Watch for Suns and Stars

By Michael Wilbon
Friday, April 21, 2006

Ultimately, sometime in late May, we'll get to the Spurs and the Pistons, to issues like whether Shaq and Pat Riley are relics now relegated to remembering the NBA Finals instead of actually getting there.

But the NBA playoffs are about instant gratification. And while the league is limited to two great teams, there are two fascinating series right out of the box -- both involving two players the basketball world is obsessed with -- the most intriguing team in the playoff field, and a fourth participant hardly anybody has paid attention to for more than two decades.

LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and the Phoenix Suns almost assuredly will provide the early sizzle for the NBA playoffs, which begin tomorrow. And the latter, of course, is the Washington Wizards, mostly unknown outside of the neighborhood but cast as the "also starring" entity in the playoff premiere of the golden child, James.

It's not often we get to see any playoff series around here, and it's almost never that we get to see arguably the series of the entire first round. From a team standpoint, the only two "upsets" anybody is picking are Wizards over LeBron's Cavaliers, and Kobe's Lakers over No. 2 seed Phoenix.

It's not like the NBA is missing great teams. The Pistons and Spurs, winners of the last two championships, are great teams by any reasonable present-day definition. Whether they thrill people, which the truly memorable teams do, is another story. What the league really needs is a team everybody wants to watch, a team that reflects not just skill, professionalism and unselfishness at the highest level, but a team that leaves you at game's end with a sense that something joyous has just occurred.

The Phoenix Suns should be that team this year. Watching the Suns, when they're really on, makes you feel like you're watching a great band live, at its very best. It ought to be theater, the way it was when Jordan's Bulls, Bird's Celtics and Magic's Lakers played. The Suns don't have a player as great as any of those three, but they do have the reigning MVP in Steve Nash who enables them to play the way kids dream of playing, which is to say fast and daring . . . of sinking long shots and throwing pinpoint passes on the fly. The Suns are like a great hockey team on a power play; they always seem to have an extra man ready to shoot, somebody completely unaccounted for by the defense.

The Spurs are polite applause. The Pistons are a foot stomp. The Suns are a shrill scream and a leap from the seats. Phoenix is exactly what the NBA needs for four rounds, right through the NBA Finals.

Sadly, the Suns also are not whole. Like Sacramento before them, the Suns can't seem to get the whole package together. Last year, an injured Joe Johnson reduced Phoenix to a conference finalist. This year, an injured Amare Stoudemire will reduce them to no further than the conference finals, and perhaps less than that if Kobe Bryant has his unmerciful way in the first round.

Without Stoudemire, the Suns have to play faster, have to shoot more, throw better passes, take more chances . . . which is why people love watching them even more. "Everywhere we go," Nash said in a recent conversation, "people say, 'We love watching you guys play!' Sometimes they'll even say, 'You're not our favorite team but we love watching you more than the other teams.' It does mean something to us to hear that. We are, after all, in the entertainment business. We're not the Globetrotters. But we share the ball, we try to make the extra pass, and we make the most of the pieces we have."

Some coaches dwell on what players cannot do, especially in these times when many players barely know how to practice because they come to the pro ranks more fundamentally challenged than ever before. The Suns coach, Mike D'Antoni, favors stressing what players can do. He took a player dumped during the season by the Chicago Bulls, 6-foot-10 forward Tim Thomas, and put him in the Phoenix starting lineup with great results. Thomas feels as if he has been exported to some kind of basketball heaven.

So we are going to be cheated on some level to see the Suns struggle around the basket without Stoudemire, which will bring them within reach of Bryant. It's a classic all-for-one vs. one-for-all series. Bryant has carried his Lakers all season, in much the same way a young Michael Jordan carried the Chicago Bulls to the playoffs, where they lost in the first round his first three seasons in the league.

It's funny, really, that both Kobe and LeBron will be compared, legitimately, to Jordan over these next few weeks. And it will be much more fascinating to watch their basketball evolution than, say, Mavericks vs. Grizzlies. Jordan won only one of his first 10 playoff games and was swept in his second and third seasons by the Celtics. Playoff experience may count for more in pro basketball than in any other sport.

Kobe has been the most prolific, most dominant player this season, averaging 35.4 points per game. Unburdened by the pressures of needing to win a championship, because he has three, Kobe has been in full flight all season, sometimes ignoring his teammates, whom he often doesn't trust anyway. LeBron, meanwhile, has insisted on using his running mates to elevate the team even as many of prominent members of the pro basketball fraternity criticized him for not trying to win the games himself. All the while, there's been nary a peep of "told-you-so" out of LeBron, who has very nicely negotiated the stressful expectations of greatness better than any player in team sports since, perhaps, John Elway.

Yet LeBron enters these playoffs with a handicap. He has no playoff experience. His head coach has no playoff experience. Two of his three most important teammates (Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Drew Gooden) have played in only one postseason series between them. As a future Hall of Fame player said in a conversation yesterday, "Who else in that locker room, in a chaotic situation, can take control?" Maybe Larry Hughes? Eric Snow? Hey, maybe it'll be LeBron. Maybe his mastery of the game will negate the pressures of playoff basketball. Possible, but highly unlikely. Nobody since 20-year-old Magic Johnson has done it at a championship level.

And the Wizards, of all teams, could be the team to educate him and take advantage of the lesson. The Wizards have the experience of winning a round in the playoffs and of losing a round in the playoffs last year. They've got a star of their own, Gilbert Arenas, who has hit a game-winning shot in the playoffs and who might just average as many points in this series as LeBron. They've got a coach who has a series victory as a head coach and two trips to the NBA Finals as an assistant.

Even if the Wizards do beat Cleveland, which is what I expect to happen in, oh, six games, there's nothing like getting in at the ground floor. Seeing Magic in his first playoff run and seeing Jordan drop 63 on the Celtics in his second playoff appearance were unforgettable. Chronicling the early playoff successes and failures of great young players is how we grew fascinated with them in the old days, before $50 million marketing campaigns forced them on us before they'd ever accomplished anything worth praising on the court.

So the thrill in the early days of the playoffs will be in seeing LeBron for the first time, Kobe for the first time without Shaq and a Suns team that is ailing but hardly disabled and hopefully able to provide some of the excitement that ought to accompany playoff time.


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