We asked our writers seven questions (and a bonus) about what many are calling the best first round in NBA playoff history:
1. Who is the defining player of the playoffs so far? Which player, other than Kobe Bryant and LeBron James, has been most compelling to you?
Ric Bucher: Defining player? Kwame Brown. Compelling? Bonzi Wells. The theme of these playoffs has been redemption. Complementary players dismissed or discounted have loomed large while the stars have canceled each other out. Wells, who was not even on the All-Star ballot, has exposed a weakness in the defending champions' arsenal and made good on his tantalizing talent.
John Hollinger: The defining player of the playoffs has definintely been LeBron James, just because he's been under such a microscope in his first playoffs and delivered so hugely. Other than Kobe and LeBron, I would say Dirk Nowitzki. He dominated the Memphis series and showed why he merited being in the MVP discussion.
Chris Sheridan: While the defining players have been Kobe and LeBron, the most compelling player has been Andres Nocioni of the Bulls. I've been covering him since '99, and I knew he was good. But not this good.
Marc Stein: It's been a first round of surprises and so I go with my biggest individual surprise: Luke Walton. He probably wouldn't start for any coach in the league besides Phil Jackson, but he's as important to what the Lakers are doing to control the tempo against Phoenix as Kobe or Lamar Odom. And he tied up Steve Nash in the most controversial play of the playoffs so far, setting up the wildest of numerous wild finishes. Luke is the poster boy for this script-shredding Round 1.
Point23: The most defining player - so far - has been Kobe, but jsut barely, over LeBron. The two most memorable plays so far this postseason both involve the soon-to-be No. 24: Kobe's game winner after the improbable jumpball, and Raja Bell laying him out. Plus, Kobe's willingness to change his entire philosophy is the storylines of the playoffs. But if the Lakers blow a 3-1 advantage - which they are dangerously close to doing - then most defining goes to LeBron. Two game winners and a triple-double in your playoff debut as a 21 year old? We' re all just witnesses - truly. As for most compelling - I'll take Dirk. Remember not so long ago when he was yeling at teammates at midcourt and his leadership was under fire? Not anymore. The Greatest German Ever (and not even grreatest baller ever - the greatest German, period. Can you think of a better one?) pulls off the only sweep off the first round and has his team playing better than anyone right now. Throw in the clutch three and the very real potential of winning an NBA championship, and it's a no brainer.
2. Which team has been the most pleasant surprise? Most disappointing?
Broussard: The most pleasant surprise has been Chicago, because with their lack of power inside you'd have thought the Bulls would be dead men walking against Shaquille O'Neal. The biggest disappointment has been Phoenix. To get pounded inside by the likes of Kwame Brown is just unacceptable.
Bucher: Pleasant surprise? Lakers. Watching any team make itself greater than the sum of its parts is always captivating. The Lakers have done that. Most disappointing? Nuggets. Denver, conversely, has disintegrated before our very eyes, shredding reputations and damaging careers in the stroke of a single series.
Hollinger: Most pleasant surprise has been the Lakers, because they're playing much better defensively than I thought they could. The most disappointing has to be Denver -- they had chemistry problems, took terrible shots and completely gave up in Game 5.
Sheridan: Pleasant surprise is the Clippers, even to those who missed out on the bandwagon when I started it. Most disappointing is the Grizz. Throw a couple of games late in the season if it'll get you the train wreck Nuggets in the first round. There is no chivalry in being 0-12 in the postseason.
Stein: I heard (and cracked) lots of jokes about Ron Artest coexisting with Bonzi Wells when the Artest trade went down. So I'd have to say Ron-Ron and Bonzi emerging as the leadership tag-team behind Sacramento's bid to stun San Antonio has to be the most pleasant surprise. Denver is the easy answer when it comes to disappointments, because the Nuggets didn't even show up for the playoffs, but Memphis extending its streak of playoff futility to 0-12 was just as tough to watch.
