Last-Second Plays: 10 Games Within the Games You Need To Follow in the NBA Playoffs
The playoffs provide an intensified atmosphere on the court where rivalries are established or restored. The core of the playoffs is during game play, but when the final scores are established, the game doesn't end.
The explosion of available information sources and ease of availability of discussion forums make for interesting subplots to develop while the players sleep and practice, let alone play the actual games.
During the first round, eight series provide fans with an abundance of discussion points, but some stories will be especially interesting to follow as the first round matchups begin.
Here are 10 "games within the games" for the scrutinizers and mentalists.
When an NBA official was accused of fixing games, the prevailing reaction was "Which one?"
~ Bill Simmons, July 23 2007: - "One Man Out, One League in Trouble"
This will be only the second playoffs since the Tim Donaghy scandal destroyed the credibility of the officiating crews working NBA games accross the league.
Conspiracy theories about officiating all seem validated by the controversy now, and any poorly reffed game is as scrutinized as a poorly played one.
The officiating last year seemed relatively unobtrusive, but with Dwyane Wade back in the mix, along with heavies like Dwight Howard, Paul Pierce, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Dirk Nowitzki and Tim Duncan, who all average around 6-10 free throw attempts per contest, Team Zebra will be under extreme duress to make correct calls.
Watch for how and when the flagrants are called, especially in the Chicago/Boston series, which will be physical, and for how the game will be called in favor of Dwight Howard and Dwyane Wade, who average 10 free throws per game.
Also, see how the influence of the media friendly Lakers/Cavaliers "dream finals" plays out, especially when Kobe starts working the refs, and LeBron gets hacked by the poor Piston who will be immediately thrown out.
While the refs will try to continue to reestablish fan faith, it takes a lifetime to build a reputation and but a moment to destroy it. This is one story worth watching.
The passage of time is bittersweet. On the one hand, great players grow old and their game erodes, intangibly at first, like the first melting of a snow capped mountain in the early spring, then, like a torrent of water cascading down the mountainside, all faculties fail them and they are but fleeting reflections of their past self.
The measure of their greatness becomes lost in time, relegated to the mythology of witnesses and the grainy existence that is Youtube.
Even ESPN Classics can do no justice to the level of importance of games removed from time and place in history enough to give any degree of scope to the magnificence of the legends of yesteryear.
Comparisons become moot, and there remains but one relative comparison upon which we must rely - stats.
This year, some players are approaching their personal legacies. How long Tim Duncan, Chauncey Billups or Kobe Bryant can continue to excel at this, the epitome of achievment that is the NBA playoffs, is a matter of health now.
One more major injury to any of these players, or another combination of players who don't gel on their respective teams, could spell statistical insignificance in the playoffs for the rest of their careers.
This year, Kobe is about 200 points away from passing Magic, Hakeem, Havlicek, and Larry Bird on the all-time playoff scoring list, and 200 more will put him in the exclusive 4,000-point club, trailing only Jerry West, Shaq, Karl Malone, Kareem, and MJ.
Kobe could also hit the 200 three-pointer club, which would place him fourth behind only Robert Horry, Scottie Pippen, and Reggie Miller.
Duncan, for his part, could also hit the 4,000 point plateau, become only the sixth player to reach 2,000 rebounds, and approach the all-time record for blocked shots.
If Duncan's team runs deep like they did in 2007 when he blocked 62 shots, this same amount would give him 477, and one more than Kareem's all-time mark of 476.
Other players like Chauncey Billups, Peja Stojakovic, Ray Allen, and Derek Fisher are making steady moves up the three-pointers made chart.
LeBron James and Kobe Bryant both have legitimate chances at breaking the all-time single game mark of 61 points set by Michael Jordan. Although scoring against this year's Pistons or Jazz is not quite as impressive as scoring against the immortal Celtics, history will often only show the final tally of the greatest players ever.
Watch for the following recently returning key players and whether they can handle the grind: SF Josh Howard, Dallas Mavericks; C Andrew Bynum, Los Angeles Lakers; SF Marvin Williams, Atlanta Hawks; SG Rip Hamilton, Detroit Pistons; Jermaine O'Neal, Miami Heat; Tyson Chandler, New Orleans Hornets.
