May Madness

Publish date:

The world . . . was made to be wooed and won by youth," Winston Churchill wrote in his autobiography, and point guard Chris Paul of the New Orleans Hornets, who turned 23 on Tuesday, must have been thinking along those lines last Saturday night in Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinals at New Orleans Arena. Time after time in the second half he dribbled up the gut of the San Antonio Spurs' defense and encountered either 32-year-old power forward Tim Duncan, firmly planted in perfect position to help, or the NBA's most physical defender, 36-year-old swingman Bruce Bowen, hands and feet churning. But Paul, a 6-foot, 175-pound third-year pro playing in only his sixth postseason game, never retreated. At one point he ventured into the paint, bounced off Bowen, released a shot, fell to the floor and jumped up to jabber at his nemesis.

Hours earlier at The Palace of Auburn Hills, the Detroit Pistons, with four starters who were winning an NBA championship in 2004 when Paul was just a freshman at Wake Forest, were having none of that victorious-youth stuff. Orlando Magic point guard Jameer Nelson, all 26 years and 72 inches of him, tried his lane-driving act in the second quarter, but there to meet him, like a linebacker plugging a hole, was the Pistons' Chauncey Billups, Nelson's bête noire throughout the season. The 31-year-old Billups, in his 109th playoff game (it was Nelson's 10th), drew the charge, one of a couple dozen times during the evening that experience and guile prevailed over youth and vigor.

Welcome to the second round of the playoffs, the NBA's version of the Elite Eight. With the pretenders out of the way (goodbye, Dallas Mavericks and Phoenix Suns) and the overachievers having exited (wait till next year, Atlanta Hawks and Philadelphia 76ers), the postseason is down to the top four seeds in each conference -- which brings with it the promise of higher-quality basketball and more magical finishes, sure to spike even further playoff TV ratings that were already up significantly over the first round of a year ago. Here age is but another number, not something that can predict the outcome of any series.

It is far too early in the second round to reach conclusions, but the dominance of the Hornets in Game 1 (a 101-82 drubbing of the defending-champion Spurs) suggests a shift in the balance of power in the West, while the aggressive play of the Los Angeles Lakers, who marched to the foul line 46 times (Kobe Bryant alone was 21 of 23) in Sunday's 109-98 Game 1 win over the Utah Jazz, continues a return to glory for the franchise that won three straight championships at the beginning of this century. (Through Sunday, L.A. was the only team that had not lost in this postseason.) LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers were not scheduled to make their second-round debut until Tuesday, owing to the Boston Celtics' unexpected seven-game series against the Atlanta Hawks. Whether that marathon said more about the Celtics (not nearly as good as their 66-win regular season would indicate) or the Hawks (not nearly as bad as their 37-win regular season would indicate) will be revealed in the coming days when the Shamrocks take on James, who almost single-handedly cut the heart out of the Pistons in the 2007 Eastern finals.

Last season ended, however, with one of the most one-sided Finals in history, the Cavs getting buzz-sawed by the Spurs. Coming off a regular season notable for tight races in the West, several marquee trades, elevated TV ratings, renewal in New Orleans and renaissance in Boston and L.A., the NBA hopes that this June's denouement is more satisfying. The excitement is already building.

He's a Pistol

Late in the third quarter of Game 1 in the City That Care (and FEMA) Forgot, Paul sped toward the basket with his characteristic shoulder-high dribble. Suddenly, he let the ball bounce once on its own, seemingly ceding control of it, a strategem that enabled him to juke by an off-balance Bowen. Then Paul spun around forward Robert Horry, who fouled him, and just missed a layup that could've led to a three-point play. Pete Maravich, who played in New Orleans (with the Jazz) for five seasons in the 1970s after starring at nearby LSU, frequently used that stutter dribble. "I've heard of him," Paul says of Pistol Pete, "but the move is something I picked up on my own." He first tried it last season, when the dreaded composite ball was put into play, and refined it after the NBA returned to the stickier old-school rock.

Indeed, when Paul takes off in transition these days, the sense of anticipation he engenders is comparable to what transpired when Maravich had the ball in the open court in his heyday. Fans think, Something special's about to happen. The best part is that it probably won't be a dunk (though Paul did throw one down when he was all alone late in Saturday's game), but rather something earthbound, perhaps a spin move in heavy traffic, an ankle-breaking crossover or a no-look pass thrown behind him, for Paul always knows where his trailing shooters will be spotting up. "In his good games," Lakers forward Lamar Odom observed of Paul before the playoffs, "he brings everybody along with him." A great turn of phrase.

Still, we can't even be sure that Paul, who runs what San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich calls "an organized playground offense," will emerge as the best point guard in the series. The game of his Spurs' counterpart, Tony Parker, is more elemental, based almost entirely on speed and quickness, in contrast to Paul's on-the-fly calculation. Defenses know that Parker, given any kind of opening, is going to take it into the paint and, lately it seems, try to get all the way to the hoop rather than release his floating teardrop. The excellent 23-point, five-assist Game 1 of Parker, last year's Finals MVP, was overlooked amid the difficulty that teammate Duncan (five points) had in solving the Hornets' double-teaming defense. This is the best point-guard matchup in the second round since, well, last year, when Parker got the better of the Suns' Steve Nash.

LeBron the Elder

James rarely deviates from the vanilla script he follows on and off the court. In Cleveland's first-round series against the Washington Wizards, he was often the target of hard fouls -- reserve Darius Songaila was suspended for what turned out to be the final game for hitting James in the face two nights earlier -- and was called overrated by guards DeShawn Stevenson and Gilbert Arenas. But like a cagey trout who has seen it all before, James refused to snap at the bait. After the Cavs' series-clinching Game 6 win, after Stevenson had been returned to the NBA obscurity he so richly deserves and Arenas sent back to his blog, James's post-Game 5 words resonated: "As long as I'm on the court, we have a great chance to win." It didn't even come across as bragging; it was a simple statement of fact.

