Ball Don't Lie - NBA



Atlanta 97, Portland 91

Portland has started the season by dropping three of its first five games, and while I see all sorts of things that need working on, I'm not going to flip out too much over that bit of disappointment.

This doesn't mean the Trail Blazers don't have a whole lot to improve upon. The only thing this means is that the Blazers haven't improved on what was already wrong, what was obviously lacking as they entered 2009-10. What remains to be determined is whether or not the personnel on hand is capable of turning it around. I believe, as I did at the outset of the season, that the personnel is on hand. In spades.

Portland's issue entering this season was defense. It led the league in offensive efficiency last year, something few mainstream observers ever bring up (or actually understand), but ranked 13th in defensive efficiency. Defense was the problem heading into this season, even with Greg Oden(notes) earning more minutes and Martell Webster(notes) coming off the shelf, but the team was ranked 11th in defensive efficiency through four games this season, heading into Tuesday's loss.

Now, they laid an egg against the Hawks (who poured in 110 points per 100 possessions), but overall the team has at least held serve defensively. Can it get better? Well, they'll never stop point guards as long as Steve Blake(notes) and Andre Miller(notes) are around; but they can improve. Webster looks like an All-Defensive Team talent, and Oden can't help but get better and better as the year moves on. He's a 7-footer who can jump out of the roof, and sometimes has the block and rebound totals to prove it.

It's the offense that has fallen off. 14th in the NBA entering Tuesday. Bound to drop after Tuesday night.

And I'm not worried about it.

Why? Because the Blazers have proven themselves as an all-world offensive team. Sure, last year's top ranking may have been a fluke of sorts, but there's no reason why they can't get back into the top three.

We're five games in. And, no, Blake isn't getting any better. But the Blazers also have seven and a half million bucks worth of expiring contracts to deal in Blake and Travis Outlaw(notes) (no, I'm not one of those guys who underrates Travis Outlaw), and teams will be looking to move all sorts of talent this year as they prepare for the summer. If not for going after big time free agents, then to just cut salary. It rhymes with "Perk Blimeblick."

Sometimes his coach calls him "Purt."

I haven't seen Atlanta play this hard since, well, the team's hot start to 2008-09. Oh, I'm sure they brought the effort during last year's postseason, but man, Atlanta really wanted this one.

Really worked it defensively, and looked to make the extra pass on the other end. A fantastic effort, and Jamal Crawford(notes) turned in one of those games that make you wonder why he hasn't been able to put it all together consistently.

Mind you, Crawford's 50-point games aren't "one of those games." Anyone can get hot tossing off fadeaway 21-footers and contested three-pointers. It's the games with the penetrating and dishing, something he truly seemed into for short spurts with the 2002-03 Chicago Bulls, that make you wonder.

Either way, 27 points on only 16 shots, seven assists, zero turnovers. A few of his passes should have been assists, but then again, one of his assists was an unnecessary toss while unguarded to an also uncontested Al Horford(notes) on the fast break.

Very promising win for the Hawks, especially after they turned in a stinker (a stinker, I tells ya!) against the Lakers on Sunday.

***

Chicago 83, Milwaukee 81

This was a pretty bad game. I have to give it my usual "watch the full taped game the next afternoon" treatment later today, and I'm not particularly looking forward to it, despite my on-record team leanings. That's a pretty bad tone to take just one week into the season.

Give Chicago credit, they really got after it defensively in that second half. But the opposition helped.

Scott Skiles' offense doesn't get his players to the line. He's a very good coach who can put together a top-notch drive-and-kick system should the shots fall, but without Michael Redd(notes) and within a rebuilding year, games like this are just bound to happen. 10 free throws, all night, for Milwaukee; a team that couldn't compete when Chicago's offense came around.

That's how it is for the Bulls. They're the definition of streaky, because their simplified offense relies so much on the outside shot, taken by up-and-down outside shooters (this ain't Orlando), who are sprung free by poorly-set screens. This can result in a 29-point half, with 12 turnovers; or it can result in the game-deciding 54-point second half, which won Chicago the game.

