April and spring always brings about one of my favorite times of the year with how the weather starts to warm up, Easter, new life and beginnings start with a new season and even more so it brings about one of my favorite times of the year as a sports fan and I’m sure many other sports fans feel the same. As the new season of baseball is just getting underway and then right in middle to late April the excitement of the NBA Playoffs get underway with all the great matchups there is to look forward to for the next two and a half months before a new champion is crowned and hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy in June.
Which is a perfect segue into my preview of the NBA’s upcoming first round playoffs series that get started tomorrow Saturday April 19th and I will give my predictions all the way up into the NBA Finals. Starting with the three versus six seed matchup in the Eastern Conference of the Toronto Raptors versus the Brooklyn Nets, which should be a good one to get the playoffs started off right. As you have a young team and one of the most surprising this season in the Raptors returning to the playoffs for the first time since 2008 facing the veteran-laden Nets in what should be one of the more entertaining and evenly matched series of the first round. The young breakout backcourt of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan poses a matchup problem for most opponents and one that was very key in the Raptors earning the third seed and home-court advantage in the playoffs. The Raptors have surprisingly despite the trade of Rudy Gay to the Kings in December been playing the best in the Eastern Conference (41-22) over that span and are the deeper squad, but the playoffs are a whole different animal and with Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and the rest of this Nets squad finally finding their rhythm in the new year after such a disappointing 10-21 start, Brooklyn is poised to use it’s heavy playoff experience as one of the key factors in helping them pull out what should be a really good six game series between these two.
Next up will be the Western Conference three versus six matchup with the Los Angeles Clippers taking on the Golden State Warriors in what is poised to be the most high-scoring, octane and exciting matchup of the first-round and a matchup a lot would probably even say they’re most excited to watch in the entire playoffs because of the hate both teams seem to have for the other one. Which is something rare in today’s NBA, where most teams don’t have such hated and heated rivalries as they used to in the days I grew up watching the league in the 90‘s and even right before I started watching in the 80‘s. Plus you have the NorCal versus SoCal angle among the many other headlines for the series. With how well both of these teams matchup with each other and despite the Warriors huge loss of center Andrew Bogut for the rest of the playoffs and an ailing David Lee mostly playing center for them, I think the Warriors with Stephen Curry and Harrison Barnes play should still give Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and the Clippers enough problems where they will push them to a seventh and deciding game. Ultimately I think home-court advantage and the Warriors shaky bench to go with how battered they have been due to injury will be a huge reason in why Paul, Griffin and the Clippers still move on though.
Moving back east for the number one versus eight seed matchup of the Indiana Pacers against the Atlanta Hawks, you have to teams in a rematch of last years first-round series that say the Pacers win in six games. Like last years matchup this should be one of the least exciting series and one you just want to simulate and hope will be over right away. Paul George and the Pacers despite their struggles to end the season and tough matchups with the Hawks in the past wouldn’t take them lightly and will be looking to make a statement in the playoffs that they’re still contenders for the title and why I see them winning the series in five. If the Pacers still carry over any of their regular season struggles they had to end the season I could see the Hawks pushing them to six games again like they did last year, but under no circumstances do I see the Pacers losing this series.
That leads back west to end the first day of the NBA Playoffs and the Western Conference’s two versus seven matchup, which will pit the Oklahoma City Thunder versus the Memphis Grizzlies in another rematch from last year’s NBA Playoffs. As these two teams faced each other last year in the conference semifinals and the Thunder where upset by the Grizzlies thanks in large part to the Thunder being without Russell Westbrook, who they lost for the whole playoffs after he suffered a knee injury in the first round. Now with Kevin Durant looking the best he ever has been in his career and poised to earn his first MVP award and Westbrook back, the Thunder get their chance at revenge a year after they where upset by the Grizzlies in a year that before Westbrook’s injury looked like it could possibly be one where the Thunder finally emerged with a title. The Grizzlies aren’t your typical seventh seed though and with a veteran team lead by big men Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph that’s hitting their strides at just the right time and been here before, Memphis is a team that will use it’s muscle, grit and grind play to try to get into the Thunder’s heads to push them to make plays at the end of games. The Thunder thanks in large part to their superstar Kevin Durant, who can handle that pressure will be able to face the challenge and move on to the next round in what should be a really good and super competitive six game series.
