EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- An increased measure of validation for Pat Riley's offseason moves arrived Sunday, no matter what Riley told me outside the locker room a half-hour after Miami's 102-92 victory over the New Jersey Nets gave the Heat a commanding 3-1 lead in their Eastern Conference semifinal.
An indication of vindication
"We haven't done anything until we win something," Riley said.
Point taken, Pat. But with the way his team took a huge step forward Sunday behind three of his key offseason acquisitions, it is time to revisit the question of whether Riley made too many changes last summer to a team that came within 125 seconds of reaching the NBA Finals, adding three new starters and a new backup point guard while jettisoning Eddie Jones, Damon Jones, Keyon Dooling and Rasual Butler.
"Everybody's got to understand he just built this team for this year," said Gary Payton, the last of Riley's offseason additions after he overruled others in the organization who were pushing for someone younger to back up Jason Williams. "Everyone expected us to play right together in three months. But now that we've played with each other, we're getting a feel for each other. We want to be like a Detroit. We haven't been together that long, but we're starting to get it."
Riley's reputation as a roster builder and his coaching legacy are at stake in his first trip to the postseason as coach since being swept out of the first round by the Charlotte Hornets in 2001. His last championship came 18 years ago in Los Angeles, and a generation of fans has come to know him as the architect of a franchise whose postseasons have been defined by failures.
"To me, this team is all about what we do in the postseason," Riley said as he made the long walk from the interview room to the Heat locker room following one of the better weekends he's had as a coach in years.
Only seven of 160 teams have successfully come back from 3-1 deficits in the postseason, and the Nets now have to try to win twice in Miami and once at home, where their lack of poise down the stretch doomed them both Friday and Sunday.
For Miami, full validation of Riley's moves might not come for weeks, if at all, and the players realize it's a do-or-die proposition.
"The only way it looks good is if we win it all. If we win a championship, then all the right moves were made; if we don't, then it's like all those moves were bad decisions. But we've got something special here," said James Posey, who didn't exactly lock down Vince Carter in the fourth quarter but did force him into outside shots after Carter had been penetrating the lane earlier in the game.
Riley used a defensive-minded unit of Posey, Shaquille O'Neal, Payton, Udonis Haslem and Dwyane Wade to close the game, holding Carter to 3-for-8 shooting in the fourth quarter and Jason Kidd to his second straight scoreless final period.
Though Antoine Walker wasn't on the court at the end, the player who was the centerpiece of the largest deal in NBA history last summer did his damage earlier. Nobody will ever accuse Walker of shying away from the big shot (as they did in Miami with the departed Eddie Jones), and Walker was gunning away with aplomb Sunday through the first three quarters with five 3-pointers among his 20 points, helping the Heat build an 11-point third quarter lead that New Jersey tried in vain to knock down for the rest of the afternoon.
With the Heat ahead 94-90 and the clock winding inside of 90 seconds, Miami's defense forced New Jersey to settle for a jumper by Nenad Krstic that missed, which was followed by the biggest shot of the game -- a 3-pointer from the corner by Payton with 56 seconds left that made it a seven-point game.
It was Payton's only bucket of the afternoon, but it was exactly the type of clutch shot Riley wanted to get when he signed Payton in mid-September following Michael Finley's decision to join the Spurs instead of the Heat.
Payton recalled how he and Riley met for dinner at a restaurant near the golf course at the Wynn resort in Las Vegas, Riley doing the selling and Payton doing the listening as he tried to decide between offers from the Heat, Clippers and Suns. A phone call from Shaq had him leaning toward Miami, and Riley closed the deal in an hour.
"He was trying to see where my thoughts were at, and getting me to buy in. We had a good conversation. He's been trying to get me since '96," Payton said. "It was one of them things, I'll go out here with Shaq, good organization that's been to the Eastern Conference finals, so I'll go here and try to get that championship. In my career right now, that's what I want to do."
Payton was delivering his postgame comments when O'Neal strode over, leaned in over a crowd of reporters and cameramen and planted a big kiss on Payton's forehead.
"Nice shot, baby," O'Neal told Payton.
And nice job, Mr. Riley, getting him, Posey and Walker. They made you look like a genius again Sunday, at least for a day.
Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images
Clippers guard Shaun Livingston makes the most of his 6-foot-7 length to block a shot by speedy Suns guard Steve Nash.
Call it the accidental adjustment.
With center Chris Kaman nursing a sore shoulder, the Clippers had no choice but to go small in Sunday's Game 4 against the Suns. Out went the 7-footer and in went sharpshooter Vladimir Radmanovic. When he started slow the Clippers got even smaller, playing Corey Maggette at power forward for much of the game. In fact, they got so small that at one point the L.A. frontcourt consisted of James Singleton and Shaun Livingston.
