Thursday, June 4, 2009

Kobe, Lakers Final--ly Won't Be Denied

The endless waiting is nearly over. The dream matchup—LeBron and the Cavs vs. Kobe and the Lakers-- has crashed and burned,.brought down in a hail of Orlando Magic 3-pointers.

But what we’re left with in the NBA Finals which gets underway just hours from now, isn’t so bad. There’s still Kobe, aiming once again to win it all without Shaq as the lead dog, convinced this time the crown will be his.

And then there’s the upstart Magic, a team which goes against convention by shooting the three at every opportunity—even though they have the game’s most dominant big man, Dwight Howard.

Orlando wasn’t supposed to be here. Why the Magic wasn’t even a sure thing to make it out of the first round, where they trailed the Sixers 2-1, needing Hedo Turkoglu’s last second 3-pointer to pull out Game 4. After finally putting Philly away in six they found themselves trailing the reigning champion Celtics 3-2 and facing elimination, before coming on strong to win the final two games and advance.

Next it was LeBron and the supposedly mighty Cavaliers, who had merely cruised through the first two series without losing a game. It was supposed to be a given the Cavs were headed to the Finals, especially after King James turned certain defeat into an improbable Game 2 victory to even the series.

Instead, as the series wore on it became more and more obvious Orlando was the better team and there was little LeBron & Co. could do to stop them.

Now can the Lakers, who feature a far more formidable front line than the Cavs? With Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum and Lamar Odom all capable of banging with Howard inside on defense, while keeping him honest at the other end, L.A.. presents far more imposing matchups.

And if that’s not enough the Lakers are big enough, quick enough and athletic enough to make sure Turkoglu, Rashard Lewis and emerging sixth man Mikael Pietrus don’t have open target practice from beyond the arc.

Assuming they can keep the Magic from raining down treys the way they did against Cleveland, the Lakers should be in good shape. Undoubtedly, “Superman” Howard and his friends—which may include all-star point guard Jameer Nelson playing for the first time since what was supposed to be season-ending shoulder surgery—will have their moments.

That figures to be particularly the case when the series shifts to Disney World for Games 3,4 and 5. As the playoffs have evolved the Magic have become tougher to beat on their home court, having taken two of three from both Philly and Boston, then all three from Cleveland at Amway Arena.

Remember during the Finals, it’s a 2-3-2 format, meaning both the first two and last two would be played at Staples Center. Only twice since the format changed has the home team won the middle three gsmes—Detroit (2004) and Miami (2006). That almost certainly means to win the title the Magic will have to do it in hostile territory.

Which ultimately means having to take it away from Kobe Bryant with everything at stake. Much has been said about Kobe’s quest to win a championship as “The Man” More telling is his relentless style, his take no prisoners mentality, his ability to do whatever it takes, score, pass, defend or even be a decoy.

That’s what will be the difference this series. The Magic are certainly better than most have given them credit for. It wouldn’t be shocking to see them and they’d be deserving champions.

However, the Lakers for all their faults, all their arrogance, all their Hollywood dramatic are more deserving. This time they won’t be denied.

Lakers in six.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

An Unexpected Final Four

Okay, let’s have a show of hands. Back in November when the season started how many of you had these four playing for all the chips, while the reigning champion Celtics, perennial title threat Spurs and everybody else had “gone fishin’’’?
The Cavs and Lskers? Sure. If not no-brainers, they weren’t all that hard to predict. When one team has LeBron James and the other has not only Kobe Bryant, but Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom, among others, you know they’re going to be tough to knock off.
Amazingly, though, while LeBron’s Cavaliers have swept through first the Pistons, then the Hawks, the Lakers had to go to the limit before finally taking the fuel out of the Yao Ming-less Rockets. Twice the Lakers got blown out in Houston so thoroughly, Phil Jackson almost looked annoyed.
But yesterday with the season on the line it was the defending Western champions who came up huge, jumping on the Rockets right out of the gate and never letting up on their way to an 89-70 romp. That 19-point spread turned out to be popular on the day, with Dwight Howard, Hedo Turkoglu and the Orlando Magic shocking the Paul Pierce ,Ray Allen and the champs on the hallowed Garden parquet floor, 101-82, shooting a blistering 13-for-21, 62% from 3-point range
So the Conference Finals are set. The Cavs and Magic, who won 125 games between them this season—66 by Cleveland—in the East. Kobe’s Lakers vs. the Denver Nuggets--a team many thought would have a battle just making the playoffs this season out West.
Not the most likely Final Four, for sure.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Daly A Tough Act to Follow

So is there another Chuck Daly lurking somewhere out there who can come to the rescue of the Sixers?

Well, that might be asking a little too much, considering that Daly, who died today at 78 of pancreatic cancer was not only a Hall of Fame coach, but a pretty decent guy, too. In fact, as Sixers president/general manager Ed Stefanski, who actually played for Daly three decades ago at Penn, has found, out there aren’t many like him.

Which doesn’t mean he shouldn’t keep looking, trying to find a coach who can attempt to bridge the gap that would carry the Sixers from their current state of mediocrity into becoming a team to reckon with. That’s what Daly did once he arrived in Detroit in 1983, taking over a team that had won just 97 games the previous three seasons, hadn’t had a winning season in six years and had won just one playoff series since 1961. <

Instantly, he made the Pistons respectable, winning 49 games his first season, the first climb up the NBA ladder, which would take them to the top five years later. While some may deride Daly for teaching bullying tactics, resulting in the creation of the “Bad Boys,’’ who relished playing a punishing style—bordering on dirty-- that has evolved into the norm through the years, most recognized his true genius.<

Daly was a master of getting the most from his players, who knew how to exploit an opponent’s weakness and how to frustrate them into making mistakes. Not only did his Pistons twice win it all and become a legit contender for the better part of the decade with a lineup featuring Isiah Thomas, Adrian Dantley, Joe Dumars, Bill Laimbeer and a young, somewhat sane Dennis Rodman, he went beyond that. <

In 1992 Daly took what was arguably the greatest collection of players ever assembled—Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Charles Barkley, Karl Malone, Patrick Ewing, John Stockton and David Robinson—among them and took Barcelona by storm. The Olympic “Dream Team’’ did it all in cruising to the gold, with Daly pulling all the right strings.

Having conquered the world, Daly took a step back after that. Following two mediocre seasons with the Nets he left coaching, becoming an expert TV/radio analyst, who was as skilled explaining the game as he was teaching it. But after five years away the coaching bug returned in the lockout shortened season of 1998, where he called the shots in Orlando. The Magic, featuring Penny Hardaway, went 33-17 that season, only to go down in a first-round upset to Allen Iverson and the rest of Larry Brown’s Sixers.
That turned out to be Chuck’s last go-round on an NBA bench.<

Daly would be the first to tell you he didn’t do anything special during his day. The numbers (638-437 over 14 seasons, 75-51 in the post-season) would suggest otherwise. The numbers also don’t say what a good person he was. For all his success, Chuck Daly never talked down to people, never acted as if he were better than them. And never forgot where he came from, a former high school coach from Western, PA, who just happened to catch a break.

So good luck, Ed Stefanski and anyone else trying to decide who’s the best man to coach their team. Whether it turns out to be incumbent Tony DiLeo—whose fate will likely be determined in the next few days—or capable outsiders like Avery Johnson, Eddie Jordan, Mark Jackson or even one-time Sixer Doug Collins, the task before them is enormous.

The kind of task Chuck Daly always thrived at.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Second Round Won't be First Rate

The NBA’s version of the elite eight doesn’t offer too many surprises.

Yes, it’s a bit unexpected not to find Tim Duncan and the four-time champion Spurs still going, along with the Hornets, the team many thought might be their successors. But in the East, other than seeing Dwyane Wade and Heat fizzle out badly in Game 7 in Atlanta, it’s gone according to form.<

The one variable was the classic seven game duel the Celtics and Bulls put on, which featured some 170 lead changes and seven overtime. Ultimately, though, even without Kevin Garnett, who did not stage a Willis Reed-like return for Game 7, Boston championship mettle—plus a raucous Garden crowd—proved the difference.

Which brings us to the second round, already underway, though these predictions were hermetically sealed beforehand. While some may be looking for more of the same in terms of competitiveness, don’t be so sure. In fact upsets, not to mention long, drawn out series, will not be the second round order of the day.

Celtics (2) vs. Magic (3)
The epic series to end all epic series with the Bulls finally over, it doesn’t figure to get any easier for the reigning champion Celtics, who open second round play vs. the returning Dwight Howard and the Orlando Magic tonight.<

Instead of rookie sensation Derrick Rose, Ben Gordon and John Salmons to worry about, now the men in green must deal with Rashard Lewis and Hedo Turkoglu. Rather than banging heads against Joakim Noah and Brad Miller in the paint, it’s Howard, the League’s leading rebounder and shot-blocker, as well as the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year. And rather than matching wits with first year coach Vinny DelNegro, now it’s Stan Van Gundy, not so affectionately known to Shaquille O’Neal as the “master of panic.’’ <

Still, it’s hard to imagine the Celtics being pushed any harder to the limit than they were by the Bulls, who extended them to seven games, incorporating seven overtimes, before Paul Pierce, Ray Allen & Co. somehow survived. The difference between the Magic and Bulls is the man in the middle.

Howard can take games over by himself, as the Sixers learned in the opening round. But Philadelphia doesn’t have the kind of inside game as the Celts, with rugged Kendrick Perkins and fast-improving Glen “Big Baby’’ Davis. And they certainly didn’t have a 1-2 offensive punch like Pierce and Allen, either of whom can go off without warning. Don’t forget Rajon Rondo, who might’ve been Boston’s best player in the series, either.

The Magic struggled longer than expected before finally taking care of Philly. In the process they learned they’re much more than Howard and bunch of nobodies. Against the Celtics, who are feeling the loss of Garnett more and more each day, though, they’ll encounter a team with much more confidence, composure and resilience
That, plus home court gives the champs the edge.<
Celtics in six.<

Cavs (1) vs. Hawks (4)
The LeBron show now shifts its attention to the Atlanta Hawks, the conventional wisdom being that the NBA’s newly named MVP and his Cleveland Cavalier cohorts will quickly turn the lights out in Georgia. After quickly disposing of the Pistons in four straight, the Cavs will encounter an Atlanta team far more athletic and explosive.<

Joe Johnson and Mike Bibby, along with sixth man Flip Murray supply the bulk of the firepower. Josh Smith and Al Horford clean up inside, though Smith can be a factor anywhere on the court. And Atlanta’s Phillips Arena has become one of the League’s wilder home courts.

The problem for the Hawks is they’re facing the team with THE wildest home court in the Cavs, who’ve added enough pieces around LeBron—Mo Williams, Delonte West, Anderson Varejao. They’re also facing a team that is on a mission, believing its destiny is win a championship—NOW!

