Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Quick predictions

Coming in just before tip-off ...

Eastern Conference Playoff Teams
in order of finish

Western Conference Playoff Teams
in order of finish

First Round
Magic 4, Heat 2
Cavs 4, Raptors 1
Celtics 4, Bulls 3
Hawks 4, Pistons 1
Lakers 4, Hornets 0
Mavs 4, Thunder 2
Spurs 4, Nuggets 1
Blazers 4, Jazz 2
Second Round
Magic 4, Hawks 1
Cavs 4, Celtics 3
Lakers 4, Blazers 2
Spurs 4, Mavs 0
Conference Finals
Magic 4, Cavs 1
Spurs 4, Lakers 1
NBA Finals
Spurs 4, Cavs 2

MVP: LeBron James

Monday, October 26, 2009

2009-10 Opening Day Starting Lineups

OK, so something a little bit different this year, perhaps, and we'll start with a very small scale season preview. I've tried to compile what I believe to be a pretty accurate account of every team's starting lineup as the season begins. I'm going by what every team's intended starting lineup is for their first game, notwithstanding minor injury. For instance, I list Josh Howard as a starter for Dallas even though he won't make it back from a left ankle injury in time for the opener. He should be back within the first month of the season, unlike Tracy McGrady, who's out until around the All-Star break. McGrady is not listed as a starter. In a couple of instances where it's too close to call and the team has made no official statement, I've listed both potential candidates.

So here goes. I plan on being back with occasional, with an emphasis on occasional, updates throughout the year. The daily updates were a little much and weren't really done the way I would have hoped last year, so we're trying something else.

UPDATE (6:22 a.m. Tuesday, Oct. 27): Blazers SF Nicolas Batum will have shoulder surgery and is out for at least the first half of the season, so Martell Webster is likely to take his place.

Atlanta Hawks
PG Mike Bibby
SG Joe Johnson
SF Marvin Williams
PF Josh Smith
C Al Horford

Boston Celtics
PG Rajon Rondo
SG Ray Allen
SF Paul Pierce
PF Kevin Garnett
C Kendrick Perkins

Charlotte Bobcats
PG Raymond Felton
SG Raja Bell
SF Gerald Wallace
PF Boris Diaw
C Tyson Chandler

Chicago Bulls
PG Derrick Rose
SG John Salmons
SF Luol Deng
PF Tyrus Thomas
C Joakim Noah

Cleveland Cavaliers
PG Mo Williams
SG Anthony Parker/Delonte West
SF LeBron James
PF Anderson Varejao
C Shaquille O'Neal

Dallas Mavericks
PG Jason Kidd
SG Josh Howard
SF Shawn Marion
PF Dirk Nowitzki
C Drew Gooden

Denver Nuggets
PG Chauncey Billups
SG Arron Afflalo
SF Carmelo Anthony
PF Kenyon Martin
C Nene

Detroit Pistons
PG Rodney Stuckey
SG Richard Hamilton
SF Tayshaun Prince
PF Charlie Villanueva
C Kwame Brown

Golden State Warriors
PG Monta Ellis
SG Stephen Jackson
SF Anthony Randolph
PF Ronny Turiaf
C Andris Biedrins

Houston Rockets
PG Aaron Brooks
SG Trevor Ariza
SF Shane Battier
PF Luis Scola
C Chuck Hayes/David Andersen

Indiana Pacers
PG T.J. Ford
SG Brandon Rush
SF Danny Granger
PF Troy Murphy
C Roy Hibbert

Los Angeles Clippers
PG Baron Davis
SG Eric Gordon
SF Al Thornton
PF Chris Kaman
C Marcus Camby

Los Angeles Lakers
PG Derek Fisher
SG Kobe Bryant
SF Ron Artest
PF Pau Gasol
C Andrew Bynum

Memphis Grizzlies
PG Mike Conley
SG O.J. Mayo
SF Rudy Gay
PF Zach Randolph
C Marc Gasol

Miami Heat
PG Mario Chalmers
SG Dwyane Wade
SF Michael Beasley
PF Udonis Haslem
C Jermaine O'Neal

Milwaukee Bucks
PG Brandon Jennings/Luke Ridnour
SG Michael Redd
SF Luc-Richard Mbah a Moute
PF Hakim Warrick
C Andrew Bogut

Minnesota Timberwolves
PG Jonny Flynn
SG Corey Brewer
SF Damien Wilkins
PF Ryan Gomes
C Al Jefferson

New Jersey Nets
PG Devin Harris
SG Courtney Lee
SF Chris Douglas-Roberts
PF Y. Jianlian
C Brook Lopez

New York Knicks
PG Chris Duhon
SG Wilson Chandler
SF Al Harrington
PF Jared Jeffries
C David Lee

New Orleans Hornets
PG Chris Paul
SG Morris Peterson
SF Julian Wright
PF David West
C Emeka Okafor

Oklahoma City Thunder
PG Russell Westbrook
SG Thabo Sefolosha/James Harden
SF Kevin Durant
PF Jeff Green
C Nenad Krstic

Orlando Magic
PG Jameer Nelson
SG Vince Carter
SF Mickael Pietrus/Matt Barnes
PF Rashard Lewis
C Dwight Howard

Phoenix Suns
PG Steve Nash
SG Jason Richardson
SF Grant Hill
PF Amare Stoudemire
C Channing Frye

Philadelphia 76ers
PG Lou Williams
SG Andre Iguodala
SF Thaddeus Young
PF Elton Brand
C Samuel Dalembert

Portland Trail Blazers
PG Steve Blake
SG Brandon Roy
SF Martell Webster
PF LaMarcus Aldridge
C Greg Oden

Sacramento Kings
PG Tyreke Evans
SG Kevin Martin
SF Desmond Mason
PF Jason Thompson
C Sean May

San Antonio Spurs
PG Tony Parker
SG Roger Mason
SF Richard Jefferson
PF Antonio McDyess
C Tim Duncan

Toronto Raptors
PG Jose Calderon
SG Demar DeRozan
SF Hedo Turkoglu
PF Chris Bosh
C Andrea Bargnani

Utah Jazz
PG Deron Williams
SG Ronnie Price
C Mehmet Okur
SF Andrei Kirilenko
PF Carlos Boozer

Washington Wizards
PG Gilbert Arenas
SG Mike Miller
SF Caron Butler
PF Antawn Jamison
C Brendan Haywood

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Marion to Mavs in 4-way trade

No deal in the NBA, with its complex salary cap structure, is simple. The four-way trade approved this afternoon is certainly no exception. Shawn Marion was acquired by the Dallas Mavericks in a byzantine arrangement that has assets going between the Mavs, the Raptors, the Magic and the Grizzlies. The core of the deal has Marion heading from Toronto to Dallas in a sign-and-trade move. Kris Humphries and Austrailian centerNathan Jawai goes with Marion, while the Raptors get Antoine Wright and Devean George in return. Hedo Turkoglu's decision to go to Toronto is wrapped up in this, as Toronto gets him as part of a sign-and-trade with Orlando, and the Magic at least receive cash and a trade exception instead of nothing, which they would have gotten if Turkoglu simply signed with the Raptors. The Grizzlies helped facilitate this, sending Greg Buckner to Dallas and receiving Jerry Stackhouse in return along with a 2016 second round pick. The Grizzlies will likely release Stackhouse, meaning they wind up gaining a bit of cap space and little else. Their participation in the deal is by far the most questionable, as though GM Chris Wallace were simply looking for ways to build good will after his gift of Pau Gasol to the Lakers helped L.A. to the championship. The pursuit of Allen Iverson, on top of at all, must leave Grizzlies fans shaking their heads. The Mavs are at the other end of the spectrum. They improve their perimeter defense markedly with Nowitzki around, and if they keep Josh Howard, they'll likely move him to shooting guard to facilitate Marion at small forward and allow Sixth Man of the Year Jason Terry to continue in his bench role. They signed Marcin Gortat and have Jason Kidd coming back, too, so they're clearly looking to win now, a smart move given Nowitzki is in his prime. They probably haven't done enough to put themselves over the top, but they've gotten a lot closer. The Raptors are retooling after last season's debacle, and trying to show Chris Bosh that they're committed to winning. They didn't have any intention of signing Marion after they agreed to a deal with Turkoglu, so that they receive a couple of veterans like Wright and George makes this trade a winner for them. Wright can move into the starting shooting guard position vacated by Anthony Parker, who is headed to the Cavs. The criticism for Toronto GM Bryan Colangelo should come not for his willingness to get involved in deal so much as the decision to dump Marion and pick up Turkoglu in the first place. The notion that Turkoglu is that much of an upgrade over Marion is not a strong one, and what the Raptors gain in outside shooting and a few more points per game, they lose in on the glass, where Marion was 3.1 rebounds a night better than Turkoglu. Bosh, who averaged 10 boards a night, almost twice as many as the next best returning Raptor, will have to take a leap and rebound a lot like Turkoglu's old teammate Dwight Howard, who averaged 13.9 a game last year.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Lakers make faustian deal for Artest

1. The Lakers clearly have a win-now mentality, and with Kobe preparing for his 31st birthday next month, that makes sense. The move to acquire 29-year-old Ron Artest and let 24-year-old Trevor Ariza go would seem to support that theory, but it's only a marginal upgrade that could have a much greater long-term cost. Ariza raised his game significantly in the playoffs, justifying his midseason insertion into the starting lineup with clutch play and 11.3 points, 4.2 rebounds and 2.3 assists per game in the postseason. Artest's numbers were better, with 15.6 points, 4.3 rebounds and 4.2 assists a night during the playoffs, but it would be hard to argue the former Defensive Player of the Year was any more effective at stopping people than Ariza. It's even harder to make a case that Artest is a better guy to have around the locker room, given his well-documented antics. He's never played with a superstar like Kobe before, and hasn't been surrounded by quite as much talent either. Ariza meshed quite effectively as a role player, and it remains to be seen whether Artest can do half as well as someone who is no more than a third offensive option behind Kobe and Pau Gasol. The Lakers will be paying Artest about the same amount of money Ariza is getting from the Rockets, but Artest gets three years instead of five on his contract. It makes little sense why Mitch Kupchak and the L.A. braintrust would balk at just two more years for someone who could have been a cornerstone for the next few years and the transition into the post-Kobe era. The next five years with Ariza could have at least ensured a 20-something would occupy one starting wing spot while Kobe aged. Artest turns 30 in November and will be entering his 11th NBA season. The only party that came out looking worse than the Lakers was Ariza himself, who goes from the champions of the league to a team that may just have lost Yao for good and is still awaiting Tracy McGrady's return from microfracture knee surgery. It hardly seems worth it, for either Ariza or the Lakers, given the difference of two years that appeared to be all that stood in the way of a better situation for both.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Three random observations ...