Any repeat injuries for these players will spell disaster for their respective teams and surely change the outlook of the championship picture.
There are some players who will not begin the playoffs at all, but may return later, if his team winds up in long first-round battles or beyond. The list includes: Kevin Garnett, Boston Celtics; Mehmet Okur, Utah Jazz; Allen Iverson, Detroit Pistons; Jerry Stackhouse, Dallas Mavericks; Udonis Haslem, Miami Heat; and Manu Ginobili, San Antonio Spurs.
The playoffs will be a battle of benches in many scenarios, so give the edge to deeper teams in close battles, particularly in the Atlanta vs. Miami series, as well as the Dallas vs. San Antonio series.
Certainly, give the edge to relatively healthy teams like Cleveland and Los Angeles, who were already favored to begin with.
7. The Rooks
He is your rookie of the year. The only rookie to legitimately lead his team to the playoffs in 2009 is Derrick Rose, and he is poised to wreak havoc on the Celtics in this year's first round matchup.
Boston's Rajon Rondo will have to rely on solid team help defense every time he is beaten by this young phenom from Chicago.
Derrick Rose, if for no other reason, is your reason to watch this series, for he is a legend in the making.
Other than Rose, there is a good rookie playing point in Miami, who will have to learn how to run the point in the highest degree of pressure he has ever faced.
Mario Chalmers has been good all season, but he does have a tendency to turn the ball over a lot, which might be his undoing in the playoffs this year.
In Portland, the Blazers will feature three rookies in their lineup, not the least of whom is Spanish international, the sensational Rudy Fernandez.
Rudy has been electrifying fans all season with his flair on the court, but flair seldom is the primary available play during the playoffs.
It remains to be seen if Rudy can adjust to the more physical playoff style he will face against Houston.
In San Antonio, rookie guard George Hill has been a steady hand at the point for a very experienced team in the Spurs.
Pop has openly declared that Hill will see little if any playing time at all, but it is difficult to envision any scenario which does not involve George Hill playing.
With Manu out, and with Jason Terry providing the Mavs with potent guard play from the bench, Pop will need an answer eventually, and his only card is HIll.
Finally, in Miami, Michael Beasley is expected to provide scoring and rebounding from the bench position as a support player.
This should be a comfortable role for the rookie, who will look to score against Atlanta players who are not much bigger or stronger than he is anyway, so expect Beasley to produce nicely.
Like rookies, young players in their first playoff experience can be hit or miss.
It is as though failure is almost assumed with young players in their first playoff, although if success is achieved, the player rises to the status of seasoned veteran virtually overnight.
Last year, we witnessed the emergence of New Orleans' Chris Paul, David West and Tyson Chandler as bonafide NBA performers at the highest level.
This year's Hornets are two teams: one in the East and one in the West. In the East, the Bulls have several players with no playoff experience at all who will try to make their presence felt against the once again mighty Celtics.
Out West, the Blazers are prognosticators' top pick for eliminating the veteran Rockets in the first round, despite the majority of their roster never having experienced a single playoff game.
The Battle of Oden vs. Yao should be one for the ages, and an opportunity for Yao to prove that he has matured to his full potential.
Some veteran teams have players who have yet to be battle-tested in the playoffs. Much has been said about the hopes of the Lakers with Bynum in the lineup, but this seems like a lot of hope on a man who has never seen the post-season in his short career.
Denver is a team stacked with experienced players, but their starting center, Nene, despite a breakthrough season, has never played in the playoffs either. Still, something about these players tells me they'll be fine.
5. The Rematch
Rivalries are always stories, and out of all the first-round matchups, the Mavs vs. the Spurs is perhaps the most anticipated. The Mavs chemistry hasn't been this good since their run to the finals three years ago.
Their collapse against Golden State and their defeat at the hands of the Hornets last year notwithstanding Dallas has actually been an excellent playoff team over the last seven years, always pushing teams to their limitations and winning occasional series, like they did against San Antonio in '06.
The fact that they took game 7 in San Antonio, makes this particular feat all the more impressive.
