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

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