Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Phoenix Suns -- What's next?

Last year I wrote a story for MSNBC that analyzed style of play in the NBA, particularly the continuing shift toward a faster game. Given Phoenix's multi-year success and Golden State's upset of Dallas ... quicker tempo was the 'in' thing.

In 2008 the league-wide pace factor — an estimate of a team's number of possessions per game, or roughly how fast it plays — increased again to 92.4, the highest mark since 2000. And yet, for all of his success, Mike D'Antoni, the NBA's biggest proponent of fastbreak basketball and a savior of the game to many fans, likely will not return as coach of the Suns. In D'Antoni's four full seasons, the Suns won 62, 54, 51, and 55 games. They were eliminated in the playoffs three times by the Spurs, but also reached the Western Conference finals twice.

There was no history of success to support D'Antoni's approach, but he ignored it. The Suns ran and ran some more. They entertained. They won -- not a championship, but not too far off. To fire a coach with four consecutive 50-win seasons simply because he failed to reach the ultimate prize? That's one tough standard meet. Every team wants to win every year, but only one does. I'd like to think enjoying the journey would be better rewarded.

Legendary coach Chuck Daly, who won titles with the Pistons in 1989 and 1990 with a defense-tilted approach, told me the following during an interview for my story:

"Everybody wants to play like Phoenix, but you know what, there’s only one Steve Nash, and they built that team around him with all of those guys who can streak and shoot."

Read the second half of that quote carefully. "They built that team around him with all of those guys who can streak and shoot."

The Suns thought they could fit in Shaq, just one large piece to that puzzle, without upsetting the rest of it. And it didn't work. Because of Shaq, and the accompanying shift in mind-set to a post offense, those guys who could streak and shoot — Bell, Stoudemire, Barbosa, Marion (traded in the Shaq deal) — turned into guys who could (and did) stand and watch.

Nash, meanwhile, the motor, the trigger of everything that the Suns were about, was reduced to a post-feeder. And for all of Diaw's success on the block in Game 5, his Barkley-like pounding of the ball for 6, 7, 8 seconds time and time again, clearly and completely proved just how far the Suns had transformed. Who were these guys?

Phoenix now faces some tough decisions in the off-season. They have a roster full of players built to play the speed game, and one guy, who all by himself, brought those speed players to a halt. Shaq is 36 years old and has more than 37,000 minutes on his NBA body-clock. He also makes $20 million per year and has two years left on his contract, which means he is nearly impossible to trade.

Do the Suns build around Shaq and reshape the rest of the roster? If so, D'Antoni is probably not the right coach to oversee that.

Or do they release Shaq, absorb the $40 million as an ill-fated attempt at a title, and tinker the roster slightly to give the speed game another run? If this case, D'Antoni obviously is the guy.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Spurs-Suns -- Game 5 thread

These teams are so evenly matched. But the Spurs -- against the Suns and everyone else, too -- make one or two more plays in one or two more games each series to get it done. A big part of this is because they are true to their system, to their roles, to who they are. Even though Nash tied the game at 85-all with a big 3-pointer, he followed it with two turnovers, and he was out of rhythm most of the night due to the over-abundance of Diaw on the block as well as the overall slowdown on offense ever since Shaq arrived. The Suns stopped playing to their strength: the break-neck running game.

Spurs, especially Parker, showing some extra emotion. This isn't a typical first-round series. These two teams are both championship caliber. The Spurs realize what a significant accomplishment this is.

Spurs win, 92-87.

Nash and Giricek miss 3-point attempts. Duncan at the line: miss, make. Spurs, 92-87. 2.3 seconds to go.

Ginobili fouled again: make, make. Spurs, 91-87. 23.1 seconds left.

Bowen knocks the ball off Nash on the inbounds play.

That miss by Ginobili, of course, changes everything. The Suns have tons of two-point options. Do they go to Diaw in the post, which has been successful tonight? Or do they keep the ball in the hands of their best player in Nash? Does Phoenix go for a 3?

Duncan inbounds to Ginobili, who is fouled by Bell. Ginobili to the line: make, miss. Spurs, 89-87. 25.7 seconds left.

Diaw over Ginobili in the post. Suns within 1, 88-87. 26.2 seconds to go. Not enough time for the Suns to play this straight-up. They'll have to foul.

Suns don't need a 3 here, but Nash loves to go for it in these situations.

Parker, using screen-roll, buries another jumper. Spurs, 88-85, 29.8 seconds left.

Diaw in the post, turnover.

Duncan misses a long jumper.

Nash turnover.

Nash turnover. Parker at the line: miss, make. Spurs, 86-85, 1:26 left.

Parker had a step to the hole, but Stoudemire came out of nowhere for an unbelievable block. Tremendous quickness off the floor by Stoudemire.

Nash for 3 to tie it. 85-all.

Parker a jumper. Spurs, 85-82.

Nash misses a tough, fallaway jumper.

Thomas at the line: make, make. Spurs, 83-82. 2:55 left.

Nash jumper on the run. Suns, 82-81. Huge shot by Nash, who was 2-for-12 prior to this one.

Shaq at the line again: make, miss. 9x20

Duncan a runner. Spurs, 81-79.

Shaq back at the line: miss, make. 8x18. Tie game, 79-all, 4:30 left.

Parker denied twice on drives, forced into missing a jumper.

Another Hack-a-Shaq. Shaq at the line: make, make. 7x16

Parker at the line: make, make. Spurs, 79-76. 4:59 to go.

Nash with a turnover and two misses coming out of the timeout. With all of his deferring earlier, Nash is not in rhythm.

Parker to Duncan. Spurs, 77-76. 6:43 to go. This final stretch is where the Spurs have been so tough during their three-titles-in-five-years run. Concentration and execution at both ends. Can the Suns toughen up and stave off elimination?

Parker fouled hard by Bell on the break. No flagrant. Good call. Parker splits 2. Spurs within 1, 74-73.

Parker to Duncan. Spurs within 2, 74-72.

The Suns completely collapse their entire defense every time Parker drives now. This is a complete switch from all earlier strategies this series. They're daring Parker to pass the ball to someone on the perimeter. But, with Finley 0-for-2 and Bowen 0-for-2, Parker isn't looking to give it up.

Diaw over Horry. Suns, 74-70.

Parker denied again, Duncan misses.

Diaw has drawn two more fouls in the post to start the fourth.

Parker forces his way to the hoop and is fouled. Parker makes 1 of 2. Suns, 72-71.

Parker drives again, forced baseline and around the basket. He's unable to get shots in the paint now.

Parker forced into a jumper, which misses. 1-for-4 this half.

Popovich just said he thinks Manu is playing too fast, trying way too hard, and that he needs to slow down.

Parker stopped on another drive -- turnover. Suns lead after 3, 72-69.

Ginobili and 1. Spurs with 2, 71-69. Maybe that will get him going.

Bell off a curl, unguarded. Suns, 69-64.

Diaw reverse dunk off a turnover by Oberto. Suns, 67-62.

Spurs don't have the spacing or the shooters on the floor right now to stretch Phoenix's defense. As a result, the Suns are able to sag in the paint and off the edges to help on Parker.

Bell for 3. Suns, 65-62.

Parker's drive clogged, denied again. Duncan rebounds his own miss, puts it back in. Tie game, 62-all.

Bell off glass. Suns, 62-60.

Udoka fouls Nash. Suns will get free throws the final 4:18 of the quarter. Nash makes 2 at the line. Tie game, 60-all.

Stoudemire filling the lane, and 1. Suns within 2, 60-58.

Parker's last few drives have been clogged nicely by the Suns, who have forced him to give up slow, hold up, then give up the ball.

Mellencamp's "Jack and Diane" just belted out while the ball was in play. Strange. Diaw dunks. Suns down 6, 60-54.

Diaw has drawn three fouls in the post this quarter. Still 9:20 to go. The penalty is looming early for the Spurs.

Bell for 3. Suns within 4, 54-50. Five straight for Phoenix to open the third.

Parker just passed up an open lane and/or jumper to pass to Thomas, who missed a jumper. No reason for Parker to give up the ball.

Diaw over Finley in the post.

Spurs: 9-2 edge in fastbreak points at the break.

Diaw is effective in the post tonight, but again, this post game isn't what the Phoenix Suns are all about. Nash, with just four points and zero assists on 2-for-8 shooting, is deferring too much. What is the Suns' identity? Adjustments are necessary, but changes in philosophy are difficult to implement mid-season, let alone mid-series. The Suns have tried both in 2008.

Parker and 1. Spurs, 54-45. San Antonio closes the second quarter on a 14-2 run over the final 4:31. Parker is the best player on the floor again: 20 points, five assists in 20 minutes.

Spurs cranking up the defense the final five minutes. Current run is 11-2. 20.9 seconds before halftime. San Antonio is holding for the final shot.

Oberto 2-for-2 at the line. Spurs, 51-45.

Hack-a-Shaq, Round 5. Shaq at the line: make, miss. 4x12

Hack-a-Shaq, Round 4. Shaq at the line: miss, make. 3x10

Ginobili picks up his third foul. Shaq at the line: miss, miss. 2x8

Udoka dribbles into a jumper. Spurs, 45-43.

Hack-a-Shaq, Round 3. Shaq at the line: miss, miss. 2x6

Udoka ties it with a 3. 43-all.

Diaw a long 2. Suns, 43-40.

Duncan, Ginobili and Parker each have two fouls with 4:47 to go before halftime. Ideally, Popovich would sit them to avoid a third foul for any of them. However, that's the Spurs entire offense. And they can't let the game get away from them.

Parker two free throws. Spurs back in front, 40-39.

Stoudemire steps in and takes a charge on Duncan, who picks up his second foul.

Shaq spins on Duncan and dunks. Suns, 39-36.

Barbosa corner 3. Suns grab their first lead, 36-34.

Stoudemire offensive rebound and 1. Suns within 1, 30-29. 7-0 run for Phoenix.

Spurs lead, 30-26, after 1. Parker with 13. Ginobili, meanwhile, didn't score and only played four minutes because he picked up two quick fouls. The Spurs will need him to find some rhythm while Parker gets a brief rest.

Diaw over Finley in the post. Suns within 4.

Horry for 3. Spurs, 30-22.

Hack-a-Skinner, Round 2. Skinner at the line: make, make. 3x4

Parker screen-roll once, regroups, screen-roll twice, teardrop. Spurs, 27-20.

Hack-a-Skinner, Round 1. Skinner at the line: make, miss. 1x2

Parker makes two at the line. Spurs, 25-19.

Hack-a-Shaq, Round 2. Shaq at the line: miss, make. 2x4

Duncan stripped, recovers, dunks. Spurs, 23-18.

Hack-a-Shaq, Round 1. Shaq at the line: miss, make. 1x2

Parker and 1. Spurs, 21-17.

Diaw over Finley again in the post. Suns within 3, 16-13.

