No superstar? No chance in playoffs
Stop us if you’ve heard this one before: The star of the Chicago Bulls is averaging 37.5 points in the playoffs, has been virtually unstoppable in the fourth quarters of both Bulls’ wins and is going to be presented with the MVP trophy in the first week of May.
It sure sounds like Michael Jordan in the 1990s.
But it’s going on now with Derrick Rose, who has been absolutely Jordan-esque in taking his game to new heights in the Bulls’ first-round series against the Indiana Pacers.
Rose is merely doing what the great ones always do at this time of the year. When the playoffs begin, they raise their games and their will to win. It’s the reason general managers across the NBA would sell their firstborn for a chance to sign or draft a LeBron James or a Kobe Bryant. They know the key to winning a title is simple: Find a superstar.
“What Rose is doing, I’ve seen it before, with guys like Larry Bird and Michael Jordan,” said Donnie Walsh, the Knicks' team president. “So far, Indiana has been playing them really well. But Rose has been out of this world. He’s really been the difference.”
On Thursday night, Rose will try to again put his stamp on the series when the Bulls go to Indianapolis for Game 3. He’s not the only superstar who has impacted a series. For the New Orleans Hornets, it has been their All-NBA playmaker, Chris Paul, who put in a vintage Chris Paul game as New Orleans stunned the Los Angeles Lakers in Game 1 of their series. Paul’s 33 points, 14 assists and seven rebounds propelled Monty Williams’ team to the biggest stunner of the playoffs so far. Bigger than even Memphis Grizzlies winning their first-ever playoff game, in San Antonio, since the Spurs did not have Manu Ginobili.
You can have a team of very good players in the regular-season and do very well, as the Denver Nuggets showed after they traded Carmelo Anthony. Without their star, they went 18-7, using the four players they received from the New York Knicks to go at opponents with one of the NBA’s deepest teams. But against Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook in the first round, it has been a different story in the playoffs as the Nuggets have fallen behind 0-2 to the Oklahoma City Thunder.
“They’ve got a lot of good players,” noted Anthony Carter, who came to the Knicks in the Anthony deal. “But now, they don’t have a star.”
That also is spelling trouble for the Philadelphia 76ers, who are down 0-2 entering Thursday night’s game in Philadelphia. Heading into his first playoff season for the Miami Heat, James called the Sixers “the Nuggets of the East.”
“There’s no superstars,” he said. “It’s a bunch of guys, and you can’t key in on one guy.”
But the Sixers are at a distinct disadvantage in their best-of-seven series since Miami has James and Dwyane Wade, who each have carried teams to the Finals. As history shows, it’s almost always the teams with players like James and Wade who get the rings.
In the past 30 years, only eight franchises have won an NBA title: the Lakers, Celtics, Bulls, Pistons, Rockets, Sixers, Spurs and Heat. Every team had at least one MVP-caliber player and often boasted several stars and more than one future Hall of Fame or Top 50 player.
The Lakers five title teams in the ‘80s included Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and James Worthy. Shaquille O’Neal led them to three more titles in the early 2000s. Since Shaq left, Bryant has been their franchise player during their past two titles. The Celtics’ three titlists in the ‘80s had Bird, Robert Parish and Kevin McHale and then Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett in their most recent championship run.
The Bulls won their six championships with Jordan and Scottie Pippen. The Pistons’ first title run (1989 and 1990) featured Isiah Thomas. The Rockets’ back-to-back title teams were led by Hakeem Olajuwon, with Clyde Drexler helping on the second crown. The Sixers of the early ‘80s had Moses Malone and Julius Erving. Tim Duncan carried the Spurs to four titles, from 1999-2007, getting help from another Top 50 player, David Robinson on the first two titles. The Heat’s lone title, in 2006, came with Wade and Shaq.
There has been only one time in the past 30 years when the champ didn’t boast an MVP-worthy star. That came in 2004, when the Pistons shocked the Shaq-Kobe Lakers with a team that had only one player (Ben Wallace) selected to the All-NBA team that season.
“Even though they didn’t have what you’d call a superstar, they did have a few guys with All-Star ability, like Chauncey Billups and Rip Hamilton and Rasheed Wallace,” said Greg Anthony, the former Knick who does analysis on NBA-TV. Billups ended up being named MVP of the ’04 Finals. “As much talent as Denver has, the two best players play for Oklahoma City, with Durant and Russell Westbrook. I’ve always been of the belief that in basketball, more than any other sport, one player can make the greatest impact.”
In fact, the next year, the Pistons fell in seven games to Duncan’s Spurs in the Finals. These days, you see what one player can do in the Orlando-Atlanta series, with Dwight Howard putting up the kind of scoring and rebounding numbers that haven’t been seen since Shaq was leading the Lakers to the first title of their three-peat. Howard had 79 points and 38 rebounds as the Magic split their first two games at home. He, Shaq and Olajuwon (1988 vs. Dallas) are the only players since 1988 to put up 75 points and 35 rebounds in the first two games in a series.
Dirk Nowitzki, the MVP of 2007, has also raised his game for the Mavs as they’ve taken a 2-0 lead over Portland. Although he’s not shooting a high percentage (career playoff-low 38 percent), he is averaging a career-playoff-high 30.5 points per game.
The difference has come where stars often make their mark this time of the season: at the foul line. In the two games, Nowitzki is 28 of 30 from the line. He’s the only player on either team who has attempted more than 12 shots.
Even in defeat, stars will often elevate their team’s play. The best example so far was Anthony’s Game 2 for the Knicks against the Celtics. With Billups sidelined by a by a knee injury that could keep him out Friday in New York, and with Amar’e Stoudemire forced to leave the game late in the first half with a pulled muscle in his back, Anthony was forced to take on Boston’s Big Three and Rajon Rondo with a cast of backups.
Playing one of his finest all-around games, with 42 points and 17 rebounds, he nearly willed the Knicks to the most improbable playoff win in their history. That came after he missed 10 of 11 shots in the second half of Game 1, when he also botched the final play that could have forced overtime.
“Someone asked me the other day, ‘Do you expect Carmelo to play better?”’ Boston coach Doc Rivers said after Game 2. “And I said, ‘Well, I hope not. But most likely he will because that’s why Paul Pierce is Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett is Kevin Garnett and Carmelo is Carmelo.' They’re great players, and they hear all the stuff. So all it does is gets them going. And we couldn’t stop him.”
At this time of the season, that’s usually the case.
Mitch Lawrence covers the NBA for the New York Daily News.