ESPN: NETS@PISTONS Thu., 12:00 AM ET
ESPN: PACERS@HEAT Tue., 8:00 PM ET
ESPN: HEAT@PACERS Thu., 1:00 PM ET
By David Aldridge
Special to ESPN.com
Good morning, haters.
Haven't heard from you in a couple of weeks.
You know who you are: the misers, misanthropes and football suck-ups who, just a fortnight ago, couldn't wait to put fingers to computer to decry the first round of the NBA playoffs.
Oh! This is the worst series of games ever. My gosh! The delay between games is interminable. Oy! There's no competition between the one and eight seeds. (As if there ever is. Um, people, one team is the top seed, and the other team is the lowest seed, which kind of indicates that there is a relative imbalance in the records and talent levels of the two squads.)
Look, there is no question that the gaps between games in Round 1 were too long. Lisa Marie could have gotten married and divorced twice in the time between Games 3 and 4 of most series. And there's no question that there wasn't much to write home about in terms of competition. Only one series went the full seven games. (By the way, you know, I can't say enough about Hornets' management. They fired Paul Silas after he made the playoffs four straight seasons because he supposedly got outcoached last spring by Larry Brown. Then they went and hired Tim Floyd -- you know, the Creole Auerbach. But to be fair, before he, too, was cashiered, Floyd went two games deeper into the first round than Silas did last season. Thank God they ran Paul Silas and his losing ways out of town!)
But, see, that's why it was the first round. You get all the pretenders out of the way early, and quickly. If they do nothing else, the playoffs expose pretenders. You don't have a real low-post option? You can't shoot worth a damn? You can't rebound? You go home, and nobody misses you. May and June are about true teams, the real McCoys, the genuine articles. And they have produced masterpieces.
Derek Fisher's shot might be the signature picture of this incredible second round.
No matter what you think of Kobe Bryant, and how and why he's in the trouble he's in, you have to marvel at what he does inside the 94 x 50. Game 4 against the Spurs was a masterpiece, and should not be sullied by arguments back and forth about whether the guy is a hero or not (he isn't), or whether Bryant's trip to Colorado earlier in the day for his plea hearing made what he accomplished later that night something awe-inspiring (it didn't). Game 4 should stand on its own merits, as one of the great individual performances in playoff history. (By the way, is it time for folks to acknowledge that Mark Cuban was right -- in his own indelicate way? Isn't all the attention surrounding Bryant because of his impending trial drawing more curious eyeballs to the TV screen?)
No matter what you think of the Lakers, and the hand-wringing and navel gazing that goes on in Los Angeles with every tweet of Phil Jackson's whistle and every nickname out of Shaq's mouth, you have to give them major props for getting off the deck, down 2-0 to the defending champs. I knew the Lakers had talent. I knew they had swagger. I knew they had coaching. But who knew they had so much heart?
You have to be happy for Derek Fisher, one of the league's true stand-up guys. I have liked Fisher, a guy who's never ducked a microphone or a notepad, since he came into the L eight years ago, but never more so than two springs ago, when the Lakers and Kings were in the midst of their blood feud. In the waning seconds of Game 5, with the Lakers up one, Sacramento ran its bread-and-butter play, a handoff from Chris Webber to Mike Bibby for a jumper at the right elbow. Fisher A) got held by Webber as Webber set the screen, and B) got no help from his teammate guarding Webber, who failed to step out as Bibby drained the game-winning -- and, it appeared at the time, series-winning -- jumper.
The story -- the only story -- was the game-deciding play. And to do that story justice, you had to talk to Fisher. I remember waiting in Arco Arena for what seemed like forever, long after the winners had left the building, and here, at long last, came Fisher, slowly walking across the court toward the Lakers' bus. The absolutely last thing he probably wanted to do was talk to me. If ever there was a time for an athlete to pass the buck, it was now.
I asked him, what happened?
"I should have gone over the screen," Fisher said. "I take full responsibility."
