Fourth-quarter comebacks, upsets and near-upsets marked the opening games of the NBA’s second round and nowhere was it more dramatic than last night in Miami. The Chicago Bulls took their wounded talents to South Beach and came up with a 93-86 upset over the Miami Heat, and it’s there that our NBA commentary will start as we look at what the four Game 1s might mean for each overall series.
The Bulls trailed by seven in the fourth quarter, and ended up scoring the game’s final ten points. If your gut instinct is to say the gritty and physical visitors simply out-toughed the favorite, the stats would back up that assertion. Chicago held Miami to a hair under 40 percent shooting from the floor. The Heat operated on the perimeter and struggled, shooting 7-of-24 from three-point range. The Bulls got the line, winning free-throw scoring 24-17, an edge that matches the game’s seven-point margin of victory.
Most damningly though, Chicago outrebounded Miami 46-32. Udonis Haslem was an absolute non-factor for the Heat, and though he only played 18 minutes, I would like to see that number decrease. Shane Battier and Norris Cole also played 18, and Miami would be better served giving more of Haslem’s minutes to either of these two and accentuating Miami’s edge on the perimeter. If Haslem isn’t going to help the Heat hold even on the glass, he can’t contribute. Chicago’s Jimmy Butler had 14 rebounds, while Joakim Noah had 11.
The Heat couldn’t even get an expected edge in the backcourt. Dwayne Wade never got to the foul line, so even with a decent night shooting, he only scored 14 points. And Nate Robinson went off for the Bulls, scoring 27 points and handing out nine assists. Butler, a small forward, scored 21.
So does Chicago have a chance to win the series, or was this just a nice moral victory for a team that’s putting together a lot of them? I have to go with the latter. With Miami coming off a long layoff and LeBron getting his MVP trophy before the game, you can see where the Heat might have been soft. It doesn’t diminish Chicago’s extraordinary achievement, playing without Luol Deng, and less than 48 hours removed from a Game 7 win in Brooklyn. But if Miami comes back with an extra dose of toughness on Wednesday night, that would certainly put them back in the driver’s seat.
If nothing else, this game established the mental edge Chicago brings against any opponent, and I recall what Magic Johnson said about this team. Magic emphasized that the Bulls “hate the Heat” and that venom gives them an edge that more talented teams (i.e., Brooklyn) could never match. If nothing else, it’s now interesting to see if Chicago could at least push this to a sixth game.
Another team from the Midwest outmuscled a much-hyped high seed on Sunday afternoon in MSG, as Indiana opened up a big lead in the third quarter and never really had to sweat a 102-95 win. Like the Bulls, the Pacers dominated the glass, to the tune of 44-30. Before you think that means David West and Roy Hibbert owned the game, think again. The interior combo was good, to be sure, but it was Indiana’s exceptional balance that won them this basketball game. The Pacers had six players score between 11-20 points, everyone rebounded and guard Lance Stephenson who stepped up and grabbed 13 rebounds.
On the New York side, Carmelo Anthony’s continued poor offense—now four straight games in the playoffs—gets correct criticism. Melo isn’t LeBron—he doesn’t find the open man, so the offensive value is drastically reduced when the shots aren’t falling. The raw number of shots Anthony takes means you have to take his 27 points with a grain of salt—the man took 28 shots from the floor. J.R. Smith is a lesser version of the same problem. Sure, he had 17 points, but on 4-of-15 shooting. If you’re Indiana, invite him to take thirty shots at that rate and score 34. The Pacers could get the win and Smith could get his points, which I suspect would give each what they really want.
I know that’s a harsh thing to say about Smith and perhaps unfair, but I have a hard time getting past his complete non-performance since being ejected from Game 3 of the Boston series. He first said his team would have won Game 4 with him in the lineup—a true statement, but not uttered with any repentance for letting his teammates his down. Then Smith stunk the joint out in Games 5 & 6, and now again in Game 1. Basically he’s done nothing since throwing a cheap shot and running his mouth.
