Western Playoff Stampede

San Antonio, Utah, and New Orleans have a chance to end the most lopsided Western Conference playoff round in recent memory. Bad enough the lower seeds have only won three games, six of the 12 games have been decided by double figures – three happen to be in the Utah-Houston series. So much for the anyone can win the conference claim.

Denver never gave Los Angeles a match. The Nuggets self-destructed, losing every aspect of the game except technical fouls. Combined with the Laker discipline and execution, with Denver’s selfish play, lack of discipline and lack of ball movement, it adds up to a sweep. Carmelo Anthony was right – his team, top to bottom, quit.

Dallas traded the farm for 7.3 points, 6.3 assists, and a nice view of the Chris Paul show. Oh yeah, forgot that ejection. That sums up Jason Kidd’s performance in this series. Paul makes Kidd look old, totally dominating him on both ends of the court at will. Less prominent, though as imposing, Dallas has no equal for David West either. Josh Howard disappeared into a cloud of smoke that only thickened after his untimely comments. The coach is on the hot seat, the star point guard doesn’t belong on the same court as his counterpart, the Small Forward lacks any judgment, throw in two superstars on the other team, adds up to New Orleans coasting in five tonight.

Forever the playoff goat, Tracy McGrady unfairly shouldered the blame for his teams inability to win a playoff series prior to this year. However, he earned that blame against Utah, scoring 1 point in the combined fourth quarters of Games 1 and 2. Yes, the Rockets are banged up . Yes, Utah has a solid team up and down the roster. But if they hang in the game until the final minute, McGrady has to close it out. More and more it looks like he’ll never live down that comment about the Pistons, up three games to one in 2003 while with Orlando. If Houston extends the series, Utah will not lose at home twice.

The mother of all first round series, San Antonio and Phoenix. Last week I wrote about a scintillating Game One that the Spurs pulled out in double overtime, best game of the year. Phoenix responded with a strong start in Game Two, then went on vacation for six quarters. Always consistent, ready to pounce on the opponent, San Antonio erased a a double-digit deficit in Game Two to win easily, before blowing the doors of the arena early in Game Three. Nash and company recovered in Game Four, but beating San Antonio four straight in the playoffs, without home court is daunting.  Unable to stop the penetration of Parker and Ginobili, the Suns become susceptible to easy shots, and kick outs for three. The defending champs took Sunday off, expect them to rebound tonight. Shaq has played pedestrian this series, failing to make a significant contribution on either side of the floor. No longer an offensive threat, too slow to play consistent defense. Losing Grant Hill, forever injured, hurts Phoenix tremendously on defense, its best answer to the younger, quicker Parker. Prior to Sunday, the Suns role players – Barbosa and Diow – failed to show up, players they need in order to win. Of any team trailing 3 games to 1, this team has the best chance to at least extend the series. They need a full team effort, and someone needs to control the perimeter on defense to slow down the Spurs attack.

Round Two is shaping up with two intriguing matchups, then again, we thought Round One was too.

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Truth Will Cost Josh Howard

Finding out an NBA player – anyone for that matter, be it pro athlete, presidential candidate, or union worker – smokes marijuana is not earth shattering news. Josh Howard, previously suspected of marijuana use as far back college, admitted to smoking pot in the off-season on “The Michael Irvin Show” on the local ESPN Radio affiliate in Dallas last Friday. Commend Howard for his honesty, however probably cost himself millions of dollars, and created an unneeded distraction for his time.

You have to question his timing, selecting the day of a playoff game to discuss marijuana use. Already down two games in the series, an off court distraction is the last thing Dallas needed as a team, or for one of its star players. The Mavs did answer the bell Friday night, beating New Orleans, but lost convincingly last night, and now sit one game from elimination, down 3-1 in the series. Howard played like he had a cloud over him, shooting an abysmal 8-32 from the field in the two games, only scoring 6 points on Sunday.

Howard’s marijuana admission marks the second major PR hit for the Jordan Brand roster of stars this month. Earlier this month, Denver police arrested Carmelo Anthony on DUI charges. Anthony, fresh off a $60 million extension with the Jordan brand, probably hurts the brand more, but Howard’s double whammy does not help. Without knowing the intricacies of his contract, I wonder if the Jordan brand will try to distance themselves from Howard after his comments.

His agent and PR team will need to do a lot of spin work to rebuild the image Josh Howard has created for himself before he gets another endorsement. Sponsors are increasingly wary of signing athletes with the recent spate of off the field problems, afraid an athlete can taint the image of the product. A former All-Star, Howard cost himself future marketing dollars with this public admission.

