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Saturday, April 12, 2008
Bryant Outshines Paul as Lakers Clinch Pacific Division Title
The L.A. Lakers clinched the Pacific Division title with a 107-104 win over the New Orleans Hornets. This game was considered by some people to be a referendum on the MVP race, though I disagreed with that sentiment all along and will not change my tune now even though Kobe Bryant--who I think should win the award--not only won the war (i.e., the game) but also his battle with Chris Paul, posting 29 points, 10 rebounds, eight assists, two steals and just one turnover in 43 minutes, shooting 9-17 from the field; Paul finished with 15 points, 17 assists, six rebounds, four steals and three turnovers in 39 minutes, shooting just 4-13 from the field. Bryant had nine points and three assists in the fourth quarter, while Paul had two points and two assists in the final stanza. The Lakers will finish with the best record in the West if they win home games versus San Antonio and Sacramento and the Hornets lose one of their final three games (at Sacramento, versus the L.A. Clippers and at Dallas). The Lakers took a 63-33 first half lead but the Hornets closed to within 75-71 at the 3:16 mark of the third quarter. The Lakers blew the game open with a 17-6 run in the next 5:53, with Bryant scoring 10 of the points and assisting on two other field goals during that stretch. He punctuated this burst with this exciting dunk:
The Score, the Key Stat, the Bottom Line: Final Thursday of the Regular Season
The final Thursday of the 2007-08 regular season featured a role reversal for two teams who are very familiar with each other. The Golden State Warriors eliminated the Dallas Mavericks in the first round of last year's playoffs but the Warriors' loss to Denver last night helped the Mavericks clinch a berth in this year's playoffs while putting the Warriors' postseason hopes in serious jeopardy. Meanwhile, the Lakers took care of business versus the Clippers in an "away" game at Staples Center, setting the stage for a dramatic home game versus the West-leading New Orleans Hornets at Staples on Friday night. The Lakers finish the season with a three game homestand and are still very much in contention for the number one seed in the West.
The Key Stat: Allen Iverson had 33 points, nine assists and just two turnovers while playing all 48 minutes to help Denver take command in the race for the last playoff spot in the West. He shot 12-21 from the field. Carmelo Anthony (25 points on 12-20 shooting, nine rebounds) and J.R. Smith (24 points in 26 minutes) also had strong games, while Baron Davis (9-25 from the field) and Stephen Jackson (5-17 from the field) shot blanks, though Davis did finish with a triple double (20 points, 11 assists, 10 rebounds).
The Bottom Line: Iverson and Anthony were fantastic but Jackson deserves some MVP consideration--not for the NBA or for the Warriors but for the Nuggets, because his performance as the Warriors have lost four of their last six games has played a big role in helping Denver move into eighth place: Jackson has averaged 11 ppg in those games while shooting 22-76 (.289) from the field, including 7-34 (.206) from three point range. The Warriors jumped out to a 37-22 lead in the first quarter but then Denver switched to a zone defense and the Warriors could not have looked more confused if a UFO had landed in the middle of the court and aliens took the place of the Nuggets. The Warriors shot early, often and not very accurately from three point range (6-27, .222), with Davis "leading" that charge by connecting on just one of his nine long distance shots. Here is an easy transition hoop for Anthony after a slick pass from Anthony Carter:
TNT ran an interesting graphic during the game that listed Denver's eight "bad" losses during the season; eight games is nearly 10% of the schedule, so if you buy the theory that once is an accident, twice is a trend and three times is a problem then eight times is a really serious problem. In two of the past three years the Nuggets have won game one of the playoffs on the road versus San Antonio only to lose the series in five games each time; they will be happy to not play the Spurs in the first round if possible but I still don't expect them to win more than two playoff games no matter which of the top four teams they face.
The Key Stat: With Josh Howard limited by injury to just three points in 20 minutes, Dirk Nowitzki produced a game-high 32 points on 12-23 shooting, including the game-winning three point shot with :00.9 left:
The Mavs went 2-2 when Nowitzki was out due to a severe ankle sprain but they are 4-1 since he returned to action.
The Bottom Line: This win not only clinched a playoff berth for Dallas but it moved Nowitzki's Mavericks into some pretty elite company. They have won at least 50 games in a season for eight straight years. The only teams in NBA history who have matched or exceeded that are Magic Johnson's Lakers (12 years), Bill Russell's Celtics (10 years), Tim Duncan's Spurs (nine years, a streak that is still active) and Larry Bird's Celtics (nine years). Of course, the glaring hole in Nowitzki's resume is that he has not won a championship; Magic won five titles, Russell won 11 (including one that preceded the 50-win streak and one that came after the streak ended), Duncan has won four titles and Bird won three titles. Nevertheless, the consistency that the Mavs have displayed during the Nowitkzi era is very impressive and very underrated. The fact that Nowitzki is performing so well despite his recent injury should only add to people's respect for his game but until he wins a championship his critics will always bring up Dallas' disappointing performances in the 2006 NBA Finals and the first round of the 2007 NBA playoffs.
The Key Stat: Six Lakers scored in double figures, but none of them had more than Luke Walton's 18 points. Kobe Bryant had a quiet night (16 points on 6-17 shooting, three rebounds, three assists) and did not play in the fourth quarter during what Marv Albert loves to call "extensive gar-bage time." Bryant did have two blocked shots, one of which was definitely highlight worthy:
The Bottom Line: The Clippers only trailed 51-42 at halftime but, as Charles Barkley predicted, the Lakers "beat them like a drum" in the second half. We did not learn too much about the Lakers but they should be well rested when they play the Hornets tonight. It was nice to see Elton Brand get some good run (23 points on 10-20 shooting, seven rebounds); he had 15 first quarter points but his minutes are still restricted as he recovers from his Achilles tendon injury. He has averaged 18.6 ppg and 6.8 rpg in five games so far. Rookie Al Thornton (22 points, 10 rebounds, two blocked shots, two steals) simply oozes athletic ability. Passing is not really a big part of his repertoire yet (one assist in 44 minutes) but he looks like he can become a big-time scorer once his game becomes a little more refined. Smush Parker had perhaps the most amazing stat line of anyone in this game: a -27 plus/minus rating in 28 minutes of action. It is hard to be worth nearly a negative point per minute but he has proven to be up to that task for multiple teams so far during his career. His individual numbers actually were not that bad (12 points on 4-8 shooting) but you have to watch him play to fully appreciate the passes that are made too early or too late and all of the wonderful intangibles that he provides; Lakers fans certainly know exactly what I am talking about, Heat fans quickly learned and Clippers fans will know pretty soon.
Former NBA Coach of the Year (2002) and current ESPN analyst Rick Carlisle uses a two pronged formula to determine whether or not a team is a legitimate championship contender. He says that such teams must either have three All-Stars or two MVP candidates. Few teams have three All-Stars in a single season; only Boston and Detroit accomplished that this year, with Detroit making the cut only after Boston's Kevin Garnett bowed out due to injury and was replaced by Rasheed Wallace. MVP candidacy can be a bit subjective once you get past the top few contenders; most people would probably agree that Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Chris Paul and Kevin Garnett are the leaders this season, though I would select Dwight Howard as an All-NBA First Team center and thus at least mention him in the MVP conversation. Carlisle did not specify how he determines which teams meet his two criteria but he did mention that he thinks that either San Antonio or Phoenix will win the West this year.
