Answers becoming clear early in playoffs
The opening weekend in the NBA's Round of 16 was quite compelling if you think drama should be attached to a chalk outline. The favorite won seven of eight Game 1 episodes in a league that prides itself on amazing happening.
OK, using the home court to their advantage doesn't exactly mean these teams are putting us to sleep. We just wouldn't mind a tasty upset mixed in once in a while (but aside from 1 vs. 8, would anything in the Western Conference seem like an upset?).
Anyway, while more precincts are required to report in before we pass absolute judgment on what occurred Saturday and Sunday, it's never too early to revisit the pre-playoff issues. For instance, after the defending-champion Los Angeles Lakers attempted to play their way into the draft lottery when it was way too late to do so, we began wondering if they could grind past the Oklahoma City Thunder. Well, Game 1 wasn't pretty, but Hollywood's team -- demonstrating the defensive mite that made it the league's fifth most efficient unit in the NBA -- guarded the Thunder with gusto and won 87-79.
But the Lakers entered the opening round with several questions that were screaming for answers . We'll get to those now and follow with a few from other showdowns in this Round of 16.
DO THE LAKERS STILL STINK? IS DURANT READY FOR STARDOM?
Actually, the Lakers defense smelled just fine, especially the part featuring first-year Laker Ron Artest (with considerable help against the drive) putting the clamps on Thunder star and league scoring champion Kevin Durant. Durant managed 24 points (six below his average) on an inefficient 24 field-goal attempts (he missed 17). KD did get to the free-throw line for 11 attempts, so Lakers coach Phil Jackson still has some mind-game work to do with the officials (really kidding here).
All of this suggests Artest has paid short-term playoff dividends for the Lakers, who also benefitted from the return of Andrew Bynum (Achilles tendon). Bynum scored 13 points and grabbed 12 rebounds in teaming with Pau Gasol to provide a rim-area gauntlet should Durant choose to drive past Artest.
Oklahoma City guard Russell Westbrook didn't have that much trouble driving past L.A.'s Derek Fisher, but if Durant has to work this hard for buckets the remainder of the series, Thunder Coach Scott Brooks really will have to behave like the Coach of the Year.
By the way, Kobe Bryant missed 13 of 19 field-goal attempts, so his role of continuing as absolute closer needs a bit more time to kick back in.
And while having a tough go at it against a defender like Artest is no shame, Durant will have to validate his superstar evolution by rallying in Game 2.
HOW IS CAVS' ATTACK WITH SHAQ BACK?
The eggshells walk with free-agent-to-be LeBron James started out well in a Game 1 victory over the eight-seeded Chicago Bulls. That included a return to action from Shaquille O'Neal, who contributed 12 points and 5 rebounds in 25 minutes without getting in LeBron's way. With the Cavaliers and Boston Celtics one step closer to a Eastern Conference semifinal date, validation for O'Neal's presence won't require a party with Dwight Howard.
CAN DENVER WIN WITHOUT GEORGE KARL?
This one was answered "yes" in resounding fashion when Nuggets star Carmelo Anthony poured in 42 points in a Game 1 victory over the Utah Jazz.
But 'Melo's efforts -- and the Nuggets' chances without Karl -- were enhanced when the Utah entered Round 1 without front court defensive ace Andrei Kirilenko (calf injury).
In Kirilenko's absence, C.J. Miles drew much of the defensive time against Anthony, despite lacking the length to deal with 'Melo on post-ups and bull rushes to the hoop. Anthony was a brutally effective 18 for 25 from the field.
Denver's opportunity to reach Round 2 -- when George may have a shot to return after a battle with chemotherapy -- improved when Utah lost center Mehmet Okur with a ruptured Achilles tendon.
IS VINCE CARTER THE GO-TO ANSWER IN ORLANDO?
The answer to this one is ... not exactly ... at least, not yet. In his first playoff game as the Magic's break-down-the-defense-guy, Carter fouled out after missing 15 of his 19 field-goal attempts. He did bag a timely, fourth-quarter runner before committing his sixth foul, but the Magic leaned on a couple of clutch hoops from Mikael Pietrus and Rashard Lewis while Vince was watching.
Well then, did Carter draw the attention of Charlotte's defense, providing opportunities for his teammates? Not much. But Orlando was in pretty good shape in its half-court offense with point guard Jameer Nelson turning the corner off of high ball screens from Dwight Howard. Bobcats coach Larry Brown had his team zeroing in on defending Howard's roll to the rim, so Nelson had several clean looks and finished with a game-high 32 points.
CAN THE AGING CELTICS RETURN TO FORM IN THE PLAYOFFS?
The old heads from Boston certainly proved they can perform at past levels in their Game 1 triumph over the Miami Heat. By this I mean that Paul Pierce once again milked a boo-boo for dramatic effect and Kevin Garnett played the intimidation card by elbowing Heat swingman Quentin Richardson.
By the way, that crucial off-season addition of Rasheed Wallace remains miles short of the importance I believed it would have. In 14 carefully selected minutes during Game 1, Rasheed grabbed one measly rebound. But to the good, he avoided shooting a 3-pointer in that 14-minute span. Perhaps there's hope for the Cs, after all.
WILL THE LOSS OF ANDREW BOGUT BE TOO MUCH FOR THE BUCKS?
OK, let's add something else. Even though the Atlanta Hawks aren't exactly known for lock-down defense, they probably won't ignore Brandon Jennings for extended periods, like they did when the rookie gunned the Bucks back into the game in the second half.
ARE THE SPURS TOO OLD? WAS THE MAVERICKS DEADLINE DEAL ENOUGH?
It would be silly -- not to mention premature -- to answer that first question in the affirmative. The Spurs may not be good enough to get this one done, but they certainly aren't chronologically overmatched. For the record, the Mavericks' rotation isn't exactly made up of Boy Scouts. Anyway, the Spurs are spry enough to knock out Dallas, but the second question was at least temporarily reconciled by the combined 32 points contributed by Caron Butler and Brendan Haywood.
So, the trade looks pretty sweet for the Mavericks, but having ol' reliable Dirk Nowitzki (36 points on a ridiculous 12-of-14 shooting) is a constant that deserves more mention.