Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Three random observations ...

... about the NBA:

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

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

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

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