... about the NBA:

1. It was odd that the Thunder passed up Ricky Rubio, given that he is the pure point guard they lack. It was odder still that the Kings didn't take him, either. Rubio fell into the lap of the Minnesota Timberwolves at the fifth pick in Thursday's 2009 NBA Draft, and in a night that was heavy with point guards, the Wolves got quality and quantity. Rubio, an 18-year-old whose passing skills have already been compared to those of the all-time greats, has experience as a professional in his native Spain and at the Olympic level with the Spanish national team, the silver medalists in 2008. The Thunder, and especially the Kings, will regret missing out on him. James Harden, only 19, is a legitimate top four selection, so Oklahoma City is at least getting a player of decent value out of the No. 3 pick. Tyreke Evans is talented, but there are questions about his shooting and athleticism, which doesn't bode well for a two-guard. He plays the same position as Kevin Martin, the best player on the Sacramento roster. The move just doesn't make sense. The Wolves have quite a pair in Rubio and Al Jefferson, but they inexplicably took Jonny Flynn, another point guard, with the sixth pick. GM David Kahn is promoting the idea that the two could play together, but he wouldn't compromise his trade leverage by announcing that one or both is available. The truth is likely that one of them can be had. The Wolves turned heads again when they selected Ty Lawson, yet another point guard, at No. 18, but they quickly traded him to Denver for future considerations.

2. The New York fans were sorely disappointed when Stephen Curry was taken by the Warriors at No. 7, one pick before the Knicks could have nabbed him. Curry, with his ability to shoot and finish, would no doubt have been fun to watch Mike D'Antoni's system, but New York need not shed a tear. Jordan Hill may actually be an even better fit. He is a 6-10 power forward who can rebound and run the floor, which makes for a prototypical D'Antoni center. The Knicks have David Lee at center, too, but often teamed him with Jared Jeffries, a lithe power forward over whom Hill is a significant improvement. Lee is a restricted free agent, so the Knicks have the option now to not match another team's long-term offer if they so desire, opening up even more cap space for 2010. Hill has shown continual improvement in his rebounding numbers while at college, winding up at an average of 11 per game this past season at Arizona, and if that trend continues in the pros, the Knicks may have come up with a steal.

3. The news Thursday was not all about the draft. The Magic acquired Vince Carter, along with second-year power forward Ryan Anderson, for Rafer Alston, Courtney Lee and Tony Battie. It's a surprising move, since it was clear the formula Orlando had this past season worked, at least well enough to get the team to the Finals. Magic GM Otis Smith, to his credit, wants more. Yet it's not clear whether the Magic really got any better. They diversified their offense with a player who can penetrate, create his own shot and gave themselves another ballhandler, all of which was necessary. He's still capable of scoring 20 points a game, dishing out close to five assists and grabbing about five rebounds, but Carter's numbers were down across the board this past year, when he turned 32. It's likely he'll continue his decline this year, but even a diminished Carter may be better than what the Magic had. The tough part of this trade for the Magic is having to give up Lee, an impressive rookie whose game is only going to get better, instead of worse. Orlando may find out they would have been better off keeping him, but they instead decided to go with Carter, whose talents are far more of a known quantity. Anderson's presence in the trade may have been enough to quell Smith's concerns, since like Lee, he seems poised for improvement after a promising rookie year. His 6-foot-10, 240 pounds frame, 4,7 rebounds in 20 minutes a night and 36.5 percent three-point shooting make him a perfect backup for Rashard Lewis. The Nets probably aren't ecstatic about giving him up, especially since they clearly have an eye on the future. The rest of the trade sets up New Jersey quite well for the summer of 2010. Alston and Battie are contracts that expire after next season, when they will look to combine a young nucleus of Devin Harris, Lee and Brook Lopez with cap space to go after a premier free agent class.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Three random observations ...

... about the NBA:

1. Shaq is finally headed to Cleveland. The Cavs are acquiring him for the 46th pick in Thursday's draft plus Ben Wallace and Sasha Pavlovic, two players the Suns will be more easily be able to move off their books. The deal, which this blog first discussed in February, gives LeBron his first Hall of Fame-caliber teammate, albeit one in the twilight of his career. Shaq will turn 38 next March, but his 17.8 points per game and 8.4 rebounds from last season represented a renaissance that included a deserving selection to the All-Star Game, where he split MVP honors with Kobe. Now, Shaq will look to one-up Kobe with another NBA title. It's clear Cleveland wants to win this season, while LeBron is still under contract. There's no other reason to acquire a center in his late 30s with a $21 million salary. The move shores up Cleveland's frontline, which was overmatched by Orlando's athleticism and diversity of skill in the Eastern Conference Finals. It provides LeBron with the kind of playoff-tested sidekick that he sorely missed in that Orlando series, as long as Shaq remains healthy and in good playing shape. Shaq's continued production at a high-level is a risky proposition, but the Cavs must go all-in this year. It's a gamble worth taking. The move makes sense for the Suns, too, who were going nowhere. It will be painful for Phoenix to lose Shaq, Steve Nash, who is sure to follow, and other veterans like Amare Stoudemire and Grant Hill, but it's clear they were no longer close to being title contenders after missing the playoffs this year. Now, they can begin to rebuild.

2. The Spurs, another perenial contender that took a step back this past season, found a way to move back into the picture. The acquisition of Richard Jefferson for Bruce Bowen and Kurt Thomas gives the Spurs the kind of athletic wing player they've long lacked to put along side Manu Ginobili in crunch time. Jefferson, 29, revitalizes the aging Spurs, who get Ginobili back from the ankle injury that prematurely ended his season this year. Jefferson averaged 19.6 points, 4.6 rebounds and 2.4 assists last year, and has experience as a contributing member of a contending team with New Jersey in the first few years of his career. It's another shrewd move by general manager R.C. Buford, and while it's far from a panacea for the Spurs, who must be wary of the long-term health of Ginobili and Tim Duncan, it's likely the best move they could have made this offseason. The trade is a salary dump for Milwaukee, a franchise that continues to search for answers, having failed to win more than 42 games for eight straight seasons after making the Eastern Conference Finals in 2001.

3. I hesitate to do mock drafts with as many trades and potential deals affecting the draft order as we've seen this year, but here's a stab at it. A lot of speculation holds that Ricky Rubio, the 18-year-old Spanish point guard phenom, will drop after a poor workout with Sacramento. Don't buy it. Rubio, competing in last year's Olympics, has already shown he can compete at a high level with world-class competition. He shouldn't fall out of the top four, and if he does, a team or two will look back on this draft with a great deal of regret.

1. L.A. Clippers: Blake Griffin, PF, Oklahoma
2. Memphis: Hasheem Thabeet, C, Connecticut
3. Oklahoma City: Ricky Rubio, PG, Spain
4. Sacramento: James Harden, G, Arizona State
5. Minnesota: Jordan Hill, PF, Arizona
6. Minnesota: Stephen Curry, PG, Davidson
7. Golden State: Demar Derozan, SG/SF, Southern Cal
8. New York: Jonny Flynn, PG, Syracuse
9. Toronto: Tyreke Evans, G, Memphis
10. Milwaukee: Jrue Holiday, G, UCLA

Update: Golden State appears to be sending Jamal Crawford to the Hawks for point guards Acie Law and Speedy Claxton, so I'm now projecting the Warriors will take Demar Derozan instead of Jonny Flynn, whom I see getting scooped up by the Knicks.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

NBA Finals, Game 5

Say what you will about Kobe, but nobody wanted it more this season. Kobe led the Lakers to a title without Shaquille O'Neal for the first time in his fifth try without his former Hall of Fame teammate, furthering his position among the All-Time greats Sunday after a 99-86 victory to seal the NBA championship. Kobe combined with Lamar Odom, coincidentally one of the players acquired in the trade that sent Shaq away, to take the heart out of the Orlando Magic, who never challenged after a 16-0 L.A. run in the second quarter. Kobe scored 30 points, had six rebounds and dished out five assists, right on his numbers for the playoffs, and won his first Bill Russell Finals MVP award. Odom had 17 points, including three from three-point range, and pulled down 10 rebounds that were key to L.A.'s 47-36 advantage on the boards. Odom in essence canceled out Rashard Lewis, who had 18 points and 10 rebounds. The problem for Orlando is that Lewis was their most prolific contributor Sunday. Dwight Howard was held almost completely in check, scoring only 11 points to go with 10 rebounds and three blocks. The Magic shot just 8-for-27 from behind the arc, while the Lakers were 8-for-16 and made 11 more free throws as well. The game simply wasn't competitive once Trevor Ariza, who scored 11 of his 15 points during a four-minute stretch in the second quarter, heated up after a confrontation with Hedo Turkoglu. The two were jawing near the Orlando bench, and both were hit with technical fouls with 5:43 to go until halftime. The Magic were ahead 40-39 at that point, but Ariza nailed a pair of 26-foot three-pointers, made a layup, a 15-footer and a free throw, and by the end of the half the Lakers had a 10-point lead. Ariza used the series to deepen the Magic's lament over trading him away last season for Mo Evans and Brian Cook. The Lakers got Pau Gasol in another lopsided deal last year, and he continued to pay dividends in the clinching game Sunday, delivering 14 points and a game-high 15 rebounds. The Lakers haven't lost three in a row since acquiring Gasol, a staggering achievement that underscores the hole the Magic were in, trailing 3 games to 1 and needing to win three straight. Orlando was nonetheless one Courtney Lee shot in Game 2 and one Dwight Howard free throw in Game 4 from a much different series. The Finals, apart from Sunday and Game 1, were far from a victory lap for the Lakers. It's not clear, given how close Orlando came, and the fact the Cavs saved their worst games for last, that the best team won. It is certain that these Lakers are a championship-caliber club, and that coach Phil Jackson should be recognized as the gold standard among NBA bosses. His record of 10 titles, more than anyone not just in the NBA but in the NFL or Major League Baseball as well, will likely stand forever. He was fortunate, indeed, to lead teams with the best players of their time, like Jordan, Shaq and Kobe, but plenty of coaches have failed to make the most of their talent. A few others have taken them to the top of the mountain once or twice, but never again. Jackson has proven again and again that his success, and the success of his teams, is no fluke.


