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May 7, 2009

Playoff Prospectus: All Square

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Pelton @ 7:50 pm

First, a quick note that I’ll be chatting again on Baseball Prospectus tomorrow at 1 p.m. Eastern. By now, you should know the drill: If you can’t make it then, leave a question ahead of time and I’ll do my best to get to it. Plenty to talk about as we move toward Game 3s in all four series, with the last Game 2 tonight between Atlanta and Cleveland. Last night, Boston and the L.A. Lakers both won at home to even their matchups at one game apiece, but there was plenty of intrigue along the way that ended in suspensions for both Derek Fisher and Rafer Alston. By somehow forgetting to send in my Playoff Prospectus recaps last night, we can look at how their absences affect Friday’s games.

Boston 112, Orlando 94 (Series tied 1-1)
: 89.4
Offensive Ratings: Boston 124.1, Orlando 106.1

Eddie House? Eddie House. Eddie House!

The combustible Celtics’ reserve came up with one of the hottest streaks of his career at the right time Wednesday night, scoring at better than a point-per-minute pace and leading a Boston offense that put up 112 points in 90 possessions against the league’s best defense. House had 11 points in the second quarter, but he wasn’t anywhere close to done. Orlando was still hanging around, down 15 five minutes into the third when House returned to the game. He scored six straight points as the Celtics went on a 12-0. Later, House scored nine straight points, including a four-point play.

House would finish the game with 31 points on 16 shooting possessions, and that’s as good as you’re going to see. His production was key on a night where foul trouble limited Paul Pierce to 16 minutes and three points. The Celtics put House on the floor and used a three-guard lineup extensively to continue putting pressure on the Magic’s defense from the perimeter. With Rajon Rondo and Ray Allen also playing well and aggressively, Orlando had no answer.

Rondo in particular got back to the style of play that was so successful against Chicago. 13 of Rondo’s shot attempts came in the paint, and while he could have been more accurate finishing those looks (6-of-13 and 7-of-19 overall from the field), that opened up the passing lanes for Rondo’s 18 assists. He added 11 rebounds for his third triple-double of the postseason.

Doc Rivers ended up giving Brian Scalabrine extensive playing time, in part because he was the only big man Boston used off the bench but also partially to match up with Rashard Lewis. It was reasonably productive; the Celtics were +11 in Scalabrine’s minutes, and he scored just enough (eight points, including two threes) to keep the defense honest. Lewis scored 17 points in 17 shooting possessions on a night when the Magic needed more from him with Boston stifling Dwight Howard (12 points, 5-of-13 shooting).

Surprisingly, the most effective Orlando players on offense were J.J. Redick and Mickael Pietrus, who have responded so well in Courtney Lee‘s absence that I’m not sure how much the Magic has really missed the rookie shooting guard. Pietrus ended up at the free-throw line 14 times, granting that his production came mostly in garbage time, and scored 17 points. Redick was big in the early going, scoring 11 of his 15 points in the first quarter on the strength of a trio of three-pointers.

Late in the third quarter, Alston took umbrage to a perceived House elbow (the footage was unclear) in the wake of one of his perimeter makes. Stunningly, Alston responded by slapping House upside the head. He wasn’t ejected from the game, but Alston was suspended for Game 3 after the league office got a look at the play. Anthony Johnson was arguably more effective than Alston last night, putting up five points and seven assists in 18 turnover-free minutes off the bench, but asking Johnson to go a full 40 minutes or so against Rondo would be a lot, and third-stringer Tyronn Lue has yet to play in the postseason. A healthy Lee might be able to pick up some minutes at the point, getting Redick more time. No matter how you replace him, Alston would be a considerable loss.

As Stan Van Gundy prepares for Game 3, besides dealing with Alston’s availability, I would say his time should be spent primarily at the offensive end. House’s production will come and go. What is more disconcerting is the continued flat play from Lewis and Hedo Turkoglu. It would be too strong to say either guy has struggled in this series; it’s just that, if Howard isn’t going, the Magic needs better production from one player or both.