Moving to the one versus eight first-round matchup in the West that would then pit the defending conference champion San Antonio Spurs versus the Dallas Mavericks in a battle of Texas between these two once time rivals that are nowhere anywhere near rivals anymore. That’s a huge reason why this is such a one-sided matchup and one the Spurs should easily win in five.
Going back to the Eastern Conference for the final first-round matchups we have the two versus seven matchup of the defending champion Miami Heat starting their quest for a three-peat versus the Charlotte Bobcats and then the Heat’s long-time heated rival, Chicago Bulls facing the Washington Wizards in the four versus five matchup. LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and the Heat may have struggled to end the regular season, but they should easily sweep the Bobcats, who are making only their second playoff appearance in franchise history thanks in large part to the huge year they had from offseason signing Al Jefferson and the emergence of team captain Kemba Walker in his third-year in the league. Plus there’s the fact that Miami is 15-0 against the Bobcats in their Big Three era.
That brings us the Bulls versus Wizards matchup which should be a really great one between two teams that wouldn’t entice the casual fan, but should bring a really great series against each other nonetheless because of how well, yet unevenly both teams play at times and despite both teams have their own identities. With the Bulls you have that grind it out precisely executed halfcourt grit and grind offense that’s lead by veteran center Joakim Noah and one of the top defenses in the league, which turns into slugfests a lot of times. Than with the Wizards you have the run and gun fast-paced play lead by their young backcourt of John Wall and Bradley Beal. The Wizards have some players up front in veteran Marcin Gortat, who they acquired in the preseason and Nene, who can bang in the post and be physical like the Bulls like to do, which should lead to a lot of chippy play against the Bulls frontcourt of Noah, Taj Gibson and Carlos Boozer and can be a handfull for the Bulls. But the Bulls defense will have an easier time stopping the Wizards backcourt than Washington’s frounctourt does against them and with how much of a defensive slugfest this should turn into, which will be to the Bulls advantage this should be a series that Chicago wins in six games. As the Wizards young excited-to-be-here phase will play right into the Bulls hands too and let’s not forget that this Chicago team is better than the one that faced the Nets last season.
For the final first-round series and one of the more compelling matchups, the Houston Rockets face the Portland Trail Blazers in the four versus five matchup in the Western Conference. Though most of the attention in the West’s first round rightfully will likely go the the Clippers and Warriors series, this series could wind up being nearly just as entertaining with how well both of these teams match up. Both teams won 54 games. their point differentials where only separated by a small margin of .7 and both teams are among top five offenses in the league. The Rockets with All-Stars Dwight Howard and James Harden have a great cast of supporting players behind them in Patrick Beverley, Chandlor Parsons, Jeremy Lin and Terrence Jones, that’s slightly better than the Trail Blazers supporting players of Wesley Matthews, Nicolas Batum and Robin Lopez behind All-Stars Damian Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge. Not to mention in a matchup of two very high-scoring teams where there will be plenty of offense and no defense, the Rockets cover all the basis of a successful team from behind the arc, at the rim and the foul line better than the Blazers. Which is something you really need to execute well in an elite offense for it to truly work and that along with home-court advantage, which Houston has is why I pick them in a really close and exciting hard-fought six game series between these two dominating offenses. Though I also wouldn’t be surprised if this series went the distance of all seven games.
TDE’s resident songstress SZA gives us the simple, yet creatively cinematically great captured new video to her Isaiah Rashad collaboration, Warm Winds, off her recently released Top Dawg Entertainment debut and latest EP, Z, which is available now through iTunes. The harmony and production on this record to go with the amazingly beautiful visuals captured by directors Fredo Tovar and Scott Fleishman of APLUS FILMZ, who frequently collobarate with the TDE camp are so on point too. SZA also co-directed the videoherself as well.
