WASHINGTON -- Hammer was in the house. At least it looked like the rapper-cum-reality TV D-lister, hiding behind sunglasses and a bandanna in a near-courtside seat. When his face flashed on the Verizon Center video screen, the stadium public address system even piped in "U Can't Touch This."
This time, King avoids hammer
Given the Washington Wizards' approach to defending LeBron James, the song was oddly appropriate.
The Wizards talked tough, yapping and yammering about "playoff fouls." They played tough in Game 2, bumping and banging James into a scowling, subpar performance while wresting home court advantage away from the Cleveland Cavaliers.
But instead of seizing Game 3 by channeling the spirit of Sean Connery in the "Untouchables"-- he sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue -- Washington backslid into the forearms-off policy that defined Game 1, allowing James to finish in the lane with near impunity.
Unmolested layups. A two-handed dunk off a dribble drive. Short jumpers with nary a hip check. Whatever James wanted, James got.
By the time he scored the last of his game-high 41 points -- a short, game-winning inside jumper with 5.7 seconds left -- Michael Ruffin's body bump was much too little, much too late.
James had his mojo back. The Wizards' Marvin Barnes moment, epitomized by Brendan Haywood's much-replayed airborne wrap tackle? Long gone.
"I thought we gave more resistance at the rim in Game 2 than tonight," said Washington coach Eddie Jordan. "We reverted back to some Game 1 tendencies that hurt us. Mostly it was not protecting the paint."
Jordan was being diplomatic. Despite five blocks from Brendan Haywood, Cleveland outscored Washington 52-38 in the lane. James was the reason. In football parlance, no one put a hat on him.
One sequence in the third quarter -- a quarter that saw the Wizards score just 13 points and squander an eight-point halftime advantage -- told the story: Rather than clobber a driving James, Antawn Jamison flinched, turning his head and body in an effort to avoid contact.
No such luck. Jamison was whistled for a foul. James made the free throws.
After the game, a somber, red-eyed Gilbert Arenas stood in Washington's locker room, lamenting the obvious: James shot 16-for-28. He went to the line just nine times. The "MI:III" trailer that played during a first quarter timeout? Likely harder-hitting than the Wizards' interior defense.
"For a guy who drives in the lane, he has to get hit," Arenas said. "I'm getting hit. We have to keep bigs in there to discourage him. When you're 6-8 and 235, you don't feel like you need to settle for a jump shot. And he didn't."
Former Wizard Harvey Grant saw it coming. A hour before tipoff, Washington's director of player development watched Game 2 footage on a pair of locker room televisions, marveling at James' size and skill.
On the screen, James bulled through a Jared Jeffries arm swipe; sitting in a swivel chair, Grant shook his head.
"LeBron probably didn't even feel that Jared hit him," he said. "LeBron is so strong, man. He's got Ruffin's body and Gilbert's speed. You hit him just a little bit, he's going right to the basket."
Translation? If the Wizards hope to slow James, they need to get back to hammer time.
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Steve Yeater/AP Photo
Kings forward Ron Artest and Spurs star Tim Duncan engaged in a great game. In addition to stifling defense, Artest returned from a one-game suspension to score 22 points and pull down 12 boards.
Those been-there, done-that-three-times NBA titlists have a second-round date with the West's second-best team, the Dallas Mavericks, circled on the calendar.
Unless, that is, the heavyweight champion Spurs absorb three more haymakers from the Kings like the one landed on Friday by a bantamweight named Kevin Martin.
Only one K-Mart showed up for the playoffs, and it's not former No. 1 pick buried deep under George Karl's doghouse.
The K-Mart still open for business stunned the Spurs on Friday with a buzzer-beating layup over former Defensive Player of the Year Tim Duncan, a backhanded spinner that bounced softly on the rim four times before falling into the net as the red light popped on.
The result: Bedlam in Sacto's Arco, a 94-93 Kings win, and a very competitive series, now 2-1 in favor of San Antonio after the Spurs and Kings split two hair-raising, gut-wrenching decisions (following the Spurs' 34-point Game 1 win).
