NBA Today: May 26

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Lakers have concerns despite sweep of Jazz

As the Lakers win Game 4 of their series with the Jazz tonight, completing the series sweep, they’ll enter the Western Conference riding a six-game winning streak. Even though they’ve played very well over that span, there’s still a looming concern for the purple and gold as they prepare to face the Suns.

They lack the killer instinct.

Three of the four wins for the Lakers in the semifinals came with fairly comfortable margins, but there was one overarching theme that defined all four of the contests. In each game, LA would get out to a fast start, outpacing Utah by double digits in the first or second quarter. Certainly, it’s a good sign that they start games on the right foot.

That said, lethargy, too, has struck in each game — and it nearly got the better of the Lakers in Game 3. The Lakers would continually fall into second-half lulls, allowing the Jazz to come back within reach of a victory.

For the defending champions to advance to the Finals and defeat the Suns, they will need to avoid succumbing to any such stretches of difficulty. Playing Phoenix, it is likely Phil Jackson will work hard to get the ball inside to Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum, who can outmuscle Suns post defenders like Amar’e Stoudemire, Channing Frye, and Louis Amundson. Accordingly, those high-percentage shots will spring them out to appreciable leads early in games.

Phoenix is not an easy foe to put down, however. On the strength of its transition play, early-scoring mindset, and lights-out perimeter shooting, the team can bounce back in a hurry from sizable deficits. At the center of those comebacks will be Steve Nash, who showed his toughness in the Suns’ sweep-ensuring Game 4 against the Spurs.

He will run Derek Fisher ragged, and the Lakers will be running on empty toward the end of the game. That’s where Kobe will need to step in and deliver the final knockout blows. He needs to regain that killer instinct he hasn’t shown so far in the postseason.

You know who has shown that murderous intent so far in the playoffs? The Orlando Magic. They’ve obliterated the competition, making the considerable Hawks look like a D-League team. They continue to pile on the points and don’t stop until the job is done.

So the Lakers have something to learn from their potential Finals counterparts in the West: keep applying pressure until there’s nothing more than charred remains of your opponent.

Otherwise, they may find a way to come back and haunt you.

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One-eyed Nash comes through for the Suns

Steve Nash, swollen-shut eye and all, lead his Suns team to victory.

Well, the Phoenix Suns have done it.

The Suns defeated the San Antonio Spurs Sunday night 107-101 to advance to the Western Conference finals. But they didn’t just beat them. They swept them into the dustbin.

Despite constant rumors that the Spurs would once again get the better of their 21st-century playoff whipping boys, Phoenix took care of San Antonio with relative ease and will face the winner of the Los Angeles Lakers and the Utah Jazz next week to determine the West’s representative for the NBA Finals.

The Spurs had hope of snagging at least one in this series, but Steve Nash would not be outdone, making sure of the series sweep over his Texas counterparts.

Nash left the game in the third quarter after blood began to spurt out of his eye — he was on the bad end of a brutal elbow from old Tim Duncan. He went to the locker room and got six stitches above that right eye while Goran “How to train your” Dragic filled in satisfactorily for the remainder of the third period.

And the injury ended up being a blessing in disguise. Nash routinely sits out the first six minutes or so of the fourth quarter to get his standard rest. Today, however, his playing time from the third quarter was displaced, allowing him to return to lead his team for the entire final period — and lead his team he did, in a manner that was reminiscent of no other incident that Curt Schilling’s bloody-sock performance in the 2004 MLB playoffs. Sure, that feat was part of an unprecedented comeback to beat the Yankees in the seven-game ALCS, but the Suns’ victory over the Spurs is unpredecented in its own way.

Nash finished with 20 points in the game, 10 of which came in the fourth quarter on a combination of jumpers, layups, one-footed runners, and a free throw. Five of his nine assists for the game also came in the game’s final 12 minutes.

But it was the timing of Nash’s buckets that was so memorable. Every time the Spurs began to threaten, Nash came back with a difficult shot or a crafty assist to counter for the Spurs. Considering how important Nash’s vision is to his game only amplifies the significance of his one-eyed play.

Finally, Nash can take solace in defeating the Spurs in a postseason series. He has the most career playoff games under his belt in NBA history without an NBA Finals appearance, and who knows how long ago that streak would have been snapped if not for Duncan and the rest of the Spurs. Nash has that monkey off his back now.

That said, the road ahead does not get any easier. The Suns are likely to face the Lakers in the next round, unless by some miracle the Jazz can come back and win four straight in spite of a drastic matchup disadvantage.

For Phoenix to advance from that round will take inspired performances for the Suns similar to Nash’s today. He’s the key to breaking down the LA defense by attacking its weak point in Derek Fisher. Nash always dismantles D-Fish when he plays the Lakers, but winning will also depend on solid efforts from Amar’e Stoudemire and solid shooting to go around.

