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In the second round, the nailbiters have been replaced by blowouts -- the average margin of victory in the first eight games is 15.4 points and only one game was decided by fewer than six points. The physical play has been replaced by teams simply being pushovers -- five teams, including the defending champion Spurs, have been clubbed by more than 20 points.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.
The Mavericks have believed that they were better than the Spurs all season, and if not for three losses to the Golden State Warriors of all teams, they could've finished tied with San Antonio for the best record in the West. Johnson, a former Spur, is very familiar with Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich and Duncan. And, the Mavericks could've -- perhaps should've -- won Game 1 of the series and really had San Antonio on its heels.
But no team actually knows it can beat another team until it actually does it. Dallas still has to get over that hump. If they can, the Mavericks can make reservations for Detroit when this series is complete. Otherwise, get set for the Finals rematch many have predicted ever since confetti rained on Duncan after Game 7 in San Antonio last June.
The most intriguing storyline of this series is probably Spurs forward Michael Finley. Finley was one of the franchise cornerstones of the Mavericks and a member of the Big Three with Nowitzki and Nash but his seven-year relationship with the organization ended last summer. Using the one-time amnesty clause, which wiped out the luxury tax burden on the contract during the last collective bargaining agreement, the Mavericks paid Finley $51 million to go away. Finley was wooed by Detroit, Miami Phoenix but opted to sign with the Spurs. Now Dallas is paying Finley to beat Dallas.
Shaquille O'Neal Can't leave South Beach for Whine Country
One of the more troubling images of the playoffs has been watching Shaquille O'Neal shackled by oppressive NBA officials and saddled to the bench in early foul trouble. Even worse has been hearing O'Neal complain about it. In his Shaq Diesel, Big Aristotle, MDE (Most Dominant Ever) prime, O'Neal's gripes about officiating and flops by the likes of Vlade Divac were humorous and entertaining because he always managed to work his way over, around and through the problem. Now, it comes off as a sign of his decline, a sad attempt for sympathy.
No doubt, the rules the NBA has implemented in recent years, especially the zone, have impacted O'Neal's effect on the game and diminished him from a legendary Hall of Fame figure, the league's most intimidating force over the past 10 years, "to just a regular center," as TNT analyst Kenny Smith said on the air recently. O'Neal has relied on his brawn and bulk to overpower opponents since he entered the league, forcing them to shrivel and shrink in his presence.
But O'Neal is 34, about 340 pounds and a step slower. So, if he completely abandons graceful moves and falls back exclusively on his "power game," he becomes a foul prone bruiser. His inability to stay on the floor has contributed to the inconsistent efforts of the Miami Heat. He spent the entire first round against the Chicago Bulls in foul trouble and earned a $25,000 fine for criticizing the refs, but in the series clincher he produced 30 points and 20 rebounds. Instead of building off a performance that brought back memories of the old Shaq, he called out New Jersey Nets center Jason Collins and other members of his "flopternity" before Game 1, then simply played like an old Shaq in Game 1 against the New Jersey Nets, picking up two quick fouls in the first five minutes. O'Neal didn't talk after the Heat loss, possibly for fear of saying something that would get him fined. A day later he called the offensive fouls he picked up "a judgment call from an earthling."
O'Neal has every right to feel befuddled and upset since he has been forced to change his game at time when he is pushing past his prime, but it has to stop. Fortunately, Pat Riley -- who has been careful to consistently massage O'Neal's fragile ego (at least publicly) over the course of the season -- finally put O'Neal in line when he said, "Stop looking at somebody else and being a victim and make the adjustment that you've got to make in this league. We're not entitled." O'Neal responded by bringing out his finesse game in Game 2, spinning around and away from Collins for easy buckets. He might not be as nimble, some of his moves are rushed, but this is how O'Neal will have to play for the Heat to be successful this postseason. Having O'Neal on the floor is better than having him sitting down. The officials already have changed the way they call the game. O'Neal has to make the adjustment now. Crying about it won't help.