The Score, the Key Stat, the Bottom Line: Playoff PositioningSaturday's action featured several games that affected playoff positioning for one or both teams. When the smoke cleared, the Wizards, Jazz and Warriors helped themselves, the Hawks moved one step closer to backing into the playoffs and the Sixers, Nuggets and Hornets all suffered setbacks.
The Score: Washington 109, Philadelphia 93
The Key Stat: Gilbert Arenas produced 20 points, seven rebounds and five assists in 25 minutes off of the bench, his best performance since coming back from knee surgery. He shot 7-14 from the field--including 4-9 from three point range--and had a game-high +21 plus/minus rating.
The Bottom Line: The Sixers could have moved up to fifth place in the East but instead they slid to seventh and the Wizards are now in fifth place. Washington controlled this game on both the inside and the outside, outrebounding Philadelphia 48-36 and shooting a blistering 12-22 (.545) from three point range. Antawn Jamison had an excellent game, posting game-high totals in points (25) and rebounds (13) to help the Wizards make up for the absence of injured All-Star Caron Butler. Arenas got off to a slow start, shooting just 2-8 from the field, but he owned the fourth quarter, scoring 12 points on 5-6 shooting while also contributing as a rebounder and playmaker. This is the Arenas that Wizards' fans have been waiting all season to see and if they get a steady diet of this Arenas then of course the Wizards could be a formidable team. Some people think that I "hate" Arenas but that is not the case at all; I just don't see him as an MVP caliber player. His performance against the 76ers was great, all the more so considering not only the significance of the game but the fact that he is still probably not 100% physically. Where I disagree with Arenas lovers/Wizards fans is whether or not this type of game is typical for Arenas. His field goal percentage, three point percentage and rebounds against the Sixers were all better than his career averages. I interpret that to mean that he is an All-Star player who had a very good game and an outstanding fourth quarter. Others will no doubt counter that once Arenas is fully healthy he will play like this on a nightly basis and the Wizards will win 50-plus games. I'll believe that when I see it; I think that it is just as likely that over the long haul he will have a lot of games in which he takes the same shots but finishes 4-14 from the field and 1-9 from three point range.
The Score: Utah 124, Denver 97
The Key Stat: Utah shot .575 from the field and outrebounded Denver 44-36. Allen Iverson (28 points) and Carmelo Anthony (22 points) were the two highest scoring players in the game--and also posted the two worst plus/minus numbers (-25 for Anthony, -24 for Iverson). The Jazz enjoyed remarkable offensive balance and efficiency, as three players scored 20 points each (Carlos Boozer, Mehmet Okur, Ronnie Brewer) while combining to shoot 25-38 from the field; Deron Williams ran the show (19 points, 11 assists, 7-11 field goal shooting).
The Bottom Line: Call them the "enver" Nuggets because there is no "D" in Denver this year. The Nuggets are engaged in a death match with Golden State for the eighth playoff berth in the West, so naturally they gave up 40 points to Utah in the first quarter. Then, relying on their explosive offense, the Nuggets surged back from a 16 point deficit to briefly take the lead before getting outscored 34-18 in the fourth quarter. The Nuggets own the tiebreaker over Golden State, so they still control their own destiny but now they have no margin for error with just two games remaining. This contest was also very important for the Jazz, who own perhaps the best homecourt advantage in the league and are still in contention to host a first round playoff series.
The Score: Golden State 122, L.A. Clippers 116
The Key Stat: Stephen Jackson (28 points on 8-17 shooting) and Baron Davis (25 points on 10-21 shooting) broke out of their recent shooting slumps as the Warriors took a 42-26 first quarter lead and held on for dear life. Fortunately for them, they were playing the Clippers at home, not the Jazz on the road.
The Bottom Line: Either Denver or Golden State will probably set a record for most wins without making the playoffs but are these teams really so great? They both run hot and cold, depend far too much on their offense and thus cannot hang their hats on fundamentals like defense and rebounding to help them to win on nights when their shots are not falling. The Warriors benefited in last year's playoffs by getting a favorable matchup with Dallas but--contrary to the hype in some quarters--I don't believe that either of these teams will pull off that kind of an upset this season.
The Score: Boston 99, Atlanta 89
The Key Stat: The Celtics' "Big Three" played fewer minutes than usual but Sam Cassell produced 20 points off of the bench--including 15 points in the fourth quarter--as the Celtics' reserves outplayed the Hawks' starters down the stretch.
The Bottom Line: Despite the loss, the Hawks moved one step closer to clinching a playoff berth--and a first round matchup with the Celtics--because the Indiana Pacers lost 107-103 to the Charlotte Bobcats. All the Hawks need now is one more win or one more Indiana loss. The Hawks are a young, upcoming team but they don't have the experience, the mental focus or the defense that will be necessary to challenge the Celtics in the playoffs. Considering that as many as three of the East playoff teams may have losing records it is somewhat appropriate that the battle for the last spot may be decided more by other teams' losses than by Atlanta's wins; the Hawks are 2-3 in their last five games, including a 112-98 loss to Indiana.
The Score: Sacramento 94, New Orleans 91
The Key Stat: Chris Paul shot 4-13 from the field for the second game in a row, though he did produce 14 points, 12 assists, six rebounds and six steals.
The Bottom Line: The Hornets entered this game controlling their destiny in terms of claiming the top seed in the West but now the Lakers can seize that position by winning their last two games. This was a huge loss for the Hornets because it is possible now that they will not even have homecourt advantage in the first round.
I don't buy the idea that the winner of the regular season MVP award should be largely decided by what happens in a handful of games at the end of the season; the MVP should honor a body of work produced in an entire year. However, all the Chris Paul advocates who have been saying for the past month that if the Hornets get the number one seed in the West then he should win the MVP should now admit that Bryant deserves to receive this year's MVP. Bryant has successfully steered the Lakers through "three" seasons, overcoming not only injuries to his team's two best centers but also his own finger injury that will require offseason surgery. Bryant is a 28-6-5 player who is also one of the league's top defenders. Paul has had a breakout season but Bryant is widely acknowledged to be the best player in the league; the past couple years we have heard different excuses for why Bryant was "disqualified" from winning the MVP but this season he has met every conceivable benchmark: his individual numbers are great, his team is highly successful and no one can deny the leadership that he has demonstrated with his young teammates and in helping Pau Gasol quickly become acclimated after joining the team in midseason.
posted by David Friedman @ 5:43 AM