The first round of the NBA playoffs has gotten very interesting, with three teams winning do-or-die situations in Game 5—two of them on the road–and six series still in play as they all head to Game 6 battles on Thursday and Friday night. TheSportsNotebook’s will break each series down as follows…
- We’ll start with Boston and Houston, who are making unlikely trips home for Game 6 after falling into 3-0 series holes.
- Then we’ll move west, where Denver stayed alive at home and Memphis won a pivotal Game 5 in Los Angeles.
- Finally we’ll check in on the hideously played Indiana-Atlanta series, along with Brooklyn-Chicago, who have not played since Tuesday’s NBA commentary.
BOSTON & HOUSTON BATTLE BACK
The immaturity of the New York Knicks is coming in for rightful criticism this morning, after Boston went into MSG and got a 92-86 win that extended this series to Game 6. The combination of the New York media and the recent history between these cities regarding series where the team from the Big Apple wins the first three games (2004 American League Championship Series), was already destined to create additional pressure if the Knicks let this series get back to Boston. But the behavior of New York has added fuel to the fire.
Let’s start with J.R. Smith’s cheap shot elbow to Boston’s Jason Terry during the Knicks’ Game 3 win. Smith then had the audacity to talk how New York would have won Game 4 if he had played. It’s not that it wasn’t a true statement—the Knicks likely would have won on Sunday in Boston with Smith in the lineup. It’s that Smith’s words weren’t said in a tone of regret for having let his team down, it was words of arrogance aimed at celebrating himself. Last night, with the chance to back it up, he missed his first fourteen shots from the floor. He hit a trio of late three-pointers after the game was decided that will pad his stats, but did his team no good.
If you look at this game from a strictly basketball perspective and throw out the noise, there’s not a lot of reason for New York to panic. They shot the ball poorly from the three-point stripe all night and that’s something you have to be prepared to live with when you shoot the trey as often as they do.
Furthermore, the Knicks have shown during the season and in Game 3 that they can win in Boston. There’s no reason they can’t win Friday night, and certainly no reason they shouldn’t be favored to win Game 7 on their homecourt.
The question is going to be how much is the noise from outside going to affect this team. The last two games were the opportunities for New York fans to watch the games with a certain degree of comfort with their lead. Now they know their team has to do something difficult—either clinch on the road or win a Game 7 situation where the entire weight of the media universe will be coming down on them. The Knicks have spent two-plus games showing us immaturity and a lack of playoff-readiness. Head coach Mike Woodson has to get his team to see this as a chance to change perception and toughen themselves up.
Now let’s move on to Houston, which into Oklahoma City and won 107-100, As with the Knicks, the Thunder shot terribly from three-point range. They were 8-of-33 from behind the arc. Unlike the Knicks though, I’m not ready to let Oklahoma City off the hook. What were the Thunder doing jacking up all these threes to begin with? Houston is a perimeter-oriented team that loves to shoot the long ball and Oklahoma City just played right into their hands.
James Harden knocked down 31 points, and the Rockets were hot from outside, hitting 14-of-35, while Kevin Durant was cold, hitting 1-of-8. Even though he got 36 points, it wasn’t the usual high-percentage efficient Durant that we’re used to seeing. With OkC neglecting the interior, Houston’s Omer Asik had 21 points/11 rebounds, his second straight big game.
Oklahoma City is in trouble, but for different reasons than New York. With the Knicks, it’s all about mind games. With the Thunder, the reality is that absent Russell Westbrook, Houston matches up with them pretty well. Not well enough to win four games in a row, but had the injury taken place before the series, I would likely have seen this as a seven-game battle. The 8-seed in the West would be one of the top three seeds in the East, and without Westbrook, Oklahoma City is probably a 3-seed caliber team themselves. Whatever the seeds, records and reputations say, the personnel each team is trotting out right now is comparable. I think the Thunder are going to survive, but by no means will it be easy.
DENVER & MEMPHIS WIN IN THE WEST
Denver stayed alive in its bid to get a second-round date with San Antonio, as the Nuggets defended their home floor in a 107-100 win over Golden State. The Nuggets finally stopped trying to out-finesse the Warriors and got physical. Head coach George Karl inserted Javale McGee into the starting lineup, gave more minutes to his inside people in general and lo and behold it produced a victory.
