1. The Seasoned Backcourt In Its Element
LOS ANGELES -- For all of its significance, this Lakers-Blazers game kept getting downsized, first by the two-game suspension of Andrew Bynum for a flagrant foul in Friday night's game, then by a right ankle injury to Marcus Camby. That's almost 14 feet of sidelined centers. When it got down to crunch time this game was in the hands of the guards, specifically the Lakers' backcourt of Kobe Bryant and Derek Fisher.
Bryant and Fisher, with 397 playoff games between them, took over in the final 2½ minutes of this 84-80 Lakers victory that brought out playoff-type emotions from Bryant on the court, and a taste of his dour playoff media sessions in the locker room. They each had a steal as the Lakers tightened their defense, and they scored the team's final 10 points of the game.
"You can sense a difference, going from most teams to the Lakers," Portland's Brandon Roy said. "They have an aura of confidence about themselves going down the stretch. We definitely got a taste of it tonight."
So the Blazers lamented their three turnovers in the final 2½ minutes, all of their 5-for-18 shooting in the fourth quarter, while the Lakers' Phil Jackson said truthfully, "We probably saved a game we might have easily lost."
It was a game in which the Lakers were outrebounded, 45-35, a game in which they made only three of 17 3-point shots, a game in which what was left of their bench (with Lamar Odom starting in Bynum's absence) was outscored by Portland's reserves, 21-14. But it's the type of game teams coming off back-to-back championships figure out how to win.
"I think experience does create a lot of situations where it allows you to think clearly, even under pressure in big-game situations, big moments," Fisher said.
"It doesn't mean that someone who's inexperienced can't do it. But there's a definite comfort level with having been in those positions before and realizing you could fail, but you fail more by not trying."
The key plays:
The Lakers' half-court offense had sputtered through the middle two quarters. It had nine turnovers and Bryant missed six of seven shots. At one point he fired a 3-pointer from the hashmark over LaMarcus Aldridge that glanced off the far edge of the backboard. But Bryant took eight more shots in the fourth quarter ... and made five of them.
"He just keeps shooting," Roy said. "He don't care. Anybody that keeps coming like that, you know, you've got to admire a guy that will miss and keep taking them."
Bryant wanted and took the biggest shot of the night, after L.A.'s lead had been trimmed to three in the final minute. He went right, with Roy shadowing him, the two headed toward Bryant's favorite place along the baseline.
"It's my shot," Bryant said. "I'm very comfortable with that. Very comfortable."
That's about as expansive as Bryant got in a minimalist postgame session that brought to mind his media interactions in last year's playoffs. These games are almost as critical; Sunday's victory put the Lakers a game ahead of the Mavericks in second place in the Western Conference, tied with the Celtics and Bulls (the Lakers have one more victory and one more loss than them) for the second-best record in the league. For what it's worth, the Lakers also clinched the Pacific Division, an achievement Bryant dismissed by saying "We don't hang divisions." No, only the big NBA championship banners are considered wall-worthy for the Lakers.
Roy was much more detailed as he described what it was like to try to stop a shot everyone in the building knew was coming.
"As soon as he went into it, I was like, 'Man I can get it,'" Roy said. "But I was so afraid because he does that pump fake going that way that I didn't want to draw the foul. That's the threat he has. When it came down to it, I was like, 'Jump, jump.' Then I was like, 'Don't.'"
He sounded like a man talking himself out of making an NCAA tournament pick that he liked. And as he replayed the moment Bryant's shot went over his arms, he sounded like someone whose bracket was just wrecked.
"As soon as it left, I was turning like, 'Noooooo.'"
After the ball dropped through the net Bryant exulted, yelling at the fans along the sideline, grabbing his jersey and pulling it up.
The Blazers are nothing if not resilient, and Batum hit a 3-pointer to make it a two-point game. But Fisher sealed it with a jumper with 10 seconds remaining. On this night the Lakers didn't look old, they looked experienced.
