Each game in out of all the opening round game ones was decided by thirteen points or fewer. However, only one team successfully pulled an upset out of their opening game hats. Seven of the eight home teams held pat and won on their court. There is a reason that the NBA changed the opening round from a five game series to a seven game series (increased revenue stream from advertisers) because of the level of competition and parity that has begun to take place in the top half of the league. In a seven game series anything can play out. One weekend of playoff basketball is in the books and the series look to grow more heated as they continue. Here are some of the highlights of early postseason play.
The big story is the Portland Trailblazers’ victory over the Phoenix Suns. (Garnett will come later.) Portland held on late, despite atrocious free throw shooting in crunch time, to take a one game series lead. Andre Miller led the charge with 31 points and eight assists, 15 of his 31 came in the fourth quarter. This cannot be considered surprising, Miller is one of two players this year to have a 50+ point game, the other being Milwaukee’s Brandon Jennings. In the absence of Brandon Roy, Miller knew that he must be the one who carries the team offensively. He did just that. With Steve Nash’s focus on the defensive side of the ball Miller will continue to lead the scoring attack.
Former Defensive Player of the Year, Marcus Camby, played like he still was the DPOY. He completely dominated the boards with 17 and shut down Amare Stoudemire, who has had a resurgent season, holding him to 18 points on 8-19 shooting. Led by Camby’s defensive presence the Blazers held the high scoring Suns to 41.8 percent shooting and only four fast break points.
The Suns performance brings to mind comments made by a former Arizona resident. “They are who we thought they were,” Dennis Greene famously said in a press conference and Coors Light commercial. Has the injury to Robin Lopez really hurt this team more than they wanted to admit? They played well without him at the end of the regular season but are these really still just D’Antoni’s Suns, completely stifled and out of sync when they cannot run? They shot 32 three pointers during the game and connected on eleven. Obviously they still choose to live die by the three. No, despite the Suns push since the All Star break they are still who we thought they were. A run and gun team that is not built for a deep playoff run. They may yet win the series but it is unlikely that they go much further.
Ah, Kevin Garnett, what was he thinking? Garnett has been suspended for game two of the Celtics’ series with the Miami Heat for elbowing Quentin Richardson in the face in the closing minutes of game one. Close inspection of the tape shows that Richardson was not directly involved in the following fracas but was still levied a fine of $25 thousand. Garnett reportedly said that he was merely stepping up to defend his teammate, Paul Pierce, because Richardson was talking trash to him. Whoa, hold on, KG was mad that someone was talking trash? Garnett is known throughout the league for his expletive laced and derogatory smack talk to opposing players during games. He can give it but cannot take it, a nice double standard. Joakim Noah even chimed in on the matter saying that Garnett was a dirty player. What the league cannot take are anymore hot headed players in front of a global audience. KG will be in time out until game three.
For the Utah Jazz tragedy stuck as another player went down because of injury. Mehmet Okur, the Jazz’s center who has the ability to stretch defenses with the long ball, went down with a torn Achilles. Utah came into this series banged up with Andrei Kirilenko just returning from a prolonged injury and Boozer nursing sore ribs but the injury to Okur potentially derails all that Utah hoped to accomplish. The injury requires almost immediate surgery and will sideline Okur anywhere from three to six months. This time table for recovery means that he could potentially miss the star of next season as well. Utah was in for a dogfight with Denver and now they must compete down a key member of their rotation.
Staying with the injury theme, Stephen Jackson also sustained an injury in the Bobcats game against Orlando. He suffered a hyper extended knee; luckily for the Bobcats the X-Rays he received in the locker room came back negative. Jackson will undergo an MRI today to see how serious the injury is. The Bobcats will need Captain Jack in the lineup to have a chance a beating the Magic who looked vulnerable in the second half of game one but were able to hang on for the win. Jackson will play in game two, he said so himself.
Andrew Bynum returned for the Lakers and played quite well in his first game back. He did everything the Lakers needed him to do: clog the lane and score sometimes. The Lakers, with Bynum in the middle again limited the Thunder’s dribble penetration and inside scoring. Ron Artest also locked down Kevin Durant frustrating him, though Durant does not show emotion (except for once), and his shot continually. However, there were two other storylines that stood out much more than anything the Lakers did or Kevin Durant did not do. This game was Russell Westbrook’s inauguration as a household name. He simply torched the Lakers’ point guards. Derek Fisher rarely does anything on the floor that gives away his age (he simply patrols the three point line on both sides of the court) but Westbrook made him look old, Fisher was about six steps behind him, it seemed, whenever he wanted to create. Kobe Bryant was even tasked with guarding him a couple of times and if it was not for some help and trapping defense, Westbrook would have reached the lane easily. Jeff Van Gundy was actually speechless (for .028 seconds) because of what Westbrook was doing.
The other story line in this game, that the NBA does not want me taking about, is all the fans in Seattle Supersonics jerseys sitting behind the Thunder’s bench. They are members of a group called Sonicsgate (www.sonicsgate.org) that has recently been popping up behind the Thunder’s bench everywhere they go. One of the members was holding up a sign saying “Seattle Drafted Durant.” They certainly did. I have the basketball cards to prove it. The playoffs must be a double edged sword for Clay Bennett now. On the one hand he has a good young team getting national exposure despite coming from a small market. On the other hand groups like Sonicsgate do not have short memories like much of America and will not let people forget how he lied, cheated, weaseled, and schemed to tear away a team from a great basketball fan base and city and how Emperor David Stern let it happen. Good for them, we here at the Kobe Beef lament for their loss and support them. (Hopefully the city of Indianapolis will not suffer the same fate as Seattle.) It is my hope that Sonicsgate has seats behind the Thunder bench in Oklahoma City.
Shaquille O’Neal also returned from injury (returning from injury seems to be a theme for the playoffs this year) for the Cavaliers opening series with the Bulls. Derrick Rose looked unstoppable as he tallied 28 points leading all scorers. But the Cavaliers could not be slowed down. The Bulls simply had no answer for the size and physicality of Cleveland’s frontcourt. They did make it interesting though.
Spurs fans and the media’s belief that this is still the 2003 San Antonio Spurs never cease to confuse us here at the Kobe Beef. The fans have a passionate hope about them. That is a quality that is lacking in many today so it is actually quite admirable. Game one between the Mavericks and Spurs was what people have come to expect from a meeting between these two Texas rivals. It was close throughout but one never really got the sense that it was ever out of the Mavericks control. The Mavericks out played the Spurs at their own game. It was a slow half court match that traditionally would have favored the Spurs but this was not the case. Dirk Nowitzki reminded the league why he was the MVP a few seasons ago by scoring 36 points on 12 of 14 shooting and being perfect in twelve attempts from the charity stripe. He was simply unstoppable. The Spurs came into the series touring the play of George Hill who is the hope for the future and Manu Ginobili. Ginobili had a good game but was noticeably vacant from the scorecard in the second halves of the final two quarters. If George Hill is hope then hope scored zero points. Misplaced optimism is more like it.
Brandon Jennings dropped 34 points on the Hawks on Saturday. He was a one man scoring machine. Ballots have already been turned in for Rookie of the Year but his performance in his first ever playoff game definitely would earned him an extra vote or two. What is disheartening about is performance for both him and his team is that he had five of his shots blocked. The Bucks lost by ten. Oh, what might have been. Hopefully that will not become the phrase most associated with the Bucks this post season.