Commentary

From Phoenix to foul play, lots of playoff surprises so far

Originally Published: April 28, 2008
By John Hollinger | ESPN.com

Shaquille O'Neal and Amare StoudemireJoe Murphy/NBAE via Getty ImagesPhoenix is trying to dig out of a surprisingly huge hole. Do the Suns have three more surprises left?

As always, it's been a surprising NBA postseason. Not always in an exciting way, though -- our supposedly awesome first round might see seven of the eight series end in five games or fewer. But that isn't the only surprise. With the Mavs and Suns being down big in series that are referenda on blockbuster midseason trades, the Sixers giving the heavily favored Pistons fits, and the sight of snowflakes outside my hotel window Sunday afternoon in Denver, we've had plenty of unexpected events.

Here are the biggest surprises so far:

Discord in Denver ... among the Lakers, too

We'll start with the one series that still could be a sweep. The surprise came after Denver's 102-84 loss to the Lakers in Saturday's Game 3, when a dejected Carmelo Anthony accused coach George Karl of quitting. That set talk radio and bloggers across Colorado buzzing, but Sunday at the Nuggets' practice all we got was another weather event -- the blizzard of "no comments" from Denver's players on Melo's mutterings.

However, the low-level feud between Anthony and Karl points out an odd similarity between the opposing coaches in this series. They're probably the two coaches in the league who are most comfortable with, shall we say, creative tension on the set. At times, they seem to thrive on it. For instance, as well as the Lakers are playing, Jackson used Sunday's media session as an opportunity to call out forward Vladimir Radmanovic for a second straight day.

Before Game 3, Jackson responded to a question about Luke Walton by throwing in the line, "I think Vlade needs to improve on his defense."

It was classic Jackson -- chipping in a completely unsolicited critique of a player with whom he's upset. Last year he did it before a game in Atlanta, when he tore apart Andrew Bynum for what he considered a poor work ethic; based on what happened afterward, it appears he got Bynum's attention.


Anyway, Jackson was at it again after Radmanovic shot 2-for-9 and had five points in 24 impact-free minutes Saturday.

"I told him after the game that as a coach you hate to see talented players not play up to their ability, and it's my job to try and get you to play up to your ability. And Vlade, in his normal way, said, 'We'll talk about it in our exit meetings at the end of the season.'

"Which just tells me where his head is a lot of the time. But he does know he can play better and has an opportunity to play better. Right now Luke [Walton]'s playing so well that it hasn't hurt us."

Indeed, with the obvious exception of Kobe Bryant, Walton has been the Lakers' best player in this series. He's averaging 16.3 points, 5.3 rebounds and 5.0 assists in the three games while shooting a sizzling 73.1 percent and playing commendable defense on Anthony.

Riddled with foot and ankle problems for much of the year, Walton had a rough regular season and lost his starting spot to Radmanovic. He said he started feeling better after the All-Star break, and that the greater time between games in the postseason has further aided him.

"He gives up some pounds and some weight, but he's done a good job on [Anthony]," said Jackson. "His foot [and] his ankle that have bothered him in the past are much better. He's got lift, he's popping right up on his shot, which is important."

But if you're looking for Walton to take over for Radmanovic, it's not in Jackson's plans.

"Luke's done a great job giving us a lift we need off the bench, and I think that's important," said Jackson. "[But] Vlade, when he plays the level that he's capable of playing, he can be a decision-maker in the ballgame; he can deliver knockout blows."

So chalk that up as another surprise -- that the Lakers aren't eyeing a lineup change even with Walton significantly outperforming the starter.



The disappearance of Josh Howard

When I looked at these teams before the series, it seemed as close as you could get to a dead-even matchup, and the Hornets' home-court advantage was the main reason I picked them in seven.

It hasn't worked out that way, even though Dirk Nowitzki has had a very strong series. But he isn't getting enough help, thanks mainly to Josh Howard's complete and total implosion at the offensive end. Forget this week's controversy about his confession that he smoked marijuana in the offseason -- it's his game that's gone to pot.

In the series, he's mustered just 12.8 points and 6.5 boards while shooting a dismal 15-for-58 (25.9 percent). By Sunday night's Game 4, the Hornets were leaving him wide open for jumpers throughout the second half, but he clanked all of them.

It's not like he's got Michael Cooper on him either. His primary defenders have been Peja Stojakovic and Bonzi Wells, neither of whom is known for putting the clamps on opponents. While Peja's D probably is a little underrated, Howard faced plenty of good defenders this season and averaged 19.9 points and 7.0 boards on 45.5 percent shooting.

As a result of his struggles, a position where Dallas expected to have a sizable advantage has become a surprising plus for the Hornets. And not surprisingly, the unexpected minus at the small forward spot also has put the Mavs at a minus in the games department, 3-1.



No Hack-A-Ben

The Wizards' use of Hack-a-Ben in their series against the Cavaliers hasn't been nearly as effective as San Antonio's use of the same ploy against Phoenix's Shaquille O'Neal, mainly because the Wizards haven't tried it.

