Stories shaping the first round
In general, home-court advantage is particularly important for younger players
Dirk Nowitzki lost his composure in Game 4 for the Mavericks, who have issues
Jameer Nelson has helped Orlando compensate for Vince Carter's struggles
Home court has indeed been an advantage early in the playoffs, with the host team posting a 23-7 record through Sunday. Even when the games moved to the court of the lower-seeded clubs, the home teams were 10-4.
Veteran stars have the talent, experience and confidence to flourish wherever they play. Consequently, the home-court advantage is often most obvious in the performance of younger role players and "glue guys."
For instance, Thunder rookie first-round pick James Harden went scoreless in 26 ineffective minutes during his team's two losses to the Lakers in L.A. But when the series moved to Oklahoma City, the 20-year-old guard averaged 16.5 points, 5.0 rebounds and 3.5 assists in two rousing victories.
Or consider Spurs second-year guard George Hill, who totaled seven points in more than 48 minutes during San Antonio's two games in Dallas, then erupted for 17 and a game-high 29 in two home wins that have vaulted the seventh-seeded Spurs to a 3-1 lead.
Meanwhile, undrafted rookie swingman Wes Matthews of the Jazz scored just 13 points combined during the two games in Denver, but bounced back with 14 and then 18 points in Utah's two home wins that have the Jazz up 3-1.
Here's a look at some other top storylines as the first round continues:
Heat coach Erik Spoelstra finally gave Dwyane Wade the right supporting cast in the fourth quarter, as Miami avoided the sweep. During the regular season, frontcourt mates Jermaine O'Neal and Michael Beasley were supposed to head up Wade's support system, with point guard Carlos Arroyo stabilizing the backcourt. But Miami's most effective five-man unit (among combinations that played at least 100 minutes together), both defensively and in terms of overall point differential per 100 possessions, put all three on the bench in favor of point guard Mario Chalmers, power forward Udonis Haslem and center Joel Anthony.
It didn't matter that the Heat were 13-3 when Anthony started in the pivot this season; Spoelstra used him just 38 minutes, compared to 72 for O'Neal, as the Heat frittered away two games and got blown out in a third to open the first round. The ostensible purpose for going with O'Neal was more offense, but after O'Neal missed 26 of his 31 shots -- most of them open looks from point-blank range -- you'd think Spoelstra would turn to the guy who passes the ball instead of clanks it, and defends better besides.
On Sunday, he finally did. With Miami down six heading into the fourth quarter of an elimination game, Spoelstra put Anthony on the floor with Wade, Haslem, Chalmers and Dorell Wright and saw the Heat go plus-14 over the next 8:14 to open an eight-point lead with less than four minutes to play. By the way, Anthony has earned a hair less than $2 million in three seasons. O'Neal is pulling down $23 million -- second to only Kobe Bryant -- this season.
Dirk Nowitzki lost his composure, leading Dallas to the brink of elimination. After being whistled for an offensive foul while jousting with Antonio McDyess midway through the third quarter with the Mavericks leading by nine Sunday, Nowitzki clearly lost his focus. McDyess and the other Spurs went chest-to-chest and came hard with the double teams whenever he touched the ball in the second half of Game 4, denying him his signature pivot move on the perimeter. The result was a lack of aggressiveness and 1-of-6 shooting in more than 23 second-half minutes, which also included such uncharacteristic gaffes as a sideline pass 10 feet over a teammate's head and a technical foul for overreacting to getting his arms tangled with Dejuan Blair when both went up for a missed free throw.
With Shawn Marion unhappy over playing time and Jason Terry and Caron Butler also vying for minutes, touches and shots, Dallas is a dysfunctional crew right now. But more than anything the Mavs need Nowitzki -- their fount of offense and beacon of stability in the clutch -- to get his head back on straight.
Brandon Roy throws away crutches, walks on water. Well, not really, but Portland's leader and best player is in line for his demigod merit badge after suiting up a mere week after surgery to repair the meniscus in his knee. Roy most frequently subbed in for small forward Nicolas Batum and his aching shoulder Saturday, but moving ahead, if Roy is up to it, Portland might be better off giving point guard Andre Miller more of a breather.
Rudy Fernandez has not had a productive playoffs, and the notion of flipping the keys of Portland's deliberate offense to the still-callow Jerryd Bayless during a crucial Game 5 in Phoenix seems fraught with turnovers and bad shot selection. Miller is durable and comfortable with contact, but he's also 34 and being guarded by larger wings such as Grant Hill while coping with Phoenix's go-go pace when the Suns have the ball. Not only are he and Roy the best initiators of the Blazers' half-court sets, but they are also arguably the team's best post-up players -- LaMarcus Aldridge is a wonderful scorer, but eight of the 6-11 power forward's 11 buckets in Game 4 were jumpers, and playoff series are ultimately won or lost in the paint, not the high post. If Roy is healthy enough to continue playing 25-30 minutes, he could spell Miller a bit early in the game and then team with him to give the Blazers a pair of playmakers in crunch time.