For now, Nash can take a bit of a breather. Phoenix has seven days off now before its next game, and the team is obviously bloated with excitement after its monumental accomplishment.

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Mark Cuban hates the Spurs

So Mark Cuban announced he hates the Spurs. Seems fair. After all, the Spurs and his Mavericks both play in Texas, they both play in the Western Conference, and the Spurs have four championships in the last eleven years.

Dallas? It has zero.

So it’s definitely understandable that the most passionate owner in sports is, well, passionate about his Texas compadres.

But the timing of this announcement is slightly troubling.

As if you didn’t know, the Mavericks and Spurs are competing in this year’s playoffs — a 2-vs.7 matchup. The Mavericks are, indeed, the favorites to win.

Dallas took care of business in Game 1, coming away with a hard-fought 100-94 victory and a 1-0 series advantage. All was well.

Then Mr. Cuban had to run his mouth. He had to announce to the world (and to the Spurs, in particular) that he loathes them. And how does San Antonio respond? With a 102-88 beatdown that has Mavericks fans very worried.

And worried they should be. After all, San Antonio — after struggling for most of the year — put it into high gear for the last month or so, taking the conference by storm.

Don’t forget, too, that the Spurs are constant playoff threats; they haven’t missed the postseason in some 13 years, and they can always sneak up on an unsuspecting opponent.

Sneaking up on an unsuspecting opponent … Sounds a little like Dallas’s predicament in 2007, after the Western Conference regular-season champions were dispatched by a ragtag Warriors team in the first 1-vs.-8 upset since Washington crossed the Delaware (or s0).

With that in mind, was this a good play by Cuban?

Was it wise to ignite a fire in one of the calmest teams in the league — a team on which the best player takes calm to a new standard?

Of course not. He awards San Antonio with yet another intangible leg up in a series that many expect to be the most competitive first-round battle of them all.

Was it wise to get the competitive juices flowing in Richard Jefferson after a mediocre season?

Of course not. Jefferson’s looking for any way to gain redemption in the eyes of the Alamo faithful. And he’s made him nostalgic about failed postseason appearance after failed postseason appearance in New Jersey. Why turn RJ into the difference maker he was supposed to be but didn’t appear to be?

Was it wise to rile up the Spurs fan base with three games still to be played in San Antonio?

Of course not. After the Game 2 defeat, he has now squandered precious home-court advantage in the series, and the Dallas players will be like fresh meat for the Spurs’ crowd in Games 3 through 5.

Was it wise to pile added pressure on the players who are already incredibly stressed?

Of course not. Dirk Nowitzki couldn’t miss a shot in the first game, and he goes and backs up that effort with a 9-24 circus. The starters as a group shoot 32 percent in the pivotal Game 2. Sure, attribute that in part to adjustments on Popovich’s part. But don’t discount the fact that the Mavericks had 2007 in their heads.

The bottom line here is that Mark Cuban incorrectly saw this announcement of his hatred as a way to pump up his team. In reality, though, it was just the opposite. He has jeopardized his team’s chances of winning. In a year that many expect is a one-year window for the Mavericks to come home with an NBA title in June, it’s a colossal misstep.

It’s great that Cuban’s passionate, but he has to keep it in check at the right times.

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Playoff Preview: Part 2

Eastern Conference: No. 1 Cleveland Cavaliers vs. No. 8 Chicago Bulls

It will truly be the King’s Court Saturday at the Quicken Loans Arena. As LeBron James’s frustration mounts with each passing day he hasn’t won a championship, he gets angrier, more desirous. And the Cavaliers’ Game 1 against the Bulls Saturday afternoon marks the the first step in securing the NBA Title that LeBron has longed for since his entry into the league.

There’s a palpable sense of urgency this year, too: A team that has failed year in and year out to win it all is making a big push to make waves this season. After all, next year the roster will be another year older (Shaquille O’Neal, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, and Anthony Parker are in the twilight eras of their careers, and Antawn Jamison isn’t far behind), and who knows where No. 23 is going to end up? Don’t expect them to bend lightly, though.

That said, they face an equally fierce opponent in the Bulls. This is a Chicago team that came within inches of besting a much more competent Celtics team in last year’s postseason, and Derrick Rose is only another year mature. He — along with Kirk Hinrich, Luol Deng, and Joakim Noah, among others — knows the effort necessary to take down a favorite in tight situation.

The Bulls have taken two from the Cavaliers this season. One, a week ago, was a throwaway game by Cleveland. In the first, however, Chicago defeated Cleveland in an 86-85 defensive masterpiece, as both teams shot below 41 percent. The Cavaliers didn’t have Jamison then, but Chicago knows it is capable of knocking off the best.

