Ball Don't Lie - NBA

Cleveland 101, San Antonio 81

As it sometimes is when the Cavaliers match up with the Pistons and Wizards (Orlando is a different story altogether), Cleveland tends to fall back on old habits against the Spurs. Old, ugly, habits. Standing around, not pushing the ball, turning LeBron James into an Allen Iverson-type, hoping for 80 points.

Now, there were stretches on Sunday that reminded of the 2006 Finals. I watched the entire game and came away with the distinct impression that the team had devolved to the old style for, if not the slim majority of the game, then possibly a third of the contest. Then you give it a second look, a third think, and you look at the quarter-by-quarter scoring. 28 points, 27 points, 23 points, 23 points. These were just brief, very brief, stretches where the Cavs played like the Cavs of old.

But the fact that those small, small stretches stood out means quite a bit. It doesn't mean the Cavaliers have anything to worry about, mind you. Quite the opposite. It reminds you of how far they've come. Even as an impartial observer, I would have killed for a performance like this one or two years ago, instead of a stand-around offensive game that sees LeBron have to score 30 in a 77-possession game.

And now the Cavaliers know how to score. The players are better; LeBron is better, but most importantly this team's offense is way, way better. Yes, James' continued evolution and the addition of a point guard that can actually shoot outside of four feet -- that's important.

But the biggest change this year has been Mike Brown, a coach I was (rightfully) harsh on for years because of his predictable and inefficient offensive sets. Now he actually understands that defense and offense win championships, that both are of equal value, and his sets reflect it.

The Spurs didn't really have a chance. For huge stretches of the game the team's on-court five was full of guys that, while they do everything else right, just can't get off the floor. Throw in Manu Ginobili's 2-9 shooting and the fact that something is obviously awry with Tim Duncan (2-7 shooting, six points and seven rebounds), and you have a double-digit loss.

Also, Jacque Vaughn keeps getting minutes (52 of them over his last four games), for no discernable reason. His presence kills the offense, he's barely adequate defensively these days, and when you're a team fighting to stay relevant, each of those minutes count. It's not JV, he tries and knows more about this game then all of us put together. That doesn't mean he should play.

I know it's not easy to rely on a rookie down the stretch of a tough season, but when the rookie is a better player and contributes more, you're killing your team if you don't rely on him. Otherwise, Coach Pop is just hurting his team 12 minutes at a time, not unlike his overreliance on Nick Van Exel from back in 2005-06.

And LeBron? 38 points on 14-21 shooting, six assists, seven rebounds, just two turnovers in almost 37 minutes. And he gave it up for Bootsy, baby ...

Dallas 140, Phoenix 116

After listening to nearly three hours of it on Sunday, I'm still at a loss. What, exactly, are the Phoenix Suns supposed to be doing differently on defense?

This is a slow team that cannot stay in front of anyone. They're trying, they're working, they're giving effort, they're slow, and they're getting beat. This is a bad defensive team, and they're getting railed for being a bad defensive team. What am I missing?

Yes, Leandro Barbosa still gets caught with his head turned every so often, and Amar'e Stoudemire can be comically clueless on defense at times, but Barbosa is rarely the target of scorn, and we haven't seen Stoudemire for a while now.

Otherwise, the scorn is left for guys who can't do anything about their defense. Steve Nash couldn't stay in front of most point guards in the 1990s. Shaquille O'Neal is in his best shape in years, but he still weighs about 492 pounds and can't be asked to swarm pick and rolls. Grant Hill's left ankle is made of fine powder and a strong adhesive from the good people at DuPont. Where are they supposed to get these new legs?

And when Dallas hits like it hit on Sunday -- we're talking shots from shooters that are just as likely to go 1-5 than 4-5 from long range -- the Suns just don't have a chance. Dallas was locked in on Sunday. Dirk Nowitzki was barely made mention of during the telecast, but he missed two shots in 12 tries. The guy was nailing fadeaways when he couldn't even see the basket, or after taking a two-handed shove from Matt Barnes. Dallas just shot the lights out, and they're about a trillion times faster than Phoenix to the rim. No hyperbole. I measured it.

Jason Kidd had 20 assists to two turnovers, Josh Howard added 24 points, and Jason Terry hit 7-12 off the bench. The Suns were destroyed, and in the midst of a fast-paced game, Jason Richardson was pretty useless (0-4 shooting, two points). Not sure why the Suns didn't think he'd be pretty bad in an up-tempo game after watching him struggle when healthy in 2006-07, but then again, I never played the game on the pro level, so what do I know?

