The NBA playoffs begin next weekend with the Heat as the heavy favorite and the Lakers just trying to get in. But is Miami a lock to win it all? Are the Lakers a nonfactor now that Kobe Bryant's season is over? As we wrap up the regular season, here are five things to keep in mind as we get ready for the playoffs.
1. The Heat will play the Bucks in the first round. The Bucks don't even have a winning record, so the Heat would crush them in a seven-game series, right? Yeah, probably. But just one second. Something to consider: The Bucks have played the Heat pretty tough this season. Milwaukee beat the Heat just once in the four-game season series but held the high-scoring Heat to fewer than 100 points twice. Okay, so maybe the Bucks cannot beat Miami, but if they can push Miami to six games, it could have an effect on the Heat later in the playoffs.
2. The team no one wants to play? The Pacers. It's not that the Pacers are loaded with talent. It's just that they're a grinding, in-your-face, pain-in-the-neck team you would rather avoid, especially if you have to play them several times in a week. They work hard. They play with elbows that are sharp and shoulders with chips on them. They came into the weekend as the best rebounding team in the NBA and with the second-best defense. Isn't that what wins in the spring, rebounding and defense? The Heat won't say it out loud, but Indiana is the one team that scares it just a bit. Indiana won two of three games against the Heat this regular season, with both victories coming in Indianapolis.
3. If the Heat doesn't win the East, which team will? The Knicks are playing well down the stretch, but I'm still not 100 percent sold on them. They rely so heavily on Carmelo Anthony, and I think teams will be able to double-team and harass Melo enough to limit him from lighting up the scoreboard during a long series. The Pacers, as mentioned, are a nasty team to play against, but the most balanced team in the East after Miami is Brooklyn. The Nets might be even more balanced than the Heat because they have two things Miami doesn't: an elite point guard in Deron Williams and a true center in Brook Lopez. The Nets' size could create matchup issues for Miami as well as the rest of the conference. And they have a deep bench. They don't have LeBron James, which makes Miami the favorite against everyone. But watch out for the Nets.
4. A team that isn't as scary as it would appear? The Nuggets, even though they've lost only three home games all season. They had that recent 15-game winning streak that brought a lot of attention, but this isn't a team that's really built for the playoffs. The Nuggets give up too many points (22nd at 100.9 per game entering Saturday) and turn the ball over too much (24th at 14.6 per game entering Saturday). They also suffered a big blow when forward Danilo Gallinari, who was averaging 16.2 points, 5.2 rebounds and 2.5 assists, tore his ACL on April 4 and was lost for the season. This isn't to say the Nuggets can't win a series, but they aren't hard to play against in a series.
5. For much of this season, the Lakers have been a dysfunctional mess. Firing their coach. Injuries. A feud between Kobe Bryant and Dwight Howard. Even if they make the playoffs — and that hasn't been nailed down just yet — they appear to be a one-and-done playoff team now that Kobe is out with a torn left Achilles. But Howard appears to be getting healthier, and don't be surprised if he's the main weapon of a pick-and-roll offense with point guard Steve Nash. And look for the Lakers to turn more to Pau Gasol, who still has excellent skills. Can they win a series even if they make the postseason? Probably not. But there's still talent there.
One for the ages
What the Lightning's Marty St. Louis is doing this season is remarkable.
He is tied for second in the league in scoring with teammate Steven Stamkos and behind injured Pittsburgh star Sidney Crosby. Okay, so that isn't a surprise, seeing as how St. Louis recently moved into the top 100 scorers in NHL history. But it is stunning that he's having this kind of season at his age. St. Louis turns 38 in June.
If this was a full 82-game season, St. Louis would be on pace for 100 points, and only two players 37 or older have recorded 100-point seasons. The Red Wings' Gordie Howe was 41 in 1968-69 when he had 103, and the Avalanche's Joe Sakic was 37 when he had 100 in 2006-07.
"I think the day you stop trying to get better, you're on your way down,'' St. Louis said. "I feel like I'm a smarter player than I was 10 years ago.''
St. Louis, humble as always, gives credit to playing with some great centers during his time with the Lightning: Brad Richards, Vinny Lecavalier and Stamkos. But he also puts in the effort, especially during the offseason.
"I try to put myself in the best position I can every year to have a great year with the work put in during the summer,'' St. Louis said. "I'd like to say that I'm still trying to get better.''
And stronger. He might be in better shape now than he was when he was 27. But for St. Louis, it's not really that big of a deal.
He said, "People ask me how I do this at age 37, and I say, 'I'll be honest with you. I don't know what I'm supposed to feel like at 37. This is my first time.' "
Oldies but goodies
Speaking of Marty St. Louis still being effective at age 37, former Lightning captain Dave Andreychuk, right, played until he was 42 and had 87 goals after his 37th birthday. What's the biggest thing a player has to adjust to at that age?
"You've really got to adapt to their music more than anything else,'' Andreychuk cracked about the locker room. "You're 42, and they're 21.''
The super six
The NCAA basketball tournament ended last week, but it's never too early to get a jump on next season. ESPN analyst Dick Vitale gave me his top six teams to watch for next season — although one team already might be out of the mix.
"It's all just speculation and subject to change,'' Vitale said.
But he likes Arizona at No. 6, Duke at No. 5, Indiana at No. 4, Michigan State at No. 3, North Carolina at No. 2, and his favorite for next year's national championship — Kentucky.
However, Indiana might drop out. Vitale said it would be in the hunt provided Cody Zeller returned for another season. Well, Zeller has announced he will forgo the rest of his college career to enter this summer's NBA draft. It's a double dose of bad news for the Hoosiers. Guard Victor Oladipo, a first-team All-American, also is leaving early.
Three things that popped into my head
1. Mavericks owner Mark Cuban wants to bring in Baylor women's basketball star Brittney Griner for a tryout. Don't do it, Brittney. It won't go well. Besides, why must we compare her to men to validate just how good of a player she is? Can we just be satisfied with calling her one of the greatest female players ever?
2. The NCAA should announce right now that any Rutgers men's basketball player can transfer immediately without any penalty of sitting out a season. Rutgers fired coach Mike Rice because he verbally and physically abused players. If nothing else, the players should be given the right to move to another school after putting up with that bully.
3. After charging the mound and breaking the collarbone of Dodgers pitcher Zack Grienke on Thursday, the Padres' Carlos Quentin might want to consider calling in sick to work Monday, the next time he is supposed to face the Dodgers.
tom jones' two cents