Tuesday, March 31, 2009
1. Somehow I think Dwyane Wade would be good at stand-up comedy. Why? Because this season he's become an expert at being up on stage all alone. He scored 42 points last night, but other than 13 for Mario Chalmers and Jermaine O'Neal's 10, no one so much as scored in double figures for the Heat, who fell 101-95 to the visiting Magic. Orlando, conversely, had balanced scoring, led by Dwight Howard's 22 and Rashard Lewis' 21. The final three minutes of the game were a microcosm of the entire night as the Magic pulled away for the win. Howard, Lewis and even J.J. Redick, who sank four free throws to seal it, all scored for the Magic off assists by Courtney Lee and Hedo Turkoglu. Wade scored all the points for the Heat in the final three minutes, and created all of his own shots. It's scary to imagine what the Heat could do with a supporting cast around their superstar this year.
2. No lead is safe against an up-tempo team, a lesson the Jazz have learned twice. Utah blew a 21-point lead before recovering to beat the Suns on Saturday, and Monday they were up by 24 in the third quarter before the Knicks rallied to take a one-point lead with seven minutes to play. The Jazz regained the lead and prevailed 112-104, but Jerry Sloan has to hope his team understands now that they can't get complacent against an inferior team if it can score points in a hurry. It was at the line where the Knicks made hay, as the Jazz committed 13 fouls that sent New York to the free throw line during the comeback, including an illegal defense call. The opportunities became limited once the Jazz retook the lead with with 6:35 to play, and the Knicks took only three free throws the rest of the way.
3. You can pretty safely scratch off another team that had been contending for the final playoff spot in the East after a de facto elimination game Monday. The Nets absorbed a withering 107-78 beating at home to the Bucks in a game that was never close. Devin Harris, who has been only a 35 percent shooter in three games since returning from a shoulder injury, and Vince Carter both went 3-for-11, and no one else was able to pick up the scoring slack. The Bucks added to the Nets' offensive woes, forcing their NBA-leading average of 16 turnovers. Richard Jefferson, conversely, had a hyper-efficient night, going 8-for-12 for 29 points in 29 minutes and somehow found time to grab 10 rebounds, too. Charlie Villanueva added 20 points and rookie Joe Alexander had 16 points off the bench for a team that desperately needed the win, only their third in March. Milwaukee is barely hanging in the race, in 10th place at four games back with nine to play. The Nets, in 12th place and five and a half back, are all but mathematically eliminated.
Monday, March 30, 2009
1. I thought the Suns were out of it a few weeks ago, and they might not be mathematically eliminated for another couple of weeks, but the night they very well may look back on as the end was Sunday. Phoenix couldn't get a win on the road against the team with the worst record in the NBA, allowing Sacramento 35 points in each of the first three quarters of a 126-118 loss that has them three and a half back of the last playoff spot with eight games to play. The Suns just couldn't get any stops when they needed them, and didn't have the offensive firepower to keep up, especially with Leandro Barbosa out with a left tibial bone bruise. The Suns only had five players in double figures compared to seven for the Kings. Phoenix is learning that it's tough to go with a run-and-gun system when you don't have more than five players who can compete on the NBA level.
2. New Orleans shot only 38 percent, and Chris Paul and David West were the only two Hornets to score more than 10 points all night. So how did the team come up with a 90-86 win over San Antonio? The Hornets got to the free throw line and were nearly flawless, converting 32 of 33 attempts. Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili got to the line 19 times and had 16 makes combined, which isn't bad, but the rest of the team took only two free throws combined. The refs favor home teams, and it's no wonder these teams won all their home court games in their playoff meeting last year. That's why the struggle for position in the West, where six teams, including the Hornets and Spurs, are separated by two and a half games, is so important.
3. Another return for the Pistons, another win. Allen Iverson, who missed 16 games with a back injury, rejoined the team but not the starting lineup Sunday, and having AI come off the bench was a winning formula, at least for Sunday. He looked a bit rusty, scoring eight points on 3-for-9 shooting, but more importantly didn't get in the way of key reserve Will Bynum, who had 12 points, five rebounds and four assists in 22 minutes, or Richard Hamilton, who came back Saturday in a win against the Wizards. Hamilton entered the game with three minutes to go for Iverson, and hit the last two shots for the Pistons, including the one that sealed it from 15 feet away with 14 seconds to go. The 101-97 win pulled Detroit to within a game and a half of the Sixers, just two days after they had trailed sixth-place Philadelphia by three and a half.
BONUS OBSERVATION (Since it's close to playoff time):
4. Perhaps the most important, and coincidentally most overlooked, consequence of Andrew Bynum's injury is the weakening of the Lakers bench, which had been arguably the league's best. Sunday was rock bottom for a unit that's struggled since Lamar Odom went to the starting lineup to replace Bynum. They were outscored 29-14 by the Hawks reserves, the weakest bench of any top four team in either conference. It was a frustrating 86-76 loss for visiting L.A., and a return to their usual stingy form at home for the Hawks, who had just lost consecutive games at Phillips Arena to Boston and San Antonio.
Sunday, March 29, 2009
1. The notion that Michael Curry's greatest regret in his first season as Pistons coach was benching Richard Hamilton in the middle of the season received quite a boost Saturday. The most anticipated return was that of Gilbert Arenas from the left knee injury that has kept him out all year, but Hamilton was coming back, too, after missing six games with a groin injury. Hamilton was the dominant force in the Detroit offense, taking 29 shots and scoring a game-high 31 points. He drained a 3-pointer with about two minutes to go and hit the two game-winning free throws with five seconds left as the Pistons held off the Wizards, who had come back from down 15 in the third quarter. The game finished with great irony, as Arenas, once a great hope for the Wizards whose future has been thrown into question by injuries, launched a potential game-winning three-pointer only to have it swatted away by Kwame Brown, a former No. 1 overall draft pick for Washington whose career also turned sour, but for a few moments like this one.
2. Two teams with flickering playoff hopes met Saturday in Charlotte, and the coach of Knicks past might have extinguished, at least for this season, the chances of the coach of Knicks present. Larry Brown's Charlotte Bobcats, in ninth place, won 95-86 to stay two and a half games back of the final playoff spot while the Knicks of Mike D'Antoni are in need of a miracle as they sit in 13th, six and a half out with nine to play. The Seven Seconds or Less offense was stopped dead by Brown's more deliberate style, as the Knicks shot 38 percent and had only four players in double figures, led by Wilson Chandler and Al Harrington with 18 apiece. New York did force 19 turnovers, but Charlotte made up for by shooting 49 percent, outrebounding the Knicks 46-34, and a stellar performance by Gerald Wallace, who had a game high 23 points, nine rebounds, eight assists and three blocks.
