North of the 400

North of Toronto, South of a championship

Posts Tagged ‘NBA playoffs

As Melo goes, so go the Nuggets

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Funny how things seem to repeat themselves isn’t it?

Another boneheaded inbounds pass; another quick move by Trevor Ariza… another win for the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference finals.

It was a fitting end to another late game collapse by the Nuggets and another late game vanishing act by Carmelo Anthony.

As this series shifted back to Denver for game three, things felt odd; there was a weird vibe to the match: Three’s launched all over the over the place, bodies being pushed around, crazy shots that had no business hitting – Smith’s long-bomb three at the end of the third quarter or Billups’ four-point play – were dropping.

Though the Lakers leads were far and few between – they didn’t lead in the second or third quarters – the fourth was again, again a roller coaster – not a steel one with loops and drops and sharp twists, but more like a wooden one where the cart whistles around the track, almost seeming at the edge of oblivion.

The Nuggets held a sizeable lead for most of the game and kept the Lakers at bay. But they also picked up fouls, kept running into walls and had possessions that never seemed to go anywhere.

It’s why the Lakers never went away. About midway through the fourth, the Lakers roared back and took an 81-80 lead on a long three by Ariza. They kept the pressure on the Nuggets, who couldn’t pull away, but stalled offensively; they had four turnovers at one point, capped when Nene (saddled with five fouls) stepped in front of Vujacic.

So, fairly predictably, it was Kobe who carried the Lakers offence. He hit some nice jumpers, including a three to give them a one-point lead with just over a minute left, and made clutch free throws.

On the other side of the ball, Carmelo Anthony was quiet and in foul trouble, leaving the game with just 11 points on 4 of 13 shooting. As the game drew to a close, it meant JR Smith or Billups had taken most of the big shots for Denver, not him. After the game, ABC’s cameras caught him walking to the locker room with a frustrated air about him.

As Carmelo goes, so go the Nuggets.

He’s the catalyst to their success. In game one he vanished down the stretch. In game two, he outscored Kobe with 34 points. On Saturday, he disappeared again, scoring only three points in the second half.

His play has been a big part of why this series has been so uneven, with neither team really establishing anything. The Lakers lead 2-1, yes, but this was the only game where they outplayed the Nuggets. And even here, they had some breaks – Kobe was ice cold down the stretch from the charity stripe. Had he been anything less, this could have gone either way – it was that kind of night.

With game four coming up on Monday, nothing really seems certain. It’s been a flip-flop kind of series. Will we see the tight, tempered Nuggets of game two, led by a confident Melo? Or will we see Kobe driving the Lakers to a stranglehold 3-1 series lead? Who can tell?

Written by M.

May 24, 2009 at 4:47 am

It’s a Wild West Kind Of Duel Between Kobe and Carmelo

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Now this is playoff basketball.

The Denver Nuggets and the Los Angeles Lakers are tangled up in a tightly-matched Western Conference finals, tied with one win apiece.

Game one, a 103-105 win for the Lakers, was a skirmish. Game two, a 106-103 win for the Nuggets, was a duel. Just two games in, this series feels like a battle.

I know sportswriters – especially lazy or untalented ones – always like to fall back on war metaphors, but that’s how I honestly viewed game one and two of this series.

It’s been back and fourth, back and fourth. Los Angeles, basically the twin peaks of Kobe and Gasol, has run head-on into Denver, a hard-nosed, scrappy team that contests every shot and has no problem, none whatsoever, about getting their clothes dirty.

Look at how they handled Trevor Arerza. He drives to the basket, he’s knocked on his ass by Kenyon Martin. They put the pressure on him and he cracked, turning the ball over late and took the air out of the Lakers sails.

Look at Carmelo Anthony. He’s burst out his shell – I already look at him differently. He’s not the guy who won a NCAA title and underperformed; he’s the first player to really take Kobe to task in a while. He had 39 in game one, 34 in game two.

Look at Derek Fisher. Game one, he hits some huge shots. Game two, his game-tying shot sails wide. No way we’ve heard the last of him yet.

Look at a graph of the score. Neither side has managed to take much of a lead. Both games have been close for basically 48 minutes. This is no cakewalk for the Lakers. They haven’t been tested like this, not by Houston and not by Utah.

