After being shocked by Denver in Game 1 of their first round series, one might have thought the San Antonio Spurs would change their game plan heading into Game 2.
After all, another home loss to the Nuggets, and the Spurs would be in deep dodo.
But, no, there was nothing different about the Spurs who lost Sunday night and the Spurs who won Wednesday night, 97-88, to even the series at 1-1. Except that they were better. Except that their Big Three - Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobli - came to play. Except that their defense held Denver's dangerous duo - Allen Iverson and Carmelo Anthony - to a miserable 17-for-46 shooting performance.
Sorry, folks, these were the same old Spurs.
When Denver made a valiant run in the fourth quarter, Ginobli embarked on one of his characteristic drives to the basket - between at least three defenders - to extend San Antonio's lead to six. When Iverson responded with a 3-pointer to make it a one-possession game, the Spurs didn't panic (despite Robert Horry's wild arm gestures toward coach Gregg Popovich). Instead they simply threw the ball into Duncan, who backed down Nene and hit one of his very characteristic bank shots.
Game over. Series tied 1-1.
Don't get me wrong. This is going to be a great series that lasts at least six games, and I’m guessing seven. But Wednesday night had to be refreshing to San Antonio fans, because the team they saw in front of them was basically the same team that won an NBA championship about 23 months ago.
After being outplayed by Nene in Game 1, Duncan responded (like he usually does), scoring an efficient 22 points on 9-for-17 shooting. Parker still struggled a bit from the field, hitting six of 15 shots, but an 8-for-8 performance from the free throw line gave him 20 points, and he dished out six assists. Ginobli, coming off the bench, contributed 17 points, including eight in the fourth quarter.
San Antonio's chances of getting back to the Finals rest on Ginobli's shoulders. He's always the X-factor. When he's on his game, he can get to the rim - or free throw line - on any possession. It's just a question of how aggressive and hungry he is. As he said after Wednesday's game, he was playing with a sense of urgency.
And that's the other thing about the Spurs. That's what made Sunday night's loss so confounding. No matter who they're playing in the playoffs, the Spurs always play with energy and passion. There are no letdowns, no letting up on the gas. They methodically beat one team, then the next, then another... and they're in the NBA Finals (where they're 3-0).
If Wednesday was any indication, the Spurs are back. After a one-game reprieve, they're ready to show why they've been the best team in the NBA over the past half-decade.
Duncan's steadiness. Ginobli's slashing drives. Parker's mid-range jumpers and teardrops in the lane. Bruce Bowen's virulent defense.
We saw it all Wednesday night.
Which has to have the Nuggets a bit concerned heading into Saturday's Game 3 in Denver.
LeBron James looking (for the most part) like himself isn't the only big positive Cleveland can take out of its 109-102 Game 2 win over Washington Wednesday night.
How about the play of Drew Gooden? The power forward scored 24 points - three less than James' 27 - on nine fewer field goal attempts and also grabbed 14 rebounds.
The first two games of the series have been very encouraging for Cleveland not just because they've beaten the atrophied Wizards, but because of the contributions of their non-LeBrons. In Game 1 Larry Hughes broke out for 27 points, and on Wednesday it was Gooden's turn to share center stage with James, scoring 19 of his 24 in the first half to help Cleveland grab a double-digit lead that would just barely hold up at the end.
Hughes didn't have a bad Game 2 either, scoring 19 points in 44 minutes of action, and Zydrunas Ilgauskas also was solid, contributing 16 points and nine rebounds.
If James can get this kind of help on the offensive end on a consistent basis, Cleveland shouldn't have a problem making it through the first two rounds of the playoffs.
We'll see how the non-LeBrons fare on the road, however. That's where true playoff warriors earn their stripes.
What was Baron Davis thinking?
With Golden State trailing Dallas by a manageable 11 points with 0.2 seconds remaining in the third quarter Wednesday night, Davis picked up his second technical foul for arguing - and laughing, and clapping his hands about - a call against him. He was ejected and Dallas went on to win 112-99 to even the series at a game apiece.
Sure, it would have been difficult for Golden State to come back in the fourth quarter of a game Dallas needed. But Davis, the Warriors' audacious leader, should have checked himself. He knows his team has the firepower to make up 11 or 13 points in a matter of minutes. He shouldn't have lost his cool.
