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Four Wild Days in the Wild West

With fast breaks, high scores and star-making performances that call to mind the NBA's glory days, the Western Conference playoff teams are wowing fans with a frenetic first round. A quartet of SI writers goes in search of the spirit of each series

Can't remember the good old days, when the NBA postseason was the domain of Magic, Larry and Michael? (In other words, when it was really, really fun?) Then heed this advice: Go west, young fan. ¶ This year the Western Conference playoffs comprise eight 50-win teams, the best (the defending champion Lakers) and the worst (the playoff debutant Thunder) separated by a mere seven games in the standings. The average difference between the 1 and 8 seeds in the past 20 nonstrike seasons: 19.6 games. Fans have seen frenetic offensive displays, moments of individual brilliance and sublime play from unexpected sources. ¶ And it's been happening on a daily basis.


On the Fast Track


If you want to talk about the triangle offense, go see Tex Winter. For the full-court press, it's Rick Pitino. Paul Westhead's subject is scoring—feverish and unmitigated scoring—the likes of which are rarely seen in the NBA and almost never in the playoffs, where hand checks and half-court sets rule.

In the West, though, the shackles are off. As Westhead watches the Suns put up 66 points in the first half of Game 3 in Portland, he clearly feels a kinship. "They are doing it differently," he says. "But they are in my world."

He is sitting in his office at the University of Oregon, television on, ballpoint pen and eight pieces of blank paper by his side. He can see a play on the screen and re-create it on the page almost in real time. Phoenix point guard Steve Nash and small forward Grant Hill cross paths in the middle of a fast break, freeing Hill for an open 10-foot jumper. "That's a drag play," Westhead says, scribbling two intersecting lines. "It's like a pick-and-roll on the move."

Nash corrals a loose ball and races downcourt, finding Jason Richardson in the corner for a three. "Two guard runs down the right side and spots up," Westhead says, scrawling two parallel lines. "Steve knows he is going to be there."

Suns big man Amar'e Stoudemire grabs a rebound and flings an overhead pass to Nash at half-court, where he throws a lob to Richardson. "Running teams need that outlet pass," Westhead says, drawing a dotted line. "Without it they cut their point guard in half."

At 71, Westhead has coached in the NBA, ABA and WNBA; in Japan and Puerto Rico; men's college basketball and now women's, at Oregon. He instructs the Ducks to shoot in five seconds or less ("Preferably less") and tells them, "If you get to the end of the shot clock, just hand the ball to the other team, because you've already suffered the ultimate embarrassment."

Westhead coached the Lakers to the title 30 years ago, when Showtime was in its infancy. "Then in the mid-1990s, the game got slower and slower and slower," Westhead says. "It became a slugfest—throw the ball down low, let the big guys beat each other up, strongest man wins." In 1990 teams scored 107.0 points per game. When the decade closed they were averaging 91.6, thanks to 24-second isolation plays appealing to no one but the Knicks and the Heat.

This season, though, the scoring average rose above 100 points for the first time since 1994--95. Of the 12 teams to break the century mark, eight came from the West, led by Phoenix with 110.2. Westhead would love to see Nash & Co. fast-break their way to a championship, if only to disprove the notion that running teams can't win in the playoffs. "Hogwash," he says.

As the Suns took a 29-point lead into halftime against the Blazers in Game 3, Westhead cautioned, "Because of the way they play, they're never home free. If you back off and play careful, you can get caught." Indeed, Portland cut the deficit to 11 in the fourth quarter, but Phoenix kept pushing until it had a 108--89 victory and a 2--1 lead. Westhead could not imagine the Blazers advancing without All-Star guard Brandon Roy; he returned for Game 4 last Saturday, eight days after arthroscopic surgery on his right knee, and Portland prevailed 96--87 to tie the series, holding the Suns to their lowest point total of the season. For one day at least, the pace was halted.


Surprise Attackers


Kyrylo Fesenko, the Jazz's Ukranian center, likes to listen to thumping European techno pop before games, cranking up the volume on his headphones to eardrum-endangering levels. Teammate Kyle Korver suggested that a mellower soundtrack might help the overeager Fesenko avoid the early fouls he often commits, a piece of advice the rookie is finding hard to follow. "I don't want to be too calm," he says. "I need to be excited, really pumped."

That's apparently the best state of mind for the rest of the team as well. The loss of injured starters Mehmet Okur (torn Achilles) and Andrei Kirilenko (strained calf) was expected to doom Utah against the Nuggets, but the Jazz took a 3--1 series lead by playing with a near-manic energy, diving on the deck for loose balls as if getting paid by the floor burn, jumping into defensive position to take charges—Denver forward Carmelo Anthony committed four in Utah's 114--111 Game 2 victory—and generally hustling like jayvee kids trying to make the varsity.

