April 20, 2009
This would seem to be a bit of a shocker. The 76ers were awful in the last couple of weeks of the regular season, losing five games in a row before barely eking out a one-point overtime win against a Cavalier team that didn't play a single starter in the last game of the season. During that span, they looked about as legitimate an NBA playoff team as the Denver Broncos.
But even after starting the fourth quarter down 14 points, the Sixers managed to drop 35 digits on the Orlando Magic during the final frame, and topped the third seed in the East on the road on Andre Iguodala's game-winning 20-footer. On the surface, it should boggle the mind.
Digging deeper, though, I'm having a hard time being too gobsmacked about it.
To me, it all comes down to something I brought up to Ben Q. Rock from Third Quarter Collapse, after having seen the game-winning shot but before having actually watched the game from beginning to end. The Magic are overachievers.
Understand that this isn't a bad thing. Don't derive negative connotations from that, don't confuse "overachievers" with "overrated," and understand that this is something to be proud of. The Magic could have decided to be a distant third in the East, the team's various ages and abilities called for it, but they decided to take fewer nights off than just about any team in the NBA. And just because some teams had better records, it doesn't mean they didn't take a night off here and there while still coming out with the win.
The Magic out-paced what were reasonable expectations of the team, so that makes them overachievers. The amount of publicity we've given them is correct. I'm not going to pretend to see the future (much to the dismay of comment kid # 19, here) and tell you that this team is about to fall to earth. This isn't a bad thing. It just means they have to work a lot harder than most teams, and if the effort drops for a spell or things don't go their way in spite of good effort, a loss might result. Against just about any opponent.
Throw in the fact that the Sixers are probably the most inconsistent team in these playoffs, and that inconsistency can sometimes have good results (that's kind of why it's the opposite of consistent), and you have a two-point loss. Even at home. Even with your superior record. Even with that 14-point fourth quarter lead.
The 76ers trapped the pick and roll. They were expertly prepared by the Philadelphia coaching staff, and the Magic (also expertly prepared, and that's not me being a smartass) reacted by making safe, conservative passes so as not to dish into the 76er turnover machine. The Sixers live to cause turnovers, it is what they do best, and the Magic were ready for it.
And because Magic players had been beat over the head from Thursday until Sunday afternoon about limiting turnovers against Philadelphia, don't tell me that those dire warnings didn't go through Hedo Turkoglu's head a thousand times in 1.8 seconds as he thinks about trying to sneak a pass to Dwight Howard from 25 feet away, with two 76ers in his face and steal-hungry help for Howard ready on the baseline.
Sometimes those quick decisions, even with no preconceived notions of which fork to take, tend to pile up on one side. For some reason, Turkoglu constantly passed on trying to squeeze it into Howard, instead choosing to toss it to a helpful teammate on the perimeter.
It wasn't a choice he made beforehand; it's just that the coin landed on one side over and over and over. It's strange how that happens, but it does happen. Think about playing one-on-one against someone, and for some reason when given the choice to drive all the way or pull up for a 14-footer, you keep going with the 14-footer. It's not your best, or worst, shot, and the defender isn't trying to force you into either option. It just happens, over and over and over again, and you have no idea why.
And while the Magic have to get Howard involved, understand that they won nearly 60 games this year by not really involving him all that much. By not turning him into Patrick Ewing. By sharing the ball, moving it quickly, and not giving defenses a way to exploit Dwight's rather limited (he is 23, after all) post-up game, his turnover issues, and his poor free throw shooting.
Does that excuse what happened? No. Is it right that Dwight Howard was on the court for nearly five and a half minutes (and the Magic were nine minutes into the fourth quarter) before he saw the ball even passed to him (Howard responded with a lefty hook that went in)? No.
But none of this happens if the Magic don't defend better.
They were a great defensive team this year, one of the best, but they lost it in that fourth quarter. Everyone's to blame, save for the guy who had the game-winner nailed in his face. Seriously, Hedo Turkoglu was the best defender the Magic had during that turn, his guy just nailed a tough (some, like Charles Barkley, would say "lucky") low-percentage shot in the waning moments. He hit the same shot early in the quarter. You live with that.
Everyone else? Bad, bad D. Anthony Johnson lost his man. Marcin Gortat overplayed. Courtney Lee was continually out of position and beat. Dwight Howard was caught too far from the hoop as Andre Miller laid it in. Tony Battie didn't follow his man (Donyell Marshall) well enough. Rafer Alston was beat a few times. Everyone had a part, nearly every time down court, in allowing the 76ers to come back. 35 points in any quarter is too much.
35 points, in that slow a game, in the fourth? Brutal.
