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April 25, 2009
Playoff Prospectus
The Cavs Edge Towards a Sweep

by Kevin Pelton

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Cleveland 79, Detroit 68 (Cleveland leads series 3-0)
Pace: 83.3
Offensive Ratings: Cleveland 94.4, Detroit 82.1

The Cavaliers went old school to take a 3-0 lead in their series with the Detroit Pistons. Game Three was straight out of the 2006 Mike Brown playbook. Back then, before opening up the offense and adding more scoring punch in the backcourt, Cleveland relied on stifling defense and LeBron James. Add in Joe Smith's heroics off the bench and you've got the recipe for how the Cavaliers won Friday night in one of the ugliest games we're likely to see in this postseason.

Having scored just nine points in the third quarter, Cleveland entered the final 12 minutes tied with the Pistons at 53 apiece. That's when James came alive, scoring 11 of his 25 points and handing out four of his nine assists. James had a hand in 22 of the Cavaliers' 26 points in the quarter, while Smith added seven crucial points and had 19 for the game (improbably his playoff career high).

Of course, Cleveland didn't pull away until its defense clamped down, holding Detroit without a score for nearly five minutes as the lead ballooned from three to 16. Give the Pistons credit for competing back at home, but they continue to be unable to generate offense on a regular basis. Besides Walter Herrmann, who played five minutes, reserve Arron Afflalo (3-of-4) was the only Detroit player to hit at least half his shots. Even their one strength in this series, taking care of the basketball, failed the Pistons on Friday, with point guards Rodney Stuckey and Will Bynum combining for seven of the team's 15 turnovers.

Detroit might be able to summon enough to extend the series with a win Sunday, but at this point that would be simply delaying the inevitable. The Pistons just don't belong on the same court as the Cavaliers.

Philadelphia 96, Orlando 94 (Philadelphia leads series 2-1)
Pace: 88.4
Offensive Ratings: Philadelphia 107.0, Orlando 107.9

Why does coaching in the NBA drive people crazy? Consider what Stan Van Gundy has seen so far in this series. In Game One, Hedo Turkoglu played Andre Iguodala almost perfectly, but Iguodala hit an off-balance jumper for the game-winner. In last night's Game Three, the Magic achieved the goal of keeping the ball out of the hands of Iguodala as well as those of Andre Miller, forcing Philadelphia to employ distant option Thaddeus Young. Having scored four points all night, Young proceeded to drive the lane and finish despite being mugged by Dwight Howard. His score with 2.0 seconds left provided the final margin.

While the Sixers have gotten some luck at the very end of their two wins in this series, they have acquitted themselves quite nicely over the full 48 minutes (and have twice overcome Iguodala bricking a pair of free throws in a key situation). Philadelphia led by 17 midway through the third quarter, when it appeared improbable that the game would come down to the final play. The resilient Magic rallied first from that deficit and then a six-point hole with 2:30 to play.

Orlando relied on Dwight Howard, who put together a monster line of 36 points on 12-of-16 shooting. Howard was even accurate at the free-throw line, making 12 of 14 tries including two critical ones to tie the game before Young's score. Rafer Alston helped pick up the scoring load with 17 points. Alas, Hedo Turkoglu--seemingly bothered by the sprained ankle he suffered late in the regular season--suffered through a miserable night, shooting 2-of-12 from the field and turning the ball over five times. Turkoglu (-7) was the only Magic starter with a negative plus-minus.

Philadelphia ended up going primarily to the two Andres. Iguodala was hot in the second half and put together a fine offensive night, scoring 29 points on 15 shot attempts and 13 free-throw tries. Miller had 24 points, nine boards and seven assists. The third scorer for the Sixers was Willie Green, who shot 6-for-9 to score 12 points after two quiet games in Orlando. The Magic might have to dare the rest of the Philadelphia players to beat them by running more help at Iguodala. Van Gundy also has to give strong consideration to cutting Turkoglu's minutes (he still played 40 in Game Three) if Turkoglu continues to struggle with the injury. Orlando has still outscored Philly in this series, so its play hasn't exactly been a disaster, but the Magic badly needs a win Sunday and to go home tied at two games apiece.