The Hawks, even after finishing off Wade and the Heat won’t stand in their way for long.<
Cavs in five,<

Nuggets (2) vs. Mavericks (6)

Back in November—before Chauncey Billups arrived to resurrect their season, most people thought the only significant win the Denver Nuggets might have this year would be in the Lottery. No one—and that includes people in Colorado—seriously though this team could be a contender,

But once Billups went into the mix and Allen Iverson came out Denver was transformed. Not only did Billups become the focal point of the offense, making it infinitely easier for Carmelo Anthony and the rest, he revitalized the entire franchise.

Suddenly George Karl could do no wrong from the Nuggets bench, getting spectacular play from J.R,. Smith, Dahntay Jones and especially Chris “Birdman’’ Andersen, the shot blocking super sub whose spiked hair and multicolored tattooed arms have endeared him the fan base.

Together, they led the Nuggets to 54 wins and the Northwest Division title, followed by complete first round domination of the Hornets—including a 58-point massacre in Game 4—and now a convincing first game win over Dallas.

Look for Dirk Nowitzki, Jason Kidd & Co. to try to find a solution to the myriad of problems Denver creates. But look for them to come up empty. The Nuggets are headed to the Conference Finals for the first time since 1977.<

Nuggets in five.

Lakers (1) vs. Rockets (5)

Even before the Rockets put away Brandon Roy and the Trail Blazers in six games, the rumblings had started Kobe Bryant was in the battle of his life going against Shane Battier and Ron Artest in this highly anticipated second-round match. It seemed a forgone conclusion they would ultimately lock horns, the Conference Finals seeming the likely spot before Houston tumbled for a possible No. 2 to No. 5 seed—and into the Lakers bracket—the final night of the regular season.

So here it is! Not only Kobe going for step 2 in his championship quest, but a chance for Yao Ming to shine in the spotlight, as he makes his first ever second round playoff appearance and the Rockets’ first since 1997. And hoops fans will get to appreciate Houston power forward Luis Scola, who does all the dirty work.

But for all they have—and it’s a lot to be sure—the Lakers have that much more. They have Pau Gasol, who’s out to prove he’s not the softy the Celtics pushed around in last year’s Finals. And Lamar Odom, who can score, rebound and pass the ball. And maybe even Andrew Bynum, who wasn’t much of a factor in the Utah series, but will give Yao another big body to contend with.

Look for Kobe not to try to force things, especially early, but to impose his will when it counts the most. And the rest of Phil Jackson’s gang will make their presence felt, too, setting the stage for another trip to the Conference Finals

Lakers in five.

But after going only 5-3 in the first round (missing on the Hawks, Nuggets and Mavs) be forewarned: none of these are hardly a sure thing.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Poof! Howard-less Magic Make Sixers Season Disappear

No matter how many times the Philadelphia 76ers tried to convince themselves an Orlando Magic team playing without not only star big man Dwight Howard but scappy guard Courtney Lee was still dangerous, the message just wouldn’t sink in.<

As a result they’re sunk for good, their season coming to a bitter end, following a pathetic 114-89 performance in losing to the Magic tonight. That means for the second straight year, after taking a 2-1 series lead, the Sixers proceded to drop the next three games—two at home—and be eliminated in six on their home court. <

Rashard Lewis and Rafer Alston were just two of many who donned the heroes’ mantle for the Magic, combining for 50 points, 29 by Lewis, while Alston also handed out 10 assists and had three steals. J.J. Redick,filling in for the injured Lee, chipped in with 15—nailing five of seven from 3-point range. Big man Marcin Gortat of Poland did a solid job plugging the gap left by Howard, scoring 11 , while pulling down 15 rebounds.

Andre Miller and Andre Iguodala topped the Sixers, who shot just 41% while turning it over 16 times, with 24 and 21 respectively.

After doing an outstanding job for five games guarding the Magic’s array of 3-point shooters, Philadelphia reverted to its old form of leaving the perimeter uncovered.
The Magic made them pay dearly, draining a series high 12 3-pointers, led by. Redick, the former Duke standout and Alston, who added three treys. <

As many suspected, despite telling themselves not to ease up on the Howard-less Magic, the Sixers came out sluggish, hitting just one of their first eight shots, while Orlando knocked down three of four from beyond the arc—two by Redick—to seize a 13-5 lead.<

Later they would extend that to 20-11 on Alston’s second trey of the night, then 24-13 on Lewis’ free throws. Looking for inspiration the P.,A. announcer promptly introduced Jimmy Rollins of the World Champion Phillies. It didn’t help as Tony Battie knocked down consecutive jumpers to push it to 28-13, before the Sixers closed to 30-19 at the quarter .

The Sixers began to make a move early in the .second, Miller’s driving layup following an Iguodala 3-pointer to make it 34-27. But the Magic shook it off, getting a three-point play from Lewis, followed by a Hedo Turkoglu trey to restore a 46-34 spread. Without having to worry about feeding Howard or having him clog the lane, the Magic was having a field day picking Philadelphia apart. And if didn’t hurt that they simply couldn’t miss, shooting a blistering 60%.

Down 52-37, the Sixers desperately tried to make up some ground over the last four minutes. Instead, Redick buried his third trey, then Gortat added a free throw, extending it to 58-41.

Despite a mild Sixers flurry they still headed to the locker room in complete command, 62-48.<

It was more of the same to start the second half, as the lead ballooned to 71-53 on Alston’s 3-pointer with 8:11 left in the third, leaving the Sixers 20-plus minutes to recover. An Iguodala fast-break slam momentarily woke up the crowd, only to see Redick nail another 3-ball to silence them.<

Orlando would eventually build the margin as high as 87-65 on Lewis’ free throws, before a late 7-0 spurt left the Sixers within outside striking distance, down 87-72 heading to the fourth quarter.

Refusing to believe their team would go down quietly Sixers fans braced for what they hoped would be a frantic final period. It never happened, as Orlando continued to score seemingly at will, breaking Philadelphia's will in the process. By the time the buzzer had mercifully gone off, most of the 16,691 in the house were already long gone.

Perhaps on their way out the door they ran into the Sixers, who saw their season come to an end on the night when they essentially never showed up.

Magic Memories

A sense of deju vu pervaded the Wachovia Center, as the Sixers—trailing three games to two -- prepared to take on a powerful opponent that would be playing without its center, arguably the most dominant inside force in the game.

And just as it was 29 long years ago when a precocious rookie named Earvin Johnson took center stage while Kareen Abdul Jabbar stayed home with a severe migraine, this time the Sixers were crossing their fingers Magic wouldn’t strike again. Back then the Magic was in the name of the kid from East Lansing, MI, who would go on score 42 points, while less heralded Jamaal Wilkes quietly poured in 35.

Last night, with Dwight Howard banished for elbowing Philadelphia’s Samuel Dalembert early in Game 5—an act which should’ve had him ejected on the spot had it been spotted by the zebras—everyone was waiting to see who’d come up big for the Orlando Magic.

``Guys looking to step up need to play defense better, rebound and shoot better,’’ said Magic coach Stan Van Gundy before last night’s game. ``Obviously, we don’t have any margin for error.

``We can’t make as many mistakes as we could with Dwight back there. But this is not anything new to our guys.’’

As if having to go without Howard weren’t bad enough. The Magic also has lost guard Courtney Lee for the remainder of the series, after Howard inadvertently landed another stay elbow on Lee’s head, causing a concussion. That means they’re not only going without 2/5 of their starting lineup, but their top two scorers through the first four games.

``Not counting the five minutes he played in game five (before the injury) Lee’s been our second leading scorer and one of our top defenders,’’ said Van Gundy,. who decided to go with Duke’s J.J. Redick in Lee’s spot rather than Michkael Pietrus to avoid having having both Hedo Turkoglu and Pietrus risk foul trouble. ``Obviously, he’s been having an outstanding series and it’s a tough loss.

``But our main concern is with him physically. They said he’d be out a minimum 7-10 days, so it’s virtually impossible he’ll play in this series. ‘’

Knowing both Howard and Lee would be missing tonight, though, doesn’t make Sixers coach Tony DiLeo any more confident. ``I see other guys stepping up for them,’’ predicted DiLeo. ``I think they’ll be a dangerous team.

``It always happens when a star player goes down. They don’t have a lot of pressure on them.

For us it’s a situation we know where if we lose, it’s over. We’re not in position to be overconfident.’’

Perhaps that’s a lesson learned from the 1980 NBA Finals, the one where that rookie, better known as Magic Johnson, broke their hearts—without their big man-- and celebrated a championship on the Spectrum.floor.

Tonight, with the Magic back and everyone--except them--anticipating a Game 7,
it’s up to the Sixers to prevent another surprise celebration .

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Sixers Want to Change History

Tony DiLeo won't look back. He hasn't even mentioned to his team how they had the perennial Eastern Conference power Pistons on the ropes in their first round series, leading two-games-to-one, then taking a 10-point lead to the lockeroom in Game 4, before it all unraveled.

Detroit took command of that game in the third quarter, eventually cruising to a 93-84 win that evened the series, then never looked back in successive 17 and 23 point wipeouts that sent Philadelphia home for the summer.

So, faced with the exact same scenario against an Orlando Magic team struggling to find its offensive groove, would DiLeo give them a quick refresher course to try to make sure history wouldn't repeat itself? ``I haven;t talked about last year at all,'' said DiLeo, an hour before tapoff. ``The guys here from that team probably learned from it.

``But this team is completely different from last year's team. From what I recall Chauncey (Billups) really took over the game, then Rasheed (Wallace) and Rip (Hamilton). It got contagious.''

Friday, April 24, 2009

Like Magic, Sixers Pull One Out

As the scene shifts from Disney World to the City of self-proclaimed “Brotherly Love,’’ The script for Games 1 and 2 between the Sixers and Orlando Magic has been remarkably similar.

In both games the home Magic had assumed command early, expanded the margin into the high teens by the third quarter, then watched the upstart Sixers try to battle back. In Game One they succeeded, overcoming an 18-point deficit to pull off the upset on Andre Iguodala’s last ditch jumper.

Game Two was a different story, even with “Superman,’’ a.k.a Dwight Howard, missing critical minutes with foul trouble, before eventually fouling out. This time the Magic held it together, getting a spectacular 24-point effort from rookie Courtney Lee to claim a nine-point win and even the series.<

Game 3, then, would determine whether or not the Sixers could build off the crowd’s enthusiasm or it Orlando, who won 59 games during the season including twice here, could silence them. Consider if officially Bedlam City, after Thaddeus Young slipped along the baseline, eluded Howard’s smothering presence in the paint, then twisted home the 96-94 game winning layup with 2.0 seconds left.<

That gives Philadelphia a 2-1 series lead, which they’ll try to expand when they resume here Sunday. While it was Young who dropped home the decisive shot, most of the offense was shared by the Andres—Iguodala and Miller—who hit for 29 and 24 points respectively, with Willie Green added 12. Howard’s 31 topped the Magic, who again struggled with their 3-point .shooting, going just __ beyond the arc.<

When the Magic found themselves staring at a 17-point deficit midway through the third period it was deju vu—all over again. Seemingly out of it Orlando surged to life, erasing all but three of those points by the end of the period.

