AP Photo/The Plain Dealer, Joshua Gunter
The obvious pundit’s take on yesterday’s playoff games was that the big guys stepped up, especially LeBron, Duncan, and CP3. Here are some of the dominant impressions I came away with after plastering myself to the rocking chair and catching all of two games and the majority of two others.
Cleveland 93, Washington 86
Two things the Wizards should have feared–that Deshawn Stevenson’s asinine comment about LeBron being "overrated" would give him a dollop more motivation, and that Gilbert Arenas would abandon his teammates and try and match LeBron bucket for bucket in crunchtime– came to pass. That stupendous first half dunk where LeBron not only climbed the ladder but got out a special, heretofore unknown stepstool and put it on top of the ladder to reach Boobie Gibson’s too-high feed will be shown in any five-minute recap of his career. but it was the two hoops he made with the score knotted at 84 with 2:38 to play–blowing past Stevenson for a layup and then a little runner just inside the foul line–that truly demonstrates his championship-bound DNA. Arenas, meanwhile, shot 0-4 in that final 2:38 and had no desire to dish it off to one of his two very capable teammates, Antawn Jamison and, even better, Caron Butler, the guy who average 20.3 ppg for the season yet managed to squeeze off only 10 FGA yesterday, making half of them. The fact that Arenas fouled out in 27:47 doesn’t speak well for his mobility either–all the more reason to be realistic about what he can bring to the table in this series. BTW, Stevenson was 1-9 FG–isn’t that always the way with guys who talk louder than they walk in hopes of elevating themselves through pressure. Or perhaps it just doomed egotism.
Two more quick thoughts: The Cavs, supposedly the one-man team, had an assist-to-turnover ratio of 24/8, while the Wiz, who should be distributing the rock among their plethora of scorers, went 16/13 and shot 40.2%. The matchup that really killed Washington was Z Ilgauskas (22-11-4 and a game-best plus +22 in 37:15) over Brendan Haywood (15-10-0 and five fouls in a game-worst minus -19 in 29:59).
San Antonio 117, Phoenix 115 (2OT)
How can anyone not regard NBA hoops as the greatest sportswatching pasttime after this classic? The Fundamental for 3 to bump it into a second overtime?!
Okay, that’s the only blatantly obvious highlight in a bouquet of big, big plays that I’ll rhapsodize about. If you saw it, you know, and if you didn’t, there are buzz-oriented recaps available elsewhere. Odds are you can find these following pearls of wisdom repeated elsewhere too, but these are the things that stuck in my head from the latest chapter in this amazing Spurs-Suns saga.
The Shaq trade was as much addition by subtraction as through the presence of Baby Huey Aristotle himself. I don’t know how much Amare Stoudamire actively disliked Shawn Marion as a human being, but ever since the Matrix went to Miami, Stoudamire has been unstoppable on the pick and roll, deadly pulling up for jumpers at the charity stripe, and, here’s the real dividend, invested in team play enough to become an average defender. Now I’ll grant you that Tim Duncan clearly dislikes having Shaq on his back in the low block, but let’s also be clear how little Shaq had to do with Phoenix being up 43-27 in the first 17 minutes–he had zero points, one rebound and three fouls in about 5 minutes of play. No, it was Nash-to-Amare (5 dimes and 10 pts, respectively) and the space that threat opened up for Barbosa (9 pts) and Diaw (8 pts) that built that lead, abetted by a bunch of Spur turnovers and horrible performances at both ends of the court by Finley and Parker.
I don’t care how often Shaq can get inside Duncan’s head (he scored 40 points anyway); he nonexistant pick-and-roll shows and abject inability to otherwise deter penetration by Ginobili and Parker cost the Suns a game they should have won. I say this as a longtime defender and admirer of Shaq. Compounding the misery for Suns fans was the presence of Kurt Thomas, doing for San Antonio exactly what Phoenix craved: Low post defense and rugged box-outs on the boards. Put Kurt Thomas on the Suns and leave both Shaq and the Matrix in Miami so Amare could run free and Phoenix might just have won this game (I qualify it only because I’m not sure the Spurs ever lose a game they *need* to have).
