Kleeman's Jumphook: First Round Lessons From The 2009 NBA Playoffs

Robert Kleeman@@RobertKleemanSenior Analyst IMay 4, 2009

LOS ANGELES, CA - APRIL 27:  Head coach Jerry Sloan of the Utah Jazz reacts in the first half against the Los Angeles Lakers in Game Five of the Western Conference Quarterfinals during the 2009 NBA Playoffs at Staples Center on April 27, 2009 in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

The Atlanta Hawks eliminated the Miami Heat in game seven 91-78 to put the first round of the playoffs in the books.

One series has joined the conversation as one of the all-time greats.

Two others saw perennial conference powers bow in four and five games, perhaps accelerating their need for roster overhauls.

The squads most favor to represent the East and West in the NBA Finals coasted through their first round walkovers. You will read a lot about those losing teams in this piece (Utah Jazz and Detroit Pistons fans might want to stop reading now).

One Texas franchise exorcised 12 years worth of demons and finally won a postseason series while its opponent signaled to a loyal fanbase that years of thuggery, embarrassment and a losing mantra are over.

I decided to combine all of my thoughts into another hodge-podge. Most of my pieces center on the three Texas squads, so the "Kleeman's Jumphook" series is my one chance to write about everyone else.

Some of the material here is week-old news. I included it because it still carries some relevance.

When reading these playoff summaries, I enforce two rules: enjoy, and never expect brevity.

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1. Rules of engagement and foul play

I would rather talk basketball than officiating and NBA-sanctioned discipline, but a few first round peculiarities merited additional discussion.

The NBA front office prides itself as a "letter of the law" operation. That reputation made Dwight Howard's suspension for game six inevitable. It would have been one of the decade's great travesties had Stu Jackson not punished the Orlando Magic All-Star for the errant elbow he threw at Sixers center Samuel Dalembert.

The rule is clear:

Officials have been instructed to eject a player who throws a punch, whether or not it connects, or an elbow which makes contact above shoulder level… Even if a punch or an elbow goes undetected by the officials during the game, but is detected during a review of a videotape, that player will be penalized.

I bring this up simply because such a situation could arise again in these playoffs. If the NBA ignored Howard's elbow to Dalembert's head, it would have shamed previous decisions to bench the likes of Amare Stoudemire and Patrick Ewing.

Howard should feel lucky that referees did not eject him immediately after the play in question. TNT's Charles Barkley and Kenny Smith both said he should have been assessed a flagrant-two foul, ejected and suspended for game six.

In the worst bit of misfortune, an unintentional blow did more damage to Howard's teammate than anyone in a Sixers uniform. Magic Rookie Courtney Lee is questionable to play in the second round opener against the Celtics. An inadvertent elbow to the head fractured Lee's sinus.

Howard is a nice, respectable young man, and you should believe him when he promises he meant no harm to Dalembert. Still, he threw a punch, and the NBA followed its rules.

Proof that such decisions do not decide playoff series: The Magic stormed into Philadelphia's Wachovia Center sans Howard and Lee and romped the Sixers by 25 points to oust them from the playoffs.

Jackson did not grant Chicago Bulls similar justice after Rajon Rondo smashed Brad Miller in the mouth with his right hand. The refs called a personal foul on the play when it should have been at least a flagrant.

Pro basketball referees may perform one of the world's toughest jobs, but they cannot fail at their primary task, which is to ensure no one gets hurt. Fouls like the ones Rondo and Howard committed, even if unintentional, can hamper careers and even end them.

Be physical, but be careful. That's all.

Another interesting officiating gripe occurred in the Blazers-Rockets series, when the league fined both Rick Adelman and Nate McMillan for foul complaints.

Adelman balked at the "martial arts"-like way Joel Pryzbilla and Greg Oden were allowed to defend Yao Ming. The Rockets coach contended that the Blazers' centers were fouling Yao on every play and implored refs to call those hacks.

McMillan voiced his displeasure at the phsyical manner in which Shane Battier and Ron Artest defended Brandon Roy. The Rockets enjoyed a 102-78 free throw advantage through the series' first four games and McMillan demanded more equity.

I bring this up not because the Blazers shot 12 more free throws than the Rockets the day after McMillan fumed or because the league fined both coaches after perhaps legitimate gripes. When the league docked the pair seems curious.

Adelman made his comments nearly a week before McMillan did. The league did nothing.

Then, McMillan scoffed at the refs, and the NBA decided to make both coaches lighter in the wallets.

Why did Adelman's comments pass for a week but suddenly become taboo the minute McMillan bellowed?

Could the NBA not handle fining only one coach? Was it worried about appearing favorable toward the Rockets? If so, why fine them at all?

