Wednesday May 6th, 2009

Five observations while wondering why the rust that seemed to be caked all over the Lakers on Monday wasn't seen anywhere on the Cavaliers.

1. Layoff? What layoff?

The hot topic on Tuesday was that the Cavs, like the Lakers, would come out cold after an eight-day break between rounds. Uh ... no.

Cleveland built a double-digit first-quarter lead en route to a 49-44 halftime edge and never looked back, hammering Atlanta 99-72 to take a 1-0 lead in the best-of-seven series (RECAP | BOX). LeBron James scored 22 first-half points (albeit with no assists) on his way to a 34-point, 10-rebound, three-assist, four-steal night in his first game since being named the league's MVP.

Simply put, James is amazing. He's the closest thing the NBA has to a video game character. Back off him? James just pulls up for three. Shot clock winding down? Tap R1 for an alley-oop and James will fly in from the three-point line and put it down. Play breaks down? Just tap X twice with James going to the basket and he will bank home an off-balance runner. It's absurd how effortless he makes the game look.

2. So the Hawks should just pack their bags and head home now ... right?

Atlanta had only the slimmest of chances to win this series to begin with, but I don't think Tuesday night's blowout diminishes that faint hope. The Hawks are no stranger to blowouts -- they lost three games to Miami in the opening round by 15, 29 and 26 -- so any confidence they had coming into this series isn't likely to have been swept away.

But the Hawks will need to make some changes. They were very aggressive attacking the basket in the first quarter, with Josh Smith using his superior athleticism to get several open dunks. What happened to that attacking mentality in the second half? The Hawks aren't going to win a jump-shooting game with the Cavaliers; they are outgunned. But if they go to the basket, draw a few fouls and slow Cleveland's momentum, they still have a shot at going back home -- where they were 31-10 in the regular season -- with a split.

3. The new Phoenix Suns are ...

The demise of the Seven Seconds or Less Suns has left an opening for a prolific, up-tempo team and the Nuggets look like they are ready to run, er, step into it. They ran the Mavericks off the floor in Tuesday's 117-105 win (RECAP | BOX) to grab a 2-0 lead in the Western Conference semifinals. Much of the credit goes to Chauncey Billups, and deservedly so. But Denver has been getting tremendous open-court play from Carmelo Anthony, J.R. Smith, Nene and Kenyon Martin. Anthony, in particular, has been LeBron-like; when he gets a head of steam, he's either going to score or get fouled.

4. How big is the injury to Josh Howard?

Huge. Enormous. Staggering. Howard was arguably Dallas's most consistent performer in the first round with averages of 18.8 points (on 49.2 percent shooting), 5.4 rebounds and 1.4 steals. But Howard left Tuesday's game in the first half (he didn't return) after aggravating a right ankle injury. He has been battling pain in both ankles for weeks. The Mavericks have been limiting Howard in practice and reports say he is moving gingerly and lacking explosiveness.

Howard admitted on Monday that his injuries made it like "walking on eggshells." If the latest setback forces Howard to miss any games, it will deplete Dallas's bench (Sixth Man winner Jason Terry would move into the starting lineup) and remove one of the team's top two-way players.

5. Wednesday's schedule

• Orlando at Boston: After playing 371 minutes of grueling basketball against the Bulls in the first round, you had to figure the Celtics were going to come out flat in Game 1. And they did, shooting just 38.5 percent and allowing five Magic players to score in double figures. The offense should get better with an extra day of rest, but Boston has to limit the number of Orlando players having big nights. Specifically, the Celtics need to do a better job against J.J. Redick, who scored 12 points (2-for-4 from three-point range) starting in place of the injured Courtney Lee. Redick is an average defender who lacks the size and athleticism to stay with Ray Allen, who had another Game 1 clunker (nine points on 2-12 shooting). That's a position battle the Celtics must win.

• Houston at L.A. Lakers: The Lakers needed a strong effort from Andrew Bynum in Game 1. They didn't get it. Bynum, who had early foul trouble, scored a quiet 10 points in 15 minutes. The Rockets needed tough, physical defense from Shane Battier and Ron Artest. They got it. With the Rockets' defensive duo hounding him all over the floor, Kobe Bryant needed 31 shots to get his 32 points. If the Lakers find themselves in a similar game on Wednesday, they will be heading to Houston in a 2-0 hole.

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