1. Suns Are Tougher Than We Thought
SALT LAKE CITY -- Now I understand what Steve Nash was talking about that night in November, when he could see surprise on my face as he told me how this Phoenix Suns team was tougher than previous editions. They are tough. And now they have 54 wins and a No. 3 seed in the Western Conference playoffs to show for it.
Toughness is not always about flexing muscles or knocking people into the basket support. It's about discipline and mental endurance and all of the other attributes the Suns demonstrated throughout the season, including their 100-86 victory Wednesday night in which they took the will of a Utah Jazz team that urgently needed a victory. The Jazz, playing without Carlos Boozer (strained oblique muscle), fell to the No. 5 seed and must start the playoffs at Denver.
Phoenix has the home-court advantage in the first round and could end up with home-court in the second if they advance and the Spurs knock off the Mavericks.
Sure, we've seen the Suns swing into the playoffs with a high seed before, the inevitable prelude to a fall. This time their No. 3 seed is an accomplishment in itself, a shiny reward for a team whose preseason goal was to simply make the playoffs, somehow, someway.
The Suns got there with a road seldom traveled in Phoenix the past few years. Are you ready for this?
"We're actually winning some games with our defense," Grant Hill said.
"Rather than exchange baskets, we really tried to zero in where we can get some stops," said coach Alvin Gentry. "If we run on stops and score, that's how you get separation. We've gotten better defensively. We're never gonna be the Cleveland Cavaliers or anything, but I think we can be solid."
Solid enough to be 11th in the league in defensive field goal percentage, a stat the Suns care about more than points allowed because their pace will elevate scores. The bench has gone from liability to asset, with Goran Dragic capably subbing for Nash (who had to play more than 31 minutes only once in the past five games) and Jared Dudley doing whatever it takes.
Their offense still scores 110 points a game, but now the points are more likely to come from Amare Stoudemire's free throws than quick fast-break buckets. Yeah, a little bit grittier.
So let's revisit that toughness aspect Nash talked about. It showed in the team's bounce-back from a 12-18 stretch, when everyone thought the Suns were about to vanish.
"We emerged from it and turned a corner," Nash said.
It began with a victory over Dallas on Jan. 28
"We're committed to playing defense," Hill said. "Things started to click. We've gained confidence and gotten better."
"I think we're somewhat tough, but what kind of outshines that is that we're smart," Stoudemire said. "We play smart basketball. We study the game and we listen to the coaching staff and we try to implement what they teach us during the game."
Wednesday's victory was a bit of a bonus for the Suns. They would have been comfortable if they had slipped to the No. 4 spot to face Denver, a team the Suns have beaten three times this season, most recently a 123-101 demolition on Tuesday. But they decided they were going to try to beat Utah, even if it meant facing a Trail Blazers team that took two of three from the Suns this season. Portland turns the style from open highway to rush-hour on-ramp, although one of the men who purposefully slows them down is Brandon Roy, and he might not play because of a torn meniscus in his right knee.
The Suns don't fear the matchup. They're not afraid of anyone right now. They're surging off the confidence of winning three consecutive games and 14 of their final 16.
So here they are back in the top half of the playoff bracket. Only with a twist.
"We're just a different team now," Hill said.
This is a case where the scoreboard doesn't tell the ultimate story. They still post high numbers. They just aren't as glamorous.
J.A. Adande is a columnist for ESPN.com.
2. Did The Spurs Want The Mavs?
By Tim MacMahon
DALLAS -- Consider Wednesday night's affair Game 0 of the Mavericks-Spurs playoff series.
As in, San Antonio apparently had zero interest in winning, setting up a first-round rematch between the Interstate 35 rivals.
San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich explained with a straight face after the morning shootaround that the Spurs would approach the regular-season finale as a routine game, doing their best to win while worrying about Western Conference playoff seeding later.
"Well, I'm tired of those guys," Popovich wryly kidded after the Spurs' 96-89 loss, which locked the Spurs into the seventh seed and the Mavs into the second. "They haven't done a darn thing for us for quite a while, so I wanted to send them a message that we're a little bit angry at them. So, hopefully they'll start playing better this weekend."
If the Mavs were offended by the virtual forfeit, they did a fine job biting their tongue. Several players spoke of the great respect they have for the Spurs, a franchise the Mavs have eliminated the last two times they met in the playoffs but trail in the championship department by a 4-0 margin.
It was actually coach Rick Carlisle, who rarely utters anything close to a controversial line, who dropped hints that the Spurs' star sit-out might serve as the Mavs' motivational fodder.
"With the way it unfolded, it looks like they wanted to play us," Carlisle said. "They got us."
Perhaps Popovich's decision was influenced by the desire to avoid the Utah Jazz, whom the Spurs failed to beat in four meetings this season. Of course, there was no way he would admit such a thing while standing in the American Airlines Center.
Not that Dallas, which dismissed the Mavs in five games during last season's playoffs, is a dream matchup for the Spurs.
"Yeah, we've beaten the Mavs so much lately, that's who we wanted," Popovich said, his voice dripping with sarcasm. "I mean, come on -- they've had their way with us for a while. The real bottom line is that I'm paranoid about Tim being healthy and Manu being healthy for the playoffs."Tim MacMahon covers the Mavericks for ESPN Dallas.
3. Bulls Punch Playoff Ticket
By Nick Friedell
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Michael Jordan may be the owner of the Charlotte Bobcats, but clearly he still holds a special place in his heart for the Chicago Bulls.
That was evident after the Bulls clinched the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference playoff race with a win over his Bobcats on Wednesday night. He walked into the Bulls locker after the game and offered congratulations to some of the players and coaches.
He bear-hugged former teammate Randy Brown and gave embattled Bulls coach Vinny Del Negro a few kind words.
