Thursday Potpourri: Revenge of the "Snubbed," Suns Still Can't Beat Spurs, Kobe Needs HelpThis is the time of year when players who feel that they have been "snubbed" out of All-Star berths fill out their own "write in" ballots with high scoring performances. TNT's Kenny Smith said that the first player he remembers doing this is Cleveland's Ron Harper in the late 1980s but there is at least one earlier example: right after Mark Aguirre found out that he had not made the 1985 All-Star team, he dropped a career-high 49 points on Julius Erving and the Philadelphia 76ers. Perhaps the classic case happened on January 27, 1990, when Karl Malone reacted to the news that A.C. Green had been voted as an All-Star starter ahead of him by scoring 61 points and grabbing 18 rebounds in just 33 minutes in a 144-96 win over Milwaukee. Malone vowed to not go to the All-Star Game as a reserve, then backed off from that position but ironically ended up missing the game due to injury.
The reality is that virtually every year there are more All-Star caliber players than there are available spots on the team, so it is not really accurate to speak of "snubs," even though just about everyone does. In case you missed the announcement on TNT, the East reserves are Chauncey Billups, Richard Hamilton, Chris Bosh, Caron Butler, Paul Pierce, Joe Johnson and Antawn Jamison. Interestingly, those are the exact seven players who Magic Johnson said last week that he would have selected; when I wrote about who I would pick, I abided by the rules, which stipulate that a center must be chosen, so I would have selected Zydrunas Ilgauskas instead of Joe Johnson; I guess Bosh is being considered as the team's back up center. I am surprised that Johnson made the team not only because this violates the rules but because of the mediocre record of his team. If the coaches were not going to choose a true center then Hedo Turkoglu should have gotten the nod. While I agree in principle with the idea of rewarding the Celtics for their league-best record, Ray Allen is not just scoring fewer points this year because he is sacrificing shot attempts to play on a contender; his shooting percentage has plummeted and he just is not having a good enough year to make the All-Star team. The West reserves are Steve Nash, Chris Paul, Amare Stoudemire, Dirk Nowitzki, Carlos Boozer, Brandon Roy and David West. Again, I agree with the coaches on six of the seven choices. I would have taken Baron Davis over West but I also wrote in the aforementioned post, "(Josh) Howard and West are two of the players who I think merit serious consideration and it would not bother me one bit if either of them got the nod."
Allen and Howard are both former All-Stars and they surely consider themselves to be "snubbed" this time around. Allen's Celtics faced Howard's Mavericks in the first game of TNT's doubleheader and you just knew that both players would try to put on a show. Allen scored 15 first quarter points and Howard had 13 as Boston jumped out to a 27-20 lead. The biggest story of the game is that Kevin Garnett again sat out to rest his strained abdominal muscle. The early returns so far are that the Celtics are not exactly helpless even without Garnett, which makes one wonder if he really is the MVP or if Boston's success is more a product of a great ensemble effort from three stars and many role players who have all committed themselves to playing great defense. After their initial explosions, both Allen and Howard were largely quiet for the remainder of the game: in the next three quarters, Allen scored just 11 points and Howard only had four. The score was tied at 90 with :58 left after Dirk Nowitzki (31 points, 11 rebounds, six assists, three blocked shots) sank a pair of free throws. Paul Pierce (26 points) missed a jumper on Boston's next possession but point guard Rajon Rondo made the play of the game by stealing the rebound from Nowitzki and converting a tough layup for a two point Boston lead; four James Posey free throws closed out the scoring in a 96-90 Boston win.
Allen's production will not make anyone forget Aguirre or Malone but this is the most points that he has scored in more than two weeks and just the second time he scored more than 20 points in January. Come to think of it, those numbers reinforce why Allen should not make the team. Howard is certainly worthy of being on the team and his statistics this year are better across the board than the numbers he put up last year as a first-time All-Star but the West is just stacked with talent this season.