With that said, the Warriors have to feel good about themselves heading back to the Bay Area for Game 3 Friday night. With the exception of a 15-2 third quarter run by Dallas, Golden State played the Mavericks evenly. It's pretty obvious, now, that this series will be no cakewalk for Dallas.
As long as the Warriors' stars are able to stay in the games.
Thursday's must-see game
Houston at Utah, 9 p.m., NBA-TV
I am real interested to see how this one goes. Before the series, my thinking was that the home team would win every game, and so far that's held true. But Utah has looked really bad. Can the Jazz turn it around?
It will have to start with Mehmet Okur and Deron Williams, whose play was mediocre in Houston. Utah needs this game to stay alive. Expect a dogfight.
I'm out. Enjoy staying up late to watch Kobe vs. Raja.
Thursday, April 26, 2007
Wednesday, April 25, 2007
If you look at the majority of teams in these NBA playoffs, they have the following.
A solid starting lineup, usually featuring a star player.
And a couple role players off the bench who can provide 10 to 20 serviceable minutes.
And then there's Leandro Barbosa. It would have been a crime for the Phoenix Suns' guard not to have won the Sixth Man of the Year award (thankfully, Barbosa received the honor, and decorum remained intact).
Barbosa actually isn't a backup. He's a starting point guard. The only problem is, he's on the same team as Steve Nash, so he's relegated to the bench (at least at the start of games). But when he gets into the game, he's a force - much more than a "role player."
Just look at Barbosa's numbers in the first two games of Phoenix's series against Los Angeles. In the Suns' Game 1 win, Barbosa scored a team-high 26 points in 35 minutes of action (not exactly normal minutes for a bench guy). Then, Tuesday night, Barbosa led Phoenix's 126-98 demolition of LA with another 26 points, this time a game-high.
While Nash runs the show for the Suns, Barbosa provides quite an encore when it's time for the star to rest his back. And it is obvious that Nash is very comfortable with Barbosa in the game. Tuesday night he lied on the sideline, about as sanguine as a yoga instructor, while Barbosa dropped shots from all over the court (he finished 11-for-18 from the field).
Barbosa's play may turn out to be the key to Phoenix finally getting over the hump and making the NBA Finals, because with the way he's playing, the Suns don't miss a beat at the point guard position. Every other team in the playoffs has a drop-off from their starting PG to their backup. It is very minimal with Phoenix.
Yes, Nash dishes the ball better (he settled for 14 assists Tuesday), but Barbosa is a more explosive scorer and he can also find his teammates - just not as frequently as Nash or with as much grace and ease. Because they're different players, it's not uncommon to see them on the floor at the same time - and a lineup featuring Nash, Barbosa, Raja Bell, Shawn Marion and Amare Stoudemire is downright scary.
Despite Barbosa's play, I still think the Suns don't play enough defense to get by San Antonio in a seven-game series, but if Denver can find a way to defeat the Spurs, the Suns would be able to outrun the Nuggets.
The Spurs are the main hurdle between Phoenix and the NBA Finals. They won two of the teams' three regular-season meetings, including a 92-85 win in April during which Phoenix's usually smooth offense looked confused. If the Suns can avoid San Antonio, however, they will have a decent shot at making the finals. They're more experienced and have better depth than the Nuggets, and they split the season series with Dallas.
Of course I'm looking way ahead. Phoenix still has to win two games against the Lakers. But if Barbosa keeps playing the way he did the first two games, Phoenix will invariably make the second round and possibly keep running from there.
The Chicago Bulls are quickly ruining my prediction of a Detroit-Miami rematch in the second round. The Bulls dominated the Heat Tuesday night, 107-89, to take a 2-0 lead in the series.
Miami's players say they're not concerned, and they have a right to this outlook considering they're the NBA champs and they came back from an 0-2 deficit in the Finals last year.
But don't forget what happened to Detroit a year ago. After a phenomenal regular season, the Pistons became overly cocky in the playoffs, pushing aside losses like they were nothing... until they were eliminated. The Heat better start guarding Luol Deng and Ben Gordon better, otherwise its players could be sitting on the beach wondering what went wrong.
And one other thing: This is Miami's final run with its current nucleus. Next year – with the exception of D-Wade and Shaq - we will see a different Miami team.
I didn't see any of Toronto's 89-83 win over New Jersey Tuesday (the NBA TV factor), but I'm not worried about missing the early games in this series, because it's going at least six or seven games. These teams are very evenly matched - the first two games were decided by a combined 11 points - and will battle each other down to the wire of each contest.