Six in a row for Parker on drives. Duncan adds two free throws. Spurs, 16-11.

Diaw outside over Finley. 8-all.

Phoenix's bigger lineup with Diaw in has caused the Spurs some matchup problems at the defensive end. Finley winds up with Diaw in the post, which forces some soft doubles. Duncan just helped and gave up a bucket to Stoudemire. Diaw then scored over Finley.

Kurt Thomas rolls in a jumper. 4-0, Spurs.

Duncan drills a long jumper. 2-0, Spurs.

Duncan with a freshly shaved head. This is serious. It's close-out time.

Hornets-Mavs -- Game 5 thread

If the Hornets indeed face the Spurs, they'll have a chance because of Paul. But their defense and depth will be tested: Paul guarding Parker; Chandler on Duncan. Those two especially will have to stay out of foul trouble.

Hornets advance, 99-94. Their stars were simply super once again: Paul with a triple-double (24 points, 11 rebounds, 15 assists), West with 25 points, Chandler with 13 rebounds (seven offensive) and three blocked shots.

Paul misses a jumper, but Chandler, the best offensive rebounder in the NBA, taps the ball back out. It winds up with Stojakovic, who is fouled with 5.7 seconds left. This one is finally over. Stojakovic hits two at the line. Hornets, 99-94, 5.7 seconds to go.

Hornets clearly thought their work was finished and now they're limping to the line again. 33.2 seconds to go. Mavs don't need to foul. Let's see how they play it.

Look out ... Devean George just hit another 3 to pull the Mavs to within 5, 97-92. 38.7 seconds left. Dallas ball, 4 on the shot clock. Nowitzki misses, but Bass rebounds and is fouled. He just barely misses an and 1. Bass at the line: make, make. Mavs within 3, 97-94. 33.2 seconds left.

Stackhouse, being a punk as usual, is ejected. Somewhere, somehow, Stackhouse and Carmelo Anthony deserve each other.

The Mavs have two nice pieces, starting with Nowitzki. But look at the overall: They start two older players in Kidd and Dampier who give them zero offense and really don't even need to be guarded. Stackhouse has developed Rolando Blackman disease (i.e., an overnight drop in production). Howard obviously can't be counted on when it matters. Other than Dirk, Bass is the only other piece that I'd set aside to build around. I'd clean house in every other room, including the coach's office.

Pargo reverse layup. Hornets up, 84-67, 7:00 left. Nowitzki just drove weak and was denied. This series is similar to last year's vs. Golden State. The Hornets, much like the Warriors in 2007, are younger, more athletic, and hungrier. And they established early on that if they kept the pressure on, attacked mismatches in the halfcourt, attacked on the break, and funneled the Mavs into shots they didn't want to take, they would win going away.

Wright hits two from the line. Hornets up, 82-67, 7:36 to go.

Pargo from Wright on the break. Hornets, 78-66. Timeout Dallas. 9:07 left.

Pargo a step-back 3. Hornets, 76-66. New Orleans is tentative again, though, getting bailed out by some tough shot-making against the clock.

Howard airball 3 to open the fourth. Paul answers with a long 2. Hornets, 73-63.

Howard is having another rough game, although 5-for-12 for 10 points through 3 might be his best game in the series. The guy averaged a career-high 19.9 on 45 percent shooting during the regular season. But those numbers were down to 12.8 and a dismal 26 percent through the first four games of the series. Quite simply, Howard is killing the Mavs, who have numerous problems, but this is the biggest. The way the team is constructed Howard has to hit his averages. They just don't have the other players to compensate when he doesn't.

Chandler, who stayed in the game with his four fouls, just blocked Stackhouse at the rim, then denied him again at the third-quarter buzzer. Hornets, 71-63, after 3.

West over Bass and 1. Hornets, 71-63.

Terry hits two at the line. Mavs within 5.

Bass draws a foul on Chandler, who just picked up his fourth. 57.5 seconds left in the third.

Brandon Bass! Completely outworked three Hornets underneath and dunked over the top of Chandler. Terry adds a dunk. Mavs within seven, 68-61.

Paul for 3. Hornets, 68-57.

Paul hits a tough 2 right at the shot-clock buzzer, but the Hornets will not be able to walk this one to the finish line.

Paul still not pushing the ball.

Nowitzki a long two. Mavs within six, 63-57.

Mavs have cut a 15-point deficit to eight early in the second half. Paul is not aggressive enough right now. Hornets, following Paul's lead, are tentative.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Lakers-Nuggets -- Game 4 thread

Four-game sweep. Nuggets become first 50-win team to be swept in the first round. Great start to the postseason for the Lakers, who have the hunger and mind-set to take this all the way. It's highly unlikely that Bynum will return, but the Lakers appear to have enough talent to get it done.

Kobe 0-for-2 at the line. Lakers, 107-101. Final.

Kobe 2-for-2 at the line. Lakers, 107-101.

Nuggets in scramble mode for no reason. They aren't composed or organized, and had no clue about ball-time-situation there. Lakers go Kobe-Odom-Gasol, who dunks. Lakers, 105-101,

Camby for 3. Nuggets within 2, 103-101.

Bryant a runner off glass. Lakers, 103-98. 40.7 seconds to go.

Nene on a follow. Nuggets within 3, 101-98.

Bryant makes 1 of 2. Lakers, 101-96.

Anthony fouls Bryant 40 feet from the basket with 1:19 left. Anthony fouls out. A super-talented player who just doesn't get it. He has No. 1 option talent, but can't be trusted or counted upon to deliver. He isn't a leader and has no discipline.

Walton corner 3. Lakers, 100-96. 2:37 left.

Kobe deep 2. Lakers, 97-96.

Smith steal, layup, and 1. Nuggets lead, 96-95, 3:23 left.

Smith for 3 from 28 feet. Lakers, 95-93.

Kobe and 1. Lakers, 95-90.

Kobe for 3, after a ridiculous 2, fading against the shot clock. Lakers, 93-90.

Lakers are going to Gasol for isolations on the block -- not his strength. He's missed twice in a row. They need to get him on the move, cutting off the ball.

Odom and 1 on the block past Kleiza. Lakers, 88-85.

85-all. 6:30 to go.

Lakers lead after 3, 79-77.

Nuggets have come back from 10 down at the half to lead, 73-71.

DJ Mbenga just dunked Kobe's missed free throw. Lakers, 41-29. Apparently, it's difficult to focus on free-throw block-outs this time of year. Just another game for the Nuggets, right?

Lakers lead, 32-23, after 1. This quarter looks exactly like the rest of the series: Lakers move the ball, get good shots. Nuggets don't move the ball, end up with difficult shots. Unless the Lakers fall apart offensively or their top six guys go down injured, we're 36 minutes away from a sweep.

Magic advance

Orlando's late run brushes aside Toronto as the Magic become the first team to advance in the 2008 playoffs. Howard was the difference in the series-clinching Game 5 as well as the series. He posted 21 points and 21 rebounds, his third 20-20 in five games.

Orlando's bench is thin, but its starting five is very good. The Magic will give either Detroit or Philadelphia a tough series, but staying out of foul trouble will be key.

Celtics-Hawks -- Game 4 thread

Johnson (20 points) and Smith (12) combine for all of Atlanta's fourth-quarter points. Again, the Celtics can't match up with either player. And yet, Rivers kept Allen on Johnson and allowed isolations until it was too late.

Smith at the line: make, make. Hawks, 97-92. Final. Series tied, 2-2.

Posey buries another 3. Celtics within 3, 95-92. 4.3 seconds.

Johnson at the line: make, make. Hawks, 95-89.

Allen drives, dunks. Celtics within 4, 93-89. 18.7 seconds.

Pierce loses control of the ball, misses a layup. Smith, fouled on the rebound, now at the line: make, make. Hawks, 93-87, 26.2 seconds.

Johnson at the line: make, miss. Hawks, 91-87. 37 seconds.

Pierce and Garnett double Johnson again, who draws a foul on Pierce.

Pierce now on Johnson, who is doubled by Garnett. Childress pulls down an offense rebound on a 3-point miss by Smith.

Posey buries a long 3-pointer. Celtics within 3, 90-87.

Another Johnson vs. Allen isolation. Two more for Joe. Hawks, 90-84.

Garnett in the lane. Hawks, 88-84.

Johnson drives through the Celtics again. Hawks, 88-82, 2:15 left. Boston has allowed Johnson to break down Allen on isolations four consecutive possessions. The drives start from beyond the 3-point line, and help doesn't show until Johnson already has a head of steam. I'm surprised Rivers hasn't switched up this defense. Johnson has 15 in the quarter, 30 in the game.

Garnett rolls one home. Hawks, 86-82.

Smith just blocked Garnett, 1-on-1! Seven blocks for Smith.

Johnson drives for 2. Hawks, 86-80.

Johnson for 3. Hawks, 84-79, 4:33 left. The fourth-quarter-opening run is now 19-4 with Johnson (11) and Smith (8) combining for all 19 of the points.

Smith again from the outside. Hawks, 81-79.

Johnson ties it with a free throw. 79-all.

Boston's biggest weakness, a lack of athleticism, again is showing. Quite simply, Joe Johnson and Josh Smith are the two best athletes on the floor, and they both play for the Hawks. These are nearly impossible isolation covers for the Celtics.

Trying to tie the series at two games apiece, the Hawks are making a run to open the fourth. The spurt is 13-4 right now. Celtics' lead down to 1, 79-78. 5:52 left.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Hornets-Mavs -- Game 3 thread

Hornets in command, 3-1, and going home for Game 5. I think the crowd will be alive in New Orleans and spur the Hornets to a big win.

Final. Hornets, 97-84.

Starters on the bench, less than three minutes left.

Paul takes a long rebound on the run, pushes hard, and explodes into George. And 1. Hornets, 92-73.

Hornets are really difficult to rally against late in the game, because Paul won't give up the ball, can kill clock, and still get his team a good shot late.

Paul over the top. Hornets, 89-70, 5:19 to go.

Kidd's left hand caught Pargo around the neck on the break. Pargo went hard to the floor. Refs rule it a flagrant 2. Kidd (1-for-6 shooting, 3 assists in 28 minutes) is ejected, but this doesn't hurt the Mavs. Can Dallas go back in time and not pull the trigger on the Devin Harris trade? It was definitely a flagrant foul, but was less malicious than Stevenson on LeBron earlier.

Three straight for Julian Wright. Hornets, 86-70.

Stojakovic inside for 2. Hornets extend the lead to 15, 83-68, 8:30 to go.

Howard with an airball, now 3-for-15 from the floor. Dallas won't win tonight, or this series, if Howard can't score as his team's No. 2 option. Without Howard producing, the Mavs simply don't have enough offense to match the Hornets.

Down 10, Mavs open the fourth quarter for their most important game of the season with a shot-clock violation.

Hornets lead after 3, 76-66.

Paul in the lane for 2. Hornets, 74-65.

