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May 1, 2008
Playoff Prospectus
Wednesday's Games

by Bradford Doolittle

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Celtics 110, Hawks 85

Who will be the Hawks' Bill Mazeroski?

Say what? Bill Mazer…who? OK, since this is a basketbal site I guess I can't assume that all of my readers will get the reference. Here's a quick history lesson.

In 1960, the Pirates took on the heavily-favored Yankees in the World Series. The Bronx Bombers, led by Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle, won games in the Series 16-3, 10-0 and 12-0. But Pittsburgh won games 6-4, 3-2 and 5-2, setting up a Game Seven even though the Pirates had been outscored 46-17 overall. In the decisive game, Mazeroski, a Hall of Fame second basemen known for his glove, not his bat, homered in the bottom of the ninth to bring the championship back to Pittsburgh for the first time since the days of Kiki Cuyler. All told, the Pirates took the Series despite being outscored 55-27.

After the Celtics rolled to a Game Five win in their first-round series with Atlanta, the thought struck me that this series could turn out to be the NBA's version of the 1960 World Series. Heavily-favored Boston has won games by 23, 19 and 26 points. But the Hawks have squeezed out nine- and five-point margins and even though the overall series totals are dominated by the Celtics, the Hawks can nevertheless even up the series at what promises to be a raucous Philips Arena in Friday's Game Six. That would set up an improbable winner-take-all Game Seven.

So I ask again…who will be the Hawks' Bill Mazeroski? Whoever it is would have to be an excellent defender but mediocre scorer with a lunchpail image and an overachieving nature. Someday, he'll have to land a questionable spot in the Basketball Hall of Fame, while similarly-talented Frank White of the Royals is stricken from the ballot early in his candidacy. But we're digressing a little too far, aren't we? My nomination for neo-Maz: Josh Childress.

Enough of the dream sequence. The Celtics have to be breathing the proverbial sigh of relief today after re-establishing their dominance in a series that no one outside of the state of Georgia thought would go even five games, much less six. The Boston defense was back. After allowing the Hawks to crack .500 in eFG% in both games in Atlanta, the Celtics surrendered a stifling .435 in Game Five. Josh Smith was 4-of-13 from the floor, though he did get to the foul line with frequency, going 10-for-10 at the charity stripe.

Rajon Rondo maintained his upper hand on Mike Bibby, with 12 points and seven assists while holding Bibby to a 2-for-8 showing with one assist. But it was Sam Cassell at the point in the latter stages of the game as Boston turned a comfortable lead into a rout. Cassell scored 13 points on 6-of-8 shooting in 15 minutes, his best showing of the series. The Boston bench as a whole cracked their Atlanta brethren to the tune of a 58-12 advantage in aggregate game score.

The Celtics returned to their egalitarian, efficient ways on Wednesday. Boston scorched the nets with a .589 eFG% and scored their 110 points on 84 possessions--an offensive efficiency of 128. (The Hawks were at 72). Boston assisted on 28 of its 45 field goals, with three players getting six or more, and hit 9-of-20 from beyond the arc. Ray Allen hit 5-of-8 three-pointers and helped deny the ball from Joe Johnson, who had an efficient shooting game (6-for-11, 2-for-4 from downtown) but with those 11 FGAs wasn't as big of a factor as he had been in Atlanta.

The Celtics' unsung hero in Game Five was Leon Powe, the inspirational overachiever that would be a fine candidate to win any kind of award named in Bill Mazeroski's honor. (Last Mazeroski reference, I promise.) Powe had 10 points and seven rebounds in 23 minutes and grabbed five offensive rebounds in the first half as the Celtics began to build their lead.

A couple of other quick observations from Game Five:

  • The Hawks just seem like a much stronger team with Josh Childress on the floor instead of Marvin "LaRue" Williams. According to 82games.com, Atlanta is nearly 1.5 points better with Childress out there.
  • I was listening to the Celtics' radio broadcast just to get a little different perspective. I've heard Cornbread Maxwell in action many times but I've never heard an explanation of the quacking. Anyone know? For those who have no idea what I'm referring to, Maxwell quacks. The happier he is, the more he quacks. It's quite surreal.

