thought process rings true here. Though he may not be the best all-around true point guard (CP3), Curry has dazzled this season as a part of the Splash Brothers and has led the Warriors to their best record in franchise history. Curry ranks sixth in both scoring (23.9) and assists (7.7) per game. He has shattered his own NBA record by drilling 284 threes this season. It looks like his early career ankle problems are a thing of the past as he has played in at least 78 games in three straight seasons. He is averaging a career-high two steals per game and has continued to improve as a passer, cutting his turnovers down and maintaining a 2.48 assist-to-turnover ratio.

Why Not The Others?

James Harden was a frontrunner throughout the season and is averaging careers highs across the board (27.5/5.6/6.9), but the Rockets haven’t captured the top seed and Harden is still one of the worst defenders in the league. An MVP must do it on both sides of the floor. Chris Paul has quietly had another outstanding season averaging 19.3 points and a NBA-leading 10.3 assists per game, but he remains overshadowed by Curry’s play which has placed Golden State atop the NBA. LeBron James has had another strong year, but playing on cruise control early in the season and sitting out with an injury for a few weeks puts him out of the running this year. Russell Westbrook has shouldered the load for the Thunder, his trigger-happy ways aren’t enough to name a player on a team battling for the final playoff spot to lift the trophy. Who has the highest Player Efficiency Rating in the NBA? If you guessed Anthony Davis you’d be right. With a PER of 31.06, he is ahead of Westbrook (28.92) and Curry (28.04) for the league’s best. The 22-year-old continues to expand his game and is still a year away from winning an MVP. His line of 24.3 points, 10.2 rebounds and 2.9 blocks is astounding. By the time his career is over, he should hold multiple MVP awards if he can stay healthy.

Defensive Player of the Year

Statistically speaking, it is a two-horse race between Anthony Davis and DeAndre Jordan but Jordan has to get the nod due to his rebounding, overall presence and his durability. Jordan has played in over 300 straight games and is the active Ironman leader. DJ has a commanding lead in rebounding at 15 per game; the most since Kevin Love in 2010-11. It will be the second consecutive year he leads the league in rebounding. He also ranks fifth in blocks at 2.23 and fifth among centers in steals averaging one a night. DeAndre’s Wins Above Replacement is 11.84 which leads all centers. Davis has averaged 10.2 boards to go along with 2.9 blocks and 1.5 steals but DeAndre anchors a team that has sights set on making a deep run in the playoffs.

Sixth Man of the Year

The reigning sixth man of the year, Jamal Crawford, has struggled this season with his shot and injuries. Lows of 15.9 points and 39% shooting from the field are the worst during his three year stint with the Clippers. The 35-year-old Washington-native will give way to a 26-year-old from Washington, Isaiah Thomas who should run away with the award. Thomas played well in his first season with Phoenix but was traded away to Boston where he has begun to flourish and has led the Celtics into the postseason. The super sub has averaged 19.5 points and 5.4 assists off the bench in 20 games for Boston. His combined numbers this year slash 16.5/2.3/4.2 which should hands down give the diminutive dynamo the award

Most Improved Player

It looks like Jimmy Butler of the Chicago Bulls will run away with this award. The injuries to Derrick Rose might have been a blessing in disguise as the NBA’s leader in minutes per game has exploded from 13.1 points per game a year ago to 20 this season. The first year all-star has gone from a 2013-14 slash of 13.1/4.9/2.6 to 20/5.8/3.3. His field goal percentage has risen from 39% to 46% and his three-point percent from 28 to 37. Coach Thibodeau’s will eventually need to rest Butler’s legs before he runs him into the ground, but for now, Butler has been magnificent.

