Editor's note: New season, new Stein Line. Now, Marc Stein's NBA report can be found every weekday during the playoffs.
Only three teams in the NBA shoot free throws worse than the San Antonio Spurs. Not even the Los Angeles Lakers, whose percentage historically gets dragged down by Shaquille O'Neal every season, shoot them worse.
So maybe we were remiss, Bill Walton and us.
Missing big free throws in playoff games isn't exclusively a Lakers or Sacramento worry.
Shaq was a .622 free-throw shooter this season. The Kings' Chris Webber, as our pal Bill often reminds, checked in lower at .607. Yet it's only the Spurs so far who have lost a game this postseason because of their inability to make uncontested 15-footers. Fifteen such misses, actually, put top-seeded San Antonio in a 1-0 first-round hole against Phoenix.
It wasn't the two fortuitously banked 3-pointers that gave the Suns a one-point overtime win. It was all those clanks from the line, six alone in the OT, after a team showing of just .725 over 82 games.
Which brings us to the consolation section.
Consolation prize No. 1 is that Game 2 is Monday. David Robinson might be forced to sit out with a twisted knee after a throwback 18-point effort, but the quick turnaround leaves the shortest amount of time possible for dwelling on failures or self-loathing or talking themselves into losing something even more important than Game 1. Confidence, namely.
Consolation prize No. 2 is that the two most guilty parties in Saturday's 96-95 defeat are the two Spurs most likely to respond positively.
If anyone is bound to disprove the increasingly (and improbably) loud discussion about the Spurs having a mental block against the Suns, of all seeds, it's Duncan. Yet suddenly, even the man expected to win his second straight MVP trophy is being questioned. The Suns swarmed him with double- and triple-teams and held Duncan to 13 shots and 17 points in Game 1, but Duncan missed three wide-open free throws in the game's final 17 seconds alone.
Questions about Parker, meanwhile, are suddenly louder than ever. Outplaying Gary Payton in last spring's playoffs, when no one thought the then-rookie could hang, announced Parker to the (NBA) world, but Marbury is much tougher for him as a matchup. Payton is a back-it-down point guard and thus easier to double-team. Marbury comes at defenses in a blur, and he's too strong for a smaller guard like Parker to keep from getting inside.
There's more. The Suns like to press more than most teams, further draining energy out of Parker's legs. Combined with his defensive assignments in Marbury team coverage, the toll of all that is hurting Parker's offense as well. He was 0-for-6 on 3-pointers and missed 11 of 14 shots overall. In the season's five games between the teams, Parker is averaging just 9.6 points on 26 percent shooting.
Knowing these two, even if Robinson can't go, they'll respond. Duncan is All-World and Parker has been sufficiently worldly since he arrived on these shores as a 19-year-old, gutsy and mature, to become the first European-reared point guard to make an NBA splash. Can't see them not responding.
Of course, we never imagined toughies like Parker and Duncan missing potential game-sealing free throws in the same game. If they had just made an extra one or two frees, the team with the league's best record wouldn't be subjected to a full-scale dissection.
Duncan and Parker must surely also realize, after losing for the fourth time in five games to these guys, that the Suns don't need any more help.
Coast to Coast
Karl has to be thinking forwards, not guards
Sam Cassell said Saturday that Gary Payton's mindset "is the least of my worries." Even though Cassell made the statement before anyone knew he and GP would be surrendering to Toronto police hours later, in response to recent assault charges, that's probably true as well for Bucks coach George Karl.
That's because there's a much better chance Payton, even amid this latest distraction, will start looking like Payton again before tranquility is restored in Karl's frontcourt rotation. Tim Thomas is expected to start Tuesday's Game 2 in New Jersey over rookie Marcus Haislip, in what would only be Thomas' second start since refusing to re-enter a March 26 loss to Denver, but Karl concedes that there's friction in his locker room because "there are not enough minutes" for all his forwards.
Chief among the discontented is Anthony Mason, who refused to speak with reporters after Saturday's Game 1 defeat. Mason logged only 19 minutes in the loss and Michael Redd and Toni Kukoc are also vying for minutes off the bench.
Of course, it would help if just one of those guys could match up with Kenyon Martin. If Martin resided in the mighty West, he'd probably have to play small forward. Against a Milwaukee team smaller than just about everyone else's when Karl's best players are on the floor, Martin is monstrous. He had 21 points and 15 boards in the opener, leaping right over the ground-bound Mase for rebounds and outmuscling the others.
"There's a competition all over my bench," Karl said. "... That's good for me, (but) it's not always the happiest scenario for players."
Regarding Thomas, Karl added: "It's never been a personal thing. It's a situation (Thomas' refusal to re-enter that game) that I've never been put in before, by a player that I have a lot of love and affection for. Has the relationship changed? I'm not down on him. I think he has said this ... basically we've moved from a great relationship to hopefully a respectful and professional relationship. And that's OK. That's OK if that's where he wants it."