"Last time we played them, they did the same thing," Roy said. "We've definitely got to go get over that hurdle. They definitely have an aura about them going down the stretch, where they feel like they can get it. And then Kobe has a lot of confidence in himself, which I think rubs off on the other guys. And then Fisher, he makes big shots. We finally got the ball out of Kobe's hands, denied him, and then Fisher makes the big shot. It's like, here we go again."
Or there go the Lakers, Bryant and Fisher, doing what they've done so many times before.
2. Knicks Now 7-8 In The Melo Era
ESPN New York
"It might take [until] next season," Anthony said after the Knicks had their lowest-scoring quarter of the season -- putting just nine points on the scoreboard over the first 12 minutes -- in a 100-95 loss to the Milwaukee Bucks that wrapped up what can best be called a lost weekend.
After noting that the core of the team has been together for only three weeks, Anthony was asked how close the team is to being on the same page.
"We're almost there. If everybody gets 100 percent on the same page, it might take [until] next season," Anthony said. "Right now, in this short period of time, we've got to come together as a unit and just check out what we're going to do, and do it. As far as everybody jelling and the chemistry clicking to where we want it to be, it's going to take some time."
So there you have it, 15 games into the new era that began with an atmosphere of euphoria, the timeline for achieving success has been publicly adjusted by the player who is expected to take the Knicks to the next level.
With the Knicks already knowing that they are headed to the playoffs -- something they've known since the day the big trade went down -- the urgency that would come with fighting for a playoff spot is just not present.
And as a result, the Knicks are not only unpredictable and inconsistent, they are flat.
"We're a ways from where we need to be," Chauncey Billups said. "We have got a ways to go on both ends getting familiar."If you ever wanted to see flatness manifest itself into a 12-minute window into the soul (or lack thereof) of a team, you'd need to look no further than the first quarter of this game.
The Knicks weren't sloppy in that first period, committing just one turnover. They weren't passive, outrebounding Milwaukee on the offensive boards 3-1. They just looked bad, missing 21 of 25 shots as they fell behind by 23 points to create a deep hole they had to spend the rest of the day digging out of.
Dig out they did, getting themselves back in contention before halftime and twice pulling within one point in the third quarter.
But again they couldn't get the stops they needed down the stretch (the Bucks scored on eight of their final nine possessions), again a referee's discretion did not help them (Anthony was called for an offensive foul on a jump shot with 4:06 remaining, two days after he failed to get a whistle when Chris Wilcox of the Pistons appeared to foul him on a last-minute shot), and again they played down to the level of their opponent in dropping to 7-8 since the trade, remaining in seventh place in the East as they head into their first post-trade matchup with the Boston Celtics on Monday night at Madison Square Garden.
Chemistry is an issue. Cohesiveness is an issue. The center spot is a major issue, and the lack of any kind of reliable depth is an issue, too.
3. Peja Performance Lifts Mavs' Hopes
As in, what if he had been able to play in the 96-91 loss to the Los Angeles Lakers? And what if he had been on the floor to knock down five 3-pointers as he did Sunday against the Golden State Warriors when the Mavs were firing blanks from long range Friday night in the 97-91 loss to the San Antonio Spurs?
"If you look at that Spurs game, we went five minutes without scoring," Mavs guard Jason Terry said. "Peja plays five minutes and puts in 11 points. So, that tells you right there when a guy can get hot like that, and it could be any one of us, but you've got to have that out on the floor. You can't have that in the locker room in a suit or on the training table."
Stojakovic played 19 minutes off the bench and he scored 17 points, going 5-of-8 from 3-point range and 6-of-11 overall.
He hit three in a row from beyond the arc to open the second quarter to give the Mavs a 40-23 lead. The Warriors would make several rallies and get as close as 60-56 and 69-63, but Stojakovic stopped that rally with his fourth 3-pointer to put the Mavs up nine with 3:05 to go in the third quarter.
The five 3s were a season high for Stojakovic in his 22nd game of the season and 14th with the Mavericks. With New Orleans and then Toronto, a bothersome knee dogged him and limited him to eight games, keeping him sidelined since Nov. 26. He made his Mavs debut on Feb. 7.
