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Lottery shocks, as usual; Suns fall badly to Lakers

Well, chalk up another shortcoming for the New Jersey Nets this year.

After a season of woeful play resulting in a 12-70 record, the Nets had the best chance at securing the NBA Draft’s top pick going into the lottery Tuesday night — they had a 25 percent shot.

Nevertheless, they will be limited to picking third next month. The second pick will go to the Philadelphia 76ers, and the No. 1 pick will go to the Washington Wizards.

Though a completely random process, the lottery sometimes seems a little unfair. Instead of going to the team that struggled under the guise of a totally disinterested owner, the first pick will, instead, fall into the hands of the Wizards, who are already paying a point guard on the roster $126 million over five years.

But those are the breaks, I guess. Maybe Derrick Favors or whomever the Nets choose will wind up being drastically better. Can’t I dream?

*           *           *

The Phoenix Suns made me look pretty bad last night after posting my sincere admiration for Steve Nash.

They turned the ball over at an embarrassing rate, couldn’t find the range, and played defense like, well, the Suns of old. The Lakers took everything they wanted from their opponents in Game 1, and Kobe Bryant contributed a true playoff performance.

All that said (and I hate to ride the officials), there was certainly some questionable officiating over the course of the game. Kobe got his calls — that’s a given. But down low, on the perimeter, basically anywhere, the whistles were blowing in favor of the Purple and Gold.

Attribute it to home-court officiating at the Staples Center in part, but there was a larger factor. All year, the Lakers constantly berate and batter the referees after every call against them (regardless of validity) in one of the most unsportsmanlike trends in all of sports.

But it has its benefits.

When you continually pressure the officials after their decisions, they begin to doubt themselves, and you begin to establish some credibility for your case.

That the Lakers cashed in on their accumulated credibility was evident Monday night. And the dubious calls were so well-timed, in fact, that it played a significant role in Phoenix’s falling to a 20-point deficit.

Hopefully, as the series progresses, the officials work it out and stop coddling L.A.

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For Nash, a chance to cement his legacy

Steve Nash is one of the the finest competitors the NBA has ever seen.

There isn’t much Steve Nash can’t do.

The Phoenix Suns point guard is a wizard with the basketball, eliciting more “ooh”s and “ah”s on a nightly basis than one might expect from a 36-year-old hailing from Canada. Nevertheless, his gift for the game is palpable. And like so few others before him, Nash has managed to seamlessly integrate individual skills with the success of his team in the absence of even slight egotism or entitlement.

His passing ability is immaculate. Nash currently resides in eighth among the list of all-time assist leaders, and one more healthy season could allow him to supplant Gary Payton and Isiah Thomas on that leader board. But the sheer number of dimes doesn’t tell the whole story. His assortment of behind-the-back, no-look, through-the-legs, side-winding, and alley-oop dishes has made him the envy of even the staunchest critics and transformed his Suns team into the best squad in the league to watch for six seasons and counting.

His pick-and-roll game is delightful. It is no less certain that Nash will thread the ball to a diving Amar’e Stoudemire after a well-set pick than it is that Rasheed Wallace will be whistled for a technical foul during the season, but that is what makes Nash’s talent so admirable. Despite the benefit of expectation, any defense will be burned by that play. Nash is so in tune with every move his power forward will make that the pass is simply unstoppable. He is so adept, that he ranks as possibly the greatest executor of this scheme, with the exception of John Stockton, maybe. But that’s not bad company, to be sure.

Nash’s dominance, though, stems not from just his exceptional distribution; instead, it is his collective dynamism and versatility that pave the way for his excellence. A key facet of that protean nature is his deadly yet gorgeous shooting stroke. Most of his long jumpers come off the dribble; give him an open catch-and-shoot look, and it is probably going in. Nash is so good shooting the ball, in fact, that ESPN’s John Hollinger went so far as to rank him the NBA’s best of all-time — above the greats like Reggie Miller, Steve Kerr, and Larry Bird, who were much more renowned for their accuracy.

And that assertion was certainly grounded in stats, as all Hollinger’s analyses are. Nash is a four-time member of the 50-40-90 club (50 percent shooting, 40 percent three-point shooting, 90 percent free-throw shooting) and would have accomplished that feat a fifth time with another tenth of a percentage point on his free-throw average in 2006-2007. The other members of the club? Bird, Miller, Mark Price, Dirk Nowitzki, and Jose Calderon — and the only one of them to achieve it even twice was Bird.

Nash already overcame one barrier in dispatching the Spurs. Is this the year he comes away with a championship?

