THE PLAYOFFS [part 2 â€" or to paraphrase Jim Morrison â€œThe West is the Bestâ€]
What is it? Better players and teams? Fiercer rivalries? Nuttier owners? Itâ€™s hard to put your finger on the exact reason why the playoffs are, well â€¦ more exciting in the Western Conference. I know Miami won the title last year but we all know the refs jobbed Dallas because they despise Mark Cuban. Out West is where the leagueâ€™s iron resides. Who knows? Perhaps three tough series will fatigue the eventual conference champion enough that an Eastern team beats them again. I do believe that if any of the Eastern teams played Dallas, Phoenix, or San Antonio (for sure) and probably Houston and Utah as well in round one, theyâ€™d be goinâ€™ fishinâ€™ as Charles and Kenny like to say.
Nobody got swept in the West, although the Lakers offered only token resistance to Phoenix. Donâ€™t talk to me about LeBron or Wade, Kobe is the best non-center in the game today. Comparing guards and forwards to centers is like comparing grapes to olives. Can we say that Kobe is better than Duncan or Shaq or Stoudemire? I donâ€™t think so. They are almost playing different games.
But I digress. Kobe tried to do it by himself (worked for one game) and tried to make his teammates better (lost cause). It was no surprise to read that he is demanding the Lakers surround him with better players next year. â€œTheyâ€™d better do something,â€ he said ominously. You can take it to the bank that Mitch Kupchak will make some moves. I donâ€™t care if it costs Jerry Buss his girlfriend and son as part of the trade. Even the previously untouchable Andrew Bynum will be shipped out in the right deal to bring back a Garnett or Oâ€™Neal or Gasol. You can also be certain any of those players would love to play with Kobe in L.A. and will do their part (whine and beg) to facilitate a trade. The alternative is to trade Kobe and start from scratch with Bynum, whoever comes back to the Lakers and a few draft picks. Buss would dump his girlfriend and son before heâ€™d part with Bryant.
The second round series between Phoenix and San Antonio could be for the Western crown given the way the Mavericks have looked, not only against the Warriors but during the last few weeks of the season. You can beat the Suns by taking the air out of the ball and guarding the three-point line. Allow Stoudemire to get his 40 to 50 and limit the open looks for players like Raja Bell, Barbosa, Boris Diaw and James Jones. Kenny Smith calls the Sunsâ€™ offense â€œhustle-and-flowâ€ rather than â€œrun-and-gun.â€ An opponent should walk the ball up the court against them and use up the shot clock on every possession. The Spurs have the discipline to do this and so do the Rockets. Leandro Barbosa, in similar fashion to Manu Ginobili, is their X-factor, a one-man wrecking crew who is such a unique player it makes him terribly difficult to cover. The Suns are the one team out West I really hope gets beat. I donâ€™t care for Stoudemire ever since his cheap shot took out Pierceâ€™s teeth three years ago. And I just donâ€™t like their style of play. Nevertheless, I must acknowledge they are a top notch team, one that has as good a chance as any other to win it all.
So how do all those folks who supported the idea of the Celtics trading for Allen Iverson feel about it now? Denver is very good but they still couldnâ€™t get the job done against the Spurs. And make no mistake; the rest of their roster is a heck of a lot better than the one the Celtics would have surrounded AI with. Iverson didnâ€™t shoot the ball particularly well in this series, but the Spurs have a way of brining out the worst in scorers. They sic Bruce Bowen on a player and watch him get more and more frustrated. The Nuggets should be pleased that Nene Hilario finally began to look like his old self, giving Tim Duncan quite a battle in the pivot. Steve Blake has probably earned himself a nice new contract, either with Denver or some other suitor. Marcus Camby blocked plenty of shots but struggled from the field. Carmelo Anthony had a good series but still seems to come unglued in pressure situations. Hearing Mike Fratello term him as the best scorer in the league was laughable.