Losing out on money is not new for Josh Howard. Back in 2003, the reigning ACC Player of the Year fell to 29th in the NBA Draft party due to suspicion of marijuana use contributing to an already questionable public persona due to his association with various entourages and discipline problems at Wake Forest. His skill warranted border-line lottery status. That year Howard received a 3-year, $2.56 million rookie contract as the last pick of the first round, while the last lottery pick, Marcus Banks, signed for $4.58 million for three years. Right there, Howard left two million on the table, though he since compensated with a 4-year, $40 million extension. Nonetheless, lost money is lost opportunity.

The NBA gave no indication if they will reprimand Howard. Mavs owner Mark Cuban stated the team would deal with the issue internally. Needless to say, in a league rebuilding its image, David Stern and the league office cannot be happy with Howard disrupting the playoffs with another story that creates a negative perception among fans.

Again, its befuddling why Howard would go out of his way to bring up the marijuana topic when Irvin did not probe him about it. Honesty is the best policy, but sometimes silence is smarter. This underscores the fact that agents and teams need to coach players on interview skills, and monitor them off-the-court more than ever.

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.

TNT Botches Game Schedule

TNT, along with NBA broadcast partners ESPN and ABC, continue to ride the most provocative NBA season in recent history to big television ratings, taking advantage of teams in the ultra-competitive Western Conference and the re-emergence of the Celtics. Thursday night TNT blew its last regular season opportunity for big ratings.

Each Thursday the NBA schedules a third game, along with the TNT doubleheader. This week, five of the six teams playing were in the West race, two games pitted in the Pacific time zone. Yet TNT televised the one game with the worst team involved, the Clippers, and passed on the one non West coast game, in Dallas, forcing a local start time of 5:00 PM for the Golden State-Denver game.

Kobe and the Lakers always draw ratings, but why put a semi-meaningless LA showdown featuring the hapless Clippers that turned into a 30-point blowout and pass up an intriguing Dallas-Utah game with two teams in the midst of the playoff race. To make the decision look worse, the Mavs and Jazz played a tight game down to the wire with Nowitzki hitting a late jumper to send Dallas to the playoffs.

The schedule forced the Nuggets-Warriors game, tied for the final playoff spot, to start at 5 PM locally to accommodate the late start in LA. TNT easily could have started the Dallas game at 7 CST, not an unreasonable for local fans on a Thursday, kept the Warriors at 10:30 EST, 7:30 local, and boasted a Western Conference double dip involving the three teams battling for the final two spots and a division winner, then had Dallas clinch. Instead they have a snoozer in the late window, and probably in the ratings column.

NBA Trade Deadline Winners

What a difference a year makes. 2008 proved anything but quiet at the deadline with a flurry of past and future All-Stars, a hall-0f-famer, big contracts, and championship contenders all involved. Needless to say it impacted the playoff landscape. With the phones silenced for now, time to assess the damage. We’ll focus on the teams that made the big moves – apologies to New Orleans, Portland, Denver, Detroit, and Toronto, I don’t see the impact.

The Winners
Lakers – LA made out like bandits, landing Pau Gasol for a point guard unlikely to realize his potential in LA, and a bag of balls. Gasol and Kobe clicked immediately, forming a dynamic inside out offensive duo. With Phil Jackson at the helm, two top notch scorers, the best player in the world, the right mix of veteran and young role players, a dynamic athlete now playing under the radar in Lamar Odom, the Lakers have formed the perfect storm to ride to the top. Not to mention 7 feet of potential lingering on the bench for a return. Forget a healthy Bynum, LA is the best team in the league right now, Bynum makes them scary.
Miami – Jettison a $20 million albatross for a dynamic offensive and defensive player. Criticize Pat Riley all you want for the coaching job, but consider he removed Shaq, Ricky Davis, and Antoine Walker – three bad contracts – from the salary cap, expediting the rebuilding process. A one year trial for Marion to find out if they want to team him with Wade for the long-term, or use the cap space on another star in 2009 or 2010.
New Jersey – A young point guard with nice upside locked up until 2013 at a reasonable price, expiring contracts, and draft picks for a disgruntled, highly paid superstar that publicly requested a trade. Consider how difficult it is to get equal value for star caliber players, Thorn made out nice, opening the door for NJ to re-tool and still compete in the watered-down Eastern Conference.
San Antonio – Subtle, yet important. Like the team itself, quiet assassins, San Antonio grabbed a veteran inside defensive presence to counteract the Gasol and Shaq deals, providing Duncan with help inside. Kurt Thomas can knock down the 15-foot jumper, another offensive weapon to go alongside Horry come playoff time. Don’t underestimate his toughness in a playoff series.
Atlanta – A scary collection of athletic talent, Bibby provides the veteran presence on and off the court the young team needs. A playmaker to create shots for Marvin Williams, Josh Smith, Al Horford, Joe Johnson, et al., Bibby improves the Hawks outside shooting and fits right into the transition game they excel in. Atlanta is close to becoming a force.
Seattle – Seattle moves into full-fledge rebuilding mode, dumping any and all veteran possible to stock up on draft picks and less expensive contracts. Since winning is not the objective, Seattle accomplished its mission.

