Steve Aschburner
Sunday May 10th, 2009

Five playoff thoughts while wondering how it is that Chauncey Billups could benefit from a clock that didn't start in last year's second round (Orlando-Detroit, Game 2) and from a foul that wasn't called in this year's ...

1. "The foul was committed. It was not called.''

But it should have been called, Dallas coach Rick Carlisle said, finishing his money quote in a classy and surely difficult postgame session with reporters after the Mavericks' 106-105 defeat-snatched-from-the-jaws-of-victory (RECAP | BOX) against Denver in Game 3 Saturday. Carlisle then went on to say that he felt almost as disappointed for referee Mark Wunderlich as he felt for himself, implying that the veteran ref would have regrets, maybe even a sleepless night, after viewing a replay of his non-call.

I'm thinking Wunderlich slept just fine. I watched at least a half dozen times, from three different angles, the controversial, outcome-altering play. Dallas -- with a foul to give and the clock showing only 6.5 seconds left -- tried to use it on Carmelo Anthony, I think the blame rests with defender Antoine Wright and the Mavericks, depending on what they told their player and the refs.

Dallas' biggest fear was that Anthony would get off a shot, or feign one, while getting fouled, getting to the line to tie or win. At least, the Mavs thought that was their biggest fear. They couldn't have imagined what actually happened, that their intended foul of Anthony would not get called and that he would, in fact, unleash an icy three-pointer to, let's face it, effectively end the series. (No NBA team ever has come back from a 3-0 deficit in a best-of-seven series.)

When the ball squirted loose momentarily from Anthony with about five seconds left, the Mavs had their chance. Wright, chasing him around the perimeter to the right side in front of the Dallas bench -- and right in Wunderlich's lap -- reached across with his left arm. He made contact, though without much force, because he was leaning back and Anthony was moving forward. The ref was behind Anthony and, like the rest of us, didn't see much reaction in the Denver star's momentum or reaction. Anthony wasn't dislodged off his spot, for instance, and he didn't stop as if he knew and accepted that he'd been fouled.

Carlisle, only a few feet away from the play, said that he was shouting at Wright at that point to "take the foul.'' Wright simply could have wrapped up Anthony in a bear hug at that point. He could have run right into him and belly-bumped him out of bounds. Instead, he reached across with his left arm -- and then he threw both his arms straight up into the air. Huh? That is the universal symbol among defenders that says, "I didn't touch him!'' isn't it?

So Wunderlich, in that instant, doesn't see Anthony nudged out of bounds, doesn't seem him wrapped up, doesn't even see his body shudder from whatever contact there was but does see Wright separate from the Nuggets forward with a gesture that seems to suggest, I dunno, innocence. Then he sees what everyone else sees -- Anthony stepping into his shot and nailing the three-pointer.

The league released a statement Saturday evening stating flat-out that the refs missed Dallas' intentional foul. Fine. I'm just saying, I can see how Wunderlich might not have seen it as such. Or seen it at all.

"I don't know, man. I don't know,'' Anthony said, when asked if he had been properly fouled. "I just kept on going, regardless of the whistle.''

Said Dallas' Dirk Nowitzki, who had subbed out for Wright's defense on the play: "It happened right in front of me. I thought Antoine wrapped him up pretty good. ... It's only a foul in this league when the referee blows the whistle.''

So there it is. A league in which offensive players constantly are "selling'' fouls by exaggerating their pain and suffering after contact gets a pivotal playoff moment in which a defensive player needed to sell his foul a whole lot better than Wright did.

2. Houston is as done as Dallas and Atlanta.

Being down 3-0 means no midnight phone call from the governor, no stay of execution, according to the NBA history books. But being down 2-1 and losing your All-Star center, in the midst of an emotional playoff series, from a roster that already adjusted once to the massive loss of an All-Star scoring star (Tracy McGrady), means pretty much the same thing: The check to the electric company cleared and Old Sparky is ready to go.

As soon as doctors found the break in Yao's left foot, every man across the Lakers' front line grew four inches. No more mismatch in the middle; on the contrary, Houston is the team that is undersized and outmanned now. The Rockets' offense had retooled since McGrady's season-ending knee surgery to run through Yao, and got comfortable with his surprising good health this season. They were 19-8 without him in 2007-08 but 3-2 this season.