Brandon Jennings(notes) (25 points, lots of holes, but 25 points) continued his fantastic rookie season, Hakim Warrick(notes) (who missed 10 of 15 shots) clanged on some cheapies he usually puts home, and no team is ever going to win needing 91 shots to score 81 points. Yikes.

And, no, I didn't disagree with Ersan Ilyasova's(notes) potential game-winner that fell a foot short. Not saying it was the best option, but I certainly wouldn't have minded it if I were a Bucks fan.

Sure, he traveled, but that's a good percentage look for him, and I'm always in favor of trying for the win on the road. Scott Skiles disagrees with me, which was about as surprising as the sun coming up this morning.

John Salmons(notes) is now shooting 25.8 percent from the field this year. He was supposed to "replace" Ben Gordon(notes), I thought, not Junior Harrington(notes).

Luol Deng(notes), 24 points and 20 rebounds. Great to see. He can play, he's averaging about 18 and 10 on the year, and he's only 24.

***

Denver 111, Indiana 93

This wasn't supposed to happen. Indiana's offense wasn't supposed to do terrible things to its bedspread. Sure, it wasn't going to be as good as last year's offense, but this bad?

Some of this falls on Denver, you know they got a talking-to about their crummy D (heading into Tuesday, the Nugs were 24th in defensive efficiency) before heading East, but the Pacers had a good chunk to do with scoring only 93 points in a hundred-possession game.

Brandon Rush(notes) needed 12 shots to score eight points. T.J. Ford(notes) just isn't a point guard to put you over the top. Danny Granger(notes) needed 16 shots to score 18 points, and turned the ball over five times. Troy Murphy(notes) disappeared (bad game, bruised back). DAHNTAY JONES(notes) LED YOU IN SCORING!

The Nuggets didn't shoot especially well either from the floor, but they made 15 more free throws, and five more three-pointers despite taking seven fewer attempts from long range. Chauncey Billups(notes) was his used to be usually legendarily efficient-self with 24 points on only 15 shots in only 30 minutes.

***

Cleveland 102, Washington 90

I'd like another chance to sit through this one, but with so many games taking place last night (at one point, eight at once), I didn't give this game the attention it deserved.

Mainly because I'd like to see exactly what the Cavaliers did to keep the Wizards at bay, offensively. Cleveland's offense was good, the shooters still aren't shooting well (Anthony Parker(notes), 2-12; Mo Williams(notes), 6-14), but LeBron James(notes) managed to get to the line a ton and score 27 points, and Shaquille O'Neal(notes) did well when given the rock. Cleveland's D did the trick.

With Antawn Jamison(notes) out, Caron Butler(notes) and Gilbert Arenas(notes) just can't get away with 7-18 shooting. It's not the end of the world, and we're not looking at Adam Morrison(notes) clones here (they combined to shoot 19 free throws), but the Wiz aren't beating any good teams missing one of the big three, and with two of the three playing a little less efficiently than where they usually are.

And, as Brian Windhorst noted, now that Daniel Gibson(notes) is shooting 33 percent on free throws on the year, you think Mike Brown can find someone else to take the technical foul shots for Cleveland?

***

Boston 105, Philadelphia 74

I need you to understand how dominant this was.

This was an 89-possession game. This game was slow. Not league-slowest, slow, but pretty damned slow. And the C's still won by 31. With Kevin Garnett(notes) and Ray Allen(notes) combining to miss 12 of 15 shots.

I'm not going to tell you that the Celtics are a gimmie for the Finals this year, or that they're back where they were, or better, or shove any declarative statement down your throat that no analyst could possibly hope to know right now.

What I can tell you is that they're playing brilliantly right now. And ask you to remember a few things.

Firstly, when Kevin Garnett went down with a knee injury late last winter, the Celtics were clear championship contenders. They then lost their best player, beat a Bulls team working at its peak in the first round, and took the eventual Eastern champs to seven games without their best player.

The Lakers couldn't have done that without Kobe, Orlando wouldn't have done that without Dwight Howard(notes), and the Cavaliers won't be doing that without LeBron.

