Then & Now: Your Weekly NBA Digest, 4/26

Welcome to Then & Now, where Shoals sums up the week in NBA hoops and tells you what to look for. Find it here every Sunday evening.
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The No-Look New Looks: It's a point guard battle that's swelling to Paul/Williams proportions. Two teams with deep, dark history mixing it up once again. But what makes Bulls/Celtics so captivating is that these two teams have found new identities for themselves at the least likely time of all. The Celtics aren't merely Garnett-less; we've seen Rajon Rondo emerge as the key star, Ray Allen perhaps eclipse Paul Pierce as an offensive threat, and both Big Baby Davis and Kendrick Perkins definitively grow up. ↵
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↵Meanwhile, the Bulls have years of rebuilding fall into place: Derrick Rose the franchise stud, Ben Gordon and Kirk Hinrich exceptional role players, and big men Tyrus Thomas and Joakhim Noah providing energy and interior defense. That trade for veterans Brad Miller and John Salmons seems to have served them well, too. After Sunday's 2OT Bulls win evened the series, it's become clear just how competitive this one is—and that we're seeing both teams developing new identities as they go. ↵
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↵The Kings Stands Alone: Appropriately, the final game of Cavs/Pistons was denied network coverage until the second half, by which time most fans were completely exhausted by the never-ending Bulls/Celtics classic that bumped it. Not really worth rehashing this one, except to note that Cleveland's defense limited Detroit's starters to 48 points, with 26 of those coming from Antonio McDyess. And we'll talk more about the Pistons' future later. ↵
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↵But while even the Lakers have found themselves tested at times, and have yet to close out their first-round series, the Cavs have the only sweep of this round and a ton of time to sit and think about what they've done. You can argue about whether the Pistons are the worst team in the playoffs (and Cleveland the best), and yet there's no mistaking that only LeBron and company have managed to roll through this round like a team already looking ahead to the NBA Finals. From a strictly physical perspective that's a huge help. Psychologically, though, it might provide an even bigger edge. ↵
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↵Never Even: This Orlando/Philly series is plain weird. The Sixers are hitting threes, the Magic aren't. Playing at home doesn't seem to matter to anyone involved—after tonight's Orlando win in Philly, the series is knotted up at 2-2. But here's the thing: Toward the end of the regular season, people were beginning to talk about Orlando as a possible contender, especially when they snuck up on Boston and briefly took the number two seed. Philly, on the other hand, went into the playoffs on a cold streak, and only rose out of the much at the bottom of the East's playoff picture when they lost Elton Brand for the year and recaptured the fast break chemistry of last season. Put simply, unless the Magic handily take the next two games, no one's picking them to win another series. ↵
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↵FILM CRITIC: ↵
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↵For the last time, "showmanship" is not always a bad thing. Sometimes, a player has to make a point, take a stand, let his opponents and teammates know who he is and where he stands. That would be Kobe Bryant's Saturday night dissection of the Utah Jazz, where the All-Universe Lakers guard seemed incapable of missing a shot. He finished with 38 points on 16 for 24 shooting, despite taking it easy in the fourth. In all truth, though, Kobe was so in the zone he probably could've gone for the same kind of numbers Tony Parker did (31 in the first half, 43 for the game). That was part of the whole understated, menacing swagger he had going: Despite the half-clinic, half-seance Bryant was putting on, he did his scoring in bursts and spent his fair share of time working in the offense. It was like "I'll stash some of this away for later, just in case I really need to let loose on these guys." ↵
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↵GOING FORWARD: ↵
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↵-The Hornets looked all but done, but then they pulled off a win this Saturday through the sheer basketball magnetism of one Chris Paul. There's one more game in NOLA; if Paul can work his magic once again, or pull together his floundering team, they'll pull even with the Nuggets and, on paper, we might have a series. No one's seriously picking the Hornets to come out on top, but this could turn into must-watch ball again if Paul—one of the most frenetic, proud competitors in the game—decides that there's no way he wants his season to end on a thoroughly sour note. ↵
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↵-The Spurs have turned into a total enigma over this series with the Mavs. For the team whose strategy over the past decade has involved a healthy dose of consistency and professionalism, this isn't a good thing. You'd think that bringing the series back home might give them a chance to swing the momentum and maybe start to dig their way out a 3-1 hole. But teams don't just casually dig their way out of 3-1 holes. Especially not ones as all over the place as these Spurs. Between Manu's absence and Duncan not really looking himself, maybe it's best to let them bow out gracefully, and applaud the Mavs for something between an upset and a lucky draw. ↵
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↵-With the Blazers down 3-1, and their team seemingly dependent on Brandon Roy to win games (their sole victory came when Roy went for 42), this first trip to the playoffs since 2003 may be a brief one. Looking on the bright side, though, it's shown them what they'll need to hang with the best. Besides more experience, they could use a point guard, Greg Oden coming into his own, and a tad bit more toughness. Good thing they've got Kevin Pritchard, arguably the most ingenious GM under the age of R.C. Buford, to take action on that front. One thing's for sure: Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge, the foundation of this team for the foreeseeable future, are as good a pair of young cornerstones as you'll fine in the league.↵

This post originally appeared on the Sporting Blog. For more, see The Sporting Blog Archives.

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