Observations and analysis as the NBA playoffs get under way ...
• The Spurs have won four NBA championships since 1999 with a proven formula: relying on key role players, mostly off the bench, to back up a cluster of All-Stars by knowing their jobs and doing them well. The names and faces changed -- Rose, Horry, Barry, a half dozen others -- but the approach did not. Until Saturday, when the Dallas Mavericks swiped it for their own.
Dallas was the squad getting vital contributions off the bench from unexpected sources, grabbing home-court advantage away from the Spurs in the process. Guys who would seem right at home in the Spurs' system -- pesky guard Jose Barea, unheralded forward Brandon Bass and journeyman Antoine Wright -- instead were wearing blue, picking up Dallas on a night when Dirk Nowitzki and Jason Kidd were off their games.
Nowitzki went to the bench, in fact, with 8:28 left in the second quarter, getting caught whacking Drew Gooden on his elbow and picking up his third foul. It seemed like a doomsday scenario for Dallas, considering the Mavs' 33-24 deficit at the time and Nowitzki's meager total of five points. Except that it wasn't. Gooden sank his free throws but, from then until halftime, Dallas outscored the home team 21-14. Bass scored 10 points off the bench to help pull the Mavs within 49-45, while Barea had four and sixth man Jason Terry was on track with eight. We've seen it 493 times: A star is forced out, so overmatched subs step up.
• Avery Johnson was said to be a headstrong coach, inflexible even. So you wonder how he would have handled the Mavericks halfway through Game 1, because his successor, Rick Carlisle, didn't hesitate to stick with what was working. He started Barea in the second half in place of Wright, and looked like a genius. Dallas started the third quarter with a 6-0 run to take only its second lead and kept on going until it was 72-63 with 3:12 left in the period, a 27-14 second-half advantage. After a Spurs run tied it, it was Bass, Barea and even Wright helping Dallas pull away again -- Wright's three-pointer on Barea's drive-and-kick made it 86-80, and Barea's runner minutes later put the Mavs' lead into double digits, 93-83.
Dallas' bench wound up with a 39-14 scoring edge, while several Spurs role players came up small. Gooden (eight points) was a nice pickup and knows his way around playoff atmosphere. But Matt Bonner and Kurt Thomas, for instance, each played identical 18:06 stints and combined to score as many points (0) and grab only three more rebounds than the long-gone Horry managed Saturday.
• Josh Howard looked plenty healthy and more than a little determined to put last year's dreary playoff performance against New Orleans in his rear-view mirror. Howard led Dallas with 25 points, including eight of the Mavs' first 12 after halftime. What he and Barea did best was to get Dallas out of its jump-shooting mode; too many of those were missing early and they had no threat in the paint.
Counting the regular-season series, Dallas is 3-1 against San Antonio when Howard plays, vs. 0-1 when he doesn't. The Mavericks are now 34-19 since opening night with Howard, compared to 17-13 when he's hurt. He'll still need ankle surgery this summer, but it didn't hamper him Saturday.
• Dallas center Erick Dampier, pushing Dikembe Mutombo as a league greybeard these days, had a solid 10-point, 11-rebound effort while clogging the middle just enough against Tim Duncan. Probably didn't impress Shaquille O'Neal, but then, Shaq doesn't have a seat at the table right now, does he?
• The victory snapped a streak of nine road playoff losses for Dallas.
• Manu Ginobili didn't pull a Kevin Garnett. He stayed on the bench and watched helplessly for the entire game. None of his mates, however, picked up his third-wheelness to sufficiently boost the 51 scored by Duncan and Tony Parker. With Ginobili out, San Antonio loses what little ad-lib, loosey-goosey element ever exists in Gregg Popovich's careful attack.
• Derrick Rose didn't just introduce himself to the NBA playoffs in an all-time, Hall of Fame sort of way Saturday. He posed a riddle that could stump the Sphinx itself, namely, how can a player -- a rookie no less, in the first postseason game of his first professional year -- show so much heart, while revealing no apparent pulse?