Thanks for reading this year. It's been a fun learning experience and I intend to keep this going. This is a constantly evolving process, so I'm not sure how the blog will look next year, but it will be here. Keep an eye out for draft coverage and analysis of free agent signings and trades in the offseason. It should be interesting, with all sorts of teams looking to dump salary. And, in case you're wondering, my predictions, so solid during the first two rounds of the playoffs, were off the mark in the last two. I took the Cavs in five games in the Eastern Conference Finals, but wound up one of many who were caught off guard by the Magic, who won in six. I was much closer in the Western Conference Finals, where I had the Lakers winning in 7. They took care of Denver in six. I had the right team in the Finals, but I thought it would be a seven-game series instead of five. How was I supposed to know Dwight Howard would miss two free throws and Jameer Nelson would completely forget Derek Fisher was one of the all-time great clutch three-point shooters?

Friday, June 12, 2009

NBA Finals Game 4

The Orlando Magic could easily be up 3-1 in the NBA Finals. They're down 3-1 instead. The Magic were up by a dozen at halftime Thursday, and held a five-point lead with as few as 31 seconds to go, but shockingly poor defense and two missed free throws by Dwight Howard allowed the Lakers to force overtime, where they pulled away for a 99-91 victory. Game 4 was a dramatic collapse that costs Orlando any reasonable shot it might have had and presents the Lakers with a clear shot at the championship. The Magic built an 87-82 lead on a three-pointer and a tough runner by Hedo Turkoglu, who hit more than his share of difficult shots en route to a team-high 25 points. Turkoglu never made another basket. Rashard Lewis missed a 16-footer with 39 seconds to go, and Derek Fisher, whose greatest contribution to the game was yet to come, grabbed the rebound, and started a fast break that ended with Kobe finding a hustling Pau Gasol for an uncontested dunk. That cut the lead to three, but the Magic were able to get the ball to their best player, Dwight Howard, underneath, where three defenders converged upon him and sent him to the line with 10.4 seconds left. The Magic shot just 60 percent from the line all night, but either one of Howard's free throws would have in essence sealed the game for the Magic. Howard, who was a woeful 6-for-14 from the stripe, missed them both. Orlando coach Stan Van Gundy elected not to foul, and allow the Lakers to shoot for three-pointer if they wanted. Van Gundy didn't tell Jameer Nelson to give his man ample room to take the trey, but that's exactly what Nelson did, laying off of Fisher as the veteran sharpshooter added one more clutch playoff three-pointer to his resume. The stunned Magic had all sorts of trouble getting the ball inbounds for an answer with 4.6 remaining, and a quick leaner by Mickael Pietrus went array as the buzzer sounded. Orlando continued to look rattled in the overtime, scoring only three points, but had the game tied in the final minute. Fisher once more delivered a daggar, with another three-pointer that gave the Lakers a 94-91 lead with 31 seconds to go. Turkoglu missed a three-pointer on the other end, and Gasol got free for another dunk that served as exclamation point to the L.A. victory. The words preceding the punctuation would read, "Thank You," for 19 turnovers and 15 missed free throws from the Magic. The Lakers didn't fail to take advantage of the opportunities laid at their feet, and again were led by the brilliance of Kobe, who had 32 points, eight assists and seven rebounds. Gasol had 16 points and 10 rebounds, and Trevor Ariza, who scored all of his points in the second half, put up 16 points and nine rebounds. None of it would have gone toward a win if the Magic had not allowed it to happen.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

NBA Finals Game 3

Kobe came out Tuesday determined to close the door on any chance he would not cement his legacy with a championship this year. He finished with the kind of performance that raises legitimate doubts about his championship mettle and the outcome of the series with Orlando. The Magic cut the L.A. lead to 2-1, prevailing 108-104 in a game the Lakers could have won if Kobe had not missed 10 of his last 13 shots from the floor, five of his last eight free throws, and lost the ball when Dwight Howard poked it away in the final minute. The stretch run was the complete opposite of his first quarter, when Kobe had 17 points and either scored or assisted on all but four L.A. baskets. He was a major reason why the Lakers were able to stick around despite 75 percent shooting in the first half for the Magic, a phenomenal display that set an all-time NBA Finals record for field goal percentage in a half. Kobe's totals of 31 points and eight assists don't suggest any sort of failure, but the lofty standard to which he is aspiring to be held demands more than just a prolific statistical showing. Too many misses and mistakes prevented his team from sealing victory after erasing what had been a nine-point deficit with 7:55 to go. Kobe missed from close range with 3:33 left, was off on a 3-pointer with 2:02 on the clock, clanked a free throw with 59 seconds to go, lost the ball with 28 seconds remaining and missed two three-pointers on the final L.A. possession. Those troubles obscure a scintillating 63 percent shooting performance by the Magic and a 51 percent shooting night for the Lakers that was nearly enough to put them over the top. Rafer Alston had a fearless performance after scoring a total of 10 points in the first two games, going 8-for-12 for 20 points. Rashard Lewis shot 3-for-6 on his three-pointers, including a pair of treys at the end of the first half that erased the last lead for the Lakers, and went 8-for-14 overall to score 21 points. Howard tied Lewis for the team high in points, going 11-for-16 at the line and 5-for-6 from the floor. Hedo Turkoglu was 7-for-12 for 18 points on an all-around night, leading the team with seven assists and grabbing six rebounds as well. Mickael Pietrus came off the bench to score 18 as well and, once in the game, was able to slow Kobe, who was far and away the focus of L.A.'s offense. His 11-for-25 performance from the floor came on more than twice as many shots as any other Laker, though his teammates made the most of their limited opportunities. Pau Gasol was 9-for-11 for 23 points, and Lamar Odom and Jordan Farmar had identical 4-for-6, 11-point stat lines off the bench. Trevor Ariza struggled with his shot thanks to Turkoglu's defense, but managed 13 points and seven rebounds. Derek Fisher went 4-for-9 for nine points, including a wide open three-pointer he canned to pull the Lakers within two points at the 5:25 mark of the fourth quarter. The Lakers tied the game on a pair of Gasol free throws with 2:41 to play, but Pietrus finished off a Turkoglu miss with a resounding dunk that gave the Magic the lead for good. The Magic are a couple of Courtney Lee misses in Game 2 away from enjoying a lead in the series, as well. Kobe still has a ways to go before he wins his first NBA crown without Shaq, and as the unquestioned best player on his team. The question for the rest of the series, much as it was coming into the Finals, is whether he possesses that extra gear necessary to carry a team the way Jordan, Russell, Bird and select few others did. If he does, he will ascend into their ranks. If he plays the way he did in the second half of Game 3, he won't.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

NBA Finals Game 2

The first assignment for the Magic after Game 2 of the NBA Finals might be making sure rookie Courtney Lee isn't ruminating about the end of regulation. He missed two shots from close range in the last 10 seconds, either of which would have provided visiting Orlando the winning margin in what turned out to be a 101-96 overtime victory for L.A. that gives the Lakers a 2-0 series lead. Lee drove the lane with 10.5 seconds to go and missed a contested layup, but after Hedo Turkoglu blocked Kobe Bryant's shot on the other end, Lee received an unexpected second chance. He broke toward the basket on a backdoor cut as the ball was being inbounded on an inbounds play with six-tenths of a second go to, catching the ball in the air and switching hands to get a shot off in time over the outstretched hands of Pau Gasol. The ball was shot with a little too much force and bounced off the backboard and away. It was a tough shot, and the layup before was far from a wide-open opportunity. Stan Van Gundy and Lee's teammates must impress upon him that the weight of the loss does not fall on his shoulders alone. The Magic simply made too many mistakes, turning the ball over 20 times while Van Gundy's lineup experiments bore no fruit. Van Gundy used Rashard Lewis as a small forward with centers Dwight Howard and Marcin Gortat on the floor early in the fourth quarter, and went largely without a point guard down the stretch. The Lakers were unfazed, as Kobe, Gasol and Odom all proved why they're top-level talents. Kobe did plenty of scoring and passing, with 29 points and eight assists, while Gasol had 24 points and 10 rebounds, and Odom went for 19 points and eight rebounds in 46 minutes. The Magic had the hot-shooting Lewis, who nailed six treys for 34 points to go along with 11 rebounds, 22 points on 8-for-17 shooting from Hedo Turkoglu and a 17-point, 16-rebound night out of Howard. They just didn't have a complimentary player like Derek Fisher, who nailed a couple of three-pointers and went 4-for-9 from the field overall to register as L.A.'s fourth double-figure scorer with 12 points. No one other than the three high-scorers for Orlando had more than five points. Fisher played 41 minutes while his understudies Jordan Farmar and Shannon Brown were out there for just six minutes apiece, and the veteran rewarded coach Phil Jackson's confidence. Kobe, Gasol and Odom will be remembered as the prime movers for this Lakers team if they can win two more games, but Fisher remains an invaluable asset when he's needed the most.

The NBA finals are always hyped as a clash of stars, but role players often have as much to do with the outcome as anyone else. Veteran Derek Fisher, who at times has struggled with his shot this year,

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

NBA Finals Preview

This year's NBA Finals matchup would be highly anticipated in just about any other year. The prospect of a rising young star in Dwight Howard leading a 59-win team of three-point gunners into a battle with Kobe, Gasol and a talented yet vulnerable 65-win Lakers team has a great deal of cachet, but because we missed out on LeBron vs. Kobe, it's a little deflating. The NBA and would be better to move on, though, and appreciate the plentiful appeal of the matchup we have.

Orlando comes in riding a huge high after making the Cavs look like LeBron and the D-League All-Stars. The Lakers played some of their best basketball against the Nuggets, but not until Games 5 and 6. The eternal question about this Laker team is about the kind of effort they'll give. It's the Finals, so one might expect them to be going at full bore, but because it's the Magic, instead of the Cavs, their fragile psyches may allow them to let up. Coach Phil Jackson, if he earns his record 10th ring, will have earned it. He's opposed by Stan Van Gundy, finally manifesting the championship run he seemed poised to take with the Miami Heat a few years earlier before Pat Riley usurped the opportunity. Van Gundy has proven himself with his ability to make adjustments, and he'll be forced to make more, especially if the X-factor, Jameer Nelson, makes a return from his torn labrum. His chances of playing seem to depend on whichever member of the Magic organization is speaking at the time. The odds he'd actually be effective are, despite his history success against the Lakers, much lower than a 50-50 shot. Nelson's potential comeback at best could serve as an effective smokescreen that creates a distraction for the Lakers. At worst, it disrupts the chemistry and psychology of the Magic, a team that comes in playing remarkably well. Van Gundy, too, will earn his title if he gets it.

The point guard position is a pivotal matchup with or without Nelson. Rafer Alston had a career playoff high 26 points in Game 4 against Cleveland, but followed it up with just three points in Game 5. Derek Fisher has been up-and-down throughout the playoffs, as have his two backups, Jordan Farmar and Shannon Brown. The play of the backups, with veteran Anthony Johnson against the younger Lakers, may be the determinant.

