Thursday, April 30, 2009

Three random observations ...

... about the NBA:

Before we get started, here's the schedule for the next couple of days:

Boston at Chicago, Game 6, 7 p.m. TNT
Orlando at Philadelphia, Game 6, 7:30 p.m. NBATV
Portland at Houston, Game 6, 9:30 p.m. TNT
Miami at Atlanta, Game 6, 8 p.m. ESPN

1. The Heat-Hawks series is beginning to take on the look of a Heat-Knicks series from about 10 years ago. The slugfest, which had already seen the injury of both starting small forwards, sent two players to the locker room prematurely Wednesday, though one of them, Dwyane Wade, returned after taking a blow to the head. The other, Al Horford, left with a sprained right ankle in the second quarter and didn't come back. The Hawks had a 55-35 lead at the time of his exit and were never seriously challenged in a 106-91 victory. Joe Johnson was a major reason why, enjoying his best game of the series, scoring 25 points to go with six assists and six rebounds. He essentially matched the performance of Dwyane Wade, who shook off an 0-for-4 start, his head's painful meeting with the hardwood after a collision with Josh Smith, and an aching back. Wade had 29 points, four rebounds and four assists, but didn't receive the kind of help Johnson had. Three Hawks scored 20 points or more, including Johnson, Smith, who had 20 points, eight rebounds and four assists, and Flip Murray off the bench, who had 23 points and five rebounds. Atlanta claimed a 37-29 rebounding advantage even with Horford for the entire second half, as Jermaine O'Neal, who had been playing so well for much of the series, went to sleep inside. He scored just two of his 14 after halftime and pulled down a total of just three rebounds. The Heat will need him to wake up early for Game 6, when each team will need to get the most out of the healthy players it has left.

2. Chauncey Billups was the pre-eminent figure in Games 1 and 2, but by the end of the Hornets-Nuggets series, Carmelo Anthony had affixed his star squarely on Denver's first playoff series win in 15 years. Anthony scored 13 of his 34 points in the third quarter as the Nuggets used a 14-0 run to blow open what had been a tie game at the half and close out a 4-1 series victory with a 107-86 win. Anthony caught fire at about the same time J.R. Smith began launching and hitting from three-point range. Smith hit 5-for-8 from long range en route to 20 points off the bench, padding a 51 percent shooting night. The Hornets, in contrast, shot just 38 percent on a rough night for their backcourt. Chris Paul dished out 10 assists but shot just 5-for-16 for 12 points, while Rasual Butler was 0-for-4 from behind the arc and 3-for-11 total on a seven-point night. That negated a 24-point, nine-rebound performance by David West and a too-little, too-late appearance by offseason acquisition James Posey, who had 18 points off the bench. Tyson Chandler was out with swelling in his troublesome left ankle, but his absence seemed strictly academic. The Hornets were able to muster some pride after a record-tying 58-point loss in Game 4, but it was clear this group was done. They've already tried to dump Chandler, but that same ankle got in the way, so expect plenty of other parts to change, including coach Byron Scott. The Nuggets want nothing to change heading into their series with the Mavs, which should be an interesting clash of teams on a roll.

3. The Nuggets and Mavs appear an even match for the Western Conference Semifinals. Each team ended the regular season on a roll and carried that momentum into 4-1 series victories in the playoffs. The Mavs have followed their formula for victory, surrounding Dirk Nowitzki with enough scoring help to overwhelm defenses, while the Nuggets have alternated scoring explosions from Carmelo Anthony, Chauncey Billups and J.R. Smith to post 49 percent shooting, the highest for any team in the playoffs. The Nuggets also gave up 39.6 percent shooting, a playoff low, although a 58-point blowout over a team in disarray like the Hornets is bound to skew some numbers. Still, its significant that while Dallas shot 46.3 percent, the Spurs shot nearly as well, which serves notice that Dallas will have trouble stopping Denver. The personnel matchups paint a somewhat different picture. Chauncey Billups doesn't have nearly the acceleration and quickness of Tony Parker and is similar stylistically to Jason Kidd, though Kidd doesn't have nearly the shooting touch Billups does. It will be interesting to see how George Karl and Rick Carlisle, two coaches who know how to set up a defense, use their wing players. The assumption is Dahntay Jones will slide over to guard Josh Howard, though that would leave Carmelo Anthony to track down the much smaller J.J. Barea. When Jason Terry comes in the game, though, Jones will probably be assigned to him. The onus will be on Howard to stop Anthony, which is asking a lot, unless Carlisle slides Dirk Nowitzki over from power forward, since Kenyon Martin isn't that much of a scoring threat at this stage of his career aside from offensive rebounds and putbacks. Erick Dampier will have to keep Nene from finding his scoring groove at center, but rebounding will be the key for both. The teams had two of the top three scoring benches in the league during the regular season, led by Smith and Terry,and it will be a pitched battle between Chris Anderson and Brandon Bass inside. Ultimately, the Nuggets' superior size may become the key issue unless Dallas can speed up the tempo. History does not bode well for a team looking to push the pace in the playoffs. Prediction: Nuggets in 6.

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

Dallas Mavericks
PG Jason Kidd
SG J.J. Barea
SF Josh Howard
PF Dirk Nowitzki
C Erick Dampier
SG Jason Terry
F/C Brandon Bass
SG Antoine Wright
PF James Singleton
G/F Gerald Green
SG Matt Carroll
C Ryan Hollins
SF Devean George

Game 1 - Sun May 3 Dallas at Denver 3:30PM ABC
Game 2 - Tue May 5 Dallas at Denver 10:30PM TNT
Game 3 - Sat May 9 Denver at Dallas 5PM ESPN
Game 4 - Mon May 11 Denver at Dallas 9:30PM TNT
Game 5 * Wed May 13 Dallas at Denver TBD TNT
Game 6 * Fri May 15 Denver at Dallas TBD ESPN
Game 7 * Sun May 17 Dallas at Denver TBD TBD

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Three random observations ...

... about the NBA:

1. Sometimes, when a couple of guys on a championship team decide they want to win, nothing can stop them. Rajon Rondo and Paul Pierce simply refused to go down Tuesday, powering Boston back from an 11-point fourth-quarter deficit to win 106-104 in the third overtime game of the series. The Celtics lead 3-2 because Rondo and Pierce scored 27 of the last 40 points for Boston, including Pierce's 15-footer to send the game to overtime and his eerily similar 20-footer to win it. He finished with 26 points and seven rebounds, while Rajon Rondo continued his remarkable play in the series, coming close to his third triple-double with 28 points, 11 assists and eight rebounds. The Bulls simply couldn't stop Rondo's penetration, which allowed the Celtics to have score nearly twice as many points in the paint. It is particularly remarkable that the Celtics won on a night when their bench only gave them five points and Ray Allen scored only 10. Glen Davis had his shooting touch, going 7-for-11 for 21 points and six rebounds, while Kendrick Perkins was a beast inside, scoring 16 points and grabbing 19 rebounds. Yet the Celtics were outrebounded 50-44, and Davis and Perkins were the only real help Pierce and Rondo had all night. The Bulls simply didn't get as many opportunities as Rondo was able to create for Boston, and a couple of Chicago's primary scoring weapons suffered through a tough shooting night. Ben Gordon went just 6-for-21 and John Salmons was 5-for-15. Gordon wound up with a team-high 26 points because he went 11-for-12 from the line, but one wonders if he could have had more if his strained left hamstring were fully healthy. The Bulls can wonder about what would have happened if a flagrant foul had been called on Rajon Rondo for his arm to the face on Brad Miller at the end of the game, too. But the series is not yet done, and they can do more than just ruminate Thursday in Game 6.

2. The Magic claimed the series advantage against the Sixers with a 91-78 win Tuesday in Game 5, but they may have lost as much as they gained. Dwight Howard had a phenomenal 24-point, 24-rebound game, but could be suspended for Game 6 because of an elbow he delivered to Samuel Dalembert in the first quarter. That was shortly before Howard inadvertently struck Courtney Lee in the head, a blow that forced Lee out for the rest of the night and could keep him out indefinitely. Hedo Turkoglu, who saved Orlando in Game 4, faded back into his late-season shooting woes, going 3-for-14 from the floor for nine points. Turkoglu's struggles made Howard's impressive double-double even more so. He was one of only three Magic players in double figures in any category. Rashard Lewis had by far his best shooting night of the playoffs so far, canning 9-for-16 from the field and 3-for-5 from behind the arc. Rafer Alston went toe-to-toe with Andre Miller, scoring 14 while dishing out four assists versus just one turnover. Miller had 17 points, six assists and four steals, while the Sixers were led by Andre Iguodala's 26 points. Willie Green added 16 points, but Philadelphia struggled to get scoring from everyone else, as the bench only chipped in six points. The major difference was on the boards, where once more Howard was the key in a 45-33 rebounding advantage for the Magic. Just about everyone in Magic blue will have to come up with a superhuman performance if Superman is unavailable Thursday.

3. It just wasn't happening for the Spurs this year, and Dallas made that abundantly clear in their first-round series. The normally ironclad San Antonio defense was a sieve, allowing 51 percent shooting and 10-for-20 from behind the arc Tuesday as the Mavs closed out a 4-1 series victory with a 106-93 win in Game 5. Six Mavs wound up in double-figures, none as prolific as Dirk Nowitzki, who had 31 points and nine rebounds. That Dallas was able to get at least competent support for their superstar was key to beating a team that was down to a one-two punch but little else. Tim Duncan had 30 points and eight rebounds, and Tony Parker put up 26 points and 12 assists, but that was about it. The Spurs shot a slightly better percentage from the field, but made just 3-for-16 from three-point range, negating the advantage. The series simply reinforces the importance of Manu Ginobili, and serves notice that the Mavs aren't too far removed from leading 2-0 in the 2006 Finals and the best record in the 2006-07 season. The top three weapons for Dallas, Nowitzki, Josh Howard and Jason Terry, remain from those teams. Don't rule out another deep run from this group.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Three random observations ...

... about the NBA:

1. The Hawks and Heat are just four games into the playoffs, but attrition has already set in. Both teams were missing their power forwards Monday, Marvin Williams out with a sprained right wrist for Atlanta and Jamario Moon strained a lower abdominal muscle for Miami. Dwyane Wade was hobbled by a sore back and what appeared to be a variety of other ailments in the second half, and struggled to a 9-for-26 shooting performance. Yet the Heat can't lay the blame on Wade, or Moon's absence for that matter, for their 81-71 loss that allowed Atlanta to pull even at two games apiece. Any team that shoots 38 percent, gets outrebounded 40-33 and gets a puny two points from its bench is bound to fail. Daequan Cook went scoreless in 23 minutes of play, Michael Beasley hit two free throws in 10 minutes and Yakhouba Diawara didn't attempt a shot in his six-minute appearance. The Heat's offensive woes extended to its starters, as Udonis Haslem went 2-for-8 for just four points and Mario Chalmers had four points and a single assist in 38 minutes. All of the offense came from Wade, who had a game-high 22 points and seven assists, Jermaine O'Neal, who scored 20, and James Jones, who replace Moon in the starting lineup and scored 19. The Hawks didn't exactly light up the scoreboard, but had a remarkably balanced attack, as seven players scored between 10 and 15 points. The only Hawk to see significant playing time and fail to reach double-digits in points was Al Horford, who was saddled with foul trouble and wound up with four points in 17 minutes. Atlanta's defense isn't usually as impenetrable as it was Monday, and for the Hawks to advance they'll need Horford to reverse his poor play on both ends against O'Neal the past three nights.

