Tuesday, April 29, 2003

NBA playoffs are full of surprises

Gannett News Service

Say this for the NBA playoffs. It hasn't taken them long to turn surprising, steamy and slightly off the main highway. Even if they don't have five overtimes, like hockey.

We have already seen the assist of the year. That's when Portland's Maurice Cheeks, who will never be confused with Pavarotti, helped a rattled young girl finish the national anthem.

Jason Kidd went diving off the court after a loose ball and wiped out his own 4-year-old son. A broken collarbone for T.J.

The No. 1 conference seeds both lost their first home games.

Winning shots have been made by backup strangers, over superstars. That was Jake Voskuhl, burying a last-second jump hook in Tim Duncan's face to push Phoenix past San Antonio and into an unanticipated 2-2 tie.

Points have come in a spring monsoon. Allen Iverson scored 55 in one game. Tracy McGrady and Dirk Nowitzki, 46. Bonzie Wells, 45.

Paul Pierce scored 21 in one quarter. Twice.

And all that's barely the first week. This week we could well be saying goodbye to the career of John Stockton ...

... the reign of the Los Angeles Lakers ...

... the No. 1 seed of the Detroit Pistons ...

... the Indiana coaching job of Isiah Thomas.

It's a little stormy out there.

Take the Pistons. Only two No. 8 seeds have ever survived a first-round series, and never with the 3-1 whacking that Orlando is currently putting on Detroit.

An instructive moment came in Game 4, with the game still to be won or lost. The Magic outscored the Pistons 20-2. Ouch.

So while McGrady has his playoff coming out party the Pistons could formalize their place in infamy any day now.

"The No. 1 seed means nothing. The Central Division title means nothing," Chauncey Billups was saying. "It's hit the fan now."

In Indiana, too, where the Pacers have blown more second half leads than the German army. They are down 3-1 to Boston, having been outscored 34-21 in the fourth period of Game 1 and 37-14 in the third period of Game 4.

The Pacers look finished, and Reggie Miller probably can't save them anymore. He has taken only 10 shots the last two losses and made one of them.

Indiana will soon likely expire with its reputation intact of not having either the toughness or the discipline or the poise to hold a lead. The Pacers are too talented for such troubles, and that is the sort of thing that lands a coach in the soup. Thomas may need noseplugs soon.

Meanwhile, this will say something about the trouble Minnesota is causing the Lakers. Shaquille O'Neal was in full steamroll mode Sunday - 34 points, 23 rebounds - and Los Angeles barely won. At home.

"We had them on the ropes," Kevin Garnett said. "They know it."

The Lakers are tied 2-2 but in danger, with Games 5 and 7 in Minnesota.

Utah went for a 2-2 tie against Sacramento late Monday night, but regardless, the Jazz will probably not get past the Kings. There is growing speculation Stockton might then finally get on with the rest of his life. Here's a point guard with six kids at home.

Stockton is 41 years old and he has missed only 22 games in 19 seasons. None since he was 35. And if this week is it, he will exit the honest way he played. With no fanfare or extravagance or blasts of the trumpet.

We might look around next weekend, and John Stockton will just suddenly be gone.

It is just one plot in a playoff that seemed to come right out of the microwave, where they can't even have a national anthem without something extraordinary happening.

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