The other guard position is all about Kobe, who had an awesome closeout game against the Nuggets, scoring 35 points to go with 10 assists and six rebounds. He put it all together as both a distributor and a scorer, and when he has nights like that, the Lakers are simply unstoppable. The Magic will send whomever necessary to limit his scoring and passing, with Alston, starting shooting guard Courtney Lee, Hedo Turkoglu, Mickael Pietrus and J.J. Redick all likely to get a look at some point. Pietrus, who was the primary defender against LeBron in the conference finals, is most likely to spend crunch time assigned to Kobe, creating as tough a three- or four-week stretch as there can be for any one defender. LeBron scored plenty of points against him, but Pietrus was able to keep LeBron from becoming an offensive facilitator, and if he can do the same against Kobe, it'll be a huge plus for the Magic.

The Orlando wing player not assigned to Kobe gets Trevor Ariza, the defensive specialist who has suddenly become potent on the offensive end as well, going 30-for-60 from behind the three-point arc in the playoffs and lifting his regular season average of 8.9 points per game to 11.4 for the postseason. Opponents can't double off of him to check Kobe, a significant breakthrough for the L.A. attack. His emergence has been mirrored by the resurgence of Hedo Turkoglu, who has played better as the playoffs have gone on. He was a major force in the Cleveland series even without an eye-opening percentage from behind the arc. He averaged 17.2 points, 6.7 assists and 6.3 rebounds a game against the Cavs, while shooting 39 percent from long distance. He gave the Magic a point forward who could score from just about anywhere on the floor, creating much greater offensive diversity than just Howard and three-point gunning. He'll give Ariza plenty of headaches if he can keep it up, and perhaps force Jackson to use Lamar Odom on him instead of Rashard Lewis.

Orlando's power forward has been the sort of all-around offensive presence the Magic have needed him to be throughout the playoffs, as Lewis has scored in double figures in each of the team's 19 postseason games and averaged 19.4 points per game for the playoffs. Odom, who appears to have shaken off the effects of a blow to the back he suffered during a fall in the Houston series, is just the sort of versatile defender who can counteract Lewis, having the ability to guard the perimeter as well as the post. Odom will likely see crunch time minutes, but Pau Gasol will start at power forward, meaning Lewis will be challenged to defend Gasol's array of moves in the post. Gasol is not an overwhelming physical presence for Lewis, however, and the Magic should be more easily be able to exploit Gasol's weaknesses as a perimeter defender if Jackson indeed starts Andrew Bynum instead of Odom.

Bynum would start at center, of course, against Howard, a daunting challenge for a 21-year-old who disappears at times and was slow to recover from a midseason knee injury. The Lakers, much as the Magic will probably do with Kobe, are likely to give Howard multiple looks, with Bynum, Gasol and perhaps the ubiquitous Odom as candidates to go up against Superman. Howard must establish himself early for the Magic, particularly if Bynum is starting, and get in a rhythm before frustration and fouls set in. The Lakers, after seeing what happened when Howard saw too much single coverage in Game 6 against Cleveland, are probably going to come with a lot of help defenders and try to cut off passing lanes to deny him the ball. The Magic, as has been well documented, are prone to going away from Howard for long lengths of time, so if the Lakers can do what they can to discourage his teammates from passing him the ball, he might go a long time in between touches. That will be especially true if the Lakers can use their length to limit Howard from collecting the gargantuan 15.4 rebounds a game he's pulled down throughout the playoffs.

The benches would seem to indicate an advantage for the Lakers on sheer volume alone, since they can easily go 10 players deep. Each team has its three-point marksman, namely Sasha Vujacic for L.A. and Redick for Orlando. The Magic have an effective backup center in Marcin Gortat, while the Lakers have Luke Walton, a resourceful player who has started for the team in the past and can be a pest defensively on Turkoglu or Lewis.

The Lakers greatest edge still revolves around Kobe, and his ability to take over games in a myriad ways. They'll need him to play at his best not just for points and assists but for his energy and ability to spark his teammates as well. He is, just as he seemed so eager to be when Shaq was around, the single most important person for the Lakers. He's longed for the opportunity to power his team to a championship. Staring the ravages of age in the face as he competes in his 13th NBA season and approaches his 31st birthday, this may well be his best chance left for a ring. He's not letting it go.
Prediction: Lakers in 7.

Game 1 - Thu June 4 Orlando at L.A. Lakers 9 p.m. ABC
Game 2 - Sun June 7 Orlando at L.A. Lakers 8 p.m. ABC

Game 3 - Tue June 9 L.A. Lakers at Orlando 9 p.m. ABC
Game 4 - Thu June 11 L.A. Lakers at Orlando 9 p.m. ABC
Game 5 * Sun June 14 L.A. Lakers at Orlando 8 ABC
Game 6 * Tue June 16 Orlando at L.A. Lakers 9 ABC
Game 7 * Thu June 18 Orlando at L.A. Lakers 9 ABC

Los Angeles Lakers
PG Derek Fisher
SG Kobe Bryant
SF Trevor Ariza
PF Pau Gasol
C Andrew Bynum
F Lamar Odom
PG Jordan Farmar
G Sasha Vujacic
G Shannon Brown
SF Luke Walton
PF Josh Powell
C D.J. Mbenga

Orlando Magic
PG Rafer Alston
SG Courtney Lee
SF Hedo Turkoglu
PF Rashard Lewis
C Dwight Howard
G/F Mickael Pietrus
PG Anthony Johnson
C Marcin Gortat
SG J.J. Redick
F/C Tony Battie
PG Tyronn Lue
C Adonal Foyle
SG Jeremy Richardson
PG Jameer Nelson (separated shoulder, questionable)

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Eastern Conference Finals Game 6

The weight LeBron took upon his shoulders to carry his team past Orlando into the NBA Finals finally became too great to bear. LeBron went scoreless in the second quarter and was held to 25 points, matching his lowest output of the postseason, as the Magic ousted Cleveland with a 103-90 victory Saturday to win the Eastern Conference Finals 4-2. It was Dwight Howard in the dominant role typically played by LeBron, as Howard scored a playoff career high 40 points to go with 14 points. Howard was the focal point of the Magic offense two nights after taking just 10 shots in Game 5. Saturday he took 21 shots and made 14 of them, and went 12-for-16 at the line as the Cavs elected not to double-team so as to cover Orlando's potent three-point shooters. The strategy failed to work on Howard or the gunners, as Mickael Pietrus went 4-for-7 from behind the arc and Rafer Alston and Rashard Lewis both checked in with 3-for-7 performances from three-point range. The Magic were 12-for-29 on treys, while the Cavs had their own success, going 9-for-20. Mo Williams was 3-for-4 from long distance, but all of his production came in the second half after he had just three points going into the break. Delonte West had two three-pointers on a 22-point night when he was the major weapon other than LeBron, who hit a pair of three-pointers himself. The stat line of 25 points, seven assists and seven rebounds is quite a night for just about anyone, but for LeBron it was a significant dropoff after scoring at least 35 points in each of the first five games of the series. His teammates, and Williams in particular, failed to deliver the support that would have allowed him to be anything less than spectacular every night. Williams was acquired in the offseason to provide a steady ballhandler and an additional scoring threat, but he didn't have a single game in the series with more than five assists and only once delivered more than 20 points. Williams had 17 points and five assists Saturday, but Zydrunas Ilgauskas ended his season with a real thud, scoring just two points on 1-for-5 shooting while getting destroyed by Howard on the other end. Igauskas has been one of the best offensive centers in the league for many years in Cleveland, but looked all of his 33 years against Howard, who is a decade younger. Ilgauskas, a free agent this summer, may be let go as the Cavs face a crucial summer for their franchise. They have just one more year with LeBron before his contract is up in 2010, and it may be their last chance at what has seemed like a sure championship. Anderson Varejao, Joe Smith and Wally Szczerbiak are all free agents as well, and general manager Danny Ferry faces some hard decisions. The Magic seem much more well-positioned for the future, but they don't have to worry about next year just yet. The mercurial, quirky team reliant on outside shooting and their physical specimen of a center will see if they can continue to trample on the championship plans of another favored team when they face the Lakers in the Finals. We'll have a full Finals preview in advance of Game 1 on Thursday.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Western Conference Finals Game 6

The Lakers have had their struggles in this postseason, but they appear to be peaking at the right time. L.A. played at full intensity while the Nuggets endured a curious collapse, particularly at the defensive end, as the Lakers advanced to the Finals for the second straight year after a 119-92 blowout Friday to end the Western Conference Finals in six games. The Lakers shot a whopping 57 percent, and made nine of 16 three-point attempts. Kobe Bryant led five players in double-figures and three players who scored 20 or more for the Lakers with 35 points on 12-for-20 shooting. Kobe added 10 assists and six rebounds on a night when he had opportunities for himself as well as his teammates. Pau Gasol had 20 points and 12 rebounds, while Lamar Odom delivered his second straight impressive performance with 20 points and eight rebounds off the bench. Trevor Ariza went 3-for-4 from behind the arc for 17 points as he continues to show improvement, particularly on the offensive end. The Lakers had an edge on the boards as well, outrebounding Denver 38-27 as L.A.'s high field goal percentage manifested itself in the form of fewer missed shots leading to fewer transition opportunities for the Nuggets. Chauncey Billups, who averaged 20.6 points for the playoffs, never got into a rhythm Friday, and took just seven shots for 10 points. He did his best to ignite the offense with nine assists, but the rest of the team had just five assists combined, while the Lakers totaled 28 assists. The only sharpshooter for the Nuggets in Game 6 was J.R. Smith, who was 4-for-9 from three-point range and 10-for-17 from the floor for 24 points. Carmelo Anthony came up with 25 points, but had too many lapses on the defensive end. It wasn't a fitting ending for the Nuggets or the Denver crowd, which saw their team post its best-ever regular season record and advance farther in the playoffs than they've gone in 24 years. The Nuggets experienced tremendous growth after the trade to acquire Chauncey Billups, and if they keep the team together, they need only to absorb the lessons the Lakers taught them and take a few more steps to truly join the league's elite. There's no next year for L.A., advancing to the 30th NBA Finals in franchise history. Kobe, in his 13th season, knows his personal window is closing. He must win now to cement his legacy, and the rest of the Lakers must surely be hungry to erase the memories of last year's opportunity missed.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Eastern Conference Finals Game 5