L.A. Lakers 111, Houston 98 (Series tied 1-1)
: 90.8
Offensive Ratings: L.A. Lakers 122.4, Houston 107.7

All of a sudden, we’ve got a very interesting series on our hands. In some ways, the Houston Rockets impressed me more in Game 2 than they did in stealing Game 1 on the road. It was easy to imagine the role rust played in the L.A. Lakers losing that game, but all the ingredients were there for a blowout last night, including foul trouble for Yao Ming and a vintage Kobe Bryant performance. Still, Houston made a game of it with gritty play. Add in the chippiness that developed in the second half, which resulted in both Fisher and Ron Artest hitting the showers early, and the quality of the matchups and this is looking like the best series of the second round.

Bryant came out on fire, motivated to bury an inefficient Game 1 effort. He knocked down five of his first six shots, scoring 10 points before the midpoint of the first quarter. Nothing changed in terms of Shane Battier‘s defense or the help offered by his Houston defense. Bryant is simply so good that when he’s on it does not matter what you do defensively. The entire Lakers offense was locked in during the first quarter, with Pau Gasol orchestrating things from the post, Fisher hitting from the perimeter and the team getting out in transition.

Credit the Rockets for weathering the opening-quarter onslaught and getting back in the game in the second quarter with four reserves on the floor alongside starting point guard Aaron Brooks. Both sides went small, Rick Adelman using point guards Brooks and Kyle Lowry together and shifting Von Wafer to the three. Phil Jackson put Jordan Farmar at the point, with Shannon Brown at the two and Sasha Vujacic at small forward. The key, however, was the play of Houston backup bigs Chuck Hayes and Carl Landry. Hayes went to work defensively against Pau Gasol despite a six-inch height disadvantage, while Landry was everywhere on the offensive end.

In the end, the Lakers had too much firepower, and a big reason why was Jackson’s move to get Lamar Odom back into the starting lineup in place of Andrew Bynum. Gasol proved perfectly capable of defending Yao in the post, while going smaller helped the Lakers get easy buckets in the open court and get improved ball movement in their half-court sets. Yao was also challenged to defend Gasol, and the lineup was a factor in Yao picking up fouls in rapid succession in the first three quarters.

The Rockets were left to exploit the matchup of Artest against smaller Trevor Ariza, forcing the Lakers to double-team and playing from there. Artest’s shot selection hasn’t necessarily been any better in this series than it was against Portland, but the looks are going down. He had 25 points on 8-of-14 shooting,  half of the makes from beyond the three-point line, despite calling it a night early after reacting angrily to a Bryant elbow that went undetected by the referees.

By that point, the game had already gotten somewhat out of hand. Luis Scola drew the Lakers’ ire late in the third quarter, jawing with Odom and Luke Walton in a play that drew technicals for all three players. The next trip down, Scola came up to set a screen on the ball. Fisher saw him coming and planted his shoulder in Scola’s chest, earning his own ejection.

Add in Wafer’s self-inflicted absence (he was sent to the showers after arguing with Adelman) and the matchups changed dramatically in the third and fourth quarters. This time, it was the Lakers’ bench that brought energy, which in concert with Bryant’s play helped the team maintain a comfortable lead.

Heading back home with a split, Houston will need to get more production from the starters besides Artest and Yao. Battier, tasked with chasing Bryant around for 40 minutes, is largely off the hook, but Brooks and Scola can do more. The Lakers did a much better job of containing Brooks, a task aided by Yao’s limited playing time. When he is out of the game, the Lakers are much more comfortable coming out to meet Brooks on his forays into the paint, which helped limit his shot attempts though it did open some things up for Landry. Nine of Brooks’ 15 shot attempts were threes, and that’s not going to work for an average spot-up shooter. Scola, meanwhile, was 5-for-14, and struggled to convert at the rim against the Lakers’ length up front.

At the same time, the Rockets played as well as could reasonably be expected on the road. Now they get to face a Lakers team minus one of its starters for Game 3. Farmar and Brown have split time at the point in this series, and neither has acquitted himself especially well. Brown has shown surprising ability to hit the open three-point look in the postseason, but Fisher’s absence will be felt in terms of his ability to get the ball in the right place on offense and steady the team in the face of a Houston run. You can praise his toughness, but what Fisher’s play lacked was his typical veteran intelligence. His absence could easily be the difference between a win and a loss on Friday night.

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