Ball Don't Lie - NBA



Atlanta 99, Portland 95 (OT)

There were a fair chunk of screwups — this was no classic  — but two of the best teams in the NBA came through with a solid-enough showing in this Hawks win.

Portland could have had this. Atlanta's defense broke down quite a few times, allowing all manner of Trail Blazers open looks that they just couldn't connect on. Toss in 17 turnovers — not particularly egregious, but more than you'd like in a 95-possession game — and you get the difference.

Atlanta won this game on the boards. The offense sometimes came and went, which was just as often a function of sound Trail Blazer D as it was a letdown on Atlanta's end (the ball movement dried up), but it was quite obvious that the Hawks had their ears pricked up. Lots of talking, lots of pointing, lots of good team play.

There were plenty of hiccups. Joe Johnson(notes) broke plays a little too often early on his way toward missing 18 of 31 shots, but he also put up 35 points, dished nine assists, had plenty of big answerin' buckets, and turned it over only three times, despite dominating the ball for nearly 45 minutes. That's huge. Johnson may not be a game-decider on the level of a Kobe or a LeBron or Wade or Paul, but his ability to keep his team within a possession without making many mistakes keeps him at an All-Star level.

The late-game heroics — 18 points in fourth quarter and overtime — also help.

Jamal Crawford(notes) was another hiccup. He reverted a bit and missed eight of 10 shots while turning the ball over three times. But with the Hawks just owning the offensive glass, limiting Portland's second shots and keeping the turnovers relatively in check (three fewer), the Hawks were in the catbird seat. Even if they were playing from behind for most of the contest.

Eleven extra field-goal attempts for Atlanta, alongside three extra free-throw attempts. This adds up, even if Josh Smith(notes) took a couple of Josh Smith-styled 21-foot clunkers. Otherwise, Smith was on it — 20 points, 16 rebounds, two assists, two steals, two turnovers, two blocks. Al Horford(notes) was smaller than the opposing team's center and power forward, but still managed 15 points, 10 rebounds and two blocks. Marvin Williams(notes) is still struggling offensively, but he brought the defense, and Mike Bibby(notes) was a constant talker, even if his jumper (11 shots, 10 points) wasn't there.

A big win for Atlanta over a very good team, done without bringing the A-game. Not only that, Philips Arena has really turned into a hellacious place to play. Sure, it's been pretty loud for a few years, but it appears as if the Hawks (with Smith and Horford taking that next step) finally have a team worth fretting over if you're a visiting team. This is fun to watch.

***

Orlando 97, Charlotte 91

Orlando better get its big-boy game back, real soon.

Getting Rashard Lewis(notes) back helps. Lewis was pretty out of step on Monday, he didn't have his 3-point legs back (0 for 6, 4 of 15 overall), but he will be a threat and that will be enough until he rounds into shape. Glad to have you back, but let's still do better than two boards in 34 minutes next time around, ‘Shard.

Having Vince Carter(notes) around helps, but V.C. was kneed by Dwight Howard(notes) on Monday, and never looked right afterward. We can gripe all we want about Vince mugging and drawing out injuries, but the man has some bad luck.

Howard, Mickael Pietrus(notes) and Jameer Nelson(notes) continue to be a type of bad luck on their own.

Nelson continues to work a step slow defensively. Monday's beneficiary was Charlotte's Flip Murray(notes), who shot his way toward 31 points, and nearly had a few more as some bombs spun out. Nelson's trying, though.

Howard and Pietrus. They need to pick it up. Now.

Pietrus seems confused offensively, and he's reaching defensively. He's hurting the team overall, and this is a Magic squad that had hoped to plug him into the starting lineup and at least enjoy some of the sustained play they got last year from the 27-year-old. Monday's play wasn't his worst, but he still has a ways to go.

Howard? He was caught out of position defensively and on the boards quite a bit. He only turned it over one time according to the scorekeepers, but I think a few miscues that were handed to willing Magic passers were more Howard's fault than anyone else's. He missed eight of 14 free throws, and while he's shooting what he shot last year from the free-throw line (59 percent), it kind of hurts when you're unable to get more than five shots off in a game.

Dwight is averaging three fewer shot attempts per game than last season, and that's in a start that has seen Lewis, Carter and Ryan Anderson(notes) miss significant chunks. The Magic have won eight of 11, but very rarely have I felt Howard to be a significant, consistent force on either end. At least in comparison to where he was last season.

This has to change. The Thunder, Celtics, Raptors, Heat, Hawks and Bucks await. The team worked its way toward eight wins by alternating good defensive and offensive nights, but this cannot continue. Both have to show up, at once. The talent has demanded it all year. Soon, the schedule will demand it.

