First, shout out to Derrick Rose for the MVP. He deserves it as much as any MVP in recent memory. He has put up great stats and come through consistently in the clutch. He has led his team by example on the court, in the locker room, and in the practice facility, and is now becoming more of a vocal leader as well. He has handled being the hometown kid and, rather than hiding from the expectations, has attempted to fill the void that the city of Chicago has felt since the departure of Michael Jordan. He has played through numerous injuries. Despite success, he has remained humble and true to his friends and family. He is everything a team could ever ask for, without any of the showboating or off-court distractions that we, as Americans, have come to see as the norm from our stars. Congratulations Derrick.
We are into the second round of the NBA playoffs, and it has exceeded expectations. Stars have shown up big, whether it was Durant going for 41, Rondo throwing up a triple double, Rose leading his team to 3 fourth quarter comebacks, or Wade destroying Boston in game 1. Already, a few themes have emerged. Below are my observations. Sorry in advance, but this is a no frills commentary on the playoffs, so don’t expect a lot of pictures or videos.
1. The parity in the league is unmatched
I can’t remember the last time the league had this much great talent playing throughout the playoffs. Not including Yao as a member of the team, 21 of the 24 All-Star players were in the playoffs this year, including all ten starters. 15 are still playing in the second round.
Surprisingly, the two series largely expected to be the most competitive and must-see TV were the least competitive. Denver, after putting up a supreme effort in a game 1 loss to the Thunder, showed little resistance en route to a 5 game series defeat. The Knicks were expected to battle the Celtics down to the wire, but were swept due at least in part to injuries of Stoudemire and Billups. San Antonio, winners of 4 championships since 1999, were bounced by the Memphis Grizzlies, a team that had previously never won an NBA playoff game. Atlanta, a team that just last year was bounced by a historic margin the previous year by Orlando, won in 6 games despite only winning 44 games this year and appearing to completely quit on its first year coach.
Additionally, even the teams that lost were surprisingly competitive. New Orleans, a team considered by many to be the weakest team in the playoffs without its leading scorer David West, was able to tie the series 2-2 before falling short against the Lakers. Similarly, the Trail Blazers, despite losing their franchise player Brandon Roy for most of the year to a potentially career-threatening injury, were able to make the series competitive before falling in 6 games. The Pacers and Sixers, teams that were considered largely overmatched against the Bulls and Heat, respectively, were able to make several games close and each actually win a game.
2. Size matters
Insert hilarious Greg Oden joke here. Horses have been considered shriveled by comparison. But seriously, size has been a huge factor in the playoffs this year. Just look at the dichotomy between the playoff prospects of the Boston Celtics and Oklahoma City Thunder. On one hand, Boston has shown just how vulnerable it has been since the trade of Perkins, its tough-guy center that gave their team an identity and swagger. They slumped down the stretch in the regular season, dropping from the 1 seed down to the 3 seed within the last couple of weeks. While they certainly looked good in their sweep of the Knicks, beating a team that was regularly playing Bill Walker, Shawne Williams, Toney Douglas, and Ronny Turiaf with Carmelo Anthony is hardly impressive. In their second round playoff matchup with the Miami Heat, they have appeared overmatched in the first 2 games. One of the perceived weaknesses of the Heat, a lack of a true defensive and rebounding presence inside, has yet to be exploited because Jermaine O’Neal, an aging Kevin Garnett, and a pouting Big Baby Davis is not quite as intimidating as Kendrick Perkins’ mean muggin' Without any noticeable disadvantage inside, Miami has been able to exploit its advantages on the perimeter. With all due respect to Pierce and Allen, they can not be expected to keep up with Lebron and Wade in their primes. Not gonna happen. Meanwhile, the Thunder have looked impressive, knocking off a hot Nuggets team with relative ease in 5 games. Serge “I Block Ya” Ibaka has become a defensive force now that he is able to play from the weakside and have Perkins battle the best big men on the opposing team.
Other examples abound as well. The dominance inside by Grizz big men Randolph and Gasol in the dismissing of the Spurs has been well documented, but the difference in Dallas with Tyson Chandler this year has also been impactful. They have become an above-average defensive team due in large part to the fact that they finally have a big man who can battle inside. It has been quite evident already in the series with the Lakers, who have been unable to obtain any significant rebounding advantage in the first two games, that a facet of the game largely considered by critics to be the Lakers’ biggest strength will not necessarily be there in this series.
3. Talent beats experience.
As I alluded to earlier, the Heat have looked head-over-heels better than the Celtics this series. Removing the aberration of James Jones scoring 25 in game one, this had been and will continue to be because of the Big Three. Say what you will about them, but they are the best top 3 in the league. While Wade has won a championship, Lebron has never won a Finals game, and Bosh has not even won a second round game. Meanwhile, Boston is sporting a team that’s top 4 players have been to the NBA championship in the last 2 seasons. But all of that experience is erased by the simple fact that Lebron, Wade, and Bosh are all entering their primes, while Pierce, Allen, and Garnett are nearing the end of their careers.