3. Another team scrapping for a playoff berth absorbed a frustrating blow Saturday in Utah. The Suns were agonizingly close to victory in Salt Lake City, which would have been quite a coup for a team that needs every win it can get. Phoenix led by five with little more than a minute to play, and by four with just 25 seconds left. But Deron Williams, who outdueled Steve Nash, fired one of his 13 assists to Mehmet Okur for a three-pointer, and then Williams went to the basket himself, nailing two jumpers in the final minute to force overtime. The Suns resiliantly jumped out to an early four-point lead in the extra period, but Okur and Williams came back again to score the next five points to put the Jazz back on top in a 104-99 win. Phoenix is now three and a half games back, and four in the loss column, behind Dallas for the final playoff spot in the West.
Saturday, March 28, 2009
1. The Spurs got a double dose of good news this week. Manu Ginobili returned Wednesday from his ankle injury, but struggled against the Hawks, scoring only two points on 1-for-7 shooting against the Hawks. Then he turned it around, going 5-for-17 for 14 points and dishing out seven assists in just 17 minutes Friday in a 111-98 against the Clippers. He was the old Manu, even if it was a limited appearance against inferior competition. This is exactly what the Spurs feared they wouldn't be getting while Ginobili struggled to come back from the injury. Now that he looks like 100 percent, the Spurs are once more the greatest threat to the Lakers in the West.
2. Just as there is optimism in San Antonio, the Celtics have to be really worried about Kevin Garnett. The Big Ticket was held out of Boston's 99-93 win at Atlanta after struggling to only four points in 17 minutes Wednesday at Orlando. He's only five games into his comeback from a right knee strain, and he has yet to play his usual minutes as the Celtics have treated him with kid gloves. It could be over-cautiousness, but it could be that the knee hasn't fully healed, too. The Celtics got a Garnett-like 19 points and 12 rebounds from Glen Davis and a superior performance from their bench that helped them withstand a comeback attempt by the Hawks. But they've learned this season that they can count on neither. They need Garnett at or near 100 percent not just to be a contender, but to merely escape the second round.
3. That was a strange game Friday in Dallas. The Nuggets outshot the Mavs 56 percent to 36 percent from the field and still won by only two points, 103-101. Blame it on a 30-12 advantage at the line for Dallas and the fact Denver, with 14 giveaways, turned the ball over more than twice the amount of times as the Mavs, who did it only six times. But it wasn't the fault of Carmelo Anthony, who had 43 points and 11 rebounds and the only basket while the Mavs went on a 13-2 run over a seven-minute stretch in the fourth quarter. J.R. Smith had 22 points in support for Denver, but only one other Denver player scored in double figures, and that was Kenyon Martin, with 10. At the same time, Dallas had Dirk Nowitzki with 26 points, J.J. Barea with 22 and Jason Terry with 20, but no one else with more than the nine points Ryan Hollins put up. An odd evening, indeed.
Thursday, March 26, 2009
1. Maybe Dwight Howard is Superman. He pretty much singlehandedly lifted the Magic to what is likely their greatest regular season victory since the Shaq days, scoring 24 points and pulling down 21 rebounds in an 84-82 victory Wednesday in the showdown with Boston. Orlando now is in a tie with the Celtics for second in the East thanks in large part to Howard's fourth block of the game, a rejection that covered for Hedo Turkoglu's failure to contain Paul Pierce. Turkoglu was all set up to be the goat after a dreadful 3-for-18 shooting night, including an ugly heave that missed from 29 feet away that gave the Celtics a chance with 22 seconds to play. The Turkoglu miss came at the end of a poorly designed possession for the Magic, who had Rafer Alston walk the ball up the court and stall until the shot clock was under 10 seconds. It defied Stan Van Gundy's earlier calls for greater ball movement, and makes one wonder if Howard didn't have to overcome poor coaching as well as poor play by his teammates. Rashard Lewis, who nailed four three-pointers, was the only player for Orlando other than Howard to shoot better than 36 percent. That made what should have been an easier night against a visiting team that had Kevin Garnett for only 17 minutes much more difficult.
2. Denver's problem is that no one can score other than Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups. The trouble in New Orleans is that some nights, no one can score at all, as evidenced in the 101-88 victory Wednesday by the visiting Nuggets over the Hornets. No one can make the argument that Chris Paul isn't an elite player, but as a point guard, his main function is ball distribution. The trouble is that there are no elite finishers on the team. David West is indeed an asset on a winning team, but he's not a top-shelf scorer, averaging barely 20 points a game. Peja Stojakovic, who missed the game with a sore back, has been wildly inconsistent this year, and Tyson Chandler, who was also out with his nagging ankle injury, is a defensive bedrock whose offensive contributions are really only a bonus. Wednesday night, when Paul led the team with just 19 points while the Nuggets got 29 from Anthony and 26 from Billups, was a prime example of how the Hornets lack the firepower to advance deep in the playoffs.
3. So there are rumblings that Isiah Thomas and Donald Sterling have had talks about Zeke joining the Clippers' management team. There's more to this than you think. Sterling has figured out how to keep making money even if there's a lockout in 2011. Hiring Isiah would give him and the Clippers two years to perfect their act before they go on tour with the Harlem Globetrotters as the new Washington Generals. Great idea, guys!
Wednesday, March 25, 2009
1. The Rockets were dominant on the glass Tuesday, with three players who finished with double figures in rebounds. It didn't matter. The Jazz are just too tough at home. Utah held Houston to 35 percent shooting, and Deron Williams had a stellar performance distributing the ball, with 12 assists against only one turnover, as the Jazz pulled away in the second half for a 99-86 victory. Paul Millsap provided a major boost off the bench, scoring 15 points and pulling down a team-high nine rebounds, in contrast to Houston's bench, which scored 11 points and had 10 rebounds combined. It's a good sign for Utah, which would meet Houston in the first round if the playoffs started today.
2. San Antonio's role players are in an uncustomary slump. The Spurs' bench on Tuesday was outscored 30-15 by lowly Golden State, which fell by just one point, 107-106. Roger Mason, who nailed the game-winner from 18 feet with 23 seconds to go, was the only Spur who found much success other than Tim Duncan or Tony Parker, scoring 24 points. Manu Ginobili has been hurt, but their struggles can't be entirely chalked up to his absence. Michael Finley, who turned 36 this month, is a shadow of his former self. Bruce Bowen, three months shy of his 38th birthday, has fallen off considerably this year. Ime Udoka hasn't exactly lit it up, averaging almost two points fewer than his 6 ppg career average. Matt Bonner can get hot with his shot from time to time, but is far from an ideal complement to Tim Duncan in the post. San Antonio has Duncan, Parker, Ginobili, and Mason, and that's about it for people Gregg Popovich can trust on a consistent basis.
3. The Pistons lost again without Richard Hamilton, Rasheed Wallace and Allen Iverson, 99-91 Tuesday in Chicago. But in their absence has been the blossoming of point guard Will Bynum, who Tuesday dished out nine assists, shot 10-for-16 and totaled 20 points, matching Tayshaun Prince for the team high. He began getting regular minutes around the beginning of the month, and since Richard Hamilton got hurt March 13 against Memphis, Bynum has averaged 15.3 points, and on Friday got his first start of the season, in Rodney Stuckey's stead. But really his contributions offset the Pistons' other first round draft pick from 2007, Arron Afflalo, who has struggled to become the two-guard of the future Detroit hoped he would become. Tuesday's performance was, unfortunately for Afflalo and his team, not entirely atypical, as he went 1-for-7 and scored only two points.