Could Have Done Better
Cleveland – With LeBron quietly pressuring the team to make a move, Ferry made a splash with a trade involving a full roster of players. On the surface, Cleveland improves, acquiring shooting help with Sczerbiak and West, inside scoring with Joe Smith, having a solid season with over 17 ppg in Chicago, and the former defensive player of the year and rebounding monster Ben Wallace. A clear upgrade over Hughes, Gooden, Simmons, Brown, and Newble, though Gooden is much better than he’s played this season, the question remains if Wallace can rediscover his former self. Losing out on Bibby, who the Cavs could have snatched with Gooden in the package, along with the uncertainty of Wallace may leave Cavs fans – and a certain superstar – wondering what if come May.
Phoenix – Wrote about this previously, high risk, high reward trade by Steve Kerr. The type of move that can cost Kerr his job, or elevate him to genius. Phoenix was not winning the title with the team as it was, credit him for his boldness, not settling for another good regular season and tough playoff loss. On the upside, Shaq provides the toughness, rebounding, and interior defense the Suns lacked in the half-court game, liberating Amare on both ends of the court, leading Phoenix to the title. The downside, Shaq continues his downward trend, Suns fall in the first or second round again, get saddled with a bad contract for 2-3 years marking the downfall of this group. The reality lies somewhere in between, expect a rejuvenated Shaq to play well, help Phoenix develop a half court game for the playoffs, but the Suns still fall short in May and June
Sacremento – Mission half accomplished, moved Bibby, hung onto Artest. The bad boy had suitors, the Kings should have taken advantage of the opportunity.
Losers
Memphis – Can you say Fire Sale?
Dallas – Similar to Phoenix, the Mavs had to change things up to have a chance to take the next step. Kidd brings leadership and a grittiness to a team that clearly lacks the veteran presence. Dallas needs Kidd to find his former self after a sub-par season for an underachieving Nets team. His presence will benefit Dirk, Howard, and Terry offensively, but does nothing to shield Dallas from the Duncan’s, Shaq’s, Stoudemire’s, and Gasol’s of the newly West. At 35, though still playing at high level, you can make a strong case Kidd ranks behind Williams, Paul, and Nash at point in the West, all in the same Western Conference scrum as Dallas. If that proves true, Dallas loses out big time. They lose a young potential star with a good contract, become the oldest team in the NBA, tie up the salary cap with a big number for the next few years, assuming a Kidd extension, all for a player on the downside who does not solve their biggest weaknesses and does not put them over the top. The move reeks of desperation. However, give them credit for taking a chance, not settling for 55 wins and a playoff exit.
Chicago – Involved with every major trade rumor the past year – Kobe, KG, Gasol – the Bulls held their assets, watched Gordon, Deng, and Hinrich plummet in value for arguably the biggest disappointment in the NBA this season. In the end, they hold all three, acquiring the likes of Gooden and Hughes. What’s the plan in Chi-town? Yes, they end the failed Ben Wallace experiment, cutting losses. Is Chicago rebuilding, trying to make a run, planning to hold Gordon, Deng, Hinrich, Duhon, et al.? Why Hughes, who plays the same position? Will Gooden take playing time from Tyrus Thomas and Joakhim Noah, who both stood to benefit without Wallace. Too many questions.
Boston, Orlando, Houston You may ask why. All three teams need point guard help – Boston a veteran to split time with Rondo, Houston and Orlando a playmaker to setup their scorers. Houston tried by acquiring Bobby Jackson, but that does not put them over the top or out of the first round in the West – a waste of Yao and McGrady. Boston will play in the playoffs. Who do you want in a big spot, Billups or Rondo? Down in Florida, Nelson has disappointed, and Arroyo is nothing more than a backup. Still young with good upside, Orlando waits until next year without a point guard.