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Sunday, March 18, 2007

There is no "D" in "A-T-L-A-N-T-A": Pacers Rout Hawks, 113-90

The Indiana Pacers hit the switch, released the parachute and stopped the free fall that endangered their playoff hopes. It helped that their Saturday night opponent, the Atlanta Hawks, played without any apparent interest, intensity or plan on defense. Indiana's 113-90 victory at Conseco Fieldhouse ended an 11 game losing streak, the franchise's worst skid since 1989. The 23 point margin is a season best for the Pacers. Orlando's 95-83 loss to Sacramento enabled the Pacers to grab a (tenuous) hold on the seventh Eastern Conference playoff spot, but the Pacers are just a half game ahead of the eighth place Nets and only one game ahead of both the Knicks and the Magic (they are two games ahead of the Magic in the loss column). Troy Murphy led the Pacers with 22 points while shooting 10-13 from the field. Mike Dunleavy added 21 points on 7-8 shooting and Danny Granger contributed 19 points on 7-13 shooting. Josh Smith led Atlanta with 16 points, 11 rebounds and four blocked shots. Zaza Pachulia also had 16 points.

Indiana took a quick 9-1 lead to start the game and never trailed, just their third wire to wire win of the season and their first since December 6. The Pacers led 68-44 at halftime. Keep in mind that Indiana ranks 24th (of 30 teams) in scoring and plays a very deliberate style. Murphy, Dunleavy and Granger combined for 40 first half points on 17-21 shooting from the field.

The Hawks showed a brief, flickering sign of life at the start of the third quarter, making a 9-0 run. Then, apparently completely spent by that meager effort, they were outscored 13-4 in the next four minutes and never got closer than 17 again after that. The Pacers led by as many as 31 in the fourth quarter and could probably have won by 40 or more.

Hawks Coach Mike Woodson's face wore every possible expression of exasperation and disgust during the game and he got right to the point in his postgame standup: "We struggled from beginning to end. I thought that our three young guys--Marvin (Williams), Josh Smith and Josh Childress--were awful tonight, especially defensively. I can't take anything away from Murphy, Dunleavy and Granger--they played well--but we were just so noncompetitive at those positions. It's unacceptable. You can't come out and play like that...We were awful tonight defensively and that's on me."

As for Indiana Coach Rick Carlisle, he is so relieved to end the losing streak that he could not have cared less if the Pacers had beaten the Washington Generals, as long as the win counted in the standings: "It's good to win one. We needed it. It's been a struggle, a brutal stretch of schedule and injuries have contributed to it. But there have only been a couple of times where we really hung our heads. I told the guys before the game to view this as an opportunity, not a burden...Tonight is a big step in the right direction."

Carlisle also lauded the play of point guard Jamaal Tinsley, who scored just five points on 2-7 shooting but played an outstanding floor game with 14 assists, three steals and no turnovers: "Jamaal Tinsley showed how important he is to our team...He really set the tone for the entire game and made it easier for everybody."

Someone asked Carlisle if he is concerned about the Pacers becoming complacent. Considering that the team has now won exactly one of its last 12 games, Carlisle does not think that complacency should be a big concern at the moment: "After what we've been through in the last three and a half weeks, if I have to remind these guys not to be complacent they should put a bomb in our locker room. Really, what greater message can be sent than what we just went through? I don't think that complacency is going to be a big problem for us."

Tinsley, Murphy, Dunleavy and Granger played so well that the Pacers easily overcame a subpar performance by their best player, Jermaine O'Neal, who was listed as quetionable but wore a brace on his sore left knee and gutted it out, shooting 2-12 from the field and finishing with 10 points, seven rebounds and two blocked shots.

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Notes From Courtside:

Kobe Bryant's elbows--and his amazing 65 point game--were one of the subjects of discussion in the pregame chatter among writers and various NBA front office personnel. The general, off the record consensus is that Bryant is the best player in the NBA and is not dirty (Steve Nash and Dirk Nowitzki--and one contrarian vote for Gilbert Arenas--were also mentioned as the league's best player). One dissenter thinks that he does have a dirty streak and he listed the names of Bryant's three elbowing victims and the player he hit last season--Ginobili, Jaric, Korver and Mike Miller, respectively, all of whom are white and none of whom are known fighters; I guess his point was either that Bryant is targeting white guys and/or players who will not hit him back. That is definitely an extreme view and one that is not really supported by the facts. Bryant has been around for a long while and, other than the Miller situation, the blows he delivered do not seem to be particularly flagrant or deliberate. One veteran NBA observer told me that all great players have a mean streak, that they need it to be great and that previous great players--he listed Bill Russell, Larry Bird, Michael Jordan and Isiah Thomas as some examples--covered up their mean streaks a little better than Bryant has in the recent incidents. He agreed with me that it is remarkable that Bryant can score 65 points, with 24 in the fourth quarter and nine in overtime, and this was not even his best game ever. He added that Bryant can carry a team with his willpower and determination.

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Before the game I spoke briefly with Dennis "3 D" Scott, who is now a radio analyst for the Atlanta Hawks. Scott set the all-time record for three pointers made in a season when he hit 267 treys in 1995-96 (Ray Allen broke the record with 269 long balls last season), so I knew that he would get a kick out of my recent article about the three point shot. I gave him a copy and he had a big smile when I pointed to his name in the graphic that accompanies the article. The Hawks TV analyst is Steve Smith, so if there are any shooting contests between the team and the men who are describing the action, I'd put my money on the broadcasters.

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I also had a chance to talk with Kevin Mackey, who provided the "Scout's Eye View" in my two part series last year (A Scout's Eye View: Part I and A Scout's Eye View, Part II). He believes that Kobe Bryant will probably rank among the game's all-time greats by the end of his career. Right now, Mackey's all-time team would look like this:

1st Team

Center: Wilt Chamberlain
Power Forward: Bill Russell
Small Forward: Larry Bird
Guard: Magic Johnson
Guard: Michael Jordan

2nd Team

Center: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
Power Forward: Shaquille O'Neal
Small Forward: Julius Erving
Guard: Jerry West
Guard: Oscar Robertson

If he could expand the roster to 11, he'd take Elgin Baylor. The coach would be Red Auerbach, assisted by Phil Jackson. I laughed and replied that the two of them would never sit together on the same bench (they exchanged many barbs and the rivalry dates back to when Jackson played for Red Holzman's Knicks). Mackey laughed and agreed but said that in any case this team would have to play in heaven because Chamberlain and Auerbach are deceased. Perhaps it's a bit of a cheat to sneak extra centers on the team by putting Russell and O'Neal at power forward but I think that Mackey's "Dream Team" would do pretty well against any other hypothetical squad that could be assembled.

posted by David Friedman @ 3:33 AM

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