Top ten performances of opening round
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The NBA’s conference semifinals began Sunday with Miami’s win over Boston and Memphis over Oklahoma City. I don’t think Boston is that worried as a historically slow starter in playoff series and an unusually good game from Dwyane Wade. The Thunder might be a bit more concerned being outplayed so badly at home in Game 1.
But before moving on, let’s take a look at the opening round. It was a good first round, though there have been plenty of exciting ones with gripping, last minute shots. This one, perhaps, was lessened by the lack of a seventh game in any series, though a rare No. 8 vs. No. 1 upset by the Grizzlies, a mild upset of the Magic by Atlanta and the favorite upset pick of most, the Mavs, moving on fairly comfortably. So to review, here’s a look at the best performances in the first round:
1. Zach Randolph’s refuse to lose Game 6 to knock out the top seeded Spurs when Randolph finished with 31 points and 11 rebounds and outscored the Spurs by himself in the last four and a half minutes 13-11 after it seemed the Grizzlies might have blown a 3-1 lead with a meltdown at the end of Game 5.
2. Brandon Roy’s medical miracle Game 4 against the Mavs when Roy, essentially written off for good with serious knee problems, carried the Trail Blazers from a 23-point deficit with 23 points to even the series at 2-2 with 18 fourth quarter points.
3. Derrick Rose’s Game 1 against the Pacers when Rose rallied the Bulls back from a 10-point deficit with about three and a half minutes left with 39 points and scoring or assisting on the Bulls’ last 12 points.
4. Chris Paul’s Game 1 against the Lakers when Paul had 33 points and 14 assists, but dominated the two-time defending champions on their home court with no one able to control him.
5. Kevin Durant’s Game 5 clincher against the Nuggets when he could not be stopped down the stretch with 41 points overall and 16 of the Thunder’s last 20, basically hitting every shot for almost four minutes.
6. Dirk Nowitzki’s Game 1 with 18 of his 28 points in the fourth quarter in rallying the Mavs back. Nowitzki also scored 12 straight as most were waiting for the Mavs to collapse again despite being a big favorite.
7. Kobe Bryant’s Game 5 against the Hornets with it seemed an ankle injury and two momentum changing huge dunks to deflate New Orleans.
8. Rajon Rondo’s Game 3 in New York after the Celtics had nearly blown the first two games when Rondo had a triple double with 20 assists and was all over the floor to reject the Knicks.
9. Dwight Howard’s Game 2 to bring the Magic back playing all 48 minutes with 33 points and 19 rebounds and making 15 of 19 free throws after his 46 points and 19 rebounds weren’t enough in Game 1.
10. Carmelo Anthony’s Game 2 against the Celtics, though a loss. But a remarkable performance with Chauncey Billups out and Amar’e Stoudemire limited in taking the Celtics to the brink with 42 points, 17 rebounds and six assists.
Best shots of Round 1
-- The best shot of the first round, to me, had to be Gary Neal’s in cold off the bench three to tie Game 5 against the Grizzlies. At the time, albeit briefly, it prevented the No. 8 upset and demise of the four time champion of the last decade. Runners up would be Lou Williams’ three to beat Miami in Game 4 and Jamal Crawford’s three to assure the Hawks win in Game 3.
Jordan knew Bulls were done in 1998
-- The Bulls really did their fans a favor back in 1998. Did you see the San Antonio Spurs last week lose to the No. 8 seeded Memphis Grizzlies? I believe that would have been the 1998-99 Bulls. I heard the TNT crew liken the Spurs to Ali at the end of his career, and had the Bulls and Michael Jordan returned that season, I believe we would have been hearing the same thing. Jordan knew better than anyone, and we saw it when he went to Washington and missed the playoffs both seasons and needed knee surgery. There never was a chance of that team returning because Jordan knew they were done. It’s what he told Jerry Reinsdorf when they met secretly as the lockout began. Yes, Jordan had said he’d quit if Phil Jackson left, which Phil did. But you’ve seen how few times in the intervening years they’ve been together. They didn’t even attend each other’s Hall of Fame inductions. They do talk and are friends, but Michael wasn’t ending his career for Phil. He did like the storyline, though. Scottie Pippen had told intimates he was done after his 1997 surgery, and it was clear when he went to Houston, which was out in the first round of the playoffs with him, and then the next year in Portland when they needed one play in the fourth quarter to beat the Lakers and Pippen couldn’t make a shot or pass or defensive stand. His body wouldn’t allow it, anymore. You see it now with Tim Duncan. Dennis Rodman had brutal times with the Lakers and Mavs and was cut. Luc Longley went to Phoenix and broke down. Time beats us all, as it beat the Spurs last week and as it would have defeated the Bulls in 1999. The Spurs aren’t done, though as Tony Parker said preseason, “I think this will be our last real chance to win a title.” The Spurs could not go through and rely on Tim Duncan anymore, and like the Celtics of the ‘80s or Pistons it will be a slow, sad decline. The Bulls ended on top and walked away. They really did the community a favor. Isn’t it great your last memory of a loved one at the end being the best memory?
