April 25, 2009
You have to give the Pistons a lot of credit in this one. Detroit couldn't even top 70 points, I know, and it was at home with its season on the line, but they stood up to a Cavs team that was playing one of its better games of the year, and nearly made a game of it.
Crazy talk, I know, what with Cleveland's backcourt shooting 1-18 ("better games of the year?") and Detroit losing by 11 in a super-slow game (at a typical pace, that's an 18-point loss), but Cleveland was astonishingly good defensively, while moving the ball expertly, and Detroit still hung in there. As much as can be reasonably expected. And that's all we ask for.
Even through Rip Hamilton's foul trouble, they kept trying. Problem was, Cleveland is just onto the Pistons at this point. They went under screens, and essentially destroyed Detroit's pick and roll game. Rasheed Wallace and Antonio McDyess shot only 6-17 combined, as the Cavaliers did a fabulous job closing out on perimeter looks. McDyess ended up hitting four shots, but he was way out of his comfort zone as the Cleveland bigs closed out. You could tell that shutting Dyess down was a big point of emphasis for Cleveland.
(And, a good six years after his career was considered to be over, that's a pretty astonishing and respectable thing, Mr. McDyess.)
So, it might be iffy praise handed down on a Saturday late in April, hardly the stuff of champions, but the Pistons showed up. They played hard, most of them played smart (Kwame Brown still has his issues, though the effort was there), and they didn't back down. It's a shame that it took them this long to pull a game like this out, but I did want to recognize this team's effort in losing after spending an entire season ripping these guys for moping through games. Cleveland was just the better team.
The much better team. A lot of turnovers (14 in a slow game is a hefty amount), but nothing too crazy. The ball was moving, and though the Cleveland guards weren't hitting from the floor, that will change, and you had to love 20 assists on 28 field goals.
LeBron James finished with 25 points, nine assists, 11 rebounds, two turnovers, three steals, and two blocks. In an 84-possession game. Huge.
I don't know what it is about sports -- hell, I don't know what it is about us -- but if you didn't feel a little spring in your step watching Dwight Howard nail two game-tying free throws late in this one, then there's something wrong with you.
There is something wrong with us. Most of the people that will read this post will have no particular preference as to who wins or loses the Magic/76ers series, and most of us have never met Dwight Howard. Most of us will never make the money Dwight clears on his bi-weekly check in a lifetime. A lot, if not most of us (certainly not me), can also clear the 60 percent mark at free throw shooting that Dwight averages on the year, with 1/100th the practice time that he's afforded.
And yet, there we were, feeling all sorts of giddiness for Dwight when he hit those two late free throws (his 11th and 12th in the game, on 14 tries) in the fourth quarter on Friday. Cheering for a 6-11 guy who won the genetic lottery and can slap the top of the box on the backboard. As you can tell by this long-winded intro, the irony wasn't lost on me, mainly because I watched it while on the exercise bike, trying to not to look 20 years over my 28 years of age.
So, good on ya, Dwight. Of course, it hardly mattered, as Thaddeus Young scooped in a lefty lay-up with a few ticks left, meaning that Philadelphia won the game and retained home court advantage.
The 76ers just have matchup advantages all over the place, and they've won both close contests. Two or three more points gone the other way, and the Magic are up 3-0. That's basketball. And it's fun.
Andre Miller continues to burn both Rafer Alston and Anthony Johnson, he finished with four turnovers but also contributed seven assists, nine rebounds, and 24 points. Willie Green actually came alive by hitting 6-9 shots, finishing with 12 points (because he's Willie Green, he doesn't shoot free throws), Andre Iguodala (29 points) was everywhere as usual, and the Sixers shot 52 percent against one of the toughest defenses in the league. Very good effort, strong execution, fine play from Philly.
There's a very real chance that the Magic could be out of this series. I'm not calling anything, but I want to get the word out now.
This isn't a collapse. This isn't a choke job. This is a team that has overachieved all year playing good basketball and losing close games to another good basketball team that underachieved for a good portion of the year. Those of us that picked the Magic in a walk completely and utterly understood that the Magic and 76ers were closer in terms of talent than their records would indicate, but also assumed that the Magic would continue to play above their station, and the Sixers below theirs. That hasn't been the case, and a 2-1 Philly lead is the result.
There was a lot not to like about this game. Dick Bavetta's crew continued to let defenses get away with rough, foul-laden play under the guise of "jostling for position," and coupled with Houston's continued refusal to understand that it boasts a 7-6 guy with skills in the low post, this completely took Yao Ming out of the game.
Sure, he missed a few turnaround jumpers, but you try hitting them while getting a two-armed shove in the back as you leave your feet. Kind of helps to deny the whole "squaring your shoulders"-thing. I hate this. If Yao did that to Joel Przybilla on the other end, the Houston center would have fouled out by halftime. I don't blame Joel for anything, it's his job to see what he can get away with, but I wish the post play was cleaned up.
LaMarcus Aldridge's defense was horrid in the first half, allowing Luis Scola a series of open looks. The problem for Houston was that Scola shot about the same percentage on open looks that he shot on contested looks, so a would-be 25 or 27-point game ended with a 19 and nine line. Still a great game, but it could have been better.
Worst was the pace, though that was to be expected. 81 possessions in this game. People still refer to the Blazers as a running team sometimes, and all the mic'd up bits that we got from Nate McMillan (push the ball, he said, but pull it out and run the offense if you don't have anything. So, don't push the ball, he intimated), but these guys just don't run. Well, they run. They sprint down the court after pulling in a defensive rebound, but this starts a series of four or five passes that usually sees a Blazer taking a (usually, good) shot with seven seconds left on the clock. Or less.
Tonight, the looks weren't good. Portland tried, they moved the ball and played the right way, Houston can just defend like mad. And while I think Shane Battier has surpassed him in terms of defensive might, Ron Artest was a demon on Brandon Roy again. Of course, this sorcery only held Roy to 19 points, but he did need 18 shots to get there. It's a credit to how brilliant Roy is that he looked as if he was taken out of the game, but he still put up numbers that would earn him an eight-figure contract.
Give Portland credit for coming back, somehow they're one of the best at it despite the team's slow pace (a late 9-2 run for a slow team will take much longer to put together than a late 9-2 run for the Suns, and eventually you run out of time), but a lot of the usual late-game heroics weren't there. And, by "late-game heroics," I mean "Travis Outlaw." He's been a late-game hero his entire career, but he shot just 2-11 in this game, an ohfer four in the fourth quarter.
But through all these complaints, I love both these teams. Smart, talented, deep teams. This has been a great series so far, here's hoping it goes seven.
Also, Jeff Van Gundy called a terrific game. He's truly one of the best when he doesn't try to act showy or tough, and get into sports talk radio nonsense. Just knockout analysis, and very much appreciated.