The NBA Playoffs: On to the Main Course

Did you skip the first round of the NBA Playoffs? We can’t think of an explanation for that, but Max Ornstein has you covered.

I was talking with one of my friends on Saturday. We had a disagreement about the first round. To him, the first round was like an appetizer that was too big. By the fourth or fifth game in every series, he was ready to move on to the next course and “didn’t even need to doggy-bag the rest of that app.” Saturday was my least favorite day of the NBA season, because it was the first day in the playoffs without basketball. And that means—for all the great things that are going to happen from now until June—NBA Basketball will be over within the next two months, and I’m not sure I’m ready for that.

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On the losers in the East:

Indiana and Philadelphia both got their “moral victory” win, which, as Bethlehem Shoals wrote at GQ, can have as much meaning for a young team as any other goal they could realistically hope to achieve. I’m excited to see both teams next year. I want to see what Frank Vogel can do with a training camp and full season with his team, and I want to see whether Doug Collins can keep his players from tuning out his hard-ass approach.

In New York, people are already referring to Chauncey Billups as “Chauncey Billups’ expiring contract,” while simultaneously talking big things about next year and forgetting that this is the fourth-straight year he’s gone out with an injury in the playoffs. Unless Knicks fans plan on Billups giving them minutes in the playoffs after a trade, which would require an “I’m going back to the team that just traded me” move, I don’t know how they’re going to have it both ways.

The Knicks were hammered by injuries in the first round, but superstars don’t get swept, and the elephant in the room is that Carmelo and Isaiah Thomas forced the Knicks to give up three-fifths of their crunch-time lineup in a trade instead of simply waiting until next season, where Carmelo would be on a much better team with a much better chance to win a title. He says he wants to win, but his actions say he chose to make an extra 20 million on his megadeal and get swept in the first round.

If there is a season next year, is there anyone out there who thinks the Dwightanic won’t sail out of Orlando at the end of it?

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On the losers in the West:

Which concession press conference made you sadder?

Was it Chris Paul’s, where he said, “We don’t want to come out here and compete,” spitting the word compete out with disgust as his voice tightened up, “we want to win,” after losing a game where he left it all out on the floor but came up short anyway? I saw it coming. Once Kobe threw down those dunks in game five, I knew the Hornets wouldn’t win another one. The switch was flipped.

Was it Brandon Roy’s about “definitely trying as hard as he could,” knowing that “as hard as he could” might mean one transcendent game a series, which is exactly what we got.

Or was it George Karl’s “It’s just basketball; we’re lucky to be doing this” speech, referring to his battle against cancer last year and how happy he is to be able to do what he loves? As he repeatedly said, his team didn’t match up well with Oklahoma City, but I don’t think anyone expected the Thunder to drop the hammer as hard and as soon as they did.

Gregg Popovich’s matter-of-fact “We lost in the first round, what do you want me to say?” press conference wasn’t particularly sad.

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Vancouver Grizzlies 1, Seattle Supersonics 0

Memphis 1, Oklahoma City 0

That same friend is deliriously talking about Oklahoma City as the ’91 Bulls. Durant is obviously Jordan. I thought that Westbrook was finally learning, after two disastrous games against the Nuggets, that he’s Pippen. Game four against the Nuggets—Westbrook took 30 shots and the Thunder lost, essentially because Durant didn’t get the ball enough—was something that had to happen given the way the two of them play together, and it could become a blueprint for more Thunder losses in the playoffs. His 3-15 night in game five was almost as painful to watch.

The San Antonio–Memphis series was the best series of the first round. There’s Tony Allen becoming the non-crazy Ron Artest, Zach Randolph’s game-winning “No! No! Yes!” shots, Manu Ginobili’s three-pointer that wasn’t, Gary Neal’s three-pointer that was, and Marc Gasol vindicating Chris Wallace’s Gasol-for-Gasol swap three years ago through his defense on Tim Duncan and becoming—according to David Thorpe of ESPN Insider—the MVP of the first round.

And now we’ve got a Northwestern rivalry series on our hands as the Seattle Supersonics take on the Vancouver Grizzlies. Like most, I thought that Memphis benefited from favorable matchups against the Spurs, and that the Thunder would take care of them. I was wrong; the West’s 1-8 was the best single-conference playoff grouping in a long time.

Russell Westbrook had another bad game—29 points on 23 shots, seven turnovers, and too many missed layups to count. It’s mystifying how bad his touch around the rim can be when he’s struggling. The Thunder couldn’t hold onto the ball, as Memphis scored 23 points off of 18 Thunder turnovers and once again looked like the best team on the floor.

