By Michael Wilbon
Tuesday, May 2, 2006
It's difficult to complain about the first round of the NBA playoffs being interminable when the subplots keep rolling in, when the Spurs are reeling, when Heat teammates are bickering, when it looks as if Kobe Bryant might go further in the playoffs than Shaq, when suspensions and fines fly fast and furious.
The first eight days of the playoffs have been plenty entertaining, from LeBron James's debut triple-double to kick off the postseason to Bryant's double buzzer-beating performance Sunday to put the Lakers up 3-1 on Phoenix. Even the footnotes are juicy: The wives of Kobe and Shaq delivered babies early yesterday morning. Is there anyplace these two won't compete? Shaq's baby, by the way, was born six minutes earlier than Kobe's.
The most annoying news from yesterday is that Denver Nuggets forward Reggie Evans was fined only $10,000 and not suspended even though replays from Saturday's game show conclusively that Evans reached between the legs of Clippers center Chris Kaman, grabbed his, uh . . . grabbed him and pulled. The punishment is so incredibly weak it might as well be an invitation to do it again.
Just a week ago, the NBA rightfully suspended Miami's Udonis Haslem one game for throwing a mouth guard at referee Joey Crawford, which, while stupid, did not endanger anybody. Ron Artest was suspended for a game for elbowing Manu Ginobili in the head, which was just fine because Artest is a repeat offender, not to mention a menace. The league suspended Miami's James Posey for one game for running down and delivering a hip check to Chicago's Kirk Hinrich, which was also easily justifiable because it was a thug act with no connection to basketball.
Each of those acts warrants a suspension.
But not one of those acts was as objectionable as grabbing a man's genitals and yanking. This is something the NBA can tolerate? How much more reprehensible can you get?
Evans should have been suspended for five games. If I'm Clippers Coach Mike Dunleavy, I'm sending in my 11th and 12th men to exact some justice on Evans, which is the only way to go if the NBA isn't going to hand out some real justice.
Perhaps Stu Jackson, the league's sergeant-at-arms, simply is overworked, having to review all this misbehavior while also monitoring the postgame and off-day news conferences in which coaches rip the referees and set up their referee-baiting agendas for the next game.
Mostly, we can blame Phil Jackson and Pat Riley for making this an actual strategy during the playoffs because Jackson and Riley, like clockwork, spend the day between games telling reporters how the officials blew the previous game and what the zebras ought to be watching for in the upcoming game. Eddie Jordan is lucky he wasn't fined yesterday for tweaking the refs for letting LeBron James travel, which the Golden Child does all the time. James and his coach, Mike Brown, took it right to the edge after losing Game 4 in whining about James being called for too many offensive fouls.
Riley probably wishes that's all he had to worry about four games into Miami's playoff with Chicago. Instead, Riley has to be concerned about his star-studded, underachieving lineup, one he personally assembled to win a championship, being eliminated in the first round by a Chicago Bulls team that plays harder and smarter.
Riley is two losses from having to answer (again) why he undermined Stan Van Gundy, who was a much better coach last year than Riley is now, and why he got rid of able and willing role players (Eddie Jones, Damon Jones) to bring in the likes of Gary Payton.
It's not Payton's team and it's not Payton's time. Payton, 37, thinks he can still play despite a heap of evidence than he can't. For Riley to sit there idly while Payton screams and curses at Dwyane Wade in the middle of a nationally televised game shows Riley doesn't have control of the team. He's as done as a coach as Payton is as a defensive stopper. The Bulls' guards can't wait to see Payton trying to guard them.
Shaq, in those two games in Chicago over the weekend, looked every bit of 34, if not older. At the moment, Jerry Buss must be laughing his head off at keeping Kobe and letting Shaq go. Buss was smart enough to cover his investment by bringing back Jackson, who might be doing the best work of his career. After playing one way all season, Jackson convinced Kobe that to beat the Suns he would have to change his game 180 degrees. And Kobe listened, then did it, turning himself into a teammate-embracing, pass-first big brother of a teammate. That's great playing, brought on by great coaching. Please don't compare Riley to Phil Jackson anymore. It's not close. If Miami loses this series, it will be yet another time that Riley gets bounced by a lower-seeded team.
The Bulls have no business winning Game 5 in Miami tonight, but they might.
The top-seeded Spurs have no business being tied 2-2 with Sacramento, but they are.
The top-seeded Pistons have no business allowing the Bucks 124 points and losing by 20, but they did.
Upsets almost never characterize the NBA playoffs but are threatening to do so this postseason. The theme seems to have carried over from March Madness. The first round of the playoffs has never been so wide open. When last night's action began, Dallas was the only team that still had a chance to score a sweep (over Memphis). Every other series is going at least five games.
If Ginobili can't shake Artest, the Spurs may need seven games to win that series. The Pistons, to steal an observation from ABC analyst and former all-star Mark Jackson, aren't as good as they think they are.
Shawn Marion needs to stop asking for respect and earn it by producing in the playoffs the same way he does in the regular season. And Steve Nash needs to make up for his many miscues in the fourth quarter of Game 4 by rallying his team the way an MVP should in Game 5, back in Phoenix.
Probably because it's early in the playoffs, we haven't yet heard the NBA accused of the dreaded "C" word -- conspiracy. Lakers haters have plenty of circumstantial evidence from Sunday's game to construct a case. As fabulous as Kobe was, tying the score in regulation and winning it in overtime with Jordanesque shots, it's regrettable that the Lakers were allowed to foul on the final play of regulation without being called for it, and even worse that Nash wasn't granted a timeout in the final six seconds of overtime.
The first round of the NBA ought to be best-of-five; what a sense of urgency there would be if a team only had to win three. But at least in this postseason, from the drama we've seen through the first week, it's possible that more really could be better.