By Chris Le
This year’s opening round has been more random—thus more interesting—than postseasons past. The West is wide open, while the presumed favorites in the East may not, in fact, be the favorites anymore. For that, you can thank the leveling out of talent, precocious teams combined with overconfident teams and good coaching, but more often than not, it’s poor coaching that decides games. It’s a yin and yang type year. But the playoffs, boiled down to a thick concentration, is all about execution and, most of all, want. It’s gut-check time and some players are stepping up and others shrinking into their own limitations, afraid of failing, fearful of what they can’t do. That’s pretty much the gist of the postseason. But allow me to expound. Here are my thoughts so far.
(In no particular order)
1. Dwyane Wade is the loneliest man in the world. He probably feels like Will Smith in I Am Legend fighting an entire army by himself, with the help of only a dog. (Oh hi, Michael Beasley!) But I still don’t think he’s leaving Miami. The Bulls and Knicks, no doubt, will be after Wade hard this summer, with the biggest lure coming from his hometown Bulls, which could potentially feature an all-Chicago backcourt of D-Wade and Derrick Rose. Those two on the same team (though it still gives me a chubby) doesn’t excite me as much as it does most. I think they’re too similar in style. They’re both fearless slashing scorers whose weakness is outside shooting. Is it too much of a good thing? The duo, obviously, would make the Bulls better than they currently are, but the scenario doesn’t maximize Rose’s ability. Some of his reps will be taken away and parts of his game will be minimized—not enhanced—by Wade. The Bulls should get a player who complements Rose, not someone who’s a better version of him.
And Rose has taken on the role of go-to guy. He’s embraced it and is beginning to develop an “S” on his chest. After watching the Bulls-Cavs series, I’m convinced of this. He may not be a vocal leader, who barks at teammates or is a second coach on the floor, but he is the leader. Wade’s presence would push Rose down the pecking order. Would the effects be adverse? Can Rose, a budding superstar, handle being second fiddle? Would Wade stunt Rose’s potential as a leader or his confidence? Maybe not, but it’s not outside the realm of possibility.
Two scoring guards isn’t like having Twin Towers who, even if they have similar offensive games, can still play off each other by strengthening team defense and rebounding and setting screens—you can never have too much size. Rose and Wade are guards who need the ball in their hands, and there’s only one ball. A great problem to have, I concede, a welcome one to the Bulls, but it still is, nonetheless, a problem. I think LeBron would be a better fit for D-Rose and the Bulls. In the end, not matter where LeBron goes, Wade will remain in Miami. My guess is the Heat corral Chris Bosh or Amare Stoudemire to reassure Wade that the organization isn’t secretly trying to kill him.
2. I’m convinced the Bucks-Hawks series doesn’t exist. Or at least it doesn’t to the TV execs. This series is the forgotten middle child. With small-market Milwaukee with a rookie as its sexist figure, this series is the middle child also in the awkward prepubescent phase, where they’re still growing into an ill-proportioned head or giant teeth—and acne, you can’t forget the acne. The other siblings are cute (Lakers-Thunder) and pretty (Cavs-Bulls) and handsome (Spurs-Mavs), and people just want to forget about poor Meg there in the middle. That’s how the Bucks-Hawks matchup is viewed. It seemed all their games have been on NBA TV, which 80 percent of cable subscribers don’t know they get, or aired at 4 pm, when most people on the West Coast are still at work or busy getting drunk at happy hour. It’s a damn shame, too, because the Bucks are a great story. And if the Hawks lose this series, they should dig a hole, fill it with poop, and crawl in it for eternity. Hawks fans might even happily do the digging and pooping for them.
3. Really, Lakers? I can’t believe it took four games for the Lakers to realize they were bigger than the Thunder and that maybe, just maybe, they should use their size, or that Derek Fisher has one foot in the old folk’s home and has no chance of guarding Russell Westbrook. Uh, ya think? But credit the Thunder, too. They’re tough and young, ignorant to the point of fearlessness—a deadly combo.