Terry and Nowitzki are carrying the Mavs right now, both in production and emotion.

Mavs starting a surge. Terry drives for 2, Nowitzki buries a long 3. Mavs within five, 68-63.

Stojakovic corner 3 ... splash. Hornets, 64-51.

Six in a row for David West. Hornets aren't getting much from Paul right now, but they're still extending the lead, 61-51.

Stojakovic for 3 ... nothing but net. Hornets, 53-46.

Paul swishes a 17-footer with 2 seconds to go in the half. Hornets lead at the break, 48-44.

On a court full of athletes, the explosiveness of Bass really stands out. Good time to mention that Bass was a second round draft pick in 2005. He is making $770,000 this year. Erick Dampier? $8.6 million.

Hornets on an 8-2 run. Two assists for Paul, two free throws and a jumper for Stojakovic. New Orleans, 46-40.

Paul back in, game tied, 38-all, 4:34 to go until halftime.

Hornets making a run with their bench: Pargo with seven and Julian Wright with 4. Hornets in front, 38-36.

Mavs, getting 12 from Jason Terry and huge lift off the bench from Brandon Bass (six points and relentless work on the offensive glass), lead after 1, 30-23.

The two biggest keys for New Orleans in this series -- Chris Paul controlling and creating at the offensive end, and Tyson Chandler on the floor for 40 minutes per game -- are not going well right now. Chandler picked up two quick fouls and managed only five minutes in the first quarter. Paul is 1-for-2 with three assists in 12 minutes.

T-Mac ... It is his fault

Research in communication suggests that the actual words only contribute seven percent to an overall message, while the remaining 93 percent comes from nonverbal cues (e.g., posture, body movement, gestures, facial expressions, etc.). Consider this a loosely correlated extension of "Actions speak louder than words."

Houston's Tracy McGrady is one loss away from falling to 0-7 in playoff series. Earlier in the week, McGrady made a failed attempt at humor regarding his postseason failures, even stating that everything was his fault, including mistakes in concession beer orders at the Toyota Center.

One one hand, McGrady is correct. Last season against Utah was probably the only time that a McGrady team was favored to win a playoff series (and even that was nearly a coin flip). In this year's rematch, Yao Ming is out injured and Utah is better than a year ago. So, another loss is expected. And of course McGrady needs help.

Still, as one of the most talented basketball players on the planet, and one who earns better than $19 million annually, he needs to do his part -- and often more than that. McGrady tires in the fourth quarter, a fact that he has also admitted. He's scored 12 total points in four fourth quarters in this series and missed his first 11 fourth-quarter field goal attempts. McGrady has access to top-notch strength and conditioning coaches, yet he isn't in good enough shape to finish games strong?

But it's the actions, the nonverbal communications, that indict McGrady the most. It's his shrugged shoulders, pained expressions and passiveness. He appears disengaged, detached, arrogant and aloof. And so, when he fails, it's natural to draw conclusions that McGrady could do more. And for not doing everything that he can McGrady is at fault.

My take on McGrady's Game 7 loss to Utah last season

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Saturday Night Light

In case you missed it ...

* Denver is George Karl's fifth NBA coaching stop. And this stop is about ready to stop. Except for Seattle, which rebounded from some earlier monumental postseason failures to reach the NBA Finals in 1996 (Karl's fifth season there), Karl's trend is this: Infuse a team with energy and allowable freedom within the game early in his tenure, tear it down later with pettiness and lack of accountability. The Nuggets are a wreck. Anyone else want to see Allen Iverson paired with Larry Brown?

* It's hardly possible for Orlando to have paid more for Rashard Lewis, whose $15.6 million this season seems like a bargain by comparison (Lewis is on the books for nearly $24 million in 2013!) to what it will owe in future years. Lewis at least gave the Magic some return on investment in the team's biggest game in nearly a decade. In Game 4 against the Raptors, Lewis tallied 27 points, 13 rebounds and five assists. He made the back-breaking 3-pointer as well to seal things for Orlando, which is now up 3-1 in the series and on the verge of getting out of the first round for the first time since 1996 (six first-round exits in the past 11 years).

* The Celtics certainly aren't in trouble against the Hawks, but Atlanta's victory in Game 3 exposed some of Boston's weaknesses: lack of overall athleticism, Ray Allen's diminished game as strictly a jump shooter, inconsistent bench production. These soft spots could be better exposed in the Western Conference (one series would be a coin flip, but I'm not sure the Celtics could navigate three series against the West). Style-wise, most of the teams in the East don't have the personnel to hurt Boston.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Fighting the urge

After the home team wins the first two games of a series, Game 3, especially between evenly matched foes, often goes to the team trailing 2-0. Why? Well, human nature is the biggest reason. Call it desperation vs. relaxation, two characteristics that are impossible to simulate (except maybe with the help of hypnosis or something else clinical; just a guess). They're either present of they're not. Coaches love to say, "Let's play like the series is even," even though it's 2-0. It sounds OK, but nobody is able to do it.

Usually it's tough to beat desperation, especially when that desperation is combined with the comfort of a home crowd and familiar surroundings. Thus far, Toronto, Dallas and Washington -- all fueled by desperation -- won easily in Game 3. Atlanta and Denver will attempt to get back into their respective series tomorrow.

What, however, happened to Phoenix? The Suns also began last night in the 0-2 hole and expected to begin the climb back. Instead, the Spurs led tip-to-buzzer, building a double-digit lead in the first quarter and coasting in the second half, easily dispatching the Suns, 115-99.

For San Antonio, winner of three of the past five NBA titles (roads dotted with impressive performances), this one just might have been the most impressive. The Spurs relentlessly abused the Suns and Shaquille O'Neal in the pick-and-roll game, precisely defended, most notably against Steve Nash (3-for-8 from the field, seven points, nine assists), never let up, and were perfectly unemotional, which helped negate some of the Suns' desperation.

Now, with a 3-0 choke-hold on the series, can the Spurs methodically do it one more time? Do the Suns have any fight left?

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Jazz-Rockets -- Game 3 end

Tremendous block in the closing seconds by Carl Landry on a short driving shot by Deron Williams, who was floating away from the defense. Landry's length, timing and closing ability were impressive. Landry then rebounded his block and saved the ball to Luis Scola to keep the Rockets from falling into an all-but-over 3-0 hole.

On live speed, it appeared Williams twice could have slipped the ball to Boozer inside.

Rockets win, 94-92.

Shaq deconstructed

"Shaq is so bad at (defending) the two-man game. Teams don't run two-man games with him involved very often. You can get a jumper almost every time coming off the screen. Or, if Shaq comes out, you can go right by him. You can go right by him like he's not even there. I'm telling you right now, I'd like to coach one game in the NBA and I'd like to coach it against Shaq. I'd up-tempo the game, and if I didn't get a good opportunity, I would go into a two-man game every time using Shaq's man. I'm not talking about occasionally. I'm talking every time. I'd make him work his tail off every possession. I would do it all the time. (A team) would get whatever it wanted. It would be a joke. He would get in foul trouble. He would get tired and they couldn't defend it."

The above theory comes from Hall-of-Famer Rick Barry, who shared his thoughts with me on Shaq ... in 2006(!) as the Mavericks were relinquishing control of the NBA Finals that year, eventually losing to Shaq's (and Dwyane Wade's) Miami Heat. Barry's ideas, of course, aren't earth-shattering. Although, in typical Barry fashion, they are candid. The Mavericks, as you recall, lost four games in a row after being up 2-0. They didn't run enough pick-and-rolls -- despite guard Jason Terry's efficiency at, and favor for, running the play -- to make Shaq all that uncomfortable. Certainly not enough to expose the big fella's major weakness.

Why is this relevant? Well, fast-forward to the 2008 playoffs. The Suns made a bold move to acquire Shaq, hoping that his inside presence would be the missing link for a team so close to a championship. Shaq, of course, also brought with him limitations, most notably what Barry described above. At age 36 and a generously listed 325 pounds, Shaq doesn't have the lateral quickness or foot speed to show on a pick-and-roll, chase and/or re-route a guard, especially one as fleet as Tony Parker or Manu Ginobili.

It's already been established that the Spurs, led by coach Gregg Popovich, are the NBA's best at devising and carrying out strategies that give themselves the highest possible probabilities for success. It should come as no surprise then that San Antonio is precisely and ruthlessly wearing out the screen-and-roll. But the Spurs have taken it a step further. For the most part, they're not interested in open 17-footers from the initiator, or even pops and rolls from the screener. Their offense is all about getting Parker and Ginobili all the way to the rim -- to quote Barry, "every time."

This is the third time in the past four seasons that the Spurs and Suns have met in the playoffs. Including the first two games this year, they've played 13 postseason games. In those 13 games, two of Spurs' the three highest points-in-the-paint totals have come this season (72 in Game 1, 56 in Game 2).

Look for more, much more, of this offense the rest of the way, especially since this Shaq can only be found on film.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Steve Nash ... It's now time

Lots of analysis swirling around the Spurs-Suns series, which is easily the most intriguing first-round matchup. Everything, it seems, is up for discussion: strategies, matchups, prior personnel moves, officiating, etc., etc. I've tackled some of these items already and will have much more to say as the series progresses.

A few things, however, are clear after two games:

* If the Suns indeed acquired Shaq primarily to improve their defense against Duncan and offer more interior resistance to the Spurs' drivers (Parker and Ginobili), they badly overestimated Shaq's abilities in those two areas.

* The things Shaq has provided -- rebounding and post scoring -- are offset by a change in culture to a post-first offense that has reduced the effectiveness of Bell and Barbosa, two key cogs who in the past have thrived in Phoenix's fastbreak style.

* The Suns miss Shawn Marion's versatility, primarily as an option to use his quickness, size and length to slow Parker.

* Every one of Phoenix's non-Amare-Stoudemire-rolls-to-the-basket possessions also should be initiated and dictated by Nash.

It isn't easy to fault Nash, who is averaging take-him-for-granted Nash numbers through two games: 24 points, 11.5 assists, 3 turnovers, 54 percent shooting from the field, for the Suns' 0-2 hole. It's more, however, than the numbers. The first half of Game 2 was pure Nash, who looked for his shot, kept his dribble alive, probed behind the basket, found teammates in their comfort areas. But for some reason, for much of the second half -- primarily during the Spurs' game-controlling 27-11 third quarter -- Nash deferred.

Throwing the ball into O'Neal in the post is wasting Nash and giving San Antonio a break. Throwing the ball into Diaw in the post on four key possessions? Not only is this also wasting Nash, it's inexcusable.

"I guess we had an offensive meltdown in the third quarter," said Nash. "It just wasn't a productive quarter. Offensively we lost our rhythm and that was pivotal."

Chances are Phoenix won't ever stop Parker and Ginobili from getting to the basket, but it's useless to spend time worrying about things that can't be changed at this point. What the Suns can change and should change is this: Nash now, Nash all the time.

