Bad Shaq, brilliant Bulls
The sight of Michael Jordan up in that United Center suite, celebrating Shaquille O'Neal's fourth foul and Ben Gordon's biggest triple with unmistakable glee, does not mean His Airness is the new face of Heat Hating.
It simply means that MJ is suddenly like lots of folks in Chicago.
He's been sucked in by New Bulls Fever and their relentless draw-and-kick game.
Not even the reclusive Jordan could resist a live look at the gritty, gutty group that wound up treating him to what might have been Chicago's finest hoop hour since the breakup of the Michael, Scottie and Phil Bulls ... and what has to rank as Shaq's worst night in 13 years of playoff basketball. These Bulls might be small and starless, and they definitely meandered for months until a late-season run finally got them into the playoffs, but Scott Skiles' undersized overachievers are also starting to irritate the team that only plays as hard as it has to.
Memo to Miami for Sunday's Game 4: Now you have to.
That's the reality confronting O'Neal and his teammates after a dreamy 109-90 Game 3 win for the Bulls sliced the Heat's series lead to 2-1. Not even I, who some might consider a Heat skeptic, expected a Shaq this sluggish after two full days of rest. But Chicago sensed it early and, determined to prove that the two games in South Florida weren't just cosmetically close, attacked O'Neal from the start.
The Bulls actually attacked Miami's shaky perimeter defenders first, instead of launching rushed 3-pointers, which promptly got them to the rim and put Shaq in foul trouble that parked him on the bench for most of the second and third quarters. His long absences only encouraged the Bulls to keep driving, and it's also true that O'Neal scarcely touched the ball offensively before the fouls.
The Heat did manage to hang in for a while, drawing as close as 59-56 early in the third quarter, but back-to-back 3s from Kirk Hinrich and Gordon -- the latter prompting Jordan's little jig for the cameras in his luxury box -- started the avalanche. It was a rout thereafter.
Once again, not what I envisioned. For all my Heat doubts, I saw this series with Chicago as an ideal opening-round warm-up. You knew Chicago would go small most of the time, with no one close to Shaq's size, which theoretically serves as great preparation for that second-round matchup against New Jersey ... since the Nets are just as eager to go small and try to run Shaq as much as they can. Even better: New Jersey has to slug it out with Indiana first, which is the last team it wanted to see in Round 1 given the Pacers' experience, Rick Carlisle's sharp coaching and Jermaine O'Neal's ability to hurt the smallish Nets inside.
The Bulls, with this triumph, have made it clear that the Heat are going to have to work a lot harder than they wanted to just to get to Round 2. The Nets, meanwhile, might not even be joining them if the Pacers' big man continues to be the best O'Neal in the playoffs, as he was on this night.
Jermaine began these playoffs with his reputation at its lowest -- and with Golden State, as covered in a recent Daily Dime, already preparing to hit Indy with a trade offer -- but he overcame foul trouble to deliver in Game 1 crunch time and amassed a decisive 37 points and 15 boards in the Pacers' 107-95 Game 3 triumph Wednesday night.
Shaq, meanwhile, begins another two-day respite having scored just one basket in the first three quarters before finishing with eight points, six missed free throws in six attempts, seven turnovers and five fouls in 24 minutes of frustration.
At halftime, Shaq had two points. Same as Luke Schenscher.
Then, not even two minutes into the second half, MJ flashed onto the TV screen holding up four fingers. One for each of Shaq's fouls.
Then James Posey decided to shoulder-barge Hinrich to the floor with a silly frustration foul in garbage time that could well get him suspended for Game 4.
Can't wait to see what the Bulls' new Superfan does if the home team takes a big lead in that one.
Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images
Luol Deng, who was one of four Bulls who scored 19 or more points, uses his length to rise over Shaq in Chicago's Game 3 victory.
Anthony Johnson never, ever could get over the way the Nets just kept believing that they could so easily upgrade on him as an understudy to Jason Kidd, how they believed someone more dependable, more trustworthy and, ultimately, more talented, would come along.
