NBA Playoff Recap -
Tuesday, May 5
Orlando-Boston and Houston-Lakers show signs of being long series. The NBA's other two conference semifinals, which were contested on Tuesday night, have all the markings of mercifully quick confrontations. On a Cinco de Mayo that was free of drama, the Cleveland Cavaliers and Denver Nuggets delivered the kinds of beatdowns that aren't easy to forget... especially for the men on the losing side of the divide.
The night began in Cleveland, as the Cavaliers celebrated LeBron James's MVP award by smothering the Atlanta Hawks in the second half, en route to a 99-72 win and a 1-0 series lead. Yes, James posted 34 points and 10 boards in a typically dominating display, but the real story behind the Cavs' runaway was the defense of the Eastern Conference's No. 1 seed. Atlanta played valiantly for two and a half quarters, staying within single digits at 64-56 with 5:30 left in the third quarter. That's when King James's Court became a royal pain for Mike Woodson's men. Over the next eight minutes of game time, Cleveland held the Hawks to just 5 points, which allowed Mike Brown's bunch to take an 82-61 lead at the 9:30 mark of the fourth quarter. All in all, Atlanta scored just 16 points in the final 17:30 of regulation time, a tribute to a ballhawking defense that was anything but Cavalier. Cleveland forced 17 turnovers and out-rebounded the Hawks by eight (41-33), which allowed the home team to earn 15 more shot attempts. Basketball is a game of possessions, and on Tuesday, Cleveland owned a lot more of them. With LeBron James in the equation, that's part of a recipe for an easy win, which is exactly what the Cavs claimed. Game 2 is Thursday night at Quicken Loans Arena on ESPN.
The night's second game came in Denver, where the Nuggets and Mavericks staged a Game 2 replay of Sunday's Game 1. George Karl's team used a big fourth-quarter run to dump Dallas, 117-105, and take a 2-0 series lead to Texas. On Sunday, this West semifinal started with Denver busting open a tight game early in the fourth quarter with a 15-2 spurt. Up 82-80 with 11:07 in Game 1, the Nuggets found themselves with a 97-82 advantage at the 5:52 mark of regulation. A little more than 50 hours later, Game 2 would involve a nearly identical scenario.
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Even as Rick Carlisle's sixth-seeded squad lost Josh Howard to an ankle injury (suffered in the first quarter), the Mavs stayed quite close to the Nuggets through three quarters, trailing by a mere three points (86-83) heading into the final period. For the second straight game, the outcome was very much in doubt as the fourth quarter arrived. Such a reality should normally comfort the road team in any playoff series, because the art of stealing road games is based on remaining competitive and reducing a game to a few precious possessions at the very end of regulation. In this series, however, the Mavs have tumbled at the end of the backstretch, failing to make the final minutes meaningful.
Game 2 got away from Dallas in the first half of the fourth quarter, just like Game 1. If Sunday's series opener brought about a decisive 15-2 fourth-quarter run for the Nuggets, the West's No. 2 seed did even better on Tuesday from a strict numerical standpoint. With Nene and Carmelo Anthony scoring every point, the Nuggets produced a 16-2 tsunami that created a 102-85 cushion with 6:10 remaining in the game. With superior lock-down defense, ample energy, and various contributors, the Nuggets wore down Dallas and made the Mavs look very limited on the floor. While Dirk Nowitzki (35 points) and Jason Terry (21 points) were the only players who showed up for Dallas, the dynamos from Denver had several productive performances from their lineup. Nene and Anthony popped in 25 points apiece, while J.R. Smith poured in 21 off the bench and Chauncey Billups added 18 (plus 8 assists as well). Kenyon Martin threw in 12 more points for the Nuggets, and defensive stopper Chris Andersen tallied 8 points and snagged 9 rebounds for the victors.
In an eerie turnabout from the previous round, the Mavericks are finding themselves in the position of the San Antonio Spurs, the team Dallas dismissed just a week ago. The Spurs--who lost Manu Ginobili due to injury--could only offer Tony Parker and Tim Duncan in a feeble attempt to combat a deeper, hungrier, more energetic Dallas team. Now, it's the Mavs themselves who are playing what feels like 2-on-5 basketball. Nowitzki and Terry are terrific players, but it's the Nuggets who have a complete team and far more resources--physically, mentally and tactically--when the fourth quarter rolls around. Game 3 is Saturday in Dallas, where the Mavericks will have to find a way to get Josh Howard healthy and hold the Nuggets to 90 points or fewer.
By Matt Zemek
Pro-Basketball Fans staff-writer
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