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April 25, 2011
Playoff Prospectus
It's Paul's World

by Kevin Pelton

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at New Orleans 93, L.A. Lakers 88 (Series tied 2-2)
Pace: 81.2
Offensive Ratings: New Orleans 115.5, L.A. Lakers 107.6

Good golly, Chris Paul. Nobody figured he could be better after his Game One showcase, but I think this effort might have been slightly better because of the yeoman's work Paul--who, Trevor Ariza reminded us after the game, stands just 6'0"--did on the defensive glass. Paul had 11 defensive rebounds, nearly twice as many as anyone else on the floor, to help keep the bigger Los Angeles Lakers from getting repeated second chances.

Paul was pretty good with the basketball in his hands too. Instead of the steady diet of pick-and-rolls we saw in Game One, his repertoire was a little more diverse this time around. Paul isolated to beat Steve Blake off the dribble and knocked down threes when the Lakers helped off of him on other actions. Still, down the stretch we saw Paul operating in the middle of the floor with the assistance of a screen. On the game's biggest play, the Lakers cut off Paul's penetration, but he somehow found Jarrett Jack free in the middle of the paint for a short jumper that pushed the New Orleans Hornets' lead to four points. That was Paul's final assist as part of an impressive triple-double: 27 points, 15 assists and 13 rebounds.

After getting abused in the paint on Friday night, the Hornets' bigs did a much better job of holding their own in Game Four. None of the Lakers' trio of bigs--Andrew Bynum, Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom--went off, while Odom was virtually invisible off the bench. He shot 1-of-7 from the field, was a -8 and was on the bench down the stretch in favor of the bigger Bynum-Gasol duo. Gasol partially redeemed himself moments later with a hoop and the harm, but his inability to catch a Kobe Bryant pass in the paint produced a costly turnover.

So, with Bryant shooting 5-of-18, how exactly were the Lakers in this game down the stretch? A variety of unexpected sources contributed offense. Ron Artest was the biggest factor, dueling with Trevor Ariza in the matchup of former and current Lakers small forwards. Ariza scored 19 points, but cooled after halftime with Bryant switching on to him. It didn't help that Ariza reverted to his usual shot selection after attacking the basket and creating off the dribble during the first half. Artest, meanwhile, maintained his hot streak longer, making seven of his 10 shot attempts for 16 points. The Lakers also got a combined 22 points from Derek Fisher, Steve Blake and Shannon Brown, who had totaled 43 points in the first three games of the series.

It was an interesting night for Bryant, who began it serving as a playmaker and ended it trying to play through a left ankle he tweaked on defense with a minute and a half left in the game. Bryant handed out eight assists and was finding teammates regularly during the first half, but he never really found a shooting rhythm. To his credit, while Bryant played through the injury, he recognized his limitations and did not force things late in the game.

at Philadelphia 86, Miami 82 (Miami leads 3-1)
Pace: 85.6
Offensive Ratings: Philadelphia 98.4, Miami 97.9

On the verge of being swept, the Philadelphia 76ers stayed alive and salvaged some pride with a strong final minute and a half.

In what has become a theme in this series, the Sixers started well, parlaying their own energy and the presence of Mike Bibby and Zydrunas Ilgauskas in the Miami Heat starting lineup into a big early lead. The advantage was 16 four and a half minutes into the second quarter, when the Heat ripped off a 22-2 run fueled by Mario Chalmers threes and a series of runouts. From there, the teams settled down and played back-and-forth basketball, with neither leading by more than seven points the rest of the way.

Miami seemed to have the game and the series in hand when Dwyane Wade tipped in LeBron James' miss to give the Heat a six-point advantage with 1:35 to play. That would prove Miami's last score, while Philadelphia went on an unexpected 10-0 run. The key plays were three-pointers off the dribble by Jrue Holiday and Lou Williams on consecutive possessions. Wade was a little lax against Holiday's attempt, but Williams simply made a spectacular (though ill-advised) shot over Wade's outstretched arms.

On the other end, let's run through Miami's final three possessions. Up four, the Heat called a Wade-James pick-and-roll. With the Philly defense cheating and the shot clock running down, the ball swung to Chalmers in the corner for a decent look at a three. Next time down, now leading by just one, Wade posted Holiday and missed a difficult turnaround fadeaway. You can definitely question James being a decoy on that play. In the waning seconds, Erik Spoelstra went to a James isolation. James created some separation from Andre Iguodala, but Elton Brand came over to get a piece of the shot. Key to the play was that despite the defensive help from their only true big man, the Sixers were still able to grab the rebound.

Ultimately, this win probably doesn't affect the series. Back at home for Game Five, Miami should finish Philadelphia off. So let's talk instead about two things that do matter going forward. The first is the Heat getting nothing from Bibby and Ilgauskas, who combined to miss all nine shot attempts today. Despite James, Wade and Chris Bosh, the Heat's starters have been outscored in this series because Bibby and Ilgauskas have been so bad. You think the Boston Celtics might exploit that?

