It was the game that would all but settle the Oklahoma City Thunder’s season, as they tried to avoid falling behind 3-1 to the San Antonio Spurs in the Western Conference Finals. The Thunder needed their stars to come out—not just Kevin Durant, but surely, Russell Westbrook and James Harden had to have big games. The latter two combined to shoot 6-for-23 from the floor. And Oklahoma City…won? Yes, OkC overcame subpar nights from two of its three best players and beat the best team the NBA 109-103 and officially announced “Game On” in the West Finals.
TheSportsNotebook has called out Kendrick Perkins for his lack of performance at different points in these playoffs, including this series. But Perkins came up big last night, with 15 points/9 rebounds, helping his team establish a 41-31 rebounding advantage—and with the Spurs bagging 11 three-point shots, OkC needed every edge they could get inside. Serge Ibaka came up even bigger down low, scoring 26 points, leaving everyone to wonder when the defensive-minded power forward suddenly morphed into Kevin McHale, as he filled the offensive gaps left by Westbrook and Harden. And lest we forget, Kevin Durant poured in 36 points and shared the basketball well, with eight assists.
Westbrook and Harden weren’t the only big-name guards to struggle. The same held true for Tony Parker, who had just 12 points and was contained for the second straight game. Even though Tim Duncan got back on track, with a 21/9, and forward Kawhi Leonard posted a 17/9 night, San Antonio couldn’t get enough from the backcourt, in spite of the best efforts of Manu Ginobli and Stephen Jackson off the bench.
The Eastern Conference Finals have their own Game 4 tonight, with Boston looking to match Oklahoma City’s feat of winning two straight at home to tie up the series. Both the Celtics and Heat have an easy win at home (Games 1 & 3) and now the Celtics need to match the Heat’s ability to win a close game at home (the 115-111 overtime win in Game 2). Boston has reason to feel encouraged, with Ray Allen looking like he’s gaining strength as the series goes on. The flip side is that Miami’s Mario Challmes is playing some of his best basketball right now as well, and when the Heat get real support for LeBron and Dwayne Wade, they’re not going to be beaten. As a Celts fan, I’m keyed up for tonight’s game, but they have to deal with the reality that each game is Miami’s to lose, based on how well their supporting pieces play.
The Boston Celtics aren’t going to go quietly in the NBA’s Eastern Conference Finals. Following in the mold of Oklahoma City out West, the Celtics responded to the home crowd by delivering a strong effort in a must-win spot over Miami and took Game 3 101-91 and cut the Heat’s series lead to 2-1.
Boston’s not been known for it’s rebounding, but they beat Miami to the glass consistently on Friday night, with a 44-32 advantage. Kevin Garnett owned the paint with 24 points/11 rebounds, while Paul Pierce stepped up with 23 of this own. As far as the Heat were concerned, LeBron James might has well have made the trip himself. LeBron dropped 34 and grabbed eight rebounds, but Dwayne Wade had a pedestrian (for him) 18 points and Shane Battier, Rony Turiaf and Joel Anthony managed to get through the game without anyone noticing them. This game was, in essence, Miami’s give-back of Game 1, when a tired Celtics team played flat for every quarter but one and the Heat won easily. This is no small thing—if you believe that close games will mostly balance themselves out, to give back a blowout is a big concession in a short series.
Oklahoma City looks to go from “back on the radar” to “firmly in the hunt to win the series” when they host San Antonio in Game 4 of the Western Conference Finals tonight. If the Spurs are going to bounce back they absolutely must get Tim Duncan back in the flow of the offense and Duncan must get himself back to controlling the glass. In an ideal world, San Antonio would also tighten up defensively, but that’s been a spotty area throughout the playoffs. For their part, OkC shouldn’t count on forcing 21 turnovers like they did in Game 3. The Thunder need a big game from Kevin Durant, who hasn’t gone off in this series the way he did at key points against Dallas and the LA Lakers in earlier rounds. And to continue the ideal world theme, they could use a big game offensively from Russell Westbrook, but what’s more important is they need Westbrook to focus on distribution and defense if his shot is not falling.
