Ball Don't Lie - NBA

Los Angeles Lakers 102, Houston 96

The game of the night. The playoff-like atmosphere -- and mind you, this is a cliché but a completely accurate one -- was evident from the opening minute. These teams were really going at it from the first quarter onward, never letting up, and the Houston crowd acted as if this game counted for more than the single W or L that it turned out to be.

Turned out to be an L for the Rockets, with some of the worst of Ron Artest coming through.

Not because he went at Kobe Bryant defensively. Go ahead, tug on Superman's cape. I'm cool with that. And especially because the refs were letting these teams play. I mean, Artest and Kobe were fouling the hell out of each other, and the refs were letting tons of contact go. There was one stretch in the fourth quarter where I just kept repeating "that's a foul, and that's a foul" as Bryant and Artest went at it on consecutive possessions, and I was never wrong.

So, Artest was right to play physical, because for the most part, he could get away with it.

But he was all wrong, otherwise. Wrong to overplay on Kobe, leaving him open for a late-game three-pointer after going for a steal. Wrong to overplay Kobe on the perimeter after a Pau Gasol moving screen (it was, sorry), letting the much faster Bryant dash into the lane for the score.

And way, way, way wrong for the way he played offense.

Artest destroyed the Rockets offensively. He shot terrible perimeter looks from inside and outside the three-point arc despite any indication that he deserved those looks, or could hit them on an efficient or consistent basis. 11 points on 16 shots ... do you know how bad that is? How much that hurts a team playing in what was essentially a one or two possession game the entire night?

We knew Artest's ability to help or hurt the Rockets would not come in the form of some lame suspension or locker room issue, but in how he controlled his usage. And he, and Rick Adelman to a large extent, could not cage the pit bull on Wednesday. And it killed the team's chances of winning.

(Note to Adelman and Daryl Morey ... you get paid to cage the pit bull, so cage the pit bull. The overriding fear is that Artest will stop playing defense if he isn't getting offensive looks, and that's a reasonable fear, mainly because Ron has done it in the past. Doesn't matter. He single-handedly lost a game for you tonight, on the defensive end as well. The difference between good and legendary coaches, guys like Phil Jackson and Coach Pop, is their ability to cage the pit bull.)

The game was great fun, otherwise. Artest had six turnovers, but he also had six steals. Kobe put Artest and Shane Battier in foul trouble, and finished with 37 points, five rebounds, six assists, four turnovers, four steals, and two blocks. He also nailed several tough shots down the stretch to put Houston away. Brilliant outing for Kobe.

The Rockets, meanwhile, were able to drive with ease into the lane and find guys like Yao Ming or Carl Landry or Luis Scola for the quick finish at the rim. Kind of distressing, if you're a Laker fan, because Derek Fisher doesn't appear to be getting any younger. Analysis!

Miscues just killed the Rockets. Artest's six hurt, but the team turned it over 17 other times, on nearly a quarter of their possessions. With that last stat in mind, it's impressive that the Rockets were even in the game. Luckily that 51 percent mark from the floor helped.

(And it speaks to how wrong the Heat announcing duo was last night when they kept talking about how Boston was a top-notch offensive team because their field goal percentage is near the top of the NBA heap. Um, what about the C's third-worst turnover mark? Stop pointing out field goal percentage as an indicator of how good a team is defensively or offensively, people. It's all about the points you score, and the points you give up. Adjusted for pace.)

Impressive, damn impressive, win for the Lakers. To go into that atmosphere without Andrew Bynum and Lamar Odom and pull out a win? Impressive. Yes, the Rockets gave them chances, but the Lakers knew what to do with those chances, a quality you only see from the best teams.

Orlando 107, Chicago 79

Two days after nearly pulling off an admirable road upset against the Heat, the Bulls forgot all about what it took to possibly pull off a road upset. It starts with effort, which wasn't there, and an interest in trying to win. If that sounds flip, it isn't. The Bulls really wanted to take it to Miami (you could tell in the opening minutes), but were more or less content to go with the flow in Orlando. Throw in Orlando's defense, and Chicago's horrible, rudimentary offense, and you have a one-sided blowout.

Chicago is probably lucky to be where it's at, contending for a playoff spot. At 20th in offense (entering a game where it shot 31 percent, that's likely to drop) and 17th in defense, teams like that just don't usually get to see the postseason. So, in that sense, they're overachieving.

But in the big boy sense, this team is hideously underachieving. The squad is far, far less than the sum of its parts, and the usual (and logical) reason for that comes down to poor coaching. And if you want to point out the experience of the head coaches on Chicago's sidelines, the ones that are actually assisting, go ahead. Also remember that Del Harris has been known for kind of falling short in that area before, as a head man. Less than the sum of its parts.

