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NBA Tonight

Still in action, 4th quarter, the Clippers trailing in Phoenix in a tight one. Blake Griffin back in the lineup, right now he and Darren Collison lead LA with 42 points between them. They’re in the game, against the Suns that have 7 players in double figures and counting. Eric Bledsoe is a bucket away from making it 8. PJ Tucker already has a double-double.

NBA Referee Dick Bavetta officiated his 2,633 consecutive game. Let’s just say he beat the great MLB Legend, Cal Ripken Jr.’s consecutive games played. It’s a great accomplishment, I can’t say that I or anyone I know has worked those many days in a row (excluding days off, but basically everyone takes a sick or vacation day at some point).

San Antonio handles Golden State 111-90 en route to 19 straight wins, adding onto their franchise record. The Spurs took advantage of a beaten down Warriors team at home, without Andre Iguodala, David Lee, and Andrew Bogut. They do what they always do: 6 players score 11+ points, 6 guys grab 4+ rebounds, and 3 of them dropped 5+ assists. The only guy that wasn’t smothered defensively and found some success was reserve big man, Maurice Speights.

LeBron James throws down a pair poster dunks on the Bucks tonight. The defending champs got 17 and 8 dimes from the King in the absence of Dwyane Wade and Ray Allen. For Milwaukee, Ramon Sessions led the team with 19 points and Zaza Pachulia cleaned the glass 16 times. In case you were curious, the score was 96-77.

Battle of California, the Lakers fall in Sacramento 107-102. Jordan Hill (18 points, 16 rebounds) fouled out but played at a high level against DeMarcus Cousins (20 points, 9 rebounds). Rudy Gay and Ray McCallum team up for 58.

Whenever a final score is 137 (Nuggets) -107 (Pelicans), it’s usually a fun idea to watch the highlights.  Six Nuggets scored in double-figures. Kenneth Faried went off for 34 points, 13 boards, and 3 blocks. Denver’s floor general Ty Lawson notches a double-double. Teammate Aaron Brooks contributed 24 off the bench with a couple blocks and steals. Tyreke Evans continues to ball, this time in a losing effort, dropping 27 points and 8 rebounds.

Wizards Center Marcin Gortat sneaks into the Celtics huddle. As for the game, Washington rolled to clinch their first playoff berth since 2008, 118-92. John Wall paved the way with a double-double, as 6 Wizards score double digits. Rajon Rondo got his 13, 7, and 6. Jared Sullinger led the Celtics with 25 points off the pine.

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Chicago flexed in Atlanta tonight, sweeping the Hawks this season 105-92. Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau earned his 200th win. Again, as has been the story of the evening with the other good teams, 6 players made their way to double-digit points. Joakim Noah with a double-double and the little man continues to come up big for Chicago every year, this year and tonight has is DJ Augustin. 24 points for the spark plug off the bench. Jeff Teague and Paul Millsap combined for 43 points in the home loss.

Minnesota held home court 102-88 over Memphis. Kevin Love’s triple-double did them in, along with Ricky Rubio’s 14 points, 7 assists, 3 steals. Quietly, Kevin Martin chimes in with 21 points, is there another sub-20 ppg scorer that gets overlooked? Marc Gasol did his thing with 18, 7 boards, and 4 assists.

Gasol and Noah are so versatile, they are a different breed called point-centers and have been doing so for years.

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Improve College Basketball

Don’t watch them anymore, don’t care enough to. Colleges are a scam, when it comes to the foundation, it starts at the top, it’s all about money, and that applies to students and student-athletes. This is a sports blog however, so all that other jazz, well I’ll leave it at that.

March Madness, I can’t stand the tournament. Sure, it’s exciting for the population that has little ties to a certain school, especially if they are a powerhouse program. Here’s where I’m getting at, the madness is great for fans rooting for unknown teams and everyone predicting the same Cinderella upsets.

What about value and substance? There is little meaning to playing around 30 or so games, only to get taken down in the first or second round by a random team that got hot in some lucky performance. There’s another tournament called the NIT, which gets less attention but is part of the March Madness festivities.

