Monday, April 30, 2007

MLB: April Awards

I already handed out the AL Pitcher of the Month award to Danny Haren of the A's, but I figured I should quickly toss out a few more.

NL Pitcher of the Month - Tim Hudson. Huddy has bounced back from a tough 2006 with a 1.40 ERA, a sub-1.00 WHIP, and a 3-0 record through six starts. He gets the nod over John Maine, Rich Hill, Matt Cain, and Jake Peavy because he threw more innings and made more quality starts. Tough call though, especially over the 4-0 (1.35 ERA) Maine.

NL Offensive Player of the Month - Jose Reyes. I dished out some love for Barry Bonds yesterday and yes, he's been sick. But Reyes is out of his mind. He's hitting .356 with 17 steals, 16 extra base hits, 18 RBI, 25 runs, and a 16/11 walk/K ratio. Throw in his .435 OBP and he's a leadoff hitter without peer right now. Look at it this way: he's on pace for 114 stolen bases and 121 RBI (not to mention 108 extra base hits and 169 runs scored). Yeah, that's never come close to happening before (not that it will, but still ...). (Apologies to Barry Bonds and Miguel Cabrera.)

AL Offensive Player of the Month - Alex Rodriguez. Who else? He leads the majors in slugging, home runs, RBI, and runs scored, and is second in OPS (behind Bonds). It doesn't matter that the Yankees blow, A-Rod just had the best month of his career. (Apologies to B.J. Upton and Vlad Guerrero.)

Whoa, Chuck

As always, I'm a few minutes behind because of my refusal to ever watch another TV commercial, thus the TiVo. I just got done watching the first segment of TNT's halftime show and have to ask, is Charles watching the same series I am? He just basically accused the refs of having it out for Duncan because of the Joey Crawford incident. What? Duncan is the same guy that got called for ZERO fouls in Game Three. And you know how many he has in the first half of this game? Zero! So this guy has played nearly 60 minutes in a game and a half, has banged bodies, blocked shots, thrown elbows (not maliciously, just as part of the action), and everything else, hasn't been called for a single foul, yet the refs have it out for him. Yeah, okay. As for the offensive end, there are probably a call or two he could have received, but in this series, who couldn't? Both teams hack non stop. Iverson didn't even get one free throw attempt in Game Two. Tonight Duncan had a play in which he led with an elbow to the face of Nene and not only didn't get called for an offensive foul, he actually complained about not going to the line. So let's not take our visual cues from how Duncan reacts. He's a great player, but a notorious whiner.

Anyway, I know this post has no real value, which is why I plan to bury it with the Monday Night Wrap-Up anyway, but wow, had to comment on that. Barkley is still slaying me with his comedy, but his analysis has been a little shaky the last few nights. Maybe working all these games is getting the best of him.

(Other thoughts at halftime: Blake has no value to Denver whatsoever. If JR Smith can't get it done, they need to go with my boy Yakhouba. At least he can play a little D and make things tough for Ginobili. But Blake is getting abused by Parker, abused by Manu, he can't shoot, and he is turning the ball over. As Wilbon would say, get him out! On the San Antonio side, I have no idea why Pop is insisting on playing a backup point guard. Fine, Udrich sucks. But that is no reason to play Jacque Vaughn. When he gets in, you can actually see Iverson's eyes light up. They should just have Ginobili or Barry bring the ball up when resting Parker. So many good players on the court, yet these two scrub point guards find a way to get run. Wonders never cease.)

Dallas Can Still Win (Here's How)

If you are like me, you are riding the Wave of Baron Davis right now and willing the Warriors to close out this series, so that we can see more. More of the 20,000+ fans at Oracle Arena going crazy. More of Stephen Jackson going even crazier. More Biedrins free throws (and hair gel), more highlight reel shot blocking from 6'6" swingmen (J-Rich and Pietrus), more ill-advised Matt Barnes threes that go in, more Don Nelson false modesty, more of Monta Ellis' cold-blooded game face (has he ever changed his expression?), and, of course, more Baron Davis. I can recall the 2003 Playoffs, when I had a vested interest in the Sixers advancing out of the first round and being absolutely terrified of a hobbled Baron. He could hardly move, yet he was so strong and skilled and athletic that even with a bad back and a bum knee, he was completely dominant at times. Now, four years later, he is finally healthy enough to reach his full potential and the results are breathtaking. Even his dumb ejection in Game Two is forgiven at this point, which tends to happen when you personally author the two most memorable performances of the first round (Games One and Four).

All of that said, the victory party for the Warriors may be premature. Nobody from G-State has made the mistake of talking about the second round ala T-Mac in 2003, but there is a feeling in the aftermath of last night's game that the Warriors are going to get this done.

Not so fast.

There is no reason to think the Mavs will come back and win the series, but that does not mean they can't. Dallas played last night's game with both hands wrapped around its collective throat, on the road, and still nearly won the contest. They killed Golden State on the boards. They discovered (and then forgot) that nobody on the Warriors' roster can guard Josh Howard. They finally got Terry, Stackhouse, and even Nowitzki going from behind the arc. They have plenty to build on, and with only one road game left in the series, they can turn this thing around. A Game Five victory would put all the pressure squarely back on Golden State to close it out at home in Game Six. Otherwise, it goes back to Dallas for the clincher - a scenario that would finally allow the Mavs to feel like they have an advantage, since they know deep down that they are more prepared for a Game Seven. They might not be prepared for anything else the Warriors are doing, but a Game Seven - on the heels of two straight wins - is their one ace in the hole.

Of course, it is easier said then done. They actually have to go out and play ball and do it better than Golden State, which they've done only once in this series. I personally think they can do it if they follow this blueprint:

1. Go Zone. The Mavericks have mismatch problems all over the floor. No one can guard Baron Davis and Dirk simply can't guard anyone at all. Plus, while Diop is their best team defender right now and is doing a good job protecting the rim, he is getting switched into bad matchups as well. The easy solution to all this is to stop matching up and play zone almost exclusively. They went to it a bit last night (although Reggie Miller never once mentioned it) and I thought they had good success. Not only will it mitigate some speed issues, but it has two other positive side effects. One is that it will entice the Warriors to shoot more stand-still threes. Everyone seems to think that the Warriors are a great three-point shooting team, but they've been pretty average from a percentage standpoint. Not only that, but most of their makes are coming off of penetration. When they stand around and jack up shots, they are downright brutal. If the Warriors see a zone, they are likely to cast off deep jumpers, rather than isolate mismatches and attack the rim. Advantage, Dallas. The second advantage ... you know what, we'll just make it item #2.

2. Don't Foul. This is easier said than done against such an athletic team, of course, especially when they are out in transition. The zone can't stop fast break situations, but it can greatly reduce the foul problems in the half court. If the Warriors are shooting jumpers, it stands to reason that they won't draw as many fouls. And while the perception (and probably the typical reality) is that the Mavs are extremely deep, they are not deep in the contest of this series. They have a limited number of guys that can be productive against the Warriors' athletes. The list looks like this: Howard, Dirk, Diop, Stackhouse, Terry, Harris, and Buckner (sort of). Dampier, Croshere, and George are worthless right now and Avery needs to keep them off the floor. To do that, he has to limit the number of fouls called on the other six (and a half) guys. The zone will help that. So will calling a cease fire on their ridiculous flopping regime on defense, since trying to draw charging calls seems to backfire half the time. They need to avoid contact, not seek it.

3. Change Dirk's Role. This series is too fast for Dirk to do his usual thing. Which means that the Mavs should just give up on running the offense through him in that mid post area. Put him on the wing to shoot threes off of penetration. Put him in the box as a post-up player (he can be at least as good as Mikki Moore down there, can't he?). Tell him to just go offensive rebound and fend for himself like Shawn Marion. Dirk did have six offensive boards on Sunday night, so he can do that. It would take some pressure off of him and probably result in improved play, it would get him closer to the basket, and most importantly it would end this painful attempt by Dallas to jam a square peg into a round hole. Which leads to ...

4. Run the Offense Through Josh Howard. I'm not suggesting that the Mavs abandon the mid post game and the motion they run off of that set. Rather, they should keep running it ... but with a new player in that spot. Howard is the only Dallas player that looks as if he can't be covered. His herky-jerky dribble, great body control, confident stroke, and natural athleticism make him a handful for anyone, but he's particularly impossible for guys like Richardson and Jackson to guard. Pietrus did nice work on Howard in the second half, but it was hard to tell how nice, since the Mavs apparently forgot that Josh Howard was on their team. Plus, if he forces Nelson to play Pietrus either prematurely or more often, that is a victory for Dallas. (Forcing Golden State to adjust! Imagine that!) Howard was 8-for-11 with 20 points at the half and then he went 1-for-2 the rest of the way. Unacceptable. The Mavs like to go through him in the first quarter and then go to Dirk after that. They need to start and finish with Howard. He's their best player right now and appears more than capable of being the centerpiece of the offense.

5. Employ the High Screen and Roll. Every freaking team in the NBA runs the high pick and roll play after play after play, almost as if it is some kind of league rule. Yet here are the Mavs, playing possibly the worst pick and roll defense on planet earth, and they aren't running it. Why not? The screen and roll pulls athletes away from the basket, demands good weakside rotation (NOT a strong suit of the Warriors), and has the potential to turn the game into a layup drill for Devin Harris. Harris/Howard or Harris/Nowitzki looks like a virtually unstoppable combination. They need to use it. Often. It will involve Davis on nearly every defensive possession and increase the likelihood of foul trouble. It will put Biedrins (or Harrington) in no-man's land. It will create catch and shoot opportunities for the roller. I don't see much of a downside here, other than the occasional double-team and steal by the Warriors. But even that has a positive outcome, which is that for every J-Rich or Harrington pick, it will be four more Maverick layups as Golden State gambles more and more with each subsequent possession.

The Mavs can still get this done, but they need to make some crucial adjustments. The irony is that because of the intense criticism Avery Johnson received after Game One for making a pre-series adjustment (against an eight seed!), he might be gun shy from changing things now, when he actually needs to.

