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Friday, April 28, 2006

Jermaine O’Neal Sets the Pace as Indiana Defeats New Jersey 107-95

On Thursday the NBA fined Indiana Pacers forward Jermaine O’Neal $15,000 for his comments about the officiating in game two of the first round series between Indiana and the New Jersey Nets—but New Jersey paid the price that evening when a revitalized O’Neal tied his playoff career high with 37 points, shooting 12-15 from the field, grabbing 15 rebounds and blocking four shots in a 107-95 Pacers victory. In the first two games of the series combined O’Neal only had 27 points, 10 rebounds and four blocked shots but Indiana still managed to steal home court advantage from the favored Nets with a split.

Vince Carter and Richard Jefferson led the Nets with 25 points each in game three. Carter got off to a blistering start, scoring 21 points on 8-11 shooting in the first half, but he missed each of his 10 second half field goal attempts. New Jersey led 55-51 at halftime after shooting 20-37 from the field (.541), but shot only 9-38 (.237) from the field in the second half. Jason Kidd was the only other New Jersey player to score in double figures, finishing with 14 points, six rebounds and six assists. Indiana point guard Anthony Johnson outshined him with a playoff career high 25 points, adding eight assists and five rebounds while committing no turnovers in close to 40 minutes of action. In his postgame remarks, Indiana Coach Rick Carlisle said, "A.J. is playing with great awareness and great savvy." Carlisle also singled out the efforts of Peja Stojakovic, who scored 10 points despite being hampered by a knee injury, and Scot Pollard, who provided a physical presence and grabbed four rebounds in limited minutes.

O'Neal's breakout game, perhaps his best postseason performance ever, resulted from extensive film study. O'Neal told the assembled media after the game that he watched game one and game two in their entirety twice each--and rewound several plays multiple times--in an effort to discern how he could be more effective in game three. He said that he thought that it was very important that he figure out what to do for the rest of the series instead of just being frustrated by the way that the games were officiated. O'Neal added that he believes that some of the tactics that the Nets used in the first two games are against the rules but, even so, the film study showed that he could employ countermoves to nullify what the Nets were doing. He explained that the main thing he discovered was that he needed to be more active and to keep moving; the Nets were playing him "top side" and by moving around O'Neal could get good position, pin the defender against his body and receive the ball where he could do damage. O'Neal noted that he plans to look at film of game three first thing Friday morning because he wants to anticipate what adjustments the Nets might make to their defensive strategies. It will be interesting to see the next move in the chess match between O'Neal and the Nets' defense.

Before the series, many analysts did not give the Pacers much of a chance, a fact that Carlisle pointed out in his postgame comments. Kevin Loughery picked the Nets to win in a sweep and I was tempted to do so before conceding that the resilient Pacers would probably win one game. I thought that the Nets were peaking at the right time and I am surprised by how much trouble they are having against the Pacers. I still believe that the Nets have the tools to potentially challenge Detroit in the Eastern Conference Finals but right now they are in a serious dogfight just to get out of the first round. The Pacers are both resilient and schizophrenic; you never know quite what to expect from them. They can follow big road wins with home losses or play tough against elite teams only to lose to lottery teams. The recipe for a New Jersey win is very clear--tough defense and solid rebounding followed by pushing the ball up the court aggressively and attacking the basket. The Nets did that in game two and in the first half of game three and they must do it three times in the next four games to avoid elimination.

Notes From Courtside:

One of the best things about covering a Pacers game is the opportunity to touch base with some of the players and coaches from the team's ABA days. Bobby "Slick" Leonard coached the Pacers to three ABA championships and also coached the Pacers in the NBA after the 1976 NBA-ABA merger. He has been a Pacers radio analyst for many years and is the author of the famous "Boom baby!" call that followed so many Reggie Miller three pointers. I asked Slick what he thinks of the comparison of LeBron James with George McGinnis, his star power forward who shared ABA MVP honors with Julius Erving in 1974-75. Slick agreed that there is some validity to the comparison; the two players are similarly sized (6-8, 240+) and combine power with the ability to handle the ball with finesse. Slick said that McGinnis was a better rebounder than James is.

I asked Slick for his take on the tight MVP race this year and he gave a slight edge to Dirk Nowitzki. He also likes LeBron James and agreed that Kobe Bryant must be considered as well. Since he did not mention Nash initially, I asked for his take on the Phoenix point guard who won last year's MVP and is expected to receive the award again this year. Slick said that Nash is a very good player who fits in perfectly with Phoenix' system but that he is not as good a player as guys like Nowitzki, James and Bryant. Slick added that he does not place a great deal of value on the regular season MVP. "The real MVP is the Finals MVP," he declared, adding that the best player on the championship team is the one who should be considered the best player in the game. I pointed out that by this standard some of the MVP candidates could be eliminated very soon because their teams might not make it out of the first round. "That's right," he agreed, nodding his head for emphasis.

Darnell Hillman contributed rebounding, shot blocking and some spectacular slam dunks as a forward-center for the Pacers and played an important role on Indiana's 1973 ABA championship team. Hillman played alongside McGinnis on an imposing frontline that included center Mel Daniels, a two-time ABA regular season MVP (the talented--and extremely underrated--Roger Brown--swung between the frontcourt and the backcourt on those teams). Hillman told me that the McGinnis-James comparison makes sense but that McGinnis went one-on-one less than James does. Hillman said that the Pacers had a strict philosophy that any player who drew a double team should immediately give the ball up to a teammate for a better shot and that McGinnis excelled at this; James shoots too many fadeaway shots--particularly behind the three point line--for Hillman's taste. I said that LeBron shoots a lot of "Oh no--good shot" shots--shots where a coach might be tempted to say "Oh no" except for the fact that LeBron makes enough of them to still shoot a good percentage. Hillman liked that phrase and added that if anyone other than LeBron took those kinds of shots the coach would most certainly say "Oh no" no matter what. He added that he likes LeBron's game overall and believes that eventually LeBron will shoot fewer of those shots and pass the ball more often in those situations. LeBron is known as an unselfish player--and Hillman said that he believes that to be true--but even during his remarkable triple double in a game one win versus Washington he shot 12-27 from the field, followed by a 7-25 shooting performance in the game two loss.

I asked Hillman if he saw Brendan Haywood's hard foul against LeBron and if he agreed that this play was a key moment in the game. Hillman did not see that particular play but he told me that he does not like the "hard foul" mentality. Of course, such fouls were even more prevalent during his playing days, when the fine for fighting was only $25 and altercations were commonplace. Hillman has no problem if someone makes a good, hard play on the ball but a lot of fouls go over the line and could potentially jeopardize someone's career. He said that when he received such a foul during his playing days he would immediately confront the perpetrator. Hillman does not like the so-called "Hack a Shaq" tactic and the amount of punishment that Shaquille O'Neal takes in general, adding that O'Neal has been uniquely gifted with size and strength and that if opponents cannot guard him legally then that is too bad for them.

posted by David Friedman @ 1:43 AM


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