I'm going to take the liberty of supplying an exact recipe for Carlisle's formula and then applying it to several NBA teams. For the purposes of this discussion, an All-Star is any player who has been selected to the All-Star team in 2005, 2006, 2007 or 2008 and an MVP candidate is one of the five players mentioned in the first paragraph plus anyone who ranked in the top five in MVP voting in 2005, 2006 or 2007. Eight NBA teams have winning percentages of at least .667 going into tonight's action. Here is how they rank based on my adaptation of Carlisle's formula (teams are awarded two points for each player who has been an MVP candidate and one point for each player who has been an All-Star; remember that only All-Star selections from 2005-08 are being considered in these rankings, although certain other selections are noted in the comments):
1) Phoenix Suns (8 points): Two MVP candidates--Steve Nash (2005 winner, 2006 winner, 2007 runner-up), Shaquille O'Neal (2005 runner-up); four All-Stars--Nash (2005-08), Amare Stoudemire (2005, 2007-08), O'Neal (2005-07), Grant Hill (2005).
Comment: O'Neal is obviously not the same player that he was in 2005 but he was an All-Star as recently as last season and when he is healthy he still commands a double-team in the post. Hill is healthier this season than he has been at any time since his last All-Star appearance. Leandro Barbosa won the 2007 Sixth Man Award and he has put up All-Star caliber numbers the past two seasons.
2-4) Boston Celtics (5): One MVP candidate--Kevin Garnett (one of this year's top five candidates); three All-Stars--Garnett (2005-08), Ray Allen (2005-08), Paul Pierce (2005-06, 08).
Comment: Garnett won the 2004 regular season MVP.
2-4) San Antonio Spurs (5): One MVP candidate--Tim Duncan (fourth in 2005 and fourth in 2007); three All-Stars--Duncan (2005-08), Tony Parker (2006-07), Manu Ginobili (2005).
Comment: Duncan won the regular season MVP in 2002 and 2003, plus he won the Finals MVP in 1999, 2003 and 2005. Parker won the Finals MVP in 2007 (Carlisle specifically mentioned Parker as an MVP caliber player due to this accomplishment). Michael Finley is a valuable reserve who made the All-Star team in 2000 and 2001.
2-4) Detroit Pistons (5): One MVP candidate--Chauncey Billups (fifth in 2006); three All-Stars--Billups (2006-08), Richard Hamilton (2006-08), Rasheed Wallace (2006-08).
5-7) L.A. Lakers (4): One MVP candidate--Kobe Bryant (fourth in 2006, third in 2007, one of this year's top five candidates); two All-Stars--Bryant (2005-08), Pau Gasol (2006).
5-7) Orlando Magic (4) : One MVP candidate--Dwight Howard (one of this year's top five candidates); two All-Stars--Howard (2007-08), Rashard Lewis (2005).
Comment: Hedo Turkoglu had an All-Star caliber season this year.
5-7) New Orleans Hornets (4): One MVP candidate--Chris Paul (one of this year's top five candidates); two All-Stars--Paul (2008), David West (2008).
8) Utah Jazz (2): No MVP candidates; two All-Stars--Carlos Boozer (2007-08), Mehmet Okur (2007).
Comment: Deron Williams is an All-Star caliber player but he has yet to be selected to the team.
Here is how the teams rank based on total MVP candidacies and All-Star selections (two points for each MVP candidacy, one point for each All-Star selection):
1) Phoenix (19): four MVP candidacies, 11 All-Star selections.
2) Boston (13): one MVP candidacy, 11 All-Star selections.
3-5) Detroit (11): one MVP candidacy, nine All-Star selections.
3-5) San Antonio (11): two MVP candidacies, seven All-Star selections.
3-5) L.A. (11): three MVP candidacies, five All-Star selections.
6) Orlando (5): one MVP candidacy, three All-Star selections.
7) New Orleans (4): one MVP candidacy, two All-Star selections.
8) Utah (3): no MVP candidacies, three All-Star selections.
Obviously, these rankings do not take into account whether or not former All-Stars are still playing at an All-Star level, nor do they consider the fact that several of these teams rely heavily on strong performances from some very good players who have yet to make the All-Star team. Still, it is worth noting that only Phoenix, San Antonio, Boston and Detroit meet Carlisle's requirements by virtue of having at least three All-Stars.
Regardless of what the standings say or what certain "experts" declare, the two strongest and most well rounded teams in the West are the San Antonio Spurs and the Phoenix Suns--and on Wednesday the Suns demolished the Spurs 96-79 in San Antonio. This is the Suns' second win in a row versus the Spurs since acquiring Shaquille O'Neal and just their third win in San Antonio in their last 15 tries. Amare Stoudemire finished with 21 points and four rebounds, leading a parade of six Phoenix players who scored in double figures, including Shaquille O'Neal (16 points on 7-9 shooting plus nine rebounds in just 24 minutes), Leandro Barbosa (14 points) and Steve Nash (12 points, 10 assists, five rebounds). Tim Duncan (23 points, 10 rebounds), Tony Parker (20 points, four assists) and Michael Finley (10 points on 4-5 shooting) were the only double figure scorers for the Spurs. Manu Ginobili finished with eight points, four rebounds and four assists, shooting just 3-12 from the field; this is the second time in four games that he shot .250 or worse from the field and did not score 10 points. Overall, Ginobili has failed to reached double figures in eight games this season, not including the game in which he only played two minutes before being sidelined by an injury. The Spurs are 3-5 in those contests. Stat hounds who try to suggest that Ginobili should be an MVP candidate and that he is as good as Kobe Bryant ignore the fact that, as good as Ginobili is, he is an erratic player at times. Bryant has failed to reach double figures in scoring only once this season--the game in which he tore a ligament in the pinkie finger on his shooting hand. Chris Paul has five such games this season and LeBron James does not have any.
The Suns got off to a good start before Stoudemire picked up two quick fouls, forcing him to sit out most of the first quarter; in the first half they outscored the Spurs 39-31 when Stoudemire was in the game but they trailed 14-6 when he was on the bench. Other than Stoudemire's foul trouble, the main problem for Phoenix was trying to contain Tony Parker's dribble penetration. Steve Nash simply cannot guard him, which forces the Suns to either play zone or to cross match, putting a small forward on Parker and having Nash guard Bruce Bowen. Parker had 16 points on 7-10 shooting in the first half.
When Stoudemire and O'Neal were in the game together the Spurs had serious difficulties on defense; O'Neal required constant attention from Fabricio Oberto, leaving Stoudemire free to roam the paint against one on one coverage from Duncan. In the second quarter, Stoudemire hammered home a couple vicious dunks over Duncan. Late in the quarter, O'Neal achieved such great post position against Oberto that Duncan had to double team, enabling Stoudemire to catch a pass in the lane and attack the hoop; Duncan tried to recover to stop him, committing his second foul. That is a great example of how O'Neal's presence helps Stoudemire, causes individual foul trouble for the opposing team and enables the Suns to potentially get in the bonus, providing more free throw shooting opportunities for a team that has several excellent shooters. Stoudemire made both free throws to put the Suns up 40-37 but shortly after that O'Neal picked up his third foul and had to sit out the last 1:57. With O'Neal on the bench, Duncan scored back to back hoops and the Spurs led 45-42 but a last second Raja Bell three pointer tied the score just before halftime.
