Upstarts bring out the best in the NBA playoffs

By Michael Wilbon
Sunday, May 2, 2010; D01

Once upon a time, the big boys were never threatened in the first round of the NBA playoffs. Losing a single game in the opening round was a sign of weakness for Bird, Magic and Jordan. It was a sweat-breaker, a warmup, little more than the varsity beating down the JV.

Not anymore. If the NBA playoffs and NCAA tournament share anything it's that the low seeds aren't bottom feeders nearly as often anymore. The top-seeded Cavaliers not only lost a game in Chicago but they struggled twice to beat the Bulls in Cleveland. Heavily favored Atlanta, the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference, avoided elimination in Milwaukee on Friday night, but the Hawks still have to get through a Game 7 at home in Atlanta, where they lost to the Bucks in Game 5. And the Western Conference's second seed, Dallas, once had designs of unseating the top-seeded Lakers but was so demoralized by a loss to seventh-seeded San Antonio that Mavericks owner Mark Cuban felt he needed to apologize to fans in Dallas and Dirk Nowitzki is reportedly considering his option to become a free agent.

Of course, the Lakers were involved in their own drama, losing a pair of games in Oklahoma City and needing a tip-in by Pau Gasol with a half-second left in Game 6 to beat the eighth-seeded Thunder late Friday night to close out that first-round series and avoid a Game 7 back in Los Angeles.

Only one team scored a first-round sweep: Orlando took four straight from Charlotte.

There was nothing preliminary about the Lakers' initial defense of their NBA championship. There was no feeling out the opposition. The highlight of the NBA playoffs so far is the Lakers needing six games and nearly a seventh to beat Oklahoma City. The Lakers' Lamar Odom made a persuasive case that a blowout Game 4 loss in Oklahoma City turned the Lakers around in the series. "It's the playoffs, and you're not going to win every game," Odom said in a conversation during the series. "But that loss was humbling. Sometimes you need it, you need to be reminded how it feels to lose and be embarrassed . . . with so many people watching. You come back to L.A., walk around town, and everybody's asking you, 'Man, what's wrong?' Sometimes it's good . . . good for the soul."

Odom's teammate, Derek Fisher, the senior member of these Lakers along with Kobe Bryant, said, "I agree. . . . Certain losses you're not even sure what you could have done. . . . You're searching, you have to go back to the drawing board, which turned out to be really good for us."

But unlike any other NBA city, back-to-back playoff losses push all of Los Angeles into a state of anxiety. "I learned my rookie year," Fisher said, "to not put any stock into it. . . . I've been through it too many times. Champions stay the course. That's what Kobe is, that's what I am, that's what [Coach] Phil Jackson is. We were down 0-2 to the Spurs in '04, down [16] points to Portland in Game 7, down to Sacramento in . . . 2002. There's no script for winning. You just have to win."

It's something the Mavericks don't have, and it's fair to wonder whether a Nowitzki team can find it. Cuban certainly owes nobody an apology. The Mavericks win 50 or more games every year. He spends money to bring in the players he believes will help win; this year Cuban spent $30 million for Brendan Haywood and Caron Butler and the team won 13 straight upon their arrival. But losing in the first round for the third time in four years is undoubtedly what weighed on Cuban more than just losing to the Spurs. "I'm not proud of my inability over the last 10 years to have the impact like I want to have, so I feel like I owe fans an apology," he said after the game.

The disappointment -- and this began back in the 2006 NBA Finals when Dallas lost to Miami -- is understandable. The problem with being too critical of the Mavericks is that this time they simply lost to a better team, one with a more accomplished coach (Gregg Popovich) and the two best players in the series (Tim Duncan, Manu GinĂ³bili).

The Spurs, as they enter the second round, perhaps should be the favorite in the Western Conference. George Hill, the second-year guard who now starts ahead of Tony Parker, gives the Spurs a young and athletic presence the team desperately needed. And Parker can be devastating, as he was in Game 6 against Dallas, coming off the bench. Richard Jefferson took longer to find his niche with the Spurs than anybody wanted, but he finally fits.

And to think that the Spurs came so close to finishing eighth and would have drawn the Lakers in the first round. Now, the Spurs get the third-seeded Suns in the second round, which might just be the most entertaining series in these playoffs. No two teams in the past eight years have played series as dramatic as the Suns and Spurs. Remember, Joe Johnson's broken cheek came in a series against the Spurs, as did Steve Nash's busted and bloody nose, as did Amare Stoudemire averaging 37 points per game against Duncan, as did the suspension of Stoudemire and Boris Diaw in a move that likely took an NBA title from the Suns and gave it to the Spurs in 2007. The two have played four series against each other, the Spurs have won all four times and will be favored to make it five.

It didn't appear that Lakers-Utah would produce anything near the level of theatre that Suns-Spurs would until Saturday, when the Lakers announced that oft-injured Andrew Bynum had a meniscus tear in his right knee. The Lakers had discovered a successful new formula: dump the ball inside. But that clearly won't work as well if Bynum misses real time.

Given Orlando's mastery of both the Hawks and Bucks, it shouldn't make much difference whether Milwaukee or Atlanta advances; the Magic will win that series easily. Cleveland-Boston should be a series of much more substance, especially since Kevin Garnett is starting to look like his old self again, instead of just old. The Celtics will be in the rare position of playing with little in the way of outside pressure. Nobody expects them to win, even though the core of the team (KG, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, Rajon Rondo, Glen Davis, Tony Allen) won a championship just two years ago.

If LeBron James is going to be something other than the NBA version of Alex Ovechkin, which is to say a transcendent talent who collects all kinds of individual hardware but cannot win a championship, he needs to lead his team past Boston, and he should. Shaquille O'Neal has the advantage over Davis. Antawn Jamison can make Garnett work defensively. As great as Pierce is in the playoffs he's not LeBron. Mo Williams is going to have to offset the scoring of Ray Allen. It may take Cleveland a while, but the Cavaliers should win, in, say, six games.

And that would leave a final four of Cleveland vs. Orlando and San Antonio vs. Los Angeles, four teams that have all been to the NBA Finals since 2007, the four best teams in the league from where we sit now, teams that will separate themselves not based on seeding, but on talent, experience and ultimately performance. The NBA playoffs, through one round, have had just enough surprises to liven up the postseason and scare favorites like Lakers into playing their best.

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