The playoffs this year have been fantastic, but no series have been as intense as the Lakers v. Jazz series was. What made this series so entertaining was the raw competitiveness of the 10 players on the hardwood. So many talented players, all willing and wanting to take the big shot, no one shirking their responsibility as a scorer or play maker (except for Jordan Farmar, who was abused by Deron Williams this entire series).
With regards to the Lakers, what impressed me most was the high level of play by Lamar Odom and Derek Fisher. Odom, who has always filled the stat sheet this year (especially after the pickup of Pau Gasol), made very big plays this series, giving the Lakers buckets at many essential junctures of games. Times where the offense was stagnating, the Jazz slicing into the lead, and then, BAM, out of nowhere, a Lamar power drive to the bucket for the dunk and one. And how about Fisher's defense on Williams? His positioning and speed kept Williams out of the lane, and his quick hands netted him close to four steals per game this series (and leads the League in steals in the 2008 postseason)!
But what effect did coaching have on the quality (and outcome) of the series? This series boasted two of the League's best coaches in Phil Jackson and Jerry Sloan and both did a great job, as expected. But there are teams in the playoffs that have, at best, average coaches (and some coaches disgruntled fans might define as mediocre). I think it's safe to say that coaches like Doc Rivers and Mike Brown and Flip Saunders are not in the same league as Phil, Jerry, or Pop. How much does quality coaching matter?
I think it's safe to say that coaching in the NBA matters in the postseason, where two teams meet for, potentially, seven games in a row. These series test the mettle and expertise of the two teams' coaching staffs as they make adjustments and tweaks to their offense, defense, lineups, and matchups. Does coaching matter in the regular season, though? It matters some, of course. A coach sets the tone for the team, the professionalism, the level of effort and energy and work expected by its players. And coach/player chemistry affects the entire team. But in the actual grind of a regular season game, how much of a game's end result is due to coaching versus the team's overall talent and the bounce of the ball?
I think that coaching in the NBA truly only matters during the postseason. I think a talented team with average coaching has as good a chance making the playoffs as a team more middle of the pack team with excellent coaching does. Yet if these two teams were to face off in the playoffs, I'd expect the better coached team to win (assuming the player talent gap wasn't too wide). Just imagine how invincible the Celtics would be if they had a more talented coach. Or how unstoppable LeBron and the Cavs would be if they had a coach who could motivate LeBron to develop a post game (or just convince him to stop jacking up 3s).
Looking forward, the Lakers will play the winner of the Spurs / Hornets series. I hope the Hornets win, as I think that'll be an easier series for the Lakers. The Spurs, while aging and looking vulnerable in their 3 blow out losses to the Hornets, still have an amazing level of talent in their big three players. And with no Bynum, I don't see how the Lakers are going to stop Duncan from taking over the series. Regardless of who emerges, I think the X-factor for the Lakers will be the play of Lamar Odom. If Odom can continue his superb level of play, I think the Lakers can beat either team.
What a first round! While there were a number of snoozer series that lacked a single competitive moment (I'm looking in your general direction, Denver), there were plenty of exciting battles, some where I expected, others in less expected series.
While the Spurs/Suns series had some exciting moments - Game 1 was the most amazing first round basketball game I've ever had the pleasure of watching - it was not nearly as competitive as I expected. What went wrong? I don't blame Steve Nash; nor do I think Coach D'Antoni deserves the blame. Rather, the blame lies squarely with the Phoenix Sun's front office. They've had personality issues with true quality players (Joe Johnson, Shawn Marion), they've traded away key role players (Kurt Thomas), they've always had too shallow a bench, and they've given up far to many draft picks over the years for cash and non-essential players. Bill Simmons has a much more thought out and in depth discussion on this topic that's definitely worth reading: A Requiem for the S.S.O.L Era in Phoenix.
How about the Hawks taking the Celtics to seven? Who could have foreseen that, especially after the Celtics thumped the Hawks in Games 1 and 2? But the Hawks never gave up (at least not at home) and gave the Celtics a run for their money. While the Celtics prevailed, you have to worry that going to the wire might shake their confidence and give other teams in the Eastern Conference more confidence.
Another team I gave far too little credit to in my playoff predictions was the New Orleans Hornets. They dusted the veteran Mavericks (and are giving the Spurs a run for their money in the second round) showing that sometimes youth, energy, and raw talent is more important than experience. Props to Chris Paul who, in his second year in the league, it showing glimpses of being a future Hall of Famer. (Speaking of Paul, check out the following video, which details his first high school game after learning about his grandfather being murdered. Chris went out and scored exactly 61 points, one point for each of his grandfather's years, and then walked off the court and collapsed into his father's arms.)
And now we're into the second round. Based on my pre-postseason picks, I am 6 of 8 (I picked the Mavs over the Hornets and the Wiz over the Cavs). I picked the Lakers over the Jazz, the Spurs over the Mavs, the Celtics over the Wiz, and the Pistons over the Magic. I think I'll be 3 of 4 on my picks here. I expect that the Lakers, Celtics, and Pistons will advance, but with the way the Hornets are outplaying the Spurs, it's looking like it will be the Hornets advancing to the Western Conference Finals. (Let me say it again - Chris Paul is pure amazement.)
This postseason is living up to its hype - a number of exciting and competitive series. Go Lakers!