Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Looking Forward to the Lottery

The 2007 NBA Draft Lottery, just five hours away, will be, hands down, The Moment of the 2006-07 NBA Season. Seriously. After a regular season marred by blatant and widespread tanking, the atrocious Eastern Conference playoffs, which have been as entertaining as C-SPAN, the Western Conference playoffs peaking in Round 1 with the Warriors’ upset of the Mavericks, the Suns falling victim to the NBA’s rigid interpretation of a stupid rule and the JI-NORMOUS asterisk that will be placed next to the now-inevitable Spurs’ championship, the Lottery is the lone remaining dose of pure excitement that this season has to offer. Sure, the NBA has yet to crown a champion and the draft will, as always, be an intriguing night, but short of Kevin Durant being selected #1 overall (shocking) or one of the draft’s Big Two (Greg Oden and Durant) falling to the third pick (unconscionable), no moment from the remainder of playoffs or the night of June 28 will match the moment when 1) it’s revealed that a non-Bottom 3 team got a Top 3 picks and 2) the team with the #3 pick is revealed (and their representative gets the look of a man with a mouthful of lukewarm Jack Daniels), and two of the following storylines come to fruition:

- Everyone wins in Memphis: fans are rewarded with a young superstar and the Grizzlies’ likely return to the playoffs, current ownership sees a spike the team’s market value, prospective buyers get a reason to shell out big bucks for the team besides “hey, it’s an NBA team”.

- The Boston Celtics team an emerging SUPERstar with Paul Pierce, Al Jefferson, Rajon Rondo and Delonte West, return to NBA relevance.

- This time, the Milwaukee Bucks grab a legitimate stud at the top of the draft and are on track to return to the playoffs, dulling the pain that accompanies the realization that Andrew Bogut is, at best, a serviceable big man.

- The Atlanta Hawks draft someone taller than 6’7”! They still have no point guard, but it’s a step in the right direction.

- Supersonics draft Greg Oden/Kevin Durant and save professional basketball in Seattle!

- Get excited Portland! With their fourth top-10 pick in three years (NONE of them ex-cons!!!), the Portland Trailblazers are the NBA’s best young team!

- The Minnesota Timberwolves have two legitimate SUPERstars in the frontcourt and Randy Foye in the backcourt. Back away from the ledge, Mr. Garnett! Everything is going to be OK.

- Good news: The Charlotte Bobcats have the first SUPERstar in franchise history! Better news: Bob Johnson doesn’t have to pay him like one and Michael Jordan didn’t have to skip a couple of blackjack shoes to do any actual scouting!

- The Chicago Bulls’ roster is more loaded now that at any point during the Jordan era… Thanks Isiah! On the bright side, Eddy Curry did average a whole seven rebounds a game this year.

- Greg Oden/Kevin Durant rekindles Sacramento’s love affair with the Kings. Sadly, his family has forbid the young man from any social contact with a Maloof brother until age 21.

- With the contracts of “Trike DunMurphy” and the aging Jermaine O’Neal killing their cap, a lucky break saves the Indiana Pacers and prevents Larry Bird from being exposed as the Isiah Thomas of the Midwest.

- Out of habit, fans in Philadelphia boo the 76ers’ victory in the Lottery. Also out of habit, Billy King trades the top pick for two albatross contracts and a fringe NBA player.

- After Katrina forced a bottom-dwelling team to Oklahoma City, the Hornets return to New Orleans with Chris Paul, Oden/Durant and a living-up-to-his-potential Tyson Chandler. David Stern cancels every future trip to Oklahoma City due to a “cold”.

- The Los Angeles Clippers land their first legitimate SUPERstar since moving to L.A. and plan to team him with Elton Brand, Sam Cassell, Cuttino Mobely, and (hopefully!!!) Shaun Livingston. The excitement is contagious, as Los Angeles becomes a Clippers’ Town for 20 minutes before returning to fawning over the Lakers… or not giving a damn about anything.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Suns-Spurs, Game 5: A Recap

All the pre-game conversation focusing on the suspensions of Amare Stoudemire and Boris Diaw overshadowed the fact that there was an actual basketball game to be played on Wednesday night, and it turned out to be a damn good one! Game 5 served as a reminder of why these suspensions have dominated the sports scene for the past two days: this is the last remaining playoff series worthy of emotion investment. And thankfully, Game 5 was just about basketball. The league’s two best teams playing the most important game of the season. Some thoughts on Wednesday’s game:

-The Suns inevitably came out with a lot of energy and dominated the first half, especially on the boards and on the defensive end. The Suns led by as many as 16 points and, powered by a monster effort from Shawn Marion, looked ready to run the Spurs off the floor. That they were not able to deliver a definitive knockout punch to San Antonio in the first half and went into the locker room leading by just eleven points was cause for a little bit of concern.

