With stars young and old excelling, and the top eight seeds still in pursuit of the title, the NBA playoffs are only going to get wilder
The world . . . was made to be wooed and won by youth," Winston Churchill wrote in his autobiography, and point guard Chris Paul of the New Orleans Hornets, who turned 23 on Tuesday, must have been thinking along those lines last Saturday night in Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinals at New Orleans Arena. Time after time in the second half he dribbled up the gut of the San Antonio Spurs' defense and encountered either 32-year-old power forward Tim Duncan, firmly planted in perfect position to help, or the NBA's most physical defender, 36-year-old swingman Bruce Bowen, hands and feet churning. But Paul, a 6-foot, 175-pound third-year pro playing in only his sixth postseason game, never retreated. At one point he ventured into the paint, bounced off Bowen, released a shot, fell to the floor and jumped up to jabber at his nemesis.
Hours earlier at The Palace of Auburn Hills, the Detroit Pistons, with four starters who were winning an NBA championship in 2004 when Paul was just a freshman at Wake Forest, were having none of that victorious-youth stuff. Orlando Magic point guard Jameer Nelson, all 26 years and 72 inches of him, tried his lane-driving act in the second quarter, but there to meet him, like a linebacker plugging a hole, was the Pistons' Chauncey Billups, Nelson's bÍte noire throughout the season. The 31-year-old Billups, in his 109th playoff game (it was Nelson's 10th), drew the charge, one of a couple dozen times during the evening that experience and guile prevailed over youth and vigor.
Welcome to the second round of the playoffs, the NBA's version of the Elite Eight. With the pretenders out of the way (goodbye, Dallas Mavericks and Phoenix Suns) and the overachievers having exited (wait till next year, Atlanta Hawks and Philadelphia 76ers), the postseason is down to the top four seeds in each conference -- which brings with it the promise of higher-quality basketball and more magical finishes, sure to spike even further playoff TV ratings that were already up significantly over the first round of a year ago. Here age is but another number, not something that can predict the outcome of any series.
It is far too early in the second round to reach conclusions, but the dominance of the Hornets in Game 1 (a 101-82 drubbing of the defending-champion Spurs) suggests a shift in the balance of power in the West, while the aggressive play of the Los Angeles Lakers, who marched to the foul line 46 times (Kobe Bryant alone was 21 of 23) in Sunday's 109-98 Game 1 win over the Utah Jazz, continues a return to glory for the franchise that won three straight championships at the beginning of this century. (Through Sunday, L.A. was the only team that had not lost in this postseason.) LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers were not scheduled to make their second-round debut until Tuesday, owing to the Boston Celtics' unexpected seven-game series against the Atlanta Hawks. Whether that marathon said more about the Celtics (not nearly as good as their 66-win regular season would indicate) or the Hawks (not nearly as bad as their 37-win regular season would indicate) will be revealed in the coming days when the Shamrocks take on James, who almost single-handedly cut the heart out of the Pistons in the 2007 Eastern finals.
Last season ended, however, with one of the most one-sided Finals in history, the Cavs getting buzz-sawed by the Spurs. Coming off a regular season notable for tight races in the West, several marquee trades, elevated TV ratings, renewal in New Orleans and renaissance in Boston and L.A., the NBA hopes that this June's denouement is more satisfying. The excitement is already building.
He's a Pistol
Late in the third quarter of Game 1 in the City That Care (and FEMA) Forgot, Paul sped toward the basket with his characteristic shoulder-high dribble. Suddenly, he let the ball bounce once on its own, seemingly ceding control of it, a strategem that enabled him to juke by an off-balance Bowen. Then Paul spun around forward Robert Horry, who fouled him, and just missed a layup that could've led to a three-point play. Pete Maravich, who played in New Orleans (with the Jazz) for five seasons in the 1970s after starring at nearby LSU, frequently used that stutter dribble. "I've heard of him," Paul says of Pistol Pete, "but the move is something I picked up on my own." He first tried it last season, when the dreaded composite ball was put into play, and refined it after the NBA returned to the stickier old-school rock.
Indeed, when Paul takes off in transition these days, the sense of anticipation he engenders is comparable to what transpired when Maravich had the ball in the open court in his heyday. Fans think, Something special's about to happen. The best part is that it probably won't be a dunk (though Paul did throw one down when he was all alone late in Saturday's game), but rather something earthbound, perhaps a spin move in heavy traffic, an ankle-breaking crossover or a no-look pass thrown behind him, for Paul always knows where his trailing shooters will be spotting up. "In his good games," Lakers forward Lamar Odom observed of Paul before the playoffs, "he brings everybody along with him." A great turn of phrase.
Still, we can't even be sure that Paul, who runs what San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich calls "an organized playground offense," will emerge as the best point guard in the series. The game of his Spurs' counterpart, Tony Parker, is more elemental, based almost entirely on speed and quickness, in contrast to Paul's on-the-fly calculation. Defenses know that Parker, given any kind of opening, is going to take it into the paint and, lately it seems, try to get all the way to the hoop rather than release his floating teardrop. The excellent 23-point, five-assist Game 1 of Parker, last year's Finals MVP, was overlooked amid the difficulty that teammate Duncan (five points) had in solving the Hornets' double-teaming defense. This is the best point-guard matchup in the second round since, well, last year, when Parker got the better of the Suns' Steve Nash.