(To the Bulls fans, yes, Derrick Rose continually keeps getting fouled without getting a call. Doesn't excuse a damn thing. That's, like, six extra points. So that means they lose by 22.)

Orlando moved the ball and dominated the boards. Dwight Howard sat out most of the first half with foul trouble, so Marcin Gortat acted like Dwight Howard for a half. Then Dwight Howard came back in the second half to act like Dwight Howard. Rashard Lewis missed all nine of his attempts from the floor, and it didn't matter. Orlando clearly outclassed the Bulls in this win.

Philadelphia 115, Toronto 106

Philly did this last year, they'd go on these second quarter runs where it seemed every score was a high-percentage toss down, with most of the damage coming off of turnovers. Toronto turned the ball over six times in the second quarter tonight, and Philadelphia's batch of athletes (Lou Williams, Thaddeus Young, Marreese Speights, Andre Iguodala, even Sam Dalembert) just walked all over the Raptors.

Over 126 points scored per 100 possessions for the 76ers, a team that averages 106 per 100, 24th in the NBA. Pretty awful, Raptors.

New Orleans 109, Washington 98

The Wizards worked hard in the loss, I can appreciate this, but Washington just doesn't have the athletes to keep up with the Hornets. And because "the Hornets" are only "Chris Paul," they didn't have the athletes to keep up with Chris Paul. Which mainly means Mike James couldn't keep Chris Paul in front of him.

30 points, 10 rebounds, 13 assists, four steals and three turnovers in an 89 possession game for Paul. That's dominant. That's better than LeBron's triple double from Tuesday, and nearly on par with Dwyane Wade's monster line from Monday. Believe me, Paul is right there with Wade, the two are tied at the very least, and Chris (like Dwyane) would be having an MVP year were it not for James' brilliant turn.

And it is James, Wade, and Paul. Kobe has been Kobe, but he's not at their level this season. He's closer to Brandon Roy and Tim Duncan than he is to James or Wade or Paul. And Paul just made life so easy for his teammates, his quite limited teammates, on Wednesday. Scoring 109 points in an 89 possession game is just cruelly efficient, and it falls right on Paul. Read that Hollinger column, please, because you are watching the best regular season for any point guard, ever ... if you're watching.

Atlanta 100, Utah 93

The Hawks did it. They really did it. They topped Paul and Deron Williams in successive games, all with the sort of defense that's been missing from this team for the last four months. Atlanta proved in early November that it could play tough, potent defense if the kids were up to it, and after a 16-week break, they're back to being up to it.

An 18-point first and fourth quarter for the Jazz, as the Hawks moved their feet and put the clampdown. Jerry Sloan wasn't likely happy with his team's turnover count (15), but (as you can probably tell) I'm chalking that up to Atlanta messing with Utah's angles and passing lanes more than anything else.

(OK, some of the miscues were unforced. Very unforced, if such a thing exists in the known universe. But I'm a sportswriter, and that means I'm allowed to stick with a story after having made up my mind, despite the evidence to the contrary.)

Offensively for the Hawks, Joe Johnson is back to pre-Christmas form, finishing with 31 points and nine assists in 44 minutes of play. Josh Smith (22 points, 13 rebounds, three blocks, three assists, just one turnover in 42 minutes) is back to being a terror on the break, and Flip Murray had one of those biweekly 7-12 shooting nights.

Make no mistake, this wasn't a dominant performance from the Hawks. You don't completely shut down that offense, and Utah played nearly as well as Atlanta did once things are tallied up, only to be a victim of a three-possession game in the final minute.

37 combined lousy minutes from Andrei Kirilenko (turnovers, poor interior touch) and Kyle Korver (had to check Johnson for a spell, obviously failed, missed five of six shots and all four looks from behind the arc) probably did this team in. That, and Mike Bibby's distracting calf tattoo.

Jazz fans are likely upset at the free throw disparity, Atlanta shot 33 freebies to Utah's 15 (and I don' think the Jazz hit double figure FTs until deep into the fourth quarter), but I didn't see any egregious calls against Utah. Then again, there were 49 games on last night; so, inform away.

Miami 107, Boston 99

A strange, entertaining game.

To begin, the Heat mainly won because Dwyane Wade is awesome. He didn't rack up double-figure assists (seven dishes), but he drew so much attention that Miami's spacing was too much to overcome for most of the night. 32 points on 9-20 shooting with four steals for Wade.

