<“If a tie is like kissing your sister, then losing is like kissing your grandmother with her teeth out.”
- George Brett
The Celtics are the team to beat in the east because they have three closers and the Suns can’t double team all of them.
Tough loss last night in Boston, no doubt about it. After playing the first half to a draw, the Suns came out sloppy in the 3rd quarter (3 turnovers in the first minute plus), shots didn’t fall and the route was on. Having seen both of the Eastern Conference favorites this week, Steve Nash was asked which is the better team. Being the NBA’s version of Switzerland, he said “It’s a toss-up.” I’m not so diplomatic. Boston is the best team in the East. Even though Rip Hamilton didn’t play Monday night and the Pistons have beaten Phoenix twice this season, the Celtics are the team to beat out east.
You hear comments about Kobe Bryant being the best “closer” in the game – a title he has earned through the years with his ability to dominate a game down the stretch at both ends of the floor. Boston has three of those closers. KG, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen can be unstoppable offensive forces and all have the ability to score 20 points in a quarter. Since the NBA only allows five players on the floor at one time, you can’t double team all 3 of them. Garnett and Pierce are equally tough on the defensive end. Adding Sam Cassell to the mix will have its benefits in the playoffs as well – he’s a crafty scorer, clutch shooter and terrific decision-maker. Plus he always plays well in his first year with a team (see 2003-04 Timberwolves and 2005-06 Clippers) before things inevitably go sour. And while the Pistons have some scorers and play fantastic team defense, I can’t shake the memory of them losing to a one man team in the conference finals last year. They had better hope the Cavs fall out of the third seed or they will likely suffer the same fate – LeBron has their number and he knows it. Even more damaging is that they know it.
Meanwhile the wild west is still a big unknown. The Suns are 3-2 on this 9-game road trip (yes, 9-game road trip) and have tough games ahead against the red hot Sixers and two teams struggling for their playoff lives, the Nets and Nuggets. Take a look at the schedule and you’ll understand why this is a 9-game roadie. Phoenix began the trip last Tuesday in Portland and have played in a different city every game since. After the game in New Jersey on Saturday, we’ll get back to Phoenix about 3 am on Sunday, play the Nuggets at US Airways Center on Monday and leave immediately after the game for Denver and a game Tuesday. When you don’t even have time to unpack your bags (just ask my wife), you are still on a road trip. It’s just that games 3 and 8 of this trip happen to be in Phoenix – but all the negatives of a road trip still apply: long flights, late nights of travel, living out of suitcases and duffel bags, etc.
The one thing that seems clear to me is that of the 9 teams fighting for 8 playoff spots, the Dallas Mavericks are the odd team out. After watching Dirk Nowitzki go down with a serious ankle/knee injury on Sunday, it’s hard to imagine that team winning enough to hold on to their spot. They still haven’t beaten a team with a winning record since Jason Kidd arrived and 8 of their final 11 games are against winning teams from the West – including two with the 8th seeded Warriors and another with 9th seeded Denver. Throw in games against the Suns, Lakers, Jazz and Hornets – all of whom are playing for playoff seeding, home court advantage, etc. and it’s hard to see the Mavs making it. To think they were 6 minutes away from a commanding 3-0 lead in the 2006 Finals before losing 4 straight, then followed a 67-win regular season with a first round collapse to the Warriors last year. I hope the Mavs Suicide Prevention Hotline is well staffed.
A side note on Dirk’s high ankle sprain – Eric Piatkowski told me a story of his first year in Houston when he had a similar, albeit more serious, ankle injury in training camp and how difficult it was to bounce back. He couldn’t find the lift in his legs for a jump shot. Nowitzki is a tough hombre, but his style of play relies so much on his wheels (running, shooting, cutting) that it’s hard for me to imagine him being really effective after only 2 weeks on the sideline.
Big night ahead in Philly for the TV guys – heading out to find the best cheesesteaks in town. The tough part is that if you ask 10 people where the best is, you’ll get 10 different answers. Hopefully it’s like finding good Mexican food in Phoenix – even if you don’t get the best, you’re still getting pretty good.