Things we learned from the playoffs

Going into the playoffs people were talking about how the Western Conference playoffs were going to be the best ever. 1-8, no team was an underdog. Well, maybe the Yao Ming-less Houston Rockets, though even that was doubtful given the brilliant winning streak they had even without him.

Yet here we stand with a bunch of series that, frankly, have not been competitive. The Nuggets were swept by the Lakers, in the midst of which both their stars pulled off bonehead moves; Carmelo Anthony and his DUII stunt and Iverson with another classic blast about how well loved he is not in Denver.

However, the things we have learned have perhaps been the most interesting.

Phoenix - San Antonion
Whatever happens in this series, a lot of it will rightfully be attributed to the desperation Shawn Marion - Shaquille O' Neal trade. Unfortunately, a lot of other things will be overlooked. Among those is this simple fact: Phoenix did everything they needed to do to win the series except close. And they did it in a new way.

In the first game they built a lead, but it was not a typical lead building for them. There was no explosive 17-2 type run. There was no explosion of 15 - 20 points in 4 or 5 minutes while simultaneously clamping down on the Spurs. Instead they built the lead slowly and steadily. A 5 point extension here. A 9-1 run there. Trading baskets. Small, rugged 4-2 exchanges.

They played better, plain and simple...and for long stretches of time...until it counted. When they had to have a stop they could not stop Tony Parker. When they had to have a bucket they had problems even getting off shots. Is San Antonio just that much better?

To be sure, plenty could be said about twice having the option of fouling to prevent 3 point attempts. When Leandro Barbosa let Michael Finley get that wide open look...and yes, someone else should have come across the screen, but ultimately Barbosa let him get free...it was crushing. On that epic Tim Duncan cold-blooded trey I was yelling for the foul even as Manu Ginobli penetrated the lane. Was it bad coaching or bad execution? The easy answer is to lay the blame on Mike D'Antoni and a lot of Phoenix fans have done so. In truth, had the players executed as they normally have throughout the season the 3s would not have mattered. The Spurs took advantage of the opportunities as champions often do...and the Suns presented those opportunities as also-ran teams often do.

Here is an interesting coaching question. Tony Parker has been running wild on Phoenix to the point where he is dominating the series. At any point has Phoenix considered taking their best small-guy defender, Raja Bell, and putting him on Parker?

By game 3 the Suns looked stunned. I turned on the game early in the second half and could not believe what I was seeing. Steve Nash could barely dribble the ball. Amare Stoudemire fumbled away pass after pass. The Suns looked like a jayvee team playing McDonalds All-Americans. It was embarrassing to watch. There are some teams that, going into these playoffs, were widely believed to be badly over matched and in danger of being swept...the Atlanta Hawks and Philadelphia 76ers come to mind...but at least for these few minutes, it was the Suns who looked not just over matched but badly demoralized. It is worth noting that the Hawks held serve at home and the 76ers even managed to win in Detroit...which says a lot about our perceptions.

That is not the only surprising Western Conference series, however. The Dallas-New Orleans series has been another eye-opener. I said at the time that acquiring Jason Kidd was a mistake for Dallas not just for this year but for years to come. Kidd tends to get exposed in the playoffs. Bringing him in wrecked their chemistry, got rid of a talented young point guard with the foot speed to at least get between Chris Paul and the basket, and hid a lot of weaknesses. Dallas had one thing going for them going into this series; their home court mastery of the Hornets. However, even that was exposed. After scoring 32 in the first quarter, they were held to 52 points the rest of the way. They were out coached, outplayed, and out hustled. And Kidd showed his character once more with his cheap shot on Jannero Pargo. Worst of all, that happened at home in Dallas.