Just prior to the playoffs, ESPN Classic aired Game 6 between Dallas and Phoenix from 2005. Nash, who had just been awarded his first of two MVP awards, posted a line of 39-9-12 as the Suns rallied to beat the Mavs in OT to wrap up the West semifinal series. In Game 5 Nash had 34-13-12. In Game 4 he scored 48 points. He averaged 45.3 minutes in those three games too.

I'm not sure Nash can physically do it anymore, but I'm certain the desire is there. Go ahead and run pick-and-rolls with Stoudemire. Push the ball on the break and in early offense to get Bell and Barbosa going. Wave away the screen and get by Parker in the lane, probe for cutters and 3-point spot-ups. Accept the switch, retreat, survey, and abuse the big man with lefty finishes and fadeaway jumpers.

Allow Nash -- the Suns' best player and best decision-maker -- to leave his stamp all over the remainder of the series. It might not change the outcome, but it is a basketball sin for a team to be eliminated without its best player having a 48-minute say in it.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Spurs-Suns -- Game 2 thread

Spurs, 102-96. Final. Still a long way to go in this series, but:

* The Suns have held double-digit leads in the first half of both games, but lost both.
* When the Spurs get organized and crank up the defensive intensity, they dictate play at worst and dominate at best.
* Phoenix seems so concerned with getting Shaq involved (this is not Shaq circa 2000) that it's taking the ball out of its best player's (Nash) hands. How about not playing Shaq at all and playing Suns burn-it-up-the-floor basketball? The Suns believed that they were the better team in last year's series against the Spurs, that the suspensions robbed them. So, at what point did they determine they needed Shaq? At this point, I think what Shaq gives them doesn't make up for what they lose elsewhere with him on the floor.
* Barbosa and Bell combined 2-for-14 in Game 2.

Nash a runner of glass. Parker answers, 101-93. One minute.

Ginobili to Duncan for a wide-open dunk. Spurs, 99-91.

Diaw on the block again! Travel! This is a horrible offensive set. Why would you not want the ball in Nash's hands?

Duncan at the line with an opportunity to restore order a bit. 2:16 to go. Duncan misses, makes. Spurs, 97-91.

Nash fadeaway. Suns down 5. 2:35 to go.

Nash 2-for-2 at the line. Suns down 7.

Stoudemire taps in a Giricek miss, deficit now 9.

Suns within 11, 96-85. Spurs are stumbling to the finish here. Can they make it? The Suns have time for another push. 4 minutes to go.

Here's how much the Suns mind-set has changed. Not only are they not fast-breaking anymore, they're not running motion, and they aren't letting Nash create either. On four straight possessions, Nash threw 25-foot passes into Diaw against Ginobili in the post. Diaw then brought the offense to a halt by pounding, pounding, pounding the basketball. This is not "Seven seconds or less basketball."

Nash drains a wide-open 3-pointer. Suns back within 13, 94-81. Spurs now in the penalty with 6:22 to go.

Parker on a teardrop. Spurs, 90-73.

Oberto from Parker on another screen-and-roll. Spurs, 88-73, 9:38 left.

Bowen guarding Nash to start the fourth. Ginobili for 3, 84-73, Spurs. 11:19 left.

A huge Spurs third quarter is over. San Antonio up, 81-72. The Spurs' defense was top-notch and the difference, completely clogging Nash's penetration and dives by Stoudemire. Can the Suns adjust?

With the lead, Spurs are using the Hack-a-Shaq. But O'Neal hits 5 of 6 and is shaking his head. Doug Collins says that teams should not be able to foul off the ball in this manner, that these fouls should result in one free throw (anyone can shoot it) and possession of the ball.

Giricek in for the Suns. Good substitution by D'Antoni. Giricek is much more skilled at scoring in the halfcourt than Bell.

Six in a row for ... Ime Udoka. Spurs extend the lead to eight, 71-63. 17-2 burst to open the third quarter.

Nash fadeaway jumper, breaks Suns' scoreless stretch of more than six minutes. Spurs, 65-63.

Spurs' run now 11-0. They lead, 65-61.

Spurs' run now now 9-0. They lead, 63-61. Suns scoreless the first five minutes of the third quarter.

Spurs open the third quarter with a 7-0 run. Tie game, 61-all.

First-half fastbreak points: Spurs 18, Suns 2. Yes, that's correct. The acquisition of Shaq has completely changed the Suns' style. They don't run anymore. Whether or not they're a better team, well, we'll see. One thing, however, is certain: Failing to get out and run has diminished the play of Barbosa and Bell, two key cogs of the Suns of the past. Stoudemire, Shaq and Nash are the only Phoenix guys who get easy buckets out of the constant half-court sets. The rest of the guys, who thrived on running, have trouble getting anything in a slower game.

MAGIC-RAPTORS UPDATE: Strategy 101 from earlier. Down one with nine seconds to go, the Raptors inbound from midcourt. Calderon gets a screen from Bosh at the top and passes to Bosh, who attempts a deep 19-footer against a challenge from Howard. Not a high percentage shot. It misses. Chalk up that exchange of strategy and execution to the Magic -- and a 2-0 series lead.

Led by Stoudemire's 25, Suns are up seven, 61-54, at the break. Phoenix is shooting 61 percent with just four turnovers, and Stoudemire and Shaq only have one foul apiece. That's a good recipe for a victory. The Spurs, meanwhile, are scoring enough points, but this result won't change if they don't reign in Nash a bit.

Nash is more aggressive tonight: more ball-handling, more dribbling, more probing behind the basket. 10 points, eight assists and one turnover so far.

Stoudemire's skill-set is off the charts: quickness, agility, power, and now shooting range and touch. There isn't a comparable big man in the game. 20 points on 9-for-11 shooting.

Ginobili is on fire, 15 points on 6-for-9 shooting in 11 minutes! Spurs back within 4, 38-34. Suns answer with six straight, 44-34.

Spurs pushing the ball hard to try and get back into the game, covert three layups, close to within 31-21.

Nash to Bell for a wide-open 3-pointer. Phoenix rolling, 26-12, nine minutes in.

Shaq and Stoudemire both convert inside again. Suns up, 19-8. Phoenix's pick-and-roll defense is much better, sending the dribbler baseline.

Nash with a free-throw line jumper. Suns on an 8-0 run, lead 9-2. Ginobili in.

Shaq with two quick posts for three points, Stoudemire has four. Suns lead, 7-2.

Strategy: Does Nash have the desire and strength to be more aggressive on offense and frequently look for his shot? The Spurs wore out the pick-and-roll late in Game 1, involving Shaq as much as possible. Is there an answer for it?

Pre-game: Always interesting to see how teams, particularly those with several veterans, bounce back energy-wise from a grueling (both physically and emotionally) double-OT game. That classic had a late-series feel to it, but it was only Game 1. We've got a long way to go. For long stretches in the opener the Suns were the better team. Can they continue that again tonight?

Hornets-Mavs -- Game 2 thread

Hornets win, 127-103. They're quicker and more assertive, and numerous players are getting whatever shots they want, whenever they want them. The last six quarters, during which New Orleans has scored 191 points (nearly 32 per quarter) have looked a lot like stretches of the GS series last year. The Mavs are offering no resistance ... to anything.

Kidd just let the ball roll before picking it up in order to save a few precious seconds. There are seven minutes remaining in the game, and the Mavs are down 19. They need more than time.

The only thing keeping me from throwing something at the TV is Bill Raftery. He should announce every game simultaneously.

Mavericks back within 16 with 10 to play. The game isn't over, except we aren't watching it. TNT has switched to the third quarter(!!!) of the Magic-Raptors game. Who is making the decisions back in Atlanta?

Another huge quarter for New Orleans, which leads by 20, 99-79, after 3. Hornets shooting 64 percent.

Peja again, Paul again. Hornets, 97-72.

The Mavericks, down 24, have this lineup on the floor right now: Brandon Bass, Jason Terry, Devean George, Malik Allen, Antoine Wright.

Peja swishes back-to-back 3-pointers. Hornets lead, 80-58. Best shooter in the NBA, best form, best release. Good thing someone changed his calendar. Peja thinks it's still the regular season. Shhh.

Chandler just picked up his third foul three minutes into the third quarter.

Avery Johnson's locker room huddle ended with "1-2-3, defense!" Let's see.

The Hornets are a very smart offensive team. It starts with Paul, but the entire team takes advantage of mismatches. When West is free on the block, they find him. When Peja runs to his spot-ups for 3s on the break, they find him. When it's time to push, they do. When it's time to pull it out, play 2-for-1, they do. New Orleans leads, 67-51, at the break, shooting 67 percent with 18 assists and three turnovers.

Teams treading water a bit. Hornets still up 10, less than two to go before halftime.

With Paul resting on the bench, the Mavs go zone. This is odd. Avery is saying here that the Mavs can't stop the Hornets even with Pargo running the show. They have to go gimmick. Peja hits a 3-pointer. Hornets, 45-33.

When teams try and take advantage of small guys in the post with non-post players, I wouldn't double right away. Make someone score the ball at least once. Case in point: The Mavs have posted Paul with Kidd, who isn't looking to score from the post at all, and Stackhouse, who hasn't attempted a shot from there either. Hornets are bailing them out by sending soft doubles, which are producing unnecessary open shots.

Another huge first quarter for the Hornets, who lead 39-29. Paul has six points on 3-for-3 shooting, eight assists and zero turnovers. New Orleans is shooting 71 percent.

Brandon Bass is now sprinting to double-team Paul, once just past midcourt, the other time in the backcourt. Paul is making all the correct reads, giving it up early, lobs to Chandler, finds to West for uncontested 17-footers. If there is a defense for Paul, who already has seven assists, the Mavs haven't found it yet. Hornets, 27-19, 2:51 left in the first.

Hornets lead 12-7, 4-plus minutes in. Very little has changed from Game 1. Paul is playing under control, and the Mavs haven't revealed anything yet that indicates a change in philosophy of defending him. Remember: After Paul, Tyson Chandler is the Hornets' most important player in this series. He's active early with six points and three rebounds and zero fouls. The Mavs won't win this series if Chandler is on the floor for 40 minutes a night.

Monday, April 21, 2008

The winning probability

A lot of variables -- quality players, the health of those players, luck, the subjective eyes of referees, etc. -- go into determining who wins and loses playoff series, playoff games, and the final minutes and overtimes of those games.

How much do coaching strategy and players understanding that strategy contribute to the final outcome? Well, ultimately players have to convert, they have to make shots. The strategies? Those, at both ends of the court, are designed to maximize the probability that those shots indeed will be made.

Want to know why Gregg Popovich is the best coach in the NBA? Because the Spurs carry out his late-game strategies and more often than any other team come up with a shot that, given the circumstances (i.e., an opponent that is trying to stop them), is the highest possible probability. On defense, the Spurs do whatever they can to make an opponent's shot the lowest possible probability.