So who knows? Will the young, spry Chicago scrappers outplay the more established talents of LeBron, Mo Williams, Anderson Varejao, etc.? Probably not. But if this series can compare even slightly to last year’s Boston-Chicago showdown, it’s one worth tuning in to.

Cleveland wins the series in five games, 4-1.

Western Conference: No. 2 Dallas Mavericks vs. No. 7 San Antonio Spurs

There’s a fast-spreading murmur around the league about the danger that the low-seeded San Antonio Spurs pose to opposing teams in this year’s playoffs, and it’s no surprise to me. Yes, they’re only the No. 7 seed. But the Spurs are so incredibly committed, and they play the game correctly with sound fundamentals. It’s a key reason the team hasn’t won fewer than 50 games in a season since 1996-1997 (excepting the lockout-shortened 1998-1999 season, in which they went 37-13 and won the championship). Not coincidentally, that was Gregg Popovich’s first full year at the helm.

Still: Dallas has played fantastic ball this season. Thanks to the routinely dominant performance of Dirk Nowitzki, timely contributions from the Jason duo, and the midseason acquisition of Brendan Haywood and Caron Butler, they hold the second-best record in the highly competitive Western Conference. They can score at will, and they can shut you down on the defensive end just as well. But I can’t help thinking there’s an upset brewing.

I can’t shake from my memory Dallas’s first-round shellacking at the hands of the Golden State Warriors in 2007. But more than that, the Spurs are playing the kind of basketball of late that earned them rings in 1999, 2003, 2005, and 2007. Tim Duncan is the same, and that’s always scary. But Manu Ginobili has been white hot since the beginning of March (the majority of which the team played without Tony Parker), and Richard Jefferson is starting to fit well with this team. Add on an inspired bench performance on the year from George Hill and DeJuan Blair’s ready-to-pounce beastliness (he posted 27 points and 23 boards in the Spurs’ season finale last night), and it is quite an intimidating squad. Would Dallas have been better off losing last night, leaving the Suns to deal with their nemeses (that’s the first-round series I wanted to see, anyway)?

This is not to say it will be a sweep in San Antonio’s favor. After all, Dallas took three out of four from their Texas compadres during the regular season. But don’t sleep on them to emerge victorious from this spate of games.

San Antonio wins the series in seven games, 4-3.

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Finalized Playoff Matchups

After the regular season’s final slate of games, here are the finalized first-round playoff matchups:

Eastern Conference

No. 1 Cleveland Cavaliers vs. No. 8 Chicago Bulls (3 PM Saturday, ABC)

No. 2 Orlando Magic vs. No. 7 Charlotte Bobcats (5:30 PM Sunday, TNT)

No. 3 Atlanta Hawks vs. No. 6 Milwaukee Bucks (5:30 PM Saturday, ESPN)

No. 4 Boston Celtics vs. No. 5 Miami Heat (8 PM Saturday, ESPN)

Western Conference

No. 1 Los Angeles Lakers vs. No. 8 Oklahoma City Thunder (3 PM Sunday, ABC)

No. 2 Dallas Mavericks vs. No. 7 San Antonio Spurs (8 PM Sunday, TNT)

No. 3 Phoenix Suns vs. No. 6 Portland Trailblazers (10:30 PM Sunday, TNT)

No. 4 Denver Nuggets vs. No. 5 Utah Jazz (10:30 PM Saturday, ESPN)

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Jazz won’t play home games Sundays during playoffs

The Utah Jazz are one of the best teams in the league, and they can't even fill the arena on a Sunday during the playoffs?

According to Jazz president Greg Miller, the team will try its best not to schedule home games on Sundays during the playoffs. “Why?”  you might ask.

Well, apparently, they draw so few fans on Sundays that it’s not in the organization’s best business interest to operate. Keeping in mind that this is a long-established tradition for the only team in Utah from one of the four major sports leagues, I say the following to Miller and Co.:

“Tough luck.”

Why should you be given special considerations because you can’t draw on Sundays? You are one of the finest teams in the NBA. You stand fourth in the competitive Western Conference, and ESPN’s John Hollinger ranks you third overall in his Power Rankings. And you have two stars in Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer that should remind residents of Salt Lake City of some mildly notable point guard–power forward tandem of John Stockton and Karl Malone.

So the day isn’t the problem. There are enough incentives for fans to show up to a game at three in the morning. Instead, the problem lies with the marketing department.

Change it up or something. Feature new promotions, give discounts, do whatever you can. Just don’t expect the league to bail you out by scheduling your games on the days you prefer. How is that fair?

I remember watching the NBA Finals (the FINALS!) in 2002 and 2003, and the Nets’ home arena wasn’t even close to full. You didn’t see them complaining about it, did you? And they had the Lakers and Spurs, two huge draws, in those series.

