After a scintillating start, what looked like an epic Phoenix/San Antonio series has proven more interesting in terms of talk about Mike D'Antoni's future than the action on the floor. There's still time for that to change after the Suns turned momentum with a blowout win to avert a sweep. Elsewhere, it took seven tries, but we finally got a series to 2-2 yesterday when the Detroit Pistons dominated the third quarter and rallied from an early deficit to beat the Philadelphia 76ers. Meanwhile, the Cleveland Cavaliers and New Orleans Hornets pulled out wins on the road.
Suns 105, Spurs 86
Embattled over the past week, Mike D'Antoni came up with the adjustment that finally changed things after a game-and-a-half of San Antonio domination. Actually, Boris Diaw first got a chance to play small forward (a position that, according to 82games.com, he manned for about 3% of his regular-season minutes) late in the fourth quarter of Game Two. With Grant Hill hobbled by his groin, D'Antoni went back to a Diaw/Shaquille O'Neal/Amaré Stoudemire front again at times in Game Three, and it was +5 in a game Phoenix lost by 16 points.
So, in time for Game Four, D'Antoni fully embraced the big lineup, making Diaw, not Leandro Barbosa, Hill's replacement in the starting five. The Suns got off to an 11-1 lead and things never got a whole lot better for the Spurs in a 19-point Phoenix victory. With the victory in hand by the late third quarter, the Diaw/O'Neal/Stoudemire frontcourt played but 17:03 together on the court. In that span, however, the Suns were +18, outscoring San Antonio 44-26 and clicking at both ends of the floor.
It certainly didn't help that Diaw responded to the promotion to the starting lineup with one of the aggressive, confident performances that drive D'Antoni (and, before that, Mike Woodson) nuts, wondering why Diaw is unable to maintain that level of play all the time. Diaw finished two assists away from a triple-double, scoring 20 points, grabbing 10 rebounds and dishing out eight dimes. Playing against smaller defenders, Diaw created major matchup problems in the post. The beauty of using a versatile player like Diaw in the post is that when double-teams do come, Diaw can easily pick them apart, his size helping neutralize the impact of a second defender coming at him.
Diaw was just as important on the defensive end, matching up with countryman and close friend Tony Parker. Parker still got loose for a few finishes at the rim, most notably during a second-quarter run that got San Antonio briefly within striking distance. For most of the day, however, Parker was flustered. With Diaw taking away his lanes to the basket and without the same kind of touch from the perimeter as in Game Three (a performance which ABC's outstanding Jeff Van Gundy rightly, if harshly, declared an aberration), Parker missed 10 of his 17 shot attempts and had more turnovers (five) than assists (three).
With their leader struggling, the Spurs seemed out of sync on offense. Tim Duncan shot 6-for-18 from the field, while Manu Ginobili was limited to eight shot attempts. As has become routine in this series, nobody else stepped up. Long-forgotten Damon Stoudamire, with 11 garbage-time points, joined Michael Finley in Game One as the lone San Antonio players outside of the big three to score in double figures in the series.
The disturbing thing from Gregg Popovich's perspective is that, from a personnel standpoint, there's not a lot he can do with Diaw at small forward. Nobody ever really talks about it, but a major Spurs weakness is the team's lack of positional versatility. When San Antonio goes small, it's usually with 6'6" Bruce Bowen at power forward, a major stretch. In this scenario, none of the Spurs' power forwards really work as a small forward.
Popovich pulled Robert Horry out of mothballs yesterday and got a decent effort, including seven boards in 20 minutes, but playoff hero or no, Horry is done. Matt Bonner is easily a good enough shooter to play the three and would have the size to match Diaw in the post, but Diaw would have an athleticism advantage on the perimeter. (At the very least Bonner ought to be active for Game Five over, in all likelihood, Stoudamire.)
What will be the more important focus for the Spurs coaching staff before Tuesday is finding ways to get Parker more involved with Diaw on him, whether it's increasing the number of screens Diaw has to fight through or some other option. San Antonio can also exploit Steve Nash defending Finley and Ginobili on the wings, a major size mismatch.
In Game Five, San Antonio can safely count on a quieter night from Raja Bell, who went off for 27 points on just 11 shot attempts, including five three-pointers. Bell even took on the role of playmaker, handing out five assists without a turnover. It was a terrific effort, but one that will be tough to repeat, especially with all the energy he has to expend defensively matching up with Ginobili. Without the contributions from Bell and Diaw, the Suns will need more production from Nash and Stoudemire, who were quiet in Game Four.
