An indepth look at the 2003 NBA Playoffs
The National Basketball League (NBA) is the pinnacle of all professional basketball leagues. It possesses the most talented athletes and is the place where young basketball players from countries all around the world aspire to reach . April 19th saw the start of the 2003 NBA playoffs. This article begins with a short quiz to test your knowledge of this years playoffs and then reviews and analyses the events leading up to the NBA finals.
The NBA playoffs this year brought with them particular excitement, enthusiasm and expectations. In part this was because the championship race was seen to be 'up for grabs'. There was no clear favourite for the title and much debate and rivalry transpired amongst fans, reporters and the teams themselves.
During the regular season, San Antonio Spurs showed their overall strength and endurance by becoming Midwest Division champions and topping the Western Conference standings, but it was an incredibly close contest all the way. The Sacramento Kings captured the Pacific Division title and were seeded in second spot, only whiskers behind the Spurs. The Dallas Mavericks followed suit winning third position in the Western Conference with the same number of wins as the titleholder Spurs in the Midwest Division. Playoff predictions have swung around the strength in particular of these three teams without discounting the everpresent and reigning champions, the LA Lakers.
In the East, although some were saying that the conference overall was much weaker than their counterparts, a fiery battle raged between last years Eastern Conference champions the New Jersey Nets, the Detroit Pistons, Allen Iverson's Philadelphia 76ers and the Indiana Pacers. In the end just 2 wins separated the 4 teams with Detroit coming out on top duplicating their Central Division title of the previous year.
Criticism of the weakness of the Eastern Conference teams lied in their results over the season against the sides in the West and the overall number of winning games. Detroit, the East's top team won 10 fewer games than the top team in the West. In fact the top teams in the East only won the same number of games as the West's fifth and sixth placed teams.
First Round of 2003 NBA playoffs
After round one of the 2003 playoffs there was only one real upset in the Eastern Conference, the Celtics beating the third placed seed Indiana with relative ease. The most fiercely contested series played out between the top seed the Detroit Pistons and the eighth seed the Orlando Magic. With the Magic up 3 games to 2, the Pistons had to take a win in Orlando just to prevent elimination. With Magic's Tracy McGrady receiving little help from his team-mates and struggling to turn on the performance needed to put the Pistons away, the Pistons walked away with a victory, finishing off the series at home with a convincing win.
In the West, the Spurs, Mavericks, Kings and Lakers all reached the semi-final stage some with more difficult matchups than others. The Spurs faced the Phoenix Suns who during the regular season were somewhat of a Spurs nemesis. The matchup did not work well for the Spurs and they initially struggled with the Sun's all-star guard Stephon Marbury as well as with the Suns effective double team defense on Tim Duncan. Ultimately the Spurs perimeter players came through on offense with exceptional performances from Manu Ginobili, Stephen Jackson and their young point guard Tony Parker who was growing in playoff confidence.
The Dallas Mavericks went down to the wire against the Portland Trailblazers. After a breathtaking start and leading the series 3-0, the Mavs fell apart, losing the next 3 games to tie the series 3 all in the best of seven. With their championship hopes on the line, the Mavs pulled through led by an inspired Van Exel who nailed 12 points in the final quarter of game 7.
The commonalities shared by all of the teams who progressed from the first round to the semi-final stages of the NBA playoffs, were a mix of playoff experience and at least one all-star on the team. Each of the teams 'turn to' player came through when the pressure was on. However for the winning teams there was also a great deal of backup support from key role players.
Eastern Conference Semi- Finals
At the semi-final stage of the playoffs, the Nets took the first place in the Eastern Conference finals by blowing away the Boston Celtics 4 - 0. The Celtics were not the team of last year with a less-experienced and weaker side suffering from recurring injuries from the season as well as trades of significant players. The Celtics missed the experience of Kenny Anderson who knew how to get the ball to the right player at key times in games as well lead and direct the team. They also missed the heart and talent of players like Erick Strickland and Rodney Rogers, fighters, not afraid to make things happen on the floor. All season the Celtics showed moments of unease and this became blatant when the more disciplined and effective Nets quickly disposed of any Celts challenge.
The other Eastern Conference semi-final between the Philadelphia 76ers and the Detroit Pistons turned out to be a thriller. Some new stars emerged during the series including the hardworking, under-rated glue of the 76ers Eric Snow and the effervescent Detroit Piston rookie Tayshaun Prince whose confidence oozed from every pore and who relished the opportunity to take and make the big shot.
With the series tied at 2-2, and 16 seconds to go in Game 5, the Pistons were up by one thanks to a big bucket made by the rookie. But the 76ers were not finished, Snow came up with a huge three pointer off a pass by Coleman and it appeared as if the Sixers were going to break the deadlock and beat the Pistons on their home court. Chuckie Atkins however had different ideas and with a few precious seconds remaining drove to the hoop on Mckie and floated the game winner over the reach of the outstretched Coleman. 3-2 to the Pistons and back to Philadelphia for Game 6. The strength of the Pistons however proved too much for the 76ers on this occasion and Pistons ran out winners with a 93 - 89 W.
Western Conference Semi-finals
In the West, the matchups led to spectacular displays of basketball and very closely fought contests. For both semi-finals keeping the stars on the floor proved to be a difficult task and an important factor in which team eventually won the games.