I’ve proposed this before, several years ago, of course nothing’s going to change the NCAA besides athletes earning some form of compensation. What would be best for business? Why not give the NIT tournament a boost, while magnifying the NCAA Tournament and the college championship. All while improving the product on the court by holding these schools, the recruiters, coaches, and players accountable for every single game. Meaning, make the season worth something and reward the truly top teams in the nation for all of their hard work and success.

Make the tournament for the National Championship competitive between the best 16, perhaps 32 teams in the country, depending on NCAA preference of course. Money runs everything which usually ruins most good things, unfortunately. If it were up to me, and it’s not and never will be but if you’re a sports die-hard like myself it’s a topic that I hope gets attention down the road, I ‘d make a radical change to the current bracket.

Sixteen teams in 3-game series, throughout each round of play. The best 16 teams, paired to win 2 out of 3 contests to advance, including the title series. It’s not as extensive as the NBA’s 7-game series, and definitely not as random and watered down as the current 64 team madness. One game, one and dones, anything can happen, so I’d keep that competitive excitement by adding the other “top” 48 teams to boost take the NIT to another level of importance. This is what I like to call, raising the stakes and putting the college money and recruitment where their mouths are. This gives NBA scouts a clearer picture on who’s consistent, who can adapt and make adjustments, who can dig deeper, who flourishes in the face of adversity? This gives a quality boost to prospects, to each draft class, and the quality of the game of basketball as a whole.

Whether the age limit stays put or changes, whether these student-athletes get some compensation, the game of basketball deserves to be treated with the respect because it takes unconditional and excessive work ethic to make it. Beyond words. I want to see polished players that can hit mid-range jumpers, that are students of the game enough to run a motion offense, that care about excelling on the defensive end even if they can effortlessly score the basketball.

Truth be told, some impactful change like this, I would bet it would attract more fans and reach out to those that didn’t finish nor attend college. Even those that aren’t classified as sports fans, it could be huge in my vision but I guess it’s alright with me if it’s just another sports topic to indulge in.

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DeSean Jackson, Redskins, Eagles

As a fan of the Philadelphia Eagles, I cannot tell you that I am excited about playing against DeSean Jackson twice per season. That’s my boy right there, the electric playmaker that makes his presence felt with statistics and intangibles.

The NFL die-hard follower in me, understands the business aspect and the concerns off the field. If the Aaron Hernandez scenario last summer doesn’t convince you that the league is shifting it’s approach, nothing will.

There will always be that second chance for a good player like we’ve seen countless times, as long as they are legally cleared. Apparently, Jackson has been a distraction since Andy Reid was the head coach. Being an avid spectator of the Eagles, both during the seasons and in reflection this offseason, the locker room and demeanor took a considerable dip. Like I said, Jackson is one of my favorite players and I’m still going to root for him individually, but Philadelphia moved on from a veteran coach to a college coach in Chip Kelly. That means, only those behind closed doors are aware of the current and future plans, and perhaps still learning Kelly’s system and tendencies. So anything we thought we knew before about this team, is up for interpretation because of this new regime.

Washington should be excited, despite the offense being led by the youthful backfield of Robert Griffin and Alfred Morris, the Redskins are made up of veteran players. In their situation, they improve by adding a Pro Bowler at multiple positions, which came from a division rival. Pierre Garcon has been the standout receiver since joining the Nation’s Capital, the speedster tandem with Jackson will be lethal in new coach Jay Gruden’s offense. Washington also happened to sign Andre Roberts away from Arizona while re-signing Santana Moss, which absolutely boosts Griffin’s arsenal to another level.

On the flip-side, Kelly and the Eagles believe in their system and will lean on the former college coach’s recruiting come draft weekend. They obviously feel like they can get similar production by whomever they plug into the role vacated by Jackson. That doesn’t necessarily have to come from one receiver, say Jeremy Maclin or Riley Cooper. The thinking is the big picture, giving defenses more to focus on than they can account for, insert second year tight end Zach Ertz and the newly acquired Darren Sproles. As a rookie, Ertz played more as the season progressed, excelling as a receiver in the middle of the field. Sproles, if you don’t know the book on him already, this guy gets a hand-off behind jumbo lineman or a swing/screen pass in space and racks up the YAC. It looks like this group, by committee, along with tight end Brent Celek and whoever they add in the draft, to continue their fastest-pace in the league to light up the scoreboard.