-In coming back to wrestle the game away from Phoenix, the San Antonio Spurs were the epitome of professionalism and championship experience. Lost amid talk of the Spurs being “cheap-shot artists” and a “dirty” team was the fact that they are a poised and talented team of championship-quality players. In a well-played game that was not marred by dirty play or cheap shots, the Spurs did not panic when they were faced with a double-digit deficit and embodied coach Gregg Popovich’s manta of “Don’t be in a hurry to win.”

-After a first half in which they had the Spurs back on their heels, the Suns didn’t play with the same aggressiveness in the second half. Maybe it was fatigue, maybe they crashed after the emotional high of the first half, but the Suns had the look of an NFL team that was looking to run out clock after building their lead. Unfortunately, there was too much time left in the game for an eleven-point lead to hold up against a team the caliber of the Spurs. Had Phoenix started the third quarter playing at the same frenetic pace they played with in the first half the Spurs might not have gotten their confidence back as quickly as they did and the crowd could have tried to carry them to a blowout win.

-Filling for Stoudemire AND Diaw, Kurt Thomas played an excellent game, scoring 15 points and grabbing 12 rebounds (X on the offensive end), but he should not have been the Suns’ primary offensive option in the frontcourt. Phoenix went away from Shawn Marion, who was electric in the first half, scoring 20 points and grabbing 11 rebounds, choosing instead to run the pick-and-roll with Nash and Thomas. While San Antonio did go to a smaller lineup in the second half to eliminate Marion’s considerable speed and quickness advantage against their big men, Phoenix neglected to put Marion on the block against a smaller defender and run the offense through him. Kurt Thomas stepped up big when his team needed him, but even at his best he’s not the offensive weapon that Shawn Marion is.

Even with the opportunity to close out the series in Game 6 in San Antonio, the Spurs are not out of woods just yet! The Suns, without two of their top frontcourt players, came within a couple of minutes of taking control of this series. Now, they will head into Game 6 at full strength, with Stoudemire and Diaw rested and hell-bent on taking back the game they feel was stolen from them, with the belief that they are capable of beating the Spurs anytime, anywhere. As long as his aggression doesn’t land him in early foul trouble, you can pencil Amare Stoudemire (who will play Game 6 like a man possessed!) in for 35 point and 15 rebounds on Friday night.

This is Must-See TV! The NBA could expand this series to a best-7-out-of-13 and it still wouldn’t be long enough!

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Suns-Spurs: What To Look For In Game 5

As badly as the Suns were screwed by the NBA and as important as Amare Stoudemire and Boris Diaw are to the team, Steve Nash Shawn Marion and Leandro Barbosa are still there, so Game 5 is NOT a lost cause. In the absence of Stoudemire and Diaw, the Suns do not need to change their gameplan, but they will need to make some adjustments.

Offensively, they will need to get Shawn Marion involved early. He is the most versatile player on the floor, able to create his own shot off the dribble, fill the lane on the break and hit from the outside. Marion is the player on the Suns most capable of getting the Spurs into foul trouble, which would be huge in filling the void created by the suspensions. Also, if Marion gets going early, all of the Spurs will need to pay attention to him on defense, open up driving lanes for Nash and Leandro Barbosa, and creating open looks for Raja Bell and James Jones.

Defensively, the Suns, without a true shot-blocker in the paint, will need to stay at home on San Antonio's perimeter players and not allow Parker, Ginobili and Finley to drove to the basket. Phoenix will have to guard Duncan straight-up and risk him having a monster game. This way they can limit the Spurs' open looks from the outside, not allow easy drives to the basket avoid mismatches on the boards.

With the talent still on the Phoenix roster for Game 5, not to mention a crowd that will be in an absolute frenzy, this game will be very competitive. As long as the Suns can keep Kurt Thomas and Shawn Marion out of foul trouble, they have an excellent chance of pulling this game out. It is important to remember, after all, that the best player in the series will be on the floor for the Suns. If it's close in the fourth quarter, look for Steve Nash to will the Suns to the victory.