Most NBA rookies show more emotion when they're running doughnuts for the veterans than Rose did in his historic playoff debut. Oh, he did seem, upon examination of the videotape, to express a glimmer of frustration when he got suckered by Rajon Rondo, his dynamic Boston counterpart, into a sixth personal foul with 10.3 seconds left in the extra period. But in everything that preceded that -- his 36 points, his 11 assists and the 49 minutes and 33 seconds he logged before fouling out -- as well as immediately after, the Bulls' point guard looked like he had detoured through Stepford on his trek from Chicago to Memphis for a college basketball season and back to Chicago.
Unflappable? How 'bout flat-lining?
Asked immediately after the Bulls' surprisingly poised and resilient performance how he had been able to perform so coolly under such pressure, Rose stared blankly and said in a monotone: "Uh, it don't really matter. If you play hard, you should be able to do anything.''
Anything? Sure. But everything? Rose didn't just attack the Boston defense, match and surpass Rondo in quickness and spur his team to the road victory it was going to need in the best-of-seven series against the NBA's defending champs. He put himself into elite company among the league's greats, his 36 points matching Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's first playoff outing with Milwaukee in 1970. Wilt Chamberlain got 35 in his postseason debut at the end of the 1959-60 season, and Tim Duncan scored 32 in 1998 in his first playoff test with San Antonio.
Rose, though, did even more than that. He shouldered the responsibility for Chicago's attack and, in the process, got Joakim Noah and Tyrus Thomas involved in ways that jitters and inexperience might have hampered. He attracted enough attention from the Celtics' defense that Ben Gordon was able to get going after a shaky start.
Heck, for some Boston long-timers, Rose probably brought back memories (or nightmares) of Michael Jordan scoring 63 points at the old Garden back in 1986. After all, the teams have only met in the postseason once since that series, and not at all since 1987. And that's how electric Rose's performance was.
• Kevin Garnett sitting over on the Celtics bench for half of the opener against Chicago was as difficult and painful to watch as it surely was for Garnett to be planted over there.
It didn't last long, just 24 official minutes before Garnett and coach Doc Rivers made a halftime adjustment and kept him back in the locker room for the second half and overtime. That's where Garnett, hobbled by a swollen tendon in his right knee and possibly unavailable for action this postseason, had spent his idle time during Boston games before Saturday and that, presumably, is where he's going to spend it from now on, either until the Celtics' run is over or he limps out for some Willis Reed moment.
Oh, it was a good idea at the start: Have Garnett out there as a resource for Boston's big men, should they need a little veteran insight on the fly. Having him visible to his teammates and to the fans at TD Banknorth Garden wouldn't hurt, either, from a talisman and confidence standpoint.
But the big guy looked about uncomfortable over there, trapped in a suit, wedged in between the players and the assistant coaches. The first chance he got, in an early Celtics timeout, he chimed in right over Rivers' message. Watching Garnett watch was a weirdly tense experience, as if he might spontaneously combust or gnaw through his cheeks over on the side. Mercifully, he stayed in the back for the final 29 minutes, his wrath hopefully focused only on inanimate objects.
The cynics following this series are convinced Garnett, should the Celtics find themselves facing elimination, would tape, wrap and medicate himself onto the court, if only for inspiration. But most imagined that happening, if at all, in a Game 7. The Bulls might be fast-tracking that scenario now.
• So we knew where Garnett watched Game 1 from. We even knew where Chicago coach Vinny Del Negro's dad watched it from (he somehow finagled his way to the Bulls' bench area). What we're still wondering is where Ray Allen watched vast stretches of this game from? Allen played more than 39 minutes, according to the box score, and launched 12 shots. But he scored a mere four points, suggesting that someone was standing in for a spell.
• The Celtics played 14 home games in last spring's playoffs and went 13-1, including a 9-0 start. And here they are having already lost homecourt edge vs. Chicago.