I look forward to the rest of this fascinating series, secure in the knowledge that either way - with a Warriors upset or a Dallas comeback - we are ensured of something pretty special happening.

Sunday Night Wrap-Up

What a day of playoff hoops ...

The Baron

I might have to put tonight's Inside the NBA on "save until I delete" status, because I'm not sure it gets better than watching the highlights of this Warriors-Mavs game, set to the Polow Da Don's "Boy Looka Here" beat, as Kenny Smith drops a "too much Baron Davis, man!" Game Four was one for the books, not just because Golden State jumped to a 3-1 lead over the Mavs, or because of TNT's "Warrior mascot throws pie in Barkley's face" graphic, but because of the way the Warriors won. They fell behind by more than six points at least five times during the game, only to come back, tie or take the lead, and then fall back again. Normally, this is the kiss of death, because you need to get over the hump or you lose your will and your energy. This G-State team lost neither. They just coming; relentless and supremely confident. Meanwhile, no matter how many free throws and bank threes Stackhouse threw in, you could tell the Mavs were playing the entire second half with "holy crap, what is it going to take to put them away?" looks on their faces.

It's hard to even describe how sick Baron was tonight. He made a 49-footer off glass to tie the score at the end of the first half. And that was after picking up two fouls in the first four minutes, staying on the floor without committing another personal, somehow remaining aggressive, hitting big shots when his team was flagging, and scoring 18 points to keep the Warriors in the game. As great as he was in the second half, it was Baron's first half that was a truly astounding effort. But what a second half it was. He had a sequence late in the third, after yet another Mavs run that threatened to break Golden State's will, in which he hit a step-back fadeaway three while keeping a two-for-one alive (he's one of the best in the league at managing the clock at the end of quarters), then stole an inbounds pass, raced past Jason "Jet" Terry, and finished with a vicious dunk and even more vicious scream. Tied at 77. Then, after G-State came out shaky to the start the fourth (jacking up threes while Stackhouse went on a scoring binge) Baron took over with leadership, physical defense, and great finishes at the rim in transition. Then came the drive and dish to Jackson for three. Then the no-look rifle pass to Biedrins (who has the worst free throw shooting form I've ever seen, yet was somehow still in the game as the Warriors tried to preserve a six-point lead with 43 seconds left). Then the stop and pop. Then, after struggling all game from the line, the second of two free throws to keep it a three point game. Just a virtuoso performance.

I have more to say (like: what on earth happened to Josh Howard in the second half? where does Matt Barnes' big three rank in the "no, no, no ... yes, yes, yes!" Shot Hall of Fame? and is Biedrins the only NBA player that puts gel in his hair?), but it is late and there are three more games to mention, so I'll close with this: the series is far from over (tomorrow I will lay out how the Mavs can still win), but up to this point, these have been Baron Davis' playoffs.

Nash is Ridiculous

Could it be that Baron was only the second best point guard on the floor today? Or the third (see: Kidd, Jason, below)? Probably not, but if you like point guard play, leadership, and lifting teammates to a higher place, you needed to be watching playoff basketball on this fine Sunday. Nash destroyed the Lakers today with 23 dimes - one short of the playoff record - and would have had more if not for the game-and-time situation near the end, which required a stall offense. He had nine, count 'em nine, passes that required pausing and rewinding for multiple views on my TiVo, including three that I dissected in slow motion just to see how he could even make them. My dad, who has seen a whole lot more basketball than I have, told me earlier this year that he had become convinced that Nash is the best passer he's ever seen. Trust me, that's high praise. I know that the postseason has no bearing on the awards voting, but I hope everyone who cast a vote for Nowitzki over Nash as the MVP was watching today. And that they hate themselves.

(Oh, and by the way, Amare had 27 and 21, and has the Suns looking very much like the eventual NBA champs. Thought I'd throw that in there.)

MRI Watch Starts in Cleveland

The way the Nets are playing, the Cavs' only hope of reaching the Eastern Conference Finals may be if Jason Kidd's gimpy knee goes out on him. New Jersey is quietly playing perfect basketball against the Raptors right now. Vince is attacking the basket, Moore is rebounding, Collins is playing good defense, and Kidd is basically dominating everyone on the floor. Sam Mitchell continued to prove why he's the coach of the year by saying that Kidd was faking his knee injury in game three, which no doubt inspired J-Kidd to go 17-13-8 in just 28 minutes of action. Don't worry, Sam, you've only cost your team a couple of playoff games.

Bulls Break Out Brooms

It looks like losing the last game of the season to New Jersey wasn't such a bad move for Chicago after all. Had they defeated the Nets, they would have landed the #2 seed, knocked Jersey down to #7, and had one heck of a fight on their hands. Instead, they got the aging, overrated, and injured (Wade) Miami Heat. Who the Bulls pretty much own, by the way. I'd say that worked out fairly well. And so what if they have to go through the Pistons? They have to beat them eventually anyway. And with a sweep to match that of Detroit, both teams go into this battle healthy and rested. For an Eastern Conference second round matchup, this promises to be pretty tasty. We've got oh so many storylines. Here are a few:

- The rising dominant team in the East (Chicago) is trying to unseat the (more or less) reigning dominant team in the East (Detroit). Hey, just like the late 80s!

- Ben Wallace is taking on his old team. If the Pistons fans were willing to berate poor Darko (who had the gall to get traded), imagine what they have in store for Big Ben.

- Tayshaun Prince is getting a chance to regain his shine as a defensive stopper as he squares off with the seemingly unstoppable Luol Deng. Prince lost a whole lot of luster last year when first LeBron and then Wade crushed him game after game.

- Ben Gordon, the next evolution of Rip Hamilton, takes on the original Rip Hamilton.

- Billups, the master of drawing fouls, squares off with Kirk Hinrich, the master of fouling.

- The most annoying PA announcer (Detroit) and local broadcasters (Chicago) in the entire league are involved in the same series.

There is also a battle of Argentine teammates off the bench (Delfino and Nocioni), potential bad blood between Rip and Tyrus Thomas from their recent squabble, and so much more. I can't wait.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Rivera DOESN'T Get Lit Up (And 3 Other Baseball Notes)

It felt like a newsworthy event that Mariano Rivera entered the game tonight and didn't get rocked. Low blow? Absolutely.

Also in baseball ...

Reyes on pace for 100 steals!

We all love projections in baseball, so I wonder why nobody is talking about Jose Reyes' torrid baserunning. He stole his 14th base tonight, which has him on pace for 103 on the season. No one has swiped 100 bags since Vince "Firecracker" Coleman bagged 109 in 1987. Not only that, but considering the following fun facts:

- Only four guys in the "modern era" (after 1900) have ever crested 100 stolen bases (Maurey Wills, Lou Brock, Coleman, and, of course, Ricky Henderson).

- The best total since Henderson's 93 in 1988 is 78 by Marquis Grissom in 1992.

- The best total in this decade is 70 by Scott Podsednik in 2044.

Forget A-Rod making a run at 73 jacks, Reyes going for 100 steals is far more exciting.

Danny Haren is AL Pitcher of the Month

Well, I don't hand out the awards, but if I did, he would get it. He improved to 3-2 tonight, which doesn't tell the whole story, as his ERA is 1.60 and he has anchored an Oakland staff dealing with a (surprise, surprise) injury to Rich Harden and the departure of Barry Zito.

(Danny would like to thank Felix Hernandez's elbow for this lovely award.)

(Oh, also, the AL Worst Pitcher of the Month goes to Jeff Weaver of the Mariners, thanks to his 0-4 record and 18.35 ERA. Solid. Right now, thousands of Detroit Tigers fans are breaking out in a cold sweat.)

Bonds is Raking

This just in: Barry Bonds is the best hitter in the National League right now. Sucks for all the media members who make their living from the Great Bonds Witch Hunt. I mean, we have to assume he's clean now, so how do you explain the .362 average, +.500 OBP, +1.300 OPS, 8 home runs, and 17 RBI? He leads the NL in OBP, slugging, and OPS, and is second in home runs (behind Jimmy Rollins, of all people). All this at age 42? Yikes.

Saturday Night Wrap-Up

Pretty rough day of playoff action. The Pistons and Cavs series are hard to get through, thanks to the inferior opponents and the Jazz-Rockets game wound up being a blowout. Only Spurs-Nuggets was close, but it wasn't pretty.

A handful of comments:

Pistons Sweep

Congrats to Detroit for being the first team in the second round. I've now fulfilled my obligation to talk about that game.

Cavs go to 3-0

I noticed two important things in this game:

1. Big Z is finally playing decent basketball, which will really help Cleveland in the next round.

2. Larry Hughes still thinks he's awesome, which will absolutely not help the Cavs. I need to make a Stephen Jackson All-Star team of all the guys who think they are WAY better than they are. This is just about the worst possible thing for an NBA team, because they make a whole bunch of plays beyond their abilities, which prevents a more suited player from performing the same task. A.J. Abrams of Texas was the college ringleader of this team, possessing a false confidence in his own abilities that resulted in fewer plays run for Durant. Hughes and Jackson are the worst culprits in the NBA right now, although I'm sure I could think of a few more guys.

Nuggets Lose Home Court

Raise your hand if you didn't see this coming. Denver shanked too many free throws and got killed in the three-point game as San Antonio seized home court advantage back from the Nuggets. My gut tells me this will be over in 5, but perhaps the addition of Iverson (even a dinged-up version) will give this team an extra dose of courage that it didn't have in 2005. One thing is for sure, Steve Blake and Eduardo Najera are killing them. Karl needs to play Reggie Evans instead of Najera, because while Evans is a terrible defensive player, he can't do any worse than Najera, and at least he will help control the boards. And I think the Nuggets need to go with J.R. Smith in the backcourt. Again, he's a horrible defensive player, but trying to win with D isn't working for Denver. They need to score as many points as possible and Smith's athleticism, range, and willingness to attack are all pluses. Blake's ability to dribble around? Not so much.