No one questioned the Boston Celtics’ heart coming into the Eastern Conference Finals against Miami, but plenty of people, TheSportsNotebook included, questioned their ability to even extend this series as far as six games. Both points of view were vindicated in an epic 115-111 overtime game won by the Heat to take a 2-0 series lead. Boston turned in an extraordinary effort, one that leads you to wonder if they couldn’t win playing like this, can they possibly make this series anything more interesting than whether they can cover pointspreads?
Rajon Rondo delivered a stunning 44-point night, even more unreal by the fact most his points came on perimeter jump-shooting. The Celtics, normally a poor rebounding team, were even with the Heat on the glass. Defensively, they forced Miami to settle for jump shots and Ray Allen showed some signs of life for the first time in this postseason. But if Miami is going to play like it did in Game 2, then we have to start thinking—again—that maybe can win the NBA title that they were suddenly written off from achieving (yes, including by me) after Chris Bosh got hurt and their wins seemed more about lackluster competition than real championship play.
LeBron James posted a 34 points/10 rebounds/7 assists line. He also missed the last shot of regulation, while it was Dwayne Wade who delivered the biggest Miami basket of overtime, something that will no doubt be endlessly rehashed. But the biggest Heat bucket down the stretch in the fourth quarter, when they trailed 94-91 was an open three-pointer by Shane Battier, a shot set up by good recognition from James when he was double-teamed and quickly reversed the ball. Sure, if LeBron was the next Jordan, he’d have hit the shot at the end of regulation. But he also compares favorably to Kobe, who would surely have forced up a bad shot rather than reverse it to a teammate. And trust in the teammates was what made Miami ultimately unbeatable last night. If Mario Challmes is going to knock down 22 points, if Udonis Haslem is going to hit 13, including several key baseline jumpers in the fourth quarter, if the Heat as a team are going to bag 10 three-pointers a night, then they aren’t going to lose this series, or even be extended past a Game 5 at home. And San Antonio should take notice.
Well, before San Antonio takes notice of anything going on the East, they do have some business to take care of in the West, as that series starts its middle two games in Oklahoma City, with the Thunder looking to show Games 1 & 2 were just about homecourt and not about a clear Spurs’ advantage. I would like to see some tighter defense from San Antonio tonight, even if they don’t win. Teams have shot for good field goal percentages against them, and while you won’t stop Durant from getting his points, you can force Russell Westbrook into a bad shooting night and there’s no reason James Harden should go off for 30, like he did in Game 2. If San Antonio loses playing tough defense, it’s still a good sign for their hopes of closing the series out in five. If they lose playing bad defense, then we could be in for a back-and-forth homecourt series that goes the distance.
If the San Antonio Spurs are going to play like they did last night, we might as well just call off the rest of the NBA playoffs right now. Even without a big offensive night from Tim Duncan, San Antonio shot 55 percent, buried 11 treys, built up a 16-point lead after three quarters and then turned back an Oklahoma City push to capture Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals by a 120-111 count.
Tony Parker was the star of the night with 34 points on a sizzling 16-for-21 shooting, but what’s really turning the Spurs up a notch is that Manu Ginobli is hitting his shot. With 26 points last night, the veteran shooting guard has gone 20-plus in each of the first two games of this series and he’s doing it with efficiency, hitting a little better than 50 percent from the floor.
And then we come to San Antonio’s depth—not necessarily bench players per se, but the fact someone outside the core players always seems to step up. Last night that would be Kawhi Leonard, who scored 18 points and grabbed 10 rebounds.
From Oklahoma City’s perspective, the obvious corollary to all this would be the night to tighten up on the defensive end when they return home for Game 3 on Thursday. Their own lack of offensive depth showed again last night. Even in a game where they scored 111 points, they still needed Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden to produce 88 of them. There’s not a lot they’re going to do to fix that at this point in the season, but they do need to rebound the ball better. I have to pick on Kendrick Perkins for his lack of rebounding. I’m one of the Celtics fans who loved Perk when he was in the Garden and was devastated to see him go last year, so my focus in him is anything but personal. I am just completely mystified as his lack of rebounding. It’s not as though OkC is getting beaten on the boards—last night was basically a wash, but this is an area where they can get an edge if Perkins starts grabbing 10-12 a game.
The West was supposed to be the series that was exciting and it may still get there. We’ll see if Oklahoma City answers with their own coming two home games. The East finals resume tonight with Miami-Boston, as we look for reasons to think the Celtics can make a series of this. I do think Boston’s going to make a game of it tonight, with better defense. Whether they win it depends on if they can get any shooting from Ray Allen and/or Paul Pierce. And whether they win this game will tell us if we’ll get an interesting series.
