NBA Playoffs: Miami’s Soft Close

The Game 5 sequence in the NBA playoff schedule came to an end last night, and we’re halfway through paring down the bracket. The Miami Heat beat the New York Knicks to put a wrap on their series and join Indiana, Oklahoma City and San Antonio in the second round, but the Memphis Grizzlies staved off elimination and forced a Game 6 against the Los Angeles Clippers. TheSportsNotebook recaps both games and looks ahead to a trio of Game 6 battles on Thursday night…

Miami 106 New York 94: TNT analyst Reggie Miller was mildly critical of the Heat throughout last night’s game, saying it looked like they played at regular season intensity rather than close-out intensity. This fits into the standard critique of Miami in general and LeBron James in particular, which is that they lack killer instinct. A part of me wants to say let’s be reasonable—they won the game, and they covered a hefty 11-point Vegas line in doing it. One gets the sense that until LeBron drops half a hundred in a 30-point win, no one’s going to be satisfied. And there’s truth to that. But in fairness to Miller, the Knicks shot 47 percent. Miami’s been one of the best defensive teams in the league all year, New York has no one in its backcourt who can create shots—so therefore is it unreasonable to think a team who really smelled it would have locked down the defensive side? Instead, Carmelo Anthony scored 35 points on an efficient 15-of-31 shooting. Really, other than J.R. Smith who bricked shots at a 3-of-15 pace, the rest of the Knick offense shot well (This is the second time in this series I’ve wondered why Smith is shooting so much. He’s not a key player, nor is he particularly good at it). But Miami did get to the free throw line, LeBron got 29 points and the Heat got some big three-point shooting from Mike Miller and Shane Battier. I suppose they didn’t look like a great team, but they’re moving on.

Memphis 92 LA Clippers 80: Now here’s a team that played defense like it really wanted to win. Memphis held Los Angeles to 37 percent shooting from the floor and the Grizzlies finally controlled the interior. While Blake Griffin got 11 rebounds, his scoring was in check and Memphis got a team effort from Marc Gasol, Zach Randolph and Rudy Gay out at small forward. Gasol scored 23, while Randolph finally liked the scoring/rebounding bruiser he’s supposed to be with a 19/10. Memphis holds homecourt, so this series is very much up for grabs as we go to Game 6 and the fact Chris Paul strained a hip and Griffin strained a knee only add further intrigue to the drama as we build up to Friday’s Game 6.

While Memphis-LAC wait until Friday for Game 6, the other three series all can end tonight…

*Philadelphia looks to complete a three-game sweep of its home floor against Chicago. Joakim Noah is listed as questionable with his ankle injury. If Chicago survives this game—and remember, that even shorthanded, they almost won Games 3 & 4 here—then they get the Sixers back in the Windy City for Game 7 and Noah could be healthy by the second round. Then we’re back to the Bulls being “only” without Derrick Rose and wondering if the team that won two-thirds of its games without the superstar can resurface against the Celtics or Hawks. But if Chicago’s going to make that happen they need at least average offensive work from C.J.Watson and Rip Hamilton in the backcourt and they need superior work from the guards when it comes to containing Philly’s Jrue Holiday.

*Injuries have overshadowed the Boston-Atlanta series on both sides, but as they get set to battle in the Garden both teams are healthy. The Celtics have been so since Game 3, and now Atlanta has Josh Smith and Al Horford back as a unit in the power forward-center spots. In most cases when a lower-seeded team has a close-out chance in Game 6 it’s treated as a de facto Game 7—and in most cases I’d agree. I don’t in this case. The Celtics have the veteran mojo to win a Game 7 in Atlanta if necessary—and as a Celtics fan I’m honest enough to say that the league would surely like them to be the one that faces Miami in the conference finals—check that—given the alternatives are a Rose-less Chicago, Philly or Atlanta, I think David Stern’s office is positively desperate for Boston to win this series and probably the next one. It doesn’t mean it’ll happen, but things like this count more than they should in the NBA when you get a close game down the stretch. Atlanta’s the equivalent of a political candidate who needs to get 52 percent of the vote to win rather than 50 percent plus one.

*The Los Angeles Lakers were the team who wasn’t to supposed to be in this spot. They should be resting to face Oklahoma City. Instead their veterans and thin bench go into even thinner air to play a Denver team that got some renewed confidence.  The Nuggets must  push the pace and since it will be difficult for them to get stops through rebounding, they have to force some turnovers and get Los Angeles running, and defensively figure out a way to ride out the inevitable Kobe Bryant “I’m Unstoppable And We All Know It” streak he’ll inevitably get on and just not let role players beat them.