The Top Ten Countdown: 4/2/12 Edition

The top ten countdowns are created by a combination of performance from the period of last Monday to this past Sunday, current standings, and if a team or player has a statement type game (Kevin Love’s 51-14, then slapping up a 31-20 the next day). So without further ado these are the first top ten lists for the NBA and NHL.

NBA 

1. Oklahoma City Thunder (1st in Western Conference, 40-12 Overall, 3-0 this past week); Beat CHI at home, POR and LAL on the road. Ranked 3rd last week in The Top Ten.

Mark this down as the week that Russell Westbrook vaulted into the MVP discussion. He dominated the Lakers in the 2nd half on Thursday night, so much so that Kobe admitted afterwards that Westbrook is a “problem”. When arguably the best player since Jordan says that you’re a problem, you know you’ve arrived as an elite player in the league. Not only did Westbrook lead the Thunder in scoring in all three contests this week (@POR: 16/26 32-8; @LAL: 13/27 36-6; CHI: 10/18 27-5), but he provided two highlight reel plays; a buzzer beating three from wayyyy downtown and a posterization of seven footer Omar Asik. It looks like Westbrook is determined to shut Skip Bayless up (on First Take Bayless kept saying in the playoffs last season that Westbrook isn’t a good complement player for Durant; he might want to rethink that now.)

The Thunder just outclassed the Lakers in the second half and did the same to a Derrick Rose-less Bulls team on Sunday. In eight days they blew out three teams (MIA,LAL,CHI) that are in the top three of their respective conferences. I’m kicking myself thinking about a Thunder-San Antonio WCF matchup.

2.  San Antonio Spurs (2nd in Western Conference, 36-14 overall, 3-0 this past week); Beat IND at home, PHX and SAC on the road. Ranked 1st last week in The Top Ten.

Yes the Spurs have the longest current win streak in the NBA (7), but I couldn’t give them the top spot because of the quality opponents that the Thunder beat last week. On Wednesday I watched the Spurs-Kings game and witnessed the obvious difference between a top team and an up-and-coming team. I really like the Kings, I think they are going to be a real surprise next season, but the differences between the two teams were more glaring than the sun on a beach filled August day. San Antonio’s ball movement was precise to a point that it seemed as if Sacramento was just standing around watching in awe. When the Kings looked like they were going to make a run at the lead, Ginobli or Duncan had an answer. Isaiah Thomas did a great job shutting down Tony Parker, but Parker still found a way to be effective in crunch time. That is the mark of a great team and a big reason why I really hope the Spurs match up against the Thunder with a chance to go to the finals on the line.

3. Chicago Bulls (1st in Eastern Conference, 42-12 overall, 2-2 this past week); Beat DET at home, ATL on the road; lost to DEN at home, OKC on the road. Ranked 2nd last week in The Top Ten.

Derrick Rose said on the ABC broadcast Sunday that he hopes to be back running at full speed this week, which is encouraging because the Bulls are beginning to lose a grip on the number one overall seed in the league. Chicago obviously needs the reigning MVP back, but the key for the Bulls if they do end up playing the Heat in the postseason is Loul Deng. Chris Bosh and Deng both play a similar role for their respective team. If Wade or James can’t find an open shot they know they can dish it off to Bosh in the high post. Deng is the same option for Derrick Rose, except that Deng can actually knock down the trey. He has the height and size to cover Lebron, but it is still a tough task considering that on-ball defense isn’t exactly Deng’s strength. Similar to how Bosh can be really soft if you body him in the low post. The Bulls will continue to beat the mediocre to bad teams in the association because of their depth and defensive instincts that have been drilled in by Thibodeau, but hanging with elite teams is a totally different story.

4. Miami Heat (2nd in Eastern Conference, 37-14 overall, 2-2 this past week); Beat DAL at home, TOR on the road; lost to IND and BOS on the road. Ranked 4th last week in The Top Ten

I agree 100% with something that Magic Johnson said during the pregame of the Heat-Celtics game. He talked about how the Heat don’t hate anyone and therefore cannot channel that hatred during games and play with an edge. He talked about how he was friends with Isaiah Thomas, but hated him and his Pistons team when they played each other back in the late 80s. The Celtics hate the Heat, they want to crush them every time they play each other. There is a different kind of motivation and it showed yesterday as Rondo went off for his fifth triple double of the season (16-14-11), but the stat sheet doesn’t tell the whole story. In the 3rd quarter Rondo dictated the pace of play and froze the Heat defense which allowed him to make easy backdoor passes which led to easy buckets from Bradley and KG. The Heat really needs to improve in the half court game because in that same 3rd quarter Boston took away the run and gun style that the Heat thrive on. With a very tough schedule for Miami ahead (PHI on Tues, OKC on WED, MEM on Fri) we’ll see if that awful 2nd half against the Celtics lingers.

