April 19, 2009
I picked the Celtics to win this series in seven games, I meant it, and I still think that's the most rational guess.
The only way around that, the way that sees Chicago taking this series (in however many games), is if the Bulls play to their full potential. Or, close to it, I suppose. This involves coaching decisions that are more or less spot-on, smart'ish play, shots that go in at the expected rate (nobody can have a week-long shooting slump), and, yeah, let's re-mention the need for playoff-worthy coaching.
Now, should most of these things fall in line most of the time, the Bulls win. And they wouldn't win over a Boston team playing through its own week-long slump. If Boston plays as expected, and they didn't play as expected on Saturday (Ray Allen's poor marks from the field, Paul Pierce missing a potentially game-winning free throw), the Bulls can still beat them if everything goes as it should for Chicago.
The problem with the Bulls is that, all year, nothing has gone as it should. While still ending up in the right place, actually, but we'll get to that in a second.
It's just that, with this team's initial 82 games to learn from, it's hard to bank on everything clicking for Chicago for a long enough stretch. I think it will click long enough to take it to May 2nd, in Boston, but that's about it. One bum night in Chicago on Thursday, and this series is Boston's all over again.
An odd thing? All year, Chicago has gone crazy with the ups and downs, and yet things evened out (quite literally) to a .500 record, something that approximated what was to be expected given a young roster, a rookie head coach, plenty of injuries, and two big mid-season trades. In a vacuum, they're right where they should be. Knowing the team as we do, watching every game -- yeah, they're right where they should be, but they didn't have to go about it in this way to get there.
So, yes, they beat the C's. But considering Kevin Garnett's absence, the missed free throw, and Ray Allen's unlikely turn from the field (1-12 shooting), they should have beaten Boston. This isn't to dump on the Bulls. This is just how the game works. I enjoyed the hell out of it, and it was fun when it wasn't scary (like, a 20 year-old rookie at the line, having to win the game while 18,000-plus yell things at him), but we should also be aware that the Bulls are this good. We should expect this.
And being that good means playing up to par, just about every time out. And if Chicago is getting around to that in mid-to-late April, then we could see Boston go out in the first round. And nobody should be surprised.
That said, given the track record, I'm holding off on that prediction. It's just the smart thing to do. Like whole grains.
The game was brilliant. Easily the best opening game of the playoffs that I've ever taken in, and that was a sentiment echoed by Hubie Brown during his call of the Dallas/San Antonio game later on Saturday.
Straightaway, Derrick Rose had it. He deferred a little too much late (just because Brad Miller is open, it doesn't mean you're not the best option, Derrick), but 36 points and 11 assists? I don't care if he needed 49 minutes to get there. I don't mind that he turned it over five times. I care that he had major issues defending Rajon Rondo, and problems keeping Rondo off the boards, but that was easily overcome by his sterling touch around the rim, and spot-on jump shot duty. What a game. What a performance.
The rest of the contest had to be one big catharsis for Bulls fans, and it sort of went that way for me. Early in the season, the Bulls turned in this stinkbomb against the Celtics, one that saw Tyrus Thomas clang jumper after jumper. Trillions appeared to watch that game, because every Thomas jumper that followed in 2008-09 (up to and including this game, whether or not the shot went in) seemed to be met with a chortle from whoever was calling the contest.
"Not what Vinny Del Negro drew up! Not what the Bulls had in mind out of that huddle! Not really in his repertoire! I am not going to pay a lot for this muffler!"
And, yes, Tyrus took a lot of them. But he also has a good stroke, no post game due to his undersized, skinny frame, and a free throw percentage (78 percent on the year, up nearly 20 points since his rookie year, which denotes quite a bit of work in an empty gym) that usually lends itself to a good touch from the perimeter.
But because the coin landed the wrong way over and over for Thomas on that Friday night, the stigma stuck. There's a reason for that, because he misses a ton. But he's been getting better, month by month, and as someone who is (you may have heard this) partial to this team, I have no problem with about 80 percent of the jumpers the guy puts up.
So his six points in overtime weren't much of a surprise. Though his last made jumper was a bad attempt, it went in (his last missed jumper was a good shot, so that sort of evened out), and the digits were desperately needed.
