Ginobili, who made zero field goals and just three free throws (albeit clutch ones) in Game Three, used his entire arsenal--3-pointers, drives to the basket, and dead-eye free throw shooting. His teammates helped with strong defense and rebounding (three offensive rebounds in one series that resulted in a Spurs basket and took more than a minute off the clock.) MVP Tony "Monsieur" Parker had led the Spurs to this juncture and finished with 24 points to go with his Finals MVP trophy and TV star fiance.
The Cavs responded with a plethora of missed shots and a couple of unforced and ill-timed turnovers (both involving now-Prince James (whose girlfriend gave birth to their "prince", Bryce Maximus at 1 a.m. the morning before Game Four) ), after strong defense and rebounding had gotten them the ball. Desperate for offense, Cavs coach Mike James gave significant minutes to vets Damon Jones and Donyell Marshall, despite creating terrible defensive mismatches in the process, most notably Jones trying without success to check Ginobili.
A sequence near the end told me a lot about who really wanted the game. With about 45 seconds left and the Spurs leading by 5, the Cavs settled back into their half-court defense rather than fouling or going for a steal, almost like they'd conceded the game. Eventually they fouled, but about 20 precious seconds ran off the clock. A few seconds later, Ginobili dove out of bounds trying to save a loose ball that he clearly had no chance to retrieve, and with the game fairly comfortably in hand. Not only were the Spurs better, they were more willing to leave it on the floor to get the win and the series. And win they did, using LeBroom to sweep the floor clean of the Cavaliers.
Since my plea to the Cavs was to win one quarter (namely the fourth quarter of Game Four), I decided to analyze the series by quarter to see if the Spurs domination was as complete on a micro-level.
Of sixteen quarters played, I counted nine as clear wins for the Spurs, including three "blowouts" (Third quarter of Game One; first and second quarters of Game Two). I gave the Spurs credit for clear wins in the third quarters of both Games Two thru Four (despite the margin for the quarter being three points or less) as they extended halftime leads and shortened the game in each case. The first quarter of the series, and the second quarters of both Games Three and Four saw the Spurs win by between four and six points, solid margins if not blowouts. Score so far: Spurs 9; Cavs 0.
I scored the second quarter of Game Two as a draw (the score was 20-20 after all), but still a moral win for the Spurs as they held their first quarter lead and shortened the game. The Cavs"won" the first quarter of both their home games, by two and one respectively. I hesitate to call even these quarters wins for the Cavs, as the close margin and low score were actually moral victories for the Spurs (although Popovich yelled had at his players after the first quarter of Game Four). So that's three draws, leaning toward the Spurs in this group. Score so far Spurs 9; Cavs 0; Even (leaning to Spurs) 3
Even though the Cavs outscored the Spurs by two in the fourth quarter of Game Three, I count the quarter for the Spurs since they won a close game. Score so far: Spurs 10; Cavs 0; Even (leaning to Spurs) 3
In only three quarters did the Cavs substantially outscore the Spurs--the fourth quarters of Games One, Two and Four. Unfortunately, they entered these quarters down 15, 28 and 8 respectively. We'll give the Cavs grudging credit for Games One and Two, but the Spurs get the point for Game Four by winning the critical last six minutes after the Cavs evened the score and actually took the lead. Final score by quarters: Spurs 11; Cavs 2 (grudgingly); Even 3 (all leaning to Spurs)--as thorough a domination as you can imagine--perhaps more so than any set of four games in the Spurs or the Cavs season (the Cavs didn't lose four straight all year).
Many times you hear that you don't have to start watching an NBA game until the fourth quarter. In the case of the just-completed 2007 Finals, you'd have missed much of the show.
OK, here's Eva!
June 12: Even buoyed by another Zephyrs win (6-2 over Round Rock), staunch defense couldn't overcome absymal shooting as the Cavaliers lost Game Three of the NBA Finals to the Spurs, 75-72. The 147-point total tied for the second lowest scoring NBA Finals game ever.