"We've won without people all year long,'' coach Rick Adelman said Saturday. "It's just one more case.''

Of course Adelman had to say that. But no, coach, no it's not. A franchise known during its best playoff runs for its reliance on Hakeem the Dream now, in this most disappointing postseason, has Yao, the Nightmare.

3. Dirk Nowitzki has had better weeks.

You have to feel a little bit for the Mavericks' leader and one-time NBA MVP. Bad enough that his personal life gets spilled out all over the tabloids and the Internet -- that woman arrested at his home, her alleged aliases and credit-card shenanigans, whatever her relationship with Nowitzki, you name it. Worse, he fizzles down the stretch in a must-win game that hit him harder than any of those four consecutive losses to close out the 2006 Finals against Miami.

Hard to believe, but Nowitzki ranked the Game 3 stunner as his most painful as a pro. "As tough a loss as I've been a part of in my 11 years in the league,'' he called it, citing the turnaround at the end as the cause. Ouch. Dwyane Wade killed Dallas in '06 by constantly getting to the line, while Anthony killed the Mavs Saturday by never even getting fouled.

If that was the emotional element of Game 3 for Nowitzki, here is the statistical: Though he scored 33 points with 16 rebounds, he shot 1-of-6 in the fourth quarter and scored only four points. And though he shot a game-high 15 free throws, he attempted only two in that final period. He put little pressure on a Nuggets front line that was hampered by foul trouble by failing to post up or drive. Here is his shot chart from the fourth quarter: three-pointer made, three-point miss, turnaround jumper missed, step-back jumper missed and jump shot missed, before his last-gasp three-point "heave'' at :00.3.

"Took some tough shots. One fadeaway was a bad shot. The others were pretty decent,'' Nowitzki said afterward. "After, you're a lot smarter. We could have done a thousand things different. We didn't and we lost by one. I still think we did enough to win the game.''

4. Atlanta's game-changing moment ... didn't.

I'm having a hard time recalling a more definitive, momentum-swinging sequence that ever fell more flat than the one Atlanta mustered in the third quarter of its 97-82 loss to Cleveland in Saturday's later game. It really was remarkable, both in what it should have been and in what it ultimately wasn't.

With 4:23 left in the period, Hawks forward Josh Smith matched LeBron James stride for stride on James' drive to the hole and, whoa, swatted away the newly crowned MVP's shot. Al Horford grabbed the rebound and the ball wound up with Flip Murray for a fast-break layup that capped a 13-0 Atlanta run, put the Hawks in front 63-62 and ignited the Philips Arena crowd.

Sixteen seconds later, Mo Williams sinks a jumper. Horford counters to regain a one-point lead. Then Mike Bibby turns the ball over, Joe Johnson misses a three and Bibby misses a jump shot. Anderson Varejao's putback makes it 66-65 Cleveland with 2:07 left and the Cavaliers never trail again. In fact, Atlanta gets outscored 22-6 to fall behind 84-69 midway through the final quarter, and neither Smith nor Bibby scores in that 11-minute downward spiral.

Looks like the closest the Hawks will get to a victory in this series is the morale variety, namely, making James play all but 44 seconds of the fourth quarter Saturday. He had totaled only two minutes in the final quarters of lopsided Games 1 and 2.

5. RIP Chuck Daly

I had precious few dealings with Daly, who passed away Saturday after his bout with pancreatic cancer, but that was all due to my bad timing. My only real up-close-and-personal moment came during his broadcasting stint, when he had draped one of his beautiful silk suit coats over the back of a metal folding chair in the media work area under the stands in, I think, Houston. One of our ink-stained crew had plopped into the chair to start hacking on deadline when Daly, impeccably dressed and coiffed as usual, noticed and hustled over to save his fine jacket from further soiling. With a grand "Thank you!'' that showed he didn't much appreciate the arrangement, he deftly extricated the coat from behind the writer's no-doubt sweaty back -- and even then probably had it fumigated. Bottom line, the man -- best known for his work with the Pistons and the original Dream Team -- had style, enough for a whole workroom of sportswriters.

Daly also seemed to be as respected and as liked by his fellow coaches as anyone I've encountered in that fraternity. Their words and recollections Saturday were a reminder of that.

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