Both teams' stars had their moments—Anthony scored 42 points in Game 1 and Jazz point guard Deron Williams had 33 points and 14 assists in Game 2—but the unexpected entertainment came from the relative unknowns who set the scrappy tone for the Jazz. Swingmen Wesley Matthews and C.J. Miles were defensive irritants to Anthony, and the 7'1", 300-pound Fesenko, who became a starter after Okur's Game 1 injury, helped forwards Carlos Boozer and Paul Millsap more than hold their own in the paint. At times coach Jerry Sloan went with a lineup that seemed more suited for summer league than the postseason, with three undrafted free agents (Fesenko, Matthews and guard Ronnie Price) and a second-round pick (Miles) joining Millsap. "They're flying around out there," said Denver point guard Chauncey Billups. "Utah's got a bunch of young guys, hungry guys, trying to make their mark."

The jolt of energy from the young guns added another subplot to a series that already had a serious one—the absence of Nuggets coach George Karl, who is battling throat and neck cancer—and a frivolous one: Anthony's new Nike commercial, which made reference to his "fans in Utah." The Jazz faithful let him know he didn't have many of them inside Energy Solutions Arena, booing him every time he touched the ball. It all made for a fascinating series, although Denver described it with a different f word. "It's frustrating," Rex Chapman, the Nuggets' vice president of player personnel, said after Anthony fouled out of Denver's Game 2 loss. "Melo had two and three guys hanging on him, yet he gets called for all those offensive fouls."

If the Jazz players needed any more proof that their peskiness was having the desired effect, it came in Game 3 from Anthony, who scored 25 points but had to take a seat late in the third quarter when he drew his fifth foul, planting an elbow in Matthews's chest to free himself from the rookie's tight D. After the game, when he was asked what Matthews was doing defensively to give him trouble, Anthony took a long pause before answering, seemingly both amused and annoyed by the question. "I don't think I'm having trouble," he finally said.

When a player has to try that hard to appear unruffled, he's probably ruffled. "We talked about trying to get under their skin a little bit," Williams said. "When you're a little undermanned, you have to do what you can to compensate. We know that nobody thought we could win this series, but we don't care."


Back to Basics


On another day the result might have been different. It's the first quarter of Game 4 at the Ford Center, and Thunder forward Kevin Durant eyeballs the dwindling shot clock. In front of him is the Lakers' stopper, Ron Artest, who bumped and ground Durant into 36.5% shooting through the first three games. The sound of 18,342 Oklahomans roaring at dangerously high decibels reverberates in his ears. The instinct is to pull up. Suddenly hours of film process through his brain. He drives middle, right into Artest's chest, and unspools a jump shot, his arms extending over Artest's blond coif. Bucket. "He's always pressing me," says Durant. "I've had to find different ways to free myself up."

There isn't a hint of doubt in his voice. The shot was supposed to go in, just like Durant's team was supposed to be even with Los Angeles through four games after a 110--89 rout. While the series wasn't expected to be a typical mismatch between the 1 and 8 seeds, the rapid maturation of Oklahoma City, the NBA's youngest team, has made the playing field surprisingly level. "People put a lot of emphasis on the playoffs," says Durant. "But at the end of the day, it's just basketball."

Just basketball. It might as well be the Thunder's catchphrase. The others? Defense. Effort. Get better every day. That basic approach—at shootaround the morning of Game 4 coach Scott Brooks was running the same drills ("close-outs and digging out of the post," says forward Nick Collison) that he ran the first day of training camp—has helped temper the pressure of the playoffs. In Game 3, Oklahoma City trailed for three quarters as Durant couldn't find his range. So he crashed the glass (finishing with 19 rebounds) and used his 7'5" wingspan to blanket Kobe Bryant while point guard Russell Westbrook assaulted the rim; Durant's touch gradually returned. "He learned something," said Brooks after the 101--96 win. "His offense turned around because he did so many things that kept them guessing."

As the face of the franchise, Durant embodies its values. He goes so hard at shootarounds that Brooks occasionally has to sit him. His game-day schedule is scripted, from the morning breakfast (three waffles and an egg sandwich) to the afternoon video game with his older brother, Tony, to the 20 minutes he spends before chapel poring over the scouting report. For Durant, breaking routine has consequences: In November at Orlando, he forgot to read his scouting report, then missed five of his last six shots in a loss.

