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Making a name (cont.)

Posted: Tuesday May 3, 2005 1:35PM; Updated: Tuesday May 3, 2005 1:35PM
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How does this happen? First, it's all about matchups. Given the Petri dish of the seven-game series, coaches go matchup-crazy. So while Jeff Van Gundy is sending everyone but the ballboy running at Dirk Nowitzki, the other Mavs get wide open looks. In Miami, Damon Jones was so alone on 3s he looked as if he was shooting free throws (pause, bend knees, practice follow-through). In the case of Maloney, he made a remarkable 43 3-pointers (out of 108) in the 1997 playoffs because teams were keying on Barkley and co. and letting him fire away. Similarly, if a coach sees a mismatch -- the Kings' not-so-big men on James, for example -- he will exploit it relentlessly, and shamelessly, until the other team counters (in the case of Sacramento, they did so effectively in Game 3 by having Brad Miller use his outside shooting and quickness to exploit James' defense).

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Second, disappearing stars. Just as players such as Miller and Bird thrive in the postseason, other NBA 'stars' have a tendency to get caught up in the moment and, unable to extricate themselves, become non-factors. Sometimes it's because of jitters, as happened to Gilbert Arenas in Game 1 (he's recovered nicely), other times a player is exposed (Glenn Robinson) or, sometimes, like in the case of John Starks in that unfortunate Game 7 against the Rockets, he chokes. Regardless, someone else needs to step up and that someone might as well be a hard-working, unheralded role player.

Third, rapidly expanding confidence. There is something about the altered reality of the playoffs, when seven games determine success, that allows players to believe their own hype. Maybe it's the at-times tortuously-long wait between games. Maybe it's that one 20-point night -- the type that would be little more than a footnote in the regular season -- leads to TNT interviews, exasperated quotes from the opposition ("We must stop Juan Dixon!") and a sudden media crush (after Nocioni played well in Game 1, a small tidal wave of reporters crashed into his corner of the locker room). Told by everyone how good he is, some players listen. And confidence, whether it is true or constructed, can perform wonders in the postseason.

So tonight, look for the Sonics to go to James early again, to keep that self-esteem coursing through his veins. Similarly, look for the Kings to run Miller out to the high post to shoot jumpshots, to try to send James to the bench. And, if Sacramento is to prolong this series, look down its bench to see who might be their star-in-waiting. Darius Songaila, please answer the white courtesy phone...