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May 3, 2008
Playoff Prospectus
Friday's Games

by Bradford Doolittle and Kevin Pelton

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Hawks 103, Celtics 100

Some things completely defy explanation, such as the Hawks/Celtics series. It is beyond my capacities for analysis--such a task is better left to Isaac Newton, or at least Commander Data. No matter how you approach the subject, the undeniable truth is that the one first-round series that most everyone agreed would be a sweep is the only one of the eight matchups that will be going the distance.

According to log5, the Celtics came in with a 98.4 percent chance of winning the series against the Hawks. There was less than a three percent chance that the series would go seven games. The overall numbers suggest that 66-win Boston has indeed dominated 37-win Atlanta. They've outscored the Hawks by an average of 8.3 points per game. They have grabbed 51 percent of the available rebounds in the series. The respective effective field goal percentages are .505 to .460. They've won three games in Boston by an average of 22.3 points per outing. The ratio of their own turnovers to that of their opponents is the best of all playoff teams. And yet…we're tied.

In all three games in Atlanta, the Hawks have escaped by breaking their offense down into one-on-one matchups and letting the athleticism of Josh Smith and Joe Johnson take over. Drive and get fouled. Drive and kick. Drive and score. The Hawks are averaging nearly 36 free-throw attempts per game at home. On Friday, Atlanta was 36-of-47 from the line. All five starters plus reserve Zaza Pachulia attempted at least six from the charity stripe. Boston committed 33 fouls.

Despite the gap in free-throw shooting, the Celtics had a great chance to close out the series in the fourth quarter. However, Ray Allen couldn't buy a shot from three-point range, going 1-of-8 from long distance and missing multiple good looks from in the final minutes. Meanwhile Johnson, who faced constant double-team attention, shook off excellent defense from James Posey to drill a crucial three-pointer with just over a minute left to put Atlanta ahead by five. Posey hit a three of his own to keep Boston close, and a Mike Bibby miss at the foul line gave the Celtics one final chance, but neither Allen nor Posey could break free and Rajon Rondo launched a 28-footer at the buzzer that found nothing but air.

The Hawks have managed to get to the line in the games in Boston, as well. The difference there is that they haven't been able to shoot a decent percentage from the floor. The Celtics, at home, have done a much better job of sharing the ball and hitting their open looks. That has pretty much been Boston's formula all season--sharing the ball, hitting open shots and playing stifling defense.

There is every reason to expect the Celtics to follow that formula to an easy Game Seven win. The Hawks have done well to get this far. Sure, you can say that since Atlanta has reduced the series to one game, anything can happen. I return to log5. Based on the schedule-adjusted efficiency margins these teams posted in the regular season, the Hawks stand just a 4.7 percent chance to win any one game in Boston. Look for the Celtics to dispatch of Atlanta quickly and thoroughly on Sunday.

During our back-and-forth preview for the opening round, I posted a chart of the biggest gaps between No. 1 and No. 8 seeds in first-round matchups in terms of regular-season victories. Here's that chart again, with the results of those series added:

YEAR NO1 NO8 GAP RESULT
1986 BOS CHI  37 Celtics 3-0
1988 LAL SAS  31 Lakers 3-0
1996 CHI MIA  30 Bulls 3-0
2008 BOS ATL  29 Game Seven pending
1992 CHI MIA  29 Bulls 3-0
1987 LAL DEN  28 Lakers 3-0
1997 UTA LAC  28 Jazz 3-0

The Hawks made history just by winning Game Three. If they win on Sunday, I don't think it's a stretch to say that it would be the biggest upset in NBA playoff history.

Cavaliers 105, Wizards 88

Eddie Jordan's Wizards entered the first-round matchup with Cleveland in a quandary about how to get past the team that had eliminated Washington the previous two seasons. Jordan's decision was to zero in on LeBron James, at all costs, and force the Cavs' supporting cast to beat the Wizards.

The problem with such a strategy is that when the focus of attention is as good of an all-around player as is James, that plan turns role players into stars. Jordan rode his strategy all the way to the finish of Game Six, when Washington was back before a frenzied home crowd in D.C., attempting to knot the series and force a seventh game. As it turns out, he'll ride that strategy into another summer of head-scratches and nightmares.

The headline writers have seized on James' triple-double as evidence that the King hoisted his mates on his back and carried them to a crucial playoff win. That's kind of misleading. Great players know when to lay back and let their teammates take center stage. Michael Jordan was that way; so was Magic Johnson. Kobe Bryant has learned that skill and it has apparently turned him into an MVP for the first time in his career. James has it, too.

During the first half, James was content to leverage Washington's defensive attention against them, scoring just two points in the first quarter while handing out four assists. That allowed Wally Szczerbiak to get going for the first time in the playoffs. Szczerbiak scored 26 points, hitting six three-pointers. Daniel Gibson hit four three-pointers himself and scored 22 points on 14 field-goal attempts off the Cleveland bench. James distributed (13 assists) and rebounded (13 rebounds) and found time to score 27 points and hold Caron Butler to a 6-of-14 shooting night with only one assist.

The Cavs shot 40-for-81 in the game and 11-for-24 from beyond the arc for an eFG% of .562. Washington's eFG% came in at .429. That's really all you need to know about how Cleveland won so easily in a crucial game for both teams.

