As hard as it is to believe, it has been over a full week since any team from the Western Conference has played in a real, sanctioned NBA Playoff game. The Suns closed out the Spurs two Sunday's ago, and the Lakers followed suit the next night in Utah, meaning there has been one LONG layoff since either Los Angeles or Phoenix has stepped on the court.
And despite all the NBA coverage over the last week, we still really haven't heard much about either of these teams lately. Especially after the Cavaliers got eliminated from the playoffs last Thursday, leading to "LeBron James' Future," becoming the lead story on every ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNNews, ABC, Fox News, BET, Telemundo and HGTV broadcast. I even think Oprah is weighing in on the subject later this afternoon.
With that, I know you all might be a little out of the loop, as we get set for Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals tonight.
Which is why I'm here. And I come bearing a gift: The Western Conference Finals: 15 Reasons To Be Excited
1. Because This Series Will Be Infinitely More Fun To Watch Than The Eastern Conference Finals: Not to take anything away from Boston-Orlando, but come on, did you watch Game 1? It was 48 minutes of tight defense, missed jumpshots, and turnovers, with more clutching and grabbing than a teenage couple in the backseat of a car. Even when things looked like they could potentially get exciting via fast break or dunk, one team would kill it by committing a hard foul and ruining the flow of the game.
As Mark Jackson said about that series, "Styles make fights." And the styles of Orlando and Boston has led to an old-school, knock 'em down, drag 'em out slugfest in the East. But Phoenix-Los Angeles? Now we're talking.
The most intriguing thing about this series to me is this: In the last round I picked the Suns to beat the Spurs, simply because I didn't think San Antonio could keep up offensively. Did I think it'd be a sweep? Hell no. But at the same time, Phoenix is capable of scoring 105 points on an "off night," and I just didn't think the Spurs could match them. Apparently, for once in my life, I was right.
But when it comes to the Western Conference Finals, you know what? The Lakers can keep up.
If they play good enough defense to hold the Suns to 95 points they can score 98 to win. If Phoenix explodes for 115, the Lakers can match it with 117. They can play fast or slow, big or small, offensive or defensive, and combine that with Phoenix's already super-exciting break neck play, that leaves us with one of the most exciting playoff series I can remember.
Again, styles make fights. And I am most definitely looking forward to this fight.
2. Steve Nash's Eye: Seriously did anybody see Nash on Sportscenter Sunday morning? The guy looked like a weird cross between a Chernobyl victim, and somebody straight off Shutter Island. His eye was still swollen and semi-shut, and was a weird combination of black and blue, with a little green and yellow mixed in. Poor Nash. I'm people sure there were blind people who cringed Sunday when he came on the screen.
As a matter of fact, just to be safe I've decided to skip my pregame meal before Monday night's game. Wouldn't want to lose it on the first Nash close up of the game.
3. Kobe Bryant: Umm, duh.
Here's the crazy thing about Bryant. It was just a few games ago, that the guy looked like he might be on his last legs. He was good, but hardly great in the Oklahoma City series, to the point that I wrote this right after Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals:
Clearly Kobe is still the man, and to loosely quote NBA commentator Hubie Brown, “Is still one of the elite players that we have, in our league today. But now closing in on 32-years of age, and with all those regular season, playoff and Olympic games on his resume these last few years, he’s definitely lost a step too.
Now sure, Kobe can notch things up when he needs to, as he did with 31 points in Game 1 of the Lakers second round series with Utah. But he also put up back-to-back 12 and 13 point games against Oklahoma City as well.
And more than ever, Bryant just looks old. He hasn’t been able to get to the basket as easily for the past few years now, and even his up-and-under pump fake game hasn’t fooled many this spring.
Right now, Bryant reminds me of an old dog off the leash at a park. The dog is definitely a step slower, but smart as ever, and knows that he can’t chase every squirrel. But if he picks his spots, he still might be able to catch one or two.