If you ever would use a Hack-a-Whoever strategy, Ben Wallace would be the guy to use it against. Wallace is the worst free-throw shooter in NBA history. He made a dismal 42.6 percent this season and is at 41.8 percent for his career.

Do the math and you'll see that sending him to the line for two shots produces an expected return of 0.90 points for the Cavs -- 0.42 points on the first shot, 0.42 points on the second shot, plus 0.06 points on rebounds off a missed second shot (assuming the offensive team will rebound 13 percent, which is roughly the league average).

Meanwhile, the expected return for an average offensive team facing the Wizards is 1.068 points per possession. So just fouling Wallace reduces Cleveland's expected output against the Wizards by more than 15 percent.

Yet at the end of Game 4, the Wizards had a golden opportunity to play Hack-a-Ben and passed. Cleveland was in the bonus with the ball and Wallace on the floor at the 6:54 mark, giving Washington nearly a five-minute window to either hack Wallace or force Cavs coach Mike Brown to take him off the floor. (Incidentally, this wasn't an option in Game 1 -- Cleveland closed with Anderson Varejao on the floor that night.)

Washington opted not to do it, except by accident on one trip when it fouled Wallace while shooting and he missed them both. One might have thought it would put some ideas into the Wizards' heads, but apparently it didn't.

I was somewhere between shocked and mortified by this. Washington had no serious foul trouble and essentially was taking a pass on a technique that could both stymie Cleveland's offense and extend a game it was losing.

But here's the punch line, the second surprise in this bullet point: It didn't hurt the Wizards at all. In that five-minute window, not including the trip when Wallace went to the line anyway, Cleveland scored only seven points in nine trips. If Washington had employed Hack-a-Ben, the odds say the Wizards would have given up eight (8.2, to be exact, but I've yet to see a scoreboard with a spot for the .2). And of course, Washington managed to come back and tie the game, eliminating the value of the extend-the-game angle.

That doesn't mean the Wizards' inaction was wise. It just means they got lucky, and if the opportunity presents itself again they'd be foolish to pass it up. But it does mean one thing if you're a Wizards fan: You can't pin the Game 4 defeat on it.



The Artist Formerly Known as Mr. Big Shot

Look, I know the Pistons are still giddy about their 93-point explosion against a 40-win team last night, but they have to be gravely concerned about their offense. Even with Tayshaun Prince absolutely killing Andre Iguodala, the Pistons are tied with Philadelphia at 2-2, a shocking state of affairs that's mainly the result of their point guard's struggles.

Chauncey Billups was the best player on the league's second-best team in the regular season. In the playoffs he's 12-for-42 with 16 turnovers, and he's taking the Pistons' offense down with him. Even in the Game 4 win, he was 4-for-16 with six turnovers.

If this sounds familiar, it's because it is. Detroit's offense went into the tank in May 2006 and again in 2007, and Billups led the way both times. It's not just his shooting either; he hasn't been as good at getting the others involved. In 37 playoff games over the past three seasons, Billups has only four double-figure assist games -- whereas in the past three regular seasons he has 64.

So here we are in late April, and the Pistons' offense once again suddenly has gone off the rails. They're shooting 44.5 percent after making 45.8 percent in the regular season; worse yet, they're committing 17.3 turnovers per game after committing the fewest in the league -- just 11.7 a game -- in the regular season.

It's four games, and I don't want to read too much into such a small sample. But given the Pistons' history the past two springs, it's an alarming trend. And if they don't turn it around, they won't survive long enough to extend their string of conference finals appearances.



Youth Being Served at the Point

Billups' struggles are also part of a larger first-round trend: Young point guards are absolutely schooling their older peers. In some cases it's expected -- everyone knew Deron Williams had an advantage in the Rockets-Jazz series, for instance. But in others, it's been alarming.

Take Chris Paul versus Jason Kidd, for instance. Many thought Kidd would at least make this matchup respectable; Byron Scott went so far as to say before Game 1 that whoever played better would win the series.

Suffice it to say it's advantage Paul. He blistered Dallas for 24.8 points and 11.3 assists in the first four games, and has just six turnovers the entire series. (Quick side note on Paul: Several readers chimed in to say that "Woo!" sound they do after he scores is a recording of wrestler Ric Flair, who is friends with Hornets owner George Shinn from their Charlotte days. Now it all makes sense.)

Meanwhile, Kidd has been Trappist quiet, averaging a meager 7.3 points and 6.3 assists. He has nearly as many turnovers (nine) as baskets (10), and it's possible his flagrant foul on Jannero Pargo will earn him a suspension for the crucial Game 5 in New Orleans.

Tony Parker versus Steve Nash has been a similar surprise. Parker destroyed the Suns in Game 3 with 41 points and 12 assists, and even in Phoenix's blowout win in Game 4 Parker was the one Spur who held his own -- he outscored Nash 18-15 and nearly matched him in assists, 4-3.

