Better Than Advertised

Never has an entire conference playoff slate, first round through the conference finals, been more anticipated than this year’s Western playoffs. Consider the regular season brought the most tightly contested conference playoff race in NBA history, seven games separating the eight Western Conference playoff teams, all who finished with 50 or more wins. Throw in the defending champs, the top two MVP candidates, a 22-game win streak, surprise teams, mid-season acquisitions trying to justify themselves, the West has it all. Could the actual games can match the hype.

How about a 2-OT thriller, three game tying shots with under 20 seconds left in the respective stanzas, and a game winner with 1.2 seconds remaining to whet the appetite. Phoenix-San Antonio was billed as the series of the first round, and Game One was a heavyweight battle. Manu Ginobili capped off an 8 point outburst in the double overtime period with a driving layup over Shaq to grab a 117-115 Spurs win.

Ginobili’s double OT outburst was made possible by a game-tying 3-pointer with 3 seconds left in the first OT by an unlikely source, Tim Duncan, his first of the season. Duncan scored the final nine points in the first OT, in route to a game-high 40 points and 15 rebounds. The Big Fundamental simply would not let San Antonio lose, scoring seven down the stretch to erase a nine-point fourth quarter deficit, his eyes filled with focus and desire. Duncan truly becomes a different player in the post-season, elevating his game after coasting at times during the regular season. Critics wondered if this might be the year San Antonio shows its age, or vulnerabilities, in Game One Duncan would have none of it. Scoring almost at will inside, stepping out to can jumpers, even burying the clutch three.

Meanwhile, Ginobili answered any questions about his hamstring, chipping in with 24 off the bench, along with a clutch defensive play in overtime, tipping a pass away, leading to an Amare Stoudemire foul to prevent the steal. Tony Parker added 26 and buried a few clutch shots down the stretch, but none as big as Michael Finley, who nailed a three with 16 seconds left in regulation to send it to OT. Finley finished with 13 points.

Stoudemire carried Phoenix, continuing his torrid second half with 33 points and 7 rebounds before fouling in the first overtime. Losing Stoudemire may have been the difference. Without his partner in crime, the Spurs were able to pressure Nash on pick and rolls, forcing the rest of the team to beat them. With Stoudemire on the court, particularly in the fourth and first OT, the Spurs struggled to defend pick and roll, allowing Nash to use the screens for open jumpers, or to easy penetration. When San Antonio went after Nash, Stoudemire got one on one looks in the paint, almost automatic.

One year after a physical series marred with the infamous fight, the first half had its share of tough play. Both teams griped with the referees over almost every foul call, constantly flopping for charges. But things settled down in the second half, the intensity picked up to levels usually reserved for conference or NBA finals, and the stars stepped up – Nash, Stoudemire, Ginobili, Duncan, and Parker.

Kurt Thomas provided solid defense and rebounding off the Spurs bench, drawing the charge that sent Stoudemire to the bench for good, to go with 10 big rebounds. Relegated to the bench with foul trouble in the first, O’Neal was a non-factor on the offensive end in crunch time, instead focusing on defending Duncan. However, after picking up his fifth foul in double OT, Shaq became passive in the paint. Using Duncan primarily for screens, the Spurs turned to Ginobili, who attacked Shaq play after play with drives to the basket, knowing the big man did not want to pick up his sixth foul, especially with Stoudemire already gone.

If this is any indication, we may have the best first round series in NBA history. Buckle up, its going to be a doozy, round two set for Tuesday night in San Antonio. After what appears to be a grueling series ahead, will either of these teams have enough left in the tank to conquer the rest of the playoffs. The NBA’s playoff schedule, resembling a retiree’s work schedule, might be their only saving grace.


Kobe About to Earn Stripes

Last week doctors diagnosed Kobe Bryant with a complete ligament tear in his right pinkie finger, an injury he first sustained on February 5th in New Jersey. Since then, after one dud in a loss at Atlanta, Kobe has reeled three 30+ point games, a 29-point performance, shot over 40% and played over 40 minutes three times, in leading the new look Lakers to four straight injuries. All before even stopping to have the injury fully diagnosed, an injury that would immediately sideline most players.

