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.
The Los Angeles Lakers didn’t have to get a win in Denver to win their first-round series, but championship teams find ways to scrape out W’s on the road and shorten a series. That’s exactly what Los Angeles did last in Game 4, as they beat Denver. With the Lakers, along with the Sixers and Celtics, taking 3-1 leads in their first-round series, it feels like we’re living some early 1980s retro—all we need is Dr. J, Magic and Bird in the house to make it complete. And the fourth game going Sunday, Heat-Knicks, is also at 3-1, although in this case it’s because New York staved off elimination. TheSportsNotebook recaps Sunday’s grand slam and looks ahead to Monday’s doubleheader…
LA Lakers 92 Denver 88: Los Angeles won the rebounding battle and that was enough to win the game. Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum were decent, combining for 16 boards. But the real factor was Jordan Hill coming off the bench at center to produce 11 rebounds, along with 12 points. With Kobe leading the scoring charge, with 22 points and dishing 8 assists, the Lakers had enough to win the most defensive-oriented game of this series. The Denver backcourt failed to control the pace and make their taller, older opponent really play all 94 feet. Two-guard Aron Afflalo is the biggest culprit—with just six points last night it was his worst game of what was already a forgettable series.
Philadelphia 89 Chicago 82: Media storylines don’t always tell you everything, but the storyline that says this shocking development for #8 seed Philly is all about Chicago’s injuries to Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah is pretty much on the button. The Bulls are renowned for their defense, but with these two players out, the 76ers have gone right at the replacement. Point guard Jrue Holiday had 20 on Sunday, the latest in a stellar series for the man who would normally be guarded by Rose. And center Spencer Hawes, not a huge factor in the first two games with Noah on him, looked like Charles Barkley reincarnate in Philly with the opposing starter out these past two games. Hawes scored 22 yesterday. Chicago’s Carlos Boozer played like the season was on the line, with 23 points and 11 rebounds, although his five turnovers contributed to a Philly edge in this category. Taj Gibson had a solid game off the bench, the three guards—Rip Hamilton, C.J. Watson and John Lucas have to hit on all cylinders if the East’s top seed is going to rally and yesterday only Watson was involved in the offense.
Boston 101 Atlanta 79: The Celtics simply shot the lights out. They were 51 percent from the floor, but the figure was up over 60 percent for an extended period in the first half and early second when the game was put away. The C’s hit 11/26 from three-point range. To illustrate how hot they were, Rajon Rondo, for whom a 10-footer is a major challenge, connected on two treys. Passing isn’t a major challenge for Rondo and he had 16 assists. There’s nothing Atlanta can do about a hot shooting team other than just come back stronger, but their own backcourt was appallingly absent last night in the Garden. The Hawks played a three-guard lineup to start, and Joe Johnson, Jeff Teague and Kirk Hinrich combined for 16 points, well short of Johnson’s 29 by himself in Game 3. Atlanta was not going to win last night no matter what they did, but they certainly made Boston’s job a lot easier.
New York 89 Miami 87: I’ve been dumping all over New York from the time the playoffs began, but I’m going to give them some credit for not mailing this one in, calling it a season and hoping Phil Jackson can be talked out of retirement to coach them. Amare Stoudamire came back and had a 20/10 day, while Carmelo Anthony clearly decided that MSG was his house and poured in 41 points. The backcourt is still terrible—the top four guards combined for 15 points, and now Baron Davis is out with an ugly knee injury. But the team brought the effort and deserves a tip of the hat for that.
The top half of the Western Conference bracket goes tonight…
San Antonio-Utah: The Spurs can close out a series sweep here and the only thing I can think of stopping them is if Utah gets off to a strong start and Gregg Popovich decides to pace his veterans and just close it out at home in Game 5. If San Antonio gets out quick, or at least answers desperation intensity from the Jazz right away, this one will be done.
