THE WORLD ... wasmade to be wooed and won by youth," Winston Churchill wrote in hisautobiography, and point guard Chris Paul of the New Orleans Hornets, whoturned 23 on Tuesday, must have been thinking along those lines last Saturdaynight in Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinals at New Orleans Arena. Timeafter time in the second half he dribbled up the gut of the San Antonio Spurs'defense and encountered either 32-year-old power forward Tim Duncan, firmlyplanted in perfect position to help, or the NBA's most physical defender,36-year-old swingman Bruce Bowen, hands and feet churning. But Paul, a 6-foot,175-pound third-year pro playing in only his sixth postseason game, neverretreated. At one point he ventured into the paint, bounced off Bowen, releaseda shot, fell to the floor and jumped up to jabber at his nemesis.
Hours earlier atThe Palace of Auburn Hills, the Detroit Pistons, with four starters who werewinning an NBA championship in 2004 when Paul was just a freshman at WakeForest, were having none of that victorious-youth stuff. Orlando Magic pointguard Jameer Nelson, all 26 years and 72 inches of him, tried his lane-drivingact in the second quarter, but there to meet him, like a linebacker plugging ahole, was the Pistons' Chauncey Billups, Nelson's b√™te noire throughout theseason. The 31-year-old Billups, in his 109th playoff game (it was Nelson's10th), drew the charge, one of a couple dozen times during the evening thatexperience and guile prevailed over youth and vigor.
Welcome to thesecond round of the playoffs, the NBA's version of the Elite Eight. With thepretenders out of the way (goodbye, Dallas Mavericks and Phoenix Suns) and theoverachievers having exited (wait till next year, Atlanta Hawks andPhiladelphia 76ers), the postseason is down to the top four seeds in eachconference—which brings with it the promise of higher-quality basketball andmore magical finishes, sure to spike even further playoff TV ratings that werealready up significantly over the first round of a year ago. Here age is butanother number, not something that can predict the outcome of any series.
It is far tooearly in the second round to reach conclusions, but the dominance of theHornets in Game 1 (a 101--82 drubbing of the defending-champion Spurs) suggestsa shift in the balance of power in the West, while the aggressive play of theLos Angeles Lakers, who marched to the foul line 46 times (Kobe Bryant alonewas 21 of 23) in Sunday's 109--98 Game 1 win over the Utah Jazz, continues areturn to glory for the franchise that won three straight championships at thebeginning of this century. (Through Sunday, L.A. was the only team that had notlost in this postseason.) LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers were notscheduled to make their second-round debut until Tuesday, owing to the BostonCeltics' unexpected seven-game series against the Atlanta Hawks. Whether thatmarathon said more about the Celtics (not nearly as good as their 66-winregular season would indicate) or the Hawks (not nearly as bad as their 37-winregular season would indicate) will be revealed in the coming days when theShamrocks take on James, who almost single-handedly cut the heart out of thePistons in the 2007 Eastern finals.
Last seasonended, however, with one of the most one-sided Finals in history, the Cavsgetting buzz-sawed by the Spurs. Coming off a regular season notable for tightraces in the West, several marquee trades, elevated TV ratings, renewal in NewOrleans and renaissance in Boston and L.A., the NBA hopes that this June'sdenouement is more satisfying. The excitement is already building.
He's a Pistol
Late in the thirdquarter of Game 1 in the City That Care (and FEMA) Forgot, Paul sped toward thebasket with his characteristic shoulder-high dribble. Suddenly, he let the ballbounce once on its own, seemingly ceding control of it, a strategem thatenabled him to juke by an off-balance Bowen. Then Paul spun around forwardRobert Horry, who fouled him, and just missed a layup that could've led to athree-point play. Pete Maravich, who played in New Orleans (with the Jazz) forfive seasons in the 1970s after starring at nearby LSU, frequently used thatstutter dribble. "I've heard of him," Paul says of Pistol Pete,"but the move is something I picked up on my own." He first tried itlast season, when the dreaded composite ball was put into play, and refined itafter the NBA returned to the stickier old-school rock.
