Ball Don't Lie - NBA

Cleveland 95, Chicago 86 

LeBron was just through the roof in this one, too fast for Andres Nocioni to take care of and too everything for Luol Deng to have any chance with. Chicago had a solid lead with ten minutes to go in the fourth quarter, but it lost all confidence offensively once James came off the bench with 9:55 to go, opening the door for Larry Hughes to take all sorts of shots Kobe Bryant (stuck on a team with Chris Mihm and Smush Parker) would be embarrassed to take.

Deng and Kirk Hinrich had miserable games for the Bulls, both were pretty uninspired, which kind of stinks considering the fact that both are professionals (seemingly) working desperately to make the playoffs. James' crew was pretty anemic offensively without LeBron on the floor, but it hardly mattered as LBJ (37 points, six assists, six rebounds) got into the lane, finished with either hand, and carried his club to a win. 

Los Angeles 108, Dallas 104 (OT)

A great game, the Lakers continue to ride ball movement and work from the inside out, while the Mavs are still improving defensively, and reaping the benefits of a suddenly aggressive Dirk Nowitzki.

Games like this help you appreciate just how brilliant this spring's Western playoff run will be. The Spurs (and, to a lesser extent, the Mavericks) have enough defensively to hang with the Lakers and possibly take a game or two from Los Angeles at home within the confines of a seven-game series. Los Angeles still has to prove to me that it can guard Utah, the Hornets are wild card that won't stop winning against anyone but Washington, and nobody knows what to expect from a Suns team featuring Shaquille O'Neal

(Actually, we do know what to expect, and the expectations are kind of sad to detail, but let's just think happy thoughts right now.)

So even though the Lakers have been hotter than hell over the last month or so, nobody's running away with this thing. And no Sunday afternoon game in March or even April is going to lend any insight beyond that. All we're going to get from these pairings, until the playoffs start, is honest-to-goodness entertainment. And that, coming off the desultory 2006-07 season, is enough of an improvement for me.

As far as the Lakers and Mavs go, both are in a bit of a holding pattern, getting by on raw skill, and in Dallas' case, improving effort levels. Los Angeles is clicking offensively, in spite of shooting 37 percent on the afternoon against Dallas, but the Lakers know that they're probably a month away from having to work in a pivotman in Andrew Bynum that is essential for them to take the next step toward moving beyond the other Western powerhouses.  

It's an odd, if enviable, dilemma: Los Angeles has been showcasing the best five-man half-court offense we've seen in this league since Chicago's heyday, but the team knows that it isn't in a situation to only rely on whatever production Bynum gives them as gravy on top of the cake. Something like that. They have to work him into the attack, and the transition has to be nearly seamless. It's going to be an interesting few months for this team.  

The Mavs, on the other hand, have the head start. The team was going to improve eventually, but the Jason Kidd deal made it so each of the team's growing pains and pangs would receive twice as much attention. This isn't a bad thing, because Dallas needed a kick in the tail and a bit of attention. An intriguing few months lie ahead for them, as well -- this is a team that has been built to win in June of 2008, and that's about it.  

Kobe Bryant (52 points, 11 rebounds, four assists, clutch play down the stretch with 30 points in the fourth quarter and overtime combined) was brilliant. We'll have more on him later today.

Boston 98, Atlanta 88

In a possible first round preview, Atlanta played a pretty solid game for the first three and a half quarters, as this was a one-possession game well into the fourth quarter. Then the Hawk offense, as it has all season, clammed up a bit in the fourth quarter. Hawk "All-Star" Joe Johnson used to be one of the game's better fourth quarter closers, until about 14 months ago, and his nine points went a long way toward making sure the C's held on at home. 

Johnson's Boston counterpart, Paul Pierce, continued his hot play with 33 points; 17 coming in the third quarter.

Charlotte 110, Toronto 98

Toronto was without Chris Bosh, and will be that way for the foreseeable future, but there was no excuse for this sort of effort from Toronto. Charlotte completely destroyed the Raptors on the boards, continually tried to cheat on screens and left perimeter shooters wide open, and generally didn't give the Bobcats much credit from the first quarter on.

The Raptors have the talent and depth to make a three-round run in this spring's playoffs, but Sam Mitchell's team isn't at a point where they can sleepwalk through games (like in Friday's home loss to the Pacers) and pull out a win. The team isn't that good, yet.