Tuesday, March 24, 2009
1. The center, as always, was there all night Monday for the Magic. It was getting the forwards and guards to join Dwight Howard that took awhile. Orlando trailed the Knicks by 10 at Madison Square Garden with 8:26 to play when the forwards finally showed up. Hedo Turkoglu scored the next seven points for the team, and Rashard Lewis followed with a three-pointer and an assist on another Turkoglu trey that made it 90-87 Knicks with 5:31 to go. Then it was the guards' turn. Rookie Courtney Lee scored eight of his 22 in the final 4:20, and Rafer Alston gave the Magic the lead for good when he sank a three-pointer with 2:34 to go. That trey was followed by a pair of key steals by Lee and Alston, keeping the Knicks off the scoreboard for a stretch of nearly two minutes in a tight game. Howard, who had 29 points and 14 rebounds, made one of his four blocks during that stretch as Orlando prevailed, 106-102, and avoided a damaging loss going into Wednesday's showdown with Boston.
2. You don't have many nights like Monday in Portland. Brandon Roy just wasn't himself as the Blazers lost 114-108 in overtime to the visiting Sixers. Roy shot 5-for-18 and seemed particularly afflicted down the stretch, missing three shots that would have given the Blazers the lead in the last six minutes, including a miss from 15 feet with the game tied at the end of regulation. He did convert a three-point play that put Portland on top 96-94 with 1:36 to play, but that was the exception to the rule, as witnessed in overtime. Roy missed a driving layup, the subsequent putback attempt, got stripped by Willie Green and clanked a three-pointer on consecutive possessions in the midst of a game-clinching 8-0 run for the Sixers in the extra period. Roy finished with 12 points, wasting 24 points and 12 rebounds from LaMarcus Aldridge, 22 points from Steve Blake and impressive performances off the bench by Rudy Fernandez and Greg Oden. You can bet Roy, who saw his Blazers fall into a tie for sixth place with Utah, will be extra-motivated to return to his stellar self against Phoenix on Thursday.
3. I don't know how a potential playoff team could blow an 11-point lead with five minutes to play against the worst team in the conference. You'll have to ask the Chicago Bulls. It very nearly happened to them Monday at Washington, when the Bulls couldn't get inside the lane and suddenly forgot how to play defense late in the game. They let Antawn Jamison run wild, as he scored 12 of his game-high 34 in the final 4:47, including a stretch of eight points in 50 seconds that pulled the Wiz within three points with 3:57 to go. Ben Gordon countered with eight points in 1:18 to push the lead back out to nine, but Washington continued to jack up outside shots, and the Bulls grabbed the rebounds and took advantage, simply running out of time at the end in a 101-99 Chicago escape. Derrick Rose found Kirk Hinrich for what proved to be the decisive layup with eight seconds left, one of just two shots the Bulls took from within 11 feet the entire fourth quarter.
Monday, March 23, 2009
1. The week after the All-Star break is starting to look like the turning point in the race to be the primary challenger to the Lakers out West. That's the week Houston learned it would be without Tracy McGrady for the rest of the season and traded Rafer Alston to the Magic. That week was also when Manu Ginobili missed his first games for the Spurs with the ankle injury that has kept him out ever since. The Rockets have been on a tear over the stretch, going 14-4, while the Spurs have gone a pedestrian 10-8. The teams met Sunday in San Antonio, and even though they were playing on the road and got a less-than-stellar performance from Yao Ming, the Rockets came up with an 87-85 win that vaults Houston past the Spurs into second place in the Conference. Ron Artest, with a game-high 24 points, and Luis Scola, who had 19 points, including the final five for Houston, and 17 rebounds, supplemented 13 points for Yao, while the Spurs continued to lack credible offensive support for Tim Duncan and Tony Parker. It's the sort of contribution they usually get from Ginobili, who returned to practice this week, four weeks after an injury that was supposed to keep him out of games for no longer than three weeks.
2. Miami's comeback was critical. The Heat were on the verge of their second loss to a depleted opponent in three nights as they trailed the Pistons by six Sunday at the end of three quarters. Dwyane Wade had 31 points so far, but no one other than Jermaine O'Neal, who had only 10 points, was scoring in double figures. Miami didn't turn up its defensive intensity nearly as much as its offensive arsenal for the stretch run, as seven players scored for the Heat in a 34-point fourth quarter that proved the difference in a 101-96 win at Detroit. Jamario Moon, who had eight in the fourth quarter, wound with 17 of his own, good for second on the team behind Wade's 39. Udonis Haslem scored the last six points of the game to finish with 16, while O'Neal ended the night with 14. The Heat can't simply rely on Wade to get them past the first round in the playoffs. They need 48 minutes' worth of what they got for 12 on Sunday.
3. How bad are the Clippers? They were whipped 100-76 Sunday by a team that started Jake Voskuhl at center. The journeyman Voskuhl, who started nine games for a 33-win Charlotte team in 2007 and hasn't been in for a tipoff since, was substituting for Andrea Bargnani, who had a sore left heel. No one on the Raptors scored more than 16, either, but Chris Bosh had 13 rebounds to go along with those 16 points, while Shawn Marion had 14 points and 13 rebounds, while three other Raptors scored in double figures. It was more than enough for the Clippers, who got mauled 57-34 on the boards. The game was an example of the difference between the average lottery teams and the truly rancid. The Clippers are two games better than league-worst Sacramento, but don't be surprised if it's a Southern California team with the most ping-pong balls for the fifth time in franchise history.
Saturday, March 21, 2009
1. Dwight Howard played an uncharacteristically sloppy, foul-plagued game Saturday in a spot where he should have dominated. But the Magic pulled out a 110-103 win anyway in a welcome, auspicious sign for their title chances. Superman was less than heroic against the visiting Knicks, staying on the floor for just 30 minutes and attempting only seven shots in a 15-point performance even though opposing center David Lee missed the game with tendonitis in his knees. Rashard Lewis and Hedo Turkoglu played the Robin roles to near-perfection to save the day. Lewis was 11-for-18 from the floor and 4-for-10 from behind the arc to lead the Magic with 27 points, while Turkoglu went 4-for-7 from long range, dished out nine assists, pulled down seven rebounds and scored 20 points.
2. Kevin Garnett returned Friday for Boston, and even though he played limited minutes, the emotional lift to the team was palpable in an 80-77 win at San Antonio. The heart and soul of the Celtics provided inspiration that was most obvious in the play of Rajon Rondo, who had his best game in weeks, scoring 16 points and dishing out 12 assists against only one turnover. It was a point guard duel between Rondo and Tony Parker all night, with Parker going for 25 points, eight assists and seven rebounds, and if the mental toughness provided by Garnett was the difference for Rondo, it was a brain-lock for Parker that doomed the Spurs. The 79 percent free-throw shooter on the season missed four straight free throws in the final minute. San Antonio as a team scored only two points in the last 3:27. It's the sort of loss you almost never see in San Antonio, and the kind of win that could right Boston's ship.