Houston 86, Portland 83 (Houston leads series 2-1)
Pace: 81.1
Offensive Ratings: Houston 105.9, Portland 102.4

This was one the Blazers could have stolen. Despite Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge having off nights, despite falling behind by double-digits at halftime on the road, despite foul trouble for centers Greg Oden and Joel Przybilla, Portland still had possession of the ball down three with a chance to tie with 15 seconds left. An ill-advised Steve Blake pull-up three-point attempt caught no rim, however, and Aaron Brooks sealed the game with under three seconds left by rebounding his own miss at the free-throw line and dribbling out the clock.

The biggest reason the Blazers were still in the game was the great equalizer that is the three-point line. While none of their teammates could get anything going, Blake (4-of-7) and Rudy Fernandez (5-of-7) were hot from beyond the arc. Portland hit five triples in the fourth quarter alone. Also, Houston's offense is such that an outing like Game One where the Rockets run away from an opponent is a rarity.

Given Fernandez's key role in keeping the Blazers afloat, it was baffling that he was not in the game from the 7:24 mark of the fourth quarter through the final 30 seconds. Instead, Nate McMillan went with the superior defense of Travis Outlaw. His benefit was outweighed by a series of ill-advised perimeter attempts; Outlaw was 2-for-11 from the field and missed all four of the shots he took in the final period.

As was the case in Game One, Houston owned the paint. Their help defenders stifled Roy, who looked atypically confounded as to his plan of attack. Roy shot 6-for-18 and was again unable to set up his teammates, handing out just a pair of assists. The Rockets continued to dare Aldridge to beat them from the perimeter, and he was unequal to the task, managing 13 points on 15 shot attempts with four turnovers. This time, Portland was able to get production from other quarters. In addition to the Blake and Fernandez threes, Greg Oden (six points, four rebounds and tough post defense in 21 minutes) played well aside from foul trouble.

Aldridge's play contrasted the excellent work of Luis Scola. With Aldridge offering help in the post on Yao Ming, Scola became Houston's go-to guy, and he responded with 19 points on 8-for-15 shooting. Scola knocked down four of the elbow jumpers the Blazers left open. Carl Landry (10 points on 5-for-7 shooting) added a couple more. The other Rockets role player to come through was Shane Battier, who scored 16 points to top the 15-point mark for just the fifth time this season. Battier's three-pointer with four-and-a-half minutes to play was a backbreaker during Portland's comeback.

Houston feasted during the second quarter when the Blazers' rotations inexplicably fell apart. Nonetheless, Portland actually played a decent defensive game because Yao and Aaron Brooks were kept quiet. Yao had seven points on 2-for-7 shooting, and this time it had little to do with his teammates forgetting him and more to do with Oden effectively bodying him up and the strategy of doubling with a second big. Brooks, meanwhile, was 3-for-11 from the field without the Blazers dramatically changing up their defense on him.

Game One aside, this series is probably much less about what happens when Houston has the ball--generally pretty predictable--and much more about the strength-on-strength matchup of Portland's offense against the Rockets defense. Twice in three games, Houston has clearly won that battle. The Blazers got better ball movement in the second half to set up their three-point barrage, but still aren't taking enough advantage of the weak side of the floor when the Rockets turn their attention to Roy or Aldridge with the ball on the strong side. Portland went away from the Roy pick-and-roll with the center, one that effectively allowed him to go right at Yao and left the Houston center vulnerable. It might be time for the Blazers to get more creative with how they get Roy the basketball instead of going to repeated isolations and pick-and-rolls. Potentially he could even be used off picks--not his forte, granted--or in the post.

Right now, the confusion we're seeing from the Blazers, and in particular Roy, in reading the Rockets defense leaves me thinking of the famous Rowdy Roddy Piper quote: "Just when they think they've got the answers, I change the questions." Then again, they overcame a lot to compete in Game Three. Heading into the critical Game Four, no outcome will surprise me.

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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