Around the Rim: Better late than never


1. Spurs sharpening
The Spurs slipped a bit to start 2008, losing eight of their first 15 games following the calendar change. However, with an 81-70 defeat of New Jersey on Tuesday night, San Antonio won its tenth consecutive game, reclaimed the top spot in the Western Conference race and reminded a whole lotta contenders who the real team to beat is. The Spurs are currently on a 14-1 streak with quality wins over Phoenix, Cleveland, New Orleans and Dallas while compiling the best scoring defense in the conference (90.4 ppg). The Nets never had a chance after the opening quarter as the Spurs “Holy Trinity” of Tim Duncan (29 pts, 12 reb), Manu Ginobili (12 pts) and Tony Parker (11 pts) controlled the contest. With the recent additions of Kurt Thomas and Damon Stoudamire, this is possibly the most talented team the Spurs have ever suited up…and that is saying a lot. If Brent Barry decides to return to S.A. then back-to-back championships could be within the Spurs grasp.

2. Crunch time is Kobe time

Kobe Bryant shines brightest in down-the-stretch situations. Tuesday was no different. Bryant ripped off a 17-point fourth quarter performance in Sacramento last night, leading the Lakers to a 117-105 victory. In all, Bryant finished with 34 points as Los Angeles won its 12th game in 13 tries to keep pace with San Antonio in the West standings. The former solo flyer who has recently become the ultimate team captain reached a personal milestone in the win as well, becoming the second youngest player (29 years, 194 days) in league history to reach the 21,000-point plateau. Wilt Chamberlain remains the gold standard for the accomplishment, knocking out the feat in 10 fewer days than Bryant. While Pau Gasol is waaaay behind on the all-time scoring list, he certainly kept pace with Bryant on Tuesday, scoring 31 points to go with 10 rebounds.

3. Suns squeeze past Portland
The Suns were sitting on a two-game losing streak when they traveled to Portland and after letting a 23-point lead slip away, it appeared they were headed for consecutive loss number three. That didn’t happen. Phoenix survived the rally to take a 97-92 victory over the Blaze who got 25 points out of Brandon Roy. Unfortunately, Portland needed even more out of its All-Star because the rest of the team’s starters produced a mere 26 points. On the other side of the court, Phoenix basically played a seven man rotation led by Amare Stoudemire’s 22-point performance and Shaquille O’Neal’s 13 rebounds. Shaq still struggled on offense, going 1-of-5 from the field and 4-for-9 from the line for six points, but the big fella had three blocks on the defensive end. Things are about to get interesting for the Suns as they head to Denver tonight before hosting Utah and San Antonio in their following pair of games.

Tuesday’s Player of the Day: Pau Gasol @ Sacramento 42 min, 31 pts (FG: 10-15, FT: 11-13), 10 reb, 4 ast, 2 stl, 3 blk

Wednesday’s Game to Watch: Detroit (44-16) @ Boston (46-12)
After the Celtics rushed out to a 29-3 record, nobody expected they could be run down before season’s end. Wrong. Detroit can cut Boston’s Eastern Conference lead to just two games with a win tonight. But they will have to do it in an arena where the Celtics have lost only four games all year and they’ll have to do it against a healthy Kevin Garnett who is averaging 15.2 points, 9.8 rebounds and 1.6 steals per game over his last five contests. Someone the Pistons won’t have to worry about is Sam Cassell; at least, not yet. Cassell won’t be in the lineup tonight as he attends a family funeral, instead he will be making his debut on Friday against the Bulls.

Buzzer Beater: Everything appeared to be pointing toward an Atlanta victory. Of course, appearances can be deceiving. The Hawks hosted Golden State last night and they played a terrific game in front of the home town crowd. Atlanta shot over 50 percent from the field, connected on 44 percent of its 3-pointers (7-16 3FG) and got 40 free chances from the charity stripe. Too bad they still lost by 17 points as the Warriors ran them out of their own gym, 135-118, hitting 55-of-101 shots, including 17-of-32 for three. Oh, and G.S. only took 10 free throws the entire game!

Getting outshot 40-10 from the free-throw line and winning by 18, that’s an amazing stat, really,” Golden State coach Don Nelson said. “We tried to play a very aggressive game, Not having any big guys we had to play a small lineup and it worked out pretty well.

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