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Playoff observations: Rose, Rondo put on another classic showdown

Observations and analysis of the NBA playoffs, which is all the Cleveland Cavaliers figure to be doing, too, for a few days now:

LeBron James and Kobe Bryant are sitting in the great green room of these NBA playoffs, their much-anticipated individual showdown on hold at least until the undercard bout between Boston's Rajon Rondo and Chicago's Derrick Rose gets settled.

And just maybe, feeling a little like The Monkees when they were back in the dressing rooms, waiting while Jimi Hendrix finished up as their opening act. Wondering, too, what all that crowd noise was about.

We've seen great point-guard matchups in postseasons past, perhaps none better than when pals Magic Johnson and Isiah Thomas hooked up as the chessmasters of their respective Lakers and Pistons teams a couple of decades ago. John Stockton vs. Gary Payton, Steve Nash vs. Tony Parker and Chris Paul vs. Deron Williams all have been obvious draws. But is it grossly premature to add Rondo vs. Rose to the short list?

It sure doesn't feel like it, four games into their give-and-take, parry-and-thrust in the Celtics-Bulls first-round series. The thrills in watching them so far are rivaled only by the showdowns imagined over the next 10 or 12 years in the Eastern Conference. Both were remarkable Sunday in yet another thriller in a series that will be tough even for Lakers-Cavaliers to beat.

All Rondo has done to this point is average a triple-double through the four games, including his performance in the double-overtime loss (25 points, 11 rebounds, 11 assists, one turnover). With Kevin Garnett sidelined, with various teammates mired in foul trouble, Rondo has grabbed Boston's attack by the scruff of its neck. He also has shown a terrific knack for giving the Celtics what they need most -- a deflected ball, an inbounds save, an extra pass -- when they need it most.

Oh, and it's probably safe to say now that Rondo no longer is in danger of having his psyche and confidence damaged by his bosses' decision to sign Stephon Marbury in late February. The notion at this point actually seems naïve, all the hand-wringing from NBA observers that Rondo might feel threatened by the arrival of talented but ego-driven -- and rusty -- Marbury. If this is how Rondo responds to threats to his job security, Danny Ainge might want to line up Jason Kidd, Chauncey Billups and Tiny Archibald for bogus 10-day contracts next.

Then there's Rose, separated from Rondo on Sunday only by his rookie-ish seven turnovers. But his 23 points, 11 boards and nine assists were even more valuable to his team, since the Bulls managed to win and even the series. After his historic playoff debut in Game 1 -- his 36 points as a true rookie matched the NBA high set by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in 1969 -- Rose struggled in the next two. But the 2008-09 Rookie of the Year was back at it in Game 4, irrepressible and endlessly flexing his dribble penetration, particularly whenever he spotted Eddie House in front of him (however briefly).

As eager as so many of us are to get to the Finals and see the one-on-one clash we've been seeking for (let's be honest) years, I'm hoping the whole playoff schedule requires three more glimpses of Rondo-Rose.

• The way the officiating crew of Danny Crawford, Marc Davis and Bill Kennedy handled the most heated and controversial moment in Game 4 was pure textbook. If such a textbook existed, that is. The NBA's embrace of increased replay use is still evolving, so the book remains in draft form. But the important thing is, the refs -- by peering over their own shoulders via a variety of camera angles -- got it right.

Their real-time reaction to GlenDavis' foul on Brad Miller and Miller's flailing response to Davis early in the fourth quarter was to call Davis for a foul, to slap Miller with a technical foul and to eject the Bulls' backup center for what seemed like a (pick one) shove, punch or head-butt. Upon further review, though, Miller appeared to absorb the greater hit on Davis' initial contact, a borderline flagrant. Then Miller got his arms up near Davis' face and head but seemed mostly to body-bump him. It was the Celtics big man's acting skills -- his wince, his recoil -- that had Miller looking like a momentary thug. The cameras caught the distinction and, because of that, so did the refs. Both players stuck around -- Miller got a technical but no ejection -- for additional useful minutes, and the game, the teams, the fans and the TV viewers were better off for it.

• Then again, maybe Davis deserved to be banished for the way he started the whole thing, blindly passing the ball right to Miller near his own basket rather than risk stepping or falling out of bounds with it. What your coaches preached in grade school, just as with the cross-court passes you see on a quarterly basis in this league, no longer applies.

