PER Diem: April 20, 2009
The best, the worst and everything in between from the playoff's opening weekend
This all may be a two-month prelude to a much-anticipated Lakers-Cavs NBA Finals, but at least it's turning out to be interesting. While L.A. and Cleveland cruised, four other home teams lost over the weekend before Atlanta and Denver restored order Sunday night, throwing the outcome of several first-round series in doubt.
Here are John Hollinger's top five NBA observations for Monday. Insider
- Bulls' Hinrich comes up big on D
- Oden a bright spot in Blazers' loss
- The myth surrounding West vs. East
- Losing Game 1 not as fatal as it seems
- Upsets most likley in 3 vs. 6, 4 vs. 5
We had it all this weekend, actually -- surprise blowouts (Houston's win in Portland), shocking comebacks (Philly in Orlando), an overtime thriller (Chicago's upset in Boston) and perhaps the single most unlikely play of the postseason (Orlando's Anthony Johnson going coast-to-coast and dunking on Theo Ratliff).
What we don't have yet is a true rival to the Lakers or Cavs for a spot in the Finals, though Houston and Denver are auditioning for the job out West.
Nonetheless, it's time to sum up a wild and occasionally wacky weekend with our best and worst of the playoff openers:
Best individual performance: Derrick Rose, Bulls
OK, we all know Rose was brilliant, so here's the question looking ahead to Monday night: Was it a one-game outlier or a sign of what's to come?
Rose hadn't scored more than 27 points in a game this season, had never hit double figures in free throws in an NBA game and had double-figure assists only once since the All-Star break. So to see him bust out for 36 and 11, including 12-of-12 at the line, against one of the league's elite defenses was, to say the least, unexpected.
On the other hand, he hardly seemed overmatched while carving up the Boston defense. In fact, the combination of size and speed that made him the league's top overall pick last year was obvious, as was his finishing ability. Rose shot 56.3 percent in the basket area this season, a phenomenal percentage for a point guard, and he should be able to draw more fouls than he did in the regular season with his quick bursts to the rim.
Additionally, Rose's court awareness seemed a notch higher than I've seen the rest of the season. On the Bulls' first possession he connected on a transition alley-oop with Joakim Noah, a pass he seemed weirdly unable to throw the entire season, and then had a couple more as the game went on.
Of course, there were two teams in this game, and the normally textbook Boston defense certainly botched a couple of screen-and-roll coverages to allow Rose to get to the basket. Rajon Rondo, normally a lockdown defender, took some unnecessary gambles and was beaten badly. H eneeds to play more straight up defense on Rose, while his big men need to take better angles behind him to snuff Rose's drives. Boston might try trapping him more to get the ball out of his hands.
Regardless, it's unquestionably the league's biggest subplot heading into this week's Game 2s: Was Game 1 a sign that Rose has arrived or a one-game blip before he reverts to being the 17-and-6 guy he was in the regular season.
Most worrisome home loss: San Antonio
If you aren't troubled by San Antonio's loss in Game 1 to Dallas, then answer this: When was the last time you saw a team shoot 11-of-12 on 3-pointers? It never happens, but it did on Saturday, when the Spurs were 11-of-12 from downtown before two misses in the final half-minute. Yet even with that stellar and utterly unrepeatable shooting display, the Spurs still lost easily to Dallas in San Antonio.
It's not like Dallas was raining in their long-range shots either; the Mavs were only 5-of-17 from distance. But the Spurs couldn't guard them anyway. Dallas shot 53.8 percent and committed only seven turnovers, carving up San Antonio for 87 points in the final three quarters. If you just look at 2-pointers, the Spurs shot 40.2 percent to Dallas' 60.6 percent on the Spurs' court. That's just ugly, and it doesn't bode well for San Antonio's hopes of beating the Mavs.
Worst defensive strategy: Portland's defense on Yao
All season long, the Rockets have struggled against opponents who front Yao Ming in the post and force both Houston and Yao to move in order to get him the rock. The Blazers went away from that script on Saturday, and it cost them. Yao torched the Portland for 24 points on 9-for-9 shooting and played a flawless first half as the Rockets cruised to a surprising 108-81 rout.
Obviously, tactics were not the only reason Portland lost. Houston basically played a perfect game on Saturday, while the Blazers looked tight and lacked the ball movement that defined their late-season playoff push. Yet it was jarring to see them play behind Yao and single-cover him, as the Rockets' center can shoot over any opponent and is deadly accurate. Denying him touches is the only way to contain him.
The Oregonian reported that the Blazers focused more on doubling and fronting Yao in practice on Sunday, so we may see a different approach in Tuesday's Game 2. Certainly, something needs to change defensively, as the Rockets scored at will on Saturday (they had 34 points on their first 19 possessions, and 70 on their first 47). The Rockets, who were only 16th in offensive efficiency in the regular season, finished the game with an eye-popping 128.1 mark.
