There's still a chance that Ron Artest will lose his mind or that Bonzi Wells will blow his cool. So, for now, let's not go overboard with the appearance that the Sacramento Kings have several matchups that pose serious problems for the San Antonio Spurs.
Kings put squeeze on Spurs
The matchup that isn't going to go away, though, is between coaches Rick Adelman and Gregg Popovich, with Adelman pinpointing every single San Antonio pressure point and squeezing it to death.
On Sunday, the Kings showed the champs once again they aren't going to be a typical No. 8 seed with a 102-84 trouncing, paced by 25 points and 17 boards from Wells. With the series tied 2-2, Adelman and the Kings seem, against all odds, to have a handle on how to handle the Spurs.
In the process, Adelman also has put a viselike grip on Kings ownership, the Maloof family. One of the nuggets rattling around the rumor mill all season has been that Adelman is out, the reasons being his lack of assertiveness and defensive acuity and the general sense that the Kings' core had stopped listening to him.
Now, anything short of a lengthy renewal and a significant raise would seem out of order.
Whatever impression you may have of Adelman from his sour sideline demeanor, bland wardrobe or somewhat whiny voice, the man has always understood how to exploit his team's strengths and his opponent's weaknesses. Always. He also has never been afraid to do whatever is necessary, no matter whose feelings among his players it might hurt.
I was a beat writer covering Adelman with the Golden State Warriors, watching as he kept his team in contention for a playoff spot all season despite Tim Hardaway and Latrell Sprewell hating each other and Joe Smith as his best low-post presence. They didn't make it, but they never quit. Considering the meager talent and massive turmoil, it may have been as good as any coaching job he's done. In any case, what he's doing now to Popovich is no surprise.
For those not paying attention, what Adelman has pinpointed is that the Spurs don't have an easy answer for Artest and Wells attacking from the wings, and the solution to stopping the Spurs' balanced offense is to keep Tim Duncan guessing, make Tony Parker a playmaker and Manu Ginobili a catch-and-shoot player.
During and after the game, several TNT analysts -- Jalen Rose, Charles Barkley, Kenny Smith -- opined that the way to free Ginobili of Artest's shackles is to get him the ball in transition and coming off double screens. Well, sure, but that depends on the Kings missing shots and the Spurs rebounding well, which are not guarantees.
One rather drastic option is to replace Tony Parker with Ginobili at point guard. Parker, while continuing to score at a decent clip, isn't creating easy baskets for anybody else and isn't exactly shutting down Mike Bibby, who's averaging 19 points per game in the series. Putting Ginobili at the point and starting Brent Barry or Michael Finley at least creates a wrinkle for Adelman to iron out, specifically who Bibby guards and how to attack a bigger, longer opponent.
Take nothing away from what Parker has done this season; after all, he did play a huge part in the Spurs claiming the West's best record. But the playoffs require your key players to carry the load, to be better, to do what's necessary. Manu, time and again, has done that. He is San Antonio's energizer and X factor, and whatever other cliche you want to throw out there. I've said from the start, without him at 100 percent, it doesn't matter what Duncan or Parker or anybody else does, the Spurs don't defend their title.
Now, as it stands, they have some questions to answer to make it out of the first round. Questions posed by one Rick Adelman. Rarely has a lame duck looked so spry.
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With a single tick on the clock in overtime, Kobe Bryant rose up over Raja Bell (No. 19) and Boris Diaw (No. 3) for the thrilling game-winner. Like the rest of the world, Suns Tim Thomas, James Jones and Steve Nash could only watch and marvel. Said Nash, "It was amazing. He had two opportunities and made two great shots."
Is Larry Hughes trying to prove the Wizards made the right decision when they didn't re-sign him this past summer? If so, he's making a really strong case.
The slashing guard left Washington when Cleveland offered him a five-year, $60 million deal in the offseason, with the idea that he'd provide an off-the-dribble creator that could help take some of the heat off LeBron James.
But it's rarely played out that way since Hughes arrived in Cleveland. In the regular season, he missed 46 games with a broken finger, and when he did play his 15.5 points and 40.9 percent shooting were a far cry from the 22.0 points and 43.0 percent marksmanship he posted in Washington the season before.
Despite Hughes' mild regular-season numbers, hopes were high in Cleveland that he could be a difference maker in the series against Washington (that is now tied 2-2). His ability to score off the dribble was supposed to give the Cavs an added dimension they lacked in the regular season, and his familiarity with the opponent also figured to be an advantage.
Instead, Hughes has been a massive liability in the first four games. Overall, he's averaging 10.3 points on 30.9 percent shooting in the series, with his shot selection being a major problem -- and for Wizards fans, a familiar one. While Hughes is a potent weapon when he drives to the basket, his frequent reliance on a scattershot jump shot has left coaches in four different cities scratching their heads.
That's a major reason the Cavs have yet to muster 100 points in this series despite an opponent that was one of the worst defensive teams to make the playoffs. In fact, had the refs called either of James' two traveling violations at the end of Game 3, the Cavs would be on the brink of elimination.
For Hughes, things have gone from bad to worse in the two games in Washington. Playing in his former home arena, Hughes nonetheless mustered just a 4-for-16 performance in the two games, and he scored a quiet seven points before fouling out Sunday.
With Hughes struggling, the Cavs lacked an answer once LeBron James cooled off in the second half. James dominated the first two quarters, pumping in 25 points against a Washington team that was playing with a shocking lack of urgency given the must-win nature of the game.
But when James had a quiet third (no points on three shots) and the Wizards dialed up their previously nonexistent intensity, the Cavs needed a secondary scorer to answer the call. Unfortunately, Hughes' phone went straight to voice mail, and he scored only two points in the quarter.