Is there a better comparison than Memphis’ style of play and M.O.P.’s style of rapping? Both are super-aggressive, both invade your personal space. Memphis bullies you inside; M.O.P. raps about kicking your butt. Memphis tries to steal the ball from you; M.O.P. talks about stealing, well, everything they can from you. When Tony Allen is destroying someone’s offense on the perimeter or Marc Gasol is doing the same thing in the paint, it’s “Ante Up.” When Zach Randolph is facing up in the post, he’s “Cold As Ice.”

Kevin Durant called Zach Randolph the best power forward in the league, and Z-Bo Agreed with him. But if Russell Westbrook can make the adjustments he needs to, I see the Thunder winning this series in seven. As long as it goes seven, I’m fine with either result. This series is a crash course in riding two bandwagons at once.

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Miami 1, Boston 0

Did the Knicks make Boston look better than they are? Specifically, did the Knicks gaping hole at center mask Boston’s equally gaping hole at center?

Against the Heat, Boston looked old and whiny. Their bench was nonexistent. The O’Neal Corps and Jeff Green didn’t do anything more than make the Kendrick Perkins trade look like the worst in-season trade by a contender, ever.

If Dwyane Wade keeps showing up like he did in game one, this series will be over before it gets started. Are Ray Allen’s knees really going to be able to stay in front of Wade for a whole series? Wade feels like the key to the series, and it feels like the current arrangement—where Dwyane Wade is the man—fits Lebron’s comfort zone.  Cleveland needed LeBron to be Hercules. Now, if he has a good, or even great-but-not-out-of-this-world game, Miami still has a chance to win, because Wade is starting to look like ’06 Wade.

Having Rajon Rondo try to exploit Mike Bibby as a scorer was the wrong strategy for Boston. That, or Rondo’s luster is simply fading without three in-their-prime stars around him to pass to. Also, he still can’t hit an open 15-foot jump shot to save his life.

All that said, Boston’s closer missed the last seven minutes of the game. Even though Miami looked poised, Boston still only lost by nine. If the Celtics steal game two, it’s a totally different story, but I don’t think they will. Look for both of these teams to protect their home floors, with Miami winning in seven.

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Atlanta 1, Chicago 0

Who the hell are these Hawks? Forget the Lakers, the Hawks are the biggest example of a “turn it on” team in the playoffs. They sleepwalked through the last third of the season, going 11-20 since February 8 and looking completely hopeless in some of those losses. Were they just bored? Content with their seed and taking it easy? Because now they’re awake. They’ve already swept aside the Orlando Magic, and they caught the Bulls flat-footed last night.

Joe Johnson was on fire, Jamal Crawford was cooking too, Jeff Teague was a blur in transition, and Al Horford and Josh Smith were the muscle inside. The Hawks out everything-ed the Bulls, and now they have home-court advantage.

Derrick Rose’s 11-27 night wasn’t good enough, and stepping on Jamal Crawford’s foot, tweaking his ankle as he did, is salt in the Bulls’ wounds.

Before this game, I thought Chicago was going to beat the Hawks in five—if they didn’t sweep. A few days ago, Kenny Smith made the point that the Bulls are going to win more hustle plays, more 50/50 balls, and have more deflections than Atlanta because of their level of discipline and effort each night. That wasn’t the case last night, and there’s no reason to believe it won’t be the case tomorrow night as well, especially if Derrick Rose isn’t healthy. If Rose is healthy, there’s also no reason to believe that the Bulls won’t protect their home floor and steal a game in Atlanta.

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Dallas 1, Los Angeles 0

The anticipated Dirk vs. Kobe matchup delivered in game one. Kobe had 36 and scored six of the Lakers’ last eight points. Dirk was superb with 28 points, 14 rebounds, and some huge plays down the stretch, ultimately drawing the foul that sealed the game.

Dallas’ whole team played an inspired fourth quarter, holding the Lakers to 16 points after trailing by the same amount three minutes through the third. They packed the interior, let the Lakers take jump shots, and got out on the break on misses, taking advantage of what was sub-par transition by the Lakers.

This was the epitome of a bad Lakers loss this season: Kobe Bryant dominating the ball on offense and settling for perimeter shots while his teammates stood around and watched. Odom and Gasol both played well, but mental mistakes (typified by Gasol’s final foul) and lazy transition D derailed their second half effort. Ron Artest shot 12 percent from the field, and Andrew Bynum failed to assert himself in the paint. If I were a Laker fan, this loss wouldn’t make me nervous, but it would really annoy me.

The remedy for the Lakers is nothing original. They need to go back to the triangle, work the ball inside-out through Gasol, Odom, and Bynum, and limit the Mavericks’ opportunities in transition. And knowing them, they will. Since these teams like to play slow, we’re in for a grinding series that is going to swing back and forth, all the way to game seven.

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—AP Photo/Darren Abate

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About Max Ornstein

Max O is a writer from New York. He posts things he thinks are funny, great, and terrible at www.maxoblog.com. You can follow him on Twitter @somaxo.

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