I love the way the Spurs play basketball. But–and I know I am late to the party on this–I have come to detest the way they blatantly whine about every single call. Yesterday’s snit-fit was their worst display yet–no mean feat about these cry-babies. Duncan literally jumped up and down and stamped his feet on one call. Yeah, I know there was a play where he was whistled for a foul on a jumper where he obviously didn’t touch the shooter. But when he went ballistic, Bennett Salvatore literally give it a second thought, because, like the boy who cried wolf, Duncan is going to bitch whether it was a phantom foul or there’s blood on the floor. And now, increasingly, Tony Parker and the flopping Ginobili are escalating their aggravated martrydom stances. The Spurs franchise should be apprised of how much this constant bullshit detracts from the classy performance their team displays when the clock is ticking.
Which brings me to the commentators. Mark Jackson’s pro-Shaq bias was flagrantly on display on the two quick whistles his man received. The first found Shaq swinging one of his formidable forearms aside the noggin of Oberto–Jackson claimed it should have been a non-call. TOn the second, an obvious foul where Shaq tried to draw a charge but was clearly standing inside the circle, Jackson literally said "that ain’t right" because he doesn’t agree with the circle rule! Then there was the time Shaq was whistled for a foul on Kurt Thomas and Jackson derisively called Thomas a notorious flopper–flash to the replay, showing Shaq with his forearm on Thomas’s neck, pushing Thomas’s head below Shaq’s waist.
Now sometimes Jeff Van Gundy enabled his partner’s idiocy–demerits there. But I don’t remember JVG being so pleasantly loosey-goosey before, the opposite of his anal coaching style. When Jackson tried to give him shit about using the word "acquiesce" (that’s right, don’t get too uppity Mark), Van Gundy disbelievingly replied that he wasn’t going to dumb himself down during the broadcast. Then there was Van Gundy’s caustic rip on the 6th Man Award and his statement that he’d "rip Michael Finley’s head off" for not sliding over in rotation earlier on a three-point play in the paint. More to the point, Van Gundy was loaded with compelling insights. He identified San Antonio’s hack-a-Skinner strategy in fouling Brian Skinner, in order to squeeze another possession or two out of the end of the first half, a manuver that indeed paid off handsomely for the Spurs. And he pointed out the deeper level of defensive strategy–how San Antonio would be successful if Grant Hill was shooting a two-pointer, even if Hill hit the shot; the point being to have Finley play D in a manner that forces Hill, and not Amare, Nash or Shaq, to beat you.
Final quick thoughts:
One negative of the Shaq deal and the Amare emergence is less emphasis on Steve Nash distributing off the dribble. Nearly every single shot Nash hit yesterday was a crucial bucket–the guy was just brilliant–and it would behoove the Suns to let him freelance with the ball a little more frequently to throw another option into the mix–because Bruce Bowen ain’t what he used to be on defense.
Raja Bell, on the other hand, had a superb defensive game for the first three quarters and then, like the rest of the Suns, couldn’t stop San Antonio’s penetration.
Another tremendous coaching performance from Pops. He was dead-on when he noted that the Spurs "seemed in
a hurry" on offense in the first half, and that Duncan trey was clearly a designed play–that takes some stones. [*Update: There are now some reports that the play wasn't designed. The Spurs freelanced the Duncan trey!] Phoenix was 21-1 when leading heading into the final period. Thanks to Pops and the usual crunchtime crew–we didn’t even bother noting Ginobili’s game-winner until now–the Suns are 21-2 and feeling that snake bite.
New Orleans 104, Dallas 92
Dallas was doomed the day Mark Cuban decided Jason Kidd was worth Dasagna Diop *and* Devin Harris, never mind the two #1 picks. Without those two guys, it is much harder for the Mavs to post up and much harder to penetrate. The most revealing stat in yesterday’s game was that Dallas shot 19-56, just 34%, from *inside* the three-point arc. The extent to which the Mavs have entrusted their offense to Kidd can be seen in the fact that the other four starters *combined* for just four assists, and three of those were from Jerry Stackhouse.