 5. Los Angeles Lakers (3rd in Western Conference 33-20 overall, 3-1 this past week); Beat GS and NO at home, GS on the road; lost to OKC at home. Ranked 5th last week in The Top Ten

Only Kobe could challenge Tim Hardaway’s record of missed shots in a game (Kobe started out 0-for-15 against the Hornets on Saturday, Hardaway’s set the record with an 0-for-17 line on Dec 27th 1991 against the Timberwolves), but still hit the game winning three as the Lakers squeaked by New Orleans. The Black Mamba struck on Sunday with a 16-for-28, 40 point game, but struggled with his shot in the other three games this past week (9-for-24 on Tues. against GS, 7-for-25 on Thurs. against OKC, 3-for-17 on Sat. against NO).

The loss to the Thunder on Thursday brought a lot of “Can LA hang with the Thunder” talk by the national media and for good reason. Simply put the Lakers were outclassed that night, but remember that the game turned around when Gasol had to sit down with four fouls. Scott Brooks was able to load up his interior defense on Bynum thus shutting down the big man. In the first half I texted my buddy Jeff saying Bynum is a beast, have fun with him the next couple seasons (he has Bynum in our fantasy league). The only way that the Lakers will be able to beat the Thunder is if Gasol and Bynum can stay out of foul trouble, because Gasol can play the role of a facilitator for Bynum while opening up a shot for himself in the process. It’ll be interesting to see how Gasol fairs without Bynum for the next couple of games due to the ankle injury suffered Sunday night (this is where fantasy and reality clash, I really need Bynum to not play this week to give Pau a boost in the first round of my fantasy league’s playoffs; hoping a player misses a couple games is just wrong and a big reason why I hate fantasy sports sometimes).

6. Dallas Mavericks (5th in Western Conference, 30-23 overall, 2-1 this past week); Beat HOU at home, ORL on the road; lost to MIA on the road. Ranked 7th last week in The Top Ten.

On TNT’s broadcast of the Heat-Mavericks game Reggie Miller said that he thinks Dirk is a better shooter than Larry Bird. A very bold statement, but one that Dirk backed up the next night as he sank a game winning turnaround one foot fadeaway bank shot with just 5.9 seconds against the Magic on Friday night. In the same game Jason Terry went without his trademark high socks and head band because the apparently lost some type of bet to Jameer Nelson during all-star weekend. Those two items reappeared in the second half and so did the jet. It’s funny how a simple thing such as a head band can bring a player special powers (Lebron just called Terry asking him where he gets his headbands from).

7. Boston Celtics (4th in Eastern Conference, 30-22 overall, 4-0 this past week); Beat UTH and MIA at home, CHA and MIN on the road. Unranked last week in The Top Ten.

On Friday night the Celtics took over first place in the Atlantic division for the first time this season. They’re currently riding a five game win streak that includes the dominating win over Miami on Sunday afternoon. That game is all the proof you need that a Heat-Celtics playoff series would have the potential to be an all time classic. Think about the story lines: Lebron still searching for his first ring, Miami attempting to win their first championship after that ridiculous statement during their introduction celebration (not one, not two, not three…), the big three going after one more title together before they are inevitably broken up.

Remember now that the Celtics have gone on this run without their other cold blooded killer (Allen). The divisional battles between the Celtics and Sixers will heat up in the last month of the season, which is a welcome advancement in their rivalry. It’s been awhile since there have been meaningful Celtics-Sixers games late in the season.

8. Indiana Pacers (5th in Eastern Conference, 31-21 overall, 3-2 this past week); Beat MIA and WAS at home, HOU on the road; lost to NJ and SAS on the road. Ranked 6th last week in The Top Ten.

It’s hard to figure the Pacers out. On some nights (Monday against MIA) they look like they can hang with the league’s elite. Their size (Danny Granger 6-8, David West 6-9, Paul George 6-10, Roy Hibbert 7-2) is going to be a serious problem for whoever they matchup with in the postseason, but there are just some nights (Wednesday against NJ) that they play disconnected basketball offensively which then translates into bad defensive play. What is troublesome is that once they get into a funk not even a timeout can save them.