The Suns opened the third quarter with a strategy that would have been unimaginable for them just a few months ago; they slowed the game down and pounded the ball inside to O'Neal, who scored three times on postup moves against Oberto. The Spurs had no answer for this but, unfortunately for the Suns, O'Neal was relegated to the bench after committing an offensive foul, his fourth foul of the game; as ESPN's Hubie Brown mentioned, all O'Neal needed to do was simply hold his position against the fronting Oberto and then he could have caught a lob pass for an easy score. Instead, O'Neal got a bit impatient and tried to push Oberto out of the way to gain more space. In addition to his low post scoring, O'Neal was also doing an excellent job guarding Duncan; Brown said that with O'Neal on the bench "Stoudemire's got to get going here defensively." It is important to remember that even without O'Neal on the team Stoudemire has shown the ability to score a lot of points against Duncan and the Spurs but he has yet to demonstrate the ability to stop Duncan from scoring nearly as many points while leading the Spurs to victory. Before Stoudemire had much opportunity to guard Duncan this time he committed his fifth foul by setting a moving screen and thus he joined O'Neal on the bench. Stoudemire vociferously complained about this call but Brown correctly said, "He definitely moved. That's an easy call." It is hard to understand why Stoudemire--and Phoenix Coach Mike D'Antoni--complain so much about calls that are obviously correct; referees look at tapes after every game and the Suns lose a lot of credibility by arguing about such calls. This kind of lack of composure cost them dearly in last year's playoff series versus the Spurs.
With O'Neal and Stoudemire out the Spurs took a 66-61 lead before Duncan sat out the last 3:35 of the third quarter. Both teams then briefly played "small ball" and the Suns made an 11-2 run to close out the quarter. O'Neal returned to action at the start of the fourth quarter and he promptly took over the game. He scored over Duncan in the post two times, pushing the Suns' lead to 79-70 and forcing the Spurs to call a timeout and change their defense. The Spurs decided to once again have Oberto front O'Neal, with Duncan providing a double team once O'Neal dribbled the ball. This time, O'Neal was patient; he did not commit an offensive foul and after he caught the pass he simply scored right over both Oberto and Duncan. On the next possession, Duncan committed his fourth foul while trying to guard O'Neal, who split a pair of free throws to make the score 82-73 Phoenix. Meanwhile, at the other end of the court O'Neal did a great job guarding Duncan one on one without any help. As Brown put it, "Shaq has taken Timmy away from the bank shot...Shaq has closed him down and forced him to dribble the ball." While O'Neal dominated, Nash and Stoudemire got some much needed rest and after they returned the Suns put the game out of reach with a 10-0 run.
This type of game is exactly why the Suns swapped Shawn Marion for O'Neal. As Brown pointed out before the game, prior to getting O'Neal the Suns had a -5.6 rebounding margin but since the trade they have a +2.8 rebounding margin; the Suns outrebounded the Spurs 40-36. Many so-called experts criticized the Suns for trading away Marion to acquire O'Neal, lamenting the supposedly impending death of the Suns' beautiful running game and asserting that Phoenix might not even make the playoffs--and I said right from the start that such "analysis" was utter nonsense. In my first post after the deal was made, I wrote, "Adding O'Neal to the mix instantly makes the Suns a bigger, more physical team. He will improve the team's defensive rebounding and provide a solid option in the halfcourt offense when the Suns' running game gets slowed down. The other advantage of adding him to the roster is something that TNT's Kenny Smith talks about sometimes: it enables all of the players to return to their natural positions, most notably returning Stoudemire to his preferred spot at power forward."
In my second post about the trade, I concluded, "...the Suns were not going to win a title without adding some size to their roster. That does not mean that acquiring O'Neal guarantees a championship for the Suns; O'Neal will have to prove that he can stay healthy and be productive enough to make the difference in the playoffs versus the best teams in the West. Maybe he can do that and maybe he can't--but the Suns are more likely to win a championship now than they were prior to doing this deal and that is all that their fans can reasonably expect from the front office; the rest is up to the players and the coaching staff."
In a post titled "Rising Suns", I wrote, "O'Neal adds physicality to the Suns. He will wear down the opposing team's inside players in a seven game series in two ways: he will pound on them when they drive to the hoop or try to post up and they will have to use a lot of energy and force when they guard him to prevent him from getting good post position."
At this time of year there is always a lot of talk about which teams no one wants to face in the playoffs; no one who has any sense wants to face this Suns team in a seven game series, a marked contrast to previous seasons when even flawed Lakers and Clippers teams rightfully believed that they had a puncher's chance against Phoenix.
The Washington Wizards are barely above .500 (41-37) and the Boston Celtics easily have the best record in the NBA (62-16) but with a 109-95 win on Wednesday the Wizards became the only team to beat Boston three times this season, claiming the season series by a 3-1 tally. Antawn Jamison led the way for Washington with 27 points and 11 rebounds and his third quarter throwdown over Kevin Garnett is sure to be replayed countless times. DeShawn Stevenson added 14 points and four assists, while Caron Butler filled up many spaces in the boxscore: 13 points, 10 assists, seven rebounds--and seven turnovers. Gilbert Arenas, playing in just his third game after returning from knee surgery, had 13 points, three assists, one rebound and four steals in 24 minutes off of the bench. He played fewer minutes than any of the starters but jacked up more shots than everyone on the team other than Jamison, shooting 5-14 from the field, including 1-5 from three point range. Paul Pierce had 28 points and seven assists in defeat, while Kevin Garnett produced 22 points, 14 rebounds and five assists. Ray Allen was the only other Celtic who reached double figures (13 points on 4-13 shooting).
After getting a lot of rest in Tuesday's win over Milwaukee, Garnett (31 minutes), Allen (37 minutes) and Pierce (37 minutes) all logged roughly their normal minutes but the Celtics but did not play with the intensity that has enabled them to lead the league in every significant defensive category; they are locked in as the number one overall seed in the Eastern Conference and, for better or worse, they are on cruise control until the postseason begins. Even with Arenas misfiring from all angles, the Wizards still shot 40-78 (.513) from the field, well above the .419 shooting percentage that the Celtics normally allow.