The comeback continued into the fourth as the Magic drew even. There the Sixers, much maligned for their defensive lapses during the season,. threw a blanket over Howard and the other Magic shooters, before the big man ignored a wave of Thundersticks to hit two clutch free throws and tie the game with 6.9 seconds left.

But only until Young worked himself free along the baseline to take Miller’s inbounds pass, then come up with biggest basket of his young career,
The Sixers tried to feel off the early energy of the crowd, who were handed white T-shirts as they entered the building. They proceeded to knock down their first five shots to take a 10-8 lead. It see-sawed after that until Green and Iguodala ignited an 8-2 Sixers’ spurt that pushed it to 23-17.

Then it was Miller’s turn, as he drove twice to the hoop for layups, keeping the Sixers up, 27-21 at the quarter.<

It grew to 34-25 when veteran Donyell Marshall got free for a dunk, then Lou Williams drove coast-to-coast. Later a pair of Reggie Evans free throws further extended the margin to 38-27, the Magic already in the penalty.<

The Sixers quickly tried to exploit that, then set up Marshall for a three-ball, making it 43-31. Moments later, though, Samuel Dalembert, playing his best game of the series, set a moving pick for his third personal. In came backup Theo Ratliff, who
promptly slammed one home off an Iguodala pass.<

With the Sixers threatening to break it open, back came the Magic, getting 3-pointers from Turkoglu and Lee to narrow the gap to 48-41. But Philadelphia didn’t panic, continuing to run its offense and swarm the Magic on the defensive end, as they restored the lead to 60-49 when Miller beat the buzzer.<

Not content with that, Philadelphia picked up where it left off to start the third, Iguodala draining a 3-pointer to beat the buzzer, followed by Green’s hoop to give them their biggest advantage, 65-49. Not for long, as Green pumped in another 20-footer, making it 72-55.<

Orlando then smothered Iguodala on the wing, who could do nothing but turn and let a prayer fly. It was answered, as the house erupted. The Magic, meanwhile had no success get the ball to their usually deadly 3-point shooters, yet remained within striking distance, thanks to Howard’s unlikely success at the line. <

Without warning Orlando proceeded to go on a 13-0 run capped by back-to-back Mikael Pietrus’ treys to close within 76-74. Miller finally broke the spell and the teams traded basket from there, the Sixers heading to the fourth clinging to an 80-77 lead.

Six minutes later it remained three points, before Lewis buried his second 3-pointer of the night to finally tie it, 86-86. The defenses tightened up at both ends, here, Iguodala’s free throws the only scoring until Williams scored on the break. Iguodala followed that up with a 15-footer to make it 92-86 with 2:39 remaining. <

Howard responded by throwing down a Turkoglu miss, ending a 4: 23 drought.
Lewis made it a 92-91 game, hitting beyond the arc, as the clock dipped inside 2:00. But Green hit a tough shot on the run to preserve a 94-91 edge. The Sixers then missed a chance to add to that when Iguodala bricked two free throws.<

Howard countered by sinking one of two, before Miller missed in traffic, Orlando rebounding and calling its final timeout with 7.4 seconds left. They went inside to Howard who was fouled and hit both to tie at 6.9 seconds, giving the Sixers the ball with a chance to win.

Young did precisely that, and for the second year in a row Philadelphia had the upper hand on its heavily favored opponent heading into Game 4.

Playoffs Are Here!

For the Sixers it’s “Same Time, the Next Year.’’
In just a few hours they return to the Wachovia Center to face Dwight Howard and the Orlando Magic dead even in the series, with the next two and three of the next four to be played here.
Precisely the scenario they found themselves in a year ago after splitting in Detroit. They proceeded to blitz Chauncey Billups, Rip Hamilton and his friends, 95-75 in Game 3, then had the Pistons on the ropes, leading by 14 points in halftime of Game 4.
But the fairy tale upset ended there, as Detroit climbed off the deck to not only take that one, 93-84, but close out the series in convincing fashion, 98-81 and 100-77.
So have the Sixers learned from the experience. One thing, coach Tony DiLeo will emphasize is that just because they’re home before what figures to be passionate fans, they still have to go out and win the game themselves. Those fans alone can’t do it for them.
That’s something the Bulls discovered Thursday night, while getting destroyed at home by the Celtics after playing so well while earning a split in Boston. ``We’ll mention it to them and talk about being like Dallas, rather than Chicago,’’ said DiLeo, referring to the Mavs’ romp over the Spurs. ``We have home court, but we can’t rely on it just because it’s home court.<
``We still have to go out and play.’’
From the start, it was evident they had gotten the message.<

Saturday, April 18, 2009

West Should Be Wild

How will the West be won?

Do Kobe Bryant and the Lakers—a juggernaut even before Andrew Bynum is back seemingly healthy for the playoffs—merely need to toss their Nikes and Reeboks on the floor to assure punching their return ticket to the Finals? Or can somebody else—all of them at least 11 games poorer than L.A. in the standings—find the magic over the next six weeks?

Certainly there are worthy candidates, beginning with the upstart Nuggets, who seemed a likely lottery team until Chauncey Billups arrived to revitalize the franchise. Don’t rule out any of the teams from the Texas Triangle, San Antonio, Houston, even Dallas, each stocked with veterans who’ve been through this before and have the potential to do it now.

Why not the young and fast-improving Portland Trail Blazers, who weren’t supposed to be a legit contender until their new big man, Greg Oden, had learned the ropes. Or the Hornets, who seemed on the verge of greatness last year largely thanks the game’s top point guard, Chris Paul, but haven’t been able to build on it this season.

At least yet.

Finally, could you imagine a tougher No. 8 seed than the Jazz, a team just two years removed from the Conference Finals? Unlike the East, you see, once you get past the Cavs, Magic and defending champion Celtics, there’s virtually no shot of someone else riding the wave to the top.

In the West, beginning tonight, if not the Lakers, anyone can grab it.

Lakers (1) vs. Jazz (8)—That seemed to be a very loud message Kobe and the Lakers left for Deron Williams, Carlos Boozer and rest of Jerry Sloan’s gang Tuesday at Staples Center. With their playoff fate sealed, nothing to be gained and potentially everything to lose,, the Lakers didn’t rest their regulars and take no chances, they systematically pounded a Utah team that still had a mathematical chance to avoid the No. 8 spot into submission.

Doing it in a best of seven, particularly considering the physical game Utah plays, won’t be an easy trick. While not quite John Stockton and Karl Malone, the Jazz still runs the pick-and-roll expertly, Williams working smoothly with Boozer, Mehmet Okur Ronnie Brewer and Paul Millsap.

But the Jazz has proven vulnerable in some key areas, particularly on the road. Assuming they can hold serve at home, since they only need one at Staples there’s best hope is to string the series out, then summon up their energy for one late push.

Doing that, though, is another story, since the Lakers are fully capable of winning anywhere.

Lakers in five

Nuggets (2) vs. Hornets (7)—This matchup wouldn’t have seemed a surprise back in the pre-season, except that New Orleans would be the second seed, with Denver slipping in at seven. But neither team lived up to its billing, which has brought them to this point.

Both team have two legit stars—Billups and Carmelo Anthony for the Nuggets, Psul and David West for the Hornets. Both teams have big men plagued with injuries throughout their careers, Denver’s Nene and New Orleans’ Tyson Chandler. Both have solid role players, capable of making big plays, J.R, Smith and Chris Andersen for George Karl’s team, while Byron Scott can call on Rasual Butler and James Posey.

Ultimately, this one will come down to defense and rebounding, neither of which was supposed to be the Nuggets’ forte. In the long run that will prove their undoing in what will go down as a upset in name only
Nuggets in six,.

Spurs (3) vs. Mavs (6)—The Spurs were the big winner on the final night of the regular season, jumping up from a potential No. 5 seed to Midwest winners and No. 3. The reward is a matchup vs. Dirk Nowitzki, Jason Kidd & Co., who lifted themselves up from No. 8 and near certain elimination against the Lakers to No. 6.

Many now like their chances vs. Tim Duncan’s and Tony Parker’s gang, who won’t have Manu Ginobili available to provide instant offense off the bench. That role now falls to unheralded Ime Udoka along with veterans Drew Gooden and Kurt Thomas. Dallas, meanwhile can call on Jason Terry and Jose Barea.

When it comes to sheer firepower Dallas would seem to be the clear leader. But when you factor in defensive tenacity, coupled with the kind of intangibles that have resulted in four championships over a nine-year that tips things just a bit in San Antonio’s favor.

Spurs in seven.

Blazers (4) vs. Rockets (5)—The Rockets started the final night of the season a win and Denver loss from locking up the West’s second seed. They got the Denver loss and even had a 14-point lead on Dallas, but couldn’t put it away eventually losing and falling all the way to No. 5 seed.

Meanwhile, Portland, which wasn’t supposed to be this good (54-28) until Greg Oden developed into an inside force, blew out the Nuggets in the finale to get the No. 4 seed and hotly desired home court advantage over Yao Ming’s team. While Portland has been formidable at the Rose Garden and Houston doesn’t have a history of recent playoff success on the road, the Rockets are good enough to change that trend.

Houston’s two best defensive players, Ron Artest and Shane Battier will try to put the clamp on Portland’s Brandon Roy and Lamarcus Aldridge. On the other hand Yao figures to be a force, since neither Joel Pryzbilla nor Oden can match up with him.

The Blazers have become the trendy pick to not only beat Houston, but give the Lakers all they can handle. But they still seem a bit too new to all this, making them ripe for an early exit.<

Rockets in six.

Of course, the way the West has gone all season—other than the Lakers, of course—you might well have to tear this up and start again come the second round.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

The Best Time of the Year

Somewhere around 1:00 A.M. Thursday morning, .the pairings for the upcoming NBA playoffs were final set.

Not until the Blazers finished off the Nuggets, 104-76, did the final pieces fall into place. That bumped Portland—returning to the post-season for the first time since Maurice Cheeks not only took them there in 2003, but became a national hero by coming to the rescue of 14-year-old Natalie Gilbert, the girl singing the National Anthem who had forgotten the words-up to the No. 4 slot.

In the process Houston, which had a chance to wind up No. 2 when the night began—had the Rockets held onto a 14-point lead in Dallas-.fell all the way down to No. 5, meaning they’ll have to open in RIP city.

That’s just one of a number of potentially juicy first-round matchups that will have pro hoops fans salivating over the next few weeks. Here’s the rest, with a quick breakdown of what to expect.

We’ll start off today in the East today, saving those fierce battles of the West until tomorrow.

Cavs (1) vs. Pistons (8)—The championship quest, which LeBron James & his teammates have made no secret they believe is their destiny, begins against the team that has been to the Conference Finals the last six years. But the only thing these Pistons have in common with those Pistons is the name and logo.

Detroit, having traded floor leader Chauncey Billups early in the season for Allen Iverson, never got it together and staggered to the wire having dropped their last three to fall to 40-42. Their reward is a date with the NBA’s best team—at least record-wise, which dropped only one home game all season in which LeBron and the “varsity” played.