Noah celebrates: Joakim Noah untucked his soaking wet jersey as he headed into the visitors' tunnel after the game, hugged Bulls PR spokeswoman Sebrina Brewster, and unleashed all the frustration of the last few weeks in a few moments. "We're going to the playoffs," he screamed. "All this [expletive] and we're going to the playoffs. Let's go shock the world."
His words continued to flow a few moments later as he and Charles Oakley exchanged pleasantries both inside and out of the Bulls locker room.
To read the entire blog, click here
4. Daily Dime Live Recap
ESPN.com writers and TrueHoop Network bloggers chatted with fans and gave their in-game opinions throughout Wednesday's games -- all in Daily Dime Live.
5. Extreme Behavior
Stephen Curry, Warriors
He probably won't win the Rookie of the Year, but he still capped his first year in style, going off for 42 points, nine rebounds and eight assists as the Warriors finished their season with a 122-116 win against Portland.
Troy Murphy, Pacers
He did a good job hitting the glass, finishing with nine rebounds, but couldn't find the range with his shot, going 1-for-10 from the floor en route to a three-point night in Indiana's 98-97 loss to the Wizards.
QUOTE OF THE NIGHT
"It hurts. There's really no other way to put it. We had opportunities, we controlled our destiny as far as the postseason was concerned, and we let that slip through our fingers."
-- Toronto guard Jarrett Jack after the Raptors lost the last playoff spot in the East to the Bulls
6. NBA Video Channel
7. Durant's First Scoring Title
8. Blazers Finally Catch A Break
With the sixth seed clinched and the outcome of their Wednesday matchup with the Warriors all but meaningless, the Blazers could be forgiven for keeping an eye on ESPN. In the first round they'd meet the winner of Wednesday's Phoenix-Utah game -- one matchup desired, the other feared.
Yet after a season of bizarre, freakish and unrelenting injuries, fate finally smiled upon the Blazers: They drew the Suns. But therein lies the rub -- out of all the teams in the Western Conference, none are hotter than Phoenix, which has won nine of their last 10 games.
Portland, on the other hand, may very well be without All-Star Brandon Roy, who suffered a torn meniscus in his right knee against the Lakers on Sunday. Roy will re-evaluate the injury before the playoffs, and while it will require surgery, doctors have told the Blazers guard that it can't be made worse. Given the extent of the injury, it's unlikely the Blazers' franchise player will contribute a whole lot to the team's playoff aspirations.
But beating the Suns in Phoenix without Roy is something the Blazers have accomplished this season. Their 108-101 victory on Feb. 10 shook an eight-game losing streak at US Airways Center. The Blazers went on to take the season series 2-1.
Even though Portland avoided Utah, which swept the Blazers this season, disposing of the Suns won't be easy. To do so, Andre Miller will have to score more while putting his body into Steve Nash and punishing him consistently on the post. Marcus Camby will need to stay out of foul trouble guarding Amare Stoudamire. And if Roy is forced to sit, Rudy Fernandez and Martell Webster will have to make shots. Teamwide, the Blazers' plodding and efficient offense, along with the more grinding nature of playoff basketball, should help slow the running Suns.
In the end, coach Nate McMillan's insistence on winning rather than positioning for a postseason opponent paid off -- for the first time this season, the Blazers caught a lucky break.
To read more from Tonry, check out the Portland Roundball Society blog.
9. Life As A Clippers Fan
For years, expectations never infected the mental makeup of the Los Angeles Clippers and those who loved them. The big games, superstars and the giddy anticipation that tantalize most NBA fans were never factors for those who followed the Clips. Being a Clippers fan was an exercise in self-deprivation -- and some people like that.
Last May, the Clippers caught a break when their logo landed in the envelope marked "1" in Secaucus. An organization desperate for a jolt of intensity would draft Oklahoma sophomore Blake Griffin, the quintessential energy guy. Griffin's competitiveness, explosiveness and skill set were on full display in the summer league and in the preseason. The Clippers might not be good enough to ride their prized rookie to the playoffs, but Griffin brought an aura of promise the Clippers hadn't experienced since 2006.
On the eve of the season, Griffin was diagnosed with a fractured left patella and would ultimately miss the season. Clippers fans eager to embrace the new face of the franchise would have to admire Griffin's sartorial flair on the bench. Instead, they'd follow much of the same crew that scratched out only 19 wins in 2008-09.
That's not to say there weren't positive signals. Baron Davis, who arrived at camp ripped, was clearly a more energized point guard with more disciplined shot selection. Davis followed Mike Dunleavy's cue and helped Chris Kaman earn his first All-Star appearance. The starting lineup with that duo, along with Marcus Camby (before he was dealt to Portland), Eric Gordon and Rasual Butler, proved effective.
But the Clippers could never sustain the momentum. The stylistic tug-of-war between Davis and Dunleavy (and to a lesser extent Kaman) persisted, and the Clippers' stagnant offense was far too easy to defend. Gordon's progress reached a plateau, Butler was inconsistent -- though an improvement on Al Thornton -- and outside of Craig Smith, there was little help off the bench.
On-court issues aside, the goodwill that surrounded the team heading into the season faded quickly. After Dunleavy was cut loose and Camby was dealt to Portland, the team descended to its familiar depths. An average defensive team for most of the season, a troop of unfamiliar teammates began to hemorrhage points. The charm and honesty of overwhelmed interim coach Kim Hughes were no match for the team's collective disinterest.
Even as the Clippers have reeled off 20 losses in their last 25 games to close the season, the faint buzz of expectations has started to surface again. The Clippers have a boatload of cap space to sign some elite talent. Griffin will return as a redshirt rookie, and the team holds the No. 8 pick in the June draft.
For Clippers fans, that's cause for hope -- and simultaneously terrifying.