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April 21, 2011
Playoff Prospectus
The Empires Strike Back

by Bradford Doolittle

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at Oklahoma City 106, Denver 89 (Oklahoma City leads series 2-0)

Pace:89.1

Offensive Ratings:Oklahoma City 119.0, Denver 99.9

Few teams enjoy kind of energetic jolt that the Thunder gets from the raucous atmosphere at the Ford Center, and that advantage was on full display during Oklahoma City's first-half blitz. The Thunder sealed down the lane on the defensive end and while the Nuggets gamely tried to persist in attacking the paint, Oklahoma City's length forced a string of close-in misses and its athleticism--not to mention the roaring audience--led to easy offense out of transition. The Thunder forced nine first quarter turnovers, held a 6-0 edge on second chance points and a 12-4 edge in the paint. Early in the second quarter, Oklahoma City's lead bulged to 43-17.

The Nuggets was able to stem the tide somewhat not long after the Thunder built its game-high advantage. After George Karl's deep rotation was initially unable to make headway when the second units matched up, Denver crawled back in behind reserves Al Harrington and Ray Felton, who combined for 19 second quarter points. Denver committed just one turnover in the second frame, which served to slow down Oklahoma City's fastbreak. The Nuggets also had some success extending their defense and trapping at halfcourt. OKC committed five turnovers in the second frame, leading to nine Denver points. Unlike the first game, the Nuggets were doing a solid job on Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, who combined for 72 points in game one. However, James Harden scored 14 points and Serge Ibaka added 10 points and nine boards before halftime. The Nuggets knocked some off the big Thunder lead, but still trailed 59-44 at the break.

The game's pace slowed after halftime as the Thunder milked its advantage and prevented the Nuggets from ever making a sustained run. At one point early in the fourth quarter, Denver looked like it might be poised for a comeback bid, cutting the lead to 86-76 behind a two-point guard backcourt of Ty Lawson and Ray Felton. OKC was struggling for points at that juncture, so Durant took over the offense, scoring on a floater and a jumper, baskets sandwiched around a bad turnover by Denver's Wilson Chandler, who drove and tried to kick out to an open Harrington, but threw the ball out of bounds. From there, Denver renewed its focus on Durant, but that only freed Daequan Cook for a pair of crucial corner threes, and the Thunder cruised home with a reasonably easy win.

The big statistical disparity in the game came on the boards. The Thunder grabbed 17 of 43 offensive rebound chances and held a resounding 24-10 edge in second chance points. Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins combined for 23 boards, nine on the offensive end. Denver managed just five offensive rebounds in the game and OKC finished with an overall 54-31 edge off the glass. That's uncharacteristic for Denver which, despite a lack of brawn on its roster, was a much-improved rebounding team after the Carmelo Anthony trade. It was unfortunate because aside from the extra opportunities, the Nuggets played pretty well on defense.

The problem for Denver on Wednesday was on the other end. The post-Melo Nuggets had a 113.6 Offensive Rating (down from 114.3 with Anthony), but couldn't reach a point per possession on Wednesday. This may have been a game where the lack of a go-to scorer like Anthony was felt. As the Nuggets fell further and further into their first-half hole, they just couldn't establish any kind of offensive foundation. The team's assist percentage jumped from 68.7 percent with Melo to 75.9 percent without. On Wednesday, the Nuggets managed just 12 assists on 27 field goals. They were unable to maintain a consistent tempo, which tends to happen at playoff time. In Game Three, Karl will hope a return home gives the Nuggets the boost they need to get their high-octane attack back in gear.

at San Antonio 93, Memphis 87 (Series tied 1-1)

Pace:94.5

Offensive Ratings:San Antonio 98.4, Memphis 92.1

On the same day the Grizzlies handed a multi-year contract extension to Zach Randolph, the Grizzlies sought to double its all-time number of playoff wins and put the top-seeded Spurs in a desperate situation. It could have been a red-letter day in franchise history. They damned near pulled it off, and even though San Antonio evened the series, Gregg Popovich has to feel pretty antsy as the teams to Memphis for the next two games. The Spurs' Game Two win wasn't pretty, but Popovich will take it.

The Spurs won with the kind of defense Popovich's teams have always been known for, but haven't really played much of this season. The Grizzlies managed a paltry .415 eFG% and didn't make the kind of huge dent on the offensive glass for which Memphis has become known. Yet, this was still anyone's game in the final minutes. Several times in the game, San Antonio put together runs that threatened to put Grizzlies out of the game but each time, Memphis crawled back in.

