by Craig Kwasniewski
The race for the final playoff spots out west just got a little tighter Friday night. Here's a look at three key games:
Indiana 92 - NOOCH 90: At All-Star break NOOCH was on fire! They were the surprise of the season, with stellar play from Chris Paul, a great home court advantage in OK City and an attractive up-tempo style, what's NOT to like about them.
Going 2-7 since All-Star break... that's what. (Including an awful 16 point second half flop against the Clips.) They have dropped from sixth to eighth in the race with a 1 game lead over Sacramento in the loss column.
NOOCH lost at home to a decent Indiana team on Friday as forward David West came up short on a 3-pointer from the right wing. West is the only NBA player with three game-winning shots in the final 2 seconds of games this season.
Lazy sports writers will say that NOOCH's cold streak is because Chris Paul's hitting the wall. On the contrary, Paul is averaging 18.2 points and 9.4 assists, both above his season averages, during the 2-7 stretch. I just think they are hitting a difficult portion of their schedule and have lost some confidence.
LA Lakers 100 - San Antonio 92: Just where the hell was this game last Monday? I could have saved a few nights on the couch if the Lakers could have shown the same effort.
Anyway, San Antonio looked tired Friday night. They played 4 games in five nights, including a late game in Phoenix on Thursday. Luke Walton (13 points, 10 rebounds) played his best game since Game 2 of the 2004 NBA Finals. Kwame Brown held his own, guarding Duncan one-on-one in the post, thus preventing the Spurs from seeing the wide open threes they had last Monday. Mix in some sick Kobe drives in the 4th quarter and the Lakers held off any Spurs rally. Added bonus: LeDev (Devean George) sitting out for the second game in a row with a ruptured vagina.
The Lakers sit in the seventh spot in the Western Conference standings.
Sacramento 105 - Memphis 93: One of the hotter teams in the west, Sacramento used a 13-2 run in the third quarter to beat the Grizz. During the run, Sactown kept Pau Gasol from getting the ball on the block. They threw several bigs on Gasol, forcing other Grizz to step up. Need I remind you that Chucky Atkins is on Memphis?
(As great of a mid-season pick-up that Atkins was, he still is Chucky EFFING Atkins. I went all last season watching the guy play for the Lakers. He sucks at perimeter defense, forcing rotating bigs into foul trouble as he is constantly beat by his man. He's a decent scorer, but makes several poor passing decisions a game. He's more of a two guard, but injuries have forced Memphis to play him at the one. This will not end well for them.)
Anyway, Sactown is 7-2 since All-Star break and with Bonzi Wells retuning, they have their top seven players back from injury. They are learning how to play with Artest and the team defense is improving. Of all the teams competing for the final playoff spot (Lakers, NOOCH, Houston, Utah), Sac is a lock to make the postseason. They are too deep in talent to miss out.