ONE: We haven’t spoken much of Bogut the past few weeks here at NBAMate. Truth be told, there hasn’t been much exciting news to talk about. The Bucks spiralled out of playoff contention (I will never EVER understand how the Indiana Pacers finished above the Milwaukee Bucks in 2010-2011) and Bogut, battling through injury, has been up-and-down for most of the last two months. His last great game was the 21-17 with 4 blocks against New York in late March (when the Knicks were sucking), and since then he’s put up a few double-doubles and kept the blocks ticking over. Barring a blockfest by JaVale McGee or Dwight over the next week, Bogut looks to have the Block title wrapped up – which again, is a huge achievement given the injuries he’s battled this season. And on that injury, he will undergo arthroscopic surgery to remove loose particles and scar tissue in his right elbow on Tuesday 12th. We wish Bogut the best of luck with the surgery, and after the seasons end I’ll be writing a little more about the Bogey Man and the adventures of the Bogometer during the 2010-2011 campaign.

Over in Portland, Patty has been getting sparse minutes despite – or perhaps due to – the Blazers absolutely kicking butt over the past month. And there’s so much to say about them that its probably worth cracking open another one…

TWO: Let’s just recap what the Blazers have achieved since the start of March. They beat the Heat in Miami – comfortably. They beat the Magic in Orlando. They beat the Mavs at home. They beat the Spurs at home. They beat the Spurs in San Antonio three days later. They beat the Thunder at home. The beat Dallas at home, again. Then they beat the Lakers at home. That’s the cream of the league’s crop right there, and if you want completeness, they also beat Chicago in early Feb. I’m not one who believes regular season encounters are an indication of how the playoffs will unfold. But these Blazers are making me believe they can do legitimate damage in May for one reason: they don’t generate these wins in a manner that is unsustainable in the playoffs.

This isn’t the 2007 Warriors that can beat you on any day because of break-neck speed, high-octane offense and a self-acknowledgement that these are the only elements that allow them to win (along with they fact they completely owned one particular opponent). The Blazers are getting it done with defense (6th in the league for opponents points again) and toughness – guys like Gerald Wallace and Camby give them a formidable presence inside and out. They’re getting it done with points in the paint – 29% of their points come inside, which for comparison, roughly matches the Lakers who are at 30%. They’re getting it done with an identifiable superstar who isn’t Brandon Roy (Aldridge is actually an MVP candidate). And they’re extremely deep – Aldridge, Wallace, Matthews, Batum, Miller, Roy and Rudy can score 15+ points on any given night. These are ingredients any serious contender needs come playoff time.

I mentioned the 2007 Warriors – whom they’re certainly not. But they do remind me of those Warriors in one sense – belief. Actually, two senses. Belief, and an insanely boisterous home-crowd. I’ve watched a few Blazers games recently. The Spurs game last week was one of the best I’ve watched all season. During the last two minutes, and especially once Batum hit the game-winner, the Rose Garden crowd reach decibel levels that instantly triggered memories of Warriors-Mavs in Oakland back in 2007. It was unbelievable, and I don’t think it was just a reaction to the moment. It was more meaningful than that. It was a “hey, we’re fucking invincible” reaction. They’d just beaten the best team in the league – again – after I’d written them off at least twice in those final minutes. It was at that moment when I realised the Blazers – not the Nuggets – are truly the underdog team no one wants to face come playoff time. If they face the Mavs in the first round, would you honestly be surprised if they caused the upset? I wouldn’t. And if they then faced the Lakers, knowing the recent history between these teams and LA’s struggles in Portland, couldn’t you see it going to 7 games? Is a Blazers-Spurs Conference Final all that unlikely? I’m warning you now.

THREE: So the Lakers are struggling now, which I actually find laughable. It’s laughable because every sub-par stretch the Lakers go through that has naysayers singing their downfall is inevitably a trigger for a supreme ass-whooping stretch that has everyone prematurely crowning them the champs. Which is usually then responsible for a bit of ‘ol Laker complacency and another sub-par stretch. It’s the circle of life. And all we do is overreact to everything the Lakers do which helps perpetuate it. So I’m completely numb to their recent 4-game slide. Don’t get me wrong, I’d love nothing more than to have the reigning champs on the ropes – to have them in a hole where their true mettle is tested. But until they’re down 0-2 or 1-3 in a series, I’m not going to waste my energy thinking about it.

