Monday, April 27, 2009 Updated: April 29, 1:46 AM ET
The postseason of the point guard
By Marc Stein ESPN.com
Chauncey Billups vs. Chris Paul is just one of the playoffs' sweet point-guard matchups.
It's the one constant as we proceed into the second full week of the NBA's second season.
LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade might be the consensus top three in the MVP race ... but point guards are at the center of almost every playoff series.
Although we remain fully on course for a Finals showdown pitting Kobe against LeBron on the game's biggest stage for the first time, point guards have undeniably dished out the must-see element of the postseason so far, leading us right into a 1-to-8, series-by-series breakdown of the most compelling PG story lines.
1. Bulls-Celtics (Series tied 2-2)
You wouldn't need two guesses to pick out the poster series for PG mania, which is doubly impressive when you remember that Chauncey Billups and Chris Paul are hooking up in a first-rounder out West.
But that's how tasty it's been to have Rajon Rondo dueling Derrick Rose. Four games have generated three classics, getting all of us geeked up for the next helping even though we know Kevin Garnett can't participate.
The point-guard matchup started with Rose rumbling for 36 points and 11 assists in his first-ever playoff game -- even though he never scored more than 27 points in a game in his first-ever regular season -- and remains the most frequently cited head-to-head comparison of these playoffs even though only Rondo has sustained his brilliance for all four games.
How brilliant? Rondo is merely averaging 23.3 points, 10.8 rebounds and an even 10 assists for the series after Sunday's 25-point, 11-rebound, 11-assist, 1-turnover masterpiece, which raises an outlandish but nonetheless irresistible question despite the fact that his jumper remains so suspect: Is it actually the still-developing Rondo, as opposed to the closer-to-fully-formed LeBron James, who has the all-around goods to come closest to Oscar Robertson territory and flirt with averaging a triple-double for an entire season? Ponder it.
"Other than taking out the garbage," Celtics coach Doc Rivers cracked Sunday, "I don't know what more he can do."
OK, OK. Maybe the more reasonable question is the one Bill Simmons tossed out in his Thursday opus: Is Rondo versus Rose our Eastern Conference answer to the Paul-Deron Williams rivalry? We're not quite there yet, either. Rose's pick-and-roll defense, for starters, has to get a lot better. But let's not forget that he's a rookie who just went for 23 points, 11 boards and nine assists in Game 4, making you (almost) forget the seven turnovers. He's a rookie so ahead of his time that you have to be even more confused now than we were two weeks ago by the notion that he ever had any real competition in the Rookie of the Year race.
I don't remember anyone projecting playoff triple-doubles for Rondo when he was a rook, so I am happy to wait and give Rose time to develop on D and see how much he can fine-tune that long-range jumper. The beauty of all this is that they are capable of mesmerizing us already when they both have so much room to get better.
2. Hornets-Nuggets (Denver leads series 2-1)
If you could just isolate the teams' two leaders and focus on Chauncey and CP3 alone, we'd be talking about this matchup as much as Bulls-Celtics. But you can't.
You can't get past the fact that the Hornets are even more banged up than we presumed coming into the playoffs, rendering this an unfair fight. The Nuggets have more matchup advantages -- with more defensive options to throw at Paul than the Hornets have to counter Billups -- and better collective health. That's why Denver nearly took a 3-0 series lead and why it's difficult to see the Hornets, in their current state, winning more than two games in this series.
Paul has been his usual slick little self, but he has to work so hard against pests like Dahntay Jones and the Nuggets' array of bigs (Kenyon Martin, Nene, even Chris Andersen) who can move their feet like guards. The Hornets don't have the length, skill or freshness to consistently deal with Denver's ability to switch defenders all over the floor, whereas New Orleans is grasping for ways to shadow Billups defensively ... because Byron Scott would understandably prefer not to ask Paul to do that, too.
