Kobe Bryant Rescues Lakers In Game 2

Los Angeles won Game 2 in their first-round series against Oklahoma City on Tuesday night. On the surface, Lakers fans should be thrilled: Kobe Bryant gave a dominant performance, Pau Gasol played like a superstar, they held back a valiant opponent, and they now hold what traditionally has been an insurmountable lead in a series.

But that is not how anyone really paying attention should see things.

If the Lakers hope to win this series, they had best take care of the Thunder quickly, and as decisively as possible. If this series returns to Los Angeles next Tuesday tied at two games a piece, the Lakers will be in a world of trouble. The longer the Lakers let Oklahoma City stay alive, the comfortable the Thunder will be on the playoff stage, and the more dangerous they will be.

This Oklahoma City team is on the verge of something great, and all they need is one false step by the defending champs to get the momentum going. I have little doubt the Thunder will be better at home. If Los Angeles wants us to take seriously their plans to repeat as champion, they had better show their mettle by stealing one of the next two games on the road – if they give the Thunder an inch, the youngster will take a mile.

They work much harder than the Lakers, their competitive fire burns brighter, and they have fresher legs. The longer this series goes, the harder Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and company will be to put away.

Perhaps Kobe Bryant knows this. Perhaps that is why he was able to centre himself and find more balance in his jump shot in the second half Tuesday night. Perhaps that is why he reached back to give us a vintage performance in the fourth quarter that rivaled the display LeBron James gave the NBA world on Monday.

He knows that the Thunder are not a team to play around with. As does Pau Gasol, whose dominant post performance and tremendously efficient offense was a thing of beauty in game two. Whether or not the rest of their team understands all this though is debatable.

The Lakers seem to be extending just enough energy and mental focus to win, and not an ounce more. If they think they can ‘save themselves’ for a later round, they had better wake up to the reality that is before them – the one in which Westbrook can get to the rim at will, the one where Durant’s confidence and shooting touch continues to improve with every passing quarter, and the one where Scott Brooks has willed his team to overachieve and outwork their more talented opponent. In that reality, the Lakers are vulnerable, even up two games to none.

As for the game itself, we saw Bryant have much better elevation on his shot, leading to better looks early on. Even if he failed to convert everything, he was able to create a better rhythm than in game one, and that showed late in the game.

We also saw Bryant get back to the grimace and gritting of his teeth he was so fond of last spring, as well as the respect he has for the Thunder’s defenders, even patting Thabo Sefolosha on the back in the third quarter after a good defensive play. He still forced the issue too much early on, but at least he had fresh enough legs let him get into the lane late in the game instead of settling for deep, contested threes.

Meanwhile, Gasol played like a star for much of the game. The Spaniard made a number of big baskets and hauled in important rebounds when it mattered most, with none more important than his defensive rebound with seven seconds to go after a missed go-ahead three by Durant.

Speaking of that shot, it proved that the Thunder are not afraid, and serves as a great example of precisely why this core group of players could relatively soon compete for a title. Down two, with the shot clock turned off, on the road, Durant went for a three to win. He wanted to steal this game outright from the Lakers, not send it to overtime and leave it to chance. That in itself is the hallmark of a competitor of the highest order.

Durant certainly had help. The series has turned into Russell Westbrook’s official Coming Out Party, and one wonders if the Thunder would have rolled to an easy victory had he not gotten into early foul trouble.

He and Durant, and the shot-blocking wonder that is Serge Ibaka, have the Lakers attention. At the start of the third quarter, after two bad shots by an increasing useless Derrick Fisher, Los Angeles went inside to Bynum off a flash-cut to the mid-post, where he performed beautiful high-low action to Gasol for an easy dunk. It was a sign that the team recognizes that they need to be more focused and run their offense better to beat the Thunder. Why they aren’t able to do execute like that more often is anyone’s guess.

So now the series shifts to Oklahoma, where the Thunder’s considerable home fanbase will surely be chomping at the bit to experience a home playoff victory. They have a team that can give that to them, and maybe more.

The Lakers might be up two games and in a good position, but you are crazy if you think they should feel comfortable.

Three Themes Carry Lakers To Victory

Three overall themes helped to define the Lakers victory Sunday afternoon: presence; patience; and persistence.

All three were there for Los Angeles, and all three will remain necessary elements throughout the team’s postseason run if they are to be successful.

Presence. Patience. Persistence. Simple as that.

Presence came in the form of Andrew Bynum. Los Angeles’ often-ailing big man was a physical presence in the paint against the Thunder in returning from his 13-game absence. He offensive numbers do not necessarily leap off the boxscore – he had a modest 13 points on 6-of-10 from the floor – but he tied playoff-career high is rebounds (12) and blocks (4), and his imposing length gave every Oklahoma City player other than Russell Westbrook all kinds of trouble getting the rim.

With Bynum, presence is enough. He need not give the Lakers nightly 20-10 performances, but rather if he can change the game defensively by using his length effectively, and if he can stay engaged on offense throughout the game so that the other team cannot double team Pau Gasol, Bynum will have done his part. He and Gasol combined to put up 32 points, grabbed 25 rebounds, and blocked 7 shots, a line Phil Jackson would take any day.

Patience came from Kobe Bryant…at least most of the time. Yes, he was a volume shooter, needing 19 shots to get his team-leading 21 points, but the encouraging thing for Los Angeles was that so many of those shots were good looks that were taken while trying to attack the lane and get to the rim. Too often as Bryant has battled through his injury-plagued season has he leaned on fading perimeter jumpers so as to save his legs from further the pounding they would take from driving into the heart of the defense, but that was not the case Sunday.

Especially when he had the overmatched James Harden on him, Bryant worked patiently in the post, and wore his defender down with a methodical series of fakes and outstanding footwork. It helped of course that he had fresh legs, and that the Thunder have no real elite shot-blocker, but more than anything, it was Bryant’s willingness to be patient and work for the best look possible that helped carry him. He will need to shoot better in the games going forward, but at least Sunday his approach was on-point.

Finally, persistence came in the form of team defense. When Los Angeles commits to playing the sort of swarming team help defense we saw in Game 1, they will be a challenge for anyone. Moreover, if Ron Artest is able to turn back the clock and bare down defensive like he did in this game (and if Bryant is able to drop back in help so far off his man all game), the Lakers will be tough to beat.

The team had nine team blocks, and six steals, as they contained the Thunder to just 40.3% from the floor and held the young challengers to an offensive efficient rating 15 points below their team average.

That sort of defensive success is born out of persistence, and commitment to execution. It is also helped by the opponent’s all-everything superstar forward coming out extremely flat. The Lakers cannot expect Kevin Durant to shoot this poorly again – he missed shots he normally makes and he never found any sort of rhythm on offense – so they should be wary to think that Artest can repeat his success against him throughout the series (though it is worth mentioning that Durant was just 4-18 when Artest was checking him).

Presence. Patience. Persistence. That is what Phil Jackson will look for again from his team on Tuesday night, and really, throughout this entire postseason. Los Angeles will need to show those three overarching elements to repeat as champions. For now, they can rest easy knowing that Jackson is 45-0 in series after winning Game 1.

Speed Bump For Syracuse

After the second loss this season a bunch of questions rose up about Syracuse on what the defeat against Louisville really means for the Orange men. Let me tell you; it’s not a big deal.

Syracuse ranks third in the in the nation and perhaps will be a favorite in the March Madness odds to win the tournament when the contest begins even though they were defeated this past Sunday.

Forward Wesley Johnson discovered the way to win against the Cardinals way too late in the game, ending with 14 points, 8 rebounds and 3 assists.

Johnson received help from the guard Andy Rautins (12 points) and the center Arinze Onuaku (10 points) on the offensive side of the ball but neither of them really stepped up when the team needed them the most.

Syracuse is in the wild Big East conference and can’t afford to have one off night like this one if they want to reach their second championship in the school’s history. The loss is clearly an indication of lack of intensity and it is something they can remedy, keep in mind both of Syracuse’s losses this year have been against Big East teams.

Game Notes: Portland vs Washington

- To commemorate the Dr. Martin Luther King holiday, the Verizon Center staff played speeches and showed pictures of Dr. King.  The players themselves wore red, white, black and green shoes (photo courtesy of Bullets Forever), that were sent over from Nike specifically for MLK day.  If you’re wondering what wearing shoes that represent the Pan-African flag  has to do with MLK day, that makes two of us.

– Both Flip Saunders and Nate McMillan commented on the 1pm start time for today’s game and  Saunders decided to go with a tactic that he used in Detroit and Minnesota:  “We had breakfast this morning, so hopefully they’ll get a little fuel in their tanks.  I used to do it with previous teams, but I came here and we didn’t have it, so we tried to make sure they could have something.  Most of the time. they don’t get up in the morning, and say I’m going to go eat breakfast, so then they get to the game and they’re scrambling trying to get something, so we had some things set up.”