Jamison (+ 16), Butler (+11) and Roger Mason (+12 in only 11 minutes of action) posted the best plus/minus numbers for the Wizards; Arenas registered a +7, tied for fifth/sixth out of nine Washington players who saw action. You should not read too much into plus/minus numbers from just one game but in this particular instance the figures confirm the impression that I formed while I watched the game: the Wizards did fine when Arenas was in the game but they did just as well--or even better--when he was not in the game. The most noticeable positive contribution that Arenas made is that he played with tremendous energy, which should not be surprising considering that he sat out most of the season, has been champing at the bit to come back and is playing against players who have logged many more minutes this season than he has; Elgin Baylor and Michael Jordan each set all-time single game playoff scoring records after missing significant playing time during the preceding regular seasons and Baylor later said that the extra rest and lack of wear and tear were advantageous for him (he had been away due to military service, while Jordan was out due to a broken foot). Arenas displayed decent straight ahead burst but seemed a bit cautious when moving laterally and he noticeably did not attempt to leap explosively, eschewing several potential fast break dunk opportunities to either leave drop passes to teammates or simply lay the ball in the hoop himself.
Wizards Coach Eddie Jordan suggested after the game that we won't see the real Arenas until next October. That is probably true in terms of his minutes and his ability to make explosive moves but I think that in this game we did see a lot of the real Arenas; despite his talk of becoming more of a playmaker (and padding his assist totals by passing the ball when he had surefire layups), Arenas displayed the same shot selection that he has always had: questionable, at best. Arenas just shoots whenever he feels like it, with no regard for the flow of the game; sometimes he is hot and he has a big scoring night but many other times he shoots his team right out of games. His best minutes against Boston came in his first stint; Arenas scored on a nice drive and then he stole the ball and went coast to coast for a layup. After coming up short on a three pointer, Arenas picked up two more steals, on both occasions getting ahead of the pack only to drop off passes that resulted in easy scores for Butler and Andray Blatche. The Wizards were in the midst of a 10-5 run that tied the score at 18 before Arenas entered the game; when he checked out about nine minutes later the Wizards were up 42-27.
Arenas was not as productive when he returned to the game with 3:24 left before halftime and the Wizards enjoying a 50-40 lead. Paul Pierce hit a couple free throws that resulted from a foul committed when Arenas had still been out and on the next possession Arenas missed a pullup jumper. James Posey hit back to back three pointers, then Arenas dribbled around aimlessly before missing a jumper. Blatche corralled the rebound, Arenas received a pass and he missed a three pointer that he launched early in the shot clock. Washington led 55-53 at halftime. Arenas' energy and his steals helped the Wizards to build up a big lead but his erratic shot selection (2-7 field goal shooting) helped the Celtics to erase most of that lead. At halftime, Jamison said, "We still have a long way to go...We took some bad shots and didn't communicate on defense."
Arenas made his first appearance of the second half at the 4:46 mark of the third quarter. The Wizards had pushed their lead to 72-62. Arenas converted a nice driving layup, then missed a jumper. ESPN play by play announcer Mark Jones expressed surprise that some people say that the Wizards could be better off without Arenas and asked color commentator Jon Barry if he agrees that this is a "crazy" notion--but Barry did not dismiss the idea at all, saying of Arenas, "He's a wild card. You never know what you are going to get." What interests me about this exchange is how Jones acts like Arenas is on the same level as Kobe Bryant, Chris Paul, LeBron James and the handful of legitimate MVP candidates/franchise players in the NBA; it would indeed be "crazy" to say that you could take any of those players off of their teams and make those teams better--but injury did indeed take Arenas off of the Wizards for most of this season and the Wizards were not noticeably worse off; their record is much more negatively affected by Butler's absence than by whether or not Arenas plays, so it is perfectly reasonable to ask if the Wizards would be better off without Arenas: if they are without him by choice instead of because of an injury then they would replace him with a good player and/or a high draft pick.
Near the end of the third quarter, Arenas committed a charge, leading Barry to say that Arenas is "out of control." On the next two Washington possessions, Jamison and Stevenson each forced jumpers. When Arenas was out of action during this season, the Wizards ran some really nice plays featuring ball and player movement, so it was a bit jarring to see guys suddenly forcing shots. Playmakers like Steve Nash and Jason Kidd not only make good passes but their style of play encourages their teammates to run the floor and to make extra passes themselves; someone like Arenas has the opposite effect on team chemistry, making his teammates more inclined to force shots because they don't know when or where they will be getting the ball next. Arenas' fans will disagree with this sentiment completely but an objective observer can detect this--and the fact that Arenas made a couple passes in fast break situations does not change how he performs in the halfcourt or how his teammates react to that.
Arenas is a talented player who is capable of putting up big scoring numbers and in certain respects he must be granted the benefit of the doubt until he is completely recovered from his knee injury. However, the way that he is playing now in limited minutes is really not that much different from the way that he played before, so there is little reason to assume that the results will change any time soon: as Arenas' minutes increase he will have some big scoring outputs but he will also have some games during which he shoots an atrocious percentage and the Wizards will not likely ever be more than a .550 team (45-37) as long as he is the dominant personality on the roster.
Flipping the Script: Murray's Double Double Helps Pacers to Shoot Down the Hawks
The Indiana Pacers are not dead yet. The Atlanta Hawks visited Conseco Fieldhouse on Tuesday with a chance to eliminate the Pacers from postseason contention and all but clinch the eighth and final playoff berth in the Eastern Conference but Indiana built a 29 point lead en route to a 112-98 victory. Mike Dunleavy led the Pacers with 28 points and recently signed guard Flip Murray had 20 points and 10 assists, shooting 7-11 from the field. Danny Granger added 16 points and eight rebounds, while Marquis Daniels provided a lift off of the bench with 15 points, many of them the result of sharp cuts to the basket that led to dunks or strong finishes at the rim. The Pacers' medical staff has capped Jermaine O'Neal's playing time at 20 minutes per game while he recovers from a knee injury; he contributed 10 points, four rebounds and four blocked shots in 19 minutes of action. All-Star Joe Johnson, who just earned Eastern Conference Player of the Week and Player of the Month honors, led Atlanta with 30 points but they were the proverbial "quiet" 30: he only had 11 points at halftime when the Hawks already trailed by 15 and he accumulated most of his points with Atlanta trailing by significant margins in the second half. Johnson also had six rebounds and a team-high four assists. Josh Smith had 25 points and 13 rebounds but his performance was uneven: he shot just 7-18 from the field, with most of his makes either dunks or layups, and he lost his cool in the third quarter, picking up a technical foul and a flagrant foul in rapid succession.
Atlanta got off to a good start, taking a 20-14 lead after an 8-2 run that included a thunderous fast break jam by Smith, a fast break layup by Johnson and a dunk by rookie Al Horford. The Pacers called a timeout at the 6:32 mark and then closed the quarter with a 24-7 run. The Hawks never got closer than seven points the rest of the way, spent a substantial period of time behind by more than 20 points and trailed by at least 10 points for the entire second half.
I had really hoped to focus my attention on a couple players: Horford and Mike Bibby. Watching a player in person is a lot different than seeing him on TV. However, this game did not accurately represent what either player has provided to the Hawks this season. Bibby never got into a good rhythm, missing all eight of his field goal attempts and playing just 6:51 in the second half; he has played a key role in Atlanta's push for a playoff berth (see Notes From Courtside for Atlanta Coach Mike Woodson's take on his contributions). Horford is a dark horse candidate for Rookie of the Year honors because he is nearly averaging a double double for a team that is in playoff contention but on this night he got into early foul trouble and played less than 20 minutes, finishing with four points and five rebounds. Three positive things that stand out about Horford are that he aggressively pursues every rebound, he sets solid screens for his guards and he is very mobile, sliding his feet well defensively. One negative is that when he catches the ball outside of the paint he seems tentative and uncertain. Once he caught the ball at the top of the key and had an open driving path in front of him. He hesitated, took one dribble and then fired a jumper that missed. At the next stoppage of play, Woodson gestured to Horford to indicate that he should have driven all the way to the hoop.