His free-throw stroke is one of the most admired in the sport. He calmly steps to the line, politely denies the ball from the referee, takes two empty-handed simulated attempts, then drills the actual ones 90 percent of the time.

All that said, passing and shooting do not complete Nash’s offensive game, as his intangible skills are just as pivotal to his success as his ball handling. Nash is so focused on the game that he never misses a beat. He is constantly aware of the position on the floor of each of his four teammates and each of his five defenders. He knows exactly where to put the ball at any given time, when to put the team on his back and control the offense, and how much time is on the clock — that all comes second nature to Nash.

More crucial than all of that, though, is his unremitting desire to win. That is represented well in his willingness to play hurt (with a gushing nose or swollen eye), his willingness to take the last shot, and his overall stoic demeanor on the court.

So where has all this gotten Nash as an individual? He, of course, boasts two league MVP awards, from 2005 and 2006, and fell just short of securing a third straight in falling to his former teammate Nowitzki. He is also hailed as one of the greatest point guards of all time.

Nonetheless, as he and the Suns prepare to square off against the Lakers in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals tonight, there is a conspicuous scarlet letter that continues to brand Nash.

He has never won an NBA championship.

In fact, he has amassed the most career playoff games (112) of any NBA player without even making it into the NBA Finals. Amid all the talented players in the league right now, there is no honor more important to a player’s patrimony than the number of titles he secures for himself. As LeBron James and Kobe Bryant continue to wrestle for the crown of league’s best player, the one fault of LeBron than holdouts accentuate is his lingering failure to come away on top when it counts.

When Nash and his crew take the floor Monday night, the hunger for a win will be more evident. Clear underdogs against the juggernaut Lakers, the Suns will have to play flawless basketball to dethrone the defending champs, and Nash will have to play a prominent role.

In a recent interview with Michael Wilbon, Nash downplayed the importance of individual regalia.

“At this stage of my career, the only goals worth chasing are team goals. To win a championship is still the greatest thing to play for and the greatest motivator. So it’s a fantastic situation right now, where this team that wasn’t expected to get here is here and we got a real chance,” he said.

If Nash and the Suns can come out on top, the fruit will be that much sweeter. After all, they are coming off an improbable series sweep over the San Antonio Spurs, who had previously plagued the Suns in the postseason this decade.

Ousting the Lakers, knocking the championship monkey off his back, and finally enshrining himself in the peak tier of NBA greats in the process?

That’s an accomplishment worth being selfish about.

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An alternative take on the Celtics-Cavs series

"My name is LeBron James. Today is the longest day of my life."

This series between the Cleveland Cavaliers and Boston Celtics is like a season of 24.

There’s Jack Bauer (LeBron), the guy who makes everything run smoothly. There’s Chloe O’Brian (Mo Williams), Tony Almeida (Shaq), and Curtis Manning (Antawn Jamison) — the guys who help Jack along the way.

Then there are the villains, nested and nested again until you finally reach the inner crust. That weak outer shell of the terrorist organization this year is Paul Pierce, who is playing like a withered silhouette of his former self. As you move further in, there’s Kendrick Perkins and Ray Allen, mostly pulling their weight but also not playing great ball.

Further inside, still, is Kevin Garnett. He’s still the emotional leader of the team, and his defense (not to mention his fearsome scowls) still might make you soil your pants. The core of the resistance? That’s Rajon Rondo, who has matched LeBron step for step through the first four games of the contest. As for Rasheed Wallace, he’s the mercenary who gets popped in hour one.

Continuing the analogy, the good guys have hit their road blocks (like Games 2 and 4), absorbed criticism from the Big Wigs in the White House (Doc Rivers chastised ‘Sheed for his pitiful play, not to mention the press’s unwarranted abuse after Game 2), and persevered (they’re still even as they begin their fifth game).

In the end, though, everyone knows who’s going to come out on top. Jack will find the terrorist mastermind and make him pay as always. And Cleveland will advance from this series.

How’s that for an unusual comparison for an NBA playoff series? Meanwhile, there has been nothing but a plethora of wonderful storylines surrounding this matchup.

The one I love most is LeBron’s demanding that he guard Rondo in Game 5. This is clearly an attempt at oneupsmanship directed toward Kobe Bryant, who undertook guarding Russell Westbrook in the Lakers’ opening series against the Thunder, and I wouldn’t be surprised if NBA fans are Tweeting up @LeBronsAnkles later on tonight after the game. I’m all for competitiveness, LeBron, but let’s not be ridiculous: Rajon Rondo is too quick even for the God among men. You’re already waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay better than Bryant anyway. There’s no reason to subject yourself to the embarrassment of getting beat by Rondo just to show you’re superior all while having all your offensive energy sapped away.