Vince Carter needs a breakout game. Not to close out the Bobcats, but to quell the whispers of the "haters" and the worries of Magic fans who wonder if Carter will ever warm up under the spotlight this spring. He is shooting just 32.5 percent and has missed all 13 of his three-point attempts while doling out only four assists (against six turnovers) in three games. Just as the Lakers' Ron Artest will have to cope with fans' fond crunch-time memories of the man he "replaced," Trevor Ariza, Carter has the specter of Hedo Turkoglu for comparison as Orlando seeks to return to the NBA Finals. And this is one of his last, best chances to rebut the notion that he is a supremely talented underachiever. Sooner or later, the Magic will have to tap those skills in this postseason.
Jameer Nelson is on a roll. Orlando's Nelson has torched Raymond Felton for 26 points per game while recording 14 assists and only three turnovers through three games, placing him somewhere among Derrick Rose, Rajon Rondo and Russell Westbrook in the pantheon of inspired point-guard play this postseason. (However, nobody has improved his stock more than Utah's Deron Williams. Having trounced Denver's Chauncey Billups thus far in their titanic matchup, Williams is now regularly being referred to as "the best point guard in the league" by pundits and feted with "MVP!" chants by Utah fans when he goes to the free-throw line.)
If Orlando keeps winning and the rest of the playoff seedings remain true to form, Nelson avoids all the aforementioned stars and would face a less imposing gauntlet of Atlanta's Mike Bibby, Cleveland's Mo Williams and the Lakers' Derek Fisher down the road.
Why Scott Brooks is the Coach of the Year. Repetition. Brooks would make an ideal presidential candidate -- he never strays off-message, and he sounds just as sincere the thousandth time he delivers his spiel as he did the first time. Almost every time I've heard him speak this season, he's managed to invoke a three-part catechism: "Defend, contest shots and make winning basketball plays." That's how you get the NBA's youngest eight-man rotation to lead the league in blocked shots without a single individual ranked in the top 15 in that category. That commitment to defense is also why the Thunder, as the Lakers have discovered, are a dangerous playoff opponent despite their inexperience.
A modest proposal. While Brooks sets the defensive tone for the Thunder, assistant coach Ron Adams is the one who devises the defensive schemes that take full advantage of the extraordinary length and quickness on OKC's roster. He and other assistant coaches, like Boston's Tom Thibodeau and Dallas' Dwane Casey, are the drone bees of the NBA, the locus point of enormous creativity and player-public relations, without much acclaim. To help rescue them at least part of the way from oblivion, how about an Assistant Coach of the Year award as part of the season-ending citations, determined by a vote of their peers and named after the most influential assistant in modern NBA history, triangle offense inventor Tex Winter?
The Hawks remain listless on the road. Disgraceful is not too strong a word to describe the way Atlanta played in its no-show loss to Milwaukee on Saturday. The Hawks were beaten to loose balls and compliantly screened, and they lapsed on pick-and-rolls and box-outs in the paint. They were unwilling to remain alert long enough to foster genuine teamwork at either end of the court, bereft of the kind of character that signals a legitimate contender for the championship. As has been pointed out before, this is not a new phenomenon. The Hawks were 1-8 in their previous nine road games in the playoffs, with the average margin of defeat 24 points.
Not to scapegoat one player -- this was a team-wide embarrassment -- but how does Josh Smith, who recently finished second to Dwight Howard in the Defensive Player of the Year voting, allow himself to be continually beaten up and down the floor by Luc Richard Mbah a Moute? Or how does aging big man Kurt Thomas dominate the paint against Atlanta's athletically superior front line? How do guards John Salmons, Luke Ridnour and Brandon Jennings get wherever they want off the dribble? The Hawks can blow out Milwaukee by 40 on Monday and then finish off the Bucks at home and it still won't remove the stench of their Game 3 performance.
Three good reasons why Cleveland waxed Chicago on Sunday. 1. LeBron James had a monster triple-double, and the Cavs improved to 5-0 when that happens in the playoffs. 2. Bulls shooting guard Kirk Hinrich made only 3-of-13 from the field. The Bulls are 16-3 this season when Hinrich converts more than half his shots, and 26-41 when he doesn't. 3. At the urging of LeBron -- and thanks in part to five fouls in just 17 minutes by Shaquille O'Neal -- the Cavs went with their small-ball lineup that had either Anderson Varejao or J.J. Hickson at center for most of the game.
Closing stat. Howard has been plagued by foul trouble the entire series against the Bobcats, and justly lambasted by me and others for allowing himself to be baited into tit-for-tat shenanigans away from the action that result in whistles. On the other hand, as Orlando goes for the sweep in Charlotte on Monday, consider the combined line of the three Charlotte centers (Theo Ratliff, Nazr Mohammed and Tyson Chandler) opposing Howard in Game 3: eight points, three rebounds, one assist and 13 fouls in 37:19.
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