Ball Don't Lie - NBA

Cleveland 87, Los Angeles Clippers 83

We'll get to LeBron's night in a little bit. To begin, though, we need to get up on the wrong side of bed, if you know what I mean.

Somehow, this game made me dislike the Los Angeles Clippers even more.

That's not a bias. The dial gets sent back to zero starting every game, and I'm allowed to finish every game fully hating or loving a particular team, or leaving the dial set closer to the middle. And I can't stand the Clippers. They're the laziest sods in the NBA, and this close loss pushed even closer to the edge.

Why? Because the Clippers came out and played smart basketball with strong effort, especially defensively. They worked to cover all angles, forced the Cavs into tons of misses, made LeBron James question his offensive sets, and they held their own offensively. The team worked hard, it wanted a win, and it was willing to put in the necessary effort needed to chase down a W.

They could have been doing this all year, mind you, but for whatever reason (sodding laziness, I reckon) the Clippers continually decided against it. Until the best player in the world comes into town. Fantastic.

And because the Cavs are better, they come back from a 19-deficit, and they pull the win. And Zach Randolph clinches his team's loss with the dumbest shot in the history of dumb shots (an airballed three-pointer with scant seconds left, breaking a set play), something that was somehow worse than this shot.

You are allowed to hate this team. They don't respect you, the fan. They don't respect the game that has given them so much, and they probably like Jay Leno.

James took a while to scope out the landscape, but he finished with 32 points (lots of spin moves), 13 rebounds, 11 assists, four turnovers, two steals, and two blocks. Astonishingly impressive numbers, considering he was playing in a 91 possession game.

This isn't a response to the MVP debate, but compare James' numbers against the Clippers to Dwyane Wade's numbers against Chicago ... and realize that Wade had nearly 20 more possessions to use in order to build up that jaw-dropping stat line.

We're a lucky bunch, able to watch these two go at it. Not even the Clippers can ruin that.

Utah 112, Indiana 100

Teams can still take it to Utah's defense. The Jazz don't recover all that well, and even though they're at about the middle of the road in terms of three-point defense, they'll toss in more than a few games like tonight, where the Pacers lit it up. On the other end, the Pacers may have actually pulled out the win had they not turned the ball over so much, finishing the night with 22 miscues.

What was odd is that most of those miscues came in the first three quarters, when the game was close, and the Jazz didn't really pull away until the Pacers started hanging on to the ball. And missing. And not getting an offensive rebounds. Simple stops for the Jazz, superb offense on the other end.

The Jazz are on fire, and it starts with Deron Williams. Even on a 1-9 shooting night, he was the spark. With Jerry Sloan ticked off at Andrei Kirilenko and Barlos Coozer (I'm going to call him that until he strings two good games together) missing nine of 13 shots, Williams was the 12-assistin', five-stealin' spark. 12 consecutive wins for the Jazz, and yet it doesn't feel like a streak. It feels like a great basketball team playing exactly as it should.

Indiana is prone to bouts of hot shooting, but they're just not an efficient enough offensive team to make up for its middling defense. Troy Murphy (23 points, 13 rebounds, three steals, zero turnovers) continues to play well despite all the losses.

New York 120, Milwaukee 112

At some point, you just run out of talent. The point of the contest is to determine which team is better than the other one, and as much as the Bucks work, at some point in the fourth quarter you turn into "the Bucks, who were missing Michael Redd and Andrew Bogut."

I do respect the hell out of this team. Richard Jefferson has long been overrated, and he stunk tonight (16 points on 16 shots, five turnovers), Ramon Sessions can't guard you or your dirty pants, but the Bucks share the ball and put in tons of effort defensively. Even if they don't have the talent to be a, y'know, good defensive team (Milwaukee is 16th this season in defensive efficiency).

And when Larry Hughes tosses in 39 points, you better take advantage and pull out the win. Nate Robinson? Quite the player, quite the show, he took over down the stretch, tossed in 32 points, seven assists, seven turnovers, and four steals, in only 31 minutes. Nate needs to play more. Chris Duhon has fallen back to earth, and he wasn't all that great (pace-adjusted numbers, people) to begin with.

San Antonio 100, Charlotte 86

The Bobcats were 12 minutes away from possibly vaulting themselves into the playoff bracket, and while their performance in defeat was admirable, I can't say I was entertained much by it. I have nothing but respect for the squad that Larry Brown trots out every night, but I know this team's middle name.

