DENVER -- Anyone getting a sense of déjà vu yet?
What Denver didn't do
Two years ago, a Denver team that ended the season on a hot streak rode it into San Antonio to win Game 1 of a first-round playoff series. Unfortunately, it was the last game the Nuggets would win all year.
Fast forward two years, and George Karl's squad is halfway to a repeat performance. Once again, a streaking Denver team won the opener in Texas, only to give back home-court advantage in Game 3. Now it faces a must-win on Monday night to even the series, and to prevent an encore performance of the five-game flameout in 2005.
But not so fast -- Karl insists the similarities end there. Last time, the problem was effort. "We didn't even play in the first half," he said of the 2005 Game 3 that San Antonio won 86-78, when the Spurs built up a 13-point lead before the break. "We were expecting the fans [to] win the game for us."
The same can't be said of Saturday night's 96-91 loss to Spurs. In a physical contest in which the refs swallowed their whistles for most of the first 30 minutes, Denver came out charging hard and won most of the hustle categories.
They were the aggressors on the offensive end, earning 30 free-throw attempts against the league's least foul-prone team by continually taking it to the hole. They had 15 offensive rebounds to the Spurs' 14, including several notable hustle plays by Eduardo Najera and Carmelo Anthony. And they put a pounding on the Spurs too, with nearly every San Antonio player using some variation of the phrase "it was real physical out there" afterward.
So this time the Nuggets played hard. They just didn't play smart. And ultimately that was their undoing.
The signature play came at the end of the third quarter, when Denver's J.R. Smith threw away a pass in the backcourt that led almost immediately to a Robert Horry 3-pointer. That was part of a 2:46 sequenced bridging the third and fourth quarters where the Spurs went on a 13-3 run, aided immensely by Denver mental mistakes.
Playing in his first playoff series, Smith was involved in most of them. He doubled-down on the original error by forcing a contested 3-pointer on the next trip, in a futile effort to try to make up for the three points he'd just given away. Then he closed the run by flagrantly fouling Manu Ginobili after a matador effort to stop his original drive.
"J.R. had a bad turnover," Karl understated, "and that shook us up a bit."
He wasn't the only one. Allen Iverson continued to force the issue with contested midrange jumpers offensively and ended up shooting 7-for-20. Defenders kept getting lost on rotations in the second half, setting forth a 3-point flurry by the Spurs that allowed them to stay in front.
And even coach Karl got in on the act, making a questionable decision by failing to foul with a five-point deficit and 40 seconds left.
"I can't question my guys' courage and heart," said Karl, "But we probably got outsmarted a little bit."
The shame is that this one was there for the taking. With the officials allowing a lot of contact (as long as it wasn't with the coaches' box) and the Spurs still adjusting to the altitude after flying in on Friday, this was the game Denver needed. Karl even teetered on the brink of calling it a must-game beforehand, allowing that he "might have" said that to his team and that he warned them not to give back the home-court edge they worked so hard to earn in Game 1.
If you're looking for silver linings, the good news for Denver is that this time they belong here. It's totally plausible for them to win Game 4 on Monday, steal one in San Antonio next week and still get to the second round. Over the first three games they've played the Spurs to a near-draw -- the composite score is San Antonio by eight -- and if you subtract that one three-minute brain melt, they'd be holding the upper hand in this series.
That's not the only reason Karl won't be joining in the nation's déjà vu tonight -- he also sees a much different spirit.
"My team all three games has been focused and professional. That's the difference between two years ago and this year," he added, even calling the morning's shootaround the most focused one his team ever had.
The question now is whether they can channel all of that focus more productively. "Work smarter, not harder," sounds like management consultant speak, but after tonight's disappointment, that should be Denver's mantra heading into Monday night.
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AP Photo/John Raoux
Former Detroit draftee Darko Milicic had 12.3 points per game on 59 percent shooting in the series for Orlando, but Rasheed Wallace and the Pistons left him frustrated again in a 4-0 sweep.
ORLANDO -- The music inside the Detroit Pistons' jubilant locker room was thump-thump-thumping through the speakers, but Rasheed Wallace was still speaking loud enough for those around him to hear.
And teammate Chris Webber was the target of a Wallace rant that was equal parts serious and silliness.
"To get the rest we're going to have, we need it because we have some old-ass cats on this team," Wallace said, referring to the break Detroit will enjoy following Saturday's 97-93 defeat of the Orlando that closed out the series. "We gotta rest [Webber]. Like Magic [Johnson] said on TNT, we gotta win so we can rest up C-Webb for the next series."
A Detroit roster that is one of the oldest in the NBA will now have a week off to refresh its bodies and prepare for the survivor of the Chicago-Miami series. The Pistons made quick work of the Magic, sweeping a series for the first time since 1990. The second-round series won't start until Saturday at the earliest.
Detroit's inability to make short work of series against Milwaukee and Cleveland in the playoffs last spring left it tired and vulnerable in the Eastern Conference finals. The Miami Heat won that series and went on to win the NBA championship that the Pistons thought was theirs.
Detroit fell behind 85-80 Saturday with 3:18 to play, but its focus down the stretch was flawless. The Pistons made their final five field goals and their last 19 free throws to eliminate the upstart Magic.
"I'm so proud of the way we came in and took care of business," Chauncey Billups said. "This was a game we had never been in, trying to sweep a team. I think we underestimated how tough it would be."
Coach Flip Saunders said the Pistons will likely take Sunday and Monday off before starting preparation for the Bulls-Heat winner. He said the team would likely have to scrimmage some throughout the week to ensure it stays sharp.
