May Madness (cont.)
LeBron the Elder
James rarely deviates from the vanilla script he follows on and off the court. In Cleveland's first-round series against the Washington Wizards, he was often the target of hard fouls -- reserve Darius Songaila was suspended for what turned out to be the final game for hitting James in the face two nights earlier -- and was called overrated by guards DeShawn Stevenson and Gilbert Arenas. But like a cagey trout who has seen it all before, James refused to snap at the bait. After the Cavs' series-clinching Game 6 win, after Stevenson had been returned to the NBA obscurity he so richly deserves and Arenas sent back to his blog, James's post-Game 5 words resonated: "As long as I'm on the court, we have a great chance to win." It didn't even come across as bragging; it was a simple statement of fact.
James's off-the-charts maturity contrasts with that of the Celtics' Paul Pierce, against whom he will be matched often in the Eastern semifinal that was scheduled to begin on Tuesday in Boston. While James was restrained yet disdainful toward his lesser first-round tormentors, Pierce lost it on a couple of occasions. He was fined $25,000 for the "menacing gesture" he made toward the Hawks bench in Game 3. (It still isn't clear whether the three-fingered sign was gang-related or an expression of "blood, sweat and tears," as Celtics executive director of basketball operations Danny Ainge claimed.) Then, after fouling out with 4:44 left in Game 6, Pierce was hit with a technical for throwing his headband, a crucial mistake -- in a game Atlanta would win by three points -- that one might have expected from the callow Hawks rather than the 30-year-old Pierce.
Fortunately for the Celtics, they have the more responsible and mature Kevin Garnett. After point guard Rajon Rondo was knocked to the floor on a hard third-quarter foul by Atlanta forward Marvin Williams on Sunday, it was the Big Ticket who got to Rondo (once he shook off the cobwebs) and said, "You did a great job. Keep your head and make your free throws." Rondo did. Later in the quarter it was Garnett who, after being called for a moving screen on center Zaza Pachulia, resisted the temptation -- as tempting as it was with a huge lead -- to engage Pachulia, who had confronted Garnett in Game 4.
Garnett has never been considered anything but a steadfast leader. The difference is that James, 8 1/2 years his junior, is considered a leader and a prime-time postseason performer. This series represents Garnett's chance to become the same.
Wild and Crazy Guys
Whether the Pistons are playing well or badly, they are out there on their own, insular and self-contained, impossible to deconstruct, the sole residents of Planet Piston. Even coach Flip Saunders can't figure out his players or rein them in. Sometimes they curse and scream at one another, and sometimes they curse and scream at the refs. Yet at other times they effect a composure that's almost eerie. During Game 6 of their first-round series against the 76ers in Philadelphia, for example, forward Rasheed Wallace, Detroit's lightning rod and most fiery personality, was getting ripped unmercifully by fans in the front row for that strange gray spot in his hair. Sheed said nothing, didn't even so much as glance at them.
It remains to be seen what kind of attitude the Pistons will carry through the second round. Boston went into the postseason as the clear favorite in the East with aging Detroit perceived as not sufficiently motivated, probably not up to the task. Now with the Celtics' taking seven to dispatch the Hawks and the Pistons' winning their last four games (through Sunday) by an average of 17.0 points, the tag of Eastern favorite falls once again upon the Bad Boys 2.0. Opponents are saying the same things they said in '04, when the starters who remain in Detroit's lineup -- Billups, Wallace, guard Rip Hamilton and forward Tayshaun Prince -- were bullying their way to the championship. "Their defense wears on you," says Magic coach Stan Van Gundy.
During warmups an hour before last Saturday night's Game 1 tip-off, as Orlando assistant coach Patrick Ewing tossed entry passes into the Magic big men, he rarely took his eyes off the Pistons' side of the floor. What's with these guys? Ewing's gaze seemed to suggest.
Everyone else is wondering the same thing.
Kobe's Final Act of Redemption?
Bryant has played so splendidly over the last four seasons without Shaquille O'Neal that it's possible to forget how badly he wants to win a title that he can call his own. Right now, Bryant holds all of L.A. in his hands, the leading man ready to walk down the aisle and pick up his Oscar. Before Game 1 on Sunday at Staples Center, a montage of Bryant highlights that played like a feature film was shown on a temporary screen that hung from the rafters, eliciting chants of "M-V-P" from the crowd. An image of the HOLLYWOOD sign flashed across with the phrase THE HEART OF THE CITY BEATS AGAIN, and an ever-so-slight smile came over the face of Bryant, whose NBA MVP award, in fact, had been reported early by the Los Angeles Times 36 hours before. The chant resurfaced several times during the game, as it had at a team dinner days earlier when Bryant, who is due about $69 million over the next three years from the franchise he wanted to flee before the season, made perhaps his best move of the year. "As soon as he picked up the bill," says Odom, "we all started chanting 'M-V-P.' "
The rape charges, the enervating game-day trips to Colorado for court proceedings (the charges were dismissed), the petty ego clashes with O'Neal and coach Phil Jackson.... all of it seems to have moved to the bottom of Kobe's CV. Consider Bryant solely from an on-court perspective: From time to time he surfaces as an athletic wonder, corkscrewing his body into a showstopping shot. But more often his brilliance reveals itself prosaically -- the rise-up jumper, the gnarly defense, the eternal attack mode, the pats on the back and brotherly advice he gives to teammates. He scored 38 points on Sunday, but his defining play was the brilliant, look-away bounce pass he made to center Pau Gasol that gave the Lakers a 98-90 lead with 1:30 left.
This weekend, though, the Lakers will have to go on the road to Salt Lake City's EnergySolutions Arena. The venue presents a particularly imposing challenge for visiting teams, which lost 37 of 41 games there. The fans are rabid and seasoned hunters (one carries a sign referring to himself as VICIOUS MORMON FAN) who consider Bryant, a brash superstar with a past, to be fair game. Paul, too, will get an earful in San Antonio, as will James in Boston, as will even the Pistons in comparatively meek and mild Orlando. By this point, though, it is not about young or old, home or away, up-tempo or half-court. It is about strength or weakness, and only the strong will move on.