Updated: May 7, 2006, 4:27 AM ET

Suns eclipse Hollywood ending

PHOENIX -- Before the opening tap came another kind of tip, whispered in the bowels of the U.S. Airways Center:

Word was Steve Nash will be officially named as the NBA's repeat MVP in a special ceremony Sunday afternoon. You suspect he'll enjoy the occasion after a Saturday night that wasn't bad, either.

Playoff Schedule
WEST SEMIFINALS
San Antonio 0, Dallas 0
Game 1: Sun., 1 ET, at SA (ABC)

Phoenix 0, LA Clippers 0
Game 1: Mon., 10:30 ET (TNT)

EAST SEMIFINALS
Detroit 0, Cleveland 0
Game 1: Sun., 3:30 ET, at DET (ABC)

Miami 0, New Jersey 0
Game 1: Mon., 8 ET, at MIA (TNT)

The full playoff schedule

The awkward prospect of returning to this arena to collect the game's highest individual honor, mere hours after a Game 7 defeat in the first round, didn't linger as a concern for long. Nash showed up for work with a stiff back, re-aggravated an ankle injury when he collided with teammate Shawn Marion and barely felt a thing because his little Phoenix Suns were in torch mode.

"That," Suns coach Mike D'Antoni quickly volunteered, "was about as good as we can play, guys."

That was a 121-90 spanking of the Los Angeles Lakers to bring an anti-climatic ending to the most dramatic first round in NBA history. You have every right to say that the most dramatic first-round series of them all deserved a better finish -- and Lakers coach Phil Jackson did openly lament his team's meek exit as "a shame" -- but you still have to admire the precision that came from Phoenix in the cauldron of a seventh game.

Sixty-one percent shooting, people.

It was an offensive show, no matter how defenseless L.A. looked. It was pretty much over after a quarter, or nearly three quarters before the Suns' famed Gorilla mascot strolled to midcourt in a Kobe Bryant jersey, toting a fishing pole.

"We've got bigger fish to fry now," Suns guard Raja Bell said, getting in another jab by mimicking the way Bryant slammed him a month ago.

It was so one-sided that the Bell vs. Bryant reunion never really had a chance to spark, never close enough for tension after Bell's one-game suspension. L.A.'s dreams of a Hallway Series were snuffed out by a home team that had Marion firmly back to his Matrix self -- where he has been, really, since the second half of that Game 4 heartbreaker -- and two playmakers breaking the Lakers down even more than the hobbled Nash did.

The speed and aggression of Boris Diaw and Leandro Barbosa offset the lack of a true center, or even a true power forward, in the Suns' seven-man rotation.

"Tonight [they] were our two best players," Nash said.

It was, at its core, a mismatch between a smallish team emboldened by the two elimination games it had already survived . . . and the bigger-but-greener Lakers, who looked like they had no idea what was coming.

"We had jitters today," Jackson said.

Bryant concurred when asked about his teammates, saying: "They were a little nervous about it."

And so Bryant's last game as No. 8 devolved into the one-on-five challenge anticipated some two weeks ago, back when this first-round epic began. Not by choice, though.

The Ocho, soon to be No. 24, was forced to fire away because, everywhere he looked, his inexperienced teammates were shrinking. All the fears about the Lakers' kids in a Game 7 were validated in 12 minutes, by which point L.A.'s deficit was already 32-15. The Suns, meanwhile, showed up for Game 7 with a defensive energy and activity rarely seen from them, quickly fronting and rotating in the post to smother the timid visitors.

Bryant tried to get his helpers involved at the start, as he did to great effect in the first four games, but none of them had it. Not Lamar Odom or Luke Walton, both of whom outplayed Marion through the first half of the series. Not Smush Parker and definitely not Kwame Brown, who so frustrated Jackson that he was summoned to the bench just 74 seconds into the second half.

Strangely, though, Bryant's will to keep shooting didn't last much longer, bringing a muted close to his prolific season. The Ocho attempted just three shots in the second half after ringing up 23 points in the first, in what looked suspiciously like a surrender. Jackson and Bryant both insisted afterward that they were in accord with the second-half approach -- that another 50-point game, as Kobe submitted in Game 6, was not going to save them here -- but it was one more dose of bizarre in a series that had everything.

The mysterious happening on the Suns' side followed that heartbreaking Game 4. There they were in a 3-1 hole, stunned by Bryant's two buzzer-beaters and the calls (or non-calls) that preceded them.

"Whether they turned it on or thought about it consciously, I don't know," D'Antoni said. "But from that moment, we played the way we played all year."