A close second is Spike Lee’s pulling for the Celtics because he thinks their victory will probe LeBron to opt out of his deal with Cleveland and instantly gravitate to Madison Square Garden, where Lee makes his second home. Sure, many think LeBron will ditch the Cavaliers if they fail, yet again, to come away with the hardware. But just as many believe a win will clear LeBron’s conscience and allow him to leave his home state on good terms. Moreover, he seems pretty confident it will be the Knicks. There are a lot of suitors out there for LeBron and some just as desirable as New York. Hell, Spike, maybe putting together a major (and incredibly boring) documentary on the King instead of his arch nemesis Kobe would have scored you some points with the man.

There’s also the disintegration of the great Paul Pierce in front of our eyes. His dreadfully slow dribble moves look more like slow-mo replays these days than ever before, and watching his uncontested layups rim out or his three-pointers brick is more painful than one of Bauer’s interrogations. How horrid it it to watch one of the franchise’s greatest scorers in history fail to play high-school-level ball.

Then there’s the dazzling play of Rondo. Ever seen the movie Leon: The Professional with Jean Reno and Natalie Portman? The bug-eyed boy from Kentucky is just like Portman’s character; he learned from the best when they were still the best, and now he’s taking the action into his own hands. Say goodbye to the big three and say hello to my little friend.

How about Shaq’s ineffectiveness? The Diesel is looking more like the 87-octane unleaded nowadays, and you’ve got to wonder if this is the final year for him. Didn’t he promise two years ago that he was going to play only two more years? That certainly won’t be the case if the Cavs dethrone the Lakers in the Finals and Kobe finally tells the Big Cactus how his ass tastes. It seems like he just has too much fun in this league to retire before he’s confined to a hospital bed watching Seinfeld tapes and playing Scattergories with his wife and the team doctor like in Curb Your Enthusiasm.

Taking a backseat to no headline is the general consensus that Doc Rivers will dip from Boston after this season. Bill Simmons put it well today: “I mean, you have a better chance of seeing Doc Martens coach next year’s Celtics team.” (I would have preferred Doc Gooden, but that’s coming from a baseball nut.) Never has it been so obvious yet so ignored that a coach’s fate with a team is determined for a team that is tied 2-2 with the best team in the league in Round 2 of the NBA playoffs. Kinda crazy, ya know? But, hey. I’d want to get the hell out of there, too, if I had to deal with Wallace every day.

Which brings me to my next point: the Cavaliers’ long-range shooting. Cleveland’s three-point assault has undergone more swings than a PMSing Tyra Banks. 33 percent. 19 percent. 42 percent. 19 percent. For a team that hangs on to players like Delonte West, Anthony Parker, and Jamario Moon for their spot-up shooting skills, this is quite a laughable sign. Maybe Mike Brown should be less worried Rajon Rondo and be more concerned with bricking open treys.

So what does this series hold for the future? Well, there’ll be plenty of drama that doesn’t have a lick to do with play on the basketball court. But as I said above, the Celtics are not going to win this series. LeBron is waiting to seal this series until he has to, maybe because his elbow is hurting so much. At any rate, the Cavaliers should be worrying more about how they’re going to stop the insanity that is the Orlando Magic than anything else right now, not the least of which is who is going to guard Boy Wonder for Boston.

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Hawks need Joe Johnson to show up

Joe Johnson needs to contribute more for the Hawks to win.

The Orlando Magic still haven’t lost a game in the 2010 playoffs.

On the heels of a 43-point victory over Atlanta in Game 1, Orlando took a 2-0 series lead by beating the Hawks 112-98 Thursday night. After Atlanta went a solid 53-29 during the regular season, it has struggled to come away with victories in the postseason; the team barely squeezed by a depleted Bucks team in the first round, and it is now in a deep hole against Orlando.

John Hollinger wrote for ESPN today that Atlanta’s isolation-based offense isn’t a very good fit for playoff contests. While there’s an argument to be made there, the Hawks’ best isolation player hasn’t shown up in the series against the Magic so far. That’s the main reason for the embarrassing loss Tuesday night.

In the two games, Johnson has 29 points combined on dreadful 33 percent (9-27) shooting. He also has five turnovers in the two contests, and he has shot 2-8 from beyond the three-point line.

While he is surrounded by a fairly solid supporting cast, he needs to be a leader for a team that lacks another one-on-one scorer. His primary defender on the Magic? That’s Vince Carter, who’s not exactly Bruce Bowen on the defensive side of the ball.

