|We're hungry for seconds|
By Charley Rosen
Page 2 columnist
Now we're getting down to serious business. The pretenders have been declared bankrupt, and the eight surviving contenders are swimming in black ink. So what can we look for in the boom-or-bust conference semifinals?
For starters, the diminution of the homecourt advantage. During the regular season, home teams win 70 percent of their games against all comers. With the patsies absent from the playoffs, the home team's edge is reduced to 59 percent. Indeed, as the playoffs progress, the homecourt advantage becomes even less advantageous. (During the last five championship series, the home teams were a combined 14-12.)
And don't believe the hype about the hometown fans energizing their team and functioning as a "sixth man." In truth, whatever advantage accrues to the home team has to do with the players being able to maintain a routine, i.e., sleeping in their own beds, eating when and where they so desire. Any player who needs to by psyched by his loyal fans screaming their appreciation is either a hot dog, a mental weakling or a pipe dreamer.
According to the coaches, the roaring and often rowdy partisanship of the hometown fans only influence the referees. "Certain refs are definitely intimidated by the crowd," one veteran NBA coach says. "Who's the worst homer in the league? That's easy -- Bernie Fryer."
OK, let's ignore where the games will be played and take a close look at the four series on tap: What are the key individual matchups? What can be expected in the confrontation of the different styles of the contending teams? What does each team have to do to advance?
The primary focus of Philly's defense will be to contain Billups, who needs to score beaucoup points to ignite the Pistons' sluggish offense. Since Billups is more of a scorer than a ballhandler, heavy-duty pressure will induce him into committing an inordinate number of turnovers, as well as forcing him into making bad decisions. Look for the Sixers to pick up Billups in the backcourt and to frequently double-team him.
When Jon Barry replaces Billups at the point guard slot, the Sixers will force him to carry the ball into the middle, where he's prone to throw wild passes. The Sixers hope their propensity for forcing turnovers and the Pistons' frequent mishandlings will create the up-tempo and the easy breakout scores that Philadelphia needs to win the series.
Eric Snow should be able to limit the damage done by Richard Hamilton. At the same time, since Hamilton is the weakest defender in the Pistons' starting lineup, Snow's number will be called early and often.
Derrick Coleman has the strength and agility to defend, shoot and drive the elderly Cliff Robinson to the bench. Also look for Michael Curry's defensive ferocity to put the wimpish Keith Van Horn on the pines, and force Philly to give more daylight to Kenny Thomas and Tyrone Hill.
Besides getting into Billups' chest hairs, the Sixers want to funnel Detroit's offense to the coffin corners and then come with maximum pressure. Don't be surprised if the Sixers resort to a variety of zone defenses that will virtually ignore Ben Wallace and Michael Curry. The trick up Rick Carlisle's sleeve is rookie Tayshaun Prince, whose chicken-winged jumpers, left-handed slants into the paint, and ability to pass on the move make him an effective zone buster.
The bulk of Detroit's scoring must come from Billups and/or Hamilton. Otherwise, look for Corliss Williamson to re-emerge from oblivion and bully his way along the baseline and into the middle. In any event, the low-post resources of both Detroit's and Philadelphia's offenses will be severely limited because of the relentless proficiency of each team's interior defense.
The key to the series, however, will be which team controls its own defensive glass. Because Wallace plays a one-man zone, he's a threat to block any careless shot taken near the basket. The flip side is that Wallace's defensive roaming often finds him on the strong-side of the court, when most rebounds are up for grabs on the weak-side. Wallace, of course, is the NBA's leading nabber of missed shots and whatever he can reach belongs to him. Yet he's the Pistons' only rebounder of note, and that's why Detroit has been hurt by offensive rebounds all season long. This is a serious mismatch for the Pistons, since Philadelphia likes to storm the offensive glass.
There are so many X-factors in operation here that the rabid fan can only sit at the edge of his seat and enjoy the drama.