Unless Cleveland gets caught up in believing its press clippings and doesn’t come ready to play, they shouldn’t have much trouble with Rip Hamilton, Rasheed Wallace, Tayshaun Price & Co.
Cavs in five.<

Celtics (2) vs. Bulls (7)—Give the reigning champions credit for winning 61 games—third best in the League—despite having lost meal ticket Kevin Garnett for most of the past two months. But with today’s revelation from Doc Rivers that KG is probably gone for the playoffs it’s unreasonable to expect Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and the rest to actually defend their crown.

On the other hand, don’t look for the Bulls—who could’ve avoided this matchup and drawn the Magic by beating the Raptors at home Wednesday—to be the ones knocking them off their throne. While likely “Rookie of the Year,’’ Derrick Rose, Ben Gordon and Tyrus Thomas—joined at the trading deadline by veterans John Salmons and Brad Miller—have spearheaded a late season surge, the Celts remain a formidable opponent.

On paper Chicago has the quickness and firepower to give the Celtics problems. On the court, though, Boston’s superior defense and championship swagger will prevail.
Celtics in six.

Magic (3) vs. Sixers (6)—In spite of themselves the Sixers somehow found away to beat the Cleveland JV at the “Q” last night, while the Bulls lost to the Toronto, which nudged them into a duel against Dwight Howard and his 3-point happy friends.

This one will feature one of the NBA’s best long-range shooting teams in Orlando against one of the worst, Philadelphia. And it’s no contest in the paint where Howard, the league’s leading rebounded and shot blocker should have his way against Samuel Dalembert and anyone else Tony DiLeo throws at him.

But if the Sixers can get their vaunted running game in gear and figure out a way to keep Rashard Lewis, Hedo Turkoglu and Rafer Alston from repeatedly burning them beyond the arc,. they might have a chance.

Too big an if to expect an upset. Magic in six.

Hawks (4) vs. Heat (5)—Clearly the most even matchup of the bunch. The Hawks, as much as anyone scared the Celtics last spring, taking them to a seventh game. Now they’ve won __ games and earned home court for the first round.

Where their prize is the league’s leading scorer, Dwyane Wade, who personally resurrected a 15-win doormat into a playoff team. Next on his agenda is marching through Georgia—aided by recent acquisition Jermaine O’Neal, Udonis Haslem and rookies Michael Beasley and Mario Chalmers—into a second round showdown vs. Olympic teammate LeBron and the Cavs.

The Hawks, led by Joe Johnson and Mike Bibby in the backcourt, with Josh Smith and Al Horford doing the dirty work inside, won’t go down easy. But Wade will come up with something to make sure they do go down.
Heat in seven.<

That would set up a second round starring this fantastic four: LeBron, D-Wade, Howard and the champs.

Yes, it’s finally playoff time. For hoops fans the best time of the year.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Bucks Shot Down in Stretch

With nine games and less than two weeks remaining in the regular season, and the Sixers post-season fate very much up in the air, the Milwaukee Bucks—another team that shouldn’t have been able to match up with them—came to town last night.

They nearly left with something to smile about, holding as much as a 13-point first half lead before the Sixers finally got down to business. Facing the team which impacted their season most--since Elton Brand's season-ending shoulder injury occurred when he collided with Milwaukee's Luc Mbah a Moute and dislocated his shoulder--they came up huge when it mattered most. With the game hanging in the balance tied inside six minutes, the Sixers proceeded to run off 10 straight points and never look back enroute to a 105-95 win that improved their record to 39-35. <

Lou Williams came off the bench to score 21 points and lead a balanced attack, as the Sixers nudged ½ game ahead of idle Miami (39-36) for the coveted No. 5 playoff spot—meaning they’d avoid playing either Boston or Orlando in the opening round. Andre Iguodala followed with 20, while Andre Miller scored 18 and handed out 11 assists and sixth man Maurice Speights added 14.

The Bucks, meanwhile, placed six men in double figures, topped by Ramon Sessions with 18 and 10 assists.Richard Jefferson (17) and Charlie Bell (14) came next for Scott Skiles’ team.<

Milwaukee, featuring a roster that represents 3/4 of the NCAA's Final Four--forwards Charlie Villanueva (Connecticut) and Malik Allen (Villanova), along with guard Charlie Bell (Michigan State), plus head coach Skiles (Michigan State) and assistant Joe Wolf (North Carolina), is mathematically alive for the playoffs at 32-45. But that's about it.<

Besides needing a bunch of wins, the Bucks would need a collapse from not only the 36-40 Bulls, currently No.8, but also from Charlotte (34-41) and Indiana (32-43). That's simply asking for too much help. <

But it didn’t stop them from going after the Sixers, playing for the first time since power forward Thaddeus Young—who had scored at least 20 points in seven straight games—went down with a severe ankle sprain that will sideline him 2-3 weeks. In the beginning, though, it was the Reggie Evans show for the Sixers, the new starting power forward erupting for nine points—just three off his season’s high—as Philadelphia surged to an early 13-7 lead. But the Bucks struck right back, going on an 8-0 run to go ahead, 15-13.

They maintained through most of the period, before rookie Joe Alexander fouled Iguodala shooting from 3-point range,. When Iguodala hit two-of-three, it was tied 24-24 after one.<

Milwaukee quickly jumped back on top, 28-24, to start the second, then pushed it to 41-30 on Luke Ridnour’s 3-pointer.and a basket by Dan Gadzuric. Eventually, the margin would reach 52-39 on Sessions’ free throws , before 3-pointers by Williams and Donyell Marshall and Iguodala’s three-point play helped narrow the gap to 59-50 at the half.<

The Sixers continued to chip away in the third, Iguodala’s free throws bringing them within 61-59 at the 8:37 mark. Samuel Dalembert’s hook shot tied it moments later, completing a 19-6 run. <

Back stormed the Bucks, though, with six unanswered points, Sessions driving layup restoring a 67-61 advantage. Milwaukee managed to hold them off until the final minute when Speights free throws capped a late run, sending the Sixers to the fourth clinging to an 80-79 edge. <

After a frenetic 50-point third period, both teams tightened up defensively in the fourth. After four minutes the Sixers remained on top. 85-82. Just over two minutes later, Sessions’ three-point play knotted things,, 89-89.

That’s when the Sixers took charge, Speights hammering one down in the paint, followed by an Iguodala fast break slam and Miller’s free throws. When Williams came up with a loose ball and drove for a layup, suddenly the Sixers had their biggest lead of the night, 97-89 with 4:03 left. Speights knocked down a short jumper on their next possession to finish off a 10-0 run that essentially settled the issue, the Bucks managing just six more points the rest of the way.<

Sixers Post-season hopes Rest on Young

As Thaddeus Young gingerly wrapped his arms around a pair of crutches and hobbled out the door, you couldn’t help wonder if the Sixers season was leaving with him.

Sure, he and coach Tony DiLeo all said the right things. They have confidence in the guys taking his place. The team will rally around others.

But realistically, it has to be a staggering blow`to a team that has already suffered too many of them to lose a player of Young’s caliber at such a critical juncture. When the 20-year-old Young landed awkwardly on the foot of Atlanta’s Josh Smith in the first quarter of what would be a 98-85 Sixers win, he went down hard and didn’t get back up.,

Eventually he had to be helped off the court, unable to put any weight on his right ankle. Even though x-rays and a subsequent MRI showed nothing was broken and that Young had suffered a strained ankle and bone bruise, the damage was severe enough that he’s been ruled out the next 2-3 weeks.

That means it’s unlikely he’d return before the end of the regular season, while the start of the playoffs are in jeopardy, too. While hardly ideal, it still beats the prospect of not getting him back at all, which DiLeo feared. ``It’s a big relief,’’ said DiLeo, regarding the prognosis. ``When I saw him go down I expected a lot worse.

``The best scenario would be getting him back in the regular season. But we’ll do whatever it takes to get him back healthy. If the medical staff says he’s okay and Thad says he’s okay then I’d be confident to play him. But not if one of them isn’t comfortable with it.’’

While Young remains hopeful he can make it back sooner rather than later, he expressed confidence in replacements Reggie Evans and rookie Marreese Speights.

``We have guys who can come in and pick up the slack,’’ said Young, matter of factly some 90 minutes before the Sixers took on the Milwaukee Bucks, with Evans getting the starting nod.. ``I’m sure they’ll do a good job.

DiLeo tried to add to the suspense by refusing to divulge his starter until the last minute, as if tipping off Bucks’ coach Scott Skiles beforehand would make a difference. Other than concede going with Evans in Thad’s spot would indicate an inclination towards defense, while rookie Speights was more of an offensive force, DiLeo was mum.

Unless Thaddeus Young gets back in action soon, though, the likelihood of the Sixers post-season lasting any longer than one round seems virtually negligible.

Friday, March 27, 2009

A Loss That Could Really Sting

The Charlotte Hornets are the kind of team the Sixers will have to beat down the stretch if they're to maintain their precarious hold on the East's No. 5 playoff spot--or even move up.

Larry Brown's team is no longer one of the NBA's laughingstocks at 31-39. But they're not exactly ready for prime time, either.

Having nudged a mere percentage point ahead of Dwyane Wade and the struggling Miami Heat, the Sixers goal is not to give it back. With half their remaining games at home, and the majority of them against teams with sub. 500 records, the opportunity clearly is right there ahead of them. They need to either play well enough to stay in fifth—or stage a spectacular finish to rally past the 42-30 Hawks for fourth and potential home court advantage in a first-round series with Atlanta.

None of which they did here last night, digging themselves a 17-point halftime hole, which grew to 18 early in the fourth quarter, before they began their inevitable comeback. But, as if often the case, it wasn't quite enough, the Hornets holding them off, 100-95.

Boris Diaw paced a balanced attack for the Hornets with 24 points Raymond Felton followed with 20, then Gerald Wallace with 14 and 11 rebounds.

Andre Iguodala and Thaddeus Young provided the bulk of the 37-34 Sixers offense , scoring 25 and 21 respectively.

The Sixers started off sluggishly, allowing the Hornets to penetrate for high percentage shots, while falling behind 29-23 after one thanks to Charlotte’s 130-for-22 59.1 % shooting. In the second the Hornets pushed that as high as 34-25, before the Sixers began to battle back.<

But after drawing within 36-31 on Young’s hoop, Charlotte took command. Over the final 5:14 the Hornets blanked the Sixers, while running off 14 unanswered points, five apiece by rookie D.J. Augustin and former Sixers Raja Bell.

That sent Charlotte to the locker room up 50-33

They tacked on one more basket to make it 52-33, before the Sixers finally broke the drought.. Philadelphia then spent the rest of the period trying to chip away at the deficit, getting as close as 63-52 on Willie Green’s basket. They were still down 11 inside 2:00 when Wallace and Felton scored to help restore the spread to 73-60 heading into the fourth quarter.<

From there it reached 77-60 on Waace’s free throws, then 80-62 on Augustin’s second trey of the night. But the Sixers braced for one last desperate push, Young’s 20 footer cutting it to 82-71. Later Lou Williams’ free throws and an Iguodala dunk narorowed the gap to 88-80, the closest they’d been since the second quarter.