Memphis’ defeat of San Antonio is another instance of this theme. As mentioned, Memphis had never won a playoff game coming into this year. Meanwhile, San Antonio’s core of Parker, Ginobili, and Duncan have won multiple championships together, with other role players such as Hill, Mcdyess, and Jefferson having significant playoff experience. In the end, that all was erased. Randolph and Marc Gasol destroyed the Spurs big men, pounding them on the glass and in the paint. Additionally, Mike Conley, an average starting point guard largely known for his up and down play, steadily guided the Grizz and at times flat out outplayed Tony Parker. Along with the rise of the young Bulls and Thunder, and the struggles of the aging Lakers, a changing of the guard is on its way.
4. Stars (with proper support) Matter
If you were wondering why I have hardly mentioned my Bulls yet, wonder no longer. Derrick Rose has exemplified how far a star can lead you. In the first three games against the Pacers, Rose led the Bulls to 3 straight fourth quarter comeback victories. Similarly, when he had a rare subpar game in game 4, the Bulls struggled and lost to an inferior Pacers team.
Numerous other instances have been evident. Joe Johnson showed this same quality in game 1 against the Bulls, dropping 34 points and hitting all 5 of his three point attempts en route to a victory. Dwyane Wade had arguably the most impressive performance of the playoffs in game 1 against the Celtics, scoring 38 points and exuding an unbelievable amount of energy while chasing Ray Allen around on screens. As has been discussed numerous times already, Zach Randolph was unstoppable while leading his team to the upset over the Spurs. Nowitzki has been, as always, ridiculously clutch, evidenced no more than in the game 1 road victory over the Lakers. If you didn’t see the “impossible shot” (as Steve Kerr described) off one foot (as I have previously praised) for an And One to put the Mavericks up 87-73 tonight, then YouTube it. It is as tough of a shot as any that is taken, and he routinely makes it. As mentioned in my first article, 25 points and 10 rebounds. Enough said. Durant dropped 41 in a first round victory.
Now the caveat. As much as stars matter, they need to have some sort of proper support around them. 42 points, 6 assists, 17 rebounds. That was Melo’s EPIC stat line in game 2 against the Celtics. It was done without the support of Stoudemire or Billups, making it one of the best playoff performances in history. The problem? The Knicks still lost. They had no one out there who could make a play besides Anthony. Thus, he ultimately came up short. The same can be said the Magic-Hawks series. Dwight Howard’s average for the series? 27 points and 16 rebounds. The best game for the Magic, a 25 point victory? Dwight had 8 points and 8 rebounds. The point is that you need some help. When his teammates actually stepped up, he didn’t need to be Superman. Unfortunately, this happened 1 out of 6 games. The rest of the series, Atlanta accepted Dwight getting his, but forced the rest of the team to make plays. They couldn’t, and they got upset.
5. Chemistry matters.
This is not any more evident than in the Boston-Miami series. Boston has been out of whack since Perkins left. They no longer have the enforcer to back up KG’s ridiculous antics, Pierce’s whining, Rondo’s womanly voice, and Krstic’s receding hairline. Shaq was supposed to fulfill that role, but unfortunately he is about as mobile as Osama was in avoiding a bullet. Meanwhile, Miami has found its groove. It faced unprecedented criticism when it started the season at 9-8, and has continued to face it’s doubters all season. But, whether or not we want to admit it, they have found their groove, and are now looking poised to completely dismiss the reigning Eastern Conference champions.
The Bulls and Grizzlies are other teams who have exemplified the importance of chemistry. Despite having seen a lack of a true second option on the offensive end in the playoffs with Boozer struggling/hurt/being a bitch, they have continued to find ways to win because of their belief in one another and their commitment to team defense. Noah and Deng were both voted top 15 in the league in defense this year. However, the other 3 most significant players on the team (Boozer, Rose, and Kyle Korver) are notoriously bad defenders. Yet, the Bulls were one of the top 2 defensive teams in the league (along with the Celtics) because of their commitment to team help and rotations. Similarly, the Grizzlies consist of a bunch of players who are willing to commit to one another by accepting their particular roles on a team. I don’t know any other team in the league that has players that can be more easily described than their team. Randolph – low post scorer. Gasol – dirty work, rebounding, weak side scoring. Conley – push the pace, hit open jump shots. Tony Allen – wing slasher, top defender. Shane Battier – bench hustle guy, experience. Sam Young – athleticism, versatility. Watch any game of the Grizzlies for the rest of the playoffs, and I can guarantee those players will fulfill those roles. They do what is best for the other guys on the team.
That’s my take on the playoffs so far. It is going to be a crazy next couple of weeks. The Mavericks just took down the Lakers again, and my Bulls have evened up the series with the Hawks. Here are my predictions going forward:
Bulls over Hawks, Heat over Celtics, Mavericks over Lakers, Thunder over Grizzlies; Bulls over Heat, Thunder over Mavericks; Bulls over Thunder. (Note: My only change from the beginning of this round is the Mavericks beating the Lakers. I still thought the Thunder would make the finals after witnessing the first round, regardless of if they played the Lakers or Mavericks.)