Even that deuce came with an asterisk, as it came on an easy fast-break layup when Gilbert Arenas inexplicably turned to yell at the refs instead of running back on defense. Partly as a result of the no-show from Hughes, Cleveland scored only 15 in the quarter overall, allowing Washington to tie it after three. Then Arenas took over in the fourth.
So heading into Wednesday's Game 5, one of Mike Brown's biggest challenges will be getting Hughes untracked. Certainly, the Cavs' unimaginative offensive sets aren't doing him any favors -- as great as LeBron James is, it's not hard for the Wizards to defend him if all the other Cavs do is stand around and watch.
But as Cleveland's $60 million man, the responsibility ultimately falls on Hughes to find a way to get the job done. So far his former teammates have taken him out of the series, and with it a good chunk of Cleveland's offensive firepower. If the Cavs are going to prevail, that state of affairs must change.
-- John Hollinger, ESPN Insider
Early in Sunday's overtime, well before his fateful dribble along the left sideline, Steve Nash had a feeling he was headed for a painful finish.
It was early in the extra period. The Suns were playing without Shawn Marion, who had fouled out with 2:37 left in regulation, when Marion's replacement, Tim Thomas, hit the deck hard after fouling Kobe Bryant.
Nash scurried over to Thomas to extend an arm and haul him back up. But Nash winced and had to pause as he started to help Thomas to his feet, feeling a sharp twinge in his back.
What happened? Nash says that, after sitting out the final 2:34 of the third quarter and the first 2:15 of the fourth, his back tightened after a first half free of warning signs. He clearly wasn't moving freely after returning but played the final 14:45 without interruption.
"I wasn't going to ask out of the game," Nash said.
Which is why Suns coach Mike D'Antoni strongly rejected suggestions that Nash's uncharacteristic gaffe at the end of overtime -- dribbling into a double-team just past midcourt that led to the jump ball that led to Bryant's game-winning jumper at the OT buzzer -- was Sunday's killer blow for the Suns.
"I'm not going to tell you how good this guy is," D'Antoni said. "He did everything to get us where we were. There were just some bad breaks. That's it."
Both D'Antoni and Nash declined the opportunity to protest two non-calls that some Suns (most notably Thomas) put at the top of the list of bad breaks.
Thomas protested loudly after the game that Smush Parker should have been called for a foul after prying the ball loose from Nash in the final seconds of regulation. He was even angrier that the Suns' attempts to call timeout when Nash was surrounded by three Lakers at the end of OT were ignored.
Nash? He put the onus on himself to resurrect the Suns' offense after seventh-seeded L.A. -- with exactly 99 points in each of the past three games -- moved within one win of Round 2 and a likely Hallway Series with the Clippers.
"Our backs are totally against the wall," Nash said, openly hoping that the second-seeded Suns are literally and figuratively looser now that they've been shoved to the brink of elimination by three straight defeats. "We don't have much to lose."
-- Marc Stein at Staples Center in Los Angeles
I love you, man! Any tension among the Lakers seems a distant memory after their third straight win over favored Phoenix.
Lakers win in OT on Bryant jumper
AP Photo/Ric Francis
We were all witnesses to the buzzer beater Kobe Bryant called "the most fun shot I've ever hit." See Marc Stein's complete story.
Quote of the Day
-- Royce Webb
Kobe Bryant pulled victory from the jaws of defeat with a 17-footer as time expired in overtime, giving the Lakers a one-point win over the Suns.
Since the Lakers' Derek Fisher made such a shot to win Game 5 of their 2004 series against San Antonio, only Bryant and Sacramento's Kevin Martin (Friday night vs. the Spurs) have made a game-winning, walk-off basket in a playoff game with their team trailing at the time of the shot.
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Everybody says you've got to have a go-to guy. But when they have Shaq and D-Wade -- two of the top 10 go-to guys in the NBA -- and the Miami Heat still can't get it done, maybe the go-to guy theory is cracked.
Chicago, on the other hand, has no go-to guy. There's Ben Gordon, yes, but we're talking about a guy who started only 47 games and who, on Sunday, played virtually no role as the Bulls pulled out the game -- he took not a single shot in the final four minutes of Chicago's 93-87 win.
Three other players averaged double figures this season, but Kirk Hinrich, Luol Deng and Andres Nocioni won't make anyone forget Michael Jordan. Their combined points per game of 43.2 was just a good week for MJ.
So which of those four did they "go to" for the go-ahead basket on Sunday?
Sorry, trick question ... It was Chris Duhon, a defensive guard who scored only 8.7 points per game this season. His runner with 1:43 left gave Chicago a lead it never gave up.
On the other end, go-to guy Dwyane Wade missed a contested jumper (the first of four shots he missed in the final two minutes) -- with Shaq sitting, the Bulls had no doubt who would get the ball and blanketed him, as they've done all year.
Gordon rebounded Wade's rim shot, the Bulls moved the ball around for 21 seconds, and Hinrich nailed a long 3. From there, free throws by Duhon, Nocioni and Hinrich sealed it.
The Bulls could use another scorer, it's true -- maybe even one of those go-to guys we hear so much about.
But in the last two games, the go-to team has beaten the go-to guys convincingly. And, if nothing else, they've illustrated why they seem to hold the edge in this series now, even if Miami retains home-court advantage.
Because, unlike the Heat, the Bulls don't care who they go to. As long as they go to the second round.
-- Royce Webb
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
While the Heat bickered, the Bulls pulled together to tie up the series on a total team effort. In this photo, Tyson Chandler, who got Miami center Shaquille O'Neal in foul trouble, puts a headlock on Kirk Hinrich, whose 3-pointer with 1:09 remaining gave the Bulls a five-point lead in their 93-87 win.