The Miami Heat’s strength all year has been lockdown defense. The Boston Celtics’ bugaboo all year has been rebounding. A combination of the two delivered Miami a decisive 93-79 win Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals last night in South Beach.
LeBron James was outstanding with 32 points, but his 13 rebounds also led the Heat and helped key the win. Shane Battier was an unlikely stalwart on the boards, with 10, while Kevin Garnett was the only one able to do anything on the glass for the Celtics. And Miami was forcing plenty of misses to rebound, holding the Celts to 39.5% shooting from the floor. Paul Pierce was a non-factor at 12 points on 5-for-18 and Ray Allen might as well not even be on the floor right now.
Boston didn’t have its own tough defense in effect. Miami shot 50 percent, a figure that stayed stable through much of the game and the defensive breakdowns by the Celtics were uncharacteristic. It’s not as though the Heat were hitting tough shots, or even just open long jumpers. In fact, Miami’s offense jacked up way too many threes. For some reason Battier decided he was J.J. Redick and launched nine from behind the arc, only making two. As a team Miami shot 5-for-25 from trey range.
On the positive side for the Heat, this means they really didn’t play their best game on offense and still won by 14. On the negative side? It’s unlikely the Celtics are going to hand them as many breakdown layups in future games and Miami cannot settle for three-point shots when they’re so much better driving to the basket and using their superior athletic ability.
As to the Celtics, the fact they were tied at halftime may end up working against them. There’s no doubt this was a tired team after the seven-game series with Philadelphia that ended on Saturday. The C’s might have been better off getting smoked early, waving the white flag and started resting up the vets for Game 2 tomorrow.
The Western Conference Finals resume tonight when Oklahoma City tries to even up the series with Game 2 in San Antonio. In the recap of the Spurs’ 101-98 win on Sunday, TheSportsNotebook noted that Thunder center Kendrick Perkins has got to be more of a presence—or any kind of presence at all—on the glass. And whether Russell Westbrook shoots better or not is anyone’s guess, but if Westbrook is cold, he can’t keep firing. He instead needs to create shots for Kevin Durant and James Harden. In the big picture I think San Antonio’s going to win this game and ultimately the championship, but I like OkC to come out strong and win a good one tonight.
When the NBA playoffs started the prospect of a Boston-Miami battle in the Eastern Conference Finals seemed appealing, and when Chicago’s Derrick Rose got hurt one day in, it became the matchup fans began waiting for. When each team was three games into their second-round series, the Celts had just demolished Philly on the road and the Heat were in a 1-2 hole against Indiana. The talk was that the veteran C’s had one more run left in them. Now that the anticipated Boston-Miami matchup is set to tip Monday, the thinking has changed. If you want to bet the Heat to win, you’re giving up odds of 1-5. You can take the Celts at 4-1. Is this really that big a mismatch? TheSportsNotebook previews the Eastern Conference Finals…
Both teams will play a pace that’s a relative grind-it-out style. With Boston the emphasis on halfcourt play will be in the extreme, while it’s more moderate with Miami. But if this is your first time really settling into watching NBA hoops this year, know something that’s been documented very well by Jeff Fogle over at Stat Intelligence—in spite of what you hear from the media, the Heat stopped being a run-and-gun team eons ago and all the highlight reels of LeBron filling the lanes on the break don’t change that fundamental fact. Now they may choose to push it more in this series and exploit the older, slower Celtics, but it’s not Miami’s game.
In addition to an emphasis on half-court basketball, both teams play very good defense and even with the Celtics injury and age problems that’s been the case in the playoffs. They held Atlanta in the low 40s percentage wise in five of six games and consistently shut down Philadelphia. The Heat had some shaky moments defensively against the Knicks, but really clamped down against Indiana, and the only game the Pacers shot well was their must-win home game in the series finale.
