Until Sunday in Denver, the second round of the NBA playoffs were something you watched on television. Something you saw your rivals do. But not something that happened a mile high.
Same is true of Houston, at least until tomorrow night when they tip off in Los Angeles. There the game has an interesting contrast — Lakers fans consider making the second round a birthright; Rockets fans want to savor their first trip that far in a dozen years.
This postseason, two teams that have become traditional one-and-done teams in the NBA playoffs have finally advanced. And the question now is will the they stop to savor the moment, and in the process get steamrolled, or are they ready for even more?
Denver hadn’t been to the second round of the NBA playoffs in 15 years, when in 1994 they beat the Seattle Supersonics in a 5-game series. Denver hadn’t won any kind of 7-game series since 1985.
But this is not your father’s Denver team. A mid-season trade for Chauncey Billups turned them from a talented collection of scorers to a cohesive unit, one that found the offensive mismatches and exploited them. And one that played good team defense. All that was evident in the first round, when the Nuggets manhandled the New Orleans Hornets, playing more physical and more inspired basketball.
And it was true in the first game of the second round Sunday, when the Nuggets beat the Dallas Mavericks 109-95. Denver pulled away late, shooting 64% in the fourth quarter while holding Dallas to 40%. They made big runs with their bench players — particularly Chris Anderson, Anthony Carter and J.R. Smith — on the floor. Nene dominated the Mavericks in the paint, scoring 24 on 9 of 13 shooting. And the up tempo pace and pressure defense that are Denver’s trademarks forced an uncharacteristic 20 Dallas turnovers.
It was hard to watch that game and not think Denver could repeat that formula three more times.
Houston had not gotten out of the first round either as long as Tracy McGrady had been with the team. The last time they had won in the first round was 1997, dating back seven year's worth of first round loses.
While technically McGrady is still on the team (and on the active playoff roster) he is injured and not playing. Which has been good for the team. It has forced them to use Yao Ming more often, to make him the focal point of the offense and surround him with guys who can shoot the three. That was the formula that worked for the Rockets back in the days of Hakeem Olajuwon and it has worked again. Combine that with one of the best defenses in the NBA — just funnel the shooters into the 7’6” guy — and you have a formula for success.
Houston may have a harder time than Denver replicating their success into the second round. Houston draws a Los Angeles Lakers team that can score on their defense and swept the four regular season games from Houston.
But all that history may not matter — the dozen years of not getting out of the first round didn’t. There is finally hope and the fans are not about to give that up now.
Kurt Helin is one of those who believe it is his team's birthright to reach the second round, and he blogs about it at Forum Blue & Gold.