By the way, that’s merely talking about the passing attack of a team that led the Nation Football League in rushing. That’s right, LeSean McCoy is the highlight reel home-run threat. Nick Foles certainly has to improve over the offseason, although he had an impressive first year starting, the film is out there for opponents to dissect. In case you didn’t know, my prediction of Foles coming out of Arizona to emerge as the Eagles starter finally came to fruition. I bought into him, and I recommend jumping on the bandwagon sooner than later.

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NBA Playoff Focus

Last night Indiana defended home court against the champs in a “heated” contest. This Eastern Conference Finals preview was destined to happen since Miami knocked them out a year ago to repeat. For the record, the top-seeded Pacers are undefeated at home against the top teams in the East: Miami, Chicago, and Toronto.

You can’t deny the depth on that Pacers’ bench, however the apparent weakness continues to be their point guard play when you look at the bigger picture. This is a hungry squad with a feisty coach. They physically drain you with the best defense in the league and mentally frustrate you by slowing down the tempo. Like every team, they got riled up to play Miami and were probably bored before that, being in a lull since the All-Star break.

The thing is, we’ve seen this before when Derrick Rose and the Bulls were healthy. Sure, Indy looks better on paper and holds their own in the regular season, just remember that these games mean more to the Pacers and Bulls. The goal for a championship team is to stay relatively healthy, so they can play their best ball come playoff time to defend the throne. LeBron James might not catch Kevin Durant in the MVP race, the thing is that he’s been given somewhat of a break with the emergence of Dwyane Wade. That’s probably the most dangerous weapon for opponents in a playoff series, Wade looking healthy and hitting outside shots. Of course, the back-breaker tends to be Chris Bosh, the forgotten man on the floor that sinks a timely jumper because you have to worry about the two playmakers or Ray Allen spotting up.

Chicago, they play the right way and it’s admirable, especially for high school and college players to watch their fundamentals and work ethic. They trust each other, unselfish offense that enables anyone to shoot when open. The defensive end is anchored by Joakim Noah who’s thrusting his name into MVP consideration. Although the MVP campaign continues to be between James and Durant, guys like Noah and Kevin Love have entered the top 5 . That’s huge for those teams, these All Stars continue to improve. Ignoring the future of Love’s contract status, perhaps we’re watching the tip of the iceberg in Minnesota with him and Ricky Rubio.

The Windy City should keep their hopes up as championship contenders, because Noah has elevated his play with former MVP, Derrick Rose anxious for next season. Chi-town will have the cap space to go after a free agent, maybe Carmelo Anthony, and within the next two years get the best player in Europe, Nikola Mirotic. His anticipated landing as a stretch forward looks like it will compliment the Bulls offense with what they’ve been lacking.

Not to spend too much time on the upcoming draft, it is very obvious that teams are tanking and you can’t blame them with the current NBA format. There’s only a handful of teams with realistic hopes of dethroning the Heat, so why wouldn’t the majority of teams sideline good players or make questionable substitutions all season long, like the Pistons. What better way to repay the Lakers for the Chris Paul controversy, denying that trade which enabled the rival Clippers to turn their franchise around, then by awarding them a top 3 pick to get back on the map. Putting Jabari Parker, Julius Randle, or Andrew Wiggins alongside Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, and Steve Nash would bring the “Lake Show” back to center stage. Even the purple and gold threw in the towel before the season began.

As for “Lob City,” they might have the best chance of beating Miami for the title. Doc Rivers found a way to beat “King” James before, also mustering up an overachieving effort with an aging Celtics team the past couple of years. His presence has taken Blake Griffin’s game to another level. CP3 has been the class of point guards for awhile, now he’s surrounded with role playing wings left and right: Danny Granger, J.J. Redick, Jamaal Crawford, Jared Dudley, and Matt Barnes even broke out with a couple 20-point games. The man in the middle, DeAndre Jordan, playing consistent as ever by owning the paint.

