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April 27, 2008
Playoff Prospectus
Saturday's Games

by Bradford Doolittle and Kevin Pelton

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Lakers 102, Nuggets 84

The conventional storyline about this series has been that the potent L.A. Lakers offense will overwhelm an indifferent Denver Nuggets defense. That was true in the first two games in L.A., but Game Three broke the mold. Denver held the Lakers to 102 points in 97 possessions. That should be good enough for the Nuggets to win, but an offense that has been overrated all season long failed Denver, shooting 37.2% from the field and making just 25.0% from downtown.

The Lakers found a way to frustrate both Carmelo Anthony and Allen Iverson. The Nuggets All-Stars were held to a combined 31 points on 10-of-38 shooting. It was their second-lowest combined total of the season and just the fourth time all year that both players saw action and neither scored at least 20 points. Denver's supporting cast was unable to take advantage of the extra attention paid to Anthony and Iverson. Only Linas Kleiza (15 points on 5-of-9 shooting) had an effective offensive night.

Kobe Bryant was relatively quiet for the Lakers, scoring 22 points and handing out eight assists. Bryant missed seven of his eight attempts from downtown, but five Lakers scored in double figures and reserve guards Jordan Farmar and Sasha Vujacic added nine points apiece. Luke Walton continued his outstanding series, scoring 15 points, grabbing five rebounds and handing out five assists.

Beyond that, I'm at a loss for what to say about this series. There doesn't appear to be a lot George Karl can do to turn things around at this point. In terms of record, the gap between the Nuggets and Lakers was just seven games. On the court, however, the Lakers are clearly a cut above Denver, a gap large enough that the best the Nuggets can realistically hope for at this point is to salvage some pride by winning Game Four at home to avoid a sweep.

Jazz 86, Rockets 82

The Houston Rockets never give up. Written off when Yao Ming was lost for the season, written off after falling behind 2-0 in this series, with players hobbled and facing a raucous EnergySolutions Arena, the Rockets nearly pulled off the comeback Saturday in Utah. Houston may not win this series, but this team certainly has earned our respect.

Ultimately, assuming the Jazz finishes out this series, the Rockets will look back with regret at offensive rebounds that proved the difference in two Utah wins in this series. In Game Two, it was Andrei Kirilenko giving Kyle Korver a second look at the basket. Last night, Mehmet Okur came up with the loose ball in the paint after Deron Williams missed two late free throws with the Jazz clinging to a two-point lead. Okur then stepped to the line and hit both shots to seal the victory.

In Yao's absence, the Rockets have to work hard to get scores. Add in the energy the team expends on the defensive end of the floor, and you have the recipe for extended scoring droughts. Houston got no field goals during a seven-minute stretch from late in the first half through early in the third quarter. The Rockets then went six minutes without a score early in the fourth period.

As usual, Houston was able to stay in the game with defense. The potent Utah offense managed just 86 points in 85 possessions. In part, the Rockets did benefit from improbably poor Jazz perimeter shooting. Utah missed all 14 of its attempts from downtown, including 0-for-6 shooting from marksman Kyle Korver.

The Jazz did get the best offensive effort of the series from Okur, who scored 14 points on 6-of-11 shooting. Okur also grabbed a game-high 18 boards and has averaged 13.3 rebounds per game so far in the postseason. Point guard Deron Williams was quiet much of the night, but came up with eight fourth-quarter points, including critical back-to-back buckets with three minutes left and the Rockets within five.

Rockets rookie Carl Landry continues to be a revelation. In 31 minutes of action, Landry had 13 points, six rebounds (all of them offensive) and nine free-throw attempts. On a less positive note, Bobby Jackson was abysmal, missing nine of his 10 shot attempts. In the series, he's hit just 28.8% from the field and 3-of-20 from three-point range. Jackson's ability to create shots is important off the bench, but rookie Aaron Brooks is also a creator who would give the Rockets more energy and, presumably, better shooting.

Going into Game Five, Jerry Sloan's message to his team is sure to focus on the importance of closing this series out and getting ready for a likely semifinals matchup with the Lakers. With L.A. one win away from a sweep over Denver, the Jazz doesn't want to see this series drag on to a sixth game. Unfortunately, Utah can't count on the Rockets giving up even with the odds against them.

--K.P.

Magic 106, Raptors 94

The Orlando/Toronto series has been all about defending the perimeter. The team that has done the better job of that has generally been the team to win.

In Saturday's Game Four, Orlando shut down the Raptors' perimeter game, holding Toronto to a .446 eFG%. Meanwhile, the Magic used a drive-and-kick attack to perfection, hitting a .567 eFG% and knocking down 11-for-29 beyond the arc, compared to Toronto's anemic 2-for-15 showing. Jason Kapono played 34 minutes for Toronto, never a good sign for a team's defense. The Raptors ran their offense through Kapono for much of the second half, which stunted their ball movement on offense as well as weakening their defense. Kapono is strictly a three-point specialist and should be used as such. When he's overexposed, as he was on Saturday, it's tough to overcome.