Doug Christie vs. Michael Finley: The latter is an authentic two-way player, while the former can only score in a broken field, and has unjustly gained a reputation as being a good defender, mostly because he gambles for steals and is sometimes successful. Christie is also the epitome of arrogance (even though he whimpered his way through the last five minutes of last season's Game 7 against the Lakers), while Finley is an all-around stand-up type of guy. If the series ever boils down to a faceoff between these two, bet your mortgage on Dallas.
Chris Webber vs. Eduardo Najera: Strictly offense vs. defense, with the edge going to the former.
Peja Stojakovic vs. Dirk Nowitzski: Strictly offense vs. offense, with the edge going to whoever winds up with the last possession.
Chris Webber vs. Dirk Nowitzki: Both are somewhat soft around the edges, although Nowitzki is more willing to drive the ball into the Land of the Bigs. Webber is the better passer and, when the spirit moves him, is more effective with his back to the basket. Nowitzki has the advantage in range, ball-handling and overall explosiveness. Nowitzki might not be a winner, but Webber is generally perceived around the league as being a loser.
Vlade Divac vs. Raef LaFrentz and Shawn Bradley: Also known as Floppo, Mister Softee and The Invisible Giant. Of these three, Divac has the most skills and, compared to his sheep-hearted opponents, also has the courage of a tiger. Divac is a much better fit into the way his team wants to play the game, so expect him to dominate in this battle of powder puffs.
Keon Clark, Jim Jackson and Bobby Jackson vs. Nick Van Exel: Clark is decidedly gawky and unathletic. JJ is a selfish and defenseless streak shooter. BJ is a quick-footed guard who's good enough to start for most NBA teams. And Van Exel is a scoring machine. The total numbers give the Kings the advantage in flexibility, but only Van Exel has the capability to change a game.
The Kings should be the victors because of their superior defense, and because almost every one of their starters is an accomplished passer. But the Mavericks can score in a hurry and from a wider variety of locations. And as always, rebounding and turnovers will be deciding factors.
So, put on your track shoes, eat plenty of carbos the night before the series opens, drink lots of water, and prepare to be thoroughly entertained as both teams race headlong toward the wire.
Los Angeles-San Antonio
It's a given that Shaq will brush aside the defensive efforts of David Robinson, Malik Rose and Duncan -- and that when he's double-teamed, the Daddy will gladly find the appropriate cutters and unguarded teammates. Also assume that Tony Parker, who was undressed by Stephon Marbury, will be able to deal with the spot-shots of Derek Fisher. And that Parker and Speedy Claxton will be able to dribble-penetrate into the bosom of the Lakers' defense.
But ... because Bowen won't be easily suckered by Kobe's fakes, is of equable size, length, strength and quickness, and lives to play defense, the Lakers' wonder-boy will be hard-pressed to create good looks for himself. How, then, will Kobe react? By going with the flow, moving without the ball and relying on the triangle to spring him loose? Or by taking each possession as a personal challenge and shooting faster, more often and more recklessly than Billy the Kid?
The Lakers have famously, stubbornly and successfully single-covered any high-scoring forwards they've faced. However, after being initially punched out by the Big Ticket, L.A. began two-timing Kevin Garnett late in Game 5 and throughout most of Game 6. And it worked to perfection! In the past, Duncan has proven to be too big, too strong and too versatile a point-maker to be contained mano-a-mano by Robert Horry. That's why the odds are that Duncan will likewise be selectively doubled in pressure situations. However, Duncan is a better (and more willing) passer than KG, so the same tactic presents a greater challenge for the Lakers' defensive rotators.
The Lakers' ace in the hole is that Shaq has routinely shut down Duncan in emergency situations. Obviously, assigning the Pivot Master to Duncan too often will inevitably shackle Shaq with foul trouble.
After last year's sweep, why should the Spurs offer more than a token resistance to the defending champs? Because Manny Ginobili gives San Antonio another creative option on offense. And because Rose has become a powerhouse in the paint.
Also, the Spurs' screen-roll designs are the best in the business -- a strength which takes full advantage of a glaring Lakers' weakness. Expect, then, the Lakers' bigs to show longer and harder on the nether side of the S/R -- the danger here is that because the big men must be so committed to perimeter defense, quick ball reversal will find more and larger holes along the baseline. Another option for L.A. is to go under the S/Rs and make the likes of Parker, Claxton, Stephen Jackson and Ginobili prove their long-range shooting skills.