So we can reasonably assume that we’ll see a slower tempo series with very physical defense. Rebounding, even without Chris Bosh, promises to be a solid edge for the Heat. They were virtually even with both the Knicks and Pacers on the glass, even though both of their teams have strong frontcourts, much more so than Boston. While Bosh was part of that for the New York series, he was missing for 5 ½ of the 6 Indiana games, and the Pacer rebounding duo of Roy Hibbert and David West vastly stands above Kevin Garnett—who prefers to roam the perimeter and Brandon Bass. Unless either the Celtics or Heat changes their M.O., Boston’s looking at a lot of one-and-dones, and while Miami might not look pretty, they’ll get their share of second-chance points. If the Celtics lost the rebounding battle to a Sixer team that was not good on the glass all year, what’s going to happen in this series?
Let’s move to the three-point line. If we have a grind-it-out series, the bombs from long range can open things up and obviously in a lower-scoring game, the impact is much higher. Miami has won both ways, beating New York decisively from the perimeter, while losing the trey battle to Indiana. The Celtics lost the long-range war to Atlanta, while it was a non-factor either way against Philly. Ultimately this comes down to the health of Ray Allen. He’s playing on ankles that have drastically restricted movement and even if he just looks to spot up and shoot off a screen—the tactic the Celts have tried—well, if you’ve got really sore ankles go out in the backyard and try and push off and shoot from more than 23 feet away. Then report how difficult it is. Allen’s three-point percentage has dropped from 45 in the regular season, an outstanding number to 26 percent in the playoffs. Virtually all players see their percentages drop in the postseason—the defenses are playing with more intensity and there’s no nights against Charlotte or New Jersey to fatten your average—but the 19-point drop by Allen is much sharper than the norm. Boston has to hope the two big bombs he hit in the fourth quarter of Game 7 are a sign of things to come. Although Miami’s got hope too, and it’s that Mario Challmes awakens and realizes he’s in the playoffs and that his team could use him to open up the lane a little bit.
Now let’s come to star power. Miami just finished playing a team that was probably better on paper—there was no reason Indiana couldn’t have overwhelmed Miami inside all series—but the Pacers lacked the go-to players to take over a game when necessary and in general lacked the intangible of knowing how to win. Now the Heat play a team precisely the opposite. No one doubts that Allen, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett know how to win. But can their bodies still respond. Pierce’s postseason has been mostly built on an extraordinary night in Game 2 of the Atlanta series when he virtually willed his team to a must-win game without Allen and Rajon Rondo in the lineup. Otherwise, the knee problems are obviously slowing him. Garnett has looked like he’s ten years younger and is playing at a championship level, and coupled with Rondo at the point, at least gives the C’s a puncher’s chance.
But if Boston’s only got two players at an elite level, would you really take them over LeBron and Dwayne Wade? James has dropped a 29-point average through the playoffs, while Wade is averaging 24, including a monster 41-point game in the road clincher at Indiana. Furthermore, let’s emphasize that phrase road clincher. Miami had the mental toughness to close out a good team on the road. Boston lacked the capacity—most likely physical rather than mental to do the same to a mediocre team in Philadelphia. Unless Allen and Pierce can suddenly get healthy, all of Boston’s intangibles have found their ceiling in winning two playoff rounds—an occurrence, we should be reminded, that would have been considered unthinkable in January, even if someone told you then that Rose would be out.
As we bring this to a conclusion, I’m reminded of a scene in the 1989 John Candy and Steve Martin film Planes, Trains & Automobiles, as they look to get out of a snowbound Wichita airport. Candy approaches Martin and says simply “There’s no way on earth we’re getting out of Wichita tonight…we’d have a better chance playing pickup sticks with our butt cheeks…” That’s about the same odds the Celtics have on winning this series based on what we’ve seen lately. I’m emphasizing that point, because we need to be reminded it was only ten days ago that everyone felt like Miami was beatable and Boston was on the rise. Things can change and as the ABC/ESPN crew in the studio last night (Michael Wilbon, Jon Barry, Magic Johnson) noted the Celtics do have an M.O. of playing to the level of their competition. As a Celts fan, that’s the thin reed I’m holding onto, but it’s about as thin as thin gets. The reality—the Heat win the series in five games, with Boston winning a Game 3 at home—the one David Stern does everything in his power to make sure they win and keep the series competitive a little longer.
The series between the Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers is finally over and the state of basketball is better for it. An ugly, albeit competitive series, had an appropriate ending last night with Game 7 in the Garden. The Celtics won the finale 85-75 in a game every bit as poorly played as the score makes it sound.
