Posted on: May 26, 2009 2:57 am

J.R. Smith ... the next Tiger?

DENVER -- A photo in the Denver Post Monday sparked my curiosity. It showed the Nuggets' J.R. Smith waiting out a rain delay on a golf course Sunday, the off-day between Games 3 and 4 of the Western Conference finals.

This was hardly news, as NBA players are spotted on golf courses all over the Western Hemisphere this time of year. But they're usually NBA players whose teams are getting ready to exercise a lottery pick, not compete in the conference finals.

Smith, one of the stars of Denver's Game 4 victory with 24 points off the bench -- including 4-of-9 shooting from 3-point range -- walked down the hallway toward the arena exit after the game cradling his infant daughter in one hand and a sleeve of golf balls in the other. He'd just met with a few military service men and women outside the Nuggets' locker room, a nod to the Memorial Day holiday. They'd given him the golf balls, which were inscribed with the U.S. Army logo.

"I play golf before every game," Smith said. "You get out there and focus on something else for a second, relax, and then come in here at night and go to work. I think it helps me focus more because I'm not really thinking about it throughout the whole day and then by the time I’m here, I’m well rested and the game is the only thing that’s on my mind."

Wait a minute, I said. You played golf yesterday and today?

"Yup," Smith said. "I got rained out on the second hole yesterday. I played 15 today."

Michael Jordan was perhaps the most avid NBA golfer of his generation, but to my knowledge, he never played on a game day -- especially during the playoffs. Blackjack the night before, perhaps, but not even M.J. could squeeze a round of golf in between shootaround and Game 4 of the conference finals. I don't know what this means, except that J.R. Smith is A) A better golfer than I am (his handicap is 10); and B) Makes much better use of his time. 

Category: NBA
Posted on: May 24, 2009 6:17 pm

Melo: A.I. 'hurt' that he's not with Nuggets

DENVER -- When someone asked Carmelo Anthony on Sunday if he's still confident going into Game 4 of the Western Conference finals with a 2-1 deficit, his response reminded me of a certain All-Star who isn't here anymore.

"If we're not confident," 'Melo said, "we might as well not even dress up."

That was vintage Allen Iverson, whom I've heard say almost exactly those words hundreds of times over the last decade or so. I asked Anthony if he'd spoken with A.I. recently, given the Nuggets' meteoric rise to the conference finals without him -- and given that the point guard he was traded for has made all the difference.

"Yeah, I’ve talked to him a couple of times," Anthony said. "He just keeps saying, 'Go get it.' It kind of hurts him that he’s not here with us. That’s all he keeps saying is that he wanted to be with us. But he understands the situation."

So, too, did Kobe Bryant, who realized how significant the Iverson-for-Chauncey Billups trade was the minute he heard about it.

"When it went down, I called Carmelo and said, ‘You’re gonna like this trade,’" Bryant said. "Iverson is great. But for what this team needs, they needed a quarterback. And they have a quarterback. I knew it was going to be a problem as soon as it happened."

Bryant and Iverson came into the league together in the 1996 draft, but their careers have taken much different paths since they stole the show at the All-Star rookie game in Cleveland in '97. They were the brash new kids trying to nudge the venerable stars aside back then, and everyone wondered if Iverson with his cornrows and Kobe with his arrogance would be good or bad for the league. What a full-circle moment it would've been for Bryant and Iverson to meet again in the conference finals this year after colliding in the 2001 NBA Finals won by the Lakers. But of course, without the Iverson-for-Billups trade, the Nuggets most certainly wouldn't be here.

"That’s not what the team needed," Bryant said, when asked why things didn't work out in Denver with Iverson. "You can put together all the talent in the world. When I first came to the Lakers, we had four All-Stars. But it’s about what pieces go right with the others. And Chauncey was the piece that they needed. It just meshed extremely well."

Posted on: May 23, 2009 5:01 pm

Kobe: 'This is the test'

DENVER -- The Lakers went to Houston tied 1-1 in their Western Conference semifinals series with the Rockets. They immediately recaptured homecourt advantage by playing well and winning Game 3, then proceeded to give it right back by mailing in Game 4.

Kobe Bryant doesn't want a repeat performance.

"This is the test tonight," Bryant said Saturday. "We play well at home, where everybody’s comfortable. We lost a tough one in Game 2, but for the most part, we played well at home. This is the test, because the last two times on the road we played horrible. Game 3 in Houston we played extremely well. This is the test to see how we respond."

Did the Lakers learn anything from the Houston experience?

"Nothing," Bryant said, before quickly reconsidering. "Don’t do that. Whatever we did, whatever we ate before [Game 4], don’t eat that."

The Lakers (29-12) had the best road record in the league this season. The Nuggets (33-8) had the third-best home record in the West behind the Lakers and Portland. The noise and home-court advantage Denver enjoys are among the most formidable in the league. And a proven truth about the playoffs -- young players and role players perform better at home -- plays right into Denver's hands. They know what they're going to get out of Carmelo Anthony, but contributions from J.R. Smith, Anthony Carter, Chris Andersen, or Linas Kleiza could be pivotal in Games 3 and 4.

