All's well that ends well
“Any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”
The second round of the playoffs and the effort put forth by some of the teams was far from inspiring after the opening salvos that we saw in the first round. One glance at the second round series leads and it is apparent that they were, aside from the Boston Cleveland series, very lopsided. In fact they are shockingly lopsided. It was only the fourth time in league history that three of the four series started 3-0 and was the first time since 1999. So far the first round far out shadows the lack of competition that has occurred in the second round, again Celtics Cavaliers series aside. Brooms were out in full force and spring cleaning ended earlier than expected while the chimes sounded for three teams. These three teams landed hits, very palpable hits on route to victory.
The bells have sounded for the final time; the San Antonio Spurs have heard the chimes at midnight. They have been swept by the Phoenix Suns. San Antonio began the playoffs as a bunch of unruly mutts that had no business wagging their tails in the post season but they were not so quietly whispered to by their head coach. Within the span of a game the Spurs seemed to channel their lost essence of championship runs past but time was not on their side. Facing two bitter rivals in the first two rounds of the playoffs took its toll on the aching joints and legs of the aging cast. They were still a determined team, however. San Antonio would not go down without a fight but it was not enough.
For Phoenix, the series could have been commandeered by outside agendas. The passing of a recent bill in the state of Arizona which, in every conceivable way, sanctions the practice of racial profiling stole headlines across the nation. In an effort to show their displeasure with the bill and to show solidarity with the large Latino fan base that the Suns have the team wore their Los Suns jerseys which are generally reserved for Noche Latinas occasions. Well, there was an occasion to wear them, it was Cinco de Mayo. But, of course, that was not the real reason. The jersey selection sparked further debate across the country but did little more than show another symbol of discontent with the bill. It was, however, a grand gesture on the part of a sports franchise in reaffirming their personal connections with their own fans and fans of the NBA.
Yet, it was the play of the Suns that spoke loudest during the series. In recent years when the Suns have faced the San Antonio Spurs it was the Spurs who had the edge in toughness, grit, and the ability to close out the game. That Spurs team can only be found in the history books now. The series took on a completely different tone after the first game was played. In four of their previous postseason meetings the Spurs had taken the first game against the Suns on route to a series victory. It was not to be this time around as the Spurs found themselves on the wrong side of 111-102 score. It would not get much better for them as the series progressed. (Tim Duncan shot 16-34 from the charity stripe for the series. This statistic alone explains the futility of San Antonio’s chances.)
Phoenix took on the characteristics of its floor general, Steve Nash. Coming into the series, Nash had been resting a sore hip and there were questions about his effectiveness. San Antonio had just beat the Dallas Mavericks and looked to be in old form (well they always look old) and the concerns over Nash’s hip caused many, including us here at the Beef, to assume that history would repeat itself in the series. In the first game, however, Nash silenced all talk of his age and his injury as he paced the Suns with 33 points and ten assists. 17 of these points came in the first quarter alone. It was this floor leadership and toughness that would be adopted by his teammates throughout the series.
Amare Stoudemire was the Suns irresistible force thrown against what seemed to be an immovable object in the Spurs rejuvenated defense. However, the Spurs moved; they had not drunk from the waters of Bimini. Where the Mavericks did not have a low post scoring threat the Suns certainly did. Stoudemire exploited the lack of (mobile) depth on the Spurs as he averaged 20.5 points and 9.25 rebounds in the series. His worst game came in the first game in San Antonio where he only scored seven points and grabbed eight rebounds. However, his poor play would not adversely affect the Suns because roll players were able to step up for the team in crucial situations.
In game three that player was Goran Dragic. Stoudemire’s impact on the game might have been greater had he played in the fourth quarter but he was not needed. Dragic scored 23 of his 26 in the fourth quarter pacing the Suns to a 110-96 blowout of the Spurs. In game four Jared Dudley filled the shoes of role player scoring 16 points, grabbing six rebounds, and dishing out four dimes all while coming off the bench. Oh, and Channing Frye was quite serviceable off the bench as well. Who was good for the Spurs off the bench? Tony Parker. The only reason he was even on the bench in the first place is because Greg Popovich knew how thin his bench actually was. One team had the players who were able to contribute when it mattered.