Philadelphia only shot 35% from the floor, and that includes a 10-for-34 bricklaying effort on the part of the guard trio of Jrue Holiday, Evan Turner and Lou Williams. But the Sixers covered for a lot with hustle to the offensive glass, getting 13 second-chance rebounds. But the bad shooting was too much to overcome and Boston had a balanced attack. Four starters—Rajon Rondo, Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Brandon Bass had between 15-18 points apiece and Ray Allen was right behind at 11. Allen also hit two big three-pointers in the fourth quarter. Still, when Pierce fouled out with four minutes left, Philly was only down three with a chance to win.
In fact there was every reason to think Philly would win at that point. The Boston offense was anemic at its best points and downright sloppy and careless at its worst, and now the one player most able to create his own shot was gone. Furthermore, the fact Pierce was whistled for two very dubious calls (a foul on a fast break where replays clearly showed he never touched the offensive player and then a charge where the replay just as clearly showed the defender came nowhere close to establishing position)sent a clear message that the marquee team at home wasn’t going to get the usual benefit of the doubt on every call.
But while the big picture in this series is more about who lost it than who won it, there’s no doubt that the closing minutes belonged to one player. Rondo buried one long jumper and then nailed a three-pointer to give the C’s a working margin and send the crowd into a frenzy. That the point guard would win the game with his long-range shooting was about as unthinkable a prospect as there was coming into the game.
The NBA’s Western Conference Finals start on Sunday night when Oklahoma City goes to San Antonio. It’s a battle between not just the top two seeds in the West, but the teams with the best remaining records in the NBA and teams that have rolled through the first two rounds of the postseason at a combined record of 16-1. TheSportsNotebook previews the series…
If you’ve become bored with the slogging play of the Eastern Conference, then Spurs-Thunder should be a welcome respite. Each was in the league’s upper third during the regular season in pace (possessions per game) and they were the best two in offensive efficiency. It’s the best of both worlds—teams that play at a fast pace and still know how to execute in the process. The defenses—once adjusted for pace—were both good, albeit not great, and they are fairly even when it comes to crashing the boards.
While the general statistical outlook of each team is fundamentally the same, San Antonio and Oklahoma City have gotten there in different ways. For the Spurs, it’s all about quantity, and while Tony Parker and Tim Duncan are the clear leaders of the team, a slew of talent is run in and out by head coach Gregg Popovich around them. Parker and Duncan are the only players averaging 30-plus minutes per game in the postseason, with Manu Ginobli and Daniel Green drawing 25 minutes or so in the backcourt. Both guards are playing at a high efficiency level, scoring in double digits in the series wins against Utah and the LA Clippers and shooting well from both the floor and behind the three-point line. Gary Neal effectively spells Parker at the point and Stephen Jackson has been a big role player off the bench.
Jackson’s contributions come from hitting threes, and it’s that area that San Antonio has relied in—perhaps to access in its 8-0 start to the playoffs. The Spurs won three-point shooting against the Jazz by an astonishing 33-9 count in the four first-round games. Even more astonishing was that two-thirds of the production game from the bench, with a disproportionate amount from Jackson. The trend wasn’t quite as extreme against the Clippers, but San Antonio still hit 38 treys compared to 22 for their rivals. That’s an edge that’s extremely difficult to overcome, but it’s also tough to sustain over a long period of time.
Thus we come to the frontcourt and Duncan. The veteran is averaging 18 points/9 rebounds per game in the playoffs, but he needed more help on the boards during the Utah series, where the Spurs were beaten on the glass. They turned that around in the second round and with everybody—guards and all—helping in the rebound area, San Antonio enjoyed an advantage. It’s worth noting here that Popovich has taken away forward DeJuan Blair’s minutes and given them to Boris Diaw. Blair is a pure post player, while Diaw is a little more inclined to shoot a trey. This suggests the orientation to the three-ball is at least a little bit by design and if it becomes a problem the coach could also go back to Blair.
Oklahoma City’s reputation is that of being Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden, right in that order. And that rep is mostly earned. Durant has been the league’s best player in the postseason, averaging 27 ppg and hitting every big shot, from the game-winner in the first-round opener against Dallas to the nothing-but-nylon trey he buried in the face of Ron Artest to take command of the Laker series. Westbrook’s not far behind at 24 ppg, while Harden is averaging 17, including a big 29-point game on the road to clinch the Dallas series.