A Sad Day for the NBA

The NBA’s reaction to Robert Horry’s body check on Steve Nash, which momentarily pulled Amare Stoudemire and Boris Diaw off the Suns’ bench, has potentially derailed one of the best playoff series in recent NBA history. Stoudemire and Diaw will be forced to sit out Game 5 in Phoenix after leaving the “the immediate vicinity of the bench” toward what the league is calling an “altercation”. David Stern and his flunkies at the league office have made a mockery of the game and taken hypocrisy to embarrassing heights. After turning a blind eye to multiple cheap shots by Bruce (yes he is dirty!) Bowen, ignoring an identical transgression Tim Duncan and Bowen earlier in the SAME GAME and refusing to discipline the Spurs for abusing Nash in every way imaginable, the NBA has suspended two key members of the Suns who did nothing to escalate a testy situation and were simply reacting to seeing their team leader laid out on the floor.

This is one the few times I can remember actually being embarrassed to be an NBA fan! Listening to David Stern on ESPN Radio’s Dan Patrick Show repeatedly brought one question to mind. Who the hell does this guy think he is? He refuses to answer direct questions and usually does not even wait for the interviewer to finish asking the question before giving his standard, nonsense company-line answers! His smug arrogance was sickening. Though he is a visionary and one of great minds in all of sports, with this ruling David Stern compromised the NBA’s integrity, disgracing the game and the league.

What is the league’s motivation in showing this kind of favoritism toward the Spurs? What could be the driving force behind such a nonsense decision? Maybe the Commish is truly smarter than everyone else! Ever since the break-up of the Shaq and Kobe, the league has not had a face or a central theme. In the past quarter century, the NBA has had the Lakers-Celtics (Magic v. Bird), the Bad Boys, the Jordan era (I and II) and the run of the Shaq-Kobe Lakers. Despite the league’s abundance of young stars and entertaining play from teams like the Phoenix Suns and Golden State Warriors, the league has not had an emerging dynasty or a single player than transcends all the others. So what has Stern done? He's taken a page out of Vince McMahon’s WWE playbook and created a villain that all NBA fans love to hate. The “Seemingly-Classy-but-Really-Dirty-Commissioner’s-Pet Spurs” are exceedingly hateable and have emerged as NBA fans’ public enemy #1. There is more hype surrounding this playoff series than any in the past three years. Casual fans are talking about this series! 10:30PM Eastern start time or not, Game 5 will pull a HUGE ratings number as even casual fans watch, waiting for a brawl to break out or to see Bruce Bowen take a forearm (or three or four) to the head.

Well played, Commish! One of the great PR tacticians of out time shows us that he is still on top of his game!

Series Wrap-Up: Jazz-Warriors

Jazz win series 4-1. Fresh off a stunning upset of the Dallas Mavericks, the Warriors entered this series as the hottest team in the playoffs and the “experts” choice to pull another upset and get to the conference finals. Despite Mehmet Okur starting out the series like a “bizarre Nowitzki” on the boards and from the perimeter and Golden State not having an answer for Carlos Boozer in the paint, the Jazz had to work very hard to win Games 1 and 2 at home. In addition to Boozer and Okur, Derek Fisher and Andrei Kirilenko also played key roles in Utah’s victory. Fisher began the series as an emotional hero, but emerged as Utah’s defensive answer to the white-hot Baron Davis and its savior in Game 5, scoring 20 points and hitting 4 3-pointers that helped eliminate the Warriors. The series also saw the return of Andrei Kirilenko, whose emotional state over the past 2 weeks may be one of the great roller coaster rides in NBA history. AK-47, who is the PERFECT defensive weapon to combat the Golden State’s “no bigs, lots of 6’7” shooters”, frustrated Stephen Jackson and Al Harrington while averaging a solid 16 points, 9 rebounds and 3 blocks in the series.

The Warriors, who, shot the ball well from the perimeter, making nearly 40% of their 3-pointers in Games 1-4, had a legitimate chance at winning every game in this series. Even in Game 4, their most lopsided loss, Golden State entered the fourth quarter with a three point lead. This is an athletic and versatile team that can shoot the lights out and beat anyone on any given night. In order to challenge the league’s elite teams next season, the Warriors will have to placed a greater emphasis on their “in-the-paint” offensive game, which will allow the to 1) stay in games when their outside shots are not falling and 2) take opposing big men, like Boozer, Kirilenko and Okur in this series, off the floor by getting them into foul trouble. All in all, however, the Golden State Warriors exceeded even the most optimistic expectation this season and deserve our gratitude.