Indeed, when Paultakes off in transition these days, the sense of anticipation he engenders iscomparable to what transpired when Maravich had the ball in the open court inhis heyday. Fans think, Something special's about to happen. The best part isthat it probably won't be a dunk (though Paul did throw one down when he wasall alone late in Saturday's game), but rather something earthbound, perhaps aspin move in heavy traffic, an ankle-breaking crossover or a no-look passthrown behind him, for Paul always knows where his trailing shooters will bespotting up. "In his good games," Lakers forward Lamar Odom observed ofPaul before the playoffs, "he brings everybody along with him." A greatturn of phrase.
Still, we can'teven be sure that Paul, who runs what San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich calls"an organized playground offense," will emerge as the best point guardin the series. The game of his Spurs' counterpart, Tony Parker, is moreelemental, based almost entirely on speed and quickness, in contrast to Paul'son-the-fly calculation. Defenses know that Parker, given any kind of opening,is going to take it into the paint and, lately it seems, try to get all the wayto the hoop rather than release his floating teardrop. The excellent 23-point,five-assist Game 1 of Parker, last year's Finals MVP, was overlooked amid thedifficulty that teammate Duncan (five points) had in solving the Hornets'double-teaming defense. This is the best point-guard matchup in the secondround since, well, last year, when Parker got the better of the Suns' SteveNash.
James rarelydeviates from the vanilla script he follows on and off the court. InCleveland's first-round series against the Washington Wizards, he was often thetarget of hard fouls—reserve Darius Songaila was suspended for what turned outto be the final game for hitting James in the face two nights earlier—and wascalled overrated by guards DeShawn Stevenson and Gilbert Arenas. But like acagey trout who has seen it all before, James refused to snap at the bait.After the Cavs' series-clinching Game 6 win, after Stevenson had been returnedto the NBA obscurity he so richly deserves and Arenas sent back to his blog,James's post--Game 5 words resonated: "As long as I'm on the court, we havea great chance to win." It didn't even come across as bragging; it was asimple statement of fact.
James'soff-the-charts maturity contrasts with that of the Celtics' Paul Pierce,against whom he will be matched often in the Eastern semifinal that wasscheduled to begin on Tuesday in Boston. While James was restrained yetdisdainful toward his lesser first-round tormentors, Pierce lost it on a coupleof occasions. He was fined $25,000 for the "menacing gesture" he madetoward the Hawks bench in Game 3. (It still isn't clear whether thethree-fingered sign was gang-related or an expression of "blood, sweat andtears," as Celtics executive director of basketball operations Danny Aingeclaimed.) Then, after fouling out with 4:44 left in Game 6, Pierce was hit witha technical for throwing his headband, a crucial mistake—in a game Atlantawould win by three points—that one might have expected from the callow Hawksrather than the 30-year-old Pierce.
Fortunately forthe Celtics, they have the more responsible and mature Kevin Garnett. Afterpoint guard Rajon Rondo was knocked to the floor on a hard third-quarter foulby Atlanta forward Marvin Williams on Sunday, it was the Big Ticket who got toRondo (once he shook off the cobwebs) and said, "You did a great job. Keepyour head and make your free throws." Rondo did. Later in the quarter itwas Garnett who, after being called for a moving screen on center ZazaPachulia, resisted the temptation—as tempting as it was with a huge lead—toengage Pachulia, who had confronted Garnett in Game 4.
Garnett has neverbeen considered anything but a steadfast leader. The difference is that James,8 1/2 years his junior, is considered a leader and a prime-time postseasonperformer. This series represents Garnett's chance to become the same.
Wild and CrazyGuys
Whether thePistons are playing well or badly, they are out there on their own, insular andself-contained, impossible to deconstruct, the sole residents of Planet Piston.Even coach Flip Saunders can't figure out his players or rein them in.Sometimes they curse and scream at one another, and sometimes they curse andscream at the refs. Yet at other times they effect a composure that's almosteerie. During Game 6 of their first-round series against the 76ers inPhiladelphia, for example, forward Rasheed Wallace, Detroit's lightning rod andmost fiery personality, was getting ripped unmercifully by fans in the frontrow for that strange gray spot in his hair. Sheed said nothing, didn't even somuch as glance at them.
