With Round 2 of the 2009 NBA Playoffs set to wrap up, let’s look at the good and the bad from so far.
Chauncey Billups and the Denver Nuggets have been the stars of the 2009 Playoffs
Good: Point Guard Play
The old adage used to be: you can’t win a championship without a top-flight big man. That statement seems to be about as relevant in 2009 as the idea of waiting three days to call a girl after a first date.
Seriously look around:
In Denver, the Nuggets are absolutley cruising in the playoffs, essentially untested through nine games. The biggest reason? Denver had a Fashion Emergency type makeover at the point guard position, trading in the never satisfied, I gotta get mine Allen Iverson for the team first Chauncey Billups.
Since acquiring Billups, Denver has completely revamped their style of play, with even shoot-first guys like Carmelo Anthony and J.R. Smith looking to make the extra pass. They now await the winner of the Houston-LA series, after breezing through their first nine playoff games.
As for Billups’ former team, the Detroit Pistons? With Iverson’s arrival, the Pistons went completely in the tank, becoming more disorganized than the set of the Maury Povich Show. Rip Hamilton got moved to the bench then brought back into the starting line-up, Rasheed Wallace went into full-fledged sulk mode, and Iverson was so bad that they actually shut him down for the playoffs. The Pistons were swept out by LeBron’s Cavs, and now look as uncertain as ever heading into the off-season. We haven’t seen a seemingly well run unit fall as fast as the Pistons since Adam Carrolla and Jimmy Kimmel left The Man Show.
Looking around the rest of the league, point guard play has never been a bigger factor in a team’s playoff output: In Boston, Rajon Rondo has put on an all-around display that’s making Deron Williams and Chris Paul blush from their couches. The fourth year guard is averaging 17 points, 9.5 rebounds and 10.1 assists, while also playing phenomenal defense and getting two steals a game. Boston continues to win without Kevin Garnett, and if you think it’s just Paul Pierce and Ray Allen, you haven’t been watching.Mo Williams has become the first second option in Cleveland to actually say, “You know what, this LeBron guy is pretty good. Let me help where I can, and otherwise, get the heck out of his way.” Through a dominating eight games, Williams has been good but hardly great, playing the Ed McMahon to LeBron’s Johnny Carson. Williams knows he’s there to smile, laugh at a few of LeBron’s jokes, and make open three’s, no more, no less. He’s done it perfectly averaging 14 points and 4.5 assists. And the Cavaliers haven’t lost yet. Despite Yao Ming going down, the Rockets are still alive in the Lakers series, and it’s in large part due to Aaron Brooks. Brooks, who’s graciously listed at 6’0 even, has sliced and diced through LA’s backcourt, leaving tread marks on Derek Fisher’s back in the process. He’s averaged 16 points a game in the series, and if Houston wants to force a Game 7, needs a big night from their smallest guy. Even though they lost their series with the Celtics, did anybody have a coming out party like Derrick Rose in this playoffs? He had 36 points and 11 assists in his first career postseason game, in the process starting the Boston-Chicago series on its way to the best 1st Round series in NBA history. Meanwhile, Rose also threw his hat into the debate along with Paul and Williams as to who will be the best point guard of the next decade.
The Bad: The Big Guys
Is it safe to say, it hasn’t been this bad, to be this large since VH1 came out with the Biggest Loser series.
For starters, you’ve got the pre-eminent big of his generation Tim Duncan, bowing out in the first round of the playoffs for the first time since 2000. Do you even remember 2000? LeBron was a freshman in high school, people watched VHS tapes, and Y2K, not SARS or the bird flu was all the rage. Needless to say, it’s been awhile.
Then you have the star of last year’s playoffs, and lead Celtic, Kevin Garnett going down with an injury, missing all of Boston’s postseason in the process. Despite it, his team has been able to re-invent itself, and even without their biggest, baddest guy is still only a game away from a second straight Eastern Conference finals.
In Houston Yao Ming went down, and so too did the Rockets title chances. Or so we thought. In their first game without basketball’s biggest center, Houston laid down an Ike Turner type beat-down on the Lakers, tying the series in the process.
Speaking of L.A., Andrew Bynum has gone from the next Wilt to the next Michael Olowakandi faster than the swine flu went from epidemic to non-existent. The numbers don’t lie: Bynum averaged 14 points and 8 rebounds in 29 minutes a game during the regular season, and is down to 5 and 3 in 14 minutes in the playoffs. Not quite Wilt in his prime.