• John Williamson holds the record for most points scored in an NBA playoff debut, 38. But "Super John" was pushing 30 by then, having spent three seasons in the ABA before coming over with the 1976-77 merger. Similary, Julius Erving scored 36 in his first playoff game with Philadelphia that spring. Milwaukee's Gary Brokaw had 36, too, but didn't do it at the end of his rookie season.
• For all the talk about how limited the Bulls are in playoff experience, it was oldster Brad Miller making some ill-advised decisions, such as his needless extra pass right before halftime that caused a three-second call against Noah. Miller got his shot blocked late in regulation, too, by Kendrick Perkins, and he flung the ball downcourt -- really, no chance at all -- after grabbing Paul Pierce's missed free throw with 2.6 seconds left in the fourth quarter. The Bulls were out of timeouts, but a long outlet pass might have set up a somewhat less-desperate shot. C'mon, big fella, it's the kids who are supposed to learn how valuable every possession is in the playoffs.
• Detroit is using its geographic proximity to Cleveland to minimize the road rigors in this series, hopping its charter flight home after Saturday's loss rather than kill a lot of empty hours at the hotel or the Tower City Center food court. The trick now is persuading the Pistons to climb back onto the plane for the return flight and Tuesday's Game 2, as the next step toward their fishing hats and tee times.
It's one thing to nobly play the role of underdog in a 1-vs.-8 matchup, to take your lumps and to still cordially praise the guys -- most of all the guy, LeBron James -- who are taking what you came to consider a birthright (supremacy in the East or, at least, a spot in the conference finals). It's quite another to be humming along, making more than 60 percent of your shots midway through the second quarter, only to see the Cavaliers step on their defensive gas and snatch it all away, in ways that your team used to do.
With 5:41 left in the first half, the Pistons were within 41-38. Then clang, clang, clang -- seven missed shots and a turnover later, they trailed 50-39. Cleveland turned up its defensive intensity and put some air into the score, keeping it there until Will Bynum hit consecutive buckets to make it 80-72 with 8:48 left. From there -- alas, for Detroit -- it was a 22-12 push to the finish.
Near the end, Detroit's frustration was evident, as in Richard Hamilton tossing down Mo Williams right in front of ref Leon Wood. The Pistons wound up missing 10 of their 12 three-pointers and shot only 12 free throws to Cleveland's 27.
Jump-shooting teams have to cope with such nights, but we're talking about more than one game, more than one series. This is the end of the line for Detroit, at least in this incarnation, and by the time we see Bynum, Rodney Stuckey and Jason Maxiell with any expectations again, Hamilton, Tayshaun Prince, Rasheed Wallace, Antonio McDyess and other vets will be gone or marginalized.
• In four regular-season games against Detroit, LeBron averaged 25.7 points and made only 42 percent of his field-goal attempts, though the Cavaliers did go 3-1. He had no such problems in Game 1, hitting 13 of his 20 shots for 38 points and sitting down early with eight rebounds and seven assists. Of his seven misses, three were from beyond the arc -- and James hit the longest and most dramatic of those, a running fling from just across midcourt to beat the halftime buzzer and give the Cavs their biggest lead to that point.
• Silver lining for the Pistons? Well, they averaged just 81.8 points on 41 percent shooting against Cleveland during the 2008-09 season. So they're making progress offensively.
• Prince, if you go merely by his regular-season numbers, has been a steady performer for Detroit. But you can't say the same thing for his postseason showings. Prince broke through as a star allegedly born in the 2006 playoffs, when he averaged 16.4 points (after being the only Detroit starter who didn't get invited to the All-Star Game a few months earlier). But Prince's production dipped to 14.1 points in 2007 and 13.8 last spring. You could see him jogging rather half-heartedly a few times in Saturday's game, too.