Indeed. They scored 114, 126 and 121 in the three games that followed, gradually draining the "decisiveness" (Phil's word) and belief out of L.A.'s inside players to get the tempo they wanted. Two runaways in the desert, sandwiched around a classic OT triumph of their own at Staples Center in Game 6, enabled Nash to avoid the fate that befell Moses Malone in 1982.

That's when Malone became the NBA's last MVP to exit the playoffs in Round 1. Nash didn't deny that the uncomfortable thought of an MVP press conference after an early elimination "crossed his mind," but he also insisted that he never viewed this series as a referendum on the voting or a Kobe vs. Nash examination.

"There was some underlying [MVP] stuff, but I've always tried not to worry about stuff I can't control," Nash said. "I know, for some people, we have to win a championship to validate everything [happening in Phoenix]. That's fine. After everything we've been through this year and after everything we've been through in this series, I'm really proud of my team right now."

With good reason.

Easy as they made it look in the end, becoming just the eighth team in history to overturn a 3-1 deficit, it wasn't nearly that easy. One veteran scout I know said it best after Game 4: "I don't like one single team's chances -- in the whole NBA -- of beating a Kobe-led team three straight times."

This series, furthermore, only underlined how fragile the Suns were after losing Amare Stoudemire in training camp. Getting to 54 wins with their lack of depth and size -- as vulnerable as they were inside to even the likes of Kwame without Amare and Kurt Thomas -- looks more impressive after seven contentious games with Kobe's Kids.

Not less.

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Center Ring

Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images
Kobe Bryant didn't stick around after the game for hugs and handshakes, choosing to walk off the floor rather than congratulate Steve Nash and the Suns. The pregame greeting between the MVP candidates, one day before Nash officially receives the award, was as cordial as it got.


Catch Me If You Can
Leandro Barbosa entered Game 7 with almost zero recognition nationally, but that may quickly change after he tore through the Lakers' defense for 26 points on Saturday. The Brazilian blur repeatedly beat L.A. off the dribble, making 10 of his 12 shots overall.

Even his misses turned out OK. He caught Lamar Odom with an elbow on a missed drive in the second quarter, and Odom was so frustrated he unnecessarily whacked Barbosa two plays later on a 3-point attempt -- giving three free throws which Barbosa converted.

The third-year guard especially hurt L.A. when he capitalized on a rare Phil Jackson mistake at the start of the second quarter. Despite Barbosa's blazing speed, the Lakers took the floor attempting to guard him with the bigger, slower Devean George. It might as well have been Boy George. Barbosa blew by him for three easy lay-ups in five possessions, and had another drive past George that was turned aside by help defense.

All told, he scored the Suns' first nine points of the quarter, enabling them to maintain a double-digit lead despite Steve Nash being on the bench and L.A. scoring 14 points in a three-minute span.

Overall, Barbosa's True Shooting Percentage for the night was 91.5%, the second straight game he'd cleared 90. In the Suns' Game 6 overtime win at Staples Center two nights earlier, Barbosa squeezed 22 points out of just nine shots from the floor for a 91.6% mark -- while chasing Kobe Bryant around at the defensive end. Between the two games, he scored 48 points while missing only four shots.

While Barbosa can't be expected to keep up this kind of uncanny accuracy against the Clippers -- his True Shooting Percentage on the season, while outstanding for a guard, was a more human 58.9% -- this year's playoffs have been a coming out party for him.

Western Conference insiders have known all year about the kind of offensive punch Barbosa can provide, but this has been his first good chance to showcase those skills on a national stage. So far, he's making the most of it.

-- John Hollinger



Cavs-Pistons Scouting Report
From the Scouts Inc. breakdown of the conference semifinals matchup between Cleveland and Detroit:

SMALL FORWARD
Cavaliers: LeBron James has the quickest first step for anyone his size in the league.

He is one of the best passers, can rebound like a power forward and is shooting a career-best 48 percent.

James is able to use his size to take on contact finishing in the lane, and also to pass over the top of defenders.

He loves to catch the alley-oop in transition or the half court, so you can't let him get behind you.

He sets up his defender with the angle of his body so you are never quite sure whether he will shoot or pass.

The Cavaliers' offense starts with him trying to beat his man off the dribble with the option of finishing or finding an open shooter.

One on one there is no one that can stop him, but the Pistons will do a much better job on James late in a close game than the Wizards did in Round 1.

Pistons: Tayshaun Prince's understated game is a perfect fit for the Pistons. His offensive style is not one that needs the basketball all the time.