Memphis-LA Clippers: Memphis has the second of what are three chances to reclaim homecourt advantage. They coughed up a lead in Game 3 to give away their first chance—this after blowing a 27-point fourth quarter lead in Game 1 to put themselves behind the eight-ball to begin with. Who exactly is the team who had playoff success last year and who is the one who’s new to the spotlight? Memphis needs to start acting like the former.
If you’re casual fan that watches the NBA playoffs so you can see the stars shine, then Thursday night was for you. And if you’re a hard-core basketball lover who appreciates tough defense Thursday night was also for you, as Miami and Oklahoma City took firm command of their first-round series, going up 3-0 in games with road wins. TheSportsNotebook recaps both and looks ahead to three games Friday night…
Oklahoma City 95 Dallas 79: After two games that went down to the wire in Oklahoma City there was every reason to think Dallas could win and defend its home floor. But it was the Thunder who did the defending, holding last year’s champs to 34 percent shooting from the floor. The prime culprit was Shawn Marion, who shot just 1-for-8. Oklahoma City also took very good care of the basketball, only committing eight turnovers. And for star power, Kevin Durant drained four three-pointers on six attempts en route to a 31-point night. Russell Westbrook added 20, while Serge Ibaka grabbed 11 rebounds. Oklahoma City showed they could survive in the series’ first two games. Thursday showed they could step it up to a higher level when necessary.
Miami 87 New York 70: The Knicks came out gamely and battled for three periods, but in the end there was too much of the Heat on defense and too much of LeBron. Miami held the hosts to 31 percent shooting. Carmelo Anthony was only 7-of-23. That’s understandable, given that Melo needs to shoot with that kind of volume if his team is to have any chance. But what exactly was guard J.R. Smith doing taking 18 shots from the floor? Especially when he only hit five. Of course we all know by now that trying to follow this New York team with logic will only give you a headache. LeBron stepped it up with 32 points, Mario Challmes nailed five treys and Miami, with its clamp-down on defense, looks like a team ready to close out this series in short order.
Two big games in the Eastern Conference go tonight…
*Atlanta visits Boston for Game 3 in a series that’s turning into a war of attrition. While Rajon Rondo will be back from his suspension, Ray Allen is still listed as doubtful with his ankle. But Atlanta got word that power forward Josh Smith is also doubtful tonight. While Allen is a better player than Smith in the bigger picture of their careers, Smith is infinitely more valuable to the Hawks right now, as the only one who can score inside and the one who can take advantage of Boston’s rebounding deficiencies. As long as he’s out, it’s hard to see how Atlanta wins a game in Boston, and they’ll have to do it eventually, between tonight and a potential Game 6.
*Chicago goes to Philadelphia, with the Bulls needing to remind themselves that they can still be the team that went 18-9 without Derrick Rose in the regular season, rather than the one who lost by 17 at home without him in Game 2 of this series. With a loss as a wakeup call, and having had some time to digest the reality that Rose isn’t coming back, I expect Chicago to deliver a lockdown defensive effort tonight and win at least one game in Philly. I still don’t see real doubt that the Bulls will win this series, but the possibility that Philly could stretch it the distance is realistic, as Chicago would need to win twice on the road to end it without a Game 7.
*My upset pick of Denver over the LA Lakers is on the line tonight. The Nuggets failed at their first two chances to win on the road, but if they defend their home floor these next two games, steal the road Then win in Game 5, they can come back here in Game 6 to still close it out. Yeah, sounds real easy. Especially when Andrew Bynum looks like a man on a mission and Kobe is looking like a guy who wants to match Michael Jordan’s six NBA title rings. If Denver can’t man up on the interior, Los Angeles can at least win one in the Rockies and be set up to close at home in Game 5.
