One trip, two playoff openers
Why attend two NBA playoff games in two cities on the same day? There's no grand reward like the reception that awaited Charles Lindbergh when he crossed the Atlantic. The mileage between Los Angeles and Phoenix wouldn't push me to gold status on a frequent-flier program.
The reason comes down to knowledge. The best thing about the NBA playoffs is the depth of revelation it provides, because a team's essence is sure to surface at some point during a seven-game series.
Yet even one game at the outset can tell you more than two months of regular-season games. So why not see four teams instead of two?
Plus, I love the Cold Stone Creamery ice cream they serve at halftime in the US Airways Center media room.
The sites and schedule conspired to put the Thunder and Lakers in Los Angeles at noon Pacific Daylight Time and the Blazers and Suns in Phoenix at 7:30 p.m. Mountain Standard Time ... which is the same as 7:30 PDT. (Arizona does not observe Daylight Saving Time.)
J.A. ALL DAY
ESPN.com's J.A. Adande covered Game 1 of Thunder-Lakers in Los Angeles, and journeyed to Phoenix for Game 1 of Blazers-Suns. Check out his ride and chat in this special ESPN.com NBA Playoffs interactive event. Transcript
With a 4½-hour gap between games and an 80-minute flight from LAX to PHX, it was doable. It took some finessing around postgame Staples Center traffic, and I came close to hitting my speedometer's century mark on the Century Freeway, but I was able to watch the entire Lakers-Thunder game, catch Scott Brooks' and Phil Jackson's postgame news conferences, make my 4:15 flight and get to the next arena in time to catch the end of Alvin Gentry's pregame media session.
And what did I glean from watching 5½ hours of basketball? I saw a Lakers team that showed flashes of championship ability and vulnerability, or its 82-game season in summary form. A Thunder team that received a textbook introduction to the postseason. A Trail Blazers squad that has to be the most resilient in the league. And a Suns team that somehow forgot what it's about.
I put a lot of stock in playoff openers. You might not be able to tab the NBA champion, but you can essentially identify who won't be. After one weekend, you can write off half the playoff teams.
To begin with, there's the stat that Game 1 winners have won 79 percent of best-of-seven series in the NBA. And only four times in the past 42 years has a team lost its first playoff game and gone on to win a championship. All four of those teams happen to be from Texas: the Rockets in 1995 and the Spurs in 2003, 2005 and 2007. (As anyone who's been there knows, nothing that holds true for the rest of the country applies to Texas.) That makes the Mavericks-Spurs series the true wild card of the opening round, because that series could produce a champion no matter how it plays out.
So it's not just one game. It's far more than a tuneup. It's a critical jockeying for pole position at the start of the race.
My NBA day began shortly before 10 a.m., when I saw Kobe Bryant on the Staples Center court taking shooting practice. Free throws, 3-pointers, post-up moves. He took soft fadeaways. His mangled finger guided the ball accurately, but his weary legs didn't always provide enough lift to allow a high arc that would drop the ball straight through the net. A few shots bounced around the rim and out.
Kobe's accuracy actually worsened during the game, as his longer jump shots regularly hit the front of the rim. He finished 6-for-19, continuing a string of sub-40 percent shooting nights that goes back to his final three games of the regular season and hasn't been helped by rest.
Perhaps Bryant has become a low-to-average power hitter, still invoking fear every time he comes to the plate, still capable of doing damage with one big swing even if he strikes out three times in a game. He made a 3-pointer midway through the fourth quarter after the Thunder had pulled to within seven points.
It wasn't much of a showdown between Bryant and Kevin Durant. Before the game, the Thunder forward spent some time relaxing on the baseline, his arms spread across seemingly an entire row of seats.
Durant has to be the most impressively seated player in the league. His legs go out past you, and his arms seem as if they could reach up to change ad panels on the scoreboard. He carries on his conversations at eye level even with those who are standing.
Before the game, Durant said he felt great. But soon enough we would learn that he wasn't on top of his game. Only 7-for-24 shooting while being hounded by Ron Artest, and four turnovers to two assists.
Still, Durant didn't lose the superstar showdown to Bryant. The Lakers dominated the first quarter, the only quarter they won on the day, because of Andrew Bynum. Although Bynum's touch wasn't all there after he missed 17 games because of a strained Achilles tendon, who needs touch when you're dunking on Nenad Krstic or swatting shots away? He had a double-double of 19 points and 12 rebounds and helped the Lakers dominate inside early on.
But Lamar Odom didn't provide enough offensive support after moving back to the second unit. Once again, an opposing point guard dissected the Lakers, as Russell Westbrook scored 23 points. The only problem was Westbrook waited too long to engage.
