Thursday, May 3, 2012
Series rankings: Must-see TV
By Israel Gutierrez ESPN.com
If you want to claim a theme for the 2011-12 NBA campaign, it almost has to be the season of haste. As in, there's not a whole lot of time, but we're going to squeeze as much in as quickly as possible.
The mad dash from Christmas Day to this past weekend's opening of the playoffs passed as quickly as Tony Parker splitting a double-team, setting up this postseason start that has continued the frenzied pace.
Five days in and we've been flooded with storylines, from projection-altering injuries to historic fourth-quarter comebacks to a suspension-worthy chest bump to a hand-splitting confrontation with a fire extinguisher to a pair of bounces that have defined a series.
Five days in, those storylines have changed our perception of which playoff series are most intriguing. Originally, LeBron v. Carmelo was the must-watch matchup. Suddenly, that pales in comparison to Dirk v. Serge.
As we settle into our playoff rhythm, here's how these first-round matchups have fallen into place in terms of fascination level from here on out:
How are we to read a series that seems to have swung in favor of the Thunder based mostly on a pair of bounces -- one friendly one that gave Kevin Durant the game winner in the opener, and an unkind one that might've kept Dirk Nowitzki & Co. from evening the series and stealing home-court advantage?
Do the Thunder carry the same level of comfort from their two-game lead as the Spurs, Lakers and Heat do? Or is this team that not too long ago seemed destined for a Finals appearance showing cracks early in the proceedings?
And what to make of the Mavericks, whose just-get-into-the-tournament approach appeared genius until that Durant shot trickled around and through the rim?
Nowitzki isn't just reawakening his 2011 playoff form, he's playing with the defiance of a champion, dropping shoulders into Kendrick Perkins like a true tough guy.
Rick Carlisle is channeling his inner Phil Jackson, complaining about the cheap shots his team is supposedly taking.
Possibly most shocking of all is the efficiency with which the much-maligned Russell Westbrook is scoring (28.5 points on 52.3 percent shooting), while the scoring champ, Durant, is shooting just 34 percent and is a soft (lucky?) bounce away from being heavily criticized himself right now.
There's no guarantee, of course, these next two games in Dallas will be anywhere near as tense as the two in Oklahoma City, which were decided by four points total. But one way or another, we'll figure out just how legitimate Dallas' threat is, and how fragile these Thunder still may be.
This one has always been high on the intrigue list, because it would seem to be the classic coin toss of a series. Only, that Clippers comeback from 27 points down in Game 1 catapulted it to an even more captivating place.
The Grizzlies tied the series at 1-1 Wednesday night, no thanks to Chris Paul, who dropped 29 points, six assists and five steals one game after choreographing that incredible comeback Sunday night.
Paul is reason enough to watch this series. The player Kobe Bryant said has "a little-man complex," doesn't enjoy being pushed around. He's been pushing back often against the physical Grizzlies, and making him angry tends to elevate his game.
Paul and his Lob City mates were supposed to be instant hits. Losing in the first round wouldn't constitute a hit. So expect an even more intense Paul now that this series is heading to Los Angeles.
On the surface, it would seem the Celtics have taken control of this series. They survived the game without the suspended Rajon Rondo, who reminded everyone it was his attitude and not his game that has him constantly on the trading block when he bumped an official in Game 1. And they might be fortunate enough to face the Hawks in Boston without Josh Smith, who has easily been the Hawks' most valuable player this season.
But that's the beauty of this occasionally hideous matchup: You never know what to expect. You certainly never know which team to trust.
Anyone who claims they assumed Paul Pierce would have a curious Benjamin Button experience with 36 points, 14 rebounds and an awkwardly random Tim Tebow pose at midcourt is almost certainly lying.
So who's to say Joe Johnson can't have a similar experience in Boston and make this another seven-game series between these two teams?
Adding to the significance of this series is what lies ahead. Presumably, the winner would suddenly be the heavy favorite in a second-round series against either the Bulls or Sixers.
That means a conference finals appearance. And that means unexpected territory for either of these clubs.
