Monday, May 4, 2009

Three random observations ...

... about the NBA:

1. The Lakers this year have been far and away the dominant team in the Western Conference, so to beat them Monday, the Rockets turned back the clock. Houston, as many Laker opponents did a few years ago, allowed Kobe to get off 31 shots but dared his teammates to beat them, and in a rare turn of events the past two years, the rest of the Lakers failed to deliver in a 100-92 Game 1 loss. Kobe had his own struggles, shooting 1-for-7 from three-point range, but still wound up with 32 points. Pau Gasol was the next highest-scoring Laker with just 14 points to go along with 13 rebounds. Andrew Bynum, who was back in the starting lineup, and Trevor Ariza scored 10, but that was about it. Derek Fisher was outplayed on a 3-for-10, eight-point night by Aaron Brooks, who got to the basket for 19 points despite 1-for-5 shooting from beyond the arc. Yao dominated the post for the Rockets even more so than usual, scoring 28 points and grabbing 10 rebounds, while Ron Artest once more put his offensive game on display with 21 points and seven assists. The Lakers seemed to struggle with incorporating Bynum back into the lineup, as though Bynum scored in double-figures, Gasol didn't get as many shots as he's used to and Lamar Odom scored just nine points on 4-for-8 from the floor. It would have helped L.A. if Bryant were more efficient, as he shot 14-for-31 but only went to the free-throw line five times. Chances are Bryant will either come up with a gem or actively look to get his teammates more involved in a suddenly critical Game 2 for the Lakers. Rick Adelman and the Rockets, having put up a masterful performance Monday, must be ready to make the counter-adjustments.

2. Few teams have stolen a game on the opponent's home court to begin a seven-game series and left with such serious concerns as the Magic. Watching a 28-point lead be chipped down to just four points Monday must have been a nightmare for Stan Van Gundy, whose team was able to hold on for a 95-90 victory. The Celtics shot just 39 percent but were able to hang around as the Magic went cold in the fourth quarter, hitting only five shots and scoring 17 points in the fourth quarter. Orlando made just nine shots after taking that 28-point lead with 8:57 to play in the third quarter. Rashard Lewis scored 14 points to lead all scorers in the first half, but had just four more points, and failed to score at all when the Celtics were clawing their way back. He was outplayed for stretches by Brian Scalabrine, who has been hot off the bench for Boston. He hit a pair of treys and scored 10 points in 27 minutes while Glen Davis was saddled with foul trouble. Eddie House hit a couple of three-pointers, too, and Stephon Marbury had a burst of eight straight points for the Celtics in the second quarter. Boston's bench, which struggled against Chicago until breaking out in Game 7, played evenly with Orlando's, even with Mickael Pietrus checking in as the Magic's second leading scorer with 17 points. Paul Pierce had 16 of his game-high 23 in the second half to spur the comeback attempt, but the Celtics were ultimately done in by identical poor shooting nights for Rajon Rondo and Ray Allen, each of whom went 2-for-10 from the field. Rondo made up for it with a late charge, scoring 10 of his 14 points at the line and grabbing 10 rebounds. Kendrick Perkins grabbed 16 boards to give Boston a 47-40 edge on the boards despite Howard's stellar 16-point, 22-rebound performance. The Magic continued to use a balanced-scoring formula that's been effective for them, but eventually they'll need someone to be able to get on a roll offensively. They were bailed out by Pietrus, who went 3-for-7 from behind the arc in Game 1. Orlando can't be as reliant as they are on outside shooting and sustain their success, so they'll need a more diversified attack to stem the Celtics' momentum.

3. The Hawks pushed the Celtics to a seventh game that wasn't supposed to happen last year, and if they do that to the Cavs, it will be quite an accomplishment. Moral victories and keeping the series competitive are about the extent of the reasonable goals for Atlanta, which faces a league's best team in the Eastern Conference Semifinals beginning Tuesday at Cleveland. The Cavs came within a point of tying the all-time record for wins at home, but the Hawks are tough at home as well, and they'll look to claim a couple in Atlanta before the series is through. The key is containing newly crowned MVP LeBron James, which will be a chore for Maurice Evans, Atlanta's best perimeter defender. Marvin Williams and Josh Smith will no doubt get their crack at him as well, and the Cavs have plenty of shooters to make you pay if you double LeBron. Delonte West, one of those guys who can knock down it down for Cleveland, has thrived since moving over from point guard to his natural position at the beginning of the season, and he'll have perhaps the toughest assignment defensively for the Cavs in Joe Johnson. The point guard matchup will be critical, with Mo Williams, an explosive scorer, going against veteran Mike Bibby, who can score as well, can control the tempo better than Williams and give the Hawks an advantage in the backcourt. Josh Smith will have plenty of trouble with the taller Anderson Varejao, especially on the glass, but can test Varejao's energy and athleticism if he tries to use his dribble-penetration capabilties. Yet Varejao might wear him out on the block if Smith is not careful defensively. Al Horford will have his own difficulties trying to track down Zydrunas Ilgauskas, especially with his gimpy ankle, and Zaza Pachulia, who usually gives the Hawks a boost in the paint when he comes off the bench, has not one but two dangerous reserve big men with which to content in Ben Wallace and Joe Smith for Cleveland. The Cavs have Daniel Gibson, who provides energy, a bit of ballhandling and shooting, as well as Wally Sczcerbiak, who gives them length and shooting, off their bench as well. The Hawks will need Flip Murray to get hot to avoid a deep Cleveland team from opening double-digit leads in second quarters. Atlanta's bench stepped up against Miami, but they're still a liability when compared to Cleveland's. Making the second round, just like making the playoffs last year, is a step in the right direction for the Hawks, but they're walking, not running. Prediction: Cavs in 5.

Game 1 - Tue May 5 Atlanta at Cleveland 8 p.m. TNT
Game 2 - Thu May 7 Atlanta at Cleveland 8 p.m. ESPN
Game 3 - Sat May 9 Cleveland at Atlanta 8 p.m. ABC
Game 4 - Mon May 11 Cleveland at Atlanta 7 p.m. TNT
Game 5 * Wed May 13 Atlanta at Cleveland TBD TNT
Game 6 * Fri May 15 Cleveland at Atlanta TBD ESPN
Game 7 * Mon May 18 Atlanta at Cleveland 8 p.m. TNT

Cleveland Cavaliers
PG Mo Williams
SG Delonte West
SF LeBron James
PF Anderson Varejao
C Zydrunas Ilgauskas
F/C Joe Smith
G/F Wally Szczerbiak
F/C Ben Wallace
G Daniel Gibson
F/C Darnell Jackson
SG Sasha Pavlovic
SG Tarence Kinsey
PF J.J. Hickson (back, out indefinitely)

Atlanta Hawks
PG Mike Bibby
SG Joe Johnson
SF Mo Evans
PF Josh Smith
C Al Horford
SF Marvin Williams
C Zaza Pachulia
G Flip Murray
PF Solomon Jones
SG Mario West
C Randolph Morris
PG Acie Law

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