This release pairs well with some other news out of the NBA’s office. David Stern said he probably wouldn’t want another team to establish in New Jersey after the Nets leave. He thinks that a team would not be able to thrive economically in what many refer to as basketball Siberia.

However, is the market in Salt Lake City a true issue? It’s not very populated, that’s for sure. But it’s good enough for the Pac-10 conference, which is considering adding Utah amid scrutinizing examination of its market to see if it will be economically suitable.

It all raises an interesting question about the NBA. Should the league allow teams to operate in cities where economic success isn’t feasible? In recent years, we’ve seen the Sonics move from Seattle to Oklahoma City and the Grizzlies move from Vancouver to Memphis.

If teams aren’t making money, should we let them stay where they are?

My initial thinking is no. When teams are strapped for cash, they cut payroll. When they cut payroll, their teams get worse. Meanwhile, teams like the Lakers and Knicks thrive. What does it all mean? A dissolution of parity in the NBA, which no one wants.

But then, are there enough big markets to host all the NBA’s teams? Probably not. Then again, the NBA could benefit from some reduction. Not that it will ever happen, given the pull of the Players’ Association.

In the end, it obviously doesn’t bother me that teams are losing money. But when you ask the league to make concessions and special arrangements for you because you can’t take full advantage of your situation, then I get upset.

Just focus on the game and trying to win. You have the tools, and maybe people will start showing up on the Day of Rest if you bring home some hardware.

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Game of the Day: April 12

Oklahoma City Thunder at Portland Trailblazers — 10 PM eastern

As the NBA’s regular season winds down, there are still many playoff positions up for grabs, especially in the tightly contested Western conference. Monday’s best game features two of the teams jockeying for advantage.

These two teams also boast some of the league’s finest young talent: the Thunder with Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and Jeff Green, among others, and the Trailblazers with Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge.

Both of these teams will be playing the second half of a back-to-back. On Sunday the Thunder lost a barn burner 120-117 to the Warriors. The Blazers defeated the first-place Lakers 91-88, and Roy didn’t even play in the second half.

Obviously whether Roy plays could be a deciding factor in the outcome, but it’s not yet clear whether he’ll suit up. If he doesn’t, Portland will have to make due with players like Nicolas Batum and Martell Webster to fill in for him.

Westbrook should be effective against point guard Andre Miller, who has lost a step over the years and can’t defend quick guards as well anymore.

The Blazers have won two of the three games played against the Thunder this season, but in the one they lost, Durant dropped 33 points and 11 rebounds. Portland will have to be cognizant of stopping Oklahoma City’s star, and the addition of Marcus Camby up front should help to limit No. 35′s production. In their last matchup (the first since the Camby deal with the Clippers), Durant shot just 7-18 from the field.

The winner of this game should hinge upon Roy’s status. If he plays, he’ll have a tough defender in Thabo Sefolosha, but he should be able to overcome that for a solid line. If he’s inactive, I can’t see that Portland will be able to put up enough offense to contend with Oklahoma City’s youngsters.

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Game of the Day: April 9

Dallas Mavericks at Portland Trailblazers — 10 PM eastern, telecast on NBA TV

After the Denver Nuggets beat the Los Angeles Lakers Thursday, the Mavericks need to respond with a win to keep pace in the Western Conference. That will be no easy task against the hungry Trailblazers, though.

The Blazers are coming off two straight wins and have won eight of their last 10 contests, thanks in large part to the defensive efforts of Marcus Camby and the balanced, multifaceted offensive attack. Furthermore, they play very well at the Rose Garden, having lost only 13 games on their home floor all season.

The Mavericks are certainly up to the challenge, though. While they have struggled a bit of late (going 5-5 in their last 10), surrendering 100+ points in seven of the previous 11 games, they field a loaded roster that can come away with a win on any given day. Dirk Nowitzki should prove a hassle for LaMarcus Aldridge on defense, and Caron Butler and Jason Terry will keep Brandon Roy on his toes.

That said, they need to step up their defense to win. Butler needs to limit Roy, and Jason Kidd needs to contain Andre Miller. Brendan Haywood and Erick Dampier should have no problem with the offensively challenged Camby, but Aldridge will be just as tough to contain for Nowitzki as Nowitzki will be for Aldridge.

The Blazers have won all three meetings between the two teams this season, most recently on March 25. No particular player for Portland killed Dallas, but they were balanced in their offense, resulting in four different players with 15+ points.

I see no reason why the Blazers shouldn’t complete the season sweep here. If all three of the wins had come prior to the Mavericks’ February trade, I might think otherwise. But Portland has demonstrated that they can defeat the new-look Mavs, and it seems they just pose some sort of matchup problem for Mark Cuban’s boys.

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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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