– Portland coach Nate McMillan had a different take on the early start:  “It’s a challenge, its something different, and its probably the first and last game we’ll have like this, so we gotta be ready to play. We got our guys in here last night, and put them through a workout, and got them to bed as quick as possible–in fact we tried to make it lights out at midnight.”

– The Blazers have dealt with tremendous adversity this season.  They’ve lost Travis Outlaw for much of the regular season with a stress fracture in his left foot, they lost Greg Oden for the season with a fractured patella,  Brandon Roy has been battling a tight hamstring as of late, and their backup center, Joel Pryzbilla is out for the season with ruptured right patella tendon.  Things have gotten so bad for the Blazers, that they are now starting 36-year-old, 6’9″ Juwan Howard at the center position.  Despite the turbulent nature of this season, the Blazers are fifth in the Western Conference.  If nothing else, it offers the Wizards a certain degree of hope that good, cohesive basketball can be played even in the face of adversity.  The fact that the Wizards beat the shorthanded Blazers this evening for their second consecutive victory won’t hurt their confidence either.

– Coming into today’s game, Washington Wizards guard Mike Miller and Portland Trailblazers guard Brandon Roy were questionable.  Miller was battling a strained calf and Roy was trying to overcome a strained hamstring.  Miller got his calf ready by getting extra treatment with the trainer and working out on the practice court.  Roy went and did some shooting drills on the main court, so that he could get a sense of his hamstring felt.   Both Coach Saunders and Coach McMillan both admitted during their pre-game press conferences, that they would know about 10-15 minutes before game time whether their respective players would play or not.  Come game time, Roy was in a suit sitting next to the Blazers’ assistant coaches and Miller was listed as active.  Miller ended up with 13 points, four assists, four rebounds, and numerous hustle plays.  Said McMillan after the game about Roy: “Jay [the trainer] and I didn’t like what we were hearing, so we held him. I don’t have any regrets about that.”

– Blazers guard Jerryd Bayless made the second start of his career on Friday against the Orlando Magic, and he was ineffective.  He was 0-for-6 from the field, with one point, and three assists in 20 minutes of play.  He was so ineffective, that Steve Blake had to finish the game for him.  I asked Coach McMillan if he was concerned about Bayless’ confidence going into his third start today against the Wizards:  “Bayless is fine, he’s basically a second year guy who’s basically playing like a rookie season, where he’s getting minutes consistently, and there are going to be some nights when the shot is not falling.  We NEED him to score, he’s done a good job for us.  Its just like any other player or game, where you didn’t play well, you find your rhythm, you get in the gym and you shoot a little bit more.”

– Five minutes after that, I asked Bayless about his struggles against the Magic, and he completely shrugged them off: “Every player goes thru stretches like that, things like that happen, but I’m ready, and I’m not thinking about that at all tonight.”  Bayless still struggled from the field (3-for-9) but he dished out eight assists, and played good, solid pressure defense on Randy Foye.

– Speaking of Randy Foye, Coach Saunders mentioned that there are times when he wants to hug Foye and then other times when he wants to strangle him.  Foye most played at shooting guard at the beginning of the year, but with the absence of Arenas, he’s been thrust into the starting point guard role.  Foye doesn’t seem to mind the tough love: “He’s tough on me during the game, when I make a mistake, he’ll let me know about it. And if something happens and I don’t make a read, he’ll let me know about it… but after the game he’ll love me up.”  Foye played another solid game tonight and finished with 17 points and eight assists.

– Antawn Jamison should make the All-Star game this year.  I know I’m biased because I cover the Wizards, but he’s on an absolute tear as of late, and he’s been the only consistent member of this team with or without Arenas in the lineup.  For the season, the 33 year old Jamison is averaging 22 points and nine rebounds a game.  This month, he’s averaging 26.6 points a game, and every time I go talk to an opposing coach, they all mention t hat Jamison is playing at an All-Star level.  In today’s game, Jamison scored 28 points, and hit countless big baskets to keep his team in the game–particularly in the third quarter.

– Wednesday night, when the Wizards take on the Mavericks, they will be going for their first three game win streak of the season  The Wizards opened up the 2009-2010 season by defeating the Mavericks in Dallas, 102-91.

Final score:  Wizards 97 -Blazers 92

Game Notes: Orlando vs. Washington

-When I arrived at the Verizon Center for tonight’s game,  I realized that any and all traces of Gilbert Arenas had been completely expunged.  His pictures weren’t outside the arena, his jerseys weren’t in the store, his image was removed from the pregame videos and clips, and even the few signs that fans tried to hold up with his name on it were quickly whisked away.  As I tweeted shortly before the game, “All traces of Gilbert Arenas have been Accentured.”  The Wizards brass certainly did not waste any time; however, Arenas is still listed on all of the online rosters.

– In all sports, coaches are asked if outside distractions affect their team, and 99% of the time, coaches will say that they block them out and continue to power through and focus on the task at hand.  I never thought this was realistic, nor did I think it was truthful, but since I was not in the locker room, I was in no position to refute this statement.  So today, when Coach Flip Saunders was asked if this week’s events were a distraction to the team, his honesty was quite refreshing.  “There’s no question, it’s a distraction, from the standpoint of having to talk to people [investigators], media, and trying to talk to them wherever, that’s a distraction,” a candid Saunders said before the game.  “I think what it is, it’s almost a surreal situation…a foggy type situation.  But we’re doing the best we can.”  Saunders also mentioned that after the confrontation on the plane between Crittenton and Arenas, he banned gambling on the team plane.

-Before the National Anthem, Wizards captain Antawn Jamison took the microphone and addressed the crowd.  The last time he did this was during the home opener, when he thanked the fans for enduring their 19-63 record last season.  This time, Jamison’s tone was much different and decidedly more serious.  He apologized for the Wizards’ seemingly flippant attitude in this photo, he stressed that both he and his teammates were embarrassed, but they understood how serious this situation was.  He ended his comments by asking the fans to continue supporting the team, and to make the Verizon Center the most difficult place to play in the NBA.  After the game, Jamison spoke  to the media about his comments, “It just came from the heart.  After shoot-around I just felt that we needed to address the fans.  Let them know that it’s not acceptable.  This is not a laughing matter. This is a very serious situation.  A lot of guys in this room take pride in being role models for kids.  We take pride that parents can bring their families to the game and we want them to be proud to come to the game and have fun again.  For us, it was about putting all of that behind us.”

– Brendan Haywood joked, “I saw him[Jamison] come out there, and I didn’t know whether he was going to rap, sing, I didn’t know what was going on.”

-Guard/forward Mike Miller was in the starting lineup tonight, after missing a month and a half with a strained calf.  Throughout the game, Miller demonstrated why his presence was sorely missed in the lineup.  He continually made the extra pass, he openly encouraged his teammates, he knocked down a big three-pointer late in the game to continue a rally and at one point he even high-fived head coach Flip Saunders.  He finished with an ominous six points, six rebounds and six assists.  “We just move the ball so much better (with him in the game).  We got crisper by moving the ball from one side to the other and we made quicker decisions, ” Saunders observed after the game.  “He gives a calming effect and he can rebound, force the two guard to turnover and he’s big.  He can make plays as a passer; he’s just a basketball player.”

– When I asked Miller if he was healthy after the game, he smiled, put his hand on my shoulder and said, “I’m getting there, man. I’m getting there.”  Miller was also sporting a fresh new buzz cut, shunning the long flowing hairdo he had been wearing since the start of the season.  When asked what prompted the change, Miller said, “Its a new start. I’ve been through a lot of tough things that last couple of years and its time to start over.”

-One of the more intriguing matchups in this game was at the center position, where Brendan Haywood and Dwight Howard went head to head.  Howard finished with 23 points and 11 rebounds and Haywood had 18 points and 15 rebounds.  Howard was 9-of-13 from the field and 5-of-12 from the line and Haywood was a perfect 6-of-6 from the line and the field.  After the game, both coaches were complimentary of their respective centers.  “Dwight had a good offensive game as Rashard (Lewis) and Jameer (Nelson) were both down; ” Magic coach Stan Van Gundy said after the game.

– “Haywood had a great game, ” Coach Saunders said. “I was on him to wrap him [Howard] up and he gave him a couple three-point plays.  I was screaming at him and he was screaming at me, but it’s good to keep a little fire going.  We didn’t give him a lot of help down there in the post. Haywood’s defense gave us the ability to take away their perimeter shooting.”

-Tonight’s loss to the Wizards represented the Magic’s season-high fourth loss in a row.  They have not lost this many games in a row, since April 10-13th when they lost three games because they were resting starters in preparation for the playoffs.  Forward Rashard Lewis said after the game, “We just seem to have been losing the last few ball games.   It still doesn’t mean we aren’t one of the elite teams in the East.  We just have to continue to play defense…It is very frustrating when you are not winning games but this is the NBA and it happens, but we still have to bounce back.”

