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NBA Notebook: Competitive playoffs, draft season

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NBA Notebook: Competitive playoffs, draft season

Friday, April 29, 2011
Posted: 10:04 a.m.

By Aggrey Sam
CSNChicago.com

And then there was one--first-round series, that is. In addition to Atlanta, the Bulls' second-round opponent, two other teams advanced Thursday night, leaving just Memphis and San Antonio as the lone ongoing opening-round matchup.

Although no series went to seven games--and none will, if the Grizzlies close out the Spurs at "The Grind House" (as Grizzlies guard Tony Allen has dubbed Memphis' Fed Ex Forum) Friday evening--this spring's edition of the playoffs has been among the most exciting in years. Only one team, Boston, swept its opponent (New York, which was missed both All-Star Amar'e Stoudemire and point guard Chauncey Billups for much of the series) and even in that instance, the Knicks gave the Celtics a battle half of the time.

READ: Second round matchup with Hawks favors Bulls

Upstart teams rose to the occasion--Indiana tested Chicago's mettle, Atlanta upset Orlando, Philadelphia refused to bow down to Miami, New Orleans stole two games from the defending champion Lakers, Portland threw a scare into Dallas, Denver didn't make it easy for Oklahoma City and Memphis is on the verge of shocking San Antonio--everywhere and even though the favored teams have mostly held serve, nobody appears to be invulnerable.

Adding to the fun is the possibility of a changing of the guard, with youth-driven teams in the Windy City and elsewhere (specifically Oklahoma City) having a clear path to the conference finals, something NBA conspiracy theorists probably love. That said, neither Derrick Rose nor Kevin Durant will have valet service on their way to their potential first NBA Finals trips, not with the old guard--the Lakers and Mavericks in the West, Miami and Boston in the East--looking to stand in their way after getting through much more obtrusive roadblocks.

Regardless of whether they face an underdog Memphis team or an aging San Antonio squad, the young Thunder should advance in no more than six games. As for the other conference semifinal matchups, expect the experience and team-oriented style of the Celtics to get them by the still-individualistic Heat in a hotly-contested, seven game slugfest, while the Lakers should make one more stand in Phil Jackson's final season coaching and rely on a rejuvenated Kobe Bryant--who, in turn, seemed to pass on that energy to his teammates in the process of dispatching Chris Paul's pesky Hornets--and their frontcourt dominance to beat Dirk Nowitzki's flawed Mavericks in six games.

Coaching carousel begins its ride

Always running concurrently with the playoffs is the start of the NBA's annual coaching carousel. The first organizations to make move this spring were Houston and Golden State, which parted ways with under-appreciated veteran Rick Adelman and rookie head coach Keith Smart, respectively.

READ: NBA releases Bulls vs. Hawks schedule

Adelman's ouster might not have been a surprise, but it seemed to come as a jolt to his players, who understood the incredible job he did with short-handed rosters that were without injured superstar center Yao Ming most of the time. Smart, on the other hand, was put in a tough position by being given the head job by the Warriors' new ownership group just before training camp; the longtime Don Nelson assistant couldn't be expected to change the team's culture in one season, but while free-agent signee Dorell Wright blossomed under his watch, their marquee acquisition David Lee was a mild disappointment and second-year star Stephen Curry appeared to regress.

One situation that bears watching is Indiana, where 37-year-old Frank Vogel took over for the deposed Jim O'Brien on an interim basis mid-year and not only led the Pacers to the playoffs, but adjusted the young team's approach and actually gave the Bulls a run for their money in four of the five games in the first-round series. Vogel is enthusiastic, a bit brash and somebody who inspires his team, which genuinely seemed to like playing for him.

If Larry Bird returns as the franchise's top executive, expect Vogel to also stay put, although Bird indicated he'd also interview other candidates for the opening. Indiana's youth and potential are obvious, and with the cap space the Pacers have, bringing in power forward that can score on the low block and a perimeter scorer to complement Danny Granger--a deal they almost made at the trade deadline would have brought them Grizzlies shooting guard O.J. Mayo--could elevate them in the Eastern Conference pecking order.