As it turned out, the Nets' refusing to re-sign him two years ago was the best thing that ever happened to Johnson's career, but he loves to list all the lousy points who have come and gone behind Kidd. Johnson just loves to keep insisting over and over that the Nets made a mistake.
It's part of the gene that drives Johnson, that makes it possible for this journeyman out of the College of Charleston to embarrass the Nets, embarrass Kidd, the way that he's done too often in this first-round Eastern Conference series.
All Johnson did was drop 25 points and eight assists on the Nets in the Pacers' 107-95 Game 3 victory on Thursday night at Conseco Fieldhouse, including 10 straight in the fourth quarter to push the Pacers out to a 2-1 series lead. Jermaine O'Neal had delivered the best game of his Pacers career --- 37 points, 15 rebounds and four blocks --- but it is Johnson who has befuddled the Nets.
O'Neal, they expect to kill them.
But Johnson? They used to treat him like the mascot with the Nets. First, he blew past Kidd on the way to the free-throw line in the final second of the Game 1 victory, and now this on Thursday night.
"He is playing with great aggressiveness and savvy and understanding the pulse of the team he is running," Pacers coach Rick Carlisle said.
What's more, Johnson called out the Nets' Vince Carter for being "soft" between Games 2 and 3, and what happened? Carter missed 10-of-10 shots in the second half, leaving Johnson to be the fourth-quarter hero again.
"We all knew A.J. could play," Indiana's Stephen Jackson said. "It was no secret to us."
-- Adrian Wojnarowski in Indianapolis
The Nuggets' 94-87 win in Game 3 of their first-round series with the Clippers could be the start of ... nothing. Maybe Denver wins another game in this series, maybe they even give a Herculean effort and force a seventh and final game. But that's it. Short of Sam Cassell refusing to play until he's promised an extension and Shaun Livingston getting snapped in two, the way the Nuggets reluctantly accepted their first victory signals this series already has been decided.
Have you ever seen a playoff team look more weary on its home floor? Has a win ever felt more like a loss? L.A. couldn't have had much more go wrong and they still nearly walked away with a 3-0 series lead.
Consider: Center Chris Kaman was a nightmare with two points in 29 minutes and a half-dozen defensive mistakes that led to easy Denver baskets. Cuttino Mobley was practically invisible, wholly unable to handle Carmelo Anthony one-on-one (unlike in Game 1) and taking eight shots to score eight points. And the Clippers committed 25 turnovers.
Not that it's a surprise. When you have as much unrest among the players and coaches as Denver has had this season, it wears everybody down. Remember the smug, I-know-something-you-don't look on George Karl as he coached an underdog against the Spurs last spring? He was wearing creme-colored turtlenecks and forest-green suits, looking to all the world like an oversized leprechaun. The Nuggets appeared just as full of vinegar and magic, giving the toughest battle the eventual champions faced before reaching the Finals.
Having Tivo'd the first part of Game 3, I happened to freeze-frame it after the Clippers' first basket. There Karl was, less than a minute played, wearing a nice tan suit, a well-knotted, well-coordinated tie and a button-down shirt. Totally out of character. So was the foreboding shadow on his face, amplified by assistant coach Scottie Brooks next to him, who appeared on the verge of tears.
Kenyon Martin, of course, has been banished indefinitely after his halftime tirade of Game 2, but if the Nuggets all agree with the suspension, as has been reported, that should have been a galvanizing event. Clearly it was not. Clearly, the issues the Nuggets have run far deeper.
So Karl, in a way, still knows something we don't. Only now it's a much different look. This is something he doesn't want us to know, something he hopes we never find out. He'd make for a lousy poker player.
-- Ric Bucher
With Kenyon Martin suspended, the Nuggets managed a 94-87 Game 3 win over the Clippers. Denver now trails 2-1.
Nuggets Cut Deficit
Ron Hoskins/Getty Images
After earning a $15,000 fine for complaints about officiating, Jermaine O'Neal floored the Nets with his Game 3 performance.
