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Friday, May 5, 2006
Stock up: the first round

By Bill Simmons
Page 2

You know what we've been doing in Round 1? We've been running down a dream, that's what.

We've had at least two games to watch every day, including an old-school Tuesday that featured four in one night. We've had flagrant fouls, near-brawls, shoving matches, trash-talking, arguments between teammates, even an ultra-bizarre incident involving somebody's frank and beans. We've had buzzer-beaters, choke jobs, multiple 40-point games, Mamba's personality transformation, four ESPN Classic-level games and the stirring possibility of three Game 7's this weekend. We've had superstars raising their games and other stars sputtering to comical degrees. And after two weeks of games, only one thing is certain: When Bill Walton announces a Lakers game and pretends not to be related to Luke Walton, it's really, REALLY disorienting.

Whose stocks have risen and fallen over the first two weeks? Let's take a look at the Dow Report ...

Steve Nash
Everybody deserves a big hug after this series.

The Suns-Lakers series ... we officially inducted it into the Playoff Series Pantheon Thursday night thanks to five entertaining games, two absolute classics (Games 4 and 6), two extraordinary players (Nash and Kobe) dueling it out and three memorable shots (Kobe's double whammy in Game 4, Tim Thomas' series-saving three in Game 6). Even if both of those teams are headed for a shellacking from the Clippers, this has been one of the most entertaining, hard-fought, distinct series in recent memory. Just a pleasure to watch.

Seven things I will remember from Game 6:

1) Phoenix winning a do-or-die overtime game, on the road, with their usual run-and-gun style ... and basically playing six guys. Absolutely astounding. How did they have anything left for OT? How are they not getting tired down the stretch? When Mike D'Antoni was coaching in Italy, did the Italian bicycling team show him a way to pump oxygen right into his players' bloodstream? How in God's name does Shawn Marion play end-to-end for 50 minutes, protect the boards, guard Kobe much of the time AND find a way to jump two feet over the rim for the game-ending alley-oop in OT? Nobody finds this fishy? Do they just pump coffee intravenously into his veins during timeouts?

2) Phil Jackson waiting and waiting with Kobe, waiting for the perfect time to go for the jugular (almost like Drago's trainer in the Creed fight), finally lowering the hammer in the fourth quarter of Game 6 ... and the Suns somehow pulling the game out anyway. Whoops.

3) Boris Diaw playing 49 minutes and grabbing two rebounds. Somehow, his team won the game. You figure it out.

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4) Nash missing a 3 that could have killed Phoenix for good, but the rebound miraculously bouncing right to Marion, with the ball eventually landing in Thomas' hands for the series-saving 3. They go on to win the game, and Barkley and Kenny follow by talking about how L.A. screwed up by having Kobe take so many shots. Umm, the Lakers battled foul trouble all game, still had a 3-point lead in the final 20 seconds, and ended up squandering their lead on a game-tying, second-chance 3 by someone who wasn't in the NBA two months ago. It's safe to say they played Game 6 correctly.

5) Terrell Owens in the stands wearing a Kobe jersey. Too many jokes ... too many jokes ... head might explode ...

6) After his 0-for-5 stink bomb from the field in Game 6, over the last three games Smush Parker has gone 3 for 24 in 110 minutes of playing time. This isn't a slump, it's a homicide. Could this be a more ideal situation for the Suns? Nash couldn't guard Sue Bird if both her ACLs were blown out, but with Smush decomposing out there, Nash doesn't have to play defense and saves all his energy for the offensive end. Let's see how this flies against Sam Cassell and Shaun Livingston in Round 2. Put me down for the choice: "poorly."

Smush Parker
Smush Parker goes up for another missed shot.

7) On the flip side, Nash was unreal in Game 6. I can see why someone would get sucked in to making the MVP case for him, even though he plays only one end of the court. I can't remember another point guard freelancing in the halfcourt offense, creating mismatches and taking big guys off the dribble, but doing all of those things consistently for four quarters game after game. It IS amazing. That was a heroic Game 6 performance. And Kobe was just as good. What a series.