Nowitzki's playoff drive(s) could force Portland to double-team him
The Mavericks are happy. Happy to have rallied past Portland in Saturday's series opener. Happy, obviously, that they drew the Blazers instead of the Lakers in Round 1. Happy mostly, though, because they saw Dirk Nowitzki fearlessly rumbling to the basket against the team that likes to rough the Mavs up more than anyone.
When Nowitzki is mixing drives with his pull-ups and triples, he is basically unguardable. Which was pretty much confirmed by the 23 points he posted in each half of Dallas' 96-86 victory.
So why doesn't he do it more often? Mavericks coach Don Nelson suggests that Nowitzki still doesn't realize sometimes just how capable he is of such detonations. But there's another reason. Attacking the rim the way he did requires confidence that the referees will call fouls. It's a confidence the Mavericks, as a team, sometimes lack.
The coach, though, has been urging his players to simply "suck it up and go" and limit their complaints to officials. "We talk about that quite a lot," Nelson said. Nowitzki has long since dispelled the myth about European imports lacking the conviction to bang -- he absorbs as much contact as anyone -- but he was obviously listening, judging by his Game 1 aggressiveness.
If Nowitzki continues to go the bucket with either hand when he's not raining in threes, the Blazers will be forced to do what they don't want to do and double-team the German. Just like Detroit will be force, if Tracy McGrady keeps floating in the 43-point stratosphere, to abandon its machismo and double T-Mac.
Is it just us or does LeBron James get great seats to a lot of NBA games? ... Only noticeable problem with the Lakers now that the playoffs are here: Phil Jackson is apparently growing his beard back. Not what we wanted to see, especially if the Lakers and Kings meet again in the conference finals. One grizzly (Rick Adelman) is enough. ... Overlooked in the Celtics' Game 1 triumph at Indy: Boston had a much-needed third scorer, with Eric Williams chipping in an unexpected 18 points. The Sixers, meanwhile, are looking for a second scorer, after Iverson outscored each of his teammates by at least 40 points Sunday. ... There were only three 40-point performances in 71 playoff games overall last season. These playoffs? Eight games, four 40-pointers so far. ... Payton had scored in double figures in 56 consecutive playoff games before Saturday's eight-pointer.
Slams and Dunks
For those of you wondering how the playoffs would ever survive without Michael Jordan ...
Paul Pierce: 40 points.
Dirk Nowitzki: 46 points.
Tracy McGrady: 43 points.
It was such a monster weekend, Kobe Bryant's 28-point first half -- and 39 points overall Sunday in Minnesota -- didn't crack the top three. Mainly because the above compilation of offensive frenzy must include a reference to those banked triples hit by Amare Stoudemire and then Stephon Marbury in San Antonio, giving Phoenix the Upset Special O' The Weekend.
It was all so huge that we were struggling mightily, well into Sunday night, to settle on a Male of the Weekend. Until Allen Iverson went out and usurped them all with 55 points to beat New Orleans.
So, yeah. With more 40-point games already than we saw in the entire 2002 playoffs -- 4-3 -- 2003's NBA Tournament is faring just fine without MJ, even though the East probably could have used the boost.
Besides, there's another reason it's no tragedy MJ's Wiz didn't make it. That new Mars Blackmon farewell commercial -- "OK, but no baseball" -- is already a classic.
If the Hornets-Sixers series indeed breaks down, in its simplest form, to the question of which team has the healthier lead guard, our Hornets pick isn't looking so good. Iverson has never looked healthier than he did Sunday night, no matter what the doctors say about his limbs. Baron Davis, meanwhile, looked just the opposite.
"I don't know why teams don't sit on his right hand and try to make him go left. Make him go left at all costs. Whenever I see him, it seems like he shoots 80 percent when he goes right. I've seen him make shots like that game-winner -- where he rises up and hits that hanging shot going to his right -- too many times."
Do we now have to call it the Spurs' Rule? Or maybe the Pistons' Rule? It's top seeds San Antonio and Detroit, not the Lakers, who suddenly have to be thrilled that the first round is seven games instead of five. Because of the new format, it's also too early to start talking upset in either series, although the Pistons are crossing their fingers as tightly as New Orleans that Ben Wallace's knee only gets stronger.
The first of as many as seven playoff games on NBA TV is Monday's Game 2 of Celtics vs. Pacers. If you're a League Pass subscriber on digital cable, like us, be sure to curse your set when the game tips off at 8:30 p.m. EDT. It'll be the first of up to seven games that we thought we already paid for but can't watch at home, because NBA TV was pulled from digital-cable systems on Jan. 1 when the channel started carrying live games. The NBA has deemed every game on NBA TV a "national broadcast," no matter how limited the audience is, and national broadcasts aren't included with the League Pass package.
Shaquille O'Neal said before the playoffs that it's better for the Lakers to be the fifth seed (or lower) and open the playoffs on the road, because road games are "where we have to be focused." That's hard to argue, given the intensity L.A. flashed in Sunday's opener at Minny. Poor Wolves. Home-court advantage for the first time is nice, but they can still use that line about never having been favored in a playoff series, now for seven springs and counting.