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While speculation about other openings--outside of the aforementioned Lakers, where Bryant has already offered his support for longtime assistant Brian Shaw to take over for the departing Jackson--would be unfair at this point, former NBA head coaches Mike Brown, Mike Woodson and Kevin McHale are hot names, as are a litany of current assistant coaches, such as Boston's Lawrence Frank and San Antonio's Mike Budzenholzer.

Draft season also shaping up

With the deadline for underclassmen to enter June's NBA Draft--players who didn't sign with agents have until May 8 to return to school--recently passing, it's clear that many collegiate stars are taking advantage of the upcoming multi-team mega-workout to be held in New Jersey. Sixty-nine underclassmen declared for the draft this year, with the usual anonymous names dotting the list alongside potential lottery picks like Duke point guard Kyrie Irving, Arizona forward Derrick Williams and Connecticut star Kemba Walker.

However, the list of entrants might be more notable for the names not on it, such as the freshman trio of North Carolina's Harrison Barnes, Ohio State's Jared Sullinger and Baylor's Perry Jones, all of whom were projected to be top picks, but opted to return to college. While some of those decisions were primarily motivated by the potential of team success--in Jones' case, it was surprisingly about improvement, something more shocking considering the NCAA-mandated suspension he faces at the beginning of next season for receiving improper benefits--the chance of an NBA lockout also likely played a role, as a truncated rookie campaign would be detrimental to player's development.

Having seen the three aforementioned prospects--and the majority of the other players on the early-entry list--develop from the time they were prep phenoms, their decision is commendable, although a perceived strong 2012 draft class might push some players to strike while the iron is hot. Still, even in what's being panned as a weak crop of incoming rookies for next season, there is a lot of underwhelming talent looking to make the leap and even if selected in the first round, some may never make an impact in the league due to lack of preparedness.

Artest wins league's citizenship award

Lastly, Lakers forward Ron Artest won the NBA's annual Walter J. Kennedy Citizenship Award, voted on by the Professional Basketball Writers Association, for his efforts in the field of mental; health. The former Bulls draft pick, who famously thanked his therapist after the Lakers won last season's NBA Finals, is one of the league's great turnaround stories, going from a pariah after various antics--well, the antics are still there, but in a non-destructive fashion--and more importantly, his role in the infamous "Malice in the Palace," to a media darling and fan favorite.

Aggrey Sam is CSNChicago.com's Bulls Insider. Follow him @CSNBullsInsider on Twitter for up-to-the-minute Bulls information and his take on the team, the NBA and much more.

Bulls Outsiders Podcast: Bulls lose to Warriors for 2nd time in 10 days

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USA TODAY

Bulls Outsiders Podcast: Bulls lose to Warriors for 2nd time in 10 days

On this edition of the Bulls Outsiders podcast, Matt Peck, David Watson, and John Sabine react to the Bulls 100-98 loss to the Warriors

0:45 - Reaction to loss and Bulls losing to Warriors again

2:30 - On 4th quarter struggles

3:30 - On Zach LaVine’s game-winning shot attempt

5:20 - Viewer comments on Coby White starting

9:20 - Viewer comment on Denzel Valentine leads to Matt rant

10:20 - Viewer comment on Wendell Carter

12:10 - Viewer comment on Sato needing to be more aggressive

13:30 - Viewer comment on Luke Kornet

16:35 - Viewer comment on Denzel Valentine talking trash to Warriors

18:00 - On LaVine not being the issue

19:00 - On Otto Porter’s injury and being out indefinitely

22:10 - Viewer comment on Bulls being contenders

23:50 - Viewer comment asking why Matt is always angry

24:50 - Viewer asking Sabine how he feels about the Bears beating the Cowboys

26:20 - Which team is more likely to make playoffs, Bears or Bulls?