And more importantly, when will David Stern and Jackson stop this indignant crap? Sometimes, the coaches bring up salient points.

Instead of blasting them with a financial penalty, try listening. Just a thought.

2. In Larry Miller's honor, the Utah Jazz implode

When Jazz owner Larry Miller died after a dark battle with type II diabetes, so did a piece of the NBA's small market blueprint.

Miller defined the Jazz, and when Karl Malone and John Stockton played in Utah, you could see his passion in them. His courtside seat was never empty. He never lacked the gumption to interrupt timeouts or halftime talks if he thought his team stunk.

His intrusive but impassioned style paved the way for Mark Cuban's never dull antics.

Several sports writers at the Salt Lake Tribune recalled late night phone conversations with Miller. Yes, the man gave out his home telephone number to sports writers and even apologized to them when Jazz losses caused him to turn angry.

What would Miller do if he saw the way his team lost its way into a first round death trap with the Los Angeles Lakers and folded like plastic lawn chairs in five games?

Jazz guard Kyle Korver promised after Miller's death the team would compete in its owner's honor.

Eleven losses in the last two months of the season--including a home flop to the Golden State Warriors with seeding on the line--and no road victories over winning teams. You call that competing, Kyle?

The Jazz battled injuries for most of the season, but when Carlos Boozer returned, that excuse became null and void.

The Lakers are clearly much better than the Jazz. Had they given a damn, the Jazz would still have lost in six or seven games.

Instead, Utah threw in the towel early against LA and botched chances to make the West's best sweat.

For most of the season's final two months, Deron Williams looked like the only player in Salt Lake City who gave a flip. Boozer quit, Mehmet Okur pouted, Andrei Kirilenko no-showed and one of the league's most talented squads displayed zero intestinal fortitude with guts and glory on the line.

For the third straight year, Williams left the playoffs early, saying, "We need to play better defense."

Talk is cheap. The fans want results.

After this latest pride killer, the Jazz front office faces a summer of necessary change. 

If Hall of Fame coach Jerry Sloan wants to return and wants his team to do more than win a round or two, he needs to figure out which players possess the testicles to play his "nasty ball" and which ones should be shipped elsewhere.

Hint: Okur should pack a suitcase.

"I have never seen a player compete as hard as Ronnie Price," Sloan said after a failed comeback attempt in his team's game five ouster.

How sad that a marginally talented reserve guard was the only guy, save Paul Millsap, on a 12-man roster who cared with a season on the line.


3. That's more like it, Lakers

All season, many questioned the Lakers killer instinct. Yes, they won 65 games and out-talented all 29 other squads. But, could they put their collective feet on the gas pedal and keep it there for a full half?

The Lakers finally delivered a complete knockout in game four at Energy Solutions Arena. The impeccable ball movement, built-on-trust offense and stifling defense thrust the Jazz into shellshock mode on their home floor.

The game was more lopsided than the 108-94 final score indicated. Phil Jackson decried poor decisions at the end of the contest that allowed Utah to make the final margin look respectable.

He also had to feel relieved. When the Lakers focus defensively for 48 minutes and Kobe Bryant believes in his teammates, the question becomes this: when will LA win the title? Not if.

4. Pistons need more ammunition, new holsters

The Detroit Piston's admirable six-year streak of conference final appearances ended in emphatic fashion last week. LeBron James and his Cleveland Cavaliers swept Motown out of the first round.

No longer the "bad boys," now they're just bad.

Though the San Antonio Spurs postseason run also ended abruptly, South Texas' crown jewel still sits much closer to another title than its 2005 NBA Finals opponent.

The Spurs still employ a 26-year-old, indefensible point guard in his prime alongside Manu Ginobili and Tim Duncan. They will have as much as $8 million to spend to land an impact player or two to aid the "big three."

Injuries will remain a concern for the duration of the Spurs Duncan-era run, but at least they have a championship starter kit.

The Pistons waters ahead are uncharted and filled with prickly questions.

Has Joe Dumars placed too much faith in Rodney Stuckey as the franchise's future point man?

What will Allen Iverson's departure net the team? Will the Pistons blow nearly $20 million in projected cap space this summer or hold out for the vaunted 2010 free agent class?

More importantly, can the Pistons make enough moves that a middle-to-top tier free agent wants to play in Detroit?

What will Dumars do with Rasheed Wallace now that his contract has ended? The combustible forward will draw offers from a few championship contenders in need of front line help. Still, if the Pistons land a franchise big, a lesser role could make Wallace valuable again.

Dumars did not fire rookie coach Michael Curry after a disastrous campaign, giving his hire a chance to make things right. What are the expectations for next season and how does Curry fit into them?