Consider this scenario: Tie game, 15 seconds to go, teams coming out of a timeout. Team A is on offense and diagramming a play to get itself the best shot it can. Team B is on defense and devising a strategy to force Team A into the lowest-percentage shot possible. Hypothetically, in all of these situations, let's say Team A scores 35 percent of the time. When the ball is inbounded, players move into their sets. Eventually, when a shot is taken, we could take a snapshot of that moment: who is taking the shot, from which spot on the court, open or contested, etc. We would instantly know whether or not the probability of making the shot in that situation was greater or less than 35 percent. If it's greater, we could say Team A's strategy and execution won out. If it's less, we could say Team B's strategy and execution won out. This has nothing to do with the shot going in or not. That's up to the players. Hey, sometimes you make them. Sometimes you don't. But the goal of both teams should be to give themselves the best odds of being successful on that shot.

Let's take a look at the defining moments of the double-OT Game 1 between the Spurs and Suns. With the Spurs down three, trying to tie the game, they came out of a timeout and ran Michael Finley off a double screen along the baseline for a catch-and-shoot 3-pointer. Yes, Finley made the shot. But the Spurs perfectly executed the play they drew up. Finley is their best shooter for that play. They maximized the probability of converting in that situation. The Suns' defense, meanwhile, did nothing to run San Antonio off that shot. Leandro Barbosa trailed the screens the entire way. Amare Stoudemire didn't show to help. And the Suns didn't elect to foul either.

Now, with the game tied, the Suns had the opportunity to win, 15 seconds left. Steve Nash, with Bruce Bowen on him, dribbled the clock down, took a screen from Boris Diaw, but was partially cut off on a show by Fabricio Oberto, kicked it back to Barbosa, who was closed out by Tony Parker and forced to take a leaning, off-balance, contested 14-footer. There aren't too many shots in that situation that could have been worse for Phoenix. Regardless of whether or not it was poor Suns offense of great Spurs defense, San Antonio won that scenario, forcing the Suns into one of the lowest probability shots possible.

The offenses of both teams were sharp in the overtime, repeatedly getting high-percentage shots. Nash was more aggressive, didn't give up the ball easily or often (except for when he had Stoudemire for layups), and looked for his shot. The Spurs, meanwhile, ran screen-and-rolls with Parker and Duncan or Ginobili and Duncan nearly every possession.

Then, with three seconds left in overtime, tie game, Phoenix, once again had an opportunity to win. Their sideline out-of-bounds play from the frontcourt resulted in a direct pass to Diaw on the block extended, who first traveled (not called), then threw up an awkward, off-balance fadeaway that had almost no chance. If this indeed was the play Phoenix wanted, then Mike D'Antoni needs to be questioned. Three seconds is plenty of time for Nash to get something burning to the hoop and create space for a jumper. Anything but Diaw on the block that far from the basket. Once again, a very low percentage shot.

In the second overtime, again offensive execution was sharp. The Suns ran a great out-of-bounds play to get Nash free for the game-tying 3-pointer, but then poor defensive strategy hurt Phoenix one final time. The Spurs didn't call a timeout, instead electing to play on. Amid all the chaos, Ginobili got the ball in a 1-4 set, while the other four Spurs immediately positioned themselves around the perimeter. With the middle open, Ginobili began his dart about 45 feet from the basket. He drove hard left on Raja Bell and scored over the top. No help came, no double, no trap. The Spurs ran the highest-percentage play they could possibly run in that situation, and the Suns did nothing defensively to stop them from doing it.

Yes, the players have to make the shots. The strategies and executing the strategies, however, determine the probabilities whether or not those shots go in. More often than not the Spurs, at both ends of the floor, give themselves the best probabilities of converting. Are they perfect? Certainly not. But do they execute and play the probability game better than their opponents? Yes.

And this mind-set is a combination of getting the right players, who put in the work, understand the scouting reports as well as their own skills and abilities, and respect their coaches enough to do it. This starts in training camp, year after year. It cannot be flipped on like switch in April.

Once again, there are many variables that go into winning and losing games. This illustrates the part that coaching strategies and carrying out those strategies play in pushing single-play probability into or out of (albeit slightly, at times) a team's favor.

The Mavs and manhood

Dirk Nowitzki’s manhood is being questioned -- again. The TNT crew took Nowitzki and the Mavericks to task for their response (or more accurately, lack thereof) to this: David West touching Nowitzki’s face as the two squared off after getting tangled up late in the fourth quarter of the Hornets’ come-from-behind victory in Game 1 on Saturday.

Kenny Smith said he would have pointed out what happened to one of his team’s enforcers -- notably, Otis Thorpe, who then would have taken care of the situation. Magic Johnson said there shouldn’t have been a need to point it out. Everybody saw what happened. The enforcers should have taken care of it themselves. Charles Barkley, not surprisingly, said that someone should have smacked West (i.e., let him drive to the hoop the next time down and hammer him).

It obviously would have been stupid for Nowitzki or anyone else to react with a punch that would have resulted in a suspension, but the TNT guys are right. You have to do something. Right then. Right there. Nowitzki, at the very least, should have slapped his hand away. Someone, anyone, on the Mavs should have rushed over and got in West’s face. It’s hard to imagine anyone else in the playoffs allowing this to happen, except maybe Tracy McGrady, but at least he would have been defended by a number of teammates.

Does the fact that none of the Mavericks defended Nowitzki say more about them and their toughness? Or does it say more about their feelings toward Nowitzki? I mean, it’s clear that this team isn’t loaded with toughness, as evidenced by how they wilted when the Hornets made their second-half surge. Jerry Stackhouse is probably their toughest guy. Where was he?

Last year Avery Johnson sent an ominous message to his team prior to the series with Golden State: Even though we won 67 games, we aren’t good enough to beat the No. 8 seed unless we make a lineup change. I don't think the outcome would have changed, but wow, if you just won 67 games, you do your thing and make the opponent adjust, right?

This year the ominous message came from the Hornets, courtesy of David West: We can out-physical you and impose our will on you and your best player, and not he nor anyone else on your team can or will do anything about it.

I'm curious if Dallas responds now simply because of the attention this incident has received, although it's usually easy to spot when someone soft is trying to act tough. I think the lack of immediate response speaks volumes.

The Mavericks, of course, certainly could win Game 2 and most of this could be forgotten. But it is a disturbing development. There are plenty of manhood situations in NBA playoff games (just watch underneath the basket on every possession in the Pistons-76ers series), and if one team won’t stand its ground, eventually it will get shoved out of the way -- literally and figuratively.

Dirk’s comments (Dallas Morning News)

UPDATE: Avery Johnson: "We need players to not back down from anybody," Johnson said. "That's what the playoffs are all about. More than Dirk doing something about it, I would have liked for somebody else on the team, preferably at the center position, to do something about it." Full report

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Lakers-Nuggets -- Game 1 thread

Lakers win , 128-114. Hard to believe they actually struggled for a portion of the first half. They carved up the Nuggets' porous defense. L.A had 33 assists on 46 baskets. Gasol finishes with 36 points, 16 rebounds and 8 assists.

Iverson was just ejected. Lakers up 118-107. This one's over.

Iverson running layup drills right now, three in a row. Nuggets close within nine, 114-105. Three minutes left.

J.R. Smith splits Bryant and Farmar on the break, and 1. Nuggets within 10, 101-91.

Gasol with two more dunks. He has 32. Lakers lead, 87-73.

Radmanovic hits a 3-pointer to give the Lakers their largest lead, 81-67.

Kobe with a long 2. Lakers lead, 73-60.

Kobe is 2-for-12 and the Lakers are up 7, 65-58. This shows just how deep they are.

As expected, L.A. adjusts and responds. Lakers back in front at the half, 58-56. Gasol has 18 points, seven rebounds and five assists.

The Lakers biggest concern in this series is here now: no defense. Right now they're playing less defense than the Nuggets, which didn't seem possible. Nuggets in rhythm, 47-40.

J.R. Smith explodes to the basket, and 1. Nuggets zone defense has troubled the Lakers, who look confused on offense. Nuggets, 41-33.

Kleiza buries back-to-back 3-pointers. Nuggets lead, 34-30.

Lakers lead, 26-22, after 1.

Fans just chanted "D-U-I" with Anthony at the foul line. Lame.

Gasol a short jumper. Lakers, 21-11.

Lakers ball movement is crisp early. Odom and Gasol both take extra passes and dunk. LA, 15-9.

Kobe guarding Iverson.

Mark Jackson just noted that this season was Kobe's best because he trusted his teammates. I hate this line of thinking. No, Kobe's teammates finally were good enough to trust. Would you have trusted Smush Parker or Kwame Brown? Me neither. It's far easier to trust players who have skills and abilities to help your team.

Magic-Raptors -- Game 1 thread

Orlando wins, 114-100. A lot will be made of the fact that the Magic were so hot from 3-point range, which enabled them to build a big lead and coast for the most part. But they also worked through Howard, who had a monster game with 25-22 and five blocks. Toronto has no answer for this.

Magic comfortably in front again, 100-86.

Howard two more rebound follows. 25 points, 19 rebounds for Howard. After Raptors get within 5, Orlando responds with an 8-0 run to get it back to 13.

Turkoglu scores on the block and Howard gets a dunk. Magic back up by 9, 92-83.

Kapono again for 3. Raptors within 5, 88-83. 10 minutes left.

Toronto within 7, 78-71. Great back-door pass from Calderon.

Raptors hanging around, down 9, 78-69, 2:32 to go.

I'm shocked that Calderon isn't getting most of the minutes ahead of Ford at the point guard spot. The Raptors are much better with Calderon on the floor.

Charles Barkley said at halftime, "One thing about 3s, you can't make them all day." Taking that to heart, the Raptors open the second half in another zone. Orlando has cooled off. Bosh converts a 3-point play, taking the hit from Howard. Magic, 62-53.

Raptors get two more buckets and the Magic go scoreless the final four minutes of the second quarter. Magic, 60-47, at the break.

Kapono drills back-to-back 3-pointers. Raptors within 17, 60-43. 3:06 to go in the half.

Turkoglu just pump-faked a 3, crossed-over on his way to the rim and dunked. Bogans adds a long 3. Magic, 54-31.

Magic go 9-for-11 from 3, 16-for-20 (80 percent) overall, and lead, 43-23.

With his third 3-pointer, Evans makes it 32-17 with 3:49 to go. That's a lot of points.

Lewis takes Bosh off the dribble on consecutive trips. Magic, 29-17.

I'm a better shooter than T.J. Ford.

Another 3-pointer, this one from Maurice Evans. Magic, 25-14.

Magic make their first seven shots from the field, including four 3-pointers, and lead 18-8, four minutes in. Sam Mitchell, who has went both man-to-man and zone so far, looks confused.

The Raptors start Nesterovic and Bargnani. Can you win a playoff series like this?

