Monday, April 28, 2008

Thoughts on Round 1, Game 3s and 4s Through 4.27

  • I think a lot of us expected the Hornets to have a "Wow, isn't it great we're here!" feel to them. We expected the bench jumping up all the time, and unbelievable role players hitting shots we'd never imagine them hitting. That's the prototype of a team that's new to the playoffs. This team has nothing to do with that concept. They are cold, hard, killers. This team has an off shooting night Friday, and instead of getting rattled and questioning themselves and their strategy, they went right back to work. And executed to perfection. Which should be no surprise, given this team's M.O.
  • There was something I realized late this season. I was marveling at the Lakers' huge swings. When they're hot, they've been nearly unstoppable. But then they'll slump for several games, and look like they couldn't defend against a Shriners' convention. I truly believe that the Lakers are the best team in the Western Conference right now, and will end up in the Finals. That said, the point of this is when I was considering their swings, I asked if there was a team that was as good as the Lakers have been, but without the swings. And there was. It was the Hornets. Their performance doesn't waver at all. They go out and consistently perform with the same level of execution, intensity, and precision. Sometimes the shots don't fall, but they always come ready to play. They don't possess San Antonio's idling Borg-like drone, either. They hum at a high rate, ready to unleash a lethal combination of plays which put you down for the count. That's been readily apparent in this series: The Hornets can hit you four or five times in the span of two minutes on both ends of the floor, and you won't know you've been hit till you see the scoreboard. Again, Lakers fans, your team is the best in the Western Conference, and are playing better ball than the Hornets right now. I'm just saying that while LA depends on upswings and high momentum to carry them to victory (which they have loads of), the Hornets are able to consistently go out and execute everyone in the room at a moment's notice.
  • Speaking of the Lakers, it's time to give credit where credit is due. For years I have shrugged off talk of Phil Jackson as worthy of "best of all time" discussion. "How can you really judge a man that's never had anything but the best players in the history of the game?!" I would yell. And while I'm still a long way from even saying he's the best current coach in the NBA, I have to say h e's impressed the hell out of me in the last three months. Anyone could win with Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol, surrounded by shooters. But Pau Gasol is a seven foot Spaniard with a history of offensive mastery and not exactly easy to miss. Yet the Denver Nuggets never seem to really notice him unless he's in the post. I watched the Nuggets come out with fire and passion in Game 3, led by Kleiza who was producing at both ends of the floor? And what happened? Kobe dribble, Kobe dribble, Kobe penetrate, Kobe pass to Odom, Odom touchpass to Gasol. Open. Two points. To be able to engineer plays and spacing to create open shots around the basket, even against the defensive sieve that is Denver, is a masterful job. Throw in his ability to finally get Odom to understand how to best capitalize on his talents, and Jackson is leaps and bounds above everyone else right now.
  • Not enough is being made of Game 3 in Atlanta. Yes, the Celtics will blow them out of the water tonight. Yes, the Celtics will do so easily. But here's a little run-down of teams that would have swept the Hawks in the Western conference. Lakers, Hornets, Spurs, Jazz, Suns, Warriors (yes, even though they didn't make the playoffs. The matchups would annihilate Atlanta. And no, Denver, you would have no chance. They might sweep you. Rockets fans, sorry, but Atlanta would at least get one on you, maybe two.). There is no excuse for Boston letting them have that game. But the bigger issue is this, and it's something no one else is really touching on, because of the foregone conclusion this series results in. Boston's not playing great. They're just not. They're playing well. And that's enough to obliterate the Hawks at home. But this team is not nearly as frightening as we may have thought they would be. I have every reason to suspect they're just having motivation issues, and Horford's little mouth-run will get them in gear. But no one on the Celtics is really just blowing it up, they're all just having nice, quiet, good games, and winning. Except they lost. The Celtics better realized that whichever team comes out of the 4/5 matchup (most likely the Cavs) will be running on adrenaline and will be looking to fight. Rajon Rondo is ready. I'm not sure the rest of the Celtics are.
  • It was nice of Greg Popovich and the Spurs to give the Suns one. You know, for their pride. Downright decent of them.
  • Speaking of Popovich, I love the comments he made defending D'Antoni. Now, Spurs fans and D'Antoni detractors are both going to come out saying this is another evil genius move by Popovich to try and get D'Antoni to be able to stay so he can continue beating the crap out of him. But that's outright ridiculous. These guys have a tremendous amount of respect for one another, and Popovich is just not like most other high-profile coaches. He doesn't care about getting in sniping fights with other coaches, doesn't feel the need to degrade them, and honestly, if he loses to them, he doesn't mind. This is a job to Greg Popovich, with long term goals and a long term vision. And while he's done more than his share of accomplishing those championship goals, he also understands how easily it could change. Both coaches are aware that if Tim Duncan's three-pointer goes the same way that it has gone 4 out of 5 times in his career, this series is knotted at two-a-piece. Likewise, if the Suns hadn't gone completely frozen in game 2 in the second half, this is likely a different story. And for Popovich to come out and recognize that, for a guy across the scorer's table, shows why this organization is considered so classy, Robert Horry and Bruce Bowen not included.
