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May 10, 2010
Playoff Prospectus
Swept Away

by Kevin Pelton

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Phoenix 107, at San Antonio 101 (Phoenix wins series 4-0)
Pace: 94.6
Offensive Ratings: Phoenix 114.5, San Antonio 105.4

After the Phoenix Suns completed their sweep of the San Antonio Spurs with Sunday's Game Four victory, Charles Barkley declared on "Inside the NBA" that nobody saw this coming, not even Suns GM Steve Kerr or star guard Steve Nash. In this case, it wasn't Barkley hyperbole whatsoever. I picked Phoenix to win this series, but never imagined it would be so lopsided in either direction. San Antonio did have its chances to win all four games, but this wasn't really a lucky result. The Suns were clearly the better team.

Steve Nash deserves much of the credit for completing the sweep. Returning to the floor after receiving six stitches in his right eye, Nash saw it swell to the point where by game's end he was essentially playing half-blind. Nonetheless, Nash was not just as good as ever but better during the fourth quarter, scoring 10 points on 4-of-8 shooting and handing out five assists in a game that could have gone either way.

The Spurs went back to trapping the pick-and-roll, but with increased defensive attention on Amar'e Stoudemire, allowing Nash openings to the basket in the final period. That's not to say San Antonio took Stoudemire away, if that's even possible the way Stoudemire is playing right now. He scored 12 points in the fourth quarter, including a pair of enormous long jumpers that beat solid defense with better offense. The most dramatic example of that came from Jason Richardson. The Spurs got exactly what they wanted from their defensive possession with 2:02 left down seven, forcing a contested Richardson three with the shot clock expiring. No worries; Richardson calmly swished it.

As you'd expect from a former champion in an elimination game, San Antonio did not go gently into that good night. A 12-4 run brought the Spurs within two points after an ill-advised Stoudemire foul allowed George Hill to complete a four-point play. But Phoenix made its free throws, San Antonio missed two free throws and that was that: The Suns had finally knocked off their long-time nemesis, and in impressive fashion.

Phoenix's offense was excellent in the final period, but really this was the first time all series that the Suns truly won with defense. They held the Spurs below 50 percent effective shooting from the field, controlled the glass and forced 16 turnovers. Stoudemire blocked just one shot, but his interior defense was as effective as I can ever remember. He thoroughly outplayed Tim Duncan, who had a quiet 17 points on as many shooting possessions. Meanwhile, Manu Ginobili suffered through a 2-of-11 shooting night (he did play well in other facets of the game, making 10 free throws, handing out nine assists and coming up with five steals). 31 combined points off the bench from Matt Bonner and George Hill could not entirely make up the difference.

Ultimately, Phoenix just had too many weapons for the Spurs to handle. Doug Collins made a good point during the game, noting that San Antonio had taken away the Suns' fast break after Game One. Remarkably, the Spurs held a 25-9 advantage in fast-break points in this game. Did that stop Phoenix? Hardly. The Suns are a very, very good half-court offensive team because of the pick-and-roll with Nash and Stoudemire and a fleet of shooters.

There's also the matter of a bench that can get them back in games as it did Sunday in the second quarter. Goran Dragic, though unable to match his Game Three heroics, did step in and stave off a San Antonio run when Nash left to get stitches. And Jared Dudley once again played the entire fourth quarter, most of it alongside Grant Hill in the small lineup that has worked so well for Phoenix. All Dudley did was score 16 points on 6-of-7 shooting, make all three of his attempts from beyond the arc, grab six rebounds and hand out four assists.

With the Los Angeles Lakers on the brink of a sweep, the Suns had plenty of motivation to finish this series off early and rest. Their mentality in Game Four, as throughout this series, was absolutely the right one. Fortunately, one of the benefits of this postseason run is that Alvin Gentry is getting credit for an excellent coaching job all season long. Will that be enough in the next round? We'll worry about that when the time comes. For now, let's just marvel at an impressive sweep.

at Boston 101, Cleveland 93 (Series tied 2-2)
Pace: 93.5
Offensive Ratings: Boston 104.6, Cleveland 92.3

Rajon Rondo was in a special place on Sunday. It's been a great series for the Boston Celtics' point guard, but Game Four saw him control the game in a way that only the elite NBA point guards are capable of doing. What separated Rondo's performance even from the rest of that group is the multiple ways in which he was a factor against the Cleveland Cavaliers--penetrating to score, driving to dish and having a huge impact on the defensive glass.

If I had to choose one defining aspect from Rondo's game, it would be his court vision. He was seeing plays develop several seconds ahead in a rarified manner, hitting cutters or taking calculated risks like leading Glen Davis long in transition despite traffic around him. On an afternoon where the Celtics were struggling to generate offense, those dishes were invaluable. The other Boston players totaled 25 baskets, and Rondo assisted on 13 of them.

Still, from a statistical standpoint, Rondo's rebounding might have been nearly as valuable. It was his offensive board in the paint and floater follow with 1:36 left helped seal the game. Rondo did most of his damage at the defensive end, grabbing 14 defensively rebounds. The Celtics just completely took away second-chance opportunities, allowing but three offensive rebounds in 41 opportunities. Cleveland's 7.3 offensive rebounding percentage is about as low as you'll see in a game.

The strong rebounding helped solidify Boston stops, and the Celtics really won this game at the defensive end of the floor, holding the Cavaliers well below a point per possession. The other key, naturally, was the way Boston defended LeBron James. The Celtics took away the easy scores James feasted on in Game Three, contesting his attempts in the painted area, and James was ice-cold from the perimeter (0-of-5 from beyond the arc). Tony Allen controlled James very well when the two were matched up, part of a phenomenal effort off the bench that also included 15 points on 6-of-7 shooting.

James was successful as a passer, handing out eight assists as he flirted with a triple-double of his own, but he committed seven turnovers. That was the biggest reason Cleveland was unusually sloppy as a team, turning the ball over 17 times. With neither team shooting the ball particularly well (the Celtics won despite missing 13 of 14 three-point attempts) and both living at the free throw line, turnover percentage and rebounding were the two biggest factors that separated them.

Ostensibly, the foul trouble was more of a factor for Boston. Ray Allen fouled out and Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce both finished with five, the latter spending much of the second half on the bench. Tony Allen outplayed the slumping Pierce, however, so in some ways Pierce's foul trouble was a net upgrade. Meanwhile, fouls took Shaquille O'Neal out of the game during the final quarter and a half, which was problematic because he was the Cavaliers' second most dangerous scorer in this game, scoring 17 points on 14 shooting possessions in 28 minutes.

Cleveland has proven it can win in this series with Rondo being a big factor. Still, finding a way to contain the Celtics' point guard seems like the most obvious adjustment the Cavaliers can make at this point. (The offensive issues seem less strategic than related to James playing well and the other guys making shots.) I remain of the opinion that Mike Brown needs to give serious consideration to putting James on Rondo, using his length and lateral quickness to try to keep Rondo on the perimeter as much as possible. It's not reasonable to totally take away Rondo's penetration; that's just not realistic given his quickness and the current limits on perimeter contact. Still, James is Cleveland's best chance to make Rondo work to get into the paint. This much is clear: What the Cavaliers did against Rondo defensively in Game Four did not work at all.

Follow Kevin on Twitter at @kpelton.

Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Kevin by clicking here or click here to see Kevin's other articles.

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