Game of the Day: March 28

San Antonio Spurs at Boston Celtics — 8 PM eastern, telecast on ESPN

Tonight boasts a wealth of enticing NBA options, and I decided on this one mostly because it’ll be available nationally. Of course, it should still be a great game.

The Spurs and Celtics are still both jockeying for playoff position in their respective conferences, and both are clinging to aging standouts to carry them deep into the playoffs. San Antonio has Manu Ginobili, the crafty 2-guard who can get to the rim at will, and the Celtics have Ray Allen and Paul Pierce to put up points in a hurry. Both these teams also feature young bright point guards in Tony Parker and Rajon Rondo, who are key to their teams’ success.

Most important of all, this game brings together possibly the two best power forwards of the decade. Kevin Garnett and Tim Duncan, both 33 years old, look to make one more championship run before their teams are dismantled.

This will be the second and last game of the two squads’ two-game season series, and Boston prevailed 90-83 in the first matchup on December 3. Garnett and Duncan both stood out in that game: the former posted 20 points and 7 boards and the later 16 points and 15 rebounds.

I’ve got to go with the Celtics at home in what should be a thrilling contest. Expect Boston’s back court to put up strong lines. I also wouldn’t be surprised if Garnett plays better than usual, as he’ll be motivated taking on his Western counterpart.

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Making Magic: Will VC do the trick?

The Magic made the finals in June. Will Vince Carter help them do one better in 2010?

The Orlando Magic really didn’t stand much of a chance against the Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA Finals last June. Certainly, a converted layup in the final seconds of Game 2 could have swayed the momentum in Orlando’s direction, but I think the Lakers still would have pulled out the series victory with ease.

As March winds down, the Magic are once again going to make the playoffs. But considering that late exit from the championship series last year, is there any reason we should expect that they’ll have a chance to defeat the Lakers in 2010?

There is — and his name is Vince Carter.

Don’t get me wrong: VC hasn’t played up to expectations this year. His PER is down about two-and-a-half points compared to last season, and his points, rebounds, and shooting percentages are all down, too. But to suggest that Carter is a step down from Hedo Turkoglu (whom the Magic let go in a de facto swap for Carter) is just an absolute crock.

Carter shouldn’t expect to be putting up the same stats as he did in ’08-’09 while one of the few offensive bright spots on a hapless Nets roster. He goes from being the first option on offense to being the second (behind Dwight Howard), with two other starters who also want their touches in Rashard Lewis and Jameer Nelson. What Carter should be expected to do, however, is get the ball in the hoop in times of need for Orlando. For years, the Magic have lacked a go-to player on the perimeter (and to propose that Turkoglu is that go-to player is ridiculous). Howard can’t be relied upon down the stretch, as he’ll be double and triple teamed around the rim. Having a player like Carter, who can hit the 20-foot fade, adds a dynamic to the team’s offense that it previously lacked.

So the Magic go from Courtney Lee to Carter at the 2 and from Turkoglu (who’s sucking it up in Toronto) to Matt Barnes, who is — believe it or not — having a better year than Hedo.

Let’s look, then, at how the Magic can match up and compete with the Lakers and the Cleveland Cavaliers, too. Sure, they could face other teams in the late stages of the playoffs, but these are the two squads I think they’ll actually have trouble beating.

Cleveland Cavaliers

The Cavs made the move to bring in Shaq during the offseason specifically to counter the magic. O’Neal’s one of the league’s few players who even has a hope of successfully defending Dwight Howard in the post in single coverage, and he’ll be resistant to having any help anyway. Nevertheless, Howard will do work down low.

The addition of Vince Carter bodes well against the Cavs, though. While he’ll draw a tough defensive assignment in Anthony Parker, he’ll stretch the D as a whole, giving Howard more room to operate in the paint. Figure in Rashard Lewis to draw Varejao and Antawn Jamison away from the rim with the constant threat of his perimeter shooting, and I expect Orlando will dominate the Cavs down low.

That LeBron guy poses a bit of an issue, though. Matt Barnes will draw the assignment for the most part, and he won’t be able to defend the King on his own. His defensive rating is a respectable 102, but LeBron is too strong and big for the lanky Barnes to contain him. Accordingly, the Magic will have to double, leaving the various sharpshooters (Parker, Jamison, Delonte West, and Mo Williams) open for jumpers. But a dominating inside games always beats a dominating outside one. The Magic move on.

Los Angeles Lakers

It’s daunting to even think about playing L.A. Should we see a rematch of last year’s NBA finals, the Magic should be shaking in their boots. It’ll be a trade off of dominating post players, as Howard will outwork Andrew Bynum down low and Pau Gasol is too physical to be contained by Lewis. Kobe will be Kobe, and the Magic don’t have Lee to at least try to defend him this year, not that he could really curb Kobe’s production anyway.

