Lewis holds key to Magic's success (cont.)
Pierce has been besieged by injuries, including a sore knee that has had to be drained, a sprained foot and, most recently, a sprained thumb. He's registered one double-double the entire season -- opening night against the Cavs, his lone game with 10 or more rebounds -- and hasn't topped five assists or 30 points since January.
But he remains the best potential antidote for the offensive anemia that is slowly sapping the Celts (their scoreless first five minutes of Sunday's fourth quarter being the most recent example). Boston remains the league's top team in defensive efficiency, but is only 15th in offensive efficiency. That might change if Pierce heals enough to reclaim his alpha status in the half-court offense. Even with all of his adversity this season, his true shooting percentage of 61.2 (which factors in the value of three-pointers and free throws) is a career high, boosted by his personal-best 44 percent from three-point range. The problem is that Pierce is averaging just 11.8 shots per game, a career low. With its slow pace of play (22nd in the NBA), Boston can and should run more sets to free up Pierce -- more picks and fewer threes from Rasheed Wallace would help.
As for the panic button, fourth-seeded Boston is just five games ahead of Milwaukee in the loss column with 16 games left (the Bucks have 17). Their comparative strength of schedules for the first dozen of those games favors Milwaukee, setting up a potential showdown for home-court advantage when the two teams meet twice over the final three games of the season. (The third-seeded Hawks, meanwhile, are only a half-game in front of Boston.)
Before we move on to the Bucks, a moment of appreciation for Rajon Rondo. A year ago at this time, Rondo was regarded as the fourth-best player on his team. Today he leads the NBA in steals, is tied for second in total assists, ranks 18th in minutes played and stands 21st in field-goal percentage (although much lower in true shooting because of his inaccuracy from three-point range). Everyone knows Rondo is a top-tier defender, but this year he has also become an elite playmaker, assisting on 43.8 percent of his team's baskets when he is in the game, a standard exceeded only by Steve Nash (50.9 percent), Chris Paul (48.2) and Deron Williams (43.9).
In Milwaukee, Scott Skiles is giving Oklahoma City's Scott Brooks some stiff competition down the stretch for Coach of the Year honors. Like the Thunder, the Bucks have taken a quantum leap forward this season because of a vastly improved defense. Gone are offensive-oriented marquee names like Richard Jeffeson (traded), Michael Redd (injured) and Charlie Villaneuva and Ramon Sessions (allowed to depart via free agency). In their place are steadfast role-playing defenders such as Ersan Ilyasova and Carlos Delfino, who, along with rookie Brandon Jennings and rejuvenated center Andrew Bogut, have shaved 4.2 points per game off their opponents' scoring while playing at almost exactly the same pace as a year ago.
Although Bogut and Ilyasova are high-caliber defenders (the Utah television announcers perceptively dubbed Ilyasova as "their Kirilenko" on a broadcast last week), Milwaukee's defense exceeds the sum of its individual talents as much or more than any team's. That's because of the trust and dedication Skiles has fostered in team defense, a hallmark of his early success guiding other franchises before his intensity wore down his players. Now that in-season pickups John Salmons and Jerry Stackhouse have provided some outside shooting to abet spacing for Bogut down low and drive-and-kick options for Jennings, the Bucks have won 12 of their past 13, and "Fear The Deer" signs in the stands at the Bradley Center have become one of the season's more endearing catch phrases.
Here's a little snapshot on the price of dysfunction: In 49 games with the Wizards, center Brendan Haywood totaled 18 assists and 67 turnovers in 1,614 minutes. In 13 games since a February trade brought him to the Mavs, he has 16 assists and just 11 turnovers in 372 minutes. That's the difference between having your offense run by Gilbert Arenas (with whom Haywood feuded in Washington) or by Jason Kidd.
According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the top nine teams in limiting points in the paint are all in the Eastern Conference. (In order, Orlando, Cleveland, Milwaukee, Miami, Detroit, Boston, Indiana, Charlotte and Chicago.) Is this because there are fewer potent low-post offenses in the East? Or because the East's longstanding reputation for being the more rugged and physical conference is accurate? Or simply because the pace of play is generally much slower in the East, leading to fewer points overall? Or because some teams are so porous from the perimeter (such as Indiana and Detroit) that their opponents would rather launch three-pointers instead of bothering to try and score in the paint? Probably some of all of the above. But it is still pretty quirky.
While there is now much less drama about which teams will qualify for the playoffs than there was at the All-Star break, there are fewer and thus more realistic matchup scenarios to anticipate. For example, the Thunder really want to draw Utah in the first round, having swept their three games against the Jazz this season while losing all three to the Lakers and dropping two of three to both the Nuggets and Mavs. Meanwhile, it is striking how many teams in the West are taking perhaps their last stab at a title with the core players on their rosters. Between age, the salary cap and free agency, Utah, San Antonio, Dallas and Phoenix are all in their "last hurrah" stage with their current configuration of players.
Along those lines, when the upcoming crop of dazzling free agents is mentioned, why doesn't Manu Ginobili get more pub? Sure, Ginobili is 32, chronically injured and perhaps disinclined to leave behind the great legacy he's established in San Antonio. But for teams wanting or needing to win immediately next year, one of the game's shrewdest, grittiest and most successful clutch performers might be worth the money.