Playing with the same poise and perseverance that carried them through the regular season the Atlanta Hawks notched a 102-92 win at home against the Milwaukee Bucks. Many people have questioned the Hawks’ legitimacy as playoff contenders, but any uncertainties were put to rest in the first half when Atlanta came out firing and went into halftime with a commanding 62-40 lead over the visiting Bucks.
Joe Johnson led the steady Hawks attack with 22 points as well as notching 7 rebounds and 5 assists. Josh Smith contributed a 12 point 10 rebound effort while pacing the Hawks on defense with four blocks and on offense with his usual intensity and rim-rattling dunks. The real story of the night was the rebirth of Mike Bibby as a staple of the Hawks’ offense. Missing only one shot all game long, Bibby shot eight for nine from the field including three for three from behind the arc to end up with 19 points. In his first career playoff game, Jamal Crawford once again established himself as THE Sixth Man of the Year, coming off the bench to score 17 as well as helping contain Milwaukee’s dynamic duo of Brandon Jennings and John Salmons.
The Bucks put up a fight in the second half, outscoring the Hawks 52-40 but it was simply not enough as Jennings’ 34 point effort was wasted in the series opener. Expect the same intensity and sense of urgency from the Atlanta Hawks on Tuesday, as they look to extend their home winning streak to 14 games and secure a commanding 2-0 series lead over the Bogut-less Bucks.
Coming later, the first no-hitter of the season and first in franchise history for the Rockies in Atlanta. Also, a look into the first day of the NBA Playoffs and what to expect tomorrow.
The burning question in the NBA right now is: Is there anyone or any team that can slow down the Los Angeles Lakers and their superstar Kobe Bryant? For the past few months many people have doubted if this was actually a possibility. However, the Lakers are currently on a two-game slide and are in search of some answers in terms of what happened to the sheer dominance they showcased throughout the first four months of the season. With devastating losses to both the Denver Nuggets and the Phoenix Suns over this weekend, the Lakers are looking to bounce back Tuesday night against the sub-par Memphis Grizzlies squad led by emerging rookie star O.J. Mayo. They also have a game against the Minnesota Timberwolves on Friday, which will be the perfect chance to prove that their spot atop the Western Conference is not one to be questioned.
Trailing behind the Lakers in a quest for the second seed is the perennial powerhouse San Antonio Spurs and the uber-talented Denver Nuggets. The Spurs have been plagued by injuries all season long. However, they have always had someone stepping up in the absence of their fallen stars. Recently, guard Tony Parker has provided them with the spark needed to overcome the loss of All-Star forward Tim Duncan. Duncan was out of commission for three games and his presence was sorely missed, but thanks to Tony Parker’s lights-out performances, the Spurs were able to win two out of three. Their only loss was to Lebron’s Cavaliers on Friday, despite Parker and four other Spurs players scoring in double-figures. Although the Spurs are without key reserve guard Manu Ginobli for at least another two weeks, Tim Duncan is back in the lineup tonight against Brandon Roy and the Portland Trailblazers. Whether Duncan will bring to the court the fire and intensity that is associated with his play is a question, but the bigger question still remains. Can the San Antonio Spurs maintain their intensity and second seed in the close race for Western Conference playoff sports?
Meanwhile, the Denver Nuggets are desperately seeking to establish themselves as legitimate playoff contenders. Their 90-79 win against the Lakers on Friday not only helped them climb up in the rankings, but it also sent a message to the rest of the Western Conference that they will fight for that second or third seed, and that winning against them is no walk in the park. Unfortunately they were not able to keep that mindset against the Indiana Pacers today and lost 100-94. Whether this was because of overconfidence or just the lack of an adequate performance is up to individual interpretation. What it does mean though is that they will need to fight even harder if they want to move into that second seed that is currently occupied by San Antonio. This will mean consistent performance from Chauncey Billups, Carmelo Anthony and Kenyon Martin will be required on a nightly basis. Even though they do not have the bench depth that most playoff contenders have, the bench will also need to step up to shoulder some of the burden if they truly want to prove themselves as a possible top-seed adversary.