It is not a surprise that New Orleans is at worst tied in this series. It is not even a particularly huge surprise that they took the 3-1 lead with that win in Dallas. What is surprising is that the series has not really been close. It is not just Chris Paul, Tyson Chandler and David West dominating their respective positions...it is guys like Pargo that the Mavericks have also been unable to contend with. Just 2 years removed from a 2-0 Finals lead people are talking about blowing up the roster and starting over. That sounds desperate to me...remember, the Spurs for years were on a "Win the Championship/out of the playoffs early" model for years. One fluke ouster (last year) and making the mistake of bringing in Kidd does not a franchise kill. They can still get rid of Kidd and have plenty of talent to contend. They have enough talent to make this one a series. But they won't, it says here.

Down in Houston there was one bright, shining moment when it appeared Tracy McGrady had finally "figured it out". In Utah, down 2-0, with the game in its closing minutes, he took over. McGrady has had the knock on him that he does not perform in the playoffs, specifically the 4th quarter. In this game he pulled down a couple clutch rebounds, made clutch shots, good passes, and had solid defense to help them win. Then in the next game he remembered he is Tracy McGrady. Barring something shocking he will continue to have the same number of second round appearances as Grant Hill.

The saddest part of this is the finger pointing going on down Houston way. I wonder if Rick Adelman is feeling warmth in his seat. They need to win 3 straight...and while 2 are at home, home has been unkind to them in these playoffs.

Meanwhile, Denver, having had their best season in years, melted down. They could not muster so much as a single win. This will give the Lakers some valuable rest. Will it give them rust?

What once looked like a promising playoffs with an excellent chance of 2 or 3 first round upsets now looks like, in the West, the only potential "upset", and it is not much of one at that, is Utah over Houston with the potential to see other once-marquee series end in 5 games apiece with one sweep.

Sadly, this could adversely affect future years. As roundly as I have criticized the Mavericks for the Kidd blunder and as much criticism as the Suns received in some quarters for the Marion-O'Neal trade, the undeniable fact is those trades brought a sense of excitement to the Western Conference playoffs. Should the series all end in disaster for the teams that made the blockbusters, it could put a damper on future editions.

Why would a team trade for an aging, overrated team-killer (Kidd) or an aging, injury-prone guy who is a bad fit for the team's play style (O'Neal) if it results in a step backward in the playoffs? That could end for decades the blockbuster deadline deal and we will be back to the hardly inspiring signings such as Damon Stoudemire to the Spurs, Brent Barry to the Spurs...hmm, I see a pattern here. Never mind.

Who would have thought, prior to the start of the playoffs, that the most compelling series to watch would be a toss-up between the Celtics-Hawks and Pistons-76ers? Even now both higher seeds look to win their respective series...but at least they will go at least 6.

Going the Last Mile; Blazers Image Makeover Now Complete

After carefully maintaining a classy image for the first two decades of existence, the Blazer franchise lost their way somewhere in the 1990s. Out were players such as Terry Porter or Cliff Robinson; talented guys who cared about the community and gave back. In were guys like Rasheed Wallace, Damon Stoudemire, Isaiah Rider, Ruben Patterson, and so forth. You might recall them as the "Jailblazers", a not so tongue in cheek reference to their habits of run-ins with the law.

Local headlines were more likely to revolve around marijuana arrests (tin foil sets off metal detectors? who knew?), domestic assault, or technical fouls than about the games being played. It is hard to say when the decline started, though many Blazer fans point to the tail end of the Clyde Drexler area. When it became obvious the Blazer window for a title had closed in disappointment he wanted out. There has long been a feeling he essentially quit on the team for his last season and change in Portland, not playing to his full potential. Maybe. Maybe not. But the change in mentality was huge.

Portland had never experienced that before. They always had guys who felt blessed to be in the league, who loved to play, and put forth exceptional effort every night. Guys like the under talented, over achieving Jerome Kersey or the imported backbone, Buck Williams who came to play every night were the ideal type of players Blazer fans expected. Guys who did not want to be here were something we did not know how to deal with.

On the heels of the Drexler departure the franchise shifted gears. In came guys who would repeatedly get in trouble on and off the court. Perhaps the nadir of the slide was Ruben Patterson, a guy with serious legal troubles in Seattle whom Portland brought in because he was talented. Say what you wish about the temper tantrums of Rasheed Wallace on the court, off the court he has always been a good citizen. Not so for Patterson.