– Coach Van Gundy added, “I do not have the answer.  Obviously if I did we wouldn’t be playing like we are.  We’ve lost four straight to sub-.500 teams.  The one thing we’ve always done is done a good job against the teams below .500 and now we can’t do that.  We’re just in a bad roll right now.”

-Randy Foye got his first start at point guard as a Washington Wizard, and he delivered in a big way with 20 points and six assists.  Foye has gone from starting, to being injured, to being buried on the bench, to having limited minutes, to being back in the starting lineup, yet he never complains.  “I just try to be a professional,” Foye said as he iced his knees in front of his locker after the game. “When I wasn’t playing, I never said anything about it.  When I was playing, I never said anything about it. The biggest thing for me is to be professional and to try to be a team player.  This is the life of a basketball player.  There’s ups and downs but the best thing of all is that we’re blessed to be able to play this game here.”

– Foye also mentioned after the game that he had talked with authorities earlier in the day, and he had been fined for making light of Arenas’  gun situation prior to the game against the Sixers on Tuesday.  “It was foolish, stupid and immature, but you know I gotta’ be a man, I gotta’ accept my penalty, and I apologize to the fans and the organization for behaving in that manner.”

Final score:  Wizards 104  – Magic 97

Game Notes: San Antonio vs. Washington

-I know that the hot topic of the day is Gilbert Arenas, and I cannot lie and say that I am not also curious as to how this will all play out.  But I am not in the business of writing speculative articles on things that I cannot verify directly.  That being said, I was not one of the 50 or so reporters who descended upon Arenas’ locker after the game.  I did hear Arenas say that he and Javaris Crittenton were friends before this incident, and will continue to be friends afterwards.  Other than that, I have no information of note to add to this volatile story.  But for excellent in depth reporting about Arenas, you can go to this site by former Washington Times sports writer Mike Jones, the Washington Post’s  Wizards beat writer Michael Lee or TNT and Nba.com writer David Aldridge. All three gentlemen have their respective fingers on the pulse of this Arenas situation.

-During his pregame meeting with the media, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich talked a bit about how his team is not where he’d like for them to be at this point in the season.   “The defensive effort has been inconsistent, as far as playing defense for 48 minutes…on the offensive end there’s a lot of new people.  Old people are trying to fit in with new people and new people are trying to fit in with older people and its taken a little more time than usual.”  Tonight, the older people led the way for the Spurs, as Tim Duncan scored 23 points with seven rebounds, and second year Spurs guard Roger Mason had 20 points including 4-for-4 from beyond the arc.

-Speaking of Roger Mason, I had a brief chat with him before the game about defense and what it takes to be a good defender, and he was very candid with me about his own defensive shortcomings prior to him joining the Spurs.  “I can’t say that I really was the most experienced defender when I left Washington, I did the best I thought I could do.  But when I got in this system [with the Spurs] that first year really stripped me of a lot of my bad habits, and I’ve learned how to compete defensively.”  Ironically enough, it was Mason’s shooting, something he did exceptionally well with the Wizards, that helped the Spurs win defensively.  Whenever the Wizards doubled Duncan in the post, the ball would eventually be kicked out to Mason, and he made them pay.  Coach Popovich said of Mason’s effort, “Roger Mason was great.  He allowed us to stay in it in the first half. We told the team we are not going to win it with one of you guys.  Say thank you to Roger for keeping us in it, but to win it we will need to do it as a group defensively.”

– I also had a good conversation with Spurs forward Richard Jefferson on the Wizards defense, being called out by a coach for lackluster play and Gilbert Arenas.  Stay tuned to Hoops Addict for that audio.

-After the Wizards loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder, not only did Flip Saunders rant and rave about the lack of defensive effort on his team, but he promised to make personnel changes.  During his pregame presser tonight, he still did not know what those changes were going to be.  By tipoff, we learned that Randy Foye would not start, and Andray Blatche would.  This moved Caron Butler to shooting guard, Antawn Jamison to small forward, Blatche played power forward, and Arenas and Haywood were at point guard and center respectively.  Blatche had just five points and six rebounds in 27 minutes, and drew the ire of Saunders by not playing in the low post.  “He has to establish himself as a low block type scorer.  That’s what he has to do…in the fourth quarter, if you think you’re going to go behind your back on Tim Duncan who’s been all league for 15 years and get a shot off, that’s not going to happen.”  There were no other major lineup changes of note, except for Nick Young who had his first DNP, since the last time the Wizards played the Spurs on November 21st.

-Caron Butler met with Coach Flip Saunders in the days leading up to tonight’s Spurs game, and talked to the coach about his role with the team and his how he could improve his game overall.  In the first practice after that meeting, Coach Saunders singled out Butler’s exemplary effort.  Tonight, Butler had 24 points an six rebounds, and again, Coach Saunders praised his effort.  “I thought that Caron played hard.  That’s the hardest he’s played over a 48 minute game; defensively doing things.  If we have that he’s going to be okay.  A guy who plays hard like that defensively, I’ll give him a free pass on a few shots.”  After the game, Caron discussed his effort and how it felt to switch from small forward to shooting guard, “It was different and it was something I was looking forward to, and I took the challenge and played pretty well… I had 21 looks and I only passed on like eight, so its a great position for me, and I definitely feel comfortable doing it.”

-The Wizards lost tonight’s game in the fourth quarter.  After giving up 30 points in the first quarter, the Wizards only gave up 40 points in the second and third quarters combined, and they actually led by a point going into the fourth.  But in that fourth quarter, they gave up 27 points an only scored 15 points themselves.  Coach Saunders addressed this point after the game.  “We took some rushed shots, we took some quick shots… you have to make stops, you can’t let them get in the bonus early, it takes away your defensive aggression.  And then we have a tendency to try to hit homerun plays in the fourth.  We play the fourth quarter, the first five minutes like its the beginning of the game, we’re feeling each other out, but by that point, you should know where you’re at and you should be in attack mode.”  Wizards guard Randy Foye (6 points in 17 minutes) agreed with Coach Saunders’ assessment.  “They [the Spurs] are a championship team and they’ve won three championships, and they know how to win, and when you don’t execute like we didn’t, they pull it out, so we need to be shooting for that type of execution, but its a process, and right now we’re still learning.”  Its odd to hear a player say that after 31 games, but it is indeed the Wizards’ reality.

-Things don’t get any easier for the Washington Wizards this week.  Besides the Arenas-Crittenton distractions they have to endure, they have to play the Sixers and the Cavs on the road back-to-back, Dwight Howard and the Orlando Magic at home on Friday.

Final Score:  Spurs 97 Wizards 86

Game Notes: Miami vs. Toronto

Quick Hits:

  • Before the game Shavlik Randolph was trying to convince Michael Beasley that J.J. Redick’s rap style was similar to Nas. Sorry, but I’m not buying the comparison.
  • Chris Bosh did a fantastic job attacking Jermaine O’Neal and Joel Anthony early and often tonight. The Raptors were running a ton of isolation plays for Bosh in the first half and he was attacking both big men off the dribble and pulling up for jumpers. This resulted in Bosh scoring  17 points while snagging 6 boards in the first half before finishing with 29 points and 12 boards.
  • Early in the first quarter Heir Canada took threw down a nasty dunk on James Jones. DeMar DeRozan beat his man baseline and when he went up for the alley-oop he was hacked yet still threw down a dunk that woke up an otherwise sleepy crowd at the Air Canada Centre.
  • Speaking of waking up the fans, Pops Mensah-Bonsu got one of the loudest cheers of the night when he entered the game at the 4:33 mark of the first quarter. The crowd went nuts again later in the quarter Mensah-Bonsu swatted a field goal attempt by Dwyane Wade.
  • Toronto went on an 11-6 run to open up the second quarter. Miami wasn’t able to slow things down as Toronto out-scored Miami 43-25 in the second quarter.
  • Michael Beasley beat Chris Bosh off the dribble on consecutive possession early in the second quarter. On the first possession he threw down a dunk and on the second Bosh committed a foul. Beasley had a monster game on the offensive end tonight as he finished with 21 points and 12 rebounds.
  • 69 points by the Toronto in the first half is their their highest scoring output for a half this season. Throw in the fact they held Miami to 41% shooting from the field and it was an impressive first half by the Raptors.
  • Aside from some early foul trouble (3 fouls in 7 minutes), Amir Johnson he had a solid first half with 9 points (4-4 from the field) and 3 rebounds in just seven minutes of burn.
  • Toronto’s bench outscored Miami’s 22-6 in the first half and finished the game with a 36-10 advantage.
  • Jermaine O’Neal pulled his teammates aside before the start of the second half for a players only meeting. I have no clue what he said but it seemed to work as Miami outscored Toronto 34-18 run in the third quarter to pull to within six points.
  • Something that impressed me tonight was Bargnani is starting to show a nasty streak. Against Utah he snagged 11 boards and tonight he followed that up with his second consecutive double-double (24 points and 10 rebounds) while getting a little grimy. One play that stood out came in the first half when he slashed through the lane to throw down a nasty dunk in the mugs of Beasley and O’Neal – all while drawing a foul on Beasley.
  • A huge reason why Toronto was able to weather the storm by Miami in the second half was the clutch shooting of Jarrett Jack in the fourth quarter. Jack entered the game mired in a bit of a shooting slump but he showed no signs of that in the fourth as he went 3-6 from the field, 2-3 from beyond the arc and 4-4 from the charity stripe while scoring 12 of his 17 points.
  • Look for exclusive interviews with Joel Anthony, Daequan Cook and Pops Mensah-Bonsu to be up on Hoops Addict over the next few days.