Back then, Dallas had the same team for the exception of two things: Devin Harris, and an exceptional Josh Howard. In Harris' place is Jason Kidd, a more than adequate replacement, while in Howard's place is a broken man who has lost his game.
In order for Dallas to defeat San Antonio, Josh Howard will have to find his game. Fortunately for Dallas, they have one of the best sixth men in the league in Jason Terry, and this should make all the difference.
For San Antonio's part, they are the aging champions this year, attempting to patch together yet another championship run. With Ginobili in the lineup, I give this team the series win, hands down.
Unfortunately for the Spurs, they received some bad news recently when they discovered that Ginobili's bum ankle is worse than they feared. He will be out indefinitely.
With this dilemma, more will be expected from players like Roger Mason and Bruce Bowen, while rookie guard George Hill will simply have to play big minutes.
This seems a lot to ask out of the Spurs, and so it appears that their dynasty may end as the Mavs look to exploit what could be an advantageous matchup for them in the first round, for the first time, in a long time.
I'll keep it simple, because too much ink has been spilled over these topics.
MVP: 1. LeBron James 2. Dwyane Wade 3. Kobe Bryant
ROY: 1. Derrick Rose 2. OJ Mayo 3. Brook Lopez
COY: 1. Mike Brown 2. George Karl 3. Nate McMillan
6th Man: 1. Jason Terry 2. J.R. Smith 3. Andre Kirilenko
DPOY: 1. Dwight Howard 2. Dwyane Wade 3. Ron Artest
1st team all NBA: PG: Chris Paul SG: Kobe Bryant SF: Lebron James PF: Tim Duncan C: Dwight Howard
2nd Team All NBA: PG: Deron Williams SG: Dwyane Wade SF: Carmelo Anthony PF: Dirk Nowitzki C: Yao Ming
Or something like that.... you argue about these.
3. Ending Eras
It's overhaul time in several perennial favorite cities. Not only did Phoenix prove that it's time to move on from Nash and Co., but Detroit, Dallas and San Antonio will all fail to win the NBA championship this year, long considered to be the only goal in any one of these cities.
Similar to Sacramento's, New Orleans' and Portland's dismantling and retooling, these teams will, at some point, realize that they don't have enough to compete with the elite teams in the league, and seek to gain before they lose too much.
Enjoy Jason Kidd in his last days as a Mav. This will be Bruce Bowen's last season as a Spur. Rasheed Wallace has argued his last bad call as a Piston, while Kirilenko, Boozer and McGrady are as good as gone from their teams as well. Josh Howard will complain about the anthem in some other city. Sometimes change is necessary.
2. Unpredictable Endings
The games are played because nothing is set in stone or guaranteed. The number of variables which can effect the outcome of individual plays and games is subject to the whims of chaos theory.
Who's to say that an ending like the one pictured here can never happen? Just because the odds say that a team will win, doesn't always make it true.
Series are equalizers because a team must be better for four wins, but there exists the possibility that any team can beat another. No one would have predicted Golden State taking down the Mavericks two years ago, but it happened.
In order for this to happen, a team needs a player to rise from the ashes and become either what they were meant to be, or what they once were prior to arriving.
Take a player like Kenyon Martin, for example. The former first overall draft of the Nets reached two consecutive NBA finals before signing with the Nuggets, and was once considered an automatic double-double energy player, with leaping ability akin to levitation.
He has been but a shadow of his former self, until recently when a solid point guard arrived in town. Last time he played with a solid point guard, some pretty special things happened.
All it takes is a combination of variables to have things go in an unpredictable direction.
1. The Dream Final
Let's face it. This is the final everyone wants to see. Possibly the two most discussed basketball players ever, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James could meet head to head in a seven-game series at the peak of their basketball powers.
I'm almost hoping that the officiating is rigged in order to see this one happen. While it won't provide anyone with as competitive a series as the fans would hope, it might go some distance to settle the argument of who is the greatest basketball player on Earth, right now.
This will be the single biggest storyline in this year's playoffs, even bigger than last year's rekindling of the Lakers and Celtics rivalry, as long as the two teams are involved in the playoffs.