I think both games have been great and maybe the best games in these 2009 playoffs. Not finishes, whole games. These are ones that’ll air on ESPN Classic or Hardcourt Classics. They were hard fought, close and really could have gone either way. It’s like an old Celtics/Pistons game.

Those games were classic too, but not for their beauty. Those were tough, closely fought matches. Quite like what’s happened at the Staples Centre.

Granted, it’s been trainwreck ugly at times. Bad possessions and missed calls have showed up in both games. Both games kind of came down to missed chances at the foul line. The Nuggets could have, should have won game one. They hit a few more from the charity strips, they successfully run that inbounds pass at the end… well, maybe they’re up in this series two-nothing heading back to Denver. It’s been that close.

But it’s been great at times too. Kobe and Carmelo are dueling each other on the court. Both are lighting it up, pushing each other to new heights. It almost feels like a wild-west showdown between two gunslingers.

I don’t know if I’ve seen Carmelo play this possessed. His play – both times nearly matching Kobe’s stat line – has been nothing short of stellar.

On the other side of the ball, I’ve seen Kobe play this possessed, but only rarely. He is not doin’ work, he is worked up. When ESPN’s cameras caught him grimacing late in game two, you could almost feel his frustration as the game slipped beyond his grasp.

He is doing all he can – see his late game heroics in this series – but one man cannot carry a team, despite his best efforts. He’s hitting late shots, he’s having great nights… but that’s not enough. He needs the rest of the Lakers – Gasol, Fisher, Odom, et al – to get over this hump.

But one player can lift his team and make them play better then they ever have before. Before these playoffs began, I was firmly convinced in two things. One, the Nuggets series against the Hornets would be great (it wasn’t) and that the Nuggets were going to explode and fall apart.

They haven’t, even with these two pressure-cooker games in Los Angeles. Billups has been great at the point, Nene’s defence has been top-notch and Kenyon Martin has been good on both sides of the court; in game two he both set a tone on defence and hit a clutch shot to put the Nuggets in front. Is Carmelo the catalyst of this change? Is it Billups? I can’t say I know.

But the seeds of their destruction are already sown. They’re shooting horribly from the foul line and they’re picking up ugly fouls. You can only bang around bodies for so long in this stage of the NBA before the refs put a stop to it. Before one of your players gets hurt. Before they start treating you in kind.

Still, playing on a foreign court, they’ve kept the Lakers in check two times. Like I said, this series could very easily have been two-love for the Nuggets as they moved to Denver.

You know what? If they keep this level of play up, it could very easily be a 3-1 lead by Tuesday morning.

Written by M.

May 22, 2009 at 5:08 am

I love being wrong – NBA Second Round picks

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Honestly, I found the first round of the NBA Playoffs kind of underwhelming. Perhaps it’s in context of an excellent series between the Bulls and the Celtics and one that I didn’t see – but looked good on SportsCentre – between Orlando and Philadelphia.

But really, sweeps aren’t all that fun to watch unless you’ve got a stake in the sweeping team. I enjoyed watching Cleveland take apart Detroit for this reason, but I was never surprised or felt tension from those games. It felt like I was watching ESPN Classic; I had a vague recollection of what’s going to happen and I watched to see how it happened but I always knew what was going to happen.

I knew that Cleveland was going to win that series and that it was never going to be in doubt. I knew the Lakers were going to win their series. Same for Dallas. I had a pretty good idea that Orlando was going to win, too.

But every year I “know” who’s going to win. And every year I’m wrong, which is what I love about the postseason. I love being surprised. And that didn’t happen this year.

Will it pick up in the second round? Perhaps. The east will be drained, as two teams went to seven games, while the west should be nice and rested: only Houston played a sixth game and all teams had a few days rest.

Western Picks

(1) Lakers vs (5) Houston

The Lakers have looked great so far and should keep it up. Like last year, they’re a multipointed team; stop Kobe and you’ve left Gasol and Oden open. And while the Rockets have finally broken the first-round barrier, I think it’ll stop here.

