We have three Game 6s tonight, all of which should be fun. Since there's nothing like a Game 7 in the NBA Playoffs, I'm hoping all the trailing teams win tonight. Except the Hawks, who don't deserve it and would prevent us from seeing more "Fear the Deer" goofiness. Oh, and except the Nuggets, because they just make me so mad. So basically, I'm rooting for the Thunder and the Thunder only.
But before we get into tonight's games, I want to take one more look back at last night. After the Mavericks lost to the Spurs, Newsday's Alan Hahn made an interesting analogy regarding Dirk Nowitzki.
Patrick, of course, is Patrick Ewing. Obviously, the two are very different kinds of players, but I think there's something to this analogy. And trust me, I mean this in a good way.
Few criticisms of elite athletes annoy me more than the "he can't be the best player on a championship team" argument. Basketball is a team game, even if one player makes a more of a difference in it than in football or baseball. At the end of the day, sure, Ewing wasn't quite as good as Michael Jordan or Hakeem Olajuwon, much like Dirk isn't quite as good as Tim Duncan or Dwyane Wade. But Ewing didn't win in large part because he never had that co-star to carry the load. He never had a Scottie Pippen, a Clyde Drexler, a Manu Ginobili or even an older Shaq. This isn't to say his teammates weren't bad, but none will ever be considered for the Hall of Fame. There were a bunch of good players, a bunch of mediocre ones and a bunch of terrible ones, but no co-stars.
(It makes you wonder - what if Drexler came to New York in 1995 instead of Houston? Doesn't that change the 1995 playoffs a bit? Could Orlando or whoever came out of the West really beat a Knicks team with Drexler taking Hubert Davis' minutes? If that had happened, and the Knicks won the title, that would have completely changed Ewing's legacy, even though Ewing would have been playing the exact same way he had always played).
If we want to be honest with ourselves, we have to say that Dirk's never really had any co-stars either since 2005. He's had a lot of good teammates, don't get me wrong. Caron Butler is still a decent player. Jason Terry is a decent player. Jason Kidd is still a decent player. The 2006 version of Josh Howard was a good player, as was the 2007 version of Devin Harris. But are any of those guys really the kind of co-stars you need to win a title? Forget the question of whether Dirk is the kind of guy that can be the best player on a championship team -- can any of those guys be the second-best player on a championship team? No way.
So to extend the analogy a bit:
- Kidd is essentially the 1994 version of Derek Harper. Both are good, solid veterans expected to bring stability to the position, but both were past their prime.
- Butler's essentially the 1997 version of Allan Houston. Both are players fully capable of putting up big games, but both are not nearly as good as their reputation suggested.
- Terry is essentially John Starks. Both are fiery, short gunners that are as much of their team's identity as their superstar, but neither is fully reliable in big spots (see: last night).
- Marion is essentially the 1998 version of Larry Johnson. Both were once great players, but lost a step by the time they played with Ewing/Dirk.
- Brendan Haywood and Erick Dampier are essentially Chris Childs and Charlie Ward. Obviously, they play different positions, but both are average players playing a key position on the floor. (And I love Haywood, but he didn't have a great series).
- Rodrigue Beaubois is ... uhh ... yeah I guess I'm stumped.
Could you win a title if your next-best guys are the 2009 versions of Jason Terry, Caron Butler, Jason Kidd, Shawn Marion, Brendan Haywood and Erick Dampier? On paper ... no, you couldn't, and we should have always seen that coming. Just like Ewing could never win a title with the 1997 versions of John Starks, Allan Houston, Larry Johnson, Charles Oakley, Chris Childs and Charlie Ward.
So yes, Dirk=Patrick. Neither player was the best in the league, sure, but neither had enough help to get over the top in their primes.
Atlanta Hawks at Milwaukee Bucks: Game 6, 7:00 p.m., ESPN
Game 5 in one sentence: The Bucks, as they always do, kept plugging away, and the Hawks, as they've done too many times this year, epically melted down in the fourth quarter, failing to execute their offense in any meaningful way.
Problem the Hawks must solve to win: I wrote about this the other day, but it's downright embarrassing for you to let a team like the Bucks shoot more free throws than you do. The Bucks made the fewest number of free throws per 100 shot attempts in the NBA this year. They're a jump-shooting team that doesn't have any slashers, except for John Salmons. If they're shooting and hitting 10 more free throws per game than you, then you are playing lazy defense. Bottom line. Period. Exclamation mark.