Bringing him in said a great deal. He was the type of player Portland had always rejected in the past. Nobody questioned his talent or his ability to help Portland win games. But his legal problems were the type of thing that had always had Portland GMs saying, "Sorry, not interested." Now the desire to win overrode the desire to have players who would not embarrass the franchise.

And embarrassment was the watchword of the day. Multiple players were caught driving back from a Seattle game while high. Dog fighting charges were leveled. More sexual assault and domestic disturbance charges were aired. The famed Phoenix tin foil scandal hit the news. The fans turned out in droves...just not to the games. They went to the movies, the local Triple A baseball affiliate, the local minor league hockey games, or out to eat but they stopped going to the games.

Slowly but surely the Blazer brass got the picture. One time hometown hero Stoudemire was let go for almost nothing. Wallace hit the door. Rider, Patterson...the litany goes on. They were names who had great success on the floor in Portland...but were not, in the opinion of the community, "good character guys".

I would say "slowly but surely" when referencing the change that took place but that is not true. Almost overnight the roster was remade. It took almost 2 years but within that time the roster turned over 100%. Perceived slacker Theo Ratliffe, malcontent Zach Randolph...gone. Overnight the face of the franchise became Brandon Roy with LaMarcus Aldridge, Jarrett Jack, Joel Przybilla, Martell Webster and Travis Outlaw becoming the face of the organization. In a stroke of luck Greg Oden became a Blazer.

Out were the guys with rap sheets or questionable attitudes, in were community service award winners and guys who wanted not only to play but to play here in Portland. A team slated to win less than 40 games once again became the hottest ticket in town.

Strangely, a lot of this came when the team was seeming to get worse. I am a huge fan of Przybillas' game but even I would not argue he is an upgrade over Wallace in terms of talent. Randolph, whatever else you say about him, was still a 20 point, 10 rebound guy who had the highest shooting percentage on the team. LaMarcus Aldridge looks like he will develop into an All-Star but is not there yet. In this, his best season to date, 17 and 8 are his numbers. On paper, the team is worse but, assuming they beat Memphis at home and lose to Phoenix on the road, they will finish 41-41, .500 for the year.

And yesterday they took the final step in cutting ties with the Jailblazer era when Darius Miles was waived.

Miles is another guy who was a phenomenal talent on the floor and pretty unpopular off the floor. His scrapes with the law are a matter of record, his poor attitude when he was still playing plain to see. How badly did Portland want to get rid of him? Consider this; he, like Oden, had microfracture knee surgery. Oden was welcome to go with the team on any road trips he wished. Miles was not allowed on the plane according to unconfirmed rumors.

The point is not whether Miles was actually prevented from going on the plane or not. The real value to the rumor is that many Blazer fans A) believed it and B) were ecstatic about it, not wanting Miles disrupting the chemistry of the team or providing a bad influence on the young players.

On the one hand, I wish Miles all the best. I hope he has a long, healthy life, prudently invests the nearly 50 million he will have been paid by the end of his contract, and enjoys his time here on earth. On the other, I join with the Blazer fans applauding the move by the team to cut their ties with him as soon as legally possible. He will get his money but is no longer part of the team. With his release the last link to the shameful years is gone and we can truly look forward to watching a team that, win or lose, we can be proud of.


Fools Gold

The first quarter of the Blazer-Laker game looked promising for Portland fans. It was largely set up by recent games. LaMarcus Aldridge has been on a tear recently. He regularly has dropped in 20 or more points and shot better than 50%. As a result he has been commanding double teams and forcing teams to dedicate a strong defender to him. This game started out no different.

When you double team one post player it opens up other things such as deep jumpers and weak side rebounding. Portland took advantage of both. Travis Outlaw made the first bucket on a spectacular one hand follow-dunk of a missed Aldridge jumper. That opportunity was created by the double team that moved Lakers defenders around. Most of the rest of the quarter was taken up by a flurry of a dozen try attempts and a couple more bombs that were prevented from being 3s only by virtue of Steve Blake and James Jones having their foot on the line. 6 of the 3s dropped in which is kind of the ultimate good news/bad news scenario.

