Random Thoughts on NBA First Night

-If that’s what all the talk is about with Greg Oden a year finally back from micro fracture reconstructive knee surgery, then he should permanently change his name to Greg Olden. At least it would help explain the lack of production (no FGs, no Pts, 5 rebs, block, 2 fouls in 13 mins) before leaving a season opening 96-76 blowout loss to the Lakers with an ankle sprain with an MRI later today.

It looks like the Blazers former 2007 No.1overall pick is going to be rusty and more of a project than most expected. Especially with how poor his finishes were around the basket badly misfiring on four attempts while showing that his hands still need improvement.

For now, Portland might be more concerned with what the MRI reveals cause it’ll help determine how long the 20 year-old former Ohio State star will be out. They should heed on the side of caution based on what we saw.

As for the rest of his teammates who are expected to compete for a final playoff berth, they stunk it up against the defending Western Conference champs getting taken to school in both ends. Offensively, with the exception of promising Spanish rookie guard Rudy Fernandez (5-of-10 FG, 16 Pts, 4 assists), they were way too stagnant forcing up shots leading to the Lakers’ vastly improved transition attack which had good results.

Pau Gasol had some nice finishes in a strong first half netting all 15 while rating league MVP Kobe Bryant slowly picked apart the Blazers to the tune of a game high 23, 11 boards and five assists. With Metuchen, New Jersey’s own Andrew Bynum (8 pts, 3 BS) back healthy in the lineup, Christ The King product Lamar Odom came off the bench in a new Sixth Man role combining with ex-Knick Trevor Ariza and Jordan Farmar to help a strong Lakers second unit score 36 of their 96 total.

Not bad production from arguably the deepest bench in the league which is a big part of why they should go very far next Spring.

-In the other two league’s openers, the defending champion Celtics got past LeBron and the Cavs 90-85 on championship ring night in Boston. Paul Pierce made up for running mates’ KG and Ray Allen’s struggles by scoring 27 and got bench help from Leon Powe (13 big Pts including couple of jams) and Tony Allen (11 Pts).

LeBron paced the Cavs with 22, seven rebounds and eight assists with new teammate Mo Williams getting 12 including three treys.

-It was a much better debut for Derrick Rose, who helped lead the Bulls past former coach Scott Skiles’ Bucks 108-95. The 20 year-old former Memphis star who Chicago took No.1 overall finished with 11 points, nine assists, four boards and three steals in over 32 minutes leading a balanced attack which included Tyrus Thomas’ double double (15 and 10), Drew Gooden’s 13 and 8 (6 offensive) along with Ben Gordon’s 18 (three treys) and Kirk Hinrich’s 15 and 7 off the bench.

If they’re going to bring both Gordon and Hinrich off the bench, that’s going to be a huge edge for the Bulls because they could start on most teams. The move by new coach Vinnie Del Negro helped Chicago score  46 bench points. Not bad.

Michael Redd paced the Bucks with 30 on 10-of-19 shooting including four from downtown. In his Milwaukee debut, former Net Richard Jefferson was held to 5-of-17 from the floor for 15 points, four rebounds and two assists in 38-plus.

-We haven’t made any league predictions yet but here’s one tip for Knicks and Nets fans. Your teams aren’t as good as the Celts, 76ers and Raptors. Loose Translation: Enjoy fighting for the Atlantic cellar with non-playoff rosters.

We’ll have some picks later with seeds and teams contending for the lottery. Stay tuned.

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Paging the Lakers: Alarm clock finally goes off too late as rally falls short

This is supposed to be a “great NBA Finals.” Not the dud it’s turning out to be thanks to a dreadful display of basketball from the Lakers who have proceeded to get blown out by the much better Celtics in Game Two tonight on ABC.

If this is truly the greatest NBA rivalry renewed, how come only one team showed up tonight? Paul Pierce is everywhere on the court and Rajon Rondo suddenly has morphed into a combination of Steve Nash and J Kidd. What’s most disheartening though is the lack of passion and team unity exhibited by the Lakers. They got out to a decent start taking a five-point lead but since have shown no composure forcing bad shots early in the shot clock and failing to get out on the Celtics’ big gunners from the outside. Pierce and Ray Allen have been allowed to drain big three after big three.

What’s most stunning is how much more intensity Boston brought to the table than Los Angeles. I would’ve thought the Lakers would come out better and more determined but that’s far from the case which is why this has been about as watchable as the first pair of games of the Stanley Cup Finals. At least the Pens showed some pride and made that a series forcing the Red Wings to earn a six-game triumph for a fourth Cup in 11 years.

Can the Lakers bounceback from this kind of blowout? The good news is the next three are on their more friendly home court at Staples Center. The bad is that if they don’t win all three, they most likely have little chance of coming back to take this superhyped series.

