Playoff Talking Points: Doing Serious Damage
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:
There are many interesting things happening in the conference semis, but one thing's for certain: if Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum and Ron Artest are all healthy, engaged and making eye contact, it's hard not to picture them winning a title. Whether or not they have any bench whatsoever. Boston may be tougher, Orlando more efficient, and Cleveland has that LeBron James fellow. The Spurs have appeared out of nowhere, as usual, and the Suns are the wild card. I'm not going to bother mentioning the Hawks.
The Lakers, though, have enough talent in that starting lineup, plus Lamar Odom off the bench, that on some nights it's clear they're thinking about more than getting past their current opponent. Sometimes, that's their greatest weakness. Tonight, it was what made them great.
OK, fine. Andrew Bynum can't bend his knee (though certainly looks better than last year). Kobe Bryant still probably isn't 100 percent. And unlike Orlando before them, the Lakers didn't dispatch their opponents by a trillion points. Utah stayed spry and while the Lakers weren't threatened, they were certainly in danger of being threatened, if that makes any sense. If the Lakers aren't firing on all cylinders, that's almost as good as offering the opponent an open door. That's what happened on Monday, and it almost happened again tonight. And then, order was restored.
Bynum was strong in the paint, grabbing an absurd 13 rebounds in the first half and finishing with 17 points, 14 boards and four blocks. Pau was fluid as ever, Ron Ron found his niche in the offense early and Kobe put up 30 without ever trying to shoot out the lights -- even his late game heroics were a matter of course, not a frustrated necessity. This is the rhythm the Lakers need to win it all; Phil Jackson spoke a few weeks ago about this team pulling itself together and figuring things out, more or less, on the fly. At the time, it brought to mind an out of shape Shaquille O'Neal working off weight in the run-up to the playoffs.
Watching them tonight, it seemed more like a common sense assessment of the situation: This team is only going to be a factor if they figure out their identity, and that depends on who can contribute. Who knows what happens when the series shifts to Salt Lake. It won't be the end of the world if they lose a game, even two. But it depends on how they look doing it. Sometimes, the final score doesn't tell the whole story.
• Fun Uses for Magic-Hawks: Yesterday at the gym, I read an article from six months ago about how the Oscars are more fun if you read Twitter during them. It provides a running commentary that's funny, informative, and gives you strange thoughts you hadn't already had. Most importantly, it frames a discussion. The overall effect is of profound chit-chat, not unlike that ambiguous entity you always hear about, the Arab Street -- the real place where Middle Eastern politics are decided.
Anyway, then I came home, warmed up some cereal and watched Orlando take the bones and face out of Atlanta. The Hawks got beat on by the Magic during the regular season; Orlando had a week of rest while Atlanta's Game 7 was on Sunday. While the first 1.5 quarters were entertaining, it was never even close. The Hawks are not very big or organized. Dwight Howard thinking straight is unstoppable against them, and as Kevin McHale loved tell us, Orlando moves the ball brilliantly to get those hockey assists.
The story here is that, unless the Hawks find some way to completely blow the Magic's mind on Thursday, this one's done. Tonight was just the worst-case scenario.
Could Twitter have saved this game, like it did the Oscars? Did that sentence sound like a part from Sex in the City when Sarah Jessica Parker starts her column for that month? I can't say I was on it then -- a cursory survey suggests that the people thought the Hawks stunk, or took to discussing other kinds of hawks, like the real birds. If we see a virtual repeat, please take to Twitter and try and prove just how revolutionary Twitter can be. I would pledge my undying love to any form of technology that can make a 40-point demolishment interesting. I can also probably arrange a small prize.
• Back Up Against the Wall: Is it hyperbolic to say that, if the Cavaliers don't win Game 3, the series is over? Mathematically, it's a bit much. But it's more the sense that Boston is looking stronger than expected, and Cleveland's facing some real adversity. Dropping one at home, and forfeiting home court advantage, may not be the end of the world.
Besides the shame of Game 2, though, there's the fact that the Cavs didn't look so hot to start Game 1. On their home floor, where they're supposed to have the most bounce in their step.
That goes for LeBron James, too. Then came that second half, in which Cleveland -- and chiefly, their two-time MVP superstar -- turned it on and, as the saying goes, put it all together. The Celtics have it together, especially that Rajon Rondo kid, while the Cavs hang around, make a few good plays, and then wait for LeBron and/or a teammate left alone during the ensuing chaos to put things away. It took till the second half for any of this to happen in Game 1, and it never happened in Game 2.
I worry sometimes that James only really takes over once he's decided his shot is falling, like he couldn't penetrate at will and take over that way. The Cavs are shaky and underperforming; the Celtics, confident, with nothing to lose, and maybe going for their last hurrah. This is not a trifling matter; Cleveland is really in danger of letting this series get away from them. Thankfully, this is what we love to see LeBron forced to do: Dig in and stop waiting, watching, toying with the game. LeBron James has to find a way to win this game. Rajon Rondo has been doing it. Why can't the MVP?
James needs to play with some desperation -- a quality fairly foreign to him at this point. The Cavs are in something resembling a rut, if not a hole. All of which sounds oddly familiar, if you consider the circumstances surrounding the most memorable playoffs performance of LeBron's still-young career.
• A Friendly Reminder: In addition to "Los Suns" tomorrow, we've had Popovich say that the Spurs would have rocked "Los Spurs" were it not for a technicality about colors and changes of clothes; the league signing off on the whole thing (maybe I wasn't so wrong about Stern); and Billy Hunter, head of the Players Association, throwing his entire organization behind the cause. It's really catching on, as incredible as that seems to someone like me, who has become more or less resigned to sports treading lightly around politics.
So while you watch that game, and then watch whatever happens next unfold, remember: This isn't just about appreciating the Latin people. It's solidarity and support in a very particular political context. That what makes this so amazing: all these pro basketball entities have no problem standing up here and saying that Arizona's law just ain't right. Don't let the sheer number of participants dilute how powerful that is.