The old Magic, plus depth, have to show up now. Lest I point out how much owner Rich DeVos is paying for this team.

The Bobcats will always work hard. They're well-coached and well-intentioned; they're just not very well. Turnovers hurt the team early on, but it came back due to some sneaky smart play (not always good shots, but oh well) from Boris Diaw(notes), who scored 21. Diaw managed only three rebounds in 44 minutes, but let's be happy with what we have.

Raymond Felton(notes) ran a good game. He finished with only five assists to three turnovers, but he appears to be seeing the floor better this year than he has in the past.

Stephen Jackson(notes) played 45 minutes in his first game as a Bobcat, and he forced things. Some silly flat-footed 3-pointers in transition (with one defender back), the usual bit. He's always been a natural passer, which has always ticked me off because he so constantly refuses to acknowledge that aspect of his significant ability, but Jax did try to find his Bobcat teammates with limited success. He doesn't know the plays, and he didn't know that Tyson Chandler(notes) doesn't spot up on the baseline.

Jackson made of 4 of 14 shots and had nine rebounds, two assists, four turnovers, two steals and 13 points in his debut.

Charlotte could have had this, but ... no they couldn't. You have to appreciate the way this team works, though. I don't think it was the trade. It wasn't the Bobcats telling themselves, "Coach thinks we're just one player away." These are just good guys. They're just not playoff-good guys.

***

Dallas 115, Milwaukee 113 (OT)

Milwaukee could tail off defensively from here on out. I'm not sure. But even after Monday's game, they give up just under 98 points per 100 possessions a contest, best in the NBA. Whether they're that good for the long haul is up for conjecture. The point is that Dallas, an older team on the second half of a back-to-back, walked into Milwaukee and put up 115 points per 100 possessions.

This is on the Mavs. This was a decisive performance that, even if it ended with the Mavericks taking the loss, tells us that we can't bank on the "Dallas' core is on the other side of 30, and they played last night" warning shot. This isn't to say the team won't drag during some four-game-in-five-night endeavor before the All-Star break — every team does — but we do know for sure that these Mavericks have the mettle to work through those tired legs.

Dallas rode Dirk Nowitzki(notes), to a certain extent, but it didn't actually feel that way. Dirk took 25 shots, nearly twice as much as any other Maverick, but because he had to work so hard to get shots off in the face of sterling defenders like Luc Mbah a Moute and Ersan Ilyasova(notes), it never felt as if he was some in-rhythm superstar.

Because Dirk's so great, though, he still tossed in 32 points, 11 rebounds and — get this — he didn't turn the ball over in nearly 43 minutes of play. This is what allows teams to compete, allows teams the chance to win. You have a superstar who doesn't give the other side extra possessions? You're going to have a chance.

Nowitzki had help. Drew Gooden(notes) came out like a man possessed and sustained that active game, his second terrific outing in a row, finishing with 22 points and 14 rebounds. Four offensive boards for Gooden, who had Andrew Bogut(notes) muttering all night. Jason Kidd's(notes) five turnovers don't tell the story of how careful and considerate he actually was.

Kidd worked a fine floor game, finishing with 17 assists, 10 rebounds and nine points. He also pulled back when the time called for it, letting rookie Rodrigue Beaubois(notes) (12 points on nine shots in 24 minutes) or Jose Juan Barea(notes) handle things.

J.J. shot better in this win, but his defense is still pretty poor, and there's a reason he was -15 on the game. Jason Terry(notes) hit five big free throws (19 points overall), Kris Humphries(notes) continues to play well (six needed defensive rebounds, four points in 16 minutes), and the Mavs just couldn't help but roll.

By two points.

On the other end, this kid Brandon Jennings(notes) (a rookie guard, playing with Milwaukee) nearly led the Bucks to a comeback win down the stretch. Jennings would like some jumpers and floaters back, he still leans too much (especially while going right), but he also finished with 25 points (on 22 shots), eight assists, seven rebounds and only two turnovers.

Milwaukee's bench was big. Dan Gadzuric(notes) had a modest line (three offensive rebounds and two blocks in nine minutes), but he was a game-changing defender out there. Mbah a Moute easily came through with his best offensive performance of the season (13 points, six rebounds, three assists) while playing knockout (if ineffective) defense on Dirk. Ilyasova continues to play terrific basketball — great D, 19 points and 12 rebounds in just under 33 minutes.

And with Jennings somewhat struggling early, Luke Ridnour(notes) played an aggressive, sturdy point guard. He totaled 17 points, six assists, zero turnovers and four steals. All needed, for the Bucks to keep it close.

Very impressed by both these teams, right now.

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