3. How does Miami lose 96-88 in New Jersey when the Nets are playing without Devin Harris? You could lay blame on the Heat's frontline of Jamario Moon and Udonis Haslem, which was a combined 1-for-9 with five points, but it has more to do with defense, specifically against New Jersey's bench. The Nets had a 41-31 advantage in bench points, led by 18 points from both Jarvis Hayes and rookie Chris Douglas-Roberts. It was a career high for Douglas-Roberts, who shot 5-for-6 from the floor and a perfect 7-for-7 from the line, and the bench went 15-for-22 from the field as a unit. It was the kind of defensive lapse Pat Riley, now the team's president, would never have tolerated as coach. We'll see how they respond the next time out, Sunday afternoon at Detroit.
Friday, March 20, 2009
1. Portland was without LaMarcus Aldridge, out with a concussion, and Nicolas Batum, who has a sprained left ankle, rendering its usually stellar bench thin Thursday at Cleveland. It mattered little as Brandon Roy and Travis Outlaw powered the Blazers to overtime against the league's best team, despite only two turnovers by the Cavs, which tied an all-time low. Outlaw had 11 of his 17 and Roy nine of his team-leading 24 in the fourth quarter, and Roy got an unexpected assist when LeBron James lept high in the air on Roy's head-fake with three seconds to go, resulting in a foul that sent him to the line for the tying free throws. LeBron missed a runner that would have won it on the other end, but set about for his atonement in overtime. His stamp was all over the extra period, as he either scored or assisted on every Cavalier basket as Cleveland pulled away for a 97-92 win. LeBron wound up with 26 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists, his seventh triple-double of the season and 24th of his career.
2. The Hawks had a textbook performance Thursday as they finished off a 7-0 homestand with a win over the Mavs. Joe Johnson led the way with 24 points and seven rebounds, while the rest of the offense was balanced amongst their top six, all of whom scored in double figures. Flip Murray had 19 points in a sixth-man role, and Zaza Pachulia filled in the gaps during 18 minutes of play, but no one else got significant run for Atlanta, which has had little depth all season. Still, it was enough for a 95-87 victory over Dallas, which was without Erick Dampier, sidelined with a swollen left knee. The game was a demonstration of the disparity that still exists between the Eastern and Western conferences. Atlanta, which now has a record of 41-28, has a four-game lead over the closest competitor for fourth place. Dallas has the same record but is holding on to eighth place by three and a half games over Phoenix. The Eastern Conference, like the Hawks, has some real talent in its first tier, but little behind it.
3. The Lakers are embarking on a seven-game road trip with some serious concerns. Defensive lapses continue to plague the team, and after blowing leads of 15 and 14 points in their last two games, they were in a tougher-than-expected fight against the Warriors on Thursday in their final home game before the trek. L.A. committed 22 turnovers and got caught up a bit in Golden State's frenetic style. Still, the Lakers persevered, as cold-shooting Sasha Vujacic broke out of a slump to go 4-for-4 and Lamar Odom provided some unusually clutch play. Odom's layup with 1:47 to go pushed a three-point lead to five, and he assisted on a huge 3-pointer by Trevor Ariza that doubled another three-point lead with 1:14 left. Odom then hit two free throws in the final minute that sealed a 114-106 win.
Thursday, March 19, 2009
1. It was a good night all around Wednesday for Portland, which took care of business in a 95-85 win at Indiana and saw Greg Oden return to play his first game since suffering a chipped bone in his patella. Oden wasn't bad in 12 minutes off the bench, grabbing seven rebounds to go along with four points. He also wound up with a plus/minus of +21, which suggests he fit in quite well despite not having played in more than a month. Oden and Rudy Fernandez, back at 100 percent after getting hammered by Trevor Ariza about 10 days ago, means Portland's bench is looking fierce again, which can help to set them apart as they compete in a dogfight for playoff position in the West.
2. What in the world was New Orleans doing in a dogfight with Minnesota on Wednesday? The Hornets needed a David West dunk off an assist from Chris Paul to beat the lowly T-Wolves 94-93. It was a classic example of how New Orleans needs more than just Paul and West to beat anybody of consequence. Peja Stojakovic was out with a sore back, and Tyson Chandler missed the game with a gimpy left ankle, robbing the Hornets of their two most important role players. At least one of them has to play well to provide an effective complement to Paul and West, and we've learned that's true even with the addition of James Posey, who shot 2-for-8 for just five points off the bench Wednesday. Hitlon Armstrong had a strong 12-point, eight-rebound, four-block outing, but he doesn't replace the all-around inside force that Chandler is. Rasual Butler was 6-for-11 for 14 points, but can't come close to what Stojakovic provides with his shooting touch.
3. The Rockets were also in a tighter game than they ever could have imagined against a depleted Detroit team on the second night of a back-to-back. The Pistons were without Richard Hamilton, with a left groin strain and Rasheed Wallace, with a left calf strain (if I were Tayshaun Prince, I would wrap my left thigh tightly), and yet wound up in double overtime at Houston. They ran out of gas and fell 106-101, but gave the Rockets all kinds of fits. Houston's bench was somehow outscored 21-18, and Yao Ming and Luis Scola curiously allowed a dozen offensive rebounds and 32 boards overall to Antonio McDyess and Kwame Brown as the Rockets were outrebounded 48-45 as a team. Houston's concentration was clearly shaken by the shooting incident that luckily left Carl Landry with just a flesh wound. They did, like New Orleans, come up with the win, and that's ultimately what the Rockets need any way they can get it as they sit in third place, atop six teams within three games of them.
Wednesday, March 18, 2009
1. The clock read 30 seconds, but the attention was on three seconds. That was the thoroughly unexpected call on Dwight Howard that may have altered the outcome of a late-season showdown of title contenders. The Cavs led by two when the call was made, and the turnover by the Magic allowed LeBron to knock down two throws with eight seconds that clinched the 97-93 win. It was another tour de force by King James, who scored 43 points, pulled down 12 rebounds and dished out eight assists, and either scored or assisted on every Cleveland basket from the 6:01 mark of the fourth quarter on. Rashard Lewis was on the other side of the coin, capping an 0-for-8 night from behind the arc with yet another three-point miss on the Magic's final possession. He scored only six points as Orlando's reliance on perimeter scoring again surfaced as its achilles heel.
2. The Pistons fell back to .500 again with a 103-101 loss Tuesday at Dallas, but there continue to be bright spots in the wake of Allen Iverson's back injury. Will Bynum, getting minutes as a backup point guard now, scored 11 of his career-high 19 points in the fourth quarter as the Pistons clawed almost all the way back from a 17-point deficit. It was the second consecutive double-figure game for the undrafted former Georgia Tech star, who is averaging 8.4 points and 3.0 assists in 15.7 minutes of play during March. He could become a dangerous weapon off the bench, much in the same vein as Rodney Stuckey last year, as the Pistons seek a first-round upset in the playoffs.