And the C's are a strange team, in a good way. They should be credited for playing this well despite working without Kevin Garnett and Rajon Rondo, and taking the chance on making a full pit-stop before the playoffs start, even if it means they have to make up a few laps toward the end.

Making sure KG and Rondo are fully healthy is the right thing to do, you'll need them in June, but it's a tough call, and it can't be an easy time to be a Celtic fan. I think it's the correct call, and a potentially championship-earning call, but this cannot be fun. It's hard to warm yourself with the idea that the team is erring on the side of dominance in early summer.

And it's especially hard with Stephon Marbury playing point guard for the Celtics. I'm not ripping on him because of some issue with his personality or history or whatever you want to toss in there, I'd rip on a rookie with these sorts of stats, and Marbs has some pretty awful stats.

He missed all six of his shots from the floor in this loss, he had four assists in the first half, but no dimes and two turnovers in the second, his defense wasn't good, and Eddie House was running the show (quite well, I might add) down the stretch.

Problem is, House won't run things as well from here on out, and he benefited from some inattention from Wade (how do you turn your head on this guy?), making it so Wade's four steals were more than mitigated by his bad one-on-one D.

Back to Marbury. He's shooting 26 percent from the floor in his week and a half back, and while you can point to a small sample size and how tough it is to pick up an offense on the fly ... plenty of minor league or veteran point guards (not named Rod Strickland, sadly) have come in on the fly over the last decade or so and managed to make more than a quarter of their shots in the first week. To say nothing of the 17-to-14 assist-to-turnover ratio. And the bad defense.

Throw in what I warned about a little while ago, how this 32-year old was on the steep decline two years ago and hasn't played much at all for about two years, and you have a crisis point for the C's. No pun intended, and these games count. And it's going to be up to Danny Ainge to admit to a failed pairing.

Not because Marbury ruined Boston's locker room. It's because he can't play anymore.

Marbury wasn't the reason the C's lost on Wednesday. Nor were Mikki Moore's (who didn't start, mind you) four first-quarter fouls. It was the defense that did the team in. They just couldn't deal with Miami's spacing, get out on every shooter, and get back to guard the paint. A guy like Kevin Garnett would have gone real good right there.

New York 116, Detroit 111 (OT)

Well, Detroit played hard. But they didn't play smart at times, Rip Hamilton is trying a little too hard in his newly assumed role of "hey, I can pass now, I like stats, let me play point guard!", and the Knicks were able to get good shots all night.

Really, it's Nate Robinson's world, we're all just stuck waiting for him to take his warm-ups off. 30 points on 22 shots, six assists, zero turnovers in 37 minutes, and only three rebounds (he must be under the weather). Scoring, moving, scoring ... all night.

Antonio McDyess? In the losing effort, he was working his tail off ... all night. 21 points and 22 rebounds for Antonio, who is averaging 17 and 20 over his last two games (with just one turnover despite some wild flings to the backcourt after pulling in an offensive rebound), and you just love this guy's game.

It is 2009, after all he's been through, and he's giving you a 20 and 20 game. We're almost 14 years removed from when he was drafted, and five years removed from when he was mere salary cap fodder (an expiring contract) in a Knicks/Suns deal. Good on him.

Not so much, on Rip Hamilton. 27 points on sound shooting, with nine boards and five assists, but eight turnovers. And five fouls, sending New York to the line. His heart was in the right place, I think, but he has to settle down and trust Rodney Stuckey and Tay Prince. I'd rip Jason Maxiell for only pulling in two rebounds in 27 minutes, but with McDyess on board (Detroit out-boarded New York by 25), how many more could he have gotten?

Strong, strong win for the Knicks.

Minnesota 104, Memphis 79

If I come across as too simple in some of these, I apologize, but Minnesota won this because they're having a lot more fun playing basketball right now than the Memphis Grizzlies. The Timberwolves wanted to play an NBA game on Wednesday night. The Grizz? Not as much. It was pretty evident in the opening minutes, when the Wolves established a lead that they'd never come close to relinquishing.

Perhaps it was Al Jefferson's appearance at a presser that afternoon, telling anyone who would listen to get their licks in now, or perhaps the Draft day trade from last June had Minnesota's competitive juices flowing. Whatever it was, Minnesota played well and seemed more interested than Memphis.

Mike Miller was shooting the ball, which was nice, and he finished with 18 points. Ryan Gomes (25, 5, 5, no turnovers) has had a smooth week, and Kevin Love did strong, strong work (19 points, 11 rebounds, four assists, three turnovers) in under 30 minutes.