But when Bell was able to retrieve his own miss, setting up Diaw for a three-point play the pressure eased for a moment. Still, the Sixers kept charging, Iguodala’s 3-pointer again making it an eight-point game, 93-85. Things got interesting when Williams drove the lane for a three-point play, making it 94-90 with 1:49 remaining, followed by Young’s driving layup.

But Diaw got inside for a layup to momentarily silence the crowd, then Bell knocked down two free throws, Iguodala responded with a 3-pointer, making it a one-possession game, 98-95. Bell missed a 20-footer only to see the Sixers bat it out of bounds, Felton then dribbled for 15 seconds at the top of the key, before slicing to the hoop for the clinching layup with 7.9 seconds left.

In the aftermath DiLeo and his players talked about getting off to a slow start, not matching Charlotte's energy and agressiveness, as well as the price they paid for it. With just 11 games remaining, the ultimate price could prove very costly.

If things remain as bunched up as they are for those coveted 4-5 playoff spots, downt the road the Sixers may well point to this loss to the Hornets as one that really stings.

DiLeo Not Looking Ahead

The mantra of coaching says you may NEVER, EVER dare look ahead beyond the next game. Exactly where this all started no one can quite say for sure.

But chances it was some time when the Greeks and Roman were waging battle.

So Sixers’ coach Tony DiLeo refused to take the bait when it was suggested that having his team in a three-way fight with the Hawks and Heat to escape the 6-7-8 playoff positions in the East and near certain first round death, might be a good thing. While it only makes sense that getting into either the fourth shot—which would mean having home court advantage—or No. 5, would seem to be the way to go, DiLeo wasn’t interested in looking beyond tonight’s test with old friend Larry Brown’s Charlotte Hornets.<

`` ``As you said we just want to win as many games as we can and I’m only worrying about tonight,’’ said DiLeo, whose 37-33 team technically holds the No 5 spot by a percentage point over 38-34 Miami, while trailing 42-30 Atlanta by four games. ``If we win them all we’ll be in good shape.’’<

While DiLeo stuck to the mantra, one of his players, came right out and said there’s one team the Sixers would just as soon avoid—and it has nothing to do with any lack of confidence they don’t match up. ``There’s only one team I don’t want to play,’’ said veteran forward Reggie Evans, referring to Lebron James’ Cleveland Cavaliers, the likely No. 1 seed. ``.LeBron is the face of the NBA.<.
``Revenue. Ticket Sales. They want to see him on TV as much as possible,
``It’s not like I’m scared of playing them, but there’s a lot of political stuff going on.’’
Then Evans did momentarily project a bit long term. ``It would be good to have home court, but it really doesn’t matter,’’ said Evans, who’s faced then Clippers’ big man Elton the Spurs’ Tim Duncan and Detroit’s Rasheed Wallace in previous playoff series. ``The main thing is we’re going to have a better record and higher seed than we did last year (40-42, No. before losing in six to the Pistons)
``Once we get to the first round we’ll see what happens.’’
But first, there are 11 more games to play, beginning tomorrow in Detroit.

Monday, March 16, 2009

D-Wade Turned Human

Dwayne Wade made his NBA debut some 5 ½ years ago, scoring 18 points—on 8-for-18 shooting and grabbing four rebounds in 41 minutes in the Heat’s 89-74 loss to Allen Iverson and the Sixers.

Let’s just say he’s improved a bit since then—although it was hard to tell today--, coming into today’s game leading the NBA in scoring at a 30.0 clip. He also ranked second in steals—to Chris Paul-- and eighth in assists. Plus. coming off an injury-plagued 2008 in which he was limited to just 51 games while the Heat staggered to a 15-67 disaster of a season, he’s almost single-handedly improved them into playoff contenders.

After doing a half-Syracuse Saturday in Miami—needing three overtime to outlast the Utah Jazz, 140-129--the 36-29 Heat arrived fifth in the tightly packed Eastern standings, 1 ½ games behind No. 4 Atlanta, who would have home court should it stay this way, and 2 ½ games ahead of No. 6 Detroit. Another ½ game back was the Sixers, who would earn a 2-2 split of the season’s series with a win today.<

Down five points after three periods that prospect didn’t appear likely. But then Philadelphia picked up its defense, while Miami’s legs, still feeling the effects of Saturday’s marathon just wouldn’t respond. With little-used Donyell Marshall coming out of mothballs to pick up a sagging offense by hitting three 3-pointers, while the Sixers playing suffocating defense at the other end, Philadelphia went on a 24-9 fourth quarter tear to salvage a crucial 85-77 win. <

Andre Iguodala scored 21 points to lead the way for the 33-31 Sixers, who now head West for five games, beginning Tuesday with the Lakers. Thaddeus Young was next with 17, while Andre Miller finished with 10 while handing out 11 assists and Marshall added 10—all in the fourth quarter when he single-handedly outscored the visitors.<
Jermaine O’Neal topped the 36-30 Heat with 20, while Wade settled for 18, shooting just 8-for-21, to go with four rebounds and three assists, numbers eerily similar to the ones he posted in his October 29, 2003 debut here. <

``It wasn’t a good one,’’ conceded Wade, who felt he simply didn’t have his usual explosiveness, which prevented him from going strong to the hoop. ``They made the plays and we didn’t.

``Being tired (from the three overtime game with the quick turnaround) was a factor of course.<

``I just didn’t have the energy to go to the rim like I can.’’

Sensing that, the Sixers didn’t let the Heat off the hook. ``We knew they had played three overtimes yesterday so they were tired,’’ said Iguodala, as the Sixers jumped over Detroit into sixth in the East, just 1 ½ games behind Miami. ``We take to take full advantage.

``In that situation you definitely have to take care of business.’’

That’s the same mindset they intend to take West, where they’ll follow up their test vs. Kobe & Co. by taking on Phoenix, Sacramento, Golden State and Portland. `` Whoever put the schedule together for us wasn’t on our side,’’ complained Iguodala.
We’re playing some high level teams. <

``We usually play well when we play good teams. If we can win one early, that could set us up for a good trip.’’

But before they left town they had to stop D-Wade and his boys As Heat coach, Erik Spoelstra feared, the host Sixers jumped out of the gates on his weary team, getting 10 first quarter points from Young and seven from Iguodala to seize a 29-22 first quarter lead. But with Wade, O’Neal and the rest of the starters on the bench, the Heat opened up the floor for 3-pointers from Chris Quinn and Yakhouba Diawara to draw even, 31-31. <

A few minutes later Mario Chalmers drained another trey to put Miami ahead, 37-35. Then it was Wade driving past Samuel Dalembert to make it 43-40. But Iguodala responded with a three-point play, followed by a fastbreak dunk off an Andre Miller pass off a steal the Sixers closed with a flurry to take a 46-43 halftime lead.<

The game remained tight into the third, Wade stripping Iguodala and going in for an uncontested dunk to put the Heat on top, 51-50. Udonis Haslem’s corner jumped pushed it to 55-50, as Philadelphia hit just two of its first 11 to start the period.<

Finally Young broke the drought with a driving layup, followed by a tough putback in traffic to cut it to 58-54. Wade promptly opened it up to 62-54, hitting from the corner. After three it was 68-61, the Sixers having scored 32 points in the second and third periods combined after dropping 29 in the first.<

That’s when the Sixers made their move, Tony DiLeo pulling the strings by going deep down his bench to veteran Marshall, who followed Maurice Speights’ jumper and a pair of Lou Williams with a 3-pointer to tie it, 70-70 with 7:45 remaining.<

Miller then put the Sixers up for the first time since early in the third, 72-70, setting the stage for a frantic finish. Marshall’s second trey of the period stretched the Sixers advantage to 77-72 at the 5:38 mark, before he drained his third to make it 80-74. .

Miami had a number of chances to cut into that margin, only to come up empty, before Marshall’s third 3-ball within a 3:16, followed by some Philadelphia free throws, put it away.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

One Last Spectrum of Emotions

If it was up to the players, not only wouldn't they be tearing down the Spectrum later this year, they'd try to get the Sixers to play there more often.

With a sold-out 17,563 screaming like banchees and the outcome hanging in the balance, this was the rare night when the Sixers did enough damage down the stretch to escape with a 104-101 win over Michael Jordan's old team, the Chicago Bulls.

The numbers will say Thaddeus Young poured in a career-high 31 points, while Andre Iguodala added 25 to help push Tony DiLeo's team back over the .500 mark at 32-31, keeping them seventh in the East, but now 4 12 games ahead of those same Bulls’ for the East’s final playoff spot. They’ll also point to Samuel Dalembert yanking down 19 rebounds to go with his eight points and four blocks—capped by his rejecting Bulls’ rookie sensation Derrick Rose’s driving layup attempt with 20 seconds left and the Sixers clinging to a 102-101 lead.

But what the numbers can’t do is recreate the feeling, the energy that was coursing through the building last night. The joint was jumping once again—as they used to say in one of their trademark marketing slogans—for this one final fling in a building where so much of the franchise’s history—both good and bad--was made.

Of course they celebrated Doctor J., Moses Malone, Bobby Jones and others from the 1983 championship team, as well as the Wilt Chamberlain and Hal Greer-led 1967 title squad. At the same time there had to be many among the announced sold-out 17,563 on hand for the occasion who could vividly recall all those championship near misses, not to mention the abomination of 1973 when the Sixers posted what remains the NBA’s all-time record for futility, 9-73.

But to the current players who took the floor none of that mattered. While Andre Miller did snap pictures of the building and some of the greats who played here and turned out last night, he said that was for his nine-year-old son, Duane, as much as posterity.

``"It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to say that I played on the same court as some of the legends of the game," said Miller, who scored 13, while handing out as many assists. ``The atmosphere was actually better than our place (the Wachovia Center).

``It was louder, Like old-school basketball. ‘’

Dalembert, apparently inspired to play on the level of his predecessors like Spectrum big men Chamberlain, Malone and Caldwell Jones said it was special, too. "It was amazing," said Dalembert, who pulled down the rebound of Ben Gordon’s last-ditch 3-point attempt to force overtime, then jubilantly held it high above his head as time expired. "All the fans are right on top of you.

``You can only imagine the excitement and the smell from the '70s, the dust, and maybe there were some rats watching the game, too.’’

They watched a good one, as the Sixers took command of what had been a close game with a 13-2 surge to close the third period and take an 80-69 cushion into the fourth. Rookie Maurice Speights promptly scored to start the fourth—making it 82-69—before the Bulls came charging back.

Within five minutes they had tied it, 88-88, on former Sixer Tim Thomas’ 3-pointer. Later Chicago would take the lead, which see-sawed back and forth as the clock wound down. Finally, Miller sank three of four three throws to make it 101-98 inside a minute, only to see Gordon knock down a game-tying trey with 31.8 seconds left.