With 5.5 seconds left, the Cavs set up to take the final shot--a 3-pointer that LeBron James missed and then protested that he'd been fouled while shooting by Spurs ace defender Bruce Bowen. The replay showed that Bowen grabbed James before he started his shot, but no foul was called. The ABC announcers thought that the "foul" may even have been in the act of shooting, which would have resulted in three free throws. But all of that is speculation. The reality is that the Spurs lead the series 3-0. Tim Duncan expressed a thoughtful and healthy viewpoint, that he wanted to win one more game, whenever it happened, understanding that the Cavs still might rise up and win a game or two.
The Cavs doomed themselves by missing too many open shots--the Spurs don't give up that many, but the Cavs made too few of their opportunities, shooting 37% overall, and a mere 3-19 from 3-point range. Daniel Gibson had a tough night in his first playoff game as a starter, scoring only 2 points on 1-10 shooting (0-5 from beyond the arc). The Spurs, on the other hand, made 10 of their 19 three-point attempts, led by Bruce Bowen's 4 for 5. (They were a Cav-like 18-49 (37%) from 2-point range.)
Rebounds bounced all over Quicken Loans Arena (doesn't that make you want to run out and refinance?), and 7' 3" Zydrunas Ilgauskas (even I had to look up that spelling), the "Lengthy Lithuanian" (a teammate's nickname), pulled down 18, including 10 offensive rebounds. The Cavs must have missed most of the putback shots as well.
We'll see on Thursday whether LeBronomania persists in Cleveland, or if even the loyal Cavs fans understand that their darlings are not long for the NBA Finals.
Spurs guard Tony Parker splits the Cavs defense for a layup. As I remember, he missed this one, got the rebound and put it back in.
Meanwhile, the New Orleans Zephyrs racked up their third straight rout of the Iowa Cubs, 9-3 at Iowa. Correspondence between their success and that of the Cavs is weakening.
The final score indicated a somewhat competitive game, which was nowhere near the case most of the way as the Spurs led 28-17 after one; 58-33 at halftime and by 27 points as the fourth quarter started. I turned over control of the living room TV to my daughter at halftime and declined to disturb my wife by watching the second half on the bedroom TV---just as well.
The Spurs' "Big Three" of Duncan, Parker and Ginobili once again led the way with 78 of the team's 102 points. Tony Parker was especially unstoppable with 30 points on 13-20 shooting, including a successful 3-pointer. Cavs coach Mike James said "If Parker beats us with jump shots, so be it." Parker seemed to take the statement as a challenge as he sunk a variety of jumpers and still broke through for his patented layups and teardrop shots. Tim Duncan added 23 points and 8 assists. Manu Ginobili scored 25 points that featured 4-6 from 3-point territory and 11-11 from the free throw line.
"King James's" statistical line improved from Game One--25 points, 7 rebounds and 6 assists; but he sat out most of the first quarter with two fouls as the Spurs built the big lead they never surrendered, along with committing six turnovers and missing five layups while he was out there. Larry Hughes, despite looking "not so injured" was a dead loss with 0-5 shooting in 20 minutes of play. Hard to believe that James can stick with him much if any longer.
At this point, it seems clear that the Cavs can't really compete with the Spurs, either in talent or teamwork. At best, they'll summon up a great effort in Cleveland while the Spurs get bored (or Tim Duncan gets in foul trouble a la Spurs-Jazz Game Three, or both) to win one for the home fans. A more probable outcome is that the Spurs' broom will sweep clean in Cleveland on Thursday night.
LeBron James was probably sick of this view by the end of Game One, in which Bruce Bowen and his Spur teammates held King James to 14 points on 4-16 shooting.
Eddie Gabriel (1910-2005) was a 60-year employee of Pat O'Brien's in New Orleans. His special act was to balance an aluminum tray on thimble-covered fingers, rattling whatever change he could coax from the audience in time to the songs played in the piano bar. Tragically, Mr. Gabriel died in 2005 at the age of 95 in his Lower Ninth Ward home in the flooding following Hurricane Katrina.
After the Zephyrs' win, the Cavaliers held a narrow 1-point lead at halftime, at which time several talented pianists from Louisiana, Mississippi and Ohio entertained revellers at Pat O'Brien's Piano Bar in the New Orleans French Quarter with such songs as "Werewolves of London", "With a Little Help from My Friends", "Jambalaya" and the dreaded "Rocky Top".
Cavaliers rookie guard Daniel Gibson led the team's fourth quarter surge to victory with 19 of his 31 points.
On the way back from Pat O's piano bar to the hotel I stepped into a Toulouse St. bar long enough to learn that the Cavs had routed the Pistons in the second half to take the game 98-82 and the series four games to two.
Having seen only about 15 seconds of play, if that, as I celebrated a birthday by enjoying the New Orleans entertainment scene, I'll have to rely on the accounts of others to describe the action.
Before Game Six, Pistons guard Chauncey Billups declared their primary goal to deny LeBron James a repeat performance of his 48 point explosion in Game Five ("He might get 40, but he won't get them like he did last night," (i.e. so many layups and dunks)) Interesting that Billups didn't mention the prospect that James could be held in check scoringwise, but the Cavs could still win the game.
Which is exactly what happened as James, held to 3-11 shooting from the field (after 18-33 in Game Five) found his teammates for 8 assists (and many other passes that led to Cav free throws), pulled down 14 rebounds, sank 14 free throws, and led his TEAM to a decisive victory in the decisive game. It helped that rookie guard Daniel "Boobie" Gibson was on the mark with 5 of 5 three-point shots on the way to 31 total points. James' adjustment was particularly remarkable given how absolutely he took over the end of Game Five and carried his team to victory offensively.
Spurs vs. Cavaliers is a much better story that Spurs vs. same-old Pistons (with the "addition" of Chris Webber), to say nothing of the fact that we'll be seeing the best teams in each conference. A couple inches difference on shots in Games 1 and 2 could have resulted in the Cavs sweeping the Pistons. We'll see if the rapid development of the Cavaliers can overcome the deep and mighty Spurs.
"King" James takes it to the rim for a game-winning layup as three Pistons trail the play.
Relieved of their offensive responsibilities, the remaining Cavs did make some fine defensive plays to aid the cause. Anderson Varajeo got a finger on Chauncey Billups' game-tying attempt at the end, deflecting it the centimeter or so needed to keep it out of the basket. Little-used veteran guard Eric Snow made two key steals.
In defeat, the Pistons may have played their best game of the series. Billups and Rip Hamilton combined for 47 points, 9 assists and 9 rebounds, almost the identical line as James (48, 9 and 7 as his assist opportunities really tailed off near the end). Chris Webber contributed a surprising 20 points after backup Antonio McDyess was ejected from the game for a flagrant foul in the first quarter. Rasheed Wallace scored 17 and made all but one of 10 free throws.
Now the Pistons are in the same difficult spot as in 2006's conference semifinal series vs. the Cavs--down 2-3 going to Cleveland. They pulled it out then, making good on Rasheed Wallace's "guaransheed" victory pledge (only to lose to the Heat in the next round). 2007 may be a bigger challenge with a shakier guarantee (though Wallace has explicitly refused to make any such statements this year), as the veteran Pistons are a year older and without defensive stalwart Ben Wallace (who would have taken James to the deck, at least, on that final shot), and the young Cavs are a year wiser and hungry for revenge. I look for the Cavs to win the series, probably right away in Game Six. The Cavs' challenge against San Antonio will be their biggest yet. A series win and NBA championship there would top last year's upset of Dallas by Miami and elevate James to the foot of a plateau reserved for the player worshipped above all others, Mr. Basketball (and six-time Finals MVP) and Mr. Marketing ("it's the shoes!") himself, Michael Jordan.
Chances are that Tim Duncan scored on this post-up move against Carlos Boozer.
The Spurs will have a weeklong rest before the finals begin on June 7. My guess is that their opponent will have considerably less rest, as the Pistons and Cavs are likely to need all three remaining games (scheduled for tonight, Saturday and Tuesday) to determine the Eastern Conference champion.
Here's a real action shot of the Cavaliers young "genius of basketball" LeBron James dunking against the Pistons in the first quarter of Game Four.
May 29 Update: As in Game Three, LeBron James led the Cleveland Cavaliers to a hard-fought victory over the Detroit Pistons, 91-87, in Game Four of the NBA Eastern Conference final series. The Cavs built a seven-point halftime lead that could have been bigger, which they promptly surrendered with yet another dismal third quarter. They corrected their errors in quarter four with dominating effort that 22-year old "genius of basketball" James wrapped up with two clutch free throws. Rookie guard Daniel Gibson, who at 21 is actually younger than James, had another strong game with a career high 21 points and 12-12 free throw shooting. Forward Drew Gooden shot well and contributed 18 points. Injured guard Larry Hughes played limited ineffective minutes, and is probably done for the series. Donyell Marshall did contribute two nice buckets off feeds from James.
Chauncey Billups and Rip Hamilton seemed determined to upgrade their games from Game Three and led the way for Pistons with 42 combined points. Billups scored 18 first-half points, but committed a key turnover and missed a game-tying three-point shot near the end of the game. Reserve Antonio McDyess also had a strong game, relegating Chris Webber to a role as a very highly paid cheerleader.
May 28 Update: The Spurs fixed whatever problems they had guarding the Jazz and scored an inelegant, but convincing 91-78 victory in Game Four of the Western Conference finals. The win sends the series back to San Antonio with the Spurs leading three games to one. Only Deron Williams (26 points and 10 assists) and to a lesser extent Carlos Boozer (18 points, 9 rebounds)got untracked for the Jazz. San Antonio shot only 40% from the field, but made 30 of 41 free throws, most of them in the fourth quarter, to create the final margin. Manu Ginobili led the parade to the foul line with 12 made out of 15 attempted. On one particularly galling play, Derek Fisher fouled Manu on an off-balance three-pointer with the shot clock running down. The shot sailed way wide, but of course, Manu made all three free tosses.
May 27 Update: LeBron James looked like the best player in basketball tonight, or at least the best player still playing as he led the Cavaliers to a hard-fought 88-82 win over the Pistons to keep the Cavs alive in the Eastern Conference finals. Making every big pass and shot on the way to 32 points and 9 assists, James gave the Cavs a fourth quarter lead that they hung on to. Teammates Ilgauskas, Gooden and rookie guard Daniel Gibson helped considerably. The Cavs would apparently do better to keep Larry Hughes, the Game Two goat, and Donyell Marshall (wearer of Game One horns) on the bench, as Hughes was consistently outplayed by Gibson, and Marshall bricked up several long range shots. The Pistons got good games from their front court players, but surprisingly weak games from their star guards Rip Hamilton and Chauncey Billups, though Billups did make a clutch three and an improbable two-point shot near the end. The 22-year old James also scored beautifully in the post-game interview with his comment about rookie teammate Gibson having to "grow up fast" (I'm thinking that Gibson may be older than James), and doing so with his 3-point shooting and strong defense.
All three games have been close, so it's very conceivable that the Cavs could send the series back to Detroit tied 2-2.
The Utah Jazz also kept their hopes alive with a lopsided Game Three win over San Antonio, 109-83 on Saturday night in Salt Lake City. Almost unbelieveably, the Jazz, led by the increasingly impressive Deron Williams, won the second half by 30 points, 66-36, after the Spurs held a four-point halftime lead, 47-43. The much stronger defensive effort by the Jazz was aided in part by foul trouble on Tim Duncan. One comment I heard tonight was that the Jazz might have been better off with a smaller margin, as the 26 point drubbing will make sure that the Spurs listen to whatever Coach Gregg Popovich has to say before Game Four.
May 24 Update: As Herman's Hermits sang back in the mid-60s in the unforgettable classic "Henry the Eighth", "Second verse, same as the first." The Spurs and Jazz continued their series on Tuesday night with the Spurs prevailing 105-96. Following almost the same lyric sheet as Game 1, the Spurs followed a close first quarter by dominating the second to hold a huge lead at halftime, which they stretched to 22 points midway through the third quarter. The Jazz fought gamely, this time behind Carlos Boozer, but never threatened as timely three-point shooting enabled the Spurs to maintain a comfortable lead and win the game.
Led Zeppelin's Robert Plant wailed, "The Song Remains the Same!" which has been the story in the Eastern Conference finals, now led by the Detroit Pistons two games to none over the Cleveland Cavaliers after a pair of low-scoring close wins in Detroit by the identical score of 79-76. On Monday in Game One, the Cavs missed a late chance to win as LeBron James drove and dished to teammate Donyell Marshall, who missed a 3-point shot with almost no time left.
Tonite, the Cavs trailed by one as James drove to the basket with less than 10 seconds left. Under heavy pressure from Richard Hamilton, he missed the shot, but the rebound came directly to Cavs guard Larry Hughes who choked up a 7-footer about six inches short. A tap by Cavs forward Anderson Varajeo rolled off the rim. The Pistons grabbed that rebound and wrapped up the game with a couple of free throws. The Cavs have come closer than the Pistons (they actually led Game Two by 12 at halftime, but scored only 26 in the second half), but like the Jazz, it's not clear they think they can win.
May 20: Game One of the Spurs-Jazz series was the only action today. After a close first quarter, the Spurs blitzed the Jazz with a perfect second quarter to take a 54-36 halftime lead. Tim Duncan dominated whomever tried in vain to stop him. Manu Ginobili hit long-range shots and found his teammates inside with pinpoint passes. The Jazz fought bravely in the second half, closing to a final 108-100 margin behind a sensational fourth quarter effort by guard Deron Williams. Still this looks like a long (or maybe a short) series for the Jazz, who have some talent but lack the polish and experience of their opponents.
Here's the shot of Manu Ginobili I was looking for after the last game.
May 19 Update: With mixed emotions, I'll report that both Round 2 series with a chance to end last night did. The Cavaliers survived an 8-point 3rd quarter to beat the Nets 88-72. The hot-and-cold Cavs will have more than they can probably handle against the Pistons.
The sad story is that once again the Suns advance through the Western Conference playoffs is over, ended by a 114-106 loss to the San Antonio Spurs last night in San Antonio, giving the series to the Spurs four games to two. The Spurs played 3-1/2 quarters of a perfect game, using a late-third and early-fourth quarter blitz to build a 20-point lead, 92-72. But the Suns combined their own pride with a brief defensive lapse by the Spurs to stage a furious rally that pulled them within five points at 106-101. Unfortunately, there were only 33 seconds left at the time, and the Spurs cooperation with the rally was over, as in the remaining seconds they made six free throws of their own and forced a Suns turnover to close out the game and the series.
Amare Stoudemire, though struggling defensively against Duncan, was brilliant on offense with 38 points and 12 rebounds, including a late-game three-point shot, his first of the season. Suns fans have to wonder how Game Five might have gone with him in the lineup. Steve Nash rallied from a harried start to pour in 15 in the fourth quarter and 18 overall along with feeding his teammates with 14 assists, but refused to speculate about Game Five.
But the real story of the game was the consistently excellent play of the Spurs, particularly their "Big Three". Tony Parker dominated the first quarter with accurate shooting and acrobatic drives. Tim Duncan took over the second with strong inside moves and shotblocking. Manu Ginobili looked like his old self in the second half and finished with the incredible stat line of 33 points, 11 rebounds and 6 assists. Bruce Bowen made two timely 3-pointers and harrassed Nash all night long. Even backup point guard Jacques Vaughn made two jumpers and fed Bowen for one of his long-range bombs.
The Utah Jazz are a well-coached and game crew, but their overall lack of talent and experience should doom them to a quick loss to the Spurs, particularly if the Spurs play to the same level as they did versus the Suns (by my count they played 2-1/2 bad quarters--the fourth quarter of Game 2 and the first quarter and the last five minutes of Game 4 out of six games).
May 18 Update: The Pistons and Bulls finished their series last night at the mercifully early hour of 9:45 p.m. with the Pistons advancing to the Eastern Conference Finals with a 95-85 win.
This fantastic effort earned the Bulls forward and Baton Rouge- native Tyrus Thomas a foul.
The Bulls, who played well to build a five-point halftime lead, were doomed by a poor shooting second half, which at its nadir produced only four points during the first 9 1/2 minutes of the fourth quarter. At that point, the Pistons held a comfortable lead, 85-73. The Bulls rallied for 12 more points in the last 2 1/2 minutes, but at the cost of putting the Pistons at the free throw line, where they made every attempt (Billups and Hamilton combining for 10 for 10) to hold on for the win.
The Pistons top four players--Hamilton, Billups, Prince and Wallace look more than ready for the next round. Subs Antonio McDyess and Lindsay Hunter also contributed. Midseason pickup Chris Webber had some good moments, but overall played poorly enough to give way to McDyess in the fourth quarter.
More strong work by Duncan drew the Spurs even closer in the third quarter, after which, the Suns changed defensive strategy and began to double-team Duncan when he got the ball. For awhile the strategy worked as the Spurs outside shooters kept missing. Throughout, the Spurs defense remained intense, and with about five minutes left the Suns clung to a 79-71 lead.
Both sides chose to risk the 3-point shot with Nash missing a well-defended shot, but the Suns rebounded. Before Nash could try again, the Spurs fouled. Nash sunk both free throws to pull the Suns within one. After a timeout, the Spurs got the ball to Ginobli, their most reliable foul shooter, who was fouled and hit nothing but net again with two attempts. The 24-second scenario repeated, but with only 11 second left. Nash got the ball, but missed a long shot under very heavy pressure. The Spurs rebounded and for all intents and purposes the game was over, especially after Michael Finley hit both free throws.
What about Cleveland and New Jersey? I tried to watch this mess, but switched over to Houston Astros baseball (the 'Stros beat the Giants 2-1 behind great pitching and a titanic game-winning home run by rookie centerfielder Hunter Pence). New Jersey prevailed 83-72 in Cleveland, despite scoring only 6 points in the fourth quarter. (The Cavs' "capitalized" on this opportunity by pouring in a big 13 of their own). The win sends the series back to New Jersey for Game Six.
Tonite, the Bulls try to continue their comeback against the Pistons in a Game Six matchup in Chicago. This one is getting harder to figure, as both teams have dominated in their wins.
Back in March, I wrote at least 10,000 words in here (only about 8,400 as it turns out) about "March Madness", the NCAA mens' and womens' basketball championships, and other related subjects (will I ever forget the "Tinactin Two" and the"Perfect Pair"?). The NBA Playoffs have been underway for about two weeks, and so far not one word. What gives?
Well, first there's been a lot going on, what with my medical issues and other activities around the family. And as a rule, the early rounds of the NBA playoffs aren't the national event that March Madness is. Fans in the individual NBA cities care a lot, but even with a 16-team format, there are only 16 or fewer large cities involved. And NBA playoff series are "best-of-seven", rather than "win or go home", which makes each game, except the seventh, a little less compelling because there's always tomorrow. Finally, for me as a sports fan, the NBA playoffs compete with the start of the Major League Baseball season.
So with one round finished and the second round through four games, I'm ready to talk some NBA basketball. As with the NCAA, the NBA playoffs are seeded, with the best teams taking on the "worst". Unlike the NCAA, where a 16th seed has never beaten a 1st seed, the lower-seeded teams have a chance in the NBA. The longer series tend to lift the cream to the top, but this year's first round included an historic exception.
The Dallas Mavericks dominated the NBA regular season, winning 67 of 82 games. They fashioned at least two winning streaks of at least 15 games. All of this wasn't completely unexpected, as the Mavs reached the NBA Finals last year. On the other end of the playoff scale were the Golden State Warriors (based on Oakland, CA), who won only two more games than they lost; lost 29 of 41 games on the road; and qualified for the playoffs on the last day of the season after having missed them for many consecutive years. Dallas and Golden State were matched in what appeared to be a first-round mismatch.
And mismatch it was, as Golden State dominated the series four game to two, the first ever (in the NBA) defeat of a 1st seed by an 8th seed in a best-of-seven series. Lost in the overall records were Golden State's three wins over Dallas during the regular season, and 9 wins out of 10 game stint to end the season. For Dallas, a team that expected to once again play for the championship and probably win it, the series loss was devastating. I feel especially bad for Dallas coach Avery Johnson, who played his college ball here in Baton Rouge at Southern University. But otherwise, I haven't been a Mavs fan. We rooted for Miami to beat Dallas in the finals last year (they did) because Shaquille O'Neal (a family favorite since his days at LSU) was on the Heat. And like many other basketball fans, we fell in love with Dwyane Wade and his Jordanesque game.
The mighty fell quickly and quietly on the other side of the bracket, as the defending champion Miami Heat lost in four games to the Chicago Bulls, a team they beat on the way to the 2006 championship. Because of injuries to O'Neal and Wade, and surgery on Coach Pat Riley, the Heat never regained their team chemistry. Riley commented after the loss that any other outcome would have been an injustice as the team made nowhere near the effort they'd made in their championship season.
We're on to Round Two now, with eight teams left in play. Three of the eight look to be set up for imminent exits, as the Chicago Bulls, New Jersey Nets, and Golden State Warriors all trail one game to three (to Detroit, Cleveland, and Utah respectively). The Bulls showed promise in last year's playoff and in the quick win over Heat, but have been more-or-less dominated by the playoff-savvy Pistons, even though the Bulls acquired veteran Piston center Ben Wallace as a free agent in the off-season. The young and exciting Cleveland Cavaliers, feature straight-out-of-high-school (and shoe salesman) LeBron James (this is actually his third year) should close out their series with the older and more boring New Jersey Nets to play the Pistons in the Eastern Conference finals.
In the Western Conference, Golden State's "Cinderella" run (though it's harder to use that image for players making at least $2 million per season) will end soon against the tougher and more cohesive Utah Jazz (the Jazz inherited that odd nickname when they emigrated from New Orleans about 25 years ago). Utah features a rising superstar in forward Carlos Boozer, a well-spoken Duke grad who's as strong as an ox and can shoot with either hand. The rest of the Jazz roster has a somewhat slow and international look, but they play well together and should have enough to win another game against the Warriors, a flashier and more talented group that depends too much on three-point shots, and loses big when they don't go down.
Reliable Derek Fisher lines up a 3-pointer for the Jazz
The series between the Spurs and Suns has been the best that the NBA has to offer--two talented, dedicated and well-coached teams trying their best to be the first to four wins. The Suns feature the league's best offense, while year after year, the Spurs play the best defense. The Suns rarely win when they score less than 100; the Spurs rarely win when they give up more. The irresistible force meets the immoveable object.
The Suns had a slightly better regular season record and earned the extra home game, which they promptly lost 111-106. The pace and total score of the game should have favored the Suns, but the Spurs beat them at their own game, led by 33 points and 16 rebounds from Tim Duncan and 32 points from Tony Parker on 14-22 shooting. Near the end of the game, Nash and Parker suffered a headknocker, Nash's nose and Parker's forehead. Parker stayed down the longest, but Nash's injury lingered longer. He played a few more minutes, but couldn't finish the game after the Suns trainers couldn't control the flow of blood from a cut that would later require six stitches to close. After the game, Suns' unofficial captain Nash, frustrated with not being able to finish the game, wondered aloud why his team hadn't given everything they had.
They did in Game Two, thrashing the Spurs 101-81. Amare Stoudemire led the Suns with 27 points, but Nash was the catalyst with 16 assists and only 3 turnovers to go along with 20 of his own points. The game was still close going into the fourth quarter, but the Suns sprinted home, winning the quarter by 13 and the game by 20.