Since then, Kobe has been, well, Kobe. He averaged 32 points a game in the Utah series on over 50 percent shooting from the field, leaving a wake of slow-footed, stiff, Utah defenders in his path. At one point, somebody actually had to come scrape C.J. Miles off the floor after a Bryant bucket.
For all intents and purposes Kobe is back, although to say that is implying that at some point he actually left. Is it too late to take back what I said a week ago?
4. The Many (Pained) Faces of Pau Gasol: Alright, I've got to come clean: After years of taking as many unprovoked cheap shots at Gasol as humanly possible (Including everything ranging from his mental toughness to personal hygiene), I've got to admit, I was wrong. The guy is good. Really good. And make no mistake, it's he, and not Super-Fraud Dwight Howard or the one-dimensional Amare Stoudemire who is the most complete post guy playing right now. Maybe he doesn't block shots like Howard, or finish in the lane like Stoudemire, but he is the best fit for this Lakers team.
At the same time though, it's still really, really hard for me to take the guy seriously. I mean, I know he's tough, but why does he feel the need to act like he got stabbed with a rusted knife every time he gets bumped, bruised, nicked or cut in the post? Why does he feel the need pout like a six-year-old every time a whistle doesn't blow his way? Why can't he just take a hard foul and walk to the foul line?
So to Mr. Gasol, I've got a request: You're phenomenal, you really are, but quit the whining and just play. If you want to be taken seriously, you can't run to the refs every time you get touched, like a little kid complaining to his mom about getting roughed up by an older brother. Grow up, because the schtick is getting old. And I for one am getting sick of it.
Ohh, and one more thing. Please put on some deodrant. You stink.
(Sorry...Couldn't help myself)
5. Grant Hill vs. Ron Artest: Has there ever been a better matchup of "genuinely nice guy," vs. "certifiably insane?" in basketball history? The only example I can think of that even comes close is when Dennis Rodman defended Pope John Paul III in a Celebrity Game. Other than that, I can't think of one.
6. Goran Dragic: Easily my favorite sports moment of 2010 was when the wispy Dragic (Who looks more like a ball boy than a legit NBA guard) caught fire in the fourth quarter of Game 3 against San Antonio, scoring 20 points, and turning a super-tight swing game into an And 1 Mixtape laugher (If you don't know what I'm talking about, watch this clip).
More importantly, aren't outbursts like Dragic's the reason that we slog through hours of sports every year? The reason we sit through meaningless regular season baseball games, and first round tennis matches and those Ball State-Western Michigan college football games? For those 2-3 moments every year when you know you're watching something you've never seen before, or will see again.
7. The Moment When You Realize, "Wow, I Totally Forgot Adam Morrison Is On The Lakers": Have we ever had so many questions about a player who very likely won't play at all in a series? Here are a few of mine:
1. Does Phil Jackson even knows his name?
2. Does he even bother to wear a uniform under his warmups anymore?
3. Do you think Kobe has ever made him cry?
4. Does he spend his Friday nights in the dark, drinking can after can of Pabst Blue Ribbon and watching his old Gonzaga highlight tapes?
Because that's probably what I'd be doing if I was him. Maybe we should just keep going, I'm getting depressed.
8. Phoenix Coach Alvin Gentry: Easily the most underrated story of these playoffs is what Gentry's done in Phoenix.
It started last season, when he took over for Terry Porter, inheriting a team that was more dysfunctional than a cast of Sober House and teetering on the brink of falling apart. Within a few games he completely turned them around, and transformed the Suns into a legitimate playoff threat. At least until a fluke eye injury to Amare blew up their season. People forget now, but the Suns were the team that nobody wanted to play last February and March, and still only missed the playoffs by two games, despite the fact that Stoudemire didn't play in their last 29.
