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There Are Some Good Games On the Late Shift

By Michael Wilbon
Wednesday, May 18, 2005

If it's stardom you're looking for, these NBA playoffs probably aren't for you. There's nobody with the sizzle of Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson or Larry Bird. It's easy to argue that the game's best soloists either didn't qualify in the first place (LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett) or have already been booted out (Tracy McGrady, Allen Iverson, Carmelo Anthony). The biggest star, Shaq, has missed the last two games, and the guy with the longest playoff résumé, Reggie Miller, is about to turn 40 and has one foot out the door.

But that doesn't mean the basketball isn't entertaining, especially if you can stay up late enough to watch Phoenix vs. Dallas, the crown jewel of these playoffs. It's can't-miss TV if you're in college or on-call in the ER. The games played in Phoenix don't finish until after 1 o'clock in the morning in the East. These games end so late, Eastern time, that Conan is already asleep. Okay, Pistons vs. Pacers has the inescapable drama set up by the brawl in Detroit last November. And it's got Miller, perhaps the easiest guy to root for in basketball, going against the first basketball team we know of to value its special order championship belts more than its championship rings.

But that series doesn't have the athletic flair of Phoenix-Dallas, which is so long on skill and entirely easy on the eyes . . . provided you can keep your eyes open. There are more story lines in this series than a Spike Lee movie.

Dallas has a rookie coach, Avery Johnson, who took over the job when Don Nelson just sort of wandered away. Johnson lost his first two home games but recovered to beat Houston. And now he's devised a strategy that says to Steve Nash, "You can score 50 but we'll be damned if you get to pass it to Amare Stoudamire for those demoralizing dunks or anybody lurking out around the three-point line." Sure enough, Nash scored 48 in Game 4, but recorded a playoff-low five assists and his Suns lost.

That's not the only subplot Nash is involved in, either. If Dallas wins this series (tied 2-2 going into Game 5 tonight in Phoenix), Mavericks owner Mark Cuban will be vindicated for letting the MVP of the league leave his team and go to Phoenix, then taking the money that would have gone to Nash and spending it on Erick Dampier. Dampier, in his last eight playoff games, has scored one fewer point than Nash scored by himself in Game 5. This is why every player in the league snickered when an injured Shaq said he was so bad he was playing like Dampier.

Oh, that Shaq.

Actually, it gets worse. Dampier was playing so badly, scoring four, two, one, eight and no points in consecutive playoff games, that he was upbraided by a European player, teammate Dirk Nowitzki. Yes, Nowitzki is an all-star and his lighting a fire under Dampier is nothing compared to the stuff Bird would say to Kevin McHale or what Jordan would say to his teammates during the playoffs. Still, the putdown is notable because Nowitzki is the first European player to basically claim a team as his to lead, and he was totally vindicated when Dampier scored 15 points the very next game.

If that's not enough, the coach of the year, the Suns' Mike D'Antoni, is in this series, as is the executive of the year, the Suns' Bryan Colangelo, as is a player with a fractured face, the Suns' Joe Johnson.

Most importantly, it's a series in which the winning team has scored 127, 108, 119 and 119 points, while the loser has scored at least 100 in each game. It's basketball without the clutching and grabbing of the post-Jordan era, basketball with the kind of passing, ballhandling and shooting that could just possibly attract people to watch even if there aren't big stars playing.

Detroit-Indy doesn't have that, though it does have the team that might be the best story in sports this season. It's illogical that the Pacers are still in this series, trailing 3-2 after last night's loss at Detroit, because their second-best player (Ron Artest) is out and their best player (Jermaine O'Neal) is playing with an injured shoulder that limits almost everything he can do. Yet, Rasheed Wallace had to rally his Pistons with a prediction to fire them up enough to get past the Pacers in Game 4 to even the series.

It's not often a professional team has anything remotely resembling a "Hoosiers" sentimental value to it. But it's impossible, unless you're a Pistons fan, not to root at least a little bit for Reggie Miller. I root for him now like I do Brett Favre. You cannot legitimately claim to be a basketball junkie and not find Miller's playoff performances irresistible. The NBA is better off for having him and will have a void to fill when he retires after this season, something nobody seems able to talk him out of.

The two other conference semifinals, Washington vs. Miami and Seattle vs. San Antonio, amount to afterthoughts, even though San Antonio suddenly seems less like a shoo-in and the emergence of Dwyane Wade is something that might awaken the stargazers.

Perhaps we've given the Spurs a little too much benefit of the doubt, considering David Robinson, Malik Rose, Steve Kerr, Stephen Jackson and Danny Ferry from the 2003 NBA championship team have been replaced, effectively, by Glenn Robinson, Nazr Mohammed, Brent Barry and Beno Udrih. And perhaps we didn't give the 8-0 in-the-playoffs Miami Heat enough benefit of the doubt.

Wade makes us reassess everything we thought about Miami's chances of getting past Detroit, if it even comes to that. As fabulous as Nash has been (averaging 21.1 points and 11.6 in the playoffs, and 27.3 points and 12 assists against his former Mavs teammates) Wade has been a touch better . . . dare I saw more valuable? Remember, Wade is cast as Robin, not Batman. Yet, the kid is averaging 28.6 points (up from 24.1 in the regular season), 8.4 assists (up from 6.8 in the regular season) and shooting 52 percent (up from 48 percent in the regular season). In the two games without Shaq, Wade averaged 36 points, 8 rebounds, 5 assists and shot 54.5 percent.

Will he maintain those numbers against Detroit or Indiana? Almost certainly he will not. But Wade, and for that matter Nash, can continue playing well enough to keep the level of basketball -- and therefore the drama -- high enough to watch, even in the wee hours, over the next few days and weeks.

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