LeBron isn't asking for much in terms of help from his teammates. No one other than LeBron had what might be deemed a stellar sort of night Thursday for the Cavs, but it was enough to get by at home for a 112-102 win in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals, cutting Orlando's lead to 3-2. LeBron scored or assisted on 32 straight points in the third and fourth quarters, racking up a triple-double with 37 points, 14 rebounds and 12 assists. He was extraordinary, but failed to score 40 points for just the second time in this series. Those two occasions are, not coincidentally, the two games the Cavs have won. LeBron was not alone Thursday, as the man acquired to be LeBron's second-in-command finally played like it. Mo Williams nailed six of nine attempts from behind the arc for 24 points, and his hustle play with the team down by one and 6:09 to go helped turn the game in Cleveland's favor. He hustled after a missed three-pointer, diving out of bounds to save the ball and bouncing it off the leg of Rafer Alston to ensure the Cavs retained possession. Williams then assisted LeBron on a three-point play that put Cleveland in front for good. Daniel Gibson helped seal the victory with eight of his surprising 11 points in the fourth quarter, as he found his missing shot to go 3-for-4 from three-point range. Zydrunas Ilgauskas held his own against Dwight Howard, with 6-for-8 shooting for 16 points and six rebounds. That was all the Cavs needed in a topsy-turvy game that saw Cleveland blow a 22-point lead in the first half, Orlando take a six point lead in the third quarter, and the Cavs wind up pulling away for a double-digit victory. The Cavs emerged shooting 50 percent as a team and, thanks to Williams and Gibson, 50 percent from behind the arc, while the Magic shot just 46 percent from the floor and 32 percent on 25 shots from from three-point range. The Magic failed to take advantage of an edge at the free throw line, making just one more shot on 41 trips to the line compared to 34 attempts for the Cavs. It was an especially long night for Rafer Alston, who followed a career high 26 points in Game 4 with jus three on 1-for-10 shooting Thursday. Rashard Lewis struggled as well, going 4-for-13 for 15 points, but the resurgent Hedo Turkoglu made up for it with 29 points, a playoff career high of his own. Dwight Howard was once more brilliant in the paint, going 8-for-10 for 24 points and 10 rebounds, but again didn't get enough shots to become a dominant force, and fouled out with 2:21 to go. Howard isn't likely to publicly rehash his complaints about a lack of offensive involvement before Game 6 on Saturday, but he would be wise to do so in private. The Magic must feed Howard when he's on his game and others, like Lewis and Alston, are not. It is an ironic juxtaposition of superstars, in which one must become less integral to his team's offense and the other must become more so.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Western Conference Finals Game 5

1. The Lakers had to play better defense and get improved play from Lamar Odom after a 19-point loss in Game 4. Done and done. The Nuggets went 9:53 with just one made field goal in the second half, and Lamar Odom posted 19 points and 14 rebounds as the Lakers pulled away in the fourth quarter Wednesday for a 103-94 victory to take a 3-2 series lead over Denver in the Western Conference Finals. The Nuggets led 73-66 after a Dahntay Jones tip-in with 5:11 to play in the third quarter, but it all fell apart for Denver from there. Trevor Ariza blocked Carmelo Anthony's jumper the next time down the floor, and though the Nuggets retained possession, Pau Gasol came up with an errant pass from Chauncey Billups and fed Shannon Brown for a dunk that ignited the Lakers. Gasol came away with yet another bad pass from Billups, Anthony was called for traveling and the Nuggets were caught with a 24-second clock violation as Denver continued to unravel on its next three possessions. A Billups three-pointer gave the Nuggets their last lead at the 2:24 mark of the third quarter, and Denver trailed 89-81 after their next basket, a Linas Kleiza trey with 7:18 left in the fourth quarter. Odom scored eight of his points during Denver's drought, and Brown, another spark plug off the bench, had all six of his points. Kobe had a team-high 22 points, but acknowledged after the game that he consciously tried to play more of a facilitator's role, dishing out eight assists. It worked, just as it did when the Lakers took Game 7 against the Rockets in the conference semifinals. Pau Gasol had 14 points and 10 rebounds, Trevor Ariza put up 12 points, five rebounds and four assists and Derek Fisher poured in 12 points as the Lakers had five players in double-figures. Andrew Bynum looked solid in limited playing time as well, scoring nine points in 19 minutes. The Lakers had an advantage on the interior all night, as Nene was barely a factor with four points and eight rebounds before fouling out. Kenyon Martin was the only post player for Denver who found any sort of success, with 12 points and five rebounds, while Chris Andersen had just two points and eight rebounds instead of his usual energizing performance off the bench. Anthony provided the lion's share of the offense, scoring 31 points, but went just 9-for-23 from the floor. That pales in comparison to the poor shooting of J.R. Smith, who was 1-for-10 from three-point range. Kleiza, who scored seven points in the second half to keep the Nuggets afloat for awhile, was the lone exception to a night of struggles for Denver. The talented Lakers played near their best Wednesday, and it seems the Nuggets can only hope L.A. can be lulled back into its frequent slumbers for two more nights.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Eastern Conference Finals Game 4

It seemed like, as it had all season, that LeBron was destined to come out on top. A phantom foul on Mickael Pietrus as he was guarding LeBron was followed by a no-call on Anderson Varejao as he kept Dwight Howard from the basket at the end of regulation Tuesday, but Howard responded by creating his own fate. He came out and made three dunks to begin overtime, scored 10 of his team-high 27 points in the extra period as Orlando took a 3-1 series lead on Cleveland with a 116-114 victory. Howard's block of LeBron's driving shot with 16 seconds to go was symbolic not just of the moment but the entire series. The Magic's superstar has been maligned during the playoffs for his disappearances at key moments and his complaints about not seeing enough shots, but came through in an overtime that put Orlando a game away from the Finals. Howard's frustrations have been well-documented, and continued as he was called for a technical foul in the third quarter that puts him one technical away from an automatic suspension. He shook it off in overtime, and now it is LeBron who has to wonder what more he has to do. He scored more than 40 points for the third time in the series, pouring in 41, and on all three occasions his team has lost. His teammates showed signs of breaking out of their collective slump, led by Mo Williams, who had 18 points through three quarters. Yet Williams did not score in the final 16 minutes of the game, and Delonte West, the team's third-leading scorer with 17, put up only four of those points in the fourth quarter. The bench broke its string of four straight single-digit scoring performances, but was still outscored 26-14. Pietrus outdid the Cleveland bench all by himself with 17 points, all while drawing the unenviable assignment of guarding LeBron. The five three-pointers Pietrus hit were impressive, but no one had a touch quite as fine as Rafer Alston did, hitting on six of 12 attempts from behind the arc for 26 points, a career playoff high. Alston's unexpected contributions exascerbated Cleveland's troubles on defense. The Magic shot 50 percent from the floor and 17-for-38 on three-point attempts while the Cavs went just 6-for-22 behind the arc. The defense and all-around contributions that made the Cavs so tough all year have deserted them at the worst time. They must perform a spectacular turnaround now to claim a spot in the Finals that seemed just a week ago to have already been theirs.

Western Conference Finals Game 4

This time, the Nuggets started and finished. Denver was done in by going nearly half the fourth quarter without a field goal in Game 3, but on Monday kept on scoring as seven players wound up in double-figures during a 120-101 victory that tied the Western Conference Finals at 2-2. The tightly called game resulted in 49 free throws for the Nuggets but only 38 for the Lakers, and Carmelo Anthony, in particular, took advantage. He was dealing with a stomach virus and suffered a sprained ankle in the first half, but mitigated a 3-for-16 shooting night with a 9-for-11 performance at the line for 15 points. It was nonetheless well below Anthony's average, so Billups, who was 9-for-9 at the line, and J.R. Smith, who nailed four of nine three-point attempts, filled in the gaps and scored 24 apiece. Denver's bench outscored L.A.'s 42-24, led by Smith and 10 points from Linas Kleiza, and the Nuggets pounded the Lakers on the boards, pulling down a 58-40 advantage. Kenyon Martin had 15 rebounds, Chris Andersen 14 and Nene 13, while Pau Gasol led the Lakers with just 10. Gasol and Andrew Bynum had an efficient night down low, with 21 points on 8-for-11 shooting for Gasol and 14 points on 6-for-7 from the field for Bynum. Kobe led all scorers with 34 points, but shot just 10-for-26 from the field and 2-for-10 from behind the arc. The struggles of Lamar Odom continued, as he shot 1-for-8 for five points and failed to score more than 10 points for the eighth game in a row, after averaging 17.8 points per game in the first round. The Lakers might be able to slip by the Nuggets if Odom doesn't become more productive, but they won't win a title. They'll do neither if they can't rebound or defend without fouling.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Eastern Conference Finals Game 3

The difference for the Cavs this year has been the improved play of the supporting cast around LeBron. Sunday it seemed as though Cleveland was stuck in a time warp, as LeBron nearly outscored all of his teammates put together in a 99-89 loss to Orlando that gives the Magic a 2-1 series lead. LeBron scored 41 to go with nine assists and seven rebounds, but the Cavs made just nine field goals that he neither scored nor assisted upon. Cleveland shot just 5-for-26 from behind the arc, and even LeBron was ice cold from long distance, going 1-for-8. The Magic wasn't stellar from the outside either, shooting just 35 percent from three-point range, but surprisingly attempted just 16 treys to Cleveland's 25. Orlando did much of its damage at the line, draining 39 of a strikingly high 51 free throws attempted. Dwight Howard had his own foul trouble, playing just 28 minutes, but made the most of them thanks to plenty of free throw attempts, going 14-for-19 at the line for a team-high 24 points. It was the first time Howard failed to pull down double-digit rebounds in the entire postseason, but his teammates pitched in to keep the Cavs' edge on the glass to just 42-40. Hedo Turkoglu had 10 boards, helping making up for atrocious 1-for-11 shooting from the floor. Rashard Lewis had a relatively quiet night, scoring 15 points, his lowest offensive output since the first round, and still the Magic came away with victory. Rafer Alston and Mickael Pietrus filled the offensive void, as Alston had the hot shooting hand early en route to 18 points while Pietrus scored 11 of his 16 in the second half. The real masterstroke was by Orlando's defense, which allowed Cleveland to shoot just 37 percent and were content to let LeBron try to play one-on-five. Mo Williams was the second leading scorer for the Cavs, with 15, and he shot just 5-for-16 from the floor. Delonte West, with 12, was the only other double-figure scorer. The Cleveland bench continued its struggles on the road, failing to score 10 points for the fourth straight game away from home. The Magic have taken the Cavs completely out of their offensive rhythm in a magnificient defensive display. Cleveland would have been down 0-3 if not for LeBron's buzzer-beater. They'll need a lot more than off-balance three-pointers to right themselves in a series that's been owned by the Magic.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Eastern Conferrence Finals Game 2

