Those who hung in till the end of the Suns' 125-118 double-OT win over the Clippers got an epic Game 5 Tuesday night.
Extra credit: Suns win in 2 OTs
It wasn't always pretty, but there were some beautiful moments, and it wasn't always close, but neither team surrendered.
There were 12 ties and 20 lead changes, there were heroes and goats (some guys were both), there were unlikely turnings of the tide, and there were enough indelible images to fill a scrapbook.
There was Shawn Marion, seconds after he'd been flattened on a breakaway, yakking two free throws with the game tied and just 39 seconds to play.
And there was Marion, moments after he'd left the game with a jammed ankle, hobbling back out and putting the finishing touches on a 54-minute, tell-your-sons-and-daughters-about-it, 36-and-20 night with an impossible little hot-potato floater off a feed from Steve Nash to give the Suns a 121-118 lead with a minute to go in the second overtime.
There was Nash, who committed five turnovers, winging the ball from under the bucket to somewhere out near the scorer's table, to no one in particular. With 54 seconds left in the first overtime he was throwing haymakers, looking like an anxious rookie.
There was Daniel Ewing, who really is an anxious rookie, playing his only second of the night, and letting Raja Bell get the ball behind the 3-point line when the Clips had a foul to give. As Cassell said later, "He should have put Bell in the seats with the popcorn guy."
And there was Bell, rising up in the left corner, rising over Ewing, with neither a second nor an inch to spare, and hitting a Sean Elliott-style money ball to pull the Suns even at the end of the first OT. It was the sort of shot that looks too smooth to be real; a perfect two-footed takeoff and a muscular flick of the wrist; a feat of engineering, something supernatural, not the act of a mere man.
There was Elton Brand wincing and whiffing on two free throws, down three with 1:46 to go in regulation.
And there was Elton Brand grabbing his own rebound in traffic, taking a hit from Marion, putting the ball up and in, and then stepping to the line to make it a three-point play, with 1:22 to play in the second overtime and his team down four. As it was for Marion, it was a warrior night for Brand. If the final score is reversed, he's the headline, he's the legend. And score be damned, both men entered the pantheon on the strength of their Game 5 performances.
And before all that, there were the Clips, early in the third quarter, hucking up all kinds of hurried Js, and getting sucked in to the Suns' pace like the Millennium Falcon being pulled toward the Death Star, and falling behind by 19. Every clang off the rim kick-started a Phoenix fast break and ended in a dunk or a layup, and before you knew it, L.A. was down 19 and even die-hard fans were reaching for the remote.
And there was Sam Cassell rushing his club back into it by slowing them down, walking the ball up the floor, looking for Brand on the block, and letting his teammates know, just in the deliberate way he moved, that the only way to survive the night was to be true to themselves, to be disciplined, to stick to their half-court, inside-out game.
There was Cassell again with the game tied at 101 and 30-odd seconds to go, unaware he had only four seconds (after a timeout) to cross half-court, waltzing up the floor, grinning at Raja, strolling in the park, only to be whistled for an 8-second violation. The face, the metamorphosis from cool confidence to shocked confusion, was delicious and disheartening all at once.
Then there was Nash launching an ill-considered 3, Cassell matching him at the other end moments later, and Tim Thomas making the two of them look like geniuses when he took the rebound and the three seconds left on the clock and threw them both clean out the gym.
There was a Cassell game-tying 3, a Shaun Livingston step-out-of-bounds that wasn't, a gritty, patient, through-the-trees, put-the-bad-stuff-behind-him dish from Nash to Marion to finally put the game out of reach.
There was Jack Nicholson rooting for Los Angeles' "other" team.
There was Penny Marshall getting shouted down by the Phoenix faithful.
There was James Jones bouncing around the room like a super ball, Tim Thomas holding his head in his hands after fouling out, Mike Dunleavy mysteriously going to Ewing and Walter McCarty as defensive subs with the game on the line, and Mike D'Antoni, like Sensei telling Johnny to sweep Daniel's leg, calling for Nash to work the mismatch and blow by Vladimir Radmanovic time and time again.