I'd be hard-pressed to choose a more unlikely defensive hero than Barea, the normally flammable Dallas guard who is primarily used as an offensive energizer. But he was the only Mav remotely quick enough to stay with Parker, and he changed the game when Rick Carlisle used him to start the second half after Parker had breezed through Dallas' defense at the start of the game.
Barea drew two offensive fouls on Parker and generally held him up long enough for help to arrive at the basket, providing one of the keys to the Mavs' comeback win. One wonders if San Antonio will consider an adjustment it has rarely used, posting up the 6-2 Parker on the 6-0 Barea and taking advantage of Parker's size instead of his quickness.
With few other options working for San Antonio and the 3-pointers unlikely to splash so frequently in Monday's Game 2, it's worth considering. Particularly if the Mavs start Barea as a reward for Saturday's success.
Worst defensive play of the playoffs: Utah against L.A.
Last year it took until Game 2 of the Finals for our Worst Defensive Play candidate to emerge, when the Lakers allowed Boston's Leon Powe to go coast-to-coast from his own foul line for an uncontested dunk.
This time, it appears we won't have to wait nearly as long, because I doubt we will see a more shambolic effort than the one Utah submitted on a second-quarter fastbreak against L.A. on Sunday. It started when the Lakers' Trevor Ariza went in on two Utah defenders and missed a shot. After it came off the rim, the ball was tipped in the air by Kyle Korver, and retrieved by L.A.'s Shannon Brown, who took a dribble, pivoted and threw an underhand pass to Ariza, who then gathered, took a step and dunked.
All this time, no other Jazz player entered the picture. In fact, none of them crossed half court. Deron Williams, Ronnie Brewer and Carlos Boozer all stayed in the backcourt and watched as Korver and Andrei Kirilenko tried unsuccessfully to get a stop. If you look closely at the replay you can see that Williams was holding a sand wedge, Brewer had a fishing rod and Boozer was on the phone with his agent.
Not that they're the only Jazz players who appear to have checked out. Kirilenko, for instance, has gone in the tank over the season's final six weeks, with his baffling decision to eschew a fastbreak dunk in favor of a wild pass six feet over Korver's head in the second half on Sunday symbolizing his meltdown. The Jazz are now 7-12 in their past 19 games, and 7-15 appears well within sight.
Worst performance in a matchup he's supposed to dominate: LaMarcus Aldridge, Blazers
If there was one thing the Blazers could hang their hat on coming into this series, it was that Aldridge had an apparent mismatch against Houston's Luis Scola. With his two-inch height advantage and superior length, it seemed Aldridge would be able to shoot right over him and force the Rockets to turn to the less offensively capable Chuck Hayes to keep Aldridge in check.
Instead, Aldridge submitted a 3-for-12, two-turnover stinker in the opener, while Scola busted out for 19 points on just nine shots. It was par for the course on a night when every matchup went the Rockets' way, but it's the one pairing that has to work for Portland if they're going to win the series.
Aldridge is the Blazers' second-best player, and unlike Brandon Roy he's not going up against Houston's two-headed defensive beast of Shane Battier and Ron Artest. If the Blazers can't get some consistent production out of him -- or at the very least, some open shots out of double-teams -- then their playoff stay will be a brief one.
Best encouraging sign in an otherwise uninteresting series:
Rodney Stuckey's aggression
Detroit has no chance whatsoever of beating Cleveland, but it's nice to see Stuckey show some of the mojo he displayed earlier this season. The Pistons' point man consistently attacked the basket against Cleveland's Mo Williams in Game 1, finishing with 20 points to lead the team.
I realize he only shot 7-of-21, but the important thing for Stuckey is to keep attacking. For much of February and March he played like he was Kevin Ollie, focusing so much on involving other Pistons that he forgot he was as good a scorer as anyone on the roster.
But Stuckey earned 40 free throws in eight games in April and averaged 14.0 points despite a cutback in minutes, and he seemed to carry that energy with him in the opener. He's been good enough to average more than 16 points while shooting better than 50 percent during a two-month stretch in December and January, and finally appears to be getting back to that style after his mystifying second-half slump.
Worst uncharacteristic play: Boston standing around
If anything has defined the Boston Celtics over the past two seasons, it has been their relentless effort, especially at the defensive end. So the last play of Saturday's first half against the Bulls came as something of a shock.
Ben Gordon flung up a desperation 3-pointer to beat the halftime clock, and then two of the Celtics' biggest hustlers and most determined starters -- Paul Pierce and Kendrick Perkins -- just stood there and watched while Brad Miller, one of the slowest players in the league, ran in from the 3-point line, grabbed the rebound and put in an uncontested layup at the buzzer.
The moment was symbolic of something Celtics coach Doc Rivers lamented afterward: For whatever reason, his team's usual effort was a bit lacking in Game 1. Yes, it hurt that Pierce missed a potential game-winning free throw, and that Ray Allen shot an uncharacteristic 1-for-12, and that Rose had the game of his life (so far). But watching that play, as well as seeing the Bulls burn Boston in transition and get second chances the Celtics normally don't allow, one has to think Boston's low energy level was as much to blame for the defeat as anything.