It was the Suns two-time MVP who wanted to return to the Western Conference Finals and would not even think of giving the Spurs life no matter what they threw at him and his team. Steve Nash epitomized what toughness is. San Antonio has done its best to keep Nash bruised, bloody, and battered in recent playoff history. Remember the bloody nose last year? Nash does. Game four took the cake, though. Nash played the fourth quarter with one eye swollen shut. He could not see out of his right eye and was able to drop ten points and hold at bay a late Spurs rally. He wanted it more, he got what he wanted. The Suns are not who we thought they were.
San Antonio now joins the oh so lauded crowd of teams that have been swept out of the playoffs. After glimpses of brilliance in the first round they returned to be the team that would have been the eighth seed had it not been for a collapse by the Oklahoma City Thunder. The Spurs were a legitimate seventh seed and Phoenix showed it. They exacted vengeance on the team that had pestered and plagued them over the past decade. Nash wanted it, Stoudemire wanted it, and the Suns’ fans wanted it. The wait was long and arduous. Phoenix swept the lowly Spurs out of the playoffs in four quick games with cold precision. They had their revenge and revenge is a dish that is best served cold.
For Atlanta, their series with the Milwaukee Bucks took longer than they expected and showed a sign of things to come. What was to come was the Orlando Magic. Would the Magic be rusty with all their time off? The Hawks quickly discovered the answer as the Magic clipped their wings and sent them down the road of the Passenger Pigeon. It was an embarrassing showing for the birds as all the respected they had worked for in the East was quickly squandered as they resembled an Archaeopteryx rather than a modern raptor. Orlando has cast a spell over the playoffs this year as they continue their quest to get back to the Finals.
Orlando has yet to lose in the post season as they have swept both the Charlotte Bobcats and the Hawks. Charlotte put up a better fight than Atlanta did because they are a more defensive minded group and did not allow the Magic to score at will. The Hawks, however, were sitting ducks with their high flying and high octane style of play as they played right into the three point attack of the Magic. No game was close outside of the opening minutes, and even they were lopsided. Orlando outscored the Hawks 119-91 in the first quarters of the series. They hit them squarely in the beak and did not let up. Atlanta was dazed and stunned thinking that fair is foul, and foul is fair as their minds hovered through the fog and filthy air caused by the Magic’s blow.
After being muddled by foul trouble and general basketball ineptitude in the first round, Dwight Howard exploded against the undersized Hawks. Howard averaged 21 points, 13.25 rebounds, and 2.75 blocks per game in the short series. The word ‘unstoppable’ does not even begin to do Howard justice in his domination of the frontcourt. Al Horford did his best to slow Howard but it was not nearly enough. In game two, Howard became just the fourth player in the last 40 years to score 25 points, grab 18 rebounds, and shoot 85 percent in a playoff game. (Shaquille O’Neal, Wes Unseld, and Wilt Chamberlain are the others on this list.) It was not just Dwight Howard that dominated the Hawks; it was the defense of the Magic.
The Magic completely shut down the Hawks highest scorer, Joe Johnson. In fact they made him look old, haggard, and useless. He was 17-57 from the field for the series which equates to roughly 30 percent shooting. He shot much better from the free throw line hitting at about a 74 percent clip but he only went to the line 19 times during the series. Johnson is a free agent this summer and his play in this series has certainly burned bridges with the fans and likely the front office too. Not only that, but it has hurt any kind of chances for a big contract that he may have been afforded prior to his playoffs performance. However, there are enough foolish general managers in the league that will gladly pay him James Posey money to come to their team.