  • The current over-reaction of the day is that "clearly, D'Antoni should have started Boris Diaw instead of Grant Hill earlier in this series." To that I say, anyone that suggest that should try examining a sample of games larger than "yesterday's game." Because that is the only way you come to that conclusion. Hill's banged up with a groin injury that limits his abilities, that much is clear. But with an injury that you can't evaluate until you actually get on the floor, I'll still take Grant Hill with half-a-groin over Boris Diaw. Diaw has proven time and time again that he is unable to consistently perform. He had a wonderful game yesterday. Good for him. There is still a 70/30 chance that in Game 5 he'll completely meltdown again and try backing down Tim Duncan. Let's be clear. Boris Diaw can be effective at the 3 spot as long as Amare Stoudemire or Shaq are on the floor. But the second he finds himself in the post against any player with size or athletic ability (like, oh, say, 90% of the forwards and centers in this league), he becomes completely useless. To blame D'Antoni for trying to go to his star veteran with defensive presence over an inconsistent performer who many have said needed to be traded long ago is ludicrous.
  • Next up, how about this "the big difference on defense was just effort." That's patently not true. The Suns were trying in the last three games. They just had no answer for Tony Parker. At all. Or Ginobili on the left. In Game 4, however, as much as this was a complete "we'll give you this one" by the Spurs, it was also a tremendous defensive adjustment. In Game 3, Tony Parker was obviously the killer. But he had been doing the same thing during the first two games as well. The high wing pick and roll with Duncan. The situation forced Shaq to either try and speed out to defend Duncan, where he obviously can't, or stay at home and try and cut off Parker, which again, allows Duncan to do what he wanted. The Suns countered in those first three games by trying to have Parker's man cut under the screen to stay with Parker. Unfortunately, in an amazing development, Tony Parker is really, really fast. Throw in the fact that his jumper was falling like crazy, and you have Game 3's rout. But yesterday was different. Van Gundy remarked that Tony Parker's jumper is not good enough to consistently fall like it did in Game 3. But instead of overreacting to Parker's jumper, the Suns tried something different. They created an interior triangle with Amare, Shaq and Diaw. That play isolates the right side for the Spurs, to allow Parker room to operate. When the pick and roll happened, Shaq stayed home on the baseline. Parker's defender went over the screen in pursuit, and Diaw or Amare came from the weakside to cut off the drive to the middle. Parker was flummoxed, blocked, and eventually had to settle for jumpers, which didn't come to his aid this time. Now, Popovich will of course respond in Game 5 by presenting Parker with perimeter shooters instead of the ISO, and none of this has anything to do with Bell and Diaw's complete inability to prevent Manu Ginobili from driving left on them every single time, but for one game, it was a nice adjustment.
  • Fear The Magic. I'm not kidding. No one is paying attention to what may have been the most exciting first round matchup in Orlando-Toronto, but it's been terrific basketball, even with the 3-1 lead the Magic take into Orlando tonight. The other teams have significant leads thanks to a lack of efficient, smart play by their opponents. Toronto has actually played really well. They got everything they wanted out of their players in Game 4. Bosh had 39. TJ Ford was actually passing the ball. Kapono came to play. No good. The Magic are just better right now. Not enough can be said about the way Dwight Howard is playing defense right now. He's consistently making plays. While his one on one game still needs work, he's able to create key defensive plays which suck the life out of the crowd better than any player in the league right now. I'm telling you. Fear the Magic.
  • The Rockets just need one more weapon. One. More. Seven foot. Chinese. Weapon.
    But they don't have it right now. And that's this series. I am NOT impressed with the Utah Jazz, though. If they were the legit contender they like to make themselves out as, they would have wiped the floor with a team led by Tracy McGrady, without Yao Ming, without a healthy Rafer Alston, and wouldn't need key official's calls to secure wins. I keep desperately searching for a way to believe that this Jazz team is real like everyone keeps telling me they are. That annihilation of the Spurs? I think we can convincingly prove that was a rope-a-dope. The home court advantage? Where was that in Game 3? Let's be clear. Houston is hanging with Utah in every single game with former D-Leaguers, Luis Scola, and Carl Landry. I love the work AK has done in this series. That's it for the Jazz.
  • Corn's been telling me all year about the Sixers, because he landed Andre Iguodala on his fantasy team and fell in love with him. I am not impressed, nor have I ever been impressed, with Andre Iguodala. But when Philly won game 1, and then game 3, Corn came out shouting about how the Sixers were going to possibly beat the Magic and make it to the Eastern Conference Finals. Click. That sound was the Pistons flipping the switch. Game over. Nice try, fellas. I do love Samuel Dalembert's energy, though.
  • Favorite energy guys this round: Julian Wright, Jannero Pargo, Linas Kleiza, Keyon Dooling, Reggie Evans, Brandon Bass, Ime Udoka, Luke Walton (cherry picker that he is), Carl Landry, Delonte West.

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