No one with a wife and kids, or the need to eat leafy greens, has time to watch all this basketball. But we do. So, as a service to the public, here are the Playoff Talking Points you need to fake it at the water cooler:
• Young Men Inside Some Old Men: The Oklahoma City Thunder may be the league's youngest team, but they don't play like it. The Thunder are wise beyond their years, mature, disciplined, and yes, maybe even play a little old sometimes. There's no greater evidence of this than key piece Jeff Green, deemed "Uncle Jeff" by LeBron James (two years older than Green) because, to paraphrase, Green plays like your old, tricky uncle down at the Y.
Speed demon and Most Improved candidate Russell Westbrook was considered too reckless as recently as last season, with whispers mounting that the Thunder might draft a point guard. Kevin Durant, the fulcrum and absolute identity of that team, is as deceptively young as he is athletic. For a team of kids, OKC seems far more focused on playing smart than relying on the spoils of youth. They don't even run that much, per se; I thought it sounded silly when Doc Rivers said it of the 2007-08 Celtics, but "play fast, but don't run" seems the accurate description. Scott Brooks, despite his feckless huddles, is a coaching mind to be reckoned with.
Except as I suggested after Game One, the Lakers would be more than glad to chess match or think-war with the Thunder. That's how they took a 1-0 lead -- even Ron Artest's defense on Durant was decidedly cerebral, if not methodical. The Lakers may have traditionally taken their sweet time getting it together, and getting too old to coast on talent alone. But get them to breaking out their full brains and they really look like a contender.
Game Two started out with more of the same, except the Thunder managed to stay in it and Durant's ripostes got past Artest's wall of eternal damnation. And then, something amazing happened. Amazing in the NBA-sanctioned sense. The Thunder suddenly ... got young. Serge Ibaka, who finished with 7 blocks, and Thabo Sefalosha, the proud owner of three steals, got aggressive and gambled.
This lead to transition baskets, where the Lakers were no match for the Thunder's repressed youth. On one sequence, Durant himself had three straight rejections. This was the edge OKC had been seeking, something that should have been evident when that renegade Russell Westbrook proved their only real advantage in Game One.
Of course, in the end, the Thunder ended up running half-court sets and trying to slow things down, like you have to do in the playoffs. Perpetual yeoman Nick Collison replaced Ibaka and did an admirable job. The Thunder did an admirable job down the stretch, and were one Green jumper away from a win. The half-court isn't a cliche, it's a fact of the playoffs unless the team's coached by a madman like Don Nelson; even Mike D'Antoni lapsed into it at the end of games. And let's face it, no matter how poised the Thunder are, they can't out-execute a Lakers team that's been awakened.
At the same time, the reason OKC stuck in this one was because they dared to play young for long stretches. They got out and ran, went for big plays on defense, and just generally realized that they could run, jump, and react better than the Lakers. By the end, the Lakers' whopping height advantage had melted away, since the Thunder had taken to blocking everything in sight; the ball went out to Kobe, not the big men who were expected to again abuse OKC so.
The Thunder have learned how to make this series interesting, and ironically, it involves a regression of sorts: Forgetting what makes them different from all other young teams, and playing with a little more of the demonic fervor that teams like the Lakers just can't match. Otherwise, they're just a very smart team that amounts to a sparring partner for a Lakers team that, as Phil Jackson has noted, is looking to find an identity for these playoffs.
In other words, run like hell, OKC, despite all the patience that's a part of you. And don't let it go to your head.
• The Big Man Factory: If you recall, the rise and fall of the Phoenix Suns -- at least the one probably being optioned as we speak -- goes something like this: Suns needed real inside presence, no amount of apositional weirdos like Amar'e Stoudemire or Shawn Marion could fudge it for them, and finally, they acquired Shaquille O'Neal because he was big and lived in the paint. Whether or not this moves made any sense, or was at all necessary, remains open to debate. But the logic was clear: Big men, unlike the shooters, slashers, and other dynamic performers that D'Antoni cultivated so, don't grow on trees.
Except now, with Alvin Gentry in the driver's seat, big men are -- if not manufactured -- at least encouraged and maximized in a way that's distinctly Suns-like. Amar'e is arguably playing the best ball of his career; prior to his injury, wild man Robin Lopez looked nearly the equal of his vaunted brother Brook Lopez. But the likes of Louis Amundson and Jared Dudley have found a him doing dirty work, providing muscle, and just generally filling the void (by committee, of course) that D'Antoni couldn't scratch.
