|Believe me Jermaine, I'm just as confused as you are...|
"Playoffs, playoffs, playoffs, playoffs, playoffs, playoffs!"
--Bill Simmons via Twitter
The incredible stretch from mid-March to late April is easily the apex of my sports year. Conference tournaments are followed by the NCAA tournament, which is followed by The Masters, which is accompanied by my first few rounds of golf, which is followed by the start of the NBA Playoffs. Sprinkle in some NFL Draft at the end of April and you have quite an incredible stretch of sports! (Prince: before you comment about me leaving out the NHL Playoffs, let me say this. You know the rule; you can't be considered a real sport if you're on Versus!)
Somehow, I always seem to underrate the beginning of the playoffs. Perhaps it's because I get more amped up for college basketball, or perhaps it's because the Celtics always seem to mail in the last two months of the regular season, sending me into full depression and sadness mode. Either way, the playoffs don't really send me into my usual crazed frenzy...until the first game actually tips off. Once you see the elevated level of play, the incredible energy in the crowd, the look on the players faces, the desperation with which they play; well, there really is nothing like NBA Playoff basketball. For those of us who watched the UConn-Butler national championship game, it's a huge breath of fresh air (this coming from the biggest college basketball fan around). Say what you will about Game 7 last year, but the NBA product is nothing short of incredible. For ANY basketball fan, these are must watch games. This weekend's Game 1's certainly did not disappoint.
Boston 87 New York 85
On behalf of all Celtics fans out there, I would like to extend an official congratulations to our unquestioned playoff hero and savior...JERMAINE O'NEAL! Wait...what? Jermaine O'Neal? The same JO who missed 58 games this season? The same JO who averaged a paltry 5.4 ppg and who's ungodly 9.22 PER would make even Eric Snow blush? The same JO who I mocked mercilessly throughout the season? You need to understand the mere thought of my beloved Celtics relying so heavily on JO nearly gave me an anxiety attack so the thought of him being the hero of Game 1 is a little tough to comprehend. Nevertheless, facts are facts and Jermaine O'Neal is a huge reason why we eked out a Game 1 victory.
OK, maybe I'm going a little overboard with the hero and savior thing, but O'Neal provided 23 huge (and completely surprising) minutes last night. Scoring 12 points on 6-6 shooting was obviously a nice surprise, but his biggest contribution came on the defensive end. After giving up a pathetic 51 points in the first half, I was already starting to think about writing my RIP Boston Celtics post...and then stabbing myself with a letter opener afterwards. Look, there's bad games and there's what happened in the first half. I've watched every single playoff game since the Big Three came together four years ago and this was something I had not witnessed before. The effort didn't seem to be there, the intensity didn't seem to be there...they just didn't look like the same Celtics. For the very first time in four years, the Boston Celtics looked like an old, tired team and I actually started to grapple with the idea of our window slamming shut forever. I suppose I might have been jumping the gun, but if you had seen the number of Celtics games I had, you'd understand. Never before have I seen this team repeatedly fail to get into the bodies of shooters. Never before have I seen this team repeatedly fail to take pride in defending the rim. It really was sad to see it unfold...and then the second half happened.
Perhaps Doc gave a rousing speech in the locker room, or perhaps Garnett threatened to eat everyones kids (a threat I would take very seriously...he's terrifying); whatever it was, the Celtics finally looked like the Celtics again. Still down ten with 7:50 remaining in the 3rd quarter (there goes my halftime theory), Jermaine O'Neal singlehandedly changed the game in the course of three and a half minutes:
7:50 Jermaine O'Neal blocks Carmelo Anthony's layup
7:39 Jermaine O'Neal makes 8 foot jumper
7:05 Jermaine O'Neal makes 11 foot jumper
6:47 Jermaine O'Neal blocks Carmelo Anthony's layup
4:41 Jermaine O'Neal draws an offensive charge from Bill Walker
4:26 Ray Allen makes 24 foot three point jumper
Just like that, the ten point deficit was cut to five and the real Celtics were back. No, we didn't play particularly well at any point before or after those three and a half minutes, but the effort and intensity was back and New York simply couldn't match it. No, he didn't score 24 points and hit the game winner like Ray Allen (what a huge shot!). And no, he didn't put up a near triple-double like Rajon Rondo (10-9-9). What he did was set the tone and change the entire game by being the first Celtic to give a crap and actually play like it was the playoffs. Really, who would have thought it would be Jermaine O'Neal, and not Kevin Garnett, who would take charge defensively? For one night, Jermaine O'Neal, you are my hero...believe me, that was not easy to say.
Chicago 104 Indiana 99
I must confess, I didn't watch this game. We were having my daughter's second birthday party so you'll just have to forgive me on this one. And really, how was I supposed to know this would be a good game? Come on, the Pacers were 37-45!
Since I didn't watch, I'll only say a few brief things. First, I'm really sad the Pacers couldn't pull this off. Obviously, I'd love to see Chicago out of the way, but I also really like Indiana. More specifically, I worship the ground Roy Hibbert dunks on, so it would be an extra special treat to see him strangle nasty Joakim Noah with his own hair. Second, I'm not terribly impressed with Rose's 39 points. Darren Collison is a horrible match up against Rose and it seems like the Bulls are smart enough to keep going with what works. I'd be surprised if Rose didn't average around 30 for the series. Also, 0-9 on three pointers is really bad...maybe work on your shot selection for next game Derrick? Hmm?
