Not quite over the Hill

The Spurs ousted the Mavericks from the playoffs tonight, and I can’t say I’m surprised. All that talent — championship-caliber talent, to be sure — and Dallas still couldn’t come away with a victory.

And many believe that’s the franchise’s window for a title has now closed. Dirk Nowitzki, Jason Terry, Shawn Marion, Caron Butler, and Jason Kidd will all be another year older come next year’s playoffs, and this disappointing first-round exit makes me wonder if Dallas would have been any worse off holding on to Devin Harris and two first-round draft picks.

Revisiting the series, now: while the achievements and talents of the Spurs’ Big 3 cannot be understated, the key to this defining series win for the Spurs was Mr. George Hill.

The second-year point guard from IUPUI made great strides in his sophomore campaign; he even played well enough to flirt with some attention for the league’s most improved player of the year award. After averaging under six points and 2 assists on 40 percent shooting in his rookie season, Hill countered with rates of 12.4 points and 2.9 assists on 48 percent shooting from the field and 40 percent from three.

Hill filled in admirably for Tony Parker when he was injured and kept the seventh-seeded team alive for the playoffs. And that’s when he really came alive.

Popovich elected to start Hill at point guard in the Dallas series, as Parker was still recovering from injuries, so Pop didn’t want to force that.

To be honest, Hill’s start to the series was brutal. He shot just 2-9 in the series’ first two tilts and was held scoreless in the first.

Then he took off.

In the most recent four games, he averaged a shade under 20 points a contest on 55 percent shooting. In addition, he hit a number of timely three-pointers and other tough shots to secure the series for the Spurs.

Moving on, I’m sure Hill is going to get a lot more attention after his performance. He certainly won’t get as many open threes as he did against Dallas. But for now, it looks like San Antonio made the right decision in not shipping Hill off in any trades over the last couple years. He should be an elite player in the league.

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Denver’s Hopes Lie in Stopping D-Will

Deron Williams has his Jazz on the verge of advancing to the second round.

The Utah Jazz narrowly missed out on the third seed in the West in this playoffs, but they faltered at the end of the regular campaign, condemning themselves to sixth place.

Instead of facing a Portland team ravaged by injury, Utah would have to face the Denver Nuggets. And that’s no picnic.

Denver is regarded as one of the toughest teams in the league. The Nuggets feature Chauncey Billups, one of the best postseason players in recent NBA history, and Carmelo Anthony, one of the league’s best players overall. The Jazz knew they would also be down Andrei Kirilenko, their multitalented small forward who would have been responsible for containing Melo.

Then, another blow came in Game 1. Mehmet Okur, the team’s starting center, went down, hampering an already overmatched front court.

So the Nuggets took a decidedly uncompetitive Game 1, and many wrote off the Jazz as dead meat.

Then, something happened.

Something reminded the Jazz that they have one of the best point guard–power forward pairings in all of basketball today. Something reminded the Jazz than Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer can actually play this game.

In a nailbiting Game 2, the Jazz emerged victorious 114-111. The stars? You guessed it. Williams put up 33 points and 14 assists while Boozer posted 20 points and 15 boards. Williams has held on to the reins ever since.

In a less stressful Game 3, Williams backed his effort with a 24-and-10 double-double. In the next win, 24 and 13.

So the Nuggets are the ones panicking now. After nearly knocking off the eventual-champion Lakers last year, Denver is on the cusp of first-round elimination, thanks to D-Will.

And after only three solid postseason games, Williams has many thinking he has trumped Chris Paul is the league’s best floor general. To be truthful, the debate is more reasonable now than ever.

Williams’ postseason averages thus far of 26.8 points and 12 assists a contest are unmatched by a Jazz point guard since one of the greatest ever — John Stockton — put up 27.3 and 13.7 when he was 26 in 1989. That’s some good company.

Considering Utah’s immense success so far in spite of a depleted roster, it goes to show how helpful it is to have a good 1-guard running the show.

