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:
• Rewriting History: Surprises come in many size, and Orlando's 92-77 win over Charlotte by no means marks the end of the road for the Bobcats. Except last night, Charlotte didn't get a rousing late-game run out Stephen Jackson and Gerald Wallace -- this despite the TNT crew openly pining for, if not expecting, it. Without it, this one looked a lot more like a match-up between a second-seeded contender and a special, special team that's definitely overmatched.
So with the Magic in the driver's seat until we hear otherwise, it's time to turn back to the big stories that hang over this team. There, the front-runner has to be the Vince Carter Question. Namely, what does it mean for the oft-maligned swingman's legacy if, in the twilight of his career, he can play a key part in a Magic title run. Note: Although Carter was lackluster in the opening game, last night he lead Orlando in scoring with 19 points, along with 5 boards and 2 steals.
Up to this point, Carter has been reviled for any number of reasons, most of them some version (in many cases, founded) that Vince is soft, a quitter, only interested in putting on a show, and possibly not even interested at all in basketball. But what if the Magic are the last team left standing? Kevin Garnett, and Shaquille O'Neal-less Kobe Bryant, were only the most recent examples of mega-stars who needed a championship to fully-legitimate their careers. They took the leap from magisterial choker, or at least somehow incomplete, to full-fledged Hall of Famers.
That's a time-honored rite of greatness, most notably in the case of Oscar Robertson, Jerry West, and Wilt Chamberlain -- who, just as Kobe needed a title without Shaq, said he felt he needed two to fully rinse away his reputation as a loser. Carter, though, isn't nearly a player of this caliber; a ring with Orlando wouldn't be the logical accessory to his career, but the twist that somehow makes it all worthwhile. It's the classic plea for redemption; somehow, we won't be able to hate Vince Carter if he's partly responsible for an NBA championship.
Here's what confuses me: Will this actually change anything about the way we perceive Carter's twelve years in the league? With West, you could argue that it was a mere formality. Same with Garnett. In the case of Kobe or Robertson, it lead to a reappraisal of their style -- a vindication, if you will. With their titles, these two players answered their critics once and for all. Except Vince is engaged in something between a last-ditch reevaluation and outright ring-chasing. If Carter wins, will his career as a whole be beyond reproach? Or will all those sworn enemies of Vince just not be able to level those same accusations?
In other words, is Vince Carter looking to convert people, or just get them off his back?
• Not Quite Duncan's Last Stand: The Spurs won last night, in part because the Mavericks didn't get a superhuman night from Dirk Nowitzki, and the rest of Dallas failed to fill in the empty spaces. That knots the series up at 1-1, with things headed back to San Antonio. That's good for us the viewing public, since now we'll be spared questions as to whether Tim Duncan, and his Spurs, have reached the end of the road.
After watching Duncan single-handedly beat back the Mavs and carry San Antonio across the finish line, I think it's safe to say that Timmy still has quite a few productive years left in him. Sure, his play toward the end of the regular season was nothing to phone God about. But there's no arguing with his production last night -- 25 points and 17 boards, with an 8-0 run putting the seal on the Spurs late surge. If Kevin Garnett is a sad, conflicted version of a feared, and beloved, power forward, Duncan has just gone into energy saver mode like never before.
At the beginning of the playoffs, Chris Tomasson wondered whether the Celtics weren't like the 1969 Boston team, which won it all, one more time, with a final, dramatic gasp. The Spurs, too, might seem likely candidates as sentimental favorites. But just as the Celtics' KG-less victory over Miami suggests that there's life for them after the Big Three. They have young players ready to step up and, if not win rings immediately, at least lay the groundwork for a respectable winning team.
San Antonio may not need to reload in quite the same way, and yet a new Spurs paradigm, where Duncan receives more support than before, might be on the horizon. In last night's win, George Hill again started over Tony Parker, Manu Ginboili didn't come off the bench, and Richard Jefferson actually got busy for once -- all signs that Popovich is tinkering with his team on the fly.
Keep an eye on San Antonio. Even if they end up falling to Dallas, as they probably should, this team is changing yet again. The Spurs team that emerges from the postseason won't just be an attempt to make due with a familiar past -- it will also be the first glimpse at how they plan to march on forward.
