The Playoffs…So Far
Part I: It All Comes Down to This
I wanted to write something after the Denver game two nights ago, but I was honestly too depressed. Watching Robert Horry bang yet another clutch three-pointer following a brilliantly simple out of bounds play broke something in me, and I believe the Denver Nuggets as well. When they came out for the inbounds play, A.I. just stood by the half-court line and ‘Melo was no where to be found. It was the strangest moment I’d seen in a long time: two stud-stars didn’t seem to want the ball in the clutch. It was as if their worst nightmare had come true and neither of them seemed to be able to recover. (I realized then that the whole “Big Shot Rob” thing is for real, and that even other players recognizes its mystique to the point that his antic kill their spirits). For a second I wondered if George Karl had designed some sort of play to get the ball in J.R. Smith’s hands then bring Iverson around the backside, but that isn’t at all what unfolded. Smith got the inbounds with oodles of time and launched a three that no one in the arena or watching at home believed was going in.
Once this series finally concludes (and I’m not giving up on Denver, but…), those two out of bounds plays should be remembered as determining the outcome of the series. Up by only one with 40 ticks left on the clock Tony Parker gets the balls, drives, draws the defense and kicks it to the open man for the three. Down by four with a little more than 30 ticks left on the clock, a shaken (not stirred) J.R. Smith whose field goal and three-point percentage for the series hurt me just to think about, gets the inbounds pass and launches a three.
The plays could easily be chalked up to the difference in the caliber of coaching: “Pop” drew up a play that fit his team’s strengths and Karl just flat-out bungled his team’s last good chance by not doing the same (ie. getting the ball to Iverson or Anthony and telling everyone else to get out of the way). When you look at who the Spurs had on the floor, though, the situation becomes more complicated. Besides Parker and Horry, the Spurs had Duncan down low for the rebound, and Finley and Ginobli on the wings as second and third options. Those five guys might not win you a championship by themselves, but I can’t think of a better five to have on the court at the end of the game.
The mere fact that Denver was forced to go with J.R. Smith down the stretch says everything about what separates the Nuggets from the Spurs, and why San Antonio has a 3-1 lead. Starting five vs. Starting five, these two teams are virtually even. You can even make a case that Denver has a better top to bottom starting group. Nene and Camby have arguably outplayed San Antonio’s big men. Carmelo has had his best playoff series as a pro. Steve Blake has been effective though unspectacular. Even though Iverson hasn’t had a good shooting series, he’s been present and accounted for every night and has made big shots when the team has needed them. As for San Antonio, none of the big three has had a phenomenal series. Duncan has been pretty solid, but that’s all. Parker and Iverson have basically played each other to a standstill with neither guy really able to stop the other from doing what they do best. Finley has had his moments. Ginobli (a virtual starter) has erupted in spurts. Bowen has played better in the past. The difference lies in what George Karl looks at when he turns to his bench and what “Pop” look at. One guy always sees someone – even Brent Barry for Pete’s Sake – while the other guy has to pray somebody will step up. In all fairness, the Nuggets got a little something out of Najera, a little something.
Regardless of what happens tonight, the Nuggets’ off-season mandate is pretty clear: get one, maybe two grizzled vets who might not play all season but who can play in spurts come playoff time. With K-Mart coming back (and even in a diminished state) the front court is in place. They’ve got a backcourt that they can win with. What they need is a versatile swingman who can spell Carmelo and rotate to the two-spot if called upon. Maybe Karl can convince Grant Hill to come out to Denver for a season or two. He won’t have to play much but he could be invaluable come playoff time. Just a thought.
Last Nuggets note. If you didn’t hear about the radio host who lost his job for insulting A.I. check out this link to the Black Athlete Sports Network
Part II: The Questions
In my depressed state I started looking around the league at the playoff picture. I came up with a few questions that may or may need answering.
1. Why does it seem like the Eastern Conference Playoff have yet to begin?
With three out of the four series already on the books after four games it genuinely feels as though the Eastern Conference won’t even begin playing until later this week or maybe even next week. The one exception, the Nets/Raptors series, could have been over if Vince Carter had enough balls to take the shot J.Kidd was practically begging him to take. On the last possession Kidd literally handed the ball to Vince TWICE and still Vince passed up a shot against Juan Dixon for an open three by Nachbar. Vince was having his best ever game at Toronto, was shooting just below 50% for the game, had hit at least two circus shots already, and yet he passed the ball to a guy who was 2-9. Watching that play I began to understand what Charles Barkley meant when he said T-Mac and Vince are the two players who bail out defenses more than any other two guys in the league. Shame on you Vince.
2. Why does the Golden State/Dallas series feel like the L.A. Lakers/Phoenix series from ‘06 all over again?
Seriously, the dynamics are so similar that it’s a little scary. We all remember Kobe passing the rock around to his teammates, then taking over down the stretch. People couldn’t stop speculating about the possible L.A. v. L.A. second round match-up. And it almost happened. But Tim Thomas, my personal vote for this year’s worst free agent pick-up, hit that clutch three and the series pretty much ended with that. I’m more than a little wary of Golden State at this point. I wonder if they’ve got enough gas left in the tank. For Dallas to lose would be downright devastating to the franchise after last season’s meltdown in the Finals and this season’s 67 win regular season.
3. Why are we still talking about Dirk as the MVP of the NBA?
For four straight games Stephen Jackson made Dirk Nowitski look like a slow-footed, second guessing second-rate superstar. For four games Jackson, who’s always been solid but never spectacular, looked more like an MVP candidate that Dirk. He made Dirk work for every shot and he’s gone at him relentlessly on the offensive end. Dirk refused to post-up and he looked anything but smooth when he got the ball on the wing. While no one seems to want to give it up to Stephen Jackson because of his reputation, anyone watching the games has to ask themselves what Dirk would be like in a different system, on a team that wasn’t built around him, without Josh Howard. For the record, I’m not a Dirk hater or aDirk fan. His game just offends me on a aesthetic level.
4. Why do I root for underdogs?
It’s my weakness. I should no better than to expect L.A. to rise to the occasion when they stumbled into the playoffs. I should be wise enough by now to accept that despite my personal disgust with San Antonio, they are not going to just disappear in the first round. As flashy and fun to watch as Denver is, the reality is they need one more piece to the puzzle — a quality role player a la Shane Battier – before we can talk about them contending for anything other than a fourth or fifth seed out West. All the same, rooting for Golden State has been fun. Their home games have been raucous. Their style of play has been beyond exciting.
5. Why am I so happy that Miami is gone?
The list is too, too long but for starters I’ll just say that they’re old and lifeless and that the depend on D. Wade to do too much. It would have pained me to have to watch another Detroit series. It pains me to see Antoine Walker forcing his way to the bucket or hoisting shot-put three from the elbow. Jason Williams seriously needs to consider retirement. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a guy age as quickly or as badly as he has in the last three or four years. GP stay home! Alonzo, I love the heart, but it’s not even twilight anymore. Shaq: It’s hard to believe that just two years ago people were calling this guy the MVP. He’s been given a free pass for too long. When the dust settles we all have to have a discussion about his rebounding and blocked shots and ask ourselves what dominance really means. Good riddance Diesel. Haslem, I hope he relishes the early years of his career because it’s never going to be this good for a mediocre, slightly undersized power forward again. Kapono, great season. Don’t let it go to your head. D-Wade, no one would’ve blamed him for sitting this one out. It was no big secret that Miami wasn’t going to repeat.