NBA Playoffs: Black Saturday At Staples

Yesterday at the Staples Center will undeniably go down as Black Saturday in the developing history of the 13-year-old Los Angeles arena. The Clippers and Lakers each hosted must-win playoff games, each had them seemingly in control and both let them slip away. TheSportsNotebook recaps both games and looks ahead to Sunday’s twinbill in the NBA playoffs…

San Antonio 96 LA Clippers 86: I was in a car driving back from Baltimore listening on XM Radio and when the Clips were ahead by 24 early in the game, I audibled down to baseball and general talk shows. I missed a devastating San Antonio turnaround highlighted by a 24-zip run in the third quarter. Beyond the obvious—and accurate—talk about how this shows the Clippers are still learning, while the Spurs are championship tough, the thing that stands out most in the big picture is free throw shooting. San Antonio got the line more frequently and did it via the backcourt. Tony Park and Manu Ginobli were 10-of-14 from the foul line, while Chris Paul was only 2-for-2 and Randy Foye never got a charity stripe attempt. Furthermore, the Clippers bricked the free throws they did get, with Reggie Evans 3-of-10 being the biggest culprit. Overall, the Spurs 17-9 scoring advantage in this area accounts for most of the margin of victory in a game evenly contested elsewhere. Los Angeles got positives—Blake Griffin finally played like a stud, with a 28 points/16 rebounds showing and Paul dished 11 assists. But whether the season ends in Game 4 at home or Game 5 back in San Antonio, those are lessons to build on next year. The Spurs are up 3-0 in games and this one’s over.

Oklahoma City 103 LA Lakers 100: The meltdown wasn’t quite as dramatic in this one, but the Laker lead hovered in the 10-point neighborhood for most of the game, before Oklahoma City finally made a decisive push at the end. Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum were not nearly active enough on the boards, neither in double digits and Gasol a mere five. It became a battle of the stars at that point and with Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Kobe Bryant all having huge nights, the Thunder had one more star. Westbrook hit big shots all game long to keep his team afloat, Durant gained steam in the fourth quarter and finally buried a trey in the face of Metta World Peace that proved be the game-winner. Bryant was accurate in complaining after the game that Gasol needed to be more aggressive, although I’m sure Kobe’s diplomacy on the subject will be called into question and that’s equally accurate.

I do think the whole back-to-back game thing hurting the veteran Lakers more than the young Thunder has to be given some credence here. Oklahoma City played its best basketball in the fourth quarter, Bryant went 1-for-8—a sure sign he was losing his legs—and the Laker perimeter defense suffered. It’s hard not to see some fatigue issues in there. No question Durant and Westbrook played big, and the former’s continued clutch play stands in sharp contrast to LeBron James at the halfway point of the second round. But the Lakers did not get a fair deal from the schedule-maker and I continue to wonder why Boston-Philadelphia got the entire weekend off while the LA teams played back-to-back. It makes even less sense when you consider that NBA planners are worried about tonight’s game with the Clippers, since if the LA Kings’ playoff game with Phoenix goes multiple overtimes, there will be an issue with clearing the ice to set up the basketball court. If a rush job has to be done and any moisture on the court creates an injury look for there to be a real media furor over a situation that could have easily been avoided.

That Clips-Spurs game tonight offers little in the way of storylines. We’ll see how hungry the home team is to stay alive one more game and how hungry the veteran team is to close quickly. I suppose we could read long-term stuff in there, like Los Angeles developing some mettle for future championship runs or San Antonio showing further hunger for the coming conference finals, but I’ll need to see this series stretched to a Game 6 before I’d be ready to go there.

Indiana-Miami is the big one this afternoon. I’ve been high on Indiana’s chances of taking this series this distance from the start and to win it since Chris Bosh went down, but I’m also not ready to give Miami a free pass for their play in Game 3. Say what you will about Bosh, losing him is not an excuse for a 19-point defeat, unless Dwayne Wade is hurt worse than he’s letting on, as I’ve seen suggested. Furthermore, Durant and Westbrook showed last night that a two-man show can at least give you a chance to win. If Wade is better than Westbrook—and he is—and LeBron is really the MVP (I don’t agree, but it’s still close enough)—than shouldn’t they be enough to take this game to the wire. And if Paul Pierce can carry a decimated team to a win in Atlanta, can’t both LeBron and Wade do the same here? I say they can, and look for both big guns to have huge games. Whether Indiana answers depends on whether Roy Hibbert continues to have nights like he did on Friday, when he scored 19 to go with his usual stellar rebounding and defensive effort. He’s the one man the Heat have no answers for.