Friday, May 1, 2009

Three random observations ...

... about the NBA:

Just as a note, if this entry looks a little short, I wanted to get something about the thriller in Chicago up as quickly as possible, because the game deserves it. I'll fill in with my other two observations later today. (And now we have the post in full.)

1. Wow. Just when you thought the Bulls-Celtics series couldn't get any better, it did. The two teams have now played seven overtime periods after the Bulls won 128-127 Thursday in triple OT. Add up all of the scores and throw out the blowout in Game 3, and the two teams are separated by just one point. This evenly matched affair has produced some of the greatest drama we've ever seen on hardwood, and will go down as the best first-round series ever if Game 7 is even remotely competitive. It's made stars out of guys like John Salmons, who languished in obscurity in Philadelphia and Sacramento before coming to Chicago via midseason trade and finding himself in this barnburner. Salmons has for most of his career played a supporting role and he's come off the bench more often than he's started, but Thursday he was the main option for the Bulls, scoring 35 points in a whopping 60 minutes of playing time. Derrick Rose, a rookie, has blossomed, too, and he delivered a 28-point, eight-rebound, seven assist performance. Brad Miller, another player the Bulls acquired in that trade deadline deal with Sacramento, had 23 points and 10 rebounds off the bench, playing all kinds of clutch minutes. The Celtics, of course, have their share of established stars, none who shone more brilliantly than Ray Allen, who had a playoff career high 51 points and tied his own record for most three-pointers in a postseason game with nine. But no one ever expected Glen Davis would play as well as he has in this series when he came into the league, and Thursday he went for 23 points and seven rebounds, not bad for an injury replacement in the starting lineup. Rajon Rondo's stock is rising even on an off night. He struggled through a 4-for-17 shooting night, but still dished out 19 assists and pulled down nine rebounds, winding up just a board and a bucket shy of his third triple-double of the series. Paul Pierce, Kendrick Perkins, Joakim Noah and Tyrus Thomas played brilliant games as well in a night that was just loaded with stellar performances. If you're even a passing fan of the NBA and you're not totally psyched for Game 7, check your pulse to make sure you still have one.

2. The maturation of the Orlando Magic reached a significant milestone Thursday. They proved they could easily handle the pressure of a big game without having Dwight Howard to fall back upon in a surprising 114-89 destruction of Philadelphia to close out a 4-2 series victory. Too often the Magic haven't supported their superstar when he was in the lineup, but without him, it oddly seemed almost too easy. A team with Howard, suspended after an elbow to Samuel Dalembert in Game 5, and Courtney Lee, out indefinitely with a fractured left sinus cavity, would look even better if Rashard Lewis showed up every night the way he did Thursday. Lewis went 11-for-22 from the floor, scored 29 points, grabbed seven rebounds and dished out five assists. Rafer Alston stepped to the fore as well, going 8-for-16 for 21 points and 10 assists. Marcin Gortat plugged the hole in the middle, clearing 15 rebounds and chipping in 11 points while former college basketball great J.J. Redick got the call at shooting guard, filling in admirably with 5-for-9 shooting and 15 points. Mickael Pietrus came off the bench to shoot 5-for-10 and score 14 points, as Orlando shot 54 percent as a team and held the Sixers to 41 percent from the floor. Philadelphia got precious little outside of Andre Miller, Andre Iguodala and Lou Williams, as Thaddeus Young's struggles continued in a 4-for-11, eight point night. Miller shot 7-for-13, scored 24 points and had seven rebounds and five assists, Iguodala had 20 points and six rebounds, and Williams had 17 points off the bench. The rest of the team scored just 28 points combined as it was clear the Magic were focused on both sides of the floor. If they can duplicate that effort with Howard back, there could be no stopping this team.

3. The right move may not have saved the Blazers, but the wrong one will no doubt haunt coach Nate McMillan all summer. Portland removed struggling 20-year-old rookie Nicolas Batum from the starting lineup Thursday in favor of another rookie, 24-year-old Rudy Fernandez, who had been a spark plug off the bench. Batum wound up scoring five points in three minutes, more than Fernandez had in 41 minutes of a 92-76 loss that closed out a 4-2 series win for Houston. McMillan elected to keep his other option at small forward, Travis Outlaw, coming off the bench where he's been successful, but he did little better than Fernandez, shooting 2-for-9 for nine points. The only Blazers to score in double-figures were LaMarcus Aldridge, with 26, and Brandon Roy, who had 22 in a disappointing end to the first playoff appearance of a promising young team. It was Houston that was thought to have trouble scoring, but defense, as it often does this time of year, won out. It helped that the Rocket guards have been hot, and Thursday it was Ron Artest's turn. He was aggressive on offense, mixing drives, midrange jumpers and three-point bombs to score a game-high 27. Aaron Brooks went 5-for-11 for 13 points, complemeting Yao Ming's solid inside play for 17 points and 10 rebounds. They'll need to score a bit more to topple the Lakers in next round's clash of styles. The Rockets can only slow the pace so much against the NBA's third-best scoring team in the regular season, a team with much more refined weaponry than the Blazers could deploy. Advancing past the first round was an accomplishment for a franchise that hadn't done so since 1997, but the next barrier will be significantly harder to scale.

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