They Said It:

Before the game Erik Spoelstra talked with the media about the 2003 NBA Draft class, how close Miami was to drafting Chris Bosh and how competitive the entire draft class is with each other:

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Spoelstra also talked about what he’s looking for from Michael Beasley on the defensive end this season:

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Something that worried Raptors’ fans this summer was a “close friend in Miami” telling the media that Chris Bosh was interested in playing for Miami. After the game Bosh squashed this rumour:

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Bosh also talked about how the teams defense is showing slow and steady improvement:

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Jay Triano talked about the importance of having three ball handlers on the court at the end of the game and Jack’s clutch shooting in the fourth quarter:

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By The Numbers:

0 – Number of three-pointer’s both teams combined to make in the first quarter. They finished the game with a combined 16 made three-pointers.
1 – Minutes it took for Amir Johnson to pick up his first two fouls of the game.
3 – Number of assists Toronto had as a team in the third quarter.
8 – Hedo Turkoglu had a season-high 8 assists.
12 – Jarrett Jack scored 12 points in the fourth quarter.
14 – Toronto tied a franchise record with 14 assists in the second quarter.
54 – Number of points Bargnani and Bosh combined for.

Game Notes: Cleveland vs. Washington

-This was the first game the Big 3 of Arenas, Butler and Jamison have played together since last year, when their opponent was also the Cleveland Cavaliers.  On that night, the Wizards snapped the 13 game winning streak of the Cavs, 109-101. During that game, Arenas had 11 points, 10 assists, Butler had 25 points and Jamison had 19.  Tonight, the Wizards snapped a five game losing streak of the Cavs and they won 108-91.    This time, Jamison was the lead scorer with 31 points and 10 rebounds, Butler had 19 points and 6 rebounds, and Arenas, despite shooting 6-for-22 from the field, had 18 points, 8 assists and 6 rebounds.

-Before the game, Coach Mike Brown went into detail about why Shaquille O’Neal would not be playing. “I’ve pulled him out out practices so far..a couple of practices, and it might be because he has a little ding here, a little ding there, so I’ll just say, big fella’ sit down,” Brown explained.  “And that’s what this is. Does he have a ding? Yes. It’s early in the year, we all have a better comfort level than we had in game one, game two, game three, and so in my opinion, its an opportune time to let him get some rest and let him get his body back.”

-When Coach Saunders was asked about O’Neal’s absence, he didn’t sound like a man who was relieved,  “They still have Illgauskas who in some ways makes it more difficult to defend LeBron James…he’s more of a perimeter type player who takes 15, 16 foot face up shots, and it opens the floor for LeBron to get to the rim.”

-I tried to talk to Delonte West prior to the game, and told me he really didn’t want to talk at length. He said he was handling his legal issues and right now he wanted it to be all about basketball.  The journalist in me wanted to probe deeper and ask him more pointed questions, but it just didn’t seem like the time nor the place.  People from Michael Wilbon to Lisa Salters (from ESPN) were coming up to him and offering words of encouragement.  For me to do anything to the contrary just would have been irresponsible.  I’m sure I’ll wrestle with that decision later.  As I walked away, West stopped me and said, “No hard feelings man, we’re cool right?”.  I said of course, shook his hand and walked away.  There’s a world class article to be had with Mr. West, and I hope to one day nab it.

-When I talked to Phoenix Suns coach Alvin Gentry about when he thought it was fair to judge how good his team was, he explained that the 25 game mark was an effective barometer.  When Michael Wilbon asked Cavaliers Coach Mike Brown that same question, he had a different take.  “I’d like to start to peak and keep heading that direction right around the end of February, that’s the time I like to say, let’s get busy and lets continued to do this, ” Coach Brown explained.  “Before then, you know for me personally, you don’t like to lose games, but sometimes when you have a good team, you need to get hit in the mouth.   Guys, including myself as a head coach, we just full of ourselves and it brings you back down to reality and it helps you understand this is a process.”  At the conclusion of tonight’s game, Wizards coach Flip Saunders was asked that same question, and he had his own unique take on the matter.  “It usually takes 20 games, I think almost every coach you talk to, or anyone considered an expert like you guys[the media] are would say probably 20 games.”

-Antawn Jamison played his first game of the season after suffering a subluxation of the right shoulder in a preseason game against the Cavaliers, and then battling the flu last week.  When I spoke with Andrew Pearle, M.D., an orthopedic surgeon at Hospital for Special Surgery’s Sports Medicine and Shoulder Service in New York about the risks associated with a subluxation, he mentioned that rest is important, but the threat of a re-injury depends on the person. According to Dr. Pearle, Candace Parker and Chris Webber had more severe cases of this injury, and they eventually needed surgery.  Dr. Pearle also added that if Jamison’s shoulder came out of socket again after this month of rest, then surgery would be a must and he’d most likely miss six months. Jamison, who wore a protective sleeve, did not show any ill effects from the injury during the game.  When I asked him how the shoulder felt after the game, he had nothing but good things to say.

-The “I’m Lebron James” moment came with four minutes left in the third quarter. LeBron James came down and drained a three.  Then the Wizards went down the court, and Gilbert Arenas attempted a three pointer as well, but it was bricked off the backboard.  The Cavs went back down the court, and James hit yet another three to put the Cavs up by six, and Coach Flip Saunders immediately called a timeout. James stared down the Wizards bench, then we back to his own as if to say, “That’s right ladies and gentlemen, that is why I’m LeBron James.”  LeBron finished 34 points and nine assists, but even was not able to lead his team to victory on this night.

-The stat sheet will show that Arenas shot 6-for-22 from the field, and even in person, there were times when he forced the issue and tried to shoot his way out of his slump.  In the first half he shot just 1-for-9, and he had six points.  But in the second half, he played a bit better and found his stroke.  Even Arenas noticed this inconsistency,  “I just can’t find two halves to match right now. I just gotta get it together…I had one bad half, and I figured the second one would get better.”  What will not show up in the stat sheet is his solid defense on Mo Williams.  Williams who is widely considered to be the second best player on the Cavaliers squad scored just six points in 36 minutes.

-The lineup of Caron Butler, Mike Miller, Andray Blatche, Earl Boykins and DeShawn Stevenson played nearly nine minutes in  fourth quarter and took  the Wizards lead from three to as much as 18 points.  This lineup faced both the first and second teams of the Cavaliers, and they were still able to stand firm and thwart any comeback the Cavs tried to muster.  Butler and Miller did most of the scoring with a little help from Boykins., and Stevenson and Blatche did the “meat and potatoes’ (as Coach Saunders called them) to keep the Wizards afloat.  During this time, Jamison, whose conditioning is not yet where it needs to be, was able to rest, and Arenas was able to ice his knee.

-Last year when the great Hubie Brown came to Verizon Center, I was never able to talk or formally introduce myself to him, because he was on the run, and I was timid.  This time around, I saw Hubie in the Cavs locker room, I introduced myself to him, and he shook my hand and asked me what I thought about today’s game.  I told him the Wizards would win, and he should say that on television.  He looked at me and laughed and said, “Nice try, kid.”  Rejection never felt so good.

-Gilbert Arenas summed this night up perfectly when he said, “He[Jamison] dominated that first quarter, Mike Miller dominated the second, I dominated the third, Earl Boykins and Caron finished up the fourth, we just had an all balanced performance tonight.”

Game Notes: Detroit vs Washington

- According to Michael Lee of the Washington Post, Gilbert Arenas has officially brought Agent Zero out of retirement. During media day, Arenas vowed to stop showing the media that side of personality, but the six (now seven) game losing streak caused him to reconsider. Tonight, Arenas put up very good numbers (19 points, 10 assists, six rebounds) but even with his Agent Zero moniker back in tow, he still struggled to find a rhythm. After the game, Arenas attempted to explain his lack of comfort: “In Eddie’s[Jordan] system, we needed me to score 30, in this system I don’t have to, so not shooting for a whole quarter doesn’t really bother me because we have other players that’s scoring. But then when I try to get in the rhythm, I just don’t have that feel, so I have to try to find a way to get myself in the game the whole time.”