Great season, guys! Thank you for the excitement! Thanks for the frequent reminders that this game can still be a hell of a lot of fun! Can't wait to see you next year!

Monday, May 14, 2007

How Is This OK?

In a postseason marred by inconsistent and, at times, embarrassingly one-sided officiating, Greg Willard, Eddie F. Rush and Tim Donaghy took bad officiating to whole new level with their performance in Game 3 of the Phoenix Suns-San Antonio Spurs series. On the heels of the Suns calling out the Spurs' Bruce Bowen as a dirty player, not the first such allegation, for his Game 2 kick to Amare Stoudemire's Achilles, it was Bowen and the Spurs (again!) getting every questionable call while Stoudemire couldn't take two steps without getting whistled for a foul. If this wasn't bad enough, just one minute into the 3rd quarter, Bowen's knee somehow managed to find Steve Nash's groin, sending the two-time MVP to the floor in pain. Foul on Bowen, right? Of course not!

How is it that a player who has been accused of dirty play on several occasions, under scrutiny for yet another allegedly dirty play, can run his knee into another player's midsection, NOT while running or jumping, but while standing relatively still, without picking up a foul? Good question. While Bowen has removed virtually all doubt as to whether or not he's a dirty player, he's not entirely to blame. Where are the officials??? If the league is going to insist on banning anything even resembling a hard foul, it's the officials' responsibility to project the players' well-being.

Late in the 4th quarter, once the game had already been decided, Bruce Bowen was called for a cheap foul on Nash. It was the kind of foul that could be called on Bowen on EVERY play. He wouldn't last 5 minutes in any game if this was called consistently. It was as though the officials were telling Phoenix "see, we call fouls on Bowen!" This was a blatant act of disrespect, not just toward the Suns and their fans, but toward all NBA fans. This kind of horrendous officiating is calling the integrity of the league into question.

Looks like Joey Crawford was the only chance the Spurs' opponent had of getting a fair shake.

Friday, May 11, 2007

The NBA Must Protect Its Stars

How long is the NBA going to allow Bruce Bowen to put the livelihood of its top players at risk? The NBA is a star-driven league and Bowen is a threat to the quality of the league's product. After being kicked in the Achilles by Bowen, Amare Stoudemire, the NBA's best young big man, has joined Ray Allen and Vince Carter, among others, on the list of NBA players that have accused Bruce Bowen of being a dirty player. Not one of these three has a reputation for mindlessly shooting his mouth off, which is an indication that perhaps the league should monitor Bruce Bowen's actions more closely. He is an hard-nosed player with average (at best!) skill who has learned what today's referees will allow him to get away with and is taking advantage of it. Had he been playing in the 1980s, Bowen's opponents would have taken it upon themselves to discipline him with some well-placed elbows and forearms. However, the NBA's increasing efforts to eliminate violent play with the advent of the flagrant foul and the referees' itchy trigger fingers with technical fouls and ejections, someone needs to step in before a superstar is seriously injured.

Why Is Okur Doing What Dirk Couldn't?

Let’s be honest. The Warriors had a very nice gameplan for slowing down Dirk Nowitzki, but they are not a great defensive team- they’re not even a good defensive team! So why is it that Mehmet Okur, whose game is not all that different from Dirk Nowitzki’s, is averaging 22 points and 14.5 rebounds (4.5 offensive) per game while shooting 56% from the floor, and Dirk only managed 19.7 points, 11.3 rebounds (in his defense, 4.2 offensive boards) per game, while shooting 38.3% from the floor and making just 21% of his threes?

The Utah Jazz and the Dallas Mavericks are similarly built teams. Both teams have other offensive weapons (Jason Terry, Josh Howard and Jerry Stackhouse on the Mavericks, Carlos Boozer, Deron Williams and Matt Harpring for the Jazz), both teams have point guard that can drive-and-kick (Terry and Devin Harris for the Mavs, Williams and Derek Fisher for the Jazz) and both teams run very methodical, structured offenses.

Utah’s success against Golden State in the first two games of their series has revealed 1) that Dirk Nowitzki isn’t all that much better than Mehmet Okur and 2) the biggest flaw in the Dallas Mavericks: It is nearly impossible to have major success in the playoffs when your best perimeter scorer also be your best interior scorer and your best rebounder. The fact that Deron Williams combines the strengths of both Jason Terry and Devin Harris’ games, and that Carlos Boozer is an absolute monster in the paint creates an environment where Okur can thrive. With that said, there’s still no explanation for the league’s MVP putting up just 2 shots 21 minutes in the 2nd half of Game 5 and going 2-13 in Game 6.