Obviously, everything is a must-win for the Suns, on the brink of elimination. But Game Five is also crucial to the Spurs, because if Phoenix can win on the road and head home for Game Six with two straight victories, we'll have a legitimate series and San Antonio would face the possibility of trying to snap a three-game losing streak in a winner-take-all Game Seven at the AT&T Center.
Hornets 97, Mavericks 84
The Dallas Mavericks have featured a threesome of their own in their series with the New Orleans Hornets. Unfortunately, this one has been pretty underwhelming. In Sunday's Game Four, Dirk Nowitzki (22), Jason Terry (20) and reserve Brandon Bass (12) were the only Mavericks players to score in doublefigures. They've combined for 60% of Dallas' points in this series; add in Josh Howard and that number is all the way up to 73%, with no other player averaging more than eight points per game.
Once upon a time, the Mavericks could match up with all kinds of opposing lineups, bringing a number of different useful players off the bench. In part because of injuries (Jerry Stackhouse is clearly nowhere near healthy enough to contribute on a regular basis), Avery Johnson has been left with a number of equally unappealing options.
That's a group that, truth be told, includes Howard. Sunday's dismal effort (six points on 3-for-16 shooting) dropped Howard's shooting percentage in this series to 25.9%. Yet if Johnson wanted to replace Howard in the lineup, to whom would he turn? Stackhouse, only marginally better at 26.9% from the field? Devean George, shooting 30.4% and years removed from being regarded as a defensive specialist? A well-past-his-prime Eddie Jones? (Jones hit a three off the bench Sunday, bringing his shooting percentage to a relatively Olympian 33.3%.) Antoine Wright?
Devin Harris isn't walking through that door. Neither is Marquis Daniels or Adrian Griffin or even Keith Van Horn.
If Johnson is on his way out in Dallas, and all signs indicate he is, I hope Donn Nelson's seat is getting warm as well. Everyone points to the Jason Kidd trade, an act of desperation that was always doomed long-term and has now blown up in the short term as well with Chris Paul embarrassing Kidd in this series, but this thing was headed in the wrong direction since the Mavericks responded to their loss in the 2006 NBA Finals by trying to corner the market on washed-up role-playing reserves. This trend came to a head after the Kidd trade, when the Mavericks excitedly snapped up Jamaal Magloire despite the fact that Magloire couldn't get minutes on the big-man-poor Nets, apparently because they could note with no deceit that he was in fact a former All-Star.
We'll see in Game Five, but with a few notable exceptions this Dallas squad has all the look of a team that's ready to pack it in for the summer and get on with the housecleaning.
All that said, this was a Mavericks team that was playing decently going into the postseason and has a former MVP in Dirk Nowitzki playing good, if not great, basketball. It's taken a strong, consistent effort from the Hornets to expose Dallas' weaknesses. New Orleans fell behind in the first quarter of Game Four and rallied with MVP candidate Chris Paul on the bench, getting great minutes from reserves Jannero Pargo and especially Julian Wright. The rookie out of Kansas, who had seen limited minutes in the first three games of the series, came through with 11 points on 5-of-6 shooting in 18 active minutes, rewarding Byron Scott's faith.
By the time Paul's rest had concluded with 4:34 left in the first half, the Hornets had tied the game. They outscored Dallas 10-6 the rest of the way until halftime, then put together a 16-7 surge coming out of the locker room to blow the game open.
Peja Stojakovic continues to be lethal from the perimeter in this series. After scoring 19 points and hitting three of his four Game Four three-point attempts, Stojakovic is averaging 17.0 points and knocking down threes at a 62.5% (15-of-24) clip through four games.
Cavaliers 100, Wizards 97
This was more like it. After a pair of 30-point runaways, Game Four between Washington and Cleveland was the sort of hotly contested battle that we've come to expect when these two antagonists hook up in the postseason. Classic playoff basketball. When the dust settled, the Wizards once again found themselves scratching their heads over the LeBron James phenomenon.
On Sunday, James showed just how much of a multi-dimensional star he is as the Cavaliers grabbed a 3-1 lead with the series shifting back to Cleveland for Game Five. With Washington again selling out to cut off The King's penetration, James calmly fed his teammates. They came through for him, especially Delonte West, who took a James pass and drilled a three-pointer from the corner with :05 left, providing the winning margin.