3. It was St. Patrick's Day, ironically, when one may well have concluded the leprachaun is lost again in Boston. Injury struck yet another big man for the Celtics, as Leon Powe exited Wednesday's game with a bruised right knee. Without Powe, Kevin Garnett, Glen Davis or even Brian Scalabrine, the shorthanded Celtics fell to the Bulls 127-121. Boston has lost four of its last five, and are a half game and perhaps a three-second call away from falling into third place in the Eastern Conference. But by Wednesday, stirred by the curious call in the Cleveland-Orlando game, he seemed to have awoken, inflicting soreness in Dwayne Wade's hip that will keep him from facing the Celtics this evening in Boston.
Tuesday, March 17, 2009
1. That was an inexcusable loss for the Hornets on Monday. The Rockets played without Yao Ming, who had the flu, and still went into New Orleans and picked up a 95-84 win after trailing by 11 in the third quarter. Don't blame Chris Paul, who played his usual starring role with 29 points, 11 assists, six rebounds and six steals. He might have had an even more impressive assists total had anyone other than David West, who went for 16 points and 13 rebounds, joined him on the floor. Houston instead used balanced scoring and yet another competent spot-start from 42-year-old Dikembe Mutombo to pull away late in the fourth quarter. Five Rockets scored in Houston's closing 20-9 run after Carl Landry blocked a layup attempt by Paul with the game tied and 6:18 to play. The Hornets could have have been in a virtual three-way tie with Houston and Denver for third place in the West if they had held serve against a shorthanded team at home. Instead the Rockets have third place to themselves.
2. Curious upset Monday in Oklahoma City. Usually its the Spurs who win 78-76 games that feature no more than two points scored in the final two minutes, but this was the other way around. Kevin Durant had 25 points and running mate Russell Westbrook awoke at just the right moment to help cement a comeback from an early 17-point deficit as the Thunder beat San Antonio. The Spurs jumped out to an early 27-10 lead as Tim Duncan and Tony Parker were cooking, but Duncan scored only five more points the rest of the night as Parker was left to carry the load alone. Parker scored a game-high 28 and had every one of San Antonio's seven points in the last seven minutes, but that clearly wasn't enough as Westbrook shook off an other wise tough shooting night to nail two critical jumpers in the last five minutes. His 23-foot two-pointer that gave him eight points with 2:19 to play was the last basket of the night for the Thunder, but somehow all they needed. Manu Ginobili, your ankle can't heal fast enough for the Spurs.
3. Quite possibly the two most undeserving power forwards in the game got to strut their limited stuff Monday. Yi Jianlian put up four points on 1-for-5 shooting for the Nets in his 13th single-digit scoring game out of 14 in a blowout 121-96 loss to the Nuggets. The pride(?) of China continues to confound observers who wonder how any 7-foot starting power forward could average less than half a block a game. One must continue to wonder if the State Department has something to do with his average of 24 minutes a night. Then there's Darrell Arthur, the Kansas rookie who keeps Hakim Warrick on the bench in Memphis, where the Grizzlies suffered a 103-92 beating by the Blazers. Arthur hasn't had a double-double since Nov. 7, the only one of his career, and doesn't look like the sort of defensive presence who ought to be in front of Warrick, who averages five more points a game with better rebounding and assist numbers to boot. A strained right knee ended a scoreless first eight minutes for Arthur on Monday, but an injury shouldn't be the only reason Warrick is in line to start the next time out.
Sunday, March 15, 2009
1. You hardly would have guessed Sunday's Indiana-Toronto tilt would wind up chock full of storylines, but it did. First is the return of Danny Granger, who missed 11 games with a partially torn tendon in his right foot. He played only 18 minutes in a limited role off the bench, but his presence gives the Pacers a chance at sneaking into the playoffs. Indiana could have pulled to within a game and a half of the final playoff spot if they took care of business Sunday north of the border, but they were eaten alive inside by Andrea Bargnani and ... Pops Mensah-Bonsu? Yes, the London-born Pops had quite a night in 22 minutes off the bench, scoring a career high 21 points, partly the result of 11-for-13 shooting at the line, while grabbing eight rebounds. Mensah-Bonsu was playing just his 20th NBA game, but the undrafted 6-foot-10, 240-pound big man looked like a seasoned veteran, as did former No. 1 overall pick Bargnani, who put up 27 points and nine rebounds. A bad day for the Pacers' three-headed center rotation of Jeff Foster, Roy Hibbert and Rasho Nesterovic.
2. Kevin Garnett, the Celtics need you back. Soon. Boston looked lost in a puzzling 86-77 loss at Milwaukee. The Celtics turned the ball over a mind-boggling 25 times, including seven by Paul Pierce, and shot 1-for-12 from behind the arc, including 0-for-5 from Ray Allen. It would be one thing if the supporting cast was not there to make up for Garnett's absence, but it's troublesome to see Pierce and Allen struggle. The defensive intensity is still there, as witnessed by Milwaukee's 33-percent shooting, but Boston shot only 38 percent, weighed down by a combined 8-for-36 brickfest by Pierce, Allen and Rajon Rondo. The good news for Boston, now just a half game in front of Orlando for the last playoff spot, is Garnett is said to be ready to return from a slow-to-heal sprained right knee by the end of the week.
3. It wasn't exactly a strong night for late evening offerings in the NBA. The only team of the four playing that has a decent shot at the playoffs was done in by Steve Novak, of all people. The Nets, who began the day just a half game out the eighth spot, were subjected to a barrage of seven three-pointers, including the game-winner at the buzzer, from Novak as the Clippers stole a 107-105 victory. The other game was a nationally televised shootout between the Suns and Warriors that provided the answer to the question, "When is watching two teams score a combined 284 points not entertaining?" That would be when two teams virtually out of playoff contention stage a 24-point blowout. The Suns, behind Jason Richardson's 31 points and at least 20 each for Shaq, Leandro Barbosa and Matt Barnes, blasted Golden State 154-130 in a game that ceased to be competitive in the third quarter.
Saturday, March 14, 2009
2. Yao Ming has to be a big-time scorer if the Rockets are going anywhere in the playoffs, but no one ever said he had to become a clutch three-point shooter. That's exactly what he did Friday at Charlotte, nailing a trey in the closing minutes of a 91-86 comeback win against the Bobcats. Yao, who went 9-for-11 from the floor for a game-high 23 points, followed up his 26-foot three-pointer with a 15-footer moments later, giving Houston a six-point lead with 1:28 to play. Then Ron Artest and Aaron Brooks hit the necessary baskets from there to seal the win at Charlotte, where the Bobcats had a surprisingly good 18-15 record coming into the night.