Rookie of the Year

The most heralded rookie class since 2003 has flopped due to injuries, but Andrew Wiggins has shined with the NBA-worst Minnesota Timberwolves. Elfrid Payton and Nikola Mirotic have charged hard, but Wiggins being the number one option and ability to log major minutes gives him the nod. Not only has he been a human highlight real with spectacular dunks over 7-footers, Wiggins has also been able to be an all-around contributor. Injuries to Mo Williams and Kevin Martin helped thrust Wiggins into becoming the number one scoring option. He averages 16.8 points and 4.5 rebounds and has held his own in the league. Playing on a team like Minnesota has allowed him to log quality minutes in a low pressure situation to build upon for the future. It is yet to be seen if he can develop a consistent jumper and become a top scorer on a playoff team, but he will a great foundation to build on moving forward.

Coach of the Year

Jason Kidd, Mike Budenholzer and Steve Kerr are all the likely front runners. The Warriors have been sensational this season for first year coach Steve Kerr, but no one could have imagined the Hawks as a 60-win team. Coach Bud has to win the award for the job he has done with Atlanta. A healthy Al Horford and a strong bench has propelled the Hawks into the number one seed and thwarted the Cavaliers of running roughshod through the East. The next step for Atlanta will be to have playoff success. It should be finals or bust for the Hawks, but a trip to the Eastern Conference Finals will be welcomed as well by Atlanta fans.

Takeaways From MLB Opening Week

With the 2015 MLB Opening Week in the books, there have been some early surprises and early disappointments. However, as we all know, it’s a long season so don’t get too excited or fret too much with over 150 games remaining this year. To me, there have been four storylines that have caught my eye so far: 1. Atlanta starting 5-1. 2. The Royals and Tigers combining to start 12-0 in the AL Central. 3. The NL-favorite Nationals struggling. 4. The lackluster Cubs.

The Braves, whom many expected to be in tank mode this season (including myself), have shocked the league by winning five of their first six games. Is it because the Miami Marlins and New York Mets aren’t as good as many predicted? Possibly, but not probable. General Manager John Hart and Manager Freddi Gonzalez have to be given credit for their hot start. Atlanta could have easily limped out to a one or two-win start to the season and no one would have batted an eye, but instead, Gonzalez has a plucky Braves team playing hard and winning with small ball and strong pitching.

Out of everyone from Atlanta’s depleted offense, who would have predicted journeyman Alberto Callaspo would lead the team in hitting out of the gates with a .538 batting average? And who would have thunk that the mixture of rookie relievers and well-traveled veterans in the backend of the bullpen would combine for a 0.44 ERA in 20.1 IP while striking out 22 and allowing a MLB-low .097 batting average to opposing hitters? Definitely not me. Enjoy this recent run of success, it may not last much longer or for all we know, the Braves might be the Hawks of baseball.

On the flipside of the NL East, the Nationals, who some picked to win 100-games, have fumbled their way to a 2-4 start. Ian Desmond has already committed four errors in his first six games; two of which helped the Mets take two out of three games in Washington. The Nationals’ pitching hasn’t been as dominant as predicted but has been good enough to win games. It’s been their offense which has faltered scoring just 13 runs thus far–least in the division. It is a long season, but every single game counts as the wins and losses begin to pile up. Washington fans shouldn’t worry about the slow start yet.

The AL Central race has already begun with the Kansas City Royals and Detroit Tigers both 6-0. The Royals just completed a statement sweep of the Angels in Los Angeles. Lorenzo Cain, Salvador Perez and new additions Kendrys Morales and Alex Rios highlight the success of the Royals’ offense. The pitching staff without James Shields has flourished as well with Yordano Ventura looking like he might be ready to take his game to the next level at the tender age of 23. The Tigers already boast a +31 run differential and have clicked on all cylinders. Miguel Cabrera is coming off a ho-hum 11-for-14 weekend series against the Indians in which he drove in six runs. Justin Verlander is on the 15-day DL with a triceps issue, but it hasn’t affected the team at all now that David Price is in the Motor City for his first full season. The 2012 Cy Young award winner has yet to allow a run in his first 14.1 innings pitched.