2. It may very well go down as the worst night of Chris Paul's career. The Nuggets jumped all over the Hornets early, opening up a 36-13 lead after the first quarter and never looking back in a 121-63 embarrassment of the Hornets. Paul struggled through 36 long minutes, shooting 2-for-7 for just four points, and committing just as many turnovers (six) as he had assists. No one found any sort of success for New Orleans, which finds itself down 3-1 headed to Denver for Game 5. The Nuggets outshot the Hornets 57 percent to 32 percent, and made 10 of 20 three-point shots compared to New Orleans' 2-for-15 performance behind the arc. Carmelo Anthony had 26 points, seven assists and six rebounds to lead seven Nuggets in double-figure scoring. The series, almost certain to end Wednesday in Denver, has starkly displayed the opposite direction in which each franchise is heading. The up-and-coming Hornets would have been favored over the disorganized Nuggets at the beginning of the year, but now it's New Orleans in disarray and Denver with a shot at going to the Finals.

3. Everyone knows the Lakers can score. The question as these playoffs go on is how well they can stop people. The kind of performance they delivered Monday should be their benchmark. It was by no means a stellar defensive effort, but it was enough to close out a 4-1 first round series victory over Utah in a 107-96 win. The Lakers held the Jazz to 40 percent shooting, and made it difficult for Utah's top three options. Deron Williams shot 4-for-12 for 14 points, Carlos Boozer was 3-for-8 for 10 points and Mehmet Okur went 2-for-9 en route to scoring eight. Lamar Odom's work on the glass, pulling down 15 boards, helped L.A. limit Utah's opportunities with a 50-43 rebounding advantage. Odom has had double-figure rebounds in the last three games as he has had no trouble adjusting back to the starting lineup. He had his best night of the series Monday, scoring 26 points, second only to Kobe's 31. Kobe began the series deferring so everyone could get involved, but he's been much more aggressive since his 5-for-24 showing in Game 3, breaking 30 points for the second time in a row Monday with 31 points. The Lakers have shown they can win whether or not Kobe is a ball-distributor or primarily looks to score. It's on the defensive end where their fate will be determined.

Three random observations ...

... about the NBA:

1. The idea that the losses of Kevin Garnett and Leon Powe would catch up to the Celtics seemed quite distant in a Game 3 blowout. No one could have imagined Boston's lack of depth would be so apparent in Game 4. Boston's bench provided only 11 points compared to Chicago's 30, and once Kendrick Perkins fouled out with just over a minute left in regulation, and his replacement Brian Scalabrine fouled out in overtime, the Celtics had little left for double-overtime, where they succumbed 121-118 to fall into a 2-2 series tie. Rajon Rondo sat out for only three minutes en route to his second triple-double in three games, and Paul Pierce sat just six minutes while piling up a game-high 29 points. Every Bull had at least nine minutes of rest even though only seven players appeared for more than just a few seconds, as Chicago got solid contributions from each man. Rose nearly had a triple-double as well, with 23 points, 11 rebounds and nine assists. Everyone else who played had at least 18 points or double-figure rebounds, except Brad Miller, who had a not-too-shabby 12 points and five rebounds in 25 minutes. The Celtics were reliant on their starters, and Rondo, Pierce and Ray Allen in particular. They committed 21 turnovers and allowed 48 percent shooting, which can do in just about anyone. A special performance like the one Rondo had, with 25 points, 11 assists and 11 rebounds, simply doesn't come around every night. The Celtics surely regret using it to stay in the game rather than applying it to a victory. There's no room for wasted brilliance in a series as close as this one.
2. Brandon Roy did just about everything he could to tie Portland's series with Houston on Sunday in Game 4. He had 31 points, five rebounds, five assists, three steals, three blocks and made all 13 of his free throws. Yet a sequence in the fourth quarter encapsulates how the Rockets were able to resiliantly stymie his every effort in an 89-88 victory that gives Houston a 3-1 advantage. Roy had suffered through his worst stretch of the game, turning the ball over three times and missing a jumper in five minutes after entering the game with 10:15 to go in the fourth. He responded by charging hard against Shane Battier, drawing the foul and making the free throw to give Portland an 80-79 lead with 5:03 left. Ron Artest tried to answer with a layup on the other end and missed, but Yao Ming got the rebound. He put it back up and missed, but Kyle Lowry was there to grab another rebound and try another shot. That missed, too, but Lowry got it back again and reset the offense. Artest found Battier for a three-pointer that gave Houston a two-point lead. Roy quickly answered with a trey of his own to reclaim the lead for the Blazers, and Artest tried to counter again. This time his miss was grabbed by Carl Landry, who once more allowed the Houston offense to reset. Artest found Battier one more time to give the Rockets the lead for good with 3:24 to play. The Rockets wound up with 16 offensive rebounds, seven of which came from Luis Scola, as those second-chance opportunities wound up burning Portland. Battier's 4-for-6 shooting from behind the arc was part of a 9-for-16 night from three-point territory for the Rockets. Extra effort and getting hot at the right time is a formula that's worked for a lot of teams, and may be enough to lift the Blazers into the second round.
3. Orlando's three-point shooting had seemingly abandoned the team once more, as the Magic shot 0-for-5 from beyond in the arc fourth quarter. That was until Hedo Turkoglu nailed a trey with 1.1 to go for a 84-81 victory Sunday to square the series with Philadelphia at 2-2. Turkoglu has struggled to start the postseason but in Game 4 came up with a playoff-high 17 points, seven of which came in the fourth quarter. That matched the total of Rashard Lewis, who kicked in seven rebounds to give Dwight Howard just enough support. Howard delivered 18 points and came down with 18 rebounds, nearly half the team's total of 37 boards. All five Magic starters scored in double figures, but the bench struggled to just four points. The Magic reserves lacked the spark that Lou Williams, with 11 points on nine shots, gave the Sixers. Philadelphia put all of its starters in double-figures, too, but Andre Iguodala failed to ignite an offense that produced merely 39 percent shooting, going 4-for-13 from the floor despite dishing out 11 assists and grabbing seven rebounds. Either team could have won the game handily if one of their primary scorers had a 25- or 30-point night. Yet Orlando in particular has to be pleased with the all-around effort, particularly because its a rare night they can get scoring from more than just Howard and one or two other guys.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Three random observations ...

... about the NBA:

1. It wasn't going to happen every night for Chauncey Billups. The Nuggets difference-making point guard failed to score 30 points, unlike in Games 1 and 2, and committed his first two turnovers of the series in a 95-93 loss Saturday to the Hornets in Game 3. Billups shot just 3-for-10 from the field, but didn't exactly have a poor afternoon, scoring 16 and adding seven rebounds and six assists. Carmelo Anthony wound up with 25 points and eight rebounds on a night when the Nuggets were solid but not spectacular as they had been. That allowed the role players for the Hornets, the sort of guys for whom home court always seems to make a difference, to push New Orleans to victory. Sean Marks had a surprising eight-point, six-rebound afternoon, and Rasual Butler canned three of his four shots from behind the arc to power a 17-point, five rebound performance. James Posey put up 13 points and nine rebounds and some nagging defense, and David West put up his customary 19 points and nine rebounds. It was all in support of Chris Paul, who was once more brilliant with 32 points and 12 assists. Getting help for Paul is critical for the Hornets, especially as they continue to endure the struggles of Peja Stojakovic, who went 1-for-9 for four points. Stojakovic's ill-advised three-point attempt with 34 seconds to go left the door open for the late-charging Nuggets. Carmelo Anthony scored seven points in a minute and a half and assisted on a J.R. Smith three-pointer as Denver closed from down 11 to within three points. They got within one with 25 seconds to play, but Anthony wound up with just an off-balance shot with four seconds left and a half-court three-pointer as time expired, neither of which went in the basket.

2. Maybe Tim Duncan and Tony Parker should get into doubles tennis. They'd find the sort of two-man game they were playing Saturday is a lot more effective in that sport than it was on the basketball court in Game 4 against the Mavericks. Parker tied George Gervin's 1978 postseason team record for most points in a half with 31 and wound up with 43 points, while Duncan had 25 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists. The rest of the team scored only 22 points in a 99-90 loss that pushes San Antonio to the cusp of elimination. Gregg Popovich's insertion of Bruce Bowen into the starting lineup to replace Roger Mason provided little spark either offensively, where Bowen scored five points and Mason was scoreless in 17 minutes off the bench, or defensively, where Josh Howard got to the hoop consistently for 28 points. The Mavericks won for the second straight time without Dirk Nowitzki as their leading scorer, getting a throwback 17-point, seven assist and seven-rebound performance from Jason Kidd. Nowitzki had only 12 points, but grabbed 13 rebounds, key to a 49-35 advantage for Dallas on the boards. The Spurs outshot the Mavs 44 percent to 38 percent, but the extra possessions thanks to the rebounding edge, and the bench, which outscored San Antonio's 23-10, made up for it. It won't be easy against a team known for its toughness over the years, but the Mavs now have three chances keep the Spurs from the second round for the first time in 11 years.

3. There was no way Kobe was letting the Jazz off the hook the way he did in Game 3. He followed up a 5-for-24 shooting night with a 16-for-24 explosion for 38 points Saturday, as the Lakers stretched a seven-point halftime lead to 19 by the end of the third quarter in a 108-94 victory in Game 4. L.A. turned a rebounding deficit from Thursday into a 46-39 advantage thanks in large part to the 15 boards that Lamar Odom gave them in a return to the starting lineup. Andrew Bynum's disconcerting Game 3 performance led to his benching and sparing use Saturday, as he scored two points and committed two fouls in just seven minutes. He was hardly needed, however, as so many other Laker weapons were sharp on a 52-percent shooting night. Pau Gasol had 13 points and 10 rebounds, Shannon Brown came off the bench for 10 points, and Sasha Vujacic canned three treys for nine points. Deron Williams had 23 points and 13 assists in a gutsy 46-minute outing, and Carlos Boozer put up 23 points and 16 rebounds, but it was not enough for Utah to keep pace with hot-shooting L.A. Mehmet Okur returned from a hamstring injury but struggled, going scoreless in just 13 minutes. Add his inability to contribute in the playoffs to the long list of injuries that completely derailed the Utah season, which appears headed for its conclusion Monday in Game 5.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Schedule update

We'll be back later this weekend with more, but here's the updated playoff schedule for the next few days. All times Eastern.