Long list of coaching candidates
-- So far the Houston Rockets and Golden State Warriors are looking for a coach. There will be more teams doing so, you figure. There always are. I know whom they should hire if they want to win. But most of the time teams don’t know what to do. I assume I’ll be hearing from the Rockets soon for my own interview as it seems everyone else is a candidate so far. The names mentioned already include Kevin McHale, Sam Cassell, Mike Brown, Mike Woodson, Mario Elie, Kelvin Sampson, Jack Sikma and New Orleans’ Michael Malone, Memphis’ Dave Joeger, Dallas’ Dwane Casey, Boston’s Lawrence Frank, San Antonio’s Mike Budenholzer, Philadelphia’s Quin Snyder and the Clippers’ Dean Demopoulos. How’d they miss Dick Motta? It’s not easy to find a good coach, and despite what you hear at every coach’s press conference following a playoff loss, not every team is well coached. There’s long been this view you had to be a player to be a coach. It’s nice to have it debunked as forcefully as ever this season with the Bulls’ Tom Thibodeau, a lifetime assistant, named coach of the year. By a lot. Many former players are great coaches. Many are not. There are more attributes than playing. Listen to Mark Jackson and Jeff Van Gundy on the TV broadcasts and decide who knows the game better.
That’s why, to me, easily the No. 1 coaching prospect this offseason should be Ron Adams, the Bulls assistant. Like Thibodeau, Adams has been a lifetime assistant, one of those guys who never was considered to be a head coach because, well, you know, he’s not head coaching material because he’s an assistant. We heard that for years about Thibodeau. Can’t communicate. Wouldn’t be able to deal with the media. You know, some guys just are better helpers. Until Thibodeau got his first chance and became the best coach in the league. Here’s a stat that likely is a first time ever in the NBA. The last two coaches of the year, Thibodeau and Scott Brooks, had the same top assistant. Yes, Ron Adams. Now, is that a coincidence? Not to say Adams was responsible. They deserved their awards. But Adams has been a primary teacher, instructor, motivator and strategist in the two best coaching jobs of the last two seasons. Adams is a renowned defensive teacher and coach. He comes to the Bulls the first time in 2003 and with Scott Skiles they move to the top in team defense. A bad Oklahoma City team moves into the top six in defense when he goes there from the Bulls when Vinny Del Negro is hired, and now this season’s Bulls. Earlier in the season, Thibodeau challenged Adams to improve Keith Bogans’ shooting. Bogans just had his second best shooting season of his career and best in five years. Adams can be stern. He’s the guy Joakim Noah feuded with his rookie season, though the two remain close and have Christmas dinner together. Assistant Adrian Griffin says Adams has a rare ability to tell players the unvarnished truth, but with humor and humanity that maintains their attention and promotes their enthusiasm. Adams would be ideal for the Warriors, a young, undisciplined team with talent that craves a defensive education. Many of the candidates are very good. Adams is the only one I’m sure would guarantee success. The Thibodeau model is evidence. Yes, they can!
Another bad sign for the Thunder
-- Can the Thunder win despite Russell Westbrook? That’s my biggest question after seeing the Thunder fall behind the 11-time champion Grizzlies 1-0 in the Western Conference semifinals. You mean that Grizzlies’ franchise never had won a playoff game before this month? Just one game, we all know. But it was another bad sign for the Thunder with Westbrook taking more shots that Kevin Durant. This mostly got dismissed against Denver after the Thunder went up 3-0 and Westbrook shot the Nuggets back in with a wild, nine of 23 game with Kevin Durant mostly watching. Nuggets coach George Karl had been quietly predicting Westbrook’s ego would sink the Thunder, but the Nuggets didn’t stick around long enough. Now you wonder, though the Grizzlies are no fluke with their first round domination of the Spurs. They should have won five games as they blew the end of Game 5. You can see this about Westbrook watching as he plays head down so much, and then when they obviously yell at him in the huddle to pass the ball he lobs passes to Durant and stands around. I don’t rely on those esoteric stats much, but I saw one in the newspapers in Oklahoma City published during the series of something called usage, basically how often a player shoots. Westbrook actually led Durant by a slight margin during the season (not a good idea, anyway). But in those first four games, Westbrook’s so called “usage” was 35.7 percent to 27.8 percent for Durant, perhaps the most effortless shooter in the game with constant mismatches. Yes, there it was again Sunday with Westbrook taking more shots than Durant and then lobbying him balls in a an apparent funk when he wasn’t. I’m not close to that team, but it seems to define Pat Riley’s famous Disease of Me. Westbrook is an All Star now, a member of the World Championship team. He plays like a guy who wants to be “the man,’ the guy with his own team. He’s looking like a latter day Stephon Marbury, and not just because of Sunday’s loss. Westbrook plays often like a pouty Kobe was with Shaq, though the Lakers did win. But the Thunder’s supporting cast is way too deferential. Plus, I thought coach Scott Brooks made a mistake playing the immobile Kendrick Perkins on Marc Gasol, who kept stepping outside with Perkins nowhere to be seen. Then Zach Randolph just pushed Serge Ibaka around as Ibaka is more finesse player, which you can’t use on Randolph, who, by the way, has become the star of the playoffs. Kevin Durant called him the best power forward in the league. Yes, that Zach Randolph. Everyone apologizes.
