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:
• Over, Under, Sideways, Down: Amar'e Stoudemire is really, really good. However, he has also played almost his entire career with Steve Nash -- the kind of partnership that makes a player that much better while calling into question how good he actually is.
OK, that's not entirely accurate. Amar'e spent a season and a half showing he could work with Stephon Marbury, winning the Rookie of the Year in 2003. It was only when Nash came along, though, that Stoudemire came into his own. Post-microfracture, the changes in Amar'e's game both allowed him to take better advantage of playing with Nash and made Nash's life easier. At this point, their relationship is more symbiotic than most would assume.
Rajon Rondo is playing absolutely out of his mind. Mere days after everyone decided Deron Williams had eclipsed Chris Paul as the NBA's best point guard, Rondo is hitting statistical benchmarks only Oscar Robertson and Wilt Chamberlain have attained -- and most importantly, leading his Celtics to a much-needed win after LeBron James cut their hearts out in Game 3.
Yet in an interesting reversal of convention, Rondo's contributions are taken less seriously because, supposedly, he plays on a stacked Celtics team.
Anyone watching these playoffs would be hard-pressed to say that Rondo's still the eager understudy living off the fat of his All-Star teammates. Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Ray Allen all are starting to show their age. And yet somehow, Rondo isn't up there with Williams and Paul, all because of these big names he's passing to.
In a way, it's similar to Kobe Bryant's bind. He had to win a ring without Shaq to show that his play was credible. Never mind that most championship teams involve more than one good player, or that like O'Neal, he simply found new complementary superstars to go all the way with. It was stubbornness of public opinion standing in the way.
Paul and Williams were brought in to run lottery teams and quickly revealed themselves as superstars. Rondo was a late first-rounder who couldn't even secure the starting slot on a Celtics team that was trying to tank. In his second year, on the 2008 championship team, he was praised for not screwing up too badly. Last season, Doc Rivers' suggestion that he be included on the All-Star team was taken as a sign of Celtics hubris. Then in the postseason, with Garnett out, Rondo exploded, albeit somewhat inconsistently.
For 2009-10, he was a legit All-Star. When the team was hit hard by injuries, it hit the skids; this was taken by some as a de facto "test" of Rondo's franchise worth, and in their eyes he failed it.
Watching Rondo Sunday, though, it's hard to take this opinion seriously. There's no question that he's the catalyst, the director of each Celtics' possession; his ridiculous behind-the-back pass to Tony Allen, past LeBron, may well have rallied the team to victory. He benefits from playing with Boston's Big 3 -- after all, what contender doesn't have good players on it? -- but it's pretty clear they need him more than he needs them. And while I know the Jazz are supposed to be this rag-tag bunch of overachievers, I'd take Paul Millsap or Carlos Boozer over anyone on Boston not named Rajon Rondo.
The most dominant player on the court in Game 4, on either team, was Rajon Rondo. That's not the kind of thing that big-name teammates can bestow upon a role player, or even an illusion created by consummate pros working together. It was the kind of play that should earn you an All-NBA spot, not a permanent asterisk based on how good your teammates were around 2001. Consider it Amar'e and Nash in reverse.
• That's All Folks: Oh, to be the Atlanta Hawks a month ago! The perennially young and disorderly team had found its grown-up footing. Josh Smith fulfilled his potential, Jamal Crawford solved their need for bench scoring, and it didn't even matter much that Mike Woodson was playing with no contract beyond the playoffs.
Then, this postseason. Taken to the brink by the Andrew Bogut-less Bucks, still unable to win on the road, and now, on the verge of being swept by the Magic like an eighth seed learning the ropes. It's time to face facts: the Hawks are dead, down is up, up is down. Time to clear away the wreckage and try a new direction.
I come here not to plan for Hawks 2.0, merely to gawk at how different things look now. This team reached that special age, earned some experience, and got a chance to show what it could do at its peak. The results were a resounding disappointment. Exit Mike Woodson, who failed to install an offense and refused to adjust on defense, and Joe Johnson, expected to look for a situation that hasn't spelled its own doom. You're hearing more and more about the possibility of Josh Childress and his high-IQ style, coming back over from Greece. Crawford's an $10 million expiring contract for 2011.
All of sudden, this season looks not like a team finally coming into its own, but one looking to see if there was any reason to continue past this summer.
• Great Minds Collide: I couldn't help but notice that both Brett Pollakoff and I wrote pieces saying, essentially, "that game was close but this here is the Lakers that could go all the way." Except mine came in response to Game 2; his, to the wild Game 3 conclusion. Is that a good or bad sign for Kobe and company?
• Look to the Horizon: There's only one series that's remotely competitive, which should be a terrific bummer to us and people who push games our way. But Lakers-Suns and either Magic-Celtics or Magic-Cavaliers should make everything all right.
• Some Things Must Be Said: I enjoyed the performance of Mr. Goran Dragic as much as anyone in the basketball community. It was exciting, unlikely, moving, and flat-out sick, all at the same time. However, I fail to see how this wasn't completely overshadowed by LeBron's play earlier Friday night.
Rajon Rondo put up the historic numbers over the weekend, but James was up in even more rarefied air. He absolutely decimated the Celtics in Game 3, and only let up because he didn't want anyone accusing him of showboating, not thinking about team first and all those other things that stand in the way of championship basketball and great PR. Plus, after that first quarter, the entire defense was pretty much keyed in on LeBron.
He slowed for the second half because he could, and may or may not have had a hurt elbow to worry about. That first half, though, was as dominant as LeBron James gets, right up there with (I called it) his Game 5 in Detroit. Factor in the passing, rebounding, and defense, and I won't balk at calling that the best all-around ball since Michael Jordan. And Goran Dragic, who goes off in fluke-ish fashion -- Dragic, a guard whose real identity is that of Steve Nash's successor who has taken his time in coming along -- steals the headlines.
I get it. It's the NCAA mindset, the triumph of the underdog, the cute scruffy guy living the dream. You can't help but love it. And LeBron James in such peak form it should bring a basketball fan to tears -- that's just what we've come to expect of the King. When he surpasses his own ridiculously high standard, that too comes as no surprise.
Go ahead, tell me it doesn't have to be either/or. It does. Goran Dragic is a novelty act headed for trivia city. LeBron James just might be the greatest the NBA has ever seen. To me, there's no contest.