Sunday, May 6, 2007

Series Wrap-Up: Rockets-Jazz

Jazz win series 4-3. Utah won the only first round series to go seven games thanks to strong play in the paint an outstanding point guard play. The Jazz were led by Carlos Boozer, who averaged 25 points and 11 rebounds. While Andrei Kirilenko was having a very tough series, Boozer was supported in the frontcourt by Mehmet Okur (11 ppg, 8 rpg) and Matt Harpring (11 ppg, 5.6 rpg).
In the backcourt, playoff first-timer Deron Williams played with poise and confidence, averaging 16 points, 8 assists and 5 rebounds in the series (19 points, 9.3 assists in Utah's 4 victories) and avoided the mistakes that normally come with inexperience. With the depth and talent they exhibited in this series, the Jazz showed that they are capable of playing with any team in the Western Conference.

The Rockets, on the other hand, were exposed as little more than a two-man team. Not one member of their supporting cast consistently contributed on the offensive end. Not only did they not raise their games for the playoffs, they saw a dramatic drop-off in their performance. The supporting cast of Shane Battier, Juwon Howard, Luther Head and Rafer Alston combined to average a less-than-stellar 30 points per game against the Jazz, on just 37% from the floor, 14 points below their combined regular season average. To compound matters, Yao Ming, also saw a dramatic drop-off in his performance. On the surface, his averages of 25 points and 10.3 rebounds appear very solid, but in this series his field goal percentage fell to 44% (from 51.6% in the regular season), he averaged less than one block per game (down from 1.96) and he averaged an unacceptable 4.74 turnovers a game (up from 3.48 on the season). Tracy McGrady, the Rocket who will receive the most blame for this loss, was the lone member of the team that truly showed up and fought against Utah, averaging 25.3 point (on just 39% shooting, however), 5.9 rebounds, 7.3 assists and just 3 turnovers per game. In the coming off-season the Rockets will must look to add a third scorer to ease the pressure on T-Mac and Yao. It is absolutely necessary if they are going to take the next step and become championship contenders.

Western Conference Semifinal Preview

Phoenix Suns v. San Antonio Spurs- This one has all the makings of a classic. The Suns, coming off an extremely efficient first round series, disposing of the Lakers in just five games, are healthy and look to be more motivated than in years past. As for the Spurs, they are, well, the same Spurs: consistent, focused, steady and, most importantly, peaking at the perfect time. The Spurs, as always, have their typical deep roster of veterans with the likes of Michael Finley Robert Horry and Brent Barry, but this year’s version is lighter on talent than in the past, while the Suns will be operating with a very small margin for error since their regular rotation seldom features more than seven players.

Frontcourt: Although Tim Duncan, one of the great big men in league history, anchors the Spurs’ front line, the depth and talent supporting him are somewhat suspect. Michael Finley is still capable of the occasional big game, but not nearly the offensive weapon he’s been in the past, Robert Horry is little more than a crunch-time spot-up shooter these days, and the two-headed center of Fabricio Obert and Francisco Elson, an asset on defense and on the offensive glass, does not pose much of a threat on the offensive end.
The Suns’ depth and diversity in the frontcourt gives them the edge. In addition to Amare Stoudemire, who’s back among the most dominant big men in the league, Shawn Marion’s speed, quickness and inside-outside game (not to mention his underrated defense) will make him a key player in this series. Throw in Kurt Thomas, whose strength and experience will help him do a better-than-expected job against Duncan, Boris Diaw, the Suns’ best passer not named Steve Nash, and the outside shooting of James Jones, the Suns should win the battle up front. It should be noted, however, that the key to this series will Amare Stoudemire’s ability to avoid foul trouble. Without him, the Suns lose the frontcourt advantage. He needs to stay on the floor for Phoenix to have a chance at winning this series.

