Steve Aschburner
Monday May 4th, 2009

Five thoughts on Sunday's playoff games, conjured while watching our planet's climate change faster and more frequently than the lead in that Atlanta-Miami series:

1. Dallas' Sixth Man can't outdo Denver's sixth, seventh and eighth men. Or, if we were doing this in the shorthand of a fan's arena sign at the Pepsi Center, it would be: ``Mavs' 6 < Nugs' 6+7+8.'' Not that there's anything surprising about that math, but the first- and (distant) second-place finishes of Mavericks guard Jason Terry and Nuggets guard J.R. Smith, respectively, in the NBA Sixth Man Award balloting makes bench play a particular focal point in this Western Conference semifinal series.

In Denver's 109-95 (BOX | RECAP) Game 1 victory, Terry was outnumbered, literally and statistically. The veteran combo guard scored 15 points in 32 minutes, but didn't have nearly the help that Smith got from the guys warming the next couple stretches of bench. During the regular season, Brandon Bass and Antoine Wright combined with Terry to contribute 35.4 points, 9.0 rebounds and 5.1 assists to the Mavericks' attack. On Sunday, those three managed just 20-7-4, with Bass and Wright offering five points, two rebounds and three assists as their share in a combined 27 minutes.

Now, it's not uncommon for coaches to shorten up their rotations in the postseason. Except that wasn't the case and it sure didn't work that way for Denver. Smith, Anthony Carter and Chris Andersen were technically the Nuggets' sixth, eighth and ninth most frequent contributors in 2008-09 -- Linas Kleiza averaged more minutes than the Birdman -- but they were a three-reserve cavalry riding to the rescue in this one.

Smith was basically a push with Terry, with 15 points, three boards, six assists, two steals and a block. Carter had 12 points, three rebounds and four assists and Andersen provided the illustrated shocker, with 11 points, six rebounds, two assists, one steal and six blocked shots, helping the Nuggets to an 11-2 edge in blocks. Right there, that explains the difference in field-goal attempts; sure, Dallas got off 82 to Denver's 73, but those extra nine were all swatted right back at them. Dirk Nowitzki had three of his 22 shots blocked, while Terry, Bass and Erick Dampier each got two rejected.

Denver's superior depth is the main reason it will grind down and outlast the Mavericks in six games or less. The bench was a huge part of the Nuggets' 35-point second quarter, and these numbers are even gaudier: Kenyon Martin was a minus-6, in plus/minus in Game 1, and Chauncey Billups was plus-8. But Carter was plus-15, Smith was plus-22 and Andersen soared with a game-best plus-28. Terry? He was low man of the day at minus-20. Keep in mind, too, that Kleiza was only called on for seven minutes Sunday, after averaging 9.9 points and 22.2 minutes in 82 appearances during the season.

2. Bigger, faster, better. Denver dominated inside, outscoring the Mavericks in the paint 58-30. But wait! Denver also dominated in the open court, running up 29 fast-break points to the Mavericks' four. But wait! Denver also got to the line more often, shooting 36 free throws to the Mavs' 13. Like Miami in the opening game of Sunday's doubleheader, Dallas doesn't have enough of an inside threat to fend off these Nuggets four times in seven games, not with physical play cranked up and the pace relatively cranked down for the playoffs. Dampier's left ankle sprain early in the game turned his clash with Nene (24 points to Dampier's three) into more of a mismatch than expected, but there is no reason to anticipate that flipping around even once.

3. What about Chauncey Billups' first homecoming? Billups was deserving of every third-, fourth- or fifth-place vote he got in the MVP balloting. The trade that delivered him from Detroit to Denver was a double-whammy, gutting the Pistons to an extent no one envisioned while inserting into the Nuggets' style and locker room precisely what they had lacked. The veteran guard was a dynamo in dispatching young rival Chris Paul and the Hornets from the first round, averaging 22.6 points, hitting 66 percent of his three-pointers and posting a 6.17-to-1 assists-to-turnovers ratio. Still ...

From all the attention Billups gets now as the prodigal Rocky Mountain son returning home -- in case you didn't know by now, he was born and raised in Denver, attended the University of Colorado and is the only local hero to ever play for the Nuggets -- you'd think the franchise had been angling to acquire him since he hit the NBA in the 1997 draft. Wrong, mile-high breath. The Nuggets had Billups once before, getting him from Toronto just before the 1999 lockout season, then lumping him for salary-matching purposes into a deal with Orlando not quite 13 months later.

Billups, after being dumped by both Boston and the Raptors before his second NBA season, was making progress in the lockout year (13.9 ppg). But he wasn't a point guard yet (38.9 field-goal shooting and 2.18 turnovers to 3.8 assists), certainly not new coach Mike D'Antoni's idea of one in a 14-36 season. The next year, Billups dislocated his left shoulder in December and already had undergone season-ending surgery when he was dispatched to the Magic. He signed as a free agent with Minnesota, where coach Flip Saunders didn't much care for Billups' point guard aptitude either. But the Wolves were desperate, given Terrell Brandon's injury woes, and Billups got two seasons, 87 starts and more than 4,100 minutes invaluable to getting his career legs under him. Next came Detroit, and the rest is history.

Just don't forget those first 58 games with the Nuggets, a decade ago now, that get lost in the footage of Billups' flat-top haircut from George Washington High. In Denver, of course.

4. The surest sign of Miami's failure. With 5:30 left in the third quarter of Atlanta's 91-78 (BOX | RECAP) Game 7 victory in the East, Atlanta's Josh Smith was called for his second foul in as many seconds. That gave the Hawks four, putting Miami into the bonus. So the Heat had nearly half the quarter remaining and one of the league's most accomplished creators off the dribble -- and, let's be honest, one of the NBA's favored sons when it comes to whistles -- going for it. Surely, this was the place and time for Miami to whittle down a 58-45 deficit.

Nope. The Heat scored just seven more points -- on three Wade jump shots, one a three-pointer. No free throws at all. No forcing of the action. No more Atlanta fouls, or foul trouble, period. Wade and his team looked completely out of gas.

5. Eighty-four minutes mattered. The other 252? Meh. Only one other series in NBA playoff history went seven games while being decided entirely by margins of 10 points or more: The Lakers-Suns West semifinals in 1970, in which L.A. overcame a 3-1 series deficit by winning the final three games by 17, 11 and 35 points. But Hawks-Heat had its own weird bragging rights -- zero lead changes after the first quarter of every game. It was the anti-Celtics-Bulls series. That all-timer was one long nail-biter; this one, one long nail-puller.

It leaves me wondering whether Mike Woodson and Erik Spoelstra did two of the best jobs ever in terms of game preparation and adjusting to earlier results in the series, or if they did two of the worst bench coaching jobs ever given the lack of resiliency or halftime ad-libs and pep talks apparent in this one?

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