Producer Boola decides to bring back his Produced By Boola series, four years after the first one and for the first offering from his upcoming Produced By Boola 2 he’s going all out. As he recruits legendary street savvy Hip-Hop group M.O.P. and East New York’s finest Uncle Murda for the lead single, Back Block. A very appropriate title for this head nodding street banger, where the three street certified veterans give us more of that energetic, rugged and gritty head banging straight NY to the block Hip-Hop like they’ve all come to be known for over the heavily syncopated rhythm section and relentless synths of the Boola production. If you like this, then look for more fresh dope ass features with some very great production from Boola, leading up to the release of his Produced By Boola 2 project.
After successfully closing out Day 3 of Coachella the other night with surprises from Drake and Childish Gambino during her set, very beautiful and talented ARTium Records/Def Jam artist Jhené Aiko gives us the new video for one of the standout records to her Sail Out EP and one of my all-time favorite songs from her period in Confort Inn Ending Freestyle. Though tiny in stature, Jhené shows in the visuals for the very soulful melodic, somber and dramatic No I.D.-produced ballad that she’s the type of female you don’t want to have drama with and you want to make sure you give her all of your love fully. If you love this very emotional, deep ballad that shows off her signature smooth tone the most of any of her records and the video, which frequent director collaborator Topshelf Junior really captured so perfectly to match the song and you haven’t yet, be sure to cop Jhené’s just as amazing EP she dropped last year and be sure to check for her upcoming full-length debut album, Souled Out, dropping sometime later this year.
In a move that most hoped wouldn’t happen with how promosing of a season he looked to have, the Chicago White Sox found out earlier today that very talented outfielder Avisail Garcia will be out for the rest of the season after a shoulder injury he suffered in Colorado during the Sox game last night versus the Rockies. Here prior to tonight’s home game versus the Cleveland Indians White Sox general manager Rick Hahn and manager Robin Ventura discussed the injury and how it will effect the rest of the team for the remainder of the season.
Very beautiful and extremely talented singer/songwriter Elle Varner may look happy more times than not, but if you listen to her powerful new balled, Little Do You Know, you can really tell how little we all really know about this amazing songstress and the heartbreak she has gone through that she appears to hide in promo photos and everything else related to the smile she has on more times than not in public. As over the simple smooth hip-hop infused baseline and percussion rhythm to start off the record that gradually builds up to a very emotionally raw, string driven climax of her frequent producer collaborators, Pop & Oak-production, Elle once again draws up her pent-up emotions and let’s her heart all out to show off her very amazing voice and talents, as she let’s everyone know how little they know about a heartbreak from a previous relationship she’s still going through or is she? That’s the question as Ms. Varner keeps giving us pieces to the puzzle with new tracks leading to the release of her very highly anticipated upcoming sophomore album, 4 Letter Word, which is expected to drop sometime later this year and I’m anticipating even more after hearing how great the sound of this record and album appears to be going. I already can’t get the song out of my head and know from what I’ve heard so far, Elle has a lot of records that will be a soundtrack for the summer and produce a very timeless album, which will be looked at as a real soulful classic album down the line.
Westcoast heavyweight lyricists Horseshoe Gang give us the dark new visuals for their track, F**k I Look Like, off their latest mixtape in their Mixtape Monthly series, Mixtape Monthly Vol. 5 March Madness. Once again directed by Evan Butka, as they hit a dark underground alleyway to purposely keep the video simple so the focus could be more on their great lyrics and how they all lyrically murder the record.
After not releasing anything in awhile very promising R&B singer/songwriter and former Universal Motown/Derrty Entertainment signee Avery Storm has returned today with his very smooth new single, Can’t Walk Away, which is produced by The Ceasars and features a very nice opening 16 from D-Block general Jadakiss. As over some very nice smooth melodic synth elements and some nice drum work from The Ceasars on the production, the very talented crooner and Kiss tell the tale of a love from a woman they just can’t let walk away and want to give everything to spend the rest of their lives with. Off Avery and The Ceasars upcoming collabo EP, Audiobiography, which they will be releasing independently together a week from today.