They will have to get by the Spurs and Thunder, none will go down without the fight of their lives. The savvy veterans in San Antonio are like the New England Patriots. Greg Popovich and Tim Duncan are like Bill Belichick and Tom Brady. They’re going deep into the playoffs. They get the necessary and strategic rest to stay fresh and make another run. OKC, basically, didn’t have Russell Westbrook for last year’s postseason campaign. And you can see they’ve been working on ways to put points on the board with role players, whether it comes from Serge Ibaka making some jumpers he didn’t in the past or the guards off the bench are contributing. The combination of those things are certainly their “x-factor.”

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NFL Hash Marks: Off-Season & Regulations

It’s unfortunate that Paul Tagliabue retired and handed the reigns to Roger Goodell. The commissioner is changing the game, in my opinion, in the worst way. Taking away celebrations (no dunking on goal posts is ridiculous), focusing so much on injuries that he had to put out his own fire and settle on the concussion lawsuit, and ending the lock out with officials has resulted in mediocre results at best. The greed is at an all time high, from wanting a team in London to expanding the playoffs. It’s already enough that a second wildcard team has an opportunity to win the Super Bowl, let alone adding more teams. This deflates the meaning of regular season games to another level.

Mark Cuban isn’t the first person to voice an opinion about the NFL heading towards a dead end, and he won’t be the last. The saying goes, all good things come to an end, even if they are so “powerful” at this point in time. You can Google for other examples, there’s plenty and it can happen, better hope Goodell starts caring about the product on the field. This is supposed to be a game, fun to play, fun watch, the die-hards will tell you how painful all these negative changes have been.

Where’s the common sense? It takes several serious injuries for the league and officials to get something right (Rob Gronkowski, Navarro Bowman, and those occurred near the end of last year). Comparable to the real world in the workforce, the ugly truth is that things are managed and run by dinosaurs that want to regulate on things just because they can. Just like companies with negative reputations or that have failed, it really does start at the top or else there’s nothing that can be done to save it.

Thursday Night Football is tough for teams to recover and prepare for, from the previous Sunday. Performances on short weeks remind me of watching preseason action, all season long. As usual follow the money, it gives fans an excuse to do something on a weeknight, even if we’re only partially paying attention while half don’t even listen to the commentary.

I don’t buy into the Eagles trying to get rid of  DeSean Jackson. Sure, listening to offers, but not attempting to trade the Pro Bowler. When you have a top shelf receiver on his second contract, of course he’s going to want a third one very soon, especially after coming off the best receiving season of his career.

It’s not always sunny in Philadelphia, guard Evan Mathis has evolved into an All-Pro since he came to town. He was well-known backup in Cincinnati around the league several years ago, now he’s on the elite level. I understand that he’s 32 years old, but offensive linemen can play well into their 30′s at a high level. Plus, Mathis has less mileage on him because he wasn’t a starter from the jump.

Chip Kelly has a different system and belief than Andy Reid his predecessor, so don’t be surprised if he wants to draft players to replace the guys he inherited.

Malcolm Jennings fits exactly what the Eagles are trying to mirror from the likes of Seattle, a lengthy safety that can play both positions.

Chicago scooped Ryan Mundy and M.D. Jennings, the tandem is projected to be the new starters in a cover-2. These guys covering the big play while “Peanut” Tillman (re-signed) and Tim Jennings excel on the outside. Secondary improved.

Defensive End Jared Allen made his rounds, including a pair of meetings with the champion Seahawks. He winds up signing with the Bears that he met with before, staying in the NFC North. He will get to face the Vikings twice.

As will Julius Peppers for the Cheese Heads. Chicago parted ways with him and the rival Packers quickly picked him up. The off and on motor is being counted on by his new team, finally getting to play outside linebacker just like he’s been hoping for.

DeMarcus Ware joining the Broncos, opposite of Von Miller will have quarterbacks on the swivel. Don’t look at your linemen, anybody on Denver’s schedule next year, your tight ends and running backs have to chime in on that assignment.

Any move that adds a pass rusher is a plus, regardless of age and what he has left in the tank. A guy that had success getting to the QB is worth the money, whereas most high draft picks don’t pan out.