It’s one part of why New York’s potential as a championship threat is overrated. It’s also one thing to look title-worthy when things are going well, and another to grind out wins when things aren’t good. Chicago and Miami are both tough. New York is not. I expect them to win Game 2 on their home floor, but I’m still looking for Indiana to defend its home floor and win this in six.
Memphis seemed to have this game in control several times, up nine after three quarters and still up three with the ball with a minute to go. They let it slip away. Kevin Durant, en route to a monster 35 points/15 rebounds game, knocked down a jumper with 11 seconds left and Memphis missed a final opportunity at the foul line. Trailing 93-90, Quincy Pondexter was fouled attempting a three-point shot with a second left. He missed the first free throw though, and after making the second, had to deliberately miss the third in a futile attempt for a putback. It was an appropriate finish because OkC won because of superiority on the free throw line.
The Thunder only got one more free throw attempt than the Grizzlies (25-24), but they outscored the visitor’s 24-14. When you’re a team like Memphis that can pound the ball down low and get fouled, you can’t let those opportunities go to waste.
Furthermore, Memphis has to see the 43-41 rebounding edge enjoyed by Oklahoma City to be absolutely intolerable. In reality, the Grizzlies need to rack up edges like those enjoyed by Indiana and Chicago—and like Memphis themselves enjoyed in the latter four games of their first-round win over the Clippers. It wasn’t the fault of mainstays Pau Gasol and Zach Randolph, who combined for 36 points/20 rebounds, but the rest of the team needs to crash the way they did all season long.
Finally, the foul on Pondexter disturbs me to no end. Oklahoma City lost last year’s Finals because through the first four games, they were out-executed by Miami game-closing situations. The Thunder also had most close calls go against them, but the execution is the thing they can control. I’m concerned that this foolish foul means the problem still exists. It was committed by Reggie Jackson, in the lineup because of the injury to Russell Westbrook and maybe the veterans will get Jackson straightened out. But this series is going to offer a lot more tight finishes and Oklahoma City can’t continue to make mistakes. I had the Thunder winning this in seven games. I’m obviously not changing my mind, but if you had Memphis, you’ve also got a reason to be optimistic.
SAN ANTONIO-GOLDEN STATE
The Spurs were dead and buried. A 12-point deficit after three quarters had turned into a 16-point gap with less than four minutes to play. Somehow they rallied to tie. Then they were down one in the second overtime. Manu Ginobli, who’d been a woeful 4-for-19 to that point and missing seven of eight shots behind the arc, took a three-pointer and buried it in the closing seconds. San Antonio wins it 129-127 in a game where each team took 100-plus shots from the floor.
Once again, free throw shooting was an issue for the road underdogs. Golden State only went 14-for-24, while San Antonio cashed in at 24-for-28. It is stating the obvious to point out that if you’re a road dog you simply have to take advantage of your free points? Yes, I thought it was obvious.
I guess the question in this series is whether Golden State missed their best chance to steal win on the road. My inclination is to say yes. Steph Curry had 44 points, and while he didn’t get a ton of help, his team also won the rebounding battle 55-45. I’m not saying the Warriors can’t create some very good games in Games 2 & 5 and potentially Game 7, but it’s hard to see where they would ever have things come together the way it happened last night.
If Golden State can’t get a win that renders the games back in the Bay Area all but moot, but it’s still worth wondering if San Antonio could steal a win there. I felt they would at the start of the series and still believe it, but last night’s game does weaken that belief. Tony Parker had 28 points/8 assists, and Tim Duncan had 19 points/11 rebounds. It’s not like you can ask for more from them, and they had Danny Green step up with a big game.
Metaphorically, Golden State is a baseball team that needs a closer. They nearly let Game 6 of the Denver series get away and they did let this one slip. And they’re playing an opponent that’s the Mariano Rivera of closing games in the NBA. There should be a lot of entertaining games in this series, but the Warriors are still a big question mark at this level of the postseason, for actually turning those into wins.