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Day 1 recap

Cavs-Wizards: The intensity and hatred between these two teams means a great series is on the way. I still think this one goes 7, but LeBron is obviously the difference. Washington trapped off-and-on in the fourth quarter to get the ball out of LeBron's hands, but when the game was in doubt down the stretch twice LeBron started off the ball, got it late, then scored in the lane. The Wizards had no answer. They won't next time either.

Spurs-Suns: Wow. One of the better playoff games in recent history, and another long series in store. How much will this take out of either team? Hard to say, but my guess is that the Suns bounce back to win Game 2. A disturbing trend for Phoenix, however, is the number of layups the Spurs got after halftime. SA wore out the screen-and-roll game and took advantage of another lapse (either in strategy or execution) that bit the Suns again. One giveaway game is often too much to overcome.

Hornets-Mavs: I initially didn't think that the Mavs psyche would matter, but that second half meltdown -- lack of poise, searching for foul calls, lack of identity -- was there all over again. Much like the Cavs-Wizards series, Paul is the best player on the floor, and I don't know how the Mavs can prevent him from dominating and winning three more games in this series. And yes, Dallas would have a better chance at stopping Paul with Devin Harris, not Jason Kidd.

Jazz-Rockets: I picked this series in 5, but the Jazz should sweep. They're tougher, more organized and have better players. Without Yao, in particular, the Rockets just don't have the roster to be able to get this done.

And finally, let me shamelessly note that the four teams who won today are the four teams that I picked to win their respective series.

What a day. Back tomorrow.

Suns postgame reaction

As expected, Mike D'Antoni is getting ripped for his late-game strategies, most notably for not fouling the Spurs at the end of regulation and the first overtime before the Spurs could attempt game-tying 3-pointers. One fan even said, "Where I'm an idiot happens."

Paul Coro, the excellent beat writer for The Arizona Republic, has already reported that the Suns should have switched onto Finley, who shook free from Leandro Barbosa by running the Suns guard through two screens. Coro notes that Stoudemire should have stepped out.

Regardless of whether it's ineffective strategy or failed execution, it's these kinds of lapses that have hurt the Suns in the past. It's one play here, one play there. It's only one game, but you never like to give away games that you a.) lead by 16; b.) lead late in regulation; c.) lead late in the first OT; and, d.) outplay your opponent.

As fans, we're the big winners here. This series is just getting started.

Stoudemire's comments

Jazz-Rockets -- Game 1 thread

Utah wins, 93-82.

We've had a rather lengthy garbage/foul time here. Jazz up, 90-80, with one minute to go.

McGrady, guarded by Kirilenko, just pointed for the ball to go to the other side of the floor. He didn't want it. Just what you're looking for from your superstar.

Harpring just locked down on McGrady, twice stopping his drives, leading to a loose-ball foul. Kirilenko just rejected Scola with his left hand at the rim. I originally picked the Jazz in 5, but this is looking more and more like a sweep. I just don't see how the Rockets can keep up. The scenario tonight should repeat itself three more times.

Boozer just beat Mutombo to a missed free-throw offensive rebound. He lays it in and then adds a bucket off a feed from Williams. Utah, 79-64.

Williams buries a 3. Utah, 75-63.

Utah in control, wearing down the Rockets a bit, picking up some fouls. At the other end, the Jazz executed three shut-downs on one possessions (Williams denied Brooks on a drive, Kirilenko closed out Battier and chased him off a 3, and Harpring thwarted Landry on the block.

Jazz lead, 68-60, after 3, using an 11-3 run to close the quarter.

Korver, again for 3. Utah, 67-59.

Korver, I mean Ashton Kutcher, knocks down a long 3. Utah leads, 64-59.

Boozer picks up his fourth foul with 6:27 to go in the third and leaves the game.

Boozer answers with a jumper, layin on the break and a putback. Jazz back in front, 57-53.

McGrady gets two more inside, following his own miss. Scola chases down a loose ball. Rockets, with their bench up, leads, 53-51.

McGrady to Scola on the break. Tie game, 51-all, three minutes into the third quarter.

Battier for 3 from the corner. Rockets within 3, 49-46.

Kirilenko leads the way with 12 for Utah. Who saw that coming?

McGrady's late 3-pointer caps a 14-7 run to close the first half for the Rockets, who trail, 47-41.

Mehmet Okur on a drive is not a pretty sight.

I was surprised earlier this season, after Yao had already been shelved for the season, that several Chinese media members were continuing to follow the team. What I didn't realize, however, is that the Rockets have basically become China's NBA team. So, even though Yao is out, China is following Houston's journey. They know Battier, McGrady, Mutombo, Scola, Alston, etc.

McGrady fouled, drops to one knee, holds his left side. He's falling apart before our very eyes.

Another offensive rebound, another basket. 38-25, Jazz.

Jazz have 10 offensive rebounds so far, lead 34-22. Mutombo and Scola back into the game.

Jazz have eight offensive rebounds so far, lead 32-20.

McGrady sits down for the first time; Rockets down 28-20. Can they stay close?

Jazz asserting themselves now, lead 23-18 after 1.

I love the NBA commercials. The split screen of Shaq/Kobe talking at the same time? Pretty cool. The new Jordan commercial that ends with "excuses" is well-done too.

15-13, Jazz, 2:49 to go.

Millsap just rejected Mutombo from behind. I realize he's 41 years old, but is it possible to have a slower release and less lift on a shot than what Mutombo is pulling off. It's not he had smooth shot when he was a kid either.

McGrady's left shoulder is wrapped with padding. Less than three minutes in, he just grimaced for the first time. If you had less than three minutes if the office pool, you win. With Yao and Alston already out with injuries, this is not a good development for the Rockets.

Hornets-Mavs -- Game 1 thread

It's hard to see these games going any differently, unless the Hornets core guys get in foul trouble. A trend early on the opening day: the better player beats the better players. LeBron and Paul were so dominant today that the better teams (Wizards, Mavs) couldn't do anything about it.

Hornets win, 104-92.

Stojakovic again with a game-sealing 3. Hornets, 101-86.

Paul again -- tough angle off glass. 33 points (15-for-23 from the floor), 10 assists, 4 steals, 1 turnover. I realize the Mavs had no idea what kind of first-round matchup they'd get two months ago, but they'd be much better off in this series with Devin Harris, whose quickness would give Paul more trouble than Kidd. JK has no chance.

Stojakovic swishes a 3-pointer. Hornets, 91-76.

Mavs currently 6-for-28 from the floor this half.

Paul no-look to West on the break. And 1. Nowitzki is looking for foul calls again. Hornets, 86-74.

Chandler with a rebound flush, Paul adds a free throw. Hornets up, 83-74, with 7:45 left.

File it away: New Orleans is so thin that it is absolutely vital that Chandler stays out of foul trouble. He's logging lots of floor time tonight. So far: 33 minutes, 1 foul.

Paul tosses an alley-oop to Chandler, then drops in a short shot of his own. Timeout Dallas, which now trails 80-74 with 9:22 to go.

Led by Paul's 15, Hornets (with zero turnovers) outscore Mavs 36-20 in the third quarter. Kidd's long two at the third quarter buzzer is reviewed and waved off. Hornets lead, 76-72, after 3.

Paul is more than making up for his lack of aggression in the first half. He is relentless here in the third quarter, putting major pressure on his defender every trip. Hornets, 72-68.

Paul splits two defenders on the break for a tough layup. Hornets lead, 70-68.

Wells knocks down a jumper. Tie game, 68-all.

Difference between Paul and Nash and someone like Kidd? On-ball defenders can go underneath every screen against Kidd because he isn't a threat to shoot even a wide-open jumper off the screen. There isn't even a need to switch on any screen-and-roll involving Kidd, who doesn't get many layups anymore either.

Paul gets a 2 in the lane, then explodes to the rim on the break for a layup and 1. Hornets within two, 65-63.

Chandler bodies up on Nowitzki, fouls him, pushes him to the floor, then picks up a technical. Dirk makes all three free throws. Mavs, 65-56.

Stojakovic is now 3-for-8 overall, including 2-for-6 on 3s. For his career, from the floor he's .458 regular season, .419 postseason; from 3, .405 regular season, .349 postseason. For a team that relies so heavily on its starters, Peja has to perform. He's playing soft.

Paul and West go back-to-back. Hornets within six, 54-48.

Stojakovic picks up his fourth foul 1:32 into the third. Not bright. Scott keeps him in the game.

Paul hits two buckets in a row. Hornets within eight, 52-44.

The Hornets open up the third quarter with an low-block isolation for Tyson Chandler, who has his shot rejected. Wonder if Bryon drew that up at halftime.

Kidd sets up Josh Howard for a 3-pointer with 1.4 seconds to go in the half. Mavs lead, 52-40, at the break.

Paul has not been aggressive at all and he's completely giving Kidd and the Mavs a free pass so far in this one. No way the Hornets win this game or the series if Paul isn't balls-out for 48 minutes a night.

Dampier dunks off a touch pass from Stackhouse. Mavs back up 10, 40-30.

Bass hits a turnaround on the block. He's 22 years old. All things considered -- age, ability, potential, salary, etc. -- after Nowitzki, Bass is the Mavs' most-sought player on the their roster.

Stojakovic knocks down a 3, his first, and the Hornets are catching up with Paul on the bench, something nobody thought could happen. Hornets within 3, 30-27.

Brandon Bass just had a monster dunk off a drive into the middle, two hands above the white square on the board. Wow.

Mavs, 26-19, after one quarter.

Paul just traveled (no call) on his home-run catch-and-shoot just prior to the first-quarter buzzer. Apparently the league office released its referee quotas for the opening weekend: lots of charge calls, lots of 3-second calls, no traveling calls.

With an aggressive drive, Nowitzki has now taken it hard to the hoop more in 12 minutes than he did in all of last year's first-round series against the Warriors.

Terry on a run-out. Mavs lead, 24-13.

Dallas has numerous mismatches, numerous options (Kidd in the post vs. Paul, Nowitzki in the pinch-post vs. West, Howard cutting against anyone) here early. The Hornets, meanwhile, are very tentative on offense -- and they're not running. NO must get out, run and shove the ball down the Mavs' throats.

Nowitzki's got two buckets, nine points total early. Mavs, 12-11.

Stojakovic, meanwhile, who is notorious for his playoff choke jobs, tossed up air balls on his first two 3-point attempts.

Nowitzki is silky smooth on two pinch-post jumpers. He's nearly unstoppable from there.

Spurs-Suns -- Game 1 thread

Postgame thoughts: Suns, up 16 at one point, outplayed the Spurs and should have won. Then, even after San Antonio tied it up, Phoenix responded and could have avoided both overtimes had D'Antoni chosen to foul in those last-second situations. The Suns' interior defense was exploited time and time again during the comeback and overtimes. Phoenix doesn't run anymore, which means the Suns have to repeatedly score against the Spurs' halfcourt defense.

Nash's three-quarter-court heave is off. Spurs win, 117-115.