It remains to beseen what kind of attitude the Pistons will carry through the second round.Boston went into the postseason as the clear favorite in the East with agingDetroit perceived as not sufficiently motivated, probably not up to the task.Now with the Celtics' taking seven to dispatch the Hawks and the Pistons'winning their last four games (through Sunday) by an average of 17.0 points,the tag of Eastern favorite falls once again upon the Bad Boys 2.0. Opponentsare saying the same things they said in '04, when the starters who remain inDetroit's lineup—Billups, Wallace, guard Rip Hamilton and forward TayshaunPrince—were bullying their way to the championship. "Their defense wears onyou," says Magic coach Stan Van Gundy.
During warmups anhour before last Saturday night's Game 1 tip-off, as Orlando assistant coachPatrick Ewing tossed entry passes into the Magic big men, he rarely took hiseyes off the Pistons' side of the floor. What's with these guys? Ewing's gazeseemed to suggest.
Everyone else iswondering the same thing.
Kobe's Final Actof Redemption?
Bryant has playedso splendidly over the last four seasons without Shaquille O'Neal that it'spossible to forget how badly he wants to win a title that he can call his own.Right now, Bryant holds all of L.A. in his hands, the leading man ready to walkdown the aisle and pick up his Oscar. Before Game 1 on Sunday at StaplesCenter, a montage of Bryant highlights that played like a feature film wasshown on a temporary screen that hung from the rafters, eliciting chants of"M-V-P" from the crowd. An image of the HOLLYWOOD sign flashed acrosswith the phrase THE HEART OF THE CITY BEATS AGAIN, and an ever-so-slight smilecame over the face of Bryant, whose NBA MVP award, in fact, had been reportedearly by the Los Angeles Times 36 hours before. The chant resurfaced severaltimes during the game, as it had at a team dinner days earlier when Bryant, whois due about $69 million over the next three years from the franchise he wantedto flee before the season, made perhaps his best move of the year. "As soonas he picked up the bill," says Odom, "we all started chanting'M-V-P.'"
The rape charges,the enervating game-day trips to Colorado for court proceedings (the chargeswere dismissed), the petty ego clashes with O'Neal and coach Phil Jackson ...all of it seems to have moved to the bottom of Kobe's CV. Consider Bryantsolely from an on-court perspective: From time to time he surfaces as anathletic wonder, corkscrewing his body into a showstopping shot. But more oftenhis brilliance reveals itself prosaically—the rise-up jumper, the gnarlydefense, the eternal attack mode, the pats on the back and brotherly advice hegives to teammates. He scored 38 points on Sunday, but his defining play wasthe brilliant, look-away bounce pass he made to center Pau Gasol that gave theLakers a 98--90 lead with 1:30 left.
This weekend,though, the Lakers will have to go on the road to Salt Lake City'sEnergySolutions Arena. The venue presents a particularly imposing challenge forvisiting teams, which lost 37 of 41 games there. The fans are rabid andseasoned hunters (one carries a sign referring to himself as VICIOUS MORMONFAN) who consider Bryant, a brash superstar with a past, to be fair game. Paul,too, will get an earful in San Antonio, as will James in Boston, as will eventhe Pistons in comparatively meek and mild Orlando. By this point, though, itis not about young or old, home or away, up-tempo or half-court. It is aboutstrength or weakness, and only the strong will move on.
"AS LONG AS I'M ON THE COURT," says James,"we have a great chance to win." It doesn't even come across asbragging.
Right now Bryant HOLDS ALL OF L.A. in his hands, theleading man ready to walk down the aisle and pick up his Oscar.
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Photograph by Greg Nelson
HOME HIVE ADVANTAGE Paul (with ball) fed off a sellout New Orleans Arena crowd in Game 1, when the Hornets overcame an 11-point deficit and beat the Spurs 101--82.
JOHN BIEVER (BILLUPS)
BEEN THERE Billups (left) has played 99 more postseason games than Nelson—and he used that experience to full advantage.
DAMIAN STROHMEYER (GARNETT)
HEARTFELT After firing up the Celtics in Game 7 against Atlanta, Garnett now faces a much fiercer foe in the Cavaliers.
GONE BABY GONE James made the Wizards disappear in another prime-time playoff performance.
JOHN W. MCDONOUGH
THE WINNER WITHIN Bryant (24) is driven by his desire to prove that he can seize a title without his former running mate, Shaq.