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.
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