– Prior to the game, Coach Flip Saunders mentioned that Mike Miller’s return from a shoulder injury would spread the floor and help Arenas and others get open shots, and for most of the game he did just that. Miller scored 20 points, and was able to knock down several open shot, which helped Arenas, Earl Boykins, Andray Blatche and Caron Butler get excellent open looks from the outside. But during a crucial point towards the end of the game, at the 2:34 mark of the fourth quarter, Miller was removed from the lineup with the Wizards up two points. During the next two minutes of the game while Miller was out, and the lineup of Butler, Blatche, Haywood, Arenas and Boykins were in the game, the absence of Miller was noticeable. On two separate occasions the floor spacing was terrible, and both Boykins and Arenas took contested, rushed shots. The lead disappeared with Miller on the bench, and the Pistons went up by two points. With 48 seconds left, Miller returned, but the Wizards never led again.

– Coach Saunders mentioned that he expected newly acquired guard Earl Boykins to play about 10-15 minutes tonight. When asked how Boykins was grasping the system, Saunders mentioned that he was not worried about that at all. “He understands everything, he’s pretty knowledgeable, guys that have been around the league a long time–you know we played against him a couple time in the playoffs, and when you play against a team in the playoffs you know them so well, you know their sets, their plays.”

– Boykins ended up playing 31 minutes tonight, and he scored 20 points–11 of which came in the second quarter. After the game, a disappointed Boykins discussed his performance: “It feels good to be back, but more importantly, its going to take me time before I feel comfortable.”

– Boykins also discussed his comfort with playing with Arenas as they were teammates at Golden State during the ’02-’03 season: “It’s easier playing with Gil, because he’s someone that I know, but I have to develop the same type of chemistry with the other guys.”

– Randy Foye, who was out with an injured ankle, was definitely missed during tonight’s game. His primary role was to be both a sidekick and a backup to Gilbert Arenas, and tonight that was sorely missed. Despite the brilliant play of Boykins, there was a point in both the third and fourth quarters, where he simply ran out of gas. And on the defensive end of the floor, Pistons’ guards Will Bynum and Ben Gordon seemed to be getting into the lane at will, and that is also an area where the 6’4″ Foye could have been much more effective than the 5’5″ Boykins. And with Arenas admittedly still trying to find his rhythm on both ends of the floor, Foye would have been perfect.

– Coach Saunders raved about the game of Will Bynum during his pregame media session, and he mentioned that his potential was the catalyst for the Pistons trading Chauncey Billups early last season. Tonight, all of Bynum’s attributes were on the display. He got into the lane at will, he was a disruptive force on the defensive end of the floor when Boykins and Arenas attempted to bring the ball up, and he even attempted to throw the ball down over Brendan Haywood. He finished with 20 points, six assists and eight rebounds. Even Arenas had to marvel at Bynum’s play after the game: “Everybody in this league is here for a reason, and he’s good at pick and roll and getting in the lane.”

– The Pistons signed free agent Charlie Villaneuva and Ben Gordon during the offseason to give their team more scoring options to compliment Rodney Stuckey, Richard Hamilton and Tayshaun Prince. With Hamilton and Prince out due to injury, Villanueva and Gordon were thrust into prominent roles for tonight’s game, and neither one disappointed. Villanueva, despite fouling out of the game, had his inside/outside game on display all night. He scored 25 points, which included 4-7 shooting from the 3 point line, he grabbed seven rebounds, and he proved to be a difficult matchup for the Wizards all evening. Gordon was 5-8 from the three point line en route to 29 points, and he hit some big shots both in and out of the lane down the stretch. I’d say that trade is paying dividends, and will continue to do so when everyone gets healthy.

Final score: Pistons 106 Wizards 103

Toronto Makes A Stand On The Defensive End

You would think giving up 44 points in the fourth quarter to Dallas on Saturday and following that up by allowing Manu Ginobili to erupt for 36 points off the bench on Monday would be provide the Raptors with a hard enough punch to the gut to rouse the team from their early season slumber on the defensive end.

Guess not, as the Toronto allowed Chicago to waltz into the Air Canada Centre tonight and score 35 points in the second quarter as part of a first half which saw them score 60 points.

After the game a grumpy Jay Triano ripped into his team for what called an embarrassing effort on the defensive effort  in the first half. However, it’s what he said during the halftime that lit the necessary fuse to rally hold Chicago to 29 points the entire second half.

“We were embarrassed at halftime,” a stern Triano told the media after the game. “Chicago had 60 points. I credit our guys because they pulled together and found a way to hold them to 29 points in the second half. All I said to them was this team averages 88 and they’ve got 60 right now.”

While it was great to see Toronto deliver a message on the defensive end in the second half, the key is if the team can sustain this kind of defensive intensity each quarter and then continue to bring that same intensity into each time their opponent has possession.

Toronto’s defense has shown flashes of potential when they held Cleveland to 17 points in a quarter, New Orleans to 14 and Chicago to 11, but they’ve also had quarters where their defensive schemes disappear when Dallas erupted for 44 points or Memphis scored 39.

To prevent these defensive lapses from continuing to rear their ugly head, Toronto needs to start giving a consistent effort on the defensive end.

“It’s a mental effort,” Bosh explained to Hoops Addict after the game. “You just have to will yourself to do it. If we want to be a good defensive team than we need to put in that kind of effort every night. If we play with energy like that we’re going to be in a lot of games and we’ll win a lot of games. ”

Playing with energy and focus is part of it, but another crucial aspect is rallying together as one united front on the defensive end.

“Everybody needs to take pride in knowing it’s a team effort,” Jack explained to Hoops Addict. “It can’t just be one guy and you need to guard your man. No, that one guy is going against us so we need to take it as a team approach. We can’t assume one guy is going to stop one person. When a guy is guarding Kobe Bryant or Kevin Garnett we can’t look at them and say stop them. It’s got to be all of us. Showing that person different looks, tough angles and closing down the paint.”

With games against Baron Davis, Steve Nash, and Deron Williams during this road trip that mantra rings true as the  team can’t put Jose Calderon or Jack on an island alone to cover those point guards. They also can’t leave Antoine Wright or a banged up Hedo Turkoglu to try to cover Carmelo Anthony one-on-one.

Instead, they need to rally around the defensive schemes Triano has been trying to implement for the past two months while showing some mental toughness and grit on the defensive end.

If they resort to the lackadaisical defensive efforts which saw them get burned by Memphis, Dallas and San Antonio, then all the talk coming from the team tonight was nothing more than a bunch of hot air.

Quick Hits:

  • Before the game I had the chance to chat with Chicago Bulls rookie Taj Gibson for a couple of minutes about playing against his former college teammate DeMar DeRozan, what he’s learning from Chicago’s vets, the tough part of playing in back-to-back games and what it’s been like to battle against childhood idols Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett. Look for that interview to be up on Hoops Addict early next week.
  • Jose Calderon drove by Derrick Rose on back-to-back possessions in the first quarter for four easy points. This was a recurring theme as Toronto managed to score 50 of their points in the paint. Chicago temporarily fought back in the second quarter by scoring 20 points in the paint.
  • Second chance points killed Toronto in the first half (16 points for Chicago in the first half while Toronto had none). Another scary stat from the first half is Chicago missed 22 shots but were able to snag 8 offensive rebounds. This changed in the second half as Chicago was limited to 2 points off second chance points.
  • Joakim Noah was aggressive in the first quarter with 4 points, 2 boards and attacked Chris Bosh without fear. However, after getting 20 rebounds in his previous two games Toronto was able to hold him to 11 rebounds tonight.
  • Gibson and DeRozan played with a little extra passion tonight due to their friendship as college teammates. DeRozan had Five points in the first quarter while Gibson had 8 points and two boards. DeRozan finished with a career high in points (9) and rebounds (9). Gibson, however, blocked two of DeRozan’s shots (one was a dunk attempt) which resulted in DeRozan getting ribbed by his teammates after the game.

They Said It:

Amir Johnson talked about a change the team made on the defensive end in the second half:

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Chris Bosh talked about what it will take for the team to start giving a consistent effort on the defensive end:

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DeMar DeRozan joked with the media about his dunk tonight:

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Jarrett Jack talked about the need for the team to stay mentally tough:

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Hedo Turkoglu explained what happened to his hip in the second half and how it was feeling after some treatment:

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By The Numbers:
3 – Field goals Chicago had in the fourth quarter
4 – Consecutive wins Toronto now has over Chicago
5 – Rebounds Andrea Bargnani had in the first quarter
6 – Rebounds Joakim Noah had in the first half after snagging 14 in the first half last night against Denver
7 – Consecutive games Chris Bosh has scored 25 or more points
9 – DeMar DeRozan set a career-high in points (9) and rebounds (9)
10 – Field goals Chicago had in the second half
11 – Points Toronto was able to hold Chicago to in the fourth quarter
18 – Points Chicago was held to in the third quarter, the third lowest Toronto has held an opponent to in a quarter so far this season
41.7% – Field goal percentage Toronto held Chicago to in the first quarter.
61 – Chicago’s 61 first half points marked the seventh consecutive game where Toronto’s opponent had scored at least 51 points in the first half.