It was 3½ hours long. It was exhausting just to watch. It was, in all its ragged glory, just about perfect.
Here's hoping they have something left for Game 6.
I'd recommend getting some sleep between now and then. You're going to want to hang in till the end.
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After making the steal that sealed the Heat's series-clinching win over the Nets, Dwyane Wade launched the ball into the crowd.
Something has clicked now, something tumbling into place and suddenly these Heat have transformed from an odd cast of parts into functioning, ferocious machinery. It starts with the player who was never, ever going to fit here, who had shimmied and shot his way out of favor as an NBA star. But here is Antoine Walker, embracing a system that desperately needed him to embrace it.
"Without him," Pat Riley flatly said Tuesday night, "we don't win."
Once again in this series against the Nets, there was Walker making the Nets pay a steep price for investing so much manpower on Dwyane Wade, hitting a 3-pointer inside the final two minutes to give the Heat the distance they ultimately needed to hold off the Nets in Game 5, 106-105.
"They made a decision that that they were not going to let Dwyane beat them," Walker said, so there he was delivering his 23rd point of the night, killing the Nets in Game 5, the way he had done in Game 4, and sending Miami into the Eastern Conference finals. Wade is going to be Wade, and Shaq is going to be Shaq, but so much of Riley's whole gamble on transforming these Heat would center on Walker.
It wasn't easy for him. He was used to having the ball in his hands, the game going through him, but no more. He learned to pick his spots with the Heat, learned to defer to Shaq and Wade in a way that had gone counter to everything Walker knew in the pros. In this series, Walker underwent something of a transformation. For the Heat, this was an extraordinary thing to happen with the NBA Finals just four victories away now.
"I took time to get into a groove and play with these guys," Walker said. "It's different for me. I'm playing a different role. We have two main guys that are 75 percent of our offense and everybody else has to fill in and make the best of the opportunities when they come. It's a different situation, but I've gotten used to it.
"It feels good."
Winning is a beautiful byproduct of the sacrifice, especially for Walker, who spent his playoff life in Boston getting smacked by the Nets. As it turned out, he needed bigger, better friends on his side. He's found them in Miami.
Most of all, they've found him.
-- Adrian Wojnarowski in Miami
There is some GREAT basketball being played here. It's unfortunate the officials seem to be getting in the way. Too many sketchy calls by veteran officials in key moments. Let the players decide. I don't watch the game to see Jess $%##! Kersey. With that said, Bruce Bowen did not foul Dirk late. I was so disappointed to see that call being made. I'm not even a Spurs fan, but felt their pain. Bowen plays perfect defense and they bail out Dirk. Two key FT's. Don't call that tic-tac garbage late in game. Make Dirk make a play. Make him make a shot. I was just thinking this series is too good and the teams too good for the officials to step in like they have been. They need to stay out of it.
-- Kenny (San Francisco)
You completely overlook the fact that the refs have obviously called a pro-Mavs game in Games 3 and 4. Specifically, in Game 3 the Mavs went to the line 50 times, I said 50 with Dirk getting there 24 times on only nine shots. That's pathetic -- this guy isn't MJ as an offensive threat, nor any of the other truly greats such as Wilt, Shaq in his prime, etc. Especially disturbing is that on two plays, one in Game 3 and one Monday night, Dirk basically, in an uncoordinated fashion, ran into Timmy Duncan going to the basket and it was Duncan who was called for the foul
Does anyone else think the Spurs got robbed Monday night? The close call in Game 3 could go either way, but Game 4 was atrocious. Tony Parker got called for about seven travelling violations. Tim Duncan for blocking when Dirk smashed into him, and the mystery foul on Bowen against Nowitzki as well. I know he's European, but isn't it an offensive foul when he lowers his shoulder? Such a bad way to celebrate Dick Bavetta's 90th birthday.
It looks to me like Mark Cuban's recent $200,000 fine for criticizing the refs was a good investment. His Mavs are clearly getting the benefit of the officiating during this series. For the second straight game, one of the Spurs' big three fouls out on a questionable call at a critical juncture of the fourth quarter. The Mavs have discovered that all they need to do to get to the line is to lower their heads and jump into the closest Spur and the refs will certainly bail them out.
