NBA Playoff Recap - Sunday, May 3
The first round ended in Atlanta, while the second round began in Denver. Sunday's action marked the beginning of two new weeks in the NBA Playoffs.
The last remaining battle of the opening round was decided in Philips Arena, as the homestanding Atlanta Hawks earned a date with Cleveland by thumping the Miami Heat, 91-78, in a Game 7 accompanied by far less fanfare than Bulls-Celtics the night before. For a 4-3 series, thrills and chills were noticeably absent, as this collision between the fourth and fifth seeds in the Eastern Conference once again failed to deliver a close and compelling contest. When Game 7 ended with a 13-point spread, Hawks-Heat became the second series since 1970 (Lakers-Suns) to produce seven games decided by a double-digit margin. Games 2 and 4--the two tilts won by road teams in the best-of-seven set--stood within single digits midway through the fourth quarter, but dramatic endings never emerged.
Atlanta and Miami both have young teams, spottly role players, and thin benches, so it stood to reason that home teams would enjoy a clear advantage. When the Heat lost their home-court edge in Game 4's 81-71 loss, Erik Spoelstra's squad blew its best chance to move to the second round. Each of the last three games in this series were decided early in the fourth quarter, with home teams enjoying leads of 20 points or more. That fact fell in Atlanta's favor, as the Hawks used a familiar shooting environment and a boisterous partisan crowd to roll to a 77-54 lead with 9:41 left in regulation. No longer petrified by the horrors of Miami's AmericanAirlines Arena, coach Mike Woodson's two thoroughbreds--Joe Johnson and Josh Smith--played up to the full measure of their considerable athletic gifts. Johnson exploded for 27 points, 5 rebounds, 5 steals, and 4 assists, while Smith racked up 21 points and 9 boards. That 1-2 punch, plus 15 bench points from Ronald "Flip" Murray, enabled the Hawks to advance to the conference semifinals for the first time since 1999. Atlanta will now catch a plane flight to Cleveland and prepare to face LeBron James and the Cavaliers. Game 1 of the East semis is Tuesday night at 8 p.m. Eastern on TNT.
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In the afternoon's second game, the second round began at the Pepsi Center in Denver. The Nuggets--survivors of the first round for the first time since 1994--didn't show any signs of being unprepared in Game 1 of the Western Conference Semifinals. George Karl's crew pulled away late to top the Dallas Mavericks, 109-95, and take a 1-0 lead in this best-of-seven battle.
Denver's win was built on the back of its bench strength. The trio of J.R. Smith, Chris Andersen, and Anthony Carter carried the Nuggets on a day when Chauncey Billups scored just 6 points, and Carmelo Anthony tallied only 9 points through the first three quarters. Smith, Andersen and Carter all provided active defense that led to turnovers and transition baskets, the two factors that loomed especially large in the day's ultimate outcome.
While Dallas coughed up 20 turnovers--eight of them by Jason Kidd--the Nuggets' reserves frolicked at all spots on the floor and flourished due to their ability to turn defense into offense. Smith, Andersen and Carter would combine for 12 of Denver's 30 rebounds, 12 of the team's 28 assists, 6 of the team's 15 steals, and 7 of the club's 11 blocked shots (6 by Andersen). Those four statistical measurements--not point totals--tell the story of this game, because they revealed what happened on the court in Denver's second-half surge. A block by Andersen, a steal by Carter, or a rebound by Smith would lead to an open-court pass, which--in turn--would become an easy bucket just moments later. That's how one statistical category connects to another, and that's also how the Nuggets not only stuffed their scoreline, but motored past the Mavs on their way to the winner's circle. Rick Carlisle's club did a great job of containing Denver's superstars, but the people of the pine ambushed the West's No. 6 seed. Game 2 is Tuesday night in Denver at 10:30 p.m. Eastern on TNT.
By Matt Zemek
Pro-Basketball Fans staff-writer
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