The fourth through ninth seeds are all playing phenomenally well and they are within four games of each other. What this means is that on any given night, the order can completely switch around depending on how each team does. This group consists of Houston, New Orleans, Portland, Utah, Dallas and Phoenix. All of these teams have hopes of making the playoffs, but only five will fill out the remaining spots in the Western Conference race. All of these teams are entertaining and bring their a-game, but the three teams to watch come playoff time are the Houston Rockets, the New Orleans Hornets and the Phoenix Suns.
The Houston Rockets have had a tough year, dealing with several injuries, but none hitting harder than the loss of their leader Tracy McGrady. McGrady is out for the season after having micro-fracture surgery on his knee. This is a big loss for the Rockets and they will have to shift the responsibility to Yao Ming and defensive guru Ron Artest. With the help of Luis Scola, Aaron Brooks and Shane Battier, the Rockets have a realistic chance of making the playoffs and making it farther than the first round exit they experienced last year.
And on to the New Orleans Hornets. If I said that I wasn’t disappointed in the Hornets performance so far this year, I’d be lying. However, they still have managed to work their way into the fifth spot. CP-3 has not been able to single-handedly win games this year and it shows in their record. Go-to guys David West and Tyson Chandler have not been putting up the numbers they put up last year and it has affected the Hornet’s performance immensely. If West and Chandler can re-emerge as options in the offense for Paul to hit with his dazzling passes, the Hornets will be able to solidify their hopes of returning to the playoffs. If the Hornets can’t find the intensity and passion that made them such a threat in last year’s playoffs, then they will not be successful in advancing in this year’s playoffs.
The Phoenix Suns are perhaps the biggest mystery in the NBA. How can a team so full of talent currently be a game back on the 8th seed in the Western Conference? The answer is that they have lacked an effective coaching style for the first four months of the season. Furthermore, the loss of Amare Stoudemire for eight weeks with a detached retina left them with some big shoes to fill. However, a big man with some big shoes of his own has been able to pick up the slack and reinforce the Suns’ frontcourt game. You might’ve heard of him before, he’s made his presence felt in the NBA for many years. The man I speak of is none other than the Big Diesel, Shaquille O’Neal. Only one word can describe his performance of late, and that word can be found in an ESPN commercial featuring the big man himself. That word is Shaqtastic. With his 37th birthday around the corner, his play is reminiscent of that witnessed in his glory days. With a monstrous 45 point and 11 rebound performance in a win against the Toronto Raptors, and a 33 point exhibition against his former team, the Los Angeles Lakers, Shaquille O’Neal became part of NBA history. Not only did he re-establish himself as a legitimate threat in the low-post, but he also became only the fourth player over the age of 35 to score 33 points or more in consecutive games. He joined the likes of legends Alex English, Karl Malone and “His Airness”, Michael Jordan. If Shaq can continue to dominate down-low and the Suns backcourt can pick up the slack in the absence of assist-man Steve Nash, the Suns will be able to climb in the ranks and make the playoffs. That is, if their newly-instated coach Alvin Gentry can keep up his sensational coaching on both ends of the court.
The last two spots in the Western Conference race both come down to the simple facts of who can close out the season effectively. The Portland Trailblazers are a young team with abundant talent, but their ability to finish off opponents is questionable. Dallas is on the other end of the spectrum with a squad full of playoff-tenured veterans who are eager to get back to the playoffs once more. The question with Dallas lies in the ability of the Dallas bench to deliver on a daily basis. If Dallas’ bench can step up in the clutch, then Dallas will be back in the playoffs once more. That leaves the Utah Jazz, winners of seven straight and hungry for a playoff berth once more. With the return of powerful post presence Carlos Boozer and Deron Williams giving the Jazz solid play in the backcourt, the Jazz have been the hottest team in the NBA. The question remains do the Jazz have the determination and will-power to finish off the season strong, or will they end the season on a sour note and fail to make the playoffs? The answer will only come in time.
Next up for you readers out there, March Madness is finally here, so come back tomorrow to see which teams should be in, which teams should be out, and who stands to receive a number one seed.