Hedo Turkoglu and Mo Williams came alive during the fourth quarter Friday, powering their teams' offenses. But when it came down to the final shot, Williams turned to the man who gets it done all the time for the Cavs, assisting LeBron for a three-pointer over the arms of Turkoglu that dropped in as time expired to give Cleveland a 95-95 victory in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Finals. LeBron's shot at the top of the key rescued the Cavs from what would have been a disastrous loss after blowing a 23-point lead. The Magic chipped away at that first-half deficit, finally tying the game with 6:13 to go on a 15-footer by Rashard Lewis, who once more proved difficult for the Cavs to contain and led the Magic with 23 points. Courtney Lee followed with a 10-footer at the 5:26 mark to give Orlando its first lead. The Cavs retook the lead on a Williams three-pointer about a minute later, and then Turkoglu, who scored eight of his 21 in the fourth quarter, hit a three-pointer to tie the game with 48 seconds left. Turkoglu's shot with less than a second to go gave Orlando what looked to be the winning 95-93 margin, but it instead merely set up another signature moment for LeBron. It was yet another high scoring night for LeBron, who had 35 points to go with five assists and four rebounds, and he was essentially the only scorer on the floor until Mo Williams scored nine of his 19 points in the final period. Delonte West added 12 points, and Zydrunas Ilgauskas had 12 as well, though his greatest contribution was on the boards, where he pulled down 15 rebounds. He was competitive with Dwight Howard all night as the Cavs refused to let Howard go off the way he did in the Magic's Game 1 victory. Howard followed up a 30-point night with just eight shots and 10 points to go with 18 rebounds. The frightening thing for the Cavs is they nearly lost even as they contained Howard. The Magic's psyche clearly took a hit on the buzzer-beater, but they have played the Cavs remarkably well on the road, and have a chance to take command of the series if they play just as well at home.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Western Conference Finals Game 2

1. Nuggets fans might want to play the number 16 in the lottery, as that number was central to some unexpected contributions and a comeback from their team in Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals. Kenyon Martin overcame a broken ring finger on his left hand to score 16 points, and Linas Kleiza provided the bench play Denver lacked in Game 1 with four made three-pointers and 16 points as the Nuggets erased a 16-point deficit in the first half Thursday to win 106-103. The other major scoring outputs for Denver came from more familiar sources. Carmelo Anthony scored at least 30 points for the fifth game in a row, with 34, and Chauncey Billups shook off the relative struggles of Game 1 to score 27. The Nuggets still must be troubled by J.R. Smith's continued cold shooting, as he went 1-for-6 for just three points. The Lakers have their own concerns about Derek Fisher, who lost his touch again after nailing three of six from behind the arc in Game 1, going 1-for-9 for three points Thursday. Kobe Bryant tried to make up for it with an efficient 20-shot, 32-point performance, while Trevor Ariza was a force on both ends, with 6-for-7 shooting and 20 points to go with four steals. Yet Ariza will rue his worst play of the night, when he tripped after caputuring a jump ball with the Lakers down two and 18 seconds to go, resulting in a turnover that led to game-clinching free throws by Billups. Each team can now say they've let a game get away, and it will be especially incumbent upon the Lakers to cut down on mistakes as they attempt to capture the next two games in Denver, where the Nuggets haven't lost in more than two months.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Eastern Conference Finals, Game 1

The Cavs are not invincible. Any team can be beaten if it gives up 55 percent shooting, and 45 percent shooting from behind the arc, as Cleveland did in only its second meaningful loss at home all season Tuesday, a 107-106 defeat at the hands of Orlando. That the Cavs came within in Mo Williams' prayer off a jump ball with a second to go despite playing such poor defense most of the night shows just how potent Cleveland is. LeBron had a magnificent night, scoring 49 points on 30 shots, dishing eight assists and pulling down six rebounds. It's not his fault Cleveland's interior players couldn't compete. Dwight Howard and Rashard Lewis outscored Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Anderson Varejao 52-24, led by Howard's 30 points and 13 rebounds. Lewis was 9-for-13 for 22 points and grabbed seven rebounds. Orlando's distributors were effective at feeding the post, as Orlando piled up 32 assists to Cleveland's 23. Hedo Turkoglu served up 14 assists and Rafer Alston had eight. The Magic had a much more productive bench as well, led by Mickael Pietrus with 13 points. The Cleveland reserves were outscored 25-5, with those five coming from Joe Smith. Wally Szczerbiak, Daniel Gibson and Ben Wallace went scoreless, as the Cavs struggled to find a complementary scorer for LeBron. Williams scored 17, including a three-pointer and the end of the half and another that gave Cleveland a lead with 2:04 to go, but it was not enough. The same goes for Delonte West, who nailed three treys but went just 4-for-13 for 11 points. The major problem the Cavs must address isn't on offense, of course. They have to improve their defense and particularly on the interior, where they can't allow Howard to have another huge scoring night. Friday night is suddenly even more important than it would have been, with Cleveland fighting to avoid a difficult 0-2 hole and Orlando seeking a knockout punch.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Three random observations ...

... about the NBA:

1. One man who has been there before doesn't quite stack up to a whole team with experience. That was the case Tuesday for Chauncey Billups and the Nuggets, who fell to a Lakers team that exhibited more poise under pressure late in a 105-103 L.A. win in the first game of the Western Conference Finals. The Nuggets held a four point lead with 3:25 to go after Carmelo Anthony scored his 39th point. Kobe Bryant responded with a long two-point jumper, and after Pau Gasol blocked a Nene layup, Bryant tossed out of the double team to an open Derek Fisher, who hit his third game-changing three-pointer of the night to give the Lakers the lead. Billups responded with a three-pointer of his own to give the lead back to Denver. Consecutive fouls led to four points at the free throw line for L.A., and a two-point Laker lead. Trevor Ariza then stole Anthony Carter's inbounds pass, and two more three throws made it a two-possession game. Billups followed with another three-pointer to cut it to one, but with three seconds and no timeouts, it was too late for the Nuggets. Billups, who had 18 points and eight assists, couldn't single-handedly beat the Lakers as Anthony and the rest of the team lost its head down the stretch. Kenyon Martin made an unexpected offensive contribution with 15 points, but committed a unnecessary foul on Kobe that sent him to the line in a tie game with 30 seconds to go. Nene had a healthy output with 14 points on 6-for-9 shooting, but fouled out with 1:14 to play. The Nuggets bench, one of the team's greatest strengths, was outscored 27-16 as J.R. Smith struggled to find his shot on an eight-point night. The Lakers seemed one-dimensional in the box score, but Kobe's 40 points for once did not indicate a lack of involvement from the rest of the team. Fisher had 13 clutch point, and Pau Gasol had a double-double with 13 points and 14 rebounds. Six Lakers made at least one shot from the floor off the bench, and five made at least one three-pointer on a night when the Lakers shot 11-for-25 from behind the arc. Denver actually held an advantage from the floor, as the Nuggets shot 49 percent to 41 percent for the Lakers, but L.A. made up for it with outside shooting, a 46-37 rebounding edge, and at the line. Denver shot just 23-35, or 66 percent, on free throws, and even the normally straight-shooting Billups missed three of nine foul shots. The savvy Lakers were able to steal a game Tuesday, and the Nuggets can only blame themselves for a loss that may haunt them all summer.

2. The Kings are kicking themselves, too. They had the worst record in the NBA, but fell to fourth in the draft order after the lottery Tuesday. The L.A. Clippers won, meaning they'll likely be selecting Blake Griffin of Oklahoma first overall. There's a dropoff in talent after Griffin in what's generally hailed as a weak draft class, so the Kings and the Wizards, who had the second-worst record but fell to fifth place in the lottery, are clear losers. The Thunder, a team that looks poised to take a leap with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, moved up a spot, which can only improve Oklahoma City's chances of making the playoffs next year. The Grizzlies, another team with young stars in place, should get better after picking second this year. But no team got luckier than the Clippers, a franchise that could use luck and a little direction, too. Griffin would prompt the team to move some of its frontcourt parts, nearly all of which were on the shelf with injury at one point during their dreadful 2008-09 season. The draft isn't until June 25, of course, so there's more than a month for the Clippers to change course and decide against Griffin and instead take the next Michael Olowokandi, the bust of a No. 1 pick whom the Clippers selected the last time they won the lottery.

3. We're changing the format a little bit down the stretch here. With only one game a night for the duration of the season, we'll focus on that contest, and instead of breaking everything into three separate entries, we'll just have one "observation" (though really the observations include more than just a single thought). The exception will be when league news prompts another entry or two. So let's enjoy what should be an intriguing final two rounds, with either Kobe versus LeBron or an upset on the way.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Conference Finals previews

No one would have given the Nuggets much of a chance against the Lakers when the playoffs began. The clubs have since taken divergent paths, with Denver cruising to easy five-game victories over New Orleans and Dallas while L.A. looked out of sorts in seven games against Houston following a first-round dismissal of Utah. The point guard matchup, perhaps more so than any other, inspires confidence in those who are now calling for a Denver upset. Chauncey Billups has been magnificent, averaging 22.1 points, 7.3 assists and a startling 54 percent on three-point attempts in the playoffs. The Lakers have meanwhile struggled to find the right mix from their trio of Derek Fisher, Jordan Farmar and Shannon Brown. That's hardly true at the other guard spot, where Kobe is averaging 27 points, five rebounds and 4.5 assists in 12 postseason games. He scored 40 in Game 2 against Houston but just 14 in Game 7 as he focused his attention on getting his teammates involved, a key assignment for him moving forward. Dahntay Jones has the unenviable task of trying to slow Kobe, though any success in that endeavor will go far to cement Jones' reputation as a premier perimeter defender. The same goes for Trevor Ariza. His job will be guarding Carmelo Anthony, whose playoff averages of 27 points, 6.4 rebounds and 4.3 assists compare favorably to Kobe's. The Lakers are likely to go with Pau Gasol at power forward and Andrew Bynum starting at center, meaning Denver's Kenyon Martin, known for his athleticism and interior defense, will have his hands full against the long, agile Gasol. Bynum struggled mightily against Utah, losing his starting job, but he regained it when Lamar Odom sustained a back injury against Houston, and is coming off his best performance of the playoffs in Game 7. Bynum is an X-factor, but so is Nene, who was known primarily for injuries and inconsistency until this season, continuing his evolution in the playoffs with six double-figure scoring games. Odom and the Nuggets' Chris Andersen give each team energy off the bench, and while the Birdman is hot, Odom is more experienced and a better all-around threat. The greatest difference maker in reserve for Denver is J.R. Smith, who has averaged 16.3 points a game of instant offense. The Lakers don't have anyone of Smith's caliber on their bench, but they have plenty of bodies, including the efficient Luke Walton, streak shooting Sasha Vujacic, and whichever two point guards don't start. Steady Anthony Carter is the backup point guard for Denver, which really goes only eight deep, though Linas Kleiza makes an occasional cameo to provide the team with an additional shooter. The Lakers play 10 men, with Josh Powell able to step into the post if needed. Both benches are among the game's best, though L.A. can only lay that claim if Odom isn't starting. Denver has the more consistent rotation, and it's clear the entire team is in rhythm. They can defend and score, but so can the Lakers, who, for all their troubles, still have the more talented team. They've got homecourt advantage, too, and they're going to need it, given Denver's newfound enthusiasm for their team, which hasn't lost at home in more than two months. It will be a lot more competitive than anyone might have thought when the playoffs began, but Kobe, the best player on either team, will not be denied a shot at another title. Prediction: Lakers in 7.