The New York Knicks brought the intensity to their Game 2 battle with the Miami Heat, but the end, the Knicks lacked the backcourt balance in their offense and it appears at least one key player lacked some emotional balance at game’s end. TheSportsNotebook recaps the three games from Monday night in the NBA playoffs and looks ahead to three more on Tuesday…
Miami 104 New York 94: The fact the Knicks won the rebounding battle 40-33 tells you they brought the effort, and it was led by Carmelo Anthony who scored 30 and got nine boards to lead the team in both categories. Amare Stoudamire and Tyson Chandler each got seven boards apiece. But Miami was stronger everywhere else. They hit 52 percent from the floor, with Dwayne Wade’s 25 points on 11-of-18 shooting being the biggest reason why. They got some key production from the bench, as both Mike Miller and Shane Battier came out and went 3-of-5 from behind the arc. It left Stoudamire so frustrated that at game’s end he punched through the glass of a fire extinguisher. Conjuring up memories of Yankee pitcher Kevin Brown in 2004, who broke his hand against a wall after a bad start, Stoudamire left the arena with his hand wrapped and his status uncertain for Game 3. Give the Knicks’ key players credit for the effort, but without a good backcourt you can’t play really good team defense and the combination of Wade, plus the surprise three-point bombings from the bench, showed that.
Indiana 93 Orlando 78: Indiana trailed by a point when they finally seemed to figure out they needed to attack the boards. David West ended the game with 11 rebounds. Roy Hibbert finished with 13, although the big center still doesn’t want to assert himself offensive—either that or the team doesn’t him to. Either way, it’s a mistake. But Indiana’s rebounding and defense made up for a bad shooting night. The Magic guards, so productive in the Game 1 upset, combined to shoot less than 30 percent from the floor, and Glen Davis shot just 5-of-16 from his power forward spot.
Oklahoma City 102 Dallas 99: The number that stands out in the team stats is that the Mavericks were 5-of-23 from three-point range and the memory is Dirk Nowitzki getting the ball wide open from three, his team up 97-96. He spotted up, had enough time to evaluate the basketball and maybe sign a few autographs. The launch was sure to be the backbreaker that would give Dallas a road win. Instead it bounced harmlessly off the rim and Oklahoma City prevailed. Kevin Durant didn’t shoot well, but he got to the line repeatedly, where he converted 14-of-16. As valuable as the three-point shot can be, there’s no substitute when you’re not connecting. With Durant, his ability to create activity around him kept him flush with scoring chances. And in the backcourt Russell Westbrook’s 10-of-21 shooting night contrasted sharply with the Maverick trio of Jason Kidd, Delonte West and Jason Terry only making 4 of 15 treys.
Three games go tonight…
*Boston-Atlanta: Rajon Rondo will be suspended for his bumping of a ref at the end of Game 1. As a Celtics fan, the suspension was deserved, and if we lose the series because of it, the person to blame is the player, for letting his team down, and not the league office. Ray Allen is still listed as doubtful with the ankle injury. So it comes down to this—has Atlanta achieved the maturity level necessary to not back down, and make sure to handle a team that will bring an A-grade effort—Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett will move heaven and earth to try and even this series—but does not have the talent to win if Atlanta’s ready.
*Philadelphia-Chicago: We already know the Bulls can play well without Derrick Rose, at least against a team like the 76ers. We have to watch for more intangible factors tonight—when the team carried on without their r star during the regular season it was in anticipation of having him rested and healthy right now. How do they respond now?
*LA Clippers-Memphis: Let’s continue our theme of mental response on Tuesday night, from Atlanta to Chicago and now to Memphis. Do the Grizzlies roll over after blowing the 27-point lead in the fourth quarter of Game 1 at home? Or do they realize that they can’t get outrebounded again, bring max intensity to even the series and vow to themselves that they can get homecourt advantage back when the series reverts west? The talent is still there. There was no reason to think, in general, that the Clippers couldn’t get one win on the road, while Memphis still won the series. If that’s the Grizzlies’ mindset, they can bounce back. If they feel like they gave a shot at the Finals, this potentially good series can get away early.
