Young Master Luke attacks
Little Luke stood tall among the trees on Sunday.
This is what the Seattle SuperSonics have been waiting for.
The Sonics' second-year guard single-handedly carved up the Spurs' defense in the third quarter, making all seven of his shots as Seattle blew open a tight game to tie the series at two games apiece.
At times, his play was reminiscent of another point guard who grew up in the same part of the continent -- MVP Steve Nash. While Ridnour didn't have the floppy hair going (he cut his long curls before training camp), he attacked the basket as aggressively as he has all season. He repeatedly beat the Spurs on drives to his right off the high screen-and-roll, a play that has befuddled San Antonio the past two games, and made several difficult runners going that way.
But beyond that, it was the little things the Blaine, Wash., native did that were so Nash-esque: Dribbling all the way through the lane and coming out the other side to nail a short jumper, and firing a left-handed bounce pass off the dribble to hit a cutting Damien Wilkins for a lay-up.
While we shouldn't expect a 7-for-7 quarter every night, Ridnour has been a bit of a puzzle because he seemed capable of becoming a much more potent offensive force. He's certainly quick enough to get to the rim, and with season averages of 38 percent from 3-point land and 88 percent from the line, he can clearly shoot.
These skills are why the Sonics used the 14th overall pick on him in 2003.
What has held Ridnour back is aggressiveness, or rather a lack of it. With potent scorers like Rashard Lewis and Ray Allen on hand, Ridnour seemed too content to fade into the background and defer to those two. He deferred so well that of the 12 Sonics on the playoff roster, only space-eaters Jerome James and Reggie Evans averaged fewer points per minute.
Thus, if there's a silver lining from the injuries to Rashard Lewis and Vladimir Radmanovic, it's that it may have forced Ridnour out of his offensive shell.
And the Sonics may have found a second silver lining as well. Little-used Wilkins was a revelation, tripling his previous playoff output by scoring 15 points. 'Nique's nephew also played outstanding defense, plucking five steals and even holding his own at power forward when the Sonics went to a small-ball lineup.
But ultimately, the night belonged to Ridnour. Now the bigger question is, can he repeat it? With key Sonics like Lewis and Radmanovic on the shelf, Seattle needs a huge effort from its point guard if it is to prevail in San Antonio on Tuesday. If Ridnour pulls it off, he'll have been well worth Seattle's wait.
(AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)
Bruce Bowen's night it wasn't. Nemesis Ray Allen poured in 32 from all over the court on 12-for-20 shooting, but what really raised Bowen's hackles were the four fouls for which the refs whistled him in his futile attempts to stop Allen. | More on Bowen vs. Allen
As Ben Wallace shows, O'Neal has made himself easy to guard by settling for jumpers.
Snapshot of a struggling star:
It's early in the third quarter of Game 4, and the Indiana Pacers are down 11, in need of a basket. Jamaal Tinsley sets up Jermaine O'Neal along the baseline, but instead of taking it to the basket, O'Neal hesitates, dribbles right, and misses a fadeaway jumper.
Snapshots aside, the big picture hasn't looked much better for O'Neal. In 11 playoff games, the Pacers' All-Star power forward is shooting 34 percent from the floor (60 for 175). How bad has it been? When told Friday night of Rasheed Wallace's guarantee that the series would go back to Detroit tied at two games apiece, O'Neal countered by promising that he would not shoot 2-for-11 again. He shot 4-for-15.
Part of the problem is just that: 0'Neal is shooting too much and not driving for dunks or layups. He's become Horace Grant -- a spot-up, midrange jump shooter -- only not as accurate. Whenever his teammates kick it out to him, rather than taking it inside, where his percentage increases as does the likelihood of his getting to the free-throw line, more often he's catching and shooting, or, at best, taking a few dribbles and throwing up fall-away shots.
There was a stretch later in the third quarter when the light seemed to come on for O'Neal. On one possession he took Ben Wallace to the basket, missed the layup, but followed up with a dunk. Later, Wallace fouled him as he went back up with a Tinsley missed free throw. That play produced his first free throw attempts of the game. A few moments later, Rasheed Wallace fouled him going to the rim. Two more freebies.
Foul shots for O'Neal have been more infrequent than baskets: He's averaging only 6.2 trips to the line a game in the playoffs (vs. 8.9 during the regular season), with 18 of his 68 free throws coming in one game (Game 6 against Boston). He's had 16 in four games against Detroit. It's evidence that he isn't driving enough.
The good news is he knows it. "I'm going to go home and I'm going to look at the tape of my first two games of the series, even the one we lost," O'Neal, who did have 13 rebounds in the Game 4 loss, said as he left Conseco Fieldhouse Sunday night. "I am shooting a lot of jumpers. I've got to get to the cup. I'm going to drive on those guys."
The other part of the problem: O'Neal, clearly, is still hurting from the severe right shoulder sprain he suffered at Denver March 3, which cost him 22 regular-season games. He refuses, however, to use injury as an excuse and has little respect for those who do.
"You know what? My mother always told me to never rely on excuses," he said. "Sometimes I see players sit up there and say, 'I wasn't 100 percent.' But you played in the damn game.