In Game 3, Joe Johnson will have to establish himself on Atlanta’s home floor, where the Hawks play significantly better. He needs to make a serious effort on offense to put up 25 or more points. If he can do that, Josh Smith and Al Horford, who have played reasonably well up front, can complement that solid base of offense.

Moreover, if Johnson can shoot a better percentage, he can demand more attention from Orlando’s defense, opening up jump shots for Mike Bibby, Marvin Williams, and Mo Evans. In addition, a solid outing for Johnson sets the pace for Jamal Crawford to come off the bench and light up the scoreboard.

This offseason, Johnson will be part of the highly lauded free-agent class of 2010. Among names like LeBron James, Chris Bosh, and Dwyane Wade, he is in good company in the open market. That said, there has been much debate about whether Johnson deserves a maximum contract.

Given his poor postseason play, I’d be inclined to say he doesn’t. One of the most important aspect of a franchise player is his ability to lead his team to victory in the playoffs. LeBron does it, Wade does it, and Kobe Bryant does it. Johnson, however, does not. He still has a chance to redeem himself, though.

With a maximum of five games left in the series, he has an opportunity to show what he can do. Atlanta will be depending on it.

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Jazz lack height to match up with Lakers

Pau Gasol has repeatedly gotten the better of Carlos Boozer in this series.

After Game 1 of the Jazz-Lakers series, Utah played like it had a chance to win the series against the defending champions. After Game 2, I’m more resigned to the fact that Utah is dramatically outmatched.

As I mentioned in my previous post about the series, the Jazz nearly came away with the win in Game 1, but shaky defense down the stretch game the Lakers a decisive win. In the second contest, the Jazz’s flaws were more evident. And it starts and ends with the front-court play.

Los Angeles features two seven-foot front-court players in Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum. The sixth man off the bench, Lamar Odom, is a versatile 6’10″. On the contrary, the two best paint players for Utah — Carlos Boozer and Paul Millsap — are both 6’9″. With Mehmet Okur out for the remainder of the season, the Jazz must resort to giving heavy minutes to Kyrylo Fesenko and Kosta Koufos at center, who are lacking in talent, to be blunt.

So what’s the result when you pit your two 6’9″ quality big men and seven-foot bench warmers against Gasol, Bynum, Odom? Chaos and embarrassment.

In Game 2, the one true offensive bright spot for Utah was Millsap: 26 points, 11 boards, 4 assists, and 3 steals on 10-17 shooting. Boozer added 20 point and 12 rebounds, but he shot a mediocre 9-21.

Fesenko and Koufos combined to score 4 points on 2-9 shooting and grab 3 rebounds. To say the least, that’s not going to cut it.

These stats don’t tell the whole story. Further accentuating the shortcomings of Utah’s front-court production is the fact that the Lakers mustered 13 blocks in Game 2, and 9 of those came thanks to Gasol, Bynum, and Odom.

Further, still, is Utah’s inability to defend in the paint.

Gasol put up 22 points on 7-11 shooting and secured 5 offensive rebounds. Bynum added 17 points on a very solid 7-9 shooting performance. He also grabbed 14 rebounds (13 of which came in the first half), including 4 on the offensive glass. Finally, Odom put up 11 points on perfect 4-4 shooting and a whopping 15 boards (4 of which came on offense).

Clearly, Boozer and Millsap give up too much height to contend with the Lakers’ bigs near the basket. Fesenko and Koufos just aren’t good enough. Honestly, Utah can kiss this series goodbye if it continues to let the Lakers absolutely own the offensive glass and shoot such high percentages.

Kobe Bryant’s 30 points (10-22 FG, 10-11 FT), 5 rebounds, 8 assists, and 3 blocks are the least of the Jazz’s worries as the series heads to Utah. With Andrei Kirilenko’s return, Kobe’s damage can be mitigated. It will take some creative thinking on Jerry Sloan’s part, however, to quell the onslaught of the Lakers big men for the rest of the series.

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Jazz defense falters as Lakers take Game 1

Kobe Bryant made the Jazz defense look like Golden State's in the fourth quarter of Sunday's Game 1.

It takes a nearly perfect effort to beat the Lakers. And if that effort isn’t quite perfect, it’s best not to let those slight imperfections manifest themselves at the end of the fourth quarter.

But that is what Utah did Sunday, surrendering a very winnable Game 1 to the defending champions 104-99 in which it had a lead with as little as 3:16 left to play in the final period.

