NBA Playoff Recap -
Saturday, May 9
Mark Cuban shoved a cameraman after the final horn in Dallas, and Atlanta fans were seen leaving their home arena with six minutes left in the fourth quarter. Those two snapshots told the whole story on a weird and wacky Saturday in the NBA Playoffs.
In the day's first game, the Dallas Mavericks made the mistake of putting themselves in position to lose on a bad call. Rick Carlisle's club largely outplayed the Denver Nuggets in Game 3 of the Western Conference semifinals, but could never deliver a dagger despite ample opportunities to put the Nuggets away. Standing on the edge of defeat, the Mavs were pushed off the cliff by NBA official Mark Wunderlich, as the Nuggets pulled out a lucky 106-105 victory at American Airlines Center.
With six seconds left in regulation and Dallas leading, 105-103, the Nuggets inbounded the ball. With roughly three seconds left, Dallas defender Antoine Wright purposefully bumped Denver's Carmelo Anthony, knowing the Mavs had a foul to give. For some reason, Wunderlich--the official closest to the play--swallowed his whistle despite an abundance of body contact that caused Anthony to lose the ball. Without a foul call, Anthony regathered the rock and fired in a 3-pointer with one second left that put the Nuggets one win away from a second-round sweep. Within 90 minutes of the game's conclusion, the NBA league office publicly acknowledged that Wunderlich's call was in error, and that a foul should have been whistled on the play. That apology might be impressive in the eyes of some longtime NBA watchers, but the polite gesture won't change the fact that the Nuggets lead this series 3-0, and not 2-1.
Denver was ripe for the plucking in Game 3. Dallas protected the ball (only 10 turnovers) and limited the Nuggets' fast-break points, in a marked departure from the first two games of the series. Add in the fact that George Karl's crew missed 15 of its first 17 shots, and it's clear that this game should have belonged to the Mavs, who took a 105-101 lead with just 31 seconds left in the fourth quarter on a 3-pointer by Jason Terry (17 points). However, the home team couldn't close the deal.
After gaining a pronounced edge so close to the finish line, Dallas let down its guard. The Mavs allowed a dunk by Anthony in just three seconds--with 28 ticks left on the game clock--which was significant because it allowed Denver to play defense instead of having to foul one of Dallas's many solid free throw shooters. On the ensuing possession, the Mavericks got the ball to the ever-dependable Dirk Nowitzki, but the German giant--who scored 33 points and snared 16 rebounds in the contest--missed a 13-footer with eight seconds left. When the Nuggets rebound the ball just a moment later, the stage had been set for the sour-tasting finish which marred an otherwise exciting encounter. The Mavericks were clearly jobbed, but one of the great lessons of sports is that you can't put yourself in position to lose if you can do something about it. Dallas didn't deserve Mark Wunderlich's mistake, but if the Mavs had played better defense or hit a few more shots in the final minutes, a bad call wouldn't have been enough to beat them. Game 4 of this series takes place in Big D on Monday night, as the Mavs will try to extend their season.
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In Atlanta, the Philips Arena crowd bailed out on its team, but not before being jerked around by a number of abrupt reversals in a game that featured several king-sized runs. The Cleveland Cavaliers weren't consistent against the homestanding Hawks, but LeBron James's band of brothers owned the last big surge of the night. A 20-4 run midway through the second half carried the Cavs to a 97-82 win and a 3-0 lead in this Eastern Conference semifinal series.
Atlanta, for all its bumps and bruises, showed an ample amount of fight in this throwdown. A team with hobbled starters (Al Horford, Joe Johnson) and wounded reserves (Marvin Williams) played Cleveland even in the first half and then answered a Cavalier run with a bold brand of basketball. After Cleveland began the second half with a 15-4 run that gave Team LeBron a 62-50 lead, the Hawks--led by reserve guard Flip Murray (17 points, 3 assists)--ripped off a 13-0 run in which Mike Woodson's men shredded Cleveland's normally solid defense. Seemingly out of it just moments earlier, the Hawks turned a dozen-point deficit into a 63-62 lead with just over four minutes left in the third quarter. At the 3:45 mark of the period, Atlanta owned a 65-64 advantage.
Then the roof fell in on the Hawks, as Cleveland's poise and maturity took over.
With 1:32 left in the third, Atlanta center Zaza Pachulia--standing inside the defensive half-circle--clearly fouled Cleveland forward Joe Smith on a drive to the basket. Instead of calmly accepting the obvious (and proper) call, however, Pachulia became unhinged, earning two technicals and an ejection with two separate outbursts within 45 seconds of real time. The Hawks and their crowd had generated a great deal of positive momentum up to that point, but after Pachulia's ejection, the tone and tenor of this tilt turned on a dime.
No longer feeling good about themselves, the Hawks' once-crisp offense turned into the stagnant, tentative train wreck that has sabotaged many Atlanta efforts in this year's postseason. Yes, LeBron might have unloaded for 47 points in this contest. Yes, King James might have nailed several jawdropping fadeaway jumpers during a dominant fourth quarter. Yes, the league MVP took over when his team needed a commanding presence on the road. Nevertheless, the key to this game was Atlanta's letdown after the Pachulia ejection. A Cleveland roster endowed with hard-earned experience from previous postseason journeys was savvy enough to sense the shift in body language and pounce at the precise moment when the Hawks hung their heads. The Cavs' 20-4 run (from 3:45 left in the third quarter until the 5:14 mark of the fourth, a staggering stretch of 10 minutes and 31 seconds) involved heroics from LeBron, but team defense defined the most significant stretch of this confrontation. Game 4 is on Monday in Atlanta, as the Cavs will try to remain perfect in the postseason.
By Matt Zemek
Pro-Basketball Fans staff-writer
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