How in the world do you let reserve Leon Powe slice and dice you for more than 20? Heck. He has attempted a few more free throws than the entire Laker team. Just disgusting.

Kobe Bryant has definitely struggled and really had to work for his points. Every shot is being contested and he’s seeing plenty of doubles by a very aggressive Celtic bunch who has done the job. The problem is the league MVP isn’t getting enough support from second and third options Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom. Sure. Gasol has scored tonight but he’s also played soft and failed to block out at key instances allowing even the miniscule Rondo to get an extra possession for the Celts which turned into an uncontested trey.

Even though the Lakers are making a last ditch effort with less than four minutes left erasing a 23-point second half deficit to 13, they’re going to come up short and be down 0-2 with the series shifting to Hollywood.

There’s so much they can do better like executing in the halfcourt and not turning the ball over. How about playing the sort of D they have until this series. The Celts have over 30 assists and have nailed nine triples on only 13 attempts. That’s ridiculous. They’re making it look like a video game. This isn’t NBA 2K8! It shouldn’t be that easy for Boston to score. We’re talking easy looks from the perimeter and plenty of lay-ups in transition.

Kevin Garnett has a double/double but hasn’t even had to carry the load in this one because that’s how well the rest of his teammates have played being very unselfish spreading the ball which is what wins at this crucial time of year.

So, can LA get back in this? They sure better get it figured out in a hurry before Tuesday because otherwise, this is going to turn into a complete dud.

Shocking Update: Somehow, the Celts have managed to turn a laugher into a close game. The Lakers have outscored them 29-9 cutting a once huge margin into a four-point game with 63 seconds left. Only in the NBA could something this improbable happen. They were down 24 with seven and a half to go.

Let’s see how this plays out.

Rondo misses an open 17-footer and the Celts foolishly foul Kobe while in the penalty with 38.4 ticks still remaining. He makes both to remarkably make it a two-point game.

The Celts do the wise thing putting the rock in Pierce’s hands and letting him get to the bucket and draw a foul. Their best player knocks both down to make it 106-102 with 22.8 to go.

LA is unable to get the ball to Kobe who is covered tight instead forcing it into Sasha Vujacic, whose three-pointer is blocked with 13 seconds left. James Posey sinks a couple of more free throws to ice it.

The Celts hang on for a 108-102 win. So, can the Lakers gain something from this? Their confidence should at least be up after getting badly outplayed for two-plus quarters until a furious rally which fell short.

ABC sure hopes they can get back in it or this will amount to a disappointing Finals despite all the fanfare. I have to figure the Lakers will rise up and make this a series. They got too much pride and can play much better.

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Johnson’s 20 in fourth quarter helps Hawks draw even with Celtics

Joe Johnson couldn’t be stopped. The top seeded Celtics had no answer for the explosive leading Hawks’ scorer who scored 20 of his game high 35 in a fourth quarter comeback to lead the big underdog to a second straight home win 97-92 in Game Four-leveling the best-of-seven first round series at two games apiece.

In a back and forth riveting playoff game at Phillips Arena which saw the eighth seeded Hawks comeback from a 16-3 hole to take an eight-point lead before a strong third quarter by Boston put them down 10, the home team rallied outscoring the Celts 32-17 in the last 12 minutes to win their second straight. Most expected them to go quietly and get swept after not being competitive in the first two games but Atlanta had other ideas taking Game Three 102-93 and using that strong fourth quarter to square the series and put all tons of pressure on Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen  along with the rest of former Hawk point guard Doc Rivers’ team.

It was Johnson and super athletic deluxe Josh Smith (28 pts, 12 of 13 FT, Hawks franchise playoff record seven blocks, six rebounds) who took all the Hawks’ shots combining to score all 32 points dominating the paint against a normally strong Boston defensive club. In particular, they weren’t able to shutdown Johnson, who toasted Allen on effective pick n’ roll isolation all quarter scoring on an array of floaters. Maybe the biggest shot in a game where his team trailed 75-65 after being outscored 27-14 in the third was a classic schoolyard crossover where defender Leon Powe was so badly faked out that he fell down allowing Johnson to step back and drain a trey from the left arc, putting Mike Woodson’s team up four with 4:41 left as a raucous crowd erupted invoking memories of Atlanta-Boston series past which featured NBA Hall of Famers Dominique Wilkins and Larry Bird.

At one point, Johnson scored nine straight including a couple of ridiculous finishes where he sliced and diced the Boston D. Along with some money free throw making from Smith, they wouldn’t allow Atlanta to lose insuring that there would be another home game in the series.