To reiterate: The D'Antoni Suns were an offensive system whose blind spot was the big man. His successor has installed a system that encourages, even elevated, big men like few others in the league. The Suns were once a place where journeyman shooters turned into stars; now, it's where older swingmen get busy and young, big-ish dudes are pushed to fulfill their natural promise. It was right under D'Antoni's nose all along -- quite literally, since Gentry was on his staff. Yet another irony of the Shaq trade, but perhaps only one that came about with lessons learned from that debacle.
• Embarrassment of Riches: Well, Blazers, that was fun while it lasted. I was hoping we'd see a team populated with Jerryd Bayless and Nicolas Batum pose a serious challenge to Phoenix. They certainly seemed comfortable in the game the Suns dictated, at least until the second quarter of last night. Then, it was all Phoenix. But, whether or not this opens the door for the Ewing Theory, it does raise another question: How much depth does Portland need? You could ask the same of the Marcus Camby extension.
This team badly needs to make a move, or decentralize its phantom "Big Three" (Brandon Roy dominates the ball too much; LaMarcus Aldridge is just a sexier Channing Frye; Greg Oden is already a tragic figure). I get it, Pritchard, you guys are geniuses. Now do something with this bursting roster!
• Time Warp: I would like to thank the NBA for scheduling two terrible games early, then forcing me to flip back and forth between Suns/Blazers and Lakers/Thunder until the former was well out of reach. But the league is fixed, television knew all along that there was no danger of unrest, and hey, maybe we should use the broadcast schedule to judge what's going to be worth watching? (Note: I don't believe any of that.) Good for them, though, that one of the best games so far of the playoffs ended at 1:36 AM if you live out east.
• It's Always Dwight: I have gone from cracking jokes about the Bobcats -- lovable as they are -- to thinking they might have an opening here. It's not just the inspirational power of Stephen Jackson; there's some actual basketball in there. To wit: On Sunday, Dwight Howard was an offensive non-entity, and Vince Carter middling as expected. That left Jameer Nelson, who in so many ways kept the Magic from winning it all last season, to go for a career-high 34 points and push back the Charlotte rampage in half the second.
I have a strange feeling that a Larry Brown team with its fair share of tough perimeter defenders can stop Nelson; he won't get the chance to bang on, then blow past, Raymond Felton at will. Let's just presume, for the sake of hype, that the second half was where truth lies, and that Stephen Jackson and Gerald Wallace will go at Dwight Howard and get their points. Where will the Magic find the offense to offset these contributions? I'm looking right at you, reigning Defensive Player of the Year, who had 5 points in the game the first.
This is not my attempt to prematurely ask WHERE EXACTLY/WHAT EXACTLY IS DWIGHT HOWARD'S OFFENSE, a line of questioning done to death during last year's playoffs. It's worth asking, though, whether or not the Bobcats' brigade of seven-footers (it really has to be Hack-a-Dwight, announcers), and pestering Wallace and Jackson could further compound the problem. The easy answer: Vince, Shard, it's time to show and prove. The hard one: Howard can't destroy worlds on his own, he either needs more moves still or that game plan needs to focus on him, him and more him. The Bobcats are either the best, or absolute worst, team to come to this realization against.
Speaking of which, I would like to note here that dudes who came in after Howard in the DPOY polling -- Josh "LeBron South" Smith and Charlotte's Wallace -- are true two-way monsters. Not that the award has anything to do with being a two-way force, but Smith and Wallace can cause disaster on the perimeter or around the basket, and then flip and do the same thing on offense. Well, not Smith with the threes anymore, but that's for the best. Do I smell a new award?
• The Comedown: Dirk Nowitzki had a phenomenal Game One: 12 for 14 shooting, 36 points total. And the Mavericks only walked away four points over the Spurs. It's like the Nuggets series, where Carmelo Anthony was blistering in Game One, only to come back to Earth (by his standards) for Game Two. Melo 9 for 25, ending up with 32 points. But it was pretty clear that Denver expected Melo to deliver them from sorrow, as you know, superstars are wont to do. That may not have overestimated Anthony, but it did underestimate Utah, as well as how much can change from night to night even in the seemingly closed ecosystem of a playoff series.
It turned out to be close nonetheless, and required Deron Williams to come through equally big in order for the Jazz to eke out the win. Still, with the Spurs notorious for their sneaky, the rest of the Mavs had better be ready to pick up Dirk's inevitable slack (I'm looking at you, Jason Terry) as well as be prepared for someone on the Spurs to go off -- that's how that team always has, and always will work.