The second game of the TNT doubleheader, San Antonio at Phoenix, also featured a pair of former All-Stars who did not make the team this year: Manu Ginobili and Shawn Marion. Spurs point guard Tony Parker, the 2007 NBA Finals MVP, did not play due to bone spurs in his foot and three point specialist Brent Barry also sat out due to injury. Suns' fans constantly offer a million excuses about why their team has failed to beat San Antonio in a playoff series during the Steve Nash era but if any game set up in the Suns' favor it was this one: the Spurs have been floundering recently, the Suns are at full strength and have been playing well at home and the absence of Parker meant that Nash could essentially rest on defense. When the Spurs have Parker, they are comfortable playing at a fast or slow tempo but without him they want to grind things out. This was a golden opportunity for Nash, Marion and company to run the Spurs ragged. Instead, the Suns scored a season-low 81 points and lost by three even though the Spurs shot just .387 from the field. San Antonio controlled the boards (45-38) and made all the key plays down the stretch. Jacque Vaughn came off the bench to score a season-high 17 points for the Spurs in Parker's place, which does not say much for the Suns' defense. Marion finished with team-highs in points (21) and rebounds (10), while Ginobili led the Spurs in scoring (19 points) but Tim Duncan controlled the game with 16 points, 17 rebounds, seven assists and two blocked shots. Steve Nash had 17 points and eight assists but he shot just 6-18 from the field, including 2-9 from three point range.
Duncan and Nash are each two-time NBA MVPs. Phoenix led 77-75 and had the ball with 2:22 left; here is what the two stars did down the stretch: Duncan assisted on a Michael Finley three pointer and then put the Spurs ahead for a good with a bank shot with :30 remaining, while Nash had two assists but did not score and committed back to back turnovers sandwiched around Duncan's clutch shot. The Spurs may not be a lot better than the Suns but they have been consistently at least a little better than the Suns for quite some time and that does not figure to change by playoff time.
The Lakers' season-defining road trip got off to a frustrating start in Detroit, as L.A. fought back from a 17 point deficit only to lose on a last second Tayshaun Prince three pointer. Kobe Bryant had 39 points, 10 rebounds and five assists while shooting 12-25 from the field but he also committed an NBA season-high 11 turnovers. I watched the two TNT games, so I only saw highlights of this one but I wonder how many Bryant turnovers happened on passes to Kwame Brown (3 points, 1-5 field goal shooting). In any case, Bryant's 26 second half points--including 10 straight in the third quarter to carry the Lakers from a 58-54 deficit to a 64-61 lead--put the Lakers in position to win; they led 89-87 with 17 seconds left and just needed one stop and one defensive rebound. The Lakers got the stop--Rasheed Wallace missed a three pointer--but Tayshaun Prince beat Lamar Odom to the rebound. Prince passed the ball to Chauncey Billups at the top of the key and then he drifted to the left baseline. Remember that the Lakers were up by two, so the only thing that could beat them in regulation was a three pointer. Sure enough, Odom foolishly overreacted to Billups' dribble penetration, leaving Prince all alone in the corner to drain the game-winning shot. There were still four seconds left but after the Lakers called timeout the Pistons wisely smothered Bryant and dared anyone else to make a shot. "Anyone else" in this case turned out to be Odom, who fired an off balance floater when he had enough time to take one more dribble and square up for a closer, higher percentage shot. There are different stats floating around about who is the most dangerous "clutch" player in the NBA but coaches know the real deal: on Sunday, Cleveland double-teamed Bryant and the other Lakers were so scared they did not even attempt a shot. Teams are simply going to smother Bryant and take their chances with anyone else shooting until someone else steps up to the challenge.
This is reminiscent of the scenario at the end of game six of the 2006 playoffs versus Phoenix, when the Lakers gave up a late offensive rebound and three pointer at the end of regulation and then lost in overtime, squandering a 50 point game by Bryant. It is interesting that the perceived ineptitude of LeBron James' supporting cast supposedly boosts his MVP candidacy but that Bryant's MVP candidacy is judged strictly based on wins and losses (the explanation that is widely given for his third place finish last season). It makes more sense to evaluate Bryant, James and Garnett on the basis of what they actually do and how they impact games directly as opposed to making their MVP bids dependent on the performances of other players.
posted by David Friedman @ 7:16 AM