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April 30, 2009
Playoff Prospectus
The Nuggets Advance

by Kevin Pelton

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Atlanta 106, Miami 91 (Atlanta leads series 3-2)
Pace: 77.8
Offensive Ratings: Atlanta 134.6, Miami 118.4

Three days ago, the Atlanta Hawks were holding playoff meetings and trying to reclaim home-court advantage. Now, having won the last two games in convincing fashion, the Hawks are a win away from advancing.

Neither the final score nor the shooting percentages do justice to the quality of Atlanta's performance on offense. The Hawks shot an unexceptional 48.6 percent from the field and were 5-for-19 on threes, but they did everything else on offense extraordinarily well: 12 offensive rebounds in 36 missed shots, 41 trips to the free-throw line and six turnovers. The last category looked like it was going to stand out even more before Atlanta committed two turnovers in the final two minutes with the game long in hand. The Miami defense was so overwhelmed that Erik Spoelstra briefly went to a zone to little effect.

Joe Johnson did most of the damage at the line, attempting 15 free throws. The Hawks benefited from one of Flip Murray's efficient nights, which saw him score 23 points on 9-for-15 shooting, playing heavy minutes at point guard.

Yet the night still left Atlanta with a potentially devastating loss: Al Horford spraining his right ankle in the second quarter when he landed hard after a foul. The early reports have Horford unlikely to return in this series. Zaza Pachulia is a capable replacement, having played most of the last two games with Horford in foul trouble in Game Four. The concern is that the Hawks are down to six regular-season rotation guys with Marvin Williams also sidelined, forcing Mike Woodson to go deep into his bench for Mario West and Solomon Jones. Jones was unimpressive from what I saw of him, struggling defensively against pick-and-rolls involving Dwyane Wade.

Wade's strong third quarter (17 points) was the most encouraging sign for the Heat. Miami put together a strong offensive night even without the outside shooting that carried the team in Games Two and Three. Alas, much of the damage came far too late, and the Heat's defensive meltdown was somewhat mystifying. Who knows, based on the way this series has played out, what to expect from Miami in an elimination game back at home on Friday.

Denver 107, New Orleans 86 (Denver wins series 4-1)
Pace: 89.8
Offensive Ratings: Denver 120.0, New Orleans 95.1

The guys on Inside the NBA were cracking jokes about the Nuggets celebrating too boisterously (a funny claim coming from Charles Barkley and Chris Webber, who--with all due respect--were not exactly known for postseason success). I understand the whole argument about acting like you belong and expecting to win, but come on. It's been a decade and a half since Denver won a playoff series. Go ahead and enjoy it.

When the Nuggets are on--as they were the vast majority of this series--few teams play with more joie de vivre, especially a bench led by the excitable Chris Andersen and J.R. Smith. Smith showed off the whole package in the second half, hitting threes and driving to finish with dunks. Is there any doubt he took a little extra pleasure in eliminating the coach (Byron Scott) who all but wrote him off after his sophomore season? Smith was brilliant during the series, averaging 16.0 points and hitting better than 50 percent of his threes over the final four games. There also had to be a measure of satisfaction for the new coach (George Karl) who dealt with Smith's oft-maddening play and made advantage of his skills.

The other happiest man in the Pepsi Center was Carmelo Anthony, who has seen the Nuggets lose in the first round five straight years since he arrived in Denver. Anthony played a strong, balanced series, and capped it with 34 points.

The Nuggets were an afterthought in almost everyone's eyes despite capturing the Western Conference's second seed, but their play in this series has gotten noticed. If Denver plays at this high level, the Lakers might just have some competition in the West.

As for the Hornets, you can't say they didn't compete. They led after one quarter and were it in until the Nuggets pulled away in the third quarter, as they did in all three games in this series played in the Mile High City. On some level, it might have been more encouraging going forward if New Orleans had quit. Effort can be changed; talent level is much more static, and suddenly it looks like the Hornets are well behind the rest of the league in that regard.

I've written extensively on this site about the problems caused by mid-level contracts, and while everyone points to the addition of James Posey last summer, Morris Peterson is also making that mid-level money, and he played a grand total of 21 minutes in this series. With major luxury-tax concerns, it's difficult to see how New Orleans is going to improve the supporting cast around Chris Paul besides getting a healthy Tyson Chandler (who finally gave up the charade and sat this one out) back in the lineup.

Paul saw an outstanding season end in miserable fashion, looking tired and beat up and out of sorts. He had 12 points, 10 assists and six rebounds, but even those figures seem to overstate his impact. David West and James Posey had good games, but there wasn't nearly enough overall talent and the defense was unequal to the task with Hilton Armstrong and Sean Marks manning the middle.

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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