Why things can and will get worse for FC Barcelona

By: Natalie Mullins

In just one week, and with three consecutive losses, Leo Messi and Co. have crashed out of the Champions League, ceded the Copa del Rey to Real Madrid, and dropped three more crucial points in La Liga. In late April, Barcelona find themselves seated third in La Liga, which is all the more woeful considering they kicked off the 2013-2014 campaign just one match short of their best ever start to a season.

With the highly anticipated arrival of Brazilian golden boy, Neymar, and new boss Tata Martino, there were hopes that Barcelona would bring home the treble, and enjoy yet another extremely successful campaign. However, thus far, things have not gone in Barça’s favor. A number of factors including Lionel Messi’s lengthy injury as well as fierce third party competition from Atlético Madrid have left the Catalan side on track to finish this season without having won any major trophies.

It is inevitable that all teams, even the best of best, will suffer through poor runs of form at some point throughout the season, but Barcelona’s current slump is something more. This is a team that has been highly criticized, particularly in recent years, when it comes the handling of the team’s defensive unit. As a team that has come to be known for its tiki-taka passing and athletic artistry, focus has remained on the team’s offensive power and talent. However a sharp decline in the form of captain and defensive leader, Carles Puyol, as well as inconsistency from Gerard Pique, has left much to be desired of Barça’s back line. However in recent weeks, Barcelona’s defensive woes seem to be the least of their problems. Just recently, FIFA slammed the Spanish club with a transfer ban preventing them from signing both youth and senior players for the next 14 months, citing a violation of ‘the international transfer of minors.’ Although the ban on the summer transfer window has been temporarily lifted due to appeals, Barcelona will most likely still be ineligible to engage in the transfer market during this coming winter. Aside from La Masia, the club’s renowned youth system, the transfer window is the only way to restructure and adjust the team’s on-field personnel. In an era where money is as wrapped up in the game as it has ever been, Barcelona risk falling behind its wealthy counterparts in the next two transfer windows. Club officials have said that Barcelona has every intention of appealing these restrictive bans, but it seems unlikely that they will get their wish.

At the end of this season, club president, Jose Maria Bartomeu, and the FC Barcelona Board will most likely see to it that head coach, Tata Martino, is fired. However the difference between Barcelona and other struggling teams is that Barça has nowhere to turn this time. They will be unable to buy their way out of the slump, because this poor run of form is more than temporary.

 

 

Western Conference Playoff Preview: #3 Los Angeles Clippers vs #6 Golden State Warriors

By: Prad

The stage is set for an action-packed series featuring two teams with a fierce rivalry and enough heart to eliminate the other even if that means getting swept in the Western Conference Semifinals. Both offenses include a stellar cast of perimeter shooters and rough front courts. If you want to see defense, then you will have to shield your eyes from this matchup. It’s not that both teams are atrocious at defense, it’s just that both teams have an overwhelming amount of offensive prowess.

Blake Griffin will surely have some memorable dunks against a team where things get a little bit more personal Courtesy of Bleacher Report

Blake Griffin will surely have some memorable dunks against a team that makes him get a bit testy
Courtesy of Bleacher Report

For you offensive enthusiasts, this series has as much as you can find with thrilling dunks and guaranteed 30-point outbursts from some notable names. The head coaches from the two teams have very different levels of experience with Doc Rivers previously winning a title in Boston and Mark Jackson making just his second playoff appearance.  This series is surely to go down as one of the best in this year’s playoffs, if not the best when its all said and done.

 

Los Angeles Clippers

There is no doubt that Chris Paul is the third best player in the league only after LeBron and Durant. He did not disappoint Clippers fans with averages of 19.1 points, 10.7 assists, 4.3 rebounds, and 2.5 steals. It is as much as his statistics as the intangibles he possesses that makes him spectacular. He possesses leadership and floor general skills that cannot be understated. His assist numbers and teammates can only validate that claim. His numbers against the Warriors are even more better than his regular season averages. In three meetings with Golden State, CP3 averaged 28 points, 12.7 assists, and 3.7 steals per contest. Stephen Curry will probably not guard him in the series, as Curry is a subpar defender.  Paul will draw matchups against either Klay Thompson or Andre Iguodala with the former being more likely. They may be able to limit his scoring but there is no chance they can stifle his distributing since Paul has way too many options and scorers on his unit.