On the Spurs side, game MVP honors go to Michael Finley with five big threes. Although I finally figured out why the Mavericks fans were booing him so lustily last year. At the time, I thought it was pretty messed up to blame him for being cut by Dallas, but tonight it dawned on me. It wasn't that he signed with another team ... it was that he signed with the Spurs. He was Johnny Damon before Johnny Damon. If you can pick any team in the league to play for, while your old team is paying you max dollars, how on earth do you go play for a hated rival? It all makes sense now. That is just weak.

(Also, nice of Marcus Camby to celebrate his DPOY award with a complete no-show. That was some of the worst screen and roll defense I've ever seen. Not to mention his series of horrific shots to start the game.)

Rockets Can't Shoot

If poor T-Mac is ever going to get this monkey off his back, he's going to need his merry band of brick layers to start making some shots. And he needs to make some shots as well. And Yao needs to stop being dominated by Memo Freaking Okur in the low post. And ... well, you get the idea. Houston is in rough shape.

Although in fairness to the Rockets, this game got away from them in a freaky first half that saw Utah score on some downright circus plays. People too often say that teams get "lucky," but in this case it was true. The Jazz were shooting airballs that landed right in offensive rebounders' laps, throwing bad passes that would get deflected and then carom right to waiting hands for layups, and so on. Some really, really rough breaks. Should be interesting to see if the Rockets can shake out of this terrible slump when the series goes back to Houston. Honestly, this is the worst I've seen them play all year. Great timing.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

NFL Draft: Round 2 Starts With Steals

If you ever needed proof why the NFL Draft is so much more than a one-round affair, or why teams will trade NFL vets for second round picks, you might have your proof with the start of today's second round.

With the #33 overall pick and first in the second round, the Cardinals took Michigan's Alan Branch. They had to give up a fourth round selection to move up for this pick, but it says here it will be worth it. At one time Branch was being mentioned as the possible #2 overall pick, before concerns over motivation and production dropped him down the board. Even with those issues, Branch is huge and versatile and can anchor either a 4-3 or a 3-4, giving the Cardinals a lot of options. With Levi Brown (probably will play right tackle to protect Leinart's blind side) and Branch, Arizona just got a lot more physical up front. Hey, maybe they are finally "getting it."

With the very next pick, the Bills (who also traded up), snatched up stud linebacker Paul Posluszny from Penn State. He's smart and aggressive and while Urlacher comparisons might seem a bit extreme, he appears capable of replacing London Fletcher in the Bills' four-man linebacking corps.

The second round begins with a bang.

NFL Draft: Win-Win Trades

You often hear the term win-win after a trade, but rarely does that turn out to be the case. I remember people calling the Celtics-Blazers draft day trade a win-win last summer, when Telfair was swapped for the pick that ultimately netted Brandon Roy for Portland. How did that work out?

However, during the first round of the NFL Draft today, I think we might have seen two actual win-win deals.


The first - and bigger deal - was between Cleveland and Dallas, as the Browns sent their 2008 #1 pick (and another '07 "first day" pick) to Dallas for the #22 selection. With that draft choice, the Browns took Brady Quinn, their QB of the future (and who knows, maybe the present), and a guy they were strongly considering at #3. Now they can pay him a lot less money, keep some pressure off (and limit the Tim Couch jokes), AND protect him with the best offensive lineman (best overall prospect, perhaps?) in the draft in Joe Thomas. Stellar work by the Browns. Plus, they have Jamal Lewis as a stop-gap at running back, which means they can gamble on a guy tomorrow or just wait until next year. As for Dallas, they will undoubtedly get a much better pick next year in the Browns' first rounder. Despite Cleveland's good moves today, it is highly unlikely they will win more than eight games in the loaded AFC, which means the 'Boys are looking at probably a #14 pick or higher (probably quite a bit higher), in what projects to be a better draft. They didn't need Quinn because they have Romo (unless they were looking at Brady as a holder) and there really wasn't anybody else at #22 with as much value as an upgraded pick. Very smart move.


I also really liked this deal for both teams. The Broncos are in need of a pass rushing phenom and by moving up four picks, they were able to get Jarvis Moss of Florida. Not only did this guy dominate Ohio State in the national title game, but my experiences with NCAA Football 2007 on X-Box lead me to believe that he is the best end on planet earth. The video game version of Moss is unblockable. (By the way, I'm thinking of grading all the first round picks this way. Any thoughts?) Expect Moss to flourish in a limited roll next year while being groomed as the next great speed rusher. I think he can match Adam Carriker and Jamal Anderson and even rival Gaines Adams in the long run. As for Jacksonville, this was some deft work. They got the guy they wanted - stud safety Reggie Nelson - AND a third and sixth round pick. Not bad. Nelson gets to stay in state and challenge for an immediate starting gig with playoff contender. Nelson was one of my favorite college players last year and the way he nearly single-handedly beat Florida State and then overcame his mother's death to lead the Gators in the title game was inspiring.

First Round grades of A's for all four teams. Good to see teams willing to make mutually beneficial deals as well.

Friday Night Wrap-Up

It was a wild night of NBA hoops as the unpredictability was back in a big way. The Heat didn't garner the inevitable Game Three win, the Warriors trounced the Mavs, and the Nets threw a pair of brilliant performances at the poor Toronto Raptors. Let's get to everything.

Beatdown in the Bay

It is hard to pick a lead story on this night, but I should probably go with the throttling that the Warriors put on the Mavs in (as E-40 would say) the Yay Area. Despite committing 31 fouls, going 6-for-23 from three, and giving up 17 offensive rebounds, Golden State crushed Dallas 109-91. The energy in the crowd was ridiculous, to the point that it was one of the primary storylines all game long. In fact, there was one play in the third quarter in which Monta Ellis blocked a shot, pushed the ball ahead, batted a loose ball to a prone Jason Richardson, and then received a no-look pass back from Richardson (who was still on the ground), and then was fouled attacking the hoop. It was as wild of a play as you can find in basketball and apparently it even brought ESPN's Mike Breen to his feet. I bring it up because on that play, the crowd very nearly blew out ESPN's audio feed. It got so loud that the signal actually distorted. Insane.

The Warriors won this game because they were faster, more athletic, and played harder. The thing that stood out to me - and this will come as no surprise to fantasy owners who watched their teams lose to Richardson and Baron late in the season - is that their undersized lineup produced 7 blocks and 46 rebounds to 3 and 44 for Dallas. Golden State's entire starting lineup, plus Pietrus and Harrington, all blocked a shot. Those super athletic swats changed the entire game as they led to fast breaks and, more importantly, made Dallas aware of a defensive presence near the rim. Throw in the Richardson looking Kobe-esque going for 30 and 8 on 12-for-19 shooting and G-State was on its way.

All of which means that we've got a huge game on tap for Sunday. As Bill Walton noted, whoever wins that game is probably going to win the series. To be honest, even after watching them run around looking like extras in 28 Weeks Later I still think it will be Dallas. Not for anything special they are doing (the 2006 Pistons comparisons appear very apt right now), but rather a few things that I believe are going to come back to haunt the Warriors:

1) Outlet passing. As in, they don't do it much. It is great to have a lineup full of guys that can bring the ball up the court, but both Stephen Jackson and Matt Barnes have a tendency to grab boards and then weave the ball into the frontcourt via the dribble, which is squandering fast break opportunities. Even though everyone can dribble doesn't mean they all should. Baron and Ellis both excel at flying down the floor and making good, aggressive decisions. If the Warriors don't start doing a better job of getting them the rock, they will lose out on crucial easy baskets.

2) Fouling. I still contend that the officials were a tad generous with the Mavs in Game Two, but am willing to admit that part of the issue is just that the Warriors foul a lot. That comes, of course, with playing this reckless, emotional style of ball on both ends of the court. In fact, their willingness to challenge every pass, dribble, and shot seems to have transformed them into a legit playoff team. So I can live with the amount of fouls. It is the timing that concerns me. Those of you who read this blog know that I am obsessed with tracking non-shooting fouls early in quarters. Because the NBA awards two free throws starting with just the fifth team foul in a quarter, it makes the bonus situation a huge factor. Golden State gave up a TON of easy points today by fouling early and often and putting the Mavs in the bonus. If Dallas had stroked free throws better and tacked on a few open shots, they had a few chances in both the second and third quarters to get back into the game, pretty much solely because Golden State had put them in the bonus after just three or four minutes. They need to find a way to stay aggressive without committing dumb fouls so early in the quarter, or they will pay.

3) Stephen Jackson. I hate to pick on him (for fear he will physically hurt me), but this guy is the ultimate wild card. At times his enormous ego (courage?) and legit scoring skills make him unguardable and capable of carrying the Warriors. Throw in his extensive playoff experience with San Antonio and he has a lot of the attributes of a real leader on this team. Except that he's a lunatic. Right before he got tossed in Game Two, I could read his lips after he drew a foul on a drive and he shouted at, well, everyone, "Who can guard me, b****?" This is not the mentality the Warriors need Jackson to have right now. They are thriving on ball movement, exploiting matchups, and attacking off the dribble, and pretty much every guy on the roster is perfectly in sync. Baron, J-Rich, and Ellis, in particular, are in total harmony. The only guy that seemed slightly off today was Jackson and I think that is because he sees himself as singularly unstoppable. He will stop ball movement to jack a tough three just because Diop is switched onto him, as if it is some kind of mismatch rule. He tries to get isolation so he can deploy his sketchy dribble right into the teeth of the defense, which often leads to a turnover and a fastbreak the other way. Not only that, but I think he has some of his teammates convinced that he can be The Guy. He's not The Guy. That would be Baron or Richardson. So if the going gets tough on Sunday night and Stephen Jackson gets going ... that spells trouble for the Warriors.

Anyway, what a tremendously entertaining first round series.

