Every March, basketball fans salivate over the NCAA tournament.  They spend hours filling out brackets, discussing the merits of the “play-in” game, hating Duke and pretty much bringing corporate America to a screeching halt.  Many call it the best time of the year to be a basketball fan.  Not me.

I like March Madness – don’t get me wrong.  But the greatest basketball tournament of any season is the NBA Playoffs.  It’s the only one featuring the best players in the world competing for the most prized championship in the game.  Ask Carmelo Anthony if he’d trade his NCAA title for a chance to hug the Larry O’Brien Trophy while soaked in champagne.  I doubt he’d think about it for more than a second (sorry Coach Boeheim.)  This year’s edition of the Playoffs has been outstanding so far (thanks Bulls and Celtics!)  And so I’ve put together my favorite things from the 2009 Playoffs – so far.

  1. No Manu Ginobili.  Of course the one year that Señor Flop misses the playoffs, so do the Suns.  There must be some sort of karmic message here, but I don’t know what it is.
  2. The emergence of young players in the Boston / Chicago series.  I never thought I’d say this, but Joakim Noah and Glen Davis have really bright NBA futures.  Noah came to the Bulls as a big man with no go-to post moves and for his first season and a half always seemed out of position defensively.  He morphed into a robo-rebounding machine against the Celtics and his steal / dunk / and-1 against Paul Pierce is one of the many enduring memories of that series.  Glen Davis averaged 18 points and 7 rebounds in the series and hit clutch shot after clutch shot.  This from a 6-foot-9 power forward who, let’s face it, isn’t a picture of fitness.  The point guard duel between Rajon Rondo and Derrick Rose was as compelling as any single match-up I can remember in the last 5 years at least.  Rose averaged almost 20 points a game while being covered by Rondo (merely an All-Defensive Team 2nd teamer.)  Rondo looked like the 2nd coming of Magic Johnson and averaged a triple-double in the first 6 games of the series.  After game 2 against the Magic, he has 3 triple-doubles in 9 games.
  3. The Dos Equis ads about the most interesting man in the world.  He lives vicariously through himself?  He once had an awkward moment, just to see what it felt like?  Classic.  (I would have loved to be in the pitch meeting for this ad campaign.  Did it go something like this?  ”Okay – we’re going to have a really creepy looking guy in his 70s, you know, the kind that you would imagine leering at younger girls from his barstool and making inappropriate comments while getting slowly hammered.  Yeah – he’s going to be the centerpiece of the commercials.”  Whoever OK’d that has much more vision than I, because it works!)
  4. The home crowds in Cleveland – absolutely electric.  It’s an understatement to say the draft lottery of 2003 saved the Cavaliers franchise.  Having a high school All-American from nearby Akron who wanted to play in Cleveland and also happened to be the best #1 overall pick since Shaq brought an instant buzz.  The arena filled up, sponsors opened their checkbooks and LeBron has not disappointed.  Six years later he has an MVP trophy, an Olympic gold medal, one trip to the finals (in which LeBron willed a team of nomads past Detroit), and quite possibly an NBA title come June.  Cleveland fans are among the most long-suffering in pro sports – see Browns, Indians, Baltimore Ravens.  They have embraced this team and simply won’t let them lose.  It will be tough for any visiting team to win a game 7 at the Q.
  5. The transformation of the Houston Rockets – post McGrady.  At our annual Fox Sports NBA broadcast meetings prior to this season, our own Eddie Johnson was on a panel of analysts discussing the upcoming season.  As most of the guys said we were likely headed for another Lakers / Celtics Finals and only differed on who each thought would win the title, EJ caught a lot of flack for talking up the Rockets.  He explained that they were the team best able to challenge the Lakers because they had size (Yao), 2 great perimeter defenders (Battier and Artest) to make Kobe work and a bench filled with tough energy guys (Chuck Hayes, Carl Landry, etc.)  And what do you know – the series is tied at 1-1 and the Rockets have swiped home court advantage largely because of those reasons.  EJ’s the best.

The interesting thing is how good they’ve gotten since 2 things happened: the trade of Rafer Alston to Orlando and season ending surgery for T-Mac.  ESPN.com columnist Bill Simmons coined the “Patrick Ewing Theory” years ago to describe how a team can actually get better after losing their star player.  It happened with the Knicks back then, but the Rockets are taking this to a new level.  Simmons might have to rename it the “T-Mac Theory.”  The offense runs through Yao much more now (as it should – he’s 7’6″, is a great passer and a one-on-one mismatch for anyone in the league) and the Rockets play more like a team than they have since the days of Hakeem and Clyde Drexler.  The trade of Alston was a double-dipper for Houston.  They got rid of one unstable guy (one per team is enough, and Artest is too important) and freed up a spot for young Aaron Brooks to shine.  He’s a 6-foot-nothing who has nearly doubled his career scoring average in these playoffs and absolutely killed the Lakers in Houston’s game 1 win.  There’s not a point guard left in the West that is quick enough to stay with him.

A couple of other quick observations from the playoffs (in no particular order):

  • Who knew Dwight Howard had a flagrant elbow / suspension in him?  Is this the same guy who let Nate Robinson use him as a prop in the dunk contest?
  • How hard will Stan Van Gundy have to work to shed the “Master of Panic” label that Shaq tagged him with in March?  Paul Coro and I talked about it the day Shaq said it – and Coro wrote about it a few weeks back.  The Magic squandered a 28-point lead against Boston and barely hung on to win game 1 and the Celtics’ game 2 blowout win gives them momentum and a mental edge heading to Orlando.  Time to panic.
  • Chauncey Billups might not be the MVP, but he is the single biggest difference-maker in the 2009 playoffs.  The last 3 or 4 years, Allen Iverson is starting to look like a rich-man’s Stephon Marbury.  He leaves Philadelphia, they get better as a team.  He leaves Denver, they’re on the cusp of the Western Conference Finals.  And he’d rather retire than come off the bench.  Billups has improved everything about the Nuggets.  Their defense, their half-court offense, their transition game.  And he’s added a noticeable mile-high swagger.
  • Finally, the playoffs just aren’t the same without Shaq, Nash and Amar’e.  Yes, I work for the Suns, but is there a true hoops fan that doesn’t share this sentiment?  Fortunately, the league recognized this and decided that at least half of the “Where Amazing Happens” commercials in the playoffs should involve some tortuous Suns moment (Kobe game-winner in 2006 game 4, absurd Duncan 3-pointer from game 1 last year . . . )  How many of next year’s crop of commercials are happening right before our eyes as the tournament rolls on?
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