The good news is Portland was scoring seemingly at will and the 3 was dropping. The bad news is the team that lives by the 3 tends to die by it as well when they stop dropping. Watch any team that regularly dials long distance and you will generally notice they both generate and give up huge runs. Golden State is probably the poster boy for that paradigm but in games like this one Portland follows the formula as well.

After building a 23-15 point lead Portland kept bombing away from outside but made just 1 of the next 4 triples. Meanwhile the Lakers were pounding the ball inside, going to the line, and getting the long rebounds to get some easy transition points.

The second quarter saw a lot less reliance on the 3 (2-6) but they were still shooting from deep. When they got penetration they set up a couple easy buckets but now the Laker defense was much more dialed in. Lamar Odom was doing a great job defensively on Aldridge when they were matched up 1 on 1 and as a result Portland now had no low-post scoring, the 3s were no longer open and the other players were not involved. After dropping 31 points in the first quarter they could only manage 19 in the second. Too much of the Portland offense devolved into random 1 on 1 moves against the shot clock that resulted in bad shots or turnovers. Though the Lakers only scored 24 points they completely dominated the quarter and it was obvious Portland was on its way to another defeat.

A lot of the damage was done by their first quarter success. When they do not have to work to score early the young guys on the Blazers tend to relax and not work as hard at the game as they need to in order to win. Though they are a talented young team they are not so talented that they can win without giving complete effort. They have problems with the transcendent talents of the league which, in reality, means 2 players: LeBron James and Kobe Bryant. Either of those guys can lift their team to victory even in the absence of significant assistance from their teammates. And on nights when their teammates are playing well...forget about it. It could get embarrassing.

This game did not reach that stage...not having your best player (Brandon Roy) and falling by 13 on the road to one of the premiere teams in the Western Conference is nothing to be ashamed of. And to their credit the young Blazer players never quit. They simply were outworked by a team that is, at this point, simply more talented and that outworked them on this night.

And there is no doubt the Lakers are a very talented team. I have never understood why Odom has not gotten more respect. His agate type for the night hardly overwhelmed anybody...12 points on efficient 6-12 shooting, 8 rebounds, just one assist...but he played a very complete game including 2 steals and 3 blocks. Most importantly, he played rugged, impressive defense on Aldridge and forced him into a 4-15 night with at least 2 of the makes coming when Odom was nowhere to be seen. Here is a guy who arguably made the difference for the Lakers in this game yet seems to be a favored whipping boy of many Laker fans. That seems mis-placed to me. Sure, Odom is not at a point in his career where he will regularly drop 20 and 10 but he will score timely buckets, play solid defense, and just generally be an above average threat to the opposition.

They also have Bryant, a guy for whom legitimate MVP chants are raised in about every home game. That brings up an interesting question; how important is image to the MVP? There are a lot of issues to discuss there but that is a post for another time.

For now, the Blazers are sitting at 38-37 with a tough schedule ahead: Home against Houston, San Antonio and the Lakers, then a quick road trip to Sacramento, home games against Dallas and Memphis and then closing out in Phoenix. 6 of those look like strong possibilities of losses with only the Memphis game looking like a probably win. After the Charlotte debacle, even that is questionable. Early on I figured them for 42-44 wins and a long-shot playoff slot. I was wrong about the playoffs...who knew you would need 50 to get in? and the win totals are looking shaky. But I am not ready to pack it in. One more strong run fueled by the home fires could see them go 4-3 or even 5-2 with a little help. While none of the games are easy all except the last one in Phoenix are games that should not surprise anybody if Portland won. They have a very respectable 25-11 record there and have almost always brought their A-game to the Rose Garden. Rumors abound that Roy may be back as soon as Friday which would make all the difference. It will be a fun close to the year as we see exactly what these guys are made of and get a look at who will still be on the team next season.