People Wanna Know What the Kidd Did

I don't know if you remember it, but Jason Kidd had the most amazingly hilarious rap song back in the mid 90s. It was part of a compilation called something like "B Ball's Finest" that paired rappers up with NBA players like Ced Ceballos, Gary Payton, Dana Barros, and a host of others. It was pretty fantastic. Anyway, I couldn't help but think of it today as J-Kidd put together an absolutely dominant performance. Let me put the line up on it's own, so it can glow on the page:


Are you kidding me? By scoring 16 points, grabbing 16 boards, and dishing out 19 assists, Kidd joined just Fat Lever (1985) and Wilt (1967) on the list of players that have posted that kind of line in a playoff game. Just sick. And let's not forget, Kidd was a "game-time decision" with his sore knee. I have to credit Henry Abbot of True Hoop for insisting that Kidd would not only play, but have a great game. I hope nobody bet Henry that "jillion dollars."

The amazing thing about Kidd's ridiculous game is that it was somehow overlooked while the action played out. How is that possible? Well, Vince Carter was busy going 11-for-13 in the first half and tormenting the Raps with 37 points, most of them on insane scoop shots and deep jumpers.

This was probably the best I've seen a duo play in the postseason since the Kobe-Shaq and Nash-Dirk days. That might be stretching things, but I don't think so. Kidd and Carter were just toying with Toronto today.

Bulls = Too Good

After all the talk (by me) of referees and free throw attempts, none of it mattered tonight in Miami. The officiating did go the way I expected it for most of the game as Miami had a healthy advantage in attempts before resorting to the Hack-A-Ben and "stop the clock" strategies late in the game (not to mention Posey just deciding to start hammering people in the backcourt with three minutes to go). The problem was that the Heat didn't make any of those freebies. Which just proves that while the refs may very well be influenced by either home crowds or "knowledge of that which is ideal," they can't actually win the games for teams. This was something accurately pointed out in comments here and on True Hoop today during the great conspiracy debates and is a very valid point. Even if you are getting favorable whistles or being allowed to get your hack on, you still have to make plays. Or, in this case, make free throws. Miami was an atrocious 16-for-35 from the line. 46 percent! And while Shaq (3-for-12) was certainly a culprit, it was Wade going 4-for-10 that really hurt Miami.

And of course, it hurt the Heat that Chicago is simply a much better team.

Whether my theory about "games of interest" was disproved, or merely thwarted by the Bulls, I could care less, because Chicago winning that game was the ultimate shocker. Even though I fully expected them to win the series, I never imagined they could get this to 3-0. And that is what made it great. It cut against the script.

The MVPs for the Bulls were the usual suspects. "Leo Dong" went for 24 and 11 and Gordon had 22 of his 27 in the second half. Nobody in a Miami uniform can guard those guys which tends to make things tough. Credit also goes to Ben Wallace for more good D, Hinrich for his best game of the series, and Nocioni for giving them big minutes off the bench (including a few big ones in relief of a foul-plagued Deng).

I personally don't think the big story here is Miami being on the ropes, because it seemed pretty likely that Chicago could beat them, but rather that the Pistons' supposed big "rest" advantage might not enter into things. The common thinking was that Detroit would roll (as they have) and then kick back and watch as the Bulls and Heat beat each other up for six or seven games. This would provide the Pistons with a big advantage over the winner of that series. But, if Chicago can deliver the knockout punch, that advantage will be completely negated. And if both teams are healthy and rested, I like the Bulls' chances.

Friday, April 27, 2007

NBA Age Limit, Reconsidered

Dan Shanoff had a great post about Monta Ellis winning the Most Improved Player award and how dramatically that cuts against arguments in favor of age limits in the NBA. Of course, this comes on the heels of the Celtics cutting Sebastian Telfair, who stands on the opposite end of the spectrum.

So which is it? Is the age limit protecting the Telfairs of the world from the league and the league from the Telfairs? Or is it preventing guys like Monta Ellis from getting to the big time as soon as possible, where they can learn the pro game, and develop rapidly as players?

I decided to take a quick look at every draft this decade and then try to assess each prep-to-pro taken, with an attempt to conclude whether it was good for the player and good for the league that they went out of high school. And yes, I realize this ignores the cautionary tales of those handful of guys that go undrafted, but I've only got so much time.

2000 Draft
#3 Darius Miles - Considering he's such a head case, I have to say BAD for him, BAD for the league.
#23 DeShawn Stevenson - For a #23 pick, he's developed into a decent player. And considering his involvement in a recent dare-I-say-legendary shooting contest with Gilbert Arenas, I'm going GOOD for him, and GOOD for the league.

2001 Draft
#1 Kwame Brown - He has his moments, but the way MJ beat him down leaves me no choice but to conclude that it was BAD for him to go pro. As for the league, considering Brown runs an $8 mil annual tab, I have to say BAD as well.
#2 Tyson Chandler - The Baby Bulls were long the poster boys for anti prep-to-pro sentiment, but considering what a beast Chandler was this year, I have to say GOOD and GOOD.
#4 Eddy Curry - This is a tough one, but I have to believe Curry would be better with exposure to the pressures of winning in the NCAA Tournament, so I'll go BAD for him, and since his teams always lose, I'll go BAD for the league as well.
#8 DeSagana Diop - It took a change of scenery, but he's very valuable to these Mavs. And he's about to get paid. So GOOD and GOOD (hey, the more guys that are willing to rebound and play defense with no concern for points, the better).
#47 Ousmane Cisse - Anyone remember this guy? Me neither. That would be a BAD/BAD.

2002 Draft
#9 Amare Stoudemire - Um, that would be a GOOD/GOOD.

2003 Draft
#1 LeBron James - GOOD/GOOD. Next.
#23 Travis Outlaw - A summer league legend, he blew up for 36 and 10 in the final game of the season. Plus, #1 Blazers fan Josh Stump tells me he could be a legit contender for 6th Man of the Year next season thanks to his improved jumper. So GOOD/GOOD.
#26 Ndudi Ebi - Nice job by the Wolves. They finally get to make a draft choice after losing three straight first round picks (the Joe Smith fiasco) and they take a high school guy who never gets off the bench. Is he still in the league? BAD/BAD. (Even worse for the Wolves is the fact they took him immediately before Kendrick Perkins, Leandro Barbosa, and Josh Howard. Whoops.)
#27 Kendrick Perkins - He is kind of like Diop in that he's developed slowly, but for a #27 pick the C's have to be happy, and so should he. GOOD/GOOD.
#48 James Lang - Who? Exactly. BAD/BAD.

2004 Draft
#1 Dwight Howard - Another no-brainer, because this guy is an absolute beast. When you make Team USA, it is usually GOOD/GOOD for all parties.
#4 Shaun Livingston - I am going GOOD for him, since at least he got some cash before his horrific injury, but BAD for the league because he hasn't seemed to develop his terrific skill set and is now on the long road to recovery.
#12 Robert Swift - No choice but to go BAD/BAD here, although we are hitting the drafts where the verdict might still be out on some of these young players.
#13 Sebastian Telfair - Let's see ... atrocious shooting, shaky off the court, and cut from his second pro team. I'd say that is a BAD/BAD.
#15 Al Jefferson - He was a candidate for most improved player and had Elton Brand-like numbers after the All-Star break. He's GOOD/GOOD.
#17 Josh Smith - Yes, he had the swearing incident at the end of the season, but this fantasy monster is the best shot blocking wing on Planet Earth and a Slam Dunk champion. Easy GOOD/GOOD.
#18 J.R. Smith - Has been traded nearly as much as my man Dan Dickau (including a brief "transaction only" stint with Chicago), but was scoring almost 20 a game for a while. He's established that he has value, so this is GOOD for him, but his 10-game suspension makes him BAD for the league.
#19 Dorell Wright - Has shown flashes, but can't seem to get regular minutes for Pat Riley. No choice but to go BAD/BAD for now. It seems like he could have grown as a player in the college ranks, improved his stock, and been better situated with a team that can use him.

2005 Draft
#6 Martell Webster - Isn't great and is always brought up us the "bad" comparison to four-year collegian Brandon Roy, but that has more to do with talent than D1 experience. I'll go GOOD for Webster and GOOD for the league, considering he's penciled in as the starting small forward on the rising Blazers.
#10 Andrew Bynum - I'm guessing that one-on-one tutorial from Kareem is better than what you'd get in college. This guy is making huge strides and playing important minutes in the playoffs. GOOD/GOOD. (By the way, Bynum is going to be a mosnter this year and single-handedly turn L.A. into a title contender. I kid you not.)
#18 Gerald Green - He won the Slam Dunk contest, but is a pretty terrible player in, you know, actual games. I have to go BAD/BAD, which kills me because I once called him the next T-Mac. Whoops.
#34 C.J. Miles - He's given the Jazz depth during the regular season and shown improvement, which is more than most second round picks can say. And he would have been lapped by Durant at Texas, leaving him in Brandon Rush territory for subsequent drafts. GOOD/GOOD.
#35 Ricky Sanchez - Is he in the NBDL? Even for a second round pick, this is BAD/BAD.
#40 Monta Ellis - Formerly the poster boy for not going pro, now the poster boy for no age limit. Most improved, indeed. GOOD/GOOD.
#45 Louis Williams - He's an incredibly exciting player with a bright future (keep an eye on this guy), so I'll go GOOD for him, even though he certainly would have been drafted higher had he gone to school. I will also go with GOOD for the league, since he helped the Sixers not tank with strong late-season play. Again, for a second round draft pick, he's availing himself quite well.
#49 Andray Blatche - Was starting for a while in Washington and is proving to be both a versatile player, so I have to go GOOD/GOOD, even though he plummeted in that draft.
#56 Amir Johnson - A month ago I would have gone with bad here, but he looked absolutely sick in some late-season run. For a 56th pick? He might one day be considered the steal of that draft. GOOD/GOOD.

