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April 23, 2011
Playoff Prospectus
Celtics, Lakers Flex Muscle

by Bradford Doolittle

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Boston 113, at New York 96 (Boston leads series 3-0)
Pace: 93.5
Offensive Ratings: Boston 120.9, New York 102.7

In every locker room before every NBA game, the coach's game plan is summarized on a dry erase board. It's out there in the open, usually, for all to see and sometimes you can even understand the coach-scratch and esoteric symbols. (The Bulls, by the way, began covering their dry erase board early in the season by drawing a black curtain across it as soon as the locker room opens to the media. That crazy Tom Thibodeau.) On Friday, an NBA media figure Tweeted that on top of the Knicks' pregame board were written the words, "Stop Rondo in transition." (I'm not mentioning the reporter because I went back and checked and the Tweet was deleted. Perhaps that's because teams don't really like reporters to reveal what's on those boards. Or perhaps I am misremembering the author of said Tweet. Either is a possibility.) Well, the Knicks didn't stop Rondo in transition, the halfcourt nor in any other phase of Friday's rout, and the Celtics now have New York squarely on the brink.

It was a disappointing outcome for a revved-up crowd at Madison Square Garden, who hadn't see the Knicks win a home playoff game in exactly 10 years. After Rondo's all-around brilliance and the twin offensive explosions from Boston's Paul Pierce and Ray Allen, Spike Lee and his brethren are still waiting. Rondo orchestrated the ultra-efficient Boston attack with a triple-double, a description that does not do justice to his 15-point, 11-rebound, 20-assist masterpiece.

According to basketball-reference, those benchmarks have been hit in the same game just four times in the regular season since 1985-86: Magic Johnson, Rod Strickland, Jamaal Tinsley and Lafayette Lever matched Rondo's Friday numbers, with Tinsley's decade-old showing up as the most recent. In the postseason, only Johnson hit those numbers during the last quarter century, putting up an almost identical line in the Lakers' last game against the Bulls in the 1991 Finals, Magic's last game before his first retirement. So that was some pretty heady territory Rondo entered on Friday.

Rondo had plenty of help from his wings, as Pierce and Allen combined for 70 points on 25-of-37 shooting, and made a combined 14-of-19 from behind the arc. It was like a repeating loop of Lee's worst nightmare. Rondo penetrates, Pierce and Allen come off of pin-down screens by Kevin Garnett or Big Baby Davis or Jermaine O'Neal, Rondo finds his shooter after drawing the defense, his shooter swishes a three. Boston blew the game open with a 34-19 third quarter that silenced the MSG crowd. Rondo had six points, four rebounds and seven assists in that quarter alone. Pierce and Allen combined for 18 of their points, shooting 4-of-5 from downtown in the third.

At the other end, the Celtics had the Knicks scrambling for open shots. Amar'e Stoudemire played despite his balky back. He looked stiff and tentative. (Reports today are that the back is even worse and Stoudemire is questionable for Game Five.) He hit just two shots from the field, one a spin move in the lane, the other a short jumper off a Carmelo Anthony assist. Anthony played hard--you have to give him credit for that--but couldn't find any room to breathe against a vintage Celtics defensive performance.

Anthony shot just 4-of-16 from the floor. With Anthony struggling and Stoudemire diminished, the Knicks had nowhere to turn, especially with Chauncey Billups sitting again because of his injured knee. Just to show you how skiwampus the Knicks' attack was, consider this: After Anthony, the Knicks' highest number of field-goal attempts came from Shawne Williams and Jared Jeffries. We knew the Knicks would be thin after the haul they gave up to get Anthony, and we're seeing the consequences of that with a couple of New York's frontliners ailing. In any event, the Knicks' offense would have been hard-pressed to match Boston's 1.2 points-per-possession average for the game. Part of it was simply bad luck--Boston had just 24 points in the paint--but a lot of it was because of poor rotations and lackluster close-outs.

L.A. Lakers 100, at New Orleans 86 (Los Angeles leads series 2-1)
Pace: 82.1
Offensive Ratings: Los Angeles 121.7, New Orleans 104.7

You don't win back-to-back titles in the NBA without being able to win in the playoffs using differing styles of play. The Lakers lost Game One against New Orleans in a contest that surprisingly favored the offense of both teams. They won Game Two by moving Kobe Bryant onto Chris Paul, pounding the ball inside on offense and taking a slug-it-out defensive affair. The Lakers found a healthy balance in Game Three, re-taking homecourt advantaged with a fine all-around performance against the Hornets on both ends of the court.

Bryant didn't play nearly as much as Paul's primary defender, instead opting to put up a classic Kobe Bryant offensive playoff performance. Bryant put up an efficient 30 points and received plenty of support from his big-man trio of Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum and Lamar Odom as the Lakers put up a series-best Offensive Rating. Gasol's return to form is receiving most of the press today, as it should. After shooting a combined 4-of-19 in the first two games, Gasol scored 17 points on 7-of-13 shooting, even hitting a key three-pointer in the fourth quarter, just his second trey of the season.

At the other end, Chris Paul put up a solid line of 22 points and eight assists, shooting 9-of-13 from the floor. However, as I said in my recap of Game Two, the Hornets have got to get more than that from Paul to have any chance. It looked like they were going to get just that in the first half, when Paul scored 18 points. However, Derek Fisher did a great job of denying the ball from Paul in the second half, during which the star point guard managed just four points on 1-of-3 shooting. New Orleans' frontcourt did its best to keep the Hornets close, getting 18 points after halftime from Carl Landry and 10 points from Emeka Okafor. However, the Hornets need Paul to dictate the action and tempo of the game, or else they are sunk.

There is one play type which the Hornets really need to clean up on the defensive end. Well, that and finding somebody who can man up with Bryant in isolation sets. (Good luck with that.) The Lakers had all sorts of success with a simple give-and-go play, in which the ball was dumped down into the post and the passer cut hard along the baseline, rubbing off his defender with the post player, who then dropped the ball to the cutter for a dunk. According the MySynergy Sports, the Lakers scored nine points on four hand-offs, turning the scoreboard every time they tried the play. Frankly, it seemed like more.

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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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