Four seems to be the lucky number for the Magic this postseason. Dwight Howard entered an elite realm of four players, they had the fourth highest scoring differential in the opening two games of a series with a +57 against the Hawks (this was on pace to the highest margin of victory in any four game sweep in NBA playoff history), and they have swept both their playoff series’. Whatever dark spells and voodoo that Stan Van Gundy and the Magic have cast over their opponent appears to be working. Their concoction of eye of newt and toe of frog is a hell-broth that renders their rivals impotent and feeble allowing the Magic to take full advantage of their matchups. They are a scary team that now has all the time in the world to plot and strategize while resting.
Point guards had tortured the Lakers in the playoffs and Deron Williams would be their latest challenge to stop. They could not stop him but it would not matter. Los Angeles found their stride in a series that was far less competitive than their opening round matchup with the Oklahoma City Thunder. In that series they were forced to play at a quicker tempo as the young players of the Thunder streaked and sprinted around the aging Lakers to take two games. The Jazz, however, were more interested in half-court sets than they were in running. This strategy played right into the hands of the Lakers and their size. Utah kept it close but was unable to slow their fate as they could all the while hear the crack of doom.
There was no answer for the tandem of Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol. The pair simply decimated the Jazz and carried the otherwise hapless Lakers to victory. Gasol averaged 23.5 points per game while shooting nearly 61 percent from the floor. Production such as this is exactly what the Lakers needed from a player other than Kobe Bryant. Bryant cannot carry the team alone but sure does try to place the entire burden of winning on his shoulders. For the series he averaged 32 points per game and shot 52 percent from the floor. To even speak of another Laker in this series would be a travesty as these are the only two players worth mentioning for on their on court performances with both having completely leveled Utah’s defense in the half-court. (Off the court Ron Artest publicly criticized Phil Jackson via Twitter.) However, there is another.
Utah is not a team to go silently into the night and they proved that in the series despite being swept. Only in the final game did they capitulate to the dominant play of the Lakers and lose by double digits. In the third game of the series the Jazz limited the Lakers’ inside scoring threats and looked to capture a home game. Williams and Kyle Korver led the assault, with 28 and 23 points respectively, for the Jazz with Carlos Boozer pulling down 14 rebounds and scoring 14 points in a game which they held a thirteen point lead at one point. But all that vanished in a frenetic fourth quarter. There were twelve lead changes in the fourth which all led to one shot.
Derek Fisher, the Lakers’ liability at the point position, showed why he is still around. During an 8-2 run by the Lakers in the final minute of the game, Fisher hit a three-pointer at the end of the run to seal the 111-110 victory. O happy dagger. The jazz had thrown their best shot and had come up short. Fisher had called up all his spirits, and those of Lakers teams past, from the vasty deep in his blow to the heart of the Jazz. Limiting the Lakers inside opportunities had only opened up the threat from outside. Utah was simply fortune’s fool.
Los Angeles was able to rely on their two most potent offensive weapons throughout the series as role players only stuck their heads out of the ground in game three. Surely this will serve to make the public even blinder to the faults that this team has. For now, however, the Lakers shall rest and wait. Their series with the Phoenix Suns begins on Monday. Rest is exactly what they need because, despite losing, the Jazz subjected the Lakers to a rather physical series. Kobe Bryant will surely be ready as he remembers that the Suns ousted the Lakers in their previous two playoff meetings and will seek some form of vengeance. However, this vengeance is misplaced as this is not the same Lakers team that was ousted in 2006 and 2007. Yet, despite what is written here the Lakers and Kobe have yet to be done to death by this author’s slanderous tongue.
Only one series remains to be decided in the semifinals and as the two teams involved in it slug it out the rest must only wait and watch. The Celtics and the Cavaliers shall become the main focus for the remainder of the second round. It is rightly so that this should be the case as the best basketball is being played in this series and center stage should have been handed to them after game one. The rest of the round has been but mere folly and circumstance. For now though, each team that rests thinks itself every inch a king, but where are their crowns?