Is KG as good as those three, right now? He's not far off, but he's not as good, and he plays fewer minutes, so his overall productivity pales in comparison. But just think about that depth. Lost their best player, still played 14 playoff games.

Then you add an improved Rajon Rondo(notes), an inspired Rasheed Wallace(notes) (on defense alone, I haven't seen him this active since 2005-06), Marquis Daniels(notes), a sustained (he's in great shape) Paul Pierce(notes), and an improved Kendrick Perkins(notes).

So I'm going to ask for two things:

1). Don't be surprised if the Celtics go off on some 29-3 run to start the season, bringing up the yearly "can the Bulls be caught?" stories.
2). If the C's do start that hot, pass on discounting Los Angeles, Orlando, Cleveland, or any others from the championship talk. Even after 32 (or 82) games, we won't know.

And anyone who tells you that they knows is a liar.

Rasheed Wallace had the rotation flowing tonight, he had the ball in his hands for about 14 seconds all night and finished with 20 points on 10 shots. Great work. I sincerely hope this doesn't inspire him to camp out behind the line from here until spring, though.

With a new coach in place and a weird offense to figure out, I'm giving the Sixers time.

I will say that Philadelphia has no chance if the team's high percentage swingers (Thad Young, Elton Brand(notes), Marreese Speights(notes)) miss 24 of 33 shots.

***

Detroit 85, Orlando 80

Losses like these are a perfect storm for a team like Orlando. Inspired opponents, road setting, iffy shots, iffy execution, close loss.

Most importantly, Detroit came out with quite a bit of effort, and really got after it defensively. Really got after it. I say this first, because it's the truth, but also because I don't want Pistons fans to get angry at me.

But this was nearly as important - Orlando would like some of those shots back. They'd like the decision to take some of those shots back, Tuesday's offense was almost entirely based on afterthoughts, and they'd like some of those makeable shots back.

Maybe less of Brandon Bass(notes) trying to score through, instead of around, Ben Wallace(notes). Less of Ryan Anderson(notes) pushing off. Less of forgetting that Dwight Howard is employed by the Orlando Basketball Organization of Orlando, Florida LLC.

Detroit still won this game, though. The team's own offense wasn't great shakes, it scored just 96.6 points per 100 possessions and missed all six of its three-point attempts, but John Kuester had these guys really denying quite a bit on the perimeter.

And the Magic are going to have trouble guarding point guards all season. I know they led the NBA in defensive efficiency last year, but I noticed it in the first game of the season (a blowout win, I should point out), and guys like Will Bynum(notes), Rodney Stuckey(notes), and Ben Gordon can take advantage of the Magic. I know Gordon's not a point guard, but he's that size; he dropped 23 while the other two managed 20 apiece in the win.

Jonas Jerebko(notes) started in place of an injured (!) Tayshaun Prince(notes), and while we only have him down for getting his shot blocked one time, it seemed like his were thrown back a few other times. Ohfer five in Prince's absence overall.

The Pistons swept Orlando last year, mind you. They've got a bit of an edge. 20 of the last 25 contests between the two have ended in a Pistons win. Thanks to Rick Kamla at NBA TV for pointing that out.

***

Phoenix 104, Miami 96

Steve Nash(notes) is just an athletic marvel.

For him to be dropping 30 like this, so seemingly effortlessly, at his age? At age 35? It's astounding.

And, as it was when he was winning MVPs for some reason, you still get the feeling that he could do this every night if he wanted to. His shot is so pure, from anywhere on the court, I haven't given a "Steve!" yelp (the thing I throw at players who are in the midst of taking a bad shot, when they're named "Steve") since the 1999-00 season, when he was working through injuries and couldn't square his body properly.

This guy needs to shoot more. Honestly. You don't turn down an assist or nice dish if it results in a dunk or open shot, but we need to cast a critical eye on the Suns every time they lose if Nash isn't shooting quite a bit. He can create his looks; don't worry about the usage issues. And, with his friends fading away and on an iffy team for the first time since 1999-00, Nash needs to be piling up the points.