3. Kevin Garnett is still out with his knee injury, and Glen Davis missed his second game Friday with a sprained ankle. So Leon Powe, the team's third choice at power forward, simply made up for both of them. Powe scored a career-high 30 points and added 11 rebounds to post his second straight double-double as the Celtics finished off the Grizzlies 102-92. He dominated his matchup with rookie Darrell Arthur, who had four points and six rebounds in just 21 minutes, and Boston coach Doc Rivers kept his hot hand on the floor, allowing Powe to play a team-high 41 minutes. Rajon Rondo returned from his sprained ankle to dish out eight assists and grab eight rebounds, but it was the solid play of the bench and Powe's big night that stood out in a game the Celtics couldn't afford to drop at home if they want to avoid falling into third place.
1. Former Lakers assistant coach and current team consultant Tex Winter went on the radio this week and called L.A.'s NBA-best record a mirage, saying the Lakers, mired in a season-long three-game losing streak, weren't playing at a championship level. The needling obviously worked, because Wednesday and Thursday they went out and reminded everyone they are a truly elite team. The first night they played without the suspended Lamar Odom and came back from a 14-point deficit to win 102-96 on the road against the Rockets, who had won 12 straight at home in Houston. Lamar Odom returned for the next game less than 24 hours later at San Antonio, and the Lakers beat back a rally by the team with the next best record in the NBA, using a decided advantage on the boards and in the turnover battle to win 102-95.
2. A single play Thursday in Phoenix said all you need to know about the seasons the Suns and Cavs are having. Jason Richardson went up for a 360-degree spinning jam that was to remind everyone that he is a former slam dunk champion. It would have tied the game at 97-97 in fourth quarter, but LeBron James raced from behind to knock the ball from Richardson's hands and off the backboard before it could go through the net. Joe Smith grabbed the rebound for Cleveland and the ball went to Sasha Pavlovic, who nailed a three-pointer to make it a five-point Cavs lead. Richardson was nailed with a technical foul for correctly arguing that James had fouled him on the play, and Mo Williams hit the free throw to make it 101-95. The Suns never did tie the game and fell 119-111. James, for whom everything is coming together, had 34 points, 13 assists and 10 rebounds for his third consecutive triple-double, and the fun-and-gun Suns dropped to an almost insurmountable six games back of the last playoff spot.
3. The Mavs scored a second big win on the road in as many nights Wednesday, winning in Portland a night after a victory that helped cement their playoff status in Phoenix. Dallas once more started point guards J.J. Barea and Jason Kidd together in the backcourt, and Kidd played a throwback type of game, grabbing 10 rebounds while dishing out just as many assists. Dirk Nowitzki had a game-high 29 points, and Jason Terry powered the Mavs' bench with 24 of the 35 points scored by Dallas reserves. Bench play is usually a strength for the Blazers, too, but they got 20 points from Travis Outlaw, and that was it. Rudy Fernandez missed the game, still recovering after the hit he took Monday from Trevor Ariza, and Greg Oden's knee continues to keep him out, but outside of Outlaw, Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge, who all scored 20 points or more, no one showed up for Portland. The Blazers have fallen into a tie for sixth place in the West, while the eighth-place Mavs, who have won four of five, lurk just a half-game behind.
Wednesday, March 11, 2009
1. Deron Williams offered a clinic Tuesday on how to contribute when you're having a poor scoring night. He shot 1-for-9 and had only five points in Utah's 112-100 win against the Pacers, but dished out 12 assists, forced five steals on a night when turnovers were key, and grabbed five rebounds. He gave away the ball only twice, in contrast to opposing point guard Jarrett Jack's six turnovers. Utah scored 22 points off of Indiana's 22 turnovers as a team, while Indiana got eight points off of 12 Jazz giveaways. Those are major reasons why Utah was able to overcome Williams' lack of scoring, a pedestrian night by Carlos Boozer and 46 percent shooting by the Pacers.
2. Damning loss for Phoenix last night. The Suns were at home to the Dallas team they're chasing for the final playoff spot in the West. The Mavs got a 23-point second half from Dirk Nowitzki, and a critical 10-2 run late in the fourth quarter helped send the Suns to a 122-117 loss that puts them five games back of the playoffs. The sequence that symbolized the night was Dirk Nowitzki's four offensive rebounds that kept alive a Dallas possession during that fourth quarter run and finally led to a made jump shot from 16 feet by Nowitzki, which gave the Mavs a nine-point lead and prompted the demoralized Suns to immediately call time out. Another key was the move by Dallas coach Rick Carlisle to insert J.J. Barea into the starting lineup for just the seventh time this season. Pairing Barea with Kidd in the backcourt may not work long-term, but it was certainly the right move against the small-ball Suns, as both guys wound up with double-figure scoring.
3. The evolution of the Mo Williams-LeBron James one-two punch continues. Williams and James either scored or assisted on nine of the 10 field goals Cleveland made down the stretch in a comeback from down 19 at the Clippers. James had his second straight triple double with 32 points, 13 rebounds and 11 assists, while Williams struggled until the fourth quarter. But it was when Williams showed up to score 12 of his 14 points, it showed how the Cavs are only a great team with both guys around, not just LeBron.
Tuesday, March 10, 2009
1. A wild night in the NBA on Monday. Dwyane Wade had a game for the ages against Chicago. The double-overtime thriller featured a buzzer-beating 3-pointer by Wade at the end of the first half, another trey to tie the game with 11.4 left in regulation, and then the capper, a steal that led to a running three-pointer as time expired in the second OT to give the Heat the win. Wade finished with 48 points on 15-for-21 shooting, including 5-for-6 from behind the arc, while dishing out 12 assists to boot. The Bulls kept it interesting behind Ben Gordon's 43 points, as well as an unexpected 29 points and eight rebounds from John Salmons. But the game will be remembered for Wade's heroics.
2. Monday was also the day the Lakers-Blazers rivalry officially came back. Portland was taking L.A. apart with seconds to go in the third quarter when Lakers defensive stopper Trevor Ariza went a bit overboard trying to stop a Rudy Fernandez layup, taking a wild swipe that knocked Fernandez to the ground, where he laid for the next 10 minutes before being carted off on a stretcher. (He's OK, apparently.) The hack led to a confrontation that resulted in technical fouls on LaMarcus Aldridge and Travis Outlaw. Ariza was ejected for the foul, deemed a flagrant level 2 by the officials, and Lamar Odom may have to sit out the next game for L.A. after leaving the bench. The Blazers proceeded to finish off a 111-94 shellacking of the Lakers for their 12th straight victory at the Rose Garden, and now sit tied with Utah for fourth place.
