Tuesday, May 17, 2005

NBA Musings

--> Monday was a strange day for the NBA playoffs. Rarely in the early rounds do you get a night completely void of games. Monday was one of those. The schedule-makers decided to play three of the four series on Sunday and only one (Washington-Miami) on Saturday. When that series ended in a Miami sweep on Saturday, there were no games scheduled for Monday. It was a good day of rest for those of us who aren't used to watching this much NBA basketball that doesn't involve the Timberwolves, and it was a nice chance to reflect on three interesting results from Sunday - results that left the three remaining series tied at two games apiece.

--> The Pistons reassured NBA Nation that they were indeed a better basketball team than Indiana. The Pacers are hardly the no-skill hacks they've looked to be for most of the series so far, but much of the trouble they've had on offense can be attributed to their lack of depth and Detroit's defensive intensity, which was picked up about six notches on Sunday in Game Four. Rasheed Wallace played a great game after guaranteeing a Piston victory in the locker room after Game Three. You have to respect a man who goes out and walks the walk to back up his big mouth. The performances of Richard Hamilton and Chauncey Billups didn't hurt much, either. Hmm...R. Wallace, Hamilton, and Billups hoisted the Pistons on their collective back and carried the team to a huge playoff victory. Does that sound familiar to anyone? Going home for Game Five on Tuesday, the Pistons have the momentum, and it's clear they have an edge in talent. Rick Carlisle has already pulled a couple rabbits out of his hat in these playoffs, though, and if he can get the same level of intensity out of his team that he did in the second half of Game Two, the Pacers will show they're not to be written off yet.

--> In San Antonio, the Spurs face the pressure of a Game Five, along with the memory of their last conference semifinal Game Five. Remember Derek Fisher? His shot beat the Spurs in that pivotal fifth game of last year's West semifinals, and the Lakers put the Spurs away at home a couple days later on their way to the NBA Finals. This year, the Spurs head home under similar circumstances. After two rather easy wins at home last year, the Spurs lost two straight in Los Angeles. Heading home, the Spurs were still confident, knowing they still had home-court advantage, and most observers thought they'd overcome Los Angeles. Fisher's game-winning shot, which came after Tim Duncan hit a go-ahead prayer of a shot for San Antonio with 0.4 seconds left, deflated any real chance the Spurs had of reaching the conference final. This year, the Spurs beat Seattle rather handily in each of the first two games, before losing two tough games in Seattle to level the series. With Game Five in mere hours from the time of this post, all bets are off. If San Antonio wins, they will win the series. If Seattle wins, the Spurs are suddenly under the same pressure they were under last year. The difference is that they're a bigger favorite this year, playing a smaller and less experienced team, and the heat is on San Antonio to get the job done.

--> In Phoenix, the pressure is there, but it's not the same as San Antonio. While expectations are high for a number one seed, the Suns have taken their fans on a wonderful run, and no one's job will be on the line if they can't get past Dallas. Not only that, but the Suns have an extra day to find a counter for Dallas' wonderful effort against Amare Stoudemire in Game Four on Sunday, as they don't play the fifth game of the series until Wednesday. Stoudemire had more fouls (five) than shots (three) on Sunday, and conventional wisdom dictates that it won't happen again. The NBA MVP, Steve Nash, scored 48 points on Sunday, and conventional wisdom dictates it won't happen again. It won't happen again because neither factor is conducive to a Phoenix win. The Suns know it. Nash has to distribute the ball more than he shoots it. Stoudemire has to find openings for more shots. He averaged more than 35 per game in the first three games, so there's a formula for success. It's hard to imagine a marginally talented defensive team shutting down Stoudemire twice in a row, especially with a point guard like Nash leading the way.

--> In the end, I think the home teams will win all three Game Fives, and they will all go on to win their series. With Miami already in for this weekend's start of the conference finals, we will then be set. Thanks to players like Shaq, Wade, Wallace (both of them), Hamilton, Billups, Nash, Stoudemire, Duncan, Parker, and Ginobli, we could be in for the best conference finals we've seen in the NBA since guys like Michael Jordan and Charles Barkley were the prime attractions. With the NHL on hiatus, the NBA has all the momentum going in their direction, and it's just in time for what would be a crippling lockout this fall.

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