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NBA Playoff Recap - Thursday, April 30


Orlando closed out Philly with unexpected ease. Houston finally crossed the first round threshold. And in Chicago? Words fail to do justice to the Celtics-Bulls series, which is heading for a Game 7. It was no ordinary night in the NBA Playoffs.
More on Celts-Bulls in a bit. The first game to go final on Thursday was Orlando's 114-89 win at Philadelphia, which allowed the Magic to clinch the series, 4-2, and advance to the Eastern Conference Semifinals next Monday or Tuesday. It might not be stunning that the third seed fended off the sixth seed in this best-of-seven series, but the way in which the Magic slayed the Sixers had to leave basketball junkies scratching their heads.
Orlando played this game without star center Dwight Howard, who was suspended for a Game 5 elbow thrown at Philly post player Samuel Dalembert. The Sixers' shooting percentage had tanked in the past two games of the series, but without No. 12 piloting the middle for Stan Van Gundy, Philadelphia figured to have a major advantage. Instead, the Magic found even more 3-point shooting to run away with the proceedings at the Wachovia Center. J.J. Redick--who would not have seen much of any court time had Howard been on the floor--stepped into the starting lineup and promptly banged in five 3-pointers to help the Magic hit 12 triples in 26 attempts. That level of long-distance shooting enabled Orlando to snag an 87-72 lead after the third quarter. With the offense-poor Sixers playing from behind, coach Tony DiLeo's crew didn't have the makeup to mount a comeback. Rashard Lewis led all scorers with 29 points for the Magic, who don't yet know whom they'll play (or where) in round two on Monday at 8 p.m. Eastern time.

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In Houston, the Rockets--after losing six straight first-round series over a span of 11 years--finally advanced to the Western Conference Semifinals. Rick Adelman--once the head man in Portland--watched Houston wallop his former team, 92-76, in Game 6 at the Toyota Center. The Rockets took this best-of-seven battle, 4-2, by smothering the Blazers on defense. The series eerily paralleled the Dallas-San Antonio showdown in one key respect: The winning team had five players contributing to the cause, while the losing team had only two truly dependable performers. Much as San Antonio had only Tim Duncan and Tony Parker to throw at the balanced and deep Mavericks, so it also was that Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge were the only scorers who could make Houston's defense sweat. Roy popped in 22 points for Nate McMillan's men, and Aldridge threw down 26, but the rest of the Blazers scored just 28 points (nine of them coming in the final meaningless minutes of regulation, when the outcome had long been decided) on 10-of-33 shooting. Houston, on the other hand, received balanced production from more than two sources. Ron Artest (27 points) and Yao Ming (17 points, 10 rebounds) put the ball in the basket, but Aaron Brooks also tallied 13 points and 5 rebounds, while defensive specialist and glue-guy Shane Battier scooped up 9 boards while registering 3 steals. The Rockets committed just 8 turnovers while the Blazers coughed up the pill 15 times. In all aspects of competition, the Rockets--though not quite dominant--were clearly superior. The Rockets will now take on the Los Angeles Lakers in the second round. Game 1 tips off on Monday night in L.A. at 10:30 Eastern time, 7:30 Pacific.
And now to Chicago. Breathe deep, folks.
Heading into Game 6 at the United Center, the defending champions and the seventh-seeded Bulls had played a total of four overtime periods in three separate games. After 63 minutes of clock-time basketball and nearly 4 hours in real time, the Celtics and Chicago came remarkably close to playing four more overtime periods in just one night. When it was all over, the Bulls had one more point than the second-seeded C's, as Vinny Del Negro's club took a 128-127 decision in triple OT to send this classic series to a Game 7 on Saturday night in Boston.
In a four-hour fight with 205 field-goal attempts and 59 personal fouls, there will be dozens of individual turning points and snapshots that will linger in the public memory. If forced to choose the biggest moments of the latest epic in this amazing confrontation, one would have to start with the final three minutes of regulation. The Celtics had just ripped off an 18-0 run to take a 99-91 lead, but after two missed free throws by Boston guard Rajon Rondo, the revitalized Bulls were able to uncork a 10-2 burst to extend the game and--by extension--their season. John Salmons (35 points in this game) scored an old-fashioned 3-point play, and Brad Miller (23 points and 10 rebounds) hit a 3 and then a driving layup to tie the score at 101-all in the final seconds of the fourth quarter. Paul Pierce got a great game-winning look for Doc Rivers' team with 4.5 seconds left, but his right-elbow jumper hit the back of the rim. Boston had the Bulls on the ropes, but couldn't close the deal when given the opportunity.
After two terrifically tense overtime periods, these resilient ballclubs--untiring when behind but nervous when leading--couldn't shake free to create a decisive working margin. Seemingly destined to create still more drama, the Celts and Bulls found themselves knotted up at 123-apiece in the final minute of the third overtime, when the game's most defining plays unfolded.
Play number one came with 38 seconds left, and the Celtics in possession. Pierce--who struggled with doubleteams in this contest--lost the ball to Chicago's Joakim Noah, who raced downcourt and power-dunked over Pierce with 35 seconds left. Pierce fouled out on the play, and Noah hit the subsequent free throw to give the home team a 126-123 lead at the 35-second mark. Play number two came after a missed layup by Chicago's Kirk Hinrich gave Boston a chance to win the series at the end of the third OT stanza. Rondo attempted a 14-foot fadeaway against Bulls guard Derrick Rose, but the newly-christened Rookie of the Year blocked the shot with 7 seconds remaining. More importantly, however, Rondo lost control of the loose ball created by the block. Rose eventually grabbed the ball and got fouled with 3.2 seconds left. Even though Rose missed both of his two free throws, the Celtics' lack of timeouts prevented Boston from getting a good shot. When Rondo's desperation halfcourt heave slammed wide off the backboard at the horn, the Bulls forged a 3-3 series tie and earned one more plane flight to Boston. This series has already earned a place in the record books; now, the Chicago Bulls and Boston Celtics will play for ultimate victory, and a second-round date with Orlando.

By Matt Zemek
Pro-Basketball Fans staff-writer

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