New Orleans 95, Denver 93, Nuggets lead series 2-1
San Antonio at Dallas, Game 4, in progress
Atlanta at Miami, Game 3, 6:30 TNT
L.A. Lakers at Utah, Game 4, 9 p.m. ESPN
Boston at Chicago, Game 4, 1 p.m. ABC
Cleveland at Detroit, Game 4, 3:30 p.m. ABC
Orlando at Philadelphia, Game 4, 6:30 p.m. TNT
Portland at Houston, Game 4, 9 p.m. TNT
Atlanta at Miami, Game 4, 8 p.m. TNT
Denver at New Orleans, Game 4, 8:30 p.m. NBATV
L.A. Lakers at Utah, Game 4, 10:30 p.m. TNT
Chicago at Boston, Game 5, 7 p.m. TNT
Philadelphia at Orlando, Game 5, 7:30 p.m. NBATV
Dallas at San Antonio, Game 5, 9:30 p.m. TNT
Houston at Portland, Game 5, 10 p.m. NBATV

Friday, April 24, 2009

Three random observations ...

... about the NBA:

1. The Lakers fortunes seemed to turn on a dime Thursday. They not only lost to Utah on Deron Williams' jumper with 2.2 seconds left, but endured a disconcerting performance from Andrew Bynum. The knee brace Bynum wears since tearing his MCL has prompted complaints from the Lakers 7-foot center, and it looks like it's now causing a serious slip in production. He missed practice Wednesday after unimpressive seven and 10-point outings in the first two games of the playoffs, and then turned into a foul machine Thursday in Game 3. He committed five fouls and scored four points in just seven minutes against a Utah team that was still without its starting center, Mehmet Okur, who has a strained right hamstring. Lamar Odom picked up the slack offensively with 21 points and 14 rebounds, and Pau Gasol had a strong 20-point, nine-rebound evening, but without Bynum, the Lakers were eaten alive on the boards by Carlos Boozer. He had 22 rebounds that were the difference in a 55-40 advantage on the glass for Utah, and scored 23 points to boot in a rare display of Boozer's full arsenal this year. He outshone even Kobe, who endured an off night, shooting just 5-for-24 and totaled 18 points, not enough on a night when some clutch shooting could have come in handy. He did record one of his six assists on a pass to Pau Gasol that led to a game-tying basket with 11 seconds to go, but that only set the stage for Williams. It wasn't the best night for Williams, who finished with 13 points on 3-for-7 shooting and nine assists, but he came through when the Jazz absolutely had to have him.

2. The only negative for the Mavericks on Thursday is that they only got to play one game. Dallas throttled the Spurs 88-67 on a night when San Antonio looked spent. The Mavs held their opponents to 32 percent shooting, kept all but two of their players in single-digits, and allowed no Spur to score more than the 12 that Tony Parker had, hardly an encore for his 38-point performance in Game 2. Dallas shut them down from the start, allowing just 30 points in the first half and 12 more in the third quarter. Tim Duncan shot 2-for-9 for just four points, and Michael Finley went scoreless in 17 minutes. The Mavs were led by Dirk Nowitzki, who piled up 20 points and seven rebounds in 27 minutes, and Josh Howard, who had 17 points and eight rebounds in the same amount of time. Dallas had five players in all reach double-figures, including new starter J.J. Barea, who had 13 points to go along with seven rebounds. Still, the series could an even affair if the Spurs win Saturday, though its hard to imagine an aging team bouncing back from a game like this in less than 48 hours.

3. The Bulls, too, are but a win a way from tying up their series following a blowout loss Thursday. They certainly can't do much worse than in Game 3, when the Celtics raced to an early lead and defused a Chicago crowd that was ready to ignite. Boston was up by 11 after the first quarter and 22 at halftime as it cruised to a 107-86 win. Defense was the catalyst as always for the Celtics, who harassed the Bulls into 22 turnovers. They held Chicago to 38 percent shooting and the potent backcourt combo of Derrick Rose and Ben Gordon to just 24 points combined. Paul Pierce had a strong if abbreviated 27-minute night, leading the Celtics with 24 points. Rajon Rondo continued his emergence as an all-around force, with 20 points, a game-high 11 rebounds, six assists and five steals. Glen Davis outplayed his childhood buddy Tyrus Thomas, posting 14 points, nine rebounds and six assists, and even Stephon Marbury, who had 13 points and five assists off the bench, got into the act. The Celtics have turned the series around after the alarming loss in Game 1. We'll see Sunday if Chicago can return the favor.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Three random observations ...

... about the NBA:

1. Everyone in the building had to know Dwyane Wade would bounce back Wednesday from a dreadful Game One in Atlanta. The question was whether anyone else on the Heat would. The answer was a resounding yes as Miami built a 13-point halftime lead and kept the Hawks at arm's length during the second half of a 108-93 victory. Wade was back to his usual Hall of Fame-caliber self after a 19-point game one in a 33-point, seven assist, five-rebound performance in which he hit on six of 10 three-pointers. Daequan Cook hit six from behind the arc as well en route to 20 points as the Heat wound up with a postseason team-record 15 made three-pointers. Jermaine O'Neal, perhaps inspired by a visit to the locker room by legendary Heat center Alonzo Mourning before the game, had 19 points, six rebounds and four blocks. Udonis Haslem stepped up when the team needed him most. He nailed the first of back-to-back jumpers with 4:35 to play while Dwyane Wade was on the bench with five fouls and the Heat was up by only five points, its slimmest margin of the second half. The Hawks countered with six players in double figures but no with more than Mike Bibby's 18 points. Ronald Murray had 15 points off the bench, but needed a team-high 15 shots to make that total, going just 4-for-15 from the field. Most egregious for the Hawks was their defense, which followed up a triumphant playoff debut in which they held Miami to 64 points by allowing 56 percent shooting in Game 2. Consistency is a word that is sure to come up in practice for both teams leading up to Game 3 Saturday.

2. Dwight Howard was saddled with foul trouble thoughout the night Wednesday, and attempted just six shots. Orlando had a sorry night from behind the arc as well, making just six of 23 three-point attempts. Yet the tone for the Magic after Game 2 against Philadelphia was an encouraging one. That's primarily because of rookie Courtney Lee, who led the team with 24 points on 10-for-17 shooting from the floor in a 96-87 win over the Sixers. Lee's mix of strong drives to the basket early and hot mid-range shooting late bailed out the Magic, who were in danger of heading to Philadelphia down 0-2. Howard wound up with just 11 points in 30 minutes, but nonetheless was able to assert his influence on the boards, where he had a game-high 10. Rashard Lewis had eight rebounds to make up for his 1-for-5 night from three-point range as the Magic's 44-37 edge on the boards was key to limiting Philadelphia's possessions. The Sixers shot a slightly higher percentage from the floor thanks to a triumvirate of options Wednesday. Andre Miller led all scorers with 30 points and added seven rebounds, Andre Iguodala had 21 points and eight rebounds, and Thaddeus Young wound up with 20 points. No other Sixer scored more than five points, however, and as a unit the rest of the team shot just 7-for-26. Lou Williams, counted on for production off the bench, hardly delivered on a 2-for-10, four-point night. The Magic discovered they have more options than they thought when it comes to key performances. The Sixers just need more guys playing at an average level.

3. Chauncey Billups has won a Finals MVP award, but has never before been such a dominant force in the postseason. Billups continued his mastery of Chris Paul and the New Orleans Hornets with 31 points, three nights after scoring 36 points in Game One, as the Nuggets went up 2-0 with a 108-93 win. Billups made four of six attempts from behind the arc, bringing his total of made three-pointers to 12 for the series. He shot 8-for-15 from the floor and 11-for-11 from the line, where he is a perfect 19-for-19 in two playoff games. He's also helped to slow Paul, whose 14 points Wednesday and 21 from the first game still total less than what Billups scored in Game 1. Dahntay Jones has shouldered the majority of the load against Paul, showing off the kind of defense that has made him a starter on a quality team. Jones even went 5-for-5 for 11 points on the offensive end, where whatever he gives the Nuggets is usually a bonus. Carmelo Anthony deferred to Billups, Jones and the team's other hot hands, dishing out nine assists while still posting 22 points. It was a night when it all seemed to click for Denver and all New Orleans encountered was frustration It was a decent offensive night for the Hornets supporting cast, but still not enough. David West had 21 points and 10 rebounds, Peja Stojakovic was 5-for-9 for 17 points, and James Posey had 12 points and eight rebounds, all beneficiaries of Paul's 13 assists. New Orleans is running out of options, and time, as the Nuggets prepare to put the series out of reach Saturday.

Three random observations ...

... about the NBA:

1. Portland's interior defense was a joke in Game 1. Its marked improvement by Game 2 on Tuesday was critical to a bounce-back win for the Blazers. Yao Ming had 24 points in half on Saturday but was held to 11 on just six shots from the field the entire evening Tuesday as the Rockets fell 107-103. Joel Przybilla, LaMarcus Aldridge and Greg Oden combined to shut down Yao and reverse a disparity in rebounds from Game One, as the Blazers were able to edge the Rockets on the boards 36-35. The other key for Portland was Brandon Roy, who took matters into his own hands on the offensive end and wound up with 42 points on 15-for-27 from the floor and 10-for-12 from the line. It was the kind of performance the Blazers needed to have from their superstar at some point in the playoffs. It didn't hurt that LaMarcus Aldridge was also on his game, scoring 27 and collecting 12 rebounds, both figures more than any other Rocket posted for the evening. Houston was led for a second straight night by Aaron Brooks, who had 23 points as he continues to dominate the point guard battle with Steve Blake. Von Wafer got hot off the bench, getting to the interior of the Portland defense and scoring 21 points. The Rockets certainly welcome heavy scoring from somewhat unusual sources, but will have a tough time getting anywhere if Artest, who had 19 on Tuesday, and Yao can't crack 20.

2. You'll have to excuse the Lakers if they look a little bored. The Jazz, especially when they're on the road, simply can't compete with the West's overwhelming favorite. The Lakers built an early lead scoring at will against Utah, particularly inside, where Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum and Lamar Odom took advantage of Mehmet Okur's continued absence with a strained hamstring and combined for 26 of the L.A.'s 41 points in the first quarter. The Lakers put it in cruise control the rest of the way, letting the Jazz within three points late until the defense clamped down. Carlos Boozer made it 109-106 with 3:16 to play, but the Lakers stymied four straight Utah possessions with a Trevor Ariza steal, a loose ball foul against Carlos Boozer, a Derek Fisher steal, and two Gasol blocks. Kobe's 21-footer with 1:03 to play sealed it. Kobe led the way with 26 points, nine assists and six rebounds, but really it was a balanced effort as seven Lakers reached double figures, including recent bench revelation Shannon Brown, who had 12. Brown had most of those against Deron Williams, who otherwise had a stellar night with 35 points and nine assists. Boozer was no slouch with 20 points and 10 rebounds, as it became apparent that even when their stars are shining, the Jazz have serious problems with the Lakers. Okur's possible return in Game 3 would certainly help, but it's unlikely he'll be able to swing a series that L.A. has completely dominated so far.

