Only two days until the postseason now, thank the heavens. After a wild, 1,230-game regular season, we now have just 48 hours to mentally prepare ourselves for what should be the most epic postseason since … well, since the last one, but we’ve had some pretty epic postseasons lately, so no shame in that. Anyway, there are other places that’ll do a much better job than I could in breaking down the actual ins and outs of the eight upcoming first round matches, but I figured we should use this precious time we have to review the four or five all-important subplots that will dominate each respective series — the shared history, the bad blood, the geographical rivalries, etc.
Start with the East today, do the West tomorrow, and by Saturday we should all be properly prepared for the series four-to-seven-act plays that will be the first round of these NBA playoffs.
MIAMI HEAT (1) VS. MILWAUKEE BUCKS (8)
1. Ray Allen’s homecoming.
From the amount of coverage given to Hall of Fame sharp-shooter Ray Allen’s jumping ship to the Heat in the offseason, you’d think the Boston Celtics were the team he’d played with his entire career. But lest we forget, it was actually Milwaukee that Allen called home for six-and-a-half seasons — the longest stay for Allen with any of the four franchises he’s played for — and where he achieved his first real career success, leading the Bucks to the conference finals in 2001 in the team’s only visit to the NBA’s final four in the last quarter-century. It’s been over a decade since he left, so the response to Ray-Ray in Milwaukee probably won’t be hugely emotional, but expect to see a bunch of montages of a young Jesus Shuttlesworth draining threes and dunking (yes, Ray Allen used to dunk) in those hideous turn-of-the-century Bucks jerseys before all is said and done.
2. Dwyane Wade’s homecoming.
Wade never played for the Bucks, of course, but he did school for three years at Milwaukee’s Marquette University, just about a mile away from the Bradley Center, where he led the Golden Eagles to the Final Four in his breakout 2003 campaign. The school remains close enough to Wade’s heart that it was considered his stop on the Heat’s recent “Reunion Tour,” which also included stops to Toronto (Chris Bosh), Boston (Ray Allen) and Cleveland (LeBron James) — though the fact that the crew didn’t even seem to remember that Ray once played for Milwaukee too should tell you all you need to know about the distance of that relationship.
3. Does Monta Ellis really have it all?
In an oft-quoted local TV segment (turned viral video) from this year, the Bucks combo guard memorably opined that he was on the same level as D-Wade as a baller, with the only difference between the two being Wade’s “more wins and two championships. Besides that, of course, MontyElly have it all. The skepticism expressed by many to the veracity of this claim is something Ellis could theoretically put to rest with an excellent series against his supposed NBA peer, though given Monta’s scoring averages in the Bucks’ four games against the Heat this year — 9.5 ppg on 30.2 percent (!!!) shooting — betting on the haters would probably be the smart move here.
4. Blue Devil “Jeopardy!” Showdown.
The Heat’s Shane Battier and the Bucks’ Mike Dunleavy, likely to be matched up on the court at some point during the series, were once teammates at Duke, both helping to lead the team to their ’01 championship. The two players’ intra-squad feud even stretched to this year, where Dunleavy publicly doubted Battier’s claim that he could beat any fellow NBAer in “Jeopardy!,” saying “I don’t know if he could beat Duke players … I don’t think he could beat me.” (Battier’s response: “Michael knows better … I’m ready any time, any place. Tell Dunleavy, tell Grant Hill, you know where to find me.”) Could make for some good halftime entertainment at one of the games. Coach K would probably even make a pretty good Trebek.
5. The Battle for Ryan Braun.
The best hitter in the National League has shown sporadic support for Milwaukee’s other pro sports team, showing up courtside for the team’s game against the Thunder a couple weeks back, and even rolling with fellow Wisconsin hero Aaron Rodgers to a game a couple years ago. However, Braun is not without his South Beach connections either, having attended the University of Miami for three years before being drafted by the Brewers in ’05. The best athletes are always notorious front-runners, especially if they have a lame personal reason to do so, so don’t be surprised if Braun shows up at one of the Bucks games wearing a throwback Heat cap or something.
