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May 9, 2012
Playoff Prospectus
Too Little, Too Late

by Kevin Pelton

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Denver 102, at L.A. Lakers 99 (L.A. Lakers lead 3-2)
Pace: 92.3
Offensive Ratings: Denver 110.8, L.A. Lakers 106.9

During the Kobe Bryant era, the Los Angeles Lakers have a well-earned reputation for having a switch they turn on and off. This year's team hasn't quite shown the same tendency, if only because the Lakers have not been so dominant they can afford to coast. With a chance to close out the Denver Nuggets and secure valuable rest, however, Team Lightswitch reared its ugly head during Tuesday's Game Six. After struggling for 40-plus minutes, the Lakers tried to pack a comeback into the final seven minutes. Crazier still, they damn near did it.

Four times in the final minute, the Lakers had a shot to tie the game. None of them went in. The Lakers can hardly bemoan their bad fortune, given the number of impossible, ill-advised shots Bryant had to make just to get them in position to tie. He made triples on three consecutive possessions and four in a span of four minutes as the Lakers went on a 17-6 run. Alas, Bryant was lacking a finishing kick. He missed a shot in the paint that would have tied it, then forced a three that rattled out and finally missed a three over Arron Afflalo in the closing seconds. The best look the Lakers got in the final 30 seconds was Ramon Sessions' second chance just before the buzzer, but it too missed. Thus the Nuggets get to go home one more time with a chance to force Game Seven.

In fairness to Bryant, his switch was on all game. He scored double figures in each of the last three quarters, totaling 43 for the game on 37 shooting possessions. The Lakers' issues were elsewhere. Andrew Bynum was invisible at both ends much of the night. He scored 16 points, but attempted just eight shots from the field as Denver did a good job of taking away his paint catches. Pau Gasol shot just 4-of-11 from the field. Sessions was 3-of-12 and Matt Barnes, continuing a series-long trend, missed nine of his 14 shot attempts. (That Barnes tried 14 shots is a topic all its own.)

Also in fairness, the Nuggets were pretty good in their own right. McGee delivered a continuation of his impressive Game Three, causing problems for the Lakers with his length. He extended for offensive rebounds, finished in traffic and contested shots. McGee had 21 points and 14 rebounds, six of them offensive, in the most important performance of his career. While Al Harrington missed all seven of his shot attempts, the Denver bench brigade also featured Andre Miller controlling the game in the second half. Miller scored 17 points in 16 minutes after halftime, needing just eight shots and two trips to the free throw line. Miller was the Nugget who responded to Bryant's heroics, calmly coming up with the scores Denver needed to maintain a working margin.

One key difference for the Lakers was the clock striking midnight on Jordan Hill's impressive series. Hill was scoreless with five rebounds in 20 minutes, during which Denver outscored the Lakers by 13 points. Hill at least played enough to keep either Bynum or Gasol from logging 40 minutes. However, Bryant played 43--including the entire second half--and could have used the extra couple of days off before a possible series with resting Oklahoma City more than anyone. Instead, the Lakers are headed back to play at altitude once again with a chance of this becoming anybody's series./p>

at Atlanta 87, Boston 86 (Boston leads 3-2)
Pace: 83.9
Offensive Ratings: Atlanta 106.4, Boston 100.0

With no margin for error, Atlanta Hawks coach Larry Drew pulled out all the stops to try to extend his team's season Tuesday night at home. It proved enough--barely.

Drew rode his starters about as much as possible, playing everyone but Marvin Williams more than 40 minutes. Josh Smith played 46, and he, Joe Johnson and Jeff Teague were on the floor the entire second half. Drew tried four reserves, but found none of them but Kirk Hinrich (seven points on 3-of-4 shooting) effective--and Hinrich didn't play after halftime. Barely two minutes into the fourth quarter, Drew had gone back to his new starting five, including Al Horford two games removed from a four-month absence with a torn pectoral muscle. All Horford was asked to do was play 41 minutes, defend Kevin Garnett and serve as a focal point of the Atlanta offense.

Adding another option helped Drew give the Hawks' attack more balance late in the game. To the extent we saw Iso-Joe, it came largely after a pick-and-roll had forced the Boston Celtics to switch into a less favorable defensive matchup. Johnson was able to get to the basket at times, and we also saw other combinations, like an effective Teague-Horford pick-and-roll that resulted in Horford scoring at the rim.

Yet Atlanta still had to sweat out a final possession after turning the ball over on an inbound pass. That gave the Celtics the basketball in a scramble situation with a chance to win and end the series, but after Horford switched onto Rajon Rondo on the perimeter, Rondo lost control of the dribble and passed the ball off the sideline as the clock ran out.

The Hawks' problem was too many of the lapses that have held them back throughout this season and this series. They seized control of the game in the third quarter only to allow Boston to sneak back within two after three quarters. Turnovers--18 in all--and poor shot selection, largely by Smith, created too many empty possessions.

At the same time, Atlanta could not have won without Smith's contributions at both ends of the floor. Such is the enigma of Smith and the Hawks. He was especially strong on the defensive glass, pulling down 12 of his 16 rebounds on defense. Smith also effectively found cutters from the high post, handing out six assists. Atlanta also benefited from a healthy Horford in the middle, which forces the Celtics to defend all five players on the floor and gives the Hawks size and athleticism defending the paint. Their presence in the lineup gives Atlanta a legitimate chance to steal Game Six Thursday in Boston and bring the series back home for a deciding game. That's all the Hawks can ask for right now.

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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