Beyond that, Ben Gordon had some bad luck with a few spin-outs, but he also kept stem the Boston tide in the fourth quarter, and his 20 points on 17 shots (five assists, zero turnovers) weren't that bad. Brad Miller was bad, bad decisions, bad play on both ends, though he did pull in 12 rebounds. Why Miller and Tim Thomas again played alongside each other early in the second quarter, even if the Bulls did play well as a team, is beyond me. They pulled in rebounds, but Boston killed Chicago on the glass during that short turn. This is the playoffs. Those few minutes at the beginning of the second quarter count.
Joakim Noah sent the game into overtime with a bad foul on Paul Pierce to end the game, but he'll learn. He likely thought he had an easy block, but Pierce has been doing this for a decade, and it didn't turn out that way. Here's what Noah turned out, besides the bad foul: 11 points, 17 rebounds, five offensive rebounds, two assists, two turnovers in almost 45 minutes, a steal, and three blocks. I'll take it.
What Chicago can't do, from here, is sustain this. Much less relent. If they want to win this series, they have to play to their potential, and that would involve sustaining the production we saw on Saturday, while cutting down the rotation gaffes, the bad shooting, and the defensive yips.
Because Boston will be back. Pierce will be a little better, Rajon Rondo will continue to have huge games (29 points, nine rebounds, seven assists and just one turnover for Rondo, who was fantastic) if Rose still can't figure out a way to play the guy, while Ray Allen and Eddie House will not shooting 3-20 from the floor again. Chicago better be ready for that, because you know Boston will be ready to improve considerably.
Detroit's offensive punch was a little surprising early on. Cleveland is a lock down defensive team, and the Pistons' O has fallen off a cliff since Flip Saunders and Chauncey Billups left town, so seeing the Pistons put up 25 first quarter points in an incredibly slow (just 79 possessions) game seemed a bit off.
Cleveland got it together, though, and Detroit never had a clue defensively.
This is why pace-adjusted stats are important, because 102 points from Cleveland doesn't really tell the story of how great they were on Saturday. You can mention the 53 percent shooting, or the four (four!) turnovers all day, or the 23-27 mark from the free throw line. Or, you could just get used to knowing what sort of pace-adjusted stats are top of the heap, and save yourself a whole lotta words and numbers.
So, nearly 130 points per 100 possessions for Cleveland on Saturday. For comparison's sake, Portland led the NBA this year with about 114 per 100, and the Suns averaged 113.6 per 100 possessions. Cleveland was terrific, and Detroit was abysmal. And Jeff Van Gundy, man, you could feel the disgust through the cathode tube ray in your living room. He could not stand Detroit's D.
38 points, eight rebounds, seven assists, and no turnovers for LeBron James in almost 41 minutes. 41 minutes, yes, but do you know how hard it is to put up those numbers in a game this slow? Against Tayshaun Prince?
Speaking of which, Dallas managed about the same mark (130 per 100) against San Antonio on Saturday, and while we have quite a bit of respect for Dallas' offense, that's number is just through the roof. The Spurs can't be happy with just about anything that went down in Game 1.
Well, one thing. But that one thing seems to be, to me, mitigated by the loss. The "thing" being the fact that Tim Duncan looked pretty damn Tim Duncan-like, and yet it wasn't enough to make this a close game in the final few minutes. At home, no less.
The counterargument to that is to bring up the idea that these two teams know each other, front to back. That these are two veteran squads, and really, this thing is going to be close no matter what. That home court doesn't matter. That these teams are impervious to uniform colors or logos on the floor.
Which makes complete and total sense if you're just looking at this as a W/L situation, without any details. A loss is just one loss, and both teams are probably going to take one or two on the road. But when you dig a little deeper, you've got to admit, there are some troubling signs for the Spurs.
For all the talk about the Spurs supposedly falling way off defensively during the regular season, let's get real, this team was fifth in the NBA in defensive efficiency. Now, that's down from third last season and second in the NBA when they won it all back in 2007, but that's still a pretty stout year overall. And especially considering Duncan's ineffectiveness on that end down the stretch, and so many of Manu Ginobili's minutes being replaced by the hard working but ultimately step-slow Michael Finley.
