Down the Stretch They Come...ESPN broadcast an interesting doubleheader tonight: Miami at Detroit followed by San Antonio at Denver. The first game likely provided an Eastern Conference Finals preview and the second game showcased the defending NBA champions against a tough Western Conference playoff contender. The Heat led the Pistons 43-35 at the half before succumbing to Detroit's suffocating defense and losing 82-73; Miami made only four field goals in the fourth quarter--two Antoine Walker three pointers and two Shaquille O'Neal putbacks. Miami lost Alonzo Mourning early in the game to a right calf injury, which not only hurt their chances in this game but could be very damaging going forward if he will be functioning at less than 100% for an extended period.
Detroit completely stifled Miami's half court offense in the final stanza. Miami only shot 37.8% from the field for the game and Detroit actually shot an even lower percentage, 34.9%, but Detroit forced 16 turnovers while only committing five; that disparity led to extra possessions for the Pistons, who had nine more field goal attempts and nine more free throw attempts than the Heat. The main positive for the Heat is that Shaquille O'Neal seems to be rounding into shape. The Diesel shot 12-21 from the field and had 27 points and 10 rebounds. The rest of the Heat shot 16-53. Dwyane Wade shot 3-15 and managed only 13 points, although he did have nine assists. Chauncey Billups led Detroit with 24 points despite shooting 5-16 from the field. Billups also had 10 assists and five rebounds. During the Pistons' desultory first half I reflected on how much the Pistons have fallen off since their quick start to the season and that Flip Saunders was brought in to win these kinds of games and take the Pistons back to the NBA Finals. The Pistons showed their championship mettle by pulling this one out despite not playing their best game but Saunders must still prove that he can lead the team to postseason success at a level comparable to what Larry Brown's Pistons achieved. As Miami wilted in the second half I thought about Shaq's idea of working himself into shape just in time for the playoffs. The problem is that this has already cost the Heat the chance for home court advantage versus the Pistons; if these teams meet in the playoffs and the series goes the distance, the deciding game will be played in Detroit. O'Neal got off to a slow start this year because of a severely sprained ankle. Injuries are part of the game and can happen to anyone, but they are more likely to occur to players who are (1) older and (2) not in peak condition. That is why Jerry Buss and the Lakers chose not to re-sign O'Neal to a long term deal, opting instead to build a team around Kobe Bryant; Bryant and the Lakers will likely make it to the playoffs in the tough Western Conference despite having one of the youngest rosters in the league and their future looks bright.
In the second game, Denver jumped all over the Spurs, taking a 55-41 halftime lead. In the first half, most of the Spurs looked like sleepwalking zombies. The Spurs trailed by as much as 18 before rallying to take the lead in the third quarter. After that the game turned into a back and forth affair for a stretch before Denver eventually pulled away to win 104-92. Carmelo Anthony led the Nuggets with 32 points, while Manu Ginobili had 26 points for the Spurs. Tim Duncan bounced back from a poor first half to finish with 22 points. Denver pounded San Antonio 58-27 on the glass, paced by Marcus Camby's 21 rebounds.
What does this game tell us about the postseason prospects for these teams? This was the second of back to back contests for the Spurs and they have a poor record in such games this season--which is bad news for their future playoff opponents because there are no back to backs in the playoffs, meaning Tim Duncan and crew will be rested and ready in the playoffs. As for Denver, Anthony is having an All-Star caliber season and Camby, Kenyon Martin and Ruben Patterson make it tough for opposing offenses to score. The Nuggets are a solid team but not quite good enough to defeat the Spurs, Mavericks or Suns in a seven game series.
posted by David Friedman @ 1:43 AM