The Blazers were a good team, but they were young and inexperienced in the postseason – and they still gave the Rockets a run for their money. That says a lot about the Rockets to me, so I think the Lakers will be more then able to handle them.

Lakers in five.

(2) Denver vs (6) Dallas

I didn’t get much of a chance to watch either of these two series, but what little I saw of Denver showed me how physical that series against New Orleans was. It was brutal, with bodies flying all over the place. Sure, the Nuggets eventually exploded and won by 58 points, but I was surprised by how well they responded to that aggression.

Dallas, though, almost got a pass in the first round. They beat a crippled San Antonio, a team missing one of its three most important players and relied on Anthony Mason to make clutch shots. Let’s just say I don’t remember him making too many of those in Toronto.

So I’m wary on the Mavs. I feel they haven’t really been tested yet and I don’t know what they’re capable of. On paper I think they have the talent to beat Denver, but on the court I’m not so sure. I’m going to go out on a limb and take them to win in a longish series.

Mavs in six.

Eastern conference

(2) Boston vs (3) Orlando

Both of these teams barely escaped the first round. Boston narrowly made it past the Bulls in a great series that showed how much the C’s need Garnett on the court. Orlando, it seemed, actually was pretty good even without some of its starters – but a couple baskets go the other way and maybe Philly upsets them. It was that close.

While I feel like Boston will be drained from playing such a grueling series, I also think they’re a lot better then Orlando. The Magic have a great chance to steal a win or two early on, and if they do, they’ll have a great shot at winning a long series. But if they can’t, I think Boston will be able to prevail.

Boston in six.

(1) Cleveland at (??)

I’m writing this during the first half of game seven between Miami and Atlanta. I don’t know who’s going to win, but I think it’s pretty safe to say that whomever does is going to lose to Cleveland, maybe even in a sweep. The Cavs looked that good against Detroit.

Cleveland in four.

Written by M.

May 3, 2009 at 5:53 pm

Double Overtimes Duel – ’86 vs ’09

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Okay, so yes, there were similarities. Both went to two overtimes, both featured the same two teams. There were even two great breakout performances.

But don’t kid yourself. Sunday’s two-overtime duel between the Celtics and the Bulls was nothing like their two-OT duel that was Michael Jordan’s coming out party in 1986.

Let’s set them up.

In ’86, the Bulls were facing a great Celtics team. They were not a great team and finished with a 30-52 record, albeit mostly because of a nagging foot injury for Jordan (indeed, it was their worst record in the Jordan era). But to beat the Celtics – who had lost exactly one home game all season and who had been to the last two NBA finals – would have been an upset of exceptional proportions.

Game two was the second time Jordan lit up twice times in that series, scoring 49 in game one and 63 in game two (he spend game three in foul trouble and finished with just 19), and basically carried his team as far as they got – namely, a three game sweep against a team that was just too good to handle.

In 2009, the Celtics were a team ripe to be upset. Kevin Garnett, the foundation of their defence and a vital part of their big three, was ruled out on the cusp of the postseason. In his absence, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen had to pick up some slack and reserve big men Glen Davis and Brian Scalabrine got many more minutes then usual.

On the other hand, the Bulls of 2009 were a team that came together at the right time, winning seven of their last ten games, with two of those losses by five points or less. Rookie Derrick Rose was the best of his class, averaging 17 points and six boards a game. One would be foolish to overlook Ben Gordon and John Salmon’s contributions too: together they led the team in minutes and points.

It was a 2-seed vs an 8-seed, but an upset wasn’t all that unlikely.

Let’s look at the teams.

2009’s Bulls team is a little more balanced. Yes, Rose had another great game – his third triple-double in four games – but he’s got a solid supporting cast. Gordon, who hit that ridiculous three to tie the game up late. Even Noah, who made some clutch plays down the stretch that helped tip the game.

Even the Celtics aren’t as powerful. The ’86 C’s were one of the great teams in recent memory, basically six hall of fame players deep: Bird, McHale, D.J., Ainge, Parish and Walton coming off the bench.

And while I’m not doubting that Ray Allen and Paul Pierce are great players, it would be foolish to put this Celtic team in the same breath as the ’86 team – especially without KG. The 85-86 Celtics lost one game at home and only three in the playoffs.