NEW YORK KNICKS (2) VS. BOSTON CELTICS (7)
1. Honey Nut Cheerios.
The Knicks and Celtics were of course involved in one of the more memorable games of this year’s regular season, when Kevin Garnett put a little birdie in Carmelo Anthony’s ear that may or may not have involved Anthony’s wife tasting like a certain borderline-adult cereal. The comment incensed Melo into posting one of his worst shooting nights of the season (20 points on 6-26 shooting) as the game slipped away from New York in the fourth quarter, a briefly season-redeeming victory for the C’s. A true rematch has yet to really be consummated, as Melo’s attempted postgame parking lot bout with Garnett was predictably interrupted, and the next meeting between the two was surprisingly underwhelming, so perhaps the true return fire will have to come this postseason.
2. Revenge for 2011.
In the Knicks’ first postseason appearance in seven years, an injury-depleted Knicks team was summarily swept by the then-still-somewhat-mighty Celtics, even losing the two games at MSG by a combined 29 points. The two teams have gone in somewhat different directions since, and as the two seed this year, the Knicks have the chance to repay the favor against an injury-depleted C’s team. Can’t imagine it’ll quite go like that, but they can do enough to offer some credence to this previously non-existent “rivalry” the media has tried to trump up in the three years since the Knicks returned to respectability.
3. Paul Pierce vs. Quentin Richardson.
In one of the less-expected developments of the NBA’s final week, the Knicks swooped in out of nowhere to grab Quentin Richardson off the NBA scrap heap, getting a player that fills no real need for them, except to annoy Paul Pierce for this first round series. Q-Rich has had it in for The Truth for reasons unexplained ever since Pierce hosted him during the former’s recruitment trip to Kansas, having since been ejected for trash-talking with him in an ’08 game, and calling Pierce and Garnett “actresses” in the 2010 playoffs. Q might not play 10 minutes in the whole series, but guarantee that his impact will be felt one way or the other.
4. Paul Pierce vs. Knicks Fans.
You’re not gonna find too many players that terrify a specific fan base the way Paul Pierce scares Knicks fans. He’s hit big shots at MSG seemingly his whole career, though it’s been noticed a lot more in the last three years, beginning with his buzzer-beater in that 118-116 classic at MSG in late 2010 (the one with the accidental Nate Robinson body-flip), and going up to the handful of huge plays he made in the previously mentioned Honey Nut Cheerios game, complete with a kiss to the crowd. With as many as four games at MSG this series, you can bet The Truth is gonna make Knick fans across the country throw their remotes at the TV at least once.
5. Boston vs. NY.
Oh right, this. The rivalry between the two cities is being understandably downplayed for now, and probably will be for much of the series, as Boston grieves over the recent tragedy at the Boston Marathon, but you can’t go six or seven games without the ghosts of Yankees-Red Sox or Patriots-Giants letting their presence be felt. The respective cities are too strong for that.
ATLANTA (3) VS. INDIANA (6)
1. Jeff Teague’s homecoming.
The Hawks’ much-improved starting point guard grew up in Indiana, playing high school hoops for the Pike Red Devils in Indianapolis (also the high school of Courtney Lee and D-Leaguer Robert Vaden), before going to college at Wake Forest in North Carolina. He even has a tattoo of the state on his arm (along with the Colts logo and a whole bunch of other stuff) and has a mutual appreciation for rapper and fellow Indiana product Freddie Gibbs.
2. Flashback to the mid-’90s.
There could be a lot more of these to come in the second round of the playoffs, and some more high-profile ones, but a forgotten playoff feud of the mid-’90s was Pacers-Hawks. The two teams met in the postseason for three consecutive years in the mid-’90s, with the fifth-seeded Pacers upsetting the top-ranked Hawks in the second round in 1994, then sweeping the Hawks as a 2-7 matchup in ’95, before Atlanta got some vengeance by taking down Indiana as the sixth seed in a five-game first-rounder in ’96. It’s not exactly Bulls-Knicks as far as mid-’90s East Coast rivalries goes, but it might be enough to get some nice Rik Smits and Mookie Blaylock flashbacks, especially if Reggie Miller gets on the call for a couple games.