The Suns are undefeated through four, an impressively so. The team's offense is very good and the defense has been passable enough thus far. The schedule helps with the latter, but that's OK. As it was during D'Antoni's run, the sheer potency of the offense just wears on opponents. I'm not talking about tongues dragging, mind you, just pointing out that if the focus is correct, the Suns could peel off 50.

Over the last two years, though, with all the rumors and new faces and trades and injuries, the focus just hasn't been there. It might be too late for a championship, but I don't see why the Suns can't keep this up.

Not sure why I wasn't bowled over by it during Miami's first three games, but Quentin Richardson(notes) looks like a brand new player. I'd say he looks like he looked back in the earlier part of the decade, with the Clippers, but that wouldn't be the truth. He looks to be in better shape, stronger shape. Boo to him for taking this long and possibly wasting his prime once he got that big contract from the Suns; but congrats to him for getting it together last summer.

18 and 10 rebounds with two steals for Q-Rich in the loss tonight.

***

Los Angeles Lakers 101, Oklahoma City 98

Very impressed with the way the Lakers pulled this win out, because these are the sorts of games you tend to lose.

Second-best player, out. Superstar? Sick, and pretty pissed off. Bench? Nonexistent. And this was the hottest ticket the Ford Center will see, all year. This date was circled on the calendar. That's how it goes, when you're the champs.

Most other defending champions lose this game, but the Lakers stayed with it. The Thunder forced them into a turnover on nearly a quarter of their possessions, but because the Oklahoma City offense is so iffy at this point, the Thunder just couldn't take advantage of all those extra shots.

OKC's star was Thabo Sefolosha(notes). Kevin Durant(notes) may have dropped 28, but he needed 24 shots to get there and turned the ball over seven times, to say nothing of some iffy shots down the stretch. Thabo harassed Kobe Bryant(notes) into a slightly-less-than-awesome game, which is accomplishment enough.

Kobe's been jawing with Thabo for years, and usually he lets these sorts of things get to him. Actually, tonight he let Thabo get to him. But he didn't let his anger completely take over, as it has in the past, which led to losses. Not even after Kobe was jobbed on a couple of calls.

That doesn't mean Kobe didn't take some bad shots, he did, but he also squared himself brilliantly on enough great shots and got to the line enough to lead his team to a win in an atmosphere (the champs are in town!) that his teammates are still getting used to. 31 points on 22 attempts for Kobe. Great work.

Andrew Bynum(notes)? He should be getting 22 and 10, if he plays 48 minutes. I'm not going to gloat after arguing on this guy's behalf for years, I never counted him out, and he's coming through. He still has to build his strength back up (one first half lob from Derek Fisher(notes) used to result in an easy dunk for Bynum, this time it was merely a smooth catch, gather, and lay-in), but all the signs are there. If he gets the ball and keeps building strength, he's going to average this.

Ron Artest(notes)? Composed, and it showed in his line. 20 points on eight shot attempts. Lamar Odom(notes)? Trying to be everywhere. The bench ... eh, Kobe had 31!

Keep building, Oklahoma City. Don't rest on this. And don't get discouraged if this loss is followed by another in Houston, and to the Magic on Sunday.

***

Dallas 96, Utah 85

Yes, I turned it off. Whatever. A bunch of you did, as well, I'm sure. At least that's what I'm hoping.

With a bunch of other, closer, games running, I missed just about all of Dirk Nowitzki's(notes) wild 29 fourth quarter points. The Jazz were up double-figures, most of the other games were close and in the fourth quarter, and I had to make the call.

Not much struck me about the first three quarters. Utah did well to keep the Maverick non-Nowitzkis in front of them. Shawn Marion(notes) missed 10 of 15 shots, Jason Terry(notes) missed nine of 13 shots, and the Mavs had a hard time corralling Deron Williams(notes).

But when Mehmet Okur(notes) is left out to dry against Dirk, and Dirk keeps getting the ball without much pressure on the passer, 29 points tends to happen. I'm going off of highlights, here, but Andrei Kirilenko(notes)? Was he, at least, considered? What, Shawn Marion is going to cross Okur over if Jerry Sloan pulls a switch.

All in all, I agree with Mark Cuban.

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