That is the list of all the guys I could find. My apologies if I missed someone. By my best guesses, there aren't many guys that have done well for themselves but hurt the league, or vice verse. They are:

Shaun Livingston (good for him that he got paid, bad for the league his talents weren't more honed)


J.R. Smith (good for him because his stock might never have been higher and he's had his moments, bad for the league because of the brawl in NY)

Then there are nine guys that have been bad for everyone involved (and that is being extra tough on guys like Kwame), and 20 players that have benefited from going pro and that have helped the league in the process. Now, reasonable minds could disagree on a few of these players, but it looks like no matter how you slice it, the high school kids are doing quite well. Certainly better than any other group you could examine, from freshman to seniors to foreigners. And that ignores the possibility that some of the guys on the "bad" list could ultimately figure things out. It also excludes all of the outstanding pre-2000 prep-to-pros like Kobe, T-Mac, and KG.

Big picture, it doesn't look like the age limit is helping anyone.

Shady Whistles: Running Some Numbers

Because I've been beating on the "conspiracy" drum for the past two nights, I figured I should run some fairly basic numbers to see if I have a valid point. My eyes are telling me that the teams the NBA would like to see win are being allowed to mug the opposition, but I need to see if the free throw attempt stats back any of this up. For these purposes, I am taking four contests in which there seemed to be an obvious "desirable" winner to the league, which I will call "games of interest." They are: Game Two of Mavs-Warriors, Game Two of Spurs-Nuggets, Game Three of Suns-Lakers, and, as a control, Game Three of Bulls-Heat tomorrow night.

I will be listing each team's free throw attempt differentials from the regular season (I tried to incorporate home and away, but couldn't find a data source that offers a "FTA allowed" home/road split), then looking at how that played out in the game(s) preceding the "game of interest," and then comparing the results. My hypothesis is that in the first game of the Mavs-Warriors and Spurs-Nuggets series and the first and second games of Suns-Lakers and Bulls-Heat, when the NBA - and therefore the officials - weren't overly concerned with the outcome, the numbers should play out pretty close to what we might anticipate, with any large advantages going to the teams with the better differentials during the season. The second half of the hypothesis is that the "game of interest" will see something completely out of whack with the predictive model.

Okay, let's see what we've got.

Mavericks - #24 in the league in FT differential (-2.1)
Warriors - #30 (-3.7)

This is obviously pretty rudimentary, but based on those per game differentials, we can expect the Mavs to have the slight edge (+1.6) in free throw attempts in most games of this series.

Game One: things played out as expected with Dallas getting 25 attempts to 22 for the Warriors.
Actual Difference: Dallas +3
Projected-to-actual gap: +1.4

Game Two ("game of interest"): enormous gap here. Dallas got a whopping 43 free throws. For the purposes of this exercise, I will pull out the three technical shots which leaves 40 for the Mavs and just 27 for the Warriors.
Actual Difference: Dallas +13
Projected-to-actual gap: +11.4

Spurs - #6 (+2.8)
Nuggets - #1 (+6.2)

The Nuggets have by far the best differential in the league, which comes with having the #4 (Iverson) and #6 (Anthony) players in the league in free throw attempts per game. One could expect Denver to get approximately 3.4 more free throw attempts per game in the series.

Game One: They did much better than that in Game One, getting 25 freebies to the Spurs' 10. Part of this can be attributed to San Antonio jacking up too many threes, but mainly it reflects season-long trends, albeit exaggerated trends.
Actual Difference: Denver +15
Projected-to-actual gap: +11.8*
(Note that the Nuggets see a huge "gap" score here, but since we assume Game One was a game in which the league was unconcerned with the outcome, there is nothing to take away from that number, other than to note the extreme turnaround three nights later.)

Game Two ("game of interest"): Allen Iverson took 25 shots but did not attempt a free throw. The Spurs got 23 attempts from the stripe, while Denver took just 17, which is almost 13 below their season average.
Actual Difference: San Antonio +6
Projected-to-actual gap: +9.4

Suns - #15 (-0.9)
Lakers - #19 (-1.2)

We should expect very little free throw disparity in the series (0.3 advantage for Phoenix), with perhaps a slight edge going to the home team in each game.

Games One and Two: The Suns got more attempts in the first game and the Lakers in the second, with Phoenix netting 43 total and L.A. taking 35 free throws.
Actual Difference (over two games): Suns +8
Projected-to-actual gap: +7.4

Game Three ("game of interest"): The Suns managed just 12 attempts from the line, two of which came from illegal defense calls. The Lakers, meanwhile, nearly matched their total from the first two games combined with 28.
Actual Difference: Lakers +16
Projected-to-actual gap: +16.3

Bulls - #22 (-1.7)
Heat - #13 (-0.3)

Another fairly narrow margin, but the Heat should expect a couple of extra attempts per game, maybe even more since Wade wasn't in the lineup for the full season. The number we are working with is +1.4 for Miami.

Games One and Two: It was a draw in game one with both teams getting 27 attempts, but the Heat took eight more in the second contest.
Actual Difference (over two games): Miami +8
Projected-to-actual gap: +5.2

Game Three ("game of interest"): ?


It will be interesting to see what happens in the Bulls-Heat game tomorrow night. But if the other three games are an indicator, we should see a massive advantage for Miami. In the three "games of interest" in which the NBA would have a vested interest in seeing the home team win - either to tighten up a series, keep a favorite alive, or squeeze a few more contests out of a big star - the "gaps" have been +11.4, +9.4, and +16.3. Obviously, the desperation of the home team (leading to more aggressive play on offense), the excitement of the crowd, and other factors play a role. But those gaps are enormous. On average, the home team of interest got 12.4 more free throw attempts than 82 games worth of data would project.

That's a whole lot.

And if that keeps up, it means that Miami's expected 1.4 free throw attempt advantage will swell to almost 14 tomorrow night. I, for one, will be watching very carefully to see where the final number comes in. And honestly, I hope it is the Bulls that shoot more free throws and that my whole theory is shot to pieces, because in this case, I so very badly want to be wrong.

Thursday Night Wrap-Up

What started out as a thrilling first round of the NBA Playoffs is starting to get pretty boring. I can only hope that the NBA stops scripting the action long enough that we get a good weekend of games. For instance, it would be nice if there was SOME suspense tomorrow in Miami. Instead, based on the last few days, we have every reason to expect that the Bulls will shoot 10 free throws, Miami will foul with impunity, and the series will be 2-1. Anyway, here is the wrap-up:

Most. Boring. Series. Ever.

We've got the "yawn, when is the first round over?" Pistons taking on the "wait, how did we make the playoffs?" Magic. Let the good times roll! Detroit won another methodical game tonight and now lead the series 3-0. Even the NBA's desire to extend every series and squeeze ever last ad dollar out of network telecasts can't help Orlando. Next.

Lid on the Rims

Strong night from the Rockets as they set franchise playoff records for fewest points (67), fewest points in a half (25), and fewest field goals (27). Not only that, they set an NBA playoff record by only having four guys score. And it's not like Utah was much better, shooting 38%. The Jazz just got 21 more shots, thanks to fewer turnovers and offensive rebounds. It is worth noting that Okur had another strong defensive game, forcing Yao into 8 turnovers. Memo's offense? Not so much. As for Houston, they need to start making some shots. They have yet to crest the 40% mark in the series and it is amazing that they are even up 2-1.

Not on Our Watch!

Despite the Lakers' best efforts to get swept, it isn't going to happen, thanks to Kobe Bryant and the officials. Kobe had one of his strongest games of the season, going 13-for-13 from the line, 15-for-26 from the field, and posting 41-6-6. Other than his five turnovers, he was pretty much flawless. Good decision making, big shots, the whole thing. Of course, once again, it is hard to truly appreciate such an effort, because the officiating was so poor. After what happened in San Antonio last night and L.A. tonight, it appears that the new favorite NBA referee tactic is to simply refuse to call anything on the home team. I'm shocked that no one for Phoenix lost a limb tonight, because the Lakers were pretty much allowed to do anything they wanted on defense. Amare Stoudemire got fouled, by my count, nine times in the game ... and he shot two free throws. Two! The Suns as a team shot just 12 and two of those were on illegal defense calls. It was just weird to watch an NBA game that looked more like rugby. Credit both the Spurs and Lakers for realizing that they were getting a free pass and taking advantage by getting their hack on, but isn't anyone else perplexed and/or bothered by this? As Bill Walton would say, "Why even have a rulebook?"

We all know Phoenix is going to win the series, but the NBA is so desperate to squeeze a few extra games out of Kobe that you get a blatant trickle-down effect to the point where the action on the court doesn't even resemble basketball anymore. There was a play late in the game in which Amare went up for a shot, got hit in the back by one guy and slammed in the shooting arm by the other, his attempt went flying off the backboard, and there was no call. He could hardly even argue because he was so shocked. Another play saw Nash go down the lane, get the ball ripped out of his hands and knocked out of bounds (by virtue of a rake across the arms). The call? Off Nash, Lakers ball. You could see Nash argue something along the lines of, do you think I would heave the ball into the ninth row? I mean, it was a joke.

All of which means I will be calling my buddies in Vegas tomorrow and having them lay down my life savings on the Heat (which, granted, isn't much). Because with the league's vested interest in keeping Wade and Shaq on the tube for a few more games, I can PROMISE you that Miami will be handed this game on a silver platter. It might be hard, because the Bulls are clearly better, but even if it takes a free throw disparity of 57-to-5, these top notch officials will get the job done. Expect a vintage Wade 22-free throw attempt game tomorrow.

Yes, I'm bitter. Sports should be unscripted. I think this is why I like baseball's postseason so much better, because while the umps can impact the game, they can't dominate it.

(And for all of you Lakers/Spurs/Mavs fans who think I'm somehow railing on your team, you can leave your complaints at the door. This has nothing to do with who is winning or losing the games and everything to do with the fact that I KNOW who will win before the jump ball. It just isn't any fun.)

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Wednesday Night Wrap-Up: As Predicted ...