• Heresy #1: Don't get me wrong, I think Dwight Howard is a tremendous defensive presence. He protects the rim, the paint, the house, and everything in between associated with the basket. Unless he's playing the Bobcats, Howard's a rebounding machine, and his shot-blocking totals don't take into account the intimidation factor. I'm not one of the idiots who didn't vote Dwight for DPOY.
But consider what Howard does versus the everywhere-at-once activity of Josh Smith and Gerald Wallace, who finished after him in the voting. Smith and Wallace can guard any number of positions one-on-one, play the passing lanes for steals, and erase mistake like Howard with blocked shots, many of the help-side variety. That's not to detract from what Howard does, but imagine if a one-dimensional dunker (say, a healthy Greg Oden) beat out a real round ball artiste (say, Kevin Durant) for the scoring title. Would't there be something a little weird about that?
• Down in the Hole: So tonight, we've got two teams going home, down 0-2. In at least one game, the Bulls played the Cavs close enough that victory wasn't out of the question. No one is expecting Chicago to make a dent in the Cleveland edifice; even Joakim Noah's half-hearted, maybe even postmodern, trash-talking -- and his ability to back it up with play -- has barely registered.
This series is over, plain and simple. And yet, it would be huge if Chicago could take one game in front of their surly crowd, knocking LeBron James down a rung if only for one night. Just for morale and overall hometown giddiness. Want proof? While a win on the road would objectively matter more, since any single win will have no impact on the series's final outcome, the Bulls are looking for one at home. Kicks count for something, after all.
On the other hand, as the Lakers head to the Dust Bowl to play in the first ever OKC playoff game -- a sentimental occasion if ever there was one -- there's no way the Thunder want a token, feel-good victory. In fact, knowing Kevin Durant, I'd say he'd almost take that as an insult. He wanted a win on the road, a split that made the series mean something. Taking a game at home, no matter how high spirits are around town, is what's expected of a young team that's proven itself much, much better than anyone expected.
The Thunder are way more likely to win tonight, and yet -- with no malice meant toward the fine people of Oklahoma City -- it would be the more hollow of the two. That's a good sign, though.
• The Phantom Match-Up: Working on the really risky assumption that we're headed for a Cavs/Lakers Finals, you might want to start monitoring which team's doing the most with its considerable talent level. How's Antawn Jamison? Mo Williams? If the Lakers continue to get high-level contributions out of Andrew Bynum, Pau Gasol, and Ron Artest, no amount of LeBron can make up for that talent deficit. Then again, the Lakers have no bench, and if we want to be honest here, we might as well throw Orlando into the equation. The main point, though, is that the Cavs need to start getting the maximum out of Jamison or Williams, because their main competition has already started to get everyone standing at attention.
• Audience Appreciation: Portland people, talk to me. You got that thrilling, if fortuitous win, on the road, in game the first. That one, with all those kids running wild, brought to mind something Amar'e Stoudemire once told our very own Brett Pollakoff about playing D-League call-ups: "We have no scouting film on him. He's playing with no concerns, with reckless abandon, he's just out there playing free basketball. With no scouting it's kind of tough to figure out what type of player he is."
Then, the fall back through the atmosphere and hard, hard ground below. Now what? Can anything top game one? Do you expect Portland to regroup, or if not, can nothing top game one?
• Heresy #2: I know I said the Bulls had a chance tonight. But that's pretty much only of interest to Chicago fans, since the series is a done deal. So then why not bury it, instead of Suns/Blazers -- at least that one's unpredictable. I know, I know, scheduling. Again, though, the NBA could have predicted in advance that this would not be a competitive series through and through. Is LeBron so transcendent that it's fun to watch him roll through the first round? Actually, I've been watching Hawks/Bucks for seeing what Josh Smith does against a tiny Milwaukee team, so I guess I just implicated myself.
Never mind, forget I said that. It is kind of funny to watch Derrick Rose at the other end after that dunk -- he might as well be shooting free throws, not penetrating off an explosion.
• The James Harden Question: You'll be hearing more about this, at least as long as the Thunder are alive. The skinny: I'm trying to decide why Harden seemed like such a good pick until things got urgent for OKC and they suddenly needed to fight hard in the playoffs now.