The NBA Closer is written by Matt McHale, who never thought he'd live to see the day when Joel Przybilla could push around Shaquille O'Neal. When he's not having his most cherished basketball memories irrevocably altered by The Big Eraser, he can be found dancing the funky chicken at Basketbawful. Enjoy!
• Kobe can finally eat in peace. Thank God. Kobe Bryant scored all 17 of his fourth quarter points - including 11 straight in one stretch - in the final 5:56, causing the bizarre eruption of an "M-V-P!" chant from the Arco Arena crowd. Said Mamba: "It's better than hearing cowbells. That was a trip. It felt great, though. I don't got to worry about nobody poisoning my burger now. I can eat in peace." Double negatives aside, the "M-V-P!" chant really isn't that surprising, particularly since the contest was officiated like it was a Lakers home game. L.A. got 40 free throw attempts to Sacramento's 17, and Kings center Brad Miller said that Kobe got "more free throws than our team in the fourth quarter, and that makes it tough." Oh, come on Brad. That's a bit of an exaggeration, don't you think? Kobe only had 12 free throws in the fourth. It's not like this was Game 6 of the 2002 Western Conference Finals or anything. Sheesh. Bryant finished the game with 34 points and Pau Gasol chipped in another 31 to the Lakers' cause. Kevin Martin and Ron Artest each scored 23 for Sacramento.
• Remember, kids: Don't tug on Superman's cape. Dwight Howard spent most of the game riding the pine because of foul trouble, and after three quarters he had only 3 points on 1-for-3 shooting. And he wasn't happy about it. "I didn't want to end up with a one-point game tonight. I was very upset, not at my team, just myself. I got a little frustrated in the first half, and in the second half I played as hard as I could." You could say that. Howard jumped into his blue and red tights for the fourth quarter and finished the game with 19 points and 14 rebounds. His frontcourt Superfriends Hedo Turkoglu and Rashard Lewis provided the backup with 24 and 22 points, respectively. T.J. Ford tried to keep the Raptors in the game by scoring the team's first 13 points in the fourth quarter, but playing on the road against The Man of Steel without Chris Bosh...well, the 102-87 loss is pretty much all they could have expected.
• First team to 135 wins! And that's exactly how the Golden State Warriors like it. Said coach Don Nelson: "We're used to playing at this pace, and Atlanta isn't. We just put the pedal to the metal and didn't let up." When the Warriors' team foot wasn't on the pedal, it was rubbing up against the Hawks' collective prostate in the team's 135-118 win. The Golden Staters opened the game with a 42-point first quarter and never looked back. But, this being the Warriors, they preserved energy for offense by simply ignoring the Hawks on defense; Atlanta scored 37 in the first and - thanks to Joe Johnson's 38 points and a 40-10 free throw advantage - kept pace until the third quarter. But trying to run-and-gun with the Warriors is like showing up to a sword fight with a rubber chicken; it's great for a Monty Python skit, bad for an NBA game. Baron Davis had 35 points and 9 assists, and Stephen Jackson scored 29 points and hit six three-pointers. Note: Chris Webber missed the game with a sore knee he developed by simply watching his teammates sprint up and down the court. And he may be out for the next three games. (That sound you just heard was a huge sigh of relief from Don Nelson.)
• Well, that was a little too close for comfort. This is why - despite the championship pedigree and the sparking record - the Pistons make me nervous. A mystifying home blowout by the Magic here, a poorly played loss to the Bucks there, giving up a big lead against the Jazz, and then letting the 16-win Seattle SuperSonics hang with them in the Palace of Auburn Hills. These are the kinds of things that make me think that back-to-back playoff collapses against the Heat and Cavaliers weren't flukes. But hey, a win's a win, right? And this particular win had an unlikely hero: Amir Johnson, who hit a game-breaking layup in traffic with 32 seconds left to secure Detroit's 100-97 win. The Sonics actually ended the first quarter leading 41-28 thanks to 82 percent shooting. But the thing about a team - especially a bad team - shooting like that early in the game is they rarely keep it up. And they didn't. The Pistons got 24 points out of Tayshaun Prince plus 20 points and 9 assists from Chauncey Billups. Earl Watson paced Seattle with 23 points, and Kevin Durant scored 20 in a rare night of 50 percent shooting (7-for-14).
• Decisions, decisions. Imagine for a minute that you're a contestant on Fear Factor and host Joe Rogan gave you the choice of eating either a pile of buffalo testicles or a "spaghetti" made up of live night crawlers and coagulated blood balls. Hard choice, huh? Well, that's sort of how I felt while trying to pick a winner in the climactic battle between the Charlotte Bobcats and the Minnesota Timberwolves. I made the safe bet and went with the home team (Minnesota), but it turns out I should have gone with the Bobcats, who won 109-89 behind Jason Richardson's 25 points. Said Minnesota coach Randy Wittman: "Tonight we tried to have a nonaggression pact with the other team, from the first play of the game to the last play of the game. That's disappointing." I'm not a linguist or anything, but it sure feels like Wittman was accusing his team of showing up in their Pretty Pink Princess panties. But maybe I'm wrong.
• Just how bad have the Grizzlies become? Well, they made the Chicago Bulls look like the championship contenders that all the preseason fortune-tellers predicted they would be. The Bulls won 112-97 behind 54 percent shooting and got big games from Kirk Hinrich (19 points, 12 assists, a career-high 4 blocks), Luol Deng (19 points, 9 rebounds, 5 assists), Drew Gooden (21 points, 14 rebounds), and Andres Nocioni (20 points, 7-for-9 shooting). Of course, the Bulls being the Bulls, they had to make things "interesting" (read that "stupid") by letting a 30-point third quarter lead shrink to 13 and making Darko Milicic (21 points, 10-for-14 shooting) look like a legitimate number three overall draft pick. But they won.
• First team to 81 wins! And that's exactly how the San Antonio Spurs like it. This team is at its absolute best when the pace of the game has all the speed and excitement of a coyote chewing its leg off to get out of a bear trap. And, strangely enough, that's precisely what watching this 81-70 brick party felt like. The Nets shot 37 percent from the field (28-for-75), and the Spurs shot 33 percent (26-for-77) but made up for it by grabbing 14 offensive rebounds and, of course, having Tim Duncan (29 points, 11-for-21, 12 rebounds). New Jersey actually closed to within eight points in the third quarter, but Manu Ginobili threw down a breakaway dunk after stealing the ball from Richard Jefferson and then hit a three-pointer to push the Spurs' lead back out to 12 by the end of three. The Nets got 19 out of Vince Carter, and Devin Harris added 13 points and 7 assists in his first start since coming to New Jersey in the Jason Kidd trade.
• Suns finally look like the Suns. For one half, anyway. Phoenix resumed their running and gunning ways for the first two quarters, building a 23-point bulge before settling for a 60-41 halftime lead. They then slooooowed doooooown in the second half, scoring only 37 points and barely pulling out a 97-92 victory over the Portland Trail Blazers. Amare Stoudemire scored 22 points, Steve Nash had 19 points but only 4 assists (what's up with that?!), and Shaq had 6 points (1-for-5 from the field, 4-for-9 at the line) and 13 rebounds. Brandon Roy (25 points, 10-for-18) was all superstar for the Blazers, but he couldn't keep his team from losing the fifth game in their last seven. Said Portland's James Jones: "We're still kind of enigma to ourselves."