On another Lakers-related note. In his recent article Bill Simmons listed the teams who have won three straight championships and admitted he finds it difficult to put this current Lakers team in such lofty company. For the historians, that list is:

Minneapolis: 1952-54
Boston: 1959-66
Chicago: 1991-93
Chicago: 1996-98
LA Lakers: 2000-02

What Bill overlooked (harmlessly, I might add), is that a three-peat for this Lakers team would mean 4-straight Finals appearances. And that’s something that not even Mikan’s Minneapolis Lakers, Jordan’s Bulls, or Shaq’s Lakers managed to do. Only that Boston team from the 60s can claim to have made four-straight Finals appearances and won three championships in the process. FYI – Magic’s Lakers made four-straight Finals in the 80’s but he only came away with two rings, and on a separate occasion they won 3 of 4 but missed a Finals in the process.

Why bring this up? Because as hard as it is for Bill to believe the Lakers belong in that esteemed company, it’s even harder for me to believe they would only be the second team in NBA history to win three out of four straight Finals appearances. Is that any more impressive than three-straight? I would argue yes, definitely. It’s extremely difficult to sustain such a high-level of play for that long. To play four-straight seasons of 100+ games. To overcome the inevitable injuries that will arise during that time. To constantly perform when you’ve got a target on your back every night. Doing that for four straight seasons is harder than three. Most teams will suffer a setback, maybe fall out in the Conference Finals, then use that as fuel to come back and win it again (put Duncan’s Spurs in this category for sure). The Lakers did that thanks to the 2008 Finals and haven’t looked back.

It’s easy to forget that the Lakers were elite three years ago. It’s easy to forget this is the fourth-straight season they’ll enter the playoffs with everyone expecting them to make the Finals. You take that stuff for granted, because it very very rarely happens in this sport. You take Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom and Phil Jackson for granted. I guarantee it. You also probably have a healthy dose of Laker Hatorade you’ll gladly swallow should they fail in their historic quest – as any non-Lakers fan rightly should. But I urge you, as I did when the above fact dawned on me this morning, to step back and consider just how historic the Lakers current mission really is. You might never see it again in your life time (or you might see it in the next five years in Miami).

This is why, despite the Lebron-Wade potential in Miami, the questions hovering above the aging Celtics, the rise and rise and Rose of the Bulls, and the lurking never-to-be-underestimated Spurs… the most intriguing storyline of these playoffs, to me, will be whether these Lakers can do it all again. Because above all else, I love watching greatness, and for the Lakers to join that three-peating company listed above, they will need to unleash their greatest post-season run of them all.

FOUR: On a similarly nostalgic Lakers topic, John Krolik has written an excellent post over at HoopSpeak on The Last Season. You know, that book Phil Jackson wrote when he called Kobe “uncoachable” back in 2003-2004. Its amazing to think how much the NBA landscape has shifted since then, and how much Jackson himself has been responsible for shifting it.

FIVE: So it seems the NBA world has accepted the inevitability of Derrick Rose being crowned the MVP. What I just want to point out here, and this is really important, is that the Rose-for-MVP argument didn’t settle itself because we realised his competition wasn’t interesting enough (mighty Dwight on a less-than-mighty team, usual brilliance from Lebron if not a bit more efficient than in previous years, and Kobe’s Lakers losing their lustre). It didn’t settle itself because we realised the anti-Rose advanced stats argument were a gross overreaction to Rose MVP candidacy (even though it was). It didn’t settle itself because the Celtics, Heat, Lakers and Spurs decided to put together pretty unconvincing finishes to the season that made the Bulls look better than they really are (even though this is true).

What settled the Rose-for-MVP argument, was that Derrick Rose continued to absolutely, unequivocally, and relentlessly kick butt in each and every single Bulls game. He didn’t stop. He never had a bad enough game or a big enough crunch-time failure to plant a single seed of doubt in the MVP voters minds. He did the only thing he needed to do – keep winning. It may seem like I’m pointing out the obvious here, but I can’t overstate this enough. Derrick Rose hasn’t set a single step wrong in the past month. Not with his actions, not with his words. The Bulls have lost 2 games in the past month – Rose scored 42 in one of those and went 31-10 in the other. He has been a rock. If you were doubting Rose at the height of his bandwagon a few weeks ago, and you’re still doubting him, I ask you this – what more could he have possibly done? Because the answer is nothing. He is your 2011 MVP and that’s that.