Jason Richardson (30 points) was solid in his return to game action after scratching his cornea last week in a loss to the Knicks.

Indiana 128, Milwaukee 106

Indiana got off to its usual hot start (64 points in the first half), but unlike most other teams, Milwaukee isn't the best at actually catching up defensively and adding to the typical second half cooling-off period that we typically see from the Pacers. So Indiana, as you'd guess, put up another 64 points in the second half.

Mike Dunleavy Jr. had hordes of open looks from the outside, he finished with 36 points, while the Bucks just couldn't be bothered to stop dribble penetration and/or stick to their guy behind the three-point line.

Houston 103, Denver 89

The Rockets aren't going anywhere, the team moves the ball too well, has a go-to guy in Tracy McGrady, and we've already discussed how amazing their defense can be. What is a little shocking to ponder is the possible idea that a team featuring Tracy McGrady (maligned though he may be) and a series of less than-household names could hold on to make the playoffs; while a group featuring Allen Iverson, Carmelo Anthony, and former All-Stars like Marcus Camby and Kenyon Martin could fall short.  
I don't find fault in much that Denver coach George Karl does game to game, but sometimes taking a step back and pointing out the obvious is the best way to dismiss a performance. Overall, his team is great defensively (even if it is the most inconsistently-great defensive team we've ever seen), but something is wrong if his group can't even make a game of it against a team lacking in star power like these Rockets.  

Seattle 111, Minnesota 108 (OT)

You could hear sportswriters groaning up and down the Target Center press row when Ryan Gomes rimmed out a jumper at the buzzer, and this matchup between teams with a combined 26-88 record went into overtime.

The Timberwolves didn't deserve to win this one, missed free throws down the stretch allowed the SuperSonics to get back into the game late, as did lax transition defense in the game's final minute. In the extra frame, the Timberwolves passed on guarding Earl Watson (usually not that egregious a move), and he made them pay with a pair of game-deciding jumpers.

Sacramento 120, Miami 109

I don't care how bad your record is, whether you're working with new parts, or if you're superstar is at 80 percent: no team in this league should be outscored 71-40 in a half, especially against a team will struggle to finish the season five games below .500.

The Heat were up handily in this one, and though I watched most of the meltdown, it wasn't really that shocking to behold: Miami just played passively on both ends, guys like Mark Blount and Jason Williams are just miserable, indifferent defenders, and the Kings made a point to be patient with their passing while retaining an aggressive offensive attack.

If Pat Riley wants to go for another ring with Shawn Marion and Dwyane Wade, Udonis Haslem is going to have to be the only holdover from this miserable lot.  

Golden State 110, Portland 104

A fun game, the Warriors made all the tough shots down the stretch and continued to find spot contributions from forgotten forwards like rookie Brandan Wright and Austin Croshere, and the Trail Blazers made a good show of it before fading late. 

What is a bit worrying, and this is coming from someone who truly appreciates Portland's ability to pull out close wins, is the way the Trail Blazers go away from LaMarcus Aldridge down the stretch. Part of this is Aldridge's fault, he shies away from the ball when things get rough, and you it's hard to argue with Portland's results -- the team has won a series of close games this season.

That said, what if Travis Outlaw's jumper isn't falling? What if teams are backing off of Brandon Roy? Aldridge's touch, and ability to get to the free throw line should be exploited more often. It's not every day a smart 6-11 guy with skills down low comes along, why not take advantage?  

San Antonio 93, New Jersey 83

San Antonio was up big within the first half of the first quarter, but when Devin Harris handles the ball for New Jersey, the Nets are suddenly interested. Harris came off the bench in the first half to keep things from getting out of hand, he started the third quarter, and it's likely that we'll see him begin games from here on out. I don't see a newly-enthused Nets team missing the playoffs.

Nice to see Tony Parker (25 points, eight rebounds, seven assists) look a hundred percent for the first time in a while.

Washington 101, New Orleans 84

Some days see even the best teams not have it, and when you match not having it with a team that clearly matches up well with you, the result is predictably nasty.

Antawn Jamison was the man with 28 points in the Wizard win, but the entire team was moving the ball, nailing tough shots, and getting up on a Hornets team that might be starting to expect that things will go their way even with a limited effort. Take nothing away from Washington, though; the team played hard, and earned both wins over the Hornets this week.

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