Backcourt: Maybe the most intriguing match-up of the postseason. These teams are so similar in the backcourt it’s scary. Both teams feature quick, intelligent point guards that can score and set up their teammates for easy buckets (Needless to say, Nash is the best in world at this, but Parker is pretty good too), defensive stoppers at the 2-guard position with limited offensive games, both fo whom inspire “Is he a dirty player?” arguments (Raja Bell Probably is, Bruce Bowen definitely is), and versatile and talented South American combo-guards coming off the bench (Ginobili is more experienced and more productive, Barbosa is the tougher match-up). It’s almost too close to call, but the edge has to go to the Suns as they win two (Nash over Parker, Bell over Bowen) of these three match-ups.

Coaching: This will be fantastic coaching match-up. We have two of the top coaches in the league, each with a talented, healthy and rested team, and a match-up of completely different offensive and defensive philosophies. If this theory holds true in boxing, why would it not apply to basketball? Two excellent coaches with unconditional faith in their respective systems

Prediction: Suns in 7. Needless to say, Phoenix will dominate this series if it's played in the open court. But now, with a healthy Amare Stoudemire, the Suns will be able to play a half-court as well. This versatility on offense, combined with the Suns' superior athleticism and team, as well as having Game 7 played in their home floor, will allow the Suns to advance to the Western Conference Finals. For the sake of basketball fans everywhere, this series should adopt a best 6-of-11 format. Given the talent and poise on both sides, as well as the fact that both teams are healthy and playing exceptionally well, this could be one of the greats playoff series in recent memory.

Utah Jazz v. Golden State Warriors- After thumping the top-seeded Mavericks in the opening round, the Warriors are riding one of the great waves of momentum in recent history, but that alone will not be enough. It’s impossible to know just how long this joyride will last, but it’s seems safe to say that the Warriors’ playoff lives are directly tied to 1) continued hot shooting from behind the 3-point line and 2) Utah’s ability to play at a similar tempo and frustrate the Warriors. As impressive as they looked in disposing of Dallas, Golden State did show a tendency to become rattled when the calls are not going their way in close games on the road. The key to beating the Warriors is not to try and slow them down, but to run with them and take tadvantage of their cold spells from the outside, and the Jazz have the guard play and versatility to pull this off.

Frontcourt: Each team brings something different to the table with regard to frontcourt play. Golden State’s versatile, but undersized, frontcourt creates huge match-up problems and gives less athletic big men (like Dampier and Diop) fits. The Jazz won’t have the same problems matching up with the Warriors up front. Defensively, Andrei Kirilenko, Carlos Boozer, Matt Harpring and rookie Paul Millsap can follow the Warriors’ shooters outside and should give Utah a considerable rebounding edge. Offensively, Boozer is either too strong or too quick to be stopped by any of the Warriors’ big men and Mehmet Okur is a carbon-copy of Dirk Nowitzki, just without the pressure of having to be the best player on the floor every night. Toss in Utah’s offensive rebounding edge with Kirilenko, Boozer and Millsap, and the obvious edge in the frontcourt goes to the Jazz.

Backcourt: The Utah Jazz enter this series with a greater ability to control the tempo of the game against Golden State than the Mavericks, who do not have a true point guard running the offense. In Derek Fisher and Deron Williams, Utah has two pure point guards who know how to manage a game. In spite of this, the Warriors have a clear edge in both versatility and depth. With (so far) playoff MVP Baron Davis, Jason Richardson, Mickael Pietrus, and Stephen Jackson, the Warriors guards have more manpower and firepower than do Utah’s. While the Warriors have an edge in the backcourt, the backcourt of the Jazz should present a much more challenging match up than Dallas’ backcourt did.

Coaching: A marquee match up. With 50 years of experience and more than 2,200 regular season wins between them, Don Nelson and are no strangers to the big games. Nellie did a phenomenal job of rescuing the Warriors’ season, but he has not shown the ability to go deep into the playoffs. With a greater number of playoff games coached (175; Nelson- 166) and playoff victories (87; Nelson 75), as well as multiple trip to the NBA Finals, the edge in the coaching department belongs to Utah’s Jerry Sloan.

Prediction: Jazz in 7. This series should be very competitive. Golden State enters the series with more momentum and the biggest home court advantage in these playoffs, but with a time-tested system run by true point guards, great experience on the bench, and a great home crowd of their own, the Utah Jazz should win what could be one of the more entertaining series of the playoffs.