The Thunder’s key players have given them an advantage at crunch time. There’s no obvious statistical edge they’ve enjoyed against either the Mavs or the Lakers, but it’s the young Thunder who’ve consistently made the biggest plays at the biggest moments, and done it against the teams who have won the last three NBA titles and the last four Western Conference titles. If they add to the Spurs to the list, you could make those numbers four of the last five NBA crowns and all five West winners. If there’s a changing of the guard in the works this season, a Hollywood scriptwriter couldn’t have plotted it any better.
But if OkC is to make that push into the NBA Finals, they need to be able to hit the boards the same way Utah did, which puts the burden on Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka. And thus far in the playoffs, I’m disappointed with the board work these two interior starters have put forth. They combined to average a pedestrian 13 per game against Dallas. And while the team overall hung in well against the Lakers, ending up (-2) for the series against a team with Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol, that was as much Durant hitting the glass as it was Ibaka and Perkins. Championship teams have to have players like these filling their roles to perfection and this series will be the first one anywhere in the playoffs where each team will have to play to a championship level.
You can run this series a lot of different ways. San Antonio’s got the championship mojo with Parker and Duncan and a load of depth. But OkC’s shown they can handle teams with the mojo and you can argue that big games in the NBA are more about stars than about depth—and the Thunder have got the brightest stars of any team outside Miami. Of course if you play that card on Oklahoma City’s behalf, San Antonio can counter that Parker and Duncan might be older, but they can still play like elite players in big games. If we look at a concern for the Spurs being the reliance on three-point shooting, it’s counterbalanced by concern over Ibaka and Perkins’ play thus far—forcing misses doesn’t mean as much if you’re not the team rebounding those misses, and if the Spurs beat Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan to the glass, they can beat Ibaka and Perkins.
Like I said, you can spin it a lot of ways and have it spin right back at you. But one thing I am convinced of is that Oklahoma City is not getting enough respect. You can bet them to win the series at (+160), while taking San Antonio requires you to give a (-190) price. For those not familiar with the terms, if you bet $100 on OkC you win $160. If you want to win a hundred bucks on the Spurs, you have to bet $190 to get it. I think San Antonio’s going to win this series and ultimately the NBA title, but I’m not so sure of it to expose myself at that level. I’m looking for the teams to split the first four games, with each winning one on the road, then San Antonio to win a nailbiter in Game 5 and then eke out one more tough win on the road in Game 6, as Duncan continues to smell his fifth ring.
Dwayne Wade was amazing last night in Game 6 of the Miami-Indiana series in the Eastern Conference semi-finals. LeBron James was good, while Danny Granger and Roy Hibbert were so-so. These themes, commonly struck in TheSportsNotebook’s playoff commentary on this series, were very much in evidence last night. But they aren’t the reason Miami won 103-95 and clinched a spot in the conference finals. Miami’s advancing because they took care of the ball and Indiana didn’t, with the final turnover numbers being 20 for the Pacers and 9 for the Heat. Offensive execution like that ends seasons and that’s what happened to Indiana last night.
Miami didn’t just get turnovers, they clamped down on defense in the second half. Indiana for the game shot 48 percent, which is certainly good enough, but the number was 59 percent at halftime. The Heat maintained a steady 53 percent pace throughout the game, with Wade sizzling at 17-for-25 to score his 41 points. LeBron was 12-for-23 to get 28. Furthermore, Mike Miller and Mario Challmes combined to go 7-for-11 from three-point range.
>As for Indiana, they got a big offensive night from David West, who scored 24 points, but Hibbert only had 12 and Granger had 15. Neither of the latter two were bad, but they didn’t look like players ready to step and play big in a must-win game. It underscores the core difference between these teams—Indiana is deeper and better balanced, but big games in the NBA playoffs are won by stars and Miami’s got that power in spades. Indiana’s key players have to take that next step. Granger’s steady 15 a game will help his team win 50-55 games next year, but he needs to have some monster nights in the playoffs if they’re going to break through the Heat.