I fully expect Boston to carry this performance over to Game Six and close out the series easily. However, the Hawks have been a different team back home and the Celtics are going to have to earn their right to advance. The saving grace in Boston's unexpected first-round struggle is that the Cavs/Wizards series, the winner of which will presumably face Boston, looks like it will go the distance. Speaking of that …

Wizards 88, Cavaliers 87

The manner by which the Wizards found themselves needing to stop a LeBron James drive to the basket to keep their season alive was familiar. It's been the same all series. Washington focuses its defensive attention of James. Things get chippy. Technical fouls are doled out. Despite it all, James puts up big numbers and puts Cleveland in position to win.

I suspect the Wizards were as stunned as anyone else when James' last-second shot caromed off the rim. As soon as he turned the corner on DeShawn Stevenson, my mind said: "Series over." But that's how these things go. More on the final play in a bit.

One thing that was different about Game Five was that Eddie Jordan was without the option to play Gilbert Arenas. Perhaps reading my recommendations (Agent Zero is an Internet aficionado, after all), Arenas declared himself a no-go because of the knee problems that have hampered him for well over a year. Antonio Daniels started in his place and played 40 minutes. Roger Mason played 20 off the bench. To my mind, the minutes should have been reversed. The Wizards have been starved for points and Daniels is not a consistent source of offense. Yes, that would leave Washington without a true lead guard, but they don't push the ball much and the halfcourt set is run through Caron Butler. While Daniels is a better defender than Mason, you don't need a great defender to check the three-point specialists that Mike Brown throws out there to spread the floor.

So I didn't think Washington would be able to find enough offense to steal the game on the road. But the Wizards hung in there by holding Cleveland to a .420 eFG% and limiting the Cavs to a +1 advantage on the boards. On offense, Washington was carried by Caron Butler, who was clearly the star of the game. Butler had 32 points, nine rebounds and five assists--Jamesian numbers. Of course, LeBron exceeded all of those totals but he was less efficient in doing so, requiring 21 field-goal attempts to get his 34 points and committing five turnovers. He was better from the line, though, hitting 15-of-18. Overall, Butler's game score of 37 bested James' 29, a crucial win for Washington in the matchup game.

Cleveland best game score came from Zydrunas Ilgauskas, who had 19 points on 8-of-11 shooting. He also corralled Washington's Brendan Haywood, who had four of his six field-goal attempts blocked and scored four points in 31 minutes before fouling out.

All of this said, Game Five was evenly matched across the board. Butler put the Wizards ahead with :11.7 remaining by scoring off of a drive to the hoop on which it certainly looked to me like he took an extra step. Watching the game with a non-NBA fan, I was asked why it wasn't traveling. I couldn't explain.

On the final play, Mike Brown opted to get the ball to James in the middle of court. He spread his other three shooters around the three-point line and positioned Ilgauskas on the weakside block. As James began his dribble, guarded by Stevenson, I expected Ilgauskas to come out to set a pick, but he didn't. The other four Wizard defenders sagged into the paint. As James drove around Stevenson to his right, he had Delonte West open on the right wing and Daniel Gibson basically unguarded on the left. Antonio Daniels was the first defender in the next wave after Stevenson. Had he held his ground, he would have forced James to either run him over or kick the ball out to West. Instead he did a very strange thing--he just sort of shuffled out of the way.

Meanwhile, Darius Songaila had sealed off Ilgauskas, who had moved to the middle of the lane under the basket. With Daniels leaving James an open lane, Songaila put up a hand up and started to move out to meet LeBron. But he was too late. James had already elevated and had a clean look at a runner from about six or seven feet. Songaila eventually undercut James but not so severely that you'd expect the officials to call a foul. It was a good look, an uncontested shot. James just missed it. So now the teams shift to Washington for Game Six.

Before the series, I wasn't alone in thinking this series would go seven. Now that looks like a definite possibility. Assuming Arenas is out again, the Wizards are going to need more than the eight points that they got from Antawn Jamison on Wednesday. The Cavs and Wizards are pretty evenly matched. As hotly contested as the series has been, a Game Seven is the only thing that will do it justice.

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

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