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Playoff Prospectus (04/24)

April 24, 2010
Playoff Prospectus
Topsy Turvy

by Bradford Doolittle


at Chicago 108, Cleveland 106 (Cleveland leads 2-1)

Pace: 92 possessions

Offensive Ratings: Bulls 118.0, Cavaliers 115.8

We came into the playoffs wondering how Cavaliers coach Mike Brown was going to divvy up the minutes among the bevy of big men on his roster. His response the second half of game two was to simply ignore all of them. During the fourth quarter, Shaquille O'Neal, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, J.J. Hickson and Anderson Varejao combined to play 4:20--all of them by Varejao, who managed to commit four fouls in his four minutes. Brown's small lineups led to a lot of interesting matchups down the stretch of a game that Chicago survived by staying efficient on the offensive end. That certainly has not been the Bulls' modus operandi this season.

Cleveland was clearly on cruise control as the game tipped off. The Bulls jumped to a 32-21 by the end of the first period and stretched that advantage to 21 points by the midway point of the third quarter. Derrick Rose scored 15 points on eight shots in the first period, as Chicago scored 1.4 points per possession while keeping the tempo fast, which is where it needs to be for the Bulls to keep the points coming. Kirk Hinrich and Luol Deng were both hitting from the perimeter as Chicago built its lead. Unfortunately, the trap of relying on jumpers has bitten the Bulls over and over this season, and it almost got them again.

With Chicago leading 68-47 in the third, the Bulls missed eight straight shots, seven of them jumpers. Meanwhile, the Cavs went on the attack, reeling of 13 straight points on seven free throws and a pair of treys. The Bulls became more aggressive, got some better shots and ran the floor, and maintained an 11-point edge at the end of the third quarter.

The fourth quarter was a matter of the Bulls hanging on by their collective fingernails. The Cavs scored again and again, putting up 38 points in the fourth quarter and averaging 1.6 points per possession. LeBron James was 6-of-7 in the last quarter and added five assists, accounting for 23 points all by himself. Cleveland played most of the quarter with a small lineup--James, Mo Williams, Antawn Jamison, Anthony Parker and Delonte West. The Cavs launched 15 three-point shots in the period and 35 for the game.

The Bulls withstood the barrage by converting on their own end. Chicago put up a .594 eFG% in the last quarter and scored 10 points from the free-throw line. Rose had 11 points, while Hinrich added nine. Fed up with watching Rose breaking down his team off the dribble, James took it upon himself to switch over to Rose on the defensive end. Rose looked a little overmatched against the one 6'8" player in the league that can keep up with him athletically. The move almost paid off with a miraculous comeback for the Cavs. The Bulls missed four free throws in the last minute and the Cavs twice had the ball with a chance to tie, including Parker's 45-foot heave at the buzzer.

Rose and Hinrich combined for 58 points in the game, while Deng added 20. This season, the Bulls have rarely been as efficient on offense as they were on Thursday, but they've now posted a 118.0 Offensive Rating in two straight games. Have they just been hot, or have they figured something out? The Cleveland backcourt isn't a great one defensively and the Bulls have exploited that. However, any regression on the shooting front will be fatal for Chicago, which hasn't been able to slow down the Cleveland offense. James was a little slow to assert himself in game three and he probably won't let that happen in Sunday's game four. His success against Rose might also result in James moving over to check the jet-fast point guard for more than the last few possessions of the game.

You have to wonder if Brown is still feeling his way in terms of his playoff rotation. He's going to need his bigs at some point, but the Cavs were much more effective going small on Thursday. O'Neal looks like a player with a gigantic fork sticking out of his back and the Cavs floundered while he was on the floor. They were even worse when Ilgauskas played. Brown is trying to figure out how to skirt the line between deploying a high-octane offensive unit while still managing to keep enough size on the floor to get a few stops on the other end. A player who might help him strike a nice medium in that regard is Hickson, who has about 30 second per game so far in the series.

at Oklahoma City 101, L.A. Lakers 96 (Lakers lead series 2-1)

Pace: 87 possessions

Offensive Ratings: Thunder 116.7, Lakers 111.0

Faced with the prospect of Oklahoma's first playoff experience turning into a brief encounter, the Thunder responded with a spirited second half that made you want to be right there in the Ford Center, just to soak up the energy. After going 4-of-17 in the first three quarters, Kevin Durant finally broke loose in the fourth. Durant had 12 points on seven shots in the final frame. Durant also switched over to defend Kobe Bryant down the stretch and clearly gave the veteran superstar fits. Durant and Russell Westbrook scored 22 of Oklahoma City's 27 points in the final quarter.

The Lakers jumped up to an early 15-3 lead and hit their first seven shots. Despite having 17 shots blocked in game two (I mean, wow, 17 shots!), L.A. attacked the interior of the Thunder defense to great effect, going 6-of-8 from the paint in the first quarter. Andrew Bynum was 4-of-4 in that first frame. However, the Lakers not only failed to blow out to a huge lead despite having the anxious Thunder on its heels, but OKC stormed back to close within five points by the period's end. Rookie James Harden, who struggled in the first two games of the series, was huge in helping the Thunder settle down, hitting all three of his shots after coming in for the quarter's last five minutes, two of them from three-point range.