When I first heard it all the way back in November at his release party for his then recently released Between Heaven and Hell EP with producer Khrysis, Chicago native Add-2’s very amazing Death Of Chicago record really hit a chord with me and nearly brought me to tears when he performed it for the first time here in mine and his hometown of Chicago at The Shrine in Chicago’s southloop neighborhood like it did many others that night. By far one of the standout records on the project and possibly one of the best tracks I ever heard on the state of what’s going on in our hometown of Chicago with street violence, gangs and the gun epidemic right now, it’s only right that Add bring this record to life as the first visuals from the project to greatly capture and show the world with great healing through music and lyrics how we can change things. That’s why I’m glad he and his longtime collaborative director CamBe have come together yet again to really bring his always amazingly exceptional visuals to life and let Add really paint the perfect visualization with his new video and how deeply and well captured he got everything. A must watch video that everybody needs to see to show that lyrics still are very important in Hip-Hop to make a change for the better and you just have to find the music. If you want to support such an amazing artist as Add for all the free music he has given us the last 4-5 or so plus years, then you can also purchase the originally free project through iTunes as a deluxe/retail version with bonus cuts that where not on the original. With as amazing as a project as this is and how much great music he has given us, I think it’s only right if you have the money to purchase it then you should so we can let retailers know people still want and will support real life music like this that gives off a strong message and really hits a chord with people.
If you love the intense thrill and heart-pounding action of pennant races coming down to the wire, then you really gotta love these past three years of Major League Baseball. As last year for the second year in a row, four of the six divisions come down to either the final days or week of the regular season with one coming down to the final day of the regular season and home-field advantage in both the American and National League also coming down to the final day of the regular season for a second year in a row. The extra wild-card in each league being in place for it’s second season also helped immensely in each league as it had three teams in the AL fighting till the final day of the MLB regular season for those two wild-card spots, while it also had NL Central division foes Pittsburgh and Cincinnati jockeying with each other into the final week of the regular season to see who would get home-field advantage in the one-game wild-card playoff game.
That is why despite the recent announcement before the season by longtime captain and All-Star shortstop Derek Jeter of the New York Yankees that this will be his final season, the league feels it’s in a good place and ready to pass the bouton of being the face of the league to another young emerging player like Mike Trout of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim or reigning National League MVP Andrew McCutchen of the Pittsburgh Pirates. It’s also why many Americans feel baseball really is getting back to being the true original American pastime that most everybody loves and a perfect segue into my preview of the new 2014 MLB season.
Starting in the AL Central with the three-time defending division champion Detroit Tigers, who like last year are once again huge favorites to win a fourth straight division title. With reigning two-time American League MVP Miguel Cabrera leading a lineup that’s still really solid despite the loss of slugger Prince Fielder and despite the trade of Doug Fister to the Washington Nationals still has one of the best rotations in the league. By adding second baseman Ian Kinsler from the Texas Rangers in the Fielder trade they also improve on defense and show why they are still the class of the division that still doesn’t have any real competition. I can easily see them winning around 93-95 games and having the best record in the AL or at worst the second best record.
Moving over to the AL East I see the Boston Red Sox, who surprised many including myself last year by winning their third World Series title in the last 11 years putting on another great, but not spectacular year by at least winning a second straight division title with somewhere between 92-95 wins themselves. The Tampa Bay Rays, who finished second in the division last year to the eventual champion Red Sox, who they lost to in the ALDS will be a really solid club again like they have been the past few years and with one of the better rotations in the league with David Price, Alex Cobb and Matt Moore to go along with one of the best managers in all of baseball in Joe Maddon and a lineup that has Evan Longoria, Ben Zobrist and reigning AL Rookie of the Year Wil Myers for a full season to provide a great rotation and a bullpen that always seems to get it done with just enough offense, the Rays should once again be neck and neck with the defending champs for the division. Ultimately falling short though and winning between 92 and 90 games to capture the first of the two wild-card spots in the AL. The Yankees with the addition of rookie Japanese pitcher Mashiro Tanaka hope to make a once very weak rotation very formidable, but I still think the rotation with the possible decline of ace C.C. Sabathia and question marks still to the health of Michael Pineda and the the whole bullpen having a whole new look puts this Yankees team despite the addition of center-fielder and leadoff hitter Jacoby Ellsbury along with prized free-agent veteran catcher Brian McCann that makes it look really good on paper in a very similar situation to the Toronto Blue Jays team from last year that looked really good on paper, but ended up finishing last in the division with 74 wins. No this Yankees team will not go that far by finishing last in the division, but they will have to fight tooth and nail to avoid missing the playoffs for only the second time in Jeter’s career with around an 85-90 win campaign. So while I think they have just enough to make the playoffs in Jeter’s final season, I wouldn’t be surprised if they didn’t make the playoffs though with how many questions they have to such a fragile and aging roster yet again.
