Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Game of the Year (So Far)

New Orleans' 132-130 double overtime victory at Phoenix tonight was an absolutely incredible game. Probably the best of the year. In fact, it was such a wild, rollercoaster ride that it is nearly impossible to come up with a cohesive angle when writing about it. One minute I was ready for a "Chris Paul: Don't Write His MVP Eulogy Just Yet" title and the next I had "Phoenix Suns: Not Missing Marion" queued up. The game went back and forth and then back again more times than I could count. Considering that the Hornets and Suns engaged in this battle on a day when the Shaq-Marion tradewinds were swirling, the day after LeBron helped the Cavs edge the Celtics in a thrilling affair, and just a few days after the big Gasol trade, you could argue that this has been the most exciting first week of February in recent NBA history.

Since I can't come up with one specific angle on the 2OT contest, here are a bunch of random thoughts:

Boris Diaw almost pulled it off. Despite Shawn Marion's reported grumpiness issues, I was among the many who thought trading him was still a bad idea. Tonight, Boris Diaw almost wiped that all away. For 45 minutes he was running the floor, abusing guards in the post (on the screen-and-roll switches that the Lakers remember all too well from the 2006 Playoffs), finishing in the lane, and even rattling off jumpers. Then, in crunch time, he reverted back to old, passive Diaw that overpasses and commits turnovers in key spots. For the Suns to remain near the top of the Western Conference without the Matrix, they are going to need the aggressive Diaw at all times. Tonight he was "this" close to coming through on that front. Speaking of filling Marion's shoes ...

Grant Hill just became Phoenix's most important defender. Raja Bell is still the Suns' best defensive player and many basketball people are under the delusion that Shaq is a "rim protecter" (even though he can barely jump over a phone book), but Grant Hill holds the key to Phoenix's defense from here on out due to his versatility and smarts. If he can give the Suns a fraction of Marion's interchangeable defensive abilities, they just might be okay.

Chris Paul is incredible ... and possibly an a-hole. On a night when the Hornets didn't have their "bona fide ... well, should have been All-Star in my mind" (hilarious quote from Suns' broadcaster Eddie Johnson) center Tyson Chandler and when David West struggled mightily from the field, New Orleans became virtually a two-man team. One of those men was Peja Stojakovic, who has decided to join Hedo Turkaglu in a plot to inflict emotional damage on all Sacramento Kings fans by making ridiculous game-winning shots. However, while Peja's buzzer beater will be all over SportsCenter, it was Paul that got them the win. He scored 42 points and did it almost entirely on deep threes, pull-up jumpers, and floaters from 10 feet, rarely getting all the way to the rim for easy baskets. He also dished out nine assists despite the Suns playing for the pass and garnered a ridiculous eight steals. Many of those steals came while guarding Steve Nash and a few them were steals of Nash passes while Paul was guarding the two-time MVP. Do you know how rare it is to steal a pass when the man you are guarding is the one throwing it? Paul did it like four times tonight and forced Nash into a 10-turnover game in the process.

However, for all of that basketball dominance, I am starting to suspect that Paul isn't the most well-liked guy around. His demeanor on the court ranges from arrogant to petulant (although it settles on "poker face" the majority of the time) and he has the infamous nut-punching incident on his resume. What tipped me off though is when Barbosa hit him hard tonight on a breakaway and then just left Paul laying on the ground. Barbosa appears to be one of the nicest players in the league, yet he ran away from the prone Paul like his counterpart had the virus from Outbreak. It's just a hunch, but it won't surprise me if we come to find out that Paul is a bit of a jerk. But whatever. For now, man can that guy handle the ball.

Steve Nash is one proud man. Despite getting pretty severely thrashed by Paul for three and a half quarters, Nash showed why he has multiple MVP trophies to his credit. He made numerous huge plays down the stretch and sent the game into the first overtime when he drained a three with just seconds left. Nobody in basketball hits the full-speed pull-up three in transition like Nash and few NBA players bring it like he does night in and night out. Watching him rally against the young upstart was downright inspirational.

Amare rising. Nobody seems to want to give Amare Stoudemire any credit these days but he certainly showed something tonight. He went 20-20 and did his usual thing on the pick-and-roll, but it was his defense that really caught my eye. Maybe he's fired up by the thought of playing with Shaq (he's in for a rude awakening when he realizes that it is the 36-year old version coming to town), but whatever it was, Amare was transformed tonight. He blocked four shots, changed several others, and had a thrilling sequence in the fourth quarter where he thwarted David West on three consecutive trips. A really strong showing by The Mohawk tonight.

Paxson is looking great. Remember a year ago when I was kicking Bulls GM John Paxson around for treating Luol Deng like he was Scottie Pippen, blowing the Chandler/Ben Wallace decision, and refusing to acquire Pau Gasol? I was a lone wolf then, fighting off rabid Paxson supporters on all sides. Now? You can't throw a rock without hitting a Paxson critic. The guy has made an absolute mess of things in the Windy City by playing all the wrong cards, wasting expiring contracts, and getting caught between winning now and building for the future. On top of all the stuff we remember him screwing up, he also managed to let Jannero Pargo get away. Pargo is lighting it up off the bench for the Hornets, proving to be an unstoppable microwave scorer and almost single-handedly carrying a thin second unit in New Orleans. Meanwhile the Bulls are routinately scoring in the 80s and can't make any deals because Gordon and Nocioni represent the only scoring punch they have. Great work!

Maybe Golden State is on to something. Going back to a previous point, isn't it amazing to see Turkaglu and Stojakovic playing like this? Hedo has always underperformed as an NBA player while Peja is known for being a bit of a choker as well as a china doll. Now both guys are playing great and are cogs on top three teams in their respective conferences. Kings fans have to be just bitter. Plus, Bobby Jackson is still alive and making shots - who knew? It all makes me think that Webber is going to be great in Oakland. And Bibby will regain his old form in his next city (maybe Cleveland). Heck, maybe someone should bring Vlade out of retirement. Doug Christie, anyone? (Note: I don't think this will apply to Artest if he gets moved because he's not part of the "Near Miss Kings" from the early part of this decade.

No comments: