Celtics Become Road Warriors

Venues change, series change, but the recipe to win does not. It’s very basic, the team who’s role players and bench make the biggest contribution, that has a decided three point advantage or rebounding edge, and can hit big shots to stop a run wins the game. Home, away, higher seed, lower seed, MVP, Coach of the Year, no matter what. Boston did all of the above Saturday night in a dominant 94-80 win in Detroit, that elusive first playoff road win.

Boston’s second unit won this game in the first quarter. The Celts started with 11 straight points out of the gate, and led 15-4 at the 5:34 mark of the first. A minute prior to that Kevin Garnett exited with two early fouls, followed to the bench by Ray Allen a minute later, also with two quick ones. Led by Rodney Stuckey, Detroit reeled off 13 consecutive points in a four minute span. Already up against the wall after losing at home in Game Two, facing the pressure of not having won a road game all postseason, with two of its three stars on the bench in foul trouble, having handed away an 11 point lead, Boston easily could have wilted right here. Likewise, Detroit had a chance to stomp them.

Instead, the Boston reserves – James Posey, Sam Cassell, and Glen Davis – led a 10-0 run to close the quarter. Boston led 25-17 and never looked back. Detroit made runs the rest of the game, but right there the game had a chance to either way. Boston not only responded, its role players, who failed to show up in Game Two , responded.

Detroit’s offense played abysmal. Out of sync consistently, the Pistons had chances to cut into Boston’s lead, which bloated to 18 at halftime and stayed in double digits most of the second half, but could not string together good offensive possessions at any point in the game. Billups and Prince killed the Pistons in different ways. Billups, perhaps still hampered by the hamstring injury that forced him to miss a game in Orlando last series, sat for long stretches of the game as Stuckey stepped up and played a great game in his stead. However, when Billups played he hurt the team. Saunders inserted Billups with 5:30 left for a last desperation run. After the Pistons trimmed the lead to 9 and made a defensive stop, Billups immediately turned the ball over. He then missed a 3-pointer and another jumper on two of the next three possessions. That turnover and missed three killed Detroit’s chances. Either possession would have Boston under pressure, something they have not responded to well on the road late in games. Blame Saunders for looking to Billups late in the game after sitting most of the way, blame Billups for not hitting the big shot, and perhaps not looking for teammates that had better nights than he.

Prince flat out stunk. No injuries, no excuses. Detroit’s equivalent to Manu Ginobili, Prince is a spark plug that can create matchup nightmares for opponents, and cause disruptions on defense. He only caused nightmares for his own team. 2-11 shooting and four rebounds. While role player performance separates teams, its assumed that the stars will play well. Neither Billups nor Prince stepped up.

Credit Boston for hitting a few big shots, and more importantly grabbing six offensive boards in the fourth quarter. Each time Detroit made them sweat, someone stepped up with a big shot – even Ray Allen found the net late in the game. The offensive rebounds though, broke Detroit’s back. When you are trying to come back from a double-digit deficit against a quality team, nothing is more deflating than making a defensive stop and not grabbing the rebound. Getting two consecutive stops is extremely difficult. More importantly, Boston ran more precious seconds off the clock each time.

And how can Piston fans boo throughout this game. The crowd marred a potentially historic night with the city hosting the Stanley Cup Finals, NBA playoffs, and a baseball game simultaneously. Detroit’s performance warranted the boo birds after the game, or late in the fourth, but booing the team in the first half and third quarter, the game still within reach, is unacceptable. A day ago they controlled the series thanks to a big road win. Talk about fickle.

Monday night Detroit is back up against the wall, a familiar position. They trailed Philadelphia 2-1 in the first round before three straight wins. If Billups is hurt he needs to sit, if not he needs to come to play like a star. It wouldn’t hurt if Rasheed Wallace stepped up and called for the ball in a big spot either. He plays good, but not up to his potential. Wallace is capable of taking over a game offensively, what better time than now.

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Spurs Give One Away

San Antonio had a myriad of excuses heading into this game. A tough seven game series ended with a draining road win only two nights earlier, the lack of rest, the wear and tear on the aging team, then throw in the airplane debacle that cost them a good night’s sleep before a cross-country flight. With the rested top seed Lakers waiting at home, why even play game one.

Well, they played, and San Antonio jumped Kobe’s crew, a 20 point blowout into the third quarter. Then the walls crumbled. LA mounted the second biggest playoff comeback since 1998, overcoming the deficit to win by four. Actually, LA did not comeback so much as the Spurs retreated and Kobe, by himself, charged ahead.

13 points in the fourth quarter in a playoff game is terrible. Call it fatigue, call it good defense, the reason the Spurs scored 13 points was Phil Jackson adjusted to Duncan’s dominance, and nobody stepped up. Ginobili, who carried the team in the New Orleans series as Duncan faced a tough matchup, played awful, shooting 3-13 for only 10 points. He missed big shots down the stretch, and turned it over four times. The Sixth Man of the Year turned starter must play well for San Antonio to win. Once LA adapted to Duncan inside, the Spurs offense shutdown.

Contrary to Game Seven on Monday night, the bench produced a meager 11 points for San Antonio. No clutch shots from the Finleys, the Horrys, and the Udokas of the world. No 3-point barrage. No big secondary performance. Duncan will not go quietly this series, proving last night with a vintage 30 point, 18 rebound effort that nobody on the Lakers can guard him in single coverage. The rest of the team needs to step up now. If Ginobili shoots 3-13 and can’t get to the line, San Antonio has no chance, none what so ever. He is the spark plug for this team.

Not to be outdone by Lebron, Kobe showed that he is still the best playoff performer in the league. After a quiet 2-point first half, he decided to take over – yes, he actually said, he knew he could just flip the switch on at will, how great is that. Bryant scored with ease in the second half, the Lakers as a team played under control but at their pace. They never panicked and they operated like a well oiled machine on both ends of the floor.

If any team can overcome blowing this game, its the Spurs. The same way we said the Spurs could overcome the 0-2 hole against New Orleans. The loss hurts, hurts a lot, Poppovich said as much. With Ginobili struggling the Spurs offense disappeared, reverting exclusively to Duncan in the post. When the Lakers finally took that away with double teams the Spurs fizzled – and it showed. The Argentine, and backcourt compadre Tony Parker hold the key. Bryant will get his every game, Duncan will get his, Parker and Ginobili need to make the difference or the Spurs are in trouble.

Boston Keeps First Round Interesting

All we heard throughout the second half of the NBA season was how the West was wide open, six or seven teams are capable of making the finals, prepare for the most competitive playoffs ever. Well, we’re waiting. After tonight every Western Conference 1st Round series may finish – all in 5 games or less. So much for those classic playoff battles from the start. In fact, only two opening round series are guaranteed to extend past five games, the two least likely when the playoffs began – Detroit-Philadelphia and Boston-Atlanta.

In last night’s Game Four in Atlanta, Joe Johnson did what the heralded Celtics Big Three could not – take over a tight playoff game down the stretch and hit clutch shots. Possession after possession Johnson stepped up while Boston tightened up, finishing with 35 points on the night. Atlanta tied the series at two games apiece by outscoring Boston 32-17 in the fourth quarter.

Initial concerns about Boston this season evaporated during the 66-win campaign, now they may return. Neither Pierce, Garnett, or Allen has ever excelled in the playoffs. No championships, more disappoints and defeats than success. Another question – who gets the ball when the team needs a basket? Last night, nobody wanted the ball. Nobody stepped up. The trio combined for 59 points, but in the playoffs they need to do whatever is necessary to win. If it means scoring 80 combined, that’s what they have to do. In Game 4 they were not prepared. The offense lacked flow in the fourth quarter, settling for long shots, turnovers, no leadership. Sam Cassell, brought in just for these type of moments, when teams need veteran leadership, played only 6 minutes the entire game.

The vaunted defense that dominated the NBA all season,led by Defensive Player of the Year Kevin Garnett, was a figment of the imagination late in the game. Unable to stop Johnson, Rivers called for double teams to slow him down. Late arrivals, and slow rotations led to defensive breakdowns. Inside, uber-athletic Josh Smith continued to put double-doubles, showing no fear of Garnett. Smith and Johnson played so well, Atlanta won without a major offensive contribution from rookie Al Horford, who threw a few verbal jabs toward Paul Pierce after a solid effort in Game Three.

No question Atlanta has talent, Johnson and Smith are All-Star caliber, Horford emerged as a top rookie, Bibby is the veteran leader, along with Marvin Williams and Josh Childress, both capable scorers. Youth, inexperience, and lack of discipline slow this team down. Boston is clearly the better team, even tied at two, the Celts hold an immense advantage with home court. However, if the free wheeling Hawks keep it close, will Boston tighten up under the pressure, and who will hit that big shot?

For the Record: NBA Playoff Picks

This year’s NBA playoffs has it all – except the Knicks. Los Angeles and Boston at the forefront, All-Stars galore, to go along with the most competitive conference in league history. Lakers-Celtics is the NBA’s dream matchup, David Stern TV ratings and dollar signs float through his head just thinking about it. Unfortunately for the Commissioner, I envision a repeat of 1988, not 1986. Enough hype, let’s get it on.

Eastern Conference

36 win teams do not belong in the playoffs. They don’t deserve to collect a playoff share, or even get the chance to pull an upset. Boston dominated the NBA – not just the East, proving it with a 22-5 mark vs. Western Conference foes. KG and company swept Atlanta in the season series, expect much of the same in round one – Celts in 4.

Rarely do 59-win teams fly under the radar, especially one with five consecutive Eastern Conference Finals appearances and a chip on their shoulder after losing to an inferior team last season. Welcome to the Detroit Pistons world. Ripe with a rare mix of veteran leadership, playoff experience, and young energy off the bench, this Pistons team goes deeper than years past, though questions remain on how youngsters Rodney Stuckey, Amir Johnson, Aaron Afflalo, and Jason Maxiell will handle the playoff intensity. Philadelphia had a phenomenal season, outliving expectations. But Mo Cheeks maximized what he could from this team, a few late season losses cost them the sixth seed. Detroit’s advantage in playoff experience, and lock down defense should make this a quick exit for the surprising 76er’s, not a series with the intensity to test those Piston youngsters – Detroit in 5.

Dwight Howard arrived this season. No longer the next big thing, Howard is an almost automatic double-double every time he steps foot on the court, yet the key to Orlando’s ascension to 50 wins was Hedo Turkoglu. A potential Most Improved Player Candidate, the 28-year old from Turkey increased his scoring by over 6 points, and both assists and rebounds by more than 1.5 per game. Off-season acquisition Rashard Lewis teams up with Howard and Turkoglu to form arguably the best frontcourt in the league, one that can beat you from inside and out. Point guard remains Orlando’s weakness, playing right into the strength of the disappointing Toronto Raptors, with a two-headed monster at point that most teams would kill for, TJ Ford and Jose Calderon. After emerging to win the Atlantic last season, Toronto regressed, falling apart when an injury forced Chris Bosh out of action. Bosh vs. Howard is a great matchup of contrasting styles, power and finesse, but the Raptors surrounding cast does not play tough and does not match up with Orlando – Magic in 6.

There are some things you don’t do, then just shake your head when someone does it. DeShawn Stevenson went there. He called out Lebron James. Mind you, this is not Kobe or Duncan making statements, championship rings to back them up, this is DeShawn Stevenson. Calling the NBA scoring champion who carried his team to the NBA finals overrated, a brainfreeze, calling the rest of the Cavs underachievers though, on the money. If Stevenson didn’t light the flame, Washington enters the series playing much better than Cleveland, and they add Gilbert Arenas to a team that learned to play without him. Now, the Wizards must beware of the King taking out his frustration and single-handedly winning this series. Before Stevenson, Washington in 6, now – Cavs in 7.

A two horse race all season, its only fitting the conference championship comes down to Detroit and Boston. The Celtics bring the star power – KG, Pierce, and Allen – with a surprisingly dominant defense and home court. After failing to reach the Finals each of the past two seasons Detroit is on a mission to get back. None of the Celts stars have played big in a big game yet, Detroit’s have. They want the big shot. Point guard is the difference, while Rajon Rondo exceeded expectations, he’s not Chauncey Billups. That matchup will be the difference in this classic series – Detroit in 7.

Western Conference

It happened last season, the eight seed knocking off the top seed in the West, this year only 6 wins separate the two, could it happen again? Not unless Denver suddenly learns how to play defense. Kobe has the running mate he begged for in Pau Gasol, a legit All-Star who fit right into the Lakers system like a glove. Hidden as a third option, don’t underestimate Lamar Odom, an immense talent that quietly averaged a double-double. Odom creates match-up problems for opponents, and can take over a game. The Lakers won’t need him to do that in Round One – LA in 5.

Rarely is the second-seed viewed as an underdog in the opening series, especially one that boasts an MVP candidate. Not quite the underdog in Vegas, a Hornets first round exit would still surprise few. The knock on them, never been there before. Well, Utah’s current cast never did it before last season, and ran to the conference finals. I’m not saying New Orleans won’t pay some playoff dues before contending for the title, but they deserve the second seed and will live up tot that expectation. Chris Paul dominated Jason Kidd all season, the only addition to a Dallas team that choked away the NBA Finals and a first-round series the previous two seasons. The Kidd trade did not provide the big lift a struggling Dallas team needed. Nowitzki injury aside, Dallas was inconsistent all season, with and without Kidd or Nowitzki. They have gaping holes on defense, in the post, and despite their mid-season acquisition, a mismatch at point guard in this series. Byron Scott would love to send Kidd crawling home four years after the outspoken point guard helped get Scott fired in New Jersey – NO in 6.

A heavyweight tussle made for the conference finals, not the first round. Forget the build up and hype, we all know the history between San Antonio and Phoenix by now, we know all the major players, buckle up for a classic. Amare Stoudemire played as good as anyone in the NBA after the Shaq acquisition freed him up on both ends of the court, the Spurs need to find a way to contain him off the pick and roll with Nash to slow down the Suns offensively. Duncan will play big, he always does in the playoffs, San Antonio needs a healthy Manu Ginobili. The lanky Argentine posted career numbers coming off the bench most of the season. A game changer on both ends of the floor, Ginobili makes the plays that win playoff games, a steal, a driving score in the fourth, he does it when it counts most. Expect a fierce battle, the stars will shine, Manu will rise – Spurs in 7.

Somehow, Houston managed to win 22 straight games, mostly without Yao Ming, surely earning Rick Adelman a few coach of the year votes. In this crazy season out West, Utah is seeded fourth, yet Houston holds home court, where they lost to Utah in a first round Game 7 last year. Despite averaging 28.5 ppg in the post-season, the inevitable question – Can Tracy McGrady win a playoff series – comes up, as if McGrady is the reason his team loses each year. Without Yao, McGrady showed signs of slowing down late in the season, hampered by a shoulder injury. Already missing point guard Rafer Alston for the first two games, Houston needs not only a healthy T-Mac, but possibly a herculean effort from McGrady to overcome a talented Jazz squad. Pencil in 3 almost automatic home wins for Utah, 37-4 in Salt Lake this year, Boozer and Williams will get at least one in Houston – Utah in 6.

After my don’t underestimate New Orleans speech, I give them little to no chance in the second round against San Antonio, to whom home court advantage makes little difference. LA and Utah has the makings of a classic, as do most series out West. When two teams are so closely matched, go with the best player on the court, in this case Kobe Bryant. On paper, you can argue the Spurs will lose each of these series, but they are the champs – five times to be exact – until beaten. Spurs in 6.

One question, will any team coming out of the West have enough in the tank when the Finals rolls around? The Spurs have an older team, having to go through Phoenix, New Orleans, and LA, in what expects to be three hard fought series may leave them out of gas in the finals. Detroit will have revenge on their mind, both on the critics who buried them after last season and on the Spurs who ended their chance to repeat in 2005. Lost in the Western Conference hype this season, nobody realizes how good Detroit and Boston actually are, the world will see in the finals – Detroit in 7.

Better Than Advertised

Never has an entire conference playoff slate, first round through the conference finals, been more anticipated than this year’s Western playoffs. Consider the regular season brought the most tightly contested conference playoff race in NBA history, seven games separating the eight Western Conference playoff teams, all who finished with 50 or more wins. Throw in the defending champs, the top two MVP candidates, a 22-game win streak, surprise teams, mid-season acquisitions trying to justify themselves, the West has it all. Could the actual games can match the hype.

How about a 2-OT thriller, three game tying shots with under 20 seconds left in the respective stanzas, and a game winner with 1.2 seconds remaining to whet the appetite. Phoenix-San Antonio was billed as the series of the first round, and Game One was a heavyweight battle. Manu Ginobili capped off an 8 point outburst in the double overtime period with a driving layup over Shaq to grab a 117-115 Spurs win.

Ginobili’s double OT outburst was made possible by a game-tying 3-pointer with 3 seconds left in the first OT by an unlikely source, Tim Duncan, his first of the season. Duncan scored the final nine points in the first OT, in route to a game-high 40 points and 15 rebounds. The Big Fundamental simply would not let San Antonio lose, scoring seven down the stretch to erase a nine-point fourth quarter deficit, his eyes filled with focus and desire. Duncan truly becomes a different player in the post-season, elevating his game after coasting at times during the regular season. Critics wondered if this might be the year San Antonio shows its age, or vulnerabilities, in Game One Duncan would have none of it. Scoring almost at will inside, stepping out to can jumpers, even burying the clutch three.

Meanwhile, Ginobili answered any questions about his hamstring, chipping in with 24 off the bench, along with a clutch defensive play in overtime, tipping a pass away, leading to an Amare Stoudemire foul to prevent the steal. Tony Parker added 26 and buried a few clutch shots down the stretch, but none as big as Michael Finley, who nailed a three with 16 seconds left in regulation to send it to OT. Finley finished with 13 points.

Stoudemire carried Phoenix, continuing his torrid second half with 33 points and 7 rebounds before fouling in the first overtime. Losing Stoudemire may have been the difference. Without his partner in crime, the Spurs were able to pressure Nash on pick and rolls, forcing the rest of the team to beat them. With Stoudemire on the court, particularly in the fourth and first OT, the Spurs struggled to defend pick and roll, allowing Nash to use the screens for open jumpers, or to easy penetration. When San Antonio went after Nash, Stoudemire got one on one looks in the paint, almost automatic.

One year after a physical series marred with the infamous fight, the first half had its share of tough play. Both teams griped with the referees over almost every foul call, constantly flopping for charges. But things settled down in the second half, the intensity picked up to levels usually reserved for conference or NBA finals, and the stars stepped up – Nash, Stoudemire, Ginobili, Duncan, and Parker.

Kurt Thomas provided solid defense and rebounding off the Spurs bench, drawing the charge that sent Stoudemire to the bench for good, to go with 10 big rebounds. Relegated to the bench with foul trouble in the first, O’Neal was a non-factor on the offensive end in crunch time, instead focusing on defending Duncan. However, after picking up his fifth foul in double OT, Shaq became passive in the paint. Using Duncan primarily for screens, the Spurs turned to Ginobili, who attacked Shaq play after play with drives to the basket, knowing the big man did not want to pick up his sixth foul, especially with Stoudemire already gone.

If this is any indication, we may have the best first round series in NBA history. Buckle up, its going to be a doozy, round two set for Tuesday night in San Antonio. After what appears to be a grueling series ahead, will either of these teams have enough left in the tank to conquer the rest of the playoffs. The NBA’s playoff schedule, resembling a retiree’s work schedule, might be their only saving grace.

Kobe About to Earn Stripes

Last week doctors diagnosed Kobe Bryant with a complete ligament tear in his right pinkie finger, an injury he first sustained on February 5th in New Jersey. Since then, after one dud in a loss at Atlanta, Kobe has reeled three 30+ point games, a 29-point performance, shot over 40% and played over 40 minutes three times, in leading the new look Lakers to four straight injuries. All before even stopping to have the injury fully diagnosed, an injury that would immediately sideline most players.

Now Bryant faces surgery and six-weeks in civies, or figuring out how to play through it. Easy choice, right. Have the surgery, return rested and healthy right in time for a few early April warm-up games leading into the playoffs. Not so fast. Not this year, not in this conference. If Kobe takes a seat next to Bynum on LA’s suddenly crowded inactive list, the Lakers season ends after that week of warm-up games in April, giving him ample time to prep for Bejing. If he puts off the surgery, plays on, Bynum returns and forms a chemistry with Gasol and Bryant in the triangle offense, Jack Nicholson needs to keep that third week in June open for possible NBA Finals games at the Staple Center.

Eight months ago, we railed Bryant for his public crusade to force a trade. We criticized the discouraging comments about youngster Andrew Bynum. Called Kobe selfish, laughed at how he now got a taste of his own medicine for pushing Shaq out, transforming LA from title contender to a one man, one playoff round show. Kobe listened, he learned, he all but admitted the mistake this week, saying “thank god I’m not the GM.” He became a team player, finally listened to the Zen Master, the kid started to blossom, then the front office got the help he wanted, the proven second option to spread the defense. Result – LA sits only 1.5 games from the best in the West, and is only closing in.

Now this. Through it all, even when his public image took a beating, Kobe always brought his A-game, his A-effort to the court. Is there any doubt if he’ll opt for surgery? No chance. He smells a chance at the crown, six years after last winning it, Bryant knows how precious the opportunities are. Come hell or high water, doctors will have to force Kobe off the court. If he has the choice, surgery will wait. Beware Western Conference, Bryant’s on a mission, and he just loaded his gun with more ammo – the chance to prove his mettle and toughness, take another step into NBA lore by pulling a pseudo Willis Reed for half a season.