In 2010, Gentry has done the following: Instilled a successful defensive mindset in Phoenix for the first time in the Nash era; developed, matured and nurtured a group of backups, to the point that it's the Suns that have the deeper bench in this series; helped create a culture that makes the Suns a super-tight team, one where Nash and Stoudemire gladly sat out most of the fourth quarter of Game 3 against San Antonio when Dragic caught fire and the team was playing better without them; and finally, he's been one of the few coaches I can remember who has toed the line of being a player's coach, while also still commanding the respect of his team.
If Phoenix were to somehow pull an upset and win this series, it would obviously be because of Nash, Stoudemire, Hill and others. But it'd also be in large part because of Gentry. It's time we start to give him a little credit.
9. Phoenix Guard Jason Richardson: He's playing so well right now that no one's even bothering to make jokes about the time he got arrested for driving 90 mph with his kid unrestrained in the back seat.
Woops, did I say that out loud?
10. This Series Is The Only Two Hours Of Your Day Where There Won't Be Any LeBron James Talk: Is he going to Chicago? Or New York? Staying in Cleveland? Going to Europe? How about New Guinea? Are he and John Calipari a package deal? Is he demanding that Mike Brown be fired? Did he call Derrick Rose? Was he behind the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico? LeBron, LeBron, LeBron!!!!
Once this game tips off at 9:00 p.m. tonight, we can finally just focus on basketball.
11. Can Lamar Odom Add To the Kardashian Trophy Case: Kim's ex-boyfriend Reggie Bush won a Super Bowl in January. Their stepdad Bruce Jenner is an Olympic Gold Medalist. And Kourtney's husband Scott recently won Time Magazine's "Least Influential Person of the Year," Award. Can Odom add a Larry O'Brien to the Kardashian trophy case?
12. Charles Barkley, Kenny Smith and Ernie Johnson: With this series being played entirely on TNT, we've got the best studio crew in the game, period. In the mean time, we won't be subjected to any goofy fluff pieces, any goofy Dwight Howard impressions, and best of all, we won't be subjected to ANY Stuart Scott.
Can I get a "Boo-Yah!!!"
Let's just move on.
12. Jared "JMZ," Dudley: For those of you who might not know, Suns backup Jared Dudley has created a really cool alter-ego via Twitter, where he refers to himself as JMZ (Like TMZ? Get it? Get it??????). On his account he posts funny pictures, and conducts goofy interviews, basically giving all of us 5'10 un-athletic white guys pretty good insight into what being inside an NBA locker room is like.
If you have Twitter, I seriously recommend you follow Dudley, and if you don't have it, I recommend signing up just for JMZ's updates.
And while you're following Dudley, feel free to follow me too (Unfortunately, the only videos I post are from my family vacation to the beach back in 1992. But still, add me anyway...Please?)
13. Robin Lopez Is Back!!: And he's bringing his Anderson Varejao-style hair with him!
14. Andrew Bynum's Knee: Easily the most under discussed storyline heading into this series is the health of Andrew Bynum's knee. He's playing with a torn meniscus, and the latest reports are that it's only getting worse.
So with that, here's my question: With the Lakers having had a week off since the Utah series ended, why didn't they have Bynum get surgery?
As someone who just had the same surgery less than two years ago, I can tell you that within a few days after going under the knife I was back close to 100 percent. Obviously, I'm not a professional athlete, but Brandon Roy also had meniscus surgery before these playoffs and missed just eight days total.
Let's play devil's advocate here, and say that Bynum elected to have the surgery, maybe two days after Los Angeles closed out Utah. Say that given his size and injury history, they had him sit out Game's 1 and 2 to rest the knee before having him come back for the rest of the series. That'd still give him close to full weeks to rest before being forced back into action.
Of course Bynum didn't have the surgery, so that's all heresy now. But would you rather have Bynum at 60 percent for this whole series and the remainder of the playoffs, or have him miss two games now, and be at 100 percent from here on out?
As Chad Ochocinco would say: I'm not saying...I'm just saying.
15. Seeing Phoenix Make It To The NBA Finals?: I wish.
But I still think that even with Bynum at less than 100 percent, there's too much size and too much skill on Los Angeles.
Lakers in six.