Saturday, April 23, 2011

NBA Playoffs: Night Seven

Now that the NBA playoffs have been under way for a full week, a clearer picture of how each first round series will unfold has emerged. Some teams have essentially booked their tickets to the second round (Miami, Chicago, Boston), others have a tenuous grip on their lead (Los Angeles, Dallas, Oklahoma City, Atlanta), while still others are fighting for playoff survival (San Antonio, Memphis, Orlando). Last night saw a couple of road wins, a last-second upset, and even an ejection-inducing fight.  Hit the jump to read about three exciting Game Three's in the NBA last night.

Eastern Conference

New York Knicks (6) @ Boston Celtics (3)
4/17: Game One--CELTICS 87, Knicks 85 (1-0, Boston)
4/19: Game Two--CELTICS 96, Knicks 93 (2-0, Boston)
4/22: Game Three--Celtics 113, KNICKS 96 (3-0, Boston)

Ray Allen made it rain from downtown last
night in Madison Square Garden
After two ultra-close games in Boston, I expected this one in New York to be close as well--and I expected the Knicks to come out on top in the first playoff game at Madison Square Garden since 2004. Boy, was I wrong. The Knicks were outplayed from the opening tip, and, barring a seven-minute span of impressive play in the late-first and early-second quarters, the Knicks never really challenged the Celtics all night. Boston went up by as many as 17 points midway through the first quarter, but the Knicks cut the lead to five--and had the ball--with four minutes to go in the first half. From there, though, it was all Celtics all the time. Boston outscored the Knicks by 15 in the third quarter to take a commanding 23-point lead. The key to the Celtics' third-quarter surge--as well as their game-long dominance--lies in their prolific three point shooting. As a team, Boston shot 14-24 from long range last night for a 58.3% clip. That far outpaces their season average of 36.5% shooting with 4.97 three-pointers made per game. The big guns were out in full force for Boston's behind-the-arc attack: Paul Pierce shot 6-8 from downtown and Ray Allen went 8-11 as well. The two superstars made all 14 of Boston's three-pointers on only 19 attempts, keeping the Knicks at an arm's length the entire night. Sure, the Knicks had injuries to Chauncey Billups and Amare Stoudemire to deal with--but that was the case in Game Two as well, and the Knicks actually competed in that contest. Last night in New York, the Celtics' shooters rose to the occasion and dispatched the Knicks quickly and quietly, without any of that usual last-second fuss.

Atlanta Hawks (5) @ Orlando Magic (4)
4/16: Game One--Hawks 103, MAGIC 93 (1-0, Atlanta)
4/19: Game Two--MAGIC 88, Hawks 82 (Tied 1-1)
4/22: Game Three--HAWKS 88, Magic 84 (2-1, Atlanta)

Game Three was the closest thus far in what I predicted would be a hard-fought, seven-game series between two closely-matched foes. It even got testy towards the end as Atlanta's Zaza Pachulia head-butted Orlando's Jason Richardson, who promptly responded with a slap across Zaza's face. The two were immediately ejected, but no suspensions have been handed down yet. As you would expect from such a close game--Jamal Crawford hit an off-balance three-pointer with 5.7 seconds left to seal the win for Atlanta--both team's stats were very closely aligned. Orlando shot 42.5% from the floor; Atlanta shot 42.0%. The Magic made 14 free throws, grabbed 10 offensive rebounds, and dished out 20 assists; Atlanta did likewise. The big difference in the game, though, ended up being turnovers The Magic committed 10 turnovers to the Hawks' eight. While that isn't such a huge difference, Orlando only converted those eight Hawks miscues into nine points. Atlanta, on the other hand, got 15 points off the Magic's turnovers. That's a six-point swing that ended up being the difference in this hard-fought battle.

Western Conference

New Orleans Hornets (7) @ Los Angeles Lakers (2)
4/17: Game One--Hornets 109, LAKERS 100 (1-0, New Orleans)
4/20: Game Two--LAKERS 87, Hornets 78 (Tie, 1-1)
4/22: Game Three--Lakers 100, HORNETS 86 (2-1, Los Angeles)
The Lakers won because they held
Chris Paul in check in game Three
While the Lakers were certainly sweating after losing Game One on their home floor, they now can exhale a bit after taking a 2-1 series lead and winning themselves back home court advantage. While the Lakers lost in Game One because they let Chris Paul run wild and they came perilously close to losing in Game Two because Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol contributed very little, in Game Three they avoided both of those pitfalls--and cruised. Bryant and Gasol, who had only 19 points combined on Wednesday, poured in 47 points to go along with 16 rebounds and six assists last night. The pair combined to shoot 51.5% from the floor (17-33), and they went 5-8 from downtown. The team defense on Chris Paul was superb as well. Obviously, the Lakers couldn't limit him entirely, so Paul shot 9-13 for 22 points. But Los Angeles held him to a series-low eight assists and forced a series-high five turnovers, meaning that the Hornets had to look elsewhere for production and distribution. New Orleans never got other distribution, as only two other players had more than one assist, and they never got much production from the supporting cast either. The Hornets' bench netted only nine points all game, and starting shooting guard Marco Bellini scored only five in 22 minutes of action. If Paul can't find ways to dominate either of the next two games, it looks like New Orleans could be in for a quick playoff exit.

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