Tuesday night had the chance to be a Close-Out Night, with four teams having Game 5 clinching opportunities. Only one of them—the Indiana Pacers—took advantage. And no failing was more surprising than the Los Angeles Lakers losing at home to Denver. TheSportsNotebook recaps the four games from Tuesday and looks ahead to two more Game 5 clinch possibilities tonight…
Denver 102 LA Lakers 99: For about 3 ¾ quarters, the Nuggets completely outplayed the Lakers, and got up by 15 points in the fourth quarter. The nature of life in the NBA is such that even given that I still figured a lead like that was just enough to make the game a toss-up. Sure enough, Kobe got heated up and ripped off three straight treys. For the game, he took 32 shots, scored 43 points and depending on your perspective either willed his team back into the game or through his ball-hogging, helped create the deficit to begin with. It’s quite possible both arguments are right. But he missed his final three-pointer—a clean look with under five seconds left and TNT analyst Steve Kerr virtually shouting “Foul him”, and making him do it at the line. I think Kerr—who is rapidly becoming my favorite basketball analyst, pro or college—was right, but Kobe’s shot went a little long.
Los Angeles’ ultimate problem is that they didn’t shoot the ball well, being held to 38 percent from the floor, while Denver was able to get key backcourt people rolling. Andre Miller got 24 points and dished 8 assists off the bench. Arron Afflalo finally decided to give some production from the two-guard spot and scored 19. With his backcourt mates scoring, point guard Ty Lawson was able to focus on running the offense and had nine assists. But I think most impressive was that Denver limited LA’s rebounding edge to 48-43. With Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol the Lakers need to be winning this area much bigger. Because they did not, they have to either close the series on the road or in Game 7, all while preventing their vets from getting rest before a second-round series with Oklahoma City.
Chicago 77 Philadelphia 69: Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau takes tremendous pride in defense, and just in general a team that shows up and plays with pride sees that manifest itself either on the defensive end or on the glass, the areas where effort can always prevail. Chicago held Philly to 32 percent shooting from the floor, with the big shutdowns being on Jrue Holiday who was 5-for-17 after mostly controlling this series, and Andre Iguodala, the small forward who was 4-for-19. The Bulls’ backcourt continues to be horrible on the offensive end without Derrick Rose—C.J. Watson, John Lucas and Rip Hamilton went a combined 7-for-25 from the floor, but the forwards stepped up big. Carlos Boozer has answered the bell from the moment the injuries happened and he did so again last night to the tune of 19 points and 13 rebounds. And this time he got help from Luol Deng, who hit 10-of-19 from the floor, banged home four treys and scored 24 points. I know it’s little consolation to Chicago fans right now, but the trial by fire Deng is getting at this point where he has to be a go-to guy is something that can help him in a future championship run when all the pieces healthy.
Atlanta 87 Boston 86: The ultimate edge for the Hawks came from the fact they outrebounded the Celtics thanks to the play of the now-healthy Al Horford along with Josh Smith, as the interior duo combined for 27 boards. But Boston is used to getting outrebounded. The real key was that Atlanta was able to shoot 46 percent from the floor and negate the defensive edge Boston normally brings to the table. No Celtic player had a really big game, although Rajon Rondo made every effort on the defensive end with five steals, including one with ten seconds left that gave his team a chance to win. It had the potential to be a “Bird steals the ball” moment, circa Game 5 of the 1987 Eastern Conference Finals, but this time there was no Dennis Johnson to feed and the Celtics never got off a last shot. Atlanta can feel good not only about surviving, not only about having a potential Game 7 in their building, but about winning without a good game from Joe Johnson in the backcourt.
Indiana 105 Orlando 87: For three quarters the Magic gave the Pacers everything they could handle and had the lead, but Indiana delivered a thunderous blow in the final period, with a 36-16 scoring margin that enabled them to coast him. In this space yesterday we talked about how Orlando’s three guards needed to hit on all cylinders, but instead they only hit on one and a half. Jameer Nelson had a great game, with 27 points, including 5/8 from behind the arc. But J.J. Redick only had 12 and was unable to get his own three-point shot in gear. And Jason Richardson was a non-factor, a tough end for what was a decent series for the Orlando guard. Meanwhile, Indiana used their advantages up front, as Roy Hibbert and David West both helped control the boards for the home team and small forward Danny Granger stepped up to play like the star he’ll have to if Indiana’s going to keep this playoff run going. Granger scored 25 points and connected 4/9 from three-point range. Overall, after an alarming Game 1 loss, Indiana seems to have found their playoff footing in time for their impending second-round battle with Miami.
Speaking of Miami, they’ll have their closeout chance against New York tonight with a Game 5 in South Beach. The Knicks fired their best shot in Game 4 and still barely won at home, and their already lousy backcourt has been further weakened this series with the injuries to Iman Shumpert and Baron Davis. This is the equivalent of the San Diego Padres’ offense losing its two best hitters. We’re really scraping the bottom of the barrel right now. And the good game tonight is the LA Clippers trying to wrap up their series in Memphis. I want to see Rudy Gay step up and meet the moment on his home floor in an elimination spot and on the flip side I want to see Blake Griffin start rebounding again, a job he neglected in Game 4. 30 points covered up other flaws in that game, but to win the road the Clippers need to control the glass and Griffin and the up-to-now non-existent DeAndre Jordan need to make that happen.