Orlando will have a fully healthy Jameer Nelson who will tear Derek Fisher apart with his quickness and shooting ability. So chalk up that advantage in favor of the Magic. Vince Carter, too, will an added outside offensive presence that Turkoglu couldn’t provide last year. However, the Lakers have a premiere defensive player in Ron Artest who should be able to keep VC in check (I expect they’ll put Artest and Carter and hide Bryant on the less-threatening Barnes until the final minutes.

Because of the addition of Artest, I think the Lakers repeat if this is the matchup. If it were still Ariza playing the 3, I might think differently. But Carter won’t be able to overpower artest, and Kobe will be fresh for crunch time when that stacked roster really depends on him most.

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NBA Today: March 27

  • The Nets will not have the all-time worst season record after defeating the Pistons last night for their ninth win, tying them with the 1972-1973 Philadelphia Sixers.
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Game of the Day: March 27

Los Angeles Lakers at Houston Rockets — 8:30 PM eastern

There’s not too much to write home about for Saturday’s slate of NBA games, but this one shouldn’t be too bad. After all, considering the Thunder’s unpredictable thrashing of L.A. tonight, I wouldn’t be surprised if Houston gives the defending champions a run for their money.

On Friday, you saw what quick guards can do to the Lakers. Russell Westbrook torched the purple and gold for 23 points on 10-of-13 shooting. He blew by Derek Fisher without much of an issue (which pretty much any NBA point guard can do these days), and without Andrew Bynum to clog the middle, the Lakers’ help defense struggled.

You also saw last postseason what the Rockets can do against the Lakers. While they don’t pose much of a threat in the paint without Yao Ming, Kevin Martin is a top-of-the-line scorer who will take advantage of Kobe’s no-defense strategy for the first 43 minutes of the game. Trevor Ariza and Ron Artest will be an interesting matchup, as the two defensive stoppers duke it out on the perimeter.

I’m taking the Lakers again in this one, even though they let me down last night. Pau Gasol should have a big game, as will Kobe, but I also think it will be close late. It’ll be entertaining for sure, as the Rockets need to win basically all their games down the stretch to have any hope of squeaking into the Western Conference playoffs.

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Arenas will face no jail time. Seriously?

Wizards guard Gilbert Arenas was sentenced Monday after pleading guilty to gun charges and will not have to serve any jail time.

This is outrageous. Just a few minutes after I gave you my NBA Today update, relaying ESPN’s Lester Munson’s prediction that Gilbert Arenas would be faced with incarceration, the results of his sentencing became public. He’ll serve one month in a halfway house.

Are you kidding me? Remember that Arenas’ incident occurred in Washington, D.C., notorious for its draconian gun laws. Remember that prosecutors were aiming for three months in jail and got (Agent) Zero. This oversight in the justice system had nothing to do with the law, and it had nothing to do with what transpired between Arenas and teammate Javaris Crittendon in the Wizards’ locker room. This pathetic sentence was solely a result of the foolish star treatment.

Gilbert Arenas can play basketball. One of the most talented and fearless scorers in the game, he can hit a 25-foot jumpshot or get to the rim whenever he so desires. Gilbert Arenas is also a doofus. His antics, while quite often funny, reflect badly on him, his team, and the NBA.

Nevertheless, he’s incredibly notorious, and most people enjoy seeing him goof off. This popularity in the public eye is what garnered him this slap on the wrist of a sentence. For some reason, judges are unwilling to condemn professional athletes to a long term in jail because of what they’ve done on the court.

Just over a month ago, former NBA player Jayson Williams was sentenced to only five years in jail for fatally shooting a limousine driver. Oh, and he’ll be eligible for parole in a mere year and a half. He killed someone; this is absolutely absurd.

Judges need to rethink the way they deal with professional athletes’ cases. This is, of course, based on a scenario in which there was no foul play. I don’t even want to think about what kind of payoffs there could have been to keep Arenas on the street. But we need to stop letting these guys off. They’re humans with human tendencies just like the rest of us. You can’t cut them a break because they make you spill your beer and popcorn after a hair-raising play to win a playoff game. It’s just despicable.

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Game of the Day: March 26

Los Angeles Lakers at Oklahoma City Thunder — 8 PM eastern

Basking in my correctly predicted win for Butler over Syracuse tonight, I am torn in selecting my game of the day for Friday. Certainly, Spurs-Cavs will provide quite a thrill, as LeBron and Tim Duncan clash in an interconference showdown. I’ve decided to go with Lakers-Thunder, though, because of the high likelihood that this matchup will show up again as a 7-game playoff series in a matter of weeks. And a hell of a matchup that will be.

As far as this regular-season contest goes, it’s still going to be great. The Lakers, barring a 2008/2009 New York Mets-style collapse down the stretch, have the Western Conference regular-season title locked up. The Thunder are currently the sixth seed and, playing their best basketball of the year right now, aim to increase their stock and draw the most favorable first-round playoff opponent.

