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April 29, 2008
Playoff Prospectus
Monday's Games

by Bradford Doolittle and Kevin Pelton

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Hawks 97, Celtics 92

This can't happen again, can it?

For the second straight year, the team with the best regular-season record in the NBA is struggling in the first round against a team that entered the playoffs with a losing record. Make no mistake, though--if the Hawks pull of an upset of the Celtics, it will be far more startling than the Warriors' unmasking of Dallas last spring.

The Hawks moved even with Boston on Monday thanks to an incredible finish from Josh Smith and Joe Johnson, who combined to score Atlanta's last 34 points, including all 32 in the fourth quarter. Johnson scored 20 in the final frame as Mike Woodson gave him the ball in the middle of the court, spread out his other players, and let his top scorer go one on one with Ray Allen. Johnson repeatedly beat Allen into the lane and scored on an array of leaners and floaters from 10-12 feet as the game wound down and the Celtics grew desperate for a stop.

Doc Rivers was slow to adjust. He moved Paul Pierce over to Johnson at one point. In the final 90 seconds or so, he attempted to throw a double-team at Johnson. Nothing worked. On one crucial play, Kevin Garnett moved out to double-team Johnson near halfcourt. Pierce failed to cut off the sideline and when he shuffled over to stop the drive, he was called for a block. All this unfolded against a backdrop of an electrically-charged crowd at Philips Arena. This was the playoff game I would have most liked to attend.

Suddenly, a Boston team that won 66 games and seemed so invincible only a few days ago finds itself searching for answers.

"We've got to find ourselves real quick," Boston's Sam Cassell told reporters. "We've got to find our team identity, our team chemistry, we've got to find all that real quick."

For the second straight game, Atlanta posted a plus-.500 eFG% against the top defensive team in basketball. They're doing it with one-on-one play, assisting on juat half of its made field goals in Game Four. Last time out, the Hawks beat the Celtics with outside shooting. This time, Atlanta made just four three-pointers. Instead, they beat the Celtics off the dribble and by getting to the foul line. The Hawks were -7 on turnovers, were outshot 85-67 and gave up 15 offensive rebounds. Yet their 29-10 advantage at the line was enough to make up for the shortcomings in other categories. The Hawks are now averaging 37.4 free-throw attempts per 100 possessions in the playoffs, tops among postseason participants. The Celtics also helped the Hawks by missing eight of their 18 free throws.

Mike Bibby solved Rajon Rondo, at least for a half. Bibby scored all 18 of his points before the break. While Rondo reaffirmed his dominance of Bibby in the second half, Bibby's performance early on helped the Hawks survive a 16-3 Celtics onslaught to start the game. They came back to lead by three at the half.

Boston rode a 27-14 advantage in the third to lead by 10 and appeared to restore sanity to the proceedings. But these Hawks just won't quit. Johnson hit a three to begin the final period and set the tone for what happened the rest of the quarter. For the game, the Hawks scored their 97 points on 86 possessions--an efficiency of 113 points. For the series, Atlanta is scoring 104.3 points per 100 possessions. That's the second-lowest mark among playoff teams, but is nevertheless three points better than the Celtics allowed during the regular season.

Rivers is not getting the same production from his bench that he received during the regular season. Eddie House and Glen Davis have seen their roles shrink and change and haven't responded well. House in particular seems a little lost. Meanwhile, Kevin Garnett is being outplayed by Josh Smith. There's just no other way to put it. Garnett's 20 points in Game Four came on 21 field-goal attempts. Meanwhile, Smith needed just 16 attempts to get his 28 points. Smith asserted himself as a shot blocker, swatting seven shots and altering several others.

It seems incredible that the Celtics would have to re-learn the lessons on staying focused, maintaining intensity and working as a unit after they just spent six months showing how well they already knew those things. Garnett set the tone for the Celtics, beginning with the day last summer when he was acquired from Minnesota. He needs to set the tone now. The Hawks are beating the Celtics by fragmenting the action and taking Boston down one play and one player at a time. The Celtics need to piece things back together by remembering what made them so good during the season. That means sharing the ball, trusting in your teammates and helping on defense.