Remember when â€œCuriousâ€ George Karl and Paul Pierce had their little dust-up after a particularly disappointing showing by the US basketball team? I wonder if Karl has a habit of throwing players under the bus. He certainly did that to J.R. Smith for no good reason following game four. If you donâ€™t want to play a guy, just donâ€™t sub him in. Why announce to the media that Smith isnâ€™t worthy of playing anymore?
The Spurs didnâ€™t have a great series against Denver but they rode the hot shooting of Michael Finley, some timely plays by Robert Horry, and their overall team defense concept to bury the Nuggets after an opening game loss at home. Ginobili was brutal throughout the series but you know that will change. Francisco Elson didnâ€™t show up until the second half of the closeout game. He is a key player for the Spurs as he is capable of guarding Stoudemire and Nowitzki. Tony Parker got better as the series went on as well. Those lamenting the lack of an outside shot by Rajon Rondo might think back to Parkerâ€™s first couple of years in the league when he couldnâ€™t hit the side of a barn door from 15 feet. Now heâ€™s pretty reliable anywhere inside the three-point line.
The Houston â€" Utah series has been my favorite so far. I love the way the Rockets defend and appreciate the precision sets of a Jerry Sloan coached team. Sloan and Van Gundy are two of the top five coaches in the league and have been for many years. The series could be over by the time you read this â€" or maybe not. My guess is the Jazz win at home and send it to a deciding game in Houston this weekend. Iâ€™ll bet all the Cavs fans are wondering what might have been had Carlos Boozer not fled Cleveland two years ago. The Jazz have better players but the Rockets have home court. Deron Williams needs to play as well as he did for most of the regular season for Utah to take the deciding game in Houston. By the way, Matt Harpring is not going to win any 6th Man awards but he should have gotten some votes.
That Houston made the trade to get Shane Battier during the draft last year was a bold move considering Rudy Gay may be star material. Some people want Danny Ainge to make a similar deal, using Gerald Green as bait to bring in a veteran. The difference is Houston was ready to win and the Celtics are not. Trading Green, I feel, would be a mistake Celtics fans will regret in much the same way as the ill-advised deal of Joe Johnson to the Suns.
The buzz from the West has been the Golden State-Dallas series, another one which may or may not be over by the time you read this piece. Not being a Mavericks fan, Iâ€™m hoping it is over tonight. If itâ€™s not, then the Warriors are in trouble. Doc Rivers had the Magic up 3-1 on the Pistons one year and let Detroit climb back into the series. That game 7 will not go down as one of Docâ€™s favorite NBA memories. It probably reminds him of that other game 7 he coached when the Pacers took apart the Celtics.
Nowitzki saved Dallasâ€™ bacon in the late stages of the fifth game when even Marc Cuban wore a defeated hang dog look. The Warriors have got a talented but combustible group of players. If things donâ€™t go their way, you could easily see Baron Davis and Steven Jackson going ballistic and handing the series to the Mavericks. Itâ€™s up to Nellie to keep a lid on his playersâ€™ emotions. Heâ€™d also be advised to find a few more minutes for Al Harrington and Andris Biedrins as heâ€™s riding his main five guys pretty hard. You could almost hear through the television a huge collective sigh of relief when Nowitzki nailed those three-pointers to propel the Dallas comeback . From Cuban to Avery Johnson to Del Harris to the players and fans, nobody expected the Mavericks to be on the brink of elimination this soon. There would have been some â€˜splaininâ€™ to do in Big D, and there still might be after the last shot is fired. If the Warriors pull it off, it will be interesting to see if they can maintain a high level of play against another opponent. Whether itâ€™s Nelson or the match-ups, Golden State does seem to have Dallasâ€™ number.
Speaking of numbers, I hope Danny Ainge didnâ€™t lose Larry Birdâ€™s. That trade he made with Golden State has not exactly worked in the Pacersâ€™ favor, has it? Danny might want to see if heâ€™d bite on, say, Wally, West and Scalabrine for Jermaine Oâ€™Neal.