Schedule (all times Eastern)
Game 1 - Tue May 19 Denver at L.A. Lakers 9 p.m. ESPN
Game 2 - Thu May 21 Denver at L.A. Lakers 9 p.m. ESPN
Game 3 - Sat May 23 L.A. Lakers at Denver 8:30 p.m. ABC
Game 4 - Mon May 25 L.A. Lakers at Denver 9 p.m. ESPN
Game 5 * Wed May 27 Denver at L.A. Lakers 9 p.m. ESPN
Game 6 * Fri May 29 L.A. Lakers at Houston 9 p.m. ESPN
Game 7 * Sun May 31 Houston at L.A. Lakers 8:30 p.m. ABC

Los Angeles Lakers
PG Derek Fisher
SG Kobe Bryant
SF Trevor Ariza
PF Pau Gasol
C Andrew Bynum
F Lamar Odom
PG Jordan Farmar
G Sasha Vujacic
G Shannon Brown
SF Luke Walton
PF Josh Powell
C D.J. Mbenga

Denver Nuggets
PG Chauncey Billups
SG Dahntay Jones
SF Carmelo Anthony
PF Kenyon Martin
C Nene
SG J.R. Smith
F Linas Kleiza
PG Anthony Carter
PF Chris Andersen
C/F Johan Petro
F Renaldo Balkman
PG Jason Hart

The King finally has a worthy challenger to his throne. LeBron and the Cavs have cruised to eight consecutive double-digit victories to begin the playoffs against clearly inferior competition. The Magic, who won 59 games in the regular season, represent a clear step up, but whether they'll be able to get any closer to knocking off Cleveland than the Pistons or Hawks did is another matter. The Magic will no doubt be using an array of defenders on LeBron, who is the leading scorer in the playoffs with 32.9 points per game, to go along with 9.8 rebounds and 6.8 assists. Hedo Turkoglu, Rashard Lewis, J.J. Redick, Mickael Pietrus and Courtney Lee are all liable to wind up on King James before the series is through. That leaves plenty of open shots for guards Mo Williams and Delonte West if the Magic choose to double-team, and that could widen the advantages Cleveland already has at the guard positions. Williams, at 14.8 points and 4.5 assists per game for the playoffs, is another tough matchup for Orlando's Rafer Alston, who just got done dealing with the toughness and savvy of Andre Miller and the speed and skill of Rajon Rondo. Williams is a much better shooter than those two, so it's yet another defensive adjustment. West has thrived this season after being switched to shooting guard, and is coming off a 21-point performance in Game 4 against Atlanta. He has a clear advantage over Redick, if Orlando coach Stan Van Gundy stays with the shooter, and would likely hold an edge over Lee or Pietrus if there's a change in the Magic's starting lineup. Orlando's meal ticket is in the paint, where Rashard Lewis will be a tough cover for Anderson Varejao, who isn't used to playing on the outside as much as Lewis likes, and at center, where Dwight Howard has, despite his up-and-down involvement on offense, averaged 16.6 rebounds a game. Zydrunas Ilgauskas isn't the kind of player Howard is, but he's still one of the better centers in the league, and has the size and offensive skill set to at least make the matchup competitive. The Magic's bench could keep the series interesting as well, particularly if Redick can hold onto the starting two-guard spot and the hot-shooting Pietrus can remain with the second unit. Lee is a multi-dimensional scorer who can provide punch off the bench as well. Anthony Johnson is a solid, experienced backup point guard, while reserve power forward Tony Battie is a competent scorer in the post and Marcin Gortat is shooting 71 percent as Howard's backup center. Cleveland's bench has struggled, particularly away from home, nearly coughing up a big lead to Detroit in Game 3 and following with combined totals of 13, seven and eight points in the next three road games. Power forward Joe Smith and swingman Wally Szczerbiak have been the best of a motley bunch, though it's unfair to count center Ben Wallace's production by offensive numbers. Daniel Gibson's shooting has been missing, and Sasha Pavlovic has done little to recall his days as a starter. This trend will have to continue for Orlando to prevail, as will the resurgent play of Hedo Turkoglu, who's coming off of 25 points and 12 assists in Game 7. Otherwise, the Magic have no shot. Prediction: Cavs in 5.

Game 1 - Wed May 20 Orlando at Cleveland 8:30 p.m. TNT
Game 2 - Fri May 22 Orlando at Cleveland 8:30 p.m. TNT
Game 3 - Sun May 24 Cleveland at Orlando 8:30 p.m. TNT
Game 4 - Tue May 26 Cleveland at Orlando 8:30 p.m. TNT
Game 5 * Thu May 28 Orlando at Cleveland 8:30 TNT
Game 6 * Sat May 30 Cleveland at Orlando 8:30 TNT
Game 7 * Mon June 1 Orlando at Cleveland 8:30 TNT

Cleveland Cavaliers
PG Mo Williams
SG Delonte West
SF LeBron James
PF Anderson Varejao
C Zydrunas Ilgauskas
F/C Joe Smith
G/F Wally Szczerbiak
F/C Ben Wallace
G Daniel Gibson
F/C Darnell Jackson
SG Sasha Pavlovic
SG Tarence Kinsey
PF J.J. Hickson (back, out indefinitely)

Orlando Magic
PG Rafer Alston
SG J.J. Redick
SF Hedo Turkoglu
PF Rashard Lewis
C Dwight Howard
G/F Mickael Pietrus
SG Courtney Lee
PG Anthony Johnson
C Marcin Gortat
F/C Tony Battie
PG Tyronn Lue
C Adonal Foyle
SG Jeremy Richardson
PG Jameer Nelson (separated shoulder, out)

Monday, May 18, 2009

Three random observations ...

... about the NBA:

1. Hedo Turkoglu is known as a late-game player. He also appears to be a late-season player. Turkoglu shook off the struggles that had plagued him for months to show signs of life early in the series against the Celtics, and came back after a 3-for-13 clunker in Game 6 to deliver his finest performance since February on Sunday when the Magic really needed him in Game 7. He hit on nine of 12 shots, including a 4-for-5 performance from three-point range, to score 25 points to go along with a playoff career high 12 assists as the Magic won Game 7 in Boston to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals. Turkoglu had it going throughout the game, with 10 points in the first half and a three-point dagger with 3:55 to go that answered a Ray Allen trey and put the Magic up by 15. Allen was Boston's leading scorer with 23 points on 9-for-18 shooting, but everyone around him was flat. Paul Pierce had 16 points but went 4-for-13 from the field, Glen Davis only got seven shots off for 13 points, and Rajon Rondo went 4-for-10 for 10 points. Orlando outscored the Celtics 25-12 off the bench, as Mickael Pietrus sizzled in his 24 minutes of play, shooting 6-for-7 and making all three of his shots behind the arc for 17 points. Rashard Lewis went just 5-for-14, but went to the line 10 times and wound up with 19 points. Rafer Alston had 15 points, and Dwight Howard was just the fifth leading scorer on the team, struggling with foul trouble and taking just nine shots for 12 points. Howard couldn't complain about the lack of shots this time, though, given all the other hot hands on the team, and he still made his presence felt on the boards, where he had a game-high 16 rebounds, and on defense, with five blocks. The Magic became a much better defensive team after being eliminated in the second round last year, and it was the defense, which held Boston to 32 percent shooting and 4-for-16 from three-point territory, that lifted Orlando past the conference semifinals this year. The Celtics, who played so valiantly without Kevin Garnett, can simply hope Garnett, Pierce and Allen can avoid breaking down next year, and that their young players continue to improve so they can return to championship contention in 2010.

2. The Lakers, who have squeezed in as many naps as possible in these playoffs, finally kept their hands off the snooze bar Sunday. The post players for L.A., and in particular the long-slumbering Andrew Bynum, finally took control as they should have much earlier against the depleted Houston interior in an 89-70 Game 7 victory that did away with the pesky Rockets. Bynum hit on six of seven field goal attempts and scored 14 points, while Pau Gasol had game highs in points, with 21, and rebounds, with 18. The Lakers held a 55-33 advantage on the boards, as shooting guard Ron Artest led Houston with eight rebounds. The attention to defense was the key for the normally offensive-minded Lakers. The Rockets shot just 37 percent, and though Aaron Brooks, who has averaged 24.7 points in his last three games, was again the leading scorer, the Lakers held him to 4-for-13 from the floor and 13 points. Luis Scola, another difference maker from Game 6, endured a 4-for-12 shooting performance for just 11 points. The reserve backcourt of Von Wafer and Kyle Lowry combined for 18 points, but with Carl Landry going 2-for-10, the bench couldn't keep Houston in the game. Kobe Bryant, who has mostly looked to score during the playoffs, played a facilitator's role Sunday, taking just 12 shots for 14 points while dishing out a team-high five assists and grabbing seven rebounds. Kobe's conscious deferrment to his teammates may be what the Lakers need to get going as the competition gets tougher against the Nuggets in the Western Conference Finals. The Rockets, as hard as they fought without Yao Ming, Dikembe Mutombo and Tracy McGrady, had no business taking L.A. to a seventh game. Many questons face the Houston franchise this offseason, but the answer the Lakers must deliver is whether they can learn from the fevered intensity the Rockets have shown.