After just playing basketball in its Game Three runaway, Washington again allowed itself to wallow in the muck on Sunday. After the Wizards built an eight-point lead during the second quarter, the Cavaliers went on a run and James took off towards the basket late in the quarter. DeShawn Stevenson came over and swung wildly at James' head, drawing a flagrant foul and nearly inducing James into a confrontation. Luckily, James kept his head, so to speak. He hit 1-of-2 free throws to tie the game then buried a three-pointer to put Cleveland up 42-39. The Cavaliers eventually pushed the lead up to 15 points. Washington battled back and managed to tie the game on a wild Gilbert Arenas bank shot with 28 seconds left in the game. But Washington never again led after Stevenson's flagrant foul.
Cleveland went 13-for-28 from behind the arc, led by a 5-for-8 performance from West and a 4-for-7 showing by Daniel Gibson. The Cavaliers effectively spread the floor with James running things from the middle and getting into the lane, no matter whether it was Stevenson or Caron Butler guarding him. Each Wizard would help off his man to cut off James in the lane, leaving Gibson and West open for threes.
Gibson was fulfilling the role that Danny Ferry acquired Wally Szczerbiak to fill. Szczerbiak just isn't getting it done, shooting a .439 eFG% compared to Gibson's .545. Give Mike Brown kudos for playing Gibson over Szczerbiak.
Speaking of personnel decisions, Eddie Jordan went with Gilbert Arenas over Roger Mason down the stretch. That seems like a no-brainer, but these are not normal times. Arenas is just not helping his team right now because of his various physical ailments. His eFG% for the series is .458 and his assist to turnover ratio of 1.38 is frightful. Despite his hobbled state, he is still managing to chew up about a quarter of available possessions during his time on the floor.
Besides' James showing, Cavaliers are winning on boards, grabbing 56.3% of the available rebounds in the series and grabbing 13.5 per game on the offensive glass. It's a team effort--Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Ben Wallace, Anderson Varejao, Devin Brown and Joe Smith are all averaging more than two offensive boards per game. On Sunday, Cleveland pounded Washington off the glass 51-31 and grabbed 18 caroms on the offensive end.
The performance on the boards, along with the three-point shooting, helped Cleveland offset a -6 turnover margin and 10 more missed free throws. The Cavaliers had eight more field-goal attempts than the Wizards thanks to all those offensive rebounds.
Cleveland's ball movement continues to be outstanding, perhaps better than any other team in the postseason thus far. The Cavaliers are assisting on 68.4% of their field goals in the playoffs, second to the Lakers during the playoffs and up from 55.8% during the regular season. The assists are getting spread around, too. Even though all of the shooters have been feeding off of James, his raw assists per game are down a little bit from the regular season. Everyone is chipping in to keep the ball moving.
One thing that is not an issue in this series is tempo. Both team averaged in the 88-89 possessions per game range during the regular season. The possessions so far in this series: 89, 88, 89, 88. As always, I'll make the plea that Cleveland would be a much more efficient offensive team by pushing the tempo. How could you not want to get James going in the open floor as much as possible? But that's not Mike Brown's style and probably the primary reason that I'm prone to criticizing the guy.
The Cavaliers are playing just the way they want to and that means LeBron James has assumed his typical playoff form--a scary thought for every team in the East, the Celtics included. (Man, what a second-round matchup.) I've referenced game scores a lot in these recaps. James leads all postseason performers with an average game score of 41, up from 36 during the regular season. Game scores, especially in small sample sizes, are really about who is winning their matchup against their designated counterpart on the opponent. So among the leaders you see players like Pau Gasol (whipping up on Marcus Camby), Tayshaun Prince (stifling Andre Iguodala) and Rajon Rondo (dominating Mike Bibby). In James' case, you can't point to one matchup. He's just beating the whole team.
Looking towards Game Five, the Wizards need to determine what to do about Arenas if they want to get the series back to D.C. Eddie Jordan should consider giving Roger Mason and Nick Young more minutes and running the offense through Caron Butler, who seems to be rounding into form. They have to keep James busy on the defensive end. Washington must do a better job on the boards. Cleveland is the league's best rebounding team, but Washington was in the upper half of the NBA in rebounding percentage during the regular season and shouldn't be getting beat this bad in that area. The Wizards' top per-minute rebounders--Brendan Haywood, Antawn Jamison and Andray Blatche are already getting plenty of court time. So there really isn't a player usage solution to the problem. Those guys just have to do a better job.
That seems like a pretty long laundry list for Washington. Game Four certainly could have gone either way, but 3-1 is a tall order, especially since James and company aren't likely to relax again like they did in Game Three. Given all of the garbage that DeShawn Stevenson has stirred up in this series, Cleveland will be eager to dispose of the Wizards as soon as possible.