The game was closer than the final margin indicates, as Orlando pulled away in the last couple of minutes. Toronto led by a point going into the fourth quarter, but the Magic's Jameer Nelson went on a tear, scoring 12 of his 19 points in the last period, including one stretch of 10 straight. Rashard Lewis had his best game of the playoffs with 27 points, 13 rebounds and five assists. And of course, Dwight Howard anchored the middle with 19 points, 16 boards and a franchise playoff record eight blocked shots.

Toronto's defense really seemed to sag after Jamario Moon went down with a groin injury in the third quarter. Sam Mitchell tried to patch the hole with Carlos Delfino. While the rangy Delfino can get up in a shooter's face, he was repeatedly beaten off the dribble and ultimately fouled out.

The Raptors' point guard saga took a downturn after shining in Game Three. T.J. Ford has 12 points and 13 assists in 30 minutes but was torched by Nelson during Orlando's decisive 33-20 fourth quarter. Meanwhile, Jose Calderon was just 1-of-7 from the floor in 21 minutes.

The Toronto bench wasn't as sharp on Saturday, posting an aggregate game score of 40 to Orlando's 27 after a 64-4 margin in Game Three, mostly due to the bad outing from Calderon. Keith Bogans had 12 points and 3 three-pointers to lead the Orlando reserves.

Toronto's Chris Bosh was magnificent in the loss. He went 16-of-26 from the floor, scoring 39 points with 15 rebounds in the game. When the component parts of the Raptors' game break down, as they did in the fourth quarter Saturday, Toronto can look like a one-man team. Bosh is an excellent player, but he needs to get his production within the team concept for Toronto to be successful. That's in no way a knock on Bosh's performance, which was wonderful. That's a knock on his teammates, who didn't move the ball nor hit their open looks nor cut off Orlando's dribble penetration.

Next up is Game Five in Orlando, with the Magic having an opportunity to close out the series. What can Mitchell do to get the series back to Toronto? I would consider going really small and pushing the tempo. With two fleet-footed distributors at lead guard, the Raptors can up the pace and sustain it more ably than Orlando can. They have to try to wear out Dwight Howard by making him run the floor and by making him guard someone on the perimeter who is taking the ball to the hoop and trying to get him into foul trouble. Andrea Bargnani, who doesn't seem to show up for quite a few games, can be this player. So can Bosh, of course.

Even if Toronto can force Howard out of his comfort zone, it's still going to come down to Orlando's outside shooting. Going back home with a comfortable lead, you have to like the Magic's chances.

Hawks 102, Celtics 93

The Celtics lost at home to the Bobcats in January. Jason Richardson went off for 34 points by throwing in a barrage of outside heaves in the type of performance that he comes up with about once a month. Boston was playing without Ray Allen and the weird-feeling game ended up with one of the most unlikely results of the long NBA season.

I was thinking of that game as the Hawks swished three-point shot after three-point shot during the second half of their upset of Boston on Saturday. Are the Hawks back in the series? Doubtful. But it was an exciting performance and one that should whet the collective appetite of the Atlanta fan base, who hadn't seen playoff basketball in nearly a decade. It was just one of those nights, one of those rare, intoxicating, magical nights. Good for you, Hawksters.

There's no question that Atlanta has youth and athleticism on their side against the older Celtics. Those advantages have been there all along, but when you combine them with a frenzied home crowd, a 10-for-18 shooting performance beyond the arc and a couple of highlight reel dunks from Josh Howard, then you have something. That "something" might be fleeting, but it was there on Saturday.

The Hawks' .539 eFG% was a shocker. Atlanta was 21st in the league in this category during the regular season and Boston, of course, is the best defensive team in the NBA. The Hawks are a better passing team than they are usually credited for, probably because of the shaky point guard play they've received this season. On Saturday, Atlanta had assists on 28 of its 36 field goals and every Hawk starter save for Marvin Williams had at least six assists. No team had accomplished that feat in a playoff game in 14 years.

According to the log5 method, the Celtics were a 98.6% cinch to win this series. At that, there was a 48.6% chance that the Hawks would win a game, so there you go. And if it was going to happen, it was going to be in Atlanta--log5 suggests that there is less than a 5% chance that the Hawks can take a game in Boston.

Boston's inability to stop Atlanta during the second half was really the story of the game. It's not a story likely to be repeated, but you have to be happy for Atlanta fans. It's good to see a little NBA excitement return to Dixie.

--B.D.

Bradford Doolittle is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Bradford by clicking here or click here to see Bradford's other articles.
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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