Saturday, May 5, 2007

Eastern Conference Semifinal Preview

Series Wrap-Up: Raptors-Nets

Nets win series 4-2. Apologies to Jason Kidd and the New Jersey Nets, who looked fantastic in this series. In disposing of the Raptors, the Nets were healthy and confident, and showed no signs of the inconsistency that plagued them during the regular season. The keys to this series were the Nets’ defense, which held the Raptors to just 87.5 points per game in this series, 12 below their season average, as well as Jason Kidd’s virtuoso performance. Kidd was as good as at any time during the Nets’ Finals runs, averaging a triple-double (14 points, 10 rebounds and 13.2 assists per game). Also, Kidd received help from the other stars in the Nets’ starting lineup, Vince Carter (25ppg, 6rpg, 4.8 apg) and Richard Jefferson (21.5ppg, 48% from the field). The Nets showed the benefits of playoff experience by a) playing with added intensity in their series’ opening win and b) winning all of their home games.

The inexperienced Raptors, who will grow into an Eastern Conferences power, will benefit from this taste of the playoffs. Look for them to win a playoff series next season.

Looking ahead, if the Nets are healthy and playing with this high a level confidence, they are fully capable of knocking off Cleveland and sneaking into the East Finals. Following his Round 1 showing against two good, young point guards (T.J. Ford and Jose Calderon), Jason Kidd is a good bet to torch Daniel Gibson (small, inexperienced and less talented than fellow Texas alum Ford) and Eric Snow (yikes!).

Friday, May 4, 2007

Some Thoughts Following the Warriors Win...

The Golden State Warriors' first round upset of the Dallas Mavericks revealed a lot about both teams. A few undeniable truths that emerged during the Warriors' spanking of the Mavericks:

A healthy and happy Baron Davis is as devastating as any point guard in the NBA. As good as Davis' numbers were (25ppg, 6.2rpg, 5.7apg, 1.83spg, 54% FG, 45.5% 3pt), his impact on the series extended far beyond statistics. Baron Davis' ability to get into the paint at will opened up the floor for the Warriors' shooters and set the tone for Golden State's domination of the Mavericks. He's the perfect point guard for Don Nelson's run-and-gun, small-ball system- he's Tim Hardaway with better instincts and more of a killer instinct. As always, his health is a concern, but when he's healthy, he's as dominant as any lead guard in the NBA.

Sure he’s crazy, but Stephen Jackson is a damn good player!
Yes, he was suspended for following Ron Artest into the stand in Detroit; yes, the Indiana Pacers were so eager to get him out of town that they agreed to the worst trade of the past few NBA seasons; and yes, he was ejected from two the games against the Mavericks, but Stephen Jackson is a damn good NBA player who comes through in the clutch, does not make bone-headed plays, and has championship experience (11.8 points, 28 min/game in 80 games with San Antonio in 2002-03). Jackson lifted his game in the Dallas series, averaging 22 points per game and making 47.5% of his 3-pointers, including a series-high 33 points and 7-of-8 3-pointers made in Game 6, and a physical defensive presence against Dirk Nowitzki.

“Small ball” is no gimmick, it’s the next frontier in the NBA. Their styles may not be as frenetic as the Golden State Warriors or the Phoenix Suns, but several NBA teams are ditching the post-up big man and adopting a more up-tempo style of play centered around pure point guards and versatile 6'4"-6'9" wing players who can grab a rebound and start downcourt without having to stop and look to pass to a guard. These teams are tough match-ups for slower, less mobile big men like Shaquille O'Neal and Yao Ming, and even those as versatile as Elton Brand and Dwight Howard. In addition to the Suns and Warriors, the Dallas Mavericks (unless they're playing Golden State), Toronto Raptors, Utah Jazz, Denver Nuggets, San Antonio Spurs (if they choose to), Detroit Pistons, Chicago Bulls and (if they ever get a point guard!) even the Atlanta Hawks always have three (in many cases four) players on the floor who can rebound, dribble, pass, shoot from the outside and drive to the basket. For the foreseeable future, the trend in the NBA is to build a team of multi-talented athletes rather than use high draft picks, cap space and minutes on the floor looking for a low-post scorer.

Dirk Nowitzki is not a SUPERstar. He's a fantastic player, the likely MVP, and one of the most skilled big men the NBA has ever seen, but Dirk Nowitzki is NOT a superstar. Superstars do not vanish the way Dirk did in Game 6, and even before his heroics in Game 5 (a Dallas win), he had taken just 2 shots in the first 21 minutes of the second half. Which superstar, down 3-1 and on the verge of being on the wrong side of a historic upset, play with so little aggressiveness? When a true superstar is having an off night, you never forget that he's on the floor. He's an All-Star, the probable MVP and a fantastic player, but until Dirk Nowitzki gains a better sense of the moment and his role in big games, he will not truly be a SUPERstar.