James's off-the-charts maturity contrasts with that of the Celtics' Paul Pierce, against whom he will be matched often in the Eastern semifinal that was scheduled to begin on Tuesday in Boston. While James was restrained yet disdainful toward his lesser first-round tormentors, Pierce lost it on a couple of occasions. He was fined $25,000 for the "menacing gesture" he made toward the Hawks bench in Game 3. (It still isn't clear whether the three-fingered sign was gang-related or an expression of "blood, sweat and tears," as Celtics executive director of basketball operations Danny Ainge claimed.) Then, after fouling out with 4:44 left in Game 6, Pierce was hit with a technical for throwing his headband, a crucial mistake -- in a game Atlanta would win by three points -- that one might have expected from the callow Hawks rather than the 30-year-old Pierce.

Fortunately for the Celtics, they have the more responsible and mature Kevin Garnett. After point guard Rajon Rondo was knocked to the floor on a hard third-quarter foul by Atlanta forward Marvin Williams on Sunday, it was the Big Ticket who got to Rondo (once he shook off the cobwebs) and said, "You did a great job. Keep your head and make your free throws." Rondo did. Later in the quarter it was Garnett who, after being called for a moving screen on center Zaza Pachulia, resisted the temptation -- as tempting as it was with a huge lead -- to engage Pachulia, who had confronted Garnett in Game 4.

Garnett has never been considered anything but a steadfast leader. The difference is that James, 8 1/2 years his junior, is considered a leader and a prime-time postseason performer. This series represents Garnett's chance to become the same.

Wild and Crazy Guys

Whether the Pistons are playing well or badly, they are out there on their own, insular and self-contained, impossible to deconstruct, the sole residents of Planet Piston. Even coach Flip Saunders can't figure out his players or rein them in. Sometimes they curse and scream at one another, and sometimes they curse and scream at the refs. Yet at other times they effect a composure that's almost eerie. During Game 6 of their first-round series against the 76ers in Philadelphia, for example, forward Rasheed Wallace, Detroit's lightning rod and most fiery personality, was getting ripped unmercifully by fans in the front row for that strange gray spot in his hair. Sheed said nothing, didn't even so much as glance at them.

It remains to be seen what kind of attitude the Pistons will carry through the second round. Boston went into the postseason as the clear favorite in the East with aging Detroit perceived as not sufficiently motivated, probably not up to the task. Now with the Celtics' taking seven to dispatch the Hawks and the Pistons' winning their last four games (through Sunday) by an average of 17.0 points, the tag of Eastern favorite falls once again upon the Bad Boys 2.0. Opponents are saying the same things they said in '04, when the starters who remain in Detroit's lineup -- Billups, Wallace, guard Rip Hamilton and forward Tayshaun Prince -- were bullying their way to the championship. "Their defense wears on you," says Magic coach Stan Van Gundy.

During warmups an hour before last Saturday night's Game 1 tip-off, as Orlando assistant coach Patrick Ewing tossed entry passes into the Magic big men, he rarely took his eyes off the Pistons' side of the floor. What's with these guys? Ewing's gaze seemed to suggest.

Everyone else is wondering the same thing.

Kobe's Final Act of Redemption?

Bryant has played so splendidly over the last four seasons without Shaquille O'Neal that it's possible to forget how badly he wants to win a title that he can call his own. Right now, Bryant holds all of L.A. in his hands, the leading man ready to walk down the aisle and pick up his Oscar. Before Game 1 on Sunday at Staples Center, a montage of Bryant highlights that played like a feature film was shown on a temporary screen that hung from the rafters, eliciting chants of "M-V-P" from the crowd. An image of the HOLLYWOOD sign flashed across with the phrase THE HEART OF THE CITY BEATS AGAIN, and an ever-so-slight smile came over the face of Bryant, whose NBA MVP award, in fact, had been reported early by the Los Angeles Times 36 hours before. The chant resurfaced several times during the game, as it had at a team dinner days earlier when Bryant, who is due about $69 million over the next three years from the franchise he wanted to flee before the season, made perhaps his best move of the year. "As soon as he picked up the bill," says Odom, "we all started chanting 'M-V-P.' "

The rape charges, the enervating game-day trips to Colorado for court proceedings (the charges were dismissed), the petty ego clashes with O'Neal and coach Phil Jackson.... all of it seems to have moved to the bottom of Kobe's CV. Consider Bryant solely from an on-court perspective: From time to time he surfaces as an athletic wonder, corkscrewing his body into a showstopping shot. But more often his brilliance reveals itself prosaically -- the rise-up jumper, the gnarly defense, the eternal attack mode, the pats on the back and brotherly advice he gives to teammates. He scored 38 points on Sunday, but his defining play was the brilliant, look-away bounce pass he made to center Pau Gasol that gave the Lakers a 98-90 lead with 1:30 left.

This weekend, though, the Lakers will have to go on the road to Salt Lake City's EnergySolutions Arena. The venue presents a particularly imposing challenge for visiting teams, which lost 37 of 41 games there. The fans are rabid and seasoned hunters (one carries a sign referring to himself as VICIOUS MORMON FAN) who consider Bryant, a brash superstar with a past, to be fair game. Paul, too, will get an earful in San Antonio, as will James in Boston, as will even the Pistons in comparatively meek and mild Orlando. By this point, though, it is not about young or old, home or away, up-tempo or half-court. It is about strength or weakness, and only the strong will move on.