March 10, 2010
The Lakers are such a tangled, winning, wonderful mess that I don't know where to start.
Probably with the Mamba. He is currently on a roll in the latter stages of games that is unseen since Jordan's finest hours. Those who care enough to get things right knew entering this season that his clutch persona was overrated, he wasn't exactly bad down the stretch, but he had a miserable shooting percentage and needed to shoot nearly twice as much to score just as much as LeBron or a bit more than Carmelo or Manu down the stretch of games. Check the stats.
But this season? There's been nothing like him in this league, and there's been nothing like this run in 20 years. Another game-winner. Another roll down the stretch that saw him either nailing a shot, or getting to the line. Absolutely dominant. He came off the bench with eight minutes to go, a la Jordan, and completely took over with 14 fourth quarter points within the confines of the offense.
The Laker offense? The one that I ripped to shreds a few days ago? It was a lot better. It tried to get the ball inside, continually. Initially to Kobe, but as the game went along, more and more to Andrew Bynum(notes) and Lamar Odom(notes) in various areas around and in the paint. The result was a barrage of near-rim makes and misses but mostly makes.
And that's how you have to do it. Keep the other players' hands warm for three quarters just in case you need them in a pinch, late (what if Toronto were actually able to execute a double-team on Kobe late? Then Bynum et al would have been ready, unlike the losses to Miami and Orlando), and let the magnificent Mr. Bryant take over from there.
Startlingly, Los Angeles' real problem was defense. One of the NBA's top defensive teams all season, the Lakers fell behind early and watched as the Raptors sustained the lead not because Toronto is this fantastic offensive team and they can't help but stumble into open threes, but because the Lakers weren't covering. They weren't talking, they weren't rotating and they weren't helping. Guards, bigs, everyone.
Back to the Laker D. It started with penetration, Jack and Jose Calderon(notes) did well to penetrate early and start the domino effect, which usually resulted in a well-spaced shot or three-pointer (Toronto made 9-of-22, 41 percent). Bosh led the team with 22 points, seven rebounds and ZERO turnovers (geesh), and Hedo Turkoglu missed five of seven shots, dished four assists, turned the ball over four times in less than 30 minutes of play, and he'll make $12 million in 2014.
Calderon was briefly ticked when Fiat heir Lapo Elkann appeared to get in the way of Jose saving a loose ball late in the fourth (I'm still unclear as to whether or not JC would have gotten it, plus Calderon stepped on the out of bounds line), but Elkann helped bring the Fiat 500 (and, by extension, the Fiat Abarth 500) to the masses, so I give him a break.
The Magic are just in a different class. To say that they "bullied" the Clippers doesn't really do it justice, because it implies that Orlando won by merely pushing the Clips around. There was pushing (and swatting), to be sure, but the Magic just had them at every angle.
They made all 12 of their free throws. They turned it over on just 9 percent of their possessions. They held the Clippers to a criminally-low 95 points per 100 possessions. Orlando hit its three-pointers at a knockout (41 percent) rate. The Magic are just way better.
I go to extremes in games like these.
I was one of the few, without a stake in the contests, that adored the old, nasty, Miami/New York matchups from over a decade ago. Other sportswriters had their fun with it, but if you're an NBA fan and can't appreciate a good clutch-and-grab bout, then you shouldn't be writing very large books on basketball.
These days, most of these affairs seem an anachronism. Almost out of place, but not entirely unwelcome. A nicely-done defensive battle with a low possession count can still be a thing of beauty, it just rarely is. Not calling this game a thing of beauty, but it was a compelling watch despite just 86 possessions and both teams coming in way under 100 points per 100 possessions.
From the start, from the jumper that he hit to start the game that seemed to signal that his legs were there, Raymond Felton(notes) had this game. Had it in his pocket. Eight first half assists, 11 all day - which is pretty damn impressive when you factor in his team's miniscule total of 28 field goals.
Felton had and was helped by a pretty solid interior corps from Charlotte. Boris Diaw(notes) had 11 points, eight rebounds, five assists and three blocks. Tyson Chandler(notes) and Tyrus Thomas(notes) combined for 11 and eight with two blocks and two steals in 42 minutes. Theo Ratliff(notes) added eight points and a block with three boards in 18 minutes.
This may not seem like much, but in a game where every bucket or board was met with a forearm to the chest, these guys were making a difference. Especially when you consider how slow this thing was.
Jermaine O'Neal(notes) had 19 points and three blocks in 33 minutes. Don't let ‘em tell you he's a corpse this season. This guy has had a great year, and while he was an absolute dog in 2008-09, he's turned it around and contributing quite well this season.
Portland had some trouble keeping its house in order at times, on both ends, but by and large the Blazers should be happy with a good home win over a competitive Kings team.
There were flashes, throughout, that have to scare Western Conference squads. Little transition leak-outs or a pass from one 6-11 guy to another 6-11 guy to another 6-11 guy. Even with all the Trail Blazer injuries, there's a good chance Portland coach Nate McMillan is going to have some pretty phenomenal rotation parts to work with down the stretch and in the playoffs. Especially if Nic Batum and LaMarcus Aldridge(notes) keep going hard.