NBA Playoffs news and notes
-- That Grizzlies’ win helps further validate the notion of the new wide open, changing of the guard NBA. As Antonio McDyess put it: “A young team usually fades, and the better team keeps going on. But they came back and hit us with all they had and got every win they needed to get. Talent-wise, we’re the better team with the most experience, but after you see what they did to us, they looked like the No. 1 seed and we looked like the No. 8 seed.” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich insisted, at least out West, there is no difference in seeds. Maybe basketball isn’t hockey, but the talent gap has just about disappeared, rendering virtually obsolete the experience factor. … Magic GM Otis Smith told the Orlando Sentinel the team needs the relationship between coach Stan Van Gundy and Gilbert Arenas to improve. My guess is it would if Arenas weren’t such a distraction and unprofessional. If I were Van Gundy, a really good coach, I think I’d be the one looking to get out of there with that kind of mandate. Though what I think is the Magic is hoping for a one player amnesty similar to what the NBA instituted at the start of the last labor agreement in 2005 to save teams luxury taxes and salary cap space. The most prominent player let go was Michael Finley from Dallas. The Magic’s dream scenario is to acquire one of the elite point guards, like Chris Paul, and that’s only possible if they can move some of their many horrible contracts. Dwight Howard, predictably, walked out on post series interviews about his much debated future. Smith keeps saying he’s not being traded, and I can believe that regarding any Eastern team, and certainly not before everyone sees the terms of the new labor agreement which is expected make it difficult for top talents to leave their teams or force trades. … It's been tough times for the big power forwards from last summer with Carlos Boozer slumping against the Pacers, Amar'e Stoudemire hurt against Boston, David Lee and Al Jefferson out of the playoffs and Boston's Doc Rivers Sunday noting in Miami's win, "The Big Three was James Jones, LeBron and Wade." … Rivers made an interesting point during the TV broadcast in asking the team if it were an Olympics who would win. He said everyone but Rondo agreed Miami. They have the athletes. We'll see if they have the basketball players. … On Wade's big Game 1, Rivers cracked it was why Wade was known as the second best player ever from Marquette. So I guess he wasn't that depressed.
-- Wow, Richard Jefferson. Figure the Spurs have had enough if they could move him. He averaged 6.5 points against the Grizzlies and was slow against their hustle. Jefferson failed to score seven times in a game in his NBA career, but twice in this series. He was benched the entire second half of Game 6. … For Rudy Gay? Nah, salaries don’t match. But that’s another one of those elephants floating around the room (can they float) for the Grizzlies. They have been much better and unselfish and freed Zach Randolph without Gay. Plus, they have to pay Marc Gasol, a free agent. Here’s my prediction based on no one I’ve talked to. Gay goes to Minnesota for maybe Wesley Johnson, a good young (cheap) talent to work in off the Grizzlies bench. The only way Minnesota gets a star type talent is one with a contract. And they are becoming very desperate to get someone like that. … Add Andre Iguodala to that available mix of high salaried guys. How about his answer to Philadelphia reporters when asked about returning to the 76ers: "I expect to be back in the NBA. It's always been a dream of mine to play ball. This has been a great ride so far, not just with the Sixers, just playing basketball in general. I'm really looking forward to getting some rest this summer, just letting my body recuperate and get back to 100 percent, and I'm really looking forward to next year being my best year in the league." There were conflicting reports of whether Iguodala missed the end of season team meeting. Sounded like he did, though management seemed to try to cover. Look, Doug Collins makes you better. But some guys don’t work with him. I’m guessing Iguodala is one. … You also might throw into that a pretty interesting mix of potential talent moving with Larry Bird’s somewhat lukewarm endorsement of Danny Granger to the Indianapolis Star: "He's a top-30 player. I've always thought he could be an All-Star and he's close. But he's not there yet. I didn't think he was as committed consistently as he's been in the past. It would be really nice if he could be our second scorer.'' Actually, he was an All-Star in 2009. So much for your highest paid player. But Larry tells it like he sees it. … You probably can add O.J. Mayo to that mix. It could be an interesting offseason if there is one. At least until July 1.