Game Notes: Phoenix vs. Washington

- As I walked towards the press room being set up for today’s game, Suns coach Alvin Gentry started walking along side me.  He remarked that he was tired, and wanted to just kick back and watch football.  I told him that I wasn’t getting paid to cover the game today, so I would gladly coach the team, take his salary and be happy.  He stuck his hand out, and told me I had myself a deal.  But I covered the game, he coached it, and no money changed hands.

-Over the past several months I have heard several players, coaches and members of the media, praise the actions of the Phoenix Suns training staff.  From Shaquille O’Neal, to Grant Hill, to Steve Nash, to Steve Kerr to ESPN’s Bill Simmons, everyone has nothing but glowing statements about the Suns’ trainers, and today I saw first hand how they operate.  I was waiting to interview some of the Suns’ players for almost 20 minutes prior to the game, because all of the players in there were  participating in some type of stretching exercise.  Amare Stoudemire and Grant Hill were stretching their ankles with resistance bands. Leandro Barbosa and Jared Dudley were sitting on giant exercise balls.  Steve Nash and Jason Richardson were also using equipment to stretch as well.  To give you some perspective, the usual pre-game locker room atmosphere consists of players listening to music and joking around.  For Phoenix, every player was either on the court shooting around or in the locker room stretching.  No exceptions.

– During his pre-game press conference, Coach Gentry mentioned that although he was happy his team defeated the Celtics on Friday night, he did not put much stock in that or anything that happens prior to the 25 game mark.  “For us the quality of [the victory over the Celtics] is that it’s a road win and those are hard to come by in the NBA,” Gentry remarked.  “Other than that I don’t read anything into that the fact that we have a 5-1 start.  To me I think we’ll know about our team 25 games into the season.  Then you can go back and look at what kind of consistency we’ve had.”  Although Gentry was talking about his team, that same logic can be applied to this 2-5 Wizards team.  It is still early.

-Amare Stoudemire, who had major eye surgery back in February, showed flashes of his past brilliance at times (17 points and 12 rebounds), but at the other times he seemed to be fighting with himself whether it be his footwork or his shot.  Coach Gentry cautioned the media against judging Stoudemire’s performance this early in the season.  “I think he’s making progress, but I don’t think people understand he missed six months. He couldn’t lift a weight, he could not shoot a basketball, he couldn’t run, he couldn’t do anything, ” Gentry explained.  “So obviously when that happens, there’s an adjustment period when you start playing again. I don’t think that you count the preseason games because that’s just a different mentality, so really he’s only had the six games that we’ve played to get his timing and stuff back, so I think he’s at 70-75%, but I think he’s going to get a lot better.”

-During media day, Nick Young made many references to the fact that he was ready to start in this his third year. When Mike Miller went down with a shoulder injury during the Miami Heat game last week, there was an open starting slot at the shooting guard position, and Coach Saunders inserted Young prior to the Indiana Pacers game on Fridy.  After hitting an early three pointer against the Pacers,  Young was a non-factor, scoring only 3 points in a blowout loss.  Tonight, Coach Saunders chose to start Randy Foye, and Young’s window to prove he could start slammed shut.  “[Foye] gives us a little more offense and consistency when we’re out on the floor, ” Saunders said. Young, incidentally, did not play a minute.

-The Suns came into this contest against the Wizards as the number one scoring team in the NBA at 111 points per game.  The Wizards were able to hold them to just 102 points, and despite the loss, that’s a feat that both Arenas and Coach Saunders were extremely proud to have accomplished. “For the most part I thought we contained what they were trying to do,” Arenas said at his locker after the game. “They shot 47% from the field, 44% from three, and 40% from the free throw line…you know we’re ninth [in the league] in defense right now, we just can’t get our offense in the right direction.”  Arenas went on to say, “We’re trying to find out what we are. At first we were a bad defensive team and we were 22nd, 29th, 30th in the league [in points allowed] and now we’re ninth, and we’re just trying to figure out how we can put the ball in the basket.” Saunders said of the defense, “I told our guys to hold them to 102 points, the way they[Phoenix] have been playing is not that bad…we forced 20 turnovers and 23 points off turnovers which kept us in the game.”

-The offense, which was supposed to be the one area that Coach Saunders specialized in, has been struggling the last several games, and no one seems to have the answer as to why.  Saunders said after the game that his players didn’t trust the system or each other.  Brendan Haywood thinks that when the offensive sets break down, there are too many one-on-one and isolation plays.  Arenas thinks that the absence of both Jamison and Miller are the key, because of how they can spread the floor and make things easier for everyone.  From my vantage point, it is all of the above, plus the fact that the Wizards are simply missing shots that they were hitting in their victories.  In fact, the Wizards have not looked fluid on offense since the first half of their game against the Cleveland Cavaliers.

-Wizards forward Dominic McGuire only played 11 minutes and did not score a point.  But his inspired play on the defensive end might have earned him more playing time in future games.  Down the stretch he blocked a shot by Jason Richardson, who had been abusing both Foye and Arenas in the paint earlier in the game; he stole the ball from Nash in the paint, and he just seemed to be everywhere.  Offfensively he continues to struggle as much as the rest of the team, but this hustle plays cannot be overlooked. Perhaps Nick Young could take some lessons on how to earn more playing time.

-35-year-old Steve Nash absolutely controlled the pace of the game this evening.  He finished with more assists than the entire Wizards team (he had 17 to their 15), he scored 11 points, and he consistently exploited the Wizards lack of understanding on how to play the pick-and-roll.  Every move that he made had a purpose, he rarely made a bad pass or forced a shot, and his teammates always had to stay ready for an unconventional, yet accurate pass. It was truly special to watch.  When one member of the media mentioned to Arenas that the Suns had twice as many assists as the Wizards, he jumped in and sang Nash’s praises.  “One guy [Nash] had twice as many, that’s how that system runs. Same thing with Chris Paul… they have the ball in their hand, pick and rolling, and then when he passes it you better shoot, “Arenas said.  “He doesn’t go for the pump fake or rhythm type of shots.  I heard him curse out Grant Hill when Grant Hill pumped, took one dribble and then shot it, he got on him.  That’s how the offense works, when he passes it, you better shoot.”

-Speaking of Grant Hill, I had a chance to speak with him on a wide range of topics.  Stay tuned to Hoops Addict later on this week for that story.

Game Notes: Miami vs Washington

-I had a great pregame conversation with Heat center Jermaine O’Neal, where he talked about everything from how he got started playing basketball, to how it feels to now be one of the leaders on this team.  Please check back to Hoops Addict for that interview.

-I walked into the Verizon Center at 5:25pm, and Antawn Jamison was on the court.  At that point, he was shooting three-point shots while the ball boys fed him him ball after ball.  Then he moved down to the post,, and started shooting mini jump-hooks with both hands over assistant coach Sam Cassell.  He then did some minor dribbling exercises, before picking up the pace a bit by shooting shots from everywhere on the court.  At no point did this look like a man who is suffering any ill effects from a subluxation of the shoulder.  There is still no official word on when he is to return, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see him back on the court next week.

-I briefly talked to Michael Beasley before the game, as he ran off the court and towards the locker room.  Initially it was my intent to get an interview, but he told he had to get back to the locker room.  But before he ran off, he made absolutely sure that I heard one thing he had to say.  “Its going to be a good night baby,” Beasley said  before running off.  I asked him what that meant, and he said, “Just remember I told you before the game, that it’s going to be a good night for me.”  Beasley’s prediction was slightly off, as he only scored 10 points in 24 minutes.

-During last night’s game against the Phoenix Suns, the Heat had great difficulty against the zone defense.  Through the first three quarters, the Heat scored 81 points, and during that last quarter they only were able to muster 15 points.  When someone brought this to the attention of Wizards’ Coach Flip Saunders prior to the game, Saunders simply laughed and succinctly said, “Yeah we really don’t play any zone.”

-According to Michael Lee of the Washington Post, the NBA is looking into whether to upgrade Shaquille O’Neal’s foul on Wizards guard, DeShawn Stevenson last night, to a flagrant one.

-During Tuesday night’s game against the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Wizards got off to a blistering start, and they led 31-17.  Tonight was the complete opposite.  The Wizards committed 8 turnovers in the first quarter, shot 29% from the field, and they found themselves down by the very score they led the Cavs by before, 31-17.  Meanwhile the Heat played the blistering role after one quarter by shooting 68% from the field and 67% from beyond the arc.  Like Cleveland did against them the night before, the Wizards fought back and took the lead at different points in both the third and fourth quarters against the Heat.  But unlike Cleveland, the Wizards were not able to overcome the large deficit.