He uses his center-like wing span to frustrate smaller defenders and contest jump shooters.

Prince, like anyone in the NBA, is going to have trouble with James; he will probably be spelled by Hamilton to offer different looks defensively.

Advantage: Cavaliers

See the complete Scouts Inc. report


Nash Cans LA-LA

MVP Steve Nash and his merry men took back a series that seemed gone six days earlier and robbed Los Angeles of a Lakers-Clippers series that had Hollywood a-titter.

Suns steal series

Three Firsts For Phil
Kobe Bryant, Phil Jackson
Harry How/Getty Images
In his incredible coaching career, Phil Jackson had never lost a first-round series (14-0) and never lost a series in which his team had led (44-0). Until Saturday. With his Game 7 loss, Jackson is the first coach in Lakers history whose season didn't last as long as the Clippers' season.


Extreme Behavior
Leandro Barbosa

Saturday's Best
Suns guard Leandro Barbosa: The fastest end-to-end player in the NBA lit up the Lakers with layup after layup, scoring 26 points on 10-of-12 shooting as the Suns capped the eighth comeback in NBA playoff history from 3-1 series deficit with a 31-point rout.

Kobe Bryant

Saturday's Worst
Lakers guard Kobe Bryant: His teammates didn't help, especially shrinking violets Kwame Brown and Lamar Odom. But this award goes to Bryant because he's set our expectations so high. After a great first half, the Mamba disappeared into Plan 8 from Outer Space in the second half, taking only three shots and scoring one point to match the one assist he had in the game. For the game, his last in the No. 8 jersey, he put up an octagon full of Crazy 8s: eight FGs made, eight missed and eight 3s attempted, to finish with 24 -- his uniform number next season.

Quote of the Day
"I am going to steal a line from Disney and say it's a small world after all. I guess small guys can play."
-- Suns coach Mike D'Antoni, on his little warriors.

See how all 17 who played stacked up
Hollinger playoff stats (LBJ's No. 5)
Super stats from 82games.com

-- Royce Webb



Another Kind Of Success
Phil Jackson

There was no standing ovation for Kobe Bryant and Phil Jackson at the end of their seven-game series with the Phoenix Suns.

My guess is there won't be one any time soon, either.

My other guess is that at some point, when the accomplishments of everyone they played with and against are added up, the magnificence of taking the Suns to the limit will receive its just due.

Here's the truth: The Lakers maximized their potential by posting the West's seventh-best regular-season record, and then followed that up by putting the second-seeded Suns on the brink of elimination.

It took a gutsy game plan from Jackson and an ego-swallowing contribution from Bryant, but the two former combatants showed exactly what they could do when they joined forces.

It just wasn't enough. Steve Nash was every bit as mentally tough as Kobe and coach Mike D'Antoni was as equally proactive in throwing wrinkles at the Lakers.

In the end, Leandro Barbosa, Boris Diaw and Shawn Marion proved to have more skill, composure and determination than Lamar Odom, Kwame Brown and Smush Parker. It's no more complicated than that.

Feel free to question the strategy of trying to get every Laker other than Kobe rolling to open the third quarter, or Kobe's abstention from shooting even after it became painfully apparent his teammates couldn't make a shot.

If you do, though, you obviously missed the first half, when Kobe tried to pick up his teammates' slack, scored 23 points -- and the Lakers trailed by 15 at halftime.

The crux: Forget who shot how much and when. The Lakers lost this game on defense.

The trigger for their toughness at that end earlier in the series was getting everyone involved offensively around the basket. (The Suns basically operate on the same principle.)

Jackson and Kobe tried to pull that trigger one more time. The gun didn't fire.

Don't blame them. Look at the gun.

And, some day, perhaps, appreciate that they got something of that caliber to go off as many times as it did.

-- Ric Bucher



Layup Drill
Leandro Barbosa
Harry How/Getty Images
Pound for pound, LB was the best player on the floor on Saturday. Shedding and shredding the Lakers' D (here: Luke Walton, left, and Kobe Bryant), Leandro Barbosa had a game-high and playoff career-high 26. As Mike D'Antoni said later, "Leandro, for about 10 minutes tonight, was probably the fastest guy on Earth."


Sports Guy Says ...

Shaun Livingston

Bill Simmons provides a snapshot of the Clippers' exciting young backup point guard, who, unlike the Suns' Steve Nash and his sprained ankle, seems healthier than ever:

Four months ago, I was wondering if the Clips were destroying Shaun 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.

See the full Sports Guy column

 

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