Sunday, May 3, 2009

Three random observations ...

... about the NBA:

1. It wasn't another overtime thriller, but it was dramatic enough to provide a fitting conclusion to what probably was the greatest first round series in the history of the league. The Celtics' bench surprised everyone two nights after coming up with only nine points by delivering 30 points Saturday to lift Boston to a 109-99 win that clinched a 4-3 series victory over the Bulls. Eddie House canned all five shots that he took, including four three-pointers, and Brian Scalabrine had two treys of his own in an eight-point outing. That was plenty of support for Boston's veteran superstars, who came through on a night when they were needed most. Ray Allen led the way with 23 points and seven rebounds, and Paul Pierce had 20 points and nine rebounds. Rajon Rondo struggled with his shot for the second straight game, going 2-for-8 for seven points, but delivered 11 assists. He wasn't the only one for whom a lid seemed on the basket. John Salmons struggled to 3-for-12 shooting, including 1-for-5 from behind the arc. He missed a layup and three-pointer in succession around the four-minute mark, either of which could have cut a five-point game down to one possession. Ben Gordon could have made it a one-possession game if he made a 4-foot baseline runner with 47 seconds to go, but he missed, and Joakim Noah was called for his sixth foul as he tried to rebound. That capped a night when Gordon led all scorers with 33 points but shot just 7-for-23 from the floor and only 4-for-12 from three-point territory, receiving credit for a first-quarter trey only after a league-office ruling in the fourth quarter in a bizarre turn. The Bulls received one more gift with 28 seconds left when Kirk Hinrich stole Rondo's inbounds pass, but Gordon followed with another missed three-pointer, and the Celtics closed it out at the line. The Bulls shot 39 percent from the field and 29 percent from beyond the arc as a team while the Celtics shot 45 and 53 percent, respectively. It's hard to counter that kind of gap, especially considering the Celtics went on a 20-2 run to close the first half. The Bulls chipped away at the lead but never came closer than three points, a margin that surely is bitter coincidence to Chicago given its poor outside shooting. It was a stirring challenge nonetheless for an upstart team with a bright future. They must make a decision on unrestricted free agent Ben Gordon, but everyone else should be back. The Celtics, though, won't have to worry about next season for a little while longer. Their ability to deliver blow after blow until they got to the knockout punch indicates Kevin Garnett's spirit is still on the floor even if his body isn't, and that the Celtics have as much will to persevere as any defending champion.

2. Boston will have to endure a test that looms even tougher now. The veteran Celtics, after having endured a seven-game, seven-overtime thriller, must turn around 48 hours later to face an Orlando team on three-days rest in Game 1. The Magic are coming off a stirring 25-point win in Philadelphia without the suspended Dwight Howard, proving they're more than just a one-man operation. Orlando enters with a great deal of confidence, but so must the Celtics, knowing what they just withstood to get to this point. Rajon Rondo is now a full-fledged star after throwing up a pair of triple-double in the first round and very nearly posting two or three more, and he's clearly one of the top five point guards in the game. He faces veteran Rafer Alston in round two after facing down the Rookie of the Year in the first series. Alston came up with a gem in the clinching game against Philadelphia, scoring 21 points and dishing out 10 assists, but can't be expected to keep up with Rondo. The other guard spot is a clear advantage for the Celtics as well, with hot-shooting Ray Allen going up against fill-in J.J. Redick, the replacement for Courtney Lee, who isn't likely to play in the series with a fractured sinus. Orlando coach Stan Van Gundy may also turn to the longer Mickael Pietrus to help defend against Allen. Van Gundy must hope Hedo Turkoglu's length can distract Paul Pierce, but its clearly advantage Boston at small forward as well. Glen Davis took major strides in the Chicago series, but Rashard Lewis began playing some of his best basketball in the first round as well. Lewis can use his perimeter game to give Davis fits on the defensive end. Howard, of course, will do more than just annoy Kendrick Perkins inside. Perkins did a tremendous job on the glass against Chicago but will find it much tougher going against Howard. Still, Perkins continues to grow by leaps and bounds and has the experience of being the starting center on a championship team, so he's anything but a pushover for Howard. The problem for the Celtics with both Kevin Garnett and Leon Powe injured is whom to turn to off the bench, which struggled against Chicago until bursting forth in Game 7. Eddie House won't go 5-for-5 every night, and you can't count on Brian Scalabrine's outside shot all the time. Stephon Marbury has provided steady point guard play but has no confidence in his shot, and Mikki Moore and Tony Allen haven't been any help. The Magic certainly aren't as deep with Lee out, but if Redick can hold down the shooting guard spot, Pietrus can be a capable wing player off the bench. Tony Battie and Marcin Gortat provide plenty of bulk and rebounding to go along with Howard inside, and Anthony Johnson is a stabilizing veteran hand at point guard. The difference off the bench could be critical considering the wear and tear on Pierce and Allen from the first round, so there's pressure on the Celtic reserves. But a greater challenge stands before the Magic's supporting cast, which must duplicate or come close to the performance they had without Howard the last time out against Philadelphia. It was inspiring, but only one game. There is ample evidence to suggest Howard will have to come up with a gargantuan effort on his own. It's also a lot to ask of the Celtics to win another seven-game series, but they've got more guys under the age of 25 than they do over 30 in their starting lineup, and all of them have been through this plenty of times before. Prediction: Celtics in 7.

Game 1 - Mon May 4 Orlando at Boston 8 p.m. TNT
Game 2 - Wed May 6 Orlando at Boston 8 p.m. TNT
Game 3 - Fri May 8 Boston at Orlando 7 p.m. ESPN
Game 4 - Sun May 10 Boston at Orlando 8 p.m. TNT
Game 5 * Tue May 12 Orlando at Boston TBD TNT
Game 6 * Thu May 14 Boston at Orlando TBD ESPN
Game 7 * Sun May 17 Orlando at Boston TBD TNT

Boston Celtics

PG Rajon Rondo
SG Ray Allen
SF Paul Pierce
PF Glen Davis
C Kendrick Perkins
G Eddie House
F Brian Scalabrine
PG Stephon Marbury
F/C Mikki Moore
SG Tony Allen
SG Bill Walker
PG Gabe Pruitt
PF Kevin Garnett (knee, probably out for year)
F/C Leon Powe (knee, out)

Orlando Magic

PG Rafer Alston
SG J.J. Redick
SF Hedo Turkoglu
PF Rashard Lewis
C Dwight Howard
F/C Tony Battie
SG Mickael Pietrus
PG Anthony Johnson
C Marcin Gortat
PG Tyronn Lue
C Adonal Foyle
SG Jeremy Richardson
PG Jameer Nelson (separated shoulder, out)
SG Courtney Lee (fractured left sinus, probably out for series)

3. Here's the schedule for the next few days:
Sunday, May 3
Miami at Atlanta, Game 7, 1 p.m. ABC
Dallas at Denver, Game 1, 3:30 p.m. ABC
Monday, May 4
Orlando at Boston, Game 1, 8 p.m. TNT
Houston at L.A. Lakers, Game 1, 10:30 p.m. TNT
Tuesday, May 5
Atlanta or Miami at Cleveland, Game 1, 8 p.m. TNT
Dallas at Denver, Game 2, 10:30 p.m. TNT
Wedneday, May 6
Orlando at Boston, Game 2, 8 p.m. TNT
Houston at L.A. Lakers, Game 2, 10:30 p.m. TNT

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