The NBA’s second round saw all four higher-seeded teams fall into a 2-1 series hole. Three of those teams took over their series from that point forward. Atlanta, Cleveland and Golden State all won three straight and over the last two nights won Game 6 close-outs on the road. Here’s a look at how all three did it…
GOLDEN STATE & CLEVELAND
I’m bracketing these two teams together because the Warriors and Cavaliers are the betting favorites to reach the NBA Finals and each followed a similar path to their three-game win streaks. And it started with defense.
Cleveland held Chicago to 40 percent or below from the floor in all three wins, and the Game 6 clincher was also marked by a complete domination of the glass. Tristan Thompson alone had 17 rebounds, six of them on the offensive end and the Cavs outboarded the proud Bulls 53-32.
Golden State wasn’t quite that dominant defensively, but they did turn the series in Game 4 by holding Memphis to 37 percent from the floor. And while the Warriors did not dominate the Grizzlies on the glass, the fact that this series was mostly a wash down low had the same effect.
If Memphis couldn’t get an edge in the low post, where they had Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol, they certainly weren’t going to get it in the backcourt, where Golden State has Steph Curry and Klay Thompson.
Which brings us to the second commonality between the Warriors and Cavaliers and it’s that the game’s two brightest stars—league MVP Curry and consensus best player in LeBron James—took over at critical moments.
Curry drilled 33 in the Game 4 road win and continued to shoot the ball well from behind the arc in the final two games, including 32 points in Game 6. As a team Golden State shot 14-for-30 from three-point range in Game 5 and 15-for-32 in Game 6. If the Warriors are going to shoot close to 50 percent from behind the arc they simply aren’t going to lose to anyone.
And with their frontcourt tandem of Draymond Green and Andrew Bogut holding their own, all three wins were decisive with an average victory margin of nearly seventeen points.
Now let’s move to King James. This was not a good series for him on balance. He was outplayed by Chicago’s Jimmy Butler for the bulk of it. But LeBron did what superstars do, even when they’re not playing well and found a way to make his mark.
He hit the walkoff game-winner in Game 4 that shifted the series back in Cleveland’s favor. Then he played his one truly outstanding game at the critical Game 5, with a splendid 38 points/12 rebounds/6 assists on 14-for-24 shooting. It was his teammates—notably Thompson and Matthew Dellavedova—who carried the load in the sixth game, but the combo of Game 4 buzzer-beater and Game 5 masterpiece from LeBron changed the tenor of the series.
The Hawks’ victory over Washington wasn’t as closely monitored as the other two series, mainly because Atlanta’s starless cast isn’t given a real chance to win the NBA title in spite of their #1 seed in the East. And the series wasn’t particularly well-played, with Game 5 being a turnover-fest. But it was certainly dramatic.
Atlanta got things turned around in Game 4 by being more selective in their offense. Rather than jack up 30-plus three-point attempts they settled for a more manageable 19 attempts from behind the arc and hit nine of them. Jeff Teague’s 26 points, with 20 coming from either inside the arc or at the foul line was the most visible example of the newfound efficiency.
The Hawks then fed Washington a big dose of Al Horford. The big man got 23 points/11 rebounds in Game 5, including a game-winning putback where he simply wrestled the ball away from Washington’s Nene. Horford, power forward Paul Millsap and small forward DeMarre Carroll just owned the inside on the back end of this series.
Washington needed Nene and Marcin Gortat to step up—they were getting incredibly clutch play from the great Paul Pierce and a lot of heart from point guard John Wall, who played on with a badly injured hand. But Atlanta’s dominance inside was too much to handle, and it started with Horford.
There’s one more higher-seed team trying to complete a comeback. Houston fell behind the Los Angeles Clippers 3-1 and has won two straight to get a Game 7 on Sunday afternoon (3:30 PM ET, ABC). The conference finals being on Tuesday with action in the Western Conference on ESPN. On Wednesday the East starts, with games carried on TNT.
TheSportsNotebook’s NBA playoff coverage will continue on Monday with a look at how Rockets-Clips went down and then Tuesday with a conference finals preview.