The Lakers-Clippers matchup ... suddenly on life support. I knew it was too good to be true.

The Pistons. They're cruising to the Finals as easily as any team since the 2001 Lakers unless something goofy happens, like Billups blows out a knee and as he's rolling around on the ground Rasheed runs over to help him out, leans over and cracks a bone in his back. Or Rip Hamilton's nose breaks again and leaves him with one of those Michael Jackson/no-cartilage noses, killing his self-esteem in crunch time. Or Flip Saunders intentionally starts tanking games so he can challenge Don Nelson's record for "most playoff games coached with a career record under .500." Or Kid Rock and Eminem start beefing at courtside of a home game, followed by Kid's brother-in-law firing gunshots at someone in Eminem's posse and inadvertently shooting Tayshaun Prince. Get the point? Something REALLY crazy would have to happen.

Manu Ginobili. When you hit your late 20s, isn't it time to shed the whole "I may or may not show up for tonight's game" gimmick?

Shaq. Just as the "washed up" whispers were starting, he pulls out a 30-20 to clinch the series in Game 6. Well, then.

Antawn Jamison. How can you give LeBron baseline on the final shot? How? How? No, really, how? How does this happen? How? Imagine losing an overtime playoff game because one of your teammates gave baseline to one of the best three players in the league who had 43 points at the time? Would you ever speak to him again? And how does LeBron get wide open on that play? I know Eddie Jordan doesn't need an NBA paycheck anymore after his successful appearances in "Crash" and "Hustle and Flow," but couldn't he at least pretend to be outraged that his team can't guard anyone?

Vince Carter. With the exception of Game 1, he was the dominant player in the Nets-Pacers series, and I also loved his preening theatrics after every big shot. Oh, wait -- no, I didn't.

Carmelo Anthony. Here's an actual exchange between me and the Sports Gal (a 'Melo fan) as we were leaving Game 5:

Me: "I can't believe how much 'Melo sucked in that series."

Her: "He tried hard."

Me: "What?"

Her: "And he was a good sport."

Me: "What is this, a youth soccer league?"

Her (after 2-3 seconds): "Well, he seems like a sweet person."

Dirk Nowitzki. Simply annihilated Pau Gasol in their head-to-head matchup to clinch "Best Foreign Big Man Alive" honors, capped off by a Bird-like 3 to send Game 3 into overtime and pave the way for an eventual Dallas sweep. I like how he added that sneering, Detlef-like German swagger this season; it's pushed him to another level. You can almost imagine Hans Gruber yelling at him to go find John McLane in the Nakatomi building, followed by Dirk calmly saying, "I vill find him," and reloading a massive machine gun. Or maybe not.

Pau Gasol
Don't cry, Pau, you just weren't aware of your karma-altering beard.

Gasol. Much like with Jake Plummer, Gasol's karma-altering beard only worked during the regular season and self-destructed during the playoffs. On the flip side, Playoff Beards almost always work. So if you grow the Regular Season Beard, either you have to shave it for the playoffs, or you need to shave it into something even goofier, such as one of those horseshoe-shaped mustaches like the one belonging to Vito Spatafore's diner cook/boyfriend in New Hampshire. You just can't stand pat.

Sam Cassell. Did you ever think you would much, much, much, much, much, much, much, much, much, much, MUCH rather have 36-year-old Cassell on your team than 37-year-old Gary Payton?

Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Damon Jones and Larry Hughes. Isn't it interesting that Danny Ferry spent $141 million on those guys last summer and his best pickup turned out to be Flip Murray in February, who made $895,248? Might not want to put that one on the old résumé.

Gilbert Arenas. He gave LeBron everything he could handle for the first five games. Am I ready to stick the Arenas-LeBron series up there with the Bernard King-Isiah Thomas first-round series in 1984? Of course not. Nobody is playing even a shred of defense in this series -- it's like watching an NHL playoff game where both teams decide to pull their goalies in the first period. You know it's a bad sign when an overtime game ends with a buzzer-beater, followed by the postgame studio guys (in this case, Barkley and Kenny) laughing uproariously because the defensive intensity made Isiah's defense on Magic during the 1992 All-Star Game look chippy by comparison.

