Mavs still like Mike
Jason Terry's spectacular game and Michael Finley's timely offense -- on a combined 19-for-31 shooting -- carried the Mavs to a crucial Game 4 win.
After two games in Houston and two more losses for the home team, at least two definitive statements can be made about the Interstate 45 championship.
No. 1: It's pretty clear this is going to be a First Team To Win At Home Moves On series.
No. 2: It's also pretty clear that the higher-seeded Mavericks' ability to overcome home-court disadvantage probably depends on Michael Finley more than any other Mav.
Of all the big things that happened for Dallas on the road -- resurrecting their season and relocating Dirk Nowitzki and riding Jason Terry's 32 points to a Game 4 triumph -- none was bigger than Finley's reemergence.
Finley chipped in a crucial 20 points in Game 3 and then scored 18 more in Saturday's 97-93 victory, stepping right into back-to-back clutch elbow jumpers -- a mere 30 seconds apart in crunch time -- to remind his detractors back home why he's on the floor when it matters.
One of the hush-hushed stories in Mavsland this season is the coaching staff's ongoing thoughts about moving the classy Finley to the bench. Team sources indicate that Don Nelson, before retiring, went so far as pulling Finley aside to propose a sixth-man role. But the former Face O' The Franchise asked Nelson to leave him in the starting lineup and Avery Johnson -- with beaucoup replacement options -- has upheld that request ... even though some insiders expected the new coach to make the switch before the playoffs started.
The clamor to bench Finley only grew louder after Tracy McGrady's brilliance dunked the Mavs into a 2-0 hole, a fate sealed by Finley missing a potential game-tying jumper at the Game 2 buzzer. Yet Johnson hasn't forgotten that the new Mavs start two guys who had never played in a playoff game before these playoffs began: Erick Dampier and Saturday's hero, Terry.
Keeping Finley in the starting lineup keeps Jerry Stackhouse on the bench and leaves Marquis Daniels scrounging for PT scraps, but Finley's presence on the floor in key moments ensures that Nowitzki can at least see a semblance of his old comfort zone. An underestimated element of Nowitzki's struggles in the first two games is that he was exclusively carrying the Mavericks in the playoffs for the first time ... without Steve Nash and with virtually no help from Finley.
Of course, if he doesn't make shots, Finley contributes little beyond experience at this stage of his career. Dealing with the demands of a perimeter position at 32, after ranking among the league leaders in minutes played for four straight seasons under Nelson, Finley admittedly doesn't explode like he used to.
Yet such is the respect for Finley within the locker room that many folks in Mavsland still call this Fin's team, even though Finley never does. Johnson, meanwhile, was quick to praise Finley after Saturday's heroics by calling him "my wily veteran."
We won't be able to tell you if the Mavs have really seized the momentum until seeing how the Rockets respond in the comfort of their road uniforms Monday night. If Dallas does have it, sticking by Finley might have been the best call yet from the rookie coach.
(AP Photo/Nick Wass)
In the third quarter of Chicago's 117-99 Game 3 loss to Washington, the Bulls' Andres Nocioni took a shot below the belt. Though it was the Wizards' Gilbert Arenas who had implied Nocioni is a dirty player, Arenas' teammate Larry Hughes did the honors -- inadvertently, it appeared. Whether it was just desserts or just painful, Nocioni returned to the game a few minutes later.
On a night when their best player missed 14 of his 19 shots and their starting five totaled 33 points, the San Antonio Spurs still found a way to reclaim home-court advantage in their first-round series with Denver.
The Spurs had to have a little help, as Denver missed 13 free throws and managed just 14 bench points compared to San Antonio's whopping 53. But they emerged from the victory with some comforting news.
Duncan said his struggles, including serious foul trouble that limited him to five minutes in the first half, were unrelated to any of his recent injury woes.
"I felt fine," Duncan said. "I just couldn't hit a shot."
McGrady will have to wait at least two more games to win a playoff series for the first time.
The Rockets will play better in Dallas on Monday night. Call it educated speculation.
Four games into the Mavericks-Rockets series, it is the visiting team which has played with poise and confidence in crunch time. The home team has looked tight every time.
What else are the Rockets thinking about now that their 2-0 lead is a 2-2 deadlock?
A) Yao Ming's foul trouble. Yao's 20 points and five blocks in Game 4 are more impressive than they sound when you consider that he managed to stay on the court for just 25 minutes. The only game this series in which Yao has avoided foul trouble was his 33-pointer in Game 2.