Point23: The most pleasant surprise has been Chicago. Has there been a more fun team to watch in the playoffs? Not with the Suns being slowed down, there hasn't. The Baby Bulls play a beautiful style of basketball - push the ball, drive and kick, knock down threes, get in the lane and find people. Plus, they completely exposed Miami's perimiter defense. How geeked are Kidd, Jefferson and Carter right now? I think Shaq just picked up his second foul thinking about Jason Williams or Gary Payton getting beat off the dribble. And no one was more dissapointig than the Nuggets - it wasn't even close. The whole K-Mart debacle was ugly, and Reggie Evans grabbed someone's cookies. Blow it up, Kiki.
3. Which series other than Lakers-Suns has been most enjoyable to watch?
Broussard: Cleveland-Washington has been a blast because it's LeBron's postseason coming-out party, and he's in a shootout with Gilbert Arenas.
Bucher: Bulls-Heat. The two teams have such contrasting styles and personalities.
Hollinger: Cavs-Wizards has been great, especially yesterday's Game 5, but the others were hardly chopped liver either. The LeBron vs. Gilbert shootouts have been reminiscent of Bird vs. Dominique.
Sheridan: Wizards-Cavs, cuz it's fun to see two neophytes kill each other to earn the right to be swept by the Pistons.
Stein: Spurs-Kings. It's more competitive than expected, it's given us multiple great finishes already and it's posing an interesting question to take into the next round: Has Sacramento exposed unforeseen vulnerability with San Antonio or merely sharpened the Spurs up for Dallas? I'm leaning toward the latter.Point23: For drama's sake, nothing tops the Cavs/Zards. But no team so far has been as fun to watch as the Baby Bulls. Kirk Hinrich's quiet battle with Dwyane Wade has been intense (how many times has one of them stopped the other only to have the favor returned immediately?). And I could watch Ben Gordon shoot those tear drops in the lane all day. Have you seen how high they get? Then swish - pure.
4. What's the best coaching move you've seen? And worst?
Bucher: Best? Posting up Luke Walton, Lamar Odom and Kwame Brown. Or, basically, everyone except Kobe. The Lakers' floor balance and the Suns' energy expended defending the paint has short-circuited Phoenix's vaunted offense and, for the most part, neutralized Shawn Marion. And worst? Alienating Kenyon Martin. Pushing K-Mart aside didn't galvanize Denver the way punishing Kwame did last year for the Wizards. As inconsistent as Kenyon has been this season, the Nuggets had little chance of winning without him, reflected in the multiple starting lineups in his absence.
Hollinger: Best? The play Gregg Popovich ran against Sacramento at the end of Game 2 -- it caught the Kings completely by surprise. The worst has to be Mike Brown's play-calling at the end of games -- completely, utterly predictable.
Sheridan: I'm biased in favor of Wiz-Cavs, cuz I've been covering it a lot, but the play the Cavs ran for LeBron at the end of OT in Game 5 couldn't have gone off better. So Mike Brown gets my vote. The worst is George Karl suspending Kenyon Martin. Why does Furious George always feud with guys?
Stein: Phil letting Kobe do whatever he felt necessary to get the Lakers to the playoffs and then getting total commitment and focus from Kobe -- and your Kwame Browns, Smush Parkers and Brian Cooks -- to buy into a totally new game plan for the playoffs. The worst would be an otherwise sharp Rick Adelman not subbing out Bonzi late in the fourth quarter of Game 2 and then bringing Bonzi back when the Kings got the ball back in offense-defense mode. Instead he left Wells on Manu Ginobili to pick up his sixth foul when he didn't even need to be on the floor, forcing Wells to watch all of overtime from the bench in a game that, had Sacramento stolen it, might have had us talking about a historic upset.Point23: It's not technically a move, but Dr. Phil getting Kobe to buy into this new philosophy and then trusting that Kwame flippin' Brown could control the paint is hand's down the best thing a coach has done in Round 1. Although Pop's baseline kick play to tie Game 2 was brilliant, just brilliant. The worst? Anything involving Eddie Jordan. What a train wreck. Make up your mind on how you're playing LeBron. And call a timeout after he hits the next game winner instead of heaving up a 60-foot airball.