Flying west to the AL West, the Oakland Athletics, who have surprisingly won two straight division titles that the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim where favored to win, will no longer fly under anyones radar as a surprise team and finally get their just due after two straight seasons of 94 and 96 win campaigns by getting between 92-94 wins this season thanks in large part to their deep rotation. Which despite the loss of Jarrod Parker for the season will still be among the best and help the A’s to capture their third straight division title. The Texas Rangers, who last year won 91 games and finished second in the division to the A’s for a second straight year should be in a fight with the A’s for the division yet again, but once again thanks to injuries to key pieces in their rotation such as Yu Darvish, Derek Holland and Matt Harrison missing extended time to start the season to test their depth it will make it somewhat hard on them to start the season. Still despite that with the addition of slugger Prince Fielder, Shin-Soo Choo to anchor the top of the order and Alex Rios for a full season, the Rangers should no longer have problems scoring runs like they did for parts of last season and be among the highest-scoring in baseball. Which should help the team to win around 88-90 games and be in a fight with the Yankees to see who captures the second and final wild-card spot in the American League. Both teams have really solid lineups that should score a lot of runs and will more then likely both be among the top scoring in the league, but I think of the two ballclubs, the Rangers have less question marks on their team and why I think they should be a wild-card team for the third straight year since the two wild-card team was implemented.
As I move over to the National League portion of this preview of the 2014 MLB season one thing that will be brought up is if the NL can continue it’s dominance of the last six years in the World Series, where they have won four of the last six World Series titles or will last year’s Red Sox victory help the AL start going on a streak of their own of dominance in the World Series for the next few years? If the St. Louis Cardinals or Los Angeles Dodgers have anything to say about it though, then it will still be NL dominated.
With the Cardinals, who fought the surprise Pittsburgh Pirates and their longtime rival Cincinnati Reds in a three-team race for the NL Central last year, this St. Louis team this year looks to be more of a safe bet to win the division this year than any other year. As with the addition of shorstop Jhonny Peralta this year it shored up the one weak spot the Cardinals had on their roster, which was defense. With such a young rotation that’s one of the best if not the absolute best in all of baseball lead by ace Adam Wainwright and the best most complete team in all of baseball you can see why many are picking this Cardinals team to not only win their second straight division title, but at least be World Series title contenders if not win their third World Series in the last nine years and make their third World Series appearance in the last four years. The Reds and Pirates could very well have good seasons yet again too and I could easily see both capturing both NL wild-card spots again if neither one wins the division with the Reds having the better chance at winning the division if the Cardinals don’t. The Reds have enough talent with rookie Billy Hamilton manning the top of the order and veterans Joey Votto, Brandon Phillips and Jay Bruce among a very solid lineup and a great rotation of Mat Latos, Johnny Cueto and Homer Bailey to go with their always great bullpen they have had the last few years that should give them enough to at least make the playoffs if not win the division with around 90-93 wins. The Pirates meanwhile minus the loss of A.J. Burnett to their rotation still have a pretty solid young team and rotation that returns Gerrit Cole and Wandy Rodriguez for a full season, as well as much of it’s core in the lineup including reigning National League MVP Andrew McCutchen, Gaby Sanchez, Starling Marte and Russell Martin that should give the team enough to win between 89-90 games if not more to capture the second and final wild-card spot in the NL.
Going into the National League East the young upstart Washington Nationals, after a surprisingly down year that say them win only 86 games and miss the playoffs after what me and many others expected to be a big year for them look to be great on paper and favorites again to win the division. No they wouldn’t have the best record in all of baseball like they did in 2012, but last year was just a bump in the road and with a solid rotation once again lead by ace and NL Cy Young candidate Stephen Strasburg to go along with Gio Gonzalez and Doug Fister, who they added from the Tigers in the offseason this Nationals team should win 92 games to capture their second division title in three years.