The Dallas Mavericks and the Sacramento Kings are not especially known for their defensive capabilities and overall the offensive end dominated with an exceptionally high-scoring series. Van Exel, Nowitzki, Finley and Nash continued to come through for the Mavericks and the team demonstrated a strong determination and fight. Stojakovic was a handful for the Mavericks but the Kings struggled without their inside men. Vlade Divac spent much of his time on the bench due to foul trouble and Chris Webber missed Game 5, 6 and 7 due to injury. Game 6 was an opportunity for the Mavericks to take their place in the Western Conference finals but it was to go to a Game 7. The Kings came through with a 113 - 105 win with guard Bobby Jackson demonstrating why he was selected for the Sixth Man of the Year award this season. Game 7 headed back to Dallas for the grand finale of a fast-paced entertaining series. With Chris Webber still out of action, the Kings struggled to match the scoring capabilities of the Dallas team and Dallas headed through to the Western Conference finals.
In the other Western Conference semi-final between San Antonio Spurs and the LA Lakers, the leading team in the league immediately showed they were ready to take on the reigning champions by winning both games at home. Duncan as expected proved to be the heart of San Antonio's success and needed to be on the floor if the Spurs were to win. Duncan's counterpart Shaq was equally as vital for LA. The Lakers fought back from a 2-0 deficit to tie the series 2-2. Their resolve was not enough however to stop the Spurs taking the next game by a single basket after Robert Horry missed the chance to win the game with a 3 pointer. In Game 6 at the Staples Center in LA, a quick start put the Spurs in the lead but as the end of the first half approached, the game evened out with just two points separating the teams. Parker and Duncan had strong spells for the Spurs and Shaq continued to show his dominance inside. In the second half, the Spurs pulled away with a superb leadership performance by Duncan. The Western Conference finals were to be the San Antonio Spurs versus the Dallas Mavericks.
During the regular season there has been a notable difference between the styles of play between the top teams in the East and the top teams in the West. In the East, it has been a tough, defensive-orientated physical game. Games have less frequently run into a scoring century and players regularly have to fight for every shot. The Western Conference sides have in general been at the other end of the spectrum. They have tended to focus on the offensive end of the floor, emphasizing the quality and ability of their offensive talents. Games are run and gun, end to end, often with quick shots before the defense has had a chance to setup. However during the playoffs, the teams that have concentrated on the perhaps weaker elements of their game and lifted these have come out on top. For example Dallas really lifted there defensive efforts against the Sacramento Kings and this helped them through to the Western Conference Finals. New Jersey Nets led by the amazing court awareness of Jason Kidd, put together excellent fast-breaking opportunities, making easy baskets against their opponents and culminating in an Eastern Conference final playoff spot.
Eastern and Western Conference Finals
The Eastern Conference matchup took place between the Detroit Pistons and the New Jersey Nets. The first game went down to the wire, with Jason Kidd making the winning basket with just 1 second remaining on the clock. The Nets swept away the home court advantage from Detroit with the win. Following a second win in Detroit, Nets had the momentum and on their home court for game 3, Jason Kidd took over, scoring 32 points and initiating text-book fast breaks providing his teammates with scoring gifts. The Nets with great concentration, determination and confidence came up with the 97 - 85 win. Detroit were unable to recover from their early home losses and th Nets continued their domination of the East for the second year in a row and completed their second clean sweep of the playoffs. Throughout the series Jason Kidd showed why he is the MVP of the Eastern Conference and a top contender for the NBA MVP award.
In the first game of the Western Conference Finals at San Antonio, the Spurs dominated the game early on but the fast and furious Mavericks did not give up and slowly edged their way back into the game in the second half. An astounding free throw shooting performance by the Mavericks, 49 out of 50 brought them into the game and with 4 seconds to go Dirk Nowitzki, sealed the game by nailing two more from the line. He led the team with 38 points. The Spurs shot better from the field than the Mavericks but only managed only 31 from 48 free throws and this ultimately lost them the game. The Spurs came out ready in Game 2 and throughout the game fought to tie the series knowing that another loss at home could seal their fate as they moved to Dallas for Game 3. Spurs pulled through with a 119 - 106 convincing win.
This series proved more challenging than the Eastern Conference Finals. However the evenly matched teams suddenly looked a little less well-matched when all star Dirk Nowitzki. sprained ligaments in his knee in Game 3 and was forced to sit out for Games 4 and 5. The Mavericks however showed what true competitors they are and by Game 5 had adjusted to the loss of their high-scoring forward and performances by Michael Finley and Van Excel were outstanding. However it was not just the excellence of the Dallas offense but also the array of zone defenses that the Mavericks threw at the Spurs which made the difference. They drove their team to a 103 - 91 win. Game 6 was back at Dallas. Heading into the fourth quarter Dallas were up by 12 points and looked as if they could pull off the win and take the series to Game 7. They were still playing without their German superstar but others in the team were stepping up including LaFrentz who had 21 points. However an incredible 23 and O run from the Spurs in the fourth, blew Dallas out of the water and Spurs ended up winning by 12.
The 2003 NBA Finals were to be between the San Antonio Spurs and the New Jersey Nets. The Nets have never won the NBA championships before but they have had recent experience of the action in last years Finals against the Lakers. The Spurs won the NBA title in 1999 and still have core members of that winning side playing in the 2003 Finals. During the regular season the Spurs and the Nets have each won one against each other so in terms of history they are on a relatively level playing field. The key matchups to watch out for are Jason Kidd and Tony Parker. During the regular season, Parker had an outstanding game against Kidd partly fueled by the rumours that Kidd could be on the move to the Spurs next season. However Jason Kidd has been exceptional in this years playoffs and will be a difficult task for Parker. Inside the Nets may struggle to contain Tim Duncan without a true inside center. Martin with his quick and aggressive defense could still however provide a challenge for Duncan's attempts at domination. With their much smaller lineup, the Nets have to continue looking for fast break opportunities and look to unsettle the San Antonio offensive rhythm with attacking defense.
The NBA Finals begin on June 4th 2003 and will hopefully provide a feast of entertainment, skill, poise, excitement, creativity, and determination.
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