Ball Don't Lie - NBA

Houston 97, San Antonio 95

I can't tell you how impressed I was with Ron Artest in this game. I'll try to, though, despite my limitations.

Since last summer, I've been on Artest to try and gain some perspective regarding his offensive limitations. You couldn't help but spy his iffy offensive doggedness years ago, but he'd been working it on so many crummy teams over the years, that it didn't matter until this season.

NBA fans needed Ron to understand that he can be a sneaky-good offensive player going to the hoop with either hand, or in a point-forward role, but the idea of his dribble setting up his jumper isn't just sneaky-scary, it's scary.

Early in this one, Artest missed out on several calls, on either end. And instead of getting upset and chucking, like he usually does, Ron got upset and drove to the basket. It warmed his legs. It helped his timing develop as the game moved along (Ron nailed two of four three-pointers in the game), and even though some close shots spun in and out, you had to love those looks.

For some reason, as the game moved along, Artest still could not get a call to save his life. And he was fouled, continuously. I've been pretty rough on Bill Kennedy this week, but he struck out time and time again on Sunday. Artest (24 points) finished the game 8-20 from the field, but it really should have been 8-16, at the very least, with eight more free throws to his credit.

Ron just stuck with it, though. And we knew this sort of game was in him. All he has to do is bring it more often than not, instead of firing away. History tells us he'll fire away more often. We hope the pattern changes.

Also, at some point, we're going to have to stop talking about Luis Scola's determination, and start talking about his talent.

Case in point: NBA bigs love to, and are asked to, chase off tiny guards following screen and rolls some 25 feet from the basket when the guards go right off of the left elbow extended. Tyson Chandler is one of the best, and with NBA forwards and centers developing better footwork and foot speed as the game evolves, there are dozens who are adept at it.

But Scola doesn't just chase. He's tapping the ball away from point guards like Tony Parker, a few feet behind the three-point arc, all the time. Think about that. 6-foot point guards are rarely successful at closing out on Parker and deflecting the ball, and this 6-9 guy in his 30s is routinely pulling off the trick. Yes, that's hustle. But that's also brilliant footwork, and quick hands. He's a real treat to watch.

19 points, 17 rebounds, three steals and four assists for Scola in the win. And he connected on two game-saving layups in the final minute, reversing roles with Yao Ming, who hit Scola with two perfect high post passes for the finishes.

Enough fawning. Houston played hard, wasn't deterred by the refs or the visiting crowd, it moved the ball, got out on Tim Duncan, and dodged several bullets by Tony Parker (who shot 9-24, scoring 22, while seeming able to toss in 40 on Sunday). And while Michael Finley works his tail off, contributions like this (very poor defense, zero points, four rebounds in nearly 25 minutes) just kill teams.

New Orleans 99, Golden State 89

Just as the re-cap, er, re-caps, New Orleans came out early and made sure the Warriors had no realistic chance. The Hornets earned a 17-point halftime lead and never relinquished it.

27 points, eight rebounds, eight assists, four turnovers, and two steals for Chris Paul.

Miami 101, Detroit 96

What could have been an ugly contest turned into an entertaining nail-biter, mainly because this was a small ball free-for-all between two tough, tough-minded teams.

We should give the Pistons credit for playing well without Rip Hamilton, Allen Iverson, or Rasheed Wallace, but not too much credit, I suggest.

Rip's spacing would have helped, ideally, but I've had issues with his three-point shooting all year. Taking two and a half a game in only 33 minutes, on a slow-down team while shooting 35 percent? Not the most efficient turn. Not the worst run, but you'd like to see him eschew that long-ranger a bit more often.

Iverson's ability to spot up for that elbow extended jumper would help if he would deign to play off the ball (which was the case prior to his back woes), but Wallace has been hurting the Pistons all year. I've made no bones about that.

In Wallace's absence, you have better on and off ball defense in the form of Jason Maxiell, more minutes for Antonio McDyess (who rebounds like mad, unlike Wallace this season, and stays 17-feet from the hoop for that 60 percent jumper), and guys like Walter Herrmann who know to stick in the corner for their three-pointers (a shorter shot), instead of the elbow-way-extended.