Despite permitting the Lakers to shoot 53 percent from the field for the game, the Jazz played admirable defense. Los Angeles shot just 2-16 from three-point range, and Utah allowed the Lakers to score only one point in the first six minutes of the fourth quarter as the Jazz crawled their way to a lead from an eight-point deficit.

Then, at the 3:16 mark, it all went downhill. Coach Jerry Sloan assigned small forward C.J. Miles to guard Kobe Bryant one-on-one, and the Lakers isolated the entire left side of the court for Kobe to take Miles on his own.

Kobe began to back him down, and as he forced him back to the left elbow, Miles reacted to a push by flopping over in an attempt to take a charge. As a result, Kobe had an open lane for a jump shot, and the late rotation for the contest resulted in Kobe’s and-one conversion.

Thereafter, Sloan elected to have the stronger Wesley Matthews take Kobe on defense. With about 55 seconds left in the game and the Lakers up one, Matthews successfully defended Bryant and forced him into a fall-away turnaround jumper from 14 feet. The shot missed, but Carlos Boozer failed to block out Lamar Odom, who corralled the offensive board and put it back up for the easy layup.

Lastly, with about 24 seconds left to play, Matthews was guarding Kobe one-on-one by the logo; the other four Jazz players were standing near the four corners of the lane. Kobe drove, and Matthews went for the strip — so he was beat. Then, in a display of some of the most regrettable defense of all time, Kobe sliced directly down the middle of the lane, without so much as a glance from one of the Jazz players, for an easy layup.

It was one of the easiest dagger shots I’ve ever seen in an NBA game, as it put the Lakers up five with minimal time on the clock.

Utah will have to give a fuller effort in the next several games if it hopes to knock off LA. Forgetting to box out and trying for a strip on Kobe when he’s running at full speed from center court are incredibly unwise decisions.

By the way, C.J. Miles, a referee will never call that offensive foul on Kobe, regardless of how much of a foul it was, at that juncture of the game. And it’s just not smart to flop like that with no one to help on defense behind you.

Hopefully when Andrei Kirilenko returns to the Jazz (supposedly in Game 3), these defensive miscues will fade away.

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Honoring the League’s Biggest Floppers

The playoffs are among us. LeBron is dominating, Kevin Garnett’s brawling, and the Suns aren’t playing defense (in fact, the rim played better defense on Marcus Camby’s dunk attempt than any actual person did any other time). But that’s not all that’s the same. Phil Jackson complained last week about how Kevin Durant gets way too many foul calls. Sure, he gets a lot of calls. He made the most free throws in a season this year since Michael Jordan. But …

HELLO? A Mister Kobe Bryant is on your team, right? How can you accuse any other player of getting beneficial calls from the refs when your star player is so pampered he might as well be shoving 20s into Joey Crawford, Bennett Salvatore, and the others’ pockets after the game?

In the end, though, I agree with your assertion, Phil. Durantula — whose nickname misrepresents his newborn-yellow-labrador fearsomeness — gets the whistle all the time. But it’s not fair to point the proverbial finger only in his direction. Instead, let’s throw the blame around everywhere! Let’s pay homage to the the biggest floppers in the NBA. The finest actors in the league. The guys who make us laugh, cry, and remind us why we don’t watch soccer.

Here are a couple parameters: (1) These aren’t purely the top floppers — I’ve painfully brainstormed seven categories in which flopping is most apparent; and (2) In the spirit of the exhuasting, over-two-month-long season, I’ve chosen only members of playoff teams (That says something about the success of manipulating the officials, to be honest).

(A) The Throw-Your-Hands-in-the-Air-Like-You-Just-Don’t-Care Flop — Kobe Bryant and Kevin Durant

Yeah. One of those.

Bryant and Durant get their share of hard fouls and intimate moments with the hardwood. But that’s not how they get to the line, for the most part. These are the leaders of the Cookie Jar Police. They catch the ball 20 feet from the hoop, get in to a nice mind game with their counterparts — rife with pump fakes and stone-cold stares — and just when that defenders decide to reach in to get a taste …

SNAP.

Up they go, flailing their arms wildly with the negligible contact. Whistle. And they go to the charity stripe. And there’s the other guy, with a mean-spirited “F*** You” written all over his face.

It’s like when you bid $1400 for the dinette set on The Price is Right and the woman next to you bids $1401.

The cookie-jar bodyguards will exists for as long as the league does. And as Durant asserts himself as Kobe’s successor in the category, it looks like we’re in for a long, long period with another great one. But someone needs to butter up the NBA’s newest refs, right? Kobe hasn’t already paid them off, right?

