NBA Playoff Recap -
Sunday, May 10
A gritty underdog in the West and a proud champion from the East displayed uncommon resolve on a memorable Mother's Day in the NBA Playoffs. While two of the four conference semifinals have put America to sleep, the other two playoff passion plays have offered refreshingly unpredictable plot twists. Lakers-Rockets and Celtics-Magic reached a new level of quality on Sunday, and now, they're both going at least six games.
The day began with a matinee showing, as the nation's basketball fans expected mighty Los Angeles, with Derek Fisher back in the lineup, to exploit the absence of Yao Ming at the Toyota Center in Houston. Instead, the shorthanded Rockets--with their Chinese big man joining Dikembe Mutombo as a wounded United Nations ambassador on the bench--played their best game of the series against a listless bunch of Lakers. Houston roared to an 18-point halftime lead and a 29-point lead after the third quarter, putting away Phil Jackson's crew by a deceptively modest 99-87 score. The Rockets were outscored 33-16 in the final period, but that development was a pure product of garbage-time window dressing. Had Houston played hard until the final horn, Rick Adelman's roster would have registered a 20-point beatdown. As it is, this Western Conference semifinal is tied at 2-2, ensuring a Game 6 in Houston on Thursday.
Don't let the Lakers' statistically impressive fourth quarter fool you. Pau Gasol might have finished with 30 points on the afternoon, but the Spanish star scored 18 of those points in the final 12 minutes, when the competitive phase of this contest had come and gone. No one on the visitors--not even a surprisingly quiet Kobe Bryant (15 points)--made meaningful contributions when this game's outcome was in doubt... unless, perhaps, one counts Kobe's six points in the first quarter. With Yao not filling the middle or setting up on the low post, Gasol and fellow bigs Andrew Bynum and Lamar Odom should have destroyed the Rockets near the rim. Instead, the L.A. trio failed to show up in the first three quarters, a stunning development considering Houston's smaller lineup.
While L.A. hugely underachieved in this contest, the Rockets maxed out to a degree few thought possible. A team that had every chance to mope or sulk, in light of the injuries that have hampered Houston all season (Tracy McGrady, of course, is another prime player felled by injury), instead brought its best ball to the building. Aaron Brooks smoked the Lakers' defense with his quickness and long-distance shooting, racking up 34 points to lead all scorers. Shane Battier--sensing the need for his team to acquire a slightly different and more offense-first personality--hit his first four shots of the day to give Houston a 17-4 lead in the opening six minutes of play. By giving his team a great start out of the gate, Battier set a positive tone the Rockets so desperately needed. Another Houston hero who has to be mentioned is Chuck Hayes. The forward received extended minutes because of Yao's injury, and when given his big chance, the Kentucky grad performed heroic work for Adelman, the coach who trusted him in this make-or-break game. Hayes might have tallied just 2 points, but his 9 rebounds and 4 assists lent cohesion to everything the Rockets did at the defensive end. With Hayes stopping the Lakers near the rim, guys like Battier and Brooks were freed up to focus a little more on their offense. One can't overstate how gallant Houston proved to be, on a day when most pundits had penciled in a 3-1 series lead for the Lakers. Game 5 is Tuesday night in Los Angeles, as this dead-even series careens toward its climax.
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In the night game on Mother's Day, the Boston Celtics displayed the same warrior spirit exhibited by Houston just hours earlier. As is the case with the Rockets, the boys from Beantown are a walking MASH unit. Due to the absences of Kevin Garnett and Leon Powe, plus the presence of a less-than-healthy Kendrick Perkins, the Eastern Conference's second seed--up against Dwight Howard and the rest of an Orlando team that's very long in the frontcourt--has faced a terrifically tough matchup. Whereas the shorthanded Celtics could at least shoot over smaller defenders in their memorable first-round tangle with the Chicago Bulls, the defending champions haven't enjoyed such a luxury in this second-round set against the Magic. When Orlando rolled to a 21-point win in Friday's Game 3, it was reasonable to think that Doc Rivers' roster was about to get pushed off the edge.
In Game 4 at Amway Arena, the Celtics came close to that edge, but just when their season flashed before their eyes, the guys in green summoned up another bit of ballsy brilliance.
Glen Davis--not Ray Allen or Paul Pierce--nailed a 17-foot jumper from the left wing at the final buzzer, lifting Boston to a thrilling 95-94 win over Orlando, tying this East semifinal at two games apiece. The huge shot saved the C's from a 3-1 series deficit, suddenly reviving the idea that this wounded roster can fight past a bigger, stronger, and younger opponent. One Big Baby bombshell substantially transformed the complexion of this showdown, which changed from a one-sided affair into a protracted war in one single flick of the wrist.
If the final shot of this game had not found the mark, the Celtics would have been kicking themselves for floundering down the stretch. Once up 89-82 after a Rajon Rondo bucket with 7:22 left in regulation, Boston failed to hit another field goal for another six minutes and 50 seconds. That kind of drought normally proves fatal for any NBA team, and when one also considers that Orlando grabbed two offensive rebounds in the final minute of play, the laws of averages had to side with Stan Van Gundy's squad.
It's abundantly clear, however, that the stubborn Celtics--blessed with the competitive will rarely found on a professional roster--don't care a whit about what the percentages suggest. Someway, somehow, Boston found a way to head home with an even-steven series. When the visitors did break their agonizingly long scoring drought on a Glen Davis elbow jumper with 32.5 seconds left, that lonely basket was good enough to give Boston a 93-92 lead. Orlando--thanks to an offensive board by Mickael Pietrus--got a pair of Rashard Lewis free throws to retake a one-point edge with 11.3 seconds remaining, but Boston would defy death yet again. Davis rose to the occasion once again, calmly draining a last-ditch jumper after Pierce wisely passed out of a doubleteam. As the ball went through the net, just a fraction of a second after the final horn had sounded, the Boston bench exploded in testosterone-drenched jubilation. The celebration was justified, because for at least one more day, the Celtics stand on even terms in a series that could have been 3-1 in favor of the Magic. Pierce tallied 27 for Boston, while Rondo went for 21 points and 14 rebounds. Dwight Howard scored 23 points and grabbed 17 boards for the Magic, while Lewis chipped in 22 points. Game 5 is Tuesday at TD Banknorth Garden, as the Celtics will try to avoid overconfidence while Orlando will need to display even greater determination.
By Matt Zemek
Pro-Basketball Fans staff-writer
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