The NBA isn’t the only basketball league to foster an Indiana-Atlanta rivalry — the WNBA teams from the respective cities have also squared off in the last two postseasons, with Atlanta taking out Indiana in the conference finals two seasons ago, and Indiana returning the favor in the first round last season. This may or may not be notable for non-WNBA fans, but what should be notable are the names of the two teams, the Fever and the Dream, thus making for the “Fever-Dream Series,” which makes THUNDERNUGGETS! sound positively pedestrian by comparison. Hope they didn’t miss the opportunity for a cross-promotion with No Age.
4. Atlanta, Indiana.
Did you know there was an Atlanta, Indiana? I did not. It’s a town of about 750 people, and is known for its known for its New Earth Festival, which boasts “over 600 vendors displaying fine art, crafts, antiques, food and more!” according to the town’s website, and for the Roads Hotel, a supposed hot spot for paranormal activity. No word on who the people of Atlanta, Indiana or their resident ghosts are rooting for in this particular series.
5. Dahntay Jones used to be on the Pacers … Shelvin Mack went to Butler … Jeff George played for both the Colts and Falcons…
There’s a reason this is going to be the NBA TV series, you know.
BROOKLYN NETS (4) VS. CHICAGO BULLS (5)
1. The Battle for Michael Jordan.
It’s not brought up much (outside of the intro to “Welcome to New York City,” which gets played at the outset of Nets games at Barclays), but the hoops legend was in fact born in Brooklyn, before moving to North Carolina when he was still fairly young. Naturally, MJ became the most famous athlete in the world while playing in Chicago, thus giving both teams in this series a claim to the all-time great. Will MJ be in either building for the series? Lord knows he’s not gonna have much else to do this summer.
2. What’s up, CJ Watson and Keith Bogans?
Back when the Bulls actually had a fairly deep rotation during their ’11 run to the conference finals, both C.J. Watson and Keith Bogans were key cogs, with Bogans even starting all 82 games (!!!) at shooting guard for Chicago that year. Those guys will both be back in Chi-town as Nets rotation players of minor import, giving Bulls fans flashbacks to the days they could survive a couple injuries without needing to resort to Nazr Mohammed and Daequan Cook.
3. Awesome regular season match-ups.
The Bulls and Nets have played some pretty compelling ball this year, meeting four times in the regular season, with three of those games being decided by less than five points. The best of the bunch was a surprisingly suspenseful Thursday night matchup two weeks ago, when the super-duper-shorthanded Bulls — Vladimir Radmanovic saw floor time, ferchrissake — managed to overcome an early double-digit deficit and hang in there for the entire game, before stealing it in the final minute with a game-winning Nate Robinson floater with 22 seconds to go. For two teams with very little real history — the two franchises have only met in the playoffs once, a three-game Bulls sweep in the first round of ’98 — there could be some pretty epic basketball in this series.
4. The Pitchfork Series.
Music crit site Pitchfork was born as Pitchforkmedia.com in Chicago back in the mid-’90s, but since evolving into the Worldwide Leader in indie taste-making, has since relocated a good deal of its personnel to Brooklyn, arguably the country’s biggest hotbed for Pitchfork-approved acts in the 2010s. Not sure if Pitchfork editor Ryan Schreiber even cares about basketball, but if he did, it would be interesting to see where his allegiances — or that of his staff — would lie in this series.
5. Kanye vs. Jay-Z
Of course, the most high-profile musical subplot of this series won’t be from the indie world. Jay-Z and Kanye, music and business associates for over a decade who have become inextricably linked thanks to their “Watch the Throne” collaboration album and ensuing tour, happen to be from Brooklyn and Chicago, respectively, with Jigga obviously repping the team he owns (or used to own, depending on who you believe) and Yeezy occasionally shouting out Derrick Rose in his verses. It’d be great to see them sitting next to each other at one of the games, Jay-Z in his personalized “Carter 4″ Nets replica and Kanye wearing a customized Scottie Pippen throwback or what have you. Maybe they’ll even make a gentleman’s wager on the series: loser has to take Big Sean to a Pistons game next year.