3. The Cavs, like the Lakers, got a little sloppy in Game 2 of a lopsided series Tuesday. Cleveland built a 29-point lead over the Pistons by the fourth quarter, which was whittled down to seven with both teams' reserves on the floor, before the starters returned to restore order in a 94-82 victory for the Cavs. LeBron James was unstoppable, with totals of 29 points and 13 rebounds that were both game highs, plus six assists to boot. He was scarcely the only one for Cleveland, as Mo Williams had 21 points and seven assists while Delonte West had 20 points, just one fewer than his playoff career high. Antonio McDyess had 11 rebounds for the Pistons, but no other Piston had more than four on a night when Detroit was simply out-toughed, a rarity in Detroit's heydey. The Pistons relied on their guards for scoring, as Richard Hamilton had 17 and Rodney Stuckey 14 to lead the way. Will Bynum had 10 of his 13 and Arron Afflalo all 10 of his points in the fourth quarter as both teams emptied their benches. It's become clear after two games that the best chance the Pistons have at a single win in this series is for Cleveland's newly crowned NBA Coach of the Year Mike Brown to repeat his mistake of slackening the reins too early. Don't count on that happening.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Three random observations ...

... about the NBA:

1. The Bulls' win over the Celtics in Game 1 was no fluke. Ray Allen's poor performance in the playoff opener probably was. Allen was back to his usual self in Game 2 Monday, nailing four clutch three-pointers in the fourth quarter, including the game-winner with two seconds to go, as the Celtics survived 105-103 to tie the series heading to Chicago for Game 3. Allen had 30 points in all on 9-for-18 shooting to lead the Celtics just two days after he went 1-for-12 from the field for four points. Yet his bounce-back performance would have meant little if Rajon Rondo didn't give further notice that he is to be considered a star and a top-flight point guard. Rondo shook off an ankle injury that sent him to the locker room in the second quarter to return and finish a triple-double, with 19 points, 16 assists and 12 rebounds, with five steals to boot. He also helped relegate Derrick Rose to a facilitator's role in the wake of his 36-point explosion in Game 1, holding him Monday to just 10 points. Ben Gordon picked up the scoring slack and then some for Chicago, scoring a playoff career high 42 points while evoking a few memories of a man with a similar last name who had a 63-point performance at Boston Garden 23 years ago to the day. But just as Jordan didn't have enough help to win that day, only one of Gordon's teammates scored as many as John Salmons' 17. That's scarcely enough, especially when the Bulls got manhandled on the boards by a 50-35 margin, largely thanks to the dozen rebounds each by Rose and Kendrick Perkins. As Jordan's Bulls learned in the '80s, and these Bulls will soon come to realize, one man show only takes you so far no matter how dazzling the performer.

2. San Antonio was embarassed on the defensive end in Game One. The Spurs responded in swift fashion. No Mav scored more than 16 points, and Dallas a team was held to 40 percent shooting and outrebounded by a 44-28 margin in a 105-84 San Antonio rout in Game Two. No one's struggles personified the Mavs' night more than those of Dirk Nowitzki, who shot just 3-for-14 for 14 points. Jason Terry led Dallas with 16 points, but that's a below average night for a guy who is used to getting to the line more than three times all night. Dallas was missing a catalyst in the vein of Tony Parker, who was seemingly unstoppable slicing his way to the basket during a 38 point, eight assist performance. Tim Duncan had an off night offensively, taking only 10 shots and scoring 13 points, but he wasn't needed the way he often is because Drew Gooden answered the bell again. Gooden had 13 points in 19 minutes off the bench in the type of performance that has made him the next in the line of shrewd acquisitions by the Spurs. Another of their hallmarks during their years of success has been playing well when behind in playoff series. No one should be surprised if the early advantage Dallas earned in Game One is never regained.

3. The Spurs picked up Gooden while the Celtics went after Mikki Moore, another big man who came available late in the season. Maybe Boston should have signed them both. Word came Tuesday that another post player for the Celtics is injured. It's been revealed that Leon Powe tore the ACL in his knee during Monday's game, and he's out for the playoffs. The team, which last year rotated five players in and out of the power forward and center positions, is down to three. It hurts because it costs Boston a championship-tested reserve who knew how to produce in limited minutes, coming up with eight points and eight rebounds in 17 minutes of play Saturday. Powe is a much better rebounder than Moore, who likes to step away from the basket on the offensive end. Powe is the more efficient scorer, as well, and the only significant gain the Celtics make is in length, because Moore is four inches taller. It all came together so quickly brilliantly for the team in 2008, and with injuries to Garnett and Powe and GM's Danny Ainge's heart attack, it is seemingly all coming apart just as swiftly.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Three random observations ...

... about the NBA:

1. It was a game that symbolized the systemic problems of the Orlando Magic. Sunday they got a stellar 31-point, 16-rebound effort from Dwight Howard, but their other two stars struggled and the team shot a combined 5-for-18 from the line as they blew an 18-point lead against the Sixers and lost 100-98. They were helpless after Howard got poked in the eye and left the game with his team ahead 79-61 in the third quarter. Courtney Lee gave the Magic 18 points, a lot more than they expected from the rookie, but it just wasn't enough. Hedo Turkoglu didn't hit a three-pointer all night and wound up with six points on 2-for-8 shooting. Rashard Lewis scored 15 points, but only three rebounds, three assists and not a single block or steal. Their bench was outscored by a whopping 42-13 margin. Part of that disparity came from Philadelphia's secret weapon. Veteran Donyell Marshall shot 4-for-5 and scored 11 points in 11 minutes, including eight points in the final 4:18, and nailed a three-pointer with 34 seconds left to tie the game. Lou Williams had 18 points, second only to Andre Iguodala, whose game-winning 22-footer with 2.2 to play capped a 20-point, eight-rebound, eight-assist night.

2. Dwight Howard isn't the only superstar from a Florida team that could use a supporting cast. Wade had an off night, scoring just 19 points and turning the ball over eight times, but the rest of the Heat was even worse. The Hawks held them to a season-low in points Sunday during a 90-64 thrashing in Game One of their series. Michael Beasley came off the bench to score 10 points and grab 10 rebounds, but no one else from Miami had double figures in any category as the Heat shot 37 percent from the floor and were outrebounded 50-35. The high-flying Hawks got plenty of looks around the basket, and no one had more of those than Josh Smith, who took advantage to go 9-for-14 from the floor, grab 10 rebounds and score 23 points. He was one of six players in double figures for the Hawks, including all five starters plus Zaza Pachulia, whose size off the bench was key. Pachulia had 10 points and 10 rebounds and Al Horford had 14 points and nine rebounds as the Hawks completely dominated the paint. Jermaine O'Neal, acquired at midseason to bolster Miami's pivot, scored just five points and pulled down only a pair of rebounds. The only good news for the Heat is that it can't get much worse.

3. There aren't many scenarios wherein J.R. Smith can go 0-for-7 from three-point range, Carmelo Anthony scores only 13 points and the Nuggets still win a playoff game. Yet that's precisely what happened Sunday. The difference was all Chauncey Billups. He exploded for eight three-pointers and 36 points overall to turn the game into a 113-84 Denver romp. Smith got hot from close range in the second half as he and Billups combined to score every point in a dazzling 21-0 run that put the game out of reach early in the fourth quarter. Smith finished with 19 points, Linas Kleiza 13 and Nene 12 plus 14 rebounds to more than make up for Anthony, who was saddled by foul trouble and, when he was in the game, mostly deferred to Billups. Chris Paul had his hands full as one of three men who tried to guard Billups, but wound up with 21 points and 11 assists, far better production than any other Hornet in a familiar refrain. Peja Stojakovic had but 13 points, while David West went 4-for-16 for only 12 points. Tyson Chandler, who had six points and five rebounds, was clearly outplayed by Nene. Billups probably won't have quite so good a shooting night again in this series, but if Anthony comes back to put up merely his average numbers, the Hornets have quite a task in front of them.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Three random observations ...

... about the NBA:

1. The Celtics were able to endure Ray Allen's struggles early in last year's playoffs. They won't be able to do the same this year if Allen stays cold. The erstwhile member of Boston's new Big Three had an abominable shooting performance, missing 11 of 12 shots from the floor including a baseline jumper that could have sent Saturday's playoff opener to double overtime in a 105-103 OT loss. The Celtics don't have enough to mask such a poor performance with Kevin Garnett out, even when Rajon Rondo hits for 29 points, nine rebounds and seven assists. Paul Pierce, who must carry a great deal of the scoring load, went 8-for-21 for 23 points and missed a free throw that would have given the Celtics the lead with 2.6 seconds left in regulation, so it wasn't the greatest of days for him, either. It was, however, the best performance Derrick Rose has ever authored, at least in his brief NBA career so far. He had 36 points, tying the record for the most ever in a playoff debut, added 11 assists and went 12-for-12 at the line, defying what convention says about rookie point guards in the playoffs. Joakim Noah had 17 rebounds, and Tyrus Thomas got hot at the right time, nailing three jumpers in overtime. The Celtics are in major trouble.

2. The key for Dallas is the play of its supporting cast around Dirk Nowitzki, and Saturday night the lesser lights stole the show. Josh Howard led six players in double figures to show his chronicly achy left ankle felt just fine in a 105-97 win in Game One at San Antonio. Nowitzki had 19, and while usually any number under 20 for him spells doom for the Mavs, they didn't need him to be a dominant force on this night. Even Jason Terry, normally the second option, wasn't needed nearly as much as usual. Brandon Bass, scored 14, J.J. Barea 13, and Terry had 12 to power the Dallas second unit, which outscored San Antonio's bench 39-14. Erick Dampier chipped in 11 rebounds and 10 points as well on a rough night for the Spurs defense, which allowed 54 percent shooting. The inability to stop the Mavs on the other end wasted a throwback performance by Tim Duncan, who had 27 points and nine rebounds, as well as another age-defying shooting night for 36-year-old Michael Finley, who went 7-for-10 for 19 points. Tony Parker was his usual self with 24 points and eight assists, but it simply wasn't enough.