With the end of February drawing near, the precedent is being set by certain NBA teams for what will be required to be considered as a worthy adversary in this year’s playoff race. Some teams have made moves hoping to further their playoff hopes. The Celtics made the most out of players on the market, signing center Mikki Moore, and also finalizing the signing of Stephon Marbury this morning. Although Starbury has had his fair share of both on-the-court and off-the-court problems, he has something to bring to this Celtics squad, and that is a quality bench presence and a big relief for Eddie House. House is a true shooting guard, and having Marbury there will allow him to be exactly that, as Marbury will be doing most of the ball-handling.
Another team that made a major move was the Orlando Magic. Acquiring Rafer Alston was a very smart move for the Magic. No offense to Jameer, but with him being out for the rest of the season, the Magic were in great need of a quality point guard who can bring that powerful point-man presence to the floor, and that is what Alston has to offer. With the Magic trying to legitimize their status as a true powerhouse and playoff contender, it is very important that they continue to win, especially with the Hawks and Heat both coming into stride in the closing months of the season.
Now some teams did not make as much of an effort to make changes, whether it be trades or free agent signings. The Hawks were one of those teams who made no moves at all. The Hawks are a young team with a lot of talent, and it often shows in their games. By keeping their roster the same, the Hawks are trying to continue the building of a solid young squad that can win games. With veterans Joe Johnson and Mike Bibby anchoring the young guns like Marvin Williams, Al Horford and Solomon Jones, the Hawks are hoping to build their team of the future, and win some playoff games while they’re at it. They continued their quest tonight against a surging Heat squad led by superstar Dwayne Wade.
Wade, who has had a record-breaking week was surprisingly quiet against the Hawks in a 91-83 loss. Although he still put up 21 points, 10 dimes and 3 steals, his team was not able to overcome the Hawk’s Al Horford with his 21 point and 22 rebound performance. This has been the story of the year for the Heat, who have folded several must-win games against formidable opponents. They were one of the teams who made a move, but it has not paid off so far. With the addition of Jermaine O’Neal, they have added a legitimate post player to strengthen their frontcourt attack and provide adequate support for Wade, Beasley and Chalmers.
On to other teams in the Eastern Conference, the Cleveland Cavaliers are having one of the best seasons in franchise history. With Lebron James stepping his play up to a whole different level, the Cavs have streaked to a conference-leading 44-12 record, 1/2 a game ahead of the defending champ Celtics. However, with the loss of Ben Wallace down low with a broken leg, the Cavs have been left searching for answers. There’s Anderson Varejao, who is the definition of a hustle player. He can make the plays his team needs, but isn’t powerful enough to dominate down low. He is joined by veteran Zydrunas Ilgauskas, who can hit the 17 foot jumper, and occasionally post up down low. J.J. Hickson has provided some quality minutes off the bench, and his playing time will certainly be up now that Wallace is sidelined. Although he is young he is a tremendous competitor with a desire to win so he is definitely one player to keep on your radar in the next couple of weeks. Tonight against the Spurs the Cavaliers are completely dominating in every aspect of the game. After 3, they are up 21 points and Lebron has already went for 30 points, 14 boards and 4 assists. Looks like they are on their way to a huge road win in San Antonio, one that will help them forget the horrible loss to Houston last night. When it comes down to it, coach Mike Brown better hope that these three guys can step up their games, because the Cavs are going to need it to help them maintain 1st place and homecourt advantage for the playoffs.
The playoff seeds for the Eastern Conference are still up in the air right now. The top three teams right now are Cleveland, Boston and Orlando. Only time will tell if they can hold onto their spots as the end of the season draws near. The 4th seed is currently taken by the Atlanta Hawks. The Hawks are two games up on the 5th seed Heat, and if they keep playing like they have of late, then they will continue to win and solidify their hopes to keep the 4th playoff spot. If the Heat can incorporate Jermaine O’Neal into the offense and keep the emerging rookie studs Chalmers and Beasley hot, then they will have a good chance of keeping the 5th spot. The final three spots are definitely a toss-up. If Detroit can find a solution to their recent slide, they’ll definitely have one of those three spots. That leaves us with two spots, up for grabs between several teams. The Sixers look like they are going to make the playoffs, which leaves one spot for the rest of the conference to fight over. That is, except for the Wizards, who do not look like they have any chance whatsoever of making the playoffs.
More to come tomorrow on the playoff race in the Western Conference, and talking about if anyone can stop the Los Angeles Laker squad led by Kobe Bryant.