Now Bryant faces surgery and six-weeks in civies, or figuring out how to play through it. Easy choice, right. Have the surgery, return rested and healthy right in time for a few early April warm-up games leading into the playoffs. Not so fast. Not this year, not in this conference. If Kobe takes a seat next to Bynum on LA’s suddenly crowded inactive list, the Lakers season ends after that week of warm-up games in April, giving him ample time to prep for Bejing. If he puts off the surgery, plays on, Bynum returns and forms a chemistry with Gasol and Bryant in the triangle offense, Jack Nicholson needs to keep that third week in June open for possible NBA Finals games at the Staple Center.

Eight months ago, we railed Bryant for his public crusade to force a trade. We criticized the discouraging comments about youngster Andrew Bynum. Called Kobe selfish, laughed at how he now got a taste of his own medicine for pushing Shaq out, transforming LA from title contender to a one man, one playoff round show. Kobe listened, he learned, he all but admitted the mistake this week, saying “thank god I’m not the GM.” He became a team player, finally listened to the Zen Master, the kid started to blossom, then the front office got the help he wanted, the proven second option to spread the defense. Result – LA sits only 1.5 games from the best in the West, and is only closing in.

Now this. Through it all, even when his public image took a beating, Kobe always brought his A-game, his A-effort to the court. Is there any doubt if he’ll opt for surgery? No chance. He smells a chance at the crown, six years after last winning it, Bryant knows how precious the opportunities are. Come hell or high water, doctors will have to force Kobe off the court. If he has the choice, surgery will wait. Beware Western Conference, Bryant’s on a mission, and he just loaded his gun with more ammo – the chance to prove his mettle and toughness, take another step into NBA lore by pulling a pseudo Willis Reed for half a season.

Western Conference Arms Race

Pau Gasol, Chris Webber, and now Shaquille O’Neal. In one week, the Western Conference leaders imported three potentially impact big men to make a run at the title. GM’s finally see the light, run and gun leads to regular season supremacy, not NBA rings. Outside of Detroit, each champion in the post-Bulls era had a dominant big man. Despite only the fifth best record in the West, the road to the Finals still goes through San Antonio and the Big Fundamental, these acquisitions prove the other teams finally figured that out.

Phoenix shocked the NBA, trading an intricate part of their run and gun style and leading rebounder for an aging, injured O’Neal, a mere shell of the player with four championships. Forget that O’Neal does not fit the uptempo style Phoenix thrives in and has been ineffective most of the past two seasons, the Suns have the best record in the West – why change now?

Last year’s playoffs, and the year before, and the year before, that’s why. GM Steve Kerr, who know a thing or two about title runs, clearly made a risky move, but his goal is not the Pacific Division or the most wins in the league, its to win it all. The Suns tried the fast pace style, it only took them so far. While trading Marion for Shaq may blow up in their face, after watching LA obtain another 7 footer in Gasol to go along with an improving Bynum, and knowing Duncan still looms, Phoenix decided if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. O’Neal is a playoff acquisition.

When O’Neal returns, Stoudemire slides over to his natural Power Forward spot, to go along with Boris Diaw and Grant Hill on the wing, matchup hell for opponents.  O’Neal adds a defensive presence in the middle, a big body to help grab the crucial rebound, a post player that attracts defensive attention freeing up Stoudemire, and opening the perimeter for open shots. Shaq can actually trigger fast breaks by controlling the defensive glass, allowing his teammates to run out for quick outlet passes. Come on, you did not expect me to say he would be filling the lane in transition.

The move can just as easily blow up in the desert. Marion led the team in rebounding, ranks among the best defenders in the league,  and is widely viewed as one of the Top 15 or 20 all-around players in the league. He wanted out after last season when the Suns did not reward him with a fat contract extension, but did Phoenix get enough in return for a big time player in his prime? Kerr broke all the rules of NBA trades, obtaining an star player past his prime with an albatross of a contract. The Suns must win the NBA title this season or face immense scrutiny for giving away Marion and burdening the salary cap for nothing. In the Sunshine state, despite criticism for the awful performance, Pat Riley is quietly rebuilding this team, ditching Antoine Walker’s contract and now Shaq, plus teaming Marion with Dwayne Wade, a potential dynamic duo.

Kerr rolled the dice. In May and June we find out if he rolled snake eyes or a big 7. With LA and Phoenix in position, will Dallas, San Antonio, New Orleans, Utah, or Denver respond? Is Jason Kidd next? Last week and the next two weeks will go a long way to deciding this years NBA champion. And don’t forget Boston in the East, in need of a veteran point guard.