Early on, the Grizzlies were more or less single-covering the Spurs in the post, opting to stick with San Antonio's shooters as much as possible. The strategy paid off, as the Spurs hit just two first-half threes and didn't take over in the paint. Unfortunately, Memphis couldn't score consistently enough to build a sizable lead. Tim Duncan had just three first-half shots, but the Spurs did a much better job playing inside-out in the third quarter. Duncan got six shots and though he hit just two, it helped to soften things up on the perimeter. Memphis was bringing an extra guy at Duncan once he put the ball on the floor and began making a move towards the basket. San Antonio also sealed off the defensive glass in the third quarter, grabbing all 11 of its chances on that end, which led to 11 fastbreak points. The Spurs took a one-point lead into the fourth quarter.

In the final period, it was simply a matter of the Spurs getting better shots than the Grizzlies, mostly as a result of superior ball movement. Memphis' Tony Allen, Mike Conley and Sam Young were all attacking the lane, but the Grizzlies had too many possessions terminating in contested perimeter shots. Particularly guilty was O.J. Mayo, who shot 2-of-8 in the second half. The Spurs got a big lift from George Hill, who scored nine of his 16 points in the fourth quarter. San Antonio also finally shook loose some perimeter shooters, getting key threes from Hill, Matt Bonner and Richard Jefferson, the latter coming on a haphazard defensive sequence from Shane Battier.

The Grizzlies also mismanaged the clock in the last minute. After Allen's steal and layup brought Memphis within 89-84 with :42.5 to play, the Grizzlies opted to lay back on defense and hope for a stop. They got it--Tony Parker missed a jumper--but by the time Memphis rebounded the ball and called time out, just 19.6 seconds remained. Sam Young hit a three to bring the Grizzlies within two, but with just 14.4 seconds to play, Memphis had to go into foul-and-pray mode. Hill closed out the win with four free throws in the waning seconds.

The Grizzlies are on the right track, they just need to be more patient on offense and not fall into the trap of trying to break down the Spurs off the dribble so often. Move the ball, find a shooter, play inside-out. Randolph and Marc Gasol combined for just 7-of-23 shooting. Lionel Hollins needs more shots and a higher percentage from that duo. San Antonio needs to clean up the turnovers--the Spurs committed 19 in the game, four more than the Grizzlies. Strangely enough, San Antonio still managed to enjoy a sizable edge in points off those turnovers, to the tune of 26-13.

at L.A. Lakers 87, New Orleans 78 (Series tied 1-1)

Pace:84.4

Offensive Ratings:L.A. Lakers 103.1, New Orleans 92.5

After the Lakers were decimated by Chris Paul in Game One, Kobe Bryant had a simple solution: "Let me guard him." For most of the night, Bryant chased, held and beat on Paul and the result was a defensive clampdown by the defending champs and a 1-1 series tie as the drama shifts to what promises to be a revved-up Crescent City.

Paul was still good, still easily New Orleans' most-effective player, but he was unable to dictate the action like he had in the series opener. His 20 points and nine assists were respectable totals, but for the Hornets to have a shot at upsetting the Lakers, they'll need totals more like the 33 and 14 Paul posted on Sunday. Los Angeles strategy was successful, but it also made for kind of an ugly basketball game.

Bryant scored just 11 points on 3-of-10 shooting, as Phil Jackson opted to pound the ball inside to his big men again and again and again. Pau Gasol had another poor contest, shooting 2-of-10 and failing to grab a defensive rebound in over 36 minutes of action. However, Lamar Odom and, especially, Andrew Bynum were terrific. The two combined for 33 points and 18 rebounds and Bynum was instrumental in closing off the lane. The Lakers finished with a 50-32 edge in points in the paint.

This was a slow-paced game, but the Lakers successfully ran selectively, holding a 14-5 edge on second-chance points. After committing just three turnovers in Game One, the Hornets handed the all over 16 times on Wednesday, leading to 22 Laker points. It wasn't Paul--he committed just one miscue. If the Hornets are to steal another game in this series, Paul needs his supporting cast to at least play mistake-free basketball. If the Lakers have to remove Kobe Bryant from their offense in order to let him focus on containing Paul, all the Hornets have to do is take care of the ball, hit open shots and hope their hometown fans can help them maintain the homecourt advantage they seize in the Game One upset.

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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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