4. Why did the NBA choose Kevin Rudolf of all people for its commercials? What, Beyoncé wasn’t available? Alicia Keys, I’m sure, would’ve been inspirational. I bet Jay Z, with his NBA ties, or Common, who’s promoting his upcoming basketball movie “Just Wright,” would’ve done something. Lady Gaga would have killed it. Lil Wayne would have, err. But Kevin Rudolf? He’d be number 9,034,834 on my list of artists to promote the NBA right behind Will.i.am, Nickelback and Ke$ha. And yet the league chose “Let It Rock” to promote the 2009 All-Star Game and this year’s playoffs with the seminal “I Made It.” (Of course, we never hear one word from Lil Wayne, who is the only redeeming part of the tracks.) A panel of white sixty-year-old NBA executives probably saw Rudolf with his backwards hat and sunglasses, the leather jacket over Ed Hardy hoodie, and thought “Now that’s what people think is cool nowadays.” I miss Kanye. Phil Collins, too.
5. The two most annoying players currently in the NBA: JJ Barea and Eduardo Najera. (The all-time king Sasha Vujacic has relinquished the title. To be eligible for this award, you need to make some sort of impact, and Sasha, now out with a bum ankle, is as useless as a girlfriend in Las Vegas.) Najera is a goon. I’m positive he was sent into Game 4 strictly to hurt Ginobili, whose nose was broken days earlier. Look at Najera’s game log up to that point: a DNP in Game 1, and nine total minutes of garbage time in Games 2 and 3. But he somehow finds himself in Game 4, in the fourth quarter of a 5-point game, after a huge Spurs run in the third, and he clobbers Ginobili the minute he steps on the floor? Come on. Tell me I’m not the only one who thought this was fishy. Adding to his list of peccadilloes, Najera gels his hair like he’s Don Draper. Why style your hair to play basketball? Gotta gala to attend after? It’s gonna get messed up. That’s got to be near the top of the Douchey Things To Do list.
Barea, on the other hand, is a semi-decent player. He’s a feisty butt plug spark plug for the Mavs. But he beats his chest like KG every time he scores and ends up looking like a ten-year-old trying to intimidate the school bully. It’s rather adorable if it weren’t so annoying. I’m fine if a superstar’s showing off, like LeBron flexing, Dirk with his pansy fist-pump (though he earned some Man Points this series), I’m even cool with Kobe’s underbite jaw thing. But Barea is six or seven spots down the depth chart. He’s a relative nobody. The right to gloat is earned, in my eyes; and Barea hasn’t proven anything besides being an admirable pest. I say Barea has Short Man’s Complex. He’s 5’9—tops. I don’t care that most websites list him at 6 feet; the guy looks tiny and probably feels the need to validate himself. Yes, JJ, we saw that layup. Nice move. Good for you for taking on Goliath. Now, go enjoy the early summer vacation courtesy of the Spurs, you turd.
6. Tim Duncan is a shell of his former self. And it makes me sad. Is there anything more heartbreaking than seeing a once great player at the transitional point of his career where his body no longer does what his heart so evidently wants to do? The fact that Timmy is my favorite athlete of the last decade multiplies the heartache by a thousand. It’s like seeing a stud thoroughbred injuring his leg out the gate, and he gimps along trying to keep up with the pack. You just hope you don’t have to put him down. That’s what I’m feeling now. I see Timmy laboring, and I worry about how many years he has left. It’s becoming more evident by the game that he’s breaking down. Too many playoff runs, too many long seasons, and he’s now paying the price. His lift is gone. He looks tired. Gone are the days of Timmy dominating an entire series, hell, even an entire game. Now, he’s being pushed around by Brendan Haywood and having shots blocked by Erick Dampier. Talk about sobering. Timmy used to eat up guys like that.
But he isn’t completely shot. He will still show, on occasion (usually in the fourth quarter), a flash of youth, grabbing a game-sealing rebound, dishing a run-extending assist, or setting a screen for the game-winning shot. Timmy still has that timing and sense of urgency in him that made him a winner. He just can’t sustain that level of intensity for 48 minutes. At this point in his career, this late into the season, on those rickety knees, Timmy is good for just one 25-17-5 performance a series, and the rest of the way he’ll be solid for two, three quarters per game. That’s all I expect from him now. That’s all I can ask of him. I need a drink.
7. The best point guard in the league is Deron Williams. I began to think it during the season, and this postseason has solidified D-Will’s preeminent status. (Sorry, Chris Paul.) Dude’s got it all: quickness to get to any spot, vision to make any pass, an honest shooting stroke, and—what separates him from Paul, Steve Nash and Rajon Rondo—size to bully almost any point, and some two guards, in the league. I hope Chris Paul is watching the playoffs and steaming from hearing people elevate Williams and planning his own “Y’all Must Have Forgot.” CP3 is probably in the gym right now.