Marcus Camby. Explains reader Seth E. from Hartford: "So far the best development in the NBA playoffs without question is Camby's playoff mustache. It's phenomenal. He looks like the cop in 'Police Academy' who can make all those cool sound effect noises."

Put it this way: When your team loses to the Clippers in five AND you're being compared to Michael Winslow, your stock is going down, whether you like it or not.

Doc Rivers. Good game analyst, great studio host. You know what? I think people should do what they're good at -- he's meant to be on TV; it's clearly his destiny. Why fight it? Sure, the Celtics would struggle without him, but we wouldn't want to stand in his way. Doc, you need to do this for YOU. Just resign from the Celtics, take the pay cut and sign with TNT. Money isn't everything.

The Celtics ... because I don't think the last paragraph worked.

(Speaking of TNT, "Saved" is on pace to break "The Closer"'s record for "Most commercials ever run for the same show during the NBA playoffs." Keep your fingers crossed. And remember, TNT knows drama.)

LeBron. Within five games, he successfully answered the "Will he raise his game when it matters?" ... "Can he come through in the clutch when it matters?" ... "Will he be accorded MJ-level respect by the refs at the end of games?" (as witnessed by his four-step travel on the game-winner in Game 3) and "Will he chew his fingernails more than every other NBA star in playoff history combined, to the point that he could develop some rare version of oral basketball herpes if somebody doesn't stop him soon?" questions. Just a virtuoso offensive performance. Just like Bo Jackson in the late '80s, he officially has no ceiling. If you stepped out of a time machine and told me that LeBron averages a 45-15-15 during the 2011 NBA Finals, I would absolutely believe you.

LeBron James
LeBron's play has been spectacular ... but the beard is just hideous.

LeBron. ... for three things:

First, his playoff beard stands out only for its atrociously atrocious atrociousness. Since when did people start shaving everything on their face but their neck? How could this possibly catch on? As Pittsburgh reader Chris Scott points out, only Kevin Martin's attempt to single-handedly bring back the high fade haircut has been more of a disaster.

Second, the playoff sneer after big shots has to go. It looks like he's either losing a staring contest or having a colonoscopy performed on him. I can't take him seriously if he's going to keep doing it; between the playoff sneer, the playoff beard and the fingernail chewing, he's inadvertently submarining his own coolness. He might as well start wearing a champagne-colored earring or carving "Bron-Bron" into the back of his head.

And third, how could someone who's so prodigiously talented offensively stink so much defensively? Did you see Arenas' go-ahead layup in the final minute of overtime? Only LeBron was back on defense, so Arenas put his head down and went right to the rim because he knew LeBron couldn't stop him. LeBron never even challenged the shot -- and it's not even an effort thing, more of an instinctual thing. For instance, watch any old game from the '80s on Classic and you'll notice how many times the smarter players from that era (Bird, Magic, MJ, Isiah, Stockton) broke up 3-on-1s and 2-on-1s when they were the only guy back. (You would never think this, but Bird was the absolute greatest defender ever in this spot; he always broke on the pass early, almost like a cornerback who knows the out route is coming.) And yes, it's early with LeBron, and any nitpicking with him would be like nitpicking a young Van Gogh or a young Stevie Wonder ... but it's a little bit of a concern. He's way too good of an athlete to struggle defensively. It should never happen.

Kirk Hinrich. Is it too late to convince him to play for the 2008 Olympic team? Come on, Kirk, we want to give the USA car keys to you and Chris Paul for the next six years. Please change your mind. We won't make fun of your haircut during the entire Olympics. I promise.

Raja Bell. He's like Bruce Bowen after about four drinks. Why get suspended for Game 6 during the tail end of a Game 5 blowout? And why get Mamba riled up with a variety of potshots when you might be facing him in a possible Game 7? What's the logic with that one?