Let me also try to fit a little gloating in here. Derrick Rose was one of my MVP candidates before the season started. I told several people this. I remember emailing my mate Jim – yes that Jim – during his team selection phase that I thought Rose would win an MVP one day (of course I didn’t predict it would be this season). But I distinctly remember thinking the following before day 1 of the season with regards to the MVP race:

- Lebron has won 2-straight MVPs and probably won’t win it again now he’s playing with Miami
- Kobe is a victim of his own success, and even though the Lakers might finish #1, too many people will attribute that to Kobe’s superior teammates rather than Kobe himself
- Chris Paul is always an MVP candidate if healthy, but the Hornets will suck too much this season
- Dwight Howard is the consensus DPOY, can still improve, and will be on a 55+ win team. Plus he’s extremely likeable.
- The Bulls have a new-look team that could very well finish Top 4 out East. Rose is their best player and is an extremely hard worker. Of all the above possible outcomes, his MVP story would be the most appealing.

That was my thought process, and I went with Dwight because it seemed like the safer bet. Plus, I wanted him to win MVP. I now regret not picking Rose for the simple fact that no one else did, and I would have looked like a genius. Why am I bringing this up? Apart from the gloating, because I honestly am not surprised by this. I’m not surprised Derrick Rose is our 2010-2011 MVP. During the 2009 playoffs I said these things:

April 19th:

We have to talk about Derrick Rose. I’m sure the Internet is about to be swamped with a Rose-love fest and all kinds of metaphors about “being in bloom”. I want to make it simple: this was the best rookie performance in a playoff game I have seen in my entire life. I was not old enough to see Magic back in 1980 – although I have seen his game 6 since on DVD – but Rose’s performance has to be the next best thing we’ve seen in 30 years. Especially when you take into account context: the Bulls being a vastly younger side, playing on the road in the most hostile of environments, playing the defending champions, playing a team they had NEVER beaten in the postseason (including all of MJ’s career), playing against arguably the best point-guard defender in the league. When you weigh all that up, it’s inescapable – the greatest rookie playoff performance of this generation.

April 28th:

Derrick Rose was again sublime. It wasn’t just the 23-11-9, it was the way he took over in the fourth quarter and made the Celtics defenders look like garden gnomes. I could not believe I was watching a rookie. Once this guy learns to slow down a bit (sometimes his brain is clearly moving faster than his body will allow) and improve his jump shot, his limit is the exosphere. I shudder when I think about it.

In last year’s playoffs Rose and the Bulls unfortunately ran into the red-hot Cavs (and don’t forget he lost Ben Gordon as a crunch-time teammate), but he still did enough to overshadow Lebron for one game.  So in hindsight, we should have seen this coming. With a decent team in 2009 Rose almost lead the Bulls past the Celtics in the first round. With a semi-decent team last season, they stole 1 game from Lebron and the 60-win Cavs. With an elite team in 2010-2011? 60 wins and an MVP. Sure its a huge jump, but it’s one I thought Rose was completely capable of taking. In 2009 I said his limit was the exosphere. He’s realising some of that now, and he’s still getting better. I’m still shuddering.

SIX: Wanted to say a little bit about what’s coming your way from NBAMate. Yes the playoffs are around the corner, and that can only mean one thing… our Playoff Diary is nearly here! At times this season the new blog posts haven’t been coming as thick and fast as I would have liked – always the perpetual challenge of a blogger when you’re real job gets in the way (and without the support of the wider NBAMate team things would have been even more sparse!). But the one thing we’ll never compromise here is our Playoff Diary and the infamous 3-2-1 votes we hand out each day of the postseason. We’re like Tim Duncan in that sense – we’ll always step up for the playoffs. So make sure you check in each and every day as the postseason arrives. I have a feeling it’s going to be one of the most memorable in history.


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