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A Peek at the First Round

   by Al McMordie - 04/20/2008

Teamwork and unselfish play are key ingredients to winning the NBA title, which is why we should all root for the San Antonio Spurs to repeat as champions. They are quiet, humble, hard working and team-oriented, which is what organized sports is all about. All right, so I'm biased, as I've been rooting for the Spurs since back in the days when the Iceman was dropping rainbow jumpers on helpless defenders.

However, the Spurs, like the Celtics in the East, are two teams that do represent what basketball purists look for: Team-oriented play, no cry-babies, no whiners, just smart, fundamental basketball. Even Rasheed Wallace turned into a relatively fine NBA citizen after joining the Pistons, though he has had a mild feud with coach Flip Saunders the last two years. Winning and playing the game right is fun. And when was the last time you heard any of the Spurs complain about playing time, not enough shots, or get in trouble off the court? The organization wouldn't stand for it, nor would quiet leader Tim Duncan, who would take the trouble-maker aside and say shut-up and play.

Game 1 of the Suns/Spurs series was one for the ages, a great way to kick off the playoffs. Phoenix twice had the game won, only to have the Spurs come up with shocking last second three-pointers to force two overtimes. One was by Duncan, his first three pointer made all season! "That's enough to kill you if you play every game like that," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said.

Shaq, the new piece of the Suns’ puzzle, wasn’t much of a factor. He only played 30 minutes despite 2 overtimes because of foul trouble, finishing with 11 points and 5 rebounds. Three other Suns outrebounded him, while a fourth, guard Raja Bell, had the same amount of rebounds. And for all his talk, Shaq was 1-of-3 from the free throw line, which hurts even more when you realize the game went 2 OTs. He needs to talk less and work more – on the court and in the gym at the charity stripe.

One other factor is that Duncan shot just 42% the last two years when matched up against Shaq, either against Phoenix or the Miami Heat. Yet, Duncan was 16-of-24 from the field for 40 points in Game 1. Not bad for a guy who turns 32 this week.

Now that it’s playoff time, here’s another point to keep in mind: Both the Suns and Spurs played good defense. The game was on an under pace, at 93-93 at the end of regulation, which was well under the total of 194. What happened in the Rockets/Jazz Game 1? After allowing 104 ppg on the road this season, Utah finally decided to play some defense, holding the Rockets to just 36% shooting. The game sailed under the total by double digits. Andrei Kirilenko helped slow Tracy McGrady, who made just 7 of 21 shots. The Jazz set the tone early by grabbing 17 of the game's first 22 rebounds.

Remember, Utah has been a young run-and-gun team much of the last three years, while Houston brought in coach Rick Adelman this season to add uptempo to the offense, replacing slow-down Jeff Van Gundy. So what happened in Game 1? A defensive, low scoring under battle. That’s common this time of the season: More defensive intensity.

In the East, no one was sure what kind of pace the Wizards and Cavs would set for their playoff series. Washington is a run-and-gun team, but the Cavaliers went from a slow, defensive style a year ago under coach Mike Brown to a more uptempo pace this season. What style would prevail? The game was tied, 46-46, at the half. The rough play and verbal exchanges were exchanged for gritty, defensive basketball in the final 24 minutes. Antawn Jamison took more shots (24) than points scored (23)! So did DeShawn Stevenson (9 shots, 3 points). The final tally had Washington shooting 40% and the Cavaliers 39%. Yes, it sailed under the total.

The Mavs/Hornets Game 1 did get over the total by 3 points, but not because of the way Dallas played offensively. The Dallas Mavericks fell in love with the jump shot in the third quarter and a total reversal of shooting percentages altered the direction of Game 1. After scoring 52 points in the first half, spurred by 10-of-21 shooting in the first quarter, the Mavs made just nine field goals in the second half, were outscored 64-40 and finished their 104-92 loss with a 33.3 shooting percentage. Josh Howard epitomized their struggles, scoring 15 points in the first half, followed by a 0-for-8 second-half shooting performance.

The Mavs' 26 field goals just beat their all-time playoff-low of 24 against Houston in 2005. "We were able to attack them on the defensive end, limiting them on some of the things they like to do," Hornets forward David West said. "It allowed us to be in position to get close and cut the lead down and eventually take the lead and push it open." The Mavs were outscored 36-16 inside and 15-10 in fastbreak points. Not a good sign for a Dallas team with a playoff albatross around their necks the last two years. And don’t be surprised if the more focused defensive teams advance. Good luck, as always...Al McMordie.

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