There have been years when the NBA Playoffs were not very good.
This would not be one of them.
The last 3 nights have provided some of the best NBA Playoff basketball that we have seen in recent years, and I hope you are watching. The Nuggets vs. Lakers in the West have played 2 instant classics in the first two contests of that series, and the largely anonymous Orlando Magic gave Cleveland its first loss of the post-season on Wednesday in Game 1 of the Eastern Finals.
After 2 rounds of weeding out the weaklings, we are now officially ready to rumble.
This one is clearly the main event in my world, and I would guess anyone who is obsessed with Mavericks basketball. These are the two teams you are chasing and if you have followed the Mavs for 10 minutes, you know these are the two teams the Mavs have no answers for. They are athletic, they are tough to guard, and they have put their rosters together in such a way that there is no quick fix for the Mavs to get in their range. The Mavs seem to need about 2 or 3 pieces to add to their roster to get into a position to be able to match up with the Lakers or Nuggets.
But in watching them play each other, the basketball is absolutely riveting. Let me list a few things that have drawn my full attention:
* Watching Lamar Odom and Pau Gasol square off against the Nuggets front line. This is interesting because Gasol gets compared quite a bit to Dirk. They have somewhat similar games and it seems that the Lakers are far more equipped to tangle with the Nuggets, but Denver is definitely trying to play as physical as possible. An isolation camera on Kenyon Martin last night showed that he is seriously out there trying to goon it up (there, does that not hurt so much?) and the refs are not protecting Gasol any more than they protected Dirk. Kenyon throws his hips and elbows into the post men of LA on many occasions, and Nene brings the noise as well. One guy who has been somewhat silent in the first few games in Los Angeles is the Birdman. His athleticism is not near the mismatch. The other silent big man in this series seems to be Andrew Bynum who when he is hurt he is made out to be one of the most unstoppable forces in the NBA by media types. But now, with him back, he sits on the bench and watches at key moments of the game. The battle of the front line is a very competitive battle, but nothing like....
* The Battle of Kobe v. Carmelo. Wow. This is worth the price of admission. Both guys are stuck on "unstoppable" right now. We expect it out of Kobe. Surely, a few months short of his 31st birthday, Kobe realizes that he does not have an infinite amount of time left to win that elusive "Shaq-free" ring that he requires to cement his legacy. He has done it all - sort of - but you know that he knows that we know that he needs to win one without Shaq scoring 30 points and 17 rebounds in the NBA Finals of 2000-2002. Kobe looks determined and desperate. Meanwhile, Carmelo has officially broken out. Why? Is it because Iverson has been sent away? Is it because of the 2008 Olympics? Is it getting rid of the braids? Is it just the proper maturation process of a 24 year old superstar? Regardless of the reasons, Carmelo has flipped a switch in these playoffs where now he will not be denied, either. Watching him last night decide to take the game over reminded me of his 2003 NCAA Final Four performance for Syracuse. Being unstoppable combined with knowing you are unstoppable is a wonderful thing to watch. The only issue with Denver is whether he is too passive in demanding the ball at crunch time at certain times. If he doesn't demand the ball, it seems there are too many Nuggets who think they are the man, and forget who really is the man. Kobe versus Carmelo is flat-out wonderful. And, we have yet to play a game in Denver, but I would imagine the good fans of Denver may reference various details of Kobe's summer in Colorado in 2003 , no? This should be wonderful this weekend.
* Chauncey Billups and Derek Fisher both making key plays at key moments.Both key veteran players who know their way around the playoffs are absolute keys to their teams based on the 128 career playoff games Billups has played and the 166 career playoff games Fisher has played. 294 playoff games for those two players alone. Add 165 more for Kobe. I would suggest these three guards have seen a few different scenarios in a hostile road arena. In other words, waving your arms why they shoot free throws will probably not rattle them.
* The coaching chess game. Phil versus George Karl. While we are counting games, a quick look at NBA.com shows that Phil Jackson has coached 1764 games through last night, Karl 1729. But here is the shocking difference. They have both lost 86 playoff games in their respective careers. Karl is 71-86 in the playoffs. Phil? 202-86. It is possible that Phil's wisdom in coaching teams that have always contained either Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant has certainly helped. Can you imagine that? He has never NOT had either Jordan or Kobe in his entire coaching career.
Anyway, with the series now tied up at 1-1, this will really get interesting in Denver. I still think the Lakers emerge, but it will take 7 games.
I don't have much here, because I honestly have not cared too much about the Eastern Conference playoffs in general, but now that we are down to the Lebron show, it is captivating as well. I think most of us have anticipated a Kobe-Lebron final since Christmas, but now what once seemed like a sure thing is now a bit more tenuous. But Lebron's attempt to take over the full claim on being the game's best player is not tenuous at all.
His ability to take over the game from the opening tip through the final buzzer is certainly enough to make people throw out Jordan-type comparisons. I cringe at this for a guy who is 24, but the similarities are pretty obvious. Maybe the difference is that Jordan did not find great success until he was joined by a great coach and a clear #2 in Scottie Pippen. Lebron seems to lack both of those, as his coach seems pretty ordinary and his mates all seem easily replaceable. Nevertheless, his greatness carries them along with great ease most nights.
But then, here comes Orlando - the unwanted guest at the dinner table - in Game 1, riding the high of their Game 7 win in Boston, still nailing all sorts of 3 point bombs to take home court advantage away. Rashard Lewis and Hedo Turkaglu? Really? And why am I not seeing much from Dwight Howard at crunch time, because he is undoubtedly their best player, right? Well, his free throw issue is keeping him from being a force in the paint at crunch time. But, here is free-agent-to-be Hedo playing PG and making plays and Lewis knocking down huge shots.
I still expect Cleveland advances easily, but the drama of the 4th Quarter of Game 1 was wonderful, and certainly on par with everything the West is throwing out there.
I know some of you are still in Mavs depression, but, trust me, the quality of basketball we are seeing right now from the biggest stars in the game mean that we have as many as 18 more games to go in the NBA season, and if you love the game you might not want to miss any of them. Or at least the 4th Quarters of any of them.