Problem the Bucks must solve to win again: The Bucks need to continue to slow Atlanta's transition game, which they've done extremely well in this series. As SB Nation's Bucks blog Brew Hoop writes.
We mentioned the Hawks' sloppy transition game in our recap--how many times did the Bucks pick off a pass or otherwise break up transition opportunities last night? Seemed like it was more of an issue in the first half, while in the second half both teams settled down into their typical slow-paced game. Though the Bucks averaged 91.7 possessions/game in the regular season, they've been under 88 for each of the last eight games and last night was the slowest game of the series (85.5 possessions). While Atlanta was 27th in the league in pace (90.1), they were also fourth in the league in fast break pts/game (16 ppg), so they usually manage to blend a methodical halfcourt game with opportunistic transition. Meanwhile, the Bucks were fourth from the bottom at just 10 ppg in transition, yet they edged the Hawks in transition 12-10 last night. In their two wins the Hawks averaged 18.5 points on the break, but they've been limited to just 10.3 ppg in their three losses.
Fast break points is a notoriously nebulous stat, because it doesn't include all those points teams get on delayed fast breaks because of mismatches, but it's definitely true that Atlanta hasn't been able to get out and run in the last few games of this series. The Bucks need to continue to be disciplined about when they take quick shots in transition, because those shots could lead to transition opportunities for the Hawks.
Totally inconsequential thing I want to see happen: Screw it, I'll just say it: I'm looking forward to what kind of "Fear the Deer" antics we get from the crowd tonight.
Prediction: I just can't see Mike Woodson making any of the necessary adjustments to win this game. "Fear the Dear" keeps on rolling along. Bucks 104, Hawks 88.
Los Angeles Lakers at Oklahoma City Thunder: Game 6, 9:30 p.m., ESPN
Game 5 in one sentence: The Thunder were overwhelmed from the jump, and Kobe Bryant did a masterful job facilitating, playing defense and scoring when needed in leading his team to a blowout win.
Problem the Thunder must solve to win: The Lakers finally put Kobe on Russell Westbrook, and it neutralized the kid. Badly. Westbrook had 15 points, but shot just 4-13 and had a staggering eight turnovers. It was as if he tried to be aggressive like he was against Derek Fisher, but Kobe wouldn't let him get into his comfort zone. Instead of adjusting, Westbrook pressed and really hurt his team. What kind of adjustments does he make in Game 6? What kind of adjustments can he make? With Kobe playing so far off him, Westbrook is going to have open jumpers, but can he hit them? This is huge, because without Westbrook playing well, the Thunder have no chance.
Problem the Lakers must solve to win: Keep getting the ball inside, Kobe. You played a great game in Game 5, all things considering. You were a threat and dominated without shooting too much. That's the path to victory you must take again in Game 6.
Totally inconsequential thing I want to see happen: Here's a random idea for Scott Brooks - why not start James Harden? You're putting Kevin Durant on Kobe a lot of the time anyway, and Thabo Sefolosha's shooting has been miserable in this series. Harden might provide the spark you need to tie this series up.
Prediction: My head says go with the Lakers to close this out, but my heart wants a seven-game series. My heart wins. Thunder 99, Lakers 96.
Denver Nuggets at Utah Jazz: Game 6, 10:00 p.m., ESPN2
Game 5 in one sentence: The Nuggets had just enough pride to enforce their kind of game on the Jazz and avoid elimination, even without their starting center.
Problem the Jazz must solve to win: Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer need some help. They've gotten it for the most part in this series, but not in Game 5. As SB Nation's Jazz blog SLC Dunk notes, the Jazz's win trio of Wesley Matthews, Kyle Korver and C.J. Miles were just 8-26 in Game 5. They'll need to at least shoot better in Game 6, because as good as Williams and Boozer are, they can't win by themselves.
Problem the Nuggets must solve to keep winning: I'd say something like "control Deron Williams," but that's clearly impossible. So instead, I'll say this: keep getting to the free-throw line. The Nuggets shot 17 more free throws than the Jazz, and didn't have to sacrifice turnovers to do it. That probably won't repeat itself in Game 6, but they have to keep attacking and not get flustered, especially without Nene.
I'm eagerly awaiting the Utah fan response tonight. Hopefully they don't do something lame and make fun of Lawson's lack of grammar skills.
Prediction: Without Nene, I really can't see Denver winning in such a hostile environment like Utah's. I don't see this being close. Jazz 113, Nuggets 95.