Not to sound flippant, but Glen Davis is not and never will be Robert Parish or Bill Walton and maybe not even Tom Kite.

Let’s look at the finishes.

Sure, Jordan was ice-cold in ’86, nailing free throws at the Garden with no time left. He was clutch, carrying the Bulls into extra time. But he only got to OT because of a stupid play by McHale, who left his man to try and make a block.

In overtime, Jordan launched a wide-open jumper that would have given the Bulls the lead with two seconds left… but it clanked out (Ditto for Bird, who hit the back of the rim on a long three). Then, in the second OT, the Celtics pulled away.

On Sunday, the Bulls lasted through two breakneck OT periods on top of a great 48. Salmons, hit four clutch free throws and blocked a potential game winner. Gordon hit a huge three to tie the game at 110. Allen hit a late three in regulation to send the game to OT. It was a bona-fide classic.

Yes, there were missed shots: Rose missed a game winner at the end of the fourth, Allen had a late shot blocked in OT. And the second OT wasn’t that competitive: if the game was a tug-of-war, it was when one side runs out of steam and falls slowly towards the mud. Still, I’d much rather watch that then ’86 any day – Jordan and Bird be damned.

So, which one is best?

If one had to choose between these two games – both excellent games, mind you – one would have to wildly different answers for wildly different reasons. ’86 was a coming out, the opening chapter to a legendary NBA career. ’09 was a great game that will likely be played on ESPN Classic (although had it been broadcast on TNT… maybe on NBA-TV in a couple years).

Of course, context means a lot, too. Had MJ lit up against Don Nelson’s Bucks, would we remember it as fondly ? If Larry Bird doesn’t say “that was God disguised as Michael Jordan”, do we even care? Maybe.

In this sense, it’s too early to say anything about Sunday’s game. Was it a coming-out for Rose? Or was it a spurt of greatness on national TV? Or will it be doomed to vague memory, like that great three-OT game in the 1993 Finals.

I hope not. Because if I had to choose which one to watch later tonight, I’d take ’09 in a heartbeat.

Written by M.

April 28, 2009 at 3:09 am

Official North of the 400 NBA Playoff picks, first round

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Eastern Conference

No. 1 Cleveland vs. No. 8 Detroit
Obviously Cleveland in this series. I think Detroit’s too old and too banged up to even pose much of a threat, really. Cavs in five.

No. 2 Boston vs. No. 7 Chicago
You know what, now that Garnett’s maybe out for the whole postseason, I feel like the Bulls can pull off a huge upset. I like the way they’ve been playing lately, there’s some good matchups and if they can steal an early win in Boston they’ll have a great chance at winning this series. I’m going to go out on a limb and say the Bulls in seven.

No. 3 Orlando vs. No. 6 Philadelphia
I don’t know if I’m sold on Orlando going too deep, but I think they’ll get past Philly without a lot of problems. Orlando in five.

No. 4 Atlanta vs. No. 5 Miami
I’m taking Miami since I really like the way Wade’s played this season and I haven’t really seen Atlanta play much. Miami in six.

Western Conference

No. 1 Los Angeles Lakers vs. No. 8 Utah
I think the Jazz are starting to self-destruct and the Lakers will walk all over them. I don’t even think it’ll even have a close game. Lakers in 4.

No. 2 Denver vs. No. 7 New Orleans
I really like this matchup. More then anything, I like the Billups/CP3 matchup. It’s a great point against a George Karl-coached point, so I think it’ll be neat. I like what little I’ve seen of the Nuggets, so I’m going to take them to win in six.

No. 3 San Antonio vs. No. 6 Dallas
I also really like this too. Normally I’d like the Spurs, but with Manu out and Duncan hurt, this could go either way. And since the Spurs are relying on Roger Mason Jr. to make big shots, I’ll take the Mavs in seven.

No. 4 Portland vs. No. 5 Houston
Another cool series, too. I really like Houston this year (mostly because I want them to win without T-Mac) but Portland is fun to watch and I like Brandon Roy a lot. I think Portland’s inexperience will be a factor, though, so I like Houston in six.

Written by M.

April 18, 2009 at 1:07 am