(B) The Come-Back-with-Your-Shield-or-on-it Flop — Manu Ginobili

Manu Ginobili, widely regarded as the league’s most egregious flopper, certainly deserves a place on this list. While being a warrior in the NBA is definitely an admirable quality and all too rare (though I’m sure Manu’s withered knees are getting ready to cash in on their well-deserved pensions), looking foolish is not.

Ginobili’s the guy who heads to the rack and fully expects the hoop, the harm, or both. He gets fouled every time. No exceptions. Or at least that’s how he sees it. So forgive me if I chuckle when he looks up at refs, seemingly pleading, “Hey, ref! Leggo my Eggo!”

Maybe he should worry a bit more about actually leaving the ground on his jumper and less about the waffle robbing of the officials, because his whining is more transparent than Sammy Sosa’s skin.

(C) The You-Can-Do-it-Put-Your-Back-Into-it Flop — Dirk Nowitzki

"That's the most important meal of the day you just stole from me."

I love Dirk’s primal roars after he gets fouled while hitting a jumper with more fade than Brandon Jennings’s hair. But that’s not why the German Shepherd (I just made that up.) makes an appearance on this list.

His condemnation is a penalty for his penchant to draw the off-ball foul. Everyone knows Dirk is so soft a 6-year-old that just drank four Red Bulls could fall asleep on him. So he roams around the elbow, hoping to make a ridiculous contested jumper for two points.

But he has to get the ball first. And that comes by way of entry pass from one of those J players — Jason Kidd, Jason Terry, J.J. Barea — or whichever other player doesn’t want to touch the ball for the rest of the possession (Dirk’s passing out of double-teams is laughable, at best.).

And when Dirk’s defender is doing a good job of denying him the ball, that’s when he gets restless.

Tossing and turning like he’s dreaming about having lost a drinking contest to an Irishman, he reacts to pushes from the defender like they’re those flaming battering rams from Lord of the Rings. And the sad thing about it? He usually gets the call.

To be truthful, the refs, in all likelihood, justifiably think that a soft push to the lower back is enough to send Nowitzki to the Emergency Room.

(D) The Bruce-Willis-is-Actually-Dead Flop — Jamal Crawford

I considered naming this category after the twist in The Game, but all of you who haven’t seen it yet would have come after me angry-mob style for ruining such a great movie if I had (Read: See The Game). I figured everyone knew the Sixth Sense twist. If you didn’t, you were behind the times, so you should be thanking me for catching you up.

Anyway, one of the most unspeakable acts in basketball is fouling a jump shooter. One of the even more unspeakable acts in basketball is fouling a 3-point jump shooter. And Jamal Crawford has more 4-point plays than Lane Kiffin has enemies in Tennessee.

To be honest, though, Crawford milks a lot more out of those ticky-tack elbow fouls than the cow’s willing to give. So when the defender gives him a friendly bump after he goes up for the chuck, he goes down to the floor like somebody’s shooting. And the refs really fall for it more often than not.

Here’s one from his glory days in New York.

I’m waiting for the day he does this with no defender near him and he gets the call.

(E) The “Please! Let me in! That’s my wife!” Flop — Anderson Varejao

Anderson Varejao is only in this league because of his effort. That and his hair, actually (How cool is that mop?). But now that he’s here, he sure knows how to manipulate the guys in gray.

The Civilian Brazilian is probably the most hair-raising (Ha.) player in the NBA, and most of that frustration for other guys comes on the board. Varejao could be getting his leg taped in the locker room when a shot goes up, then run back to the court, check in, and be a viable competitor for the ball. He’s that energetic. And he uses his invasiveness to his advantage with the refs.

Picture this:

He’s jockeying for position to get an offensive rebound behind, say, Dwight Howard. He knows he’s not going to get the board. But he feels Dwight’s elbow lightly graze his chest and he reacts like he just got whacked with a frying pan. Whistle. Loose-ball foul. Dwight Howard picks up his sixth personal foul.

Sounds pretty reasonable, doesn’t it? That’s because it is. And if the Cavaliers play the Magic again this postseason, just keep an eye on the giant brown springy thing. You’ll see exactly what I’m talking about.

(F) The “I’m taking one for the team, right?” Flop — Derek Fisher

Everyone has his opinion about drawing charges in the league. Some love it, and some want to burn David Stern for it. Notwithstanding its divisive nature, it’s one of the most prominent vehicles for flopping.

And Derek Fisher, who is somehow clinging to his never-actually-that-impressive career, is still attached to the offensive foul like it’s his conjoined twin.

