Published April 19, 2011
We're only three days into a marathon that will drag on for another two months, but these NBA playoffs are shaping up as the most intriguing in years.
And if there's anything this league could use, it's a few surprises.
The NBA has always been the most predictable of the four major sports, pretty much following the script that was written over the regular season.
Lakers. Celtics. Spurs. Yawn.
Sure, the finals are often exciting, but the first 45 days usually lack intrigue. Maybe this is the year the pro guys give us their own version of the NCAA tournament.
There are potential first-round upsets all around. From the Grizzlies to the Hornets to the Hawks — heck, even the Pacers, the only playoff squad with a losing record — teams that were expected to go away quietly are already making a lot of noise in this postseason.
"I've been saying all along, just get us to the playoffs," said New Orleans guard Chris Paul, who led the Hornets to a shocking Game 1 upset of the two-time defending champion Los Angeles Lakers. "Just get us to the playoffs, and we've got a chance."
They're not the only ones.
Memphis knocked off the top-seeded Spurs in the series opener at San Antonio. Atlanta, one of the league's most enigmatic teams, romped past the Magic in Orlando even with a monster performance by Dwight Howard. New York nearly bumped off Boston, and the Pacers have given Chicago, the No. 1 seed in the East, all they could handle in the first two games.
"We knew it was going to be tough," said Derrick Rose, the MVP in waiting, after the Bulls struggled to another close win over Indiana on Monday night. "They're a good team. They finished the regular season strong. I'm just happy we won."
Even if the Pacers have already delivered their best shot, they've exposed the Bulls for what they are — a team still unproven at playoff time, a team with one magnificent player who will need some help if Chicago is going to survive a four-series playoff gauntlet for their first title since the Jordan years.
Out West, there's all sorts of potential chaos, starting at the top.
The Spurs are hurting and getting a little long in the tooth. Now, they're facing a young, hungry Memphis team that presents major problems on the inside and firmly believes it has the makings of a championship contender. Zach Randolph has revitalized his career, mauling the Spurs for 25 points and 14 rebounds in Game 1.
"A beast," said the Spurs' DeJuan Blair.
San Antonio didn't fare much better trying to guard 7-footer Marc Gasol, who had 24 points and missed only one shot from the field.
Struggling to get motivated for the run at a third straight title, the Lakers ended the season in a funk and failed to snap out of it against the Hornets, who stole Game 1 in Los Angeles. New Orleans lost leading scorer David West to a knee injury late in the season, but still inflicted plenty of pain on Kobe Bryant's team to start the playoffs.
"We have to change our disposition as a team," Lakers forward Lamar Odom said on a day off. "We have to get a different energy."
If they don't, the Lakers can kiss that three-peat goodbye.
Third-seeded Dallas won its opener against Portland, but the Mavericks have a history of playoff flops. And it's not farfetched to see a conference finalist coming out of the 4-5 matchup between the oh-so-deep Nuggets — wow, that team has a lot of options since trading Carmelo Anthony for about half of the New York Knicks' roster — and Oklahoma City, which picked up some much-needed nastiness at the trade deadline by acquiring Kendrick Perkins to go with the wondrous talents of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.
Things look a little more settled in the East, but those teams beneath Chicago have to be encouraged by the way the Bulls struggled in their first two games against a team that went 37-45 during the regular season.
The Pacers had a 10-point lead late in Game 1, but Rose led the Bulls on a closing 16-1 run. He was at it again Monday night, scoring 36 points, and Chicago needed all of them to hold on for a 96-90 victory. Certainly, both games were much tougher than anyone expected.
"We've been standing toe-to-toe with them," Indiana coach Frank Vogel said. "I'm proud of these guys."
Miami and the Big Three of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh cruised to a second straight win over Philadelphia on Monday night, so that series is going by the book. But aging Boston struggled to hold off New York in Game 1, giving the disjointed Knicks a glimmer of hope that Anthony and Amare Stoudemire might figure out a way to work together.
Speaking of discombobulated, the Hawks were a complete mystery much of the season, looking like world beaters one night, a complete basket case the next. There's not a whole lot of chemistry with this bunch, but they do match up well with the Magic, having a bunch of big bodies they can run at Howard while shutting down his teammates. Superman had 46 points and 19 rebounds in Game 1 — and Atlanta still romped to a 10-point win.
Orlando, which made the finals two years ago, doesn't resemble the same team since a big December trade shook up the roster.
Yep, the underdogs have a legimate shot this year, but history still strongly favors the higher-seeded teams. Over the past 30 years, only five teams seeded lower that third have made it to the NBA finals, and only one champion qualified as a genuine surprise: No. 6 Houston, which strung together four straight upsets in 1995.
Crashing through the concrete ceiling in David Stern's little club is darn near impossible.
But this might be the year another longshot gets it done.
Paul Newberry is a National Writer for the Associated Press. Write to him at pnewberry(at)ap.org