A year ago, George Karl was awaiting another head-coaching opportunity and working marathon sessions as an NBA playoff analyst at ESPN headquarters in Bristol, Conn.
Fast forward to the 2015 postseason. Sorry, still no Kings sighting. But while awaiting the draft lottery, pre-draft workouts and what is expected to be a very active summer, the Kings’ coach – sans microphone and makeup – offered his insights on the playoffs.
He began by admitting he misses the dethroned San Antonio Spurs, predicting the champion will come from the Western Conference, and said he is troubled by the flurry of injuries that continue to affect games and series. Kevin Love and Patrick Beverley are unavailable, John Wall, Mike Conley and Pau Gasol have missed games, Wesley Matthews was sidelined for the opening round, and Kyrie Irving and Chris Paul are hampered.
“I can’t remember a time when so many important players were hurt,” Karl said. “Every night, it seems like it’s somebody else. I wonder how much of this goes back to our training, weightlifting. I don’t have the answers, but I think this is something we should start looking into.”
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In the meantime, Karl offered his spin on the conference semifinals:
▪ Golden State vs. Memphis. This is the beauty-and-the-beast matchup, with the Warriors’ uptempo, free-flowing style contrasting with the Grizzlies’ slower pace and the interior size and strength of Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph. With Stephen Curry regaining his MVP form Monday at FedExForum, the best-of-seven series (2-2) returns to Oracle Arena on Wednesday for Game 5.
Karl: “The Warriors’ greatness showed (Monday). They’ve got balance in their offense, received contributions from Harrison Barnes and the bench, Steph Curry was tremendous, and their defense was much better. Playing from behind, in a low-tempo game that the Grizzlies favor, is what they have to avoid. They can get lazy with their shot selection, can take tougher shots than they need to, but (Monday) they got back to attacking the defense rather than settling for quick, hurried shots. Their mental toughness was challenged, and they responded. I like what Steve Kerr is doing. He has taken stuff from Pop (Gregg Popovich) and Phil (Jackson), and he never gets too high or too low. I’m taking Golden State.”
▪ Houston vs. Los Angeles Clippers. Their kooky owner and his sideline histrionics notwithstanding, the Clippers loom as a potential formidable threat. Blake Griffin flirts nightly with triple doubles and has been virtually unstoppable within 5 feet of the basket. Paul is back in the lineup, and although their bench is thin, Austin Rivers has been a revelation. Other than chronic complaining to the referees and persistent struggles at the foul line, for pure entertainment value, a Clippers-Warriors conference finals would be a doozy.
LeBron James’ last-second jumper Sunday ensured a prolonged Cavaliers-Bulls series, with a possible seventh game in Cleveland. Perhaps by then the future of Chicago coach Tom Thibodeau will have been decided.
Karl: “The Clippers have elevated their play since winning the San Antonio series. They have big-time talent and survived in seven games, and with that comes more confidence. Instead of being fatigued, they are energized. Doc Rivers is a master motivator, but more than that, he inspires his team. The Rockets … James Harden had an MVP-type season but not an MVP-type postseason. I like the Clippers. Two things that stand out to me during these playoffs is defense and point-guard play, and with Chris Paul playing again, I go with the Clips.”
▪ Cleveland vs. Chicago. This series has drama (Tom Thibodeau, front office feud), horribly timed injuries, a Midwest rivalry, and LeBron James. His last-second jumper Sunday ensured a prolonged series, with a possible seventh game in Cleveland. Perhaps by then Thibodeau’s future will have been decided. The poor guy has been hired in Orlando, Denver, New Orleans – see rampant speculation – while trying to coach his Bulls into the conference finals. What distraction?
Karl: “This is old-fashioned, slow-down, bad shot after bad shot basketball. The defense controls the offense. The injury factor has really hurt both teams. The pendulum probably swung with LeBron’s game winner the other night, though if Irving is ineffective, it would be a tossup. Cleveland has had people step up and help LeBron. J.R. Smith has hit some shots, (Timofey) Mozgov was good. Chicago needs their role players to jump in.”
▪ Atlanta vs. Washington. The Hawks can soar, but until they reach the conference finals, no one will pay attention. They are still recovering from the epic fourth-quarter duel between Larry Bird and Dominique Wilkins. Yes, from the 1988 conference semifinals. This is a tough crowd. The Atlanta sports market is dominated by college sports and football at all levels. So good luck to coach Mike Budenholzer, who espouses a collaborative approach with an unusually unselfish cast of characters. Fortunately for the Hawks, they are getting new owners and hold the home-court advantage for a potential Game 7. Additionally, the Wizards aren’t magicians; they just aren’t the same without a healthy Wall.
Karl: “Wall is the best player on the court. I think Washington wins if he gets back on the floor, physically and emotionally, and can do what Mike Conley did. (Jeff) Teague is probably the key to Atlanta. This gets back to the importance of point-guard play. When he plays well, the Hawks are very aggressive, defending and getting penetration. But for me, it depends on Wall.”
Karl’s ultimate champion?
He’s mulling two options. Warriors or Clippers. For old time’s sake – he once coached Golden State – he’s leaning toward the team in Oakland.
Ailene Voisin: (916) 321-1208, @ailene_voisin