As expected, the upstart Nuggets and Warriors never had much of a chance tonight. Sure, the Warriors were looking good early and the Nuggets made things interesting late, but those W's were in the books before the opening tip. What bothered me about both games is that the predictably lopsided officiating undermined the performances by San Antonio and Dallas. I am sure those teams could have won without help from the refs, yet it is hard to know when the officials insert themselves into the action so blatantly. Just as I predicted in an earlier post, they went right after Nene and Baron Davis, slapping two on the former in the first eight minutes (on highly questionable calls) and two on the latter in the first three minutes. They also hit Davis with a bogus first technical and generally railroaded him all game. That is not to say that he should not have been thrown out, because he was clearly begging for it by the time he got his second T. It actually seemed like he was trying to foul just so that he could complain and therefore be tossed. Not a strong showing there. But just because Baron and Jackson acted like lunatics at the end of the game, it doesn't change the fact that the refs treated Davis like he had a giant target on his back.

Worse than the individual targeting of Davis and Nene was how one-sided "general contact" was officiated. The Spurs and Mavs were both able to beat the hell out of offensive players up and down the court with virtually no repercussions, while the Warriors and (to a lesser degree) Nuggets were getting whistled for seemingly every little bump. This was particularly evident in the first quarter of the Nuggets-Spurs game (I conservatively counted eight San Antonio fouls that went uncalled; anyone who doesn't believe me should go watch the tape) and in the third quarter of the Mavs-Warriors contest. And honestly, it isn't fun to watch basketball when that happens. Of course Greg Popovich felt his team played with more "physicality" tonight - there was virtually nothing they could do that constituted a foul! Of course Avery Johnson was pleased that his team had 14 steals; they were manhandling people (which, ironically, has been a Golden State staple the last month).

It is important to note that I'm not blaming the outcome of the games on the officials like everyone seems to do these days. Nobody - fans, coaches, and players alike - ever wants to take responsibility for a loss these days, finding it easy to blame the officials instead. What concerns me is how obvious this was going in. I mean, I predicted it down to the exact players in a previous post. How can that be good for the league? So make no mistake; I'm not joining the legion of Warriors fans claiming that they were robbed tonight. I am concerned about the validity of these games. Nobody should have to question 67 and 58-win teams winning a Game Two to get a home court split in the playoffs. Yet the officiating is so predictably bad in the NBA that it was foregone conclusion that the Nuggets and Warriors would get jobbed. Then, when you did get shaky officiating, there was the predictable outcry.

I mean, just look at some of the numbers. Denver has the #4 and #6 players in the league in free throw attempts per game and they shot just 17 free throws as an entire team tonight despite the fact that they spent the whole game attacking the rim. Allen Iverson averages 9.4 attempts from the line per game, took 25 shots tonight (at least a dozen of which were amidst heavy contact in the lane), and didn't shoot a single free throw. How is that even possible? In the second game, the Mavericks shot a whopping 43 freebies to just 27 by Golden State. This, despite the fact that they took virtually the same number of threes and basically played identical styles. If anything, G-State attacked the basket even more than Dallas. Even if you pull out the three technical free throws, that is still a 13-shot advantage. And I'm telling you, one team didn't warrant 13 more free throws than the other in this game.

All of this just undermines the whole event. You simply HAVE to call things both ways. That is rule #1 for officials at any level. And if you are going to hit a guy with two early fouls (which will completely change the game), you had better make sure they are actually fouls. I know that the Mavs and Spurs would probably have won anyway and I know that Warriors and Nuggets fans just sound like babies for lighting up message boards with complaints. But this is a real problem. You can't just cite Golden State's "lack of composure" as some sort of overarching excuse for the way the game was called.

For me, the bottom line is that regardless of who won, these games were tainted by the predictably bad officiating; something that has plagued the NBA for years. Just the fact that they are still letting Bennett Salvatore work playoff games shows how little credibility the NBA has when it comes to its officials. Throw in the Harry Potter-like invisibility cloak when it comes to fines and other forms of referee punishment and it is a joke. If David Stern thinks suspending Joey Crawford somehow constitutes cleaning house and winning back public trust, he's sadly mistaken.

I sincerely hope this doesn't continue, because I was really pumped for these playoffs and the action on the court has been great so far. But if things get predictable because you know exactly how the games will be called, it just takes all the excitement out of it.

We Was Robbed

The sporting world was robbed tonight by Bruce Bochey. And Jake Peavy was robbed of a win.

Peavy, San Diego's ridiculous young ace, was working on a two-hitter after seven innings. More importantly, my man had 16 K's with six outs to go. In case your math is fuzzy, that means he had a chance to either tie or break the major league record of 20 strikeouts in a nine-inning game.

Instead, we were treated to the trill of watching Scott Linebrink come in to setup Trevor Hoffman. And while I can appreciate San Diego's normally solid bullpen as much as the next guy, this isn't the night for playing it safe. As Gob of Arrested Development would say, "Come on!"

To make matters worse, the first guy Linebrink faced - pinch hitter Miguel Montero - jacked a home run to ruin the combined shutout. Then, Hoffman served up a two-run blast to Stephen Drew to lose the game. Goodbye, record. Goodbye, shutout. Goodbye, win. Thanks for playing, Jake.

I realize that Peavy had already tossed 117 pitches and that it was probably wise to stick to the pitch count this early in April, particularly considering that it was the same day in which it was announced that Mark Prior would miss the remainder of the season. That said, I can't help but feel like we just missed seeing a bit of history made tonight. And I'm sure Peavy can't help but feel like he missed out on a sure W.

Wrigleyville: No Place For a Jog

Poor Ned Yost. The Brewers manager wrecked yesterday while out for a leisurely stroll nearly Wrigley Field. Apparently, he tripped over some jagged concrete in an area where road work was being done. The result: a busted collarbone.

While some might be thinking that this a lame injury, let me tell you, the north side of Chicago is a tough track. You've got constant foot traffic, narrow sidewalks, parking meters, ongoing construction, and (depending on how late in the day it is) plenty of wasted Cubs fans getting ready for a nice little day game at Wrigley.

So while jogging might seem to be a pretty easy endeavor and one that should not result in an injury, you have to consider the context.

Next time, Yost should probably hit a treadmill or cruise down to the one of those nice jogging paths alongside Lake Michigan.

Watch the Whistles

Not to sound like a conspiracy theorist or anything, but I am very interested to watch the officiating in tonight's Denver-San Antonio and Golden State-Dallas contests. The former features a team that traditionally gets very favorable calls (many will note that I picked the Spurs purely for that reason) and the latter has Mark Cuban going bonkers in the stands.

Both the Spurs and the Mavs will come out fired up tonight and probably won't need any help from the refs to even these series, but I still expect them to get plenty of aid from the guys with the whistles.

In particular watch for these three things:

- A lof of non-shooting and off-the-ball fouls on Denver and G-State early in quarters. I've discussed this before, but it is worth mentioning again that this is a favorite of NBA officials. I doubt there is explicit pressure from up top to orchestrate the games, but at the very least, most NBA refs tend to respond to home favorites and, shall we say, lend a helping hand. The preferred method is to load up the visiting team with non-shooting fouls, thus putting the favorite in the bonus nice and early. Because the fouls being called are fairly innocuous, it all goes under the radar. Watch for this in the second quarter, especially.

- Baron Davis getting in foul trouble. Davis is a monster defensively when he's healthy and engaged, and he's both right now. However, his effectiveness can be curbed by the officiating. He loves to attack off the dribble and use his upper body strength in the lane, and as with all penatrating players, he runs the risk of picking up a few charging fouls (especially, as Jon Barry correctly points out, the NBA is turning into college basketball with all of these ridiculous charging calls). The even bigger risk is that the refs will start whistling Davis for reaching fouls. About a month ago the Warriors hosted the Suns on a nationally televised game and Davis was absolutely manhandling Steve Nash, just bodying him and reaching and very nearly tackling him. As my Dad would say, if he had done the same things to Nash in the parking lot, he'd be serving three-to-five years. But the refs let it go. And for the most part, they let it go on Sunday night. All it will take is a decision not to allow these types of plays to get Davis in foul trouble and completely change the tenor of the game. Not only will it potentially put him on the bench, it will make him less aggressive and restrict the Warriors' ability to get out in transition. I am relatively certain that we will see Davis go to the bench at some point tonight with a frustrated look on his face as Don Nelson complains about the officiating. Book it.

- Another thing you can book is Nene getting in foul trouble early. As I watched Nene dominate the paint on Sunday, I kept thinking that something would go terribly wrong. Because for this guy, it always does. Sure enough, he went down with a sprained ankle and had to go to the locker room. But he came back! So when the Chuckster raved about him after the game, called him a "beast," and said that he was going to be an ongoing problem for the Spurs, my mind searched for a new way for Nene to self-destruct. The answer is quite simple: foul trouble. He is looking so aggressive right now, working the glass so hard, and generally making things so problematic for Duncan, that I am 100% certain he will be neutralized with foul trouble. He's always a tad bit out of control anyway and since he's guarding Duncan, it won't be difficult at all for the refs to tag him with one debatable "hand checking" foul after another. Again, I am dead certain that Nene will be in foul trouble early in this game and greatly limited as an interior factor. Get ready for Eduardo Najera and a 1-1 series.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Tuesday Night Wrap-Up

I got a late start on the games tonight and by the time I saw them and enjoyed Inside the NBA, I was too tired to write extensive entries for each game. So here are just a few thoughts on each contest, going in reverse order:

Suns Dominate

If you love basketball, you can't do much better than the first half that Phoenix played tonight. Steve Nash had at least five passes that required extensive rewinding and slow motion viewing on my TiVo, Amare set the tone with several massive blocks early on, and Leandro Barbosa had another monster game. Barbosa really impressed me, because he was very much primed for a fall. He had the huge opener, he won the 6th Man award, and then he came out and missed his first three shots and picked up two fouls. But he shook off the rough start and just went crazy, scoring 17 in the first half. That was just an incredible half of basketball.

(By the way, someone needs to point out to Sam Mitchell that the way D'Antoni handled Barbosa's two fouls is probably a better idea than panicking and sitting a guy down for 15 minutes.)