Atlanta 103 Orlando 93
In a break from recent tradition, the Hawks apparently are going to try to win as opposed to their usual practice of curling up in a corner to die. This is, of course, a complete shock to those of us accustomed to seeing Atlanta yak away playoff game after playoff game. Honestly, I'm not buying it. Orlando's loss had less to do with what Atlanta did and more to do with what Orlando didn't. Fact is, Atlanta still doesn't have any way of dealing with Dwight Howard, Hinrich/Crawford still couldn't guard even me, and Orlando's supporting cast can't possibly be that horrible again.
Dallas 89 Portland 81
I had a lot of hope for Portland in this series, and I guess I still do, but it's severely tempered after seeing Brandon Roy in Game 1. I really do feel bad for him. He just doesn't look the same anymore. I know he never was the most explosive or athletic player alive, but still...guy looks completely dead. Hypothetically, if Portland could ever have a healthy team, they would be completely amazing. Imagine a starting five of Oden/Aldridge/Wallace/Roy/Miller with a bench of Camby/Batum/Fernandez/Matthews! Sadly, it's never happening because Brandon Roy is now dead and Greg Oden is...well, he's Greg Oden. Unless, of course, Oden is actually the real life Benjamin Button! He'd be getting younger and healthier! Of course, that might lead to more pictures...nobody wants that Greg.
Memphis 101 San Antonio 98
New Orleans 109 Los Angeles 100
Wow Chris Paul! So much for that knee injury! This was vintage Chris Paul and it looks like the Lakers craptastic point guards are going to be a serious issue. Sure, Phil was able to hide them a bit last year and things obviously worked out, but I wouldn't be so quick to discount the problem this time around. Keep in mind, they faced two horrible jump shooters last year in Russell Westbrook and Rajon Rondo, so it was much easier to mask the problem by either backing Fisher way off his man into a type of zone or moving Kobe over to defend the point and having him help over to Fisher's man. Good luck doing that to Chris Paul! An even bigger problem for LA is how to defend the screen and roll. Time and time again, New Orleans was able to force a switch, leaving Pau Gasol man up with Chris Paul. Now how is freaking Pau Gasol supposed to guard Chris Paul?! I don't think so!
Also, for all you Kobe lovers out there; how can you possibly defend yesterday's pathetic "injury" act? Give me a break! All the LA fans rip on Paul Pierce for the infamous "wheelchair game," but Kobe's garbage was just as bad. First, why the heck is Kobe sliding fifteen feet out of bounds? He didn't even get touched! Second, does he really need to lay on the ground like he's been shot in the chest? He barely did anything! As if that wasn't bad enough, we had to hear the sideline reporter tell us about her interview with Kobe and how much pain he's in, followed by repeated shots of Kobe acting like he's in agony every time he makes a bad play. Pathetic. I can't wait till he goes away.
Really quick; don't discount the potential effect of Aaron Gray's ankle injury. No, he's not an All-Star by any stretch of the imagination, but they absolutely need him to hang in this series. While Emeka Okafor and Carl Landry are nice players, both are already undersized for their position as it is...and even more so against the Lakers giant frontline. Gray provided at least one equivalently sized body to throw against Bynum and his potential loss could mean serious trouble on the boards. At this point, it seems likely Gray will miss at least Game 2, but who knows how effective he can be even if he comes back?
Oklahoma City 107 Denver103
This, to me, was the most entertaining and well played game of the weekend. Kevin Durant completely went off and showed why he belongs in the elite group with Lebron, Wade, and Kobe. However, I left the game with only one thought; Chris Anderson looks like a complete idiot! Seriously, go Google this guy and see for yourself. I literally freaked out everytime they showed a close up of him! He's horrifying! Why would anyone put that many tattoos on their body? What benefit is there? What is this guy going to do when he's done playing? He can't get a normal job with all those stupid things! Dumb, dumb, dumb, dumb.
I have spent a good deal of my life ripping on NBA officiating, and rightfully so. This weekend, however, was not one of those times. I know everyone else is going insane about it, but it's completely unwarranted this time. Yes, there were some bad calls as there always will be in basketball games, but for the most part, I thought the games were called nicely. Obviously the missed goaltending call in the OKC-DEN game was blatantly awful and critical to the game, but the other "controversial" calls were great calls!
1. Dwight Howard's technical foul. Honestly, I'm really surprised people were upset about this. He obviously threw Zaza Pachulia to the ground! What do you expect when you throw a guy to the ground?! Look, I try to love Dwight Howard every year, but I can't seem to get over how whiny he is. He's another one of those guys who's never committed a foul in his life...according to him. Howard complains about every single call, no matter how obvious it is! The real travesty is that Howard was only whistled for one moving screen violation when he blatantly moves into every single screen he sets! I'd foul this guy out in one quarter simply for moving screens...no kidding. Stop whining so freaking much! Enough already! The act is getting old!
2. Carmelo Anthony's offensive foul. You can take this opinion with a grain of salt since I'm completely biased, but I thought it was the right call. The interesting thing is people seem to be less concerned with whether or not it was actually a foul and more concerned with the timing of the foul. I've heard plenty of "you can't call that at the end of a game" arguments already today and I'm close to sending mail bombs to each and every person who goes down that path. I've said this before and I'll say it again; a foul is a foul whether it occurs in the first minute of the game or the last minute of the game. Looking at the replay, Carmelo Anthony clearly committed an offensive foul! Whether or not it occurred at the end of a close game is irrelevant! He committed a foul and he should be whistled for the foul! End of story!
All in all, this was an awesome weekend of basketball. I'm ready for some more...as long as we don't need Jermaine O'Neal to be the hero again. I'm pretty sure that well is completely dry.
Side note: I should be receiving my phone back from Motorola today which means the podcasts are back on! And all six of you are excited!
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