Ball Don't Lie - NBA

Miami 130, Chicago 127 (2 OT)

It probably does speak to the depths of my NBA fandom, my appreciation for this game and the players that show up to make things right from October to June, and the obsession that has ruled my life for just about two decades.

What's "it"?

"It" is the idea that I was in a crouch just inches away from the television after Dwyane Wade's game-winner spun through the net, my head between my legs, my eyes pushed shut, my world getting darker and darker by the second.

"It" is the feeling of emptiness, on several levels, all of them pointless and profound all at once, ruing the missed opportunities, the missed chances, the consequences that follow, and the wasted 58 minutes of work.

"It" is the yelp I let out as Wade's shot dove into the goal from 25 feet, a sound I couldn't hope (nor would want) to reproduce given a hundred other chances and a stern squeeze on my gentleman vegetables.

"It" is the fact that, hours removed from one of the best regular season games I've ever had the pleasure to behold, all I can take from this game is warm, cheerful feelings. In spite of the fact that the hometown team took a dive. In spite of the playoff implications. And in spite of my initial reaction. What a game, what a league, what a life. At its worst, it's the best.

Miami's double overtime win over the Bulls was an unmitigated classic, the sort of lightning in a bottle moment that you can get from two random, mediocre teams, putting paint to canvas on an otherwise overlookable Monday in March. Though the game's clutchiest moments toward the end of regulation and the first overtime were marked by failure more than they were blessed with some sort of glorious rise to the moment, the game was still an absolute thrill.

Dwyane Wade, as you've probably heard by now, was more or less unstoppable. Wade usually has issues playing against Chicago, mostly due to the defense of Kirk Hinrich and Thabo Sefolosha; but with Hinrich gimpy and Thabo in a hotel room somewhere in Oklahoma on Monday night, Dwyane had his way. 48 points on 15-21 shots, with six rebounds, 12 assists, five turnovers, four steals, and three blocks. Absolute, utter brilliance.

I guess I'm expected to touch on his MVP candidacy. Dwyane is worthy in any other year, and a small step behind the leader, but the sheer fact remains that LeBron James has been a better player this year.

Dwyane truly is an MVP in just about any other year, and he's vaulted in front of Chris Paul on the ballot over the last week (defense matters), but LeBron's in the midst of the some legendary stuff up in Cleveland. Consistent, almost workmanlike, brilliance. Wade, for the first half of the season, wasn't nearly as consistent, and while I know this is like saying Rubber Soul isn't as good as Revolver, it still is the difference between the two. He's been amazing, just not as good. Barely.

The gap has closed a bit. It's pretty damn close. And if Dwyane puts up, say, LeBron-like stats from here until the end of the season while James puts up Kobe or Brandon Roy-type production, then we could have a tie or possible Wade squeaker. But he hasn't been the best player in the NBA so far this year, and there's no shame in that. I'll never understand why it isn't enough for some people for him just to be having this sort of legendary season. Are we getting bored with James already?

The Bulls tried Hinrich, they tried Ben Gordon, they tried a zone, and they tried doubling Wade as soon as he dribbled the ball past halfcourt. They even tried Derrick Rose. None of it mattered. Wade completely and utterly dominated Chicago. He seemed a few inches, a few more breaks, and a few more connections away from a 60-point night with 17 assists. No joke. You almost feel as if he could have done more (not in terms of effort, just everything going right), but context and teammates and the spin of the ball did him wrong.

His stats -- and that line might be the most impressive that I've typed out this season -- don't even do his night justice. He was scary. What a fantastic player.

Chicago played a good game. Ben Gordon was cashing in the fruits of his offseason labor, nailing shot after shot, finishing with 43 points on 23 shots. Derrick Rose nailed some jaw-droppers in the lane, but he also had his shot blocked six times, he missed 16 of 25 looks, had more turnovers than assists, missed a few potential game-winners, and seemed more McCantsian than D-Willian. Tyrus Thomas played like a second grader in the first half, and John Salmons helped, finishing with 29 points.

Chicago's real mistake was not fouling the Heat with the Bulls up three, and less than 20 seconds to play. While I muttered "foul him" like a mug, over and over, Wade pulled up for a game-tying three-pointer, and the Bulls acted surprised. I don't have any issues with putting the ball in Rose's hands (he has to learn) to try and end the game, or Salmons' hands for the potential game-winner in the second overtime, but letting the Heat get up a three-pointer at the end of regulation was just a killer.

The whole game was a killer for the Bulls, a crushing loss that they absolutely deserved, though you still have to feel for this team. Little things hurt, the Bulls turned it over on a fifth of their possessions (Mario Chalmers went off again, finishing with four steals), and Chicago missed seven free throws, and the drama was real. This loss really, really hurt.

The game made your hair stand on end, though. Pretty damn good for March 9th.

Atlanta 89, New Orleans 79

You run the risk of denigrating the victors with a lot of these recaps, but I'd be remiss if I didn't point out that the Hornets wouldn't mind having about 15-20 of their shots from Monday night back. If you wouldn't mind.

Lots of shots that probably should have gone in, if you know what I mean. Lots of looks that looked off even as it left the Hornet hands, followed by a quick "damn." Toss in some better-than-typical Atlanta defense, and you have an impressive win for the Hawks. The team went off for a few stretches without seeming to run a single play, but the outfit's defense was top notch, and Joe Johnson (30 points on 21 shots) finally seemed to have a game go his way. That was great to see.

