I have to say that the first round of the NBA Playoffs were much more interesting than the semi-finals have been so far, with the exception of Cleveland-Boston. The other three series have been routs. The Lakers had to eek out a win on the road in game three, but there is just no way Utah can stay with L.A. much longer. They might win game four at home, but then it’s on to a blowout in game five. If the Lakers really want to win a title, they’ll go hard to close out Utah in a sweep, especially now that Phoenix has done just that to the San Antonio Spurs. I’ll be interested to see if they show a killer instinct or not. If they take game four off, and somehow manage to lose in L.A., it’s a sign that this team just isn’t mentally all there. If they do close out Utah well, then they could well be back to the favorites to win again, especially with Cleveland struggling.
I am simply shocked that Phoenix swept the Spurs. I never even considered the possibility. I only vaguely thought the Suns would have a chance to win the series if Robin Lopez came back and played well. Well, he didn’t and they did anyway, in a far more dominating fashion than I thought possible. I mean, this team was inconsistent, to say the least, in the first round against a banged up Portland team and the Spurs played fantastic ball against one of the three or four most talented teams in the playoffs. I seriously thought the Mavs had a real chance to win it all. I was certain that San Antonio had gotten it all together finally, but they reverted back to the team that was so up and down all season. The Spurs need to change, and there are lots of players available this offseason. Tony Parker is a goner. And I’m not sure I would have re-upped Ginobli for three years. I mean, he’s fantastic, I would love to have him on my team, but how much longer is he going to be able to stay on the court? And we’ve seen the past couple years, though not this one, how injuries to him come playoff time absolutely kills them. Most disturbingly, Tim Duncan is 35. Maybe it’s time to start talking about getting another prime time big in there while he’s still got some tread on the tires, sort of like what he did with David Robinson to start his career. Any way about it, big change is coming to San Antonio. It has to, or else the Spurs will be spending a couple years out of the playoffs in the not too distant future.
Utah, on the other hand, needs to upgrade from Carlos Boozer. Sure, Boozer, who was the most hated man in the state before the season, had a good year on a somewhat surprising run up the West standings for the team, and a great first round playoff series. All that brought serious talk of resigning Carlos. If they want to actually win something other than a first round series, they need to do better. It’s easy for Boozer to look like an all star against a soft and post-defenseless team like Denver, especially when they’re coach is home fighting cancer. But against L.A., you can see clearly how useless he is against a legitimate championship caliber club. Maybe if he played with a legit big (say, Tim Duncan? Just a thought, no way it will happen) he could be very useful for a deep playoff run, but how is Utah going to get one of those and keep him around? Otherwise, to be a real contender, he’s the odd man out. Besides, they already have a replacement at his position in Paul Millsap who, in less minutes, has outscored Boozer in this series. Utah is tough, scrappy and talented everywhere but in the post, especially defense. There was a point in game one against the Lakers where L.A. got layups or dunks every time down the floor, 10 or 12 straight trips. It was absurd. A rec league team could have put up more of a fight than that. They have a guy who nearly everyone is calling the best point guard in the game (although I think Steve Nash and Rajon Rondo might argue that point at the moment) in Deron Williams who just keeps getting better. It would be a shame to have to watch him putting up great games in the playoffs for years to come on a team that just can’t quite get there. If Utah is smart, they’ll let Boozer go and fill some other needs.
The East playoffs remind me a lot of last year, only in reverse. Last season, Cleveland opened on a roll, blowing out Detroit and Atlanta en route to what looked like a sure bet to be an NBA Finals appearance. Meanwhile, Orlando fell behind Philadelphia 2-1 before coming back to win that series, then struggled to beat Boston, again coming back from 3-2 down in the series and winning game seven in Boston. By then, however, Cleveland was cocky, Orlando was confident and they smacked the Cavs in the mouth, taking that series easily. This year, it’s the Cavs who are struggling a bit. They didn’t fall behind Chicago, but that series was much tougher than it first appeared. And now, they are in a dogfight with Boston that they may not win. The Magic, on the other hand, cruised against Charlotte with Dwight Howard spending a lot of time on the bench with foul trouble, and they are just thrashing the Atlanta Hawks. If Cleveland survives Boston, will we see a repeat of last year with only an over-confident Orlando and a battle-tested Cleveland?
The Hawks, meanwhile, are a joke. This team was supposed to be for real, they were supposed to be a team with a chance, a difficult out, if not more. Instead, they look like a severely flawed and unmotivated bunch. I just don’t see how coach Mike Woodson isn’t fired after this. It’s one thing to lose to a superior team, but they barely beat a Milwaukee team missing one of its best players and defensive anchor Andrew Bogut, and they aren’t even competitive with Orlando. They’ve lost the three games so far by a combined 87 points. Two of their losses were by 43 in game one and by 30 in game three at home! These guys won 53 games. There is simply no excuse for this.
Finally, I have to tell you, I really am enjoying the Boston Celtics. The Lakers, the Cavs and the Magic may be better teams, but honestly, for sheer entertainment, this three year run by Boston has been fantastic. It started with the seven game series win over Atlanta in the first round three years ago, followed by a fantastic seven game series with Cleveland in the second round. Remember game seven of that one? A five point Boston win marked by a shootout between Lebron James (45 points) and Paul Pierce (41 points)? Follow that up with a hard-fought six-game win over Detroit in what proved to be the end for the great run of the Pistons that produced a title, another NBA Finals appearance and six consecutive conference finals. Cap it off with their dominant win over their long-time nemesis, the Lakers, for the title, and that was an enjoyable playoff ride. Last year, Kevin Garnett sat out with injury, but can anyone say that that seven game first round series with Chicago isn’t the greatest playoff series ever played? There were seven overtimes, including double and triple overtime games, and five of the seven games were decided by three points or less. Everything else that happened in the playoffs last season after this series, up to an including L.A.’s championship, was a letdown. Boston followed it up with another see-saw seven game series before finally bowing out. This year, they beat down Miami in the first round, and are in another war with Cleveland that looks like yet another seven game series. If it does get there, it’ll be their fifth seven game series out of eight total series in three years. For pure theater, the Celtics are much more fun to watch than any of the other contenders.
If I told you that a player in a Boston-Cleveland playoff game would have a line that included 29 points, 18 rebounds and 13 assists, I bet you would have guessed it was Lebron. That was Rajon Rondo’s game four performance. This guy is a superstar with a potentially crazy upside. And the scary part is his jumpshot is getting better. His motion is far, far more refined than it was two years ago when they won the title. If that keeps improving, this guy will be unstoppable. And very much like Lebron, he’ll be scoring triple double numbers quite a bit. For all of its depth, Cleveland simply does not have an answer for Rondo. It’s not that I’m rooting against Cleveland, I think they can and will beat both Orlando and L.A., but I just want to keep watching Boston play. There’s always something exciting happening when they’re on the court. They may not be the best team, but they’re the most consistently entertaining, win or lose.