The Celtics need to be less reliant on jump shots. Their inside/outside indicators are significantly more perimeter-oriented that they were during the regular season. Their foul-drawing rate is just 12th of the 16 playoff teams in the postseason.

Boston just should not be losing in this fashion. The Celtics don't need a win in Game Five. They need to dominate. Because if they don't, this thing could actually go the distance. Even if they survive, they'll likely find a rested LeBron James waiting for them in the next round.

Magic 102, Raptors 92

The curse of Shaq has been broken.

These are heady times in Orlando, which advances past the first round for the first time since the days of Shaquille O'Neal and Penny Hardaway. They never won a postseason series during the disappointing era of Grant Hill and Tracy McGrady and it's been a 12-year drought overall. That's all behind them now after Monday's win. Orlando even gets to kick back for a few days' rest while the Pistons slug it out with scrappy Philadelphia.

Game Five was similar to the rest of the series. The Raptors again had their chances but there was just something missing--that player who could hit the big shot and take over down the stretch. While Toronto's roster might have been a little stronger beyond the top four, the Raptors really only had an advantage at point guard when considering the spots that matter the most. Chris Bosh is Toronto's best player and he's a good one, but he doesn't have the strength to contend with a player like Dwight Howard. On the perimeter, the Magic didn't have anyone as good as Hedo Turkoglu or Rashard Lewis. And while the T.J. Ford/Jose Calderon combo might be preferable to Jameer Nelson, Howard's smothering of Bosh left Toronto looking to role players to rescue them.

Howard's defensive mobility is impressive for such a dominant interior presence. I thought Bosh could get Howard out on the floor and take him off the dribble in hopes of getting the big guy in foul trouble, but that just didn't happen. Howard has Shaquille O'Neal's build and LeBron James' athleticism. He's really a special talent.

Orlando struggled from three-point range, which is usually a death knell for the Magic. They made them when it counted, down the stretch, when Orlando turned a two-point lead in an insurmountable 10-point gap.

The game was tight throughout, with Toronto leading by a point at the half. Late in the third quarter, Orlando began an 11-2 run when Nelson nailed a three. The Raptors did not score a field goal during the last 6:12 of the third quarter. The Magic eventually pushed the lead out to eight with under eight minutes to play. Bosh went to work on the inside as Toronto closed to within two.

That's when Orlando's floundering perimeter game finally woke up. The Magic was just 9-for-32 from beyond the arc in the game. However, Nelson and Keith Bogans nailed three long-distance shots during the final five minutes as Orlando went up by 11, putting the game away. During the same stretch, Toronto's Jason Kapono and Carlos Delfino missed three three-pointers.

The Magic had a +18 showing on the boards and grabbed 16 off of the offensive glass. The key to that was of course Howard, who had his third 20-rebound game of the series. Howard averaged 22.6 points, grabbed 18.2 boards, blocked 3.8 shots per game and shot 63.8% from the floor against Toronto. Rashard Lewis helped out on the boards, too, grabbing 13 for the second straight game.

Sam Mitchell split his point-guard minutes down the middle--Ford and Calderon played 24 minutes each, combining for 26 points, eight rebounds and nine assists. That's not bad, but the pair didn't set the tone for the Raptors in their customary fashion. Toronto had assists on 20 of its 35 field goals, which indicates a preponderance of one-on-one basketball that doesn't suit Mitchell's system.

Howard was clearly the top player in the series, with an average game score of 39, up from 30 during the regular season. He was followed by Lewis (27) and Hedo Turkoglu (26), who were both above their regular-season averages. Chris Bosh led Toronto with an average game score of 21, followed by Anthony Parker's 20.

