Some thoughts on the NBA Playoffs heading into tonight's action:
1) Can the Bulls Win on the Road? – The old adage is that a series doesn't start until a road team wins a game, which means this series is still up in the air. The fortunate thing for the Bulls is that Miami might very well have the worst home crowd in the NBA. Heat fans make Lakers fans look like diehard students of the game by comparison. On the other hand, the bad thing for is that I'm just bracing for Shaq to go off on a 40-point 20-rebound rampage, especially with Tyson Chandler sitting out with a sprained ankle. I also have a hard time believing that Dwyane Wade can be kept down on a consistent basis, although Kirk Hinrich has proven time and time again that he's a top-notch defender (and has shown some intestinal fortitude on the offensive end this series, as well).
I love watching this Bulls team overachieve, but the pessimist in me (World Series or not, this is at the core of all Sox fans) knows that they have been playing pretty much flawless basketball these first four games and only have a 2-2 tie to show for it. That's a testament to how well the Bulls have coalesced as a team yet also displays that there's a ceiling to how successful you can be in the NBA without a star (don't give me some line about how the Pistons have won without stars – Chauncey Billups, Rip Hamilton, Ben Wallace, and Rasheed Wallace are all certified gamebreakers). Honestly, this series is going to be determined by whether the Heat can wake up and finally turn it on more than anything that the Bulls do from here on out. Here's to hoping that they continue to underestimate us.
2) Kobe the Destroyer – Other than the Bulls-Heat games, I've been paying attention to the Lakers-Suns series more than anything else in the NBA Playoffs right now. Kobe Bryant is tearing the heart out of MVP-to-be Steve Nash and Phoenix the way Michael Jordan did it to Charles Barkley's 1993 Suns and Karl Malone's 1997 Jazz when His Airness got snubbed in favor of those players for the MVP. The way that Nash melted down at both the ends of regulation and overtime and how Kobe capitalized on each of the mistakes on two buzzer-beaters in the same game on Sunday was spectacular but hardly unexpected. Kobe is leaving no doubt in anyone's mind as to who the best player in basketball in the world is today. Believe me, Nash is a top-level player, but should he have won even one MVP award much less two in a row? Don't be so naive to believe that there isn't a "Great White Hope" factor playing into this.
3) From World's Highest Paid Couch Potato to Star in the Playoffs – An unintended consequence of following the Lakers-Suns series closely is observing Bulls outcast Tim Thomas tear it up for the Suns. I had a post written back in February entitled "The World's Highest Page Couch Potato" about Thomas' strange falling out with Scott Skiles and how the Bulls sent him to sit at home even though (1) they desperately needed the size that Thomas could provide for them and (2) they were still paying $14 million for the season as the highest paid player on the team. However, by the time I was ready to post that column, he was released by the Bulls and the Suns picked him up. So far in the first four games of the Lakers series, Thomas is averaging 15.8 points and 9.3 rebounds per game for Phoenix (and that's including him missing some time at the end of game 3 due to a sprained left knee).
This begs a couple of questions. First, did Thomas really have so horrible of a work ethic that the Bulls absolutely had to send him home to sit around and collect the highest paycheck on the entire team? When the Bulls released Thomas, the two teams that wanted him the most were the Suns and the Spurs, the two best teams in the vastly superior Western Conference that also have no-nonsense coaches. It makes me question whether Thomas could have possibly been that much of a detriment. Second, if the Bulls had actually used Thomas, could they have been the most legitimate threat to the Pistons in the East this season? The Bulls are clearly overachieving right now with a team full of undersized guards and forwards. If they can get past the Heat, they could possibly make it all the way to the Eastern Conference Finals, where they would promptly get crushed by Detroit. By adding a 6'10" player that can actually shoot three-pointers extremely well, however, the Bulls could have presented a true challenge to the Pistons (and at the very least, would have had enough talent to not have to play perfect games against teams like the Heat in order to even have a chance to win).
Would Thomas have disrupted the Bulls' undeniable team chemistry? That must have been in the thoughts of both Skiles and John Paxson when they made the decision to send him home. However, when it became clear that Thomas was desired by winning teams like the Suns and Spurs, it gave me doubts as to what the hell the Bulls were looking for. Especially in light of Tyson Chandler's repeated injury problems, I don't know how the Bulls just let 15-plus points and 9-plus rebounds get away without anything in return.