But Martin was only the hero for the Kings, not the star. Top honors go to a trinity of Kings -- Ron Artest (22 points, 12 boards), back from suspension; Bonzi Wells (19 points, 14 rebounds, including 10 on the offensive end), back to the form he showed in Game 2; and Mike Bibby, back to life after his dismal showing cost the Kings Game 2.
The Spurs know they're in a series now. They remain in the driver's seat, true, but in Games 2 and 3 they've shown an inability to gear up and pull away in the manner we've come to expect from the silver and black.
In the last two games, they've relied on last-minute defensive breakdowns by the Kings to pull ahead, first on Brent Barry's crazy-bounce 3-pointer in Game 2 and Friday on Michael Finley's bomb from the top of the key, which turned out not to be the game-winner.
That's because Manu Ginobili had one more turnover in him, for a total of seven (yes, he was probably fouled by Mike Bibby on that play), and that let the skinny guy from Western Carolina loose for his dash to the basket.
And suddenly the three Cali teams at the bottom of the Western Conference bracket -- the Kings, Lakers and Clippers -- are making some noise and entertaining thoughts of knocking off the Southwest, Pacific and Northwest division champs. Wouldn't that be something?
-- Royce Webb
What if I were to tell you that Luke Walton, maybe remembering that he was named after Maurice Lucas, chopped Tim Thomas to the floor in the game's opening minute?
What if I were to tell you that Kobe Bryant missed twice as many shots as he made, took one shot less than Walton's 19, wasn't even one of the Lakers' top five scorers at the half . . . and didn't look this happy on the night he scored 81?
Most of all . . .
What if I were to tell you that all of the above happened in the third-best game of the night?
It's all true, folks. The more nail-biting dramas were elsewhere Friday, with those one-point outcomes in Washington and Sacramento, but Hollywood happily witnessed the continuation of the Lakers' first-round fairy tale with a 99-92 victory in a Game 3 that, frankly, never seemed that close.
Not with the Lakers beating Phoenix up like they are. They're thoroughly beating (and demoralizing) Phoenix on the boards. They're beating Phoenix inside with resolve that I honestly never believed Kwame, Brian Cook and Walton could sustain. They're even beating Phoenix back down the floor with their transition defense half the time.
They're just beating Phoenix, emphasis on they.
"They're playing the best they can play," Suns coach Mike D'Antoni announced to the NBA TV audience afterward, conceding that he has never seen the Lakers operate with such efficiency. "They've peaked at the right time."
Phil Jackson has never seen these Lakers play like this, either, not even in his dreams. But now you're seeing Playoff Phil. He gets Bryant to buy in like no one dreamed possible and suddenly has the Lakers defending like Detroit. Seriously. It's not just holding the Suns under 95 points in back-to-back games. I simply can't ever remember seeing so many Phoenix layups altered or contested in one game. The Suns came into this one determined to push the ball no matter how often the Lakers scored down low, but Shawn Marion and Diaw and little Leandro Barbosa . . . they're all being forced to hurry whenever they get to the rim.
So . . .
Suns In Five isn't looking so good. With Amare Stoudemire and Kurt Thomas already in street clothes and Brian Grant limited to bit-part minutes, Phoenix will be grateful to see a Game 6 if Tim Thomas can't recover quickly from a late knee injury.
Phoenix (and I) didn't think coming into this series that L.A. had the bigs to exploit the Suns' injuries and shortcomings in the frontcourt. But that was based on what we saw in the regular season, precisely none of which applies now.
The teams have swapped identities. Kobe has become Steve Nash, coaxing big-time performances out of journeymen to (almost) make you forget he shot 6-for-18. And Nash, in a weird way, has become Kobe.
Which is to say lonely.
-- Marc Stein
Ron Artest returned in style. Then Kevin Martin's improbable dash to the hoop gave the Kings a buzzer-beating 94-93 win over the Spurs.
AP Photo/Evan Vucci
Cavaliers forward LeBron James, right, hugs teammate Larry Hughes after the Cavaliers defeated the Wizards 97-96.