Best impression of the opponent: Philadelphia
The Magic are the 3-point shooting team in this series, right?
Yet it was Philly that put together an unlikely comeback by knocking down one jumper after another, capped by Andre Iguodala's impressive fadeaway with 2.2 seconds left. During their game-ending 39-19 run over the final 12:49, the Sixers scored 21 points on just 12 jumpers, including 5-of-8 on 3s. Meanwhile, the Magic made five 3s the entire game.
This, mind you, came after Orlando tied for the league lead in 3-point makes with 10 per game while Philly was 29th at 4.3 and dead last in percentage. The Sixers were 7-of-12 on triples for the game, while the Magic were just 5-of-18.
This is the second straight playoff home game in which the Magic blew a big lead. Remember, they were up by 16 on a Chauncey Billups-less Detroit team in Game 4 against the Pistons a year ago before losing 90-89, and ultimately losing the series in five games. But actually, this is highly unusual for them -- they'd blown only one double-digit lead the entire regular season, and none since the opening week. Believe it or not, they were 52-1 when they led in the last five minutes. Make that 52-2.
All of which leads me to believe that the angst in Orlando this morning may be short-lived. The Sixers aren't going to shoot 3s this well the entire series, even if a heavier use of Donyell Marshall improves their percentages from their regular-season numbers. And the Magic are unlikely to shoot so poorly from distance, with the caveat that Hedo Turkoglu and Rashard Lewis (a combined 1-of-6 from distance) need to prove they're past their late-season injuries.
Best shooting display: Chauncey Billups, Denver
Mr. Big Shot quietly entered the postseason on a two-month hot streak from distance -- he hit 45.3 percent of his 3-pointers after the All-Star break -- and kept it up in Sunday night's opener. Billups hit 8-of-9 3-pointers, most of them pull-ups off the dribble, to lead the Nuggets' 113-84 rout of New Orleans.
The Hornets should be used to this, at least. Billups made 5-of-7 from downtown and scored 26 points in their last meeting on March 25, so he's now 13-of-16 from 3 in his last two games against New Orleans. Oddly, he hadn't scored more than 18 points in a game since.
New Orleans lined up with Rasual Butler on Billups to start, with Chris Paul checking Dahntay Jones, and then switched Paul to guard when the Nuggets inserted J.R. Smith. Neither player had much success, as Billups was able to get Butler moving backward before pulling up, while he needed much less clearance to shoot over the shorter Paul.
It's not like the Hornets have many other options. Their guards off the bench have been brutal, and they need defensive ace James Posey to check Carmelo Anthony (Melo was held to 13 on 4-of-12 shooting, including two airballs). The only adjustment, it seems, is to step up and dare Billups to drive past them, because if they give him space he's going to rain 3s all series.
Worst supporting cast: Miami
Sure, Dwyane Wade didn't have his usual game, but what really stood out in the Heat's 90-64 loss to Atlanta was how awful their secondary players were. The Miami frontcourt was totally dominated by the Hawks, something that wasn't suppose to happen after the midseason trade for Jermaine O'Neal.
Atlanta's Josh Smith, Al Horford and Zaza Pachulia combined for 29 rebounds; Heat players not named Wade grabbed 30, and O'Neal had only two. Worse yet was the transition defense. Smith constantly victimized the Heat for highlight-reel jams, as he could easily beat the likes of O'Neal and Udonis Haslem down the court.
Heat coach Erik Spoelstra indicated before the series started that roles could change depending on the tenor of the series, and he has to be pondering making wholesale adjustments already. A few he might consider include:
• Starting Michael Beasley: He was one of the few Miami players to show a pulse on Sunday, with 10 points and 10 boards. And he closed the season strong, quietly averaging 20.6 points on 55.8 percent shooting in eight games in April while replacing an injured Haslem. Spoelstra could either start Beasley for Haslem or, more daringly, put O'Neal on the pine and go small with Beasley and Haslem playing together.
• Reinstating Jamario Moon to the starting lineup: James Jones got the assignment at small forward on Sunday and seemed overwhelmed by the task, as he had immense difficulty keeping Joe Johnson in front of him and provided only nine points in 34 minutes. Moon struggled with a groin injury down the stretch but looked good in a brief garbage time stint on Sunday and has three days to recover before Game 2.
• Sending fewer players to the glass: The Hawks are going to outrebound the Heat anyway, but it's twice as bad if they're also streaking upcourt to get layups and dunks on the Heat at the other end. That's how it went Sunday, especially during Atlanta's 35-18 romp in the second quarter that essentially decided the game.
None of this will matter, of course, if the Heat don't get more production from Wade than the 19 points -- and fewer than his eight turnovers -- he provided on Sunday. But even if the league's leading scorer returns to form, Miami has plenty of work to do if it's going to steal a game in Atlanta.
John Hollinger writes for ESPN Insider. To e-mail him, click here.
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