(Also, all those "3" placards that Magic fans wave after someone nails a three-pointer? You're reminding everyone of Steve Francis. Stop it.)
Apologies for spending all this time on the Magic, but that's where the story is. The Sixers played a hell of a game, they should be commended for the comeback, and they should be commended for even making the playoffs without the services of their best player. Rip on Elton Brand all you want, but the cat can play, and the Sixers also overachieved to get where they're at.
I just don't see Philadelphia shooting 51 and 58 percent from the floor and three-point range again. Then again, I don't see the Magic finishing another game in this series with only 10 turnovers. Defense was the problem for Orlando on Sunday, but they are going to have to address the offense at some point, and there will be a byproduct (read: turnovers).
I know I've harped on this quite a bit, and it seems particularly lousy to bring up in the wake of a 27-point, nine-rebound effort (he hasn't scored over 25 points since the middle of November), but Carlos Boozer just ain't right.
One dunk in the first half seemed all the proof I needed that, even with four days in between Jazz/Laker games, he just isn't fully recovered. He had a wide-open, two-handed throwdown, and the guy that used to get elbows over the rim barely cleared the goal. It was a still a rim-rattler, but the big whoosh isn't there anymore.
So, yes, the numbers are back. But it seems as if he's just working around his ailments, and less likely that he's overcome them.
The Jazz can't guard the Lakers. They're not long enough, they don't anticipate well while having to defend offenses with good spacing, and Kyle Korver on Kobe Bryant (even for small stretches) would seem to be perfect for Jerry Sloan's resume should he ever want to apply for a gig at Guantanamo Bay. After quitting coaching, building a time machine, and jetting off to the year 2005. Then preparing that resume.
They can't score very well against them, either. 29 free throw makes helped overcome the 39 percent shooting, but the Jazz also turned the ball over on 14 percent of their possessions, and the team's 106 points per 100 mark is not going to cut it against a monster like the Lakers.
56 percent shooting for Los Angeles. They turned it over way too much (17 times), but they also hadn't played since April 14th. Against the Jazz. Nevermind. I'm totally in the bag for L.A..
Atlanta underachieves defensively more so than just about any team in the NBA. It's not really close. Chicago might come the closest, but with an undersized shooting guard and a rookie at the point, you can at least toss a few excuses out there.
And while Atlanta isn't lousy with seven-footers patrolling the lane, and they do have to give Mike Bibby about 35 minutes a night, the team still mails it in on the defensive end all the time. We know this, because we've seen them play hot, hot defense. At the start of this season. At the start of last season. At about the 50-game mark of 2008-09. And Sunday night.
They can do it. I'd start by asking them to stop switching on everything, but as with most things, it comes down to effort.
Atlanta just destroyed the Heat, who had no answers for the Hawk defense. And, because he's an NBA head coach, Erik Spoelstra could only criticize the Miami defense after the game. Ridiculous.
Meanwhile, a few days off seemed to do wonders for Josh Smith's still-iffy ankle. Not that he ever stopped doing chin-ups on the rim this year, but his frame seemed a little off this year even though he hurt the thing in November. And he was all over on Sunday, finishing with 23 points, 10 rebounds, and three steals.
No Heat was any help. Jermaine O'Neal looks like a Collins twin out there, minus the defense. James Jones started, because Spoelstra likes to do weird things to Michael Beasley's confidence. Beasley can handle it, though, I'm sure. Everything about him leading up to his selection in last year's Draft suggested that he's a real even keel guy. That's me being a smartass.
Miami has now lost five straight playoff games since winning the NBA title in 2006.
If you have quick defenders who anticipate well, and move their feet, you can pretty much keep the Hornets in check. Chris Paul will get his, and David West is always a threat to hit long shots even against perfect defense, but forcing those other three guys that are on the floor to use up the rest of the possessions poorly pretty much gift-wraps the win.
Then, if you have a point guard who is hitting contested three-pointers from 27 feet without seeming to break a sweat, and 8-9 overall, you have the Nuggets on Sunday.
Lastly, if Paul's shots spin out and West isn't creating miracles with his 19-footers, you have the Nuggets beating New Orleans by 29 points.
Great spurts of offense from J.R. Smith in this win, CB was fantastic with 36 points on 15 shots, and Nene's defense was superb.
Water on the fire? Carmelo Anthony's first playoff game was a dud. He missed eight of 12 shots, and while the Nuggets didn't need him much in a 29-point win, this is coming off the heels of what was a pretty significant step back season for Anthony, who saw his points per game and shooting percentages tumble.
What would make me feel better? Something like a 12-22 performance, in New Orleans, in Game 3 on Saturday. And this is a small quibble, because even without Anthony at his best, and even taking away Billups' brilliance, Denver's offense dominated the Hornets.