Wednesday, April 25, 2007

"NBA playoffs day 4 summary"

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.

Other insights
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.

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