I will say this if Paul George can develop his three point shot and bulk up to drive through traffic in the offseason he will be a star in this league. He has the ability to fill up the stat sheet like Lebron and play both ways.

9. Los Angeles Clippers (4th in Western Conference, 31-21 overall, 4-0 this past week); Beat NO, PHX, POR, UTH at home. Unranked last week in The Top Ten.

After being nationally criticized for their defensive play and lack of aggression from Blake Griffin, the Clippers began to dig themselves out of a valley with a five game win streak that included a CP3 game winner with 5 seconds left against the Blazers. We’ll see how long the streak lasts with games coming up against the Mavs on the road and the Lakers this week, but isn’t it nice that the Clippers actually control their own destiny and for once the destiny isn’t the number of ping pong balls in the draft lottery. Can they win a championship? No, but just the fact that the Staples Center will hold a playoff game that doesn’t feature a purple and gold court is reason to celebrate.

10.  Orlando Magic (3rd in Eastern Conference, 32-21, 1-3 this past week); Beat TOR on the road; lost to DAL and DEN at home, NY on the road. Ranked 8th last week in The Top Ten.

Pathetic performance on Wednesday night against the Knicks, but it gave Jeff van Gundy a chance to yell at Dwight Howard for becoming disinterested early on in the 3rd quarter. I don’t know what the deal is with Stan the Van as it seems that the players are beginning to tune him out when a game starts to turn away from them. That is a quality that will be deadly come playoff time, however if Dwight Howard can give an effort like this consistently then the Magic have the ability to at least make it out of the first round. It’s amazing to me that the 3rd place team in a conference can just look so uninterested at times, I’ll be stunned if SVG is back next season.

NHL  

1. Boston Bruins (2nd in Eastern Conference, 47-28-4, 3-0-1 this past week); Beat TB at home, NYR and NYI on the road; lost to WAS at home in a SO. Ranked 3rd last week.

Here come the Bruins who are 7-2-1 in their last 10 games. Sunday night’s 2-1 victory over the Rangers gave them the top spot in the countdown this week. I went to the Flyers-Senators game on Saturday and walked away impressed with Ottawa’s ability to capitalize on their scoring chances, which will prove dangerous if Boston does have to play their northern rivals in the first round. We’ll see a potential preview of that series Thursday night.

2. New York Rangers (1st in Eastern Conference, 50-22-7 overall, 3-1 this past week); Beat MTL at home, MIN and WPG on the road; lost to BOS at home. Ranked 2nd last week.

The Rangers power play was the key to their road wins this week. In both Minnesota and Winnipeg the Rangers scored twice on the power play and are one victory away from clinching the number one seed and home ice throughout the Eastern Conference playoffs. The next opportunity for NY to clinch comes Tuesday night against the Philadelphia Flyers

3. Vancouver Canucks (1nd in Western Conference, 49-21-9 overall, 4-0 this past week); Beat LA, COL, DAL, and CGY at home. Ranked 6th last week.

I hope the Vancouver riot squads have spent all year prepping because here come the Canucks. After a perfect 4-0 record last week they are in prime position to not only win the Western Conference, but their second straight Presidents Trophy. This upcoming week Vancouver plays three games against teams that are in the bottom five of the West and two of those games are at home (meaning that six of Vancouver’s last seven games have been at home arguably the hardest arena to play in because of the travel and fans; somebody send the NHL a thank you card). Meanwhile the Blues have to play three games against playoff teams (they do play Dallas who is currently 9th, but only one point out of a playoff spot) so Vancouver has a huge advantage in that department. I really hope that Vancouver makes it to the finals again because who doesn’t love a little chaos? Anyone? ANYONE!?! If the Canucks play the Flyers for the cup and Philly prevails, the battle between the two cities for who can have the biggest riot will by far be more interesting than the actual series.

4. Philadelphia Flyers (5th in Eastern Conference, 46-24-9 overall, 2-1-1 this past week); Beat TOR and Pit on the road; lost to TB and OTT (SO) at home. Ranked 5th last week.