"If we can get our transition game going at home, it's like a snowball effect," Chauncey Billups said. "If we get all those guys playing with a little more energy and confidence, you can make maybe one or two more mistakes and cover up for it when you're playing hard and you've got your fans." 

Two questions before I get ready to go back to the arena: 1) Which Lakers team shows up, and 2) Will they be able to withstand a fast start by the Nuggets, and all the noise and momentum that would go with it?

Category: NBA
Posted on: May 23, 2009 4:19 pm
Edited on: May 23, 2009 4:27 pm

The Shot, Part IX

DENVER -- LeBron James' game-winning shot against Orlando resonated all the way to Denver, where the Lakers and Nuggets marveled at the King's majesty and couldn't help but wonder: Who's next?

"It's always been that way in the playoffs," Kobe Bryant said Saturday after the Lakers held shootaround at the Pepsi Center. "It's always come down to that. Sometimes it's the little things, subtle plays here and there. Sometimes, it’s the big shot. In the playoffs, particularly in this stage of the playoffs, it's always been highly contested down to the last minute."

Never like this, though.

The four conference finals games have been decided by seven points, and, for the first time in NBA history, each of the first four games in the conference finals have been decided for three points or less. Nine postseason games have been decided by a game-winning shot with three seconds or less remaining -- two at the buzzer, and one in overtime. The Orlando Magic have been involved in five of them -- one in their favor, and four not.

Here's the list, courtesy of the NBA:

April 19: Andre Iguodala with two seconds left in Philadelphia's 100-98 victory over Orlando.

April 20: Ray Allen with two seconds left in Boston's 118-115 victory over Chicago.

April 23: Deron Williams with two seconds left in Utah's 88-86 victory over the Lakers.

April 24: Thaddeus Young with two seconds left in Philadelphia's 96-94 victory over Orlando.

April 26: Hedo Turkoglu with one second left in Orlando's 84-81 victory over Philadelphia.

April 28: Paul Pierce with three seconds left in overtime in Boston's 106-104 victory over Chicago.

May 9: Carmelo Anthony with one second left in Denver's 106-105 victory over Dallas.

May 10: Glen Davis at the buzzer in Boston's 95-94 victory over Orlando.

May 22: LeBron James at the buzzer in Cleveland's 96-95 victory over Orlando.

So I ask again, who's next?

"I was sitting at the counter of the greasy spoon having my soup and my greasy burger," Lakers coach Phil Jackson said. "And the guy next to me said, 'Oh, man, Orlando's going to go up 2-0 and Cleveland's going to be down in the series. Do you want to see Orlando?' I said, 'You wrote off this guy? He can still make a shot from almost anywhere.' And he did. That's the way he is. James is just a terrific player."

Nuggets coach George Karl empathized with Stan Van Gundy and defended the Magic coach's strategy on the last play.

"In a lot of ways, I think Stan did a great job of knowing what they were going to run," Karl said. "Stan Van Gundy has done a great job coaching this year. I know he feels miserable right now. But in some ways, he's got to understand that he's in a great place. They've done their job, and now it's the monster of momentum, how that's going to affect the series -- because I think we all know it's an emotional momentum, it's a big-time scoreboard momentum, and you've also got probably the best player in basketball momentum."

Derek Fisher, who missed a potential game-tying 3-pointer at the buzzer in Game 2 against the Nuggets -- a shot many have argued should have been taken by Bryant -- said those plays are always ripe for second-guessers.

"He made the shot," Fisher said. "I dont know if there was anything different that could've been done. You can question players and coaches all day. Maybe he could have put Dwight Howard on the guy out of bounds. You could put Dwight Howard at the rim and just make sure everybody funnels guys towards the basket as opposed to letting them step back out. But still, at the end of the day, when the guy catches the ball from 27 feet and makes a three like that, there's only so much you can do."

Another factoid for you as you get ready for Game 3 in Denver Saturday night: Nineteen playoff games have been decided by three points or less, which ties an NBA record without even playing a single game on the second team's home court in the conference finals. That means 26 percent of playoff games this postseason have been decided by a 3-pointer or less.

"I think it's going to continue like that," Karl said.

Why wouldn't it?
Category: NBA
Posted on: May 12, 2009 1:17 am

Denver should thank the Mavs, but ...

The dismantling of the Mavs is delayed another two days. The feud between Mark Cuban and Kenyon Martin's family lives to see another day. All that commotion behind the Nuggets' bench during Game 4 Monday night? Evidently, that was K-Mart's family being harassed by classy Mavs fans.

K-Mart exited the court after Dallas' series-extending victory shouting what most certainly were not pleasantries. I can only guess they were directed at Cuban.

But all that stuff is a sideshow. Two things jump out at me as this series moves to Denver for Game 5 Wednesday night.

One, Nuggets owner Stan Kroenke should thank the Mavs for extending the series another game. Another home playoff date equals another sellout crowd, lots of hot dogs, sodas, and beers sold at the concessions, and a free night of much-needed revenue.