The NBA playoffs aren’t supposed to be this newsworthy on the first day, but a devastating injury, a big upset and a potential statement game by a rising star made Day One’s four games noteworthy. TheSportsNotebook recaps all four and looks ahead to Sunday’s basketball action…
Miami 100 New York 67: We’ll start with the one game that had no overarching storyline. The Knicks came into this game with a good frontcourt, and while scoring was in short supply, Carmelo Anthony, Amare Stoudamire and Tyson Chandler led an effort that produced a 41-38 rebounding advantage. The Knicks game into this game with a bad backcourt, which didn’t produce offensive opportunities and turned it over 24 times. The combination of the two balanced out to…well, look at the score, it didn’t balance out. New York won’t look this bad each game out, but the atrocious guard play is why LeBron (who scored 32), D-Wade & Co., will be sending them home in short order.
Orlando 81 Indiana 77: The Pacers looked nothing like the solid favorite in this series and a team that could upend Miami in the next round. Orlando, playing without Dwight Howard, needed a combination of great backcourt play and some Indiana no-shows if they were to get a road win. Both happened. The Magic guards, https://www.thesportsnotebook.com/wp-admin/post-new.phpJameer Nelson and Jason Richardson, combined for 34 points. Indiana ran four guards out there, but even if you add up Darren Collison, Paul George, George Hill and Leandro Barbosa, you only have 22 points. Then center Roy Hibbert turned in an inexcusably weak offensive effort, scoring just eight points in spite of Howard’s absence. It’s easy to say it’s only one game and in the bigger picture of this series it probably is. But those of us how considered the Pacers a legit title darkhorse have to take note of Hibbert’s unproductive outing in a spot where a championship-ready player would have sent a statement and taken over. You can’t tell me Indiana team president Larry Bird didn’t take notice.
Chicago 103 Philadelphia 91: Derrick’s Rose torn ACL is the story all over the mainstream sports media today and that’s completely justified. Rose is out for the playoffs and he was playing like the Rose of old, with 23 points/9 rebounds/9 assists, before going down with 1:20 left. Chicago coach Tom Thibodeau is going to catch flack for having Rose on the floor, but the head coach was completely correct to do so. Strange things happen at the end of games in the NBA playoffs—if anyone should know that it’s a Bulls fan base weaned on Michael Jordan—and you can’t let an opponent off the mat under any circumstances. Eighty seconds is enough time for several possessions and that meant the Sixers had a mathematical chance. As fans, we can know that’s not a practical chance. As a head coach, Thibodeau has a responsibility to be paranoid. For this series, the Bulls will still win—Philly’s calling card of good defense was non-existent in the Windy City, allowing Chicago to shoot 52 percent from the floor, while Philly’s other calling card of an inability to rebound and for its stars to step up did stay in existence. Andre Iguodala scored 11, unable to lift his game for the postseason and sixth man scoring machine Lou Williams was held to nine.
Oklahoma City 99 Dallas 98: You can look at this game and see a sign that the Thunder aren’t yet ready to win a title, needing last-second heroics from Kevin Durant to beat a #7 seed at home. I see the opposite—if there’s anything the NBA is known for, it’s eventual champions having to pull something out of their posterior in the closing minutes of games they have no business winning and for a superstar to take over at the critical moment. Oklahoma City trailed by seven with 2 ½ minutes left, but rallied and Durant eventually knocked down the game-winner. Go through some past history and you see examples of Bird’s Celtics, Jordan’s Bulls and Shaq’s Lakers being similarly pushed in spots where you didn’t expect it. Whether we include Durant’s Thunder in that group someday is a big if, but the young scoring machine delivered a single performance in that vein on Saturday night. The concern for Oklahoma City is that scoring was very top-heavy, with Russell Westbrook’s 28 and Serge Ibaka’s 22 joining Durant’s 25 in carrying the Thunder offense. For Dallas, you have to wonder if they can continue to hit ten treys a night to give themselves a chance to win games like this. Of course we wondered that last spring and early summer, and fans of the Miami Heat are still wondering. But either way, we certainly can’t expect the Mavs to win rebounding 42-36 like they did in Game 1. The champs are going to wear the belt well and come out fighting like they did last night, but if they were going to win this series, they would have stolen Game 1.
