This time of year is like Christmas, Hanukkah and your 21st birthday all rolled into one for a sports fan.
The NCAA men's basketball tournament just ended, baseball season has started, NFL stars are getting arrested and both the NHL and NBA playoffs are right around the corner. Life is good.
Now, for those of you who don't watch the NBA, I can understand. The regular season isn't really all that interesting except for rivalry games and the occasional highlight reel masquerading as a Cavaliers game.
Why would you watch a bunch of slouching, sulking, multi-millionaires with more tattoos than Miami Ink play basketball on cruise control? Where's the excitement in watching Dwight Howard taking his umpteenth alley-oop of the game and slamming it down harder than some poor sucker in a Stone Cold Stunner? (Please forgive the wrestling reference in a sports article. I'm ashamed of myself for even thinking of it, I really am).
Come mid-April though, the NBA comes alive. Eighth place teams realize that they are on the edge of a playoff spot and actually start playing defense. Bench players on the top teams see the light of day for the first time in months, or even years. It's like spring cleaning by the coaching cadre of the NBA. Unfortunately it's a bit of a rip-off for the fans who shell out big money to watch the ball boys play.
If you stick around till the playoffs, however, then the NBA becomes a worthy waste of time. Right now it's the Oklahoma City Thunder looking to take on the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers. This matchup paints quite the compelling contrast with rising star Kevin Durant versus superstar Kobe Bryant, as well as the league's biggest market versus the only professional basketball team in the heart of college football country.
On the off chance this matchup results in an upset, this will be bigger than Northern Iowa shocking Kansas, bigger than the Red Sox beating the curse, bigger than the Golden Gate surprise defeat of Dallas in 2007. It's not happening though. Kobe and company will rip apart Durant along with the rest of the Thunder.
Looking ahead to two possible upsets: The Milwaukee Bucks versus the Atlanta Hawks and the Miami Heat versus the Boston Celtics. I'm not really sure how Boston is still a playoff team, as they've been awful at some points this season. Kevin Garnett is literally crumbling at the knees and Rasheed Wallace looks like he's hiding a tire under his jersey.
While Miami hasn't been great this season, at least they've been consistently good. It certainly won't get them a title but it should be enough to push them past the aging Celtics. A playoff run isn't at all out of the question for the Heat.
Milwaukee hasn't made it out of the first round since 2001, but between upstart rookie Brandon Jennings, Andrew Bogut and John Salmons, the Bucks are approaching respectability. They shoot well, but struggle defensively. Atlanta hasn't made a lot of noise this season and for good reason; there isn't much there to talk about. While certainly a good team, they seem to struggle find a way to win if Joe Johnson or Jamal Crawford have an off-night. This series will be close but I think this will be another step on the Bucks' path to being a consistent playoff contender.
Out west, it goes Los Angeles, and then everyone else. All eight playoff teams are within six-and-a-half games of each other. That being said, this muddled picture will make it hard for anyone to top the Lakers. The return of center Andrew Bynum for the first round of the playoffs should cure any doubts the pundits have about the team. Bynum will be returning after missing the last 12 games of the regular season from an Achilles tendon injury.
The one team in the west that could stop the Lakers would be the San Antonio Spurs. While they're certainly a dark horse in the Western Conference, one key X-factor is DeJuan Blair. Despite averaging only 18.8 minutes per game, Blair is second on the team in rebounds and third in blocks. Blair's size and strength will be a welcome relief for Duncan if he finds himself in foul trouble. A talented bench will come in handy if the Spurs face off against the Lakers.
If time and space allowed it, taking a peek at the hockey playoff picture would be fascinating, but once the snow melts in the Lower 48, hockey season should be over.