The guy's been fantastic since the Wizards sent Antawn Jamison(notes) to Cleveland, but he also forces shots and really has no idea how to react when a wrench is thrown into the proceedings. It's not that he's being selfish when he makes up his mind before going into a move that he's going to shoot the ball no matter what, it's that he has no idea how to execute anything other than putting up a shot. He's never had to deal with being the focus before.
And with the way that he took it to defensive mastermind Chuck Hayes(notes) early on; you couldn't blame the guy for thinking that everything was going to fall. But from what I saw, as the game went on, Blatche kept forcing things, and it turns out that Flip Saunders kept him on the bench for the final four and a half minutes of the Wizards loss.
Not sure I agree with that (you can't find some way to squeeze him in for a play or three, mindful of the fact that he needs to settle down?), but I can understand why.
Houston recovered on the boards, the got another good game from Jordan Hill(notes) (11 and eight rebounds) off the bench, and Luis Scola(notes) made up for his seven turnovers with a 23-point, 10-rebound contribution. Back from injury, Trevor Ariza(notes) picked up right where he left off, needing 13 shots to score 13 points. Speaking of needing to learn to settle down.
Blatche had 18 points to lead his team, but also five turnovers, and he put up 22 shots.
I'm not entirely sure how to recount a game like this. After all, it went pretty much as you'd expect.
It was close, it was slow, it was physical. Little things mattered, just because there were so few chances in this game to make up for a play gone wrong or a loose ball sent the other way.
And the Bucks nearly fell into the habits that have led them to lose plenty of games over the last few seasons. Andrew Bogut(notes) started out by playing like Andrew Bogut - 10 points, six rebounds and two blocks in the first quarter - he sat for a good chunk to start the second, needlessly, and was a non-entity in that second quarter as Boston outscored the Bucks by six.
Bogut then played the rest of the game. He had 15 points, nine rebounds and two blocks in the second half. He was a monster. Actually, he was Andrew Bogut. I'm not going to tell you that he hasn't improved this season, he has, but this guy has been there all along. It's just taken a series of coaches (and his current coach's second year) to realize that.
Just 84 possessions, both teams turned it over on 18 percent of their possessions, the Bucks couldn't get to the line, and the Celtics missed field goals. Typical night out, for both, and one that ended with Paul Pierce(notes) just missing a game-tying fadeaway as the final buzzer sounded. Again, no surprises.
But a fantastic watch. Really hoping these teams meet in the first round.
Ray Allen(notes) didn't hit a field goal in three tries. ... Rasheed Wallace(notes) earned 12 technical fouls in this game, received none. ... I always called Carlos Delfino(notes) a great rebounder, and he's making me look good this year - 19 and eight rebounds in the win. ... Brandon Jennings(notes) was talking trash to Kevin Garnett(notes) as they left the floor, so I'm assuming Brandon Jennings is still somewhere in the Bradley Center, in an uncomfortable position, as you read this.
You can pick out the guys that care at this point. It's that time of year.
Roy Hibbert(notes) cares because he can't stand his coach and wants to prove to anyone watching that he's worth a starting slot and the ball in his hands. As a result, active on both ends (12 points, 11 rebounds and seven assists). This man is one of the best passing big men in the NBA, and I'm glad I finally have an orthodox box score stat to go on, besides just watching another one of his backdoor bouncers result in a missed lay-up. And he actually has an assist ratio (the amount of possessions he uses that turn into assists) that is right behind guys like Ben Gordon(notes) and Stephen Jackson(notes).
Jrue Holliday cares, because he doesn't know any better. The frustrations this league can throw at you by the pant lode haven't gotten to him yet. Twenty-one points, four rebounds, four assists for the 19-year-old.
Samuel Dalembert's(notes) cared all year. It's not a bit of inspired play following what happened in his homeland a few months ago, and he's not in a contract season. He's just brought it this season. He had 16 and 11 rebounds, four blocks, and yet he only played 22 minutes despite just one foul all night.
In the first half, T.J. Ford(notes) also threw an alley-oop to Earl Watson(notes), which was nice. Of course, take that shot away, and they combined to shoot 6-of-22, while A.J. Price(notes) received yet another DNP-CD.
The Bulls think they can out-score teams and win, which is cute, and pretty stupid, and the results are what you see here.
Chicago's wins either come off of good defensive efforts, or the rare 2009-era offensive romp, but the signs were there Tuesday night. The signs that told the Bulls they were playing the Jazz, that Utah was matching them shot for shot, that the Bulls couldn't compete with a team like this offensively over 48 minutes, and that it had to start defending. They didn't heed those signs, of course, as the Jazz outscored Chicago 69-47 in the second half.
Nearly 140 points per 100 possessions for Utah, with 34 assists on 45 field goals, with a road scorekeeper, no less. The Jazz are a freakin' machine, at this point.
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