• Some might consider this to be the ultimate in scab-picking, but there might never again be such a perfect time: What if Detroit hadn't used the No. 2 pick in 2003 on Darko Milicic? What if, instead, president Joe Dumars had taken Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh or Dwyane Wade? How different would the balance of power in the Eastern Conference be right now? Admittedly, the decision didn't hurt the Pistons early, with their championship in 2004 and all those trips to the conference finals. But watching James cavort and knowing that Wade and Anthony still are very much alive in these playoffs is a stinging reminder of what could have been.
• Come to think of it, Chauncey Billups is still very much alive in these playoffs, compared to the guy he was traded for back in November.
• Welcome to the postseason, young Trail Blazers. Or would that be Fail Blazers? Portland, as a group, was sort of the anti-Derrick Rose on Saturday, reacting to its first playoff appearance since 2003 -- and first, period, for many of the guys on its current roster -- like deer in the proverbial headlights. Wait, make that Bambi in the path of Godzilla's fire breath. Try as he might, Blazers coach Nate McMillan couldn't dial up his players' intensity level for them. Finding the gear necessary to compete in the NBA's spring tournament is something most teams have to learn the hard way, especially one as tender in years (NBA's second-youngest club) and experience as Portland. The Blazers began their first-round series with just 35 games and 489 minutes of playoff experience on their roster, the least of any participant since the Los Angeles Clippers in 1997. Fourteen of those games and 232 of those minutes were on Steve Blake's and Joel Przybilla's resumes.
• In it to win it? Not yet for the Blazers, who were in it simply to comprehend it Saturday. So they're probably not the '77 Portland crew, who won the NBA championship in the franchise's first trip to the playoffs.
• With Shane Battier's three free throws to open the scoring in the second half, Houston pushed its lead to 65-44 -- the biggest margin to that point across all four of Saturday's Game 1 contests. By the end of the third quarter, the Rockets -- who reached 60 by halftime for the 13th time this season -- were up by 27 and they nudged that to 30 early in the fourth. And that was without much second-half exertion from Yao Ming, who was 9-of-9 in the first half with 24 points. Houston is 33-4 this season when Yao scores at least 20.
• Maybe the unexpected success of road teams Saturday -- they won three of the four openers -- will inspire Utah, which drags the worst road record (15-26) among 2009 West playoff teams into Staples Center against the Lakers. Then again, Kobe Bryant was paying attention, too.
• I hate it, really hate it, when big guys opt to flop rather than stand their ground, use their size and defend like, y'know, a man. (Yes, that still means you, Vlade.) But Yao got jobbed at the 7:07 mark of the second quarter when Rudy Fernandez drove smack into him and ref Tom Washington ruled it a blocking foul on the Houston big man. Moments later, Fernandez got the benefit of the doubt again, drawing a charge on Houston's Von Wafer. There was a lot of hitting-the-deck in general early in this one, despite playoff tradition less likely to reward the roundheels.
• LaMarcus Aldridge was the Blazer least likely to sleep well, after bricking his postseason debut (3-of-12 for seven points, with three boards and no blocks). Credit Luis Scola for pestering the lanky Portland forward and allowing him no comfort near the basket. Coincidentally, Aldridge's struggles came at the end of a day in which Chicago's Tyrus Thomas, the guy for whom Aldridge was swapped on draft day 2006, shined. Based on Thomas' 16 points, including six in overtime on his improving mid-range jump shot, this was one of the few days since that draft that Bulls fans were happy about the trade.
• If I'm McMillan, I'm getting Greg Oden onto the floor for more minutes in Game 2, if the big kid's cardiovascular system can handle it. Oden was gasping for air a few times, but he scored 15 points in his first 15 minutes and grabbed five rebounds. Then again, if I'm Rick Adelman, I'm tempted to do the same with Dikembe Mutombo, who made only nine appearances in the regular season yet -- a couple of months away from his (ahem) 43rd birthday -- had a Ponce de Leon nine rebounds, a steal and a couple of blocked shots in 18 minutes.