So apparently Mike Wallace is another receiver “on the block.” The offseason is for teams to test the market, possibly even seeing how opponents value their players. Miami had a lot of controversy to overcome, if he wasn’t a distraction behind closed doors then the offense should give it another go with an O-line that actually plays. Acquiring tackle Brandon Albert will help that cause.

Speaking of receivers, Baltimore has a nice tandem of Steve Smith and Torrie Smith. The Smith Bros will expose the AFC North secondaries. I’m not counting out Ray Rice from bouncing back, they do need to invest in the hogs up front this offseason because well, let’s just say Joe Flacco isn’t even a top-20 QB in my book.

Eric Decker signed on with the Jets, he will be catching passes from Michael Vick or Geno Smith. Picking up Decker and Vick are actually good moves for Rex Ryan and company, these are experienced players from playoff teams. Although Smith started last year in his rookie season, I do expect Vick to get the nod. A defensive team with a mobile quarterback, the recipe has worked well for the Seahawks and 49ers. Snagging guard Breno Giacomini from the champs will pay unsung dividends as well. I’d consider them a favorite to land a wildcard spot if Maurice Jones-Drew is paired in the backfield with Vick.

New England, the rich got richer. Replacing Aqib Talib with not only Darrelle Revis, but Brandon Browner too. The Vince Wilfork situation looks is likely to result in a divorce, making nose tackle a high priority come draft day.

Cleveland got serious with under-the-radar trio of signings: Karlos Dansby, Donte Whitner, and Ben Tate.

Oakland has rid themselves of bigger contracts the past two offseasons, as G.M. Reggie McKenzie is building through the draft like he did with Green Bay. Trading for Matt Schaub, I’m all for that, a veteran guy that’s made a pair of Pro Bowls. Coming off a season of struggle, in reflection it appears to have been a team issue rather than just Schaub’s. Not sure how big of a jump they’ll take but don’t be surprised to see them in the wildcard hunt after Thanksgiving.

Another rebuilding team, Jacksonville, continues to rebuild overnight. Coach Gus Bradley got himself a few defensive linemen: Ziggy Hood, Chris Clemons, and Red Bryant. The defensive guru is trying to shore up the defense with veterans in a weak division.

The G-Men have a new returner in Trinton Holliday, he brings an element that Big Blue’s been missing.

The same can be said for Devin Hester’s role in Atlanta, maybe he can take advantage of some slot opportunities with those playmaking receivers healthy.

Detroit decided to move on from Nate Burleson (often injured), insert Golden Tate. Adding more speed to a dynamic offense that already has “Megatron” and Reggie Bush. Don’t sleep on running back Joique Bell, and we did see some breakout performances from tight end Joseph Fauria.

Without a doubt, Jairus Byrd makes the Saints defense a lot better.

Gotta love the Buccaneers offseason so far: DE Michael Johnson, CB Alterraun Verner, CB Mike Jenkins, QB Josh McCown. I’m throwing McCown’s name in the hat as an early “Comeback Player of the Year” candidate. Why? Look no further than last year’s recipient, Chargers QB Philip Rivers. McCown filled in admirably in the Windy City when Jay Cutler was sidelined, arguably better in his short stint.

Now that Antonio Cromartie signed on with the Cardinals, and when a rehabbing Tyrann Mathieu, who’s going to throw on Patrick Peterson and that secondary?

San Francisco upgraded at safety with the addition of Antoine Bethea. Even in free agent chatter, the Pro Bowler is underrated and overlooked.

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NBA Goes Awol

Miami is getting similar treatment as the Bulls did during their three-peat season. They were doubted, questioned about their age and how being the hunted again would be too much to match. At this point, a fresh Dwyane Wade is playing at a high level. Chris Bosh is still breaking the back of defenses with his mid-range jumper, and any three-ball he drains only spaces the floor even more. Ray Allen’s stroke is as good as yesterday. Mario Chalmers is picking up the pressure on opposing point guards with the season approaching playoff-intensity mode.