(Memo to the Bushies: When someone steps up to the mic and says, "I take full responsibility," there is no follow-up question.)
It's not like Fisher hasn't come up big in the playoffs before; he did shoot 75 percent from behind the arc against San Antonio in 2001, when the Lakers smoked the Spurs in the conference finals. But after last season, when San Antonio pushed L.A. over the cliff in six games, Fisher was deemed replaceable. He lost his starting job to Gary Payton, and for most of the season, he was a forgotten man. That changed, of course, in this year's Game 5. With a lot of the country watching, it wasn't any of the Big Four that saved L.A.'s butt, it was Derek Fisher.
That's what the second round of the playoffs can give you.
The second round has given us the wondrous Dwyane Wade, who seems insistent on making this the greatest rookie class since '84. Pacers-Heat has been under the radar, but it's been serious. The Pacers are the league's deepest team, but Miami doesn't seem to care, having built up a major home-court edge in the least likely place in America. The Heat have pushed Indiana a lot harder than any of us thought they could, making middle-aged men weep with the unlikely-but-still-possible chance that we could spend a week on South Beach during the Finals.
And since when is an unappreciative public given not one, but two Game 7s by the Hoop Gods? In one corner, Nets-Pistons -- a true rivalry now, with the Pistons still smarting from getting swept by New Jersey last year and the Nets still looking for respect. After all the caterwauling about this postseason, has there ever been a better playoff game than last Friday's triple-OT classic? Has a white guy (Brian Scalabrine) ever reminded you more of a black guy (Glenn McDonald)? And by the way, it's NBA justice that Chauncey Billups' half-court heave that tied the game was, ultimately, in a losing effort; the Granddaddy of Big Shots, the Logo's 60-footer at the buzzer in Game 3 of the 1970 Finals against the Knicks, didn't lead to victory, either.
And since when is an unappreciative public given not one, but two Game 7s by the Hoop Gods?
Anybody got questions about 'Sheed's tank now? Wallace shouldn't even be out there, the grinding on his heel is so bad. But he's showing you why his teammates, to a man, love him so. And when his team needed him to not float around the perimeter, but to post up strong and save their season, Wallace did so on Sunday, in Game 6. On the other side are Jason Kidd and Kenyon Martin, both on balky knees, desperately trying to force tempo. In the middle are the Richards, Jefferson and Hamilton, each having breakout postseason performances. Here's a bet that Game 7 on Thursday will go to the team whose Richard plays the best.
In the other corner, Wolves-Kings. For two years the best regular-season games have been Minnesota against Sacramento, and the playoffs have only served to amplify that. The Wolves and Kings have frequently had a lot of talent, but not much in the grimy department. Now comes Brad Miller's atomic knee drop on Darrick Martin, and Anthony Peeler's 'bow to KG's grille, and all of a sudden, we've got some good hatred going! Personally, I'm elated. This is the time of year when you put your friend on the floor, like Magic did to Isiah in '88.
Say what you want about Chris Webber, but you can't say the guy isn't tough-minded, going out on one leg to bang in the paint with the league's MVP. Same for Sam Cassell, whose back has flared up at the worst possible time. Sam is defense-allergic when he's 100 percent, so you can imagine that Bibby is licking his chops now, watching Cassell sidle like a crab when he doesn't have the ball. My guess is that on Wednesday, Garnett will be solid, and Cassell will be limited, and the Wolves will get on Latrell Sprewell's back and ride him like Smarty Jones to a date with the Lakers.
Of course, the haters are whining that some of the western games are starting too late for east coast eyes to stay glued. To this, I plead guilty. When the Wolves were up 13 on Sacramento in Game 3, I turned the TV off and went to bed. It was the first time I hadn't watched a west coast playoff game to its conclusion. But, hey, I'm older now, and that's what they invented TiVo for, anyway.
The playoffs are for the young at heart.
And after these two weeks, the blood runs free and easy, ventricle to ventricle.
David Aldridge, who covers the NBA for ESPN, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. Also, click here to send a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.