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April 26, 2009
Playoff Prospectus
Momentum

by Kevin Pelton

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New Orleans 95, Denver 93 (Denver leads 2-1)
Pace: 89.2
Offensive Ratings: New Orleans 107.1, Denver 103.7

Sometimes, momentum comes from the strangest places. A little over seven minutes into Game Three, the New Orleans Hornets were on the mat and the count was starting. The visiting Denver Nuggets led 22-6, and the Hornets seemed lifeless and adrift. Enter James Posey and Sean Marks from the oft-maligned New Orleans bench. Posey caught fire from the perimeter while Marks provided the energy the Hornets had been missing (out-energizing Denver counterpart Chris Andersen, in a major upset). By quarter's end, New Orleans had gotten back within five. We had a game and, after the Hornets held off a late charge that briefly imperiled what had been a comfortable lead, a series.

The big difference was at the defensive end. At home, the Nuggets had scored at a rate of just about 125.0 points per 100 possessions. Yesterday, that was cut to just over 100. Denver still hit 42.9 percent from three-point range and got to the free-throw line 35 times, but the aggressiveness that translated into New Orleans fouls also helped hold the Nuggets to 39.6 percent accuracy on two-point shots. Chauncey Billups, a shadow of his Game One and Game Two self, was 1-for-6 on twos; J.R. Smith was 1-for-5 and Carmelo Anthony 9-for-22.

The surprising lift in the paint came from Marks, the Kiwi who has seen sparse playing time this season and who had played a grand total of three minutes in one playoff game in his career before yesterday. Vaulting Hilton Armstrong on the depth chart and seeing extra time because Chandler was in foul trouble all afternoon, Marks played 26 minutes and had eight points, six rebounds and two blocks. The Hornets were +18 during his minutes. Posey finished with 13 points and nine rebounds. Their production helped make up for the fact that David West (19 points on 7-for-18 shooting) had another uneven game and Peja Stojakovic (1-for-9 from the field for four points) could not get anything to fall.

Chris Paul also had his best game of the series, posting 32 points and 12 assists--though he did turn it over six times--and defending Chauncey Billups much of the game. George Karl went away from defensive specialist Dahntay Jones, who played 17 minutes. If that time is going to Smith to produce a more potent offense, that's one thing. Playing Anthony Carter 15 minutes, on the other hand, seems like a stretch. We'll see if Jones gets more time to help quiet Paul in Game Four.

Dallas 99, San Antonio 90 (Dallas leads 3-1)
Pace: 86.9
Offensive Ratings: Dallas 113.1, San Antonio 104.2

Watching the final minutes of this game, it sure felt like San Antonio's season was on the line. Having come up short in their comeback bid, the Spurs will now have to win three straight against a Dallas team they have yet to demonstrate they can consistently outplay. Gregg Popovich's desperation after a blowout Game Three loss was evident in the changes he made, including starting Bruce Bowen and playing him 31 minutes. Rookie George Hill re-entered the rotation, while Drew Gooden was essentially buried in favor of smallball.

The result? The Spurs were still a two-man team on offense. Tony Parker was splendid, topping his Game Two effort with 43 points on 18-for-29 shooting. But while his penetration opened things up for his teammates in that easy win, this time the rest of the crew--save Tim Duncan, who had 25 points and got to the free-throw line 18 times, though he missed seven freebies--was unequal to the task. Matt Bonner was scoreless in 22 minutes; so too was Roger Mason in 17. Michael Finley was 1-for-5 from downtown and had seven points in 36 minutes. The bench save Hill combined for four points. Last year, San Antonio could get away with limited production from role players because three guys were scoring. Without Manu Ginobili, that's no longer the case. The hope was that Bonner and Mason would offer that production, but in this series they've come up empty.

The Mavericks were little more accurate in their shooting, in large part because Jason Terry suffered through a 3-for-17 shooting night and Dirk Nowitzki got just nine shot attempts. Improbably, it was the trio of non-Nowitzki big men who kept the Dallas offense on track. Brandon Bass, Erick Dampier and Ryan Hollins combined for 14 points and 20 rebounds--10 of them offensive--in 55 minutes. The Mavericks had 14 offensive boards to San Antonio's six, and that was a major point of separation between the two teams.