 Listen to the full podcast here or via the embedded player below:

Bulls Outsiders

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Lauri Markkanen inspires, then fades in emblematic loss to Warriors

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USA Today

Lauri Markkanen inspires, then fades in emblematic loss to Warriors

When Lauri Markkanen is on, it's inspired. And he was 'on' in the first half of the Bulls' eventual 100-98 loss to the league-worst (entering the night) 4-19 Warriors. 

In fact, there were stretches when it appeared he just might save the Bulls from their second (second!) loss of the season to Golden State.

See: the opening five minutes of the second quarter. The Warriors, trailing 28-23 at the end of the first period, were on a 16-5 run. You could call it a spurt, but it felt more like an avalanche. The Bulls' bench had gone cold, Ky Bowman and Omari Spellman were raining hellfire and the United Center was despondent.

Then, Markkanen awoke. It all started on a pick-and-pop action between Markkanen and Denzel Valentine. With the Warriors flat-footed and scrambling to rotate, Markkanen reeled in a bounce-pass from Valentine at the top of the key and rifled a side-armed bullet to Daniel Gafford, awaiting free and clear in the paint. This is a delightful play, and a rare one for Markkanen this season:

Two straight 3-pointers (one on another pick-and-pop possession in concert with Zach LaVine) followed that, then a cutting dunk to knot the game 41-41. Markkanen finished the half leading the game in points (17), field goals made and attempted (shooting 7-for-11) and 3-pointers, on which he was 3-for-6. The Bulls were ahead 51-50. Too close for comfort, yes, (especially for this team) but in the moment, that Markkanen sequence felt like a true leadership moment. He was carrying the team.

Zach LaVine, after all, hadn't scored until the under two minutes until the half.

"I was getting good looks, my teammates were finding me, and I was getting to the rim," Markkanen said. "No matter how they were guarding me, we found something that worked for us."

Markkanen then proceeded to not score for over 25 minutes of game action, totaling three points in the second half on 1-for-6 shooting. After the game, Jim Boylen was unsure of what exactly changed for Markkanen of the second, but the taste in his mouth was evidently sour.

"I don't know. I mean, sometimes people adjust? They adjust to a guy who's got it going and they change. Sometimes the ball doesn't go in," Boylen said. "That's the game."

Boylen added that he liked the look Markkanen got on a 3-pointer late in the fourth that, at the time, tied the game 97-97. It was the only shot Markkanen made after the 4:48 mark of the second quarter.

"The team goes on spurts," Markkanen offered as explanation. "We go on little runs and they go on runs. That's how the game is, and I feel like we did a good job feeding the hot guy. When Zach got going in the second half, we did the same thing, so... I think that's part of it."

LaVine scored 21 of his 22 points in the game over a seven-minute stretch between the end of the second quarter and beginning of the third. For the third time this season (and second time in three games), LaVine and Markkanen each tallied 20 points. It rang hollow.

So did the team's end-of-fourth-quarter execution, an area they excelled in over the two-game win streak they rode into this one. LaVine, again, controlled the majority of the team's crunch-time possessions, but this time, the team fell short — mustering only 15 points in the final period.

"We could've executed, not turned the ball over," Markkanen said. "Simple plays. Obviously everybody's going to look at the last play, but it's not about that. We had some good looks before that that we gotta make the plays that we need to finish the game off."

Markkanen committed two turnovers and bricked a forced, late-shot clock jumper in the final two minutes. "I could have done a better job making the plays I needed," he conceded.

The Bulls go as LaVine and Markkanen do, and their stilted play tonight reflected the team's oft-polarizing offense. After two games of fresher air, Markkanen — 'back' for a half, a leader on the floor — ultimately took one step back.

"You know, that's part of the learning," Boylen said. "People adjust in the second half to what you did in the first, and you gotta adjust again."

What that adjustment will be remains to be seen.