3. The banner Saturday for road teams finished up in Portland, where the Rockets had the best opener of all. The Blazers had no answer for Yao Ming, Aaron Brooks zipped past Steve Blake and the vaunted Houston defense shut down everyone in Portland, including the crowd in a 108-81 shellacking. Yao had an amazing first half, going 9-for-9 from the field, 6-for-6 at the line and grabbing seven rebounds during a 24-point explosion. Joel Przybilla wound up with three fouls and Greg Oden two trying to guard him. Yao added just two more rebounds for his final line as the Rockets decided to rest him for all but six minutes of the second half. Brooks kept Houston going after the break, hitting four of his five three-pointers in the second half and finishing with a game-high 27 points to go along with seven assists. He was too much to handle for either Blake or Blazers backup point guard Sergio Rodriguez, who combined for just seven points and eight assists. The only Portland starter to score in double figures was Brandon Roy with 21, but he needed 23 shots from the floor to do it on a night when the Blazers were outshot 59 percent to 42 percent. Greg Oden was the only bright spot, taking advantage of the lack of athleticism from Dikembe Mutombo when Yao was out to score 15 points on 6-for-7 shooting. Oden couldn't stop Yao, though, on a night when no one could.

Friday, April 17, 2009

NBA Playoffs Preview

Here is a primer for the NBA Playoffs, which begin Saturday:


Two years ago, these teams met in an Eastern Conference Finals and Detroit was heavily favored. The Cavs pulled the upset and the two franchises have experienced contrasting fortunes ever since. LeBron was brilliant in that series, and has since been surrounded by the right supporting cast, chiefly point guard Mo Williams, who is a legitimate secondary scorer. Williams will match up with Rodney Stuckey, whose inability to replace the production of Chauncey Billups has caused plenty of consternation in Detroit. The man whom Billups was traded for, Allen Iverson, is officially on the playoff roster but will not play, ostensibly because of a back injury. Even if he were there, and on his best behavior, this series would be no contest. The Cavs hold a clear advantage at four of the five starting positions, with the Richard Hamilton vs. Delonte West matchup the lone exception. Will Bynum can light it up off the bench, but Cleveland's got a deep mix of youth and experience in reserve to counteract anything he might do. The Cavs were dominant at home, going 39-2, and would have tied the record of the 1986 Celtics for most homecourt wins of all time had they not rested their stars in the finale. They'll have homecourt advantage in every series they play in this postseason, including their opener. They'll scarsely need it against the Pistons. Prediction: Cavs in 4.


Game 1 - Sat April 18 Detroit at Cleveland 3:00PM ABC
Game 2 - Tue April 21 Detroit at Cleveland 8:00PM TNT
Game 3 - Fri April 24 Cleveland at Detroit 7:00PM ESPN
Game 4 - Sun April 26 Cleveland at Detroit 3:30PM ABC
Game 5 * Wed April 29 Detroit at Cleveland TBD TBD
Game 6 * Fri May 1 Cleveland at Detroit TBD TBD
Game 7 * Sun May 3 Detroit at Cleveland TBD TBD

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

Detroit Pistons
PG Rodney Stuckey
SG Richard Hamilton
SF Tayshaun Prince
PF Antonio McDyess
C Rasheed Wallace
PG Will Bynum
C Kwame Brown
PF Jason Maxiell
SG Arron Afflalo
F Walter Herrmann
F Amir Johnson
PF Walter Sharpe
G Allen Iverson (out, back)

No. 4 ATLANTA HAWKS (47-35) vs. No. 5 MIAMI HEAT (43-39)
This season has seen Dwyane Wade at his absolute best. The MVP of the 2006 Finals returned from injury this year to guide a team that went a league-worst 15-67 last year to the fifth seed in the East, shepherding a rookie head coach, a rookie point guard and another rookie, No. 2 overall pick Michael Beasley, who is the team's sixth man. Wade led the league in scoring with a 30.2 average, garnering MVP consideration even though LeBron and Kobe were leading their teams to their conferences' best records. The spectre of a second-round matchup with LeBron's Cavs has the league salivating. But standing in the way is an improved Atlanta team that built on last year's stiff seven-game challenge of the champion Celtics to earn homecourt advantage in the first round. The Hawks' first five are as good as just about anyone's. It's the bench, which strains to go eight deep, that has kept Atlanta down. But that scarsely matters in the playoffs, where minutes are stretched and virtually nobody plays any more than eight players anyway. The Hawks will no doubt have all kinds of trouble guarding Wade, with Joe Johnson, Marvin Williams and Mike Bibby all likely to be assigned to him at one point or another. The Heat will have their own difficulty dealing with a veteran point guard in Bibby, and with Johnson, who has been through the playoff wringer before with Atlanta and Phoenix. The Hawks, who are tough at home, will milk their extra game in Atlanta for all its worth. Prediction: Hawks in 7.

Game 1 - Sun April 19 Miami at Atlanta 8:00PM TNT
Game 2 - Wed April 22 Miami at Atlanta 8:00PM TNT
Game 3 - Sat April 25 Atlanta at Miami 6:30PM TNT
Game 4 - Mon April 27 Atlanta at Miami TBD TBD
Game 5 * Wed April 29 Miami at Atlanta TBD TBD
Game 6 * Fri May 1 Atlanta at Miami TBD TBD
Game 7 * Sun May 3 Miami at Atlanta TBD TBD

Atlanta Hawks

PG Mike Bibby
SG Joe Johnson
SF Marvin Williams
PF Joe Smith
C Al Horford
G/F Mo Evans
C Zaza Pachulia
G Flip Murray
PF Solomon Jones
SG Mario West
SG Thomas Gardner
PG Acie Law

Miami Heat
PG Mario Chalmers
SG Dwyane Wade
SF Jamario Moon
PF Udonis Haslem
C Jermaine O'Neal
PF Michael Beasley
SF Yakhouba Diawara
SG Daequan Cook
C Joel Anthony
SF James Jones
PG Chris Quinn
C Mark Blount

No. 2 BOSTON CELTICS (62-20) vs. No. 7 CHICAGO BULLS (41-41)
Here is where the true intrigue in the first round lies. How well will the Celtics play without Kevin Garnett? Not very well, in all likelihood. Rajon Rondo is going to be asked to become one of the "Big Three," and even if he does elevate his game, there is no way he can replace Garnett's on-court intensity, and certainly not his low-post defense. So much of Boston's success in the brief KG era has been about their team defense, and perhaps the Celtics, to some extent, can mask the gaping hole Garnett leaves. And maybe Glen Davis will put together a string of nights where his midrange jumper is hot to replace the scoring they're missing. It's conceivable Boston gets by Chicago, but they won't go any farther without Garnett. The Bulls offer plenty of reasons why the Celtics may even be screwed for the first round. Point guard Derrick Rose has justified his status as the No. 1 overall pick from last year, and his play has been worthy of Rookie of the Year honors. Ben Gordon, entrenched as a starter now, is as explosive a scoring force as anyone. John Salmons has been a revelation since coming over in a trade from Sacramento. And the first three guys off the bench, Brad Miller, Kirk Hinrich and Tim Thomas, are all veterans who have gotten it done in the playoffs before. Chicago's got a great shot to advance. They might even be favorites, if Rose weren't a rookie, if Salmons weren't prone to being eaten alive by Pierce and if Tyrus Thomas was decidedly better than Davis. Prediction: Celtics in 7.

Game 1 - Sat April 18 Chicago at Boston 12:30PM ESPN
Game 2 - Mon April 20 Chicago at Boston 7:00PM TNT
Game 3 - Thu April 23 Boston at Chicago 8:00PM TNT
Game 4 - Sun April 26 Boston at Chicago 1:00PM ABC
Game 5 * Tue April 28 Chicago at Boston TBD TBD
Game 6 * Thu April 30 Boston at Chicago TBD TBD
Game 7 * Sat May 2 Chicago at Boston TBD TNT

Boston Celtics

PG Rajon Rondo
SG Ray Allen
SF Paul Pierce
PF Glen Davis
C Kendrick Perkins
G Eddie House
F/C Leon Powe
F/C Mikki Moore
SG Tony Allen
F Brian Scalabrine
PG Stephon Marbury
SG Bill Walker
PF Kevin Garnett (knee, status unclear, could be out for year)

Chicago Bulls
PG Derrick Rose
SG Ben Gordon
SF John Salmons
PF Tyrus Thomas
C Joakim Noah
PG Kirk Hinrich
C Brad Miller
F Tim Thomas
G Lindsey Hunter
PF Linton Johnson
SG Anthony Roberson
C Aaron Gray
SF Luol Deng (could return only for deep playoff run, stress fracture in right tibia)

No. 3 ORLANDO MAGIC (59-23) vs. No. 6 PHILADELPHIA 76ERS (41-41)
These two teams enter the playoffs with no momentum, so they're fortunate to run into one another. Philadelphia lost six in a row before winning on the season's final night against Cleveland's B-team, while the Magic lost to the Raptors, Knicks, Nets and Bucks in the last two weeks. It's a clash of tempos, as the Sixers will look to run while the Magic will pound it inside to Dwight Howard and free up room for their three-point gunners. Orlando has a clear advantage with Howard in the middle against Samuel Dalembert, but the rest of the matchups depend on how well the Magic are shooting and spreading the ball around. Rafer Alston, who has been a part of the Houston's recent first-round flameouts, will try again to win a playoff series against a superior point guard in Andre Miller. The veteran Miller is no Deron Williams, whom Alston has had to go against the last two years in the first round, but Miller's savvy will play a key role as he looks to control the pace. Thaddeus Young came back in the final game of the regular season after missing the last seven with a sore ankle and a bruised bone in his foot, and if he's not at 100 percent, the advantage at power forward definitely tips in favor of Rashard Lewis. Andre Iguodala can run Hedo Turkoglu ragged if he wants to, and must find some way to use his superior athleticism to his advantage. Shooting guards Courtney Lee and Willie Green are in their teams' lineups in large part because of their defense, and could be switched off of each other if the situation warrants. Orlando's defense has been the key to its ascension into the league's elite, but Philly's defense finished in the top half of the league in points allowed as well. The Sixers arguably have a better bench, as well. If it seems like it adds up to a fairly even series, it does, despite the 18-game difference in the standings. Howard's pre-eminence will be the deciding factor, but it will be closer than you might expect. Prediction: Magic in 7.