5. What's your quick take on the officiating, rough play, suspensions, etc.?
Broussard: I don't have the stats but it seems like the refs are calling more offensive fouls than ever before, and it seems like they're calling charges on plays that have been blocks in previous years. This is clearly throwing players (Shaq, Jermaine O'Neal, LeBron) off.
I think the league had to suspend Raja Bell after the precedent it set by suspending Artest, James Posey and Udonis Haslem. But I think some of these suspensions could have been limited to flagrants without suspensions. Finally, on a positive note, the officials have been consistent -- every team feels like it's getting shafted.
Bucher: The more competitive the series, the more physical confrontations and heated emotions there are -- and this year we have an extraordinary number of competitive series. The postseason fracases also could be a by-product of the regular season. Referees were instructed by the league to be judicious with their T's and talk through conflicts. Players and coaches subsequently became more demonstrative about calls knowing they wouldn't pay a price. Add the do-or-die emotion of the playoffs to the wider boundaries and you have the spillage the refs are now trying to clean up.
Hollinger: Actually, I think the league is doing a great job of keeping this stuff to a minimum. There's always going to be some chippy play when teams see each other seven straight games, but the NBA has reduced greatly the incentive to vent frustrations against opposing players.
Sheridan: The arc beneath the basket has opened up a can of worms in terms of block-charge interpretations. It needs to be addresssed by the competition committee.
Stein: I can't even answer this until someone explains how Reggie Evans went unsuspended after what he pulled.
Point23: I may be alone here, but I think the NBA needs to take a chill pill. The only person who deserve to be suspended - the cookie monster, Reggie Evans - only got fined. Is Violet Palmer running the NBA disciplinary office? Does Stu Jackson pee standing up? Good Lord, that's atrocious. Every other instance was punished fairly enough when the player was ejected and assessed his tech. This is the playoffs, fellas - expect and allow more contact. Don't tamper with the intensity.
(And in case you missed it, reread Stein's answer. I don't know if it was intentional, but that was the best double entendre I've heard in a while. 'Atta boy, Stein! Way to sneak it past the big boys!)
6. What's the most underreported story of the first round?
Broussard: Pat Riley's playoff struggles. First, few have mentioned that this potential debacle on South Beach is all Riley's doing (revamping the roster, replacing Stan Van Gundy). Then, Riley's last four playoff appearances entering this season ended with his Heat being beaten by lower seeds. What's it say about him if this year's star-studded club falls to a far inferior Chicago club?
Bucher: How the Nuggets, eliminated in five games last year, went from a promising force to be reckoned with, to a team, eliminated in five games this year, that is poised to sink back into lottery hell. When a franchise's front office is in disarray, the trouble eventually will filter down to its team. This should be a cautionary tale for every NBA team -- and every organization of any kind. Underreported Story II: The conflict in the Kings' organization over acquiring Ron Artest and growing speculation that the Maloofs want to both re-make and relocate the franchise.
Hollinger: Dallas kicking the pants out of a very good Memphis team. We've reflexively made San Antonio the favorites in the West, but the Mavs played better than anybody else in Round 1.
Sheridan: Phil Jackson's game plan against the Suns, although I'll opine that underreported is too strong of a word. Is under-understood a word?
Stein: I'd still rather see best-of-fives in the first round. But for the first time since the NBA went to best-of-sevens from the start, nobody's complaining about how long the first round is. Because it's been so good.