Detroit stayed in this game by dominating the offensive glass. They shot worse than the Heat from the floor and from behind the arc, but made just as many field goals and just two less free throws because of all the extra opportunities. Every Piston was on the offensive glass, so there's no point in telling you how awesome Jason Maxiell is (whoops), and Jermaine O'Neal had just three rebounds (one defensive) in over 34 minutes.

Dwyane Wade was predictably brilliant, finishing with 39 points, six assists, just two rebounds, two turnovers, four blocks and two steals. He wasn't destroying the Pistons every time down court, but he turned enough possessions (on both ends) to his team's advantage to pull out the close road win.

And from ‘ere, we go to the quick notes ...

*Why Erik Spoelstra has Jermaine O'Neal out there for the Heat's last offensive possession, I'll never know. I understand that O'Neal had an offensive rebound tap-in a few minutes earlier, and that he hit a 17-footer on a bad decision jumper the possession before that, but he doesn't spread the floor anymore (teams aren't afraid of his jumper), he doesn't finish well around the rim, and he never set good screens.

*And yet, Michael Curry's coaching may have cost Detroit the game.

Back-to-back technicals with your team down one? Yes, there were just .6 seconds left in the game, but come on. Show some faith in your team's ability to pull it out.

My main issue? Since the first two weeks of the season, we knew that Dwyane Wade was on a tear when it came to registering blocks. And yet, all season, I've seen teams take advantage of Wade's ability to roam, and while it hasn't mitigated his defensive presence, it still means he hasn't been an All-NBA defensive talent because of his inability to keep focus on his man at times.

The main counter I've seen to Wade's propensity to block shots or pick up steals is to feign a baseline screen for his man that would seemingly briefly free up Wade's guy for a corner three.

The fake play is a typical play when it isn't a fake play. Mainly because coaches love to stick shooters in the corner for 20 seconds of a 24-secons possession, and as soon as he sees the screen, Wade immediately starts thinking of cutting into the passing lane, or never really following his man, or any of the other half-dozen options he has to disrupt defensively with his guy acting like a statue in the corner.

On this play, though, the man feigns going toward the rim, pops out, and gets a (usually moving) screen from another big at the elbow extended. Getting the ball with a half-second's freedom behind the three-point arc, Wade's man can either shoot quickly, go toward the middle (usually with the help of another moving screen), or fake and drive quickly to the right and the open baseline (sometimes where that original screener, if they're a wing or a big man, is open for a corner three/baseline 19-footer).

You just involve Wade, without the tough talk of "going right at him." The Pistons went right at him on Sunday, and you saw the result. On his man, with that quickness, that length, and that jumping ability, he's a killer.

*Jeff Van Gundy and Mark Jackson made some good calls in this game. I liked Jackson pointing out how the Pistons took advantage of Miami's bigs -- scared of giving yet another offensive rebound to the Pistons -- sticking with their men and failing to show on a screen and roll. I liked Van Gundy's subtle game-long trashing of Jermaine O'Neal, along with some other minor points that escape me right now.

What I didn't like was Van Gundy's continued insistence that hand-checks don't change the outcome of the game in any way. They do. All of them do, including the one JVG was complaining about. They limit penetration, and slow the offensive player, even if the player is checked for just half a second. And they were the reason the NBA was so damn tough to watch from the late 1990s until 2003-04, as players got stronger and quicker and were allowed more and more to check away.

There were hand-checkers in the 1980s and 1990s, but these guys were the defensive specialists, and by "defensive specialists," I mean "those who actually cared enough about defense to try and slow a man down with your legs and arms." And they weren't as quick. And they weren't nearly as strong.

By the early part of this decade, though, everyone was doing it. And the game stunk. And since 2004-05, it hasn't. We're truly in a golden age, here, and the hand check calls are a big reason why.

*The thing about I hate most about the NBA reared its head in the fourth quarter, when Tayshaun Prince moved his feet and took a charge on Dwyane Wade.

It was great to see Prince move his feet and get in front of a smaller, quicker player like that. That was impressive. And the call was correct, no question about it.

But what wouldn't you give to see Prince actually jump in the air on that play, contest the shot, and try to block Dwyane's mid-range leaner as Wade hangs in the air? How fun would that be to watch? A lot more fun that what we actually saw, I'd submit. And this is no slight on Prince, he's doing what the NBA has essentially legislated as the way to play NBA defense in the modern age.