B) Dallas' willingness to let Tracy McGrady go wild in hopes of shutting down the Rockets' role players has hurt Houston. In Saturday's Game 4, T-Mac and Yao were the only Rockets to score more than seven points. The Mavs, meanwhile, are finally getting Dirk Nowitzki some help. Michael Finley scored 38 points in the two Dallas victories and Jason Terry (32 points in Game 4 alone) is a blistering 15-of-21 from 3-point range in the series. Mavs coach Avery Johnson went so far as to compare Terry to Nick Van Exel, cold-blooded catalyst of Dallas' run to the conference finals in 2003.
C) In Game 3, Houston surrendered 20 straight points after taking an 88-80 lead in the fourth quarter. In Game 4, Dallas launched its clinching rally with Houston ahead by an eerily familiar score of 88-82. "I can't believe it," McGrady said.
Phoenix 4, Memphis 0
Phoenix wins series, awaits DAL-HOU winner
San Antonio 2, Denver 1
Game 4: Mon., at Denver, 10:30 ET, TNT
Seattle 2, Sacramento 1
Game 4: Sun., at Sacramento, 10:30 ET, TNT
Houston 2, Dallas 2
Game 5: Mon., at Houston, 8 ET, TNT
Miami 4, New Jersey 0
Miami wins series, awaits CHI-WAS winner
Detroit 3, Philadelphia 1
Game 4: Sun., at Philadelphia, 1 ET, ESPN
Indiana 2, Boston 2
Game 5: Tues., at Boston, 7:30 ET, NBA TV
Chicago 2, Washington 1
Game 4: Mon., at Washington, 7:30 ET, NBA TV
Play of the Day
-- Mavericks coach Avery Johnson, absolving Terry from blame for his quarterbacking struggles (five turnovers against three assists) ... which is obviously easier to do when when the QB drains six 3s and scores 32 points.
Kudos to the Celtics for using the Antoine Walker suspension as rally fuel.
Even more kudos to Celtics coach Doc Rivers for switching Gary Payton onto Reggie Miller. Payton is no longer a Glove defensively if matched against a young point guard, but he and Uncle Reg are from the same generation. Which means that Miller's tricks won't fool Payton and which means Miller won't automatically get all the calls.
The loudest kudos, though, are reserved for Paul Pierce. His biggest games in the playoffs haven't always ended happily -- Boston was only 4-4 when Pierce scored 30 or more in the postseason entering Game 4 -- but Indiana couldn't cope with this Pierce: 30 points, eight assists, seven rebounds and five blocked shots.
Question: Why no love for Ben Wallace's monster 29 points in Game 3? I know it was in a losing effort, but c'mon. This is Ben Wallace we're talking about. It was amazing. -- Mike Mannino (Ann Arbor, Mich.)
Answer: Sorry, Mike. Amazing, to me, was the sight of Philadelphia ringing up 115 points in regulation against the Ben Wallace-led Pistons defense. That was the truly epic development Friday night
which makes me think that Philly will be lucky to crack 90 when the teams meet Sunday for Game 4. I expect the Pistons to dig in on D like we haven't seen since they played the Lakers in the Finals.
It's also unlikely that the Sixers can play as mistake-free as they did in Game 3 when they only committed seven turnovers.
The only two teams out there with a chance to sweep a first-round series return to work Sunday. That would be Phoenix and Miami, the top seeds in each conference.
Who says the regular season is meaningless?
You can be sure both teams would welcome a sweep, too. Each team's MVP candidate -- Steve Nash for the Suns and Shaquille O'Neal of the Heat -- could be in line for nearly a week of rest for their achy limbs if their teams can finish off their first-round foes.
The Suns have cruised to a 3-0 lead over Memphis by scoring no less than 108 points in each of the three victories. The Heat withstood a double-overtime challenge from New Jersey on Thursday night but won each of the teams' previous five meetings this season by at least 16 points.
Speaking of sweeps if Shaquille O'Neal and the Miami Heat do close out their opening-round series on Sunday, they will be giving the Nets some of the medicine Shaq has tasted more times than he would like. With the Magic and Lakers, the Big Fella was zeroed out of the playoffs in 1994, 1995 (NBA Finals), 1996, 1998 and 1999.
-- Royce Webb