Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Cheers to a Fantastic NBA Postseason Tipoff

Let’s give a round of applause to the most entertaining opening round of the NBA playoffs in some time.  Last year, the postseason seemed to drag, with the headlines dominated by daily Groundhog Day-esque forecasting on Phil Jackson’s possible return to the Lakers and he-said, she-said bickering over Larry Brown allegedly hunting for a new job while still coaching the contending Pistons.  The games themselves couldn’t seem to justify the front pages.  

This year, we’ve got all the entertainment we could possibly hope for.  My personal highlights:
All the Bad Blood - In today’s free agency era of 3-year team nucleuses, rivalries have been few and far between, with none as deep as the 90s Knicks-Heat rivalry, as heated as the 1990 Pistons-Bulls, or as fabled as the Lakers-Celtics.  Players stopped leaving their sweat and blood on the court, but that’s changing in a hurry.  In the past several days we’ve seen Rip Hamilton throwing an elbow at Michael Redd, Kwame Brown channeling Muhammad Ali after knocking down Boris Diaw, Chris Kaman throwing Reggie Evans out of bounds after Evans set a new standard for dirty plays, and James Posey giving Kirk Hinrich the Rodman-Pippen special.  Dwayne Wade, Gary Payton, and Kenyon Martin extended the rage to include in-house tirades.  Stu Jackson’s office wasn’t this busy all season, and it’s astonishing that Ron Artest’s suspension came from the lightest of all the aforementioned love taps.  The league should be concerned that Mike James intends to take up boxing this summer as a free agent.

Sam Cassell in a Contract Year - I honestly can not remember the last time Sam was headed to free agency; he signed a 5-year rookie deal with the Rockets in 1993, a lowball deal with the Nets in 1998, griped about said deal, yet inexplicably extended it while a Buck despite raising cain over its value on a near-annual basis.  His contract gripes have played no small part in the fact that the Clips are his 7th team, and his pending free agency is almost assuredly a major reason behind his stellar play.  In hopes of a big-money extension, Sam played with similar heart in Minnesota his first year there, and it’s a joy to watch.  If only he could be signed to one-year contracts every summer.  Sam leads me to…  

The Chance of an All Los Angeles Showdown - Maybe Bennett Salvatore helped things along at the expense of the Suns in Game 4, but I might understand if it gives us this second round series.  With both essentially playing all home games, each team should be able to play at their peak, and the individual matchups are such that each squad has significant advantages and disadvantages.  Kobe wouldn’t face too much resistance at small forward, while Brand and Kaman have little too worry about in the low post.  Phil can coach rings around Dunleavy, while Cuttino and Cassell should overwhelm the Laker’s backcourt.  The idea of the first all-city playoff pairing since the Yankees-Mets World Series is the really intriguing thought, however.  

Tanking Can Be the Right Thing to Do - The Clippers dropped out of the number 5 seed of the Western bracket in less-than-veiled fashion, allowing the Grizzlies to finish 2 games ahead of them and take the number 5 seed and the Dallas Mavericks.  The ploy was clear when, in the final meeting between the two teams on April 18, L.A. ensured a loss by starting the likes of James Singleton and Vin Baker, sitting Sam Cassell and Chris Kaman, and limiting Elton Brand to 22 minutes.  It’s awfully tough to argue with the results.  The Clippers won their first playoff series, 4-1 against a team tied for the poorest record in the bracket, and the conference’s second best team pancaked the Grizzlies.  David Stern and his league office will almost assuredly correct this seeding loophole over the summer, but for now we have to applaud Dunleavy for doing what he needed to succeed.  

Peja Stojakovic Finding a New Way to Disappear in a Big Game - I know it’s too easy a slam, but compare his plight with Tyson Chandler’s.  Chandler has a very severe ankle sprain with a suspected torn ligament that he could not walk on yesterday without an aircast boot.  His response?  “I’ve had worse.”  (Chicago Tribune)  Peja has a “sore and swollen right knee” (New York Post) and no one on the Pacers seems to expect him to join their lineup.  Last I heard, every professional basketball player has sore knees and most wear ice packs because of swelling.  My guess is that Peja expects a tight game and wants to spare innocent spectators from being pelted by his trademark airballs in the clutch.  

It can’t all be great, however.  A surprising development in the opening week of postseason games has been the unspectacular play of the great trio of 2003.  LeBron has been scoring, but the Cavs have slipped into a bad habit of standing as James attempts to go one on five against the Wizards.  More Magic than Michael when he entered the league, LeBron has been slightly disappointing to watch.  Dwayne Wade has taken a similar cue, taking nearly twice as many shots as Shaq (to average only 6 more points per contest) and perhaps contributing to the dissent among his teammates.  Carmelo was simply taken apart by the Clippers and unable to carry the load for the short-handed Nuggets, averaging over 5 points less per game and a woeful 33% shooting.  

Still, the playoffs this year has had an excitement that has been missing for some time.  The only series missing much zip has been the Pistons-Bucks and the Mavs-Griz, but that’s mostly because they’ve been so one-sided.  Here’s hoping the later rounds can keep up this thrilling pace.


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