Posted: Monday May 29, 2006 12:38PM; Updated: Monday May 29, 2006 1:51PM
Unlike years past, Dirk Nowitzki has used every inch of his 7-foot frame to punish opponents in the paint during the playoffs.
John W. McDonough/SI
And we've grown reasoning of hearing about how Rasheed "just wants to win." This intimates that he "wants to win" more than his teammates, the ones who deigned to join in the team huddle. No, this is all about Rasheed -- that guy who is supposedly too unselfish for his own good, the cat who just wants to blend in. We never bought that tripe. Ask Arvydas Sabonis and Ruben Boumtje-Boumtje about how much Rasheed wants to blend into the team concept.
Nobody's been able to get a read on the Pistons since the All-Star break, and heading into Game 4, we're still in the same quandary. Detroit is entirely capable of going down 3-1 to the Heat and roaring back for a seven-game victory. And, unlike last year, they wouldn't need a pair of nagging injuries to Shaq and Wade to grease the wheels. This team is that good. Still, as Ian Thomsenpointed out, it's not the best way to go about winning a championship.
We'd like to think a desperate Pistons squad will pull out all the stops Monday night against Miami, but, technically, Detroit's back isn't truly against the wall. Which probably means that even if Wade's shots start to rim out, or Shaq doesn't bring the sort of throwback (for 30 minutes, at least) play he's featured this series, those goofball Heat role players are due for another strong game. Though he didn't have the best boxscore (11 points, four boards, four assists in 38 minutes), Antoine Walker had his head screwed on the right way during Game 3. If he continues his solid play, the Pistons could be in trouble.
Dallas Mavericks-Phoenix Suns
Champs: Dirk Nowitzki
Statistically, he's been the best playoff performer so far. He's carried the Mavs to several close wins, closed out teams with a bevy of fourth quarter daggers and given his team (scoring, rebounding, passing ... defense?) whatever it's lacking on that particular night. Mavericks fans can't ask for anything more from their 27-year-old superstar, the onetime laughingstock (during the lockout year, who wasn't?) who has the Mavericks two wins from the NBA Finals.
Against the Suns, Nowitzki is averaging 27.7 points, 16.7 rebounds and 4.3 assists. He's shooting 48 percent from the floor, 87 percent from the line and has taken just four 3-pointers (making two) in three games. Demonstrating a cunning previously seldom seen, Nowitzki has regularly passed up longer, quicker shots in favor of milking the clock and backing his way down to the free-throw line for that unstoppable turnaround jumper. He's also been a crunch-time terror, allowing his teammates to get theirs for the first three quarters while chipping in under the radar before taking over in the last half of the fourth quarter.
Chumps: Leandro Barbosa
Barbosa improved considerably in Game 3 on Sunday, hitting for 17 points while making 6 of 14 shots, but he was an outright detriment to the Suns' cause during the first two games in Dallas. For the series Barbosa is shooting a dismal 28 percent from the field, 56 percent from the line and 30 percent from behind the arc. His 9.3 points, 2.7 rebounds and 2.3 assists a game seem passable for a seventh man, but Barbosa is playing more than 38 minutes a game in this series, and contributions like these are killing his team. If he at least approaches the 18.7 points he averaged, prorated, for 40 minutes a night during the regular season, the Suns could be up 3-0 right now.
Why Mike D'Antoni continues to start Barbosa is a mystery to me. James Jones is struggling off the bench, shooting just eight times in 62 minutes during the conference finals, so why not give him a look as a starter? All he has to do is sop up minutes, try to hit open jump shots and allow for Barbosa to resume his usual role of killing the second team after coming off the pine. When he starts alongside Steve Nash, Barbosa has to turn into a catch-and-shoot player, and the results haven't been pretty. Jones can catch, and usually, shoot. Barbosa needs the ball to be effective, but with Nash out there, he's never going to get it.
Had they played in the same style that won them Game 2 during Game 3, the Mavericks would have been run off the floor. Instead, they grew stronger, steeling themselves in spite of the road atmosphere and dim prospects. It was a truly admirable performance, one that befits this championship-caliber team. Still, though Dallas is entirely capable of keeping that fire for Game 4, it is hard to stay focused and on point against the unwavering Phoenix attack. A loss wouldn't entirely be Dallas' fault; it's just difficult to beat a team like the Suns three straight times, as any (seemingly) insignificant slip up can lead to a 12-2 Suns run before you can hold the ball long enough to call a timeout.