In his postgame standup, Woodson summarized his team's problems in this game very simply: "Unfortunately, we have to play four quarters but we only played one quarter tonight. I thought we came out ready to play and by the first timeout we were up 20-14. Then they made a big-time run and we just never recovered. We just have to bounce back and put this one behind us. It was a tough loss tonight...We didn't have any kind of defensive presence. When you are trying to make the playoffs you better play defense and rebound the ball to give yourself a chance to win."
Smith said, "It's definitely frustrating. We've been playing hard of late as a unit. Tonight our defensive effort was not up to par and that is what caused us to lose the game."
Of course, Indiana Coach Jim O'Brien was pleased with his team's performance in a de facto elimination game: "We defended well and when we kept them off the glass we kept the tempo where we wanted it. We're playing defense more consistently when the game is on the line and I think we moved the basketball." O'Brien singled Murray out for praise: "He played in command of his game and our tempo. Twenty points and 10 assists in 30 minutes is terrific." Tempo is a key theme for O'Brien. He wants the Pacers to defend well, get the rebound, push the ball and take the first open shot; prior to Indiana's second game of the season, O'Brien said, "You tell each individual during practice one time after he passes up a shot that if ever he does it again you'll yank him. They immediately know that we want them to take open shots. We don't want any surprises. If you get open and you're a shooter, shoot the basketball. If you pass up an open shot early in the shot clock then all of a sudden you're up against the end of the shot clock struggling to get a good shot." This is essentially the same approach that Mike D'Antoni preaches in Phoenix, only D'Antoni has a much more talented group of players at his disposal. I think that the excellent job that O'Brien has done coaching a talent depleted and injury riddled Pacers team has been overlooked by many people. O'Brien is a very good coach, he has taken multiple franchises to the playoffs and given enough time and talent he will do the same thing in Indiana.
**************************** Notes From Courtside:
The race for the eighth playoff spot in the East apparently has not captivated a large audience. Conseco Fieldhouse was barely half full and media coverage of the game was sparse. Coach Woodson's pregame standup basically turned into a one on one sitdown with me (there was only one other reporter present, an Atlanta TV guy who asked a couple questions). I took advantage of this opportunity to find out Coach Woodson's thoughts on a number of subjects:
Friedman: "What has pleased you the most about Al Horford's performance this season?"
Woodson: "I mean, for a rookie to come in and play like he has played and really never hit a wall--most rookies hit a wall after so many games and you have to kind of regroup them and get them going again. He obviously was well coached in college and truly prepared when he came into our league. I'm proud and so impressed with what he has done as an undersized center. He should be playing forward but I've been playing him at center. I'm just proud."
Friedman: "What one area would you most like for him to improve going into next season? Everyone talks about how important it is for a player to work on something in the offseason and come back the next season with something new to add to his game."
Woodson: "Being a more dominant scorer on the block, without a doubt. He will be a guy we will look toward for dominance inside and scoring. Probably to position himself to block more shots, although he's pretty good defensively now in terms of help side and on the ball defense and covering up for some of the mistakes that our guys make on defense. But, no question, we have to develop his low post game in terms of scoring the ball more consistently."
Friedman: "Talk about the impact that Mike Bibby has had as you've made a playoff push. In what specific ways has he affected the team?"
Woodson: "Just from a veteran leadership standpoint. I had not had a legitimate point guard until Bibby came here. I'm not taking anything away from (Tyron) Lue and Anthony Johnson because I respect and appreciate them working for us. They were great pros but Mike is a unique point guard who ran a team in Sacramento for many years. They made the playoffs. He's a quarterback. He knows how to run a team. He's starting to round into better shape. When we got him he wasn't in great shape. Our players love playing with him because they know if they get out and run he'll throw them the ball. He's great in pick and roll basketball and he makes big shots."
Friedman: "The MVP race is a big topic of conversation around the league. Obviously, it's voted on by the media, not by the coaches, but if you had a vote who would be your top three and what would be the reasons for each person you would put in there?"
Woodson: "You've got to look at Kobe being at the top. Chris Paul has had a great, great season as well but the fact that Kobe hasn't won it and his Lakers team is right there says a lot. I just think that Kobe is a phenomenal player. I think Chris Paul is great, too. Those are the only two I look at right now, though you could put LeBron James in that picture as well. I think (I would rank them) in that order: Kobe one, Paul two and LeBron three. Why? Their teams are winning. They (Bryant and Paul) are really dominating in the West; they are right there with San Antonio. And LeBron has done so much for Cleveland; when he is on the floor, good things happen for their team. But, again, I still think that Kobe is the front runner."
Friedman: "Do you recall--either in your playing days or your time as a coach--seeing anything like this playoff race out West? Not just that it is so close, but that all of the teams have good records."
Woodson: "No. I never have seen that. A lot of those teams are going to win 50-plus games and somebody is not going to make the playoffs. That is unheard of. It just shows you the parity out there; they can't afford to slip up. Over here in the East if you play .500 ball you've got a chance."
Friedman: "Obviously it's a close race but if you had to guess who do you think is going to be in the Western Conference Finals?"
Woodson: "Until San Antonio is dethroned they are the front runners. That is how I look at it. I think that with what Pop (Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich) has done--as long as Duncan is in the league, he's a master at getting guys to play around him."
Friedman: "There is some talk about Ginobili or Parker being the most valuable player on that team but don't you think that is a little deceptive because everything they do is built around Duncan?"
Woodson: "Tim Duncan is that team's MVP. However you cut it, if you take Tim out of the mix they will definitely struggle. Tim Duncan has been a dominant force in our league for a long time."
Friedman: "Do you think that now that Phoenix has Shaq providing a low post presence that they will match up better in a playoff situation with San Antonio or Utah, teams that might have given them trouble in the past?"
Woodson: "It didn't hurt Phoenix bringing Shaq over. Don't get that twisted. Shaq is still a dominant force in our league. I wish I had him on my team, really. He's won. You can't question anything about Shaquille O'Neal--nothing. He's been a dominant force for a long time and he's won. I think that was a great pickup and anything can happen in a seven game series."
As the media availability session ended, there was only time for one more question, so I asked Coach Woodson about the delicate balancing act that is involved with winning these last games to get the eighth playoff spot but also trying to prepare in some fashion to face Boston in a first round playoff series. Woodson explained that his focus is very narrow at the moment: "Right now, the Pacers are the team we are trying to beat tonight and it has nothing to do with Boston (or playing) New York on Friday--none of those things mean anything to me. The Pacers are the only team that is standing in our way. I just hope that our guys come out and respond and feel the same way."