The Cubbies (3-2) took the stage in the first game of the season and proceeded to lay an egg. Jon Lester’s arm already looked dead as he was rocked for eight hits in 4.1 innings. The Cubs have rested him eight days before his next start this week. The 31-year-old signed a six year, $155 million dollar contract this offseason and if he can’t find his form and his age catches up to him, it is the type of contract that can cripple an already cursed franchise. Also, the renovations of Wrigley Field have been a disaster. Toilets did not work and lines lasted nearly an hour for the bathroom. Fans had to pee in cups and one concession stand ran out of hotdog buns but not hot dogs. Just another year of the Cubs being the Cubs.

What Is Going On At Kennesaw State?

Please, can someone really tell us what is going on at Kennesaw State University? One of the largest schools in the state of Georgia’s athletic program has been swept under the rug, but that rug is getting mighty bulky and some dust bunnies are starting to spill out. When Athletic Director Vaughn Williams came on campus in May of 2011 after a successful run at UConn, alumni, students and fans were all stoked about the prospects of bringing in a big name from a big school, but what has transpired since Williams’ arrival has not been all diamonds and gold.

From a student’s perspective it’s looked like Williams has had a one-track mind which has been focused solely on building the football program while turning a blind eye to other big sports that the school must improve. Most notably the basketball program has suffered dearly and now both the men’s and women’s team have controversy swirling around them. Lewis Preston was Vaughn Williams’ first basketball hire for the men’s program and it was a disaster. Preston brought an infectious bad attitude that rubbed off on the players. He did not bring an energy that made players want to play for him and instead created a rift with his negative demeanor. Preston was woefully bad for a program that needed a leader after the dismissal of long-time coach Tony Ingle. Preston limped his way through a 9-67 record in two-plus seasons before taking a leave of absence and not returning.

Once Preston was let go in 2014, Williams had the opportunity to make a splash and try and get a big name coach to come to Kennesaw. All it would take is one coach that he could convince that KSU was a school on the verge of exploding. He needed to sell the program and a vision. Instead, Kennesaw took the cheap way out and went with the in-house hire of Jimmy Lallathin. Lallathin did a respectable job winning three games as the interim coach of the team and then finished this season 10-22, better then Lewis Preston ever did. There were some bumps along the road including an early season suspension of Lallathin for NCAA violations.

So the team showed some progress with double digit wins for the first time since 2009-10, so what happens? Lallathin is fired. Why? Who knows. Now KSU is yet again at a crossroads. Do they do the right thing and try to lure a former coach who has been announcing? Seth Greenberg? Someone of that ilk? Heck, College of Charleston had Bobby Cremins so it can be done.  Another way they could go is look elsewhere to a successful program and try to pluck a young assistant. Hopefully the rumors are not true and David Rivers will not slide over a seat so the school can save money and continue to neglect developing a basketball program.

Ok so the men’s program is in disarray, how about the women’s? The Lady Owls improved from 6-24 a year ago to 17-13 this year, great right?  Not so fast. Something very wrong may be going on with this team as well. A parent of a player on the team has gone to games wearing a shirt that reads: “Abusers depend on ‘silence’ DON’T  BE ‘SILENT’” and on the back it says: “BE ‘CIVIL’ BREAK THE SILENCE OF ABUSE”. I’m not sure what it means, but it definitely can’t be good. Nitra Perry is the head coach of the women’s team and might be someone who has some answers.

Things are not good right now at Kennesaw State. The football team had its first spring game but the media was pulled from its coverage and brought into a room where Vaughn Williams gave “nothing but terse, repetitive answers” about the firing of Lallathin according to The Sentinel’s Chris Raimondi. In his three-plus years Vaughn Williams has loved to be in the forefront for the strides the football program has made, but has remained mum on more serious issues. To quote Marcellus from Hamlet, “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark”. Sadly, the same can be said about KSU athletics. There are some serious warts that might finally see the light of day in the upcoming months.

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