The other four first-round series go today, and you can read TheSportsNotebook’s previews of Utah-San Antonio, Denver-LA Lakers, Boston-Atlanta and LA Clippers-Memphis.
The matchup that ABC/ESPN are salivating for in the NBA’s first round is the New York Knicks taking on the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference. There’s two superstars under siege, in Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James, a coaching situation up in the air in New York and another one in Miami that will be if the Heat don’t win it all. And the Knicks playing well down the stretch while the Heat struggled have given rise to thoughts that an upset could be in the works. Can 7th-seeded New York really pull an outright series win on 2-seed Miami? TheSportsNotebook previews the action…
Any success the Knicks have is going to have be down low. This team had problems at the point early on, started 7-13, was briefly rescued by Jeremy Lin before he went down for the season. With the playoffs looking shaky, Carmelo Anthony then stepped up his game, but it can’t obscure the fact this backcourt is not playoff-caliber. Baron Davis can be called slightly above average in running the offense, but at age 33 he was much better suited to be Lin’s backup. J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert are tolerable and Landry Fields has yet to full his potential, although he is only 23.
This backcourt is the worst in the playoff field and bailed out because the frontcourt is championship-caliber, with Melo knocking down 22 a night at small forward, a healthy Amare Stoudamire at power forward and Tyson Chandler rebounding, blocking shots, chipping in some scoring help and bringing the benefit of his title experience in Dallas last year to the table. The big issue the team is going to face is that Stoudamire is just getting integrated back into the lineup and how well he and Melo could share floor space and the ball has been an overriding concern on this team.
Miami was 28-7 at the end of February, but hasn’t clicked these last two months, going 18-13 and losing games to legitimate contenders at an alarming rate. The Heat were called out on national television by no less an authority than Magic Johnson, who said championship teams can send a message during the regular season and the Heat’s failure to do represents trouble. The criticisms of big-game performance have trailed LeBron since last year’s Finals, but he still averaged 27 ppg and shot better than 50 percent from the floor. He helped carry the Heat while Dwayne Wade played his way through a season marked by nagging injuries. Wade still knocked down 22 a game in his own right. And Chris Bosh came in for some needless criticism. A line common among media pundits was about Miami’s Big Three was really a Big Two. On the surface I don’t disagree with the notion that Bosh isn’t on the same level of LeBron and Wade. But that’s a credit to the latter two, not a knock on Bosh. At least it should be, and it wasn’t how the commentary came off. Miami’s power forward has managed to be an underrated 18/8 man.
The Heat have been let down by the failure of the supporting cast. Mario Challmes hasn’t shot the three-pointer well, the inside game of Udonis Haslem and Joel Anthony has been a major disappointment and Shane Battier has shown that the notion of “veteran intangibles” can be overrated when they’re not accompanied by actual production. The pressure on LeBron, Wade and Bosh to carry this team are even bigger this year than they were a season ago.
An improvement in three-point shooting from Challmes would go a long way to helping Miami play to their reputation. On the other side, if New York’s going to make this a real series they’ll need some three-point gunning of their own from Steve Novak. Ultimately though, I’m not high on the Knicks’ chances to do much here. They had similar high hopes going to Boston a year ago when the Celtics came straggling into the playoffs and got sent home four straight. The backcourt play is too iffy and the cohesiveness of the frontline too shaky to think this team could even manage to split the first four games, the basic requisite to making it a competitive series. I’ll take it a step further and say New York says goodbye in four straight again, giving a boost to LeBron, along with the calls for the Knicks to get Phil Jackson on the bench.