1. The most entertaining series of the first round has been between the Dallas Mavericks and the Golden State Warriors. I said last week that the Mavericks were in trouble because they have the kind of fundamental match up problems that are nearly impossible to mask. The Warriors have won 7 of their last 8 games versus the Mavericks. The Warriors point guard Baron Davis is dominating. He is playing defense, scoring the ball from inside and outside, rebounding and making great passes to wide open (or not so wide open) teammates. He is the MVP of this series and Dallas’ Dirk Nowitzki has been reduced to a footnote. Only Josh Howard has played with the all-around skill, tenacity and consistency to propel the Mavericks forward, and it’s not enough. Howard needs help but it will not be coming because the Warriors have the cavalry locked up in the fort. It is likely that if Baron Davis and Stephen Jackson had remained composed in Game 2, the Warriors would have figured out a way to win that game as well. The Mavs have averted a sweep, but this series may cause them to reevaluate their entire roster, and the value of one Dirk Nowitzki.
2. The Chicago Bulls are better than the Miami Heat. I didn’t need to watch a single game of this series to figure that out. I believe the Heat should be pleased to have made the playoffs given the age of their roster, the depleted skills of their veterans and the injury to Dwyane Wade (I spelled it the way he does, so back up off me!). The Bulls are a very impressive team. They have young, highly skilled offensive and defensive players who are clearly on the same page. The Bulls also have very strong personalities without tremendous egos. Scott Skiles, Ben Wallace, Ben “Madison Square” Gordon and Kirk Heinrich are all mentally tough, determined professionals who allow their tenacity and production to speak to the media and to fans. With each of these players, you know what you’re getting. You don’t need soundbites or “bulletin board material” or anything else. I’m not saying these guys are the strong, silent type – they’re not. They’re the strong, kick you in your ass type. They’ll need to be that way against Detroit.
3. Allen Iverson has already cost Denver this series. The window of opportunity for the Denver Nuggets to shock the world and defeat the San Antonio Spurs has closed. As much as I dig AI, he takes too many bad shots…too many shots with a low probability of going in…too many high risk-high reward jumpers. As one of the NBA’s elite players, he’s earned the right to chuck (I suppose), but this is a different moment. The Nuggets have some significant match up advantages against the Spurs, but the Nuggets still have Steve Blake. Blake does not afford the Nuggets the luxury of attacking the Spurs 1-5. He will not consistently knock down open jumpers, nor will he consistently beat Parker or Ginobli or anyone else off the dribble. So, Iverson has to make a higher percentage of his shots…the Nuggets have to convert a higher percentage of their possessions into points. AI is contributing to the Nuggets shooting themselves out of this series. If the Nuggets commit to taking better shots, they increase the interior advantage that Nene, Carmelo and Marcus Camby have over the Spurs. Its time to pound or go fishing.
4. The New Jersey Nets are fun to watch when Vince Carter can relax. Vince still gets a little uptight. The Toronto Raptors were fun while they lasted, but appear to be down their last round. They should use it on themselves and save the Nets the expense of a flight to Toronto. Jason Kidd and company have business in Cleveland. Kidd is the controller of the “fun button” for this offense and Richard Jefferson is not all the way back. Vinsanity is the difference. When he is rolling, the Nets can play with any team in the league. Carter, though, still appears to me as a fragile figure when immersed in confrontational scenarios. His greatest moments never seem to come in the heat of memorable battles, but as part of lesser contests. He is an exceptional talent, but he still has mountains to climb.
5. And so does his cousin. Tracy McGrady is not all that. Call me crazy. I’ve seen him do incredible things that very few players today can do, but… I’ve seen the Rockets lose a playoff series because he could not successfully inbound the ball. I’ve seen his teams consistently lose playoff matchups they should win. I’ve seen Carlos Boozer terrorize his entire franchise without so much as a whimper of opposition. When Dallas’ Roy Tarpley (a 6’10, 245 pound artisan) began to dominate the Lakers in a 1980’s playoff series, Magic Johnson said, “Enough.” He changed responsibilities, guarded Tarpley and put an end to the madness and the Mavericks. When Clyde Drexler even thought about winning a championship in Portland, Michael Jordan brought him back to reality. The nation watched Clyde wither and Jordan soar. If Tracy is to join the pantheon, he has to score AND stop Carlos Boozer and any other upstart Jazz man from walking out of this series with a W. Until he steps up like that, I don’t want to hear it.
6. Lamar Odom just kills me. He starts out with his left hand from the free throw extended…goes between the legs, sheds a defender, gathers himself after one dribble…now he’s in the paint – he goes up strong, puts the ball in his left hand and goes up some more, reaches back and SLAMS the ball down over the outstretched arms of Amare Stoudamire. And it looked EASY. Could you do that once a quarter? If Odom played like that – and told Kobe to kiss his ass (even if it was only in his mind), the Lakers would be better off.
7. Chauncey Billups is going to be a tough out. There are only three point guards left who can match his physicality (Golden State’s Baron Davis, New Jersey’s Jason Kidd, and Utah’s Deron Williams). Billups is younger than Kidd – and he shoots better. He is more experienced than Williams. If you’re Cleveland or Chicago, he is going to give you fits. If you’re New Jersey he’s going to give you fits – just maybe not every single game. Chauncey is Mr. Big Shot. As long as he is in the driver’s seat, the Pistons have a better than average chance of doing some damage. If I’m Scott Skiles, I probably start the series with Luol Deng on Billups. (I hear you screaming – “Who’s gonna guard Tayshaun Prince?” Often times, he guards himself by not shooting enough – so I’d cross that bridge when I arrived and not a moment sooner.) I’d put Gordon on Hamilton and Heinrich on Prince – with help in the box and lots of rotations that included Tyrus Thomas on Prince and Chris Duhon on Billups – and then trust that guys like Nocioni and others will make enough shots to advance. But, if it’s close and Chauncey has the rock down the stretch, you can probably forget about it.