That Dirk Nowitzki and Josh Howard had one dime between them, while Erick Dampier put up just five shots, indicates imbalances all over the place. On the other side, David West had four blocks, Chris Paul four steals, Tyson Chandler as many offensive boards, 7, as any Dallas player had on the defensive board. As I said in my preview, New Orleans is longer, quicker, and the patently better team. Now Jason Terry and Stackhouse aren’t going to combine for 5-16 FG every game, and Nowitzki and Kidd are proud veterans who have seen much better days and know their window is closing with this franchise, which should make for some ferocious contests the rest of the way. But the future is in New Orleans’ court.
Utah 93, Houston 82
The outcome of this one was predictable, even if I pig-headedly predicted it the other way. Without their center (Yao) and point guard (Alston), Houston’s bench is perilously thin and green, and the Jazz took advantage. None of the Jazz starters were better than plus +5 nor Houston’s worse than minus -6, but Chuck Hayes was minus -17 in 15:36 and Carl Landry (a particular favorite of mine) was minus -12 in 11:09. By contrast, Matt Harpring was plus +19 and Kyle Korver plus +17 off the bench for Utah.
This was a gritty game, full of sweat and elbows. Luis Scola made me feel really smart about my ROY pick by battling Carlos Boozer to a draw, and Shane Battier worked the seams and Utah’s fixation on Tracy McGrady to get a game-high 22 points with an ultra efficient 7-7 FG. But Bobby Jackson was out of his league thrust in against Deron Williams, shooting 3-15 FG and doling out just 3 assists. T-Mac was the de facto point guard for the Rockets and he concentrated on the task a tad too diligently, passing up makeable shots to "get everyone involved," especially in the first three periods. If McGrady can only muster 20 points on 21 attempts (he sank 7), the Rockets are toast unless Landry and Hayes grow up in a hurry or Alston makes a miraculous recovery that has him at full strength by Game Two.
Houston actually led briefly in the third quarter, but I thought the game turned on a pair of treys Korver buried to turn a 2-point Jazz lead into eight during the last three minutes of the third. After that, Utah just wore the Rockets out. Few teams are better at that the one coached by Jerry Sloan. If the Rockets don’t get off the mat in the next contest, there won’t be any more basketball in Houston this postseason.
Here are today’s playoff picks:
Pivotal points: Both teams like the long ball and the Raps are actually a little better at it, making this a potentially volatile series. Can
My guesses: The Magic play classic inside-outside basketball with Howard in the paint and Turkoglu and Lewis using their length to get off treys outside.
Pivotal points: Is Philly just happy to be here or capable of overachieving on the momentum of its remarkable second-half push to the postseason? Conversely, will the Pistons be subconsciously taking a team who finished 19 games behind them for granted while they look ahead to
My guesses: Tayshaun Prince is Andre Iguodala’s bad dream, Chauncey Billups is one of the few point guards Andre Miller can’t post up, and Samuel Dalembert’s shot-blocking is wasted on a ballclub that excels at Saunders’ midrange, low-turnover offense. So how did Philly split four games with the Pistons this year? Dunno. But the playoffs are a different animal.
Pivotal points: Will a team sporting Marcus Camby and Anthony Carter among its starting five ever decide to play team defense? Who matches up with Kobe Bryant? Will the Lakers play their controlled, triangle-offense game, or get suckered into a shootout?
My guesses: Melo and AI put up gaudy individual numbers next to their team L’s as they have done much of the season. By default, the main Kobe-checkers are the chuckleheaded JR Smith and the offensively challenged Yakhouba Diawara (with a little bit of AC and maybe even Linus Kleiza also thrown into the breach), all to no avail. The Nugs will win once when the score is over a combined 240, but this colossal waste of talent won’t see the second round.
My pick: Lakers in 5 or 6.
Pivotal points: Will Josh Smith, a poor man’s Kevin Garnett, make the most of his time in the spotlight opposite KG? Has Ray Allen been napping as third wheel to conserve energy for the postseason, or will Joe Johnson abuse him on defense? Will the Hawks be able to break 100 in this series?
My guesses: There will be at least one monster blowout and at least one improbable