Let it be a lesson to the Boston Celtics and the Dallas Mavericks. Rajon Rondo and Jason Kidd need to be in charge of your offenses. Sure, the Celtics advanced against a weak Miami team. But the Mavericks are also on the brink of summer leisure as a result of their poorly executed offense. Let Kidd do the work; Dirk Nowitzki’s not alone out there.

For the Nuggets, it is critical to slow Williams down in tonight’s Game 5. Dantley just announced that he’s going to have Billups match up against Utah’s wonder tonight. Maybe a little championship seasoning can help Billups do what Deron’s other defensive assignments were useless in doing: exploiting the weaknesses of team’s wing positions rather than letting Williams and Boozer do the talking.

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Mistreating the NBA’s referees

Bennett Salvatore has been the object of much criticism lately.

There has been no shortage lately of criticism for the NBA’s officials. Celtics forward Kevin Garnett, Lakers coach Phil Jackson (twice), and Mavericks center Erick Dampier are only some of the most recent figures to speak out and incur fines from the league office for detrimental comments.

In fact, it has been such a problem that Commissioner David Stern has threatened further violators with potential suspensions for verbal abuse of the referees. And I understand.

First, from a league standpoint, questioning the authority of professional officials hired to make correct calls in games reflects poorly on the league. The decisions of the referees are largely judgment-based and not cut-and-dried interpretations of rules.

From the standpoint of the officials, it is rough. Having officiated basketball for a semester at USC myself, I know firsthand how difficult it is to make split-second determinations with confidence. Viewers and analysts, who have the lofty benefit of replay, are unforgiving of the refs’ circumstances.

That said, these comments are in some ways justifiable, too. The criticisms are rarely manifestations of deep-seated anger and dissatisfaction with the officiating in the league (after all, it does not make the news when a referee gets a call right a very high percentage of the time) but instead are just outlets for the venting of frustration following a loss, and in the playoffs that becomes even more apparent. Honestly, no one ever sees a coach or player complain about poor calls after a win.

My true beef, then, comes with something incredibly abhorrent that I observed today. While partaking of Game 5 between the Boston Celtics and Miami Heat today, I picked up — over and over again — on negative remarks directed at the refs from the color commentator whenever a call or n0-call went against Boston. I found it quite nauseating.

At halftime, the studio host mentioned the commentator’s name, Tom Heinsohn, so I quickly looked him up. Reads his NBA.com bio:

Known for his hard-nosed style of play, yet possessing a superb shooting touch and good body control, Tom Heinsohn was a vital cog in the Boston Celtics’ dynasty of the 1950s and 1960s.

I forgot to tell you that the game was broadcast on NBA TV.

What an outrage. How is it that the league can put up with such clearly partisan commentating on a national network let alone its own representative TV station? I understand that many broadcasters support their respective teams. As such, if it were a local Celtics broadcast, this would all be slightly less offensive. But it wasn’t. It was a national broadcast of a playoff game.

Despite his career as a player, Heinsohn is now a journalist and an ambassador of the media. Accordingly, he is bound by the objectivity required of any other journalist.

Openly flaunting his favoritism for his former team is journalistically unethical and downright wrong. In my opinion, he shouldn’t get to call any more games. It is bad for the referees, it is bad for the league, and it is bad for the profession.

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Can the Mavericks recover?

Dirk Nowitzki, Jason Terry, Jason Kidd, and all the Mavs are on the brink of elimination.

All was fine and dandy when the Dallas Mavericks were soaring amid a blistering 13-game win streak.

Now? Not so much.

After three consecutive defeats, the Mavericks now face a 3-1 deficit to seasoned San Antonio Spurs, who didn’t seem the slightest bit concerned with their Game 1 loss. As the Spurs know best, losing comes with the territory.

