Playoff notes: Magic team to beat (cont.)
Spurs coach Gregg Popovich has four rings as proof he knows how to motivate his players according to their makeup. And Popovich perhaps has never praised one of his players as blatantly and consistently as he has Hill, who became the first draftee from IUPUI when the Spurs took him 26th overall in 2008. That assiduous cultivation worked wonders on Hill's ego, enough that he became a crucial X-factor and crunch-time shooter in the Spurs' six-game series win over Dallas.
But Hill was never that player after Nash showed him up in the first six minutes of the series. After scoring nearly 20 points per game and shooting 50 percent from both the field and from three-point range in the last four games against Dallas, Hill shot 37 percent overall and 23 percent from distance while average 12 points in the four losses to Phoenix. Tony Parker replaced Hill in the starting lineup for the final two games.
The confidence game, Part II. The "Wired" segment, in which you hear coaches talking to players in the huddle during timeouts, is almost always a snooze-inducing string of cliches and exhortations. A notable exception was listening to the implacably optimistic demeanor of Alvin Gentry throughout the Suns' first game at San Antonio. Even as the Spurs went up 16 early in the second quarter of Game 3, Gentry was calmly but firmly telling his players that it was only a matter of time before they got back into it. It was a spectacular sales job on his team's collective confidence, made even more impressive when the Suns did indeed rally and trounce San Antonio behind reserve point guard Goran Dragic, reared by Gentry the way Hill is bucked up by Popovich.
Decisions, decisions. Popovich is one of the 10 best coaches of all time. But he had a tough series against Phoenix, beginning with his initial decision to ride with Hill instead of Parker, who has a history of success against Nash. That bit of second-guessing became easier when Nash schooled Hill and shredded the Spurs' defensive scheme en route to 17 first-quarter points and 33 overall in the Game 1 win for Phoenix. It wasn't until Game 3 that Popovich started Parker.
That was the same game in which the Spurs constantly switched on the pick-and-roll, leaving a series of mismatches that Phoenix promptly exploited. This isn't to say that the Spurs lost because of Popovich; Phoenix was clearly the better team this series and had success with the pick-and-roll whether San Antonio switched on it or not. Most surprising was the way Phoenix simply ground down the Spurs.
More playoff observations
With 4:10 left in the fourth quarter and his team up by two in a must-win Game 3 against the Lakers, Jazz forward Carlos Boozer stepped to the line and clanked two free throws. Had he converted both to increase the lead to four, no one knows how the rest of the game would have played out. But it's not totally unfair to note that Utah lost by one, and that Boozer damaged his team's chances with those misses. A capable and frequent mid-range shooter with a soft touch, he has been unreliable at the line this postseason, converting just 17-of-33 after making 74.2 percent this season and 72.8 percent for his career.
The greater point is that free throws remain a relatively small but vital element of the game. They count the same whether they are made or missed in the first period or the final moments of a game. In Game 3 of the Spurs-Suns series, San Antonio was up by a point with 10 minutes left. By that time, Tim Duncan (5-for-12) and Parker (0-for-4) had already missed 11 free throws. The complexion of the game changes if they nail even 75 percent of their attempts.
Free-throw shooting could play a major role if the Cavs and Magic meet in the Eastern Conference finals. Cleveland finished last and Orlando (thanks in large part to Howard's 59.2 percent accuracy) was next to last in free-throw percentage this season. In the west, Phoenix and its likely conference finals opponent, the Lakers, ranked 10th and 11th, respectively, the highest of the remaining playoff teams.
Two tremendous performances over the weekend rekindled memories of the extraordinary way those players were treated by their employers in the recent past.
Even after Rajon Rondo averaged nearly a triple-double in the Celtics' seven-game win over the Bulls in the first round last year, the point guard found himself the subject of numerous trade rumors and less-than-flattering remarks from general manager Danny Ainge, who last June cited Rondo's stubbornness and said the then-23-year-old player needed to "grow up" in some areas.
Ainge's remarks seemed needlessly provocative back then and incredibly foolish in light of Rondo's 29-point, 18-rebound, 13-assist masterpiece on Sunday that enabled the Celtics to even their series with the Cavs at 2-2. Yes, Rondo has matured this year while breaking the venerable franchise's records for assists and steals in a season. But he was already showing signs of being a special player weeks before the trade rumors became rampant and Ainge chose to belittle his maturity. Now that Rondo is so clearly Boston's best player and the cornerstone of its future, management is fortunate that he seems to be a forgiving soul.
At the other extreme is what happened with the Jazz and Derek Fisher. Three years ago, Fisher's infant daughter had a well-publicized battle with eye cancer, best treated at medical facilities outside of Utah. Fisher requested to be traded to one of the few cities where he could play and be near his child as she received care. In a remarkably magnanimous and compassionate gesture, Larry Miller, the Jazz's late owner, instead released Fisher so he could negotiate the best possible situation for himself.
That, of course, turned out to be a return to Los Angeles, where Fisher has been a crunch-time stalwart for the past three seasons with the Lakers. On Saturday, he capped a stellar performance with the go-ahead three-pointer with 28.6 seconds left as the Lakers defeated the Jazz 111-110. A cerebral veteran, Fisher is also nearly as well-versed in the offensive sets run by Jerry Sloan as the younger players on the current Utah roster, knowledge that helps him compensate for his slower foot speed when defending the Jazz.
It is tempting to invoke the cliche that no good deed goes unpunished -- except that Fisher's daughter's cancer is in remission, and Utah's reputation as a first-class organization is solidly intact.
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