Tyson Chandler (foot), Peja Stojakovic (back), James Posey (knee) ... I don't think any of them would be playing if this were the regular season. David West has clearly lost some zip, too, because of his ongoing back woes. That's a long list of injury worries when you've got an undependable bench and when you're in the most physical first-round series going.
The Nuggets, by contrast, have Carmelo Anthony, J.R. Smith and Nene's occasionally dangerous presence down low to prevent New Orleans from locking in on Billups. And when Mr. Big Shot has his shot going, as you saw in the first two games, Denver looks a lot more like a No. 2 seed.
George Karl's Nuggets privately feared this matchup going in, but it turned out to be a favorable draw because of the limitations of the crew surrounding Paul. The oldest of the en vogue point guards (Billups at 32) thus might wind up having the best playoff run of them all, with Paul's Hornets almost certainly headed for that list of teams -- right there with Detroit, Utah and San Antonio -- whose post-playoff roster maneuvering will be fascinating to watch.
3. Mavs-Spurs (Dallas lead series 3-1)
North Texas versus South Texas isn't generating any buzz beyond state lines, in spite of the history between these teams, presumably because Manu Ginobili's injury absence has taken such a hefty chunk out of the Spurs. But Mavs-Spurs has to figure prominently if we're having a PG discussion. For two reasons.
Tony Parker rung up 81 points when you add up his totals from Game 2 and Game 4.
The Mavs and everyone watching live or on TV know what's coming and still Parker couldn't be contained in those two games until he started getting tired. He's finding ways to get to the basket even when the Mavs drop both defenders into the paint on a pick-and-roll. And he doesn't even have a clear-cut backup at the minute because our beloved Roger Mason has not been able to carry his buzzer-beating touch into his first postseason as a Spur and because George Hill is a rookie who didn't get a real look until he got some of Mason's minutes Saturday.
You can't say enough about Parker's offensive ingenuity, especially when he has to know, (not so) deep down, that this series is unwinnable for San Antonio no matter what he does given the limited amount of support Parker and Tim Duncan are getting. But that's Tony.
As Buck Harvey of the San Antonio Express-News so perfectly put it: "The Spurs have always asked too much of Tony Parker." And that's because Parker has been overachieving since he was a 19-year-old rookie and somehow he's still getting better in his eighth season.
The Mavs are starting two point guards these days to make sure they reach the second round.
You'll recall last week that we detailed the rise of J.J. Barea, who was dubbed "Rudy" by his teammates as a rookie in 2006-07 and generally was treated like a mascot until this season, when he became a fearless and effective scorer/penetrator/perimeter shooter.
The only downside to all the local hoopla generated by Barea and the resurrection of Josh Howard is the lack of appreciation for what Jason Kidd is doing. Which he doesn't deserve after everything he had to hear all season about how much the Mavs allegedly missed Devin Harris.
The numbers aren't gaudy like they used to be in New Jersey, where as recently as 2007 he averaged nearly 15, 11 and 11 in the playoffs. And it's undeniably true that Barea gets more playing time than the Mavs ever envisioned because Kidd doesn't get into the lane or have the defensive foot speed that he once did.
But Kidd has also quietly made multiple momentum-shifting contributions with his smarts, court sense, anticipation and a couple of surprises -- against the team he nearly signed with in the summer of 2003 (and don't forget that almost certainly would have led to Parker leaving the Spurs via trade).
Surprise No. 1: After playing through a bad flu in the first two games, Kidd did a nice, tone-setting job in Game 3 when he urged Mavs coach Rick Carlisle to let him take the first defensive shift on Parker after the Frenchman's 38-point eruption. Surprise No. 2: Kidd has shot the 3-pointer well when the Mavs are putting the ball in Barea's hands and asking him to spot up on the weak side, which has never been his forte.
4. Jazz-Lakers (L.A. leads series 3-1)
Is it possible that even Kobe Bryant might have been swept up in PG mania? He did, after all, start each of L.A.'s first three playoff games in facilitator mode.