Detroit 104, Charlotte 97

Will Bynum was the business in a game that was pretty tough to watch.

Lots of Larry Brown'y basketball, save for 12-41 three-point shooting, with each team averaging out to about 30 percent. Bynum got hot from just inside the line, which was fine on Sunday, but not likely to hold up. He's not likely to continue to shoot over 50 percent from 20 feet. Nobody is. Now, if he keeps dashing and getting to the line (14-16 freebies), then we'll have something.

And while Brown should be credited for trying a D-Leaguer (Cartier Martin) as a replacement for Raja Bell (bum calf) instead of signing Eddie Gill or something, he deserves the blame for playing him 8:48 in this loss.

Not even nine minutes? A little harsh?

Sorry. Those minutes count. This was a close game until the end, and had D.J. Augustin (22 points in 30 minutes) been out on the floor to start the first and third quarters, it might have turned into a win for the Bobcats. Especially with Rodney Stuckey playing the sort of junk defense that he was on Sunday.

Not blaming Martin. Just blaming a coach that should know better. Sure, the Bobcats are probably done for the season. Sure, they have to see what they can get from Martin, and it's not as if Augustin's not a rookie ... right? No. Play to win. Play, I dunno, the right way or something.

New York 112, Toronto 103

I love and hate Rodney Mott-called games. He sometimes seems to get it on the block/charge thing -- refusing to reward players for running up alongside slashers and then diving to the floor -- but a few possessions later he'll be right back to rewarding floppers. This isn't just one or two plays that are ruined by these sorts of calls, cats. This is a mindset that has been fostered because of calls like these. That's not defense.

Otherwise, fun game. Chris Bosh was pretty unstoppable in the first half, but his eventual 31 couldn't do much about New York's touch from behind the arc (13-25).

Indiana 117, Oklahoma City 99

We've watched all season as the Pacers race out to early leads, only to see the offense dry up in the second and third quarters, with the eventual loss coming even as Danny Granger fills it up in the fourth quarter. 59 points in the second and third quarter for the Pacers on Sunday. Progress.

You know what else? Five assists for T.J. Ford in 24 minutes. And it felt like more. He was looking to play as a point guard, and he probably put the Thunder away.

Meanwhile, teams rarely come more exasperated than Oklahoma City did on Sunday. Looking at the stat sheet, you know why. Nenad Krstic missed 12 of 13 shots. Kyle Weaver, 7-10. 18-26 from the line, overall. Just six more games, kids.

Denver 110, Minnesota 87

I actually really liked Minnesota's defensive effort early on in this game, which seems a bit daft because they ended up giving up nearly 120 points per 100 possessions to the Nuggets.

It's almost as if the Nuggets actually felt, I dunno, competitive against a bum team. They wanted to one-up the Minnesota D, executed, and 110-87 is what happened. A cagey, fun defensive game for the Nuggies in the win. Cool to watch.

Chauncey Billups (17 and seven assists in under 30 minutes) had himself another stunner, and is this going to be the year that he doesn't fall flat in the postseason? He was more or less a nonentity in Detroit's 2006, 2007, and 2008 playoff losses, will things change later this month? It's not as if he's been taking it easy this year.

Houston 102, Portland 88

A fun game, despite the one-sided ending (a 14-point win for the Rockets at this pace is like a 20-plus win at normal speed), the brutally slow "speed" (78 possessions in the game, which is just ridiculous), and the extension of Portland's year-long refusal to get it done on the defensive end.

This is why pace-adjusted stats are important, because Houston scored about 130 points per 100 possessions in the win. Now, that's a far cry from Dallas' 144 per 100 in their victory over Phoenix, but it's still a staggeringly-high number (average about 114 points per 100, and you lead the NBA). And Portland, unlike Phoenix, actually has the horses to stay in front of teams. And they don't. Not even the offensively-challenged Rockets.

But you see the 102 points and think, "average output." It ain't.

51 percent shooting isn't normal. 40 percent from three ... not normal. Shooting 27 free throws (making 22) in a game this slow? Not normal. Turning it over just eight times ... not normal. Owning the offensive glass with 12 caroms in a slow-down game? Not normal. This was a lights-out offensive performance from Houston, but because the team's makes came with scant seconds left on the shot clock, continually, few will recognize it.

Yao Ming was the man, here, and Luis Scola wasn't far behind. 21 and 12 for Yao, who only turned it over once (big, for him). Scola was given the 18-footer by LaMarcus Aldridge all night, for no reason that I could understand, and he finished with 16 points and six rebounds.

