It happened again Tuesday night, even with two revolutionary 7-footers on the floor, because the lead story in almost every first-round series invariably ends up pointing the focus in the same direction.
Right at the littlest guards, mostly.
The preference here, actually, is to call them lead guards, which keeps with the theme and because just a few of them are pure point guards. Whatever you call them, you're invited to play along and pick a series. Name any series and, virtually without fail, you'll find that it's lead guards distracting us from the fact that there's only one Shaquille O'Neal, and only one Kevin Garnett.
Lakers vs. Wolves
Hudson, quite simply, is the story. Garnett has never played better, but with Wally Szczerbiak immersed in a big-time funk, Minnesota doesn't even make it to 2-2 without Hudson following the Earl Boykins path to glory: Clippers castoff leaves L.A. with little resistance ... only to come back and abuse the Lakers. Not so coincidentally, the Lakers have only looked like the three-ringed Lakers in the games Fisher has bombed away with impunity in support of Shaq and Kobe Bryant. In Game 1, Fisher and Hudson each scored 17. In Game 5, Fisher finished with 24 points to Hudson's 14. In the middle three games, Hudson rang up 92 points -- Ninety-two! -- to Fisher's 36. Let's not forget that Hudson actually did make a stop between the Clippers and the Wolves, spending two seasons in Orlando. Teaming with Garnett, though, is the best thing that ever happened to him, even if Hudson was merely intended as a fallback replacement for Chauncey Billups. Hudson was never going to be this Hudson in Orlando, where the local superstar (Tracy McGrady) has to have the ball in his hands. Garnett doesn't.
Suns vs. Spurs
Also known as the Stephon Marbury vs. Tony Parker series. The Suns nearly snatched a 2-0 lead with a couple fortuitous bank shots in Game 1 ... but also with Marbury nightmares plainly paralyzing Parker. The Spurs, meanwhile, didn't look at all comfortable in this series until a) Parker broke through with 29 points in Game 3 and b) Steph incurred that stinger injury in the third quarter of Game 4. Since scoring 32 points in Game 2, Marbury's points have decreased in every outing: 25, 18, 13. Marbury's 0-for-7 first half Tuesday night suggests the shoulder is indeed a bother. With Tim Duncan, one of those few wondrous 7-footers on display in these playoffs, still being religiously swarmed by Suns defenders, the focus remains firmly on the little guys. Except when Suns coach Frank Johnson -- who played what position? -- protests calls so vociferously that his players have to hold him back or hide him at the end of bench to guard against an ejection.
Bucks vs. Nets
Even easier than Spurs-Suns. The lead guards were the lead story here before the Game 1 jump ball. And now this one looks like it's going seven, mainly because Oaktown pals Jason Kidd and Gary Payton can't seem to dominate more than one game in a row against each other. If it does go seven, that's no slight on Kidd, who finds himself confronted by two top points -- don't forget Sam Cassell -- just to reach the second round.
Celtics vs. Pacers
It's seemingly one of the few series where lead guards have been de-emphasized, with everything Boston does flowing from Paul Pierce and with Indiana struggling in so many areas. So what changed in Game 5? You guessed it: Isiah Thomas made his first extended minutes commitment to Tim Hardaway, which did three things. Hardaway stabilized a team that has been unstable for weeks, helped re-establish the ball movement that made the Pacers dangerous in the first place and, most crucially, hit a few triples. Indy has been getting nothing from the perimeter, with Reggie Miller immersed in the drought of a lifetime, and Indy can't win if the Celtics have the freedom to blanket Jermaine O'Neal without punishment.
As for the matchups that continue Wednesday:
Hornets vs. 76ers
We said going in that the X-factor would be the freshness of the two lead guards. Allen Iverson and Baron Davis have pretty much made that stand up -- Iverson has looked healthier and the Sixers hold a 3-1 lead. In Game 2, when Davis couldn't play, the Hornets were at risk of being blown off the court until coach Paul Silas unearthed a small speedster (Robert Pack) to run the offense and force Iverson one or the other away as opposed to letting AI run amok. In Game 3, Davis came back and, at what he called 75 percent, powered New Orleans to a home win without Jamal Mashburn. Davis was even better in Game 4, with 34 points, but Iverson had help from (voila!) his backcourt mate. Eric Snow (17 points, 12 assists, six boards) was quietly stellar.
Minnesota's Troy Hudson.
"He's as quick with the basketball as there is in this league, and if you don't mind a point guard who looks for his own offense, he's your guy. If you want a guy to run an offense, he's not your guy -- Troy still overpenetrates sometimes and makes some bad decisions in the paint. But (the Wolves) have adapted to his play so much in this series. They didn't run this many pick-and-rolls during the year. They're almost using him like (Allen) Iverson, except that Allen can play (as a shooting guard) and run off picks and wear defenses down with all his movement. Hudson has to have the ball in his hands. But the Minnesota coaches are allowing him to take bad shots, and when you can take bad shots and not worry about it, you're so much better of a player. I think he just got tired (in Game 5)."
Magic vs. Pistons
All T-Mac, all the time? Not quite. The dirty little secret about the Pistons' vaunted defense is that they have undeniable problems against a sensational improv specialist like McGrady. Not such a secret is that the Pistons' offense is woefully predictable and punchless. Detroit was counting on Billups to offset some of the McGrady damage by overpowering Darrell Armstrong, but Armstrong (apologies to Drew Gooden) has been Orlando's second-best player. Billups suffered a thigh bruise in Game 3 and Armstrong has been hounding him with full-court pressure and his usual pesky defense. It should be great viewing, if the Sixers and Magic meet up in Round 2, to see how pesky Armstrong can be against Iverson.
Trail Blazers vs. Mavericks
Here's another series where, on the surface, there's seemingly no room to talk about anything other than Dirk Nowitzki's own inimitable brand of 7-foot havoc and Bonzi Wells' 45 points in Game 2. Wrong again. The series swung when Steve Nash, in his only standout performance, went for 28 points and eight assists in Game 2, coming up with the big crunch-time baskets to prevent the Blazers from taking a split back to Portland. When Nash literally did nothing in Game 4, in 21 scoreless minutes, the Blazers dominated the third quarter and avoided a sweep. Don't forget, furthermore, that Nash is partly responsible for the Mavericks' pick-and-roll success even if he's not scoring, because his ballhandling skills make Nash just as tough to corral as Nowitzki. The Blazers, meanwhile, have been forced to play all but one Game 1 without Scottie Pippen, their recognized floor leader. You've seen the results.
Jazz vs. Kings
In the backcourt scenario we didn't see coming, there hasn't been a mound of attention devoted to the Mike Bibby vs. John Stockton rematch. Stock, remember, is the one point guard in last spring's playoffs who played Bibby to a standoff, but the prominent headlines in this series have been grabbed by Peja Stojakovic (scalding hot from the perimeter) and Chris Webber (struggling with a back ailment). Of course, that probably changes in Game 5, with the Jazz on the verge of elimination. If Sacramento wins, as expected, it might be the last time we ever see the incomparable Stockton play. Hopefully it's not. Hopefully Stock comes back to treat us for one more season. But if this really is the finale, make no mistake.
We call Stockton a point guard. He's as pure as it gets.