Prior to the game, Hawks Assistant Coach Alton Lister--a 7-0 center who played 953 games in his 16 season NBA career-- worked with Zaza Pachulia on low post moves and footwork. A major focus was how to execute an inside pivot move from the left block, followed up by a jab step and then either shooting a jumper or driving to the hoop. It was almost like practicing a dance routine: rotate your hips this way, step here, keep that foot down, maintain your balance. Each part of the move is important in isolation and must be executed with precision in order to manipulate the defender the desired way. Lister also demonstrated how to subtly use your shoulder and body mass to nudge the defender off balance. Former Pacers great--and current Pacers Director of Player Personnel--has told me on many occasions that big men should be coached by other big men who played center or power forward and thus know firsthand exactly what it takes to play inside in the NBA. Watching Lister and Pachulia, one could see the advantage of having a like-size person instructing Pachulia, someone who could body up to him as a defender or demonstrate certain moves while Pachulia acted as a defender; I agree with Daniels that it would be more difficult to do that kind of hands on training as a much smaller person, though I don't agree with Daniels that there are not any smaller people who are qualified to do this type of coaching.
Here is my complete ballot for the tenth edition exactly as I submitted it (MVP and RoY votes are scored on a 10-9-8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1 and 5-4-3-2-1 basis respectively, so Bryant is my top MVP pick and Durant is my top RoY pick):
10-Kobe Bryant: Averaged 31.5 ppg, 7.3 rpg and 5.2 apg in March while logging 42.7 mpg, exceeding his season averages in three categories and nearly matching his season average in apg. 9-LeBron James: LeBron has probably dropped behind CP3 on most people's ballots but I can't honestly say that I'd take CP3 over LeBron regardless of the records of their respective teams. 8-Chris Paul: He is about to wrest the assists crown from Steve Nash and his numbers in March are just silly: 24.0 ppg, 13.3 apg, .553 fg%. I just don't believe that he is better than Kobe or LeBron and the MVP award should not be decided by the relative health of various members of the supporting casts in L.A., Cleveland and New Orleans. 7-Dwight Howard: There is a perception that his game his fallen off--and he did have a subpar game versus Cleveland on Saturday--but he averaged 19.6 ppg and 14.5 rpg as Orlando went 10-4 in March, securing the third seed in the East. 6-Kevin Garnett: His numbers are diminished because the Celtics win a lot of blowouts but he is a major reason that Boston has become a defensive juggernaut. 5-Tim Duncan: Often overlooked since his two MVP seasons, Duncan has the Spurs in contention for the best record in the West. 4-Amare Stoudemire: He has been getting a lot of mention as an MVP candidate since his scoring numbers took off but until his defense improves I can't place him ahead of Duncan and Garnett. 3-Dirk Nowitzki: Everyone saw his ghastly injury and everyone has seen him come back ahead of schedule to help Dallas stay in the playoff hunt. All questions about his toughness have been permanently silenced. 2-Tracy McGrady: Houston's offense revolves around his abilities as a scorer and playmaker. 1-Steve Nash: His shooting percentages this season are insane: .515 fg%, .483 3 pt fg%, .899 ft%
5-Kevin Durant: His shooting percentage has soared, even though he just had a 2-17 disaster versus Houston. 4-Al Horford: Nearly providing a double double a night for a playoff team. 3-Luis Scola: Scores, rebounds and defends. 2-Al Thornton: He looks like a future 20 ppg scorer. 1-Jamario Moon: I've been flip-flopping between Moon and Landry at this spot but I've got to go with Moon now based on games played.
The Score, the Key Stat, the Bottom Line: Sunday's Tripleheader
Sunday featured an NBA tripleheader: two ABC games with playoff implications for all four teams followed by an NBA TV nightcap between the Denver Nuggets and Seattle Supersonics. New Orleans moved one step closer to clinching the top seed in the West by beating Golden State, Dallas moved one step closer to securing a playoff berth by beating Phoenix and Denver moved one step closer to missing the playoffs altogether by losing to Seattle in a double overtime thriller.
The Key Stat: David West and Peja Stojakovic each scored 25 points, Chris Paul notched his fourth career triple double (16 points, 13 assists, 10 rebounds) and Golden State shot 3-29 (.103) from three point range.
The Bottom Line: Will somebody please pull the plug on the "Stephen Jackson should have been an All-Star/is the best player on the Warriors" campaign? Baron Davis leads the Warriors in scoring (21.9 ppg) and assists (7.6 apg). Monta Ellis is averaging 20.1 ppg on .533 field goal shooting this season and in the last four games (including this loss) he increased those numbers to 23.8 ppg and .575. Meanwhile, with the Warriors' playoff hopes in serious jeopardy, Jackson--who has the same scoring average as Ellis but the worst field goal percentage (.406) of any player in the Warriors' main rotation--scored six points on 3-11 shooting from the field (including 0-6 from three point range), grabbed one rebound, passed for eight assists and committed five turnovers. If that line sounds familiar perhaps it is because in his previous three games he shot 6-13, 1-11 and 2-12 from the field. The Warriors have dropped three of their last four games in no small part due to Jackson's 12-47 (.255) bricklaying. After the New Orleans game, Jackson sagely observed, "We just have to shoot better. We shoot better and we win. It's that simple." You think?
I realize that the Warriors will be living off of last year's first round upset of Dallas for at least another 10 years but it will be interesting to see how many more playoff series the Warriors win in the next decade. With the arrival of Jason Kidd in Dallas, Coach Avery Johnson is finally loosening the reins and letting his team run a little and several other squads seem to have figured out that there is no reason to be scared to run against the Warriors. The element of surprise is gone and I would not hold my breath waiting for the Warriors to win a playoff series any time soon.
The Key Stat: After a Shaquille O'Neal basket gave Phoenix a 91-78 lead early in the fourth quarter, the Mavericks outscored the Suns 27-7 to close out the game. Dirk Nowitzki scored 12 of Dallas' points during that stretch. With the outcome hanging in the balance, Nowitzki scored seven of Dallas' nine points from the 3:22 mark to the :27 mark of the fourth quarter. Nowitzki finished with 32 points and 12 rebounds.
The Bottom Line: Dirk Nowitzki gets a bad rap in some quarters for allegedly being soft and for not doing enough to help his team win in the 2006 NBA Finals or the first round of the 2007 NBA playoffs. The reality is that he has produced big time in clutch situations on many occasions, including a 37 point, 15 rebound outburst in game seven of the 2006 Western Conference semifinals as the Mavs eliminated the defending champion Spurs. Now he has not only come back quickly from a painful lower leg injury but he has performed magnificently, averaging 25.7 ppg on .526 field goal shooting as Dallas won two out of three games to move up to seventh place in the West.
This loss makes it much more difficult for the Suns to catch the Lakers and win the Pacific Division but it is still safe to say that they have worked out most of the kinks in terms of integrating Shaquille O'Neal into their offensive and defensive schemes; since the much publicized rough transition right after acquiring O'Neal, the Suns have gone 11-4. The Mavs simply needed this game more desperately or, as Steve Nash put it after the game, "We were feeling good about everything, everything was going our way and their backs were against the wall, not only in this game but in the season. We played like two teams in different psychological places."
