Ball Don't Lie - NBA

Los Angeles Lakers 107, Utah 96

Well, the Jazz are gone, and probably not a moment too soon. At this team's best, it could have contended for the Western crown. Injuries, strange coaching decisions, and downright lazy play eventually did this team in.

Even that breakdown is too simple. You can't just write this team off with "no defense" or "can't win on the road," or "not nasty enough." Even those quotes have so many things that go into the why and the how and the why the how happened. Just know that this team needs a summer off, and a good declaration as to who is staying, and who isn't. Uncertainty dogged this team, including the players whose contracts were creating that sense of impermanence, since Day 1.

The Lakers, meanwhile, play fantastic basketball. Yes, they "gave up" another lead to a very, very good team that shouldn't have been playing as poorly as it did, but they also downed that very, very good team in five games, just missing a sweep with a close Game 3 loss.

Lamar Odom was my player of the game, even before I looked at his impressive stat line. The guy's defense was spot-on, and his actual production (26 points, 15 rebounds, four assists, three turnovers, three blocks) take it from there. Kobe Bryant (31 points on 21 shots) continued his efficient ways, and Pau Gasol (17 and 11, four assists) was solid in filling in the blanks as he continues to start at center.

The Laker second unit, however, was at a loss. Poor defensively, inefficient offensively. And in the fourth quarter, Paul Millsap and Ronnie Price took over, leading to a near-Utah comeback. It happens. The Jazz are a good team. They're not 22 points worse than the Lakers.

Utah coach Jerry Sloan was effusive in his praise of Price post-game, and I can understand that, because he truly acted as if it were the first quarter of the first game in this series, rather than the fourth quarter of series-deciding game with a 20-point deficit looming.

Price worked his tail off, and he did set five great screens away from the ball (though only two resulted in Millsap scoring, one on a pair of free throws). But the simple fact is that Sloan only deigned to play him two whole minutes in this series, and in only eight games during the last two calendar months of the regular season, for good reason. Utah is worse, offensively, with him on the court. He had an 8.5 PER this year. His effort was admirable in Game 5, but he's a 12th man. 

There's that old refrain, though. If only you could put his heart inside the body of your most talented players. Well, at some point, coaching plays a part of that. It's easy to get Ronnie Price to play hard. It's not easy to get Carlos Boozer to play hard, or Deron Williams to set good screens on big men. Meanwhile, Phil Jackson has Lamar Odom dropping big double-doubles. You can moan about how your richest players play soft all you want, but that's shooting fish in a barrel, and something every sportswriter will applaud you for.

What few of them bring up is that it's the coach's job to get the rich players to play for broke.

A note about Hot Rod Hundley, who called his last game for the Jazz on Monday.

There's a real trepidation when it comes to ordering League Pass, especially 10 years ago, when money is tight, even the Ramen doesn't flow freely, and you can't even afford to pay for the basic cable package beyond the League Pass setup. But then you start to flip around, and you find guys like Hot Rod, someone you've heard of but never heard, and it makes it feel worthwhile. Even if you have to rely on someone else to tape TNT and TBS games for you, because you don't get those channels.

Hundley ran a radio/TV simulcast, and they don't do that anymore. Hot Rod and Chick Hearn were the last to ply that trade, but Chick's 2002 passing and Hundley's switch to radio-only work in 2005 took that type of game call away from us.

If you've never heard it, you missed out. That's the only way to put it. In the right hands, a radio call with the TV's visual backing cannot be beat. And Hundley, same as Chick, was brilliant at it. To call him "an engaging listen" doesn't do him justice. Put it this way -- it beats listening to Reggie Miller refer to "Shandon" Brown.

And stuck in a cold basement apartment, watching Scott Padgett and Armen Gilliam duke it out for backup minutes, eating turkey sandwiches for dinner, Hot Rod made it work. Thanks for that.

Denver 121, New Orleans 63

About as awful a performance for New Orleans as the final score would suggest. This sounds cruel, but toward the end I really was rooting for the Nuggets to double-up the Hornets in terms of the score just so people could understand how one-sided a game this was immediately after a first glance.

I'm being completely honest when I tell you that the 58-point deficit, in a way, doesn't do this thing justice. The Nuggets were spot-on in every way, every imaginable way, and the Hornets were just about useless in every way you could, er, imagine.

Right down to being petulant and bratty. Rasual Butler got all haughty at Anthony Carter just because Carter had the temerity to try and block a dunk attempt from Butler on a breakaway, going for the ball all the way. Tyson Chandler shoved Nene to the floor after the Nugget forward made a fool of Chandler defensively, and only got a personal foul for it. Chris Paul played the entire second half as if he was reminded that this was the roster that he'll likely be playing alongside in 2009-10. Whoa, boy. Whoaboy.