Thus began a see-saw battle that saw the Lakers maintain a tenuous advantage until the last minute of the third quarter. With L.A. up eight, Westbrook exploded to the hoop for a dunk. Shannon Brown missed a three, Durant took the board, pushed up the floor with the dribble, and kicked over to Harden for a three. Derek Fisher missed another three, Durant rebounded again, dribbled up the floor and pulled up for a straight-on three. Game tied. Crowd dancing around like the cult of Dionysus. L.A. escaped the period with a 75-74 lead, but the Thunder entered the last quarter riding a crest wave.

The Lakers managed to re-take the battle for tempo in the final quarter, limiting OKC to a single transition basket. (The Thunder outscored L.A. 23-7 on fast breaks in the game.) While Durant and Westbrook were keeping the scoreboard turning for the Thunder, the Lakers flailed for points down the stretch. Bryant was 2-of-10 in the final quarter. The difficulty the long Durant gave him was particularly evident on one play, when Bryant had Durant sized up just outside the top of the key. He drove the left side of the lane, faked, then spun into one of his patented baseline fadeaways. Durant just reached up and flicked it away. This was the first game I've ever watched Bryant and thought he was being outclassed as athlete. It's wasn't so much a passing of the baton--that occurred a few months ago. This was just the first time most of the country had a chance to witness it first-hand. Also, the voters for the NBA's Defensive Player of the Year Award, who omitted Durant entirely, got a nice demonstration of what they overlooked. Durant wasn't the DPOY, but there were a bunch of players that received votes that can only dream of doing what Durant does on the defensive end.

You have to think the Lakers will come out focused and ready to put these young upstarts from Oklahoma to bed in Saturday's game four. These are the champs, after all, and Bryant in particular has become a legend through his ability to step up to the biggest of challenges. He was 10-of-29 overall in game three, and Thunder coach Scott Brooks probably isn't counting on that happening again. It's unclear how much Durant will guard Bryant going forward; if you go to the matchup too early, you risk getting your best player in foul trouble. However, look for this matchup to recur if Bryant goes on a roll. We'll see how Durant fares when Bryant's stroke is working.

Harden's emergence--he scored 18 points after going scoreless in the first two games--was a huge development for the Thunder, who need a perimeter threat to keep Ron Artest from grinding up Durant in the halfcourt, with plenty of traffic packed into the lane behind him. However, Harden has to come out firing in game four to keep that from happening. We have to keep OKC's win in perspective. As well as they played in the last three quarters of the third game, as rabid as the crowd was at the Ford Center, as poorly as Bryant shot the ball, the Thunder still won by just five points. At the same time, Durant was just 8-of-24 from the floor, after games of 7-of-24 and 12-of-26. He's yet to really go off in this series, and that may be the worst news of all for the Lakers. Game four is shaping up to be one of the best early-round games so far of the spring. We'll know by Sunday morning if we have a series.

G3: Oklahoma City 101, L.A. Lakers 96 (Lakers lead 2-1)
LAL  27  23  25  21 -   96
OKC  22  21  31  27 -  101
LAL          Pace  oRTG  eFG%  oREB% FT/FGA  TO%  TCHS
First Quarter  21  128.9  .614  .100  .000  .048  5.84
Second Quarter 22  102.6  .455  .214  .136  .134  4.26
Third Quarter  22  114.2  .525  .200  .200  .091  4.23
Fourth Quarter 21   98.8  .450  .083  .150  .094  4.99
FIRST HALF     43  115.3  .534  .167  .068  .092  5.05
SECOND HALF    43  106.6  .488  .167  .175  .048  4.61
FINAL          87  111.0  .512  .152  .119  .092  4.83
OKC          Pace  oRTG  eFG%  oREB% FT/FGA  TO%  TCHS
First Quarter  21  105.0  .425  .357  .250  .191  5.38
Second Quarter 22   93.6  .300  .273  .450  .089  3.54
Third Quarter  22  141.6  .522  .385  .304  .046  5.10
Fourth Quarter 21  127.0  .618  .125  .353  .094  3.71
FIRST HALF     43   99.1  .363  .320  .350  .138  4.46
SECOND HALF    43  134.4  .563  .240  .325  .037  4.40
FINAL          87  116.7  .463  .304  .338  .104  4.43

G3: at Chicago 108, Cleveland 106 (Cavaliers lead 2-1)
CLE  21  24  23  38 - 106
CHI  32  24  23  29 - 108
CLE          Pace  oRTG  eFG%  oREB% FT/FGA  TO%  TCHS
First Quarter  23   92.1  .429  .231  .143  .175  4.33
Second Quarter 24  101.6  .523  .083  .045  .042  4.51
Third Quarter  21  110.5  .433  .231  .667  .144  3.57
Fourth Quarter 24  156.6  .667  .636  .250  .206  8.04
FIRST HALF     46   96.9  .477  .160  .093  .108  4.42
SECOND HALF    45  135.3  .577  .400  .410  .092  5.83
FINAL          92  115.8  .524  .286  .244  .142  5.11
CHI          Pace  oRTG  eFG%  oREB% FT/FGA  TO%  TCHS
First Quarter  23  140.3  .583  .222  .167  .000  5.23
Second Quarter 24  101.6  .438  .222  .125  .127  5.90
Third Quarter  21  110.5  .525  .100  .100  .048  4.49
Fourth Quarter 24  119.5  .594  .250  .625  .165  4.64
FIRST HALF     46  120.6  .510  .222  .146  .065  5.56
SECOND HALF    45  115.3  .556  .176  .333  .056  4.55
FINAL          92  118.0  .530  .194  .226  .087  5.07

Follow Bradford on Twitter at @bbdoolittle.

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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