That wasn't the plan, but it couldn't have worked better. The Clippers tied the series at two games apiece largely because the smaller lineup matched up much better against Phoenix. That's no knock on Kaman's work. He had been effective in the first three games of the series -- he averaged 11 points and 10 boards against Phoenix's undersized frontcourt.
However, the Clippers were never going to be able to fully utilize his size advantage in the low post. With Elton Brand terrorizing the Suns from the left block, running plays to get Kaman the ball on the other side made little sense -- any post-up for Kaman essentially took one away from Brand. As a result, Phoenix gladly welcomed Kaman receiving the ball on the blocks, even with his height advantage, because it meant Brand wasn't in the play.
Additionally, the bigger Kaman was much slower to make defensive rotations out to the 3-point line than the other Clippers, and that was a problem against Phoenix players like Tim Thomas. It's far from coincidental that tonight was Thomas' worst game of the series.
The Phoenix forward shot just 3-for-12 from the floor and only 2-of-10 from the 3-point line -- in part because so many of his jumpers were being contested by rotating players. That ability to defend the 3-point line extended to the rest of the club, as Phoenix made only 10-of-36 from downtown.
In addition to the Kaman switch, another move by Clippers coach Mike Dunleavy reaped serious dividends -- and this one was planned. By inserting Maggette into the lineup for Quinton Ross, he made the Suns pay for all the double-teams they sent at Brand. Maggette's slashes to the hoop produced 18 points, and his prolific foul-drawing abilities helped put both Thomas and Shawn Marion in foul trouble at the start of the third quarter.
As a result, look for the same lineup from L.A. in Game 5 regardless of Kaman's status. Dunleavy's moves -- one made willingly, one forced on him -- have Phoenix on its heels, and on Tuesday it will be Mike D'Antoni's turn to make a move on the chessboard.
-- John Hollinger
Scouts Inc.'s John Carroll writes:
I called it several games ago and it happened in Game 3. Matchups, matchups, matchups. That is what playoff basketball is all about. The Spurs were stuck with Bruce Bowen guarding Dirk Nowitzki and had no one to deal with Josh Howard.
Thus Gregg Popovich was forced in Game 3 to put Bowen on Howard to slow him down and he slid Robert Horry over to guard Nowitzki. It was not the perfect answer, but it allowed the Spurs some flexibility. Popovich will observe who is on the court and possibly switch the matchups around a bit the rest of the series.
Dwyane was Dwyane. But the older newcomers -- including Gary Payton and Antoine Walker -- had key roles in the Heat's Game 4 win.
Nets Trail 3-1
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images/
Vince Carter hasn't dropped his cellphone, just a realistic shot at beating the Heat. Though it sometimes looks like he can make even a 50-footer with ease, he missed all seven of his 3-point attempts in his team's 102-92 Game 4 loss to the Heat.
Quote of the Day
-- Andrew Ayres
Being a Suns fan and Spurs hater, you'd think I'd love watching the refs call them for 500 fouls in Game 3. But no, I'm starting to hate Dallas even more than SA. The NBA should be about playing basketball, not about refining the art of "drawing fouls."
I'm all for offense and hate physical defense, but I hate watching offensive players get call after call for "initiating contact." NBA officiating is beyond horrible. It's not all the refs' fault -- the NBA has some really stupid rules that do nothing for basketball.
All these comparisons between Ben Wallace and Bruce Bowen as defensive players are complete hogwash, totally ridiculous. Bowen commits 12 plus fouls a game, but usually only gets called for about five. If you look at the replays of Wallace though, his strips and blocks are generally clean. Bruce isn't in Ben's league, despite what the league would have us believe.
An LA fan wonders again. When will they stop criticizing Kobe? Now whenever someone, anyone, I mean anyone, does anything good, writers talk smack about Kobe. Just today [Gene] Wojciechowski wrote about LeBron's "success" and all of the sudden started bashing Kobe. What in the world is going on? It is out of my understanding.
A little while ago there was an article on ESPN.com talking about if Kobe or LeBron could be the next MJ. The defining characteristic of Jordan was that when it mattered most he brought it and could carry a team. Kobe was down to the Suns, who play no defense, by 15 at the half.
LeBron was down to the Pistons by 10 in the third. LeBron pulled out a W against the best team in the league in the playoffs. Kobe couldn't even attempt a comeback against the Suns who play matador defense.
Oh, and Kobe's was in a Game 7. Kobe gave up against a bad defensive team (the kind of teams you can make comebacks against). LeBron pulled one out against a tough, experienced defensive team. LeBron just took his first TRUE step towards being the next Jordan: big victories in the playoffs.
The Suns committed only five turnovers Sunday but lost to the Clippers 114-107. Since turnovers were first recorded, in the 1971 playoffs, only four other teams have lost a game with as few TOs as the Suns, most recently the Lakers against the Rockets in 2004.
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