So, let me get something straight. The Bulls led the league in field goal percentage defense this year ... Right? We're sure that wasn't a typo? Because in the first two games of Chicago's Eastern Conference playoff series, its allegedly tough defense has surrendered one easy basket after another to Miami.
Still can't beat the Heat
After scoring 111 points in Saturday's win, the Heat redoubled their efforts Monday. Miami scored 95 points in the first three quarters en route to a 115-108 victory, shooting 52.4 percent from the floor while landing all five starters in double figures.
What makes the result doubly vexing for the Bulls is that this was the game they needed to have. With Udonis Haslem serving a one-game suspension, Alonzo Mourning still on the mend from a calf injury and Shaquille O'Neal historically playing worse in games with only one day of rest as opposed to two, the Heat were ripe for the picking.
Instead, Chicago wasted a brilliant performance by Andres Nocioni (13-of-15, 30 points, no cheap shots) with a defensive "effort" that had to drive Scott Skiles crazy. The Bulls surrendered 10 points in the first three minutes, leading Skiles to call timeout for the sole purpose of giving quick hooks to Ben Gordon and Michael Sweetney.
Things didn't improve until the Bulls were trailing by 19 points at the start of the fourth quarter, and the defining sequence came at the end of the first half. After a made free throw, Chicago let Jason Williams catch an inbounds pass and go coast-to-coast for an uncontested layup in less than four seconds. Then, Sweetney inbounded the ball directly to Dwyane Wade for a dunk at the halftime buzzer, putting the Bulls behind by double figures. For a team as effort-driven as Chicago is, that sequence was a shockingly lame effort by all five Bulls on the court.
Obviously, Chicago's challenge for Game 3 is to force some missed shots. It was clear when the series started that this was would be a huge factor in determining who won and lost because Miami was second in the league in field goal percentage at the offensive end and the Bulls were No. 1 defensively.
With Miami keeping the upper hand through the first two games, perhaps it's time for Skiles to shuffle the deck a bit. One possibility is to start Luol Deng in place of Malik Allen. Chicago has seemed to play well when it has had smaller lineups in the game and used Nocioni at power forward, and the Bulls also have had slow starts in Games 1 and 2 using the bigger Allen.
Plus, having another quick player on the floor could help Chicago rotate to Miami's shooters, a huge problem in the first two games. Wade and Shaq are getting their points, yes, but Miami's "others" put 72 on the board Monday, and all but Walker made at least half their shots.
Inserting Deng might not be a panacea, but one thing is certain: If Skiles doesn't come up with something new between now and Thursday, we can look forward to another Miami layup drill in Game 3. As exceptional as it was in the regular season, the Bulls' defense looks completely overmatched thus far in the playoffs.
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Chris Carlson/AP Photo
Clippers guards Sam Cassell, right, and Cuttino Mobley celebrate some early success against the Nuggets en route to a 98-87 win and a 2-0 advantage in the series.
Team Sherman just keeps rumbling along.
Those tanking Los Angeles Clippers are 2-0 in the last two games they actually tried to win, need just two more victories to reach the second round of the playoffs for the first time since they were my (OK, and Dr. Jack's) Buffalo Braves ... and thus sit only two victories away from forcing me to apologize to Sam Cassell.
The first apology was issued in mid-December. On my first trip of the season back to Los Angeles to see the new Clips, long before they maneuvered their way down to sixth in the West, Sam I Am couldn't wait to jump all over my preseason contention that there might not be enough basketballs for a starting five in which all five guys had to have touches: Elton Brand and Chris Kaman up front, and Corey Maggette and Cuttino Mobley flanking Cassell.
"You should have known better than that," Cassell chided.
Something else Sam told me that night -- and something I've believed ever since -- is that Dirk Nowitzki would have been the league's MVP if a Minnesota trade with Dallas had gone through before the Mavs released Michael Finley via the amnesty clause. Cassell gives his team (and his big men) priceless swagger and belief, and it doesn't hurt that, at 36, he's still a killer shot maker and top-shelf floor general. As beaten Nuggets coach George Karl observed after L.A.'s 98-87 victory in Game 2: "Sam is playing as a playmaker as well as I've seen him in a long, long time ... if I've ever seen him play that well."
Given the chance to redeem myself before the series and pick the Clips to beat Denver, I didn't. All year long, I've been gushing about how contagious Sam's confidence still is and I picked Nuggets In Six anyway.