Parker isn't necessarily getting his points at the expense of Nash -- if anything, he's been scoring mainly by attacking Shaq in screen-and-rolls -- but the fact remains that his younger legs have proven much more effective in this series.

Even the Rajon Rondo-Mike Bibby pairing has gone the young guy's way, even though Bibby has a well-earned rep as an ace playoff performer. Bibby has yet to play well in this series, averaging just 9.9 points and 3.3 assists while shooting 8-for-29 from the floor. Meanwhile, Rondo has been brilliant in his maiden playoff voyage, producing 12.3 points, 7.0 assists and 2.7 steals in the three games.



The Hawks Won a Game … And There Were Witnesses!

When you're talking about playoff surprises, Atlanta's handling Boston so easily in Game 3 certainly cracks the list. Only a few people I know picked the Hawks to make it even a five-game series, much less get their win in such easy fashion against a team that won 29 more games and beat them by double figures in all three regular-season meetings.

Even better, the environment at Philips Arena actually resembled a genuine home-court advantage -- you know, just like all the other teams have. My spies in the ATL confirmed what I suspected on TV: It was the Hawks' most raucous crowd all season. Let's see if they can give an encore performance tonight.

On the court, the key in Game 3 was that Good Josh showed up. When he's engaged in the game and getting opportunities in transition, Josh Smith is hell on wheels. When he's forced into a dull half-court game, his concentration tends to wander, and he forces long jumpers.

As we saw, he got plenty of chances to run on Saturday and put some crazy exclamation points on a couple of them. Few power forwards are better at taking their own board and pushing it up to create chances for themselves or others. (He had six assists.)

But on the other side, Boston didn't defend with nearly the intensity to which we've become accustomed. One expects that will be rectified on Monday night, and that the Celtics will take care of business in five.

While we're talking about the Hawks, let's also mention the least surprising event of the first round so far: The shot-clock problems in Philips Arena during Game 3. In the hands of a less experienced PA announcer, having him call out the shot clock during the second half of a playoff game might result in disaster. But fortunately, Ryan Cameron gets to practice his technique multiple times every year during the arena's myriad clock malfunctions.


Teams not fouling when up by 3

Whether or not to foul when up by three points isn't an ironclad situation -- much of it depends on how much time is left, where the other team has the ball, etc. Fans tend to always want coaches to foul; coaches tend to be paranoid about what can go wrong. The truth usually rests somewhere in between, depending on who has the ball, where and how much time is on the clock.

The best strategy is just to have smart players on the floor who know when it makes sense to foul or not.

Take the end of the Washington-Cleveland Game 4 on Sunday. Gilbert Arenas is a smart cookie who knows how to get continuation calls, and as he dribbled around in the final seconds, I suspect he was waiting for Delonte West to try to give the foul -- and then immediately go up and try to get three shots.

Well, West never gave the foul and Arenas ended up forcing a wild miss at the buzzer. It was an interesting game of last-second poker, and Cavs coach Mike Brown unquestionably played the correct card. Yet had Arenas made the shot, Brown undoubtedly would have been raked over the coals for it.

So what's the difference between that and Game 1 of the Phoenix-San Antonio series, when the Suns didn't give a foul and the Spurs instead twice made game-tying 3-pointers?

Look at the criteria again: who has the ball, where, with how much time. In this case, at the end of overtime, Manu Ginobili drove up the lane in the final seconds before passing out to Tim Duncan for a game-tying triple.

Once Ginobili dribbled the ball inside the 3-point line at the end of overtime, the Suns should have mauled him. Even if he'd drawn a continuation call, it would have been only two shots from that spot on the floor. Game Over.

Instead, they allowed Ginobili to flip the ball out to Tim Duncan behind the line. And as improbable as his making the shot was, it would have been even more improbable for the Spurs to tie the game from the free-throw line in the last five seconds when they were down three.

And that takes us to our final, possible surprise.



Rising Suns???

Just gonna throw this out there …

All 83 times that a team has taken a 3-0 lead in an NBA best-of-seven playoff series, it has gone on to win the series.

But somebody is going to be the first to buck the trend. It happened for the first time in baseball with the Red Sox a few years ago, and inevitably it will happen in basketball, too.

And when would it happen? Most likely with a team that's basically as good as its opponent. That's a rarity in most of the series that started 3-0 -- but not in the Suns-Spurs series. The two teams finished only a game apart in the regular season, the Suns finished ahead in my power rankings, the scoring margin after four games is only five points, and the series would be even if not for the aforementioned Phoenix blunder at the end of Game 1.

I don't want to make too much out of this -- even if you presume the teams are dead-even and give the home team a three-point advantage each night, the fact that the Spurs have two home games in the final three and need to prevail only once adds up to a 94 percent chance they'll win the series. Most likely, San Antonio will be in the conference semifinals.

But this is one of the rare cases in which the team down 3-0 does still have a genuine chance of winning the series.

And if it happened, that would provide the ultimate surprise of this first round.

John Hollinger writes for ESPN Insider. To e-mail him, click here.