Iguodala opened the door a crack by sinking just one of two at the line moments later, before Dalembert helped slam it shut with his block of Rose, igniting a streaking Young for an uncontested dunk at the other end.

When Gordon’s final prayer went unanswered, the ghosts rattling around the Spectrum could finally smile. That was an exciting game on a special night," said
Sixers' coach Tony DiLeo, who used to observe from the same Spectrum bench as an assistant in the early 90’s "That's the way they write it in books."

The book is now closed on what they used to call “America’s Showplace.’’ It ended fittingly, though, with a classic.

Farewell, then to those seats Philadelphia basketball fans will never sit in again—another old slogan based on the premise the crowd would be standing to cheer all the time. Goodbye to those friendly rims, the tiny locker rooms, the narrow hallway which separated the teams.

On a night when a full spectrum of emotions was on display the bottom line turned out to be good, exciting basketball.

Those who lived snd died with the fate of their teams in this building, who grew up from boys into men and girls into women along the way, had to know the Spectrum wouldn't go out any other way.

Friday, March 13, 2009

One Last Spectrum Memory

``Good Evening, Ladies and Gentleman--and Welcome'' was the way ``The Zink,'' legendary announcer Dave Zinkoff would meet and greet the fans when they entered the Spectrum.

While Zink is now calling plays in a higher arena, this was the night the Sixers commemorated him and others of an era gone by, playing for real against longtime rival Michael Jordan’s old team, the Chicago Bulls.

And while neither of these teams figures to do anything memorable this season, at least the game lived up to the magnitude of the occasion. Leading by 13 points early in the fourth the Sixers saw the Bulls come to life and take the lead, before Andre Iguodala’s free throw and Thaddeus Young late dunk saved the night, 104-101.

Young posted his second straight solid performance, scoring a career high 31 points, Iguodala was next with 25, while Andre Miller added 13 and handed out 13 assists. And don’t forget big man Samuel Dalembert, who hauled down 19 rebounds and blocked Bulls’ rookie sensation Derrick Rose’s attempted game-winner in the final seconds.

Rose still wound up leading the Bulls with 20, while former Sixer John Salmons, Kirk Hinrich and Brad Miller scored 14 apiece.

The evening got off to a rousing start with saxophonist Immanuel Wilkins, in tribute to the late Grover Washington Jr. , played a moving rendition of the National Anthem.

Then it was time for the introductions of representatives of the franchise’s two championship teams who played in the building, 1967 and 1983. Only Wali Jones turned out for the late Alex Hannum’s ’67 team, which starred The ``Big Dipper,’’ Wilt Chamberlain, along with Hal Greer, Chet “The Jet’’ Walker, Luke Jackson and sixth man Billy Cunningham.

The ’83 champs, coached of course, by Cunningham, were represented by starters Marc Iavoroni, Moses Malone and the incomparable Julius Erving, sixth man Bobby Jones and reserves Earl Cureton, Franklin Edwards, Clemon Johnson and Reggie Johnson.

With impressionist Joe Conklin sounding Zink-like, the introduction were completed, before Doctor J. stepped to the podium to speak for the players. ``On behalf of those here tonight and hundreds of other Sixers who have been a part of this franchise’s history, I’d like to say thank you to the fans of Philadelphia and fans all over the world,’’ said Doc. ``More than two decades ago at my retirement I was able to stand here and issue a challenge to the franchise—to become a better franchise.

``I think they’ve done everything here but win a championship. Now I’d like to issue a new challenge to the players here—who one day will be old like us—to be great ambassadors and play hard.

Shortly after that Young became the first player to score in the Spectrum since the Sixers moved across the street in 1996, only to see Chicago’s Joachim Noah throw down the first the other end.

The Bulls used that impetus to grab as much as a 22-16 lead late in the period, before Lou Williams’ shot at the buzzer cut it to 23-22 after one.<

Philaddelphia began to tighten up at the defensive end in the second, taking a 36-33 lead on baskets by Iguodala and Young. Chicago battled back to tie on Brad Miller's dunk, only to see the Sixers counter with a 9-4 spurt, going up 45-40 on A. Miller's jumper. At the half, though, it was down to 48-47.

The game remained tight into the third, the lead see-sawing on virtually every possession. But late in the period the Sixers went on a 9-0 run, seizing their biggest lead of the night, 76-67on Young’s three-point play, followed by Miller’s putback. They still weren’t done, converting a steal into an Iguodala hoop, as they finished off a 13-2 run to head to the fourth up 80-69.

Maurice Speights promptly increased that to 82-69, putting the Sixers suddenly on the verge of a rout. Speights followed that up with a pair of dunks, the latter coming down straight on Rose’s head.>

But Chicago wouldn’t go away, outscoring Philadelphia 13-4 over the next two minutes former Sixers Tim Thomas draining a 3-pointer that cut it to 86-82 at the 7:54 mark. Moments later it was tied, 88-88, when Thomas buried another from behind the line.

Now it was the Sixers turn to respond, with Young scoring in close, then Samuel Dalembert snatching an offensive rebound, then swishing one from the corner when left unchallenged. Again the Bulls had the answer, as the clock ticked inside two minutes knotted, 96-96.<

A. Miller’s free throw put Philly ahead. Then, after Thomas’ driving layup spilled out, Miller sank two more at the stripe. .B. Miller followed up his own miss to make it a one-point game, only to see Iguodala drive for two, then block Ben Gordon’s potential game-tying trey at the other end. But on the ensuing possession Gordon followed up a desperation Thomas missed 3-ball with a 3-pointer to tie it again, 101-101.

When Iguodala hit just one of two freebies at the other end, the Bulls had the ball down 102-101 with 22.1 seconds remaining. Six other times this year in similar circumstances the Sixers had managed to lose. But this one would not get away, as Dalembert rejected Rose’s driving layup attempt, sending Young away for an uncontested slam.

When Gordon’s heavily contested 3-pointer in the dying seconds spilled into Dalembert’s arms, the 2009 Sixers had given the Spectrum a fitting going away present victory.<

Waking up the Echoes

Some 50 feet from where I sit, the legend of Doctor J--having been born half a decade or so earlier--unfurled its most memorable moment.

It was in this corner of the Spectrum, for one final time tonight home to the Philadelphia 76ers, that Julius Erving swept around Lakers’ forward Mark Landsberger with the reverse layup from behind the backboard that became his signature shot during the 1980 NBA Finals. .

It was here that Bobby Jones, the staunch sixth man on those Philadelphia teams that were perennial contenders, would regularly block shots or knock down his patented jumper to finish off a break.

And here that wondrous opponents like Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Kareem Abdul Jabbar and Larry Bird, were often at their best, silencing the deafening roars of the home crowd.

Tonight they’ll try to wake up the echoes for a grand finale to a joint that used to be really jumping, as the team’s old slogan used to say. With the wrecking ball due to claim another victim—in the name of progress, of course—later this year, the Sixers and Chicago Bulls are turning back the clock.

Here, in the house Wilt and fellow Hall of Famer Hal Greer helped open, though the Doctor was most instrumental for making it a true home, the NBA has returned for what it hopes will be a memorable one night stand.

No matter what the scoreboard says a few hours from now, though, it figures to be a special occasion. ``This was like all of them,’’ said Del Harris, whose Rockets, Bucks and Lakers fought valiantly through the years, ``The people were right on top of you

``They were like a lot of great teams, so it was a tough place to play.’’

With ``The Doctor’’ back in the house tonight, the 2009 Sixers were hoping the Bulls would find that out for themselves.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Another Big Lead Disappears

If this is to be the way the first round preview of the playoffs shapes up, then the Sixers and Orlando Magic seem destined for a good one.

Despite being separated by 12 ½ games in the Eastern standings, Tony DiLeo’s team believes it can play with Dwight Howard & Co, especially on nights when “Superman” doesn’t rule the paint.

But playing with them is one thing. Beating them another as Orlando overcame an 11-point foutth quarter deficit to come on strong late and pull out a 106 -100 decision

Hedo Turkoglu and Rashard Lewis dropped 23 points apiece, while Courtney Lee added 18, as 43-18 Magic knocked down 15 of a franchise-record tying 37 3-pointers to survive on a night when a foul-plagued Howard failed to grab a first half rebound. The NBA’s leading rebounder did come on to finish with 12 and eight boards, before fouling out.

Andre Miller’s 23 topped the Sixers, who slipped back to the .500 mark while losing to the Magic for the third time in three tries—two of them games that went to the wire here. Andre Iguodala chipped in with 22, while Willie Green and Thaddeus Young scored 19 and 18 respectively.

The Sixers started off beating the Magic at their own game. Philadelphia hit its first three shots from beyond the arc while Orlando went 2-for-7 , as they surged to a 26-16 lead. But back to back treys by Lewis and J.J. Redick late in the period narrowed the gap to 32-26 at the quarter.<

But Philadelphia shrugged that off to push the margin to 44-32 midway through the second on Iguodala’s hoop. Even better, Howard had to go to the bench with his third foul.

Down 46-38 late in the half, Redick and Reggie Evans banged into each other and were hit with a double technical. When Redick reacted excessively to the call he was hit with a second ‘T’ and ejected by referee Bennie Adams.

The Sixers then took their biggest lead, 55-43 on Iguodala’s 3-pointer, and headed to the locker room up 57-45 at the half.

Orlando tried to get back in the game as the third period got underway, closing to 59-54 on Howard’s hoop. But the Sixers responded, Green nailing his second 3-pointer of the night to make it 66-56.

Later they would extend that to 76-63 on Iguodala’s jumper, before the Magic got it down to 80-70 after three, even though Howard had gone to the bench by then with his fourth foul.

A pair of Young hoops maintained a double figure spread, 84-73, as Howard returned. The Magic then began to make their move, Lee draining a trey and a baseline jumper to highlight a 12-0 run that ended when another Lee three gave Orlando its first lead of the night, 86-85.

Now it was Miller’s time to bring the Sixers back, as he went on a 10-point tear of his own. But for each Miller basket the Magic had the answer. The game remained tied heading into the final 2:00, as Orlando continued to bury shots from beyond, Anthony Johnson’s trey their 15th of the night.

Howard broke a 99-99 logjam with one of two at the line, as the clock ticked inside a minute;. That’s where Howard rejected Young on the drive, then Lee turned it over at the other end with 31.5 seconds left.

But Iguodala missed a contested 20-footer, which led to Turkoglu sinking a pair at 21.1 seconds. Iguodala drove hard to the hoop and was fouled by Howard—his sixth--,sinking one of two. But after the second free throw, the Sixers committed a mental error, failing to send anyone back deep. That left Marcin Gortat, Howard’s replacement , alone at the other end for the dunk that sealed their doom.

So the Magic winds up going a perfect 3-for-3 vs. the Sixers, which doesn’t bode well for Philadelphia should they meet again.