Heading over to the NL West, the Los Angeles Dodgers look to be clear favorites to win their second straight division crown thanks in large part to one of the best rotations in all of baseball, which is lead by defending NL Cy Young, Triple Crown winner and arguably the best pitcher in all of baseball Clayton Kershaw. Not to mention having Yasiel Puig and Hanley Ramirez to go along with Adrian Gonzalez, Andre Ethier makes a once weak lineup a very potent one that can be even more scary if former NL MVP candidate Matt Kemp can stay healthy. The scary part too is this is a Dodgers team that won 92 games last year after getting off to only a 23-32 start. So this year’s team should easily win in the 93-95 win range if not higher. The Dodgers longtime rival San Francisco Giants in all likelihood wouldn’t challenge the Dodgers for the division, but with a still big-name rotation that includes Madison Bumgarner, Matt Cain and Tim Lincecum and with All-Star catcher Buster Posey and 2012 World Series MVP Pablo Sandoval among the key players from the 2012 World Series winning team back, the Giants at the very least look to challenge for a wild-card. The health of leadoff hitter Angel Pagan, as well as Cain and Lincecum having big bounce back years will be huge if the Giants really except to do so though. If they can and a team like the Reds or Pirates falter I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Giants back in the playoffs again after such a disappointing season last year, but in all likelihood I think they end up falling just short.
That leads to the playoffs where the Tampa Bay Rays would host the one-game Wild Card Game of the American League versus the Texas Rangers and would win a closely fought game to advance to their second straight Division Series as a wild-card team. In the National League the Cincinnati Reds and Pittsburgh Pirates would face each other for a second straight year in the Wild Card Game with the game being played in Cincinnati rather than Pittsburgh like it was last year. That would be the deciding factor with the Reds winning 5-4 on a walk-off hit to get revenge for last year’s loss to the Pirates. Thus leading to the Division Series where the Detroit Tigers would host the Rays in the ALDS in what could be a very classic type five game series between two teams that matchup so well with each other. Ultimately thanks in part to having a much better lineup, the Tigers would win in a series that could come down to the very last outs. In the other AL matchup the defending champion Boston Red Sox and Oakland A’s would fight to a pretty good four game series that seen the defending champs win and move on. Moving onto the National League Division Series that would then setup a matchup of the St. Louis Cardinals taking on their heated NL Central rival Reds for the first time ever in the playoffs in a very hard fought five game series that would come down to the last outs with the Cardinals surviving to move on. In the other NL matchup the Dodgers would host the Nationals and the Dodgers thanks in part to a more experienced team compared would move on a pretty good four game series.
Leading to both championship series where the Detroit Tigers would face the Boston Red Sox for a second straight year in the ALCS and unlike last year’s Red Sox team this one would lose to the Tigers in a hard fought six game series with Detroit getting their revenge for last year to head to win their second American League pennant in three years. Moving over to the NLCS the St. Louis Cardinals would host the Los Angeles Dodgers for a second straight year and once again defeat the Dodgers in six games in another really great series between these two historic franchises.
That would setup a 2006 World Series rematch of the Detroit Tigers and St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series with the Cardinals using last year’s four to two loss to the Red Sox in the Fall Classic as a great motivation to help them win a pretty good six game series to capture their 12th World Series title and third within the last nine years.
A graduate of Columbia College with a BA in Sports Journalism/Sports Marketing Nello Rubio is an aspiring sports journalist who freelance writes for SLAMonline and the Forest Park Post. Nello is very passionate about sports and has been since he was real young. As most young boys did growing up he started off in the traditional little league baseball, then karate, recreational basketball and flag football. He even ran cross country and track for 3 years of high school. Nello also has had a passion for music in particular Hip-Hop since he was about 12-13 years old. This site of his is aimed as everybody's one stop spot for all his thoughts on Sports & Hip-Hop. Thus the name Sports Hop. So look for Nello's views on different sports topics as well as new Hip-Hop music be it new songs, videos or whatever as well as interviews.