About 130 points per 100 possessions? With Dirk Nowitzki sitting most of the first half? At home? No, the Mavs couldn't guard the Spurs at times, but they're supposed to be average defensively. San Antonio's issues on that end are a lot more troubling.
(On the Dirk thing, how bogus were some of those offensive fouls on Nowitzki? I'm not telling you that he didn't push off or slap Bruce Bowen away, he did, but why is it that Bowen is allowed to put two hands into Dirk as he drives? When Dirk's back is to the basket, yeah, Bowen can do his thing. But when Dirk has turned and is driving toward the goal with a dribble, he has ceased to be a post player, and deserves all the hand check calls afforded to anyone who is driving to the rim.)
Dallas was great. Josh Howard had 25 points in about 30 minutes, and his play afforded me the chance to whine about something that has bugged me for a while.
TV guys bring up how well Howard scores in the first and third quarters, as if he shrinks in the fourth, or disappears with the game on the line. That'd be a fair comment if Howard was actually on the floor during the fourth, but he rarely is. Rick Carlisle likes going with Jason Terry or Brandon Bass or some smallish combo with J.J. Barea staying on the floor, any combination of those guys plus the starters, and usually Howard is the odd man out.
And it's not because he deserves to sit out, and it doesn't mean Carlisle doesn't know what he's doing. Howard was Dallas' best player tonight, but he played just 34 seconds in the fourth quarter, and Dallas had its best run of the game. This has happened quite a few times this season. Carlisle knows what he's doing, and though Howard is streaky, this part of his scouting report is overplayed.
(And it should be pointed out that ESPN and ABC did a very, very good job on Saturday. Heaps of new stats, like the amount of Tony Parker forays into the paint, plus some damn good commentary from the usual suspects in Hubie Brown and Doris Burke. Jon Barry is solid, the play by play guys were all good; and though I had to remind Jeff Van Gundy and Mark Jackson to talk about the game they were "covering" a few times, the top trio wasn't that bad.)
Other than that, Barea (13 points, zero turnovers) was unstoppable at times, I liked Antoine Wright filling in some holes during his brief stay on the court, and Brandon Bass was solid with 14 points in 18 minutes.
Duncan had his 27 and nine, but he didn't block any shots, and he (for whatever reason, it might not be his fault) couldn't do much to stop Barea's runs toward the rim in the second and fourth quarters.
We'd be foolish to think that San Antonio can't turn this around in a hurry when the series moves to Dallas (we're all banking on it being tied, right?), and a Dallas win in Game 1 isn't surprising in and of itself.
The way they won? And by this much? That's news to me.
We warned you that Portland had been laying eggs on the offensive end all season, so I'm not surprised to see the Trail Blazers abandon their defensive principals, and allow good looks. I'm a bit surprised to see Houston, which can clang away for stretches, take advantage as efficiently as they did, but the Portland D was hardly a shocker.
What I definitely did underestimate was the impact that Houston's defense -- great, but not "league best"-great -- had on Portland's ability to put the ball in the hole.
42 percent shooting, 10 free throws made, 1-11 from behind the arc, just a miserable showing for Portland on that end. And that's Houston's credit to take. Bravo, good sirs.
I had a problem with Bill Simmons writing something like, "he is what he is," about Ming's 20 and 10 this season. That's not how he is. That's how he is when he deals with Tracy McGrady shooting way too much for his skill set for the first half of the year, and Ron Artest shooting as much as he did all season.
Artest constantly looked past Ming for his own shot five or six times a game, and that's usually the difference between a 20-point season for Yao, to a 24-point season (seeing as how he nearly averaged that from 2005-08, in the years leading up to his prime).
On Saturday, the Rockets went to the big man (24 points and perfect shooting in nine attempts). And when Portland overplayed him in the second half, Artest wouldn't shoot unless he actually could square his shoulders, come down in the same spot he jumped from, and could see the basket properly.
That is to say, he took good shots. And the result? 17 points on 12 shots for Artest, who played an outstanding game on both ends. Honestly, bravo.
Play like that more often, and you have a damn good shot to win this series, and possibly take down the Lakers. And if that happens, the Finals are a pretty sure bet. I mean that.
But only if you sustain that defense, and keep up the smart play on offense.
Portland? You know what you have to do.