3. Forget returning to a bench role. Maybe the best thing for the Pistons is to tell Allen Iverson to just stay away. They're 5-1 without him, including three wins against division-leading teams after beating Orlando 98-94. The Pistons played well even without Rasheed Wallace, who left the game with a strained left calf in the first quarter. Richard Hamilton scored the last seven points for Detroit and played the distributor throughout the night, dishing out 14 assists to go with a total of 29 points. Tayshaun Prince added 20 points and Antonio McDyess was dominant on the boards with 18 rebounds to power the Pistons. Even Kwame Brown got into the mix, inexplicably hitting five of six shots for 10 points while going up against Dwight Howard in 26 minutes of action. It also helped that Hedo Turkoglu had only two points in 20 minutes of play for Orlando, which lost all three games to Detroit this year. The Pistons now has a glimmer of hope that they may get back to the Eastern Conference Finals this year if they make it through the first round and can match up in the second round with the Magic, a team they own.
Monday, March 9, 2009
1. I'm afraid there's not much anybody can draw from Orlando's win over Boston on Sunday. The Celtics were without both Kevin Garnett and Rajon Rondo from the start, and then lost Glen Davis to a sprained right ankle in the third quarter. The Magic took advantage of those absences in a 86-79 victory. The significance is that Orlando is just two games behind Boston for second place now, and it appears the Celtics may be forced to win two series on the road just to get back to the Finals (where they may have to win on the road again). Doc Rivers and his team say they can win on the road, but after they failed to win a single road game against inferior opponents in the first two rounds last year, I won't believe it until I see it.
2. Nice performance Sunday by Devin Harris, who scored 35 points to bring New Jersey within a game of the final playoff spot in the East. He scored eight points in the last 5:05 to give the Nets the cushion they needed, and helped keep the tempo just slow enough to knock the Knicks, who didn't have anyone score more than David Lee's 19, off their game. Harris added 10 assists, and Vince Carter checked in with 25 points and nine rebounds. Also critical was the play of Bobby Simmons off the bench. The reserve small forward was a perfect 3-for-3 from the floor, all of which were 3-point attempts, including one to break a 91-91 tie that gave the Nets the lead for good with 5:39 to play.
3. I know the Sixers were playing on the second night of a back-to-back, but jeez! Sunday's 89-74 clunker at Oklahoma City is not the kind of performance you need if you're trying to lock down a playoff berth. Kevin Durant and Jeff Green didn't even play, but the Thunder was the turtle that beat the lazy hare. Nenad Krstic ate Samuel Dalembert for lunch in the middle, going for 20 points and eight rebounds while holding Dalembert scoreless with three rebounds. Sixers Andre Miller and Thaddeus Young were the team's only double-figure scorers, going for 20 points each, but Miller had just as many turnovers as assists and Young, playing power forward, grabbed only five rebounds. The Oklahoma City bench, in 69 minutes of play, outscored Philadelphia's, which was on the floor for 82 minutes, 27-23. It was indeed an all-around pummelling.
Saturday, March 7, 2009
1. Hedo Turkoglu and Rashard Lewis turned it around just in time Friday for the Magic. Lewis had 15 points and four rebounds, and Turkoglu just five points and four rebounds as Orlando trailed by seven at home with 6:15 to play against New Jersey. It looked like Dwight Howard, with 26 points and 15 rebounds, was going to have to pull all the weight. Then the Orlando forwards went to work. Lewis scored six straight points for the Magic, and Turkoglu the next eight to put their team in front for good. Lewis wound up with 21 points and five rebounds and Turkoglu 13 and eight as the Magic won 105-102 to within three games of Boston and Cleveland for first place in the East. They play the Celtics on Sunday, and must get more consistent production from Turkoglu and Lewis to win that one and snatch one of the top two seeds in the conference.
2. It's hard to be a big-time scorer when you have to create all the offense for yourself. That was the case for Dwyane Wade, the league's leading scorer, Saturday against Cleveland. He had 25 points but was the only player on the team to dish out more than a pair of assists, dropping a dozen dimes and grabbing eight rebounds in a 99-89 loss. The performance of rookie point guard Mario Chalmers, who wound up with a single assist after 32 minutes of play, isn't going to cut it. LeBron James, with a triple-double of 14 points, 12 assists and 10 rebounds, had a lot more help on his side, but still had twice as many assists as the next Cavalier and was the only guy on the team with more than seven rebounds.
3. It was a great night Saturday for the Hawks, who got a little separation for fourth place and home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs. They beat Detroit, which could have crept to within a game back of Atlanta, and the Heat, which entered the night just a half game out of fourth place, lost to Cleveland. The Hawks entered the game having lost six of eight, and trailed by as many as 11 before their defense turned solid at just the right time. The Pistons went nearly eight minutes without a field goal during one stretch in the second half, and their starting frontcourt was held to 10-for-34 from the floor. A balanced effort led the Hawks, but Josh Smith's performance was key, as he led the team with 19 points, 12 rebounds and four blocks.
Thursday, March 5, 2009
1. Utah got the definitive performance from Carlos Boozer they've been waiting for all season last night. He had 20 points and 17 rebounds as the Jazz earned a critical 101-94 win against Houston. The victory pulled the Jazz to within a half game out of fourth place, and the home court advantage in the first round that comes with it, and a full game out of third. If Boozer and Deron Williams, who had 26 points and 14 assists, can play like they did Wednesday, and the Jazz wind up with a high seed, all their injury struggles early this season will be forgotten. And Jerry Sloan, in his 24th season, will deserve consideration for his first Coach of the Year honor.
2. It was a comeback of monumental significance Wednesday in Portland. The Blazers, locked in a struggle for position in the West, were down by 14 in the second half in a game against a second division opponent that they couldn't afford lose. And they didn't. Brandon Roy scored 10 out of the last 12 points, including the two game-winning free throws that broke a tie with 1.7 seconds left, in a performance that was befitting of the best player on a top-flight team. LaMarcus Aldridge had 21 points and seven rebounds, Travis Outlaw 21 points and six rebounds off the bench, and Steve Blake nailed back-to-back three pointers that gave Portland the lead and capped off a 14-0 run in the fourth quarter. But in the end it was all about Roy, who led the team with 28 points.
3. Bench shortening in preparation for the postseason continues amongst likely playoff teams. San Antonio essentially went with seven players last night in Dallas, experimenting with Roger Mason at point guard when Tony Parker was on the bench. The Mavs, tightening up their bench minutes as well, came away with the 107-102 win, but San Antonio's eyes were looking forward. Manu Ginobili, out with an ankle injury, will be back by the playoffs, and if the Spurs can come close to winning in Dallas without him, they look primed to make quick work of whomever they meet in the first round. Gregg Popovich wants to get his players as comfortable with the rotation as possible, but can't be too dismissive of regular season concerns. They hold a slim game and a half lead over Denver for second place in the West.