Bulls Hold Serve

The Bulls made good use of that home court advantage on Tuesday night, answering everything the Heat could throw at them and ultimately running away with a 106-87 victory and a 2-0 series lead. Ben Gordon had another terrific game and Luol Deng (or "Leo Dong" as Barkley tends to call him) took things to the crazy next level scoring 14 of 16 at one point in the fourth. I know everyone keeps waiting for Miami to flip a switch and start winning, but it seems clear to me that Chicago is the better team. They are younger, faster, more cohesive, feature more shooters, and are certainly better defensively. The lack of lowpost scoring will cost them a game or two, but I can't imagine them losing this series. My only criticism of the Bulls is that Skiles needs to get Ty Thomas more playing time. At some point, either in this series or against Detroit, they are going to need him to win. Good things happen when he's in the game (like the "steal, wild dribble, dish to Nocioni for a three at the first quarter buzzer" sequence) and he's just so much more athletic and so much quicker than other frontcourt players. Personally, I think he should be getting all of Duhon's minutes.

Raptor's Squeak One Out

On Sam Mitchell's big night, the Raptors managed to salvage a split of the first two games behind strong play from Chris Bosh and a huge night from Anthony Parker. That said, it doesn't bode well for the Raps that it took another woeful shooting performance from Vince Carter and some mangled end-of-game execution by the Nets to get a home court split. For the life of me, I can't figure out why New Jersey didn't go two-for-one at the end of the game when they were down 84-83. With 40 seconds to go, you have plenty of time to go quick and get a good look, ensuring the last possession of the game. Instead, they looked aimless, Kidd dribbled around for 15 seconds, and they wound up getting a tough Richard Jefferson pull-up jumper that clanged off the rim. Not at all impressive. This time it was Lawrence Frank screwing things up, evening the "coaching mistakes" scorecard at 1-1 for the series.

Rockets-Jazz: H&H

My buddy Brandon Rosenthal has a great phrase that he uses to incapsulate all of the little things and intangibles that go into winning. It consists of two words: "Heart and Hustle." It's been the name of his fantasy team, the explanation for pickup game victories, and basically a mantra for everyday life.

Tonight it applied to the Houston Rockets.

In a game that saw T-Mac shoot crooked throughout (9-for-29) and Yao struggle mightly to score in the post (9-for-24), the Rockets got a huge H&H effort from virtually every guy on the roster, including their aforementioned stars. They needed every effort play, tipped pass, and second chance basket too, because Carlos Boozer was a one-man wrecking crew with 41-12-6 on 17-for-30 shooting.

Here were the H&Hers responsible for Houston's win:

1. Rafer Alston. I know it seems crazy to put Skip first, and maybe I'm losing my mind a little, but I am convinced that the Rockets won this game because of Alston's defense on Deron Williams. It was unbelievable to watch. He harrassed the dribble, busted around screens, snared long rebounds, and somehow limited a hot-shooting Williams to just 15 points. Without a second scorer to support Boozer, the Jazz just couldn't match Houston's attack down the stretch. Credit Skip for that. (While we're here, I would like to point out that while Okur will probably be blamed for this loss, that is unfair. He did a fantastic job defensively on Yao - including 4 blocks - and to expect him to also throw up 20 is unreasonable. No, the Jazz needed more from Williams, Harpring, or Giricek ... or something from the postseason's biggest disaster, Andrei Kirilenko. This one isn't on Okur. But he did suck on offense.)

2. Shane Battier. Battier is a marvel. He challenges every shot, dives for loose balls, gets the big rebounds, and plays with the right kind of emotion. What I mean is that he's not out there yelling like a madman or skipping around waving towels (see: Ronny Turiaf), but rather that he is putting it all on the line and is completely invested in the game as it unfolds. His emotion is authentic and contagious. Houston looked like a college team trying to reach the Final Four tonight, and that is in large part due to Battier's leadership and infectious attitude.

3. Tracy McGrady. T-Mac probably shouldn't be this far down any list right now, especially when he found a way to fight through a tough shooting night (not to mention about 47 Gordon Giricek fouls) to go 31-10-5 and make the big plays down the stretch. Throw in his sense of ownership in this series and the emotion that he displayed and he was definitely a critical factor. However, it was Alston and Battier that made the big push early in the fourth quarter, so they get the top spots.

4. Chuck Hayes. One stat tells the whole story: 7 offensive rebounds. Nothing says H&H like getting on the offensive glass. Of course, it doesn't hurt that he posted a 12-12 without missing shot, or that he racked up another double digit total in the floor burns category.

Yao played hard as well and had some big boards, and even Juwan Howard, Mutombo, and Luther Head made some key plays, but it was the four guys mentioned above that got this W for Houston. In a league driven by star power, execution, and matchups, it was kind of wild to watch a team win by sheer will and effort. You might even call it refreshing.

(By the way, the refs were atrocious in this game. Both ways. Just horrible.)

Monday, April 23, 2007

Playoff Scores: This is Getting Downright Weird

The Pistons beat the Magic 98-90 tonight. And wouldn't you know it, the Rockets defeated Utah by the exact same score. In case you forgot, this same thing happened in the first two games of the playoffs with a pair of 96-91 games.

Not only that, but the winning scores through 10 games are as follows:

96, 96, 100, 84, 97, 97, 95, 95, 98, 98.

Throw out Houston's 84 from Saturday and every winning score has been between 95 and 100. Considering the disparite styles of play among the winning teams (the winners rank 1, 2, 3, 9, 13, 17, 19, and 21 in the league in scoring) , this is starting to feel like an episode of The Twilight Zone.

The Wright Stuff

More cheesy headlines! I'm not going to say "ala ESPN" anymore though, because now that the Leader has acquired my favorite basketball blog, True Hoop, I am calling off the boycott and accepting an uneasy alliance.

However, speaking of ESPN, I have to take exception with the way my guys Tony and Wilbon portrayed Brandan Wright today on PTI. They weren't particularly rough on him or anything, but the insinuation is that he's a bit of a stiff, or at least a few years away from contributing. This seemed to reflect an overall sentiment in big media toward Wright that is less than glowing. He is typically viewed as "too thin" or "lacking passion" or "not ready," and he's certainly seen as a tremendous drop off from Oden and Durant.

While I won't argue the last point, I contend that Wright is going to be a tremendous NBA talent. In many other years, I think he would make for a very solid #1 overall pick and I promise you that one of the reasons the Hawks and Suns will be closely watching the ping-pong balls is that Wright would look awful good in either uniform. In fact, draftniks still seem to think of Wright quite highly. Draft Express, NBA Draft.Net, and Chad Ford of ESPN all have him slotted as the #3 prospect in the draft.

I had my own doubts about Wright earlier in the season when it seemed like he was getting by purely on potential, kind of like how Marvin Williams parlayed potential into being the #2 pick. However, my opinion changed after, you know, watching him play. He was clearly North Carolina's best player down the stretch. He dominated the ACC Tournament. And he answered questions about both size and fire by throwing down two-handed dunks, blocking shots, and crashing the glass.

The whole situation reminds me an awful lot of Chris Bosh in 2003. That year, Bosh was the skinny lefty frosh from the ACC who was a long way behind LeBron, Melo, and (gulp) Darko on every draft board. It was seen as a huge drop off. How did that work out? Bosh (and Dwyane Wade) are right there with Melo at the least and arguably with LeBron as well. 2003 was a great draft, not just at the top, but throughout the top 10 and even deeper. The 2007 Draft seems to be shaping up the same way, with Wright playing the exact same role in all this.

I'm sure that a team like the Bucks would love to get Oden or Durant. But isn't a guy who could be the Next Bosh a pretty solid consolation prize?

For Your Viewing Pleasure

In case you are counting down the minutes until we are treated to another riveting Pistons-Magic game, here are some videos to keep you busy:

- Baron Davis spends a day working at the McDonald's that he ownes in the Bay Area. This was the TNT clip that won me over as a Baron fan a few weeks ago. It runs a little long, but is worth checking out, if only for the way he laughs at all his own jokes.

- After AI's strong Denver playoff debut last night, I figured we should link to one of his great postseason performances, but I couldn't decide between his 2001 NBA Finals Game One or the ridiculous 55-point effort against Baron Davis and the Hornets in 2003. So I posted them both. In the Finals clip, make sure to watch for two things: the famous step over Tyron Lue (who had been fouling him every play for about 15 minutes; this comes late), and the Marv Albert line, " ... to Eric Snow, who delivers!" (this is pretty early), which is something no Cavs fan has ever heard. (By the way, the craziest thing about these Iverson clips is that he somehow looks exactly the same in 2007. He's a freak of nature.)

(I should note that the 2003 game against the Hornets was probably the best game Iverson has ever played. He went 21-32 from the field; an extraordinary accomplishment for someone that takes such difficult shots. He had eight assists, meaning that of Philly’s 98 points, Iverson was responsible for 71 of them. He grabbed six rebounds, picked up five steals, and drew an amazing total of 18 fouls. In the process he became the third player in NBA history - joining Wilt and Jordan - to have three playoff games with over 50 points. I mean just look at the line again: 55-8-6-5. Ridiculous.)

- Great stuff on Dwight Howard leading up to and during the 2007 Slam Dunk Contest. Check out the practice dunk where he kisses the rim. Sick. I also enjoy the Kenny Smith "that was CRAZY" and Chuck "Michael done lost his damn mind" comments. Highly enjoyable all the way around. Much more so than an actual Magic game. (And while we're here, take another look at Howard's game-winning throwdown over Tim Duncan earlier this year.)

- This one isn't so much for the T-Mac element (although 62 points is a ton, and the pull-up three at the 8:31 mark of the third quarter is insane), since it is marred by a lame rap song (rap isn't lame, just this particular song - didn't want a misplaced modifier causing any confusion), but rather to remind everyone why the Wizards won't be winning with defense anytime soon. And neither will the Raptors.

- Speaking of the Raptors, is there any doubt that this vision is keeping Rasho Nesterovich up at night? (My favorite part of the clip is how Carter nearly drills KG with a celebratory haymaker.) If you want more Vince, here is a pretty crazy compilation of his top 100 dunks. If you've never seen 100 dunks in 6:55, check it out. It's kind of like eating a whole gallon of ice cream. You just kind of get sick and numb after awhile. (At least, that is what I assume would happen if you ate a gallon of ice cream.) For my money, the best in the non-Weiss division are the one where he dunks it off his own head, the one in Mourning's grill, the windmill off the lob, or one of the dozen where he puts his balls in Duncan's face.