Which reminds me, if Kobe doesn't completely eviscerate Bell in Game 7, everyone on the planet is banned from making any more Kobe-MJ comparisons. We all know that MJ would have dropped 55 on Bell, shut down Nash on the other end and disemboweled D'Antoni for good measure. Kobe, if you're going to steal MJ's fist clench/shake from Game 1 of the 1998 Finals without asking, you need to take this all the way. You cannot lose Game 7. You can't. Even if you're playing 4-on-5 and Jax keeps refusing to play Vujacic.

Kenyon Martin. Not for the player himself, but for the fact that Isiah's going to trade for a guy with a bad knee, an attitude problem and $70 million left on his contract in about six weeks. I can't wait. Isiah's first bad move of the summer is turning out to be the summer version of Christmas -- it's an annual tradition, I look forward to it every year, there's the possibility of one gift or multiple gifts, and I'm always pleasantly surprised.

George Karl
It's just not an NBA playoffs without George Karl standing around with his hands in his pockets.

George Karl. Is there a way to digitally include him in "Poseidon"? He could just be standing on the deck with his hands in his pockets and a sour look on his face as the boat flips over.

Shaun Livingston. Four months ago, I was wondering if the Clips were destroying Livingston's confidence by throwing him out there again and again. Now? I'm wondering if he's the single biggest X factor in the 2006 playoffs. How many teams can bring a guard off the bench who can create shots for everyone else AND completely change the flow of the game? Forget about what happens in Round 2 -- this is the one guy who could single-handedly alter the Lakers/Clippers big brother/little brother dynamic in Los Angeles.

And yes, after Games 4 and 5 of the Nuggets series, we need to adjust his ceiling from "Penny Hardaway in the mid-'90s" to "Magic without the charisma." Not saying he'll get there ... just saying that's the new ceiling.

Pat Riley. In his defense, it's tough to coach an NBA team when you're covered in Stan Van Gundy's blood.

Scott Skiles. How many coaches could have made it to Game 6 of a playoff series without any All-Stars, with Tyson Chandler as the only big man, and with Mike Sweetney, Jannero Pargo, Malik Allen, Eric Piatkowski and Luke Schenscher involved in circumstance other than "Guys dressed in suits on the bench." Which reminds me. ...

Scott Skiles. Really, he couldn't have found 25 minutes a game for Tim Thomas this season? He wouldn't have fit in with Chicago's style of play? Really? Wouldn't have helped in the Miami series? Really? Seriously?

The NBA. For assigning Dick Bavetta to an obvious Dick Bavetta Game (Suns-Lakers, Game 6), only the visiting Suns pulled it out. Either they're deliberately screwing with us, or Dick Bavetta is so old at this point, he's losing his touch. I vote for the latter. Don't be surprised to find his body floating in Santa Monica tomorrow.

Larry Bird and Donnie Walsh. The Pacers pulled out of an Artest-Maggette trade because Maggette was hurt, settled for Peja Stojakovic instead, and then Peja missed four of their six playoff games because he got hurt. Meanwhile, Maggette stayed in L.A. and emerged as the most explosive bench guy in the playoffs, and Artest transformed the Kings into a legitimate title contender. Other than that, the deal worked out great. Hey, at least Peja isn't a free agent this summer. Uh-oh, wait a second.

Andres Nocioni
Meet the second-best player in the Heat-Bulls series ... Andres Nocioni.

Andres Nocioni. Not only was he the second-best player in the Bulls-Heat series, Charles Barkley pronounced his name an astonishing 493 different ways on TNT over the past two weeks.

Barkley. Was anyone else watching his ESPN interview and waiting for Brian Fantana to walk on camera and say, "Take it easy, Champ. Why don't you stop talking for awhile?"

Nenad Krstic. He came close to matching Jermaine O'Neal's numbers in the Pacers series and even managed to grow a scraggly, uneven beard that made him look like he had spent the last 30 days on Exile Island, as required for all European players during the playoffs. By the way, he's only 22. I'm just sayin'.