• By the time Boston and Chicago settled their contest on Sunday, Cleveland was within about 26 game-clock minutes of sweeping Detroit and earning maximum rest before the second round. If ever the Celtics were in need of short series and lopsided victories, it's in these playoffs, with Garnett and Leon Powe unavailable, the absence of James Posey and P.J. Brown exposing more flaws and Paul Pierce and Ray Allen a year older than last spring. Instead, they're playing 58-minute games in a dynamite but debilitating series that could go seven. Twenty-six games in last year's playoffs didn't push Boston all the way to "E'' in 2008, but trying to defend its title by playing so many extra, and extra-long, games simply isn't going to work.

• Bulls forward Tyrus Thomas continues to be one confounding player. Half of the shots he takes, the Bulls' opponents probably are hoping he makes -- because that might entice him to take even more of those ill-advised attempts from outside his normal range and way beyond his ability. Then, even when Thomas shows defensive intensity, he seems to be switching off, doubling and bringing help at precisely the wrong times.

• The next time these teams get into a late-game situation, three points or fewer, Boston ball, Chicago coach Vinny Del Negro might as well pull his defenders to the bench and let Allen aim his three-pointer as if it were a foul shot. It is ridiculous how open the Bulls have left the one guy, not only in the game but also in the league, whom you'd least want to get the ball in his hands at that point.

• Way back when the day began, near the end of the Celtics-Bulls game in Chicago, the teams combined for 15 points over the final three minutes of regulation, then 47 more in the two overtime periods, and it was good. Tremendous even. Then, at the end of the night Sunday, the Rockets and the Trail Blazers scraped together just nine points over the final 3:24. And their Game 4, too, was tremendous.

Once Houston's Shane Battier sandwiched a pair of three-pointers around one from the arc by Portland's Brandon Roy, the Rockets were in front 85-83. From there, the teams combined for just two more field goals and four free throws in eight attempts. But the moves and counters to seek and prevent further scoring was playoff basketball at its best. Just different.

There was Houston's work on the offensive glass to set up second chances, chew up the clock and frustrate Portland's game of catch-up. There was coach Rick Adelman pulling Yao Ming in favor of backup Chuck Hayes just in time for Battier to funnel Roy into Hayes for an offensive foul with 10.7 seconds left.

There were mistakes, too, a staple of pressurized postseason play. When old guys make them, they're seen as a sign of aging. When young guys like the Blazers make them, it's assumed to stem from inexperience. Sometimes, though, they're just mistakes. Like Steve Blake getting stripped from behind by Ron Artest as he dribbled upcourt, his team down 85-87. Like Yao losing the ball and Artest jacking a shaky three. Like Joel Przybilla flinging an offensive rebound into the backcourt for no good reason at 41.4 seconds. Like Travis Outlaw, valuable most of the night for his 14 points, jerking the trigger on his three perhaps too quickly after Portland's timeout with 8.3 left.

Aaron Brooks and Kyle Lowry had their gaffes, too, missing four of six foul shots in the final 9.9 seconds. But their team had the cushion, and now it has the 3-1 lead, with three cracks at closing out the West's designated team of the futue.

• Yao might have a little to do with this, but Portland sure has trouble generating any sort of inside game. LaMarcus Aldridge has moved outside more this season, playing to a strength, but neither Greg Oden nor Przybilla (four points combined Sunday) is picking up the slack in the paint. Przybilla had five of Portland's nine offensive rebounds but the Rockets, led by Luis Scola's seven, grabbed 16. As for Yao, he scored eight crucial points in the first six minutes of the fourth quarter and the Hayes substitution worked brilliantly. But smallish foes or not, shouldn't your 7-foot-6 franchise center be the guy you want out there on a defensive possession at the end?

• Artest, who had a team-high nine assists, has changed his body as much as anyone -- any body, I guess -- since showing up in Chicago out of St. John's. Watching the strongman back down Roy and make steady progress despite Roy bumping him one, two, three times in the second quarter was a reminder of just how brawny the Rockets' forward has become.