As fantastic as Nene and Kenyon Martin were at moving their feet, talking, and covering angles defensively, David West was abysmal. Absolutely atrocious. Chandler tried, but the guy can barely jump, so in the end his defense was pretty brutal. But West? That was just effort.

Rasual Butler? Bad shots, missed shots. Peja Stojakovic? Good shots, missed shots. Badly missed. And he's owed $27 and a half million over the next two years. James Posey played well, but Antonio Daniels was carping like a petulant rookie, Sean Marks was Sean Marks, and the Hornets just had no clue, no effort, no chance.

They've had slim talent beyond CP3 and West all year (don't talk to me about Peja, he's been like this since last fall), but at least kept up appearances. With West sliding off, and awful screens abounding, Paul was completely taken out of the game. They'd trap him on screen and rolls way past the three-point arc, he'd manage to get out of the trap, go to the hole, and find three other Nuggets waiting to help, because Denver didn't have to guard anyone else. Anywhere.

No player, no matter how great, can score on five guys. And it seems like a bad, throwaway, comment, but Paul really had to beat two and then three Nuggets in one possession.

And the Nuggets look brilliant. Besides the defensive play of the forwards and Chauncey Billups' continued run (17 and eight assists, one turnover, 30 minutes), Carmelo Anthony's return to being Carmelo Anthony has me giddy.

I mentioned it last week, the first game of his playoff run was a troubling sign, and I was going to pay big attention to how well he played as the series moved along, regardless of how well Denver did. Well, over his last three games Carmelo has shot 48 percent, averaged 24.3 points, 5.7 rebounds, seven assists, 1.7 turnovers, 1.7 steals, and a block in about 36 minutes. I think we have him back.

Beyond that, Denver just didn't take a possession off. An astonishing performance.

Also, while I liked Rick Kamla and Steve Smith calling the game in general (Rick took a couple of quarters to settle down; you don't have to talk over everything, mate), does anyone else find it off-putting to essentially get NBA-approved play-by-play from two guys who were doing the same thing we were doing? That is to say, watching the game on TV? In 2009?

I can understand if the NBA can't afford to spend the money to send these guys out to New Orleans, that's fine. And I'm not a big fan of either the Hornets' or Nuggets' (really, really, really not a fan, in Denver's case) play-by-play crews, so the typical NBA TV turn of just taking over the local broadcast (with better stats and production values) wasn't exactly an ideal option. But to do the whole thing in Secaucus, and not come clean about it?

This was a strange game to take in, on so many levels.

Atlanta 81, Miami 71

I swear, the Hawks and the Heat are the same team. In fact, the NBA would be better off if they combined forces, allowed someone else to swoop and take the coaching reins, and go from there.

Sure, the Heat are completely star-driven, while the Hawks have a cast of above average players working in a seven-man rotation, but these squads are so pell-mell that they just approximate each other. The coaching, the bad shots, the silly moves, the odd defensive rotations. They're the same team. They look different, but they're wearing the same damn suit.

The Hawks got out to a strong early lead by playing as smart a basketball game as Miami was playing a sloppy one. Dwyane Wade may have been gimpy, but he made a point from the beginning to try and flop his way into all sorts of whistles, whether it gave him free throws, or whether it merely earned the Hawks a loose ball foul. The gambit failed, but that didn't stop Wade. While he glared at the refs, his young teammates weren't really doing much with the possessions they were using up. Apologies for being crass, but it was just dumb basketball on Miami's side.

Not Wade, mind you. He tried something, knowing that his body was hurting, and it didn't work. It's the teammates. They're just not there. I'm not going kill them too much, because these are a lot of second round picks we're talking about. But that doesn't excuse some odd, unfortunate, decisions on either end of the court.

Meanwhile, save for a pair of silly Josh Smith jumpers (one of which went in), the Hawks shared the ball, spread the floor, and worked the glass. Until they didn't. All at once the Hawks made poor decisions on defense, they stopped attacking offensively, the level of effort changed, and the Heat were right back in it. Yin, yang; yang and yin. It became annoying after a while. If I'd been in a better mood, I would have found it pretty funny. C'est le playoffs.

In the end, Miami lost because they had to work too hard to toss up tough shots, and because they still feel a need to walk the ball up court so Erik Spoelstra can call a play (whether they break it or not). You're a limited, smallish team that held the Hawks to 42 shooting ... run the ball! Sure, Atlanta destroyed Miami on the offensive glass, but on the few caroms that do see their way into Miami mitts, please run.

The Heat bench was pretty awful, too. Two points on seven shots, spread out over five players.

Solid play from Atlanta, but really, they should have won this game far, far more easily. Zaza Pachulia was as good as his stats suggest, 12 points and 18 rebounds (six offensive) in 34 minutes off the bench, and I have no idea why people keep applauding Flip Murray's de rigueur 11 points on 10 shots.

77 possessions in this game, the slowest of the postseason thus far.

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