Spurs don't take a timeout, which prevents the Suns from making a substitution to get Shaq in for defense. Ginobili lets the clock wind down, drives to his left, scores on the layup with 1.8 seconds to go.

Bell inbounding to Diaw to Nash, 3-pointer ties it!!!

115-112, Spurs. Suns ball with 19.5 seconds to play. Let's see how the Spurs play this. Suns twice chose not to foul and it burned them. Spurs also have a foul to give.

Nash and Ginobili trade 3-point misses. Diaw misses a layup. Suns have to foul. Duncan inbounding, can't get it to Ginobili or Finley. Brent Barry to the line with 19.5 seconds to go. Misses first, makes second.

Ginobili scores on the blow-by past O'Neal, 114-112, Spurs. 1:07 left.

Ginobili's floater kisses the rim and in. 112-110, Spurs. Shaq flushes Nash's miss, 112-all.

Parker fouls out after hitting Nash on a 3-point attempt. Ball will be in Ginobili's hands the rest of the way. Nash hits 2 of 3. 110-110 all, 2:04 to go.

Spurs get three offensive rebounds. Duncan scores, 108-106, Spurs.

Hill inbounding, Diaw catches, travels (not called), and misses a fadeaway. Second OT coming.

Suns don't foul again!!!!! Calipari is in the building. Nash and Shaq both could have fouled Ginobili on the drive, but they Manu kick to Duncan, who ... makes his first 3-pointer of the season! Tie game, 104-104. 3 seconds left. This has to be Nash looking to shoot the potential game-winner. Let's see how the Spurs play it. Stoudemire fouled out earlier in OT.

Will the Suns foul this time?

Nash has come out aggressive in the OT, looking for his shot, which is what he should have done on the final possession of regulation. Nash to open the OT: jumper, assist to Stoudemire, jumper, 3-pointer. Suns up, 104-101, 12.6 seconds to go.

Bowen on Nash at the top of the circle, clock winding down. Diaw then comes up to set the screen, which forces a pass to Barbosa. The close-out forces Barbosa into a tough, off-balance shot just inside the free-throw line. It misses. Overtime.

Love that San Antonio is often using Rocky music during dramatic moments.

Phoenix elects not to foul and Finley ties it with a 3-pointer. 93-all. 15.1 seconds to go. Who's coaching the Suns, John Calipari?

Inexcusable for a shot-clock violation there with an opportunity to put the game away with a basket. That's entirely on Nash. He has to get them into their best offensive play and get a quality shot.

Shot-clock violation by Phoenix. Suns lead, 93-90 with 20.5 seconds to go.

Parker misses a jumper, Finley misses a 3.

Shaq stuffs Ginobili's drive, which leads to a Barbosa fastbreak bucket. Suns, 93-90, 1:10 left.

Stoudemire just tried to flush one, but was hit hard by Thomas. He powered it through and added the free throw. Suns, 91-90.

Nash 2-for-2 at the line. 88-88. 2 minutes left.

Duncan to a cutting Kurt Thomas for the Spurs first lead: 88-86.

Finley's 3-pointer ties it at 84-all. Just under 4 to play.

Nash answers with a fadeaway off the edge of the paint. Oberto, who committed a lane violation earlier, tries an entry pass to Duncan from a horrible angle that is easily picked off by Stoudemire. Think the Spurs would rather have Scola?

NBA teams on average score about one point per possession. So, the logic on long-term Hack-a-Shaq is this: If he makes 1 of 2 every trip to the line, the opposition won't make up any ground. If, of course, he misses both, it's a smart move.

Parker jumper has Spurs within 3 again. 82-79,

Oberto grabs Shaq in first attempt at Hack-a-Shaq, then again. Shaq to line. 0-for-2. Problem here, the Spurs just walked themselves right into the penalty, which means Nash and Stoudemire, etc., will also get free throws the rest of the way.

I can't remember a Game 1, maybe any game, that included more questioning and whining of so many calls. It's contagious.

Nash to Shaq on an alley-oop -- and 1. 3-point play, 82-76, Suns, 6:28 left.

Parker another layup. Parker then fouled on the break, makes 1 of 2. Spurs within 3, 79-76.

Duncan over Stoudemire on the block. Spurs within four, 77-73.

Suns up, 77-71, with 8:53 to go. Nash back in.

Spurs' non-Big 3: 5-for-18 from the field.

Another charge call. I grimace.

Stoudemire doesn't get enough credit for how skilled and forceful he is. He just put the ball on the floor, going left with his left hand and got fouled by Kurt Thomas.

Spurs open the fourth with ...? A gross defensive error. Jumper by Bell puts the Suns back up 8, 73-65.

Popovich's on-court interview heading into the fourth. His biggest concern: "Fewer gross defensive errors."

Parker struck for four field goals in the third and Ginobili added four. Both are getting to rim with relative ease. Suns lead, 71-65, after 3.

Stoudemire just picked up his fourth foul with 9.5 seconds to go in the third quarter. Suns up, 71-63.

Spurs have gone cold again. Suns up, 66-57.

I hate charges -- at all levels of basketball -- and there have been waaayyy too many called in this game. Choosing to stand stationary, with your hands at your sides, occupying a small area on the floor is not playing defense. Stealing the ball is playing defense, ball denial is playing defense, blocking a shot is playing defense. Standing somewhere, hoping someone runs into you? That's not playing defense. That's giving up. Ninety percent of charge calls should be play-ons. The other 10 percent should be blocks. There, I feel better.

In an effort to stop the Spurs' pick-and-roll game, the Suns go to a zone coming out of a timeout.

Stoudemire has really worked on his jump shot. He makes another one; he's now a reliable free throw shooter too.

Spurs are now forcing Shaq into guarding pick-and-rolls nearly every possession. In addition to Parker, Ginobili has also gotten into the lane for two layups early in the third quarter. Suns are better with Shaq on the bench.

It's raining in San Antonio. Another teardrop from Parker. Spurs down, 56-52.

Parker with a teardrop. Spurs within four, 50-46.

Duncan started the no-call complaining. Now everyone is doing it, including Nash.

Ginobili just 1-for-7, Parker 3-for-9 in the first 24 minutes. Spurs won't win this one, if these two don't get going. Shaq only played four minutes due to picking up three quick fouls. The growth of this Suns team is evident: Nash (5 points, 5 assists) no longer has to initiate the offense every possession.

Duncan finishes with 20 points and seven rebounds in the first half. Spurs trim the 16-point deficit in half, trail 48-40 at the break.

Barry just drained a 3-pointer. Spurs within 9, 45-36.

Brian Skinner just took a jump shot. This should never happen.

With the supporting cast giving them next to nothing, Spurs turn to Brent Barry to save them. Pop doesn't have a lot of other options. I think we can all agree that the Damon Stoudemire acquisition was a failure. Has anyone else mentioned this? Barry enters the game with San Antonio down 43-31, 2:50 left in the half.

Stoudemire free-throw line jumper on the break. Suns, 43-27. Spurs look old.

Diaw abuses Udoka in the post. Suns, 41-27.

Barbosa just burned Udoka on a cut to the basket and took a no-look over-the-head pass from Diaw for a 3-point play. Suns in control, 39-26.

Spurs biggest concern this series is being able to score enough points against a deeper team that has many more gifted offensive players. San Antonio's offense is not sharp.

Parker just fouled Barbosa shooting a 3-pointer, Ginobili just fouled Bell on the sideline. Spurs margin for error is much smaller than it used to be. Suns on 6-0 to open second quarter, lead 30-20.

Tracking down offensive rebounds, Suns outworking the Spurs right now. Diaw, on 3-for-4 shooting, has six points and looks sharp early. Good sign for Phoenix, which leads 24-20 after 1.

Ginobili goes underneath the screen and Nash makes the Spurs pay with an open-look 3-pointer. Suns lead, 20-16.

Spurs open the game 0-for-4 from the field with six turnovers in the first five minutes, but only trail 11-6. Somehow they manage to hang around, even when they are playing their worst.

Pre-game: I never thought I'd say this, but I think Gordon Giricek might be a difference-maker.

Cavs-Wizards -- Game 1 thread

Cavs win, 93-86. Two evenly matched teams, outcome in doubt with two minutes to go. LeBron hit the two baskets to put Cleveland over the top. Look for several more games of this.

Cavs are going to win, up 91-84 with 15.1 seconds left. Winner of Game 1 goes on to win 79 percent of series.

Caron Butler misses a 3-pointer, Wizards now 3-for-19 from the field in the fourth quarter.

Chants of M-V-P, M-V-P in Cleveland, but LeBron misses two free throws that would have iced this one. Cavs, thanks to LeBron's NBA-leading 8.6 fourth-quarter scoring average, led the NBA with 27 come-from-behind wins in the fourth quarter this season.

Back-to-back LeBron runners, using an off-ball screen both times, to cut through the lane, taking passes from Daniel Gibson to finish strong. Cavs, 88-84 with 55.3 seconds to go.

Stevenson, 0-for-8 from the floor, finally connects on a 3-pointer. 82-82, 5:02 to go.

Wizards, down 77-73 with 7:24 left, are in the bonus the rest of the way.

LeBron back into the game, 9:04 to go. Tie game at 73. The Cavs would take this situation every game the entire playoffs.

With LeBron lying down on the floor on the sidelines to rest his back starting the fourth quarter (not a good sign), Gibson knocks down a 3 (a good sign). Cavs back in front, 73-70.

Cleveland's third-quarter-closing lineup: Delonte West, Devin Brown, Joe Smith, Anderson Varejao, Daniel Gibson. This is not a playoff team. Wizards, 69-65, after 3.

Antawn Jamison just buried a 3-pointer and Arenas followed with a 2. 9-0 run for the Wizards, who have come back to lead, 65-61. LeBron had no field-goal attempts during the run.

ESPN analyst Rick Carlisle just said that this series is the most intriguing first-round series he's seen in 24-some years. Wow. The intensity and brewing hatred is making it better than otherwise, but c'mon Rick. Better than Spurs-Suns and Mavs-Hornets this year?

Three more dunks for LeBron, 11 points in the quarter, 23 in the game. Cavs, 59-54. Wonder if DeShawn Stevenson still thinks LeBron is overrated?

LeBron opens the third quarter with a layup, a free throw and a jumper. Cavs, 51-48.

Halftime, 46-46. First half of Game 1, early for the hatred to come out. Look out.

With 1.3 seconds to go in the first half, an offensive foul for an illegal screen is called on Brendan Haywood, who then briefly stands over LeBron as LeBron tries to get up. The two get tangled up and push away from each other. Other players rush in. Assistant coaches quickly turn to make sure bench players remain on the sidelines. Three technical fouls are called.

Delonte West just barely grazed iron on two consecutive jump shots. Wonder if Mike Brown drew up those plays.

