New Orleans got off to a sluggish start and fell behind Indiana by 12 points early in the third quarter before rallying behind Chris Paul and getting a David West 20-foot jumper with two seconds left to escape with the win. Despite the victory, though, New Orleans is having problems in their frontcourt, and on the defensive end of the floor.
Last year, aside from being a lethal 17-foot jump shooter, West would score in the post when his team needed baskets and was a terrific and powerful rebounder. This season, West hasn't been the same. His scoring, rebounding, and blocked shots are all down, each being the problem of less inspired play. His midrange jumper has been a crutch, and he's been too reluctant to back down players -- even small forwards and guards -- preferring instead to shoot over them.
He's been worse at defending his man, and has been less likely to dominate the rebounds. Lost in his mediocre 7.1 rebounding average, is the fact that many of his games played have come without Tyson Chandler in the lineup. When the Hornets needed rebounding in games Chandler has missed, West has failed to deliver. That and an offense overly reliant on Paul are the main reasons why the Hornets have only scored more than 90 points (Cleveland Nov.1) once against any of the league's elite teams that play defense, like the Lakers, Celtics, Spurs, Rockets, and Magic.
The other three teams that played are all meeting their preseason expectations.
The Cavs have been involved in some closer than desired games recently, but they've prevailed in each of them. They struggled for three quarters against Miami before roaring back behind LeBron and pulling away in the fourth. They didn't play particularly well offensively, but their defense was rock solid as it has been all season.
Cleveland held Dwyane Wade to two points and no assists over the final six minutes of the game and shut down most of Miami's other options. They got physicality and activity from Anderson Varejao (12 pts, 10 reb, 2 blk) and Ben Wallace (14 reb, 3 blk). And Mo Williams provided just enough scoring (seven of his 20 points came in the fourth) so that James didn't have to do everything himself (33 pts, 6 reb, 9 ast).
Even though James and Wade battled to a near draw, the Cavs played tougher team defense, and had better scorers than their opponent -- traits that will serve them well in the postseason.
While the Pacers and Heat lost, they shouldn't hang their heads. The Pacers execute well, attack the glass, set solid screens, play unselfishly, and play with much more passion than they did when Jermaine O'Neal was hobbling around and Jamaal Tinsley was looking out for himself. Plus, Danny Granger has evolved into a bona fide All-Star.
They were two seconds from forcing overtime against the Hornets until Troy Murphy sold out on defending a potential Paul 20-foot baseline fadeaway, allowing West to slip open and knock down a 20-footer. If Murphy stays home, the Pacers go to overtime.
Still, the Pacers shouldn't feel too bad about their losses since they've played the NBA's toughest schedule, including Boston three times, Cleveland twice, Detroit twice, Orlando twice, New Orleans, Phoenix, Houston, the Lakers, Miami, and Atlanta once. They play Atlanta again New Years Eve.
If you argue the Suns as a top six team in their conference, the Pacers will have played over half of the 2008 portion of their schedule against the six best teams in each conference, an absurdly bad scheduling break.
Plus, they've already beaten the Lakers, Celtics, and Rockets, and have lost games in Detroit by six and four, in Cleveland by four, against Philadelphia by two, against the Magic by two in overtime, in Dallas by three, against Charlotte in overtime, against Boston in overtime, against the Clippers in overtime, against the Hornets by two, and against the Nets by one on Devin Harris' buzzer beater.
While wins are wins and losses are losses, the point is that the Pacers have lost in the final minutes in an incredible number of games, most against top-tier teams. They lack talented defenders to get important stops late in games, and they miss Mike Dunleavy's playmaking abilities desperately at the end of games. That has been the entire difference in so many of their close losses.
But watch them actually play and you wouldn't recognize that their record is only 10-20.
The Heat have gone from last place to the middle of the Eastern Conference playoff race in no time. Part of it is the obvious return to brilliance of Dwyane Wade, who's going to be on everybody's short list of MVP candidates. Part of it is Shawn Marion's rebounding and defense being a better fit in Miami than an aging Shaquille O'Neal. Part of it is young unheralded players like Daequan Cook, Mario Chalmers, and Joel Anthony playing over their heads.
But the most impressive thing is Miami's commitment to defense. Udnois Haslem has always been a championship-caliber grunt at the power forward, and Wade and Marion are each above-average defenders for their position. But Anthony's been a find for them, giving them size and depth up front, while moving Haslem to his natural position at the four. And Chalmers has played defense as well as you can ask a rookie to defend.
Rookie head coach Eric Spolestra's played hard ball too, sending rookie wunderkind Michael Beasley to the bench because of his inability to defend. Though to Beasley's credit, he's worked hard in practice and hasn't griped once.
What's been going on is actually remarkable. For such a young team to play defense with passion means that they all buy into their coach, especially Wade who's backed Spoelstra from the get-go.
They held the Cavs to 41 percent shooting, limited them to 17 assists, and were only outrebounded by three. The Cavs simply had a bigger front line, and more playmakers than Miami did.
Still, while not a championship contender, the Heat are making clear progress for a bright future. As the youngsters grow up, and more talent is added to the roster, the Heat can find themselves contending in the East as early as next year. Considering they were the worst team in the NBA last year, the turnaround is remarkable.
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