-Earlier in the day, my editor sent me an email inquiring as to why JaVale McGee did not play more minutes.  Here is the answer:  With about seven minutes left in the second quarter, Randy Foye and Mike Miller hit back to back three-pointers to cut the Heat lead to 8 points.  The next offensive possession, McGee seemingly broke the offensive play that had been called, drove the lane from the three-point line, and missed a finger roll.  Coach Saunders immediately called Brendan Haywood to sub for McGee, but the Heat called timeout before Haywood could get in the game.  Before McGee ran off the court, Haywood ran up to him, offered some words of encouragement, and then patted him on the back, before they both rejoined their teammates.  McGee did not play another minute after that.  I asked Haywood after the game what he said to McGee, and he said, “I was just telling him, you’re coming out of the game because [you were] driving the ball from the top of the key.  I was like listen, do what you do, play within yourself, but don’t give the coach a reason to take you out of the game. You made a mistake, live with it and work through it for the next game.”

-I’d be remiss if I did not mention the greatness of one Dwyane Wade.  In the second quarter, the Wizards were in the midst of making  a run, and they had Miami’s lead to one Caron Butler’s runner.  On the next trip down the court, Wade took the ball and calmly hit a three pointer.  Just a minute later, he hit yet another three, and not only did that thwart the Wizards run, but Coach Saunders was forced to call a timeout.  Late in the second half, right after DeShawn Stevenson missed two free throws that would have given the Wizards the lead, Wade took the ball coast to coast and hit a jumper that gave the Heat the lead instead.  The Heat never lost the lead after that.  Whether it was hitting the open jumper or finding the open man, Wade was in total control all night.  His final numbers?  40 points, five assists and four rebounds.

-About midway through the third quarter, Arenas seemed to get tired of trying to set his teammates up, especially when no one else besides Haywood was able to get score consistently.   He took nine shots and scored 11 points. Even though the Wizards were able to tie the game in the quarter after being down by nine, Arenas missed Caron Butler and Mike Miller on the perimeter several times.  In fact the entire game, Arenas was as aggressive offensively as I’ve seen him since before the knee surgery.  He shot 9-for-27 and scored 32 points, with just three assists.   I can’t imagine that was the type of point guard play Coach Saunders envisioned out of Arenas.  In fairness to Arenas, every one of his teammates seemed to be suffering the effects from Cleveland game the previous night, and he was the only source of energy.  Still, it seems like a balance between point and scoring guard could have been found.  One has to wonder if he was trying to match Wade point for point as well.

-Mike Miller  injured his shoulder early in the third quarter, and had to go back in the locker room.  While he was in there, the trainers taped his shoulder, gave him a shot, and he checked back in the game later that quarter.  With 9:11 left in the fourth quarter, Miller drove hard to the basket, scored on a crucial drive to cut the lead to three, but fell down hard on that same injured shoulder.  Despite the fact that he was noticeably dragging that left shoulder, he hit it a free throw for a three point play, then made a pinpoint pass to a cutting Andray Blatche, which led to a dunk, and a Miami timeout.  Miller then promptly ran back to the locker room for a second time to a rousing applause from the crowd and did not return.  Coach Saunders said after the game that Miller will be out 7-10 days with a sprained shoulder.  “It felt like it kind of came out of place, and it went numb, so that scared me a little more than anything, and it was painful, but I’ll be alright, ” Miller said after the game.  Miller went on to add that had this been later in the season, he would have tried to come back in the game yet again.  That type of toughness speaks volumes about Miller.

– Caron Butler was very hard on himself after the game.  He put up decent number of 13 points and 10 rebounds, but he had five turnovers and his presence was virtually  non-existent in the clutch.  “It was rather frustrating..me personally making mental mistakes..I got caught watching the show, instead of being part of it a little bit more, and you know deferring too much, so I look forward to playing the next game.”  To his credit, Butler made no mention of his bruised knee cap or Arenas not looking for him as often.

-During the last 44 seconds of the game, the Wizards had two missed free throws (DeShawn Stevenson) and three turnovers.  When asked about that after his team’s finish after the game, Saunders chose to focus on how the game started instead.  “What always happens in these situations is that when I go out and talk, they[the media] are going to ask about the last minute, because that’s the thing that they remember, but I remember the first minute and falling behing by 19, and not coming out with the energy…the basketball Gods will get you, and you can’t really cheat the game in those situations.”

Final score:   Miami 93 Washington 89

Game Notes: Detroit vs. Toronto

Here’s a shameless plug: Make sure you check out my latest article for SLAMonline.

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Do you know what’s frustrating? Having an idea that I think sounds great in concept but then when it comes to implementing that idea things fall apart.

Heading into the game I chatted with Rashad Mobley about starting a new feature here on Hoops Addict where players would talk about what the game means to them when they’re 5, 10, 15 and 20-years-old. Rashad and I both felt this would give players a chance to break free from the normal monotonous question they face while talking about the game they love.

Turns out getting players to open up is going to be tougher than I thought. I was able to chat with Marco Belinelli and Quincy Douby before the game about this, and while bother players talked, neither seemed overly enthused about this topic.

Rashad, meanwhile, was able to chat with Jermaine O’Neal before Washington’s game against Miami and ended up having a great chat that will be up on Hoops Addict at some over the next week.

I’m going to give the audio clips with Belinelli and Douby another listen and then decide if I’ll post the clips on Hoops Addict early next week.

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Something that did work out well before the game was chatting with Ben Gordon about the new documentary that’s in the works chronicling his last few months as a Chicago Bull. This afternoon I had the chance to chat with Matt Watson about story ideas surrounding the Pistons and he mentioned this gem.

Make sure you read Watson’s chat with the director on FanHouse and listen to my chat with Gordon about his documentary and what he’s learning from Rip Hamilton that will be posted on Hoops Addict early next week.

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I can’t express how jealous I am of guys like Doug Smith who had the chance to chat with Charles Oakley on a daily basis. Before the game Oakley took 10 minutes to chat with the media about a wide range of topics from the way the game is currently played, how the Cavs could better utilize LeBron James and the movie he recently produced. I have to admit I had a tough time not cracking a smile due to Oakley’s brilliant sense of humour combined with his brutal honesty about the sport he loves.

Here’s a quick snippet of Oakley talking about if he’ll ever coach in the NBA, current players being too nice to each other on the court and his thoughts on how the Cavaliers aren’t utilizing LeBron James properly:

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The story of the game for the Raptors was the strong play from their bench. At the end of the first quarter the team went on a 24-8 run once Jarrett Jack and Antoine Wright came into the game.

After the game I chatted with Wright about the spark he gave the team on the defensive end and he talked about the selfless act he had while on the bench in the second half:

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I was also able to chat with Jack about what he and Wright saw while sitting on the bench in the first quarter:

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The other big story was the 20-8 run the Raptors went on to finish the game. Why is this a big deal? Because after enjoying a 17 point lead, Toronto allowed Detroit to take a 91-90 advantage in the fourth quarter.

Normally in years past a punch to the gut like this would have seen the team pack it in and the end result would have been another tough to swallow loss.

Not this year. Turns out this team is a little more resiliency and too much pride to let that happen.

After the game when I asked Chris Bosh about the strong finish he told me the teams strong finish came down to the team wanting to defend home court:

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While this was a big win in general for the Raptors, it was even bigger for Amir Johnson as it came against his former team. Normally players will throw out a bunch of cliches about it being another game. Not Amir. After the game my buddy Robin from Raptors TV and I took some time to chat with Amir and he was more than happy to gloat after the win.

Here’s the video clip of us chatting after the game:

Game Notes: Orlando vs. Toronto

I’ve heard countless stories of Dwight Howard’s sense of humour but before today I had yet to witness this first hand. Today that changed and in a big way. As I walked into Orlando’s locker room, Howard mimicked the teams PR rep’s voice in a playful way and then proceeded to rip on a Toronto beat writer for his fashion choice for the day (bright blue kicks with jeans and a sport jacket).

When Vince Carter rolled through the locker room the laughs continued as he brought up the topic of Master P being part of Toronto’s training camp roster one year.

The jokes didn’t stop once Howard left the locker room as Ryan Anderson, Brandon Bass and J.J. Redick were joking about possible friendly wagers involving haircuts.

Even though head coach Stan Van Gundy feels this team has a lot of gelling to still do on the court, Magic fans will be happy to know the team has already started to gel off the court.

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Speaking of Howard, I was impressed to find out he’s a big MMA fan. Turns out he does some MMA training in the offseason but when it comes to actually getting into the octagon, “If it goes to the ground I’m down. That’s a wrap.”

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Sure, basketball is a business, but getting traded has to suck. You need to leave teammates and countless other people you’ve formed friendships with plus you have the hassle of moving all your stuff across the country.

Unless you’re bitter about you’re situation there’s nothing good about being dealt.

Last season Ryan Anderson enjoyed a highly successful rookie season which saw him average 7.4 points and 4.7 rebounds while playing a shade under 20 minutes per game (19.9). By all accounts Anderson was a great fit and a big part of New Jersey’s youth movement.