This is the playoffs! Let the players decide the outcome of these games, not the refs.
Miami's chemistry has improved. The latest evidence is beating the Nets in five games to earn a berth in the conference finals.
Heat Take Five
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Suns guard Raja Bell launches a 3-pointer with 1.1 seconds left in the first overtime, sending the game into a second OT.
Quote of the Day
-- Andrew Ayres
Fitting finish for the Nets. Their final play wasn't great, not by any means, and nor were they.
They were good, mind you. A good NBA team. At times they were very good, but never were they great, which is why it's fitting, too, for them to be out in the second round. If you ain't great, you shouldn't be playing in the conference finals.
So why weren't the Nets great? Why have they teetered between good and very good in the three years since their last brush with greatness, a trip to the NBA Finals and a six-game loss to the San Antonio Spurs in 2003?
The easiest answer, at least relating to the present, was that Rod Thorn didn't exactly have a great year. Only one of the key players he brought in during the offseason and over the course of the regular season, Lamond Murray, was a key player down the stretch of the Nets' final game Tuesday night.
Jeff McInnis, basically thrown off the team on the eve of the playoffs, was off gallivanting wherever persona non grata players gallivant, perhaps visiting with more recent arrival Cliff Robinson. Maybe they were discussing the Nets' lack of depth at the big man position, where Marc Jackson would have come in handy if Thorn hadn't dumped him on New Orleans in a luxury tax avoidance move, and if Robinson hadn't violated the league's drug policy to earn a five-game suspension in the middle of the postseason.
Jackson, remember, was the player New Jersey settled on after the Nets got cold feet on Shareef Abdur-Rahim last summer after agreeing to terms with him on a five-year deal. In the end, all the Nets had to rely on for bulk off the bench was journeyman John Thomas, who signed with New Jersey just 48 hours before the end of the regular season.
The lasting image I'll have of the Nets over the summer was their failure to execute their final inbounds play trailing by one point with 1.7 seconds left. Richard Jefferson had his best game of the playoffs, but where was he on that final play? Running into the corner with a defender draped all over him, an utter non-factor on the biggest play of the season.
Thorn is going to have to decide over the summer whether he wants to proceed forward with Carter and Jefferson together for another year, or if it's time to move one of them. If he chooses the latter, the more likely of the two to be moved will be Jefferson, whose base-year compensation status expires July 1. Priority No. 1 in the offseason needs to be a new scoring big man at the power forward position, and Jefferson is the type of player who might just entice a team like to Hawks to part with Al Harrington in a sign-and-trade deal.
-- Chris Sheridan
The Pistons have not defended LeBron James well in the last two games.
There seems to be more concern with James' teammates and that is a mistake. By not double-teaming James, Detroit has allowed the Cavaliers to get back to what they are comfortable with offensively: James running the point.
When James is on the right wing and Marshall is down on the left corner, James will throw a skip pass for an open look at a 3. This pass should only work once, then the Pistons need to get in the passing lane for a steal.
When the Cavaliers run their 1-4 spread with James at the top running off screens, the Pistons should forget about switching on any pick set 25-30 feet from the basket.
Mark my words, LeBron will take Cleveland to the NBA Finals by 2009 at the latest. But again, this series against Detroit has made even 2007 a possibility.
Yeah, I said it.
I won't pick them to reach the Finals next season (assuming they lose this series to Detroit), but I think they will have to be considered a contender.
The confidence of LeBron's teammates is rising higher and higher by the minute. I could see it during Game 4. I chalked their Game 3 victory up to Detroit being complacent, but I know the Pistons came out fired up for Game 4 because of Rasheed's guarantee.
Still, focused and intent on winning, Detroit could not pull away from Cleveland.
I wrote in my last blog that the Cavs need a ruffneck on that front line. Well, he's not rugged, he's not hard-core, he's not a "gangsta' rapper" by any stretch of the imagination, but I think Anderson Varejao might be the Cavs' man.