3. I reviewed my predictions after the first round, so let's see how I fared in the conference semis. I had the Lakers in seven, believing the Lakers would struggle as they did against the Rockets, though I surely wouldn't have made the same call if I knew Yao would miss more than half the series. The Nuggets won in five and I had them winning in six, but I could have been dead on if not for the non-call on Antoine Wright that led to Carmelo Anthony's three-pointer at the end of Game 3. I called for the Celtics to prevail in seven, which looked like a winner until Hedo Turkoglu materialized when I least expected him to and the Magic regrouped to steal Game 7 on the road. I underestimated the Cavs, daring to think they could lose a game against Atlanta by picking them to win in five when they instead made it consecutive sweeps to start the playoffs. So I nailed only one of the series after picking four of eight on the nose in the first round, but picked three of four winners this time while coming within a game of perfection in each of the three series I missed. I'll take it, and move on to the conference finals, with previews and predictions Tuesday before Game 1 between the Nuggets and Lakers.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Three random observations ...

... about the NBA:

1. No one gets up off the mat quite like these Houston Rockets. And no one has more egregious lapses than the Lakers. The Rockets responded to a 40-point blowout in Game 5 by evening up their Western Conference Semifinals at 3-3 Thursday with a wire-to-wire 95-80 victory over L.A. It's the second time in three outings the Lakers have trailed the entire game after holding a lead at some point in every game all season. The Rockets ran out to a 21-3 lead, and kept the Lakers at arm's length the rest of the way. L.A. came within two points in the third quarter after Houston started 1-for-7 coming out of the half, but Carl Landry converted a three-point play to re-energize the Rockets, whose lead was back to nine by the end of the period. Landry was a catalyst off the bench with 15 points on perfect 6-for-6 shooting and nine rebounds, helping the depleted Houston front line dominate in an area where the Lakers are supposed to have an advantage. Luis Scola had 24 points and 12 rebounds while Pau Gasol had 14 points and 11 rebounds, Andrew Bynum went scoreless with seven rebounds in 19 minutes, and Lamar Odom had eight points and 14 rebounds off the bench. The lack of production from the L.A. post players represented more yeoman's defensive work from 6-foot-6 Chuck Hayes, who once more started at center. It was the even smaller Aaron Brooks who carried the day for the Rockets, going 8-for-13 from the floor and nailing three of four attempts from behind the arc for a team-high 26 points. His production has been the barometer for the Rockets all series, as he's scored 19 points or better in three wins and 14 or fewer in three losses. It's his hot shooting and ability to penetrate that allows Houston to shoot high percentages, as they did Thursday with their 51 percent showing from the floor on Thursday, and negate the offensive production of Kobe. The Rockets defense kept Kobe relatively in check as well, as he scored 32 points, but took 27 shots to get there, and the rest of the Lakers struggled to get going on a 36 percent shooting night. The lone bright spot was the play of Jordan Farmar, who has been reinvigorated since starting for the suspended Derek Fisher in Game 3. Farmar was one of just three double figure scorers for L.A. with 13 points on 5-for-10 shooting, while Fisher struggled to 1-for-7 shooting for two points. Don't be surprised to see Farmar inserted back into the starting lineup for Game 7. The Lakers can use any spark they can get right now.

2. Point taken from Dwight Howard. The Magic fed their superstar big man early, and he wound up with 23 points on 16 shots in Game 6 Thursday instead of the 12 points on 10 shots he had in Game 5. Yet the Magic kept going to a hot hand whose success is just as critical, giving Rashard Lewis 18 shots for 20 points in an 83-75 Orlando victory that evens the Eastern Conference Semifinal series at 3-3. Lewis has been able to exploit the mismatch he has with Glen Davis and Brian Scalabrine on the offensive end the entire series, so he continues to get the looks, and together with the involvement of Howard, who yanked down 22 rebounds, the Magic controlled the interior. The inside production was critical, because Hedo Turkoglu returned to his cold-shooting ways after an 18-point Game 5, struggling through a 3-for-13, seven-point performance Thursday. The starting backcourt of J.J. Redick, who was 0-for-7 for two points, and Rafer Alston struggled as well, until Alston nailed a go-ahead three-pointer with 4:01 left and sank a tear drop with 1:52 to go to finish with 11 points and give the Magic a three-point lead. Turkoglu followed with his lone highlight, a dagger of a trey that put Orlando up six with 1:23 to go. The Magic nonetheless wound up with just 37 percent shooting, enough only because Boston committed 22 turnovers to just 10 for Orlando. Rajon Rondo and Kendrick Perkins were the major culprit for the Celtics, giving away the ball five times each despite major production in other areas. Rondo went for 19 points, a team-high 16 rebounds and six assists while Perkins had 15 points and 10 rebounds. Paul Pierce scored 17 points and had nine rebounds, but the rest of the team struggled, and in particular Ray Allen, who was without his shot for the second straight game, going just 2-for-11 for five points. The Celtics need Allen to find some way to contribute in Game 7, just like the Magic need more out of their shooters. Orlando may insert Mickael Pietrus for Redick, while Boston's reserves will be asked to get it done off the bench, just as they did in Game 7 against Chicago.

3. Commissioner David Stern held court Thursday in Houston before Game 6 between the Rockets and Lakers, and it appears he, too, has concerns the right calls aren't always being made by the officials. He reiterated his desire for 100 percent accuracy, and said he'd be in favor of expanding the replay system to include a coach's challenge system like the one the NFL has. It's unclear whether such a system would have allowed Dallas coach Rick Carlisle to challenge the non-call on Antoine Wright that led to Carmelo Anthony's game-winner in the Mavs-Nuggets series, but it's clear the league must move in that direction. The spectre of the Tim Donaghy scandal still looms over the league and its officials, who continue to be perceived as, at best, incompetent, and at worst, criminally so. Any effort to make the outcome of games as clear and indisputable as possible is the correct one for the NBA right now, as is the further definition of flagrant and technical fouls. Stern said he won't loosen the reigns on the league's penalties for such transgressions, but the man who metes out most of the punishment, Stu Jackson, is open to more communication about just what the rules are. Players, coaches, fans and apparently officials could all benefit from greater clarity, as the ejections, suspensions and spectre of suspensions stemming from the violation of these loosely defined rules have been major stories in the playoffs. Stern draw the line wherever he wants, but he has to tell everyone where it is first.

4. A special note here to pass along the news that the NBA has lost another of its most intriguing figures to cancer. Wayman Tisdale, who provided size and offense off the bench for Indiana and Phoenix and was a 20-point scorer for Sacramento in the 1980s and '90s, died Friday morning at the age of 44. Tisdale was a force in college ball at Oklahoma, and was inducted into the College Basketball Hall of Fame, and after his 12 years in the NBA recorded eight albums, achieving a second fame as a jazz bass guitarist. A bone cancer diagnosis led to the amputation of his right leg in 2008, and disease continued to consume Tisdale. He received an award from the Greenwood Cultural Center in his native Tulsa, Okla., but appeared at the ceremony 30 pounds lighter than usual and in a wheelchair after battling acute esophagitis, which kept him from swallowing. He nonetheless had a 21-date concert tour scheduled for this spring and summer. His death comes on the heels of Chuck Daly's passing this weekend. Let's hope this is the last such news for awhile.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Three random observations ...

... about the NBA:

1. It's all falling apart for the Orlando Magic. They were a buzzer-beater away from a 3-1 lead Sunday, but now find themselves trailing 3-2 after blowing a 14-point fourth quarter lead Tuesday in a 92-88 defeat to Boston. Coach Stan Van Gundy blamed himself for poor defensive strategy on the Glen Davis basket that beat them in Game 4, and Van Gundy drew more than just self-criticism after Game 5. Dwight Howard said after taking just 10 shots in Tuesday's game that the team must do a better job of getting the ball to him. He appears to have a point, since it's tough to win if the best player on the floor is an afterthought on offense. It's been this way for the entire series. Howard, Hedo Turkoglu and Rashard Lewis shared the ball and took 14 shots apiece in Game 4. Howard was limited to eight shots because of foul trouble in Game 3, and took one fewer shot than Lewis in Game 2. Howard took 12 shots in Game 1, fourth most on the team. Yet Howard can only blame himself for his struggles on the boards after the first quarter, when he pulled down nine of his 17 rebounds. The Celtics as a team held a 42-39 advantage on the boards, as everyone in the starting lineup for Boston, except Ray Allen, had at least seven rebounds. The Magic were done in by their inability to pull down a rebound in the final minute, allowing Boston to keep the ball for a 54-second stretch until Eddie House made two free throws for an 88-85 Boston lead. The Celtics got to the free throw line more often than the Magic, and took full advantage, sticking all 21 of their shots. Davis, in further evidence of his arrival, was the leading scorer with 22 points, outplaying the man to whom he was assigned, Rashard Lewis, the Magic's leading scorer with 18 points. Paul Pierce had a relatively quiet scoring night but nearly came away with a triple-double in a 19-point, nine-rebound, eight-assist performance. Stephon Marbury added 12 points, all of which came in the early part of the fourth quarter to keep Boston afloat. Now it's the Magic who must quickly reconcile differences and use the weapons they have to avoid being sunk.

2. The Rockets stunned the Lakers in Game 4 without Yao Ming, but continuing to get abberationally great performances from supporting players is no reliable way to win a series. That was clear Tuesday as the Lakers and their superior talent took control in a 118-78 rout that puts L.A. up 3-2 in the series. Lamar Odom played limited minutes for the Lakers after injuring his back on a hard fall in Game 4, but even so, the Lakers displayed superior athleticism and dominated every phase of the game. The outside shooting that was such an important factor for the Rockets on Sunday was absent Tuesday, when they shot 5-for-29 from behind the arc. Ron Artest's shooting woes continue, as he went 4-for-15 and 1-for-7 from three-point range to score just nine points. Aaron Brooks was once more the leading scorer for Houston, but his 14 in Game 5 was well off his career-high 34 from Game 4. The Lakers had seven scorers in double figures, led by Kobe's 26, and made the most of 18 Rocket giveaways, scoring 24 points off turnovers. The Rockets had just 10 points of 13 turnovers by L.A. The major disparity was in field goal percentage, as the Lakers shot 51 percent while the Rockets made just 32 percent of their attempts from the floor. It was a reversal, and then some, from the last time out. The Rockets, with their limited personell, will be hard-pressed to turn the series another 180 degrees in Game 6.

3. Here is the schedule for the next few days:
Wednesday, May 13
Dallas at Denver, Game 5, 9 p.m. TNT
Thursday, May 14
Boston at Orlando, Game 6, 7 p.m. ESPN
L.A. Lakers at Houston, Game 6, 9:30 p.m. ESPN
Friday, May 15
Denver at Dallas, Game 6, if necessary, TBA ESPN
Sunday, May 17
Orlando at Boston, Game 7, if necessary, TBA TNT
Houston at L.A. Lakers, Game 7, if necessary, TBA TBA
Dallas at Denver, Game 7, if necessary, TBA TBA