Even the NBA’s resident gentle giant Dwight Howard is getting into the act, calling out his coach and complaining that he isn’t getting enough touches. I haven’t seen Howard this mad since the last time he was at Baskin Robbins and they ran out of rainbow sprinkles.
Finally, you know it’s a terrible year for quality post play when Glen “Big Baby,” Davis is one of the most effective big guys in this postseason. And even he can’t escape the cloud of shoving that kid after Boston’s Game 4 win (Random side note, can Big Baby get away with the first ever, “He was asking for it” defense, in regards to that shove? I mean the kid was on the court right? And it’s hard to miss Big Baby when he’s running at you like a rhino in mating season. I’m just thinking out loud here).
The Good: Denver’s Bench
Simply put, the Nuggets are not in the Western Conference finals without their bench play.
For my money, J.R. Smith is the most effective bench guy in the entire playoffs; and there’s no one even close. In just 26 minutes of play a game, Smith is averaging 16 points, 2.5 assists and 2 three’s. Most impressively, for a guy who’s been known as a relentless gunner throughout his career, Smith has been surprisingly efficient knocking down shots. So far he’s shooting just under 50 percent from the field, and over 40 percent for three.
The Nuggets also wouldn’t be where they are now without the Birdman, Chris Andersen. Like Smith, the Birdman flies (no pun intended) all over the court, like a chicken with his head cut off (ok pun intended there), reeking havoc and constant chaos for the other team. Through the playoffs he’s averaged 7 points, 6 rebounds and 2 blocks per game. It’s also no coincidence that the only game the Nuggets lost so far was the one the Birdman didn’t play.
And speaking of the Birdman, should Denver play the Lakers, can you imagine the psychological damage Andersen is going to do to Pau Gasol? I mean seriously, if Gasol is struggling against the likes of Carl Landry for the Rockets (you know, a guy who’s giving away about six inches to the Spainard), what’s going to happen when the Birdman is guarding him? I’m pretty sure Gasol gets scared by a strong thunderstorm, so needless to say I’m deathly afraid of what’s going to happen the first time the Birdman checks in the game. This may be the worst thing that’s happened to Gasol’s career since buree’s were forbidden in the NBA’s new dress code.
Moving off of Gasol and his fear of what’s under his bed, Denver’s bench is rounded out nicely by Anthony “Where’d My Neck Go,” Carter and Linas Kleiza.
Bad: The Lakers bench
For a unit which was supposedly the best in basketball all season long, the Lakers bench suddenly looks surprisingly thin.
You’ve got Lamar Odom, who’s hardly been good, and is now suffering from a back injury that could bother him the rest of the playoffs. Even before the injury Odom was limited in his effectiveness, barely scoring double digits, even in the games in which he played 30 minutes.
As for the rest of the bench, it consists of several has been’s and a few never were’s.
Here’s my question, who kidnapped last year’s Sasha Vujacic, and he replaced him with the cyborg that’s on the court this year? Phil Jackson and Jerry Buss should honestly have a cash reward to whoever can find him.
Because about this time last year, Vujacic couldn’t miss. He was as automatic as anyone, the Staples Center shocked whenever the ball didn’t swish through the hoop.
Through his first 10 games in last year’s playoffs, Vujacic was phenomenal, scoring double figures six times. This year, he hasn’t gone for 10 points once, shooting 24 percent from the field since the beginning of the postseason. Nothing short of “Greg Norman at Augusta,” can describe the 25-year-old Slovenian’s play right now.
As for the rest of the motley crew known as the Lakers bench:
You’ve got a 6’4 shooting guard who’s playing for his fourth team in three years (Shannon Brown), Josh Powell playing for his fifth team in four years and D.J. Mbenga, who despite his African roots is somehow a native of Belgium. While those three might make for an interesting cast on Survivor, I’m not sure that I want them playing major minutes for my team in the playoffs. Heck, if Brown couldn’t find a role in Charlotte, nor Powell for the Clippers, why did we expect them to contribute for the Lakers? These will be questions I’m asking myself when the Lakers are favored against the Nuggets in the next round.
And finally there’s Jordan Farmar, who has actually been quite productive in the last few games. Unfortunately, since he’s the only guard on the roster that can actually stay in front of the opposition defensively, Farmar might have to start before long.
The Good: Dirk Nowitzki
I know America is getting a good laugh at Dirk’s recent “relationship problems,” and quite honestly we all should be. The plot is funnier than any episode of My Name Is Earl that I’ve ever seen (which I guess really isn’t saying much). I mean seriously, who doesn’t enjoy a superstar athlete being engaged to a con-artist who went by about 400 different aliases? Anyone? This chick makes the octo-mom look like Carol Brady.
