Michael Wilbon: Fast-forward to the NBA Finals
LOS ANGELES -- The story of the first two games of the Western Conference finals can be told with two simple numbers.
The Los Angeles Lakers are averaging 126 points on 56 percent shooting. It sounds like a statistical leftover from the old ABA. Even worse for the Phoenix Suns is these are the new and defensively improved Suns. Unlike in the Mike D'Antoni days, Phoenix is actually trying to play defense...not that the Lakers seem to notice. Every Laker who played Wednesday night in Game 2 -- and there were eight of them -- scored at least seven points and six reached double figures. Pau Gasol, with 11 baskets in 19 shots, has morphed into a combination of Kevin McHale and Bill Walton.
Once again the NBA has a playoff mismatch. The post-season has been full of them, and as a result the post-season has been a dud. No overtime games so far. Only one Game 7, an artistic disaster between the Atlanta Hawsks and Milwaukee Bucks in the first round. The second round featured three sweeps (our of four series) for only the second time ever. And now even the conference finals, with Boston and Los Angeles cruising, could end in sweeps as well. That would be five sweeps in the final six series of the playoffs.
Who has a better chance to avoid a sweep? Logic would say the Suns because they've got two home games coming up, Sunday and Tuesday. And these Lakers tend to get bored. Orlando is going on the road for two in Boston Saturday and Monday, but the Celtics have played terribly at home. (Remember that double-digit loss to the Wizards at the end of the regular season?) Thing is, we're at the point where the Lakers and Celtics are already playing each other, looking across the country at one another, trying to impress. Magic Johnson and Larry Bird talked about doing just that in the 1980s as each approached the NBA Finals.
The Suns are still capable of simply exploding offensively at home and stealing a game, but nothing we've seen so far in the first two games suggests Phoenix can get more than a game. And Orlando hasn't exhibited the mental toughness to suggest they can change the course of this series. The Magic lost this series last summer, when they essentially traded away Hedo Turkoglu (he was a free agent and went to Toronto) for Vince Carter, who has never produced in any meaningful way when the lights are bright.
Celtics Coach Doc Rivers came up with a simple but effective defensive dare. He decided to put big butt Kendrick Perkins on Dwight Howard, one-on-one. Double-teams are kept to a minimum, so that the other four players can close out and get right up on the Orlando shooters. So instead of Rashard Lewis, Jameer Nelson, Michael Pietrus, J.J. Redick and Matt Barnes being wide open (usually from behind the three-point arc) because a second defender is on Howard, they're blanketed by Boston defenders. And instead of having Turkoglu drawing double-teams with his creative drives to the basket and ability to kick passes to those shooters, Orlando is stuck with Carter creating only for himself. What a disastrous personnel miscalculation. Carter is also two or three inches shorter than Turkoglu, meaning Rivers can assign a guard to cover Carter. All those mistmatches Orlando enjoyed last post-season because of Turkoglu and Lewis getting open shots or firing over shorter defenders are gone because Turkoglu is the one who got shots for Lewis and because Doc Rivers won't be suckered into double-teaming Howard, who is still no more than a pretty good offensive player.
Boston's players know Orlando can't score and Van Gundy knows he doesn't have the personnel to do anything about it, and if the Celtics play with the same intensity Rivers has been able to rally so far from his team, the Celtics are going to put the Magic out of their misery and get on to the business of playing the Lakers, who should do the same to the Suns. If these series aren't going to be competitive -- and they hadn't been so far -- then let's cut to the chase and see if the NBA playoffs can finally produce some entertaining basketball before the post-season is put to bed.