Washington played hard, of course. The Wizards actually outrebounded Cleveland. Antawn Jamison tried to pick up Butler's slack, playing much more aggressively than he had for most of the series. He scored 23 points and grabbed 15 rebounds, although he needed 22 shots to get his points. Washington's offense broke down into a series of one-on-one skirmishes--the Wizards finished with 11 assists on their 31 field goals. Cleveland helped out on 29 of its 40 made shots. The Cleveland bench stomped Washington's reserves, as well, with aggregate game scores of 47 and 9, respectively.

James posted a game score of 59 and averaged a 42 for the series, six better than his regular-season average. Even so, the killer for Washington in Game Six was Gibson's 35 and Szczerbiak's 25. Washington's leading duo, forwards Butler and Jamison, both averaged game scores of 21 in the series. They both averaged 25 during the regular season. The credit for this goes to James and Ben Wallace, the latter of whom has been much maligned by me throughout the season. Wallace didn't post huge numbers in terms of rebounding or blocks but he did an outstanding job on Jamison throughout the six games. So, kudos to Big Ben.

Kevin Pelton and I both picked the Wizards in our "Back and Forth" prior to the first round. We also both expressed reservations about picking against LeBron James. It turns out those reservations were well-founded. I also stated that Eddie Jordan coaches circles around Mike Brown. In this series, it was the Wizards who were playing erratic, scrambled basketball, worried more about laying a forearm on James' head than playing ball. Brown's bunch showed discipline and displayed an amazing degree of composure considering the circumstances. I thought the difference in the attitudes between the teams was evident in postgame comments made to the Associated Press:

LeBron James: "Cleveland is advancing. We won the series 4-2. That speaks louder than me saying anything about the fans here, anything about DeShawn Stevenson"

Antonio Daniels: "Three times in a row. It's tough. But who knows what happens if we have a healthy team? A healthy Gilbert Arenas? If we had Darius Songaila for Game 6--who knows what happens?"

This may be it for this version of the Wizards/Cavs rivalry. James still has a couple of more seasons before he can opt out so you have to figure Cleveland will remain one of the East's top five or six teams. Washington could concievably lose Antawn Jamison and Gilbert Arenas as free agents this summer. With the number of up-and-coming teams in the East, that would send the Wizards to lottery land.

Meanwhile, the Cavaliers have the luxury of sitting in front of the tube on Sunday, series victory in hand, as the biggest Atlanta Hawks fans in the state of Ohio. If the Hawks manage to complete the historic upset, the Cavaliers would have the homecourt advantage in the East semifinals, and a much different path to the conference finals than was expected.

--B.D.

Jazz 113, Rockets 91

The clock struck midnight on the Houston Rockets Friday, but not without one last impressive comeback. Down 19 midway through the second quarter, the Rockets saw starting point guard Rafer Alston limp off with a sprained right ankle that would end his evening. Behind a superhuman performance from Tracy McGrady, who scored 28 points, Houston still went on a 22-5 run to get as close as one nearing halftime. When Deron Williams hit a three on Utah's last real possession of the first half, however, it signaled the beginning of the end for the Rockets.

Williams would stay hot after halftime, hitting four three-pointers and scoring 13 points in the third quarter. With McGrady being held scoreless and to just four shot attempts in the period, Houston did not have nearly enough firepower to keep up. The Jazz outscored the Rockets by 16 points in the third and never allowed the margin to get smaller than 16 in the final period, at last eliminating Houston and moving on to the second round.

Throughout this series, Alston's value was revealed through his absences. Though the Rockets were -8 with him on the floor in Game Six and made the run after his injury, they had no margin for error with Bobby Jackson at the point, and the result was the lopsided third quarter. Jackson was unable to find the rim again on Friday, shooting 2-of-12 from the field, and he finished the series with a 29.5% True Shooting Percentage. Here's hoping Aaron Brooks shows enough improvement in his second season to step in for Jackson behind Alston.

Rick Adelman coached a solid series, and his options were limited at the point after Alston went down, but what did surprise me was his limited use of Carl Landry in this game. Landry played fewer than 10 minutes, and while the Rockets were -9 in that span and Landry was scoreless, he could have helped provide some offensive punch during the third quarter, when Dikembe Mutombo played over seven minutes. Landry and Luis Scola, the rookie Houston frontcourt so effective at times in this series, played together for about three and a half minutes in Game 6.

From Utah's perspective, it would have been nice to end this series in five games. Now, the Jazz faces a quick turnaround with just one day between the end of this series and Sunday's Game One against the Lakers. At the same time, Game Six reminded everyone why Utah was so devastatingly effective on offense much of the season. All five starters and two reserves scored in double figures, the Jazz hit 10 three-pointers, grabbed 17 offensive rebounds and turned the ball over just five times. The end result was 113 points in 84 possessions, a game every bit as efficient as Utah was not in a forgettable (and now long-forgotten) Game Five.

Ronnie Brewer was one of the quiet heroes in Game Six, helping the Jazz get out in transition and fire up the EnergySolutions Arena crowd. The boxscore lists Brewer with two steals, but I swear he got his hands in passing lanes more frequently than that would indicate.

The lone downside to this game for Utah was that the team was unable to get Carlos Boozer going leading into the matchup with the Lakers. Boozer had 15 points in Game Six, but needed 17 shots to do so. He finished the series averaging 15.8 points on 41.7% shooting, not the kind of All-Star performance we're used to from him. Certainly, Boozer won't be tested in the same way by a Lakers frontcourt not known for its defense, but the Jazz will need him to be much better in the next series.

--K.P.

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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