16 and six? Seem a little low? Remember, 78-possession game, and he only played about 26 minutes. He was a game-changer, even with just 16 and six. Pace-adjusted, per-minute. This is why I bore you to tears with this stuff. It's important.

Ron Artest, grr. Missed Yao all night with entry passes that he should have thrown, and while it was otherwise a solid game, he just doesn't get it. Same with Aldridge. 22 and nine rebounds, but all that is nearly mitigated by some of the NBA's worst defense.

And Greg Oden still looks like a stud. But he had four points and zero rebounds in 11 minutes, and Yao abused him. Still ... patience.

Utah 108, New Orleans 94

You'd like to credit the Jazz for finally winning against a strong team on the road, but that feeling only lasts for a second before you catch yourself in time to tell the group that they're supposed to win a game like that. By that much.

The Jazz match up exceedingly well with the Hornets, the Hornets are top-heavy with no bench (look at that box score; and understand that Peja Stojakovic might be retired by this time next year), and even with injuries as an excuse, this should have happened a while ago.

Deron Williams was the catalyst. He had double-digit assists in the first half (10? 30? 17? 10. He had 10), and the Hornets were just lost in the face of an offense that can just dominate for huge stretches of game. Against anyone.

Los Angeles Lakers 88, Los Angeles Clippers 85

I know that the Clippers don't televise all their games. So I can understand when I miss out on the odd Clipper/Timberwolves battle. But against the Lakers?

For some reason, we didn't (or I didn't, and I'm missing something) get this on Direct TV's League Pass. NBA TV showed some clips of the contest in game, but they were limited as to how much they could broadcast live, and a trip down to the FSN affiliate that was carrying the game for the Lakers gave me nothing but a blank screen.

So, I don't know why Los Angeles could only manage 88 points against Los Angeles. Or why Los Angeles was able to hold what was probably a pretty inspired Los Angeles team to 85 points. In Los Angeles, no less.

New Jersey 96, Philadelphia 67

When teams hang onto the ball against Philadelphia, Philadelphia struggles badly. Devin Harris turned the ball over five times in the win, but even with that the Nets coughed it up on just under 13 percent of their possessions. Fine mark, and the Sixers had no answer in the half court.

35 percent shooting, in fact, for Philadelphia. No 76er starter scored in double-figures, and yes, it was about as ugly to watch as you'd expect. 78 points per 100 possessions for the 76ers. That's nearly Dallas' mark from Sunday, halved. Good thing Marv Albert called the game.

Brook Lopez had 13 points, eight rebounds, two blocks and a steal, but couldn't top 25 minutes. Outside of the eventual blowout, I have no idea why.

I'm not saying Derrick Rose is a stat-grabber, far from it. The Bulls need every bit that he's given them this year. It's just that, if Lopez were allowed to play 40 minutes in some of these games (he didn't look tired on Sunday to me, and had just two fouls), the rest of the world might get to see what I've been banging on about all year. I give Vinny Del Negro a lot of guff ‘round these parts, but he has understood at times that Rose is developing, and even though the kid starts, you still need to shovel minutes his way.

(Then, some other times, he'll play Kirk Hinrich the entire fourth quarter for no discernable reason. Or keep a hurting Rose out on the court during a blowout win over the Heat, sustaining a wrist injury that hasn't healed two weeks later. Still ...)

Derrick Rose is my boy, but Lopez has played the best basketball of any rookie this year. It's a shame he hasn't been treated like the stud that he is. This guy just turned 21, but the Nets treat him like Nenad Krstic.

Golden State 105, Sacramento 100

This game was brutal, and yet this is the one I stayed awake for. It picked up in the second half, but the Kings were without Kevin Martin, and Don Nelson only had seven Warriors to work with (not by his own design, for once). The first half was some bad, bad basketball.

The second half was just some bad basketball. And Anthony Randolph. Just six points and two offensive rebounds for Randolph in the third quarter, over seven minutes, but I'll be damned if that was just about as fun a seven-minute run as seven-minute runs go. Even if it was really only over 6:55.

30 points and 15 rebounds for Kelenna Azubuike in the win, as he played 48 minutes and only turned the ball over two times. The Kings just couldn't shoot straight, 42 percent, and missing 11 free throws hurt. Andres Nocioni needed 13 shots to score his 13 points, but he also pulled in 15 caroms and blocked four shots in about 38 minutes.

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