LeBron James looks poised to snatch the MVP award yet again, this time as an underdog to Kevin Durant of the Thunder. Simply put, “King James” continues to raise the ante after the All-Star break. That, and Russell Westbrook is back in the lineup, which could damper “Durantula’s” MVP campaign. Don’t get me wrong, you will not find a stronger believer in Westbrook being the catalyst for Oklahoma City. Durant’s always going to get his points, and he’s definitely picked up every aspect of his game this year. He wasn’t kidding with that interview, stating that he was tired of being second. The thing is, Westbrook currently brings the total package and still has unfulfilled potential that he is on pace to reach. He’s the more well-rounded player of the dynamic duo, career wise. Picture Derrick Rose and the Bulls taking Miami to six games in the Eastern Conference Finals, except he has an elite teammate that leads the league in scoring. Not exactly Rose the MVP, however Westbrook should be getting top-3 point guard credit.

Oklahoma City needs Surge Ibaka to hit outside shots in a 7-game series, we haven’t seen that before although he’s worked on it all season long. The champions seem to have too much firepower, besides, OKC has to face contenders like the Spurs and Clippers. The Western Conference will probably come down to those trio of teams. Indiana remains the biggest threat to Miami, I would suggest to see how they’ve been playing since the break. No other “superstar” gets held into single-digit points, maybe it’s just a matter of time for them to get over that Danny Granger trade. Nonetheless, they are the best defensive team in the league that rolls out an offense without a cemented identity. Why not improve at the point by offering Granger for Rondo in a trade?

The heart and soul of basketball fans, Tom Thibbodeau and the Chicago Bulls. They D up every play, making you work for every offensive action. They force you to dribble sideways instead of attacking the basket, by either trapping near halfcourt or collapsing in the paint. All five guys on the floor box out, bump you on cuts, the bigs crash the glass, guards push the ball for easy baskets, they move the ball and take smart shots. They believe the ball belongs to them, and Thibbodeau’s system continues to benefit guards that can shoot. Aside from Rose, we’ve witnessed success from John Lucas III, Nate Robinson, Marco Bellinelli, and now D.J. Augustin. When Rose returns they might want to bring Kirk Hinrich off the bench, because starting Augustin at the point to alleviates pressure on Rose since he can slide to the wing. As for this season, they’re probably the third best team after discovering some offense, the slow start is a thing of the past. Sure, they might be a notch under the Pacers overall, we would all be glued to that series if they collided. Joakim Noah is flourishing as the center piece, Taj Gibson has stepped his game up, and Jimmy Butler wants to grow overnight.

The Houston Rockets are an interesting group, but after giving them compliments they remind me about how far they really are. Holding onto Chandler Parsons is a mistake in my eyes. When the All-Star player you’re getting is Rajon Rondo, that gives you the top defensive point guard that averages double-digit dimes. This only makes the offense smoother, hooking up their version of Kobe/Shaq with more open shots and alley-oops. Houston is already anchored by the big man protecting the lane, imagine Rondo disturbing the best ball-handler and decision maker you’re playing against too. Damn, that still could come to fruition though in the offseason.

“Lob City” has more swag, more polish, that belief instilled by head coach Doc Rivers. He has taken Blake Griffin to the next level already in 3/4 of a season, even meriting some MVP consideration. No, he won’t win it but he’s thrusted his name into the top 5 by breaking out a somewhat consistent jumper and adding some toughness. Eh, what’s up Doc? Allocating players, putting shooters on the wings and corners. They won a playoff series with Chris Paul doing what he does, DeAndre Jordan being one-dimensional offensively, and Griffin basically being effective in the paint only. Insert Griffin’s improved perimeter shot, Jordan being put in position to aid the offense, then insert shooters J.J. Redick, Jared Dudley, and Danny Granger. Oh yeah, Jamaal Crawford can set the table, knock down shots from anywhere, and glide up the floor on the break. Hard to bet against this team in crunch time, they will have an exciting run.

The same old Spurs are to be reckoned with. Greg Popovich is monitoring the veterans’ minutes with ease, resulting in some surprise victories. Tim Duncan is still notching double-doubles, and Kawhi Leonard might be the “Matrix” Shawn Marion, with more offense. The guards play their roles like they’ve been there before, partly because they have but also from coach “Pop” changing the gameplan to feature different players so they’re all ready when called upon. Anything that can be said about San Antonio, is basically the offensive version of what Chicago brings to the table. They are so fundamental with how they use screens, set up their defenders to go back door, they play chess in a league full of checker players. Most team cannot match wits, the basketball I.Q. of this team clinches wins on a daily basis alone.