Even in this defeat the Suns showcased some of the reasons that they will be a very tough out in the playoffs. For instance, early in the game Mavs point guard Jason Terry drove to the hoop only to receive a hard (but clean) foul from O'Neal. ABC's Mark Jackson explained, "There is a price to be paid now when you penetrate against the Phoenix Suns." Previously, teams could venture into the paint at will against Phoenix, much like you still can against Golden State and Denver. This is an example of something that basketball's "sabermetricians" cannot measure but that definitely changes the dynamics of a team.
Another positive for the Suns is that swapping Shawn Marion for O'Neal has turned Amare Stoudemire loose as a big-time scorer. O'Neal spoke of the "Amare Stoudemire Project"--his plan to turn Stoudemire into the best power forward in the league--but what is happening here is a multi-factor process. O'Neal is content to receive fewer touches and scoring opportunities than Marion did (an adjustment that O'Neal refused to make as a Laker but learned to accept during his time in Miami); essentially what has happened is that Stoudemire is getting those extra touches and picking up the slack from the difference between Marion's scoring average as a Sun and O'Neal's scoring average. Also, O'Neal's arrival straightens the Suns out from a position standpoint. He is a true center, which means that Stoudemire now can play power forward. Previously, Stoudemire was an undersized center and Marion was an undersized power forward--and people wondered why Phoenix was a terrible rebounding team that got pounded every year in the playoffs by bigger, stronger teams!
There were a couple interesting sequences from this game that are worth mentioning. After the Suns successfully ran a screen/roll play with Steve Nash and Stoudemire, Mark Jackson said, "Give Steve Nash a lot of credit but you're only as good as the scorer (who receives the pass)...You have to put yourself in a position where you can be a threat rolling to the hoop." This is a very significant point that should be obvious but is too often overlooked: there is a lot of talk about how Nash makes his teammates better and it is certainly true that his vision, ballhandling and passing create scoring opportunities--but if he did not have teammates who know how to roll to the hoop and who are capable of catching passes and completing plays then all of his wonderful passes would go to waste. Pistol Pete Maravich suffered through that while playing for the expansion New Orleans Jazz; we've also seen a vivid example of both sides of this issue with this season's Lakers: Kobe Bryant's apg average went up as soon as the team acquired Pau Gasol because now Bryant was passing to a legit NBA big man instead of Kwame Brown. This goes back to something that I've been saying for several years now: if Bryant and Nash had switched places the past three years, the Suns would have been at least as good and most likely would have been better due to his superior ability to score and defend; given the opportunity to pass to players like Stoudemire and Marion, Bryant would have shot less often, made a better percentage of his shots and increased his assists--exactly what he has already demonstrated in just 22 games playing alongside Pau Gasol. Meanwhile, Nash's passes would have bounced off of Kwame Brown's hands just like Bryant's did, only Nash would not be able to simply say, "Forget this mess" and go out and score 50-60 points to carry the team to victory. After seeing what Bryant has done with Gasol in a fourth of a season with no training camp can anyone still seriously believe that a Bryant-Stoudemire-Marion nucleus would not have even been more formidable than the Nash-Stoudemire-Marion trio was?
Of course, that prospect will forever reside in a hypothetical realm; the reality is that Nash now has a complete team around him: a legit center, a stud power forward, a healthy small forward who used to be a perennial All-Star and who still seems to have some mileage left and a good supporting cast of role players who have plenty of postseason experience. The Suns can still hit teams with a fast break attack but now in the half court set they can run postups for O'Neal or screen/roll plays with Nash featuring either O'Neal or Stoudemire. Instead of being outrebounded the Suns are now outrebounding their opponents and their interior defense is better, though certain point guard matchups will still pose problems for Nash and necessitate that he is hidden in some way (or at least provided some extra help).
During the third quarter, ABC's Jeff Van Gundy talked about how difficult it is to defend Phoenix' screen/roll play now and he criticized how the Mavericks were attempting to do so. Van Gundy said that the first priority for the defense when Stoudemire and Nash run the screen/roll must be to prevent Stoudemire from dunking. That means that the man guarding O'Neal must slide over to protect the hoop and the forward watching Grant Hill on the baseline must sag in to put a body on O'Neal and prevent him from receiving a pass. If Hill catches the skip pass and buries a three pointer then--as Van Gundy put it--you shake the Suns' hands and move on but you cannot just let Stoudemire repeatedly dunk the ball. Van Gundy added that O'Neal's presence is a major complicating factor for the opposing defense because now that team's center does not want to leave O'Neal in order to provide help.
O'Neal is not the dominant scorer that he used to be but as a Sun he has proven that he can put up double doubles while playing 30-plus mpg and shooting .550-.600 from the field. He is playing harder than he has at any time since he helped Miami to win the 2006 NBA Championship. Considering the amount of talent that Phoenix has, that level of production is all that the Suns need from O'Neal. I wonder how many teams could now beat the Suns four times in a seven game series; that number is certainly smaller than it was in recent years when the Suns lacked the paint presence that O'Neal provides.
The Key Stat: Seattle rookies Kevin Durant (37 points) and Jeff Green (35 points) each established new career highs in scoring. Durant also had eight rebounds, three steals and a career-high nine assists. All eight Nuggets who played scored in double figures, three Nuggets had at least 22 points and Carmelo Anthony scored 38 points on 17-31 field goal shooting--but Denver's defense could not maintain a five point lead with :32 left in the first overtime against the worst team in the West, a squad that the Nuggets had beaten three times by an average of 37 points in their previous games this season.
The Bottom Line: Baltimore linebacker Ray Lewis likes to say that the same thing that will make you laugh will make you cry. The Nuggets thought that it was pretty amusing to hang 168 points on the Sonics about three weeks ago and to keep firing up three pointers well after the outcome was no longer in doubt--but high scoring games suddenly are not quite so funny when one of the league's doormats rises up and deals a serious blow to your playoff aspirations. No one likes being embarrassed and even the worst NBA teams have some talented players, so on Sunday the Nuggets faced a Seattle team that was determined to avenge previous losses and play a spoiler role regarding Denver's playoff hopes.
Denver and Golden State will both finish with good records but only one of them will make the playoffs and, quite frankly, with their "shoot first and don't play defense later" mentalities neither team is making a strong case that it really deserves to join the postseason party (I fully realize that there are a few teams in the East that one could also say don't deserve playoff berths but that is a story for another day).
As for Seattle, this was a coming out party of sorts for Durant and Green. The light actually seemed to go on for Durant about a month ago in terms of shot selection, shooting percentage and just poise in general. Green has been a solid player for most of the season but in this game he made nice plays throughout the contest instead of making a play here or there and then disappearing. Durant is demonstrating improvements in all aspects of his game, though his lack of strength still hinders him at times on the glass and when he drives into the paint. Seattle has not been in a lot of close games this year but it is a good sign that when the Sonics have been in those situations that Durant has been willing and able to make big shots. Against Denver he hit a late three pointer to send the game to overtime and another late three pointer to force double overtime. Ironically, on a percentage basis he is not a great three point shooter and he had missed both of his earlier three point attempts; prior to his late game heroics I thought that one of the best things he did against Denver was move his game inside the three point line and focus on his midrange game. With his height and length he can get off a jump shot pretty much whenever he wants so he needs to be sure that he shoots when and where he wants to and does not drift out of his high percentage areas or attempt off balance shots.