Second, the 76ers got an unexpectedly brilliant performance from rookie Evan Turner, who scored 17 points on 7-of-13 shooting, grabbed six rebounds and made plays down the stretch (including the first bucket of Philly's game-end run). Turner got his shot blocked four times, but he was getting into the paint, which is a positive sign. (Sidenote: Miami's interior defense was outstanding, especially with Joel Anthony, and one question about Spoelstra's late-game strategy was why he didn't do more offense-defense subbing with Anthony.) Turner has also made four threes (in five attempts) in this series after knocking down just 14 in the entire regular season. That's probably noise, but if he is able to develop that kind of range it will completely change his outlook as a player.

Boston 101, at New York 89 (Boston wins 4-0)
Pace: 96.9
Offensive Ratings: Boston 104.6, New York 91.5

As it turned out, the New York Knicks' first playoff trip since 2004 was as short as their last one. The Boston Celtics finished the Knicks off in a four-game sweep, leading by as many as 23 points before a futile rally by New York in the final period.

The Knicks' problem was simple. With Chauncey Billups on the sidelines and Amar'e Stoudemire struggling badly, they had no offense outside of Carmelo Anthony. Third point guard Anthony Carter came in and sparked the late run by scoring 11 points and handing out four assists, but that sort of reveals the magnitude. Carter is a fine defender and ballhandler, but when you're dependent on him for offense, you're in big trouble.

Stoudemire looked reasonably healthy after suffering from back spasms this week. He was active on the glass, grabbing 12 rebounds, and his usual self defensively (for better or worse). Stoudemire was forced to the perimeter a bit more than usual, but he simply couldn't get anything to drop. Anthony shouldered a heavy load, scoring half of New York's first-half points and still managing better than a point per play, but he needed some help.

Besides struggling to score and run the offense, Toney Douglas got torched by Rajon Rondo again. As Jeff Van Gundy noted early, Douglas picked up Rondo too late in transition, allowing him to get nearly to the paint before facing any defensive resistance. I'm of the opinion that Rondo is back to form after dealing with nagging injuries, but we'll need to see him against another point guard before drawing a firm conclusion on the matter. Douglas, a quality defender over the course of the season, simply never could figure out how to deal with Rondo's speed and how to balance helping off of Rondo with corralling him on the perimeter.

As the Celtics look ahead to what will likely be a showdown with the Miami Heat in the next round, the other encouraging development was Glen Davis' effort off the bench. Davis had been shooting 31.3 percent in this series, but he knocked down six of his eight shot attempts and had it going from midrange. For good measure, Davis added a charge at the defensive end. Davis' improved play was key to the Boston bench actually managing to win the matchup with the Knicks' reserves during the second quarter, a welcome change from the previous three games.

at Atlanta 88, Orlando 85 (Atlanta leads 3-1)
Pace: 86.6
Offensive Ratings: Atlanta 102.0, Orlando 94.4

This series has begun to resemble last year's Eastern Conference Finals, where the opposition played single coverage on Dwight Howard and choked off the Orlando Magic's three-point attack. While the Atlanta Hawks have been less effective at stopping Howard, at least when Jason Collins is on the bench, they have been so good at defending the three-point line that it has not mattered.

In Game Four, Orlando--which made more three-pointers than any other team during the regular season and shot them at an above-average 36.6 percent clip--tried 23 shots beyond the arc and made two of them. That is incomprehensibly bad, and while the Hawks deserve a ton of credit for their defense, at some point it's on the Magic's shooters to, y'know, make shots. For the second consecutive year, this ability has failed them on the biggest stage.

With Jason Richardson suspended and Jameer Nelson scuffling badly again, Orlando's only source of offense besides Howard was an unexpected one: Gilbert Arenas, who had been out of the team's rotation in Game Three. Arenas gave the Magic a lift in the second quarter and was the team's go-to player down the stretch, scoring 20 points.

For all its problems, Orlando is just a couple of plays away from taking a series lead back home. On Friday, Jamal Crawford's bank three was a backbreaker. This time, the Magic had a chance to tie only to see Hedo Turkoglu fumble the basketball away (thanks in no small part to great defense by Al Horford after a switch). Turkoglu recovered and got a pretty good look at the buzzer, but was unable to force overtime.

Atlanta was able to survive the suspension of Zaza Pachulia, using center by committee. Josh Powell held his own during the second quarter, Hilton Armstrong took a turn after halftime and the Hawks gave Horford extended action at the position down the stretch. They were +6 with Horford, who finished with just three fouls, so while playing center serves to neutralize him on offense, Larry Drew may want to consider it even when Pachulia is back for Game Five.

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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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