Of course, that would mean Tony DiLeo’s gang has at least made the playoffs, right now no certainty with a team that still has 13 road games, including a long Western swing on the horizon.

Maybe then they can figure out a way not to let those big leads vs. the Magic disappear.

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Sliver Spoons: NBA Edition

Don't try this at home.

Lay down on the job. Trash your boss. Act like such a complete, selfish jerk they’re willing to pay you to stay out of the office.

That a sure-fire formula to land you on the unemployment line in even the best of times, which these are certainly not.

Except if you happen to play pro hoops for a living. In that case—and your name is Stephon Marbury—it’s could be your ticket towards getting a championship ring.

In case you missed it, after spending the entire season on the sidelines trading barbs with his employers, the Knicks, Marbury made his debut last night for the reigning champion Celtics, scoring eight points in 13 minutes in Boston’s 104-99 win over Indiana.
That came just three days after Marbury finally convinced the Knicks to release him once he grudgingly conceded to a buyout that cost him a relative pittance of his $22.1 million salary.

Under NBA rules as long as a player is waived prior to March 1, he’s free to sign with anyone—even if it's same team which conceivably traded just a few weeks earlier to a club which simply released him in a pre-arranged deal. It happens all the time.

Which doesn’t mean it doesn’t send off a bad message. ``Everybody’s going to do what gives them the best chance to win,’’ said Magic coach Stan Van Gundy, prior to last night’s game with the Sixers. ``I don’t think it’s a great situation to have these buyouts.

``I’m sure the league probably doesn’t like it a whole lot. It lets a team improve without having to make a decision, like we had to when we got Rafer Alston.’’

In other words, why trade players or draft picks when you can pick up something of value for nothing? That’s what the Celtics did this week, signing not only Marbury but veteran big man Mikki Moore off waivers after both players agreed to buyouts with their respective teams. At the same time LeBron and the Cavs are reportedly hoping Oklahoma City will work out a similar deal with veteran forward Joe Smith, so that they can snap him up. And don’t forget the curious case of Antonio McDyess. Traded early in the season by Detroit to Denver as part of the Allen Iverson deal--before it blew up in their faces--the Dice Man convinced the Nuggets to waive him so he could go back to the Pistons.

While that one has proved to be the exception, generally the rich keep getting richer. And it’s got to be particularly galling if you’re a fan of one of these bottom rung teams to see players putting forth token—if any-- effort for their current club, then suddenly go all out once have a chance to play for all the marbles.

A few years back, three of the NBA’s “Final Four’’ featured a player who had whined his way from a bad team to a contender: Glen “Big Dog”’ Robinson, Alonzo Mourning and Jim Jackson. Eventually the Big Dog wound up in San Antonio, alongside Tim Duncan and Tony Parker, winning the title.

But since it’s within the rules, no one seems to care enough to stop it. ``I think it’s bad when players are paid a lot of money and don’t play,’’ said Sixers coach Tony DiLeo, who vividly remembers both Robinson and Chris Webber pulling such a stunt here. ``but it’s within the rules.

``Teams will do it all the time until they change the rules.’’

Van Gundy accepts that, too. He just doesn’t like it. ``The think I don’t like is that I hate to see a team profit without having to do anything,’’ said Van Gundy, whose club had to give up a first round pick to sign Alton once starting point guard. Jameer Nelson went down for the season with an injury ``Part of the challenge for teams is the decision making process.’’

There wasn’t a whole lot to decide for Doc Rivers’ men in green. With Kevin Garnett out for a few weeks with a strained knee, the Celts needed some extra firepower. And you'd be hard pressed finding someone more suited to that than Marbury, a former all-star and Olympian. Plus, they’re adding a needed big body off the bench to take some of the load off Kendrick Perkins.

And what’s the risk? Marbury surely knows this could be his last chance to convince prospective teams not only that he’s got something left in the tank, but that he’s will to swallow his considerable ego for the sake of the team. He’ll undoubtedly be on his best behavior knowing the stakes.

Best of all, should things break right he’ll have a championship to show for it.

For Marbury, Moore and the Celtics, then, it seems like a win-win proposition. But for the public, which hears one horror tale after another on almost a daily basis of busineses going under, massive layoffs, people being uprooted from their homes, it kind of stinks.

Maybe some day when he removes the silver spoon from his mouth , Stephon Marbury and all the rest will get the message and realize just how fortunate they are.

Too bad the NBA isn't the one doing the teaching.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

2nd Half Golden for Nuggets

There’s no longer an Allen Iverson trying to mine gold for the Denver Nuggets this season. Consequently, there’s virtually no longer the likelihood the team from the Rocky Mountain state will find itself in the Lottery come June.

Since Iverson was traded early in the season for savvy veteran Chauncey Billups the Nuggets have been like a team reborn. Last night in their first game back since the all-star break they staggered through a listless first half in which they trailed by as much as 16 points and were still down 10 at intermission.

But in the second half George Karl’s club turned it on, dominating at both ends of the floor as they turned that 10-point hold into as much as a 15-point fourth quarter advantage en route to a 101-89 win that runs their record to 37-17.<

Carmelo Anthony overcame a sluggish start to lead the way with 26 points and 14 rebounds for the Northwest Division leaders. Billups, fresh off an appearance in the All-Star game, was next with 22, while Nene added 17.

Andre Miller led the 27-26 Sixers with 17, before leaving for the night with a strained calf muscle. Lou Williams and Samuel Dalembert chipped in with 15 and 12 respectively, as the Sixers shot just 33% in dropping their second straight out of the break, before they head out on a four-game road trip.

The Sixers should’ve already scraped the rust off, falling behind by 20 points in the first half in Indiana Tuesday and never recovering in a 100-89 loss. The Nuggets, despite coming to town early to get in some workouts, looked like lost souls
throughout a forgettable first half .

Down by as much as 16 early in the second, the Nuggets tried to whittle into the deficit. A Billups’ 3-pointer brought them within 39-32 nearing the two-minute mark. But Miller stopped the bleeding with a short jumper, then tacked on a three free throws and another late hoop to send the Sixers to the locker room up 47-37.<

That’s when ‘Melo, Chauncey & Co. received their wakeup call.
Incredibly, just over two minutes into the second half the Nuggets had the lead, Dahntay Jones capping off a 12-0 burst with a driving layup to put Denver up, 49-47.
Miller finally broke the spell tying it, only to see Denver respond with seven straight.

Still, they weren’t done, Kenyon Martin’s three-point play extending it to 61-51, a 24-4 tear in just 6:46. The Sixers finally showed some life at that point, rookie Maurice Speights triggering a late 13-5 spurt that narrowed the gap to 71-68 after three.

But the lid went back on the bucket at the start of the fourth for Philadelphia, which missed their first nine shots until Samuel Dalembert scored in the paint. The absence of Miller, who left the game midway through the third, certainly didn’t help.

.Meanwhile the Nuggets were breaking it open, baskets by Anthony Carter and Anthony pushing it to 83-70.. The Sixers tried to come back, closing within 84-77 on Dalembert’s free throws at the six-minute mark. But moments later Andre Iguodala fouled out, taking away their most explosive offensive player, despite the fact he managed just 10 points for the night.

The Nuggets were never headed from there, winning going away

Feeling the Pain

Tracy McGrady is only the latest, but probably not the last.

Elton Brand... Al Jefferson…. Michael Red…. Jamie Nelson… Andrew Bout… Andrew Bynum

That’s a list of NBA players already gone for the season, or at the very least not due back until April. That’s a sampling of the devastating injuries that are hitting teams in places where it really hurts.

And that doesn’t even include players who’ve either missed all or most of the action to this point like Gilbert Arenas (yet to play), Carlos Boozer (12 games), Chris Kaman (15), Mike Dunleavy (18), Zach Randolph (33), Kevin Martin (33), Tyson Chandler (32), Kirk Hinrich (22) and Monte Ellis (11).

Major injuries have become an epidemic in pro hoops—and no one really can figure out why. Is it simply a fluke, a series of guys being in the wrong place at the wrong time, turning in a funny way and twisting something? Or are the laws of physics at work, where all those big bodies colliding with each other at high speeds over the course of 82 games are bound to create problems?

``We have to figure out how to take better care of our bodies,’’ suggested Nuggets coach George Karl, prior to his team’s game with the Sixers last night. ``I think we’re pushing them to the limit.

``I think things have to be corrected, but it will probably take a hundred years for it to happen.’’

In other words, don’t look for any intrinsic changes in the game or the way it’s played in the near future. ``A lot of these guys are playing all summer,’’ seconded Sixers veteran big man, Theo Ratliff, who’s had his share of injuries—both major and minor—over the course of his 13-year career. ``They never stop and rest.

``By doing that they’re depleting their bodies of certain minerals and their bodies become weaker.

``People neglect the importance of understanding rest. They want to push themselves every single day.When you do that your body constantly gets beaten up and tends to break down.

``But it seems to be happening a whole lot more now than it has been.’’

The end result has turned the trainer’s room into a M*A*S*H* unit, with players going down on a regular basis—and too often to suit the team and their fans--staying down. ``It’s a shame for the NBA,’’ said Sixers coach, Tony DiLeo, who can certainly identify, having lost Brand for the count with a dislocated shoulder that required surgery.

``Every team wants to play a team a team that’s at full strength.

` ``I don’t have any theories on it.’’

` Instead he’ll just cross his fingers and hope the epidemic doesn’t spread to his team again rather than the next guy.

Because it only seems a matter of time before someone else starts feeling their pain.<

. *` * *

While there was none of the buzz of last year’s meeting here—when Allen Iverson kissed the court upon his return to his old stomping grounds, Nuggets’ coach George Karl noted how much his team has changed. ``Most people in Denver know my ideal situations was to have A.I. (Iverson) and Andre Miller together,’’ said Karl, whose 36-17 club leads the Northwest Division. ``That was what I was hoping we could do.