Wallace, Tayshaun Prince, Richard Hamilton, Jason Maxiell, and Antonio McDyess are the remaining guns from those perennial conference finals contenders.

It was clear in four not competitive contests against the Cavs that they need new bullets.

5. Hawks-Heat: Where boring happens?

If there is such a thing as a non-competitive, seven-game series, the Atlanta Hawks and Miami Heat played it in an uninspired, several week span.

The two Eastern Conference lightweights traded routs, with both losing by double digits on their home floors at least once.

It was a series reminiscent of last year's Spurs-Hornets match, in which none of the fourth quarters were close. One team dominated every second half, and the Spurs emerged just good enough to win game seven on the road.

My two keys to the series were Dwyane Wade, and which team would finish the close contests.

Well, one of those was right.

This first round dud became Wade's baby. When he scored efficiently and played like an MVP, the Heat routed the Hawks.

When Atlanta defenders smothered Wade enough that he missed most of his looks, the Hawks thumped the Heat.

The lesson here, kids?

Pray that these two teams, as constructed, never meet in the playoffs again.

6. Injuries mar the first round

I will keep this short and free of complaint.

No way do the Spurs lose to the Dallas Mavericks in five games with a healthy Manu Ginobili.

No way do the Bulls nearly upset the defending champion Boston Celtics with a healthy Kevin Garnett.

The bigger problem for these wannabe champions is the reliance on stars on the wrong side of 30.

The Celtics will decide this summer whether to resign Tony Allen, Leon Powe and several other key youngsters. Still, regardless of who stays and goes, the Celtics tide will turn with the health of Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen.

The Spurs need a productive Manu to battle the Lakers for conference supremacy.

This brings me to the biggest dilemma in the NBA. You need veterans to win a title, but veterans are often injury prone and spent by the time June arrives.

How do you best mix old and young in crafting a title contender? If the Lakers and Cavs do meet in the Finals, as expected, we'll know the answer.

Oh, and one more thing.

Andrew Bynum's injury should no longer be called a "setback." He bombed the few minutes he did play in the first round against the Jazz and looked like a lost vagabond.

His teammates said adamantly that he just needs time to regain his rhythm. I say, until this kid does something in the playoffs, we should refrain from placing his injury on the level of a Garnett or Ginobili, two performers with Hall of Fame cases.

The Lakers swept a six game road trip with stops in Boston and Cleveland sans Bynum. Can we say we know how much the Lakers have missed him?

Bynum can still become an All-Star caliber talent, but for now, the Lakers don't need him to win a title. There, I said it.

7. Nuggets' Smith and Hawks' Johnson distinguish selves in first round

It took six games, but Joe Johnson finally delivered a star-worthy performance in his team's clincher over the Miami Heat at Phillips Arena Sunday afternoon. He buried six triples and totaled 27 points.

A versatile scorer and adept if unspectacular defender, Johnson is the forgotten one in all that 2010 free agent class hoopla. The team that lands his services will be very, very happy.

Johnson, 28, cannot change a franchise in the same way that LeBron or Wade can, but he will be useful for any squad looking to add a two or three to its one-punch.

Another explosive player who merits celebration here is the Nuggets' J.R. Smith.

Three years ago, Coach George Karl banished Smith to his doghouse and nailed the entrance shut. After Denver's second first round exit at the hands of the Spurs in three years, rumors flew about the swingman's availability.

Smith is still a stick of dynamite who heaves wild shots and plays erratic defense. What has changed is the arrival of Chauncey Billups, a veteran leader who knows what to do with a lit fuse.

The Spurs front office had to watch Smith destroy the Hornets in round one and change the complexion of Sunday's opener against the Mavericks and think: "Geez, this is the guy we need to beat the Lakers."

San Antonio tried to trade for his services twice and failed. Expect several contenders to inquire about Smith's services this summer.

The Nuggets will want to keep him, especially if they advance to the conference finals and do some damage there.

That doesn't mean others won't salivate and give it a try.

8. Time to get whacky

I will end this verbose piece with an absurd idea from a close friend. At least, that's what I think of it.

I'd love to get your thoughts.

For several years, my friend has suggested that each time a team wins a round, it should get to select a player from the team it just ousted.

In short, if the Mavs out the Spurs, they get to pick Tony Parker or Tim Duncan to join them for the remainder of the playoffs.

If the Cavs beat the Celtics, they would get either Ray Allen or Paul Pierce for the NBA Finals.

Forget for a second that this proposal is a logistical and contractual nightmare. Nevermind that this would slaughter team chemistry and nullify the need for role players.

It does make for a good laugh. Could this ever work, and would you be more compelled to watch the playoffs if the NBA allowed it?

Even the absurd is debatable.

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