Two late James Posey three’s weren’t enough as Johnson and Smith finished off the Celts at the line. In fact, the dynamic duo finished with 18 of Atlanta’s 29 free throw makes. Overall, the Hawks shot lights out going 29 for 33 as compared to the Celtics’ 10 of 18. That was the biggest difference.

They also got invaluable contributions from rookie Al Horford on the defensive glass as he finished with a game high 13 boards. Josh Childress came off the bench to grab nine rebounds including a big offensive board late to get a new shotclock. He also had a highlight reel tomahawk jam netting four points and two assists in nearly 32 minutes.

The game also featured some nastiness with Garnett and Atlanta backup center Zaza Pachulia going nose to nose before cooler heads prevailed. Pachulia took exception to a KG elbow going right after the Boston superstar nearly butting him. Both got T’s as did Sam Cassell and Johnson in which each respective coach came out making certain nobody from the bench got involved.

Good thing too because league commish David Stern was in the house looking on. There could be fines but it doesn’t look like there will be any suspensions which would be the best case scenario with a best two-of-three deciding this series.

“We all know he’s a great player,” Pachulia later indicated of Garnett who finished with 20 points, nine rebounds and six steals in a losing cause. “He’s done a lot of good things for the league. He’s a future Hall of Famer. But it doesn’t matter when we’re on the court.”

“I don’t take anything from anybody,” Pachulia added. “The message was, ‘We’re right here. Even if we lose, it’s not going to be easy.”’

Message delivered.

Two Advance: In the other two first round games played Monday night, both Orlando and the Lakers advanced to the Conference Semis.

The Magic got another 20/20 performance from man child Dwight Howard (21 pts, 21 rebs) as they eliminated the Raptors posting a 102-92 Game Five home win.

Howard paced a balanced attack which saw all five starters hit for double digits including a double/double from Rashard Lewis (18 and 13), 19 from Jameer Nelson and Hedo Turkoglu’s 12 along with a game high nine assists.

Turkoglu was presented with the NBA’s Most Improved Player before the game beating out Memphis’ Rudy Gay and Portland’s LaMarcus Aldridge. Reserve guard Keith Bogans also came off the bench nailing three triples for 11 points, six boards and two assists in 35 minutes.

Toronto was paced by star power forward Chris Bosh’ 16 and nine rebounds. Supersubs Jason Kapono, Carlos Delfino and Jose Calderon each netted double figures combining for five treys and 39 points. Raptor point guard T.J. Ford added 14 but only five assists while turning it over four times.

Orlando now will await the 76ers-Pistons winner. That series is tied 2-2.

Meanwhile out West, the top seeded Lakers advanced with a hard fought 107-101 Game Four road win over the Nuggets, sweeping their talented opponent out of the playoffs. It’s the fifth consecutive year Denver’s bowed out in the first round. According to TNT, the Nuggets became the first 50-win team in playoff history to be swept in Round One.

Kobe Bryant came alive in the final quarter scoring 14 of his 31 in the last five and a half following a 17+ minute drought. Making an assortment of Kobe-esque shots as only the Laker superstar can do, he carried his team down the stretch in shooting down a more pesky Denver team finishing them off to advance to Round Two where they’ll play either Utah or Houston. The Jazz lead that series 3-1.

Bryant is a lot like Michael Jordan in that when his team needs it most, he’ll step up and make the very difficult big shots which provide sparks. This was a fun game to watch with the Nuggets refusing to go away thanks to some ridiculous hot shooting from sixth man J.R. Smith. The 22 year-old out of Freehold, New Jersey hit a couple of deep three’s including a 28-footer. That along with a three-point play put Denver back ahead by one 96-95 with over three minutes to play.

But a tough Kobe trademark 15-foot floater along with some great passing to setup an uncontested Luke Walton trey from the right corner put Los Angeles on top 100-96 with 2:37 left.

The Nuggets never seriously threatened again. It was the first time in franchise history they were swept out of the postseason.

“My wish would be that we had four games like tonight and we all could have been happier,” Nuggets coach George Karl lamented of his team which doesn’t always play disciplined on both ends.

“I’ve said all along, when they play the right way, they’re fun guys to coach.”

The dilemma for Denver moving forward is how do they change that chaotic style into a winner. They can score with Carmelo Anthony (21 pts, 11 rebs) and Allen Iverson (22 pts, 10-of-22 FG, only 2 assists) plus Smith, who becomes a free agent this summer. However, where’s the D? Marcus Camby plays hard as does Kenyon Martin, who has never quite fit in since bolting the Nets.

Unless Denver alters their style meaning not as much reliance on the offensive end at one-on-one emphasizing better team oriented play in the halfcourt set, they’ll continue to win games but not when it counts most.

It’s high time for an adjustment.

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