The Spurs get to go home Tuesday, but I'm not sure where they go from here. Popovich has tried any number of different combinations the last two games to relatively little effect. If Bonner and Mason return to regular-season form, San Antonio has a chance to extend the series. If not, the Spurs are headed for their first opening-round exit since 2000.

Miami 107, Atlanta 78 (Miami leads 2-1)
Pace: 81.9
Offensive Ratings: Miami 133.7, Atlanta 93.0

Hot outside shooting is a beautiful thing. It turned a Miami offense that was painful to watch a week ago in Game One into yesterday's juggernaut. The Heat hit 12 three-pointers in 23 attempts, a total that is even more impressive when you consider the slow-paced nature of the game. Consider it this way: Better than one in seven trips downcourt for Miami resulted in a three. That's virtually impossible to counter, and exacerbated when the opponent isn't shooting particularly well either. Such was the case for Atlanta, and the result was our second blowout in three games of this series.

The Heat shot the ball successfully in Game Two as well; the funny thing is that Dwyane Wade was the only sharpshooter to carry over between the two games. Game Two star Daequan Cook hit two threes, but they were his only two field goals in 10 attempts. Instead, James Jones (a perfect 3-for-3 from downtown) and Mario Chalmers (3-for-6) joined Wade (4-for-8) in the threefest. The Miami big men contributed again, with Jermaine O'Neal continuing his revitalization with 22 points and 10 rebounds. Udonis Haslem (12 points, 13 boards) also recorded a double-double.

Atlanta's backcourt just could not get it going. Joe Johnson shot 5-for-17, and Mike Bibby (5-for-13) wasn't much better. They combined for six assists and seven turnovers. Not that Mike Woodson would have gone away from his starters, but he had few other choices. Flip Murray has shot the ball poorly in this series, and Maurice Evans had to step into the starting lineup in place of an injured Marvin Williams (wrist). That cut the Hawks' rotation to seven players.

After Game Two, I suggested Atlanta stay the course and pay more attention to Cook. That didn't exactly pay off, but I'm still not sure where wholesale changes would help the Hawks. They need to find a way to jump-start their offense, but there are worse ideas on the defensive end than just letting the Heat shoot. After all, Miami hit 35.7 percent from downtown in the regular season. Wade was a 31.7 percent three-point shooter; he's hit 45.8 percent in this series. Eventually, those shots have to stop falling...right?

L.A. Lakers 108, Utah 94 (Lakers lead 3-1)
Pace: 90.9
Offensive Ratings: L.A. Lakers 116.8, Utah 105.2

That Kobe Bryant was due for a big game was apparent early. Trying shots that would have been impossible for virtually anyone else, Bryant scored the Lakers' first 11 points en route to a 38-point night that saw him at his efficient best, making 16 of 24 shot attempts. Yet to focus on Bryant is to miss the role in the victory played by the rest of the Lakers, including the bench.

Bryant was actually sitting when the Lakers ripped off a 9-0 run to change momentum, getting back-to-back three-pointers from Luke Walton, Sasha Vujacic and Shannon Brown. He returned to help extend the spurt to 20-2. Thereafter, Utah made a push just before halftime, but it was a last hurrah. The Jazz managed just five points over the final 6:50 of the third quarter as the Lakers pulled away.

Walton, Vujacic and Brown combined for 28 points, and when the Lakers are getting production like that from the bench, they're very difficult to beat.

Utah got Mehmet Okur back in the lineup to little effect. Okur was scoreless in 13 minutes, and Utah was outscored by eight points in that span. Without contributions from Okur, and with Jarron Collins at the end of the bench, lack of size remained a major issue for the Jazz frontcourt. The team did itself no favors by missing 10 free throws. Though the Jazz's offense was decent overall, powered by Carlos Boozer and Deron Williams, Utah could not overcome the drought in the third quarter.

To make this series interesting, the Jazz needed to be perfect at home. Going on the road 3-1, it's hard to see Utah returning home without a total meltdown by the Lakers. Phil Jackson has to sell his team on the importance of closing this series out quickly and getting some rest heading into a more challenging semifinals series.

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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