Sure, there are times when a charge is appropriate. Like if Robert Traylor were trucking down the lane and sent a stationary Earl Boykins flying like he was 5’5″ or something. But let’s be realistic. There are no guys that short in the NBA.

For the most part, though, it’s just a backward swan dive to coerce a turnover and foul. But I feel for Derek Fisher.

After seeing Russell Westbrook break Fisher’s ankles, knees, and mental fortitude in his unrestricted assaults to the rim on Sunday, I now know that Fisher has no other recourse on defense. He’s simply too small and too slow to defend even the measliest NBA point guard anymore. So just stand in people’s way and don’t do anything else. That’s the right idea, Derek.

(G) The “Oh, the humanity!” Flop — Paul Pierce

"Oh, you've failed me, Rasheed!"

There’s nothing worse than the guy who sprawls out on the floor in agony like his dog died or something. It almost makes me want to change the channel to that Major League Soccer game. Almost. Really, I’m not interested in watching the fake pain.

Unfortunately, it still happens. And Paul Pierce is the most prominent culprit. Then again, I kind of understand. Heck, I’d be crying, too, if my team was crowned the League’s Most Likely to Crash and Burn like this year’s Celtics was (figuratively, of course).

Hopefully Rajon Rondo and Ray Allen, the only two sane players left on that entire roster (No, Brian Scalabrine doesn’t qualify. I swear every shot he takes is a 3-pointer for the crowd.), can get them to focus and not wallow in the misery that will be this postseason.

Paints a pretty ugly picture of the league, doesn’t it? Well, that’s the reality. We’re living among a bunch of babies paid astronomical quantities of money to play basketball.

So Phil, when you decide to criticize Kevin Durant for getting fouled too much, please have some respect, for they’re all flopping. Just because Oklahoma City’s star is volumes better than yours doesn’t mean you have to be bitter about it. Spread the flopping wealth around a little bit, huh?

Questions? Comments? Criticisms? Suggestions? Anything else? Send me an e-mail at savingtheskyhook@gmail.com.

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Game of the Day: April 8

Los Angeles Lakers at Denver Nuggets — 10:30 PM eastern, telecast on TNT

Tonight features a great matchup between the first-place Los Angeles Lakers and the second-place (well, tied for it, anyway) Denver Nuggets.

Just seeing these two teams on the schedule brings back memories of their physical — oh, so physical — series in the Western Conference finals last year. And I expect to see nothing less exciting tonight, even though some of the most aggressive competitors in Andrew Bynum and Kenyon Martin will be out with their respective injuries.

Regardless, Kobe Bryant will have to deal with the powerful Aaron Afflalo, and Carmelo Anthony and Ron Artest will be pushing each other all night. Here I go about to make another immovable object/unstoppable force analogy, but it deserves to be mentioned here. Anthony is the best post-up 3 in the game, and many consider Artest “unpostable.” That should be incredibly fun to watch.

Up front, Lamar Odom and Pau Gasol will have to deal with Nene and Johan Petro, not to mention the unpredictably energetic Chris “Birdman” Andersen off the bench.

Chauncey Billups should do his thing against Derek Fisher, who can’t hope to contain Mr. Big Shot. Furthermore, look for J.R. Smith to get his fair share of minutes to take advantage of Kobe’s patented down-the-stretch-only defensive effort.

Combine these factors with the Lakers’ subpar play of late and the Nuggets’ being at home, and I have no choice but to give this one to the Nuggets. I can’t wait to see what transpires. My other prediction? At least two technical fouls in the game that aren’t defensive three seconds.

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Lakers extend Kobe’s contract: good move for No. 24?

I hate to keep tooting the Lakers’ horn (seeing as I hate them and all), but the most significant NBA story today is, by far, the announcement from Mitch Kupchak that they have come to an agreement to sign star player Kobe Bryant to a three-year contract extension. Kobe previously had an early-termination option for this year, which gave him the right to hit free agency come July 1 with the other big boys. Instead, Kobe — barring a blockbuster trade — will be playing his home games in the Staples Center through the 2013-2014 season.

Obviously, L.A. fans are thrilled by the news. They get to hold on to the player that propelled them to three titles to begin the decade and a fourth one to close it. He has never played anywhere except L.A., so obviously he’s a fan favorite.

This deal is just as good for the team. The last year of the extension coincides with those of Ron Artest and Pau Gasol’s contracts. So when Kobe’s 35 and will have inevitably suffered some losses to his on-court performance, the Lakers will have the opportunity to wildly slash payroll and make a play for the next big thing in four years.