Series Wrap-Up: Mavericks-Warriors

Warriors win series 4-2. The Mavericks’ nightmare match-up turned out to be worse than anyone predicted. The consensus seemed to be that the Warriors would play Dallas tough and win one, maybe two games.

This was no fluke- Golden State was legitimately the better team over these six games. They ran the Mavs off the floor. Baron Davis dominated the tempo of the series, Stephen Jackson and Jason Richardson consistently hit backbreaking shots and Dallas had no one capable of stepping up and putting up a 40-point game when the Warriors’ D frustrated Dirk Nowitzki and broke his spirit.

Don’t want to look too far ahead, but the potential Phoenix-Golden State match-up in the Western Conference Finals would, without a doubt, go down as one of the most exciting series in playoff history. Cross your fingers!

Series Wrap-Up: Spurs-Nuggets

Spurs win series 4-1. There the Spurs go again, doing what they do. Only an idiot would have picked against the Spurs (my bad!). Following a surprising Game 1 loss to the Nuggets, Tim Duncan & Co. turned things around spectacularly, sweeping the last four games of the series. Duncan brought his “regular” game, averaging a rock-solid 20.2 points, 10.6 rebounds (3.6 offensive), 2.8 blocks and 5.4 assists per game; Michael Finley nearly doubled his regular season averaging, putting up 16 points per game, making an awesome 53% of his 3-pointers, including 8 of 9 in the Game 5 clincher; Robert Horry doubled his regular season scoring average, scoring 7.8 points per game against the Nuggets, and he pulled his usual “Big Shot Bob” act, hitting a clinching 3-pointer with 30 seconds left in Game 4; and Tony Parker averaged 18 points and almost 7 assists per game. In other words, this was a vintage, professional Spurs performance.

After stealing San Antonio’s home court advantage with an impressive showing in Game 1, the Denver Nuggets, due in large part to a disappointing performance from Allen Iverson, failed to recapture the magic for the remainder of the series. Iverson averaged just under 23 points against the Spurs on a nasty 42-for- 114 from the field (36.8%), and committed 15 turnovers against just 7 steals. Denver got a strong performance from Carmelo Anthony (27ppg, 48% FG, 8.6rpg, 3.6orpg) and from Marcus Camby (14.8rpg, 2.4orpg) and Nene (7.8rpg, 4.4orpg) on the boards, but the lack of production from AI, along with little support on the perimeter from Steve Blake (7.2ppg), Linas Kleiza (1.6ppg) and J.R. Smith (4.5ppg), is just not going to get it done against a championship team like San Antonio.

Series Wrap-Up: Suns-Lakers

Suns win series 4-1. This result is not overly surprising. This is not last year. The Lakers simply did not have a) the firepower to match the Phoenix Suns, b) a perimeter defender capable of staying with the absurdly fast Leandro Barbosa, and c) a big man able to bang with Amare Stoudemire in the paint (Kwame Brown was exposed in this series- he NOT an NBA player!). Lamar Odom played well and helped the Lakers stay competitive, but Kobe needs a lot more help. To the “This is what he wanted when Shaq was there” crowd: get a grip on yourselves. Whether it is what he wanted or not (and sure, it probably is), reality is what it is and this team needs to retool (in a hurry!). Plus, it’s probably a safe assumption that giving away Caron Butler for 2008 NBDL MVP Kwame Brown was not Kobe’s idea.

With the Dallas Mavericks on their way out of the playoffs, the Suns will now face the “Same Old Spurs” in the Western Conference Semis for the title of “Most Likely NBA Champion”. This should be a fantastic series. The Spurs, having just ousted the Nuggets, an athletic, up-tempo along the same lines as the Suns, will bring a lot more out of the Phoenix than the Lakers did. Then again, the Suns are not exactly the Nuggets!

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Series Wrap-Up: Cavaliers-Wizards

Cavaliers win series 4-0. The Cavaliers took advantage of the first round bye in their series against the decimated Wizards, winning the series in four unmemorable, businesslike games. Like the Pistons, The Cavs never lost their stranglehold on the series from the opening tip. Unlike the Pistons, the Cavs never lost their focus, which they’d shown a tendency to do from time to time during the regular season. This is very encouraging for Cleveland, who will be rested and confident heading into Round 2 against either New Jersey or Toronto.