We have a night off in both the NBA & NHL playoffs(check that, Rangers-Devils Game 6 goes tonight). For the NBA, it’s the first since the postseason began. Miami’s in the East finals and will wait to host the winner of Boston-Philadelphia, who play Game 7 on Saturday night. The Celtics have homecourt, and just as importantly they have a couple days rest for that game, instead of the usual one night off between games. Between Paul Pierce and Ray Allen, at least one of them and probably both need to get their body to snap back into shape or Philadelphia is going to win. In either case, the Sixers matched up well with the Celtics throughout the season, so it should be no surprise that they’ve done so in this series. And while a Game 7 win in the Garden would be an upset, it wouldn’t be a stunning shock, particularly given how battered the C’s are at this point of the season and their individual careers.
When I sat down to watch Game 6 of the Boston-Philadelphia series in the NBA’s Eastern Conference semi-finals, if you’d have told me that Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett would each have 20-plus points and 10-plus rebounds, I’d have figured the Celts were in good shape, and could fit enough offense around them. If you told me that Boston would win the rebounding battle 48-37, I’d have figured the series was all but over. Both of those things happened, but the 76ers clamped down on the defensive end, the Celtics shot a miserable 33 percent from the floor and Philly got a survival win, 83-75 and set up a decisive seventh game on Saturday.
It was Brandon Bass, the hero of Game 5, along with Ray Allen and Rajon Rondo who were the culprits last night, with the trio combining to shoot just 10-of-37. Philadephia hardly put on a clinic, but they did shoot 46 percent and Jrue Holiday decisively outplayed Rondo, as the Sixer point guard distributed the ball, with six assists and knocked down his shots, hitting 7-of-15 and finishing with 20 points. Philly got additional help from Elton Brand, with 13 points/10 rebounds and Evan Turner had a 12/9 night including a nice finishing move on a drive against Garnett at a key point the second half.
Miami now gets a chance to succeed where Boston failed, and the Heat visit Indiana for a clinch opportunity in Game 6. Miami will play this game without suspended center Udonis Haslem, who was part of the cheap-shot brigade the Heat unveiled in Game 5. They’re also without Dexter Pittman, the backup who clotheslined Lance Stephenson and then winked at his teammates over it. Pittman’s out three games, but he’s an inconsequential player in any case. But if the loss of Haslem, in addition to that of Chris Bosh, can’t motivate Indiana to look inside to Roy Hibbert and David West, I really don’t know what will. If team president Larry Bird calling out his team for being soft doesn’t get them juiced up, I don’t know what will. The Pacers have shown they can play hard in this series and they’ve shown they can play smart. But they’ve never done both at once.
I concur with ESPN’s Michael Wilbon who’s noted frequently on his show Pardon The Interruption with Tony Kornheiser (5:30 PM ET on weekdays, and the funniest thirty minutes in sports television) that Indiana gets themselves in position, talks trash and then goes and “jacks up all kinds of threes.” Then in Game 5 they just went soft. If they channel their energy into feeding Hibbert and West, they’re going to win this game tonight and win it decisively. If they don’t, they’ll lose just as badly. At this point, I don’t have any confidence in the Pacers’ intangibles, so I’m predicting the latter.
The series between the Miami Heat and Indiana Pacers turned ugly in more ways than one. Indiana felt Miami resorted to cheap shots, including one that sidelined power forward David West in the second half, and the Pacers themselves played some flat-out ugly basketball, turning in a performance that on less than authority than team president Larry Bird called “S-O-F-T” and Miami delivered a resounding 115-83 win to take a 3-2 lead in the best-of-seven Eastern Conference semi-final series.
Miami shot a stunning 61 percent from the floor. Regardless of how hot a team might be, it’s difficult to get that kind of percentage without the defense being complicit, lending credence to Bird’s remarks. The Heat had no problem bringing the defensive intensity, holding Indiana to 33 percent and playing the kind of D that had made Miami one of the league’s best at that end of the floor. And the Heat went after the misses with more vigor, winning the rebounding battle 49-35 in spite of having the inferior inside personnel. It was all an extremely disappointing night for the Pacers, who saw West get just four rebounds before departing and Danny Granger, the presumed meal ticket of this team, took only six shots, scored just ten points and managed a meager one rebound. By contrast the Heat two-guard, Mario Challmes, got eleven rebounds.