Game 1 - Sun April 19 Philadelphia at Orlando 5:30PM TNT
Game 2 - Wed April 22 Philadelphia at Orlando 7:00PM NBATV
Game 3 - Fri April 24 Orlando at Philadelphia 8:00PM ESPN2
Game 4 - Sun April 26 Orlando at Philadelphia 6:30PM TNT
Game 5 * Tue April 28 Philadelphia at Orlando TBD TBD
Game 6 * Thu April 30 Orlando at Philadelphia TBD TBD
Game 7 * Sat May 2 Philadelphia at Orlando TBD TNT

Orlando Magic

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

Philadelphia 76ers
PG Andre Miller
SG Willie Green
SF Andre Iguodala
PF Thaddeus Young
C Samuel Dalembert
SG Lou Williams
F/C Marreese Speights
PF Reggie Evans
C Theo Ratliff
PG Royal Ivey
F Donyell Marshall
SG Kareem Rush
C Elton Brand (out)


No. 1 LOS ANGELES LAKERS (65-17) vs. No. 8 UTAH JAZZ (48-34)
The Lakers gave us a preview of what to expect when on Tuesday, they toyed with the Jazz before pulling away in the second half for a blowout victory. And that was when the game meant something for the Jazz but had no bearing on the Lakers' position. L.A. has all its cogs working, with Andrew Bynum back and at 100 percent, which allows Lamar Odom to go to the bench, turning that unit into an elite corps of reserves. The Lakers have the ultimate crunch-time scorer in Kobe Bryant and not one but two inside scoring threats in Bynum and Pau Gasol. The Jazz never quite recovered from early-season injuries, and it's unclear if Carlos Boozer is fully healthy. Paul Millsap is a more than capable backup but not the kind of scorer that Utah needs to team with Deron Williams, an elite point guard without elite finishers. This will be no contest. Prediction: Lakers in 4.

Game 1 - Sun April 19 Utah at L.A. Lakers 3:00PM ABC
Game 2 - Tue April 21 Utah at L.A. Lakers 10:30PM TNT
Game 3 - Thu April 23 L.A. Lakers at Utah 10:30PM TNT
Game 4 - Sat April 25 L.A. Lakers at Utah 9:00PM ESPN
Game 5 * Mon April 27 Utah at L.A. Lakers TBD TBD
Game 6 * Thu April 30 L.A. Lakers at Utah TBD TBD
Game 7 * Sat May 2 Utah at L.A. Lakers TBD TNT

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

Utah Jazz
PG Deron Williams
SG Ronnie Brewer
SF C.J. Miles
PF Carlos Boozer
C Mehmet Okur
PF Paul Millsap
F Andrei Kirilenko
G/F Kyle Korver
F/G Matt Harpring
PG Brevin Knight
C Jarron Collins
PG Ronnie Price


Two intriguing teams meet to decide who gets eviscerated by the Lakers in the next round. It's a shame, because either would make an interesting participant in the Western Conference Finals. The Blazers have a young group with plenty of potential but virtually zero playoff experience. The Rockets are built around a core of veterans, many of whom have been around for consecutive first-round losses against in the last two years against Utah. Tracy McGrady, was around for those disappointments, and of course he won't be this year because of his midseason knee surgery. McGrady had become known for guiding his teams to the playoffs only to be quickly finished, and it will be enlightening to see if Houston truly is better without him. The Rockets were certainly no worse after losing their main scoring threat and trading Rafer Alston to the Magic, handing the keys to the offense to young Aaron Brooks and inserting Ron Artest into the starting lineup. Brooks and Artest now find themselves walking right into a major challenge, having to guard veteran Steve Blake and emergent superstar Brandon Roy, respectively. The Artest-Roy matchup will be a show, as a former Defensive Player of the Year tries to slow one of the league's Top 10 scorers. Yao Ming against Joel Przybilla is another such clash of scoring versus tenacity, as Przybilla has proven a pest against the league's more talented centers. Portland's bench is of course a great strength, and the Blazers will likely defy playoff convention by going 10-deep. The Rockets aren't quite as deep but do boast some bruisers, like Carl Landry and Chuck Hayes, who solidify the team's reputation as a defense-first outfit. Defense does win championships, after all. But you have to have some semblance of offense to win, too, and when Tracy McGrady went down, the Rockets lost their go-to scorer. McGrady may have the reputation as a playoff loser, but that doesn't mean Houston is automatically a winner without him. Prediction: Portland in 6.

Game 1 - Sat April 18 Houston at Portland 10:30PM ESPN
Game 2 - Tue April 21 Houston at Portland 10:00PM NBATV
Game 3 - Fri April 24 Portland at Houston 9:30PM ESPN
Game 4 - Sun April 26 Portland at Houston 9:00PM TNT
Game 5 * Tue April 28 Houston at Portland TBD TBD
Game 6 * Thu April 30 Portland at Houston TBD TBD
Game 7 * Sat May 2 Houston at Portland TBD TNT

Portland Trail Blazers
PG Steve Blake
SG Brandon Roy
SF Nicolas Batum
PF LaMarcus Aldridge
C Joel Przybilla
SF Travis Outlaw
SG Rudy Fernandez
C Greg Oden
PG Sergio Rodriguez
PF Channing Frye
PG Jerryd Bayless
PF Michael Ruffin
SF Martell Webster (out, stress fracture in foot)

Houston Rockets

PG Aaron Brooks
SG Ron Artest
SF Shane Battier
PF Luis Scola
C Yao Ming
SG Von Wafer
PF Carl Landry
PG Kyle Lowry
G/F Brent Barry
PF Chuck Hayes
PF Brian Cook
C Dikembe Mutombo
SG Tracy McGrady (out, knee)

The Nuggets made a trade that brought everything together. The Hornets almost made a trade that blew everything apart. Denver's fortunes turned on a dime when Chauncey Billups arrived from the Pistons, bringing championship experience as well as a pass-first attitude, both of which the Nuggets have long lacked. The fate of the Hornets, at least for this season, was spared when a money-saving deal was vetoed when Tyson Chandler failed his physical with the Thunder. That brought shot-blocking Chandler back to New Orleans, but the Hornets have found the Thunder's doctors were onto something. Chandler's ankle has been excrutiatingly slow to heal, and without him New Orleans was unable to get homecourt advantage for one or two rounds in the playoffs. The lack of homecourt edge cost the Hornets against the Spurs in the second round last year, but that's not all New Orleans has going against them this year. The Nuggets are on a roll, having won 14 of their last 17 as the team continues to coalesce neatly into the roles coach George Karl has designed for them. Carmelo Anthony is the No. 1 scorer, J.R. Smith the No. 2 scorer and sixth man, Kenyon Martin the defensively oriented post man, Nene the offensive inside force, Dahntay Jones the perimeter stopper, and Chris "Birdman" Anderson the energy guy off the bench. It's a classicly functional NBA team matched up against the Hornets, who have been almost entirely reliant upon Chris Paul and to a lesser extent David West. James Posey, who was supposed to be the player to put New Orleans over the top and into the Finals, hasn't gotten it done. And neither will the Hornets. Prediction: Nuggets in 5.

Game 1 - Sun April 19 New Orleans at Denver 10:30PM TNT
Game 2 - Wed April 22 New Orleans at Denver 10:30PM TNT
Game 3 - Sat April 25 Denver at New Orleans 1:00PM ESPN
Game 4 - Mon April 27 Denver at New Orleans TBD TBD
Game 5 * Wed April 29 New Orleans at Denver TBD TBD
Game 6 * Fri May 1 Denver at New Orleans TBD TBD
Game 7 * Sun May 3 New Orleans at Denver TBD TBD

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

New Orleans Hornets
PG Chris Paul
SG Rasual Butler
SF Peja Stojakovic
PF David West
C Tyson Chandler
F James Posey
G Antonio Daniels
F/C Melvin Ely
PF Sean Marks
SG Devin Brown
SF Julian Wright
C Hilton Armstrong
SG Morris Peterson

No. 3 SAN ANTONIO SPURS (54-28) vs. No. 6 DALLAS MAVERICKS (50-32)
The Spurs dynasty was presumed dead when it was announced a couple of weeks ago that Manu Ginobili would be out for the playoffs. That doesn't mean they can't still make the Mavericks trip over their headstone. San Antonio rallied for home wins against Utah and New Orleans to ensure home court advantage for the first round, meaning that though they won't win a title, they can at least win a round or two. Tim Duncan, whose knees have been killing him in the second half of the season, put up 20 points and 19 rebounds in the season finale, a week after scoring just four points against Portland and days after sitting out at Sacramento. He's still capable of flashing back to the transcendent player he always had been. The emergence of Drew Gooden after he was acquired for the season's final weeks has provided a portion of the inside scoring they need, while Tony Parker is in full command as the team's No. 1 option as well as distributor. Parker, if with a definite advantage in quickness against Jason Kidd, just might let everyone know he is right at the level of Chris Paul and Deron Williams atop the point guard food chain. There exists just as much possibility that Dirk Nowitzki will remind us all that he is just two years removed from an MVP season. He can do that and the Mavs may still lose, however, if Jason Terry isn't a 20-point scorer, Brandon Bass doesn't punish the Spurs on the boards and Erick Dampier can't at least hold his own down low. Those are a lot of ifs. Prediction: San Antonio in 7.

Game 1 - Sat April 18 Dallas at San Antonio 8:00PM ESPN
Game 2 - Mon April 20 Dallas at San Antonio 9:30PM TNT
Game 3 - Thu April 23 San Antonio at Dallas 8:30PM NBATV
Game 4 - Sat April 25 San Antonio at Dallas 4:00PM TNT
Game 5 * Tue April 28 Dallas at San Antonio TBD TBD
Game 6 * Fri May 1 San Antonio at Dallas TBD TBD
Game 7 * Sun May 3 Dallas at San Antonio TBD TBD

San Antonio Spurs
PG Tony Parker
SG Roger Mason
SF Michael Finley
PF Matt Bonner
C Tim Duncan
F/C Drew Gooden
G/F Bruce Bowen
SF Ime Udoka
PG George Hill
C Fabricio Oberto
F/C Kurt Thomas
PG Jacques Vaughn
G/F Manu Ginobili (out, ankle)

Dallas Mavericks
PG Jason Kidd
SG Antoine Wright
SF Josh Howard
PF Dirk Nowitzki
C Erick Dampier
SG Jason Terry
PG J.J. Barea
F/C Brandon Bass
PF James Singleton
G/F Gerald Green
SG Matt Carroll
C Ryan Hollins
SF Devean George

Just FYI

Both the Eastern AND Western Conference previews will be up by this evening.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Three random observations ...

... about the NBA:

1. Well, that will change my playoff preview. Kevin Garnett could be out for the entire postseason. The Sixers I'm sure thoroughly regret winning Wednesday in Cleveland to move into sixth place, and the Bulls will be sending a basket of flowers to Toronto for beating them. The loss of KG rips the heart and soul out of the Celtics. Yes, they rallied to hold off Orlando for the second seed, and yes, Glen Davis filled in admirably at power forward. But the regular season is not the playoffs, and with serious doubt cast on his return, the psychological lift that KG has always given the Celtics is countered. There's no way they can repeat without him. There might not even be enough to get by the Bulls.