CP3 is looking to pick apart the Warrior's defense with his maestro-like passing Courtesy of USA Today

CP3 is looking to pick apart the Warrior’s defense with his maestro-like passing
Courtesy of USA Today

The front court has only matured over the last couple seasons. Initially DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin were well known for lob city, but have transformed their games into much more. Jordan has turned into an excellent defender and rebounder. He leads the league in rebounds (13.6 RPG), field goal percentage (67.6%), and is third in blocked shots (1.48 BPG). He collected 4 offensive boards a game in the regular season. If he can have that same production in the playoffs, it’ll give Los Angeles more offensive possessions and opportunities to score. Blake Griffin is a very different player though. He averaged a career high 24.1 points and led the team in scoring to along with 9.5 boards per game. David Lee will draw the assignment of Griffin, which is not great for Golden state. Lee has been burned in the past on the defensive side of the ball, so Draymond Green may be guarding Griffin for some time as well. Griffin will definitely take advantage of his weak matchup which could be a difference maker.

 

Golden State Warriors

Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, also known as the Splash Brothers, need to be more effective than ever against a Clippers unit that defends the three ball well. In fact, the Clippers are the best in the NBA at defending the three with opponents only shooting 33.2% from beyond the arc. Curry will draw an assignment from Chris Paul, who will be pestering him all night. In order for the Warriors to compete until the end, Curry needs to keep his turnovers down, which will be difficult as Paul is one of the best on-ball defenders in the game. Paul, who thrives at stealing the ball, will be less effective if the ball is moving within the offense more. Thompson, who will have Willie Green on him for the majority of the time, will need to step his game up throughout the series as he will be tasked with a greater scoring burden.

Klay Thompson needs his threes to splash against a fierce perimeter defense Courtesy of Sports Illustrated

Klay Thompson needs his threes to splash against a fierce perimeter defense
Courtesy of Sports Illustrated

Starting center Andrew Bogut is injured indefinitely with a fractured rib. Jermaine O’Neal will take his place in the starting unit, something he has not been tasked with very frequently this season. He needs to adjust quickly to the extended playing time and needs to box out Griffin and stop Jordan from grabbing offensive boards. O’Neal does have experience on his side though as this is his 14th trip to the playoffs in 19 seasons in the league. He may be able to be an asset, but that is yet to be determined. Additionally, David Lee needs to be terrific on both sides of the ball for Golden State to have any shot of winning the series. He averaged 19.2 points and 9.3 boards this season. It would be good enough if he had similar production on offense. However, his biggest task is guarding Blake Griffin. He needs to keep Griffin under 25 points every night, so ball distribution will be greatly limited. Iguodala will come over for the help defense a lot and Iggy is one of the best defenders in the NBA, so it is bound to be effective. Golden State will need to make up on defense for the loss of their anchor in Bogut.

 

Los Angeles Will Advance in 6 games

Can Stephen Curry answer the bell with a gritty Clippers defense? Courtesy of The Los Angeles Times

Can Stephen Curry answer the bell with a gritty Clippers defense?
Courtesy of The Los Angeles Times

The intra-California series will attract some hefty TV ratings. All of Los Angeles will be watching with the Lakers not qualifying, something that has not occurred since 2005. This is only a testament to the fact that the market in Los Angeles is moving towards the Clippers. There will be scuffles throughout this series, but Los Angeles will come out on top. The Clippers have greater depth and the injury to Andrew Bogut only limits the Warrior’s options. Sixth man Jamal Crawford will be a major factor in the Clippers winning the series because he can create his own shot off the dribble. If he and JJ Redick can provide valuable minutes for the second unit, then the Clippers can make it to the Western Conference Finals without a hitch.

Eastern Conference Playoff Preview: #3 Toronto Raptors vs #6 Brooklyn Nets

By: Jon

The Atlantic Division rivals will be competing in the first round of the playoffs for a chance to likely play the three time defending Eastern Conference Champions. During the season, the teams were 2-2 versus each other. The Raptors are one of the biggest surprises this season. Although the Raptors have been horrible over the past few years, Dwayne Casey led his team to one of the best records in  franchise history. Although they lost Chris Bosh a few seasons ago, they were able to rebuild around the nucleus of Jonas Valanciunas, DeMar DeRozan, Amir Johnson, and Kyle Lowry. Although many believed that they were tanking when they traded Rudy Gay half way through the season, they excelled and took the Atlantic Division title from the favorites, Nets and Knicks.

NBA: Toronto Raptors at Brooklyn Nets

Although the Raptors have led the division for much of the season, the Nets almost overtook Toronto after starting the season 10-21. The Nets were one of the most expensive disappointments in NBA history. The Nets were about to collapse and Jason Kidd was on the hot seat after only half a year on the job. However, the Nets switched their philosophy after the loss of Brook Lopez, which led to the second best record in the East after Jan 1. They started to play a small lineup which allowed them to rack up steals and create mismatches on offense. Although the Nets spent millions on their starting rotation, their bench was great and gave the team depth during the tough, injury filled season.