8. I’m intrigued by Dwight Howard’s foul trouble. I kinda feel for him. Sometimes, it seems the league is out to get him. He gets whistled for everything: uninitiated contact, incidental bumps, ticky-tacks, while fighting for position, breathing, whatever. Watch the video below. How many of those fouls should’ve been ignored? About half. It’s the playoffs for chrissakes, let them play.
He still makes dumb fouls, and the entire Magic organization is the biggest collection of whiners this side of PETA. But Howard is the two-time reigning Defensive Player of the Year. Doesn’t that buy him at least some clemency? Prolific scorers, once they reach elite status, get touch fouls all the time; Jordan, Kobe and now, Durant go to the line every time a defender so much as gives them a stern look. Shouldn’t an established defensive force like Howard receive a similar benefit of the doubt? Maybe it’s the incessant complaining by Stan Van Gundy (who I’m convinced is the long-lost brother of Ron Jeremy and Pablo Escobar) that has officials out for them. Maybe it’s the fact that Howard still commits brain-fart fouls. Either way, this league is biased against defense!! Somewhere, Shane Battier, Bruce Bowen, Michael Cooper and Dennis Rodman are nodding in agreement. Except Dennis Rodman is in some random titty bar and agreeing to a lap dance and some crystal meth.
9. I don’t like how the Cavs are playing. The statistics look good (106.2 points, 49.1 percent from the field, 40.3 from three, 23.2 assists, and a 9.2 point differential) and LeBron is straight ballin’ to the point where observers need to combine all-time greats to describe his play (“Dr. J with a little bit of Magic“). But there are still too many shades of last year. A lot of LeBron going one-on-five, too much of The LeBron Show with the rest of the Cavs as the audience. Shaq is a ghost—an out-of-shape one at that—and he was schooled and out-hustled by Joakim Noah. And why haven’t they played more of JJ Hickson? (They’re gonna need his athleticism and grit against the Celtics.) They just look sloppy, committing turnovers every other three possessions against the Bulls, and ill-prepared for the bright lights and high pressure of the playoffs. Were they underestimating the Bulls? I hope so.
I don’t understand it, though. The Cavs are capable of dominating in multiple styles; they just go brain dead when it matters. Delonte West can create his own shot, Mo Williams has shown moments of straight fire from three and Antawn Jamison is a difficult cover. (Side note: Why do people pronounce it An-twon when it’s spelled like An-tawn? Are people mispronouncing it or is it just incorrectly spelled? Always thought that was weird.) But come crunch time, they’re reduced to a one-dimensional team, relying on LeBron to bail them out by driving to the hoop, usually for an and-one. Are the Cavs mesmerized by LeBron’s brilliance? Or just scared of disrupting it? Either way, they’re too reliant.
That’s why I have a nagging feeling that …
10. We’re heading towards a rematch of last year’s finals. The Lakers are vulnerable, as the Thunder have shown, but they’re still the most talented team in the league. And they still have Phil Jackson and Kobe, even if Kobe hasn’t been very Kobe-like. He’s got one or two transcendent games, where he reminds you of Jordan, left in him in this postseason. Bank on it.
The Magic, though, are SCARY. They swept the regular season’s best defense, which had the conference’s best coach Larry Brown, who I thought could’ve outsmarted, out-schemed 99 percent of the coaches out there—except he has a cast of inept buffoons for players. And the Magic did it without one solid game from Dwight Howard, who was shackled by a team of refs that hates him.
It’s that damn three-point threat. They’re such backbreakers. You can put the Magic in a hole (down by 10, 16 or 22, whatever), but sooner or later they’re gonna start bombing from deep, cutting the deficit in half in about eight seconds. It’s the great equalizer. They have five players shooting over 42.9 percent from downtown—and that doesn’t include JJ Redick, who I’m not leaving uncovered, and Vince Carter, who could self-destruct at any moment, but who I’d still respect and close out on. With that firepower, they’re never out of a game. They’re impossible to kill, like cockroaches and Steven Seagal.
Dare I say: they’re the favorites right now. I still maintain the Magic are better with Hedo Turkoglu (his season with the Raptors notwithstanding), who caused innumerable matchup problems with his size and range. But with Jameer Nelson going Tony Montana on teams, the Magic are better than they were last year, even with the VC downgrade. The Cavs better start shaping up because they might not just lose the series against the Magic—they might lose LeBron in the process.