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NBA Playoff Recap - Thursday, May 14

The Boston Celtics playing a Game 7 in an Eastern Conference playoff series? Hardly a shock. The Los Angeles Lakers extended to Game 7 by a shorthanded Houston team? Now that's a genuine surprise. The second round of the NBA Playoffs has featured two routs and two even-steven donnybrooks. Much to the delight of basketball junkies everywhere, Celtics-Magic and Lakers-Rockets are going the distance, setting up a sensational Sunday in the Association.
 
In Orlando, the scales of justice evened out. After the defending champions from Boston pulled Game 4 out of the fire and then pilfered Game 5 in a manner that's still impossible to adequately describe, the Magic turned the tables in Game 6. Despite woeful shooting performances from everywhere on the floor--37 percent from the field, 6-of-26 from 3-point range, and 17-of-31 at the foul line--Stan Van Gundy's group somehow managed to post an 83-75 victory that will send the Celtics to yet another Game 7. In last year's postseason, Boston had to go the distance in the first two rounds, and that's exactly what will happen again in 2009. It's all because of a screwy, sloppy slugfest that will be remembered for a long time in New England if the Magic win this series, now tied at three games apiece.
 
How improbable was this Orlando victory? Not nearly as shocking as Boston's miraculous Game 5 triumph, but still fairly eye-popping. Beyond their inability to hit the side of a barn, the Magic got outrebounded by six (48-42), produced an alarmingly low 13 assists, and scored just 38 second-half points, a typical recipe for a lopsided loss. However, in this bizarro-world basketball battle, the normal laws of playoff superiority didn't hold. As poorly as Orlando did in fact play, the Celtics--in a command position when up 57-47 midway through the third quarter--faltered down the stretch. Game 4 hero Glen Davis could only hit three shots, while sniper Ray Allen--who received a number of wide-open looks--missed all seven 3-point attempts on a miserable 2-for-11 evening. Throw in 19 turnovers that littered the floor at Amway Arena, and one can begin to see why the Magic pulled a Game 6 rabbit out of the hat.
 
With that having been said, the turning point in this tension-filled tilt hasn't even been mentioned. It came with 2:04 left in regulation and Orlando clinging to a 76-75 lead. Paul Pierce--the reigning NBA Finals MVP and the man who carried the C's on his back during the team's championship run last spring--earned a pair of free throws after a hard drive to the basket. Nobody's perfect, which is a way of saying that even the greatest legends in basketball will split a pair of free throws now and then. Pierce, however, missed both foul shots--that's not a misprint--and when Rafer Alston and Hedo Turkoglu produced a finger roll and a 3-point bomb on Orlando's next two possessions, the home team's Houdini was complete. As for Boston's hopes of closing out this series in six? They were Pierced at the foul line, as the Celtics scored just 29 second-half points, nine fewer than the Magic in the 24 minutes after halftime.
 
Game 7 is Sunday night in Boston, at 8 p.m. Eastern time on TNT.
 
In Houston, a Laker team that appeared poised to finish off a pesky underdog was instead taken to the woodshed on yet another occasion. In a contest that was heavy on the haymakers--and we're talking about scoreboard surges, not actual fists flying into faces--the Rockets produced a furious finishing kick to turn back Los Angeles, 95-80, in Game 6 of the West semifinals at the Toyota Center. This 3-3 series will go back to Southern California for a one-game decider, due to the remarkable resolve of Rick Adelman's roster, which had every chance to fold the tent midway through the third quarter.

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The pivotal sequence in this game came after the Lakers--down 16 at the half--ripped off a 16-2 burst to pull within a single bucket (54-52) with 5:58 left in the third period. With the Rockets' halfcourt offense coming unglued, the team that had fought so hard to push the Lakers to a sixth game minus Yao Ming, Dikembe Mutombo, and Tracy McGrady suddenly appeared to be on the verge of panic. As the Laker bench stood and cheered, the energy inside Houston's home arena acquired a familiar and uneasy vibe, a sense that trouble and looming death were about to greet a franchise that has struggled in the postseason ever since the halcyon days of the mid-1990s. When Phil Jackson's top-seeded toughs floored the Rockets in the first six minutes after halftime, the smart money had to rest with the defending Western Conference titleists, who are intent on raising nothing less than a world championship banner when this season's done. If Houston was to engineer a turnaround, someone had to fill the void and change the trajectory of the proceedings.
 
Enter Shane Battier, Aaron Brooks, and Carl Landry.
 
These three prime performers--along with teammate Luis Scola (24 points and 12 rebounds in this game)--combined to orchestrate a play that revived the Rockets' engines, which were sputtering in the face of the L.A. assault. Battier got the party started by stealing the ball from Kobe Bryant (32 points, but on 27 shots) and passing to Brooks for a transition opportunity. Brooks--who had 26 points, and 15 of them in the second half--saw Landry streaking down the left side of the floor, and hit his teammate with a perfect one-handed, severe-angle bounce pass. Landry laid the ball in the basket while drawing a foul; the old-fashioned 3-point play not only gave Houston a five-point lead (57-52); it allowed the Toyota Center crowd to roar with approval. Just moments later, Battier outworked the Laker defense for a putback bucket, and a few possessions later, Brooks nailed a triple. Less than two minutes after the Lakers had pulled within a deuce, the Rockets had re-established a working margin of eight (62-54), a margin that generally held up until the fourth quarter... when the Rockets added to their cushion.
 
The man who enabled Houston to coast home in the fourth quarter was Landry. The Purdue grad not only posted 15 points off the bench; Landry also went 6-for-6 from the field, snared nine rebounds, and scored 7 of the Rockets' first 10 points in the final period. With his combination of firepower, efficiency, and elbow grease on the glass, Landry made his coach look brilliant while giving Houston an 84-73 lead with 4:41 left in regulation. Brooks would add a pair of jumpers on subsequent possessions, and so, as the final minutes arrived deep in the heart of Texas, a game that had once seemed destined for a pulse-pounding conclusion instead drifted to the finish line free of drama. As was the case in Game 4 of this best-of-seven battle, the Rockets--precisely when counted out by a vast majority of pundits and hoops experts--played their very best basketball against the Lake Show to prolong the competition. Due to their resilience, the hardwood heroes from Houston will have one chance to advance to the Western Conference finals against Denver. Sure, this one chance--in Game 7 of what has been a fascinating confrontation--represents a low-percentage shot at glory. Yes, the Rockets must win in L.A. in order to do the unthinkable. Nevertheless, the ability to have even one opportunity to win a long series against the Lakers is all Rick Adelman and Co. could have asked for when the series became official two weeks ago, following Houston's dismissal of Portland in round one of the postseason. The hour of judgment is 3:30 Eastern time on Sunday at Staples Center. ABC will cover the last game of an endlessly unpredictable series that will finally arrive at a decisive destination. Houston can only hope that Carl Landry--or some other unsung hero--will emerge from the shadows against one of pro basketball's most decorated franchises.


 

By Matt Zemek
Pro-Basketball Fans staff-writer


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