- Take six minutes and treat yourself to the classic Carmelo Anthony episode of Cribs. Or just let it load then skip ahead to about the 2/3 mark to check out the "Blood Brothers" painting.

- One reminder why Bulls' fans don't like James Posey. Here is the other. I love this Bulls-Heat rivalry.

- This is the player in whom I've placed my belief that the Rockets will win the title. It doesn't really inspire a lot of confidence, especially when Skip gets swatted in his own highlight video. That said, the R Kelly song is HILARIOUS.

And on that note, they tell me that the Pistons and Magic have been underway for about an hour. If a tree falls in the forest ...

This Guy is Worth a Blog Entry

It's not everyday you get to do two things: 1) craft a really cheesy, puntastic headline, ala ESPN, and 2) talk up an overlooked college athlete.

But thanks to some recent buzz, I get to throw up a post about Danny Worth, Pepperdine's fantastic junior shortstop.

Worth is leading my alma mater, the Mighty Waves, (I added the Mighty, but I'm pushing head coach Steve Rodriguez to consider making it official) to the #11 ranking in the country and catching the eye of major league scouts in the process. Keith Law of Scouts, Inc. currently has him at #77 on his list of pro prospects, and considering his cannon arm and consistent bat, I expect Worth to climb that list as the spring turns to summer. He recently moved into fourth place on Pepperdine's all-time doubles list, and is hitting .373 with 34 RBI, a .997 OPS, and a 24:15 BB/K ratio through 43 games (the Waves are 30-13). Worth is either first or second on the team in batting average, hits, runs, doubles, RBI, total bases, slugging percentage, walks, on base percentage, and stolen bases. Not bad. And even his fairly low home run total (2) is misleading, given that the Waves play in a spacious yard in Malibu. Breathtaking, yes, but it turns a lot of home runs into doubles. Despite being marooned in Chicago during most of the college baseball season, I've seen Worth play enough to know that he has the chops to be a big league shortstop. Right now I would say the best comparisons would probably be to the Pirates' Jack Wilson or to Bobby Crosby of the A's (hopefully minus the injuries), but time will tell.

You may be wondering why this is relevant, especially on a blog currently obsessed with the NBA Playoffs. Well, I don't owe you an answer to that.

Just kidding. The answer is that in light of the recent success of former Waves like Randy Wolf, Danny Haren, and Noah Lowry, this blog will now be spending more time detailing the successes of the Pepperdine baseball team. College baseball doesn't get nearly enough attention, so consider this one small step to rectifying that. And this way, when some of these guys eventually turn pro and crack the big leagues, you will feel like you know them. Which is always fun.

Chiefs to Trade LJ?

I know I am late to this party, but I blame that on the NBA Playoffs. Who can be bothered with every little NFL rumor that goes floating around the Internet? Except the possibility that the Chiefs might trade Larry Johnson is a pretty big rumor. Johnson has rushed for 3,416 yards and in 28 career starts (122.0 yards per game). Oh yeah, and he's scored 42 touchdowns in those contests. That is ridiculous.

So why would the Chiefs trade him?

Well, one reason is the nature of running backs. Last year we saw the Colts let Edge go and then win the Super Bowl. My buddy Gabe Higa once compared running backs to a set of tires. Never pay too much, feel free to burn them out, and then be sure to swap them out for a new set the first time you see a good bargain. That is kind of how the NFL looks at backs. Younger is better, cheaper is better, and so on. With a handful of intriguing backs in this draft, it makes some sense that the Chiefs might go that route.

Another possibility is that Johnson has worn out his welcome in some way. We know he had a hard time sitting on the bench under Vermeil (the famous "diapers" comment), but he also seemed to grow frustrated last year when asked to carry such a heavy load. He sounds a little like Goldilocks. Everything has to be just right. If the Chiefs aren't in the mood to put up with that, it makes sense to move him while he still has value. (Plus, he didn't exactly light up the Colts last year in the playoffs.)

However, that brings us to the last point. What could KC conceivably get for him? Clinton Portis brought the Broncos Champ Bailey, so that seems to be the best case scenario. Meanwhile, all Thomas Jones got the Bears was a better second round pick. I'm sure Johnson would bring something closer to Bailey, but you never know when it comes to dealing running backs.

And, of course, it could be that the Chiefs are merely bringing all these backs in to add depth, as the Star speculates.

All I know is that the more LJ is in the papers, the better it is for me, because it opens the floodgates to all kinds of Larry Johnson "Serial Father" jokes, thanks to the fact that he shares a name with the former New York Knick.

Day Two All-Stars

A wild Sunday of playoff action topped off a great opening weekend. The regular season may have sucked, but I am 100% back on board after just one game in each series. Good times.

And here is the Day Two All-Star team:

PG - Baron Davis. Duh. 33-14-8 will do the job. And that doesn't even tell the full story. He controlled the game on both ends of the floor, dominated every defender Dallas threw at him, and even spent some time guarding Dirk on the other end. Just sick.

SG - Allen Iverson. Kobe had this locked down until he and his team fizzled down the stretch. Plus, AI was pretty impressive in his first playoff game wearing powder blue. He shook off an 0-6 start to make 11-of-16 the rest of the way and finish with 31. Throw in his five assists, fantastic defense, and 8-for-8 free throw shooting and this was a vintage Iverson performance.

SF - Carmelo Anthony. I almost went LeBron here (who was underrated today) and even thought about Crazy Stephen Jackson, but decided to go with Melo because his early scoring gave Denver confidence and his late free throws sealed the deal. Plus, 30 and 8 is always nice.

PF - Shawn Marion. For the second day in a row, power forward is the weak link, which is surprising. I can't give it to a player from a losing team so that rules out shot happy Antawn Jamison and bloodied Lamar Odom. And while Nene was "a beast" (as Charles Barkley mentioned a half dozen times tonight), Marion gets the nod for his 16 and 16. Plus, I read in ESPN the Mag that Marion feels underappreciated, so I thought I'd show him some love.

C - Amare Stoudemire. 23 and 12 with 2 blocks and 2 steals works for me. Plus, Amare answered the call early in the second half, when Phoenix went through him to cut into the Lakers' lead.

6th Man - Leandro Barbosa. It seems appropriate to add another position for today's action, as Barbosa was pretty much the reason Phoenix won. The Brazillian Blur rattled off his own personal 15-6 run to tun the game around.

MVP - Baron Davis. Hands down.

LVP - Jerry Stackhouse. Dirk and Duncan had rough shooting nights, but still filled up the box score. Manu was 4-for-15 and got torched on the other end and Kwame was terrible, but nobody was as bad as Stackhouse, who went 0-for-6, committed 5 turnovers, and looked like he was doing a matador impersonation while trying to guard The Baron. He's today's LVP.

More Scoring Oddities

Yesterday we saw the first two games end 96-91, and today we had more scoreboard craziness. The four losing teams scored 82, 85, 87, and 89 ... but that was incredibly varied compared to the winning scores. Two teams - Phoenix and Denver - posted 95, while the other two - Cleveland and Golden State - scored 97. Isn't that a little strange? Throw in this twin 96s yesterday and 6 of the 8 winners have scored between 95 and 97 points. In a sport where winning scores can range from the 70s to north of 130, that seems almost impossible. I fully expect Doug Collins to have some sort of new rule in place to deal with this trend.

Did Dirk Get Benched?

No one has bothered to discuss the fact that Dirk sat for five minutes early in the third quarter. What happened there? It seems hard to believe that Avery was resting him, just two minutes after halftime. He must have been trying to send a message. Interesting.

By the way, even though Dirk didn't play well tonight, I feel that he redeemed himself by saying that the Warriors were out there "free balling."

[Edit: Apparently Dirk said that the Warriors were able to "free ball" out there, which is the same idea, but not a gerund. My bad. I have a real thing for gerunds.]

Dallas Hates UCLA

The popular upset pick, Golden State, did that rare thing where they actually went out and pulled an upset. The series is far from over, but the Warriors struck first in their series with Dallas tonight, scrapping and clawing their way to a 97-85 victory.

G-State had a lot of heroes tonight, including Crazy Stephen Jackson, but the W came largely thanks to a couple of former Bruins, Baron Davis and Matt Barnes.

Davis deserves the long paragraph, so we'll start with the low profile guy of the two. Barnes, sporting a hideous mohawk, was the classic glue guy in this game. In 24 minutes off the bench, he went 10-4-3 with two steals, a bunch of hustle plays, and an enormous (and ill-advised) three from the corner. When thinking about this game and all of the dangerous matchups that Dallas would face, I honestly never even considered Barnes. Not for a minute. I have a feeling Dallas didn't either, which is something they will want to rectify.

Now, as for The Baron. Wow. Which player in this game was the MVP candidate again? After watching every minute of all eight playoff games, I can tell you that this healthy, streamlined, explosive version of Baron Davis might just be the most dangerous player in the postseason. He is ridiculous right now. 33-14-8 with 3 steals, 4 threes, and a block. Are you kidding me? Baron's 19-point third quarter was a masterpiece. He is so strong that neither Devin Harris or Jason Terry can guard him. And he's so quick that Stackhouse and George don't have a prayer. Throw in his ability to simply flick his wrists and bomb 27-footers and when he's on, he's unguardable. I still can't believe how good he was in that second half.

(By the way, Barkley made a great point on Inside the NBA when he said that Dallas played right into G-State's hands by going small. I know the Mavs were trying to avoid mismatches like Jason Richardson running isos against Dirk, but they failed to realize that those same matchups would work in their favor on the offensive end. They need to play their game instead of reacting to the gameplan of an eight seed. It sends the wrong message and it is just bad strategy. Score one to the teacher tonight. We'll see what the pupil responds with.)