The most obvious attraction of this game is Kobe vs. Durant. Both these players can light up a court and a box score in a hurry. But nothing short of a buzzer-beating scenario will make either of these guys the deciding factor in a win. Instead, that responsibility will lie with their supporting casts.

Andrew Bynum’s out, so the Lakers will be rather thin in the front court. Sure, they have Odom to fill in at the 4 while Gasol slides to center, but putting Odom in the starting lineup leaves the Lakers with one of the worst, if not the worst, benches in the entire NBA. Fortunately, the Thunder lack depth up front on a daily basis, as their only bigs off the bench are Nick Collison and the promising-for-the-future Serge Ibaka.

Durant draws a tough defensive assignment from perennial defensive stud Ron Artest, and Kobe has his own problem on his hands with Thabo Sefolosha (and I wouldn’t be surprised if Scott Brooks has Durant take a stab at guarding #24, too — see “Who can challenger the Lakers?”).

The most interesting positional matchup, I think, is that of Russell Westbrook and Derek Fisher. Fish can’t even hope to guard Westbrook, so he’ll be in the lane all day. Accordingly, the Lakers will overhelp as they always do, leaving other players open. Hopefully Westbrook can display the vision to find Durant and Green when he’s surrounded by purple and gold.

This will be the fourth and final game of the regular-season series between these teams, and the Lakers won the previous three. Granted, Andrew Bynum made an impact — either offensively, defensively, or both — in all three games, and L.A. won’t have him tonight. His absence notwithstanding, I like the Lakers to complete the season sweep. Gasol’s going to dominate at the rim against Nenad “Creampuff” Krstic, and Kobe will cancel out any dominating effort Durant can provide for OKC.

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Breaking down Josh Smith’s game-winning slam

I don’t pretend to be much of an Xs and Os guy when it comes to the NBA, but I figured I’d weigh in today on Josh Smith’s buzzer-beating putback in the Magic-Hawks game last night because it’s a result you so rarely see at the end of NBA games. Typically, such a scenario results in a contested or fading 18- to 20-foot jumpshot (which is what this was looking like) that seals or blows the game.

Here, though, Smith made a high-basketball-I.Q. play to clinch the victory (and, consequently, a playoff berth) for his team. Let’s break it down below.

In the screenshot above, notice Josh Smith at the right wing with his arms up looking for the pass. In the red circle is Dwight Howard, who is assigned to guard Smith on the play. Howard is totally out of place defensively, but nothing short of an on-the-spot stroke would compel Joe Johnson (on the left wing, guarded by Vince Carter) to dish the ball to Smith for a three-point jumper. Additionally, Howard knows where his man is, but as the defensive star he is, knows it’s better for him to be in the paint to contest any drives to the lane. He points out Smith to let his teammates know where Smith is and that he’s not covering him.

As expected, Johnson drives and beats Carter to the baseline, where he pulls up for a 15-foot side fade. Notice Dwight Howard’s shift toward Johnson’s position, as he had anticipated that Johnson might foolishly attempt to go to the rim. As a result of Howard’s position, notice that Smith is still wide open between the right wing and corner.

The shot goes up, and four of five Magic players collapse on the rim looking for the rebound. Unfortunately, expecting that there won’t be time on the clock left for another attempt, they give a halfhearted effort to box out. Rashard Lewis, who is shown standing on the right block, does not realize Josh Smith has begun to crash the boards behind him and does not get his body on him.

As a result, Smith gets right to the rim for the put-back slam. At that point, Smith is too athletics and has too much momentum for even Dwight Howard to stop, given Lewis’s lack of court awareness on the play. As if the validity of the basket (with respect to time) were ever in doubt, you can see here that the ball is through the hoop before time expires.

While this loss isn’t too crucial as far as Orlando’s regular-season fate and playoff seeding are concerned, it is this type of play that can cost you in April, May, and June (the NBA playoffs are just ridiculously long). Stan Van Gundy won’t stand for mental errors of this sort. Physical errors like Courtney Lee’s blown layup in Game 2 of the finals last year hurt, but they happen no matter what. You need to eliminate mental errors to come away with a championship.

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NBA Today: March 25

  • Interested in Ricky Rubio? Watch him play on ESPN 360 in the Euroleague postseason today, as FC Barcelona takes on Real Madrid at 3:15 PM eastern.
  • David Thorpe presents a fantastic ESPN Insider feature on whom the league’s top rookies should look up to in order to improve their skills. If you aren’t paying for Insider, you really should. And if you subscribe to ESPN the Magazine, you get Insider for free.
  • When’s the last time you saw a buzzer-beating put-back dunk to win a game like Josh Smith’s last night? Shameful lapse of concentration on the part of the Magic.
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