``We tried to do it for 2 ½ years with a scoring mentality at the point guard position and in general we’re seeing that this team operates better with a different mentality.

```Andre’s one of the truest point guards in the League. He’s not a high talent guy, but he’s an IQ guys An efficiency guy. A guy who makes the coach’s pass more than the highlight pass.

Not to mention being a guy whom many teams would covet as today’s trading deadline looms at 3:00 P.M>, though it appears unlikely the Sixers will be moving him.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Countdown to the Deadline


That's how many hours remain until the NBA's trading deadline, which strikes at 3:00 P.M. Thursday. That’s when the respective fates of Amar’e Stoudemire, Tyson Chandler, Marcus Camby, Andre Miller and the rest will be sealed.

And that’s when those players who once had the skills to convince their teams to open the vault—Raef LaFrentz, Wally Szczerbiak, Drew Gooden, Jerry Stackhouse come on down!—players whose only intrinsic value now comes through their soon-to-be-expiring contracts—will know whose bench they’ll be sitting on the rest of the season.

Deadline day is always a nervous time for players—and as it turned out for at least one coach, with news the host Suns celebrated All-Star Weekend by eating the remaining year-and-a-half of Terry Porter’s contract and dumping him after just 51 games. Those who’ve been around the block a few times have learned to ignore it best they can, wait until the deadline passes, then see how it all shakes out.

But for the multi-talented Stoudemire, who’s given reason to believe he’ll be opting out of his current deal after next season so the Suns might as well trade him now, this is virgin territory.

You know you never forget your first trade.

As the clock continues ticking down---like nearly three full episodes of “24” where the action never stops,--the pressure will only build leading up to the deadline. But compounding the usual business of basketball is the unusual reality of our times.

Namely that saving money rather than winning games seems most teams’ primary concern.

While contracts are generally the focal point of any trade—mainly because salaries exchanged between teams have to come close to matching each other—this year it’s become excessive. The Suns certainly wouldn’t be shopping perennial all-star Stoudemire if not for the fact Phoenix is on the verge of going over the NBA’s luxury tax threshold. Desperate to get salaries under that threshold, there are strong indications the decision to fire Porter may prompt Suns’ owner Robert Sarver to reconsider.

Even though his team seems bound for a quick playoff exit—assume it even makes the playoffs in the first place—Sarver may be willing to see if Stoudemire is invigorated by the move to replace Porter with assistant Alvin Gentry. The 53-year-old Gentry, who previously coached the Pistons, Heat and Clippers, has vowed to bring back the popular run ‘n gun style of Porter’s predecessor Mike D'antoni, which brought out the best in Amar’e.

But other franchises may not be so willing to wait. The New Orleans Hornets, despite winning the hearts of their old city in the wake of Hurricane Katrina thanks to Chris Paul, are said to be hemorrhaging money. That may give them no choice but to unload their top rebounder, Chandler’s hefty contract for something short term.

Similar scenarios abound throughout the League. With the deadline looming teams must decide if it’s in their best interest to make a move that might help them for now but cost them later. Or should they simply cut their losses today, regroup, then devise a strategy that might pay off down the road?

Sixty-four hours from now it will all become clear. Sixty-four hours for the phones to ring, the stakes to be raised or lowered, the bluffs to be made in the poker game that has become trading in the NBA.

Tick… tick… tick.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

LeBron, Nuggets Cop Mid-Season Awards

The cream of the hoops world has assembled in Phoenix to celebrate itself during the annual extravaganza known as a All-Star Weekend. It will be three days of hearing all about—and finally seeing--the greatness of LeBron and Kobe, D Wade and Chris Paul, etc.

That, combined with tonight’s Rookie vs. Sophomores game, coupled with tomorrow’s array of specialized .competitions like the slam dunk, 3-point shootout and a newly re-instituted version of the popular game H-O-R-S-E, make it a long, but always eventful weekend.

By the time they and their teammates reconvene Tuesday to finish off the final 30 or so games of the season, and set the stage for the upcoming playoffs, there won’t be that much opportunity to make up ground. Some 48 hours later the NBA trading deadline strikes, the last chance for teams to either bolster their lineups for the stretch or dump contracts, with hopes of a better tomorrow.

But before we jump too far ahead it’s time for The Inside Hoop to take a look back and present its first Midseason Awards, carrying on an old tradition back when there were newspapers rather than websites giving readers the latest. Feel free to disagree.

Biggest Surprises: Team

3. Hawks—Building on their first round seven-game scare of the eventual champion Celtics, Atlanta has posted 31 wins heading into the break. And they’ve done it despite not having regulars Josh Smith and Al Horford for long stretches. But the Hawks have six players averaging double figures, topped by Joe Johnson’s 21.6.

2. Heat—With a healthy Dwyane Wade, joined by Michael Beasley the No. 2 pick in the draft no one expected Miami to repeat last year’s 15-67 debacle. But the Heat currently stand 28-24, fifth in the East and Wade hasn’t missed a game. Today’s Shawn Marion for Jermaine O’Neal and Jamario trade gives Miami a needed big body inside and a nice role player.

1. Nuggets—This was a team most expected on the outside looking in come playoff time. Instead, one trade—Allen Iverson for Chauncey Billups—plus a commitment to defense and outstanding play from unheralded Nene and veteran Kenyon Martin has made Denver the leaders in the Northwest. And that’s with Carmelo Anthony missing 15 games.
Honorable Mention: Bucks, Magic

Biggest Disappointment—Team

3. Pistons—The Iverson trade was the supposed to make Detroit a factor in the East, not an afterthought. But since the deal they’re a mediocre 23-24, currently seventh in the Conference. After bowing out in the Conference Finals for the third straight year GM Joe Dumars vowed things would change. He’s right. The way the Pistons are going they probably won’t get out of the first round.

2. Wizards—Playing without Gilbert Arenas is nothing new for the Wizards. They’d done it—and made the playoffs—two straight seasons. So to see Washington at the break a sorry 11-42—with longtime coach Eddie Jordan long gone and replacement Ed Tapscott seemingly overmatched—is a bit shocking. Any team with Antawn Jamison and Caron Butler simply shouldn’t be this bad.

1. Kings—Another team which has already dumped its coach and still gone nowhere. Not that Sacramento was being counted as a playoff team, with Kevin Martin, Brad Miller and John Salmons leading the way, along with some young players with big upside.
But they weren’t supposed to be 11-43, worst record in the league, either.
Honorable Mention: Suns, Clippers., Warriors

Most Improved: Player

3. David Lee—Not only are the Knicks suddenly respectable, they have a legit player to build around. In his fourth season Lee has quietly come into his own, averaging 16.4 and 11.8 rebounds—third best in the league. A restricted free agent, the key for Mike D’Antoni's club is to figure out a way to sign him this summer without giving up future cap space for a 2010 run at LeBron, Chris Bosh and/or Amar'e Stoudamire.

2. Devin Harris— Evidently the Mavericks had the right guy to run their offense all along. They just didn’t know it and traded Harris to the Nets for Jason Kidd. This year he’s been a sensation, averaging 21.8 and 6.5 assists, which can’t help but bode well for the Nets future—wherever they wind up playing.

1. Paul Millsap—This mid second round draft choice in 2007, whose job had been spelling Carlos Boozer for Utah, has been a revelation when pressed into fulltime duty by Boozer’s injury. Averaging 14.7 and 9.2 rebounds while shooting at a 55% clip, Millsap posted 19 straight double-doubles at one point. . From the same Louisiana Tech school that brought you the Mailman, Karl Malone, he’s delivered, too.
Honorable Mention: Danny Granger, Nene :

Biggest Busts: Player

3. Amar’e Stoudemire—How can a player voted to the All-Star team be considered a bust? Looking at his modest numbers (21.0, 8.1 rebounds, 1.1 blocks),they're down almost across the board from last year and his team is currently ninth—and out—in the West’s playoff picture—leading to Stoudemire begging for a trade, that’s why he’s on the list.

2. Samuel Dalembert – He’s playing better now. But for much of the season Dalembert was a disaster. His ineffective offense coupled with his inconsistencies on defense resulted in him being benched for long periods of time. But since Elton Brand went down and out, Sammy D’s been a little better.

1 Baron Davis—Since leaving Golden State and signing a multi-year deal with the Clippers, Baron has been a major disappointment. More than his sinking stats, he’s been a problem child from the start, making you wonder why he signed there in the first place. Perhaps the Clippers are taking out frustrations over the Elton Brand fiasco on him, but this has been a bad marriage from the start.
Honorable Mention: Luol Deng, Mike Miller

Coach of the Year

3. Doc Rivers—Winning one championship is apparently not enough for Doc and the men in green, who punch the clock every night. Boston’s work ethic and commitment to defense is impressive, and Rivers is the one who deserves much of the credit. The key for them now is beating out LeBron and the Cavs for best record and the crucial home court advantage in the East that comes with it.

2. Stan Van Gundy—Orlando was considered a good team this year, but not truly upper echelon—even with Dwight Howard. But Van Gundy has had them not only running away in the Southeast but right in the thick of the race for the Conference’s best record. Losing all-star point guard Jameer Nelson is a killer blow, but Van Gundy figures to still conjure plenty of victories. Might be vulnerable in the playoffs, though, when teams figure to clamp down on Howard and blanket shooters Rashard Lewis and Hedo Turkoglu.

1. George Karl—For those who thought the game had passed Karl by, guess you were wrong. Denver has been far more successful than the sum of its parts—Carmelo Anthony, Kenyon Martin, Chauncey Billups, J.R,.Smith, Nene, Dahntay Jones, Linas Kleiza—and Karl’s the main reason why. Sustaining it through the regular season into the playoffs won’t be easy, but don’t rule them out.
Honorable Mention:-- Tony DiLeo, Mike Woodson

Rookie of the Year

3. O.J. Mayo—Leads all rookies in scoring (19.3) and also up there in rebounds, assists and 3-pointers. Mayo’s Grizzlies have looked better lately since Lionel Hollins took over from Marc Iavoron, and Mayo is a big reason why. Needs to tone his game down a bit, though, which should come with time.

2. Brook Lopez—Surprisingly he lasted until No. 10 in the Draft and it’s hard to understand why. Lopez has provided scoring (12,.3, rebounding (8.1) and defense (1.9) for a Nets team that’s not very good, despite Vince Carter and the emergence of Devin Harris. He should only get better as he learns the game and how to use his body. Looks like the Nets have a big man to grow with.

1. Derrick Rose—Yes,he can get out of control at times and he tends to forget he has four teammates with him on the floor. But there’s no doubting his raw talent (17.0 points, 6.3 assists) and the way he can dominate a game. As Rose matures and learns to harness his talent he’ll keep getting better and better. Long suffering Bulls fans can’t wait.
Honorable Mention—Eric Gordon, Russell Westbrook:

3.Dwight Howard—“Superman” has done it all for the Magic, leading the league in rebounds (14.1) and blocks (2.9) to go with his scoring (20.5). Teams usually pay so much attention to him it leaves Orlando’s shooters Rashard Lewis and Hedo Turkoglu, free. If they guard the perimeter Howard kills them inside. And his foul shooting (59%) is getting better, too.

2.Kobe Bryant –You can flip a coin between the game’s two best players and not lose either way. Those who like Kobe point to his ability to dominate almost at will, along with the Lakers’ NBA best 42-10 mark. Detractors will cite his 35.0% 3-point shooting, along with his occasion knack of forgetting to involve his teammates. But when the game’s on the line he’s pure cold blooded.

1. LeBron James—As dominating, as explosive as Kobe is, though, LeBron goes him one better. Now that he’s sinking his free throws (career best 78%) teams can’t just send him to the line. Besides being a scoring machine he loves to pass the ball.
Other than his proclivity to shoot the 3, rather than take it to the hoop, what’s not to love about the guy who makes the Cavs a legit title contender.
Honorable Mention: Dwayne Wade, Chauncey Billups

By the time they get out of Phoenix and back to business., the stage should be set for quite a second half showdown.

With the Lakers and Celtics still favorites to meet again for the whole ball of wax come June, only this time for Kobe. Paul Gasol & Co. to take hom the prize.