It was, frankly, a stunning non-performance by Indiana in a game that I believe—with all due respect to my fellow Celtics fansto the Sixers—decided who plays in the Finals. Indiana can come back with renewed defensive and rebounding intensity in Game 6 and extend the series, but the degree of difficulty for winning on the road skyrockets when you hit a seventh game and now Miami has that hole card in their hand.
Miami’s own showing got big nights from the usual suspects, with LeBron dropping a 30 points/10 rebounds/8 assists line and Dwayne Wade getting 28. The offense got a little bit of help from Shane Battier, who chipped in 13 and Udonis Haslem had 10. But overall, it’s the defensive intensity that Miami brought that’s most impressive about this win and why their worst-case scenario now still has them at home for a potential decisive game on Saturday.
The next two nights are the chances for both Miami and Boston to play with house money and get the road close-out. It’s Celtics-Sixers from Philadelphia tonight. Ray Allen showed life on that sore ankle last night—not necessarily scoring, but he did more than just stop and shoot for the first time in these playoffs. But between Allen’s ankle, Pierce’s knee and Avery Bradley’s shoulder, the Celtics are a wounded team and I wonder what happens if Philadelphia comes out strong and grabs an early lead—does Doc Rivers fold his hand quickly and make sure he’s got a rested team for Saturday? And if the reverse happens, Doug Collins knows from Game 4that his team won’t quit.
The Los Angeles Lakers are going home early for the second straight year, as the Oklahoma City Thunder rolled to a 106-90 win and clinched the NBA’s Western Conference semi-final in five games. The Lakers have lost in the second round two straight years, and gone 1-8 in those games. The Thunder are in the conference finals for the second consecutive year. Can anyone spell “Changing Of The Guard In The West?” In the meantime, the Boston Celtics showed they aren’t quite ready for a Changing Of The Guard In The Atlantic Half Of The East—at least not yet. The Celtics put together a strong second half and beat the Philadelphia 76ers 101-85 and took a 3-2 series lead. TheSportsNotebook recaps both games and looks ahead to tonight…
Oklahoma City 106 LA Lakers 90: Maybe Kobe Bryant knew what he was doing when he called out Pau Gasol in the media after the Lakers’ Game 4 loss, because Gasol was considerably more aggressive on the glass, getting 16 rebounds to go with his 14 points. But it seems like having to motivate big men is a double chore in Hollywood, because Andrew Bynum had only four boards. Oklahoma City won the rebounding battle 51-35, a positively stunning stat when you figure that even just staying close on the boards is enough for the Thunder to win. Kobe hung 42 points on 18-of-33 shooting, but when one key player is shut down to the degree Bynum was, it spells blowout. And with Kendrick Perkins crashing the glass to the tune of 11 rebounds, in support of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook combining for 53 points and Durant himself getting ten boards, this one was opened up in the fourth quarter.
Boston 101 Philadelphia 85: After blowing a lead in Game 4 and trailing at halftime on their home floor and the crowd getting anxious, the Celtics turned to their forward to get things turned around, repeatedly getting him the ball in good spots, helping him to get to the line and turning the tide of the game late in the third quarter. But the forward wasn’t Paul Pierce. It wasn’t Kevin Garnett (yes, I know he’s officially the center, but he still plays like a power forward). The hero in Boston last night was Brandon Bass, who scored 27 points, including 9-of-10 from the foul line. The latter was the big edge the Celtics enjoyed, with a 26-10 scoring edge at the charity stripe. Garnett added 20 points, while Pierce scored 16 and Boston survived a strong night from Philly’s Elton Brand, who scored 19, and Evan Turner, who chased down 10 rebounds in the backcourt.
The East’s other Game 5 goes tonight, with Indiana down in Miami. I’m going to go blue in the face repeating the fact the Pacers have to look inside and find Roy Hibbert and David West, each of whom can score all night if they just get the ball on the blocks. And the Heat have got to find a third scorer to help LeBron and Wade, at least during the first three quarters. The best analogy was used at the blog Stat Intelligence by Jeff Fogle, who said asking the two stars to do what they did on Sunday is like the Phillies’ relying on Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee to throw a shutout each game. Sure, they’re great and they’ll do it more often than most anyone else. But is that a realistic plan to win a championship? So by all means, ask the questions about whether LeBron should be taking shots at the end of games. But also ask if someone else could take and make a few in the first 36 minutes.