But all joking aside, Dirk stepped up in the playoffs like has never before in his career, and if it wasn’t for a below average supporting cast, the Mavericks might still be playing.
Look at Dirk’s numbers against the Nuggets: He averaged 34 points and 11 rebounds, while shooting 57-62 from the foul line, good for 92 percent from the foul-line. 92 percent! For a guy who went to the line 62 times in 5 games! And is 7’0 tall. No one besides LeBron has been more impressive this postseason.
And for a guy who has always been labeled as a bit soft, Dirk continually stepped up in big spots, making big shots. Not to mention that he did it all while being hit, hacked and straight up assaulted by Kenyon Martin, Carmelo Anthony and Birdman Andersen. Not exactly the stars of Mitch Albom’s next book “Three Guys You Meet In Heaven.”
Over the course of this season, Mavs owner Mark Cuban threatened on several occasions to blow up this team, and for Dirks sake let’s hope they do. He’s 31 and his best years are quickly falling behind him.
Speaking of Dirk’s teammates…
The Bad: Everyone on Dallas’ roster not named Dirk
Maybe this series would have turned out different if Antoine Wright had successfully fouled Carmelo in Game 3. I don’t know.
But what I do know is that this group got really old, really fast. The sun isn’t setting on them, it’s been down for awhile now.
Here’s the truth, and I know that it hurts: Jason Kidd couldn’t defend most WNBA guards at this point. Jason Terry never seemed to be able to hit an open shot. Erick Dampier is about as effective as Cuban would be in the post at this point. And I’m sorry, but when Jose Barea is one of your rotation guys, you’re in trouble. He’s like your friends little brother that tags along when you play pick up games. Sure it’s cute when he makes a nice play, but when its crunch time, you sure hope he’s on the other team.
These are the facts, and as was previously mentioned, it might time to blow up this team.
Old and slow is out these days. And so are the Mavericks in this year’s playoffs.
The Good: Chauncey Billups
I know I’ve mentioned Billups on a few different occasions already, but it cannot be emphasized enough: the way he has turned this team around is absolutely the story of this playoffs.
Coming into the season, Denver’s locker room was like the Wild Wild West. No shot too wacky, any semblance of team play and defense gone by the way side. Iverson was running the pack, and no shot seemed too outlandish and head coach George Karl’s time seemed to be ticking.
But as soon as Billups entered the picture things changed. The young guys became accountable. Everyone started playing defense. Extra passes were made. It was almost like the entire roster got an intervention, with Billups leading the way.
However, despite having the second best record in the West, there were doubts about how good this team was entering the postseason.
In Round 1 Denver played the New Orleans Hornets, a team that was one game away from the Western Conference finals a year ago, and a darkhorse to pull a round one upset. Not only did New Orleans not pull the upset, they were eliminated in four embarrassing games. The Mavericks faired one game better in Round 2.
What makes Billups transformation of the Nuggets impressive, goes well beyond his personal stats, although 22 points and 7.5 assists a game isn’t too shabby. But it’s the way he’s gotten everyone else around him to change their games and mindsets in the process.
During Game 5 against Dallas, there was a pivotal play where J.R. Smith sliced across the lane, and threw an impossibly high alley-oop to Kenyon Martin, which the big guy invariably flushed down. It was a play that might make the highlights, but was significantly more important in real time. The roof in Denver almost came off, and the Nuggets had all but wrapped up the series.
The play was also seminal in regards to Denver’s entire run this season. A year ago, Smith would have rather dunked that ball from the foul line than throw the extra pass. He, like the rest of his teammates was much more concerned with getting his stats than getting a win. It is why Denver had lost in the first round of the playoffs each of the past five years.
Now not only does Smith throw the pass, but so does everyone else on this team, and that may be the most important thing Billups has brought to Denver, a sense of team.
After the pass, Smith and Martin chest bumped in mid-air, like a couple of beer league softball guys celebrating a game winning home run. Not only would the pass have never happened a year ago, but the embrace of teammates wouldn’t have either. Now it happens 10 times a game, every game.
Ultimately this playoffs will probably be remembered as LeBron James’ coming out party, and that’s probably fair.
But we can’t forget about Billups either. One guy doesn’t get to seven straight conference finals in two leagues by accident.
Forget “Mr. Big Shot,” Billups is simply the game’s biggest winner.