Playoff Talking Points: It All Starts Here
• If It Bleeds, It Leads: Houston, we have a scuffle. The scene: Paul Pierce writhes on the ground in pain, teammate Kevin Garnett standing over him for comfort and protection. Miami forward Quentin Richardson wanders over, leans in to says something and is promptly elbowed in the skull by KG. A half-hearted brawl follows, during which Garnett -- in part because he's so darn long -- makes contact with several Heat players and a ref, earning him an ejection. On Sunday, Garnett was suspended for Game 2, and Richardson fined $25,000.
Remember when Garnett's intensity, and occasional loss of control, were part of his mystique, not a reason to cringe? When he was a lovable loser, and eccentric exile, raging all alone out somewhere on the tundra, he could get away with it. He was desperate, hyper-focused, and yes, way more sympathetic. Now, KG's got his ring, and the perception of these same actions changes. It also doesn't help his case that his game is not-so-slowly wasting away.
But nothing is ever so simple when Quentin Richardson is involved. According to Yahoo!, for reasons no one can quite figure out, Richardson and Pierce are sworn enemies. KG himself mentioned the history between the two players when explaining his actions. Q claims he wandered over to in-bounds the ball, but the tape clearly shows him move his mouth in Pierce's direction -- as for what he said, well, he did get fined. Factor in Richardson's choice words today, and it's hard to see him as any kind of victim. Or Garnett as any more unpleasant than before.
The best part of all this? None of it matters. Dwyane Wade is all the Heat have, and he was destroying Garnett and the other vets. Then Doc Rivers subbed in Tony Allen for Ray Allen and Wade was slowed. That's the real balance of power in this series.
• No Sleeping Giants: Nothing makes a worse case for a seven-game opening round than seeing the top teams work their way into championship form. Boston went seven games in every series but the Finals on their way to the 2008 title; last season, the Lakers dragged their feet, looking vulnerable right up until they met Orlando at the end. As if that infernal regular season doesn't give them time enough to get it together.
Thankfully, there will be none of that this year. Sure, the Cavs let the Bulls sneak back into a blowout, and the upstart Thunder came within a few Kevin Durant scores of upsetting the defending champs. Except neither happened. LeBron James, playing as if he'd been pacing himself during his MVP season, rallied his team and made sure that lead ballooned back up immediately. And Durant wasn't going to make any shots late because Ron Artest flat-out neutralized the 21 year-old scoring champ. The final was close, and predictably, Russell Westbrook had a field day against Derek Fisher. Kobe Bryant shot poorly, even if he didn't force it, and the height of Pau Gasol and the returning Andrew Bynum may have been the decisive factor.
But the Thunder forced the Lakers to think about basketball, instead of just waiting to win out on talent alone. Incomplete as the Lakers effort was, it at least saw them taking the series seriously. It says a lot about Scott Brooks's young team that they pose a strategic challenge as much as one predicated on athleticism or raw talent. In a way, though, that might be the kind of challenge this Lakers team, and especially Kobe, is most comfortable with.
Speaking of which, I know no one wants to talk about a Cavs-Lakers Finals because of what happened last year. But I'll go ahead and jinx us all. Think about it: In addition to Kobe/Bron, it's probably the last year Kobe-Bron will make any sense as a comparison, as well as Shaq vs. Kobe, and LeBron's future is hanging in the balance. They might do it anyway, as a Pay-Per-View, even if it's not the real Finals.
• A Man Apart: Orlando-Charlotte was unexpectedly tight -- and fun. When Dwight Howard was blocking a shot every time down the floor, it certainly didn't seem headed in that direction. But Howard ended up in foul trouble, and it was left to Jameer Nelson to carry the team. Little man who was the issue last year goes for a career-high while the celebrated big man gets upstaged by a 6-foot-7 swingman. I can write that out in symbolic logic if you really want.
That swingman in question was Gerald Wallace, who went for 25 points and 17 boards. This one -- above the rim, over Howard -- deserves a poster. If they even make posters for rebounds.
Somehow, the world has acquainted itself with Durant despite the fact that he's never on television. Wallace made the All-Star team this year when many casual fans couldn't tell you the first thing about him. Hopefully, they understand why now.
• The Power of Points: In the playoffs, stellar defense, hitting folks without going too far, and slowing the tempo down are what wins games. Grind it out and march to the sky. Except when a scorer puts on a show that flips the bird at all these cliches, and you remember, he who gets the most points wins.
On Saturday, it was Carmelo Anthony (with a little help at the end from the increasingly absurd J.R. Smith) refusing to miss as the Nuggets pulled past the Jazz late. Melo was artful and smooth even by his standards, finishing with 42 points on 18-for-25 shooting. Yesterday, Dirk Nowitzki's machine-like 36 points -- the man took 14 shots and only missed two -- pushed Dallas past San Antonio. And while the Bucks without Andrew Bogut are a lost cause, Brandon Jennings came within one bucket of Derrick Rose's playoff debut record. His 34-point elastic blitz reminded a national audience why, oh so long ago, Jennings was the rookie everyone was buzzing about.
• The Breaks: In the past, we've been treated to tie-ins with The Day After Tomorrow and Lord of the Rings where movie clips and NBA highlights were edited together. It was awesome and hilarious. Yet for some reason, Avatar -- a movie that prominently features long, tall people jumping around -- didn't think this was an effective marketing strategy. Is it insensitive to the Na'vi? To basketball players? In any case, instead we get "don't you miss Pandora?"; a weird nod to Earth Day; and something about Avatar at Target that somehow doesn't include the word "Avatarget." If there is tomorrow, send checks here.
Update: They just showed a really amazing NBA-in-Avatar spot that makes me wish the Finals were on another planet in 3D.
Music-wise, the soundtrack for the NBA playoffs this year is the Rolling Stones's "Rip This Joint." Not even a big arena anthem, but the opening cut from Exile on Main Street, a drink and drugged-out muddle of an album that has more to do with laying on the couch than any other variety of playoff experience. Again, I demand an explanation. Isn't there some rap-rock song I've never heard that I need to learn how to despise?
• Choose Your Meme: Portland-Phoenix may have been the best game of the weekend. It was an upset, which is always cool, but also gave us the chance to see Blazers like Jerryd Bayless, Martell Webster and Nicolas Batum in leading roles, and Andre Miller really run the show. Needless to say, this should have everyone rushing for the "Ewing Theory," by which some teams play better when their superstar is out. However, the Theory's inventor has declared this a case of "the 'Nobody Believed In Us' theory", which I guess means that teams play better when no one believes in them.
I understand "Nobody Believes in Us" if it's referring to a team with no superstar. Or if, as with the 2007 Warriors, the superstar needs to reprove himself. Or if the players showing up are over-performing scrubs. In this case, you have players who take a back seat to Brandon Roy and are generally recognized as talented, or at least promising. Take Roy away, and they step up. This win was unexpected. But it's no surprise that these Blazers are, in fact, very good basketball players.
What do you think?