The NBA playoffs in general are known for favorites prevailing, and this year’s postseason has become known for the number of stars knocked out with injuries. Through a weekend where the favorites held to form, yet another injury appears to have deprived an underdog a bona fide chance of advancing. Golden State lost power forward David Lee for the duration with a hip flexor injury, fundamentally re-shaping their first-round series with Denver.
Golden State lost the opener on Saturday, but the 97-95 game was easily the best of the first round. If you’re a betting man, the Warriors were the only dog to even cover the point spread (though the Celtics pushed). If Golden State managed that with Lee playing only 29 minutes, what might they have done if the forward was able to come back?
Even with Lee’s limited time, Golden State beat Denver on the boards, 55-45 in rebounds. It was turnovers that did the Warriors in, along with Nugget veteran Andre Miller coming up huge off the bench. Miller stepped in to score 28 points, including a driving layup for the game-winner with a second left. But everything about the matchup screamed “seven-game series”, the result TheSportsNotebook predicted in its NBA commentary on the Western Conference playoffs.
For those wondering if Golden State has any hope without Lee, the answer is simple—none. Lee is more than just a good forward. He’s one of the best back-to-the-basket post players in the league. His ability to score down low gave Golden State balance and made defenses pay if they extended too far on Steph Curry or Klay Thompson in the backcourt. Curry had an All-Star season, and Thompson is a good young player who scored 22 points in Game 1, but the backcourt alone isn’t going to beat Denver, much less extend this series.
I can see Golden State winning a game on their home floor—who knows, maybe even two, given the passion of the San Francisco crowd. But there’s no way they’re going to steal even one win in Denver, where the Nuggets lost only three times this season. And realistically, I think Denver finds a way to pick up a win at Golden State in the middle games and come back home to close it out in Game 5.
This is NBA commissioner David Stern’s last ride in the playoffs. But with players dropping like flies, they don’t seem to be responding to the commish the way the Baltimore Ravens did when Ray Lewis told them the NFL playoffs were his “last ride.”
THE REST OF THE WEST
LA Lakers-San Antonio: This series is on the same side of the draw as Denver-Golden State. The Spurs showed how different they are from last year’s team. The ’12 Spurs looked great offensively, but were not a lockdown defensive team. Consequently, they could look fantastic when things went well—winning their first ten postseason games. But when it went south—like losing the next four to Oklahoma City in the conference finals—they couldn’t rely on the D to bail them out.
On Sunday, San Antonio held Los Angeles to 41% from the floor and forced 18 turnovers. In spite of shooting just 38 percent themselves, the Spurs took care of the basketball . And a couple constants never change for San Antonio—Tim Duncan and Tony Parker had solid games.
As for the Lakers, they got everything they could have hoped from Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard, who combined for 36 points and 31 rebounds. But Steve Nash was a non-factor, with only three assists. We don’t know how much Nash’s hamstring is bothering him, but clearly the offense won’t function unless he can create better flow.
Houston-Oklahoma City: The West’s top seed in the Thunder blasted the Rockets 120-91. Don’t let the score blind you to the quality of OkC’s defense. They held Houston to 36 percent shooting. James Harden’s game was a microcosm of Houston as a whole—he got his points, with twenty for the night. But he did it very inefficiently, going 6-of-19 from the floor and 1-of-6 behind the arc. A classic case of a game where a fast tempo shouldn’t obscure quality defense. We also shouldn’t let the Thunder win obscure the fact Kendrick Perkins did nothing, with four rebounds in 19 minutes of play. The center is going to have to do more, particularly as the playoffs roll on.
Memphis-LA Clippers: The Clippers owned the fourth quarter, turning a close game into a 112-91 final. They also owned the glass, to the tune of 47-23 in rebounds. Befitting a team with depth, it was a comprehensive effort, with no one player having more than eight rebounds. That’s both a tribute to the Clipper bench—which outrebounded its Grizzlie counterparts 22-12—but an indictment of Blake Griffin, who was a non-factor with 10 points/5 rebounds. Great win for the team, but Blake needs to step it up.
IN THE EAST
Milwaukee-Miami: Can we please stop getting on Brandon Jennings’ case for saying the Bucks would win this series in six? He was asked the question by a media person, and I concur with TNT analyst Reggie Miller who asked “What’s he supposed to say?” Jennings’ critics are acting like he should be an objective analyst.
Those of us who are were obviously unsurprised by Miami’s 110-87 win to start the series. LeBron James posted 27 points/10 rebounds/8 assists. LeBron also turned it over five times, part of 19 Miami miscues. Normally I would call this a cause for concern. Right now this series is such a mismatch that I almost think it’s a good thing—at least give Erik Spoelstra something to harp on between games and keep the Heat sharp.
Chicago-Brooklyn: Yet another series where an injury to a big man threatens to turn a good matchup into a rout. Joakim Noah was a late scratch for Game 1 and the Bulls looked helpless without their low post defender. Brooklyn shot 56 percent, and the Big Three of Deron Williams, Joe Johnson and Brook Lopez combined for 59 points in a game that was as blowout all the way, 106-89. The good news? Noah is supposed to play in Game 2 tonight.
Atlanta-Indiana: Paul George was the best player of all the Game 1s, with an exquisite 23 points/11 rebounds/12 assists showing. The Pacers dominated the glass and racked up a huge scoring margin at the foul line, outscoring the Hawks 30-7. Josh Smith and Al Horford have to be excellent for the Hawks to have a chance in this series, and they were barely tolerable, combining for 29 points/14 rebounds. Atlanta needs one of those guys to put up a stat line like that on his own.
The downside for Indiana though, is that they allowed Atlanta to shoot 50 percent from the floor in a game that ended 107-90. The Pacers are the best in the NBA at both defense and rebounding. The latter was present in Game 1, but a good playoff run—which we’ll define as making the conference finals and winning at least two games over Miami when they get there—depends on forcing enough misses for Roy Hibbert and David West to go get.
Boston-New York: Turnovers were the story of the day here. Boston committed twenty of them, and I have to concur with blogger Jeff Fogle at Stat Intelligence, who said bluntly that many were of the “bonehead variety” and led you to wonder how the Celts had ever qualified for the playoffs. If anything, it was a reminder that the lower seeds in the East aren’t really playoff-caliber. The Celts played a good game defensively, losing 85-78, and they’re likely to have chances to win games in the latter part of the fourth quarter throughout this series. But they have to take care of the basketball.
Game 2 matchups will run over the next three days. Here’s how the schedule will look…
Monday: A TNT doubleheader starts at 8 PM ET, with Chicago-Brooklyn and Memphis-LA Clippers.
Tuesday: Another 8 PM ET twinbill on TNT offers Boston-New York and Golden State-Denver. You can also catch Milwaukee-Miami at 7:30 PM ET on NBA-TV.
Wednesday: The TNT doubleheader starts an hour earlier, at 7 PM ET, and has Houston-Oklahoma City and LA Lakers-San Antonio. For the small segment that wants to watch Atlanta-Indiana, it’s a 7:30 PM ET tip on NBA-TV.
All the TNT games mean a heavy dose of Charles Barkley and Kenny Smith. At the very least, these are two stars still healthy for the playoff run.