Nothing will alter my opinion that last summer was way too early to start calling Durant a "sensation" but if he puts on some weight this offseason and continues to improve then he can make strides toward turning the hype into reality.
Jazz, Hornets, Lakers Excel Against the Best of the West
During New Orleans' 108-96 win over Golden State, ABC ran a graphic that showed how well the top nine teams in the West have performed against each other this year. Only three of those teams have winning records overall against the group: the Utah Jazz (15-9), the New Orleans Hornets (17-10) and the L.A. Lakers (17-11).
The Jazz made it to the Western Conference Finals last year and they started 12-5 this season but after a brutal 5-11 December that featured 10 road games they seemed to drop off of the radar for many basketball analysts and fans. While other Western Conference contenders brought in current or former All-Stars like Pau Gasol, Shaquille O'Neal and Jason Kidd, Utah's only significant move was trading Gordan Giricek to Philadelphia for Kyle Korver on December 29. Giricek and Korver own similar career averages but the Jazz went 19-3 in their first 22 games after acquiring Korver; part of that success can be attributed to an easier schedule but Korver's outside shooting touch also enabled the Jazz to spread the court, giving Deron Williams, Carlos Boozer and other players more room to operate. The Jazz have the best home record in the league but their mediocre road record has relegated them to fifth place in the West. Utah's core players have been healthy all year and, except for Korver, they basically have the same nucleus that made the good playoff run last year; that cohesiveness should be an advantage in the postseason but a big problem for Utah is that the Jazz are much more dependent on home court advantage than the other top teams and they are unlikely to have home court advantage past the first round.
The Hornets are considered one of the most surprising teams of this season but maybe we should not be quite so surprised; last season, Chris Paul missed 18 games and David West missed 30 games. West's extended absence proved to be particularly damaging; the Hornets were 28-24 when he played (.538) and 11-19 (.367) when he did not play. Also, Peja Stojakovic played just 13 games for the Hornets in 2006-07 but this season he is healthy again and he has reemerged as one of the league's best three point shooters. Paul and West each earned their first All-Star selections this season and it is only natural that more on court time together has translated into improved play not only from an individual standpoint but also in terms of the team's overall performance. The Hornets were a bit of a mystery coming into this season because we had never seen the Paul-West-Stojakovic-Tyson Chandler quartet play together for an extended period of time; they started just seven games together in 2006-07 but this season they have started 59 of 75 games, posting a 44-15 record in those contests. At least three of those four key players has started every single game for New Orleans this year.
As I have mentioned before, injuries and trades have effectively turned 2007-08 into three seasons in one for the L.A. Lakers. While Utah and New Orleans have enjoyed great roster stability, the exact opposite has been the case in L.A. The Lakers started out 24-11 with Kobe Bryant and Andrew Bynum providing a nice inside-outside punch. Then Bynum suffered what has effectively turned out to be a season-ending injury. Bryant kept the Lakers above water (6-5 without Bynum, including one game that Bynum missed prior to his serious injury) until G.M. Mitch Kupchak brought in Pau Gasol; the acquisition of the one-time All-Star meant that teams could no longer simply focus all of their defensive attention on Bryant and so the Lakers went 15-4, zooming to the top of the Western Conference standings. Then Gasol sprained his ankle and it was once again up to Bryant to keep the Lakers in contention, leading them to a 5-4 mark before Gasol came back. The Lakers have won both games since Gasol returned and may have to run the table to catch New Orleans for the best record in the West. While the Hornets started their best four players 59 times, the Lakers logged just 35 games with the Bryant-Bynum tandem (Bynum did not even start 10 of those games as he worked his way into being a major part of the rotation) and an additional 21 games with the Bryant-Gasol duo. The Lakers' 17-11 record against the best of the West is even more impressive when you consider that seven of those losses came without both Bynum and Gasol--and Gasol only played two minutes in the March 14, 2008 loss to New Orleans that may ultimately decide the race between L.A. and New Orleans for the best record in the West. Bryant led the Lakers to road wins against Dallas, Utah (snapping a franchise-record 19 game home winning streak) and Golden State despite both Bynum and Gasol being out of action in those contests.
We know that MVP voters are going to take won/loss records into consideration and recently there has been a lot of talk that if New Orleans finishes with the best record in the West then Chris Paul "has" to get the award. Paul has had a great season, he is a worthy MVP candidate and I don't have anything bad to say about his game; unlike two-time MVP Steve Nash, he is not a defensive liability in one on one matchups and unlike LeBron James he is a good three point shooter and free throw shooter. However, Kobe Bryant has long been acknowledged to be the best player in the NBA and for the past three years it was said that the reason that he did not receive the MVP was that his team did not win enough games. This season, Bryant has the Lakers in contention for the best record in the West despite not only dealing with injuries to his best two big men but also seamlessly adjusting to the midseason acquisition of Gasol; most of the other teams that made big midseason deals had to go through some kind of adjustment period, but Bryant and Gasol immediately clicked and Bryant certainly deserves a lot of credit for that because he very noticeably reduced his field goal attempts and sought to involve Gasol in the offense. It seems almost certain that the Lakers and Hornets will finish within a game or two of each other in the standings. Considering all of the obstacles that Bryant and the Lakers have overcome, it makes no sense to select the recipient of an individual award based largely on a one or two game difference in the standings. If Bryant and Paul were considered to be having roughly equivalent seasons and their teams were separated by 10 games in the standings then perhaps that would be a good tiebreaker. However, in light of the fact that Paul's key guys have been on the court with him throughout the season while Bryant's key guys have missed an extended amount of time, it only makes sense to vote for Paul over Bryant if you believe that Paul has had a significantly better season than Bryant has. The very fact that people are talking about using won/loss records as a tiebreaker proves that most observers do not believe that Paul's individual output far exceeds Bryant's, so the whole idea of breaking this alleged tie in such a manner makes no sense.
"A work of art contains its verification in itself: artificial, strained concepts do not withstand the test of being turned into images; they fall to pieces, turn out to be sickly and pale, convince no one. Works which draw on truth and present it to us in live and concentrated form grip us, compellingly involve us, and no one ever, not even ages hence, will come forth to refute them."--Alexander Solzhenitsyn (Nobel Lecture)
"The most 'popular,' the most 'successful' writers among us (for a brief period, at least) are, 99 times out of a hundred, persons of mere effrontery--in a word, busy-bodies, toadies, quacks."--Edgar Allan Poe
"In chess what counts is what you know, not whom you know. It's the way life is supposed to be, democratic and just."--Grandmaster Larry Evans
"It's not nuclear physics. You always remember that. But if you write about sports long enough, you're constantly coming back to the point that something buoys people; something makes you feel better for having been there. Something of value is at work there...Something is hallowed here. I think that something is excellence."--Tom Callahan