• Is it possible to advance too quickly, losing your edge and accumulating rust while other teams duke it out, stay focused and stay in rhythm for the second round? That's about the only challenge facing the Cavaliers, after dispatching the Detroit Pistons in four yawners.Waiting now for a week or so could get a little boring and drawn out, but the gap between Cleveland's talent and focus vs. the eventual winner of Miami-Atlanta seems too vast for either underdog. Even for teams of tender experience, wrapping up a best-of-seven series quickly, earning a little R&R and replenishing fluids and focus is the way to go. Of the Cavs' quick handling of the proud but end-of-the-line Pistons, Cleveland guard Delonte West said, "The sooner you can get it over with, the more you can rest and scout the next team.''

• Detroit's jump-shooting proclivities and its defensive troubles caused a stunning mismatch in free-throw dynamics in the series: The Pistons, as a team, attempted 58 foul shots and made 48. Cleveland was 97-of-125 from the line, with LeBron James going 47-of-59 all by himself.• The Pistons were swept for the first time since the 2003 Eastern Conference finals and lost in the first round for the first time since 2000. Cleveland's only sweep before this series was its 4-0 first-round triumph over Washington two years ago.

• What was a 66-16 regular-season record for the Cavs now is a 70-16 mark overall, with a goal of 82 victories to earn the championship trophy.

• The natural parallel for the Pistons is the Atlanta Braves, a franchise that sustained excellence for a decade and a half yet, like Detroit, broke through for just one victory. The Braves reached the postseason 11 years in a row and in 14 of 15 seasons, but the only time champagne flowed after their final out was in 1995. That October, Atlanta beat Cleveland in six games, with pitcher Tom Glavine earning the playoff MVP honors. The rest of the time? Atlanta lost four times in the World Series, four times in the NL championship series and five times in the division round.

• Just because Detroit as an organization is ready for renovation and reinvention, some of its parts still have life in them. Ben Wallace with Cleveland, Chauncey Billups with Denver and former coach Rick Carlisle, who predates the franchise's 2004 championship and now works Dallas' sideline, are positioned well for second-round duty.

If ever there was a late-game situation to entrust Dwight Howard with the Orlando Magic's fate, it came in Game 4 against Philadelphia on Sunday at the Wachovia Center. Orlando and Philly were tied at 81-81 after Samuel Dalembert's catch and slam with 14.8 seconds left.That bucket had been the capper of a 12-2 run by the 76ers that obliterated the Magic's 79-69 lead, but at least Orlando coach Stan Van Gundy had this much going for him: If he forced the ball inside to Howard, the odds were good that Philadelphia either would give up the game-winner from within a few feet of the rim or it would foul the All-Star center. Either way, the downside risk was virtually nil; win now or head to overtime.

So naturally, Van Gundy has Hedo Turkoglu dribble down the clock on the perimeter and launch a three-pointer when he only needed one point. A mere 1.1 remained on the game clock when Turkoglu's shot swished through. Guess the element of surprise still matters -- Turkoglu had been struggling in the series so far, especially in the final quarter. But after averaging 11 points in the first three games, and totaling only 10 points in the fourth quarters on 3-of-14 shooting, the 6-foot-10 forward went 3-of-4 Sunday and finished with 17 points.

At least the final play wasn't a pick-and-roll, the set in which Orlando had been successful lately in stymieing Turkoglu with extra defenders. Philadephia had been so effective in frustrating him that Turkoglu was getting resigned to being a passer in this best-of-seven series. Now he's got a best-of-three in which to return as a scorer.

• The Philadelphia team that dug out of its fourth-quarter hole Sunday was the Philadephia team we came to know in the regular season: A quick, push-the-ball unit that did better without Elton Brand than with him. The 76ers unleashed their fast break during that 12-2 run in Game 4 and, in the two games in Philly, had a 33-13 edge in fast-break scoring while playing in front of their home fans. In the two games in Orlando, though, their advantage was a modest 21-17, so we'll see how comfortable they are pushing the pace down in central Florida.

• The two Andres, Iguodala and Miller, combined for 139 points in the first three games and had five performances of 20 points or more in six tries (Miller scored 15 in the opener). But this time, they scored 13 and 17 points respectively, getting much tighter coverage.

• Did you see Donyell Marshall's creaky, cringe-inducing attempt to drive to the basket? Now we know why he's devolved into an arc loiterer.

• Maybe it's just me, but Philadelphia's Reggie Evans -- with the bushy beard and the shaved head -- could play the flashback scenes if anyone decides to make a Kimbo (MMA) Slice bio-pic.

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