Saturday, May 2, 2009

Three random observations ...

... about the NBA:

1. The blowout series continues. Miami and Atlanta continued a perplexing back-and-forth of double-digit victories Friday, when it was the Heat's turn to come up with a 26-point, 98-72 win. Dwyane Wade was the catalyst, ignoring a sore back to score a playoff-high 41 points. Michael Beasley had his best game of the playoff as well, scoring 22 points and snaring 15 rebounds, key to Miami's 47-35 advantage on the boards. The Heat shot 47 percent to Atlanta's 37 percent, as Josh Smith, Maurice Evans and Flip Murray endured poor shooting nights for the Hawks. Murray was still one of three Hawks in double-figures, led by Mike Bibby's 20-point, seven-rebound performance. Joe Johnson, who might have had a better night had he gotten to the foul line more than once, and Murray had 13 points apiece. Injuries again played a factor as each team was without its starting center, with Al Horford nursing a sprained ankle and Jermaine O'Neal dealing with a concussion he suffered late in Game 5. The teams had already had to replace their small forwards, and this time little-used Solomon Jones slid into the pivot for the Hawks while the Heat went with Joel Anthony, who started 28 games earlier this season. Both played reasonably well, with Jones going 3-for-4 with 6 points and five rebounds while Anthony went 3-for-3, with six points and eight rebounds. Horford and O'Neal could return for Game 7, and small forward Marvin Williams came back for a five-minute cameo off the bench Friday. Whoever gets the most out of their hobbled players, like Miami did Friday with Wade, has the advantage Sunday for Game 7.

2. The Rockets will present a unique challenge for the Lakers when their series starts Monday. Houston is a long, athletic team that can play lock-down defense, while the L.A. is long, athletic and offensively oriented. Plenty of attention will be focused on the post, where the Lakers will miss out on their ability to change the look against Yao Ming from time to time unless Andrew Bynum can return to form. Pau Gasol is the lone option at this point, but it's not a bad one. He can match if not beat the production of Yao on most nights. The only drawback is that Gasol probably doesn't have the strength to harass Yao and deny him position, which, if it happened, would drastically affect Houston's game. The power forward matchup gives the defensive edge to Luis Scola, at least down low. Odom's superior athleticism makes him a better perimeter defender, but unless there's a switch he's unlikely to guard outside. Scola is the kind of rugged player who can give Odom fits if he's not focused. The wing matchups are all about Kobe. The Rockets have Shane Battier, who was NBA All-Defensive Second Team last year, and Ron Artest, the 2004 Defensive Player of the Year. They'll take their turns guarding the Laker superstar, with Trevor Ariza likely assigned to Ron Artest while Kobe marks Shane Battier on the other. The Rockets have the weapons to keep Kobe in check, but they'll have to keep him well below average offensively to make up for the lack of offensive production Battier and Artest usually provide, Artest's 27 in Game 6 against Portland notwithstanding. Aaron Brooks outdueled a savvy veteran in the first round and finds himself facing another in the second. Derek Fisher has been slumping and the Lakers could use his defense and shooting touch to counter Brooks, who was a force at times against Portland. The battle of the benches could come down to who has the best shooting touch. The instant offense of Von Wafer or Sasha Vujacic could turn a game or two in the series. The Rockets have a couple of bruisers in Carl Landry and Chuck Hayes who can push around Andrew Bynum, if he's not ready, or Josh Powell, if he's not up to their physicality. Luke Walton, who tore the deltoid ligament in his left ankle late in the Utah series, could return as soon as Game 1 against the Rockets, and gives the Lakers a veteran forward who adds to their depth and can give L.A. much needed blue-collar work. There's little doubt the Lakers will need to display the toughness against Houston that they didn't show against Boston in last year's finals. It will be a challenge, but the Rockets, of course, aren't as good as those Celtics, and the Lakers, with a Hall of Fame coach like Phil Jackson, have undoubtedly learned their lesson. Prediction: Lakers in 7.

Game 1 - Mon May 4 Houston at L.A. Lakers 10:30PM TNT
Game 2 - Wed May 6 Houston at L.A. Lakers 10:30PM TNT
Game 3 - Fri May 8 L.A. Lakers at Houston 9:30PM ESPN
Game 4 - Sun May 10 L.A. Lakers at Houston 3:30PM ABC
Game 5 * Tue May 12 Houston at L.A. Lakers TBD TNT
Game 6 * Thu May 14 L.A. Lakers at Houston TBD ESPN
Game 7 * Sun May 17 Houston at L.A. Lakers TBD TBD

Los Angeles Lakers
PG Derek Fisher
SG Kobe Bryant
SF Trevor Ariza
PF Lamar Odom
C Pau Gasol
G Sasha Vujacic
G Shannon Brown
PG Jordan Farmar
C Andrew Bynum
PF Josh Powell
C D.J. Mbenga
SF Luke Walton (torn deltoid ligament in left ankle; could return for Game 1)

Houston Rockets
PG Aaron Brooks
SG Ron Artest
SF Shane Battier
PF Luis Scola
C Yao Ming
SG Von Wafer
PF Carl Landry
PG Kyle Lowry
G/F Brent Barry
PF Chuck Hayes
PF Brian Cook
SG James White
SG Tracy McGrady (out, knee)
C Dikembe Mutombo (out, knee)

3. Here's a look at the schedule for the weekend:
Chicago at Boston, Game 7, 8 p.m. TNT
Miami at Atlanta, Game 7, 1 p.m. ABC
Dallas at Denver, Game 1, 3:30 p.m. ABC

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