This Is Some Good Stuff

Cavs' LeBron James drew cheers throughout the playoffs and even more accolades after pushing Detroit to a Game 7.
Cavs' LeBron James drew cheers throughout the playoffs and even more accolades after pushing Detroit to a Game 7. (By Mark Duncan -- Associated Press)
By Michael Wilbon
Tuesday, May 23, 2006

PHOENIX The NBA cannot do any better than it has the last month. It's simply not reasonable for the games to get any closer or more theatric. It's last second, last shot, last game seemingly every night, and never more so than the 48 hours featuring three Game 7s, including Monday night's doubleheader of elimination. Who needs a scripted "24" or "Alias" when you can have the unscripted drama of athletic competition, the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat every night for a month?

In the record ninth overtime of the playoffs, the defending champion San Antonio Spurs were dethroned Monday night in a breathless game that, when we look back, may be impossible to separate from so many of the other overtimes and buzzer-beaters.

The Mavericks' OT victory over the now former champs is Exhibit A in the case that the first two rounds of this year's playoffs have never been more competitive or more entertaining. And while the Suns' 127-107 victory over the Clippers lacked the tension most hoped for, it nonetheless showcased the Suns at their run-and-shoot best. Phoenix scored 65 points in the first half, and played as freely and as creatively as they might have in the second week of November. The Clippers, made to look like props most of the game, were no match, giving people who care about offense the dreamy Western Conference match most likely to yield a 300-point game: Suns vs. Mavs. First one to 150 wins.

The Suns made such a high percentage of three-pointers it might appear to be a misprint. Phoenix hit 15 of 27 three-pointers, good for 55.6 percent. The Clippers, meanwhile, made no three-pointers and only took four. The Suns, on 48 baskets, recorded 32 assists. It was a track meet disguised as a basketball game. Nash finished with 29 points and 11 assists. Marion scored 30. All seven Suns who played scored in double-digits, and they weren't the least bit worried about Elton Brand's 36 points because the Suns don't worry about anything when they shoot like this.

Imagine shooting 52.6 percent from the floor and 96.2 percent from the free throw line (25 of 26) as the Clippers did, on the road no less, and wind up losing by 20 points. Some nights, the Suns are that overwhelming offensively.

Usually the No. 1 vs. No. 8 and No. 2 vs. No. 7 matches yield a couple of clunkers. In fact, there was a stretch in the 1990s where the eventual champ almost always swept the first-round, best-of-five series. Anything less than a 3-0 result was a hint that the top seed wasn't really championship material.

Not this year. There was only one non-competitive series: Dallas swept Memphis in four games, and only one was truly in doubt. Everybody else scrapped every night, and never moreso than Monday night when a champion, after a standing eight count early in the game when the Spurs were down 20, got off the mat and fought like a champion is supposed to.

The Spurs might not be the most exciting bunch but they play with such honor and dignity, to the point that you figured even when they were down 20 and down again in overtime that somehow, someway the they were coming back. You could just see it written all over Mark Cuban's face when his creation, the Mavericks, seemed about to choke away a big lead. But they never did. Dallas did an even more honorable thing in Game 7: it took out the champ on the road. There's nothing tougher to do when the champ is whole and feeling under siege and Tim Duncan is throwing in everything he can get his hands on for long stretches.

For now, that's the best series because it's the latest, the most dramatic. Game 7 buckles the knees of grown men, so what must overtime in Game 7 feel like?

Of course, the tone for all this basketball madness was set from the first weekend, even in the series we didn't figure to give a whole lot of attention.

Miami, the No. 2 seed in the East, was deadlocked 2-2 in Game 5 but trailed the completely pesky Chicago Bulls by five points before gaining control of the series. The Suns, the No. 2 seed in the West and the closest thing to a Cinderella story in pro basketball, were down 3-1 in their series with the Lakers before recovering.

It was "Beat L.A." all over again here for the Suns, who got an MVP performance from the MVP, Steve Nash, who went through and around Clippers like they were cones in a parking lot. The three full days of rest certainly rejuvenated the ailing Nash (back and legs) who probably hadn't had that much bounce in his step since December. Yes, the Suns can give the Mavericks a long, difficult series if Nash and Shawn Marion can put together games like the one they did to eliminate the Clippers Monday night.

Those unable to stay up and see the happenings out West probably had to settle for watching LeBron James start the playoffs with a triple-double, win two games with last-second shots against the Wizards, and lead the Cleveland LeBrons past Detroit three straight times to set up Game 7 in that series. If you're looking for extreme coincidences, or flat-out foreshadowing, consider this: When Michael Jordan lost the first Game 7 of his career, in 1989, he scored 31 points on 48 percent shooting, grabbed eight rebounds and lost by 19 points at The Palace of Auburn Hills. When James lost the first Game 7 of his career, Sunday, he scored 27 points on 46 percent shooting, grabbed eight rebounds and lost by 18 points at The Palace of Auburn Hills. Okay, cue the spooky music.

LeBron's performances totally eclipsed anything else that happened in the Eastern Conference, even Dwyane Wade's Game 5 back-from-the-dead performance against Chicago where reality imitated art or at least imitated Wade's commercial, the one where Wade hits the floor and pushes himself up like some horror flick villain intent on stalking his prey. If Wade's limp-back-to-the-floor performance wasn't straight Willis Reed, circa 1970, then at least it was reminiscent of the time Larry Bird came back to finish off the Indiana Pacers after bashing his head on the court in Boston Garden.

It's actually okay once again to compare present-day players favorably with the hoop gods of previous generations without feeling dirty. Let's face it; even though Michael Jordan retired from the Chicago Bulls in 1998, and even though the Lakers of Shaq and Kobe provided some pretty big thrills early in the decade, the league has been in a post-Jordan hangover, not just in terms of ratings plummeting, but in terms of the quality of overall postseason play. Even when the level of competition was very high -- Pistons vs. Spurs, for example -- it wasn't perceived by the viewing audience as particularly entertaining.

Now, we don't seem to miss the old Dream Teamers quite as much.

It's been so, so good that even what appeared to be villainous acts -- Bell' s hogtie of Bryant and Jason Terry's punching Michael Finley -- were ultimately redeemed.

The NBA's only real concern now is that the level of play will drop off. It has to, right? Of the four second-round series, three of them went seven games.

It would have been understandable if the Clippers, as unfamiliar with the playoffs as that franchise is, had simply been happy to join the party and lost early. Instead, the Clippers played like a serious contender. Only their double-overtime loss in Game 5 pushed this series with the Suns to seven games and provided yet more drama to the most dramatic playoffs in years.

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