Point23: How good the Kings are. They are arguably the third or fourth best team in the West right now. If they played with that roster for 82 games, they could have realistically won the Pacific over Phoenix. Look at that roster: one of the best, playoff-tested PG's in Bibby, the best perimiter defender in the L (and not too shabby a scorer, either) at the 2 in Ron Artest, Bonzi Wells eating people alive at the 3, Abdur-Rahim being the vet that he is at the four, and a versatile shooter and passer at the center spot in Miller. Look out next year. And if Barry doesn't hit that corner three, SA might be goin' fishin' a little early this season.
And as a runner-up: the Wizards making fun of LeBron (Caron Butler mocking his chalk in the air routine; Gilbert Arenas saying "we're all just witnesses" and then LeBron lighting them up. Honestly - they asked for it.
7. Two No. 7 seeds and a No. 8 seed are making serious challenges -- a sign of increasing parity or just a blip?
Bucher: Fortuitous matchups. Low-seeded teams have been paired with teams they're ideally suited to create problems for. This year also points up the illusion a robust regular-season record can create.
Hollinger: Just a blip -- this has happened before. Three years ago San Antonio had the league's best record but was tied 2-2 after four games; so were the top-seeded Nets in the East. Of course, they both ended up in the Finals.
Sheridan: Blip. The Kings are good, period. They got an 8-seed cuz they stunk before they got Artest. Think they'd rather have him, or Peja Stojakovic and his mysterious swollen knee?
Stein: It's a sign of favorable matchups more than anything. The Lakers, Kings and Bulls have all found the favorites' flaws and (here's the rub) they're all exposing those flaws repeatedly.
Point23: Just a goofy set of circumstances. The Kings snuck into the playoffs after they acquired Artest - if they had him all year, they wouldn't be an 8 seed. The Heat can't guard a soul of the dribble - guess what Chicago thrives on? Perimiter penetration. Plus, it was always effort with the Heat - when they play hard, they win. They just didn'y play 48 minutes in Games 3 and 4. The Suns had to deal with the Mamba factor: 'nuff said.
AND THE BONUS: Are we in a new Golden Age of the NBA?
Broussard: That's hard to say, but there are reasons to believe that. With the Lakers and the Cavaliers emerging as strong teams, a few Finals matchups between the league's two best players (Kobe and LeBron) could be a distinct possibility, starting in a few years. That would be like Magic vs. Bird. Then with other great youngsters like Amare and D-Wade, Dwight Howard, Chris Paul … yeah, this could be the dawn of something special.
Bucher: Only time will tell. The presence of LeBron, the impact of Phil and Kobe reunited, the quiet emergence of the made-over Dallas Mavericks, the resurgence of Jason Kidd and Vince Carter certainly offer an array of interesting story lines moving forward.
Hollinger: Seems like it. With the draft class of 2003 entering its prime and several other young studs stepping forward, the league looks like it's finally over the post-Jordan hangover.
Sheridan: LeBron is going to change things, and Kobe is special, but Golden Age? We're in a transitional age, and we'll appreciate the "team game" more and more as long as we keep seeing the Pistons and Spurs win championships and Argentina win gold medals.
Stein: It's way too soon to talk about Golden Ages. It might be the Best First Round Ever, but it's still only the first round.Point23: Oh, go out on a limb, fellas! This absolutely is the dawning of the new Golden Age. Look at all the different clashing philosophies trying to win a ring: run like Phoenix, have the single super-duper star like L.A. or Cleveland, be a great team like Detroit or SA? When have their ever been more MVP candidates? Kobe and Lebron and Dirk hitting buzzer beaters...this is The Best First Round Ever for a reason: it's the start of something huge. Plus, look at all the great names not in he playoffs: KG, Amare, Iverson, Chris Paul, Dwight Howard, T.Mac & Yao...yikes. Get ready for an NBA Renaissiance. I'm rambling like an idiot I'm so excited.
(In case you were wondering, ESPN held a little round table with its "experts" on their website, and somehow, they forgot us. Simple miscommunication, we're sure. So we took care of it. How'd we do?)