Pistons 93, 76ers 84
As one of those newspaper types who sits around and chimes in on those clever, pun-laced headlines that you see gracing your daily sports page, I can only imagine that my brethren at the Detroit Free Press have a field day with Tayshaun Prince headlines.
It was indeed a royal outing on Sunday, as Prince turned in one of the finest performances in the playoffs so far as Detroit overcame a 10-point deficit and evened up its series against the upstart Sixers behind a furious third quarter rally. After a first half during which Detroit continued its sluggish and somewhat indifferent play from the previous game, the Pistons came out slugging to begin the second half.
Philly led 46-36 at the break. To begin the third quarter, Richard Hamilton took Willie Green off the bounce, drew a foul and converted two free throws. Green turned the ball over on the ensuing possession. Rasheed Wallace took Samuel Dalembert on the blocks and drew another foul. Wallace made one of two, missing the second which Philly knocked out of bounds. Chauncey Billups buried a three-pointer, giving Detroit a four-point possession and trimming the lead to 46-42. Dalembert missed. Wallace drilled a three-pointer. Andre Iguodala turned the ball over. Richard Hamilton fed Prince for a layup.
Just like that, 2:22 into the second half, the Sixer lead was gone. Philly recovered briefly but the Pistons went on to a 34-16 third quarter. The teams played pretty much to a stalemate in the fourth quarter and the Sixers left wondering what hit them and bemoaning the missed opportunity to put a stranglehold on the series.
The Pistons awoke from their series-long slumber just in time.
"Everybody knows that we are good under pressure," Chauncey Billups told the Associated Press after the game. "I hate that we put ourselves in this position a lot of times."
After Game Three, I wrote that you have to "put a stake through this team," a comment which drew the ire of a couple of readers, who pointed out that the Pistons have been upset the last two seasons in the playoffs. True, but, nevertheless, this group has gone at least as far as the conference finals for five years running. This is a battle-tested team and, yes, they are a gritty, veteran bunch. I know that's the type of thing you'd expect to hear from Stephen A. Smith but, what can I do? The description defines what the Pistons have become at this point in time.
Such formulaic plaudits might not be due the Pistons if not for the exceptional play of Prince, the consummate role player. Prince shot 11-for-12 from the field on Sunday, with a game-high 23 points, six rebounds and four steals. More important, he again shut down the Sixers' best player, Iguodala, who shot 4-for-16 from the field. Visibly frustrated, Iguodala missed five free throws and committed five turnovers. The mismatch resulted in a 53 game score for Prince to Iguodala's -4. For the series, Prince has an eFG% of .681 and has limited Iggy to an incredible .224. Iguodala hit 101 three-pointers during the season but has yet to hit one against Detroit in this series.
Despite the non-impact of its star, the Sixers remained competitive behind another solid performance by Dalembert and, especially, Thaddeus Young. Young dominated his matchup with Jason Maxiell, who started in place of Antonio McDyess, whose time was limited after surgery to repair a broken nose. Lou Williams scored 10 points on just five field-goal attempts. He's leading the Sixers with 21.5 points per 40 minutes in the series. Williams hasn't shot the ball overall as well as he did on Sunday. But with Philadelphia gasping for air--and points--during the second half on Sunday, Williams should have received more than the 13 minutes Cheeks put him on the floor.
The box score item that jumps out at you from Game Four is a +13 advantage for Detroit in field-goal attempts. The Sixers actually outshot Detroit (.485 eFG% to .463). But the Pistons grabbed 15 offensive rebounds, four of them by Prince, and were +5 in turnovers, a category that the Sixers have to win.
In Game Five, Detroit will look to step on the throat of the Sixers. Mo Cheeks must remind his troops that except for a terrible 12-minute stretch, Philly outplayed Detroit on Sunday. For the series, the Sixers have played the Pistons to a dead heat, both in terms of games won and point differential. They need to keep playing hard on defense, forcing turnovers and pushing the tempo whenever possible. But, let's face it, for the Sixers to ultimately pull off the upset in this series, Iguodala has got to solve Prince on the offensive end of the floor. Philadelphia just doesn't have enough offense to overcome a lack of production from its leading scorer.
Bradford Doolittle is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
You can contact Bradford by clicking here or click here to see Bradford's other articles.
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
You can contact Kevin by clicking here or click here to see Kevin's other articles.