NBA

Playoffs make us think again

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Randy Hill

Veteran columnist Randy Hill is a frequent contributor to FOXSports.com.
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Just before surrendering to a prediction-and-analysis overload that was based on statistical caterwauling or matchup presumption, we were rescued when the NBA playoffs actually began.

POLL

  • These playoffs will end with ...
    • Kobe Bryant's fifth ring
    • Tim Duncan's fifth ring
    • Dwight Howard's first ring
    • LeBron James' first ring
    • Another star gets some bling

OK, some of what was expected has managed to occur. But with the first round now part of history, we're able to look back on a few events that slapped the frowning face of conventional wisdom. For example, that big pre-deadline trade that allegedly put the Dallas Mavericks on par with the Los Angeles Lakers was unable to push Mark Cuban into the second round. Sure, their seventh-seeded opponent was a beast, but it wasn't tough to figure that adding more offensive weapons was not what Dallas needed.

We also learned that the Milwaukee Bucks would not go quietly despite the devastating loss of center Andrew Bogut.

With the lights turned out in Dallas and Milwaukee, let's take a look at other perceptual adjustments that should be made as we march into Round 2.

KOBE BRYANT HAS LOST IT

And the reference to "it" was the pop in his legs that always allowed the Los Angeles Lakers superstar to rise up and smite whatever foe requires smiting with a game in the balance. The critics came upon this presumption with good intentions; Kobe has battled enough infirmity this season to be billed for rent in the training room.

But the forgiving playoff schedule — teaming up with Bryant's refusal to give in — allowed Kobe to gather enough physical momentum to stay in front of Oklahoma City blur Russell Westbrook in a Game 5 that co-starred the Lakers' overpowering length on the low post. Then Kobe put the team on his right shoulder during the closing stages of Sunday's Game 1 in a second-round series with the Utah Jazz.

Never underestimate what can happen when will meets skill.

The Lakers have been up and down, relative to perception, since the playoffs began. They handled the Thunder in Game 1, provoking sweep predictions, and barely escaped to win Game 2. They lost a close Game 3 in OKC, then were considered too old after being run off the floor in Game 4. Game 5 was a Lakers rout in L.A. and Game 6 was a solid close-out win on the road.

I suppose the Lakers will absorb the sky-is-falling expectations every time they lose.

THE SAN ANTONIO SPURS ARE STILL PRETTY GOOD

Well, a lot of us were hitching a ride on the San Antonio bandwagon while Manu Ginobili was going crazy toward the end of the regular season. But the Spurs' ability to dispatch the Mavericks has convinced NBA witnesses that San Antonio may have enough to take down the Lakers or anyone else.

Of course, that claim doesn't do justice to the Phoenix Suns, whose presence in the second round will be chewed on a bit later in this piece.

Now, back to the Spurs, who were able to defeat Dallas in a Game 4 that featured Ginobili and Tim Duncan combining to miss 20 of 25 shots from the field. While they struggled, the Spurs received big performances from guard George Hill (29 points) and rookie post DeJuan Blair that help make a good case for San Antonio being the equal (for now, at least) of any team in the deadly Western Conference.

It should be noted that Richard Jefferson also provided some sparkling first-round moments, inspiring many of us to renew our vow of never, ever sleeping on the Spurs.

INJURIES WILL DOOM THE UTAH JAZZ

With Andrei Kirilenko nursing a flattened calf muscle, Carmelo Anthony was expected to score at will for the Denver Nuggets in the opening round. That's sort of what he did when the series began, while Utah's crisis was escalated by an Achilles tendon injury to stretch-five Mehmet Okur.

So, with two starters gone from the front line, Jazz coach Jerry Sloan went smaller and quicker at small forward; his team executed the Nuggets into an early fishing trip.

We also were reminded that — in terms of dominating a game as a scorer and offensive catalyst — Deron Williams is the class of the league from the point-guard position.

THE SUNS DON'T PLAY ENOUGH DEFENSE FOR A DEEP RUN

We're not on the verge of announcing that Alvin Gentry's Phoenix team can dig in and defend with the consistency of the Cleveland Cavaliers. After all, Steve Nash still has to be hidden on defense and Amar'e Stoudemire often manages to surrender defensive position on the post.

But Gentry has enough willing defenders (hello, Grant Hill, Jared Dudley and Lou Amundson) to keep things reasonable, and sufficient backbone to make sure everyone buys in to his tactics.

Even more impressive against Portland was the Suns' timely work on defense without basket protector Robin Lopez, whose bad back makes things a bit dicey for Round 2.

By the way, the first round has managed to transform the perception of Jason Richardson, who was a really opportunistic scorer from the shooting guard spot and now is considered almost nuclear ... with Nash as keeper of the launch code.

WARNING: THE KING HAS ANNEXED THE 3-POINT LINE

If anyone should have been reminded that his romance with the arc greatly exceeds his skill from beyond it, it’s LeBron James. But during Cleveland's hard-fought elimination of the plucky Chicago Bulls, the two-time Most Valuable Player made 13-of-24 3-pointers he teed up. And with a right elbow now often referenced as "balky," James was 50 per cent again - 3-of-6 from downtown - in the Cavs' Round 2 opener with the Boston Celtics.

While we won't be surprised if LeBron chips the paint off the rim as the playoffs proceed, the upgrade in body balance he demonstrates while shooting the ball gives him a much better chance to be successful.

BOSTON HAS A BENCH IT CAN RELY ON

Well, Rasheed Wallace did little all season to further this assumption, but it was suggested that Nate Robinson, Michael Finley, Glen Davis and Marquis Daniels could come in handy during the playoffs.

Davis has had one great game as a starter and a nice game off the bench. The others have done little to make us believe the Big Four (Rajon Rondo has earned inclusion) can afford to take a quick break against a good team without scoreboard calamity.

DWIGHT AND VINCE WILL CARRY ORLANDO

Coach Stan Van Gundy's team recorded the only first-round sweep (g'night, Charlotte), so the Magic still look brutally capable of returning to the Finals and doing quite well there.

But the conquest of the Bobcats had little to do with Dwight Howard and Vince Carter. Howard averaged 5 blocks in the four games but produced even more personal fouls and was on the court for a measly 26 minutes per game. Carter gave Orlando 15.5 points per game against Charlotte, but made a clunky 36 percent of his field-goal tries.

On the other hand, Jameer Nelson averaged 23.8 points per, against Charlotte, almost double his regular-season average. Although Nelson could return to normalcy, Atlanta's Mike Bibby doesn't present much of a defensive challenge (if he even receives the assignment) in Round 2.

The Magic can survive with a less-than-dominant performance from Howard, but Superman must throw his elbows more wisely if Orlando runs into Cleveland or Boston.

THE HAWKS LOOK LEGIT

The bouncy team from Atlanta was expected to coast past the Bogut-less Bucks and were taken to seven games in a series that included a home-court loss.

Signs of redemption against Orlando arrived when the Hawks' defense put an absolute beat-down on Milwaukee in game 7. Yeah, the Bucks were a bit light on inside scoring, but at least Atlanta proved it can get dirty and actually guard someone. Unfortunately, they now carry around a bigger burden of proof than they had when the playoffs began.
Tagged: Hawks, Celtics, Cavaliers, Nuggets, Lakers, Bucks, Magic, Suns, Spurs, Jazz, Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, Vince Carter, Grant Hill, LeBron James, Dwight Howard, George Hill

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