"I'm not going to accept playing bad. The fact of the matter is I'm not going to be 100 percent. When I go out there for these guys and this city, there aren't any excuses. That's something I hate to see athletes do."
Perhaps the most shocking part of the San Antonio's Game 4 loss to Seattle was the Spurs' inability to take care of the basketball. San Antonio committed 23 turnovers Sunday, including a staggering 15 in the first half alone.
That's peculiar given the two teams' regular season profiles: San Antonio was among the better teams at avoiding turnovers, and Seattle among the worst at forcing them.
Yet the Spurs seemed completely baffled by the Sonics' decision to front Tim Duncan in the post, throwing away numerous entry passes. With a bit more skill, Duncan could have had a humongous night -- as it was, he terrorized the Sonics with 35 points in 32 minutes.
Unfortunately too few passes got through to San Antonio's big man, and too many started breaks the other way for Seattle. If the Spurs are to regain the advantage, they'll need much crisper passing in Game 5.
Western Conference Semifinals
Phoenix 2, Dallas 2
Game 5: Wed., 9 ET, at Phoenix, TNT
San Antonio 2, Seattle 2
Game 5: Tues., 9:30 ET, at San Antonio, TNT
Eastern Conference Semifinals
Miami 4, Washington 0
Miami wins series, awaits IND-DET winner
Detroit 2, Indiana 2
Game 5: Tues., 7 ET, at Detroit, TNT
Seattle's shooting: The box score says the Sonics shot 50 percent from the floor in their Game 4 swamping of San Antonio. The Supes sure seemed hotter than that, didn't they? Defying skeptics (like me) yet again to rally from 2-zip down and even this series -- without the injured Rashard Lewis, no less -- Seattle rode Ray Allen's 32 points and a combined 39 (on 17-for-28 marksmanship) from guards Luke Ridnour and Antonio Daniels.
Play of the Day
Rasheed Wallace stands 6 feet, 11 inches, but in issuing a de facto guarantee after the Pistons' Game 3 loss Friday night -- their second in a row -- the Detroit forward was not unlike that little loudmouthed dude in the gang who's always talking noise and always ready to throw down, only because he knows he has his boys backing him up.
"I'm the megaphone of the team," Wallace said after the Pistons made good on his promise with an 89-76 victory at Conseco Fieldhouse that evened this East semifinal series at two games apiece. "I'll say what other people feel."
When you're one-fifth of arguably the best starting five in the league and a year removed from winning the NBA title, you can say things such as "we're definitely going back to Detroit with this thing 2-2, no question about," with no hesitation because you know it's not all on you to back it up. Point guard Chauncey Billups, last year's Finals MVP, can be the best player on the floor, and shooting guard Rip Hamilton is the possessor of the best midrange game in the game's history (hey, that's not me talking, that's Pacers coach Rick Carlisle).
So it wasn't really that risky for Wallace to bet that Billups, Hamilton and Ben Wallace -- the latter two especially -- would play better than they had in the previous two games. He'd been in enough battles with them to know they'd knuckle up.
He's a slasher, like his dad, Gerald Wilkins. He went to Georgia, like his uncle Dominique.
But, really, who is Damien Wilkins?
He's a guy with all of 29 regular-season NBA games and 183 minutes under his belt, and now he's the guy who took it to the toughest team in the West, the San Antonio Spurs.
Sunday he thoroughly outplayed counterpart Robert Horry in Seattle's small-ball lineup during the critical third-quarter stretch in which the Sonics pulled away. His strong takes to the basket seemed to catch the Spurs by surprise, and his 7-for-11 shooting was a key as the Sonics overcame a putrid 3-for-19 night from their bigs.
If Rashard Lewis' toe lets him return to the lineup on Tuesday, Wilkins won't get 32 minutes again. But his performance on Sunday means the Spurs have yet another perimeter scorer to prepare for -- Damien Wilkins, that's who.
On Sunday, the Mavs decided to let Steve Nash score 50 points if he wanted, so long as Nash didn't get the other Suns running away in track-meet mode.
Nash didn't get 50, but he did score 48. Dallas owner Mark Cuban was so moved that he grabbed Nash's hand after the final buzzer.
"Congratulating him on a great game," Cuban said afterward.
The postgame message from several other Mavs, however, tilted more toward thanks than congratulations, because they relished seeing Nash manage only five assists in a playoff-high 44 minutes. The hosts decided to keep Amare Stoudemire surrounded and let Nash go wherever he pleased, then credited that pick-your-poison strategy as the key to a 119-109 triumph that evened this series at 2-2.
"It's no secret," Mavs coach Avery Johnson admitted afterward, "that we don't want [Stoudemire] attempting a lot of shots."
They did it from 2-zip down to Houston in the first round.
They did it after a heavy Game 1 loss at Phoenix, and again Sunday night after a 17-point home loss to the Suns in Game 3.
The Dallas Mavericks' best basketball in the playoffs -- apart from a Game 7 annihilation of Houston -- has been witnessed when the Mavs were trailing in a series.
Which brought this request from Mavericks coach Avery Johnson after Dallas' 119-109 Game 4 victory over Phoenix.
"In all of your stories tomorrow, write that," Johnson said. "Write that the Mavericks are (still) in a ditch."