I can't watch the Bobcats play in a vacuum. I'd like to, believe me I would, but I can't watch a team with this many older players making this much money, with the younger talent a little light in the actual talent department, and get excited for the future. This feels like an expensive team that will only get more expensive that can only top out at an eighth seed.

Call me a sourpuss (go ahead, I dare you), but I can't take the Bobcats without thinking about this stuff. They're not like other up-and-comers. No team that plays Raja Bell 40 minutes should be considered an up-and-comer.

The team's play? Very admirable. The Bobcats simply would not fold against San Antonio until its athletic limitations took over down the stretch. Charlotte made Tim Duncan's life hellish, they made tough shot after tough shot, and refused to cave against the Spurs over the first three quarters even though the cavin' opportunities were there.

But every time the Spurs spread the floor properly, San Antonio had Charlotte's number. Sound shooting and strong board work from the Spurs in the win.

Dallas 122, Phoenix 117

It's as simple as you're assuming. Phoenix just couldn't stop anyone. And because Steve Nash has declined (though he had a great game), Shaq's ability to dominate offensively can come and go (depending on whether or not he sees the ball, which for some reason he didn't in the second half), and Amar'e Stoudemire is nowhere to be found, the Suns just couldn't match the Mavs bucket for bucket.

So even if the Suns had a fine offensive game (123.2 points scored per 100 possessions), they didn't have a fine enough offensive game, while letting the Mavs walk.

And the game wasn't as close as the final score would indicate. The Mavs had this one. There's a reason why.

On most other teams, it's OK for Grant Hill to miss Shaq after cutting to the high post and with Shaq having sealed off Ryan Hollins, because Shaq had a great game and put up plenty of points (21 and eight rebounds in 31 minutes). It's OK for Hill to front rim a couple of jumpers, because he shot 5-9 overall. It's OK for Nash to turn the ball over four times, because the Suns only turned it over 10 times in fast-paced game. On most other teams, the occasional misstep is allowed, because it's just part of the game.

It's not OK on these Suns, though, because they just can't waste a single possession, because of the team's defensive issues. And those wasted possessions add up, and all of the sudden you're down 11 with 90 seconds to go. And the playoffs, in every way but the mathematical way, have now slipped away. No fun. You think it hurts to even consider that? Imagine how it feels to type it out.

Dirk Nowitzki was fantastic in the win, he missed (14) more shots than he made (13), but each of those misses seemed to just barely be off, hitting front rim and rolling off. 34 shots, 13 rebounds, four assists, three turnovers, a steal, two blocks, and turnaround jumper after turnaround jumper. The Suns had no chance with this guy on the court.

And I love Jason Terry. And Jason Terry had 25 points. Now to the tricky bit ...

Reason one trillion why adding Shaq to the Suns was a mismatch and Steve Kerr should never have done it? The Suns play better with Louis Amundson on the court. Shaq gets his numbers (I'm not calling him selfish, he just puts up the points, quiet efficiently), but the Phoenix defense works much better with Amundson getting in the way on that end, and the offense works better (more lanes) with Amundson getting out of the way on that end. His ability to dart in and out of the lane was huge.

The team just plays better with him out there, and that's not Shaq's fault. O'Neal has had a killer season so far, but he can't score every time down the court, and his teammates are less effective on offense with him hanging around. So the Suns don't seem to work unless Shaq scores just about every time down court, because even if the play doesn't involve him, it's all about him.

Again, nothing against O'Neal, but a specialty player like der Shaqtus just can't get away with being part of the background. Same with Allen Iverson in Detroit.

It's just a mismatch, and it never should have happened. And now the Suns are five games out of the playoffs with 18 to play.

Oklahoma City 99, Sacramento 98

If you're still assuming, you're probably right about this one. Just as bad as you'd think it was.

Both teams played very hard, make no mistake, and you can't beat a close NBA game, but this was just drudgery to watch at times because of the talent limitations and the youth involved.

Russell Westbrook was fine -- 22 points, five rebounds, and four assists are nice -- but he also turned it over seven times. Malik Rose continues to play well, but he's Malik Rose. Jeff Green was back, which is great, but he also turned the ball over seven times. Thabo Sefolosha had 17 points, seven rebounds, five steals and one turnover, but he used to play for my favorite team and I miss him. Lots of caveats for the winners.

Both teams traded buckets well, it was a pretty even game (Oklahoma City did have a solid rebounding edge, Nenad Krstic really had an eye for those long offensive rebounds), but 45 combined turnovers made this a bit much. But I did appreciate the effort, and like the direction these two rebuilding teams are heading toward.

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