Jason Kidd. Did you ever think you would see the day when a Jason-Kidd-Anthony Johnson playoff matchup could be called a "wash"? Well, we still haven't -- Kidd got eaten up by Johnson for six games, capped off by Johnson's 40-point explosion in a Game 6 loss (maybe the single craziest NBA stat line since Tony Delk exploded for 53 six years ago). After what we saw from Kidd, C-Webb, K-Mart and Amare Stoudemire this season, I think we need an episode of "House, M.D." where Dr. House is supposed to perform microfracture knee surgery on Omar Epps, then decides to heal Omar holistically at the last moment.

(One more note on this: Before we keep killing the careers of NBA players with this surgery, couldn't we perfect the process on WNBA players first?)

Any playoff game not being announced by Marv Albert, Kevin Harlan, Mike Tirico or Mike Breen. Umm, when it's time for Game 5 of the Cavs-Wiz series to air on ESPN Classic, can Marv re-dub the play-by-play? Please? Pretty please?

Living in Hollywood. Which gives me a chance to hear stories like this: During the timeout right before Kobe's game-tying layup in Game 4, the Mamba waited until Jackson was done talking, then went over to Smush Parker, grabbed him by the shoulders in full view of everyone sitting near the bench, then started poking him in the chest while repeatedly screaming, "You steal that ball! You steal that ball! You steal that [bleeping] ball!" Apparently Smush looked terrified, like a 14-year-old minding his own business then was suddenly being ordered to rob a liquor store by the leader of the Crips. But Smush stole the damned ball. And if there was video footage of this moment in the huddle, I think I would pay three grand for it.

NBA celebrations. What's up with this new trend where one guy runs up to the other guy, hugs him with one hand, then uses the other hand to grab the back of the guy's head, and then the other guy hugs him and they touch foreheads for an intense embrace? When did this become acceptable? Imagine trying this with one of your buddies after winning a game of pool in a bar? Would everyone in the place just stop talking and stare at you in disbelief?

The Clippers. As reader Sly Cooley points out: "Is it possible that the greatest moment in Clippers history is tanking that Memphis game and getting the sixth seed? Suddenly they are lined up to cruise into the Western Conference finals (as you predicted). As a diehard Clips fan for 20 years, it is nice to see that knowing how to lose finally paid off."

Amen, Sly Cooley. Amen.

Kevin Garnett. And not just because the 2006 playoffs took place without him. Check out this quote after the Clips series from Carmelo Anthony of all people: "I don't want to be like Kevin Garnett and take eight years to get out of the first round." Ouch.

Bonzi Wells. Ladies and gentleman, the first round isn't even over and we have a winner for the 2006 Jerome James Award! Wait a second, you're telling me that a talented, moody, up-and-down, overpaid NBA player waited until his third team and the last possible moment of his guaranteed contract to suddenly run amok in the playoffs and become the player everyone always thought he could be? You're kidding me! This never happens!

Nuts
Ahh, those crazy Clipper fans!

You know what? I'm totally sold. Toss out the last six years ... I'm only judging Bonzi by the last two weeks and that 24-12 he's putting up every game. There's no way it's a ruse! More importantly, where's my checkbook? I want to make Bonzi a five-year, $60 million offer that I'll regret in six months and I don't even own an NBA team.

Reggie Evans. The definition of a terrible contract run in the playoffs: Not only did Evans fail to emerge from a three-man rotation that includes Eduardo Najera and Francisco Elson, he guaranteed himself a lifetime of "NUT GRABBER!" shouts and insults after that whole Chris Kaman grabbing-the-crotch-from-behind debacle, which the league apparently decided NOT to suspend him for because it was so over-the-top weird that they just wanted it to go away as fast as possible. Well, it's not going away. At the Clippers game on Monday night, at least five different people in my section held up bags of nuts and screamed at him any time he was within 20 feet. And that's his career for the next 10 years. He's the Nut Grabber. Welcome to hell, Reggie Evans. Welcome to hell.

Bill Simmons writes two columns per week for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine. You can reach his Sports Guy's World site here. His book "Now I Can Die In Peace" is available on Amazon.com and in bookstores everywhere.