Monday, April 28, 2008

From Phoenix to foul play, lots of playoff surprises so far

Discord in Denver ... among the Lakers, too
We'll start with the one series that still could be a sweep. The surprise came after Denver's 102-84 loss to the Lakers in Saturday's Game 3, when a dejected Carmelo Anthony accused coach George Karl of quitting. That set talk radio and bloggers across Colorado buzzing, but Sunday at the Nuggets' practice all we got was another weather event -- the blizzard of "no comments" from Denver's players on Melo's mutterings.
However, the low-level feud between Anthony and Karl points out an odd similarity between the opposing coaches in this series. They're probably the two coaches in the league who are most comfortable with, shall we say, creative tension on the set. At times, they seem to thrive on it. For instance, as well as the Lakers are playing, Jackson used Sunday's media session as an opportunity to call out forward Vladimir Radmanovic for a second straight day.
Before Game 3, Jackson responded to a question about Luke Walton by throwing in the line, "I think Vlade needs to improve on his defense."
It was classic Jackson -- chipping in a completely unsolicited critique of a player with whom he's upset. Last year he did it before a game in Atlanta, when he tore apart Andrew Bynum for what he considered a poor work ethic; based on what happened afterward, it appears he got Bynum's attention.
Anyway, Jackson was at it again after Radmanovic shot 2-for-9 and had five points in 24 impact-free minutes Saturday.
"I told him after the game that as a coach you hate to see talented players not play up to their ability, and it's my job to try and get you to play up to your ability. And Vlade, in his normal way, said, 'We'll talk about it in our exit meetings at the end of the season.'
"Which just tells me where his head is a lot of the time. But he does know he can play better and has an opportunity to play better. Right now Luke [Walton]'s playing so well that it hasn't hurt us."
Indeed, with the obvious exception of Kobe Bryant, Walton has been the Lakers' best player in this series. He's averaging 16.3 points, 5.3 rebounds and 5.0 assists in the three games while shooting a sizzling 73.1 percent and playing commendable defense on Anthony.
Riddled with foot and ankle problems for much of the year, Walton had a rough regular season and lost his starting spot to Radmanovic. He said he started feeling better after the All-Star break, and that the greater time between games in the postseason has further aided him.
"He gives up some pounds and some weight, but he's done a good job on [Anthony]," said Jackson. "His foot [and] his ankle that have bothered him in the past are much better. He's got lift, he's popping right up on his shot, which is important."
But if you're looking for Walton to take over for Radmanovic, it's not in Jackson's plans.
"Luke's done a great job giving us a lift we need off the bench, and I think that's important," said Jackson. "[But] Vlade, when he plays the level that he's capable of playing, he can be a decision-maker in the ballgame; he can deliver knockout blows."
So chalk that up as another surprise -- that the Lakers aren't eyeing a lineup change even with Walton significantly outperforming the starter.
The Hawks Won a Game … And There Were Witnesses!
When you're talking about playoff surprises, Atlanta's handling Boston so easily in Game 3 certainly cracks the list. Only a few people I know picked the Hawks to make it even a five-game series, much less get their win in such easy fashion against a team that won 29 more games and beat them by double figures in all three regular-season meetings.
Even better, the environment at Philips Arena actually resembled a genuine home-court advantage -- you know, just like all the other teams have. My spies in the ATL confirmed what I suspected on TV: It was the Hawks' most raucous crowd all season. Let's see if they can give an encore performance tonight.
On the court, the key in Game 3 was that Good Josh showed up. When he's engaged in the game and getting opportunities in transition, Josh Smith is hell on wheels. When he's forced into a dull half-court game, his concentration tends to wander, and he forces long jumpers.
As we saw, he got plenty of chances to run on Saturday and put some crazy exclamation points on a couple of them. Few power forwards are better at taking their own board and pushing it up to create chances for themselves or others. (He had six assists.)
But on the other side, Boston didn't defend with nearly the intensity to which we've become accustomed. One expects that will be rectified on Monday night, and that the Celtics will take care of business in five.
While we're talking about the Hawks, let's also mention the least surprising event of the first round so far: The shot-clock problems in Philips Arena during Game 3. In the hands of a less experienced PA announcer, having him call out the shot clock during the second half of a playoff game might result in disaster. But fortunately, Ryan Cameron gets to practice his technique multiple times every year during the arena's myriad clock malfunctions.
The disappearance of Josh Howard
When I looked at these teams before the series, it seemed as close as you could get to a dead-even matchup, and the Hornets' home-court advantage was the main reason I picked them in seven.
It hasn't worked out that way, even though Dirk Nowitzki has had a very strong series. But he isn't getting enough help, thanks mainly to Josh Howard's complete and total implosion at the offensive end. Forget this week's controversy about his confession that he smoked marijuana in the offseason -- it's his game that's gone to pot.
In the series, he's mustered just 12.8 points and 6.5 boards while shooting a dismal 15-for-58 (25.9 percent). By Sunday night's Game 4, the Hornets were leaving him wide open for jumpers throughout the second half, but he clanked all of them.
It's not like he's got Michael Cooper on him either. His primary defenders have been Peja Stojakovic and Bonzi Wells, neither of whom is known for putting the clamps on opponents. While Peja's D probably is a little underrated, Howard faced plenty of good defenders this season and averaged 19.9 points and 7.0 boards on 45.5 percent shooting.
As a result of his struggles, a position where Dallas expected to have a sizable advantage has become a surprising plus for the Hornets. And not surprisingly, the unexpected minus at the small forward spot also has put the Mavs at a minus in the games department, 3-1.

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