2. Age and injuries have set in at San Antonio, but the Spurs still won't go down easy. Tim Duncan's knees didn't ache enough to stop him from a vintage 20-point, 19-rebound performance, and Michael Finley summoned all that's left from his 36-year-old body to pour in 17, including the three-pointer with no time left to force overtime, where the Spurs pulled away to beat the Hornets, 105-98. Duncan's mastery of the boards was the difference as San Antonio outrebounded New Orleans by an impressive 46-33 margin. New Orleans center Tyson Chandler, playing for the first time in more than a month because of his balky ankle, couldn't handle the load inside, scoring 10 points and grabbing just three rebounds in just 20 minutes. The Hornets got no more support from their bench, which scored only 13 points, while the Spurs got 12 points and five rebounds from Ime Udoka and 11 points from Drew Gooden in reserve. The win earned San Antonio the Southwest Division title and the No. 3 seed, which could provide them with a path back to the Western Conference Finals for the fourth time in five years. The loss relegated the Hornets to the seventh seed and a matchup with the Denver Nuggets, who finished the season on a 14-3 run.

3. There has been plenty of criticism of last year's Jason Kidd-Devin Harris trade for the Mavericks, and the deal will no doubt look even worse as Kidd ages and Harris comes into his prime in New Jersey. Wednesday, however, the trade looked just fine. Kidd had a triple-double and as the Mavericks beat the Rockets 95-84 to climb into the No. 6 seed. Kidd scored 11 points, dished out 12 assists and had 10 rebounds in support of Dirk Nowitzki, who had 30 points and 15 rebounds, and Jason Terry, who scored 23. Houston starting point guard Aaron Brooks was outplayed by Kidd as well as his own backup, as Kyle Lowry had 15 points, seven rebounds and five assists on an all-around night. Lowry was one of the few Rockets to find offensive success on a night that Houston shot just 40 percent, including a 4-for-17 performance from behind the arc. Yao Ming was his usual self,with 23 points and nine rebounds, but Luis Scola was largely absent, and Lowry's seven boards were the second most on the team. The Rockets, who always have trouble scoring, must find a way to slow the pace and shoot better from the outside if they are to advance past the Blazers. The Mavericks simply need more nights like Wednesday from Kidd and Terry so Nowitzki doesn't have to worry about going up against Tim Duncan and carrying the scoring load all by himself at the same time against the Spurs.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Three random observations ...

... about the NBA:

1. The Sixers, after playing so well to dig themselves out of an early-season hole, have come apart just short of the finish line. They had a legitimate shot at the No. 5 seed after beating Detroit to clinch a playoff spot April 4, but have since lost six straight. Now they must win and hope Chicago loses to avoid the No. 7 spot and a first-round series with a fully loaded Celtics team they couldn't beat at half-speed in Philadelphia on Tuesday. Boston was without Kevin Garnett, due to return tonight from injury, and the suspended Ray Allen, but still got by Philadelphia 100-98. The Sixers had plenty of shots at the end, but failed to make a single field goal in the final 2:24. Paul Pierce carried the scoring load, as you might expect, pouring in 31 points for Boston, but the Sixers couldn't contain emergency starter Tony Allen, either, as he shot 8-for-14 for 18 points and chipped in five assists, four rebounds and three steals. The Celtics, already having clinched their seed and with nothing to play for, were allowed to shoot 52 percent as a team as the Sixer defense laid down. The Celtics, who are concerned about Garnett's health even when he does come back, couldn't have drawn up a better first-round opponent for themselves.

2. The Lakers have been locked into their playoff position for several days, but Phil Jackson rarely sees any game as meaningless. It was no doubt satisfying to their coach that the Lakers issued a 125-112 pounding to the team they'll be seeing in a first round matchup on the final night of the regular season. L.A. abused Utah inside, getting 22 points from Andrew Bynum and 20 plus nine rebounds and six assists from Pau Gasol. Lamar Odom added 16 off the bench, keying a reserve unit that continues to round into shape thanks in large part to the emergence of Shannon Brown, who is challenging Jordan Farmer for his spot as backup point guard and last night scored nine points in 20 minutes. Brown allows the Lakers to reliably go 11 deep if they want to, and gives L.A. just one more weapon in an already well-stocked arsenal. The Jazz countered with Deron Williams and his 25 points and got 20 off the bench from their AK-47, Andrei Kirilenko, but simply don't have the firepower to pull of an upset if Carlos Boozer, who scored 16 points, can't match the production of the Laker bigs.

3. The playoffs are on their way, and so is the Three Random Observations ... preview. We'll have the Eastern Conference breakdown on Friday and the Western Conference up Saturday before the games begin. The blog will continue throughout the playoffs. It should be a fun couple of months. I'll be trying very hard not to forget life outside of basketball exists. Especially because I'm getting married in June (but not on a day when any games are scheduled, of course!)

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Three random observations ...

... about the NBA:

1. The Pistons' chances of anything more than a No. 8 seed ended Monday in appropriate fashion for a team that has been in a downward spiral all season. They led by as many as 11 points in the second half before going the final 4:20 without a field goal in a 91-88 loss at home to Chicago. The Pistons scored only 13 points in the fourth quarter as their 28th-ranked offense stalled out again. Detroit didn't establish scoring with their inside, as Rasheed Wallace, Antonio McDyess, Jason Maxiell and Kwame Brown shot a combined 9-for-30, and didn't light in up from the outside, either, going just 4-for-14 from three-point range. Top pick Derrick Rose solidified his case for Rookie of the Year on the other end, scoring including 10 of Chicago's last dozen points in the final 5:18. Rose had 24 points to lead the Bulls, who move a half-game in front of Philadelphia for sixth place.

2. The Mavericks' late-season surge out of eighth place was very nearly wasted with an inexplicable loss on Monday. The Mavs were down seven with six minutes to play when one of Dirk Nowitzki's running mates finally got it going. Jason Terry had nine of his 22 points in the final 5:39, including the game-winner that broke a tie with .2 seconds remaining in a 96-94 escape act against visiting Minnesota. The Mavs needed Terry because they somehow couldn't guard Craig Smith, who came off the bench for the lottery-bound Wolves to shoot 10-for-13 for 24 points and grab eight rebounds. Minnesota matched Dallas in near lockstep right until the end, shooting the same 45 percent from the field and collecting an identical total of 40 rebounds. The Mavs have Nowitzki, of course, and he had a vintage 34-point, nine-rebound performance, but with Josh Howard resting a sore ankle, no one stepped up to keep pace with the former MVP on the team until it was nearly too late. Dallas must have its role players if it is to take advantage of the higher seed it has been chasing and advance past the first round. The Mavs can clinch the No. 7 seed with a win Wednesday against Houston, and can move into the No. 6 spot with a New Orleans loss to San Antonio that night.

3. The Hornets looked like a team headed in the right direction on national television Sunday. Looks can be deceiving. They lost their fifth game out of seven in a 86-66 rout at Houston. The night was a disaster for New Orleans, as even Chris Paul turned in a relative clunker, scoring nine points, assisting on seven shots and grabbing five rebounds. David West led all New Orleans scorers with a paltry 14 points and the Rockets controlled the tempo from the start, pounding the ball inside to Yao Ming, who took advantage of New Orleans' weakness inside to score 22 points and grab seven rebounds. Luis Scola had 15 rebounds as the Rockets controlled the boards as well by a 46-37 margin. Houston simply squezzed off New Orleans at every turn, holding the Hornets to 35 percent shooting while the Rockets overcame Ron Artest's 2-for-13 night to shoot 46 percent as a team. The Hornets must either beat San Antonio on Wednesday or hope the Rockets beat Dallas to hold on to the sixth seed. Houston can move anywhere between the second and fifth seeds as the fluid Western Conference takes until the regular season's last night to finally gel.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Three random observations ...

... about the NBA:

1. No, Kevin Garnett was not there. No, the Celtics had nothing to play for in terms of the standings, having already clinched the East's No. 2 seed. But Cleveland's 107-76 destruction of the Celtics was significant because of the way the Cavs dominated the game against a Boston team that seemed either unwilling or unable to compete. Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Rajon Rondo, who are expected to be stars even when Garnett plays, shot a combined 8-for-34 for 25 points, fewer than LeBron, who had 29, scored all by himself. Boston gave Cleveland no reason to believe it isn't destined for the Finals as the playoffs get set to begin. True, the Celtics could be motivated by such an embarassment, but they could just as easily be thoroughly discouraged. After all, the Cavs are just about unbeatable at home, and Boston will have to win at least once in Cleveland to beat them. The only real positive for the Celtics was that Tony Allen played his best game since returning last week from a thumb injury, scoring seven points on 3-for-4 shooting in 21 minutes. Kevin Garnett is set to return Wednesday, and the Celtics can only hope he quickly returns to form as well.

2. All of the attention from the Heat-Knicks game Sunday is focused on Dwyane Wade, who sprang for a career-high 55 points in a 122-105 triumph that clinched the East No. 5 seed for Miami. It was Wade's third 50-point game in less than two months, and while his performance sends quite a signal to the rest of the league heading into the playoffs and MVP balloting, it wasn't the only positive sign for the Heat coming out of Sunday. Their two rookies, Michael Beasley and Mario Chalmers, shined as well. Beasley tied his career high with 28 points, and set a new career mark in rebounds with 16 as he made his first start since November. Chalmers turned in a fine performance against veteran Chris Duhon, scoring 15, dishing out nine assists and coming up with four steals. We know Wade will be there for the first-round series with Atlanta. The question is whether Beasley and Chalmers are going to show up, and the indication we got from Sunday is that they will.

3. The Mavericks supporting cast must have looked at what the Hornets doing and lowered their standards coming into their second matchup in three days Sunday at New Orleans. The problem is the Hornets leading men were even better than usual. Chris Paul and David West both had 31 points, combining for 62 of their team's 102 in a 102-92 victory over Dallas. Paul added 17 assists and was a single rebound shy of a triple-double. Dirk Nowitzki wasn't too shabby either, scoring 29 points and grabbing 14 rebounds, but he was the only one really on his game for the Mavericks. Josh Howard and Jason Terry shot a combined 10-for-30 for 28 points, OK but not enough, and Brandon Bass had 13 points but failed to dominate the boards the way he had on the front end of the home-and-home. Jason Kidd was solidly outplayed by Paul, and went 3-for-13 from the field. No one other than Paul or West showed up for the Hornets either, save for Peja Stojakovic's dagger of a three-pointer with 1:08 left, but for a change it didn't cost them. New Orleans can clinch the No. 6 seed in the West with either a win in its final two games or a loss by either Dallas or Utah.


4. It's time for a rule change. Michael Finley nailed a three-pointer with 1.3 seconds left on the game clock but zero on the shot clock that gave San Antonio its winning 95-92 margin. Replays clearly showed Finley still had the ball in his hand when the shot clock expired, but referees don't have the power to use video to review 24-second violations. The play was the difference between a Spurs win and overtime, and is just the sort of critical moment for which replay was introduced in the first place. The NBA has to extend replay to shot-clock violations, at least in the final two minutes of the game. It's an easy move to make that would go a long way toward protecting the game's integrity.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Three random observations ...