One positive for New Jersey. It got the split despite two poor-shooting games from Vince Carter against his former team. In the two games he combined to shoot 13-for-43 from the field for a combined 35 points. Expect him to heat up back in New Jersey.
Wednesday's must-see game
Warriors at Mavericks, 9:30 p.m. EST, TNT
This is the second game of what should be an interesting doubleheader. Denver tries to take a 2-0 series lead in the opener against the Spurs. Obviously the Mavericks will come out with a lot of energy after losing Game 1 at home, but don't expect the high-flying Warriors to stand down against the No. 1 seed.
The closer this game is, the more pressure there will be on Dallas. Golden State simply needs to stay in the contest until the fourth quarter and then make its push.
I'm out. Enjoy LeBron owning Washington.
Tuesday, April 24, 2007
Chauncey Billups is the most clutch outside shooter in the NBA.
There, I said it. After watching Billups stop cold another late-game surge by Orlando Monday to seal a 98-90 victory for a 2-0 lead in the best-of-seven series, I am convinced.
No player in the NBA makes more big 3-pointers than Billups. His ability to drill contested triples when his team needs points is reminiscent of Reggie Miller. The only difference, of course, is in the position the two play. Miller ran off screens, caught the ball in rhythm and went straight into his shooting motion. For the most part, Billups has to create his 3-point attempts, which isn't easy considering he stands a modest 6 feet, 3 inches.
Billups is able to create space from his defender despite everyone in the building knowing he's going to shoot from behind the arc. That is one reason he's so special. The other, obviously, is that he sinks the difficult shots, which have a tendency to rip out the opponent's heart.
Monday was just another day at The Palace for Mr. Big Shot, as he's appropriately called. After Orlando cut a 15-point deficit to seven in just over two minutes midway through the final quarter, Billups hit a 28-foot triple over the arm of an outstretched defender to extend Detroit's lead back to 10 points. Later, following an Orlando basket that narrowed the margin to six with just over a minute to play, Billups showed off his versatility, driving to the basket, drawing a foul and making a twisting left-handed layup.
After the free throw, the game was as good as over.
Billups had done it again.
Everybody knows about Gilbert "Hibachi" Arenas and Kobe Bryant. Their heroics are shown on sports highlight shows - and even non-sports news shows - over and over. Billups, on the other hand, doesn't get the exposure simply because often times his shots aren't as dramatic as Arenas' 30-footers at the buzzer or Bryant's made shots while falling out of bounds.
But Billups is the most consistently clutch of the three - and of anyone else in the NBA. Dwyane Wade may be the best at getting to the free throw line. Tim Duncan may be the most clutch post threat late in a game. When it comes to hitting a big shot for three points, however, Billups is the man.
I'm sure we'll see a lot more "clutchness" from him as the playoffs continue.
Don't count Utah out in its series against the Houston Rockets.
Yes, the Jazz trail 2-0 now after falling 98-90 in Houston Monday night. But now they're headed home. And almost nobody is better at home than the Jazz. Utah finished the regular season an impressive 31-10 at home. It will be very difficult to beat there.
Expect the home fans to spark Mehmet Okur and Deron Williams, who have struggled the first two games. Utah will win at least one of the next two games, but if Houston is able to steal a game, it should close out this series on its home floor in Game 5.
An interesting side note. We've had three days of the playoffs, and on two of the days there have been identical scores in games. On Saturday, the first two games - New Jersey over Toronto and Chicago over Miami - were 96-91. On Sunday, three of the scores were nearly identical: 95-87, 95-89 and 97-85. Finally, on Monday both games were decided by a 98-90 score.
One other thing to notice about those scores: Teams are scoring under 100 points. Seven of the nine highest scoring teams this season are in the playoffs - and they all averaged 100-plus points during the regular season. The decreased point totals in the playoffs is just another pieces of evidence that teams simply exert more energy on defense in the postseason.
Tuesday's must-see game
Miami at Chicago, 8 p.m. EST, TNT
This will be a battle. The teams fought back and forth in the opener before Chicago pulled it out in the final minutes. I expect the opposite in this one. It will be close all the way, but Shaquille O'Neal will stay on the floor for the Heat, creating more space for Dwyane Wade, who will be the hero for Miami.
I'm out. Enjoy Chris Bosh’s dominance and Vince Carter getting booed.