He was about it for the Hawks. Mike Bibby stayed behind the arc for too long, even when it became apparent that he didn't have the three-pointer going (1-7 in the win). Josh Smith still seems off, you get the feeling we're not going to see the best of Smith until 2009-10 due to that ankle sprain from last fall, and Al Horford was an afterthought. 2-8 shooting for Al, so maybe he was a deserved afterthought.

The Hawks deserved that win, though. They worked their tails off defensively, and the Hornets couldn't string enough positive possessions together in a row for long enough to win.

Detroit 98, Orlando 94

This contest smacked of an NBA TV game.

You know the type, the playoff-type. On a Wednesday, in spring, featuring a third and sixth seed from the East, competitive but hardly watchable. The Pacers vs. the Nets. The Pistons vs. Anybody in the first round. Flip Murray's involved, somehow. Eddie Gill is on somebody's bench.

And yet, this game was fantastic. If you can ignore the sometimes-crippling pangs of "why don't they play this way all the time?", watching the Detroit Pistons work their collective tails off in pursuit of a win is a lovely, lovely thing. And they wanted this win. At home, no Jameer Nelson, and with Dwight Howard's somewhat checkered history of playing against the Pistons, they knew they could pull it off. Even without Allen Iverson. Even, eventually, without Rasheed Wallace.

(Wallace left in the first quarter with a calf strain, and that's bad news. Part of me wants to point out that Jason Maxiell has been out-playing Rasheed per-minute all season anyway, and that this could lead to an improved Pistons rotation if Michael Curry knows what he's doing, but the Pistons need Rasheed. Badly. Even when he's killing the team on both ends.

And calf strains tend not to go away. They linger, they hurt, and they affect you in ways you wouldn't assume. So everyone put your piasters together, head to market and then UPS, and send a big crate of bananas Rasheed's way. Potassium up, Sheed.)

The game? The Magic were frustrated, but they were up to the task. Rashard Lewis struggled at time on both ends, but he came on late and finished with 21 points and 14 rebounds. Howard had to work for his 27 points, 14 rebounds, and four blocks. Perhaps as hard as he's been forced to work in a game in months. And the Pistons never let up.

The result was a win. Kwame Brown gave good minutes. Tayshaun Prince (20 points) was hot early, and Rip Hamilton (29 points and 14 assists) in the second half. Antonio McDyess, meanwhile, came through with incredible, incredible effort. I have so much respect for that guy, respect earned through several different avenues. 13 points and 18 rebounds for the Man From Quitman.

Maxiell, meanwhile, threw up a stinker. Four points and one rebound, with four fouls in 18 minutes. But his season-long production suggests that this was a one-off, and let's keep with the minutes, OK Mike?

Washington 110, Minnesota 99

This was one of the better nights in the NBA season, and yeah, I didn't watch much of this game. Not much to learn from it, not much to be entertained by.

I saw Juan Dixon play some good, heady basketball. I didn't see a lot of defense, and while watching other games I missed Caron Butler (27 points, 10 rebounds, six assists, two steals, just two turnovers) and Antawn Jamison (26 points) take it to a defenseless Timberwolves outfit.

Houston 97, Denver 95

A day after complaining about Denver's defense, I didn't like their offense in this loss. Huge gobs of hat-tipping to the Houston defense, they worked for what they wanted and they got what they wanted, but Denver just went one-on-one way too much for my tastes.

Against a team like the Rockets, full of smarts and scouting reports and forwards of all sizes who move their feet and force you into a seven and a half foot tall center, that's just asking for it. And in a way, you wonder how Denver managed 95 points.

Then you comfort yourself, you hopeful sort, with the idea that the Nuggets are turning things around. Yes, they didn't play a game worth admiring, for the most part, on Monday. Yes, they lost at home to a team that is ostensibly its equal, working without Tracy McGrady and without Yao Ming for spells due to foul trouble (and eventual disqualification, with a ridiculous sixth foul that a sixth grader would have been embarrassed about), but I think the Nugs have righted the ship a little.

They still lost. The Rockets hit 9-20 from behind the arc and limited Denver to 38 percent shooting, but there is hope there. George Karl hasn't lost his team, it's getting healthier, and it does feature enviable depth in a league that can't seem to suit eight healthy guys per side.

The Rockets? You know where they're at. I pity the team that has to play them in the first round.

Portland 111, Los Angeles Lakers 94

The Lakers miss Andrew Bynum, badly.

Yes, Los Angeles has played well in his absence. And, statistically, the team's defense has gotten better since he went down with a torn MCL, while the offense has never been better. But that's not because Bynum is out. That's because this team has upped the effort level, worked the Triangle, and worked three times as hard defensively.

And, on the road against the NBA's second-best offense, the Lakers looked helpless in this game. Every Laker was beat off the dribble, continuously, and the Trail Blazers had a blowout by halftime.

I'm not chalking this up to a fluke, Portland is good enough to do this again, but I do have to point out that mama said there'd be days like this. If the Lakers meet Portland in the second round, the Rose Garden games in that series will not look like this. That doesn't mean Portland didn't earn every inch of that win. That doesn't mean Portland isn't good enough to top the Lakers in a seven game series. They are that good.

Trevor Ariza sent Rudy Fernandez to the floor and to a stretcher in the second half with a swipe to the head as Fernandez attempted a dunk in transition. I'm obviously leaning toward calling it a dirty play, especially considering Ariza's history of frustration fouls, but I don't completely want to sign off on that.

There are so many split-second decisions and things that can go wrong while playing this game that ... these things just tend to happen. Call me naïve, but I'm not going to pounce on Ariza. Not going to defend him, earlier, I'll just let you make the call.

Damned impressive win for the Blazers. Putting up nearly 125 points per 100 possessions against the sixth-ranked defense? Nicely done.

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