At the other end, the Spurs' defensive rotation also ranks with the league's best. Because the Spurs defense is so quick, determined, under control and perfectly coordinated, the Lakers attack must be patient and the triangle must be flawlessly executed.
Sure, the Spurs played like doo-doo against the Suns, while the Lakers were gangbusters in closing out Minnesota. And everybody knows that San Antonio swept all four meetings with the Lakers during the regular season.
No matter. Both teams are approaching this set-to as though it will determine the championship. And unless the winner survives only at the cost of total mental and physical exhaustion, they might be right.
The short version, however, is that the Spurs want to quicken the pace, while the Lakers want to slow it down. Whoever controls the tempo will survive this battle of titans.
In other words, the Walker-Martin matchup favors the Nets.
Against the Pacers, Pierce averaged six assists per game (as opposed to 4.4 during the regular season), and with this irrefutable proof of his willingness to share the shots, Pierce has finally become a completely rounded offensive player. Richard Jefferson gets the call for the Nets, and he's advised to deny Pierce the ball -- a task for which RJ certainly has the talent and the moxie. Limit Double-P's 3-point attempts and make him put the ball on the floor. The risk here is that the Nets lack a legit shot-blocker. (Ah, will Dikembe Motumbo be resurrected from the pines?)
Should Jefferson and Martin continue to exhibit the star qualities they showcased in the Milwaukee series, the Celtics' gold dust twins could conceivably be (at least) neutralized ... ad, Nets.
The kicker in the Celtics' game plan is Walter McCarty -- a big-time 3-point shooter who replaced Eric Williams (an erratic shooting slasher) in the starting lineup in Game 3 of the Indiana series. McCarty only totaled 63 minutes against the Nets during the regular season (scoring only three points), but emerged as a major weapon against the Pacers. In Reggie Miller's opinion, "McCarty was the MVP of our series because he made every open 3-pointer."
In addition, the leansome 6-foot-10 McCarty is an active, long-armed defender. Look for McCarty to frequently guard Martin while Pierce takes a shot at Kerry Kittles. If Kittles were more of a one-on-one iso-type player this strategy would be disastrous for Boston.
The Celts have a good chance to surprise the cocky Nets if role players like McCarty and Tony Delk can approach the combined 27.5 ppg they produced against the Pacers.
A warning -- the Celtics' game plan features an unlimited barrage of 3-balls which makes the vulnerable to long rebounds and fast breaks. Only uncanny accuracy (at least the 40 percent Boston shot from beyond the arc vs. Indiana) and court balance can keep the Nets from running wild.
The Nets will only have fun if they can run, gun and stun. To thusly up-tempo the game, they must be active on defense and seal their defensive glass. And the Nets' wild card is the incomparable Jason Kidd. Add this guy to the North Miami Retirement Home varsity team (the Pace-Makers) and he'd impel them into easy baskets.
In general, the way to beat the Nets is to take the air out of the ball and make them play station-to-station basketball. Soften up on the wings to limit their backdoor cuts, double Martin in the pivot and turn them into a perimeter team. It's entirely conceivable that the outside shooting of Kittles, Lucious Harris, Kidd and Rodney Rogers will be the determining factors in this series.
What we can anticipate is a quick-hitting team (the Celtics) trying to slow the tempo -- and another running team trying to keep the turntable spinning at maximum speed. Or the latter trying to do what it does best, and the former aiming to do what it does worst. Not an auspicious prospect for Boston.
Charley Rosen, a former coach in the Continental Basketball Association, has been intimately involved with basketball for the better part of five decades -- as a writer, a player, a coach and a passionate fan. Rosen's books include "More Than a Game," "The Cockroach Basketball League," "The Wizard of Odds: How Jack Molinas Almost Destroyed the Game of Basketball," "Scandals of '51: How the Gamblers Almost Killed College Basketball" and "The House of Moses All-Stars: A Novel."