I’m paying attention to the NBA playoffs now, are you? You should be. They’re getting good, finally.
It always takes me a while to get involved because the early rounds have about as much suspense as an episode of “Columbo.” We know who’s going to win. The entertainment value is supposed to be in watching how it plays out. Complaining about this is one of the things that keeps me going, so once more for this year:
There have been 12 playoff series so far, and one minuscule upset. Eleven times out of 12, the team with the better regular-season record has won. (The Los Angeles Lakers were seeded below the San Antonio Spurs, who had a worse record, because the Spurs won a division.) Only the Boston Celtics, all of one game behind the Detroit Pistons in the regular season, beat their betters.
Just four of the 12 series so far went to a deciding game, and all four were in the first round, which is best three of five. We have yet to see a seventh game. In fact, thanks to the one-sided nature of the best-of-seven second round, we have yet to see a sixth game.
But things are looking up now. The Lakers lost Game 2 of the Western Conference finals in Sacramento Monday night, so they’re human, beatable. They’re probably not going to be beaten, but it’s looking like the Kings are going to make a series of it. We may even see a sixth game. It remains to be seen if the Celtics are going to do the same thing in their Eastern Conference final against the New Jersey Nets. Game 2 of that series is Tuesday night in the swamplands. The series winner earns the chance to lose to the Lakers-Kings winner.
The Lakers-Kings second game turned on a little un-Laker-like sequence just before the middle of the fourth quarter. Devean George hit a free throw to bring Los Angeles to within eight at 82-74. When George missed the second free throw, the Kings didn’t box out and Robert Horry got the rebound. The ball came to George, who launched a three. It was the kind of play the Lakers make in fourth quarters. It would have brought them to within five, deflated the raucous crowd, made it look a lot like the Lakers were going to win their 13th straight road playoff game, a streak that was already an American pro sports record.
But George’s shot missed. The Kings went down and scored for a 10-point lead. On the next trip the Lakers went back to George, who was posting up on Mike Bibby. Not Shaquille O’Neal, a Laker you might be familiar with, but Devean George. He missed a turnaround jumper. The Kings scored, then scored again after Shaq made one of two free throws. When Doug Christie made a free throw, the Kings were on a 7-1 run and had built an 89-74 lead with 6:46 to go.
Good thing, too, because they needed all of that lead. From that moment on, the Kings fell apart. Their next six possessions went: turnover, miss, miss, miss, miss, miss. Over the following six minutes and 34 seconds, the Kings were outscored 16-4 as they went 1-for-9 from the field and 1-for-4 from the line with two turnovers and no offensive rebounds. They finally sealed the win by hitting three of four free throws in the final 12 seconds.
Now the series goes to Los Angeles for two games. It’s hard to picture the Kings playing defense well enough to beat L.A. The Lakers have too many weapons, most of whom — Rick Fox, Derek Fisher and Horry especially, but also Kobe Bryant, wan with the effects of food poisoning — had subpar offensive games Monday. But Sacramento’s offense, especially in the unlikely event they can get injured scorer Peja Stojakovic back in time to make a difference, is wild enough when it really clicks to give the Kings a chance.
Meanwhile, the Celtics are talking like a fighter who’s just been beaten and talks about how he just, for some reason, couldn’t get his punches off. Strangest thing, he’ll say, but I just couldn’t get myself started, couldn’t do the things I usually do. It’s less mysterious to those who watched the fight, who listen to the fighter and think to themselves: Yeah, well, the reason for that is that the other guy wouldn’t let you do them.
“That game was strange,” Boston point guard Kenny Anderson said after the Nets’ 104-97 win Sunday. “The whole thing wasn’t our m.o. I give New Jersey credit. They played well. But I don’t know what team that was out there for us tonight. I sure as hell didn’t recognize anybody out there.”
Well, I recognized the Celtics. They’re the team that got smoked by the Nets. They’re not a bad team, and they did beat the Nets three out of four in the regular season, but the Nets are surging now. And they have Jason Kidd, which means that everybody on the team seems to be better than he really is. Even you, with your flat feet and your double vision, would look pretty good if Jason Kidd were on your team.
“We let them cut backdoor on us a lot because we were so concerned about Kidd,” said Celtics star Paul Pierce. Uh, well, yeah. Isn’t that strange? And if you stop worrying about Kidd and guard the backdoor cuts, he scorches you some other way.
The Celtics have Pierce and Antoine Walker, who are better than anybody New Jersey has, Kidd excepted, but who don’t make their teammates any better than they already are. If Pierce and Walker are on, the Celtics are pretty good. If one or both has an off night, the Celtics are cooked. That’s what happened Sunday, when Pierce wasn’t quite himself.
Kidd doesn’t really have off nights. Even if he’s not scoring, his passing, his quarterbacking of the offense, his defense and his leadership are always a factor. And in this postseason, he’s scoring, averaging 20 points a game, more than five above his season average.
The Celtics thought it was weird that they just couldn’t seem to play defense in Game 1. It wasn’t weird. It was the Nets beating them with their speed and their passing. As Bob Ryan pointed out in Monday’s Boston Globe, passing is contagious. It’s not just Kidd’s passing that’s so deadly. His teammates have caught the bug. Did you see Kenyon Martin make a one-touch pass to Kerry Kittles on a fast break Sunday? Kenyon? Martin? One-touch pass?
I think the Celtics will make some adjustments defensively and Pierce will have some big games and they’ll make this enough of a series that we get one of those elusive sixth games, though I don’t think the Celtics will win it. But they won’t even make it a series if they convince themselves that Game 1 was an anomaly of some sort. It wasn’t. That’s how good the Nets are.