No one seemed to have a problem with that approach, either, until the West's overwhelming favorites lost Game 3 on the road to the Jazz. That swiftly changed the mood in Lakerland, prompting the following not-so-rhetorical question in a Los Angeles Times headline: "Are Lakers losing Bryant's waiting game?"
Then Bryant made sure no one had a chance to ask that question after Game 4, bailing on the set-up-man stuff to riddle the hosts with L.A.'s first 11 points and 38 overall in what played out as a comfortable 108-94 triumph for a 3-1 series lead. That gives the Lakers an opportunity to finish it off Monday night, even though Utah has managed to overcome the late-season slide -- amid increasingly loud rumblings that the staying-or-going uncertainty surrounding free-agent big men Carlos Boozer, Paul Millsap and Mehmet Okur had begun to cave in the team's resolve -- that took it all the way down to the No. 8 seed.
The 24/7 focus on Kobe is such that you might not realize that the rugged Deron Williams is tied with his old buddy Chris Paul as the league's top assist man in the playoffs at 12 dimes per game to go with a 21.8-point scoring average. Or that the resurgent Boozer is the league's top playoff rebounder at 14.3 boards per game to go with his 23.3 ppg. The problem is that the Jazz needed them clicking like this before the playoffs to offset their holes on D and keep them from drawing the Lakers in Round 1.
5. Sixers-Magic (Series tied 2-2)
Pretty impressive timing we're seeing from Andre Miller. He has little hope of dribbling into the Rose/Rondo or Billups/Paul stratosphere, even if he were going up against a more famous foil, because we're all guilty of paying little attention to Andre Miller. Yet here he is averaging 21.5 points, 7.0 rebounds and 5.3 assists in a series that's way closer than any of us know-it-alls projected, which is certainly handy for the 33-year-old with unrestricted free agency beckoning July 1.
The injured Jameer Nelson is the point guard I can't stop thinking about in this series ... thanks to Shaquille O'Neal.
That's because Stan Van Gundy's every twitch comes under scrutiny ever since Shaq famously branded his old coach a "master of panic." I suppose one could argue that we're all looking too hard for Van Gundy's panic as a result, but I suspect that even casual viewers who are catching the nightly Van Gundy clips on SportsCenter have the impression that he's been extra twitchy through the first four games against Philly.
So what does this have to do with someone who hasn't played for the Magic since Feb. 2? The theory here is that Nelson's absence is, more than any other Orlando issue, what has Van Gundy so edgy.
The Magic have a myriad of worries as they return to Orlando for Game 5, knowing that they're fortunate to be taking a 2-2 series back home after blowing two 18-point leads -- and losing only one of those games -- and nearly blowing their season-saving Game 4 triumph in Philadelphia by squandering a late 10-point bulge. The two biggest problems: Game 4 hero Hedo Turkoglu (ankle) and Rashard Lewis (knee) are still banged up and have clearly been affected by their health to this stage, with Lewis also dealing with some difficult family issues off the floor that Van Gundy believes were a factor in Rashard combining with Hedo to shoot a dreadful 21-for-68 from the floor in the first three games.
Yet what I take from all of the above is that Nelson's absence is suddenly glaring, after Orlando made it from the trade deadline to the final week of the regular season before they really started missing him. Fill-in Rafer Alston initially won raves as a trade-deadline godsend, but by Game 2 he was losing crunch-time minutes to Anthony Johnson.
Nelson isn't just a Philly guy missing out on the chance to meet up with his hometown team in the playoffs. He's Van Gundy's security blanket. As one club insider asks: "How can Rafer be that guy? He just got there."
Van Gundy, as you've surely heard, is always tense. It was certainly alarming to see Dwight Howard, on his own Web site, admit that "90 percent of the time [Van Gundy's bench demeanor] does upset me." But I really believe Van Gundy is even tighter than usual because his steadying force can't play.
