Second Round Is Short on Drama

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By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 12, 2006; 3:21 PM

Eight teams have been sent home, are gone fishing, are off to Cancun or whatever cliché you want to use. Eight teams remain -- seven if you've already eliminated the Cleveland LeBrons, who breezed past the local five in six but look to be exiting in four.

Having just made it through the best first round since the NBA expanded to the seven-game format in 2003, the second round so far has been, well, dull. The first round of the playoffs raised the bar exceptionally high for the remainder of the postseason. Anything short of bedlam is akin to boredom. Two games into each of the conference semifinals, the question has to be asked: Where's the drama?

After all, the first round offered a great individual scoring duel (LeBron James vs. Gilbert Arenas), some thrilling finishes (LeTravel over Michael Ruffin; Sacramento guard Kevin Martin's layup over Tim Duncan, Kobe Bryant's ridiculous, high-arching tear drop and later a pull-up jumper over two Phoenix defenders; LeBaseline Drive past Antawn Jamison and over Ruffin again ; Damon [bleeping] Jones) a few hot tempers (Ron Artest throwing an elbow at Manu Ginobili; Miami forward Udonis Haslem tossing his mouthpiece at an official, Miami forward James Posey bumping Chicago's Kirk Hinrich, Nuggets forward Kenyon Martin cursing his coach, George Karl; Clippers center Chris Kaman shoving Denver forward Reggie Evans after Evans grabbed Kaman's, um, manhood; Raja Bell clotheslining Bryant) a great war of words ("He's a pompous, arrogant individual." "Who is this kid? Do I know this guy?") and an exciting comeback (Phoenix rising from a 1-3 hole to defeat Phil Jackson, Kobe and the Lakers). Only Dallas and Detroit made their opponents look like uninvited guests.

In the second round, the nailbiters have been replaced by blowouts -- the average margin of victory in the first eight games is 15.4 points and only one game was decided by fewer than six points. The physical play has been replaced by teams simply being pushovers -- five teams, including the defending champion Spurs, have been clubbed by more than 20 points. And instead of teams complaining vehemently about questionable officiating, players look at the referees in disgust and just walk away. Huh? Where's a mouthpiece when you need one?

The only semi-controversy of the first round has been Mavericks owner Mark Cuban getting fined $200,000 for two separate instances of bashing officials. Yawn. The bigger news has been the aftermath of the first round: The Kings canning Rick Adelman and Kobe's Game 7 second-half disappearance.

But there is hope. Although some teams have alternated when they want to compete and concede, three of the four series are tied at 1-1 and have the potential to go seven games, meaning that at least one of them will actually be spirited. Cleveland will be around as long as Detroit wants it to be, so the only reason to watch that series is to see how LeBron James handles his first playoff beatdown. (Side note: Could James have asked for a better first round opponent than the defenseless Washington Wizards? It was only a year ago that the Wizards made Dwyane Wade a household name. James was already a pre-packaged, ready-made star before he dominated Washington; now he looks like the rightful heir to Air.)

After a rare playoff night off, the games return and here are a couple of random thoughts:

Spurs-Mavericks is the defacto Western Conference Finals

Two 60-win teams in the second round? It's a shame that the league's quirky playoff seeding forced the two best teams in the West to square off so early, but the fact remains that if either team wanted to get to the NBA Finals, they would have to beat the other at some point, anyway -- especially in the NBA, where playoff upsets are rare because of the best-of-seven series format. This series is reminiscent of the playoffs from 1999-2003, when everyone knew that the winner of the Western Conference Finals was the actual NBA champion, with the Eastern Conference playing for the right to get trounced in the Finals.

This isn't to say that the winner of the Clippers-Suns series has no chance of advancing to the NBA Finals, it's just really slim. The only real hope for the Clippers or Suns is that the Mavericks and Spurs beat up each other so badly that they'll have nothing left.

The defending champion Spurs are already banged up -- from Tim Duncan's highly publicized sore foot to Manu Ginobili wobbling on bad wheels to Tony Parker's recent scratches and bruises -- but they have the mental edge over the Mavericks in this series because they know they can beat Dallas. They've done it twice before in the playoffs, in the 2001 conference semifinals and 2003 conference finals.

But this isn't the same Allas (No D) Mavericks team that tried to outscore its opponents, treating defense as a necessary evil to get back the ball. Coach Avery Johnson has brought in a defensive mindset and has the personnel to carry out his plan. Defensive liabilities Steve Nash, Antawn Jamison and Antoine Walker have been replaced by the likes of DeSagana Diop, Erick Dampier and Adrian Griffin. Dallas has held the Spurs below 100 points in all six of their meetings this season. Dirk Nowitzki finished third in MVP voting for the second year in a row, but he has a solid supporting cast in case Bruce Bowen continues to smother him with the "bearhug defense," as Johnson likes to call it.


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