Tuesday, April 24, 2007

The Warriors are Our Salvation

“Oh wow.”

With those two words, Steve Nash summed up the first chunk of the NBA playoffs. This was midway through the second quarter of Tuesday night’s thrashing of the hapless Lakers. As Nash was taking the ball up the court, he suddenly unleashed a spot-on alley-oop from forty-five feet to Shawn Marion (who was cutting behind the defense). Experiencing this play in real-time was jarring—one of those double-take moments. The pass was a laser.

The best part was only revealed on replay, however. TNT (whose coverage smokes ABC/ESPN, but that’s another topic entirely) fired up a court-level camera shot of Nash as he was crossing the half-court line. He seems fairly normal at first, then he looks up—and his eyes go wide. I mean, huge, popping-out-of-his-head wide. The replay then very clearly shows Nash saying to himself “Oh wow” just before he unleashes the dish to Marion.

He took the words right out of my mouth.

The Suns are a pleasure to watch—this much we all know. Against the Lakers last night they elevated their art to as high a level as I’ve ever seen, throwing up 68 points in the first half on their way to 126. Tasty. They spent the majority of the evening toying with Los Angeles and unleashing the blinding fury of Leandro Barbosa. The NBA is simply more fun with Phoenix around.

Tonight’s games mean even more. The second games of the Denver/San Antonio and Golden State/Dallas series will go a long way towards determining what type of playoffs we’re in for this summer. If Denver and Golden State manage to upset the two favored Texas teams in round one, we will be set up for basketball the likes of which we could only dream of watching San Antonio and Detroit a few years ago: fun!

Game one of the Denver/San Antonio series had an interesting vibe to it: the Nuggets simply seemed like the better team. This was not supposed to happen; the Nuggets are supposed to be the out-of-control squad looking to find itself for next season, while the Spurs are the steady hand looking for another ring. Thankfully for those of us who like to be entertained by our basketball, this was not the case.

The Spurs are boring. Sorry, it’s true. I say this with no malice or ill-will, but simply out of taste. They’ve been here so often that they seem too in-control at all times. Sure, every so often Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili get out and run a little bit, but there never seems to be any joy in their game. Denver gives us just the opposite: two major scorers (Carmelo and Iverson), a guard who looks to push the ball (Steve Blake), Nene emerging as a force on the block, and Marcus Camby sparking the fast break with blocked shots on the defensive end. A Denver overthrow of the San Antonio monolith (which would be helped tremendously by a game two win this evening) would go a long way towards bringing the joy back to playoff-watching.

Golden State is another matter entirely. They don’t start anyone taller than 6-9 (Al Harrington playing “center”). They have a coach (Don Nelson) who lives to push the tempo and run up points. He’s molded this team in his image and released them on the world for all of us to bask in. Their upset of top-seeded Dallas in game one was the most significant aesthetic blow yet struck in these playoffs. The halftime score was 38-38, if my memory serves, but this wasn’t a dry, defensive struggle. It was frantic, frenetic. Shots flying from everywhere. Loose balls. Absurd passes.

Dallas has the “better” team, so Golden State has simply opted to create chaos. The Mavericks are held up as the gold standard for creating a great basketball team: they seem to have all the pieces in place, with everyone playing their perfectly assigned role. The Warriors, on the other hand, simply toss out all the roles. Harrington is their tallest starter, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t going to wander out behind the three-point line. Baron Davis at the point guard is their best post-up, back to the basket player. So what? Dallas was forced in game one to adapt to Golden State’s style (their two centers, Diop and Dampier, barely played), and the Warriors prevailed.

In these game twos, two things can happen. The Texas teams may come out and reassert dominance, smashing Denver and Golden State to pieces. This would be a notable setback, giving the favored teams momentum as they head on the road. The other option is much more exciting: what if Denver and Golden State play it tough again? They don’t necessarily have to win (although that would be fantastic), but they can prove that they belong in these series. Then, friends, we really have something to watch.

I haven’t even touched on the virtues of teams like Houston, Toronto, and Chicago (LUOL DENG!) yet. Suffice it to say, after the putrid regular season, basketball is rising from the ashes. I hope you’re watching.

John Sharkey can be found practicing his crossover at aodshark@gmail.com.

PS: I would be remiss if I did not give a significant hat-tip to the scribes of FreeDarko. If you aren't reading them yet, then you should be.

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