That all changed when Orlando and New Jersey made a deal involving Vince Carter that the Magic demanded Anderson be part of.

Despite being disappointed when he first heard about the trade, things have worked out great for Anderson as he’s still part of a team that values him. He’s not only valued but his minutes (24.0) and production (16.0 points per game) are all up this season.

Before the game I was able to chat with Ryan Anderson for a bit about how he felt when he heard he was traded and his role with Orlando this season. Look for that interview to be up on Hoops Addict later this week.

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Man, J.J. Redick’s rap song is really creating a buzz. After the game the media tried to bust his chops about this and Redick opened up about how the idea is gaining some traction on iTunes:

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On a more serious note, one of the impressive things I witnessed tonight was the growth and maturation of Redick as a complete player rather than being just a shooter. Most basketball fans will be drawn to his career-high 27 points, but what caught my attention was the six rebounds he grabbed and five assists he dished out.

After talking with him about his more balanced game I asked him if he saw anything in particular in the Raptors’ defense which gave them the green light to shoot a lot of shots beyond the arc tonight.  During training camp Raptors head coach Jay Triano talked about guarding the house and that some nights that would result in teams getting hot and burning them from beyond the arc. That happened tonight as Orlando went a sizzling 17-32.

Redick was able to provide some insight into what he saw that helped him shoot with confidence behind the arc on the way to going 5-8 from three-point territory:

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Another big story for me was Dwight Howard shooting an impressive 14-16 from the charity stripe.

According to his teammates and coaches, Howard has been putting in a lot of time working on this aspect of his game but it just hasn’t shown up in games for some reason. After shooting 60.% for this career and 41% so far this season it was great to see his hard work start to finally start to pay dividends this afternoon.

Here’s what Stan Van Gundy had to say about this after the game:

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Here’s what Dwight Howard had to say when I asked him about his free throw shooting this afternoon:

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The other big storyline surrounding Howard was the confrontation he had with Chris Bosh in the fourth quarter. Both players have been friends for a number of years but there were some heated words said on the court and tempers flared after Bosh delivered a hard foul.

After the game the media asked a couple of questions about this and from Howard’s body language it was clear he didn’t appreciate the hard contact.

In fact, when asked about this he told one reporter, “I’m accustomed to getting fouled. Does it hurt sometimes? Yeah, but I just try my best not to retaliate but sometimes it does get frustrating.”

Not exactly the kind of words I generally use when talking about playing basketball against one of my close friends.

Game Notes: New Jersey vs. Washington

-During his pre-game press conference, Coach Flip Saunders addressed the health of both Caron Butler and Antawn Jamison.  Butler bruised his left knee against the Hawks on Friday, and the lingering soreness caused him to miss tonight’s game.  He had an X-ray and an MRI but no damage was found, and he is expected to play against Cleveland on Tuesday.  Jamison, who looked great during the shootaround prior to the game, is still scheduled to be out a couple more weeks with that subluxation in his right shoulder.  When Saunders saw Jamison shooting seemingly pain free, even he took notice.  “I went down and saw him in game shorts and I thought he was going to play and I got excited,”  Saunders remarked to the media.  “He wants to play he thinks he can play, but we’re being a little bit more cautious.”

– Also before the game, Saunders mentioned that the on-court intelligence of Gilbert Arenas, both offensively and defensively has been a pleasant surprise.  “He[Arenas] understands concepts, he understand where he supposed to be… and understanding what you’re supposed to do is half the battle.”  Considering Arenas’ love-hate relationship with former Wizards coach Eddie Jordan, it has to be a good omen that his new coach is already singing his praises.  Considering two of the Big 3 are out (Jamison and Butler), it’s important for Arenas and the coach to be on the same page.

-One cannot help but wonder if the Wizards are now being extra cautious with the injuries to Jamison and Butler, because of how Arenas’ injuries were handled during the past couple of years.  Both Arenas and the members of the Wizards’ front office agreed that he came back from his knee injuries a bit too soon, and as a result he is just now regaining All-Star form.  Arenas took it one step further, and was highly criticial of Wizards’ team doctors during the offseason.  Even though at first glance, it looks like Jamison and Butler can fight through their injuries and return to the court, the team seems to be making absolutely sure, that players are healthy before they set foot on the court again.

-Devin Harris was out both today and for Monday’s game against Charlotte, with an injured groin.  According to Dave D’Alessandro of the Star-Ledger, Coach Frank is saying Harris is day-to-day, but Harris himself is thinking he’ll be out 7-10 days.  Rafer “Skip to my Lou” Alston  started at point guard in his place, and rookie Terrence Williams backed him up.  Alston scored 20 points and handed out eight assists, and Williams had nine points and two assists.  When I spoke to Williams before the game about  facing Arenas he said, “I looked up to the guy even before I got to the league, so to go up against him now is a dream come true for me.”

-The Wizards starting lineup tonight consisted of:  Arenas, Miller, Foye, Oberto and Haywood.   None of them were on the Wizards’ opening day active roster last year.

-One fun exchange happened in the last 20 seconds of the first quarter.  During an inbounds play, Arenas was whistled for a offensive foul, and he was so upset that he ran down to the other side of the court, and complained to the referee.  Just a few seconds later, as time expired in the quarter, Arenas hit a three point shot from just inside the half court line.  As he walked back to the bench, he calmly glared at the referee.  Not to be outdone, DeShawn Stevenson showed his own flair for the dramatic as well, by driving coast-to-coast to end the second quarter.

-Chris Douglas-Roberts is getting extended playing time for the Nets due to the injury to Nets forward (and former Wizard) Jarvis Hayes, and he’s making the most of it this evening.  After averaging just seven points in his first two games, Douglas-Roberts had 25 points tonight in a loss, and he finally resembled the player he was at Memphis.  He’s scoring from both inside and out, he looked comfortable handling the ball, and he showed a tenacity on defense that was missing when I watched him play last year.  It will be interesting to see what Coach Lawrence Frank does with his playing time when both Harris and Hayes are completely healthy.

– Coming into this game, the Wizards were without Butler and Jamison, which meant that someone had to step up tonight besides Arenas, and tonight that person was Andray Blatche, who had a career high 30 points.  There were the 18 foot  jumpers that came after a behind-the-back move; there was an up and under move.  At one point, Blatche even passed up an open shot to get Nick Young his first basket late in the game.  That type of unselfishness is usually not a part of Blatche’s game. In just 26 minutes of play, Blatche had 30 points, and he shot a blistering 83% (15-18 from the field).  After the game, Haywood remarked, “My son, my son, I’m so proud of my son.”  When one writer asked Saunders to comment the full array of new moves Blatche unveiled tonight, Coach Saunders quipped, “He had never seen those shots either, and if they hadn’t gone in, he’d have never shot them again.”

-Even though I am a writer, and I’m supposed to be objective, I must say it was a pleasure seeing Gilbert Arenas back to playing at an elite level.  After an inconsistent preseason that saw him alternate between being passive and overly aggressive, Arenas has seemingly found a balance between the two.  Tonight, in just 29 minutes of play, Arenas scored 32 points and dished out seven assists.  As Coach Saunders observed after the game, Arenas probably could have had four or five more assists had his teammates not gotten fouled on their way to the basket.  The season is still early, and I know that he will still have both up and down games, but it was good to see Arenas in rare form for the home opener.

-The Wizards shot 61%,  from the field, 64.3%  from the three point line, and 78% from the free throw line.   With those types of shooting percentages, they will rarely lose.

-The type of Wizards blowout victory was virtually non-existent last year, when Haywood and Arenas were out due to injury.  Tonight, even with Jamison and Butler out, the Wizards were still able to put away this young Nets team with relative ease.  The reason? Quality depth which allowed for a balanced attack.  Everyone except Dominic McGuire and Mike James scored, and everyone picked up the slack in one way or another. Mike Miller grabbed 11 rebounds, Fabricio Oberto handed out five assists, and DeShawn Stevenson’s defensive intensity was impressive.  As Foye said after the game, “Injuries are no excuse, we have to step and play hard.”  How balanced was the Wizards play?  The first five questions during Saunders post-game press conference had nothing to do with Gilbert Arenas.

-I can honestly say that I tried to talk to Gilbert Arenas after tonight’s game, but the crowd of reporters around him was monstrous.  And once he started talking, his answers were soft, short and sweet.  Arenas said before the season that he was tired of talking, blogging and clowning, and it was time for his play to speak volumes.  As a journalist, I must say its disappointing that he’s not talking, but if he continues to put up 32 points and seven assists in 29 minutes, I cannot complain at all.  As nba.com writer and TNT sideline reporter, David Aldridge said, “I don’t know a great player that hasn’t at one point blamed the media.”

-Please stay tuned to Hoops Addict for my article on guard Randy Foye who continues to play well for the Wizards.

Final score:  Wizards 123  Nets 104