However, was this really a great idea on Kobe’s part? Sure, he assures a mammoth paycheck for an additional three seasons. But what happens when the aging star has to renegotiate a deal then? It’s highly plausible he’ll have significant health issues to deal with at that time — particularly with his legs and knees, which have logged an absurd number of minutes in Bryant’s 15-or-so years in the league. Teams may be very hesitant to give him the big bucks if it no longer appears he can head a team like he has for so long.

If Kobe had waited until his deal expired, he could’ve started fresh. He only would have been 31 or 32 and very well could have stayed with the Lakers if he wanted to, but he would have had the option to go elsewhere, too. How is this better? There’s a big difference between Kobe’s physical condition now and what it will be in four years. With a new contract, he could have negotiated a more long-term deal (say six or even seven years) that would have assured his pay day for an additional two, three, or four years beyond what the extension assures.

Nevertheless, now he has his peace of mind. He doesn’t have to worry about the media frenzy in the offseason, and he can just focus on a championship. But Kobe may have just cut a few years off his storied career by signing that extension today.

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Hating on the Lakers: Do they deserve it?

The Lakers are struggling a bit of late. But does that mean they deserve to be counted out?

As a Yankee fan, I’m certainly accustomed to having everyone around me hate my team because of its immense success. In that regard, the Lakers stand out as the NBA’s Yankees. Competitive every year, they win because they have assembled a roster with no intention of staying anywhere near the salary cap. And believe me: Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, and Sasha Vujacic are among my least favorite players in the entire league.

Right now, having lost three games on the road in the past week to the Hawks, Hornets, and Thunder, the Lakers are under intense scrutiny. Many analysts are starting to doubt whether it’s a championship-caliber team anymore. The team that was the slam-dunk favorite from the Western conference (and to win the title) at the beginning of the season is now, according to the media, incredibly vulnerable.

Despite my disdain for the bearers of purple and gold, I’d like to quell some of the suggestions that the Lakers don’t have what it takes to make the NBA finals anymore.

It’s true — the Lakers are not as good on the road as they are within the friendly confines of the Staples Center. In fact, they are 32-5 in Los Angeles and only 22-16 away from home. That’s been clear for most of the year. However, so much emphasis is being placed on specifically the most recent road-trip defeats, and it shouldn’t be all that important. After all, those three losses are their only ones in their last ten contests.

The Lakers’ schedule was frontloaded with home games, so as they won again and again at the beginning of the season (playing many more games at home) people started to take notice — their immaculate play in November and December must indicate that they’re destined to repeat, right? The Lakers are definitely good, but they got overhyped because of all their home games. Now that they lose a few on the road, it’s such a stark difference from what fans saw earlier that it’s shocking and causes panic. But they should be expected to lose more games during the toughest parts of their schedule.

It draws a parallel for me to the BCS and college football. A top team loses a game in the early part of the season, and no one really worries all that much about it; more importantly, its ranking isn’t affected all that dramatically. Lose a game at the end of the season, though, and the ranking pundits castigate the team much more brutally. That’s what the Lakers are experiencing here.

I understand that it may appear to be setting up a trend for them to be losing on the road, but consider the specifics of this most recent road trip for the Lakers. Two of the three teams they lost to will be in the playoffs and will probably advance past the first round. The third is New Orleans with Chris Paul back. Let me tell you: the Hornets would have a much more impressive record if Paul had been healthy all year (even though Darren Collison is filling in better than he could have been expected to). And the Lakers have a well-known weakness to quick point guards like Paul whether they’re playing in Los Angeles, in New Orleans, in Cleveland, or on Mars. It’s not all that surprising Paul tore them up.

Moreover, they’re missing Andrew Bynum and Luke Walton. Let me be completely blunt: with Bynum out with injuries, Lamar Odom is forced to start in Pau Gasol’s place who slides to the center to fill in with Bynum — they lose a negligible amount of production from the starting five. However, take Odom off the Lakers’ bench and it is probably the worst set of reserves in the entire NBA. Jordan Farmar? OK. But the rest of them belong in the D-League if you ask me.

With respect to the playoffs, both those guys should be back and healthy. Furthermore, if the Lakers hold on to the top spot in the conference (which seems highly likely) they’ll have home-court advantage for every round prior to the NBA Finals. They won’t necessarily have to win on the road. And if you think they’ll get swept as the guests by any of the teams they face anyway, you’re mistaken.

So have faith, Lakers fans. And continue to hate, non-Lakers fans. They’re absolutely not throwing in the cards yet. A few losses on the road won’t discourage them, so they shouldn’t discourage anyone else.

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