Two, the Nuggets had better figure out how to close this series out Wednesday night without losing their cool. As I told Jason Horowitz earlier Monday, a Lakers-Nuggets conference finals is no sure thing for Kobe & Co. The Nugs are supremely talented, play underrated defense, have the kind of toughness under the basket that the Lakers lack as long as Andew Bynum remains invisible, and have Carmelo Anthony showing signs that he might be just as dangerous on the playoff stage as Kobe.

But the last thing Denver needs in a closeout game at home is to lose its composure. All it'll take is one flagrant foul -- and we all know how blurred that line as become -- to get somebody suspended for Game 1 of the conference finals.

So K-Mart & Co. need to leave their grudges with Cuban in Dallas. Forget about it. It's over. Focus on the game and what needs to be done to finish the series and keep it from going back to Dallas. And don't get anybody suspended for Game 1 against the Lakers.

There's a saying in sports journalism: When in doubt, be Dave Anderson, the venerable Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for the New York Times. The Nuggets need to adopt a different form of that approach. When in doubt, be Chauncey Billups. This is why the Nuggets traded for Billups, because he knows how to close out teams and he knows how to win playoff series. Most importantly, he knows how to keep his composure in what has become a chippy, emotional, vindictive series. 

Get it over with and keep your cool. Let the security guards keep your family safe, let the NBA deal with Cuban, and play your game. 

Oh, and let your owner count all the free dollars that will flow into the bank by virtue of having to close this out at home. See, I'm an optimist at heart.

Posted on: May 9, 2009 9:13 pm
Edited on: May 10, 2009 1:52 am

Foul? What foul? (UPDATE)

There is no way to sugar-coat this. When you have a playoff game decided with an officiating controversy at the end, it's bad enough for the NBA. When it happens in Dallas, with Mark Cuban sitting courtside, it has Armageddon-like qualities.

Cuban dutifully updated his Twitter feed moments ago with this: "There is absolutely nothing to say after that." But I expect that's not the last we hear from him.

As if the league's controversy over what constitutes a flagrant foul and what doesn't has not been enough of a distraction, now we have this: the Mavs' Antoine Wright trying to foul Carmelo Anthony behind the 3-point line with the clock winding down, and no whistle. Denver was trailing 105-103 in the final 10 seconds when Wright appeared determined to foul Anthony, who was dribbling outside the arc. Strangely, Wright reached for the ball as Anthony picked up his dribble, then raised his hands in the air as if to indicate that he didn't foul him. If he was trying to foul -- Dallas had one to give -- that was an odd way of executing the play. As a side note, Anthony appeared on the replay to lower his shoulder and initiate contact with Wright on the play before shooting -- and making -- the deciding 3-pointer.

UPDATE: Which is why it was baffling -- positively baffling -- to receive a statement from the NBA asserting that the officials missed the intentional foul attempt by Wright. I am telling you, I was flabbergasted by this. I had dinner with another experienced NBA journalist in Houston Saturday night, and we couldn't believe this statement was issued. Not because it's foolish for the NBA to admit mistakes. No. Oh, no. Because neither one of us saw a mistake so obvious, so cut and dried, that it warranted a statement within a couple of hours after the game. Or any statement at all.

This is weird. Very weird. I stand by my analysis of the call, even though despite the NBA's best efforts -- and I honestly believe their intentions are to achieve the highest levels of accuracy and transparency -- I think the officials got this right on the floor and the league got it wrong in the email.

The key question is one that I haven't seen answered. And I offer this caveat: I didn't see the game live, only the replays. But the play in question came out of a timeout. And if a team intends to use a foul to give in that situation, the correct procedure -- or the smart procedure -- is for the coach or a player to inform the referees that they plan to commit an intentional foul. Did anyone do this? If so, the Mavs have a case. But even considering all that, and assuming that communication occurred, I stand by my analysis of the play. Wright did not commit the foul soon enough or in an obvious way. Not only that, but he seemed unsure of what he was supposed to be doing. He couldn't have made this any clearer than he did when he pulled up and raised his arms in the universal basketball gesture that means, "I didn't foul." 

Cuban was furious. He always seems to be at the center of an officiating controversy in the postseason, going all the way back to the 2006 Finals against Miami. There will be a solid 48 hours of comments, opinions, and accusations leading into Game 4 Monday in Dallas. (Good thing I'm going. I have displayed an uncanny knack for following the controversy this postseason.) But if you ask me, if Wright wanted to foul, he should've fouled quick and hard, before Anthony made his move and went into his shooting motion. It appeared that Wright was caught between giving the foul and putting Anthony at the line for three game-winning free throws -- or worse, fouling him in the act of shooting and creating the opportunity for a four-point play.

Maybe I'm wrong. I'll keep watching Cuban's Twitter feed, where I'm certain he'll set me straight. 
The views expressed in this blog are solely those of the author and do not reflect the views of CBS Sports or CBSSports.com