What a game on Sunday afternoon against the Penguins. Down 2-0 with Bobrovsky in net, the Flyers rifled off five straight on Marc-Andre Flurry and ended up winning the game 6-4, but the brawl with just over a minute left in the 3rd period was the real story. Joe Vitale leveled Briere (who suffered a back injury on the play, he’s out indefinitely) then everyone on the ice went at it. Both head coaches stood on top of the boards in between Pierre McGuire screaming at each other (at one point I told my buddy Doug that I wish Laviolette and Blysma would have jumped into the area in between the benches and started going at it with Pierre as the ref; now that would have been some good ol’ family fun). The day before the Flyers overcame a 3-0 deficit with three goals in the second period that included a goal off of Wayne Simmonds’ face. I told my roommate that I think the better matchup for the Flyers would be the Rangers (yes call me crazy considering Philly hasn’t beaten NY all season, but they haven’t seen the new and improved Bryzgalov), but after Sunday I cannot f’n wait for the Flyers-Pens regular season finale on Saturday let alone a playoff series between the two Pennsylvania teams.

5. St Louis Blues (2st in Western Conference, 48-21-10 overall, 1-1-1 this past week); Beat NSH at home; lost to CBJ at home, CHI on the road in a SO. Ranked 4th last week.

I was really tempted to drop the Blues further down because of the 5-2 loss to the worst team in the league at home no less, but just couldn’t pull myself to do it because of how close they are in the Presidents Cup trophy race; seriously though a 5-2 loss to the Blue Jackets is pretty weak. In looking at possible playoff opponents for the Blues it looks like they should be able to move past the first round with relative ease, but there are higher expectations this year. If St.Louis meets Chicago at any point in the postseason it will be the end of a nice run.

6. Pittsburgh Penguins (4th in Eastern Conference, 48-25-6 overall, 2-1 this past week); Beat BUF on the road; Lost to NYI at home and on the road and PHI at home. Ranked 1st last week

Back to back losses to the Islanders at this point in the season is just flat out awful (double negative!) especially when it’s the Pens. Pittsburgh appeared to get their mojo back after a win on the road in Buffalo and a dominant first 15 minutes against the Flyers on Sunday. It was former Penguin Max Talbot who turned up the heat on the Pens as his line stole the energy in the second period. It’s so much fun to compare Marc-Andre Flurry to Dr.Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. He can look brilliant at times and make tremendous saves, but then there are points in time where he is just floundering at the puck hoping that some part of his body stops it. We’ll see how the Pens respond to Sunday’s brawl against the Flyers on Saturday, let’s all just hope that Hulk Hogan is sitting behind the Flyers bench again.

7. Chicago Blackhawks (6th in Western Conference, 44-26-9 overall, 2-0-2 this past week); Beat STL at home, NSH on the road; lost in a shootout to NJ and MIN. Ranked 8th last week.

Here’s my darkhorse to make a run to the Western Conference finals. The Blackhawks have secured a playoff spot and done so without their captain Jonathan Toews, he hasn’t played since suffering a concussion back on Feburary 21st. His return looks imminent giving their lineup even more firepower. The race for the fourth spot and home ice is really tight as the Red Wings, Predators, and Blackhawks respectfully are all within a single point of each other, in other words it’s a smaller hot tub than the one at the Welshly Arms Hotel.

8. Los Angeles Kings (3rd in Western Conference, 39-27-13 overall, 2-1-1 this past week); Beat CGY and EDM on the road; lost to Van and MIN (SO) on the road. Ranked 9th last week.

With five points this past week the Kings have taken over the lead in the Pacific division, but it is really a tossup as to who will win the division with just three games left in the season. The Kings have a home and home with San Jose to close the season that could very well determine who wins the division. Think of it as a fatal four way match, those two teams could knock each other out and either Phoenix or Dallas pins one of them to win the division (if you have never watched wrestling don’t even attempt to try and figure that reference out).

9. Detroit Red Wings (4th in Western Conference, 47-27-5 overall, 2-2 this past week); Beat CBJ and FLA at home; lost to NSH at home, CBJ on the road. Ranked 7th last week.

In the last three games of the season the Red Wings face playoff teams with home ice advantage in the first round hanging in the balance. Think of it like the last challenge in The Battle Of The Exes, except the teams won’t have to jump in a freezing cold lake or eat a cow’s head. On Saturday Detroit plays Chicago in the last game of the regular season home ice could be on the line, even better home ice in a playoff series between the two teams could be on the line. Isn’t the last week of the regular season just the best?

10. New Jersey Devils (6th in Eastern Conference, 45-28-6 overall, 3-0 this past week); Beat CHI and TB at home, CAR on the road. Ranked 10th last week.

Clinched a playoff spot this past week. Seriously that’s all I’ve got (after 3,514 words I find it hard to write about a team that has been in the 6th spot for the past two months). If you made it to the end of the countdown pat yourself on the back because you deserve it. I hope to have your eyes next Monday.

Follow me on twitter @scottdargis

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