The Mavericks don’t have that same swagger and confidence about them. They’re definitely pressing. It doesn’t help that there’s a looming suspicion that this will be the franchise’s last chance in a long while at an NBA title.

Dallas blew a 48-37 halftime lead to lose 92-89 in Game 3. Dirk Nowitzki, the team’s star, shot just 4-10, representative of the team’s 41 percent shooting for the contest.

The color commentator mentioned during the game that Dirk is the only player Dallas has who can put his head down and score. If that’s the case, they don’t stand much of a chance to win when he’s off.

San Antonio, on the other hand, has three guys — Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili — who can get the shot they want without being set up.

So, in the upcoming elimination games, what does Rick Carlisle have to do to win some games?

He has to go away from featuring Dirk so heavily as an isolation scorer. This isn’t a time to take a chance on a hot night. Instead, take advantage of the point guard you gave up Devin Harris for. The point guard who led a decent New Jersey Nets team to two consecutive finals appearances. Yes, let Jason Kidd run the show while he still can.

Obviously Dirk still fits in to the picture. But you need to give Kidd free reign to find the open jumpers for Dirk, Jason Terry, Caron Butler, and the rest.

Instead of letting Duncan or whomever one-on-one defense on Nowitzki, get the ball moving. Get those tired Spurs legs moving. That was Gregg Popovich’s concern all year: keeping bodies fresh.

So, Carlisle, take advantage of your deeper (by far) roster. Or give Nowitzki 18-foot contested fadeaways. Your choice.

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Riding the stars: Dwyane Wade’s Game 3 show

Miami's Dwyane Wade is one of the best crunch-time players in the NBA.

The Miami Heat defeated the Boston Celtics Sunday in what will likely to amount to a meaningless showing of pride for the boys from South Beach. Boston now leads the series 3-1, and it would take downright magic for Miami to advance to the second round.

Paul Pierce subdued a hopeful Miami crowd in Game 3, sinking a buzzer-beating jump shot to give the puzzling Celtics a stranglehold on the series.

Not to be outdone, Dwyane Wade did his best MJ impression in torching the Mean Green for 46 points, 5 rebounds, and 5 assists on 66 percent shooting Sunday afternoon.

And it is that not-to-be-outdone spirit that separates the truly elite players from the great ones in the league. Many remember Wade’s earth-shattering Finals performance against the Dallas Mavericks (over 30 points a game, including no fewer than 36 in the last four), and those displays are a testament to what Wade really can do.

There’s no underestimating the star.

There’s no expecting a star to fall. The star can be off all night and knock down a contested three-pointer to tie up the game in overtime. The star could be blistering hot and put his team on his back and carry it to victory with no support whatsoever.

So when Wade goes out and lights up the Celtics like that, he’s making a statement.

“My teammates might not be ready to play in the postseason, but I certainly am.”

And even if the Heat lose in Game 5, a Celtics victory won’t come without a superb effort from No. 3. Wade’s hungry, and the only way to satisfy him is to give him the W.

That said, Wade has more to play for than just an off-chance at an NBA Title. Wade is showcasing himself to the variety of talent that will bless the free-agent market this summer. He wants to let LeBron and Bosh and Amar’e know that, at his side, there’s no limit to a team’s greatness.

To be honest, I thought Miami would win this series. I thought Wade’s excellence would vastly outshine the skills of the aging Celtics. But Boston showed resurgence, and it took a Wade outburst to quell the uprising.

Hopefully, the Heat won’t go quietly and we, the fans, will get more greatness from the series. Why do we watch? Mr. Dwyane Wade.

These stars are so good for the game: They sell tickets, they sell merchandise, and they swell TV ratings. There’s no predicting what Wade or LeBron or Kobe is going to do next, and it’s that anticipation that makes the game so great.

So, Dwyane, even if you fall to the Celtics, don’t fret. Wherever you go, great things will follow. You’re just that talented. And Game 3 reminded us all that Boston actually has a problem on its hands.

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