... about the NBA:

1. The Magic gave Rashard Lewis the night off Saturday to prevent further injury to his right knee, which is stricken with tendinitis. It turns out they rested the wrong guy. Hedo Turkoglu turned an ankle and left the game in the third quarter of a depressing night for Orlando fans. The Magic dropped the game 103-93 to the Nets, who were without Devin Harris, while Dwight Howard, who scored only seven points and had eight rebounds, looked like he took the night off, too. The extent of Turkoglu's injury is not known, but what is certain is that in two nights, the Magic's season has taken a decided turn for the worse. The only positive development of the last few days is that they won't be facing their nemesis, the Pistons, in the first round.

2. We knew the Jazz had trouble on the road. What we never expected is they'd lose a game at home to a skeletal Warriors squad on the season's final weekend. Utah played no defense, allowing 55 percent shooting against a team that was without Corey Maggette, with post-concussion syndrome, Jamal Crawford, with a strained lower back, Monta Ellis, with a sore left ankle, and Brandon Wright, with a left shoulder injury. C.J. Watson picked up the offensive burden, inexplicably bursting for 38 points and nine assists against Deron Williams, while Ronny Turiaf patrolled the middle on defense, blocking five shots. Rob Kurz added an unlikely 21 points as the Warriors opened up a 13-point halftime lead and never looked back. The only positive for Utah was that Carlos Boozer scored 25 points, his highest total since returning from knee surgery earlier this year. They'll need him to help right the ship for a team that's lost six of seven with a playoff series against the Lakers on the horizon.

3. It's easy to pin the blame for the Pistons' collapse on Allen Iverson, and he deserves plenty of it. But now that he's gone, not all is well in Detroit. The Pistons lost a winnable game Saturday at Indiana, and now need to win out and get help to avoid the No. 8 seed. Rasheed Wallace, who had six points, six rebounds and two blocks, was outplayed by rookie Roy Hibbert, who had nine points, eight rebounds and four blocks. Jarrett Jack, with 18 points and six assists, got the best of Rodney Stuckey, who had 10 points and five assists and he continues to struggle with his anointment as the team's future. Yet the Pistons still had a chance at the end, down one with less than half a minute to go. Rasheed Wallace missed a jumper with 18 seconds left, and Troy Murphy gobbled up the rebound and was fouled. He hit one of two, and the Pistons still had a chance until Jack stole the ball from Tayshaun Prince and Danny Granger sealed the 106-102 win at the line.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Three random observations ...

... about the NBA:

1. Injuries have done in plenty of teams this year, but the Magic can blame only themselves if they fail to go any deeper in the playoffs this year than they did last. Orlando lost in stunning fashion at home to the Knicks, and fell to two games behind the Celtics for the No. 2 seed in the East with three games to play. The Magic failed to do Friday what just about everyone has done against the Knicks, letting New York win the battle of the boards 49-44, forcing only nine Knick turnovers and falling short of 100 points in the 105-95 upset. The Magic took 11 fewer shots, and their three-point shooting, so critical to their chances in any game, was largely absent on a 7-for-28 night from behind the arc. Even more telling of Orlando's perplexing offensive woes was New York's 25-15 advantage in assists, as the ball stagnated whenever the Magic had possession. Now the Magic will more than likely have to win a game in Boston, where the Celtics went 13-1 in the playoffs last year, to get past the second round.

2. James Posey, supposedly the key pickup of the offseason, looked nothing like it as he made his return from a sprained elbow in a huge game Friday. Chris Paul and David West were left with little but a two-man game with Tyson Chandler still out with an inflamed left ankle, and the Hornets dropped the front end of a critical back-to-back with the Mavericks 100-92. Paul had a brilliant 42 point, nine rebound and seven assist night, while West had 20 points and 14 rebounds, but they were stranded by their almost-invisible teammates. Posey was a non-factor, shooting 1-for-6 from the field and providing little defensively either in 19 non-descript minutes. Peja Stojakovic found only seven shots for nine points and though the hero of a few nights ago, Rasual Butler, had another late three-pointer, he scored only five points all night. The Mavs dominated the front line, getting 25 each from Dirk Nowitzki and Josh Howard while Erick Dampier had 12 points and eight rebounds. Reserves Jason Terry had 18 points and Brandon Bass 13 rebounds in further demonstration of the greater all-around night Dallas enjoyed. The two teams play again Sunday in New Orleans, and another Dallas win would leave the two teams tied for sixth. Chandler is likely to return for the playoffs, but by then, the Hornets could easily be No. 8 in the West, facing a first-round series with the Lakers.

3. The Jazz, however, are making a strong case that they will be forced into the executioner's ring with the Lakers after dropping yet another road game Friday in a 105-99 loss at San Antonio. The Spurs, without Manu Ginobili but looking to keep home court advantage in the first round, received a boost from their bench, as late-season pickup Drew Gooden scored 14 and Ime Udoka, who has long been a key reserve for San Antonio, added 13. Utah was outscored 33-16 in bench points, but couldn't make the argument it would have been better with frequent sixth man Andrei Kirikenko in reserve. Kirilenko went 1-for-9 for four points in his starting role, while Carlos Boozer, the other starting forward, provided less than a stellar effort, shooting 4-for-12 for 15 points and eight rebounds. Tim Duncan, on aching knees, played Boozer evenly, scoring 14 points and grabbing nine rebounds. The Spurs, though unlikely to advance as deep as they're accustomed, can still get home court for at least one series if they can finish in front of the Blazers, with whom they are currently tied, or Rockets, who are a half game in front. The Jazz, though slumping, hold the tiebreaker over both New Orleans and Dallas, and face an easy schedule of the Warriors, Clippers and a Laker team that may rest its starters on the season's final night.


4. The Lakers now have little to play for in their two remaining games after the Blazers sent them a message Friday. Portland made sure the L.A. knows the Pacific Northwest is their Bermuda Triangle, winning its eighth straight at home over L.A. 108-96. It was a game the Lakers needed to keep pace with Cleveland, which would now have to lose two of its last three to cede the No. 1 overall seed for the playoffs. Kobe Bryant was his usual self, scoring 32 and getting to the line a dozen times, but the rest of the team only got there eight times as the Blazers enjoyed a 37-20 advantage in free throws attempted. Portland kept Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol in check, limiting Bynum to 13 points and six rebounds while Gasol had just 12 and four. Joel Przybilla reaped the bounty on the boards, collecting 13, while LaMarcus Aldridge outplayed the Laker bigs, going for 16 points and eight rebounds. Steve Blake scored 16, too, and served up six assists as he dominated the point guard matchup with Derek Fisher, who had just two points and two assists. Rudy Fernandez, who was clotheslined by Trevor Ariza the last time the Lakers played in Portland, got the last laugh, popping for 15 points off the bench while Ariza had only four. The result essentially locks in the Lakers into the second-best record in the NBA, while Portland, now in fourth place, is in position to leapfrog Houston for third and perhaps even Denver for the No. 2 seed in the West if the final few days of the regular season break their way.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Three random observations ...

... about the NBA:

1. That was a close call Wednesday for the Magic, who very nearly had their chances of the No. 2 seed torpedoed by the Grizzlies. Orlando's sharp-shooters arrived in the final minutes to save the day, rallying the team from a 63-55 deficit to begin the fourth quarter. Hedo Turkoglu and, surprisingly, J.J. Redick combined to score 20 of the team's 27 points in the final period to lift the Magic to an 81-78 victory. Turkoglu finished with 20 points and seven assists, while all of Redick's nine points came in the fourth quarter. O.J. Mayo had two looks from three-point range in the final seconds, but neither went through, capping a 1-for-11 night behind the arc for Memphis. The Magic didn't fare much better, shooting 4-for-21 on three-pointers, but they created more possessions for themselves with a 41-32 rebounding edge, mostly thanks to Dwight Howard's 13 boards. It was enough to overcome a 16-9 advantage in points off turnovers for Memphis, and keep the Magic a game behind Boston for second place in the Eastern Conference.

2. It's amazing how in a few days a matchup with the Spurs in the first round has gone from being a booby prize to a sought-after commodity. But it looks like San Antonio's a lame duck now that Manu Ginobili is out for the year and especially after Wednesday, when Tim Duncan limped with aching knees to just four points in 24 minutes in his first back-to-back in nearly six weeks. Only Tony Parker is at 100 percent, and he was limited to just 17 points by the Blazers, who have won six of seven and got their first win at San Antonio in seven years. Portland erased a 19-point deficit in the second quarter to pull within two at halftime, feeding off its bench, which outscored San Antonio's 35-26. Brandon Roy led all scorers with 26, LaMarcus Aldridge added 20 and Joel Przybilla controlled the glass with 17 rebounds, which not coincidentally was the difference in the 43-26 advantage the Blazers enjoyed on the boards. Yes, Duncan and the Spurs won't have to face back-to-backs once the playoffs start, but it's clear Duncan won't be healthy enough to do the extra work needed to overcome the absence of Ginobili, without whom San Antonio is just 18-16 this year. The Spurs have fallen into a three-way tie for third with the Blazers and Rockets, and with games still left against the Jazz and Hornets, could easily fall as far as sixth place.

3. The Jazz were supposed to finish the season on a roll with all of their key players back in the lineup after early season health issues. It hasn't happened that way. They've lost four of their last five and continue their maddeningly poor play on the road, falling to 15-24 away from Salt Lake after a blowout 130-101 loss at Dallas. The defense just wasn't there for Utah, which allowed 55 percent shooting and 11-of-24 from behind the arc for the Mavs, who are now tied with Utah for seventh place. Dirk Nowitzki was 12-for-18 with 31 points, and Dallas got plenty of production from its backup guards, as Jason Terry had 21 points and J.J. Barea wound up with 18 points and nine assists. The Mavs outrebounded the Jazz 47-34, and capitalized with 27 points on 19 Utah turnovers. It was an all-around whipping that clinched a playoff spot for the Mavericks, who are just a game out of sixth place after languishing in eighth for most of the season.


4. The only team the Jazz beat in the last five, the Hornets, are having similar problems heading into their matchup with the Mavs on Friday. They missed Tyson Chandler dearly in a 105-100 loss to Phoenix on Wednesday, and without James Posey, who has missed the last five games as well, they have next to nothing on their bench. Shaq ate Hilton Armstrong for lunch in the low post, scoring 17 points, grabbing 11 rebounds and blocking two shots as the Hornets countered with a small lineup that kept Armstrong on the bench for all but 17 minutes. His replacements did no better, and the Suns had a 28-11 advantage in bench points. Chris Paul was his usual stellar self with 29 points, 16 assists and seven rebounds, but he was nearly matched by a vintage Steve Nash performance. Nash had 24 points and 13 rebounds, and held Paul, who holds the NBA record for consecutive games with a steal, without a single theft all game. The good news for the Hornets is Posey and Chandler should be back within a week. The bad news is they must make up two games to rise from sixth place and seventh-place Utah and Dallas are nipping at their heels, both just one game behind.