No contesting shots. No leaping to try to block shots at the rim. Why, you might whiff, or foul the guy ... so just slide in underneath a guy, like a player who can't even jump over the phonebook, to take the charge. You'll get the call every time, the coach pats you on your butt, and the play-by-play guys talk about your hustle.

The result of all this? Tayshaun Prince, one of the longest, most athletic, and headiest defensive players of any era, averages .6 blocks per game for his career. Pity.

*The "superstar call" in relation to Dwyane Wade. Guess what? Kobe Bryant doesn't get to the line as much as Wade, per-minute. LeBron James does, but he's a different sort of player. At some point, we're just going to have to realize that Wade isn't getting bailout calls all the time, and realize that he's just brilliant at putting defenders out of their comfort zones, screwing their footwork up with his herky-jerky drives, and he invites contact.

And that he was doing it in his rookie year, as well, and I can't remember a guy getting screwed over on calls as much as Wade was during 2003-04. Some guys just get to the line. I'd feel a lot worse about my position if anyone considered Corey Maggette or Devin Harris to be "superstars."

Did he step out of bounds with .6 seconds left? Hell yes. Somehow, the league will continue apace.

Oklahoma City 97, Minnesota 90

The Thunder had one turnover in the first half, and if that doesn't speak to the type of players that Sam Presti has brought in, and the uncomplicated-but-efficient type of offensive sets that Scott Brooks has introduced, then we're just going to have to talk about the Timberwolves.


OK, Oklahoma City really seems to enjoy playing with its current roster. As soon as Thabo Sefolosha sat for Kyle Weaver in the first quarter, Thabo was immediately off the bench pointing things out to Weaver after a blown defensive assignment. And instead of acting insulted, or too sensitive, Weaver listened to the man who essentially stole his starting job a month ago. Very cool.

And instead of worrying about their power being usurped by a guy in his mid-20s usurping their authority, the Thunder coaching staff let Thabo make his point.

This team talks, on both ends, and it does selectively run, but most of the damage against the Timberwolves was done in the half court. I don't think the Thunder are 18 points better than the Timberwolves over a 24-minute span, Minnesota's lackadaisical play contributed to that early deficit, but taking down a team like Minnesota 57-39 in the first half is worth a nod in OKC's direction.

Now, a lineup featuring quick ones like Rodney Carney, Kevin Ollie (don't laugh), and Bobby Brown helped Minnesota come back and make a game of this, but with two other games on and the Rockets and Spurs taking it down to the wire, I didn't see much of it.

Cleveland 96, New Jersey 88

Cleveland missed 11 free throws and eight of 12 from behind the arc, but New Jersey can't guard anyone, and this game wasn't as close as the final score suggests. The slow pace helps with that.

30 points, 11 rebounds, eight assists and just one turnover for LeBron James in the win. Chris Douglas-Roberts returned from a stomach bug to score four points in nine minutes, but it was a bit of a bummer to see the rookie's best roll of the season hit a wall last week.

Toronto 100, Los Angeles Clippers 76

When even the Raptor play-by-play men are ripping on the Clipper effort, you know there's not much to the Clipper effort.

Baron Davis shot 1-5 from the three-point line, which seems like an off night for a great shooter (after all, who else but a great shooter would shoot five three-pointers in a game?), and that's his average on the year. Think about that. All year long, this guy has averaged shooting five three-pointers for you, while only making one a game. OK, 5.2 attempts, with 1.6 makes, but 30 percent makes this any better? Hardly.

Five turnovers to four assists for BD, and 3-15 shooting. Leadership.

For the second Sunday in a row, the Raptors came out strong early, and had this one in garbage time by the fourth quarter. Even with Andrea Bargnani out, the floor was spaced, and the ball (25 assists) was moving.

Also, Jose Calderon dunked. With two hands.

Philadelphia 112, Sacramento 100

Sacramento came back to make the final score somewhat respectable, but this was a nasty blowout in the first half. Philadelphia just seemed quicker to everything, establishing a 26-point halftime lead. And, because I don't think Sacramento is 26-points worse than Philadelphia for every 24 minutes played, you have to question the Kings' effort.

They did make a go of it in the second half, Spencer Hawes had 10 points and 12 rebounds during that stretch, but it barely mattered.

Louis Williams continued his sound play for the 76ers with 18 points and five assists off the Philly bench.

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