Wallace, who turns 33 in September, said he isn't worried about the Pistons losing their focus.
"We took care of business here (in Orlando), so why should we complain about getting some time off?" Wallace said over the music.
-- John Denton at the TD Waterhouse Centre
DENVER -- From San Antonio's side, the key to the Game 3 win was all about the return of the 3-point shot. The Spurs converted only 14-of-38 triples in the first two games, with Denver attempting to single-cover Tim Duncan and reduce the Spurs' 3-point opportunities, and that was a major reason the Nuggets left Texas with a split.
But there were more opportunities for the long ball tonight, which Karl attributed to confusion against the pick-and-roll, and San Antonio took advantage. The Spurs shot 9-for-20, including several dagger 3s in the second half that kept the Nuggets at bay.
Michael Finley led the way by making 5-of-7, but no shots were bigger than two by Robert Horry.
The first, off an Horry steal of a bad pass in the backcourt by J.R. Smith, gave the Spurs a working margin late in the third quarter that they never relinquished.
And the second was the clincher, a fading 2-point shot in the corner over Eduardo Najera that put San Antonio up by seven with 42 seconds left.
That shot by Horry was the fitting conclusion to a pattern that began with a forced 3 off the dribble by Tony Parker to beat the shot clock in the first quarter. Yes, San Antonio got more 3-point opportunities tonight, but they also made a few with an extremely high degree of difficulty shots.
"That shot [Horry] hit late was really tough," said Allen Iverson. "Finley hit a couple shots with a hand in his face. You've got to tip your hat."
"You should see him now," Popovich joked about the veteran Horry, who has been banged up at various times this year but had 10 points and three blocks in his longest stint (29 minutes) of the season. "He might be ready to go again this summer."
-- John Hollinger from Pepsi Center
Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images
When we say the Houston-Utah series is physical, this is what we mean. The Jazz evened things up 2-2 on Sat. night. Anyone not expecting a Game 7 next Saturday?
Quote of the Day:
-- Royce Webb
WASHINGTON -- As a part of their smoke, sound and laser-light filled pregame introductions, the Wizards went ahead and introduced Caron Butler and Gilbert Arenas along with their starting five Saturday night. Arenas drew the biggest ovation, waved, and then grasped the railing as his limped down a flight of stairs.
Call it symbolic, metaphoric or ironic, but that moment pretty much tells the tale of this soon-to-be completed Cavs-Wizards series.
The Wizards, and specifically Antawn Jamison, gave the Cavs their best shot on Saturday, pouring out emotion and their best spurt of play in the series. For six glorious minutes in the third quarter, the run-and-gun show was back and it surely looked as if there was a chance it might break the somewhat suspect Cavaliers, who have been reluctant to step on their underdog's throat over the last week.
But outside that little spurt, erasing a 17-point Cleveland lead, the Cavs were simply the better team, as has been plain to see from their 98-92 win and 3-0 series lead.
It is easy to take pot shots at the Cavs for not being more vicious thus far, but they continue to execute in times of need. This was especially true for LeBron James.
His 30 points speak enough to his performance in Game 3, but it is more telling to see how he controlled the game in the fourth quarter without making a single basket. The Wizards were swarming at him, but he calmly set up his teammates by getting five of his nine assists in the fourth.
Overall, Zydrunas Ilgauskas did the most damage, making 10-of-13 shots on the way to 24 points.
Jamison isn't so blessed in the teammate department. His 38 points were impressive, but he made just one hoop in the fourth quarter, when he looked gassed. Antonio Daniels has 35 assists in the series, but was also ineffective down the stretch. Jarvis Hayes is 14-of-41 in the three games, while DeShawn Stevenson is a horrid 9-of-38.
And the Wizards appear soon to be joining Butler and Arenas on the sidelines.
-- Brian Windhorst at the Verizon Center
Scouts Inc. is providing a forecast for every playoff game. Here's an excerpt from the preview of Sunday's Chicago-Miami game (ABC, 12:30 ET):
Unfortunately for Miami, Chicago has proven that they are nothing if not well-balanced on the perimeter, with Luol Deng coming up big the first two games, Kirk Hinrich the last game, and Ben Gordon the one riddle Miami has yet to figure out.
Miami missed 19 free throws last game and they clearly have to tighten that up to win a close game, but they were last in the league in free throw percentage on the season and they must look deeper than that.
The X-factor entering this series was the health of Dwyane Wade, and he is not himself right now. His effort to penetrate and pick up his aggressiveness with the dribble has been admirable, but he is not attacking the rim or finishing as usual, and his turnovers are soaring.
Without him at 100 percent, Miami must play a near-perfect game if they are to beat Chicago. They must attack offensively, hit shots, and contain Chicago's speed both in transition and the half court.
Scouts Inc. is providing a forecast for every playoff game. Here's an excerpt from the preview of Sunday's LA-Phoenix game (ABC, 3:30 ET):
In Game 3, Kobe Bryant played just about a perfect game.
Not enough can be made of Lamar Odom's aggressiveness in attacking the rim and going after every rebound at both ends.
Kwame Brown provided a consistent interior presence.
Phoenix must work harder on the perimeter and must not allow Brown to catch so deep in the post, for starters.
For their part, the Lakers will be facing a different Phoenix team in Game 4.
Phoenix will be rededicated to its spacing and offensive execution, and playing with more Sun-like energy defensively.
For any of this to matter, though, they must solve the problem posed by the Lakers in Game 3.