Tuesday, March 3, 2009
1. The question now is whether you think LeBron or Kobe is the league's best player or should be MVP. But the personal rivalry that will soon take over the best-player debate is one that could provide the league it's best 1-2 punch since Magic vs. Bird. Dwayne Wade and LeBron, the league's top two scorers this season, already have a history of concurrent success, having been taken with picks No. 1 and No. 5, respectively, in the 2004 draft, having already been one time each to the Finals and having scored 40 points apiece in the same game in 2006. Monday night they did it again in a duel for the ages. Wade poured in 41 points, dished out nine assists and grabbed seven rebounds as he lifted Miami to an 11-point lead with 7:52 remaining. It was not enough, though, as LeBron's 42 points and eight rebounds helped fuel a furious comeback. Mo Williams scored 15 of his 30 points in the last 7:13 and LeBron got 10 points in the final 6:50 to power Cleveland to a 107-100 victory that may be just a prelude to several years in which LeBron, 24 and Wade, 27, aren't just two of the league's biggest names. They could be the names that, like Mikan, Russell, Wilt, Magic, Bird and Jordan before them, define an era in professional basketball
2. So no Kevin Durant, no Jeff Green, and the Thunder still beat the Mavericks? How the mighty have fallen! Yes, the Mavs were without Josh Howard in the second half after he aggravated a nagging left ankle injury, but Jason Terry looked strong in his second game back since breaking his hand more than three weeks ago, scoring 20 points. He and Dirk Nowitzki, who had 28 points, six assists and five rebounds, were a two-man show in Monday's 96-87 loss. No one else hit double figures in any category, and the team shot 29 percent from behind the arc. Russell Westbrook, who can't be forgotten in Rookie of the Year talk, had his first career triple double with 17 points, 10 assists and 10 rebounds, and Nenad Krstic had a season-high 26 points. The Thunder as a team was just shy of 50 percent shooting from the field.
3. Only the Clippers can have six players in double figures but still only score 78 points as a team. That's what happened Monday in the 106-78 loss at home to the Spurs, when no Clipper had more than the 14 that Al Thornton and Fred Jones put up. L.A. was without Eric Gordon, Zach Randolph and Ricky Davis, so what little chance they would have had against San Antonio was probably gone before tip-off. Still, there was occasion for a vintage Spurs performance, from Roger Mason, who found a way to contribute even on a two-point, 1-for-9 shooting night. Mason, arguably the most important offseason acquisition of the past year, wound up with nine rebounds, five assists and two blocks against not a single turnover.
Monday, March 2, 2009
1. The Nuggets giveth in a win Friday over the Lakers, and Sunday at Indiana, they gaveth away. Chauncey Billups was there with 27 points, seven assists and four steals, and Nene had a nice 12-point, 10-rebound night, but no one else bothered to show up as Denver went east for a quick Midwestern road trip. Carmelo Anthony needed 24 shots to make 20 points, and Kenyon Martin was 3-for-10 for eight points in the 100-94 loss. The bench went a collective 7-for-25 as the Nuggets shot a collective 36 percent. That still might have been enough if the defense had been able to hold Jarrett Jack, Troy Murphy and Marquis Daniels to the more pedestrian performances to which they are accustomed. Jack had 28 points, Murphy 22 points and a whopping 18 rebounds, and Daniels 19 points and six rebounds. Then veteran Jeff Foster came off the bench and grabbed 10 rebounds in 21 minutes. The Nuggets can't allow this type of performance against an inferior opponent if they're going to wind up with the third seed in the West.
2. The Rockets, a game behind Denver right now, might jump up and grab that third spot instead. They're 6-1 without Tracy McGrady, and 5-1 since dealing away Rafer Alston. Rick Adelman shortened the bench in a 105-94 win Sunday over the Wolves, and the eight guys (seven if you consider Von Wafer played only nine minutes while everyone else went at least 25) looked like they fit together. Ron Artest, replacing McGrady at shooting guard, led the way with 23 points, while Alston's replacement Brooks had 22 points and 10 assists. Yao Ming and Luis Scola had 11 rebounds apiece and famous statistical anomaly Shane Battier was the only one amongst Houston's top seven who failed to shoot at least 50 percent and score in double figures. Yes, it was in Minnesota, an easy place to get a win. But it was a glimpse of the rotation the Rockets will probably use in the playoffs.
3. Short benches were the theme Sunday in Atlanta, too, but it was hardly by design. The Hawks, who have perhaps the greatest dropoff from starters to reserves in the league, met the Cavs, who are see-through thin in the post without Ben Wallace. Both teams used only eight players, and although it was Atlanta's bench that stepped up, Cleveland came away with a one-point victory. The Cavs got only six points off the bench, all from J.J. Hickson, but Mo Williams and LeBron James saved the day. Williams hit a three-pointer with 47 seconds left to tie the game, and then James drove the lane, drew the foul on Al Horford, and hit a free throw with 1.6 seconds on the clock to win it, 88-87. Those two were there all night, James with 26 points and 11 assists, Williams with 20 points, to power the undermanned Cavs. The Hawks got 14 points from Flip Murray and 11 points and eight rebounds from Zaza Pachulia, but couldn't overcome a pedestrian performance by everyone else except Joe Johnson, who had 21 points. Johnson could have been the hero if the decent look he got on the game's last play went in, but his 18-foot shot was just a bit too long.
Sunday, March 1, 2009
1. People like to say Michael Jordan had a "killer instinct," or an ability to take over games and punish an opponent that stood between him and victory. It's often said that other great players who are compared to Jordan lack that "killer instinct." Make no mistake: Dwyane Wade has that "killer instinct." Exhibit A was Saturday's comeback against the Knicks, sparked when Danilo Gallinari's elbow met Wade's face in the fourth quarter. There was no call, and Wade, who would require three stitches after the game, was bent. Heat coach Erik Spoelstra received a technical foul, but Wade let his anger out through the game. Nate Robinson made the ensuing technical free throw to give the Knicks a 103-88 lead, but the Knicks would not score again until they trailed 107-103. Wade scored 15 points in that 19-0 run and 24 in the fourth quarter as a hole as the Heat stole a 120-115 win in Madison Square Garden. That kind of performance, at the mecca of basketball no less, is what made Jordan's legend, and it lends credence to the idea Wade may soon be remembered as of the 10 best ever to play the game. He's that good.
2. So that's why Chicago used the ninth pick on Joakim Noah last year. Noah outrebounded opposing center Yao Ming, who has a seven-inch height advantage, by a margin of 15-7 in a 105-102 Bulls victory over the Rockets. Even 6-foot-3 Derrick Rose, with eight, had more rebounds than Yao. Rose paced the Bulls with 22 points and seven assists as well, and the veteran Chicago bench again outplayed the reserves of a better team in an upset win, much like in Tuesday's win over Orlando.
3. Utah is going to be a tough out in the first round. Now that they have Carlos Boozer back, they have a semblance of what their team should have looked like this year if injuries hadn't dominated the first four months of their season. The upside of all the missed time by their stars means the role players and bench guys have added another dimension to their games as they've tried to compensate, and they'll be that much better for the stretch run. No one would have thought Ronnie Price and Mehmet Okur would have had 26 points apiece to lead Utah to victory, but that's what happened last night in a 102-89 win over Sacramento. Paul Millsap, who took the biggest leap as he replaced Boozer for much of the year, had a team-high 12 rebounds off the bench.