This was originally low on the interest meter, with the only real question being just how quickly Derrick Rose would round into shape. Now, without the injured Rose, this moves up the charts simply because it's a series that's entirely up for grabs.
We're all well-versed, at this point, at just how good the Bulls were sans Rose in the regular season. So it's no secret how they plan on getting this done: suffocating defense on one end and ball movement on the other.
But if the Sixers are going to take advantage of Rose's absence, it might come with the emergence of a star. Former No. 2 pick Evan Turner ended the season strong and now appears to be the best playmaker left on the floor in this series. Through two games, he's trying to live up to his next-Grant Hill potential, with 15.5 points, 5.5 assists and 5.0 rebounds and 50 percent shooting.
He also has already been proven correct that the Sixers dodged the tougher opponent.
If Amare Stoudemire smashed his hand into a fire extinguisher case for any reason, it should've been in anger that his team didn't tank the final regular-season games to avoid the Heat, and instead play the Bulls, in the first round. Instead, the Knicks rolled with their winning ways and are getting rolled out of the playoffs as a result.
There remains some intrigue here, though, mostly on an individual level. Can LeBron James continue this impressive start, shooting 56 percent from the field, and looking unstoppable? Will Chris Bosh flying home to witness the birth of his son throw him or the Heat off?
Possibly more significant is how the Knicks will play without Stoudemire, who's out at least for Game 3. The Knicks are 14-5 without him this season, 22-27 with him. The Knicks are 0-5 with both available in the postseason, dating back to last season. And the Knicks are a better defensive team with Stoudemire's likely rotation replacement, Jared Jeffries, on the floor (allow 91.3 points on 42.4 percent shooting per 48 minutes) than they are without him (94.9 points on 44.7 percent).
Play well without Stoudemire in the postseason and it might dictate how the Knicks handle player movement this offseason.
How is it possible that a series with an efficient Kobe Bryant and an emerging Andrew Bynum doesn't rank higher on the must-watch list? Probably because the small-ish, run-and-gun Nuggets play right into the Lakers' hands. They're not nearly as big as L.A. up front, and when the Lakers slow the game down, the Nuggets barely stand a chance.
What's left to be determined here is just how championship-worthy these Lakers really are.
Despite the fact they seem to be rounding into shape at just the right time, apparently having benefited from the seven games Bryant missed late in the season with a calf injury, it's hard not to wonder if this is just an ideal matchup for the Lakers.
Either way, if Bynum continues to gain confidence in this series (63 percent shooting, 11 boards and six blocks per game), it might not matter who the Lakers play from here on out.
What's left to learn here, other than just how sad the Magic offense is without Dwight Howard.
Interestingly enough, the defense has been just about stellar without the three-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year, holding the Pacers to 41 percent shooting and 89 points a game. That might have almost as much to do with Indiana's lack of superstar punch, but it remains impressive.
But without the interior threat of Howard, the Magic are shooting an even more pathetic 39 percent from the floor and scoring 77.7 points through the first three games of the series, which includes a shocking Game 1 win.
The Pacers would appear to be prepping for a second-round meeting with the Heat, which becomes less and less intriguing the more Indy shows off an offensive incompetence.
The Magic, meanwhile, assuming there's no more magic left in them, are headed toward an inevitably tumultuous offseason.
This most lopsided of series has as much to do with the still unstoppable Spurs offense as it has to do with the inept play of the Jazz guards. Utah's trio of Devin Harris, Jamaal Tinsley and Gordon Hayward has shot a combined 14-of-46 (30.4 percent) and been no match for Parker, who has darted around and through the Jazz defense with ease.
The only interest remaining here is if the Jazz can rekindle some of that late-season momentum at home and make a series out of it. This is a new Spurs team, of course, but last year's team was torched by Zach Randolph in the first round, so there was always the chance Paul Millsap or Al Jefferson could do the same against San Antonio. Not so much, so far (averaging 27.5 points combined).
So it would appear the Spurs are merely fine-tuning for a meeting with the Grizzlies or Clippers. And with their veteran trio of stars, the Spurs are probably hoping that series goes the full seven games.