Then you talk about the teams that can make their presence felt, the Warriors are like that idea you forgot but it’s on the tip of your tongue. Transforming from a finesse team to playing more physical, with the mindset of playing in  a playoff series. They won’t always bring it, they do go down shooting though don’t they? Andre Iguodala is the guy that has to take the reigns, as the veteran, the top defender, the swingman that can penetrate and dish. The rotation is as strong as any team, but they go as “Iggy” goes.

Portland is looming, they are young and on the rise. I just don’t see “it,” not this season anyways. They have talent, are good enough on both ends, but experience is huge so just making the tournament will be a success for them. They can accelerate the process if they win a series. Dallas is the veteran savvy team lurking in the shadows. After a down season they find themselves in the thick of things, and probably playing for their playoff hopes until the last week. Memphis, they fell off a bit, they force you to play at their tempo. The Grizzlies are tough, play East-Coast ball, not enough offense to make real noise. The Suns are right there, currently outside looking in but will compete to the finish line. Exciting team, overachieved for half the season, gaining any playoff experience will serve as definite success for Phoenix.

And then there’s the rest of the East. It’s good to see Toronto find their stride after trading Rudy Gay. Shooting Guard DeMarr DeRozen is hooping, best season of his young career. He’s the man now for the Raptors, and Kyle Lowry is healthy so the public can watch this guy post near triple-double lines while poking the ball away for a few steals. Lowry isn’t well-known, he plays every aspect of the game well though. Similar to Rondo, performs a notch below with a better shot. Would like to see more consistency out of him.

The Wizards when you think about it, are playing exactly how you would imagine a young team. They’re not on a bad track at all, mid-seed at the moment that will be ecstatic playing in a series. The young guards are fiery and won’t be happy just making it, but it’ll be good for them. Some of the same can be said for Charlotte, they have some key pieces to reach the second round, led by stud Al Jefferson. The Nets and Hawks are experienced teams, been there and might get out the first round, but that’s the limit for expectations there. New York is creeping, if they do make it, winning in the first round would be a stretch. Especially being slated against the favorites, Heat or Pacers.

It’s Miami’s league, like it or not, with a trio of Western Conference teams that will battle each other to face the champs. Even at their peak performance, I would be surprised if Indiana actually pulled off the upset in a series. The Heat are still hungry, the world is not enough. I might even like the Bulls against the Pacers, whoever can muster up consistent offense has a crack at dethroning them, it’ll probably take seven games to do it.

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Indianapolis Colts

Just when you thought the Colts only added one offensive weapons to Andrew Luck’s arsenal, enter not only wideout Hakeem Nicks, but also injured tight end Dwayne Allen. The rookie standout got injured last season, much of their success came in dual tight end formations. Coby Fleener, both selected in the 2012 draft, got extra playing time while speedster T.Y. Hilton made some noise after Reggie Wayne went down. Not to be forgotten, is the backfield tandem between Ahmad Bradshaw and Trent Richardson. If Richardson can assert himself and Bradshaw stays healthy enough to play, Luck’s success as a runner is a dangerous last option. Here’s the thing, the line should get some attention in the draft but they do have the quarterback to overcompensate and make the offense go.

Defensively they landed D’Qwell Jackson, pairing the elite veteran with Jarrell Freeman. This should form a nice, quiet combination as inside linebackers in a 3-4 defense with Robert Mathis harassing off the edge. In the secondary they let Antoine Bethea go, kept Vontae Davis around with Laron Landry, and took Arthur Jones away from the Ravens. Coach Chuck Pagano used his ties to lure the defensive end, as he was formerly Baltimore’s defensive coordinator. This improved unit would benefit from another lineman and safety.

They grabbed a hold of the AFC South after knocking on the doorstep a couple seasons ago. After back-to-back playoff appearances with this regime, they should be there to stay as the only real threat appears to be the Texans reloading overnight. Sure, the Jaguars defense is improving quickly under Gus Bradley and their new acquisitions, but along with Tennessee, they’re still several pieces away from competing for the division. Wildcard spots are for the taking.