Before his neck and back flared up after a short practice on March 7, the 3-point specialist was in a funk from downtown, hitting 3 of 19 in his previous six games, and he was converting just 30.8 percent of his shots from beyond the arc in his 13 games with the Mavs. He missed the 93-92 loss to the Hornets, the first of four losses in the six games that Stojakovic missed.
4. Extreme Behavior
Carlos Delfino, Bucks: The journeyman from Argentina just tore up the NYC metro area worse than King Kong. Delfino dropped a crumpled biplane on the Knicks, putting up 30 points and 11 boards after drilling the Nets with eight 3-pointers and 26 points.
The slouchin' Warriors: The Warriors losing is nothing new, but at least they put up numbers. Or so we thought. Golden State scored 123 and lost a month ago, but this time skulked its way to 73 points in a loss to the Mavericks.
TWEET OF THE NIGHT
-- LeBron James, who clearly hasn't taken his rooting talents over to the Gators side yet
QUOTE OF THE NIGHT
"I was just standing there, and I hoped he wasn't going to crush my face."
-- Suns center Marcin Gortat, on taking a charge on a disallowed Blake Griffin dunk for the ages
5. NBA Video Channel
6. Rondo Back In Stride
There has been a healthy amount of debate over the physical status of Rajon Rondo, with conflicting views within his own camp. Doc Rivers, an old-school coach who expects his veterans (yes, Rondo qualifies now) to play through the usual maladies that afflict players this time of year, declared unequivocally that his point guard wasn't injured. And yet, Kevin Garnett reiterated after the win over the Hornets that Rondo is "hurting more than he's letting on."
"Danny thinks I'm hurt too, right?" Rondo said.
Yes, Celtics hoops honcho Danny Ainge does. He, like the rest of us, has wondered about the ankles, the plantar fascia injury, the possibility of fatigue or "dead legs."
The intrigue continues.
This much we know: Rondo has been taping his right pinkie for the past "two weeks," an injury that he aggravated against New Orleans.
"It's been jammed," Rondo confirmed, "but it felt like it broke a bit [this time]."
7. Who's Your Choice?
ESPN The Magazine
There is nothing quite like a New York-Boston rivalry. Allow us to add yet another page to the storied feud. While the New York Knicks are assembling a team they hope will contend for titles for years to come, the Boston Celtics look to claim one more trophy with one of the best groups they've ever had. The linchpins to both efforts are a pair of sweet-shooting, 6-foot-8 small forwards.
Carmelo Anthony arrived in Gotham riding a wave of possibility, spreading hope throughout the boroughs. Paul Pierce has punched his ticket for Springfield thanks to a career that has become the annual key to Boston's title hopes. Pierce's résumé is long enough to wallpaper Anthony's new Manhattan condo. But does Melo have enough game to prove he's better?
8. Polish Hammered
LOS ANGELES -- With one tweet of a whistle, Blake Griffin went from out-of-this-world dunk to out of the game with six fouls.
With just over four minutes remaining in the Clippers' Sunday afternoon game against the Suns, Griffin took off in the lane and threw down over Marcin Gortat. It was reminiscent of his signature slam on Timofey Mozgov (and similar in that ball, hoop and hand didn't all meet at the same time).
But official Steve Javie called a charging foul on Griffin, his sixth personal, prompting Griffin to grab the ball and run to half court in protest. That drew a technical foul as well from Javie.
The original play drew the highest of praise from Suns coach Alvin Gentry.
"That was a hell of a dunk, OK?" Gentry said. "I don't care if it was a charge. That might be as impressive a dunk as I've seen in the NBA in 23 years. That was the best dunk he's had since he was in the league."
When Gentry's words were relayed to Griffin, he said, "Yeah, well it doesn't count. I don't think Steve Javie thinks that."
9. Ongoing Payback For 2007
The Mavericks routed the Warriors, 101-73, producing by far their largest margin of victory of the season. This is hard to believe, but Dallas, which improved its record to 49-21 with Sunday's win, had been one of three NBA teams without a 20-point victory this season. The only remaining teams not to win a game by 20 or more points this season are the Nets (22-46) and Cavaliers (13-55).