The Eastern Conference semi-finals are set, as Philadelphia and Boston each won Game 6 thrillers at home to clinch and set up a second-round date with each other, joining Indiana and Miami. Out west, there’s still more work to be done, as the Denver-LA Lakers series will go to a seventh game. TheSportsNotebook looks back on last night’s three games and ahead to tonight’s Game 6 with Memphis and the LA Clippers…
Philadelphia 79 Chicago 78: No one can fault the Bulls’ effort. Even without Joakim Noah they hit the boards with a vengeance, demolishing the Sixers on the glass to the tune of 56-33. Luol Deng and Carlos Boozer alone combined for 30, nearly matching the entire Philly team. But the Sixers play good defense and Chicago’s missing its star, and the combination produced some ugly offensive numbers for the Bulls. Boozer shot 1-for-11, while Derrick Rose stand-in C.J. Watson went 2-for-11, concluding a series in which he definitively established he’s not meant to be more than a backup point guard, at least on a team with serious postseason aspirations. In spite of a good game from Rip Hamilton and Deng’s best efforts—he scored 19 to go with his 17 rebounds, Philly got 20 from Andre Iguodala and was able to survive. The question has been raised about whether the 76ers need to in effect, apologize for their series win because of the injuries to Rose and Noah. The answer is clearly no—injuries have been a part of every sport since the first time man started keeping score. But on the flip side, to suggest even having just one of Rose or Noah couldn’t have swung one of three close games in Philly the other way is to live in an alternative universe.
Boston 83 Atlanta 80: The Celtics didn’t shoot the lights out the way they did in the Garden in Game 4—they laid bricks from behind the three-point line all night, going 2-for-15 as a team with Ray Allen ice cold. Atlanta hit its own threes, with Marvin Williams connecting on 4-of-5. But Kevin Garnett bailed out Boston with a 28 points/14 rebounds night that included a big turnaround jumper in the paint that gave the C’s the lead for good in the closing minute. Boston also had a big edge from the foul line, scoring 19 points to Atlanta’s 9. And it’s the one point the Hawks didn’t get from the line that the fans will remember—when Al Horford missed the first of two shots when he had the chance to tie the game with three seconds left. It was the classic formula for a win by one of the league’s marquee teams on their home floor—they got a genuinely clutch game from a star, the opponent came up short at a key moment and you kick in a little favorable officiating—I almost flipped when they whistled Josh Smith for a technical foul because he didn’t check in properly in the second half of a close game. It all came together to give the Celtics a series win, and improbably, homecourt advantage for the second round against Philadelphia.
Denver 113 LA Lakers 96: Speaking of that whole formula for a marquee team theory, the Lakers didn’t have homecourt, nor did they have a star playing well—in fact, Kobe Bryant played with the flu—but they did get some help from the officials, getting 30 free throw attempts to Denver’s 17, with Bryant and point guard Ramon Sessions alone going to the line 12 times. I guess a “don’t touch the guards” rule was in effect. It didn’t matter last night, because the Nuggets shot the lights out, at 51 percent from the floor and 10/20 on treys. Ty Lawson buried five shots from behind the arc on his way to a 32-point night, Denver got contributions up and down the lineup and this game was never even as close as the score makes it sound, with the lead being up over 20 most of the second half. But watch that officiating tendency—could be a warning sign for Denver of what awaits in Game 7 at Staples on Saturday night.
We’ve got six of eight spots for the second round filled up, and one Game 7 set. The other series on the board is Memphis-LA Clippers, where the Clippers will get a chance to close the series on their home floor. Blake Griffin and Chris Paul will be ready to go after leaving Wednesday’s Game 5 with knee and ankle sprains. For the Clippers, I’m watching to see if Paul has a “get-on-my-back and I’ll carry you” kind of game, especially in the fourth quarter. On the flip side, I think Memphis has to avoid putting their own point guard, Mike Conley, in that kind of battle with Paul. While Griffin may be the best post player on the floor, Memphis is deeper up front. Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph finally awoke in Game 5, and if they can do it again tonight, they’ll create a seventh game opportunity back home on Sunday.