6. Rockets-Blazers (Houston leads series 3-1)
With this series shifting back to Portland, Aaron Brooks might be primed to hoist it back into PG prominence. The little guard from Oregon uncorked 50 points in the first two games of the series when he was playing in the vicinity of his collegiate prowess. Things didn't go nearly as well back home in Houston, when Brooks missed two crunch-time free throws that were nearly fatal in the Rockets' 89-88 escape in Game 4.
The Blazers, though, have repeatedly reminded us in this series why they've been linked in trade speculation for the past year-plus with the likes of Kidd and Philly's Miller. Even though Brandon Roy is getting up there near Kobe, LeBron and D-Wade in the class of all-around backcourt greats who can do plenty with the ball, Portland sure looks like it would benefit from the presence of a floor general to lend some creativity and steadiness to an offense that is too deliberate/predictable/Roy-centric.
Portland wasn't emotionally ready for a crucial Game 1 and squandered home-court advantage, exposing some leadership shortcomings.
The Blazers' spotty late-game execution, especially in Game 4, left them unable to win one of two road games decided by a combined four points, preventing them from dredging up all the first-round doubts that have plagued Houston throughout the Yao Ming era.
Boiled all the way down, Portland is 0-3 in this group's first taste of playoff basketball when Roy doesn't score 42 points.
Makes you wonder, as good as Roy is, what this team of young colts could achieve with a veteran string-puller.
7. Heat-Hawks (Miami leads series 2-1)
This series is not for devotees of NBA quarterbacking.
Atlanta's Mike Bibby and Joe Johnson are soft-spoken combo guards who are combining for some pedestrian production against Dwyane Wade's Heat. That's especially true for Johnson, who averaged a mere 13.7 points on 37 percent shooting through the first three games, accounting for one of the key developments that has raised the volume on concerns about the young Hawks' own lack of take-charge leadership.
If the Hawks don't rally to win this series, don't be surprised if Mike Woodson's job comes under threat (again) and don't be surprised to see Avery Johnson emerge as a lead candidate to toughen this team up.
The Heat, meanwhile, are depending on Wade's do-it-all nature to mask the fact that rookie QB Mario Chalmers hasn't made the step up to the postseason nearly as well as rookie coach Erik Spoelstra, who has resurrected Miami impressively from its 64-point abomination in Game 1.
8. Pistons-Cavs (Cleveland won series 4-0)
If the Cavs are obliged to worry about something after brooming their old friends from Detroit and becoming just the third team ever to sweep a seven-game series by a double-digit margin in every game, it's probably the so-so play of their second unit more than Mo Williams' quiet series. Yet it has to be somewhat disconcerting for NBA Coach of the Year-elect Mike Brown to know that Williams, for all the attention he takes away from LeBron, was decidedly subpar for three games in a matchup that put virtually no pressure on the Cavs.
For the first time in his life, Williams is a No. 2 option for a team with championship aspirations. He responded by averaging a mere 11.7 points on 36.8 percent shooting from the field and missing four of his seven free-throw attempts in the Cavs' first three wins before finally calming down to deliver 24 points on 9-for-14 shooting in Sunday's sweep-clinching rout.
The good news? Williams has another round against either Miami or Atlanta -- teams scarcely more capable of troubling the Cavs than Detroit -- to unwind and get comfortable with the magnitude of his new gig.
We won't spend too much time dissecting Rodney Stuckey's shot-happy maiden voyage as Detroit's lead guard, since he was being asked to run a team that had already checked out for the season ... and because the only interesting Pistons discussion from here is how far Pistons president Joe Dumars goes in the next stage of his rebuilding project once long-presumed goners Allen Iverson and Rasheed Wallace officially depart.
Will it be the much-discussed attempt to sign Carlos Boozer away from Utah? The alternative free-agent pursuit of Paul Millsap, Lamar Odom or David Lee? A trade push for Chris Bosh? Those are the questions that will get our full dissection energies from here.
Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here.