O.J. Mayo had a bit of a bounce back game (barely, but we have to find something) for the Grizzlies, 18 points on 17 shots with five assists, but he's really come back to earth over the last six weeks. Not a lot of offensive movement, not a lot of rebounding, and not a lot of shot-contesting for Memphis.

Denver 112, Oklahoma City 96

There were a few fast break highlights -- more than a few, actually -- but Denver won this with halfcourt execution. They won it in the halfcourt, mind you, while pulling away and making it a semi-blowout in transition. There's the distinction. Either way, the offense, against an improving Oklahoma City defense, is back.

As mentioned in this space yesterday, I'm not too worried about the Nuggets. They've fallen back to earth a bit, but they've fallen to where they probably should be. This was never a conference contender, but they're not about to fall out of the playoff bracket, either.

Oklahoma City would have had a miserable offensive outing were it not for their 30-32 mark from the line. Russell Westbrook played nearly 30 minutes and dished just one assist, and who does he think he is? Derrick Rose?

As Jeremy noted, it must have been nice for Nugget fans (and Thunder fans, in a Pyrrhic victory) to not have to win the game on a last second shot.

Dallas 93, Portland 89

Portland got off to an iffy start on Wednesday. By the time Dallas employed a 2-3 zone for most of the second quarter, the "iffy" turned to "impotent."

And in a superslow contest (just 85 possessions), comebacks are hard to come by. So while the Trail Blazers may have chipped away at Dallas' 10-point halftime advantage, it could only do so much while both teams regularly used most of that shot clock.

Another lights-out evening for Dirk Nowitzki, who scored 29 points on 24 shots while pulling in 10 boards and only turning the ball over twice in 40 minutes.

For the trillionth time, there's a reason why his teams are always in the hunt, and it has a lot to do with the "and he only turned it over ..." line that honestly feels like muscle memory to me after typing in his points and rebounds.

Throw in Jason Terry's 24 points, and just eight turnovers for the entire team, and you have a winning combination when matched with that stifling zone. Good calls, Rick Carlisle.

Portland's bench was pretty ... Dallas-like. Dallas-like, on most other nights, I should clarify. Outside of Travis Outlaw's (Jason Terry's counterpart) 20 points on 13 shots, Jerryd Bayless, Channing Frye, and Sergio Rodriguez combined to miss all eight attempts from the floor. Sergio had four assists, including one nice behind-the-back dish to LaMarcus Aldridge, but they weren't helping.

SB's take? Dave on the near-comeback. Wes is deservedly cheerful.

Golden State 116, New Jersey 112

Nellie's weird little freakshow, with guys like Monta Ellis and Andris Biedrins missing games due to family issues that may or may not (or, may) be entirely related to how Nellie, the team's owner, and Robert Rowell "run" things, pulled out a win against a solid Nets team.

But the Warriors almost aren't even worth commenting on. Because they almost don't count. Nellie and Rowell have set this team up to fail, not in the typical rebuilding way, and it's nearly (or completely, or close to that) ruined what should be a very entertaining team that plays amongst a great atmosphere with intelligent fans and one of the best (if not the best) play-by-play/color duos in the NBA.

There's nothing to learn from this team, at this point, because who knows who will be around once these games start to count again? And if the players prove to be winners, how long before Nellie hamstrings things again to keep things nice and mediocre?

The Nets, on the other hand, get it. It took them too long to rebuild, and they never should have given Vince Carter that ridiculous contract back in 2007, but they are rebuilding, they will have cap space, and they actually give minutes to the future contributors for their franchise. Even a guy like Sean Williams, who continually finds new ways to screw his NBA career up, still gets minutes. Not because the Nets are desperate. Not because they don't know any better. It's because that's what you do when you rebuild.

And nearly win. Devin Harris filled up the stat sheet again (31 points on 20 shots, seven rebounds, 12 assists, six turnovers, three steals), Williams played well, Carter was off (14 points on 18 shots; only two turnovers as the Nets were out-rebounded by 16), but New Jersey's bench showed up.

Golden State's bench did as well, in its own inimitable way. Corey Maggette missed three of four shots from the field, but finished with 18 points. Read that again.

16-20 from the line for Maggette, in a game akin to a leadoff hitter having no official at bats, but scoring five runs. Rip on Corey all you want, but he helps his team by putting the opponents in the penalty, and that's a huge thing when you have a bunch of shooters who could use the extra help in not needing 18 shots to score 18 points. That's about the only way he does help this team, but it's still helping. Barely.

I hope it ends sooner, rather than later, Warriors fans.

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