Quote of the Day
-- Andrew Ayres
Kevin Martin made the game-winning field goal at the buzzer to wipe out a one-point San Antonio lead and give the Kings a 94-93 victory. He was the first NBA player to score a game-winning field goal at the final buzzer in this year's playoffs.
The last NBA player to make a buzzer-beating field goal that took his team from losing to winning a playoff game was the Lakers' Derek Fisher, whose "point-four" field goal -- on an out-of-bounds play that started with four-tenths of a second to play in the fourth quarter -- led Los Angeles to a 74-73 win at San Antonio on May 13, 2004.
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Readers react to Chris Sheridan's story on hard fouls.
It's one thing to foul a poor foul shooter like Shaq, which is a strategic decision to exploit a team's weakness. But when you hammer someone in an effort to discourage and intimidate him from shooting, that's not basketball and should be penalized. When you're bumping for position and boxing out aggressively, that's basketball; when you're intentionally trying to clobber somebody, that's not basketball.
I like the hard foul. In my opinion it sends a message to players saying that if you come to hole don't expect an easy layup, expect to get hit. It's the game of basketball. It's expected.
It's just ugly basketball. The team invoking the "rules" (last year you might have called it the "Ginobili Rule" in Seattle) basically admits an inability to cover a certain player (Lebron, Ginobili, Jordan, etc.) and turns to brute force to try and fix the problem.
Beating up skill players as a tactic is ruining the game and must be fixed. I tune in to see LeBron, Wade, and Shaq, not the goons sent in to slow down those guys with all the talent. What if someone had shortened Michael Jordan's career with a cheap shot? What if pitchers decided to bean Albert Pujols until he was unable to hit? What kind of game would you be left with then? -- John (Avon, OH)
I think hard fouls in the playoffs are great. It brings another level of intensity to playoff games that just doesn't exist in the regular season. Think Bird/Julius, Isiah/Jordan, Bird/Magic, Laimbeer/Anyone. Nothings say s a player cares about winning more than when he decks a player just so he doesn't get the layup.
I'm tired of the argument that the NBA needs more "graceful" play to appeal to the casual basketball fan. If you can't appreciate shot blocking, taking the charge, or making a smart foul on what would be a breakaway play then you truly are not a basketball fan. Part of playoff basketball is limiting the success of the stars, so why wouldn't you put a hard foul on their star player? Why appeal to people who will always be football or baseball fans first?
Basketball is not a game to played by ballerinas. Fouls are part of the game, with it or you are not that good of a player. Then again I grew up as a Knicks fan (23 now) so that is the what I would call the proper way to play. Tough.
Tony Parker was among the league leaders in points in the paint this year. To me this means that no contact whatsoever is allowed anymore and we might as well be watching the WNBA. Hard fouls are part of the game and should be used wisely without intention of inflicting harm on the opposing player. Whenever highlights are shown of great playoff rivalries, one of the main themes is the physical relentlessness of the players in the 80s and 90s that would drive to the bucket knowing that they would be eating hardwood. This is the NBA playoffs, no blood, no foul. Period.
Skill and grace are the most compelling aspects of the NBA. But if all we want to see is stars parading unhindered to the basket, we should watch slam dunk contests and street ball highlights. It's not supposed to be easy, it's supposed to be hard. Anyone in the NBA can score and make plays against a soft defense, but the best players find a way to overcome the best defenses and dominate anyway.
Fouling? What about traveling. Did you see 'Bron 'Bron's absurd jump-stop-then-take-two-steps move against the Wizards? The refs completely blew that call, and it cost the Wiz Kids the game. I want to see the refs call the little things, especially in the playoffs. -- Dave (Chicago)
Chris Sheridan: Jason Collins and Cliff Robinson are better defenders than some might think (Thursday night notwithstanding), so I don't think it's hopeless for tham at the 4 position. Johnson is not a guy you look to, he's a guy who needs to have the ball kept out of his hands late in the shot clock, because he'll find a way to get a decent shot off. That's why he's been in the league so many years, and that's why Carlisle hitched his wagon to AJ back in February and March.