Quote of the Day
-- Andrew Ayres
Shaquille O'Neal had seven turnovers while playing only 24 minutes in Miami's loss at Chicago. He's the first NBA player in 11 years with 7-plus turnovers in 24-or-fewer minutes of a postseason game. Denver's Bison Dele had seven giveaways in 23 minutes at San Antonio on April 28, 1995. Shaq was 0-for-6 from the foul line. In the history of the NBA playoffs there has been only one worse 0-fer, and as you may have guessed, O'Neal himself was the culprit. On May 29, 1995, playing for the Magic, he was 0-for-8 from the foul line in a 94-93 loss at Indiana.
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Jake (Raleigh): The Wiz stop LeBron and win the series?
B.J. Armstrong: This is one of the most interesting series in the East, because of the great individual talent of LeBron James and the pressure on his shoulders. Them versus a team that has three players that have a wealth of experience and don't appear to be intimidated by the Cavaliers. It's going to be very difficult for the Cavs to overcome that. Look for the Wizards to win this series in 6 games, not only because of the big three, but the other role players that will contribute to the success of their team.
Brian Phoenix, AZ: What do you attribute to the recent Lakers success against the Suns? Is it good Lakers defense or poor Suns shooting?
B.J. Armstrong: As I've mentioned earlier, there's a difference between playoff basketball and regular season basketball. The Suns are a fun regular season team to watch. But in the playoffs, when the game slows down, this is not their forte and style. The Lakers' style is better suited to play in the playoffs than the Suns. Unlike the regular season, when you don't have time to prepare for the Suns, in the postseason you do. Their style and the way they play actually is nullified by your ability to prepare. Art (San Antonio, TX): Wuz Up B.J. Hey what's your take on Ginobili? Do you think he is one of the premier clutch players in this league? And is there a team in the West that has a chance to stop the Spurs?
B.J. Armstrong: Manu is a terrific role player playing along side a great player in Tim Duncan. He's shown the ability to be fearless in going to the basket and taking clutch shots. On the other hand is Manu on the same level as a Kobe Bryant or Tracy McGrady or Vince Carter, talentwise? Probably not. But championship caliber players need to be championship caliber teammates and that he is.
Craig, Los Angeles: In 25 words or less, what makes Phil Jackson the best coach in the last 30 years in the NBA?
B.J. Armstrong: Without question it's the yin and the yang. He's wise and lazy. He understands there's nothing to do and something to do. But that's entirely up to your subjective experience. He understands Phil Jackson better than anyone else. But do you?
Tom (DC): Now that the Wizards have taken home court advantage away from the Cavs, is it reasonable to say that they are favored in the series?
Chad Ford: I thought Caron Butler did a great job guarding LeBron. LeBron had a bad night, but Butler was a big reason. If he can sustain that defensive effort, the Wizards have a great chance of winning the series. However, I think you'll see LeBron return with a vengeance in Game 3.
Jerry Tallahassee: What the heck has happened to Kenyon Martin? You would have looked like a fool had he not started every game when he played for the Nets. What's different in Denver and do you see him playing there next season?
Chad Ford: George Karl doesn't like him. I don't think it goes much deeper than this. You can bet that the Nuggets will do everything in their power to move him this summer. They won't get much for him because of his huge contract and bum knee, but a team like the Knicks can offer an expiring contract for him and probably would.
Travis (Lake Highlands): What a travesty if the Clippers "punishment" for tanking it at the end of the season is a 2nd round matchup with the lowly Lakers for a West Finals spot. That should have been Memphis. The league MUST do something . . .
Chad Ford: Actually, I thought it was a brilliant move by Mike Dunleavy. Teams that have a division wrapped up rest players or give less than full efforts all the time . . . look at the Pistons. Once the Clippers were in the sixth slot, why would they try to win more games? I agree the league has to fix the problem, but I don't think Dunleavy did anything wrong.