Second round movers and shakers.
by Colin Powers
Round 2 is off and running, offering a few surprises and some fundamental questions in these early moments. Cleveland, the front-runner and standard-bearer for the League all season, played like there were on Percocet withdrawal Monday night. Slow, lethargic, and seemingly apathetic to the beat-down being administered on their home court on the night their King was crowned MVP, the Playoff horizon has grown much more hazy in the wake of that loss. I have no need to add any further speculation about LeBron’s elbow and all its trappings, but to keep it simple, the Cavs lost their swag Monday night. It remains to be seen if they can grab it back.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, KB24 and the Lakers have capitalized on a favorable match-up with the Jazz and reinvigorated their play, play that had recently been infused with a sense of entitlement and indifference. Bryant has really impressed as a distributor, particularly when receiving the ball in the mid-post area. Because of the totality of his scoring ability, all the eyes of the defensive players innately drift over to Kobe, allowing teammates like Shannon Brown and Lamar Odom to dive to the bucket for easy 2s. KB has tremendous vision when he takes off the blinders that direct him solely at the basket, and even though he leaves his feet a bit too much when delivering the ball, he possesses the uncanny ability to make the right decision even in those scenarios where he appears most vulnerable. L.A. is clicking, Gasol is imperial on both ends of the floor; that 15-foot J is money every time, his passing distinguished, and those long arms a constant menace for Utah’s interior players (although big ups must be given to Paul Millsap, whose toughness and craftiness around the block deserve the highest commendation). If Spain brings their whole crew to Turkey this summer for the World Championships, we could be gifted with some hoop to rival the hype of the World Cup. The Spanish basketball team seems almost to mirror their footballing countrymen in their constant movement and quick, precise, knifing passing. I hope we bring a squad out there too or it could be tough goings.
Damn, what a tour de force from the Magic in Game 1. There are nights when they look like world-beaters; going almost 12 deep with an endless supply of shooters and athletes on the defensive end, they certainly have all the parts you need to win a championship. Nevertheless, they continue to strike me as being mentally fragile, specifically in Dwight’s occasionally errors of immaturity (fouls and whining at referees) and Carter’s love for his jump-shot in crunch time. Who knows, though, maybe I’m just being subconsciously influenced by Stan Van’s persistent mustache and interesting wardrobe decisions.
Phoenix and San Antonio are destined for an epic final chapter to their long, mutually dependent saga. Nash was an absolute maestro in Game 1, exploiting every crack or window of space, no matter how small, to push the Suns to an impressive and essential victory. Even on a bum hip at age 36, he still has a remarkably quick first step that is only accelerated by the tremendous accuracy with which he shoots the ball. Defenders have to be ready to challenge the jumpshot at all times, putting them off-balance and subject to the whims of Nash’s constant probing of the D. We can harp on his defense all day but damn, what a player.
After largely being controlled by the disruptive Marcus Camby, Amar’e’s poised to crush this series. His explosiveness and ability to face up from 15 feet has always troubled Duncan, and though Amar’e is not quite the dynamo he was as a pup back in the day, he has added nuance to his game that more than makes up for the slight decline in athleticism (plus, Duncan has taken a bigger hit in mobility than Amar’e). Forgotten somewhat as other dudes around the League went off in Round 1, expect Amar’e to leave an indelible imprint on the rest of the duel with San Antonio. Still, throughout this Suns-Spurs feud, Stoudemire has always put up huge numbers even though Phoenix went on to lose. With that and his inevitable offensive maelstrom as a preface to this series, I figure the victor will probably be decided elsewhere.
As in the case of Game 1, Grant Hill will continue to play a major, major part. His defense of Andre Miller in Round 1 completely changed the complexion of that match-up, reversed the growing Blazers’ momentum/Suns’ defeatist anxiety, and won the series for Phoenix as much as anything else. Against San Antonio, the ability of Hill to check Ginobili, Parker, and Hill will be pivotal going forward. All three of the aforementioned players, particulary the two veterans, are too resilient, smart, and talented to truly be shut down (as evidenced by their production in Game 1). Dealing with the constant pressure of the left-handed Argentine as well as the resurgent TP are an unenviable tasks for anyone. That said, Hill is actually as well suited as just about any to counter the SA backcourt.
Ginobili is relentless, clever, quick, and wonderfully creative. To defend him, you need physical prowess, intelligence, attention-to-detail, and absolute diligence at all times. Hill might not be a preeminent athlete any longer, but he still moves quite well. More importantly, he is one of the more cerebral players in the League today, and thus someone prepared to combat the Manu threat to the extent Manu can be combated. Take Ginobili out of his comfort zone and the entire Spurs offense loses the beat. He is the keystone, the one player that finds the open spots on the court, triggers their motion, and defines the team’s rhythm. This match-up might prove decisive.
As it has been all season, Jason Richardson’s offensive production will closely correlate with Phoenix’s chances of moving on. His skills on the break and as a tertiary option off the Nash/Amar’e pick-and-roll make the Suns far more dynamic. If he’s scoring well, things are headed in the right direction for Phoenix. On the flip-side, despite over 70 points from their big 3, San Antonio finds themselves down one game to nil. Jefferson’s endemic inconsistency cropped up again, and the rest of the Spurs complementary players followed suit. Amongst the Jefferson-Blair-Bonner-McDyess contingent, Pop needs at least two of them to deliver each night or he’ll be headed for his vineyard earlier than he’d like. The pace of Phoenix is too unyielding to keep up without getting solid contributions from those four.
Oh, and George Hill…the Spurs need you.