 

Why the Raptors will win?

The Raptors have overachieved all season and they hope that they can continue to succeed in the playoffs. Although they have the better record and are favored in terms of seeding, many experts are predicting the Nets to win the series. The Raptors have been led all season by their talented backcourt, which is manned by Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan. Kyle and DeMar had breakout campaigns for the Raptors this season. Kyle averaged 17.9 points, 7.4 assists, 4.7 rebounds, and 1.5 steals. Along with his ability to pass the ball and penetrate the lane, Lowry is a great shooter that will spread the floor during the entire series. DeMar DeRozan benefitted from the loss of Gay and passing ability of Lowry. DeRozan averaged 23 points, 4 assists, 4 rebounds, and 1 steal per game. DeRozan has the ability to take over a game and score over 30 points per game during a short series. Although DeRozan scores a lot of points, he takes a lot of shots and does not have a good shooting percentage for the modern scorer.

Screen Shot 2014-04-18 at 5.21.50 PM

Along with the two stars, the Raptors have a nice group of role players that will enable them to receive contributions from many different players. The most important player for the Raptors this series will be Jonas. The big center was a top five pick a few seasons ago and should be able to dominate the smaller Brooklyn front line. Jonas should be able to acquire a lot of rebounds and give more opportunities to the scoring guards. Along with Jonas, Amir Johnson should be able to help dominate the paint on offense and stop the Brooklyn Nets, who frequently drive into the paint. On the bench, the Raptors will have many contributors such as Tyler Hansborough, Patrick Patterson, Grevis Vazquez, and John Salmons. The bench is full of solid contributors who will provide offense, defense, and toughness during each game when they come off of the bench.

 

Why the Nets will win?

The Nets have the most expensive roster in NBA history, but almost failed to make the playoffs. Although the Nets will not have their best player, Brook Lopez, they have a transitional style of play, which made them a better team. Although they have lost games lately, they were trying to keep their elder players healthy and rested for the most important part of the season. Besides Lopez, everyone on their roster is healthy and rested, which should allow them to play their best basketball. Also, Garnett is returning to the roster, which greatly improves their interior defense and allows them to turn around the season after the change of the new year. Fortunately, the loss of Garnett during the regular season allowed Mason Plumlee to develop into a quality back up center that can provide energy and youth to an older squad.

Screen Shot 2014-04-18 at 5.22.14 PM

The Brooklyn Nets were 2-2 during the season against the Raptors, but 2-0 when they did not play a game the night before. Fortunately, the Nets will not have to play any back to back games. The Nets are built around their guards and forwards, who lead their team both offensively and defensively. Although they do not play a huge front line, they create a lot of mismatches with Pierce, Johnson, and Livingston. Many power forwards such as Amir Johnson have had a difficult time guarding Pierce because he is a versatile scorer from both the outside and inside. Johnson is able to overpower other guards in the paint, which allows him to score a lot of points. Also, he is the most clutch player in the league. Livingston has been great all season because he can guard many positions and pass over other guards.

The biggest x-factor for the Nets will be Deron Williams. Williams has the talent to be the $98 million man, but has been inconsistent throughout his career with the Nets. If Williams can outplay Lowry, the Nets will easily be able to beat the Raptors. The Nets also have a deep bench with Marcus Thornton, Alan Anderson, Mirza Teletovic, Andrei Kirelinko, and Andray Blatche. Each player has the ability to take over a game offensively or defensively, which will be important since Garnett and Pierce cannot play major minutes.

 

Prediction: Brooklyn Nets win in 6 games

Screen Shot 2014-04-18 at 5.23.02 PM

The Toronto Raptors have limited experience in the playoffs while the Nets’ players have played in hundreds of playoff games. Although the Raptors have never failed in the playoffs, they have never succeeded and many teams have had trouble during debut playoff appearances. The combination of Garnett’s intensity, Pierce and Johnson clutch shots, Williams and Livingston passing ability, and the team’s depth make the Nets hard to break down in the first round. The Raptors should make the game’s close and win two at home, but I expect the Nets to win a majority of the closer games and win all the games in Brooklyn. The Nets have been great at home over the last few months and I do not expect anything to change during the postseason. Garnett and Pierce want another title and they will not allow their team to lose in the first round to a bunch of first time players in Toronto.

 

All Pics and Stats from ESPN.com