Jackson wasn't very happy afterward. He was relieved as much as anything. Brooks, meanwhile, was encouraged. The Thunder can learn from this game, not just for the long term but also for this series. They can win games if everything else holds and Durant makes more shots. What a great opportunity. They're learning playoff lessons from the defending champions. As one team member said, it's not just a class, it's an honors course. Regardless, they'll get a passing grade.
The Suns should get an F after becoming the only home team to lose in the first eight contests. They scored only four fast-break points. They wiped out a strong closing month in one evening and brought back all the old questions about their playoff worth. The thing is, the Suns can play their style in the playoffs if they want to. They just need the willpower to enforce it, but it wasn't there Sunday. At least they gave us a competitive game before falling to the Trail Blazers 105-100.
I rejoiced and commiserated with Jim Goldstein, an NBA superfan who makes his home in Los Angeles but can be found all over the country come playoff time and also made the hop to Phoenix. He was in Denver on Saturday for the Jazz-Nuggets game, that night's best contest. Then he saw this one, the only game of the weekend to come down to a single shot in the final minute, a missed 3-pointer by Steve Nash.
Goldstein caught Gentry on the coach's way in to face the media and told him he was sorry the team lost. Gentry wasn't trying to hear any sympathy.
"No," Gentry said. "They played better than we did."
More than that, the Blazers played truer than the Suns. They don't want to run with them, and they didn't.
Andre Miller dictated how everything went. He had 31 points and eight assists and was the primary reason the Blazers stayed on message. They weren't there to sling jumpers and create long rebounds. "We had to drive the ball to the basket," he said. So they did, to the tune of 44 points in the paint.
And they produced the most remarkable victory of the first round, one that came after the Blazers lost both centers to injury during the regular season, then watched star Brandon Roy go down with a torn meniscus in his right knee just a week before the playoffs.
Here's where I admit to my lack of playoff readiness. My digital recorder somehow didn't make the trip from L.A. The batteries on my backup digital recorder died. And I blew it when I tried to record LaMarcus Aldridge with the memo recorder on my BlackBerry.
I can tell you I loved what he had to say. Aldridge recognizes that he had to do more with Roy out. He's learned the lessons from last season, about how the Trail Blazers were unprepared for the increased intensity of the playoffs. Now they know. "Ready" was the word he used. It's the most important word in the playoffs.
Aldridge described how he watched all the previous Game 1s and saw how the good teams took care of business, such as Cleveland dispatching Chicago or Orlando handling Charlotte. He thinks of the Blazers in that good-team category, even with all of their missing players. And he, like Marcus Camby, was aware of a Phoenix TV station conducting a survey about whether fans would want to see the Suns play Dallas or San Antonio in the second round, as if the Blazers were a mere formality.
They have overcome all the injuries. They have adjusted to playing with Miller, and that means all sorts of things, including recognizing that Miller likes to play below the foul line, unlike Steve Blake, who roamed up top. That means someone else has to rotate to get back on defense because Miller will be near the basket. All that stuff either floated off into the air uncaptured or is buried on some inaccessible part of my BlackBerry's memory card.
But you can find Aldridge's 22 points in the box score and see he was the dump-it-to-him scorer the Trail Blazers needed. You'll also find Camby's 17 rebounds in there.
And now comes the challenge, to try to win another road game after exerting so much energy to win this one.
"That's what the playoffs are about," Camby said. "It's all about whether you can do it again."
I'm glad I won't be doing this double-dip again.
It wasn't even about seeing two NBA games in a day, something that's easy enough to do during Lakers-Clippers doubleheaders at Staples Center on a handful of occasions each season. And I've had more grueling travel days, such as the four wasted hours I spent waiting at LAX and then John Wayne Airport in a futile attempt to get to snow-socked Dallas for All-Star Weekend.
This was about the mental twist of seeing two playoff games live on the same day. My mind couldn't process that, and it begins to fail to separate the two. I try to type "Blazers," but "Thunder" comes up on the screen.
Every game requires so much attention, demands so much energy even from those in attendance that it's beyond normal capacity to double it. By the middle of the Blazers-Suns game, the Thunder-Lakers game felt as if it had finished a week earlier. I think back to the first playoff series I ever covered, a first-round matchup between the Bulls and Hawks, and how I realized when it was over that the Bulls would have to go through three more of these if they wanted to be champions. That's what the playoffs are. You push yourself, then push yourself more.
Time to gear up for the upcoming stretch of four games in four cities in three time zones in four days.
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