LeBron just flushed an alley-oop pass from Daniel Gibson, a play that only LeBron could have made. Unreal. The pass was a bit errant and ended high in the middle of the lane. At full speed, LeBron rose up, cupped it back and threw it down with tremendous force. It appeared to even impress the man himself. I love this game. Wizards lead down to two, 40-38.

Arenas, who called himself an assassin and trouble, just buried two more 3-pointers. He has four triples already. Wizards lead, 30-19.

James, who played the entire first quarter, starts the second quarter on the bench. Cavs first two possessions were -- surprise! -- missed shots: a clear-out runner and 3-pointer from Devin Brown. Ugh. LeBron needs to play the entire game. Every game.

Arenas just buried a rhythm 3-pointer from the top about 10 feet beyond the line. Wizards lead 24-19 after one.

James responds with hard drives on the next two possessions, gets trips to the free-throw line.

LeBron James just got hammered in the face on a drive to the hoop. No call. Wizards score at the other end to grab their first lead, 19-17. A different Eddie Jordan is coaching this team. Washington is much more physical and much more determined to get the ball out of James' hands early.

Arenas shoots first air ball, 3:10 to go first quarter.

Gilbert Arenas comes in with 3:42 to go in the first quarter; Wizards trailing 15-12.

Great start to the NBA playoffs on ESPN, audio difficulties at opening tip. Might not be a bad thing, however. With eight series going, we've got JV C team broadcasting crews.

Friday, April 18, 2008

West First Round Predictions

Lakers (1) vs. Nuggets (8)
Denver has the bold offensive-minded athletes and plays at a pace to give Los Angeles some trouble. Problem is, the Nuggets will give back almost all of the good work they do with lapses both in concentration and a commitment to defense. Since Pau Gasol arrived, the Lakers’ offense has found another gear. Ball movement is crisp and high percentage shots are now the norm. In an up-and-down series where fatigue likely be a factor as well, L.A.’s depth will play an important role too. Lakers in 5

Hornets (2) vs. Mavericks (7)
One of the best 2-7 matchups ever. After it briefly appeared that missing the playoffs was a possibility, Dallas asserted itself and posted three quality wins in the final week and a half. The “fragile” psyche of the Mavs, however, has been overblown and won’t be an issue. It’s popular opinion that the Hornets, with less playoff experience, will cave. I don’t buy it. With Chris Paul running the show, New Orleans — No. 8 in field-goal percentage, No. 3 from 3 and No. 3 in fewest turnovers — has a potent offense. And Louisiana fans will give them a boost in the finale. Hornets in 7

Spurs (3) vs. Suns (6)
The best first-round matchup ever. Worthy of a conference final. After having their seasons ended by the Spurs in 2005 and 2007, the Suns acquired Shaquille O’Neal specifically for this showdown. The trade, along with San Antonio’s weakened and injured supporting cast, has further narrowed the gap between these two. But now the Suns run less and that limits Leandro Barbosa, who is a difficult cover. Add it all up, is it enough to get Phoenix over the hump? Not quite. Tony Parker is playing better than ever and Manu Ginobili had his best season. San Antonio will rely on the Big 3 more than ever, but it’s the defense — No. 5 defending field goals, No. 3 on 3s — that once again will get it done. Barely. Spurs in 7

Jazz (4) vs. Rockets (5)
Rematch of last year’s first round series that was won by the Jazz — an introduction of Carlos Boozer and Deron Williams to the mainstream hoop fan — on the road in Game 7. And that was with Yao Ming playing for Houston. Utah is better than a year ago, as evidenced by an efficient offense (No. 2 in field goal percentage, No. 2 in free throw attempts). Without Yao, the Rockets don’t have nearly enough offense. Expect Tracy McGrady to be frustrated in many of these games. It doesn’t take much, even under normal circumstances. Jazz in 5

Radio interview

Talking NBA playoffs with Greg Pogue of WNSR (SportsRadio 560, Nashville, Tenn.)

Audio file

Thursday, April 17, 2008

First-round series records by seed

Since the NBA went to the 16-team playoff format in 1984 ...

No. 1 vs. No. 8: 45-3 (1994 Nuggets d. Sonics; 1999 Knicks d. Heat; 2008 Warriors d. Mavs)
No. 2 vs. No. 7: 44-4 (1987 Sonics d. Mavs; 1989 Warriors d. Jazz; 1991 Warriors d. Spurs; 1998 Knicks d. Heat)
No. 3 vs. No. 6: 34-14
No. 4 vs. No. 5: 23-25

So, the 7 and 8 seeds are a combined 7-89 in the first round, but Don Nelson-coached teams have three of those wins (89-91-08 Warriors).

East First Round Predictions

Celtics (1) vs. Hawks (8)
This is a monumental mismatch: Boston is title worthy; Atlanta, well, most years they wouldn’t even be here. The Celts swept the season series, winning by an average of better than 14 points. Should be more of the same. The big three of Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen and Paul Pierce have combined to play in 121 career postseason games, none of which have come in the Finals. All three are older than 30, and Garnett (No. 2) and Allen (No. 10) rank in the top-10 among active players in career minutes played. Conserving energy (i.e., a sweep) would be a good thing. Worth noting, however, that since the NBA went to the best-of-7 first-round format in 2003 no eventual champion has swept its first-round series. Celtics in 4

Pistons (2) vs. 76ers (7)
Philadelphia was 18-30 on Feb. 4, before running off 22 wins in its next 30 games to secure a postseason spot. The 76ers, who then lost four in a row to close the season, shouldn’t pose much of a threat here. They don’t do anything dynamic enough to impress their will on the Pistons, who have their eyes set on the big prize. Detroit, No. 3 in field-goal defense, No. 2 in 3-point defense, and No. 1 in fewest turnovers, will put its foe into the meat-grinder. When the Pistons lose in the playoffs, except for 2005, it’s usually because they inexplicably stop playing the way they played all year. Then they blame Flip Saunders. Pistons in 5

Magic (3) vs. Raptors (6)
Consensus is that Orlando is a year or two of experience and a role player or two away from challenging Boston or Detroit. Still, this is the clear-cut No. 3 team in the conference, one that should be able to dispatch of an inferior foe. Dwight Howard’s only 22, but it’s time for him to go all-out for 48 minutes every night, shed the Superman dunk label, and become a consistent dominant force inside. He should own this series. Toronto’s best hope is for Chris Bosh to outplay Howard and for Rashard Lewis and Hedo Turkoglu — Orlando’s shaky perimeter scorers — to cave. Not impossible, but a lot to ask. Magic in 5

Cavaliers (4) vs. Wizards (5)
LeBron James is the only player in the league capable of winning a playoff series by himself, and that’s exactly what he’ll have to do. Cleveland’s un-supporting cast is in disarray. Last year the Cavs paired James with one of the league’s best defensive units, role players who did their parts and stepped up when called upon. The roster overhaul at the trade deadline looked OK on paper, but is simply a bunch of squeaky parts that don’t quite fit. Along with an improved Washington squad, all of this adds up to a Wizards’ victory, except for one huge problem … King James is too good and too willful in crunch time. Cavs in 7

Ginobili feature

The San Antonio Spurs’ goal of an elusive repeat championship most likely will be determined by a player taken second-to-last in the 1999 NBA draft, someone whose on-court sanity has been questioned by his coach but who is also a favorite of both Kobe Bryant and TNT analyst Charles Barkley.

Yes, it should come as no surprise in the wildest season ever for the NBA’s Western Conference that Manu Ginobili, a player deemed crazy by teammate Tony Parker as well as Suns coach Mike D’Antoni, has played the best basketball of his life.

At age 30 and in his sixth NBA season, Ginobili has posted career-highs in points (19.5), minutes (31.1), rebounds (4.8), assists (4.5) and 3-point accuracy (40.1 percent), a number that has improved every season.

The rest of my story on Ginobili can be read on NBC Sports via

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Don't go there

After dropping a double-OT game at Seattle on April 6, the Nuggets -- with their playoff hopes in doubt -- were in somber moods. One night earlier they had flushed away a home game to the Kings.

Here's my audio clip from the postgame interview with Allen Iverson. A doozy of a question there at the end. No, I didn't ask it.


Good thing Denver went 4-1 the rest of the way.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Homecourt advantage

Unlike any other, this is a year where a 7 or an 8 could win in the first round and it wouldn’t be an upset, at least not in how we’ve traditionally defined the term. With quality teams so evenly matched in the West, seedings are essentially irrelevant ... except when it brings homecourt advantage too. During the past five postseasons, teams with homecourt advantage have won nearly 75 percent of the series (56-19).

Obviously, it’s a small sample size. So, there aren’t any conclusions to be drawn here. It’s worth noting, however, that only one eventual champion had homecourt throughout the playoffs (Spurs, 2003). The past four title winners were all forced to win at least one series that they started on the road.

Curious as to why SA pushed hard to get the No. 3? Yes, they drew the Suns in the first round. But Phoenix hasn't won a single road series in five years (0-2). Is this the year?

What do you think? Does this help anyone, in particular?

Playoff series records (2003-07)
Team, Overall, With H/C, Without H/C
Blazers ------ 0-1 ----- 0-0 ----- 0-1
Clippers ----- 1-1 ----- 1-0 ----- 0-1
Grizzlies ----- 0-3 ----- 0-0 ----- 0-3
Jazz ---------- 2-2 ----- 1-0 ----- 1-2

Kings -------- 2-4 ----- 2-0 ----- 0-4
Lakers ------- 4-4 ----- 1-1 ----- 3-3
Mavs --------- 6-5 ----- 5-2 ----- 1-3
Nuggets ----- 0-4 ----- 0-0 ----- 0-4
Rockets ----- 0-3 ----- 0-1 ----- 0-2
Sonics ------- 1-1 ----- 1-0 ----- 0-1

Spurs ------- 14-2 ---- 12-2 ----- 2-0
Suns ---------- 5-4 ----- 5-2 ----- 0-2
T'wolves ------ 2-2 ----- 2-2 ----- 0-0
Warriors ----- 1-1 ----- 0-0 ----- 1-1

Team, Overall, With H/C, Without H/C

Bucks ------- 0-3 ----- 0-0 ----- 0-3

Bulls --------- 1-3 ----- 1-1 ----- 0-2
Cavs -------- 4-2 ----- 3-0 ----- 1-2
Celtics ------ 1-3 ----- 0-1 ----- 1-2
Heat --------- 7-3 ----- 5-1 ----- 2-2
Hornets ----- 0-2 ----- 0-0 ----- 0-2
Magic ------- 0-2 ----- 0-0 ----- 0-2

Nets --------- 6-6 ----- 4-0 ----- 2-6
Pacers ------ 3-4 ----- 2-2 ----- 1-2
Pistons ----- 13-4 ---- 10-3 ---- 3-1
Raptors ----- 0-1 ----- 0-1 ----- 0-0
76ers -------- 1-2 ----- 1-0 ----- 0-2

Wizards ----- 1-3 ----- 0-0 ----- 1-3