I’ve harped on this point after the Denver losses in Games 3 & 4, so I want to make sure I clarify something. It’s not that I think Javale McGee is some extraordinary player, or that backup center Kosta Koufus is one of the league’s great bench players. What I do think is that their presence on the floor, especially with Golden State’s David Lee out, engenders a style of play that the Nuggets can execute better than the Warriors. If this becomes a battle of the guards and who can hit the three-ball, I’ll bet on Golden State’s Steph Curry against pretty much anyone. If it gets physical, the smallish Curry and the interior-challenged Warriors have issues.
Denver’s Andre Iguodala stepped up with his best game of the playoffs, scoring 25 points, grabbing 12 rebounds and dishing 7 assists. The media storyline afterward was Golden State head coach Mark Jackson griping about alleged dirty play against Curry. In the clips I saw there wasn’t anything alarming and I’m inclined to agree with the media consensus that Jackson is playing for calls in Game 6. Which is all just as fair as the Nuggets getting physical.
Memphis went to Los Angeles on Tuesday night with that series tied 2-2 and I don’t think anyone could have expected the complete meltdown of anyone on the Clipper roster not named Chris Paul. Blake Griffin has an excuse—a high ankle sprain that took him out of the game in the second half and has him questionable for tonight. But what’s with the rest of the team? While Paul had 35 points, no one else got in single digits and Memphis pulled away to win 105-93.
This Paul-only lineup is even worse for Los Angeles than it would be for a lot of teams. Paul’s great strength is his ability to pass, and the Clips’ great strength is their depth. When Paul has to do all the scoring, both strengths suffer and defeat is predictable. Furthermore, the fact Memphis got big games from Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol inside—a combined 46 points/19 rebounds, leads to more free throws than a perimeter attack. The Grizzlies shot eight more free throws than their opponent and scored seven more free points, an edge that made up more than half the victory margin.
Now it’s the Clippers who have to go on the road and win a survival game. They did it last year in Memphis in Game 7, after coughing up a 3-1 series edge. If it’s going to happen in Game 6 tonight, the Clippers need a whole a lot of players to stand up and give Paul some help.
INDIANA-ATLANTA STAYS UGLY
The series may be competitive with the Pacers and Hawks, but the individual games are absolutely awful. Apparently neither team can function outside its home environment. Indiana had homecourt for Game 5, so naturally they pulled away after halftime and won 106-83. Every game in this series has seen the home team win by double digits and the margin has been 15-plus on four occasions.
Atlanta’s interior combo of Al Horford and Josh Smith might as well have stayed home. Indiana dominated the glass to the tune of 51-28. Horford and Smith have played like stars on their home floor, and stiffs when back in the Midwest. Indiana’s own star, Paul George has been the same. Since he had the home crowd on his side, he went for 21 points and 10 rebounds, while his team shot 50 percent from the floor.
I’d like to stay with my pick of Indiana to make the conference finals, particularly given the problems New York is having on that same side of the draw. But I have to see something that suggests they can win on the road—something like…oh, I don’t know, how about a win on the road? This series resumes Friday.
Chicago and Brooklyn resume their series in the Windy City tonight. The Bulls can either close it out at home or see it go back East for a decisive game on Saturday. The early injury reports suggest the Bulls’ Kirk Hinrich will not play, but those same reports suggest that all is well with Joakim Noah. I felt from the start that this was perhaps the most compelling of the first-round series, with the star-laden Nets against the team-oriented Bulls and it’s been exactly that.
THE VIEW FROM VEGAS
Golden State bettors keep collecting, as the Warriors were a 7.5 point underdog in Denver, meaning they snuck out a half-point cover and have beaten the spread all five games of this series. Memphis is also strong against the number, having covered in all three wins, plus a two-point road loss in Game 2. The Celtics-Knicks is dead even against the number thanks to a Game 1 push, and bettors will watch this 2-2-1 series go to a swing game.
Miami and San Antonio are still kicking up their heels and waiting for second-round opponents. They can watch a lot of basketball, with all six Game 6s going Thursday and Friday night. Here’s the TV lineup…
Brooklyn-Chicago (8 PM ET, TNT)
Denver-Golden State (10:30 PM ET, TNT)
New York-Boston (7 PM ET, ESPN)
Indiana-Atlanta (7 PM ET, ESPN2)
Oklahoma City-Houston (9:30 PM ET, ESPN)
LA Clippers-Memphis (9:30 PM ET, ESPN2_