Game Three looked a lot like Game One, with the Spurs holding on 108-101, while holding Nash scoreless for the first half. Duncan again led the way with 33 points and 19 rebounds. His co-star was Manu Ginobli who contributed 24. Midway through the second half, Ginobli took a finger in the eye from Shawn Marion and was unstoppable thereafter, despite playing with an obvious black eye. After Nash's performance in Game Two, it was clear that the Spurs were on a mission to cut off his drives to the basket. He still finished with 16 points and 11 assists, but the Spurs were in control for most of the second half when Nash amassed his stats.
Suns fans watched most of Game Four with a heavy heart as the Spurs harried Nash and the rest of the team to lead for most of the game, and to lead by 5, 97-92 with just 2:23 left to play. From there it was all Suns--a basket by Nash, and a basket by Marion, and two by Stoudemire (all on passes from Nash--one Stoudemire basket resulting from a spectacular left-handed behind-the-back feed), interspersed with misses by the Spurs and rebounds by the Suns--their best two minutes of the series.
San Antonio's only point of the rest of the game resulted indirectly from their own flagrant foul. After a Ginobli miss, Nash took the outlet pass and was hip-checked into the scorer's table by Spurs reserve Robert Horry (heretofore known as "Big Shot" Bob for his clutch 3-pointers; hereafter in Phoenix known as "Cheap Shot" Bob). Nash bounced off the table and lay on the floor dazed. His teammate Raja Bell confronted Horry and got called for a technical foul. Horry was ejected from the game. Michael Finley converted the technical for the Spurs, their only point of the last 2 minutes and not nearly enough. Nash recovered his senses enough to make one of his two free throws. A few more Spurs misses and Suns free throws later, the win was in the Suns column, 104-98.
(Thanks to FoxSports.net for the great photos)
Suns fans wait anxiously today as the NBA determines if there'll be more fallout from the Horry incident. Two Suns players, Stoudemire and Diaw, came onto the court during the altercation, in violation of NBA rules. Such a violation is punishable by a one-game suspension. They were restrained by their coaches, and didn't participate in the fracas, but precedence indicates that just taking one step onto the court may be enough to draw the suspension. Suns reserve Jalan Rose noted that Tim Duncan had stepped onto the court in an earlier incident, and wondered aloud if the NBA were looking at that tape too.
But back to why I root for the Phoenix Suns. My "home team", Philadelphia, has been a non-factor for years, last appearing in the Finals in 2000. The local New Orleans Hornets played all but six home games in Oklahoma City, their post-Katrina adopted home. They return to New Orleans next year, but they didn't make the playoffs either. We tried rooting for the nearby Houston Rockets, but I just don't love any of their players like I love Suns point guard Steve Nash.
Nash is a gifted natural athlete who excelled at both soccer and ice hockey as well as basketball in his native Canada (though he was born in South Africa), but at 6'3" and 195 pounds he is not a particularly imposing physical specimen, at least by NBA standards, where even star point guards are 6'8" and weigh 230 pounds, and frontcourt players are even bigger. Like hockey superstar Wayne Gretzky, Nash knows both his own game and those of all his teammates, knows where they are at any moment, and where they'll be in the next second. His first instinct is to pass rather than shoot, which makes his teammates want to be there and ready when he delivers the ball. But if the defense denies the pass, he'll shoot and accurately--53% from the field and 45% from outside the 3-point line. When he gets fouled he goes to the line and sinks free throws--his 90% career accuracy is third on the all-time list. Being often physically mismatched on defense, he's not a great defender, but his great anticipation and courage allow him to draw a lot of offensive fouls. At 33 years old, he's getting better every year. Despite not winning a third straight MVP award (it went to his buddy, Mavericks forward Dirk Nowitzki), Nash had career best marks in shooting percentage and assists per game. In interviews, he's articulate with a wry sense of humor, but still willing to challenge his teammates to do more, as he did after Game One.
In an age of outrageously talented players like Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade (all of whom are wonderful players and deserving of the praise they get--Wade even has a championship ring to reflect his game), it's refreshing that a skinny guy who puts his teammates first is recognized by most as the NBA's best player, and in turn the best basketball player in the world, and it's a pleasure to watch him play and root for his team to win it all.