Even though I couldn't question the wisdom of playing for the No. 6 spot as opposed to No. 5, thereby avoiding Dallas in Round 1 and escaping the dreaded Spurs-Mavs half of the West's playoff bracket, I didn't like the way L.A. finished the season. I did question whether the Clips could rediscover their edge just like that. I also didn't like the rumblings I was hearing about in-house discontent, with Maggette clearly not happy about the PT he has lost to defensive ace Quinton Ross.
Of course, none of the above seems as troubling as what's happening with the Nuggets. The list goes well beyond their obvious health issues.
Denver's well-chronicled lack of quality shooters means it can't keep the floor spaced for hopelessly swarmed Carmelo Anthony. The Nuggets also can't run like they want to because they can't stop the Clips from pounding the ball inside. They simply couldn't get a stop in Game 2's opening quarter, putting the visitors in a stunning 32-13 hole that quickly was stretched to 38-13 early in the second quarter.
Right. Game over.
Series over? You'd like to think the Nuggets, back home in their loud building, can rebound with two victories. You'd really like to. But they sure gave out a surrender vibe Monday night. Whether it's a season full of injuries that has drained them or contagious frustration emanating from a miserable Kenyon Martin, I'm hearing a lot more about Denver's locker room than L.A.'s all of a sudden.
So I have a feeling Sam, next time I run into him, is going to have another good cackle to unleash in my face for fretting so needlessly about his Clips. Looks as though I should have been fretting for Denver's sake.
-- Marc Stein
• Which Clippers lineup is most effective? Check out 82games.com plus/minus stats at ESPN Insider.
Shane (Akron): Is it hard to objectively cover someone like LeBron James when you've known him since he was 14?
Brian Windhorst: At times, yes. Even though I believe I do a good job covering the Cavs, I wouldn't be here chatting if not for LeBron. However, I've tried to be fair in covering him. He and I have a professional relationship and he knows my family members and I know his. But he gets mad at me from time to time and currently I think members of his inner circle are mad at me for writing a story back in February on this Web site about how the Cavs are catering to them. So it isn't all peaches and cream.
Adam, N.H.: Why don't you think we see or read more behind the scenes type stuff on LeBron?
Brian Windhorst: First off, he guards his privacy very well. He doesn't let many media members close to him. Also, he has a New York-based PR firm that also works with Jay-Z that handles all personal media requests, which is probably smart. He rarely gives 1-on-1 interviews and in those he's guarded. He isn't ready to open everything up.
Western Conference First Round
San Antonio 1, Sacramento 0
Game 2: Tues., 9:30 ET, at San Antonio, TNT
Dallas 1, Memphis 0
Phoenix 1, Los Angeles Lakers 0
Los Angeles Clippers 2, Denver 0
Eastern Conference First Round
Indiana 1, New Jersey 0
Detroit 1, Milwaukee 0
Miami 2, Chicago 0
He shaved his head so he wouldn't worry about his appearance. Then Heat guard Dwyane Wade swatted a late Ben Gordon shot that helped thwart a furious Bulls comeback.
Miami Wins Game 2
Lynne Sladky/AP Photo
Bulls forward Andres Nocioni, putting the heavy D on the Heat's Antoine Walker, was a bright spot in Chicago's Game 2 loss.
Quote of the Day
-- Andrew Ayres
The Bulls made 53 percent of their field goals Monday and still lost. It's the second time in these playoffs that an NBA team has lost with such a high field goal percentage; Memphis shot 53 percent in its loss to the Mavericks on Sunday. Over the past seven NBA playoffs, the only other team to lose with as high a field goal percentage as the Bulls was the Suns, who shot 56 percent in a loss to the Spurs last year.
• Elias Sports Bureau | More from Elias
In Ron Artest's case, this was about more than message sending. The rules clearly state that intentional contact above the shoulders will result in a one-game suspension. For anyone.
Deliberate contact above the shoulders in a 30-point game?
That pretty much seals the deal. Whatever your name and history is.
The league undoubtedly deemed Artest's hit to be a cheap shot -- after an earlier cheap shot -- that left them no choice, even though Ginobili wasn't injured and even though the encounter didn't escalate into something bigger.
The angry Kings and their loyal subjects believe that Artest, because of his history, gets less leeway than anyone else in the game. And they're right.
But there's a difference between the elbow Artest took from Ginobili on the game's opening possession, which required three stitches to close a cut on Artest's lip, and the third-quarter extracurriculars. The league deemed Ginobili's elbow to be unintentional.
In spite of all of the above, I'm holding off on the Same Ol' Artest analysis. He has been too good for the Kings until now to be written off this quickly.
I can't pretend to tell you, furthermore, that I have a conclusive feel for how he'll respond from here.