Brooks, the NBA's coach of the year, can't match jewelry with Phil Jackson, but he has matched wits with him. After getting pounded by 7-footers Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum in Games 1 and 2, Brooks devised a fronting D that denied entry passes and forced L.A. into 31 three-point tries in Game 3. At the other end, the Thunder has created an obstacle course for Artest to navigate. "They hit me with more screens than any team in the league," says Artest. "Give them credit; they set a lot of them, and they have guys who know how to do it."

But most of all they have Durant, who, win or lose, will pick this experience clean. "He wants to be special," says Brooks. "His learning curve is flattening before our eyes."


The Last Laugh


Manu Ginóbili showed up for Game 4 in San Antonio with a bandage spanning the center of his face, like a white Groucho mustache worn two inches too high. In the 48 hours since an elbow from Mavericks forward Dirk Nowitzki fractured Ginóbili's nose during the Spurs' Game 3 victory, his teammates had been making a comedy of his misery.

"You ain't going to be able to breathe tonight," forward Antonio McDyess warned Ginóbili in the locker room on Friday.

"Really?" asked Ginóbili.

"You're going to be sitting up all night," said McDyess. "You're going to be coughing up blood!"

He could see he had Ginóbili's attention. "Nahhh, I'm just messing with you," said McDyess, as Ginóbili waved him away and their teammates laughed.

The pursuit of a good time has been secretly driving San Antonio since power forward Tim Duncan's arrival 13 years and four championships ago. The Spurs have kept that ingredient secret, behaving like a landing party of Vulcans, hiding their senses of humor behind stoic game faces and bland quotes. But coach Gregg Popovich—a smart aleck himself—understood their need for fresh material, and so he injected McDyess, forward Richard Jefferson and rookie DeJuan Blair into the rotation while creating a larger role for second-year guard George Hill. For much of this season the moves appeared to backfire, as the Spurs sputtered in the standings and Duncan, Ginóbili and point guard Tony Parker took turns behaving like tired old men. Duncan, in particular, was slowed by knee troubles and badly needed rest—which Popovich gave him late in the season.

But the coach knew better times were ahead. "Even in the dark days we kept our humor," he says. "People still joked with each other, we still sang to each other on birthdays and did stupid stuff. That humor helped us stay together until it came together, and that's always been an important part of the program."

On Sunday their fans gave voice to a long, loud roar at the expense of second-seeded Dallas as San Antonio grabbed a stunning 3--1 series lead. After combining for 63 points to win Game 3, the trio of Duncan, Ginóbili and Parker played like decoys, scoring a collective 31 points while their new teammates sliced up the Mavs 92--89. McDyess (with the aid of double teams) held Nowitzki to 17 points, including a 1-for-6 fourth quarter that launched the All-Star into fits of anger. Jefferson exploited his athleticism for 15 points, Blair had seven points and seven rebounds in 12 minutes, and Hill dropped in 29 after shooting just 8 for 25 through the first three games. "It is so easy to get motivated in games like this," said Ginóbili, who produced 17 points and seven rebounds after refusing to wear a protective mask over his bandaged nose. "I mean, how not to? If you don't, it's because you would rather be somewhere else or you don't enjoy this at all."

So get ready for a familiar punch line: The Spurs are once again shaping up as the team to beat in the West. The newcomers finally understand their roles in Popovich's complicated system, while Duncan, Ginóbili and Parker look refreshed and ready—just when they were supposed to be fading away. "I'm not amazed," said Popovich, "but I'm impressed. When I look at Timmy after all these years, with some of his abilities diminishing, doing what he's doing and wanting to win so badly, I say to myself, Is that ever going to wane? I guess not. I see Tony coming in at the end of the game and being aggressive. I see Manu breaking his nose and coming back on the floor."

As many times as we've seen their routine, there is a vulnerability that makes the Big Three endearing and inspiring. Should they go on to have the last laugh in June, they may see that a larger audience than ever is laughing along with them.

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Photograph by JOHN W. MCDONOUGH

BLOWING IT WHITE OPEN The monochromatic Thunder fans cheered Durant's acrobatics—and his 22 points—in a Game 4 rout of the top-seeded Lakers.



ROAD BLOCK Nash had 10 assists in a Game 3 win (above), but the Suns were slowed to a season-low 87 points in Game 4.



HANDS ON D Anthony was repeatedly frustrated by the tactics of Matthews and the rest of Utah's pesky defenders.



HIGHER EDUCATION Durant and the fans in Oklahoma City have quickly learned what it feels like to win in the postseason.



SAVING FACE Even a broken nose couldn't slow Ginóbili, who blocked Caron Butler and the Mavs from a win in Game 4.