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April 25, 2008
Playoff Prospectus
Thursday's Games

by Bradford Doolittle and Kevin Pelton

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When it comes to sheer excitement, nothing can top the one-and-done format of the NCAA basketball tournament. At the same time, the seven-game series of the NBA Playoffs, despite their oft-mocked length, produce roller-coaster drama all their own. Yesterday's goats are tomorrow's heroes, and redemption is only a game away. Never has that been more apparent than Thursday, when three teams trailing 2-0 pulled themselves off the mat. Now, we've got series.

Rockets 94, Jazz 92

For the fifth time all season and just the second time since Jan. 1, the EnergySolutions Arena crowd went home unhappy. In a postseason that, despite brilliant performances, has generally gone to form, that qualifies as the biggest surprise so far. Like most everyone else, I wrote the Rockets off after they lost the first two games at home. What changed?

Rafer Alston, for starters. Don't underestimate Alston's value to Houston. They were 4.3 points better per 100 possessions with Alston on the floor this season, as he evolved into a steadying force of sorts. What surprised me was not Alston's importance but how healthy he looked having played just three times since April 1 and not in the last week and a half. Alston was able to play 35 minutes, scoring 20 points, handing out five assists and turning the ball over just one time.

In turn, Alston's return got the Rockets back to a more normal rotation off the bench. In large part, the battle of the second units was where Houston won this game. Bobby Jackson, who had been filling in for Alston as a starter, and Carl Landry both were +9 in their minutes. Meanwhile, Matt Harpring, with 10 points, was the only Jazz reserve of note. Paul Millsap, who had 13 points and eight boards in the two games in Houston, had just a free throw and two rebounds in 16 minutes tonight.

While Alston and the bench advantage helped negate the edge Utah derived from returning home, this game still ended up in essentially the same place as Game Two--a tight contest decided down the stretch. The reason the outcome ended up different was, naturally, Tracy McGrady. His seven-point outburst over a span of just under two minutes proved just enough to hold the Jazz at bay.

Utah still got in position to potentially steal this game back, taking possession with 16 seconds left down one. Kudos to the always-solid Doug Collins for making note of Mehmet Okur's tendency to take big threes not long before his triple brought the Jazz within one. I was surprised he didn't mention ahead of time to watch for Utah not to take a timeout after a Rockets miss, a favorite strategy of Jerry Sloan's. I'm a proponent of that philosophy, but this time Houston was prepared. Where I would have liked to see the Jazz take a timeout was after Deron Williams had to force a pass to Kyle Korver in the corner (nearly a turnover) and Utah no longer had the element of surprise on its side.

After that, the Jazz almost made something of dribble penetration from Williams, but Landry made the game-saving block. If Williams' shot had even made glass, Carlos Boozer probably would have been in position to convert the offensive rebound because Landry had to leave him. In blocking the shot, then saving it, Landry made a brilliant play. Not bad for a guy who was considered a reach at the top of the second round last June.

Putting Landry in the frontcourt alongside Luis Scola down the stretch was a good adjustment from Rick Adelman. In Game Two, the Rockets had Chuck Hayes in that spot. While Hayes is a better team defender, Landry is the team's best two-way threat after Scola. He had seven offensive rebounds in 23 minutes, a big reason why Houston won the battle on the glass, grabbing 52.8% of available rebounds against a Jazz team that prides itself on rebounding.

If I'm Sloan, my goal between now and Saturday's Game Four is to find a way to get Okur going. Despite his late three-pointer and 35 rebounds in three games, Okur hasn't found much of a rhythm on offense in this series. He's 11-of-35 (31.4%) from the field. While the Jazz have gotten contributions from role players, including double-figure scoring from both Harpring and Ronnie Brewer on Thursday, they need Okur to rejoin their big three scorers alongside Williams and they need Boozer to be clicking on offense.

--K.P.

Wizards 108, Cavaliers 72

So how do you account for the biggest one-game turnaround in NBA playoff history?

You can't, really. It's just one of those things. The Wizards were in must-win mode. The Cavs, frankly, were playing like a team that felt pretty comfortable with its two-game lead. The end result was a total reversal from Cleveland's 30-point romp in Game Two and marked the first time ever that a team that lost by 30 or more points in the postseason came back to win by at least that many the very next time out.

This series has more subplots than a Quentin Tarantino movie and, unfortunately, only a few of them involve actual basketball. Who is the person that calls himself "Soulja Boy" anyway? OK, I can't claim to be that ignorant of hip-hop--though I'm pretty ignorant. I know enough to know that Soulja Boy is DeShawn Stevenson's rap alter ego in much the same way that Jay-Z is LeBron James'.

I love it that Stevenson is trying to pretend that he is James' nemesis. James himself laughed off the suggestion when reporters suggested it after the game. Let's be realistic. Stevenson is James' rival about as much as I am the heir apparent to Shakespeare.