The Raptors bench again outperformed Orlando's but when the starters are getting stomped, it hardly matters. Toronto has a lack of interior muscle players by design--they're designed much like a European team. But when you're contending with a force like Howard, it's a problem. In retrospect, Mitchell might have gotten better use of Kris Humphries in the series.

The Raptors now face an interesting offseason. It's clear that they need a third impact player to team with either Ford/Calderon and Bosh. The litany of role players and shooters at Mitchell's disposal is nice but not enough. I suspect Bryan Colangelo was hoping that Andrea Bargnani would blossom into that third member of a big three but, in this series, he showed that he's a long way off from that happening. In fact, at this point, the Raptors have to be worried if it's ever going to happen for Bargnani. Against Orlando, he averaged 6.4 points and 1.4 rebounds in 20.8 minutes. That's your starting center, folks. Meanwhile, Calderon can opt out of his contract but seems to be better suited for Toronto's system than Ford is. The way Mitchell split up the minutes in this series indicates that one of them has to go. Colangelo has his work cut out for him.

I suspect that the Orlando/Toronto series drew the least amount of interest from casual pro hoops fans amongst the first-round matchups. While there were some excellent moments, the series did seem to lack quite the same level of intensity that we've seen in other matchups. I doubt the fans in Orlando or Toronto would agree with that assessment but from an impartial standpoint, that's how the series felt. If this was a low-key win for Orlando, low-key is a good place to be.

--B.D.

Lakers 107, Nuggets 101

Give this to the Denver Nuggets: they certainly did not quit. Down 10 in the first quarter, as many as 13 before halftime, the Nuggets could have packed it in, but they fought to the final seconds. In a sense, that's a little depressing in its own way. Denver played a good game tonight, fed off the Pepsi Center crowd in the second half, and still weren't good enough to beat the Lakers.

That might not be fair, because Kobe Bryant is a one-man wrecking crew like no other in the NBA. Starting at the 5:31 mark of the fourth quarter with the game tied at 88, Bryant either scored or created a score on five of the next seven possessions. Bryant made all the plays the Lakers needed, and the only answer Denver had was not Carmelo Anthony, not Allen Iverson, but instead J.R. Smith.

The Nuggets were still in it in the final 30 seconds, but were done in by the kind of fundamental errors the team has made all year long. Confusion on defense about how to play down two with 33 seconds left after Marcus Camby's three-pointer (the right play was to defend straight up with that much time left on the clock) led to a Pau Gasol layup. Then, the Nuggets coughed it up on the offensive end, and it was time to start making vacation plans.

Denver ended up with 101 points on 93 possessions, a decent effort, but only because Smith was unconscious, scoring 26 points on 12 field goal attempts and nine free throws (all of them makes). Carmelo Anthony and Allen Iverson both scored 20-plus points, but on 42 shot attempts. No one else on the Nuggets scored in double figures, and a hidden storyline in this series was the complete lack of depth on offense for Denver. Anthony, Iverson, Smith and Linas Kleiza scored well and Kenyon Martin averaged 8.8 points per game, but nobody else on the team scored more than 16 points in four games. Marcus Camby's complete disappearance on offense was baffling. His offensive line for the series was Ben Wallace-esque: 17 points on 5-of-21 shooting. His three in the closing seconds was his only Game Four score.

The Lakers get to head home to rest and root for the Houston Rockets to prolong their series with Utah as long as possible. Even if the Jazz closes out tomorrow, Utah has had to work much harder in a much more physical series in the first round. That's a slight advantage in the Lakers' favor. No matter the outcome of the Jazz/Rockets, however, the semifinals will present a very different and much greater challenge for the Lakers. If it is the Jazz and the Lakers who square off, I see it as the de facto Western Conference Finals, and I'm not alone. Going in off a sweep, the Lakers have to feel good about where they are at right now.

--K.P.

Join Kevin Pelton Wednesday at 1:00 p.m. Eastern at BaseballProspectus.com to talk playoffs. If you can't make it, submit your question now.

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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