That said, Stevenson came pretty close to matching James' production in Game Three which explains, as much as anything, why Washington cruised. Stevenson can get on a roll from three-point range from time to time and he hit 5-of-7 in this one. Meanwhile, James scored 22 points and posted a game score of 28--his playoff average is 39. But perhaps not coincidentally, Caron Butler spent more time guarding James than Stevenson did this time around. It's a better matchup for the Wizards.

The Cavaliers were remarkably ragged and careless on offense, scoring just 82 points per 100 possessions. Worse, Cleveland turned the ball over 23 times in their 87 possessions, including 10 non-steal turnovers. Cleveland shot 2-of-16 from behind the arc and missed 11 of their 23 free throws. They did manage 15 offensive rebounds and were even with Washington in field-goal attempts despite the disparity in turnovers. So it's not like the Cavs weren't trying. Nevertheless, it was not a playoff-caliber performance.

Brendan Haywood, who avoided suspension for his dirty foul on James in Game Two, had a terrific game, scoring 14 points on 5-of-6 shooting. More important, he held Zydrunas Ilgauskas to nine points in 30 minutes as the Cavs had just one player besides James (Devin Brown) crack double digits in the scoring column. Haywood posted a game-high 38 game score.

Unfortunately, things aren't all milk and honey for the Wizards. Eddie Jordan elected to start Gilbert Arenas, but Agent Zero was clearly hobbled by his bum knee and managed just two points in 10 minutes of court time. Washington will not be able to rely on another lackadaisical performance by Cleveland and, it appears, that they won't be able to rely on Arenas. Stevenson isn't likely to replicate his Game Three shooting, either.

For Washington to even things up in Game Four, the player who really needs to step it up is Antawn Jamison. He was OK in Game Three, scoring 15 points. Jamison's average game score in the series is 19--six below his regular-season average. With Arenas apparently a non-factor, Jamison must play at an All-Star level for the Wizards to win this series.

The last two games have been seriously one-sided. I have a feeling that Game Four is going to be close, though. I'm looking forward to it.

Raptors 108, Magic 94

Game Three of the Toronto/Orlando series played out in a very similar fashion to the Washington/Cleveland game. The game was played under similar circumstances as well: Team down 2-0, returning home for a must-win showdown.

Toronto rode some terrific point guard performances to an easy win. Sam Mitchell answered the question about whether T.J. Ford or Jose Calderon should be featured by not choosing. Ford started and scored 21 points in 23 minutes. Calderon had 18 points, seven rebounds and 13 assists in 25 minutes. For those scoring at home, that's 39 points, 12 rebounds and 16 assists from the lead-guard spot. Good plan, Sam.

Of course, he can't really count on that kind of performance from those two again, not in the same game. I still maintain that Calderon should be starting and playing about two-thirds of the minutes. Ford would make a perfect point guard for the Hawks next season, but Mitchell can use him as instant offense off the bench while he's still around Toronto. Ford showed just how streaky he can be, hitting 7-of-11 from the field after going 2-for-17 during the first two games of the series.

Orlando's intensity left a lot to be desired. The Magic were slow getting back on defense, slow getting to loose balls and their defensive rotations were pretty abysmal. The Magic had just 15 assists on its 34 made field goals, compared to Toronto's 31 out of 42 performance. The difference in ball movement on the perimeter and the respective success of the defensive rotations were the keys in the game. Toronto had many more open looks. Chris Bosh and Dwight Howard both had solid but unspectacular games on the inside, basically cancelling each other out.

Last time around, I wrote about how thin the Magic are and called them a four-man team. In Game Three, just three of its four primary contibutors showed up. The rest of the roster was an absolute cipher. Literally. Howard, Rashard Lewis and Hedo Turkoglu posted game scores of 22, 33 and 26 respectively. The other seven Orlando players who saw court time posted an aggregate game score of zero. Yes, zero. They might as well have not shown up. (Well, actually little-used Marcin Gortat posted an 8. That was offset by Keyon Dooling's -8.)

Since Sam Mitchell put his smaller lineup on the floor, one that includes Jamario Moon and de-emphasizes Radislav Nesterovic, Toronto has thoroughly outplayed Orlando. If Bosh had been able to sink that 19-footer at the buzzer in Game Two, the Raptors would be bidding to go up 3-1 in Game Four. As it is, they need to replicate their Game Three performance to get the series even. You have to like their chances, given the adjustments Mitchell has made so far in the series. What can Stan Van Gundy do to counter? Well, like I said after Game One, there really isn't much he can do. While Orlando's top-shelf talent is terrific, the roster is thin and the number of combinations Van Gundy has to work with is limited.

Heading into the series, I picked Orlando because I didn't like the way the underachieving Raptors were playing. But in my power rankings, Toronto was ranked 10th in the NBA--two spots ahead of the Magic. What that's really saying is that Toronto's component statistics were better than Orlando's. What I didn't notice was that the Raptors' trend rating, which analyzes the week-to-week progression of each team's power rating, was the second-highest in the league entering the playoffs.

Toronto is playing its best basketball in several months. And after watching the three games against Orlando, I am convinced that the Raptors have better top-to-bottom talent. This is truly a series that could go either way.

--B.D.

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